‘The Peace of the Ladies’, and the misfortunes of King François I of France

The Treaty of Cambrai, also called ‘Peace of the Ladies’ (French: ‘Paix Des Dames’), was signed on the 3rd of August because of the efforts of two powerful women – Louise de Savoy, the mother of King François I of France, and Archduchess Margaret of Austria, who was Emperor Charles V’s aunt and governor of the Spanish Netherlands.  I adore discovering stories of women stepping outside of the standard expectations of their gender and society norms – those women who create their own remarkable fate despite trials and tribulations that might befall them.  Back then, it was traditionally believed that women were inferior to men, and that women’s principal roles were to making babies, giving birth to more babies, and running their husbands’ households.

                       Louise de Savoy and Margaret of Austria
Count Charles d’Angoulême and young Louise de Savoie

Archduchess Margaret of Austria, daughter of Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor and his first wife, Mary, Duchess of Burgundy, was widowed twice.  Margaret had not remarried after the death of her second husband – Philibert II, Duke de Savoy, who was said to have been the love of her life.  Instead, Margaret channeled her energy into governing the Habsburg Netherlands with a firm hand and efficiency.  She also raised the children of her deceased brother – Maximillian and Mary’s son Philip the Handsome, Duke of Burgundy from 1482 to 1506.  Not all of these children were brought up in the Netherlands – only Emperor Charles V, Eleanor of Austria, and Isabella, Queen of Denmark, were under the tutorage of their aunt, the regent of the Netherlands.  Margaret was also a patron of the arts, and young Anne Boleyn spent several years at the sophisticated court of Archduchess Margaret.

Louise and Margaret had a great geal in common.  They were both truly formidable women, superbly educated, intelligent beyond measure, and stronger than many average men.  As formidable as a force of nature, whether a heavy rain, a dangerous tornado, or a survival of small creatures against all odds.  After the passing of her husband, Count Charles d’Angoulême, Louise had not remarried and dedicated her entire life to her two children – François I of France and Marguerite, Queen of Navarre.  Louise loved the arts and adored Renaissance humanism, making her children do the same.  Upon François’ ascension in 1515, Louise assisted her son in all state affairs, and, actually, the kingdom of France was ruled by the trio of François, Marguerite, and Louise until the death of the king’s mother in 1531.  The French Renaissance poets hailed the three of them as ‘Holy Trinity’.

Preparing for Cambrai, Louise de Savoy wrote to Margaret’s envoy:

“We must necessarily contend and argue, but I sincerely hope it will be without anger or ill-will.”

Margaret of Austria’s meeting with Louise de Savoy was set in July, and the whole of Europe was watching.  In the border town of Cambrai the preparations for the meeting were started.  As the event neared, foreign ambassadors wrote letters to their masters, expressing their opinions that this meeting would probably accomplish nothing, much because of the enmity between France and Spain.  Margaret was warned by her many councilors that King François could take her hostage after what he had endured in Spain during his imprisonment, but Margaret refused to listen, claiming that she would go.  Louise promised to bring to Cambrai her chancellor, the women of her chamber, but no French nobility.  There was a strict prohibition from carrying arms.

The two women met in Cambrai is July and negotiated for about 3 weeks.  Margaret of Austria arrived before the other woman in a splendid litter surrounded by 24 archers.  Two hours later, Louise appeared in a sumptuous litter, accompanied by her daughter, her chaplain, her painter, and choristers.  At the beginning of August, Margaret and Louise attended Vespers together, and on the 5th of the same month, they celebrated a public mass in Cambrai Cathedral.   The treaty was signed, and just as it was anticipated, the terms were beneficial for the emperor, so François was later angry, but he had to accept them in order to ensure the release of his two sons from captivity.

A treaty of peace signed at Cambrai on the 3rd August 1529 by Louise de Savoy, in the name of her son François I, and by Marguerite of Austria, in the name of her nephew Charles V
‘The Battle of Pavia’ by Ruprecht Heller, 1529, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden

Therefore, Madame Louise and Savoy and Archduchess Margaret of Austria proved that women could not only survive in a man-dominated world, but also rise to prominence if they were allowed to by their male relatives, which was a necessary condition for this centuries ago, even in the 19th century.  The Treaty of Cambrai is a rare example of a treaty negotiated by two intelligent and astute women, which allows us to understand how women could deploy intellectual and peace-making strategies in their provision of counsel back then.  This document ended, but only temporarily, one phase of the Habsburg-Valois wars between François I and Charles V, confirming Iberian hegemony in Italy.

What led Margaret and Louise to these peace negotiations?  The Battle of Pavia of 1525 and its disasterous consequences!  The Imperial forces won the decisive engagement of the Italian War of 1521-1526 between France and Charles V.  The battle ended with devastating losses for the French, and, worst of all, the capture of King François by his enemies.  The French king’s destrier was killed under him by Cesare Hercolani, an Italian Condottiero, but François fought on.  But the French could not triumph over the Imperial armies, as well as German Landsknecht, for the precipitate advance of the French cavalry, led by the monarch himself, pulled him away from the Valois infantry under the command of both Richard de la Pole and François de Lorraine.

François was at first confined to the fortress of Pizzighettone, and together with him, many French commanders and nobles were captured, including Anne de Montmorency.  A greater number of the French soldiers, even generals, were killed, including Guillaume Gouffier, Seigneur de Bonnivet; Louis II de la Trémoille; Jacques de La Palice, Seigneur de Chabannes; François de Lorraine.  Among the dead, there was a Yorkist claimant to the English throne – Richard de la Pole who had found refuge in France and lived in exile after many of his relatives had been executed by King Henry VII of England.  Soon François and Montmorency were transported from Italy to Spain, but Montmorency was released on the emperor’s orders earlier than his unfortunate sovereign.

Already a captive, François wrote a letter to Louise de Savoy:

“To inform you of how the rest of my ill-fortune is proceeding, all is lost to me save honor and life, which is safe.”  

The battle of Pavia of 1525: Capture of François I, a tapestry woven at Brussels c 1528-31 by Bernard van Orley

François I was held prisoner in a tower of Alcazar in Madrid in awful living conditions.  Charles V was the first monarch in history who did not care about his notable captive’s royal status, mostly due to the hatred that simmered between these rulers throughout their lives like a cauldron of always bubbling tensions.  When King Richard the Lionheart had been captured by Duke Leopold of Austria in 1192 on his way back home from the Holy Land after the end of the Third Crusade, he had been imprisoned in far better conditions than François.  As a result, the King of France contracted a severe fever and almost died, but he was nursed back to life by his sister, Marguerite de Navarre, who rushed to Spain soon after getting the news of her brother’s afflictions.  It seems that Marguerite persuaded the emperor to move François to more comfortable building and rooms and even meet face-to-face.  However, when Charles appeared in front of François, they had a seemingly friendly conversation, and the emperor encouraged his foe not to be in despair and, according to some sources, promised to ensure his release in the near future.

Whether it happened or not in reality, Charles V seems to have reneged on his word.  Although François was now treated better, he remained the prisoner in Spain for over a year.  These were the most unfortunate moments in the Valois ruler’s life when he was close even to abdication.  His sister, Margot, returned to France, which was governed by the king’s mother, Louise, as her son’s regent during his absence.  Eventually, François was compelled to sign the humiliating Treaty of Madrid of 1526, in which he renounced all of his former claims in Italy, surrendered Burgundy to Charles, and repudiated overlordship over Flanders and Artois.  Moreover, the emperor demanded from France an astronomical ransom for their monarch, who also had to marry Charles’ elder sister, Eleanor of Austria.  It is quite interesting that King Henri II of Navarre, who had fought alongside François at Pavia and who had been jailed in Madrid as well, managed to run away.

Emperor Charles V, François I of France, and the Battle of Pavia
Dauphin François, Duke of Brittany, in childhood

Finally, François was allowed to return home, and to guarantee the payment of his ransom, his two eldest sons – Dauphin François and Prince Henri, Duke d’Orléans – were to be transferred into the Spanish custody.  François was escorted by ‪Charles-François de Lannoy north to the border.  On the 18th of March 1526, a truly black day for France, the Valois ruler crossed the Bidasoa River into France, while at the same time the hapless dauphin and his brother crossed the river into Spain.  Soon François repudiated the Treaty of Madrid as he had had been coerced into signing it.  Yet, the ransom was slowly being collected by the crown, which could not be done quickly due to its huge size.  Meanwhile, the French princes, who had been previously growing up in a loving environment, languished in some Spanish shabby place, slowly being deprived of even basic comforts and surrounded by soldiers who did not speak their native tongue and were indifferent to their sufferings.  This is a horrendous example of how the emperor treated innocent royal children.

The Treaty of Cambrai was signed after the King of France’s captivity, but before the  liberation of the princes.  With this document, Louise managed to confirm the size of the ransom for her son and, in fact, for her two grandsons, that was to be paid in cash.  The terms and conditions of François’ marriage to the emperor’s elder sister, Eleanor of Austria, were also negotiated.  It was perhaps the greatest triumph for Louise, and a remarkable experience for Margaret.  Finally, Louise, François, and Marguerite collected the huge ransom, and in the 15th of March 1530, François publically swore to marry Eleanor and informed the Spanish ambassador to France that the ransom was ready for collection.

young Prince Henri (the future King Henri II)

A group of noblewomen accompanied the two boys and their future stepmother from Spain to France.  François was reunited with his two sons when he found them and Eleanor at an abbey near Villeneuve-de-Marsan in Aquitaine in southwestern France.  An overjoyed François embraced and kissed both of his boys, who were somber and found it rather difficult to speak French.  It would take them some time to adapt to their former good life in France – the princes were scarred for life by their horrible experience in Spain.  The king’s first reaction to Eleanor is unknown, but given his courteous manners, François must have greeted her gallantly, masking his antipathy towards the woman, who later became his second wife and for whom he never found it in his heart to treat her with affection during their long marriage.   Quite understandable feelings on his part, right?

However, the peace between François I and Charles V could not last for long.  Not after the captivity of the French ruler in Spain.  Not after the almost four-year imprisonment of his two sons in bad conditions.  Not after François was forced into marriage to Eleanor.  She paid a high price for the enmity of her brother and her husband with the miserable years she spent in France neglected, with her only daughter from her marriage to King Manuel I of Portugal – Maria, Duchess of Viseu – estranged from her in Portugal.   The Italian wars soon resumed, and the French troops occupied Savoy and Piedmont in 1536, already after Louise’s death, but Lady Luck did not smile upon François – his dream to reclaim the Duchy of Milan did not materialize.

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville