Dauphin François of France: poisoned or died of natural causes?

Dauphin François, Duke of Brittany, in childhood

Duke François III of Brittany, who was also Dauphin of France and an heir apparent, was the eldest son of King François I of France and his first wife, Queen Claude of France, who also was his cousin as daughter of King Louise XII and his second spouse, Anne de Bretagne.

Dauphin François was born on the 28th of February 1518 at Chateau d’Amboise, for during his early reign his royal father and mother spent most of their time in the palaces located in the Loire Valley.  The birth of the male heir after the births of two daughters, Princesses Louise and Charlotte (neither of them survived into adulthood) was welcomed with a universal joy at the Valois court and in the whole of France.  Given that the senior Valois male line had ended with the demise of Charles VIII of France, and that Louis XII had had no surviving male issue, the House of Valois urgently needed male heirs.  With profound pomp, the dauphin was christened at Chapelle Saint-Hubert (a gorgeous royal chapel) at Amboise on the 25th of April 1519.  Maestro Leonardo Da Vinci, who had relocated to France in 1517 at the monarch’s invitation, designed the marvelous decorations.

It is known that an overjoyed King François I said of his eldest son:

“A beautiful dauphin who is the most beautiful and strong child one could imagine and who will be the easiest to bring up.” 

Queen Claude of France, delighted with her success in producing a male heir, answered,

“Tell the king that he is even more beautiful than himself.” 

The French monarch persuaded his spouse, Claude, to grant him the right to administer the Duchy of Brittany even during her lifetime.  So, despite being clever and well-educated, Claude was always preoccupied with childbearing and raising her offspring, never interfering in politics.  When Claude passed away in 1524 at the age of 24, her will revealed that she had bequeathed the duchy to her eldest son, but the dauphin was still a boy, so his father continued administering all the ducal affairs.  In this way, the Duchy of Britany became his wife’s perpetual gift for François I.

Portrait of Dauphin François by Corneille de Lyon
Battle of Pavia of 1525 by Joachim Patinir

For a long time, Dauphin François was raised together with his brothers and his sisters, his happiness tinged with bereavement only due to his mother’s passing.  Still, he and his other siblings blossomed in the care of their aunt, Marguerite de Valois, and their grandmother, Louise de Savoy.  Their lives were as smooth as the calm sea on a summer day until the Battle of Pavia of 1525 when the King of France was defeated and taken prisoner by Emperor Charles V.  François, who was 7 years old at the time, must have been shocked to hear about his father’s misfortunes.  In Madrid, the captive monarch drafted an edict about his abdication in favor of Dauphin François, on condition that if he ever returned home, his son would step aside from the throne.  The document was never used, and instead François was forced to sign the Treaty of Madrid of 1526.

François must have been chagrined and afraid when he was notified that he and his younger brother, Henri, would travel to Spain as hostages to guarantee that the astronomical ransom for their father would be paid.  Life transformed into a sheer hell on earth for the two princes while they were confined to their wretched prison.  The children were surrounded by soldiers who did not speak French and who were not interested in alleviating their sufferings, for their only mission was to guard them well.  François and Henri, very young and innocent, were not educated during this period and were horribly mistreated.  Over time, the children were deprived even of basic possessions, the level of their comfort diminishing as years passed by.  During those almost 4 years of their imprisonment, the princes inhabited a realm of pain and darkness.

When they returned to France, it became clear that they were scarred for life.  Neither François nor Henri could speak French well – they both needed substantial time to adjust to their native tongue and their own home.  The vivacity and merriment of the French court were foreign to François, who preferred to wear dark and unostentatious clothes designed in fashions similar to the Spanish grand, but dark, style.  Over time, François started speaking French well, but he became more  bookish, preferring to read and spend time in libraries rather than enjoy the court’s festivities.  Some psychological traumas never go away, and of course the dauphin faced persistent sadness and alterations in relations with others, including melancholia and distrust.

Portrait of Eleanor of Austria by Joos van Cleve, c 1530

Despite all of his afflictions, soon another warm person appeared in the dauphin’s life.  She was his father’s second spouse and the emperor’s elder sister – Eleanor of Austria.  Both François and Henri attended Eleanor’s coronation at the Basilica of Saint-Denis, standing behind her throne and holding her sumptuous mantle during the ceremony.  Their father’s marriage to Eleanor was not happy at all due to the enmity between François I and Charles V, and the new queen was ignored.  Nonetheless, Eleanor could speak French well and attempted to play a motherly role for her husband’s offspring.  The dauphin had an affectionate relationship with his stepmother, which was good for his battered soul that needed warmth to blossom.  Yet, their closeness influenced François to behave and dress mostly in a Spanish way.

Dauphin François came of age in 1532.  It was when Queen Claude’s will had to be ratified by the Breton Parlement.  When the Chancellor of Brittany convened a meeting of powerful Breton lords in Paris, King François rewarded them with expensive gifts and titles to obtain their support for the annexation of Brittany.  The monarch was asked to perform an entrée into Rennes (a city in eastern Brittany) and swear an oath of office.   After issuing an edict of the duchy’s annexation on the 13th of August 1532, King François insisted on his son’s coronation.  Soon Dauphin François was crowned at Rennes Cathedral as Duke of Brittany with all pomp and ceremony, in the presence of his father and French nobles.  Then a gorgeous pageant was organized in the city, with scenes from King Arthur’s life and scenes that included the two Françoises visited by Gods from the Mount Olympus; Anne of Brittany, the dauphin’s grandmother, was not mentioned.

While in Brittany, the Breton nobility paid homage to Dauphin François, thinking that now he would rule their duchy.  However, by this time, Brittany was effectively merged with the French crown, and the monarch did not intend to have his son involved into the ducal administration.  After their departure from Brittany, the dauphin could have wanted to change the situation, and perhaps he could have voiced his disagreement to the king, but we know nothing about it.  Most likely, the taciturn François accepted it with obedience, for he was anyway the senior heir to the realms of France and Brittany.  Thus, Brittany retained most of its privileges, but the once independent land lost autonomy, its fate fully dependent upon that of France and the wishes of King François.

      Rennes Cathedral where Dauphin François was crowned as Duke of Brittany

Most likely, the next 4 years of the dauphin’s life were full of royal routine.  Unfortunately for the House of Valois and King François, his eldest son was not destined to live a long life.  On the 10th of August 1536, the dauphin was playing tennis at a jeu de paume court at the Château de Tournon.  Despite his somberness, young François was beginning to slowly integrate back into the court’s captivating atmosphere.  Tired and thirsty, the dauphin paused and requested that he be given a drink of cold water.  Count Sebastiano de Montecuccoli then brought a glass to François.  A sense of impending doom enveloped the dauphin: after swallowing the contents of his glass, he collapsed and breathed his last in several days, much to the grief of King François and his relatives.  The royal physicians could not find a cure from the dauphin’s illness.

‘Écartèlement’ de Saint Hippolyte, tableau de Dirk Bouts (1470-1475)

François and his sister, Marguerite, were in despair and mourning.  The rumor circulated: Sebastiano de Montecuccoli had added some deadly Italian poison into the cup and murdered the Dauphin of France.  Sebastiano could have been the Holy Roman Emperor’s agent, although he had come to France with Catherine de’ Medici as part of her Florentine retinue after her wedding to Prince Henri in 1533.  Others believed that the dauphin died of natural causes because he consumed cold water after having been overheated during the game.  But how could a young man, not fragile and strong enough to play tennis, die of simply drinking cold water?  The dauphin was either poisoned or had some chronic illness that could not have been identified and/or cured back then.

As the forensic science was not known back then, the fact of poisoning could not be proved.  On the monarch’s orders, Montecuccoli’s quarters were searched, and a book about various types of poison was discovered, much to everyone’s shock.  It pointed towards Montecuccoli, but his guilt could not have been proved.  Was Montecuccoli interested in alchemy popular in Italy, or in the art of poisoning?  How much did he know about poisons?  In later years, already after the death of King Henri II, Catherine de’ Medici would become infamous for her interests in poisons, magic, and the occult, although the degree of this could have been exaggerated by her enemies.  If we accept the poisoning version of the dauphin’s death, the order to dispose of young François is more likely to have come from Catherine rather than Emperor Charles, for Catherine had a clear motive – she could have wished to become Dauphine of France instead of Duchess d’Orléans.

Count Sebastiano de Montecuccoli was secretary to Dauphin François.  Why did he become so close to the main heir to the French throne?  He was from Catherine’s entourage!    It all sounds rather strange, doesn’t it?  Montecuccoli was arrested and confessed to poisoning the dauphin under torture.  According to some sources, King François attended several interrogations.  The count was sentenced to death and executed at the Place de la Grenette in Lyon on the 7th of October 1536 by écartèlement – a special method reserved for the punishment of those who attempted or committed regicide.  Montecuccoli was torn apart to pieces by 4 horses galloping into 4 different directions.  Charles V protested against the accusations most vehemently, sending his life-long enemy letters full of condolences and outrage.

One of the versions was that François had died of consumption, or tuberculosis, for he could have never regained his good health after his Spanish misfortunes.  Yet, he seemed to have been healthy and relatively strong, and he liked physical exercises.  In his portrait, the dauphin looks a young and relatively attractive man of lean build, who did not possess the Valois dour complexion. His sister – Madeleine, Queen of Scotland – died of consumption over a year later, but she was always a fragile, sickly girl – the dauphin was far healthier.  Nevertheless, the members of the Houses of Valois and Bourbon had a predisposition to tuberculosis, as history proved, so it could be the true cause of the dauphin’s demise.  The other version is that François had died of pleurisy. Anyway, his father blamed the emperor and hated him fiercely.

                Château de Tournon where Dauphin François, Duke of Brittany, died

Dauphin François was originally buried in Tournon, the place of his death.  When his father passed away on the 31st of March 1547, King Henri II enjoined to organize the grand triple burial of his father and his two deceased brothers, François and Charles (Claude’s youngest son).  The remains of the three of them were interred in the Basilica of St Denis in a splendid family tomb. Unfortunately, Dauphin François died unmarried and childless, and I wonder why at his 18 he was still a bachelor, while his brother, Henri, married Catherine at the age of 14.  The dauphin had once been betrothed to the little Mary Tudor (later Queen Mary I of England), daughter of King Henry VIII of England and Catherine of Aragon, but the Anglo-French alliance had fallen apart, just as it happened many times during the reigns of François I and Henry VIII.  If Dauphin François had been married and sired at least one male child, it could have ensured the survival of the Valois dynasty, for after all, we know that young François had a mistress despite his somber demeanor.

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville