Françoise de Foix: the first long-term maîtresse-en-titre of King François I of France

Françoise de Foix, who was the first long-term maîtresse-en-titre of King François I of France, was born about 1495, but we don’t know her date and year of birth for a certainty.  Since her early youth, she served to Queen Anne of France, King Louis XII’s wife and Duchess of Brittany in her own right.  Queen Anne was surrounded by ladies who represented the best noble houses of France, and they were selected for their grace, beauty, elegance, manners, as well as their education and their knowledge of the arts and letters.  Françoise was one of them: she was a cousin to the queen, whose mother was Marguerite de Foix, yet Françoise’s parents were not rich.

Françoise de Foix, Countess de Châteaubriant, by Jean Clouet
Portrait of Jean de Laval by Jean Clouet

In 1503, Jean de Laval was 16 years old.  He was a page at the court of Queen Anne, where he first saw Françoise.  In the same year, his father – François de Laval, Count de Châteaubriant – die at the age of 40, leaving the lands and title to his son.  After his parent’s funeral and a period of mourning, Jean returned to court and noticed Françoise.  Several years passed, and Françoise was growing into a stunning young beauty.  In 1505, Jean fell in love with the exquisite Foix young girl.  Queen Anne was admired for her piety and strictness, and she had a rule: if a man liked a lady from her household and entourage, he had to marry her without having an affair.

Coming from Ariège, Françoise was the daughter of a nobleman – Jean de Foix, Baron de Lautrec, and his wife, Jeanne d´Aydie.  Although she was like a flower that was only on the cusp of blossoming, her beauty was gorgeous, tinged with innocence and youthful freshness.  Françoise had brown or black hair and a fair complexion, her features classical, and her eyes could be blue.  Well educated and learned in the arts, languages, and etiquette, Françoise seemed to have a promising future, given that Queen Anne favored her cousin a lot.  In September 1505, in Morlaix, King Louis and Queen Anne celebrated the engagement of Jean de Laval and Françoise de Foix, whose dowry was paid by the queen from the state treasury of Brittany.

Due to Françoise’s youth, the official marriage of the two people didn’t happen until 1509.  It was celebrated at court, and then Françoise and Jean left for Château de Châteaubriant in Brittany.  The spouses spent several quiet years there, and a daughter, Anne, was born from their union.  After the death of Queen Anne in 1514 and that of King Louis in early 1515, François I of France ascended to the throne.  The new sovereign was very different from his deceased cousin: raised in accordance with the principles of Renaissance humanism and exceptionally educated in the arts, classics, chivalry, literature, and courtly love, François intended to make his court the most enlightened and splendid one in Europe, and he also had a very passionate nature.  Always surrounded by pretty and clever women, François wanted to see more of them at his court.

Portrait of King François I of France by Jean Clouet

François I’s marriage to Queen Claude ensured that Brittany remained part of France.  Yet, the Breton lords were not present at the Valois court, and François strove to integrate them into the life of France.  Jean de Laval was summoned to court, but he delayed his departure as long as possible, knowing about the young ruler’s amorous temperament.  According to some sources, Françoise herself arrived at court without her husband’s permission, while other sources say that the spouses came to court together.  In any case, Françoise de Foix appeared at court in 1515-16, and after a fairly long resistance, she gave in to the passions of the monarch who courted her with romantic poems and expensive gifts.  After Françoise had become the king’s lover, François officially proclaimed her his maîtresse-en-titre and lavished her with gifts, whereas her husband and her brothers also received many privileges and posts.  At the same time, the ruler’s mother – Louise de Savoy – watched the affair and loathed the entire Foix family quietly.

As it always happens in such cases, Françoise de Foix’s family was showered with royal gifts.  Jean de Laval became a commander of a military unit.  Her elder brother – Odet de Foix, Viscount de Lautrec – was appointed governor of the Milanese duchy, which had briefly been part of the French realm after the king’s victory at the Battle of Marignano of 1515.  Françoise also had two other brothers – Thomas de Foix-Lescun, known as Lescun, and André de Foix, Seignior de Lesparre, who were both promoted at the ruler’s behest to high positions in the French army.  On the 25th of April 1519, Dauphin François, the eldest son of François I and his cousin-wife, Queen of France, was baptized at Amboise.  During the royal heir’s baptism, Jean de Châteaubriant and his wife aided in the ceremony.  This high honor promulgated publically that Françoise de Foix was ‘La mye du roi,’ or ‘The sweetheart of the king.’  Queen Claude accepted her husband’s infidelities with dignity and grace, while Louise de Savoy could barely tolerate Françoise.

Françoise de Foix and François I of France in the Spanish series ‘Carlos, Rey Emperador”

King François was enamored of his mistress, and Françoise also fell hard for the young, tall, and handsome monarch.  Jean de Laval must have been furious at first, but there was nothing he could do to stop his wife’s affair with his liege lord.  The French historian Jules Michelet claimed that an incensed Jean had Françoise beaten in the privacy of his chambers, and that he endeavored to prevent his spouse’s indiscretions in all ways he could.  There is no proof that it really happened, but in December 1520, the monarch dispatched Jean to Brittany to negotiate a tax, but most likely it was done to get rid of his beloved’s annoying husband.  Jean had no choice: he thanked François coldly and departed, leaving his wife to drown in an ocean of the king’s affections for her.  If Jean had Françoise beaten in reality, the ruler would have banished him from court permanently.  Therefore, this story is an implausible one, at least in my opinion.

The Field of the Cloth of Gold in Calais

Françoise and François had a lot in common: they were both very cultured and interested in the arts.  She did not influence François politically, except for situations when she had to protect her family.  In 1519, Françoise de Foix promoted the publication of the first French translation of one of Plutarch’s ‘Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans,’ commonly known as ‘Parallel Lives’ or ‘Plutarch’s Lives.’  The translation of the part concerning the life of Mark Antony, the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra’s lover, was especially interesting for her, perhaps because Françoise imagined herself as Cleopatra who entranced her sovereign, François, forever.  The lovers composed poems for each other, and Françoise became the finest ornament of the Valois court.  Unlike her mother, the monarch’s sister – Marguerite d’Angoulême who was married to Duke Charles IV d’Alençon at the time – had a nice or visibly normal attitude to her brother’s romance with Françoise.

Françoise accompanied her royal lover to the eccentric Field of the Cloth of Gold summit in 1520 where François feasted, drank, and wrestled with his life-long rival – King Henry VIII of England.  She encouraged the monarch to display the French extravagance to an extreme degree, spending vast sums of money on tents and livery of gold brocade, and on pageants for this event.   During her ten-year reign as François’ mistress who was a queen in all but name, Françoise wielded a cultural and fashionable influence at court.  She set the high bar for elegance in dress at court.  As early as July 1516, her style and elegance were so remarkable that the ambassadors wrote about her to their masters, including this excerpt from a diplomat’s letter to Isabella d’Este:

“That Sunday, the king threw a banquet and feast and had fourteen ladies dressed in the Italian manner, with rich garments that His Majesty brought from Italy.  Twelve of the ladies were in the queen’s service and two in the service of Madame de Bourbon; among those of the queen was Madame de Châteaubriant, Monsieur de Lautrec’s sister, dressed in a gown of dark crimson velvet embroidered all over with gold chains bearing silver plaquettes well placed within the chains, on which were inscribed devices.” 

In 1521, a tragedy struck Françoise hard: her only daughter, Anne, passed way.  A bereft Françoise was permitted by her royal lover to travel to Châteaubriant.  After the girl’s burial, the monarch himself arrived at the château to visit his beloved who was mourning for her only child.  It must have been a horrible time for Jean: he had to be hospitable and exceedingly polite with his wife’s lover while also suffering from the loss of his only child.  In a few weeks, Jean de Laval and his spouse returned to court: he received new appointments, while she resumed her place as Queen Claude’s maid of honor and the king’s favorite.  The clouds were gathering over the Foix family: Jean de Laval was crushed in the Ardennes, and then Françoise’s three brothers were also defeated, one in Navarre during the attempted reconquest of the Navarrese southern lands which had been annexed by King Ferdinand II of Aragon, the second one at the Battle of Bicocca of 1522 in Italy, and the Duchy of Milan was lost.  Françoise defended her husband and her brothers, pleading with her royal lover to pardon them and not to disgrace them – she won.

Françoise de Foix and François I of France in the Spanish series ‘Carlos, Rey Emperador”

Françoise de Foix remained the King of France’s chief mistress until 1525, although I’m certain that the monarch had other lovers.  According to some sources, Françoise was not always faithful to her lover either, but this cannot be proved.  Françoise never conceived the king’s child, although François sired bastards on his other paramours; she had not been pregnant with her husband’s baby after the birth of their daughter, Anne.  During the Italian War of 1521-1526 between France and the Habsburg Empire of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, the French suffered a horrible defeat at the Battle of Pavia of 1525, and the Valois ruler was taken prisoner.  During François’ captivity, his mistress lived at her husband’s castle in Brittany, not wishing to endure the disdain of the monarch’s mother.  Jean de Laval corresponded with François after the king’s return home in 1526, and Françoise must have been disheartened by the news that her lover had been compelled to sign the Treaty of Madrid of 1526 and to consent to marry the emperor’s elder sister, Eleanor of Austria.  Françoise rushed back to court to see the monarch.

Portrait of Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly by Corneille de Lyon

Unfortunately for her, the ruler of France found himself strongly infatuated with the young and blonde Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly, a daughter of a Picardian nobleman who served Louise de Savoy. The king’s mother appears to have groomed the eighteen-year-old Anne to ensnare her son upon his return, aiming to dispose of Françoise.  For quite some time, both women – Anne and Françoise – were the monarch’s mistresses and rivals for his affections, but Françoise’s hold over his heart was loosening.  The entire court watched the battle between Anne and Françoise, who believed in her victory, despite the sings to the contrary and the fact that François spent a lot of time with Anne, including in her bed.  Françoise composed a verse during those days:

“Blanche coulleur est bientost effacée,

Blanche coulleur en un an est passée,

Blanche coulleur doibt estre mesprisée,

Blanche coulleur n’est pas longuement necte,

Mais le tainct noir et la noire coulleur

Est de hault prix et de plus grant valleur.”

Anne de Pisseleu had blonde hair, while Françoise de Foix was a beautiful ​​brunette.  It must have been amusing for Louise to observe the rivalry of these women.  In English, this verse means:

“White color is soon erased,

White color in a year has passed,

White color to be despised,

White color is not long enough,

But the black triumphs, and the black color

Is of high price and more important value.”

Château de Châteaubriant

Unfortunately for her, Françoise was wrong: the king fell in deep and ardent love with Anne de Pisseleu.  The color white won the amorous battle against the color black. François declared Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly his new maîtresse-en-titre, perhaps offering Françoise to remain one of his lovers, but not his chief favorite. If this offer was made – it is highly likely that it is true – then an offended Françoise must have rejected it. In 1528, Françoise de Foix resided at her husband’s castle in Brittany, having left the Valois court because of her pride.  However, she and Jean de Laval retained the king’s protection and his benevolent attitude to them both.  In 1531, Jean was appointed by his sovereign Governor of Brittany, and Châteaubriant became a sort of administrative capital of Brittany.  Nonetheless, King François humiliated Françoise when he sent a messenger to Châteaubriant, asking her to return all the jewels he had gifted her.  An insulted Françoise asked a goldsmith to melt the jewels, so the king’s request remained unsatisfied.

In 1532, King François traveled to Brittany to resolve state affairs, and he stayed at the castle of Châteaubriant.  Jean de Laval was displeased, but he had to conceal his real feelings.  For a short time, the lovers resumed their affair during his stay in Jean’s castle, but soon the ruler departed, leaving a brokenhearted Françoise to deal with her jealous husband. Françoise and François continued exchanging letters as friends, but they never saw each other again because she passed away on the 16th of October 1537.  She could have died of a sickness, or she could have been killed by Jean.  The legend is that Jean de Laval, who was known for his brutality in the army, held François a prisoner for weeks in a dark room hung with black draperies, where she was given meagre food until one night, Jean and 6 assassins came to her prison and killed her.  Was it really so?  Did Jean murder Françoise out of his jealousy for the affair that had long ended?

Clément Marot’s epitaph on the tomb of Françoise de Foix’s.  “Here lies a nothing, that once triumphed over all” – one final motto for Françoise

Most likely, Françoise de Foix died of some malady.  If Jean had killed her, the king would definitely have had him apprehended and prosecuted, but it did not happen.  Françoise was interred in the church of the Trinitarians of Châteaubriant.  Jean constructed a splendid tomb for his wife in her memory, with an epitaph by the French Renaissance poet, Clément Marot, and a statue of her.  Jean de Laval outlived Françoise only by 6 years and died in 1543, bequeathing a third of his possessions to Anne de Montmorency.  The rumors around Françoise’s violent death were mere rumors, and stories of horror often make imagination run riot.  Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly turned out to be the greatest love of King François I’s life, although he was not always faithful to her.

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville