In 1519 Françoise de Foix became the first official mistress to King François 1. Countess Françoise de Chateaubriant, an exceptional beauty, was already married. Her husband, Jean de Laval, Count de Chateaubriant, did not take it well, being a jealous man and head of a leading Breton family. But François was king when royal power was increasing.
Françoise de Foix’s Early Life
We know little about the childhood of Françoise or any of her three brothers. They all came to the court of King Louis and Queen Anne of France, Duchess of Brittany. It is possible her three brothers, Lautrec, Lescun and Lesparre, may have among the youths who grew up in the young Count d’Angoulême’s court. All three were among his favourites early in his reign. He promoted two of them, Lescun and Lautrec, to the rank of Marshal as early as 1518.
Françoise was a member of Queen Anne’s court, possibly with her mother, since her father had died in 1495, and she would have been very young. She was a second cousin to the queen through Queen Anne’s mother. Some authors suggest without evidence she was born in Brittany, but her family is from Tarn in the south and that is a more likely birthplace.
Father: Jean de Foix, Viscount of Lautrec and Villemur, Governor of Dauphiné, married on 25 March 1480.
Mother: Jeanne d’Aydie only daughter of Odet d’Aydie, Count of Comminges; heiress of Comminges and the seigneuries of Lescun and Esparros.
Birth: Place and date of birth unknown. [Sometime between 1481 and 1495, when her father died.] She was probably born in 1494 or 95.
Marriage: Marriage contract to Count Jean de Laval [1486-1543] signed at Chateaubriant, 4 June 1506. Betrothed 4 September 1506. Married 1509.
Children: Anne [illegitimate daughter with her husband] b. 11 March 1507, d. 22 April 1521.
Death: Chateaubriant, 16 October 1537.
Odet de Foix, Vicomte de Lautrec, Marshal of France (1485–15 August 1528) of plague in Naples. Married Charlotte d’Albret, 1520, and they had 4 children.
Thomas de Foix, Seigneur de Lescun, seigneur de Coulommiers (1485 – 3 March 1525) died of wounds received at the Battle of Pavia. Marshal of France from 1518.
André de Foix, Sire de Lesparre (1490–1547), a French General. Count de Montfort and Viscount of Villemur.
Father-in-law: François de Laval-Montafilant, b. 1462, d 5 January 1503.
Mother-in-law: Françoise de Rieux, b. 1461 m. 1486, d. 15 October 1532.
Brother-in-law: younger brother, Pierre de Laval, Seigneur de Montafilant, d. 1502.
The wealthy Count Jean de Laval from a branch of ancient Breton landed nobility joined the court in 1506. He instantly fell for the extraordinarily beautiful, young [11year-old] Lady Françoise de Foix. A first-born son, all reports of his personality indicate he was hot-headed and violent, normal enough for men of his class and time. Intensely attracted to Françoise, the 19-year-old instantly decided to marry her. In the marriage contract, Queen Anne of France dowered Françoise with 20,000 livres since she was a cousin and her family dowered her with 10,000 livres.
There is a mystery surrounding her marriage. The signing of the contract occurred at Chateaubriant on 4 June 1506, followed by the betrothal on 4 September 1506. The next significant event is the birth of their daughter, Anne, on 11 March 1507. This would make Françoise 12 if she were born in 1495 and 13 if born the year before. It is young even for the period to give birth. If the child went full term, Françoise must have become pregnant around the time of her betrothal.
It is possible Jean raped her at the time of their betrothal or even that he abducted and raped her, thus precipitating their marriage contract and betrothal. Presuming she did not carry the child to term [possible given her age] he might have raped her at the betrothal. Perhaps she had a hard pregnancy, causing fears she would die and reluctance to marry them until after the birth. When both mother and child survived by a miracle, the marriage finally took place in 1509. The couple never had another child, and Françoise never became pregnant again. This suggests a risky birth that damaged her ability to reproduce, likely because of her extreme youth.
There is no information about their life as a couple. Popular myth reports that they lived in romantic seclusion until King François called them to court. This seems unlikely. Count Jean had a violent temper. His jealousy showed in his abrupt departure from the king’s court after his wife became the king’s mistress. There is a story he murdered her, but no evidence and she does not seem to have been afraid of him. However, since husbands had the right to behave abusively, she may have tolerated and hidden his behaviour from pride, fear or the knowledge she would receive no support.
King François 1‘s Mistress
In 1516, King François ordered many of the young nobles with whom he had grown up to come to court and bring their wives. He was preparing for his first war in Italy and wished to make use of their fighting skills. Also, he wished to create a polished court in the Italian tradition. One of those he invited was Count Jean de Laval, who came with his wife, Countess Françoise.
The women joined the courts of either his mother, Duchess Louise de Savoie, his sister, Duchess Marguerite d’Alençon or his wife, Queen Claude. Unfortunately for Françoise, during the early years, Duchess Louise disliked the entire de Foix family. She resented their influence with the king [and possibly their affinity with the late Queen Anne]. Countess Françoise joined the court of the king’s wife. In 1519, at the baptism of the dauphin, the Countess became known publically as the mistress to King François I. In 1520 she was prominent in the official party at the Field of Cloth of Gold when the courts of France and England met.
There were tough moments. In January 1521, at a large fete for the King of the Bean, the festivities included a mock assault on a castle. In the heat of the action, King Francois was maimed. By 25 January his frantic mother declared the king was on the point of death. He stayed in bed for several months. Just as he reappeared from the sickroom, Françoise received troubling news that her fourteen-year-old daughter was ill in Chateaubriant. She returned home where her daughter died in early April. Thus, she probably remained in Brittany for several months for the funeral rites and mourning.
The Italian Wars
During the Italian wars [1521-1526], Françoise’s brothers benefitted from her position as mistress to King François I despite criticism of their military leadership. For example, when her brother Viscount Odet de Lautrec lost the 1522 Battle of Bicocca and the favour of the king, Françoise saved him through her influence.
In 1523, the Constable de Bourbon rebelled and fled France to join the Emperor. In July 1524, Queen Claude died, and Countess Françoise joined the household of Duchess Louise. The court moved toward Lyon, where it would stay during the French war to reconquer Milan. By September 1524 the king had crossed into Italy. The enmity of the king’s mother who was regent made Countess Françoise’s life more difficult. Then on 24 February 1525, the Imperial Army took King François a prisoner.
King François 1’s mistress returned to Brittany while she waited for the king’s release. During the time the king was captive, the regent plotted to replace the countess with Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly (1508–1580). By the time Countess Françoise returned to court, she discovered a rival in place. She remained for two years. Then, refusing second place, she returned to her husband at her life at the Chateau de Chateaubriant.
No Longer Mistress of King François I
Françoise and François continued to correspond after she returned to Chateaubriant. Her association with the king had benefited husband who received several rewarding appointments. He added two new wings to the family chateau that visitors can still view today: the Renaissance Wing and the Long Gallery. King Françoise visited them at various times when he went to Brittany, the last time in 1532. She died in 1537 of unknown causes.
The saddest story of the end of her time as mistress of King François 1 reflects poorly on the king. Pestered by his new mistress, Anne d’Heilly, who wanted the charming dedications inscribed on the pieces, he sent to request the jewellery he had given to Countess Françoise.
His spirited ex-mistress considered for a day or two. Then she took the pieces to her goldsmith and had him melt them into gold ingots separating the jewels. She sent the package of gold ingots and jewels back to the king. With it she added a message. The verses on the pieces were inscribed on her heart and she would not share them, but gold and jewels were valueless to her. Those she had no problem returning. Suitably shamed, the king returned the package.
Who was Françoise de Foix?
Françoise’s appearance was striking. A great beauty from early childhood, she grew into a tall, slender, athletic brunette with warm skin tones, a creamy complexion and a passionate nature. She was also quick-witted, intelligent and proud of her ancestry. From her upbringing at court she was well-mannered, and possessed all the courtly skills, could turn a Latin and Italian epigram, and compose courtly poetry.
King François 1 and Countess Françoise shared many interests that did not appeal to Queen Claude: pomp and pageantry, fetes and feasting, lively conversation and making poetry. Countess Françoise was quick-witted, and self-assured in the way only truly beautiful women can be. Nor did she tolerate second place. She was prepared to say no to anyone, including the king.
Countess Françoise did not appreciate his penchant for flings with other women. It is said that she retaliated in kind. One of the tales in the Heptameron by Marguerite d’Angoulême purports to be about her. Apparently François almost caught her with his friend, Bonnivet, who escaped notice by hiding in her fireplace. Bonnivet was extraordinarily handsome and seductive, and François’s close friend, so he could well have been a worthy conquest in her eyes.
Books and Articles
J. Chapron de Chateaubriant, Histoire de Françoise de Foix, dame de Chateaubriant (1494-1537,) BNF [Chateaubriand, André Quinquette, Imprimeur 1927]
Julianne Douglas La Mye du Roi: Françoise de Foix
Malcolm Walsby, The Counts of Laval: Culture, Patronage and Religion in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century France, Routledge, London, UK 2016 [eBook]
Wikipedia, Françoise de Foix