Despite his taste for forbidden fruit, François I felt true affection for his first wife, Claude de France (1499-1524). Claude's father, King Louis XII of France, betrothed her to François in 1506 when it became clear that Francois would inherit the throne. Claude's mother, Anne of Brittany, disapproved of the match--she was still hoping to produce a male heir herself--so the couple was unable to marry until Anne's death in 1514. François and Claude's marriage lasted ten years, until Claude died after a brief illness in 1524. Together they had seven children, five of whom lived past infancy.
Claude was plain, her body contorted by scoliosis--a stark contrast to the stunning women who surrounded François at court. Yet her sweet nature and pleasant conversation made up for her lack of physical beauty. A visitor to court described her thus: "The Queen is young and though very small in stature, plain and badly lame in both hips, is said to be very cultivated, generous and pious." He also noted that "It is a matter of common report that he [the king] holds his wife the Queen in such honour and respect that when in France and with her he has never failed to sleep with her each night."
Constantly pregnant or recovering from birth and by nature drawn to spiritual matters, Queen Claude withdrew from the hedonistic glamor of François's court. Her household, which included Anne Boleyn (Anne was the same age and probably served Claude as an English translator), spent most of the time in retirement at Amboise and Blois. Claude only rarely participated in public events, although she did appear, heavily pregnant, at the Field of Cloth of Gold, the famous meeting between François and Henry VIII of England at Calais in 1520.
Claude died at Blois in 1524. François, who was a prisoner of Charles V at the time, mourned her loss and claimed "If I could bring her back with my life, I would gladly do so." Her body was embalmed and temporarily housed in the chapel at Blois. It was later moved to the Abbey of St. Denis in Paris in 1527 after François returned to France.
A great patroness of the art of the miniature, Claude commissioned two exquisite works, a Book of Prayers in 1511 and a Book of Hours in 1517. The Morgan Library and Museum has the entire Book on Prayers on virtual display here. The book, which fits into one's hand, is a stunning example of sixteenth-century devotional art.
Today, a tribute to Queen Claude lives on in the "Reine Claude" plum, a richly flavored cultivar of the fruit introduced into France from Italy during François's reign and named after the queen. They are also known as "la bonne reine," "the good queen," plums, in honor of Claude's gentle disposition.
(Sources: R.J. Knecht, Renaissance Warrior and Patron; E. Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn)