Those familiar with English history know the story of the Princes in the Tower--Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, the young sons of King Edward IV, who, after the death of their father in 1483, were imprisoned in the Tower of London and never seen again. The same history buffs might not, however, realize that France had its own version of imprisoned princes--François and Henri, the two young sons of François I, who were handed over to Charles V as ransom for their father and spent four years in miserable captivity in Spain.
The Treaty of Madrid, which François signed in 1526 to secure his release after the disastrous Battle of Pavie, contained many concessions to Charles V--the most notable being the transfer of Burgundy to the emperor and the renunciation of French claims to Flanders, Naples, and Milan. When François tried to convince Charles that he needed to return home to effect the transfer, Charles demanded that he hand over two of his three sons as hostages until the terms of the treaty had been fulfilled. François, who had spent the past year as Charles's prisoner, seems not to have balked at resigning his young sons, aged only seven and eight, to a similar fate. Perhaps he expected their absence to be a short one; perhaps he placed the well-being of his kingdom, struggling under the regency of his mother, over that of his own flesh and blood. Perhaps he was simply eager to make any deal necessary to gain his freedom. In any case, he agreed to the exchange, which was arranged to take place on March 17, 1526, at the border town of Bayonne.
The trade occurred in the middle of the Bidassoa River, which separates France from Castile. Two boats, one carrying the French king, the other his sons, met in the middle of the river at a raft that had been moored into place. The king hugged his sons and blessed them, telling them he would send for them soon. The two parties switched boats; the princes were rowed back to the Spanish bank while the king proceded to the French. As soon as he landed, François leapt onto his horse, shouted, "Now I am king; I am king once again!" and galloped off to meet his court at Bayonne. There is no record in the extensive descriptions of the exchange that he even looked back at the young sons he had just abandoned.
At first, the princes and their entourage of seventy persons were treated cordially; Eléonore, Charles's sister and François's new wife by proxy, treated the boys as sons. But as the weeks passed and it became obvious that François had no intention of surrendering Burgundy, the treatment of the princes grew harsher. They were taken away from Eleanor and moved to a castle farther south. After a foiled rescue attempt in February 1527, Charles took them further into Spain and dismissed nearly all their attendants. François, hoping to pressure Charles into releasing the boys, entered into league with England and the papacy. When that failed, he declared war on Charles in late 1527.
Of course, this declaration worsened the boys' situation. They were moved to the fortress of Pedraza in the high mountains north of Madrid, where they lived a spartan existence amidst Spanish soldiers. A French spy saw them twice in July 1529; townspeople told him the younger boy, Henry, hurled constant verbal abuse at the Spanish when the princes were permitted to attend Mass. Tired of Charles and François's posturing, Louise de Savoye, the king's mother, and Marguerite d'Autriche, the emperor's aunt and regent of the Netherlands, began negotiations to end the war. In August of 1529, the Treaty of Cambrai, or la paix des dames as it came to be known, was hammered out. Instead of ceding Burgundy, François agreed to pay 2 million écus for the ransom of his sons.
The princes remained in Spain while the king worked to raise the huge sum. Louise sent a man to Pedraza to check on the condition of the princes and to let them know they would soon return home. The man, Baudin, found the boys living in "a dark, disordered chamber with no adornments except straw mattresses." The window, high up the wall, was covered with bars. The boys had received no lessons since their tutor had been released months earlier; their French was rusty, since they only could speak it between themselves. They did have two small dogs to play with, but spent only minutes a day outside playing under the watch of fifty soldiers. Now aged eleven and twelve, they had been in captivity for four years.
François finally managed to collect the ransom by June of 1530, an incredibly difficult feat that nearly bankrupted the kingdom. A train of thirty-two gold-laden mules left Bayonne for the same spot on the Bidassoa River where the first exchange had taken place. The boys were reunited with their father and the court at Bayonne on July 3. On July 7, François married Eléonore, who had accompanied the princes from Spain. He thus fulfilled one of the stipulations of the original Treaty of Madrid.
How did four years of captivity affect these young boys and their relationship with their father? That is a subject for a future post. One can only imagine the sense of abandonment these young children felt, as well as anger towards a father who so blithely surrendered them so he could once again "be king."
(Source: Henry II, King of France 1547-1559 by Frederic J. Baumgartner. Duke UP, 1988. Photo of Pedraza Castle courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)