Way back when, I set out to do a series of posts on the women in François I's life. I wrote about his mother, Louise de Savoye; his sister, Marguerite de Navarre; his first wife Queen Claude; his second mistress, Anne d'Heilly, Madame d'Étampes. With Valentine's Day just past, I've decided to get back on track and introduce Françoise de Foix, the king's first maîtresse en titre, or official mistress, a woman whose life has engendered many a romantic legend.
Born in 1495 in Brittany, Françoise de Foix was second cousin to the reigning queen of France, Anne de Bretagne, and spent much of her youth at Anne's court. A well-educated, dark-haired beauty, she captured the heart of nineteen year old Jean de Laval, Seigneur de Châteaubriant, when she was only eleven. The queen provided a dowry for her impoverished cousin, and Françoise and Jean, who possessed one of greatest fortunes in Brittany, were formally affianced in 1505. But in a move highly unusual for the time, Jean took Françoise to live with him at Châteaubriant before the marriage ceremony took place. The couple lived in this irregular union for more than two years, celebrating the birth of a daughter in 1507 before officially marrying in 1509.
Head over heels in love (so the story goes), Jean and Françoise kept to their secluded manor house in Brittany. Being of a rather possessive and even violent temperament, Jean resisted, for as long as possible, pressure to bring Françoise to the court of the new king, François I. Intrigued by rumors of Françoise's beauty and learning, the king summoned the couple in 1516 and appointed Françoise lady-in-waiting to his wife, Queen Claude. Enamored of the Breton beauty who dared resist him, François showered favors on her family. He made her husband commander of a royal company, elevated two of her brothers to high military positions, and appointed her eldest brother governor of the newly reconquered duchy of Milan. Françoise finally succumbed to his blandishments and became la mye du roi, the king's "sweetheart," around 1518. She and Jean de Laval assisted at the baptism of the dauphin in 1519, with Françoise occupying a place of honor near the royal princesses. Cuckolded Jean, generously rewarded for his compliance, returned home to Bretagne in 1520, leaving Françoise behind to reign supreme over François's heart and court.
During her ten-year reign as François's official mistress, Françoise wielded an influence more cultural than political. Madame de Châteaubriant set the bar for elegance in dress at court. As early as July, 1516, her style made such a splash that a description of one of her gowns made its way into a diplomatic 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 Mademoiselle 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.
Françoise accompanied the king to the sumptuous Field of Cloth of Gold summit in 1520 where he met, feasted, and wrestled with Henry VIII of England. One source claims she encouraged François to spend extravagantly on tents and livery and spectacles for the affair, incensing his frugal royal mother, Louise de Savoye.
Louise resented Françoise's dominion over her son and ever searched for a way to dislodge her from François's affections. The king's captivity in Spain from 1525-26 provided the perfect opportunity. Louise managed to prevent Françoise from accompanying the court to Bayonne to welcome the king upon his return and encouraged François to take up with the much younger and, in her opinion, more biddable, Anne d'Heilly in Françoise's absence. Newly sprung from monk-like captivity, François was only too happy to oblige. For the next two years, Anne and Françoise competed for the king's affections, amusing the court with their very public squabbles. François eventually tired of the drama and informed Françoise he was relegating her to second place. Unable to accept this loss of stature, she left court in 1528 to return to her husband's manor in Brittany. When a triumphant Anne d'Heilly demanded the return of the jewelry François had given her, Françoise complied by melting down the gold and returning it to the king in the form of ingots. The mottos that had adorned the jewelry were too precious for anyone else to wear, she claimed, so now they were engraved solely in her heart. Impressed by her moxy, François allowed her to keep the gold.
Despite their separation, Françoise and the king continued to correspond well into the next decade. François appointed her husband governor of Brittany and visited the couple several times at their home. Françoise's sudden death from illness in 1537 gave rise to speculation that a vengeful Jean had men disguised as doctors slit her veins and allow her to bleed to death. (Legend has it that each year at midnight on the anniversary of her death, she appears in her chamber, hand-in-hand with the king; behind them a band of demons leads Jean de Laval in chains.) Whether through guilt or love or simple duty, Jean erected an elaborate tomb for his errant wife in the church of the Trinitarians in Châteaubriant. Clément Marot, witness to her glory at court, inscribed the epitaph:
"Here lies a nothing, that once triumphed over all" -- one final, enduring motto for the king's sweetheart, Françoise de Foix.
[Sources: R. Knecht, Renaissance Warrior and Patron; Françoise de Foix]