Monday, September 28, 2020

Why Read Historical Fiction Set in Sixteenth Century France? Reason #3

Still looking for reasons to read or write historical fiction set in Renaissance France? Here's one sure to convince you.

Reason #3: DRAMA

There's something about Renaissance dynasty dramas that strongly appeals to modern television audiences. From 2007-2010, THE TUDORS ruled.

Then, from 2011-2013, THE BORGIAS stole the limelight.


Even the Medici have had their day (2016-2019).

Now it's time for THE VALOIS, the dynasty that ruled France throughout the sixteenth century. 

The Valois (or more properly, the Valois-Angoulêmes) ruled France from 1515-1589. François I assumed the throne in 1515 and ruled for 32 years, until dying of illness in 1547. His son, Henri II, wed to Catherine de Medici, ruled from 1547-1559. Three of Henri's sons, François II (1559-60), Charles IX (1560-74), and Henri III (1574-1589), ruled in quick succession after him, all with the aid of their shrewd and crafty mother. The reigns of any of these rulers provides plenty of dramatic fodder for novels and film.

François I was only three years younger than England's infamous Henry VIII. The two kings were rivals their entire lives and even died the same year. Thanks to his obsessive wife-swapping, Henry is better known to modern audiences, but drama of all types riddled François's long reign. Highlights include: 

meeting with Henry VIII at the lavish event known as the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520, where each monarch strove to out-dazzle the other with magnificent tents, clothes, feasts, jousts and games; 

being captured at the Battle of Pavia in 1525 by the troops of his archenemy Charles V of Spain, who held him prisoner at Madrid for a year until François surrendered Milan, agreed to marry Charles's sister, and handed over his two young sons, François and Henri, in exchange for his freedom;
inviting Leonardo DaVinci, Rosso Fiorentino, Benvenuto Cellini, Francesco Primaticcio and innumerable other Italian artists to France to transform the kingdom's crumbling fortresses into glittering palaces brimming with art;

enjoying the attentions of beautiful women willing to risk the wrath of his official mistress, the Duchesse d'Étampes, who schemed her way into François's heart, bed, and council chamber;

and forging an alliance with Suleiman the Magnificent and the Ottoman Empire at the expense of his ties with the Holy Roman Empire.

François's son, Henri II, ruled for twelve years after his father's and his older brother's deaths. Having spent four years (from the ages of 7 to 11) in captivity in Spain as a hostage in his father's place, he suffered psychological trauma that caused plenty of drama in his later life. At fourteen, Henri married Catherine de Medici, daughter of a leading family in Florence, who would eventually become a powerful figure in her own right. After worrisome years of no issue, Henri and Catherine eventually had ten children, three of whom took the throne of France. Drama during Henri's life includes:

carrying on a lifelong romantic affair with Diane de Poitiers, 20 years his senior, a relationship that turned physical when he was only 15;

allowing Diane and the powerful Grand Constable, Anne de Montmorency, to estrange him ever further from his father and factionalize the court;

weathering the power struggles between Catherine, Diane, and François's mistress, the Duchesse d'Étampes;

dying unexpectedly at the age of 40 in a jousting accident, when a lance splinter penetrated his eye and lodged in his brain.

François II, Henri's eldest son, ruled for only one year before dying in 1560. He was married to Mary, Queen of Scots, who had been raised at the French court and returned to Scotland upon François's death. (Mary's time in France was the subject of the TV series REIGN, which aired from 2013-2017 and was geared to a Young Adult audience.) François's short reign was marked by power struggles between his mother, the powerful Catholic Guise family, and the rising Huguenot faction, headed by the Prince de Condé.

Charles IX was only ten when he took the throne after François II passed. Because of his young age, Catherine de Medici served as regent. She wielded sweeping powers, especially during the early portion of Charles's 14-year reign, although she continued to influence his decisions throughout. Charles's reign provided plenty of political and personal drama, including

a two-year grand tour of France;

the outbreak of religious war between Catholics and Protestants in 1562, a struggle that would continue until the end of the century;

and the massacre of Protestants gathered for the wedding of Charles's sister Marguerite to the Huguenot King of Navarre in August 1572, known as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre.

Henri III was the last ruler of the Valois-Angoulême dynasty. Ruling Poland when his brother Charles died of tuberculosis, he returned to take the French throne in 1574. Henri's reign was a complicated one, with continuing religious war compounded by a war of succession, once it became clear that he would die without an heir. 

Courtiers and mistresses jockeyed for favor at his magnificent, highly stylized court.

He was, for a time, considered as a possible husband for Elizabeth I of England.

He was assassinated by a fanatical, knife-wielding Dominican friar who killed him while pretending to deliver important papers. Henri III's untimely death ended the rule of the Valois dynasty. The throne passed to another Henri, the Protestant King of Navarre, who converted to Catholicism and reigned as the first of the Bourbon kings.

Drama defined the course of eight decades of Valois-Angoulême hegemony: imprisonment, massacres, mistresses, murders, glory, vice, and war--and this only includes what happened at court. Take any decade of the sixteenth century in France and you'll find intrigue to rival that of the Tudors, the Borgias, and the Medici--intrigue sure to keep readers turning pages and viewers glued to their streams. It's time to let the Valois take the stage.

So far, we've examined three reasons to champion sixteenth century historical fiction: ESCAPE, RELEVANCE, and DRAMA. We'll break our examination tomorrow and Wednesday for a book review and an author interview, then pick up the thread on Friday. Happy reading!

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