"Frenchman the First" was king of France from 1515 to 1547. He was known as the Father and Restorer of Letters, the Knight King, the Warrior King, and the Frenchman with the Big Nose (François au Grand Nez). He is famous for bringing the French Renaissance to full flower and consolidating the French monarchy. He was a humanist who believed human beings could accomplish great things. He built the grand château at Chambord.
Encouraging the French Renaissance in the 16th century meant bringing Italian art, architecture, and letters to France, along with knowledge of Greek and Roman Antiquity. It also meant bringing Italian artists over the Alps. Among the ones who made the journey was Leonardo da Vinci, already an old man. He lived out his last years in Amboise and the young French king called him mon père. Leonardo may have had a hand in designing the château de Chambord.
François was also the king who decreed that French would be the official language of his realm. At the time, the Italian language was very much in vogue and it was fashionable to sprinkle Italian spellings and expressions liberally into written and even spoken French. Writers and poets of the time, including Ronsard and Du Bellay in the Loire Valley, worked diligently to standardize the French language and make sure it didn't become too Italianate.
Frenchman the First — François Ier or « Premier » and, in English, Francis I — had the great palace built at Chambord — the grandest of the Loire Valley châteaux — in part to impress his rivals, the kings of England (Henri VIII) and Spain. Part of his plan was to divert the Loire River and have it flow to the doorstep of his palatial hunting lodge in the Sologne woods. Frenchman didn't lack for ambition, but that particular project was never realized.
Why do I call him Frenchman the First? Because in the old French language his name, François, was the same word as the generic term meaning "a Frenchman" — un François. The pronunciation of the word changed over the centuries, as the French language — le françois back then, le français now — developed into its current form. When the pronunciation of a language changes, spelling reforms often follow, but proper names are often the most stubborn of terms. So today the man's name is pronounced and spelled François, but his nationality is pronounced and spelled français.
François Ier's castle at Chambord is pretty impressive. There are 85 staircases inside it, and a dozen or more of them are truly monumental. Enormous fireplaces are built into the walls of many of the grand rooms. The building sits in the middle of the biggest enclosed park in Europe. The stone wall that surrounds the forested domain is 32 km/20 miles long. The Cadogan guidebook describes the palace François built as "a truly glorious and absurd monster of French architecture."
Why would the king build such a magnificent building out in the middle of the marshy woods of the Sologne region? For the hunting opportunities, of course — one older gentleman I met in 2006 in the village of Châteauvieux, near Saint-Aignan, told me with obvious pride that François Ier used to like to hunt in the forest seven or eight miles south of where we live now. Besides, Chambord is close to Blois, which was an important royal town at the time, and had been for centuries.
François was born in Cognac in 1494, during the time that Columbus and other explorers were making their first voyages to the Americas. King Louis XII, his very popular predecessor, was called The Father of His People (le père du peuple), but he himself left no male heir to the throne. François was the son of one of Louis' first cousins.
The new king was not yet 21 years old when he took over in 1515, and he was just 25 when construction began at Chambord (1519). It was nearly finished when he died in 1547. His end was less glorious than his beginnings — he died of syphilis.
The château de Chambord is a 30-minute drive north of Saint-Aignan. We go there regularly when friends come to visit.