(A quick warning for those of you who clicked through after only a quick glance at the title: Francis II was the *grandson* of Francis I, that great contemporary of Henry VIII…Think Reign!)
Francis II was born in 1544. He acceded to the throne in 1559, aged only 14, after the accidental death of his father Henri II from a jousting accident. Francis was the first in a series of four French princes, children of Henri and Catherine de Medici, all of whom died young.
His main claim to fame (sounds strange to say that about a king of France but…) was his wife. At his accession, Francis had been married to Mary, Queen of Scots, for about a year. Mary had a claim to the throne of England through her great grandfather Henry VII (Henry VIII tried to void the claim by ruling that his crown would bypass her line in the absence of heirs to Edward, Mary or Elizabeth – but her son did end up succeeding Elizabeth I). The couple had no children, whether because of their youth (he was 13 when they married, she was 15) or because of his undescended testicles (yes, the court knew and talked about these…).
His health was fragile and he left much of the responsibility for government to his wife’s uncles, from the powerful Guise family. This enraged some of the country, especially two princes of the blood who thought that they should be regents. The Guises were unpopular, and their militant Catholicism caused a worsening of the country’s religious crisis when they intensified the repression of Protestants begun by Henri II.
After Francis died from an ear abscess, his younger brother Charles inherited the throne. Charles was then only ten, and Catherine de Medici stepped in to become regent. Grand-niece of Pope Leo X, she proved to be as Catholic as the Guises – the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre of French Protestants happened on her watch (though her son was the one who actually said “Then kill them all! Kill them all!” when asked to confirm the orders). Charles IX ruled for only 14 years before dying of tuberculosis. He was succeeded by his younger brother Henri III. Then twenty-two, Henri was already king of Poland (a wonderful consolation prize for a younger son) – though he abandoned that post to take the crown of France. He was killed in 1589 by a Catholic fanatic. No sons being left to Catherine de Medici, the crown went to the Protestant King of Navarre, who took the throne as Henri IV. Henry did have to convert to get the crown, an easy decision for him (he famously said “Paris is well worth a mass”). As King, he formalized a policy of religious tolerance that finally ended France’s long religious wars…
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