Keeping up the with the King - Travelling with the Royal Court in the French Renaissance

Some 24 hours after taking off in Melbourne on a Qantas jet I have touched down across the other side of the world in New York for the Digital Book World Conference and Expo. Wheeled at my side is a crammed suitcase including all my essentials and something swish to wear for the DBW awards night where Mistress of France is a finalist in the enhanced eBook – Adult Fiction category. The ease with which we traverse the globe makes the lure of a change of scenery very accessible. But this wanderlust that sees our skies crisscrossed with jet streams is not a new phenomenon.

In sixteenth century France, King Francois I was as restless as the modern jetsetter, flitting between his chateaux and palaces, wintering in Paris and hunting all year around. King Francois very rarely stayed in the same place for more than three months at a time and where the king went, court was never far behind. Sometimes as many as 18,000 people followed the king on his perambulations around his kingdom.

Many of the palaces and chateaux of renaissance France were ostensibly unfurnished. There was no point leaving good furniture, tapestries and rugs to gather dust in the many months between royal visits, so when the court moved the furnishings were loaded onto carts and wagons and taken to the next hunting lodge or chateau. Only the main palaces of Amboise, Fontainebleau, Blois, the Louvre and St Germain-en-Laye had permanent furniture which was packed into storerooms while the court was absent.

The logistics of such removals took much co-ordination, patience and luck with weather on the rough roads that crossed the French countryside. By 1525 there were still no maps of the haphazard road system through France which would have made things particularly difficult given the court didn’t travel all together, but broke off into columns spaced apart with the intention of arriving at the same point. Riders were able to take the quickest routes through fields and across streams, but the heavily laden carts were forced to struggle along the dirt roads which were muddy in winter and dusty in summer.

Travel between Paris and the Loire chateaux was made more pleasant by the use of royal barges where the royal family and senior courtiers could recline under silken canopies and watch the world go by. But for everyone else and when there were no rivers for travel, horseback was the main form of transport. The royal women would sometimes travel by a litter slung between two sets of mules, but as they were all excellent horsewomen they would also have elected to ride the long roads between royal stops. As a number of days may pass on the roads depending on the length of the progress, makeshift accommodation was often overcrowded and uncomfortable. But King Francois seemed blithely unaware of the discomfort he regularly put the court through in his endless travels for the best hunting and to unite the kingdom behind the person of the king. Satisfied with any dwelling, Francois would stop in remote areas forcing the rest of the court to scramble around the local villages and houses for a bed and pay opportunistically exorbitant fees for the privilege. At one such stop, the king chose a stable for accommodation and had wooden partitions constructed to provide the queen and the dauphine Catherine de Medici with small niches for rooms.

Travelling about the countryside served a number of key purposes for the king and his court. First and foremost for the hunting obsessed nobility was the need to move on when the game had been hunted out of the royal forests. Another crucial purpose was to allow the people to see and petition their king. One such progress for the express purpose of settling popular unrest was conducted in 1532 when the king spent six months travelling in the north west of the kingdom through Picardy, Normandy and Brittany, returning through the Loire chateaux and eventually ending up in Paris. Outbreaks of plague were also a catalyst for travel and for circumnavigating areas when on progress. The king’s beloved mother Louise de Savoy hurriedly departed Fontainebleau under threat of plague, in September 1531, but only reached Grez-sur-Loing where she succumbed to the disease before her heart broken son could reach her.

Throughout his thirty-two year reign King Francois never ceased his travels and his beloved hunting. The Florentine sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini wrote of his time at the French court in 1540: “We sometimes danced attendance in places where there were hardly two houses, were often under the necessity of pitching inconvenient tents, and lived like gypsies.”

From the comfort of my cozy hotel room opposite Central Park I can only sympathize with the courtiers scrambling to keep up with their energetic King.

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