French Ambassadors:
The Sixteenth Century

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In the last twenty years, our understanding of early modern European and French diplomacy and foreign policy has advanced significantly. Historians have dug into the daily practices of diplomats and go-betweens that held foreign relations together. Through this research, the idea that resident ambassadors formed the sine qua non of diplomacy has fallen by the wayside. Non-traditional actors such as dragomans, enslaved individuals, women, and espionage networks of lower members of court all participated in diplomatic endeavors in different capacities. Broadening our understanding of these individuals has not diminished the importance of the resident ambassador, but it has demonstrated a more expansive world of diplomatic connectivity. Although our knowledge of the world of the ambassador and others working in the production and implementation of foreign policy has grown, we have yet to re-evaluate the expanse of the Europe’s, or in this case France’s, geo-political world of operations.

This chapter will begin to sketch out that world as it related to France in the sixteenthe century by mapping the locations of French diplomats over time, but we must be careful not to conisder these emabssies as the ultimate answer to our question. Historians in recent years have made it clear that residential embassies were not the sole or even most prominent aspect of early modern diplomacy. Throughout the early modern period, intermittent temporary ambassadors with short-term missions remained the rule. This was also the case for France outside of its diplomatic nucleus. A patchwork of hundreds or even thousands of small states punctuated by a few large states made up early modern Europe. Temporary diplomatic agents were central to maintaining connections with all these principalities. Even relatively large principalities like Genoa, Ferrara, Tuscany, and Savoy never housed a permanent resident ambassador from France beyond intermittent appointments. The same can be said of Poland-Lithuania—one of the largest territorial states of the region—until the 1570s when the kingdom became important to French interests because the French crown sought to place Charles IX’s brother Henri, duke of Anjou, on its throne. The majority of European principalities never received a resident ambassador from France. All of France’s diplomatic presence in Poland-Lithuania occured during these years. Moreover, it was not unprecedented for France to receive ambassadors without reciprocating. Florence, for instance, sent an ambassador to France in the 1550s that was not reciprocated except with short temporary agents tasked with acquiring loans for France. Scotland also maintained an ambassador in France in the second half of the sixteenth century that was not reciprocated.

Moreover, as we will see in Parts I-IV, the presence of residential ambassadors did not necessarily represent France’s foreign-policy priorities at any particular point in time—indeed, not even for large spans of time. It is perfectly conceivable that an ambassador in one location could for significant portions of time operate as a conduit of information for the French court while receiving very little attention from the court. Whereas a temporary envoy—or even a state lacking any diplomatic representative from France—could receive significant attention from French rulers represented by copious correspondence.

Nevertheless, by analyzing French diplomats sent abroad—where they were located and when—we can begin to evaluate a rough sketch of France’s diplomatic priorities. Diplomats and embassies were an expensive endeavor. Even sending letters through a dedicated courier, rather than the regular postal networks that existed across Europe, could prove expensive. For instance, Henri III chastised his ambassador in Constantinople for wasting money doing just that. The investment in these offices across Europe and the Mediterranean represented the infrastructure of France’s foreign policy. By arranging these embassies by cumulative years present we can visualize the growth and changes this infrastructure experienced over time. This chapter will show that the foundations of this infrastructure that carried France through the rest of the sixteenth century were formed relatively late by about 1535. The concentration of French ambassadors throughout the period formed an axis splitting Europe in half from England along the Swiss Cantons through the Italian principalities and to the Ottoman Empire. This axis formed the nucleus of France’s foreign-policy infrastructure—and by extension, a set of structural interests—that persisted throughout the sixteenth century.

Early Stages under François Ier(r. 1515-1535)

France began establishing residential embassies in earnest under François Ier (r. 1515-1547), and French embassies expanded dramatically thereafter. In 1516 one year after François Ier (r. 1515-1547) ascended to the throne, France only had two residential ambassadors abroad, located at the courts of England and Venice. When François Ier died in 1547 France maintained at least ten ambassadors in residence across Europe. The diplomatic expansion was truly dramatic. The diplomatic framework François Ier established formed the basic parameters by which his successors shaped their own foreign policy.

If François Ier was the father of France’s residential embassy program, it developed more as an ad hoc response to circumstances than any specific plan. For instance, in the first five years of his reign, France’s diplomatic activity was sporadic at best. Other than Venice, French diplomats rarely spent long in any one location, and they were not spread very far from France. Ambassadors only resided in England, the Holy Roman Empire, Venice, and Rome. If we consider the circumstances surrounding these early diplomatic missions, their ad hoc nature becomes even more apparent. During this period, one of the two ambassadors sent to England, Guillaume Gouffier de Bonnivet, was there in 1518 to establish an alliance. The next year he was sent to the Holy Roman Empire along with Charles Guillart, La Rouchebeaucourt, and the Seigneur d’Oval to procure—albeit unsuccessfully—the imperial throne for François Ier. In other words, four out of the thirteen years of diplomatic presence represented on this map were short-term appointments dedictated to specific and singular tasks. Even after war broke out in 1521 between François Ier and Charles V—the man elected to the Imperial throne and incidentally also the king of Spain, prince of the Netherlands, and ruler of much of Italy—France’s diplomatic network grew slowly. During the next five years from 1520 to 1525, France added two more embassies in the Swiss Cantons and in Portugal. These locations reflect the war against Charles V. Swiss mercenaries were a central aspect of France’s military, and the French had to maintain constant relations with them to ensure a ready supply of mercenaries. Considering the importance of the Swiss to the French military, French kings had been sending diplomats to them for some time, but they represented short missions, rarely lasting more than six months, and frequently lasting only a month. The appointment of Louis Daugerant to reside there represented a new policy.

The embassy in Portugal had far different imperatives. While at first glance, establishing an embassy in Portugal could represent an effort to surround Spain. Likely, this was the case. François Ier sent Honoré de Caix to Portugal to negotiate a marriage alliance between the king’s daughter and the son of the Portuguese king. Yet little political capital came from the relationship despite De Caix’s continued presence in Portugal, which did not participate in the Italian Wars. Nevertheless, De Caix’s presence became an important asset navigating a series of naval disputes relating to Portuguese piracy in the Atlantic against French vessels, which was already a growing concern in 1522.

The Battle of Pavia (1525)—during which France suffered a traumatic defeat and Françis Ier himself was taken prisoner—marked a watershed for French diplomacy. Thereafter, the number of French ambassadors located around Europe expanded dramatically both in geographic scope and in consistent presence of those ambassadors. Between 1515 and 1525 France maintained only twenty-seven total years of ambassadorial presence in six different states (see Figure1). Many of those were sporadic and not continuous.

Figure 1: Years of Ambassadorial Presence by state (1515-1525)


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The crushing defeat at Pavia caused the French court to recognize the importance of a robust diplomatic network. Between 1525 and 1535, France maintained seventy-seven cumulative years of ambassadorial presence abroad in twelve separate states (see Figure 2). The diplomatic expansion was staggering. The locations of French embassies doubled, and the years of diplomatic presence almost tripled. Moreover, all the embassies other than those in Ferrara and the Ottoman Empire, were established in or before 1530.

Figure 2: Years of Ambassadorial Presence by state (1525-1535)


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During this period, France invested most heavily in its relationship with England. France joined Venice, Rome, and other small powers in the League of Cognac against Charles V in 1526, and they actively courted Henri VIII to join and support the League. The English king ultimately became the League’s protector. Moreover, England allied with Charles V and the Holy Roman Empire against France in 1515 as well as in 1522—despite the meeting at the Field of the Cloth of Gold between the two just a year earlier. The threat from the English at Calais (then English territory) was made all too apparent during those wars. Keeping good relations with England was essential to preventing the opening of a northern front to go with the active fonts in the East (the Netherlands and Holy Roman Empire), South (Milan and Naples), and West (Spain).

French Diplomacy Matures (r. 1535-1559)

After 1535, France’s diplomatic network matured into the basic structure it would maintain throughout the rest of the century. In the twenty years before 1535, France did not have a single year during which ten separate ambassadors were dispatched. During the period, the preponderance of diplomats were located in England, Venice, the Holy Roman Empire, the Swiss Cantons, and Portugal. In the twenty years after 1535, the situation changed substantially. The number of ambassadors dispatched increased, cataloging fifteen years during which French ambassadors were located in more than ten separate places. Moreover, The axis of French priorities extended south. The locations with the most years of diplomatic presence were the Swiss Cantons, the Ottoman Empire, and Venice with Rome and England following close behind.

The year 1535 thus represents a turning point in the establishment of France’s diplomatic network that remained consistent until 1560. It was the first year France sent an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, representing the push south in the France’s diplomatic axis. Moreover, the shift from the North to the South was both swift and consistent. Between 1535 and 1540—an intense period of French diplomacy—saw a swift development of this axis as the nucleus of France’s diplomatic netowrk. Indeed, we can see the continued significance of this core region crossing from England through the Swiss Cantons and Italy to the Ottoman Empire by cycling the map in five-year increments of 1540-1545, 1545-1550, 1550-1555, and 1555-1560. By focusing on five-year increments, the map and Figure 3 make it clear that these states consistently hosted the largest portion diplomats from France and that the data is not skewed by any short period of intense contacts. Moreover, Anne de Montmorency’s claim that the Swiss and the Ottoman Empire were France’s most important allies seems to be born out by this map—at least for this twenty-five year period from 1535 to 1560. Or at least, France invested most heavily in its diplomacy with these two states. They were the only states that had more than the average (mean) number of diplomats present during each five-year cycle. The Swiss Cantons and the Ottoman Empire do appear to be the two states in which France invested most heavily. They alone comprised the states with more than one standard deviation from the mean of French diplomatic representation during the period, and throughout each five-year segment, both the Swiss Cantons and the Ottoman Empire remained the two powers consistently in the top echelon of diplomatic presence (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Years of Ambassadorial Presence by state (1535-1560)


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If we compare the number of years of diplomatic presence from 1535 to 1560 with the number of individual diplomats sent to each state, this nucleus is further confirmed (see Figure 4). Looking at the number of individual diplomats sent to one location indicates the amount of attention that each state received from the French court.

Figure 4: Number of Individual Ambassadors at Each State (1535-1560)


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For instance, while Portugal had twenty-seven years of diplomatic presence—more than the Holy Roman Empire—only four ambassadors held the position during those twenty-five years compared to seven different ambassadors in the Holy Roman Empire (a 42% difference). In other words, while Portugal logged more years of diplomatic representation from France, it received less attention. If we apply this same analysis to France’s diplomatic nucleus, its significance to France is further confirmed. All the states in this group received ten or more individual diplomats between 1535 and 1560, at least 30% more than all other states hosting a French ambassador during the period.

Diplomacy Blossoms during Religious War, 1559-1600

In 1559, the conflict between France and the Habsburgs came to an end with the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis. Shortly thereafter, a series of religious civil wars broke out in 1562, dominating French concerns until they ended in 1629. Naturally, these wars have caused many historians to focus on France’s domestic concerns during the second half of the sixteenth century. Only three diplomatic events have drawn much attention by historians during the period: various marriage negotiations between French princes and Queen Elizabeth of England; support extended to the Dutch as they revolted against Habsburg Spain; and the election of Henry of Valois to the Polish throne. Beyond those instances, French diplomacy during this period remains relatively unexplored. Nevertheless, this map reinforces and expands on De Lamar Jensen’s argument that French diplomacy blossomed during the Wars of Religion. Moreover, the same diplomatic axis remained in place despite dramatically different international circumstances following 1559. Although historians such as Mack Holt and N.M. Sutherland have alluded to the persistence of France’s rivalry with Spain after 1559, that year remains a significant date of demarchation within the historiography. For France’ internal circumstances, it is hard to disabree, but this logic does not apply to France’ foreign policy.

France’s diplomatic network increatsed in its presence abraod, and the same axis that was established during a period focused on war against Spain continued unabated despite the war’s conclusion and the outbreak of a series of religious civl wars. Jensen referred to this expanding diplomtic network as part of Franc’s “Diplomacy of survival.” Yet, he never described what Franced designed its diplomacy to protect itself from. Presumably, it was the internal conflict from which France suffered. But the maintenance of this common axis designed to counter Habsburg power would indicate that French foreign-policy concerns remained inherently intertwined with Spain. Indeed, Spanish intervention in the Wars of Religion and support for the militant Catholics such as the Guises was far from a welcome development for the royal court. In 1567, for instance, the French king, Charles IX, raised hisarmy along hthe eastern border and hired 6,000 Swiss mercenaries when a Spanish army marched from Italy to the Netherlands. A preliminary conclusion, which will be born out with the letters, is that France’s foreign policy remained fixated on Spain throughout the civil wars.

The two primary changes to France’s diplomatic network during this period hint at this conclusion: the establishment of permanent embassies in Spain and the Netherlands. While the appointment of an ambassador to Spain was more circumstantial than anything else, the one in the Netherlands was at least partially connected to the Franco-Spanish rivalry. When Charles V was both the king of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor there was no reason to maintain an ambassador in Spain. When Charles V stepped down from his titles ion 1556, he split up his domains. His son Philip II inherited Spain, the Americas, Naples, and the Netherlands. Charles V’s brother, Ferdinand, inherited the Holy roman Empire and the family’s Austrian lands. Thereafter, France maintained an ambassador in both the Empire and Spain. The Netherlands, however, became particularly important during the Wars of Religion for a variety of reasons. First, the wars quickly became and international event very early on. Botht he Catholics and the Protestants sought outside help to support their armies. Catholics sought support from Philip II in Spain as well as German Catholic princes, and Protestants sought support from Elizabeth I of England, Protestants in the Netherlands, and Protestant German Princes. The location of the Netherlands on France’s easter border made their support particularly concerning. Second, the Netherlands revolted against Spain in 1566, starting a war that lasted until the middle of the seventeenth century. This struggle drew the interest of France as a chance to weaken Spain. Moreover, in the 1580s the Dutch began seeking protection from France—specifically from François duke of Anjou, the king’s younger brother.

Moreover, if we look at diplomats abroad in the ten years after the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis (1559), we can see France’s diplomatic network had cemented into a structural pattern during the ten years between 1550 and 1560, which experienced intense war at the end of hte Italian wars. In the first ten years of the Wars of Religion, the dispersal of France’s diplomatic presence was almost identical despite a significant change in France’s immediate concerns. Not only was there peace between France and Spain but Philip II also married Elisabeth of Valois, the sister of the king of France at the time. There was ample reason for France to dissolve or pull back from muhc of its diplomatic network after 1559. The country was on the verge of bankruptcy, and these ambassadors were a costly investment. If there was ever a moment to redesign this network, it was in the 1560s. Yet, the diplomatic network remined the same. Indeed, between 1570 and 1600, little in this network changed. Proportionally, each node remains incredibly similar.


Mapping France’s diplomatic network and its development has permitted us to visualize the structural trends behind France’s foreign policy. While we need to investigate the letters to get a fuller understanding of these priorities, the establishment of this network provides us with some basic precepts about French foreign policy durin gthe sixteenth century that set the foundation for greater investigation. Three points become clear. First, France’s diplomatic network matured relatively late. The second half of François Ier’sreign saw the greatest expansion of this network after 1535. The map of French diplomats from 1535 to 1547 looks more-or-less the same as the map during the last twelve years between 1588 and 1600. The major difference in the latter category was the limited amount of representation in Rome. This difference is primarily due to a deficiency int he dataset. Although diplomatic contact between Henri IV and the Pope was broken in 1589 since Henri IV was a Huguenot, Henri IV sent ambassadors to the Vatican in 1592 as he planned his conversion to Catholicism. Thereafter, France maintained regular diplomatic representation in Rome. So, after 1535, the same diplomatic axis—running from England through the Italian principalities to the Ottoman Empire—that dominated France’s diplomatic network during the Italian Wars maintained its significance during hte Wars of Religion. It is difficult to ascertain what exactly drove this continuation—institutional inertia, the diplomatic concerns of the Wars of Religion, or the Spanish rivalry—but these issues will be investigatedfurther in Part II of this publication. It is clear, however, that these states formed the structural diplomatic nucleaus of France. This point leads to the third point: the Ottoman Empire was a fundamental part of Franc’s foreign policy throughout the entirety of the sixteenth century. HIstorians traditionally only focus on French diplomacy in Northwestern Europe. This chapter has indicated, and other chapters will elaboreate further, that France’s diplomatic geography expanded much farther than western Europe. With the inclusion of hte Ottomans at a fundamental level, it was truly multi-continental.

Cite this page:
Nathan Michalewicz, “French Ambassadors: The Sixteenth Century” in Mappping French Diplomacy: Royal Correspondence and Diplomatic Geography 1494-1715, Map Dates: 1500-1520,

Ambassadors Located on the Map

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Ambssadorial Presence by State