Mapping France’s Diplomatic Geography in the 16th and 17th Centuries: An Introduction

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, French diplomacy dramatically increased. This development is observable in the number of permanent embassies maintained across Europe. When Francis I (r. 1515-1547) ascended to the throne in 1515, France only had one residential ambassador abroad, located at the court of the Holy Roman Empire. When Francis I died in 1547, France maintained at least ten ambassadors in residence across Europe (the Holy Roman Empire beginning in 1509; Venice, 1517; England, 1525; the Swiss Cantons, 1522; Portugal, 1522; Rome, 1530; The Ottoman Empire, 1535; the Grisons, 1537; Denmark 1541; and the Netherlands, intermittently after 1538). Using Fleury Vindry’s collections of ambassadors abroad, we can view the explosion of France’s diplomacy abroad (1). Arranging these embassies by total years present–for instance, two ambassadors, not including their retinues, present during one year, produce a value of two for that year–we can visualize France’s diplomatic priorities and how they changed over time.

Figures 1 and 2 demonstrate the dramatic increase in France’s diplomatic presence abroad. For instance, between 1515 and 1525, France maintained only twenty-two total years of ambassadorial presence in six different states. The significance of the Battle of Pavia (1525) to increasing France’s diplomatic outreach is dramatic. The battle was decisive. King Francis I himself was taken prisoner (2). The crushing defeat 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. France’s diplomatic network only grew from there. In the twenty years before 1535, France did not have a single year during which ten separate ambassadors were dispatched. In the twenty years after, there were fifteen. The axis on which this network centered extended from England to Switzerland, Venice, and the Ottoman Empire–the four states most densely populated with French diplomats.

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 (3). Naturally, these wars have caused many historians to focus on France’s domestic concerns during the second half of the sixteenth century. Three diplomatic events have drawn historians’ attention during this 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 (4). Beyond this instance, French diplomacy during this period remains relatively unexplored. Nevertheless, as Figures 4-6 indicate, the French court maintained a robust diplomatic network in place. Moreover, the same diplomatic axis remained in place despite dramatically different international circumstances following 1559.

The continued prominence of this axis indicates the French Wars of Religion did not distract the French court from its diplomatic priorities that predated the domestic conflicts. If anything, the diplomatic presence increased. In the ten years before the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis (1559), France maintained 113 cumulative years of ambassadorial presence abroad. In the ten years after, France maintained 141 cumulative diplomatic years abroad–a 24% increase. Based on these preliminary visualizations, it is clear that the story of French foreign policy and diplomacy is one of continuous expansion.

In addition, it is a much broader story than has been traditionally permitted. For instance, The Ottoman Empire’s prominence is particularly striking here because it has been excluded from France’s diplomatic endeavors until recently (5). During the same period between 1541 to 1549, France sent twelve diplomats to the Ottoman Empire, the second most sent to any place. Between 1559 and 1600, the Ottoman Empire appears the second most prominent destination for French diplomats.

These visualizations are only preliminary explorations into this project. Indeed, they are based on Fleury Vindry’s data, which is not complete. For instance, Rome and England were not fully represented in Vindry’s data. Nevertheless, they indicate what we can learn from visualizing big data digitally.

“Mapping France’s Diplomatic Geography” will provide an interactive resource to explore France’s robust foreign policy first during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It will expand on these maps of ambassadors to include the network of French diplomatic correspondence during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries using ArcGIS, Power BI, and Timeline.JS. It will fill out Fleury’s data to visualize an exhaustive and complete picture of French ambassadors abroad during the period. But the more expansive project will be mapping the international letters of French monarchs and then later grandees. The project will provide interactive maps of this correspondence (weighted by average days of letter travel to destination) for readers to explore the extent of French diplomacy. The project will begin by focusing on Henri III’s (r. 1574-1589) diplomatic correspondence with ambassadors abroad and foreign courtiers. Henri III’s letters have been collected in a series of volumes, making it a natural place to begin since the letters were already compiled. I will then begin expanding out from Henri III’s letters to French monarchs on either side. I then plan to expand the network analysis to prominent French courtiers such as the Guise family, Cardinal Richelieu, and Cardinal Mazarin. This project aims to demonstrate the expansive nature of early modern French (and by extension European) foreign policy.

By combining a complete picture of the locations of French ambassadors abroad with the locations to which French rulers sent letters, we can acquire an understanding of France’s official diplomatic geography. It will represent the mental map of French diplomatic priorities.

  1. Fleury Vindry, Les ambassadeurs français permanents au XVIe siècle (Paris: H. Champion, 1903),
  2. Michael Edward Mallett and Christine Shaw, The Italian Wars, 1494-1559: War, State and Society in Early Modern Europe, 1st ed, Modern Wars in Perspective (Harlow, England ; New York: Pearson, 2012), 150-154.
  3. On these wars, see Mack P. Holt, The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Brian Sandberg, Warrior Pusuits: Noble Culture and Civil Conflict in Early Modern France (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010);
  4. Mack P. Holt, The Duke of Anjou and the Politique Struggle during the Wars of Religion, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986); N.M. Sutherland, The Massacre of St Bartholomew and the European Conflict 1559-1572 (New York: Harper and Row, 1973); Pierre Champion, Henri III, Roi de Pologne (Paris: B. Gassett, 1943). An exception to this characterization is Ellen R. Welch, A Theater of Diplomacy, International Relations and the Performing Arts in Early Modern France (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), which considers the later sixteenth century in ch. 1; also see De Lamar Jensen, “French Diplomacy and the Wars of Religion,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 5, no. 2 (October 1, 1974): 23–46,
  5. Recent research has begun to emphasize the relationship, but the second half of the sixteenth century remains neglected. See, Christine Isom-Verhaaren, Allies with the Infidel: The Ottoman and French Alliance in the Sixteenth Century (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2011), an important contribution to the alliance under François Ier. Pascale Barthe, French Encounters with the Ottomans, 1510-1560 (New York: Routledge, 2016), argues that the French mentality closed to the Ottomans around the 1570s. For more on the second half of the sixteenth century, see Nathan Michalewicz, “Franco-Ottoman Diplomacy during the French Wars of Religion, 1559-1610,” (Ph.D. diss., George Mason University, 2020).