Christian Europe faced a looming problem at the start of the 16th
century, the problem of Protestantism
challenging the doctrine and authority of the Roman Catholic Church
. The problem was no less for Francis I
, who liked to project the image of the Most Christian King
(although his dealings with the German Protestants and Ottoman Empire
in his struggle against the Habsburgs
would prove him anything but). Heresy
was a dominant issue in French politics throughout Francis' reign, and one which caused a significant power struggle between himself, the Sorbonne
's Theology Faction (the Sorbonne had the traditional right to judge doctrine
and was very influential on public thought) and the Parlement
The main reason for disagreements over policies towards heresy was that "heresy" was not in fact an exactly defined term in 16th century France. The Catholic extremists had a different definition to Francis': Francis, every inch the Renaissance King, was a patron of the school of humanism and supported scholars and advisors with these views. This allowed Protestant ideas to seep into his court, and the Sorbonne believed that radicalism could never be stamped out at a grass roots level until it was removed from the King's court. Constant changes in Francis' foreign policy also meant constant changes in his policies towards radicals at home: when he needed the support of the German Protestant Princes to form an anti-Habsburg coalition, he stopped persecution for a time.
None of this is to say Francis supported the Protestants - he was just more pragmatic in opposing them than the hard-liners. In 1521 he instructed Parlement to inspect all printers and booksellers to check that none of Luther's works were available (Martin Luther was the man who had started all this when he nailed his proclamations to the door of a cathedral). However, he would not tolerate attacks against his household by Parlement or the Sorbonne, and numerous times he made the two apoligize for their behaviour and zeal.
The Affair of the Placards was the first time Francis let Parlement attack the French reformers as harshly as it wanted, and from then on Francis worked with the Parlement rather than against it. On the Sunday of 18th October, 1534, Parisians on their way to Mass were shocked to discover Protestant placards attacking the doctrine of the Mass had been erected in various public places overnight, and the hysteria grew when it transpired they had also appeared in five provincial towns, Orleans, Blois, Amboise, Tours and Rouen. The final straw was a placard reportedly nailed to the King's bedchamber door!
The Affair of the Placards showed that the reformation was no longer an academic debate held in dusty halls, but that it had filtered down to the people and was probably here to stay. Over the coming decades a deep and significant proportion of the population would become "contaminated", and another doctrinal attack followed on January 13 just after Francis had returned to Paris - copies of a sacramentarian tract were discovered in the streets of Paris.
This attack came amid a harsh and brutal campaign of persecution which had been launched after the Affair. Twelve courts were set up to judge heretics, along with a subcommission for dealing with heresy within the courts themselves. By the end of november six heretics had been burned in Paris, and even the Sorbonne was commending Francis for his zeal! Following the second attack Francis banned all printing until further notice. There followed a massive display of Orthodoxy by way of a procession of relics through the streets of Paris.
The Affair of the Placards was the most violent attack on Orthodoxy that France had ever witnessed, and it made Francis realise the true scale of the French Reformation movement. From 1534 onwards his ideas of heresy coincided with Parlement and he worked with them to stamp out heresy. However, as a staunch politician and statesman, Francis would sometimes in the future ease the pressure on heretics to support him in the international situation, especially when the issue of Habsburg war raised its head.