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The French maritime situation : 15th -16th centuries

French participation in the first wave of 15th century discoveries was relatively insignificant. The Spanish and Portugese monopolised sea discoveries during this period, inaugurating long navigations across unknown oceans.

There were several reasons for France's absence in maritime exploration. At this time, there were no royal or princely persons in France interested in far off horizons. The political perspective was limited to western Europe with its internal conflicts - the struggle against the Duke of Burgogne and the Italian wars. Although France possessed a permanent army, the French marine had not evolved since the 100 Year War.

In addition to this, the French admiralty during this period was lacking in persons both competent and interested in their task. Admiral Coligny was the exception. He was the only Admiral in the 16th century to consider his presence at the head of the Admiralty as anything other than a source of honour and income. France in the 16th century did not possess a maritime infrastructure of international stature, contrary to that of Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and soon to be England.

In the 16th century François 1 was the first French sovereign since Charles V to seriously consider the maritime problem and its importance. As a result of this, a port was constructed at Le Havre, in the north of France, in 1517. The voyages of Verrazano and Jacques Cartier received full support. In 1534 Jacques Cartier was chosen by François 1 to lead a voyage of discovery in Newfoundland - not only to discover islands and countries reputed to be rich in gold, but also to find the route to China.

However, after the death of François 1 the maritime situation stagnated, while France entered into the 50 year period of the Wars of Religion.

The first half of the 17th century was similar to that of the preceding century. The political situation remained disturbed by the interminable civil and foreign wars. The Protestant revolts in France from 1521, and the Thirty Year War which lasted from 1635 until 1659 absorbed the energy and the finances of France.

However, in spite of the unfavourable situation of the 16th and 17th centuries, a number of French sailors were present and active over most of the known and frequented seas, due to the enterprising spirit of individuals.

It was the cod fishers, mainly from Normandy, who paved the way to North America. From the beginning of the 16th century sailors from Honfleur, Rouen and Dieppe frequently made excursions into the waters of Newfoundland. Most of these fishermen remained anonymous, apart from Captain Jean Denys, from Honfleur, and Captain Thomas Aubert, from Dieppe. From 1508 Denys and Aubert appeared to have been the pioneers.


Main source for research :
"Marins français à la découverte du monde" - Etienne Taillemite


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Related Links
François 1
Jacques Cartier


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