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Ch. 4: The Italian Wars

1. Campaign of Charles VIII. (1493).--From grasping at province after province on their own border, however, the French kings were now to turn to wider dreams of conquest abroad. Together with the county of Provence, Louis XI. had bought from King René all the claims of the house of Anjou. Among these was included a claim to the kingdom of Naples. Louis's son, Charles VIII., a vain and shallow lad, was tempted by the possession of large treasures and a fine army to listen to the persuasions of an Italian intriguer, Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, and put forward these pretensions, thus beginning a war which lasted nearly as long as the Hundred Years' War with England. But it was a war of aggression instead of a war of self-defence. Charles crossed the Alps in 1493, marched the whole length of Italy without opposition, and was crowned at Naples; while its royal family, an illegitimate offshoot from the Kings of Aragon, fled into Sicily, and called on Spain for help. But the insolent exactions of the French soldiery caused the people to rise against them; and when Charles returned, he was beset at Fornovo by a great league of Italians, over whom he gained a complete victory. Small and puny though he was, he fought like a lion, and seemed quite inspired by the ardour of combat. The "French fury," la furia Francese, became a proverb among the Italians. Charles neglected, however, to send any supplies or reinforcements to the garrisons he had left behind him in Naples, and they all perished under want, sickness, and the sword of the Spaniards. He was meditating another expedition, when he struck his head against the top of a doorway, and died in 1498.

2. Campaign of Louis XII.--His cousin, Louis XII., married his widow, and thus prevented Brittany from again parting from the crown. Louis not only succeeded to the Angevin right to Naples, but through his grandmother he viewed himself as heir of Milan. She was Valentina Visconti, wife to that Duke of Orleans who had been murdered by John the Fearless. Louis himself never advanced further than to Milan, whose surrender made him master of Lombardy, which he held for the greater part of his reign. But after a while the Spanish king, Ferdinand, agreed with him to throw over the cause of the unfortunate royal family of Naples, and divide that kingdom between them. Louis XII. sent a brilliant army to take possession of his share, but the bounds of each portion had not been defined, and the French and Spanish troops began a war even while their kings were still treating with one another. The individual French knights did brilliant exploits, for indeed it was the time of the chief blossom of fanciful chivalry, a knight of Dauphiné, named Bayard, called the Fearless and Stainless Knight, and honoured by friend and foe; but the Spaniards were under Gonzalo de Cordova, called the Great Captain, and after the battles of Cerignola and the Garigliano drove the French out of the kingdom of Naples, though the war continued in Lombardy.

3. The Holy League.--It was an age of leagues. The Italians, hating French and Spaniards both alike, were continually forming combinations among themselves and with foreign powers against whichever happened to be the strongest. The chief of these was called the Holy League, because it was formed by Pope Julius II., who drew into it Maximilian, then head of the German Empire, Ferdinand of Spain, and Henry VIII. of England. The French troops were attacked in Milan; and though they gained the battle of Ravenna in 1512, it was with the loss of their general, Gaston de Foix, Duke of Nemours, whose death served as an excuse to Ferdinand of Spain for setting up a claim to the kingdom of Navarre. He cunningly persuaded Henry VIII. to aid him in the attack, by holding out the vain idea of going on to regain Gascony; and while one troop of English were attacking Pampeluna, Henry himself landed at Calais and took Tournay and Terouenne. The French forces were at the same time being chased out of Italy. However, when Pampeluna had been taken, and the French finally driven out of Lombardy, the Pope and king, who had gained their ends, left Henry to fight his own battles. He thus was induced to make peace, giving his young sister Mary as second wife to Louis; but that king over-exerted himself at the banquets, and died six weeks after the marriage, in 1515. During this reign the waste of blood and treasure on wars of mere ambition was frightful, and the country had been heavily taxed; but a brilliant soldiery had been trained up, and national vanity had much increased. The king, though without deserving much love, was so kindly in manner that he was a favourite, and was called the Father of the People. His first wife, Anne of Brittany, was an excellent and high-spirited woman, who kept the court of France in a better state than ever before or since.

4. Campaigns of Francis I.--Louis left only two daughters, the elder of whom, Claude, carried Brittany to his male heir, Francis, Count of Angoulêine. Anne of Brittany had been much averse to the match; but Louis said he kept his mice for his own cats, and gave his daughter and her duchy to Francis as soon as Anne was dead. Francis I. was one of the vainest, falsest, and most dashing of Frenchmen. In fact, he was an exaggeration in every way of the national character, and thus became a national hero, much overpraised. He at once resolved to recover Lombardy; and after crossing the Alps encountered an army of Swiss troops, who had been hired to defend the Milanese duchy, on the field of Marignano. Francis had to fight a desperate battle with them; after which he caused Bayard to dub him knight, though French kings were said to be born knights. In gaining the victory over these mercenaries, who had been hitherto deemed invincible, he opened for himself a way into Italy, and had all Lombardy at his feet. The Pope, Leo X., met him at Bologna, and a concordat took place, by which the French Church became more entirely subject to the Pope, while in return all patronage was given up to the crown. The effects were soon seen in the increased corruption of the clergy and people. Francis brought home from this expedition much taste for Italian art and literature, and all matters of elegance and ornament made great progress from this time. The great Italian masters worked for him; Raphael painted some of his most beautiful pictures for him, and Leonardo da Vinci came to his court, and there died in his arms. His palaces, especially that of Blois, were exceedingly beautiful, in the new classic style, called the Renaissance. Great richness and splendour reigned at court, and set off his pretensions to romance and chivalry. Learning and scholarship, especially classical, increased much; and the king's sister, Margaret, Queen of Navarre, was an excellent and highly cultivated woman, but even her writings prove that the whole tone of feeling was terribly coarse, when not vicious.

5. Charles V.--The conquest of Lombardy made France the greatest power in Christendom; but its king was soon to find a mighty and active rival. The old hatred between France and Burgundy again awoke. Mary of Burgundy, the daughter of Charles the Bold, had married Maximilian, Archduke of Austria and King of the Romans, though never actually crowned Emperor. Their son, Philip, married Juana, the daughter of Ferdinand, and heiress of Spain, who lost her senses from grief on Philip's untimely death; and thus the direct heir to Spain, Austria, and the Netherlands, was Charles, her eldest son. On the death of Maximilian in 1518, Francis proposed himself to the electors as Emperor, but failed, in spite of bribery. Charles was chosen, and from that time Francis pursued him with unceasing hatred. The claims to Milan and Naples were renewed. Francis sent troops to occupy Milan, and was following them himself; but the most powerful of all his nobles, the Duke of Bourbon, Constable of France, had been alienated by an injustice perpetrated on him in favour of the king's mother, and deserted to the Spaniards, offering to assist them and the English in dividing France, while he reserved for himself Provence. His desertion hindered Francis from sending support to the troops in Milan, who were forced to retreat. Bayard was shot in the spine while defending the rear-guard, and was left to die under a tree. The utmost honour was shown him by the Spaniards; but when Bourbon came near him, he bade him take pity, not on one who was dying as a true soldier, but on himself as a traitor to king and country. When the French, in 1525, invaded Lombardy, Francis suffered a terrible defeat at Pavia, and was carried a prisoner to Madrid, where he remained for a year, and was only set free on making a treaty by which he was to give up all claims in Italy both to Naples and Milan, also the county of Burgundy and the suzerainty of those Flemish counties which had been fiefs of the French crown, as well as to surrender his two sons as hostages for the performance of the conditions.

6. Wars of Francis and Charles.--All the rest of the king's life was an attempt to elude or break these conditions, against which he had protested in his prison, but when there was no Spaniard present to hear him do so. The county of Burgundy refused to be transferred; and the Pope, Clement VII., hating the Spanish power in Italy, contrived a fresh league against Charles, in which Francis joined, but was justly rewarded by the miserable loss of another army. His mother and Charles's aunt met at Cambrai, and concluded, in 1529, what was called the Ladies' Peace, which bore as hardly on France as the peace of Madrid, excepting that Charles gave up his claim to Burgundy. Still Francis's plans were not at an end. He married his second son, Henry, to Catherine, the only legitimate child of the great Florentine house of Medici, and tried to induce Charles to set up an Italian dukedom of Milan for the young pair; but when the dauphin died, and Henry became heir of France, Charles would not give him any footing in Italy. Francis never let any occasion pass of harassing the Emperor, but was always defeated. Charles once actually invaded Provence, but was forced to retreat through the devastation of the country before him by Montmorençy, afterwards Constable of France. Francis, by loud complaints, and by talking much of his honour, contrived to make the world fancy him the injured man, while he was really breaking oaths in a shameless manner. At last, in 1537, the king and Emperor met at Aigues Mortes, and came to terms. Francis married, as his second wife, Charles's sister Eleanor, and in 1540, when Charles was in haste to quell a revolt in the Low Countries, he asked a safe conduct through France, and was splendidly entertained at Paris. Yet so low was the honour of the French, that Francis scarcely withstood the temptation of extorting the duchy of Milan from him when in his power, and gave so many broad hints that Charles was glad to be past the frontier. The war was soon renewed. Francis set up a claim to Savoy, as the key of Italy, allied himself with the Turks and Moors, and slaves taken by them on the coasts of Italy and Spain were actually brought into Marseilles. Nice was burnt; but the citadel held out, and as Henry VIII. had allied himself with the Emperor, and had taken Boulogne, Francis made a final peace at Crespy in 1545. He died only two years later, in 1547.

7. Henry II.--His only surviving son, Henry II., followed the same policy. The rise of Protestantism was now dividing the Empire in Germany; and Henry took advantage of the strife which broke out between Charles and the Protestant princes to attack the Emperor, and make conquests across the German border. He called himself Protector of the Liberties of the Germans, and leagued himself with them, seizing Metz, which the Duke of Guise bravely defended when the Emperor tried to retake it. This seizure of Metz was the first attempt of France to make conquests in Germany, and the beginning of a contest between the French and German peoples which has gone on to the present day. After the siege a five years' truce was made, during which Charles V. resigned his crowns. His brother had been already elected to the Empire, but his son Philip II. became King of Spain and Naples, and also inherited the Low Countries. The Pope, Paul IV., who was a Neapolitan, and hated the Spanish rule, incited Henry, a vain, weak man, to break the truce and send one army to Italy, under the Duke of Guise, while another attacked the frontier of the Netherlands. Philip, assisted by the forces of his wife, Mary I. of England, met this last attack with an army commanded by the Duke of Savoy. It advanced into France, and besieged St. Quentin. The French, under the Constable of Montmorençy, came to relieve the city, and were utterly defeated, the Constable himself being made prisoner. His nephew, the Admiral de Coligny, held out St. Quentin to the last, and thus gave the country time to rally against the invader; and Guise was recalled in haste from Italy. He soon after surprised Calais, which was thus restored to the French, after having been held by the English for two hundred years. This was the only conquest the French retained when the final peace of Cateau Cambresis was made in the year 1558, for all else that had been taken on either side was then restored. Savoy was given back to its duke, together with the hand of Henry's sister, Margaret. During a tournament held in honour of the wedding, Henry II. was mortally injured by the splinter of a lance, in 1559; and in the home troubles that followed, all pretensions to Italian power were dropped by France, after wars which had lasted sixty-four years.


Charlotte M. Yonge

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