Wars with France

The on-going rivalry between Charles V and Francis I

Charles and Francis I (king of France from 1515 until his death in 1547) were frequently in a state of war. The on-going hostility between the Habsburg and Valois families was made worse by Charles’ control of so many territories that threatened to surround France, and by the personal rivalry between the two monarchs. Both had wished to be elected as Holy Roman Emperor (an election that Charles won) and early in his reign Charles had commented: ‘My cousin Francis and I are in complete accord; he wants Milan and so do I’. During the 1520’s, 1530’s and 1540’s there were military conflicts and for much of the rest of the time they were conspiring to undermine each other’s position. Only occasionally were they at peace, such as when Charles travelled from Spain, through France to the Low Countries in the autumn of 1539 and early 1540.

The scope of the wars was wide. Both had laid claim to lands in Italy; Charles wished to regain Burgundy, lost to the French in 1477; rights in Flanders and Artois were disputed; and in the Pyrenees the kingdom of Navarre was a bone of contention. Therefore most of these areas, as well as parts of France, experienced invasion by foreign troops, sieges, looted cities, land laid waste and all the horrors of warfare. Charles and Francis were at war in 1521 - 1525, 1526 - 1529, 1536 - 1538, and 1542 – 1544. Francis’ successor, Henry II, was also at war with Charles from 1552, a conflict that did not end until after Charles’ abdication and death. An account of the causes, events and consequences of these wars is available elsewhere (‘Duty and Dynasty: Emperor Charles V and his Changing World 1500-1558’ by Richard Heath) and here it is only intended to deal with some aspects of them.

Wars in Italy

Renaissance Italy was ripe for foreign interference. It was seriously divided. The most important states were the republic of Venice, with its maritime empire, the duchy of Milan, the republic of Florence, the Papal States and the kingdom of Naples. Also of significance were Savoy, Genoa, Ferrara and additional smaller city states. A delicate balance of power had been maintained by means of subtle diplomacy and wars in which the citizens stayed at home while mercenary soldiers fought each other in campaigns that often involved more manoeuvre and posturing than hard fought battles. This balance was all too easily destroyed by the intervention of foreign powers eager for gain. Indeed, on occasions, they were invited in to assist a local Italian ruler. The fact that the Papacy was based in Rome was another incentive, for control of or influence over the Papacy provided an additional diplomatic weapon. The lack of this support could be a problem as Henry VIII was to learn to his cost in the late 1520’s.

The wealthy Italian states had little effective defence and offered rich pickings for foreign troops who had their own interests at heart. Italian rulers were therefore keen to side with whichever power might seem to offer the chance for gain and security. Growing instability encouraged existing ducal families and more recent condottiere (mercenary commanders) to attempt to carve out territories for themselves and their families. The Medici (Florence), the Borgia (the Papal States and Romagna), the Sforza (Milan), the Farnese (Parma), the Este (Ferrara), the Gonzaga (Mantua) - these are the names that frequently occur in any history of Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries, many of which are still familiar to us today. As well as being patrons of the famous artists of the Renaissance, they are usually associated with the rapidly shifting alliances, enmities, truces and double crosses that make a study of the period fascinating, but often complex. This was, of course, the world of Cesare Borgia and Machiavelli, as well as Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo.

There is, however, a pattern that emerges from a study of late 15th and early 16th century Italy. French claims to a territory, backed up with the support of some Italian rulers and substantial military force, would have initial success. The allies would then fall out, either over the spoils of war or over fear of French domination. This would allow France’s rivals, initially Ferdinand of Aragon and Maximilian of Austria, and later Charles, to make local alliances, fight back and eventually defeat French forces. The Italian states and their ruling families would then be concerned about Habsburg control of Italy. This in turn enabled France to put together alliances and restart the cycle. As Pope Clement VII commented, most Italians did ‘not wish the eagle to land in Italy or the cock to crow there’.

The damage done to Italy was immense. Although they had a part to play, the Italian states were no-longer in control of their own destiny, despite feelings of cultural and economic superiority, and however much they disliked foreign domination. They would switch sides frequently, fearful of first one foreign power and then another. They would aim to maximise their power at the expense of other local rulers, ever mindful of the need not to offend the monarch who held sway at the time, but ready to change allegiance if they judged circumstances to be right. The French, Spanish and Imperial armies, together with the feared Swiss and German mercenary troops, were much larger than anything previously seen. They frequently gave no quarter, either in battle or when looting a captured town, unlike some of the earlier choreographed campaigns which had much less material or personal cost. Long sieges and the devastation of the countryside had a major impact on food supplies. The lack of security, together with the cost of employing large mercenary armies, made further economic development difficult. The troops suffered from and spread diseases, whether it was cholera, the plague, or syphilis, of which the first major recorded outbreak in Europe was among the French soldiers at Naples in 1494, and which, known as the ‘French disease’, rapidly became widespread across Italy. By the second decade of the 16th century Machiavelli regarded Italy as ‘leaderless, lawless, crushed, despoiled, torn, over-run’.

Charles’ plans for a ‘permanent peace’ in Christendom

Charles always claimed that it was his deepest wish to live in peace, and regarded Francis as the aggressor. Nevertheless he made it clear that he would not back away from a conflict if he believed that his territories or his honour were under threat. On occasions he challenged Francis to a dual, such as in 1526 when angered by Francis’ breaking of the Treaty of Madrid he said to the French ambassador: ‘Had your king kept his word we should have been spared this… It would be better for us two to fight out this quarrel hand to hand than to shed so much Christian blood’. This was never likely to happen and indeed it was one of the few times that Charles showed his anger so clearly in public.

Charles’ belief in the importance of dynasty is shown in the various plans that he put forward for marriages between the royal families that he hoped would lead to a more lasting peace. He was keen for his sister Eleanor (whose first husband Manual I of Portugal had died in 1521) to marry Francis I after the death of his wife, Claude, in 1524. This was arranged in the Treaty of Madrid in 1526 after Francis’ capture at Pavia but delayed by the renewal of hostilities until the idea was revived in the Treaty of Cambrai in 1529. The marriage took place in 1530 but did little to ease relations between the monarchs, although perhaps negotiations were facilitated by Eleanor’s presence on the rare occasions that they met.

Later, in the mid-1540’s, as part of the Treaty of Crepy, Charles agreed to an understanding about the marriage of Francis’ youngest son, Charles, Duke of Orleans and a related territorial settlement. Orleans would marry either Charles’ daughter Maria, or niece, Ferdinand’s daughter, Anna. If he married Maria, Orleans would inherit the Low Countries on Charles’ death; if he married Anna, he would inherit Milan. Charles himself would decide who the bride would be after talks with Ferdinand and his own son Philip. It is often debated why Charles agreed to such a deal. At the time he had control in Italy and the upper hand in the Low Countries. Why did he feel the need to hand over significant lands to the French royal family as part of a marriage contract? He hoped to bring about a lasting settlement of the Habsburg – Valois conflict by using marriages and concessions, thus creating an all-embracing dynastic alliance. This was the latest, but not the last, of Charles’ ideas on how this ‘permanent peace’ could be achieved. He also wished to gain Francis’ agreement to fight not just the Ottomans but also the German Protestants if they could not be restored to the church by other means. Such a marriage alliance could help to bring this about.

The Treaty of Crepy in many ways reveals the nature of international politics at the time - sometimes laudable aims, often duplicitous agreements, and then an open disregard for what had been signed.

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There was both an open treaty and a secret treaty. The open treaty enforced the main terms of the agreement made at Cambrai back in 1529, and stated that all territorial gains made since the truce of Nice in 1538 would be returned. Francis agreed to supply 10,000 foot-soldiers and 600 heavy cavalry to help fight the Ottomans. Charles agreed to the marriage plans. In the secret part Francis agreed to help Charles to bring about a meeting of the general church council that the Emperor had so long desired, to support him in removing the abuses of the church and to bring the German Protestants back into a unified church. What probably needed to remain secret was Francis’ agreement to provide troops (10,000 infantry and 600 cavalry – the same as promised against the Ottomans) for use against the heretics if other methods failed, whereas he had previously encouraged German Protestants to make difficulties for Charles. He also promised not to make any agreement with Henry VIII which would be disadvantageous to Charles and would support the Emperor in any future war with Henry. Charles had forced the French to agree to his wishes in both political and religious matters.

Of course we know that, as in the past, rulers did not always regarded treaties as unbreakable, even while they were being negotiated. These marriage and territorial terms were bound to cause problems. Even in France, the royal family was split. The ambitious twenty-two year old Duke of Orleans, affable and popular at the French court, was undoubtedly his father’s favourite. He had been the subject of many marriage plans – into the English royal family, with the Farnese in Italy, with Jeanne d’Albret of Navarre - but was very keen for an independent principality that the treaty provided. The Dauphin, Henry, Francis’ heir, married eleven years earlier to Catherine de’ Medici, had never been close to his father since his years in Spain as a hostage. He objected to these terms, believing that too much was gained by his younger brother and that this would cause family divisions in the future. A divided French royal family would certainly suit Charles. But Charles would have his own dilemma. How was he to decide which marriage and territorial agreement to choose? His advisers were divided; most of the Spaniards believed that Milan was essential to control in Italy and the links with the Low Countries, while those with a ‘Burgundian’ background, such as Granvelle, argued that the Low Countries were an invaluable asset. Both had a strong case and Charles was going to be in a difficult position when he came to decide. Within a year his dilemma was removed by the death of Orleans, of which Charles commented: ‘This death came just in time, and being a natural one, it could be said that God had sent it to accomplish his secret design’.

The death of Francis I

The rivalry of over 30 years between Charles and Francis ended with the latter’s death on 31st March 1547 at the chateau of Rambouillet, aged 52. Henry VIII of England had died three months earlier, aged 56 at Whitehall Palace. In some ways it was the end of an era. Charles, a few years younger than both, had outlived the two European monarchs most closely associated with him, although Suleiman, the Ottoman sultan, was to live on until 1566. However, Francis’ death did not mean that peace was going to break out over Europe. His successor, Henry II, was keen for military success and territorial gain, and had no love of Charles – his three years in Spain as a young boy, hostage to his father’s failure to carry out the terms of the treaty of Madrid, were not to be forgiven.