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France and the Papacy of Alexander VI

France - THE  BORGIAS   wiki

France in the Fifteenth Century

France was the most powerful kingdom in Western Europe during late medieval and early modern times. The monarchy was wealthy, ancient, and contained all of the things necessary for a successful nation, which it became during the following epoch, the Enlightened nationalist period after the French Revolution and abolishment of the monarchy of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1792. Up until the French Revolution, France and its ruler, the "Most Christian King" were at the the absolute apex of monarchical power and prestige.

By 1490, France had recovered from the disruption caused by repeated English invasions. Louis XI (ruled 1461-1483), known as 'the Spider King', had curbed the power of his nobles during the 'War of the Common Weal' and expanded France through inheritance, conquest and negotiation. French law stated that when the direct male line died out, the lands reverted to the King. By these means, Louis obtained Anjou, Berri, Maine and Provence. His wars against Burgundy bought much of French Burgundy under his control and his treaty with John of Aragon gave him Roussillon and Cerdagne. Due to the English invasions, French kings could raise large sums of money without recourse to Parliament, whereas other kings had to beg their parliaments for funds. France was also the largest kingdom in terms of population, with around 14 million inhabitants in 1490, compared to roughly 6 million in Spain and less than 4 million in England.

Map - France in 1492

Map of France 15th century

Charles VIII

Charles VIII (30 June 1470 - 7 April 1498) was a member of the House of Valois, a cadet branch of the ancient Capetian dynasty. He was born at Château d'Amboise (pictured above) son of King Louis XI and Charlotte of Savoy. He became king at the age of thirteen, but his rule was guided by his able sister, as Regent of France, Anne de Beaujeu, Duchess of Bourbon. Firstly betrothed to Margaret of Austria, daughter of Maximilian I and Mary of Burgundy, he was instead wed to Anne, Duchess of of Brittany, who was forced to break her own marriage contract with Maximilian I, to whom she was herself was affianced. Anne and Charles were married in December of 1491. Their union produced four children, all of whom died in childhood.

Observers described Charles as small, mis-shapen, ugly and not over-endowed with brains. When he took over the reins of power from his sister Anne in 1491, he was determined on military glory. Angevin barons exiled from Naples urged him to invade that kingdom and to dispossess the illegitimate Aragonese kings. By 1494, others had added their persuasions - Ludovico 'il Moro' wanted Charles's help to hold on to Milan in the face of his nephew's superior claims, and Giuliano della Rovere, implacable enemy of the Borgias, was anxious to undermine Pope Alexander's Neapolitan allies. Some Italians recognised the danger to the whole stability of Italy - one compared Ludovico to a man who 'set loose a lion in his house to catch a mouse'. Ultimately, Charles may have decided to invade Naples 'because he was young and silly and had bad counsellors', as contemporary writer Philippe de Commynes stated.

But first, Charles had to buy off potential adversaries. He returned his jilted bride, Margaret of Burgundy, to her father Emperor Maximilian, along with her dowry and towns in Artois; he paid Henry VII of England, then besieging Boulogne, a hefty pension; and he returned Roussillon and Cerdagne to Ferdinand of Aragon.

The French Conquest of NaplesNaples, c. 1466

The death of King Ferrante of Naples in 1494 and the succession of his brutal and unpopular son Alfonso, stirred the King into action. Charles entered Italy with little opposition. When his army reached Rome, Pope Alexander was unable to oppose him but was canny enough to refuse Charles the investiture of Naples, which was a papal fief. As a guarantee of Alexander's goodwill, Charles took Cesare Borgia with him as a hostage. However, two days after leaving Rome, Cesare escaped disguised as a groom, and made his way to the papal castle of Spoleto. The luggage that he had left behind was found to be empty. Suspecting, probably correctly, that the escape has been pre-arranged by the Pope, Charles flew into a rage and shouted that 'all Italians are dirty dogs and the Holy Father is as bad as the worst of them!'

Before Charles and his army got to Naples in February 1495, Alfonso abdicated in favour of his son Ferrante II and fled to Sicily. The French encountered few problems in taking over Naples but opposition was building. In Naples itself, the arrogance of the French aroused hostility. Foreign powers and the remaining Italian states were unwilling to see the French permanently installed in Naples.

The 'Holy League' - 1495

On 31st March 1495, Ferdinand of Aragon formed the 'Holy League' or 'League of Venice', which united Spain, the Pope, the Empire, Venice and Milan (where Ludovico had repented of his previous pro-French attitude) in order to expel the French from the kingdom. When Henry VII joined in 1496, it was clear that this was a European-wide coalition against France.

Facing the prospect of being trapped in Naples, Charles took most of his army up through northern Italy. His army met that of the League, commanded by Francesco II Gonzaga of Mantua, at the Battle of Fornovo on 6th July 1495. The battle was a draw - Charles succeeded in retreating to France with his army but lost most of his booty from Naples to the opposing forces. He and many of his soldiers returned suffering from the common Italian malady of syphilis

In Naples, King Ferrante invaded from Sicily and with the help of a Spanish army under Gonsalvo de Cordoba, succeeded in reconquering the kingdom. On his death from malaria in September 1496 at the early age of 27, his uncle Frederick succeeded him as king.

Charles had not given up on his Neapolitan ambitions, and by 1497, he began to plan a new invasion. There were also rumours of secret negotiations with Spain. However, on 7th April 1498, Charles died, apparently of a brain haemorrhage, after striking his head against a lintel post at his beloved castle at Amboise.

Louis XII

Charles' queen consort Anne of Brittany (25 January 1477 - 9 January 1514) was 21 years old. A clause in their marriage treaty provided that if Charles VIII should die without heirs, her hand would go to his successor in order to keep her domains under French rule. Unfortunately, the new king (Louis XII, Duke of Orleans born 27 June 1462 - died 1 January 1515) was already married to Joan of France, (daughter of Louis XI, House of Valois). A humiliating trial decided (probably correctly) that the marriage had never been consummated and found her unfit to produce children. Pope Alexander VI sent his son, Cesare with a papal dispensation allowing Louis to marry Anne of Brittany - the marriage took place in January 1499. In return, Cesare was given the Duchy of Valence and the hand of a wealthy heiress, Charlotte of Albret. Louis also gave him money and troops to conquer the Romagna, part of the Papal States.

Louis XII, King of FranceThe Conquest of Milan

At the time of his accession, Louis was a mature man of 36, experienced in both politics and war, and considerably more intelligent than Charles VIII. Like his predecessor, Louis felt the lure of Italian conquest but his primary objective was Milan rather than Naples. His grandmother, Valentina Visconti, had been a member of the previous ruling family of that city. Louis successfully reached agreement with potentially hostile powers such as Spain and Venice and he was able to use the nearby town of Asti, inherited from his grandmother, as a base to attack Milan. His army conquered Milan on 17th September 1499: Ludovico Sforza fled to the Tyrol. However, he successfully re-entered Milan on 5th February 1500. Superior French forces caused him to fall back to Novara, where he was discovered disguised as a Swiss soldier. He died in captivity in France in 1508. Louis was able to re-establish his control of Milan.

Louis XII (pictured left) was called "the Father of the People" because of his concern for his subjects' welfare. Although his cousin Charles VIII initiated the Italian Wars, the active expansionism of his reign effectively brought Italy to its knees under French dominion. However, Louis' triumphs proved short-lived, and he ended up with no more territory than he started with. His rule at home was wise and just, and he introduced many reforms. He reigned 1498 - 1515.

Louis XII and NaplesFrance - THE  BORGIAS   wiki

Having successfully re-taken Milan, Louis set his sights on Naples. Apart from his inheritance of the claims of Charles VIII, he had a grudge against King Frederick for his support of Ludovico 'il Moro'. Louis realised, however, that conquering Naples would be a far harder task that the taking of Milan. Rather unwillingly, he continued to support Cesare Borgia's military operations in the Romagna in order to retain Papal support, but the greatest threat came from Spain, the support of which had enabled previous Neapolitan kings to oust the French.

When Louis's plans concerning Naples became clear, most Italians expected Ferdinand of Aragon to intervene again on behalf of his cousin Frederick. They were proved wrong. By the secret Treaty of Granada (11th November 1500), Ferdinand and Louis agreed to partition Naples between them on the pretext that Frederick was seeking Turkish support. Louis was much criticised at the time and subsequently by Machiavelli and Guicciardini, not for treachery, but for allowing his strongest rival a foothold in Naples. In 'The Prince', Machiavelli wrote:

'"Whereas to start with, he (Louis) was master of Italy, he now brought in a rival to whom the ambitious and the discontented might have recourse. He could have left in Naples a king who was in his pay. Instead, he expelled him to put in his place one who could chase him out in turn".

Above: Miniature of Louis XII entering Genoa in 1507 (Jean Bourdichon c. 1508)

Pope Alexander, anxious to keep on good terms with both sides, enthusiastically endorsed the Treaty of Granada.
Under the terms of the Treaty, Louis took Naples and the north of the kingdom and Ferdinand the south. King Frederick was sent to France, where he was given lands - he died there in 1504. His eldest son Ferrante, Duke of Calabria, was less lucky - he was sent as a captive to Spain and spent the next 25 years in prison.

War between Spain and France

The boundary between the French and Spanish territories had been (deliberately?) loosely drawn, and quarrels soon occurred. Louis's general, the Duke of Nemours, forced his Spanish counterpart de Cordoba to hole up in the fortress of Barletta. Louis tried to make peace, but was distracted by Florentine complaints of the threat posed to their territories by the actions of Cesare Borgia. He also sent troops to Borgia, weakening his Neapolitan armies.

On 28th April 1503, Spanish and French troops clashed at the Battle of Cerignola. Although outnumbered, de Cordoba proved the better general and overcame the French. Nemours was killed in the battle. In revenge, Louis sent an army to invade Roussillon but his troops were defeated by Ferdinand himself and forced back over the border.

Further Spanish successes followed, and the French army, now commanded by the Chevalier Bayard and the Marquis of Saluzzo, was defeated at the Battle of Gargliano on 28th December 1503. The exiled Piero de Medici was drowned whilst attempting to escape. On January 1 1504, de Cordoba's army entered Naples itself. By 30th January, Louis was forced to concede that 'Naples was lost beyond hope of recovery'.

For all his efforts, Louis had been no more successful in holding Naples than his predecessor. Subsequent French kings attempted to regain the kingdom but were finally forced to give up in 1559. Naples was to remain in Spanish hands for the next two and a half centuries.

Sources and Further Reading:

'The Prince', Niccolo Machiavelli
'History of Italy' , Francesco Guicciardini
'Memoirs', Phillipe de Commynes
Calendars of State Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Spanish and Venetian

'Louis XII', Frederick Baumgartner
'Renaissance Diplomacy', Garrett Mattingly
'The Borgias', Michael Mallet
'The Recovery of France in the Fifteenth Century', ed. P.S. Lewis

Charles VIII, King of France (reign 1483-1498)
Charles VIII, King of France

Charles "the Affable" young Valois king was the initiator of the Italian Wars with his assertion of ancient rights to the Kingdom of Naples through his paternal grandmother Marie of Anjou (the Angevin claim).
Anne of Brittany (Jean Bourdichon c. 1500)
Anne of Brittany, Queen Consort of France

Duchess of Brittany in her own right, Anne de Bretagne was the only surviving child of Francis II, Duke of Brittany and Margaret of Foix. Her betrothal to Emperor Maximilian I was annulled so Charles could marry her, although he was himself betrothed to Maximilian's daughter Margaret of Austria.

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