Habsburg-Valois Wars

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HABSBURG-VALOIS WARS. The Habsburg-Valois Wars of 14941559 were for a long time crucially intertwined with the Italian Wars. The latter arose from the instability of the Italian peninsula, which was divided among a number of vulnerable powers, but also from a new willingness of outside rulers to intervene. Initially, the most important was Charles VIII of France (ruled 14831498), who invaded Italy in 1494, capturing Naples the following March. Charles's artillery particularly impressed contemporaries. Mounted on wheeled carriages, his cannon used iron shot, allowing smaller projectiles to achieve the same destructive impact as larger stone shot. This permitted smaller, lighter, and thus more maneuverable cannon.

Charles's initial success aroused opposition both in Italy and from two powerful rulers who had their own ambitions to pursue: Maximilian I (ruled 14931519), the Holy Roman emperor, who ruled Austria and the other Habsburg territories, and Ferdinand of Aragón (ruled Sicily 14681516; Aragon 14791516; Naples as Ferdinand III 15041516; Castile, with Isabella, 14741504). Ultimately, Maximilian's grandson, Emperor Charles V (ruled 15191558; ruled Spain 15161556 as Charles II), was to succeed to the Habsburg, Burgundian, Aragonese, and Castilian inheritances, creating a formidable rival to the Valois dynasty of France and ensuring that the wars are known as the Habsburg-Valois wars.

Ferdinand's forces intervened in southern Italy in 1495, while Charles VIII was forced by Italian opposition to retreat, although an attempt to cut off his retreat failed at Fornovo (6 July 1495); the Italian forces of the League of St. Mark had numerical superiority but were poorly coordinated. Charles VIII's successor, Louis XII (ruled 14981515), in turn invaded the Duchy of Milan in northern Italy in 1499, claiming it on the grounds that his grandmother had been a Visconti. Disaffection with French rule led to a rallying of support to Ludovico Sforza (14511508), but Louis was able to reimpose his power in Milan and to partition the kingdom of Naples with Ferdinand in 1500. They fell out in 1502, and the French tried to take the entire kingdom, only to be defeated by the Spaniards at Cerignola (28 April 1503). The French-held positions were then captured, and Louis XII renounced his claims to Naples by the Treaty of Blois of 12 October 1505.

Cerignola was the first in a series of battles in which a variety of weapons, weapon systems, and tactics were tested in the search for a clear margin of military superiority. The state of flux in weaponry entailed a process of improvisation in the adoption and adaptation of weapons and tactics. In addition, perceived "national" differences were linked to fighting methods. The Swiss and Germans were noted as pikemen, equally formidable in offense and defense, but vulnerable to firearms. The French put their emphasis on heavy cavalry and preferred to hire foreign pikemen.

Italy was increasingly dominated by France and/or Spain, the only powers with the resources to support a major military effort. In contrast, other powers, especially Venice, defeated by Louis XII, Milan, the Swiss, and the papacy, took less important and independent roles. Pope Julius II (ruled 15031513) had formed the League of Cambrai in 1508 to attack Venice, but it was France's role that was decisive in that war. The French defeated the Venetians at Agnadello (14 May 1509) and then overran much of the Venetian mainland. Italian rulers lacked the resources to match French or Spanish armies readily in battle. Instead, they adapted to the foreign invaders and sought to employ them to serve their own ends. Thus, there was no inherent conflict between these local rulers and foreign powers. Instead, the latter were able to find local allies.

At the same time, weaker powers could help affect the relationship between France and Spain. In 1511, Pope Julius II's role in the formation of the Holy League with Spain, Venice, and England to drive the French from Italy led to a resumption of Franco-Spanish hostilities. The French beat the Spaniards at Ravenna on 11 April 1512, but opposition to the French in Genoa and Milan helped the Spaniards to regain the initiative, as did Swiss intervention against France. The French retreated across the Alps, while Ferdinand of Aragón conquered the kingdom of Navarre, which was to be a permanent gain.

In 1513, the French invaded again, only to be defeated by the Swiss at Novara on 6 June; the advancing Swiss pikemen took heavy casualties from the French artillery before overrunning the poorly entrenched French position. Left without protection, the French harquebusiers were routed.

Soon after coming to the French throne, the vigorous Francis I (ruled 15151547) invaded anew. He was victorious at Marignano (1314 September 1515), the French cannon, crossbows, harquebusiers, cavalry, and pikemen between them defeating the Swiss pikemen, and occupied Milan until 1521, reaching a settlement with the future Emperor Charles V at Noyon in 1516.

However, the election of Charles as Holy Roman emperor in 1519 seemed to confirm the worst French fears of Habsburg hegemony, and in 1521 Francis declared war. The main theater of conflict was again northern Italy, although there was also fighting in the Low Countries and the Pyrenees. After their defeat at Bicocca (27 April 1522), the French position in northern Italy collapsed. In 1523 Venice felt that it had to ally with Charles. That year, however, invasion attempts on France from Spain, Germany, and England all failed to make an impact. In turn, Francis sent an army into northern Italy, which unsuccessfully besieged Milan before being driven out in early 1524 by the Habsburg forces.

In 1524 Charles again attempted to mount a concerted invasion of France with Henry VIII (ruled 15091547) of England and Charles, duke of Bourbon (14901527), a rebel against France. Such concerted invasions reflected the ambitious scope of strategic planning in the period although their lack of adequate coordination and failure testified to the limitations of operational execution.

In response, Francis invaded Italy again in October 1524, captured Milan, and besieged Pavia. The arrival of a Spanish relief army, however, led to the battle of Pavia (24 February 1525), in which the French were defeated and Francis captured. This was a battle decided by the combination of pikemen and harquebusiers, although it is not easy to use Pavia to make definitive statements about the effectiveness of particular arms. Even more than most battles, it was confused, thanks to the effects of heavy early morning fog; in addition, many of the advances were both small-unit and uncoordinated, and the surviving sources contain discrepancies. As in most battles of the period, it would be misleading to emphasize the possibilities for, and extent of, central direction. Nevertheless, Spanish success in defeating repeated attacks by the French cavalry was crucial. Francis had attacked in a way that enabled the Spaniards to use their army to maximum advantage.

The captured Francis signed the Treaty of Madrid (14 January 1526) on Charles's terms, enabling Charles to invest his ally Francesco Sforza (14951535) with the Duchy of Milan. Nevertheless, once released, Francis claimed that his agreement had been extorted, repudiated the terms, agreed with Pope Clement VII (ruled 15231534), Sforza, Venice, and Florence to establish the league of Cognac (22 May 1526), and resumed the war. This led to the sack of Rome by Charles's unpaid troops in 1527, but repeated French defeats, especially at Landriano (20 June 1529), led Francis to accept the Treaty of Cambrai (3 August 1529), abandoning his Italian pretensions. Francesco Sforza was restored to Milan, but with the right to garrison the citadel reserved to Charles. The high rate of battles in this period in part reflected the effectiveness of siege artillery.

War that resumed after the death of Sforza in November 1535 led to a disputed succession in Milan. Francis invaded Italy in 1536, conquering Savoy and Piedmont in order to clear the route into northern Italy. However, the inability of either side to secure particular advantage led to an armistice in 1537, which became a ten-year truce in 1538. As this was on the basis of uti possidetis ('retaining what was held'), Francis was left in control of Savoy, while in 1540 Charles invested his son (later Philip II of Spain) with the Duchy of Milan.

The rivalry between Francis and Charles continued and was stirred by Charles's suspicion of links between Francis and the Ottomans. Francis, in turn, was encouraged by the failure of Charles's expedition against Algiers in late 1541. Francis attacked northern Italy the following year, beginning a new bout of campaigning. The French defeated the Spaniards at Ceresole in Piedmont (11 April 1544). As at Pavia, any summary of the battle underplays its confused variety. As a result of both the hilly topography and the distinct formations, the battle involved a number of struggles. Each side revealed innovation in deployment in the form of interspersed harquebusiers and pikemen, the resulting square formations designed to be both self-sustaining and mutually supporting, although it is probable that, as yet, this system had not attained the checkerboard regularity seen later in the century. Bringing harquebusiers into the pike formations drove up the casualties when they clashed. The French cavalry played a key role in Francis's victory.

Combined arms tactics are far easier to outline in theory than to execute under the strain of battle. The contrasting fighting characteristics of the individual arms operated very differently in particular circumstances, and this posed added problems for coordination. So also did the limited extent to which many generals and officers understood these characteristics and problems. The warfare of the period was characterized by military adaptation rather than the revolution that is sometimes discerned.

However, after Ceresole, a lack of pay made Francis's Swiss mercenaries unwilling to fight for Milan. Indeed, the Spaniards retained their fortified positions in Lombardy. Instead, the decisive campaigning, although without a battle, took place north of the Alps. An invasion of eastern France by Charles V led Francis to accept the Peace of Crépy in September 1544. This success, and a truce with the Ottomans in October 1545, enabled Charles to turn on and defeat the German Protestants in 15461547. In this he was helped by French neutrality, a consequence of the secret terms of the Peace of Crépy.

However, Charles was unable to produce a lasting religious settlement and this led to a French-supported rising in Germany in 1552. Francis I's successor, Henry II (ruled 15471559), exploited the situation to overrun Lorraine, while campaigning began in Italy. A truce negotiated in 1556 was short-lived, and conflict resumed in both Italy and the Low Countries in 1557. Spanish victories in the latter part of 1557 and 1558 at St. Quentin (10 August 1557) and Gravelines (13 July 1558) led Henry to accept the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559, which left Spain and her allies dominant in Italy. The Habsburgs had won the Italian Wars.

As in earlier periods, the wars of the 1550s in Italy saw not only a clash between major powers, but also related struggles involving others. Thus, Spain fought Pope Paul IV (ruled 15551559), and also supported Florence in attacking the republic of Siena in 1554; after a ten-month siege, Siena surrendered, to be annexed by Florence. This was an example of the extent to which divisions within Italy had interacted with those between the major powers; in 1552, Siena had rebelled against Spanish control and, in cooperation with France, seized the citadel from the Spaniards. Florence under the Medicis was, from the late 1520s, an ally of the Habsburgs.

The significance of the wars cannot be captured by a brief rendition of the fighting. The wars were more important for their political and cultural significance. They underlined the centrality of conflict in European culture and society and also helped ensure that Europe would have a "multipolar" character, with no one power dominant. The Habsburgs won, but France was not crushed. Thus Europe was not to be like China under the Ming and, later, the Manchu, or India under the Moguls.

See also Charles V (Holy Roman Empire) ; Charles VIII (France) ; Francis I (France) ; Habsburg Dynasty ; Habsburg Territories ; Italian Wars (14941559) ; Louis XII (France) ; Naples, Kingdom of ; Valois Dynasty (France) .


Abulafia, David, ed. The French Descent into Renaissance Italy, 149495: Antecedents and Effects. Aldershot, U.K., and Brookfield, Vt., 1995.

Black, Jeremy. European Warfare, 14941660. New York, 2002.

Jeremy Black