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The Italian Wars and the Habsburg-Valois Struggle 1494–1559

The series of wars between 1494 and 1559 are among the most complex in modern European history, due mainly to the number of participants, the willingness of many of the smaller states to change sides after a round of intricate diplomacy and the widespread use of mercenary troops. The wars can be divided into two broad phases. Between 1494 and 1516 they were confined largely to Italy and were concerned with the acquisition of territory. Between 1522 and 1559 they spread into other parts of Europe and the Mediterranean and became a life and death struggle between the Valois Kings of France and the Habsburg ruler of Austria and Spain. The expanding scope of the wars was due to the fruition of Maximilian I's marriage alliances which, by conferring enormous areas of territory on Charles V, intensified French fears of encirclement.

Every century has seen a part of Europe which is wealthy enough to be a great temptation to its neighbours because of its internal political disunity and weakness. Poland was exploited in the eighteenth century, Germany in the seventeenth and Italy at the beginning of the sixteenth. A contemporary Italian historian described Italy's attractions in 1490: ‘not only did Italy abound in inhabitants, merchandise and riches, but she was also highly renowned for the magnificence of many princes, for the splendour of so many most noble and beautiful cities, as the seat of majesty and religion’.1 On the other hand, the lack of effective centralized leadership caused Italy to be the scene of warfare and destruction. Machiavelli con sidered that she was ‘more enslaved than the Hebrews, more widely scattered than the Athenians; leaderless, lawless, crushed, despoiled, torn, overrun’.2

What were the attractions of Italy for other European states? The main consideration was undoubtedly Italy's strategic and geographical importance as the cockpit of Europe. Later, when the balance of power shifted northwards, the Netherlands, Germany and Poland would come to occupy this unfortunate position. But, at the end of the fifteenth century and during the first few decades of the sixteenth, Italy seemed the most attractive area for the future expansion of the major powers. French expansion was directed south–east into Savoy and Milan, and then into central and southern Italy. The Emperor Maximilian I, in his capacity as guardian of the Empire, claimed the northern territories of Italy which, with the exception of Venice, were still legally within the frontiers of the Holy Roman Empire. As head of the Austrian Habsburgs, Maximilian intended to acquire territory along a southern and south–western axis, thus coming into direct conflict with French claims in northern Italy; France and the Empire were on opposite sides for most of the Italian Wars, with the notable exception of the League of Cambrai (1508). Ferdinand of Aragon acquired a major interest in southern Italy. In 1494 he already possessed Sicily and Sardinia and proposed to expand Aragon's territorial control into Naples and central Italy in order to make Aragon a major Mediterranean power and to complement the growing maritime and colonial activity of Castile. The result was a clash between Aragon and France, with a more or less permanent alliance between Aragon and the Emperor. Turkish interest in Italy was, at first, cursory and was confined to coastal raids and reconnaissance. There can be little doubt, however, that the Sultans aimed at including parts of Italy in a vast Eastern Mediterranean Empire. Turkish involvement in Italy eventually became a serious factor after the Franco-Turkish Alliance of 1536.

This rivalry of major powers was drawn into Italy by the political anarchy which existed there. Italian states, in their constant wars and intrigues with each other, frequently brought in foreign assistance. For example, in 1494 Ludovico Sforza of Milan, fearing a secret alliance against him between Florence and Naples, invited Charles VIII of France to enforce a rather dubious French dynastic claim to Naples. In 1508 Pope Julius II started a war against Venice in the hope of capturing mainland Venetian territory for the papacy. He formed the League of Cambrai which was joined for a while by Aragon, the Empire and France. 1515 saw a struggle by Venice, supported by France and England, against Milan, Florence and the papacy, supported by Aragon and the Empire. There were other examples of major powers exploiting, and even creating, civil war in Italy and of a cynical attitude to diplomacy used by both Italian and foreign leaders. Despite all this, it should be emphasized that Machiavelli's exhortation for a united Italy was ahead of its time and that the renaissance princes of Italy regarded themselves and their states as autonomous political and diplomatic entities.

Another attraction for the major powers was the cultural reputation and wealth of Italy. Florence was seen as the cultural centre of Europe before the turn of the century, while Venice possessed a revenue which was almost equivalent to that of Spain. Foreign armies had a greater prospect of immediate reward and plunder, as the badly disciplined troops of Charles V later discovered in 1527 when they sacked Rome. Even as late as 1796 the myth of enormous Italian wealth survived, and Bonaparte told his troops on the eve of his first Italian campaign: ‘I am about to lead you into the most fruitful plains in the world. Rich provinces, great cities will be in your power.’

The first phase of the Italian wars lasted from 1494 until 1516, the outcome being indecisive. By the Treaty of Noyon, concluded in 1516, France was in control of Milan, while Aragon had gained a permanent hold on Naples. The aspirations of the French, however, were unsatisfied and the individual Italian states remained open to influence and pressure from the major powers in the future, whether from France or from the Habsburgs.

The Habsburg-Valois struggles between 1522 and 1559 were a continuation of the Italian Wars with two new elements: the reduction of the number of combatants from three major powers to two (plus, at various stages, the Italian states and the Turks) and the spread of the conflict into other parts of Europe. The character of the struggle became more intense and bitter. The main reasons for this were Charles V's desire to protect his extensive dominions and Francis I's fear of being overwhelmed by the powerful Habsburg combination of Austria and Spain. By 1519 Charles was Holy Roman Emperor; King of Spain and her Italian possessions; Archduke of Austria; and Duke of Burgundy. His military commitments in defence of such a far–flung empire were greater than those of any ruler since Charlemagne.

Italy continued to be a major area of warfare. As Holy Roman Emperor from 1519 and King of Spain from 1516, Charles inherited the claims in Italy of both the Emperor Maximilian I and Ferdinand of Aragon. Aragon and the Emperor had usually fought on the same side during the previous phases of the Italian Wars; for example, as members of the League of Venice of 1495, their common enemy was France. Yet they usually fought independently of each other, the Emperor being interested mainly in northern Italy, while Aragon concentrated on Naples. They had often acted separately in diplomacy; for example, Aragon switched from the League of Cambrai to the Holy League before the Emperor; and Charles I negotiated the Treaty of Noyon with France in 1516 independently of the Empire. When, however, Charles I acquired the imperial crown in 1519 and became the Emperor Charles V as well as King of Spain, imperial and Spanish interests were united and the number of major participants in the wars in Italy was reduced from three to two: the Habsburg–Imperial bloc and France. The conflict in Italy initially went against France. Francis I was defeated at the Battle of Pavia (1525) and humiliated by the Treaty of Madrid (1526). His repudiation of the Treaty in the same year was followed by his participation in the League of Cognac against Charles, but the Treaty of Cambrai (1529) represented the lowest ebb of French influence and the apparent victory of the Habsburgs in Italy: Charles was crowned King of Italy by the Pope in 1530. The period of conflict between 1536 and 1538 was indecisive, for France had by now recovered from her early defeats, and had formed an alliance with the Turks in 1536. This period was ended by a compromise in the Truce of Nice in 1538. In the final phase, between 1552 and 1559, Italy was part of a general European conflict, the climax of the Habsburg-Valois struggle, which resulted in the abdication of Charles V in 1556 and the Treaty of Cateau Cambresis in 1559.

As Duke of Burgundy, Charles V continued the traditional fifteenth–century rivalry between Burgundy and France. In 1477 Charles of Burgundy had been killed at the Battle of Nancy, and Maximilian (later Emperor Maximilian I) married Mary of Burgundy in the same year to protect what was left of Burgundy —the Netherlands, Luxemburg and Franche Comté. When these came under the rule of Charles V they were yet another area for him to defend and they came to be regarded by France as increasingly vital. Francis I was obsessed with the Habsburg peril; for France was almost surrounded on the land side by Habsburg territories. Of these, however, the Burgundian lands were probably the weakest and they offered France future access into the Holy Roman Empire if she could conquer them. Hence Burgundy featured prominently in the Habsburg-Valois struggles. By the Treaty of Madrid (1526) France surrendered those parts of Flanders which she had previously conquered, and in 1529 she gave up all further claims to that area by the Treaty of Cambrai. Between 1542 and 1544 Henry II launched a French invasion of Luxemburg which, however, he restored to Habsburg rule by the Treaty of Crépy (1544), following a brief but threatening invasion of France by Charles V's armies. Eventually the Treaty of Cateau Cambresis confirmed Habsburg rule over the Burgundian areas which Charles V had taken over in 1519. The real gains made by France in this direction were to be in the seventeenth century, under Mazarin and Louis XIV.

As Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V inherited the problem of defending the western frontier of the Empire, as well as the Burgundian territories, against French encroachments. The most vulnerable area was Lorraine, which extended from Luxemburg to Franche Comté. Francis I regarded this as another weak spot in the Habsburg defences and he intended to establish a French bridgehead for future operations deep into the Empire. Lorraine became particularly important after the accession of Henry II, who invaded the region in 1552, ostensibly to assist the Lutheran states in their struggle for survival against Charles V. The more tangible gains made by France during this campaign were the bishoprics of Metz, Toul and Verdun, French possession of which was confirmed in 1559.

The Habsburg forces of Austria and Spain, together with imperial resources, therefore came into increasing conflict with France across an ever widening front in the south and west. There was also a major threat in the east, this time from the Turks. In 1519 Charles succeeded Maximilian as Archduke of Austria, although he handed this title over to his brother Ferdinand in 1521. In 1526 Ferdinand added Bohemia and part of Hungary to the Habsburg dominions, territories which he acquired through his wife Anne, sister of King Lewis of Hungary and Bohemia. Lewis had attempted to stem the advance of the Turks under Suleiman the Magnificent and had been killed at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526. Hungary ceased to exist as an independent state, most of it being absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, the rest going to Austria. Austria was therefore deprived of a vital buffer state between Central Europe and the Turks; and the city of Vienna was now vulnerable to Turkish attack. This conflict was brought within the scope of the Habsburg-Valois struggles by the diplomacy of Francis I. In his efforts to find a way out of his humiliations at Madrid in 1526 and Cambrai in 1529, Francis sought to use the Turkish peril as a means of weakening the Habsburgs by constant attacks from the rear. He therefore urged Suleiman to take Vienna in 1529 and, although the siege failed, Francis formed an open alliance with the Turks in 1536. Francis also succeeded in extending the theatre of war to the Mediterranean. The Sultan agreed to attack Naples; the Turkish admiral, Barbarossa, raided the Italian coastline; and an attempt by Charles V to capture Algiers in 1541 failed. By 1543 the French and Turks virtually controlled the Mediterranean and were sufficiently confident to launch an attack on Nice. The Franco-Turkish Alliance was undoubtedly the main reason for the rapid French recovery after the humiliations of the 1520s and for the increasing success of the anti-Habsburg bloc.

The Treaty of Cateau Cambresis (1559) was an acknowledgement of the stalemate reached in the Habsburg-Valois struggles and the terms reflect the relative advantages gained by the combatants at the time. France was to retain Metz, Toul and Verdun but to restore Luxemburg, Savoy and Piedmont; Spain's possessions in Italy were confirmed; Philip II and Henry II agreed to suppress heresy in their dominions; and Philip II was betrothed to Elizabeth, Henry II's daughter.

Who gained most from this Treaty? During the 1520s it had appeared that France was in the process of being crushed by a greatly superior power. Yet, by 1559, a treaty had been drawn up between powers acknowledged to be equal in status. The Habsburgs had, therefore, suffered losses since the 1520s. France had begun to make inroads into the Holy Roman Empire, much of Hungary had fallen to the Turks, the Empire had divided itself along religious lines, Charles V had been forced to abdicate and the Habsburg dominions had been divided between Philip II and Ferdinand I. Heavy demands had been made on the wealth and resources of Spain and a dependence on treasure shipments from the New World would shortly amount to addiction, followed by bankruptcy for Spain and economic collapse. Charles V's concept of universal empire was shattered, although Philip II, to his cost, attempted to revive it. France, on the other hand, had gained enormously in power and prestige. Yet she was unable to hammer home the advantages she had earned. The decision to uproot heresy in France precipitated a period of civil war in France which removed any further French threat from the Habsburg territories for the rest of the sixteenth century.

The Treaty could not provide a permanent settlement between France and the Habsburgs. It did not dispel France's fear of the Habsburg combination; Richelieu later revived the anti-Habsburg emphasis of French foreign policy, and made use of French gains at Cateau Cambrésis as a means of extending France's frontiers further towards the Rhine. Once Richelieu had destroyed the spectre of Austro-Spanish power by successfully involving France in the Thirty Years’ War, it was left to Mazarin and Louis XIV to complete the destruction of Spanish territory in the Rhine area in a series of wars between France and Spain in the second half of the seventeenth century. The settlement in Italy lasted rather longer; but even so, the Spanish possessions confirmed at Cateau Cambrésis eventually passed to Austria by the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) and then to France after Bonaparte's invasion of Italy in 1796.

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