The conference at Bologna pitted prestige and diplomacy against audacity and power. The handsome young King, magnificent in goldbraided cloak and zibeline furs, came with victory in his plumes and armies at his back, eager to swallow all Italy, merely keeping the Pope as a policeman; against which Leo had nothing but the glamour of his office and the subtlety of a Medici. If Leo thereafter played King against Emperor, and veered from side to side elusively, and simultaneously signed treaties with each against the other, we mnst not be too righteous about it; he had no other weapons to wield, and he had the heritage of the Church to protect. His opponents also used those weapons, in addition to brandishing regiments and artillery.
The secret agreements made at this meeting have remained secret to this day. Apparently Francis tried to bring Leo into an alliance with him against Spain; Leo asked for time to think it over—diplomacy’s way of saying no; it was contrary to the age-long policy of the Church to let the Papal States be hemmed in by one power on both north and south.11 The one definite result of the Concordat of 1516 was the repeal of the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges. This Sanction (1438) had asserted the superior authority of a general council over that of the popes, and had given the French king the right to appoint to all major ecclesiastical offices in France. Francis consented to annul the Sanction, provided the royal power of nomination remained; Leo agreed. It might seem a defeat for the Pope; but in so agreeing Leo was only accepting a custom centuries old in France; and without so planning it he was marrying Church and state in France in a way that left the French monarchy no fiscal reasons for supporting the Reformation. Meanwhile he ended the long conflict between France and the papacy over the relative power of councils and popes.
The conference concluded by the French leaders begging forgiveness of Leo for having warred against his predecessor. “Holy Father,” said Francis, “you must not be surprised that we were such enemies to Julius II, since he was always the greatest enemy to us; insomuch that in our times we have not met with a more formidable adversary. For he was in fact a most excellent commander, and would have made a much better general than a pope.”12 Leo gave all these doughty penitents absolution and benediction, and they ended by almost kissing his feet away.13
Francis returned to France under a halo of glory, and for a time contented himself with Venus and mercury. When Ferdinand II died (1516) the French King planned again the conquest of Naples, perhaps as a glorious means of checking the excess population of France. Nevertheless he signed a treaty of peace with Ferdinand’s grandson Charles I, the new King of Aragon, Castile, Naples, and Sicily. But when Maximilian died (1519), and his grandson Charles was put forward to succeed him as head of the Holy Roman Empire, Francis thought himself fitter to be Emperor than the nineteen-year-old King of Spain, and actively sought election. Leo was again in a dangerous position. He would have preferred to support Francis, for he foresaw that the union of Naples, Spain, Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands under one head would give that ruler such preponderance of territory, wealth, and men as would destroy the balance of power that had hitherto protected the Papal States. And yet the election of Charles over papal opposition would alienate the new emperor precisely when his aid was vitally needed to suppress the Protestant revolt. Leo hesitated too long to make his influence felt; Charles I was chosen emperor, and became Charles V. Still playing balance of power, the Pope offered Francis an alliance; when the King in turn hesitated, Leo abruptly signed an agreement with Charles (May 8, 1521). The young Emperor offered him almost everything: the return of Parma and Piacenza, aid against Ferrara and Luther, the reconquest of Milan for the Sforza family, and the protection of the Papal States and Florence from any attack.
In September, 1521, the duel was renewed. “My cousin Francis and I,” said the Emperor, “are in perfect accord; he wants Milan, and so do I.”14 The French forces in Italy were led by Odet de Foix, Vicomte de Lautrec; Francis had appointed him at the solicitation of Lautrec’s sister, who was for the moment the King’s mistress. Louise of Savoy, the King’s mother, resented the appointment, and secretly diverted to other uses the money provided for Lautrec’s army by Francis;15 and the Swiss in that army deserted for lack of pay. As a strong papal-imperial force—ably commanded by Prospero Colonna, the Marquis of Pescara, and the historian Guicciardini—approached Milan, the Ghibelline supporters of the Empire there raised a successful revolt of the overtaxed populace. Lautrec withdrew from the city into Venetian territory; the troops of Charles and Leo took Milan almost bloodlessly; Francesco Maria Sforza, another son of Lodovico, became Duke of Milan as an imperial vassal; and Leo could die (December 1, 1521) in the unction of victory.