At the end of the XV th century, France was the most powerful kingdom in Europe. England emerges from the War of the Roses, the Holy Germanic Empire is a very fragmented political entity, Spain is divided into several kingdoms and Italy constitutes a set of small states whose only unity is linguistic and cultural. In such a context, no state can compete alone with France, which prompted King Charles VIII, in 1494, to set out to conquer the kingdom of Naples, occupied by King Ferdinand of Aragon.

The origin of French claims on Naples dates back to the XIII th century, when the brother of St. Louis, Charles of Anjou, captured the Neapolitan kingdom; he was however driven out by a revolt in 1282. The House of Anjou considered, since that date, to have rights over the kingdom of Naples and it was incorporated into the royal domain of Louis XI in 1481, after the death of René d ‘ Anjou. Louis XI is not interested in Italy and it is Charles VIII who will take again for the crown of France, the question of the Angevin claims on Naples.

Charles VIII entered Naples with his army in May 1495 but the expedition was a real failure since he found himself facing an alliance between the Pope, the powerful city of Venice , the Germanic emperor Maximilian of Habsburg and Ferdinand of Aragon . His successor, Louis XII, wanted to get involved politically and militarily in northern Italy because he felt he had rights over the Duchy of Milan , through the succession of his mother. In 1498, Louis XII proclaimed himself Duke of Milan and his army set out to conquer the Milanese in 1500, then the Kingdom of Naples the following year (lost again in 1503).

Louis XII is trapped by the subtleties of Italian diplomacy and Pope Julius II first leads him into a war against the Republic of Venice. Then, in 1511, Julius II created the Holy League, an alliance between the papacy, the Swiss cantons, Venice, Ferdinand of Aragon, then the king of England Henry VIII and the Germanic emperor Maximilian (in 1512), to drive out the French from Italy. After the difficult victory at Ravenna in April 1512, Louis XII’s army was defeated in Novara in June 1513 and had to evacuate the Duchy of Milan. 

King Louis XII of France in armor, Italian campaign between January and May 1507;  illumination from the Voyage de Genoa by Jean Marot.  National Library of France, French manuscripts department 5091, folio 15 verso.  © Wikimedia Commons, public domain

The Italian dream

Francis st succeeded Louis XII in January 1515 and quickly manifested its intention to recover the duchy of Milan. The first step is diplomacy: recognizing and regulating the debts of France to the English king, Francis I st neutralizes Henry VIII. Things are much more delicate with the Germanic Emperor Maximilian who wishes to recover the Duchy of Burgundy for his grandson Charles (future Charles Quint) while the territory has been integrated into the French royal domain since 1482. In March 1515, a promise of marriage between Charles and Renée de France, daughter of Louis XII: the marriage does not take place and there is territorial compensation by the delivery of several towns in northern France to the house of the Habsburgs.

Military preparations began in May 1515; Francis er managed to seal a new alliance with the Republic of Venice and crosses the Alps at the head of the royal army in early August. However, negotiations with the Swiss, the Pope and the Kingdom of Naples continued and a draft treaty was even drawn up in early September. Following the failure of negotiations and the division of the Swiss troops, Francis er  directs the Army to Milan.

Equestrian armor of François Ier, made by an Austrian armorer around 1540 (the king therefore did not wear it in Marignan).  Exceptional copy kept at the Musée de l'Armée, Hôtel des Invalides, Paris.  © RMN-Grand Palais, Pascal Segrette

Francis st mobilized an army of 60,000 men, also composed of German mercenaries and Venetian allies. Opposite, the Swiss and the Milanese are supported by the papacy. The French camp is established in Marignan, about ten kilometers south-east of Milan. Marignan is one of the first battles where military artillery is used decisively. The combination of the three weapons – cavalry, infantry and artillery – is a real success against the opposing troops mainly composed of infantry units. Despite the difficulties of use (slowness, heaviness, positioning), the guns were devastating: the battle left nearly 16,000 dead.

Battle of Marignan by the Master of the Ratière, 16th century.  The Swiss soldiers are on the right, the coats of arms of the thirteen cantons in the background;  in the foreground in the center, we can see the King of France (fleur-de-lys set on a blue background) on his horse in the middle of the battle.  Condé Museum, Chantilly castle.  © Wikimedia Commons, public domain

The consequences of Marignan

The victory of Marignan, September 14, 1515, remains in the memories because of its territorial, political and cultural consequences. It is a great diplomatic success for the king and for France. Francis st quickly takes control of Lombardy he held until the defeat of Pavia in 1525. In August 1516, Francis and Charles signed the Treaty of Noyon confirming for François I er , possession of Milan. On October 13, he signed the Treaty of Viterbo with the Pope: Leo X recognized the authority of the King of France over the Duchy of Milan and offered him Parma and Piacenza, in exchange for his support against Venice.

The battle of Marignan by Alexandre Evariste Fragonard in 1836. Palace of Versailles, Galerie des Batailles.  © RMN-Grand Palais, Jean -Luc Manaï.
  • Francis first sign the “Perpetual Peace” of Freiburg, November 29, 1516, with all the Swiss cantons (there are three); this treaty remains in force until the invasion of the Helvetic Confederation by the French revolutionary army in 1792. It obliges the Swiss never to engage militarily in an alliance hostile to France. The king grants 700,000 gold crowns in compensation to the Swiss cantons.
  • Relations between the King of France and the Pope must be redefined: the Pope’s agreement is essential for the lasting acquisition of conquests. The Bologna Concordat signed on August 18, 1516, will govern relations between the kingdom of France and the papacy until the French Revolution . From now on, the king, temporal head of the Church of France, appoints the bishops and archbishops who are confirmed by the Pope.
  • Leonardo da Vinci came to settle in France in 1516; France has been courting the artist for twenty years because Charles VIII and Louis XII have already tried to debauch him. Francis st will invite the artist to come to France after Marignan: it gives him a comfortable pension of 2,000 livres, lends the Clos Lucé near Amboise. Leonardo arrives with the title of first painter and chief engineer of the kingdom, and the Mona Lisa in his luggage.
Portrait of Mona Lisa del Giocondo, the Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci (between 1503 and 1506? Uncertainty about the date of creation of the work).  Louvre Museum, Paris.  © Wikimedia Commons, public domain
  • the imperial election of 1519: two suitors, François Ier and Charles Quint will dispute the crown of the Holy Germanic Empire , with the death of Maximilien de Habsbourg. On the strength of his victory at Marignan which gave him international political prestige, the King of France embarked on the very costly adventure of being elected to the Empire. He has the very bad idea of ​​paying in advance the great voters who finally elect Charles V, who promised them by interposed bills of exchange, a very high remuneration if he emerges as the winner of the election.  
Treaty of Perpetual Peace of Friborg, signed in 1516 between the thirteen Swiss cantons and the King of France.  Copy in Latin kept in the National Archives of France.  © Wikimedia Commons, public domain

The consequences of Marignan are therefore very important: the Perpetual Peace of Friborg and the Concordat of Bologna of 1516, put France back at the center of the European political game.

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