Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Impossible Dream

François I had a dream, a single goal that motivated the foreign policy of his entire reign: the recovery of the duchy of Milan, a region of Italy he had inherited from his great-grandmother, Valentina Visconti, and which had been lost by his predecessor, Louis XII. In 1515, very first year of his reign, François launched an expedition into Italy and succeeded in securing Milan after a stunning victory at Marignano. It was an auspicious beginning which brought him much glory and established his reputation as roi-chevalier, or knightly king.

However, to retain control in Milan, the French needed the support and cooperation of the Pope, Leo X. François initially received Leo's support, but in 1520, the Hapsburg prince Charles V was elected Holy Roman Emperor and Leo signed a treaty of alliance with him instead. In August 1521 the Emperor (who controlled Spain and Flanders and was promised Naples by the Pope) attacked the north-east border of France. The first of an ongoing series of wars between François and Charles began.

After a significant loss to imperial forces at La Bicocca in April 1522, the French lost much of the area they had seized; only the castle of Milan and Cremona remained in French hands. Henry VIII soon entered the war on the imperial side. The rebellion of the duke Charles de Bourbon, Constable of France (a story worthy of its own post), complicated things immensely for François, for Bourbon entered into league with the Emperor and the English king. François's enemies plotted to attack on three fronts. When Bourbon was routed from Marseilles in 1524, François saw the opportunity to invade Italy, a plan he had deferred for years. He crossed the Alps at the head of his troops, determined to recreate his earlier success at Marignano.

Milan had been abandoned by the imperialist troops, so the French army followed them to the city of Pavia, a heavily fortified town whose garrison was commanded by one of the best generals of the day. For four months the French lay siege to the town but refused to be drawn into the open. Finally, during the night of 23 February 1525, the imperial forces staged a surprise attack on the French, who were camped in the walled park of Mirabello. François, forewarned, charged at the head of his cavalry but got in the way of his own guns. This blunder destroyed any chance of victory and the French troops, exposed to imperial arquebusiers and left shorthanded by the failure of their Swiss mercenaries to arrive, were quickly decimated. The French noblemen fought bravely, many in hand-to-hand combat on horseback, but were unable to hold back the imperial tide.

François himself was surrounded by imperial soldiers, each of whom wanted to claim the honor of capturing him. A steward of Bourbon, La Mothe, finally took him prisoner, but François refused to surrender until Charles de Lannoy, the Viceroy of Naples (who shared command of the imperial army with the duc de Bourbon), arrived. To him François gave up his sword, along with his dream of another glorious Italian victory. Adding to the blow was the loss of many of the king's closest childhood friends and comrades in the battle. Topping everything, François, along with Anne de Montmorency and a dozen or so other high-ranking noblemen, became prisoners of his arch-enemy, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. François's captivity at Charles's hands would last more than a year and permanently color relations between the two rulers ever after.

[Source: R. J. Knecht, Renaissance Warrior and Patron, chapters 8-11]

Tapestry of the Battle of Pavia


Ms. Lucy said...

Wonderful historical post! Thanks for this well written piece. Loved it!

Julianne Douglas said...

You're welcome! François's obsession with regaining a foothold in Italy is so important to understanding much of his foreign policy, as well as his efforts at vivifying the art scene in France. Inviting Italian artists to come work in France and decorate his palaces could be viewed as an attempt to recreate Italy and its Renaissance within the borders of his own realm.

Danja said...

I just came across your blog from Reading The Past. So far I managed to read only the first page (time constraints), and I can't wait to see what the archives hold. I love French history, French language, and French literature so I will definitely be adding you to my blogroll and visiting your site for updates. Thank you for keeping such a wonderful blog.

Ms. Lucy said...

Hi again! Come to my site...I just nominated you for an award!

Bearded Lady said...

Great post. R.J. Knecht is my favorite writer on Francis and I really enjoyed Renaissance Warrior and Patron. I particularly found his chapter on Francis as "a man of letters" interesting. I don't want to give it away in case anyone has not read the book but it really made me rethink propaganda vs. the reality of the french court. Francis was so enamored with everything Italian and his quest for Milan must have tortured him.

I am doing a post on Francis and Leonardo next month...

Julianne Douglas said...

Danja--I'm so glad you found WtheR and so glad you like it! I'll look forward to your comments.

Ms. Lucy--Thank you for the honor of the award! I'll post my own list of recipients soon.

Bearded Lady--Can't wait to read your post on Francis and Leonardo! Knecht is a wonderful writer and historian and one of the few who has written extensively about Francois is English. Be sure to check out his newest book, The French Renaissance Court .