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Italian Wars: The League of Cambrai

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Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard: Battle of Marignan

Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard: Battle of Marignan

Formation of the League of Cambrai

The Italian peninsula went through a decade marked by violence after 1494, and the political landscape of Italy effectively turned upside down. The independent duchy of Milan and the Kingdom of Naples ceased to exist, thanks to the ambitions of the French, Spanish and Venetians.

Pope Alexander VI manoeuvred his way cleverly during a decade of turmoil. His political alliances allowed him to assist his son Cesare in carving out an independent Borgia state in Romagna. However, before Cesare could finish the Borgia state's formation, Pope Alexander died in 1503. With the death of his father and protector, Cesare found himself in a difficult situation. Soon he was outmanoeuvred by the old enemy of his father, Giuliano della Rovera, who was elected Pope as Julius II. Julius deposed Cesare of his rank and titles and gave him to his Spanish enemies.

With his Borgia enemies out of the way, Julius wanted to expand the Papal State, but obstacles hampered his ambitions. As his first task, he wanted to re-establish Papal control over the cities in Romagna taken by the Borgias; however, others also sought new protectors in this troubled period, most notably Venice. When Julius demanded Venice to evacuate the cities which they took in the early 1500s, he was met by rejection from the Venetian Senate, who had no interest in giving up their gains.

The Pope was much displeased by the conduct of the Venetians; however, he was realistic enough to understand that he stood no chance against Venice on his own. If Julius was seriously about re-establishing Papal control over the towns of Romagna, he needed allies to assist him.

Luckily for Julius, Venice had more than enough jealous neighbours eager to join him, which led to the formation of the League of Cambrai. The league comprised France, the Habsburgs, Castille and Aragon, the Duchy of Ferrara and the Papal States. All participants were eyeing up Venetian territories: France wanted to annex the rest of the Duchy of Milan, which Venice occupied in 1499 and 1500, Emperor Maximilian wanted to annex territory in Veneto and Friuli, Ferdinand of Aragon wanted to snatch Venitian towns in Naples, and the two Italian members of the league were eager to take towns in Romagna.

Raphael: Portrait of Pope Julius II

Raphael: Portrait of Pope Julius II

The First Phase of the War

Seeing the might that was assembled against them, the Venetians tried to placate the Pope, but by this time, it was too little too late. Louis XII of France assembled an army of around 30,000 in early 1509 and ordered them to attack the Venetians in Lombardy.

The Venetians assembled their own army to meet the French; however, they made the mistake of splitting their command, which led to conflicts between the commanders Bartolomeo d’Alviano and Niccolo di Pitigliano. The main French army caught up with the Venetian’s rearguard at the Battle of Agnadello and destroyed the isolated contingent of d’Alviano. This, in turn, led to mass desertions in the contingent of Pitigliano, who—seeing how his army was rapidly melting away—retreated and defended Venice itself and a few key towns around Venice, such as Treviso.

The aftermath of the Battle of Agnadello saw Venice lose most of her possessions in northern Italy. The French rapidly overran the Venitian-held territories of the former Duchy of Milan, the Imperial troops of Maximilian also rapidly overran Veneto and Friuli, and the Papal troops retook the towns Pope Julius coveted. At the same time, the Spanish captured Venetian-held towns in the Kingdom of Naples.

With his objectives achieved, Pope Julius succeeded in curbing the power of Venice. However, he was rather worried about the expanding power of Louis XII of France and started to seek out allies for a new anti-French alliance.

The Second Phase of the War

Pope Julius contacted Venice to join him in an anti-French alliance, which the hard-pressed Venetians eagerly accepted. Julius also made contacts with the Swiss and hired some of their formidable infantry to attack the French in Lombardy from their north. The fighting between the new allies broke out in 1510, and northern Italy remained a battlefield of the opposing armies; however, no significant military decision was reached in 1510.

Julius intensified his diplomatic overtures the next year. He succeeded in enlisting Ferdinand of Aragon and Emperor Maximilian to his alliance, the two seeking territories from France in Navarre and Lombardy, respectively. Another player entered the stage also—King Henry VIII of England made an alliance with Ferdinand of Aragon and was planning an attack on northern France.

Louis XII named his nephew Gaston de Foix the commander of the French troops in Lombardy, and this energetic young man put the French back on the offensive. De Foix was a man of quick action for which he became known as the Thunderbolt of Italy. During his brief tenure as French commander, he checked the advance of the Spanish at Bologna, brutally sacked the rebelling Brescia and took his army south to attack Ravenna.

A Spanish-Papal relief force was sent to lift the siege, but the French defeated them at the Battle of Ravenna. Crucially the French lost their energetic commander during the battle, and with the loss of Gaston de Foix, the French once again relinquished the initiative to their enemies.

The French left some garrisons in Romagna, but the rest of the army retreated into Lombardy. Julius, in the meantime, hired a huge army of Swiss mercenaries who descended on Lombardy from the Alps. The Swiss attack was assisted by the Venetians also. As 1512 progressed, the strategic situation of the French steadily deteriorated, and their troops were forced to abandon Italy.

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The Swiss proclaimed Maximiliano Sforza as the new Duke of Milan; however, they remained in Lombardy in considerable numbers, which led to many calling the new duke a mere pawn in the hands of his mercenaries.

With the French evicted from Italy, the league members convened to partition up their spoils. Disputes soon arose, as the differing interests of the parties, most importantly Venice and Emperor Maximilian, were impossible to meet simultaneously.

Venice felt double-crossed and betrayed, which led them to join the French in a new alliance.

The Third Phase of the War

The French suffered massive reverses in 1512, but Louis was not giving up on his Italian ambitions just yet, and he assembled yet another army which invaded Italy in 1513.

The French attacked Swiss held Lombardy and were advancing rapidly towards Milan. The Swiss bided their time at first and decided to face the French for a decisive Battle at Novara. The French were besieging the Swiss garrison at Novara when a 12,000 Swiss relief army surprised them with a night march. The French army was caught off guard, and despite putting up tough resistance, the Swiss emerged victorious from the Battle of Novara and thwarted the French attempt at reestablishing their rule in Lombardy.

The defeat at Novara forced the French to retreat, and for the time being, Lombardy remained under the control of the Swiss.

The Venetians fared not much better either in 1513, as a combined Imperial-Spanish army badly defeated them at the Battle of La Motta, which allowed their enemies to freely rampage through Veneto and Friuli.

In the aftermath of Novara, the French remained on the defensive and suffered defeats in Navarre and Northern France, while an Imperial-Swiss army even besieged Dijon.

With his armies on the defensive, Louis XII turned to diplomacy to better his position, which he achieved by marrying the sister of Henry VIII and offering to support the new Medici Popes in Italy. Louis succeeded in breaking his diplomatic isolation, however, he did not live long to attempt a counterattack against his remaining enemies, as he died on January 1, 1515. He was succeeded by his young cousin Francis I, who lost no time to prepare for another surge into Lombardy.

Francis assembled an army of over 30,000 soldiers and moved against Italy in 1515. The Swiss blocked the main passes of the Alps, but Francis’s Italian condottiere advised him to enter Italy on alternative southern passages, which allowed Francis to enter Lombardy without meeting substantial resistance.

Outmanouvred, the Swiss regrouped around Milan and were awaiting the arrival of the French.

The French made camp near the small settlement of Marignano, not far from Milan. The Swiss decided to face the French on the field and attacked the French at Marignano. Despite being outnumbered, the Swiss took the fight to the French for two days, but the arrival of the Venetians on the second day demoralised the Swiss, who conceded defeat and retreated.


The victory of Marignano led to the withdrawal of the Swiss from Milan, and the French retook control over Lombardy. Francis also succeeded in placating the Swiss, and the Perpetual Peace between France and most of the Swiss Cantons led to a lasting alliance and cooperation of France with the Swiss.

Francis also succeeded in reaching an agreement with the Pope. After a failed invasion of Milan in 1516, even Emperor Maximilian came to the negotiating tables and accepted French claims in Milan and Venetian claims in Lombardy.

A temporary peace was finally re-established in Italy. That said, the ambitions of Francis and Charles I of Spain, who had just recently succeeded his grandfather Ferdinand on the thrones of Castille and Aragon, soon plunged the Peninsula into another decade of turmoil.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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