His victory at the Battle of Marignano allowed Francis I of France to re-establish French control over Lombardy. He followed up his military successes with diplomatic ones, and he secured his foothold in Lombardy by allying himself with the Papacy and securing peace with the majority of the Swiss Cantons. The military victories of Francis were not the only political developments of the middle 1510s either, as the mastermind behind the Spanish expansion in Italy, King Ferdinand the Catholic, died in 1516. Ferdinand was succeeded on the throne of Castille and Aragon by his grandson Charles Habsburg, who was already the ruler of the Habsburg Netherlands. The ascension of Charles led to the unification of his own domains to the numerous kingdoms of Ferdinand, which dangerously surrounded the Kingdom of France.
In 1518 the great rulers of Europe, Francis I, Charles, Henry VIII of England and Emperor Maximilian signed the Treaty of London, according to which the signatories will come to the aid of the one who was attacked, even if the aggressor was one of the other signatories.
Though relations were friendly on the surface, in reality, the rivalry between Charles, Francis and Henry was already beginning to appear. One question that dominated European politics was the succession of the old and already ailing Emperor Maximilian. Maximilian would have preferred to see his grandson Charles follow him on the Imperial throne, however, Francis was able to outbribe Maximilian, and Charles had to resort to bribes from Jakob Fugger to counter Francis. In the end, the Imperial Electors took the bribes from both sides and voted for Charles, who was thus elected as Emperor Charles V and inherited the lands of his grandfather Maximilian also.
War begins between Francis and Charles
Francis well aware of the consequences of the Treaty of London decided to wage war on Charles using proxies, and his strawman attacked both Luxembourg and Navarre. However, they were quickly beaten back, and the Emperor’s subordinates even ventured into French territory.
Early in his reign, Charles was facing numerous internal problems, and the revolt of the Communeros in Castille, the Brotherhoods in Valencia and the rapid spread of Luther’s teaching in Germany no doubt played their part in emboldening Francis in his attacks.
Luckily for Charles, the grandees of his Spanish kingdoms sided with him against the rebels, and in the end the revolts were suppressed by 1521, leaving Charles free to concentrate his forces against the invaders. Luther’s heresy also drove the Pope into the Imperial camp, and Francis was left with Venice and Ferrara as his sole allies in northern Italy.
In northern Italy, the French forces in Lombardy were outnumbered by the Imperials, which left French commander Lautrec little option but to retreat from Milan and garrison smaller towns until he received sufficient reinforcements to face the Imperial troops of Colonna. Francis enlisted several thousand Swiss mercenaries to aid Lautrec, and with the arrival of the formidable Swiss pikemen, Lautrec felt confident enough to take the offensive. Unfortunately, the French offensive was sabotaged by the overeagerness of the Swiss, who in their haste to fight and then loot their enemies’ camp, neutralised the artillery superiority of the French at the Battle of Bicocca. The unaided Swiss attack was massacred by the combination of Spanish arbequisiers and German Landsknecht pikemen. With their morale damaged, the Swiss returned home, leaving Lautrec once again outmatched against the Imperials.
The victorious Imperial army followed up their victory by taking Genoa in May, taking away from the French a valuable supply route. Worse than the defeat at Lombardy was the entrance of England into the war. The English using their base in Calais, raided and devastated northern France, but they failed to engage the French in a decisive battle.
The road to Pavia
Francis was in a dire situation both diplomatically and financially, and he sought to better his position by confiscating a part of the substantial wealth of the Duke of Bourbon. Unsurprisingly Bourbon was outraged by his treatment and started to conspire against Francis. Francis soon found out about the conspiracy and started to round up Bourbon’s fellow conspirators, seeing this Bourbon deserted France and enlisted in the service of the Emperor.
Meanwhile, the war continued throughout 1523, with the Spanish advancing into southern France and the English descending onto northern France from Calais once again. Francis remained in Northern France, but sent another army into Lombardy under the command of Guillaume de Bonnivet. Colonna only had around 9,000 men in his army when Bonnivet arrived, but luckily for him, the French were overcautious and remained on the defensive. The defensive nature of the French command allowed Charles to send reinforcements into Lombardy and around 15,000 Landsknecht and further reinforcements led by Bourbon arrived in late 1523.
The Imperial command fell to Charles de Lannoy when Colonna died, and Lannoy took the offensive in early 1524, as with the reinforcements he had the numbers to attack now. The combined Imperial-Spanish troops defeated a French rearguard at the Battle of Sesia in the spring of 1524. The French had no option but to retreat from Italy, while the victorious troops of Lannoy and Bourbon advanced into Provence and overran most of the countryside and towns. They were bogged down besieging Marseille when they received news that a large army of well over 30k, perhaps even 40k soldiers, under the personal command of King Francis was marching south.
The Battle of Pavia
With the French advancing towards them, the Imperialists lifted the siege of Marseille, and retread back towards Lombard. However, after months of campaigning they were in shape to face the mighty army of Francis in a pitched battle.
As Milan was struck by plague, Lannoy decided to abandon the city to the French and only left a garrison in the fortified town of Pavia. The French captured Milan in October 1524. The French had two options before them, they could either chase after Lannoy and try to destroy the Imperialists, or they could take Pavia and destroy the threat from the garrison of the town. In the end, Francis decided to besiege Pavia, but the quick success he hoped for eluded him, and the French decided to settle for starving out the defenders.
Francis seemed like he was winning and succeeded in securing Genoa as an ally also when the pro-French faction with the backing of French troops emerged victorious in the internal struggle inside the city.
In early 1525 the French were still trying to starve out the defenders of Pavia when Lannoy received reinforcements from Germany and now had sufficient numbers to face the French, who lost several thousand men as the siege dragged on.
As the French could not be dislodged from their siege, the Imperials decided to march against them and relieve Pavia. The French invested the city from all sides, but the king and the biggest contingent of the army were camped north of the city inside the walled park of Mirabello.
The Imperials managed to send in some light cavalry inside Pavia, who brought much-needed supplies and the instructions for the upcoming battle. The Imperial sappers quietly made a breach in the walls that surrounded the park, which allowed them to pour into the park and overran the castle that they wrongly believed was the headquarter of the French king. Nonetheless, the Imperials were lucky that the French decided to face them, and in the ensuing battle, the French were utterly defeated, with many of their great nobles killed or captured, and even King Francis was taken prisoner. Thanks to the great losses they suffered the French high command was temporarily paralysed.
The captive Francis was shipped off to Madrid, where he was held hostage until he agreed to sign a peace treaty that was highly favourable to Emperor Charles. However, once he was back at home, Francis had no intention of honouring the treaty and decided to continue the fight by looking for new allies against his great rival Charles.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2022 Andrew Szekler