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The Italian Wars: The French Invasion

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The army of Charles VIII entering Florence

The army of Charles VIII entering Florence

Political Background

During the 15th century, Italy was one of the richest parts of Europe; however, the economic strength of the peninsula was not matched by its political strength. Unlike England, France or the newly unified Castille and Aragon, the Italian peninsula was highly fragmented, and smaller states lived in an uneasy existence with each other.

The most powerful states of Italy during the late 15th century were the Republic of Venice, the Duchy of Milan, the Republic of Florence, the Republic of Genoa, the Papal States and the Kingdom of Naples. Quarrels were frequent among these states, and these finally gave Charles VIII of France the perfect excuse to invade Italy in 1494.

Pope Innocent VIII excommunicated Ferrante of Aragon and invited the French king to invade Naples in 1489. Innocent eventually patched up his differences with Ferrante, but the damage was done already. Charles received further encouragement from Milan, where internal struggles in the ruling Sforza family undermined the duchy and even from the Papal States, where the clique of Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere wanted to use the French to rid the Holy See of Pope Alexander VI, better known as Rodrigo Borgia.

Charles also had a dynastic claim to the throne of Naples as a descendant of the former Angevin house who used to rule the kingdom. The Angevins were defeated and deposed by the king of Aragon in the 1440s; however, as Charles gained his throne through force, the Angevin claimants no doubt believed they could reclaim what they had lost in the same way.

Furthermore, the Aragonese grip on power in Naples was not rock solid either, as Alfonso the Magnanimous, who conquered Naples, decided to divide his realms and left Aragon, Sicily and Sardinia to his brother John. At the same time, Naples was inherited by his bastard son Ferrante. Thus, the Aragonese kings of Naples lacked the resources Alfonso the Magnanimous had when he conquered the kingdom.


For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Habsburg Spain dominated Italy for nearly two centuries.
    • True
    • False

Answer Key

  1. True

The French Invasion and the First Italian War

Charles finally decided to invade Italy in 1494, and he assembled a strong army of 25,000 men for his expedition. The French army had 8,000 elite Swiss pikemen, a large contingent of French heavy cavalry and even a mobile artillery train.

The Italian states frequently waged war on one another; however, their style of warfare was quite defensive, with a heavy emphasis on manoeuvre and forcing the other side into a situation where they are forced to retreat or surrender. Charles had no interest in this style of war, he was ruthless and brutal, and the episodes of French brutalities were meant as a lesson for anyone who wanted to oppose them.

When Charles entered Italy, he was assisted by the Milanese and the Genoese (who were ruled by Milanese governors), and their initial progress met with little resistance. King Ferrante died earlier in 1494, and he was followed on the throne by his son Alfonso. Alfonso dispatched troops into northern Italy, however, Charle’s cousin, Louis of Orleans, defeated the Neapolitans at the Battle of Rapallo, and thus repelled the Neopolitan effort to take Genoa from France and her allies.

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With Genoa under their control, the French shipped their cannons on the sea and their army was reunited once they entered the Republic of Florence. Pierro de Medici was horrified by the atrocities committed by the French and tried to reach an agreement with Charles. Unfortunately, once he returned from the negotiations, the population of Florence, heavily influenced by Girolame Savoranola, expelled the Medicis and set up a Republican government.

Charles entered Florence in November 1494 and quickly reached an agreement with the oligarchic elite of the Republic, according to which he was given free usage of key towns and ports for the duration of his campaign. Plus, Florence paid a substantial subsidy for the French, which helped Charles maintain his armies on the field.

Once he was done in Florence, Charles continued his march south and soon reached Rome. The enemies of Rodrigo Borgia wanted to get rid of the Pope, however, the wily Borgia succeeded in outmanoeuvring them and survived the French invasion and maintained his position.

French Conquest of Naples

Naples, on the other hand, was in turmoil. Once it became obvious that the French progress will not be stopped in Northern Italy, King Alfonso panicked. He abdicated in favour of his son Ferdinando and left for Sicily with the royal treasury. Ferdinando was eager to resist, but when his condottiere abandoned him and joined Charles, he realised that discretion was the better part of valour and fled from Naples. Charles entered Naples in February 1495 and was crowned King of Naples not much later.

The rapid French progress and conquest of Naples shocked the neighbours of Charles. Before he began his invasion, Charles gave concessions to most of his neighbours. Still, historians believe that these were accepted only because the rulers of England, Spain or the Holy Roman Empire expected Charles to fail in Italy. Thus they received something in exchange for nothing. If this truly was their line of thinking, then they were in for a shock when they heard the news of the spectacular French successes.

The Birth of an Anti-French League

The rapid expansion of French influence led to the creation of the League of Venice. The League was made up of Milan, Venice, the Papal States, Florence, Spain and the Habsburgs. Ludovico Sforza switched sides mid conflict as he started to feel his position in Milan threatened by the French, as he now believed that Charles or Louis of Orleans were eyeing up Milan for themselves.

Charles received news of this alliance while he was in Naples, and fearing that he might become cut off from mainland France, he decided to take half his army and return to France, while the other half were to remain in Naples and garrison the conquests of the King.

He left Naples in May 1495 and marched through Italy quite quickly. He found his way blocked by the army of the League near the village of Fornovo. Despite their numerical disadvantage, the French defeated the army of the League and continued their march toward France. The return to France also foiled Louis of Orleans's plans, who wanted to seize Milan for himself, but he had no other choice but to follow his lead with his King sounding the alarm of retreat.

The war in Naples continued for over a year before the isolated French garrisons were defeated or forced into surrender, which allowed King Ferdinando to reclaim his throne. He did not live long to enjoy his successes and died in 1496, to be followed on the throne of Naples by his uncle Frederick.

Portrait of King Charles VIII of France

Portrait of King Charles VIII of France


By the end of 1496, Charles VIII had lost all his gains in Italy, but he was not giving up just yet and was gathering another army. Unfortunately for him, before he could return, he died in an accident in 1498. He was followed on the throne of France by his cousin Louis of Orleans, who also was eager to continue his predecessor’s campaign’s in Italy.

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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