Italian Wars

1494 to 1559
France and Italian allies — versus — Spain, Holy Roman Empire and Italian allies

First and Second Italian Wars, 1494-1504 ,
Wars of the League of Cambrai and the Holy League, 1217 ,
Four Year War, League of Cognac, and the War of 1542, 1521-46
Hapsburg-Valois War, 1551-1559 ,

The Italian Wars is a term used to describe a series of Wars between sovereign states of Italy during the early 16th century which involved many states of Europe and evolved into a continent-wide struggle for power between France and Spain. The series of wars, changing alliances, and reversals which occurred during this period is exceedingly complicated, but the final outcome was the rise in influence of the Hapsburg empire at the expense of France and also a greatly impoverished Italy. By the end of the Italian Wars the proud, independent republics of Italy were significantly weakened and much of Italy was in the hand of the Hapsburgs.

The period during which these wars were fought was one of cataclysmic developments in Europe. The rise of Spain as a unified nation, the discovery of the New World, the discovery of a trading route to the East by way of Africa, the Protestant Reformation, and the aggressive expansion of the Ottoman Empire into eastern Europe, were some of the critical events of the time, and were at least as important in determining alliances and strategies, as were the petty politics of the Italian states.

The major states of Italy at the opening of the wars were the Republics of Venice, Genoa, and Florence, and the Duchy of Milan in Northern Italy; the Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily in Southern Italy, and the Papal States in Central Italy. The northern republics were extremely wealthy due to their control of the Mediterranean trade, and were exceedingly jealous of each other.

At the beginning of the wars, the Duchy of Milan was under the influence of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Kingdom of Naples was held by Ferdinand II, an ally of Spain. But the French had influence in Milan, and backed a rival claimant to the throne of Naples. Meanwhile, the politics of the powerful Italian republics was almost entirely opportunistic, and devoid of permanent alliances or principles. The famous author Machiavelli lived during this period, and his famous book, The Prince reflects the exploitative and unscrupulous political realities of his age.

First and Second Italian Wars : 1494-1504

The First Italian War began when the Duke of Milan invited the French to pass through his territory and invade the Kingdom of Naples. This resulted in the formation of a League created to oppose the French consisting of Venice, Spain, the Papal States, and the Holy Roman Empire. The French, under Charles VIII of France, were initially successful, but the tide turned against them, particularly as a great Spanish hero, Gonsalvo de Cordova arose to the defense of the Kingdom of Naples, and drove France from the scene. The Battle of Fornovo, during which Charles VIII was driven from Naples was the end of the first campaign but only the beginning of the Italian Wars.

The Second Italian War began later, when the successor when Louis XII of France, the successor of Charles VIII made an agreement with Ferdinand I of Spain to conquer Naples and divide the kingdom. This time, with Spain on the offense rather than the defense, the campaign against Naples was successful but the two rulers could not agree on a division, and so fell to infighting. Spain's army, still under the masterful leadership of Cordova, gained the upper hand in Naples, but France was left with control of Milan.

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Seminara (Four Years War ) French victory
Fought June 28, 1495 between 6,000 Spaniards and Neapolitans, under Gonsalvo de Cordova and Ferdinand of Naples, and a largely superior French army, under D'Aubigny. The Neapolitans fled almost without striking a blow, and though the Spaniards fought well, they were overpowered by numbers, and in the end totally routed, only Gonsalvo with 400 Spanish cavalry making an orderly retreat.
Battle of Fornovo (First Italian ) French victory
Fought July 6, 1495, between 34,000 Venetians and Mantuans under Francisco de Gonzaga of Mantua, and 8,000 French and Swiss under Charles VIII. The French were attacked as they were retiring, but succeeded in repulsing the Italians at a cost of only Too of all ranks, while the assailants lost 3,500 killed and wounded.
Siege of Ostia (Second Italian ) Spanish victory
This place, held by a French garrison, under Menaldo Guerri, was besieged in 1500 by the Spaniards, under Gonsalvo de Cordova. After five days' bombardment, an attack was made upon the town on the opposite side by a small party of Spaniards resident in Rome, under Garcilasso de la Vega. Thus between two fires, Guerri surrendered.
Siege of Tarento (Second Italian ) Spanish victory
This fortress, held by a Neapolitan garrison, under the Conde di Potenza, was besieged by about 5,000 Spaniards, under Gonsalvo de Cordova, in August, 1501. Gonsalvo endeavoured to reduce the place by blockade, but found his forces melting away by desertion, and was forced to have recourse to more active measures. The north front of Tarento being bounded by a lake, was unfortified, and Gonsalvo, with incredible labour, transported overland some of the smaller vessels of the Spanish fleet lying in the Bay of Tarento, and launched them on the lake. The town was then at his mercy, and surrendered, being entered by the Spaniards, March 1, 1502.
Battle of Cerignola (War of 1542 ) Spanish victory
Fought April 21, 1503 between the Spaniards under Gonsalvo de Cordova, and the French under the Duc de Nemours. The French were totally defeated and Nemours slain.
Battle of Garigliano (Second Italian ) French victory
Fought November 8, 1503, between the Spaniards, 12,000 strong, under Gonsalvo de Cordova, and the French, in greatly superior force, under Francisco de Gonzaga of Mantua. Gonzaga, wishing to pass the Garigliano, had thrown a bridge over it, and proceeded to cross in face of the Spanish army. After very severe fighting, the French drove back the Spaniards, and made good the passage of the river.
Battle of Garigliano (Second Italian ) Spanish victory
Fought December 29, 1503, between the Spaniards, about 15,000 strong, under Gonsalvo de Cordova, and the French, slightly superior in number, under the Marquis of Saluzzo. Gonsalvo crossed the Garigliano at two points, and fell upon the French, who were retiring on Gasta. After hard fighting, in which the Chevalier Bayard bore a notable part, the French were utterly routed, leaving 4,000 dead on the field, and all their artillery and baggage. The Spanish loss is unknown.

Short Biography
Ferdinand of Aragon King of Aragon who ruled united Spain with Queen Isabel. Drove the Moors out of Granada.
Gonsalvo de Cordova Spanish general who fought in Granada and Italy; pioneered modern tactics of warfare.
Charles VIII of France Valois king who instigated the Italian Wars by marching on Naples.
Francisco de Gonzaga Leader of the Papal armies during the early Italian Wars.

Wars of the League of Cambrai and the Holy League : 1508-1516

The War of the League of Cambrai occurred in the years immediately preceding the Protestant Reformation in Germany, and considering the highly-politicized activities of Popes Alexander VI and Julius I during this time, it is no mystery why many sincere Christians were thoroughly disgruntled with the papacy.

During the years following the second Italian War, the Papal States engaged in a great deal of military aggression and intrigue, primarily against Venice. In order to further his own ends, Pope Julius invited the Emperor Maximilian I to attack Venice. When this failed, he turned to France which then controlled much territory in Northern Italy. The "League of Cambrai" was formed to oppose Venice, and at the Battle of Agnadello, the Venetians suffered a severe defeat at the hands of France. The Venetians, though pressed by France, managed to fend off Maximilian I at the siege of Padua, and made peace with Rome by surrendering some contested territory.

Having made peace with Venice, Pope Julius was now more worried about the French presence growing two powerful, so he now allied himself with Venice and Switzerland against France. After an early loss at Ravenna, he formed a new "Holy League", consisting of the Papal States, Venice, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire (mainly the Swiss), and Britain all opposed to France. For a time the war went well for the allies, and several important battles were fought between the English and French outside of Italy, but a lasting peace remained elusive.

When Francis I came to the throne in 1515 he resolved to immediately reclaim France's lost territory in Italy, and made an alliance with Venice against the other members of the Holy League. With Venice now opposed the the Papal States and the Swiss instead of in league with them, the French won a decisive victory at Marignano, reclaimed Milan and negotiated a peace which would last all of four years.

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Agnadello (League of Cambrai ) French victory
Fought May 14, 1509, between 30,000 French under Louis XII and Marshal Trioulzio, and 35,000 Venetians under General Alviani. The Venetians were defeated with a loss of 6,000 men and 20 guns, Alviani being taken, and in consequence of his victory, Louis XII occupied all the territory assigned to him by the League, up to the Mincio.
Siege of Padua (League of Cambrai ) Venice victory
The Venetian city of Padua was besieged by 35,000 Imperial troops under Maximillian I. After two weeks of furious bombardment, the attacking troops were driven away.
Battle of Ravenna (League of Cambrai ) French victory
Fought 1512, between the troops of the Holy League, and the French, under Gaston de Foix. The French gained a signal victory, but Gaston de Foix fell in the moment of his triumph, pierced with sixteen wounds.
Battle of Brest (League of Cambrai ) English victory
Fought August 10, 1512, between the English fleet of 45 sail under Lord Edward Howard, and the French fleet of 39 sail under Jean de Thenouenel. The French ships were driven into Brest, or along the coast, with heavy loss. The English lost 2 ships and 1,600 men.
Battle of Novara (League of Cambrai ) Swiss victory
Fought June 6, 1513, between 10,000 French, under La Tremouille, and 13,000 Swiss. The French camp was surprised by the Swiss, who, after hard fighting, totally routed the French with a loss of 6,000 men. The Swiss losses were also heavy.
Battle of Guinegate (League of Cambrai ) English victory
Fought August 16, 1513, when a body of French cavalry, who aimed at relieving Terouenne, which was besieged by the English, under Henry VIII, and the Imperialists, under Maximilian I, were put to flight by the allies without striking a blow. The French fled so precipitately that the action was dubbed the Battle of the Spurs.
Battle of Marignano (League of Cognac ) French victory
Fought September 13 and 14, 1515, between 50,000 French, under Francis I, and about 40,000 Swiss mercenaries. The Swiss attacked the French camp, and forcing the lines, fought till midnight without decisive result. On the morning of the 14th the battle was renewed, and the Swiss were on the point of success, when the arrival of a small force of Venetians obliged them to withdraw. The French lost 6,000 men, and the Swiss losses were very heavy, including 1,200 who perished in the flames of a village they were defending after the repulse of the attack. Marshal Trivulzio, who commanded a wing of the French army, called the action the "Battle of Giants."

Short Biography
Pope Julius II Renaissance character known as "Warrior Pope" for his defense of the Papal states. Commissioned Michelangelo and Raphael.
Louis XII of France Valois king who fought several campaigns in Italy to secure Milan for France.
Gaston de Foix Outstanding French commander who led France to victories in the early years of the War of Cambrai.
Francis I of France King of France who was a patron of the arts, and was involved in the Italian Wars.
Chevalier Bayard Renowned French knight who was thought to embody the ideals of chivalry.

Four Year War, League of Cognac, and the War of 1542 : 
1521-26, 1526-30, 1542-46

Francis I
Jealousy between France and Spain regarding their holdings in Italy had been the source of conflict for several decades, but when Charles V, then King of Spain, Austria, and the Netherlands was selected as the Holy Roman Emperor, over the objection of the French king, Francis I, the simmering conflict erupted once more. Hostilities commenced in 1521, with French incursions into the Netherlands, but the center of conflict quickly moved to Italy, as the Pope, Henry VIII of England and Charles V formed an alliance against France.

The war in Italy went badly for the French. Their ally Venice made a separate peace, and the French army was driven first from Milan, and later Francis I himself was captured at Pavia. A peace was negotiated while Francis was in captivity, but he repudiated it almost immediately. As soon as Francis returned to Paris he began forming a new alliance, this time with Venice, the Papal States, and England against the empire of Charles V. This second alliance was called the League of Cognac.

When Charles V heard of the French designs he gathered an army from both Spain and Austria and marched on Rome. The sack of Rome essentially destroyed the power of the Papal states, and caused the Pope himself to flee. France and its allies attempted to lay siege to Naples, but plague broke out and destroyed much of his army. At this point Francis sought peace, and submitted largely to the terms agreed to four years earlier. At the close of the War of Cognac, Spain was the predominant force in Italy and the Hapsburg power was at its height.

This time, the Peace between Spain and France lasted for six years, but it erupted again after the death of the Duke of Milan in 1536. That particular conflict however, was short lived and had no lasting consequence.

Still Francis I was not content. In 1542, he tried once more to restore his fortunes in Italy, this time making an alliance with the Ottoman Turks. The French-Turkish force captured Nice, but it was relieved soon after. The allies fought a pitched battle at Ceresole in 1544 and gained territory from the Charles V, but before the French king could follow up on his victories, Charles V and Henry VIII attacked northern France. The war eventually ended in a stalemate, primarily due to exhaustion, still without a permanent resolution.

DateBattle Summary
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Battle of Rebec (Four Years War ) Imperials victory
Fought 1524, between the Imperialists, under Constable de Bourbon, and the French, under Bonnivet. The French were totally defeated, with heavy loss, among those who fell being the Chevalier de Bayard, felled by fire from a very early fire-arm.
Battle of Pavia (Habsburg-Valois ) Imperials victory
Fought February 25, 1525, between the French, under Francis I, and the Imperialists, under Lannoy. Francis, who was besieging Pavia, awaited the attack of the Imperialists on his lines, and his artillery wrought great havoc in their ranks, then, charging at the head of his cavalry, he was repulsed by Lannoy's infantry, and the Swiss mercenaries being taken in flank, and thrown into disorder, the battle was lost. Francis was captured. This is the occasion on which he wrote to his mother, "Rien ne m'est demouré, excepté l'honneur et la vie qui est sauve."
Siege of Rome (Second Italian ) Imperials victory
The city was taken by storm May 9, 1527, by the Imperialists under the Constable de Bourbon, who fell in the assault. A massacre followed, in which 8,000 of the inhabitants perished. The Pope retired to the Castle of St. Angelo, where he held out until November 26, when a treaty between him and Charles V put an end to the conflict.
Battle of Cerisolles   French victory
Fought 1544, between the French under Francois de Bourbon, and the Imperialists under du Gast, the French gaining a complete victory.
Siege of Boulogne (War of 1542 ) English victory
Siege was laid to the town by the English under Henry VIII, September 14, 1544. It was defended with great gallantry, and, in the face of enormous difficulties, for two months, when it was forced to surrender, the inhabitants being allowed to march out with their arms and property.

Short Biography
Chevalier Bayard Renowned French knight who was thought to embody the ideals of chivalry.
Charles V 16th century Hapsburg Emperor who ruled Austria, the Netherlands, Spain and parts of Italy.
Prospero Colonna General in service to the Papal states during the Italian Wars.

Hapsburg-Valois War : 1551-1559

Siege of Metz
Five years of relative peace ensued before Henry II, who succeeded Francis I on the throne of France resumed hostilities. The issue, by this time, was no longer Italy, but rather, the French Empire versus the Hapsburg Empire. Charles V's holdings were so massive that France felt it needed to oppose the Hapsburgs at every turn. Henry's initial moves were therefore against Metz and Verdun in the Netherlands. When the French attacked Tuscany in 1553, however, they were soundly defeated at the Battle of Marciano by an army led by Giacomo Medici.

With the defeat of the French army in Italy, and the fall of France's ally Sienna, the war moved back to the Netherlands. The war at that point went generally in favor of the Imperial forces, led by the great hero of the Netherlands, Count Egmond. The French did eventually take Calais from the English, but were ultimately forced to sign a treaty repudiating the French claim to all Italian territories.

After 65 years of nearly constant warfare between France and Spain, control of much of Italy rested firmly in the hands of Hapsburg Spain.

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Marciano (Habsburg-Valois ) Florence victory
Fought August 2, 1554 between a Florentine-Imperial force of about 18,000 under Cosimo de' Medici, and French-Sienna forces, numbering over 15,000 under Piero Strozzi. A pitched battle was fought when Strozzi was forced to face the Florentines as his troops were retiring towards the sea. The Florentines won a decisive victory with a loss of over 8,000 French troops killed or captured, allowing de Medici's army to advance and besiege Vienna.
Battle of St. Quentin (Habsburg-Valois ) Spanish victory
Fought August 10, 1557, between 22,000 French and Germans, under the Constable Montmorenci, and about 5,000 Spanish and Flemish cavalry of the Duke of Savoy's army, under Count Egmont, supported by a small force of infantry. The French, in attempting to throw reinforcements into St. Quentin, were entrapped in a narrow pass, and were utterly routed, with a loss of 15,000 killed, wounded and captured, and all but two of their guns. The Spaniards only lost 50 men.
Siege of Calais (Habsburg-Valois ) French victory
The last English stronghold in France was captured by the French under the Due de Guise, January 8, 1558, after a siege of seven days only. Mary is said to have exclaimed, on hearing the news, that at her death the word "Calais" would be found engraven on her heart.
Battle of Gravelines (League of Cambrai ) Spanish victory
Fought July 13, 1558, between 8,500 French and Germans, under Marshal de Thermes, and about 10,000 Spanish, Germans and Flemings, under Count Egmont. De Thermes' right rested on the sea, and a cavalry charge, headed by Egmont, broke his line, after severe hand-to-hand fighting, and the French fled in confusion, leaving 1,500 dead on the field, while as many more were driven into the sea, and drowned. Large numbers were cut down in the pursuit, and de Thermes was captured.

Short Biography
Count Egmont Powerful Noble in Low Countries during Dutch Revolt. Protested Inquisition and was beheaded.
Henry of Guise Leader of the Catholic cause in France during the Wars of Religion. Opposed Henry of Navarre for the throne until he became Catholic.
Giacomo Medici Brother of Pope Pius IV, who led armies for Charles V.
Piero Strozzi Scion of the Medici family who served France during the Italian Wars.