Charles VIII

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© Bob Denton 2014

Charles VIII   reigned 1483 – 1498

Louis son succeeded him as Charles VIII l’Affable (the Affable), he was thirteen, his elder sister and her husband acting as co-Regents.

Before Charles too control his Regents had to face la Guerre Folle (the Mad War) from 1485 -1488. (Once again this name was applied by an historian long after the event.) This was a series of rebellions by nobles, including his cousin Louis II of Orléans, against the more centralised government that Louis had introduced, the rebels were each defeated in turn.

When in 1488 the Duke of Brittany was killed, while riding leaving his twelve-year old daughter as heir, Anne of Brittany. Charles objected to her betrothal to the widower Archduke Maximilian of Austria, because this would place the Habsburg influence to both sides of France.

The French army invaded Brittany and in 1491 it was Charles VIII who married Anne of Brittany. This caused double consternation, her having been married by proxy to Maximilian and because he had been pledged to Maximilian’s daughter Margaret.

This latter union had formed part of the Treaty of Arras that had settled the French-Burgundy peace back in 1482. Worse Margaret was already in Charles’ court and he refused to allow her to return to Austria, seeking a match for her elsewhere in France. She did later get returned with her dowry.

Anne was none too pleased either, when she arrived for the wedding her party brought with them two beds.

Royal Court

The royal court by the sixteenth century was variously attributed as containing between 8,000 and 15,000 courtiers and functionaries; the size of a small town – with similar issues. So far as it could the court would try to reflect the nature of the realm.

It was not a fixture it would move to wherever the king chose to be. Charles VII regularly visited Amboise to take the air from where he had grown up, he would often spend four months in each year there.

There was no means to distribute publicity of court affairs and decisions, so these court travels were important to spread the news and influence of the king around his realm, for the general populace to catch sight of him and his court. Centres of population would vie to host the court on its route where gifts would be offered to the king and he would bestow privileges.

The turmoil of its travel must have been extreme, fourriers and quartermasters were charged with the logistics involved. Court members would travel in small groups to their destination, gentlemen on horseback, those ill or old were carried by litter, the rest by cart. Coaches would only be introduced from the mid sixteenth century. When the court was travelling to meet someone of substance, say a pope, then furniture, plate and tapestries had to be carried along with them.

On its travels it would collect local hangers-on and, of course, at times of war the number of the court would plummet as all of the men, including the king, would be out on campaign.

Charles may not have had quite such a large court, as described above, but the structures were certainly established during his time.

The king and his family were of course at the centre but a whole structure of departments were established to serve his needs. The most significant of these (from the king’s perspective) was the hôtel that fed him and his entourage, the chambre that was the royal bedchambers.

The Grand Master was in charge of the royal household, hiring and firing, controlled the keys of the household and was the person who would bring ambassadors and applicants and supplicants to the king’s presence.

There was of course a royal bodyguard, in Charles VIII’s case this included the Scottish Guard; this had been established by Charles VII. There were three 100-man companies of Swiss archers, the Cent-suisses (Hundred Swiss). Control of the court itself was vested in the prévôt de l’hôtel (Captain of the Guard) and his group of archers.

Charles was a keen hunter and a whole department looked after his needs for this sport. His team would take his bed with them and he would descend on a local nobleman who would have to provide suitable quarters for his chambre to be established and of course to feed and water him.

A key location at the court was the chamber (not chambre), which is where his inner sanctum would meet, many would be sent out to perform diplomatic missions, acting as ambassadors and would bring back their reports which would often include news of new fashions and cultural pursuits. Performances and entertainment were a key part of court life.

The court almost permanently hosted French princes, foreign princes and foreign diplomats all of whom were provided with chambers within the court.

By his largesse the king would then sponsor and promote primarily the visual arts so that his reputation as a cultural leader would be carried by others’ ambassadors to the other courts around Europe. Artists and artisans who were appointed to the crown were exempted from their guild regulations and fees.

But the court was a bustling place full of public servants, politicians, merchants and of course courtesans.

Italian Wars

In 1492 his neighbour, Spain, was completing its Reconquista against the Moors and funding the discovery of the New World. Charles signed two treaties that year with Austria and England, granting each concessions to guarantee his nation’s peace.

However things were brewing in Italy.  Through his father Charles had some claim to the kingdom of Naples but had done nothing to assert his claim

Back in 1489 Pope Innocent VIII had fallen out with the King of Naples and, given that Charles had a vague claim for that throne, he had proposed that he would support him in annexing that realm. Charles demurred.

The next pope. Alexander VI, sought other means to take control of Naples in 1493. Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, appealed for Charles to assist against the pope. The next year the king of Naples died and Alfonso II succeeded him. Alfonso then made claim on the Duchy of Milan. Alfonso asked Charles to help him take Milan.

Charles had a degree of security at home and needed an outlet for his nobles’ energies. Having received all these various requests, Charles came to the conclusion that Italy was there for his taking. He was also attracted by the notion that he could transform France in to more of a naval power. As part of this second goal he had Toulon developed as a military port.

In 1494 Charles took a force of 25,000 men that included a strong group of some 8,000 Swiss mercenaries. They met little resistance taking city by city – Pisa, Florence and Naples. Charles was crowned as king of Naples in 1495.

Italian Renaissance – the time that Charles VIII spent in Italy was perhaps the first direct French encounter of Italian Renaissance thinking. For the Italians their Renaissance had started around Florence and Siena from as early as the 14th century. The leading ‘Italian’ city-states had grown in significance and expanded their control of smaller cities – Florence taking control of Pisa, Venice seizing control of Padua and Verona, Milan had subsumed Parma and Pavia.

For centuries these cities had constantly battled among themselves but in 1454 they agreed the Peace of Lodi. They each had long developed mercantile wealth and the calm following the peace led to increased sponsorship of the arts.

Alfonso the Magnanimous, son of Ferdinand I of Aragon had been allocated the throne of Naples to become Alfonso I of Naples. He brought both Renaissance thinking and Moorish style from his father’s court and inspired advances in Italy.

The extravagant villas that Alfonso had built around Naples inspired Charles powerfully. Back in France their palaces had a few paintings but little in the way of statuary or tapestries. This was about to change.

The Pope and the other Italian states united as the League of Venice in 1495 and gained the support of the Holy Roman Empire and Spain. They met in the middle of 1495 at the battle of Fornovo. Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, crucially switched sides and joined Venice and Naples against the French.  Both sides came away claiming a victory. However Charles, less most of his loot, travelled across Italy back in to France from what had looked like an isolated position; most of his army managed to make the trip.

The garrisons he had left behind him were mopped up by the League and all that he gained was back with Alfonso within a year. The debts that Charles had incurred for France by this campaign stopped any thoughts of him regrouping and returning. The Genoese promptly blockaded Toulon to make any repeat even less likely.

In 1498 Charles was travelling to a game of Jeu de paume (real tennis) he was tripped by a rotten floorboard and hit his head on a wooden beam, he collapsed later and died, the surmise being a subdural haematoma. His children all having died before him the crown passed to his cousin from the Orléans branch of the House of Valois.

Forward to Louis XII – Back to Louis XI
Back to 1789 and all that!
© Bob Denton 2014