Louis XII, 1498 – 1515
Known as Louis II of Orléans he was merely the cousin of Charles VIII but this made him the closest male relative, he became Louis XII le Père du Peuple (the Father of the People). He earned his sobriquet in 1506 from his Estates-General through his having established internal peace, his reforms and his reduction of the taille land tax levied on peasants and the bourgeois.
His uncle Louis XI had forced him to marry Joan of France, she was both handicapped and sterile; evidently Louis XI was seeking to extinguish the Orléans branch of the Valois family.
He had been one of the nobles that had opposed the crown in the Mad War against Charles VIII, though captured he had been pardoned by Charles. He had then shown support and valour in the Italian War of 1494-8.
On his ascension he gained Pope Alexander VI’s support to annul his marriage to Joan. He promptly married Anne, Duchess of Brittany. The widow of his predecessor Charles VIII.
In 1500 he signed a treaty with Sultan Bayezid II, ruler of the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt which brought peace to his Mediterranean coast and that of Catalonia.
Louis did kick-start several Renaissance projects, for example the Parlement de Rouen. The building merged French Gothic style with Renaissance ideas and was built between 1499 and 1508. Though perhaps this had more to do with one of his key advisors Georges d’Amboise, Archbishop of Rouen.
One of Louis’ great legacies is the Book of Hours (a collection of prayers). This is an ornate illuminated book produced by Jean Bourdichon, the Peintre du Roi (court painter) based in Tours. It was produced on parchment using tempera and gold. Mary Tudor, as widowed queen of Louis would take it back with her to the UK (today on show at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London).
He had attracted one of the most respected composers in Europe, Josquin des Prez , to his court. For example des Prez produced De profundis based on Psalm 129 for Louis’ funeral.
The Second Italian War broke out in 1499 between Louis and Ferdinand II of Aragon. It was prompted by Venice and various other Italian powers joining in over the five years. Louis was seeking to seize Lombardy and exercise his rights over the crown of Milan that existed through his grandmother.
He agreed an arrangement with the Papal States. Following his father’s example he assembled an army based around Swiss mercenaries. He invaded Lombardy and seized Milan. The French would hold the city for the next twelve years.
But the following year the Catholic monarchs of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, began to be concerned about a growing Franco-Italian power. In his turn Louis became concerned that Spain might attack him from the west while he was preoccupied in Italy.
So he agreed the Treaty of Granada in 1500 which presumptively agreed to split Naples between the two powers, if they should prevail. However he unwittingly had cleared the way for an expansive Spain to play a major role in Italy. Pope Alexander VI gave his approval of the Treaty in 1501.
Niccolò Machiavelli, an Italian diplomat, would refer to the war and the treaty in Il Principe (The Prince), when it was first formally published in 1532, though an early version was circulated in 1513.. He and other historians of the time criticised the treaty as an unnecessary confusion.
While Louis had a basis for his claim over Milan, his claim on Naples was quite weak, it was more based upon Charles VIII’s claim and earlier occupation of the city, Alfonso II had ceded Naples to Charles back in 1495. Louis as Charles’ successor felt this was sufficient of a claim.
Once the French and Spanish had seized Naples in 1501 it was agreed that Louis should become King of Naples, but there was no agreement on much else. In a series of squabbles and skirmishes the Spanish had the better naval lines of supply and were more battle-hardened by their Reconquista. Early in 1504 Louis had to withdraw back to Milan, leaving Naples to the Spanish.
The Treaty of Lyon formalised the arrangements in 1504 and ended the Second Italian War. France was left in control of much of northern Italy from Milan, while Spain controlled the south from Naples and with its naval prowess soon expanded this to include Sicily.
The Treaty of Blois included the marriage of Charles of the Spanish Habsburgs with Claude, Louis’s daughter. Their marriage included future arrangements for a raft of territories in Italy and elsewhere, should Louis die without male heir.
The Challenge of Barletta – a French knight while ‘in his cups’ insulted an Italian ally. This dishonour led to a tournament fought between thirteen French and thirteen Italian knights at Barletta in southern Italy in February 1503.
The Italians won and the French knights had to pay ransom. The event was the basis of an Italian novel by Massimo D’Azeglio, La Disfida di Barletta, written in 1833
Late in 1508 the Italian wars were sparked off again when the French, the Spanish, the Papal States and the Holy Roman Empire formed the League of Cambrai against the Republic of Venice. They sought to defeat Venice and then divide up the spoils between them.
In 1509 Louis marched on Venice and defeated part of the Venetian forces at the Battle of Agnadello; mercenaries defected from the remaining Venetian force and Louis and his allies advanced taking ever more of the Venetian territories in northern Italy.
The same year Henry VIII ascended to the throne of England and pledged himself to re-establishing the medieval claim for the French throne.
By 1510 the Pope had changed sides and worked with Venice against the French. Territory and cities changed hands several times over the coming months. In 1511 the Pope called for a Holy League against the French, it was joined by past League of Cambrai members, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. It was later joined in 1512 by England which opened a further front on France.
Henry arrived in France with an army of 12,000 men and the plan had been to link up with the Spanish forces and take much of the north of France. But the Spanish had other ideas, they saw Henry’s invasion as the perfect diversion for themselves to seize Navarre. The English were left in the North where sickness and lack of supplies eroded their threat.
In 1513 the English were back, still with no support from the rest of the League. He recorded some early minor success and took territory in the north which gave Henry a ‘beachhead’ in Europe.
In the south the Holy League forces took territory from the French and then internally squabbled over its allocation.
In a turnaround France and Venice then allied in 1513 to counter the League advances. France launched an attempt to open a second front on the English by having the Scots invade from the north. This failed when the Scots were defeated at the Battle of Flodden Field.
Pope Julius, the driving force behind the League, died in 1513 and Leo X who succeeded him had no taste for military adventures.
The status turned again through 1513 and 1514 resulting in a peace between France and England. When Pope Julius died his successor Leo X proved less interested in military matters. There could be no Holy League without Papal support.
The huge costs of the 1512 and 1513 invasions had Henry VIII sue for peace. He negotiated well so that he kept his northern territories, was awarded a large pension from France and he married off his sister, Mary Tudor, to Louis XII creating the opportunity for a subsequent Tudor dynasty in France,
In 1515 Louis died three months after the marriage without male heir, some suggest his new youthful queen may have been responsible for wearing him down.