Why was Charles V involved in such prolonged conflicts with the Kings of France

The conflict between the Habsburg Emperor Charles V and the Valois King of France Francis I commenced in 1521 and came to an end in 1559 in the reigns of their successors, Philip II and Henry II. The wars were extremely damaging to the kingdom of France, to the empire of Charles V and indeed to Christendom as a whole. The conflict was so prolonged due to a number of reasons. The personal rivalry between Francis I and Charles V caused hostility between the two men and ensured that both were unwilling to let the other get the upper hand.

When Charles V and Francis I became kings of their respective lands both were very young and ambitious young men, who wanted to make a name for themselves. In 1519 Charles was elected Holy Roman Emperor in succession to his grandfather Maximillian, to the dismay of Francis who also wanted the title. The electors were persuaded to choose Charles through a number of expensive bribes. They also believed that Charles was less likely to interfere with the independence of the princes because he had such extensive lands to govern.

This event ensured Charles took precedence over his rival and made Francis determined to resist Charles V’s claims to supremacy within Europe by waging costly wars. Francis never accepted Charles’s claims to Christendom and this rivalry continued with neither man wanting the other to get the upper hand. The differing character and attitudes of the combatants made it hard for compromise to be made. Charles V’s chivalric upbringing meant that he acquired many knightly values such as honour and duty.. Such a character allowed Francis to take advantage of him.

After the French were crushingly defeated at Pavia in early 1525, Charles had the undesirable task of deciding what to do with Francis. Although Ferdinand and Henry VIII recommended a harsh settlement, Charles’s personal sense of honour shone through, and he did not become involved in such drastic measures. He believed that by taking France, he would be contradicting his own demand for Burgundy and by taking harsh measures he would also intensify the bitterness between himself and Francis. In 1526 Charles presented the Treaty of Milan to Francis.

In order to gain freedom for himself and his two sons he had to; abandon Burgundy, renounce his claims to Flanders, Artois and Tournai, participate in the crusade against the Ottoman’s and to marry Charles’s sister. Francis gave Charles his word that that he would keep to the agreement and Charles naively accepted. On returning to France, however, Francis claimed that that he had signed the treaty under duress which made it invalid. This was just one event that demonstrated Francis’s dishonest character and the nai?? ve mistakes that Charles made through his honourable nature.

Such flaws in both men made it hard for compromise to be reached. Francis was also deceitful due to the fact that he allied with Charles’s enemies such as the Ottoman Turks and he attempted to maintain his prestige by diverting Charles from problems within the Empire, such as Lutheranism and the threat of the Ottoman Turks, by forcing him to engage in costly wars with Italy. Yet the failure to compromise was not purely due to the unscrupulous Francis. Charles showed the obstinate side of his personality by refusing to drop his claim to Burgundy until 1529. Had he done so, a lasting agreement could have been made at Milan.

Finally neither side sought for a fair peace and humiliating treaties led to a desire for revenge. Alliances made with outside influences promoted suspicion between Charles and the Kings of France, heightening the bitterness felt between them and ensuring that the conflict was a drawn out affair. The popes were concerned about the dominance that each side had and therefore as the balance of power shifted, they acted accordingly. In 1523 the new pope, Clement VII demonstrated his concern about Habsburg dominance within Italy and its threat to papal independence by bringing Venice and Florence into an alliance with France.

In late 1527, after the ‘sack of Rome’ of earlier that year, Charles released the captive Pope, who ‘had been severely chastened and was henceforth more reluctant to betray Charles. ‘(Macdonald pg. 77) Henry VIII was also more of an impediment to Charles than an ally. When he advocated a harsh settlement for France after the Battle of Pavia which involved ‘the sacking of France and its partition between Charles and his allies’, Henry demonstrated how self interested he was.

In 1526, Henry saw the danger of a Habsburg dominance within Europe, if it were able to defeat France and therefore supported the League of Cognac, an anti Habsburg alliance. His unreliability and self-interest as an ally was also shown when he allied with Francis in 1528 due to his desire to divorce, something that an allegiance with the Catholic Charles could not give. Each side also provoked bitterness by making alliances with the enemies of the other side to further their political goals. In 1526 Francis made an alliance with the ‘infidellic’ Ottoman Turks who Charles perceived as being a serious threat to Christendom.

Francis also began to support the Lutheran movement because he saw the trouble Charles was having with it and therefore he wanted to continue the growth of Protestantism in Germany. In 1528, Andrea Doria, the Genoese admiral, was persuaded by Charles’s agents to abandon the French, with whom he was helping to blockade Naples, and join the Habsburgs. This was very important because it allowed Charles to lift the blockade of Naples, it meant that the large Genoese fleet was left at his disposal and access to loans from Genoese bankers.

Alliances made with outside influences by both sides fuelled the resentment that they felt for one another. Dynastic rivalry prolonged the war between both sides and made it hard for settlements to be agreed upon. Both sides believed that the recovery of ancestral land would be a great boost to dynastic pride and to their international reputation. At the Treaty of Madrid, in 1526, Charles’ ultimate aim was to assert the legal claims of his family. Although Francis renounced his claims to the Netherlands and Italy, Charles’s main interest lay in Burgundy.

Francis, however, was unwilling to sacrifice what was now an integral part of his kingdom, and ensured that the Treaty was invalid. Francis’s greatest interests lay in Milan because he claimed that when the last of the Visconti Dukes died in 1477 Milan fell under the rule of the Valois. Therefore when, in 1540, the last Duke of Sforza died and Charles made his own son Philip Duke of Milan, Francis was infuriated. Territorial disputes were at the forefront of rivalry between the two sides. Due to the location of France, Francis I felt very vulnerable from attack.

He aimed to break out of the Habsburg encirclement by challenging the dynasty in other outlets. Italy was a prime area for dispute between the two rivals. Both rulers were attracted by its glamorous reputation in areas such as art, literature and education and its opportunities to control the papacy. Northern Italy was particularly important to Charles because it provided a route from Spain to Austria along which troops could pass and it provided a safe overland route to many of his European dominions. Francis wanted Milan to avoid encirclement from the Habsburg dynasty and to provide him with a powerful strategic centre.

Therefore within Italy there was persistent controversy, especially within Milan and Naples to which Francis and Charles both lay claim, which added to the existing rivalry and led to continual warfare. Charles also regarded himself as the legitimate ruler of Burgundy, which had been seized by the French in 1477, and was determined to recover the dominion. Charles’s inability to drop such a claim until the Peace of Cambrai in 1529 ensured that compromise could not be made and thus ensured that the conflict became a drawn out affair.

Other examples of territorial rivalry occurred in Artois and Flanders in the Netherlands, to which Francis claimed sovereignty and the French claim to the Kingdom of Navarre, all of which were renounced in 1559 by Henri II when it became apparent that he had run out of money. The equal advantages of both sides caused a stalemate which effectively ensured that the Habsburg-Valois rivalry was a very drawn out affair. As Holy Roman Emperor Charles had more land and wealth out of the two sides. However his lands were scattered which meant that he had difficulty co-ordinating men ands money.

This, along with other distractions such as the Ottoman Turks and the situation within Germany meant that the Empire was hard to govern. The kings of France, on the other hand, did not face the same logistical problems because France was a unified state which allowed them to co-ordinate and raise taxes and they had the added bonus of striking at whichever part of the empire seemed vulnerable. Yet, what seemed like an advantage for the French could also be seen as being disadvantageous for them as it meant that they were encircled by the Habsburg Dynasty.

The changing balance of power between the two sides and the cost of the extensive wars mean that both sides were forced into unwanted peace that satisfied no one. The changing nature of warfare also prolonged the conflict to some degree. The development of heavy artillery and the invention of gunpowder put an end to easy victories on the battlefield and the use of the aquebus with pike men prolonged battles because it gave advantage to the defending side, making it harder to make a break through, thus encouraging stalemate.

Such stalemate was added to by the fact that both sides built fortresses which led to long sieges, such as the expensive siege of Metz in 1553. I therefore conclude that the prolonged conflict between the Habsburg and Valois dynasties can be explained by a combination of factors. Territorial disputes ensured persistent controversy, Dynastic rivalry ensured that neither side was willing to compromise on ancestral areas such as Burgundy and alliances made with outside influences increased suspicion between the two sides to a large degree.

In my opinion, however, the most important reason for the prolonged conflict was due to the personal rivalry between Charles V and Francis I. Neither man wanted the other to get the upper hand which meant that compromises were unable to be made between the two and thus ensured that the search for peace was a drawn out affair. It was only when either man was willing to swallow their pride, as was the case with Charles at the Peace of Cambrai, that progress could be made.

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