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Detail of ‘The Battle of Pavia’ (1528-1531) by Bernard van Orley and William Dermoyen.

The Battle of Pavia: Paving the Political Roads of Rival Rulers with Blood

February 24, 1525. A day that is not marked in infamy but in the blood of France. On this date, the Battle of Pavia occurred – the decisive event in a longstanding war and rivalry, and the crushing blow for a king and his political desires.

Political Disputes that Set the Stage for Battle

The Battle of Pavia occurred in the midst of a much larger war: the Italian War, lasting from 1494 until 1559. The war saw the French king Francis I partner with the leader of the Republic of Venice against the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and his comrades Henry VIII of England and the Papal States. There is much debate surrounding the inciting incident of the Italian Wars and, by extension, the Battle of Pavia. It is likely that a combination of factors played a part in the long-standing war. Francis I only came to the French throne in 1515, indicating that it was his predecessor (Charles VIII of France) who began the war. At the time, the strongest European powers were France, England, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire—as one can see, the same powers who would engage in battle against one another.

The Battle of Pavia.

The Battle of Pavia. ( Public Domain )

Scholars appear to agree that it was the attempt of Charles VIII, Francis' grandfather, to claim Milan as French that played a significant role in the start of the Italian Wars at the end of the 15th century. Later, his son Louis XII agreed to aid Milan in 1499 against the Kingdom of Naples, which furthered the sour disposition of Naples, Spain, and the Papal States against the French. Finally, when Charles V (heir of the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, and the Netherlands) became the new Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, each European power reacted very poorly when Charles V of Spain inherited the throne both by blood and by papal election. Francis I, son of Louis XII and king of France as of 1515, reacted the worst as he considered Charles V a personal rival. Within ten years, Francis' French troops and Charles' army would go head to head at the Battle of Pavia.

Portraits of rivals Francis I 

Portraits of rivals Francis I ( Public Domain ) and Charles V. ( Public Domain )

The French King is Taken

At the time, Pavia was an Italian city controlled by the Emperor, which Francis I attempted to take by force in an effort to begin removing Charles from power. Charles sent his own army to meet the French invaders under the command of Marchese di Pescara. Unfortunately for the French, the Marchese was either a far more intelligent leader, or he knew the land better, than they did. In the middle of the night, three weeks into the battle, the Marchese led a stealth attack across the stream (called the Vernavola) separating the two armies. By morning, the army of the Emperor was in place to take out the entire left French flank while the French were completely disoriented.

The Battle of Pavia.

The Battle of Pavia. ( Public Domain )

Somewhat ironically, Francis' "impeccable courage" in attempting to ward off the Marchese resulted in Francis' own men getting in the way of the French cannons, thus making it far too easy for the imperial warriors to overwhelm them. Within a couple of hours, Francis' battle was all but lost, and Francis himself was taken prisoner by Charles' troops for a year. Within that year, Francis was forced to revoke all French claims in Italy, essentially handing the Habsburgs (the family who dominated the position of Holy Roman Emperor) dominion over all Italian lands. Upon his eventual release from Charles' clutches, Francis attempted to void the contract under the argument of being "forced to sign it".

Capture of King Francis I at the Battle of Pavia (1681) by Jan-Erasmus Quellinus.

Capture of King Francis I at the Battle of Pavia (1681) by Jan-Erasmus Quellinus. ( Public Domain )

Aftermath of the Battle of Pavia

The result of the Battle of Pavia had an interesting ripple effect on European history, as it laid the groundwork for insecurity upon the French throne and an almost universal reign of one monarch. Because Charles V was heir to numerous dynasties, and was both a blood heir to the previous Emperor and chosen as heir by papal election, Charles had claim to a great deal of Europe. After the French defeat at Pavia, Charles was even more firmly secured as one of the most powerful monarchs—important because it is a testament to his military prowess, not only his various inheritances. It is possible that if Charles had not abdicated his empire in pieces (forfeiting his rulership one land at a time), but had done so as an empire, the Roman Empire of old could have been rebuilt. While this is only conjecture, based on the impact of the Battle of Pavia and of Charles V's reign alone, it is an interesting theory to consider.

1548 portrait of Charles V.

1548 portrait of Charles V. ( Public Domain )

At its core, the Battle of Pavia goes down in history as the battle in which Charles V virtually decimated the French army of over twenty thousand soldiers, including six thousand of the Swiss troops under Francis' control.  Though Francis I remained king of France until 1547, he never fully recovered his confidence or dignity as a king from the loss at Pavia. In the same vein, his family never fully gained the respect of the European powers. Charles, on the other hand, went on to continue spreading himself across Europe, eventually going head to head with the infamous Martin Luther. Pavia itself remained at the core of imperial politics until it fell from Spanish hands at the end of the 18th century.

The Battle of Pavia in an engraved rock crystal cameo relief commissioned by Cardinal Ippolito de' Medici, by Giovanni Bernardi, Rome, c 1531-35

The Battle of Pavia in an engraved rock crystal cameo relief commissioned by Cardinal Ippolito de' Medici, by Giovanni Bernardi, Rome, c 1531-35. ( Walters Art Museum )

Top Image: Detail of ‘The Battle of Pavia’ (1528-1531) by Bernard van Orley and William Dermoyen. Source: Public Domain

By Ryan Stone

Bibliography

Guy, John. 2004. My Heart Is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots . London: Fourth Estate.

Potter, D. L. 2008. Renaissance France at War - Armies, Culture and Society, c.1480–1560 . Boydell Press.

Mallett, Michael and Christine Shaw. 2012. The Italian Wars, 1494-1559: War, State and Society in Early Modern Europe . Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited.

Rickard, J. 2015. " Battle of Pavia, 24 February 1525 ." History of War . Accessed June 20, 2017. http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_pavia.html

Tomas, Natalie R. 2003. The Medici Women: Gender and Power in Renaissance Florence . Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Whistler, Catherine. 2006. Battle of Pavia. UK: Ashmolean Museum.

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