The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 9

Author: William Robertson  | Date: A.D. 1525

France Loses Italy;
Battle of Pavia

A.D. 1525


Close upon the election of Charles V as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire came the first of a series of wars between that sovereign and Francis I, King of France, who had been Charles’s rival for the imperial crown. The Emperor was at this time, 1521, favored by Henry VIII of England, and a secret treaty with Charles was finally concluded by Pope Leo X, who from the first had hesitated between the two young rivals, and who had already treated with Francis. The papal support proved the foundation of future power for Charles in Italy. The Pope and the Emperor agreed to unite their forces for expulsion of the French from their seat in the duchy of Milan.

In 1521 hostilities broke out in Navarre and in the Netherlands, and finally in the Milanese, where the people were tired of French government. The various allies drove the French completely out of Italy, and Charles invaded France; but was there repulsed. King Francis, elated by this last success, determined upon another invasion of the Milanese. He went in person to Italy, leaving his mother as regent in France. With largely superior forces, he drove the imperialists before him.

Instead, however, of pursuing the enemy, whom he might have overtaken at an untenable position, Francis, against the almost unanimous advice of his generals, laid siege to the strongly fortified city of Pavia, only to meet before it the crushing defeat which for centuries settled the fate of Italy. Pavia was held by a strong imperialist force under Lannoy.

Francis prosecuted the siege with obstinacy equal to the rashness with which he had undertaken it. During three months everything known to the engineers of that age, or that could be effected by the valor of his troops, was attempted, in order to reduce the place; while Lannoy and Pescara, unable to obstruct his operations, were obliged to remain in such an ignominious state of inaction that a pasquinade was published at Rome offering a reward to any person who could find the imperial army, lost in the month of October in the mountains between France and Lombardy, and which had not been heard of since that time.

Leyva, well acquainted with the difficulties under which his counfrymen labored, and the impossibility of their facing, in the field, such a powerful army as formed the siege of Pavia, placed his only hopes of safety in his own vigilance and valor. The efforts of both were extraordinary, and in proportion to the importance of the place with the defence of which he was intrusted. He interrupted the approaches of the French by frequent and furious sallies. Behind the breaches made by their artillery he erected new works, which appeared to be scarcely inferior in strength to the original fortifications. He repulsed the besiegers in all their assaults, and by his own example brought not only the garrison, but the inhabitants, to bear the most severe fatigues, and to encounter the greatest dangers, without murmuring. The rigor of the season conspired with his endeavors in retarding the progress of the French. Francis, attempting to become master of the town by diverting the course of the Tessino, which is its chief defence on one side, a sudden inundation of the river destroyed, in one day, the labor of many weeks, and swept away all the mounds which his army had raised with infinite toil as well as at great expense.

Notwithstanding the slow progress of the besiegers, and the glory which Leyva acquired by his gallant defence, it was not doubted but that the town would at last be obliged to surrender. Pope Clement, who already considered the French arms as superior in Italy, became impatient to disengage himself from his connections with the Emperor, of whose designs he was extremely jealous, and to enter into terms of friendship with Francis. As Clement’s timid and cautious temper rendered him incapable of following the bold plan which Leo had formed of delivering Italy from the yoke of both the rivals, he returned to the more obvious and practicable scheme of employing the power of the one to balance and to restrain that of the other.

For this reason he did not dissemble his satisfaction at seeing the French King recover Milan, as he hoped that the dread of such a neighbor would be some check upon the Emperor’s ambition, which no power in Italy was now able to control. He labored hard to bring about a peace that would secure Francis in the possession of his new conquests; and as Charles, who was always inflexible in the prosecution of his schemes, rejected the proposition with disdain, and with bitter exclamations against the Pope, by whose persuasions, while Cardinal di Medici, he had been induced to invade the Milanese, Clement immediately concluded a treaty of neutrality with the King of France, in which the republic of Florence was included.

Francis having, by this transaction, deprived the Emperor of his two most powerful allies, and at the same time having secured a passage for his own troops through their territories, formed a scheme of attacking the kingdom of Naples, hoping either to overrun that country, which was left altogether without defence, or that at least such an unexpected invasion would oblige the viceroy to recall part of the imperial army out of the Milanese. For this purpose he ordered six thousand men to march under the command of John Stuart, Duke of Albany. But Pescara, foreseeing that the effect of this diversion would depend entirely upon the operations of the armies in the Milanese, persuaded Lannoy to disregard Albany’s motions, and to bend his whole force against the King himself; so that Francis not only weakened his army very unseasonably by this great detachment, but incurred the reproach of engaging too rashly in chimerical and extravagant projects.

By this time the garrison of Pavia was reduced to extremity; their ammunition and provisions began to fail; the Germans, of whom it was chiefly composed, having received no pay for seven months, threatened to deliver the town into the enemy’s hands, and could hardly be restrained from mutiny by all Leyva’s address and authority. The imperial generals, who were no strangers to his situation, saw the necessity of marching without loss of time to his relief. This they had now in their power. Twelve thousand Germans, whom the zeal and activity of Bourbon taught to move with unusual rapidity, had entered Lombardy under his command, and rendered the imperial army nearly equal to that of the French, greatly diminished by the absence of the body under Albany, as well as by the fatigues of the siege and the rigor of the season.

But the more their troops increased in number, the more sensibly did the imperialists feel the distress arising from want of money. Far from having funds for paying a powerful army, they had scarcely what was sufficient for defraying the charges of conducting their artillery and of carrying their ammunition and provisions. The abilities of the generals, however, supplied every defect. By their own example, as well as by magnificent promises in name of the Emperor, they prevailed on the troops of all the different nations which composed their army to take the field without pay; they engaged to lead them directly toward the enemy, and flattered them with the certain prospect of victory, which would at once enrich them with such royal spoils as would be an ample reward for all their services. The soldiers, sensible that, by quitting the army, they would forfeit the great arrears due to them, and eager to get possession of the promised treasures, demanded a battle with all the impatience of adventurers who fight only for plunder.

The imperial generals, without suffering the ardor of their troops to cool, advanced immediately toward the French camp. On the first intelligence of their approach, Francis called a council of war to deliberate what course he ought to take. All his officers of greatest expenence were unanimous in advising him to retire, and to decline a battle with an enemy who courted it from despair. The imperialists, they observed, would either be obliged in a few weeks to disband an army which they were unable to pay, and which they kept together only by the hope of plunder, or the soldiers, enraged at the nonperformance of the promises to which they had trusted, would rise in some furious mutiny, which would allow their generals to think of nothing but their own safety; that meanwhile he might encamp in some strong post, and, waiting in safety the arrival of fresh troops from France and Switzerland, might before the end of spring take possession of all the Milanese without danger or bloodshed. But in opposition to them, Bonnivet, whose destiny it was to give counsels fatal to France during the whole campaign, represented the ignominy that it would reflect on their sovereign if he should abandon a siege which he had prosecuted so long, or turn his back before an enemy to whom he was still superior in number, and insisted on the necessity of fighting the imperialists rather than relinquish an undertaking on the success of which the King’s future fame depended. Unfortunately, Francis’ notions of honor were delicate to an excess that bordered on what was romantic. Having often said that he would take Pavia or perish in the attempt, he thought himself bound not to depart from that resolution; and, rather than expose himself to the slightest imputation, he chose to forego all the advantages which were the certain consequences of a retreat, and determined to wait for the imperialists before the walls of Pavia.

The imperial generals found the French so strongly intrenched that, notwithstanding the powerful motives which urged them on, they hesitated long before they ventured to attack them; but at last the necessities of the besieged and the murmurs of their own soldiers obliged them to put everything to hazard. Never did armies engage with greater ardor or with a higher opinion of the importance of the battle which they were going to fight; never were troops more strongly animated with emulation, national antipathy, mutual resentment, and all the passions which inspire obstinate bravery. On the one hand, a gallant young monarch, seconded by a generous nobility and followed by subjects to whose natural impetuosity indignation at the opposition which they had encountered added new force, contended for victory and honor. On the other side, troops more completely disciplined, and conducted by generals of greater abilities, fought from necessity, with courage heightened by despair. The imperialists, however, were unable to resist the first efforts of the French valor, and their firmest battalions began to give way. But the fortune of the day was quickly changed. The Swiss in the service of France, unmindful of the reputation of their country for fidelity and martial glory, abandoned their post in a cowardly manner. Leyva, with his garrison, sallied out and attacked the rear of the French, during the heat of the action, with such fury as threw it into confusion; and Pescara, falling on their cavalry with the imperial horse, among whom he had prudently interiningled a considerable number of Spanish foot armed with the heavy muskets then in use, broke this formidable body by an unusual method of attack, against which they were wholly unprovided. The rout became universal; and resistance ceased in almost every part but where the King was in person, who fought now, not for fame or victory, but for safety. Though wounded in several places, and thrown from his horse, which was killed under him, Francis defended himself on foot with a heroic courage.

Many of his bravest officers, gathering round him, and endeavoring to save his life at the expense of their own, fell at his feet. Among these was Bonnivet, the author of this great calamity, who alone died unlamented. The King, exhausted with fatigue, and scarcely capable of further resistance, was left almost alone, exposed to the fury of some Spanish soldiers, strangers to his rank and enraged at his obstinacy. At that moment came up Pomperant, a French gentleman, who had entered together with Bourbon into the Emperor’s service, and, placing himself by the side of the monarch against whom he had rebelled, assisted in protecting him from the violence of the soldiers, at the same time beseeching him to surrender to Bourbon, who was not far distant. Imininent as the danger was which now surrounded Francis, he rejected with indignation the thoughts of an action which would have afforded such matter of triumph to his traitorous subject, and calling for Lannoy, who happened likewise to be near at hand, gave up his sword to him; which he, kneeling to kiss the King’s hand, received with profound respect; and taking his own sword from his side, presented it to him, saying that it did not become so great a monarch to remain disarmed in the presence of one of the Emperor’s subjects.

Ten thousand men fell on this day, one of the most fatal France had ever seen. Among these were many noblemen of the highest distinction, who chose rather to perish than to turn their backs with dishonor. Not a few were taken prisoners, of whom the most illustrious was Henry d’Albret, the unfortunate King of Navarre. A small body of the rear-guard made its escape under the command of the Duke of Alenon; the feeble garrison of Milan, on the first news of the defeat, retired, without being pursued, by another road; and, in two weeks after the battle, not a Frenchman remained in Italy.

Lannoy, though he treated Francis with all the outward marks of honor due to his rank and character, guarded him with the utmost attention. He was solicitous, not only to prevent any possibility of his escaping, but afraid that his own troops might seize his person and detain it as the best security for the paymen? of their arrears. In order to provide against both these dangers, he conducted Francis, the day after the battle, to the strong castle of Pizzichitone, near Cremona, committing him to the custody of Don Ferdinand Alarcon, general of the Spanish infantry, an officer of great bravery and of strict honor, but remarkable for that severe and scrupulous vigilance which such a trust required.

Francis, who formed a judgment of the Emperor’s dispositions by his own, was extremely desirous that Charles should be informed of his situation, fondly hoping that from his generosity or sympathy he should obtain speedy relief. The imperial generals were no less impatient to give their sovereign an early account of the decisive victory which they had gained, and to receive his instructions with regard to their future conduct. As the most certain and expeditious method of conveying intelligence to Spain at that season of the year was by land, Francis gave the commendador Pennalosa, who was charged with Lannoy’s despatches, a passport to travel through France.

Charles received the account of this signal and unexpected success that had crowned his arms with a moderation which, if it had been real, would have done him more honor than the greatest victory. Without uttering one word expressive of exultation or of intemperate joy, he retired immediately into his chapel, and, having spent an hour in offering up his thanksgivings to heaven, returned to the presence-chamber, which by that time was filled with grandees and foreign ambassadors assembled in order to congratulate him. He accepted of their compliments with a modest deportment; he lamented the misfortune of the captive King, as a striking example of the sad reverse of fortune to which the most powerful monarchs are subject; he forbade any public rejoicings, as indecent in a war carried on among Christians, reserving them until he should obtain a victory equally illustrious over the infldels; and seemed to take pleasure, in the advantage which he had gained, only as it would prove the occasion of restoring peace to Christendom.

Charles, however, had already begun to form schemes in his own mind which little suited such external appearances. Ambition, not generosity, was the ruling passion in his mind; and the victory at Pavia opened such new and unbounded prospects of gratifying it as allured him with irresistible force. But it being no easy matter to execute the vast designs which he meditated, he thought it necessary, while proper measures were taking for that purpose, to affect the greatest moderation, hoping under that veil to conceal his real intentions from the other princes of Europe.

Meanwhile France was filled with consternation. The King himself had early transmitted an account of the rout at Pavia in a letter to his mother, delivered by Pennalosa, which contained only these words: "Madam, all is lost except our honor." The officers who made their escape, when they arrived from Italy, brought such a melancholy detail of particulars as made all ranks of men sensibly feel the greatness and extent of the calamity. France, without its sovereign, without money in her treasury, without an army and without generals to command it, and encompassed on all sides by a victorious and active enemy, seemed to be on the very brink of destruction. But on that occasion the great abilities of Louise, the regent, saved the kingdom which the violence of her passions had more than once exposed to the greatest danger. Instead of giving herself up to such lamentations as were natural to a woman so remarkable for her maternal tenderness, she discovered all the foresight and exerted all the activity of a consummate politician. She assembled the nobles at Lyons, and animated them, by her example no less than by her words, with such zeal in defence of their country as its present situation required. She collected the remains of the army which had served in Italy, ransomed the pnsoners, paid the arrears, and put them in a condition to take the field. She levied new troops, provided for the security of the frontiers, and raised sums sufficient for defraying these extraordinary expenses. Her chief care, however, was to ap pease the resentment or to gain the friendship of the King of England; and from that quarter the first ray of comfort broke in upon the French.

Though Henry, in entering into alliances with Charles or Francis, seldom followed any regular or concerted plan of policy, but was influenced chiefly by the caprice of temporary passions, such occurrences often happened as recalled his attention toward that equal balance of power which it was necessary to keep between the two contending potentates, the preservation of which he always boasted to be his peculiar office. He had expected that his union with the Emperor might afford him an opportunity of recovering some part of those territories in France which had belonged to his ancestors, and for the sake of such an acquisition he did not scruple to give his assistance toward raising Charles to a considerable preeminence above Francis. He had never dreamed, however, of any event so decisive and so fatal as the victory at Pavia, which seemed not only to have broken, but to have annihilated, the power of one of the rivals; so that the prospect of the sudden and entire revolution which this would occasion in the political system filled him with the most disquieting apprehensions. He saw all Europe in danger of being overrun by an ambitious prince, to whose power there now remained no counterpoise; and though he himself might at first be admitted, in quality of an ally, to some share in the spoils of the captive monarch, it was easy to discern that with regard to the manner of making the partition, as well as his security for keeping possession of what should be allotted him, he must absolutely depend gupon the will of a confederate, to whose forces his own bore no proportion.

He was sensible that if Charles were permitted to add any considerable part of France to the vast dominions of which he was already master, his neighborhood would be much more formidable to England than that of the ancient French kings; while at the same time the proper balance on the Continent, to which England owed both its safety and importance, would be entirely lost. Concern for the situation of the unhappy monarch coöperated with these political considerations; his gallant behavior in the battle of Pavia had excited a high degree of admiration, which never fails of augmenting sympathy; and Henry, naturally susceptible of generous sentiments, was fond of appearing as the deliverer of a vanquished enemy from a state of captivity. The passions of the English minister seconded the inclinations of the monarch. Wolsey, who had not forgotten the disappointment of his hopes in two successive conclaves, which he imputed chiefly to the Emperor, thought this a proper opportunity of taking revenge; and, Louise courting the friend. ship of England with such flattering submissions as were no less agreeable to the King than to the Cardinal, Henry gave her secret assurances that he would not lend his aid toward oppressing France in its present helpless state, and obliged her to promise that she would not consent to dismember the kingdom even in order to procure her son’s liberty.

During these transactions, Charles, whose pretensions to moderation and disinterestedness were soon forgotten, deliberated, with the utmost solicitude, how he might derive the greatest advantages from the misfortunes of his adversary. Some of his counsellors advised him to treat Francis with the magnanimity that became a victorious prince, and, instead of taking advantage of his situation to impose rigorous con ditions, to dismiss him on such equal terms as would bind him forever to his interest by the ties of gratitude and affection, more forcible as well as more permanent than any which could be formed by extorted oaths and involuntary stipulations.

Such an exertion of generosity is not, perhaps, to be expected in the conduct of political affairs, and it was far too refined for that prince to whom it was proposed. The more obvious but less splendid scheme, of endeavoring to make the utmost of Francis’ calamity, had a greater number in the council to recommend it, and suited better with the Emperor’s genius. But though Charles adopted this plan, he seems not to have executed it in the most proper manner. Instead of making one great effort to penetrate into France with all the forces of Spain and the Low Countries; instead of crushing the Italian states before they recovered from the consternation which the success of his arms had occasioned, he had recourse to the artifices of intrigue and negotiation. This proceeded partly from necessity, partly from the natural disposition of his mind. The situation of his finances at that time rendered it extremely difficult to carry on any extraordinary armament; and he himself, having never appeared at the head of his armies, the command of which he had hitherto committed to his generals, was averse to bold and martial counsels, and trusted more to the arts with which he was acquainted. He laid, besides, too much stress upon the victor of Pavia, as if by that event the strength of France had been annihilated, its resources exhausted, and the kingdom itself, no less than the person of its monarch, had been subjected to his power.

Full of this opinion, he determined to set the highest price upon Francis’ freedom; and, having ordered the Count de Roeux to visit the captive King in his name, he instructed him to propose the following articles as the conditions on which he would grant him his liberty: That he should restore Burgundy to the Emperor, from whose ancestors it had been unjustly wrested; that he should surrender Provence and Dauphin, that they might be erected into an independent kingdom for the constable Bourbon; that he should make full satisfaction to the King of Engiand for all his claims, and finally renounce the pretensions of France to Naples, Milan, or any other territory in Italy. When Francis, who had hitherto flattered himself that he should be treated by the Emperor with the generosity becoming one great prince toward another, heard these rigorous conditions, he was so transported with indignation that, drawing his dagger hastily, he cried out, "`Twere better that a king should die thus." Alarcon, alarmed at his vehemence, laid hold on his hand; but though he soon recovered greater composure, he still declared in the most solemn manner that he would rather remain a prisoner during life than purchase liberty by such ignominious concessions.

The chief obstacle that stood in the way of Francis’ liberty was the Emperor’s continuing to insist so peremptorily on the restitution of Burgundy as a preliminary to that event. Francis often declared that he would never consent to dismember his kingdom; and that, even if he should so far forget the duties of a monarch as to come to such a resolution, the fundamental laws of the nation would prevent its taking effect. On his part he was willing to make an absolute cession to the Emperor of all his pretensions in Italy and the Low Countries; he promised to restore to Bourbon all his lands which had been confiscated; he renewed his proposal of marrying the Emperor’s sister, the queen-dowager of Portugal; and engaged to pay a great sum by way of ransom for his own person.

But all mutual esteem and confidence between the two monarchs were now entfrely lost; there appeared, on the one hand,a rapacious ambition, laboring to avail itself of every favorable circumstance; on the other, suspicion and resentment, standing perpetually on their guard; so that the prospect of bringing their negotiations to an issure seemed to be far distant. The Duchess of Alenon, the French King’s sister, whom Charles permitted to visit her brother in his confinement, employed all her address in order to procure his liberty on more reasonable terms. Henry of England interposed his good offices to the same purpose; but both with so little success that Francis, in despair, took suddenly the resolution of resigning his crown, with all its rights and prerogatives, to his son, the Dauphin, determining rather to end his days in prison than to purchase his freedom by concessions unworthy of a king. The deed for this purpose he signed with legal formality in Madrid, empowering his sister to carry it into France, that it might be registered in all the parliaments of the kingdom; and, at the same time, intimating his intention to the Emperor, he desired him to name the place of his confinement, and to assign him a proper number of attendants during the remainder of his days.

This resolution of the French King had great effect; Charles began to be sensible that, by pushing rigor to excess, he might defeat his own measures; and instead of the vast advantages which he hoped to draw from ransoming a powerful monarch, he might at last find in his hands a prince without dominions or revenues. About the same time one of the King of Navarre’s domestics happened, by an extraordinary exertion of fidelity, courage, and address, to procure his master an opportunity of escaping from the prison in which he had been confined ever since the battle of Pavia. This convinced the Emperor that the most vigilant attention of his officers might be eluded by the ingenuity or boldness of Francis or his attendants, and one unlucky hour might deprive him of all the advantages which he had been so solicitous to obtain. By these considerations he was induced to abate somewhat of his former demands. On the other hand, Francis’ impatience under confinement daily increased; and having received certain intelligence of a powerful league forming against his rival in Italy, he grew more compliant with regard to his concessions, trusting that, if he could once obtain his liberty, he would soon be in a condition to resume whatever he had yielded.

Such being the views and sentiments of the two monarchs, the treaty which procured Francis his liberty was signed at Madrid on January 14, 1526.


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Chicago: William Robertson, "France Loses Italy; Battle of Pavia," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 9 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2022,

MLA: Robertson, William. "France Loses Italy; Battle of Pavia." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 9, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: Robertson, W, 'France Loses Italy; Battle of Pavia' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 9. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2022, from