Charles VIII of France was born in 1470 and died in 1498. Charles VIII became king of France at the age of 12 in 1483. As Louis XI during his reign had pushed France towards absolute monarchy, the nobility’s power had suffered accordingly. Now, under Charles they attempted to get back the power that they thought should be theirs by right.
Charles was “feeble in body and intellect” (E N Williams)
From 1483 until 1492, Charles, as king, was dominated by his elder sister Anne and her husband Pierre de Bourbon, Lord of Beaujeu.
On the death of Louis XI, the nobility rose up to regain the power they had lost under the reign of the “universal spider”. They assumed that this power was their right as a matter of history rather than as a matter of law. Thus began a pattern that was to be seen again in C16 France: a period of strong royal leadership which lead to a major decline in noble power, followed by the reign of a minor which stimulated an outbreak of noble disloyalty to reclaim this lost power. This was to culminate in the French Wars of Religion.
In the reign of Charles VIII, the nobles were helped by the Duchy of Brittany which was still an independent power, England and Spanish Netherlands. Under Louis both areas had feared the rise in French military might and both did what they could do in an effort to reduce this perceived threat.
In this instance, the nobles rebellion was defeated by Anne in 1488 at the Battle of Saint-Aubin de Cormier. This enhanced her status though Charles was king and Charles was married off to Anne of Brittany in 1491 to cement relationships between France and Brittany. The defeat of the nobles seems to have turned Charles’s head and it is from 1490 on that Charles developed an inflated opinion of his ability as a leader – despite the fact that it was his sister who had orchestrated the defeat of the nobles. This development may have been directly responsible for his decision to invade Italy.
After the defeat of the nobles, France experienced a period of peace and stability that lead to comparative economic well-being.
The conditions of absolutism continued to be expanded as the loose collection of semi-autonomous provinces was brought under centralised authority based in Paris. The chief reason for this was the Royal Council which was no longer dominated by the old established nobility and it was staffed with men who were loyal to the king – a legacy of the reign of Louis XI.
The reign also witnessed :
a system of royal courts of justice that closely supervised the old feudal tribunals the expansion of the royal standing armyan expansion in the improved collection of taxes.
These three things had been seen before in the reign of Louis XI and in that sense Charles was not an innovator. His sister also effectively governed for 9 years and any continuation of an improved policy was to her credit. In fact, “Charles was not keen on the drudgery of government” (Williams)
However, all that was achieved in the reign of Charles, whether it was simply the legacy of his father or not, was spoilt by his ill-conceived foreign ventures that Charles got himself into.
He died after an accident at Amboise in which he struck his head on a low doorway in April 1498 and died as a consequence. He left no children.
The defeat of the nobles in 1488 probably gave Charles an inflated opinion of his own ability and may well have contributed to his belief that he could be a successful adventurer in northern Italy.
By the early 1490’s he had fallen under the influence of Etienne de Vesc who persuaded Charles that he could lead a successful military force into northern Italy. Charles was known to be a romantic and his head was filled with the ideas of grandeur of the Crusades against the Turks.
He also had a very remote claim to the Kingdom of Naples and it is possible that he believed that by taking Naples he could use it as a platform to launch a campaign against the Turks and conquer Jerusalem for the Christians who would then be eternally grateful to him.
To safeguard a campaign in northern Italy, Charles needed to buy off certain people. Henry VII was given cash; Ferdinand II of Aragon was given territory near the Pyranees. Maximillian was given Artois and Franche-Comté . This handing out of territory is symptomatic of Charles’ lack of foresight as once it was gone it could not make a contribution to France any more and each parcel of land had potential strategic implications to the defence of France especially Artois and France-Comté : both of which bordered Imperial land. However, Charles was willing to do this in his attempt to conquer northern Italy.
Charles entered Italy via Piedmont in 1494 and marched south to Pisa, Florence and Rome. Naples was entered without a battle in February 1495. However, such an apparently successful advance into Italy could only provoke hostility and Charles was a long way from home. In March 1495 the Holy League of Venice was formed. This was a combination of Papal, Imperial, Spanish, Venetian and Milanese power. This represented to Charles a far too formidable force and he retreated back to France.
However, to get there he did have to fight the League in July 1495 at the Battle of Fornovo. The ‘battle’ lasted just 15 minutes and Charles managed to get his army back to France intact. The king of Naples re-established his control and for Charles the campaign was a disaster. It had one much greater consequence for Charles – he was seen by other European leaders as being an aggressive adventurer who might try his luck elsewhere or back in Italy again. In fact, Charles was planning another invasion of Italy when he had his fatal accident.