The Habsburg-Valois Wars

by Heather R. Darsie

The Habsburg-Valois Wars were part of another series of wars. The Italian Wars took place from 1494 to 1559, where the parties struggled for control of the Italian peninsula. The Italian Wars initially started over a spat between Pope Innocent VIII and Ferdinand I of Naples. Ferdinand I did not pay its dues to the Pope, who turned around and excommunicated Ferdinand. After that, the Pope gave Naples to Charles VIII of France. Charles VIII had a claim to Naples through his paternal grandmother Marie of Anjou. Marie of Anjou came from the Valois-Anjou branch of the Angevin dynasty, who held control over Naples from 1435 to 1442.

Truce of Nice, 1538, by Taddeo Zuccari. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Alfonso II became King of Naples in 1494 after his father Ferdinand died. Ludovico Sforza was in control of Milan at the time, having taken over after his nephew Gian Galeazzo Sforza died at the age of 25 in 1494.  Ludovico was worried over the friendliness between Alfonso II of Naples and the new pope, Alexander VI. To stave off any aggression, Ludovico reminded Charles VIII of his claim to Naples. On the other hand, Charles had Alfonso II whispering into his ear about Charles’ claim to Milan. Charles VIII entered into Italy unopposed with a massive army of 25,000 in early 1494, headed south to Naples, and took it over with barely a fight. In response to French aggression, the League of Venice was formed in March 1495. By July 1495, Charles VIII lost the Kingdom of Naples. Thus ended the First Italian War.

The Habsburgs entered the fray after the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I married Bianca Maria Sforza, Ludovico’s niece through his brother Galeazzo Maria Sforza. Bianca Maria was Gian Galeazzo’s younger sister. Charles VIII died in 1498, leaving the French throne to his cousin Louis XII. Louis was a descendant of Valentina Visconti. Valentina was the daughter of the first Duke of Milan, who reigned from 1351 to 1402.  Louis XII campaigned in Italy with Charles VIII, and watched as Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, first invited the French into Italy and then double-crossed the French by joining with the League of Venice.

Louis XII signed a peace treaty with Maximilian I in 1498. Maximilian was another member of the League of Venice that had frustrated Charles VIII. In 1499, Louis XII’s 27,000 to 32,0000-person army headed to Milan. Upon arrival, the Milanese cities fell one by one, until Ludovico realized he could not suppress the French. Ludovico fled, leaving the wealthy Duchy of Milan to Louis XII of France. Ludovico attempted to recapture Milan in early 1500, but ultimately wound up fleeing again. He was captured and imprisoned for the rest of his life. Louis XII then set about seizing Naples and Genoa. Louis lost control of Naples in 1503, then was pushed out of Milan in 1511 by the Holy League.

After Louis XII died in January 1515, his cousin Francis I of the Valois-Orléans branch became King of France. In September 1515, Francis I attacked a Swiss army by modern-day Melegnano. Francis then recovered Milan.  After Francis I’s victory, France and Spain signed the Treaty of Noyon in August 1516. The treaty specified that France would retain possession of Milan and that Spain would keep Naples.

Trouble between the French Valois and the Austrio-Spanish Habsburgs sprang up again in 1521. Charles V became the Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. Francis I wished to be elected the Holy Roman Emperor, and his defeat left a bitter taste in Francis’ mouth. The Valois-Habsburg peace established by the Treaty of Noyon fell apart.

The Kingdom of France was quickly boxed in by Charles V’s control over Spain and the Holy Roman Empire to the west and east respectively. On top of that, England and the Papacy agreed to war against France. Milan was seized by Charles V in 1521, and control turned over to Francesco Maria Sforza in 1522. Francesco was the second son of the previous duke, Ludovico. France was defeated at the Battle of Bicocca and the Battle of Sesia in April 1522. Francis returned to Lombardy in 1525. Francis was defeated after four hours of fighting at the Battle of Pavia in February 1525, in which the French sustained heavy losses overall and a loss of many nobles. Francis was captured and held by Charles V until 1526, when they signed the Treaty of Madrid. The Treaty of Madrid gave Charles V control over Burgundy, Provence, and Lombardy. Francis agreed to wed Charles V’s elder sister Eleanor and to leave his two sons as hostages under Charles V’s control to ensure Francis’ good behavior.

After his release, Francis immediately sought support from the Pope and from Henry VIII of England. In the meantime, Charles V failed to pay all his mercenary troops, who wound up sacking Rome in May 1527. Charles V took advantage of the situation to bring the Pope into submission, and also arguably to protect his aunt, Katharine of Aragon. At the time, Henry VIII was trying to annul his marriage to Katharine so he could pursue Anne Boleyn and beget his longed-for male children. Francis I signed the Treaty of Cambrai in 1529, allowing him to exit the on-going war.

Charles V turned his attention back to Italy in 1536. Francesco Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan, died in November 1535, leaving Milan without a duke. Both Francis I and Charles V scrambled to gain control over Milan. A French army arrived in the area in March 1536. The French gained control of a couple cities, but ultimately could not secure Milan. Francis’ alliance with the Ottoman Empire was used in August 1536, when the Ottoman fleet harried the Genoese coast. The war ended once more in June 1538 when Charles V and Francis I signed the Truce of Nice. Francis was allowed to keep the City of Turin, which he had taken back in 1536.

Four years later, Francis again declared war on Charles V. Francis was backed by the Ottoman Empire and the United Duchies of Jülich-Cleves-Berg. Though the French did experience some victories through their allies, French forces failed to gain any meaningfully expanded control over the Duchy of Milan. Charles V and Henry VIII joined together in 1543, with an invasion planned for Summer 1544.

England besieged Boulogne and gained control, but no help came from Charles V. Charles V was busy fighting off the Protestant threat in Germany. Changing military needs of Charles V led to the Treaty of Crécy in 1544 between Charles V and Francis I. Several provisions of the treaty concerned Francis I’s son the Duke of Orléans, who died prematurely in 1545. Francis himself died in March 1547.

The final bought of war between the Habsburg and Valois dynasties dragged on from 1551 to 1559. Charles V was still Emperor, and Francis’ son Henri II now King of France.  France experienced success at the start of the war, but made very little ground after that. Charles V abdicated the Imperial and Spanish thrones in 1556 in favor of his brother Ferdinand and son Philip II, respectively. The main theater moved to the Low Countries, where France fought Spain. France experienced varied successes and losses, with one success being the capture of Calais from the English in January 1558. The French force during this time was roughly a third the size of the Imperial force. Despite best efforts, France was heavily in debt.

Henri II of France and Philip II of Spain signed the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in April 1559, finally ending the Italian Wars and the Habsburg-Valois Wars. France was still surrounded by the Holy Roman Empire and Spain, Spain was the dominant power in Italy, and France was about to slip into the French Wars of Religion. Arguably, France was in a better position when the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis was signed in 1559 compared to the Treaty of Madrid in 1526.


Love learning about the Queens of England? Are you interested in Tudor history or Women’s history? Then check out my book, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, a new biography about Anne of Cleves told from the German perspective!

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Sources & Suggested Reading

  1. Darsie, Heather R. Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’. Stroud: Amberley Publishing (2019).
  2. The Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica. “Battle of Marignano.”    Retrieved 19 April 2019.

  1. Oman, Charles. A History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century. London: Greenhill Books, (1999).
  2. The Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica. “Italian Wars.” Retrieved 19 April 2019.
  3. Vioux, Marcelle. “Francis I.” Retrieved 21 April 2019.



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