Charles VIII (France) (1470–1498, Ruled 1483–1498)
CHARLES VIII (FRANCE) (1470–1498, ruled 1483–1498)
CHARLES VIII (FRANCE) (1470–1498, ruled 1483–1498), king of France. Charles VIII was the last king of France in the direct line of the Valois dynasty. The only son of Louis XI (ruled 1461–1483) of France and Charlotte of Savoy, he was born on 30 June 1470. Because of his frailty as a child, Charles was not allowed to participate in vigorous activity, whether mental or physical. As a result he grew up with a limited education and little training in the arts of war and hunting. He became king at his father's death in 1483. Since he was ten months shy of being fourteen years old, he needed a regent to govern for him. A contentious struggle erupted over the regency between his older sister Anne of Beaujeu (1461–1522) and his cousin Louis of Orléans (ruled 1498–1515). It led to the convocation of the Estates-General in January 1484, which had the widest representation and most significant results of any meeting before 1789, most notably a powerful request for a reduction in taxes. The Estates-General, however, failed to designate a regent, and Charles turned fourteen without having one. Louis XI had designated Anne and her husband as his son's guardians, and they dominated the government for the next decade. Upset by the failure of his schemes, Louis of Orléans with his ally Duke Francis of Brittany (1435–1488) led a revolt known as the Fools' War. After their defeat in 1488, Louis was imprisoned and Francis died soon after. Francis's daughter, Anne (1477–1514), the new duchess of Brittany, had little choice but to agree to marry Charles. The marriage took place in December 1491, after Charles had repudiated his betrothal to Margaret of Austria, the daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I.
By then Charles had freed himself from the tutelage of his sister and had begun to rule in his own right. He began planning the expedition to seize control of southern Italy, known as the First French Invasion of Italy (1494–1495). The Valois claim to the kingdom of Naples dated to 1265, when the pope invested Charles of Anjou with the realm as a papal fief. In the decades after 1265 the French lost control of Naples to the royal family of Aragon. Charles VIII was eager to assert his right to Naples and use it as a base for a crusade against the Ottoman Turks, who had conquered Constantinople in 1453. Encouraged by Ludovico Sforza of Milan, who had his own dispute with King Alfonso of Naples, Charles led the French army into Italy in the spring of 1494. The army consisted of the royal companies of gens d'armes, the armored lancers still regarded as the best fighting men in Europe; infantry companies, including six thousand Swiss pikemen, the best foot soldiers of the era; and an artillery train of seventy large bronze cannon, also the best available. The quick reduction of several North Italian forts by the French cannons convinced the Italians that further resistance was futile, and the French marched down Italy to Naples as if on parade. The Neapolitan king fled, and Charles entered Naples in triumph in March 1495.
The steps Charles had taken to secure the neutrality of France's neighbors broke down in light of his success, and Ferdinand of Aragón, determined to vindicate his family, organized a league of the major states of Europe and Italy against Charles. Recognizing that the league threatened to trap him in southern Italy, Charles retreated toward France with half of his army, leaving the rest to occupy Naples. His enemies forced him to give battle at Fornovo, south of the Po River, on 6 July 1495. The bloodiest battle of the expedition was a stalemate, but Charles gained an open route back to France, where he arrived in October 1495. His short time in Italy stimulated Charles's interest in Renaissance art and architecture. His most noteworthy project was the reconstruction of the château of Amboise using Italian artists and artisans, including the noted Fra Giacondo.
Charles and Anne had three children, but only one son survived the first month of life. His death at age three from measles was a devastating blow to the king. It convinced him to give up frivolous pleasures and reduce the tax burden on his people, as the Estates-General of 1484 had requested. Before he could begin to implement his new policies, he died at Amboise on 7 April 1498 after striking his head on a low doorframe. Whether he died from the blow or from aggravating a prior condition is unknown. He was succeeded by Louis of Orléans, who became Louis XII.
Bridge, John S. C. A History of France from the Death of Louis XI. 5 vols. Oxford, 1921–1936. A highly detailed history of France that includes the time of Charles VIII's reign. Especially strong on the invasions of Italy.
Labande-Mailfert, Yvonne. Charles VIII et son milieu, 1470–1498. Paris, 1975. The best biography of Charles.
Frederic J. Baumgartner
The French king Charles VIII (1470-1498) ruled from 1483 to 1498. Struggles for control during his minority and his attempt to conquer Naples were detrimental to France's political and economic life.
Charles VIII was born in Amboise on June 30, 1470. He was only 13 when he succeeded his talented and ambitious father, Louis XI, and his older sister Anne de Beaujeu served as regent during the early years of his reign. At this time the most important problem facing Charles was the virtual independence of the duchy of Brittany, the last of the powerful feudal principalities whose independent policies seriously threatened the political stability of 15th-century France. Francis II, Duke of Brittany, rebelled against Charles in 1484, but the King defeated him in 1488. During this period Charles was also involved in putting down uprisings led by his cousin Louis, Duke of Orléans, who later succeeded him. In 1491 Charles annexed Brittany by marrying Anne of Brittany, who had inherited the duchy from her father on his death in 1488. This marriage brought the last of the independent principalities under control of the Crown.
By this time Charles was free of the regency's influence, but he was at best ill-equipped to deal with the great difficulties of ruling. A contemporary described him as "very young, weakly, willful, rarely in the company of wise men … endowed with neither money nor sense." Unlike most rulers of the time Charles was barely literate, and his interests appear to have been absorbed by the reading of tales of adventure, history, and chivalry rather than by study of state documents.
By 1491 Charles was faced with a number of important problems. Political institutions needed reform and change; the status of the Church was vague and a definitive policy of church-state relations was called for; and strong measures were required to strengthen the economy. Unfortunately Charles did not give continuing attention to the political and economic problems of France; instead he was absorbed by a chivalric and foolhardy dream of acquiring yet another kingdom, Naples, for himself. Reviving an old and remote Angevin claim to the throne of Naples, he mobilized the resources carefully husbanded by his father, traded away most of the diplomatic advantages which France had gained in the preceding half century, and in 1494 launched the largest invading army ever to have entered northern Italy.
In 1495 Charles briefly held Naples, but he was defeated at Fornovo and made a hasty retreat into France. The war which Charles began in 1494 was to turn Italy into a battlefield upon which France and Spain were to contend until the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559. Charles's Italian campaign caused him to neglect French internal affairs almost completely, and many of the gains made during his father's reign were wiped out. But his expedition also had important international consequences; his initial success had shown more astute rulers that Italy was a rich prize which could be taken by force. Charles's French army had been defeated in part by a Spanish one, and this was the first indication that the hitherto independent activities of the Italian principalities were to be drastically curtailed by intervention of stronger powers.
In spite of his commitment of French resources to a fruitless expedition into Italy, Charles VIII did not notably weaken the power of the French monarchy. The achievements of Charles VII and Louis XI had made the king the ruler of France in practice as well as theory. This great royal authority was wielded in a number of institutions which continued to proliferate and grow during Charles's reign, despite his use of royal power in ill-considered enterprises. A lesson, which continues to have validity, can be drawn from this: it is difficult, even for a weak and foolish king, to impair a governmental apparatus whose basis was established by astute and perceptive rulers. In areas other than that of royal authority, Charles obliterated many of his father's achievements. Perhaps the most disastrous effect of his foreign policy was the formation of the anti-French alliance of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, which lasted until the 18th century.
Charles VIII died childless, at the age of 27, on April 7, 1498. He was succeeded by the Duke of Orléans, who became Louis XII.
There is no adequate biography of Charles VIII in English. The standard work, in French, is Claude Joseph de Cherrier, Histoire de Charles VIII (2 vols., 2d ed. 1870). John S. C. Bridge in A History of France from the Death of Louis XI (5 vols., 1921-1936) devotes the first two volumes to the reign of Charles VIII. The problems arising from the invasion of Italy are well treated in The New Cambridge Modern History vol. 1: The Renaissance, 1493-1520, edited by G. R. Potter (1957). □
Charles VIII (1470–1498)
Charles VIII (1470–1498)
King of France whose most important legacy was an invasion of Italy that threw the political world of the Italian Renaissance into turmoil for generations. Born in the castle of Amboise, he succeeded Louis XI to the throne of France in 1483 at the age of thirteen. The young king, who had little formal education and could barely read, was soon dealing with a rebellion of his cousin Louis of Orléans and France's powerful nobles, who were attempting to stymie the authority of the king in their lands. One revolt of the duke of Brittany endured for four years before Charles finally defeated it in 1488. Although he had been betrothed to the daughter of Emperor Maximilian I, Charles believed it wiser to marry the duke's daughter Anne, and in this way bring Brittany at last under royal control.
Looking for further conquests, Charles turned to the wealthy kingdom of Naples, for which the rulers of the French Angevin dynasty had a long-standing claim. In 1494, he made an alliance with Ludovico Sforza of Milan and led a French army into northern Italy. With a powerful force of Swiss mercenaries and seventy cannons at their disposal, the French marched through Tuscany, defeating Florence, and by February 1495 had reached Naples, where Charles deposed the Neapolitan king Alfonso and had himself crowned king. Soon afterward Milan, Venice, the Spanish king Ferdinand of Aragon, the pope, and the Holy Roman Emperor joined forces and defeated the French at the Battle of Fornovo. Charles was driven out of Italy, but the fight for power and influence in Italy among France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire lasted well into the sixteenth century. In the meantime, the chaotic condition of the Italian city-states encouraged many prominent Italian artists and writers to leave their homes and seek protection and patronage, a movement that had the effect of spreading humanism and the classical ideals of the Renaissance up and down the Italian peninsula.
See Also: Ferdinand II of Aragon; France; Italy; Naples