Charles VIII of France: accidental death after a momentary glory in Italy

Charles VIII of France, known as the Affable, was born at Château d’Amboise on the 30th of June 1470.  He was the only surviving son of King Louis XI of France, called the Prudent and the Spider, and his second queen, Charlotte de Savoy.  His four brothers were all either stillborn or shortlived.

Charles VIII of France, a 16th-century artist, Musee de Conde Chantilly

Charles succeeded his father at the age of 13, and his sister, Princess Anne of France, also known as Anne de Beaujeu, ruled France during his minority together with her husband – Pierre II, Duke de Bourbon.  During their regency, a coalition of feudal lords rebelled against the royal centralization reforms, for Anne continued her father’s policies aimed to make the king’s vassals more dependent upon the Crown.  As a result, the so-called Mad War between the monarchy and the magnates of the realm lasted between 1485 and 1488, resulting in a decisive victory for the regents.  Pierre and Anne ruled for 8 years until Charles turned 21 and ceased their regency.

Since 1483, Charles was betrothed to Margaret of Austria, daughter of Archduke Maximilian of Austria (later Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I) and Mary, Duchess of Burgundy.  This engagement had been arranged by King Louis XI of France and Maximilian as the parties had signed the Peace of Arras of 1482.  With the counties of Artois and Burgundy as her dowry to France, little Margaret had relocated to France and was raised at the French court as a prospective queen.  However, Charles and Margaret were not meant to be together.

Waxwork depiction of the wedding of Charles VIII and Anne of Brittany at Château de Langeais

Anne of France helped her brother arrange an advantageous marriage to Anne of Brittany (Anne de Bretagne).  After the death of Francis II, Duke of Brittany in 1488, his 11-year-old daughter Anne succeeded him and, fearing for the independency of her duchy, in 1490 her advisors arranged for the duchess a marriage by proxy between her and the widower Maximilian.  At the same time, the regents of France – Anne and Pierre – sent the French troops to invade Brittany, for they could not let France to be totally surrounded by the Habsburg domains.  At the time, Maximilian and his father, Emperor Frederick III, were so busy with the disputed succession to the Hungarian throne that they did not interfere, so Anne had to collaborate with the French.

Charles VIII married Anne of Brittany in a lavish ceremony at Château de Langeais in December 1491, while Margaret of Austria was sent home to Flanders.  Although Anne of Brittany’s wedding to Charles was of questionable validity, Pope Innocent VIII validated her marriage to Charles in February 1492 and annulled her union with Maximilian in exchange for many concessions.  Unfortunately, this marriage didn’t allow Charles to have a male heir: his wife was pregnant 7 times, and only their son, Charles Orland, survived, but the boy died of measles at the age of 3.  As Anne was almost constantly pregnant, Anne de Beaujeu governed France as regent during the monarch’s absence while Charles waged his expensive Italian campaigns.

French troops under King Charles VIII entering Florence in November 1494, by Francesco Granacci

Preparing for what he imagined to be his future grand triumph in Italy, Charles concluded several treaties.  The Treaty of Étaples of 1492 ended an English invasion of France, which had been launched to stop France’s support for Perkin Warbeck, a pretender to the English throne.  According to this treaty, France had to pay compensation to Henry VII of England for the abandonment of English interests in Brittany.  It was the king’s sister, Anne, who had begun the negotiations with England during her regency to formally end the Hundred Years’ War, for this treaty allowed to start a rapprochement between the two countries.   According to the Treaty of Barcelona of 1493, Charles ceded Roussillon and Cerdagne back to Aragon.

Charles had an ambitious dream – to assert the claim to the Kingdom of Naples that he had inherited from the Angevins, for René of Anjou had left it to his late father.  Having borrowed a lot of money to fund his projects, Charles crossed the whole of Italy unopposed in 1494, because the speed and power of the French advance frightened the Italian rulers.  The King of France entered Naples in triumph in February 1495, where he was crowned in May.  At the same time, the collation of Milan, Austria, Venice, and the Pope allied against France.  The French won the Battle of Fornovo that happened southwest Parma in July 1495, but Charles lost too many men and nearly all the booty collected during his enterprise.  Soon the French garrisons in Naples were crushed by Ferdinand of Aragon’s troops, and Charles had to retire back to France.

Entry of Charles VIII to Naples by Éloi Firmin Féron, c 1837

According to contemporary accounts, the monarch was quite attractive and had a pleasant disposition, but he was also not clever and was perhaps unfit for ruling the state.  Charles did not possess the shrewdness and sharp intelligence of his father, King Louis XI, which could let him weave intrigues, both military and diplomatic, as masterfully as his late father had done.  His sister, Anne of France, was far more skilled at governance than her younger sibling. Nevertheless, the young ruler surrounded himself with a circle of talented poets.  One of them was the Italian humanist Publio Fausto Andrelini from Forlì (a close friend of Erasmus who also taught at the University of Paris), who was spreading the fundamentals of Italian Renaissance and classics in the country.  Andrelini enjoyed being a court poet, and Anne of Brittany liked him as much as her husband did.  Coupled with his role in the Italian wars, Charles VIII might be regarded as someone who introduced the High Italian Renaissance to France.

The monarch’s death happened unexpectedly.  On the 7th of April 1498, Charles accidentally hit his head on the lintel of a door on the way to watch a tennis match.  At the time, he resided at the Château d’Amboise.  The blow proved to be fatal, and soon the young man breathed his last, leaving no male heir.  He was succeeded by Louis XII, his cousin from the Orléans cadet branch of the House of Valois.  After Charles’ death, the state treasury was deeply in debt, but the wars he had started strengthened France’s cultural ties with Renaissance Italy, which would later be developed and cultivated to an extremely remarkable degree by King François I of France.

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville