King François I’s worst defeat: the Battle of Pavia and captivity

This post is devoted to one of the most important events in the life of King François I of France, who is one of the main characters in my alternate history serious about Anne Boleyn.

Today is a new anniversary of the Battle of Pavia, which was fought on the morning of the 24th of February 1525 and where the French troops were knocked off their perch by the Imperial troops. It was the decisive battle of the Italian War of 1521–1526.

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The Italian Wars of the 1498-1559, also referred to as the Habsburg-Valois wars, had three main causes: the political structure in Italy, the impact of the intellectual and social events of the Renaissance era, and the territorial expansion of the Holy Roman Empire in Europe. France vied with Spain for control of various areas and regions in Italy, and the apogee of the confrontation between the two adversaries happened in the Battle of Pavia.

At the beginning of the military campaign of 1521-1526, the French were in possession of Lombardy, but the Imperial forces re-conquered the region after their victory in the Battle of Bicocca in 1522. King François I tried to regain the lost territories and sent his troops there, but the French lost in the Battle of the Sesia and returned to France without success.

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Meanwhile, the Imperial troops launched an invasion of Provence under the command of Fernando d’Avalos, Marquis of Pescara, and Charles III, Duke de Bourbon – the treacherous Constable de Bourbon who he betrayed François I by allying himself with Emperor Charles V. But the invasion failed because the Spaniards lost too much time during the Siege of Marseilles and had to retreat.

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In October 1524, François and the main French army arrived began their march to Italy. They crossed the Alps and advanced on Milan; the Imperials troops deserted Milan and withdrew to Lodi. François rejoiced that he had re-captured Milan without significant difficulties; he appointed the governor there and then advanced on Pavia, where a sizable Imperial garrison of about nine thousand Imperial soldiers was stationed.

The decisive battle didn’t happen straight away. Instead, a few months period of local skirmishes and artillery bombardments followed. Once the French attempted a fierce assault on Pavia through two of the breaches in the walls of the city, but they were was beaten back. The situation was complicated by rainy weather and a lack of gunpowder, and François decided that it was prudent to wait – his strategy was that the defenders of the city would starve and famine would force them to surrender.

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During the next few months, François managed to sign a secret agreement with Pope Clement VII, who pledged not to aid Charles in exchange for France’s assistance with the conquest of the city of Naples.

On the evening of the 23rd of February, the Imperial armies, commanded by Charles de Lannoy, began their march north along the walls from their camp located outside the east wall of the city. Soon the major war engagement began as the Imperial artillery began a bombardment of the French siege lines.

The battle itself soon unfolded into a melee, with different sources giving different orders of events; however, we know that François left his infantry unsupported, and then he himself led a series of cavalry charges on the Imperial forces that were able to defeat the French cavalry attacks.

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The outcome of the campaign was catastrophic for France: the French were utterly defeated with very heavy loss, and the King of France himself was captured, which was one of the most outrageous events of the time.

Many French nobles, including Anne de Montmorency, were captured as well, but a greater number of them perished in battle, including Louis II de la Trémoille and Richard de la Pole. About a third of the army escaped under the command of Charles IV, Duke of Alencon, whose rearguard didn’t engage; he was later made a scapegoat for the defeat.

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In the book “The Battle of Pavia 1525”, Stephen Lark writes:

“François had lost no fewer than five of his senior co-commanders that day but Lannoy made a special effort to take the King alive. In a strange echo of Bosworth, his horse was killed under him, apparently by a mercenary named Cesare Hercolani. François duly survived and de Vasto’s men escorted him to imprisonment at Pizzighettone, although the identity of the particular enemy who captured him is disputed and Charles could not attribute responsibility later.

The battle was over within about three hours and French casualties exceeded Imperial ones by thirty to one, although this estimate includes their many prisoners, among whom de la Marck, St. Pol, Montmorency, d’Assier, von Diesbach and Tiercelin were also prominent.”

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Now an Imperial prisoner, François was taken to the fortress of Pizzighettone, where he is thought to have penned his infamous letter to his mother, Louise de Savoie:

“To inform you of how the rest of my ill-fortune is proceeding, all is lost to me save honour and life, which is safe…”

Later, François I was taken to Barcelona and then to Madrid, where he had to deal with the negative sides of Spanish “hospitality”.

Instead of treating his prisoner with the courtesy and respect which are normally expressed from one king to another, Charles V fed his rival with promises about liberation while actually seeking to get a great ransom from the captive monarch and to compel him to make other concessions. François was incarcerated in an old and cold castle furnished in austere style, and, after a period of depression and despondency, he contacted a dangerous fever.

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Frightened that François might have died in captivity, Charles paid a visit to the sick King of France and put on a show of respect and affection, although he lied through his teeth, brazenly and openly. The emperor promised that François would be released soon, which elated the captive king’s mood, stimulated his recovery and reinforced his faith in Charles’ goodness.

Yet, François spent about a year in captivity: he was still closely confined and treated not in a manner befitting a king. In January 1526, when the treaty of Madrid was signed, he was finally released. Grossly insulted by the emperor, the King of France would never forget and forgive that personal affront: his hatred and disgust, which he felt towards the Spaniards, wouldn’t fade away until his dying day – they would be strengthened by his further failures to defeat Charles in major battles for dominance in Italy and to avenge the humiliation caused to him by the disastrous aftermath of Pavia.