Formation of the League of Cambrai

Julius II formed the League of Cambrai to help restore Italian political stability and to allow the league’s members to reclaim lands taken from them by Venice. The league was short-lived, however, because it served inadvertently to upset the balance of power in the region in favor of the French.

Summary of Event

In 1508, the Italian political landscape enjoyed a rare moment of relative stability. Beginning with the French king Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy Italy;French invasions of in 1494, the peninsula had been plunged into a state of chaos, as various governments both within and without Italy strove to seize control of as many of the Italian states as possible. The chaos abated somewhat at various times during the first half of the sixteenth century, but the overall political situation would not fully stabilize until the 1559 Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis Cateau-Cambrésis, Treaty of (1559)[Cateau Cambrésis, Treaty of (1559)] . Cambrai, League of
Louis XII
Maximilian I
Ferdinand II (1452-1516)
Julius II
Margaret of Austria
Amboise, Cardinal Georges d’
Julius II
Maximilian I (Holy Roman Emperor)
Louis XII (king of France)
Amboise, Cardinal Georges d’
Margaret of Austria
Ferdinand II (king of Spain)

The temporary stability of 1508 was the result of recent military successes enjoyed by Spain and the papal forces led by Pope Julius II. Spanish forces had defeated the French and had occupied southern Italy, while the French remained in control of Milan, the strategic key to northern Italy. Julius II had brought Bologna, Perugia, and other states under direct papal governance, and he sought to recover cities in northern Romagna that had been taken by the Republic of Venice Venice, Republic of . Venice had taken advantage of the confusion resulting from the French invasions to occupy not only papal territory but also areas on the mainland of Italy that were claimed by other states. The states that had been disenfranchised by Venice’s actions consequently drew together in a plot to retake their lands and to divide between themselves all the mainland possessions of the Venetian Republic.

The League of Cambrai was undoubtedly assembled by more than one diplomat, but Julius II was its guiding voice. In the summer of 1507, he sent a papal legate to Germany to persuade Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I not to proceed with his projected invasion of Italy but to consider instead the formation of a general league against the Turks and a special league against Venice. In 1508, overtures were also made to the French, and soon a truce was announced between France and the empire, enabling conversations about the pope’s proposals to begin in earnest.

In November, 1508, a delegation from King Louis XII of France headed by Cardinal Georges d’Amboise, his chief minister, met a delegation from the emperor at Cambrai, on the Flanders frontier. The imperial delegation was led by Margaret of Austria, a woman whose significant role in history has not always been acknowledged. Within one month, the details for the League of Cambrai had been negotiated, including an open treaty and a secret one. The former established peace and an alliance between France and the Holy Roman Empire and provided as well for a confederation against the Turks and all other enemies of Christendom. This confederation included the pope and the kings of England, Hungary, and Aragon.

The secret treaty, signed the same day, formed a league against the Venetian Republic, stating that its purpose was to put an end to the aggressions of Venice and to restore captured territories to their rightful owners. The principal signatories to the secret treaty were King Louis XII, Pope Julius II, and the Emperor Maximilian, but the kings of Aragon and Hungary were invited to participate with the promise of territorial compensation for their involvement.

The members of the league were required to prepare for war the following April. They were to aid one another in recovering their “rightful” lands, and none was to make a separate peace. One potential difficulty, the fact of Maximilian’s alliance with Venice, was surmounted by the device of having the pope call on the emperor, as protector of the Church, to aid in the recovery of papal lands. For his share, Maximilian would achieve the restoration of imperial control of such Italian cities as Goriza, Trieste, and Flume. Louis XII joined the league, not only because of disputes with Venice concerning the division of northern Italy but also because he was strongly influenced by both the pope and the emperor.

The fourth member of the coalition, Ferdinand II, king of Aragon and Naples, demanded the return of the Apulian ports of Brindisi and Otranto, which had been taken from the Kingdom of Naples by the Venetians in 1495. He also feared that failure to participate in the league would leave him politically isolated in Europe. There is no doubt that Ferdinand expected that most of the effort against Venice would be made by the emperor, the pope, and the king of France.


The League of Cambrai was an instrument fashioned by Julius II, through which he intended to divide the Republic of Venice to the advantage of the papacy and the major European states. The league actually lasted less than two years, however. The French won a significant victory against Venice at Agnadello in 1509, but the victory had the effect of dividing the league, because it left France too powerful in northern Italy. As a result, Julius II came to an agreement with Venice in 1510 and proceeded to form a new league, the second Holy League Holy League , whose avowed purpose was to drive the French out of Italy. The League of Cambrai, then, actually served to disrupt the balance it was meant to capitalize on and to strengthen. Rather than create a stable apportionment of power and territory on the Italian peninsula that could lead to a suspension of military activities if not outright peace, the league ultimately served only to perpetuate the bloody warfare of the period.

Further Reading

  • Bridge, John S. C. Reign of Louis XII, 1508-1514. Vol. 4 in A History of France from the Death of Louis XI. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1978. The League of Cambrai is prominently featured in this book on French political and diplomatic history.
  • Gilbert, Felix. The Pope, His Banker, and Venice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980. A detailed examination of Julius’s involvement in the League of Cambrai and his war against the Republic of Venice. Stresses the financial arrangements made by both the pope and the Venetian Republic to carry out the extended conflict. An excellent insight into the diplomatic and financial policies at work in the papacy and the importance of finances for the conduct of Renaissance warfare and diplomacy.
  • Okey, Thomas. Venice and Its Story. 4th ed. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1930. History of the Venetian Republic based on chronicles, general histories, and monographs of the nineteenth century. Argues that Venice was already in a state of decline by the mid-fifteenth century.
  • Ragg, Laura M. Crises in Venetian History. London: Methuen, 1928. Studies the history of Venice’s foreign relations from the earliest times to World War I.
  • Shaw, Christine. Julius II: The Warrior Pope. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996. Biography of Julius II combined with political history of the Papal States and Italy during the Renaissance. Includes photographic plates, illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Stinger, Charles L. The Renaissance in Rome. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. Julius II figures prominently in this study of the resurgence of Rome’s cultural, religious, and political importance in the Renaissance. Includes maps, illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Zorsi, Alvise. Venice, 697-1797: A City, a Republic, an Empire. Rev. English ed. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 2001. Traces the development of Venice from a small fishing village into one of the Renaissance’s great republics. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.

Apr. 9, 1454: Peace of Lodi

Sept., 1494-Oct., 1495: Charles VIII of France Invades Italy

1499: Louis XII of France Seizes Milan

1500: Roman Jubilee

1504: Treaty of Blois

Apr. 11, 1512: Battle of Ravenna

Sept. 13-14, 1515: Battle of Marignano

1521-1559: Valois-Habsburg Wars

Feb., 1525: Battle of Pavia

May 6, 1527-Feb., 1528: Sack of Rome

Apr. 3, 1559: Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis