French-Burgundian and French-Austrian Wars

The rivalry between the French monarchy and the House of Burgundy began a series of almost continuous wars that expanded significantly after the House of Burgundy was joined to the Austrian Habsburgs by marriage in 1477. The wars, which at their height brought France into conflict with both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire under Habsburg emperor Charles V, continued until the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis was signed in 1559.

Summary of Event

In the late Middle Ages, the dukes of Burgundy Burgundy were among Europe’s most powerful rulers. Their lands included the duchy of Burgundy and the counties of Artois and Flanders within the kingdom of France, as well as the Franche-Comté (the free county of Burgundy) and the seventeen provinces of the Low Countries, which were units of the Holy Roman Empire. As members of the ruling Valois family of France, they had a major role in internal French politics. When Louis XI’s policies drove a large portion of the French nobility to organize the League of the Public Weal Public Weal, League of the in 1464, Charles the Bold of Burgundy served as its leader. French-Burgundian and French-Austrian Wars (1465-1559)[French Burgundian and French Austrian Wars (1465-1559)]
Charles the Bold
Louis XI
Mary of Burgundy
Maximilian I
Clement VII (1478-1534)
Francis I (1494-1547)
Charles V (1500-1558)
Henry VIII
Louise of Savoy
Margaret of Austria
Henry II (1519-1559)
Paul IV
Philip II (1527-1598)
Valois family
Louis XI (king of France)
Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy
Mary of Burgundy
Maximilian I (Holy Roman Emperor)
Joan the Mad
Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor)
Francis I (king of France)
Henry VIII (king of England)
Clement VII
Louise of Savoy
Marguerite of Austria
Catherine de Médicis
Henry II (king of France)
Paul IV
Philip II (king of Spain)
Ferdinand I (Holy Roman Emperor)

The league and the king met in an indecisive battle at Montlhéry Montlhéry, Battle of (1465) (July 16, 1465), but the rebels’ failure to defeat the king passed the initiative to Louis. Louis’s cunning diplomacy drew many of Charles’s French allies away from him, and Charles was forced to turn to France’s external enemies, England and Aragon, for support. The English attacked out of Calais, demonstrating the value of holding on to that stronghold after the Hundred Years’ War. At the same time, the Aragonese attacked Roussillon, and Charles invaded Picardy. The major event of that war was Charles’s siege of Beauvais Beauvais, Siege of (1472) (1472), but his failure to take the city ultimately allowed Louis to defeat his enemies piecemeal.

Charles the Bold then turned his attention to his larger goal of gaining the title of king for a unified block of land from Burgundy to the Low Countries, which entailed conquering Alsace and Lorraine. That caught the attention of the Swiss, who were further enticed by Louis’s offer of huge sums of French gold. The Swiss attacked Charles in 1474, and he was killed in the Battle of Nancy Nancy, Battle of (1477) (January 5, 1477). He left as his sole heir a daughter, Mary.

Mary cast about Europe for a prince who would help her defend her inheritance against Louis XI, finally choosing to marry Maximilian of Austria. A member of the House of Habsburg, Maximilian was the son of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III. Meanwhile, Louis took advantage of his victory and occupied Artois and Burgundy, but he failed to secure Flanders. The disposition of those lands poisoned relations between the Habsburgs and the Valois until 1559.

When his father died, Maximilian I became Holy Roman Emperor. Under his erratic leadership, the House of Habsburg Habsburg Dynasty remained largely on the sidelines, as France and Spain engaged in war in Italy for control of the kingdom of Naples and the duchy of Milan Milan;struggle for control of (1494, 1499, 1515). Italy;French invasions of Maximilian achieved a major coup, however, when he arranged the marriage of his son Philip to Joan the Mad, heiress to Ferdinand II and Isabella I, the Spanish monarchs. Joan being deemed insane, rule of the Spanish kingdoms passed to her son Charles I when Ferdinand died in 1516. Charles was already the ruler of the Low Countries and the Franche-Comté through his father, who had died in 1506. He became duke of Austria and was elected Holy Roman Emperor as Charles V on Maximilian’s death in 1519.

Now that Charles the Bold’s great-grandson was king of Spain, Holy Roman Emperor, ruler of the Burgundian inheritance, and claimant to the Burgundian lands lost in 1477, the points of conflict between Charles V and Francis I of France were almost endless. Not the least of them was the fact that Charles controlled lands that completely surrounded France. As emperor, one of his first acts was to demand that Francis surrender Milan, which the French had retaken in 1515, on the grounds that it was still an imperial fief. Francis refused, and in 1522, an imperial army defeated a French force at Bicocca and seized Milan. Francis personally led another French force into Italy, but at the Battle of Pavia Pavia, Battle of (1525) (February 24, 1525), he was defeated and captured by imperial forces. He was held in captivity in Spain until he agreed to a huge ransom; its major point was the return of the duchy of Burgundy to Charles. Francis persuaded Charles that only his presence as king could persuade the French people to accept the terms of the ransom, and Charles allowed the king to return to France in exchange for his two older sons as hostages.

Once back on French soil, Francis repudiated the agreement on the grounds that he had been coerced into it by harsh treatment. Securing alliances with Venice, Henry VIII of England, and Pope Clement VII, Francis returned to war. Charles sent an army toward Rome to frighten Clement into abandoning the alliance, but his soldiers, unpaid since Pavia, mutinied and perpetrated the sack of Rome Rome, sack of (1527-1528) in 1527-1528. Desultory war continued for another two years, while the two French princes languished in Spain. In 1529, Louise of Savoy, Francis’s mother, and Marguerite of Austria, Charles’s aunt, negotiated the Peace of Cambrai Cambrai, Peace of (1529) , called the “Peace of the Ladies.” France recognized Charles’s sovereignty over Flanders, Milan, and Naples, while Charles abandoned his claim to Burgundy. The peace also required that Francis pay two million crowns to ransom his sons.

The Habsburgs conceded the loss of Burgundy from then on, but the French did not abandon hope of regaining the lands they had surrendered. In 1533, Francis and Pope Clement arranged a marriage between Francis’s son Henry and Clement’s cousin Catherine de Médicis. The pope then recognized Francis as the rightful duke of Milan, and in 1536, the French made another effort to retake the duchy. Charles’s efforts to defend Milan were complicated by the presence of the Lutherans in Germany and the attacks of the Ottoman Turks in the Mediterranean. Although he remained a Catholic, Francis was always willing to ally with the German Protestants and the Muslim Turks against Charles. Despite that disadvantage, the emperor successfully defended Milan and invaded southern France. Consequently, in 1538, the two monarchs met at Nice, where Pope Paul III served as arbitrator.

These negotiations reaffirmed the Peace of Cambrai, but the French still would not accept the loss of the lands conceded in it. In 1542, using the murder of two French diplomats near Milan as cause, Francis was back at war. This time, he allied openly with Ottoman Turks and allowed their fleet to spend the winter in the harbor at Toulon, from which it raided coastal villages. The outrage among Europe’s Christians, even among most Frenchmen, was immense, and Francis was forced to abandon such an overt alliance in the future. Ottoman Empire;alliance with France[France]

In 1544, a French army was victorious at Cerisolles in Savoy. Charles, however, had reestablished his alliance with Henry VIII, and the two struck into France, Henry out of Calais and Charles from the Franche-Comté. Francis was forced to pull his forces out of Italy to meet the threat. The English took the fortress of Boulogne but then refused to march on Paris, while Charles’s army came within 100 miles (161 kilometers) of the city but had to halt because winter was approaching. The situation soon led to negotiations, which resulted in the Peace of Crépy, Crépy, Peace of (1544) once again reaffirming the status quo.

In 1547, Francis I died, and Henry II assumed the French throne. He had been one of the hostages for his father, and he nursed a grudge against the Habsburgs for what he regarded as mistreatment at their hands. Henry sought to harm the emperor in every way possible, but he was slow to take up arms against Charles V because of the threat that English-held Boulogne now posed to Paris. In 1549, he placed Boulogne under siege, and the English agreed to evacuate it for a large sum of gold. Henry then began building alliances with the German Lutheran princes and the Ottomans.

In 1552, the Lutherans recognized the French right to rule those lands in the empire that spoke French, which referred largely to Lorraine. Henry II led an expedition into Lorraine Lorraine and succeeded in occupying Metz, Toul, and Verdun, known collectively as the Three Bishoprics of Lorraine. Charles counterattacked by laying siege to Metz, but what was probably the largest army assembled in Europe to that point failed to retake it before winter set in. Meanwhile, the combined French and Turkish fleets landed troops on Corsica and took it away from Charles’s ally Genoa.

In 1554, Paul IV was elected pope. As a native of Spanish-ruled Naples, he hated Charles V, and he promised to give Naples and Milan to Henry’s younger sons if Henry would provide forces to seize them from Charles. Thus, in 1556, Henry dispatched an army to Italy. By then, Charles, worn out by his wars, had abdicated his titles, and his son Philip II was king of Spain and Naples, duke of Milan, and prince of the Low Countries, while his brother Ferdinand I had become Holy Roman Emperor.

Philip responded to the French adventure in Italy by sending an army from Flanders toward Paris. A French ground force defending Saint-Quentin was routed on August 10, 1557. St. Quentin, Battle of (1557)[Saint Quentin, Battle of (1557)] The way to Paris lay open, but Philip declined to move his army against the city until the fortress of Saint-Quentin itself was taken. By the time it fell, he deemed it too late in the year to attack Paris. Meanwhile, Henry had recalled his forces from Italy, forcing the pope to make peace with Philip, and assembled the last scraps of French manpower to protect Paris. When it became clear in early 1558 that Philip’s army would not attack Paris, Henry decided to use the forces he had gathered against Calais. The January attack on the English caught them shorthanded, and the marshes around Calais were frozen, making it difficult for the English to mount sallies against the French siege force. As a result, the French took the city after only a week’s siege.

With each side gaining a great victory and suffering a major defeat, it was deemed that God had decreed that they should finally make a lasting peace. Negotiations led to the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis (April, 1559) Cateau-Cambrésis, Treaty of (1559)[Cateau Cambrésis, Treaty of (1559)] . The French again conceded the loss of Milan and Naples and returned Corsica to Genoa, but they retained Calais and their foothold in Lorraine. The treaty also called for the marriage of Henry’s daughter Elisabeth to Philip, who had recently been widowed. In June, Spanish officials came to Paris to sign the peace and arrange the wedding. Participating in the tournament he held to celebrate, Henry was fatally injured. His death left the French throne to fifteen-year-old Francis II. Very quickly, civil war, called the French Wars of Religion, broke out, which left France incapable of carrying on war against the Habsburgs for the next forty years.


France’s wars against the houses of Valois and Habsburg coincided with, and had an impact on, several major developments in European history, including the age of exploration, the Renaissance, and the Reformation. In particular, the wars played an important role in the success of the Protestant Reformation, because they made it impossible for Charles V to use his military might to crush the Lutherans in Germany until they were too well established. The wars also distracted the Habsburgs from their ongoing war with the Ottoman Turks in the Balkans and the Mediterranean. They functioned, as well, as a crucible for major military advances, especially the development of an effective infantry force using firearms. The marriages precipitated by the wars and the marshaling of resources required for them led to the rise of Spain as the major power in Europe until well after 1600.

Further Reading

  • Baumgartner, Frederic. France in the Sixteenth Century. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. Places the wars in the context of French history in the era.
  • Hall, Bert. Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Shows how the wars contributed to military developments in the era.
  • Kendall, Paul. Louis XI: The Universal Spider. New York: Norton, 1971. Highly detailed biography of the French king in whose reign the wars began.
  • Knecht, Robert. Renaissance Warrior and Patron: The Reign of Francis I. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Best biography of that French king.
  • Lockyer, Roger. Habsburg and Bourbon Europe, 1470-1720. London: Longman, 1974. Provides the political context for the wars.
  • Tracy, James. Emperor Charles V: Impresario of War. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Thorough examination of Charles’s policy and strategy in his wars, especially strong on how he financed them.
  • Vaughan, Richard. Valois Burgundy. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1975. Provides a detailed study of the rivalry between the French kings and the dukes of Burgundy.

Aug. 17, 1477: Foundation of the Habsburg Dynasty

Aug. 19, 1493-Jan. 12, 1519: Reign of Maximilian I

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

Nov. 26, 1504: Joan the Mad Becomes Queen of Castile

June 28, 1519: Charles V Is Elected Holy Roman Emperor

1521-1559: Valois-Habsburg Wars

Feb., 1525: Battle of Pavia

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

1555-1556: Charles V Abdicates

Jan. 1-8, 1558: France Regains Calais from England

Apr. 3, 1559: Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis