Louis XII of France Seizes Milan

Shortly after his coronation, Louis XII of France mounted a successful invasion of Italy to press his dynastic claims to the Duchy of Milan. He drove out the ruling duke, Ludovico Sforza, who died in a French prison.

Summary of Event

Louis, duke of Orleans, considered himself heir to the Duchy of Milan through his grandmother, Valentina Visconti. When Charles VIII invaded Italy in 1494, Louis expected to seize control of the city and the title from Ludovico Sforza, nicknamed Il Moro, whose family had taken them from the Visconti in 1450. Though he had long acted as duke, Ludovico did not receive the title officially from Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I until May 26, 1495. Milan;French seizure of
Louis XII
Sforza, Ludovico
Trivulzio, Gian Giacomo
Sanseverino, Galeazzo
Alexander VI
Maximilian I
Charles VIII (king of France)
Sforza, Ludovico
Maximilian I (Holy Roman Emperor)
Trivulzio, Gian Giacomo
Alexander VI
Borgia, Cesare
Bayezid II
Sanseverino, Galeazzo
Ferdinand II (king of Spain)
Louis XII (king of France)

Louis’s plans for Milan were thus thwarted, but Charles was soon in no position to challenge the imperial vassal. The French army, in full retreat from Naples, was stung badly at Fornovo Fornovo, Battle of (1495) on July 6, 1495, by the army of the Holy League, which included both Sforza and the emperor. In October, Charles and the Milanese signed the separate Peace of Vercelli, Vercelli, Peace of (1495) which guaranteed some French rights in Italy, and Charles withdrew completely. In the summer of 1496, Sforza and Emperor Maximilian moved against these French interests in northwestern Italy. This accomplished little except to rile the French, who were preparing a second invasion when Charles died on April 7, 1498.

Duke Louis rapidly succeeded Charles as king, retaining the titles duke of Milan and king of the Two Sicilies (Naples and Sicily). King Louis XII worked tirelessly, both to prepare his own military and diplomatic bases and to undermine Ludovico’. He quickly moved his best general, Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, to the border area of Asti, from which he launched sharp but minor attacks in June. In July, Maximilian, with Milanese financial help, invaded French Burgundy. Though fruitless for Maximilian, the campaign led Louis to make peace with both the emperor and Burgundy’s Archduke Philip in August. At the same point Louis signed a nonaggression pact with Ferdinand II of Aragon. He bought off the leaders of Savoy, which lay between France and Milanese territory, gaining free passage and guides for his army and the right to recruit soldiers.

The Swiss Confederation Swiss Confederation , already angry with Sforza for having supported the emperor in a recent war, allowed the French to recruit Swiss mercenaries in spring of 1499. A French-Venetian alliance was hammered out by April 15, with France guaranteeing Venetian control of eastern Milanese cities in return for fifty-five hundred soldiers. For his part, Pope Alexander VI supported France in return for Louis’s provision of Cesare Borgia, the pope’s son, with the title duke of the Valentinois and a new wife.

Louis rapidly rebuilt the army Charles had allowed to decompose. He quadrupled the number of heavy cavalry and employed Albanian cavalry as light horse. He also repaired and supplemented the vaunted artillery train, providing it with the eighteen hundred horses it needed. When Trivulzio rode out of Asti, he led some twenty-seven thousand men, including ten thousand cavalry and five thousand Swiss mercenaries, and 130 cast bronze artillery pieces with plenty of iron balls.

Meanwhile, Ludovico Sforza was trying to gather soldiers and funding to stop the French. His Italian allies of 1495 had melted away after his separate peace at Vercelli, or had been bought by Louis. Maximilian dangled promises of support but provided nothing. The duke of Mantua, a hardy general, might have proven useful, but negotiations between the two lords were impaled on trivial differences. Naples lamely promised support, as did the small states of Bologna and Forlì, both of which, however, were high on Cesare Borgia’s list of neighbors to conquer. Many were astounded when word leaked that Ludovico had made an alliance with Turkish sultan Bayezid II, who could be counted on to harry the Venetians, perhaps enough to take pressure off of Milan’s border with them. Clearly, he was desperate.

At home, Sforza’s fortresses needed repair and supplying, his army needed more men—generally expensive mercenaries—and his treasury needed more money. He taxed heavily, especially Cremona, a border city he expected to lose quickly. Whether he had the loyalty of the Milanese people is an open question, but contemporary chronicler Ambrogio da Paulla wrote in his Cronaca Milanese (1476-1515; Milanese chronicle) that “the greater part of the Milanese desired the coming of the king, and they treated secretly with Signor Gian Giacomo [Trivulzio, in Asti] as to the means whereby Il Moro [Sforza] could be destroyed.”

Louis’s careful plans and arrangements worked superbly. Sforza could put about twenty-three thousand men in the field; most were mercenary Italian cavalry and Swiss infantry. Their commander, Galeazzo Sanseverino, was described as a dashing soldier but a poor general; Il Moro would not be well served. Nonetheless, Ludovico refused a last-ditch offer from Louis, who offered, perhaps cynically, to accept Ludovico’s title in return for an annual tribute. Il Moro felt he had time: After all, it was quite late in the year for a French expedition.

On August 10, 1499, Trivulzio led his force from Asti into Savoy. Soon, they reached the first Milanese fortress, Rocca di Arazzo. French artillery took only five hours to pound a hole in the wall, while the massacre that followed—ordered by Louis to intimidate other garrisons—was probably much shorter. A few days later, Annone was treated in the same brutal manner, but three other strongholds surrendered upon the French approach. The terror tactic worked. It was, however, more than merely terror, for these were rebellious subjects of their proper lord, Louis, who deserved death for their treason—or so the French held.

By August 25, the French were surrounding Alessandria, in which city Sanseverino and his army were to make their stand. Three days later, the general and his better troops were sneaking out in the predawn darkness, leaving the townsfolk and army to surrender or flee. Meanwhile, Ludovico slumped ever deeper into illness—fevers and gout—and palpable despair. From August 19 to August 25, Ludovico prayed and consulted astrologers and fortune-tellers at the convent of Le Grazie, as his army melted away.

Sanseverino conducted what was left of the army to Pavia, the last major city before Milan itself, but the Pavians refused them admittance. As the Venetians raided the duchy’s eastern borders and laid siege to Cremona, Trivulzio marched directly on Milan. Ludovico decided to take his family and a few retainers and flee to Como, from which he could continue northward into the Holy Roman Empire if pursued. He felt certain he would return and soon and prepared Milan’s fortress for a French siege. September 2 saw the miserable Ludovico depart secretly and Trivulzio enter Milan quite splendidly.

The Citadel surrendered on September 17, and Louis entered Milan in a grand manner on October 6. He came as duke rather than conquering king, but had Trivulzio hand him the city’s keys. After Louis departed for France, conditions in the duchy deteriorated and by mid-January Ludovico had gathered an army and entered Como. This time Trivulzio fled, as Sforza reentered Milan on February 5, 1500. By early April, however, Louis’s general, Louis de la Trémoille, was reinforcing Trivulzio near Novara on the duchy’s western border. Ludovico led his largely Swiss army to Novara, but after the confederation forbade the Swiss from engaging one another in battle, his army disintegrated. Ludovico was captured trying to escape as a departing Swiss pikeman. Milan penitently returned to French control on April 6, 1500. Sforza died in French custody at Loches on May 27, 1508.


Louis XII’s successes in the north were balanced by disappointment in southern Italy. Ferdinand II of Aragon, who gained nominal control of the Two Sicilies from the pope, was at first supportive of Louis’s claims and offered to divide the kingdom between them. This relationship broke down, however, and after French defeats at Garigliano and Cerignola in 1503, Louis recognized the Aragonese claim.

Milan, however, remained in the possession of Louis and his successor until 1535, when it was seized by the Spanish. For three and a half decades, Milan served as a base for French authority and armies in the protracted wars with the Habsburgs that lurched up and down the Italian peninsula. France’s staying power ushered in an era of foreign domination in northern Italy unknown since the twelfth century. Italy’s states, large and small, would be drawn into the great conflicts, supporting one side or the other and wasting time, talent, and treasure on the seemingly endless wars of the late Italian Renaissance. The French occupation also served, however, to draw the cultural life of that same Renaissance into the courts of France and northern Europe more generally.

Further Reading

  • Arnold, Thomas. The Renaissance at War. London: Cassell, 2001. Very useful discussion of the context of Louis’s campaign, from army organization to weapons and drill. Especially relevant are its discussions of mercenaries and the national armies of France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire.
  • Baumgartner, Frederic J. Louis XII. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. The first modern biography in English of Louis, with a full chapter devoted to the Milanese campaign.
  • Guicciardini, Francesco. The History of Italy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984. This original source details the political life of northern Italy from 1490 to 1534 from the point of view of the educated and worldly Florentine statesman.
  • Potter, David. A History of France, 1460-1560: The Emergence of a Nation State. Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Macmillan, 1995. Provides broad context for Louis’s claims and his campaign of 1499-1500.

Apr. 9, 1454: Peace of Lodi

1481-1499: Ludovico Sforza Rules Milan

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

September 22, 1504: Treaty of Blois

Apr. 11, 1512: Battle of Ravenna

Sept. 13-14, 1515: Battle of Marignano

Aug. 18, 1516: Concordat of Bologna

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