Valois-Habsburg Wars Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The contest between the Valois kings of France and the Habsburg kings of Spain for political supremacy in Western Europe erupted into warfare in Burgundy, Picardy, and the Italian peninsula. By 1559, both sides were exhausted, but the Habsburgs emerged as the marginal victors, becoming the dominant power in Italy.

Summary of Event

The Habsubrg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Pope Clement VII, who had been in battle earlier over Italy and over religion, ride in solemn procession after Charles’s victory over the pope and the authority of the Catholic Church. Clement acknowledged Charles as emperor, and, in 1530, he crowned Charles, the last Roman emperor to be crowned by a pope.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

The rivalry between the Spanish branch of the Habsburg Dynasty and France’s Valois Dynasty dominated the political scene of Renaissance Europe beginning around the turn of the sixteenth century. After 1521, these dynastic conflicts should be considered against the backdrop of the conflicts between Christian Europe and the Ottoman Turks and the religious wars ignited by the Protestant Reformation. In fact, the Habsburgs found themselves engaged in all three conflicts, sometimes simultaneously. This prolonged political and religious strife exerted great demands on the resources and logistical capacity of Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who regarded himself as the guardian of the one true faith against the threat of Muslim infidels and the depredations of the Lutheran movement. Valois-Habsburg Wars (1521-1559)[Valois Habsburg Wars (1521-1559)] Francis I (1494-1547) Charles V (1500-1558) Henry II (1519-1559) Philip II (1527-1598) Clement VII (1478-1534) Süleyman the Magnificent Henry VIII Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor) Francis I (king of France) Clement VII Süleyman the Magnificent Henry VIII (king of England) Henry II (king of France) Philip II (king of Spain)

The Habsubrg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Pope Clement VII, who had been in battle earlier over Italy and over religion, ride in solemn procession after Charles’s victory over the pope and the authority of the Catholic Church. Clement acknowledged Charles as emperor, and, in 1530, he crowned Charles, the last Roman emperor to be crowned by a pope.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

A full sixteen years of Charles V’s reign was consumed with war against France, and the central issue of this contest was control of the Duchy of Milan Milan , which the French king, Francis I, had conquered in 1515. Open war between the two monarchs was initiated by Francis. Following the election that made Charles emperor and expanded his realm of influence from Spain to the entirety of the Holy Roman Empire, Francis found himself practically encircled by Habsburg territory. Fearing for the security of his kingdom, in 1521, he launched a series of preemptive strikes against Charles in Navarre, in the Netherlands, and in Luxembourg. All three of these gambits failed, and the emperor responded by seizing control of Milan. A subsequent attempt by the French army to take back the city ended in a bloody defeat at Bicocca in April, 1522.

Francis himself returned to Italy at the head of an army in 1524. He again managed to take Milan but his siege of an imperial holdout at the Battle of Pavia Pavia, Battle of (1525) (February, 1525) ended in a catastrophic defeat. Francis himself was captured and ignominiously transferred back to Madrid, where he and Charles had their first face-to-face meeting. Francis was eventually forced to sign the harsh Treaty of Madrid Madrid, Treaty of (1526) in January, 1526, whereby he pledged to abandon all his claims in Italy and relinquish control of Burgundy to the Habsburgs.

Ultimately, however, Charles gained very little from his decisive victory at Pavia. He was soon confronted with an alliance of France, the pope, and several Italian states (the League of Cognac), which sought to drive the Habsburgs from Italy. Charles responded by fomenting a rebellion against the Francophile pope Clement VII inside his territories and then, in 1527, by sending an army to Rome under Charles de Bourbon. When Bourbon was killed outside the city, the underpaid and underfed imperial force sacked the Holy City in an orgy of violence that killed thousands and came to be known as the sack of Rome Rome, sack of (1527-1528) . Clement sought refuge in his Castello Sant’Angelo, becoming a virtual prisoner of the Holy Roman Empire for the next nine months.

The sensation of a Christian army sacking Rome did not stop the war in Italy. Francis invaded Milan in the same year. With his ally, the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria, blockading the city’s port, it also appeared certain that Naples would fall to the French. At that crucial point, however, Doria decided not to renew his alliance with the French and defected to the imperial side instead. Within months, the French army, weakened by disease, had been forced out of Italy altogether.





The Peace of Cambrai (1529) Cambrai, Peace of (1529) , also known as the Ladies’ Peace, reflected the desire for peace on both sides. Both had seen their resources seriously depleted, and Charles watched with alarm as the Ottomans advanced toward Vienna. According to the terms of the peace, Francis again agreed to abandon his claims in Italy and the Netherlands, but this time Charles renounced his long-standing claim to Burgundy. Charles was crowned emperor by the pope at Bologna in 1530, the last emperor so to be honored. Most of Italy was now firmly under Charles’s control. At this point, the contest between empire and papacy seemed to have been decisively settled in favor of the emperor. The appearance of victory for Charles was largely illusory, however, for the twin financial burden of fighting wars both in Italy and against the Ottoman Turks had taken a serious toll on the empire.

In many ways, Cambrai ushered in a new stage in the dynastic contest. Both France and the empire were affected by the increased financial burden of the new military tactics they had adopted. Primarily mobile wars that allowed for rapid changes in fortune with relatively little expense had become a thing of the past. Instead, most military engagements were now long, costly sieges of citadels and cities fortified in the style of the artillery fortress. While one side or the other might win a decisive victory at a particular battle, the great costs of these sieges, in time, in money, and in manpower, helped produce an overall, gradually widening stalemate in the war as a whole. This stalemate was primarily the consequence of money shortages on both sides—just when a breakthrough seemed possible for one side, it ran out of capital and had to suspend operations until more could be found.

Milan remained the apple of Francis’s eye. He invaded Italy twice more in his reign with this target in mind, in 1536 and 1543. In both instances, initial French successes proved to be ephemeral. In 1536, Francis was able to overrun Turin and most of Piedmont, but he was soon faced with an answering invasion of Provence by Charles. The two sides agreed to a truce in 1538. Following this truce, in 1539, Charles toured the length of the French kingdom as the king’s guest, against the wishes of most of the imperial advisers.

The 1538 truce was as short-lived as the previous ones, and hostilities had recommenced by 1542. On this occasion, Francis took the extraordinary step of allying openly with the Ottomans, going as far as to allow Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent’s fleet to winter at Toulon. Francis launched yet another invasion of Italy and the French defeated an imperial army decisively in a bloody battle in Piedmont Piedmont, Battle of (1544) at Cerisolles in April, 1544. Despite the victory, Francis was again unable to achieve his true goal, the conquest of Milan. The French king found himself faced not only with an invading imperial army in Champagne but also with a landing by English troops on the Channel coast—Henry VIII of England had allied with the Emperor. These conflicts were ended at the Peace of Crépy (1544) Crépy, Peace of (1544) , where Francis gained only Savoy and a sliver of Piedmont, ceding Milan once more to Charles. The Italian phase of the Valois-Habsburg conflict was now largely at an end. The Habsburgs dominated the peninsula.

After ascending the French throne, Francis’s son and successor, Henry II, waited five years before renewing the conflict with the Habsburgs. Henry allied with Lutheran princes inside the empire itself and, in the spring of 1552, seized the imperial cities of Metz, Toul, and Verdun. Charles responded with a lengthy, bloody, and ultimately unsuccessful siege of Metz. Indeed. the war that followed largely consisted of a series of desultory sieges along France’s northern border with few significant breakthroughs.

In 1555-1556, an exhausted and disillusioned Charles abdicated his throne, dividing the imperial territories between his brother, Ferdinand, and his son, Philip II, who took the title of king of Spain. The Habsburg-Valois struggle now continued largely in the form of a Franco-Spanish contest. In 1557, Henry II made one last attempt to take Naples, which ended, like the others before it, in French defeat. Subsequent defeats at Saint-Quentin and Gravelines prompted a sickly Henry to negotiate a peace. Luckily his desire for peace was mirrored in Madrid—it appeared that both sides finally wanted a real, lasting peace. This was finally achieved at Cateau-Cambrésis Cateau-Cambrésis, Treaty of (1559)[Cateau Cambrésis, Treaty of (1559)] in April, 1559.


Virtually no part of Western Europe remained untouched by the Valois-Habsburg Wars. Financially, economically, and politically, the wars had wide-ranging effects. The direct, physical ravages of war hit some regions, especially Italy and northwestern Europe, repeatedly. As in the Cold War, states were forced to align themselves with one side or the other in the contest. Despite the great expenditures they were forced to make in men and money, the Habsburgs emerged from the conflict as the strongest dynasty in Europe. The Spanish branch of the family, under Philip II, enjoyed political dominance over Italy and was enriched by an influx of treasure from the New World. For the next three generations, a primary concern for European statesmen would be the prospect of Habsburg hegemony in Europe.

France, for its part, was afforded very little time to enjoy the coming of peace. At a jousting tournament held to celebrate Cateau-Cambrésis four months after its signing, Henry II received a freak mortal wound when a lance penetrated the eye-slit of his helm. Just as France marked the end of a long chapter of its history filled with conflict with the Habsburgs, the death of Henry opened a bitter and vicious new chapter marked by several decades of civil war.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arnold, Thomas. The Renaissance at War. London: Cassell, 2001. Military history focused on the sixteenth century with plenty of coverage of the Habsburg-Valois conflict. Beautifully illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mackenney, Richard. Sixteenth-Century Europe. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Survey written in an entertaining, jaunty style. Brings together very well the multifaceted religious, dynastic, and political factors that drove the conflicts of the era.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maltby, William. The Reign of Charles V. New York: Palgrave, 2002. A comprehensive examination of imperial rule under Charles. Especially useful for understanding how Charles’s domestic concerns affected his foreign policy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parker, Geoffrey. “The Political World of Charles V.” In Charles V, 1500-1558, and His Time, edited by Hugo Soly. Antwerp: Mercatorfonds, 1999. A lengthy article in a richly illustrated coffee-table book that deals largely with Charles’s grand strategy in facing his manifold foreign policy challenges. By the foremost historian of international relations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Aug. 17, 1477: Foundation of the Habsburg Dynasty

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

September 22, 1504: Treaty of Blois

Jan. 23, 1516: Charles I Ascends the Throne of Spain

Aug. 18, 1516: Concordat of Bologna

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

Feb., 1525: Battle of Pavia

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

1555-1556: Charles V Abdicates

Categories: History