Charles VIII was born on June 30, 1470, in Amboise, France. The only surviving son of King Louis XI, Charles became his heir at birth. As the prince grew, he experienced bad health and proved to be a poor student. To add to his misfortune, Charles inherited his father’s ugly features. However, unlike Louis, the prince had an approachable personality that attracted others to him.
King of France
On August 30, 1483, Louis XI died from cerebral arteriosclerosis. Shortly before his passing, the king met with Charles one final time. Knowing that his son was too young to rule independently, Louis appointed the prince’s elder sister, Anne, as Charles’ regent. Anne had inherited her father’s cunning mind and political aptitude. Recognizing these traits in his daughter, Louis felt confident that France would continue to flourish during his son’s reign.
Within a year of his accession, the 14-year-old Charles VIII faced a revolt from the duchy of Brittany. The Duke of Brittany, Francis II, wanted to keep Brittany independent from France at all costs. In turn, the conflict between the duchy and the kingdom became known as the Mad War, which lasted for four years. During this time, Anne oversaw the government and acted on her younger brother’s behalf. Due to Charles’ lack of political instincts, his sister was the real power behind the throne.
As the government dealt with Francis II, the Valois dynasty faced another threat from Louis, Duke of Orleans. Louis XI had previously forced the duke to marry his disabled daughter, Joan. By doing this, the king had intended to make the Orleans branch of the royal family go extinct. When Louis failed to become regent, the duke allied himself with Francis II and other leading nobles. The group’s mission was to limit royal authority and overthrow Anne. Despite the threat, Anne tactfully used diplomacy to end the conflict without engaging in a significant battle in 1488.
Age of Majority
In 1491, Charles VIII had become old enough to rule on his own. For his first act, the 21-year-old king focused on acquiring Brittany. In 1488, Francis II died, leaving behind his daughter, Anne, as his heir. Like her father, Anne feared that the duchy would eventually lose its independence to France. To counter this, the duchess sought to marry Archduke Maximilian of Austria. Charles wanted to prevent the union and stop the Austrian Habsburgs from being on two French fronts.
Charles VIII struck while Maximilian and his father, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, were occupied with Hungary. The French army invaded Brittany and captured Anne. Forced to renounce Maximilian, the bitter duchess then became engaged to Charles. The king had formally been engaged to Maximilian’s daughter, Margaret, but dumped her in favor of Anne. On December 6, 1491, Charles and Anne married. As a result, Brittany lost its independence and became a part of France.
The Italian War
With Brittany brought under French control, Charles VIII turned his attention towards Italy. In 1492, a Spanish cardinal named Rodrigo Borgia became pope. As Alexander VI, the ambitious pope wanted to carve up central Italy to create a kingdom for his son, Cesare. In turn, Milan would have been the most affected. Fearing for his duchy’s independence, Duke Ludovico Sforza asked for Charles’ help. The duke hoped to use French support to fend off both the papacy and its ally, Naples.
The prospect of seizing Naples excited the adventurous Charles VIII. The king had a claim to Naples’ throne through his grandmother, Marie of Anjou. Although France had more pressing political and economic issues to address, Charles began planning a military campaign. To secure France against his enemies, the king made a treaty with Henry VII of England (1492) and Maximilian of Austria (1493). Although he achieved peace, Charles’ actions caused France to lose many of the diplomatic advantages that Louis XI had gained.
With his kingdom secured, Charles VIII focused his resources on building up his army. In September 1494, the king arrived in Italy with 25,000 soldiers. As the French passed through the peninsula, they moved unopposed. On February 22, 1495, Charles reached Naples. The French subsequently took the kingdom with little resistance and expelled its king, Alfonso II.
Seeing how powerful and efficient the French army was scared many Italian rulers, including Alexander VI. Realizing his mistake in inviting Charles VIII to Italy, Ludovico Sforza allied himself with the pope. Along with other nobles, the Holy Roman Empire, and Spain, the men created an anti-French alliance. In turn, the group’s members trapped the French king in Southern Italy. However, Charles remained unfazed. Instead of surrendering, the king marched his forces through enemy territory and successfully returned to France.
Although Charles VIII had achieved his goal in Italy, his success proved short-lived. In July 1495, Spanish troops overwhelmed the remaining French garrisons in Naples. As a result, the French lost everything that they had gained the previous year. Charles spent the next three years attempting to launch another campaign but couldn’t due to his first campaign’s debts. The king would never return to Italy and regain Naples’ throne.
On April 7, 1498, Charles VIII attended a tennis match in Amboise. While passing through a door, the king struck his head on a beam. Although initially fine, Charles fell into a sudden coma after the match. After several hours, the king died from his injury. Since Charles’ six children had predeceased him, the senior branch of the Valois dynasty ended. In turn, the king’s cousin, Louis of Orleans, succeeded him as King Louis XII and married his widow, Anne.
Charles VIII was an idealistic, yet foolish ruler. His reckless ambition left France with large debts, depleted resources, and internal issues. The king’s military campaign ultimately accomplished little in Italy. Instead, it helped unify France’s enemies into an anti-French alliance. Despite his failure, French interest in Italy continued. Until 1559, French kings fought against the Spanish for control of the peninsula.
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Hibbert, C. (1974). The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall. New York, NY, NY: Morrow Quill Paperbacks.
Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Charles VIII. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved August 28, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-VIII.