Home > History > Popes, Cardinals and War: The Military Church in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe

Popes, Cardinals and War: The Military Church in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe

I. B. Tauris | 2006 | ISBN 1845111788 | 257 pages

In this lively and compelling history, D.S. Chambers examines popes and cardinals over several centuries who not only preached war but also put it into practice as military leaders. Engaging and stimulating, and using references to scripture and canon law as well as a large range of historical sources, Chambers throws light on these extraordinary and paradoxical figures — men who were peaceful by vocation but contributed to the process of war with surprising directness and brutality — as well as illuminating many aspects of the political history of the Church.

The theme of this book is emphatically not the history of Italy, but, since the papacy’s engagements in war – and popes’ and cardinals’ personal participation in it – were to a large extent happening there, some introductory guidelines over the many centuries to be covered, particularly over the central period of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, may be of help. Even so, readers may have to bear allusions in the text to unfamiliar and under-explained persons, places and events, and may still remain baffled by the complexities of Italian medieval and early modern history. Unfortunately, no attempt to present a history of Italy ever seems quite to succeed; those multi-volume series written by numerous different authors invariably frustrate the reader by the variety of approaches and too little precise detail.

One starting point would be to present this theme of a belligerent papacy in its Italian background as a struggle for physical survival. The bishopric of Rome, with its primacy over the Church, or over the world as some proponents were to claim for it, and its sacred associations with St Peter and countless martyrs, had its base halfway down the Italian peninsula. This was a highly vulnerable location. Italy was subjected to foreign invaders in every century of the Christian era, from every direction in turn, and the problem of dealing with aggressive invaders has had much to do with forging the papacy’s often warlike standpoint. For the earlier period, up to the twelfth century, this is briefly illustrated in Chapter 1, but it is important to stress from the outset two important points.

The first important point is that the Bishop of Rome, like other medieval bishops, possessed from time immemorial local estates and castles, but in addition claimed much more widespread temporal possessions, thanks to political ‘donations’ and their successive confirmations. The first and most famous of these was the donation allegedly made by the Emperor Constantine I some time after his conversion to Christianity and the decision to remove the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium (henceforward Constantinople) in 326–30. It supposedly gave to the Pope imperial rights and possessions in Italy, as well as lordship over all islands, but there is no doubt that the basis of this was an eighth-century forgery, and later donations, more modest and not always consistent with each other, were more authentic.

Among the most significant of these donations was that of Pepin the Short, King of the Franks, dated to the year 751 and later confirm by his son Charles I (Charlemagne). This deed underlines the close bond forged between the papacy and the new dynasty of Frankish kings, former ‘mayors of the palace’ to the Merovingians. Sole king of theFranks since 770, ruler of roughly the eastern half of modern France and parts of Western Germany, Charlemagne expanded his power on a vast scale. His many wars, against Moors in Spain (continuing the efforts of his father and grandfather), against pagan Saxons, Avars, Slavs and othersin central Europe, and against Lombards in Italy, coincided well with the interests of the papacy. He was (as Einhard, his contemporary biographer, records) extravagantly devoted to the see and shrine of St Peter, and avowed himself to be the Pope’s military protector against all secular enemies, including the violent people of Rome, leaving the Pope free simply to pray and serve the faith. Charlemagne was in return rewarded with the title of ‘Emperor Augustus’ (no apologies to Constantinople) and crowned in Rome by Leo III on Christmas Day 800.

In practice, this condominion of world authority, and the separation of papal and imperial functions, did not work smoothly after Charlemagne’s death (814). His inheritance was subdivided, and the titles of ‘King of the Romans’ and (when crowned) ‘Emperor’, though not filled at all for considerable periods, were to pass to other Germanic dynasties; some holders, particularly Henry IV of the Franconian line inthe later eleventh century, claimed superior divine authority and defied the papacy over major Church appointments and other matters. Nevertheless, roughly from Charlemagne’s time, it became widely known, if not always accepted, that there were papal legal claims to rights in much of Umbria, southern Tuscany and Campagna (‘from Radicofani to Ceprano’), and east of the Appenines, in the former Greek Exarchate of Ravenna, a region called ‘Pentapolis’ which included the Adriatic coastal strip from Rimini to just north of Ancona and the Marches (borderlands), the region still called ‘Marche’ today. Originally the three Marches of Fermo, Camerino and Ancona, by ca. 1100 all three were known simply as the March of Ancona. The papal claims extended also over much of present-day Emilia-Romagna even as far north as Bologna and Ferrara. Some serious efforts were being made by the popes to realise such territorial rights until the emperors of the Staufen dynasty, first Frederick I Barbarossa (reigned 1155–89), challenged them by force and, supported by armies that represent the last of the great Germanic invasions of the peninsula, tried to reimpose direct imperial authority in Italy.

By the early thirteenth century, under Pope Innocent III, during a hiatus in imperial potency, a more coherent ‘papal state’ with some recognised boundaries and institutions of government was emerging in central Italy. The map attempts to explain the region under discussion, which was of relevance from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century.

From 1278, when the Emperor Rudolf of Habsburg finally conceded papal claims in Romagna, this turbulent province, also the neighbouring March of Ancona, became the special target of papal attempts at recuperation and consolidation. It would, however, be wrong to suppose that all papal claims of secular jurisdiction, taxation and service, etc. were exactly defined, or that they applied with equal force all over a large region of central Italy, or that local warlords and others readily conceded obedience to Rome. This was no modern state yet, no equivalent to the contemporary strong monarchies of France or England. Force of tradition and forceful possession counted more than written deeds of donation. Indeed, a remark attributed to Pope Julius II in 1512 probably expresses what for centuries remained the prevailing assumption of the papacy and its supporters that the legal rights of the Church were so ancient that it would be shameful to dispute them.

The second point, which relates closely to the first, is that since 1059 the papacy had established a special relationship or feudal dependency over the southern half of Italy, which in less than a century was upgraded into a kingdom. It was bestowed on the most recent and successful of foreign invaders, a Norman dynasty, who did the work of subjecting Greeks and Lombards on the mainland and Arabs in Sicily. The papal purpose was to obtain security and a reliable source of military protection. In practice this was not always forthcoming; and after the Staufen inherited the southern kingdom through marriage, and from 1230 onwards became mortal enemies of the papacy, the prospect looked bad. However, to obtain the fall of the Staufen the papacy in 1263 conferred the kingdom on a branch of the Capetian dynasty, kings ofFrance, in the person of Charles I, Duke of Anjou. This ‘Angevin’ dynasty continued to rule the kingdom (it was always known simply as ‘il Regno’) till the early fifteenth century, although Sicily from 1282 split away to be ruled by the kings of Aragon, by conquest but also by claim of heredity from the Norman–Staufen line. The kingdom continued to be of vital importance to the papacy.

Of course the reality of power, or at least of economic power, in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Italy, indeed in all Europe, lay in the expanding and prosperous northern cities of Italy – above all in Milan, Venice, Genoa and Florence. For them the temporal preoccupations of the papacy were only of relative interest, though northern banking firms, particularly those of Florence, would for long act as the papacy’s creditors and revenue collectors. An irregular pattern emerged that divided Italy on pro-papal lines (‘Guelf’, Angevin, civic constitutional) – a notable example being Florence – and pro-imperial lines (‘Ghibelline’, aristocratic, tyrannical), such as Milan, which was controlled by the Visconti dynasty. There were factions in many cities that represented conflicting interests and exploited these supposedly irreconcilable party labels, although the affluent maritime republics, Venice and Genoa, did not fall into either camp. Most cities – excluding Florence, Venice, Genoa, Siena and Lucca, which retained varying forms of elective institutions and some respect for the rule of law – developed into signorial regimes, under the rule of one man, or one family. Such a regime often grew out of some form of civic appointment, which was by vote or acclamation made into a permanent ‘captaincy’, at best a semibenevolent tyranny.3 Ferrara had one of the most long-standing of these regimes, ruled since 1240 by the Este dynasty; Mantua, under the Gonzaga family since 1328, was another example. This pattern also applied to the relatively small towns and their adjacent territories within the papally claimed regions of central Italy. By the fourteenth century, when the papacy – although based at Avignon from 1309 until 1377 – made strong efforts to impose control on these regions, its military legates often had to compromise with the strongmen, warlords or local dynasties in effective control there. They might be recognised as papal ‘vicars’, conditional on payment of tribute and military service; it was thus that turbulent and in some cases former ‘Ghibelline’ clans, such as the Montefeltro, with their lordship centred on Urbino in the Marche, the Malatesta of Rimini, the da Varano of Camerino, the Baglioni of Perugia and others, were accommodated. But as they tended to become hereditary and virtually independent, prospering as condottieri (mercenary military captains under contract) in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, papal policy changed to attempting a more direct control, sometimes by family alliance, sometimes by force or the threat of it. A special case was Bologna, a city in a key position, since it controlled one of the main routes over the Appenines to Tuscany. There in the fifteenth century a local family, the Bentivoglio, came to challenge or uneasily to share the government of the city with papal legates; the total control of Bologna came to be an overwhelming priority for the papacy.

The idea of the ultimate sovereignty of the emperor, a figure elected by a small number of German princes and prince-bishops, was never eliminated from northern Italy – and in 1310–13 Henry VII of Luxembourg led a last military invasion – but the subsequent election of Lewis of Bavaria was disputed and not recognised by the new pope, John XXII (pope 1316–34). The authority of the empire was still further degraded; its role in Italy became even more nominal, becoming little more than the theoretical source of civil law and right to bear titles of honour. In practice the neighbouring monarchy of France had a much stronger impact on the peninsula throughout the later medieval period, and not least upon the papacy, when transferred to Provence (1305–77). The condition of the southern kingdom remained crucial. The relative stability of Angevin rule there was shattered, as was much else in Western Europe, by the schism in the Church, caused by the rival papal elections in 1378 of Urban VI and Clement VII. Urban was recognised throughout Italy, except by Giovanna I in Naples. Urban backed a cadet line of the family in the person of Charles of Durazzo, Giovanna was murdered, and Clement, who was recognised in France, backed for the kingdom Louis, Duke of Anjou and Count of Provence. Having two separate ‘Angevin’ branches claiming the kingdom greatly complicated the picture, though it was the Aragonese line ruling Sicily and aspiring to the mainland kingdom since the 1420’s that eventually prevailed; in 1442, Alfonso V of Aragon was installed, favoured by the papacy over Angevin rivals.

There was another Italian prize over which the monarchy of France, or its ruling Valois dynasty, had in the late fourteenth century managed to gain an interest: the duchy of Milan. It was through the marriage of Giangaleazzo Visconti’s daughter Valentina with Louis, Duke of Orleans, although this Orleanist claim to the Visconti inheritance remained dormant for over a century. Milan, under the control of Giangaleazzo Visconti from 1378, duke in 1395, had become the most formidable of Italian powers. Visconti ambitions under Giangaleazzo, only cut short by his sudden death in 1402, had threatened both the papacy and Florence; renewed under his son Filippo (duke from 1412 to 1447), they caused from the 1420s to the 1440s a new series of wars involving Florence, Venice and the papacy.

If one were to pause and contemplate the condition of Italy in about 1450, however, it would be clear that a degree of stability had been restored; indeed, the next forty years or so would come to be regarded by sixteenth-century writers as almost a golden age. There was a single papacy, and even the alternative idea of a General Council of the Church, the body which at least had ended the Great Schism in 1417, was discredited, since the Council of Basel in the 1430s became too radical. The kingdom of Naples was stable under the able rule of the Aragonese Alfonso I, succeeded by his bastard son Ferrante in 1458; Milan, after a brief republican interlude, passed in 1450 into the hands of Francesco Sforza, the military captain who had married Filippo Visconti’s daughter, and the ducal regime (sanctioned, but not much more, by the emperor) continued there until 1499. Venice was advancing as a mainland power in north-east Italy, having acquired not only Verona and Padua but, in the wars against Filippo Visconti, Brescia, Bergamo, Crema and Ravenna. The republic of Florence, which had expanded within Tuscany, annexing Arezzo and Pisa, was now informally controlled by the hyper-rich banker, and main financier of the papacy, Cosimo de’ Medici, succeeded by his son Piero ‘the Gouty’ in 1464 and his grandson Lorenzo, known as ‘il Magnifico’, in 1469. The main Italian powers had even attempted in 1455 to set up a system of arbitration to monitor future conflicts and preserve peace. It did not work, but at least it was an attempt to put diplomacy before force. The various minor states were still carrying on with civic regimes dominated by princes – for these former mercenary captains, city bosses and landed proprietors were assuming an increasingly princely style. Mantua, in most respects a satellite of Sforza Milan, continued to be ruled by the Gonzaga family, most notable of whom was the highly cultivated condottiere Ludovico Gonzaga (marquis, 1444–78); Ferrara, since 1471 a papal dukedom, was still ruled by the d’Este, as were Reggio and – an imperial dukedom – Modena; Federico di Montefeltro of Urbino likewise became a papal duke in 1474.

Admittedly, several internal Italian wars and some sensational assassinations disturbed the relative stability of the political balance which lasted to 1494. The murder of Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza of Milan in 1476 led to the dominance of his brother Ludovico ‘il Moro’; the young heir to the dukedom, Giangaleazzo, died in 1494, and the ambitious Ludovico obtained this title. The attempted murder of Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1478 (contrived by the Pazzi family, but with the support of the Pope’s nephew Girolamo Riario and others) and successful killing of his brother Giuliano caused a war between Florence and the papacy, allied with its traditional standby, the King of Naples; it also led to a tightening of direct Medici control over Florence’s politics. Two more wars broke out in 1482 and 1485–86, in both of which the papacy was drawn into the complete reversal of its traditional position, declaring war on the kingdom of Naples, its principal vassal and supposed protector. Soon after this, the assassination – partly an act of Florentine revenge – of Girolamo Riario in 1488, whose mini-princedom of Imola and Forlì had represented a new papal experiment in control of the Romagna, was another destabilising event. The Riario state within the papal state was nevertheless a precedent for the much more formidable princedom to be established by force by Pope Alexander VI’s son Cesare Borgia in 1499–1503.

But it was the invasion or ‘descent’ (calata) of Charles VIII of France in 1494, urged on by Ludovico Sforza out of jealousy or fear of Ferrante, King of Naples, that shattered the system which had prevailed during the previous half-century. Once again the southern kingdom was the fulcrum of crisis. Charles professed to be representing the Angevin claim to the throne of Naples in his rapid advance down the west side of Italy. Alfonso, Duke of Calabria, the son and heir of King Ferrante, who had died early in 1494, proved less formidable as king than he had been as a military commander, and abdicated in the face of rebellion while Charles was still on his way; after the French arrived in Naples, Alfonso’s son Ferrantino fled to Sicily. But the collapse of the southern kingdom and its Aragonese ruling dynasty was not the only upheaval in Italy. Piero de’ Medici, Lorenzo’s son who had succeeded to his father’s role in 1492, had bargained unsuccessfully with Charles VIII on the latter’s journey south through Tuscany in early November 1494, and was overthrown on his return to the city. Deeply influenced by the threatening sermons of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, the Florentines established a more constitutional republic that for the next twenty years remained steadily pro-French, largely in the vain and costly hope of reconquering its rebellious subject city, Pisa.

Charles VIII did not manage to stabilise his conquest of the southern kingdom, for which in any case he had failed to obtain papal sanction and investiture. In 1495 he returned to France pursued by an Italian coalition in which Ludovico il Moro of Milan and Venice were leading members. In Naples the dispossessed dynasty attempted a comeback with Spanish help; Ferrantino recovered Naples but died unexpectedly in October 1496; Alfonso’s brother Federico briefly succeeded him. However, the entry upon the scene of the King of Spain, Ferdinand of Aragon, freed by his conquest of Granada (1492) to turn his attention to the wider world, proved fatal. An entirely new, Hispanic era for the south of Italy was beginning, deeply alarming also for the papacy. Ferdinand turned from providing military aid to his relative to accepting Federico’s deposition by the French in 1501, on the grounds that he had appealed for help to the Turks, and claimed the crown for himself. He alternated between fighting the forces of Charles VIII’s successor Louis XII, and cynically making secret agreements to divide the southern kingdom with him. Disastrous French defeats in battle in 1503 led eventually to renunciation of the ancient French claims, and an agreement whereby the widowed Ferdinand would marry Louis XII’s niece, pay him a large sum of money, and incidentally obtain the papal investiture as king. The outcome was a new regime in both Naples and Sicily of government by Spanish viceroys. In the north, meanwhile, another French invasion in 1499 led by Louis XII, making good his inherited claim to Milan as Duke of Orleans had been even more unsettling than the first calata. Allied with Venice, the French army succeeded in overthrowing the regime of Ludovico Sforza. Milan faced a French government of occupation, and meanwhile the Venetians advanced their domination of eastern Lombardy, annexing Cremona.

The spread of the Venetian land empire had been alarming the rest of Italy for a long time; the suspicion that Venice was aiming to dominate Italy seemed more and more justified, because the republic had also seized southern ports in Apulia and was to move into some of Cesare Borgia’s conquests in Romagna after his fall in 1503. The climax came in 1509, when Julius II, Louis XII and the Emperor Maximilian declared war on Venice, and after the victory of Agnadello, on the river Adda, occupied much of its land empire. The republic soon, however, regained most of it, as the subsequent war turned into an Italian alliance, including Venice, against foreign forces. The republic of Florence was punished in 1512 for its support of the French, and had the Medici reimposed by force; henceforward the Medici, who also acquired the papacy the following year, ruled Florence in a blatantly princely manner.

As this Foreword began by stressing the vulnerability of Italy to invasion, so it might end on the same note, with reference to the Ottoman Turks. The great call to arms against the Seljuk Turks and for the liberation of Jerusalem at the end of the eleventh century was important in formulating ideas and practice about war in defence of the Church and against Islamic power, but the Ottoman Turks represented a more direct and formidable threat to Italy, Rome and the lands of the papacy.

After becoming a naval as well as a land-based military power in the course of the fourteenth century, their encroachment upon what was left of the Byzantine empire proceeded rapidly. Its climax was the capture of Constantinople in 1453, and was followed at intervals by conquest of the rest of the Greek mainland and islands. It should be appreciated that the papacy felt very much at the front line of defending Christendom, particularly after mainland Italy was invaded and the civilian population of Otranto massacred in 1480; its coastline, meanwhile, was for long threatened by Muslim pirates. There was no lasting relief from this sense of imminent danger until the naval victory of Lepanto in 1571.

Second, a final word needs to be said about the long-lasting theme of French invasions and occupations of Italy, and the ascendancy of France, which from the later thirteenth century the papacy had tried to use for its own advantage and security. This came to an end in the early sixteenth century. For, in spite of renewed French military offensives under Louis XII and Francis I, Italy was not destined to fall under French domination so much as Spanish or imperial. This became the likely prospect after the election of the Habsburg Emperor Charles V in 1519, and the fairly inevitable outcome after imperial victories over the French in 1521 and 1525. Imperial or Spanish viceregal regimes governed both Milan and Naples, and Florence – after the fall in 1530 of the briefly revived republic – was restored to the Medici thanks to Charles V. Cosimo I became an imperial duke in 1537, and married Eleonora of Toledo, daughter of the imperial vicar of Naples. Siena came under his control in 1557, and in 1569 his title was raised to grand duke. The principal independent Italian powers left after the storm were Venice and the papacy, both of them to survive unharmed until the time of Napoleon.

It remains a debating point whether the papacy, which had invested so much military and financial effort into the recuperation and consolidation of its possessions in Italy, had contributed greatly to Italian political disunity and weakness, as the Florentine writer Niccolò Machiavelli (1464–1527) in one context suggested (Discorsi, I chap. 12). Perhaps, on the contrary, and since the empire had become so ineffective in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the papacy was potentially quite a powerful force for stabilising Italy. Machiavelli also appreciated this possibility, and some of the popes of the later renaissance period, particularly Julius II, were among his model princes, along with Ferdinand of Aragon and Cesare Borgia, for their skills of deception, decisive resolution, and domination of fortune. But Machiavellian theories and paradoxes are not the issue in this book, which is concerned rather with why the Church, or its principal officers, were so inescapably involved in war.

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