Why Did the HABSBURG-VALOIS Conflict Last for So Long?

Article excerpt

Stewart MacDonald asks a key question of the wars which dominated the history of Europe in the first half of the Sixteenth Century.

The conflict between the Habsburg Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) and the Valois King of France, Francis I (1494-1547) commenced in 1521 and came to an end in 1559 in the reigns of their successors, Philip II and Henry II. Actual fighting took place in the years 1521-29, 1536-38, 1542-44 and 1552-59. The wars were immensely damaging to the kingdom of France, to the empire of Charles V and indeed to Christendom as a whole. The ravages inflicted by such interminable warfare arguably helped to prepare the ground for the great upheavals of the sixteenth century: the Protestant Reformation in Germany, the Revolt of the Netherlands and the French Wars of Religion. It is, then, clearly important to evaluate the reasons why this momentous conflict lasted for such a long period.

Military technology: the defensive advantage

One explanation for the protracted nature of the Habsburg-Valois wars is that the character of warfare was changing in the first half of the sixteenth century. The typical form of warfare in preceding centuries was that of large-scale battles, dominated by armoured cavalry. From the later fifteenth century, however, gunpowder had an accelerating impact on the practice of war, as artillery and firearms were more effectively deployed. The arquebus (a hand-held firearm) proved to be particularly devastating against the traditional cavalry charge, especially when arqubusiers were defended by disciplined formations of pike. Improvements in fortifications also had a significant impact on warfare. A great deal Of thought and energy was devoted to developing the defensive fortifications. The overall consequence of these developments was that the balance of advantage in war increasingly lay with defensive forces. Thus the French cavalry charge at Pavia in 1525 resulted in the mass slaughter of the French cavalry in the face of Spanish arquebus and artillery fire. The Habsburg-Valois wars also produced a litany of long and unsuccessful sieges, culminating in Charles V's desperate failure to recapture the Imperial frontier fortress of Metz from the French in 1552-53. New military technologies, therefore, helped to make offensive warfare more difficult and decisive breakthroughs more elusive, and tended to produce prolonged and inconclusive campaigns.

A balance of power

It might fairly be asked why the Emperor Charles V did not dispose of the Valois challenge more quickly. At first glance the Emperor appears to be very much the Goliath of European princes. Certainly the extent of his empire was unrivalled. In 1515 he inherited the Netherlands and Franche Comte, which he ruled as the Duke of Burgundy. A year later he inherited the Spanish kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, and their respective empires in the Americas and the Mediterranean. In 1519 he was elected Holy Roman Emperor, ruler of Germany. The possession of such a formidable collection of territories might have been expected to tip the balance decisively in his favour in any struggle with the king of France. However, the Emperor's authority varied from territory to territory. Moreover, his empire was really a loose confederation of lands which lacked any effective centralised control or real sense of unity. In waging war he could only really rely on the financial support of the Netherlands and Castile, and as the Habsburg-Valois wars persisted he, and his successor Philip II, found himself plundering both territories to their absolute limits. Thus, despite periodic triumphs against the French, the Habsburgs invariably found it impossible to finance their campaigns over a long period and to follow up their successes conclusively.

The resources available to the House of Valois were probably equal to those of Charles. By the end of the fifteenth century France was, as M.S. Anderson notes, `by every quantitative criterion the greatest power in Europe'. …