The French chroniclers mention Charles VIII with the nickname of “The Affable” or even “The Victorious”, while the Spanish call him Charles the Thick Head or directly “El Cabezudo” in a burlesque tone, like The Chronicles of the Great Captain let referral. A nickname that would prove ironically lethal, since the Frenchman died of a severe blow to the head in 1498. He died on his return from a failed campaign in Italy where he already intuited what would be clearly seen in the 16th century, the Spanish Empire, and not France, it was the power designated to dominate the continent with an iron fist.
Having recovered economically from the never-ending 100 Years War, few Europeans would have doubted in the mid-15th century that the Kingdom of France was going to rule the continent unopposed in the near future.
Its good geographical disposition and its demographic potential, among other reasons, meant that no one in Europe had the ability to present opposition to it, except for an unexpected guest: the Spanish Crown who embodied the union of kingdoms between the Catholic Monarchs. Spain dared to intrude its steel in Italy because it had finally completed the Reconquest of the peninsula with the surrender of Granada in 1492 and because the gold of America had overturned its royal treasury. The Spanish Empire, and not France, was the designated power to dominate the continent with an iron fist. After John II of Portugal rejected Christopher Columbus’s risky project in 1491, the navigator decided to transfer the proposal to the King of France, who was none other than Charles of the Thick Head. Not in vain, Fray Juan Perez managed to persuade Columbus to try before at the court of the Catholic Monarchs.
Thus, while the Catholic Monarchs finalized the Conquest of Granada, news came from across the ocean that would change the fate of Castile and that would shatter Gallic hopes of becoming the owner of Europe Christopher Columbus had opened the door to the colonization of a vast land where the Spaniards, hungry for glory, were to unfold with astonishing alacrity. Spain against France, the genesis of a rivalry Sick by nature and of a fragile constitution, Charles VIII received a poor education due to the political turbulence that he experienced in his childhood. At the death of his father, Carlos inherited the throne at the age of 13 but until his majority, the control of the kingdom was under the regency of his sister Ana de Beaujeu and his brother-in-law Pedro II de Borbon. The legitimacy of this regency was put into question in the so-called “Crazy War”, which confronted the royal authority with that of the main nobles of the kingdom, among them the Duke of Orléans, Charles’s half-brother and future King of France with the name Louis XII.
However, Charles’s marriage to Anne of Brittany, which fully completed the annexation of the Duchy of Brittany to France, marked the true beginning of his reign in 1491. The King was able to detach himself at the end of the family guardianship. Probably inspired by the obsessive reading of chivalric books in his childhood, Charles VIII accepted the challenge in 1495, which was secretly thrown at him by the many Italian exiles who swarmed the French court asking him to intervene in the Kingdom of Naples. They claimed it by virtue of the dynastic rights of the House of Anjou over these territories, and he agreed. At that time, Italy was a collection of city-states, among which Milan, Florence, Venice, and Naples stood out for their importance. For his part, the Pope was in charge of mediating and multimeter between these states from Rome using as a political compass the motto of “fuori I barbaric” (out with the barbarians). When King Ferrante il Vecchio, of the Aragonese dynasty of Naples, died on January 25, 1494, the Pope sent his son Alfonso his support and warned Charles VIII of the inappropriateness of setting out to conquer the boot of Italy, as indeed he was planning.
In his book “Carlos V to the conquest of Europe” (Nowtilus Editions, 2015), Antonio Munoz Lorente tells in a passionate way how the French King decided to turn a deaf ear to the warning of the Spanish Pope Alexander VI and undertook the invasion of Italy with an army of approximately 40,000 men. Both on his way through Savoy and Florence, whose control he took from the hands of the famous Medici family, Charles VIII was received as if he were already the sovereign of the entire peninsula. A perception that was due more to fear than to the gallantry of her figure. Short in stature, strange gaits, and, between legend and myth, an involuntary twitch of his head, the monarch did not make a good impression on the Italian princes, quite the opposite. He was esteemed by an “illiterate” and “impolite” man. But beyond the friendship or in many cases subordination of the Italian nobles, France needed to have the support of the Catholic Monarchs if it wanted to annex Naples without opening an international conflict. Naples had been conquered by the Aragonese King Alfonso “The Magnanimous” in 1443, although he considered it a personal possession and bequeathed it to his bastard son Ferrante at his death. Now that Ferrante was dead, France intended to invoke the rights of the House of Anjou prior to the Aragonese conquest, which presumably was not going to be to the liking of Fernando “El Católico.” Seeking to avoid confrontation, Carlos met near Rome with the ambassador of the Spanish Kings, Antonio Fonseca, trying to renew the agreement reached in the Treaty of Barcelona of 1492, but he achieved precisely the opposite.
Fonseca carries the categorical order that calls Carlos’ attention to the chapter on this; and if you do not agree to this, break before your very eyes the original of the old pact by proclaiming the enmities “, wrote Martin de Angleria. And so did Fonseca, who tore the capitulation of concord before the eyes of the Gallic monarch, “because Your Highness has broken his word and erased the chapters, I consider the rest null.”The sad return to France and a fatal accident. After a brief stay in Rome, Carlos continued to Naples, where Alfonso II – Ferrante’s son – quickly went into exile, losing his mind along the way, and abdicated in the name of his 27-year-old son Ferrante II. With the kingdom lost, father and son asked the Catholic Monarchs for help, who ordered the recruitment of a force of Castilian pawns and put Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba – a second-in-command of the Castilian nobility who had shone in the last phases of the Granada war – to the in front of this expeditionary force, the first to leave Spain in many centuries, with the aim of curbing French ambitions. Contrary to what one might think, Castile – the central engine of the Empire – had historically maintained good relations with France until its union with the Crown of Aragon, which had been the enemy of France throughout the 15th century due to crossed interests in the Mediterranean.
western The dispatch of a Castilian contingent, under the direction of a Castilian commander, in defense of interests traditionally considered Aragonese meant a change of course and marked the beginning of the end of the French presence in Italy. Even before the landing of the one who would eventually become the Grand Captain for his victories over the French, Charles VIII had begun to give ground due to the alliance that the main city-states of Northern Italy had signed against him. His spectacular entry into the peninsula had convinced Milan, Venice, and Mantua of the dangers that this renewed French curiosity about Italian affairs masked.
After suffering a setback in Fornovo, which reduced the presence of France to a few northern strongholds and a few allies, Charles VIII returned to his country at the end of 1495 to put things in order at home. From there he would witness helplessly as the unknown Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba was transformed into the Great Captain, almost a legend when he snatched Naples from the French in a display of military genius. Finally, the Frenchman never managed to return to that land of adventure that had mistreated him so much. Centuries later, one of the leading figures in French enlightenment, Voltaire, summed up the negative image left by the failed incursion of the battered Charles VIII: “When the mad-headed French went to Italy, they awkwardly won Genoa, Naples, and syphilis. Then they were kicked out from everywhere. Genoa and Naples were taken from them. But they did not lose everything, because they had syphilis.
Charles VIII died at Amboise Castle in April 1498. Leaving the Queen’s room with the intention of watching the ball game in the castle moats, Thick-headed Charles suffered a blow to the head with the Lintel of a gallery door still under construction. Although he initially managed to recover and witnessed the ball game, while watching the show, conversing with his confessor, the Bishop of Angers, he suddenly lost his speech and collapsed after uttering confused words. Just nine hours later, the King died of a skull fracture at eleven o’clock that same day. As the couple left no successor, the Crown passed to his half-brother, the Duke of Orléans, representative of the Valois-Orléans family, who ascended the throne under the name of Louis XII and also married Anne of Brittany. Also, Luis XII followed the war in Italy where Carlos VIII left it, who was in the preparations for a new expedition in Italy when the fatal accident had struck him.