So bloody was Francis I’s defeat of the Swiss at the Battle of Marignano in 1515 that it made previous battles resemble ‘children’s games’. Robert J. Knecht traces the French king’s route across the Alps towards war in Italy.
Within a few months of becoming king of France on January 1st, 1515, Francis I invaded Italy at the head of a large army. His actions opened a new chapter in the history of the so-called ‘Italian Wars’, which his predecessor, Charles VIII, had launched in 1494. Italy at that time was tempting prey for a powerful neighbour, as it was divided into many more or less independent states, the most important being Venice, Milan, Florence, Naples and the Papal States. French intervention had a long history, reaching back to Charlemagne. More recently, Charles VIII had conquered Naples only to be driven out of the peninsula by a coalition of Italian states. His successor, Louis XII, led a new invasion in 1499. He conquered Milan and Genoa, but inadvisably chose to share the Kingdom of Naples with Ferdinand, King of Aragon, who soon collared the lot. Four years later, Louis allied with Pope Julius II against Venice, but after its defeat the pope expelled the French from Italy with the help of the Swiss cantons, then reputed to be the leading military power in Europe. After defeating the French at Novara in 1513, the Swiss invaded Burgundy and laid siege to Dijon. The local French commander bought them off with a treaty, which the king then refused to honour. These events formed the background to Francis I’s invasion. He claimed the Duchy of Milan by virtue of his descent from his great-grandmother, Valentina Visconti.