War of the Holy League, 1510-1514

The War of the Holy League (1510-1514) saw Pope Julius II form a league to oppose his French allies of the League of Cambrai, and saw the French suffer a series of defeats that forced them to withdraw from Milan (Italian Wars, 1494-1559).

In December 1508 Pope Julius II, the Emperor Maximilian, Louis XII of France and Ferdinand II of Aragon had formed the anti-Venetian League of Cambrai. Open war broke out in 1509. The French won the only major battle of the war, at Agnadello (14 May 1509), and the Venetians withdrew from most of their conquests of 1495-1503 - parts of Apulia had been taken from Naples in 1495, the eastern part of Milan had been offered by the French in 1499, parts of the Papal States were taken after the death of Pope Alexander VI in 1503 and they had a long-running dispute with the Emperor over Imperial possessions in northern Italy.

This was the high point of the war for the League. The Emperor entered the fray late, and his siege of Padua (8 August- 2 October 1509) ended in failure. In the aftermath of this setback Maximilian retreated into the Tyrol, the French into Milan and the Papal armies back into the restored Papal States. Venice was battered but not badly damaged.

Pope Julius now began to become worried about the danger of foreign domination of Italy. In February 1510 he agreed a peace treaty with Venice in which they made a number of concessions on issues of church power and surrendered any claim to the cities in the Romagna they had seized earlier. In return they received a Papal pardon and permission to recruit troops within the Papal States.

This was the first step in the formation of a new Holy League, this time aimed against the French. It would take some time for Julius to win over any other powers to his league. In 1510 the Emperor was far too hostile to the Venetians, while Ferdinand II was happy with his conquests in Apulia and remained neutral. Eventually England and Spain would join the league, but in 1510 the Pope was only able to buy the limited support of the Swiss.

Regardless of his limited resources, Julius began the war in 1510 with two campaigns. The first, an attack on Genoa, ended in total failure. The second, an attack on Ferrara, was a little more successful. Ferrara was an ally of the French and was still engaged in open warfare against the Pope's new ally Venice. In the summer of 1510 an army of 10,000 Swiss began to march towards Ferrara, but the only route was through Milan, and they were unwilling to directly offend the French. This expedition ended when the Swiss withdrew in September.

In the same month Louis began a religious campaign against the Pope, getting five cardinals to issue a summons to a General Council of the Church, to begin at Pisa in September 1511. In response the Pope summoned the Fifth Lateran Council. On this front the Pope was totally successful - his council was accepted as the authentic item, the Council of Pisa as a false council, with limited support.

The autumn of 1510 also saw a French army under Chaumont d'Amboise attack Bologna, where Pope Julius was lying ill. He was able to rouse himself from his sick bed, and with Venetian help repelled the French attack, at least for the moment.


After repelling the attack on Bologna Julius led his forces in an attack on Mirandola, one of the outlying fortresses of Ferrara. Mirandola fell in January 1511. This success many have helped convince the Spanish to join the League, although by the time they entered the fray the place had been lost.

In February 1511 the Milanese general Gian Giacomo Trivulzio took command of the French army, following the death of the previous commander. He recaptured Concordia and Mirandola, and then on 21 May 1511 defeated a Papal army under Francesco Maria della Rovere, duke of Urbino, at Casalecchio. Two days later the French captured Bologna and the Pope was forced to retreat to Ravenna. 

The loss of Bologna caused dissension in the Papal ranks. His main advisor, Cardinal Alidosi, legate of Bologna, accused the Duke of Urbino of being responsible for the loss of Bologna. Infuriated by this accusation and by the lack of support from the Pope, the Duke murdered the Cardinal in public.

Julius made a remarkable comeback from this low point. He returned to Rome, where he issued the summons for a General Council, to meet at the Lateran in April 1512. He was then seriously ill, but made an unexpected recovery.

In October 1511 Pope Julius finally won over a second major ally when he officially formed a Holy League with Venice and Spain, with the aim of regaining all lost Papal territory. Henry VIII of England soon joined the league.

In November 1511 the Swiss launched an invasion of Milan, for the first time fighting for themselves rather than on behalf of another power. The attack failed, but it did distract the new French commander in Milan, Louis' relative Gaston de Foix, duke of Nemours.


The new year started badly for the French. In January the Venetians retook Brescia and Bergamo. A Spanish and Papal army under Raymond of Cardona was besieging Bologna, and Ferrara was also threatened. The Swiss were still threatening, and Maximilian was starting to lose interest in the failed war against Venice.

For a short period, between February and April 1512, the French position appeared to have been restored by the brilliant young commander Gaston de Foix. He started by lifting the League siege of Bologna. He then learnt of the Venetian capture of Brescia, and decided to retake the city. He crossed Mantua, caught and defeated the Venetians at Isola della Scala, then besieged and captured Brescia.

Gaston was well aware that the overall situation was threatening. If Henry VIII carried out his threatened invasion of France then troops would be withdrawn from his army. If Maximilian changed sides then the German troops in the French army would be withdrawn. He needed a quick victory, and decided that the best way to get one would be to besiege Ravenna (March-April 1512). The Holy League responded exactly as he had hoped and approached with a relief army. Gaston attacked this army on 11 April (Battle of Ravenna) and won the victory he had hoped for. Unfortunately for France, he was killed late in the battle, depriving the French of a commander capable of taking advantage of the victory.

The situation turned against the French during the summer of 1512. The new French commander, Marshal Jacques de la Palice, wasn't up to his new responsibilities and allowed time to pass without taking any real action. The Pope was able to arrange a truce between Venice and the Emperor. In April the Swiss Diet joined the Holy League, and in May the Swiss began yet another invasion of Milan. In the same month the Pope officially announced that Maximilian had joined the Holy League. This was a little premature, but in June the Emperor ordered the German landsknechts to withdraw from the French army.

The French dithered. Part of their army had been disbanded due to a lack of funds. La Palace was ordered back to Milan, then to invade the Romagna, and then back to Milan for a final time. He was now faced with two threats. 20,000 Swiss troops reached Trent, then joined with the Venetians at Villafranca near Verona. Their combined army threatened Milan from the east. At the same time the Papal and Spanish army advanced up the Adriatic coast, taking Rimini and Ravenna, then advancing inland towards Bologna. There were now hostile armies operating on both sides of the Po.

At first La Palice hoped to face the Swiss near Villafranca, but a lack of troops convinced him to retreat west to Cremona on the Po. There he lost his German troops and was forced to retreat future west to Pizzighetone on the Adda. By 14 June the Swiss and Venetians had caught up with him, and La Palice was forced to abandon Lombardy. For the moment they held onto the castles of Milan, Cremona and Brescia and the Lighthouse of Genoa (then a strong structure a little way outside the walls).

The Allies now settled down to split their spoils. The Pope got Ravenna, Bologna and the Romagna, all acknowledged parts of the Papal States, and expanded into Parma and Piacenza. The Swiss installed Massimiliano Sforza as Duke of Milan, which became something of a Swiss protectorate. The Duke of Urbino got Reggio and Modena. Venice remained contentious, refusing to acknowledge Imperial claims to Vicenza or Verona or Swiss claims to Cremona (on behalf of Milan).

In 1513 the Holy League began to unravel, but the process began in November 1512 when Pope Julius and the Emperor Maximilian agreed a new alliance. The Pope reduced his support for Venice, and in return the Emperor recognised the Fifth Lateran Council.

The only major French success of 1512 was the failure of an English invasion of Guyenne. In May 1512 Henry dispatched a fleet to Spain under the command of Thomas, Marquess of Dorset. The army arrived in Spain on 7 June, landing at Biscay, but they found the Spanish unprepared for their arrival. They then had to wait while the Duke of Alva conquered Navarre and on 28 August the army mutinied and voted to return home. The one English success of the year came in a naval battle off Brest (10 August 1512), but even this wasn't a clear-cut victory - the English lost their two largest ships, including the Regent, although the French also lost their largest ship. The victorious English commander, Sir Edward Howard, was killed in a second battle off Brest in April 1513.

In contrast the Spanish conquest of Navarre was a great success. Jean d'Albret, king of Navarre, was a fairly weak monarch. When the English landed in Spain Ferdinand II used their presence to demand a free passage for the Spanish and English armies heading for France. Jean d'Albret attempted to form an alliance with the French. This gave Ferdinand his excuse and in July he sent the Duke of Alva to invade. Jean d'Albret fled to the French, while Pamplona surrendered to the Spanish. At first Ferdinand claimed that he would surrender the kingdom back to Jean after the end of the War of the Holy League, but this claim was soon abandoned and in the autumn of 1512, with Papal support, Ferdinand declared himself to the King of Navarre. The French made a brief attempt to recapture Pamplona, but abandoned it after making two unsuccessful attacks on the city. Ferdinand soon won the support of the local Cortes, and Louis XII abandoned his ally.


In February 1513 Pope Julius II died, to be succeeded by Gionvanni de Medici as Pope Leo X. The new Pope was almost immediately faced with a military crisis. In March 1513 Venice and France agreed a new alliance, removing one of earlier members of the Holy League. The new allies then prepared to invade Milan, where the Swiss backed Sforza duke was increasingly unpopular.

In April a new French army, commanded by Louis de la Trémoille and Gian Giacomo Trivulzio crossed the Alps, threatening Milan from the west. In the following month the Venetians, under their experienced commander Alviano, advanced from the east, occupying Cremona. Genoa fell to a French fleet. By the end of May the Swiss and Sforza only held Como in the north and Novara to the west of Milan.

The French arrived outside Novara on 3 June, and prepared to besiege the sizable Swiss garrison. A first assault on the town failed, and the French withdrew a short distance. This proved to be a mistake - a Swiss relief army was already on the way, and it arrived at Novara after an overnight march on 5-6 June, combined with the garrison and launched a surprise dawn attack on the French. The resulting battle of Novara (6 June 1513) saw the Swiss infantry columns win a victory by the speed of their attack, despite their lack of artillery or cavalry. The French were forced into a rapid retreat back out of Italy, and Massimiliano Sforza and the Swiss reoccupied Milan.

The Venetians found themselves without an ally, and were forced to retreat east back into their own territory. They were eventually followed by the Imperial army under Cardona, and suffered a heavy defeat at La Motta Vicenza, 7 October 1513. Once again the Venetians refused to accept the Emperor's terms, and Maximilian gained little from his victory. The Venetians quickly recovered from this defeat, and in 1514 Bartolomeo Alviano recaptured parts of Friuli that had been taken by Maximilian.

Meanwhile the French came under attack in the north. Henry VIII was finally ready to move, and in June he invaded France from Calais at the head of 28,000 men. The English besieged Thérouanne. A smaller French army under La Palice attempted to lift the pressure by harassing the siege lines without risking a battle, but were caught out at Guinegate (16 August 1513) and forced to flee (giving the battle its alternative name of the Battle of the Spurs, because of the number of spurs said to have been abandoned by the fleeing French). La Palice was captured as was the famous French commander Bayard (his reputation was so impressive that he was later released without a ransom). Thérouanne surrendered to the English on 22 August.

The war also spread its tentacles to Scotland. James IV of Scotland launched an invasion of the north of England in support of the French, but was defeated and killed at Flodden Field (9 September 1513).

The peak of the pressure came in September when the Swiss invaded Burgundy from the Franche-Comté, the only time this Imperial possession was used as a base for an invasion of France. The Swiss besieged Dijon, but then let down their allies by accepting money and the promise that Louis would officially recognise their Sforza Duke of Milan.

Over the next few months most of the combatants made peace. Pope Leo X was first, in December 1513, after Louis abandoned his failed general council and accepted the Lateran Council. In March 1514 the Emperor made peace and in July 1514 Henry VIII followed suit. This last peace was followed by a marriage between Louis and Henry's sister Mary, but this was short lived as Louis died on 1 January 1515.

He was succeeded by Francis I, a king famous for his almost obsessive series of invasions of Italy. The first of these came in 1515, and is sometimes grouped together with the War of the League of Cambrai and the War of the Holy League, but here we will treat it separately as Francis I's First Invasion of Italy, 1515-16.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (26 August 2014), War of the Holy League, 1510-1514 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/wars_holy_league.html

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