Charles VIII

The French king Charles VIII (1470-1498) ruled from 1483 to 1498. Struggles for control during his minority and his attempt to conquer Naples were detrimental to France's political and economic life.

Charles VIII was born in Amboise on June 30, 1470. He was only 13 when he succeeded his talented and ambitious father, Louis XI, and his older sister Anne de Beaujeu served as regent during the early years of his reign. At this time the most important problem facing Charles was the virtual independence of the duchy of Brittany, the last of the powerful feudal principalities whose independent policies seriously threatened the political stability of 15th-century France. Francis II, Duke of Brittany, rebelled against Charles in 1484, but the King defeated him in 1488. During this period Charles was also involved in putting down uprisings led by his cousin Louis, Duke of Orléans, who later succeeded him. In 1491 Charles annexed Brittany by marrying Anne of Brittany, who had inherited the duchy from her father on his death in 1488. This marriage brought the last of the independent principalities under control of the Crown.

By this time Charles was free of the regency's influence, but he was at best ill-equipped to deal with the great difficulties of ruling. A contemporary described him as "very young, weakly, willful, rarely in the company of wise men … endowed with neither money nor sense." Unlike most rulers of the time Charles was barely literate, and his interests appear to have been absorbed by the reading of tales of adventure, history, and chivalry rather than by study of state documents.

By 1491 Charles was faced with a number of important problems. Political institutions needed reform and change; the status of the Church was vague and a definitive policy of church-state relations was called for; and strong measures were required to strengthen the economy. Unfortunately Charles did not give continuing attention to the political and economic problems of France; instead he was absorbed by a chivalric and foolhardy dream of acquiring yet another kingdom, Naples, for himself. Reviving an old and remote Angevin claim to the throne of Naples, he mobilized the resources carefully husbanded by his father, traded away most of the diplomatic advantages which France had gained in the preceding half century, and in 1494 launched the largest invading army ever to have entered northern Italy.

In 1495 Charles briefly held Naples, but he was defeated at Fornovo and made a hasty retreat into France. The war which Charles began in 1494 was to turn Italy into a battlefield upon which France and Spain were to contend until the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559. Charles's Italian campaign caused him to neglect French internal affairs almost completely, and many of the gains made during his father's reign were wiped out. But his expedition also had important international consequences; his initial success had shown more astute rulers that Italy was a rich prize which could be taken by force. Charles's French army had been defeated in part by a Spanish one, and this was the first indication that the hitherto independent activities of the Italian principalities were to be drastically curtailed by intervention of stronger powers.

In spite of his commitment of French resources to a fruitless expedition into Italy, Charles VIII did not notably weaken the power of the French monarchy. The achievements of Charles VII and Louis XI had made the king the ruler of France in practice as well as theory. This great royal authority was wielded in a number of institutions which continued to proliferate and grow during Charles's reign, despite his use of royal power in ill-considered enterprises. A lesson, which continues to have validity, can be drawn from this: it is difficult, even for a weak and foolish king, to impair a governmental apparatus whose basis was established by astute and perceptive rulers. In areas other than that of royal authority, Charles obliterated many of his father's achievements. Perhaps the most disastrous effect of his foreign policy was the formation of the anti-French alliance of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, which lasted until the 18th century.

Charles VIII died childless, at the age of 27, on April 7, 1498. He was succeeded by the Duke of Orléans, who became Louis XII.

Further Reading on Charles VIII

There is no adequate biography of Charles VIII in English. The standard work, in French, is Claude Joseph de Cherrier, Histoire de Charles VIII (2 vols., 2d ed. 1870). John S. C. Bridge in A History of France from the Death of Louis XI (5 vols., 1921-1936) devotes the first two volumes to the reign of Charles VIII. The problems arising from the invasion of Italy are well treated in The New Cambridge Modern History vol. 1: The Renaissance, 1493-1520, edited by G. R. Potter (1957).