Le Roi de Naples? – It Happened Today, February 22, 2017

In a sign of a more cosmopolitan era, on February 22 Charles VIII "the Affable" of France marched into Naples to claim its throne. It didn’t work, as the grand schemes of Kings of France often did not. But it’s interesting to reflect on a period in which neither the French nor the Italians would regard it as in principle offensive to have a French king on an Italian throne, whatever they thought of the actual claimant.

In fairness, Charles did rather better in boldly marrying Anne of Brittany in 1491. It was bold because technically she had already married Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, by proxy and possibly not properly. By bagging Brittany instead of the Hapsburgs getting it he did help France avoid Hapsburg encirclement and emerge as a great power. The same is not true of his Italian venture.

Having somehow inherited a legally, morally and practically dubious claim to the throne of Naples, reinforced by a somewhat cynical Pope Innocent VIII, he made various deals with other important monarchs and then conquered Italy without much apparent difficulty in late 1494 and early 1495, to the joy of Savonarola but the concern of many other players including a new Pope, Alexander VI. His enemies created the League of Venice against him and he was more or less driven out of Italy in 1495, a great deal poorer but apparently no wiser. And wars would continue over Italy for 50 years, convulsing Western European geopolitics to no good purpose at much cost especially to Italians.

As for Charles, who if he was affable was so largely on the surface, he banged his head on a doorframe in 1498 and fell down dead. (OK, he fell into a coma and died nine hours later but as banging your head on a door and perishing at age 27 goes it was pretty quick.) He left France, his dynasty and Italy in a right mess. So on the whole not a good king.

Still, I do find it odd that we pride ourselves on our cosmopolitan, tolerant and multicultural attitudes. Yet we retain a kind of Wilsonian fascination with ethnic states to the point that it seems strange, even perverse, to have a French King seeking the throne of Naples, an Austrian Hapsburg seeking to rule Brittany and so on.

There were good reasons why they should not have done so, primarily that this particular French King should also not have ruled France, nor the profligate Habsburg Maximilian I of Austria, who stuck the Holy Roman Empire with a debt it took a century to pay off. But ethnicity seems to me to have nothing to do with it.