Historical Tales: 7—Spanish - Charles Morris

A King in Captivity

Two great rivals were on the thrones of France and Spain,—Francis I., who came to power in France in 1515, and Charles I., who became king of Spain in 1516. In 1519 they were rivals for the imperial power in Germany. Charles gained the German throne, being afterwards known as the emperor Charles V., and during the remainder of their reigns these rival monarchs were frequently at war. A league was formed against the French king by Charles V., Henry VIII. of England, and Pope Leo X., as a result of which the French were driven from the territory of Milan, in Italy. In 1524 they were defeated at the battle of Sesia, the famous Chevalier Bayard here falling with a mortal wound; and in 1525 they met with a more disastrous defeat at the battle of Pavia, whose result is said to have caused Francis to write to his mother, "Madame, tout est perdu fors l'honneur"  ("All is lost but honor").

The reason for these words may be briefly given. Francis was besieging Pavia, with hopes of a speedy surrender, when the forces of Charles marched to its relief. The most experienced French generals advised the king to retire, but he refused. He had said he would take Pavia or perish in the attempt, and a romantic notion of honor held him fast. The result was ruinous, as may be expected where sentiment outweighs prudence. Strongly as the French were intrenched, they were broken and put to rout, and soon there was no resistance except where the king obstinately continued to fight.

Wounded in several places, and thrown from his horse, which was killed under him, Francis defended himself on foot with heroic valor, while the group of brave officers who sought to save his life, one after another, lost their own. At length, exhausted with his efforts, and barely able to wield his sword, the king was left almost alone, exposed to the fierce assault of some Spanish soldiers, who were enraged by his obstinacy and ignorant of his rank.

At this moment a French gentleman named Pomperant, who had entered the service of Spain, recognized the struggling king and hurried to his aid, helping to keep off the assailants, and begging him to surrender to the Duke of Bourbon, who was close at hand. Great as was the peril, Francis indignantly refused to surrender to a rebel and traitor, as he held Bourbon to be, and calling to Lannoy, a general in the imperial army who was also near by, he gave up his sword to him. Lannoy, recognizing his prisoner, received the sword with a show of the deepest respect, and handed the king his own in return, saying,—

"It does not become so great a monarch to remain disarmed in the presence of one of the emperor's subjects."

The lack of prudence in Francis had proved serious not only to himself, but to his troops, ten thousand of whom fell, among them many distinguished nobles who preferred death to dishonor. Numbers of high rank were taken prisoners, among them the king of Navarre. In two weeks not a Frenchman remained in Italy. The gains from years of war had vanished in a single battle.

The tidings of the captivity of the French king filled France with consternation and Spain with delight, while to all Europe it was an event of the deepest concern, for all the nations felt the danger that might arise from the ambition of the powerful emperor of Spain and Germany. Henry VIII. requested that Francis should be delivered to him, as an ally of Spain, though knowing well that such a demand would not gain a moment's consideration. As for Italy, it was in terror lest it should be overrun by the imperial armies.

Francis, whom Lannoy held with great respect, but with the utmost care to prevent an escape, hoped much from the generosity of Charles, whose disposition he judged from his own. But Charles proposed to weaken his enemy and refused to set him free unless he would renounce all claims upon Italy, yield the provinces of Provence and Dauphine to form a kingdom for the Constable Bourbon, and give up Burgundy to Germany. On hearing these severe conditions, Francis, in a transport of rage, drew his dagger, exclaiming,—

"It were better that a king should die thus!"

A by-stander arrested the thrust; but, though Francis soon regained his composure, he declared that he would remain a prisoner for life rather than purchase liberty at such a price to his country.

Thinking that these conditions came from the Spanish council, and not from Charles himself, Francis now became anxious to visit the emperor in Spain, hoping to soften him in a personal interview. He even furnished the galleys for that purpose, Charles at that time being too poor to fit out a squadron, and soon the spectacle was seen of a captive monarch sailing in his own ships past his own dominions, of which he had a distant and sorrowful view, to a land in which he was to suffer the indignities of prison life.

Landing at Barcelona, Francis was taken to Madrid and lodged in the alcazar, under the most vigilant guard. He soon found that he had been far too hasty in trusting to the generosity of his captor. Charles, on learning of his captivity, had made a politic show of sympathy and feeling, but on getting his rival fully into his hands manifested a plain intention of forcing upon him the hardest bargain possible. Instead of treating his prisoner with the courtesy due from one monarch to another, he seemed to seek by rigorous usage to force from him a great ransom.

The captive king was confined in an old castle, under a keeper of such formal austerity of manners as added to the disgust of the high-spirited French monarch. The only exercise allowed him was to ride on a mule, surrounded by armed guards on horseback. Though Francis pressingly solicited an interview, Charles suffered several weeks to pass before going near him. These indignities made so deep an impression on the prisoner that his natural lightness of temper deserted him, and after a period of deep depression he fell into a dangerous fever, in which he bitterly complained of the harshness with which he had been treated, and said that the emperor would now have the satisfaction of having his captive die on his hands.

The physicians at length despaired of his life, and informed Charles that they saw no hope of his recovery unless he was granted the interview he so deeply desired. This news put the emperor into a quandary. if Francis should die, all the advantage gained from the battle of Pavia would be lost. And there were clouds in the sky elsewhere. Henry VIII. had concluded a treaty of alliance with Queen Louise, regent of France, and engaged to use all his efforts for the release of the king. In Italy a dangerous conspiracy had been detected. There was danger of a general European confederacy against him unless he should come to some speedy agreement with the captive king.

Charles, moved by these various considerations, at length visited Francis, and, with a show of respect and affection, gave him such promises of speedy release and princely treatment as greatly cheered the sad heart of the captive. The interview was short; Francis was too ill to bear a long one; but its effect was excellent, and the sick man at once began to recover, soon regaining his former health. Hope had proved a medicine far superior to all the drugs of the doctors.

But the obdurate captor had said more than he meant. Francis was kept as closely confined as ever. And insult was added to indignity by the emperor's reception of the Constable Bourbon, a traitorous subject of France, whom Charles received with the highest honors which a monarch could slow his noblest visitor, and whom he made his general-in-chief in Italy. This act had a most serious result, which may here be briefly described. In 1527 Bourbon made an assault on Rome, with an army largely composed of Lutherans from Germany, and took it by assault, he being killed on the walls. There followed a sack of the great city which had not been surpassed in brutality by the Vandals themselves, and for months Rome lay in the hands of a barbarous soldiery, who plundered and destroyed without stint or mercy.

What Charles mainly insisted upon and Francis most indignantly refused was the cession of Burgundy to the German empire. He was willing to yield on all other points, but bitterly refused to dismember his kingdom. He would yield all claim to territory in Italy and the Netherlands, would pay a large sum in ransom, and would make other concessions, but Burgundy was part of France, and Burgundy he would not give up.

In the end Francis, in deep despair, took steps towards resigning his crown to his son, the dauphin. A plot for his escape was also formed, which filled Charles with the fear that a second effort might succeed. In dread that, through seeking too much, he might lose all, he finally agreed upon a compromise in regard to Burgundy, Francis consenting to yield it, but not until after he was set at liberty. The treaty included many other articles, most of them severe and rigorous, while Francis agreed to leave his sons, the dauphin and the Duke of Orleans, in the emperor's hands as hostages for the fulfilment of the treaty. This treaty was signed at Madrid, January 14, 1526. By it Charles believed that he had effectually humbled his rival, and weakened him so that he could never regain any great power. In this the statesmen of the day did not agree with him, as they were not ready to believe that the king of France would live up to conditions of such severity, forced from him under constraint.

Francis I. and Charles V.


The treaty signed, the two monarchs seemed to become at once the best of friends. They often appeared together in public; they had long conferences in private; they travelled in the same litter and joined in the same amusements; the highest confidence and affection seemed to exist between them. Yet this love was all a false show,—Francis still distrusted the emperor, and Charles still had him watched like a prisoner.

In about a month the ratification of the treaty was brought from France, and Francis set out from Madrid with the first true emotions of joy which he had felt for a year. He was escorted by a body of horse under Alarcon, who, when the frontiers of France were reached, guarded him as scrupulously as ever. On arriving at the banks of the Andaye River, which there separated the two kingdoms, Lautrec appeared on the opposite bank, with a guard of horse equal to that of Alarcon. An empty bark was moored in mid-stream. The cavalry drew up in order on each bank. Lannoy, with eight gentlemen and the king, put off in a boat from the Spanish side of the stream. Lautrec did the same from the French side, bringing with him the dauphin and the Duke of Orleans. The two parties met in the empty vessel, where in a moment the exchange was made, Francis embracing his sons and then handing them over as hostages. Leaping into Lautrec's boat, he was quickly on the soil of France.

Mounting a Barbary horse which awaited him, the freed captive waved his hand triumphantly over his head, shouted joyfully several times, "I am yet a king!" and galloped away at full speed for Bayonne. He had been held in captivity for a year and twenty-two days.

Our tale of the captivity of the king ends here, but the consequences of that captivity must be told. A league was immediately afterwards formed against Charles, named the Holy League, from the Pope being at its head. The nobles of Burgundy refused to be handed over to the imperial realm, and an assembly called by Francis absolved him from his oath to keep the treaty of Madrid. Francis, bewailing his lack of power to do what he had promised in regard to Burgundy, offered to pay the emperor two millions of crowns instead. In short, Charles had overreached himself through his stringency to a captive rival, and lost all through his eagerness to obtain too much.

Ten years afterwards the relations between the two monarchs were in a measure reversed. A rebellion had broken out in Flanders which needed the immediate presence of Charles, and, for reasons satisfactory to himself, he wished to go through France. His counsellors at Madrid looked upon such a movement as fatally rash; but Charles persisted, feeling that he knew the character of Francis better than they. The French king was ready enough to grant the permission asked, and looked upon the occasion as an opportunity to show his rival how kings should deal with their royal neighbors.

Charles was received with an ostentatious welcome, each town entertaining him with all the magnificence it could display. He was presented with the keys of the gates, the prisoners were set at liberty, and he was shown all the honor due to the sovereign of the country itself. The emperor, though impatient to continue his journey, remained six days in Paris, where all things possible were done to render his visit a pleasant one. Had Francis listened to the advice of some of his ministers, he would have seized and held prisoner the incautious monarch who had so long kept him in captivity. But the confidence of the emperor was not misplaced; no consideration could induce the high-minded French king to violate his plighted word, or make him believe that Charles would fail to carry out certain promises he had made. He forgot for the time how he had dealt with his own compacts, but Charles remembered, and was no sooner out of France than all his promises faded from his mind, and Francis learned that he was not the only king who could enter into engagements which he had no intention to fulfil.