The 1527 Sack of Rome | Part 1: Tragedy and Treachery

January 30, 2023

The 1527 Sack of Rome | Part 1: Tragedy and Treachery
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“Hell was a more beautiful sight to behold.”

“Hell was a more beautiful sight to behold.” 


In this episode, we delve into the tumultuous events leading up to the 1527 Sack of Rome , "The 9/11 of the 16th Century".


At the center of it all stands Charles III, The Duke of Bourbon, a powerful French nobleman with a reputation for being ambitious and insecure.

We explore his motivations and actions as he betrays his King to join forces with the Holy Roman Empire, and follow his downfall at the hands of his mutinous German army.


From personal rivalries to bloody battles, this episode takes listeners on a journey through The Duke's fall from grace, set against a backdrop of the most dramatic periods in European history. 


With expert analysis and gripping storytelling, you'll gain a new understanding of the complex forces that shaped one of the most infamous moments in Rome's history




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It is the morning of Sunday the 5th of May, 1527, and the streets of Rome are abuzz with
excitement. The churches, usually packed to the rafters, were empty. All the worshipers,
all the parishioners, were pressed up against the city walls, jostling for a better view.
On the horizon, a curious source of light reflected the sun's rays back into their
eyes. As they chatted and speculated about what it could be, the mass slowly moved towards
them. Like a huge snake, the light weaved through the valleys and streams before the
object finally came into view. The onlookers' excitement turned to alarm. The light was
the reflection of steel breastplates, tens of thousands of them. An army was marching
toward Rome. The sight of a foreign army marching towards the Eternal City was worrying, but
within a few minutes, many of the townsfolk had drifted back from the walls to continue
on with their business. The din of church bells and street performers returned. The spectacle
was over. To these citizens, the idea that a foreign army would actually attack their city,
Rome, was unthinkable, almost laughable. When someone marched on Rome, they did it to prove
a point, to demonstrate their power or to show a dislike of a pope. After a show of power,
the army would camp outside the city walls, the commander would head inside the city and
negotiate. When all was said and done, there'd be a little parade and the army would head home.
And apart from a few broken vineyards, the city would be no worse for wear.
That's how it always went. But if those croning their heads over the city walls
looked a little closer, they would have seen the gaunt cheeks, the sunken eyes, and the
pocked faces of the men approaching the city. The shambling, stinking mass of men trudging
towards them hadn't had a morsel of food in days, they hadn't been paid in months,
and the hatred of the Catholic Church went back years. Inspired by the writings of a
renegade priest called Martin Luther, they saw the city and especially the pope as
everything wrong with the world, a corrupt perversion of their fate. The man tasked with
leading this mob had long ago lost control. The Duke of Bourbon, faced with a full on mutiny,
had been forced to lead them to Rome. He was as much a prisoner as he was a general.
Once as powerful as the King of France, he was now just another desperate starving mercenary.
And as the familiar din of street hawkers filled the streets of Rome once more,
few knew the otherworldly horrors that were about to befall the ancient city.
Welcome back to Anthology of Heroes, the podcast sharing stories of defiance and
heroism from across the ages. I know it's been a long break for us,
but this season is going to be a good one. So whether you're a veteran listener or a new one,
thanks for sticking with me, particularly to the show's generous patrons, Claudia, Tom, Seth,
Malcolm, Angus, and Alexander, you guys rock. Anthology of Heroes is part of the Evergreen
podcast network. As usual, I'm your host, Elliot Gates, and in today's episode we are
diving into one of history's most shocking events, the 9-11 of the Renaissance, the 1527
Sack of Rome. This will probably be a two-part series. The first episode will follow the life
of Charles III, the Duke of Bourbon. Charles is perhaps the most mournful and morose character
we've ever covered. He was a bit like a Disney prince. He was dashing, brave, very handsome,
and suave. But instead of manning the princess, he scorned her. Instead of bowing before the King,
he spat in his face, and instead of saving the kingdom, he burnt it to the ground.
A man whose overwhelming insecurities would force him down a path he had never intended to go.
A guy who, at one point in his life, would rival the King of France in power, money,
and grandeur, would later not recognise himself, starving alongside an army of German mercenaries
on a death march to sack the holiest city in Europe. So that's episode 1. Episode 2 will cover
the life of Pope Clement VII, the man in charge of defending the city that the Duke was barreling
toward. Since I began this podcast, I have never come across a man as indecisive and unsure of
himself as Clement VII. Hour by hour, minute by minute, this man, the vicar of Christ,
would flip-flop between allegiances, trying desperately to pick the winning side. And,
as things devolved, Clement, who prided himself on living by his high-minded principles,
would find himself shedding morals one after the other after the other.
These men are not heroic characters. No one aspires to imitate them or has studied what made
them so special, but both of them are very human. Both of them were people who found themselves
at crossroads, forced to pick between two equally bad options. They're people who you can very
much see elements of yourself in, and a few times I found myself thinking, gee, what would I have
done here? That's why I enjoyed this story, and that's why I hope you will too. So, let's start
the march. Massacre at Heaven's Gate, part one, The Duke of Bourbon.
If he were my man, I would have his head from his shoulders, laughed King Henry VIII of England to
King Francois I of France. Francois forced a smile through pursed lips as he took another gulp of wine.
The two kings had gathered in northern France to throw one of the fanciest parties Europe
had ever seen to celebrate their eternal friendship. As their guests gorge themselves on the finest
food in the lands, bards dance between them singing dirty limericks as they pluck their lutes.
Doves flew from pies and maidens flooded their eyelids at handsome young bachelors,
but King Francois' eyes didn't move from the man King Henry had pointed to.
Charles III, The Duke of Bourbon. Francois was rarely outdone, be it in extravagance,
sophistication, or wealth. He was the god-appointed ruler of France, and he was used to having things
his own way. But as a handsome young knight vaulted his stallion over another obstacle and the crowd
cheered, Francois must have wished things were simple, as the English king suggested.
In the 16th century, France was in its final stages of consolidation.
Two centuries back, it was a bunch of squabbling states united only by a language.
The king had nominal power over the land, but really he was just a shoulder or two above everyone
else. But over the centuries, through wars and marriages, the little fiefs and kingdoms had
been weaved into the modern nation of France. The only real obstacle now was the ancient family of
Bourbon. The house of Bourbon was old, wealthy, and powerful, and Charles III was its patriarch.
And as he dismounted his horse and bowed before his king, Charles knew as well as Francois did
that this false loyalty could not last. But how did we get here?
Charles III was born in the year 1490 in the city of Montpensier,
central France. An introspective and sensitive child, Charles became the heir to the Bourbon
household when his older brother died. By his late teens, he developed into a handsome young man,
with a long Roman nose, jet-black hair, and high cheekbones, who was one of Europe's most eligible
bachelors. A diplomatic marriage was soon arranged for him, and Charles married his second cousin,
a woman named Suzanne. Charles definitely lucked out with the marriage. Susan was from a more
powerful or senior branch of the Bourbon family, and apart from being much, much richer, Charles was
now next in line for the throne of France. None of this, of course, escaped the notice of King
Francois. From birth, Francois had been given absolute power. Even as a child, his mother
formed over him excessively, cooing to the young boy, my king, my lord, my Caesar, my son. And the
child internalised this. Roughly the same age as Charles, Francois is almost a caricature of a French
king. I mean, the guy is literally pouting in most of his portraits. With his tiny almond-shaped eyes,
high hairline, and wispy beard, Francois was well educated and a lover of the arts.
But what really got him out of bed was chivalry – falconry, hunting, jousting, and horseback
riding. The best place a king could be was charging into battle on a snow-white stallion
surrounded by his loyal soldiers, whom, of course, would die for him should he command them to.
At least this is how it went in his head. The reality was the idealistic king had seen little
real combat. Instead, it was none other than the Duke of Bourbon who led his armies. In any
leadership position he found himself in, the Duke performed well. A little too well for Francois.
Sure, he wanted his armies to win, but stories of the Duke's bravery, tales of him valiantly
leading the vanguard into the heart of the enemy, he's rankled the pride of the French king.
Although he would never admit it, he was very jealous of the fame the Duke was earning on
his behalf. He was sick and tired of hearing his court swoon over his rival and his damned
silver robe he always wore. So the French king started to scheme. He did little things that he
knew would irritate his popular general. It was childish and dangerous, but Francois couldn't
help himself. This upstart needed to remember who was king and who was subject.
When the Duke returned home from another successful campaign in Italy, he was virtually
snubbed by his king. The Duke could live with the snubbing, but he was more insulted to learn
that the land he had just conquered had already been given away. He had assumed that the land
would be granted to him to govern in the name of the king, but Francois had instead given it to
his mistresses brother. The Duke could also burn a lot of his own money on the campaign. Feeding,
paying and supplying an army was expensive. The king had reassured him he'd be reimbursed,
but as the month dragged on, it was clear that Francois wanted him to come to him,
cap in hand begging. Please, my lord, could I have some money? But Bourbon was too proud.
So Francois continued. He invited the Duke to take a personal tour of the castle he'd built
for a friend using the money he owed the Duke. As the two men walked the sprawling halls of the
palace, the French king poured salt in the wound again, asking the Duke mockingly,
so what do you think? Not a bad castle, right? But once again, the Duke refused to rise and
told the king, quote, the cage is too spacious and too beautiful for the bird, end quote,
a reference to the low status of the man Francois was giving the castle to. With a cheeky little
grin, Francois shot back, you're jealous. And Bourbon responded with, quote, jealous? How can
your majesty believe I am jealous of a gentleman whose ancestors were only too happy to be squires of
mine, end quote. On and on this game went as Francois etched the most powerful man in this
kingdom closer and closer to rebellion. For a man in high society such as a Duke, death was
usually preferable to dishonour, and Francois was playing a dangerous game. He was pushing the Duke
to the edge of a cliff, and it was he himself who would suffer the most should he choose to jump.
So we've mentioned the wars that Duke fought in the name of France, but we haven't mentioned
who he was fighting against. If you look at Europe today, you could say it was split between the
NATO-aligned West and the Russian-aligned East. Back in the 16th century, that line was much
further west. It was France and our allies against an entity known as the Holy Roman Empire.
But don't get too hung up on the name. Really, it was just a group of states that spanned
Germany and northern Italy. The leader of the Holy Roman Empire was called the Emperor.
Obvious enough if the position was inherited, but this was an elected post. Anyone born within
the borders of the great state could theoretically put their name forward and become the Emperor.
But like so many government roles today, to have a good shot at getting the gig,
you needed money. A lot of money. Effectively, you needed to bribe all the other electors to vote for
you. And that kind of FU money was in short supply. One was our old friend King Francois,
France, and the other was a man named Charles V of House Habsburg. Now, I know it's confusing
that we've got two Charles's, so going forward, I'll refer to Charles III Duke of Bourbon as
the Duke of Bourbon, and Charles V of House Habsburg as Charles or the Emperor. Well, he once said,
quote, I speak Spanish to my God, Italian to my women, French to my men, and German to my horse,
end quote. And with family lands all across Europe, he wasn't lying. Charles's family,
the Habsburgs were frankly stinking rich. Over the centuries, their ancient family had consolidated
more and more land. A thief here, a hamlet here, it all added up. And through diplomatic marriages,
their fortune grew in magnitudes. There was only one problem. When all the richest people in Europe
were Habsburgs, and you're looking for a diplomatic marriage, you end up marrying your cousin. A lot.
Incest at this point in Europe wasn't unusual, but the Habsburgs were like the Targaryens,
they couldn't get enough of it. One estimate I read suggested that 80% of Habsburg marriages
were to a close relative. Marry your aunt, marry your cousin, whatever, everything was cool in
the incestuous paradise of Habsburg Europe. But as they say, play silly games win silly prizes.
And one source says the infant mortality of this family sat somewhere around 50%,
which even for the time was staggeringly high. Charles was lucky enough not to be a statistic,
but he didn't get off scot-free. It was an open secret that he was epileptic,
and he did his best to hide his enormous deformed chin underneath a beard. Both health issues due
to, you guessed it, incest. Far from the pampered upbringing Francois had, Charles saw little of
his mother. Driven to insanity by her husband's affairs and then, later, his death. Her contemporaries
thought she was mad, but a few historians now think perhaps she was just depressed or schizofranc.
Whatever the case, there was very little love between mother and son. If Charles had had his way,
it would have just ignored old mumsy until she passed away. But unfortunately,
the old dowager was holding onto some very lucrative family lands that Charles wanted the
tax revenue from. Eventually, he managed to outfox his dear old mother, and after having her declared
unfit to rule, the family fortune was all his. By the year 1519, he'd paid his way into the
palace, securing the position of Holy Roman Emperor and making a lifelong enemy of King Francois.
News of Bourbon's poor treatment at the hands of King Francois soon reached the Empress Court,
and Emperor Charles mused over what it would take for the esteemed general to be
tempted over to his side of the field. And he wasn't the only one wondering. On one of their
outings, Francois asked the Duke, half joking, half mocking, what it would take for a man like
him to defect to the enemy, effectively asking him how much is your price, how much would have to pay
you. With his usual guarded tongue, the Duke told his king, quote, Sire, the offer of three kingdoms
such as yours would not be enough, end quote. If the king was relieved to hear his response,
it was short lived as Bourbon continued, quote, but an affront would be sufficient, end quote.
Francois had just been told in the most civil way possible,
stop messing with my honor or you're going to regret it. But Francois didn't realize or more
likely he didn't truly believe that Duke had the stones to follow through on this threat.
And so when war broke out with the Holy Roman Empire, Francois sent his best general as second
in command. The esteemed Duke was subservient to Francois' lackluster brother-in-law. Then as the
Duke sat seething in his tent, he received a letter. As he read the tragic news, he had no way
of knowing that this day, this moment would be one of the last days of his old life. The contents
of the letter were about to set in place a chain of events that would lead him to ruin.
Through tearful eyes, the Duke read the letter for a second time. His beloved wife Susan was dead.
Despite their marriage being a diplomatic one, the couple did seem to love each other.
They'd spent many a summer's day frolicking happily through their country estates and touring
their lands. The Duke was crushed. But it wasn't just a loss of a partner that grieved him.
His wife's death put him in a very precarious position.
Susanne had been sickly her whole life. The couple had had three children together,
but none had made it past infancy. Susan was from the senior branch of their family.
And because the two had no heirs, it put the question of her vast inheritance into question.
The grieving Duke was facing the possibility of losing everything they'd built together.
As he wallowed in the depths of anguish, another letter came in the mail.
This one was from Louise, King Francois' mother. Hearing of his wife's death,
she sent the Duke a rather interesting proposal. Did he fancy marrying her?
The request was not as weird as you might think. Sure, the King's mother was 15 or so years his
senior, but she was also a relation of his late wife. So she had a very good claim on
the inheritance he was worried about. If they got married, it would ensure the Duke got to
keep his wealth and status, while also mending the rift that had grown between him and her son,
King Francois. But the letter infuriated the Duke. And as he read it, he must have
balled up his fists in anger. Was this Francois' idea of a joke? Did these two have no shame?
The body of his beloved wife was barely cold and they wanted him to throw her aside and jump
into bed with this harpy? In a bout of uncontrolled rage, he spat at the messenger, quote,
Do you insult me by bringing me the offer from such a woman? I, who have been married to the
best woman in France, am now consoled to marry the worst woman in the world? end quote.
It was a nasty ill-thought-out response to what was a conciliatory gesture.
Perhaps the timing of the proposal wasn't perfect, but you know how inheritance is
go its best to get in early. Louise was hurt by the scathing response, but more than that,
she was humiliated. She had always had a soft spot for the handsome Duke, and truth be told,
she thought he had harboured feelings for her also. But now, on the same page as her doting son,
she decided that instead of marrying the man, she would ruin him. As the king and his mother dragged
the Duke through the inheritance courts of France, Bourbon received an invitation to meet with one
of the emperor's diplomats. Even attending a summons like this could have landed him on
charge of treason. It would be unthinkable that he, a subject of the king, met with an envoy
from a state that France was actively at war with. But the Duke was past caring. The king had
dragged his name through the mud, and now he was trying to ruin him financially too. Who knows,
perhaps if he found out about this little rendezvous, he would begin treating him with some respect.
It's likely that Bourbon had no intention of outright defecting to the enemy. To forfeit his
lands, titles, and inheritance was like going from being the CEO back to the intern. It would have to
take something pretty tempting for him to make the jump. But Emperor Charles had a trick up his sleeve.
He knew Bourbon's reputation, how he was extremely prickly about his pride and honour.
Money was dirty. It was something that the common man quibbled over. Even if he offered him all the
jewels in his kingdom, he wouldn't accept. But alliances, marriages, dynasty, that was how royalty
negotiated. So Charles offered the Duke, among other things, the hand of his own sister. Bourbon
immediately sat up straight and listened. But the emperor had more. He said, listen, don't make any
decisions yet. Just go and meet my representative from Spain. I know a few people there. So Bourbon
meets his commander who tells him the plan the emperor had been concocting. It was effectively
a three-pronged invasion of France. The emperor's Spanish forces would hit France from the south,
King Henry VIII and his boys from England would hit it from the north, and his own German forces
would march from the east. The final piece of the puzzle, all that was left, was a talented commander
to lead the invasion. All that was left was him. This was the opportunity of a lifetime,
the envoy told him. A chance for you to get revenge on the arrogant French king who's
dishonored you so many times. And although the envoy didn't say it explicitly, Bourbon was
second in line for the throne of France. If Francois was out of the picture, Bourbon would be the king
of France. A marriage, a huge dowry, command of the most powerful army in Europe and the possibility
of becoming the king of France. Every man had his price, and with his hands trembling, the Duke
of Bourbon signed his name. He had just committed high treason. There was no turning back now.
As secretive as Bourbon had tried to be, Francois's spies soon found out about the meeting. Although
the Duke wished to get on with it, he found himself soon bedridden with a debilitating illness,
perhaps from the stress of everything. Coy's usual, Francois visited his sick bed. It was
a strange meeting. Both men knew Bourbon was planning to defect, but Francois was in the middle
of Bourbon's territory. He couldn't arrest him, and the Duke, sick and feverish, wasn't at the
top of his game either. Always an emotional young man, Francois was easily moved from anger to
compassion. Seeing the Duke in such a sad state, he felt sorry for him. He told Bourbon that perhaps
he'd been a bit too zealous with his lawsuit, and admitted that his army was not the same without
him leading it. He begged of him as soon as he was well to meet him in his court, and together
they would straighten this whole mess out. Bourbon, also an emotional soul, was nearly moved to tears
and told the King he had never meant to disrespect him. He told Francois that he loved him dearly,
and through a rasping cough, told him that he would always have his undying loyalty.
You can put any spin on this reunion you want, but to me it's an outpouring of emotions between
two men who already knew they'd crossed the threshold. An emotional goodbye between two
people who, at one time, were friends. Before each of them proceeded down the path, they'd already
chosen. With a tearful embrace, Bourbon assured the King he'd follow him. As soon as he was
better, he'd come meet him. He would do nothing of the sort. As soon as his strength returned,
Bourbon slipped away. Knowing Francois's spies were everywhere, he pretended that his sickness
lingered, and then late one night, with three hundred of his most loyal men and horses weighed
down with all the gold he could carry, he fled east. Barely a day later, Francois's agents
arrived at his estate. But there was no trace of the Duke. His sword and collar, two gifts from
the King were the only trace of him. No longer a Duke, but a fugitive, bourboned journey must
have been harrowing. Resting briefly at the residence of his aunt, the handsome and gallant
lord looked more like a feral animal. His eyes were wild, and he was unshaven and thinner than
usual. But he'd made it. His old life was over. And as he inspected the army, he was to command
for the upcoming invasion of Italy. Perhaps he felt a sense of excitement or purpose. No longer
would he bend to the whims of a fickle king and his overbearing mother. He was his own man again.
Or so he thought.
Wedged between the warring states of France and the Holy Roman Empire was the land of Italy.
Since the fall of Emperor Majurian about a thousand years ago, whose story we covered in our last
episode, Italy had not been united. The parcels of land had been traded around with dowries and
inheritance just like everywhere else in Europe. And soon this had dragged the European continental
wars down to the peninsula. Italy was like a big nut lodged between two powerful empires,
and both sides wanted to control it. The strongest power in Italy was the Pope. His flag flew over
several cities in central Italy, which together were known as the Papal States, and the smallest
country in the world today, Vatican City, is now what's left of them. Becoming the Pope was virtually
the same process as becoming the Emperor, just on a small scale. And once someone became Pope,
their rule was absolute. And the current Pope was a man named Clement VII. Clement was in his
late 40s when he was crowned with the papal tiara. It had been a tough slog to win the majority vote,
and he had made his fair share of enemies as he overtook one cardinal after the other.
But he'd always been a good bet. He was pious but not overly, dignified but not excessive,
overall a good middle ground candidate. Even better, he'd been the brains behind his cousin's rule,
Pope Leo X. Leo had been an extremely popular pope, particularly with the people of Rome who
got to enjoy his extravagance. Feasts, music, renovations, the commoners of Rome cheered for
their dumpy little monarch who behaved more like a rock star than the head of the church.
After Leo died came the stern and austere Pope Adrian VI. Stoic and cold, there were no games
no dancing and no life in Rome under his rule. But much to the joy of the Roman public, he died
less than two years into his reign. He was so unpopular that after his death, some jokester
nailed a wreath on the door of his physician, thanking him for saving the people of Rome.
With the despised Adrian now six feet under, the people of Rome were looking forward to a return
to the good old days. Leo and Clement were both from the Medici family. You may have heard of the
Medici's, it's a name usually associated with Michelangelo and other Renaissance artists.
The Medici's were a wealthy family originally hailing from Florence in north central Italy.
With the money they made from banking, their wealth allowed them to sponsor many famous
artists and sculptors. Michelangelo, Raphael, even Leonardo da Vinci, all of them owed part
of their success to their rich Medici friends. But as the pope looked over the balance sheet
his departed cousin left behind for him, his eyebrows must have hit the ceiling.
The Vatican treasury was in bad shape, very bad shape. Turns out Leo's wild parties had drained
the coffers dry, and it was now up to his unfortunate cousin to pick up the check.
The pontiff knew that like a spoiled child, Roman citizens did not like to be told no.
In the time of the Caesars, residents of the great city paid no tax, and since the rise of
Christianity they made a living off pilgrims. One author described the city as a leech,
a parasite that produced nothing of value and made a living fleecing tourists that visited.
If that were true, the people of Rome liked it that way. They didn't care where the money
came from, they wanted games, they wanted parties. The pope was not well liked by the people of Rome.
In addition to not having the money his cousin had available, he also didn't have his personality.
Leo was magnetic and charming, people were drawn to him. I mean, the guy wrote around Rome on a
pet elephant. Try and tell me you wouldn't want to know a guy like that. So people were willing
to look past his indiscretions. Young men sneaking out of his chambers late at night, whatever,
that was just Leo, right? It's just what he did. But aside from the social awkwardness and the empty
treasury, Clement had another problem. About six years ago, a German theologian and preacher
named Martin Luther penned a Buzzfeed-style list of things that he felt were wrong with a Catholic
Church. The 96-point list flowed through Europe at a mind-blowing speed. The 16th century equivalent
of going viral, it was sped along by the invention of the printing press. As books became cheaper,
literacy rates across Europe skyrocketed. Ordinary people were getting their hands on the
Bible and starting to question what their local priests were telling them. They were saying,
hang on, I'm reading from the same book as you. Where'd you get that rule from? Martin Luther
hated a lot of things about the Church, but what he hated most was the practice of selling indulgences,
literally paying to reduce the time you had to spend atoning for your sins.
Indulgences had been around for a while, but they were never so commercial. To help fund
his lavish lifestyle, Pope Leo instructed his clergy to aggressively push these indulgences
on their flock. He wanted them to be like an insurance salesman aggressively pushing that
volcano insurance for an extra $10 a month. One preacher even came up with a catchy little saying,
as soon as the money in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory's fire springs.
That's a real quote. It sounds like something out of better call Saul, doesn't it?
So, apart from leaving his cousin an empty treasury, Leo also left him a scarred Christian
world that he was somehow supposed to mend. So erotic that Clement was probably on board with
a lot of these reforms that Luther was pushing, he too thought the Church would become a little too
mercantile. If he had been pontiffed back when this whole mess had kicked off, perhaps he could
have bought this wayward theologian back into the light. But that time had come and gone now,
and this schism was now something that Clement just had to work with. As the unpopular Pope
heard the reports of battles between Emperor Charles and King Francois, his concern grew.
Conflicts like this one regularly spilled into Italy, and already he'd received envoys from
both sides asking him for an alliance. Traditionally, his family, the Medici's,
were friendly to France. But he was a pope now, his family concerns needed to be pushed to the
back of his mind. He had a choice to make, and he better make it soon. But Clement didn't like
making decisions. It was said that his closest advisor was whoever spoke with him last. The man
was reactive in every sense of the word. In the service of his cousin, he was an information gatherer.
He collated reports and gossip, and let Leo make the decisions on how to act. But now others came
to him. He was the ultimate authority. Decisions needed to be made, and he had to be self-assured
and ready to live with the consequences. Instead, he tried to maintain neutrality, which sounds noble
in theory, but really it just led to both sides believing he sided with the other. And while he
ummed an art about what to do, the war was heating up. Bourbon had as his commander around 6,000
Spaniards and 14,000 Germans. He also had a sub-commander. George Frunsberg was like an
ancient German oak tree. Strong and gnarled, he was an enormous man that sat upon an equally
enormous warhorse. Frunsberg's life was an uninterrupted military campaign. He had little
time for anything else. A man of Bourbon's pedigree would have regarded the veteran soldier
as boorish and gruff. But it wasn't Frunsberg that Bourbon wanted. It was his Lahnknecht's.
That's a hard word for me to say, so sorry to any of my German listeners.
Lahnknecht's were the name for the German foot soldiers Frunsberg commanded. At a base level,
they were mercenaries, but really they were much more. Decked out in the most garish hues of reds,
blues, yellows and greens, the Lahnknecht's were some of the most elite and best dressed
soldiers in Europe. They were prized for their ability to withstand even the most harsh of
conditions. Like a pitbull terrier, if you point them towards an objective, they'd just march
until they got there or died. Their bright loose clothing was hard to miss and how they managed
to maneuver decked out in pants that looked like circus tents as anyone's guess. Each one of them
carried a 14 foot, 4.2 meter pike and stashed on their hip was one of the earliest forms of handguns.
Men who volunteered to fight in the front lines of the Lahnknecht's were paid double and wielded
a dreaded Zwei Hander, an enormous 2 meter, 84 inch long double-handed sword. Imagine that swinging
a sword around that was taller than you were. These men were the samurai of Europe and the only
man they took their commands from was George Frunsberg. Frunsberg may not have cared for this
traitorous French lord who was now giving him orders, but he'd served the emperor loyally his
whole life and he'd be damned if he stopped now. And so the multi-ethnic, multi-faith army set off to
the Italian region of Parvia. It was not ideal timing, it was the end of the campaigning season
and the emperor had only managed to scrounge just enough food for the march. It was going to be
cutting it fine. Their pay was also late, so not a good start. But none of this mattered to Bourbon.
This was the first day of the rest of his life. Each step was a step closer to returning home
and reclaiming his stolen honour and perhaps seating himself on the throne of France.
As battle became inevitable, the vacillating pope finally made a decision. His envoy's report of
dazzling French knights aboard their snow-white charges swayed him, and Pope Clement told King
Francois, okay, okay, I've made my decision, I'm siding with you. But only if you win the next battle.
The cocky French king probably rolled his eyes at this message as he let his army out.
He was itching for battle and humiliating his traitorous duke would make the victory even sweeter.
As French cannon tore through Bourbon's men, the battle began. Francois, so eager that he must
have almost been fidgeting in his saddle, gave the order, and he and his gallant knights lowered
their lances. With hooves thundering down the plains, they plowed through the front lines.
The shell-shocked Germans were thrown like bowling pins. Francois finally got the chance
to test his medal. Battling it out on horseback, he struck a killing blow on a Milanese lord.
And as he sheathed his blade wet with blood, he shouted excitedly to his men, quote,
Now indeed, I can call myself Duke of Milan. But with the momentum of the charge over,
a most unshivalrous weapon punched right through the beautiful French plate armor, the archibus.
Hundreds of riflemen perched on the side of the field, unloaded volley after volley,
turning the towering steel men into shrapnel. As Alain Knessch closed in for the kill,
Francois asked incredulously to his companions, quote, My God, what is that?
The men nobly formed up around the king, but the lengthy German pikes made short work of them.
Over the din of battle, one of Bourbon's lieutenants yelled to the king, quote,
Surrender to the Duke of Bourbon. And the king spat back, quote, I know no Duke of Bourbon, but myself.
Covered in mud and blood, he tried to defend himself, but eventually he saw reason.
And the king of France was marched away from the battlefield.
The capture of the French king was a welcome surprise to the emperor. The Duke of Bourbon
already had proved a worthwhile investment. As he toasted to his generals victory, letters
flooded into him, complaints from his German contingency. They were behind in pay and the
men were growing rowdy, difficult to control. But the emperor waved this away. He would sort
their money out at another time, let Bourbon deal with it. For now, he wished to gaze upon his rival.
As the emperor made his way into the splendid apartment he had provided for the French king,
both men sized each other up. Francois, the quintessential symbol of French chivalry,
and Charles, the steadfast Habsburg emperor who would and did step over his own mother to claim
his birthright. Charles seemed to believe that as he had captured the French king that French state
would literally cease to function until he returned, as if he had pulled out the vital cog from a
machine. And because of this, his terms for peace were incredibly steep. Among other things,
he wanted the region of Burgundy ceded to him, a large chunk of France's eastern territories.
Francois was incredulous. The man had been victorious in a single battle. What right did
he have to ask him for almost a quarter of his country? The French king agreed to many concessions
including, and this one must have stung, to restore the Duke of Bourbon. But he told him outright
there was no way he was getting Burgundy. Charles visited him regularly and the two men
spoke as gentlemen, but Francois was unbending. As the months dragged on, the king grew thin
and weak, almost as if being away from France was slowly killing him, but he wouldn't budge.
He started to look so sickly that Charles began to worry that the king might actually die.
But then one day, all of a sudden, Francois summoned the emperor and told him that he
agreed to the terms. All of them. His French troops would leave Italy, the Duke would be restored,
he'd marry the emperor's sister, and he'd cede Burgundy to him. The emperor was shocked but pleased
that the French king had finally seen the light. Francois' entourage soon arrived to take him back
home. They were beside themselves with worry. What would France do without Burgundy? Their kingdom
would surely collapse. But with a rye French smile, the sickly king told them all not to worry,
because he had no plans on following through on any of the terms he had just sworn to.
King Francois, a man so obsessed with chivalry, had looked the emperor in the face and lied
through his teeth, and felt absolutely no guilt about it. As he crossed the river separating
the two empires, he jumped out of the boat and, like a kid at Disneyland, jumped for joy, shouting,
quote, I am again a king. The emperor was furious when he learned to Francois' treachery and even
challenged him to settle the affairs like men with a duel. But it was Bourbon who suffered the most
from this. Like a puff of smoke, his path to redemption had disappeared. With no trust between
the two monarchs, there wasn't much chance of another truce in the future. Stuck in limbo in a
fallen land, he became lonely and withdrawn. He had few friends and was often heard talking in his
chambers when no one else was there. Reconciliation with Francois was off the table, and now everything
hinged on the upcoming invasion. Down in Rome, Pope Clement VII sat with his head in his hands.
He had really screwed things up. After he had gotten used over the emperor's victory,
he had sent an envoy with all speed to meet the emperor and sought out new terms for an
alliance. Then, after Francois' treachery, he changed his mind again and sent a second secret
envoy to France to confirm that their alliance still stood. But on the way, the two men ran
into each other in northern Italy and figured out they'd both been duped. So this was a state of
things – holy men zipping around Europe making deals that weren't worth the paper they were
written on. Trying to make sure he was on the winning side had cost the pope dearly. Both monarchs
were sick and tired of his double dealings. The emperor, who had more than enough of broken promises,
came out swinging at Clement's envoy, threatening him, quote,
I will go into Italy myself and be revenged upon that villain of a pope. Martin Luther
perhaps was not so far wrong, end quote. Francois, too, was over it, cutting off a
paper envoy as he shamelessly heaped praise on the king. Francois exasperated, quote,
For the love of God, he miskeep up his courage and meddle no more with truces or negotiations,
end quote. Internationally, the pope's reputation was in the mud, and the people of Rome hated him
just as much. In a show of just how bad things had got, Cardinal Colonna, the pope's chief rival,
led a small raid through the streets of Rome. It was a show of force, anti-Clement rather than
anti-Rome. But still, this was a hostile army marching through the streets, and the people cheered.
The pope called upon commanders of the local militia, the men-at-arms, and their response was
silence. No one would lift a finger to help the Holy Father. So he took the only option he had,
he fled. Many years ago, an escaped route had been constructed for situations like this,
a corridor leading directly from the pope's house to the formidable Castle San Angelo.
Built on the literal tomb of Emperor Hadrian, there's a bit of poetic justice at the safest
place in Rome stood atop the crypt of one of its best emperors. Castle San Angelo is a barrel-shaped
fortress that sits squat on the edge of Vatican City. It was intended to be a kind of panic room,
a spot where the pope and his entourage could shelter, and it was connected to the papal residence
by an 800-meter, 2,600-foot fortified corridor. So as the rank-and-file cheered Colonna liberty,
Clement hitched up his skirts and ran the gauntlet, ducking behind the fortifications as stones
and insults whizzed by him. Once he was safe inside his fortress, he could only watch in disbelief
as the rogue cardinal sacked his palace. Works of Raphael, golden chalices, a cardinal should know
better. The pope shook his head in dismay as a drunken troops stumbled through the streets
dressed in all his clothes. They dragged with them ancient tapestries they literally pulled off
his wall and even had one of his papal tiaras. As the troops left the city drunk on communion wide
and weighed down with the loot, the people of Rome clapped and hooted. The whole thing had been one
big party to them. You've got to feel bad for Clement. Yes, he made a few decisions, but the
hatred of the fickle Roman public was so extreme. Yes, he had sent around tax collectors, and yes,
he was light on games and entertainment, but all of this was a direct result of Pope Leo's open
checkbook. Foreign diplomats remarked with curiosity just how much he seemed to be disliked for no
real reason. A Venetian ambassador noted, quote, if he signs a petition, he never revokes it,
as did Leo who signed Benny. He withdraws no beneficiaries nor gives them. He gives largely
in arms, but nevertheless is not liked, end quote. As Clement nervously peaked outside Castle
San Angelo, the Duke of Bourbon was barely holding things together in northern Italy.
His authority among his foreign army was fading fast, and like the new kid at lunchtime,
he found himself on the outside, deliberately left out of war cancels.
A tale of Bourbon defeating an old French knight made its way around Europe.
The story goes that Bourbon, after mortally wounding a French nobleman in single combat,
offered his condolences, and as a manly bleeding out, his dying words stung Bourbon more than
any mortal weapon ever could. Quote, Monsieur, do not pity me, for I die as an honest man,
but I pity you, seeing you serve against your prince and country and your oath, end quote.
As the troops sniggered behind the back of their turd coat general, he waited patiently for the
word of the promised triple invasion. But King Henry VIII, with his famously short attention span,
had become preoccupied with something else, and the Spanish forces were reluctant to move.
If he were to seize his destiny, he would need to do it alone.
Reluctantly, his troops besieged the French city of Marseille. Bourbon had planned the attack well,
his cannons thundered, and the defenders fell back as the walls crumbled. The city was theirs,
and the Duke ordered a charge into the open breach. But at this critical moment,
his sub-commander, who resented the authority of Bourbon, told his men, quote,
the besieged have made a fine table to treat those who visit them. If you want to
suck in paradise today, then go forward. But if like me, you have no such desire, then follow me
to Italy, end quote. The troops melted back into the army camps, and the siege was over.
But this was so much more than a lost siege. This invasion had been Bourbon's last chance.
All his bridges were burnt now. A treaty was impossible, and an invasion was out of the question.
There was no pathway back to his old life. He would never again gaze upon his vineyards of his
estates or feast in the grand hall with his friends. He was done. And from this moment on was, as
the Archimbalan says, quote, he had lost control of his destiny and was now being swept away by
the currents of chance and history. A tattered, foot sore mass of soldiers, scarcely deserving to
be called an army. This is how one author describes the shambling heap of men that stumbled around
northern Italy. Usually drunk, prone to violence, and with no clear direction, the army ate and
raped its way across the peninsula. They had not been paid in months, and it had not been
provisioned since the invasion began. Bourbon maintained his position by acting as the face
of the men. He managed to squeeze out a month's pay of soldiers from cities here and there,
but it was all a farce. He had as little control of these men as anyone did. The Spaniard contingent
had turned on the Germans, and the land-kneists had split themselves between Protestants and
Catholics. As the rain bucketed down day after day, a fight broke out in the camp, and when Bourbon
sent a sergeant major to break it up, they beat him to death. A riot broke out as the blood-drunk
men decided that that night they were going to settle the score with the traitorous Duke.
Their bright yellow and green clothing now sodden with mud and blood, they barged into his tent
and demanded they be paid, then and there. The Duke bravely confronted the leaders of the riot and
said, and I'm paraphrasing here, hey, look at me, where do you think I've hidden away your pay?
I'm suffering just as much as you. To keep peace, he even let them ransack his personal
belongings. They took his silver, his furniture, even pulled the rings from his fingers.
As he watched the ravenous mob pick apart his tent, if the Duke of Bourbon needed any more
confirmation he had picked the wrong path in life, this was it. By the end of the night,
the man who had once rivaled the King of France and, well, had only the clothes on his back and
a suit of armour. But he'd managed to hide a single bit of clothing. As he sat alone in his
ransacked tent, he turned over his silver robe in his hand. This robe was like a long shirt that was
worn over a suit of armour, and the shimmering silver cloth had been synonymous with the Duke's
battlefield glory back when he had led the armies of France to victory. Now it was nothing more than
a painful memento of the life he'd thrown away. Soon after Bourbon lost his last remaining ally,
though German loyalty to their commander went further than any other mercenary company, they
too had their limits. On yet another black cold night, the starving German troops forced their
way into their commander's tent. Frunnsberg had known many of these men for decades, never in the
history of the company had he seen insubordination like this. Like the crashing waves of a cliff,
the aging German commander met fire with fire. Swaggering out of his tent and towering over
the men, he rorted them how dare they question his authority. As the rain bucketed down around them,
he reminded his men of their oath to him and to the Emperor. He told them their pay would come
in time and soon they would be home. This quietened several ringleaders, but not all. One man,
unmoved by the old man's tirade, slowly lowered his pike at the commander's chest. Frunnsberg
exploded with fury and reached for his enormous sword. The act split the mob down the middle,
and everyone raised their swords, either in defense of their commander or against him.
Bursting with rage and indignation, the old man's heart quickened and quickened again.
As his vision started to go, he clutched his chest and tried to steady himself,
leaning on a barrel, but his strength gave out and he collapsed into the mud.
Most likely he suffered a heart attack. By the next morning, the veteran commander was gone,
sped off on a carriage back to Germany where he died not long after. The entire burden of
commanding this angry, faceless mob was now in the Duke's shoulders. As Bourbon returned to
his squalid tent, he found that the mob had again ransacked what remained of his possessions,
and he found his silver coat in a pool of mud nearby. With no food, the mob was in borrowed
time. Whatever they did, it had to be done soon. Florence was the nearest major city,
and it was also very rich. It was where Clement and his family, the Medici's, had risen.
Merchants and bankers ran the place, and so the city fell into the crosshairs of the army.
They decided they'd just sack it and extract the money that they'd been promised for this
disastrous campaign. As they began their last arduous march, the frigid rain gave way to an
early summer, and in the heat the exhausted men abandoned the last of their cannons.
At this time of the year, the only food they could find was unripened almonds and pea pods,
which they mashed into a bitter paste. As they neared Florence, an envoy arrived from the pope,
well, more precisely from the emperor and the pope. The pope again, with one foot in each camp,
had convinced the emperor to pull his forces out of Italy. And to thank the men for their hardships,
the army was to be paid 60,000 ducats, split between all of them. Working out to be about
two months of minimum wage for the hardships they'd endured. It could have hurt a pin drop at the camp.
The envoy tried to reason with the commanders, pointing out the appalling conditions they were
in, and tried to tell them how do they expect to besiege a city like Florence with no cannons and
no food. No one was convinced. Before the mob lynched him, Bourbon pulled the envoy aside and
said, listen, you better put together 240,000 ducats and you better do it now, or the damage
these men are going to cause is going to be biblical. The envoy seemed confused as Bourbon
explained that he did not lead them, they led him, and that he was no general, just a guide.
The man barely escaped with his life, as the fury at the insultingly low offer made its way
through the camp. He got the hell out as quickly as he could. When he arrived back in Rome and told
Clement the offer had been rejected, the pope was stunned and terrified. Not once did he
consider the army might simply reject the offer. He had assumed an order from the emperor would
have been enough, and the miserable amount of money he'd offered was just sweetening the deal.
He seemed to think that signing his name on the bottom of a sheet of parchment would magically
make 22,000 men disappear. In fact, Clement was so sure of this that he had disbanded the
main papal army. That's right, with a huge starving mob of Germans roaming around Italy,
he had told the men defending him, thanks boys, pack it up, no need for your services.
A relief army was rushed to Florence, its walls were tacked up and its tower was
laden with ammunition, but at the last second the army diverged, and Bourbon announced grimly
they marched for the Queen of Cities. They would march on Rome. The last minute change of plans
was because Bourbon had received a message, a message from Clement's old nemesis, Cardinal
Colonna. If you don't remember, he was the guy earlier who'd led his men through the streets
of Rome in a kind of mini-sacking. Colonna had told him, pretty much, head to Rome and I'll make
it worth your while. You get easier plunder and I get to see Clement humiliated, it's a good deal
for both of us. Though the Catholic Spaniards in the army at first protested against the blasphemy
of sacking the head of the church, Bourbon was quick to point out how much harder Florence would be
to crack, and placidly they fell in line. So the miserable army set off south. On their way they
murdered and pillaged the way through any towns they came across. There was no bloodlust or
excitement in the killing. The foodstores and water systems were the only thing that the
Ravenous army sought. Through the barren midlands of Italy they marched. Through the rivers they
waded up to their chests and linked arms to form a chain. No one spoke, no one sang. The only
sounds were the slow trudge of tens of thousands of feet, and the Duke of Bourbon was now one of them.
Filthy, stinking, and hairy, not a soul who knew him in his glory days would have known that this
figure, balanced to top a skinny horse, was once one of the greatest men in Europe.
A last desperate envoy arrived from the Pope, who had raised the amount slightly,
but it was too little too late. They could now see the skyline of the city.
The ancient buildings, full of untold wealth, lay just out of reach. It was all for them,
they just needed to take it. It's difficult to imagine a besieging army in any worse shape than
the one that camped outside of Rome in May 1527. 22,000 men on the brink of starvation. No food,
no plan, no water, no artillery. If anything was to be their strength it was their desperation.
All men knew that this was it. There was no second attack. If they didn't take the city
before a relief army arrived, they were all dead men. The night before the attack, Bourbon summoned
his Catholic chaplain and gave a last prayer as he prepared to besiege the holy city. As dawn broke,
the mob shambled towards the city walls. And, in what can only be described as an act of God,
a huge white cloud of fog fell over the men, completely obscuring their position.
Bourbon's army charged forward as the defenders fired blindly into the mist. All of a sudden,
from out of the fog, one of the defenders eye was drawn. A dirty looking man covered in expensive
armour with the silver robe clambered out of the cloud and onto the city walls. The defender took aim
and fired. And that is where we leave it for today. Talk about a cliffhanger, right?
The next episode is going to be a wild one, I promise. Hold tight, we'll be back soon.
This has been Anthology of Heroes. Thanks for tuning in.