Charles VIII of France (r. 1483-1498) continued Louis XI’s policy of extending the royal domain by marrying the heiress of the duchy of Brittany. Apparently secure on the home front, Charles decided to expand abroad. As the remote heir of the Angevins, Charles disputed the right of the Aragonese, then led by Ferdinand (1458-1494), to hold the throne of Naples.
He chose to invade Italy, however, not only because of his family claim but also because Renaissance Italy was rich and was divided into small rival political units. It looked, in short, easy to conquer. And so it was at first, for in the winter of 1494-1495 Charles paraded his army through Italy to Naples in triumph. But his acquisition of Brittany had disturbed his neighbors, and his possession of Naples threatened the balance of power in Italy.
The French intrusion provoked the first of the great modern coalitions, the so-called Holy League composed of the papacy (as an Italian territorial state), the Holy Roman Empire, Venice, Milan, Spain, and soon England. This coalition forced the French armies out of Italy in 1495. Thereafter, various changing coalitions would seek to prevent the domination of Italy by any one power.
Charles was followed on the French throne by his cousin, Louis XII (r. 1498-1515). Louis married Charles’s widow to make sure of Brittany, and then tried again in Italy, reinforced by another family claim, this time to Milan. Louis drove Ludovico Sforza from Milan in 1499. In this second French invasion the play of alliances was much more complicated.
Louis tried to ensure himself against the isolation that had ruined Charles by allying in 1500 with Ferdinand of Aragon, with whom he agreed to partition Naples. Then in 1508 Louis helped form the League of Cambrai, in which Louis, Ferdinand, Pope Julius II, and the emperor Maximilian joined to divide up the lands held in the lower Po valley by the rich Republic of Venice.
All went well for the allies until Ferdinand, having taken the Neapolitan towns he wanted, decided to desert Louis. The pope, frightened at the prospect that France and the Empire might squeeze him out entirely, in 1511 formed another Holy League against France with Venice and Ferdinand, joined later by Henry VIII of England and the emperor Maximilian. The French could not hold out against such a coalition, for they now faced war on two fronts. Henry VIII attacked the north of France, and Louis XII, like Charles VIII, was checkmated.