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European Politics, Cannon, and Machiavelli

In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Islamic Ottoman Turks, ending Constantinople's thousand year reign as the center of the Roman Empire. (Constantinople to be renamed Istanbul in 1930.}

Constantinople's empire had been losing territory in Asia Minor to the Seljuk Turks. Its revenues from taxation had diminished. It had lost markets to Venetian and Genoese maritime traders and revenues from customs duties. Constantinople had come to see the upkeep of its merchant fleet as a drain on their meager money supply and its neglected fleet had rotted away while foreign ships came and went from its ports. Economic irrationality lived on as the royal government in Constantinople continued spending money for extravagant displays necessary to keep up the appearance of grandeur. By the 1400s, Constantinople was diminished in population and it was diminished militarily.

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 was followed by a flow of refugees to Italy that included intellectuals with manuscripts that stimulated a new interest in the ancient past, an interest that was humanistic rather than concerned with sin and salvation. Wealthy businessmen in Italy would begin to support education and the arts — a bourgeois beginning of what would be called the Renaissance.

The War of the Roses

In England, monarchical succession created another civil war. The Hundred Years' War was over. King Edward IV let himself grow fat and had become subject to an increasing number of ailments. He died in April 1483, a couple of weeks short of age forty-one. He was succeeded by his 12-year-old son, with Edward IV's younger brother, the Duke of Gloucester, was made the young king's Lord Protector. The boy king was murdered after reigning only 78 days, perhaps smothered with a pillow, ordered by the Lord Protector, who became King Richard III.

War followed between two factions within the broader royal family: the Yorks and the Lancasters.It was a conflict that had accompanied the near anarchy in England that came late during the Hundred Years’ War. Edward IV and Richard III were on the York side of the family. On August 22, 1485, Henry Tudor, a member of the Lancaster side of the family, defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. (Richard's bones, with marks from a violent death, were to be discovered during a parking lot excavation in August 2012.) With his military victory, Henry Tudor became king "by right of conquest," and in a ceremony in October he was crowned Henry VII. Early that year he had married the daughter of Henry IV, uniting the Lancasters and Yorks. She would be crowned queen in November 1487. The War of Roses was over. Ended also in England was feudalism. In its place was a central government supported by a public that wanted order.

France, Italy, Savonarola, and advanced artillery

In Western Europe national identity had been stimulated by the Hundred Years' War. The English and the French were looking more toward their king as a father figure, away from the Holy Father in Rome. In 1477, Charles VII of France extended his authority to Burgundy. In 1480 he wrested Anjou, Armagnac, and Provence (surrounding Marseille) from feudal rulers. Charles VII gained politically from the numerous deaths of nobles during the One Hundred Years' War, leaving fewer local lords between him and his subjects — fewer layers of authority. His successor, Charles VIII (r. 1483-98) married Ann of Brittany, adding Brittany to territory belonging to the French monarchy.

Historian Max Boot writes:

Charles VIII presided over the most powerful nation in Europe at a time when the very concept of a 'state' was just taking shape.

In 1489, Pope Innocent VIII, then at odds with Ferdinand I of Naples, offered Naples to Charles VIII, who had a vague claim to the Kingdom of Naples through his paternal grandmother, Marie of Anjou.

In the city-state of Florence, meanwhile, the Dominican friar Savonarola, known for his book burning and destruction of what he considered immoral art, was sermonizing about tyrants usurping peoples' freedom. He was opposed to Church corruption and prophesized that a New Cyrus was coming over the mountains to begin the renewal of the Church. In 1494 it was Charles who came over the mountains, headed for Naples with an army of 25,000 men, including 8,000 Swiss mercenaries and 36 of the latest in cannons. His cannon frightened and made a big impression on the Italians.

With relative ease, Charles' army swept through the Republic of Florence, through Rome and into the Kingdom of Naples, and Charles was crowned King of Naples. In Florence, Savonarola believed that Charles VIII and his cannon had been sent by God to purify the Florentines. He looked forward to Charles ousting sinners and making the city a center of morality appropriate for a restructured Catholic Church. The Florentines were more with Savonarola than they were with an intellectual elite or the Medici banking family that had been governing Florence for something like sixty years, and the ruling Medici went into exile. Savonarola took over Florentine politics and pushed for a Christion republic governed by God, a theocracy, with citizens earning their salvation. Food was distributed to the hungry. Shops opened to give work to the unemployed. A bank was established for charitable loans. Taxes were reduced.

The Pope from August 1492 was Alexander VI was offended by his la denounced was the infamous Pope Alexander VI. Savonarla denounced his riches and lascivious lifestyle perfectly represented the corruption that Savonarola sought to purge. Pope Alexander organized an anti-French coalition of powers, the League of Venice, that drove Charles back to France. Savonarola's opponents in Florence, urged on by Alexander, became more vocal. Savonarola's influence waned. Gangs of young aristocrats harassed Savonarola's followers and heckled him during his sermons. At odds with the Pope (but still loyal to the Church) he summoned to Rome. He went back to Florence and defied the Pope with processions and theatricals. In May 1497 the Pope excommunicated him. There was an ecclesiastical trial. He was handed over to secular authorities. Before mounting the scaffold he piously received the Pope’s absolution and plenary indulgence. He was hanged and then burned at the stake.

The Medici had returned to power in Florence, and there, one month after Savonarola's execution, Niccolò Machiavelli, age 29, took up his post as secretary to the Second Chancery of the Republic of Florence.

Members of the Medici family would become popes: Leo X (1513-21), Clement VII (1523-34), Pius IV (1559-65, Leo XI (for 26 days in 1605).


The Turks back in 1453 having blown down Constantinople's walls with European cannon, and the more recent move into Italy by Charles VIII with his cannon, had stimulated concern about the nature of warfare in the mind of many, including Florence's Machiavelli. Word had spread that walls and castles were no longer much of a defense, that security required more than stone walls, that security would require large standing armies and perhaps good alliances and a balance of power that came with diplomacy.

Speaking to this was Niccolò Machiavelli, 1469-1527, a man of a new era. The historian William H McNeil describes him as "well educated in the humanist tradition." Machiavelli wanted to understand events beyond the notion that they were God-directed. He believed that a ruler should be concerned not with how things ought to be but with how things are, that politics should be about empirical realities rather than religious faith. Savonarola was dead, and Machiavelli advised that Florence might have to contend with forces other than with prayer and Christian love — views that would earn him a reputation among a few people as an unprincipled schemer and a cynic.

Machiavelli claimed that a good ruler maintained permanent embassies in other lands and based his diplomacy on good information. His better-known work, The Prince, was written in 1505 (when he was thirty-six) and published in 1515. An advanced princely state, claimed Machiavelli, needed a professional military and mercenaries were unreliable. He wrote that a prince should act in the interest not just of himself but in the interest of his subjects and win the support of his subjects, that a prince should create institutions that serve and evoke loyalty. Societies, he held, should be governed by laws rather than whim.

CONTINUE READING: Stuff to Portugal and Spain

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