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Charles V and the Sack of Rome (1527)

Charles V and the Sack of Rome (1527)
10 October 2016 0 Comment

The Sack of Rome on May 6 1527

The Sack of Rome was a personal tragedy for Charles V, who along with many other titles was also the Holy Roman Emperor, whose mutinous troops put Rome to the sword.

The army of the Holy Roman Emperor defeated the French army in Italy, and marked a crucial imperial victory in the conflict between Charles and the League of Cognac (1526–1529) — the alliance of France, Milan, Venice, Florence and the Papacy. Problems began almost immediately after this victory when something like 34,000 Imperial troops mutinied and forced their commander, Charles III, Duke of Bourbon and Constable of France, to lead them towards Rome because there were no funds to pay these soldiers. He also neglected to feed his army with many historians believing he siphoned off into his own pocket money that Charles V set aside for the campaign.

What Role did Charles III Play in the Sack of Rome?

Charles III kept his volatile army together with the promise of gold and silver if they marched on Rome to defeat the Pope and his city. Apart from some 6,000 Spaniards under the Duke, the army included some 14,000 Landsknechts under Georg von Frundsberg, some Italian infantry led by Fabrizio Maramaldo, the powerful Italian cardinal Pompeo Colonna and Luigi Gonzaga, and also some cavalry under command of Ferdinando Gonzaga and Philibert, Prince of Orange. Though Martin Luther himself was not in favor of it, some who considered themselves followers of Luther’s Protestant movement viewed the Papal capital as a target for religious reasons, and shared with the soldiers a desire for the sack and pillage of a city that appeared to be an easy target. Numerous bandits, along with the League’s deserters, joined the army during its march.

The march south to Rome was quick and violent with the largely undisciplined troops sacking Acquapendente and San Lorenzo alle Grotte, and occupied Viterbo and Ronciglione, reaching the walls of Rome on May 6. On May 6, the Imperial army attacked the walls at the Gianicolo and Vatican Hills. Duke Charles was fatally wounded; the artist and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini claimed that he fired the shot that killed him. “On the 6thday of May we took Rome by storm, killed over 6,000 men, plundered the whole city, took what we found in the churches and scattered on the ground, and burned down a good part of it,” declared Sebastian Schertlin von Burtenbach (1496-1577) one of the leaders of the German lansquenets.

Pope Clement VII 

On 6 June, Clement VII surrendered, and agreed to pay a ransom of 400,000 ducati (approx: $1,800.000 today) in exchange for his life; conditions included the cession of Parma, Piacenza, Civitavecchia and Modena to the Holy Roman Empire (however, only the last could be occupied in fact). At the same time Venice took advantage of his situation to capture Cervia and Ravenna, while Sigismondo Malatesta returned to Rimini. Clement arranged to flee Rome dressed as a peasant shortly after arriving in his palace in Orvieto to wait out the sack from a safe distance.

The population of Rome dropped from 55,000 before the attack, to a miserly 10,000 after the long drawn out sack. An estimated 6,000 to 12,000 people were brutally murdered. Many Imperial soldiers also died in the following months (they remained in the city until February 1528) from diseases caused by the large number of unburied dead bodies in the city. The pillage ended, after eight months when the food ran out, and there was no one left to ransom and the deadly plague appeared.

The sack marked the end of the Roman Renaissance, damaged the papacy’s prestige and freed Charles V’s hands to act against the Reformation in Germany and against the rebellious German princes allied with Luther. Martin Luther made the ironic comment when he said: “Christ reigns in such a way that the Emperor who persecutes Luther for the Pope is forced to destroy the Pope for Luther.”

Peter Kilby
About the Author

Peter Kilby is an artist, writer, story-teller, journalist and avid traveller who has lived and worked in Italy since 1987. He created Perfect Traveller to bring the world of art and history closer to you. Download the “free” Perfect Traveller app and enjoy the best audio tours available; about Italy today and yesterday. Sign Up to this website and submit your travel stories and become part of the Perfect Traveller community.

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