Category Archives: historical

How Ideas Sometimes go Astray.

What do you called a blind deer?

No idea.

Sorry to start off with that terrible pun but thought I’d try and inject a little light humour to start off the entry with, seemed a good idea at the time. And that is just it. ‘Seemed like a good idea at the time’ it is these workings of mind which can often lead to somewhat unsatisfactory or undesired consequences.

The French Revolution for example. An idea of socio-political reform designed to help level the playing field between the French aristocracy and the peasant classes beneath who suffered in poverty compared to their counterparts who dined on the finest of foods, quenched their thirst on exquisite wines and lived lavishly in sheer luxury.

Yet this well intended idea of introducing a greater sense of equality ended up being a bloody era in France’s history as Madame La Guillotine was drafted in to remove the heads of the aristocracy.

This triggered the French aristocracy to have the idea of fleeing France, in fear of their lives, and seeking refuge in Britain. Meanwhile British aristocrats were appalled by the revolution and had the idea of helping French aristocrats get out of their homeland and set up over in Britain.

Thus an idea designed to bring about equality, ended up triggering ideas between two nations which brought about a sense of fraternity between two nations famed for sense of hostility against each another. Funny how one idea to promote equality between one nations people actually ended up bringing about an improvment in diplomatic relations between two nations full of hatred…an consequence unforseen and unitended by the initial idea of the French Revolution.

So I leave you with this question. Was it worth the assasination of the French aristocrats via the guillotine in order to bring about this positive movement in diplomatic relations? Or would have been better off to allow the bourgeisie to grind the French peasent classes underfoot and allow Anglo-French relations to reamin hostile?


Offshot Reflection on the Holocaust

*disclaimer* By posting this I am in no way trying to justify what happened or make the Nazi’s seem to be any less the bad guys than they were. This is purely a posing thought/question that occured to me.

During WWII and the final solution imagine yourself being a Jew living in one of the concentration camps set up as a means of torture and mass murder of your people. How bad your life must have been at that time. Now imagine how many of them would have warmly welcomed the gas chambers as it meant an escape from another day…week…month…year of bitter cold, starvation, torture and all the agonising pains that came with it all. How many of them would have considered it to be a form of euthanasia instead of murder? Tis a very sorry state of affairs when death comes to be seen in that sense instead of the way the Nazis intented it.

Just goes to show that ALL things are relative!

The Cause and Effects of The Italian Wars

During the latter half of the 15th Century the Holy Roman Empire had began to lose its control over the Italian Peninsula dividing Italy up into a number of small republics: Dalmatia, Florence, Genoa, Istria, Lucca, Milan, Modena, Naples, Savoy, The Roman Papacy, Sardinia, Sicily, Siena and Venice. It was during this period of a broken Italy that a number of wars caused by fraught relationships between the families of Habsburg and Valois, expansionist foreign policies of France, Florence, Spain and Venice and fears of a European superpower rising up to dominate all of Europe, took place over control of the newly founded republics. These wars characterised the end of 15th Century Italy and the start of 16th Century Italy before they subsided allowing the Emperor Charles V to unite a number of them under a reforming Holy Roman Empire and also helped the continental spread of the Italian Renaissance.

One of the factors behind the Italian wars was the breakdown of the Holy Roman Empire during the late 15th Century. Once the Emperor had lost his power over the Italian peninsula the independent republics that were left behind had little power of their own, were politically unstable and held inadequate resources in order to maintain independence. Thus making it easier for neighbouring countries, eager to boost their glory, power and wealth to move in and dominate Italy. Ferdinand Trastámara (Ferdinand II of Aragon) used this period of political instability to pursue his claim to the republics of Naples, which being a Castilian possession belonged to his wife Isabella of Castile, and Sicily by way of strategic manoeuvres giving him a significant deal of influence over the Italian Peninsula. On one occasion, during 1494, Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, invited the French King Charles Valois (Charles VIII) to pursue his claim to the republic of Naples, a claim that could be traced back as far as the 13th Century, in order to dampen the rising fear of Spanish dominance over Italy. Naples at the time was currently being held at the time by Ferdinand II of Aragon, who refused to simply hand over control of Naples on account of some long-standing claim the Valois family had. Ferdinand turned to military force to secure his hold over his seat at Naples thus starting the Franco-Italian Wars, which resulted in Charles’ defeat after he came up against strong resistance from the League of Venice made up of Milan, Naples, the Papacy and Venice, the league was also backed by the Holy Roman Empire. As the Holy Roman Empire during this time was reigned over by Emperor Maximillion Habsburg (Maximillion I), the conflict helped fuel the long-standing Habsburg-Valois rivalry.

Machiavelli in ‘The Prince’ claimed “A ruler should have no other objective and no other concern, nor occupy himself with anything else except war and its methods and practises, for this pertains to those who rule” [1] Machiavelli meant by this that war and expansionism were the means by which those in power held power as failure to indulge in such “methods and practises” [2]would be perceived as cowardly and weak thereby making them more susceptible to invasion from enemies. This could have held some truth in the sense that the Habsburg-Valois rivalry wasn’t about expanding their empires but ensuring that each looked brave in front of the other so as to avoid conflict, it was misfortune that Italy was the arena for the two families to show their strength. Whether Machiavelli was right or not it was the Habsburg-Valois rivalry that played a crucial part in the continuance of the Italian wars between 1494 and 1518 since the Valois were scared that a growing Habsburg Empire would pose a threat to the Valois Empire of France and vice versa, so each tried to stop the other from gaining too much too quickly by trying to expand their own empires. In 1499 the French King Louis Valois (Louis XII) contracted a marriage with Duke Ludovico Sforza’s daughter in order to secure his claim to possession of Milan, a claim that dated back to 1387 when the Duke of Milan’s daughter Valentina Visconti married a French Duke. A successful acquisition of Milan would have helped the house of Valois break the ‘Habsburg circle’ that was beginning to wrap itself round the French Empire choking all plans for further expansion the Valois had, it also brought about rising fears that a surrounding Habsburg influence would bring about a Habsburg invasion on Valois soil.

Italy also suffered from internal tensions from the years following 1440 as Florence and Venice became expanding their borders, status and economic power triggering conflict with surrounding enclaves. This helped to prove the claims made by Machiavelli and Romenzo Valla who in 1440 claimed “wars are embarked on for desire of glory and for the hope of booty”[3]. These tensions were worsened after the Spaniard Rodrigo Borgia was anointed as Pope following Alexander VI, since Alexander was accused of carving up the Papacy in order to salvage a small kingdom so his family could have some security. Under Medici rule Florence had managed to become one of the richest republics in Italy making it noticed by the greedy eyes of the Valois family who planned to destabilise Florence’s political stability by offering aid to the enclaves that Florence oppressed during the Florentine expansion, this encouraged the people of the enclaves to rebel against Medici rule starting the Florentine revolution in 1492 weakening the political strength of Florence making it easier for external forces to invade Florence. Just as Florence’s increasing power gained it unwanted attention from France, Venice’s success had similar effect. In a bid to stop Venice expanding further east, and as an attempt to bolster its treasury, the Ottoman Turks began took interest in Venice. During 1497 Venice bribed the Ottoman Turks to invade Venice in order to remain safe from Valois dominance and involvement in the Habsburg-Valois dispute. Internal difficulties increased after 1504 when Ferdinand successfully seized Naples. The surrounding republics fell into unrest as they struggled to maintain their independence instead of surrender their will over to Spanish dominance. Charles VIII played on this by forming an alliance with Ludovico Sforza so that Charles had a free passage for his troops to march down to Naples in order to remove Ferdinand and bring Naples under Valois rule. Florence put up no resistance to Charles as it was undergoing rebellion against the Medici, nor did the Papacy after Charles had scared Pope Alexander VI into using the Papacy as a free passage.

The attempted expansion of the French-Valois Empire by Charles VIII brought about the collapse of the house of Medici, thanks to Charles’ influence over the people of Florence, allowing Florence to reshape its governmental makeup, basing it on a Venetian model with help from Savonarola. This helped turn Florence embrace the Renaissance as it blossomed into a more liberal state than it had been under the oppressive regime of the Medici family. Italy as a whole suffered huge losses of wealth, military forces, power and natural resources damaging its self-sufficiency which was vital if the republics were to maintain their independence. This brought about the inevitable outcome of the republics giving their freedoms over to dominance under the Emperor Charles V, which added Italy to the Holy Roman Empire and later the Spanish-Habsburg Empire when Charles V gained control of the throne of Spain after Ferdinand’s death in 1516. Although this was not entirely bad since it gave Italy the much needed protection from the religious wars that were to take place in the years following 1559, it was this protection that allowed Venice to increase her power and wealth throughout the Renaissance period so that by 1596 it had become one of the most powerful and most liberal states (although as Shakespeare portrayed in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ this liberalism allowed you freedom so long as you were not of Jewish faith) in Europe and also a keystone in the development of the Italian Renaissance, which was to be spread right across the continent due to the movement of merchant caravans along the Silk Road in the east and then moving through Venice in order to reach France, Germany and Spain.

The Italian wars had a large effect on the shape of the Spanish-Habsburg empire since the fall of Pavia in 1525 forced France to relinquish her claims to all of the Italian republics and also her Burgundian inheritance bringing a significant blow to the French Empire and the moral of the French people. This resulting in helping the Spanish-Habsburg Empire expand and by 1530 it held the Italian republics of, Florence, Genoa, Istria, Milan, Modena, Naples, Savoy and Siena, which were held right up until 1700 when the house of Habsburg crumbled, possibly due to overexpansion which had placed a strain on the Spanish economy since Ferdinand II of Aragon’s campaign against Naples had cost the total sum of eighty-eight million maravedís with his later campaigns in 1504 costing a further three-hundred and sixty-six maravedís[4]. The total economic cost of the Italian Wars to Spain came to 454 million maravedís, since the national treasury was only worth three-hundred and eighteen million maravedís[5] by 1504 it left Spain with a national debt of a hundred and thirty-six million maravedís. Having control over such a large number of possessions aided the Spanish-Habsburg Empire require the status of ‘superpower’ and following the death of King Ferdinand of Spain (previously Ferdinand II of Aragon) in 1516 the Emperor Charles V was able to claim the throne of Spain giving him control over the Spanish-Habsburg Empire and the Holy Roman Empire posing a great threat to all of the other European powers giving the Habsburgs the necessary geographical capabilities and power to begin overseas expansion, however Charles V found the control of such a wide empire difficult and with a large Spanish debt to clear and the Lutheran Reformation occurring right in the heart of his empire he saw his power begin to breakdown loosening his grip over some of his possessions such as the German principalities.

There were also some indirect effects of The Italian Wars, one of these indirect effect, mostly in response to the Emperor Charles V’s increasing power, was the construction of the League of Cognac; made up of Florence, Milan, the Papacy and Venice; uniting the remaining republics against a common enemy bringing some stability to a divided Italy, whilst continuing the on-going Habsburg-Valois rivalry. A second indirect effect of the Italian Wars, again caused by the large expansion movement of Emperor Charles V, was the spread of Renaissance culture from Florence and Venice across the rest of Europe via merchants, diplomats and troops moving around the ‘united’ Empires of Spain, the Habsburg family and the Holy Roman Empire under Emperor Charles V. The Renaissance movement, which affected the way Europe, saw fashion, art and culture was also able to spread through to France via the failed expansion attempts of Valois expansion by Kings Charles VIII and Louis XII and merchants coming in through Venice from the east via the Silk Road and the Ottoman Empire.

To conclude the Italian Wars were caused by rivalry between the Habsburg family of Austria and the Valois family of France who used Italy as the scene for their expansionist policies in order to display their power to the other, in similar fashion as peacocks would display their plumage to others in order to drive away completion for a mate. This was not helped by the breakdown of the Holy Roman Empire in the latter half of the 15th century, since it was the Holy Emperor who held control over Italy, leaving it fragmented and easy for invasion from its neighbours. The wars over the Italian republics did have some beneficial effects as they ensured the continental spread of the Renaissance, brought down the Medici family in Florence allowing it to flourish as one Italy’s greater powers. The wars also saw a fall of the Valois Empire whilst aided the rise of the Habsburg Empire which went on to dominate a vast amount of Europe.


  • R Bonney, The European Dynastic States 1494-1660, Oxford University Press, 1991
  • J Hale (edited by D S Chambers, C H Clough & M E Mallett), War, Culture and Society in Renaissance Venice, The Hambledon Press, 1993
  • J Hale, War and Society in Renaissance Europe 1450-1620, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985
  • P Helm, History of Europe 1450-1660, The Chaucer Press Ltd, 1966


  • R Finley, The Immortal Republic: The Myth of Venice during the Italian Wars (1494- 1530), The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol 30, No. 4 (Winter, 1999), pp. 931-944
  • M Fontaine, For the Good of the City: The Bishop and the Ruling Elite in Tridentine Modena, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Spring, 1997), pp. 29-43


[1] Pg.79, R Bonney, The European Dynastic States 1494-1660, Oxford University Press, 1991

[2] Pg.79, R Bonney, The European Dynastic States 1494-1660, Oxford University Press, 1991

[3] Pg.22, J Hale, War and Society in Renaissance Europe 1450-1620, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985

[4] Pg.91, R Bonney, The European Dynastic States 1494-1660, Oxford University Press, 1991

[5] Pg.89, R Bonney, The European Dynastic States 1494-1660, Oxford University Press, 1991


Why Did Europeans Expand Into America, Africa and Asia Between 1415 and 1715?

During the sixteenth century expansion became a key theme across the face of Early Modern Europe; this caused the sixteenth century to acquire the retrospective name of the Age of Expansion or Age of Discovery. According to the historian Richard Mackenney the cause of European expansion during this period can be explained in terms of three major symptoms: overseas discovery, population growth and price inflation all of which are tied together in a complex multiplicity making in difficult to isolate one symptom from the others. Alongside these three key factors is another two factors, Emperor Charles Habsburg’s (Charles V) call for expansion of Christendom by converting the natives of the New World and the desire for economic power through monopolising on the trading of specific commodities, mainly spices although this also including fabrics, foodstuffs, basic resources and curiosities.

Exploration had not been an entirely new concept to the world of Early Modern Europe. During the Middle Ages exploration had been overland and eastward, mostly dominated by tales of the Italian Marco Polo and his establishment of embassies with trading posts such as Constantinople and Samarkand along the illustrious Silk Road, which stretched all the way from Venice to China via Asia Minor, Persia and India. Come the turn of the fifteenth century, due to the advent of new navigational science replacing the dated classical geography of Ptolemy, discovery turned westward towards yet to be discovered America and south into what Ptolemy had called on his maps terra incognita, or lands unknown, which turned out to be the unchartered regions of Africa. Both these directions of exploration were partly in search of a viable sea-route in the Orient in order to break Venice’s iron-grip on the import of spices, silks and others goods from Africa and Asia. These projects were heavily dominated by Portugal and Spain since France was currently busy dealing with conflicts of both internal and external nature, Italy content with its monopoly over the Mediterranean sea-routes and imports brought in from the Silk Road and convinced that no other viable route were possible decided to sit out of overseas expansion. Finally the powers of England and the Netherlands attempts failed until the seventeenth century when they rose up to take over where Portugal and Spain were beginning to falter through lack of resources.

In 1415 Portugal captured the Moroccan city of Ceuta under King John I providing a strong post for exploration along the unknown African west coast, the promise of fame and fortune for being the first to chart the terra incognita filled King John’s son Henry with “inspiration which was to mould his whole life” , this venture was about to take Henry “down the African coast, even around Africa to India” via the Portugal’s discovery of the Cape of Good Hope. However whilst in Ceuta Henry learned from Moroccan Muslims about the riches waiting along the Gold Coast, ripe and ready, for whoever was first to discover them, thus Henry’s voyages were not entirely based on finding fame through discovery and exploration but partly on for gaining his nation financial benefits. By 1500 Portugal had also begun to turn its eye westward across the Atlantic to see what lay beyond the unknown waters and during this year, after hearing tales of the Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus, Portugal sent several fleets in search of new lands and to Portugal’s success soon arrived upon Brazilian shores discovering the Incan Empire. Although this provoked disagreement with Spanish explorers who under the conquistador Hernando Cortés had worked south from Yucatan to conquer Peru, a disagreement that was settled by the Treaty of Tordesillas which declared that all lands further than “370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands” belonged to Portugal and everything less belonged to Spain. Fernão de Magalhães (Ferdinand Magellan) envisioned a way to reach the Moluccas faster than Portugal’s route via the Cape of Good Hope by venturing west beyond the Americas. Magellan took his proposal to Emperor Charles V who held the Spanish throne after the death of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Magellan voyage was perilous and led to his death having got caught up in a local dispute in the Philippines, his remaining crew decided against returning by the same route and opted for taking the better known but risky Portuguese guarded route around Africa. This gave Magellan his title as being the first man to circumnavigate the globe, and revolutionised cartography so that maps fell more in line with those of today

As Prince Henry held the true Christian conquistador spirit there was a third element to his African voyages “he [Henry] wanted to deal a body-blow to Islam” and expand the Christian Empire across the new found lands. Henry thought this could be achieved if he was able to capture the Orient and the Realm of Prester John, also known as Abyssinia. Holding these lands would have the Islamic Empire trapped in a pincer movement, surrounded by the Holy Roman Empire to the west and the Portuguese Empire to the south and east. Henry’s plans for a crusade against Islam looked promising as Portuguese missionaries managed to establish Christianity into the lands south of Congo in 1491 and later on captured Mozambique, which gave Portugal a firm position against Muslim fleets sailing in from the north and providing Portugal with a port of call on way to India. After King Ferdinand died in 1503 the Trastamara came to an end handed the Spanish Throne over to the Habsburgs, which Emperor Charles V gladly received. With Charles now at the throne Spanish exploration took a new flavour, eager to expand Christendom as far as possible Charles took advantage of Spain’s 700 year old tradition of crusading against Islam and used Spanish conquistadores to sail westward into the Americas. One of the key figures in Charles’ religious expansion in America was Hernando Cortés who arrived in Yucatan in 1519 where Cortés alongside Spanish missionaries began installing the Christian doctrine and Christian education and expanding the Spanish-Habsburg Empire south through the Aztec Empire until he reached Peru where expansion came to a halt having bumped into Portuguese explorers, Spanish expansion had to end here due to the 1493 Treaty to Tordesillas, which was drawn up the Pope Alexander VI as a way to ‘fairly’ divide the Americas between Portugal and Spain.

From the sixteenth century the population of the European powers began to boom, this was not helped by the Portuguese who having “claimed Madeira (1420), the Azores (1439), and the Cape Verde Islands (1460s)” were importing slaves back home where they were to receive a Christian education, in hope of converting them, and eventually become recognised as Portuguese citizens. In 1500 the combined population of Spain and Portugal was 9.3 million, 7 million of which were Spanish citizens, with Italy having 10.5 million citizens, Germany 12 million, France 16.4 and England putting forward another 4.4 million to the total population of these five major European powers . A century later the population of these six countries had risen significantly from somewhere in the region of 21.7% to 23.4% bringing the total population of western Europe (not taking into account the United Provinces or other small nations) up to approximately 64.5 million, with one third belonging to Germany. This boom in the population put pressure on the limited resources Europe could provide especially with a trend of poor harvests between 1526 and 1580 which plagued Europe causing inflation to such a point where in some areas such as Vivarias “breed was unobtainable at any price and local people were forced to eat acorns” and even in prosperous Venice “there almost certainly were not enough working days in the year to enable a builder’s journeyman to buy sufficient bread for a family of four” . Not just foodstuffs but also other basic resources, such as timber, leather and wool were falling into short supply adding to the problem of inflation and creating extra urgency for nations to seek new suppliers from overseas in order to maintain their empires back home and keep the people at peace, this was one problem Germany found difficult since famine had led to a peasants revolt in 1525 as well as a rise in fatal diseases such as bubonic plague, pneumonia and septicaemia. Another contributing factor to European inflation was the surge of gold and silver being brought in by Spain and Portugal during their economic exploitation of the newly discovered lands.

One prominent factor behind Europe’s overseas ventures, and one that tainted each of the four powers which took to the seas, was the promise of economic power through conquering important sea-routes and commodity markets. The capture of Ceuta gave Portugal an opportunity to break into African trade routes granting them access to commodities that would otherwise have to pass through Venice and the Ottoman Empire who would impose tariffs on all passing trade. Prince Henry saw this opportunity and used it as a means to obtain rare commodities at a cheaper rate than overland routes were charging. In 1485 “Castile was in financial trouble due to its ongoing struggle against the Iberian Muslims” so when Christopher Columbus, having been previously turned down by England, France and Portugal, put forward his proposal that he could navigate a viable trade route to the Indies by crossing the Atlantic, allowing Spain to conquer the thriving spice-market, Spain decided to support Columbus by supplying him with ninety men and three ships which later departed from Palos on the August 2nd 1492, it was Columbus’ three voyages to the Americas which allowed Spain to secure a stable revenue for its declining treasury. Columbus’ ventures also provided Spain with slaves which were used to establish an overseas Empire “that could rival its Iberian neighbour” . In the later half of the sixteenth century England started to seek trade via the seas after Englishman Anthony Jenkinson had obtained “privileges of trade” within the Ottoman Empire during an interview with the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and letters of recommendation from Tsar Ivan the Terrible of Russia, these letters and privilages allowed England access into an exclusive group in which only members were able to trade along Volga and in the Caspian sea, it was within these waters that Jenkinson sealed a deal with Persian Governor Abdullah Khan whereby English wool would be exchanged for Persian silk. Towards the end of the sixteenth century late arrivals the Dutch entered the seafaring scene sending three fleets along the northeast passage down the Volga into Asia, two fleets across the Atlantic to the Americas and several vessels down the southeast route through the Cape of Good Hope to India in order to establish embassies overseas so that the Dutch could join in with Portugal, Spain and England in exploiting lucrative trading posts.

To conclude it is possible to break down the reasons behind Europe’s overseas expansion during the years 1415-1715 into four symptoms: the acquisition of fame through discovery, the expansion of Christendom through crusades, the urgency for basic resources brought on by population pressure, and finally the desire for wealth and economic power. However each of these symptoms are not entirely independent since Spain’s importing of silver from America spurred inflation which contributed to the need for cheap basic resources, as Portugal’s importing of African slaves contribute to the population pressure. Also Prince Henry The Navigator’s voyages were composed of several factors including the economic, religious and explorative. It is only with England and the Dutch that it becomes clearer as to the incentives for their voyages as both powers journeys to these exotic lands were based solely on economic grounds.

• Brotton. J, ‘The Renaissance a Very Short Introduction’, Oxford University Press, 2006
• Mackenney. R, ‘Sixteenth Century Europe: Expansion and Conflict’, Macmillan, 1993
• Maczak. A, ‘Travel in Early Modern Europe’, Polity Press, 1995
• Mols. R, ‘Population in Europe, 1500-1700’, Fontana, 1972
• Penrose. B, ‘Travel and Discovery in the Renaissance 1420-1620’, Harvard University Press, 1963
• Raudzens. G, ‘Military Revolution or Maritime Evolution? Military Superiorities or Transportation Advantages as Main Causes of European Colonial Conquests to 1788’, The Journal of Military History, Vol. 63, No. 3 (July 1999), pp. 631-641
• Global population statistics for year 1500 (accessed at 23:36 28/02/2009)
• European population statistics for year 1600 (accessed at 23:47 26/02/2009)
• Gastaldi’s 1546 Universale Map of the World (accessed at 23:27 26/02/2009)
• Ptolemy’s World Map (accessed at 22:57 26/02/2009)

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