Charles VIII Enters Naples, Syphilis Spreads

Charles VIII Enters Naples, Syphilis Spreads

On this day in 1495, Charles VIII of France entered Naples and was soon crowned King. However, his triumphant campaign is remembered today for its infamous spreading of syphilis across Europe. For many years afterward, the English called syphilis “the French disease”—although, to be fair, the French also called it “la maladie Anglaise” or “the English disease.”

Charles VIII was the only son of Louis XI and Charlotte of Savoy, and ruled as King of France from 1483 to 1498. He was 13 when he ascended to the throne, and only 28 when he died. In 1491 he married Anne of Brittany, and in doing so forfeited French rights to Artois and the Franche-Comté; and in 1493 he signed the Treaty of Barcelona, and so ceded the territories of Roussillon and Cerdagne back to Aragon. Although surrendering these territories seemed strange, it was actually all part of Charles VIII’s plan. He rid himself of minor concerns in order to concentrate on his ambitious grand enterprise: the audacious invasion of Italy. Charles had inherited a right to the kingdom of Naples that he had inherited from the old Angevin dynasty, and he had a somewhat absurd obsession with reclaiming it.

In 1494 Charles began borrowing vast amounts of money for his war chest, and raising a great army. Once everything was in place, he launched an unexpected attack from France and crossed, unopposed, through the Italian mainland. On 22 February 1495 he conquered Naples, and on 12 May he was crowned King, but his success was an illusion. Already, powerful rivals such as Venice, Milan, Austria, and even the Papacy, were outraged by his impertinent actions. On 6 July 1495 the League of Venice attacked, vanquishing the French at the Battle of Fornovo, and the King was very lucky to escape with his life. By the time he returned to France, his conquests were lost.

The Battle of Fornovo was the first of the Italian Wars that raged for over 50 years, wasting countless lives and vast quantities of money with very little reward. However, Charles’s conquest of Naples is most notorious today for introducing an explosion of syphilis into mainland Europe. Many of his soldiers and mercenaries, and even Charles himself, contracted the disease through sexual relations with the Neapolitans. Upon their return home they started spreading “the French disease'” throughout the continent—and thus began Charles VIII’s inglorious historical distinction.

Photo Credit: © World History Archive / Alamy
Photo Caption: “Entry of Charles VIII into Naples” by Eloi Firmin Feron, 19th century.