One episode in the continuous warfare between the Holy Roman Empire, the Papacy and the Italian city-states was the siege of Florence by the forces of Emperor Henry VII in 1312. This account of the siege was recorded by the Florentine historian Giovanni Villani (d.1348)
How the Emperor departed from Rome to go into Tuscany
Then the Emperor departed from Tivoli, and came with his people to Todi, and was received honourably by the inhabitants, and as their lord, forasmuch as they took his part. The Florentines and the other Tuscans, hearing that the Emperor had departed from Rome and was taking his way towards Tuscany, straightway sent for their troops which were at Rome, to the end they might be stronger against his coming. And when the said troops had returned, the Florentines and the other cities of Tuscany garrisoned their fortresses with horsemen and with soldiers, to resist the coming of the Emperor, fearing greatly his forces, and confining more straightly the Ghibellines and others which were suspected; and the Florentines increased the number of their horsemen to 1300, and of soldiers they had with the marshal and with others 700, so that they had about 2000 horsemen; and every other town and city of Tuscany in the league of King Robert and of the Guelf party, had strengthened itself with soldiers for fear of the Emperor.
How the Emperor came to the city of Arezzo, and afterwards how he came towards the city of Florence.
In the said month of August, in 1312, the Emperor departed from Todi and passed through the region of Perugia, destroying and burning, and his people took by force Castiglione of Chiusi on the lake, and from there he came to Cortona, and then to Arezzo, and was received by the Aretines with great honour. And in Arezzo he assembled his army to come against the city of Florence, and suddenly he departed from Arezzo and entered into the territory of Florence on the 12th day of September, and there was straightway surrendered to him the fortress of Caposelvole upon the Ambra which pertained to the Florentines. And then he pitched his camp before the fortress of Montevarchi, which was well furnished with soldiers, both horse and foot, and with victuals; against it he ordered many assaults, and caused the moats to be emptied of water, and filled up with earth. They within the city, seeing that they were so hotly assailed, and that the city had low walls, and that the horsemen of the Emperor fighting on foot, and mounting the walls on ladders, did not fear the arrows nor the stones which were thrown down, were greatly dismayed, and being sure that the Florentines would not succour them, surrendered themselves on the third day to the Emperor. And when he had taken Montevarchi, without delay he came with his host to the fortress of Sangiovanni, which in like manner surrendered itself to him, and he took there seventy Catalan horsemen, in the service of the Florentines: and thus without hindrance he came to the village of Fegghine.
How the Florentines were well-nigh discomfited at the fortress of Ancisa by the army of the Emperor.
When the Florentines heard that the Emperor had departed from Arezzo, immediately the people and horse–men of Florence, without awaiting other aid, rode to the fortress of Ancisa upon the Arno, and they were about 1800 horse and many foot, and at Ancisa they encamped to hold the pass against the Emperor. And when he heard this, he came with his army to the plain of Ancisa upon the island of Arno which is called Il Mezzule, and challenged the Florentines to battle. The Florentines, knowing themselves to be in number of their horsemen not much superior to those of the Em–peror, and being without a captain, did not desire to try the fortune of battle, believing that they could hinder the Emperor by reason of the difficult pass, so that he could not get through to Florence. The Emperor seeing that the Florentines were not willing to fight, by counsel of the wise men of war, refugees from Florence, took the way of the hill above Ancisa, and by narrow and difficult passes came by the fortress and to the territory of Florence. The host of the Florentines perceiving his movements, and fearing lest he should come to the city of Florence, some part of them with the king’s marshal and his troops departed from Ancisa, to be before him in the way. The count of Savoy, and M. Henry of Flanders, which were come before to take the pass, vigorously attacked them which were at the frontier under Montelfi, and with the advantage which they had of the hill, they put them to flight and discomfiture, and some pursued them as far as the village of Ancisa. The rout of the Florentines was more through the dismay caused by the sudden assault, than by loss of men; for among them all there were not twenty-five horsemen slain, and less than one hundred footmen; and well-nigh all the foreigners which came in pursuit of them as far as the village were slain. Nevertheless, the followers of the Emperor remained victorious in the combat, and the Florentines were filled with fear; and the Emperor spent that night two miles this side of Ancisa on the way to Florence. The Florentines remained in the fortress of Ancisa, as it were besieged and with but, little provision of victuals, so that, if the Emperor had been constant to the siege, the Florentines which were at Ancisa would have been well-nigh all slain or taken. But as it pleased God, the Emperor resolved that night to go direct to the city of Florence, believing that he should take it without opposition; and he left the host of the Florentines be–hind at Ancisa, seeing that they were in a state of siege, and in much fear, and in great disorder.
How the Emperor Henry encamped with his host before the city of Florence.
And thus the day following, the 19th day of September, 1312, the Emperor came With his host to the city of Florence, his followers setting fire to everything they came across; and thus he crossed the river Arno, over against where the Mensola enters it, and abode at the monastery of Santo Salvi, with perhaps 1000 horsemen. The rest of his followers remained in Valdarno, and part at Todi, which came to him afterwards; and as they came through the region of Perugia, they were assailed by the Perugians, and defended themselves against them, and passed on with loss and shame, to the Perugians. And the Emperor came thither so suddenly that the most part of the Florentines could not believe that he was there in person; and they were so dismayed and fearful about their horsemen which were left at Ancisa well-nigh discomfited, that if the Emperor and his followers, upon their sudden coming had advanced to the gates, they would have found them open and ill-guarded; and it is thought by most that the city would have been taken. The Florentines, however, beholding the burning of the houses along the way, called the people to arms by sound of bell, and with the standards of their companies they came to the piazza of the Priors, and the bishop of Florence armed himself, with the horses belonging to the clergy, and hastened to defend the Porta Santo Ambrogio and the moats; and all the people on foot were with him; and they barred the gates, and ordered the standard-bearers and their people, at their posts along the moats, to guard the city by day and by night. And within the city on that side they pitched a camp with pavilions, tents, and booths, to the intent the guard might be stronger, and made palisades along the moats of all kinds of wood, with portcullises, in a very short time. And thus abode the Florentines in great fear for two days, for their horsemen and their army were returning from Ancisa. by divers ways by the vale of Robbiano, and from Santa Maria in Pianeta a Montebuoni [Impruneta] in the night season. When they came to Florence, the city was reassured; and the Lucchese sent thither in aid and defence of the 600 horse and 3,000 foot, and the Sienese 600 horse and 2000 foot, and they of Pistoia 100 horse and 500 foot, and they of Prato 50 horse and 400 foot, and they of Volterra 100 horse and 300 foot, and Colle and Sangimignagno and Samminiato each 50 horse and 200 foot, the Bolognese 400 horse and 1000 foot; from Romagna there came, what with Rimini and Ravenna and Faenza and Cesena and the other Guelf cities, 300 horse and 1500 foot, and from Agobbio 100 horse, and from the city of Castello 50 horse. From Perugia there came no aid, by reason of the war which they had with Todi and Spoleto. And thus within eight days of the siege being declared by the Emperor, the Florentines with their allies were more than 4000 horse, and foot without number. The Emperor had 1800 horsemen, whereof 800 were foreigners and 1000 Italians, from Rome, from the March, from the Duchy, from Arezzo, and from Romagna, and from the Counts Guidi, and them of Santafiore, and the Florentine refugees; and much people on foot, forasmuch as the country people of the region which he was occupying, all followed his camp. And that year was the most fertile and fruitful in all food which had been for thirty years past. The Emperor abode at the siege until the last day of the month of October, laying the whole country waste towards the eastern side, and did great hurt to the Florentines without any attack upon the city, being in hopes of gaining it by agreement; and even if he had attacked it, it was so well furnished with horsemen, that there would have been two or more defending the city for every one without, and of foot four to one; and the Florentines were in such good heart that the most part went about unarmed, and they kept all the other gates open, save the one on that side; and the merchandise came in and went out as if there had been no war. As to the Florentines sallying forth to battle, either by reason of cowardice or of prudence in war, or because they had no leader, they would in no wise trust to the fortune of the combat, albeit they had greatly the advantage, had they but had a good captain, and been more united among themselves. Certainly they rode out to Cerretello, whither the Pisans had marched with their army, and they forced them to withdraw from it again, as though defeated, in the month of October. The Emperor lay sick many days at San Salvi, and perceiving that he could not gain the city by agreement, and that the Florentines would not give battle, he departed, not yet recovered. [And whilst he was still at San Salvi, the count of Savoy was discoursing with the abbot and certain monks of that place, concerning the Emperor, how he had heard from his astrologers or by some other revelation, that he was to conquer as far as to the world’s end; then said the abbot smiling: “The prophecy is fulfilled, for hard by where you are dwelling, there is a road which has no exit, which is called the World’s End”; wherefore the count and the other barons which heard this were confounded in their vain hope : and for this reason, wise men ought not to put faith in any prophecy or sayings of astrologers, for they are lies and have a double meaning.]
How the Emperor abandoned the siege, and departed front San Salvi, and came to Saga Casciano, and then to Poggibonizzi.
The Emperor with his host departed on the night following All Saints, and having burnt his camp, he passed the Arno by the way which he came, and encamped on the plain of Ema, three miles from the city. On his going the Florentines did not sally forth from the city by night, but they sounded the bells and all men stood to arms; and for this cause, as was afterwards known, the followers of the Emperor were in great trepidation about their departure, lest they should be attacked by night either in front or in rear by the Florentines. The morning following, a part of the Florentines went to the hill of Santa Margherita above the camp of the Emperor, and by way of skirmishes they made many assaults upon them, in the which they had the worse; and having tarried there three days in shame, he departed and came with his host to the village of San Casciano, eight miles from the city; wherefore the Florentines caused a trench to be dug round the increase of the sesto of Oltrarno outside the ancient walls, on the first of December, 1312. And the Emperor being at San Casciano, the Pisans came thither to his aid with full 500 horse and 3000 foot, and 1000 archers of Genoa, and they arrived the 20th day of November. At San Casciano he abode until the 6th day of January, without making any attack upon the Florentines save incursions, and laying waste, and burning houses in the region; and he took many strongholds of the country ; nor did the Florentines therefore sally forth to battle, save in incursions and skirmishes, wherein now one party and now the other suffered loss, not worthy of much mention, save that at one encounter, at Cerbaia in the Val di Pesa our troops were routed by the Germans, and one of the Spini was there slain, and one of the Bostichi, and one of the Guadagni, because of their boldness at that place; for they were of a company of volunteers, with a captain, their banner bearing a red stripe on a green field, and they called themselves the Cavaliers of the Stripe, of the most famous young men of Florence, and they did many feats of arms. But during this time, the Florentines parted from a great number of their allies and let them go; and the Emperor himself had not many followers; and by reason of his long sojourn and by the discomfort of the cold, there began in the camp at San Casciano to be great sickness and mortality among the people, which greatly infected the country, and reached as far as to Florence; for the which cause the Emperor departed with his host from San Casciano and came to Poggibonizzi, and took the strongholds of Barberino and of San Donato in Poggio, and many other fortresses; at Poggibonizzi he restored the fortress upon the hill; as of old it was wont to be, and gave it the name of the Imperial Fortress. There he abode until the 6th day of March, and during that sojourn he was in great need of provision, and suffered much want, he and all his host, forasmuch as the Sienese on the one side, and the Florentines on the other, between them had closed the roads, and 300 soldiers of King Robert were in Colle di Valdelsa, and harassed them continually; and 200 of the Emperor’s horsemen, as they were returning from Casole, were defeated by the king’s horsemen which were in Colle, on the 14th day of February, 1312. And on the other side, the marshal with the soldiers of Florence, harassed him in Sangimignagno, so that the state of the Emperor was much diminished, and there scarce remained to him 1000 horse, forasmuch as M. Robert of Flanders had departed with his followers, and the Florentines fought with him on the hill at Castelfiorentino, and a great part of his men were slain or taken, and he fled with a few, albeit he had held the field well, and had given them which attacked him much to do, which were four to is one, and were much shamed thereby.
From: Villani’s Chronicle : being selections from the first nine books of the Croniche Fiorentine of Giovanni Villani, translated by Rose E. Selfe (London, 1906)