Warfare in Italy, from the Autobiography of Emperor Charles IV

The ‘Autobiography’ of Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor (1316-1378), is a rare example of a personal memoir by a medieval ruler. Written after 1346, the narrative covers the events from Charles’s youth until his election as King of the Romans in 1346. The section below, chapters five and six of the autobiography, deal with his participation in his father John of Luxemburg’s Italian campaigns in 1332 and 1333. The account tries to justify the failure of this campaign, which after three years of battles and plots, ended with Charles and his father having to withdraw. The section here begins after Charles learns that an alliance against him and his father, made up of the cities of Florence, Milan, Mantua, Verona and the king of Naples. This was followed by the Milanese capture of Bergamo and a rebellion by the citizens of Pavia against Charles.


The aforementioned plotters, namely the governors of Milan, Verona, Ferrara, and Mantua, sent a powerful army against our city of Modena, and they stood before it for six weeks. When these six weeks had elapsed, during which they laid waste to the dioceses and counties of Modena and Reggio, they retired and sent their forces and army against the fortress of San helices in the diocese of Modena. And when their army had stood there a long time, those in the fortress made an agreement with them that if within a month, namely on the day of St. Catherine, the day the pact expired, they had not received any aid from us, they would give over the fortress. When the citizens of Parma, Cremona, Modena, and Reggio learned of this, they gathered their own forces together and come to us, saying, “Lord, let us take steps to prevent our own destruction before we are destroyed completely.” Then, having taken counsel, we sallied into the field, built ourselves a fortified camp, and arrived from the city of Parma on the day of St. Catherine [November 25, 1332], the same day in which the fortress was to be given over into the hands of the enemies. About the ninth hour with 1200 knights and 6000 foot soldiers we opened hostilities with the enemy, who had at least as many troops or more. The conflict lasted from the ninth hour until after sundown.

From both sides almost all the war-horses were killed, along with a number of other horses, and we were nearly defeated. Even the war-horse on which we were seated was killed. When we regained our feet with help from our retainers and looked around, we recognized that we were almost overcome and we felt close to despair. But lo, in that same hour, Our enemies began to flee, taking their standards with them, first the Mantuans, after whom many others of then followed. And thus by the grace of God we obtained victory over Our enemies, taking captive 800 cavalry during the flight and killing 5000 foot soldiers. And thus by this victory the fortress of San Felice was liberated.

In this battle, we, along with 200 brave men, received the dignity of knighthood. On the following day we returned, rejoicing grealty, to Modena with our booty and captives. There we dismissed our people and returned to Parma, where we had our court at that time.

Afterwards, we went to Lucca in Tuscany and made plans for a war against the Florentines. We built a beautiful fortress on the top of the mountain there, together with a strongly walled city, which lies ten miles from Lucca towards the valley of the Nievole, and we gave it the name Monte Carlo [Charles ordered the construction of the fortress in January 1333]. After this we returned to Parma, having given command into the hands of Lord Simon Filippi of Pistoia. Prior to this he had ruled well on our behalf, having taken the city of Barga in Garfagnana away from enemies and achieved many other good things during his administration. When we arrived in Parma, however, we were oppressed on all sides most strongly by our enemies. Only the rigor of winter helped us; it was so severe that no one was able to persist long in the field.

At this same time, negotiations were begun between the Veronese and our enemies on the one side, and Marsigho de’ Rossi, Ghiberto da Fogliano, and Manfredo de’ Pii, the leaders of Parma, Reggio, and Modem who were effectively the governors of these cities. These latter came together with the leading counselors of the Veronese in a certain small church in the diocese of Reggio and negotiated against me to the effect that they would unite themselves and betray me. They had a mass said, wanting to swear on the body of Christ to hold firm to their pact. And it happened that when the priest had consecrated the host, after it was elevated in the mass, a great darkness fell and a violent wind was felt in the church so that all were terrified. Afterward, when light had returned, the priest could not find the body of Christ in front of him on the altar. In sorrow, everyone stood there stunned and looked at one another. The body of the Lord was found at the feet of Marsiglio de’ Rossi, who was the head and the instigator of these negotiations. Then everyone cried out with a single voice, “What we have resolved upon does not please God.” And thus giving up the matter, each returned to his own home. Then the priest who had celebrated the mass went to the city of Reggio and told its bishop what had taken place. The bishop sent him to the cardinal of Ostia, the legate at that time to Lombardy, who was in Bologna. The legate and the bishop then told this to Giles of Belarer, a Frenchman, my vicar in the city of Reggio, in order that he might warn me to be on my guard against these aforementioned conspirators. But they who had thought thus to conspire repented and thereafter stood by me faithfully, remaining firmly as if brothers on my side, concealing nothing in their hearts. One day Ghiberto da Fogliano, the seventh among them, said: “I could never be happy if the body of the Lord had been found at my feet as it was at the feet of Marsigho de’ Rossi, and God in his goodness has warned us against carrying out what we should rather die than do.” I, however, let that pass in silence, as if I knew nothing about it.

At this time my father heard of the difficult circumstances to which I was exposed by enemies. He gathered a large force in France. Those in command were the bishop of Beauvais, the count of Eu (constable of the kingdom of France), the count of Sancerre, and many other counts and barons. They left France for Savoy, then crossed the Alps into the margravate of Montferrat; from there they went through Lombardy to Cremona, and from Cremona to Parma. There were about 1600 cavalry who came to our help.

Then our father with his united army went to the support of the fortress of Pavia, which was still holding out against the city in our name.[March 1333] We built a fortified camp and invested the city, there being a good 3000 of our cavalry. We laid waste the outer town and the monasteries of the outer town and replenished the fortress to whose aid we had come. It received both food and men. But we were not able to occupy the city from the fortress, because the citizens had dug ditches and built barricades between the city and the fortress, and the entry to them was not possible. They also had a thousand cavalry to help them from the Milanese. After we had stood there for ten days, we withdrew, pitched a fortified camp near Milan, and greatly devastated the county and district of Milan. From there we directed ourselves against Bergamo, where we had arranged with certain of our friends that one of the gates of the city should be opened to us. It had been agreed that at dawn one part of our contingent should be let in, and after that they were to be followed by a strong force, entering after theirs and taking control of the city until we and our father should come on the same day with the whole army. And this is what actually happened. Our friends in the city of Bergarno, namely the de’ Colleoni, opened a gate and our first group entered. The second contingent, however, did not want to follow them (I don’t know what motivated them), and the first, who were already in the city, retreated, because they were not able to resist the enemy alone. Many of our friends escaped with them; the rest, who had remained, were captured and hanged on the other side of the walls. Their number was more than fifty. When our father arrived with us and we saw what had happened and what had gone wrong, we were deeply disturbed, along with our whole army.

After a few days, crossing the river Adda, we returned through the territory of Cremona to the city of Parma.


After this our father went to Bologna to Bertrand, the cardinal of Ostia, at that time legatus a latere of the apostolic see in Lombardy, who during that period ruled the city of Bologna and many others, namely Piacenza, Ravenna, and the whole of the Romagna and the march of Ancona. There he made an agreement with him that he would ally himself with us and become the enemy of our enemies. Actually, even before this he had already been – on both ecclesiastical and personal grounds – the enemy of the governor of Ferrara, who was allied with our enemies, and who was prepared to aid them and they him. The aforementioned cardinal gave us military and financial aid; his army went into the countryside and established a fortified camp near the city of Ferrara, whose military leader was later the count of Rimini.

In this same summer after Pentecost [May 23, 1333] our father gathered a large army together and sent us on ahead from Parma with 500 knights across the Po to the city of Cremona. He sent these before the fortress of Pizzighettone [June 1333], which had rebelled against us and the city of Cremona, to whose diocese it belonged, and stood ready to help the side of the Pavians and the Milanese. We remained in Cremona with barely twenty knights. Then our enemies received unexpected reinforcements and their number increased daily, so those who stood before the fortress dug, themselves in even more solidly, hoping for our help. Then the Mantuans and Ferrarans unexpectedly sent ships up the Po to Cremona and sank all the ships in the Po which belonged to the territory of Cremona. As a result, our father was able neither to come to our aid with all of his men nor even send a message, because they had sunk all the ships and [floating] mills and then withdrawn. We ourselves were in the city of Cremona with so few troops, and we were just holding on from day to day. This was true both of the city and its people. Its area was very extensive, but because of the fighting the city was nearly desolated. We were in great unhappiness, and my father was unable to help us nor we him nor the both of us those who were camped before the fortress. But then an argument developed between our enemies who were besieging the city from the river Po, so that they mutually assailed one another, and each one returned to his own territory. When our father learned of this, he came with his army from Parma to the Po and ordered that the ships be raised from the bottom of the river; thus he crossed with a few troops to Cremona. The following day, with a united army, we went to the aid of those who were before the fortress of Pizzighettone. By the grace of God we had been so strengthened that we were superior to all of our enemies. We had some 3000 knights.

After we discovered that we could do nothing before this fortress, we decided to proceed to the aid of the fortress of Pavia, about which mention has been made above. Our enemies noted this and sent their advisors who negotiated in bad faith with our father, agreeing to a truce by whose terms he was to withdraw from the field for the duration of the truce while the fortress of Pavia was reprovisioned. They guaranteed that lie would not be hindered by the enemy, and made him many promises in fine‑sounding and reassuring words. Thus we withdrew from the field, sending our people to their various cities and dwellings. After this the enemy in no way maintained the truce or the agreement. So the fortress of Pavia was lost, for our enemy did not allow it to be revictualed as they had promised. As a result because of fine words and false promises our father with his comrades lost both money and payments. Nor, with winter coming on, was it possible to remain in the field. And thus the proverb proved true with us, that “Delay harms plans underway.”

At that time the Ferrarans, the Veronese, the Mantuans, and the Milanese, having been reinforced, took captive the military captain of the papal legate, the count of Rimini, who was established in the area surrounding Ferrara. They killed many in his army, drowned others in the Po, and drove his troops so hard that the legate was not able to recover nor to hold the open country against the enemy. Eventually he was completely forced out of the region.[This battle took place on April 1, 1333]

When our father saw that his financial resources were dwindling and was not able to pursue the war, he decided to retreat from the region and relinquish it to the natives and their leaders: namely Parma to the de’ Rossi, Reggio to the da Fogliano family, Modena to the de’ Pii, Cremona to the de’ Ponzoni. All of them had given these cities over to the control of our father, and he wanted now to re-establish them there. Lucca, however, he wanted to sell to the Florentines, but upon our advice and the advice of his counselors he gave it to the de’ Rossi, whole he had already given Parma.

This text is from Autobiography of Emperor Charles IV and his Legend of St. Wenceslas, edited by Balazs Nagy and Frank Schaer (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2001). We thank the Central European University Press for giving us permission to reproduce this section.

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