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C - 24 : Alternative History

Can anyone guess how the following three pictures are related to each other?

Mone Lisa from Leonardo da Vinci

The town of Herceg Novi

The German Reformer Martin Luther


The link between the three photos is French King, François I (1494 - 1547)

In our history books, Francois I is known as the French Renaissance King who modernised his country, brought art and culture from Italy and made France a learnt society. His biggest achievement however was preventing the Habsburg Monarchy from becoming the first global super power. And close they were.

The map is not entirely consistent since it includes a few Portuguese possessions like Ceylon or Brazil - Spain and Portugal only formed a Union in 1580


The man who was on the brink of becoming the leader of the world's first superpower was Charles V. Through dynastic policies and heritage he had combined the territories of the Netherlands, Luxembourg, the Lorraine, the Franche Comte, the Austrian Empire, Spain, the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily and many of the newly discovered overseas territories.

Charles V, German Emperor and Spanish King


The Spanish-Austrian Empire had all that was needed to become a global superpower. The land, the people, the tax income, the silver from Petosi in Bolivia, a strong navy and a mighty army with an impressive battle record.


Squeezed between Habsburg territories to the north, east and south and with insufficient means to resist in an open confrontation, France would have become a junior partner in a world dominated by Austria-Spain. François I found this prospect entirely unacceptable. Even more so since Charles V, through his possession in Burgundy, had a voice in the domestic affairs of France (yes, Kings could own territory in other kingdoms). There was a real risk of François I being deposed by a Spanish coalition in France's crown council.

Map of France just before the birth of King Francçois I


With no money, no power and no fleet, François I had to look for allies who were also opposed to Habsburg domination. He found them in

  1. The German Protestant States and towns who were at war with Charles V over their right to chose their own religion - Charles V was a firm supported of Catholicism and the Inquisition

  2. The English King Henry VIII who had fallen out with the Pope over his divorces and the killing of his wives

  3. The Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent who considered the Habsburg - after his unsuccessful siege of Vienna in 1529 - as the greatest obstacle to his plans of conquering Rome and disposing the Pope

To break Charles V. dominance in Europe, François I developed a strategy which he implemented religiously over the next decades:

  1. Modernise the French State to make it more powerful

  2. Militarily support the German Protestants to prevent a victory of Charles V

  3. Forge a military alliance with the Ottomans and drag Charles V into a three front war (Hungary, Mediterranean, French border)

Point 1 is the reason he brought talents from Renaissance Italy to France such as Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo had fallen out of favour with Charles V after he helped the people of Florence to defend their town against the Spanish attackers. In his luggage, Leonardo da Vinci brought the Mona Lisa to France where it is now in the Louvre - the collection that François I started


Point 2 is the reason why the Protestant Church survived to today. Without the French intervention, the Protestants would have been defeated by the professional Spanish Army. Their fate would have been conversion by force, torture or exile like the Jews and the Moores a few decades earlier. In matters of faith, Charles V believed that torture was an instrument of God ...


Point 3 led to a formal military alliance between France and the Ottoman Empire from 1536 - 1547. François I and Suleyman the Magnificent agreed to invade Italy in 1537 - the French from the North and the Turks from the South. Whilst the Ottoman Army indeed landed in Castro in Puglia and had 300'000 men waiting in Vloré in Albania to cross the Streets of Otranto, the French invasion got delayed. François I had to help the German Princes first. The invasion came to naught as winter approaches but the threat was real - Pope Paul III took it so seriously that he surrounded the Vatican with mighty new Renaissance Walls.

Herceg Novi or Castelnuovo


The town of Castelnuovo represented Charles V and Pope Paul III's plans for a counterattack in 1539. The plan was to split the French-Turkish Alliance by invading the Ottoman Empire from the West. 4'000 Spanish Elite troops were landed as spearhead for the coming invasion but cut of by the fleet of the Turkish Admiral Barbarossa who defeated the Spanish-Venetian-Papal Fleet in Prevezza in 1538 despite being significantly outnumbered (he had 120 ships - the coalition 300). A year long siege of Castelnuovo followed. The Spanish fought to the last man standing and inflicted heavy losses on the Ottoman Janissary Corps. The Spanish fortifications are still standing - they were so sturdy and solid that the Turks took them over.

The Ottoman Fleet in the Harbour of Toulon in the winter 1543


For about twenty years, the outcome of the power struggle between the House of Habsburg and the French-Ottoman-Protestant-English Alliance hang in the balance. We know today that Spain was unsuccessful in the quest for world domination. But we could also have ended up in a Catholic, Spanish speaking world where religious freedom, the ideas of enlightenment and the scientific/industrial revolution were never heard of.



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