The study of the Italian Wars in the 16th century requires a certain patience for dismal reading. As with many wars of the period, these began with one monarch’s claim to a territory whose title deeds were disputed by adventurous rivals to the point of blood. In this instance, the Kingdom of Naples was at first the contested prize. To its throne Charles VIII of France, that strange amalgam of Caesar and Quixote, avowed himself the rightful heir in 1494, and, with little consideration of the odds and forces against him, crossed into Italy in the late summer of that year with an army of 30,000 men. More accomplished in the techniques of generalship than kingcraft, Charles fought his way southward through Italy and occupied the city of Naples with little resistance after a campaign of five months. His victory, as it proved, was no more than temporary; his French and Swiss soldiers quickly demonstrated by their conduct that the standard of chivalry modeled by the reproachless Chevalier Bayard was the exception, and not the rule among Charles’ ranks; rape, theft, and drunkeness were among their more common amusements, and the foreign occupiers soon found themselves themselves warmly hated by the Neopolitans. Far from home, and faced by the growing strength of his enemies, Charles was within a few months conducting a fighting retreat towards France and safety, and his empty victory at Fornovo did nothing to better his fortunes or the morale of his men. Apart from ugly memories and wounds, the French soldiery brought little back with them but a gross and disfiguring disease to which the Veronese polymath Fracastoro would give the name syphilis some thirty years later.

The wars would continue, with respites, until 1559. The sublimely ridiculous Charles played no further part of any consequence, dying three years after his inglorious return at the age of twenty-seven. To his immediate successors he bequeathed his lunatic ambition to court and capture the princesse lointaine of Italy, itself beset by the intrigues of the Milanese, the Venetians, the Papacy, and innumerable lesser powers in that enchanting and violent peninsula. And where the energies of the Valois led them, the Hapsburgs would not be far behind. With each successive campaign and the short peace that followed, the greater issue of the struggle revealed itself mainly to be the question of which set of foreigners would win dominion over Italy. Meanwhile, the absence of any great principle among the motives of nearly all the combatants became more obvious, if indeed it was not so already at the beginning of the affair. The practice of warfare itself was gradually being modernized by theorists, mercenaries and engineers; simultaneously, the not insurmountable restraints placed upon the trade of arms by the moral and ecclesiastical authorities of the Middle Ages were passing into oblivion and irrelevance. As the English historian J.M. Thompson wrote of these developments, “These Italian wars illustrated the transition from the medieval to the modern methods of fighting…Mounted knights in full armour charged men armed with cannon and arquebus…Cavaliers who, once unhorsed, were too heavily armoured to rise again, and who, according to the gentlemanly customs of medieval war, were allowed (for a consideration) to go home, and fight again another day, were now brutally stabbed as they lay…There could be no doubt in what direction military art was moving.” And while outrages against civilians of either sex and every age have been an obscene part of war since Biblical days, the practice in the Italian conflict was noted for the unaccustomed extremes to which it degenerated. Thompson, in the same lecture, states that “The chief novelty in these wars was the ‘frightfulness’ practiced by the foreign troops, who, disregarding the rules of the game drawn up by the Italian ‘condottieri’, refused quarter to their prisoners, put garrisons to the sword, and tortured civilians in the search for loot.” French, Swiss, Spanish and German all had their share of distinction in these abuses, and no party could claim much for itself in the way of innocence or honor.

Once most of the great powers of Europe had, with varying degrees of dedication, committed themselves to these trials of arms, it was easy to guess that war would soon spread to several fronts in several countries. The campaign season of 1521 found Imperial columns crossing the northeastern border of France, a provocation which was matched by a force of Frenchmen and their Navarrese allies marching southward across the Pyrenees to challenge the strength of Spain. The Navarrese, jealous of their rights as only men of a small country can be, aimed to drive from their principal city of Pamplona the Spanish garrison which had occupied it for nearly ten years. The Duke of Najera, general of the Spanish forces, had put his troops at a disadvantage by withdrawing the greater part of his command southward earlier that spring to stave off an uprising in Castile. As for the populace in the neighborhood of Pamplona, they were tired of Spanish highhandedness and happy to welcome their own king home from exile at the head of 12,000 men. As the Franco-Navarrese army drew closer, the people of Pamplona rose up en masse against such Spanish as remained to hold the city. Naturally apathetic at the prospect of dying to hold the town’s citadel, the outnumbered Spanish recommended surrender to their superiors. Their appeals might have prevailed, save for the stubborn refusal of a young Basque officer who would not hear of it. His name was Inigo, and on what basis, apart from his pride, he determined to maintain the position against all comers is not certain. More than mere foolhardiness may have confirmed him in his protest. He had served under the colors for twelve years by then (he was twenty-nine), and it might have been that his decision was based on a veteran’s appraisal of the situation and its odds. But of this no matter: his counsel prevailed, “in spite of the unanimous view of the other caballeros”,  and a defense was organized against the greater battalions of France and Navarre. The whole of Pamplona could not be held, so the officer and those with him withdrew to the castle to offer what resistance they could. Possibly it was a glorious last stand that the Basque wished for-something worthy to be named in history and song with Thermopylae and Roncevaux. The fight that did take place on the twentieth of May was nothing of the kind. The French and their Navarrese auxiliaries invested the fortress where the inflexible officer and his cohort had entrenched themselves. Awaiting the opening cannonade, the Basque, scarcely a religious man, confessed himself to a fellow soldier, there being no priest present to shrive him. The bombardment commenced, and continued for some hours. It was an anticlimax that gave little opportunity for heroism: the Spanish were in an untenable position, and had no comparable ordnance with which to answer the artillery of the French, which comprised almost thirty heavy guns. As Inigo remembered the engagement many years later, in an account taken down by a priest in Rome, “The attack had gone on for some considerable time when a cannonball struck one of his legs and shattered it completely, at the same time…wounding the other gravely. At his fall, the fortress immediately surrendered to the French, who on entering treated the wounded man very handsomely, being courteous and friendly.”

He would live, but his soldiering was over. He was carried back to the modest estate of his family in Gipuzkoa, near the Bay of Biscay. His sister-in-law Magdalena took charge of his recovery, which involved the resetting of his splintered leg bones with no anesthetic. He would never walk again properly: only with a pathetic hobble, one leg being left shorter than the other by the inexpert surgeons who attended him. During his long term of bedridden recuperation, boredom and languor weighed on him along with his physical torments. His education, like that of most soldiers, had been slight. What taste for books he had was for the knightly romances of El Cid and Amadis of Gaul, but none of these were to be found for him. Indeed, the place of his convalescence housed no books, except for a few saints’ lives and a Mirror of the Life of Christ by an obscure Saxon monk. With these he distracted himself, until distraction became a pleasure, and finally a vision. As for what followed, it is unnecessary to say, because he was Ignatius of Loyola, and his story is known over all the world he set on fire.