- Apr 14, 2005
The History of the Duchy of Savoy
The County of Savoy was born out of the ashes of the Kingdom of Burgundy and was elevated to the status of Duchy in 1416 by Emperor Sigismund. Pressured in the West by its French neighbors and in the east by the Italians, Savoy was a country born of both worlds but belonging to neither. It therefore chose to embark on a quest to unify Italy and protect its French provinces on its own terms. What follows is the history of the Duchy of Savoy from 1419 to the present day.
Amadeus VIII, First Duke of Savoy
Amadeus VIII saw his elevation to Duke as the first step in increasing the power of Savoy. The West was still embroiled in the Hundred Years' War, a conflict the Duke sought desperately to avoid. He therefore favored expansion in the south and the east through peaceful means and immediately worked to arrange marriages with his Italian neighbors. Amadeus' dream was to bring Genoa, Milan, and the surrounding city-states into confederation with Savoy. Unfortunately, Louis III became King of Naples in 1419 and had similar designs on the peninsula; as Count of Provence and with powerful allies in France, he saw a politically useful marriage to Savoy as the first step in becoming King of all Italy. He was therefore quite angry when Amadeus married his daughter Margaret off to the ruler of Milan instead. Not only was this a snub to Louis, but it also resulted in Milan effectively becoming a vassal of Savoy. The desires of Louis and Amadeus were bound to conflict with one another.
This was indeed what happened when a dispute broke out between the Pope and Naples. Amadeus, a deeply religious man, had allied himself with Pope Martin V and declared that his armies would march under the banner of Rome. Aragon, the main power in the south of Italy, sided with Naples but did not commit an army to fight. Savoy and Milan easily subjugated Naples and divided the Kingdom between themselves in 1423; Apulia went to Milan and Naples itself went to Savoy.
Since Aragon refused to recognize what the Italian states had done, the war unfortunately did not end. Amadeus ordered his army to continue and it assaulted an Iberian position at Messina. The battle was inconclusive, ending first in defeat for Aragon and then for Savoy. Amadeus withdrew his force and asked for peace, but Aragon was unwilling. The conflict spread as the other small Italian city-states backed Aragon. Pope Martin, unwilling to fight a broader war, declared that his armies had enough of conquest. This splintered Savoy's alliance and left it fighting half of Italy and a powerful Iberian state alone. Adding to his misfortune, Amadeus' wife Mary of Burgundy had passed away the year before. Savoy needed a military leader to end the war before it spiraled out of control. Instead, it had a priestly king who desired nothing more than to abdicate and withdraw from the world.
Niccolo of Modena led a joint Italian army to Emilia, defeating Savoy's forces gathered there in late 1424. Amadeus had thus maneuvered his country into a position of weakness; without allies or an army, and with a united Italian front arrayed against her, Savoy was an inviting prize for any nation bold enough to attack. Amadeus had been able to protect his realm against small cities or foes from far away, but his defeat in 1424 was significant in that it invited disaster. Disaster arrive on cue when France, slowly emerging from the Hundred Years' War as the victor, saw an opportunity to separate French Savoy from Amadeus' realm and take it for itself. On August 24th of 1424, France declared war. Amadeus' nightmare of being dragged into the Hundred Years' War had become reality. Savoy was now struggling to avoid catastrophe. An army was quickly raised and sent against Provence, where Louis was still Count and still claimed to be King of Naples. Despite a string of battles valiantly fought along the Luberon for three weeks, Savoy's army was defeated in the beginning of 1425 and retreated back to Piemonte. This setback was compounded by news that Naples had fallen to Albizzi of Florence the same week.
As luck would have it, the Albizzi family of Florence had problems of their own. A power struggle with the Medici required their attention in Tuscany, and they were looking for an excuse to leave the war. Filippo Visconti of Milan, the husband of Margaret, negotiating on behalf of Savoy, promised to assist Albizzi with dealing with the Medici in exchange for the return of Naples. This deal withdrew the Italian city-state alliance from the war in February of 1425.
Filippo Maria Visconti
The army in Piemonte continued to try to thwart Louis but continued to be repulsed; only a victory over Scottish mercenaries in June kept Savoy's moral up and her hopes alive. Filippo told Amadeus that his men were willing to fight, but they lacked proper supplies. Amadeus agreed and permitted Filippo to borrow 200 ducats from Florence to arm and equip a new army. Under the command of Filippo, this force raided the French army besieging Piemonte until it finally defeated it in July of 1426. Still, another French army was on the way, so Filippo and Amadeus, spurred out of his depression by Savoy's success, conceived of a brilliant plan: they would invade France as a bluff, hoping that the foe would think them stronger than they really were.
With this in mind, while French armies from Bourbonnais were attempting to occupy all of Savoy, Filippo's men marched into Dauphine and started a siege. Louis of Provence was shaken by French inaction and agreed to peace in 1427. The seige continued into 1428 when France agreed to end the war as well. Money changed hands and Filippo's army marched home. Faced at last with peace, Amadeus sealed the deal by having Mary of Savoy marry the Frenchman John, Count of Angouleme and cousin to the French king.
The bluff engineered by Filippo and Amadeus worked. Savoy was saved. Unfortunately, it was also deeply in debt and ruled by a man with shaky resolve at best. Filippo, a much more capable and ruthless leader than Amadeus, resolved to help his brother-in-law rebuild what the French armies had destroyed. The two of them worked to pay off Savoy's debts until 1429, when republican assassins slew Filippo's condottiere Niccolò Piccinino. Filippo suddenly had business in Milan and could no longer guide Amadeus.
The cost of Filippo's withdrawal came due in 1432 when an Austrian alliance invaded Helvetia. Savoy had allied itself closely with Helvetia as part of Amadeus' vision of expanding his Duchy's borders peacefully. A joint Hungarian-Croatian army marched on Milan, defeating Savoy's soldiers along the way in Tirol and Lombardia. Amadeus retaliated by invading Tirol and defeated two armies before beginning a siege. The siege was broken and fighting was inconclusive until 1434, when Hungary and Croatia forced Savoy to retreat from eastern Helvetia and Austrian troops marched on Piemonte. Savoy could not withstand the superior numbers of Austria, Croatia and Hungary alone. Venice's entry into the war fractured the Austrian alliance and bought Savoy some time, but Amadeus would not be around to see the results. He died in Piemonte a month later at the age of 51.
The irony of Amadeus is that he viewed himself as a man of peace. Indeed, he remarked at one point that he was so uncomfortable commanding armies that he would rather have been Pope than be Duke of Savoy. This comment provides insight into his religious nature and his general misunderstanding of the way Italian politics worked. The man who claimed the surname 'The Peaceful' spent more than half the time he was Duke of Savoy at war, and managed to drag his nation into the second largest conflict in Europe over the question of who his daughter should have married. His legacy was a country at war with a vast Austrian alliance and with enemies in Iberia and the West. His primary desire, however, was never marriages or alliances. What Amadeus wanted was to create a Savoy that was the star around which Italy's city-states orbited. Despite the war, the leaders of the various duchies and cities in Italy regarded Savoy favorably and her relationship with the Pope was close. Savoy was also linked to powerful Milan through marriage. In this regard, Amadeus succeeded in laying the foundation for achieving his goals even as he placed Savoy in a difficult position geopolitically. His son, Louis I, would have to balance continuing his father's mission while extracting Savoy from the position into which it had been put.