The Consistory which received the French ambassador Peron de Basche became the scene of stormy remonstrances, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, of course, supporting the ambassador and being supported in his act of insubordination by the Vice-Chancellor Ascanio Sforza (who represented his brother Lodovico in the matter) and the Cardinals Sanseverino, Colonna, and Savelli, all attached to French interests. Peron de Basche so far presumed, no doubt emboldened by this support, as to threaten the Pope with deposition if he persisted in his refusal to obey the King of France.
You see once more that kingly attitude, and you shall see it yet again presently and be convinced of its precise worth. In one hand a bribe of heavy annual tribute, in the other a threat of deposition; it was thus they conducted their business with the Holy Father. In this instance his Holiness took the threat, and dismissed the insolent ambassador. Delia Rovere, conceiving that in France he had a stouter ally than in Naples, and seeing that he had once more incurred the papal anger by his open enmity, fled back to Ostia ; and, not feeling safe there, for the pontifical forces were advancing upon his fortress, took ship to Genoa, and thence to France, to plot the Pope's ruin with the exasperated Charles; and, the charge of simony being the only weapon with which they could attack Alexander's seat upon the papal throne, the charge of simony was once more brandished.
His Holiness took the matter with a becoming and stately calm. He sent his nephew, Giovanni Borgia, to Naples to crown Alfonso, and with him went Giuf fredo Borgia to carry out the marriage contract with Alfonso's daughter, and thus strengthen the alliance between Rome and Naples.
By the autumn Charles had crossed the Alps with the most formidable army that had ever been sent out of France, full ninety thousand strong. And so badly was the war conducted by the Neapolitan generals who were sent to hold him in check that the appearance of the French under the very walls of Rome was almost such as to take the Pope by surprise. Charles's advance from the north had been so swift and unhindered that Alexander contemptuously said the French soldiers had come into Italy with wooden spurs and chalk in their hands to mark their lodgings.
Charles had been well received by the intriguing Lodovico Sforza, with whom he visited the Castle of Pavia and the unfortunate Gian Galeazzo, who from long confinement, chagrin, and other causes was now reduced to the sorriest condition. Indeed, on October 22, some days after that visit, the wretched prince expired. Whether or not Lodovico had him poisoned, as has been alleged a charge, which, after all, rests upon no proof, nor even upon the word of any person of reliance his death most certainly lies at his ambitious uncle's door.
Charles was at Piacenza when the news of Gian Galeazzo's death reached him. Like the good Christian that he accounted himself, he ordered the most solemn and imposing obsequies for the poor youth for whom in life he had done nothing.
Gian Galeazzo left a heart broken girl widow and two children to succeed him to the throne he had never been allowed to occupy the eldest, Francesco Sforza, being a boy of five. Nevertheless, Lodovico was elected Duke of Milan. Not only did he suborn the Parliament of Milan to that end, but he induced the Emperor to confirm him in the title. To this the Emperor consented, seeking to mask the unscrupulous deed by a pitiful sophism. He expounded that the throne of Milan should originally have been Lodovico's, and never Galeazzo Maria's (Gian Galeazzo's father), because the latter was born before Francesco Sforza had become Duke of Milan, whereas Lodovico was born when he already was so.
The obsequies of Gian Galeazzo completed, Charles pushed on. From Florence he issued his manifesto, and although this confined itself to claiming the kingdom of Naples, and said no word of punishing the Pope for his disobedience in crowning Alfonso and being now in alliance with him, it stirred up grave uneasiness at the Vatican.
The Pope's position was becoming extremely difficult; nevertheless, he wore the boldest possible face when he received the ambassadors of France, and on December 9 refused to grant the letters patent of passage through the Pontifical States which the French demanded. Thereupon Charles advanced threateningly upon Rome, and was joined now by those turbulent barons Orsini, Colonna, and Savelli.
Alexander VI has been widely accused of effecting a volte face at this stage and betraying his Neapolitan allies; but his conduct, properly considered, can hardly amount to that. What concessions he made to France were such as a wise and inadequately supported man must make to an army ninety thousand strong. To be recklessly and quixotically heroic is not within the function of Popes; moreover, Alexander had Rome to think of, for Charles had sent word that, if he were resisted he would leave all in ruins, whereas if a free passage were accorded him he would do no hurt nor suffer any pillage to be done in Rome.
So the Pope did the only thing consistent with prudence : he made a virtue of necessity and gave way where it was utterly impossible for him to resist. He permitted Charles the passage through his territory which Charles was perfectly able to take for himself if refused. There ensued an interchange of compliments between Pope and King, and early in January Charles entered Rome in such warlike panoply as struck terror into the hearts of all beholders. Of that entrance Paolo Giovio has left us an impressive picture.
The vanguard was composed of Swiss and German mercenaries tall fellows, these professional warriors, superb in their carriage and stepping in time to the beat of their drums; they were dressed in variegated, close fitting garments that revealed all their athletic symmetry. A fourth of them were armed with long, square bladed halberts, new to Italy ; the remainder trailed their ten foot pikes, and carried a short sword at their belts, whilst to every thousand of them there were a hundred arquebusiers. After them came the French infantry, without armour save the officers, who wore steel corselets and head pieces. These, again, were followed by five thousand Gascon arbalisters, each shouldering his arbalest a phalanx of short, rude fellows, not to be compared with the stately Swiss. Next came the cavalry, advancing in squadrons, glittering and resplendent in their steel casings; 2,500 of these were in full heavy armour, wielding iron maces and the ponderous lances that were usual also in Italy. Every man at arms had with him three horses, mounted by a squire and two valets (four men going to the lance in France). Some 5,000 of the cavalry were more lightly armed, in corselets and headpiece only, and they carried long wooden bows in the English fashion ; whilst some were armed with pikes, intended to complete the work of the heavier cavalry. These were followed by 200 knights the very flower of French chivalry for birth and valour shouldering their heavy iron maces, their armour covered by purple, gold embroidered sur coats. Behind them came 400 mounted archers forming the bodyguard of the king.