In 1527, a dispute over unpaid wages would lead to one of the most impactful events of the 16th century that would have a lasting effect on the histories of Italy, Christianity, and Europe as a whole. A force of over 20,000 troops, largely mutinous German Landsknechts, led a pillage on the city of Rome, ending nearly 50,000 lives and the Italian High Renaissance in the process, and ransoming Pope Clement VII in an attack that would shift power away from Catholicism forever.
Less than a century after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Rome and Italy as a whole had another growing power to worry about: Charles V’s Holy Roman Empire, which, ironically, did not hold rule over Rome. Clement VII, who controlled Rome (the city was then part of the Papal States), was worried about the powerful Habsburgs and decided to form an alliance with King Francis I of France, the Holy Roman Empire’s fiercest rival.
This alliance was known as the League of Cognac and also included Milan, Florence, and Venice. England was invited but Henry VIII refused to join when the treaty was signed in Madrid rather than England. The League gathered forces with hopes to kick Charles V out of the Italian Peninsula.
Initially, the League of Cognac were on the front foot, taking the city of Lodi, but soon their fortunes were reversed. Milan fell, and Charles V’s troops were victorious against the French at Pavia in 1525.
Charles V's army consisted of some 14,000 German Landsknechts, 6,000 Spanish troops, and an unknown number of Italian infantry and cavalry. The Landsknechts were pike-and-shot mercenaries that formed the bulk of the Holy Roman Empire’s army, and had a reputation for being brave, elite soldiers at the time.
The army remained dominant in Italy, but when funds dried up, the thousands of Landsknecht mercenaries that made up a majority of the army mutinied. The mutineers decided if they would not receive coin from the Emperor, they would have to procure it themselves; they thus forced their commander, Charles III, the French Duke of Bourbon, to march to Rome.
As the army stormed towards the Eternal City, their numbers grew. Bandits, League of Cognac deserters, and Lutherans joined the march for monetary or religious purposes, even though Martin Luther himself was against an attack on the Papal States. With an army estimated to be around 34,000 strong, and Rome guarded by a measly force of around 5,000 militiamen and a contingent Swiss Guards, it was an easy target.
On May 6, 1527, Duke Charles attacked the western walls of Rome. He wore a distinctive white cloak so he could be easily seen by his men—without considering that this would make him a target for enemies as well. He was fatally wounded by an enemy shot, and with no respected officers left among the mutineer’s ranks, there was nothing to restrain them. The soldiers easily overcame Rome’s walls and made for the Vatican.
To their surprise, none of the bridges had been destroyed, giving the mutineers free rein over the city, which they abused to a violent end. Anyone in their path was attacked, armed or otherwise. Those who managed to escape the wave of destruction made their way to the Castel Sant’Angelo, an ancient Roman mausoleum which had been converted into a fortress, including the Pope.
Clement VII only managed to escape due to the bravery of the Swiss Guards, who held off the Imperial army in the Teutonic Graveyard in an event later known as the Stand of the Swiss Guard. To this day, new Swiss Guards are sworn in on May 6th to honor those who died to aid the Pope’s escape.
Then began a month of terror for the Eternal City. 1,000 defenders were promptly executed. Soldiers killed, kidnapped, tortured, and ransomed anyone they could get their hands on to fill their pockets, while others looted and pillaged Rome’s many churches and palaces.
The Protestant Landsknechts had religious provocation to dismantle the Vatican, and did so with violent vigor and passion. The mercenaries stripped churches of their valuables, and some reported Imperial soldiers trampled the relics of Saints Peter and Paul.
Many took to mocking the Pope and Catholic church, with one priest killed for not administering the sacraments to a mule they dressed in clergyman’s clothes, and another soldier dressed as the Pope in an attempt to poke fun at the sacraments of his garments.
Conditions in the city were so perilous that when an enemy of Clement arrived two days after the pillaging began to enact revenge, he became so distraught by the plight of Rome that he offered refuge to some survivors in his palace.
Pope Clement VII would remain under siege for a month. He was finally ransomed for 400,000 ducats and the exchange of some Italian land to the Holy Roman Empire. It would take another few months for the Pope to return to the Vatican; he would return to a hollow husk of what had once been one of the jewels of Europe.
It’s estimated that as little as one quarter of the population was there when Clement returned. The rest had either died at the hands of the Imperial army, met their end through disease or famine, or fled the dying city for elsewhere in the peninsula.
It took three decades for Rome’s population to return to the numbers before the Sack. The damage to the Pope’s authority was permanent.
Just three years after the Sack, Pope Clement publicly crowned Charles V as emperor in a ceremony that handed power of Italy over to a secular leader. Artists and scholars, so long confined to the peninsula and especially Rome, fled to courts in France and the Holy Roman Empire.
The split between Catholics and Protestants was now irrevocable. The sack lasted for eight months, until there was no bread left to eat and no coin left to steal. By the time the mutineers left, Europe was changed forever.