“. . . but the world is ours! I think there are brave times ahead of us, adventures and wars and plunder! Then hey for Italy, and all brave adventurers!”
— Robert E. Howard, “Sword Woman”
The Battle of Mohacs in August 1526 left Hungary effectively split in three by the Turkish victory. The center was now ruled by the Ottomans, the east and Transylvania by the Sultan’s puppet, John Zapolya, who had held his forces back from the battle instead of coming to the aid of Hungary’s young King Louis. With Louis now dead – he had drowned in the Danube as he retreated after the fighting – the Hungarians of the western third of the country recognized Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria, as their ruler. They had no other available, unless Zapolya, and him they cursed as a traitor to rank with Judas.
Gottfried von Kalmbach held the same view. He had charged at Mohacs with Marczali and thirty others in a dedicated attempt to slay Sultan Suleiman, reached the Sultan and wounded him – the only one of the thirty-two left – and then, miraculously, survived the battle amid the confusion. He recovered from his wounds at Vienna. War having broken out between Archduke Ferdinand and Zapolya, the big German fought for a time on the Austrian side. However, since Zapolya was backed by the Ottoman Empire and Ferdinand by his older brother, the Emperor Charles, Gottfried foresaw a frustrating stalemate, at least for the present. Besides, he had come to think Ferdinand little better than Zapolya.
Thus Gottfried drifted west as far as Innsbruck and halted there for a time, brooding on his failure at Mohacs and the deaths of his thirty-one comrades. He became a merchant’s bodyguard and conducted a large mule train of goods through the Brenner Pass, along the Imperial Road to Verona. The Italian wars were flaring into a blaze again; the King of France, captured by the Imperial forces at the Battle of Pavia in 1525, had been held captive in Madrid until he signed the treaty named for that city, in January 1526. Pressure from Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent had been another factor contributing to Francis of Valois’ release. He was being, let us say, co-operative with the Sultan. The Emperor Charles V was a bitter enemy to both of them.
King Francis soon repudiated the Treaty of Madrid and began trying to conquer Italy again. Emperor Charles had ambitions in the same direction. The Pope, Clement VII, decided he feared Charles more than Francis, and formed an alliance of the Papal States with Venice, France, Florence and Milan. He desired Henry VIII of England to join, also, and Henry was willing, but balked when the other members refused to sign the undertaking in England. They proceeded without him to create what became known as the League of Cognac against the Empire.
So matters stood when Gottfried von Kalmbach came to Verona. There he discovered that Georg von Frundsberg, veteran leader of landsknechte, hero of Bicocca, “Highest Field Captain”, and the man who had captured the King of France at Pavia, was among the League’s commanders. Von Frundsberg was one of the few men Gottfried respected without reserve. He abandoned the mule train and the merchant’s service to ride for Piacenza, where the landsknechte were said to have joined the Duc de Bourbon. Bourbon had been Constable of France, but he threw in with the League after a little too much shabby treatment from the French king and a great deal too much vindictive enmity from the king’s mother, Louise of Savoy. (REH’s Dark Agnes story, “Blades for France”, gives interesting sidelights on that feud.)
Gottfried found that the news was a little out of date and faulty. The League’s forces, led by Bourbon and von Frundsberg, had run into trouble when the soldiers’ pay fell too far in arrears. They – von Frundsberg’s fourteen thousand landsknechte, six thousand Spaniards under the Duc de Bourbon, and fourteen thousand Italian infantry and cavalry, had mutinied and compelled their leaders to march on Rome. Gottfried rode like the devil, caught them before they reached the Eternal City, and joined them, knowing this was the sort of chance for plunder that comes once in a lifetime.
They reached Rome in May. As they attacked the walls, the Duc de Bourbon, conspicuous in his white cloak, was shot and killed, which destroyed the last restraint and discipline in the Imperial forces. (Benvenuto Cellini claimed to have been the man who killed Bourbon, but he was notoriously a hot-headed braggart, so he may have lied, or at least deceived himself.) The Imperials took the walls and carried out a fierce onslaught on St. Peter’s basilica. The Swiss Guard made a brave stand on the steps, but were massacred there, by Gottfried among others. The Pope escaped down a covered stone passage to Castel Sant’Angelo on the Tiber, once the tomb of Hadrian, long since converted into a fortress. Days of murder, pillage and arson followed, despite the efforts of the new commander, Philibert de Chalon, to halt the outrages. Gottfried did nothing particularly vicious, as sacks in Renaissance warfare went, but he extorted a huge sum from a wealthy cardinal to prevent the destruction of the man’s property in Rome, camping in his palace with a company of soldiers on whom he had imposed his strong-arm discipline for lack of any other, and going forth at intervals to loot other palaces and churches. For that brief time he was the richest he had been in all his life.
This blogger thinks it likely that two other REH characters of note, Dark Agnes de la Fere, or Agnes de Chastillon, and her companion Etienne Villiers, were in Rome with the Imperial forces. Certainly they were French, which should have placed them with the League of Cognac, but they strongly sympathized with the Duc de Bourbon. They had actually rescued him from his enemies one eventful night before they departed for Italy. “A blow to France if he should fall,” Etienne had said, and fall he had, now.
I believe Hildred Taferal of Devon and Solomon Kane’s grandfather Reuben were present in the city as well. Hildred is mentioned – then an aged man – by Solomon in “The Moon of Skulls.” He suffers from gout and blasphemes freely, the readers are told. He and Reuben were young at the sack of Rome, mercenaries who had served on the continent for some time. They doubtless felt free to sign a contract with the Imperial army, since the English king had not joined the League of Cognac. (He did, shortly afterwards, making loud noises of horror over the sack, his breach with the Pope over the matter of his divorce still in the future.)
It may even be that all five were drinking in the same tavern – or courtyard, or looted monastery – at one point. If Gottfried had encountered Agnes, though, a fierce red-haired sword woman, he would surely have commented on her startling likeness to Red Sonya of Rogatino when he met the latter, and he didn’t. Of course, he may have seen Agnes only briefly, and been too drunk to recall it later. The historical references in “Sword Woman,” “Blades for France” and “The Shadow of the Vulture” do establish firmly that Agnes, Etienne, Gottfried and Sonya were contemporaries.
The affair of Rome did the old commander von Frundsberg no good. The worthy soldier had gone into debt and even sold his table silver to finance his part of the Italian campaign. The mutiny of his forces and the sack of Rome had so shaken and dishonored him that he suffered a stroke. He spent some time in Italian hospitals as an invalid, and von Kalmbach – who hardly had the temperament of a nurse, but nevertheless had received hospital training among the Knights of St. John – stayed by his side, making sure he was well treated. He also escorted him home to Germany once the old man was strong enough to travel. Von Kalmbach carried his plunder with them in a pack train, planning to settle von Frundsberg’s debts out of it when they arrived, but in the Tyrol a robber count attacked them and collared Gottfried’s ill-gotten gains. Von Kalmbach chose to abandon the loot and get the commander to safety, which ought to be mentioned and set against the record of a generally misspent, dissolute career which contains a great deal to Gottfried’s discredit.
He could not prevent the death of one of von Frundsberg’s sons or the loss of his estate. Plagued by troubles and grief, the old soldier died a year later. It was the frequent fate of brave, honorable men in an age when being alive and prosperous was often a reflection on one’s character.
Images by Mor Than, Mark Schultz and Others.
Read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine, Part Ten, Part Eleven