Brief History of the World Wiki
Early Age of Discovery
Period Early Modern
Dates 1453-1517 AD
Preceded by
End of the Middle Ages
Followed by
Early Protestant Reformation
Following the light of the sun, we left the Old World.

–Christopher Columbus

The Early Age of Discovery lasted from about 1453 AD until 1517 AD. It began with the era of Portuguese voyages sponsored by Henry the Navigator that heralded the European Age of Discovery. It then ended on the eve of the Protestant Reformation in 1517 AD, when Martin Luthar published his Ninety-five Theses.

In 1400, men could still think of the world as made up of three continents - Europe, Asia and Africa - that all met around the shores of the Mediterranean. A huge revolution lay just ahead, that forever swept away such views. From 1415, Prince Henry launched a series of Portuguese maritime expeditions exploring northern waters, at first hoping to cut Muslim merchants out of the lucrative trans-Saharan trade routes. By his death in 1460, they had reached as far as modern-day Sierra Leone. The Portuguese continued to push steadily south, crossing the Equator in 1473, reaching the Cape of Good Hope in 1487, and at last in 1498, Vasco da Gama dropped anchor in Indian waters. Beyond it lay even richer sources of spices. By that time, another sailor, Christopher Columbus, had crossed the Atlantic to look for Asia, in the service of a newly confident Spain, having been unified by the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, and having completed the conquest of Muslim Granada. Columbus failed, instead discovering the Americas. Spain and Portugal tried to come to an understanding about their respective interests in a world of widening horizons, agreeing to split the world between them along a line 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. Unbeknownst to either party at the time, the line crossed right through South America; Brazil was accidentally discovered in 1500. Thirty years after Columbus made landfall in the Americas, a squadron of ships under Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese captain in Spanish service, completed the first voyage around the world. About a century of exploration had changed the shape of the world and the course of history. In the first place Atlantic opportunities meant Spain and Portugal, but they would soon be joined and surpassed by France, the Dutch Netherlands, and, above all, England. Europeans stood in 1500 at the beginning of an age in which their energy and confidence would grow seemingly without limit. The world did not come to them, they went out and took it.

At the same time, modern nation states continued their slow consolidation. England emerged from the turmoil of the Wars of the Roses, under the new Tudor Dynasty, ushering in one of the country's most expansive and optimistic periods. France recovered quickly from the Hundred Years' War under Louis XI, but soon got itself embroiled in a long series of wars in Italy against the rising power of the House of Habsburg, centred in Austria. These Italian Wars brought an abrupt end to the artistic flowering of the Italian Renaissance, which had burst into full bloom with the unparalleled talents of da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. In the east, Russia was the coming new great power, with the ground-plan laid by Ivan the Great, who consolidated almost all the old Kievan Rus' lands under Moscow's rule, and liberate Russia from the Mongol yoke after two-centuries. Meanwhile the mid-15th-century, the European invention of the movable-type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg, revolutionised communication and facilitated ever wider dissemination of information, helping to usher in the Scientific Revolution. In the early years of the Protestant Reformation, the revolutionary potential of bulk printing took kings and Papacy alike by surprise.


Europe in the 1450s[]


"Modern history" is a familiar term, but it does not always mean the same thing. That term was developed by historians during this very period, when scholars divided European history into three parts:  Ancient (to the end of the Roman Empire in the West in the 5th-century), Middle Ages (from the 5th century to the 15th), and Modern (their own time onwards). In this model, the break from the Middle Ages was usually marked either by the first voyage of Columbus (1492), or by the beginning of the Protestant  Reformation (1517). This three-age periodization became extremely influential, and as the modern era grew longer and longer, historians began to divide it into: Early Modern (to the French Revolution), Late Modern (to the end of World War Two), and Contemporary (to whenever they happened to be writing). As with any period, the beginning and end of Early Modern History (1453-1756) is relatively arbitrary. Developments in the field of history over the past few decades have made the 1450s seem a better starting point, as scholars found earlier precedents for developments traditionally regarded as marks of modernity. By then, the Portuguese were already sailing back and forth to the Mali Empire of north-west Africa, spurring the European Age of Discovery. In 1453, the Ottoman Turks under Mehmed II conquered Constantinople (now Istanbul), firmly establishing them as a European power. That year also marked the end of the Hundred Years War (1337- 1453) between England and France, a war that introduced gunpowder weapons to European battlefields. And finally around 1455, printing with the movable-type press was invented in Germany by artisan Johann Gutenberg, which played a key role in the development of the Protestant Revolution and Scientific Revolution, as well as laying the material basis for the modern knowledge-based economy and the spread of learning to the masses. Yet the glitter of early modernity can easily deceive us; even at its end, popular amusements focused on the pleasures of bear-baiting and cock-fighting, while only a very few advanced thinkers questioned the primacy still enjoyed by religion (Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox alike).

Evolved from the single-masted Cog, the three-masted Carrack was first used for European trade in the Mediterranean from the 14th-century.

Most people living in Europe in 1450 never travelled further from their village than a nearby market town to sell their products, but they could walk there and back in the same day. A small minority, however, travelled the paths, roads, and seas in and around Europe. They went for different reasons. The opportunity to grow rich through trade was one powerful motive. creating a network that brought goods, ideas, and eventually change into even the most isolated villages. Transport over land was difficult and expensive, and remained so throughout the early modern period, but travel by sea had grown steadily cheaper and more secure. By the 14th-century, merchants from Venice, Genoa, Barcelona, and other southern European cities had well-established trading posts in most of the Mediterranean ports of the Middle East and North Africa. In the Levant and Black Sea, they met caravans carrying spices, silk, porcelain, and other exotic luxuries along the Silk Road from China, India, and Central Asia. Other merchants paid more attention to Egypt, where they dealt in Asian goods traded via Indian Ocean trade routes, then up the Red Sea to Cairo. A few went even further, to the coastal port-cities of western India, which had become cosmopolitan mixtures of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and Christians, all intent on expanding  their profits. The same was true in northern Europe, where the German-dominated cities of the Hanseatic League connected the North and Baltic Sea region; trading fur from Russia, fish from Scandinavia, wool from England, and cloth from the Flanders (now Belgium). While Italian ships sailed the Mediterranean and German ships the North Sea, Portuguese ships inched further and further down the western African coast, hoping to bypass the Muslim-dominated trans-Saharan trade route and tap directly into the African gold trade by sea. Buyers, sellers, bankers, sailors, captains, navigators, and other people seeking their fortunes came together in bustling port cities, sharing practical knowledge as well as trading goods; more than twenty languages might be spoken on the streets. While economic motives inspired merchants to travel, religious motives drew others to the roads and sea routes. Christian pilgrims travelled to Rome, Santiago de Compostela in Spain, Canterbury in England, Maria Wörth in Austria, or Czestochowa in Poland, while some ventured further to the international pilgrimage sites of Jerusalem and Constantinople. Though merchants and missionaries were generally different men, they might very well travel together. Economic and religious motives were often similarly mixed in European contacts with the rest of the world; Italian merchants often wrote “in the name of God and profit” on the first page of their account books. In 1450, then, though most Europeans never traveled very far from their home towns and villages, some went great distances. But the widening of geographic horizons was not a one-way process, for routes that once existed could also disappear. By 1450, a Viking colony on Greenland had all died of starvation or Inuit attacks, and voyages in the North Atlantic were much fewer; while memories of Viking trips to North America were turned into myths. The Mongol Empire had also broken apart, and Ming China became increasingly hostile to foreigners, so fewer Europeans took the land or sea route to Asia. Although it is doubtful whether many people living in 1450 would have noticed, that year marked the beginning of an economic system later called "capitalism", and much greater European interaction with the rest of the world; the Age of Discovery.

A soldier armed with an arquebuse, an early form of hand-gun. The term derives from the Dutch word Haakbus ("hook gun"), referring to a projection underneath for steadying it against battlements or fork rest.

By the 15th century, changes in military technology and in the way that troops were recruited had increased the cost of warfare dramatically. The deadliest and most prestigious medieval fighter had been the heavy cavalrymen; riding heavy warhorses, wearing full plate armour, carrying a lance and sword, and almost always members of the nobility. But their invulnerability was increasingly being challenged. During the Hundred Years War, English longbowmen had been very effective against French knights. In other 15th-century wars, pikes proved even deadlier than bows; footsoldiers using fifteen-foot-long pikes were able to defeat repeated cavalry charges, as long as they held their position. Gradually the pikemen were reinforced by footsoldiers carrying firearms. The first reasonably portable firearm was the arquebus, a short metal tube attached to a wooden handle, loaded with powder and a round bullet, and lit by a slow-burning wick. The musket, developed in the 1520s, was much lighter, easier to reload, and could easily pierce armour. From the 1610s, its successor, the flintlock musket with a bayonet on the end, was more reliable, no longer needing a separate match to fire. Infantrymen, thus, became the heart of early modern armies. They were typically commoners, not nobles, so this development made the medieval model of society seem even more anachronistic. The loss of their unique status as fighting-men was not lost on the nobility. The pistol, invented around 1510, appeared to offer them a way to both use gunpowder and yet stay above the infantry. Mounted cuirassiers, however, still tended to favour tactics that would allow them to display individual prowess, which was not always the most effective militarily. And infantrymen aimed their weapons accordingly, usually killing the more vulnerable horses; a nobleman now had to figure he would lose an expensive horse every time he went into battle. The new cannons, meanwhile, were so expensive that many rulers were, by 1450, well on the way to exercising a monopoly of their use within the realm. The new military technology and tactics required longer training, which meant rulers felt it necessary to maintain at least the core of a standing army from one conflict to the next. These tended to be relatively small in the 15th-century - the French royal army had only about 25,000 men - but they would steadily grow in size throughout the next century or so. And then there was the fact that almost all of those fighting, except the highest-ranking nobles, now expected to be paid. Improved professionalism and increasing specialization would affect warfare at sea, too. In the 16th-century, a series of wars in the Mediterranean (and elsewhere) involved larger and larger warships, armed with heavier guns firing continuously, and arranged in a formal line of battle. Such tactics required well-trained officers, drilled gun crews, and disciplined sailors who could maintain clear battle lines. The increasing cost of warfare favoured rulers of large territories who could extract resources from society effectively and efficiently. Astute rules in France, England, and Spain, among others, further consolidated their power, developing new types of taxes and bureaucracies to fund large armies and arm them with the most effective weapons. This was beyond the financial reach of most nobles, who, with the appearance of gunpowder weaponry, could no longer brave the challenges of their rulers from behind the walls of their castles. After 1450, monarchs almost everywhere curbed the independent power of the nobility, and increased the size and scope of centralized institutions and government activities dramatically in many parts of Europe. They issued new laws more frequently, and quickly adopted the new print technology to circulate then throughout the realm, They supported writers and artists who linked royal power with national strength and prosperity. They engaged in shrewd warfare or marriages to expand their holdings, especially absorbing small realms on the edges of their territories to create consolidated boundaries. In this way, what had been dynastic realms slowly transformed into “nation-states”, setting a pattern to be followed in other parts of Europe, and then in the Americas and beyond.

Marriages for most Europeans in 1450 were arranged by their parents and family, and celebrated by a religious ceremony. This fresco by Pinturicchio (d. 1513) in the cathedral of Siena, depicts a romanticized view of just such a ceremony brings together Frederick III of imperial Germany and Eleonor of Portugal.

In the half-light of a dawning modernity, Europeans still arranged their society according to the three-group medieval model: nobles (those who fought), clergymen (those who prayed), and peasants (those who worked). But the medieval model was quite out-of-date by the mid-fifteenth century. Yes, the nobility was the most powerful group in society, but nobles themselves varied from great nobles who controlled vast areas of land to impoverished knights who hired themselves out as mercenaries. Clergymen were similarly differentiated, from bishops of major dioceses who live in splendour, while village priests had barely enough to eat. Peasants ranged from wealthy landowners to landless peasants who hired themselves out by the day. The medieval model of society completely overlooked people who lived in towns and cities, who by 1450 numbered perhaps one-sixth of the population; closer to one-fourth in the Low Countries and Italy. Like other groups, urban dwellers ranged across a broad socio-economic spectrum, from wealthy merchants who lived in splendour that rivalled the richest noble, to impoverished orphans who depended on church or (by 1450 in some towns) municipal charity to survive. The middle of this spectrum included artisans, shop-keepers, tavern-owners, government officers, barber-surgeons, lawyers, and other professionals. The old formal hierarchy of social rank and privileges was under pressure from the new hierarchy of wealth, but rank was still the rule in 15th-century Europe. A noble might be poorer than a wealthy merchant, but still had a higher status. If this had not been the case, then rich commoners would not have been so eager to marry their children into impoverished gentry families. Meanwhile, cultural and intellectual life for most people in Europe in 1450 was still very closely linked to religion. But this was slowly beginning to change. Although Latin, the language of the church, still dominated university education, beginning in the 14th-century writers in many parts of Europe began to use vernacular languages for poetry and literature. This was the result of, and a spur to, increasing levels of literacy across Europe. The fact that people tended to learn to read without learning to write makes measuring literacy of very difficult. But most cities and towns had small schools, often little more than a corner of someone’s house, that taught boys and a few girls basic reading, writing, and figuring. Even in a few villages, old women ran “cranny schools” which combined child care with teaching children their letters. Universities offered the most advanced education, and increasingly adopted Humanists curricula that emphasized the rational inquiry, scepticism, and free-thought of classical Greco-Roman philosophy and literature, rather than Christian authors. Humanists asserted that educated men should be active in political life, and established their own academies, such as the Neo-Platonic Academy in Florence, founded in 1438, which drew young men from all over Europe. Italians trained as humanists then travelled beyond the Alps to found academies. The Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus (d. 1536), the most famous humanist of his time in all of Europe, did not go to Italy until he was nearly fourty; Thomas More (1478–1535), England's most famous humanist, never went to Italy at all. Changes can also be seen in political theory. In the 14th-century, all political authority came from God, kings were answerable to God alone, and most political theory was concerned with the proper relationship between church and state. A century later, political philosophers in Italian cities, influenced by Plato’s model of the philosopher-king in the Republic, argued that an enlightened monarch was the best form of government. Others used the writings of Cicero, an opponent of Julius Caesar, to argue that representative government might be best. The most famous, Niccolò Machiavelli (d. 1527), was a diplomat in the republican government of Florence, until a power struggle brought the Medici family back to power, and he spent the rest of his life writing. In The Prince, he argues that a ruler should use any means necessary to preserve order and security - force, subterfuge, manipulation - but should not do anything that might turn the populace against him - corruption, cruelty. “It is much safer for the prince to be feared  than loved,” Machiavelli advised, “but he ought to avoid making himself hated”. Within forty years of his death, the word “Machiavellian” was being applied to secret dealing and plots. Protestant reformers of the 16th-century would have strong opinions on nearly every aspect of society and culture: they saw threats to order and morality everywhere. In fact, these worries would eventually be just as powerful among Catholics as among Protestants.

Dynastic Union of Spain[]

Ferdinand and Isabella were known as the "Catholic Monarchs".

Spain became unified first through marriage, and then through conquest. In the 1469, Isabella of Castile (d. 1504), the younger sister of childless King Henry (d. 1474), unexpectedly found herself the acknowledged heir to the throne. The king of Portugal, the king of England, and also a brother of the king of France were suitors for her hand, but she married Prince Ferdinand of Aragon (d. 1516), heir to Naples, Sicily and several other Mediterranean islands as well as Aragon. After they became monarchs their respective kingdoms, Ferdinand argued that both crowns should be his, but the Castilian nobility support Isabella. It is agreed that the young couple shall rule jointly. It was agreed that Castile and Aragon would remain separate kingdoms with their own laws, courts, taxation systems, and parliaments; the union of the two crowns gradually became a unified realm by around 1700. Ferdinand and Isabella were to rule jointly in both kingdoms, becoming known as the Catholic Monarchs (1474-1516); a title bestowed on them by the pope. Ferdinand had great abilities which was matched by his ambition. Isabella was pious, far-sighted, and no less able; a joint sovereignty, with a husband so grasping of power, required tact in no ordinary measure. Together, they became an unbeatable team. While marriage reunited Spain, military victory consolidated and expanded it. In the first years of their joint rule, Ferdinand and Isabella harness the restless Castilian and Aragonese nobility against a common enemy, the Emirate of Granada (1230-1492), the last remaining Muslim state on the peninsula; and the final stage in the seven-century long ideal of Reconquista. But Granada was difficult to conquer by military means alone: sheltered among the Sierra Nevada mountains; supported by Muslim north-west Africa; its capital city larger and richer than any city in Spain; and its army better equipped than any in Europe. While steadily capturing outlying Muslim strongholds, the Spanish also meddle in a succession dispute within the ruling family. The Moorish emir, Abdul-Hassan (d. 1485), had a second wife who conspired to have her own son supplant his eldest son and heir, Boabdil, by his first wife. The fiery and infatuated emir had Boabdil imprisoned, but he escaped, determined to assert his right to the throne. Suddenly news came that Alhama, a key fortress to Granada, had been captured by Ferdinand's army. Indignant with their old king, much of the army flocked to Boabdil, though it took a five-year civil war, with Spanish support, to secure the throne of his expiring kingdom. The Catholic Monarchs had forced Boabdil under duress to effectively surrender Granada; to rule it as semi-independent vassal of Spain, even granting him the title of Duke. But neither side kept to their pledge. So stubborn was the defense, that reduction of Granada had required eleven arduous years, but at last on 2 January 1492, the proud city of Granada capitulated. The fall of Ostrogothic Spain in 711 had been avenged, and Christendom, still reeling from the loss of Constantinople, took heart again. Boabdil had exracted rather generous terms promising the Muslims religious freedom, and respect for their culture and property. The promise was honoured for only a few years. It was during these campaigns that Ferdinand's greatest general, Gonzalo Fernández (d. 1515), introduced the use of pike and firearms in effective defensive and offensive formations (the Tercios) that made the Spanish army a dominant force on European battlefields for more than a century. During his reign. Ferdinand also annexed tiny Basque Navarre in northern Spain, and fought-off French attempts to claim Naples during the Italian Wars.

Suspected Protestants being tortured as heretics by the Spanish Inquisition. The inquisition has become synonymous in the popular imagination with religious intolerance, repression, and torture. It should be noted that torture was habitually used in civil trials everywhere in Europe during this period. Unlike in royal dungeons, the Inquisition actually used in torture quite rarely, and, whenever it was used, it was subject to very strict regulated. Indeed, it could be argued that the Inquisition was not born out of the desire to oppress people, but rather an attempt to stop unjust persecution and violence.

Under Ferdinand and Isabella, the long Spanish tradition of tolerance between Christian, Jew, and Muslim died. The multi-religious nature of medieval Spanish society had contributed much to her cultural development, especially in literature, art, architecture, and learning; a predominantly Jewish school of cartography on Majorca played a role in spurring the European Age of Discover possible. In the 13th-century, Jews had been expelled from England and France, and rulers of both faiths welcomed them on the Iberian Peninsula. Then in the 14th-century, during and after the Black Death, the status of the Jews in Christian Spain began to change. Kings began to restrict their rights and privileges, and riots against Jewish communities became more common, climaxing in 1391 with anti-semitic attacks in almost every major Spanish city. Over the next century, many of Spain's roughly 300,000 Jews converted, or were forced to convert, to Christianity, becoming Conversos (New Christians). Conversos were often commercially active and well-educated, serving as lawyers, physicians, royal officials, and even bishops. Their success provoked resentment, jealousy, and rumours that many continued to practise their Jewish faith behind a Christian facade. With the accession of the devout Isabella, this sentiment gained a royal ear. She took counsel with her confessor, and with the pope, and gained papal permission to establish a special branch of the Inquisition in Spain; the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834). As an institution within the Christian Church, the Inquisition dated back to the early-13th-century to combat heresy in southern France; the Albigensian Crusade. The first Grand Inquisitor was the Dominican monk, Tomás de Torquemada (d. 1498), and his dedication to his task would become legendary. Investigations, trials, and executions of Conversos began immediately, with Inquisitor charged with rooting-out real from incomplete converts; signs might be as little as not eating pork, not cooking on Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath), or circumcision. The "lucky" sinner would have their property confiscated; a convenient fund-raiser for the ongoing conquest of Granada. The "unlucky" sinner would be led-out into the main square of a town, and, after a solemn religious ceremony, either burned alive at the stake or publically whipped. Even the pope soon had misgivings, and, unlike earlier Inquisitions, the Spanish Inquisition became a branch of government free of papal control; a formidable weapon in the armoury of royal absolutism. In 1492, Torquemada persuaded Isabel and Fernando to order the expulsion of all Jews, without taking any of their property with them. Historians estimate that about 200,000 Jews left Spain, taking their talents, skills, and, despite the crown's best effort, much of their wealth; many went to the Ottoman Empire where they were welcomed by the Sultan Süleyman. Meanwhile, the conquest of Granada brought Muslims as well as Jews into Christian Spanish territory. Isabella and Ferdinand's promised religious tolerance proved short-lived, and forced conversions began. Muslims in Granada revolted in 1499, which was put-down by force. In the aftermath, all Muslims were ordered to convert or leave, at least 50,000 were forcibly baptized, and Islamic writings were burned. It is estimated that the majority of roughly 300,000 Muslims accepted Christian baptism and remained in Spain, becoming Moriscos (another type of “New Christian”); most had little choice since government policy was now to charge exorbitant fees for safe passage overseas. But their conversion was barely skin deep, in large part because there were nowhere near enough Arabic-speaking Christian priests; they never assimilated. In 1567, the Spanish crown ordered Moriscos to abandon their Muslim customs, names, dress, and Arabic-language, which provoked another revolt in Granada. It took several years to subdue, and afterwards all Moriscos in Granada were forcibly dispersed throughout Spain, creating great hardship and increasing, rather than decreasing, their allegiance to their traditional cultural and religious practices. Finally between 1609 and '14, a series of decrees ordered all Moriscos to leave Spain. Expelling adult Moriscos was one thing, but expelling their children presented the Spanish crown with a moral dilemma; these innocents would be taken to the lands of the infidel. The solution was to forcibly take all children under the age-of-seven from their parents, and turn them over to church boarding-schools or Christian families. It is impossible to know how many children were taken, but the existance of strict rules for their upbringing implies there must have been a significant number. Quite a few Morisco families first migrated to Marseille or other lands in Christendom, in order to get around this rule. More than a few historians have viewed these expulsions from Spain as what would today be called "ethnic cleansing". For purging Spain of Jews and Muslims, the pope granted Ferdinand and his successors important rights over the church, such as appointing bishops and retaining church revenue, that other rulers would only gain by breaking with Rome. Meanwhile, identifying fraudulent converts and other heretics would keep the Spanish Inquisition busy for the next three centuries.


In domestic affairs, Ferdinand and Isabella established a highly effective monarchy. They pursued a deliberate policy of diminishing the power of the high nobility and the parliaments. Nobles retained their privileges and lavish lifestyles, but were vitually excluded from the royal bureaucracy, which became larger, stronger, more professional, and staffed with lower nobles and educated bourgeoisie. And parliament eventually had so little power that the nobility and clergymen simply stopped attending. Meanwhile, having secured the Iberian Peninsula as their own, the Catholic Monarchs turned their attention outwards. Christopher Columbus' voyage to the Americas, in the very same year as Granada fell, presented an entire new continent in which the militaristic and Crusading elements of Spanish society could continue their efforts. It wasn't just the Americas that Isabel and Fernando thought should be theirs, embroiling Spain in wider European politics. Following their own example, the royal couple made astute marriages for their children with every country that could assist them against their most powerful neighbour, France: their eldest daughter, Isabella, married the king of Portugal; their eldest son, John, and second daughter, Joanna, married into the Habsburg Dynasty; their third daughter, Catherine, married Henry VIII of England. Alas this marital strategy went awry. John died in 1497, died shortly after his wedding, the younger Isabella died in child-birth in 1498, and Catherine would later be cast aside by the English king. This left Joanna as heiress apparent to the Spanish throne, though her mental instability meant that, upon Ferdinand's in 1516, the throne passed to her 17-year-old son, Charles V Habsburg. With this, Charles gained a triple dynastic inheritance, as he already ruled the Habsburg holdings of Austria, the Low Countries, and several Italian states. In 1519, at the age-of-19, he was elected Holy Roman Emperor. Three years later, he succeeded to all the Habsburg lands of Austria, the Low Countries, several Italian states, and title of Holy Roman Emperor. His empire, encompassing much of Western Europe and the Americas, was the nearest the post-classical world would come to seeing a universal monarchy.

Age of Discovery[]

Model of a typical 15th and 16th century Carrack sailing ship, with three masts; square-rigged on the foremast and mainmast, and lateen-rigged on the mizzenmast.

In 1400, it had still seemed sensible for Europeans to see the world which, though spherical, was made up of three continents - Europe, Asia and Africa - around the shores of one almost land-locked sea, the Mediterranean. A huge revolution lay just ahead, which forever swept away such views; the Age of Discovery (1419-1779). The Arabs and Chinese were by no means unskilled sailors and had long made oceanic voyages. By the 14th-century, ships carrying spices sailed directly across the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal on either side of India, using compasses for navigation and a variety of sails for manoeuvrability. But in the 15th-century, the world began to become interconnected in a way it had not been before, and it was the work of Europeans; the world did not come to them, they went out and took it. One advantage possessed by Europeans was a powerful motivation to succeed. It was the legendary superiority of the civilization of the Far East that spurred Europeans on to try to get into easier and more direct contact; the source of spices, silks, porcelains, and other exotic goods badly wanted in Europe, at a time when Asia wanted almost nothing from Europe; except gold of course. When Vasco da Gama showed what he had brought to give to the king of Calicut, he laughed at him; Gama had nothing to offer which could compare with what Arab traders had already brought to India from other parts of Asia. Europe’s first direct contacts with the Orient had been on land rather than on water. The Silk Road across Central Asia brought Asian good to be shipped from Black Sea or Levant ports. For centuries after his trip, literate urban dwellers avidly read the exaggerated tales of the Venetian merchant-adventurer Marco Polo (d. 1324) who spent 17=years at the court of Kublai Khan in China. According to the oft repeated over-simplification, when the Ottoman Turks took control of Constantinople in 1453, they barred European access to the combined-land-sea routes, spurring the search for alternative routes. In truth. the disintegration of the Mongol Empire in the early 14th-century had already made the Silk Road more difficult and dangerous. And the economic-minded Ottoman Sultans actively encouraged international trade through their dominion, as a rich source of revenue. The Venetians severely limited the internation trade opportunities for other Europeans as much as anyone else. They signed mutually beneficial trade agreements with the Ottomans, even if they intermittently interrupted by territorial wars. This Ottoman-Venetian trade monopoly was effectively complete, when the Genoese were defeated in the War of Chioggia (1377-81), and the Ottomans conquered Mamlum Egypt in 1517, the choke-point of the other very important trade route for Asian good, via Indian Ocean, up the Red Sea to Cairo. After Chioggia, Genoa entered a period of crisis, and thousands of expert mariners sought a new livelihood elsewhere, especially in Spain and Portugal. The other explanation for the European Age of Discovery is the acquisition of new tools and skills. Different ships and techniques of long-range navigation were needed for oceanic sailing and they began to become available from the 14th-century onwards. In ship design there were two crucial changes after around 1300: the adoption of the stern-post rudder (originally a Chinese invention, probably borrowed from Indian Ocean seafarers), and a gradual and complex process of improving rigging. A more complex maritime trade no doubt spurred such developments; Italian ships criss-crossed the Mediterranean and Black Sea, while predominantly German ships of the Hanseatic League sailed the North Sea and the Baltic. Before 1450, the single-masted medieval Cog, had given way to the Carrack, a ship carrying three (or four) masts with mixed sails: the main-mast still carried square-rigging, but more than one sail; the mizzen-mast had a big lateen sail (again borrowed from the Indian Ocean); while the fore-mast might carry more square-rigged sails, but also fore-and-aft jib sails attached to a bowsprit. This design was perfected by the Portuguese around 1450, with the development of the Caravel, a ship which used new rigging and lateen sails to tackle head winds and contrary currents; they could be sailed much "closer to the wind". Mediterranean merchant ships had also begun to carry a few cannons during the early-15th-century, and captains were familiar with using violence to secure and defend favourable trade routes; or to deal with pirates seeking booty. Once these innovations were absorbed, the design of sailing ships remained essentially unchanged, though refined, until the coming of steam propulsion. Although he would have found them small and cramped, Columbus’ ships would have been perfectly comprehensible machines to Admiral Nelson (d. 1805). At the same time, some crucial navigational developments had taken place by 1450. The Vikings had crossed the Atlantic by using the Pole Star and the sun for figuring latitude, whose height above the horizon at midday had been computed in tables by a 10th-century Irish astronomer. Then, with the 13th-century, the compass and the astrolabe came to be commonly used in the Mediterranean; again Chinese inventions. The next two centuries saw the birth of modern geography and cartography; the first reference to a nautical chart was used by a ship engaged on a Crusading venture in 1270. Some princes began to sponsor research, spurred by the thought of commercial prizes, Crusading zeal, or diplomatic possibilities. There were several cartography schools in Italy, and a celebrated example on Majorca; a predominantly Jewish cooperation that flourished until the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. During the Renaissance, Humanist scholars rediscovered a copy of Ptolemy’s Geography, which became widely available from 1410; an account of world geography that had been virtually forgotten in the West for a thousand years. It proved a great stimulus for better map-making, even if several Ptolemaic errors were to be disproved just a few years later. Foremost among these princely sponsors was the third-son of the King of Portugal, Prince Henry.

Henry the Navigator, the third-son of the Portuguese king, is regarded as the main initiator of what would be known as the Age of Discoveries. He was neither a sailor nor navigator, but sponsored a great deal of exploration along the previously unknown west African coast.

The Portuguese had a long Atlantic coast, and almost inevitably, it seems, they were bound to push out into the Atlantic. But her independence was long threatened by her powerful neighbour, Castile. The showdown came in late-14th-century, upon the death of Fernando I of Portugal (d. 1393). He left only a daughter, Beatriz, and her marriage became the major political issue of the day. The girl's mother settled on King Juan I of Castile, but popular sentiment was against an arrangement which would throw Portugal’s future into Castilian hands. The merchant class preferred the unsullied Portuguese candidate, João (d. 1433), Fernando's illegitimate half-brother. To secure the throne, a Castilian army invaded in 1384, and besieged Lisbon. However, they withdrew five months later after encountering heroic resistance and shortage of food due to constant harassment by João's brilliant general Nuno Álvares Pereira (d. 1431). Enraged at this "rebellion", the Castilian king sent an even larger invasion the next year, with 31,000 men. Upon hearing the news, João appealed to Portugal's traditional ally, England. A link between Portugal and England dated back to the recapture of Lisbon in 1147, but had recently been strengthened by the activities of an English prince. John of Gaunt (d. 1399) had tried and failed to claim the Castilian throne through his wife, and his opposition to the present regime in Castile made him a natural ally. At the Battle of Aljubarrota (August 1385), João had Nuno Álvares Pereira and several hundred English longbowmen at the ready, but the odds were stacked against him. The ensuing Portuguese victory was fought in the style of Crécy and Poitiers; a infantry army was able defeat a larger cavalry-based army with the use of a well-prepared defensive position and longbowmen at the flanks. Losses were heavy on both sides, but prevented Juan of Castile from attempting a third invasion. With this victory, João (1385-1433) was recognised as the undisputed king of an independent Portugal; formal recognition from Castile would not arrive until 1411. In the meantime, the English–Portuguese diplomatic alliance was formalised in the Treaty of Windsor (1386), and the marriage of João to the daughter of John of Gaunt; this treaty is still valid today having never been revoked. Free from external threats, João was able to concentrate on the economic development and territorial expansion of his realm. His target was the Moorish lands of north-west Africa, which offered both an outlet for the Crusading zeal of the military class, and access to the lucrative trans-Saharan trade route between Europe and the Niger-Senegal River Valley; an important centre of the gold trade since the 12th-century. In 1415, an attack was made on the port of Ceuta, located across the strait from Gibraltar and a major terminus of the gold caravans. The conquest was a military success, but Ceuta proved costly to defend against Muslim counter-attacks and caravans simply shifted to other Muslim ports. One of the first men to fight his way into the city had been João's third-son, 21-year-old Prince Henry (d. 1460), later dubbed "Henry the Navigator"; somewhat unsuitably, for he never navigated anything. This event seems to be have fired Henry's enthusiasm for exploration down the West African coast, in the hope of bypassing the Muslim lands entirely and tapping directly into African gold trade by sea. Perhaps, too, there was the possibility of finding an ally to take the Muslims in the flank, the legendary Christian kingdom of Prester John (presbyter or "priest" John); a myth, first recorded in 1145, that continued to appear from time to time until the 17th-century. Henry the Navigator came to characterise the spirit of a new age, a heady blend of religious idealism, lust for gold and glory, and sheer love of discovery. He eventually planned and raised the money for over fifty voyages, and also established a seafaring school at Sagres, in the extreme south-west of Portugal, where he gathered a skilled team of shipbuilders, navigators, mapmakers, astronomers, mathematicians, and instrument-makers. The prevailing winds in the Atlantic meant that though ships could stick to the coast when sailing south, they had to cut far to the west when sailing home to Portugal. Such travel patterns led to the first Portuguese discovery of consequence: two island groups in the Atlantic, the Madeira Islands in 1419 and the Azores in 1427. Colonization began almost immediately, and soon rich land had been brought under cultivation, first producing wheat but soon sugar-cane was found to be a more lucrative prospect. The productivity of the islands came to depend on another result of Henry's later expeditions, African slaves. Few Europeans were willing to wield machetes, haul cane, and tend vats in the hot sun for any amount of money. Africans were imported by this sea route from at least 1444, when one of Henry's expeditions returned with slaves exchanged for Moorish prisoners. Portugal would enjoy a virtual monopoly on the slave trade for over a century, importing around 800 Africans annually. After the Americas were discovered in 1492, the pattern piloted on the Madeiras and Azores would be successfully transplanted to the Caribbean, while the Azores took-on a secondary role as an invaluable landfall almost midway across the Atlantic.

Portuguese exploration africa.jpg

Progress down the coast of west African coast was slow at first. The sheer difficulty faced by mariners is well suggested by the long struggle to round Cape Bojador, a promontory just 120 miles south of the Canaries. Sailors feared nautical myths of oceanic monsters or the edge of the world beyond the promontory, and did not know whether it would be possible to return once it was passed. Prince Henry persisted, sending at least fourteen expeditions from 1421, until one at last succeeded in this feat in 1434. Once this psychological obstacle had been overcome, progress quickened. Ten years later they reached Senegal and first fort was built soon after, on the island of Arguin; the beginning of a chain of Portuguese trading post that would eventually dot the African coast and beyond. Henry the Navigator died in 1460, but by then his countrymen were ready to continue further south. In the 1460, they reached the Gulf of Guinea, which became known as the Slave Coast. In 1471, they reached present-day Ghana, and discovered a thriving overland gold trade between the natives and visiting Moorish traders; henceforth dubbed the Gold Coast. In 1482, they discovered the mouth of the Congo River, by now clearly searching for a sea route around the southern shores of Africa to the known riches of the Indian Ocean; an act of faith since It had long been the accepted view, deriving from Ptolemy, that the Indian Ocean was land-locked. In 1488, Portuguese navigator Bartolomeu Dias (d. 1500) disproved that view, rounding the Cape of Good Hope in such bad weather that he did not see it, and satisfying himself that the coast was now trending north-eastwards. Dias wanted to continue to India, but his mutinous crew forced him to return to Portugal. It was only on the return voyage that he actually discovered the Cape of Good Hope, where he left behind a padrões, a stone cross engraved with the Portuguese coat of arms claiming the territory. These pillars, and these claims, had by now become a well-established Portuguese tradition.

Vasco da Gama, the first person to sail directly from Europe to India by sailing around Africa, after decades of trying, with thousands of lives and dozens of ships lost. As much as anyone since Henry the Navigator, he was responsible for Portugal's success as an early colonising power.

In July 1497, the Portuguese king Manuel I (d. 1521) sponsored a fleet of four ships under the command of Vasco da Gama (d. 1524), equipped with the best new technology and navigation instruments developed by Prince Henry’s scholars. These instruments were not very accurate, but in experienced hands they allowed mariners to feel secure sailing far out of sight of land. Da Gama’s ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope in late November, and were soon further up the east coast of Africa than Dias ventured ten years earlier. In early March 1498, they dropped anchor on the island of Mozambique, where they were excited to find a bustling port with Arab vessels in the harbour; the most southerly port of the long-established India Ocean trade network. Unable to provide a suitable gift to the ruler, Da Gama was chased out of Mozambique, but continued north and found the friendlier port of Malindi, Here, a pilot was hired, or perhaps kidnapped, with experience in the Indian Ocean who knew the route northeast to Calicut, an important trading centre on the western coast of India. In May 1498, De Gama reached Calicut by sailing directly across the Arabian Sea. They were received with traditional hospitality at first, but relations quickly soured, partly due to hostility from established Indian and Arabic merchants, partly Da Gama’s paltry gifts and rude behaviour to the Hindu ruler, and partly the cheap trade goods they'd brought; cloth and iron pots might be suitable west African trade, but were hardly in demand in Asia. Da Gama spent three months in Calicut before taking to sea again, with fewer spices than he had hoped and without concluding a trading agreement. Having ignored the local knowledge of monsoon wind patterns, it proved a harrowing journey. On the outgoing journey, the fleet crossed the Indian Ocean in only 23 days; now on the return trip, sailing against the wind, it took 132 days. By the time they reach Malindi again in January 1499, half of the crew had died of scurvy; a first glimpse of one of the perils of ocean travel. Scurvy is a disease caused by lack of vitamin C, from fruits or vegetables, which made their joints grow sore, their gums bleed, and their teeth fall out. At Malindi, without enough crewmen to manage the three ships, they had to scuttle one. Thereafter, the sailing was smoother. De Gama arrived back in Lisbon in July 1499, just over two years after his departure. In all, his journey covered nearly 24,000 miles, and only 54 of the original 170 crew members survived. King Manuel I rewarded da Gama richly, and had no doubts about whether he should send more expeditions.

A portrait said to be of Christopher Columbus, though no confirmed portraits of the famed explorer were made during his lifetime. Columbus is often credited with "discovering" America, though it had been discovered and populated by its indigenous people for millennia. He was not even the first European to reach its shores; the Viking Leif Erikson holds that claim. However, Columbus's efforts brought the Americas to the attention of Europe at a time ripe for exploitation. As one historian put it, "Columbus' claim to fame isn't that he got there first, it's that he stayed". Today, Columbus has a controversial legacy, as his brutality towards natives is well documents.

By this time, another captain, Christopher Columbus (d. 1506), had crossed the Atlantic to look for Asia. Columbus had grown-up in Genoa, where he had spent time as a boy on the Genoese docks, listening to mariners, and seeing the wealth that trade could bring. He joined the crew of a merchant ship as a teenager, and while in his twenties settled in Lisbon, making maps to support himself. He married a woman whose father was governor of the Portuguese colony of Madeira. The couple lived on Madeira for a while, and Columbus visited many other the Portuguese trading posts on the west African coast, seeing the possibilities for wealth that overseas colonies could offer. In Portugal, Columbus got to know the group of geographers and astronomers that Henry the Navigator had brought together, but he apparently did not listen very well to what they were saying. Instead he paid more attention to what he was reading, which included works by Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli (d. 1482), a well-connected Florentine humanist, astronomer, and mathematician. The Portuguese explorers had had notable success in their attempts to sail east round Africa towards India and China, but Toscanelli had become convinced that this could be achieved more easily by sailing west. It had long been the accepted view, deriving from Ptolemy, that nothing but sea separates Europe from Asia round the back of a spherical world; contrary to the popular myth, no educated medieval men thought the Earth was flat. But the unseen distance by sea was believed to be impractical. Eratosthenes (d. 194 BC) had measured the diameter of the Earth with good precision in the 2nd-century BC, which was later confirmed using a different method by Arabic polymath Alfraganus (d. 1050). Toscanelli came to believe that the Earth was much smaller, and that Asia was a mere 2,300 miles to the west of Europe, rather than the true figure of 12,500 miles. He underestimated Alfraganus' calculation, reading his work as if he had used Italian miles (1,480 meters), rather than the longer Arabic miles (1,830 meters); Eratosthenes had used even more archaic units-of-distance. Toscanelli’s ideas had no impact at the Portuguese court, for the king knew that almost all geographers thought his calculations were wrong; nor did Columbus’ attempts to get backing for a voyage west based on them. Columbus next tried the Spanish court, where for many years he got the same reaction from their “Most Catholic MajestiesIsabella and Ferdinand. The Spanish had not stood idly by as the Portuguese explored the west coast of Africa. In 1477, a large Castilian fleet attempted to wrest control of the lucrative gold and slave trade with Guinea, but was decisively defeated at the Battle of Guinea (Summer 1478), which firmly established an exclusive Portuguese control over the lands south of the Canary Islands, a Spanish colony since 1402. In 1492, Spanish armies conquered Granada, the last act in the centuries-long Reconquista, and Isabella finally convinced her husband that the cost of Columbus' bold vayage, if it failed, could be borne; the gain, should it succeed, might divert to Spain all the wealth of Asia.


On August 3, 1492, Columbus sailed from the port of Palos in Spain, with three small ships; the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria. Onboard, he carried copies of Ptolemy and Marco Polo in his sea chest, and an Arabic-speaking Spaniard, figuring that someone at the Chinese court surely speak Arabic. He reprovisioned on the Canary Islands, and, on 6 September 1492, his little fleet sailed west into the unknown. During the next month, there were several sightings of coastline that turned out to be illusions, but fair winds and calm seas favoured him. Then on 11 October 1492, a look-out aboard the Pinta verified the sighting of land; Columbus would later assert that he himself had already seen it, thereby claiming the promised lifetime pension. The next day, Columbus steps ashore on an island in the Bahamas, which he named San Salvador (Jesus "the Holy Savior"); one of the Bahamas today bears that name though it is unknown which precise island they landed on. He was not the first Europeans to reach the Americas, the Viking Leif Erikson holds that claim, but he was the first to record his achievement. Although there was no sign of the marvels described by Marco Polo, Columbus believed he had reached islands off the Asian mainland, the East Indies. Greeted by friendly inhabitants of San Salvador, he therefore described them as "Indians"; an inaccurate name which has remained attached to the aboriginal peoples of the whole American continent. By the same token, this island system, consisting of 7,000 islands and islets, became known to Europe as the West Indies. Columbus’ assumptions shaped his actual encounter with the New World. He expected cannibals, but found none, though he reported that natives told him there were cannibals on a nearby island. He expected to find gold, and found a little, though was supposedly told there was another island nearby which abounded in gold. If something he expected was missing, it must be on the next island. Columbus spent almost three months exploring numerous islands, reaching during November the large island of Cuba, which he convinces himself to be "Cipango"; a place of marvels described by Marco Polo, usually assumed to be Japan.  Beyond Cuba the next significant landfall was another large island which Columbus names after Spain itself - Española, or Hispaniola. On its shores the Santa Maria runs aground and is wrecked. Columbus decides to leave here a small colony of some forty men, with food and ammunition for a year, while he sails back to Spain with news of his achievement. Beyond Cuba, the Santa Maria ran aground and was wrecked on Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Here, Columbus decided to leave a small colonial settlement of some fourty men, with food and ammunition for a year, while he set off again for Spain, with several several captured natives and news of his achievement. He reached Palos on 15 March 1493, and made his way to the court of Ferdinand and Isabella in Barcelona, where he was greeted in triumph. This proved the high point of Columbus' career. Three more voyages to America lay ahead of him, but from now on misfortune blighted his endeavours, often due to his own inadequacy as a colonial governor. The second expedition was much larger, 17 ships with over a thousand men, but, upon arriving back on Hispaniola, Columbus found his settlement had been destroyed with all the colonists massacred. He established a slave labour policy over the native population to rebuild the settlement as well as to search for gold though he found little. It wasn't until his third voyage that Columbus actually reached the mainland, exploring the Orinoco River in present-day Venezuela, which should have made him realise this had to be a huge land mass; islands do not receive enough rainfall to allow such large freshwater rivers. Unfortunately, by now conditions at the settlement on Hispaniola had deteriorated to near-mutiny, with settlers accusing Columbus of gross mismanagement, of alienating the natives through his brutality, and of misleading them with claims of riches. In 1500, the Spanish crown had him removed as governor, arrested, and transported in chains to Spain. Columbus was eventually freed and allowed to return to the Americas on his fourth and final voyage, though not as governor. He sailed along the coast of Central America in a vain search for a route to the Indian Ocean. A storm wrecked his ships, and stranded captain and crew on Jamaica. The new governor of Hispaniola detested Columbus, and they remained standed for a year. In the meantime, Columbus intimidated the natives into goodwill by correctly predicting a lunar eclipse. A rescue party did finally arrive, and Christopher Columbus was taken back to Spain in 1504 where he died two years later. Columbus’ reputation was not always glorious during his lifetime, but the news of his first voyage spread immediately throughout Europe, and other mariners found backers for their own expeditions, which aimed to profit from trade and colonization; as early as 1494, his discovery was being called the "New World". And perhaps more significantly, Columbus had made crossing the Atlantic seem just an arduous journey, rather than a terrifying step into the unknown; he had himself crossed it successfully eight times afterall.


Shortly after Columbus's return from the Americas, the two enterprising Atlantic nations tried to come to an understanding about their respective interests in a world of widening horizons. They appealed to the only international authority available, Pope Alexander VI (d), who drew an imaginary line down what he thought was the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, giving Portugal everything to the east and Spain everything to the west. This was overtaken by the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), which moved line of demarcation westward along a meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands; the original line cramped the route Portuguese sailors must cut into the Atlantic when sailing home to Portugal. Though no one knew it at the time, the line sliced through the entire eastern part of South America. Six years later in 1500, Pedro Álvares Cabral (d. 1528) was appointed commander of the second Portuguese expedition to India. While on their way down the African coast, they ran out into the Atlantic to avoid adverse winds and chanced upon what is now known as the Brazilian coast. They found trees that were "red like fire embers", and called both the trees and the country Brazil, from the Portuguese word brasa (ember). Since it was east of the Tordesillas Line, Cabral claimed it for Portugal and this was respected by the Spanish; today the world's largest Portuguese-speaking country and the only one in the Americas. Some historians suspect the Portuguese had secretly discovered Brazil earlier, and this was the real reason they had Tordesillas Line moved. Though the main Portuguese effort still lay to Asia, a Florence-born captain in Portuguese service, Amerigo Vespucci (d. 1512), ran far enough to the south to pass two huge rivers, the Rio Para and the Amazon. He wrote a vivid and extensive description of his voyage in a letter to his former employer, the Medici family, which included his conclusion that not merely islands but a whole new continent lay between Europe and Asia by a western route. Vespucci's letter was published many times in many different languages. In 1507, the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller published a printed wall map of the world, collating the mass of new geographical information accrued from all the Spanish and Portuguese voyages. He incorrectly credited the discovery of the "New World" to Vespucci rather than Columbus, and proposed that it be named after a version of his name which looked good in Latin; "America". He soon knew he was wrong, and wanted it omited from future maps, but improbably the name caught on. It originally applied only to South America, until the renowned Dutch cartographer, Gerardus Mercator (1594), applied the word to both North and South America in 1538. Mercator later invented the projection which is still today the most familiar - a map of the world devised as if it were an unrolled cylinder, with Europe at its centre. The Americas were essentially confirmed as a continent seperate from Asia in 1513. In 1510, Vasco Núñez de Balboa (d. 1519) founded the first permanent Spanish settlement on the mainland at Santa Marta in Panama (near what is now the border with Columbia); an earlier settlement across the Gulf of Urabá had already been abandoned. Here, the natives spoke of "the other sea" not far away to the west, rich in gold. Balboa conveyed the news directly to the Spanish king. Ferdinand II (d. 1516). It was a move that proved his undoing. Ferdinand was so impressed that he planned a much more ambitious settlement with a new veteran governor, Pedro Arias de Ávila. News of the impending arrival of his replacement prompted Balboa to rapid action, to secure the glory for himself. In early September 1513, he set-off westwards with a force of 190 Spaniards and about 800 natives. After a four week journey, through dense jungle and fighting several battles, Balboa climbed to the summit of a mountain, and saw, far away on the horizon, the waters of the undiscovered Pacific Ocean. He made his way down to the coast, and there claims the entire ocean for the Spanish king. When news reaches Spain, Balboa was re-appointed governor of Santa Marta. The appointment inflamed Pedro Arias, already furious at being upstaged by a much younger man. The rivalry between the two men intensifies, until Pedro Arias arrested Balboa on a trumped up charge of treason, and had his rival hurriedly beheaded to frustrate his right of appeal. As if this were not injustice enough, the poet John Keats (d. 1821), in literature's most famous reference to the discovery of the Pacific, credited Balboa's great achievement to the wrong conquistador, Hernán Cortés.

Ferdinand Magellan's first circumnavigation of the world has been called "the most important maritime voyage ever undertaken". Appreciation of his achievement may have been enhanced by the failure of subsequent attempts, beginning with García Jofre de Loaísa's expedition in 1525; which featured Juan Sebastián Elcano as second-in-command. It would not be accomplished again until Francis Drake in 1580, more than half a century after Magellan.

In 1522, thirty years after Columbus’ landfall in the West Indies, a ship in the Spanish service completed the first voyage around the world. This expedition was led by a captain who was actually Portuguese, Ferdinand Magellan (d. 1521), who had spent many years sailing around the Indian Ocean in the service of his homeland. After a quarrel with the Portuguese kings, Magellan offered his services to newly crowned Charles V Hubsburg of Spain. As it happens, Magellan now held a theory which could prove greatly to Spanish advantage. The Spice Islands (now the Maluku Islands, part of Indonesia) were the greatest prize in the Indian Ocean; at that time, the world's only source of nutmeg, mace, and cloves. Such spices served not only as flavouring for food, but also as ingredients in perfumes, love potions, painkillers, and funeral balms. In an era before refrigeration, spices also helped preserve meats or masked the taste of meat that was slightly spoiled. The Spice Islands had first been reached by the Portuguese sailing east in 1511. In the eyes of both Spain and Portugal, the Tordesillas Line continued around the entire world. In 1518, Magellan persuaded Charles V that the Spice Islands may lay less than half way round the world, and, if that was the case, they rightfully belong to Spain. He was almost right; the islands were in the Portuguese half by just 5°. In Septerber 1519, Magellan set-off from Seville with five ships and about 270 crew men. In December, they reached Rio de Janeiro, and began a ten-months search along the coast for a channel through to "the other sea", sighted seven years earlier by Balboa. The broad estuary of the River Plate was explored in vain, and it was not until October 1520 that he found the strait now known as the Straits of Magellan. By then, his little fleet had been reduced to three ships; one had been wrecked, while another had mutinied and sailed for home. A month later, Magellan made it through into a body of water he named the Pacific (peaceful) because it seemed much calmer than the Atlantic. The voyage, however. was far from peaceful. Based on the incomplete understanding of world geography at the time, Magellan expected a short journey to Asia, perhaps taking as little as three or four days. In fact, the Pacific crossing took three months and twenty days without reprovision. When their food ran out, the crew were reduced to boiling leather bags along with the ships’ rats to eat, and around 30 men died of scurvy. In March 1521, the exhausted fleet finally made landfall on the island of Guam. Sailing on to the Philippines, Magellan befriended the rule of Limasawa who agreed to accept Christianity, in return for his help against a rival on the neighbouring island. He expected an easy fight, but the Spanish were overwhelmed and Magellan himself was killed by a poisonous arrow. By now, the fleet had unknowingly reached west and slightly north of the Spice Islands, so had already completed the hardest part of their voyage. After Magellan's death, the surviving crew lacked the men to manage the three ships, one had to be scuttled. The remaining two ships spent the next six months meandering around Southeast Asia, until they finally found the Spice Islands in November. Only one ship, under Juan Sebastián Elcano, made it back to Spain in September 1522 by sailing the western route around Africa; the other ship was captured by the Portuguese and later wrecked. Only 18 men out of the original 270 men completed the first circumnavigation of the world. Juan Sebastián Elcano was given credit at first, but an Italian survivor had kept a detailed journal of the whole voyage, which praised Magellan’s courage and leadership; when published, the fame and credit shifted to Magellan. Like Vespucci, it was printing, rather than individual exploits, that provided the key to lasting fame for Ferdinand Magellan.


With this voyage and its demonstration that all the great oceans were interconnected, the prologue to the European Age of Discovery can be considered over. Just about a century of discovery and exploration had changed the shape of the world and the course of history. The Pacific Ocean still had surprises in store; not least, an entire continent, Australia, not be discovered until 1606, and it took another century to establish its geography. But from this time the nations with access to the Atlantic would have opportunities denied to the land-locked powers of Central Europe and the Mediterranean. In the first place this meant Portugal and Spain. In the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese had no European rivals on the long sea route round Africa throughout the 16th-century, and tried to dominate the centuries-old trade in gold, spices, silk, and other Asian goods with the zeal, greed, and brutality of a Crusade. In the Americas, the Spanish were at first disappointed with their discovery, which offered much glory, but small amounts of gold and little trade. It was not until the continent itself was explored that they found what they wanted; the vast wealth of the Aztec and Inca civilisations. Although Brazil was deemed part of the Portuguese share of the world, they were much slower than the Spanish to take any steps to colonize this rich territory. With the Tordesillas Line, the pope may have divided the world in a way that satisfied Spain and Portugal, but other European nations were not included. Just a week before Magellan was killed in the Philippines, Martin Luther was standing in front of Charles V - the same ruler who had backed Magellan - declaring his independence in matters of religion. The Protestant Reformation ended the authority of the pope in half of Europe, and Protestant countries such as England and the Dutch Netherlands saw no reason to follow the pope’s division of the world. They claimed territory for themselves based on their own voyages, and even Catholic France eventually simply ignored the Tordesillas Line; Francis I's famous quip, "Show me Adam's will!", neatly expresses any qualms the French might have. European claims to territory were based much more on actual voyages, military force, and the establishment of colonies than on imaginary lines drawn by popes. In a few short years, Asia and the Americas became linked to Europe in what was unmistakably a new age. 

English Wars of the Roses[]

Family tree of King Edward III of England, through to Henry VII Tudor.

If the Hundred Years' War had exhausted England on a dubious claim to the French throne, then the English dynastic feud that followed was every bit as senseless. The Wars of the Roses (1455-1487) were fought over no great issue of principle, such as divided Henry II from Becket or John I from his barons. It was a crude struggle for power between the two branches of the royal family. Edward III Plantagenet's poisoned gift to the royal lineage was to have four sons, each of whom had a thriving line of descendants, except for one. The significant exception was the eldest son, Edward the Black Prince, whose only son, Richard II Plantagenet, had been the last "legitimate" king of England; if there was such a thing. He had been succeeded by his murdered, Henry Bolingbroke, the son of John of Gaunt, Edward III's third son. Bolingbroke became Henry IV Lancaster, and the crown then passed to his son, Henry V, and grandson, Henry VI. Though based on usurpation, the Lancastrian claim had the virtue of being acknowledged by parliament and half a century of entrenched. But that wasn't the legitimate line of succession. John of Gaunt had an elder brother, Lionel of Clarence, from whom the House of York descended. This claim was unsullied by usurpation, but weakened by long abeyance and passing through a female line; Clarence had only one daughter, Philippa. Unlike France, England did not adhere strictly to Salic Law against female inheritance, respecting or waiving it depending on political expediency. The Wars of the Roses takes its name from the emblems worn by these two branches of the royal family. The House of York had long been known by the heraldic badge of the white rose. The ruling House of Lancaster adopted the red rose during the conflict as a contrasting symbol. The thirty years of ensuing bloodshed engulfed not just the contending parties but the greatest families in the land. These included the Nevilles, earls of Warwick, based in the midlands and the north, with whom the Yorkists had formed a close alliance. The Nevilles’ ancestral foes in the north-east were the Percys, dukes of Northumberland. In the north-west lay the Stanleys, while in the south, the Howards, dukes of Norfolk, held sway. Lacking a standing army, English kings had relied on these noble families for the military forces they needed to conduct the war in France, and they in turn had increased their wealth, autonomy, and political power; a phenomenon historians call "bastard feudalism". They owned castles and estates sometimes covering many counties, and could raise private armies of retainers at will. Now that the war in France was over, these over-mihgty men could hire all the unemployed soldiery they needed to pursue their own private ambitiouns at home. As the leading protagonists were killed, their sons took the field to avenge them, and the war took on the character of a Montague and Capulet vendetta. By the end, battles were often fought between teenage commanders. Not since the Norman conquest had the English nobility been wiped out on such a scale.

King Henry VI, whose mental instability was one of the causes of the Wars of the Roses. Having "lost his wits, his kingdom, and his only son", Henry died imprisoned in the Tower of London. His one lasting achievement was his fostering of education: he founded Eton College, King's College, Cambridge and All Souls College, Oxford.

Henry IV and Henry V had been seriously powerful kings, and the Yorkist had carefully, and probably wisely, never made a point of pressing their claim. But Henry VI Lancaster (1421-71) wasn't in the same league. Henry had been thrust onto the throne before he was one year old, upon the sudden death of his father, Henry V. During the long minority, the regency council became a battleground between his Lancastrian relatives enriching themselves through corruption. Henry's coming of age in 1437 brought no end to their scheming, as his scholarly, pious, and meek nature made him prone to being swayed by select courtiers, especially Edmund of Somerset (d. 1455) and William de la Pole of Suffolk (d. 1450), Lancastrian relatives of the king. The defection of the Burgundians to Charles VII of France in 1435, rendered the English position so desperate that they sued for peace. The resulting truce in effect turned the clock back: the English tacitly abandoned their claim to the French crown, in return for guaranteed possession of Normandy and Aquitaine, and a marriage between Henry VI and French princess, Margaret of Anjou (d. 1482). His new wife was only fifteen, but made of sterner mettle. She was unschooled in Plantagenet politics, but fixated on pursuing peace with her French homeland, which put her firmly on the Lancastrian side. Peace after defeat in war rarely finds favour with English opinion. Both the elite and the public were now in a dangerous mood. In 1447, Humphrey of Gloucester spoke out openly against the truce, and was arrested for treason; he died of a heart attack while awaiting trial, but contemporary rumours spoke of murder. In January 1450, Bishop Moleyns, keeper of the privy seal, was lynched by unpaid soldiers at Portsmouth. In April, the English, suffering from indecision and lack of funds, were decisively defeated at the Battle of Formigny in Normany. In May, Suffolk, unable to avoid taking the blame, was impeached by parliament; to save him, the king ordered him into exile, but he was recognized by the sailors on his ship and murdered. Violence spread in southern England, culminating in the Jack Cade's Rebellion (June and July 1450), when Kentish rebels under Cade, a former soldier, marched on London, and initiated a series of tribunals at Guildhall; the lord treasurer, Lord Saye, was tried, convicted, and beheaded for corruption. This was an unprecedented political attack by the people on the king’s servants, going well beyond the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. They did not consider themselves rebels, but “true liege men” defending the realm; they were crushed all the same. Profiting from the chaos in England, the French invaded Aquitaine and Bordeaux was in their hands by June 1451, though fighting would continue until the decisive defeat at the Battle of Castillon (July 1453). On hearing of the defeat, Henry had a complete mental collapse that left him virtually catatonic for 18-month; the first of several. Angered and divided by defeat, and with a helpless king, England was in a political crisis. His queen, Margaret of Anjou, attempted to establish herself as regent but parliament asserted its sovereignty and turned to the king's cousin, Richard of York (d. 1460), who took up the reins of government. York was actually a good regent. He imprisoned Somerset for corruption, stemmed the violence caused by local disputes between noble families, and undertook long-overdue judicial reform. The duke had a credible claim to the English throne and by the end of his regency there were many powerful nobles prepared to back that claim. The young queen was banished from court, where she gave birth to a son, Prince Edward (d. 1471); she was grimly and gallantly determined to maintain the English crown for her progeny. When Henry unexpectedly recovered his wits on Christmas Day 1454, he once again fell under her influence. She engineered Somerset’s return to power, who forced York from court. The stage was now set for the most savage civil war in English history; as one historian wrote, "If Henry's insanity was a tragedy, his recovery was a national disaster".


With the Lancastrian faction back in control, Richard of York feared a backlash and so finally resorted to armed rebellion. York and his Neville allies, Richard Neville of Salisbury (d. 1460) and Richard Neville "the Kingmaker" of Warwick (d. 1471), gathered a modest army, and marched on London. By the time Somerset realised what was happening, there was no time to raise a large force to support the king. The Battle of St. Albans (May 1455) that followed hardly deserves the term battle. The king and Somerset arrived at St Albans with a hastily assembled and poorly equipped army of around 2,000. Warwick led a reserve force through back lanes and gardens, and suddenly appeared in the market square behind the town's defences. Fighting lasted barely half-an-hour, and as few as 50 men were killed, though among them were some of the prominent leaders of the Lancastrian party, such as Somerset himself and Henry Percy of Northumberland. Henry VI was captured, and possession of the enfeebled king gave York power; a subsequent parliament re-appointed him regent. For a while, both sides seemed shocked that an actual battle had been fought and did their best to reconcile their differences, but the problems that caused conflict soon re-emerged, particularly York's refusal to formally recognise Margaret's infant son as heir apparent. In 1456, Henry VI, now under the influence of Queen Margaret, appeared before parliament and resumed personal government of the realm. The peace was uneasy, so the king made sure to give rewards to both factions. Richard of York was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, while Warwick was given the governorship of Calais. This post provided Walwick with a vital power base in the following years of conflict; Calais was not only of vital strategic importance, but was garrisoned by what was England's largest army. In 1458, the king attempted to reconcile the warring factions, by staging The Love Day in London, but the public expressions of amity seemed not to have lasted beyond the ceremony. Political factionalism and sporadic local disorders increased as both sides recruited noblemen to their cause. The gentry were in a difficult position, often having relatives and friends on both sides, and being tempted or pressured into making dangerous choices. The next outbreak of fighting was prompted by Warwick's high-handed actions as governor of Calais. He began conducting highly successful acts of piracy against Spanish and German merchant ships on the flimsy grounds of sovereignty over the English Channel. Although his actions infuriated the royal court, they were popular among the English merchants in London. When Warwick was summoned to London to an face inquiry, he claimed that an attempt had been made on his life and refused. Queen Margaret took this to be open defiance, and summoned a parliament to be held at Coventry in June 1459, where Richard of York and his supporters were attainted as traitors. In September 1459, Warwick crossed from Calais, and made his way north to Ludlow to meet up with York. However, at the Battle of Ludford Bridge (October 1459). the Yorkists were scattered by the king's forces under Henry (d. 1464), the new Duke of Somerset. Although a setback for the Yorkists, the rival Lancastrians had thrown away their advantage within six months. The Yorkists found refuge in Calais and Ireland, but recovered quickly. Warwick crossed again the next summer, and marched on London, which opened its gates to him without resistance. He then march north in pursuit of the king, and defeated the Lancastrians at the Battle of Northampton (July 1660), aided by treachery in the king's ranks. For the second time in the war, Henry VI was captured, having been abandoned by his retinue after suffering another breakdown. In the light of this military success, Richard of York moved to press his claim to the English throne, based on the illegitimacy of the Lancastrian line. At a parliament in October, York walked up to the empty throne and put his hand on it, an act signifying usurpation. He seems to have expected the assembled lords to acclaim him as king, as they had acclaimed Henry Bolingbroke in 1399. Instead, he was met with stunned silence; Henry VI had done nothing evil - his problem was incapacity, not vice, and so retained the loyalty of many of his subjects. The next day, a compromise was reached, the Act of Accord, whereby Henry VI was allowed to stay on the throne for the remainder of his life, but York would succeed him as king and act as regent.

The Battle of Towton, considered the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil, as depicted by Richard Caton Woodville Jr. 1922. It brought about a change of monarchs in England, with Edward IV York displacing Henry VI Lancaster.

The disinherited Queen Margaret's son, Prince Edward, and all but guaranteed her continued opposition. She was rallying the Lancastrian loyalists in northern England, and trying to gain the support of James III of Scotland (d. 1488). York headed north to prevent their recruitment efforts, but arrived at Sandal Castle in December to find the situation bad and getting worse. What happened next is still debated. At the Battle of Wakefield (December 1460), York sallied-out of the castle to confront an army over twice his size, a move that seems in hindsight incredibly ill-advised. It may have been false reports of treachery within the Lancastrian ranks, deception that some of the Lancastrian forces were his own reinforcements, or simple rashness or miscalculation by York. The Yorkists marched out of Sandal Castle, cut-off from retreat, and completely surrounded; Richard of York was killed and his army was destroyed. Queen Margaret set his head with a paper crown on the gates of York, "so York may overlook the town of York". The civil war now took fire as the sons of Somerset and York sought to avenge their fathers. The 18-year-old Edward, the new Duke of York, defeated a Lancastrian army at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross (February 1461), repaying the cruelties of Wakefield with interest. Margaret, reinforced by Scots and borderers eager for plunder, marched south and defeated Warwick at the Second Battle at St Albans (February 1461), horrifying friend and foe alike by getting her seven-year-old son to pronounce death sentences on enemy noblemen. She recaptured the feeble-minded King Henry, who had been abandoned on the battlefield for the third time, and could have march unopposed on to London, but did not do so; fearing what atrocities her soldiers might do. Having lost custody of Henry VI, the Yorkists now needed a justification to continue their rebellion against the king and his Lancastrian supporters. Before marching north against the Lancastrians, the young York entered London and had himself crowned, without parliamentary approval, as Edward IV York (1461-83). England now had two kings; a situation that could not last. The showdown came at the Battle of Towton (March 1461), fought in the middle of a snowstorm by 75,000 men, and often said (fancifully) to be bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. The Lancastrians had a slightly larger army and a well-prepared defensive position, but the strong winds worked against them. The one-sided arrow exchange, with Lancastrian arrows falling short, provoked them to abandon the hill. The ensuing hand-to-hand combat lasted hours, exhausting the combatants. It was indecisive until the unexpected arrival of the Duke of Norfolk, who had been sent east to raise more Yorkist forces, and attacked the Lancastrian left flank. The Lancastrians fight-on, but the advantage had shifted, and by end of day, their line broke and a rout ensued; contemporary reports widely circulated figure of 28,000 casualties, though modern estimates suggest less than 4,000. Towton made him Edward king, though Queen Margaret escaped with her husband to Scotland.

Edward IV was twice king of England, first winning the struggle against the Lancastrians to establish the House of York on the English throne, and then reclaiming the crown after the rebellion of his former mentor Richard Neville "The Kingmaker" of Warwick.

Edward IV York (1461-83), still only 19-years-of-age, was formally crowned king of England at Westminster Abbey in June 1461. Most of the nobility had either remained loyal to Henry VI or stayed neutral, forcing Edward to rely heavily on his powerful cousin and mentor, Richard of Warwick, aptly dubbed "The Kingmaker". In the early years of his reign, they succeeded in restoring government to a remarkable degree, By 1463, Lancastrian diehards had been put down, leaving Dunstanburgh Castle the dramatic ruin that sits on the Northumbrian coast today, and negotiations had begun with Scotland to conclude a peace. To prevent the agreement from happening, Lancastrian nobles, encouraged by Queen Margaret, rebelled in 1464, but this was crushed at the Battle of Hexham (May 1464). Warwick showed no quarter to the rebels, executing thirty leading Lancastrians, including Henry of Somerset. The treaty with the Scots was signed, and Queen Margaret and her son fled into exile once again, this time at the court of Louis XI of France. King Henry had been at Hexham, though kept safely away from the battle, having been captured three times. Afterwards, he was sheltered by Lancastrian supporters across northern England, until captured a year later, and put in the Tower of London. At this point, Edward’s position seemed safer. The only wild card was Warwick. Edward allowed his closest associate to carefully negotiate a diplomatic marriage for him with the daughter of the French king, only for a secret to come out; Edward's imprudent marriage with the alluring Elizabeth Woodville, widow of a lowly knight killed at Towton. The marriage to someone from the lower nobility was certainly unusual and unwise, leaving Warwick feeling humiliated. He became even angrier when Edward replaced his brother, Archbishop George Neville of York, on the royal council with one of his new wife’s relatives, the Woodvilles, who swarmed into prominence at court. The result of this was one of the great betrayals of English history, when Warwick deserted the king to join forces with his erstwhile enemy, Queen Margaret, in France. Warwick married his daughter to Margaret’s son and royal heir, Prince Edward, and enticed the king’s shallow, self-serving younger brother, George of Clarence (d. 1478), into the plot. Warwick’s support, in alliance with Louis XI of France, tilted the balance of power back to the Lancastrians. Hence, when Warwick and Margaret landed in England in 1470, it was Edward’s turn to flee into exile with France’s enemy, Charles "the Bold" of Burgundy. Henry VI was reinstalled on the throne in London, under the regency of Warwick, but his success was short-lived however. Edward IV in Burgundy was no more inclined to accept defeat than had been Queen Margaret in Paris. In March 1471, he returned with a new army raised with Burgundian money. Landing at Hull, he marched on London, receiving reinforcements along the way; even his brother George rejoined him. Warwick at first avoided battle, still waiting for Queen Margaret, who bringing reinforcements from France, though these were kept on the continent by bad weather. Edward VI was able to enter London unopposed, capturing Henry VI once again. The two armies met at the Battle of Barnet (April 1471) in a confused engagement in thick fog. Poor visibility on the field led the Lancastrian cavalry, having routed the Yorkist right flank, to return to the battlefield and erroneously attack its own army. Amidst cries of treachery, always a possibility in this chaotic period, the cohesion of Lancastrian line fell apart. Warwick knew the battle was lost, and made for the horses in an attempt to retreat, but was recognised and slain. Such was the rage against Warwick’s treachery that Edward had to protect his corpse from dismemberment and have it brought to St Paul’s in London. Edward marched to the west country, where Queen Margaret had finally landed with the French reinforcements, and there defeated her at the Battle of Tewkesbury (May 1471). Margaret’s 16-year-old son and Henry VI’s heir, Prince Edward, was slain on the battlefield. No quarter was given and the slaughter reached even the nave of Tewkesbury’s Abbey, where many Lancastrian nobles and knights sought sanctuary. The bloodthirsty day was immortalised in the opening pun of Shakespeare’s Richard III, "Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this sun of York". The supposed speaker of these lines was Edward IV’s 19-old brother, Richard of Gloucester (d. 1485). He married, with indecent haste, the dead prince’s widow, Anne Neville, daughter of the disgraced Warwick, and heiress to a considerable inheritance; overnight he became the greatest magnate in the land. Two weeks later, Edward IV returned to London to take back the throne for the house of York, with Margaret now his prisoner. That night Henry VI was died in the Tower of London, pure displeasure and melancholy, as one report said, from "pure displeasure and melancholy". When his body was exhumed in 1910, the skull was found to be damaged, suggesting it was a rather more violent end; a sad end indeed for an English king, who at nine-month-old had been crowned king of both England and France. With this, the entire male line of the House of Lancaster, descendants of John of Gaunt, was effectively extinct. The remainder of Edward IV's reign was a period of relative peace and order. Although the economy recovered, his spending habitually exceeded income, spending large sums on showy symbols of his power, such as fine clothes, jewels, furnishings, and renovating Eltham Palace. His expenses included an ill-considered war with France to aid his Burgundian allies in 1475, that achieved nothing; though a bribe from the French king at least allowed him to recoup his costs. Parliament became increasingly reluctant to approve taxes for wars which Edward failed to prosecute, then used the funds instead to finance his household. While peace brought prosperity, some wounds did not heal. In 1478, Edward’s brother, George of Clarence, former ally of Warwick, was once again implicated in a plot, convicted of treason, and executed; claims he was, "drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine", appear to have been a joke by Edward referring to his alcoholism. As he grew older, the earlier energy noted by contemporaries became less apparent, and, by the early-1480s, his health began to fail. Edward IV died of a stroke at the age of just forty, worn out, it was said, by debauchery and sexual excesses. Once again England had a child monarch, his 12-year-old son as Edward V York (April-June 1483), with his uncle, Richard of Gloucester, as the only credible candidate for regent. Under his aegis the Wars of the Roses returned to reach their final bloody climax.

King Richard III is by far the most famous figure of Wars of the Roses, thanks to Shakespeare’s portrayal of him as a villainous freakish hunchback. Richard developed scoliosis of the spine during his adolescence. Contemporary accounts of his appearance suggest it did not cause any visible physical deformity, apart from his right shoulder being higher than the left. It did not preclude an active lifestyle, and even his bitterest enemies didn't questioned his courage on the battlefield. Richard's was a product of the unstable times, when effective kingship required his charisma, persuasiveness, egotism, self-interest, and ruthlessness. Nice people did not make good kings.

Richard, Eard of Gloucester, is one of English history's most intriguing figures, whose reputation still arouses passions among zealous historians. The truth of his two-year reign as Richard III York (1483-85) is hard to disinter from Shakespeare’s epic work of defamation, written a century later to justify the Tudor usurpation of his crown. Was he indeed a twisted, clever, ice-cold cynic, guilty of serial murder, as the Bard claimed? Or was he, as later apologists maintained, much misunderstood? Gloucester had a grim apprenticeship. He was steeped in the savagery of civil war, and preside over his brother's murder of Henry VI and their brother, Clarence. Gloucester now found himself guardian of a 12-year-old king, Edward V, who was under the control of his forceful mother's relatives, the Woodvilles, who Gloucester, like most of the English barons, distrusted as power-hungry upstarts. This opened the prospect of violent factionalism, and, to secure his own person, he acted with ruthless decision. Upon Edward IV’s death, Gloucester enticed Elizabeth to London from Ludlow with her two sons, the boy king and his younger brother, Richard, the heir to the throne. The party, escorted by the queen's brother Earl Rivers, was intercepted at Northampton. Claiming there was a plot against him, Gloucester arrested Rivers, and took control of the two boys, lodging them in the royal apartments of the Tower of London "for their own safety"; Rivers was later executed. There was nothing sinister in this; the Tower had not yet acquired its sinister reputation of the Tudor age, and was traditionally used by kings prior to their coronations. Richard’s actions seem to have been met with approval by most of the late king’s household, notably Henry of Buckingham (d. 1483), who’d helped him at Northampton, and William of Hastings (d. 1483), Edward IV’s old friend. But that soon changed. A clergyman had informed Richard that Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville had been invalid, due to an earlier marriage contract, making Edward V and his siblings illegitimate. The witness, known only through the memoirs of French diplomat Philippe de Commines, was the well-respected Bishop Robert of Bath & Wells. During a council meeting on 13 June, Richard suddenly accused Hastings of conspiring against him with the Woodvilles, and had him arrested with no regard whatsoever for due. Why did Richard have Hastings imprisoned and later executed? Afterall, Hastings had long disliked of the Woodvilles and supported Richard’s move against them in April. It is clear that Richard had now decided to seize the throne from his nephew, and, because Hastings was fiercely loyal to Edward V, he had to be disposed of. Historians still debate precisely why Richard made himself king. Was he motivated by personal ambition? Did he believe the country needed an experienced adult ruler? In all likelihood, Richard was simply making a political judgement that if he did not make himself king, then he would become a victim of Edward V and his Woodville relatives in the long-run. On 22 June, a sermon was preached at St. Paul's Cathedral declaring Edward IV's children illegitimate, and Richard the rightful king. On 25 June, parliament readily accepted this claim, and drawn-up a petition asking him to assume the throne. He accepted, and was crowned in a lavish ceremony at Westminster Abbey on 6 July. Richard III presented himself as a reformer committed to good governance, justice, and morality, who would remedy the extravagance and sexual license of his brother’s court. He even came to an agreement with Queen Elizabeth and the Woodvilles, whereby.she accepted him as king, and he provided for her. Unfortunately, his good intentions could not be implemented in a reign of only two years, or in the face of serious opposition. Rumours were soon rife that the Princes in the Tower were now dead; they were never seen again. Long after, in the reign of Charles II Stuart, the bones of two young boys were found in a walled-up staircase in the Tower. Richard’s support was damaged by highly effective propaganda presenting him as a murderer of innocent “babes" like King Herod, or a betrayer like Judas Iscariot. Then Richard was forced to reluctantly replace some of the natural rulers of southern England, who rejected his rule, with his own northern supporters, which led to cries of tyranny. In October 1483, a conspiracy arose among a disaffected southern nobles, begun by the Woodvilles, but joined by many disappointed Yorkists, and led by Richard's former ally, Henry of Buckingham. The Buckingham Rebellion never really got off the ground. Buckingham raised a substantial force in Brittany, but they were prevented from landing by a storm, while a premature uprising in England deserted when Richard's forces came against them. In military terms it was a complete failure, but it did split the Yorkist faction, harden opinion of many towards Richard as king, and most leaders fled into exile, though Buckingham himself was caught and executed. Richard's position was further weakened by the deaths of his only son, Prince Edward, in 1484 and his queen in 1485. With this, the entire male line of the House of York, descendants of Lionel of Clarence, was as extinct as the House of Lancaster.

Lord Stanley hands Richard's circlet to King Henry VII after the Battle of Bosworth Field.

Opposition to Richard III coalesced around the last hope of the House of Lancaster, 28-year-old Henry Tudor (d. 1509). Henry was brought up in southern Wales, but, after Edward IV re-took the throne in 1471, moved to the safety of Brittany. His personal claim to the English throne was extremely weak: his mother, Margaret Beaufort (d. 1509), was the granddaughter of John Beaufort, the illegitimate son of John of Gaunt and his mistress, later declared legitimate but explicitly barred from the line of succession. There were members of the Portuguese and Spanish royal families with better claims to the English throne. Nevertheless, by 1485, this tenuous claimant was proving a magnet for Lancastrian exiles from Richard’s rule. At the centre of the web was his formidable mother, Lady Margaret. It was only through her that Henry had any claim to the throne, and she arranged his crucial marriage contract with the Yorkist princess, Elizabeth of York (d. 1503), the sister of the murdered Princes in the Tower; which would finally unite the warring houses of Lancaster and York. Moreover, Margaret’s third husband was the great magnate Thomas Stanley of Derby (d. 1504), a key supporter of Richard III. Although Richard sought Henry’s extradition from Brittany, all he achieved was his transfer to France. The French court, to distract Richard from aiding their enemies in Brittany, readily supplied Henry with money to recruit experienced French, Breton, and Scottish mercenaries to stiffen his few hundred English followers. Henry was spurred into action by rumours that recently widowed Richard intended himself to marry Elizabeth of York. In August 1485, he sailed for Wales, landing at Milford Haven. He raised more men while marching east toward England, profiting from his Welsh ancestry, being a direct descendant, through his father, of Rhys ap Gruffydd. There were at the time three English magnates capable of fielding large armies alongside the king and his own Neville relatives: the Stanleys in the north-west, the Percys in the north-east, and the Duke of Norfolk in the south. All were now summoned by Richard, but none was a fully reliable ally. The Percys were ancestral foes of the Nevilles. Thomas Stanley was Henry Tudor's father-in-law, and, to ensure his loyalty, Richard took his son hostage. Richard could trust only Norfolk, but how these forces might align themselves would be determined only on the day. Battle was joined on 22 August 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field (22 August 1485) in Leicestershire. The king had a fresh army, supposedly 10,000 strong, while Henry, who had never fought a battle himself, had just 5,000. As the battle began, the king put Stanley's loyalty to the test by ordering his 3,000 men first into the charge. When he was seen not to move, Richard threatened to execute his son, to which Stanley replied "I have other sons". At this point, Percy’s forces on the right flank were also seen to hold back, either due to treachery or fearing his flank would be exposed to Stanley, who still hadn't committed himself either way. Seeing these insubordinations, Richard, astride a white horse, was provoked into recklessness. Seeing Henry Tudor's banner, Richard gambled everything on a cavalry charge with a thousand men to personally kill Henry himself. He fought to within striking distance, killing Henry’s standard-bearer and his bodyguards were close to panicking. But now Lord Stanley finally committed himself, on Henry Tudor's side. This was the final straw. The knights around Richard started dying, and soon he himself fell under a flurry of spears. According to tradition, Stanley retrieved the fallen crown from a thorn bush, and placed it on Henry’s head. Richard's mangled corpse was stripped naked, slung across a horse, and paraded through the streets of Leicester, before being buried without pomp. In 2012, his remains were rediscovered within the site of the former Grey Friars Priory; now Leicester Council's car park. Examination showed that the deathblow had probably been a halberd blow to the back of Richard's skull, suggested his helmet had been lost or removed; multiple other wounds probably occurred as posthumous revenge. The last Plantagenet king was reburied in Leicester Cathedral.

King Henry VII of England

Henry VII Tudor (1485-1509) heralded an emphatic break from the Anglo-Norman past; a new "Tudor Age". Yet in several obvious senses, he did not. The Tudors did not regard themselves, nor were they regarded, as a new dynasty. Henry’s claim to the throne came from descent from The Conqueror via John of Gaunt, and his family considered themselves the royal House of Plantagenet, reunited by Henry’s marriage to Elizabeth of York; "the white rose and the red" were thus conjoined in the Tudor double-rose. His Welsh connection was not played up, apart from perhaps giving Henry’s firstborn son a name with British resonance, Arthur, who was born in Winchester, identified as the legendary Camelot at the time. The term “Tudor Dynasty” was never applied to Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, or Elizabeth - except in scorn - until used as the label for a revolutionary political epoch by 18th-century historians. Henry VII felt insecure, with reason. He was tormented at the illegitimacy of his Beaufort ancestors, and having usurped an anointed king. He did his best to make amends. Henry declared himself king by right of conquest retroactively from 21 August 1485, the day before Bosworth Field. Thus, anyone who fought for Richard III had been fighting their rightful king, and he could legally confiscate their land and property as guilty of treason. Henry's marriage to Elizabeth of York meant that their descendants would be the rightful line of succession to the English throne every possible standard - as long as she was legitimate, of course. Richard III and parliament had declared her father's marriage to invalid, and all his children illegitimate. The act of parliament was repealed, and all copies of it were ordered destroyed. His order was carried out so effectively that only one copy of the law has ever been found; transcribed by an unknown monk into the Croyland Chronicle. The consolidation of power also meant getting rid of a few people; anyone else with a tenuous claim to the throne. Among others, Edward of Warwick, the ten-year-old son of George of Clarence, the brother to Edward IV and Richard III, disappeared into the Tower of London; he was later executed. Despite such precautions, Henry faced several attempts to unseat him over the next 12-years. They took an unusual form - "pretenders", nonentities coached to impersonate princes who would have a real claim to the English throne. Barely a year into his reign, Henry was challenged by the first pretender, Lambert Simnel, a boy who was claimed to be Edward of Warwick, who was actually a prisoner in the Tower. He was even crowned as king in Dublin by the governor of Ireland, Gerald FitzGerald of Kildare. This led to a landing in the north and a rebel Percy army reaching Nottingham, where it was roundly beaten by Henry at the Battle of Stoke on (June 1487), Henry showed remarkable clemency to the surviving rebels. He pardoned Kildare, and recognised Simnel as a harmless dupe, even employing him in the royal kitchens. Four years later in 1491 came another pretender, to whom Henry showed no such leniency. Margaret of Burgundy, the brother to Edward IV and Richard III, claimed to have rescued Richard, the younger of the Princes in the Tower. He was in fact a Flemish boy, Perkin Warbeck, who Margaret coached so successfully that, at one time or another, he managed to deceive gullible, or perhaps eager, enemies of England in France, Burgundy, Germany, Ireland, and Scotland. He even married a Scottish princess. With friends of this calibre, this pretender is dangerous indeed. But Henry's diplomacy succeeded in diverting foreign support, and, fortunately, Warbeck's three attempts to invade England (in 1495, '96, and '97) were incompetent. He was captured at at Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire, having panicked and deserted his army. Warbeck was held in the Tower of London alongside Edward of Warwick; the pair tried to escape in 1499, were captured, and executed.

The Tudor Rose, combining the red rose of Lancaster and white rose of York, and symbolising the reconciliation of the branches of the Plantagenet Dynasty after the Wars of the Roses.

Amidst these troubles, caution and common-sense characterised Henry VII's reign. He was unfamiliar with the English nobility, having spent most of his life in Wales, Brittany and France, and so introduced more bureaucracy and new men into government, in the French style. He creating a personal bodyguard, the Yeomen of the Guard, and used spies to sniff out opposition. Henry was successful in restoring royal authority in a realm recovering from the Wars of the Roses. He was helped in this by the fact that, for the nobility, the civil war had been costly, demoralizing, and lethal. Of the male descendants of Edward III, seven had been killed in battle and five executed; fifty-one other peers were killed in battle or executed. Henry brought the surviving nobility to heel by forcing them into debt to the crown. He introduced new laws against livery and maintenance (private armies masquerading as servants), and made shrewd use of recognisances (bonds of loyalty). His principal weapon was the Court of Star Chamber, which used a small group of trusted counsellors as a personal court. In theory, it was able to cut through cumbersome legal procedures and act swiftly. In practice, it become synonymous with blatant abuse of legal procedures, imposing huge fines for trivial or non-existent offences. Thus the traditional medieval government, based on cooperation between crown and nobility, was changed by crisis rather than design. Although nobles remained important socially, economically and politically, local power passed into the hands of royal officials, Justices of the Peace, appointed by the crown to every shire; their powers and numbers would steadily increased throughout the time of the Tudors. Parliament met only infrequently during his reign. five times in the first decade, and then, when Henry felt more secure, twice more in the remaining fourteen years. The royal council undertook many functions at the expense of parliament. He also rarely needed parliament to grand him money, as his policy was to avoid expensive foreign wars. External circumstances helped. Scotland and France, tempted as usual to take advantage of England’s problems, were soon halted: the Scots preoccupied by internal rebellions, and the French by the beginning in 1495 of the Italian Wars. Henry's only notable war was a brief attempt to keep Brittany from being incorporated into France, but the so-called Mad War (1485-1488) was undermined by the fractious nature of Breton politics. The other preoccupation of Henry's reign was restoring the fortunes of an effectively bankrupt treasury. He developed a miserly obsession with revenue, introducing ruthlessly efficient mechanisms of taxation collection. In this he was abetted by his chancellor, Archbishop John Morton, whose Catch-22 maxim held that those nobles who lived frugally must have saved, so could afford the king’s taxes; and those nobles who lived lavishly obviously had the means to afford them too. Henry also recognized the importance of foreign trade and a healthy domestic economy. The treasury was much enriched by trade in alum, a chemical used in dyeing cloth. Since alum was only mined in one area of Europe - Tolfa in Italy - it was scarce commodity. With the English economy heavily invested in wool production, Henry reached an agreement with the Ottoman Empire, buying cheaper alum, and then selling it in the Low Countries and in England. But his greatest economic triumph came about almost by accident. Henry embargoed trade with the Low Counties in retaliation for the Burgundians supporting Perkin Warbeck. The protracted stand-off paid off in a lucrative treaty that removed taxation for English merchants. Henry also dabbled in the Europe-wide passion for discovery following news of Columbus’ return from the New World in 1493. In 1497, he sponsored the voyage of John Cabot across the Atlantic to look for a trade route to Asia. The expedition provided no lasting result, apart from the discovery of rich fishing-grounds off the coast of Newfoundland, but it was a first tentative step towards English colonial expansion. For all his reputation for avarice. Henry knew majesty required splendour. After a great fire destroyed much of Richmond Palace on the Thames in 1497, he built a splendid new one in the latest Renaissance style, with geometric octagonal towers, long galleries for displaying portraits, and bay-windows overlooking the river. The weddings of his children were another area of lavish spending. Henry married his eldest daughter, Margaret, to King James IV of Scotland, after concluding the improbably titled Treaty of Perpetual Peace (1502); the first treaty between England and Scotland in almost two centuries. By this marriage, he hoped to break the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France, and, though this was not achieved in his lifetime, the marriage eventually led to the union of the English and Scottish crowns under Margaret's great-grandson, James I Stuart. An equally significant marriage, and a great diplomatic triumph, had taken place a year earlier. Among the kingdoms of Europe, Spain was the new power to be reckoned with: united under the joint rule of Ferdinand and Isabella; fully recovered for Christandom with the conquest of Granada; and soon to benefit from the wealth of the Americas. In 1501, Catherine of Aragon (d. 1536), youngest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, arrived in England to marry Henry's eldest son, Arthur Tudor. Unfortunately, within six months of the marriage, Arthur unexpectedly died at Ludlow Castle. Rather than lose this alliance and the dowry Catherine had brought with her, Henry wangled a papal dispensation to allow Catherine to marry his second son, Henry Tudor. Marriage to a brother’s widow was technically precluded by Canon Law, but in this case the pope was persuaded to allow it with the argument that Arthur and Catherine had not consummated their marriage, and a hefty donation towards the rebuilding of the St. Peter's Basilica. But the marriage was still not concluded when the king died of tuberculosis at Richmond Palace in 1509.

Henry VII was a king "more feared than loved". He dragged out a 24-year-long reign in a perpetual state of suspicion and fear, shamelessly abusing his power in a country very ill at ease with itself. So great was the government’s unpopularity that as soon as Henry died, his heir, Henry VIII Tudor, had two of his father’s most hated tax collectors arrested and executed on trumped-up charges of treason, despite their impotent pleas that they had acted only, "as the king would have it so". An early foretaste from this tall seventeen-year-old of the ruthlessness to come.

France and the Italian Wars[]

Portrait of Louis XI in the guise of the Order of Saint Michael which he founded. His methods rather than his ends were what made the reign of this ambitious and capricious ruler so turbulent, and earned him the nickname, "the Universal Spider".

In the wake of the Hundred Years’ War and Armagnac–Burgundian Civil War, the trend towards autocratic monarchy was continued by Louis XI Valois (1461-83), son of Charles VII. With him, it can safely be said that the age of medieval chivalry was gone forever; if it had ever existed. As prince, Louis had been shamelessly impatient for his father's death, and was banished from court for his constant intrigues. His character failed utterly to improve. Louis cared little for honour, believing that the ends justified the means. Forgetful of past loyalties, he betrayed others as often as he was himself betrayed. His preference for machinations and intense diplomacy, over the fortunes of war, earned him the sobriquet "the Universal Spider", spinning intricate webs of conspiracy, enmeshing his enemies, and slowly pulling them in. And yet, in his own rather dreadful way, he was a greater king than his father, one who worked extremely hard, if never entirely selflessly, to pursue worthy policies: to create a strong, centralised monarchy in which the nobility would know its place, and to promote commerce and industry within national boundaries. As king, Louis immediately antagonized the nobility by promoting men of the lessor nobility or urban bourgeoisie to high offices of state. In 1465, malcontent nobles led by Louis's own younger brother, Charles of Berry, formed the League of the Public Weal to revolt against the king's new men. After some indecisive fighting, Louis had to yield much as a matter of political expediency; granting Normandy to Berry, and strategic counties to Brittany and Burgundy. Louis devoted great energy to the undoing of this treaty. Fomenting strife between Brittany and Normandy, he was soon able to assume direct royal control over Normandy. Louis' principal enemy became Charles "the Bold" of Burgundy (d. 1477), not unnaturally. Ever since the division of Charlemagne's empire in the Treaty of Verdun (843), Burgundy had effectively been a semi-independent state at the heart of western Europe; indeed, it had been an independent kingdom until reduced to a French duchy in 1004. Burgundy's rise to the status of a major European player began in 1384 when Philip "the Bold" of Burgundy (d. 1404) inherited the rich duchy of Flanders (modern-day Belgium), through his wife Margaret. The Burgundian dukes were certainly ambitious, allying with England in the later stages of the Hundred Years War, and with a court that often outshone those of France or England, both economically and culturally. Their descendants steadily expanded outwards, and, by Philip “the Good” (d. 1467), held not only Burgundy and Flanders, but also the Dutch Netherlands and Artois (the area between Flanders and Calais). His son, Charles "the Bold" (d. 1477), sought to expand still further and perhaps raise Burgundy to an independent kingdom. In the summer of 1465, the French king’s agents fermented a popular revolt in Liege in Flanders, though it was quickly and brutally suppressed. Anxious at his rivals rapid success, King Louis requested a meeting with him at Péronne. During the disastrous negotiations, Charles learned of a second insurrection in Liège. Furious, he forced Louis to make further concessions, and then took him to Liège to witness the suppression of the revolt once again. After this humiliation, Louis’ increasingly tortuous diplomacy fastened on building an anti-Charles alliance. Fortunately, Charles the Bold sought to aggressively expand his realm, and had no shortage of enemies; his main objective was to occupy German Lorraine, thus making the Burgundian state territoriality contiguous. Louis also succeeded in reconciling the Swiss Confederation with Habsburg Austria in 1474, to form a coalition with France and German Lorraine. Charles the Bold was defeated by the Swiss at the Battle of Grandson (March 1476), and defeated and slain by German Lorraine at the Battle of Nancy (January 1477). Burgundy and Artois accordingly reverted to the French crown. It was only unfortunate that Charles had left a daughter, Mary, who inherited personal title to Flanders. To get his hands on this, Louis made a determined effort to arrange for her marriage to his eldest son, Prince Charles, but she instead married Maximilian I Habsburg (d. 1519), who defended her inheritance against Louis. This first clash in the protracted rivalry between the houses of Valois and Habsburg was settled in 1483, by a betrothed between the French king's eldest son, Prince Charles, and Maximilian Habsburg's daughter. Unfortunately, the death of the duke of Brittany in 1488, leaving an 11-year-old heiress, Anne of Brittany, would precipitate a crisis. Among her suitors was widower Maximilian Habsburg, already controlling Flanders; if he became master of Brittany as well, France would be held in a Habsburg vice. In a curious form of courtship, Prince Charles repudiated his first match and proposed marriage, backed-up by a French invasion of Brittany; war was only avoided because of Maximilian's preoccupation with Hungary. Hardly able to refuse, Anne of Brittany agreed, though continued to rule a semi-independent Brittany until her death, whereupon the duchy passed to the French crown. Meanwhile, with the destruction of his most powerful noble, Louis XI had broken the resistance of his other vassals, and could impose his authority everywhere. He spent much of his reign on the road. Travelling from town to town, the king would take local officials off-guard, and institute ruthless investigations if he was dissatisfied. The foundation of a countrywide postal system for government business, with the necessary relay-stations and horses in permanent readiness, allowed him to keep abreast of developments in the remotest parts of his realm; the system became opened to private individuals from 1598. Keenly aware of the complex role of commerce on society, Louis took active steps to improve his kingdom's trade, as when he established the great tradition of four annual fairs in Lyon. Lyon became a major centre for the spice trade, and even more importantly the silk trade, hitherto an Italian monopoly.

Compared to his formidable father, Charles VIII bequeathed a meagre legacy, leaving his kingdom in debt and disarray as a result of his ambition in Italy. However, his expedition did strengthen cultural ties to Italy, energising French art in the latter part of the Renaissance.

In some respects, Louis XI's development of a strong and prosperous kingdom made him the first modern king of France. By contrast, his successor, Charles VIII Valois (1483-98), had something in mind more reminiscent of medieval adventuring; a series of disastrous Italian campaigns that would drain resources to no good purpose for over five decades. Charles succeeded his father at 13. He was regarded by his contemporaries as a perfectly nice fellow with excellent manners, but of poor intelligence. Though legally of age, a regency government was put in the hands of his formidable elder sister, Anne de Beaujeu. At the age-of-22, in 1492, Charles at last managed to shake-off his sister, who had done her best to dissuade him from the adventure which he was now determined to pursue. Branches of the French and Spanish royal families both claimed Naples in southern Italy through different lines of descent, and the death of its Spanish ruler in 1494 provided an opportunity to enforce the French claim. Naples was also involved in shifting alliances in Italy itself. By the late-15th-century, the Italian peninsula was dominated by five powers: Florence, Venice, Milan, the Papal States; and Naples. None had the capacity to defeat all the others; a balance of power was in the interests of all. After centuries of endemic and bewildering warfare, the Italian states at last came to terms in the Treaty of Lodi (1454), in which all five pledge mutual non-aggression. Given Italy's past record, the treaty held surprisingly well for 40 years. The return of chaos to Italy began in 1492, with the death of both Lorenzo de’ Medici and Pope Innocent VIII. Lorenzo, now remembered principally for his patronage of Renaissance Art, had been largely responsible for preserving the tenuous balance of power; with Florence under his feckless son, Piero, that moderating influence was gone. Pope Innocent VIII had been a corrupt schemer, but his successor Alexander VI, born Rodrigo Borgia, took this to a new level entirely; quite simply, he was out for whatever he could get. In 1494, Naples entered into an agreement with Florence to take over Milan. The duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza (d. 1508), asked France for support, reminding Charles VIII of his own claim to Naples. Charles' expedition began promisingly enough. In September 1494, he and his army of some 30,000 crossed the Alps, and were received with warmth by Milan. No doubt expecting the same from Florence and the Papal State, the French proceeded south. Sensing a crisis, young Piero de' Medici made his way to the camp of the French king, without informing the signoria, the official government of Florence. In this encounter between two inexperienced young rulers, both in their early twenties, the Frenchman got the better of the bargain, convincing Piero to temporarily cede into French hands several castles together with the port of Pisa. The records suggest that the French were astonished when he agreed; so too was the signoria in Florence but it was too late. In Pisa, the French king was welcomed as a liberator, glad to be rid of the Florentine yoke. In December, Rome opened her gates, while a terrified Pope Alexander sought refuge in the Castel Sant’Angelo before sullenly coming to terms. Finally in February, Charles entered Naples with little opposition, and, two months later, was crowned for a second time as a king; Naples was back in Valois hands after an hiatus of 50 years. But he did not remain long in his new kingdom. The people of Naples, delighted as they had been to get rid of the Spanish, quickly discovered that one foreign oppressors was very much like another. Beyond Naples, too, Italian states were beginning to feel alarm at the ease of French success. Even Ludovico Sforza of Milan, who had invited the French expedition, was asking himself just how much further the young conqueror might be intending to go; Charles’s cousin, Louis of Orléans, had a claim to Milan through his Visconti grandmother. Beyond Italy, Ferdinand and Isabella decided to send a Spanish fleet, while Maximilian Hansburg also looked on anxiously. The result was the formation of what was known as the Holy League, with one single objective: to send the King of France packing. Realising the danger he was facing, Charles decided to return to France at once. Leaving a French garrisons in Naples, he marched north only to be confronted some 20,000 soldiers of the League at the Battle of Fornovo (July 1495). The Italian commander, Francesco Gonzaga, had every advantage: outnumbering the French at least two-to-one; a fully rested and provisioned army; and plenty of time to choose the battlefield. The French, by contrast, were exhausted from having to drag heavy artillery over a high mountain pass for months. The battle has traditionally been viewed as a stalemate, or perhaps a tactical French victory, but that is because of the aftermath; the battle itself was clearly a French victory. Charles and his army continued their march that same night, reaching French territory unmolested only a few weeks later. But there was bad news awaiting them; the Spanish had reoccupied Naples. So seemingly Charles’s Italian adventure was a failure. However, for the Italians, it was a veritable disaster. Reports quickly spread across the continent of a warm, sunlit land inhabited by a wealthy people whose life of cultivated refinement went far beyond anything known in the greyer, chillier climes of the north, but who were too weak and disunited to defend themselves against a determined invader. So Italy became an almost permanent international battleground for decades to come.


Over the next few years, Charles VIII tried to prepare a second campaign, but was hampered by debts and died in 1498, two and a half years after his retreat from Italy. At Amboise, while on his way to watch an early kind of tennis, he struck his head on a low lintel. He walked on and saw the game through to its end, but on his way back, collapsed into a sudden coma and died nine hours later. He was 28-years-old and had no male heir. The throne therefore passed to his cousin and recent companion-in-arms, Louis of Orléans, who now became Louis XII Valois (1498-1515). To the rulers of Italy his succession could mean just one thing, another French invasion; this time to acquire not only Naples but Louis's own claim to Milan. In August 1499, this second French invasion was launched. Two months later, King Louis made his solemn entry into Milan, while Duke Ludovico Sforza had already fled; he was later taken prisoner, never to regain his liberty. Louis, however, was still not satisfied; Naples beckoned. He would be more careful than his predecessor. Naples had revolted against Spanish rule, so the Treaty of Granada (November 1500) was agreed with Ferdinand and Isabella, which would split Naples' territory encompassing all of the southern peninsula. It was not long before French reoccupied Naples, but the treaty had left too many questions unanswered, and by July 1501, Spain and France were at war. The fighting continued on and off for two years, with victory finally going to the Spaniards who smashed the French army at the battles of Cerignola (April 1503) and of Garigliano (December 1503), spelling the end of the French presence in Naples. That might have been the end of French ambitions in Italy, but for the death, in mildly suspicious circumstances, of Pope Alexander VI. He was succeeded by perhaps the most redoubtable of all the Renaissance Popes, Pope Julius II. Julius had very decided ideas about Italy: in the north was French Milan; in the south Spanish Naples; and between the two, there was room for one and only one powerful and prosperous state, the papal state. The problem, clearly, was Venice. And so at the Battle of Agnadello (May 1509), a coalition force led by Louis XII of France finally smashed the Venetian mercenary army. On that day, wrote Machiavelli, the Venetians "lost what it had taken them eight hundred years to conquer". As it turned out, Machiavelli was wrong: Venice recovered with astonishing speed, in large part due to a complete about-face by Pope Julius. Having encouraged the French, he turned against them with all the venom that he had previously displayed towards the Venetians. King Louis, however, had an ace card up his sleeve; his 22-year-old nephew, Gaston of Nemours, one of the outstanding generals of his day. A whirlwind campaign against the pope and his Spanish allies ended at the Battle of Ravenna (April 1512), the bloodiest battle since Fornovo nearly twenty years before; when it was over, nearly ten thousand Spaniards and Italians lay dead on the field. But, like Fornovo, it had been a pyrrhic victory. The French had lost over four thousand men, including Nemours himself. Had he lived, he would probably have rallied the French army and forced Pope Julius to come to terms; and the subsequent history of Italy would have been different indeed. By this time, Pope Julius was dead, and had been succeeded by Giovanni de’ Medici, who took the name of Pope Leo X. Whether or not the new pope actually uttered the famous words ascribed to him, "God has given us the Papacy; now let us enjoy it", few contemporary Italians would have shown much surprise. He was immensely rich, immensely powerful, and determined to protect papal interests wherever necessary. At the Battle of Novara (June 1513), a coalition force led by Maximilian Sforza, the son of Ludovico, routed the French army, and a Sforza was back in Milan. So now Louis’ Italian adventure was a failure. Besides, French soldiers were needed on their native soil against an invasion of France in June 1513 by Henry VIII of England. Some paltry early success satisfied Henry's desire for a military victory, and he negotiated peace, in which his 15-year-old sister Mary would become the wife of 52-year-old Louis. King Louis XII died in 1515, less than three months after the marriage, exhausted, it was said, by bedchamber exertions. Could he perhaps be claimed as the first French victim of the House of Tudor?

Despite three wives, Louis XII had died without a male heir, and was succeeded by his cousin and son-in-law Francis I Valois (1515-47). France had had many fine kings, and a few excellent ones - Philip II, Louis IX, Philip IV, and Louis XI certainly - but few were particularly colourful characters. Here, at last, was a proper rock star. The French Renaissance, the spread of Protestantism in France, the beginning of French exploration of the New World, and an intense personal rivalry with Charles V Habsburg, all mark his 32-year-reign.

Rise of the House of Habsburgs[]


The House of Habsburg was one of the principal royal houses of Europe from the 15th to the 20th century. The house takes its name from a castle built around 1020, on a promontory overlooking the Aar River to the west of Zürich, then part of the Holy Roman Empire. Perhaps because of its high position, it became known as Habichtsburg ("hawk's castle"). Two centuries later, the Habsburgs had expanded their influence modestly in the region, profiting from arranged marriages and extinctions in other noble families. After the death of Emperor Frederick II in 1250 and his son in 1254, the Holy Roman Empire lost any true political meaning. Indeed the German prince-electors failed to elect any new king-emperor for twenty years, affording dukes, counts, and free-cities an opportunity to consolidate their independent rule. The Great Interregnum (1254-73) finally came to an end with the slightly surprising choice to elect Rudolf I Habsburg (1273-91), a noble not even established enough to be an prince-elector himself; the first Habsburg on the imperial throne, though their iron grip on the succession still lay far in the future. Rudolf Habsburg was a strong military leader, a German, and his territory was well-positioned to deal with a local crisis; a major "encroachment" on German lands. Bohemia (modern-day Czechia and Slovakia) was a somewhat idiosyncratic part of the Holy Roman Empire; the one and only kingdom within the empire, and a Slavic-speaking polity under an ethnic Slav dynasty, the Přemyslid Dynasty (867-1306). In the 10th-century, the kingdom had voluntarily become a vassal of the German king-emperors as a naturally ally against the marauding Magyar Hungarians. Over the next two centuries, it enjoyed unusually solid territorial integrity, thanks to wooded mountains on three sides, and the rich Kutná Hora silver mines. Slavic Bohemia had not been a source of ethnic tension with Germans, until Ottokar II Přemyslid (1253-1278) began a period of aggressive territorial expansion. In 1451, Ottokar acquired the neighbouring duchy of Austria, when the last duke, Frederick II, was killed in battle against Béla IV of Hungary (d. 1270). To legitimize his position, he married Frederick's sister and heir, Margaret. Further border territory was won from Hungary at the Battle of Kressenbrunn (July 1260), which had not yet recovered from the Mongol invasion of 1240. By 1272, his realm stretched as far south as the Adriatic coast. When the prince-electors met in 1273 to choose a new German king-emperor, Ottokar was undoubtedly the most powerful candidate, but failed to win, probably because of his Slavic rather than German heritage. As emperor, Rudolf first approached the problem by legal means, refuting Ottokar's claim to Austria, and summoning him to appear before an imperial diet. Unsurprisingly Ottokar refused. Then Rudolf resorted to force, invading Austria with an imperial army in 1276. Ottokar was forced to concede, but didn't give up so easily. He spent the next two years building-up his military forces and looking for allies for his cause. The two sides finally met at the one of the classic cavalry battles of the Middle Ages, the Battle on the Marchfeld (August 1278). Rudolph surprised everyone by defeating and killing his outnumbering rival, thanks to an auxiliary unit concealed in the forest; such an ambush was considered so dishonourable in the period, that the commander apologized to his own men in advance. By these means, the duchy of Austria passed to the Habsburgs, the heart of their realm until 1918.


The Habsburgs had arrived, but their day had not yet dawned. Over the next two centuries, the German prince-electors chose king-emperors from many different houses, while the Habsburgs suffered some humiliating setbacks, particularly the loss of their ancestral homeland. The Swiss Confederation is said to have begun in 1291, with an alliance between the forest communities of Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden, in the western Habsburg lands around Lake Luzern; its Latin name, Confoederatio Helvetica, survives in the "CH" abbreviation for Switzerland. None of these communities were to accept any new feudal obligations without consulting the others, and all were to come to each other's defence if attacked. The legend of William Tell, a central figure in the patriotic struggle for Swiss independence, originates from this period. What is more certain is that the men of Schwyz attacked the rich abbey of Einsiedeln in 1313. In November 1315, the Habsburg dispatched a powerful army to bring their troublesome vassal to heel. On the mountain slope of Morgarten, the glittering Habsburg knights, mounted and in armour, were ambushed by a much smaller citizen force, armed with a weapon that the Swiss would make very much their own, the halberd; an 8-foot-long pole-axe that could be use to jab like a spear, or hook a knight dragging him from his horse; and deployed in a disciplined mass-ranked blocks almost like a Greek phalanx. The victory at Morgarten prompted other communities to join the loose Swiss confederation. The prominent role of Schwyz in the battle caused it to be informally known as Schwyz; hence Switzerland. The next 200 years of Swiss history was one of successive Swiss military victories, and new memberships: Zürich in 1351, Bern in 1353, Basel in 1501. The Swiss gained increased autonomy with another victory over the Habsburgs at the Battle of Sempach (July 1386). It is said that the heroic deed of one soldier, known as Winkelried, turned the tide, sacrificing himself to open a breach in the Habsburg line. Although probably a later legend to explain a victory against all the odds, it is suggestive of their ferocious fighting spirit. In the late-15th-century, the Swiss engaged in a final series of battles; victories over Charles "the Bold" of Burgundy in 1474, one of the most powerful rulers in Europe, won them a reputation as being nearly invincible; and anther victory over the Habsburgs in 1499, gained de facto independence for the empire, though this was not made official until the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). Meanwhile, the Swiss had a long-standing interests in controlling the Alpine passes carrying trade between Italy and northern Europe, which drew them into the Italian Wars. Having made it as far as Milan, the rampaging Swiss would suffer a stinging defeat at the Battle of Marignano (September 1515), which prompted them to withdraw from the international scene and for the first time declare neutrality. For several centuries afterwards, the country's warrior spirit was channelled solely into mercenary activity; a tradition still echoed in the Swiss Guard that protects the pope.

Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, under whom the Habsburg influence truly reached its peak.

In Austria itself, the Habsburgs nevertheless managed to consolidate their position. Rudolf IV Habsburg (1358–65) forged ahead with developing his lands: founding the university of Vienna in 1365, and building the Gothic St. Stephen's Cathedral (Stephansdom), Vienna's most visible landmark today. Meanwhile, in the early 15th-century, the German Holy Roman Empire suffered something of an existential crisis; a Slavic resurgance. At the Battle of Grunwald (July 1410), the new joint kingdom of Poland-Lithuania shattered the power of the Teutonic Knights forever. Then in 1419, Bohemia rose in revolt, under the banner of the reformer Jan Hus. Hus attacked the privileges of the clergy and was thus a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation, but this was really about the still-unresolved battle between Slavs and Germans for control of Bohemia. For once, the German prince-electors needed stability more than they feared a strong king-emperor. So in 1438, they elected Albert II Habsburg (1438-40), and then rubber-stamped the seamless accession of his son Frederick III Habsburg (1440-93). From now on, the notionally elected Holy Roman Emperor was in practice a Habsburg. A series of Habsburg marriages between 1477 and 1515 gave rise to the oft quoted phrase, "Let others wage wars: you, fortunate Austria, marry!" Frederick III's long reign was a troubled one for Austria, briefly losing Vienna to the greatest ruler of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus (d. 1490). But the first marriage was his achievement. From 1473, secret negotiations were undertaken to arrange for his son Maximilian (d. 1519) to marry Europe’s most prominent heiress, Mary of Burgundy, daughter of Charles "the Bold" who ruled Flanders (Belgium) and the Dutch Netherlands, as well as his own Burgundian territories. The political advantage was obvious to both houses: the Habsburgs would link their territory to the Low Countries, one of the most commercially and culturally rich regions of Europe; and the Burgundians link their house to the imperial dignity and perhaps raise their realm from a duchy to a kingdom, thus securing its independence from France under the astute Louis XI. Unfortunately, when Charles died at the Battle of Nancy (January 1477), the plans had not yet come to fruition. The marriage was hurried through, but too late to prevent the French crown from absorbing Burgundy itself, though the Habsburgs did secure in the Low Countries. This began a difficult relationship with France that would stick in the Habsburg shoe for centuries. When Maria fell from a horse and died of a miscarriage in 1182, the Low Countries fell directly into Habsburg hands. The offspring of this first marriage, was the bridegroom in the next advantageous alliance in 1496. Having learned the lesson of marital politics well, Maximilian arranged for his son, Philip I Habsburg (d. 1506), to marry Joan, youngest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the powerful monarchs of a newly united Spain. The momentous result of this second marriage derived as much from good fortune as from the diplomatic skills. His interest in linking the Habsburg and Spanish royal families had been merely a political alliance against France. Inheritance was not in his mind, for Joan was fourth in the line-of-succession at the time. But he lived to see a Habsburg on the throne of Spain. Joan's elder brother died in 1497, followed by her sister in 1498, and her sister's son in 1500. In the same year that Joan became the heiress to Spanish crown, she gave birth to a son, the future Charles V Habsburg (1516-56). In military terms, Maximilian's reign was a failure, whether abandoning Habsburg control over Switzerland in 1499. But he had still not lost his skill as a matchmaker. In 1515, Maximilian married his grandson, Ferdinand, to a granddaughter of Matthias Corvinus of Hungary, whose father ruled both Hungary and Bohemia. When that entire royal family died-out at the disastrous Battle of Mohacs (1526) against the Ottoman Turks, these two kingdoms would fall into Habsburg hands too. When Maximilian himself died in 1519, his grandson Charles V Habsburg (d. 1556) inherited the imperial title, Austria, the Low Countries, Spain, the Spanish Americas, Bohemia, and Hungary; southern Italy including Sicily would come later. Thus the mighty Habsburg Empire bestrode Europe under the most powerful dynasty of the 16th century. It had been assembled within one lifetime, that of Maximilian, and almost entirely through peaceful means. "Fortunate Austria marries", indeed.

Tsarist Russia[]


For Europeans, the Mongol onslaught of the 13th-century was one of the great what if questions of history; they reached the outskirts of Vienna, before withdrawing upon the death of the Great Khan in Mongolia. For Russians, there was no what if; only what happened. They sacked almost every major city of Kievan Rus', apart from Novgorod and Smolensk, which submitted quickly. Then, a grandson of Genghis Khan, Batu (d. 1255), took control of the Russian portion of the Mongol Empire by playing kingmaker for the next Khan. Here, the Mongols became known as the Golden Horde (1242–1502), said to derive from the gold coloured cloth of Batu's splendid tent. From their capital of Sarai Batu on the Volga (near modern-day Volgograd), the leaders of the Golden Horde kept the Russian princes subservient and divided, by treating them as glorified tax collectors and playing them against one another. Although their armies raided them in traditional fashion if they grew uppity, the princes were generally given free-rein in their own territories as long as they collaborated with the khan and delivered sufficient tribute. Batu's successor, Berke (d. 1266), adopted Islam as the religion of the horde, and Sarai Batu grew into a substantial city as Muslim culture demanded for mosques and bathhouses. 250 years under the “Mongol Yoke” set in motion several important long-term developments. Generations of economic exploitation caused the Russian economy to stagnate, and increasingly lag behind the states farther west. While Western European culture was enriched by Humanism and the Renaissance, Russia's remained stunted and backward. Another important developments was the influence Mongol political oppression had on the Russian state. Princes in Kievan Rus' had exercised a great deal of power, but that had been balanced by the nobility (boyars) and public assemblies (veches). The Mongol khan was an absolute sovereign, and his subjects held land or position on condition of service to the state; for prince, he was their model, pushing Russia down the road to oppressive autocratic rule.


The Russian prince who collaborates most fully with the Mongols was Alexander "Nevsky" Rurikovich (d. 1240), one of the most junior members of the House of Rurik. He rose to prominence for his martial prowess on behalf of his native Novgorod; defeating the Swedish at the Battle of the Neva (July 1240), and the German Teutonic Knights at the Battle on the Ice (April 1242). As a willing vassal of the Mongols, Nevsky was appointed as Grand Prince of Vladimir in 1252, though, when he died, his son was too young and inherited only Moscow, a small town at the time. Moscow's princes proved uniquely skilled at navigating the treacherous rapids of dealing with their Mongol overlords, who found them efficient tribute-gatherers and made them agents for collecting the tribute from the other lessor principalities. It took its first major step up the ladder of power under the brilliantly ruthless Ivan I Rurikovich (1325–40). Ivan got the title of Grand Prince by collaborating with the Horde in a devastating campaign against the neighboring principality of Tver, whose ruler had made the grave error of rebelling against the Mongols; Tver was left in ruins, a result that did not bother Ivan at all. He further enhanced Moscow's prestige by convinced the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church to relocate from Vladimir. With the church came revenues from all over Russia, and the ability to build Moscow's first stone churches, as it staked its claim as the country’s spiritual centre. Its next outstanding ruler was Dmitry "Donskoi" Rurikovich (r. 1359–89). Early in his reign, he survived several dangerous confrontations with Lithuania, which had expanded from the Baltic coast eastward and southward all the way to the Black Sea, including wresting Kiev from the Golden Horde. Taking advantage of the weakening Mongole, he won a reduction in tribute in 1371 and four years later stopped paying entirely. At the resulting punitive expedition, Dmitry shocked everyone by routing the hated Mongols at the Battle of Kulikovo (September 1380). It mattered little that two years later the same Mongols burned Moscow or that their rule would last for another 100 years; Dmitry became a national hero to a nation that desperately needed one. Moscow quickly bounced back, in part thanks to a fearsome Mongol conqueror in the style of Genghis Khan, Timur (d. 1405); better known in the West as Tamerlane ("Timur the Lame"). From his base in present day Afghanistan, he conquered a vast short-lived empire, ravaged India as far as Delhi, and thrashed Mamluk Egypt and the Ottoman Turks alike. He was as hard on his fellow Mongols as on everyone else, breaking the Golden Horde in 1395, and reducing Sarai Batu to rubble. Moscow strength continued to grow, until its only true rival was the principality of Novgorod. The city’s wealth, which set it apart from the rest of Russia, came from trade and its control of a vast forested hinterland rich in furs, honey, and other natural resources. It was an integral part of the German-dominated Hanseatic League trade-network, stretching across the Baltic and North Sea. In stark contrast to authoritarian Moscow, Novgorod was essentially an aristocratic republic, controlled by the city’s veche and its leading commercial families.

Ivan III the Great, consolidated almost all the old Kievan Rus' lands under his rule, and liberate Russia from the Mongol yoke.

By the time of Ivan III Rurikovich (1462-1505), or Ivan the Great, the stage was set for Moscow to unify Russia. Ivan used a combination of military force and diplomacy to "gather" the Russian lands; to bring all the principalities of old Kievan Rus' within his absolutist state. Of course, his prime objective was Novgorod, which by this time was already in trouble; caught in a vise between Moscow and Lithuania, and divided between factions favouring one powerful neighbor or the other. Ivan's father had forced Novgorod to sign a treaty in 1456, tying it to Moscow. When it began to tilt toward Lithuania, he used that as a pretext for war. In 1471, Ivan took some territory and a promise of allegiance, but for the moment left Novgorod itself intact. In 1478, he once again invaded and annexed the city. He carried-out extensive executions, abolished Novgorod’s veche, and deported thousands of the city’s boyars and merchants; pioneering a Russian strategy that would be used with increasing severity right down to Joseph Stalin. Adding insult to injury, Novgorod’s famous bell, the proud symbol of its republican way of life, was removed to Moscow. With Novgorod’s fall, almost all the remaining Russian principalities meekly submitted to Moscow; the only exception was Pskov on Russia’s western fringe, which was annexed by Ivan's son in 1510. While he was gathering Russian lands, Ivan formally restored its independence in 1480, by renouncing all allegiance to the remnant of the once-mighty Golden Horde. He backed up that declaration by sending an army to intercept a Mongol force sent by the khan to assert his authority. After staring at one another for a few days across the Ugra River, the Mongols concluded that it just wasn't worth it and retreated; an anticlimactic end to 240 years of national trauma. Within a generation, the Golden Horde itself, battered by Moscow and rival steppe nomads, totally disappeared. Ivan also quarrel with Lithuania, which escalated to a full-scale war from 1500 to 1503. Lithuania had conquered a huge swath of territory that formerly belonged to Kievan Rus', including Kiev itself, and Ivan was determined to enforce his right as the legitimate heir. He won some territory, but his main objective, Smolensk, remained beyond his reach; that was again left to his son, who finally took it in 1514.

Ivan’s most notable building project by far was the rebuilding of the Kremlin, a decades long effort that produced the red brick walls - 65 feet high and as thick as 20 feet - that run for more than 7,000 feet around the huge compound. They were designed to withstand the latest European artillery.

As often happens with such seminal events, Moscow began to feel a sense of destiny. To that end, Ivan drew on the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, for both historical prestige and religious authority. It was during his reign that doctrine emerged of Moscow as the Third Rome; as one monk famously proclaimed, "Two Romes have fallen. The third stands. And there will be no fourth". The first fell to Germanic barbarians and Roman Catholic heresy. The second, Constantinople, was in the hands of the Turks. The third permanent successor, Moscow, would become the new centre of the Orthodox Christian world. Ivan built on that foundation when, in 1472, he married the niece of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI. Elaborate Byzantine court rituals were now replicated in Moscow, and Ivan added the fallen empire’s two-headed eagle to his family seal. During the 1480s Ivan began referring to himself with the Russian word Tsar, deriving from Caesar, to further reinforce this link; it did not become an official title until 1547. But much more than symbolism was involved in this; Ivan claimed for himself the absolute power of the Byzantine emperors, who had ruled over both state and church. His claims were enthusiastically endorsed by the Russian Orthodox Church; the main barrier was the aristocratic landowning class, the boyars. Ivan did not directly attack the boyars’ economic and political powers; rather, he chipped away at them. He established new class of pomestie nobles to counterbalance the boyars, by granting estates in newly conquered territory on a conditional basis, primarily in exchange for military service; a centralized army directly under his control. He then used legal manoeuvrers to incrementally blurred the distinction between the two forms of nobility. A new law code, called the Sudebnik, mandating harsher penalties for rebellion and sedition than the earlier Russkaya Pravda, testified to the growing power of Moscow’s sovereign. Ivan also saw that Moscow needed impressive stone buildings to match the grandeur of the state. To that end he imported Byzantine artisans and engineers fleeing Constantinople, and prominent Italian architects skilled in building Western Europe’s Renaissance churches. His most notable project was the rebuilding of the Kremlin with its iconic red brick walls, which run for more than 7,000 feet around the huge compound. The Ivan the Great Cathedral, begun by Ivan, would be used for coronations until the end of the monarchy; it was forbidden to build a structure in Moscow taller than its bell tower until the late-19th-century.

Ivan's son, Vasily III (1505–33), was a worthy successor, continuing to ably implement his father’s policies. It was his misfortune to have his reign sandwiched between the watershed accomplishments of Ivan the Great and the fire and brimstone of Ivan the Terrible. Russia would indeed be its own unique thing with its own unique destiny.

High Renaissance[]

The artistic movement which caught hold and flowered during the the early Renaissance, burst into full bloom with the High Renaissance, from the early 1490s until 1527, when Rome was sacked during the Italian Wars. Artists no longer pondered the art of antiquity. They now had the tools, technology, training, and confidence to go their own way, secure in the knowledge that what they were doing was as good - or better - than anything that had been done before. In the 15th-century, Florence had been the center of the new art style, but in the early-16th-century this shifted to many other Italian cities, especially Rome where popes and wealthy cardinals popes wanted visual expression of the Church’s (and their own families’) power and piety. The period revolved around three towering figures: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Each of the three embodied an important aspect of the period. Leonardo was the ultimate Renaissance Man, a solitary genius to whom no branch of study was foreign. Michelangelo emanated creative power, conceiving vast projects that drew for inspiration on the human body as the ultimate vehicle for emotional expression; Raphael created works that perfectly expressed the classical spirit; harmonious, beautiful, and serene. These three men becomes the center of a movement of artists that has permanently enriched Western culture.

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (1503–06)

Leonardo da Vinci (b. 1452) is revered as one of the most diversely talented individuals ever to have lived. Leonardo was recognized in his own time as a great artist, producing innovative masterpieces that demonstrated an unparalleled mastery of light, perspective, and overall effect. However, Leonardo was not a prolific painter, and fewer than 20 known works survive. He was a most prolific draftsman, keeping journals full of small sketches and detailed drawings. Yet these alone would rank him among the world's greatest artists; indeed, a study of the proportions of the human body, known as the Vitruvian Man, has become regarded as a cultural icon. In truth, his feverish mind left him little time to paint. The sheer diversity of work left by Leonardo has astounded historians ever since; from anatomy to mechanics, from optics to civil engineering, from astronomy to geology. His famous journals include a vast number of inventions, many centuries ahead of his own time: a bicycle, a parachute, a submarine, a flying machine, a cannon-proof vehicle (in other words a tank), the use of solar power. a calculator, and a rudimentary theory of plate tectonics. Leonardo believed that the painter, endowed with subtle powers to observe the visible world, recognise its form and structure, and pictorially reproduce its exactly, was the person best qualified to achieve true knowledge. A gifted child, the young Leonardo had learned his craft in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, the leading Florentine painter and sculptor of his time. In 1482, Lorenzo de Medici purchased a lyre, which Leonardo had fashioned into the shape of a horse's skull, as a gift for Ludovico Sforza of Milan. Leonardo personally delivered the gift, and Sforza persuaded him to remain in Milan. His greatest work during his 17-years spent in Milan was the mural, The Last Supper, on the wall of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. This was a traditional subject, but Leonardo's triumph was the variation of emotional reactions displayed by each apostle on hearing that one of them will soon betray Jesus. He fled from Milan to Venice in 1499, when the French retook the city. There, he found employment as a military engineer, devising siege engines and a system of moveable barricades to protect the city from attack. A year later, he returned to Florence, where, after a long absence, he was received with acclaim and honoured as a renowned native son. There, he began painting his most beloved work, the Mona Lisa, which he would continue working on until his twilight years. The portrait, rather than merely capturing the physical features of the sitter, attempted to capture her very mood at a specific moment in time, as if she has just that moment turned to regard the viewer. She sits with her hands folded demurely in front of her, and a deliciously mysterious smile. Perhaps because of his voracious appetite for life, he travelled to many cities during his career in search of favourable projects. Leonardo's fame within his own lifetime was such that Francis I of France carried him away like a trophy, and settled him in his old age in magnificent apartments at the royal Château d'Amboise, where the great man lived until his death. He painted very little during this period, but brought with him many of his greatest works, including the Mona Lisa, which the French king took into the royal collection; it can still be seen at the Louvre in Paris. He was buried in the palace church of Saint-Florentin, which was nearly obliterated during the French Revolution, making it impossible to identify Leonardo da Vinci’s exact grave.

The Creation of Adam, has become one of the most reproduced images of all time. It is one of the nine central panels of the Sistine Chapel fresco, depicting the Book of Genesis, from God's creation of mankind, and on through the expulsion from Eden, to the human frailty in the drunkenness of Noah. Michelangelo worked his way backwards through the panels, because he believed his technique would be improved enough by then that he could dare attempt to portray the divine.

Michelangelo (d. 1475), in full Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti, was considered the greatest living artist in his lifetime; the first artist whose biography was published while he was still alive. Although the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are probably the best known of his works today, the artist thought of himself first as a sculptor. Michelangelo was a contemporary of Leonardo, but not of the same generation; Leonardo was 23 when Michelangelo was born. At 13, he was sent to study with the celebrated Florentine fresco painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, and soon his obvious talent caught the attention of Lorenzo de Medici, becoming part of his inner circle of artists, poets and scholars. The Medici were overthrown in 1494, and even before the end of the political turmoil Michelangelo had left. At the age of 23, he was working in Rome, when he received a career-making commission from the French ambassador to the papacy; a substantial statue of the Virgin Mary. The Pietà, a sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding on her lap the dead Christ, was soon to be regarded as one of the world's great masterpieces. In 1499, he returned to his native Florence as well-established artist, and the city council commissioned a figure for no less a place than the Cathedral of Florence. The result was another masterpiece, probably the artists’ most famous sculpture of all: David. Michelangelo, using a vast slab of marble abandoned by another sculptor, presented the biblical hero, more than twice lifesize, as a naked youth standing with petulant confidence, sling thrown over his shoulder, as Goliath's head rests between his feet. In 1505, the newly elected Pope Julius II summoned Michelangelo to Rome to provide a sculpted tomb for his own memorial. However, the project was doomed to remain unfinished, for the Pope had an even more challenging commission for this multi-talented artist; to paint the ceiling of the Vatican City’s Sistine Chapel. Despite holding a low opinion of painting, and working in very uncomfortable positions on top of scaffolds, the ceiling was completed remarkably quickly, taking four years between 1508 and '12). It is considered one of the great artistic undertakings of all time. The effect of the Sistine ceiling is exuberant and optimistic; it reflected the confident papacy of Julius. The end wall is very different, but too reflected its times. In 1527, an imperial army, mutinying over unpaid wages, sacked Rome, while Pope Clement VII sheltered helplessly in the Castel Sant'Angelo. In the aftermath of this appalling event, the pope commissioned Michelangelo to paint, The Last Judgement, on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. Again Michelangelo captures the mood perfectly, giving this traditional cautionary tale a dark and dramatic violence, though the anguished nudity proved too much for some; twenty years later, Daniele da Volterra was employed to paint in some loincloths. As well as a sculpture and painter, Michelangelo output as an architect was prodigious. His architectural fame lies chiefly in two buildings: the interiors of the Laurentian Library in Florence, and St Peter's Basilica in Rome (the work of a great many architects, but at its completion, there was more of Michelangelo’s design than any other). To add to his other distinctions, from his early days in Florence when his talent is encouraged by Lorenzo de' Medici, Michelangelo also takes a keen interest in poetry. About 250 of his poems survive, which subsequently won him a reputation among Italy's leading poets.

The School of Athens by Raphael (1509–11)

While Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of Sistine Chapel, just a few hundred yards away Raphael (b. 1483), full name Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, was working on another commission from Pope Julius II. As an insight into the sometimes fraught relations between Renaissance artists, Michelangelo had little time for Raphael and accused him of stealing his ideas. Raphael may be described as the boy wonder of the Italian Renaissance. Born in Urbino to a painter of not much renown, Raphael was placed under the tutelage of the celebrated artist Pietro Perugino at just 8-years-old, "despite the tears of his mother". Perugino was particularly interested in placing figures harmoniously within a defined perspective, and this approach would be perfected by his pupil, with a new certainty of composition, modelling and colour. It is best seen in his painting, The Marriage of the Virgin, depicting the exchanging rings at the marriage of Mary and Joseph, where the viewer's eye is drawn irresistibly towards the centre. Raphael moved on to Florence sometime in 1504, where he absorbed the artistic traditions of the city. News of his talent must have spread rapidly among the patrons of the day, because, at end of 1508, Raphael was summoned to Rome, and given a papal commission of great sensitivity; it was to occupy him for most of his short life. Pope Julius II wanted series of frescoes to decorate the papal apartments of the Vatican Palace. Raphael's astonishing achievement in the Stanze was a triumph over many different problems, all new to him when he began. The themes to be depicted for the pope were often intellectual and thematic, and thus much harder to bring to life than the intimacy of the Holy Family. They involved large numbers of characters, requiring compositional skills similar to those of a director presenting a scene on a stage. And the vaulted rooms, with walls interrupted by doors or alcoves, present irregular and difficult surfaces. The two most celebrated sections today are The Disputa and The School of Athens. The former shows a celestial vision of God and his prophets above a gathering of representatives the Church, past and present. The latter has Plato and Aristotle conversing, surrounded by all the major philosophers, astronomers, and mathematicians of the ancient world, in a splendid architectural setting. The pope must have been pleased with the results as he commissioned Raphael to paint more frescoes in the palace. An admired sections of these is the Mass of Bolsena, depicting a Bohemian priest who doubted the doctrine of transubstantiation until the Eucharist bread began to bleed. Present in this painting is a self-portrait of the artist, as one of the Swiss Guard. Raphael died at just thirty-seven, but in that time had been enormously productive himself, as well as overseeing an unusually large workshop of more than fifty collaborators and apprentices, who assisted on the less difficult sections of some paintings. Many of them would later became significant artists in their own right. After his death, his great rival Michelangelo was more widely influencial until the 19th century, when Raphael's more serene and harmonious qualities were again regarded as the highest models.

Albrecht Dürer has secured his reputation as perhaps the most important figures of the Northern Renaissance, primarily as a pioneer of printmaking; the first artwork to reach a wide audience. His success in collaborating with printers in order to promote and distribute his work was an inspiration for many artists.

The Italian Wars (1494–1559), six decades of almost ceaseless warfare, gradually sapped the spirit of the Italian Renaissance, as well as the wealth of the patrons who supported these artists. The sack of Rome by an imperial army in 1527 was in effect an accident, order by no leader with no military aim, but it took the wind from the sails of all the Italian city-states, who were soon resigned to imperial subjugation. By the latter part of the 16th century, Renaissance creativity in Italy gave way to a more sombre, less innovative movement known as Mannerism. The changes wrought by the Italian Renaissance nevertheless proved irreversible, and innovative artistic production continued throughout Europe. In Hungary, King Matthias Corvinus hired Italian artists to rebuild Buda Palace in the Renaissance style, and in France and Spain architects blended classical styles emanating from Italy with local traditions and building materials, designing buildings that were generally more vertical and ornamented than those in Florence or Rome. Perhaps the outstanding figure was the German artist, Albrecht Dürer (b. 1471), whose contribution is enhanced by his originality in many differing fields of art. An early example of his work is an extraordinary self-portrait at the age of twenty-two, now in the Louvre; a young man with dishevelled blond hair, wearing lavish robes, staring moodily from the canvas. Italian Renaissance painters had sometimes inserted themselves as bystanders in a crowded scene, but this marked the beginning of the dramatic self-portrait; a long tradition later carried to its greatest lengths by Rembrandt (d. 1669). Dürer made two trips to Italy, which resulted in other works of great originality. As he travels, he sketched in watercolour the features of any landscape that took his fancy. These were not preparatory sketches for oil paintings; they were done. He thus began another rich tradition of pure landscape art. He broke new ground yet again, making himself the most prolific master in the new techniques of printmaking, creating artworks by printing; paintings were predominantly for private collections, so this was the first art to reach a mass audience. The Renaissance as a unified historical period ended, splintering into a variety of loosely related cultural movements: the social philosophy of Erasmus (b. 1466) and Thomas More (b. 1478); the all-embracing genius of William Shakespeare (b. 1564); the music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (d. 1594), generally seen as the most important Renaissance composer; the birth of ballet in the Italian and French courts; and the emergence of modern science in the Scientific Revolution. In the arts, a new artistic style known as Baroque - embracing painting, sculpture, and architecture - was spurred by the Catholic Counter-Reformation as a means to counter the simplicity and austerity of Protestant art. The aim was not to produce subtle and sophisticate symbolism, but to strike emotion and awe in ordinary people, invoking the power and majesty of the divine. Until the 20th-century, “Baroque” was a negative term, as critics preferred the more naturalistic and elegant Renaissance style, though some modern art historians have come to appreciate it.

Rise of Capitalism[]

Detail of a painting of a copper mine by Hendrik met de Bles (d. 1550), showing a furnace for smelting in the background with a water-wheel powered bellows, and a sluice trough in the foreground. Workers include both men and women.

Along with the Renaissance, the Age of Discovery, the growth of nation-states, and the Reformation, the “rise of capitalism” has long been viewed as central to the development of the modern world. In a medieval economy dominated by nobles, excess profit went largely into wars, retainers, castles, houses, fancy clothing, or other luxuries. In a capitalist economy, some or most of the profits were re-invested in productive enterprises designed to make still more profit. Entrepreneurs developed new forms of organizational structure for the production of goods, hiring workers while retaining ownership of the raw materials, tools, and finished products. The emergence of the modern capitalist system was slow, uneven, and complicated, with no clear beginning or end. Economic historians sometimes joke that, no matter when or where you look, capitalism always seems to be rising; there were business-owners who hired workers in the Roman Empire, and merchants who engaged in long-distance trade in the Early Middle Ages. Despite these continuities, however, the economy of many parts of Europe began to change significantly from 1450 or so. The development involved an increase in the amount of goods manufactured and traded, and changes to the organisation of production and the handling of money. It was driven in part by a growth in population.

Jakob Fugger, perhaps the most successful entrepreneur of the 16th-century. His family wealth was made in the textile trade, but diversified into banking, mining, and metal production. He secured his legacy through his foundations, including the Fuggerei, the world's oldest social housing project and still in use today.

Population statistics in this period still rely heavily on estimates, but become much better based than earlier, because rulers began to have continuous interest in population, for more people meant greater revenue and military power. Many demographers set the population of Europe at about 80 million in 1300. The Black Death, famine, and other diseases killed off at least a quarter of the population in the next century, but by about 1500 it had climbed again to pre-plague levels, and over the next century would climb gradually to about 100 million. The rising population brought problems too. The so-called Price Revolution (1450-1620) has traditionally been attributed to the enormous influx of bullion from the New World, but modern historians tend to emphasis both the increased supply of gold and silver, and the more general effects of population growth. The demand for food and other basic commodities increased, leading to a sharp rise in inflation; for instance, the price of grain rose at least fourfold across Europe. The hardest hit were the urban poor who had to buy most of their food, leading to bread-riots in many cities; Florence in 1497, Naples in 1585. The responses to rising prices generally made things worse. Governments debased coins (“silver” coins turned black because of their high copper content) but that only meant merchants would demand more coins for any purchase. Merchants hoarded grain in hopes of greater profits to come. States, large and small, prohibited the export of food, which often kept food from where it was especially needed. Local famines continued and child mortality remained high, with only half the people born making it to age ten. The increasing population also meant there was no shortage of tenants, and landowners raised rents on land, which may have increased ninefold by 1620. Rural rebellions, such as the German Peasants’ War (1524-25) or English Kett’s Rebellion (1549), combined religious issues with demands for a rollback to earlier rent levels. There was no shortage of workers too, so that wages increased more slowly than prices for manufactured goods, and enterprising merchant-entrepreneurs saw the opportunity for profits. Changes in mining and metallurgy were at the heart of the birth of modern capitalism. After the development of gunpowder-based weapons, armies fighting over territory and religion throughout Europe had an insatiable appetite for metals. By one calculation, a siege of an average-size city at the end of the 16th-century used more than 10,000 cannonballs per day, to say nothing of the metal required to make the artillery itself. In the Middle Ages, mining and metal production had been generally organized in the same way as other crafts, with groups of artisans forming guilds. As the demand for metals grew, however, complex machinery was needed to dig, maintain, and ventilate deeper shafts, and to speed up melting, molding, and finishing the metal. This was too expensive for guilds, but as the price and potential profits grew, other players became interested. Merchant-entrepreneurs had long formed partnerships and companies to share the risk in trading ventures. They now expanded mining and metal production through large amounts of initial capital, and then re-investing some of the profit in building more machinery, as well as developing a sharper division of labour. Of these entrepreneurs, Jakob Fugger (d. 1525) of Augsburg in southern Germany was perhaps the most successful in the 16th-century. His grandfather had been a prosperous weaver and wool cloth dealer, and Fugger expanded the business to newer, lighter cloth made of cotton, linen, or blends, responding to (and creating) changes in fashion. He meanwhile loaned money to rulers, nobles, and bishops, and took control of mining, charcoal, and foundry operations as security on the loans. He gradually established a virtual monopoly on the silver and copper trade in Central Europe, and became fabulously wealthy; his contemporaries called him “Jakob the Rich”. Fugger financed the imperial election of Charles V Habsburg in 1519, for which he gained control of silver and mercury mines in Spain. This and other loans to the Habsburgs ultimately led to the downfall of the Fugger family. Philip II Habsburg defaulted on loans in 1560, in 1575, and in 1596, which represented more than half the company’s assets; it was dissolved in 1650. The failure of private merchant banks was not infrequent, and this led to the creation of the first public banks overseen by municipal officials. In Germany, Switzerland and the Low Countries, many cities formed banks during the 15th and 16th centuries. In the early-16th-century, Antwerp was the largest centre of financial activities in Europe, until the Dutch Revolt, which saw the city sacked in 1576 and then endure a prolonged siege in 1584. With this, Amsterdam became Europe’s most important financial and commercial centre. The Dutch were at the forefronts of early modern capitalism, adapting new technology, simplified production processes, and sharper division of labour to all sorts of commodities during the Dutch Golden Age.

London’s Bridewell workhouse.

European economic growth, increasing population, and rising prices led to led to a growing polarization of wealth. The relative prosperity of peasants and urban workers in the 15th century generally gave way to the impoverishment by the late 16th. In rural areas, rent on land became so high that many peasant families could not pay, and lost their tenancies, swelling the ranks of the landless poor. The same happened to peasant grazers as landlords began the enclosure of common land with fences and hedges. This process proceeded slightly differently in different parts of Europe, but has been most intensively studied in England, where high wool prices meant land was enclosed for sheep pasture; as Thomas More put it, "sheep ate men". By 1620, around 40 percent of rural residents in England held only a cottage without fields, while the number was closer to 75 percent in southern Spain. In cities, real wages were cut in half between 1450 and 1620. Most cities in Europe began to pass laws forbidding begging, denying poor relief to people who may have migrated looking for work, and sending their own poor to newly established workhouses, where they were put to simple tasks; London’s Bridewell opened in the 1550s, and Amsterdam’s workhouse system in the 1590s.

Printing Press (1455)[]

Front page of the Chinese Diamond Sūtra, the oldest known dated woodblock-printed book in the world.

The printing press is invariably ranks at, or near, the top of any list of mankind's greatest inventions. The arrival of relatively cheap books, mass communication, and unrestricted circulation of ideas had enormous and long-lasting consequences; the term Printing "Revolution" does not overstate its importance. The Middle Ages had produced a rich and complex variety of literature, from the Provençal songs of courtly love, to Dante's Divine Comedy, from the poetry of Francesco Petrarch to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The Chinese had invented the first method of printing, woodblock printing. But prior to the 1450s, monks and then professional scribes had to rewrite books by hand, making them prohibitively expensive; the objects of the wealthy and powerful. Even a vernacular text like Canterbury Tales could not reach a wide audience. The Chinese had invented the first method of printing, woodblock printing. In 175 AD, the Chinese emperor ordered that the six main classics of Confucianism be carved in stone, to preserve them for posterity in what was held to be authentic versions of the text. His enterprise had an unexpected result. Confucian scholars were eager to have their own copies these important works. The text was transcribed by laying a piece of paper on an engraved block, and then rubbing all over with graphite, to produce white letters on a black background. Subsequent emperors used this technique for other texts, until quite an extensive white-on-black library was acquired. It was a natural next step to carve the letters in a raised and mirrored form, and then to apply ink to the surface of the letters, producing black or coloured letters on the white of the paper; much more pleasant to the eye. It was Korean Buddhists, rather than Chinese Confucians, who made the next breakthrough; mass circulation. In 768, a devoutly Buddist emperor commissioned copies of a lucky prayer for all her subjects. The project is said to have taken six years to complete, and the number distibuted over a million; many survive. The oldest known book is Chinese, discovered in a cave in a cave at Dunhuang in 1899. The Diamond Sutra is 16-foot-long and 1-foot-across, with both text and illustrations, and formed of sheets of paper glued together at their edges. It can be precisely dated because details of publication appear at the end of the text, "Printed on 11 May 868 by Wang Chieh, in deep reverence to perpetuate the memory of his parents". Movable type, separate ready-made characters which can be re-arranged and reused) is a necessary step before printing can become an efficient medium for disseminating information. The Chinese experimented with the concept from around 1041, but their writing system with a profusion of differed characters posed pretty insurmountable challenges. They also cast their characters in fired-clay and then bronze, which proved too fragile for the purpose. Again the Koreans made the breakthrough, establishing a foundry to cast movable-type in bronze, which were used to print the 50-volume Texts for Rites of the Past and Present in 1234, though no copies survive; the Jikji of 1377 is earliest surviving movable-type book. The use of woodblock printing, and to a lessor extent moveable-type printing, spread throughout Asia. The Muslim world adapted and developed the Chinese craft widely during the Islamic Golden Age. Europe adopted woodblock printing from the Islamic world around 1400; six centuries after its invention in the Far East. As in the Far East, the first use of printing was religious; small holy images for sale to pilgrims. Playing cards were another early part of the western trade; by 1418, professional card makers in Ulm, Nuremberg, and Augsburg created printed decks. Later in the 15th-century, technical advances were made in Germany that rapidly transform printing from a cottage industry to a cornerstone of western civilization.

A copy of the Gutenberg Bible in the New York Public Library.

Although the details are obscure, and experiments by other men were going on from the early-15th-century, there seems to be no good reason not to credit the printing press to the man whose name has traditionally been associated with it, Johannes Gutenberg (d. 1468). In the 1450s, he and his colleagues adapted existing techniques from metallurgy, wood-block printing, wine pressing, fabric stamping, and paper-making, and in 1455 there appeared what is agreed to be the first true printed book in Europe, the Gutenberg Bible. Gutenberg’s own business career was by then a failure; somewhat prophetic of a new age of commerce in that he was probably under-capitalized. The name of Gutenberg first appears in a court case in Strasbourg in 1439, being sued by his business partners. He had been making polished metal mirrors (said to capture holy light from religious relics) to sell to pilgrims at a festival in Aachen, but the event was delayed by severe flooding, and the capital already spent could not be repaid. Witnesses statements in the trial, which he lost, described a press and a supply of metal type, suggesting he was already experimenting with printing. By the time his name is next heard in 1450, he was in Mainz, and his printing press was operational; he borrowed 800 guilders from an investor Johann Fust with his printing equipment as security. The printing process involves complex problems at every stage: devising a press capable of applying rapid but steady downward pressure; developing a suitable metal alloy in which to cast the type; creating a master copy of each letter and moulds from which multiple copies can be cast; and arranging the letters, aligned and well spaced, in a form that will hold them firm during printing. In 1452, Gutenberg conceived a project for an ambitious 42-line Bible, and borrowed another 800 guilders from Fust to commence work. By 1455, the business was going well on the technical side wtih the first copies ready; when sold, funds would begin to flow into the business. Either this knowledge or a personal quarrel prompted Fust to demand his money back. The court decided in favour of Fust, and Gutenberg lost all rights to his presses, his type, his workshop, and all the Bibles already printed. Although history calls it the Gutenburg Bible, when published, it featured only the names of Fust and Schoeffer, who had been Gutenberg's foreman. Gutenberg was left effectively bankrupt, but, happily, the story does not end there. In 1465, Gutenberg was ennobled by the Archbishop of Mainz, in recognition of his achievements

Printing towns incunabula.jpg

The new technology, so brilliantly launched, spreads rapidly: Strassburg boast its own printing press in 1460, Cologne in 1466, Rome in 1467, Venice in 1469, Paris in 1470, Kraków in 1473, and London in 1477. By 1500, barely 45 years after the publication of the Gutenburg Bible, more than 200 cities and towns throughout Western Europe already featured printing shops; Spanish Mexico had one in 1539 and Portuguese Goa in 1544. It has been estimated that in the first fifty years, about 35,000 separate editions of books and more than 15 million copies of books had been published; there may well have been fewer books in the whole world prior to 1450. It is interesting but unsurprising that the first book printed in Europe should have been the Bible. Through the printing press, knowledge of the sacred text was to be diffused as never before. In 1450, it would have been unusual for a parish priest to own a Bible; a century later, it would have been remarkable if he had not. With some prescience Pope Alexander VI suggested to bishops in 1501 that the control of printing might be the key to preserving the purity of the faith. But the impact could not be contained, and soon alternative interpretations of the Bible appeared, including that of Martin Luthar which sparked the Protestant Reformation. Print shops were not in the business for charity, and printed anything that would sell: books for lawyers and doctors; books for members of the clergy such as hymnals; books for students such as grammar manuals and classical authors now edited by the Humanists. Printed materials for what we might term the “general reader” were still more common. Although most people in Europe could not read even by 1789, quite ordinary people began to mention printed books much earlier; we know this because books were often handed down from one generation to the next, so were listed in wills. What did literate people want to read? Until about 1700, they mostly wanted to read religious materials. This was both because people were very interested in their own salvation, and because religious works were cheap, lively, and gory. Books of saints’ lives described not only their good deeds, but also their violent and tragic deaths. After the Reformation, religious opponents were often harsh in their invective, with lots of name-calling and scandal-mongering. Apart from religious materials, printers found a market for books on many topics: vernacular literature and poetry sold very well; as did how-to manuals; biographies, the more scandalous the better; and the experiences of adventurous travellers of the voyages of discovery. In addition to books, printers also produced much smaller, cheaper publications, such as eight-page booklets or single-sheet broadsides, usually illustrated, so that those who were barely literate could also get something from them. By the late-16th-century, enterprising printers began to combine multiple subjects together; recent battle, famous men and what happened to them, long-term weather forecasts, farming advise, new inventions, horoscopes, and freakish occurrences. By the early-17th century, some European cities began to publish weekly newssheets. The nature of the printed word itself began to change. Once a rare work of art, whose mysterious knowledge was accessible only to a few, it became a tool and artifact of the many. It was to provide new channels of communication for governments, a new medium for artists, and a new impetus to the diffusion of technology. Prior to 1450, scholars had access to manuscripts in university or private libraries, but even then struggled to find copies of many texts, and often travelled far and wide to get access to them; they could now easily be accessed. Scholars wrote commentaries on primary sources and argued with each other in print, thereby establishing an international collective scholarship across Europe. As academic issues raged, so the debating scholars fuelled the production of yet more printed works in a perpetuating cycle of the printed word; a phenomenon which would reap rewards in the Scientific Revolution. The impact of the printing press also stimulated a huge demand for literacy and therefore education. No single change marks so clearly the ending of one age and the beginning of another.