Title: The Kings of France and England Were Thwarted in 1528 – by a Louse.
Authors: Callahan, Richard D.*
Source: Military History; Feb 2005, Vol. 21 Issue 6, p18-23, 4p, 1bw
Document Type: Article
Abstract: Discusses the role of Pediculus humanus corporis or common body louse in perpetuating epidemics in the French military in 1528. Disease caused by the bacterial parasite Rickettsia prowazekii that infests lice; Effect of the treatment used by surgeons schooled in medieval medicine; Decline in the number of soldiers due to the epidemic caused by lice.
Database: Academic Search Premier
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The Kings of France and England Were Thwarted in 1528 – by a Louse

BODY LICE GET LITTLE respect during their brief lives, especially from historians, who are usually concerned with putatively greater things such as war and the fate of kings. Nevertheless, on at least one occasion Pediculus humanus corporis was instrumental in determining the balance of power in Europe and the religious future of England.

Given the problems of maintaining personal hygiene while conducting military campaigns, the common body louse and the soldier have been inseparable since warfare began. Nesting in the hair or clothing of a human host, this parasitic insect emerges several times a day to insert its mouthparts into its host to drink its blood–an unpleasant, not to mention uncomfortable, scenario. When the louse catches and transmits a disease, the situation becomes more than merely annoying, as both the insect and its host can become the unwitting perpetuators of an epidemic. And epidemics clearly affect history, military or otherwise. Such was the case in 1528.

The previous year had seen Pope Clement VII, an illegitimate member of the Medici family, cringing in fear in a corner of Rome. An imperial army dispatched to Italy by Charles V of Hapsburg–the only Holy Roman emperor to reign simultaneously as king of Spain–had seized the city after a bitter, costly fight during which the army’s commander, Charles de Montpensier, duc de Bourbon, had been killed on May 6, 1527 (see Military History, February 2003). The imperial troops, mostly mercenary companies, were hungry and unpaid, and in the wake of Bourbon’s death discipline broke down. Over the next eight days, frenzied German and Spanish troops murdered priests, raped nuns, destroyed church property and tortured Roman citizens “by the privy members” to make them confess where their treasure was hidden. Forced to flee the Vatican by a secret passage, Pope Clement and his cardinals holed up in the Castel Sant’Angelo from May 6 to December 7.

WHILE IMPERIAL FORCES rampaged in Rome and dominated northern Italy, in France, King Francis I burned for revenge. Since his defeat at the hands of Emperor Charles’ Spanish arquebusiers at Pavia on February 23, 1525, Francis had spent a year in Spanish prisons. After Charles finally released him on promises of a huge ransom in 1526, Francis refused to surrender the territories conceded, even though two of his sons were still being held as hostages. They remained in Spanish captivity for the next four years while Francis worked to raise another army.

On April 30, 1527, he and King Henry VIII formed an alliance by signing the Treaty of Westminster. When Francis’ reconstituted forces were ready, he and Henry declared war on Emperor Charles the following year.

In the campaign season of 1528, France was ready to send that army into northern Italy to challenge Emperor Charles once more. The expeditionary force’s 43-year-old commander, Marshal Odet de Foix, vicomte de Lautrec, had been victorious with Francis at Marignano (near Milan) in 1515, but had suffered defeat at La Bicocca in 1522. Lautrec too had been captured and ransomed after Pavia in 1525. His sister was one of the King’s mistresses.

Early in the campaign, the French exacted revenge on Pavia by taking and sacking the city. As Lautrec’s army moved south toward Rome, the remaining imperial troops fled the city, ending a nine-month occupation that was marked by extortion and terror.

Ten thousand victims were buried in shallow graves. Another 2,000 Roman corpses decayed in and around the Tiber River. As the Spanish and German soldiers departed, they carried an estimated total of 3 to 4 million ducats’ worth of loot. Plague, famine and the stench of death remained in their wake.

Pursued by the French, the imperial army took refuge in Naples, and Lautrec’s forces invested the city. All Europe condemned the excesses of the imperial troops. Public opinion, as much as was possible in the 16th century, heavily supported the French cause. Lautrec was lauded as the savior of the Catholic Church and the Pope. Admiral Andrea Doria of Genoa dispatched a fleet, commanded by his nephew Filippo Doria, to cut off Naples from relief by sea.

POPE CLEMENT WAS FREE but would remain so only if Lautrec could prevail at Naples. For weeks the Spanish and German mercenaries remained safe behind the city walls. Summer dragged on, and the French army, backed by the Genoese fleet, maintained a siege, hoping to starve the imperial army into final, decisive capitulation.

It was at that point that Pediculus humanis corporis entered the picture with the French themselves. Body lice had latched onto Lautrec’s soldiers as they marched into northern Italy. Nesting in the men’s woolen clothing, the lice emerged several times each day to take a blood meal from their hosts.

Ordinarily, this would have been a standard annoyance of an army on campaign, but unknown to anyone P. corporis was sick. Small bacterial parasites known today as rickettsia infested its gut. The louse would defecate near the puncture wounds it made in the course of taking its daily meals. The soldiers scratched because the small bites itched. The scratching pushed the infected louse feces into the broken skin–and with it the rickettsia, which then entered the host’s bloodstream.

Several days to a week after being bitten by the lice, soldiers suddenly began to suffer from chills, fever and severe headaches. General body aches followed. The victims felt exhausted and took to their straw beds. High fevers continued. A skin rash appeared on the trunk and spread to the arms and legs. Fingers and toes turned black as gangrene set in. Men became delirious, too sick to move. Their livers, kidneys, hearts and brains failed. There was no cure, and most of the men died. The minority who survived could not recover their strength for weeks.

Surgeons schooled in medieval medicine tried bleeding the victims or purging their bowels with noxious substances. The general effect of that treatment was to hasten death from shock or kidney failure. Unaware of the nature of the disease, let alone the cure, the doctors also became sick and soon died off.

The typhus epidemic raged through July and August outside Naples while, ironically, the imperial defenders, cut off within the city, were spared its effects. The lice were not immune–they all died within one to three weeks, but not before they had spread the malady to others. Healthy lice bit sick men and became infected. Their hosts died, and the lice infested other men–until they, too, died.

Meanwhile, Andrea Doria broke his pledge of fealty to King Francis over pay issues and recalled Filippo’s fleet from Naples. Not for the first time since the war began, Genoa’s loyalty shifted from Pope Clement to Emperor Charles. The ailing French army in Italy was on its own.

Lautrec himself fell ill in August. He had witnessed the decimation of his men by this pestilence, but he was spared having to watch the final demise of his army as he slipped from delirium to coma and died on August 15.


By August 29, a force of 25,000 soldiers had dwindled to merely 4,000 weakened survivors. As the French tried to escape, the imperial cavalry emerged from Naples and struck most of them down.

Once again the imperial army dominated Italy and intimidated Pope Clement VII. That in turn would have unexpected consequences in faraway England. There, 37-year-old King Henry VIII wanted to divorce his queen, Catherine of Aragon, declaring they were never truly married despite half a dozen pregnancies and one living daughter, Mary, but no son and heir. Henry wanted a 23-year-old lady of the court, Anne Boleyn, but she judiciously withheld her favors until he took whatever steps would be necessary to make her his queen.

To achieve his royal heart’s desire, Henry needed the pope to approve the annulment of his marriage to Catherine. He charged his lord chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, with the task. There was a problem, however: The wife Henry was so anxious to discard was the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Catherine’s older sister, Joan the Mad, was the mother of Emperor Charles V. In 1527 Pope Clement VII was in no position to grant an annulment that would most certainly anger the man whose troops were already marauding in Rome. Wolsey’s only hope of accomplishing his mission was a French victory that would break the Spanish-imperial army’s control in Italy–and remove Charles’ dagger from Pope Clement’s throat.

THE NEWS OF Lautrec’s defeat outside Naples reached France and England by early fall of 1528. Charles remained the undisputed master in Italy, leaving Francis and Clement with no choice but to make a deal. Francis gave up all claims in Italy, leaving the papacy under the imperial thumb. Consequently, the pope would not approve an annulment that would dishonor Charles’ aunt.

Although circumstances in Italy had been beyond Cardinal Wolsey’s control, the failure of his royal mission sat poorly with his disappointed king. In 1529 Wolsey retired to his bishopric in York, and by 1530 he was facing charges of treason. Death from dysentery while en route to the Tower of London spared him from the headsman’s axe.

With the pope disinclined to give him what he wanted, King Henry took matters into his own hands. He divorced Catherine, an action that also divorced his kingdom from the Roman Church. He replaced it with the Church of England, starting the Protestant Reformation in Britain.

Anne Boleyn, whom Henry married in 1533, gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, later that year; but like her predecessor, she produced no son. Within three years, Henry would send Anne to the block. He had found a simpler means of divorce.

Francis finally ransomed his two sons in 1530, even while he and Emperor Charles fought one another intermittently over the next two decades. One prince eventually became Henry II, King of France, following Francis’ death in 1547–the same year in which Henry VIII died.

SUCH WAS THE 16th-century emergence of typhus on the European political stage. It would also affect military history thereafter. In 1812 the disease contributed to an estimated 50 percent of the casualties sustained by Napoleon’s Grande Arme during his ill-fated march to Moscow. In the chaotic conditions in Russia following World War I, an estimated 30 million persons contracted typhus and 3 million died between 1918 and 1922.

When typhus threatened Britain’s Royal Navy between 1816 and 1819, James Lind–who had earlier recommended lemons and limes to prevent scurvy–persuaded the fleet to see that sailors were regularly stripped, washed, shaved and issued clean clothes. Even Lind was not sure why, but the epidemic abated. The bacterium behind typhus was ultimately discovered in the first two decades of the 20th century by Howard Ricketts and Stanislaus von Prowazek. Its name, Rickettsia prowazekii, is also their epitaph both scientists died of the disease whose mysteries they worked so hard to unravel.

Another wartime epidemic at Naples, this time in 1943, was abated with a novel approach–exterminating the lice with DDT. The introduction of DDT signaled the end of epidemic typhus. More recently, effective antibiotics have been developed to treat rickettsial infections.

In the time of King Francis I, Emperor Charles V, Pope Clement VII and King Henry VIII, however, nobody had ever heard of the microorganisms that killed human host and insect carrier alike. All they perceived was an invisible force that destroyed Marshal Lautrec and his army, bringing the grand schemes of many men to naught.

Thus do the best-laid plans of lice and men oft go awry.

Robert Hooke depicted a louse in his Micrographia in 1655, but his contemporaries still did not understand just how that pest could have annihilated the French army besieging Naples in 1528.


By Richard D. Callahan

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Source: Military History, Feb 2005, Vol. 21 Issue 6, p18, 4p
Item: 15242860

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