By Dale Cozort
After some earlier fumbling, starting in 1532, France made an alliance with the Ottoman Turks against the Hapsburgs, who at the time ruled both Spain and Austria, along with several other important holdings and looked as though they could become too dominant in Europe for any power, even one as strong as France, to withstand. Despite religious difference and the fact that the Ottomans were seen as an existential threat to Europe, France made a strategic alliance with the Ottomans and often even helped them in battles.
The alliance was especially strong from the mid-1530s through the early 1550s. At times, the alliance was close enough that French and Ottoman fleets fought together. The Turks subsidized France to help fight Hapsburg influence in northern Germany and gave the French generous trade concessions in the Ottoman Empire that made France more competitive against the Hapsburgs.
The alliance came into play strongly during the several Italian Wars of the 1530s and 1540s with a brief interlude around 1538 when the French and the Hapsburgs made peace and France pledged to help fight the Turks. Several times in the 1530s and 1540s, the French coordinated their actions with the Turks to allow the Turks to ravage parts of Italy, and at times the French hosted a Turkish fleet in southern France, where it could threaten the Spanish coast and the two powers coordinated their naval actions.
The distance between the two countries made coordination difficult, and several times promised joint operations didn’t happen. In addition, French commanders were often unenthusiastic or even appalled at the consequences of the alliance, with Christian towns devastated and large numbers of their inhabitants taken into slavery. However, the alliance had an influence as far away as Persia, where French engineers helped the Ottomans sight their artillery in one Turkish/Persian war.
The Turks gradually soured on the alliance when the French repeatedly made peace with the Hapsburgs for brief periods and endured a series of weak rulers in France after the death of Henry II in a freak jousting accident, plus the bloody French Wars of Religion, which limited French influence in Europe for three decades and upended the balance of power in Europe.
France's fall in influence changed the geopolitical situation and the English, who had previously tended to ally with Spain against the French common enemy, became one of the leading powers in an alliance against Spain.
With that all as background, how could the alliance have been stronger?
Let’s toy with an easy point of divergence. Henry II of France doesn’t die in 1559 at age 40 in a freak jousting accident. If Henry II had lived, France probably wouldn’t have disintegrated to the extent it did in the French Wars of Religion. He died shortly after the end of a spate of Hapsburg/French Wars, with a compromise peace that divided the Hapsburg domains between two brothers, with the Spanish and Austrian branches ruled by separate Hapsburg branches. The peace also resulted in a marriage between youngsters of the French and Hapsburg royal houses. Just an aside: Kings of France in this period tended to die in weird ways. An earlier one died after he hit his head on a door.
Would the peace have lasted when several others hadn’t? The geopolitics wouldn’t have changed too much. The Hapsburgs were simply too powerful and hemmed the French in too much. Having their domains divided, with separate brothers ruling the two main blocks helped some, but the French had to assume that the two Hapsburg entities would coordinate their actions, so the division didn’t help too much.
Where would the Franco-Turkish alliance have gone under a surviving Henry II and presumably a France that held together better than it did historically?
There should be natural limits to how far the alliance could go. It was, when you think about it, like an alliance between a lion and a wildebeest. The Ottomans of that era were predators, with Christendom as their prey. France had to balance supporting the Turks against the Hapsburgs with knowing that the Turks, if they won too much, would become an even more formidable threat—certainly not good neighbors.
Let's say France avoided the French Wars of Religion under a strong king, which Henry II apparently was. The Turkish/French alliance is eclipsed for a few years while France and the Hapsburgs try to make their peace work. Competition between France and Spain (and to a lesser extent Portugal) in the New World heats up.
Historically, Henry II was strongly anti-Protestant, but he also, somewhat reluctantly, supported French Protestant colonies in the New World. It was a way to get the Protestants out of the country, while expanding French influence in the New World. In particular, the French set up large colonies in Brazil, near what is now Rio and in Northern Florida. Spain destroyed the Florida colony in fairly short order, but the French Brazilian colony lasted for over a decade.
My very first full-length finished (and appallingly bad-never to be published) novel involved a timeline where Henry II lived and the French colony in Florida survived, with consequences echoing throughout the continent and back to Europe. I also used a similar background in my very first zine in POD, though I combined it with a scenario where Malaria spread quickly in the New World and made it nearly impossible for Europeans to reach the Aztec highlands.
Much as I hate to avoid going there again, I’m going to avoid going there again and look at European impacts only for now.
Most attempts at peace in the Italian Wars only lasted a few years. I suspect this one would have lasted a little longer, partly because the French nobility ended the war deeply in debt, while France got a huge long-term strategic win with the Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs now under separate management, though they coordinated their actions to some extent.
I would give it maybe five to seven years at most, though before another war broke out, assuming Henry II didn’t kill himself in some other strange way or die of natural causes. France and the Spanish Hapsburgs would remain rivals. Spain historically used the partial French vacuum to build up its Mediterranean fleet and go on the offensive against the Turks, though not particularly successfully, at least at first.
The first key event for a stronger France/Turk alliance would probably be the 1565 Turkish siege of Malta, assuming it happened on schedule. If the French sent a fleet and especially artillery to help the Turks, the island might well have fallen. At that point, the tension between French and Turkish goals would almost certainly escalate. The Turks saw Malta as a steppingstone into Sicily and then Naples, which would have put them directly in the path of French ambitions in Italy.
Holding Malta would have given the Turks a key position in the Mediterranean, control of a choke point and a place from which they could project naval power further west, threatening the Italian west coast and the Spanish coast. It would make Turkish aid to any Spanish Morisco revolt much easier, possibly giving the Ottomans a toehold in Spain itself.
A strong France through the thirty years when historically it was involved in the religious war would have a lot of other implications to Europe, of course. As long as France remained strong, it threatened England, which was forced into somewhat of an alliance with Spain, which would have made the sea dog raids on the Spanish empire awkward and probably made the Spanish Armada pointless. If England remained in a quasi-alliance with Spain, it would probably be more reluctant to challenge Spanish claims to pretty much the whole New World except for parts of Brazil. English settlements in North America, especially Jamestown, came in the context of Anglo-Spanish rivalry and I'm not at all sure they would have happened the same way if the two powers had to fear a common French enemy. The Dutch would also have to worry about French expansion if they revolted against Spanish rule like they did historically. So, a very different Europe and possibly a different North America. Where do you think it would go from there?
Let’s reverse it now. Christian Europe puts aside its rivalry and presents a united front against the Turks in the 1500s, maybe even does a set of crusades to extend the reconquest from Spain to North Africa and the Balkans. How could we make that happen?
Italy was an attractive nuisance for the great powers of Europe, wealthy but divided and prone to involving neighboring powers in its disputes, with a series of popes that were too busy seeking secular power in Italy to be a unifying force. At the same time, Italy attracted the attention of two relatively balanced powers. France was in many ways the superpower of Europe, with the largest population and economy of the powers. Spain could counterbalance French power because of the riches of the Americas, starting in around 1520. It could also draw on the resources of Austria and the low countries once the dynastic stars aligned to give the Hapsburgs control of that huge territory.
A strong France automatically threatened England and the Low Countries, so even before the New World treasures tilted the balance, France was to some extent contained.
The European balance of power tended toward a great power rivalry, but the Italian wars didn’t start until 1494. For decades before that, the various Italian states had maintained, mostly, a peace within the peninsula and a common front against outsiders through the Italic League (I have an overwhelming urge to put that in italics, because I’m evil).
In any case, Lorenzo Medici, defacto ruler of Florence, was the driving force behind the league. He died in 1492 at age 43, and though the league continued to operate for a while longer and fought off a French invasion in 1494, it lost cohesion, allowing the great powers to make Italy a battleground. So, if we have Medici live maybe another ten of fifteen years, not unreasonable for the time period, though maybe pushing it, maybe we postpone the Italian wars and redirect the great power rivalry.
Without Italy as a battleground, do the French and Hapsburgs unite and launch an effort to retake North Africa and maybe the Balkans from the Turks? I doubt it, but maybe.
Another possibility: the rivalry transfers to the New World. Historically, France didn’t focus on the New World until the 1520s, after Cortes conquered the Aztecs and the treasure ships underscored the importance of the New World. What if France begins exploring the New World in 1494 rather than starting their Italian ventures? The French and Spanish compete to snap up West Indies islands, and then, when one of them discovers the Mexican or Central American mainland, they compete to conquer or maybe trade with the Aztecs. A great power competition for Mexican gold would make for a very different path for the New World and actually the Old World too.
So where do we go from there?