506 years ago today, one of the greatest military commanders that Italy had ever seen was killed at the Siege of Viana. On 12th March 1507, Cesare Borgia rode to his death following a life of extraordinary feats – son (possibly, please see this post for more information on that) of a Pope, the first man ever to resign from the College of Cardinals, Gonfalonier and commander of the Papal armies; he died as he had spent most of the final years of his life, alone. As I’m sure many of my readers are aware, I have the greatest respect for Cesare Borgia and am a huge advocate of dismissing the terrible rumours that surround his life – and so today I will write about his death, the circumstances surrounding it and how its wider effects.
Sergio Peris-Mancheta as Cesare in Los Borgia
Having escaped from his imprisonment in Spain, Cesare headed to Navarre where he joined forces with his father in law Jean D’Albret. There, he spent his time fighting with Jean and helping the King of Navarre besiege various towns. There is a fantastic story in which an old man remembered Cesare passing through the town of Mendigorria at the head of a massive army. The old man spoke of how Cesare was, “a big man, strong, handsome, and soro” (Soro is an untranslatable word used to describe young falcons). It is said that Cesare carried a particular weapon which is incredibly unusual, but mentioned many times by other chroniclers who described Cesare’s time in Navarre – a short, thick, double pointed lance. Cesare Borgia, a man who had been imprisoned and suffered great hardship since 1503, was back in the saddle and at the height of health and fitness.
During the first week of March, Cesare joined up with King Jean of Navarre at the town of Viana. The plan was to besiege and take the town from Luis de Beaumonte, a man who held the town on behalf of the Spanish monarchs. Considering as how this town was in the kingdom of Navarre, King Jean wanted the town back in his control and Cesare, the man who had made the Romagna fall to his knees, would have found the town and its castle an easy target. It seems however that Cesare was overconfident and the wariness he was so famous for when it came to warfare had relaxed. In a way, the events of the next few days were somewhat inevitable, given the overconfidence of Borgia, and the lack of experience he had in commanding a fully trained army rather than paid mercenaries.
Mark Ryder as Cesare in Borgia: Faith & Fear
On the night of 11th March, Cesare withdrew his troops into the safety of the town due to a harsh rainstorm. He didn’t think that Beaumonte would attack during such bad weather, but this was a mistake and Beaumonte had been waiting for Cesare to make such a move. Under the cover of darkness, Beaumonte lead mules into the town – they were loaded with flour and bread and escorted by 200 lances. They entered the castle unnoticed. At dawn the next day, they noticed a body of cavalry approaching and thought they were reinforcements and so raised their cry. As the words “Beaumonte, Beaumonte!” were cried, the alarm was raised in the town.
Despite the confusion, Cesare leapt onto his horse dressed in light armour and rode out of the town with seventy horseman and his squire, Grasica. He left a note for King Jean to follow. Accounts of what happened during the next few hours conflict quite a lot, but it seems as Cesare galloped out of the Solana gate his horse slipped in the mud and almost fell. Cesare gained control of the horse and rode out of the town shouting:
“Where is he, this little Count?”
Cesare out rode his men, and caught sight of the Beaumonte soldiers as they were retreating to where Beaumonte waited for them. And Cesare Borgia, who had out ridden his men, did not realise he was alone. And as Beaumonte observed the lone horseman galloping forward with his unusual double pointed lance, he sent forward three of his best knights. These men included Garcia de Agreda and Pedro de Allo as well as some foot soldiers. These men waited in ambush, and as Cesare approached they fell upon him. As Cesare raised his arm to strike, Ximenes Garcia stabbed him with a lance under the arm, at the point unprotected by his armour.
Cesare fell from his horse, mortally wounded, yet he still had hold of his lance. He fought desperately, something that is shown fantastically in the Spanish movie “Los Borgia”, but it wasn’t long until he fell, completely overwhelmed by his attackers.
Cesare’s death: Los Borgia
Cesare’s death: Los Borgia
Cesare’s death: Los Borgia
As he lay there, dead of his wounds, Cesare Borgia was stripped of his armour and left there naked and bleeding. One of the men, it is unknown which, had the decency to cover his genitals with a rock. Later, when his body was examined, at least twenty five stab wounds were found. It was just three days short of the Ides of March when he died, the day that had proven to be fateful to his hero Caesar. It seems that the men who attacked him were completely unaware that it was Cesare Borgia whom they had killed. Cesare’s squire, Juanito grasica was found desperately searching for his master and when he was shown the armour that was taken, he burst into tears. It was at that moment that the attackers realised who they had killed. Beaumonte erupted in a rage. He had lost a valuable prize, for the price that was on the head of Duke Valentino alive was a high one. But nothing could be done, and so Beaumonte lead the squire to where Cesare’s corpse lay. King Jean of Navarre had Cesare’s body carried to Viana.
Cesare Borgia, Duke of Valentinois and the Romagna; ex cardinal and son of Pope Alexander VI was buried in the parish church of Santa Maria in Viana. He was just thirty one when he was killed, and by the time of his death had achieved more than most men of his age ever had. He was buried in an elaborate marble tomb with the inscription:
“Here, in a scant piece of earth, lies he whom all the world feared”
It has since been suggested that Cesare deliberately rode out to his death in a sort of suicidal charge. Historians have previously argued that it was the syphilis that made him do this, that it had affected his brain so much that it made him go mad. However, Bradford has argued that by the time of his death it is more than likely that he was cured of the disease thanks to the malarial fever that he suffered in 1503. Plus, the final stages of syphilis can take up to 25 years to appear, and when he died in 1503 it would have been just 9 years since he first contracted the disease. There is also no evidence of madness in the lead up to his death. Had Cesare given up hope and ridden to his own death? It is unlikely for even under the bleakest of circumstances he had never lost hope. So why should he have done so now? Yet it is impossible now to arrive at the real reasoning behind his death – had he just gotten carried away and ridden out faster than his men, or had he indeed gone mad? Was he bored of being stuck in a little war which he believed meant nothing? Indeed, Cesare died alone – mostly as he lived. He had spent so many years fighting the odds and succeeding, and he may well have succeeded here – for he had a huge sense of his own destiny and of fortuna. He had such a lust for power and was prepared to sacrifice everything to succeed. Yet despite his single handed desire to succeed, and to rule, he failed. He was blessed with his desire to succeed, he was ruthless and in many ways amoral but in the same way he was also bordering on genius. And had he lived, he could have ruled the whole of Italy, if not the world.
There were not many who mourned Cesare’s passing. The main few were the three women in his life: Charlotte D’Albret, Lucrezia Borgia and Vanozza Cattanei. Charlotte ended up spending the rest of her life in mourning, dressing in black and replacing the decorations of her home with black hangings. Lucrezia also sank into a massive mourning process – the two had been exceptionally close and been subject to horrific rumours that they had been lovers. His mother, Vanozza, also mourned him deeply. Cesare had always respected his mother greatly and after his death ended up contributing charitably to various religious institutions – so much so that Pope Leo X, Cesare’s fellow student at the University of Pisa, demanded that his entire court attend her funeral.
Cesare’s body was moved outside the church of Viana after the Bishop of Calahorra destroyed his tomb. His body remained under a pavement until 27 August 1945 when a grave was opened in front of the steps of the church. There, a human body was found – it was incomplete and mixed with the bones of a child as well as domestic animals. The body was lifted out and the bones examined. Experts deduced that the skeleton was of a man aged between twenty five and forty years of age, and had lain in its grave for at least two hundred years. The bones showed clear evidence of a wound at least two centimetres in diameter which had happened while the man was still alive. It was deduced that the skeleton did indeed belong to Cesare Borgia, the lance wound fitting to the stories of his death. Shoulder wounds were also found on the skeleton, which fitted to his fall from when he escaped La Mota. In 1953, the bones were reinterred inside the church in Viana with considerable ceremony, permission having been given for Cesare Borgia’s reburial.
Cesare Borgia, if indeed the bones do belong to him, was reburied in front of the main door of the church of Santa Maria. Above his grave lies a simple slab reading “Cesar Borgia, Generalisimo of the Navarrese and Pontifical armies died in the fields of Viana 12 March 1507”. There he lies to this day, his simple grave still able to be viewed by the curious tourist. Next to the church is a bronze bust of Cesare which stands in the middle of a little park next to the church in Viana.
Cesare Borgia died alone, just three short days before the death of his hero, Caesar. Yet he lived by his motto “Aut Caesar, Aut Nihil”, and it really rings true in the lead up to his death. “Either Caesar, Or Nothing”. Whilst many still believe Cesare Borgia to be the big, bad villain; if you study his life in depth he really wasn’t the monster that many still make out.
Rest in peace Cesare Borgia, duca de Valentinois é la Romagna. I shall raise a glass of wine to you this evening.