Caterina Sforza Part 6 – The Siege of Forli

Gina Mckee as Caterina Sforza at the Siege of Forli
My last entry on Caterina Sforza was a while ago, and for that I apologise. The Renaissance in general has just taken over my life recently, and in particular the goings on in Florence as well as general Borgia stuff. So today, I thought I would combine Caterina Sforza and my most favourite of Borgia men – Cesare Borgia. Today’s post is a rather big jump in time from my last entry which covered the events of 1488, the death of her husband and her holding of the fortress of Ravaldino against the Orsi family. Today we jump forward to 1499, and in particular December of that year, when Cesare Borgia rode into Forli and began to besiege the town.
On 19th December 1499, Cesare Borgia rode into the main square of Forli sat upon a white horse, his men carrying the banner of the Borgia Bull. Borgia had previously been a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church but after the unfortunate and untimely death of his brother Juan in June 1497 he was released from his vows. In 1498 he had travelled to France where he married Charlotte D’Albret and was given the Dukedom of Valentinois, which earned him the nickname of “Valentino”. By the time Cesare had reached Forli in December 1499, he had already begun his quest to take over the States of the Romagna. The taking of Imola and Forli was the first step in this, and Imola proved no obstacle to Cesare. He took it without a problem on 11th December before riding to Forli which would prove an obstacle to the Captain General of the Papal armies. Why? Because Caterina Sforza was not going to give up her town without a fight. 
Paz Vega as Caterina Sforza in “Los Borgia”
Yet when Cesare entered the town on 19th December, he was so assured of victory that he rode with his lance at rest, a symbol of the victory he had supposed. He knew that Caterina would hold the castle, but the town proved to be no issue at all. He allowed his soldiers to do as they wished – plundering and raping – he made no effort to stop them despite the pleas from the townspeople, using the excuse that the soldiers were under the control of the King of France so he had no right to try and stop them. Instead, he promised the citizens of Forli that if he survived the upcoming battle with Caterina and her soldiers, he would give them back anything that they had lost due to the looting soldiers. 
But what were the reasons behind Cesare taking these cities? Not only did Cesare want these lands for himself, as a building block for his own principality but the Pope wanted to stamp out the resistance to papal rule. These lands were part of the Papal states and as such their rulers were required to pay an annual tithe to the Papal coffers. Alexander VI began to make out that these rulers hadn’t been paying their tithes, and needed sorting out. Add into this an incident which would have turned rather nasty, and it ended up as a recipe for disaster. When Caterina first learnt that Pope Alexander was planning to confiscate her lands, she is said to have sent a messenger to Rome by the name of Tomasino de Forli. Johannes Burchard reported:
“On that evening (that Cesare left Rome), a certain Tomasino of Forli, one of the Pope’s musicians, was seized with a companion and taken to the Castel Sant’ Angelo where they were both imprisoned. Tomasino had come to Rome with some poisoned letters which he had rolled up in a reed to present to the Pope, on the excuse that they were petitions from the citizens of Forli seeking some reconciliation with His Holiness. Had the pope accepted the letters, he would, after a few days or even hours, with no hope of remedy, have succumbed and died…But the details of the conspiracy came to the pope’s ears. On his orders, the two men were arrested and questioned, and they plainly confessed the whole plan.”
Probably not Caterina’s greatest moment, but she still refused to give up. And she had managed to rebuff Cesare on at least two occasions from the battlements of Ravaldino. On December 27th, having become frustrated by Caterina’s refusal to listen to his demands and the growing respect that his troops were gaining for her, he ordered a tunnel be dug under the moat to the castle walls. He then ordered cannon to be placed around the keep of Ravaldino. He had had enough, and he would blast her out if he had to. 
Being given the poisoned letters in “Los Borgia”
On 28th December, Cesare gave the orders to begin bombarding the fortress of Ravaldino. The first phase of bombardment destroyed one of the fortresses defencive towers but Caterina still stood firm. She moved into the main keep and began returning fire, which devastated Cesare’s troops and killed his artillery expert Constantino de Bologna. The death of this man really shook the morale of the troops and the french soldiers cried out that their king would give 10,000 ducats to bring Bologna back to life again. In the end, Cesare grew so desperate that he began offering a thousand ducats to any man who could bring him the corpse of Caterina’s own artillery expert, or two thousand if the man was brought to him alive.
In a very clever ruse one January morning, a group of men dressed in cloaks came chanting through Cesare’s camp. They said they were pilgrims on their way to Rome to celebrate the Holy Year and promised that they would pray for any who let them pass through in safety. The men made their way towards Ravaldino, the drawbridge came down and they went inside, giving Caterina another 40 men to defend the fortress. By now, the situation was getting dire for Cesare – he was waiting for money from his father to pay his troops and had received word that Giovanni Sforza had almost intercepted the chests of money. In response he concentrated all his firepower on the weakest section of the walls, the southernmost edge facing the mountains and he spent two days building trenches and fortifications to make sure he breached the wall. And as soon as the troops who had been inside the city returned from celebrating the feast of the epiphany, the assault began again. He battered the walls of the castle day and night, and slowly the walls began to crumble. But Caterina still held her ground, sending her men to try and repair the breaches as best as they could and worked at destroying the morale of Cesare’s troops – even going so far as to paint insults on their own canon balls. But pieces of the walls kept on falling, creating a pathway across the moat.
On January 12th, the pay for his men had arrived and morale had stepped up when he offered incentives to his men if they worked harder to take the fortress. They threw everything they had at the now super weak wall, tearing a massive breach. The debris that fell from the widening hole in the wall made it too difficult for the defenders to repair it, as did well timed and well placed shots from Cesare’s own cannon. Following a lunch with his commanders in which he boasted he would soon have Caterina in his hands, he issued an order to take the fortress. And as his men poured into the fortress, no shots greeted them, and the defenders did not even dare to greet Cesare’s men head on. They had begun to desert their countess, and one brave man climbed to the top of the fortress to replace Caterina’s standard with that of the Borgia bull. Forli now belonged to Cesare Borgia.
But Caterina still would not be beaten. She strode out of her keep and fought side by side with her remaining men. As her commanders fell around her, she fought her way back to the keep and locked the doors behind her. And she began to prepare for a siege. Cesare however, now fully confident of his victory had his trumpet signalled, calling Caterina out to him for the third and final time. He acted concerned, begged her to stop this madness. She replied that if he was so concerned he should show mercy to her townspeople. But before she could say anything more, a hand fell on her shoulders and she was told that she was now a prisoner of the lord of Dijon. She had been betrayed by men who had been inside the walls of her own keep. 
Cesare now bided his time before entering the keep properly, waiting for the last remnants of his enemies to be subdued. But once he entered, the french captain demanded his reward from Cesare for capturing the countess. Cesare ordered that the man be paid 2000 ducats but the captain replied that Cesare had publicly promised 10,000 ducats. The captain then threatened to slice Caterina’s throat if the full amount was not paid. Yves D’ Allegre also pointed out that under French law no woman could be held as a prisoner of war which was what she would be if she was handed over to the Borgia. Cesare insisted however that she be handed over to him for safe-keeping and promised that she would be kept safe. Once she had been handed over however, Borgia bustled her out of the keep and through the carnage surrounding her castle.
She would then be taken to Rome where she would be held as prisoner but not before, it is said at any rate, Cesare held her in the castle of a local nobleman and raped her. This part of her history, along with her imprisonment in Rome, however is the next part of her story. But for now, the famous Tigress of Forli had been beaten by the Borgia Bull.
Further Reading

Caterina Sforza Part 5 – Ten More Sons.

Gina McKee as Caterina Sforza, shouting down from her ramparts that she had the “means to make ten more sons!”
There is one story about Caterina Sforza that will always stick in someones mind. Ask anyone who has watched Showtime’s recent “The Borgias” what the one thing they remember Caterina for is. and then will say the words “ten more sons”. These three words are some of the most famous attributed to Caterina Sforza, probably more now than before thanks to The Borgias. But did she really say them? When did she say them? Did she really lift her skirts and show her genitalia to soldiers before her walls and shout those words down? Were they really said as Juan Borgia laid siege to the city of Forli?
I can answer that last question straight of the bat. No, she did not utter those famous famous words at the siege of Forli. She actually uttered the words in 1488, as she held the fortress of Ravaldino against the Orsi family and murderers of her husband. The Borgias places Juan Borgia as commander of the besieging army – the problem with this though is that the siege of Forli did not take place until 1499. How on earth could Juan Borgia be at the siege of Forli when he died in 1497? In reality it was Cesare Borgia who besieged Forli in 1499 and who eventually took Caterina prisoner. But that’s another subject for another post. Today, I will be talking about the events that lead up to the supposed “ten more sons”, and the time she spent holed up in the fortress of Ravaldino after the murder of her husband.
Going back somewhat, I left the last entry at the point where Girolamo’s assassins entered Caterina’s chambers. Now, she cowed against the wall, protecting her children. None of her husbands assassins dared to even touch her, however her sister was with her and when one of the men tried to grope her she slapped him away. 
As the townspeople greeted Bishop Savelli, who rode into Forli on 15th April 1488, carrying the papal banner and intending to bring Forli under papal control; the fortress of Ravaldino was still in the hands of Riario supporters and it would be prudent for the supporters to get their countess inside the walls of Ravaldino. There she would be safe. Yet the Orsi family had the idea of taking her to the fortress and having her demand the castellans hand the fortress over to the Orsis. Ludovico Orsi therefore took her from her prison in the Orsi palace and dragged her away from her children. They took her before the walls of Ravaldio where she spoke to Tommaso Feo, begging that he give up the fortress for the sake of her children. Feo refused, saying his orders were to keep the castle safe for Ottaviano. And as the crowds listened to the exchange it became clear that this man was Caterina’s friend and ally. He dropped the names of Sforza, Cardinal Riario and Bentivolglio to make it clear to her captors that she had her allies. The Orsi then dragged her away, realising that the whole exchange was likely staged, that there was no plan to hand the castle over to them. 
Her captors were of course angry that she had played them for fools, and they threatened to run her though with lances. And as they did so, her whole demeanour changed. No longer was she an upset widow, instead she became strong, “Certainly you can hurt me, but you don’t scare me because I am the daughter of a man who knew no fear. Do what you want: you have killed my lord, you can certainly kill me. After all, I’m just a woman”.
They took her back to her prison, determined to break her spirits. They knew she was a pious woman and thought that by using her religion against her, they would break her. They smuggled a priest into her rooms and confronted her about both her and her husbands sins. Saying that his husband had been killed for her sins, he demanded she give up Ravaldino and if she did not, she would face the same fate as her husband. He said also that if she did not hand over the fortress, she would be punished by starvation and eternal hellfire for both her and her children. She banged on the door and screamed that he be taken away and she later admitted that she found this experience more traumatic than losing her husband. However, bishop Savelli (who had previously rode to the town to bring it under papal control), had her family moved to the tower of Porta San Pietro for their safety, while she was removed across the town and placed in a small cell.
On April 16th, a message came to to a man who was loyal to the Riarios (but pretending to work for the Orsi) by the name of Ercolani. The message was from Feo who said he would give up the castle on one condition: Caterina would have to pay him his back wages and give him a good reference for any future employment. Caterina would have to come alone. Of course, the Orsi would not agree to this so Savelli agreed to a compromise. It would have to be done with Caterina outside the walls, in full view. Once again she made her way up to the walls of Ravaldino and called to Feo, promising he would have everything he had asked for. Feo then said that Caterina would have to come into the fortress to sign a contract and only one person was allowed to come inside with her. The Orsi put up a fight but Savelli sent her inside, wishing for everything to be over with. And she took with her a young groom named Luca. And as she crossed the drawbridge, she turned back to the crowd and raised her hand with the index and ring fingers folded back and her thumb tucked between her. She had just, for all intents and purposes, sworn violently as the crowd.
Savelli had given her three hours to conduct her business. But the three hour limit came and went and she did not set foot outside the front of the castle. After a while, Feo appeared on the battlements and shouted down that he had taken Caterina as his hostage! He then said he would exchange her for several members of the nobility, all of which were supporters of the Orsi family. The Orsi knew that Caterina and Feo had planned this and in anger they went and seized Ottaviano and his nurse before dragging them back to Ravaldino. The child begged for mercy, his cries mingling with the cries of his little brother Livio; and the soldiers shouted threats. The cries of her children summoned her to the ramparts of Ravaldino.
Tradition dictated that she should give in when faced with her endangered children. Yet she was not like other women, she was the daughter of a great family of warriors. She knew that Savelli knew her children were the nephews of the Duke of Milan, and that Milan would bring justice swiftly down on anyone who caused the children harm. She also knew that giving up the castle would give her no advantage whatsoever against the Orsi’s, that if she did so then she and her family would be in danger of imprisonment and of being poisoned. 
And this is where the “ten more sons” myth comes from, the most well known and well publicised version of this story. It was said that she walked to the edge of the ramparts and as the Orsi threatened to kill her children on the spot, she shouted back, “Do it then you fools! I am already pregnant with another child by Count Riario and I have the means to make more!”. Others wrote of the event, and Galeotto Manfredi wrote to Lorenzo De Medici that Caterina had raised her skirts, grabbed her genitals and shouted that unlike those men below, she had the means of making ten more sons. Niccolo Machiavelli also repeats this story in his discourses but no one else mentions such a salacious version of events. This however, is a complete myth. There are contemporary accounts written by Cobelli and Bernardi which mention nothing of any such words. Both men, both local authors and diarists, mention that her children were brought to the walls but that Caterina never stepped foot on the ramparts. Cobelli mentions that she stayed inside on purpose while Feo had several cannon shots fired. 
Savelli reclaimed the family immediately to take them away from the danger that the Orsi’s were placing them in. He knew they were unstable and he had to protect the children by placing them under a heavier guard. 
Caterina held the castle until April 29th. The Milanese army had come, and they demanded that the Riario family be reinstated, and Savelli made it clear of the Papal position on the matter also. The people began to panic, thinking that the Roman army was on its way. Yet as they arrived, only fifty horseman rode through the gates and had been sent by Cardinal Riario to help his aunt. The Orsi ran to the Porta San Pietro where they believed the Riario children to be, and banged o the doors saying that Savelli had ordered them to take the children and keep them safe. The guards refused, knowing full well that Savelli had ordered no such thing. 
And as Caterina heard the shouts of her townspeople, and the cheers as the Orsi’s were ousted from power she would have heard the shouts of “Duke!” and “Ottaviano”
Her son was now the rightful ruler of Forli, she had won. She had stepped into the shoes of the warrior noblewoman who has come down to us through the centuries. From that moment on she was known as a Tigress, a woman who really was her fathers daughter. And she would rule Forli until her son came of age. 
Further Reading

Elizabeth Lev, The Tigress of Forli, 
Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
Paul Strathern, The Artist, The Philosopher and the Warrior
Ernst Breisach, Caterina Sforza: A Renaissance Virago
Christopher Hibbert, The Borgias and Their Enemies
Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilisation of the Renaissance In Italy
Christopher Hare, The Most Illustrious Ladies of the Italian Renaissance
Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy
Will Durant, The Renaissance: A History of Civilization in Italy from 1304-1576 AD