Charles Gonzaga (1580 –1637) was a fascinating character with an array of aristocratic titles. Born in Paris, he was the son of Louis Gonzaga, Duke of Nevers, and Henriette of Cleves. He features indirectly in Tom’s memoir as the target of one of Cardinal Richelieu’s assassination plots.
Charles became Duke of Rethel and Duke of Nevers in 1595. In 1600 he founded, in Nevers, the Order of the Yellow Ribbon, soon outlawed by the King of France. He also invented the title of Prince of Arches for himself, relating to some territory around the modern-day city of Charleville (Mézières) that Charles founded in 1606.
Charles was also a descendant, through his grandmother, of the Byzantine Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus. In 1612 he claimed the throne of Constantinople, at the time the capital of the Ottoman Empire. He began plotting with Greek rebels, including the Maniots of southern Greece, who addressed him as “King Constantine Palaeologus”. When the Ottoman authorities discovered this plot, they dispatched an army of 20,000 men and 70 ships to invade Mani. They ravaged Mani and imposed taxes on the Maniots, prompting Charles to seek help from the European powers to further his crusade. In 1619, he recruited six ships and some five thousand men, but was forced to abort his mission owing to the outbreak of the Thirty Years War. It was because of his conflict with the Ottomans and hence common cause that the Grand Master of the Order of St John would later (in 1628) instruct Edward, Tom’s companion, to foil the assassination plot against Charles.
In 1627, at the death of the last legitimate male heir of the Gonzaga line in the Duchy of Mantua, Vincenzo II, Charles inherited the title through an agreement. In addition to becoming Duke of Mantua he also became Duke of Montferrat. His succession to these titles angered Charles Emmanuel I of Savoy, who had his sights on the Gonzaga lands of Montferrat, and also the Habsburg rulers of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, who also had claims to the Duchy of Mantua. (It is unclear why Richelieu, in Tom’s memoir, sought to assassinate Charles – possibly it was to replace him with his son, whom Richelieu might have considered more controllable).
The disputed claims over the duchy led to the War of the Mantuan Succession. This war, fought among the backers of rival claimants, pitted France against the Habsburgs in a contest for control of northern Italy. In 1629 Emperor Ferdinand II sent an army to besiege Mantua. The siege lasted until July 1630, when the city, already struck by a plague, was brutally sacked. Subsequent diplomacy allowed Charles, who had fled to the Papal States, to return to the Mantua in 1631, although not without concessions to the House of Savoy and to the Gonzaga of Guastalla.
Charles died in 1637. His successor was his grandson Charles II, initially under the regency of Maria Gonzaga, Charles I’s daughter-in-law.