Never has human will and courage made a bolder bid for national glory than at Marignano, where the Swiss, the most dreaded infantry in Europe, matched pike and halberd against the canon and cavalry of the greatest power on the continent: France, led by a gallant young king and the greatest (and last) knight of the Middle Ages, the Chevalier Bayard.
In the long Renaissance struggle known as the Italian Wars (1494 to 1559), waged between France and an ever-shifting array of enemy alliances, no battle was more savage or more decisive to the future of one of the antagonists than Marignano (Sept. 13–14, 1515). Yet few but scholars of those wars have any deep knowledge of just what a “near-run” thing it was, and what a deep impression it left on contemporaries in general and especially the combatants who fought there.
“There clings to its memory a titanic echo, a heaven-storming impression; for never have human will and courage made a bolder bid for national glory than here, where the pikemen of Switzerland, without artillery, without cavalry, with nothing but bare steel, engaged well-nigh successfully the superior forces of the greatest European power.”
To fully understand the conflict and forces involved, we must take a step back and examine the origin of the Italian Wars.
CHARLES VIII: THE KING WHO TILTED AT WINDMILLS
In 1494 the king of France, Charles VIII, encouraged by Ludovico Sforza Duke of Milan, invaded Italy to make good his family’s claim to the Kingdom of Naples. Charles led an army of 25,000 men, composed of French Men-at-Arms, the best heavy cavalry in Europe, and the first mobile siege train comprised of gunpowder artillery . His army was stiffened by a crack force of 8,000 Swiss mercenaries, esteems the best heavy infantry in Europe. This was the most “modern” army of its day, a true combined-arms force.
Despite leading such a “modern” army Charles ambitions were rooted in the Middle Ages. While laying claim to Naples, once ruled by the Angevin branch of his family, Charles saw the entire enterprise as a stepping-stone toward his true goal: a march to the Holy Land and the recovery of Jerusalem. Though the spirit that motivated the early Crusades had long dissipated, campaigns launched against Islamic foes were often dignified and given an air of sanctity by being termed a “Crusade”. Fifty years earlier a kinsman of his, Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy, had joined the Crusade against the Ottoman Turks that ended disastrously at the Battle of Varna. The quixotic Charles saw in his very modern and now blooded army an instrument with which to achieve the age-old quest of restoring the Holy Land to Christendom.
The French swept away all resistance as they marched down the Italian boot. Naples was taken in February 1495, the city opening its gates without resistance. During this march the Swiss distinguished themselves in the storming of several towns and fortresses by their singular ferocity and refusal to take prisoners. The furor Helveticus was unleashed on Italy for the first time.
However, Charles rapid successes and the brutality of his Swiss troops frightened the Italian states and the Papacy into an alliance against the French presence, called the Holy League (of 1495, or as the League of Venice). As Italy rose around him, and with his line of communications to France threatened, Charles left a garrison in Naples and turned his army toward home. At Fornovo his way was barred by a strong League army guarding a swollen river crossing, and the French had to fight their way through. Here Charles’ cannon, his ferocious Swiss, and the valor of the French men-at-arms won the day. But not without a loss of some 1,200 men (the League casualties were higher, at some 2,000 dead) and his baggage, which was captured by the enemy.
Footsore and tattered, the French returned home. Though he had failed (miserably) in conquering Italy (much less the Holy Land), Charles had established a French presence in Naples. But the vainglorious young king’s strange adventure in Italy, where like Don Quixote he had tilted at romantic windmills, opened doors and unleashed forces no one could have foreseen. The ease with which the French had overrun the Italian peninsula; their mastery, however brief, of many of its cities; and the triumph in the field of French arms and tactical methods, all served to impress on the minds of a generation of French soldiers that came of age at this time the certainty that nothing was impossible to the gallant French, and that none could stand against them in war. This would go far to explaining the superb courage displayed again-and-again by French soldiery in the years to come. It would take a long and bloody series of Italian “adventures” to disillusion them of this vain sense of their own invincibility.
THE CHEVALIER BAYARD IN THE EARLY ITALIAN WARS
Among the French heavy cavalry at Fornovo was a young gendarme named Pierre Terrail, seigneur de Bayard. The Italian adventure was his first campaign, and Fornovo his first pitched battle. He was but 22 years old, and served in the company of Louis de Luxembourg, the seigneur de Ligny. In this battle young Bayard, already noted amongst the army for his good look, off-handed charm, and skill with horse and arms in the tilting yard and tournament, distinguished himself by spurring into the midst of the Italian men-at-arms and coming away with not one but two captured standards. These he presented to his king, and may have been knighted on this occasion.
In the years that followed, Bayard earned fame as the beau sabreur of the French forces fighting in Italy, as the French found themselves facing a host of foes (the most dangerous of these were the Spanish, who entered the contest in 1495). Always at the forefront of any engagement, Bayard was wounded at the storming of lofty Canossa in 1502. In January the following year Bayard fought a famous duel with the Spanish champion, Don Alonso de Soto-Mayor, each representing the honor of their kingdoms. Even though weakened with a fever Bayard prevailed, slaying the Spaniard and winning great renown among both armies. That same year, 1503, he was the hero of a celebrated combat of thirteen French knights against an equal number of Spaniards. In December 1503 the French were defeated at the Battle of Garigliano. Bayard, leading a rearguard of 14 other men-at-arms, delayed the pursuit of the fleeing army long enough for the French to find succor behind the walls of distant Gaeta; for a while single-handedly holding a bridge over the river against some 200 Spaniards.
For the next 12 years Bayard fought in battles and sieges from Naples to the fields of Flanders. From a gallant young blade in the army of Charles VIII, Bayard grew into a highly skilled captain of horse. He became particularly adept at what today would be called “special operations”: daring raids behind enemy lines or sudden escalade against fortified places. First into any breach, ever in the vanguard of battle, he became the most famous and gallant soldier in Europe and the pride of his nation. He loyally served three kings: Charles VIII, Louis XII, and in 1515 his final sovereign, young François I. He was known as le bon chevalier, or “the good knight”; and le chevalier sans peur et sans reproche (“the knight without fear and beyond reproach”); though his informal nickname within the French army was “Spur“, a reference to his habit of always spurring his horse furiously towards his opponent in joust and combat.
A final note on his appellation as the knight sans reproche. Two examples from his life illustrate the man’s exemplary character.
The first occurred during the storming of Brescia in 1512. Bayard led a wedge of dismounted men-at-arms though the breach in the defenses. The fight was ferocious, and the French were thrown back several times before forcing their way into the town. Bayard was severely wounded in the thigh, and as the French forces raged through the streets his soldiers carried the chevalier to a nearby mansion; the residence of a nobleman, his wife and two daughters. Though near death, Bayard protected the house and its ladies from the usual grim fate meted out to women in a captured fortress. Nursed to health by the nobleman’s wife and daughters, he endowed the two daughters with a thousand gold ducats each towards their future dowries; the money paid originally to him by the lady of the house as ransom for their lives and property. Thus, while his comrades-in-arms got rich on plunder and ransom of rich captive, Bayard paid back the one ransom he received (that for the safety of the nobleman, his family and property) in thanks for the nursing care he received.
A second and even more telling example of the gallantry of the man comes from one of those rare times of peace when he was traveling home to Grenoble. Before departing for a banquet the chevalier told his squire to find him a girl to share his bed, and to have her ready upon his return. The squire knew of a gentlewomen fallen on hard times, who had a lovely young daughter. Arrangements were made, with the mother accepting a gratuity for her daughter’s virtue. The young lass was waiting in Bayard’s apartment when the chevalier returned to the room. He was instantly taken with her, as she is described as “fair as an angel”. However, he also noted that she had “wept till her eyes were swollen”.
Bayard asked what was the matter that so distressed her. She explained that her family’s poverty had compelled her mother to agree to the evening’s arrangement. Moved by this, Bayard escorted the girl back to her mother. There he first upbraided the women for selling her daughter, but then emptied his purse, providing the girl with a two hundred crowns for her future dowry, and another hundred for her maintenance and still another hundred for her mother’s. The four hundred crowns given was in that day a truly impressive sum, given at a time in his life when the great soldier was relatively poor.
Bayard was a man of his time, to be sure; and certainly no plaster saint or aesthetic. But he was possessed of a generous spirit and adhered to an ideal of chivalry more often observed in the absence than in the practice. He was truly a “noble knight” in an age where such ideals were rapidly fading away; and at the same time an effective Renaissance captain of war.
THE SWISS WAR MACHINE
At the beginning of the 16th century the Swiss had a well-earned reputation as the most fearsome infantry in Europe, and as mercenaries were much sought after by European potentates. From the Battle of Morgarten in 1315 to Marignano in 1515 the Swiss had enjoyed two centuries of nearly uninterrupted success on the battlefield.
The formation of an independent Swiss Confederation resulted from the Swiss victory over Duke Leopold of Austria at the Battle of Sempach. There the Swiss halberd in the hands of sturdy mountain yeomen triumphed over lance and sword wielded by aristocratic Austrian men-at-arms. Duke Leopold died, the stroke of a halberd splitting his skull. Swiss victory in the Swabian War in 1499 ensured their de facto independence from the Holy Roman Empire.
The Swiss had become the premiere infantry in Europe by, in essence, reviving the ancient tactical system of the Macedonians, the pike-armed phalanx; while giving it a highly aggressive character uniquely their own. Whereas the Macedonian phalanx in the days of Alexander and his Hellenistic Successors advanced at a steady, measured pace into contact with its opponents, the Swiss charged forward, pikes lowered, at a run. Unlike the Macedonians, the Swiss phalanx included halberdiers. The halberd was the national weapon of these mountain dwellers, surrounded by foes who relied on mailed horsemen. The eight foot shaft sported a heavy steel ax blade, combined with a hook on the back side for pulling horsemen from the saddle. Wielded by these stout alpine yeomen, the halberd was a murderous weapon that could defeat even the best plate armor of a man-at-arms. Tactically, the halberdiers were placed deep within the body of the pike block, and would advance against the enemy through their own ranks once contact was made and the two sides were locked in melee. So, when the pikemen had stopped an enemy’s charge, or threw an enemy formation back onto its haunches, the halberdiers would then wade-in and create massive carnage.
In battle the Swiss invariably advanced rapidly, their pike blocks screened by a swarm of light infantry crossbowmen and/or (once introduced to warfare) handgonners. In an age when generals spent hours marshaling and deploying their forces, the Swiss arrived on the field already deployed in their characteristic three echelons. Without pause they would drive forward straight at their enemy, often attacking with such suddenness that they caught their opponent off-guard and unprepared. The moral impact of the Swiss tactics played a great part in routing enemies unprepared for their assault. The site of three great formations bearing down upon an enemy, each a veritable forest of pikes surmounted by flags and pennons of the various burgs and cantons, including the great red flag bearing the white cross of the Confederacy; this accompanied by the clamor of Alpine horns and drums, and the knowledge that these were foes who gave no quarter; unnerved many an opponent and is not to be underestimated as part of the secret of Swiss military success. By the dawn of the 16th century the Swiss had a reputation for ferocity and had created a legend of invincibility.
Charles VIII and his successor, Louis XII had made great use of Swiss infantry in their various military campaigns. In fact 1499 Louis signed an agreement with the Swiss that promised an annual subsidy in return for allowing the French to recruit Swiss infantry within the Confederation. That same year Swiss mercenaries had comprised a part of the French forces that conquered the Duchy of Milan, annexing it (temporarily, as it turned out) to the crown of France.
However, in the last years of Louis’s reign the Swiss Confederation turned away from their French ally in favor of an aggressive foreign policy of their own, and, at the urging of Cardinal Matthäus Schiner, Bishop of Sion, allied themselves with the Pope. Swiss expansionism had in fact been ongoing since the previous century. After defending their independence against first the Austrians in the 14th century, and then against the imperial ambitions of Burgundy in the 15th, the Swiss began expanding their territory at the expense of their neighbors to the south in Italy. By the first decade of the 16th Century, the Swiss had annexed the Ticino region of northern Italy and now contested possession of Milan with the French.
FRANCIS I MARCHES ON ITALY
The young king Frances I inherited the Italian Wars from his successor at a time when French fortunes in Italy were in the decline. The War of the League of Cambrai, the newest chapter in the long struggle, pitted France against a coalition of the Papacy, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, England, the Duchy of Milan and the Swiss: the so-called “Holy League”, formed in 1511 by the Pope to drive France from Italy. Though victorious against the Spanish and Papal forces at the Battle of Ravenna in 1512, the death of their intrepid 23-year-old commander, Gaston de Foix, duc de Nemours (a friend and comrade of Bayard, who also fought at Ravenna) denied the French the fruits of their victory. A month after this sanguine, Pyrrhic victory the Duchy of Milan was lost to France; and the Swiss installed a puppet ruler, Maximilian Sforza on the ducal throne.
The French attempted to restore their position in Milan the following year. In June 1513 a French army of more than 20,000 under Louis de la Trémoille overran the western part of the Duchy, and besieged the city of Novara, held by a Swiss garrison. However, La Trémoille’s army was routed by a Swiss relief force at the Battle of Novara with great loss, including all of their artillery and baggage train. The German Landsknechts in French service captured in the battle were subsequently executed (there was no more bitter a rivalry than that between Swiss and Landsknechts); and a detachment of Swiss pursued the fleeing La Trémoille and the survivors all the way to Dijon, before being paid off. Louis XII was forced to give up any hope of reclaiming Milan.
That dream fell to his successor, Francis.
Not yet 22 years old (he would celebrate his birthday on the eve of the coming battle) the ambitious new king made the recovery of Milan his first priority. Forces gathered at Grenoble for the enterprise, and “Spur” was dispatched to prepare the vanguard. All that spring of 1515 Bayard spent recruiting and preparing, and was soon ready with a force of 400 lances and five hundred foot.
The immediate problem for the French was where to cross? The two main passes into Lombardy considered practicable for artillery and supply wagons, namely the Mount Cenis and Mount Genèvre, were both blocked by Swiss contingents.
With help from the Duke of Savoy, Francis was shown a possible alternative route: a mule path over what came to be the Col de l’Argentière, known today as the Maddalena Pass. Deceiving the Swiss as to his intent with the leak of a false plan to cross the Alps via the Col de Genèvre, Francis and the French army began the passage on August 10, 1515. In its day it was regarded as one of the greatest military achievements of the era; equal to Hannibal’s famous passage 1,700 years earlier. Thirty thousand foot, three thousand lances, seventy-two large field guns and some 200 lighter pieces, with all the accompanying baggage, the whole preceded by eleven hundred road-makers and engineers. In charge of the engineering enterprise was Pedro Navarro, perhaps the foremost military engineer of the day. Using explosives, tunneling, and improvised bridge-work they succeeded in forging a new route and emerging after five harrowing days onto the plains of Lombardy, south of the defending Swiss forces.
Well-begun is half-done, goes the saying. Francis’ campaign against Milan started off spectacularly. However, a formidable coalition of enemies were gathering against the French advent.
THE EAGLES GATHER OVER LOMBARDY
Armies were marching towards Milan from all points of the compass, in response to Francis’ invasion.
Directly awaiting the French in Lombardy were some 20,000 Swiss troops, with another 15,000 or more descending into the plains from the Cantons. By the end of August the Swiss in Lombardy numbered more than 30,000. Their Papal allies had another 1,500 horse under Prospero Colonna, in the Marquisate of Saluzzo, in good position to threaten the French rear should they march on Milan. Additional League allies were coming from the south and east. Lorenzo de’ Medici was marching from Florence with 3,000 troops; while the Spanish Viceroy of Naples was coming from Verona with a force of 700 men-at-arms supported by 600 lighter cavalry, and 6,000 foot.
Of the Italian powers only Venice stood on the side of France. The Venetians dispatched 900 men-at-arms, 1,400 light horse, 9,000 infantry and a few cannon under the condottiero Bartolomeo d’Alviano. This would be a valuable addition to the French forces, if a junction could be effected. But the land swarmed with hostile forces, and every gate was turned against France and her lone ally.
As the French army drew close to the plains, Bayard and his vanguard swept ahead. By careful intelligence, he learned of the Colonna’s presence at Carmagnola. He was intent on a daring coup-de-main that would eliminate this threat to the French flank and throw the allied plans into disarray. With permission from the king and his direct superior, Charles of Bourbon, and reinforced by three able captains (La Palice, d’Aubigny, and Imbercourt with their own companies), he pushed on rapidly toward Carmagnola.
A successful condottiero of his age, Colonna underestimated the boldness of Bayard and the French
Colonna, for his part, was alerted to the presence of Bayard’s force in the neighborhood, which he took to be but the Chevalier’s own lances scouting the district. Underestimating the size of the French raiding party, he felt entirely secure in his position, and boasted he would take the Chevalier in good time “like a caged pigeon”.
From Savigliano Bayard and his companions set out at 2 am on the 15th of August with 5oo picked horsemen. Imbrecourt led the way with 100 mounted archers. En-route to Carmagnola, they learned that Colonna had departed the place, but planned to dine at nearby Villafranca. Making their way through hidden paths in the forests, they grew steadily closer. Scouts reported to the Papal general that a large force of French cavalry had been spotted in the vicinity, but in his arrogance Colonna refused to believe it could be anything but Bayard and a small force engaged in a reconnaissance. To the very last, when a report verified their numbers and close proximity, Colonna dallied over dinner. By the time he was ready to flee, it was too late.
The armor and horse barding of a gendarme of the period. Such suits allowed the men-at-arms of the day to take on even pike-armed infantry and survive. Only a shot from arquebus or cannon was sure to pierce such a panoply; or the mighty blow of a Swiss halberd, which would break bones beneath
Forcing the gates before they could be secured, Bayard and company burst into the place and a rough-and-tumble melee ensued. All resistance was cut down, and Colonna’s lodgings surrounded. The Papal general surrendered, and was taken with all his baggage. This included a rich harvest of horses: six hundred, including four hundred superb Spanish chargers. The ransoms for Colonna and his staff would also be magnificent. In all, it was a rich haul, and the raiders escaped out of one gate of Villefranca just as a relief force of Swiss from a nearby camp, alerted to the attempt upon Colonna’s headquarters, entered from the opposite.
It was as daring and successful a raid as history has ever conceived. The capture of Colonna along with the unexpected appearance of the French army onto the plain of Piedmont, stunned and shocked the League allies. Pope Leo X immediately checked his contribution of troops to the coming campaign, and opened negotiations with King Francis. The Spanish Viceroy halted his advance to await developments from a safe distance. The Swiss pulled back all advanced contingents to Milan; and a portion of their leaders began pressing for accommodation with France.
The following weeks were spent in negotiation. Delegates met at the northern Lombard town of Gallarate, and on September 8 the Treaty of Gallarate was signed. It granted France sovereignty over Milan and most of the border regions which the Swiss and annexed in the past decade. In return, Francis agree to pay the enormous sum of one million crowns (écu). The first installment of which was gathered by stripping the gentlemen of the army of both their money and tableware, retaining for themselves only enough to sustain their needs for a week. This was conveyed to the Swiss, and the king moved his army to Marignano, ten miles southeast of Milan to await the handing over of the city.
However, as reinforcement from the Cantons arrived in Milan, the Swiss began to argue over the newly signed agreement. While those who had been in Italy for some years were eager to return home laden with their booty, the newcomers wanted a chance for the glory and riches that came with victory. Most of the Bernese contingent held to the treaty, and some 10,000 marched home. Others remained in Milan, “turbulent and undecided”.
At this juncture, the iron will and hatred of France of one preeminent man drove the Swiss to action, and precipitated what would prove a most calamitous and unnecessary battle. Cardinal Schiner, Bishop of Sion and papal legate for Italy and Germany was a powerful man in the church and in affairs of state. An archenemy of France, he had worked prodigiously over the last decade to separate his native land from its traditional alliances with their Gallic neighbor. A fighting prelate (like his master, Pope Julius II) he had been a leader among (and perhaps outright commander of) the Swiss forces at the Battle of Novara. Now, on September 13, in opposition to the treaty, he harangued the gathered Swiss forces in the main square of Milan. He denounced peace settlement as cowardice and folly. He recalled the triumph of Novara, which had gained them the riches of Milan, and which had been gained with fewer numbers than they had at hand here, and against no less powerful a French army. He appealed to the soldier’s greed and to their national pride, assuring them of victory and all the spoils that attended upon it.
The effects of his speech was immediate and prodigious. Carried away in a rash of wild enthusiasm, at 3 pm the Swiss poured forth from Milan, and marched in arms for Marignano.
The French, for their part, were camped on a near-featureless plain, athwart the main highway between Milan and Lodi, where camped their Venetian allies. The treaty signed, they were in no way expecting a battle.
That afternoon King Francis was in his tent, being fitted in a new suit of armor, perhaps a birthday present. In attendance was Alviano, the Venetian commander, while other captains supped at the king’s table. Suddenly scouts on heaving horses arrived to report a cloud of dust coming from Milan, heralding the march of the Swiss. There followed a clamor of trumpets, the call to arm and fall into formation. Gendarmes donned armor, and mounted chargers, infantry massed around their standards, gunners took station beside their cannon, and the French rushed into formation.
At 5 pm the Swiss arrived before the hastily formed French positions. The Battle of Marignano was about to begin.
The French arrayed themselves in three divisions, each composed of cavalry, foot, and artillery, a “combined arms” approach to war that was a harbinger of the methods that would come to dominate warfare in the decades ahead. Slightly ahead of the other three and to the right was the vanguard under the Constable, Charles III Duke of Boubon. With the Constable was old Marshal Trivulzio, nearly sixty-five now and a veteran of countless campaigns, including the disaster for France that was Novara. Bourbon’s division occupied a slight rise in the ground, and included landsknecht pikemen and a force of 10,000 Gascons and Basques trained in the Spanish fashion by their commander, Pedro Navarro. Though what exactly is meant by the “Spanish fashion” is unknown, many of these would have been arquebusiers, the Swiss accounts stating that the French had some 6-8,000 matchlocks opposed to them.
The center division, or “main”, was commanded by the king himself, and was posted back and to the left of the van. With Francis was Bayard and his lancers, perhaps the foremost heavy cavalry in Europe, along with the lances of La Trémoille and many great nobles of France. La Trémoille was likely still smarting from his humiliating defeat at Novara and eager for revenge. Across the front of the king’s front was massed a “Grande Batterie” of some 72 pieces, under the command of Galiot de Genouillac, set to confound direct assault. This some 300 years prior to Napoleon! Defending the battery was a force of German landsknecht mercenaries. Another body of foot were kept in reserve, the infamous Black Band (or Black Legion), a rogue unit of landsknechts who denied the authority of the emperor and fought for France. This was a mixed unit 17,000 strong (on paper), comprised of 12,000 pikemen, 2,000 arquebusiers, 2,000 two-handed swordsmen, and 1,000 halberdiers.
Landsknecht with halberd
The exact size of each of Francis’ three divisions is unclear, but the total number for the French army at Marignano must have been approximately 40,000 men.
Hurriedly drawn-up for battle, the French watched as an ominous cloud of dust approached. Growing nearer, an enormous forest of eighteen foot pikes could be discerned within. Accompanied by a throbbing cadence of drums and the unsettling base timber of Alpine horns, the Swiss marched on Marignano in their own customary three massive phalanxes, the banners of the various Cantons and towns waving above them all. Many among the waiting French could not but have felt a trepidation verging on cold fear, as these were the same men who had wrecked their ranks at Novara under very similar conditions. The number of infantry on both sides was nearly equal: between 25-30,000 on either side. The French enjoyed a great advantage both in the number and quality of cavalry, their some 1,700 – 3,000 to a mere 200 (mostly scouts) for the Swiss. That, and the great number of guns.
The battle would come down to a simple equation: could the Swiss close with and overrun the French guns, as they had those of other armies since the days of Charles the Bold, before these could create great swathes of bloody havoc within the Swiss ranks? Then, once this was accomplished, throw back and maul their arch-enemies, the defending landsknechts? Coming at the French here in the traditional way, they counted on defeating him in the same old way they had all others before him. For the French, the stakes could not have been higher. If they were defeated now, as at Novara, with their king in personal command, their national pride would be humbled and their place as a great power would be threatened. Worse, should Francis suffer the same fate as Duke Leopold and Charles the Bold before him, hacked down in the midst of a bloody defeat, France’s enemies might fall upon them and rend the kingdom apart as they had Burgundy in the previous century.
Everything was on the line in what would be a “battle of giants”
THE BATTLE OF MARIGNANO
With hardly a pause, the Swiss advanced against the French positions. Their passage was slowed by the many agricultural drainage ditches that crossed their path from east to west, preventing them from rushing to close with their customary speed. Despite having the setting sun in their eyes, the French cannon and arquebusiers took a deadly toll, the dense ranks making a target impossible to miss. Whole files and ranks were shot to pieces as they advanced. A Swiss soldier, Werner Schrodoler, later wrote, “So the enemy (the French) began firing all his artillery and handguns and it was as if the heavens had opened and were on fire, as heaven and earth were about to break apart from the enemy’s shooting…” More than 1,000 Swiss fell before making contact with their enemy.
A “forlorn hope” of 2,000 men, commanded by Captain Werner Steiner, swept forward to overrun and silence the French grand battery in the center. Their’s was a suicide mission, and before advancing Captain Steiner had thrown a handful of dirt over his men, intoning, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This (battlefield) will by our churchyard”. His men knew their graves would be dug on this field. Still, it was vital they clear the way for the three massive echelons that followed.
In the growing dust, smoke and darkness of the approaching night the forlorn hope reached the French guns. The defending landsknechts rushed forward to repel them, and a vicious melee ensued between these most bitter rivals. But the Swiss attack succeeded in driving back the Germans and temporarily silencing Francis’ grand battery, capturing a dozen of its guns.
But in advancing against the French battery in the center, Steiner’s men exposed their left flank to Bourbon’s division. Fire poured into them from cannon and arquebus, followed by a charge of the Duke’s armored horsemen. The forlorn hope fell back to join the oncoming Swiss main division, and these in turn halted Bourbon’s pursuing gendarmes. These were thrown back, and many gallant men-at-arms were cut down, including the Duke of Chastellerault, the Count of Sancerre, and Bayard’s companion in the capture of Colonna, the brave Imbercourt. La Trémoille’s son, the Prince of Tallemont, was dragged from the press with some sixty-two wounds (!), to die in his father’s arms.
Darkness did not halt the fighting, which went on till midnight. A pale moon shone over the battlefield for several hours, and the combatants fought on in the gloom. To halt the relentless advance, the king now threw in the Black Band, supported by charges from Bayard and the lances attached to the king’s division. Bourbon’s horsemen returned to the attack as well, and in all some thirty charges were driven home, before the Swiss attack was stopped.
In the darkness men were separated from their units, and found themselves alone amongst their enemies. Bayard was forced to hack his way through the Swiss to rescue the Duke of Lorraine, unhorsed and surrounded. Later, his bridle hacked off, the Chevalier was carried by his panicked steed careening through the ranks of one Swiss division and toward another. Managing to halt his horse among the tangle of a vineyard, he crept back to his own lines, guiding by the sound of shouting in his native tongue. It is testament to the quality of the armor of a gendarme of the age, and of the barding of his horse, that both survived this mad-cap death ride!
The armor of an early 15th century man-at-arms was complete in its coverage and protection
In the darkness it was impossible at times to tell friend from foe, especially as both sides wore white crosses on their armor and tunics. At one point King Francis and his household retainers mistook a company of Swiss for their own landsknechts, and found themselves suddenly confronting 600 hostile pikes. Again the quality of arms, armor, and a lifetime of practice told, as the king and his gendarmes were able to charge and break their opponents.
At last, after midnight, with the setting moon bringing an inky darkness, mutual exhaustion brought fighting to a temporary halt. The booming of the guns at last went silent. Combatants pulled back from each other, and rested as best they could where they lay. Here-and-there lost companies groped their way back to friendly lines, the night’s peace broken intermittently with the sounds of a sudden brawl as such wanderings brought them into contact with foe rather than friend. Witnesses recalled the weird, long-drawn mournful call of Alpine horns in the darkness, summoning Swiss stragglers back to their own ranks. These were answered by the staccato of French bugles and the clear notes of the royal clarion, blown incessantly by the king’s chief trumpeter, Christophe, summoning men back to their standards.
King Francis slept what little he could on a cannon’s carriage, his splendid blue and gold armor dented and pierced. When he called for water, all that could be found was nasty draft from a ditch, filthy with mud and blood. So close were the Swiss that no light could be shown, and drinking it sickened the king.
During the night, many of the Swiss, tired, hungry and tormented by thirst (they had swept out of Milan late in the day before supper, and had made no provisions for bringing supplies to the battlefield) drifted back to Milan; often under the guise of carrying back wounded comrades. Several contingents had had enough, and resolved in the night to quit the field entirely and return home to Switzerland. But those who greeted the dawn were those soldier’s most committed to victory.
With dawn’s grey the formations sorted themselves out on both sides, and prepared to renew the struggle. The Swiss once again drew up in three great squares, in echelon, the right-most leading. The French had taken time before sunrise to improve their positions with hastily erected earthworks. The battle reopened with the booming of French guns.
Bayard, standing beside the king’s artillery commander, De Genouillac, turned to him and is reported to have said, “Monsieur, you should aim at that quarter there on the right, where you see that ensign. It is the thickest crowd of Swiss, and I beg you to fire seven pieces at once, the better to awaken them – they have slept too long!”
De Genouillac followed the Chevalier’s advise to deadly effect. Deep, bloody furrows tore through the Swiss ranks. On came the pike squares, determined to close with and destroy their tormentors. They could only rely on what had always worked all too well: advance, shoulder to shoulder, as rapidly as could be while maintaining their formation. But they had never met such a torrent of fire, as iron balls spewed forth by 72 heavy guns (and a great number of smaller but equally deadly pieces) fired as fast as their crews could work them. Arquebusiers, firing in two ranks (the first kneeling) added their cast of lead to the barrage that shredded rank-and-file.
The Swiss pushed forward toward the grand battery, but were stopped by landsknechts and counter-charged by Bayard and the chivalry of France dashing against their flanks. While the Swiss pike squares could hold off cavalry, each charge required them to halt and form “hedgehog”. Their advance thus halted, they were easier prey to the weight of lead and iron pouring into their ranks. One witness speaks of a single Swiss combatant who fought his way through pike and gun shot, to fall at last, his hand upon one of the “king’s guns”.
Bayard is seen rescuing fallen comrades, and riding at the king’s side in charge-after-charge. Again, many a famous man-at-arms is slain. The carnage on both sides is terrible.
Baffled in their attempt to storm the battery, the Swiss right-most phalanx bore down upon d’Alençon’s division, the left-reserve of the army. But here, as elsewhere, they were checked by attack to front and fire and charge to flank.
At mid-morning Alviano, who at the start of the battle had ridden from the king to his own camp at Lodi, appeared behind the French left with the Venetian forces, marching up the road. This was the end for the Swiss. Still holding their ranks, unbroken, they retreated off the field the way they had come. At the Spazzola canal their retreat was slowed enough for the pursuit to catch them. The carnage was great as light guns and horsemen tore at the fringes of their ranks. Men turned at bay and died allowing their comrades to cross the canal to safety. Many more drowned in the canal, some wrapped in their standards, protecting these from capture.
Francis, his forces exhausted, called off further pursuit. He had won the day, and avenged French humiliation at Navaro. Marshal Triulzio, veteran of sixty years of war, called this a “battle of giants”, and maintained that compared to Marignano all previous battles he had witnessed were but the sport of children.
Casualties were great on both sides, but the Swiss far greater: estimates range from 3-8,000 for the French, and 8-14,000 for the Swiss. This may represent as much as 25% casualties to the combatants engaged.
For Francis this was his most cherished victory, won against a reputedly invincible opponent at the dawn of his reign. “I have conquered those whom only Caesar conquered”, reads the device on the medal he had struck to commemorate his victory. He crowned it all by having himself knighted on the field by Bayard. “It shall be by the hand of Chevalier Bayard that I am made a chevalier. None should grudge it him, for none has had his fortune sharing in so many battles, assaults, and encounters, mounted and on foot, and of giving such proofs of valor, experience, and skill.” The king chose to be made a knight by he who most exemplified the knightly virtues.
Marignano was the last hurrah of armored chivalric cavalry in European warfare. Never again would noble cavalry, armed with the traditional weapons of lance and sword take pride of place. Even here cannon and arquebus had lent its weight to the charge of Bayard and his companions, allowing them to achieve a victory which might well have gone otherwise. Hereafter gunpowder weapons would dominate the battlefield. This was likewise true of the pike tactics of the Swiss. In the future, pikes would act as the supporting arm for the arquebusiers and gunners, defending them and allowing refuge against sudden cavalry attack.
The immediate result of the battle was an acceptance of the previous peace agreement, though with a far lower payment by France to the Swiss. But a long-term result was the end of Swiss imperial ambitions. The defused nature of power within the Confederacy was not conducive to empire. The sanguine defeat at Marignano convinced enough of the Swiss that competing with the likes of France and Spain for dominance in Italy was a losing strategy.
After lengthy negotiations a peace treaty was signed in Fribourg the following year. Known as “Perpetual Peace”, the Swiss Confederacy renounced all claims to the protectorate of Milan. In return, France paid 700,000 crowns in compensation. The Swiss were also granted trade privileges in France, and the French gained a loyal friend for the next three centuries. In 1521, a service pact (Soldbündnis) was signed between the Swiss and French, which made Swiss mercenary regiments a regular part of the French armed forces, ultimately leading to the Gardes Suisses, which served the French monarchs until the Revolution.
France would not long hold onto Milan. The tides of war would shift in favor of her enemies. In 1525 Francis was captured at the Battle of Pavia, and both La Tremoille and La Palice were killed. Bayard had perished leading a gallant rearguard action the previous year.
But Marignano was the Swiss Waterloo. It shattered their two-centuries-long legend of invincibility. Ironically, it was not the victorious French who would take their place as the premiere fighting men in Europe, but the Spanish; who in their tercios would combine pike-and-shot armed infantry into a system that would dominate European battlefields for the next century.
If Marignano was the last hurrah of armored chivalry, than Bayard was its last and finest flowering. Le Bon Chevalier was born into an age in which the romantic ideals of the past were fading. He was a glorious anachronism, hearkening back to an age that only ever existed in the realm of legend. He was a living embodiment of the virtues ascribed to paladins in the chanson de geste and Le Morte d’Arthur. Yet despite living in the cynical age of Machiavelli he was never seen by contemporaries as a Don Quixote-like figure of amusement and mockery to the jaded sophisticates of the age. Instead he was considered a hero for the ages, an ideal to be aspired to, not ridiculed. He is proof that courage and honor are always in fashion.
Perhaps this is because in Bayard we have both the romantic knight and the practical soldier. His exploits read like a dime-store adventure, a figment of heroic fantasy. At the same time he was more than just a paladin: he was a highly capable commander of men. His record of military achievement as a leader of cavalry bears comparison with that of the finest of his kind: Seydlitz, Murat, Lasalle or Forrest.
Unlike William Marshal, another candidate for the title of greatest knight to have ever lived, Bayard was not merely a creature of sport, a champion of the tournament list. He was a soldier, and spent his life staring down the face of death. While the Marshal spent most of his life traveling from tournament-to-tournament, or at best in the small war of baronial skirmishes, Bayard’s life was spent fighting the great battles and sieges of an age of war. Even his private duels were not merely affairs of honor: the honor of his kingdom and his countrymen rode on the tip of his lance. Though the Marshal braved death on the tourney field, he did not spend his life immersed in war as did Bayard.
It is ironic that this last champion of a fading age was at last brought down by an agent of the coming age: in 1524 Bayard was shot in the back by an arquebusier, as he commanded the rearguard for his retreating army. He died surrounded by admiring foemen, and was buried in state by a sad and grateful nation. It is perhaps a blessing that he didn’t live long enough to see the ruin of all he had fought to achieve at Pavia, the following year.
- Shellabarger, Samuel, Ph.D., The Chevalier Bayard: A Study in Fading Chivalry; Biblo and Tannen, NY 1971. Ch. XII, p. 282
- Though the Turks had used cannons in sieges before this date, these were cast on site and not a mobile arm capable of accompanying the army on the march or used as field guns in battle; as were Charles’.
- When exactly Bayard was formally knighted is a matter of speculation; but may scholars have suggested it was likely at Fornovo.
- Bayard was the only non-royal captain of his age to be given command of his own lance of 100 gendarmes; an honor normally reserved in the French army of the day for princes of the blood.
- In 1511, in one such daring raid, Bayard nearly succeeded in capturing the warrior Pope Julius II.
- The casualness with which this incident is told by “The Loyal Servant” in his biography of his master speaks to the normality of such arrangements at this period of history: it was expected that a debonair gentleman would make casual use of a local girl. Further, that she would be honored to be so chosen.
- Le Loyal Serviteur, Histoire du Gentil Seigneur de Bayart; p. 339
- See Phalanx vs Legion for details on the tactics and organization of the Macedonian phalanx.
- Though ostensibly Duke of Milan, Massimiliano Sforza was a hostage to his Swiss masters. All policy was determined by the Swiss ambassador to his court, and his compliance was guaranteed and enforced by the presence of a Swiss Guard of some six thousand. As payment for their services, the young Duke was required to hand over several border territories; to pay a one-time sum of 200,000 ducats; and an annual tribute of 40,000.
- The exact size and composition of the French forces at Francis disposal is the subject of debate. It can be estimated to have numbered between 40,000 and 50,000. The number of cavalry is stated in the sources as between 2500 and 3000 “lances“. However, a lance could refer to either a single armored lancer (the premiere fighting man of the French army, the man-at-arms or gendarme, were armed with and fought as lancers) or the unit known as a “lance”; which was comprised of 6 mounted men: one gendarme, his squire (also armed as a man-at-arms), two crossbowmen, and two light cavalrymen/mounted infantrymen. That Frances could have brought as many as 3000 such “lances”, some 18,000 cavalry, sounds improbably high.
- Le Loyal Serviteur, Histoire du Gentil Seigneur de Bayart; p. 379
- Shellabarger, p. 281
- The Spanish contribution to the warfare of the day was in the mass use of arquebusiers, arrayed behind natural or man-made obstacles or entrenchments. That, and close-combat infantry rodeleros, soldiers armed with sword and a round shield called a rodela. These “sword-and-buckler” men were meant to counter pike-armed infantry. But within two decades the Spanish abandoned these in favor of a combination of pike and “shot” armed formation, the tercio. Whether or not Navarro’s troops at Marignano included rodeleros is unknown.
- Schaufelberger, Walter, Marignano; p. 116
- idid, p. 115
- Champier, S., La Vie du Preulx Chevalier Bayard; p. 173
- Du Bellay, Memoirs; Vol. I, p. 265
- Guicciardini, F., Storia d’Italia; Paris, 1832; Book XII, Ch. 5.