The Battle of Marignano

So bloody was Francis I’s defeat of the Swiss at the Battle of Marignano in 1515 that it made previous battles resemble ‘children’s games’. Robert J. Knecht traces the French king’s route across the Alps towards war in Italy.

Francis I at the Battle of Marignano, 14th September 1515, 16th century

Within a few months of becoming king of France on January 1st, 1515, Francis I invaded Italy at the head of a large army. His actions opened a new chapter in the history of the so-called ‘Italian Wars’, which his predecessor, Charles VIII, had launched in 1494. Italy at that time was tempting prey for a powerful neighbour, as it was divided into many more or less independent states, the most important being Venice, Milan, Florence, Naples and the Papal States. French intervention had a long history, reaching back to Charlemagne. More recently, Charles VIII had conquered Naples only to be driven out of the peninsula by a coalition of Italian states. His successor, Louis XII, led a new invasion in 1499. He conquered Milan and Genoa, but inadvisably chose to share the Kingdom of Naples with Ferdinand, King of Aragon, who soon collared the lot. Four years later, Louis allied with Pope Julius II against Venice, but after its defeat the pope expelled the French from Italy with the help of the Swiss cantons, then reputed to be the leading military power in Europe. After defeating the French at Novara in 1513, the Swiss invaded Burgundy and laid siege to Dijon. The local French commander bought them off with a treaty, which the king then refused to honour. These events formed the background to Francis I’s invasion. He claimed the Duchy of Milan by virtue of his descent from his great-grandmother, Valentina Visconti. 

Before invading Italy, Francis needed to secure his rear. He signed two treaties: one with Charles of Habsburg, who ruled the Netherlands and Franche-Comté, and the other with Henry VIII of England. The Swiss, however, refused to sign. They resented the way they had been cheated over the treaty of Dijon and were unwilling to give up territories in Italy given to them by Massimiliano Sforza, the then Duke of Milan. He, for his part, could count on the support of Ferdinand of Aragon and Pope Leo X. On July 17th they and Maximilian, the Holy Roman Emperor, formed a league for the defence of Italy. Twelve days later Francis left Amboise on the first stage of his journey south to join the army he was going to lead across the Alps. Twenty years old, he was tall and strong. Only a few days before, he had shown great bravery when facing alone and killing with his sword a wild boar, which, having escaped from its cage, was terrifying courtiers who had gathered in the château’s courtyard. Like all young noblemen of his time, he had been trained to fight; but his military experience had been limited to two unsuccessful campaigns in Guyenne and Navarre. He now had to face the real test as a military leader.

Francis reached Lyon on July 12th, but before entering the city he was invited to watch a nautical pageant on the River Saône. This took the form of a white winged stag pulling a ship. Riding the stag was a man dressed in the colours of the Duke of Bourbon, the region’s principal landowner, who was also Constable of France, the overall commander of the army under the king. Legend had it that a winged stag had assisted Clovis, King of the Franks, to fight the ‘Almains’ by guiding him to a ford across a river. Standing at the prow of the ship was a man impersonating Francis. He wore a suit of armour but no helm and beside him a winged child blew wind into the ship’s sails from bellows. On a flag attached to the mast an embroidered salamander vomited flames. The nautical pageant was soon followed by the king’s  entry into the city of Lyon, when he was again able to watch all sorts of theatrical displays in which he was portrayed as the ‘noble champion’. In one of them a Swiss bear could be seen tending its bleeding claws and Sforza expressing his shame and despair.

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On July 15th Francis appointed his mother, Louise of Savoy, to be regent of France in his absence. He then travelled to Grenoble, where his army had assembled. The standing army consisted of cavalry units known as compagnies d’ordonnance or collectively as the gendarmerie. They comprised volunteers recruited from the nobility grouped into lances, each comprising a man at arms, two archers and a number of auxiliaries. A man-at-arms wore a heavy suit of armour while the archers were more lightly clad. Both categories fought with lances. By this time, however, some had a bow or crossbow. Each lance had eight horses: four for the man-at-arms and two for each archer. A company comprised 50 or 60 lances, each commanded by a captain or lieutenant. For infantry, the king relied on volunteers known as aventuriers, recruited mainly in Gascony or Picardy. Grouped in companies of 500 men each under a captain, they wore leather jerkins and light helmets. They fought with pikes, halberds, crossbows or arquebuses. Francis also employed foreign mercenaries. He recruited 23,000 landsknechts in Germany, who copied Swiss tactics without being as disciplined. As for the French artillery – reputedly the best in Europe – it consisted of 60 cannon of divers calibres. Made of bronze, they were pulled by horses trained to keep up with an army on the march. 

Portrait of Francis I, c.1515-20.

Beyond the Alps between 12,000 and 15,000 Swiss troops were waiting along with 1,500 papal cavalry commanded by Prospero Colonna. Anticipating that the French would use either the Mont Genèvre pass or that of the Mont Cenis, they stationed themselves in the Val Chisone or Val di Susa. But, taking the advice of Marshal Trivulzio, Francis chose the col de Larche, a much less accessible pass normally used only by local peasants. More than a thousand pioneers were sent ahead to clear the pass of obstacles and to throw pontoons across torrents. The French van under Charles, Duke of Bourbon began to cross the mountains on August 11th. As they emerged into the plain of Piedmont, they learnt that Colonna’s cavalry was stationed close by at Villafranca. Three companies of French gendarmes set off to take them by surprise. Colonna was having a meal when he was captured along with 300 of his men. Thus the Swiss lost their cavalry support. 

Francis, meanwhile, set off from Guillestre with the rest of his army. Despite the efforts of his pioneers, he found the Alpine crossing difficult. Writing to his mother, he said:

We are in the strangest country ever seen by any man of this company. Yet tomorrow we hope to be in the plain of Piedmont with the force I am leading which will please us very much as we are finding it difficult to cross the mountains wearing armour. We have to walk leading our horses by the bridle. It would be impossible for anyone who has not witnessed the scene to believe that cavalry and heavy guns can be transported as we are doing. 

On the Italian side the descent was so precipitous that horses slipped and fell into ravines and cannon had to be dismantled, their parts lowered by rope. Once in Piedmont, Francis marched rapidly eastward after a brief stop in Turin, the capital of Savoy. Hoping to win the trust of the local people, he imposed a strict discipline on his troops, even forbidding the infantry to enter towns that had opened their gates. Meanwhile, the Swiss, finding themselves bypassed by the French, retreated eastward towards Lake Maggiore. 

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Though willing enough to fight the enemy, Francis was not ruling out a negotiated settlement, as long as the Swiss were prepared to cede Milan. He sent his uncle, René of Savoy, to negotiate with them at Vercelli. In return, he offered them subsidies and future military aid. Meanwhile, he continued his eastward march. He crossed the River Ticino on August 31st and at Bufalora received delegates from Milan who promised him victuals and a friendly reception in their city. Even so, the king sent Marshal Trivulzio to spy out its approaches. His caution was justified as the Milanese were split into factions: while the Ghibellines were ready to treat, the Guelfs were intent on fighting. As Trivulzio withdrew, Francis carried out a semi-circular movement south of Milan in order to contact a Venetian army, commanded by Bartolomeo d’Alviano, which was stationed at Lodi. On September 9th, Francis received the terms of a treaty negotiated with the Swiss at Gallarate. They were ready to give up all the territories they held in the duchy of Milan, except Bellinzona, in return for 1,000 gold crowns. Massimiliano Sforza was to receive the duchy of Nemours by way of compensation for that of Milan, as well as the hand of a French princess. Francis was to be allowed to raise troops in Switzerland. Satisfied by these terms, he collected the huge sum demanded by the Swiss from his entourage and sent it to Gallarate. 

The Swiss, however, were sharply divided. While the men of Bern, Fribourg and Solothurn were willing to go home, those from other cantons refused to accept the treaty. Matthias Schiner, cardinal-bishop of Sion, who hated the French, urged the Swiss to continue the fight. He harangued a large gathering in the main square of Milan. The content of his speech is not precisely known, but he seems to have promised his audience an easy victory, if they took advantage of a recent dispersal of the French army. While 6,000 troops had escorted Marshal Lautrec to Gallarate, others had gone to Pavia with Louis d’Ars. Francis, meanwhile, had pitched his camp at Marignano (today Melegnano), a small town ten kilometres south of Milan. He now had only about 30,000 men. About noon on September 13th the Swiss came out of the city. So rapid had been their departure that many had not had time to prepare themselves; many were without shoes, helmets or armour. Marching rapidly, elbow to elbow and in silence, they carried wooden pikes, three to five metres long, each ending with an iron blade. They had only eight small cannon by way of artillery. Schiner, wearing his cardinal’s robes, followed them riding a Spanish jennet. He was escorted by 500 Milanese horsemen and preceded by a processional cross.

Relief from the Basilica of St Denis, tomb of Francis I depicting the Battle of Marignano, 16th century.         

The French camp was situated near the village of San Giuliano, five kilometres north of Marignano. It was flanked on the west by the road from Milan to Lodi and on the east by the River Lambro. The land in between was marshy and intersected by ditches and irrigation channels. The camp was divided into three parts. The vanguard nearest Milan was commanded by the Duke of Bourbon. It comprised all the artillery, a square of 6,000 landsknechts and 950 men-at-arms. The centre or ‘battle’ was located at Santa Brigida, one kilometre to the south. Commanded by Francis, it comprised 9,000 landsknechts and the flower of the gendarmerie. The rearguard, five kilometres further south, consisted only of cavalry commanded by Charles d’Alençon, the king’s brother-in-law. 

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About noon on September 13th some pioneers working beyond the French camp on the way to Milan noticed a huge cloud of dust rising into the sky. Realising that it was thrown up by the advancing Swiss, they immediately informed Bourbon, who, in turn, warned the king. He was with Alviano, who left at once to rejoin his troops at Lodi. The Swiss attack soon followed. As usual, it consisted of three huge blocks, each of 7,000 pikemen, advancing one behind the other. Around 4pm the first broke through the line of sharpshooters guarding the French guns. The French cavalry withdrew leaving the gunners defenceless. The landsknechts, who, like the Swiss, were armed with pikes, then engaged the enemy. Two enormous squares of pikemen collided. The Swiss broke through and repulsed a charge by the French cavalry. As the first Swiss square began to falter, the second moved forward to lend support. By now, it was night, but fighting continued till the moon vanished around midnight. The two armies then separated, the French responding to trumpet calls and the Swiss to the great horns of Uri and Unterwalden. But many soldiers got lost in the dark, some even sleeping alongside the enemy by mistake. Bodies were strewn across the plain and the groans of the wounded filled the air.

Thinking that the battle was already won, Schiner informed Basel. The news spread across Europe much to the delight of Henry VIII. Meanwhile, in the French camp, Francis ordered his chancellor to send three letters urgently: the first ordered Lautrec, who was at Gallarate, to end talks with the Swiss and, if possible, recover the money that had been paid to them; the second urged Alviano to bring his army from Lodi at once; the third asked Louis d’Ars to reinforce Pavia in the event of Francis needing to shelter there. Having taken these steps, the king spent the rest of the night, as he wrote to his mother, ‘bottom on saddle, lance in hand and helmeted’. He took a brief nap leaning on a gun barrel. Taking advantage of the interval in the fighting, Francis also reorganised his army: he brought the three sections together in a single line with himself and the ‘battle’ in the centre, Bourbon’s van on the right and Alençon’s rearguard on the left. 

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Battle was resumed at dawn. The Swiss, now also formed as a single line, engaged the French along their entire line. On the right, Bourbon managed to repel them, but in the centre the Swiss managed to cross a ditch under heavy fire from the French guns, scattering the infantry. Francis, charging at the head of his gendarmerie, threw them back, but on the left the Swiss captured the artillery, dispersed the infantry and cut through the landsknechts, who fought heroically. At this juncture, Alviano’s Venetian horse arrived shouting ‘San Marco! San Marco!’ Galvanised by their arrival, the French mounted a counter-attack which carried the day. By 11am Francis could claim victory. The rump of the Swiss army retreated towards Milan as a disorderly rabble. Some carried the wounded on their backs, while others dragged their blood-soaked cantonal banners. Some sought shelter in Bourbon’s headquarters, but this was set on fire by the French. Those who threw themselves out of the windows were impaled by pikemen.

A crowned lion symbolises Francis' victory.

Marshal Trivulzio, a veteran of 13 battles, called Marignano ‘a battle of giants’, compared with which all the rest were but ‘children’s games’. Gravediggers reported burying 16,500 bodies. Of the 21,000 Swiss who had come out of Milan on September 13th, fewer than 13,000 returned. More than 1,500 wounded were cared for in Milan’s hospitals and convents. French losses were fewer. Nearly 8,000 perished, mainly among the vanguard. Among them were many noblemen whose bodies were embalmed and carried back to France in leaden coffins for burial on their estates. ‘Never again’, Francis said, ‘would anyone call the gendarmerie hares in armour.’ One of the day’s heroes was Galiot de Genouillac, master of the artillery. Another may have been Pierre du Terrail, seigneur de Bayard. Legend has it that the king asked to be dubbed by him after the battle as a tribute to his bravery. Although almost certainly apocryphal, the story, which has inspired paintings by Fragonard and Ducis, has become an essential part of the popular remembrance of Marignano. 

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Francis I entered Milan in triumph on October 1st, 1515. Soon afterwards Pope Leo X agreed to meet him in Bologna. The outcome of that meeting was the signing of a Concordat which satisfied a long-standing papal demand for the annulment of the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges of 1438. In addition to strengthening his authority over the French church, Francis hoped that the Concordat would ensure papal support for his future conquests in Italy. During the three weeks he spent in Milan following his return from Bologna, Francis reduced a fine he had imposed on its citizens. He also freed hostages and allowed exiles to return home. Sforza, meanwhile, settled in Paris where he died in 1530. After another crossing of the Alps, this time in the reverse direction, Francis arrived at Sisteron on January 13th, 1516 to be greeted by his mother and wife. ‘God knows’, wrote Louise in her diary, ‘how relieved I was to see my son fit and well after all the violence he had suffered in the public interest.’ The battle of Marignano was celebrated in music and in literature, not only in France but also in Italy. Francis was praised for his looks, which stood in sharp contrast to the ugliness of Charles VIII, his predecessor in the peninsula. Italians celebrated the battle as the victory of virtu over fortuna. In France it was followed by propaganda designed to glorify the king and justify the heavy loss of life he had inflicted on the Swiss. Accused of avarice and pride, they were portrayed as lice-ridden cowherds. The seigneur de Bayard was said to have called to them: ‘Go and eat cheese in your wretched mountains!’ While the Swiss were ridiculed, Francis was acclaimed as worthy to stand alongside such ancient heroes as Hannibal (because of his crossing of the Alps) and Julius Caesar (who had also defeated the Swiss). François Demoulins, in a book published in 1519, described imaginary meetings between Francis and Caesar, one of them in the forest of Fontainebleau. Addressing Francis, the author wrote: ‘Let it be noted that two drops of water cannot be more similar than your fortune and Caesar’s.’

Robert J. Knecht is Emeritus Professor of French History at the University of Birmingham. He is the author of Hero or Tyrant? Henry III, King of France 1574-89 (Ashgate, 2014).

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