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ANCIENT TACTICS TESTED


Swiss pike and ancient phalanx. The collision of new and old lasted for 28 hours.

By Eric Niderost

0ne March day in 1515, ambassadors from the Republic of Venice sought audience with King Francis I of France. At the time, Venice, nicknamed “la Serenissima,” was anything but calm or serene, since Italy was not yet a nation, but only a patchwork of warring principalities, a fact that aroused the greed of outside powers.

Wily King Ferdinand of Spanish Aragon controlled much of Southern Italy, and Leo X’s papacy straddled the central peninsula. Both were enemies of Venice. And next door to the “Queen of the Adriatic,” in the Duchy of Milan, foreign Swiss mercenaries played puppet masters to a figurehead Sforza duke.

Venice urgently needed an ally and was seeking one in the French king. Ushered into his presence shortly after their arrival in Paris, the ambassadors no doubt took stock of their royal host and had good reason to like what they saw.

To begin with, Francis was young – barely 20 – and the mask of majesty often slipped to reveal the boyish exuberance with-in. He had hooded brown eyes, light-brown hair fashioned in a “pageboy” cut, and thick lips that gave a sensual, slightly worldly cast to his features.

The young king was clean-shaven (a beard would not sprout until 1519), and his nose was so monumental he would later be dubbed “le Roy Grand Nez.” King for a scant three months, the newly minted monarch won hearts by his impulsive generosity, keen spirit and athletic prowess. Muscular and well-proportioned, at 6 feet, he towered over most contemporaries.

The Venetians now laid their case before the king, but in fact they were preaching to the converted. Le Roy Grand Nez indeed was about to stick his pointed proboscis into Italian affairs. And there were precedents, not that King Francis really needed any. France periodically had invaded Italy over the last 20 years, though under the late King Louis XII, the Gauls had met bitter defeat at the hands of the Swiss at Novara.

Such defeats notwithstanding, Italy – especially the Duchy of Milan, with its fertile Lombard plains and magnificent Po River – was still an irresistible lure to the French.

In the audience granted to the Venetian emissaries, Francis declared he would not abandon their Venetian republic in its hour of need. “Very shortly,” he solemnly assured them, “I will come in person with a powerful army into Italy.”

True to his word, in the next few months Francis made preparations for war, with Swiss-controlled Milan to be the primary target.

As later years would amply demonstrate, the French king was a patron of the Renaissance, a man who loved art as much as he loved women, yet part of him was medieval, too. Al-most from birth his mother, Louise of Savoy, had filled his head with dreams of kingly conquest and knightly honor. Grooming him for greatness, Louise called her son “my Caesar,” and Francis was determined to live up to the pet name.

The French army reflected the semi feudal nature of the country itself. Heavily armored cavalrymen – men-at-arms from the so-called “companies of array” – provided the backbone of the king’s forces. There were great magnates like Duke Charles of Bourbon, with his 1,000 personal retainers, and impoverished lords with scarcely more than a sword and a pedigree.

The king could also rely on his bodyguard, composed of gentlemen “pensioners” and archers. The latter title was a courtesy, since these formidable warriors – a famous Scots contingent among them – had discarded their bows long since.

For infantry, Francis relied heavily on some 9,000 German Landsknechte, mercenaries who fought as long as the gold and silver flowed. Tough professionals, they wore little armor but wielded formidable 18-foot pikes. The king’s native French infantry numbered about 10,000, of which 6,000 were Gascon and Basque crossbowmen. On the whole, the French infantry had become a by-word for undependability, always ready to fight or flee as the mood struck them.

Though the French army was a mixed bag, the French artillery was perhaps the best in Europe. Cast in bronze, boasting the latest designs, the French fieldpieces were drawn by horse teams and fired real cannonballs, not stones. French gunners were experts who were known – and feared – for their rapid reloading. The royal artillery train featured 70 huge guns, seconded by 300 smaller pieces of ordnance.

Francis and his hot-blooded nobility were spoiling for a fight, but before they could come to grips with the Swiss enemy, the towering ramparts of the Alps would have to be crossed. Only a few well-worn passes – some hardly more than goat trails – cut through the precipitous cliffs.

Back in Lombardy, the Swiss were well aware of French preparations and were moving to checkmate the Gallic king. The two main passes into Italy were sealed by Swiss troops, who effectively blocked all land entry into the Italian peninsula as a result.

Anticipating such Swiss moves, Marshal Gian Giacomo Trivulzo (an Italian in French service) and Odet de Foix, vicomte de Lautrec, scoured the foothills on the French side to find a new way across the mountains. Local shepherds and chamois hunters revealed a series of passes through the Alps generally unknown to the out-side world. Better still, these “unknown” passes would enable the French to outflank the Swiss and make their defensive lines untenable.

Based upon this new information, the French army was divided into three sections for the perilous crossing. The first, under the king, would traverse the Col d’Argentiere; the second, consisting of the artillery, would proceed over Mount Genevre, and the third, a force of picked cavalry, would journey over the Col d’Angello. About 1,000 brawny sappers were sent ahead to try and widen the craggy goat trails into some-thing approximating roads. Boulders were heaved aside or blasted out of the way with liberal doses of gunpowder.

The French passage through the Alps must rank as one of the supreme epics of military history, if also one of the least known. In spite of the sappers’ best efforts, the "roads” they created were hardly more than narrow pathways perched on the edge of yawning chasms. Units marched single file, the cavalrymen dismounted and leading their mounts by their bridles. If and when a horse grew skittish and made a misstep, the animal fell, as one chronicler put it, “a half a league” onto the sharp rocks below.

At 6,545 feet above sea level, the thin mountain air of the Cor d’Argentiere taxed the lungs of the hardiest and made them gasp for air. Incredibly, the men-at-arms were marching on foot in full armor, a task that was nothing short of Herculean at that altitude. The artillerymen, too, faced a challenging task, manhandling their burdensome charges over treacherous ravines and deep gullies. At the peak of the ordeal, Francis wrote his mother a report of the passage, while noting, “Those who do not see it will not believe that anyone could bring over horses and heavy artillery the way we are doing....”

Five days later – it must have seemed five centuries – the French completed their journey and debauched onto the fertile Italian plain. Some 1,700 years be-fore, Hannibal had crossed the Alps with his elephants and his army and won immortality. A young French king, shepherding bronze behemoths instead of ponderous pachyderms, had duplicated the Carthaginian’s feat.

In a surprise coup, the French advance guard seized the town of Villafranca and most of the enemy cavalry, Swiss-allied papal horsemen under the command of the elderly Prospero Colonna. Around 300 prisoners were taken; old Colonna was grabbed just as he was about to sit down to dinner. Realizing they were out-flanked and – at least momentarily – out-witted, the Swiss troops pulled back to their main base at Milan, the French following in respectful pursuit. They had to be respectful because, in 1515, the Swiss were the most powerful military machine in Europe.

Switzerland was a collection of largely German-speaking states called can-tons. Though each canton jealously guarded its independence, the Swiss formed a confederation of the cantons for mutual support and defense. Tough and hearty, loving freedom as much as they loved their Alpine valleys, the Swiss amazed Europe when they defeated the army of the encroaching Duke Charles "the Bold” of Burgundy at Grandson. This victory in 1476 inaugurated a half-century of Swiss military prowess.

It was ironic that Swiss military greatness was founded on an anachronism. In an era when those harbingers of modern war, guns and gunpowder, were coming into general use, the Swiss revived the ancient Greek phalanx, large columns of men in serried ranks, each man armed with a pike 21 feet long – an 18-foot wooden shaft, surmounted by a 3-foot iron point. When the pike points were lowered, few if any armored knights could make headway against such a prickly “hedgehog.”

The Swiss were fiercely brave and highly disciplined, often marching in cadence to the sound of fifes and drums – the first army to parade in step since the Romans. But victory after victory made the sturdy mountaineers overconfident and at times somewhat greedy. Swiss pikemen were in high demand throughout Europe, so companies of “Alpine cowherds” hired themselves out as mercenaries. In time, gold, not liberty, animated the Swiss – and if pay were not forthcoming, strikes were not unknown.

In 16th-century Milan, though, the Swiss were only the nominal employees of Duke Maximillian Sforza. Switzerland had recently annexed part of the duchy (today’s Canton Tincino), and heavy Swiss taxes were imposed on the helpless Lombard peasantry. As much as they hated foreign invaders, most northern Italians probably viewed Francis as a liberator from Swiss oppression.

With the main Swiss army ensconced at Milan, Francis’ footsore and saddlesore legions halted a short distance from the city. The vanguard of the French army, led by Duke Charles of Bourbon, camped at the town of Marignano, but the bulk of the troops were with the king at Santa Brigeta.

For the next few weeks there was a curious lull while Francis tried to bribe the Swiss to go home. Among other inducements, the young monarch offered 700,000 gold crowns and an annual subsidy  to each canton.

Francis had judged the Swiss well. Though warlike, they found peace acceptable if tied to profit. Unfortunately for the Swiss, however, their democratic instincts, so admirable at home, made for anarchy while on campaign. Major decisions were made by a fractious council of captains. More debating society than general staff, the council in this instance analyzed, scrutinized and endlessly discussed the French offer. One of their number, Albrecht van Stein, was secretly on the French payroll and used all his powers of persuasion to clinch the deal.

Thanks in part to van Stein’s eloquence, the captains of Berne, Fribourg and Valais agreed to accept the French bounty and go home. On September 8, they signed a treaty with Francis and led their 12,000 men back to Switzerland. The rest of the Swiss – perhaps as many as 20,000 troops – refused to budge, their resolve strengthened by Cardinal Matthaus Schinner, a poisonous prelate who called for the spilling of French blood in the most graphic terms.

On the morning of September 13, 1515, thousands upon thousands of Swiss pikemen poured out of Milan’s Roman Gate, rank after rank, but marching without the customary beat of drums. The march was to be conducted in relative silence, because it was hoped the French might be surprised in their encampments.

The heat was intense, and as the long files of men tramped down the road, their marching feet kicked up plumes of dust. Their very dust then proved their undoing, because the tell-tale clouds betrayed the Swiss’ movement. French lookouts noted the enemy’s approach and alerted their army that an attack was imminent.

At that moment King Francis was in his chamber trying on some new armor. German-made, as were all the best suits of the period, it was tastefully decorated with blue enamel devices and fit the king like a second skin. The metallic rig allegedly was so closely fitted that no weapon could pierce it. While servants scurried about, adjusting the suit for his royal comfort, Francis no doubt took pride in his martial bearing and majestic poise.

But then came a boyhood friend, Robert de la March, Seigneur de Fleurange. Fleurange had urgent news – even as they spoke, the Swiss were falling upon the French vanguard at Marignano, 10 miles to the southeast of Milan.

French trumpeters raised instruments to their lips and shattered the muggy air with high-flown notes of alarm as the French camp roused itself to action. And indeed, a few scant miles away, their comrades in the vanguard were engaged in a desperate battle for survival. Three Swiss phalanx formations of 7,000 or 8,000 men each were barreling down on their outnumbered Gallic foes. The men in the first three ranks of each phalanx lowered their weapons shoulder-high and moved off in a disciplined trot. Phalanx frontage rarely exceeded 30 men, but the Phalanx often was 150 men deep. The tactic was of a simple bludgeon to punch a hole in the enemy line by  sheer momentum and weight of numbers.

As the Swiss attacked, they would have presented a colorful if frightening sight to their hard-pressed foes. Wearing striped hose of various hues, puffed sleeve jerkins and jaunty bonnets, their martial air was only slightly dimmed by the patina of dust that covered them. Few wore any kind of armor, as if they despised such “cowardly” protection. Here and there, bright canton flags blossomed in the pike “groves,” rallying points in the heat of battle.  The flags also marked the Swiss dispositions. As befitted their seniority in the confederation, the old cantons – Uri, Unterwalden and Schwyz – made up the Swiss center, while the Swiss left was anchored by troops from Basle, Schaffhausen and Lucerne. The Swiss left was held by men from Glaurus, Appenzel, St. Gall and Zurich. A young chaplain named Zwingli marched with his fellow Zurichers, scarcely imagining that in a few short years he would be a major figure in the Protestant Reformation.

The terrain around Marignano favored the defense. Much of the ground was a treeless plain, true, but its flat surface was broken by canals and rice fields. Still silent, grim-faced, the Swiss at first drove the French light cavalry before them. Their forward momentum was broken by a ditch, but even so they slammed into the German Landsknechte with the force of a pile driver. Teutons fell in heaps, and the survivors began to give way. In the first rush, the Swiss captured 15 of Francis’ precious artillery pieces.

But the Landsknechte had pikes, too, and rallied to give the Swiss a taste of their own spiky medicine. The two sides collided in a jumble of pikes, transforming the contest into a brutal and bloody tug of war. Putting their backs into it, the Germans would force the Swiss back a few yards, only to have their positions reversed a few moments later.

Then, suddenly, King Francis arrived with his cavalry, bursting on the scene as the answer to a Gallic prayer. Like his companions, the king was covered in armor from head to foot. His long-nosed features were hidden by a plumed helmet and closed visor, but few could fail to recognize the king as he galloped boldly forward, lance couched under his arm. He was mounted on a huge war horse that was covered with a blue velvet "trapper” festooned with crowned F’s and spangled with golden fleurs-de-lis.

   The king and his companions mounted a flank attack against the Swiss host, checking though not stopping their steamrolling advance. The battle soon degenerated into a bloody bludgeoning match, with little quarter asked or given. In fact, the Swiss had mutually pledged to spare no Frenchman except the king himself. It was to be a war of total extermination.

The battle seesawed back and forth, now the Swiss seemingly on the verge of victory, a moment later fortune smiling on the Gauls. Francis personally led charge after charge – some said as many as 30 separate advances – and, as he fought, the royal warrior and his men were like woodcutters paring down the pike “forest,” tree by tree. In the meantime the young monarch’s new Venetian allies had yet to put in their appearance.

During brief lulls in the fray, when opposing sides parted to regroup or rally, French artillery opened up on the stubbornly brave Swiss, plowing great gory lanes into their packed ranks. Cannonballs lopped off limbs, beheaded and disemboweled with horrifying ease, but the mountaineers refused to break off the battle. And since the Swiss had few guns of their own, the artillery barrage provided a one-sided slaughter.

Lengthening shadows combined with coils of dust to create a true “fog of war.” In a battle of sheer butchery, the French and the Swiss were literally blind gladiators as they groped for a vital spot. Few won any laurels in this pounding match, save perhaps for Pierre du Terrail, seigneur de Bayard. Bayard was a magnificent anachronism in a Machiavellian age. Courtly and chivalrous, handy with a sword or a lance, Bayard was Sir Lancelot “reborn,” though without the latter’s roving eye for married ladies.

As time wore on, even Bayard, the knight of knights, “sans peur et sans reproache,” was having a hard time. When unchivalrous Swiss pikes cut his horse’s bridle, he was forced to dismount near some grapevine stakes. All the dust, combined with black powder smoke, had cut visibility to almost zero by this point. Lost in the gloom, but knowing the enemy was all around, Bayard cast off his helmet to see better. He also discarded his leg armor for better mobility.

The French knight crawled on all fours through the muck of drainage ditches (so much for knightly romance!), probably expecting a lethal pike thrust at any moment. Finally, shouts of “France! France!” through the choking darkness guided him to his own lines.

The dull ring of steel against steel, the screams of the wound-ed, and the basso profundo bellowing of the cannons created a fearful din, mixed with the rattle of drums and squeal of fifes calling attack or retreat. At one point, Francis made a desperate charge with only 25 men, but he emerged unscathed.

When the sun finally sank into a cushion of smoke and dust, and night fell, the battle simply raged on under the moon’s impassive eye. Men-at-arms abandoned their mounts to fight on foot with sword and axe, hacking, stabbing, thrusting at their stubborn opponents. Toward midnight, though, the battle finally slowed and stopped, due to the sheer exhaustion of the participants. The moon must have set because, according to chronicles of the event, the troops didn’t know where they were as they groped and stumbled through the inky void. The debris of battle, the dead and wounded, men and animals, made a horrific obstacle course for the weary soldiers feeling their way in the dark.

Numb with fatigue, battered and disoriented, it is recorded, too, numbers of Swiss and Frenchmen actually bedded down with each other when they couldn’t find their own lines. In the midst of the carnage, Francis leaned heavily against a gun carriage. Just yesterday – or was it a century ago’.– the king had turned 21. The Swiss had certainly provided him quite a “coming-of-age” party!

Still in armor, his body had been pummeled by many blows and, dehydrated from fighting in a metal suit all day under a blazing sun, the king cried for water to slake a burning thirst.  Hearing his request, his trumpeter went to a nearby  irrigation ditch and filled a helmet with water in the darkness. The king gratefully accepted the brimming helmet and took a large swallow – only to spew the contents out with disgust. The water, it seemed, was heavy with mud and blood.

  When dawn broke, both sides prepared to renew the conflict French trumpets played shrill martial tunes, accompanied by the mournful bellowing of the “Bull of Uri" and the “Cow of Unterualden,” two great Swiss Alphorns that rallied the mountaineers. It was now Friday, September 14, the Feast of the Holy  Cross, normally  a day  for quiet prayer... but not here.

Francis drew up his bloodied legions into three divisions: the left was commanded by the Duke of Bourbon, the center bv the king, and the right by the Duke of Alencon. The Swiss massed a human “battering ram” of 8,000 pikemen against the French center, supported by two cannons. The Swiss also hail a few arquebusiers – matchlock musketeers – but, as always they  chiefly relied on the pike.

The Swiss attacked with their customary fierceness, but were unable to break through the French lines. French cannon flamed and recoiled, and the air was filled with French crossbow bolts as the Swiss masses drew near. The Swiss reaped nothing but casualties in the center, but their supporting plalanxes made some headway against the French right under Alencon. As the mountaineers pressed forward, they pushed Alencon's' troops back to Marignano and sowed the seeds of panic. Afraid and confused, French soldiers of the right began shouting "All is lost!" as they withdrew.

The crisis of the battle was near at hand. Victory hung in the balance, and fortune could smile on either side. The French right was falling back in disarray, yet the French left and center held firm. Both sides were exhausted, but the Swiss were taking a terrible mauling from the well-served French cannons. 

Then, about 8 o’clock in the morning, shouts of “Marco! Marco!” could be heard above the clamor of battle – Francis’ Venetian allies at last had arrived! And, in the end, the infusion of 12,000 fresh Venetians would tip the scales in favor of the French. The Battle of Marignano now lost, 28 hours after it had begun, the Swiss disengaged and withdrew to Milan. Four hundred Zurichers, left as a rear guard, repulsed a body of Venetian cavalry before being shot to pieces by Francis’ ravenous cannons.

The invincible Swiss had been defeated, vanquished by a combination of hard fighting, artillery and just plain good luck – many people could scarcely believe the terrors of Europe had been destroyed. But there, on the grisly battlefield, was the proof – between 16,000 and 17,000 corpses littered the ground under a broiling sun, and the wounded seemed numberless. Perhaps 5,000 had fallen on the French side. The remainder – more than 10,000 – were Swiss.

    Francis had won a remarkable victory over the premiere fighting force of Europe, and in spite of the carnage all around him, the king’s basically romantic nature reasserted itself. He had almost been killed – a deep rent in his visor bore mute testimony to that.  Still, he had triumphed, and he was determined to celebrate the event.

Summoning the legendary Bayard to his side, the king asked the chevalier to knight him on the battlefield. Francis must have felt he won his spurs, and was determined to mark his passage into manhood. Bayard protested, since, as king, Francis already was considered the font of chivalry, but the young monarch insisted. The chevalier complied with the request and tapped his blade lightly on the kneeling king’s shoulders. As Francis rose, Bayard declared that a sword that performed such a ceremony was no ordinary weapon. Henceforth, Bayard explained, he would use this sword only against Turk, Saracen, or Moor – that is, on a holy  crusade.

The French victory was complete. Acknowledging the outcome, Switzerland evacuated Lombardy and signed a “perpetual peace” with the northern kingdom, a pact that was to last until the French Revolution more than 300 years later. Milan – together with Lombardy – was annexed to the French crown.

For 10 more years Francis’ star was high, but in the long run, French hegemony in Italy was as ephemeral as Marignano’s dust clouds. Embroiled in a war with the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V, Francis lost a decisive battle and was himself captured at Pavia in 1525.

Marignano, meanwhile, would remain a historic milestone, because it helped to give birth to modern warfare, because it was a place where guns and powder supplanted the pike and the sword. No longer could men rely on medieval – even ancient – techniques of war to achieve victory. The Age of Ordnance had begun.


Author Eric Niderost's ancestor Martin Niderist (as the name was then spelled) of Canton Schwyz fell at Marignano. For further reading, please try Desmond Seward’s Prince of the Renaissance: The Golden Life of Francis I, (Macmillan, New York, 1973) with its excellent account of the Battle of Marignano.  

Another book by the Eric Niderost: 
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Reprinted with permission by the Author. 

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