Modern-day location – just north of the town of Pavia, 22 miles south of Milan, Italy
Conflict – Italian Wars of the Sixteenth Century: First War between François I of France and Habsburg Emperor Charles V, 1521 – 1526
Forces engaged – King François I commanding the French army, consisting of 9,000 French and Swiss pikemen, 9,000 French and Italian infantry and arquebusiers*, 1,200 men-at-arms**, 2,000 light cavalry and 53 guns – total about 22,000 men. Fernando d’Avalos, Marquis of Pescara commanding the Imperialist army, consisting of 12,000 German landsknechts***, 6,500 Spanish and Italian infantry and arquebusiers, 800 men-at-arms, 1,500 light cavalry and 17 guns – total about 21,000 men, excluding the garrison of Pavia.
* arquebusiers: infantryman equipped with an early matchlock firearm, often called a hackbut or arquebus
** men-at-arms (from French gens d’armes): armoured knights on horseback with lance and sword
*** landsknechts: German-speaking mercenary infantry, predominantly pikemen with other supporting troops
Between 1494 and 1559, the Valois Kings of France fought a series of wars against the Habsburg monarchs of Spain and the German states for control of northern Italy. Dominated by small, rich city states, the fertile plains south of the Alps were the commercial cockpit of Europe. The region was particularly important to the Habsburgs for communications between Spain and their lands in Burgundy and the Netherlands, via the so-called ‘Spanish Road’.
With its garrison of 6,000 Spanish and German troops, Pavia was a difficult proposition for a besieger, even before the arrival of winter weather. To the south, the River Ticino formed a strong natural defence, while the town’s walls dominated all the other approaches. To the north of the town lay the Mirabello, a walled hunting park with a fortified lodge, alongside which the French positioned their camp and baggage.
The initial French attempt to carry the town’s defences by storm failed, and the siege settled down into a familiar, dreary routine of skirmishing and bombardment. In November, French engineers tried to dam the Ticino so that the army could assault the town from its unprotected side, but heavy rains caused the river to flood, and washed away the works. By February 1525, the siege had made little progress, and a Habsburg relief army, having failed to entice the French away from Pavia, was approaching from the north.
When the Imperialist army arrived, they dug entrenchments to the east of the town, facing the French siege lines across the Vernacula Brook, a marshy, steep-sided tributary of the Ticino. Several days of skirmishing and artillery fire followed, with little impact on either side. By now winter conditions were causing the French serious losses from disease and desertion, and morale was low. Meanwhile the leaders of the Habsburg army were short of funds to pay their troops (a common problem in this era), and men were beginning to drift away. It was clearly time for action, and as night fell on February 24, the Marquis of Pescara began to march his troops to the north, along the east bank of the Vernacula.
It was a wet, windy night, and the Imperialist artillery kept up a desultory fire against the French lines to act as a diversion. By the early hours, Pescara’s columns were a mile or two north of the town where the brook narrowed and easier to ford. Pioneers with rams and picks began to demolish the stone wall of the hunting park wall (cannon fire would have been quicker but it was essential to preserve quiet). By dawn most of the Imperialist army had passed through the breach and forming up in the morning mist. Surprise was complete, and before the French camped around the Mirabello lodge could stir themselves, the Imperialist infantry over-ran their positions, capturing a great booty.
François reacted swiftly when he heard the news. Leaving some infantry to man the entrenchments around the town, he advanced north through the Mirabello with his mounted men-at-arms and artillery. Meanwhile several bodies of infantry straggled up behind. The king resolved to strike at once before the Imperialists could press their advantage. The French cannon opened fire on the last column of the enemy, which had just passed through the broken wall, and blew it apart: the survivors fled. François and his men-at-arms then charged with the lance, smashing into the Imperialist cavalry in the centre of the opposing line, and scattering them with great loss. Reputedly the king exclaimed ‘Now is the time to call me Duke of Milan!’ His knights then wheeled to attack the enemy infantry but the king’s impetuous charge had masked the fire of his own artillery, and the unsupported horsemen, unable to penetrate the dense pike formations, now lost their momentum.
Meanwhile the French infantry were arriving in dribs and drabs. First to engage the Imperialists were the king’s Swiss mercenary pikemen but, contrary to their ferocious reputation, they disengaged after a brief ‘push of pike’ and withdrew from the battlefield. No-one knows why they made such a poor showing: perhaps they were mindful of their bloody repulse at Bicocca a few years before. Moments later, the main French pike formation closed with the Imperial landsknechts and a fearful struggle ensued. This was a particularly bitter clash between mercenary soldiers who were commercial as well as military rivals, and neither side gave quarter. Attacking from front and flank, the landsknechts cut the outnumbered French to pieces and hardly a man survived. While this sanguinary contest was going on, the garrison troops inside Pavia launched a well-timed sally against the French siege lines, adding to the general confusion.
Divided by numerous hedges and copses, the grassy lawns of the hunting park did not suit sweeping cavalry manoeuvres. Belatedly, more French infantry arrived, hurrying north from the siege lines, but the victorious landsknechts overwhelmed them before they could deploy.
Eventually François’ horse was shot from under him. The king, surrounded by enemies, was hurled to the ground and captured alive. There was, no doubt, an ugly scuffle among those around him for the right to claim a king’s ransom! Meanwhile, outside the park to the north-west of Pavia, the Duc d’Alençon saw no point in sacrificing his men now that the day was lost, and he retreated north towards Milan. The fighting was over.
The Battle of Pavia lasted less than three hours. The Imperialists lost about 1,000 killed and wounded, while the French lost up to 10,000 men, with 5,000 taken prisoner – including the king, who was shipped to Madrid in captivity, and made to sign a treaty renouncing his claims to Italy. But perhaps predictably, that was not the end of the story. Immediately after his release, François reneged on his oath and began to organise a new military coalition against the Habsburg Emperor. The Italian Wars were far from over…
Black, J. (Ed) – The Seventy Great Battles of All Time – Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2005
Jorgensen, C. and others – Fighting Techniques of the Early Modern World 1500-1763 – Amber Books, 2005
Nolan, C. – The Age of Wars of Religion, 1000-1650 – Greenwood Press, 2006
Oman, C. – A History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century – Greenhill Books, 1987
Perrett, B. – The Battle Book – Brockhampton Press, 1992
This article was written by Tim Barney, a Mirthy public speaker who specialises in military history and technology. Following a career in the IT industry, Tim has embraced the opportunity to pass on some of the fascinating facts and stories he has absorbed over the years.
This is the second article of the new series ‘Battle of the Month’, where Tim is bringing a different battle to life each month.
Tim’s talks can be found at Mirthy Talk Catalogue | Military History.