The Rise of the Swiss
The makeup of the armies of Europe was rapidly changing in the late Medieval period as mercenaries started to replace the peasant levies, and gunpowder weapons and pikes replaced the more traditional weapons of Europe’s warriors.
Another aspect that changed in the late medieval period was the fact that the heavy cavalry dominance finally came to an end. The Scottish pikeman already showed just how effective pikes could be against the English heavy cavalry. The Swiss became another famous example of people adopting the pike and crushing heavy cavalry.
The Swiss had a fierce military reputation even before they adopted the pike. During the 14th century, the cantons humbled the armies of the Habsburgs on numerous occasions, the most well-known example being the Battle of Mortgarten.
During the 14th century, the Swiss army’s main weapon was the halberd; however, during the 15th century, the Swiss also adopted the pike, though they did not ditch the halbert altogether either. They also adopted the most modern firearms, but on a much smaller scale than the Spanish did under the leadership of the Great Captain.
The military prowess of the Swiss became well known in Europe after they defeated Charles the Bold of Burgundy. Before his wars against the Swiss, the Duke of Burgundy was regarded as one of the best generals of Europe who expanded the territory of his domains considerably. However, he had much less success against the Swiss who defeated him at Grandson, Morat and Nancy, the final defeat costing the Duke his own life.
In the aftermath of the defeat of Charles the Bold, the Swiss became the most sought-after mercenaries of Europe. They also formed a key contingent in the French invading armies that attacked Italy during the early phases of the Italian Wars.
For a brief time, at the urging of Pope Julius II, the Swiss turned on the French and reinstalled the Sforzas as the rulers of Milan, though in reality, the Duke was probably not much more than a puppet. Pope Julius regarded the Swiss very highly and hired many of them to become his guard, becoming the first Pope to hire the Swiss as the Papal Guard.
The Habsburg-Valois Wars
The end of the Swiss as independent actors in Northern Italy came after their defeat at the Battle of Marignano when they were defeated in a closely fought two-day battle by Francis of France. Despite their defeat, the Swiss acquitted themselves well on the field, and Francis signed a so-called Perpetual Peace with most of the cantons a year after Marignano, no doubt hoping to recruit the soldiers of the cantons in his future military conflicts.
In the aftermath of Marignano, the French were the dominant force in Lombardy until 1521. War broke out between Francis and the newly elected Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1521. Francis dispatched two proxy armies with which he invaded Luxembourg and Navarre. Neither army had much success, and before the year was over, the forces of Emperor Charles were counterattacking.
The Imperials also attacked northern Italy, and their armies, led by the Condottiero Colonna, outnumbered the French and forced them to abandon Milan. Despite the setbacks, not everything was lost just yet. The French maintained a foothold in Navarre, and the Imperial counterattack into Northern France was turned back. Francis also succeeded in enlisting over 10,000 soldiers from the Swiss cantons and sent them to reinforce the French forces in Lombardy.
After leaving Milan, the French commander Lautrec retreated to the river Adda, where he was close to his Venetian allies. With the arrival of the reinforcements, he deemed that his army was now strong enough to retake the lost territory and went on the offensive at the beginning of 1522.
Lautrec marched against Pavia and besieged the town. He hoped that this way, Colonna would leave Milan and face him in battle, but Colonna was wiser than to attack the French army, which by now was reinforced by Swiss and Venetians and numbered over 30,000 soldiers. Instead, Colonna decided to harass the supplies of Lautrec’s army.
Lautrec lifted the siege of Pavia and marched against Colonna, who decided to retreat to Milan and camp just north of it. Lautrec wanted to march to Novara to gather further reinforcements. Unfortunately for him, he was short on funds and struggled to pay his army. Thanks to the shortage of funds, the Swiss demanded an immediate battle; otherwise, they threatened to march straight home. Lautrec felt he had no option, so he decided to give battle.
The Battle of Bicocca
Colonna chose his battleground well and lined up his outnumbered army in a very strong defensive position. Marshes and a small river defended his two flanks. From the front, his army was lined up just behind a sunken road, which was further enforced by earthworks.
An attack from the front promised to be incredibly costly for the French; however, an attack from the rear was not much more promising either. To get to the Imperialist’s rear, the French had to take the stone bridge that was the only crossing point over the small river that defended one of the flanks of the Imperialists. Colonna thought about this possibility and lined up his cavalry on either side of the river to defend the bridge.
In the French camp, the Swiss were adamant that they should lead the attack, no doubt hoping to steamroll their enemies and take the loot for themselves. Lautrec granted their wish. The French army thus was lined up into lines. The first was made up of Swiss and some dismounted French knights, the second line was made up of the rest of the French, and the third line comprised the Venetians.
Lautrec also decided to send a contingent of French heavy cavalry to take the bridge and take the Imperials from the rear.
The Swiss began the attack and marched against the Imperials. Their impetuousness rendered the French artillery more or less useless as the Swiss rushed ahead quickly to storm the Imperial position. Lautrec and Montmererrency would have preferred to bombard the Imperials first, but the rapid advance of the Swiss made this impossible.
The French first line quickly reached the Imperial positions; however, they struggled to climb up to the Imperials, who in the meantime released murderous artillery and arquebus fire on them. Some of the Swiss and French eventually climbed up and tried to line up, but the German and Spanish pikemen fell on them and pushed them back. The struggle was over quite rapidly, and after suffering several thousand dead and wounded, the vanguard retreated.
The French had no more luck in their cavalry attack either, and their heavy cavalry was pushed back.
After repelling the initial French attacks, the subordinates of Colonna urged their commander to attack; however, the wily old Condottiero had none of that. He knew that the second and third lines of Lautrec were unscathed. And if they attacked them in return would have had to abandon their prepared position. He argued that after the losses they suffered, the French would retreat.
Colonna’s judgment was inch-perfect. The Swiss were shocked and demoralized by their losses and marched back home the next day. Lautrec lost his best infantryman, and without them, he decided to concede defeat and retreated.
Colonna could have pursued his enemies, but he rather decided to march against Genoa. The Imperials besieged Genoa in early May, and before the end of the month, the city was in their hands.
Shaw, Christine, and Michael Edward Mallett. (2018). The Italian Wars 1494-1559: War, State and Society in Early Modern Europe (2nd ed.). Routledge.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Andrew Szekler