Battle of Pavia

John Florens | Dec 1, 2022

Table of Content


The Battle of Pavia was fought on February 24, 1525 during the Italian War of 1521-1526 between the French army led personally by King Francis I and the imperial army of Charles V, consisting mainly of 12,000 German lansquenets and 5,000 soldiers of the Spanish tercios, led in the field by Flemish captain Charles of Lannoy, Italian condottiero Fernando Francesco d'Avalos, and French renegade Charles of Bourbon. The battle ended in a clear victory for Emperor Charles V's army; King Francis I himself, after falling from his horse, was taken prisoner by the imperials.

The battle marked a decisive moment in the wars for dominance in Italy and affirmed the temporary supremacy of Charles V. From the point of view of military history, the battle is important because it demonstrated the overwhelming superiority of the Imperial infantry and especially its formations of Spanish pikemen and arquebusiers (tercios) and Germans (Doppelsöldner), who destroyed the famous French heavy cavalry with the fire of their weapons.

The Battle of Pavia also marked a moment of transition in military strategies, which would henceforth be characterized by the extensive use of firearms, as well as of important change in troop composition, a kind of Military Renaissance that now included a more even distribution of infantry, cavalry as well as artillery, visible simultaneously in the French and Imperial armies.

And if, during the Middle Ages, heavy cavalry had formed the backbone of armies, between the 13th and 16th centuries, this arrangement changed significantly. During the wars of Italy in the first two decades of the 16th century, there was a real evolution in the Renaissance art of war, involving not only cavalry tactics but also the new strategies employed by the Swiss pikemen infantry, which now faced the new threat of artillery pieces. In fact, the use of bombards, now mounted on shafts and wheels, was now also possible in field battles and not only in sieges, and individual firearms, the arquebuses, were used by professional arquebusiers, who, organized into autonomous units, had an independent role on the battlefield from that of other units.

Following the defeat of Charles V's imperial troops in Provence in 1523, the King of France, Francis I, wanted to use the advantage to try to retake Milan, lost in 1521 when the Spanish had installed Francis II Sforza. In late October 1524, Milan fell to the French; the imperials, too outnumbered, retreated to Lodi, but left a garrison of about 6,000 men in Pavia under the orders of Antonio di Leyva. The ancient capital of the Lombards was the second city of the Duchy and occupied an important strategic position. However, the situation in the city was not the best; the walls had been heavily damaged in the previous siege of 1522, ammunition was scarce, and the population was fresh from an epidemic. In spite of this, Antonio de Leyva took action to reinforce Pavia's defenses: the medieval towers of the city walls were filled with earth and wreckage and thus made more resistant to the blows of the opposing artillery, the walls were reinforced with embankments, ditches were dug, and, thanks to the help of some local aristocrats, such as Matteo Beccaria, about 10,000 inhabitants were mobilized, partly destined to reinforce the defenses and partly to support the imperial garrison in combat.

The city's defenses withstood the first assaults by the French, who were forced to organize a full-fledged siege of the city starting on October 27, 1524. The bulk of Francis I's troops (including the lanzichenecchi of the black band) deployed in the area west of the city, near San Lanfranco (where Francis I took lodging) and the basilica of San Salvatore, while the Swiss mercenary infantry and nuclei of knights quartered east of Pavia, between the monasteries of San Giacomo della Vernavola, Santo Spirito e Gallo, San Pietro in Verzolo and the church of San Lazzaro, and Galeazzo Sanseverino, with most of the heavy cavalry, occupied Mirabello Castle and the Visconti Park north of the city. During the siege, the many hamlets and monasteries outside the city walls were sacked and occupied by the French king's soldiers so much so that, even up to the 1640s, documents make mention of houses or mills set on fire and destroyed by Francis I's men. On October 28, Anne de Montmorency and the Marquis of Saluzzo, Michele Antonio, had a pontoon bridge thrown across the Ticino River and occupied the suburbs of Pavia located beyond the Ponte Coperto bridge south of the city. During these operations the French artillery destroyed the Catenone tower, which, located in the center of the Ticino and manned by a number of Spanish arquebusiers, defended access to the ducal dockyard. To prevent the French from penetrating the city through the bridge, Antonio de Leyva had the bridge fortified and ordered that one of its arches be demolished. Between November 6 and 8, the French heavily bombarded Pavia's eastern and western walls, opening wide breaches. Having ceased artillery fire, they assaulted the walls on both the west and east, however, having penetrated the city they were confronted by the ramparts and moats made by de Leyva behind the urban walls, and after furious fighting were repulsed with heavy losses by the imperial lansquenets. In view of the impossibility of taking Pavia by assault, so as not to further consume gunpowder reserves, Francis I ordered his engineers to divert the Ticino into the bed of the Gravellone (a branch of the river that runs south of the city), so that they could penetrate the city through the weakest part of the city wall, the part facing the river. Francis I's men worked hard to create a dam north of Pavia, but when the structure was nearly completed, in December, a strong flood of the Ticino River swept it away. The operation having failed, the French began again to carry out sporadic bombardments against the city walls, with little result, but the French army's real adversary by now was the season-the frequent rains, the humidity and then the snow caused several losses to Francis I's men, who by then had been encamped around Pavia for months. However, even in the city the situation was beginning to become worrisome: supplies of provisions were beginning to run out and, above all, there was a shortage of money to pay the salaries of the lansquenets. To solve the problem, the indefatigable De Leyva had the mint reopened, requisitioned gold and silver from urban ecclesiastical bodies, the university, and wealthier citizens, even going so far as to donate his own silverware and jewelry, and had oxidional coins minted to pay the soldiers. The situation remained in stalemate until the arrival in early February 1525 of some 22,000 men under the orders of Charles of Lannoy, viceroy of Naples, Charles of Bourbon, and Fernando Francesco d'Avalos, marquis of Pescara, who came to the aid of the besieged. The army encamped in the eastern part of Pavia facing the French troops (who had meanwhile repositioned themselves along the eastern walls of the Visconti Park and erected an embankment along the right bank of the Vernavola, from the park to the Ticino), and for three weeks the two armies faced each other entrenched in the Visconti Park where Parco della Vernavola is now located.

First phase of the battle

On the night of February 23-24, part of the Spanish army sprang into action, led by the French Constable Charles de Bourbon, who had distinguished himself on the side of Francis I at the Battle of Marignano in 1515 but had later switched to the opposing camp. The imperial spoilers, under the command of Galzerano Scala, hidden by the fog, opened three breaches in the Park wall near the locality Due Porte di San Genesio, and initially surprised the French lines, so much so that 3,000 German and Spanish arquebusiers, led by the Marquis del Vasto, took Mirabello Castle, where they captured numerous enemies. At Mirabello the imperial array lined up for battle: on the right were the Spaniards, on the left two squares of Lansquenets, along with the artillery, while at the head of the army was the cavalry, divided in turn into three ranks: the vanguard led by Charles de Lannoy, the German heavy cavalry under the orders of Charles of Bourbon and Nicholas von Salm, and the Spanish cavalry under Hernando de Alarcon.

Second phase of the battle

Francis I and the French leaders were surprised by the unexpected enemy action, but reacted quickly and deployed their army for battle; after leaving 6,000 soldiers, including the so-called Italian "black bands" in the encampments and against the city (while other French and Italian infantrymen under the orders of the Count of Clermont remained to the west and south of the city), the king took command of his famous heavy cavalry and headed to the left wing to face the imperial cavalry directly. Part of the Swiss pikemen and German mercenaries took up positions in the center south of Mirabello Castle; the bulk of the Swiss infantry was at first left in the second line grouped in close formation; on the right wing the French quickly put their powerful artillery into action, while toward Pavia a reserve of about 400 heavy cavalry under the command of Charles IV d'Alençon was left, and farther away, in the monasteries and churches southeast of the city and along the Vernavola, a few thousand Swiss infantrymen were still being prepared for battle. .

Under the command of the famous Galiot de Genouillac, the French guns opened fire with great effectiveness against the squares of the Lansquenet pikemen, who suffered heavy losses; sources report gruesome details about the deadly effect of artillery fire on the dense ranks of the Lansquenet mercenaries. While the German infantrymen were being bombarded,forcing them to take shelter in the formed depression of the Vernavola riverbed, preventing them from any advance, the French light cavalry with a skillful move managed to knock out the Spanish artillery that was still deploying on the field. At this point Francis I made the mistake of dispersing his forces.

Third phase of the battle

At the crack of dawn, despite the dense fog, he launched his own heavy cavalry against the imperial cavalry arrayed on the left of the deployment. Francis I probably believed that the enemy infantry, now disheveled by his artillery, would in a short time be wiped out by his Swiss and German mercenaries, who in the meantime had also repulsed an attack by the Spanish light cavalry, and thus wanted now, as at Marignano, to secure the main credit for the victory. The French king, following purely medieval patterns, stood before his knights and sought to win the battle with honor and glory.

In fact Francis I himself with all the heavy cavalry passed in front of his own artillery thus preventing it from opening fire on the imperial formations. The French cavalry fell against the vanguard of the imperial cavalry, which was beaten and dispersed, Francis I himself in the fight killed Ferrante Castriota, marquis of Civita Castellana. Now certain of victory, the French king ordered his knights to halt and to catch their breath and, apparently, turning to Thomas de Foix-Lescun, who was riding by his side, said that he was now the "lord of Milan," however, despite an initial success, he exposed himself to the enemy's counterattack. The situation of the imperials was at this point quite critical: their front was immobilized by the French king's numerous artillery and Swiss and German infantrymen and threatened on the flank by the enemy cavalry, which could be reinforced by the reserve of 400 heavy cavalry under the orders of Charles IV of Alençon who had not yet participated in the fighting. Ferdinand d'Avalos, observing that the French cavalry had moved far forward and lost all contact with their infantry, had 1,500 Spanish arquebusiers move in and deploy under cover of a wood along the left bank of the Vernavola and open fire on the right flank of the French heavy cavalry with devastating effect. The Spanish arquebusiers were organized according to the famous Tercio system. The German ones, who also took part in the barrage of fire, formed part of the front line of the Lansquenets and were, for that reason, paid twice as much as regular mercenaries. The French knights suffered very high losses; the survivors were attacked by the imperial light cavalry as the infantry approached to complete the victory.

The French heavy cavalry was destroyed; the remaining dismounted cavalrymen were annihilated at point blank range by the infantry with dagger blows to the neck, at the junction between helmet and breastplate, or through the small slits in the helmet's concealment. The arquebusiers, on the other hand, employed their firearms by striking at close range, in many cases setting off the shot directly inside the knights' armor after placing the arquebus through the surplice. King Francis I's main commanders fell at this stage of the battle; Louis de la Trémoille was killed by a close-range arquebus shot, Guillaume Gouffier de Bonnivet himself and Galeazzo Sanseverino, while La Palice died of dagger wounds.

Final stage of the battle

The French knights along with the king found themselves disoriented and surrounded by enemy cavalry and arquebusiers. In a short time the French cavalry was annihilated. Francis I continued to fight strenuously despite being dismounted by an arquebus by the Italian Cesare Hercolani. Eventually, having seen his knights fall one by one and understanding all resistance useless, he sought, too, escape in flight. The only route still clear was the one to Milan. Francis I headed for the northern wall of the Visconti park, perhaps to exit through Porta Mairolla and the Cantone delle Tre Miglia. Left isolated and arrived near the Repentita farmstead, his horse was wounded. Dragged to the ground by the animal's fall, surrounded by enemies, he was saved from death and captured, near the Repentita farmstead, by the Imperial commander as well as viceroy of Naples Charles of Lannoy.

While the French cavalry was being annihilated on the left wing, in the center of the deployment first imperil archers shot down the French artillerymen, silencing the enemy guns, then the Empire's German lansquenets fought a violent and bloody fratricidal battle against the 5. 000 German mercenaries of Francis I, the so-called "German black bands"; after bitter fighting the lansquenets of the experienced and aggressive Georg von Frundsberg prevailed and destroyed most of the French king's mercenaries with pikes and halberds. After the victory, the Lansquenets advanced and endangered the French artillery, which was partly overwhelmed and captured. After destroying the German mercenaries in the pay of the king of France, the lanzichenecks advanced against the Swiss of the Fleuranges, but as they were positioning themselves for combat, their square was disrupted by the surviving heavy cavalry fleeing first and by the arquebusiers and imperial cavalry later, so that they fled. In the meantime, the other Swiss infantry in the pay of Francis I encamped at the monasteries southeast of the city were moving up the Vernavola River to the north to spring into action, they were in turn disoriented, however, by the sight of the retreat, across the Ticino River, of the heavy cavalry of Charles IV of Alençon, and then attacked by the garrison of Pavia, which, under the command of Antonio De Leyva, emerged from the walls, had not only routed the Italian black bands (deprived of their commander, since Giovanni dalle Bande Nere had been wounded in the right leg by an arquebus shot on February 20 during a skirmish under Pavia's walls), but was now aiming at the last Swiss infantry formations in the French pay of the French. Surrounded, the Swiss fled, trying desperately to reach the pontoon bridge thrown across the Ticino River downstream from Pavia perhaps near the church of San Lazzaro, where the knights of Charles IV of Alençon had passed. However, a horrible surprise awaited them: the bridge, after the passage of the French knights had been destroyed by the latter. Pursued by the enemies who granted no quarter, many Swiss threw themselves into the Ticino, and drowned; others tried to surrender but, at least at first, were slaughtered on the spot.

The battle ended on the morning of February 24. The French king was imprisoned in Lombardy (Pizzighettone) and then transferred to Spain (Madrid), while there were about 5,000 fallen French soldiers on the field.

The rout was complete. The French lost about 10,000 men (most of the army cadres, including Guillaume Gouffier de Bonnivet, Jacques de La Palice, and Louis de la Trémoille Prince of Talamonte, were killed in the battle. The fate of the battle was marked in favor of the imperials by the action of the Spanish, German, and Italian arquebusiers of the Marquis of Pescara. Credit for the capture of the king of France was attributed, even with diplomas from Charles V, to various members of the imperial army:

The French king, after capture according to tradition was initially locked up in a farmstead not far from S. Genesio, the Repentita farmstead, two kilometers north of Mirabello. An inscription on the outside wall of the farmstead recalls the episode. Certainly the royal prisoner was then transferred to the nearby tower at Pizzighettone, as Guicciardini records, and there he remained while the Treaty of Rome was negotiated. He was then embarked at Villafranca near Nice on his way to Spain, where he was held for a year while awaiting the payment of a ransom by France and the signing of a treaty in which he pledged to abandon his claims to Artois, Burgundy, and Flanders, as well as renounce his claims to Italy. In the battle, Federico Gonzaga, lord of Bozzolo, was also defeated by imperial troops, taken prisoner and locked up in the city's castle. He managed, however, to escape by taking refuge with the Duke of Milan. Notably, the French defeat, changed in the ruling classes of the Italian states their perception of Charles V.

Given the significance of the battle and the vast echo that the capture of the French king aroused, the event of arms was the subject of numerous prints and paintings, often unfortunately inaccurate or fictional, their authors having never seen Pavia and the Visconti Park, in which it took place.

Although not directly related to the Battle of Pavia two frescoes, attributed to Bernardino Lanzani placed in the first bay of the left aisle, behind the baptistery, of the church of San Teodoro in Pavia, are of particular importance. The two paintings depict, in great detail, two images of Pavia and the life that took place there, practically coeval with the battle.

ended the battle, Spanish Colonel Juan de Aldana took from Francis I's tent a sword, a dagger garnished with old-fashioned silver, a necklace of the Order of St. Michael and a Book of Hours of the Office of the Virgin. The sword, possibly of Italian manufacture, was later given to Philip II of Spain by Aldana's son in 1585 in exchange for a pension and deposited in the Royal Armory. In 1808, when the French invaded Spain, Napoleon ordered Murat to retrieve the sword and bring it back to France; the weapon thus reached Paris and was kept in Napoleon's cabinet in the Tuileries until 1815, when, having fallen Napoleon, it was brought to the Musée de l'Armée in Paris. But the sword was not the only booty made by the Spaniards: another Habsburg commander, Don Juan Lopez Quixada captured the banner, woven in silk, of the French ruler. The standard was later lost but the rich box that contained it is preserved at the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels.

Much of the battle took place within the immense hunting reserve of the Dukes of Milan, the Parco Visconteo, which covered more than 2,200 hectares. The Visconti park no longer exists, much of its woods were cut down between the fifth and seventeenth centuries to make room for crops, however, three nature reserves survive that in their own right can be considered the heirs of the park, they are the Carola garzaia, the Porta Chiossa garzaia and the Vernavola park, covering an area of 148 hectares. In particular, some of the most important episodes of the battle took place within the Vernavola Park, which extends southwest of Mirabello Castle. Near the park, in 2015, two cannonballs, probably fired by French artillery, were found during some agricultural work. Although partly mutilated during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when it was converted into a farm, Mirabello Castle, once the seat of the park's ducal captain, still stands a short distance from Vernavola and preserves inside some curious decorative elements (fireplaces, frescoes and windows) that have not yet been adequately restored and studied, in late French Gothic style, added to the Sforza-era structure during the first French domination of the Duchy of Milan (1500- 1513). About two kilometers further north, along the Cantone Tre Miglia road, is the Repentita farmstead, where Francis I was captured and, according to tradition, housed. The complex still retains parts of the 15th-century masonry, and an inscription on the exterior wall commemorates the event. In the nearby municipality of San Genesio ed Uniti (where a permanent iconographic exhibition on the battle is on display at the Ca' de' Passeri farmstead) in Via Porta Pescarina there are some of the remains of the park gate at which, on the night of February 23-24, 1525, the Imperials made the three breaches that began the battle. Less obvious are the traces of the battle in Pavia: the city walls of the communal age, which defended the city during the siege, were replaced around the middle of the 16th century by strong ramparts, which are partly preserved. Instead, in addition to the Visconti castle (where the tombstone of Eitel Friedrich III, Count of Hohenzollern, captain of the Landsknechts who died in the battle, is preserved), two gates of the primitive urban wall, Porta Nuova, while, in the suburb beyond the Ponte Coperto bridge, at the end of Via Milazzo, are the remains of the Catenone tower, which once defended Pavia's ducal dockyard and was destroyed by French artillery in the early stages of the siege, on the bank of the Ticino River. Pavia's eastern suburbs are home to some of the ecclesiastical institutions (some of which are now deconsecrated) that housed Francis I's Swiss and German mercenaries, such as the Monastery of Saints Spirit and Rooster, the Monastery of San Giacomo della Vernavola, the Monastery of San Pietro in Verzolo, and the Church of San Lazzaro, while the western suburbs are home to the Church of San Lanfranco (where Francis I was quartered) and the Basilica of the Santissimo Salvatore. In the church of San Teodoro there is a large fresco depicting the city during the siege of 1522; in it, with a certain abundance of detail, Pavia, and its surroundings, is depicted exactly as they must have appeared at the time of the battle. But relics of the battle are also preserved elsewhere: the Royal Armory in Turin houses an armor (catalogued as B19) donated by the Hospital of Vercelli to Charles Albert in 1834; it is composed of pieces dating from the first decades of the 16th century, although some of its parts are dated to 1460. The armor is the work of Milanese masters and belonged to a mysterious knight who died in Vercelli from wounds suffered during battle.


  1. Battle of Pavia
  2. Battaglia di Pavia (1525)
  3. ^ Copia archiviata, su URL consultato il 25 settembre 2021 (archiviato dall'url originale il 25 settembre 2021).
  4. ^ This is the only identified work of the master Ruprecht Heller
  5. ^ History of Italy, book XVI, chapter II, Francesco Guicciarini
  6. ^ History of Italy, book XVI, chapter XV, Francesco Guicciardini
  7. ^ a b c Livio Agostini, Piero Pastoretto (1999). Le grandi Battaglie della Storia. Milano: Viviani Editore.
  8. O exército estava reunido sob o comando de Carlos I de Espanha, e incluía essencialmente tropas espanholas e italianas, leais a ele como Rei de Espanha, além de outras unidades sob a bandeira do Sacro Império Romano-Germânico, ou sob seu pagamento. Vários autores as chamam de tropas imperiais, espanholas, dos Habsburgo, imperialistas ou uma combinação deles, a fim de simplificar a sua denominação.
  9. Hackett dá uma tradução similar e destaca que fontes contemporâneas concordam com a frase “tudo perdido, salvo a honra”. (Francis the First, 298)
  10. Бельджиоиозо, город // Энциклопедический словарь Брокгауза и Ефрона : в 86 т. (82 т. и 4 доп.). — СПб., 1890—1907.
  11. Gillian Riley. The Oxford Companion to Italian Food. — Oxford University Press, USA, 2007. — ISBN 978-0-19-860617-8.

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