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  • James Houser

April 28, 1503 - The Italian Wars & the Battle of Cerignola

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

April 28, 1503. In southern Italy, two armies square off for one of the most important but least known battles in military history. The French and Spanish armies about to fight at Cerignola are still very medieval, but the Spanish have an ace up their sleeve – a thousand men armed with the harquebus, the first infantry firearm. The French knights are about to get a harsh induction into the birth of gunpowder warfare.


When did the Middle Ages end? When did Europe stop being medieval? Good luck tackling that question. You could look at political events, like the breakdown of the old feudal orders by the 1500s. You could look at scientific or cultural events such as the beginning of the Italian Renaissance in the 1400s. Some people peg the end of the Middle Ages to a major religious event in 1517: Martin Luther’s open defiance to the Catholic Church, and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. All of these are good in their own way.


On a military level, though, gunpowder ended up being the great transformer, the dividing line between “medieval” and “early modern.” Artillery caused castles to be obsolete overnight, and rulers had to replace them with more complex star fortresses and bastions that could resist cannon fire. Cannon were also amazingly expensive for the undeveloped medieval economy, which meant that having a decent artillery train was basically limited to the king.


In the last half of the 1400s, the Kings of France transformed their military from an old feudal system built around noble knights and peasant levies into the beginning of a professional institution. The Kings built a heavy artillery train, raised an elite force of heavy cavalry called the gendarmes, and recruited large numbers of the legendary Swiss Pikemen, the finest infantry in Europe. First, they blasted the English out of Normandy and Aquitaine in 1450 and 1453, ending the Hundred Years’ War once and for all. The English castles stood no chance against the heavy artillery of the Royal Batteries. Then the French Kings broke the power of the individual nobles until they were the undisputed overlords of most of modern France.


In a military sense, it is common to date the end of the Middle Ages to around 1492 to 1494. In 1492, Christian rulers Ferdinand and Isabella destroyed the last Muslim outposts in Spain, and Columbus discovered the New World. Two years later, in 1494, French King Charles VIII invaded Italy with an army larger and stronger than anything Europe had ever seen: 25,000 men including the heavy gendarmes and 8,000 Swiss Pikemen, along with 40 cannon – the first combined-arms army in world history. This, then, is when the military Middle Ages truly ended, and Charles was about to teach everyone the new rules.

Charles invaded Italy because his family had a long-standing claim to the throne of Naples, the kingdom that occupied southern Italy. His grandmother was a descendant of Charles I of Anjou, who had taken over Naples way back during the Sicilian Vespers that I talked about on March 30. To retake these lands, though, Charles had to cross almost all of Italy. With his amazing army, the march was almost easy. The French rampaged their way through Genoa, Florence, the Pope’s lands and into Naples, which they took almost without a fight. They won multiple battles against the Italian City-States, who had waged careful, almost play-wars against each other for centuries and were totally unprepared for the brutal shock of heavy cavalry, gunpowder and pike infantry tactics.


In taking Naples, the French had completely upended the balance of power in Europe. Soon the Italian City-States, the Pope, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the King of Spain were all drawn into the bloody series of struggles that became called the Italian Wars. From 1494 until 1559, Europe underwent a revolutionary series of changes. The Protestant Reformation transformed the religious and cultural life of Christendom, the discovery of the New World started a new economic age, the attacks of the Ottomans in the east threatened the very core of Europe, and the Italian Renaissance came to a sad end in the chaotic series of shifting alliances and power struggles in Italy.


Of all the countries worried about French power, from the Pope to the Germans to the English, the Spanish were the most worried. Due to the newfound riches of the New World, they were the strongest counterweight to the French, who were quickly becoming the most powerful country in Europe. In 1495, the Spanish sent an army to Naples to resist the French occupation of southern Italy. To lead this army, King Ferdinand of Aragon – one half of the late-medieval religious-nut power couple that was Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain – assigned a man named Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba, the “Gran Capitan.”


Cordoba was one of history’s great captains, sadly forgotten in modern times to all but the most dedicated historians. A poor noble from Andalusia, Cordoba worked his way up in Ferdinand and Isabella’s service through sheer brilliance and leadership. He had helped to take the last series of Muslim-held towns in Spain, including the great fortress of Granada. Cordoba was an expert in military engineering, siege warfare, and guerrilla fighting. When Cordoba first arrived in Italy in 1495, he was defeated in battle; the Spanish light infantry and light cavalry, designed for fighting in the mountains, were no match for the brilliant French army. They were perfect, though, for guerrilla tactics, and over the next few years Cordoba chipped away at the French forces until he had regained all of Naples, forcing the final surrender of the French armies in the area.


Cordoba drew on his experiences in Italy to redesign the entire Spanish fighting method. He realized that the Spanish infantry, with loose formations and short swords, could not stand against the French cavalry and Swiss Pikemen. Rather than try and copy the French combination, he invented a new combination of his own. He built an infantry formation around the pike, but combined this with soldiers wielding a heavy firearm known as the arquebus. While cannon had been used effectively in battle for almost a century, infantry firearms were considered too heavy, inaccurate, and slow-firing to be effective on the battlefield. Cordoba believed that if he combined the firepower of the arquebus with the protection of the pikemen, he had a winning combination to defeat the French blitzkrieg machine – the “tercio,” or “Spanish square.”


In 1502, the French invaded Naples again, and Cordoba was sent back to Italy with his new model army. His orders this time were not to just drive the French out, but to destroy their army. Cordoba was outnumbered, though, and realized he would have to play for time until reinforcements could arrive. He resorted to his old guerrilla tactics to delay the French conquest, and this angered the French general, Louis d’Armagnac, Duke of Nemours.

Nemours was furious that Cordoba continued to fight a raiding guerrilla war from the hills, rather than face him in the open like a knight was supposed to do. He repeatedly tried to draw out his foe, even challenging him to a duel, but Cordoba always managed to slip away. “El Gran Capitan,” as his troops called him, was not going to fight until he was good and ready.


By April 1503, Cordoba was good and ready. He came down to confront the French, knowing that after months of frustration, they would attack him no matter how strong his position was. Cordoba only had 6,000 men to the French 10,000. He had almost no knights, and he faced the French military machine – the heavy gendarme cavalry, the Swiss pikemen, and heavy artillery. Cordoba took a position at the site of Cerignola, on top of an uphill slope.


As he waited for the French to come, Cordoba had his troops prepare their position. Rather than standing on top of the hill, sticking out like a sore thumb, the Spanish dug trenches and planted stakes in front of their position. They built a well-girded line that looked like something from the American Civil War, instead of something the Spanish were digging a hundred years before Jamestown would be founded. Cordoba placed his infantry into the trenches, with his arquebus gunners in a trench ahead of the pikemen. His light cavalry stood to either flank.


The Duke of Nemours was chomping at the bit to catch his “cowardly” Spanish foe and teach him a lesson. He marched his troops fast – so fast they left behind most of their artillery. He wasn’t worried; the brave, noble French cavalry and the unbreakable Swiss pikemen would overrun the filthy Spaniard dogs. As soon as he was in sight of Cordoba’s position at Cerignola, Nemours ordered an immediate attack.


Even though they had almost 2-to-1 odds, the French met disaster almost immediately. The heavy cavalry charged twice, and each time they were thrown back by curtains of arquebus and cannon fire. The French archers stepped forward to fire, but their arrows flew harmlessly over the Spanish in their trenches. Nemours, seeing that a frontal assault would not work, then tried to lead his knights around the Spanish flank. He raced forward so quickly, eager to meet Cordoba face-to-face for the duel he wanted, that he didn’t see the trench ahead of him. The Spanish had laid covered trenches to either side of their lines – and the trenches were filled with spikes. As Nemours climbed out of the trench, having barely escaped death, he was drilled in the forehead by a musket ball and died instantly.

The Swiss Pikemen then tried to launch a frontal assault on the Spanish position, along with what was left of the cavalry. The arquebus gunners were exposed to this attack with no time to reload, so they fell back – as was the plan – behind the protecting pikemen. The French could not crack this combined line, and as they fell back the Spanish light cavalry burst out on either flank. The Swiss, for the first time in their history, panicked and ran, pursued by the light cavalry slashing and throwing spears.


Cordoba led his troops forward in pursuit, and captured all the French supplies and artillery. He ordered that his army pray for all the dead – including the gallant but foolish Nemours, who Cordoba said his own silent prayer for. By the end of the year, Cordoba had defeated the French two more times, including the great Battle of Garigliano in November. From that point on, the French would never again enter Naples. The tide of the war had shifted permanently against them for almost the rest of the Italian Wars.


Even more important than its effect on the Italian Wars, the Battle of Cerignola was a complete watershed in the history of war. For the first time, a battle had been won by infantry wielding gunpowder weapons. Cordoba’s “tercio” would dominate the European battlefield for the next century and a half and make Spain the dominant military force in both the Old and New World until the 1650s. The French may have invented the infantry-artillery-cavalry combination that could win wars, but the Spanish general Cordoba brought the infantryman and his gun to the center of military tactics – a condition that has lasted into the 21st Century.


For the foot soldier, the Middle Ages ended and the Early Modern Age began on April 28, 1503. Time-travellers, mark your calendars.

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