29 May 1176

This gilded bronze bust of Frederick I Barbarossa was probably made in around 1155 to mark his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor. Frederick had a formidable reputation as a military commander and spent much of his reign trying to pacify Italy until he met his match at Legnano.

Traditional Italian accounts of the battle between a group of northern Italian communes and the famous German emperor-soldier Frederick Barbarossa amidst the woods and vineyards near the town of Legnano in northern Lombardy always held that the Italians were greatly outnumbered by their German enemy and achieved victory only because they were spurred on by a profound Italian patriotism. Recent research now shows the reverse case: an estimated 3,000 German heavy cavalry against 10–12,000 infantry and an unknown number of horsemen. In truth, even with these odds, the two sides were unevenly matched. In late medieval warfare, it was assumed that any disciplined body of professional knights-at-arms would sweep aside a mass of citizen infantry; led by the fearsome Barbarossa, a commander of prodigious reputation, the odds would have seemed more loaded still. The victory did, indeed, defy those odds to demonstrate that motivated foot soldiers could defeat even the most heavily armed and experienced cavalry.

Italy was nominally part of the Holy Roman Empire, ruled in the late twelfth century by the German emperor Frederick I, known as ‘Barbarossa’ or ‘Kaiser Rotbart’ after his large red beard. The northern Italian city-communes sought their independence from imperial domination following the sacking of Milan by the emperor in 1161. The cities of Piedmont, Lombardy and Venetia formed the Lombard League in 1167 to give each other mutual support in the contest with Frederick. It was to disrupt and defeat this league that Barbarossa summoned an army of knights from Germany in the spring of 1176. Organized by the Archbishops of Cologne and Magdeburg, around 1,500 heavy cavalry rode with their baggage and servants south over the Alps, where they joined Frederick and his 2,000 knights at Como.

The League had been preparing to defend the town of Alessandria, further to the south, but seeing the threat from Frederick, the Italians moved north past Milan to try to force the Germans back by blocking Barbarossa’s only path south between the Olona and Ticino rivers. Reinforcements arrived from Brescia and the towns of Venetia and a camp was set up just in time at Legnano, since the German cavalry, unencumbered by infantry, could move rapidly and had already reached the town of Cairate, only 14 kilometres (9 miles) distant.

This 1831 painting by the Italian artist Massimo Taparelli Azeglio (1798–1866) depicts the Battle of Legnano in 1176. At the back can be seen the carroccio with the image of Saint Ambrose, who is supposed to have turned the tide of battle in the Italians’ favour.

The German army consisted almost entirely of heavy cavalry – knights with lance, shield and a considerable weight of armour. Their battlefield tactic was simple: they would charge in close order to form an irresistible weight of metal and animal designed to smash through the enemy line, exposing the broken infantry to encirclement and annihilation – a medieval version of Blitzkrieg. Frederick was unlikely to be deterred by the sheer size of the infantry units opposed to him because 3,000 knights represented a formidable force of nature. On 29 May, he set out from Cairate towards the League army with a vanguard of 300 of his horsemen riding ahead to spot any dangers.

The League prepared its defences near the village of Borsano, a little to the north of Legnano itself. A site was chosen that gave the defenders considerable advantages: there were natural obstacles to the enemy on either side to prevent encirclement, and a mix of trees and canals in front which made it difficult for Frederick’s cavalry to manoeuvre. The army was drawn up in a number of ranks – four is usually suggested – each armed with long spears, the front rank probably kneeling to maximize the damage inflicted on the oncoming horses. There are few precise descriptions of the battle, but it seems likely that the infantry were spread in the shape of a broad and shallow arc around the most important piece of equipment they had brought with them. On a heavy cart (carroccio) was the image of the patron saint of Milan, St Ambrose, surrounded by the communal banners. It was placed so that all the League soldiers could see it, a sacred inspiration and an indication, so it was hoped, of divine protection.

As Frederick approached, some 700 League cavalry from Brescia and Milan were sent north to scout for his whereabouts. Because of the wooded countryside, the two vanguards ran into each other unexpectedly. Frederick’s 300 horsemen sensibly retreated in the face of their much larger enemy, but the League cavalry pursued them until suddenly they found themselves in front of the main force of 3,000 Germans. After a brief engagement, the League horsemen fled from the scene, riding towards Milan. Frederick and his host rode on until they reached the main lines of League soldiers and there prepared to charge. No doubt the sight of Frederick’s mounted army, its armour and lances glinting in the hot sun, banners flying, must have been daunting indeed for the League foot soldiers. Some of the remaining League cavalry had dismounted and prepared to strengthen the infantry line, where they would fight with sword and axe. A test of two very different styles of fighting was to begin.

The German cavalry charged, and almost at once disaster struck. The knight carrying Barbarossa’s standard fell from his horse and was trampled to death by the onrushing horses behind him, leaving the banner lying on the ground. The wave faltered and was turned back by the wall of spears bristling in front of it. For hours the German cavalry tried to find a weak point in the line, but the League ranks held sufficiently firm to prevent the breakthrough that Frederick’s strategy required. The Italian soldiers were perhaps buoyed up by the sight of St Ambrose in their midst; they were certainly helped by the fact that they fought with companions from the same city, often from the same parish, which created a greater sense of solidarity and civic pride.

Gradually as the afternoon wore on, the League could sense a historic victory. Frederick’s men were tiring after six hours of fighting in hot sun and heavy armour when suddenly they were hit by a flank attack carried out by the same cavalry group from Brescia and Milan that had fled from the first encounter. Regrouped and now with fresh courage, this mounted attack divided the German line. Suddenly Frederick himself, the only rallying point after the loss of the standard, had his horse killed under him and fell to the ground. Threatened now from all sides, and apparently leaderless, the cavalry broke and fled, some back to where they had come from, others across the River Ticino, where many were drowned. Those who remained died where they were or surrendered. The losses for both sides seem not to have been computed.

Barbarossa survived and fled back to Como and thence to Germany. He never again threatened the northern cities of Italy and seven years later, in the Treaty of Constance, the communes won a large measure of political independence. The battle signalled an important shift in the way medieval warfare was to develop. On their own, a body of knights, however experienced or skilled they were, could not expect their sheer power and mobility to be enough against a courageous or shrewd opponent, or one, as at Legnano, inspired by faith in their commune and their saint.