Battle of Pavia

Battle of Pavia

The Battle of Pavia of February 24, 1525, ended the French siege of that northern Italian city. In 1515 King François I of France had invaded northern Italy and taken Milan. In 1521 François and Holy Roman Emperor (and King of Spain) Charles V began formal hostilities. François claimed Navarre and Naples, while Charles laid claim to Milan and Burgundy. Although some fighting occurred in northeastern France and north of the Pyrenees in Navarre, the chief battleground became northern Italy. Fighting began with French invasions of first Luxembourg and then Navarre, but in late November 1521, in a surprise attack, imperial forces captured Milan

In April 1522 in the Battle of Bicocca near Milan, imperial troops under Italian condottiere Prosper Colonna defeated a larger French and Swiss force. The battle demonstrated the superiority of gunpowder small arms (the Spanish harquebus against attacking Swiss infantry). Bicocca brought the expulsion of the French from Lombardy. On September 28 François, at the head of 40,000 French troops, raised the imperial siege of Marseille and then pushed into northern Italy. The French retook Milan. Leaving a small force to garrison the city, François moved the bulk of his army to Pavia, 21 miles south, where they arrived on October 28, 1524. Some 5,000 German mercenaries along with 1,000 other mercenary troops and Italian levies defended the city.

Since no moat protected the city outside the walls, François immediately ordered artillery fire opened. The heavy French guns created a breach, but a following infantry attack encountered an interior moat full of water and came under heavy musket fire. François then decided to invest the city. Several weeks of work to divert the Ticino River from Pavia were wiped out by a sudden storm, so François decided to starve out the city. At the same time, however, he detached John Stuart, Duke of Albany, and a force of 15,000 men from his army to conquer Naples. This left him 26,000 men (2,000 of them cavalry) to invest Pavia.

Meanwhile, some 20,000 imperial troops of Charles de Bourbon and a force under Georg Frundsberg, a south German knight in imperial service, gathered at Lodi before moving to Pavia on January 24. Viceroy of Naples Charles de Lannoy had nominal command, with the actual field command apparently exercised by the Spaniard Ferdinando Francisco d’Avalos, Marquis of Pescara. François detached part of his army to meet the imperial forces, digging defenses along the most likely route, while the bulk of his army continued the siege. During much of February the two armies faced one another across an unfordable stream and exchanged artillery fire. François further diminished the size of his army when he detached 6,000 Swiss to strengthen his lines of communication to Switzerland, which were being harassed by imperial forces. This left him with fewer than 20,000 men.

During the stormy night of February 23–24 under cover of an artillery bombardment and leaving only a small detachment behind to fool the French, the imperial forces disengaged and marched several miles to their right, crossed the brook, and turned the French left to attack the principal French camp, located in a large park at Mirabello north of Pavia. By dawn on February 24 the imperial forces had broken through the park wall and were drawn up in battle line about a mile north of the French camp.

To win time for his army to shift position and come up, François personally led a charge by his heavy cavalry against the imperial left flank. This caught the imperial forces by surprise and temporarily scattered their cavalry. Over the course of several hours the Spanish infantry used harquebus fire to halt first the French cavalry and then the infantry. With few harquebuses and crossbowmen, the French side was unable to silence the opponents’ fire. To make matters worse, about a third of their forces, under Duke Charles d’Alençon, were never engaged, and some 8,000 Swiss defected.

François led dwindling cavalry charges until his horse was killed and he was badly wounded and taken prisoner. d’Alençon then led the remaining French forces in a retreat westward. The French sustained about 8,000 killed or wounded, including many prominent nobles. Most of the casualties were the result of Spanish harquebus fire. Among the hardest hit were 5,000 German mercenaries in French service who died without retreating when attacked by two squares of imperial pikemen (each square containing 6,000 pikes). Imperial troops killed or wounded came to only about 1,500 men. François remarked of the battle, “Tout est perdu, hors l’honneur” (“All is lost, except honor”).

The Battle of Pavia gave the imperial side temporary advantage in the long Valois-Habsburg Wars (1494–1559). The battle also marked the beginning of the decline of heavy cavalry and the predominance of infantry armed with handheld firearms as decisive in warfare. François I, held prisoner in Madrid, was obliged to sign the Treaty of Madrid of January 14, 1526, by which he gave up all claims in Italy and surrendered Burgundy, Artois, and Flanders to Charles V.

References Casali, Luigi, and M. Galandra. La battaglia di Pavia: 24 Febbraio 1525. Pavia: Luculano, 1984.

Giono, Jean. The Battle of Pavia, 24 February 1525. London: Peter Owen, 1965.

Knecht, R. J. Renaissance Warrior and Patron: The Reign of Francis I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Konstam, Angus. Pavia, 1525: The Climax of the Italian Wars. London: Osprey, 1996.