In 1522, Spanish infantrymen demonstrated the terrible power of firearms.
Late in 1494, King Charles VIII of France marched into Italy at the head of a massive army—nearly 25,000 men, plus an artillery train of great siege cannons. This was a watershed moment in Western civilization; no European country had ever assembled a force of this size, and the sight was awe inspiring.
Charles’s unvarnished act of aggression touched off a series of wars that very nearly tore Italy apart, awakened all of Europe to the marvels of the Italian Renaissance, and spawned a bloody rivalry between France’s House of Valois and Europe’s emerging superpower, Spain, ruled by the Habsburg dynasty. It is not without reason that historians often date the end of the Middle Ages at 1494.
These Habsburg-Valois Wars in Italy also opened an important chapter in the history of warfare. New technologies and tactics emerged; infantry, rather than heavily armored feudal cavalry, came to dominate. Even more important, it was during these wars that gunpowder firearms—once mere novelties—became integral to Western warfare.
Heavy artillery was already common on the battlefield well before Charles set out on his fateful march. It had proven its worth in the Hundred Years’ War and other late medieval conflicts. But to European commanders at the dawn of the 16th century, the merits of small arms—notably the harquebus and its larger cousin the musket— were unknown. Over the next 50 years, these new weapons would demonstrate their value again and again on Italian battlefields. And on a warm, fragrant April morning in 1522, outside a Milanese manor house known as Bicocca, the advantages of handheld firearms became brutally clear.
Though a tenuous peace took hold after Charles VIII marched into Italy in 1494, Spain and France during the next 20 years would fight three wars over Italy. One of Charles’s successors, the erudite, ambitious Francis I, started a fourth war late in 1521, attacking the newly crowned Charles V, Holy Roman emperor and king of Spain. The emperor was distracted, in large measure because of a troublesome German monk named Martin Luther, but he had powerful friends in Pope Leo X and the king of England, Henry VIII. Francis, meanwhile, could count only on the allegiance of the Republic of Venice.
The war began well for the French, but their hopes were quickly dashed. Imperial and Spanish forces stabbed into northern France and withdrew before Francis could respond in strength. In the Italian theater, a united papal-imperial army, led by the veteran general Prospero Colonna, thrust toward French-held Milan. The French commander in Milan, Odet de Foix, vicomte de Lautrec, tried to hold fast but ultimately gave ground, abandoning Milan to Colonna in November 1521. That set the tone for the subsequent campaign, as the French gave up one town after another to Colonna’s army.
Lautrec could still hope that French arms would prevail in Italy. Though desertion and disease had thinned the French ranks, reinforcements were streaming in by the new year. Giovanni de’ Medici, a renowned and popular mercenary captain, brought his Black Band, 3,000 harquebusiers, into French service. Most heartening was the appearance of nearly 16,000 Swiss pikemen, supremely confident and spoiling for a fight.
The notion of the Swiss as Europe’s eternal neutrals is deeply ingrained in our historical memory. But at one time the Swiss were the most admired soldiers in the Western world—and the most feared. There was as yet no state called Switzerland—it would not be created until 1648—but the loosely bound confederacy of Swiss cantons produced several generations of the most sought-after mercenary troops in all Europe. For centuries, the impoverished but self-reliant and fiercely independent Swiss had fought off one foreign overlord after another, though the Swiss were always massively outnumbered. By the time of the Italian wars, the martial services of the Swiss were in great demand. They usually fought under French banners, for French gold.
The well-deserved reputation of the Swiss came from the quality of their foot troops. Without much of a landed nobility or knightly class, or warhorses for that matter, the Swiss had formed bodies of local militia. Relying on native infantry, wielding weapons traditionally favored by peasants—such as the halberd and pike—the Swiss had learned that trained, disciplined foot troops could vanquish superior forces of knights on horseback.
By the middle of the 15th century, the Swiss had developed a tactical system centered around tightly packed squares of men armed with spears, or pikes, roughly 18 feet long. Though the pike block was simple, it was brutally effective. On the defensive, it was virtually unassailable by infantry or cavalry, as the bristling forest of pike heads kept any attacker at bay. On the offensive, it had great tactical weight and impetus, and could steamroll less dense formations. Little on the 15th-century European battlefield could successfully oppose the Swiss toe to toe: It took a truly solid obstacle, and a foe with nerves of steel, to withstand their massed onslaught.
Not surprisingly, the Swiss inspired imitation. Units of German pikemen, the ferocious and colorfully attired lands – knechts, frequently accompanied Habsburg armies fighting in Italy. At the same time, though, Spanish commanders looked for ways to overcome, rather than simply match, their Swiss foes. And at Bicocca, they exposed the greatest strength of the pike block—its density—as its greatest weakness: It was an easy target for missile weapons.
As warm weather returned in April 1522, the two armies near Milan prepared to fight. The French commander Lautrec, a confident and battle-tested soldier, was still in his 30s, much younger and more aggressive than his counterpart, the 70 year-old Colonna. And Lautrec had the larger army, some 25,000 to Colonna’s 18,000. But unwilling to risk huge losses, he had no intention of attacking outright, Swiss or no Swiss. Lautrec hoped instead to lure the enemy into battle on his terms and on his chosen ground. French scouts reported that Colonna’s army had taken up a strong defensive position outside Milan. Lautrec marched his army north of Milan, toward the town of Monza, hoping to cut off Colonna from reinforcements and provisions and force him to fight. Lautrec might have pulled it off, if not for the Swiss.
The Swiss were a privileged bunch who knew they were viewed as indispensable. They fought for wages, not love or loyalty, and Lautrec—financially strapped like most commanders of the period—had not paid them since the beginning of the year. Now the Swiss wanted their money. Lautrec assured them it would arrive in a matter of days. But the Swiss delivered an ultimatum: Pay now, or attack the next day. Do neither, they said, and they would pack up and leave. The Swiss wanted battle—and the plunder that inevitably followed.
Lautrec had no choice. Colonna had also acquired reinforcements, including a large body of German landsknechts. If the Swiss deserted Lautrec, the French would be at a significant disadvantage. Reluctantly, Lautrec prepared to attack Colonna’s position the next morning. He had serious misgivings. The Swiss did not. “We stormed the French positions at Novara, though we were outnumbered hopelessly,” the Swiss leaders haughtily proclaimed, referring to a 1513 Swiss victory. “We will storm this position.”
Colonna, meanwhile, hadn’t wasted a minute. He had moved from where Lautrec’s scouts had discovered him to a better position, a manor house four miles due north of Milan. The house stands today, well within Milanese city limits, as the Villa Arcimboldi. In 1522, it was a working farm known as Bicocca.
Colonna had an eye for good ground. Bicocca lay west of the main northbound road from Milan. It was connected to the road by an east-west country lane whose bed, worn down by years of wagon traffic, lay several feet below the surrounding land—a perfect defense. Irrigation ditches and small canals crisscrossed the country to the north and south, tough going for an army. The flanks and rear of the papal-imperial position were reasonably secure, too. Swampy ground protected the Spanish left. A deeply cut irrigation ditch ran parallel to the Milan road on its western side, anchoring Colonna’s right; a very narrow stone bridge just to the rear was the only feasible crossing. If Lautrec were to attack, he would have to drive head on into Colonna’s army, which would be lying in wait behind the 600-yard front of the sunken road.
Lautrec had some idea of his enemy’s strong position. But that evening, April 26, he sent out some 400 cavalry and a few infantry to reconnoiter. They reported little of use. Worse, their presence alerted Colonna that an attack was in the offing; the general, in turn, sent word back to his garrison in Milan that he needed more reinforcements.
It was a prudent request but unnecessary. Colonna was transforming his position into a deathtrap for the enemy. His sappers deepened the sunken road and used the excavated dirt to build a forbidding, steep rampart on the road’s south bank. Even if Lautrec’s troops managed to cross the ditch—no easy matter— they would have to clamber up a sheer earthen wall to get at the infantry. Behind that rampart, Colonna sited what artillery he had at hand, mounted on gun emplacements at regular intervals along the line. With the guns stood the harquebusiers—all of them—stacked four deep. Behind them stood the remaining infantry, mostly pike-armed landsknechts and Spanish pikemen. At the very rear was the cavalry. A couple of decades earlier, horsemen would have been at the center of the action. Now they played a supporting role. This would be a foot soldier’s battle.
The French order of battle, by contrast, was highly conventional, even a bit careless. Giovanni de’ Medici’s Black Band, the most mobile and trustworthy of his troops, would sweep the Spanish skirmishers from the foreground. Then half the Swiss pike, 8,000 men (the other half would never join in, for reasons that are unclear), would move forward to attack, supported by whatever artillery could be brought to bear. The main French force would wade in immediately behind, while the Venetians—untrustworthy and unreliable—held the rear.
Lautrec attacked at dawn on the 27th. The Black Band surged forward, encountering little resistance from the Spanish light troops screening the main force at the sunken road. Medici brushed them aside, clearing the way for the Swiss. Neither Lautrec nor the Swiss tried to be subtle. The Swiss had arranged themselves in two massive block formations, each 4,000 strong, men standing side by side. Though they served under their own officers, Lautrec had put them under the overall command of Anne, duc de Montmorency, a 29-year-old aristocrat with much talent but little experience. Under Montmorency’s watchful eye, the drums began their cadence, the pikemen gave a deep shout, and the blocks lurched ahead, straight toward the muzzles of Colonna’s guns.
The French commander had intended to attack cautiously, with his artillery detailed to support the Swiss. But the Swiss had no interest in coordinating with the cannons. The artillery struggled to keep up with the pike blocks. When the Swiss got within range of Colonna’s cannons, Montmorency gave the order to halt, hoping to let the French gunners catch up. The Swiss ignored him. Caution was not their strong suit. In fact, the Swiss were so confident that they picked up the pace, the two units vying for the honor of being the first to roll over the enemy line.
Colonna’s army was ready for them. The previous evening, the papal-imperial gunners had set out artillery range markers; they now quickly trained their cannons on the advancing enemy. Just as the two Swiss columns drew within range, they got bogged down in the broken, ditch-scarred landscape. It was then that the artillerists found their mark. Round shot from Colonna’s guns hit the packed ranks, one after another, with devastating and terrifying effect. Each shot was a direct hit— there was little chance of missing such large targets—cutting a bloody swath through a pike block and taking down one man after another until it smashed its way through the ranks, which were probably more than 20 men deep. Nor did it simply fell men; it tore them apart, mangled them.
The Swiss losses were hideous, with at least a thousand men dead or dying before the two pike formations even got within shouting distance of the sunken road. Still they came on, battlemad and roaring, aching to wreak vengeance on their tormentors. But their ordeal had just begun. As the front rank of the pike blocks reached the sunken road, they came to a dead stop, utterly surprised by its depth and breadth as well as the height of the rampart beyond. Then they ran on, holding their pikes aloft as they jumped into the ditch and scrambled for the other side.
The Swiss hadn’t even had the chance to catch their breath, let alone try to scale the rampart, when a deafening roar rent the air and a sheet of flame flashed in their faces. Colonna’s first rank of harquebusiers, safely ensconced behind the rampart, had fired a volley down into the throng of Swiss pikemen trapped in the ditch. The dense white smoke from the volley obscured the carnage in the road, but the screams and curses left no doubt about the impact. The pike formations continued to jump down into the road, adding to the confusion there, when a second volley rang out. Then a third, and a fourth, and before the echoes of that last volley had fallen silent, the cost of the assault was plain to see.
Those who witnessed the bloodbath could barely comprehend the scale of the slaughter. The first three or four ranks of the pikemen appeared not to fall, but to melt, to simply disappear into the ground, and every single standard the Swiss had carried into battle had fallen with them. In the first few ranks there were no survivors. Even then, the Swiss did not give up. Some of them, clambering over the bodies of their comrades and up the face of the rampart, reached the top of the wall, only to be impaled on the pikes of the landsknechts and topple to the blood-soaked floor of the ditch.
Thirty minutes of desperate and brutal fighting passed before the proud Swiss would admit defeat. They limped off, shattered, retreating slowly and grudgingly to the French main body. The battle wasn’t over, for Lautrec had hoped to flank Colonna’s army while the Swiss were in the assault. Thomas de Foix, sieur de Lescun—Lautrec’s brother—led 400 French gendarmes thundering down the Milan road around the Spanish right flank, attempting to take the enemy in the rear. But Colonna anticipated the move, and his cavalry lay in wait at the stone bridge. After a sharp scuffle, Lescun withdrew and a general retreat ensued.
Lautrec’s French troops had not suffered huge losses. But the decimation of the Swiss was sobering. Eight thousand pikemen had set out on the charge across the field at Bicocca; 3,000 Swiss corpses clotted the sunken road and its approach after the battle. Every single officer, Swiss or French, who accompanied the pikemen was dead, except the duc de Montmorency himself, who was grievously wounded. Colonna, urged by his lieutenants to pursue his broken foe, declined. Lautrec’s army, he knew, still had a lot of fight left.
Bicocca, terrible though it was, did not wreck Lautrec or his army. It did not end the war in Italy or bring about the defeat of France, which would only come four years later, after another spectacular defeat near Milan. In strategic terms the battle ultimately meant very little. But that bloody April day in 1522 was a milestone in the history of war. Bicocca shattered the illusion of Swiss invincibility. Before the bayonet was introduced, pikemen played a vital role in close combat. For the next century and a half, European tacticians would wrestle with questions of how pikemen and musketeers could best be combined on the battlefield.
And the battle of Bicocca removed any doubt that firearms employed in massive numbers could decide the outcome of a battle. Killing on the scale of Bicocca was simply not possible with medieval weapons, even the longbow. With the harquebus and the musket, killing thousands in a matter of moments was not only possible but relatively easy. What Prospero Colonna revealed at Bicocca in 1522 was nothing less than the birth of modern infantry firepower. Deadlier still was the combination of field fortifications—trenches—and firearms. While students of military history tend to associate this deadly union with the American Civil War or the horrors of the western front in World War I, the basic elements of that brutal equation were already visible at Bicocca.
Paul Lockhart, who last wrote for MHQ about the Dreyse needle gun (Winter 2013), is professor of history at Wright State University, specializing in military history.
Originally published in the Summer 2013 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.