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The battle of Marignan is a famous victory won by Francis I on an army of Swiss mercenaries in the north of Italy, September 13 and 14, 1515. This military success will bring to the young king of France, knighted knight on the battlefield by the lord of Bayard, a great popularity and a flattering reputation for bravery. 1515 is one of the dates most remembered by the French when it comes to history, sometimes adding Marignan. However, this battle deserves to be better known and put into context, also too little known: the wars in Italy. An epic that opened France to the wonders of Italy and to the Renaissance.
The context: the wars in Italy
Rich since the beginnings of the Renaissance, the Italic Peninsula is coveted by European powers, especially the rulers of France. Despite its financial power and its intellectual and artistic domination, the peninsula was then politically fragile, fragmented into rival principalities, the most important of which were the Papal States, the Kingdom of Naples, the Duchy of Milan and the Republics of Venice and Florence. Also, the wars in Italy were the scene of territorial ambitions and the epicenter of tensions in Europe during the first half of the 16th century.
Without going back to the dynasty of the Angevin kings of Naples, we can say thatthe wars in Italy involving France began with Charles VIII, himself ephemeral king of Naples a few months in 1495. It was especially with Louis XII that the kingdom of France began to really gain a foothold in Italy. From 1499, the king took Milan, then Genoa and in his turn attacked the Regno in 1501. But if he succeeded in quickly removing Ludovico the More, he had to rely on the peninsula on important princes, such as César Borgia, but also the Pope and the Aragonese. For a few years, Louis XII managed to play alliances, relying on Florence and the Duchy of Milan, entering the fight against Venice. However, its influence begins to hamper the Italian princes, starting with Pope Julius II, who turns alliances against France.
A compromise was found in 1504: France abandoned Naples to the King of Aragon, but retained Milan. This solution is only temporary because Pope Julius II, who wants to assure his authority to all of Italy, is mounting a new "Holy League" against France, including Venice, Aragon, Switzerland and England. Louis XII had to leave Italy in 1512, and suffered another setback the following year in Ravenna. The death of the king in 1515 somewhat reassured the European courts, and in particular those of Italy, which looked favorably on the successor of the young François of Angoulême, barely twenty years old. But the new king, better known as Francis I, has the same Italian ambitions as his predecessors. He can also count on a brand new army, which Louis XII had prepared to take back what he felt was due to him.
Francis I on his way to Milan
Barely crowned, the new king decides to avenge France for recent military failures and to reconquer the Milanese. The army assembled by Francis I was considerable for the time: there was talk of around 10,000 cavalry, 30,000 infantry and 70 guns. The expedition includes many knights, such as Bayard, the constable of Bourbon, the duke of Lorraine, the count of Guise or even the marshal Trivulce. Indeed, the role of the nobility is to "keep the state by arms", in exchange for many privileges. Crossing the Alps promises to be difficult, especially as the Swiss await the French army. But, the first daring of François I, he chose to go through the Larche pass, much steeper than the Montgenèvre or Mont-Cenis passes. Already, we hear the comparisons with Hannibal ... The Alps passed, the French bivouac in Turin.
The King of France intends to negotiate, basing his arguments on his strike force. The Swiss agree to discuss and offer to return Milan for one million ecus, plus the duchy of Nemours offered to Maximilien Sforza. Francis I accepts the terms of the agreement, while continuing his journey. On September 10, he set up his camp in Marignan, a dozen kilometers from Milan; in fact, he has very little faith in the Swiss, and also knows the problems of the Duke of Milan, who is struggling to pay his mercenaries. He therefore knows his adversaries are both divided and weakened.
The king's doubts are confirmed by events: in the Swiss camp, the party of the bishop of Zion, Matthäus Schiner, very anti-French, wins. On September 13, 1515, around 20,000 Swiss left Milan, heading for Marignan.
The battle of Marignan
Within the French army, the vanguard was entrusted to the Constable of Bourbon, and includes the artillery and its seventy-two guns. Francis I himself commanded the main body of the army, and his brother-in-law Charles d´Alençon the rear guard, made up of the cavalry.
Facing the French, the Swiss mercenaries advanced in three squares of pikemen of 7,000 men each, and it was around 4 p.m. that the first contact took place. The Constable of Bourbon is in difficulty, but he is rescued by the charge of the King of France: the fight, very violent, lasts until night! It was above all the French artillery that put the enemy in difficulty, and on three occasions the Swiss had to let go when they managed to reach them. Francis I distinguished himself, keeping his armor to sleep: his legend is on the move. The King of France takes advantage of the night to modify the disposition of his army, which he places in length, on a widened line to increase the firepower. The king is placed in the center, the Duke of Alençon on the left wing and the Constable of Bourbon on the right wing.
The next day, September 14, 1515, the Swiss reconstituted their ranks and charged again. The latter chose to attack the center of the French device, which was commanded by the king, but their 5,000 men were then repulsed by French pikemen and arquebusiers, supported by artillery. Unable to break through the center, the Swiss then tried to move towards the French position wings and infiltrate the guns, to no avail.
At the end of the morning, the Swiss were taken from behind by another army that had come to support François I and commanded by Alviano, captain of Venice. While the Swiss began to retreat, the French guns were unleashed. Trying to flee, the Swiss are overtaken by the cavalry, which causes real carnage. Overwhelmed, the Swiss manage to retreat definitively. The French, exhausted by the fighting, gave up pursuing the vanquished. For the old Marshal Trivulce, who took part in 18 particularly difficult battles during his life, it was "a fight of giants".
The victory was total, but the battle was particularly deadly for the Swiss, who count at least 10,000 dead, while the French lost around 5,000 men. For the young king of France, this brilliant victory, won at the age of twenty, gave him great prestige among his subjects and foreign rulers. The very evening of the battle, François Ier was knighted by Pierre Bayard "who is worth an army on his own".
The consequences of the victory of Marignan
The road to Milan is open. Good prince, Francis I negotiates the surrender of Maximilian Sforza, and grants himself the graces of Pope Leo X; he entered Milan solemnly on October 11. A year later, King Francis I and Pope Leo X signed the Bologna Concordat on August 18, 1516. The latter regulates the respective powers of each party over the Church of France, giving the king a right of appointment over the clergy of France and control of the attribution of great ecclesiastical benefits.
Marignan is therefore the first great victory of the young king. It is decisive as much for its reputation in the Italian peninsula and in Europe, as for the situation in Italy. François Ier even manages to make the Swiss the “perpetual allies” of France in the Treaty of Friborg. This non-aggression pact ensures the crown the right to raise troops of Swiss mercenaries, who can no longer engage with states at war with France. This "perpetual peace" with the Swiss cantons will last until ... 1792!
But Marignan is above all a battle: first, she is perhaps one of the last to be "chivalrous", despite her violence, even if this triumph of chivalry is most visible in royal propaganda. The real winner of Marignan is in fact the French artillery; this is for the first time decisive in a pitched battle, after having been for sieges (like Constantinople or Granada). The king ultimately cannot really enjoy his triumph. He must return to France, with all the same in his luggage a certain Leonardo da Vinci. Then began the following years the rivalry with Charles Quint, which culminated with the defeat of Pavia in 1525, ten years after Marignan. Taken prisoner, the King of France renounces Italy. The wars in Italy ended definitively in 1559 with the abandonment of all French claims on Italy, under the reign of Henri II, who signed the peace of Cateau-Cambrésis with Charles V.
- Marignan: September 13-14, 1515 by Didier Le Fur. Perrin, 2004.
- François. 1st: The king-knight by Sylvie Le Clech. Tallandier, 2006.
- "Le Grand Siècle de François Ier", Historia, 101, 2006.