Battle of Marignano Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

A battle between French and Swiss forces during the third French invasion of Italy, Marignano is noteworthy as the first significant defeat for the Swiss in two hundred years. The defeated Swiss withdrew permanently from Italy, beginning the tradition of Swiss neutrality.

Summary of Event

Following the Battle of Ravenna Ravenna, Battle of (1512) in April of 1512, the French, though victorious, were forced to withdraw from Italy to regroup and recover from their losses. As a result, France was unable to retain much of the territory it had won in its second invasion of Italy Italy;French invasions of . By the end of 1512, little of Italy remained in French hands. The Swiss, a papal ally, occupied Milan and restored the former ducal dynasty in the person of Massimiliano Sforza. Meanwhile, the Holy League, which had resisted French aggression until it was defeated at Ravenna, fell apart completely the following year as a result of the death of Pope Julius II, who had been instrumental in the league’s creation. France’s Louis XII also died on the first day of January, 1515, and Francis I became king of France. Marignano, Battle of (1515) Francis I (1494-1547) Leo X Massimiliano Sforza Ferdinand II (1452-1516) Alviano, Bartolomeo d’ Schiner, Matthäus Zwingli, Huldrych Sforza, Massimiliano Francis I (king of France) Leo X Ferdinand II (king of Spain) Alviano, Bartolomeo d’ Schiner, Matthäus Zwingli, Huldrych

When Francis ascended the French throne, he was determined to recover Milan, restore French honor, and win glory for himself. Because Louis had already been preparing for a new expedition into Italy when he died, it took little time for Francis to ready the French army. The monarch’s ability to raise infantry in France itself was handicapped, however, by the medieval prejudice against arming peasants, so the native infantrymen in his army numbered only about eight thousand. Moreover, since the Swiss, the usual source of mercenaries for the French, were now the enemy, Francis had to recruit twenty-three thousand German Landsknechts instead. The German mercenaries fought in the same style as the Swiss, and they cost less, but they were also less disciplined. Considered the heart of the French army was its cavalry, especially its twenty-five hundred men-at-arms, who still fought in the traditional style of the knight. The best element, however, was the French artillery. The seventy-two heavy guns that made up the artillery train were the best in Europe.

After securing an alliance with Venice, Francis joined his army in late July, 1515, to begin the trek to Milan. An alliance of Pope Leo X, Ferdinand II, Massimiliano Sforza, and the Swiss prepared to defend Milan. The Swiss were expected to provide most of the troops for that purpose, but Pope Leo dispatched eight hundred papal cavalrymen, since the Swiss had no cavalry of their own. Some nineteen thousand Swiss infantrymen assembled in Milan.

For the previous two hundred years, the Swiss infantry system had been all but invincible in battle, even when outnumbered. Combining the pike, an eighteen-foot-long pole with an iron point, with the halberd, a heavy ax on an eight-foot pole, they had proven their mettle in numerous battles against armored men-at-arms—the mainstay of armies prior to 1500. Handguns had replaced the few crossbows previously present in Swiss armies, but the Swiss relied little on firepower. They brought only eight small artillery pieces to the coming battle. Military;Switzerland

Arriving in northern Italy in late August, the French army quickly defeated the papal cavalry units, leaving the Swiss virtually without cavalry support. Bartolomeo d’Alviano, the commander of the Venetian army, persuaded Francis to bring his army around Milan to join forces with him and attack the city from the east. As the French army passed south of Milan, the king sought to negotiate the surrender of the city. The Swiss were offered a huge sum in gold, and Sforza was offered the French duchy of Nemours, in exchange for giving up Milan. The captains of several cantons accepted the offer and headed home with about four thousand men. The majority, around fifteen thousand men, were persuaded by Cardinal Matthäus Schiner, the papal representative in Milan, to stay and fight. After a council of war that ended about noon on September 13, they swarmed out of the city, accompanied by three hundred cavalrymen commanded by Schiner. Huldrych Zwingli, then a young priest, marched with them as a chaplain. They silenced their drums in hope of catching the French by surprise, but scouts kept Francis informed of their progress.

The French army had made camp the previous night near Marignano, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) southeast of Milan. Expecting that the Swiss would attack the next day, Francis kept his army there and prepared for battle. He set up his men in the traditional divisions of vanguard, center, and rearguard. The vanguard included nearly all the native French infantry, most of Francis’s handgunners, and all his artillery, which was set behind a trench. The center was composed of most of the Landsknechts and the men-at-arms, and the rearguard was made up mostly of Francis’s remaining cavalry.

The Swiss advanced in their usual formation of three wide columns of about equal size with the second and third some distance behind the first; they marched already in battle formation. As soon as the lead column arrived before the French line at about 4:00 p.m., it moved into battle. The lead Swiss took heavy casualties from the French artillery and handgunners but kept their momentum and broke through the first line of French infantry. Before they could reach the artillery to silence it, however, the French center’s Landsknechts moved forward, and the cavalry led by the king drove into the flanks of the Swiss column to halt their advance. The arrival of the second and then the third Swiss column failed to turn the tide of battle, while casualties mounted rapidly on both sides.

With a bright moon out, fighting continued until nearly midnight. Both sides disengaged and spent the night only a few yards apart, separated by a ditch. In the morning, the battle resumed with both armies now forming up into a solid long line. The Swiss again charged, but their advance was again slowed by heavy cannon fire and attacks by the French cavalry. Their right wing was making hard-fought progress against the French left—which if it had continued would probably have resulted in the collapse of the entire French line—when the forward units of Alviano’s Venetian army arrived in the nick of time.

Encouraged by the arriving help, the French redoubled their efforts, while the Swiss were badly disheartened by the unexpected development. The Swiss made a systematic withdrawal, picking up their wounded and retreating home. The city of Milan immediately capitulated to Francis, who gave Sforza a minor French title and a pension to live in France.

The local gravediggers submitted bills for burying 16,500 bodies, although one can assume they exaggerated the number to increase their pay. That number did not include more than one hundred French nobles, whose bodies were put in barrels of vinegar and returned to France for burial. The number of the casualties in each army is unknown, but those suffered by the Swiss were the greater, largely because of the effective artillery fire that they endured. The French victory demonstrated how the tactical coordination of artillery and cavalry in support of the infantry could defeat the vaunted Swiss heavy infantry, but it held no true lessons for the future, because the Swiss were almost entirely lacking in firepower. In future battles against forces strong in firepower, this French tactic would prove far less successful.


Francis I was quick to offer a generous peace treaty to the Swiss, because he wanted them on his side. Ten cantons agreed to his terms, which allowed the French king to have first call on recruiting Swiss mercenaries, and they served in large numbers in the French army until 1600. Marignano was, however, the last time that a Swiss national army fought outside Switzerland’s borders. The battle thus marked the beginning of Swiss neutrality. Their defeat did not yet cause the Swiss to lose confidence in their traditional fighting style, but when they suffered another bloody defeat while fighting for the French in 1522 at La Bicocca. the Swiss reliance on traditional tactics came to an end. Chaplain Zwingli, repulsed by the horrendous bloodshed at Marignano, blamed the pope for it, setting him on a path toward becoming the leader of the Swiss Protestants.

Pope Leo, terrified that Francis would march on Rome, rushed northward to meet with the victorious king. Their meeting at Bologna led to an agreement that gave the French king unprecedented control over the Catholic Church in France. This agreement lasted until the French Revolution. Francis had himself installed as the duke of Milan, but his control over the duchy lasted only seven years, as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V declared he had illegally seized the duchy and ousted Francis in 1522.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hall, Bert. Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Stresses the medieval character of the battle in the use of heavy cavalry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holt, Mack. Renaissance and Reformation France. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Provides a discussion of the impact of the battle on French politics and culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knecht, Robert. Renaissance Warrior and Patron: The Reign of Francis I. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Best biography of the French king but limited on the battle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oman, Charles. A History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1937. The most complete description of the battle from a tactical point of view.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Seward, Desmond. Prince of the Renaissance. New York: Macmillan, 1973. A lively account of the battle in the context of the French king’s life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Snyder, Arnold. “Zollikon Anabaptism and the Sword.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 69, no. 2 (1995): 205-225. Examines the tradition of pacifism that developed among many Swiss because of the bloodshed of the battle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Frederick. The Art of War in Italy, 1494-1529. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1973. Places the battle in the context of military practice during the Renaissance.

Apr. 9, 1454: Peace of Lodi

July 16, 1465-Apr., 1559: French-Burgundian and French-Austrian Wars

1481-1499: Ludovico Sforza Rules Milan

Sept., 1494-Oct., 1495: Charles VIII of France Invades Italy

1499: Louis XII of France Seizes Milan

September 22, 1504: Treaty of Blois

1508: Formation of the League of Cambrai

Apr. 11, 1512: Battle of Ravenna

Aug. 18, 1516: Concordat of Bologna

1521-1559: Valois-Habsburg Wars

Feb., 1525: Battle of Pavia

May 6, 1527-Feb., 1528: Sack of Rome

Apr. 3, 1559: Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis

Categories: History