Battle of Pavia

The Battle of Pavia marked a decisive and humiliating defeat for the French during the Valois-Habsburg Wars. Although the resulting treaty was soon violated and hostilities quickly resumed, France never again had the upper hand, and Spain effectively achieved hegemony over Italy.

Summary of Event

The Battle of Pavia was a major battle in the wars between the House of Valois Valois-Habsburg Wars (1521-1559)[Valois Habsburg Wars (1521-1559)] of France and the Habsburg rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, a struggle to control the Italian peninsula. The first phase of the Italian wars Italian Wars (1494-1559) had ended in 1498 with the death of King Charles VIII of France. The second phase began during the reign of his successor, Louis XII. Pavia took place four years after hostilities between France and the empire resumed yet again under King Francis I. Pavia, Battle of (1525)
Francis I (1494-1547)
Charles V (1500-1558)
Pescara, Marquis of
Leyva, Antonio de
Lannoy, Charles de
Francis I (king of France)
Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor)
Leyva, Antonio de
Charles, duke of Bourbon
Lannoy, Charles de
Pescara, marquis of

The Battle of Pavia between forces of French king Francis I and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

At the beginning of his reign, Francis formed an alliance with England and Venice against the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, and some Italian states. His initial military efforts met with success. After his great victory at Marignano Marignano, Battle of (1515) in 1515, he was able to conclude satisfactory peace terms with all his opponents by the end of 1516. However, the period of peace was brief, and by 1521 the French were once more at war with the empire. The imperial forces were now led by Charles V, who held the great inheritances of both the Spanish and the Austrian Habsburgs. Allied with Charles were the Papal States and England.

At first the new war went badly for the French, who were driven from their bases in Milan, Genoa, and elsewhere in northern Italy. However, in October, 1524, Francis crossed the Alps with a new army consisting of thirty thousand French, Italian, Swiss, and German soldiers. Milan, weakened by the plague, was speedily recaptured, and the victorious army marched on Pavia, a strongly fortified town on the banks of the Ticino River about 22 miles (35 kilometers) south of Milan.

It was apparent later that the march on Pavia was a mistake, for it gave the imperial army at Lodi an opportunity to reorganize and bring in additional troops from Germany. Had Francis marched first on Lodi, he might well have destroyed the last imperial force in northern Italy. However, expecting that Pavia could be taken by assault, he was convinced that the superior artillery of the French would make the operation relatively simple.

By the end of October, the city was completely surrounded, and a long artillery bombardment began during the first week of November. The artillery was followed by two costly infantry assaults that failed because of the skill and toughness of Pavia’s defenders. The governor, Antonio de Leyva, not only had strengthened the fortifications of the city, but also had organized all the able-bodied men into a well-trained militia. Combined with his regular force of six thousand men, they were sufficient to withstand all the French attacks.

The French settled down to siege, believing that famine, disease, and the rigors of winter would defeat the city for them. As the weeks passed, it appeared that the French estimate would be correct. The winter was unusually severe, and the defenders suffered not only from a shortage of food but also from a lack of fuel. Finally, it became necessary to demolish churches and houses within the city to keep the army alive. The French, on the outside, possessed everything in abundance, and their camp has been described as an immense market in which a pleasure fair was constantly in progress.

While the siege continued, the emperor, assisted by French expatriot Charles, duke of Bourbon, patiently collected the money and men necessary to rebuild the imperial forces. By the end of January, the Holy Roman Empire’s army consisted of more than twenty thousand men. The army left Lodi to raise the siege of Pavia. Commanded by the duke of Bourbon, by Charles de Lannoy, and by the marquis of Pescara, it reached the outskirts of Pavia early in February. Francis welcomed the sight of a new imperial army, because he believed in his own strength and knew that the defeat of Bourbon’s forces would leave him in control of the whole of Italy north of Rome.

The battle began with an imperial attack on February 24, an attack swiftly thrown into confusion by the superior artillery fire of the French. Then, however, Francis, in his eagerness to engage the enemy, led a charge that blocked the line of fire of his own guns, and disaster resulted. The French cavalry, pursuing a Spanish infantry force equipped with hand firearms, was suddenly met with a hail of fire and almost annihilated. A fresh sortie from the garrison threw the French into complete disarray, and they withdrew from the field, leaving thousands of dead and wounded, including large numbers of knights. Francis, wounded several times, was taken prisoner toward the end of the battle.

The fate of Italy was now sealed: The Italian principalities had no choice but to acknowledge that they were at the mercy of Emperor Charles. Milan reverted to him, as did several other Italian city-states, and Pope Clement VII abandoned his former French alliance in favor of the emperor.

Francis, sent to Madrid by order of the emperor, was required to sign the Treaty of Madrid in 1526. By its terms, he abandoned all claims to Italy, gave up Burgundy, and renounced all rights in Navarre and Artois. He was permitted to return to France in March, 1526, leaving his two oldest sons in Madrid as hostages. In a short time, however, he renounced the treaty and reopened the Habsburg-Valois wars.


It might seem at first glance that the Battle of Pavia settled nothing and that it was merely another bloody event in a long century of bloodshed. However, Pavia was a milestone in military history, for it was on that field that the superiority of hand firearms to the infantry lance and pike was established. Military;Italy Thus, the battle helped to change decisively the way that modern warfare was conducted. From the standpoint of military history, it was a major step in the transition from medieval to modern tactics. In addition, on the political front, the battle reduced France to a secondary position in European affairs. The French nation found itself relegated to a place of inferiority in Europe that would not be overcome for another century.

Further Reading

  • Brandi, Karl. The Emperor Charles V: The Growth and Destiny of a Man and of a World-Empire. Translated by C. V. Wedgwood. Reprint. London: Jonathan Cape, 1968. Translation of a classic work by the great modern authority on Charles V.
  • Chudoba, Bohdan. Spain and the Empire, 1519-1643. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1969. Contains useful information on the diplomatic results of the Battle of Pavia.
  • Cuneo, Pia F. Art and Politics in Early Modern Germany: Jörg Breu the Elder and the Fashioning of Political Identity, ca. 1475-1536. Boston: Brill, 1998. Discusses the representation of the Battle of Pavia by Breu, the political importance of the battle, and the importance of Breu’s painting in Germany. Includes thirteen pages of plates, illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Durant, Will. The Reformation: A History of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin, 1300-1564. Vol. 6 in The Story of Civilization. Reprint. New York: MJF Books, 1992. A comprehensive and colorful account of the period. Includes illustrations, maps, and a bibliographic guide.
  • Hackett, Francis. Francis the First. Reprint. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968. Hackett’s account of the siege of Pavia is lively reading, and he describes the holiday atmosphere in the French camp as contrasted with the grim situation of the defenders within the city. Suggests that Francis was defeated because of faulty tactics by the French and superior tactics by the Spanish infantry.
  • Hare, Christopher. Charles de Bourbon: High Constable of France. New York: John Lane, 1911. Biography of the duke of Bourbon written from source materials such as collections of letters, contemporary diaries, and historical documents. Describes in detail the political and military situations in which he played a significant role, including the siege of Pavia.
  • Richardson, Glenn. Renaissance Monarchy: The Reigns of Henry VIII, Francis I, and Charles V. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. The reigns of both Francis I and Charles V are examined in this study of monarchs who helped define Renaissance government and culture. Focuses on their careers as warriors, governors, and patrons. Includes maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Salvatorelli, Luigi. A Concise History of Italy. Translated by Bernard Miall. New York: Oxford University Press, 1940. Reprint. New York AMS Press, 1977. A standard work, translated from the Italian, containing considerable material on the diplomacy of the Renaissance.
  • Taylor, F. L. The Art of War in Italy, 1494-1529. 1921. Reprint. London: Greenhill Books, 1993. An excellent short analysis, including descriptions of some of the battles that took place during this period.
  • Wilson, Timothy, ed. The Battle of Pavia. Oxford, England: Ashmolean Museum, 2003. In 1683, the Ashmolean was presented with a painting, of unknown origin, of the Battle of Pavia. This short text describes the battle and its major participants in detail. It looks at the representation of the battle in the painting and seeks to ascertain when it was painted, concluding that the painting probably dates from between 1525 and 1528. Includes illustrations and bibliographic references.

Apr. 9, 1454: Peace of Lodi

Aug. 17, 1477: Foundation of the Habsburg Dynasty

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

Apr. 11, 1512: Battle of Ravenna

Sept. 13-14, 1515: Battle of Marignano

Aug. 18, 1516: Concordat of Bologna

1521-1559: Valois-Habsburg Wars

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

Apr. 3, 1559: Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis