MARIGNAN, BATTLE OF, fought on the 13th and 14th of September 1515 between the French army under Francis I. and the Swiss. The scene of the battle—which was also that of a hard fought engagement in 1859 (see Italian Wars)—was the northern outskirts of the village of Melegnano, on the river Lambro, 10 m. S.E. of Milan. The circumstances out of which the battle of Marignan arose, almost inconceivable to the modern mind, were not abnormal in the conditions of Italian warfare and politics then prevailing. The young king of France had gathered an army about Lyons, wherewith to overrun the Milanese; his allies were the republics of Venice and Genoa. The duke of Milan, Maximilian Sforza, had secured the support of the emperor, the king of Spain, and the pope, and also that of the Swiss cantons, which then supplied the best and most numerous mercenary soldiers in Europe. The practicable passes of the Alps and the Apennines were held by Swiss and papal troops. Francis however boldly crossed the Col de l’Argentière (Aug. 1515) by paths that no army had hitherto used, and Marshal de La Palisse surprised and captured a papal corps at Villafranca near Pinerolo, whereupon the whole of the enemy’s troops fell back on Milan. The king then marching by Vercelli, Novara and Pavia, joined hands with Alviano, the Venetian commander, and secured a foothold in the Milanese. But in order to avoid the necessity of besieging Milan itself, he offered the Swiss a large sum to retire into their own country. They were about to accept his offer, not having received their subsidies from the pope and the king of Spain, when a fresh corps of mercenaries descended into Italy, desirous both of gaining booty and of showing their prowess against their new rivals the French and Lower Rhine “lansquenets” (Landsknechts) and against the French gendarmerie, whom (alluding to the “Battle of the Spurs” at Guinegatte in 1513) they called “hares in armour.” The French took position at Melegnano to face the Swiss, the Venetians at Lodi to hold in check the Spanish army at Piacenza. Alviano, who was visiting the king when the Swiss appeared before Melegnano, hurried off to bring thither his own army. Meantime the French and the Swiss engaged in an incredibly fierce struggle.
The king’s army was grouped in front of the village, facing in the direction of Milan, with a small stream separating it from the oncoming Swiss. On either side of the Milan road was a large body of landsknechts, a third being in reserve. The French and Gascon infantry (largely armed with arquebuses) was on the extreme right, the various bodies of gendarmerie in the centre. In front of all was the French artillery. The battle opened in the afternoon of the 13th of September. As the Swiss advanced in three huge columns, the French guns fired into them with terrible effect, but the assailants reached the intersected ground bordering the stream, and thus protected from the rush of the French gendarmerie, they debouched on the other side, and fell upon the landsknechts. The crowd of combatants, the gathering darkness, and the dust, prevented any general direction being given to the battle by the leaders of either side. Francis himself at the head of two hundred gendarmes charged and drove back two large bodies of Swiss which were pressing the landsknechts hard. The battle went on by moonlight till close on midnight, when the Swiss retired a short distance. Both sides spent the rest of the night on the battlefield, reorganizing their broken corps. Francis and his gendarmes were the outpost line of the French army, and remained all night mounted, lance in hand and helmet on head. Next morning at sunrise, the battle was renewed. The Swiss now left their centre inactive opposite the king and with two strong corps attempted to work round his flanks. That on the left made for the French baggage, but found it strongly guarded by landsknechts, who drove them back. The nearest French gendarmerie joined in the pursuit, but a detachment from the Swiss centre fell upon these and destroyed them. This detachment in turn followed up its advantage until as Francis himself expressed it, “the whole camp turned out” to aid the landsknechts and “hunted out” the Swiss. Meantime the Swiss left attack had closed with the French infantry bands and the “aventuriers” (afterwards the famous corps of Picardie and Piedmont), who were commanded on this day the famous engineer Pedro Navarro. It was in the main struggle of arquebus against pike, but it was not the arquebus alone, or even principally, that gave the victory to the French. When the Swiss ranks had been disordered, the short pike and the sword came into play, and aided by the constable de Bourbon with a handful of the gendarmerie, the French right more than held its own until Alviano with the cavalry from Lodi rode on to the field and completed the rout of the Swiss. In the centre meanwhile the two infantries stood fast for eight hours, separated by the brook, while the artillery on both sides fired into it at short range. But the landsknechts, animated by the king, endured it as well as the Swiss; and at the last, Francis leading a final advance of his exhausted troops, the Swiss gave way and fled. Only 3000 Swiss escaped out of some 25,000 who fought. On the French side probably 8000 were killed or died of wounds. The battle lasted twenty-eight hours. Its tactical lesson was the efficacy of combining two arms against one. The French gendarmerie, burning to avenge the insult of “hares in armour,” made more than thirty charges by squadrons, and they were admirably supported by their light artillery. The landsknechts retrieved their first day’s defeat by their conduct on the second day. Nevertheless Marignan was in the main the work of the gendarmerie, the last and greatest triumph of the armoured lancer; and as a fitting close to the battle the young king was knighted by Bayard on the field.