The 16th century is a critical period in political, social, religious, and cultural history. The Renaissance, the Reformation, new absolute monarchies, the voyages of discovery, great advances in science, architectural monuments, artistic masterpieces, and more: all marked the birth of the modern as feudalism disintegrated, a society based on commerce and enterprise emerged, and Europe began to pull ahead of the rest of the world.
Yet the military history is relatively neglected. Compare the number of books on the World Wars, the American Civil War, and the Napoleonic Wars with the number on Renaissance warfare. Compare, even, the number on ancient or medieval warfare with the number on the 16th century.
It is hard to explain. The source material is abundant, the changes in weapons and tactics rapid, and the complexities to be unravelled – to challenge the historian – abundant. Not least, the military history of the period should be an essential complement to studies focused on other aspects of the 16th century.
In our special this issue, we look at the transformation of warfare in the first half of the 16th century.
By the mid 15th century, Western European warfare had become slow and sticky. The power of longbows and handguns had forced medieval men-at-arms to don the heaviest of plate armour and, at the same time, dismount to fight on foot. Armies were still composed of part-time soldiers, with limited training and virtually undrilled. Consequently, they could do little more than lumber headlong into each other and engage in protracted slugging matches at close-quarters.
By the mid 16th century, the battlefield had been transformed. States that retained a conservative medieval way of war based on crude shock action – like the Scots – succumbed to new professional armies with a mix of heavy and light horse, pikemen and arquebusiers, and a growing number of cannon.
Tactics may have lagged behind at first, but they soon caught up, as commanders mastered the art of combining shock and firepower, mobility and field fortifications.
What drove forwards this military revolution was the intensity of Renaissance warfare. Europe was convulsed both by old forms of dynastic warfare and by new forms of national and religious warfare. The fighting was as relentless as that between 1792 and 1815, or that between 1914 and 1945.
In our first article, we offer an overview of the Italian Wars and the changes in military organisation, weaponry, and tactics that they fostered. In our second, we analyse one signal encounter, the Battle of Bicocca, fought exactly 500 years ago this spring, where an army of French, Swiss, and Venetians confronted an army of Spaniards, Germans, and Milanese in north-western Italy.
The Italian Wars (1494-1559)
European history in the first half of the 16th century was dominated by two sets of events.
In 1517, Martin Luther launched the Reformation, a politico-religious storm destined to tear the continent apart in a long succession of ferocious civil and foreign wars over some 150 years.
In parallel with the first phase of the Reformation, between 1494 and 1559, the Valois kings of France and the Habsburg rulers of the Holy Roman Empire and Spain waged a relentless struggle for dynastic and territorial power in Europe whose epicentre was the Italian peninsula.
The Italian Wars were astonishing in their futility. Again and again, the French kings – Charles VIII (1483-1498), Louis XII (1498-1515), Francis I (1515-1547), and Henry II (1547-1559) – launched massive expeditionary forces into Italy at huge expense, provoking the formation of hostile alliances of Italian states, usually backed by the Habsburgs, that eventually knocked them back.
This persistent attempt to establish French hegemony in Italy was hopelessly beyond the resources of the Valois state. And, in fact, France’s interests would have been far better served by attention to the country’s vulnerable northern and eastern borders – considerations that would in due course dominate the foreign and military policy of Louis XIV (1643-1715), the great ‘Sun King’, who would fight a succession of long and exhausting wars to secure these borders in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
But the Valois inhabited a pre-rational age, transitional between medievalism and modernity, when considerations of chivalry and dynastic prestige still counted for more than raison d’état. These ideas were being challenged. Machiavelli published The Prince in 1532, in which he argued that the ruler should adopt a policy of ruthless realpolitik. But this was a new political philosophy – otherwise his treatise would have served little purpose – and many rulers continued to ignore its precepts.
Like the English kings who had tried to conquer France during the Hundred Years War, the French kings were unable to give up their flimsy claims on Italian territory – especially the distant Kingdom of Naples, which had once been ruled by a French Angevin dynasty – during the decades-long Italian Wars.
On the other hand, the wars proved equally futile for the Habsburgs, even after Emperor Maximilian I (1493-1519) was succeeded by Charles V (1519-1556), who was already King of Spain, so that the tremendous resources of the Holy Roman Empire (virtually the whole of Central Europe) were united with those of the Spanish Empire (fast expanding in the New World).
Charles V – like Charlemagne, Louis XIV, Napoleon, and Hitler – was a potential pan-European hegemon. But he was forced throughout his long reign to look in three directions. As well as facing the Valois threat in the west and the south, he was compelled to defend his domains against the rising power of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, and also to confront a succession of Protestant revolts in his German and Low Countries territories.
When it all ended with the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559, 66 years of almost continuous warfare had left things more or less as they were. The French had gained nothing more than the little Alpine marquisate of Saluzzo in Italy, three fortress-bishoprics on the eastern frontier (Metz, Toul, and Verdun), and the port of Calais on the Channel coast.
Politically, then, the Italian Wars were a nullity. Militarily, however, the very opposite was true. For this titanic struggle – a mountain in labour that gave birth to a mouse – was the main testing-ground of a thoroughgoing military revolution.
Monarchs and gun-power
The Renaissance military revolution was the culmination of economic, social, and politico-military developments over some 200 years. Though the trajectory was uneven – there were massive setbacks like the Black Death – European society was becoming more productive and prosperous, and a ‘middling sort’ of burghers, minor gentry, and yeoman farmers was on the rise. These social changes underpinned the emergence of ‘new monarchies’ – more centralised, more absolutist, less subservient to a cantankerous feudal elite.
More powerful royal states were better able to amass the resources to wage war on a larger scale and in a more professional way. France provides an especially clear example. At the Battle of Crécy in 1346, the French king had deployed a chaotic horde of feudal chivalry over which he was unable to exercise any effective command and control. As soon as it arrived on the battlefield, each retinue, without any order or coordination, simply hurled itself at the waiting English defensive line, formed of professional men-at-arms and longbowmen. Hardly any Frenchman landed a blow. Around 1,500 French nobles were killed, most of them by peasant archers, whereas the English lost a mere handful.
Contrast this pitiful performance with French conduct at the other end of the Hundred Years War. At the Battle of Castillon in 1453, the royal artillery officer Jean Bureau created a fortified camp for the French army, defended by some 300 guns of various sizes. The English charged this position and their formations were shattered by artillery fire. It was Crécy in reverse, only with gunpowder and metal shot.
The French victory at Castillon – which effectively ended the Hundred Years War – was a triumph of royal power, modern technology, and professional expertise. In particular, it was a triumph of field artillery, and the gun-power of the French would remain unrivalled in Europe for decades to come.
Hand-held firearms were also developing apace – though it would be the Spanish who embraced this new technology with greatest enthusiasm. Though longbows (in England) and crossbows (on the Continent) remained in use throughout the 16th century, archery was gradually eclipsed by firearms.
Basic handguns had been in use in Europe since early in the 14th century, but they required the operator to place a match against the touchhole manually. The arquebus (or hackbut) – invented in the middle of the 15th century – was a major advance on this. It was fitted with a cock and trigger, the cock having a hole in it to hold a match (a smouldering length of rope). When the trigger was pulled, the cock brought the match into contact with a pinch of priming powder placed in a small pan by the touchhole. This detonated the powder charge inside the tube and discharged the metal shot. An experienced arquebusier might manage two or three shots a minute. Maximum range was about 100 yards, effective range more like 25.
Around the middle of the 16th century, the wheel-lock pistol came into use, initially among German cavalry (known as Reiters). Though mounted arquebusiers (and cross-bowmen) were often deployed in Renaissance warfare, especially in the early 16th century, the difficulty involved in managing both horse and weapon are obvious. The wheel-lock pistol dispensed with the match; instead, the trigger rotated a serrated wheel against a lump of pyrite and the resulting sparks ignited the priming powder. To maximise firepower, cavalry might carry three pistols, two in holsters, one in the right boot. Effective range was around 25 yards.
Little reliance was henceforward placed on feudal levies and local militias. Medieval kings had fought their battles at the head of armies hastily raised for a campaigning season and typically formed of subjects under some sort of obligation to perform military service. They could fight well enough, especially against others equally amateur, but they lacked the drill and discipline to manoeuvre: medieval battles tended to be head-on collisions between huge blocs of men, for to attempt anything else was risky.
Renaissance armies were usually formed of full-time professionals. Few of them belonged to standing armies – they would be hired for a campaigning season and then discharged – but they were men who made war their business in return for pay and booty. This, though, was both a strength and a weakness.
Most Renaissance soldiers were mercenaries, even when fighting as part of their own ‘national’ army, and even more so when not. They might be highly trained and disciplined, and occasionally capable of fighting with a fanatic bravery born of a strong sense of honour and esprit de corps, but they could also be cynical, calculating, and indifferent to their employer’s cause. They would sometimes go on strike, leave for home, or change sides if they became in any way disgruntled.
This only really changed with the French Wars of Religion, the Dutch War of Independence, the Thirty Years War, and the English Civil War – wars in which men fought for a politico-religious cause in which they believed. The Italian Wars, by contrast, were essentially dynastic wars fought by professionals and mercenaries.
The most renowned 16th-century mercenaries were Swiss pikemen and German Landsknechts. Both fought mainly in dense pike blocs with smaller numbers of halberdiers and arquebusiers. Their preferred tactic was an aggressive frontal charge to smash through an opposing line like a steamroller. They hated each other, and when they clashed on the battle-field, no quarter was given on either side.
But they were highly vulnerable to shot and to flank attack – so were at grave risk unless well supported by other arms – and they were especially prone to mutinous behaviour and leaving their employers in the lurch at short notice.
Other mercenaries could be even less reliable. Italian condottieri – mercenary bands involved in the interminable city-state wars of the peninsula from the mid 14th-century onwards – had become highly risk-averse, treated warfare like a game of chess, and usually restricted themselves to endless manoeuvres. The Italians, in consequence, acquired a reputation for poor performance in pitched battle.
New tactics 1:
The predominance of shot
Artillery, both in the field and in siege warfare, became a central feature of warfare during the 16th century, though some states placed more emphasis on cannon than others. Leaders in the field were the Ottomans and the French.
At the Battle of Ravenna in northern Italy on 11 April 1512, a French army of about 21,000 men marched out to assault a Spanish relief army of about 16,000 men which had established an entrenched camp a short distance from the beleaguered city. With flanks anchored on a river and marshy ground, the Spanish had covered their entire front with a trench and rampart lined with cannon and arquebusiers. This was intended to become a close-quarters killing-ground where all assaults by enemy shock formations would be destroyed by fire.
It did not work out like that. The French artillery – 54 cannon as against 30 – established fire superiority at key points along the enemy line, and the Spanish were so close-packed in their camp between trench and river that the effect of the rain of shot was devastating. On the flanks in particular, the Spanish horse, at risk of being destroyed where they stood, were compelled to launch a hopeless offensive.
Though the infantry assault in the centre bogged down amid heavy casualties among the French, German, and Italian foot ordered forwards, the French cavalry broke the Spanish cavalry on the flanks and entered the entrenched camp at either end, inducing panic and rout among the dense masses of enemy foot now caught front and rear.
‘So ended the first Italian battle in which cannon settled the event of the day,’ is Sir Charles Oman’s terse judgement, ‘and Gaston de Foix [the French commander] must be given every credit for seeing that the Spanish tactics of infantry entrenched, with good small-arms and a competent allowance of guns, could be beaten by superior artillery strength.’
But in other circumstances – as we shall see in our complementary article about the Battle of Bicocca – it might be the concentrated close-range fire of arquebusiers holding a defensive line that was decisive. The arquebus was an inaccurate short-range firearm with a slow rate of fire. Arquebusiers were therefore highly vulnerable to both cavalry and pikemen on open ground. But lining ditch and rampart, sunken road, stout wall, or thick hedgerow capable of bringing an enemy assault to a halt at close range, arquebusiers could win a battle.
Standard tactics were for the arquebusiers to be formed up in loose order several ranks deep. The front rank would discharge then retire through gaps to the rear to reload. The second rank would step forward, discharge, and retire. And so on. In this way, a continuous rolling fire could be maintained. If the enemy threatened to break through, the arquebusiers could fall back under the shelter of supporting stands of pikes.
New tactics 2:
The return of heavy cavalry
The late medieval period had seen cavalry marginalised by the emergence of strong bodies of foot – English longbowmen and dismounted men-at-arms, Scottish and Swiss pikemen, Flemish goedendag men. This had made battlefields exceptionally ‘sticky’. Not only were men ranked in close-order formations, but virtually all wore at least some protection, while knightly retinues were weighed down by full plate armour.
Renaissance battlefields saw a dramatic return of cavalry, both heavy and light, occasionally amounting to a full half of an army. What had become clear was that a coordinated combined-arms force would have every opportunity to use cavalry effectively, both in the skirmishing and shock roles, certainly on the flanks, but also interspersed with foot along the main battle-line.
A successful tactical combination was a line formed of pike blocs, attached arquebusiers, and squadrons of heavy horse. Enemy pike formations would then be threatened by both massed fire and mounted flank attack as they attempted to close.
The best cavalry may have been the French gendarmes of the old compagnies d’ordonnance. These were the descendants of the French feudal chivalry who had charged to such little effect at Crécy two centuries before, but transformed in the last campaigns of the Hundred Years War into elite professional soldiers of the French monarchy. They wore full plate armour and charged to contact with lance and sword.
Less successful were attempts to equip cavalry with firearms (see above), though in the fullness of time the combination of sabre and pistol would become standard. The critical tactical distinction – not fully grasped until late in the century – was threefold: between shock cavalry obliged to charge to contact, using pistols at point-blank range and then slashing and thrusting with sabres; light cavalry operating as skirmishers; and mounted infantry – that is, as they would come to be called, dragoons.
New tactics 3:
Combined arms and national characteristics
That combined-arms tactics were the very basis of the new Renaissance way of war is apparent. This does not mean that all armies were essentially similar in composition, that some ideal form had emerged and erased all national differences.
The Spanish innovated in the use of arquebusiers and field fortifications from early in the 16th century, and high proportions of shot became an enduring feature of their armies. The French maintained an especially large artillery train and typically deployed very large numbers of armoured shock cavalry. The Imperialists were notable for their Lands-knechts (pikemen) and Reiters (armoured pistol-armed cavalry). The English stuck with the longbow until late in the 16th century.
On the other hand, armies that remained essentially monotone were at a grave disadvantage. Two examples stand out. Scots pikemen had won the Battle of Bannockburn (against the English) in 1314 and Swiss pikemen the Battle of Morgarten (against the Austrians) in 1315. The pike bloc then became the basis of Scots and Swiss warfare for some 250 years.
But it was obsolete by the early 16th century (if not before), for the unsupported pike bloc was perilously vulnerable to fire and to flank attack. Both Flodden in 1513 and Pinkie in 1547 turned into massacres of Scottish foot at the hands of English armies that effectively combined shot and shock.
The Italian Wars may have been politically meaningless – a long dynastic struggle devoid of lasting consequence – but they are fascinating from a military point of view, for they involved most of the major powers of Europe and saw numerous large-scale clashes between the most advanced militaries of the age. They were therefore the supreme testing-ground for new techniques and tactics. They inaugurated the era of ‘pike and shot’ in military affairs. •
All images: WIPL, unless otherwise stated.
Read part two here: The Battle of Bicocca.