The Battle of Pavia by Ruprecht Heller painted c.1529



In the early hours of the 24th of February 1525, a small group of Spanish sappers broke down a section of wall surrounding a deer park in Northern Italy. Moments later, an army of almost 20,000 German, Spanish and Neapolitan mercenaries, all wearing white shirts so they could tell friend from foe in the dark, began clambering through the breach and the Battle of Pavia had begun.

The origins of this pivotal conflict lie in the tortuous politics of the Late Middle Ages, when the Holy Roman Empire (modern Germany, Austria, the Low Countries and Northern Italy) vied with the Kingdom of France for control of Western Europe. When Charles V, the Hapsburg king of Spain, also became Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, the balance of power was tipped firmly in favour of The Empire and the French King Francis had little choice but to fight.

The principle battleground was Italy and for the next six years the tide of war ebbed and flowed across the Alps as each side tried to drive the other out of the strategic Duchy of Milan. By the winter of 1524/25 the French army, led in person by the French king Francis, found themselves besieging an imperial garrison defending the small but important city of Pavia. The emperor Charles ordered his Italian viceroy, the Comte de Lannoy, to break the siege and sent 12,000 German landsknecht mercenaries, under their legendary captain Georg von Frundsberg, to reinforce Lannoy’s army camped at Lodi.

Despite Frundsberg making a forced march over the Alps in the dead of winter, Lannoy was reluctant to engage the French as he feared that his enemies were too strong. For several weeks Lannoy was content to merely besiege the besiegers but Charles, who was running out of money to pay his mercenaries, ordered an attack. Fearing the wrath of his emperor, Lannoy chose to launch an assault on the 24th of February, Charles V’s birthday, and his plan was simple. The main imperial force would make a night march to outflank the French army camped in the deer park to the north of Pavia and attack Francis’ headquarters, a hunting lodge called the Castel Mirabello, from the rear.

However the attack on Mirabello was to be a ruse to draw the French away from their trenches and this would enable the imperial garrison to break out of the city. Lannoy then planned to withdraw and renew the war in the spring, when the Spanish treasure ships arrived, but fate had other ideas. Though the French king Francis was not at Mirabello when Lannoy’s crack Neapolitan arquebusiers attacked, he managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Francis led a reckless cavalry charge against the German and Spanish infantry and his noble armoured knights were cut to pieces by the imperial landsknechts’ pikes, halberds and handguns. Francis was captured and his army fell apart.

Without trying, Lannoy had won a crushing victory over the French but was Pavia the battle that ended the Middle Ages? Historical eras are rarely started or ended by a single event but Pavia was the first major battle to be decided by massed gunfire. The medieval armour used by the noble (but essentially amateur) French knights offered no protection to the new firearms in the hands of trained, full time soldiers and in the following centuries professional armies armed with pike and shot would become dominant in warfare.

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The seven Pavia Tapestries commemorating Charles V's victory woven in brusselsc.1530 by Bernard van Orley