The Campaigns of Gaston de Foix

Gaston of Foix, Duke of Nemours (1489-1512), army commander of King Louis XII of France in the first italian war. (19th century depiction).

Born in Mazeres, Ariege, Gaston de Foix, duke of Nemours, was the son of Jean de Foix and Marie d’Orléans, sister of LOUIS XII, and the grandson of Eleonor of Aragon, queen of Navarre. He was made a duke and peer in 1505, then assumed the title of king of Navarre. He was 23 when he took command of the army in Italy and revealed his martial talents. In the course of a lightninglike campaign, after having liberated Bologna, he took Brescia, but was killed during the Battle of Ravenna.

GIUSEPPE RAVA

Ravenna: Guns were to play a decisive role in the battle of Ravenna (1512). Gaston de Foix was in command of another French army (with German Landsknechts rather than Swiss) in Lombardy fighting an alliance of Spain, The Pope, and Venice. His cannon had breached the walls of Ravenna when a Spanish-led army came to its relief. Having got his troops in line, Gaston halted them and brought up his artillery, which bombarded the entrenched Spanish camp for two hours. In turn the Spanish guns fired on the German and French infantry, killing 2000 of them in this same period of time. (Fabrizio Colonna, when a prisoner after the battle, said that he had seen one cannonball knock over 33 men-at-arms.) When the French managed to bring more cannon into play, the Spanish cavalry left their camp and charged, only to be defeated by the French cavalry. The first French attack on the Spanish infantry was by 2000 crossbowmen, who met such a withering fire from arquebuses and swivel-guns mounted on carts, that they “melted away”. An attack by the landsknechts made little progress until the Spanish were taken in the flank by the victorious French cavalry. The battlefield saw almost unprecedented totals of both French (4000), and Spanish (9000) dead.

The Holy League Louis XII had ordered his troops to withdraw from the Veneto because of the new league of Julius, Ferdinand and Venice, proclaimed in Rome in early October.  It was called the Holy League, because it was supposed to be for the benefit of the papacy. Ferdinand, who had suggested the League and was to provide most of its military strength, had emphasized it should not be explicitly against any power, but he intended it as a restraint on Louis. According to him, Louis aimed to conquer all Italy. Julius was happy to agree to it, and the Venetians were pleased to be leaving their diplomatic isolation. Venetian obligations under the League were comparatively light: to contribute what troops they could, and their galleys; the pope was to provide 600 men-at-arms, under a commander supplied by Ferdinand. The king was to send 1,200 men-at-arms, 1,000 light horse and 10,000 Spanish infantry; the pope and Venice were to pay 40,000 ducats a month towards the cost of the Spanish troops. Ferdinand was keen to include Henry VIII of England in the confederation (which Henry ratified), and he also made a separate treaty with him in which they agreed to attack France in Aquitaine.

Louis had hoped to avoid becoming involved again in war against the pope, by the threat of a Church council: but the prospects for that were unpromising. Few clergy, even from France, were willing to be associated with it. Maximilian’s support was vacillating, Ferdinand was vehemently opposed and none of the Italian states were in favour either. Reluctant hosts, the Florentines under pressure from Louis had allowed the council to be held at Pisa, but would not compel their own clergy to attend it. Even before the council was formally opened on 5 November, its failure was apparent. The council quickly decided to transfer to Milan, but was no better attended there.

The French had a new commander, the king’s nephew, Gaston de Foix. Aged only twenty-two when he was appointed Louis’s lieutenant in Italy and governor of Milan in October 1511, de Foix had already taken part in several Italian campaigns. In what would turn out to be a brief career as commander of the army, de Foix would prove himself a remarkable military leader. On the king’s orders, he concentrated the bulk of the troops in the duchy at Parma, preparing to confront the Holy League. The papal troops in the Romagna, however, were biding their time until the Spanish army arrived from Naples.

The first test for de Foix would be dealing with an incursion by the Swiss. They began to muster on the northern Milanese border at the end of November. As he had to leave troops in Parma, Bologna and on the eastern borders of the duchy, de Foix had with him only 500 lances, 200 gentlemen and 200 mounted archers of the king’s household, and 2,000 infantry. Louis sent orders to raise 6,000 more infantry, and instructed de Foix not to attack the Swiss until they were on the plain, and then to fight them and force them to retire. By the time he sent these orders the Swiss were already on the move. De Foix and his captains had decided to adopt the strategy of the previous year: to stay close to them, avoiding battle, trying to hinder them from finding supplies.

By early December around 10,000 Swiss had gathered, and more were arriving; they chose Jacob Stapfer as their commander. Advancing towards Milan, they kept strict discipline and paid for their supplies. By 14 December they were in sight of the city, and they sent an appeal to the people, saying they came as liberators, not conquerors, in hopes the Milanese would rise against the French.  But the Milanese had agreed to provide 6,000 militia to help defend the city, and reinforcements were arriving from other parts of the duchy. The Swiss were not strong enough to lay siege to a city the size of Milan, and there was no sign of League troops arriving to support them. Negotiations began: the French were prepared to offer money, but the Swiss also demanded the cession of Locarno and Lugano, and unimpeded transit through the duchy, whenever they wanted, for Swiss soldiers going to fight for the pope – terms wholly unacceptable to the French. Then, unexpectedly, the camp broke up. Disorganized bands of Swiss made their way home, devastating the country in their path.

Fortunately for the French, they had not had to deal simultaneously with an attack by the League. The Spanish troops, under the command of the viceroy of Naples, Ramon de Cardona, did not arrive in the Romagna until December. There was a desultory campaign in the Romagna before in late January the pope finally got his wish for a siege of Bologna. But by a rapid forced march over about thirty miles in bitter weather, de Foix brought reinforcements into Bologna on 5 February, taking unawares the Spanish and papal troops encamped to the south of the city. When Cardona learned of their arrival, he lifted the siege and withdrew.

No sooner had de Foix accomplished the relief of Bologna, than he was informed that Brescia had fallen to the Venetians. At the head of 10,000 men raised in the Bresciano, the prominent Brescian noble, Luigi Avogadro entered the city during the night of 2/3 February, followed by Venetian troops. Revolts against the French broke out in the Bresciano, and in the city of Bergamo and its territory; French garrisons in Brescia and Bergamo took refuge in the cities’ fortresses. As it was feared that other areas would also rebel, Giangiacomo Trivulzio toured Lodi, Crema and Cremona with 2,000 infantry to secure them.

De Foix’s response to the news was swift. He left Bologna on 8 February, and on 17 February reached Brescia, a journey shortened by three or four days by Francesco Gonzaga granting de Foix and his troops transit through his lands. On the way, they were joined by some landsknechts who had been in Verona. The Venetians in Brescia were surprised to see them, having no idea the French could have come from Bologna in that time. Most of the men from the Bresciano who had come with Avogadro had been sent home, and the Venetians had few soldiers there.

On the night of 18/19 February de Foix led about 500 dismounted men-at-arms and 6,000 infantry by a hidden path into the fortress of Brescia, leaving d’Alegre with 500 men-at-arms to guard the walls. An assault was launched on the city, spearheaded by the men-at-arms, who crouched down when the ranks of the arquebusiers behind them fired their volleys.  The desperate defence was aided by women throwing tiles, stones, and boiling water from the rooftops. Some stradiots fled the fighting through one of the city gates, only to run into d’Alegre’s men, who were able to enter the city and join in the slaughter. By evening, the defenders had been annihilated; several thousand corpses lay in the city’s streets.

A summons to surrender had been rejected by the Venetian authorities in Brescia, which meant the city was, by the laws of war, legitimately open to sack. De Foix gave his soldiers their reward, and for three days the people of Brescia suffered one of the most terrible sacks of the Italian Wars. The estimated value of the spoils was three to four million ducats, including the heavy ransoms imposed on individuals; 4,000 cartloads of goods were said to have been taken away. So enriched were many French soldiers by booty and ransoms from Brescia that they left for home. Some blamed the decline of French fortunes in Italy on this depletion of their army: `the capture of Brescia was the ruin of the French in Italy’.  The city of Brescia was also punished by heavy fines, the loss of its privileges and the exile of many citizens, as were Bergamo and other places that had rebelled, but they were spared a sack.

De Foix returned to Milan and then to Emilia. When Maximilian wanted to exploit the success of the French for his own ends and urged him to send troops against Padua and Treviso, de Foix replied that he could not do anything without orders from the king, that the first concern was the Spanish army, and that the Swiss might return. Louis’s response was much the same. He instructed de Foix to gather his army together, seek out the Spanish army and bring it to a decisive engagement. There was some sense of urgency behind this project for a resolution on this front, for Louis was mindful of the preparations being made for an English invasion of France.

Ferdinand, on the other hand, wanted Cardona to bide his time until preparations for attacks on the French in Lombardy by the Venetians and the Swiss, and in the south-west of France by the Spanish and English were complete. Such instructions suited Cardona, who was naturally cautious – too cautious, some of his captains felt. So as the French army approached, the Spanish and papal forces drew back. The French were having serious difficulty in finding victuals, and could not afford to wait. After some debate among the commanders, it was decided to try to force the issue by attacking Ravenna, too important a city to be abandoned to them. An assault on 9 April was unsuccessful, but it did bring Cardona to approach to defend the city. 

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