Battle of Pavia, (February 23-24, 1525).


Despite improvements in the punching power of missile weapons and the increasing tactical prevalence of pike-and-firearms infantry, knights continued to wear armor. They increased its body coverage and thickness and remodeled it, adding crenelations and deflective surfaces. The full suit of body armor was thus a product of the end of the age of armor, and still in use into the 16th century. But personal plate became ineffective and obsolete with introduction of more powerful firearms capable of using corned gunpowder, which gave far greater penetrating power to handguns and cannon. At that point, the weight of ever-thickening plate became too great a burden: a fully articulated suit of 16th-century plate weighed 60 pounds. Though fully encased in metal, a fit warrior was capable of supple movement in suit armor. At least one case was reported of a knight able to turn and leap onto his horse unaided. Still, this was the exception rather than the rule: most armor restricted movement and interfered with sight and hearing to the point that dismounted knights would often fight in pairs, guarding each other’s back. A number of older knights died of heart attacks, and younger ones died from dehydration or heat stroke after a hot summer’s day spent in suffocating heat inside a full suit of plate. Discomfort was magnified by stuffing armor suits with shock-absorbent cloth, horsehair, or straw. Added to the problems of weight and discomfort was sharp limitation on sight, hearing, and a knight’s defensive and offensive movements. These negatives came to outweigh suit armor’s protective quality, and it was discarded along with the heavier horses needed to bear up a fully armored knight. Instead, cloth or leather garments were worn and smaller, fleeter steeds were newly desired: the fully armed knight and the destrier retired from war together, into romantic memory and imagination.

PAVIA piqueteros de los  tercios

PAVIA soldados del tercio

At Pavia (1525), tercios destroyed the French under Francis I. For two generations after that most opponents declined battle against the tercios whenever possible, and they became the most feared infantry in Europe. They remained dominant for nearly a hundred years. Their demise came during the Thirty Years’ War when more flexible Dutch and Swedish armies broke into more flexible, smaller regiments. These units smashed the tercios with combined arms tactics that also employed field artillery and a return to cavalry shock.


The climactic battle of the opening half of the Italian Wars (1494-1559), and one confusing and obscured to historians by the dense fog in which it was fought. In January 1525 Francis I led a combined force of 24,000 French and 4,000 Swiss into northern Italy and laid siege to Pavia. The local militia of 6,000 held out until an Imperial army of 23,000 arrived to relieve it, led personally by Charles V. The Imperials failed in an initial effort to break through the French trenches. They dug lines of circumvallation around the French lines and each side deployed artillery. Francis had about 50 cannon of various types and calibers; Charles had fewer than twenty. Neither bombardment had much effect on dug-in positions. In a daring night attack, partly concealed by wild weather and a fresh bombardment, Imperial troops crossed a small river and caught the left of the French position by complete surprise. Three thousand Spanish under the Marchese di Pescara, victor of La Bicocca, used their “Spanish muskets” to great effect. Maneuvering independently of pike protection but sheltering behind trees and hedges, they poured fire into the French flank, joined by 1,500 Basque crossbowmen. The garrison in Pavia saw its chance and attacked the few French left in the siege trenches, showing no mercy. In an action that took less than two hours, musketeers and archers killed 8,000 French.

French cannon proved of little use since their rate of fire was too slow to turn the tide of the assault. Francis I was captured, and held in Spain until he agreed to end his claims in Italy and Burgundy (a promise he renounced immediately upon his release). It is often written that Pavia ended the era of armored lancers on heavy horses. That is not so. Noble cavalry units remained active all through the French Civil Wars (1562-1629), for instance. Pavia shook their reputation for effectiveness, but it did not eliminate them from battle. What Pavia decided was the fate of Italy for several generations, ensuring that it remained an Imperial protectorate to be exploited for decades as a source of revenue and a recruiting ground for Habsburg tercios thrown against the enemies of Spain and the Empire. Although the long and mutually impoverishing Italian Wars continued for another three decades, there was almost no change in territorial holdings or in the regional balance of power after the French defeat at Pavia, nor was there another major set-piece battle for nearly a generation. This was because opponents of Charles V, an excellent cavalry soldier who showed his mettle at Pavia, were unwilling to meet the deadly tercios on the field of battle. Instead, they cleaved to cautious campaigns of maneuver or hunkered down inside stout fortifications defended by artillery towers and skilled musketeers.

PAVIA francisco I y carlos I

Francis I of France and Emperor Charles V

Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (1500–1558).

Charles V’s European holdings encircled France on three sides. Although this was the product of serial accidents of birth, death, and inheritance rather than intention, France was implicitly threatened. And Charles inherited the ongoing Italian Wars with young Francis I determined to secure Milan. To fight him, Charles relied on the Spanish way of war and military system of heavy infantry squares, or tercios. The apex came early, when Charles personally won a great victory at Pavia (1525), capturing Francis I and holding him in Spain until he agreed to a peace, which he immediately renounced upon his release. Charles thus remained committed in Italy against France continuously, with brief respites in 1526, 1529, 1538, and 1544. In 1527, angry with Pope Clement VII’s involvement in the League of Cognac, Charles sent an army to occupy Rome. While there, unpaid mercenaries mutinied and sacked the city, raping nuns and murdering civilians. They also took Clement prisoner. The pious Charles was shocked (some historians date his later, paralyzing melancholia to this incident). He restored Clement both from principle and in order to obtain his assistance dealing with the religious revolt then in full-throated roar in Germany.

Francis I (1494-1547). King of France, 1515-1547.

He inherited an army fundamentally reshaped after defeating England in the Hundred Years’ War. It no longer relied on feudal levies commanded by barons. It was still strong in heavy cavalry but it also led the way in gunpowder artillery and expanded infantry. In 1515, Francis took this army back into Italy, where it performed well in a new round of the Italian Wars (1494-1559), defeating the pike squares of the Swiss Confederation over two days at Marignano (September 13-14, 1515) and taking Milan. But the next foe Francis faced was the most powerful monarch in Europe since Charlemagne: Charles V. Altogether, his Habsburg territories encircled France on three sides. It was a strategic dilemma that dogged Francis his entire reign. Francis won at La Bicocca (April 27, 1522), but then the war in Italy turned against him. There followed an invasion of southern France by Charles de Bourbon. The climax came at Pavia (February 23- 24, 1525), where Francis was defeated, captured, taken to Madrid, and held until he surrendered all claims in Italy and Burgundy, a false promise he renounced immediately upon his release in 1526. Francis spent the next 20 years conspiring against the Habsburgs, but achieved few successes in the continuing Italian Wars despite signing a formal alliance with the Ottoman Empire in 1536. In 1534 he ordered formation of seven “legions” of 6,000 men, each raised within France, to reduce his dependence on the Swiss for infantry and in mimicry of the Spanish tercio. These were to be all pike, halberd, and arquebus units. They never challenged the tercio effectively, however, since they were badly officered and ill-trained.

Suggested Reading: Angus Konstam, Pavia 1525: Climax of the Italian Wars (1996); Catherine Whistler, The Battle of Pavia (2003).



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