A Swiss mercenary holds the best hand vis-à-vis the great European rulers in the "Game for Milan". Woodcut by Hans Rüegger, 1514 (detail).
A Swiss mercenary holds the best hand vis-à-vis the great European rulers in the "Game for Milan". Woodcut by Hans Rüegger, 1514 (detail). Zentrabibliothek Zürich

Zenith of Swiss Power: The Battle of Novara

The Battle of Novara on 6 June 1513 was the last great military victory of the Old Swiss Confederation and marked the peak of its power in Europe.

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener is a writer, PR specialist, trained world historian and a Co-Founder of World History Encyclopedia.

1513 was a “year of wonders” for the Old Swiss Confederation, marked by victories over the French at the Battle of Novara and the Siege of Dijon. These military successes coincide with the Confederation’s zenith in international power and military prestige. As members of the “Holy League” and allies of Austria, England, the Papacy, Venice, and Spain, the Swiss played a decisive role in expelling the French temporarily from Italy. The Battle of Novara was the last great military victory of the Confederation.

Rise and Fall of Franco-Swiss Relations

Following the Swiss Confederation’s victories over Burgundy during the Burgundian Wars (1474–1477) and Austria during the Swabian War of 1499, the major powers of Europe began to recruit Swiss mercenaries in earnest. The recruitment of Swiss fighters began even earlier in France, which was the first major polity to recognize the rising Alpine state in 1444. At the turn of the fifteenth century, the French employed ever larger numbers of Swiss mercenaries as infantrymen in their early campaigns against Milan and Naples during the Italian Wars (1494-1559). Milan, in particular, was coveted by the French. Around c. 1500, the Duchy of Milan ranked among the richest regions in Europe. The city of Milan was a major economic metropolis with over 100,000 inhabitants and the center of a glittering court. Despite their wealth, the Sforza dynasty was weak, and they were unable to resolve political divisions within their duchy. Louis XII of France seized the opportunity, as the grandson of the Milanese princess Valentina Visconti, to usurp the ducal throne. In doing so, he launched a new phase of the Italian Wars, and with the help of Swiss mercenaries, he took Milan with relative ease between 1499-1500. Swiss mercenary service proved so beneficial that France and the Confederation signed a ten year treaty of alliance in 1499. Louis XII also promised annual payments of 20,000 florins in exchange for the right to recruit mercenaries within the Confederation.
Swiss volunteers storm the Genoese camp on the side of the French king, 1507.
Swiss volunteers storm the Genoese camp on the side of the French king, 1507. Luzerner Schilling, S 23 fol., p. 464
It is estimated that roughly 20-percent of all Swiss men served as mercenaries in the French Army by c. 1510. While these numbers are certainly impressive, they belie a marked and rapid deterioration in the relations between the Confederation and France in the first decade of the sixteenth century. Simply put, the French encountered extreme difficulties in controlling and disciplining their Swiss mercenaries. Swiss captains made decisions only through lengthy discussions and the establishment of a common consensus among fighting men. This annoyed aristocratic French generals who held a very different understanding of how troops should be led and organized. Much has been written about the lack of loyalty and cynicism on the part of Swiss mercenaries, but the reality was far more nuanced. In truth, Swiss mercenaries rarely changed sides or negated their obligation to fight in order to increase their wages. Arguments over contracts and stratagem were far more common. However, the real problem was that Louis XII and his financiers could not or would not pay the Swiss as promised. Louis XII frequently hired more soldiers than he could afford to pay, which, in turn, placed a considerable financial strain on France's finances. As the French grew tired of paying the high wages of Swiss mercenaries, they began to bribe Swiss politicians to ensure a steady supply of mercenaries into French service. Many Swiss patricians and ecclesiastical elites in Zurich, Basel, and Lucerne thus came to resent French recruiters and the bribes that inundated their cantons. In 1507, the Confederation formally withdrew all troops from French service to protest delayed payments as anti-French sentiment soared, and the Federal Diet declined to renew the alliance in 1509. Adding insult to injury, Louis XII began to hire the Landsknechts, en masse, from 1511 onwards.
Messengers from Bern and Zurich deliver sealed messages to the representatives of the three original cantons, advising against military contracts. In the background, ragged and invalid mercenaries point out the consequences of mercenary service.
Messengers from Bern and Zurich deliver sealed messages to the representatives of the three original cantons, advising against military contracts. In the background, ragged and invalid mercenaries point out the consequences of mercenary service. Luzerner Schilling, S 23 fol., p. 565
The Swiss and the French were at loggerheads over territorial ambitions in northern Italy as well. For over a century, the Swiss had fought bloody, periodic conflicts with the Duchy of Milan for control over strategic alpine passes. The Swiss managed to gain a toehold over the Alps by 1440, but they desired an even greater prize: The fertile lands around Lakes Lugano, Como, and Maggiore, as well as the fortified city of Bellinzona. The Swiss took Bellinzona in 1500, while the French consolidated their hold over Lombardy after the ouster of the Sforza dynasty. The Treaty of Arona signed between France and the Confederation in 1503 left the Swiss in control of the Leventina, the Valley of Blenio, and Bellinzona, albeit, much to the chagrin of Louis XII. The French, for their part, wanted to project their own political and military might through the Alpine passes to dissuade Austrian interference in Italy. This unnerved the Forest Cantons, in particular, who feared that the consolidation of French power in Milan would threaten not only the newly won Swiss territories in Ticino, but all of central Switzerland. Distrust grew on both sides, especially as the French gained control over other parts of northern Italy.

It is true that they are veritable soldiers and form the backbone of an army, but you must never be short of money if you want them, and they will never take promises in lieu of cash.

Blaise de Lasseran-Massencôme (c. 1502-1577), Seigneur de Montluc and Marshal of France
Swiss mercenaries crossing the Alps.
Swiss mercenaries crossing the Alps. Luzerner Schilling, S 23 fol., p. 661

A Swiss-Papal Alliance

With the onset of deteriorating Franco-Swiss relations, the Swiss made shrewd diplomatic overtures to the Vatican in addition to Austria and Spain. Rome was most receptive to Swiss outreach and grievances; in 1506, the warrior Pope Julius II hired the first 150 Swiss Guards in a gesture of support and good will. Julius II resented French power and influence in Italy; he was additionally eager to see the Papacy expanded in size to include Parma and Piacenza, which then belonged to French-ruled Milan. Relations between the Confederation and the Papacy became even closer through the concerted and calculated efforts of Cardinal Matthäus Schiner, Bishop of Sion, who helped negotiate an official alliance on March 14, 1510. This Swiss-Papal alliance included a special clause for the Vatican to hire 6,000 Swiss mercenaries, which would safeguard Papal interests in Emilia-Romagna and assist in the Papacy in the expulsion of the French from Italy. In October 1511, Julius II proclaimed a “Holy League” against France. The Swiss eagerly joined a Spanish-Austrian-English-Papal-Venetian alliance, which immediately widened the scope of the Italian Wars into that of a major European conflict. After two inconclusive expeditions between 1510-1511, Swiss soldiers were ready to strike the French hard. 24,000 men assembled in Chur in May 1512 for what later became known as the "Pavia Expedition." Led by the seasoned veteran Ulrich von Hohensax (c. 1462-1538) – unusually designated as the "Commander-in-Chief'' – Swiss troops poured into Italy, where town after town surrendered to them. The French, exhausted after their victory over the Spanish at the Battle of Ravenna the month before, were short of men and taken by complete surprise. They were unable to secure solid defensive positions and consolidate their forces to challenge the Swiss. The Swiss subdued Lombardy and pushed the French out of Italy in only six weeks time.
A reconstructed gala uniform of the mercenary leader Ulrich, Freiherr von Hohensax, with a typical codpiece and a hat made of ostrich feathers
A reconstructed gala uniform of the mercenary leader Ulrich, Freiherr von Hohensax, with a typical codpiece and a hat made of ostrich feathers. The model was the stained glass coat of arms on the right, or below respectively. Swiss National Museum
A stained glass coat of arms of the mercenary leader Ulrich, Freiherr von Hohensax, from the Lachen Town Hall, 1507.
A stained glass coat of arms of the mercenary leader Ulrich, Freiherr von Hohensax, from the Lachen Town Hall, 1507. Swiss National Museum
In gratitude for their support in the Pavia campaign, Pope Julius awarded the Confederates valuable banners made of silk, so-called "Julius banners". Commemorative page in the Stumpf Chronicle of 1534.
In gratitude for their support in the Pavia campaign, Pope Julius awarded the Confederates valuable banners made of silk, so-called "Julius banners". Commemorative page in the Stumpf Chronicle of 1534. Zentralbibliothek Zürich
Julius banner of Zurich, 1512.
Julius banner of Zurich, 1512. Swiss National Museum
The swift collapse of French power took Europe by surprise. The Holy League had emerged victorious, but they had not planned on what should happen to the lands previously occupied by the French. Reaching a settlement for Milan was a complicated endeavor. Swiss and Milanese patricians entertained the idea of bringing Milan into the Confederation as its thirteenth canton, however, this proved impractical because Milan held twenty times more people than Bern and Zürich. It was finally decided that Maximilian Sforza, the eldest son of the former duke Ludovico Sforza, would reign as a puppet. The Confederation would support him in exchange for 40,000 ducats annually, the possession of Domodossola, Lugano, and Locarno, and exemption from tolls. Stung by his losses, Louis XII vowed to recapture Milan. Louis XII tried to avoid another costly war, sending his most-trusted generals to Lucerne to deal with the Swiss directly. Negotiations ended in failure – the mutual distrust on both sides was insurmountable.

The smell of gunpowder is sweeter to me than all the perfumes of Arabia.

Pope Julius II
The young Duke Maximilian Sforza is invested with his paternal inheritance by the Swiss in front of the city walls of Milan. Engraving from 1743.
The young Duke Maximilian Sforza is invested with his paternal inheritance by the Swiss in front of the city walls of Milan. Engraving from 1743. Swiss National Museum

The Battle of Novara

In May 1513, 13,500 French troops, including 6,000 Landsknechts, crossed over the Alps to muster in what is present-day Piedmont. Maximilian Sforza’s unpopularity enabled the French army to regain Lombardy and Milan with little resistance. Meanwhile, Venice left the Holy League and now promised to support the French army. This prompted the Swiss to send several thousand reinforcements in late-spring to meet the French forces outside Novara in order to ensure the safety of Maximilian Sforza. As news of the Swiss approach reached the French encampment, they raised the siege on June 5, 1513. This permitted a column of roughly 7,500 Swiss to bypass French positions and enter the city. There, they were warmly greeted by 4,000 of their countrymen. More Swiss fighters were on the way, but the battle would commence before they could arrive.
The Battle of Novara in the Stumpf Chronicle of 1534.
The Battle of Novara in the Stumpf Chronicle of 1534. Zentralbibliothek Zurich
As the French forces were numerically superior, the Swiss employed the element of surprise to catch them off guard. Their plan was to counter the French forces just before dawn in a daring, well-coordinated attack on June 6, 1513. The odds looked bleak: The Swiss had virtually no artillery and very little in the way of cavalry. Thousands of exhausted men had only just arrived before the battle commenced. The battlefield, itself, should have favored the French, but they had no time to assume secure positions between and around the ditches and bushes outside Novara. One Swiss contingent circled behind the rear of the French army, while another, hidden in the cover of crops, captured the French guns and artillery. The third contingent approached enemy forces undetected as they crawled along the ground carrying pikes. The three-hour long battle was bloody. The Swiss lost hundreds of men after the French artillery fired the first salvo, but they regrouped and carried on the fight. Soon thereafter, the Swiss turned the guns on the French, who were quickly routed. They then fell upon the Landsknechts with complete ferocity. The French men-at-arms did little if anything to protect their German comrades. Only five out of roughly 400 high-ranking Landsknecht would survive the Battle of Novara. The French cavalry was luckier; they fled the battle virtually unscathed, leaving behind rich booty for the triumphant Swiss. Historians estimate that 5,000 died on the French side, whereas the Swiss lost around 1,000-1,200 men by the time the fighting ended.
The Swiss Confederation and its borders in the early 16th century. South-facing map by Johannes Stumpf, c. 1550.
The Swiss Confederation and its borders in the early 16th century. South-facing map by Johannes Stumpf, c. 1550. Universitätsbibliothek Basel
In the aftermath of the battle, Maximilian Sforza confirmed possession of Locarno, Lugano, Mendrisio, Cuvio, Travaglia, Chiavenna, Bormio, Tre Pievi, and Valtellina to the Confederation and the Three Leagues of Graubünden. The defeat at Novara was a supreme humiliation for the French. Louis XII would be unable to field another army to Italy for the remainder of the campaign season as he was facing a joint invasion of northern France by Henry VIII of England and Maximilian I of Austria. The Swiss, fresh from their astonishing victory in Lombardy, would soon join their English and Austrian allies by attacking France and putting the city of Dijon to a siege in September 1513. The situation for France was dire – Venice could lend no further assistance as it needed to defend itself against Spain. Scotland was left as France’s only remaining ally. Louis XII’s dream of creating a “Franco-Italia” had failed and placed France at tremendous risk of being completely overrun by foreign armies.

The French have come to believe that without [the Swiss] they cannot win a battle. Because of this, the French are no match for the Swiss, and without Swiss help, no match for anyone else.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) in "The Prince"

Novara’s Legacy & A Fascinating Woodcut

Although the Battle of Novara is often obscured by the subsequent and devastating loss at the Battle of Marignano (1515), it remains significant and worthy of further consideration in its own right. This last, great Swiss victory marks a turning point in the long Italian Wars: Swiss expertise with the pike would prove invincible one final time. The tactic of surprise and the fact that the French never secured a strong defensive position explain the success of the Swiss only in part. The Swiss infantry routed the French and vanquished the Landsknechts, despite insurmountable odds, because of their training, bravery, group discipline, and extreme physical hardiness. It is remarkable that the majority of the Swiss who fought at Novara had only just arrived before the battle commenced. The pace to reach Novara had been grueling with soldiers from Basel walking upwards of over 40 km per day. Some historians posit that societal conceptions of honor played a role in the Swiss success at Novara too. Societal expectations and social pressures required soldiers to keep a sense of martial honor and valor. If they did not, they would face social ridicule at home and the loss of their social status back home. Simply put, death was far more preferable to dishonor in the eyes of many soldiers. One way in which Swiss mercenaries could demonstrate honor was to prove and demonstrate their courage on the battlefields of Early Modern Europe. Many did and perished.

The unity and glory of their armies have made this savage, uncultured people famous.

Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) in "History of Italy"
"The Game of Milan", woodcut by Hans Rüegger, 1514.
"The Game of Milan", woodcut by Hans Rüegger, 1514. Zentrabibliothek Zürich
There exists a revealing woodcut by the printer Hans Rüegger of Zürich created in the aftermath of the Battle of Novara. Depicting the “Game of Milan” from around 1514, it shows fifteen of Europe’s most-powerful figures playing a hand of Flüsslis in order to determine the future of the duchy. Flüsslis was a popular card game in Switzerland at the time, and its rules resemble that of poker. In this woodcut, one sees a visibily displeased but elegantly dressed Louis XII of France (A) showing his hand to the other players at the table. The hapless, juvenile Maximilian Sforza (L) drops his cards before he can even reach the playing table, while an irate Maximilian I (E) wears an oversized crown and has a huge stack of cards. Doge Leonardo Loredan of Venice (C), who sits to the right of Maximilian I, looks forlornly at his own deck. The bespectacled new Pope Leo X (D), dressed in complete papal regalia, watches the scene and appears ready to make a pronouncement of some sort. Antoine I, the Duke of Lorraine (M), clasps a wine jug and cup in apparent amusement at the spectacle unfolding before him. However, it is the figure of a Swiss mercenary soldier (B) who stands out most prominently. Handsome, young, and bearded, he is ostentatiously dressed with a feathered cap and sits confidently. He has an excellent hand and appears to be laughing at Louis XII. Curiously, from this woodcut, it cannot be determined who would ultimately win Milan.

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