The Battle of Fornovo 1495

Historical Background

The story of the Battle of Fornovo goes back to Joan of Arc and the 100 Years War between England and France. The importance of Joan's remarkable achievement in reviving French fortunes by awakening nationalistic feelings in the people of France is closely followed by how the French kings of the time managed to channel this nationalism into the establishment of a French nation. Joan first appeared in 1429, spurred a revival of French fortunes in northern France, and was executed in 1431. In the next thirteen years the French peasants and nobles together waged a guerilla war on the English, the English alliance with Burgundy was broken, and Paris returned to France in 1436. In 1444 the five year Truce of Tours was declared. The king of France, Charles VII, faced a terrible problem as France was being ravaged by the companies of disbanded mercenaries left with little to do after the Truce. He formed the Compagnies d`ordonnance, 20 formations of about 600 men each led by mounted knights, called Gendarmes, to police the country. These were a permanent military establishment paid directly by the king of France rather than a feudal levy. It was Western Europe's first standing army since the fall of Rome.

Charles also established a permanent artillery arm under the Bureau brothers Jean and Gaspard. They made the French artillery far superior to any in the world. The French then suckered the English into restarting the war in 1449, and mainly on the strength of their artillery the French proceeded to dismantle the English position in France. By 1453 the English were left with only Calais, and in 1455 the War of the Roses broke out effectively ending hope of an English recovery in France.

In 1461 Charles VII died and was followed by Louis XI. The reforms in France had greatly strengthened the French monarchy and were much resented by the powerful dukes, most notably Charles the Bold of Burgundy. Unfortunately for Charles Louis XI was perhaps the most capable French king, and he played his cards very deftly alternately supporting and opposing Charles as he tried to extend Burgundy into Switzerland. Charles was killed by the Swiss at Nancy in 1477 and due to Louis' adroit maneuvers both Burgundy and the Swiss moved closer to France. The French army thus adopts the form that would bring an end to the Middle Ages and signal the start of the Renaissance. The core would be the mounted Gendarmes of the Ordannance, supported by the artillery of the Royal French Bureau of Artillery, the Swiss mercenary pikemen, and the handgunners and crossbowmen of Burgundy. Louis XI would send such an army into the Hapsburg possessions in the Netherlands and be checked in 1479 at Guinegate. This duel between France and the Hapsburgs would be a feature of European history for the next 450 years.

Louis XI would be succeeded in 1483 by Charles VIII. Charles VIII was a throwback. He lived lost in a world of chivalry. He turned back a last gasp by the powerful dukes, Orleans and Brittany, supported by England and the Hapsburgs in 1488. He clearly had a grand design, probably inspired by the Spanish Reconquista and the rise of the Ottoman Turks. He dreamed of his own crusade versus the infidel and recapturing Jerusalem for Christendom. He based his plan on a nebulous claim that his family had for the throne of Naples in Southern Italy. In some ways it is almost inevitable that France would move on Italy. England was across the water, and France had a powerful army but a weak navy. Spain was very difficult due to the almost unbroken mountain barrier. The Netherlands led to conflict with the Hapsburgs, and to the east were Burgundy and Switzerland both firmly in the French orbit. The only remaining outlet was Italy. This is probably why Charles' designs on Italy were fully supported by the rest of the French establishment.

Italy had entered the Renaissance before the rest of Europe. Italians were already caught up in commercial and local political pursuits by the mid 1300's. They had become rich enough that they could see the folly of turning away from the important business of making money for a military campaign. The solution was simply to hire some mercenaries to do the fighting. The fighting was between the many independent towns of Italy and thus to insure a well executed campaign a contract, condotta in Italian, was drawn up between the town leaders and the leaders of mercenary bands, who came to be called Condottieri. From about 1350 to 1454 the Condottieri fought across the breadth of Italy sorting out the never ending series of disputes and power grabs by the Italian towns. By 1450 there were five major powers in Italy. In the north was Venice and Milan. Venice was by far the most powerful, in other words the richest, but much of her power was devoted to maintaining her possessions in the eastern Mediterranean versus the increasingly powerful Ottoman Empire. Florence and the Papal States occupied the center of Italy, and the south was Naples. In 1454 a balance had been struck by the Peace of Lodi, and the level of conflict fell off. After the Peace the remaining warfare in Italy was mostly large skirmishes, disputes over borders mostly, and the remaining Condottieri carried on a desultory form of fighting marked by small armies of nearly impregnable mounted knights and a few light infantry agreeing to meet at the few level places in Italy, engaging in a few charges and counter charges, and then calling it a day when the sun went down. Most of the point seemed to be to capture and ransom some of the opposing knights, and a few border hamlets would exchange hands. Since the Italians were rich they had all the latest innovations, artillery and hand guns, but rarely turned the artillery on the tall stone walls of the towns or used the hand guns to kill the knights. Their out dated methods of war fighting, lack of unity, and wealth made Italy a tempting target.

The Campaign

Charles VIII was on good terms with the two powers in northern Italy, Milan and Venice. Thus he assumed he would have their support when he moved to enforce his claim to Naples especially as the rival claimant was the Spanish king. At the end of August 1494 Charles VIII led a powerful French army with a large contingent of Swiss mercenaries into Italy. He was granted free passage through Milan, but was vigorously opposed by Florence, the Pope, and Naples. To insure his supply lines Charles took a detour to Genoa, the largest port in northwestern Italy, and left an occupying garrison. Genoa had been a Milanese possession and this combined with the death of old Duke of Milan and his replacement by a Duke more lively and much less friendly to France in October were the first signs that all was not well for Charles' plan.

As the French army moved south the Napalese and their Spanish allies tried to threaten Genoa by taking the nearby town Rapallo in a sea born invasion. The French with Milanese help responded with a joint sea-land assault, retook Rapallo, and then proceeded to massacre the inhabitants. For the Swiss and French who had memories of the very bloody sieges of the 100 Years War and Charles the Bolds adventures there was little out of the ordinary here. The Italians were shocked, and fell into confusion. The French army rolled over a Papal-Neapolitan army, the remnants fled to a nearby town, which the French smashed with their artillery, and there followed the massacre. The Spanish and Neapolitans withdrew from central Italy to defend the borders of Naples. The Pope called his army to defend Rome. The Florentines, left alone to contend with the French in the north, withdrew to their castles, a series of sieges and massacres followed, and Charles VIII entered Florence in November. Showing that he also knew how to play the Italian money game, Charles bought off the Pope's Condottieri, probably with money from the Florentine treasury, and by December he entered Rome without a fight. It was here that he proclaimed his peaceful intentions to the rest of Italy, it is true that he had left the Florentine government intact, and stated that his plan was to reclaim his rightful position in Naples to use it as a base for his crusade against the Turk.

In January 1495 the French invaded Naples, there were a couple of sieges and massacres, a pitched battle in February easily won by the French, and on 22 February Charles VIII entered Naples. The speed and violence of the campaign left the Italians stunned. Realization struck them, especially the Venetians and the new Duke of Milan, that unless Charles was stopped Italy would soon be another province of France. On 31 March in Venice the Holy League was proclaimed; the signatories were the Republic of Venice, the Duke of Milan, the Pope, the Spanish King, the English King, and most ominously for the future Maximilian Hapsburg who was Holy Roman Emperor, and had the resources to carry on a protracted struggle with France over Italy. The League engaged a veteran Condotorrieri, Francesco Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua to gather an army and expel the French from Italy. By 1 May this army was threatening the garrisons that Charles had left in a trail down Italy to guard his communications with France. On 20 May Charles left Naples leaving behind a garrison to hold the country and proclaiming that he only desired a safe return to France.

As a footnote Charles' army had picked up a terrible malady while in Naples. Naples is southern Italy's great port and sailors who had sailed with Columbus a few years earlier had left the comforting women of Naples with syphilis, the New Worlds horrible gift to the Old. As the French Army returned north this malady would be spread across Italy, and eventually all of Europe.

As a further footnote the evidence that syphilis originated in the new world has recently been challenged. Take a look at an episode of Secrets of the Dead for another view.

Charles and his army got to Pisa on 20 June. Pisa had long been Florence's rival and had fallen to Florence some fifty years earlier. The Pisans begged Charles to protect them from Florentine oppression. Charles gave in, the message was reportedly delivered by the most beautiful women in Pisa, and spent some time expelling the Florentines and left a garrison behind to help the Pisans defend themselves from the Florentines. Up to this point the League had apparently been ready to let Charles VIII leave peacefully, but this act, and news that a French relief force was heading south, invading Milan, and trying to stir up a rebellion against the new Duke, galvanized the League into action.

A large Italian army assembled in Venetian territory in late June and headed west to block Charles retreat to France. A Venetian fleet descended on and took Genoa soon after. Charles had apparently planned to head to Genoa and evacuate by sea. He now had to move inland over the mountains. This was going to be difficult as he still had his large siege train and a baggage train that was loaded with booty from Florence, Rome, and Naples. He turned inland, found his passage blocked by a League garrison at the village of Pontremoli, conducted a quick siege followed by the usual massacre, and continued inland. On 5 July the French reached the village of Fornovo and found their passage blocked by the main League army camped just north of the village.

Prelude to Battle

The French occupied Fornovo and started negotiations with the League. Things went poorly. Night fell and it rained. On the morning of July 6th the French struck camp, started the village on fire, crossed the River Taro, and headed north along a mountain track. The League army, which was camped astride the main road on the other side of the river, sent their light cavalry, leavened with fearsome Stradiots from Venice's mountainous Dalmatian territories, in pursuit. The light cavalry swung into the rough territory to the east of the French army, still managed to out distance the lumbering French who were toting their heavy guns and wagons full of booty, and appeared in front of the French Army. At just about this time the main League army started to make for the numerous fords in the swollen Taro to launch an attack on the right flank of the marching French who were strung out along the road. The Battle of Fornovo started just after noon on 6 July 1495.

The Opposing Forces in DBR terms

The French Army
CommandVanCenterRearPoints
CommanderMarshall De Gie Ln(S)King Charles VIII (CinC) Ln(S)Count de Foix Ln(S)105
Ln(S) 2 4 3 135
LH(F) 8 - - 32
Bd(F) 3 - - 15
Bw(O) 3 - - 15
Pk(S) 20 - - 100
Pk(I) - - 3 9
Sk(O) - 18 19 111
Hd(O) - 3 - 3
Art(S) - 3 - 75
Art(I) 1 - - 5
Elements38 29 26 605
Break Point1310 9 -
Mobile Baggage-6 - -
The Italian Army
CommandLight HorseMainSecondPoints
CommanderPietro Duodo Ln(O)Francesco Gonzaga (CinC) Ln(O)Fortebraccio di Montone Ln(O)96
Ln(O) - 9 10 228
LH(O) 6 - - 30
LH(F) 9 - - 36
Bd(F) - - 4 20
Bw(O) - 12 11 115
Pk(O) - 3 - 12
Sh(I) - 2 2 16
Art(S) - 1 1 50
Elements16 28 29 603
Break Point610 10 -
Baggage-6 - -

The Map

DBR Special Rules

All French infantry must set up in a single column on the road except as noted below. Mounted, limbered artillery, and baggage with adjacent hordes, may set up off the road.

The Italian Light Horse command sets up in front of the French army on the same side of the river. The other two Italian commands set up on the opposite of the river.

French deploy their largest command first, followed by Italian until all commands are deployed. Italians move first.

The river is swollen. It starts as Tricky (3 or more to cross except at fords) and gets worse, to Dangerous (6 (5 or 6 at ford) for lead element, 3 (2 at ford) or more for followers), as the day goes on. Elements unable to cross are counted as lost.

The Italian light horse can ignore movement and combat penalties due to the rough going caused by the hills. On any Italian turn that a light horse element has a one element wide unimpeded by any French element direct path to the French baggage, the light horse element will make single element move at its highest possible speed towards the baggage and attempt to engage it in combat. No pips are spent, but the element cannot move again that turn.

Victory is as usual. Italian's count as elements lost 2x (4x for baggage) any French elements that exit the north edge of the map. These elements do not count as losses for the French.

The Historical Battle

Historical Aftermath


David Cinabro
Last modified: Wed Jan 23 13:32:59 EST 2002