A Confident Young King Against a History of Swiss Excellence
The French weren’t ready to accept this Swiss control, especially as they sought influence in Italy themselves. The problem was that the French seemed far from being in a position to attack. A new king, Francis I, was just past his 21st birthday and still in the first year of his reign. Francis had dozens of quality artillery pieces, but they were on the other side of the Alps.
In a daring march comparable to Hannibal’s march across the Alps with elephants in 218 BCE, Francis took a dangerous Alpine road and arrived in Northern Italy with a force of nearly 40,000. Far more than the 10,000 or so Swiss army. No matter how veteran they were, the odds were too against the Swiss and they sought peace, as they had already achieved great victories and amassed hordes of wealth through raiding and conquests.
Peace talks were quite short-lived, however, as another 10-15,000 Swiss were able to quickly march to reinforce the Swiss at Marignano. Despite still being outnumbered nearly two-to-one, the Swiss were a battle-hardened, elite force facing a young king with a raw army. A desire for more glory and riches swept over the Swiss and they marched out for the attack.
The Swiss planned to use their almost entirely infantry army to charge straight at the French artillery in the center. Despite being infantry, their charge occurred so fast that the French artillery was captured after only firing a few shots. Though it seemed like the Swiss would take the field, their rivals, the Landsknechts fought the Swiss bitterly through the evening. The youthful King Francis personally led charges against the flanks until nightfall saw both sides retreat.
Both sides suffered immensely, losing many officers and men in total. The Swiss were confident in that their artillery rushing tactics almost won the day and they were stifled by the night. Francis, on the other hand, realized how close he came to losing his army. The artillerymen recovered and prepared to face similar tactics the next morning and that they did.
When the Swiss charged on the second day of battle they were forced to absorb many more shots of artillery before they closed in a mirror of prior day’s engagement. The difference for this day was time, and rather than needing extra time for the Swiss to win, it was the French who used the time to rotate in fresh troops and use a series of relentless flank charges to wear down the Swiss.
Eventually the Swiss were forced to withdraw. Though they maintained an impressive level of order, they were decimated, losing at least half of their force in the battle. The immediate results were the Swiss abandoning their Italian conquests. Eventually, the Swiss and French would negotiate what was known as the “Eternal Peace”.