Forget the Artists: The Top 8 Military Generals of the Renaissance
Forget the Artists: The Top 8 Military Generals of the Renaissance

Forget the Artists: The Top 8 Military Generals of the Renaissance

William McLaughlin - August 25, 2017

Most people learned about the Renaissance in school in the standard format that showed the greats in the arts like Leonardo, Michelangelo, or Raphael. Some might have learned the politics of the period from the likes of the Medici family, Machiavelli, or the influential Popes. Copernicus and Newton resonate with everyone, but what about The Grand Conde? Maybe Turenne or Zizka?

The Renaissance was a time of rapid advancement in thought and technology, and the military realm was no different. In a period of constant modernization, these great generals stood out above the rest. Here is a humble ranking of ten of the best commanders of the period. In a time with plenty of fractured states and wars big and small, some great names are bound to get forgotten, unjustly ordered, or just barely miss the list. Feel free to give your thoughts in the comments.

Louis: The Grand Condé

Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Condé (Conde) follows a general theme of great young minds getting a chance to command at a young age. For Conde, he was given command in his early 20’s and led the French armies through decades of conflict and civil war. Conde had a natural tactical talent and would win his masterpiece victory at only 21 years of age.

The French phrase Coup d’œil (stroke of the eye) was used by historians to describe the ability of some generals to scan a field of battle and the armies involved and just know the right formations and orders to give. Conde certainly had this ability and he would need it in his first command against the perceived invincible Spanish Tercios at the battle of Rocroi.

Forget the Artists: The Top 8 Military Generals of the Renaissance
The Grand Conde at the Battle of Rocroi. Wikipedia

The tercio was a dense pike square that had units of hand gunners, archers, and swordsmen in the center. The multifunctional square simply couldn’t be broken on the battlefield and Conde faced a larger and veteran tercio army led by experienced commanders.

Conde fought in a standard infantry line with cavalry wings. As was the norm, the French infantry struggled against the tercios and the left cavalry had little success. Conde’s cavalry on the right, however, was successful. Instead of retreating and reorganizing his failing infantry, he committed his reserve cavalry to a piercing charge of the Spanish cavalry, encircled them and won the right.

Forget the Artists: The Top 8 Military Generals of the Renaissance
A beleaguered Spanish tercio at the Battle of Rocroi. Wikipedia

He then circled to the rear of the tercio line. The tercios repelled charge after charge but were forced to group much closer together. When they were close enough, Conde had his artillery and the captured Spanish artillery fire on the compact squares and decimated the infantry. Conde had broken the tercios of a veteran army, something other generals had been struggling with for decades.

In later battles, Conde proved that he simply knew what to do at the outset of a battle and did it. At the Battle of Lens, he lured the Spanish into attacking away from their ideal position on a hill and then attacked the stretched-out force, obliterated their cavalry and isolated the infantry just as he did at Rocroi.

Conde had a friend in the great Turenne (further down the list), but civil war eventually had them fight each other. Turenne repeatedly bested Conde in their battles, but outside of Turenne, Conde was a feared commander with an excellent grasp of situational tactics.

Forget the Artists: The Top 8 Military Generals of the Renaissance
Cromwell directing troops at the Battle of Naseby. Wikipedia

Oliver Cromwell

Of all the names on this list, Cromwell should be one of the most recognizable along with his short-lived but famous New Model Army. Cromwell certainly gets credit for going against the norms and commanding and choosing his men based on merit rather than social status.

Military command by social standing had been popular in most areas for hundreds or thousands of years. Cromwell’s stance on promoting by merit is best shown in his response to a fellow officer’s criticism of this “I would rather have a plain russet-coated captain who knows what he fights for and loves what he knows than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else”

Cromwell had a talent for assembling units and armies, his first cavalry command saw him create the Ironsides cavalry. The cavalry under Cromwell was decisive at the Battle Marston Moor charging through and holding a sustained melee before routing a key section of the Royalist forces.

As Cromwell rose to command and took over as the Lord Protector of England, he had a string of impressive victories and had created the superbly disciplined New Model Army, an official professional army. One of his masterpiece victories was against the Scottish army after they declared for the King in the chaotic civil war.

At the Battle of Dunbar, Cromwell faced an army twice his size in the hills of Scotland. As the armies skirmished and formed up, Cromwell had a plan come together. That night he had his army hide in formation under the cover of the hills. When the Scots came to give battle, the English charged forward with a deep left commanded by Cromwell himself. Despite their numbers, the Scots couldn’t handle this unbalanced line and folded from the pressure. As the victory was so complete, Cromwell could take the Scottish capital of Edinburgh.

Forget the Artists: The Top 8 Military Generals of the Renaissance
Cromwell’s formation against the larger Scottish army. Wikipedia

Though it’s hard to judge a victory where the odds were so far in his favor, Cromwell did have an excellent command at the Battle of Worcester. In the closing battle of the civil wars, Cromwell’s 31,000 men in the New Model Army faced 16,000 Royalists. Cromwell sent men to secure bridges and other avenues of escape the day before launching a crushing assault. Almost every Royalist was killed or captured as the rebellion came to a sudden end, thanks to the excellent strategy and tactics of Cromwell.

Forget the Artists: The Top 8 Military Generals of the Renaissance
Mehmed II entering Constantinople as a triumphant victor barly into his 20’s. Wikipedia

Mehmed II

Rulers likely shouldn’t be on this list as they rarely went on campaign and when they did they had hosts of advisors and commanders that fought the battle for them. Mehmed was different. As a young Sultan, Mehmed was determined to expand the Ottoman Empire and would spearhead the expansion himself.

We certainly should consider the capture of Constantinople as one of Mehmed’s greatest accomplishments. Even considering that the Byzantines were significantly depleted and the Ottomans had the newest and largest cannons and a massive army, Constantinople was a truly tough city to crack. Mehmed had ships brought overland to secure the harbor of the city and had the thought to launch a concerted final attack, accepting that his army would suffer losses against the well-defended city.

Forget the Artists: The Top 8 Military Generals of the Renaissance
Transporting the Ottoman fleet into the Golden Horn. Wikipedia

While the capture of new capital was quite a feat, Mehmed was only 21, and just getting started. Before he was 30, Mehmed secured the rest of Greece and the remnants of the Byzantine territory along the Black Sea. He had clashes with Vlad the Impaler and survived a daring night raid by Vlad that aimed at assassinating the Sultan.

Mehmed isn’t higher on this list because he almost always had a significant advantage in men and guns, but he still proved to be a talented leader. Many of Mehmed’s campaigns began when another Ottoman army was defeated and Mehmed came in a punitive campaign. It was in this way that he secured much of modern eastern Turkey and pushed into Europe.

Forget the Artists: The Top 8 Military Generals of the Renaissance
Mehmed gave the Ottoman Empire its core territories. from here it would dominate the Mediterranean for centuries. Wikipedia

Mehmed knew how to use his many varieties of troops well, he had no problems using his weaker troops as cannon fodder and sent his elite Janissaries in to finish an assault. Though he failed to take some cities, many of campaigns involved successful sieges and assaults. It is hard to list all the battles, but when we look at the rapid expansion of the Ottoman Empire and the securing of Anatolia, it’s important to recognize that Mehmed II personally led several of those campaigns.

Forget the Artists: The Top 8 Military Generals of the Renaissance
Turenne at the Battle of the Dunes. Wikipedia

Turenne

Henri de la Tour d’Auvergne, Vicomte de Turenne, or just Turenne, was a Napoleonic level commander before Napoleon. Turenne was born a French noble, but was sickly and had a bad speech impediment. This made Turenne an academic in his youth and he studied the campaigns of great generals like Alexander the Great. When he was of age he decided that he would command and worked to get into decent enough shape to go on campaigns.

By the time he was 30, Turenne served under several exceptional commanders and had won several spectacular victories as a subordinate. His noble birth, experience and his reputation for courage and decisiveness led to him becoming the Marshal of France.

Turenne was cautious with his men, and usually only sought battle after gaining advantage in terrain or men. His caution sometimes led to tactically inconclusive battles, but Turenne at times struggled with a lack of funds and manpower, and so did what he could to preserve them.

When Turenne was ready for a battle, his tactics were swift and efficient. Turenne had a friend and occasional enemy in another great commander on this list, the Grande Conde, during the chaotic civil wars. The Grande Conde got a minor victory over Turenne, but Turenne followed up with what would have been a total victory had Conde’s forces not been saved by sneaking into the gates of Paris

Forget the Artists: The Top 8 Military Generals of the Renaissance
Turenne getting the better of his friend at the Battle of the Faubourg St Antoine, forcing Conde to retreat inside Paris. Wikipedia

Turenne’s greatest victory was at the Battle of the Dunes fought on the beaches near Dunkirk again against Conde. Conde commanded his left and had his right anchored by the sea. As the battle progressed, Turenne focused artillery fire on the enemy right until the tide got just low enough for French cavalry to swing around and strike the flanks of Conde’s forces. Though Conde did little wrong in his region of battle, Turenne’s successful attack forced a route.

Turenne was no politician, and this hampered his command in times where he was given questionable assignments or a lack of funds, but he was a true soldier’s commander. He was loved by his men and respected and admired by his enemies.

Forget the Artists: The Top 8 Military Generals of the Renaissance
Turenne’s tomb. Wikipedia

During an inspection of his artillery prior to the battle of Salzbach, Turenne was struck by an enemy cannonball and killed on the spot. The French immediately retreated as the commanders had no plans for what to do without Turenne. Europe lamented over his death and he was even buried with French Kings. Turenne brought the French army to a professional level that it would maintain until the coming of Napoleon. Napoleon constantly praised Turenne, going so far as to have the men study his campaigns, and study them again. Had he been given the full resources of France, Turenne could truly have been a Napoleon before Napoleon.

Forget the Artists: The Top 8 Military Generals of the Renaissance
Stanisław Koniecpolski. Wikipedia

Stanisław Koniecpolski

It’s a tough choice to put Koniecpolski below the great Gustav, as Gustav was defeated by Koniecpolski, but we wouldn’t say Vercingetorix is on the same level as Caesar even though he got the better of the Roman at Gergovia. In this case, it’s a much closer comparison between the two Renaissance generals as Koniecpolski repeatedly fought Gustav to a standstill or even gaining small victories.

Koniecpolski was quick to get on the battlefield, at only 16 years old he saw action at one of the greatest Polish victories against the Russians at the Battle of Klushino and suffered through losing his brother at a later siege during the same campaign. Koniecpolski continued to fight under his commander and mentor Zólkiewski until the Battle of Cecora, where Zólkiewski was killed and Koniecpolski captured.

Forget the Artists: The Top 8 Military Generals of the Renaissance
Poland faced war from nearly every one of their neighbors during Koniecpolski’s lifetime. Wikipedia

When he was released, Koniecpolski took higher commands and would spend his career fighting on many fronts against multiple enemies. Poland has always suffered from being an easy geographical target, with many routes for invasions, as shown during WWII. Koniecpolski had the task of fending off multiple invasions while also expanding the borders of Poland to its greatest size.

The Tartars of Crimea were the subjects of Koniecpolski’s first great victory. The Poles had been helpless against multiple large raids by the marauding Tartars and Koniecpolski was given a modest force to stop them. Meeting in open battle with 5,000 men against three times as many Tartars, Koniecpolski used his light cavalry cycles of charging and retreating, eventually pushing the mobile Tartar force in range of Koniecpolski’s large artillery batteries. Once in range, steady cannon fire broke down the Tartars while reserve heavy cavalry charged home for the victory. It would be the greatest victory against the previously unstoppable Tartar invaders.

When Gustav Adolphus came to power with his new army Koniecpolski had to shift his attention to the northwest. Lacking in men and money, Koniecpolski was tasked with hampering Gustav and defending Poland rather than lashing out into Sweden or taking other aggressive action. With his army, Koniecpolski was able to fight many tactically inconclusive actions against Gustav, refusing to fall into Gustav’s clever battlefield traps.

Forget the Artists: The Top 8 Military Generals of the Renaissance
Koniecpolski and Gustav at the Battle of Dirschau. the two had quite the rivalry, and without Koniecpolski, Gustav might have rolled right through Poland. Pinterest

The two leaders even traded near-lethal injuries at a few battles. Koniecpolski had his horse shot from under him and was wounded. The Swedes thought he had died and pressed the attack the next day but were swiftly beaten back. In a later battle, Gustav was shot in the shoulder and this forced a premature end to what would have been a successful Swedish battle. Poland did have to negotiate a peace that was more favorable to Sweden, but this was due more to the better resources of Gustav than any failure on Koniecpolski’s part.

Overall, Koniecpolski had a successful and long career. His last great victory was against the same enemy as his first, the Tartars. This time he crushed a force of 20,000 Tartars preparing to invade. The victory was so complete that the King wanted to send Koniecpolski on an invasion against the Ottoman Empire, something that Koniecpolski wisely advised the king against.

Forget the Artists: The Top 8 Military Generals of the Renaissance
Gustav Adolf. Wikipedia

Gustav Adolphus

Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden had a career akin to Alexander the Great or Stonewall Jackson; a promising career cut short by an unexpected death. Gustav rose to the Swedish crown at the young age of 16 and rose to such fame that he was known as the Lion of the North. In addition to being a military genius, Gustav also boosted Sweden into the renaissance that it had been missing out on earlier.

Gustav took advantage of Sweden’s natural metal stockpiles and gladly accepted skilled metal workers fleeing religious prosecution to create the most modern gunpowder army Europe had seen. Gustav made use of newer, smaller cannons as mobile anti-infantry and had guns throughout the infantry.

Not only did Gustav use the latest tech, he trained his army to be able to adapt to any situation; the archer was well practiced with his bow, but he was drilled in operating a hand gun if he needed. Pikemen were trained in horsemanship so they could steal the horses of the defeated cavalry and launch a swift counter.

This level of cross-training was unheard of and came into action at the Battle of Breitenfeld. In a massive and equally-matched battle, Gustav’s cavalry swept the flank and captured the large artillery battery. Instead of sabotaging the guns as most cavalry of the era would, the Swedish got off their horses and manned the cannons, firing into the rear of the enemy infantry who soon routed due to the relentless artillery from opposite directions.

Forget the Artists: The Top 8 Military Generals of the Renaissance
The last phase of the Battle of Breitenfield showing the capture and use of the enemy cannons. Wikipedia

The Battle of Breitenfeld was a perfect example of Gustav’s modern army and his tactics during the battle let a pike and gunner unit hold off sustained cavalry charges while the Swedish cavalry worked their way to the cannons. Later in his career, at the Battle of Lutzen, Gustav organized an attack on an entrenched Catholic League through heavy fog.

A hard fought and confusing first phase of the battle left Gustav separated and he was fatally wounded. His army fought on and embraced their training and pushed through fortified trenches and broke the enemy center. Though Gustav’s career was short-lived, it was one of excellent strategic and tactical command decisions. The Protestants were on the brink of losing the war before Gustav stepped in and after his death they turned the tides of war in their favor for several years.

Forget the Artists: The Top 8 Military Generals of the Renaissance
Zizka, blind in one eye for most of his career, he would still command after he was completely blinded in battle. Wikipedia

Zizka

This one might be a bit of a sneaky submission as Jan Zizka fought for Bohemia in a time where the Renaissance existed but had a long way to go before Poland got the message. Regardless, Zizka is a commander too talented to leave off this list, especially considering he is one of the few undefeated generals.

Zizka fought as a bandit or mercenary into his 50’s before being involved in the Hussite Wars. The Hussite Wars were a pre-protestant Reformation conflict in Bohemia that prompted Catholic crusades. Knowing that Crusaders were coming against the Hussite’s collection of militia and farmers, Zizka needed to find a way to defeat larger and more professional armies with untrained troops.

His solution was similar to Gustav’s; combined arms tactics, but with a twist. Bands of men were stationed in fortified wagons often arrayed in a defensive formation. Mixes of pikemen, archers, gunners and more filled the wagons and artillery were stationed in protected areas between the wagons.

Forget the Artists: The Top 8 Military Generals of the Renaissance
A possible example of one of Zizka’s wagon formations. Pinterest

Facing armies more than five times their size, Zizka banked on a confident enemy attack on the wagons and the odd arrangement of the wagons, usually on favorable terrain, thwarted even the strongest attacks. Men aimed to take out the horses from under the nights and after an exhausting charge failed, the Crusaders retreated and were too exhausted to stop a Hussite counter. Masterful tactics that won several victories against thousands of professional troops using farmers and militia.

Forget the Artists: The Top 8 Military Generals of the Renaissance
The Battle of Vitkov Hill. Wikipedia

Zizka’s greatest achievement was perhaps his defense of Prague. On the strategic Vitkov hill that controlled supply lines outside of Prague, Zizka set up a defense with about 100 men. As many as 80,000 Crusaders came to besiege Prague and 8,000 of them tried to dislodge Zizka and his men. After two days, the Crusaders gave up the siege, having lost 300 knights at Zizka’s hill alone. The hill now bears Zizka’s name in honor of one of his most important victories.

Zizka had lost the use of an eye before the Hussite wars, and before the war’s end he would be wounded in his other eye and rendered blind. Zizka commanded several more battles even after he was blind and won them all. So fiercely did Zizka care for his troops, that when he was dying of plague he wished for his skin to be made into battle drums to inspire his troops after he was gone. His army called themselves the sirotci (Orphans) after his death as Zizka was as a father to them all. A great leader, and an unbeaten general despite facing constantly horrible odds, Zizka is absolutely among the best of the era.

Forget the Artists: The Top 8 Military Generals of the Renaissance
Cortez at the lesser-known but pivotal battle of Otumba. Wikipedia

Cortez

Say what you want about the horrible occupation of Mexico that followed Cortez’s conquest, and you can even point out that Cortez had help from hundreds of thousands of native allies, but his ability to maintain a victorious campaign against the Aztecs was undeniably impressive. Yes, the armor, guns, and smallpox certainly helped, though Cortez still faced an entrenched enemy twice his size and had to split his army three times and still took one of the most impressive cities in the Americas.

Going into a relatively unknown area against an unknown enemy was difficult. Even Caesar had some troubles in Britain, and Alexander won against Porus in India, but the hard-fought battle led to some mutiny. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was the most impressive thing many of the Spanish had ever seen, and the sacrifices the most horrifying. The Aztec Obsidian-bladed clubs might shatter against armor but could and did cut horses heads completely off, a frightening sight.

All of this together would usually make an army far more likely to panic and flee. Knowing that capture meant having your heart ripped out should have been enough to make the average soldier break ranks to flee, but Cortez’s men never fled, even when massively outnumbered.

Forget the Artists: The Top 8 Military Generals of the Renaissance
The Sad Night. Wikipedia

The actual capture of Tenochtitlan was masterful, a slow but methodical march up three long causeways while being attacked on three sides by infantry and skirmishers on canoes day and night, but Cortez’s place on this list comes down to his actions during the months of June and July 1520, a year before Tenochtitlan even fell.

The Spanish had been welcomed into the great city, and to hugely condense things, the emperor was captured, killed by his own people and, after a slaughter by the Spanish, the town revolted with the Spanish still inside. This led to “the sad night” as Cortez led a desperate escape with about 1,000 Spaniards and about 15,000 Native allies against as many as 100,000 Aztec warriors and hostile citizens.

Spaniards were executed, drowned or killed on the spot and almost every man who escaped had some wounds, but they did escape. Getting out of Tenochtitlan was no small feat, the Spanish conquest should have ended that night and given future invaders reason to stay away, but Cortez and his men lived to fight another day.

Forget the Artists: The Top 8 Military Generals of the Renaissance
This painting does an excelent job showing the intricacies of the assault of Tenochtitlan across bridges and on the water. Wikipedia

A week after the sad night the Spanish fought again. Still nursing wounds and recovering from the horrors of the escape, the Spanish found themselves facing an army of 100-200,000 men. The Spanish had 500 wounded men left and only a few hundred allies. They were short on food and had been harassed day and night by following Aztec skirmishers.

Despite the odds, the Spanish met the Aztecs in open battle. Cortez knew the Aztecs enough to recognize the army’s command structure and had his cavalry make precision charges straight at the enemy captains. Though few in number, the technological advantages in armor and horses led to the deaths of multiple Aztec captains. After a charge led by Cortez killed the army commander, the Aztecs routed. Thousands of Aztecs were killed to about 100 Spaniards.

These two engagements showed both the tactical skill and the grasp of leadership Cortez had. He kept his men together and even persuaded a group that had come to arrest him to join his fight. Cortez did more than most conquerors with far less to work with, and against an enemy inspired absolute terror into their victims through fear of what happened if they were captured.

 

Sources For Further Reading:

History Channel – 7 Things You May Not Know About the Medicis

Encyclopedia Britannica – Stanisław Koniecpolski

History Collection – The Brutality of the Aztec Empire in Mesoamerica

History Collection – Sacrifice to the Gods: 10 Startling Facts About the Aztec Culture

History Collection – Here is How a New Discovery is Changing Everything We Thought We Knew About the Death of 22 million Aztecs

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