The Battle of Cerisoles was an armed confrontation between the French army of Francis I and that of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in the Italian War of 1542-1546. The battle, described by historian Bert Hall as “wonderfully confused”, took place on April 11, 1544, near the village of Ceresole d”Alba, in the Italian region of Piedmont. French troops under the command of Francis of Bourbon, Count of Enghien, defeated the imperial troops under Alfonso of Avalos, Marquis of Vasto and Pescara. Although the imperial troops suffered heavy casualties, the French were unable to take advantage of their victory to take the city of Milan.
Francisco de Borbón and Alfonso de Ávalos arranged their armies on two parallel elevations; due to the irregular relief of the battlefield, many of the individual actions that took place in the battle were not coordinated with each other. The beginnings of the battle were a series of skirmishes between the arquebusiers of both sides and a futile exchange of artillery fire, after which Ávalos ordered a general advance. In the center, the imperial lansquenets clashed with the French and Swiss infantry, suffering numerous casualties. In the southern part of the battlefield, the Italian infantry in the service of the Emperor was harassed by French cavalry attacks and had to retreat after learning that the imperial troops had been defeated in the center. Meanwhile, in the north, the French infantry line crumbled, and Enghien sent a series of costly and ineffective cavalry charges against the Spanish and German infantry before the latter had no choice but to surrender after the victorious Swiss and French arrived from the center.
The battle of Cerisoles was one of the few agreed battles in the final part of the Italian Wars. It is known mainly among military historians for the “great slaughter” that took place when the columns of arquebusiers and pikemen met in the center and demonstrated that heavy cavalry still had an important role on the battlefield that was largely dominated by the emerging infantry of pikemen and arquebusiers.
The start of the war in northern Italy had come with the capture of Nice in August 1543 by a combined army of French and Ottoman troops. Meanwhile, the Spanish-Imperial Habsburg forces had advanced through Lombardy toward Turin, which had been in French hands since the end of the previous war in 1538. The war between the French forces of Guigues Guiffrey, lord of Boutières, and the Imperial forces of Avalos had reached a stalemate in Piedmont in the winter of 1543-44. The French situation, centered in Turin, had spread to a series of fortified towns: Pinerolo, Carmagnola, Savigliano, Susa, Moncalieri, Villanova d”Asti and Chivasso among others; meanwhile, Avalos controlled a set of fortresses located on the perimeter of French territory: Mondovì, Asti, Casale Monferrato, Vercelli and Ivrea. Both armies engaged in attacks on enemy defensive points. Boutières took San Germano Vercellese, near Vercelli, and besieged Ivrea; in turn, Avalos captured Carignano, just 24 kilometers south of Turin, and proceeded to garrison and fortify it.
As soon as both armies returned to their winter quarters, Francis I of France relieved Boutières of his command and gave command to Francis of Bourbon, Count of Enghien and Duke of Vendôme, who had no experience in commanding an army. In addition, Francis sent reinforcement troops to Piedmont, including a few hundred heavy knights, some companies of French infantry from the Dauphinate and Languedoc and a troop of half-Swiss soldiers from Gruyères. In January 1544, Enghien besieged Carignano, being defeated by the imperial troops under the command of Pirro Colonna. The French thought that Avalos would be forced to succor the besieged city, at which point he could be forced into battle. However, since concerted battles were seen as a high-risk undertaking, Enghien sent Blaise de Montluc to Paris to ask Francis I for permission to fight a battle. Montluc apparently convinced Francis I to give his consent despite the objections raised by Francis II, Count of Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise, who objected that a possible defeat would leave France exposed to an invasion by Avalos” troops at the same time that Charles V and Henry VIII of England were preparing to attack Picardy. Montluc returned to Italy, bringing with him about 100 volunteers, young men of the court nobility, including Gaspar de Coligny.
Having awaited the arrival of a large contingent of Lansquenets sent by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Avalos left Asti for Carignano. Avalos had a force of between 12,500 and 18,000 infantrymen, of whom probably about 4,000 were arquebusiers or musketeers: he had only been able to muster between 800 and 1,000 cavalrymen. Avalos was aware of the weakness of his cavalry, but felt that he could compensate for it by the experience of his infantry and the large number of arquebusiers in his army.
After learning of the advance of the imperial army, Enghien left a force at Carignano to maintain the blockade and gathered the rest of his troops at Carmagnola to block the advance of Avalos” troops towards the city. The French cavalry closely following the movements of the imperial troops discovered that they were heading directly towards the French army”s positions. On April 10, Avalos occupied the village of Ceresole Alba, located about eight kilometers south of where the French troops were.
Enghien”s officers urged him to launch an attack immediately, but he decided to set up the fight at a place of his own choosing. Thus, on the morning of April 11, 1544, the French troops marched from Carmagnola to a position about five kilometers to the southeast and there awaited the arrival of Avalos and his men. Enghien and Montluc felt that an open battlefield would give the French cavalry a significant tactical advantage. At this point, the French army consisted of some 11. The battle came at a good time for Enghien, as his Swiss troops – as had happened earlier at the battle of Bicoca – were threatening to abandon the army if they did not receive their pay; news of an impending battle restored some calm in the ranks.
Order of Battle
The troops of Enghien were placed along the crest of an elevation, higher in the central zone than on the sides, which prevented the wings of the French army to see each other, being distributed the troops in a central zone and right and left wings. In the rightmost area, the French had a light cavalry corps consisting of three companies under the command of Des Thermes, Bernadino and Mauré, totaling between 450 and 500 men. On their left was the French infantry of De Tais, about 4,000 men, and further to the left was a squadron of gendarmes under the command of Boutières, who received the command of the right flank of the French army. The central corps consisted of 13 companies of Swiss veterans, totaling about 4,000 men, under the joint command of Wilhem Frölich de Soleura and Captain St. Julian. On his left was Enghien himself with three companies of heavy cavalry, a company of light cavalry and the volunteers coming from Paris, totaling 450 soldiers. The left wing consisted of two columns of infantry, 3,000 recruits from Gruyères and 2,000 Italians, all under the command of Monsieur de Descroz. On the extreme left of the formation were some 400 mounted archers used as light cavalry commanded by Dampierre, who had also received command of the entire left flank.
The imperial army was situated on a similar elevation in front of the position of the French troops. On the extreme left of the formation, in front of the men under the command of Des Thermes, were 300 Florentines who made up the light cavalry under the command of Rodolfo Baglioni. Further to the right were 6,000 infantrymen under the command of Ferrante Sanseverino, Prince of Salerno. In the center were 7,000 lasquenets under the command of Eriprando Madruzzo. To his right was Avalos himself with a heavy cavalry force of about 200 men under the command of Carlo Gonzaga. The imperial right wing consisted of some 5,000 German and Spanish infantrymen under the command of Ramon de Cardona, flanked on the far right by 300 Italian light cavalry under Philip of Lannoy, Prince of Sulmona.
As imperial troops began to arrive on the battlefield from Ceresole d”Alba, both armies attempted to conceal their true numbers and position. Enghien ordered his Swiss soldiers to remain hidden in the terrain behind the crest of the elevation, while of Avalos” army initially only the right wing was visible to the French army. Avalos sent out parties of arquebusiers to try to locate the French flanks; Enghien for his part, sent some 800 arquebusiers under Montluc to hinder the advance of the imperial troops. The skirmish between the arquebusiers of both armies continued for almost 4 hours; Martin du Bellay, who watched the engagement, described it as:
“A beautiful spectacle for whoever was in a safe and unoccupied place, as they clashed using all the wiles and stratagems of petty warfare.”
As the dimensions of the two armies were revealed, Enghien and Avalos brought their artillery to the fore. The cross artillery fire that continued for several hours, however, had no significant effect due to the considerable distance separating the two armies.
The skirmish came to an end when the imperial cavalry was about to attack the French arquebusiers on the flank; at that moment Montluc requested the help of Des Thermes, who advanced with all his light cavalry. Avalos, after observing the movements of the French army, ordered a general advance of the entire imperial formation. At the southern end of the battlefield, the light cavalry pushed back the Florentines under Baglioni to the position where Sanseverino”s infantry was and proceeded to charge directly against the infantry column. The Italian formation managed to resist and Des Thermes himself was wounded and captured; but by the time Sanseverino”s men, who had been dispersed, had managed to reorganize so that they could advance again, the fight in the center had already been decided.
Meanwhile, the French infantry – mostly from Gascony – had begun to advance towards the Sanseverino position. Montluc, noting that the disorder among the Italians had forced them to halt, suggested that De Tais attack Madruzzo”s column of Lansquenets advancing on the battlefield instead of attacking the Italians. De Tais followed the advice and the French formation moved to the left to attack the Lansquenets on the flank. Madruzzo divided his men into two groups, one of which moved to intercept the French, while the other continued up the slope of the rise toward the Swiss soldiers who were waiting at the top of the ridge.
At that time, the formation of pikemen and arquebusiers had adopted a system in which arquebusiers and pikemen were mixed in combination in the same units; both the Imperial and French infantry had soldiers with firearms between the large columns of pikemen. This combination of pikes and firearms produced extremely bloody engagements. The combined infantry was usually grouped separately, with arquebusiers on the flanks and a central column of pikemen; however, at Cerisoles, the French infantry had been organized with a first line of pikemen followed immediately by another of arquebusiers, who were ordered to open fire until the two columns did not come into contact. Montluc, who claimed to have conceived the idea of this formation, wrote:
De este modo, mataríamos a todos sus capitanes en primera fila. Pero descubrimos que eran tan ingeniosos como nosotros, pues detrás de su primera línea de picas habían colocado pistoleadores. Ninguno de los dos bandos disparó hasta que nos acercamos, y entonces se produjo una matanza al por mayor: cada disparo contó: toda la primera fila de cada bando cayó.De este modo deberíamos matar a todos sus capitanes de la línea frontal. Pero nos encontramos con que habían sido tan ingeniosos como nosotros, ya que tras su primera línea de piqueros habían situado pistoleros. Ninguno de los dos bandos dispararon hasta que estuvieron tocándose -y entonces hubo una matanza en masa: se dispararon todas las armas: la fila frontal de ambos bandos cayó abatida.
The Swiss, seeing the French engaged in battle with one of the two Lansquenets columns, finally descended to engage the other, which had moved slowly up the hill. Both infantry contingents remained locked in a pikemen”s engagement until Boutières” heavy cavalry squadron charged the Lansquenets” flank, breaking their formation and driving them back down the hill. The imperial heavy cavalry, which had been disposed on the right of the Lansquenets, and which Avalos had ordered to attack the Swiss, fell back and fled from the pikemen to the rear, leaving Carlo Gonzaga as prisoner.
The Swiss and Gascon infantry proceeded to finish off the remaining Lansquenets – whose tight formation prevented a rapid retreat – as they attempted to withdraw from the battlefield. The road to Ceresole d”Alba was littered with corpses; the Swiss in particular showed no mercy, wishing to avenge the ill-treatment received by the Swiss garrison at Mondovì the previous November. Most of the Lansquenese officers were killed; and although contemporary accounts probably exaggerated the casualty figures, it is clear that the German infantry had ceased to exist as a fighting force. After contemplating what had happened, Sanseverino decided that the battle was lost and headed for Asti with the bulk of the Italian infantry and the remnants of Baglioni”s Florentine cavalry. Meanwhile, the French light cavalry joined in the fight against the Lansquenets.
Clashes in the north
At the northern end of the battlefield events took place in a totally different way. Dampierre”s cavalry soundly defeated Lannoy”s light cavalry; meanwhile, the Italians and the Gruyères contingent, dispersed and fled, leaving their officers to die, offering no real resistance to the advance of the imperial infantry. As Cardona”s infantry had managed to break through the French formation line, Enghien went out to meet them with all the cavalry under his orders; the ensuing engagement took place on the opposite side of the elevation, out of sight of the rest of the battlefield.
With the first cavalry charge, Enghien managed to penetrate a corner of the Imperial formation, pushing them to the rear and losing some of the volunteers from Paris. As Cardona”s line regrouped again, the French cavalry made a second charge under heavy arquebus fire; this engagement resulted in considerably more casualties and again failed to break the Imperial column. Enghien, now reinforced with Dampierre”s light cavalry, made a third charge which again failed; less than a hundred French gendarmes were still standing at the time. Enghien believed he had lost the battle according to Montluc, Enghien attempted to stab himself-“what the ancient Romans were supposed to do, but not good Christians”-when St. Julian, the Swiss commander, arrived from the center of the battlefield and informed him that the imperial forces had suffered a crushing defeat.
News that the Lansquenets had been defeated reached Cardona”s ears at about the same time it reached Enghien; the imperial column turned and retreated to its original position. Enghien followed closely behind the retreating imperial troops with what remained of his cavalry, although he was quickly reinforced by a company of mounted arquebusiers who had been stationed at Racconigi and had begun to head for the battlefield after hearing the first exchanges of artillery fire. These arquebusiers, dismounting to open fire and subsequently remounting, were able to harass the imperial column sufficiently to slow its retreat. Meanwhile, the French and Swiss infantry in the center, having reached Ceresole d”Alba, turned back and returned to the battlefield; Montluc, who was with them, wrote:
Cuando oímos en Ceresole que el Sr. d”Enghien nos buscaba, tanto los suizos como nosotros, los gascones, nos volvimos hacia él -nunca había visto dos batallones formarse tan rápidamente- y nos pusimos de nuevo en fila mientras corríamos, uno al lado del otro. El enemigo iba a marcha rápida, disparando salvas de arcabuces, y alejándose de nuestra caballería, cuando los vimos. Y cuando nos vieron a sólo 400 pasos de distancia, y a nuestra caballería preparándose para cargar, tiraron sus picas y se rindieron a los jinetes. Podíais ver a quince o veinte de ellos rodeando a un hombre de armas, presionando a su alrededor y pidiendo cuartel, por miedo a nosotros de la infantería, que queríamos degollarlos a todos. Cuando oímos en Cerisoles que Monsieur d”Enghien requería nuestra presencia, tanto los suizos como los gascones volvimos hacia él -nunca vi dos batallones formar tan rápido- realmente formamos de nuevo en fila tal y como corríamos, unos al lado del otro. El enemigo estaba marchándose con una marcha rápida, disparando salvas de arcabuces, y manteniendo alejados nuestros caballos, cuando los vimos. Y cuando nos dividieron a sólo 400 pasos de distancia, y nuestra caballería se preparó para la carga, ellos tiraron sus picas y se rindieron a la caballería. Deberías haber visto a 15 o 20 de ellos rodeando a un oficial, presionándole y pidiéndole cuartel, por miedo a nuestra infantería, que estaba esperando para cortarles el cuello a todos.
Perhaps half of the Imperial infantry was killed while attempting to surrender; the rest, some 3,150 men, were taken prisoner. A few, including Baron de Seisneck, who commanded the German infantry contingents, managed to escape.
Despite the defeat of the imperial army, the battle ended up having minimal strategic consequences. Due to the insistence of Francis I, the French army resumed the siege of Carignano, where Colonna was able to hold out for a few weeks; shortly after the surrender of the city, Enghien was forced to send 23 infantry companies of Italians and Gascons and almost half of his heavy cavalry to Picardy, because the region had been invaded by Emperor Charles V. Having seen how he no longer had a real army, Enghien was unable to capture Milan; meanwhile, Alfonso of Avalos managed to defeat the Italian infantry of Piero Strozzi and Giovan Francesco Orsini, Count of Pitigliano in the battle of Serravalle. The end of the war brought a return to the pre-existing status quo in northern Italy.
A few contemporary accounts of the battle have survived. Among the French chronicles are the narratives of Martin du Bellay and Blaise de Montluc, both present on the battlefield, Gaspard de Saulx, lord of Tavannes, who accompanied Enghien, also echoes the events that occurred in his memoirs. The most extensive and exhaustive chronicle of the battle comes from the imperial side and was written by Paolo Giovio; despite contradictions with other writings, it provides, according to historian Charles Oman, “valuable data on points omitted by all French narrators”.
Modern historians” interest in the battle has focused mainly on the role played by the small arms and the carnage that occurred among the infantry in the center. The arrangement used for pikemen and arquebusiers was considered too costly and was not used again; in later battles, arquebusiers were used mainly for skirmishing and placed on the flanks of large formations of pikemen. The battle of Cerisoles is also interesting because of the demonstration of the continuing role played on the battlefield by heavy cavalry. Despite the failure of the Enghien charges – according to Bert Hall, the French maintained their belief in the effectiveness of heavy cavalry, which unaided should be able to break disciplined formations – a small group of gendarmes had been sufficient in the center to defeat the infantry columns that were fighting against the other infantry. Beyond the tactical utility of the cavalry, another reason for its importance is drawn from the final part of the battle; the French gendarmes were the only troops who could be expected to accept enemy surrender, since the French and Swiss infantry had no inclination to take prisoners; according to Hall, the cavalry were almost intuitively expected to heed those pleas without question.