During the Italian Wars, there were three battles at Seminara, in toe of the Calabrian peninsula. This is the first one (28 June 1495), where Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, known to history as the Great Captain (El Gran Capitán), suffered his only defeat. This battle was also the first field battle in the Italian Wars. The French gendarmes drove off Gonsalvo’s genitors, the Calabrian Militia panicked, and the Swiss pikemen (apparently) rolled over the lightly equipped Spanish infantry. This defeat forced Gonsalvo to rethink Spanish arms and tactics. Decisions that subsequently lead to the successes that made his name.
- First Battle of Seminara (28 June 1495)
- Second Battle of Seminara (December 1502)
- Third Battle of Seminara (21 April 1503)
In 1494 King Charles VIII of France decided to exert his Angevin claim to the throne of Naples (Mallet & Shaw, 2014). By May French officials were in Piedmont and Genoa preparing the way for the army to follow. The troops began arriving in June. In late August Charles VIII crossed the alps himself and joined his main force at Piacenza on 18 October.
Charles VIII then paraded down Italy to take Naples (Mallet & Shaw, 2014). There was little resistance. The Duchy of Milan (Ludovico Sforza) was allied to France and, with some reservations, assisted the invaders. The minor French states of Savoy, Lucca, and Siena let the French pass their territory unhindered. The Roman Barons were either in French employee or disinclined to resist. Florence (Piero de Medici) was treated as hostile until cowed into submission. The first Florentine fortress, Fivizzano was taken by stealth, sacked, and all the defenders and many of the inhabitants killed. Other Florentine fortresses surrendered or suffered the same fate. Florence opened its gates to Charles VIII on 17 November. Pope Alexander made no attempt to stop the the French and shut himself up in Castel Sant Angelo as the French occupied Rome. The Pope then conceded free passage and provisions for the French army, and gave temporary tenure of key Papal fortresses. Early in the campaign the Neapolitans tried to invade Milan from the south and through Genoa but with no success. On 9 Feb 1495 the French took the Neapolitan fortress of Monte San Giovanni by storm and killed several inhabitants; only a few survived. Other Neapolitan towns opened their gates to the French. Charles VIII entered Naples on 22 February but French troops were in the city exchanging fire with the Neapolitan held fortresses. It took three weeks for the fortresses to be subdued.
Within weeks of Charles VIII taking Naples, the French began talking about the king returning to France (Mallet & Shaw, 2014). Charles wanted to be back in France before the heat of the summer. They were, however, aware that this might involve a fight.
Although neutral Ferdinand of Aragon began moving troops and ships to Sicily over the winter of 1494-5 (Mallet & Shaw, 2014). He also began discussing an anti-French alliance with Venice, and the Emperor-elect Maximilian. The Venetians also worked on detaching Ludovico Sforza (Duke of Milan) from France. On 31 March 1495 these parties signed “a defensive league against unprovoked aggression by any power holding a state in Italy – which would now include Charles – against any of the signatory Italian States” (p. 27). This was known as the League of Venice or the Holy League.
Charles VIII left Naples on 20 May 1495 although some French contingents had marched north earlier (Mallet & Shaw, 2014). Naples was held with 800 French lances, 500 Italian lances and 2,700 infantry. The French were scattered across southern Italy but had three basic elements (Prescott, 1962):
- Gilbert d’Montpensier in Naples with the main force
- The “Grand Constable of Naples”, Bernard Stewart (French: Bérault Stuart), Lord d’Aubigny, who was also captain of the King’s Scottish Archers, with a force to the south in Calabria
- the French nobleman Précy in Basilicata a force including the Swiss mercenaries
On 26 May 1495 Gonsalvo de Córdoba crossed into the toe of Italy with the vanguard of the Spanish army (Prescott, 1962). He had just 600 horse and 1,500 foot (Mallet & Shaw, 2014; Oman, 1987). Most of the horse were light horse (500 genitors), with only 100 men-at-arms (gente-de-armas). The majority of the infantry were Rodeleros – Aragonese sword and buckler men – but there were also many crossbowmen, and a few arquebusiers. To these Gonsalvo added 3,500 soldiers from the Spanish fleet. The Spanish field force was smaller as they had to leave troops in several fortresses the Neapolitans had handed over to them. Ferdinand II (Ferrandino) of Naples had also crossed into Calabria with an Neapolitan army which he then boosted with 6,000 volunteers from Calabria. The allied army then marched to Seminara, a fortified place about 40 kilometers from Reggio. En route they destroyed some French troops.
The Scotsman d’Aubigny, the French commander in Calabria, consolidating his own dispersed forces and asked Précy to send him the Swiss (Prescott, 1962). The Swiss joined d’Aubigny and the small French army marched towards Seminara. d’Aubigny showed considerable energy in this campaign despite suffering from malaria.
Order of Battle
French Order of Battle
The French forces were drawn from the garrison of the recently conquered Southern Italy. Mallet and Shaw (2014) citing Pieri (195) and de La Pilorgerie (1866), give the French 100 men-at-arms and 1,200 Swiss. Prescott (1962) gives a larger force and different composition: 400 gendarmes, 800 lighter horsemen, 800 Swiss pikemen, and other French foot. The “lighter horse” must have been primarily “archers”, who were present to a proportion of 1:3 gendarmes to archers, and hence heavy cavalry. They may have been accompanied by a small proportion of mounted crossbowmen.
- Commander: Bernard Stewart, Lord d’Aubigny
- 400 Men-at-arms
- 800 Lighter horse
- 800-1,200 Swiss
- French foot
Neapolitan Spanish Order of Battle
The other side were a hodgepodge collection of the allied forces of Spain and Naples. This included some or all of the Spanish invasion force. This is what Oman (1987) has to say about original Spanish the order of battle:
Original Spanish Invasion Force (1495) – Oman (1987)
- 100 men-at-arms
- 500 genitors
- 1,500 infantry
- Mostly Rodeleros, Aragonese Sword and Buckler men
- Many Crossbowmen
- A few arquebusiers
The French were outnumbered. d’Aubigny reckoned the Neapolitan Spanish had 800-1,000 horse and 3-4,000 foot (Mallet & Shaw, 2014). I have assumed Gonsalvo had his original Spanish force and the extras were Neapolitan. King Ferdinand II of Naples was in overall command (he, amongst other things, overruled Gonsalvo on whether to fight).
Neapolitan Spanish Order of Battle
- Commander-in-chief: King Ferdinand II of Naples
- Commander: King Ferdinand II of Naples
- 2-400 Neapolitan horse (men-at-arms and/or mounted crossbowmen)
- 1,500-2,000 Calabrian Militia
- Commander: Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba (El Gran Capitán)
- 100 Men-at-arms
- 500 Genitors
- 1,500 Spanish Infantry
- Mostly Rodeleros, Aragonese Sword and Buckler men
- Many Crossbowmen
- A few arquebusiers
The allied army knew the French was approaching, but not that the Swiss were present (Prescott, 1962). Gonsalvo advised caution and proposed a full reconnaissance of the French force before risking battle. King Ferdinand, supported by the Neapolitan nobility, decided to do battle immediately.
On 28 June 1495 the allies marched to confront the French, 5 km east, over a line of hills (Prescott, 1962). They could see the French approaching across the plain beyond. So the allies deployed behind a stream on the lower slope of the hills (Prescott, 2016b) with the infantry on the left and the cavalry on the right. The French matched the allied deployment with the horse – 400 gendarmes and 800 lighter horsemen – facing the allied cavalry on the French left. The infantry were on their right, with 800 Swiss pikemen in front and the other foot behind.
[Wikipedia: Battle of Seminara (1495) cites Pohl (2001), saying the Swiss formed only three ranks deep at Seminara. It seems unlikely to me, particularly as the source is a book on “Conquistadors”. But I’ll look for another source.]
The French force attacked without hesitation, plunging into the stream and out the other side (Prescott, 1962). Both Prescott (2016b) and Taylor (1993) say the French light cavalry charged with the gendarmes; I assume, in this case, “light cavalry” means the heavily armoured mounted archers who typically accompanied the gendarmes. The Spanish genitors harassed the French gendarmes as they came out of the stream, throwing their javelins and causing some disorder. Fighting in the “moorish” style, when under pressure from their opponents, the genitors then broke off with the intention to attack again.
At this point, before contact, the Calabrian militia panicked and fell back (Prescott, 1962, 2016b). Prescott believed the Calabrians interpreted the genitor’s withdrawal as a rout but I suspect they were also concerned to have the Swiss pikemen bearing down on them. Ferdinand tried to rally the Calabrians, but failed. The fleeing Calabrian militia were caught by gendarmes and cut down. Ferdinand tried to rally his infantry but without success. Ferdinand was leading the Neapolitan cavalry and was almost captured but escaped through the sacrifice of one of his men.
Oman (1987) says the Swiss then rolled over the Neapolitan Spanish infantry. Presumably the ones that hadn’t already fled, which, I presume, means the Spanish including the Rodeleros (sword and buckler guys). Prescott (1962, 2016b) doesn’t mention this.
With the Neapolitans fleeing the field, Gonsalvo, with the Spanish cavalry and surviving infantry, attempted to delay the French pursuit (Prescott, 1962, 2016b). Several times Gonsalvo charged at the head of his small force of men-at-arms. Prescott (2016b) says “the Spanish heavy-armed cavalry, indeed, were a match for any in Europe”. The French did not pursue possibly because d’Aubigny was still ill. The Spanish then marched back to Seminara. The “greater part” of the Spanish cavalry got back to Seminara; he had 400 cavalry when he retreated to Reggio the next day.
Assessing the outcome
Oman (1987) is the most common reference for this battle. Oman doesn’t actually say much about Seminara but he has defined this battle for most people who came afterwards. So I think it is worth repeating what he said in full:
Gonsalvo’s first – and only disastrous – battle at Seminara, in the very toe of the Calabrian peninsula, seems to have set him searching for new tactics. His ‘genitors’ were completely driven off by the charge of the French gendarmes, and the Swiss pikemen ran over his miscellaneous infantry in one rush. (Oman, 1987, p. 52)
Amazing what you can pack into a few words. It paints a picture. But is is a true picture?
There are three bits I want to pull out of Oman’s statement.
1. “His ‘genitors’ were completely driven off by the charge of the French gendarmes”
The role of the genitors was to harass heavier cavalry. Prescott (1962, 2016b) makes it clear the genitors were doing exactly this. Throwing their javelins then withdrawing. If they were charged they would indeed evade. That might look like being “driven off” but was just a natural part of their fighting style. After being “driven off” they could well have come back again. Prescott again makes it clear the Spanish cavalry were present as Gonsalvo withdrew from the field.
2. “the Swiss pikemen ran over his miscellaneous infantry in one rush”
This is the magic sentence that people latch on to.
Oman (1987) uses the same phrase “miscellaneous infantry” to describe the Spanish infantry in an earlier passage:
When first Gonsalve de Cordova crossed into Calabria in 1495 with 600 horse and 1500 foot, it was his 500 ‘genitors’ that he relied, not on his 100 men-at-arms or his rather miscellaneous infantry, of whom many were crosss-bowmen, the majority Aragonese sword-and-buckler men, and a few arquebusiers (Oman, 1987, p. 52)
So Oman is saying the Swiss ran over the Spanish infantry, the majority of whom were Aragonese sword-and-buckler men. Quintana (1993) has a different view.
[Gonsalvo’s] Spaniards, sustained and even repelled the impetuous charge of the French cavalry and the Swiss infantry, the Sicilians [Neapolitans] disbanded themselves almost without firing a shot, and the Spaniards were in consequence compelled to yield when they thought the victory was secured to them.
Given Gonsalvo retained sword and buckler men in his revised order of battle, I suspect they did not do so badly at Seminara.
3. “Gonsalvo’s first – and only disastrous – battle at Seminara … seems to have set him searching for new tactics”
I’m not sure I agree. The battle was disastrous for the allies. I agree with that. But I’m not sure that Gonsalvo would have seen this as the fault of himself or his men.
Firstly, Gonsalvo was not in charge, Ferdinand was. Ferdinand overruled Gonsalvo on scouting before battle. Once he was in sole command this again became a standard practice for this veteran of the wars in Spain.
Secondly, my impression is that the Spanish troops did alright in this battle. They were let down by their Neapolitan allies, particularly the Calabrian infantry.
Thirdly, the ratios of the troops types within the Spanish infantry did change over the next three years. But I’ve yet to see firm evidence this change was lead by Gonsalvo or was a general Spanish change. In Spain the official regulations [must find the date/reference again] laid down a split between pikes, sword and buckler, and arquebus or crossbow. And, of course, this changed the composition of the reinforcements sent to Italy.
Mallet, M., & Shaw, C. (2014). The Italian Wars 1494-1559: War, State and Society in Early Modern Europe. London: Routledge.
Oman, C. (1987; originally 1937). A History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century. London: Greenhill Books.
Prescott, W. H. (1962). History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic, of Spain [Abridged]. New York: The Heritage Press. [Originally published 1837].
I only realised quite late in the day that this edition was abridged and went looking for the three volume set.
Prescott, W. H. (2016a). History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic, of Spain- Volume 1. Wallachia Publishers. [Originally published 1837].
Prescott, W. H. (2016b). History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic, of Spain- Volume 2. Wallachia Publishers. [Originally published 1837].
Prescott, W. H. (2016c). History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic, of Spain- Volume 3. Wallachia Publishers. [Originally published 1837].
Pieri, P. (1952). Il Rinascimento e la crisi militare italiana (2nd ed.). Giulio Einaudi Editore. pp. 358-60.
de La Pilorgerie, J. L. (1866). Campagne et Bulletins de la Grande Armée d’Italie commandée par Charles VIII 1494-1495. Nantes: V Forest and E Grimaud. pp. 392-3
Pohl, J. (2001). The Conquistador 1492–1550. [Osprey Warrior 40]. Osprey Publishing.
Quintana, M. J. (1993; originally 1851). Memoirs of Gonsalvo Fernandez de Cordova styled The Great Captain. Pallas Armata.
Taylor, F. (1993; originally 1921). The art of war in Italy 1494-1529. Essex, UK: Partizan Press.