Italian Wars – How did the Spanish colunela deploy in battle?

In the first part of the Great Italian Wars, until the introduction of the Tercio in 1534, the Spanish were organised into columns (colunelas) under a Colonel. We have some idea of the theoretical organisation of the Spanish colunela, but how did the Spanish colunela deploy in battle? And what is the difference between a colunela and a coronelía? This is what I know.


From 1493 Ferdinand and Isabello, the Catholic Monarchs, reorganised the Spanish military via a set or royal ordinances (Gush, 1975; Pohl, 2015).

The 1493 ordinance defined a capitanía (the future company) (Notario Lopez & Notario Lopez, 2012). The senior officer was the captain. A lieutenant supported the captain. The company was divided into squadrons under a sergeant. The ordinance did not specify the number of men in each company.

The 1495 ordinance specified that pikemen had to wear a corselet (Notario Lopez & Notario Lopez, 2012).

Gonzalo de Córdoba, The Great Captain (El Gran Capitán), had 1,500 infantry with him when he arrived in Italy in 1495. The majority were Aragonese sword-and-buckler men, although he also had many crossbowmen. Only a few arquebusiers were in the ranks and no pikes. It was the failure of his old style Spanish infantry to stop the Swiss at Seminara (28 June 1495) that prompted El Gran Capitán to reorganise his infantry.

In the 1497 ordinance the infantry were organised into three categories by weapon type: 1/3 pikemen; 1/3 sword-and-buckler men; and 1/3 arquebusiers and crossbowmen (Gush, 1975; Pohl, 2015; Notario Lopez & Notario Lopez, 2012).

Arms and armour

Arms are pretty obvious: pikes, swords, crossbow and arquebus. Crossbows declined rapidly in favour of arquebus. Everybody carried a sword, not just the sword-and-buckler guys. Obviously the sword-and-buckler men had a buckler.

Mariejol (1961) gives the Spanish infantry helmet, cuirass, neckpiece and armguards, however, Taylor (1993) says the Spanish wore little or no armour.

Column (Colunela)

King Ferdinand created the new rank of Head of Columns (cabo de colunela) in 1505 when he named 20 such officers (Oman, 1987). By 1508 the title was shortened to Colonel (colonel). The idea was to have manoeuvring units more powerful than the companies under a unified command.

The column (colunela) these new Colonels commanded included a number of companies armed with a mix of pikes, sword-and-buckler, and arquebus (Oman, 1987). Oman was not certain whether the proportions of weapons were fixed or whether the companies were permanently attached. Oman uses the Battle of Ravenna (1512) to speculate on the size of these columns. 11 or 12 Colonels were present at Ravenna and, between them, commanded 9,000 infantry. So Oman believes a Colonel commanded about 1,000 men at full strength. Incidentally 11 Colonels died at Ravenna including 5 who had been amongst the original 20 in 1505.

In 1505, when the old Hermandad was replaced by Ordinance Troops, the infantry were grouped into a column of 8-10 companies or 800-1,500 men (Wikipedia: Colunela). Wikipedia: Colunela describes the officers company up to 1505:

Officers of a Company up to 1505

  • 1 x Captain
  • 1 x lieutenant
  • 1 x Ensign
  • 2 x Sergeants
  • 2 x Corporals)/li>
  • 1 x atabal
  • 1 x fifer
  • 1 x sheriff
  • 1 x alguacil
  • 1 x surgeon

Gush (1975) suggests the column pre-dated the Colonels. He says the columns were initially were about 600 men in three ‘squadrons’. 1505 brought the 20 Colonels mentioned above, and Gush gives each 1,000 to 1,500 men, in four or five ‘banderas’. He says “these were predominantly pikemen and arquebusiers, but included a few halberdiers and up to perhaps 20 percent sword-and-buckler men” (p. 49). [Note: Gush mixes two spellings Colunela and Corunela, the latter presumably being a mis-spelling of Coronelía]

Gilbert (2000, p. 75-76)

The company of around 200 men, recruited and commanded by a captain, was the smallest unit with the army. Five companies would make up a colunela (column), which combined all the various infantry arms: pikemen, halberdiers, arquebusiers, and swords-and-buckler men. The colunela was commanded by a cabo de colunela (colonel), and was the prototype of the regiment or battalion. The Spanish military system was codified by King Ferdinand in 1505, and represented the first serious attempt since Roman times to develop a coherent and regular military organisation that would utilise all the various infantry arms.

That gives a (very rough) order of battle for the Column (Colunela):

Column (Colunela) (Gilbert, 2000; Gush, 1975; Oman, 1987)

  • 1 x Colonel
  • 4-5 ‘banderas’ or ‘squadrons’, each 200-300 men1
  • 800 – 1,500 men in total

(1) Or 8-10 (or perhaps more) companies, each 100 men


Mariejol (1961) also says the number of companies in a column varied but only initially. Apparently Gonzalo de Córdoba standardised this. The standardised column, a Coronelía or Squadron (Escuadrón), had 6000 infantry divided into 12 companies (Mariejol, 1961; Notario Lopez & Notario Lopez, 2012; Pohl, 2015). Two companies were Extraordinary Pike Companies (capitanías de picas extraordinarias) with 100% pike. The other 10 companies had a mix of weapons: 200 pikemen, 200 sword-and-buckler men, and 100 arquebusiers. The total proportions of weapons were 1/2 pike, 1/3 sword-and-buckler, and 1/6 arquebus. An army would comprise two of these coronelía (Notario Lopez & Notario Lopez, 2012). [Pohl (2015) talks about Coronélia; notice the different accent to Mariejol. ]

Wikipedia: Coronelía says that the coronelía started at 6,000 men but, over time, declined in size to between 800 and 1,500 men. Notario Lopez & Notario Lopez (2012), go even further, and point out this was a purely theoretical order of battle and in practice would be much smaller.

Theoretical Coronelía or Squadron (Escuadrón)
(Mariejol, 1961; Notario Lopez & Notario Lopez, 2012; Pohl, 2015)

  • 1 x Colonel
  • 2 x Extraordinary Pike Company2 (capitanías de picas extraordinarias)
    • 1 x Captain
    • 5 x Company Chief (cabo de batalla)3
    • 500 pikemen
  • 10 x Company2 (capitanias or batallatas)
    • 1 x Captain
    • 5 x Company Chief (cabo de batalla)3
    • 200 pikemen
    • 200 sword-and-buckler men 1
    • 100 arquebusiers
    • 500 men total
  • 600 horse
    • 300 men-at-arms / heavy cavalry
    • 300 horsemen / light cavalry
  • 6,600 men total

(1) Mariejol (1961) says the sword-and-buckler men also had a javelin. Other sources don’t mention the javelin.
(2) Mariejol (1961) calls these battalions (batallatas) but also offers capitanias (companies). Notario Lopez & Notario Lopez (2012) call them capitanias.
(3) One Company Chief (cabo de batalla) for each group of 100 men. Sergeant is probably a better translation; the officer of the major sub-division of the company.

Notario Lopez & Notario Lopez (2012, p. 12), when discussing the creation of Tercios from three coronelía, say:

From being the major unit, the coronelía of Cordoba’s day became just one of three making up a tercio. Each Tercio consisted of 12 companies – ten of pikemen and two of arquebusiers. The normal coronelía had four companies, but it could vary in size according to operational necessities when – like a modern task force – it was deployed away from the rest of the Tercio to carry out a particular mission. In theory, each company would have around 250 men, giving the Tercio a total of 3,000; in fact, throughout their history their average strength was only about 1,500 men.

So, around 1534, the coronelía had four companies of around 250 men. This gives a very similar order of battle to that of the column (colunela) given above.

Colonelcy (Coronelía) (Notario Lopez & Notario Lopez, 2012)

  • 1 x Colonel
  • 4 companies, each around 250 men
  • 1,000 men in total

On the march

Mariejol (1961) says the Spanish marched five abreast in this order of march:

  1. Pikemen
  2. Sword-and-buckler men
  3. Arquebusiers
  4. Several rows of pikemen

In combat

The sources are pretty aligned. Pike at the front to fend off horse and other pikes. Sword-and-buckler men behind the pikemen to push through if the pikes stall and break into enemy pike. Arquebusiers to the sides to blow holes in enemy horse or foot.

Taylor (1993, p. 34) says:

The Spanish infantrymen, like the Swiss and the Germans, were designed for offensive action The battle was opened in teh same way by small parties of skirmishers; the pikemen and swordsmen advanced in mass formation, the pikemen broke the enemy’s front, and the swordsmen pushed their way into the gaps and completed his disorganization.

Oman (1987, p. 52) says:

The sword-and-buckler men were placed in rear of the pikemen, with directions to run in with their short weapons, when the pikes should have got locked in a frontal crash. This was the same function which the haldberdiers were supposed to discharge in the Swiss service, but the short stabbing sword was much more effective than the halberd in a jammed formation, since the latter required not only strong arms but room to swing the ponderous weapon.

Pohl (2015, p. 41) describes the Spanish infantry in action:

Whole units of these gunners [arquebusiers] cold advance under the protection of their own pike phalanx, blow holes in the opposing formation, and withdraw to reload covered by the pikes of their comrades. Meanwhile, swordsmen charged into the resultant gaps and slashed away at the nearest enemy pikemen, whose long heavy weapons were a useless encumbrance at such close quarters. Once the integrity of the pike block began to unravel it was at a serious disadvantage.

Pohl (2015, p. 41) uses the painting The Siege of Alesia (Melchior Feselen, 1533) to illustrate the coordination of arquebus and pike. In the painting arquebusiers are positioned on the flank of the pike and are firing from the hip into the enemy.

Detail from Siege of Alesia
Detail from Siege of Alesia

Pohl (2015, p. 42) use the early 16th-century engraving by Hans Holbein called “Bad War” to illustrate Spanish versus Swiss combat. He says “Bad War” shows:

Swiss halberdiers (right and foreground) trying to stop armoured Spanish swordsmen (left) who are cutting their way into a disordered pike block. Córdoba’s new infantry organization owed its success against the less versatile Swiss pike phalanx to the shock impact of massed arquebusiers, exploited by the agile offensive capability of the swordsmen, both underpinned by the solidity of their own pike block.

Bad War in an early 16th-century engraving by Hans Holbein
Bad War in an early 16th-century engraving by Hans Holbein

Mariejol (1961, p. 207) says of the Swiss versus Spanish:

Broken terrain, ravines, small hills broke this fine order [of the Swiss] and opened up numerous breaches in these moving citadels. The Spanish infantry, thanks to its pikemen, was solid enough to meet the Swiss onset and its harquebusiers enabled it to make many holes in the Swiss ranks. Moreover, it possessed a more supple and mobile character, which enabled the whole to adjust itself to varying circumstances and terrain. The Spanish battalions pressed unevenly on the massive Swiss regiments, yielding here, advancing there, but always ready to profit by any disarray of the enemy. The Spanish infantryman, lightly armed, slipped in under the long pikes an engaged in hand-to-hand combat in which is poignard and short sword guaranteed his success.

Wikipedia: Rodeleros defines:

Rodeleros (“shield bearers”), also called espadachines (“swordsmen”) and colloquially known as “Sword and Buckler Men”, were Spanish troops in the early 16th (and again briefly in the 17th) century, equipped with steel shields or bucklers known as rodela and swords (usually of the side-sword type).

When the Spanish adopted the colunella (the first of the mixed pike and shot formations), they used small groups of sword and buckler men to break the deadlock of the push of pike, as the Swiss and Germans used halberdiers, comparable to the role of the German Doppelsöldner during the same period.


So what have I learnt? A Colonel commanded a column Colunela and in time the unit was renamed to Coronelía to reflect the commander (Coronelía means colonelship or colonelcy).

The column Colunela was only 800-1,500 men. I find the 6,000 man official strength of the Coronelía unconvincing.

All Spaniards fought offensively. The fight started with the arquebusiers. The pikes were there to defend the arquebusiers. And the sword-and-buckler guys were there to break pike deadlock. That dictated formation. Pikes in the centre, sword-and-buckler behind, and arquebusiers to the flanks. Anyway, that is the official story. I wonder what an analysis of the actual battles would reveal.


Gilbert, A. (Ed.) (2000). Encyclopaedia of Warfare: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day. Routledge.

Gush, G. (1975). Renaissance Armies 1480-1650. Patrick Stephens.

Mariejol, J. H. (1961). Th eSpain of Ferdinand and Isabella. (B. Keen, trans. & ed.). Rutgers University Press.

Notario Lopez, I., and Notario Lopez, I. (2012). The Spanish Tercios 1536-1704 [Men-at-Arms 481]. Osprey.

Oman, C. (1987; originally 1937). A History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century. Greenhill.

Pohl, M. D. (2015). Armies of Castile and Aragon 1370-1516. Osprey [Men-at-Arms 500].

Taylor, F. (1993; originally 1921). The art of war in Italy 1494-1529. Essex, UK: Partizan Press.

Turnball, S. (2006) The Art of Renaissance Warfare: From the Fall of Constantinople to the Thirty Years War. Greenhill Books.

Wikipedia: Rodeleros

Wikipedia: Colunela [Spanish]

Wikipedia: Coronelía [Spanish]

1 thought on “Italian Wars – How did the Spanish colunela deploy in battle?”

  1. During COVID 2020 I started wargaming italian wars using peter dennis’ designed figures, manufactured by wofun games – great “ready painted” 18mm flats. At my age I have no more time left to paint figures 🙂
    Very helpful article. given me many ideas on how to build on the simple “andy callan” rules to reflect the actual intricacies of renaissance warfare.
    Much appreciated. Many thanks.


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