Battle of Fornovo, 6 July 1495

The battle of Fornovo (6 July 1495) was an unsuccessful attempt by an Italian army to stop Charles VIII of France during his retreat from Naples in the summer of 1495. In 1494 Charles had invaded Italy in an attempt to conquer the Kingdom of Naples (First Italian War/ Italian War of Charles VIII). Charles had inherited the Angevin claim to the kingdom, which was then ruled by Alfonso II, a member of an originally illegitimate branch of the royal dynasty of Aragon. The initial French advance went well. Milan was an ally. Medici-ruled Florence fell quickly, and the French helped with the restoration of Republican government. Pope Alexander VI realised that he didn't have the military strength to resist the French, and allowed them to pass through his lands. As the French approached Alfonso abdicated in favour of his more popular son Ferdinand II, but the new king was also unable to stop the French and was forced to flee to Sicily. Charles entered Naples early in 1495 and began to establish his authority.

The rapid French progress south had greatly alarmed the Italian powers. Pope Alexander VI led the formation of a alliance against Charles, the League of Venice. This included Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain (Ferdinand was king of Aragon and Sicily and related to Ferdinand of Naples), the Emperor Maximilian, Venice, and even Milan, where the newly enthroned Duke Ludovico Sforza, realised that Charles also posed a threat to his own rule.

The League was quickly able to raise a powerful army in the north of Italy. The Milanese laid siege to Novara, defended by a French garrison, while the main part of the army, perhaps as many as 40,000 men under the command of Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua, prepared to stop Charles escaping from Italy. This part of the League Army was funded by Venice, and included a significant number of stradioti, light cavalry from Albania.

Charles left Naples in May at the head of 7,200 French cavalry, 4,000 Swiss pikemen and 2,000 Gascon crossbowmen. The rest of his army was left in Naples in an unsuccessful attempt to hold onto his conquest. Charles was able to advance most of the way up the Italian peninsula without any problem, but the danger came when he had to cross the Apennine Mountains to get back into the Po Valley. He chose to advance to Pontremoli and then over a pass into the Taro valley, then follow the valley downstream, emerging in the Po Valley between Cremona and Parma.

The League army decided to stop him at Fornovo, near the northern end of the valley. They were camped on the right bank of the river, blocking the normal route down the valley.

On 5 July Charles attempted to negotiation his way past the League Army, but his efforts failed. On 6 July the French resumed their advance, but in order to try and avoid a major battle Charles ordered his men to cross to the left bank of the river. The French then advanced quickly down the valley, with 3,000 of the Swiss and a large part of the French force in the advance guard (on the assumption that this part of the army would see the hardest fighting). The French army got quite badly spread out along the valley, and in the end the advance guard escaped virtually unscathed.

The main League force, under Giovanni Gonzago, attempted to attack Charles's main battle, in the centre of his line, but the League troops had to move south to find a ford, while the French continued to move north. As a result Gonzago's attack fell on the French rear-guard, commanded by Louis de la Trémouille. Charles, with the main battle, turned back to support the rearguard. An Italian cavalry attack on Charles's force was repulsed, and the defeated cavalry was chased back to the ford. This setback caused a great deal of confusion in the League army, and stopped Gonzago's attack.

That effectively ended the battle. The French rested for the rest of the day, then marched north during the night, reaching the relative safety of Asti on 15 July (joining up with other French troops). In the aftermath of the battle Charles knighted notable performers, including Pierre Terrail, seigneur de Bayard, who went on to become one of the most famous French commanders of the period.

Both sides claimed victory in the battle - the Venetians and League forces because they had inflicted more casualties, and the French because they had evaded the League trap. The French had the better claim to victory, but their position in the north of Italy was still weak. Their fleet was captured at Rapallo, and the loot taken from Naples was lost, while the Duke of Orleans was forced to surrender at Novara before a relief army could arrive. Charles decided to make peace with Ludovico Sforza at Milan, and in mid-October returned back across the Alps to France. At about the same time as Charles was evading the League trap at Fornovo, Ferdinand II was being welcomed back into the city of Naples, and with Spanish support he was soon able to regain control of his kingdom.

The Pope’s Army – The Papacy in Diplomacy and War, John Carr. A military and political history of the Papacy, from the earliest years under Roman rule, through the long period where the Pope was also the temporal ruler of the Papal States, through the unification of Italy and on to the present day. An entertaining dash through the almost two thousand long life of one of the oldest institutions in the world (Read Full Review)
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (18 August 2014), Battle of Fornovo, 6 July 1495 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_fornovo.html

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