The battle of the Garigliano (28-29 December 1503) was the second of two major Spanish victories won in Naples during 1503 that saw the French expelled from the south of Italy.
The Second Italian War (1499-1503) had two phases. In 1499 Louis XII expelled Ludovico Sforza from Milan, and in 1500 he defeated an attempted Sforza comeback. Ludovico was captured and spent the rest of his life in exile in France.
The second phase of the war saw a joint Franco-Spanish invasion of Naples. In the Treaty of Granada of 11 November 1500 Louis and Ferdinand II of Aragon secretly agreed to split the kingdom between them, officially because it was vulnerable to an Ottoman takeover, but both monarchs had a claim to the kingdom.
Naples quickly fell to the allies, Capua fell to the French in June 1501, King Frederick fled from Naples in August, and the Spanish secured Taranto in March 1502.
Soon after this the allies fell out. The French commander, Louis d'Armagnac, duke of Nemours, had more men than his Spanish rival, Gonsalvo de Cordoba, and the Spanish were forced to take shelter in the port of Barletta in Apulia. Nemour imposed a loose blockade that lasted from August 1502 until April 1503, when Cordoba received reinforcements. He advanced out of Barletta and took up a new position at Cerignola. On 26 April the French attacked the new Spanish positions and suffered a heavy defeat (Battle of Cerignola). The Spanish captured Naples, and then began a siege of Gaeta (June-October 1503).
Louis responded by sending a fresh army south into Naples, commanded by Marshal Louis de la Trémoille. The French and their Italian allies had around 23,000 men, and once again Cordoba was outnumbered.
The French advanced down the Latin Way, following the valleys of the Sacco and then the Liri. Cordoba took up a position at San Germano, Aquino and Roccasecca, blocking their way. This forced him to lift the siege of Gaeta, and part of the garrison, under Yves d'Allègre, joined the main French army. The French attacked Roccasecca, at the right of the Spanish line, but were beaten off.
In October 1503 the French moved back up the Latin Way to Ceprano, and then moved around the Spanish position to reach the Garigliano River. They then advanced south down the right bank of the river, heading towards the coast and the Appian Way. Cordoba took up position on the left bank of the river, and stopped their progress.
A standoff now developed across the river. La Trémoille fell ill, and so command passed to Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua (the League commander at the Battle of Fornovo in 1495). The two armies now began to suffer from the swampy conditions, winter weather and poor supplies. The French were also short of supplies and there was dissension in their ranks. Gonzaga quickly lost his patience with his French allies, and withdrew from command, officially because of illness. He was replaced by Ludovico, Marquis of Saluzzo, who also suffered from poor relations with his French troops.
The French did manage to get a bridge across the river, but failed to cross it. Cordoba harassed them with a series of raids along the river, but didn’t risk a major attack. In order to improve the supply situation the French pulled back a short distance and spread out.
The Battle (28-29 December 1503).
The stalemate ended when Cordoba was reinforcing, giving him 15,000 men. He decided to risk an attack on the French position. He built a bridge across the river upstream of the French position under the cover of bad weather, and then hit the French and Italians from the flanks, hitting each of their camps in turn. Pierre Terrail, seigneur of Bayard, was said to have single-handedly defended one bridge for two hours against 200 men during the French retreat from their most exposed positions, but that wasn’t enough to save the day. The French and Italian were soon forced to withdraw from the river, with some heading for Gaeta and others for Rome. Gaeta, which had held out for several months before the battle, surrendered on terms on 1 January 1504.
The Spanish also had some Italian troops on their side, and the quality of their victory was aided by Bartolomeo Alviano's skilful leadership of a light cavalry force. He has also commanded the first troops across the river at the start of the battle.
Many of the refugees drowned while attempting to reach Rome. Amongst them was Piero de' Medici, the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent and exiled former ruler of Florence.
The battle of the Garigliano firmly established Spanish rule in Naples. In 1505 Louis XII and Ferdinand II agreed the Treaty of Blois, in which Louis passed his claim to Naples to Ferdinand through a marriage alliance, but this marriage failed to produce heirs, and the French claim to Naples remained a factor for most of the rest of the Italian Wars.