Gaston de Foix, Duke of Nemours, 1489-1512

Gaston de Foix, Duke of Nemours (1489-1512) was a French commander in Italy whose period of dramatic success was cut short by his death towards the end of the battle of Ravenna.

Gaston de Foix was a member of a family with an impressive military heritage. His father, John de Foix, Viscount of Narbonne, had attempted to claim the throne of Navarre, but had been defeated after a civil war that ended in 1497. His older sister Germaine was the second wife of Ferdinand II of Aragon, who used her claim when he successfully invaded Navarre.
Gaston was also a nephew of Louis XII of France, and had been made Duke of Nemours in 1507. The previous duke, Louis d'Armagnac, had died in battle in Italy at Cerignola (28 April 1503).

Foix came to prominence during the War of the Holy League (1510-14). This saw Pope Julius II create an anti-French league (replacing his anti-Venetian League of Cambrai). The early attacks on Louis XII's position in Italy went badly for the Pope - attacks on Genoa and Ferrara both failed, and the only Papal success of 1510 was the defence of Bologna against an army led by Chaumont d'Amboise. 

1511 saw Papal forces take Mirandola, only to lose it a few months later (by now Amboise had died and the French army was commanded by Gian Giacomo Trivulzio of Milan). The Papal army was then defeated at Casalecchio (21 May 1511) and Bologna was captured. Pope Julius managed a remarkable comeback from this low point. Early in 1512 his Venetian allies recaptured Brescia and Bergamo, while a Spanish and Papal army under Raymond of Cardona was besieging Bologna.

Late in 1511 Louis gave the twenty-one year old Gaston de Foix command of his armies in Italy, making him Governor of Milan. His first task was to repel a Swiss attack on Milan in November 1511, but early in 1512 he was able to turn his attention to the Venetian, Papal and Spanish forces.

His first move was to lift the siege of Bologna. He arrived outside the besieged city in January 1512, catching the besiegers by surprise. They were forced to abandon the siege and retreated to Ravenna. Foix's next target was Brescia. In February 1512 he defeated a Venetian army near the city (at Isola della Scala), and then stormed Brescia.

His next target was Ravenna, in the hope of forcing the Spanish to offer battle. Sure enough a relief army soon arrived, commanded by Cardona and Pedro Navarro, count of Alvetto. Foix issued a formal challenge to battle, which was accepted by the Spanish. They took up a position with their backs to the Ronco River, and their front protected by entrenchments created by Navarro.

The battle of Ravenna (11 April 1512) started with an artillery duel. At first both sides stood firm, but eventually the Spanish cavalry couldn't take it any more and charged the French. This attack was defeated, leaving the Spanish infantry unsupported. Foix then sent his infantry forward, and an hour-long melee followed. The deadlock was broken when Foix sent two guns across the Ronco, from where they could hit the Spanish infantry in the rear. The Spanish lines broke under this unexpected assault, and the infantry fled south.

Although the battle had ended as a major French victory, that victory was marred by the death of Foix. He was killed while attempting to tackle a more determined unit of Spanish infantry during the pursuit of the beaten Spanish army.

The death of Foix took the heart out of the French campaign. He was replaced by Marshal Jacques de la Palice, who lacked his drive. The French were eventually forced to retreat out of Lombardy. When the War of the Holy League ended the French had lost control of Milan, but had repulsed a series of attacks on France. If Foix had survived then their position in Italy would probably have been much stronger - Spain and the Emperor Maximilian only joined the Holy League after his death, and may not have taken the same risk if he had still been in command.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (7 November 2014), Gaston de Foix, Duke of Nemours, 1489-1512 ,

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