Battle of Cerignola

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Battle of Cerignola
Part of the Third Italian War
Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba finds the corpse of Louis d'Armagnac. Federico de Madrazo, 1835. Museo del Prado.
Date28 April 1503
Cerignola (present-day Italy)
Result Spanish victory
Armoiries Espagne Catholique.svg Castile and Aragon  France
Commanders and leaders
Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba
Prospero Colonna
Pedro Navarro
Fabrizio Colonna
Duke of Nemours 
Yves d'Alègre
Pierre du Terrail


20 guns


  • 650 French gendarmes
  • 1,100 light horse
  • 3,500 Swiss infantry
  • 2,500-3,500 French infantry
40 guns (arrived too late)
Casualties and losses
500 total casualties 4,000 killed

The Battle of Cerignola was fought on 28 April 1503, between Spanish and French armies, in Cerignola, Apulia (some 60 km from Bari).[2] Spanish forces, under Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, formed by 6,300 men, including 2,000 landsknechte, with more than 1,000 arquebusiers, and 20 cannons, defeated the French who had 9,000 men; mainly heavy gendarme cavalry and Swiss mercenary pikemen, with about 40 cannons, and led by Louis d'Armagnac, Duke of Nemours, who was killed. It was one of the first European battles won by gunpowder weapons, as the assault by Swiss pikemen and French cavalry was shattered by the fire of Spanish arquebusiers behind a ditch.


The Second Italian War was re-kindled in late 1502, over disagreements on the Treaty of Granada of 11 November 1500. Although it was agreed that Louis XII should assume the throne of Naples, Louis and the monarchs of Spain soon quarreled over the division of the rest of the spoils. Soon war broke out again between France and Spain.[3] The Spanish forces, led by the "Great Captain" (El Gran Capitán) Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba avoided contact with the enemy at first, hoping to lure the French into complacency. After a series of skirmishes, the Battle of Cerignola was the first major engagement in this phase of the war, alongside the Battle of Seminara (Calabria) fought a week before.

Córdoba was outnumbered but had the advantage of the terrain, with the Spanish occupying and fortifying the heights of Cerignola with trenches and stakes.

The Spanish infantry was organized into a new type of unit called coronelías, the immediate predecessor of the later tercios. They were armed with a mix of pikes, arquebuses, and swords. This type of formation had revolutionized the Spanish army, which like the French, had centred on cavalry well into the 15th century, in the battles of the Reconquista against the Muslims in Spain. In front of the hillside, a trench was dug in which the arquebusiers took their positions. The Spanish artillery was placed on top of the hill among the vineyards, having a good view of the entire battlefield. The jinetes, Spanish light cavalry, were placed in front of the rest of the army, while the Spanish heavy cavalry under Prospero Colonna were kept in reserve.[4]

Córdoba's troops faced a professional French army based on the Ordonnance reforms, relying on the heavily armoured cavalry of the Compagnies d'ordonnance and mercenary Swiss pikemen. This army also had more artillery than the Spanish, but the French artillery would not arrive in time to take active part in the battle.[citation needed]

The battle[edit]

The battle began with two charges by the French heavy cavalry against the centre of the Spanish army, but these were both repulsed by intense Spanish artillery and arquebus fire. The next assault tried to force the Spanish right flank, but many of the French cavalrymen fell into the Spanish trench and the attack was then thrown back by a storm of fire from the Spanish arquebusiers. One of those killed by the arquebus volleys was the French commander Duke of Nemours, making him probably the first general killed in action by small-arms fire.[citation needed] With the Swiss commander, Chandieu, taking charge, the Swiss infantry attacked with the cavalry instead of waiting for the arrival of the French rearguard and artillery under Yves d'Alègre. Seeing the imminent French assault upon his center, Córdoba withdrew the arquebusiers to the flanks and the Landsknechts sent forward. The Swiss formations, soon joined by the Gascons, were unable to break into the defensive positions. Held by the Landsknechts in the front, fired into their flanks by the arquebusiers and harassed by the Spanish light cavalry, the Swiss and French were driven back, taking heavy casualties, including Chandieu.

Córdoba then called for a counterattack against the now disorganized enemy by both the Spanish infantry and the heavy Spanish cavalry waiting in reserve. Mounted arquebusiers surrounded and routed the remaining French gendarmes, but the Swiss pikemen managed to retreat in a relatively organized fashion.[4]

Upon witnessing the defeat of both the gendarmes and the pikemen, d'Alègre called for a withdrawal. He was pursued by the victorious Spanish jinetes.[4]

"..what happened in the battle of Chirinola {Cerignola}; where an Italian, believing the Spanish were beaten, threw fire in the powder wagons, and the army being confused by such an accident, El Gran Capitan was encouraged saying 'good sign friends, those are the lights of victory' and thus it was." [5]


The battle resulted in a heavy French defeat with the French reported to have lost around 4,000 men killed,[6] with Spanish losses amounting to some 500 men.[4] The French supplies, wagon train, and all of the French artillery still in it fell into the hands of the victorious Spanish troops. The end of the battle saw the first time a "call to prayer" (toque de oracion) was issued, a practice that was later adopted by most Western armies, when the Great Captain, upon seeing the fields full of French bodies (who, like the Spaniards, were Christian), ordered three long tones to be played and his troops to pray for all the fallen.

After the battle the defeated French army retreated to the fortress of Gaeta north of Naples. De Córdoba's forces attempted to storm the fortress, but the attacks all failed. The besieged French were prepared for a long siege and were receiving supplies by sea. Thus unable to take Gaeta and fearing the arrival of possible French reinforcements, de Córdoba lifted the siege and retreated to Castellone, some 8 kilometers south of Gaeta.[4]

In retrospect, Cerignola marks the beginning of 140 years of Spanish dominance on European battlefields until the defeat of Rocroi in 1643 and also marked the rise of pike and shot tactics. It is considered to be the first major battle won largely through the use of firearms, comparable to what was to occur in Japan seven decades later in the Battle of Nagashino in 1575.


  1. ^ a b Mallet, p64 - combined strength deducted from contingents
  2. ^ Spencer C. Tucker, A Global Chronology of Conflict: From the Ancient World to the Modern Middle East, vol. 1, ABC-CLIO, (2009), p. 477.
  3. ^ Michael Mallett and Christine Shaw, The Italian Wars: 1494–1559, p. 61.
  4. ^ a b c d e Tafiłowski, Piotr (2007). Wojny włoskie 1494-1559. Zabrze: Inforeditions. ISBN 978-83-89943-18-7.
  5. ^ 'Empresas Politicas: O idea de un Principe Politico Christiano representada en cien empreses' Tomo Tres, by Don Diego de Saavedra Faxardo, Madrid 1789, p. 7,8
  6. ^ Mallet, p65


  • Batista González, Juan (2007). España Estratégica. Guerra y Diplomacia en la Historia de España. Sílex. ISBN 978-84-7737-183-0
  • Cassidy, Ben. "Machiavelli and the Ideology of the Offensive: Gunpowder Weapons in the Art of War." Journal of Military History 67#2 (2003): 381-404. online
  • Losada, Juan Carlos (2006). Batallas Decisivas de la Historia de España. Punto de Lectura. ISBN 978-84-663-1484-8
  • Mallet, Michael and Shaw, Christine. The Italian Wars 1494-1559. Harlow: Pearson Educated Limited (2012) ISBN 978-0-582-05758-6.
  • Tafiłowski, Piotr (2007). Wojny włoskie 1494-1559. Zabrze: Inforeditions. ISBN 978-83-89943-18-7

Coordinates: 41°16′N 15°54′E / 41.267°N 15.900°E / 41.267; 15.900