Battle of Legnano
|Battle of Legnano|
|Part of Guelphs and Ghibellines|
The Battle of Legnano
(1831 painting by Massimo d'Azeglio)
|Holy Roman Empire||Lombard League|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Frederick I Barbarossa||Guido da Landriano|
|3,000 men||3,500 men|
|Casualties and losses|
The Lombard League
The Lombard League was formed in 1167, largely out of the Veronese League. It was a Union of Lombard cities promising each other unity, against Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa. The cities of Lombardy swore their oath of mutual protection at Pontida, a small village in the region.
After the disastrous defeat of Pope Alexander III at the Battle of Monte Porzio in May 1167 by the imperial forces, the Lombard League remained as the last legitimate fighting force opposing the emperor and was therefore heavily backed by the pope.
Frederick's 5th Italian Campaign
In September 1174, Frederick embarked on his fifth Italian campaign, to quench the constant revolts in Lombardy and settle his quarrels with Pope Alexander III. Frederick led a force of 8,000 knights over the Alps and arrived in Piedmont in late September. His cousin Henry the Lion and his forces were once again not a part of the imperial campaign. Frederick wanted to take revenge on Susa for its behaviour of 1168, and on September 30 his forces captured and burned down the town. His next goal was the town of Asti, which he captured after a seven-day siege. In October, Frederick finally received the promised imperial reinforcements from Bohemia. Upon Frederick's rapid and fierce initial success, Margrave William of Montferrat and the Count of Biandrate abandoned the Lombard League.
Siege of Alessandria
The siege of Alessandria was an important event in Frederick's fifth campaign as this was a campaign of revenge, with the aim of the total destruction of the Lombard League and the removal of the Pope Alexander III. Frederick's next goal was therefore the Lombard city of Alessandria. Alessandria was founded by Milanese refugees, who fled after Frederick's forces burned and destroyed the city of Milan in 1162 and named after Pope Alexander III. The siege of the "Straw City", called so because all the roofs were covered with straw, began at the end of October. To Frederick's surprise and anger, his forces were not able to take the city so he had to spend the winter in front of its gates. On Holy Saturday, Frederick's forces managed to enter the city by digging tunnels under its walls, but the attack was repulsed by the Milanese with heavy losses. Alessandria withstood, and that was the first victory of the Lombard League. Frederick had to break off the siege due to an advancing Lombard army and retreated to Pavia.
Treaty of Montebello
On April 16, 1175, Frederick and the Lombard League attempted to negotiate peace at the Castle of Montebello, but after long talks, negotiations broke with no result. Frederick knew that a battle was imminent and traveled to Chiavenna to meet Henry the Lion. Henry the Lion however refused to help his cousin as he thought that Frederick's defeat would allow him to obtain greater power.
After Frederick's setback at Alessandria, the failed agreement of Montebello, and the refusal of his cousin Henry the Lion to help him, Frederick finally received some good news and reinforcements from Germany. The German reinforcements crossed the Lukmanier Pass into the Lake Como region in April 1176. Frederick I Barbarossa, Philip I of Heinsberg, and Archbishop Wichmann of Magdeburg rode secretly from Pavia along the Ticino River to meet the reinforcements and to lead them to a joint operation with his main forces. Frederick received 1,000 knights and 1,000 foot soldiers from 16 different German rulers. At Como, Lombard imperial allies increased the reinforcements to a total of about 3,000 knights and foot soldiers. However, the Imperial army was largely a cavalry force of German knights.
The Milanese were informed about Frederick's plan and prepared for battle. A Carroccio, or a sacred war wagon drawn by oxen, was built and was decorated with the city standard and an altar upon which the cross of Archbishop Aribert of Milan was erected. In 1038, Archbishop Aribert had led the victorious defence of Milan against the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II; Aribert's cross was therefore a symbol of victory against the Empire. According to Sire Raoul, a chronicler from Milan, 900 knights came from Milan and around 550 knights from three other towns, the rest of the League's forces were foot soldiers. The legendary "Company of Death" was a foot soldier unit that, according to later chronicles, was led by the in fact fictional Alberto da Giussano, and which formed the core of the Lombard infantry. The Lombard League, actually, was led by Guido da Landriano.
While Frederick and his reinforcements were on their way back to Pavia to join the main imperial force, the Lombard League placed about 3,500 men near the west bank of the Olona. The infantry, with the Milanese war cart, the carroccio, stood in a hastily fortified position at Borsano. The Lombards knew that Frederick was about to skirt through their area, but did not realize how close he already was. At dawn on May 29, the Lombard League sent a reconnaissance unit of 700 horsemen to the Seprio area. At the same time, the emperor had crossed the Olona and was marching south from Cairate, five miles northeast of Busto Arsizio.
Here, the battle commenced. The Lombard reconnaissance force and the 300 strong Imperial vanguard clashed. The clash was brief and bloody and with Frederick already on the horizon, the Lombard reconnaissance broke off and fled beyond Borsano. At this Frederick and his imperial German army launched a full blooded attack on the Lombard League forces near Borsano – Legnano. The Lombard cavalry was largely routed but managed to escape the skirmish, leaving the infantry and carroccio on its own. Frederick advanced to the carroccio and assaulted the infantry and the Company of Death with his cavalry.
M.B. Synge wrote this about the Company of Death: "Nine hundred desperate patriots forming the Company of Death defended the sacred car. Seeing the Germans were gaining ground, fearful for the safety of their treasure, they suddenly knelt down and renewed their vow to God that they would perish for their country".
The infantry positioned itself in a phalanx-like line. The fight around the carroccio was a long and bloody fight in which the Lombard League infantry brought the Imperial army to a stalemate. Finally, the Lombard League forces received help from their regrouped cavalry and from a Brescian cavalry force that was called to their aid by the fleeing reconnaissance troops. The regrouped reconnaissance troops and the Brescian cavalry jointly attacked Frederick's army from the rear. The decisive assault was made by the Brescians, who managed to break through the lines and attack Frederick directly. In this attack his guards and standard-bearer were killed, and Frederick was thrown off his horse and believed to be dead. Upon this the imperial troops panicked and fled, pursued to the Ticino by the League's cavalry. The generals tried in vain to rally the men. The booty and prisoners taken by the League were immense.
After the battle, Frederick's rule over Lombardy was decisively broken. The knights that managed to escape gathered in Pavia. There, they brought the news of Frederick's presumed death to his wife Beatrice I, Countess of Burgundy. Beatrice and the Empire mourned Frederick's demise, but after several days the emperor appeared at the gates of Pavia.
H. E. Marshall wrote: "Then, greatly to the joy of all, after three days Barbarossa suddenly appeared before the gates of Pavia. Although wounded and bruised and left for dead Frederick had not been killed."
The victory of the Lombard League forced Frederick to travel to Venice. In the Peace of Venice, 1177, Frederick and Pope Alexander III were reconciled. The emperor acknowledged the pope's sovereignty over the Papal States, and in return Alexander acknowledged the emperor's overlordship of the Imperial Church. The Peace of Venice was heavily instigated by Archbishop Wichmann of Magdeburg, who was amongst the defeated at Legnano. The cities of Lombardy, however, continued to fight until 1183, when, in the Peace of Constance, Frederick conceded their right to freely elect town magistrates. The Treaty was cast in bronze.
Frederick did not forgive Henry the Lion for refusing to come to his aid in 1176. Taking advantage of the hostility of other German princes to Henry, Frederick had Henry tried in absentia by a court of bishops and princes in 1180, declared that imperial law overruled traditional German law, and had Henry stripped of his lands and declared an outlaw.
The battle is traditionally tied to the name of Legnano, since the League's forces came from that town. Actually, as local historians have ascertained, the battle was fought a couple miles west of Legnano, where today the little town of Villa Cortese and Borsano, frazione of Busto Arsizio, stand.
National unification references
In a proclamation issued in Bergamo on August 3, 1848, the revolutionary leader Garibaldi referred to the historic Battle of Legnano as a source of inspiration for his own struggle for the unification of Italy: "Bergamo will be the Pontida of the present generation, and God will bring us a Legnano!". In a similar vein Il Canto degli Italiani, written in 1847 and now the Italian national anthem, contains the lines, "From the Alps to Sicily, Legnano is everywhere."
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- The Encyclopedia of World History, p.208 / by Peter N. Stearns, William Leonard Langer; 2001
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- *Troisi, Francesco (May 2010). "Quel 29 Maggio del 1176". Medioevo (in Italian): 18–29.
- Paolo Grillo, Legnano 1176. Una battaglia per la libertà, p.161
- M. B. Synge, The Discovery of the New World, p. 85
- H.E. Marshall, The History of Germany, p. 215
- Lucy Rial, "Garibaldi, Invention of a Hero", p.74