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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Swiss Army in Italy in 1513: and the Battle of Novara

By Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886)

From the ‘History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations’

THE FOUR thousand Swiss who were in the country retired from place to place. When thus the whole country rose up in revolt, the French from the Castle of Milan again marched through the city as lords and masters, and the four thousand with their duke at their head fled to Novara, the very city where Lodovico had been betrayed,—all appeared to be at an end; and Trivulzio boasted that he had the Swiss like molten lead in a spoon.

But on this occasion he boasted prematurely. The Swiss replied to his attempts to persuade them, “With arms should he try them, and not with words.” They all followed in this matter the advice of Benedict von Weingarten,—a man, according to Anselm, stout, upright, and wise,—who, though he unwillingly took the command, led them bravely. The French attacks met with almost more contempt than resistance. The gates of Novara were left open, and the breach-holes hung with sheets. Whilst thus the Swiss, by this show of unanimous bravery, wiped out the shame of Novara of fourteen years before, their confederates of the reserve crossed the mountains: the greater portion, the Waldstadts and Berne, came over the St. Gothard and down by the Lake Maggiore; whilst the smaller contingent, the Zürichers and Churwalden, crossed the Little St. Bernard and descended to Lake Como. A messenger soon arrived, asking “why they hurried? there was no danger;” a priest shortly afterwards made the announcement that “the duke and all the Swiss had been slain.” But they collected, and resolved to find their comrades, dead or alive. Both forces hastened; the nearest road from the St. Gothard was chosen; and on July 5th the greater part of the force had arrived close to Novara.

On the same day the French raised the siege. On the road to Trecas, Trivulzio selected a rising knoll called Riotta, which, owing to ditches and marshes, was well suited for defense; they bivouacked here at night, mounted their guns, and intended the following morning to fix their iron palisade. Their good intrenchments emboldened them to await the coming of the six thousand lansquenets, who with five hundred fresh lances were already in the Susa Valley.

As soon as the Swiss appear in the field, their whole thought is battle. They have neither generals nor plans, nor yet any carefully considered strategy: the God of their fathers and St. Urs, their strong arm and the halberd, are enough for them, and their bravery shows them the way. Those who had arrived at Novara on June 6th refreshed themselves with a draught, an hour’s sleep, and another draught; and then, without waiting for the Zürichers, they all—both those who had been there and the fresh arrivals—rushed in disorder, like a swarm of bees flying from the hive into the summer sun, as Anselm describes it, through the gates and the breaches, into the open. They were almost without guns, entirely without cavalry, and many were without armor; but all the same they rushed on the enemy, well intrenched as he was behind good artillery, and upon those knights “without fear and blame” in full cuirass.

They stood face to face with the enemy; the first rays of the rising sun flashed from their breastplates; they seemed to them like a hill of gleaming steel.

They first attacked the lances and cannon of Robert von der Mark. Here were engaged the smaller body, in whose front ranks stood with their spears the bravest heroes,—two Diesbachs, Ærni Winkelried, and Niklaus Conrad, all distinguished for their ancestry or the nobility of virtue: the greater body, almost more by instinct than intention, made in the midst of the smoke and the first effect of the hostile artillery a detour round a copse; it sought and found the lansquenets. As these latter were reinforced by artillery, the Swiss again separated. Some fought against the Black Flags; the greater part, however, threw themselves upon the guns. Thus they fought in three distinct places: the first against the knights, who often broke up their own ranks and appeared behind their flags,—but they always rallied and threw back their assailants; the next, four hundred men, wielding the halberd in both hands, fought against a company of Fleuranges’s Black Flags, dealing blow for blow and thrust for thrust; whilst the third and greatest body were engaged with the lansquenets, who, besides cannon, had eight hundred arquebuses. But soon the rain of bullets ceased: only the clash of swords and the crash of pikes was audible. At length the flags of the lansquenets sank; their leaders were buried under a heap of slain; their cannon were lost, and employed against them. Meanwhile the Blacks also gave way. Robert von der Mark looked about him: he saw his foot soldiery and his sons lost; in order to save these, he also retreated. He found them among the dead, among the victors, bleeding still from wounds, and rescued them. In vain did Trivulzio appeal to St. Catherine and St. Mark; he too, as well as Tremouille who was wounded, was forced to retire. The Swiss gave no quarter to the fugitives whom they overtook; they then returned, ordered their ranks for prayer, and knelt down to give thanks to God and their saints. They next set about dividing the spoil and burying the dead.

It was the second hour in the morning when the tidings of the issue of the battle reached Milan. The French, who in anticipation of victory had left the castle, immediately fled,—some back thither, others to the churches and their friends’ palaces; the Ghibelline faction at once rose, and city and country returned to their allegiance to Maximilian Sforza. The Swiss undertook to chastise those who had revolted. They compelled the Astesans who had left their houses to pay one hundred thousand ducats; Savoy, which had gone over to the enemy, fifty thousand; and Montferrat, which had insulted their ambassador, one hundred thousand. This event enabled the Spaniards to hold their heads high. In Genoa they restored the Fregosi, who had been expelled for twenty-one days, and Ottaviano among them; they reconquered Bergamo, Brescia, and Peschiera, which also had revolted.

After this victory, the Swiss enjoyed far greater power in Milan than ever before. “What you have restored by your blood and your strength,” wrote Maximilian Sforza, “shall belong for the future as much to you as to me;” and these were not empty words. The Swiss perceived that they were strong enough to attempt other achievements. “If we could only reckon upon obedience in our men,” they were heard to say, “we would march through the whole of France, long and broad, as it is.”