The French Army of the Early Italian Wars
By Curt Johnson


The fabled companies of gendarmes--the first European standing army -- were established by an ordinance of King Charles VII on 26 May 1445 (hence, they were called compagnies d'ordonnance, or ordinance companies). There were 15 companies, each consisting of 100 "lances." The lance, which was the basic building-block of the company, consisted of six men: the gendarme (gen d'arme, or man-at-arms) himself, three archers, one page (ecuyer, or squire), and one coustillier. Thus, the companies seemed to have numbered about 600 men each. There was in addition a subunit of the company called the "banner," which had 25-80 lances, or 150-480 men.
Company officers were as follows:
        2 Ensigns
        Maréchal des logis
The gendarmes wore tunics over their armor that were in the color of their captain's livery and bore his arms or device. Officers wore sashes in the color of the captain's livery.
Some companies were larger than the norm. For example, in 1495, when the average company consisted of 100 lances, that of the constable had 400 lances.
The gendarmes fought in complete armor, the armor of the horse and rider weighing about 80 kilograms. The page carried the lance when it was not in use. The coustillier, or valet, was armed with the coutille, a short, double-edged sword used for dispatching a downed enemy, and had a helmet.
In 1467 each lance had six men and six horses: the gendarme, his page, his coustilier, two archers, and one varlet.
In 1474 the king replaced the two compagnies d'ordonnance assigned to duty as royal bodyguards by Charles VII with one company of 100 lances chosen from the gentlemen of his household. This unit was known as the gentilshommes des 20 écus, since the monthly pay of one of the troopers was 20 écus. The lance in this unit consisted of one gendarme and two archers.
The king retained the archers écossais à cheval organized by Charles VII.
During the reigns of Charles VIII and Louis XII both horse and rider were armored, the armor together weighing 75 to 82 kilograms.

Light Cavalry

As described in earlier numbers, the French were relatively weak in true light cavalry during the early stages of the Italian Wars. The principal light cavalry types employed by the French at this time were the stradiots and the arcoleti -- neither of which included native French troopers.


In the 15th Century the Ottoman Turks were able to add extensively to their conquests of the residue of the old Byzantine Roman Empire in the Balkans. By 1468 the region south of the Sava-Danube-Transylvanian Alps line had been largely conquered, and the Turks were engaged in the first of several grim wars with Venice over naval and commercial hegemony in the eastern Mediterranean.
One hero of the long struggle with the Turks was the Albanian patriot George Castriota (1403-1468), better remembered as Scanderbeg -- a corruption of his Turkish name, Iskender Bey. Castriota had been educated at the Turkish court but escaped in 1443 and subsequently led Albanian resistance against Turkish aggression. Aided by alliances with Aragon-Naples, Venice, and the Papacy, he managed to preserve Albanian independence until his death, whereupon his movement collapsed and his mountain stronghold was overrun. His followers fled to Venice. The exiled Albanians included many thousands of skilled light cavalrymen called stradiots, and these were integrated with the Venetian army and served in Venice's wars against the Turks and in the Republic's frequent wars and feuds with other Italian states and European powers.
The origin of the term stradiot has been the subject of some dispute. The duc d'Angoulême in his 17th Century manuscript history of French light cavalry advanced the curious notion that it derived from the Italian strada (highway), since one of the missions of the stradiots was to scout the highways ["battre l'estrade"] in advance of the army. Other writers have since repeated this opinion. It seems more likely that the term was derived from stratiotes, the Greek word for soldier.
The French first encountered the stradiots at the Battle of Fornovo (1495) and seem to have been quite impressed by them. One suspects that this was due more to their novelty than to admiration of the fighting qualities they displayed in the battle. Nonetheless, it was recognized that the stradiots represented a rather remarkable and versatile cavalry type that had no counterpart in the French army.
Stradiots could perform all the functions of light horse: scouting, raiding, outposting, and skirmishing. But, unlike other light horse of the day, they were not entirely out of place in the formal battle line. In fact, they showed subsequently at Genoa (1507), Cerisoles (1544), and Coutras (1587) that they could occasionally be very effective in loosely-formed bodies on the battlefield. Moreover, the stradiots were useful because they were a useful countermeasure to the light horse of other armies, which in Italy included Venetian stradiots, Spanish jinetes, and the virtually universal arcoleti. Not surprisingly, the French began to recruit stradiots for their own army very early in the Italian wars.
The exact date the stradiots were first recruited to French service is not certain. The duc d'Angoulême, who appears to have garbled his facts on occasion, stated that a 400-man company of "Moorish lancers," led by one George Castriota, joined Charles VIII's Italian expedition (1494-1495). Other writers, probably with greater justification, place the date in the reign of Louis XII. The duc d'Angoulême's statement seems historically unlikely. Leaving aside the impossible reappearance of the long-dead Castriota), Giovio, who meticulously catalogued the elements of the invasion force, does not mention stradiots with the French. Likewise Commines, or any of the other chroniclers. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, the stradiots seem first to have come to the attention of the French at Fornovo, that is, on Charles's withdrawal from Italy.
This leaves the possibility that stradiots were recruited into the French force that opposed Gonzalo de Cordoba in Naples during 1495-1498, where the French suffered acutely from their want of light horse to oppose the Spanish genitors. Oman, 41, states that the French first used stradiots in the campaign of Novara (1513).
The stradiots were described frequently by contemporary observers, they being somewhat a curiosity in the West. Commines stated that they were all Greeks from Durazzo and the Morea, who were costumed like Turks except for their headdress, which was a pointed bonnet, not the turban.
Guicciardini [Sidney Alexander's translation, p. 95] first mentions stradiots as part of the Italian allied army at Fornovo (2,200 men-at-arms, "more than 2,000" light horse, and 8,000 foot) in 1495. The stradiots were "for the most part Albanians and from the provinces near Greece, who had been brought into Italy by the Venetians, and retaining the same name they had in their country, are called stradiots."
Bayard's Loyal Serviteur [p. 223] described a clash between stradiots and Croats in 1510. The stradiots of Mercurio Rona, allied with the French, fell in with a party of Venetian Croats near Monselice. The Albanians considered the Croats "more Turks than Christian" and captured and butchered them (an attitude that has apparently persisted in the region until today!).
They cut off their heads [with scimitars] and spiked them on the ends of their stradiots [javelins shod with iron at both ends], asserting that they were not Christians. These men wore a strange headdress, for it was like a maiden's hood. And in the place where they put the head, it was furnished with five or six thick pieces of paper glued together, so that a sword did no more harm to it than to a secrete [steel cap worn under the helmet].


The French army had almost 2,000 arcoleti (Italian mounted archers) in 1499. This was the source of the horse which was known successively by the names of argoulets, arquebusiers à cheval, carabins, and (later) dragoons. They were always light cavalry, whether included in the ranks of the gendarmerie or the Maison, as they were later. Initially crossbowmen, they were later armed with pistols, then the arquebus, and had helmet, a cuirass cut away on the right shoulder, and a gantlet to protect the bridle hand.


The history of the regular French infantry may be said to have begun in the reign of King Louis XI, but it was, at best, a tentative and troubled beginning. Leaving aside the king's failed experiment with the francs archers, which was largely abandoned after the disaster of Guinegatte (1479), the first permanent French infantry units were the 24 bandes formed in the spring of 1480.
These bands, which were the equivalent of modern regiments, each consisted of 1,000 men (800 pikemen and 200 crossbowmen) commanded by a captain, who had a staff consisting of a lieutenant, an ensign (color-bearer), ten centeniers, and ten cinquanteniers. The band was subdivided into ten companies, each of 100 men, eight of which were pike and two of which were crossbowmen. The companies in turn were divided into four 25-man "squadrons," each of which was commanded by a "cap d'escadre."
The band was an administrative unit, since the French clung to the unwieldy medieval practice of a tripartite division of forces for battle (advance guard, battle, and rear guard). Normally, each of these divisions was composed of combined arms, although, as we shall see, this was not the case at Cerignola. The usual division of the infantry was to assign one-fourth to the advance guard, one-half to the battle or main body, and one-fourth to the rear guard.
The pikemen of a band or any combination of bands making up a tactical unit normally formed in a deep, compact block on the Swiss model. The number of ranks, of course, depended on the situation. The crossbowmen were divided into four firing platoons, each four ranks deep, which took up positions adjoining each of the four corners of the pike block. This typical tactical formation is shown in Figure 1a. A variant tactical formation, in which the crossbowmen formed in front of the pike block, is shown in Figure 1b. This was probably the formation employed by the French infantry at Cerignola.

The training of the original bands was carried out over a three-year period (1480-1483) at the famous camp of Pont de l'Arche by a body of Swiss infantry commanded by Guillaume de Diesbach. Besides the infantry, other elements of the national army, including the gendarmerie, passed through the camp, and for the first time in French history, combined arms training maneuvers were attempted. By all accounts the camp was a success, and the most obvious problems revealed by the disgrace of Guinegatte were solved. The infantry acquired discipline and a battle-proven drill, and the horse learned to cooperate with the infantry in the combined arms team.
Unfortunately, the death of Louis XI in 1483 brought an end to the camp of Pont de l'Arche. The bands were put into garrison in Picardy on France's northeast frontier (hence the title "vieux bandes de Picardie" -- "old bands of Picardy") and gradually lost their skills and readiness. By 1497, when Charles VIII launched his Italian expedition, they were in a deplorable state. The king, who had largely neglected the military reforms of his father, was forced to recruit mercenary bands to supply his need for heavy infantry.
The mercenaries -- Swiss, when they were available, and Germans or "counterfeit Swiss" (the men of the Grisons and the Valais) otherwise -- became the most important infantry element in French armies of the period. The Swiss, above all, were valued for their discipline and proven military prowess, but their German imitators, the "landsknecht," were accounted their near equals. Indeed, the two groups were so similar in drill and tactics that contemporaries often confused them. D'Auton, for example, calls the Swiss serving in the French army at Cerignola "Allemans," and Machiavelli identifies the French landsknecht at Ravenna as Swiss.
Under the circumstances the native French infantry became an almost negligible adjunct to the mercenary bands. There is no evidence that any of the old regular bands served in Italy or any that new regular bands were formed for the Italian campaigns. Instead, temporary bands of regional infantry, often composed of specialist missile-men (gens de trait), were recruited to provide the firepower and skirmishing capabilities that the Swiss lacked. But the importance of infantry firepower was not yet recognized, and the French tactical system of the early Italian Wars, which was based squarely on the tremendous shock power of cavalry gendarmes and Swiss pikemen operating in tandem, would admit no substantial battlefield role for the missile men. They were useful for opening an action but otherwise only insofar as they relieved the Swiss of the outposting and garrison duties which the mercenaries found onerous.
There is some question regarding the armament of the French temporary bands. The traditional view, which has much documentary support, is that the French infantry for the greater part of the early Italian wars were mostly crossbowmen. Oman, for example, quite rightly remarks that there was scarcely any contemporary mention of French pikemen until Ravenna (1512). He also dates the widespread adoption of the arquebus by the French to the period following the Battle of Pavia (1525), where the French gendarmerie was so roughly handled by Pescara's Spanish arquebusiers.
On the other hand, there is evidence that both arquebusiers and pikemen were to be found among the native French in significant numbers. La Trémoille's description of Charles VIII's invasion army mentions a variety of infantry types, but the pikemen were undoubtedly a Swiss corps. Villeneuve says that the assault on the citadel of Naples (1495) was made "by the French with thrusts of fire lances and pikes." Finally, both Guicciardini and Giovio describe the native French infantry as modelling their drill and battlefield formations on those of the Swiss. This, manifestly, would have been impossible had not the French units included a proportion of pikemen.
There is thus documentation for both views, and it is plausible that both views are correct. This was still an age in which armies were comparatively heterogeneous in their makeup, and certain military specialties were still closely associated with certain ethnic groups. Among the French, for example, it was practically an article of faith that crossbows (and, later, arquebuses) were best employed by the active, excitable Gascons and other Mediterranean types and that trailing a pike was the true metier of dour northern types like Picards. Thus, at Ravenna, the native French infantry consisted solely of Gascon crossbowmen and Picard pikemen. Assuming that contemporaries reported accurately what they saw, it is altogether likely that French bands reflected these regional specialties and that this in turn was reflected in the reports of observers. When we recall that the bands were administrative units and that tactical units comprehended a mix of missilemen and pikemen -- as at Ravenna -- it is clear how misconceptions and apparent contradictions regarding the armament of the French infantry might have arisen.
As mentioned above, mercenary heavy infantry, primarily Swiss, typically formed the most important infantry component of French armies in this period. The Swiss, of course, were preferred, having the deserved reputation of being Europe's finest infantry, and the French, since the days of Louis XI, had built up a special relationship with the Swiss Confederates. The relationship began, in fact, as a result of a bitter Pyrrhic victory gained by Louis, then dauphin, over the Confederates at St. Jakob-on-the-Birs (1444). Louis was so impressed by the resistance a handful of Swiss made against his "Armagnac" mercenaries that he concluded a treaty of friendship with the Swiss and withdrew his army to France. Subsequently, as we have seen, Louis as king employed a corps of Swiss infantry under Diesbach to train the native French infantry he raised after Guinegatte.
Diesbach's Swiss were largely disbanded at Louis's death, but Charles VIII hired 8,000 Swiss for his Italian expeditionary force, and thereafter, except on occasions when the Confederates were for one reason or another temporarily alienated from France, large Swiss contingents were to be found composing the infantry backbone of French armies. This was the case at Cerignola where a Swiss unit under Chandieu was the mainstay of the 4,000-man infantry force Nemours conveyed to the field.


Angoulême, Charles de Valois, duc d' [d. 1650]. "Mémoire du duc d'Angoulême sur la cavalerie légère," Appx. A in Choppin, Henri. Les origines de la cavalerie francaise. Paris, 1905.

Auton, Jehan [Jean] d'. Chroniques de Louis XII. 4 vols. Marie Alphonse René de Maulde La Claviere, ed. Paris: Librairie Renouard, H. Laurens, succeseur, 1889-1895.

Belhomme. Histoire de l'infanterie en France. Vol. 1. Paris, n.d.

Boutaric, Edgard. Institutions militaires de la France avant des armées permanentes. Paris, 1863.

Commines, Philip de. The Memoirs of Philip de Commines. Ed. Andrew R. Scoble. 2 vols. London, 1896.

Giovio, Paolo. Le vite del Gran capitano e del marchese di Pescara, volgarizzate da Ludovico Domenichi, a cura di Cosantino Panigada. Bari: G. Laterza & figli, 1931.

Guicciardini, Francesco. The History of Italy. Tr. and ed. Sidney Alexander. New York, 1969.

The Loyal Serviteur. History of Bayard. Loredan de Larchey, ed. London: Chapman & Hall, Ltd., 1883.

Millar, Gilbert J. "The Albanians: Sixteenth Century Mercenaries," History Today, 26: 7 (July), 468-472.

Oman, Charles William Chadwick, Sir. A History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages. 2 vols. 2d ed. revised and enlarged. London: Methuen & Co., 1924. Vol. 2 deals with the period 1278-1485.

_________. A History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century. New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1937.

Villeneuve, Guillaume de. Mémoires. In M. Petitot, ed. Collection complète des mémoires relatifs à la histoire de France, ser. 1, vol. 14. Paris, 1826.


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Copyright © Curt Johnson 1993, 2007


This page was created 5 November 2007; revised 13 Novenber 2007.