In Switzerland, as in France, “Marignano 1515” is one of the most recognised historic dates, but the upcoming 500th anniversary of the bloody battle has sparked renewed controversy: is it being exploited for political ends or was it the origin of Swiss neutrality?
Up to 20,000 soldiers were killed in the battle between France and the Old Swiss Confederacy, which brought an end to Swiss expansion into Italian territory and a peace settlement binding the Swiss never again to take up arms against the French.
Pulling no punches, French writer Max Gallo, in his recent biography of the French king François I, describes the face-off with the Swiss “mercenaries” that was a forerunner to the Battle of Marignano.
“The Swiss pulled back, looting and ransacking the villages as they went. Sword in hand, François I forbade his troops to behave like the Swiss. No looting,” writes Gallo. While Gallo attributes the final victory solely to François I, many historians believe that without the arrival of the Venetians on the second day of fighting, the result could well have been different.
Nearly 500 years later, the myth of Marignano endures and scholars continue to find historical details to support their theories. For Gallo, it was the birth of the “Prince of the Renaissance”, a courageous king knighted on the battleground by Bayard, a knight “without fear or reproach”. But ten years later, François I was defeated at Pavia and taken prisoner by the Spanish, and in the end France was forced to renounce its claims to Italy.
In Switzerland, the Pro Marignanoexternal link foundation offers a more subtle, but just as contentious interpretation. The bloody defeat of September 14, 1515, was nothing more or less than the origin of Swiss neutrality.
For decades, the president of the Pro Marignano foundation, Colonel Roland Haudenschild, has made a yearly pilgrimage to the former battleground on the southern outskirts of Milan. There, he attests to the sad deterioration of the Santa Maria della Neve ossuary and of a commemorative tablet sculpted in 1965 by Josef Bisa.
Afterward he participates in a small celebration to commemorate the tragic battle, organised by the town of San Giuliano, close to Melegnano (formerly Marignano).
The Battle of Marignano was triggered by the arrival in Italy of the young François I in August 1515 and the retreat of thousands of Swiss foot soldiers to Milan. The battle itself was a gruelling 16 hours of hand-to-hand combat – an eternity at the time – between the Swiss and the French, who were later aided by a contingent of Venetians. According to the Historical Dictionary of Switzerlandexternal link, some 5,000 to 8,000 French, and 9,000 to 10,000 Swiss were killed – about half of all troops present.
Such a massacre deserves to be commemorated, the Pro Marignano foundation believes. With a budget of some CHF500,000 ($517,600), it is planning to renovate the ossuary, organise a federal shooting event, hold a commemoration at the World Expo Milan in 2015 and publish the book Marignano 1515-2015. 500 years of Swiss neutrality.
Can the origins of Swiss neutrality be found in the Battle of Marignano? A chorus of authors and university historians from the group Art+Politique have decried the idea as false and tendentious.
“It is shocking that this incredible carnage is today being used unchallenged for political ends,” rails the group on its site marignano.chexternal link.
Writer Daniel de Roulet, a member of the group, denounces the celebratory commemoration as “promoting our supposed neutrality in today’s world: hatred of Europe, banking security and the protection of the true Swiss over five centuries”.
The Pro Marignano foundation carefully avoids getting involved in the argument. Among its members it counts numerous people from Ticino, as well as a plethora of officers and several politicians from the right, but also from the left.
“For us it’s not about having a party, but about remembering our dead,” says the foundation’s spokesman Livio Zanolari. “And to commemorate an important moment. After Marignano, Switzerland gave up its strategy of expanding its territory, and returned to its values, notably federalism. In 1515, nobody was talking about neutrality, but the change of attitude is undeniable.”
Without the financial support of Bern, the foundation has nevertheless received a warm welcome from the cantons. Geneva, Valais and Jura, as well as the cantons of central Switzerland, have all promised to contribute, says Zanolari.
A turning of the tide
So what really happened at Marignano during this famous battle?
“1515 is nonetheless a symbolic moment, a turning of the tide,” says historian Alain-Jacques Czouz-Tornare. “Switzerland learnt that she could no longer play with the big boys. The expansionist dream, notably in the cantons of central Switzerland, was shattered. 1515 was a saving defeat. It allowed Switzerland to reposition itself according to its natural influence: between the Alps and the Jura, the Rhine and the Rhone.”
However neutrality was not born in Marignano, says Czouz-Tornare.
“Rather it was the beginning of the Swiss vocation to be neutral. It is the big powers that neutralised Switzerland and taught the country that she must cooperate with her neighbours,” he says.
And Switzerland did not turn in on itself after Marignano, adds French historian Didier Le Fur. The Swiss enlisted in European armies in greater numbers than ever after the battle and during the 16th century.
In his 2004 book, Le Fur tries to separate fact from fiction in the famous battle. It was a particularly difficult task considering the lack of witnesses and the fact that any accounts of the battle that exist were written several years later, notably that by the Frenchman Pasquier le Moine, who was motivated by creating the myth of François I.
“Marignano, is a bit like a fig leaf for the defeats of François I, who failed to hold on to his Italian conquests,” says Le Fur. Such a view is in stark contrast to Gallo’s description of the monarch as the “builder of modern France”.
The battle of Marignano
September 13 and 14, 1515, saw the troops of the king of France François I face off against the Swiss defending the Milanese. The Duke of Milan, Maximilian Sforza, their protégé, was allied to Pope Léon X and Emperor Maximilian I. A party of Swiss captains (notably those of Bern, Solothurn and Fribourg) agreed to negotiate peace. On September 8, they signed the treaty of Gallarate with François I which called for peace and the transfer of one million crowns to the Swiss. However, the decision was not accepted by everyone, in particular, cantons Uri, Schwyz and Glarus. On September 13, a mass of Swiss warriors headed to Marignano - without success. On September 14, the French artillery unleashed carnage on the advancing Swiss ranks. Following a retreat, the Swiss launched a new attack which might have been victorious if 12,000 men from the Venice Republic had not arrived as reinforcements for the French during the morning.
Source: Historical Dictionary of Switzerland
At the end of the war, the kingdom of France and the Swiss Confederation signed a peace treaty at Fribourg on November 29, 1516. In France, the treaty is best known under the term “Eternal Peace”. For Switzerland, the treaty brought with it financial compensation, commercial facilities for Swiss merchants in France and recognition of the sovereignty of Switzerland over the Valtellina and the current canton of Ticino. In return, Switzerland gave France assurances that it would abandon its expansionist pretensions to the Milanese, but also and especially that it would never again fight against France, neither directly nor through mercenaries. France also obtained the right to recruit mercenaries in Switzerland, a tradition that was continued until 1830. The treaty was broken when the new French Republic invaded Switzerland in 1798.
(Translated from French by Sophie Douez)