Francis I, King of France - Battle of Pavia 24 February 1525

Episode Summary

Bonus Historical Fiction He watched as the enemy that hadn't been run through or run over ran-away from his mighty French gendarmes. Only moments before the Imperial Habsburg heavy and light cavalry, some 2,000 riders strong, made of mostly Spaniards and some Germans, had emerged from the forest and fog. The River Ticino oozed a dense and pervasive gray soup that muffled and bounced sound while blinding a man to everything but the few yards in front of him. The morning had been confusing, and at times somewhat muddled for the French commander. But now a breathless and elated, Francis Valois, King of France and the first of his name, was triumphant and master of the battlefield...

Episode Notes

In this week's short fictional episode, we join Francis Valois as he tries to destroy the Habsburg army facing him. The Spanish arquebusiers, Swiss and German Landsknecht, and French gendarmes all find themselves fighting for their lives outside the besieged city of Pavia. The French King wanted Milan and control of the Italian Pennisula, his Habsburg rival, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, wanted control of all Europe. Pavia was the decisive battle in a long series of wars known as the Italian Wars, and it was this battle that changed Francis I's life forever. To learn more about the fight, check out this week's main episode dropping Friday 28th. 

*As always, with these fictional episodes, some characters and events are fictitious or have been altered slightly. The purpose of this show is to entertain while also giving listeners a peek into a moment in time. Enjoy!


Source - Thomas F. Arnold's The Renaissance At War

Cover Art - Portrait of Francis I, King of France (ca. 1532-1533) by Joos van der Beke

Journey in the New World by Twin Musicom is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (



Heavy Interlude by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (



Episode Transcription

He watched as the enemy that hadn't been run through or run over ran-away from his mighty French gendarmes. Only moments before the Imperial Habsburg heavy and light cavalry, some 2k strong, made of mostly Spaniards and some Germans emerged from the forest and fog.  The River Ticino exuded a dense and pervasive gray soup that muffled and bounced sound while blinding a man to everything but the few yards in front of him. The morning had been confusing, and at times somewhat muddled for the French commander. But now a breathless yet elated, Francis Valois, King of France and the first of his name, was triumphant and master of the battlefield.


Early that morning, rumors had swirled through camp. Soldiers spread rumors almost as well as maybe even better than they do the pox, especially the ones full of doom and gloom. Word went around Francis's camp that the Imperialist dogs had breached the walls of Visconti Park, and were even now marching to relieve the city of Pavia itself. The Park, an old hunting ground, had some wooded areas and broad flatlands as well as low wet boggy areas.



The winter season made everything wetter and worse, but Francis had to set up camp somewhere. When he had arrived to take Pavia months back, Francis believed the city would fall quickly. It had not. His attacks failed repeatedly, and his advisors at one point urged him to go back to Paris tail tucked. "Save your brilliant reputation and let someone else finish the job!" they had said. "Fools!" Francis whispered to himself. He momentarily thought of having them all stripped of there lands and exiled but shook the idea off as a base notion. The King's chivalric code kept him from acting out such petty whims.


Besides, he had been right to stay and even more so about the rumors in the camp. Maybe now they would give their warrior King a little more credit when he spoke at the military councils.


When Francis first heard the possibility that the Imperial forces were in the Park, ready to attack, he'd known right away what was going on. Only a few days prior, the bastard Lannoy and his whelps had mounted night raids ranging around the Park. They were trying to probe the French camp for weakness; that much was clear to the French King. Today's attacks were nothing more than further probing by Lannoy, granted Francis thought, in much greater force than the previous times. As the morning aged, the picture crystalized for the French King.


The enemy came through the woods to the North East of Francis' camp, a group of Imperial infantry emerging first. They were within the range of one of the French batteries and came under heavy fire, forcing them to take cover. Francis saw the opportunity to strike the now isolated Imperial cavalry that had been supporting the infantry. The Spanish and German heavy and light cavalry, under Charles de Lannoy himself, had formed up to take on the gendarmes charge. The French heavy cavalry outnumbered their prey by a wide margin, and more importantly, they significantly outweighed them.


Francis formed the French cavalry line into four ranks with the gendarmes at the front. These were all his sworn and finest men, fully encased in glittering plate armor; they were closer to God's warrior angels than mere men. The massive horses they sat astride boasted more protective steel than almost all the infantry on both sides. In their hands were huge and thick lances ready to impale the Imperials on the very ground where they stood or better yet pin them to each other! Once the lance was full of the dead and dying enemy, it was dropped, and a sword or hammer drawn to continue the slaughter. Behind these sentient battering rams were the slightly less armored support cavalry with lighter lances and less plate-mail. The two rear rows were more irregular and filled in the gaps or used their mobility to flank the target. It was, thought Francis, like the very best of God's creations, both beautifully simple and marvelously effective.


At about 7:30, Francis had his men in the right formation for a charge. On seeing the French form up, though, Lannoy had tried to steal the momentum, and his Imperial cavalry charged. Francis, not to be outdone, had scoffed and ordered his own charge. Victory would be for France, and nothing would steal it from her!


To Francis, the rumble of the charge sounded dull; the pounding hooves had intertwined with the thrumming pulse in his ears. That constant, almost pleasingly repetitive noise broke at the ear-shattering clash of first contact.


The two sides slammed into each other at full tilt, and the Imperial cavalry was immediately thrown back in disarray. The Spanish cavalry fought hard, each man trying to make up for their numbers with ferocity, but it was too much. The French gendarmes used their greater mass to break the Imperial line into pockets. Then they isolated and collapsed the pockets with brutally efficient savagery. Limbs and bits of men and horses flew through the air and littered the ground. The screams of pain, anguish, delight, and fear mingled together, creating the age-old tune of battle. By 7:40, it was over.


The Spanish cavalry, what was left, fled south and east as fast as possible. In ones and twos, the Imperial survivors rode like demons to escape the massacre. Nowhere could be far enough away to feel safe from the metallic monstrosities they had just escaped. Francis had been right, and he had won. He knew that chasing the destroyed enemy would achieve little; his men were built for short, powerful bursts, not the long drawn out chase of a broken enemy. Besides, there was the small band of infantry to crush. He would allow his men a few moments to catch their breathe and bask in the glory of victory, and then it would be time to finish the whole thing. With Lannoy snapped like a twig, Francis thought, maybe it would be the right time to test the city's defenses again. First thing first, though.


Leaning over to his left, Francis laughingly said to Lord de Lescun, "Now I truly am the Duke de Milan!" Happier than he had been in years, maybe ever, Francis set about regrouping his now disheveled force. They had pushed the Spanish back some 4 or 500 yards, and his men were strung out and milling about in between the northern woods and the edges of Mirabello Castle. The structure was technically an opulent and extravagant hunting lodge, but in reality, it was a castle complete with moat and drawbridge. Francis had used it as his base at the beginning of the siege but felt it was too exposed and so had moved further northeast. It had been the right move clearly.


The first twinge of doubt came as Francis began issuing new orders. Around the Castle were several low ditches and irrigation canals. Movement in some of these trench-like areas caught his eye. On the French right flank, it appeared as though infantry was scurrying around preparing for something. Francis's first idea was to send a rider to order his cannon to fire on the low lying enemy, but that wouldn't do. The successful charge had left his cavalry right in the path of any incoming fire, and though he loved the powerful weapons, he had no faith in their accuracy. As he tried to puzzle out the next move, the far right of his line seemed to melt away.


The crackling pop of arquebus fire carried through the morning air.  A hailstorm of lead hurtled through the air until the bodies of Francis' gendarmes stopped it. The little balls, no more significant than a coin in size but quite a bit heavier, crashed through even the thickest plate armor. Then the murderous little orbs slid through flesh cutting arteries, exploding organs, and obliterating bones. Neither man nor horse could hide from the deadly rainstorm. Francis's first thought was to charge the source. That idea died almost as quickly as his right flank. To assault into those low areas would just lead to horses and men toppling over or breaking legs. The result would be the same; death. To the north were the woods that the Imperial force had come out of earlier in the morning. That was a no go; his men would be separated and vulnerable in amongst the trees. The French King hated it, but he realized a momentary retreat was in order.


"Back! Back to the camp! Back!" Francis screamed at his disjointed cavalry force. He could tell the men were agitated, and on the verge of panic, nothing is more hateful and terrifying than having an enemy strike you and being able to do nothing in response. Francis led the way; he trotted to set the direction and then picked up the pace to try and get some momentum going. The ground was sloppy and waterlogged. The horses were sinking right in, some up to their knees, rendering them immobile. Others were breaking their legs in their haste to retreat. More and more of Francis's heavily armored gendarmes were ending up on the ground and in the mud. Usually, they would be fine, but the mud sucked them into the earth and held tight to limbs, locking them to the in place. More and more, the arquebus fire kept coming, and now Francis could see Imperial men at arms dashing forward to kill the French wounded or unhorsed. They had to get out of the kill zone!


"To the trees! Make for the wood! Now, make for the tr..." The order of last resort died on the French King's lips. Pouring from the tree line to the north, there were thousands of the insanely colorfully clad Landsknechts. From the Empire, they carried massive pikes and huge swords, both of which were made to stop cavalry dead in every way possible. There would be no escape into the trees, in fact, now the Landsknecht began to press forward, and only more death lay to Francis's left. He dispatched a rider to bring up whatever infantry was available, to bring everyone the man could find!


By 8:15, the tide had turned. The French infantry, German turncoat Landsknechts known as the Black Band, had come, fought, and died. The Imperial infantry was pressing forward on Francis's front and both flanks. The constant withering arquebus fire could not miss his tightly packed cavalry; for the Imperial arquebusiers, it was like throwing a hand full of sand at the ocean. Everywhere he looked, the nobility of France, his men, his friends, were in the act of dying.


Old La Tremouille suddenly stood in his stirrups twisted and fell. Francis could see three little black holes on his chest plate and knew that lead death had cracked the old warrior open as easy as an egg. Brave Bonnivet was turned into a glittering pin cushion as pikes from every angle and direction lifted him bodily from his horse and threw him to the ground. Even La Plaice, fearsome fighter though he was, did not survive the onslaught. A glancing arquebus shot struck his helm and knocked him from his horse. As he lay in the mud face down, he tried to lift himself up. The mud embraced him like a lover just long enough for a Spanish fighter to slide dagger blade through the gap in La Plaice's armor slitting his throat. Blood spurted as the dagger was pulled out and covered the Spaniards face. Francis, furious and afraid for the first time in his life, brought his sword down, cutting the Spaniard's head in half, mixing the blood of killer and killed.


As his men and army perished around him, Francis decided the only honorable thing to do was die. He would not wait for some random shot by a filthy fishmonger or farmer playing fighter for the day to finish him off. The King of France pointed his terrified but obedient horse at a mass of enemy and gave the horse the heels. Spurred on, the poor animal could do nothing but run as fast as it could despite the blades and points in front. But it wasn't steel that killed the animal.


Francis saw a flash of fire, and a low line of smoky cloud appear to his right, and then the horse that was under him disappeared. Francis soared through the air, the weight of man and armor crashing down 15 yards from where his horse, dispatched by a whole row of arquebus fire, had collapsed dead.


The King of France rose shakily to his feet and drew his sword, swinging it in a full circle, trying to give himself some room to maneuver in when the inevitable rush came. His left arm was numb but intact, which was good because he'd need it. As he slowly spun around, Francis realized he was utterly alone and entirely surrounded by Imperialist infantry. He was afraid but so were they and he could see it. After all, none of them had ever killed a King before; most had never even seen one. Francis Valois tried to figure out which one of the men before him would pluck up the