When Charlemagne, the “Heir to the Roman Empire”, died in 814 CE he divided the Frankish Empire among his three sons. The eastern third went to Louis the German. Louis and his descendants formed the Holy Roman Empire from parts of modern day Germany, Austria, Poland, Czech, and Northern Italy (which was probably not “Holy”, “Roman”, nor an “Empire”… all are debatable though). 350 years later, in 1176, at the height of the Investiture Controversy, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa invaded Italy to force the Italians to respect his authoritay and force the Pope to stick to spiritual and moral matters, and get out of his secular business. He did this by first sacking Rome.
On his way back, he needed to deal with the Pope’s staunchest allies, the Lombard League of Northern Italian city-states, which supported the Pope because they wanted to appoint their own city magistrates (madness!) something Barbarossa vehemently opposed. After burning down a few towns, his 3000 strong Imperial army of German knights and men at arms approached Milan. Marching to meet them was a mixed force of 3500 Milanese knights, pike armed militia, crossbowmen, professional companies of armsmen, and the Carrocio. The Carrocio was the sacred war wagon of Milan. It was a giant cross and alter draped in the red and white for Milan’s patron St. George, filled with trumpeters, and drawn by three sets of oxen. The Carrocio was guarded by the elite Company of Death, charged by the city to die protecting it.
On 29 May 1176, the knights of the Imperial army scattered the Milanese knights at the first clash outside of the town of Legnano. They then impetuously charged the Carrocio, and were stopped cold by the large shields and long spears of the Company of Death. They attempted to shift their attack to the pike militia but the example set by the Company and the presence of the Carrocio inspired them to hold fast. Fixed by the Company, the phalanx of pikes and the crossbowmen methodically murdered the knights. The arrival of the reformed Milanese knights broke the Imperial Army.
Frederick Barbarossa was presumed dead (he was seen falling from his horse), but surprisingly, he appeared alone at one of his Italian vassal’s castles three days later bloody and bruised. In the end, the Lombard League got their magistrates, the Pope agreed to stay out of temporal affairs and got the Papal States so he could still build his shining city on a hill, and Barbarossa would shift his energies to the Holy Land and the Third Crusade. Finally, pike formations would slowly grow in popularity until they dominated the battlefields of the Renaissance.