The town of Bellinzona was the chokepoint between the Swiss cantons above the St Bernard Pass in the north and the Po Valley via the Ticino river valley to the south. In 1419, during the confusion after Duke Gian Galeazzo Visconti died, several cantons of the Swiss Confederation bought the town from the Duchy of Milan, ostensibly to protect trade. Instead, Bellinzona became a staging area for the aggressive Swiss to raid vulnerable Milanese possessions. In early 1422, an exasperated Milan forcibly took the town back. The Swiss invaded.
The rise of the Duchy of Milan in the early Renaissance was due to the wealth and efforts of the powerful and ambitious Visconti family, and the military prowess of their chosen commander, the condottiero (a contracted mercenary warlord) Francesco Bussone of Carmagnola. Over the years, Bussone made short work of Visconti and Milanese rivals in northern Italy, but he’d be put to the test by the Swiss.
The defense of the fertile but isolated alpine valleys and plateaus forged a tough and independent Swiss people protected by formations of soldiers that differed in composition from their traditional enemies whom surrounded them on all sides. The relative lack of horses in the central Alps saw the prominence of infantry among its minor nobles. Moreover, the defense of the narrow passes against armies that relied upon the heavily armored mounted knight, gave rise to the extensive use of the halberd among the Swiss. A halberd is essentially an axe head attached to the top of a six to nine foot pole, with a spear head, a hook opposite the axe head, and a butt spike. Against horsemen it was a fearsome weapon: one could receive the charge with the spear point, chop the horse with the axe head, or pull the rider off the saddle with the hook, and finally quickly finish the vulnerable knight on the ground with the spike. In the 14th century the halberd was for all intents and purposes the Swiss national weapon, and they fielded forests of them.
In early April 1422, Bussone attacked the invading Swiss army with his mounted knights. The Swiss handily defeated them and continued on toward Bellinzona. But Bussone was a professional and wasn’t going to let the Swiss besmirch his so far untarnished reputation. He reorganized his army around defeating the halberd. He dismounted most of his knights and equipped them with pikes. Whether or not Bussone was influenced by the rediscovery of Ancient Greek and Roman texts that characterized the Renaissance in Italy by doing so is a subject for scholarly debate; the fact remains that Bussone’s new pikemen would not have been out of place among Alexander the Great’s sarrissa equipped phalanxes 1600 years before.
On 30 June 1422, Bussone met the Swiss outside the town of Arbedo. It would not be a repeat of the previous battle. The Milanese pikemen had an asymmetric four to six foot reach advantage over the Swiss halberdiers. The Swiss attempted to use their crossbowmen, the traditional counter to polearm wielding formations that were vulnerable to missiles, but they were chased back into the mass of halberds by the remaining Milanese knights. Bussone brought up his own crossbowmen, who poured fire into the flanks of the Swiss halberdiers.
Unable to mass their own crossbowmen, and slowly but surely ground down by the pikemen, the Swiss took massive casualties, and could do nothing except retreat or be annihilated. They were saved from total destruction only because a group of foragers appeared on the Milanese flank and Bussone mistook them for another Swiss formation. The Milanese reformed against the new “threat”, and the defeated Swiss escaped.
The battle of Arbedo checked Swiss ambitions in Italy for decades. Also, they took notice of the reasons for their defeat. Thereafter the Swiss almost universally adopted the pike as the new weapon for their infantry, and the halberd as a weapon wielded by the officers and file leaders.
For the next hundred years, phalanxes of mercenary Swiss pikemen would dominate warfare in Italy and Western Europe.
In the confused French dynastic struggles after the Hundred Years War, Charles the Bold, who was the Duke of Burgundy and brother in law to both the King of England and King of France, was more powerful than his liege lord, Louis XI of France. The Duchy of Burgundy at the time consisted of most of modern Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, and significant parts of France. At the conclusion of the truce made with Louis at Peronne in 1468, Charles seized some towns on the Somme, and in 1471 Louis declared him treasonous. The hot tempered Charles, who at this point saw no reason why Burgundy shouldn’t be an independent kingdom like France, England, or Austria, invaded. His intent was to unite with another rebellious vassal of Louis’, the Duke of Britanny. Their combined might could easily defeat the French king’s army.
The Burgundian army of Charles the Bold was the most modern fighting force of its time. Charles’ father Philip the Good learned the hard lessons of the Hundred Years War, when armies with small cores of disciplined full time professionals consistently out maneuvered and outfought much larger feudal levies. The Burgundian system was still based on feudal levies, but Charles demanded a large measure of discipline, training, and equipment from the men mobilized by his vassals. They were more recruited than conscripted. Those nobles whose men didn’t meet the standard faced fines, censure, and even confiscation of territory. Furthermore, he also reorganized his army into a combined arms formation of traditional, if updated and codified, medieval lances (a knight, squire, a sergeant at arms, all mounted, and three mounted archers, supported by a page and three foot soldiers: a handgunner, a crossbowman, and pikeman), professional mercenary halberdiers and pikemen (mostly Germans), and professional bowmen and crossbowmen (usually Welsh, or English, with Italian crossbowmen). Most importantly though, his army was integrally supported by cannon, which were relatively mobile for the time. Battles in the Middle Ages were rare; sieges were not. Charles’ inclusion of gunpowder units separated him from Louis XI’s similar reforms. The Burgundian army therefore looked more like a large and well drilled condottieri company that specialized in seizing fortified towns, than a traditional feudal army.
After crossing the frontier, Charles captured several French towns, and those that resisted paid the price. On 27 June 1472, Charles’ vanguard reached the town Beauvais and expected it to promptly surrender, based on his reputation alone. But the town resolve was stiffened by a tiny force sent by Louis, and by the remaining defenders of Roye, the town Charles sacked just two weeks before. Beauvais was heavily fortified, but the garrison was small and lacked cannon.
The competent and able commander of Charles’ vanguard immediately recognized that he had to storm the town quickly or Louis would be able to mass on the area and the Burgundian advance would be halted. He unleashed his cannon, created several breaches, and smashed one of the town’s gates, before he ran out of ammunition. That the Burgundian vanguard even had cannon surprised the defenders. The professional Burgundians rushed into the gaps.
The small French garrison could not hope to repel the attackers, but they received help from an unexpected quarter, the townspeople of Beauvais. They had heard what had happened to Roye and the other towns, and they were determined not to share the same fate. The men joined the French soldiers in the breaches and at the gate, though not on the walls because the Burgundian ladders were just a bit too short, a grievous oversight.
With the hand to hand fighting concentrated in the breaches and gate, the French archers and crossbowmen had free reign on the walls. They were supplied with a steady stream of arrows and bolts by the town’s women and children, who quickly joined in, throwing whatever was at hand: stones, boiling water, logs, and especially torches. They threw so many torches at the Burgundians that they caught the suburbs of the town and the remains of the gate on fire. This created an inferno through which Charles’ army had to pass. Nevertheless, the Burgundians continued the assault.
In the afternoon, it seemed Beauvais was lost, despite the efforts of the courageous townsfolk. The Burgundians seized a breach and began spilling onto the walls and into the town. However, the women and children threw themselves at the invaders with whatever they had: axes, knives, sticks, and torches. They kept the line from breaking, but the French were slowly pushed back. Just when it seemed the people of Beauvais would break, they looked up and saw an amazing sight: a young woman hacking her way across the wall.
A soldier was attempting to place the Burgundian flag on the wall above the breach to signify a breakthrough, and Jeanne Laisné, the daughter of a local peasant, attacked him with her father’s hatchet. She wounded the flag bearer and fought with such ferocity that he fell off the wall into the moat below. The sight of the French woman flinging a heavily armored man at arms into the moat and capturing the ducal banner of Burgundy electrified the resistance. The French defenders held on just long enough for two hundred lances sent by Louis to arrive in time push the Burgundians back out of the town. That night and the next day Louis’ army converged on Beauvais and the townpeople began the laborious process of repairing the breaches. They couldn’t repair the gate, so they tore houses down and turned the gatehouse into a bonfire. The Fires of Beuvais burned so hot that the gate was impenetrable to the Burgundians for nearly a week.
More French troops arrived and managed to enter the Beauvais before Charles could properly invest the town. The furious duke attempted to bombard the town into submission, but the French continued to valiantly fight on. The charred suburbs turned into a no man’s land where Burgundians were ambushed, assaults were disrupted, and skirmishes killed and wounded Burgundian troops that Charles’ could ill afford to lose. Every man he lost at Beauvais was one more that couldn’t fight against Louis’ main army then in Brittany.
By the end of July, Charles had 120 dead, including 20 lords killed leading charges, and more than three thousand wounded, many of whom eventually died. Heavy rains flooded his camp, and the moves to dryer ground made the encampment susceptible to raids by the people of Beauvais, killing and wounding even more. On 20 July 1472, Charles decamped and moved into Normandy.
Charles the Bold would never link with the Duke of Brittany and eventually returned to Burgundy after looting and pillaging his way across Normandy. His bid to establish the Kingdom of Burgundy at France’s expense came to nothing.
In contrast, Louis XI consolidated his power. In gratitude, he rewarded the town of Beauvais for its heroic stand. He exempted the town from many of his taxes, and relaxed many of the rules his nobles had placed. Louis inaugurated an annual parade through the town to honor the defenders, one in which the women and children march ahead of the men in honor of their ingenuity and sacrifices; a tradition that continues to this day. In particular, he rewarded Jeanne Laisné whom he christened Jeanne Hachette for her bravery, and exempted her family and her descendants from taxes for eternity.
In 1559, the Ottoman Sultan Mehemd II sent envoys to the Principality of Wallachia to inquire why the jizya (The Islamic tax on non-believers) had not been paid. Wallachia’s voivode, or prince, Vlad III Dracula (“Dracula” because he was the son of Vlad II Dracul) felt that his rule over Wallachia was sufficiently consolidated, and that he no longer needed the Turks. He knew war would come with the Ottoman Empire if he didn’t pay so in his customarily bloodthirsty manner, Vlad provoked one. He asked the envoys why they didn’t remove their turbans in his presence, and when they replied it was not their custom, he had his guards nail the turbans to their heads.
After ambushing and defeating the army the sultan sent for revenge, Vlad III Dracula invaded Bulgaria. He slaughtered, by his own words, over 25,000 Turks and Bulgars, “…without counting those whom we burned in [their] homes or the Turks whose heads were cut [off] by our soldiers…” In retaliation, Mehmed II sent a massive army of over 130,000 against Vlad to annex Wallachia outright.
Vlad could muster only about 30,000 men against this force, so he needed to reduce the Turkish numbers if he planned to defeat them in battle, or more likely, force them into a siege where the Turks could be weakened then annihilated. Vlad conducted a guerrilla campaign against the Turks with his cavalry, killing and capturing thousands of foragers and stragglers. He also sent diseased people into the Turkish camps in a crude form of biological warfare, and managed to infect part of the sultan’s army with the Bubonic plague and leprosy. Worse still, he conducted a scorched earth policy back across Bulgaria and into Wallachia. He killed or removed the people, poisoned the wells, salted the fields, burned the villages, rerouted rivers to make swamps, and rendered the castles indefensible, even in his own country. The Turks advanced into a wasteland. In mid-June 1462, Mehmed approached Vlad’s capital, the fortress city of Targoviste, where he knew Vlad planned to make a stand. A few days before the Turks invested the city, they paused and made camp to prepare. Vlad, who grew up among the Turks as a hostage but didn’t convert, snuck into the camp to assess his adversaries. He found them weak and disorganized.
On the night of 16-17 June 1462, Vlad III Dracula attacked the Turkish camp in daring torch lit raid for the specific purpose of assassinating the sultan. The charge of about 10,000 horsemen caused great confusion amongst the Ottomans. Vlad himself led the attack directly at the sultan’s tent. However, in the confusion of the assault, Vlad mistook the grand vizier’s opulent tent for the sultan’s. By the time he realized his mistake, the sultan’s Janissaries (elite warriors comprised of Christian boys forcibly converted to Islam then trained as soldiers) led by Vlad’s brother Radu, whom shared his time as a hostage, rallied and protected the sultan. The Wallachians withdrew back into Targoviste, unsuccessful in their mission.
It took the Ottomans several days to reorganize. Once ready, Mehmed advanced again on Targoviste intent on ending the Wallachian resistance once and for all time. He was not prepared for what he found in the fields just outside the city.
Vlad III Dracula was one of the most bloodthirsty men in history, for good reason. Even by the brutal standards of the day, Vlad set himself apart. His favorite form of torture and execution was “impalement”. During impalement, a long thick sharpened pole was inserted into the victim’s anus and the pole was then placed upright into the ground with the victim perched above. Over hours and sometimes days, the victim would slowly slide down the pole until sharpened end pierced out of the torso, or even the throat or mouth if the angle was correct. In an age of gruesome executions, impalement was probably the worst way to die.
On 23 June 1462, Mehmed approached Targoviste and found tens of thousands of his warriors and people impaled. All of the stragglers and any Turkish people Vlad captured, including prisoners from the recent raid, Vlad had impaled in front of Targoviste. An observer noted, “Twenty thousand men, women, and children had been spitted” and “There were infants too affixed to their mothers on the stakes, and birds had made their nests in their entrails…” The sultan called the grisly sight, “The Forest of the Impaled”. It had its intended effect on the Ottoman Army; Mehmed withdrew from Wallachia.
Thereafter Vlad III Dracula would be known as “Vlad Tepes” – Vlad the Impaler.