Thursday, October 1, 2009

Alberto da Giussano and Barbarossa - Part VI: Battle of Legnano

With October now here, and this month being the release date of the upcoming Italian movie 'Barbarossa', here is another segment of our Alberto Giussano and Barbarossa series: The Battle of Legnano. There probably should be an entry just for the "Oath of Pontida," which was the event which united the city-states into the Lombard League, but there wasn't an adequate text in English. It was one of the most brutal wars of the last millennium: The Holy Roman Empire versus The Lombard League.

Battle of Legnano

The Battle of Legnano was fought on May 29, 1176, between the forces of the Holy Roman Empire, led by emperor Frederick Barbarossa, and the Lombard League.

The Lombard League

The Lombard League was formed in 1167, largely out of the Veronese League. It was a Union of Lombard cities promising each other unity, against the Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa. The Lombardy cities swore the oath at Pontida, a small village in Lombardy.

After the disastrous defeat of Pope Alexander III at the Battle of Monte Porzio in May 1167 against Imperial forces, the Lombard League remained as the last legitimate fighting force opposing the Emperor and was therefore heavily backed by the Pope.

Kenneth Pennington wrote: "Alexander’s inability to control Rome and the Papal States was due to his conflict with Frederick. Although he attempted to support the cities of Lombardy, he had neither the power nor the resources to render effective assistance."

[Right: The "Oath of Pontida," painted by Amos Cassioli]

Frederick's 5th Italian Campaign

In September 1174, Frederick embarked on his 5th Italian Campaign, to quench the constant revolts in Lombardy and his quarrels with Pope Alexander III. Frederick led a force of 8,000 knights over the Alps and arrived in Piedmont in late September. His cousin Henry the Lion and his forces, were once again not a part of the Imperial campaign. Frederick wanted to take revenge on Susa, for its "evil" behaviour of 1168, and on the 30 September his forces captured and burned down the town. His next aim was the town of Asti, which he captured after a seven day siege. In October, Frederick finally received the promised Imperial reinforcements from Bohemia. Upon Frederick's rapid and fierce initial success, Margraviate William of Montferrat and the Count of Biandrate, abandoned the Lombard League.

Siege of Alessandria

The siege of Alessandria was an important event in Frederick's 5th Campaign as this was a campaign of revenge, with the aim of the total destruction of the Lombard League and the removal of the Pope Alexander III. Frederick's next goal was therefore the Lombard city of Alessandria. Alessandria was founded by Milanese refugees, who fled after Frederick's forces burned and destroyed the City of Milan in 1162 and named after Pope Alexander III. The siege of the "Straw City", called so because all the roofs were covered with straw, began at the end of October. To Frederick's surprise and anger, his forces were not able to take the city so he had to spend the winter in front of its gates. On Holy Saturday, Fredericks forces managed to enter the city by digging tunnels under its walls, but the attack was repulsed by the Milanese with heavy losses. Alessandria withstood, and that was the first victory of the Lombard League. Frederick had to break off the siege due to an advancing Lombard army and retreated to Pavia.

Treaty of Montebello

On 16 April 1175, Frederick and the Lombard League negotiated peace at the Castle of Montebello but after long talks, negotiations broke with no result. Frederick knew that a battle was imminent and traveled to Chiavenna to meet Henry the Lion. Henry the Lion however refused to help his cousin as he thought that Frederick's defeat would allow him to obtain greater power.

The Battle

After Frederick's setback at Alessandria, the failed agreement of Montebello and the refusal of his cousin Henry the Lion to help him, Frederick finally received some good news and reinforcements from Germany. The German reinforcements crossed Lukmanier Pass into the Lake Como region in April 1176. Frederick I Barbarossa, Philipp I of Heinsberg and Archbishop Wichmann of Magdeburg rode secretly from Pavia along the Ticino River, to meet the reinforcements and to lead them to a joint operation with his main forces. Frederick received 1,000 knights and 1,000 foot soldiers from 16 different German rulers. At Como, Lombard imperialist allies increased the reinforcements to about 3,000 knights and foot soldiers, however, the Imperial army was largely a cavalry force of German knights.

[Left: Lombard knights looking for Fredrick's dead body]

The Milanese were informed about Frederick's plan and prepared for battle. A Carroccio, or a sacred war wagon drawn by oxen, was built and was decorated with the city standard and an altar upon which the cross of Archbishop Aribert of Milan was erected. In 1038, Archbishop Aribert led the victorious defence of Milan against the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II, and therefore his cross was a symbol of victory against the Empire. According to Sire Raoul, a chronicler from Milan, 900 knights came from Milan and around 550 knights from three other towns, the rest of the League's forces were foot soldiers. The "Company of Death" was a foot soldier unit, that according to Milanese chronicles was led by Alberto da Giussano, and formed the core of the Lombard infantry. While Frederick and his reinforcements were on their way back to Pavia to join the main Imperial force, the Lombard League placed about 3,500 men near the west bank of the Olona. The infantry with the Milanese war cart, the carroccio, stood in a hastily fortified position at Borsano. The Lombards knew that Frederick was about to skirt through their area, however, the Lombards did not know how close Frederick already was. At dawn on the 29 May, the Lombard League sent a reconnaissance unit of 700 horsemen to the Seprio landscape. At the same time, the emperor had crossed the Olona and was marching south from Cairate, five miles northeast of Busto Arsizio. Here, the battle commenced. The Lombard reconnaissance and the 300 Imperial vanguard clashed. The clash was brief and bloody and with Frederick already on the horizon, the Lombard reconnaissance broke off and fled beyond Borsano. Now, Frederick and his Imperial German army launched a rampant and brutal attack on the Lombard League forces near Borsano - Legnano. The Lombard cavalry was largely routed but managed to escape the skirmish, leaving the infantry and carroccio on its own. Frederick advanced to the carroccio, and assaulted the infantry and the Company of Death with his cavalry.

M.B. Synge wrote this about the Company of Death: "Nine hundred desperate patriots forming the Company of Death defended the sacred car. Seeing the Germans were gaining ground, fearful for the safety of their treasure, they suddenly knelt down and renewed their vow to God that they would perish for their country."

The infantry positioned itself in a phalanx-like line. The fight around the carroccio was a long and bloody fight in which the Lombard League infantry brought the Imperial army to a stalemate. Despite the difficulties the Imperial cavalry had against the Lombard infantry, it would have still prevailed in the long run. Finally, the Lombard League forces received help from its regrouped cavalry and from a Brescian cavalry that was called to aid by the fleeing reconnaissance troops. The regrouped reconnaissance troops and the Brescian cavalry jointly attacked Frederick's army from the rear. The decisive assault was made by the Brescians, who managed to break through the lines and attack Frederick directly. In this attack, his guards and standard-bearer were killed, and Frederick was thrown off his horse and believed to be dead. Upon this, the Imperial troops panicked and fled, pursued to the Ticino by the Leagues cavalry. The generals tried to rally the men in vain. The booty and prisoners taken by the League were immense.


After the battle, Frederick's rule over Lombardy was decisively broken. The knights that managed to escape, gathered in Pavia. There, they brought the news of Frederick's presumed death to his wife Beatrice I, Countess of Burgundy. Beatrice and the Empire mourned Frederick's demise but after several days the Emperor appeared at the gates of Pavia.

H. E. Marshall wrote: "Then, greatly to the joy of all, after three days Barbarossa suddenly appeared before the gates of Pavia. Although wounded and bruised and left for dead Frederick had not been killed."

The victory of the Lombard League forced Frederick to travel to Venice. In the Peace of Venice, 1177, Frederick and Pope Alexander III reconciled. The Emperor acknowledged the Pope's sovereignty over the Papal States, and in return Alexander acknowledged the Emperor's overlordship of the Imperial Church. The Peace of Venice were heavily instigated by Archbishop Wichmann of Magdeburg, who was amongst the defeated at Legnano. The cities of Lombardy, however, continued to fight until 1183, when, in the Peace of Constance, Frederick conceded their right to freely elect town magistrates. The Treaty was cast in bronze.

Frederick did not forgive Henry the Lion for refusing to come to his aid in 1176. Taking advantage of the hostility of other German princes to Henry, Frederick had Henry tried in absentia by a court of bishops and princes in 1180, declared that Imperial law overruled traditional German law, and had Henry stripped of his lands and declared an outlaw.

On 27 January 1186, Frederick's son Henry VI married Constance of Sicily in Milan as a sign that peace had really been established.

Actual battlefield

The battle is traditionally tied to the name of Legnano, since the League's forces came from that town. Actually, as local historians have ascertained, the battle was fought a couple miles west of Legnano, where today Villa Cortese and Borsano, frazioni of Busto Arsizio, stand.


"Nine hundred desperate patriots forming the Company of Death defended the sacred car. Seeing the Germans were gaining ground, fearful for the safety of their treasure, they suddenly knelt down and renewed their vow to God that they would perish for their country."

That country was not "Italy." I'm not going to argue about whether it should be called Cisalpine Gaul, Etruria, Langbard, Padania, or the Subalpine/Po River Valley; but it was a Nation. "Italy" should be "the Italian peninsula," just as there is "the British Isles," "the Balkins," "the Iberian peninsula," "Scandinavia," etc. So for clarity, it should be Europe, then for reference "northern, southern, Eastern, or southern Europe, and then these "regions."


Gerald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.

Camunlynx said...

I find the ancient world be more fascinating because it was more pure politically. It just was what it was.