Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba
Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba
Military Genius. Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba was born on 1 September 1453 in Montilla, a city in the province of Cordoba, Spain, into a noble family with a long tradition of military service to the Castilian monarchy. Fernández de Córdoba rose in the favor of Queen Isabella for his service during the civil war and the Portuguese invasion that complicated her succession as queen of Castile in 1474. He was a combatant in the ten-year war with the Moors that ended with the conquest of Granada in 1492, marking the completion of the Christian reconquista (reconquest) of Spain. In 1495 Ferdinand of Aragon, Isabella’s husband, gave him command of the forces dispatched to southern Italy to repulse the French, who had ousted Ferdinand’s cousin, King Ferrante, from the throne of the Kingdom of Naples. On 28 June 1495 at Seminara, Fernández de Córdoba gave battle to the French, whose strength lie in their heavy cavalry and Swiss pikemen. His forces, mostly light cavalry and infantrymen carrying sword and shield, were badly beaten; it would be his only defeat. Fernández de Córdoba, whose strongest attribute as a commander was his ability to learn the lessons taught him by the enemy, set about to reform his army. He recognized the tactical advantage of small-arms fire, but also saw the need to defend the handgunners as they reloaded, which was a slow process with firearms of that era. He introduced the arquebus and pike to his infantrymen and formed them up in large squares in which the two types of weapons provided mutual support.
Innovator. By 1503 Fernández de Córdoba was ready to test his new army against the French. At the Battle of Cerignola in April of that year, his new infantry force, which included most of his seven thousand men, took the brunt of the fighting. Fernández de Córdoba had dug a set of field-works, behind which he posted his artillery and infantry. Despite the loss of most of his guns when a powder magazine exploded, he successfully used his arquebusiers to halt the charge of the French heavy cavalry and Swiss pikemen, killing the French commander. His pikemen then drove the enemy off the battlefield. This battle demonstrated the superiority of his combination of pike and arquebus over French tactics. The French rushed reinforcements to Naples, which he met at the Garigliano River. For three months the two armies faced each other across Garigliano, until late December, when Fernández de Córdoba, using the cover of darkness, had a pontoon bridge thrown up across the river. The Spaniards caught the French by surprise and routed them. The French retreated to the fortress of Gaeta on the coast north of Naples, which lacked the supplies to feed the thousands of soldiers who stumbled in after their defeat. On 1 January 1504 Gaeta surrendered. Over the next year Fernández de Córdoba cleared the French out of southern Italy, and a treaty in 1505 passed sovereignty over the Kingdom of Naples to Ferdinand. The Spanish crown ruled Naples for the next two centuries.
Disappointment. Fernández de Córdoba served as viceroy in Naples until Ferdinand, frightened by his popularity and success, recalled him in 1507. Hurt by Ferdinand’s ingratitude, he retired from service, although he was offered another command in 1512 after the Spanish were defeated at the Battle of Ravenna. He died at Granada, Spain, in 1515. The officers who served under him in southern Italy commanded the Spanish army for the next thirty years with great success and helped spread his ideas. His system of combining pikemen and handgunners in large square formations became known as the Spanish Square. It was the dominant infantry formation across western and central Europe until late in the Thirty Years’ War. He earned such a reputation as a successful commander that he was called the “Great Captain.”
Gerald de Gaury, The Grand Captain: Gonzalo de Cordoba (London & New York: Longmans, Green, 1955).
Francesco Guicciardini, History of Italy, from the Year 1490, to 1532, translated by Austin Parke Goddard, ten volumes (London: J. Towers, 1753-1756).
Mary Purcell, The Great Captain: Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962).
F. L. Taylor, The Art of War in Italy, 1494-1529 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1921; reprint, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1973).