Extra-Heavy Cavalry (Hombres de Armas) and Infantry of Gonzalo's Italian Armies

Hombres de Armas

The Spanish gendarmes, called hombres de armas (men-at-arms), were extra-heavy cavalry like their French counterparts. They wore full plate armor, employed the heavy lance, called the arandela, as a primary weapon and the sword and mace as secondary weapons, and rode barded (armored) horses. The arandela necessitated the use of the faucre, a support for the lance when it was couched that was bolted to the cuirass's right side. At the time of Cerignola (1503), the armor would have been the late 15th century-style Gothic style, which very shortly would be supplanted by the more ornate "Maximilian" armor.
Although Ferdinand and Isabella had organized a portion of the Spanish chivalry into regular companies similar to the French compagnies d'ordonnance in the 1490s, it is difficult to determine whether this organization encompassed or even affected to any great extent the chivalry of the military orders and the great nobles. The number of regular companies fluctuated greatly, and those that were so organized appear to have constituted a kind of household cavalry, rather than the permanent cavalry of the national army.

Spanish Cavalry (Permanent Army)

The Guardias de Castilla (created May 1493) was a cavalry comparable to the gendarmerie of France. It had 25 companies, each of 4 officers (captain, lieutenant, alférez [2d lieutenant], and porta-estandarte), 1 trumpeter, and 100 troopers. The total strength of the corps was about 2,500. According to Clonard (and, after him, Sotto and Gush), the composition of each company was 80% men-at-arms and 20% caballos ligeros or jinetes.
Quatrefages, Melanges, 134, concludes that there were 20 companies ("captaineries") of men-at-arms and 5 companies of jinetes. Either way, there were 2,000 men-at-arms and 500 jinetes in the corps.
Sotto, 211, describes the establishment of the Guardias as "the commencement of the true history of the Spanish cavalry as an organic, national, permanent, and homogeneous arm." This cavalry complemented the infantry furnished by the Santa Hermandad (created 1476) to achieve the Reconquest.
The proportion of heavy to light cavalry observed in the Guardias was not typical. The Spanish lance, for example, is said by Sotto to have consisted of five horsemen: the man-at-arms, two archers, a page, and an escudero -- a non-combatant who carried the man-at-arms' shield and likely performed housekeeping chores. Further, Sotto, 215, mentions 200-man companies with equal numbers of light and heavy horse and 55-man companies in which only 5 horsemen were light cavalrymen. In the reorganization of the Guardias in 1503 the light cavalry outnumbered the men-at-arms nearly two-to-one (1,843 jinetes and 998 men-at-arms). And, Quatrefages, speaking of the first years of the 16th century, remarks on the continued tendency of the Spanish to field jinetes when the obvious requirement was for more heavy horse. (It is Quatrefages who points out that the Guardias were probably organized specifically as a counter to the French gendarmes and were indicative of Spain's aggressive stance at the time.) During the reign of Charles V the number of effectives in cavalry companies was 35-45 men-at-arms and 50 jinetes.
It should be stated that pay and maintenance of the man-at-arms was an expensive proposition and that the number and proportion of such troops in regular units would always tend downward. Further, when needed, such troops could always be drawn from the religious orders, the knightly classes, or from allies (in the case of the Spanish, from the Italian aristocracy and later from Burgundy and the Low Countries).
Italian men-at-arms (allies) are generally disparaged, described as "less enthusiastic" than the Spanish, etc., etc. We have not been able to find any concrete evidence of this in the early Italian Wars, and indeed it may be stated that the Italian allies, like the Colonnas, had more at stake than their Spanish patrons and so fought with equal enthusiasm. These remarks apply only to knightly horse, not to infantry.
Representation of men-at-arms in early Italian Wars armies varied considerably. They were 50% of the horse in Gonzalo's second expeditionary corps for Italy (300 of 600), but within a year, the proportion had risen to 70-80%. They were over 30% of the cavalry in the force sent to confront the French in Rousillon (1503)--2,000 of 6,500 horse. At Cerignola, they were over 60%.


The Spanish infantry was not definitively organized until 1505, when the first colunelas were created. This splendid organization, the prototype of the modern battalion, emerged from years of experimentation and practical battlefield experience, not the least part of which was gained in Gonzalo's campaigns in Italy.
The immediate precursor of the colunela was the experimental infantry organization of 1496 described by the chronicler Jeronimo de Zurita in the Anales de Aragon. Zurita described the Infanteria de la Ordenanza of the "experimental army" sent to face the French at Roussillon as being formed in units (cuadrillas) of 50, which were one-third pikemen, one-third crossbowmen and arquebusiers, and one-third escusados ("exempted men"):
One saw at that moment a new order among the soldiers. The infantry was divided into three groups: one-third with lances [pikes], such as the Germans carried, another third with the ancient name of escusados, and the other third crossbowmen or arquebusiers. . . . And further this infantry was divided into squadrons of fifty and fifty.
Zurita's description may be found in Clonard, 2:394.

These small units, which were in effect companies, were combined into "battalions" (the term was not then in use) of 500-2,000 men, which constituted the smallest tactical units. It is interesting to note that Zurita acknowledged the debt the new organization owed to "French and Italian [military] custom" and that it was a definite break with the kind of unit organizations prevalent during the Moorish wars.
The escusados mentioned by Zurita were drawn from the poorest classes of society--those obliged to have basic arms (helmet, sword, a dart, and a buckler) and ordinarily not required to perform military service. It is tempting to see them as escuderos, i.e., possibly sword-and-bucklermen (and, indeed, they have been transformed into this type in some texts and interpretations), but this is not the case. The French military historian René Quatrefages, the leading authority on Spanish military organization of the period, has noted that this particular "third" "formally disappears" from Spanish army lists in 1500, and that subsequently Spanish infantry units were about two-thirds pike and one-third crossbowmen and arquebusiers.
Very few actual escuderos appear in the extant army lists of the period, and those that do (in Quatrefages' interpretation) are not swordsmen with special sword training as appear in so many accounts but rather are noblemen serving in the ranks of the infantry--the earliest manifestation of a peculiarly Spanish phenomenon: los gusmanes, the "gentlemen of the company," noblemen serving as common soldiers but who nonetheless lived in camerada with the officers.
It would appear that Gonzalo began his Italian campaigns with an infantry organization somewhat similar to that described by Zurita but that he subsequently modified the organization based upon the dismal experience of Seminara I.
Seminara showed that the Spanish organization was deficient in several respects. There were too few pikemen proportionally to sustain the other elements of the unit in defensive combat against cavalry, and the pikemen were used to forming in a looser and shallower order than was advisable against disciplined close order foot like the Swiss. The vulnerability of the Spanish infantry in these respects was reduced by increasing the proportion of pikemen in the unit and training them to fight in deep, closely-packed formations like their adversaries.
The proportion of pikemen in the basic unit was increased to two-thirds of the whole; the remainder were crossbowmen and arquebusiers, with the arquebusiers gradually replacing the crossbowmen.
At Cerignola, Gonzalo had 3,500 Spanish infantry, which were divided into two battalions, each with a strength of 1,750 men. If, as seems likely, Gonzalo had changed the proportions of the various arms within the tactical unit to approximate the proportions observed in the later colunela, these units were approximately two-thirds pikemen and one-third arquebusiers. By the time of the battle the pikemen were habitually formed in deep, dense columns like their German allies and Swiss adversaries. The arquebusiers customarily formed in two "sleeves" (mangas in Spanish), six-ten ranks deep on both sides of the pike block, with a fraction of their strength deployed forward to skirmish.
The new organization was well balanced, combining firepower with adequate shockpower for offense or defense. In 1505, as mentioned earlier, 20 colunelas were organized, each consisting of 500 men and led by a cabo de colunela (lit. "head of column"). This organization was the prototype of all modern permanent infantry organizations. Interestingly, the designation of the commander was mutated over time to coronel and eventually into the English-language term "colonel."

Sources A basic bibliography was published in our article on the Spanish light cavalry. Additional works cited in this article are:

Gush, George. Renaissance Armies, 1480-1650. Cambridge, England: Patrick Stephens, Ltd., 1975. A gem, and well worth buying if it can be found.

Quatrefages, René. "A la naissance de l'armée moderne," Melanges de la Casa de Velazquez, 13 (1977), 119-159.

_________. "L'influence suisse dans la genèse du `tercio,'" Actes du Symposium 1982, Unité d'enseignement et de recherche de Verte-Rive (Pully, Switzerland), 1982, 33-44.


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Copyright © Curt Johnson 1993, 2007


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