Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, 1453-1515

Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba (El Gran Capitán), 1453-1515, was a Spanish general who reformed the infantry in the early stages of the Italian Wars, helping to create the famous tercio formation that made Spanish armies so formidable during the sixteenth century.

Cordoba entered the Castilian court at the age of 13. In 1474 Isabella inherited the throne, but almost immediately had to fight a civil war to keep her new title. Cordoba came to prominence during this fighting, and then took part in the later stages of the conquest of Granada. In 1492 he was one of the two commissioners chosen to negotiate the final surrender of Granada, despite still being just under thirty.

In 1495 he was sent to Sicily to support Ferdinand II of Aragon's intervention against Charles VIII of France, who had claimed and invaded the Kingdom of Naples (First Italian War/ Italian War of Charles VIII), taking Naples from Ferdinand's cousins. Charles then found himself the target of a sizable coalition that included the Emperor Maximilian, Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain, Venice and his former allies in Milan. He decided to retreat back to the north, leaving Gilbert, Duke of Montpensier to act as his viceroy in Naples. While Charles retreated north, Cordoba and Ferdinand of Naples prepared to return to the mainland.

Cordoba's first battle in Italy was a rare defeat. In the summer of 1495 he landed on the mainland with an army that included a sizable contingent of sword and shield men with experience of the fighting in Granada. This army ran into a French force under Bernard Stuart, Seigneur d'Aubigny at Seminara (28 June 1495), and was defeated by his Swiss mercenaries. This defeat is said to have triggered Cordoba's reforms of the Spanish infantry, which turned them into a major battle winning weapons and made the Spanish tercios feared across Europe. Cordoba's contribution to that development was to create a force that combined arquebusiers and pikemen, getting the best out of both weapons.

The French victory at Seminara didn't do them much good. Ferdinand moved around the coast to Naples and in July was welcoming into the city. Montpensier surrendered at Aversa in July 1496 and by the end of the year the last French strongholds had fallen.

Cordoba remained in Italy long enough to help Pope Alexander retake the fortress at Ostia, which was still occupied by the French. He was rewarded with a Roman Triumph and a Golden Rose.

In 1500 Cordoba returned to Italy at the head of a larger army. This time the official reason for his presence was the Ottoman threat, and he did indeed take part in a joint campaign with the Venetians, capturing the island of Cephalonia (December 1500). However behind the scenes Ferdinand of Aragon and Louis XII, the new King of France, came to a secret agreement to split the kingdom of Naples. The Second Italian War/ Italian War of Louis XII started in the north, with a rather unimpressive French invasion of the Duchy of Milan, which had to be conquered twice (1499 and 1500). The temporary allies then overran Naples. Cordoba became Viceroy of Naples.

At the start of 1502 Gonsalvo de Cordoba besieged Taranto, one of the last places being held by the Neapolitan dynasty. The city finally fell when Cordoba took a fleet overland into a lake at the rear of the city (March 1502).

The French and Spanish soon fell out, with French troops seizing areas that had probably been allocated to the Spanish. At first the French had the advantage, and for eight months Cordoba was loosely blockaded in Barletta by Louis d'Armangnac, duke of Nemours. Spanish reinforcements then arrived by sea. Cordoba attacked the French, and won a major victory at Cerignola (28 April 1503). His reorganised infantry played a major part in the battle, when entrenched Spanish infantry defeated a French attack with arquebus fire. Nemours was killed in the battle. Cordoba's men captured Naples on 13 May and in June began a siege of Gaeta.

The French soon reorganised, and in October Cordoba was forced to retreat from Gaeta. A stalemate developed on the Garigliano River near Cassino. Both sides suffered losses in skirmishes and from swamp fever, before Spanish reinforcements arrived. Once again Cordoba took advantage of this, and launched an outflanking attack across the flooded river estuary. The resulting battle of the Garigliano (28-29 December 1503 ) was a second major Spanish victory, and effectively ended the French threat to Naples. Cordoba was already known as el Gran Capitán before these battles, but they confirmed his reputation. Although the French continued to claim Naples during the long Italian Wars, they never again seriously threatened Spanish control of the area.

Cordoba remained in Naples as viceroy until 1507 when Ferdinand came in person to be confirmed as King of Naples. When Ferdinand departed for Spain he took Cordoba with him, effectively ending his military career (Cordoba's career had been in the court of Queen Isabella of Castile, but her death removed his main supported in the Spanish court). There was some talk of giving him command of the Army of the Holy League after the crushing French victory at Ravenna in 1512, but in the end nothing came of this. He did receive a commission to recruit troops and had raised a force of several thousand men before the end of the crisis meant that Ferdinand withdrew the commission. Cordoba died in 1515, aged 62.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (2 February 2015), Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, 1453-1515 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_fernandez_de_cordoba.html

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