Landsknechts – Mercenaries of Europe

During the Burgundian Wars (1474–1477) in France, Charles the Bold, the expansionist and ambitious Duke of Burgundy, who had already been defeated three times in battle, came to a sorry end. These wars were a struggle between the Dukes of Burgundy and the Kings of France. They showed that cavalry was not of much use against well-trained formations of pikemen or against infantrymen armed with the new firearms. The wars took place in Lorraine and northwest Switzerland and involved the Swiss Confederacy, which played a decisive role thanks to the very high-quality mercenaries it provided.

The result was the death of Charles the Bold in the final, decisive battle of the Burgundian Wars (the battle of Nancy in 1477) and was a Franco-Swiss victory. The Duchy of Burgundy and some other Burgundian lands then became part of France. What is more important for present purposes is that the Burgundian Wars highlight the growing importance of Swiss mercenaries on the battlefields of Europe.

At the battle of Nancy, Charles the Bold had only between 2,000 and 4,000 men (including some Italian mercenaries), in contrast to the 10,000–12,000 soldiers from Lorraine and the Lower Union of the Rhine—plus 10,000 Swiss mercenaries—led by René, Duke of Lorraine. When Charles’ army began to crumble under the assault of René’s forces, Charles and his staff tried in vain to halt the rout but they were caught up in it instead. They were swept along until his party was surrounded by Swiss mercenaries. A halberdier swung his battle axe at Charles’ head and landed a heavy blow on his helmet. Charles tumbled off his horse; the tide of battle flowed over and around him; his disfigured body was not discovered for three days. The stellar performance of the Swiss mercenaries in this battle increased their already-high reputation and led to their more frequent employment across Europe.

New regiments of mercenaries, known in English as Landsknechts and founded by Maximilian I in 1487, could consist of up to 12,000 men. In German, Landsknechte (plural) and Landsknecht (singular) were terms coined from the words for “land,” i.e., country, and for “servant,” so their name meant “servant of the country.”

The Landsknechts were thus European (initially predominately German) pikemen and infantrymen who flourished from the late 15th to the late 16th century and who won the reputation of being some of the very best mercenaries in Western Europe. They fought in almost every 16th century military campaign—sometimes on both sides of the same battle. They had learned their skills from Swiss mercenaries, e.g., the use of very long pikes (up to 18 feet long) and the deployment of the nearly-impervious “pike square” formations.

Landsknecht regiments could swell in size, e.g., from 4,000 up to 12,000 men, as the military need arose. Their regiments were accompanied by numerous camp followers and by a baggage train carrying heavy equipment, food, and the personal belongings of the mercenaries. Their wives and children formed part of this cavalcade, too. The female camp followers filled many roles: mothers, nurses, cooks, cleaners, and sexual companions. Other participants on these journeys included common laborers, merchants and their families, animals for food, thieves, and scavengers.

If on the battlefield an experienced Landsknecht was not using a pike, he might be seen swinging a 6-to-8-foot-long halberd, or perhaps wielding a double-edged sword 6 feet long known as a Zweihänder (literally, a ”two-hander” sword), which weighed between 7 and 14 pounds. Its purpose was to knock aside the enemy’s pikes, thus sowing disorder in the enemy’s tightly-packed ranks and creating openings for opposing infantrymen to break in and attack them. These swords were also used to guard the mercenaries who were entrusted with carrying their unit’s flag: the swords were so big and so lethal that a few soldiers armed with them could stop many other soldiers who were only lightly armed.

A Landsknecht was thus a powerful man equipped with powerful weapons. He had to provide his own weapons and armor and had to be physically fit: recruits had to prove their fitness by jumping over a barrier made of three pikes or halberds. As a result of this careful selection process, such a man was likely to be very effective in battle. In 1502, for example, the Landsknecht Paul Dolstein described a siege during which he was fighting on the side of the King of Denmark. He wrote: “We were 1,800 Germans and we were attacked by 15,000 Swedish farmers … we struck most of them dead.”

Landsknecht warriors posed a considerable threat to civilians as well as to the enemy. The Oxford Companion to Military History makes these telling points:

The very epitome of the 16th-century military freebooter and vagabond, the landsknechts were rightly feared wherever they went. Their garish, ripped, and rakishly padded costume and improbably large weaponry, meant that the landsknechts presented an awe-inspiring sight to friend and foe alike. An unwholesome appetite for plunder and strong drink, and blood-curdling cries of “Beware, farmer: I’m coming!” made them feared by the civilian population in the regions where they campaigned. And indeed they fought in almost every campaign in every region of Europe from 1486 to their decline at the end of the 16th century.

The “costume” mentioned above came about because they sometimes wore colorful clothing stripped from fallen opponents and because they always delighted in dressing flamboyantly. Maximilian I had exempted them from the sumptuary laws of the time (these were laws intended to restrain the expenditure of citizens on luxurious apparel), so the Landsknechts wore doublets deliberately slashed at the front, back, and sleeves—with shirts or other wear pulled through the cuts to form puffs of different-colored fabric (a style known as “puffed and slashed”). They also wore multi-colored hose; jerkins (short sleeveless jackets, usually made of light leather); broad beret-type hats with tall feathers; and broad, flat shoes. Needless to say, a band of these men would certainly stand out in a crowd.

Briefly, the now somewhat shadowy and elusive Black Bands must be addressed. These were formations of 16th century mercenaries serving as Landsknechts. One Black Band fought in the French army for 10 years, had a strength of 4,000 to 5,000 men, and took part in some notable battles. It was created in 1514 by George, Duke of Saxony to fight for his claims in East Frisia during what was known as the Saxon feud. Whether this Black Band was a new creation, or whether it was somehow part of the “Black Guard” (also known as the “Great Guard”) founded in 1488 by unemployed Landsknechts, is not entirely clear now. What is clear is that a Black Guard fought in East Frisia in 1514 and devastated large parts of it in the process.

When the Saxon feud ended in 1515, Duke George abandoned the men of the Black Guard, who were then reduced to living off the land as brigands. Charles of Geldern hired them, however, and led them in the Italian wars, covered in the next chapter. The Black Bands of Guelders, one of the most prestigious Landsknecht contingents, had 12,000 pikemen, 2,000 arquebisiers, 2,000 swordsmen, and 1,000 halberdiers in about 1515. In 1525 the captain of one of the Black Bands was Georg Langenmanel, a German, but this Black Band was sometimes, as in the battle of Pavia (which took place in present-day Italy in 1525 between Spain and France), put under the command of a French officer.

In this battle, the Black Band was greatly outnumbered: it found itself facing two blocks of Landsknechts totaling some 12,000 men. The result was predictable: the Black Band, with a strength of only about 5,000 men, was hacked to pieces and was virtually destroyed. It therefore ceased to exist as a combat force, although it would be reconstituted later on.

Swiss and Landsknechts – Rivalry and Blood-Feud

Swiss fighters were responding to several interrelated factors: limited economic opportunities in their home mountains; pride in themselves and their colleagues as world-class soldiers; and, last but not least, by a love of adventure and combat. In fact, they were such good fighters that the Swiss enjoyed a near-monopoly on pike-armed military service for many years. One of their successes was the battle of Novara in northern Italy 1513 between France and the Republic of Venice, on the one hand, and the Swiss Confederation and the Duchy of Milan, on the other. The story runs as follows.

A French army, said by some sources to total 1,200 cavalrymen and about 20,000 Landsknechts, Gascons, and other troops, was camped near and was besieging Novara. This city was being held by some of the Duke of Milan’s Swiss mercenaries. A Swiss relief army of some 13,000 Swiss troops unexpectedly fell upon the French camp. The pike-armed Landsknechts managed to form up into their combat squares; the Landsknecht infantrymen took up their proper positions; and the French were able to get some of their cannons into action. The Swiss, however, surrounded the French camp, captured the cannons, broke up the Landsknecht pike squares, and forced back the Landsknecht infantry regiments.

The fight was very bloody: the Swiss executed hundreds of the Landsknechts they had captured, and 700 men were killed in three minutes by heavy artillery fire alone. To use a later English naval term from the days of sail, the “butcher’s bill” (the list of those killed in action) was somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 men. Despite this Swiss success, however, the days of their supremacy as the world’s best mercenaries were numbered. In about 1515, the Swiss pledged themselves to neutrality, with the exception of Swiss soldiers serving in the ranks of the royal French army. The Landsknechts, on the other hand, would continue to serve any paymaster and would even fight each other if need be. Moreover, since the rigid battle formations of the Swiss were increasingly vulnerable to arquebus and artillery fire, employers were more inclined to hire the Landsknechts instead.

In retrospect, it is clear that the successes of Swiss soldiers in the 15th and early 16th centuries were due to three factors:

• Their courage was extraordinary. No Swiss force ever broke in battle, surrendered, or ran away. In several instances, the Swiss literally fought to the last man. When they were forced to retreat in the face of overwhelming odds, they did so in good order while defending themselves against attack.

• Their training was excellent. Swiss soldiers relied on a simple system of tactics, practiced until it became second nature to every man. They were held to the mark by a committee-leadership of experienced old soldiers.

• They were ferocious and gave no quarter, not even for ransom, and sometimes violated terms of surrender already given to garrisons and pillaged towns that had capitulated. These qualities inspired fear in their opponents.