Reiters in French Service

In the mounted Caracole formation, each rank of a troop of horse goes forwards in turn to fire its pistols at the enemy then retires to the rear of the formation to reload, preferably stationary. This was a complicated action that demanded steadiness of both horse and rider under fire. It was not helped by contradictory advice in drill books on how to perform the manouevre.

Germany produced mercenary cavalry (`Cleves horse’ played an important part in the campaigns of the 1540s). During the 1550s, French armies were increasingly accompanied by squadrons of German horse known as Reiters (in France reitres), sometimes also called pistoliers or `black riders,’ from their black cloaks.

Towards the middle of the sixteenth century, Thuringian Count Günter of Schwartzburg created the Schwarzern Reitern (Black Horsemen). It was a modern cavalry unit, stressing firepower and agility. Reiter or ritter meant only ‘rider’, but it became the generic name for the mercenary, partly armoured cavalrymen recruited in Germany in the 1550s, and later, during the Wars of Religion, in Spain, Italy and France.

These reiters (swarte rutters to the English) were also hired by Henry VIII. They were armoured cavalrymen, but rode unarmoured horses. Their principal weapon was a boar-spear – a broad-bladed spear, 2½-3 m/8-9 ft in length, with usually a small transverse bar below the blade. They also carried wheel-lock pistols, a German invention which soon replaced the spear, especially in the second half of the century, and became a symbol of the reiters. They played an important part in European warfare until the end of the sixteenth century.

The formation most often used by the reiters was the squadron of 300 or 400 men. Their preferred battle formation was the closed-order block, with 20 to 30 ranks. This deep formation enabled the men in the rear to reload after having discharged their weapons at the enemy and filed off to the flank and rear, allowing the next group to do so. This procedure was repeated until their opponents were sufficiently weakened to create conditions for a charge, when thrusting swords and clubbed pistols came into action.

The armour used by the reiters was not uniform and could vary from just a mail shirt or cape, through corselet (often with mail sleeves), to three-quarter armour. Helmets ranged from simple ‘iron-hats’ to burgonets or morions. They were armed with large pistols of the faustrohre type (faust – hand, rohre – barrel), thus named because they were as well suited for clubbing as for shooting the enemy. It had a barrel length of about 50 cm/20 in, weighed about 3 kg/6.5 lb and fired a 30 g/1 oz lead ball. The pistol could be aimed accurately from approximately 20 paces; unaimed fire could be effective up to 45 m/50 yds. However, it was effective against the most heavily armoured opponents only at a few paces. A reiter was usually armed with two or three pistols: two carried in holsters on his saddle bow, and the third,-precariously, in his right boot. There were, however, mercenary companies where reiters had up to six pistols – four in holsters, and one in each boot. Their armour was often blackened; a common measure to fight rust. However, it was also the source of the name schwarz reiter, as well as of the French diables noirs.

Their ill-treatment of the civil population was dire and, not surprisingly, they were widely feared. Part of the problem was that, as cavalry, they required large quantities of fodder and, because they were not at first incorporated in the elaborate supply system developed for the gendarmerie, they took what they needed. It was in March 1552, during the preparations for the German campaign, that we find one of the earliest levies of reitres for France, in this case by the Rhinegrave. He seems to have absorbed Fontenoy’s Cleves horse into his cornette in 1554 and there were complaints about their looting in 1555. Nevertheless, their captain was retained during the peace of 1556.

Immediately after Saint-Quentin, messages were sent to Reiffenberg to raise 2-3000 pistoliers and by December a surplus of men was reported ready to serve. Those retained normally expected Waitgelt of 5 écus for the three months of their retainer and then 8 écus conduct money. Secretary Fresne estimated the total cost at 500,000 écus. The army assembled at Pierrepont in August 1558 included around 8000 pistoliers out of a figure of roughly 11,000 cavalry, a sign of how fast they were emerging as a leading force in cavalry. Another levy was undertaken by arrangement with two Saxon princes and, separately, with Reifenberg. The latter had to be pacified since, while the Saxon princes had been commissioned for 4300 Reiters, Reiffenberg was only asked for 3000. The captains he had appointed had to be content with pensions. In November 1558, Guise drew up a reglement for the supply of the pistoliers in the King’s service which the King welcomed as a persuasive argument (`doulx moyen’). What was this? Essentially it was an attempt to limit the tendency of reitres to live off the land and oppress the people before the harvest, by designating areas in which they could gather fodder for their horses (excluding wheat) and then, after the harvest, by allocating villages where they could obtain fodder at a price fixed by the lieutenant-general. On campaign or in garrison they were to be given étapes in convenient places for the delivery of supplies at a fixed tariff of hay and oats worth 2s 3d p. d. Naturally, they were given freedom to live off the land in enemy territory.

These attempts at regulation were complemented by the capitulations agreed with colonels of pistoliers in 1557-8. Duke Henry of Brunswick-Luneburg mentions a `letter of retainer,’ which had fixed his annual pension, usually in abeyance on active service and replaced by direct pay. He undertook to raise a regiment of 1000 pistoliers in three cornettes and would be paid a florin p. m. for every man he produced (this could thus yield 12,000 florins p. a. = 18,000 lt.). The captains would receive 400 écus p. a. pension and on campaign a florin per month for every man as wages and the same again allocate to `the most notable gentlemen of his cornette.’ Conduct money would be paid to each captain at the rate of 8 écus per man to bring them to the place of first muster and thereafter musters would be monthly. The arms of the men are specified as: a corselet, mail `manches’, gauntlets, head-piece, good strong horse, `at least’ 2 pistols, a cutlass or mace. Pay would be 15 florins (22.10.0. lt.) p. m. (thus nearly four times the pay of a lansquenet). Terms of service were for a minimum of three months and thereafter as long as the King pleased, against all enemies, except the Empire and their feudal superiors in aggressive war. Right to obey a revocation by the Emperor, Cameral Court or their feudal princes was excluded. All orders for deployment were to be obeyed and one month’s pay was guaranteed for return. Detailed provisions were made against muster fraud, substitution (especially by lansquenets), provision in case of loss of horses or illness. No victuals were to be taken without paying, provision made for ransoms and booty. Exactly the same oath was administered as to the lansquenets.

These terms were more or less repeated for the capitulations with Saxe- Weimar, also dated March 1559, with the amplification of the special payment due to him. His retainer, or pension, was specified as 15,000 lt. p. a. with 1500 florins (2250 lt.) p. m. to distribute to `the most notable.’ In general, the terms are spelled out in more detail and prefaced by a series of états specifying the pay of all the officers and men. The duke was contracted to lead 2100 pistoliers in person in 7 cornettes of 300, led by seven captains, each of whom would receive a pension of 400 écus. The judicial staff of prévots etc. was doubled in the case of this regiment, in view of the likelihood that it would be divided for operational reasons. The only distinction with the capitulations signed with Guillaume Gombach was that his annual pension was fixed at the much lower sum of 1200 écus, an indicator that these retainers reflect the social standing of the colonel. As conditions of service, they were virtually identical to those agreed with the younger Rhinegrave, Jean-Philippe, in August 1568 for 1500 men in 5 cornettes, with the exception that the conduct money was fixed at 12 florins. These terms of service fixed by the crown were in practice undermined by events. Henry of Brunswick-Luneburg, for instance, reported as early as April 1558 (a few weeks after his agreement) that the men under his command `are very angry at the delay of their money from 1 October until now and I’m having trouble calming them.’ They had learned that they were to lose two months’ pay. Order was needed for munitions to be made available if he was to stop them foraging. They refused to obey the November 1557 ordinance on supply without express instructions.


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