The Black Army

Knight of the Black Army

Under King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary (r. 1458–1490), the Black Army was a highly skilled mercenary force but it became too expensive for the country to support. Federico da Montefeltro was not only one of the most successful mercenaries of the Italian Renaissance but was also a famous patron of the arts: his study, finished in 1476, is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The success of Swiss mercenaries at the battle of Nancy (1477) encouraged more European leaders to hire them. The failure of other mercenaries, during the Pazzi conspiracy of 1478, to kill Lorenzo de Medici led to their own deaths. The Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I formed the mercenary Landsknecht regiments in 1487; they would eventually displace Swiss mercenaries on the battlefield.

The term “Black Army,” coined after the death of King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary (1443–1490), refers to his foreign mercenary forces, which consisted chiefly of Bohemians, Poles, and Germans.1 There are various theories about the origin of this unusual name. The first recorded references to a “black army” appear in memoranda written immediately after Matthias died. His death occurred when his soldiers were pillaging Hungarian and Austrian villages because they had not been paid; they may have sewed a black stripe on their uniforms as a sign of mourning. If so, it is not clear today whether they were mourning their lost leader, their lost pay, or both.

The foundations of this highly skilled mercenary army were laid by the father of Matthias in the early 1440s. The concept of a professional standing army of mercenaries, however, is said to have come to young Matthias himself—when he was reading about the life of Julius Caesar. The eventual result of this creative idea was that the soldiers of the Black Army would be well-paid, full-time mercenaries who were devoted to perfecting their military skills. At its peak strength in 1487, this army could field some 28,000 men, i.e., 20,000 horsemen and 8,000 infantrymen. Moreover, as noted earlier in this book, every fifth soldier in the infantry had an arquebus—an unusually high ratio at the time.

As Matthias’ income increased, he was able to hire more and more mercenaries. Contemporary records differ on the numbers involved because these changed from one battle to another and because some soldiers were employed only for the duration of a given campaign. Nevertheless, if all the nobility’s Banners (military units), all the mercenaries, all the soldiers of conquered Moravia and Silesia, and all the troops of allied Moldavia and Wallachia are added up, Matthias might have had as many as 90,000 men at his disposal.

Managing this force was not child’s play. The major disadvantage of having troops who were paid periodically or only rarely was that if they did not receive their pay, they would simply leave the battlefield or even, in some cases, they would revolt. Such revolts had to be put down by the king, but since these rebels were well-trained, disciplined, men-at-arms they were very hard to suppress.

The good news, from the king’s point of view, was that since only a relatively small number of his troops revolted at any given time, their captains could often be encouraged to return to the fold simply by offering them lands and castles, which they could then mortgage and use the proceeds to pay their troops. If this ploy did not work, however, Matthias would resort to military force, tempered by mercy. In 1467, for example, his troops captured a rebel garrison. After the captured men had watched some other prisoners being hung, they begged for mercy—which Matthias kindly granted. He even made one captured rebel officer a captain in the Black Guard because he was such a good fighter.

In 1481, Matthias himself summed up the battlefield duties of his infantry in a letter to Gabriele Rangoni, bishop of Eger. The description, disposition, and tactics of this unit follow closely the actual practices of the Italian mercenary armies. Matthias writes:

The third force of the army is the infantry, which divides into various orders: the common infantry, the armored infantry, and the shield-bearers…. The armored infantry and shield-bearers cannot carry their armor and shields without pages and servants, and since it is necessary to provide them with pages, each one of them requires one page per shield and armor….

Then there are handgunners [i.e., soldiers carrying primitive hand-held firearms known as hand cannons] … They are very practical, set behind the shield-bearers at the start of the battle, before the enemies engage, and in defense. Nearly all of the infantry and the handgunners are surrounded by armored soldiers and shield-bearers, as if they were standing behind a bastion. The large shields set together in a circle present the appearance of a fort and are similar to a wall in whose defense the infantry and all those among them fight almost as if from behind bastion walls or ramparts and at a given moment break out from it.

Before Matthias died in 1490, he had asked his officers to support his son, John Corvinus, as the new king, but Hungary soon collapsed into rival factions struggling for power. Moreover, in about 1492, because some Black Army mercenaries had not been paid they switched sides and joined the army of the Holy Roman Empire, which was then invading Hungary. Another Black Army unit was not paid, either, so it survived by looting the nearest monasteries, churches, villages, and manors.

The failure to pay mercenaries arose because the king simply could not afford to support such a large number of hired troops. Indeed, it has been calculated that out of an annual income of about 900,000 ducats, the king had to set aside 400,000 ducats to pay these men. Revolts by the mercenaries finally led the Black Army itself being disbanded in 1494. Its surviving members were either integrated into local garrisons or, as in the case of some who had turned traitor, were arrested for treason, were locked up, and were quietly allowed to starve to death.

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