Mercenaries – During the Middle Ages

The “Saubannerzug”, an irregular military formation carrying a wild boar and a club on its banner, aproaching the City of Bern in 1477 A.D.

Professional soldiers (or sailors) who fought for pay or plunder, not for any national or religious cause or because they were conscripts. Mercenaries have been found garrisoning forts or on the battlefield almost as long as men have made war: they marched alongside Roman Legions as auxiliaries, and fought against them; Song emperors deployed mercenaries in China in distant garrisons and used them in field armies from the 12th century; they guarded the great trans-Saharan trade routes for the African slave empires of Mali and Songhay; they fought for the Crusader states of the Holy Land, as well as against them in several Muslim armies. The Aztec Empire was built in blood by a ruthless people who began as tributary soldiers in the paid service of a more advanced and wealthy city-state, Tepaneca, in the Central Valley of Mexico. In parts of Medieval Europe primogeniture ensured that many young men were forced to turn to arms to earn a living. This produced the necessary forces to eventually defeat the great waves of invasions over some 600 years by Vikings, Mongols, Arabs, and other warlike raiders. A growing surfeit of warriors produced by a whole society structured for war but with a newly rising population was then sent off to fight the Crusades, while others went mercenary and fought ever closer bound to the king’s war chest at home.

The collapse of the monetary economy in Western Europe following the fall of Rome left just two areas where gold coin was still used in the 10th century: southern Italy and southern Spain (al-Andalus). Ready gold drew mercenaries to wars in those regions as carrion creatures draw near dead flesh. Also able to pay in coin for military specialists and hardened veterans was the Byzantine Empire, along with the Muslim states it opposed and fought for several centuries. The rise of mercenaries in Western Europe in the 11th century as a money economy resumed disturbed the social order and was received with wrath and dismay by the clergy and service nobility. Early forms of monetary service did not necessarily involve straight wages. They included fief money and scutage. But by the end of the 13th century paid military service was the norm in Europe. This meant that local bonds were forming in many places and a concomitant sense of “foreignness” attached to long-service soldiers. Mercenaries were valued for their military expertise but now feared and increasingly despised for their perceived moral indifference to the causes for which they fought. Ex-mercenary bands (routiers, Free Companies) were commonplace in France in the 12th century and a social and economic scourge wherever they moved during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). Their main weapon was the crossbow, on land and at sea. In the galley wars of the Mediterranean many Genoese, Pisan, and Venetian crossbowmen hired out as specialist marine archers. Much of the Reconquista in Spain was fueled by the mercenary impulse and concomitant necessity for armies to live off the land. The hard methods and cruel attitudes learned by Iberians while fighting Moors were then applied in the Americas by quasi-mercenary conquistadores. Mercenaries- “condottieri,” or foreign “contractors”-also played a major part in the wars of the city-states of the Italian Renaissance.

French “gen d’armes” and Swiss pikemen and halberdiers fought for Lorraine at Nancy (1477). By the start of the 15th century Swiss companies hired out with official Cantonal approval or as free bands who elected their officers and went to Italy to fight as condottieri. With the end of the wars of the Swiss Confederation against France and Burgundy, Swiss soldiers of fortune formed a company known as “das torechte Leben” (roughly, “the mad life”) and fought for pay under a Banner displaying a town idiot and a pig. Within four years of Nancy some 6,000 Swiss were hired by Louis XI. In 1497, Charles VIII (“The Affable”) of France engaged 100 Swiss halberdiers as his personal bodyguard (“Garde de Cent Suisses”). In either form, the Swiss became the major mercenary people of Europe into the 16th century. “Pas d’argent, pas de Suisses” (“no money, no Swiss”) was a baleful maxim echoed by many sovereigns and generals. Mercenaries of all regional origins filled out the armies of Charles V, and those of his son, Philip II, as well as their enemies during the wars of religion of the 16th and 17th centuries. By that time Swiss mercenaries who still used pikes (and many did) were largely employed to guard the artillery or trenches or supplies. Similarly, by the late 16th century German Landsknechte were still hired for battle as shock troops but they were considered undisciplined and perfectly useless in a siege.

In Poland in the 15th century most mercenaries were Bohemians who fought under the flag of St. George, which had a red cross on a white background. When Bohemian units found themselves on opposite sides of a battlefield they usually agreed that one side would adopt a white cross on a red background while their countrymen on the other side used the standard red-on-white flag of St. George. In the Polish-Prussian and Teutonic Knights campaigns of the mid-15th century the Brethren-by this point too few to do all their own fighting-hired German, English, Scots, and Irish mercenaries to fill out their armies. During the “War of the Cities” (1454-1466) German mercenaries were critical to the victory of the Teutonic Knights at Chojnice (September 18, 1454). When the Order ran out of money, however, Bohemian soldiers-for-hire who held the key fortress and Teutonic capital of Marienburg for the Knights sold it to a besieging Polish army and departed, well paid and unscathed by even a token fight.

The social and economic dislocations caused by confessional ferocity during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) forced many men into the profession of arms, especially if they came from the fringe peoples of Europe or borderlands such as Scotland, Ireland, or the Balkans, where wars of raid and counter-raid were endemic. Thus, when a “Swedish” army assaulted Frankfurt- on-the-Oder a Scots Brigade made the attack against a defending “Imperial” Army made up wholly of Irishmen under Colonel Walter Butler. In fact, the great bulk of European armies during the first half of the 17th century were comprised of mercenaries who owed little ethnic, class, or religious loyalty to the causes for which they fought. This was because kings and great captains owed such men little more than pay, out of which soldiers were expected to buy their own food, weapons, clothing, and provide shelter. In some armies musketeers were even expected to buy their own black powder, so of course they were loathe to spend it on combat. Even this primitive system was subject to great abuse and corruption as quartermasters and colonels skimmed payrolls, troops exposed themselves to minimal danger, and captains used their tactical skills to escape rather than win battles. One result was a tendency for armies to maneuver constantly, eating out enemy territory rather than seeking out combat. The mercenary presence on the battlefield thus led to fewer pitched battles but much longer wars, conditions which best satisfied the interest of military professionals in prolonged but also cautious and relatively non-sanguinary service. During the Thirty Years’ War many top officers were mercenaries, notably on the Habsburg side under Wallenstein. Not all were Catholics-Wallenstein himself was an agnostic mystic. They came from Scotland, England, Ireland, the Swiss cantons, and the many overrun and warring German states. In 1500 most European armies contained about one-third mercenary troops. Shortly after Gustavus Adolphus intervened in the Thirty Years’ War 130 years later his “Swedish Army” had become, through casualties and new recruitment, 80 percent foreign mercenaries wrapped around a core of Swedish veterans.

Among the most important effects of large numbers of greatly skilled, highly mobile, and utterly disloyal mercenaries, combined with the lethality of the cannons and firearms they employed, was to so threaten any self-respecting sovereign that it became essential to establish standing armies to protect the dynasty and realm. The answer to the anarchy, terror, and destruction caused by “Free Companies” of heavily armed and homeless men all over Europe thus became the law of kings. This was then enforced by soldiers in royal service who dressed in the king’s colors, were paid regularly and sheltered year-round in barracks, who had stables for their mounts, magazines full of shot and powder, and national foundries and small arms industries to supply military needs. In short, the answer to mercenary anarchy was the modern state.

Suggested Reading: S. Brown, “The Mercenary and his Master,” History, 74 (1989); K. A. Fowler, Medieval Mercenaries, Vol. 1 (2001); M. E. Mallett, Mercenaries and Their Masters (1974); J. F. Verbruggen, The Art of Warfare in Western Europe During the Middle Ages (1977); David Worthington, Scots in Habsburg Service, 1618-1648 (2004).


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