Machiavelli on Mercenaries

Niccolo di Bernardo dei Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), the Italian Renaissance figure whose name is still cited frequently today by scholars, politicians, and debaters alike, had negative views on mercenaries.

The son of a legal official, Machiavelli had a good grasp of Latin and the Italian classics when he entered government service in 1494 as a clerk. After the Florentine Republic was proclaimed four years later, he rose to prominence as secretary of the 10-man council which conducted Florence’s diplomatic negotiations and military operations. It was during his diplomatic missions that he became familiar with the political tactics of many Italian leaders. In 1502 and 1503, Machiavelli also became familiar, at first hand, with the state-building methods of Cesare Borgia, the Duke of Romagna, who was expanding his holdings in central Italy through a mixture of military prowess, audacity, prudence, self-reliance, firmness, and cruelty. His army was essentially a mercenary army, heavy with contingents of French and Spanish troops. When he faced a revolt by his own mercenaries in 1502, he crushed it brilliantly and ruthlessly. Machiavelli studied closely the methods Cesare employed to trick the rebellious mercenaries and then magnified his achievements in The Prince.

From 1503 to 1506 Machiavelli was put in charge of reorganizing the military defense of Florence. At that time, condottieri bands (i.e. mercenary armies) were common in Italy, but Machiavelli did not think they could ever be relied on to remain loyal to their employers. He therefore argued in favor of citizen armies which, being native to a given state and thus having a personal stake in its fortunes, were much more likely to be loyal. Machiavelli’s thinking here was largely inspired by the citizen armies of ancient Rome.

In 1512, as a result of the rivalry between Spain and France (see the previous section on the Italian Wars), the Medici family returned to power in Florence. The republic was dissolved and, as a key figure in the former anti-Medici government, Machiavelli was placed on the torture rack because he was suspected of conspiracy. After his release, he retired to his estate near Florence, where he wrote his most important books. He tried hard to win the favor of the Medicis but was unsuccessful in this effort and was never given another government position.

Machiavelli’s best-known book—The Prince (Il Principe)—was not printed until l532, five years after his death, although an earlier version was first circulated in 1513 under the Latin title of De Principatibus (About Principalities). The basic and most famous teaching of The Prince is that a leader, in order to survive, let alone to win glory, is fully justified in using immoral means to achieve these objectives. Here the focus is on the two chapters of The Prince that have the most to say about mercenaries. It is worth quoting them at some length to get the full impact of Machiavelli’s thought.

His Chapter XII (“How Many Kinds of Soldiery There Are, And Concerning Mercenaries”), for example makes these forceful points:

I say, therefore, that the arms with which a prince defends his state are either his own, or they are mercenaries, auxiliaries, or mixed.

Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies; they have neither the fear of God nor fidelity to men, and [one’s own] destruction is deferred only so long as the attack is; for in peace one is robbed by them, and in war by the enemy. The fact is, that they have no other attraction or reason for keeping the field than a trifle of stipend, which is not sufficient to make them willing to die for you. They are ready enough to be your soldiers whilst you do not make war, but if war comes they take themselves off or run from the foe….

I wish to demonstrate further the infelicity of these arms [i.e., mercenaries]. The mercenary captains are either capable men or they are not; if they are, you cannot trust them, because they always aspire to their own greatness, either by oppressing you, who are their master, or others contrary to your intentions; but if the captain [i.e., the leader of the mercenaries] is not skillful, you are ruined in the usual way [i.e., you will lose the war].

And if it be urged [i.e., argued] that whoever is armed will act in the same way, whether mercenary or not, I reply that when arms have to be resorted to, either by a prince or a republic, the prince ought to do in person and perform the duty of captain…. And experience has shown princes and republics, single-handed, making the greatest progress, and mercenaries doing nothing but damage; and it is more difficult to bring a republic, armed with its own arms, under the sway of one of its citizens than it is to bring one armed with foreign arms. Rome and Sparta stood for many ages armed and free. The Switzers are completely armed and quite free.

In his Chapter XIII (“Concerning Auxiliaries, Mixed Soldiers, And One’s Own”), Machiavelli provides his considered findings on this subject:

And if the first disaster to the Roman Empire should be examined, it will be found to have commenced only with the enlisting of the Goths [as mercenaries]; because from that time the vigour of the Roman Empire began to decline, and all that valour which had raised it passed to others.

I conclude, therefore, that no principality is secure without having its own forces; on the contrary, it is entirely dependent on good fortune, not having the valour which in adversity would defend it. And it has always been the opinion and judgment of a wise man that nothing is so uncertain or unstable as fame or power which is not founded on its own strength. And one’s own forces are those which are composed either of subjects, citizens, or dependents; all others are mercenaries or auxiliaries.

In making these such statements, however, Machiavelli was certainly not a disinterested scholar. He very much wanted to get another high-level position with the government of Florence, and the only way to do so was to win the support of the ruling Medici family. A letter written by Machiavelli and discovered only in 1810 reveals that he wrote The Prince to impress the Medicis. However, since they were not prepared to pay the very high fees demanded by the best warriors of the time—namely, the Swiss mercenaries—in The Prince he had to fall back on a less-effective but more feasible solution, namely, a rural militia composed of Florentine citizens. Such a force, he argued, would be much cheaper and much more reliable than mercenaries.

Machiavelli clearly hoped that this proposal, coupled with his related ideas on the merits of a strong indigenous government (which was badly needed, in his view, to keep Florence free from foreign domination), would commend itself to the Medicis. It is clear, however, that it did not: Machiavelli never got another job, and mercenaries continued to be widely used by Italian city-states and by other employers.

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 and to end this chapter, 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.

Medieval Free Companies I

The free companies of 100 Years War soldiers made redundant by the truce of Bordeaux and the Treaty of Bretigny and later by the truce of Tours. Although many of the companies of the first phase went back into their own nation’s service when the war broke out again, some that had moved to Italy stayed there and drifted into formal contractual relationships with Italian city states. Prominent among these were the English “White Company” under John Hawkwood, the German “Company of the Star” under Albrecht Sterz and Hannekin Bongarten, and the Breton and Gascon company of Bertrand de la Salle. They were gradually replaced by native Italian condottieri, the last to disappear being the Company of the Rose in 1410.

Mercenaries who lost their jobs as a result of the Treaty of Brétigny (1360) soon coalesced into the Great Companies. One of the most famous of these mercenary companies was the White Company, led by the English chieftain John Hawkwood. Chandos Herald tells how, in 1367, the Black Prince used mercenaries effectively in the civil war in Spain. The conversation between the colorful mercenary commander the Bascot de Mauléon and the chronicler Froissart in 1388, and the battles of Brignais (1362) and Grunwald/Tannenberg (1410) are also covered below.

The Great Companies were newly-minted military units, drawn from the many thousands of experienced but out-of-work mercenaries who were trying to survive after the Treaty of Brétigny between the kings of England and France in 1360.1 By the spring of 1362, the process of evacuating fortresses and transforming territories between England and France was nearly finished. However, the unforeseen result was that many of the disbanded forces quickly became independent companies under new captains. When they joined forces, they were sufficiently powerful not only to seize well-defended fortresses and towns, but also to undertake major engagements in the field.

These companies would remain active in much of Western Europe until the renewal, in 1369, of the war between England and France. The modern French scholar Jean Favier defines such a mercenary unit as follows:

A company consisted of from 50 to 200 men under the orders of a captain, who was both the organizer and executive officer of this military society and its leader in combat.

One of the best summaries of how the companies arose is that offered by the modern Italian scholar Franco Cardini. In an article first written in Italian, then translated into French, and now quoted here in an edited free translation into English, Cardini explains that two factors were at play in this process:

On the one hand, if businessmen, entrepreneurs, and bankers had now become the governing class, most notably in the urban communes of Italy, they did not have, despite all that, a style of life they found suitable to their new status. In fact, they remained fascinated by what could be called the ”knightly-courtesy” manner of life and were eager to duplicate it in their own city palaces and country estates. On the other hand, however, they did have to tend to business and thus could not afford to throw themselves into the periodic military expeditions which were popular at that time.

This state of affairs was the principal reason why companies of mercenaries multiplied in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. The leaders of these companies made all-inclusive offers to potential employers: they had their own weapons and their own equipment, which were immediately available and were more or less in good working order. But the fact that the mercenaries had to fight simply in order to live created real problems of its own.

In the first place, it was in their own interest to prolong conflicts: for them, peace meant idleness and poverty. Thus the battles the mercenaries fought were never decisive. By mutual agreement, commanders tried to reduce their manpower losses and the expense of fighting. Finally, in times of peace, the mercenary companies became terrible bands of brigands. For these reasons, even when they had no military need to do so, governments preferred to prolong wars indefinitely and to pay the high price of hiring mercenaries: it was much better to pay this price rather than letting the mercenaries roam around freely without any money.

There was no single overall organization or individual guiding the formation of the Great Companies, which were simply larger versions of existing mercenary companies. About 166 mercenary captains are known to have commanded companies operating in or from France during the decade after 1360; 91 of these men are referred to in contemporary sources as being the captains of one or another of the Great Companies. (Of these 91 commanders, eight are known to have died in battle, one was poisoned, and one was executed.) Thus there were at least 91 Great Companies and may possibly have been even more.

The formation of these companies was a spontaneous, need-driven process. Mercenaries were of many “nationalities” (to use a modern term)—for example, Italian, German, Hungarian, Spanish, Greek, Albanian, French, Swiss, English, and Scottish. They enlisted under commanders who they hoped could win battles and who would pay them well. As the modern scholar Guido Guerri dall’Oro explains,

The effectiveness of the mercenary companies was chiefly a function of their organizational skills, of their strict discipline, and of their military competence. These features made them superior in combat when compared to the heavy cavalry of the aristocrats, who in general aspired only for personal glory and who knew nothing at all about the rules, the tactics, and the techniques of war….

Pay for the mercenaries: that was the essential thing. To hire mercenaries was not hard to do; to pay them regularly, whether one won or lost a given battle, was indeed hard to do. If an employer could not honor his contract with mercenaries, his problems began then and there….

There is no single, definitive figure on the total strength of the Great Companies. Their numerical strength was in fact a function of the number of mercenary bands that could be recruited for a given operation, and on the size of each band. Contemporary sources, however, do give some rough indications about how many men could be involved.

We will soon meet, for example, a memorable Basque mercenary, the Bascot (or Bastot) de Mauléon. Both variants of this title mean “a soldier of fortune.” In an interview in 1388 with Froissart, the Bascot indicated that 12,000 men had been available in 1360 after the conclusion of peace at Brétigny; of these, 3,000 to 4,000 were, he added, “really fine soldiers.” The rest, it must be assumed, were rank and file mercenaries with no special skills but were competent fighters nonetheless.

In 1363, the governor of the regions of Berry and Auvergne estimated the strength of the companies who congregated around the city of Brioude during the week after its capture at 2,000 lances (as indicated earlier, a “lance” was a three-man combat team), plus 1,000 mounted archers and infantrymen.8 The mercenary companies sent into Spain by the French and the English in 1366–1367 probably included around 3,000 men-at-arms.9 In a letter written in 1367 by King Peter IV of Aragon to the governor of Roussillon, the king said that a rival noble had recruited 13 captains of the companies then serving with the Black Prince; these captains commanded a total of 1,600 lances.10 Froissart says that when war between England and France broke out again in 1369, some 4,500 mercenaries joined the armies of these protagonists.

Here is a sampling of what some contemporary observers had to say about the Companies:

• The author of the Grandes Chroniques de France says that “At that time [November 1360], there were great numbers of English and others in Brie and Champagne, who ravaged all the countryside, killing and ransoming men, and doing all the evil they could, of whom some called themselves the Great Company.”

• Froissart mentions gatherings of such men in Burgundy and Champagne, some of which were known as les Tards-Venus (“the Latecomers”) because they were foraging in provinces that had already been stripped by other mercenaries.

• The Carmelite friar Jean de Venette says that “these sons of Belial [i.e., these sons of lawlessness] and men of iniquity [were] warriors from various lands who assailed other men with no hope of right and no reason other than their own passions, iniquity and hope of gain, and yet were called the Great Company.”

• The monk Henry Knighton had this to say about the Anglo-German company commanded by Albert Sterz:

At this time [late 1361] was organized a certain company of strong men called the Company of Fortune [Societas fortunae; later it became known as “the White Company” and is covered at greater length later], which some called the Great Company. It was composed of men from different parts, who, now that there was peace between the two kingdoms [England and France], had no means of livelihood other than through their own efforts. They were bold and warlike fellows, experienced and strenuous, who congregated together from different nations, and who lived by war, since in time of peace they had nothing.”

• An institution’s own interests could strongly influence its views on mercenaries. For example, when the famous English mercenary John Hawkwood fought for Milan against the papal armies in 1371, the pope denounced him as being “a son of Belial.” But, the next year, when Hawkwood sided with the pope and won several battles, he was praised as being “an athlete of God and a faithful Christian knight.”

It should not be a surprise to learn that being the commander of a Great Company could be a very hazardous calling. Consider, for example, what happened to a previously-successful mercenary leader named Guillaume Pot (also known as Guillemin Pot or Guillampot) in 1364. This account comes from a letter written by Guillaume de Clugny, the bailli of Auxois (a bailli was a local administrative officer in northern France), to the ducal council:

Very dear and good friends, on Wednesday [18 September 1364] Guillemin Pot, who was lodged at Maisières, was passing by Beaune with 120 good lances and at least 100 other combatants, not counting the pillagers. As soon as they had passed we mounted our horses and pursued them until we took four or five of their men-at-arms and some 30 pillagers, who were killed, hung or taken prisoner, the others returning to their quarters.

We then continued our journey to Dijon, as was our intention, and this Thursday morning the marshal [i.e., Gui de Pontallier, the marshal of Burgundy] sent 15 glaives [a glaive was a polearm, that is, a single-edged blade mounted on a pole, but the word is probably used here to mean “a well-armed soldier”] to form an ambush on the road they [Pot’s mercenaries] would have to take, but it was discovered and the entire route [Pot’s mercenaries] fell upon our men, who fled to Givrey, where they fought for a long time at the barriers…

…and while passing between Rouvres and Dijon we fell upon them [i.e., upon Pot’s band] … and with God’s help they were defeated and either killed [in the engagement], taken prisoner or put to death. And Guillemin Pot and others of his route have been taken prisoner to Dijon.

Pot was released under certain stringent conditions which required him not to act illegally, but he subsequently ignored them and returned to his old ways. He was recaptured by a Burgundian knight in October 1364 while raiding merchants who were attending a fair at Chalon. The knight handed him over to the duke’s officers for a reward of 200 livres (the approximate price of a good sword]. Pot was then executed. His head was pilloried in the main square of the town, where it remained on pubic view for some eight months before being carried off by another mercenary company as a ghastly souvenir.

Popes were concerned not only about the wanton destruction inflicted on the countryside by the Great Companies but also because these bands jeopardized papal supply lines and the constant flow of clergy, bankers, and courtiers going to and from Avignon, the current seat of papal power. (From 1309 to 1378, the years of the Avignon Papacy, the papacy was based in Avignon, not in Rome.) Urban V, for example, issued three bulls against the companies. The first was Cogit nos (27 February 1364), which provided spiritual support for the anti-mercenary forces of Languedoc. It stated in part:

The wickedness of our age, in which the sons of iniquity have multiplied and, fired by the flames of their own greed, are dishonestly attempting to gorge themselves on the labour of others, and for that reason rage the more cruelly against the innocent peoples, compels us to draw on the resources of the apostolic power to counter their evil stratagems and to strive with even greater energy and effectiveness to organise the defense of these peoples, especially of those whom the wicked men have so far attacked, and are now attacking.

This bull called on princes and other leaders to fight against the mercenaries, and offered a plenary indulgence for two years to those who were killed in such battles. (An indulgence is the full or partial remission of spiritual punishment for sins which have already been confessed and forgiven.)

The second bull, Miserabilis nonnullorum (27 May 1364), was also cast in terms designed to isolate the companies. The pope ordered them, under threat of excommunication, immediately (i.e., within one month) to disband their troops, to surrender the places they were occupying, and to repair the damage they had done. Clerics and laymen alike were forbidden to join them, hire them, or favor them in any way. Anyone who provided them with money, food, horses, arms, carts, boats, and any other provisions or merchandise, or who aided or advised them in any way whatsoever, would also be excommunicated. Bishops were ordered to report the names of the mercenaries and their accomplices so that action could be taken against them. A plenary indulgence was granted to anti-mercenary forces if they were killed in action.

The third bull, Clamat ad nos (5 April 1365), focused on those who hired and led the mercenary companies, as well as on those who joined or supported them. It provided that all towns, villages, and individuals who negotiated with the companies and who paid protection money to them would be dealt with severely. It appears, however, that these bulls had little if any real impact on the ground, though some mercenary captains did take advantage of these opportunities to get absolution for their many sins.

Mercenary commanders were well-known and were often feared in their own times, but probably the most famous of the lot was the Englishman John Hawkwood (d. 1394). Variously said to have been the second son of an Essex tanner or the son of a tailor, Hawkwood served initially in the English army in France during the early stages of the Hundred Years’ War. He reportedly fought in the battles of Crécy and/or Poitiers but was demobilized after the Treaty of Brétigny in 1360. Moving to Italy, he served with the White Company (discussed below)—a group English and German mercenaries under the command of Albert Sterz. In 1361 he joined the small mercenary groups known as the free companies and later served with the Great Company when it fought against papal troops near Avignon. By 1365, he had risen to become the commander of the White Company, a mercenary force so named either because of reflections from the men’s brightly-polished plate armor or because the men originally wore white surcoats over their armor.

This job paid him very well. Income data for the 1360s are not readily available but an idea of wages then can be formed by looking at some of the comparable incomes in Florence in 1390. At a time when the estimated subsistence level for a man was 3 soldi per day, earnings were as follows:

   Typical construction worker—9.4 soldi per day

   Farm laborer roughly—9.4 soldi per day

   Spinner of wool cloth—12.17 soldi per day

   Master builder—17.1 soldi per day

In that year, Hawkwood’s salary was 37,500 soldi per month—a sum 72 times greater than the wage of a master builder and more than 140 times greater than that of a construction worker. Most of his troops were paid adequately but not handsomely. For example, a lance unit, consisting of three men with three horses to maintain, earned a total of 44 soldi per day. Crossbowmen earned 9.7 soldi per day. However, common infantrymen with no special skills were paid only 3.8 soldi per day.

Medieval Warfare VIII.1

Theme: John Hawkwood in Italy

  • William Caferro, ‘An English mercenary in Italy – The career of John Hawkwood’.
  • David Balfour, ‘The massacres at Faenza and Cesena – The dark side of a hero’.
  • Sean Manning, ‘The merchant of Prato’s little secret – Hidden protections’.
  • Nick Bohmann, ‘Why did city-states hire mercenaries – The dilemma’.
  • Niccolò Capponi and Kelly DeVries, ‘Hawkwood’s greatest victory – The Battle of Castagnaro’.


  • Kay Smith and Ruth R. Brown, ‘Many questions with few answers – The longbow’.
  • Michael Livingston, ‘If it even happened – The Battle of Hyddgen, 1401’.
  • Joanna Phillips, ‘Why sieges were hard on your health – Besieging bodies’.
  • Georgios Theotokis, ’11th century Norman mercenaries in the Mediterranean – Fame, faith, and fortune’.
  • Murray Dahm, ‘Swords for hire, Hollywood style – Condottieri on film’.

The White Company was composed of many different nationalities, e.g., Germans, Italians, Englishmen, and Hungarians. At its high point in 1361, it could field about 3,500 cavalrymen and 2,000 infantrymen (the latter term also includes the archers); at its low point in 1388, it had shrunk down to a mere 250 men. In its glory days, it was based on the “lances” of three men: a man-at-arms, a squire, and an unarmed page. A group of lances, known as a contingent, was under the command of a corporal, who was frequently an independent sub-contractor. As befitting a tightly-run military organization, the White Company also had an effective administrative staff, consisting of Italian chancellors (men trained in law), Italian notaries, and an English treasurer.

The Florentine chronicler Filippo Villani remarked that if the Company had any military failings, it was only an “excessive boldness,” i.e., aggressiveness, which made the men restless and encouraged them to set up camp “in poor order.” Villani makes it very clear that these men were not angels. The modern scholar William Caferro, quoting contemporary sources, says this:

The band’s first moves on Italian soil were intensely brutal. It entered the Piedmont region setting fires, looting, raping women, maiming non-combatants, and mistreating prisoners. Azario called them “better thieves than any others who have preyed on Lombardy.” Villani said they were “young, hot and eager” and “accustomed to homicides and robbery, current in the use of iron [i.e., the use of swords and other metal weapons], having little personal cares.” Azario describes how the band shut captives in boxes and threatened to drown them to hasten payment of ransoms, how the band systematically dismembered victims, beginning with the hands, then the nose, the ears; the trunks of the corpses were left in ditches outside the castles to be eaten by dogs.

The White Company introduced into Italy a practice already common in France during the battles of the Hundred Years’ War: sending dismounted men-at-arms into battle. When so doing, the Company fought dismounted and in close order, walking forward at a slow pace, often with two men-at-arms holding the same very long spear and bellowing battle cries. The archers followed close behind them. The Milanese writer Azario describes the Company’s battle formation in these terms:

[The soldiers had dismounted from their horses, which were held by pages during battles, and fought on foot.] They had very large lances with very long iron tips. Mostly two, sometimes three of them, handled a single lance so heavy and big that there was nothing it would not penetrate. Behind them, toward the posterior of the formation, were the archers, with great bows which they held from their head to the ground [i.e., the bows were as long as a man is high] and from which they shot great and long arrows.

The White Company would fight under many employers and would change sides whenever this seemed profitable. In 1369, Hawkwood fought for Perugia against the forces of the Pope; in 1370 he joined Bernabò Visconti, the Duke of Milan, in a war against an alliance of cities, including Pisa and Florence; in 1372 he fought for Visconti against his former master, the Marquis of Monferrato; then he resigned his command and the White Company served the Pope for a time.

The White Company distinguished itself as the best force in Italy. In 1363, when the city of Pisa was at war with Florence, its neighbor and rival, and needed more troops, the Florentines were unwilling to pay the very high price demanded by the White Company for its mercenaries, but Pisa was. The Florentine poet Antono Pucci captured this moment in verse to decide whether “the lion,” i.e., Florence, knew more than “the fox,” i.e., Pisa:

In Lombardy there was a band

that was called the White Company

so cruel and with every vice

that it had worn out all of Lombardy.

Florence … refused it [i.e., Florence refused to pay the White Company], and the fox embraced it.

Medieval Free Companies II

Battle of Halmyros, a battle between the lightly armed but battle-hardened Almogavars of the infamous Catalan Company and the French Knights of the Duchy of Athens.  By Darren Tan

Mercenary bands like Hawkwood’s could be accurately described as “traveling city-states.” Hawkwood, for example, had to hire his own spies, informers, treasurers, chancellors to draw up papers, business managers, and different levels of employees to run his estates. Financially, he did extremely well. In 1376, for example, his mercenary army was paid 481,800 gold florins. An army does have considerable expenses but, even so, to understand the magnitude of this figure it must be noted that in 1377 the city of Siena, with approximately 50,000 people, had a total income of only 93,962 florins.

Time does not stand still, however, and after 1370 most of the mercenary companies had ceased to operate under the name of the “Great Companies.” The reasons were that many of the captains who had founded them were retired or dead, and many of their troops had been absorbed into the royal armies of England and France. While some of the descendants of the mercenary officers who had held most of France to ransom in the 1360s were still active in central and eastern France as late as the early 1390s, the glory-days of the Great Companies were by then in the past. Hawkwood, however, still managed to prosper. His 500-florin salary had a great deal of purchasing power: in Florence in 1390, it was worth approximately 992 bushels of grain or about 401 barrels of wine.

It is time now to look at an excellent first-hand account of the role of mercenary troops during the civil war in Spain in the 14th century.29 This struggle pitted the legitimate ruler of Spain, Pedro I of Castile (1350–1369), supported by the mercenary and other forces of the Black Prince, against Pedro’s illegitimate half-brother, Count Enrique of Trastámara. Since neither man could win the fight unaided, the civil war became internationalized: mercenary troops joined the fray in 1366.

The source for the following account is Chandos Herald (fl. 1360s–1380s), the author of a long poem about the life of the Black Prince. Chandos Herald is so-named because he was the herald of the English warlord John Chandos, the closest friend of the Black Prince. The following account, set in 1366–1367, shows how the Black Prince prepared for his foray into Spain with mercenary troops and how by the battle of Najera he restored Pedro of Castile to his throne.

The immediate background of this story is that, in the autumn of 1366, Pedro of Castile, an ally of Edward III, asked for the Black Prince’s help in reclaiming his throne, which he had lost to his half-brother, Enrique of Trastámara. The Black Price saw this proposed expedition as a welcome change from the politics of Gascony, in which he was deeply embroiled, and persuaded his father to let him lead his troops and his mercenaries into Spain. As Chandos Herald says,

The prince returned to Bordeaux and got his men ready. He sent for many noble and valiant knights from all over his lands, leaving out neither great nor small; nor did Chandos stay idle, because he went to fetch men of the Great Company, as many as fourteen squadrons, not counting those who returned from Spain when they heard that the prince was going to the aid of king Pedro. They took leave of king Enrique, who let them go and paid them well, for he no longer needed them. He was then king of Castile, and was well content, because he did not think that anyone could overthrow him, since his power was so great….

…as soon as the Bastard [i.e., Enrique of Trastámara] learnt that the prince [with his troops] was hastening to the aid of king Pedro, he did his best to prevent them; he cut off the roads and every morning and evening laid ambushes for them, and got men at arms riding mules and other ruffians to attack them. But the Lord God brought them to the safety of the prince’s lands, which pleased the prince greatly, because he was very keen to achieve his plan. And then he gathered gold, silver and coin to pay his men. All this took place three weeks before Christmas in the year 1366….

…The noble prince ordered payments [to his men] on a generous scale. Then the armourers at Bordeaux forged swords and daggers, coats of mail, helm, short swords, axes, gauntlets, in such number that it would have done for thirty kings….

The prince’s army assembled at Dax [a town in Aquitaine in southwestern France], and all the barons and knights from the country around gathered there. All the companies encamped then in the Basque country [i.e., the traditional homeland of the Basque people, which is located in the western Pyrenees and which spans the border between France and Spain], in the mountains, and waited for two months, with much hardship, until the passes were clear and they could set out on their expedition. They waited all winter, until February [1367], until those from far off and nearby had all gathered.

In April 1367, near Najera, in the province of La Rioja in Castile, the forces of the Black Prince, and their allies met and defeated the opposing army of Enrique of Trastámara, who had to seek shelter in Aragon and in Avignon. Froissart gives local color and sets the stage by telling about the participants in the battle:

Under the pennon [a triangular banner] of St. George, and attached to the banner of Sir John Chandos, were the free companies, who had in the whole twelve hundred streamers. Among them were good and hardy knights and squires, whose courage was proof: namely, Sir Robert Cheney, Sir Perducas d’Albret, Roger Briquet, Sir Garsis du Chastel, Sir Gaillard Viguier, Sir John Charnels, Nandon de Bagerant, Aymemon d’Ortige, Perrot de Savoye, le bourg [i.e., the illegitimate son of] Camus, le bourg de l’Esparre, le bourg de Breteuil, Espiote, and several others.

Chandos Herald explains the battle in these words:

There was not a single man, however humble, in the prince’s company who was not as bold and as brave as a lion…. The Spaniards turned and fled, all giving their horses their heads…. Then the slaughter began, and you could see foot soldiers being killed with daggers and swords….

The site of the battle was a pleasant plain, without a tree or a bush for a league around, beside a fine river, very swift and strong; and this river caused much harm to the Castilians that day, for the pursuit continued as far as the river. More than two thousand drowned there. On the bridge in front of Najera the pursuit was very fierce; you could see knights leaping into the water for fear, and dying one on top of each other. And the river ran crimson, to everyone’s amazement, with the blood of dead men and horses. There was so much slaughter there that I do not think that anyone ever saw anything like it; the dead were so many that the total came to seven thousand seven hundred [almost certainly an inflated estimate] … So the Spaniards were killed and taken, much to the joy of the prince, who waited on the battlefield, his standard raised, to rally his men.

Froissart’s account of how Sir John Chandos fared in this battle gives a vivid picture of medieval hand-to-hand combat:

Sir John Chandos showed exceptional bravery under his banner, and forged so far ahead into the fray that he was surrounded by the enemy and unhorsed. A huge man of Castile, Martin Ferrans by name, whose boldness and courage were far-famed, determined to kill him. But Sir John had not forgotten a knife that he had under his chain-mail; he now drew it and stabbed his attacker to death, when the latter was already on top of him. Sir John jumped up and his men rallied round him.

The battle of Najera was a clear military success for the Black Prince but a clear failure in other terms. Pedro had promised the Black Prince huge sums of money for his help but, in the end, he was unable to provide them. This is not at all surprising, because it is estimated that the ultimate bill for the campaign came to a staggering total 2,720,000 florins—equal to nearly 22,000 pounds of gold. While vainly waiting in hope of payment, the Black Prince caught some kind of dysentery which was to bedevil him for the rest of his life. Moreover, when he returned home to England, he faced discontent both from his own army, which had not been paid, and from the Gascons, whom he wanted to tax so that he could pay off his debts. The illness of the Black Price later became acute and although he would rise from his sick-bed to capture the city of Limoges in 1370, he eventually died at Westminster in 1376.

Reversing usual chronological order, one of the most interesting mercenary leaders, the Bascot (or Bastot) de Mauléon, who is speaking with Froissart in 1388, can be introduced here. Bascot invokes the account, written by the Florentine chronicler Matteo Villani, of the battle of Brignais—a battle which had taken place 26 years earlier (in 1362) but one which the Bascot de Mauléon would still cite with pride as a fine example of mercenary prowess. At that battle, companies of mercenaries had inflicted a heavy defeat on a small French royal army.

The story begins in 1388, when Froissart visited the court of Gaston Phoebus, the Count of Foix, at Orthez in southwestern France. Orthez was an excellent place to collect information on the region. It was the chief town of Béarn, a viscounty located on the French side of the Pyrenees, and shared common frontiers with the kingdoms of Navarre and Aragon. Froissart stayed for 10 to 12 weeks and met many of the men-at-arms gathered there. One of them was the Basque mercenary chieftain Bascot de Mauléon.

This chance meeting would give the Bascot de Mauléon, who in reality was little more than a common highwayman, a modest but permanent niche in medieval history. He would admit candidly, “Sometimes I have been so thoroughly down on my luck that I hadn’t even a horse to ride, and at other times I have been fairly rich, as luck came and went.” In any case, he gave Froissart an excellent and memorable interview. As Froissart puts it:

I saw there [at the count’s court] a Gascon squire, called le Bastot de Mauléon, an expert man at arms, and about fifty years old, according to his appearance. He arrived at the Hostelry of the Moon, where I lodged with Ernauton du Pin, in grand array, having packhorses with him which were being led, as in the case of a great baron, and he and his attendants were served on plate of gold and silver.”

During his meeting with Froissart, the Bastot de Mauléon said:

This treaty of peace [the Treaty of Brétigny, 1360] being concluded, it was necessary for all men at arms and free companies, according to the words of the treaty, to evacuate the fortresses or castles they held. Great numbers collected together, with many poor companions who had learnt the art of war under different commanders, to hold councils as to what quarters they should march, and they said among themselves, that though the kings had made peace with each other, it was necessary for them to live.

They marched into Burgundy, where they had captains of all nations, Germans, Scots, and people from every country. I was there also as a captain. Our numbers in Burgundy, above the river Loire, were upwards of twelve thousand, including all sorts; but I must say, that in this number, there were three or four thousand good men at arms, as able and understanding in war as any [that] could be found, whether to plan an engagement, to seize a proper moment to fight, or to surprise and scale towns and castles, and well inured to war, which we showed at the battle of Brignais, where we overpowered the constable of France, the count de Forêts, with full two thousand lances, knights, and squires.

This battle was of great advantage to the companies, for they were poor, and they enriched themselves by [capturing] good prisoners [who could then be ransomed], and by the towns and castles which they took in the archbishopric of Lyons on the river Rhone.

King John II commissioned Count James Bourbon and Jean de Tancarville to raise an army to put down the “Free Companies” under the informal leadership of Petit Meschin before they could overrun Burgundy. Bourbon and Tancarville gathered their army at Brignais.

The French King‘s forces were besieging the town of Brignais, which had been seized by the Companies in March as an operating base.[4] Never dreaming that the companies would dare challenge them in the open the Royal forces took few steps to secure their camp and when the companies attacked that morning of 6 April 1362 they were taken completely by surprise. In the battle that followed the government army was routed and James Bourbon and his oldest son were mortally wounded.

More can be learned about the details of the battle of Brignais by reading a contemporary account by Matteo Villani (d. 1363), a chronicler from Florence. Petit Meschin, i.e., Meschin the Young, was a Gascon mercenary who would later (in 1369) be drowned in the Garonne River, along with his companion, on the orders of Louis, the duke of Anjou. Louis ordered their execution because they had conspired to hand him over to his enemies, the English.

Villani gives this report of the battle:

In March [1362], the king of France, affronted by the [mercenary] company of Petit Meschin of Auvergne, his fugitive little servant [i.e., his vassal] … hastily assembled an army of around 6,000 cavalry, of French, Germans and others then in France, and having given command of it to Jacques de Bourbon, a prince of the blood, he sent him into Bourbonnais with 4,000 sergeants.

At this time, the company of Petit Meschin had taken one of the king’s castles, called Brignais, and having garrisoned it with 300 men from his company, he raided the county of Forez with [5,000 mercenaries], the major part [being] Italians of his company. Meanwhile, Jacques de Bourbon arrived with his army, camped near Brignais, and believing he would rapidly secure it, besieged the place fearlessly. But, having nothing but contempt for his adversary, he took no proper precautions and was not on his guard.

Petit Meschin, who was experienced in matters of war and captain of a well-organized company which was spoiling for a fight, was a day and a half from Brignais. Having been informed of the disorder in the French camp, with the agreement of his company and tempted by the prospect of considerable booty, he hurriedly retraced his steps and, taking a short cut, arrived unexpectedly above the French camp several hours before daybreak and without any let-up attacked them with great noise and clamour.

Taken by surprise, and frightened by the terrible cries, the French lost heart and although they ran for their arms to repulse the enemy, the companies already pressed so hard upon them that they gave them no time to arm themselves. An army which included so many barons and valiant knights thus had the misfortune to be routed and put to flight, and many were killed and wounded. Those who were able to mount their horses and don their armour nearly all fell into the hands of that vassal of the king of France, Petit Meschin.

So great was the value of the ransoms and booty that all the company became rich. Their victory made them so confident and daring that the court of Rome [i.e., the papacy], which had experience being fleeced by the companies, feared that it would see them arrive at Avignon [then the seat of papal power].

Mercenaries also played a role in 1410 in what the Polish call the battle of Grunwald and the Germans know as the battle of Tannenberg. In the interests of impartiality, both names, i.e., the battle of Grunwald/Tannenberg, are used here. This was a complicated struggle which involved many different units. On one side, a total of 16,000 to 39,000 men came from various sources, e.g., from the Kingdom of Poland; from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania; and from various Polish-Lithuanian vassal, allied, and mercenary forces. On the other side were 11,000 to 27,000 men from the Teutonic Order, led by its Grand Master, Ulrich von Jungingen; its allies; guest crusaders; and mercenaries from Western Europe.

The Teutonic Order, whose formal name was the Order of the Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem, was a German medieval military order formed in Acre at the end of the 12th century to help pilgrims in their travels to the Holy Land and to establish hospitals. It was also a crusading military order in the Middle Ages, consisting of a small military component which was strengthened by mercenaries as the need arose.

Because the Teutonic Knights had a strong economic base, they could afford to hire mercenaries throughout Europe to augment the troops they could raise via feudal levies. Reliance on mercenaries was sometimes a controversial policy, however. For example, the chronicler of the Teutonic order, Johann von Posilge, expressed dismay at the Polish king’s policy of hiring mercenaries from Bohemia, Moravia, and elsewhere. He complained that such men “spurned honesty and God and went against the Christians to destroy the land of Prussia.”

The Teutonic Order arguably reached its high point in 1407, when it controlled many of the lands lying south and east of the Baltic Sea. Three years later, however, a combined Polish-Lithuanian army decisively defeated the Order at the battle of Grunwald/Tannenberg (1410). Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen and 50 of the Order’s 60 most senior officers died in this one fight. Polish and Lithuanian forces seized several thousand captives, keeping those who were rich enough or well-connected enough to pay ransom. The mercenary Holbracht von Loym, for example, had to pay the equivalent of 66 pounds of silver to secure his freedom.

The precise number of soldiers involved in the battle of Grunwald/Tannenberg is not known. It is clear, however, that both sides used troops from several states and lands, plus numerous mercenaries. These mercenaries included two Banners of Czechs. (A Banner was not a flag or a standard but the basic military unit involved in this battle. Each Banner consisted of between 50 to 120 lances of two to five men each.) There was also a mercenary Moravian Banner and, in the Banner of St. George, a mixed contingent of Czechs and other mercenaries.

This battle broke the power of the once-mighty Order. The loss of 200 knights and thousands of foot soldiers weakened the Order’s fighting ability so much that it had increasingly to rely on mercenaries. By the end of 1410, some 7,500 mercenaries had arrived in Prussia to strengthen the Order’s forces. But mercenaries were always a mixed blessing for leaders: in 1411, for example, one group of mercenaries in Danzig seized a ship on a local river and turned pirate. In the long run, the Order’s devastating losses in 1410 would prove to be fatal.

The Battle of Ravenna

Battle was joined on 11 April, Easter Sunday – from that very day, it was seen as an epic encounter. The Spanish and papal army took up a position south of Ravenna on the right bank of the river Ronco; the high embankments of the river were broad enough for large numbers of horse or foot to pass along them easily. Starting at right angles to the river, they dug a long, curving trench, leaving a gap at the river end. Their artillery was positioned at that end of the trench. The other units were drawn up in file, not to defend the line of the trench; the men-at-arms were nearest the river, the infantry in the centre and the light horse on the right wing. Pedro Navarro, who commanded the infantry, had placed in front of them about 50 light carts with projecting blades, protected by arquebuses. The French crossed the river near the city by a bridge de Foix had had built; d’Alegre was left with the rearguard to protect this. They took up position along the trench, the men-at-arms nearest the riverbank, with artillery placed before them, separate units of German, French and Italian infantry side by side, and to the left the light horse and archers.

The Spanish and papal troops were outnumbered and they knew it: they had about 20,000 men, while the French had 30,000 or more. 102 Cardona had put 1,500 men under Marcantonio Colonna into Ravenna, and much of the papal army was not there, because the Duke of Urbino refused to be under the orders of the viceroy. Alfonso d’Este with 100 men-at-arms and 200 light horse was with the French. More significantly, he had brought his renowned artillery, giving the French perhaps twice as many artillery pieces as the League. Besides the guns positioned opposite the Spanish artillery, a couple of pieces were placed on the other side of the river, and d’Este with his artillery at the far end of the French line.

The battle began with an artillery exchange, unprecedented in its length – over two hours – and its ferocity. The Spanish guns were aimed at the infantry, causing significant casualties; the League’s infantry were instructed by Navarro to move to a place where they could lie flat and evade the French and Ferrarese artillery. But there was no escape for their cavalry, who were caught in the crossfire. Eventually, the Spanish heavy cavalry were driven to leave their defensive position and attack the French men-at-arms. As they were trying to silence the Ferrarese guns, the Spanish light horse under the marchese di Pescara were attacked by the French light horse.

In the engagement between the French and Spanish men-at-arms, the Spanish were less disciplined and coordinated. D’Alegre and his rearguard joined the fight and turned the scales against the Spanish. Their rearguard under Alonso Carvajal broke and fled the field; Cardona left with them. Meanwhile the French infantry crossed the trench to attack the League’s infantry, taking heavy casualties from the arquebuses as they tried to break through the barrier of the carts. The Gascons were put to flight along the riverbank. As the Spanish infantry units and the landsknechts of the French army were locked in fierce combat, the French cavalry, having overcome the Spanish, were able to come to the aid of their foot. Fabrizio Colonna rallied what men-at-arms he could to defend the League infantry, but could not prevent their defeat. Although 3,000 Spanish infantry were able to retire in good order along the river bank, the rest were killed, captured or dispersed.

By mid-afternoon the hard-fought battle was over. Contemporaries, appalled at the scale of the slaughter, considered it to be the bloodiest fought on Italian soil for centuries. It was estimated that upwards of 10,000 men were killed; some put the total as high as 20,000. There were disagreements about which army had suffered the greater mortality. It was probably the League, whose losses may have been three times those of the French. In one significant respect, the French losses were greater – among the commanders. While the Spanish lost some experienced and valued captains, the more prominent were captured rather than killed, including Pedro Navarro, Fabrizio Colonna and Ferrante Francesco d’Avalos, marchese di Pescara; the papal legate, Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, was also taken prisoner after the battle. French losses among their commanders and nobles were heavy. Among the fallen were Gaston de Foix, apparently killed by Spanish infantry, Yves d’Alegre and his son, Soffrey Alleman, seigneur de Mollart, the captain of the Gascon infantry, and Philip of Fribourg and Jacob Empser, captains of the landsknechts.

For the French, the death of de Foix cast the greatest shadow over their victory. If his bravery had bordered on the foolhardy, in his brief period as commander of the army he had shown himself an inspiring leader, always in the thick of the action. Cardona, by contrast, seems to have left leadership to his subordinate commanders; he was widely blamed for their defeat. `In truth, he knows nothing of warfare’, was the verdict of Vich, Ferdinand’s ambassador in Rome, `and everyone complains that he never asks for advice or comes to a decision.’ Others have judged the outcome of the battle the result of the devastating effect of Alfonso d’Este’s deploy- ment of his artillery: `the true cause of the French victory’, according to Pieri. The French themselves were more critical of his role, for his guns had caused many casualties among them too, as he continued to fire once the troops were engaged.

The killing continued the following day, as the city of Ravenna, after an offer to capitulate had been made, was sacked by unrestrained Gascons and landsknechts who entered by a breach made in the walls by the earlier bombardment. Within a few days, nearly all the Romagna had surrendered to the French, only the fortresses holding out a little longer. This conquest was not due to any concerted effort by the French, for the weary troops were occupied in looking after their wounded and their booty from Ravenna. La Palisse, as the senior captain, had assumed command. He quarrelled with the Duke of Ferrara, who left the camp with his surviving men, some of the wounded and his prisoners, including Colonna and Pescara. News arrived that the English and Spanish had invaded France, that Maximilian had made a truce with Venice, and that the Swiss were again threatening Milan. Nevertheless, to save money, 4,600 infantry were dismissed.

La Palisse left for the Milanese on 20 April with over half the remaining troops. Cardinal Sanseverino, in his capacity of legate of Bologna for the schismatic council, and his brother Galeazzo, with 300 lances and 6,000 infantry, stayed to complete the conquest of the Romagna in the name of the council. When Louis’s orders – issued when he was unaware of the real state of affairs in Italy – arrived, they were for the army to press on to Rome. The army commanders decided the threat to Lombardy was more urgent.

Mercenaries in Bohemia, the Rhineland, the Low Countries, 1618–1625 I

The first stirrings of the conflict that would escalate into the bloody Thirty Years War took place in the kingdom of Bohemia, now the Czech Republic but then a part of the Holy Roman Empire, the conglomeration of electorates, duchies, principalities, counties, lordships, free cities and even free villages that sprawled across the heart of the continent. The power of the emperor was limited by a constitution first established in 1338. In the first place, he was an elected sovereign and in theory, if not always in practice, the title was not an hereditary one. Seven electors chose the emperor: three bishops – of Trier, Cologne and Mainz – along with the King of Bohemia, the Elector of the Rhineland Palatinate, the Elector of Saxony and the Margrave of Brandenburg. The emperor legislated through the Reichstag, whose members comprised three colleges, that of the Electoral Council (the seven electors mentioned above), the Council of Princes and the Council of the Imperial Cities.

This constitutional edifice, with its endless possibilities for intrigue and alliance, was further complicated by the Reformation, when many of the constituent states adopted Protestantism. By 1560, little over forty years after Martin Luther had nailed his call for religious reform to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Europe was split by a doctrinal divide. Spain, most of France, Italy and the Adriatic coast as far as the frontier with the Islamic Ottoman Empire, along with the Spanish Netherlands, the Tyrol and Bavaria, remained loyal to the Catholic Church, as did the Habsburg emperor himself. All of Scandinavia, the Baltic lands, Prussia and the northern German-speaking territories adopted Lutheranism, before some veered again to adhere to the more extreme doctrines of Calvinism. The latter group included Scotland, which became officially Calvinist in 1560. It was not, however, a clean break. Parts of France had significant Calvinist minorities, and Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, Transylvania and various parts of Austria were split between all three sects. In Bohemia and Moravia a fourth denomination, the Hussites, also appeared. In some of the states of the Empire, rulers and ruled now attended different churches.

This was a matter of concern in an age dominated by dynastic politics, with powerful families vying for wealth, territory and power. Despite some features of government – such as elected rulers and parliaments of sorts – that could be seen as embryonic manifestations of the democratic systems of the modern age, Europe was governed essentially by a network of ruling families whose main aim was to nurture their own status and survival. In 1618 in Britain the Stuarts ruled, in France the Bourbons, in Sweden the Vasas, in Denmark the Oldenburgs, and slightly further down the social scale there were such dynasties as the Hohenzollerns in Prussia, the Wettins in the Saxon duchies and the Wittelsbachs in Bavaria and the Rhineland. The Habsburgs were the most powerful of all, ruling Spain and the Empire. In this Europe of pernicious intrigue who married whom could be of the utmost importance.

In 1612 the Stuarts, James VI and I and his queen, Anne of Denmark, entertained in London the young Prince Frederick from the Rhineland Palatinate. The visit coincided with the fatal illness of the eldest Stuart prince, Henry, but arrangements for the marriage between Frederick and Elizabeth Stuart, James’s eldest daughter, went ahead. The queen was initially averse to the match, thinking a Rhineland prince not of a status to merit her daughter’s hand. Frederick was a catch in every other way. A handsome 22-year-old Wittelsbach with winning ways, he had turned his back on the drinking and hunting favoured by his forebears to establish a court in Heidelberg that was a showcase for the lavish styles in art and culture emanating from France. His capital had a theatre, a famous garden, library and university, and it was at the centre of the Lower Palatinate, a spread of territories along the Rhine and the Neckar that were famed as the garden of Germany. The Palatinate lands also included a more rugged but still valuable stretch known as the Upper Palatinate, between Nuremberg, Pilsen and Regensburg, ruled on Frederick’s behalf by Prince Christian von Anhalt-Bernburg. Frederick and Elizabeth married in Whitehall on 14 February 1613; it was a love-match that was to produce thirteen children and the couple would have had a peaceful, contented life, were it not that they allowed themselves to be drawn into events on the other side of the Empire.

On 23 May 1618 an incident in Prague brought to a head long-simmering discontent between the Protestants in Bohemia and their Catholic rulers. The incident is the famous defenestration: two city governors and their secretary were hurled through a window in Hradčany Palace by a mob of rebellious citizens. Attempts to cool the over-heated confrontation and bring revolt to an end failed. As a candidate for the Bohemian throne and as a staunch Calvinist in his personal faith, Frederick supported the Protestant revolt. The Habsburg emperor, Matthias, in his capital of Vienna, sought to restore Catholic rights in this troubled corner of his domain and suppress the unrest, but the rebels, who had already expelled Jesuits and taken control of some towns, rejected the imperial olive branches. Two imperial armies were despatched into Bohemia, one from Flanders with Spanish backing and the second from Vienna. On 9 September they met and turned towards Prague.

The allies of the Protestants were also preparing for war and in September, with the help of the Duke of Savoy, who was no friend of the Habsburgs, Frederick sent an army to Bohemia under the command of Count Ernst von Mansfeld. Born in Luxembourg in 1580 as the illegitimate son of the governor of the Spanish fortress there, Mansfeld was a Catholic who had begun his military career in Habsburg service. ‘Hee did so season his youth with imployment and discipline that hee was able to command his own infirmities and became a master over his owne passions’, wrote one near contemporary of his. Taken prisoner by the Dutch during the fighting with Spain, Mansfeld found his own way to freedom through impressing his captors with his honourable behaviour: he rode to Brussels, then under Spanish control, and, when he found his side had no ransom to pay for him, kept his word to the Prince of Orange and returned to captivity. His freedom was finally granted when he swore not to take up arms against the Dutch again, and he went off to join the service of the Duke of Savoy. He may have willingly joined Frederick’s cause but, as a mercenary, he was using his military skills on behalf of his paymasters, the Protestant Union, an alliance of German Protestant interests. At thirty-eight years old, he was a veteran with a painful sense of the realities; he issued a warning to the Prague Protestants that the course they had embarked on could be wrecked by the unforeseen, no matter how firm their resolution. With 4,000 men, Mansfeld headed east and proceeded to capture a series of imperial garrison towns – ‘nay, he was so powerfull and firtunate . . . that he cleered all the passages into Bohemia, and entred so resolutely into the verie bowells of the Kingdome’, in William Crosse’s dramatic figure of speech – until the Empire retained control of only Pisek, Pilsen, Crumano (now Česky Krumlov) and Budweis (now České Budějovice). Mansfeld realised his guns were too weak to make much impression on Pilsen’s walls but, in a foretaste of later difficulties, Prague dragged its feet in responding to his request for larger ordnance; he had to ride to the capital himself, only to return with two cannon reluctantly provided. They were enough, however, and on 29 November Pilsen fell once the walls were breached. By the end of the year only the towns of Budweis and Crumano remained in the emperor’s hands.

The news of these events naturally was of great concern in the Stuart court in London, although James resorted to a policy of neutrality, refusing at first to send troops to assist his son-in-law but offering his services as a mediator between the rebels and the emperor. A belief in the divine right of kings bolstered strong doubts in James’s mind about the wisdom of having elected monarchs but he still felt for his son-in-law, even when the latter showed an annoying propensity to ignore advice. The Stuart king also wished to remain on good terms with the Spanish Habsburgs, and was dreaming of an alliance with them through marriage, such were the priorities of dynastic politics. Meanwhile, the Duke of Savoy committed more forces to the Bohemian cause and, as expected, the Habsburg rulers of Spain declared for their Austrian cousins.

The Empire began to regain lost ground in February 1619. Soon, however, the Bohemians, under Count Matthias Thurn, struck into Moravia and thrust towards Vienna itself. The ageing Emperor Matthias died in March 1619, setting in motion the electoral machinery of the Empire to choose his successor. His cousin Ferdinand was his heir to Habsburg lands and, although there was no certainty the Imperial crown would also come to him, in August the electors chose him to succeed Matthias. Two days before, the Bohemian rebels had declared the same man no longer their king and had elected Frederick of the Palatinate in his place. Frederick accepted the offer of the Bohemian crown, a position that gave him two votes in the Imperial constitution – as king of Bohemia and as elector of the Palatinate – and thereby threatened the balance of powers in central Europe. Seemingly unfazed by his situation, on 31 October, at the head of a large and splendid retinue, he and Elizabeth completed the journey from Heidelberg with a triumphal entry into Prague. He resisted the attempts by other princes of the Empire to persuade him to relinquish his new crown, and finally Ferdinand issued an ultimatum: resign the Bohemian throne by 1 June 1620 or become a rebel against the Empire. The Bohemian armed forces were now facing difficulties: on 10 June, they had suffered a reverse when Mansfeld was defeated at Zablati, and now, late in 1619, Count Thurn’s advance on Vienna ground to a halt.

There were some Scots in Habsburg service in the Empire, which was now poised to strike back at the rebels. For example, in 1619 Sir Henry Bruce, who had earlier served in the Low Countries and had joined Ferdinand’s court in 1617, had been appointed captain of the garrison in the town of Nikolsburg (now Mikulov) on the Moravian–Austrian border. A Catholic, Bruce’s shift in allegiance may have arisen from a sense of alienation from the resolutely Protestant Dutch, especially as in 1604 he had killed a Captain Hamilton in a duel and in 1607 had had to seek settlement of arrears. He may have been the same Henry Bruce who survived the killing in Gudbrandsdalen in 1612 but this cannot be established. The castle in Nikolsburg was threatened by rebel forces in December 1619 but Bruce managed to hold on for a time, though in the process he earned himself a bad name for his plundering of the nearby town of Breclav and his mistreatment of Jews and Anabaptists. Finally, in January 1620, he surrendered Nikolsburg to the rebels, left for Prague and then travelled to the Netherlands, where he tried to offer his military skills in the service of Elizabeth Stuart, an example of a Scot who was torn between loyalty to his faith and loyalty to a dynasty. There were a considerable number of Irish soldiers in the Habsburg forces and some of them also found their allegiance tested in the same way. A letter from Colonel John Butler, an Irish officer, written over a decade later in 1631 says: ‘I will let you understand whate a scruple I make of late to searve in these wars, for I protest before God, I did not heretofore understand as much as I doe now knowe, that the King of Sweedland is for the recovery of the Palatinate onely and we for the hindering of it, but for my parte I will sooner beg my bred than serve against my sacred King’s sister.’

A war resistant to all the diplomatic efforts to curtail it spread across central Europe during 1620 as the various nations took sides according to where they saw their interests lying, and as men of war turned their eyes towards this potential source of honour and wealth. Early in March a Scot called John Hume, then at Sedan, wrote to the minister of Libberton, near Edinburgh, to say that ‘Thaire is a horse companie gone out of this toune to the King of Boheme.’ Four companies of musketeers under the command of Sir John Seton of Carchunoth (possibly Gargunnock near Stirling) left the Netherlands to make their way to Bohemia. They reached their destination early in May – Seton had to find 200 men to replace losses, probably mostly through desertion, on the way – and were assigned to watch the frontier with Saxony in the Meissen area. Meanwhile, Frederick had sent Sir Andrew Gray to London in February to raise men for his forces. Gray’s background is obscure. He had seen service in Sweden for some years in the regiments commanded by Patrick Ruthven and Sir James Spens before temporarily joining the escort of Elizabeth Stuart to Heidelberg in 1613. As a Catholic and having been imprisoned for alleged involvement in a murder in Sweden, he probably took the opportunity to remain in the service of Frederick and Elizabeth. In London Gray was at first commanded to recruit quietly so as not to alarm the Spanish ambassador – James was still pursuing friendly relations with Habsburg Spain – but this restriction was soon removed and recruitment proceeded apace. On 19 April, the Privy Council in Holyrood ordered criminals to be enlisted, adding on the twenty-eighth that beggars and vagabonds, ‘maisterless men haveand no laughfull trade nor meanis of intertenyment’ should join the colours on possible pain of a whipping or being burnt on the cheek for a first refusal, and hanging for a second. The Privy Council also took the opportunity to rid the country of over a hundred mosstroopers from the reiving clans of the Borders. Some of the recruits soon deserted and were reported to be hiding in Edinburgh, Leith and Canongate. The Privy Council declared them to be ‘feeble and unwor[thie] dastartis, voyde of curage and of all honest and vertuous d[ispo]sitioun’ and gave them a period of grace in which to come back or risk hanging. Gray sailed with 1,500 men from Leith to Hamburg towards the end of May, and a further 1,000 English recruits took ship from the Thames estuary. One of them no doubt was James Nauchtie from Aberdeen, who preferred soldiering to marriage.

Among the officers who sailed from Leith was John Hepburn, the second son of the laird of Athelstaneford in East Lothian. Born in or around 1598, John may have studied at St Leonard’s College in St Andrews, where his name appears in the records for 1615, the same year in which he travelled to France, visiting Paris and Poitiers with a classmate, Robert Monro from Easter Ross. Monro was also to make a name for himself in the European wars, as we shall see, and the coincidence of the two men being friends and then both becoming mercenary commanders suggests the fashion at the time for military pursuits. Unlike Monro, Hepburn came from an old Catholic family and when Sir Andrew Gray set up a recruitment campaign with a camp at Monkrig, not far from Athelstaneford, the fact that Gray was also a Catholic may have added to the allure of the colours.

Gray’s men disembarked on the banks of the Elbe and moved east, reaching Boizenburg on 10 June and Cottbus, close to the present German–Polish frontier, on the 16th, after following a northerly route across Germany to avoid contact with Saxony, whose loyalty to the Protestant cause was not yet clear. An anonymous commentator noted their arrival in July: ‘Colonel Gray is (God be blessed) safely arrived in Lusatia with his Brittans: he hath mustred two thousand foure hundred brave men; they are mightily praysed for their modest behaviour in their passage.’ After some more remarks on how well the soldiers had behaved en route, so much that one begins to suspect propaganda, the writer notes, ‘They are all armed and the King’s Maiestie [Frederick] hath given them leave to rest themselves three weekes and it may be, will let them lie there still upon the Frontiers.’ Gray’s force, and probably also Seton’s and that of Sir Horace Vere, were assigned to Mansfeld’s corps, one of four comprising the Bohemian army. Some of the Scots and English troops from Gray’s Regiment were despatched under the command of John Hepburn to guard Frederick in Prague. In keeping his units together, Mansfeld had had to deal with discontent in the ranks. Pay had not been forthcoming, a perennial problem with mercenary armies, and one not helped when Frederick had hinted that officers were not treating their men fairly by possibly purloining the money sent for them. Mansfeld had to ride to Prague to confront the Bohemian government but came back with only a third of the amount he sought, and that grudgingly given. The commander spent it on treating the sick and wounded and settling debts, tried to get money out of the country landowners around him, and trusted to the good will his men showed to him.

The assembling defenders of Frederick and the Protestant cause were in action very soon in the south of Bohemia. In mid May Seton’s men took Prachatice, and in June the forces of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, which probably included Seton’s contingent, and others fought off an Imperial attack on Vodnany. Early in July they recaptured Tyn on the Vltava River. After this, Mansfeld and Saxe-Weimar separated, with the former moving to Neuhaus (now Jindrichuv Hradec). Towards the end of July 1620, the army of the Catholic League, led by Duke Maximilian of Bavaria and his experienced general, Count Johannes Tserklaes of Tilly, crossed into Austria while Spanish Habsburg forces from Flanders spilled into the Lower Palatinate to occupy Frederick’s home territory. Sections of the Bohemian army fell back before the advance, part of it reaching Neuhaus, at the time held by two companies under Seton, on 21 September. On the following day the combined Imperial forces reached Budweis. Mansfeld took his units, including Gray’s, west to the area around Pilsen, between Prague and Bavaria. Then Pisek fell to the Imperialists and at Nepomuk a few days later Gray and his men came under severe pressure from the vanguard of the enemy. Mansfeld was effectively sidelined in Pilsen, tempted by a call to withdraw from the conflict under terms from Maximilian of Bavaria, a course of action that he finally took after reminding the hapless Frederick in person that his contract had expired and had not been renewed.

The main part of the Bohemian army fell back on Prague. The final battle took place on 8 November on the slopes of the hill called, in Czech, Bila Hora, White Mountain, a few miles south of the capital. Thurn, still in command of the Bohemian forces, began the day with 15,000 men around him in a strong defensive position on the slopes but his troops, predominantly mercenaries, quickly crumbled before the Imperial attack, and a late cavalry charge failed to retrieve an advantage. The Bohemians broke, leaving 2,000 dead and wounded behind them, and the Imperial cause had triumphed. Frederick and Elizabeth fled along snowy back roads from Prague to Breslau (now Wroclaw). Here the heavily pregnant Elizabeth Stuart wrote a quick letter to her father that included a plea to James ‘to protect the king and myself, by sending us succour’. Long before the letter arrived in London she had given birth – to her fifth child, on 25 December – and was moving towards Wolfenbuttel in Brunswick to the safety of relatives. Shortly afterwards, she and Frederick set up a court in exile in the Hague, and became known thereafter as the Winter Queen and King. In 1623 Frederick was stripped of his rights as an elector of the Holy Roman Empire in favour of Maximilian of Bavaria.

At the time of the defeat on Bila Hora, Sir Andrew Gray was with an artillery detachment near the castle of Karlstejn, a towering stronghold on a high ridge some distance south-west of Prague, in the ring of defensive positions around the capital, while Seton’s contingent was still in southern Bohemia. Some of Gray’s officers were taken prisoner at Bila Hora and were later ransomed by him, and he withdrew to Pilsen. On 16 November Mansfeld was formally released from his obligations in Bohemian service – the Bohemian estates promised to forward pay arrears to him. The old warrior rallied his remaining troops and led them west to the Palatinate, ‘never desisting untill he came within the sight of Heydelbergh, where he was no sooner descried from the Watch-towers and his Drummes were heard to beate but immediately the whole Towne shouted for sudden joy.’ Gray withdrew slowly westward, occupying the town of Elbogen (now Loket) and then Falkenau (now Sokolov), where he resisted Imperial assault until a surrender in April, after which he and his surviving men – some three hundred in number – returned to the Rhineland and joined the garrison of the fortress of Frankenthal, now under threat from Imperial forces.

Mercenaries in Bohemia, the Rhineland, the Low Countries, 1618–1625 II

Scots in Swedish Thirty Years’ War service.

John Seton and his musketeers were still in Bohemia. After occupying the town of Prachatice and the country as far east as Neuhaus, they had been forced back by the advancing Imperial armies to Wittingau (now Trebon) and had been there since September. In July 1621 only two places held out against the Imperial forces: Wittingau and Tabor, where a Captain Remes Romanesco was in command. Seton kept his mixed force of locals, Scots and Germans on a tight rein, something for which he gained favour among the civil population, although in February 1621 he had threatened to pillage the burghers unless they provided him with some funds. That the ordinary inhabitants of Wittingau preferred such a soldier to the kind of marauder they might have found themselves stuck with is indicated by the fact that they warned him of an impending Imperial attack in time to allow him to mount a surprise ambush to thwart it. At the beginning of April he had replied in writing to one invitation to surrender:

My dear sir, I have received from bugleman Antonia Banzio your estimable letter in which you inform me that Tabor has returned to obedience to His Imperial Majesty and request me to do the same. I am unhappy that a place such as Tabor, which so bravely defended itself against your forces, was obliged to surrender, and I may also say that the defenders conducted themselves with valour. It is my wish to conduct myself in a like manner, and since I have promised my king my loyalty unto death, my only course, if I do not wish to deserve the name of liar, is to declare that, as a testimony to my loyalty, I wager my life on the struggle. Awaiting whatever war may bring, I remain, etc.

Seton’s defence was brave but finally futile and at last, on 23 February 1622, he surrendered on terms: the defenders and the people of Wittingau were granted a full pardon and confirmed in their lives and possessions. Seton later found service in the French army. His stand was not the last hurrah of the Bohemian cause: that honour belongs to the town of Kladsko, under the command of Franz Bernhard von Thurn, which resisted until October.

The Spanish army, under Ambrogio Spinola, gained control of almost all the Rhineland during the autumn of 1620, cutting off garrisons loyal to Frederick in Frankenthal, Mannheim and Heidelberg. English troops led by Sir Horace Vere, a thousand men who had crossed from Gravesend in May, formed the core of the defence in the former two fortresses, while a mixed Dutch–German contingent occupied Heidelberg. On 25 October Mansfeld relieved Frankenthal and then crossed the Rhine to winter his troops in Alsace. As was typical of the period, Mansfeld was content to allow his troops to live off the land, by plundering every village and settlement they came upon. Refugees streamed into Strasbourg to escape the pillaging soldiers, bringing with them typhus, which wreaked its own havoc on the displaced peasants. The Imperial forces, under Tilly, meanwhile wintered in the Upper Palatinate until campaigning resumed in the following year. Disturbed by the presence of Spanish troops in the Rhineland and sympathetic to their fellow-Calvinist Frederick, still in their eyes the king of Bohemia, the leaders of the German states of Brunswick and Baden-Durlach came out for his cause and put armies in the field. Frederick himself joined Mansfeld at Germersheim in April, just in time to witness a repulse of an Imperial advance at Mingolsheim. For the rest of the season the Spanish/Imperial forces and the Protestant armies played a game of manoeuvre in the Rhineland, shifting warily across the country, enjoying local victory and temporary advantage. The trend, however, was against success for Mansfeld. When the Baden-Durlach forces were cut off by the Imperialists at Wimpfen, the mercenary commander crossed the Neckar and moved north, trying to outrace Tilly to the Main. At Höchst, a few miles to the west of Frankfurt, the Brunswick army suffered a crushing defeat on 20 June. In September Frederick’s capital, Heidelberg, fell to Tilly’s army, and in November Sir Horace Vere abandoned Mannheim. Frankenthal held out until March 1623. The whole of the Rhineland now lay in Imperial hands.

The truce between the Netherlands and Spain had expired in 1621 and Spinola had renewed his offensive against the rebellious republic. At this time there were two Scottish foot regiments in the Dutch army, a senior one commanded by Sir William Brog and the other by Sir Robert Henderson. Spinola’s first actions were to occupy the province of Jülich, on the Dutch–German frontier, and carry out a surprise attack on the Dutch camp at Emmerich on a Saturday morning, as a result of which Sir William Balfour was taken prisoner for a time and had to be ransomed.

A stir was created in Scotland when it was learned that Archibald Campbell, seventh Earl of Argyll, was recruiting for the Spanish cause – the Privy Council noted the ‘disgust’ of the people, who were decidedly pro-Dutch – and a Spanish galleon was attacked when it anchored in Leith Roads. Argyll gave out that the destination of the twenty companies he sought to raise was Sicily, to fight the Turks, but, as he had been sticking his toe into Spanish affairs for some time, suspicions were not allayed. On a visit to Rome in 1597 he had become an ardent Catholic and had married the daughter of a prominent English Catholic family. In 1618 he expressed the wish to visit Spain, ostensibly for his health but really to gather Spanish gold for his debt-burdened estate. Spain was equally interested in the earl, as his lands in Argyll offered men and an invasion route into Britain. In February 1619 the burgesses of Edinburgh labelled Argyll a traitor. He took service in the Spanish army in the Low Countries, even visiting Madrid in the autumn of 1619, but he saw no fighting and finally changed tack and tried to restore himself to Stuart favour. Spain was also interested in the clan Donald, the traditional enemy of Argyll and his Campbells. A few Donald individuals, such as Sir James Macdonald of Dunnyveg and Ranald Og, a relation of the Keppoch bard Iain Lom, were in the Low Countries under a Spanish flag, and other Highlanders may have been among the contingents of Irish mercenaries, but there was no large-scale recruiting among the clans. Relatively few Scots in fact served in the Habsburg forces in the Low Countries. There were three captains in Brussels in 1619: James Maitland, Lord Lethington; William Carpenter and Robert Hamilton, both of whom had been with Semple at Lier.

The composition of Spinola’s army, as estimated by the Dutch government in August 1624, illustrates the cosmopolitan nature of the forces now contesting across Europe. The Spanish commander had at his disposal 12,000 High Dutch [Germans], 4,000 Spanish and Portuguese, 5,600 Italians, 6,800 Walloons, 2,200 Bourguinions [Burgundians] and 3,000 English, Scots and Irish (probably mostly the latter). With these motley thousands, Spinola initiated in 1622 a siege of Bergen-op-Zoom, an important port and commercial town on the North Brabant coast, where the garrison was under the command of Sir Robert Henderson. The defending troops included English, Scots and Dutch, and it was one of the former who noted: ‘They [the Dutch] mingle and blend the Scottish among them, which are like Beans and Peas among Chaff. These [Scots] are sure men, hardy and resolute, and their example holds up the Dutch.’ Early in the siege, Henderson fell while leading a large sally against the attackers. ‘He stood all the fight in as great danger as any common soldier, still encouraging, directing, and acting with his Pike in his hand. At length he was shot in the thigh.’ Henderson was carried to safety but he died soon afterwards, impressing all who saw him with his bravery. Command of his regiment was passed to his brother, Sir Francis.

As with the siege of Ostend some years before, the assault on Bergen assumed the nature of ‘a publique Academie and Schoole of warre, not only for the Naturalls of the Countrie, but for the English, Scots, French, and Alamines [Germans], who being greedie of militarie honour, resoirted thither in great numbers’. This notion of honour seems to have led men into acts of great bravery, if not foolhardiness. The near-contemporary English historian William Crosse wrote of a typical incident: ‘the English and Scottes being jealous of their honours, and unwilling that any Nation should be more active than themselves, resolved to assault the Spaniard works which they had made . . . and to give them a Camisado the night following. They effected this assault accordingly with their Musket shot and fire-balles, by which they forced the Enemies to forsake their Trenches, after they had lost many men in the fight.’

News of the siege came to Mansfeld and he set off westward to Bergen’s assistance. The mercenary commander’s army was not in very good shape by this time, suffering from hunger and ill-armed, but he made good speed. ‘When the Count departed from Manheim he was sixteene or seventen thousand strong Horse and Foot of all Nations . . . and his Foot were all Musketiers, there being few or no Pikes among them.’ The greater part of Mansfeld’s force was mounted and this, combined with a lack of gear, enabled them to move fast, via Saverne and through ‘the Straits and Fastnesses of Alsatia, the Wildes and Woldes of Loraine’. Among them were the Scots under Sir Andrew Gray’s command. They came through Sedan and crossed the Sambre at Marpont on 27 August and two days later reached the small village of Fleurus, six miles from Namur. The speed of the march had taken the Spanish completely by surprise but they recovered sufficiently to attempt to intercept Mansfeld here. The mercenary army battered its way through and continued towards Bergen, finally rendezvousing with Dutch forces. By now ‘the Mansfelders were not above sixe thousand strong that could ride or stand under their Armes, and those wre for the most part Horse, all or the greatest part of their Foot being either slaine in the battell of Fleurie, or disbanded in their long march out of the Palatinate.’ But Spinola was also enduring heavy losses and the threat of a desperate relief force on its way was enough to make him call off the siege of Bergen.

While Mansfeld stayed with his troops, Sir Andrew Gray crossed to England to seek further assistance from the Stuart monarchy. He alarmed James when he was brought into the royal presence still wearing his customary weapons – sword, dagger and a pair of pistols – but he was appointed a colonel and prepared to lead a force of English mercenaries to rejoin his colleagues in Europe. Before this was to happen, however, Spinola laid siege in 1624 to the town of Breda, where towards the end of the year plague cut a swathe through the inhabitants, reducing the population by a third.

Mansfeld himself crossed the Channel in March 1624 to take command of the new English levies for the war, with the aim of recovering the Palatinate for Frederick and his Stuart spouse. Britain saw very high recruitment for the continent in the latter half of 1624 – including 6,000 for the Low Countries and 12,000 for Mansfeld. In November Alexander Hamilton was appointed as an infantry captain and ordered to lead his men to Dover by Christmas Eve, and presumably other contingents were given similar instructions. Initially the plan was to land the men in France, through which country they would be allowed to pass to join the campaign to recover the Palatinate. At the last moment, however, fearing a counter-invasion of Spanish troops from the Low Countries, the French withdrew permission, and Mansfeld had no choice but to sail north to find a landing at Flushing. As the Dutch were equally unwilling to allow such a large body of undisciplined troops ashore under the control of Mansfeld, a commander they did not fully trust, the fleet of ships, almost one hundred in number, was left swinging at its anchor chains for two weeks at the end of February. The raw levies, described by William Crosse as ‘the dregges of mankind . . . the verie lees of the baser multitude . . . the forlorne braune and skurfe of human societie’, suffered dreadfully from cold, hunger and thirst and began to die in their hundreds. The Dutch provided some food but it was not enough. A few taken for dead and dumped overboard recovered in the cold sea and were able to swim ashore to start a new life. More commonly, corpses were washed up with all the consequent risk of disease. Mansfeld was caught in a terrible dilemma: he could not provide for his troops and equally he could not simply let men ashore for fear of desertion, although a few escaped anyway and joined the enemy. One of the infantry regiments was commanded by Sir Andrew Gray but, as the recruitment had taken place in the south of England, there were probably few Scots among the wretched rank and file, whose fate was as undeserved as it was typical of what could befall the common soldier. At last Mansfeld was able to land his men, but that was not the end of their woes.

The Dutch wanted to employ them in the relief of Breda but after this town fell to the Spanish at the end of May they had no further use for Mansfeld and simply wanted rid of him and his men as fast as possible. Mansfeld led them through Brabant to Cleves on the Dutch–German border, losing men daily through desertion. By this time, the unlucky mercenary commander had only about half of his original strength but he struggled on against tremendous odds, betrayed by those who had undertaken to supply him. Back in Scotland, the Privy Council issued a warrant to Sir James Leslie to travel about the country to levy another 300 foot soldiers to serve under Mansfeld. Leslie’s recruits eventually rendezvoused with Mansfeld’s main body in north-western Germany. At last, at the end of the year, the survivors found some food and rest in the bishopric of Münster, around the town of Dorsten. Before long, though, Mansfeld had to lead them further north, through Lingen, Haselünne on the River Hase, Cloppenburg and at last to Emden, extorting supplies as he went, his men passing through each district like a swarm of locusts. The prospect of having to feed mercenaries led the citizens of Emden to open sluice gates and to flood land in an effort to deter them, but this only angered Mansfeld, who had endured so much in the cause he fought for, and he held the town to ransom for 130,000 reichsthaler, until finally the King of Denmark stepped in to settle matters and provide a degree of security for the bedraggled remnants of the army.

The fate of Sir Andrew Gray remains obscure but he seems to have remained in the Netherlands before returning to Scotland and then, in 1630, going to France. With a band of followers, John Hepburn went north to offer his services to Gustavus Adolphus; he was welcomed and made a colonel in command of a regiment. Hepburn was to prove to Gustavus Adolphus that the royal judgement had not been misplaced, and opened a new chapter in the story of the Scottish soldiers in Europe.

Portugal and the Changing Art of War


Portuguese kings needed more revenue by the late fourteenth century especially because of their escalating military costs. These cost increases were mainly a consequence of developments in the technology of warfare. Chain mail, long worn by knights, was being steadily replaced by more expensive plate armour. Fortifications were being re-designed and strengthened to better withstand sieges. Perhaps most important of all, the introduction and escalating use of the crossbow amounted to a revolution in weaponry. Systematic recruitment and training of crossbowmen (besteiros) probably began in Portugal during the first half of the fourteenth century, but progressed slowly. The process required complex organisation on a national scale, but was an essential step towards the creation of a permanent royal army. Units of crossbowmen were raised on a quota basis by the Portuguese municipalities. The archers were recruited primarily from the sons of tradesmen, not members of the nobility or their retainers, and they were equipped with their weapons directly by the crown.

Though in the struggle against Juan of Castile a substantial proportion of Joāo I’s army still consisted of feudal levies, the presence of the crossbowmen enabled Nuno Álvares Pereira to apply one of the most important lessons of the Hundred Years War – namely, that well-trained, disciplined bowmen drawn up in sound defensive positions could devastate slow-moving knights on horseback. So it had been at Crécy and Poitiers – and so it was at Aljubarrota. On that memorable field the Portuguese army, though smaller than that of Castile, was more coherent, better led and perhaps more advanced on the road to modernisation. While Portugal did not retain these advantages for long, they were nevertheless crucial in 1385, when the kingdom’s need was greatest.

Early in the fourteenth century the still more revolutionary powder weapons were introduced; but they were then too unreliable and therefore slow to gain acceptance. However, by the start of the fifteenth century cannon were proving their worth, especially in siege warfare. Under the early Avis kings they were gradually incorporated into the nation’s arsenal. Firearms and gunpowder were kept strictly under crown control, with a central arsenal maintained in Lisbon. Cannon were used to great effect by both Afonso V and later monarchs in Morocco. They were also mounted on warships.

The English also remained active in Spain, fighting against Castile as allies of Navarre, Aragon or, in the 1380s, Portugal. In 1381-82, for example, Edmund Langley, Earl of Cambridge, led 1,500 men-at-arms and 1,500 archers (mostly English but including Gascons and Castilian exiles) in an invasion of Castile alongside the King of Portugal, while some 4-800 English archers under 3 esquires were in the Portuguese army at Aljubarrota. The largest English expedition was that of1386-87, when the Duke of Lancaster, pressing his own claim to the throne of Castile, invaded Galicia and León in alliance with Portugal, his forces totalling as many as 2,000 men-at-arms, 3,000 archers and perhaps 2,000 further foot-soldiers.

With so many French and English troops around it is hardly surprising to find the Spanish states very soon beginning to emulate their military organisation and techniques. As early as 1372, for instance, we find King Fernando of Portugal stipulating that his vassals were in future expected to field troops equipped either in the French or the English manner. Full reorganisation was in hand by 1382, when both Portugal and Castile laid down new rules for the raising and administration of their armies. Fernando entirely abolished the Moorish military nomenclature that had been used for hundreds of years and replaced it with the current Anglo-French terminology of his allies. The ancient office ofalferez mor (Chief-standard-bearer), the military commander-in-chief in the king’s absence, was abandoned and replaced instead by a Constable (Condestabre) and a Marshal (Marichal).

Portugal, normally fielded only some 2-3,000 men-at-arms in the 14th century, plus at the most 10-12,000 infantry. Even in the Toro campaign as late as 1475 she put only 5,600 horse and 14,000 foot in the field, as compared to Castile’s 4,000 men-at-arms, 8,000 jinetes (spelt with a ‘g’ in Portugal) and 30,000 infantry in 1476.

The Military Orders

After 1275 the Orders had been gradually taken over by the aristocracy, and then by the crown, and were subsequently stripped of much of their wealth. In addition they were sapped of their strength by their use in the civil wars that so racked the Iberian kingdoms; in 1354, for example, the anti-Master of Calatrava, Pedro Estevaiiez Carpenteiro, mustered 600 lances against Pedro the Cruel’s own appointed Master, Diego Garcia de Padilla, brethren of Santiago, Calatrava and Alcantara fighting on both sides in the Trastamaran conflict of the 1350s and 1360s. It is hardly surprising, then, that one modern authority should state that ‘by 1330 all the Orders were smaller, weaker, more dominated by the kings and nobles and less effective against the Moslems’. By the end of this era their very independence had been stripped from them too; in Castile the crown effectively took the Masterships of Calatrava, Santiago and Alcantara for itself in 1487, 1493 and 1494 respectively.

Nevertheless, the Orders could still muster substantial forces throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. Calatrava alone housed 150 freyles caballeros (brother knights) in 1302, in addition to which the Order had 40 commanderies by the end of the 14th century and 51-56 by the beginning of the 16th. The Order’s Grand Commander and Castellan respectively raised forces of 500 cavalry and 1,200 infantry, and 1,200 cavalry and 800 infantry, against one another in 1442, while the Master raised 400 cavalry and an unknown quantity of infantry from the Order’s Andalusian estates alone 40 years later. Excluding its Portuguese commanderies the Order of Santiago could field some 250 freyles in the 14thcentury, and 400 freyles and 1,000 lances from its whole 84 commanderies by the 16th, while the Master of Alcantara was able to raise as many as 1,500 horse and 2,500 foot in 1472. Froissart tells us that even the Portuguese Order of Avis, of which the Mastership had been at the disposal of the crown since 1385, had 200 brethren. In fact the numbers of each Order’s brethren seem always to have been proportionately small, and most of the troops they raised were actually vassals or mercenaries. Thus brethren are frequently to be found in the role of officers commanding units of infantry or crossbowmen, or even artillery (of which the Orders had their own). The actual command structure of each individual Order was headed by its Master (Maestre or Mestre). His deputy was the Grand Prior (Prior Mayor; in the Order of Calatrava the Gran Prior came below the Clavero), after whom came the Grand Commander (Comendador Mayor); the Castellan or Key-bearer (Clavero), assisted by a Sub-Ciavero and a Quartermaster (Obrero); and finally the Alferez or Standard-bearer of the Order. Organisation of individual commanderies remained as before, except that most now only contained 4 brethren, not 12.

All this meant that well before the end of the fifteenth century waging independent war was inexorably moving beyond the means of even the greatest of magnates – unless they could act in unison with powerful outside forces. Great nobles might still retain a capacity to put into the field significant forces, but were at a growing comparative disadvantage to the crown. This was graphically demonstrated by the downfall of the duke of Braganc, a in 1483. From the time Joāo I became firmly established on his throne, no Portuguese noble dared to offer a direct challenge to the king militarily. The only exception was Pedro, the beleaguered ex-regent, who was easily overwhelmed at Alfarrobeira in 1449. Nobles who sought to get rid of a king were thereafter more inclined to try assassination. This helps to explain why from the time of Afonso V monarchs and their families were usually protected by a royal guard approximately 200 strong. In short, there is no doubt that by the Avis era advances in the art of war strengthened the king vis-à-vis the nobility and contributed significantly to Portugal’s advance towards modern statehood.


Prior to the arrival of the English and French in the mid-14th century, Spanish warfare depended for success on fast-moving raids and the systematic use of siege warfare, and though pitched battles were not exactly unknown they were certainly extremely uncommon. The Spanish therefore lacked the training and experience to meet du Guesclin’s and the Black Prince’s companies of veterans on anything like equal terms, and the latter consequently had a low opinion of them. Froissart says of the Spanish: ‘It is true that they cut a handsome figure on horseback, spur off to advantage, and fight well at the first onset; but as soon as they have thrown 2 or 3 darts, and given a stroke with their lances, without disconcerting the enemy, they take alarm, turn their horses’ heads and save themselves by flight as well as they can. This game they played at Aljubarrota.’

The reference to their throwing of darts is significant, because this was characteristic of the skirmishing style of warfare that the Spaniards had been involved in with their Moslem neighbours for centuries. It had even led to the evolution of a special troop-type-the jinete-whose light armour, low saddle, short stirrups and nimble horse put him on an equal footing with the light, javelin-armed horsemen of Granada. The role of the jinete in battle was identical to that of his Moslem counterpart-to charge towards the enemy, discharge his javelins, and wheel away again before he could reply. In addition jinetes patrolled the flanks and rear of the army and cut down fugitives. At Trancoso and Aljubarrota in 1385 and at Salamanca in 1387 the Castilians employed their jinetes to outflank the Portuguese and fall on their rear. At Najera too they were positioned on the flanks of the Franco-Castilian army, probably with a similar plan in mind, but on this occasion they proved utterly ineffective in the face of the Black Prince’s longbowmen. Their one success against the English was at Ariñez in 1367, where a large body of jinetes under Don Tello surprised Sir William Felton’s company of some 100 or 400 men-at-arms and archers on a hillside. Chandos Herald tells us how Felton himself charged them on horseback, ‘and the Castilians followed him on all sides, throwing lances and javelins at him. They killed his horse under him, but Sir William defended himself fiercely on foot, though it was of little use for he was killed in the end.’ Don Tello then turned on the rest of Felton’s company: ‘the Spaniards launched many attacks on them, pressing them hard and hurling javelins and lances and spears. And that brave band of men … charged down more than a hundred times with drawn swords and made them retreat, nor could the Castilians harm them by throwing lances and darts.’ In the end it took the French marshal d’Audrehem’s men to finish the action, these dismounting and attacking on foot once they arrived on the scene. The moral here is that although the jinetes had succeeded in pinning the English company down, it nevertheless took dismounted men-at-arms to successfully conclude the engagement, and prior to the coming of the French and English, Spanish men-at-arms were not prepared to dismount in battle. Even afterwards they dismounted only reluctantly, though it is noteworthy that the elite Order of the Sash accompanied du Guesclin’s vanguard on foot at Najera. That the Spanish nevertheless recognised the tactical potential of dismounted men-at-arms is clear from the fact that Pere IV, King of Aragon, categorically forbade his troops ever to attack Castile’s French mercenaries once they had dismounted, recommending (rather negatively) that they should keep their distance and wait until the French had remounted before attempting to attack them.

In the field Spanish troops, like those elsewhere in Europe, drew up in 3 battles (batallas), which were divided into so many quadrillas or squadrons, each commanded by a knight called a quadrillero. The best troops were stationed in the centre and at the extremities of the line, and the infantry (crossbowmen, javelinmen and slingers) were drawn up in front. Compared to the English or French they delivered disordered charges, both on horseback and on the rare occasions that they dismounted. The Granadines made the most of this weakness when they actually took the Castilians on in the field in open combat, resorting to sudden feigned or real charges by bands of yelling horsemen whose intent was to disorder, panic or draw the enemy in disorganised pursuit, at which the Moslems would wheel and hurl their javelins at them at close range.


More unusually, the Portuguese crown also developed one of the most effective fighting navies possessed by any contemporary European monarch in this period, its only serious rival being that of Castile. The origins of this Portuguese navy are obscure, though there are fleeting mentions of crown warships as early as the mid-twelfth century. In 1317 King Dinis, concerned to defend the coast and shipping from Muslim corsairs and to mount his own offensive operations, contracted with the Genoese Manuel Pessagno to establish a permanent galley fleet based in Lisbon. This was a far-sighted, long-term investment, for navies even more than armies could not be created overnight. During the next few decades, the Portuguese crown accumulated the necessary resources and experience to sustain a permanent fleet and to begin to build up a great naval tradition. In the fourteenth century, the navy consisted mainly of galleys for which rowers were recruited from Portugal’s coastal communities; but it must at times have also included various kinds of sailing ships.

The high cost and technical proficiency needed to maintain galley squadrons meant they were a military arm which only the state could sustain. Already in 1369 King Fernando possessed thirty-two galleys. Later, galleys played a key role in the successful defence of Lisbon by Joāo of Avis in 1384. Portugal also developed a capacity to move substantial military forces by sea using sailing ships. This capacity made serious campaigning in North Africa possible – and without it the famous Ceuta expedition of 1415 could not have been mounted. Moreover, it was Portuguese success in building and manning ocean-going sailing vessels that made possible the country’s role in early Atlantic exploration.