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.

Boko Haram

Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) against Boko Haram in the area bordering Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon; the United Nations Force Intervention Brigade in the eastern DRC is another case in point.

Nigerian army soldiers patrol along a road in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria, on March 5, 2015. Nigeria’s government said that work had begun to rebuild a school in the northeastern town of Chibok from where Boko Haram gunmen kidnapped more than 200 girls in 2014.

Rare photo of Boro Haram

Nigeria: Internal security is the central concern for the comparatively well-equipped and-trained armed forces, with border and maritime security also vital tasks. There have been repeated clashes with Boko Haram in the north of the country with reports that the difficulty in defeating the insurgents was adversely affecting morale, despite training support from the US and other countries. The armed forces have been attempting to adopt COIN tactics, and looking to establish forward-operating bases and quick-reaction groups. Boko Haram’s move into neighbouring states has given Nigeria allies in combating the group, and the Multinational Joint Task Force is in the initial deployment stages. In response to the continuing insurgency, items have been brought out of storage and into service, including transport aircraft and light fighters. Equipment maintenance and serviceability has been a long-standing issue. Piracy remains a problem in western waters and in the Niger Delta.

Support to the campaign against Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria and the Lake Chad region, Jan 2015-Aug 2016.

Since the major Nigerian government offensives of 2015, the number of Boko Haram attacks in the region has declined significantly, but attacks continue to occur in Borno State (especially in its capital, Maiduguri) and the surrounding Lake Chad region. Regional support for the campaign has been demonstrated by contributions to the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) set up through agreement between the African Union and the Lake Chad Basin Commission in March 2015. Initial international support for the campaign was mainly limited to training and advising by the United Kingdom and the United States. Pledges of international support significantly increased in the wake of the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls in April 2014 (especially from France, which also hosted the first Regional Security Summit in Paris in May 2014) and continued into 2016 (with the second Regional Security Summit in Abuja in May). However, international support remains mostly confined to training and advising, with the ground campaign left to regional countries, both in their relatively small contributions to the MNJTF in the immediate Lake Chad border area, and in their wider domestic commitments of their own forces. There have also been reports of support from private military companies.

In January 2012 a female suicide bomber from Bauchi State in northeastern Nigeria attempted to gain entrance to the headquarters of the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. The FCTA runs Abuja, and its offices house the senior government ministers and thousands of government workers. Although she was stopped before she could detonate the bombs strapped to her body, the emergence of this female suicide bomber in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, again points to a breakdown in traditional society and the resulting mutation. Although suicide bombings have been frequent in the region, this was the first known example of a female suicide bomber. It may well be a harbinger of things to come.

Over the previous three years, the group popularly known as Boko Haram had struck fear into Nigerians with its ferocious attacks on both government and civilian targets. Many commentators translate Boko Haram in its literal sense as “book forbidden,” implying a rejection of “book” or Western education. The group identifies itself as People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad. It was founded by a Kanuri, Ustaz Mohammed Yusuf- “Ustaz” meaning teacher-in 2002 in Maiduguri, the capital of the northeastern Borno State, as a nonviolent microfinance Islamic organization opposed to what it saw as a corrupt government. Its members were drawn from the lower economic classes and students of Quranic schools. The group was dominated by the historically segmentary lineage Kanuri people, who previously had their own independent kingdom until British colonialism.

In July 2009 violence erupted when Boko Haram’s meeting place in Bauchi State was raided by Nigerian national police and nine of its members were arrested. Within a couple of hours, reprisal attacks occurred against the police. Riots then erupted, eventually spreading to three other states in the northeast. The fighting lasted for five days. During this time, the military was filmed executing suspected members of the group in public. According to the Red Cross, 780 bodies were found in the streets of Maiduguri alone, with hundreds more killed throughout the northeast. The government targeted the group’s affiliated mosques for destruction. After the riots, Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of the group, was captured and shot, and his body was later found dumped in Maiduguri in full view of its residents, his wrists still in handcuffs. The government claimed he died while attempting to escape custody, an incident later cited by Boko Haram as provocation for revenge attacks against the security services.

After Yusuf’s death, Abubakar Shekau, also a Kanuri, became leader of the group. To show solidarity with Yusuf, he married one of Yusuf’s four wives and adopted their children. The group began to recruit other ethnic groups, such as the Fulani, another segmentary lineage people in northern Nigeria. The first suicide bomber in Nigerian history, who Boko Haram announced was Fulani, blew himself up in the national police headquarters in Abuja in June 2011. His target was the inspector general of the Nigerian national police, who the day before had declared in Maiduguri that “the days of Boko Haram are numbered.” Another suicide attack followed a few months later, this time on the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, killing twenty-one people and injuring seventy-three.

Boko Haram also began to target fellow Muslims, particularly those associated with the central government. In September 2011 Babakura Fugu, Mohammed Yusuf’s brother-in-law, was shot outside his house in Maiduguri two days after attending a peace meeting with the former president, Olusegun Obasanjo. In July 2012 a teenage suicide bomber blew himself up in the central mosque of Maiduguri, killing five and injuring a further six. His main targets, who escaped from the blast uninjured, were the deputy governor of Bornu State and the shehu of Bornu, Abubakar Umar Garbai el-Kanemi, both Muslims. The previous year, the shehu’s younger brother was killed by gunmen. The shehu is one of the main religious leaders of the Kanuri, and the position of shehu was also the former ruler of the Kanuri Kanem-Bornu Empire, which was absorbed into the British colonial government. The current shehu is directly descended from the shehus of the Kanuri Empire. One month later, a suicide bomber targeted the emir of Fika, another religious figure who had spoken against violence and in support of the security forces; this attack occurred during Friday prayers at the central mosque in Potiskum in Yobe State, missing the emir but injuring dozens of people.

In adopting an Islamic identity, the group was also concerned about matters outside the tribe such as the status of Muslims in Nigeria, a country largely divided between a Muslim north and Christian south. In January 2012, in the wake of the 2011 Christmas-day bombings in which several churches were attacked in Abuja, Jos, and in the northeastern Yobe State, Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, announced, “We are also at war with Christians because the whole world knows what they did to us. They killed our fellows and even ate their flesh in Jos.” Shekau was referring to several incidents in 2011 in which Christian Berom tribesmen ate the charred flesh of Muslims they had killed and roasted in the Plateau State of the Middle Belt region in Nigeria. In a widely circulated online video, voices can be heard telling a young man who is hacking apart a charred and headless body with a machete, “I want the heart” and “Did you put some salt?” as youths proudly hold up severed heads blackened by fire for the camera. Several policemen can be seen standing back and watching the cannibalistic feast. There is an air of festivity about the gathering, as if the revelers were enjoying a special celebration. The volatile Middle Belt region, which serves as the border between Muslim north and Christian south and where different religious and ethnic groups live side by side, has for the past decade been caught in a vicious cycle of attack and counterattack between the tribal communities. Revenge attacks between Christian and Muslim tribal groups remain a constant threat in the region, such as in Kaduna State, bordering Plateau State, where a number of assaults killed dozens of Christians in the fall of 2012, including a November suicide bombing of a military base church killing eleven.

The group remains active not just in northeast Nigeria but now also across the border into Cameroon and Niger, particularly as Nigeria and the regional Multinational Joint Task Force have exerted greater pressure on the group. Significant gains by Nigeria’s armed forces continue to reduce Boko Haram’s strength and territory, in conjunction with the military deployments of regional nations as part of the Multinaltional Joint Task Force. Weakened further by a leadership division, the group’s factions remain capable of conducting attacks, including cross-border raids.


Things were not going well in Nigeria in 2015. Its military was fighting war against a powerful force of Boko Haram today. Then suddenly, things began Jihadis – as it is still doing to change. That came after the government of West Africa’s superpower secretly approached a group of former South African mercenaries to gather together a force of former Executive Outcomes (EO) professional soldiers to see if they could sort out the mess. Nigeria did so knowing that South African law does not permit its nationals to fight in foreign wars.

Old names in the industry, like Eeben Barlow (former head of Executive Outcomes, now chairman of STTEP) and Pilgrims Africa Ltd. (another South African PMSC based in Lagos), made headlines in 2015 assisting the Nigerian government in combating Boko Haram.

Since EO has an `alumnae’ network that stretches all the way across Africa and remains strong today, the new combat unit – only 75 strong, including an Air Wing with helicopter gunships – were ready to roll within weeks. Their numbers included many former SADF personnel – black and white – quite a few in their fifties and some even older. Almost all had subsequently served with EO in Angola and Sierra Leone. Most international news reports at the time spoke of a foreign force of several hundreds.

Effectively, said one of them, “I think the ghost of EO was resurrected. The Nigerian decision to hire our blokes to fight this new form of Islamic terror came at a good time and actually, we did exceptionally well.” Though press coverage of conflict was minimal, the international community – and many Nigerians – were stunned.

This tiny group of `guns for hire’ fought for only six months in north-east Nigeria and in that short time achieved more than the Nigerian Army had managed to do in six years of sporadic combat against a powerfully-motivated terrorist force.

What has since emerged is that the South Africans had a secret. “When we go to war,” the author’s contact admitted, “we command the night.” This was something that had very rarely happened in Nigeria in the past, he disclosed. “So, when the sun set, we left our secure bases and did our thing.” It was apparently something for which Boko Haram was totally unprepared.

Then, almost overnight, South African mercenary participation ended. Nigeria’s new president Muhammadu Buhari, a former major general in the Nigerian Army was sworn in late May 2015 and soon afterwards the money intended to pay EO was stolen and the venture called to a halt. Buhari was not actually opposed to the mercenary effort because, officially, the word was put out that it was Nigerian troops who were winning the war and not a rogue band of geriatric foreigners. The Nigerian military was involved, but played only a minor, peripheral role, supplying hardware like armoured vehicles and weapons, but little else – their main problem being that they were not prepared for night deployments.

A couple of months later the EO veterans returned home and there is an ongoing dispute as to whether everybody was properly paid. Since then, an impasse in hostilities has returned and Boko Haram is once again terrorising civilians and kidnapping their daughters. This raises the interesting question: how did a relatively small group of freebooters who originally fought in Angola from 1993 onwards manage to achieve so much in such a short space of time?

In truth, they were a hand-picked, select group of professional soldiers. The majority had fought for Executive Outcomes in Angola against Dr Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA guerrillas from 1993 onwards – and thereafter in Sierra Leone. Moreover, all had seen action, some quite a lot of it. Several had been wounded in action and quite a few decorated for bravery while serving in the SADF.

Swiss in Service

Swiss in French Service

The Swiss connection to the French king that had begun in the fifteenth century grew even closer under Louis XIV; he employed them not only as regiments in the army, but also as his household guard. There were two units protecting the king, the Cent Suisses (literally the 100 Swiss), who were his bodyguards, together with the Gardes du Corps, of French birth; the Gardes Suisses, together with the Gardes Françaises, were responsible for guarding the palaces. There were also eleven Swiss regiments which served valiantly in every war, adapting to the technological changes swiftly—dropping the traditional Swiss pike for the musket and bayonet even though this meant accommodating themselves to a minor role in the larger armies of the 18th century.

Swiss regiments were often employed where Frenchmen were reluctant to serve. For example, they helped garrison the fortress of Louisbourg on the God-forsaken coast of Nova Scotia. This was a location beloved of fishermen, who could dry their catch on the rocky shores, but no one else. Even before the siege by American colonial troops in 1745, the garrison was mutinous, but it fought well enough that if reinforcements had been able to arrive by sea, the fortress would not have fallen. It was, after all, the French Gibraltar in the Americas; and it was recovered in the peace treaty!

The Swiss Guards could probably have thwarted the most violent excesses of the French Revolution if King Louis XVI had been willing to approve the timely use of force against the mobs raging through Paris and other cities. However, the gentle king was reluctant to allow the army to fire on Frenchmen. In retrospect, the outcome seems inevitable: on July 14, 1789, a Parisian mob, believing that a counter-revolution was underway, marched on the Bastille, once the east gate of the city, but later converted into a seldom-used prison. Its military function had long since disappeared except as a gunpowder depot and housing for some eighty invalid soldiers. The prisoners, it turned out, were not victims of royal anger, but a handful of common criminals, religious dissidents and prominent malcontents; moreover, it could hold only about fifty inmates.

The Bastille’s evil reputation as a prison spoke more to popular dislike of royal absolutism than actual mistreatment—visitors were frequent, card games were allowed and there was even a billiard table. The food may have been more plentiful than tasty, but notables incarcerated there had fared well. Confinement itself, the isolation from the lively world outside, that was what made the Bastille feared; that and the knowledge that the king could imprison anyone for any length of time, without any judicial process (the infamous lettres de cachet)—the fact that this rarely occurred does not seem to have bothered anyone, certainly not to anyone who had ever heard the Marquis de Sade shouting down from the tower walks that the governor was intent on massacring all the prisoners. It was taken apparently as a matter of course that a governor would allow such behaviour; as was well-known, the Old Regime was not very well organised.

The Parisians’ march on the Bastille was merely the culmination of a process that had begun days before. As Simon Schama described the events in Citizens, crowds celebrating the removal of the unpopular minister, Necker, had got out of control. The first attempt by the authorities to disperse the mob in the centre of Paris had failed, the cavalrymen retreating to the Tuileries—at that time joined to the Louvre to make one vast palace. The crowd then grew in size and began looting shops selling guns, swords and knifes, then bakeries, and finally tearing holes in the wall surrounding the city in hopes of attracting tax-free food from the country. It was at this moment, Schama says, that Paris was lost to the monarchy.

Still, it did not look hopeless to contemporaries. Although the king was informed that the French troops could not be relied upon, his German and Swiss units might be. This estimate was soon outdated—80,000 citizens marched on the Invalides, the military hospital and arsenal across the Seine. There they seized 30,000 muskets and the powder that had not been sent to the Bastille. The foreign troops encamped only a few hundred yards away made no move to stop them.

The government, at last realising that the Parisian mob was dangerous, dispatched Swiss troops to hold the key points in the city. Thirty-two went to the Bastille, a number that could have held the fortress until help arrived, if the government had been willing to do so. A crowd of about a thousand gathered in front of the Bastille, warning the commander that they intended to arm themselves from the weapons stored there and that he might as well surrender.

The commander, Bernard-René de Launay (1740-89), had been born in the Bastille when his father had commanded the garrison there. His force—if it could be called that—consisted of about eighty aged veterans, some invalids. The Swiss reinforcements would be sufficient as long as the mob lacked artillery. Therefore, he refused to open the magazines as the leaders of the mob demanded.

The ensuing chaos was witnessed in part by Thomas Jefferson, then in Paris as the American ambassador. He described the storming of the Bastille, remarking that there were so many different stories of the event that none of them could be believed. What is clear is that the ropes to the drawbridge were cut during the negotiations. That allowed the mob to stream across. When someone began firing, the confusion turned into a battle royal, that is, royalist troops versus Parisians who were becoming republicans. Though the rioters managed to break into the courtyard, they made little further headway against the handful of Swiss troops until a unit of the Gardes Françaises arrived with two cannon. This elite unit had been plagued by desertions for months; now, in the critical moment, it went over completely to the people. The garrison, already out of water and realising that no rescue was coming, then reconsidered its situation and surrendered. As the troops tried to march away, however, the mob fell on them, lynching the commander and several soldiers. Most of the Swiss Guards, having taken off their uniforms, were mistaken for prisoners and ‘liberated’.

Few realised that the Bastille was already on a list of fortresses to be demolished, to be converted into a public park. As the Parisians tore down the impressive building and carried away its bricks for private use, Louis XVI travelled from Versailles to Paris, with a tricolour ribbon on his chest to indicate his adherence to the revolutionary cause. Only a few months later a mob of women protesting the cost of bread (an event that should have been expected, considering the disorders in the countryside) made the royal family prisoners.

In June 1791 the king made an attempt to flee the country, to join counter-revolutionaries in the Holy Roman Empire. At a checkpoint near the border, however, he stuck his head out of the carriage window to ask what the delay was about. Since his profile was on every coin in France, he was easily recognised. As the armies of Prussia and Austria, supported by troops raised by exiled officers, pressed into northeastern France, the National Assembly became persuaded that unless the king and the remaining nobles and royal officials were dealt with, the Revolution would fail. However, the king was still protected by his bodyguard and the Revolutionary Army was at the frontiers.

By August 1792 the situation of the king was critical. Armed volunteers from around France were streaming toward Paris, singing La Marseillaise and looking for royalists to murder. One group ran in with the Irish regiment commanded by Theobald Dillon (1745-92), the last of the line of exiles to serve the French king; the Irish mistook the militia for Austrian troops supposed to be hurrying to rescue Louis XVI’s queen, who was the daughter of Empress Maria Theresa. Dillon became separated from his men, was captured, then murdered and mutilated. Word of this atrocity spread to all the foreign troops, especially to the Swiss, who were now Louis XVI’s last hope.

On August 10, 1792, a mob attacked the Tuileries Palace, the foremost royal residence in Paris. The palace was defended by 900 red-coated Swiss troops, but running out of ammunition, the best they could do was to delay the mob sufficiently until the royal family escaped. As the immense building was consumed by flames, the defenders who managed to stagger outside were massacred. Over six hundred died; about two hundred perished in prison or were later executed.

In retrospect, we can see that the Swiss mercenaries had not expected to be slaughtered in the brutal manner that soon became normal for ‘the terror’. It was, as Schama remarked, the logical consummation of the revolution that had begun in 1789; bloodshed was not a by-product of the revolution, but provided the energy that moved it forward. Soon afterwards the National Assembly dismissed all Swiss troops and sent them home. The king was thenceforth helpless. Louis XVI thus lost his head twice—once in making poor decisions, the second time to the guillotine.

Swiss in Prussian Service

Because Prussia was a traditional French ally, King Frederick I (1701-13, elector of Brandenburg since 1688) was able to hire Swiss to be his household guard. Prussia being much colder than France, they may have shivered in their silk and satin uniforms, but they looked impressive; and Frederick I wanted to make an impression. After all, he was the first of his dynasty to acquire the title of king, and kings had to maintain a certain style.

His successor, Frederick William, immediately sent the Swiss guards home. He also sold the royal zoo, reassigned to the army the trumpeters and drummers who had announced his father’s appearances, and reduced the salaries of all officers of the state (including military officers). He could have avoided this belt-tightening (a metaphor which accurately reflects a similar reduction in expenditures for royal meals) had he been willing to continue accepting foreign subsidies. But subsidies meant sending Prussian units to Italy, the Balkans and other foreign war zones. Frederick William wanted his troops at home, where he could make them into the best army in Europe. He continued to recruit mercenaries, even Catholic soldiers (for whom he provided chaplains and churches), but all recruits would be placed in units of the regular army, not in national formations.

Frederick William was tolerant in religious matters, giving refuge to 12,000 Salzburg Protestants who were told to convert to Catholicism or leave Austria, just as his father had welcomed many Huguenots who had received a similar warning from Louis XIV in 1685. What Frederick William would not tolerate was Calvinist Predestination (which was the dominant religious doctrine in Geneva), because he feared his recruits might conclude that they were predestined to desert. He settled the Salzburg Protestants in a distant province along what is today the Lithuanian coastline, a region that had been devastated and almost depopulated by war. Since any army proceeding from Livonia into Poland would have to pass through that region, it was not an altogether generous gesture.

Swiss in British Service

Swiss were not common in British units, except those in the Prince of Orange’s Swiss Guards (Regiment Zwitserse Gardes), who accompanied William of Orange during his invasion of England in 1688.

Colonel Henry Bouquet, painting by John Wollaston, c. 1759.

Henry Bouquet, whom we met earlier, was a Swiss of Huguenot ancestry, consequently a man not only willing to fight French Catholics, but eager to do so. During the War of the Austrian Succession he served in the army of the Prince of Savoy, writing an account of his adventures that caught the eye of the Prince of Orange, who recruited him for his guards. He quickly rose to become the commander. In 1755 the British government, embarrassed by the defeat of Braddock’s expedition, began to raise regiments of Americans. Realising that there was rich potential for recruiting among the German-speaking citizens of Pennsylvania—if they had German-speaking officers to lead them—someone suggested that Bouquet and a friend, Frederick Haldimand (1718-91), should be offered command of two battalions of the Royal American Regiment. Bouquet arrived in Philadelphia in 1756 and quickly enlisted over five hundred ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ into the unit.

Bouquet led the expedition that reached Fort Duquesne only to find its smouldering ruins. He had barely fortified Fort Pitt before Indians surrounded the place and demanded his surrender. Knowing that the Indians would never dare to attack, he said no. Eventually, he earned immortal infamy responding to the chiefs’ demand for gifts before they would consent to peace negotiations by sending some fine handkerchiefs from the smallpox hospital. This probably had no impact on the epidemic that was sweeping North America. The very existence of a smallpox hospital in Fort Pitt’s moat proves that the disease was already on the frontier.

For the next eight years Bouquet would be among the most important British officers on the frontier. So valued were his contributions that Parliament waived the rule forbidding foreigners the rank of brigadier general in promoting him.

The lesson of these wars seemed to be that European armies could not be beaten except when geography and poor leadership combined to make their virtues into disadvantages. However, since guerrilla forces usually cannot win a campaign without becoming a regular army, they are still at a disadvantage because regular soldiers require long training in specialised formations and modern weapons. Professional soldiers are superior to recruits or volunteers, and experienced mercenaries are the best of the professionals.

The use of irregular forces as scouts and to screen the main force from ambush and harassment was common even in Europe, where armies often surrounded themselves with a swarm of irregulars—Cossacks and Croatians being the best because they did not speak the local languages and despised unarmed peasants and villagers as less than real men. The same was true in America. Indians who could not afford to absorb casualties were kept away from redcoats and colonials on the march by a screen of friendly warriors who hated the Indian tribes opposing them

Medieval Mercenaries

The oft-quoted remark of Richard Fitz Neal in his preface to the Dialogus de Scaccario about the supreme importance of money in war has been shown by J. O. Prestwich to have been as much a commonplace in 1179 when he wrote it as it seems today. ‘Money appears necessary not only in time of war but also in peace’ Richard wrote, adding that ‘in war it is poured out in fortifying castles, in soldiers’ wages, and in numerous other ways, depending on the nature of the persons paid, for the preservation of the kingdom.’ This was his way of explaining the central position of the Exchequer in the wars of Henry II. It introduces us to a concept of paid military service which was already clearly established in his day alongside more traditional concepts of military obligation. However, this chapter is not just about paid military service; the introduction of pay in various guises may have aroused the envy and suspicions of the feudal class, and the wrath of the Church, but it was not generally a matter of either surprise or despite by the eleventh century. Early examples of pay took many forms: money fiefs, supplements to obligatory service, subsistence allowances, rewards, and indeed pay to attract service, pay to create profit. It is the concept of fighting for profit, together with the gradual emergence of a concept of ‘foreignness’, which distinguish the true mercenary, the subject of this chapter, from the ordinary paid soldier.

Hence the problem is not just one of assessing the growth of the money economy, the accumulation of treasure, the raising of war taxes, the development of scutage (a payment in lieu of personal service), and other forms of commutation. Indeed as paid military service became a standard feature of European warfare by the end of the thirteenth century, these factors have to be taken for granted and form part of a quite different study. It is the motivation of mercenaries, soldiers who fought for profit and not in the cause of their native land or lord, and the circumstances and nature of their employment that we have to try to identify.

Here it is not profitable to spend too much time on the vexed question of the perception of who was a ‘foreigner’. The emergence of independent and increasingly centrally administered states where distinctions between local, ‘national’, ‘own’ troops, and ‘foreign’ troops became gradually apparent has also to be accepted without too much attempt at further definition. War itself was a primary factor in creating the distinctions and encouraging the patriotism and xenophobia which led to a certain suspicion of ‘foreign’ troops. Even so, the distinction between foreign and native forces is not always sharp: the occasional repressive actions of centralizing governments were sometimes best supported and carried out by ‘foreign’ troops when their loyalty was deemed more to be relied on than that of subjects.

Both supply of money and the changing needs of government are demand factors; what we need to examine more carefully at the start of a study of medieval mercenaries are rather supply factors. What did mercenaries have to offer? The answer in this period was not just general military expertise and experience, but increasingly specialist skills, particularly of infantry. It was the growing sophistication of warfare which created the mercenary, together with a series of local environmental factors which made certain specific areas good recruiting grounds for soldiers. Underemployment, whether in a pastoral economy or in a rapidly expanding city, has to be a part of the equation.

But at the heart of the equation is the problem of loyalty. Mercenaries, in the middle ages as now, stand accused of fragile loyalty, loyalty dependent entirely on regular and often extravagant pay, and a concern for personal survival. But the middle ages saw a very clear distinction between the loyalty of the errant adventurer or the free company, and the loyalty of the household knight or the long-serving bodyguard. The real categorization of mercenaries is one of length of service; long service established personal bonds just as strong as those between vassal and lord; it created commitments as binding as those of emerging patriotism and nationality, once again blurring any tidy distinction between native and foreigner.

The central theme of this chapter is that, while mercenary service, in terms of service for pay, became increasingly accepted and organized from at least the middle of the eleventh century, there was a real change in the perception of the issue from the later thirteenth century. This had little to do with economic growth, much more to do with changes in the nature of society, of government, and of warfare. The thirteenth century was a period in which the universality of the Church, of crusading, of the early universities, of the widespread use of Latin, was giving way to the creation of more local identities and loyalties, to concern with frontiers and problems of long-term defence, to vernaculars and lay culture. The monopoly of military skills held in the central middle ages by select bodies of aristocratic cavalry was being challenged by the emergence of mass infantry, often with new specialist skills, and of concepts of more general military obligation. The thirteenth century is the period in which the mercenary became distinguished by his foreignness and his expertise; and it is on this period and that which followed it that I shall concentrate most attention, avoiding, however, the exaggerations of the hallowed generalization of the ‘age of the mercenary’!

While it is probably true that elements of hired military service survived throughout the early middle ages, the main characteristics of the barbarian tribes which came to dominate Western Europe with the decline of the Roman Empire were the bonds of personal obligation and dependence within societies organized for war. As conditions eventually became more settled in the eleventh century, we hear increasingly of forms of selective service, of commutation of obligations, and of the maintenance of fighting men by collective contributions. This was particularly true in Anglo-Saxon England. However the Norman enterprises of the mid-eleventh century were something of a turning point. William the Conqueror, in order to assemble a force sufficient for his purposes in the invasion of England relied heavily on volunteers from Brittany, Flanders, Champagne, and even Italy, and the military strength which he maintained in being during the early years of the Conquest was also significantly dependent on paid volunteers. There was indeed eventually a settlement of William’s knights on the land and the re-creation of a system of military obligation, but it was never adequate for defence of the realm from significant threat and particularly not for the defence of Normandy. The Anglo-Norman kings came to rely on a permanent military household made up partly of royal vassals in constant attendance and partly of volunteers, often landless younger sons of feudatories, who were maintained by the King and generously rewarded after any military action. Significant numbers of these household knights came from outside the bounds of the Anglo-Norman state. It was the household, the familia regis that provided the core and the leadership of the armies of William I and William II, the latter in particular being described as ‘militum mercator et solidator’ (a great buyer and purveyor of soldiers). A particular moment which is often cited by the main authorities on this particular period of military activity was the treaty of 1101 by which Count Robert of Flanders undertook to provide Henry I with 1,000 Flemish knights for service in England and Normandy. These knights were to be incorporated temporarily into the royal household and maintained by Henry at his own expense; this was already an indication of the potential size of the household in arms. Count Robert was to receive a fee of £500 for providing these troops which places him in the role of a very early military contractor.

There is a good deal less evidence of such use of volunteers and paid troops by the early Capetian kings whose sphere of influence and military potential were a good deal less than those of the Normans. However in the Holy Roman Empire the same pressures to supplement the limited obligation for military service were being felt by the Emperors, particularly in campaigns in Italy. With the twelfth century came the Crusades, offering an outlet to military adventurism and at the same time prompting a greater concern amongst Western European monarchs to husband and nourish their military households. It was Henry I of England’s military household which in 1124 at Bourgthéroulde defeated a Norman baronial rebellion, an event which provides us with a classic contemporary distinction, in the words of the chronicler Orderic Vitalis, between the hireling knights of the King fighting for their reputation and their wages, and the Norman nobility fighting for their honour.

At Bourgthéroulde, despite Orderic’s attempt to portray the royal troops as ‘peasants and common soldiers’, the battle was clearly still one between mounted knights. But the hiring of infantry became an increasingly common feature of twelfth-century military practice. Louis VII, as he began to gather together the threads of central authority in France hired crossbowmen, and the civil wars of Stephen’s reign in England were filled with the activities of both cavalry and infantry mercenaries.

By the mid-twelfth century the sustained use of royal household troops, particularly in the exercise of government central power in both France and the Anglo-Norman empire, the proliferation of castles and of siege warfare, and the growth of urban populations, all pointed towards a growing role for infantry in the warfare of the day. It was the use of infantry that could expand the size of armies beyond the narrow limits of the feudal class; it was infantry that could storm cities and bring sieges to an abrupt end. It was also small companies of infantry that provided the long-serving paid garrisons of castles. A clear role for the mercenary was beginning to define itself.

It is not clear whether the companies of infantry mercenaries which became a feature of the warfare of the second half of the twelfth century emerged as a result of expanding population and underemployment or whether royal initiative and deliberate recruitment was the key factor. Certainly they were seen by contemporaries in two quite different ways: on the one hand, they were denounced as brigands and outlaws, roving in ill-disciplined bands to despoil the countryside and brutalize the population; on the other, they appear as effective and coherent military units, led by increasingly prestigious captains and often provided with uniform equipment and arms by royal officials. The phenomenon was clearly a mixed one, and the same company, led by a Mercadier or a Cadoc, could give useful, indeed invaluable, service if properly paid and directed, and yet become a disorderly and dangerous rabble when out of employment and beyond the reach of royal justice. The names given to these companies—Brabançons, Aragonais, Navarrais, and ‘Cotteraux’—reveal their tendency to originate in the poorer rural areas and on the fringes of the Flemish cities. The last name is thought to originate either from their lowly status (cotters) or from their use of the dagger (couteau) rather than the sword. Certainly the non-feudal nature of their employment and status is clear, and the increasing use by the companies of the bow and the crossbow added to the fear and despite which they aroused.

Henry II used these troops extensively in his French lands, both to suppress baronial revolt and to ward off the growing pressures from the Capetian kings. It was quickly clear that he could not expect effective service from his English knights across the Channel, except on a voluntary basis, and so the levying of scutage became a standard feature of his financial administration and the means by which the mercenaries were paid. However Louis VII and, particularly, Philippe Augustus also quickly learnt the value of the companies, and the Emperors too began to employ Brabançons in their campaigns in Italy and eastern France. The problem was that even the Anglo-Norman state did not have the resources to maintain the companies in times of peace and truce, and so there was an endless process of short-term employment and often longer term dismissal with all the implications of this for the security of the countryside. The outcry of the Church and the ban on the employment of mercenary companies at the 3rd Lateran Council in 1179 had little practical effect as long as the service they gave was useful. But monarchs did learn that such service was most effectively directed outside their frontiers, so as to avoid both the worst impact of demobilization and the growing dislike of their subjects for such troops. Henry II is thought to have used the Continental companies only once in England on a significant scale, in 1174; John, on the other hand, aroused bitter criticism for his lack of restraint in this respect.

The role of townsmen as infantry in this period was particularly apparent in Italy but initially in the form of urban militias rather than mercenary companies. The army of the Lombard League which defeated Barbarossa at Legnano in 1176 was in part made up of the militias of the cities of the League, moderately well-trained, undoubtably paid at least living expenses while on campaign, and on this occasion supported by cavalry. The specialist skills which converted elements of these militias into true mercenaries were however already emerging. The use of the crossbow as the main weapon for the defence of galleys led to large numbers of Genoese, Pisans, and Venetians acquiring this skill and, in the case particularly of the Genoese, selling their services abroad. Italy also provides the example of another professional mercenary group in this period, the Saracen archers of Frederick II. The colony of 35,000–40,000 Saracens settled round Lucera by the Emperor provided him and his successors with a skilled force of 5,000–6,000 archers, mostly on foot but some mounted, until 1266, when it was annihilated by the Angevin cavalry at Benevento.

The destruction of the Saracens coincided with a sharp decline in the role elsewhere of the Brabançons and other mercenary companies of the period. These relatively small infantry companies, rarely more than 1,000 in size, had proved vulnerable to concerted mass attack, and the tendency in Western Europe, by the second half of the thirteenth century, was towards the employment of larger numbers of increasingly professional cavalry and the development of general obligations for military service amongst the populations at large to provide infantry. Detailed studies of Edward I’s English armies have been very influential in defining the move towards contractual employment of cavalry companies made up of enfeoffed knights banneret alongside increasing numbers of paid knights bachelor and professional men at arms. Improvements over the next century in armour and weapons, and an emphasis on collective training, ensured that the cavalry remained at the forefront of European armies. On the other hand, the tendency of the late thirteenth century was also towards the use of mass infantry. This was not necessarily at the expense of skills as was illustrated by the effectiveness of the English archers and the Swiss pikemen; but in both these cases a part of their success lay in their use in large, disciplined numbers. Soldiering was becoming a way of life for many foot soldiers as it had long been for the knights. By the fourteenth century, pay was an essential component of this life and also by that time the term ‘mercenary’ was being reserved for the adventurer and the companies of ‘foreign’ specialist troops who continued to be sought after. The Hundred Years War between the English and French monarchies was to confirm these trends.

The long series of wars which started in 1337 involved an English crown which still controlled Gascony, and (under Henry V) regained for a time Normandy, and a French crown the authority of which was only grudgingly recognized in many outlying parts of France. Gascons, as subjects of the English crown, appeared in large numbers in English armies throughout the wars, as did Bretons and Flemish who saw themselves as natural allies of England against the pretensions of the French crown. In French armies Normans, Burgundians, Poitevins, and others fought somewhat uneasily side by side, but long experience of such comradeship undoubtedly played a major part in creating a sort of national feeling. The terms ‘English’ and ‘French’ became more meaningful as the wars went on. But there was always a role for adventurers, allied auxiliaries, and true mercenaries in the armies. Blind King John of Bohemia and his knights fought at Crécy in the French army as did large companies of Genoese crossbowmen; half of John of Gaunt’s captains on his expedition to France in 1373 were ‘foreigners’, particularly Gascons and Flemings but including three Castillians; Piedmontese knights and Scottish archers fought for Charles VII in the 1420s. However the moments at which mercenaries became particularly apparent were the moments of truce and peace when large parts of the armies were disbanded and the phenomenon of the free company re-emerged. The 1360s, following the peace of Brétigny, was such a moment; mixed companies of English, reluctant to return home, and of French temporarily deprived of royal pay, became adventurers seeking booty and employment. These were essentially footloose companies of professionals led by their natural leaders; more than a hundred such companies have been identified and they gravitated first towards Southern France where political authority was weakly established, and then on towards opportunities and possible employment in Italy and Spain. Charles V of France learnt many lessons about the dangers of sudden demobilization and the need to create greater permanence amongst his troops as he struggled to track down and destroy the companies which were ravaging his kingdom. They were lessons which were not easily absorbed and the same problem arose after the peace of Arras in 1435 when the ‘Écorcheurs’, mostly French by this time, became a threat and prompted Charles VII’s better-known ordonnances for the organization of a standing army.

The arrival of the foreign companies in Italy and the development of mercenary activity in that area is a very familiar story. It is a story which goes back much further than the fourteenth century and the truces of the Hundred Years War. Early urbanization, the accumulation of wealth in the towns of north and central Italy, and the relative weakness of feudal institutions, all pointed the way towards paid military service at an early stage. As already discussed the towns provided abundant infantry manpower, and the growing rivalries amongst them led to frequent confrontations, skirmishes, and sieges. The urban militias which conducted these campaigns were provided with subsistence, but it was not long before the escalating local warfare began to create opportunities for more permanent and lucrative employment for hired troops. Rural nobility with their followers, exiles, dispossessed and underemployed peasants, all contributed to a pool of manpower which the urban authorities could call on. The more successful a city was in expanding against and taking over its neighbours, the more it required a system of permanent defence beyond its walls with castles and professional garrisons. The gradual decline of communal republicanism and its replacement by a series of urban lordships or Signorie in the later thirteenth century encouraged this process as did the relative weakness by this time of the central authorities of pope and emperor.

A large number of potential employers, abundant wealth both to be earned and looted, pleasant campaigning conditions, these were the attractions of the Italian military scene which began to draw in fighters from other parts of Europe. Italy was also a forming-up point for crusading armies and an objective for Norman, Imperial, and Angevin expeditions many of which left a residue of ultramontane troops ready to exploit the opportunities available. By the end of the thirteenth century the organized mercenary company, operating either as a collective or under the command of a chosen leader, was a common feature.

One of the largest and best-known of these companies, the existence of which spanned the turn of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, was the Catalan Company. This formed itself during the wars in Sicily between Aragonese and Angevins, but was partly made up of Almogavars, Aragonese rural troops who had for years earned their living in the border warfare of the Reconquista. After the peace of Caltabellota in 1302 which settled the fate of Sicily, the Company, some 6,000 strong, took service with the Byzantine emperor against the advancing Turks, and in 1311, still in Byzantine service, it overthrew Walter of Brienne, the Duke of Athens, and seized his principality. From this base the Catalans were able to conduct a profitable military activity until 1388.

The story of the Catalan Company was an exceptional, and only initially an Italian, one. However, the fourteenth century did see companies of similar size appearing in the peninsular and often extending their activities over several years. While initially such enterprises often operated on a sort of collective basis, electing their leaders, and deciding on and negotiating contracts with employers through chosen representatives, it was inevitable that successful leaders should emerge to take control and give continuity. The contracts for military service were known as condotte, the contractors whose names began to appear on them were the condottieri. The service which was contracted for was initially of a very short-term nature. Italian city-states were seeking additional protection or an increment to their strike power for a summer season at the most and often just a matter of weeks. The presence of the companies beyond the moment of immediate need was certainly not encouraged but it was not simple to get them to withdraw, and the inevitable gaps between contracts and the long winter months created the conditions of uncontrolled marauding so often associated with this phase of Italian warfare.

Much of the manpower and the leadership of these companies during the first half of the fourteenth century was non-Italian. Germans were particularly prominent at this stage with the Great Company of Werner von Urslingen appearing in 1342. During the period between 1320 and 1360 over 700 German cavalry leaders have been identified as being active in Italy, and as many as 10,000 men-at-arms. Werner von Urslingen remained the most prominent figure throughout the 1340s when he organized successive companies to manipulate and terrorize the Italian cities. The only solution to this problem of very large companies of well-armed men spending much of their time devastating the countryside was for leagues of cities to pool their resources to resist them. But the political instability of the period made this a rare possibility. By 1347 Werner von Urslingen had new allies in the form of Hungarian troops coming to support the Angevin Queen of Naples, Joanna I, who had married the younger brother of King Louis of Hungary. By the late 1340s other leaders had also emerged; Conrad von Landau, a long-term associate of Werner, now came to the fore, as did the Provençal ex-hospitaller Montreal d’Albarno, known in Italy as Fra Moriale. The union of these three leaders produced the largest company yet seen in Italy which, on behalf of Joanna I, defeated the Neapolitan baronage at Meleto in 1349 and took over half a million florins’ worth of booty. This was the beginning of a decade which was dominated by the Great Company of Fra Moriale and Conard von Landau. This company, over 10,000 strong, established a remarkable continuity in these years, holding cities to ransom and creating extraordinary wealth. The execution of Fra Moriale in Rome in 1354 did not disturb this continuity which went on until Conrad’s death in 1363. While ultramontane troops, particularly Germans and Hungarians, but increasingly also southern French, continued to dominate in these companies up to the 1360s, it is important also to see strong Italian elements. Members of the Visconti and Ordelaffi families were prominent amongst the leaders of the companies, usually with very specific political agendas to regain control in their native cities. Undoubtedly substantial numbers of Italians fought in the great companies, and some of the smaller companies were predominantly Italian. But, of course, at this time a Sienese, or a Pisan, or a Bolognese was as much of an enemy to a Florentine as a German was, and possibly more distrusted and feared because of long-standing local rivalries. The depredations of a German company were a temporary phenomenon which could be bought off; those of a rival city-state were aimed either at takeover or at least at economic strangulation.

After 1360 the scene changed as the free companies from the wars in France began to reach Italy. The most prominent of these was the White Company, eventually led by the English knight, John Hawkwood, but initially made up of mixed elements and leaders from the Anglo-French wars. However the White Company was always associated with the English methods of warfare, the use of archers and dismounted men-at-arms giving each other mutual support, and under Hawkwood’s leadership it became a highly disciplined and effective force which Italian states became increasingly anxious to employ on a long-term basis.

The last three decades of the fourteenth century were a formative period in the history of mercenary warfare in Italy. The main Italian states were beginning to emerge from the maelstrom of political life in the communal period. As the Visconti gradually established their authority in Milan and western Lombardy, the Florentines extended the control of their city over large parts of central Tuscany. At the same time the Avignon popes were devoting huge resources to restoring order within the Papal States, and Venice was beginning to exert greater influence on the political situation in eastern Lombardy, prior to its decisive moves to establishing formal authority after 1404. The governments of these states were becoming stronger, more organized, better financed; they began to think more seriously about the permanent defence of their larger states. But, given the availability of large professional mercenary companies, of experienced leaders like Hawkwood, and a generation of Italian captains who were emerging in the 1370s, and given also the inevitable reluctance of the governments of the larger states to entrust defence to the untested loyalty of their new subjects, a military system based on extended and better managed contracts to experienced mercenaries became an obvious development. The process was a gradual one; foreign companies began to meet sterner resistance, the wars in France resumed and created counter attractions and obligations, assured pay began to look more attractive than casual booty. At the same time Italian leaders began to emerge strongly; men like Alberigo da Barbiano, Jacopo dal Verme, and Facino Cane saw the advantage of creating semi-permanent links with Giangaleazzo Visconti, just as Hawkwood began to associate himself more and more with Florence.

There was indeed a rapid decline of the foreign companies in the last decades of the fourteenth century. Alberigo da Barbiano’s famous victory over the Breton companies at Marino in 1379 became a sort of symbol of the recovery of Italian military prowess and of the end of a humiliating and damaging period of dominance by foreign mercenaries. However Alberigo’s Company of St George was little different in function or intention from those which preceded it or which it defeated; Italians had played a considerable part in the warfare of the previous decades, and Hawkwood remained for a further fifteen years as the most feared and respected soldier in Italy. His later years were spent largely in the service of Florence with lands, a castle, and a large salary for life provided to encourage his fidelity as captain-general. But he died in 1394 whilst preparing to return to England, leaving behind him a military scene which was in an advanced stage of transition.

The most powerful state in Italy at the turn of the century was undoubtedly the duchy of Milan where Giangaleazzo Visconti had attracted to his service a bevy of leading captains, including Jacopo dal Verme, a Veronese noble who was his captain-general for thirty years. Milanese expansionism inevitably provoked its main neighbours, Florence and Venice, into taking similar steps to protect themselves, and although the death of Giangaleazzo in 1402 led to a temporary break-up of the Milanese state, the threat of Milanese expansion had returned by the 1420s. The competition between the three states then continued until the peace of Lodi in 1454 and was the context for a stabilization of the mercenary tradition in northern and central Italy. The role of Venice in this was particularly important. Venice, long accustomed to maintaining a permanent military stance in its empire in the eastern Mediterranean with garrisons and galley squadrons, became involved in a quite dramatic way in the occupation and defence of a terraferma empire in the period between 1404 and 1427. The speed with which Vicenza, Verona, and Padua were absorbed, followed quickly by Friuli, and then Brescia and Bergamo, led to a perception of the problem of how to maintain effective military strength which was more coherent than that of its neighbours. A determined search for good captains, a gradual extension of the length of the condotte to allow first for year-round service and then for service for two or three years, the allocation of permanent billets and enfeoffed lands to the captains who accepted these contracts, the erection of a system of military administration which watched over and served the companies, and the realization that regular pay was the key to faithful mercenary service, these were the mechanisms which Venice in this period succeeded in implementing rather more effectively than any of the other Italian states. They were the essential mechanisms of standing armies, applied to an Italian situation in which the majority of the troops were still mercenaries in the ordinary sense of the word. Venice’s leading captains in the early years of the century all came from outside the new expanded state, and the companies which they brought with them contained few Venetian subjects in this period. The same remained true of Milan and Florence, although the Visconti were more inclined to use local nobility as lesser captains. The major captains in the first half of the fifteenth century, Jacopo dal Verme, Francesco Carmagnola, Musio and Francesco Sforza, Braccio da Montone, Niccolò Piccinino, Gattamelata, rarely served under a flag that could be described as their own. But their service was often sustained, their companies were surprisingly permanent and well organized, their moves were watched with admiration and satisfaction as much as suspicion. Only one of them, Francesco Sforza, established himself as a ruler; only one, Carmagnola, was executed for suspected infidelity.

This relative maturity of mercenary institutions was a good deal less apparent in the south of Italy where the political instability created by the Angevin—Aragonese rivalry for control of Naples, and the prolonged crisis of the Schism discouraged such developments. Many of the captains mentioned above came originally from the Papal States and had learnt their soldiering in the endemic local warfare of the area and the spasmodic papal attempts to control this. Many also saw service on one side or other of the warring factions in Naples. In these circumstances the condottieri behaved inevitably in a more volatile, self-interested fashion; desertions and treachery were rife, and booty continued to be more common than pay. It is interesting that despite the continuation of these unsettled conditions through the 1430s and into the 1440s, many of the leading captains had by then abandoned the uncertain prospects of the south to seek their fortunes in the more controlled and disciplined world of north and central Italy.

The establishment of Alfonso V of Aragon on the throne of Naples in 1442 and the growing recognition accorded to Eugenius IV as Pope as the influence of the Council of Basle declined led to a gradual lessening of this difference between north and south in Italy. In fact both the Papal State and the kingdom of Naples had greater possibilities of raising military manpower within their own frontiers that did the northern states. Nevertheless the tensions that existed between the two states led to kings of Naples seeking to attract condottieri from the Roman baronial families into their service in order to weaken the Pope and create disruption in Rome. At the same time the Popes of the second half of the century did their best to prevent the warlike signorial families of Umbria and the Romagna from taking service in the north.

The wars in Lombardy in the 1430s and 1440s were in many ways a high point of conflict in later medieval Italy. Armies of over 20,000 men on either side confronted each other in the Lombard plain; armies which had become reasonably stable in terms of their composition and organization, and in which one senior captain changing sides could significantly affect the balance of power. Francesco Sforza used his substantial company in this way as he worked towards political control in Milan in the vacuum created by the death of Filippo Maria Visconti (1447) without male heir. His cousin Michele Attendolo Sforza, on the other hand, lacking perhaps the same political ambition and military prowess, but nevertheless controlling as large a company (details of the organization of which have survived to us) timed his moves less well. During a career as a major condottiere spanning nearly twenty-five years, Michele (or Micheletto as he was usually known) moved at long intervals from papal service to that of Florence and back again, and eventually served Venice as captain-general for seven years in the 1440s. He came from the Romagna, as did his better known cousin, and a significant proportion of his troops were Romagnol recruited by his local agents and dispatched to wherever the company was based. That company, normally consisting of about 600 lances and 400 infantry, also contained soldiers from all over Italy and at least 20 capisquadra many of whom came from aristocratic families and were on their way to themselves building a career as condottieri. As a reward for his services to Venice, Micheletto was given the important garrison town of Castelfranco, in the Trevigiano, as a fief and base. However his career fell apart when he was dismissed and his company disbanded after he lost the battle of Caravaggio to his cousin Francesco in 1448.

After his dismissal many of Micheletto’s lances were taken into the direct service of Venice as lanze spezzate (individual detachments, which could be combined together to form a company). In doing this Venice was following a clear trend by the middle of the fifteenth century of the better organized Italian states taking the opportunity, on the death or retirement of a condottiere, of retaining their troops in composite companies commanded by captains chosen by the government. To see this as a deliberate attempt to reduce the mercenary element in Italian armies is probably misleading; the prime consideration was the retention of good troops who had probably spent some time under their former leader in the service of the particular state. It was common Venetian practice to give command of a company of lanze spezzate to a minor condottiere who already had his own company but who had given faithful and effective service.

The Battle of San Romano (1432) was a much vaunted minor victory of the Florentines over the Sienese. Paolo Uccello painted three scenes from the battle for the Medici palace in the 1450s, and here illustrates the final phase when Michele Attendolo led his contingent of the Florentine army into an attack on the Sienese rearguard.

After the succession of Francesco Sforza as the new Duke of Milan in 1450, the Milanese army began to emerge as the prototype of the later fifteenth-century Italian army in which certain mercenary institutions survived but the overall impression was one of a large standing army which could be expanded rapidly when needed. Army lists of the 1470s reveal an organization which paid about 20,000 troops in peacetime and anticipated a doubling of the number if needed in war. At the heart of the permanent force were companies of lanze spezzate commanded by four chosen captains who formed part of the ducal entourage, and an equivalent force known as the famiglia ducale which served as the Duke’s bodyguard. There were then the senior condottieri on long-term contracts which bound them to maintain their companies at half strength in peacetime, and the main feudatories, including the sons and brothers of the Duke, who were condottieri ‘ad discretionem’ with no specific obligations or pay in peacetime but clear expectations for service in time of war. Finally over 18,000 infantry, many of whom were in permanent service as garrison troops etc. were included in the mobilization plans. The bulk of this force, therefore, was based firmly within the frontiers of the state, although some of the senior condottieri, such as the Marquis of Mantua, had their own independent bases where they maintained their companies. Mobilization did not mean a hurried search for new companies to hire but a more or less measured increase in the size of the existing companies, supervised by government officials.

Inevitably, after the peace of Lodi and the ending of a period of almost continuous warfare in Lombardy in which Neapolitan and papal armies had become involved by the early 1450s, the second half of the century with only spasmodic outbreaks of fighting has been seen in military terms as an anticlimax. However, more recent historical perceptions of the Italian scene in the second half of the fifteen century have emphasized the considerable political and diplomatic tensions which existed between the states, the need for a constant state of military preparedness, and the effectiveness of the armies which were brought into action on frequent occasions during the period. It has to be remembered that some of the most distinguished names in the annals of the condottieri belong to the post-Lodi period: Bartolomeo Colleoni, Venetian captain-general for twenty years, garrisoning the western frontiers of the Venetian state from his base at Malpaga; Federigo da Montefeltro, the most famed and trusted soldier of his day, Duke of Urbino, commander of the papal army, sought after in every emergency; Roberto da Sanseverino, linked to the Sforza but a brooding spirit with a progeny of ambitious soldier sons whose restlessness added to the tensions of the period; the rising generation of leaders who were to play a prominent part in the Italian Wars after 1494, Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, Niccolò Orsini Count of Pitigliano, Francesco Gonzaga. These were all condottieri; they continued to receive contracts of employment from states within which they had not been born, but nevertheless it is increasingly difficult to describe their role as that of mercenaries.


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

Scots in Swedish Thirty Years’ War service.

Swiss mercenaries and landsknechte engaged in a push of pike (engraving by Hans Holbein the Younger, early 16th century)

Unlike the case of privateering, there is no consensus on how a mercenary should be defined. We generally think of a mercenary as one who fights for an employer other than his home state and whose motivation is economic. The soldier of fortune is the ideal type of a mercenary.

However, there are mixed forms of military service that meet one but not both of the aforementioned criteria. For example, British officers who are “seconded” to Middle East armed forces serve a foreign army but do so at the behest of their home state. And the volunteers of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War fought for a foreign military force and were paid but, it is generally agreed, were motivated by political ideals rather than monetary gain. On the other hand, members of an all-volunteer citizen army are paid to fight but hardly warrant the label of mercenaries. Here it is interesting to note that “etymologically . . . `soldier’ carries the meaning `he who fights for pay.'” Mockler may be correct in saying that “the real mark of the mercenary [is] a devotion to war for its own sake,” but since individual motivations are impossible to determine, this is not helpful for analysis. For purposes of this study, I will use the term mercenarism to refer to the practices of enlisting in and recruiting for a foreign army.

Scholars agree that feudalism’s constraints on military service were a major inducement for monarchs to turn to mercenaries. Whatever its other drawbacks, the feudal military system was based on the principle of defense. Knights were duty-bound to serve only a very limited amount of time-something like forty days a year-but, more importantly, were not obligated to serve abroad. Thus, feudal military rights and obligations presented a barrier to launching offensive military campaigns.

In the twelfth century, the English king introduced the system of scutage, which allowed individuals to buy their way out of their military obligations, thus providing the sovereign with the cash to purchase manpower wherever s/he could. By the time of the Hundred Years’ War, landholding in France was based on rent, and “knight’s service had fallen into disuse.” Thus, it appears that the European market for mercenaries was largely the creation of war-makers seeking to escape the constraints of feudal military obligations. War-makers increasingly relied on private or royal subcontractors to raise and supply armies for a profit.

Large-scale mercenarism in the form of the Free Companies flourished in Europe between 1300 and 1450. “Long before absolute monarchy arose, soldiers offering themselves for hire had constituted a major export trade of the Middle Ages, and one of the first to establish a European market.” The foreign mercenaries of pre-Renaissance Italy, so maligned by Machiavelli, gave way after the 1379 Battle of Marino to the condottieri (military contractors). These were “Italians” and, increasingly, nobles. “By the end of the fifteenth century . . . condottieri had become dukes, and dukes had become condottieri.”

The economic scale of mercenarism reached unprecedented proportions in the seventeenth century, when Wallenstein’s private army “was the biggest and best organized private enterprise seen in Europe before the twentieth century.” Unfortunately, few rulers could afford to hire such an impressive force.

These private armies also presented a threat to European rulers. For example, the Grand Catalan Company, a force of some sixty-five hundred men, took service with the duke of Athens only to turn on him in 1311 and establish its own “duchy of mercenaries,” which survived for sixty-three years. Later, Wallenstein, with two thousand square miles of territory as a base for his army, raised suspicions that he was attempting to form his own state. The solution for European monarchs, imposed first by Charles VII of France in 1445, was to integrate foreign mercenaries into their standing armies or to buy army units from other rulers.

These policies had, by the eighteenth century, turned the typical European standing army into a truly multinational force. The table above presents data on the composition of four major European armies in the eighteenth century. Foreigners constituted at least one-quarter and as much as 60 percent of these regular standing armies.

German states were the premier suppliers. A German prince was the first to lease a regiment to another state (Venice) in the 1660s. For almost forty years Hesse-Cassel’s army was subsidized by the Netherlands, England, and Venice. In 1727 it was completely taken over by the British. William III, landgrave of Hesse-Cassel from 1751 to 1760, said “these troops are our Peru. In losing them we would forfeit all our resources.” From 1690 to 1716 the Julich Berg army was paid for by the Netherlands. Wurttemberg’s army served the Dutch and the Dutch East India Company in 1707.73 Hesse, Hanover, Baden, Brunswick, and Waldeck were the main suppliers of mercenaries for Britain. Germans also constituted up to one-third of the prerevolutionary French army.

At the same time, however, German states also employed foreigners. In 1705 two-fifths of Bavarian army officers were foreigners-Italians and Frenchmen. The Bavarian army also “was overrun by Irish refugees” and “French adventurers of dubious character.” One Bavarian regiment included soldiers from sixteen countries. Frenchmen provided one-third of Brandenburg-Prussia’s officer corps, and Walloon, French, Spanish, Italian, and English officers staffed the Palantine army. On the eve of the Seven Years’ War a number of Dutch regiments were on “semipermanent hire to German princelings.” In 1693, 35 percent of the Saxon army was foreign, though by 1730 this figure had been reduced to 11 percent.

Frederick the Great recruited all over the Holy Roman Empire, especially in the free towns and the ecclesiastical principalities. At the onset of the Seven Years’ War he attempted to incorporate the entire Saxon army into his own. After the war he recruited as far away as Italy and Switzerland. Frederick the Great also brought officers from France, Italy, Switzerland, Hungary, and Lithuania into the Prussian army.

The Dutch were also both employers and providers of mercenary troops. Their eighteenth-century army was led almost entirely by officers from France, Germany, Scotland, and Ireland. After 1756, the Dutch recruited in the Austro-Hungarian empire. As previously noted, the Dutch loaned regiments to German princelings during the Seven Years’ War, but they also provided troops for the British army. Along with Hanoverian and Hessian mercenaries, the Dutch played an important role in Britain’s 1701 war with France and in suppressing the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion within Britain itself. When Catherine the Great refused to rent twenty thousand troops to Britain in its war with the American colonies, Britain attempted to hire the United Provinces’ Scots Brigade. This Dutch “foreign legion” consisted of Scottish officers and “mercenaries from all over Europe.”

Britain’s army drew its foreign contingent primarily from the German states and the Netherlands, but it also employed Swiss, Albanians, Italians, and Frenchmen during the Napoleonic Wars. Great Britain also supplied both officers and troops for foreign armies. Englishmen, Irishmen, and Scotsmen served as officers and soldiers in the eighteenth-century French, Prussian, Austrian, Russian, German, and Dutch armies.

“As a peacetime minimum, the French generally possessed nine regiments of Swiss infantry, six from various German states, two from Italian principalities, and six from Ireland.” French armies were 20 percent foreign throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Significant numbers of Scottish and Flemish soldiers also served in the eighteenth century French army.

Switzerland was the main supplier of mercenary troops in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially to France. According to the Perpetual Peace, which France imposed on Switzerland in 1516, “the Swiss agreed never to supply mercenaries to France’s enemies.” During the eighteenth century, Swiss soldiers and officers served in the Prussian, French, British, Austrian, and Dutch armies. According to one scholar, Switzerland is the only European state that has never employed mercenaries.

From 1688 to 1727 Italy subsidized the Hesse-Cassel army and in 1756 recruited in Austria. Italian regiments served in the mid-eighteenth-century French, Austrian, and Prussian armies. Austria-Hungary recruited from the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Croatia, Hungary, and Italy. At the same time, the Dutch, Hungary and Italy were allowed to recruit in the Austro-Hungarian empire.

At the time of Gustavus Adolphus’s death in 1632, less than 10 percent of his army was Swedish, the remainder being mostly German. It is estimated that in the War of Smolensk (1632-34) one-half the Russian army was foreigners. In 1681, Russia’s army, which included eighty thousand foreign troops, was led by Scottish and German officers. As many as one-third of the eighteenth-century Russian army officer corps was foreign. Polish nobles served in the Prussian, Austrian, Swedish and Russian armies. The Royal Deux Ponts Regiment, a force of Germans in the employ of France, fought on the American side in the American War for Independence.

Foreigners were not confined to service in armies; navies displayed a similar multinational character. In the 1660s, six thousand French sailors were serving abroad. One-third of the Dutch navy was French. About seven hundred Frenchmen served in the Sicilian navy, and more Frenchmen than Italians served in the Genoese fleet. At the same time, Italian volunteers and “slaves-North African `Turks’ . . . Russians, Negroes from West Africa, and a few Iroquois Indians”-worked as rowers in the French navy.

During the war between Spain and the United Provinces, the Dutch Republic employed privateers from Zeeland while Spain used the services of Dunkirk’s privateers.

The eighteenth-century British navy employed French prisoners of war and volunteers from Holland, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Sardinia, Malta, Greece, and Turkey. Part of the reason for the presence of foreigners in the navy was that the British Royal Navy depended on the mercantile marine, whose composition, even in the late Victorian period, was 46 percent foreign.

Though foreigners were supposed to be exempt from British impressment, according to an act of 1739, “a great deal of the correspondence of eighteenth-century admirals is occupied with complaints from foreign embassies seeking to free their subjects.” This controversy intensified after the United States gained independence but Great Britain continued to impress U.S. citizens based on the “rule of indelible allegiance, under which a person once a British subject might, although he had acquired citizenship of another country, still be `recognized’ as a British seaman and be impressed accordingly.” By 1807, more than six thousand U.S. citizens had been impressed into the British navy. This practice was one of the reasons for Madison’s request that Congress declare war against England in 1812.

Lesser naval powers also relied on large contingents of foreigners. In the Russians’ 1713 Baltic Sea fleet, “only two out of eleven commanders and seven out of seventy other officers were Russians.” In the United States of 1878, “60% of the Navy’s enlisted personnel were foreignborn.” On average, “28% of the crews of American warships” in the second half of the nineteenth century were foreigners. At least twenty different nationalities were represented, including British, Irish, Scandinavian, Canadian, Central European, Japanese, and Chinese-despite the legal requirement that two-thirds of the seamen be native-born U.S. citizens.

This overview of the employment of foreigners in military forces is certainly not exhaustive. It does suggest, however, that the practices of hiring foreigners and allowing individuals to join other states’ armed forces were common in the period of 1600 to 1800. Among European states, only Switzerland apparently never employed foreigners. The market for military manpower was as international as it could ever be. Nationality or country of origin was not the primary basis for determining service obligations. The capabilities of officers, the economic or legal desperation of the soldiers, and the economic interests of rulers determined who served and where. State leaders needed military manpower; they were not particularly choosy about where they obtained it.