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.

Battle of Saint-Quentin

1557 Battle of Saint Quentin. Spanish arquebusiers in street fighting in the suburbs of the town.


The earliest chronogram found depicts the siege and battle of Saint Quentin in 1557.

Saint-Quentin, Battle of 10 August 1557 English forces fighting with the armies of Philip II of Spain, husband and ally of Mary I, assist in defeat of French army outside besieged French town of Saint-Quentin.

The Battle of Saint-Quentin of 1557 was fought at Saint-Quentin in Picardy, during the Italian War of 1551–1559. The Spanish, which is to say the international forces of Philip II’s Spanish Empire, who had regained the support of the English whose Mary I of England he had married, won a significant victory over the French at Saint-Quentin, in northern France.

The king of Spain in 1556, when he took the throne over from his father, was aged twenty-eight, a man of few words, of medium build, with fair hair and blue eyes. A devotee of hunting and jousting, cultured, serious and deeply religious, he had spent nearly five years travelling through the principal countries of Europe. Regent of Spain since 1543, when he was aged sixteen, he had accumulated ample experience of the problems of government. After several months in England with his wife Mary Tudor, he crossed over to Brussels to receive from his father in 1555 the territories that from then on constituted his inheritance. Charles did not abdicate from Sicily, Naples and Milan, for these realms already belonged to Philip, who had been given the right of succession to the dukedom of Milan as early as 1540 and was invested as its duke three years later. He also received the crown of Sicily and Naples the day before his wedding to Mary Tudor in 1554. It only remained to give the prince the Netherlands, the Crown of Castile (which included the New World), and that of Aragon together with Sardinia. Philip’s right to rule remained the same as that of his father: it was dynastic, that is, based purely on the principle of inheritance in the family. His title in all his European territories continued to be dynastic. But under him a fundamental difference began to operate for the first time. Because the territories he controlled were centred on the Mediterranean, very quickly their political focus moved to Spain, since the king chose Spain as his centre. He stayed on four more years in the Netherlands, where a new war with France, provoked principally by events in Italy, demanded his attention. But it was Spain, and the men of Spain, that from now on began to make the decisions and wield the power.

While a French army invaded Italy to attack Milan, another invaded the Netherlands. By July 1557 Philip in Brussels had assembled a defensive army of thirty-five thousand men, commanded by Emanuele Filiberto, the duke of Savoy, and William of Nassau, Prince of Orange, with cavalry under the orders of Lamoral, Earl of Egmont. Of Philip’s total available forces (not all of whom took part in the battle) only twelve per cent were Spaniards. Fifty-three per cent were Germans, twenty-three per cent Netherlanders, and twelve per cent English. All the chief commanders were non-Spaniards. The king threw himself with energy into the campaign.3 In the last week of July he was busily arranging for the scattered Italian and German troops under his command to rendezvous at St Quentin. His duties made it impossible for him to go to the front, but he insisted to Savoy that (the emphasis is that of the king himself in his letter) ‘you must avoid engaging in battle until I arrive’. On 10 August, the feast of St Lawrence, the Constable of France at the head of some twenty-two thousand infantry and cavalry advanced upon Savoy’s positions before St Quentin. The town was of crucial importance to the Netherlanders, both for blocking the French advance and for clearing the way to a possible march on Paris. Unable to avoid an engagement, Savoy counter-attacked.

In a short but bloody action the army of Flanders routed and destroyed the French forces, which lost over five thousand men, with thousands more taken prisoner. Possibly no more than five hundred of Savoy’s army lost their lives. It was one of the most brilliant military victories of the age. Philip’s friend and adviser Ruy Gómez remarked that the victory had evidently been of God, since it had been won ‘without experience, without troops, and without money’. Though Spaniards played only a small part in it, the glory redounded to the new king of Spain, and Philip saw it as God’s blessing on his reign. The Spanish contingent in the battle had constituted only one-tenth of the troops, thereby undermining the classic view that St Quentin was a Spanish victory. The Spanish troops may have been few, but they were more effective than the rest, making it a Spanish victory. In any case, the victory belongs to him who paid for the battle, and that was Spain. One way or the other it must have been, and therefore was, a Spanish triumph: ‘the battle was won by the Spanish contingent’

The French were forced into peace negotiations, and peace talks, which began late in 1558, ended with the signing of a treaty in April 1559 at Cateau-Cambrésis.

Philip returned home to Castile in September 1559, confident that the peace he had just made with the French would be a lasting one. ‘It is totally impossible for me to sustain the war’, he had written earlier that year. There were serious financial problems that needed to be resolved. In 1556 – omen of much graver events to come – a Spanish regiment in Flanders had mutinied when not paid. ‘I am extremely sorry’, Philip wrote to the duke of Savoy, ‘not to be able to send you the money for paying off this army, but I simply do not have it. You can see that the only possibility is to negotiate with the Fuggers.’ The costs of war, not only in the Netherlands but also in Italy, were already insupportable.

Cateau-Cambrésis promised a pause. It was the end of the long dynastic conflict between the houses of Valois and Habsburg, and was sealed by Philip’s marriage to the daughter of Henry II of France, Elizabeth. Seeing the vast territories he controlled, however, other powers feared the king’s intentions. The Venetian ambassador at his court took a more hopeful view. Philip’s aim, he reported, was ‘not to wage war so that he can add to his kingdoms, but to wage peace so that he can keep the lands he has’. Throughout his reign, the king never veered from this idea. ‘I have no claims to the territory of others’, he wrote once to his father. ‘But I would also like it to be understood that I must defend that which Your Majesty has granted to me.’ He stated frequently and firmly to diplomats that he had no expansionist intentions. He employed officials who made clear their opposition to policies of aggression. On the other hand, the realities of political life made it inevitable that he should almost continuously be drawn into war situations, both defensive and aggressive. There were also serious problems to be dealt with, above all the debts accumulated by his father. The financial arrears in Flanders were very bad, he admitted to his chief minister there, Cardinal Granvelle, but ‘I promise you that I have found things here worse than over there. I confess that I never thought it would be like this.’


Henry Kamen, Philip of Spain (1997) gives a brief account based on contemporary sources, noting that Spanish troops constituted about 10% of the Habsburg total. Kamen claims that the battle was “won by a mainly Netherlandish army commanded by the non-Spaniards the duke of Savoy and the earl of Egmont”. Kamen, Henry: Golden Age Spain. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. ISBN 023080246X, p. 28.

On the other hand, Geoffrey Parker states that Spanish troops were decisive in defeating the French at St. Quentin owing to their high value, as well as in defeating the Ottomans at Hungary in 1532 and at Tunis in 1535, and the German protestants at Mühlberg in 1547. Parker, Geoffrey: España y la rebelión de Flandes. Madrid: Nerea, 1989. ISBN 8486763266, p. 41

Mercenaries in the eight Italian Wars I

In 1515, the Franco-Venetian alliance decisively defeated the Holy League at the Battle of Marignano.

Detail from the above Battle of Marignano, Swiss mercenaries and German Landsknechts fighting for glory, fame, and money at the battle of Marignan (1515). The bulk of the Renaissance armies was composed of mercenaries.

“Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous”

Mercenaries were used very frequently in the eight Italian Wars (1494 to 1559): the core of the French infantry consisted of Swiss mercenaries, while the Italian cities hired both native and German mercenaries. Although many leaders were eager to hire mercenaries, in his famous work The Prince (1532) Niccolò Machiavelli strongly warned them not to do so. As might be expected, however, his advice fell on deaf ears: during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), marauding bands of mercenaries would lay waste to entire regions of Central Europe.

These wars initially arose from dynastic squabbles but soon evolved into a more general and very repetitive struggle for power and territory. They have many different names: the Great Italian Wars, the Great Wars of Italy, the Habsburg-Valois Wars, and the Renaissance Wars. Whatever name is preferred, however, it basically refers to the same thing, namely, the complicated series of conflicts between 1494 and 1559 that involved, at various times, France, the Holy Roman Empire, the city-states of Italy, England, Scotland, Spain, the Ottoman Empire, the Swiss, Saxony, and other players.

Taking place in southern and Western Europe, the wars finally ended in a Habsburg victory, with Spain emerging as the dominant European power. However, they are such a confusing kaleidoscope of military and political factors, ambitious leaders (mercenaries, nobles, and kings), alliances, counter-alliances, and betrayals they are not described here in great detail. Instead, the focus is very selective, only on those parts of some campaigns where mercenaries were used in a significant way.

The Italian War of 1494–1498: The First Italian War pitted Charles VIII of France against the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, and an alliance of Italian powers under the leadership of Pope Alexander VI. In the opening stages of that war, Charles VIII invaded Italy with an army that included 8,000 Swiss mercenaries. At first his forces moved through Italy without much opposition: the condottieri (mercenary) armies of the Italian city-states were much too weak to stop the French forces.

The French reached Naples in February 1495 and captured it without a siege or a pitched battle. The Italian city-states, however, realizing that a foreign monarchy in their midst could endanger their own autonomy, created the League of Venice. This new institution pulled together an army under the leadership of the condottiero (mercenary chieftain) Francesco II Gonzaga. Charles VIII, not wanting to be trapped in Naples, marched north to Lombardy, where he fought the League at the battle of Fornovo (July 1495), using artillery and 3,000 of his own mercenaries. The outcome was both a success and a failure for him: he managed to retreat to France with most of his army intact, but he had to leave behind nearly all the booty he had seized in Italy.

The Italian War of 1499–1504: In 1499, Louis XII of France, having made an alliance with the Republic of Venice and with Swiss mercenaries, invaded the Duchy of Milan. Ludovico Sforza of Milan hired an army of Swiss mercenaries himself. The Swiss mercenaries, however, did not want to fight each other and Ludovico was defeated by Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, a noted Italian mercenary who held several military commands during the Italian Wars. (Trivulzio had abandoned Ludovico and, switching sides, had joined Charles VIII.) Ludovico himself was handed over to the French in 1500 and spent the rest of his life jailed in miserable conditions in an underground dungeon in France.

The War of the League of Cambrai (1508–1516): The War of the League of Cambrai, also known as the War of the Holy League and by other names, too, was a major conflict during the Italian Wars. The chief participants were at varying times: France; the Papal States; the Republic of Venice; Spain; the Holy Roman Empire; England; Scotland; the Duchy of Milan; Florence; the Duchy of Ferrara; and, last but by no means least, the redoubtable Swiss mercenaries. The final victors were the French and Venetians.

Pope Julius II had wanted to curb the territorial ambitions of the Republic of Venice, so in 1508 he formed the League of Cambrai for this purpose. By focusing only on the role of mercenaries, one can note that in 1509 Louis XII of France left Milan at the head of a French army and invaded Venetian territory. To oppose him, Venice hired a mercenary army under two cousins—Bartolomeo d’Alviano and Nicolo di Pitigaliano. Unfortunately, however, they could not agree how to oppose the French.

As a result, when Louis XII crossed the Adda River, Bartolomeo advanced to attack him. Nicolo, on the other hand, saw no virtue in a pitched battle, so he moved away to the south. When Bartolomeo fought the French at the battle of Agnandello, he found that he was outnumbered and he urgently asked his cousin to send him reinforcements. Nicolo, however, simply ordered Bartolomeo to break off the battle and he then continued on his own way. Bartolomeo, disregarding these orders, kept on fighting until his army was surrounded and was destroyed. Nicolo, for his part, managed to steer clear of the victorious French forces but when his mercenary troops heard of Bartolomeo’s defeat, they deserted in large numbers, forcing Nicolo to retreat with the remnants of his army. The Venetian collapse was complete but Nicolo soldiered on.

In 1509 the citizens of Padua, aided by detachments of Venetian cavalry under the command of the “proveditor” Andrea Gritti, revolted. (A proveditor was a civilian official charged with overseeing the actions of the mercenary captains hired by the Republic of Venice.) Padua was guarded by some Landsknechts but they were too few in number to resist the revolt effectively, so Padua reverted to Venetian control. Relief forces were sent toward Padua but Nicolo had enough time to concentrate his remaining troops there. At the siege of Padua, although enemy artillery fire breached the city’s walls, Nicolo and his men were able to stand fast: the city did not fall. When Nicolo died of natural causes in 1510, Andrea Gritti took his place as proveditor.

Pope Julius II was increasingly worried by the growing French military presence in Italy, so he hired an army of Swiss mercenaries to attack the French in Milan and he formed an alliance with the Venetians, who also feared the French invaders.

The Italian War of 1521–1526: Francis I of France had wanted to become Holy Roman Emperor. When Charles V of Spain got the job instead, this gave Francis the pretext to start a general war. The war, fought in Italy, France, and Spain, pitted Francis and the Republic of Venice against the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Henry VIII of England, and the Papal States. The result was a Spanish and Imperial (Holy Roman Empire) victory. From what might be called a ”pro-mercenary” point of view (in the sense that many of the advantages of mercenaries, at least as seen by their employers, have been recounted), the most interesting action of this war was the rout of Swiss mercenaries at the battle of Bicocca in 1522.

In this battle, a combined French and Venetian force, led by Odet de Foix, the Vicomte de Lautrec, was decisively defeated, north of Milan, by a Spanish-Imperial and Papal army commanded by Prospero Colonna. Lautrec had wanted to attack Colonna’s lines of communication but his (Lautrec’s) Swiss mercenaries complained that they had not been paid since their arrival in Lombardy. They demanded an immediate battle, threatening to abandon the French and return to their cantons if Lautrec refused to attack. Their demand forced him, against his will, to assault Colonna’s well-fortified position. Lautrec’s Swiss pikemen moved forward over open fields under a fierce artillery bombardment, suffering heavy losses, and had to stop at a sunken road backed up by earthworks. There they encountered the concentrated fire of Spanish arquebusiers and were forced to retreat. Their total losses were more than 3,000 dead.

The net result was that, a few days later, the Swiss mercenaries marched back to their cantons, while Lautrec had to retreat into Venetian territory with the remnants of his army. The significance of this battle is three-fold: it marked the end of Swiss pike-dominance among the infantry units of the Italian Wars; it forced the Swiss to change their policy of attacking with only massed columns of pikemen, i.e., without the support of other troops; and it was one of the first engagements where firearms played a decisive role in the outcome. The Italian historian and statesman Francesco Guicciardini (1483–1540) remarked on how this battle changed the military attitude of the Swiss. He wrote:

They went back to their mountains diminished in numbers, but more diminished in audacity; for it is certain that the losses which they suffered at Bicocca so affected them in coming years that they no longer displayed their wonted vigour.

The really decisive engagement of the Italian War of 1521–1526, however, was the battle of Pavia (1525), in which a Spanish-Imperial army under Charles de Lannoy, working together with a garrison of Pavia under Antonio de Leyva, attacked the French army, which was under the personal command of Francis I of France. The end result was that the French army was soundly defeated: in fact, Francis himself was captured by Spanish troops when his horse was killed from under him by Caesare Herocolani, an Italian mercenary. Francis was then imprisoned by Charles V and was forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Madrid.

Mercenaries played significant roles in the battle of Pavia but rather than trying to recount their exploits here in exhaustive detail, it is better to look briefly at a few of the highlights. Examples include the following:

  •  A mass of French troops arrived at Pavia in October 1524 to besiege the city. Inside the city were about 9,000 men, mainly mercenaries, whom the Spanish commander Antonio de Leyva was able to pay only by melting down the gold and silver plate of the local churches.
  •  Confusingly, two different mercenary Black Bands were involved at the battle of Pavia. One, headed by Giovanni de’ Medici, consisted of Italian mercenary arquebusiers who had just entered French service. The other, led by François de Lorraine, consisted of renegade Landsknecht pikemen.
  •  Antonio de Leyva overran 3,000 Swiss mercenaries who had been manning the siege lines. Survivors tried to flee across a river but suffered massive causalities as they did so.

After his decisive defeat in the battle of Pavia, Francis wrote these famous lines in a letter to his mother, Louise of Savoy:

To inform you of how my ill-fortune is proceeding, all is lost to me save honour and life, which remain safe….

The War of the League of Cognac (1526–1530): This war was fought between the Habsburg lands of Charles V (e.g., Spain and the Holy Roman Empire) and the League of Cognac (an alliance of France, Pope Clement VII, the Republic of Venice, England, the Duchy of Milan, and the Republic of Florence). The result was a decisive Spanish-Imperial victory.

The most interesting mercenary involved in this war was the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria (1466–1560). Orphaned at an early age, when he grew up he became a soldier of fortune, first serving in the Papal guard and then under different Italian princes. In 1503, when fighting in Corsica in the service of Genoa, which was then ruled by the French, he took part in the revolt of Genoa against the French, and forced the French to evacuate the city. This made his name as a mercenary commander.

His next assignment, as chief of the Genoese fleet, was to wage war against the Turks and the Barbary pirates. While he was doing this, the French recaptured Genoa, which was later seized by the armies of the Holy Roman Emperor. Doria, however, sided with the French and entered the service of King Francis I of France, who promoted him to captain-general. In 1524 he relieved Marseille, which was under attack by the Holy Roman Empire, and later helped the French return to power in Genoa.

Later, Francis sent an army to Genoa, where Doria, still on the French side, seized much of the Genoese fleet. Doria, however, then turned his back on the French and sided with Charles in 1528. Doria’s subsequent offensive against Genoa ended any remaining hopes Francis had of keeping his hold on Italy. Much later, in 1543, Doria transported a relief army to Nice during the siege of that city by the Ottoman leader Hayreddin Barbarossa. After the Peace of Crépy in 1544, however, he wanted to end his days in peace and quiet in Genoa. His great wealth and power, coupled with the arrogance of his family, had made him many enemies there. In 1550, at the age of 84, he went to sea again to face the Barbary pirates, but without much success. He returned to Genoa for good in 1555 and died there five years later.

Mercenaries in the eight Italian Wars II

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

The really decisive engagement of the Italian War of 1521–1526, however, was the battle of Pavia (1525), in which a Spanish-Imperial army under Charles de Lannoy, working together with a garrison of Pavia under Antonio de Leyva, attacked the French army, which was under the personal command of Francis I of France. The end result was that the French army was soundly defeated: in fact, Francis himself was captured by Spanish troops when his horse was killed from under him by Caesare Herocolani, an Italian mercenary. Francis was then imprisoned by Charles V and was forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Madrid.

Mercenaries played significant roles in the battle of Pavia but rather than trying to recount their exploits here in exhaustive detail, it is better to look briefly at a few of the highlights. Examples include the following:

  •  A mass of French troops arrived at Pavia in October 1524 to besiege the city. Inside the city were about 9,000 men, mainly mercenaries, whom the Spanish commander Antonio de Leyva was able to pay only by melting down the gold and silver plate of the local churches.
  •  Confusingly, two different mercenary Black Bands were involved at the battle of Pavia. One, headed by Giovanni de’ Medici, consisted of Italian mercenary arquebusiers who had just entered French service. The other, led by François de Lorraine, consisted of renegade Landsknecht pikemen.
  •  Antonio de Leyva overran 3,000 Swiss mercenaries who had been manning the siege lines. Survivors tried to flee across a river but suffered massive causalities as they did so.

After his decisive defeat in the battle of Pavia, Francis wrote these famous lines in a letter to his mother, Louise of Savoy:

To inform you of how my ill-fortune is proceeding, all is lost to me save honour and life, which remain safe….

The first phase of the battle of Ceresole, including the Imperial advance, the rout of the Florentine cavalry, the division of the landsknechts, and the advance and retreat of the Spanish heavy cavalry.

The second phase of the battle, including the rout of the Neapolitan cavalry and the landsknechts, Sanseverino’s withdrawal, Enghien’s cavalry attacks, the retreat of the Spanish-German infantry, and the return of the French and Swiss infantry from Ceresole.

The Italian War of 1536–1538: This war between Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Francis I of France was triggered by the death of Francesco Maria Sforza, the Duke of Milan, and by their conflicting claims to the Duchy of Milan. The Truce of Nice (1538), which ended the war, made no significant change in the map of Italy and left divisive matters unresolved. In fact, this settlement is remembered chiefly because Charles and Francis hated each other so much that they refused to sit in the same room together. Their enmity forced the mediator, Pope Paul III, to shuttle from room to room to work out an agreement. Mercenaries do not appear to have played any significant role in this short war.

The Italian War of 1542–1546: This ruinously expensive war—basically a contest pitting Francis I of France and Suleiman I of the Ottoman Empire, on the one hand, against the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Henry VII of England, on the other—was inconclusive. All the players used mercenaries at one time or another: at the battle of Serravalle in 1544, for example, the troops of Alfonso d’Avalos, fighting on behalf of Charles V and his allies, defeated an Italian mercenary army in French service.

A battle worth looking at here is the battle of Ceresole (1544), which took place near Turin, Italy and which is remembered by military historians as “the great slaughter” because of the heavy losses which occurred when columns of arquebusiers and pikemen clashed in the middle of the battlefield.

The belligerents were France, whose forces were led by the Count of Enghien, and the Holy Roman Empire (including Spain) under Charles V, whose troops were commanded by Alfonso d’Avalos. On the ground, a wide range of forces of differing backgrounds, i.e., both mercenary and regular, were engaged in this battle. The major combat units were:

On the French side

  •  4,000—Swiss troops
  •  4,000—Gascon infantrymen
  •  3,000—French infantry recruits
  •  2,000—Italian infantrymen

On the Spanish-Imperial side

  •  7,000—Landsknechts
  •  6,000—Italian infantrymen
  •  5,000—Spanish and German infantrymen

What made this particular battle so horrific (the French lost up to 2,000 men dead and wounded; the Holy Roman Empire, up to 6,000 dead or wounded, with more than 3,000 other men captured) was that the columns of each side contained both men with firearms and men with pikes, arranged in a new type of formation. A French nobleman, Blaise de Lasseran-Massencôme, the lord of Montluc, took credit for devising this novel strategy. His idea was to put his firearms men very far forward and in a row, i.e., in the second rank of a column, just behind the leading row of pikemen. Presumably on command, the first row of pikemen would kneel down and would place the butts of their pikes in the earth with the points facing the enemy. The firearms men would then fire over the tops of the pikemens’ heads.

Blaise candidly tells what happened when this system was actually tried at Ceresole. He had confidently expected that

in this way we should kill all their captains in the front rank. But we found that they were as ingenious as ourselves, for behind their first line of pikes they had put pistoleers [i.e., men armed with handguns: long-barreled arquebuses would have been too unwieldy at such close quarters]. Neither side fired till we were touching—and then there was a wholesale slaughter: every shot told; the whole front rank on each side went down.

The losses in this battle were so heavy that the ill-fated concept of alternating rows of firearms men and pikemen was never tried again. Instead, in later battles when firearms (generally arquebuses) were used, they were not fired at point-blank range but only from the relatively greater safety of the flanks of large formations of pikemen or they were used for skirmishing.

The Italian War of 1551–1559: In 1551, Henry II of France declared war on Charles V with the twin goals of recapturing Italy and of establishing French domination of European affairs. However, to make a long and complex story very short, the French failed to change the balance of power in Italy or to break Habsburg control. In terms of mercenary involvement, the most interesting aspect of this war was the battle of Marciana (also known as the battle of Scannagallo), which took place in Tuscany in 1554 and was a decisive Florentine and Spanish-Imperial victory.

Here the belligerents were the Duchy of Florence, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire, on one side, and the Republic of Siena and France, on the other. Large numbers of troops were involved: 17,000 infantrymen and 1,500 cavalrymen for the Duchy of Florence and its allies; and 14,000, infantrymen and 1,000 cavalrymen for Siena and France. Many of the fighters were mercenaries. For example, the mercenary chieftain Ascanio della Cornia provided 6,000 infantrymen and 300 cavalrymen; Landsknechts were much in evidence; and at one point a corps of 1,300 hungry mercenaries was killed when trying to collect food to eat. As a result of this battle, Siena lost its independence and was absorbed into the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

The modern scholar Michael Mallett summarized the Italian Wars in these words:

It was the scale of the Italian Wars which created their enormous impact on European warfare. The emphasis on size and permanence of armies produced not only more disciplined and extensive use of known weapons and techniques, but also placed a premium on co-ordination between arms. The day had passed when a single arm—whether it was the French heavy cavalry or the Swiss pikes—could dominate the battlefield…. The Italian Wars were a vast melting pot; the heat and flames were new; the ingredients were not. Italy had contributed significantly to these ingredients even though she herself was to be consumed in the flames.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Military Contracting: The Mediterranean Galley Squadrons

Andrea Doria

Genoese condottiere, admiral, and statesman. Born 30 November 1466, at Oneglia, Milan, into a lesser aristocratic family, Andrea Doria was orphaned at age 18 and he followed his older cousins into the papal guards in 1484.

Andrea Doria worked toward the position of condottiere-or mercenary military leader-in the employ of various rulers, among them Pope Alexander VI, Kings Ferdinand I and Alfonso II of Naples, and Giovanni Della Rovere. He joined Nicolo Doria in putting down a French-backed insurrection against Genoa in Corsica during 1503-1506, and from 1507 he weathered the tug-of-war between France and Spain for control of his ancestral city. By 1513 he was a naval commander under the patronage of the republic’s new Spanish-backed doge, charged with defending the city against the Turks and corsairs.

A pragmatist, who aligned his military services with shifts in leadership, Doria soon also excelled in naval warfare, striking at a pirate stronghold in Bizerte and defeating a Turkish force under Gad Ali (whom he captured) off Pianosa Island in 1519. Ultimately recognized as the foremost naval commander of his time, he also built his fortune, which helped procure galleys and crews of slave rowers.

From 1522 Doria offered his services, in turn, to King Francis I, Pope Clement VII, and finally to Holy Roman Emperor and Spanish King Charles V. Doria’s continuing exploits at sea included breaking the Spanish blockade of Marseilles in 1525 and the subsequent seizure of Savona and Varazze. During a brief contract with the Vatican (1526-1527), Doria joined Pope Clement VII’s eight-ship fleet with nine French galleys to rout a larger Spanish naval force at San Lorenzo Bay in 1526. Again in French service, in 1527 he drove the Spanish from Genoa, garnering the title of knight of the Order of St. Michael from Francis I.

Within two years the stringency of French rule in Genoa, as well as Doria’s failure to receive pay due him, moved him once again to support Charles V, who in September 1528 assisted him in driving the French from Genoa and establishing the city as an independent aristocratic republic, which endured until 1798. Although accepting titles and honors from Charles V as grand admiral of the Imperial Fleet, the Order of the Golden Fleece, Protonotary of Naples, and Prince of Melfi, Doria refused an offer to become doge, while at the same time exercising influence as de facto first lord and patron.

Doria continued his naval career, leading several forays against the Turks. He captured both Patras (Patrai) and Coron (Koroni) in 1532 and defeated Ottoman admiral Barbarossa (Khair-ed-din) during the capture of Tunis in 1535. The tables seemed turned at Preveza in 1538 when Doria and Barbarossa met again. The tardiness of Doria’s fleet in a planned union with the combined naval forces of Venice and the Papal States brought defeat by the Turks. This has also been seen as the work of a crafty rather than irresolute Doria, who ultimately may have chosen a trade agreement with the Turks over naval solidarity with arch rival Venice.

Andrea Doria’s military and governing careers continued into his 80s. He waged renewed campaigns against corsairs and the French at sea, and he secured the defeat of conspirators plotting against him in Genoa. Acknowledged as one of the last great condottieri, he embodied the typical traits of that military caste-greed, arrogance, ambition, and thirst for power-which were balanced against uncanny tactical and strategic capabilities. In Doria, these attributes were combined with his fierce loyalty to Genoa, which guaranteed that city further longevity as a naval and maritime power. After retiring from service in 1555 and passing his naval command to his nephew Giovanni Andrea (Gian Andrea) Doria, he died in Genoa on 25 November 1560.

The building, running and maintenance of the Mediterranean galley squadrons offer an excellent example of early military enterprise. Galleys and their crews could not easily be assembled, disbanded and reassembled on a short-term basis. This was both for military reasons – the persistent threat posed by the Barbary corsairs to trade, communications and the security of the Mediterranean coasts – and for practical organizational reasons: a navy that is demobilized and laid up will rapidly lose its operational capacity; sailors will seek other employment and abandoned vessels rot away. Training and maintaining effective oarsmen, whether slaves or volunteers, required regular practice, and it took around two years of experience for a crew of oarsmen to reach an optimum level of effectiveness in which their physical strength could combine with properly disciplined rowing. Disbanding the galley fleet even over a single winter threatened this process. For the Republic of Venice, the direct involvement of the patrician governing class in Levantine trade and the naval defence of the Empire had led to the creation of a state-run and state-financed galley fleet, so that in 1500 Venice was the only European state with a large permanent navy.

In contrast, both the Habsburg monarchia of Charles V and the French crown proved much more prepared to meet their naval requirements through the negotiation of lump-sum, long-term contracts for the upkeep of galley squadrons. And from the outset, private entrepreneurs were prepared to meet the initial costs of building, crewing and maintaining not just individual galleys, but entire galley squadrons under contract in state service. They could make this capital investment in the knowledge that their services would be required over the long term, and would be rewarded by contracts which took into account their initial investment in fitting out the squadron and ensuring that it was ready for service. Political success and failure in controlling the Italian peninsula during the struggles of the 1520s in fact hinged on one such contract, that with the private galley squadron of the Genoese patrician and entrepreneur, Andrea Doria, who in 1528 transferred his private squadron of twelve galleys from France to Charles V in return for a contract worth rather more than 80,000 ducats per annum: an increase to 6,700 ducats from 4,750 ducats per galley on his French contract. By 1530 the number of Doria’s galleys contracted out to Charles V had risen to fifteen, for an annual payment of 90,000 ducats. By 1533 there were twenty-seven Genoese galleys in the service of Spain. By 1538 and the battle of Prevesa, twenty-eight privately-contracted Genoese galleys were involved, twenty-two from Andrea Doria and six belonging to his kinsman Antonio Doria. By the 1550s Andrea held an established contract for twenty galleys, and his annual remuneration for maintaining the fleet in the service of Spain had climbed to 126,000 ducats. Besides the Doria, a significant number of other Genoese families were also involved in hiring galleys to the Spanish and to other powers; Marco Centurión, for example, let out five galleys to the Grand Duke of Tuscany.

Increases in the size and sophistication of the galleys themselves and the impact of the price revolution had more than doubled the annual cost of hiring a galley from around 6,500 ducats in the 1550s to more than 13,200 by the 1620s. This steadily rising cost of galley contracts briefly tempted the government of Philip II to experiment in the 1570s with running the galleys under direct administration by royal agents, so that around 100 of the 146 galleys in the Spanish fleet came to be owned and directly administered by the crown. But this direct administration proved a disaster, costing almost twice as much per galley as the Genoese contracts, and reducing the military effectiveness of the squadrons as a result of failures to find enough experienced oarsmen and the bad management of provisioning and equipment. By the mid-1580s the policy had been reversed and the role of the Genoese, and in particular, Andrea Doria’s nephew, Gian Andrea, was once again established at the centre of Spanish Mediterranean naval policy.

For the Genoese contractors there were various attractive supplementary financial advantages over and above the fixed payment for the management of the galley (see below pp. 207–8). Moreover much of the time, whether directly under Spanish orders or carrying out a corso on their own initiative, the galleys were engaged in privateering which itself offered the possibility of additional financial rewards over and above the smaller but predictable returns to be made from good management of the contract. Given the high capital investment, not in the galley itself, but in building up both an effective crew and team of oarsmen, and the costs of regular replacements, the additional, unpredictable financial benefits may well have ensured that the contracts remained attractive. The profits from successful privateering certainly provided a large incentive to the captains and financial backers to ensure that they were maintained at a level of military effectiveness and kept at sea.

Hiring naval capacity

Mediterranean galley warfare provided an early example of the military enterpriser benefiting from a particular set of circumstances, principally the calculation of the squadron owner that the warlord hiring the galleys would need to maintain them for a continuous period. It might prove possible to fund the galleys for brief periods outside the contracts: much discussion in the Genoese Senate about establishing a fleet of ‘state’ galleys for direct military protection was based on the assumption that the galleys could be self-financing by doubling as merchant vessels carrying high-value cargoes, especially raw silk brought from Messina to Genoa. This seems in practice to have been a dubious prospect for the owners of high-cost, low-capacity galleys, but it was certainly the case that sailing ships could alternate between mercantile and naval purposes. It was unsurprising to see, both in the Mediterranean and elsewhere, the development of contracts in which owners of individual ships or entire fleets would be willing to hire these out, usually fully crewed and equipped, to the service of a major power wishing to create or expand a naval fleet, whether for a single campaign or a longer period. The expansion of oceanic trading networks was of considerable importance here; since the early sixteenth century ships were being built of a size and capacity to withstand heavy seas, to remain at sea for months, and carry enough cargo to make lengthy trans-oceanic voyages financially viable. This generally meant the abandonment of ships of more than a thousand tonnes, which could carry huge quantities of cargo but were unwieldy in handling, required large crews and concentrated the potential loss from storm or piracy. Development based on the evolution of the galleon, with its relatively high ratio of length to breadth, its weight of around 300–600 tonnes and its excellent handling qualities, came to dominate the oceanic mercantile and naval fleets of the European powers. Constructed for specifically mercantile purposes, these ships would be equipped with highly sophisticated systems of rigging, allowing a small crew to control three masts and their several thousand square metres of sail. Such ships could carry artillery, and indeed some armament would be considered essential for defence against pirates or the ships of hostile powers. They could also be built as warships, with at least one gundeck down towards the waterline, heavy guns mounted fore and aft, and some lighter pieces on the main decks. A full complement of artillery on a late sixteenth-century, 500–600-tonne galleon would amount to forty to fifty guns. A merchant ship would carry considerably fewer guns, but it could easily be adapted to carry more if intended to serve, permanently or for a single campaign, as a warship.

The Landsknechte

The other group of mercenaries whose contribution to the eventual emergence and flourishing of military enterprise is of central importance are the Landsknechte, to whom might be added the other substantial group of German mercenaries hired by foreign warlords from the 1530s onwards, the pistol-armed cavalry, or Reiter. The Landsknechte appear to have been recruited from the time of Maximilian I, specifically as a response to the Swiss Haufen, with the Germans employing the same weapons, formations and tactics. Maximilian threw his own weight and reputation behind the levying and organization of the Landsknechte, seeking to overcome German noble disdain for infantry service by carrying a pike himself and rewarding successful Landsknecht commanders with honours and titles. Rather more rapidly than the Swiss, the Landsknecht regiments started to substitute arquebuses and the heavier muskets for halberds and other short-handled weapons. By 1570 each company (Fähnlein) contained 200 infantry with firearms against the remainder (somewhere between 100 and 200) armed with pikes. Like the Swiss Haufen and the Spanish tercios, the size of the combat unit gradually declined: a Landsknecht infantry regiment would be recruited at 4,000 men in the 1560s, but the numbers of effectives would usually be lower than that, with a company of 300 on paper being closer to 220 in practice. As with most other European infantry the numbers within a regiment or its equivalents were drifting down towards a typical 1,500–3,000 troops by the end of the sixteenth century. The system of recruiting and operating the Landsknechte differed from that of the Swiss in the absence of any equivalent of the cantonal structure and authorities to authorize, control, and in many cases administer the levy and deployment of troops.

The Landsknechte were raised throughout the constituent territories and jurisdictions which formed the Holy Roman Empire. The initiative to raise infantry on a scale and in formations large enough to match the Swiss on the battlefield probably came from Emperor Maximilian. But Imperial authority was not capable of coercing or demanding a military contribution from the innumerable rulers over whom the Emperor possessed ultimate juridical authority but little practical power. Any equivalent of the cantons’ universal military service was a pipe dream of theorists like the writer, soldier and Imperial councillor Lazarus von Schwendi. In the face of a generally perceived common threat, the territories of the Empire might agree to provide financial contributions to the Emperor as defender of the common interest through the regional assemblies of the Reichskreise, the ‘Circles’ or regions of the Empire. The one threat in the sixteenth century which was likely to command some consensus was Ottoman pressure on the Habsburg lands and on south-central Germany; for this a military tax, the Römermonate, was collected in accordance with the agreement made with Charles V at Worms (Wormser Matrikel) in 1521. A single Römermonat involved the collective levy of 15,371 infantry from the Empire, with a monthly pay and upkeep cost added to this of 88,500 gulden. Depending on the nature of the military emergency, the Diet could vote multiple tax grants which would maintain an Imperial army for an agreed period. The Emperor could draw upon the tax revenues to finance the campaign, and the territories within the Circles would undertake or contract the levy of the specified numbers of troops. Römermonate from the Circles might occasionally be available for the pursuit of Habsburg dynastic interests in Italy, or directly against France, but in general this would be funded by direct and indirect tax resources, extraordinary lay and clerical subsidies from the Habsburg lands.

The actual levy of troops was a local matter, in which the smaller German territorial princes and the subject nobility of medium and larger states might play a role as military contractors. But above all it was the activity of the independent (Reichsunmittelbar) Imperial knights (Reichsritter). These latter figure largely in the contracts for the hire of Landsknechte, and include many of the names most closely associated with the military history of the period: Berlichingen, Ems zu der Hohenems, Sickingen, Schertlin von Burtenbach, Fürstenberg, Truchseß von Waldburg. In most cases they were noble landowners for whom the additional financial attractions of successful military service were considerable, and who were unconstrained by the juridical complications of being princely subjects. The extent that this became the knightly métier can be seen from its continuation into the Thirty Years War, with no less resonant military names like Pappenheim and Hatzfeld emerging from this class. Though rather like the social rise of the condottiere in the fifteenth century, the later, larger-scale and more complex military enterprise of the seventeenth-century Empire became the province of the younger sons and brothers of princely families. In contrast, sixteenth-century mercenary activity in the Empire was dominated by the Reichsritter. There were a few exceptions: the most famous of all Landsknecht commanders, Georg von Frundsberg, was from a noble family who were subjects of the Habsburg archdukes of the Tyrol. Martin Schwarz, notorious from British history as the captain of 2,000 Landsknechte led against Henry VII at the battle of Stoke in 1487, seems to have been a cobbler before he progressed through the military ranks in the 1470s. At the other end of the scale, some of the German princes, like their Italian counterparts, did become directly involved in raising and hiring out bodies of soldiers: Albrecht Alkibiades of Brandenburg provided a notorious example in 1552 when he hired out his army corps to the French for an invasion of the Habsburg Netherlands. But the German soldier trade remained dominated by the Imperial knights at least until the second half of the sixteenth century, and their claim to make contracts with any warlord they wished – the principle of Reislaufen – had direct consequences for the capacity to satisfy external requests for the service of Landsknechte or Reiter. The strongest opponent of this claim was the Emperor himself, to whom all of these otherwise Reichsunmittelbar knightly captains owed allegiance. Under Emperor Charles V, contracting to serve the French king meant, more often than not, direct military opposition to the Emperor, so the debate about ‘foreign’ service intensified. The one victim of judicial proceedings to assert this principle was Colonel Sebastian Vogelsberger. Brought to trial for having served François I in the 1530s and having offered to recruit troops for Henri II at the time of the Schmalkaldic War, he was executed in 1548. But Vogelsberger, though enjoying wealth and office from his military service, had been born the son of a small farmer and schoolmaster in the Rheinpfalz; he had none of the political immunities of the Reichsritter, and his example had no real impact on subsequent willingness to continue contracting abroad.

If in practice most German mercenary colonels could negotiate contracts without any fear of restraint or prosecution, it was also the case that the military resources of the Empire were incomparably greater than those available to their Swiss counterparts. As contemporaries pointed out, it was not difficult to recruit large numbers of soldiers to serve as Landsknechte and recruiters could in many cases be selective, taking only those who came with their own weapons and armour, and looking for those with previous military experience or good health and physical strength. Recruitment in 1555 by Colonel Georg von Holle around Wildeshausen easily generated 5,000–6,000 potential recruits at the assembly point although funding was only sufficient for the contracted 3,000.130 Given the concern of the Swiss authorities to control the overall numbers of Swiss in foreign service, it was largely German Landsknechte who were raised to soak up the extra demand.

Moreover a completely new gap in the market was filled by the German Reiters with their pistolier tactics. Recognizing that lancers and cavalry armed with sabres would stand no chance of breaking a well-formed, pike-ringed square of Swiss or Landsknechte, ordinary armoured and light cavalry were deployed on the flanks and in reserve to take advantage of weaknesses or breakdown in the infantry centre of an opposing army. But the Reiter, deploying the pistol tactic of the caracole in large, cohesive units, offered the prospect of a more direct role for elite, well-drilled cavalry. Though the caracole has frequently been dismissed as little more than ineffectual choreography, the technique by which successive ranks of a cavalry column rode up to within yards of an enemy formation, discharged their heavy, armour-piercing pistols and wheeled away to allow the next rank to fire, could prove effective – psychologically as much as in terms of casualties inflicted. Pistols repeatedly fired at five to ten paces into a static infantry formation whose own firearms had already been discharged, mostly ineffectively and at greater range, could be highly intimidating, as the collapse of the infantry of the Protestant princes demonstrated at Mühlberg in 1547. More consistently decisive was the impact of pistol-armed Reiter on traditional heavy cavalry armed with lances; it was the use of cavalry pistoliers, rather than the infantry pike-square, which ended the battlefield role of fully armoured heavy cavalry. The main reason why the caracole and similar cavalry tactics were talked down by many contemporaries was that such tactics would only work in the hands of experienced, disciplined and well-trained units of cavalry. Just like the pike-square, the caracole would prove a disaster if deployed by inexperienced troops with no sense of unit identity or cohesion. Hiring German units of Reiter who had this practical experience of providing disciplined pistol fire on horseback was the obvious, ready-made means to acquire this military capacity, despite the cost of 12 ducats per month for an ordinary cavalryman.

The German soldier trade of the sixteenth century was thus able to meet considerable external demand. If the first and greatest contracting warlord was the Emperor, as early as 1515 the army of François I which opposed the Swiss at Marignano contained 23,000 Landsknechte. By the mid-1530s the French campaigning forces included 6,000 Landsknechte raised by Wilhelm von Fürstenberg and a further 7,000 raised through other colonels. In the early 1550s Henri II was regularly campaigning with between 10,000 and 13,500 Landsknechte, while at the well-documented review of Henri’s army conducted at Pierrepont in 1558, as many as 19,000 German infantry were supplemented by 8,200 Reiter (in an army totalling 40,500). France was not alone: in 1544 Henry VIII sought to raise 2,000 Landsknechte under Maximilian d’Ysselstein, count of Buren, together with seven independent companies of German cavalry totalling some 1,500 horse. He would certainly have raised more, but the difficulties that he encountered were an indication that the contracting activity of both the Emperor and the king of France had come close to draining even the large pool of high-quality German soldiers available for hire. The kings of Denmark hired both regiments of Landsknaegtene raised by their own nobility, and contracted German units to supplement these throughout the sixteenth century. As early as 1502 German Landsknechte were sent by the margrave of Brandenburg to serve under contracts drawn up by King Hans of Denmark.

What could turn these Germans with varied and diverse geographical and social backgrounds into units of soldiers whose military reputation was sufficiently impressive that rulers would compete at great expense to hire them in preference to their native soldiers? The Landsknechte could not in general draw upon the obvious strength of the Swiss Haufen, close-knit and homogenous peasant communities which could reinforce group solidarity and cohesion. There was far less sense of community and no distinctive ‘geography of recruitment’ either for the Landsknechte in general, or for the individual units. The social and economic backgrounds also varied widely, with townsmen as likely as peasants to volunteer, and with a wide social spectrum of recruits, from lesser nobles enlisting as ‘double-pay men’ down to the urban unemployed. If there was no strong regional or social solidarity, neither was there any powerful sense of emergent ‘German-ness’ that could create bonds. Georg von Frundsberg might try to stir up anger amongst his own followers against the 5,000 Landsknechte in French service at the battle of Pavia, but there was little real sense of cultural identity that could be used to stimulate cohesion. Appeals to Imperial service and common duty as the Emperor’s vassals cut little ice when pay was in arrears, as Frundsberg himself discovered in Verona in 1510 and again in 1527 at San Giovanni near Bologna. And unlike the Swiss, the German soldiers, infantry and cavalry, had few reservations about fighting each other as hired soldiers of opposing powers, partly of course because recruitment across large and diverse German territories outweighed any strong sense of a common culture. The captain of the Zug contingent who told the soldiers of the leading Swiss Haufe at Marignano that the battlefield would be their churchyard, then appealed to them to ‘be courageous and think of their home’. It is difficult to see that this shared concept of ‘home’ could have an obvious collective German equivalent.

Nor could religious identity be easily pressed into service by the military authorities. Despite the distinctive piety and popular beliefs of the Landsknechte – similar to those of the Swiss – on the eve of battle or after military successes, soldiers and their officers were remarkably resistant to the currents of evangelical reform unleashed from the 1530s and 1540s. Attempts to foster a strong, confessional identity amongst the Landsknechte failed, as did most attempts to demonize enemies in terms of their heterodox religious beliefs. Recent work continues to maintain the judgement of Anton Schindling that armies in the Empire were confessional ‘free states’ in the early modern period, in which religious piety and practice was certainly evident, but strong confessional divisions and antipathies much less so. That this was not necessarily the case with all early modern soldiers can be seen through the example of the Spanish soldiers of the tercios, whose behaviour and group indentity was strongly shaped by a powerful, militant Catholicism.

It is easy to depict the sixteenth-century mercenary as driven straightforwardly by greed or need; whether they were seeking to exploit their military role to extort money from society, or whether they were victims of that society, forced to become soldiers by a harshening economic environment, their motivation was crudely material. When his own Landsknechte surrounded Frundsberg at San Giovanni, threatening him with violence over their arrears of pay, shouting ‘Money, Money’, and then declaring that they would undertake no further military action until their arrears were paid, it might seem perverse to question this bottom line of their motivation for service. Like the Swiss, the Landsknechte received decent wages: at four Rhenish gulden a month, this was typically half a gulden less than the Swiss, but still double the pay of a farm labourer and more than a skilled journeyman. With the appropriate, privately purchased equipment of pike and half-armour, and especially if drawn from a higher social rank, the recruit might qualify as a double-pay soldier (around 10–20 per cent of the company), with what would then be a substantial wage. It certainly was not the case that the majority of those volunteering and enlisting as ordinary soldiers were from the lowest economic groups in society. Many were the sons and brothers of middling or prosperous peasant families, others were from urban artisan and journeyman backgrounds, while some were from the urban patrician class seeking adventure or experience. In any case, and a point so often missed when discussing these privately raised troops, while financial gain might have explained their enlistment, it would not explain the military qualities of either Swiss or Germans.

At the heart of the success of the Landsknechte lay a distinctive, complex and to some extent paradoxical sense of corporate identity. This was also present with the Swiss, though shaped in their case by the demand for military service, so that the military organization – at least when organized cantonally – was a closer reflection of the wider community. For many Landsknecht, and more like the Swiss ‘free companies’, military service was a professional choice for the individual. At the same time Landsknecht professionalism contrasted with that of the Italian condottieri companies, who were separated from their surrounding society, indeed had often been hired in order to ensure that this society had little to do with the practicalities of military activity. It was the concept of the collective ‘Regiment of the Landsknechte’ which systematized a strong sense of corporate identity that was about both belonging and social distance. What service as a Landsknecht offered was a defined and collective social status which ranked the soldier amongst the respectable and honourable elements of society. This status was measured not primarily in terms of good wages and other economic benefits – which were decent on paper but in reality frequently failed to come up to expectations – but in terms of honour and ‘freedom’. Military service as a Landsknecht was an honourable career, freely chosen and with a status which was measured by rights and privileges akin to those of members of other corporations in early modern society. Understanding the status of the sixteenth-century Landsknecht requires forgetting entirely the eighteenth-century perception of ordinary soldiers as social detritus, separated as much as possible from direct contact with respectable ranks of society by close confinement to barracks and the drill square.

One obvious manifestation of the status of the sixteenth-century Landsknechte was simply outward respect. The soldiers were members of a corporation which provided military service, itself a highly regarded activity. The terms in which they were addressed reflected this. Emperor Maximilian consistently referred to his ‘Liebe Landsknechte’, or his ‘fromme Teutsche’ or ‘ehrliche Kriegsleut’. Taking the example from the top, and even more aware of sensibilities in this respect, an effective commander like Frundsberg referred to his ‘lieben Söhn und Brüder’, while respectful adjectives like fromm, tapfer and ehrlich were regularly used in collective address. Civil society took its cue to some extent from this respectful tone within the corporation: ambiguities in attitudes to the soldiery did not challenge the idea that the profession was honourable and accepted its evaluation of itself. The fascination with the Landsknechte in contemporary painting, copperplate engraving and woodcuts bears powerful witness to an attitude which was certainly not free of moralizing disapproval, but was also accepting of the soldiers’ claim to a distinctive status and role in society.

A more substantial factor in determining the German and Swiss soldiers’ sense of self-worth was an element of democracy and self-determination in the military organization. Each company in a unit of Landsknechte had a complement of ‘Gemeinämter’, officers who were directly elected by the collectivity (Gemein) of the soldiers to represent their interests, namely a Führer, two Waibel (Gemeinwaibel) and a Fourrier per company. These officers shared between them the administrative oversight of troop movements and lodgings, divided up the allocations of supplies and munitions, allocated watches and other responsibilities, and represented the interests of the soldiers to the captain in all areas of duties, discipline and rights. To these duties the Führer added the all-important function of acting as advocate and adviser for the common soldiers in matters of justice. The existence of the Gemeinämter was a reflection of the rights of the ordinary Landsknecht or Swiss soldier, but so was the manner of their election. The entire company would assemble in a large circle and the names of candidates for these posts would be shouted by soldiers to the scribe, who would note them down in preparation for voting by simple majority. Moreover the company drawn up in their circle was a crucial element in other areas of decision-making: the forum for negotiation with the senior officers, the mechanism for taking collective decisions, and the context in which the trial and punishment of members of the company took place.

Beneath this structure of company and regimental office-holders, all the men in a German or Swiss mercenary company were divided into small, self-selected groups of eight to ten ordinary soldiers, or six double-pay men, the Rotte. This was militarily important in its own right, a classic example of those small-group dynamics which twentieth-century military theorists have regarded as the key to understanding the military effectiveness of larger bodies of soldiers. Its significance was certainly understood by contemporaries, being readily adopted by the Spanish tercios, with their divisions of the companies into small groups of camaradas. Each Rotte informally elected one of its number as the Rottmeister, who would distribute food and munitions, allocate accommodation within the Rotte, fix watches, resolve disputes and generally act as group leader.

Representation was important, and so were its practical implications. Above all the Landsknechte and their Swiss contemporaries served under systems of justice which emphasized collective responsibility for hearing cases and deciding verdicts and punishments. Though the regimental colonel possessed supreme judicial authority and had the right to overrule the collective will of the soldiers, such direct confrontation would normally be avoided. In general the regimental judicial officers, headed by the Schultheiß, would initiate legal proceedings against offending soldiers, and the case itself would be heard within the circle of the assembled soldiers, the defendant having the right to call upon his Rottmeister, the Führer or one of the Waibel, or any other of the soldiers to speak for him in the public context of the trial. While a trial would follow formal procedures and the verdict would be reached by a panel or ‘jury’ which was dominated by officers appointed by the colonel, the rest of the soldiers were present and could either act as a legitimizing force for the verdict and sentence, or might register their disapproval or dissatisfaction with proceedings. In some cases of crimes against fellow soldiers, the company would also act as collective executioner, forcing the condemned to pass along two lines of spear-armed soldiers who would beat and stab him to death. This again was a recognition of the condemned soldier’s status; he would not be humiliated by being handed over to the ‘dishonourable’ charge of a regimental executioner.

The obvious result of this popular participation in regimental justice was to weaken the disciplinary sanctions of the senior officers over their troops. It was difficult and sometimes dangerous to seek to prosecute soldiers who were considered by their fellows to have behaved within acceptable norms, and on some occasions even when they had acted well beyond them. Rather than formal codifications imposed through a military hierarchy, discipline appears more as a collective consensus which might vary markedly in different contexts, for example between the battlefield, the army on the march or in quarters. A capital sentence for insubordination on the battlefield would probably command general approval from the soldiers, while a similar sentence imposed on soldiers who had fallen out of a march might provoke a riot.

The consensual model was more widely reflected in the relationship of officers to men: while the contracting colonel would appoint his officers, they would then be ‘acclaimed’ by the assembled circle of soldiers; this was ostensibly so that they would be recognizable in a military community where there were no external marks of rank, but of course also carried some implications of popular election. Moreover, officers led from the front and by example, which often meant in the front ranks of the Haufen; their authority was demonstrative and repeatedly affirmed by active leadership, rather than established and hierarchical. Unable to deter their Swiss soldiers from a frustrated collective decision to storm the well-defended fortress of Morbegno in northern Italy in 1531, the commanding officers unhesitatingly placed themselves in the front ranks, so that both Dietegen von Salis and Hans von Marmels were killed in the first assault.

As this example also shows, it was not always the case, and especially when pay was in arrears, that the commanding officers would take all military decisions. If the Landsknechte by the sixteenth century had largely abandoned the Swiss model of decision-making by the collective body of the senior officers – the Kriegsrat – both the decisions and orders of Swiss and German commanders could be swept aside on occasions by popular pressure or resistance from their men. All of this would appear to challenge most ideas of what constitutes military command and functional discipline in modern armies, though it is easily recognizable from earlier European and non-European societies, where military forces maintained an edge over neighbouring powers through the combination of their soldiers’ high self-esteem and their cohesiveness and fighting power based on each individual’s sense of participation and responsibility.

Such organizational traits, even if they challenge conventional ideas of military hierarchy, could foster military results that certainly impressed contemporaries. Some other aspects of this strong collective identity excited less favourable reactions. There was a profound ambiguity at the heart of Landsknecht self-identity in society. They wished to be a respectable and honoured part of that society, but at the same time their extremely strong group bonding and the nature of military life gave them a sense of assertive separateness, of being outside the norms of a settled, ‘respectable’ society. If a powerful motivation for enlistment and service was a heightening of social status through the rights and freedoms enjoyed as members of a prestigious corporation, an equally powerful force was the cohesiveness gained from standing as a close-knit group outside of, or hostile to, society. This latter tendency is characteristic of many armies and navies, but it has rarely been carried to such conspicuous extremes as by the Landsknechte, and certainly explains much of the particular antagonism towards this style of mercenary warfare expressed by many of the moralizing writers of the sixteenth century.

Much has been written on Swiss and Landsknecht dress and appearance, and depictions of individuals and groups, whether from life or as caricatures, fascinated contemporary artists, supplying what was evidently a large market for engravings. It is easy to imagine the impact of a group of Landsknechte arriving in some small town or community in central Germany, with their extraordinary, multi-coloured and extravagant costumes, highly individualized, flamboyant in their use of slashing (to reveal other, expensive fabrics beneath the top layer), elaborate stitching and ruffles, feathers, plumes and other decorations, in many cases inspired by lively and colourful Italian styles of dress. Landsknecht costume was about conspicuous consumption: the soldiers had access to cash paid as a monthly sum, intended to cover costs of food, lodging and upkeep, but readily spent on gambling, drinking and the purchase of provocatively expensive clothing. The dress was also unmistakeably about assertive masculinity and sexuality: brightly coloured fabrics and deliberately conspicuous codpieces, puffed and padded jackets which emphasized shoulders and chest, tight leggings, fabric slashing to reveal bare skin on legs, arms and chest. In a communal culture where the disruptive effects of unconstrained sexuality were a strong source of anxiety to religious and civil authorities, the dress and swaggering, aggressively masculine behaviour of the Swiss or the Landsknecht were an open provocation, an incitement to fornication, adultery, and illegitimate children. That they would readily impress non-military young males and encourage them to try to imitate clothing and behaviour, even if they did not seek to enlist, was a further reason for concern. ‘I likewise require modestie in apparell’, thundered the predictably puritanical Justus Lipsius, in a comment that might otherwise appear a low priority in a work on military discipline.

Dress though was only one part of a more systematic rejection of the norms of civil society in the social and cultural behaviour of the Landsknechte and their Swiss counterparts. Their detachment from the settled life of town and country was also embodied in the Troß, a great extended and mobile camp of wagons, carts, porters, draught and pack animals, food and merchandise vendors, servants, women, children and animals that accompanied the regiments of troops to provide a combination of support services, shops and social environment. The Troß was where the soldier stored his possessions and might establish his wife, children or servants, where he bought his food and drink, sold his booty, and could buy the services of tailors, cobblers, barbers, surgeons, notaries and whores. This last service provided by the Troß was notorious amongst moralists and critics of this military system. While they might grudgingly have accepted the practical, physical necessity for the presence of whores with the army – ‘no whores, no war’ was a popular saying from this period – the openness with which the trade was plied and the lack of censoriousness from the senior ranks of the unit presented a sharp contrast with the often tortuous hypocrisy of settled civil society.

The open tolerance of the presence and role of whores within the army camp was embodied in the office of the Hurenwaibel. Although this man in fact had a wider responsibility for the general good order of all of the services, marketing and other activities within the camp, he was specifically identified for his role as the overseer and supervisor of the prostitutes, a post which involved resolving disputes, preventing violence and ensuring that the women were kept in the camp and were separated from the troops when they were directly engaged in military activities. Far from being a modest, low-key position, the Hurenwaibel in a large army enjoyed a status equivalent to a company captain and had a team of assistants. The frequent subject of engravings and descriptions of the various ranks and duties of military officers, the Hurenwaibel was the public face of an army organization which was increasingly at odds with those urgent attempts at moral reformation and discipline that were being launched by spiritual and civil authorities through the sixteenth century.

If the enforcement of discipline amongst the Landsknechte may have reflected collective consensus as much as top-down enforcement of formal regulation, there is little doubt that the consensus was least likely to support the punishment of soldiers who pillaged, stole or perpetrated violence against civil populations, even those within the territory of the warlord who had hired the soldiers. Though many of the senior officers did recognize both a prudential and a moral duty to try to protect civilians from their soldiers, the cultural and social assumptions of the soldiers themselves did little to restrain lawless behaviour against those who were outside the bounds of internal loyalty and recognition.

The roles of both Swiss troops and Landsknechte illustrate the ambiguity of a widespread acceptance of the military qualities of the professional soldiers of the sixteenth century, and yet an unease about the extent to which they were able to define their own relationship to surrounding society. This ambiguity forms one of the most important contexts in which the developing role of military enterprise in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries should be seen.

The Swiss Infantry

A very different path led to the emergence of the Swiss as a major contributor to the mercenary market, and offered other models and lessons for the later emergence of military enterprise. Under pressure from predatory outsiders, three of the central Swiss cantons joined together in a military alliance in 1291. Enjoying its first great success against Austrian Habsburg ambitions at Morgarten in 1315, the Eidgenossenschaft continued to evolve militarily through to the shattering defeat of another Habsburg army by the cantons’ infantry at Sempach in 1386. By the time of the latter battle the Swiss had turned improvised local resistance under the direction of some experienced military leadership into a formidable battle-winning military system based on mobilizing the adult male population into the Gevierthaufen, units of 4,000–8,000 men that were to be the hallmark of Swiss tactics for the next hundred and fifty years. Moreover the original group of central cantons composing the first Eidgenossenschaft had been joined in the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by numbers of additional cantons and by the powerful Drei Bünde bordering the Tyrol.

Between Sempach and the spectacular victories of 1476–7 at Grandson, Murten and Nancy, which led to the destruction of the kingdom of Burgundy, the Swiss military reputation grew impressively. After the defeat of the Burgundian armies, despite their state-of-the-art armoured cavalry, good-quality infantry and substantial, modern artillery, the reputation of the Swiss shifted: from being regarded as useful force-enhancers added to other European armies, they were seen as an entire weapons system in their own right.

In practice, and as early as the battles against the duke of Burgundy it was clear that an army based purely on Swiss infantry had significant limitations. While the Swiss squares, with their fringe of pikemen and deep central block of soldiers with halberds and other hacking weapons, could sweep aside forces of armoured cavalry or less cohesive infantry with ease, they had limited capacity to follow up the defeat of an enemy on the battlefield. Without cavalry to harass and drive retreating troops into a disorderly rout, the enemy forces, though mauled by the Swiss, would probably live to fight another day – as the Burgundians managed after their first encounter at Grandson. More significantly for the future, Swiss confidence in the invulnerability of their infantry led them to neglect artillery. In the early fifteenth century they had field artillery that was equal to that of their enemies in numbers and quality, but by the early sixteenth century they had fallen substantially behind in terms of both technology and tactical thinking about the uses of firepower.

Ultimately even the superiority of the Swiss infantry on the battlefield was to be brought into question. If one response to the crushing defeats of the Burgundian armies was to try to hire the Swiss en masse, another was to try to forge similar infantry units from local material. Earliest and most successful in imitating the style of the Swiss infantry were the German Landsknechte, who had developed a military tradition as formidable as the Swiss by the 1520s. A further challenge to the Swiss was to be posed by the Spanish creation of their own elite infantry, the tercios, who combined the cohesion and offensive mass of a Swiss square with tactical flexibility, and a more coherent role for infantry firearms in combat.

In the long term the Swiss would lose their position to rivals who both imitated their military methods and gradually improved upon them, but the Swiss system of raising and deploying soldiers offers some important pointers towards the evolution of more elaborate systems of military enterprise. In comparison with the condottiere and their straightforward marketing of specialized military resources, the paradox of the Swiss system was that local citizen defence, based on the general obligation to military service and organized by the cantons, became an efficient mechanism for hiring out soldiers to foreign powers. The oft-made point about the propensity of agriculturally poor, mountainous regions in Europe to export a proportion of their men to make a living as soldiers certainly holds good for the cantons, as it did for the Tyrol, Croatia or Scotland. But the process was not without its conflicting pressures, as the authorities sought to balance what they considered to be the fundamental defensive needs of the Confederation and its constituent cantons, with the temptations and opportunities to send able-bodied men for service abroad.

The attraction of such military service for the soldiers was straightforward: contracts for service abroad paid wages of 4½ gulden per month. This was the pay of a skilled craftsman in the early sixteenth century, and at least twice that of an agricultural labourer. Those who were nominated as double-pay soldiers received substantial increments, while company captains would be paid up to ten times the ordinary wage. Moreover duties involving unusual danger – fighting pitched battles and storming fortifications, for example – were considered to merit additional payments from the warlord, while there was hope of making much larger sums from looting, booty and ransoming prisoners. The cantonal authorities sought to regulate this service, frequently asserting that they were the only legitimate channel through which foreign powers could negotiate. This of course allowed the authorities themselves to make substantial profits on the contracts, and also to benefit from the pensions which major military recruiters such as France and the Emperor paid to ensure goodwill and cooperation in meeting requests for the hire of soldiers. Cantonal control had some public benefits as well: given the fragmentary nature of Swiss society, local control of military service could prevent price-lowering inter-cantonal competition, and avoided the political – and military – difficulties of either finding that Swiss troops were contracted to fight against each other in opposing foreign armies, or running the risk of antagonizing powerful allies by an inability to prevent Swiss soldiers entering service with their enemies. Moreover, the cantonal authorities would occasionally come together to agree on military policy at the level of the Confederation, with decisions to raise a large part of the available fighting force – potentially up to 70,000 men by the time of the Burgundian Wars – for common defence or the pursuit of shared military interests.

The authority to decide on when and for whom the Swiss soldiers should be raised was combined with direct involvement of the cantons in the process of recruiting and organizing the troops for war. A decision by a canton to raise troops on its own behalf, or to levy a specified number in accordance with a collective decision of the Confederation, would be followed by a mass summons for all the able-bodied males between sixteen and sixty to assemble so that the local officials could make a selection to achieve the agreed total of the levy. All those eligible for service were obliged to provide their own weapons and appropriate armour: breastplates and iron helms for the pikemen, in some cases partial armour for the halberdiers. Those called for service, but unable to afford weapons and armour, would be helped either from the town armoury or by loans of equipment from neighbours who were not summoned for military duty. Much of the support system for the troops – food supplies to be purchased at least while the troops were passing through the Confederation, transport for artillery, baggage and potentially for captured booty – was provided by the authorities. Though elements of the local elites, especially wealthy merchants, could buy exemption from military service via provision of arms, equipment and the hiring of substitutes, it would still be true that a higher proportion of the Swiss population took an active part in military activity than in other contemporary states. But if this appeared to some contemporaries and in subsequent accounts as an apparently utopian model of collective, democratic civil defence, the reality was rather different.

What made the Swiss military system work so effectively? Conscripting and equipping the troops might be a collective exercise, but the tactical effectiveness of the great Swiss infantry squares depended on military professionalism and experience at two levels. The forces needed to be led by men who knew how to deploy their troops effectively in very different conditions and against different types of enemy – from French and Burgundian heavy cavalry to Landsknechte who mirrored Swiss battle tactics. This kind of tactical and operational skill had to be combined with distinct leadership qualities. The cooperation of leaders of cantonal contingents needed to be won by consultation and active involvement in decision-making, while the ordinary soldiers had a strong sense of their fighting identity and needed to be handled with respect and restraint.89 While such leaders were part of the cantonal elites and were involved in decision-making in that context, they were also marked out by their lengthy military service and experience. In general they came from a tight-knit group of noble families with an extensive tradition of military leadership, who looked on military command as a career rather than an occasional act of patriotic duty. A noble family like the Stockalper from Brig held a succession of military commands from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century, with a representative figure like Peter von Stockalper leading a large contingent of the Swiss troops in the French army at Pavia in 1525. Another noble family, the Courten von Siders, dominated recruitment and led troops from the Wallis through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, combining this with a succession of influential cantonal offices. Service abroad was the obvious means to acquire and develop military experience, while it also provided the opportunity not available at home to make a career and acquire wealth.

The nobles and other military professionals composing the high command were not the only element pushing for more extensive and flexible military service. While the military effectiveness of the Gevierthaufen appears in much earlier Swiss history as a spontaneous expression of the military spirit of the nation, in reality the striking-power and cohesiveness of the great squares depended on the elite of pikemen, the ‘double-pay men’, who occupied the front ranks of each side of the square. It was their steadfastness and experience in combat that was vital to harness the crude violence and energy of the mass of the soldiers: keeping the square tight, but not dangerously over-compressed, by their own positioning and sticking-power, while moving it forward to a collision with enemy defenders where the survival chances of these front ranks would depend on their skill with the pike and confidence that they would break the enemy. Serving in this ‘double-pay’ role demanded extraordinary qualities, not least physical strength and training to wield and then manoeuvre an unwieldy, iron-tipped 5½ metre pike, while wearing heavy breast and back armour. Absolutely crucial to the cohesion of the unit, it demanded a level of self-discipline and small-group identity which set them apart from the mass of less-experienced ordinary soldiers in the unit. As with the senior officers, the double-pay men were a group who were committed to military service and prepared to regard it, if not as a life-time career, certainly as a choice for a significant period of their early/middle life. The effectiveness of the Swiss military system depended on groups of men who could not easily be reabsorbed into civilian life and for whom military professionalism was both a choice and a necessity. Originally it represented a choice: the Mats were a combination of young and middle-aged unmarried men from within local communities, who would be the obvious group called up in any recruitment. Many of them enjoyed this role, volunteering for successive mercenary units being raised by local commanders, and were reluctant to return to the stable peasant community of their elder, married brothers where they would probably occupy a marginal role. In many cases this service abroad would eventually detach them from any sense of identity with their original community, and they would become Kriegsgurgeln, unsettled and rootless ex-veterans, habituated to risk-taking violence and casual opportunities for military service, never properly reintegrated into civilian life after the end of campaigns. For them, and for those who wanted to control their disruptive impact on settled civil society, military service was now a necessity, the only alternative to begging or crime. They formed a large group outside the normal cantonal recruitment system, but a natural pool of recruits for officers assembling units to take up mercenary contracts.

From 1476 until 1515 the Confederation’s military reputation stood at its height, and so, briefly, did its own territorial ambitions. The foreign invasions of Italy from 1494 opened up a new period of threat from potentially powerful neighbours in Lombardy, but also provided opportunities to extend Swiss influence and power southwards, most notably and ultimately disastrously in the decision to sell their services and support to Massimiliano Sforza, duke of Milan, against France from 1512 to 1515. The Confederation also sought to assert itself politically and territorially against the Empire and the Habsburg Tyrol, fighting the Swabian War in 1499, a struggle of which the legacy was a hardening of the hatred between Swiss and Landsknechte into what became a merciless vendetta through the next century. But as this period came to an end, as the Confederation stepped back from heavy – and profoundly divisive – commitments outside its own territory, space opened for larger and more diverse contracts with foreign powers. So long as the Confederation had been pursuing its own political interests via the deployment of military force, the growing desire of the warring great powers to hire Swiss troops en masse had been hard to satisfy. The figure of 6,000 troops recurs regularly in contract negotiations throughout this period, implying the upper limit of the forces that the authorities were prepared to see committed abroad while their own military needs were still potentially in play.

With changing priorities the financial, and on occasions political, benefits of responding to these requests for Swiss soldiers became more tempting to the cantonal authorities. In 1511 those seemingly perpetual enemies, the Confederation and the House of Habsburg, negotiated a ‘hereditary treaty’, offering mutual support in case of attack by a third party, and for the Habsburgs the right to hire Swiss troops to assist their own military defence. The Swiss defeat at Marignano in 1515 was followed by an agreement to a ‘perpetual peace’ with France, though it was not until 1521 that the French king managed to negotiate an agreement for the levy of Swiss troops. The hesitation of the cantons in agreeing to these levies was unsurprising, given that any such agreement would stand in direct contravention of the agreements with the Habsburgs. The open and multi-theatred conflict between Habsburg and Valois down to 1559 conflicted with clauses in both sets of treaties which stipulated that the Swiss were to be hired only for defensive warfare, and made a mockery of the apparently exclusive nature of the agreements, but at the same time also strengthened the cantons’ hands in a ‘bidding war’ for their services. When in 1553 Henri II wanted to increase the number of troops to be raised from the previously agreed 10,000 to 16,000, the terms included a substantial reduction in rights of French supervision over the recruitment and selection process and over the subsequent autonomy of the regiments, and formalized the agreement that in addition to recruitment and transportation money the Swiss soldiers would receive a full, non-refundable three months’ worth of wages at the time of the levy.

In reality these incompatible agreements with different warlords should be seen not so much as a product of greed and duplicity, but as a symptom of the acutely divided and fragmentary nature of federal authority. Any agreement between the various cantons on common policy or action was never more than temporary and contingent, and the individual cantons were themselves often strongly divided about the profits and potential hazards of military policy. The 1521 treaty with François I to provide soldiers for France’s defensive needs was not signed by Zurich, and as the reformation spread to other cantons, notably Berne, so they also started to hedge their commitment and refused to provide troops for France.105 Protestant cantons’ reluctance to support a common line when it came to requests for troops from Catholic powers was paralleled by the refusal of the eastern territories – the Drei Bünde – to accept limitations on their provision of troops for Habsburg service, making a particular treaty in 1518 to renew their formal military agreements with the Austrian lands. A few decades later in 1567, it was the Catholic cantons who broke ranks, agreeing against the wishes of the Protestants to send 6,000 troops to support Charles IX against the Huguenots, troops placed under the command of the militantly Catholic Ludwig Pfyffer von Altishofen.

Even as the cantons were divided about which of the major, and possibly which of the second-rank, powers should have their requests to hire troops met, an additional factor came into play. The military experience of the senior officers might express itself in service to the Confederation or its chosen foreign warlords, but it was also attractive for them to offer military service at the head of a ‘free’ company of soldiers. The right to offer service to external powers as opportunity and reputation permitted – the principle of Reislaufen – was strongly asserted by its advocates, and not just for the obvious personal advantages of lucrative private contracts with foreign powers. It was argued that such service ensured that the range and level of military expertise was maintained amongst those who might later be called to serve under the authority of the canton or the Confederation; moreover the cantons’ own policies with regard to hiring and not hiring soldiers to external warlords were anything but coherent, and ‘informal’ service could prove a useful means to satisfy demands unofficially. Above all, military service via these informal channels served the obvious economic and social function of drawing more effectively on both the marginal, militarized population – the Kriegsgurgeln – and the Mats who were still part of the community but were under pressure as younger sons or unmarried relatives to draw their subsistence from outside that local community. The numbers prepared to volunteer for military service, either when authorized by the canton or simply organized by officers for foreign service, were impressive: of the 30,000 men raised by the Confederation to attack Dijon in 1513, some 14,000 had come forward as simple volunteers, offering their military experience in the hope of gain from pay and plunder.

In a striking prefiguration of the activities of later military enterprisers, it was thus possible for some of these ‘free’ commanders to raise large numbers of troops, drawing simply on their ability to raise Swiss volunteers without recourse to any cantonal conscription or selection. The precise number is not given, but in 1486–7 the eldest son of Count Jörg von Werdenberg-Sargans was able to attract ‘around fifty companies’ of volunteer soldiers for a war against Milan, against the explicit wishes of the authorities in the Drei Bünde. The capacity of these private captains to raise large numbers of troops was recognized by foreign warlords: in 1499 the French sought to recruit 12,000 Swiss soldiers on the basis that they would negotiate with forty independent captains, prepared to raise soldiers outside of cantonal organization.

Moreover, as Swiss troops after 1515 again started to be hired less often as a free-standing, battle-winning force, and more as a powerful addition to a mixture of other units raised by a warlord, so the range of opportunities for independent captains grew. There were large numbers of experienced captains who, in return for financial advances on their contract, could raise one or several infantry companies of 100–300 men each, and even a regiment at its later sixteenth-century strength of 1,000–3,000 men. The captains would receive funds from the warlord, and would then use their reputation, local influence or social position to seek out volunteers, who would arrive for service equipped and armed at their own expense. Without the involvement of the cantonal officials, there was no official mechanism to loan arms and armour to those selected for service who lacked money to buy them. Instead there is some evidence of small-scale financial investment in the individual soldier: money being lent him for the purchase of halberd or breastplate against hopes of a good return on a successful campaign. Some of this may have been more systematic: the captains who raised 6,000 troops for Ludovico Sforza’s service in 1500, Wilhelm von Diesbach, Jean Matter, Gutmann Zoller, George de Riva and Antoine Wider, all contributed some of their own funds for raising and equipping their companies.

Where real differences opened up between captains offering ‘free’ military service to foreign warlords and those acting as the agents of a system administered via cantonal authorities was in areas of financial expertise and logistical organization. Especially in the latter case, the ‘free’ captains were well aware that moving recruits through the territory of the Confederation without ensuring good order and adequate supplies of food would produce a ferocious reaction from the authorities. The contracts were negotiated with warlords to provide adequate sums of Laufgeld to cover the costs of such troop movements, but much still depended on good planning and reliable support. By the sixteenth century most commanders of a group of contracted companies would recruit a regimental staff to manage the finances and to try to ensure that provisions were purchased and stockpiled and that violent incidents with local populations (within the cantons) were avoided as far as possible. Even outside the frontiers of the Confederation it might be the case that the companies could live in part from requisitioning, robbery and plunder, but when food, money and saleable loot were not to hand, it fell to the unit commanders to try to organize provisioning for their men in camp, garrison or on the march, again requiring skills in making contacts with suppliers, organizing transport and advancing money for purchases that could later be recouped from the soldiers’ wages. These financial and organizational skills cultivated by the military families of the sixteenth century were to remain strongly in evidence amongst the Swiss military enterprisers of the Thirty Years War such as Hans Ludwig von Erlach or François-Pierre Koenig.