Portugal and the Changing Art of War


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Military Orders

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


Boko Haram

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

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

Rare photo of Boro Haram

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swiss in Service

Swiss in French Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swiss in Prussian Service

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

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

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

Swiss in British Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medieval Mercenaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Scots in Swedish Thirty Years’ War service.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.