Contemporary woodcut by Erhard Schön [1491-1542]



During the 16th Century the most feared soldiers on Europe’s battlefields were the landsknechts. These German mercenaries had such a reputation for unprincipled, ruthless violence one chronicler remarked that the devil refused to let landsknechts into hell because he was so afraid of them. This infamy was not undeserved as it was not unknown for entire regiments of landsknechts to swap sides in the middle of a battle if they were offered more money or to desert en masse when there was no more gold to pay them. So who were these flamboyant soldiers-of-fortune who terrorised Christendom for more than a century?

1. SERVANTS OF THE LAND - the landsknechts were the brainchild of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I [r.1493-1519] who’d seen the effectiveness of Swiss pikemen in their wars of independence against the Duchy of Burgundy and his own Holy Roman Empire. Rather than recruit the fiercely independent Swiss, Maximilian simply copied their weapons and tactics.

2. LANDSKNECHTS V REISLAUFER - prior to the landsknechts’ creation, Swiss mercenaries (reisläufer) were the most sought after and even today the Vatican employ a ‘Swiss Guard’ to protect the pope. The commercial rivalry between Swiss and German mercenaries was legendary and when the two sides met in battle no quarter was asked or given; this was known as schlechten krieg (bad war).

3. 16TH CENTURY PUNKS – landsknechts were exempt from the ‘sumptuary laws’ that dictated the colours and style of clothing each social class could wear. Maximilian granted his soldiers this privilege because, in his words, their lives were “so short and brutish”. As a result, landsknechts dressed in the most garish costumes they could devise. Slashed doublets, striped hose, tight or voluminous breeches and outrageous codpieces were all worn in a deliberate attempt to flaunt their status, intimidate their enemies and shock civilians.

4. ARMS & ARMOUR – weapons of choice were the pike (5m/18’ long), the halberd (poleaxe) and the zweihänder (two handed) sword. Side arms included a short sword with a rounded tip and distinctive ‘S’ shaped quillons (crossguard) known as katzbalgers (cat skinners). Missile weapons were, at first, the crossbow and later the arquebus (an early form of handgun). Armour was rarely worn but, if it was, it usually consisted of a breastplate with tassets (thigh guards) and a steel skull cap worn under a wide brimmed hat.

5. LANDSKNECHTS IN BATTLE - the usual tactic was to form a huge square of pikemen (up to 4,000 strong) surrounded by a double rank of halberdiers, swordsmen and arquebusiers. This formation was known as an igel (hedgehog) and it presented an enemy with both an unstoppable force and an immovable object. In offence the igel trampled everything in its path, in defence the pikes presented an impenetrable hedge to protect the handgunners.

6. THE FORLORN HOPE – in addition to pike squares, landsknechts also employed a tactic called the verlorene haufe (forlorn hope) whereby a thin line of double-handed swordsmen and halberdiers would charge an opposing igel and dart in between the enemy’s pikes in an attempt to break up their ranks. Forlorn hopes were made up of volunteers hoping for glory or condemned men hoping for redemption and to signify that they were in the presence of death they fought beneath a blood red banner.

7. CAMP LIFE - The train of camp followers was called the tross and was made up of wives, children, sutlers (traders) and legions of prostitutes. The tross was so unruly it had its own police force led by a hurenweibel (literally the whores’-sergeant) and his rumormeisters (constables) who beat miscreants with heavy truncheons called vergleicher (argument settlers). Discipline was equally harsh for the soldiery but any man who could lay his hand on a piece of artillery could claim sanctuary.

8. THE FATHER OF LANDSKNECHTS - one of the most famous landsknecht commanders was Georg von Frundsberg [1473-1528] whose motto was viel fiend, viel ehr (many enemies, much honour). Frundsberg masterminded most of Maximilian’s early victories and continued to serve the Holy Roman Empire under his successor Charles V. Frundsberg’s finest hour came at Pavia [1525] when his ‘beloved sons’, routed the French army and captured the French King. The nadir of his career came two years later when his unpaid men mutinied and sacked Rome in an orgy of violence. Frundsberg was so upset he had a stroke and died.

9. LANDSKNECHTS IN ENGLAND – at the end of the Wars of the Roses, Margaret of Burgundy (sister of Richard III and widow of the Duke of Burgundy) sent a company of landsknechts to aid the Yorkist pretender Lambert Simnel. The company was commanded by a German named Martin Schwarz and was wiped out at the Battle of Stoke Field [1487]. The Tudors also used landsknechts, especially Henry VIII who, through his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, was related to the Holy Roman Emperors. Both Maximilian and Charles loaned several companies of landsknechts to Henry for his invasions of France in 1513 and 1543.

10. THE BLACK BAND - Henry VIII also subsidised his in-law’s Italian Wars by paying for up to 10,000 landsknechts to take the field in the imperial cause but few Englishman joined these companies. Ironically, one Englishman who did was Henry’s most implacable enemy, the exiled Duke of Suffolk and Yorkist pretender Richard de la Pole. The man who called himself ‘The White Rose’ commanded 6,000 renegade landsknechts (known as the Black Band) who fought for France in the Navarrese War [1512-24] as well as at the Battle of the Spurs [1513] and the Battle of Pavia [1525] where they were utterly annihilated.

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