“One chronicler remarked that the devil refused to let landsknechts into hell because he was so afraid of them.”
By Richard Anderton
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 terrorized Christendom for more than a century?
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.
Landsknechts vs. Reisläufer
Prior to the landsknechts’ creation, Swiss mercenaries, or reisläufer, were the most sought-after hired-soldiers in Europe. Even today, the Vatican employs a ‘Swiss Guard’ to protect the Pope. Back in the Renaissance, the commercial rivalry between Swiss and German mercenaries was legendary. In fact, when the two sides met in battle, quarter was neither asked for nor given; this was known as schlechten krieg or “bad war.”
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.
Arms and 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). Initially, the Landsknecht used the crossbow as the principle missile weapons but later began fielding the arquebus (an early form of handgun). Armour was rarely worn but when employed usually consisted of a breastplate with tassets (thigh guards) and a steel skull cap worn under a wide brimmed hat.
The landsknechts’ standard battlefield 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. When on the offence, the igel trampled everything in its path; in defence, the pikes presented an impenetrable hedge to protect the handgunners.
The Forlorn Hope
In addition to pike squares, landsknechts employed a tactic called the verlorene haufe or “forlorn hope” whereby a thin line of double-handed swordsmen and halberdiers would charge an opposing igel darting 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 seeking redemption. Since these mad-dashes were almost always fatal for those taking part, attackers fought beneath a blood red banner.
Landsknechts armies attracted a train of camp followers, called the tross, which were largely made up of wives, children, sutlers (traders), not to mention legions of prostitutes. The tross was so unruly it needed its own police force led by a hurenweibel (which literally means “the whores’-sergeant”). His subordinates, known as rumormeisters (constables), often beat miscreants with heavy truncheons called vergleicher or “argument settlers.” Discipline was equally harsh for the soldiery of landsknecht armies, but any man who could lay his hand on a piece of artillery could claim sanctuary.
Father of the Landsknecht
One of the most famous landsknecht commanders was Georg von Frundsberg [1473-1528] whose motto, viel feind, viel ehre, meant “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 the 1525 Battle of Pavia when his ‘beloved sons’, routed the French army and captured the French king, Francis I. 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.
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 . 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.
The Black Band
Henry VIII also subsidized 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 Britton 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  and the Battle of Pavia  where they were utterly annihilated.
Richard Anderton is the author of the Devilstone Chronicles, a new series of historical novels set in the 16th Century. Follow Thomas Devilstone, outlawed alchemist, necromancer and soldier of fortune, as he battles spies, traitors and assassins in his quest for wealth and honour. From the glittering courts of Renaissance Europe, to the strange new worlds of The Americas, Africa and the Orient, Thomas must use his wits, his sword and his knowledge of witchcraft to survive. Buy The Devil’s Hand at Amazon.