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Part 1 - Introduction

by George Gush

FOR THE WARGAMER or the military modeller, the period from the mid-15th to the mid-17th century must be one of the most fascinating, most colourful, most complex and yet most neglected of periods.
    It starts with the Renaissance and the waning of the Middle Ages, and in warfare as in nearly every other sphere, this was an age of change. The infantryman had already re-established himself on the battlefield, in the person of the English longbowman and the Swiss pikeman; both were to survive through the 16th century, as was their dethroned adversary, the knight or 'gendarme' with his heavy lance and armoured charger, thundering into the fight with all the panoply of chivalry. Artillery too was already established as a siege weapon, but in this era, for the first time, began to play an important role upon the field of battle, as at Marignano, 1515, the first great battle actually won by the guns. The clumsy handgun was turning into the arquebus, the first of the effective infantry small arms which would come to rule the battlefield down to 1918.
    The fascination of the period, in its tactical aspect, is this situation of change, with new weapons appearing and old ones continuing to soldier on beside them; a situation with which contemporary commanders and military theorists struggled to cope - sometimes reviving classical ideas, like Machiavelli and his 'Legions', sometimes bringing out new concepts, like Leonardo da Vinci's 'tank'. The variety of weapons, tactics and organisations resulting is what gives this period such possibilities for the wargamer or military modeller.
    Gradually, solutions were reached and methods became more standardised: by the end of the 16th century the pike and firearm combination, with cavalry as the chief striking force, emerged as the norm, but, as the reforms of Maurice of Nassau and Gustavus Adolphus showed, there was still room for change; moreover, especially among the cavalry, and on the geographical 'fringes' - Ireland, Russia, the Ottoman Empire - a wide variety of weapons and troop-types survived.
    It was an age, too, of almost continuous conflict on many different fronts and involving many different powers, frequently now vanished, and the wargamer has a choice of armies and theatres of war paralleled only in the 'Ancient' era.
    It would take a whole series of articles simply to list these wars, but perhaps I can give some indication of them:


15th century - Civil wars culminate at Bosworth.
1500 - 1550s - Wars with France and Scotland, border troubles and rebellions.
1550s - 1603 - War with Spain, intervention in France, Netherlands, and Scotland; rebellion in Ireland culminating in full-scale war.
17th century - Expeditions to France and Spain, war with Scots, rebellion in Ireland, the English Civil Wars, intervention in the Low Countries etc.


Early 16th century - Dominated by Italian Wars, which last over 50 years, involve Spain, France, the Holy Roman Empire, England, the Swiss, the Pope, and the Italian states.
Later 16th century - Dominated by Wars of Religion in France and Germany, and the rebellion of the Netherlands against Spain.
17th century - First half dominated by 30 Years' War, involving German states, the Emperor, Spain, France, Sweden and Denmark.


The Northern powers of Sweden, Denmark, Poland and Muscovy fight frequently; the rising Grand-Duchy of Moscow also fights Teutonic Knights and Turks; the Turkish Ottoman Empire fights Persians, Hungarians, Austrians, Poles, Spain, Venice, Knights of St John and Mameluks; the Spanish and Portuguese fight the Moors; Cossacks and Tartars fight practically everyone, especially each other.
    You could go even further afield, following the impact of firearms with Cortez to Mexico and with the Moguls into India - even as far as Japan, but I expect in these articles to confine myself to Europe, Russia and the Middle East.
    Over these centuries, colour and character seemed to run riot; it was an age which saw the career of the Chevalier Bayard, the flower of medieval chivalry, 'Sans peur et sans reproche' - like many other leaders of the day, struck down by the unchivalrous arquebus - and that of Gonzalo de Cordoba, whose life crossed the boundaries between the old world and the new. In the year of his birth, the last Roman Emperor died, sword in hand, as the Turks swarmed into the streets of Constantinople; he grew up to be a commander of San Diego, one of the Military Orders, and fought in the last Crusade which overthrew Moorish Granada, and at last became Europe's greatest general in the age when, for the first time, one could speak of 'the smoke of battle'.
    It was the age of Suleiman the Magnificent and Ivan the Terrible, William the Silent and Rupert of the Rhine, of Tilly and of Cromwell; of Wallenstein, who made a fortune from war, and of the knightly Sir Philip Sidney; an era of mercenary leaders like Giovanni 'della bande nere', last of the Condottieri, and the great Jacob Empser, pocketing the Emperor's letter of recall so that he could lead his Lansknechts 'into one last battle for France - and to his own death. An age of patriots like Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, who so nearly saved celtic Ireland, and of pirates like Torghut the Corsair, 'Sword of Islam' who might have taken Malta for the Crescent, had not the Knights of St John, under their 70-year-old Grand Master Jean la Vallete, heroically set the limit of Turkish expansion; the age of Henri of Navarre, calling on his men to follow the white plume of Bourbon, and neglecting the results of victory to lay the captured standards before his mistress, and of the 22-year-old Gaston de Foix, leading a 'scientific' campaign culminating in the victory of Ravenna, then throwing away his life in an attempt at a romantic, medieval 'feat of arms'.
    The troops such men led were no less colourful and 'larger than life' - Janissaries with heron plumes and wailing warcries, mailed Spahis and turbaned Mamluks, fanatic laylars in wild beast skins, Tartar horsebows no different from their Hun forebears; English longbowmen in leather and French gendarmerie in gleaming armour; Teutonic knights with their black crosses and Gascon crossbowmen recall the Middle Ages, while the Highlander with targe and broadsword, the Irish kern, with long hair, moustache and cleanshaven chin, like Caesar's Gauls, or the mailed Gallowglass, swinging his two-handed axe, come from an earlier, Celtic and Viking world.
    The new era too had its warriors ... the Swiss with their pikes like a forest moving; their enemies the Lansknechts, surely the most weirdly - and brightly - dressed soldiers of all time, not only every man but every limb differently clad in garments puffed, slashed, striped and padded, setting the fashion for civilians as well as soldiers; the dread 'Diables Noirs', the black-armoured reiters with their pistols, or the dashing Stradiots on their ponies, with scimitar and mace - mercenaries all these, as wore the majority of the soldiers of this era. Then there were the proud infantry of Spain, even hidalgos content to 'trail a pike' in the Tercios, rolling forward like human fortresses beneath the cross of burgundy; Usars of Poland with eagles' wings, Muscovite Streltsy with their great 'Berdische' poleaxes, fur capped cossacks, already in their traditional dress, Von Pappenheim's Cuirassiers and Cromwell's sturdy Ironsides, French Musketeers and English Cavaliers, outdoing each other in plumage and panache ... surely enough to provide the military modeller with materials for years of conversions, or inspire the wargamer with plans for a whole new field of table-top campaigning.
    In fact, there are already signs of a growth of interest in this period, in the form of modelling articles, its inclusion in the National Wargames Championships, and most of all in the formation of a society, on the fines of the well-known Society of Ancients, to promote interest in it. The Pike and Shot Society produces a magazine devoted to the period, and wargame rules of the 1500 - 1650 era.
    However, I think that the main reason for the relative neglect of this period so far has been due to the lack of easily accessible information, and the aim of this series of articles will be to 'fill the gap' to some extent by providing the basic information needed by wargamers or military modellers who wish to embark on it.


A suit of early 16th Century armour, reputed to be that of the Chevalier Bayard, and now preserved in the Tower of London (Department of the Environment).

An Italian 16th Century Burgonet (top) and another typical helmet, the Morion (bottom).

A group of German Lansknechts, from The Triumph of the Emperor Maximilian (Hans Burkmar, 1473-1531).

   A Lansknecht drummer,
   by Hans Sebald Beham, 1540
   Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nurnburg

16th Century Muscovite horse archers.

Gothic cavalry armour of the 15th Century (Wallace Collection).

Next: Part 2: Infantry weapons and organisation by George Gush

Return to Contents of Renaissance Warfare by George Gush (Airfix Magazine Articles)