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Part 8: The Universal Soldier

by George Gush

THE GERMAN LANSKNECHT of the 16th Century, of all the troops of history, must have the best claim to this title -for one hundred years they were the mercenaries par excellence, serving in every European army and fighting in almost every campaign, from England to Russia and from the Baltic to Tunisia.
    Thus for the wargamer interested in the period a Lansknecht unit or two, if not a complete army, is a must, being useable on either side in almost any battle, while for the military modeller they present such colour and variety that, alone of Renaissance types, they have already become popular with figure manufacturers.
    Their name is of uncertain derivation - I favour 'lance-knight' - that is, a pikeman, for it was as pikemen to rival the Swiss phalanx that the Emperor Maximilian created the Lansknechts in 1486, as part of a new standing army for the Holy Roman Empire: he himself once entered Cologne at the head of his army, on foot and dressed as a Lansknecht.
    The Lansknechts remained soldiers of the Empire, but they soon became mercenaries too, since the nobles of Germany were not only allowed to serve foreign rulers, but also to raise troops to take with them; in any case the Empire could not maintain a true standing army so that professional soldiers were bound to take service elsewhere.
    Lansknechts were not supposed to fight against the Empire, but many did: at Pavia (1525) the French had 8,000, known as the 'Black Band' (probably from the colour of their armour). Their leader, Georg Langenmantel, issued a challenge to single combat (a common pre-battle practice among Lansknechts), but Georg of Frundsberg and Marr Sittich, leading the Emperor's Lansknechts, shouted that they would not fight a 'Traitor to the Fatherland' and he was shot down. This seems to show a degree of patriotism, but the Germans were a very divided people, many princes opposed the Emperor, and later Lansknechts developed strong loyalties to their employers, especially France, though at first they had a bad reputation for mercenary tricks such as lightning strikes for double pay just before a critical battle. They always remained great looters.
    There was no lack of recruits for the Lansknechts in North Germany - 'If the Devil himself offered pay, they would swarm together like the flies in Summer; it is enough to make you wonder till you died, where they spent the Winter' one chronicler wrote - and Colonels could be quite selective: all recruits had to provide their own clothing, armour and weapons, and students and sons of rich families often volunteered. When they assembled as a regiment under the Colonel's eye, recruits had to jump a 'gate' made of three spears to prove their fitness (sounds like a nice diorama subject - the recruits drawn up in two fines facing each other. the Colonel on horseback, the secretary recording names on the roll ... ).
    Lansknecht companies were supposed to be 400 strong; Captain and Lieutenant were appointed by the Colonel, but lower officers or NC0s were elected by the men. In Charles V's time the company was supposed to include 100 'doppelsoeldner' - experienced and well-armed soldiers who got extra pay and took the post of danger in battle; 50 of them were to be arquebusiers.
    Originally only 25 men in a company had arquebusses or crossbows, the rest having mainly pikes with some halberds and double-handed swords (favoured by officers and NC0s); in the 20s one-eighth were shot; later probably more, including a few musketeers, but with recruits bringing their own arms there cannot have been much standardisation.
    A Regiment had from ten to 18 companies, but on the battlefield companies, or in larger engagements regiments, were formed in groups of four, each group forming a solid block, often as deep as it was wide. Officers and better-armoured pikemen formed the front ranks; halberdiers and swordsmen were the middle ranks, ready to issue out and attack the enemy flanks if the formation was halted; at the rear were more pikes, the last rank being doppelsoeldner whose job was to discourage those in front from retreating! Arquebusiers skirmished on the flanks, in rear, and sometimes in front.
    Before battle the Lansknechts would pray or sing a hymn, then throw dust over one shoulder, for luck. A brief speech from the commander: '... We want, as God wills, to do our duty today and get rich ...' then the close-packed square moved forward to sound of fife and drum, the latter a sort of 'pas de charge' of five beats, giving rise to the Lansknechts' rhythmic chant: 'Hut - Dich - Baur Ich Komm' ('Look - Out - Here I Come!').
    They used shorter pikes than their bitter enemies the Swiss, and held them nearer the butt-end, sloping up instead of down. In defence they would form an 'Igel' (hedgehog); either a circle or a square. surrounded by pikes, the front rank kneeling, with the light troops in the centre. There was often also a 'Blood Flag' or 'Suicide Squad' with its own captains and standards, whose men were usually chosen by dice (should appeal to wargamers!). They led the attack and were intended to hack the first hole in the enemy line with their 'two-handers'
    The most savage battles of the Lansknechts were against the Swiss - usually they lost but at Bicocca, under the great Georg Frunsberg, helped to defeat the Swiss charge; authorities of the period classed them as inferior to the Swiss, equal to the Spanish, and superior to all other close-fighting infantry.
    In the 'Evil War', as, for example, against the Swiss, the Lansknechts took no prisoners, but in the 'Good War' which became commoner in the later 16th Century they not only spared prisoners, but when two forces faced each other and one was hopelessly outnumbered, the smaller would automatically surrender, thus saving unnecessary bloodshed!

Lansknecht dress

    This appears to have been of startling originality and colour from the first, when other troops complained to Maximilian about the Lansknechts' costly dressing-up, 'Give them a little happiness and pride in their lives, which are so full of danger' he replied, and an Order of the Imperial Diet guaranteed the Lansknechts' freedom in this matter! This plus the fact that there was no official issue of clothing ensured that there was no uniformity whatever, so that for once the modeller can really use his imagination without fear of correction. Some sketches with colour details are included, and there are many examples in Funken, Le Costume et Les Armes des Soldats de Tous les Temps, Volume 1, and in Saxtorph, Warriors and Weapons of Ancient Times, but it must be remembered that these are just representative examples and not patterns to be rigidly followed.
    Contemporary prints such as those of Durer also give a good idea of the variety of possible types. One small concession to uniformity was that Lansknechts serving the Empire had to wear a red sash over armour, or a red cross (X) on front and back of doublets.
    Their costume was simplest at the start of the period, with, tight sleeves, hose and breeches, and relatively little of the slashing of the outer garments, revealing contrasting colours beneath, so characteristic of the Lansknechts; stripes and parti-coloured garments were already used.
    The Rose figures illustrated give an idea of dress around the 20s or 30s, when it also became the fashion to have each leg differently clad - one often bare - while the prints show the baggy 'pluderhosen' characteristic of Landsknechts of the later 16th Century. Headgear was usually heavily-plumed and sometimes tied on with a ribbon in the manner associated with Edwardian ladies! Helmets were usually sallets or pot-type in the early part of the period, open faced burgonets with peak and neck cover towards its end.
    Armour seems to have been fairly rare at first (Lambert Simnel had some unarmoured Lansknecht pikemen who got badly shot up by the longbow at Stoke at 1487) but more widespread later; mail caps and shirts were favoured but wealthier individuals could wear plate corselets, with or without laminated 'skirt' or fauld. In a wargame unit, it would be realistic to have the front rank in corselets, the rest in mail or unarmoured.
    The appearance of the Lansknechts was followed by many other soldiers throughout Europe in the mid 16th Century, so that Lansknecht figures need not necessarily represent Germans, but the most extreme and grotesque styles were usually found among the latter.


    When serving the Empire, the Lansknechts would carry the double Eagle illustrated, black on yellow; the standards were some six feet square, on short staffs, and their bearers were sworn to defend them to the death - the anti-German historian Paul Jovius told of a Lansknecht found with his right hand severed and his left broken, holding the flag in his teeth. Imperial forces carried other flags too, and these, the Lansknechts' mounted comrades, the 'Reiter', and other Imperial troops, will be considered in part 17.
    If serving foreign powers, the Lansknechts would bear their flags, and the example shown probably belongs to the French 'Black Band'- cross is white, background black and red or blue, I believe.
    I would like to acknowledge the help of Andrew Finch in the preparation of this article.


Lansknecht arquebusier from a contemporary print.
[after Peter Flötner?]

Officer in 'Pluderhosen'.
[Profoß by Franz Brun, 1559. Kupferstich. 75 x 50mm. Blau, 1882, Taf. IV,3]

Lansknecht two-handed swordsman with mail cape and pluderhosen.
[Freimann by Franz Brun, 1559. Kupferstich. 75 x 50mm. Blau, 1882, Taf. IV,2]

Lansknecht with half pluderhosen.
[Hellebardier by Franz Brun, 1559. Kupferstich. 75 x 50mm. Blau, 1882, Taf. IV,4]

Early 16th Century Lansknechts showing colours (Drawings by Ian Heath).

The Rose Model Soldier range of 54 mm Lansknecht figures. Note alternative flag design (yellow, green and black), double-headed eagle on drum and two-handed sword carried by the figure on the right (photo courtesy Rose Models).

Lansknecht in mail shirt. All above figures from 16th Century prints.
[Landsknecht im Panzerhemd by Franz Brun, 1559. Kupferstich. 75 x 50mm. Blau, 1882, Taf. IV,1]

An armoured Lansknecht officer, after Holbein.

Two Lansknechts of the first half of the 16th Century.

Lansknecht armour, probably of an officer, about 1550 (Tower of London Armouries).

A two- handed sword of the type characteristic of the Lansknechts. Note the hilt, long enough to give a secure double-handed grip, and the 'Ricasso', a section of the blade covered with leather or material so that the grip could be shortened for close-quarter work. The small 'tongues' act as a guard.

Early 16th Century Lansknecht halberdier.

  A Lansknecht ramming the charge home in his arquebus.
  by Hans Sebald Beham, 1540
  Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nurnburg

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

Left flag, probably of the Black Band, at Pavia, 1525. Colours white, red or blue(?) and black.
Right Imperial Eagle flag, black on yellow, 1525. Eagle is usually crowned, but not in this example.

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

Previous: Part 7: Irish army of the 16th Century by George Gush
Next: Part 9: Swiss by George Gush

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

See also: The Triumph of Maximilian
Maximilian I's The Adventures of the Knight Theuerdank, 1517
Landsknechts and Antonio de Leyva by Nicolaas Hogenberg, 1530
The Entry of Emperor Charles V into Augsburg, 1530, by Jörg Breu
Landsknechts & German Lancers in 'Sermon of John the Baptist', by Lucas Cranach the Younger, 1549  
Examples Of Imperial Military Dress c.1578 by Simon Chick