Landsknechte, etching by Daniel Hopfer, c. 1530

The Landsknecht, (pronounced [ˈlantsknɛçt]), plural: Landsknechte, were mercenary soldiers who became an important military force through late 15th- and 16th-century Europe. Consisting predominantly of German mercenary pikemen and supporting foot soldiers, they were the universal mercenaries of early modern Europe, sometimes fighting on both sides of a conflict.


Image of a Landsknecht in the Nordisk familjebok

The Germanic compound Landsknecht (earlier Lantknecht, without Fugen-"s") combines Land and Knecht to form "servant of the land."[1][2] The compound Lantknecht was used during the 15th century for bailiffs or court ushers.

The word Landsknecht first appeared in the German language circa 1470 to describe certain troops in the army of Charles, Duke of Burgundy. As early as 1500, the term was morphed into Lanzknecht, referring to the unit's use of the pike as its main weapon.[3]


Standard bearer fighting against five Landsknechte; etching by Daniel Hopfer

Over the Burgundian Wars, the well-organized and supplied armies of Charles the Bold were defeated again and again by the Swiss Confederation,[4] which wielded an ad hoc militia army.[5] Charles's army lacked esprit de corps because of its composition by feudal lords, mercenaries, and levied gentry. The Swiss army, though poorly organized, were highly motivated, aggressive, and well-trained with their arms. The Swiss pikemen, called Reisläufer, repeatedly defeated and eventually killed Charles, eliminating Burgundy as a European power.[6] Archduke Maximilian I von Habsburg, who inherited Burgundy in 1477 by marrying Mary of Burgundy,[7] was greatly influenced by the Swiss victories. When the French contested the inheritance, Maximilian levied a Flemish army and defeated the French in 1479 at the Battle of Guinegate using Swiss tactics. The dissolution of his levied army at war's end found Maximilian wanting a permanent and organized military force like the Confederation's to protect his domain.[8] The existing Burgundian structure was inadequate to this end, however,[9] and moreover the French wielded a monopoly on the hiring of Reisläufer.[2]

Maximilian began raising the first Landsknecht units in 1486,[2] amassing 6,000–8,000 mercenaries. One of these units he gave to Eitel Friedrich II, Count of Hohenzollern, who trained them with Swiss instructors in Bruges in 1487 to become the "Black Guard"[a] – the first Landsknechte.[10] In 1488, Maximilian organized the Swabian League, creating an army of 12,000 infantry and 1,200 cavalry to deter Bavaria and Bohemia. This is considered to be the first Landsknecht army to be raised in Germany.[3] Maximilian raised a strong army for the Austrian-Hungarian War of 1490, and succeeded in driving the Hungarians out of the Austria. The Landsknechte in his army refused to serve after sacking Stuhlweissenburg (now Székesfehérvár, Hungary), citing lack of pay and stopping Maximilian's advance on Budapest. To prevent a repeat of Stuhlweissenburg, Maximilian now sought to homogenize the Landsknechte into a fully professional, and mostly German military force.[11]

In the 1490s, the well-trained Landsknechte managed to defeat significantly greater Frisian armies. Paul Dolnstein [de] wrote of the siege of Älvsborg Fortress in July 1502, fighting for the King of Denmark: "We were 1800 Germans, and we were attacked by 15000 Swedish farmers ... we struck most of them dead."[12] In 1521, the Spaniards recruited German infantrymen to defend their country against the French because, as they stated "our infantry does not perform as well in its native country as abroad". At the Battle of Bicocca and the Battle of Marignano (1515), the Landsknecht performed well, defeating the famed Reisläufer.

The Imperial Landsknechte were instrumental in many of the Emperor's victories, including the decisive Battle of Pavia in 1525. The same year, they also managed to defeat the peasants' revolt in the Empire. At their peak in the early 16th century, the Landsknechte were considered as formidable soldiers who were often brave and loyal. However, these qualities may have declined afterward.

From the 1560s on, the reputation of the Landsknechte steadily decreased. In the French Wars of Religion and the Eighty Years War, their bravery and discipline came under criticism, and the Spanish elements of the army of Flanders regularly deprecated the battlefield usefulness of the Landsknechte, somewhat unfairly. Their status also suffered from the rising reputation of the dreaded Spanish tercios which, however, were far less abundant and more expensive to train. It should also be noted that when serving in southern Europe, Landsknechte were still considered as elite troops. In the army of the Dutch rebels, many German mercenaries were hired but were forced to give up many Landsknecht traditions in order to increase their discipline and their fighting abilities.

They are attested as deployed in the armies of Kings John III of Navarre and successor Henry II of Navarre during their campaigns to reconquer Navarre (1512–1524). In the same context, they are also found fighting on Charles V's side (battle for Hondarribia, 1521–1524) where they performed strongly. They also served in high numbers in the Imperial army during the campaigns of Austria (1532), France (1542), Germany (1547) and in all the Italian wars.

The army of the Holy Roman Emperor defeated the French army in Italy, but funds were not available to pay the soldiers. The 34,000 Imperial troops mutinied and forced their commander, Charles III, Duke of Bourbon, to lead them towards Rome. The Sack of Rome in 1527 was executed by some 6,000 Spaniards under the Duke, 14,000 Landsknechte under Georg von Frundsberg, some Italian infantry and some cavalry.

Reisläufer and Landsknechte engaged in a push of pike (engraving by Hans Holbein the Younger, early 16th century)
Right hand section of preceding drawing (engraving by Hans Holbein the Younger, early 16th century)

Organization and recruitment

Ernst Friedrich, Margrave of Baden-Durlach, wearing Landsknecht dress. His greaves, however, are atypical of Landsknecht

As with the Reisläufer, a regiment of Landsknechte was raised by a lord with a letter patent (Bestallungsbrief) that named the unit colonel (Obrist). This document laid out the size and structure of the unit, the pay of its men, and contained its Articles of War (Artikelsbriefe). Upon accepting the commission and securing funding, either through a bank loan or a grant from the lord, the colonel assembled his chain of command. His captains, once appointed, would then go to a locality he knew with drummers and fifers. Recruits gathered at a specified place and time for the muster. There, they would parade under an arch and be inspected by the colonel and his captains, then be paid their first months' salary. The colonel next read Bestallungsbrief in full to the soldiers, who then swore oaths of allegiance to cause, officers, and the Emperor. This ceremony also saw the appointing of the unit staff and its standard bearers, or Fähnriche (ensigns), who swore to never lose the standard.[13][14][15]

The colonel was the highest–ranking officer in a Landsknecht in a regiment, but if his force contained more than one regiment he could become a Generalobrist. If it contained cavalry and artillery in addition to its infantry, then he could be a Feldobrist or Generalfeldobrist.[16] The regiment would be commanded by a lieutenant colonel in the colonel's stead. The regiment itself was formed by ten Fähnlein, equivalent to a company and commanded by a captain. A Fähnlein was made up by 400 men, including 100 veterans. Rotten, equivalent to a platoon, were the building blocks of the Fähnlein and contained either ten ordinary Landsknechte or six Doppelsöldner, led by a Rottmeister elected by his unit. In totality, the regiment averaged at 4,000 men;[b] ten Fähnlein, containing 40 Rotten. Unit sergeant majors, called Feldweibel, were tasked with training drill and formation. The regimental sergeant major, Oberster-Feldweibel was responsible for drill on the battlefield. Rotten sergeants, Weibel, were charged with ensuring discipline and relaying liaisons between enlisted men and their officers. One of these men, the Gemeinweibel, was the spokesman for the men and was elected monthly.[13]

According to Imperial law, a colonel could have a staff of 22 officers but in practice this depended on the colonel's wealth.[16] Included in that staff were a chaplain, a scribe, a doctor, a scout, his personal quartermaster and ensign, a drummer and fifer, and a bodyguard (Trabanten) of eight men. Captains also had a staff that included much of the same, but with additional musicians and two Doppelsöldner to protect him. A provost marshal and Schultheiss were appointed by the colonel to maintain military discipline and to prosecute the Artikelsbriefe respectively. The provost was unimpeachable, and feared. Harsh punishments could be expected for offenses such as mutiny or drunkenness on duty. A provost had a retinue of a jailer, bailiff, and executioner (Freimann).[13][18]

Equipment and tactics

Landsknecht with a Zweihänder

Just like the Reisläufer, Landsknecht formations consisted of men trained and armed with pikes, halberds, and swords.[9] 300 men of a Fähnlein would be armed with a pike,[19] though a Landsknecht's pike was generally shorter than a Reisläufer's at about 4.2 meters (14 ft).[20] Experienced and well-equipped soldiers, receiving double a normal Landsknecht's pay and getting the title Doppelsöldner,[21] made up a quarter of each Fähnlein. 50 of these men were armed with a halberd or with a 66-inch (170 cm) two-handed sword called a Zweihänder while other fifty were arquebusiers. All Landsknechte, regardless of primary weapon, carried a short sword called a Katzbalger for close melee combat.[20][22] By the end of the 16th century, however, the number of pikemen in a Fähnlein had diminished to around 200.[23]

Tactics were also copied part and parcel from the Swiss.[9] Landsknechte fought in a pike square they called the gevierte Ordnung,[20][24] forty to sixty men deep.[9] Doppelsöldnern made up the formation's first two ranks. Then came the ensigns, and then the squares themselves. Pikemen, supported by halberdiers, formed the square while swordsmen made up their front and rear. The most experienced soldiers were located at the back of the formation and arquebusiers were placed on its flanks. In the attack, a band of soldiers called a forlorn hope preceded the pike square to break enemy pikes.[20][25]

The pikemen were supported by halberdiers, who would rush a gap in an opposing line,[26] a tactic also copied from the Swiss.[27]


Landsknecht with his Wife, by Daniel Hopfer. Note the Zweihänder over his shoulder and the smaller Katzbalger at his hip

The Tross were the camp followers or "baggage train" who traveled with each Landsknecht unit, carrying military necessities, the food, and the belongings of each soldier and his family. The Tross was made up of women, children and some craftsmen. Women and young boys set up Landsknecht camps, cooked, mended injuries, and dug and cleaned latrines.[28] A Landsknecht was usually forbidden by his Bestallungsbrief from having more than one woman in the baggage train.[29] The Tross was overseen by a "whore's sergeant" (Hurenweibel).[17]

Landsknechte adopted the Hussite tactic of creating a ring of limbers and wagons, surrounded by cannon, with the encampment in the middle. While in strong positions like this, many Landsknechte lived in tents; however, in more makeshift situations, they would often build crude huts made of straw and mud supported by pikes and halberds. Commissioned officers would always sleep in tents on campaign. Quarrels and disease would go about the camp, and if the Landsknechte had been defeated in the battle the camp followers had little time to escape before rape and plunder took place. However, it was usually secure from the enemy.

See also