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Landsknechte, etching by Daniel Hopfer, c. 1530

The German Landsknechte (German plural, singular Landsknecht), meaning "servants of the land", were colourful mercenary soldiers with a formidable reputation who took over the Swiss forces' legacy and became an important military force of the late 15th- and throughout 16th-century Europe. Consisting predominantly of German and Swiss mercenary pikemen and supporting foot soldiers, they achieved the reputation for being the universal mercenaries of early modern Europe.[1][2]


The term is from German Land (land or country) and Knecht (servant, cognate to 'knight'), recorded from ca. 1480. It was originally coined by Peter von Hagenbach and intended to indicate soldiers of the Swabian part of the Holy Roman Empire as opposed to the Swiss mercenaries. As early as 1500, the misleading spelling of Lanzknecht became common because of the association with Lanze "lance".

The term Landser is directly based on Landsknecht, as is the name of the French card game Lansquenet.


Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor from 1493 to 1519, formed the first mercenary Landsknecht regiments in 1487. He called upon Georg von Frundsberg (1473–1528), sometimes referred to as the Father of the Landsknechte, to assist him in their organization. Landsknechte later went on to fight in almost every 16th-century military campaign, sometimes on both sides of the engagement.

The Landsknechte, formed in conscious imitation of the Swiss mercenaries (and, initially, using Swiss instructors), eventually contributed to the defeat of the redoubtable Swiss, whose battle formations – over-dependent on hand-to-hand fighting – became vulnerable to the increased firepower of arquebus and artillery. French artillery or Spanish firepower dealt serious blows to the Swiss formations, and the Landsknecht pike blocks were there to fight off the depleted Swiss attack columns once this had occurred.

Standard bearer fighting against five Landsknechte, etching by Daniel Hopfer

The Landsknechte were always rather conservative in their usage of weapons and contained a large majority of pikemen. However, they inclined more to the tactical use of firearms than the Swiss because Landsknechte relied less on the precipitous rush to close combat. As Imperial soldiers, they often fought in formations mixed with Spaniards during the reign of King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. These Spaniards made a good widespread use of the arquebus and later, of the musket.

Ambivalence towards the Landsknechts is reflected in this German figure apparently from a group representing the Stoning of Stephen, c 1520 (Walters Art Museum)

Lady on Horseback and a Lansquenet {Landsknecht} by Albrecht Dürer 1497.

Landsknechte typically came from Swabia, Alsace, Flanders, and the Rhineland, but ultimately the regiments were made up of men from all parts of Europe.

Their battlefield behavior was highly variable. Sometimes, such as at the Battle of Pavia (1525), they performed exceptionally well, fighting to the death on both sides of the conflict, even after their allies fled the field, as was the case for the French employed Landsknechte. The Imperial Landsknechte were instrumental in the Emperor's victory. However, on many other occasions, (such as in the later Italian Wars, French Wars of Religion and the Eighty Years War) their bravery and discipline came under severe criticism, and the Spanish elements of the Imperial army regularly deprecated the battlefield usefulness of the Landsknechte—it was said that the Duke of Alba hired them only to deny their services to the Dutch enemy, and put them on display to swell his numbers, not intending to fight with them. The Huguenots scorned their Landsknecht mercenaries after these were immediately routed by the battered Swiss mercenary pike-block they had been sent to finish off at the Battle of Dreux (1562).

Sack of Rome

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 and Constable of France, to lead them towards Rome. The Sack of Rome in 1527 was executed by some 6,000 Spaniards under the Duke, 14,000 Landsknechts under Georg von Frundsberg, some Italian infantry and some cavalry.


Landsknecht with his Wife. Etching by Daniel Hopfer. Note the huge Zweihänder sword over his shoulder, and the smaller Katzbalger sword at his hip, both emblematic of the Landsknecht.

The regiments often expanded from 4,000 to 10,000 men according to circumstances, or even larger, e.g. the 12,000 Landknechts raised by Frundsberg in 1526 for his campaign in Italy. It was this flexibility which allowed them to be used in various battle conditions. Oberste (colonels) were given recruiting commissions by the Emperor to form regiments, with a lieutenant-colonel and various regimental staff, and units divided into Fähnleins (companies) with a Hauptmann (captain) in charge, as well as lieutenants and Fähnriche (ensigns). Other ranks included majors of the court-martial and officers in charge of camp followers.

The Tross were the camp followers or "baggage train" who traveled with each Landsknecht unit, carrying the military necessities, the food and the belongings of each soldier and his family. The Tross was made up of women, children and some craftsmen.


Landsknechte were trained in the use of the famous long pikes and used the pike square formations developed by the Swiss. The majority of Landsknechte would use pikes, but others, meant to provide tactical assistance to the pikemen, accordingly used different weapons. For example, an experienced Landsknecht could be designated a Doppelsöldner, an armoured soldier who served as the backbone for the formation and in addition to the pike as more recent recruits, they could also be alternatively employed wielding a 6-to-8-foot-long (1.8 to 2.4 m) halberd or partisan, or, more famously, a Zweihänder (literally: "Two-hander"), a two-handed sword as long as 180 cm (6 ft).[3] These great war swords could be used to hack off the heads of enemy pikes; or more likely to knock the pikes aside, creating disorder among the tightly-arranged enemy pikemen in order to break through their lines. Other Doppelsöldner were armed with an early matchlock firearm called an arquebus or crossbow would lay ranged fire support by the flanks of the pike square.[4]

Ernst Friedrich, margrave of Baden-Durlach

However, the primary use of the two-handed sword would be to serve as the guard for the standard bearer, as it is a weapon that allows for a few to oppose many.[3] The Swiss adversaries to the Landsknechte had specifically prohibited the use of these swords during the late 15th century, as they deemed them unsuitable for the constricted manner of pike warfare, though they continued to use the shorter longswords into and throughout the 16th century. "Doppelsöldner" meant "double pay man", because they were paid double the wages of their less-experienced counterparts. Landsknechte also used Kriegsmesser longswords (German for War knife) a long curved sword clasped to the belt, the blade shown naked without a scabbard in some woodcuts from 1500–1520.

Design for a stained-glass window commemorating the Landsknecht Christoph von Eberstein, by Hans Holbein the Younger

Other Landsknechte would use the arquebus, the precursor to the musket. When the Landsknechte were first formed, arquebusiers composed up to an eighth of the total number of soldiers, but the number gradually grew to be about a quarter.[citation needed]

The universal Landsknecht weapon was a short sword called a Katzbalger, carried in addition to the Landsknecht's main weapon. Indeed, the Katzbalger was seen as the very symbol of the Landsknecht, Swiss illustrators being careful to depict it to indicate that a mercenary was a Landsknecht rather than a Reisläufer.

Landsknechte were a very powerful force due to powerful weaponry. Landsknecht Paul Dolstein wrote of the siege of Älfsborg 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".[5]

In this engraving by Hendrick Goltzius the massed pike formation is seen at the rear


What made the Landsknechte so conspicuous was their elaborate dress, which they adopted from the Swiss, but later took to even more dramatic excess. Maximilian I exempted them from the prevalent sumptuary laws as an acknowledgement of their "...short and brutish" lives.[6] Doublets (German: Wams), deliberately slashed at the front, back and sleeves with shirts and other wear pulled through to form puffs of different-colored fabric, so-called puffed and slashed; parti-colored hose (or Gesses); jerkins (German: Lederwams); ever-broader flat beret-type hats (German: Tellerbarrets) with tall feathers; and broad flat shoes, made them bodies of men that could not be mistaken.


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.

Modern image

There are Landsknecht associations in various European countries, as well as in the United States, which promote interest in the Renaissance tradition of the Landsknechte and who often stage revivals and festivals. The action film Flesh & Blood portrays a group of Landsknechte and their fictional adventures in Italy. In the games Age of Empires III, Europa Universalis 3 and Medieval 2: Total War, Landsknechte can be hired to fight for one's own use. In Civilization IV, Landsknecht act as the unique unit for the Holy Roman Empire. In Civilization V and Rise of Nations Landsknechte are the unique unit of Germany, replacing pikemen. In the For the Glory, the first level unit sprite of German nations is a Landsknecht with zweihander . In the Etrian Odyssey series, Landsknecht is a playable class. The Warhammer Fantasy Battles Imperial Greatswords have been modelled after the Landsknechte. They also feature in the game Bladestorm: The Hundred Years' War. The Original Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Irwindale, California, also has a group of Landsknechte. There is also a unit of Landsknecht re-enactors known as Das Geld Fahnlein at the Connecticut Renaissance Faire.[7]

See also


  1. The Landsknechts, Author: Douglas Miller, Publisher: Osprey Publishing, Great Britain, 1976, ISBN 0850452589.
  2. Landsknecht Soldier 1486-1560, Author: John Richards, Publisher Osprey Publishing, Great Britain, 2002, ISBN 1841762431.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Bidenhander sword
  4. Rogers, Cliff (2010). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology , Volume 1. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195334035. 
  5. John Richards: Landsknecht Soldier, p. 51
  6. Rachel Ward – Introduction page – Saint Maximilian Landsknecht Reenactment Guild: "The Landsknechte were exempt from the sumptuary laws regulating clothing styles that other citizens had to follow. Maximilian granted them this dispensation because their lives tended to be so 'short and brutish.'"
  7. Das Geld Fahnlein

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