Who Were the Landsknechts?

Highly effective and flamboyant, the Landknechts were German mercenaries who shaped the battlefields of Renaissance Europe.

Apr 10, 2024By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

who were landsknechts


Contrary to what many might think, the battlefields of Europe could be an immensely colorful place. Pennants and banners fluttered in the wind. Shields carrying colorful devices marked their wielders’ allegiance, as did the soldiers’ uniforms, from spearmen to the nobles.


From the late 15th to the early 17th century, the battlefields became even more colorful as German mercenaries took to the fields. With wide-brimmed hats sporting brightly dyed plumage, flashy linen garments, berets, baggy shirts, and multi-colored puffs and slashes, these soldiers were immediately noticeable. But it was not just their clothes that drew attention.


Although most commonly seen using the pike, they were most associated with the Zweihänder, a magnificently huge sword that could be up to eight feet in length (although around six feet was most common). They were deadly soldiers, feared across all of Europe.


They were the Landsknechts.


Landsknechts: A Note on the Name

bernard van orley battle of pavia
The Battle of Pavia tapestry by Willem and Jan Dermoyen, after Bernard van Orley. Landsknechte can be seen on the far left battling against Swiss mercenaries. Source: Codart via Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples

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The term Landsknecht is derived from Middle High German and Middle Low German. Knecht means “servant.” A Landsknecht is, therefore, a servant of the land. In its original context, it is difficult to see how this word would do the soldiers justice. It does not conjure up images of deadly fighters.


They did, however, go by other names. One of the most common terms for them was Doppelsöldner, meaning “double-pay soldier,” and sometimes their name was rendered as Lanzknecht, referencing the long pikes they would employ (Lanze means “lance”).


The Late 15th Century

landsknecht british museum
A woodcut of a Landsknecht by Jörg Breu II (print-maker) and Jost de Negker (block-cutter) Source: British Museum, London


From 1474 to 1477, the Burgundian State entered a war with the Swiss Confederacy. Charles the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy, had a capable army that was well-trained and well-equipped. Despite this advantage, his forces were routinely beaten by Swiss militia. This was due to not only issues with morale but the effectiveness of Swiss mercenaries called Reisläufers, who wielded pikes and other polearms.


These weapons would come to dominate the battlefields of Europe for the next two centuries. Polearms, especially pikes, were employed in mass formations of phalanxes that virtually negated the effect of cavalry charges, which had been the superweapon of the medieval era. Commoners with long, pointy sticks were now more effective than knights.


albrecht durer maximilian i
Maximilian I by Albrecht Dürer. Source: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC


In fact, the Reisläufers were so successful that it was likely one of them who killed Charles the Bold in combat. Remnants of the order still exist today, guarding the Vatican, and are known as the Swiss Guard.


After the war, Archduke Maximilian, who later became the Holy Roman Emperor, took control of Burgundian lands, which then became the target of French claims. Maximilian had been so impressed with the Swiss Reisläufers that he employed troops to fight in their formations and tactics. The army comprised levied Flemish soldiers who employed the square infantry formations combined with the wagon fort tactics popular among the Hussites. After defeating the French, however, the levied troops were released from their duty, and Maximilian found himself wanting a permanent force of soldiers that could fight in such an effective style. The Landsknechts were founded.


hans burgkmair the execution of the guardian of kufstein
The Execution of the Guardian of Kufstein by Hans Burgkmair, from Der Weisskunig. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


In 1486, the first units of Landsknechts were raised. These early units did not have the brightly colored clothing for which the Landsknechts became known. In fact, one of these units was named the Black Guard and served for many decades after its founding.


Landsknecht troops were drawn mainly from poorer classes in society, although it was not uncommon for nobles to take up positions as officers. Maximilian recruited Reisläufers to train the Landsknechts, and with the capable leadership under Georg von Frundsberg, known as the “Father of the Landsknechts,” the Landsknechts became a well-trained, formidable fighting unit.


In 1488, the first Landsknecht army was raised in Germany under the command of the Swabian League. Their first campaign was a complete success when they drove the Hungarians out of Austria. Realizing their value, the Landsknechts put a halt to the campaign, stopping Maximilian from completing his victory. They demanded better pay, and Maximilian acceded, turning them into a fully professional, permanent army.


The 16th Century

landsknecht with zweihander
A Landsknecht reenactor with a Zweihänder. Source: Sew Not History


The Landsknechts quickly became a force with which to be reckoned. They solidified their reputation as effective soldiers during the siege of Älvsborg Fortress in 1502 when, according to the journal of a Landsknecht individual, 1,800 Landsknechts were attacked by 15,000 Swedish farmers and the Landsknechts “struck most of them dead.”


The Landsknechts became the hated enemies of the Swiss Reisläufers, and they rarely took prisoners, instead opting to murder all Landsknechts that were captured. Of course, the Landsknechts returned the favor in kind. As mercenaries, they took the opportunity to fight against their enemies, even if it meant fighting for other traditional enemies. At the Battle of Novara in 1513, six thousand Landsknechts fought for the French against the Swiss, fielding an army of Reisläufers, and were defeated. The Swiss put them to the sword.


The Landsknechts would get the better of the Reisläufers twice at the battles of Marignano in 1515 and Bicocca in 1521. The following years witnessed the Landsknechts achieve many victories, fighting mainly for the Holy Roman Empire and Spain. This is not to say that these were their only employers. The Landsknechts fought for anyone who could hire them.


They enjoyed an unusually high status as footsoldiers, and they used their status as bargaining power, managing to argue for better pay and forcing situations on the battlefield in their favor. They were sometimes difficult to control and would force fights with the enemy in protracted sieges. This is not surprising, as their ranks were also filled with criminals and other unsavory and violently confident characters looking for glory and plunder.

steel mastery landsknecht
A Landsknecht costume. Source: steel-mastery.com


In 1527, the Holy Roman Empire under Charles V defeated the French while on a campaign in Italy. Lack of funds, however, meant that many troops who fought for the Holy Roman Empire did not get paid. This resulted in a mutiny of 34,000 soldiers, 14,000 of whom were Landsknechts. They showed their displeasure by marching on and sacking Rome.


In the following decades, the Landknechts came under harsh criticism by those who questioned their discipline. Their reputation as Europe’s most dreaded soldiers also suffered with the success of the Spanish tercios, who won incredible victories due to their training, tactics, and effective use of formations, which took into account technological innovations revolving around gunpowder.


In the latter half of the 16th century, the Holy Roman Empire sought more control over its armies by switching to a system that relied far less on mercenaries, and the Landsknechts found themselves being slowly diminished as a fighting force. Many veterans took up jobs as bodyguards, but this wasn’t enough to employ the mercenaries in the many thousands to which they had grown accustomed.


In the second half of the 16th century, a population explosion led to unemployment, and many people joined the Landsknechts, reducing wages. With the advent of more effective firearms, the tactics employed by the Landsknechts also became obsolete.


Their Uniforms

A Landsknecht reenactor. Source: landsknecht.se


The Landsknechts were well-known for their brightly-colored, flashy clothing. According to legend, the trend in colorful clothing started in 1477 after a particularly bloody battle. With broken and slashed clothing that needed patching, they took random bits of cloth from their enemies’ uniforms and standards. The patchy but colorful look developed into asymmetric uniforms with deliberate slashes and puffs.


They were exempt from sumptuary laws and were thus not confined by the rules governing the style and color of their uniforms that were found in the rest of the armies in the employ of the Holy Roman Emperor.


On their head, they wore large berets, generally adorned with dyed ostrich feathers. On their upper body, they wore a baggy shirt made of linen with a collar of lace. Around their neck, they often wore chains and amulets. The most common design was a cross, although many symbols could be displayed.


landsknecht figure museum
An historical figure of a Landsknecht mercenary. Source: Museum of Ventura County / George S. Stuart Historical Figures


Thick doublets that would withstand wear and tear were worn. Any material of significant hardiness could be used, such as multi-layered linen or felt. Those wealthy enough could have the inside of the doublet lined with silk.


On their legs, they wore stockings laced up and attached to the bottom of the doublet. Over the stockings, they wore pantaloons of various colored strips of cloth, puffed and slashed like the sleeves of the doublet. Similarly, they were often asymmetrical.


Of note were the large codpieces that were worn. These were stuffed with cotton, straw, or any other similar substance. Sometimes, it was even used as a purse to store coins!


Leather shoes called “cow-muzzle” or “bear-paw” shoes were worn on the feet. They were square-toed, and even these items of clothing were decorated with slashes.


A Landsknecht reenactor. Source: landsknecht.se


When the Landsknechts took to the field, their enemies knew they were in for a hard fight. They had a reputation that was well-deserved and was matched by their ostentatious outfits.


They were brutal. They did not observe the rules of war in the same way the nobles did. They sacked towns and cities, pillaging the living and the dead in their quest for loot. Their lives were short, and they knew it.


Their legacy is certainly one that stands out, and their choice of clothing influenced Renaissance fashion as people took their cues from the famous flashy soldiers of Europe.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.