Renaissance Armies: Military Orders
An article by George Gush

A characteristically medieval institution, these orders of soldier-monks nonetheless survived, in several cases, into the 16th Century as active military forces, and indeed, in the early part of our period, provided some of the very few troops who could be called regular. One survival was the Order of the Teutonic Knights who, at the beginning of the period, were still highly influential in Northeast Germany and more or less governed their own lands in the Baltic areas of Latvia, Livonia and Estonia.

In the area of Prussia the order seems to have broken up in 1525, when the Grand Master Albrecht von Hohenzollern turned Lutheran, but further east the Order survived until 1562, when its defeated remnants were disbanded after the Russian invasion of Livonia.

Nor were these "Medieval storm-troopers" a negligible military force over these years. Under the Grand Master Walter von Plettenberg, one of the greatest leaders of their order, they took a very active and successful part in the war of 1499-1503, in which the Grand Duke of Muscovy, supported by the Khan of the Crim Tartars, fought the Grand Duke of Lithuania, the Tartar Khan of the Volga, and the Order. In this war, the knights' strength lay in a skilful combination of heavy cavalry charges interspersed with artillery fire; with such tactics Plettenberg won, for instance, the battle of the Seritsa River, where an Order army of 8,000 foot and 4,000 horse defeated 40,000 Muscovites. An earlier Order army has less infantry but may give an idea of the more detailed composition of their forces: 1,000 heavy cavalry (full armour) and 600 light cavalry plus 1,300 infantry militia and 400 infantry mercenaries.

The brethren themselves were a relatively small proportion of the forces of the Order—in general they seem to have acted as officers and NCOs over forces of mercenaries and levies, though they probably formed a higher percentage of the heavy cavalry. All professed brethren had to wear a beard, and were also distinguished by a black-enamelled silver ritterkreuz hanging round their necks (rather like the iron crosses of a much later generation of German officers), and bore a black cross edged in silver on their tunics.

Other men serving under the Order may have worn its surcoat, which was white with a narrow black cross. Leaders, including the Grand Master, would be distinguished by more elaborate equipment—at Tannenberg, 1410, the Grand Master wore gilt armour and a white cloak. Trumpets and drums were used and the usual battle-cry or field-word was Gott Mit Uns.

The final war of the Order was against the Russian invasion of Livonia (1557-62). By this time they could only raise 2,000 cavalry plus some infantry. The latter were armed with arquebusses and pikes, and may have been Lansknechts, though as early as 1454 the Order had been replacing its crossbow-equipped infantry with handgunners.

One of the standards carried in this war was that of the Lithuanian Master of the Order, which showed the Virgin Mary in glory; standards captured by the Poles from the Order at Tannenberg are illustrated, and similar ones were probably also carried in the 16th Century.

Apart from the Order of San Diego, which played a part in the Spanish wars with the Moors in the late 15th Century, the other Military Order still active in our period was that of the Hospitallers (Knights of St. John), and their military career in fact continued right through to the end of the 18th Century, though by then they were in sad decline.

The Hospitallers were still primarily concerned with the war against Islam, and much of their fighting was at sea, where their small but powerful galley fleet was the scourge of the Moslems in the Mediterranean. However, they also did a great deal of land fighting, and were found, inter alia, assisting Charles V's Imperial forces at Tunis (1535), defending Venetian Candia (Crete) against the Turks (1648-68), helping in the Venetian conquest of the Morea (Greece, 1687) and even helping the Emperor to recapture Belgrade from the Turks (1688). However, the high point of their military achievements came in the 16th Century, with the two epic sieges of Rhodes in 1522 and of Malta in 1564.

As the Emperor remarked, "Nothing in the world was ever so well lost as Rhodes", and though the knights' very gallant defense was overcome, they marched out with the honors of war, and were given Malta as a new base, by Charles V. There, in an even more epic siege, conducted by Suleiman the Magnificent with 6,000 Janissaries and some 23,000 other Turkish troops, plus the corsair Torghut, "Sword of Islam", with another 1,500 men under his own flag (red and white with a blue crescent), the knights finally beat off the Turks and, as it turned out, permanently halted Turkish maritime expansion in the Mediterranean.

As with the Teutonic Knights, the armies of the Knights of St. John had a relatively small proportion of actual members of the Order, acting as officers, NCOs and spearhead troops. They wore a scarlet supravest—a tabard type garment—over-their armour in battle, marked with a square-ended white cross. Such was its reputation that on one occasion in the 16th Century a Turkish attack was defeated by the simple expedient of dressing up all available civilians in it—the sight of what appeared to be an unexpected reinforcement of knights proving too much for the enemy. The ordinary soldiers appear to have worn just the white cross as a field sign on back and breast.

At Rhodes, the garrison consisted of 500 brethren, 1,000 men-at-arms, 800 Cretan mercenaries and some thousands of local militia (the Cretans had retained their ancient reputation as mercenary archers, but their weapon was now the crossbow; they were under Venetian rule and were usually to be found in Venetian armies - indeed the Venetians had forbidden them to take service with the knights). In addition to heavy guns, the defenders had some light sakers and falcons on wheeled carriages, which could be moved up to cover breaches.

At Malta in 1564, the garrison comprised 541 brethren and servants at arms (later rising to 700); 3,000 Maltese militia (later rising to 5 or 6,000); 1,200 Spanish and Italian mercenaries; and about 1,500 others, including Greek residents, galley slaves used for labor, etc.

The mercenaries were pikemen and arquebusiers, normally equipped for the period, with morions or burgonets, and corselets and tassets for the pikemen. The militia had only helmets and leather jerkins and was probably mainly armed with firearms. They demonstrated a staunchness and loyalty similar to that for which their island was later awarded the George Cross.

The knights may in some cases have worn full armour, but as they were fighting on foot would be more likely to wear half-armour or brigantine. They carried various officer-type weapons, useful in siege warfare, such as halberds, half-pikes, two-handed swords and so on, and to judge by near-contemporary prints many of them bore oval bucklers, red with the white cross. The Grand Master, Jean la Vallete, betrayed his 70 years in his white beard, moustache and curly hair, but played an active role; he was armed with a two-handed sword and was distinguished by a supravest of cloth-of-gold and the shield shown.

Some interesting special siege weapons were also employed by the defenders, including "cercles" of blazing wadding which were dropped over groups of attackers, fire-grenades in earthenware pots with four spouts, each containing a fuse, and "Trumps", a sort of short-range flamethrower on a pole. They were very effective against the Turks, who retaliated with sticky-bombs of incendiary type, hurled by the Janissaries; the knights kept large tubs of water behind the ramparts, into which anyone hit by one could hastily jump!

The Military Orders

a. Lesser banner of the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, captured at Tannenburg. Black cross, white ground, b. and c. Two sides of the Great banner of the Livonian Master, early 15th Century. Virgin's robes blue and white, face etc natural colors, grass green, halo gold. St. Maurice has gray armour, gold elbow and knee plates, with white halo, robe, shield and flag. Background (both sides) white, d. Late 15th Century Knights of St. John flag. Top left and bottom right red with white crosses, other quarters gold with red crosses, e. Great banner of the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order. White with gold cross and shield, black borders and double-headed eagle, f. Late 15th Century Knights of St. John flag, g. Shield of the Grand Master of the Knights of St. John, 1564. h. Flag of the Knights of St. John, 1535. Red with white cross.

About the Author
George Gush was educated at Tonbridge School, Kent, and won an Open Scholarship in History to Christ Church, Oxford, and has pursued a teaching career ever since graduation.

Article contents originally © Copyright George Gush and Patrick Stephens, Ltd 1975, 1982 and reproduced here with permission.


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