Renaissance Armies: The Swiss
An article by George Gush
The Swiss established their military reputation, along with their liberty, in the 15th Century, and their victories of the 1470s over the armies of Charles the Bold gained them general recognition as the supreme foot-soldiers of Europe, a reputation which they held until their defeat at Bicocca (1522). Even after that, though a little of their edge had gone, they remained very good soldiers, as their selection by both the Pope and the King of France as bodyguards indicated.
The Swiss troops of this period were remarkable both because of the terror they inspired in their opponents, and for their own extraordinary qualities. First of these was sheer courageno Swiss force of this period ever seems to have been broken or to have run or surrendered; several literally fought to the last man, and the only concession they would make to defeat was a bitter and grudging retreat in good order, defending themselves against all attacks (for example, at Marignano, 1515, where their losses were over 50 percent). Perhaps their habit of hanging the first man to panic had something to do with this!
Secondly, superiority of training: The Swiss relied on a simple traditional system of tactics, practiced until it became second nature to every man, and applied it unhesitatingly under the direction of a sort of committee-leadership of dour and experienced old soldiersrather like a Roman legion and its centurions.
Thirdly, ferocity: The Swiss spared no-one, refused quarter to their enemieseven prisoners who could afford a ransom were mercilessly slaughtered; they violated terms of surrender given to garrisons and pillaged towns that had capitulatednot a small part of the fear they inspired sprang from this bloody reputation.
With this ruthlessness went a strongly commercial attitude to warPoint d'argent, point de Suisse ("No money, no Swiss") went the saying; if not paid they simply marched off, no matter how that left their employer. If regularly paid they were normally loyal, but there were some examples of their being bribed to change sides. They were also independent and headstrong, their wish to get the job over often leading to attacks without orders, nor would they accept any discipline from outsiders.
Swiss Tactics and Organization
The Swiss started with eight-foot halberds, but on emerging from their mountains had to turn to the pike to stop cavalry; originally ten foot, the Swiss pikes were enlarged to 18 foot in the early Italian Wars. In the attack they were characteristically held head-high, well forward from the butt, and with the point inclined down.
The pikes were normally formed into three very large columns (though at Bicocca there were only two) which could be of equal strength (at Bicocca 4,Q00 each) or widely different, according to circumstances. At Novara, 1513, there was a striking column of 6,000 and two small diversionary ones of 1,000 and 2,000 respectively.
Against infantry, the Swiss nearly always took the offensive; their training gave them tremendous speedthey reckoned to charge artillery between the discharges and they liked to achieve surprise where possible, while the sight of that forest of spear-points coming down at a rush was often enough for the enemy. The columns went forward in echelon, one (not always the right) in advance, the others further back to guard its flanks and act as reserve. Leadership was professional rather than inspired, and the Swiss did not entirely adapt to the growing power of firearms and field defenses; a bloody lesson from the French cannon at Marignano was followed by disaster in the sunken road at Bicocca, 1522.
In French service, regimental organization later developed, and by 1600 the Swiss units were of ten or 12 companies, each of 200 pikes, 30 muskets, and 30 arquebusses.
The Pope raised a Swiss Guard of 150 in 1506, and it was maintained thereafter except for a short time after the Sack of Rome, later reaching 600 strong. Costume is illustrated; in 1548 they changed to a Landsknecht style of dress.
The French Kings also had Swiss Guards in the 16th Century. Under Henry IV there was a Guard Regiment of 500 and the "Cent Suisses"100 halberdiers. One of the latter, from 1581, is illustrated, together with a 17th Century Cent Suisse standard.
Pictures of Swiss troops of the late 15th Century usually show Sallet or pot-helmets, half armour, and simple clothing with tight-fitting hoseoften striped or parti-coloredand tunic; the white cross was worn as a field signsometimes, apparently on the leg.
In their wars with Charles the Bold of Burgundy, the Swiss are said to have originated the Landsknecht style of dress with its characteristic slashed decoration; after their victory at Grandson (1476) the Swiss patched their ragged clothing with captured silks, and the result was copied by the German mercenaries, who after all were modeled on the Swiss in most other respects. It certainly appears that a style of dress very similar to that of the Landsknechts, if a fraction more restrained, was characteristic of the Swiss in the 16th Century.
Sixteenth Century Flags
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.