Medieval Germany

Contents

German DBM

German Picture gallery

Introduction

The Holy Roman Empire (HRE)

The Leagues

The Republics

Feudal Forces

Clerical Forces

Mercenaries

Imperial Armies


Introduction

The history of medieval Germany is a highly complex one. I have found it impossible to put together an introduction which covers it successfully.The intertwined political situation alone would require a book to explore.

Below is my brief introduction to medieval Germany, not too much detail but hopefully enough to provide a flavour.

Medieval German is a bit of a misnomer. The Country of Germany as we know it today is a modern invention coming out of the 19 Century state of Prussia. In the medieval period the area of modern Germany was a myriad of feuding Cities, Principalities, Kingdoms, Republics and Episcopal dioceses. These all theoretically fell under the authority of the King of Germany, a hereditary monarch. He in turn under the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor. The reality was the King of Germany could be and on occasion was deposed by the princes of Germany and replaced by their choice. The same is also true for the Holy Roman Emperor, he was also open to disposition and replacement by the Electors.

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The Holy Roman Empire (HRE)

The HRE was an elective monarchy and primarily for these reason never developed a strong centralised government. The Electoral college of the Holy Roman Empire was comprised of seven German Princes. These seven comprised of four lay Princes, the King of Bohemia, the Count Palatine of Rhine, the Margrave of Brandenburg, and the Duke of Saxony and three princes of the Church, the archbishops of Mainz, Triers, and Cologne. These Electors primary interest was preventing a strong leader becoming Emperor who would stamp his authority over the Empire and potentially create a hereditary succession. Most Holy Roman Emperors never managed to assert their authority as they were frequently embroiled in their own hereditary lands problems. Even those Emperors who managed to focus their attention on the concerns of the Empire found themselves defeated by the Imperial Diet (parliament) who possessed a stranglehold over monetary matters.

Below is a brief rundown of some of the major types of protagonists in the Empire and the troops they fielded

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The Leagues

Town Leagues

Towns and cities of a particular area banded together protection. These threats could be from local 'robber' knights but as often as not the threats faced by these towns were from their own overlord's, either their Prince or Bishop. These alliances to deal with a specific problem were the norm and they usually fragmented afterwards. There were some notable exceptions to this. The most famous of these is the Hanse League of Northern Germany founded in the 13 Century. The primary purpose of this League was to protect the trading interests of its members. As a result the League found itself in an intermittent war with the Danes. By 1370 AD the League had captured Copenhagen and forced Waldemar IV of Denmark to sign a peace treaty. At its height in the 14 Century the League recorded 72 members at its meetings. This is not likely to have included lesser cities who were represented by proxy. This had dropped by the late 15 Century to 38.

The Swabian (founded 1376) and Rhennish (1381) Leagues were set up to prevent the Emperor ceding Imperial cities to cover debts. These Leagues became as much of a threat to their neighbours as those they were set up to counter. The power of these two Leagues were destroyed at the battle of Doffingen in 1388 when they were decisively defeated by an alliance of Knights. A new Swabian League was founded in 1488 and included over 22 Cities, numerous Knights, Nobles and Prelates. The League provided much need support to Charles V, was instrumental in destroying the Knight revolt of Franz Von Sickingenin 1522 and the Peasant war of 1524-26.

Town troops

The instability of the region meant towns and cities tended to have some form of fortifications and a town militia for defence. The town militia was raised and drilled by quarters. Each quarter of a town being expected to provide, arm and train a certain number of troops. Some of the 'quarters' were centred around the Merchant guilds of the district. Towns often contained arsenals of equipment for their militia, although usually it was up to the individual to supply his personal arms. Those rich enough would have been mounted. The majority of the militia were a mix of missile men, usually crossbows, and spearmen.

The militias were normally only expected to fight in defence of the town and in the immediate locality. Although many cities and towns had ordinances requiring their citizens to train during peace time these were difficult to enforce and as a result the militias tended to be of dubious quality. Though frequently adequate for the defence of the city walls and better than the mass levy, their battlefield role was secondary.

From the mid 15 century many of the larger militias had started to convert to the use of Pike. This is in part due to the influence of the Swiss Canton mercenaries and those of the Lowland armies. The additional advantage of pikes over the traditional spears was the cost. A city was able to raise many more pikemen than they could spearmen. An effective spearmans equipment included a large shield, chain or similar armour, helmet and sword/dagger. A pike phalanx however only realistically needed the first few ranks to be armoured. The Pike offered a far greater deterrent to mounted knights, even troops with limited training could form an effective Pike phalanx. Those militias that did march with a field army were usually from large city states.

By the 15 century many of the larger cities had their own artillery. These were often commanded and crewed by mercenaries as they usually had the required skills. The use of mercenaries to supplement and in some case replace the militia became an increasingly common practise in the 15 century. The advantages to the city were various, the troops were professionals, usually well armed and not citizens. The obvious disadvantage was the possibility of treachery or desertions should they not get paid.

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The Leagues of Knights

These Leagues were formed to counter Town Leagues and the threats that caused them. Once the Leagues dealt with their immediate threats many of them remained in existence and offered their services to the highest bidder. Some went as far as to adopt uniforms and Heraldic images as their insignia. Many of the Knightly Leagues were little more than robber bands and preyed heavily on the local populations, causing more destruction than they prevented. The behaviour of these bands caused several peasant rebellions, all brutally crushed.

Knightly League troops were essentially feudal so are described under Feudal Forces

The decline of the Leagues

The power of the Town and Knightly Leagues had peaked by the end of the 14 Century. Most floundered as the Dukes and Princes of Germany re-asserted their authority over their towns and feudal subordinates. The Hanse League lasted until 1668 but by the end of the 15 Century the back of its power had already been broken. The Swabian League (of 1488) was dissolved in 1534 due to a break down of trust between the Feudal elements and the Cities along with the religious tensions of the reformation.

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The Republics

These Republics were situated in inhospitable areas of Germany. The most famous of the republics was the Eternal Alliance of Swiss Cantons. From 1308 the Eternal Alliance was a permanent and important part of the HRE, although the Emperor never managed to reassert Imperial governance. Austria and Burgundy attempted to reclaim lost lands from the Swiss Cantons and both failed. However for the rest of the HRE the Swiss republic was a vital source of Mercenaries, even the Emperor employed Swiss troops. The largest of the other Republics was the Dithmarschen situated in the South West of Schleswig-Holstein between the Elbe and Eider rivers. It is also referred to as the Dithmarschen of Saxony as it was originally part of this state. The Dithmarschen was a communal state and relied heavily on the inhospitable terrain for their defence. It formed an Alliance with the Bishopric of Bremen and although not a member of the Hanse League had a 'preferred trading status'. The army of Dithmarschen defeated numerous attempts to conquer them. The battle of Wohrden saw the Dithmarschen kill Gerhard the Great. Gerhardt VI was killed along with a large proportion of his Knights at the battle of Hamme in 1404.

The battle of Hemmingstedt February 1500

King Johann I of Denmark and Duke Friedrich ordered the Dithmarscheners to pay 15,000 marks and recognise their sovereignty. The Dithmarscheners refused and the royal forces comprising some 10,000 Schleswig, Holstein and Danish Knights and 5,000 Black guard mercenaries invaded. The Dithmarscheners built a fortification line across the only road not made impassable by the spring thaw and flooded the surrounding countryside by opening the sluice gates. The dismounted royalists charged the fortifications and were repulsed and then fled from the counter attack. Most of the Royalist casualties, predominately Noble born as they insisted on leading the attack died from drowning in the mud rather than to the spears of Dithmarscheners. The Danes also lost the Royal battle banner 'Dannebrog'.

Republic Troops

Swiss troops are covered under mercenaries. The other Republics relied upon a general levy of all able bodied men for their defence. As a result the majority of the armies were farmers, with little armour and armed with spears or weapons improvised from agricultural equipment.

Within the confines of their territory they presented formidable foes to their Knightly opponents who had great difficulty operating in the Marshy terrain. The Republic forces also had a small expert archer and crossbow contingent made up from the local hunters.

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Feudal Forces

These are the armies of the Princes, Dukes, Counts and lesser Nobility holding the Imperial Cities. Feudalism had not spread evenly over the HRE, some areas being more influenced by Eastern practises. Knights with feudal obligations were expected to provide themselves and a predetermined number of retainers for service in their overlords army. The size of the retinue was usually determined by wealth rather than by the amount of land held. Length of service could vary.

Feudal Troops

The basic unit of a levy was the 'Gleve' originally referring to the Knight. By the end of the 13 Century this term covered the Knight and two other lesser armoured retainers, sometimes mercenaries. By the 14 Century the Gleve could also have included one or more missilemen or spearmen. The raising of feudal forces often caused difficulties as 40 days notice had to be given for assembly and troops were often not obligated to fight outside of their overlord's lands. As a result it became increasingly common for Overlord's to accept a cash alternative to service. This money being used to hire mercenaries who provided a much more reliable fighting force with far fewer restrictions. Frequently the mercenary troops were actually raised from the very men who had bought themselves out of feudal service. Cities were also obligated to provide troops for their overlords. These were largely infantry contingents made up of the militia but the richer merchants did fight as armoured horsemen and some where made into municipal Knights.

Mercenary or feudal the mounted Knight of a Gleve was expected to be equipped in the best armour available. The German Plate of the era represents the peak of Knightly armour. By the 15 century coverings of plate even been used to armour their horses. The expense of such armour however meant that only a proportion of the knights were so equipped. This proportion became ever smaller as the armour developed and the cost increased. This changed the way Knight commands deployed. They increasingly deployed in deep and narrow formations, to allow the lesser armoured to be protected in the rear ranks. From the 1450's the 'lesser' Knights and those mercenaries owning partial plate armour were sometimes deployed as separate lancer commands as they were more mobile and flexible than those of the heavy knights.

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Clerical Forces

The Prelates, like their secular counterparts, relied heavily on feudal obligations for their troops. Tenants of Church lands being expected to provide troops for the defence of the See. Clerical armies also contained troops from cities and on occasion contingents from the Peasant republics. The Bishopric of Bremen was aided by the Dithmarscheners. Mercenaries were also heavily employed by Prelates, particularly as the Church lands were more 'cash' rich than those of the Secular Lords. The Clerical councils being more amenable than the Feudal Diets.

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Mercenaries

The anarchy that ranged over much of the HRE made it a fertile recruiting ground for mercenaries and a ready source of employment. All types of Mercenary units plied their trade in the Empire. From the 13 Century German Mercenary Knights were for hire around Europe and had a formidable reputation. Although by the 15 Century the Italian Condotteri were dismissive of their German counterparts skills with the lance. Never the less the Mercenary Knight was to be found in most armies of the period. It was the mercenary foot though that were the most numerous and desired. Mercenary foot fell into several main category's. The crossbowmen and archers of the line, trained to fight in a close group, using volley fire to break up and disrupt enemy units. Skirmisher units, usually less well equipped or small commands of crossbow (later also handguns) armed troops. These being used to delay the enemy by harassment. These two types of mercenary units were in high demand for siege warfare, by both sides. The increasing use of artillery also saw master gunners offering their services for hire. Cities frequently hired such gunners to oversee their municipal cannon. Some were offered a year's salary as a bonus if they successful repelled an assault. It was the heavy foot though that were the most sort after. Up until the mid 15 Century these were armoured Spearmen who were usually capable of withstanding the charge of Knights. The spearwall was sometimes supported by Axe, Sword or halberd armed 'shock' troops. The adoption of Pikes by the Swiss Cantons altered the form of mercenary foot through out Europe. Using mass infantry formations armed with pikes the Swiss were able to inflict a series of stinging defeats on their Noble opponents. The effectiveness of the Swiss led to them becoming highly sort after as mercenaries. It also brought about the re-arming of many mercenary units and City militias with pikes. This process was pretty much complete by the time of the battle of Guinegatte in 1479 where massed pike formations from Germany and the Lowlands fought the French. The future Emperor Maximilian commanded at the battle and took his experiences back to Germany. There he proceeded to raise 'landsknecht' pikemen. Raised from existing mercenary units but under trusted Imperial officers. These landsknechts clashed with their Swiss counterparts in the Swabian war of 1499, setting the scene for numerous brutal, no quarter clashes in the following years.

The effectiveness of Hussite Warwagon tactics and their final defeat saw many ex- Hussite troops being employed by States in the HRE.

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Imperial Armies

Theoretically the Emperor could call upon all those within the HRE to serve in his armies. The Emperor's major stumbling block was his own Imperial Diet. The Imperial Diet comprised the representatives of Imperial Lands, Cities and Prelates. It was effectively controlled by the Seven Electors. The only time where the Imperial Diet was obliged to agree to provide the Emperor with troops was to accompany him on his procession to Rome to be crowned. The Emperors through out this period almost never managed to tame the Imperial Diet sufficiently to get enough money to raise an effective army. As a result the Emperors relied heavily on their own hereditary lands for the core of their armies. This was supplemented by mercenaries and those Nobles of the HRE with a vested interest in the current crisis. The Hussite wars for example saw Imperial armies (few in number) heavily supported by the Nobility surrounding Bohemia who saw the Hussite cause as a threat to their own power. Emperor Sigismund managed to convince the Pope to declare a crusade against the Hussites adding many volunteers to his cause. Their enthusiasm for the crusade faded away after the initial set backs. Maximilian managed to increase the Imperial army by relying on Italian banking families to fund his mercenary landsknechts but even then his forces had to be supplemented by the Swabian League.

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Copyright 2002 Matthew Haywood

All images and text, unless otherwise noted, may not be copied without my written permission.