Th Century Swiss Soldiers

(Above) A crossbowman of the contingent from the canton of Uri wears its black and yellow livery. He is the son of a prosperous craftsman, and his father has equipped him generously with a good quality German helmet and breastplate worn over a mail shirt. His bow is a modern type with a flat steel stave; although liable to become brittle and break in extremely cold weather it is immensely powerful. (Left) He spans his bow with a cranequin - an efficient piece of engineering which is faster to operate than the older windlass and handy enough to be used on horseback. It works on the same principle as a modern car jack. The retaining loop is engaged over two pegs sticking out from the sides of the butt stock, and the hooks over the string. Winding the handle draws the string back by means of a ratchet bar, until it can be caught by the projection on the 'nut'. (Opposite top left) His quiver is covered with water-repellent boarskin and has a tightly fitting lid, here tucked up under his belt, from which the cranequin hangs when not in use. (Opposite top right) The short, heavy bolts or 'quarrells' have wood or parchment flights; this morning's issue from the supply wagons - where tens of thousands lie ready - have apparently been fletched with parchment cut from the pages of a looted book. A flat sprung clip holds the bolt in place ahead of the cord, which itself is held by the projecting step on top of the nut. Upward pressure on the trigger bar releases the nut to swivel forward, releasing the cord. (Photos John Howe)

Crossbow Revolving Nut

Proofing Armour

As early as 1316 we have a record of mail being 'proved' against sword, axe, lance and bow. With the improved efficiency of missile weapons the strength of plate armour was usually tested with a shot from a crossbow or a gun at short range; some breastplates, and fewer helmets and backplates, bear the dent as 'proof' of quality. There were different degrees of proof -with a powerful crossbow and a sword, with a small lever crossbow and a javelin, and later with an arquebus and a pistol. A record of 1378 mentions tests using specially tempered viretons. crossbow bolts with spiral flights which set them revolving. Bolts for proofing armour could cost twice as much as normal. Once 'proved' the armour was officially stamped, and regulations existed to control its sale without such marks of quality.

(Right) The crossbowman's bearded officer, his helmet decorated with a turban, a plume, and the bull's head badge of Uri.

Beards were against the customs of the Latin church, and except for brief periods when fashion overcame custom they were rarely worn. Stubble might grow between the weekly shaves, as it does in peasant communities today. On campaign it might grow longer. Some might take an oath not to shave until some goal had been achieved, such as a pilgrimage. Charles the Bold grew a beard at one time and was copied by members of his court. Bearded men appear in biblical and historical paintings, but occasionally also in contemporary illustrations of soldiers. We read of one Burgundian sergeant who had his beard pulled in a tavern argument in Villiers-les-Hauts. (Photo Gerry Embleton)

Embleton Original ZurichGrandson Castle Switzerland


For a few lucky soldiers their service was both brief and startlingly profitable - and rarely more so than for some of the Swiss levies who marched against the Burgundians at Grandson and Morat in 1476.

When the Miller. Hans von Bruck and Jost Schindler from the little village of Ebikon stood shivering on the cold morning of 2 March on the snowy slopes above Concise, and saw the finest army in the world spread out below fresh from its merciless slaughter of the garrison of Grandson castle, they must have wondered if military service was, after all, a good idea.

A few hours later they were cavorting amid the ruins of an Aladdin's Cave of riches - the camp of the Duke of Burgundy's army and travelling court, fallen to them after hardly a battle, with the terrible invaders scattered in flight.

We know what plunder the three Ebikon men got. Or rather, we know what they told the clerks whose job it was to collect, evaluate and share out the loot. According to these official records their day had been somewhat disappointing. The Miller had half a leg armour (which he anyway claimed to have bought in Neuchatel), one little banner, one big rope, one horse and a tablecloth. Hans von Bruck had one pair of hose (which he was wearing) and one gilded paternoster bead from a rosary, and wished - while the clerk was about it - to claim compensation for the loss of his pike in the heal of the fighting. Jost Schindler had a pair of knives ...

We know from contemporary documents that all those hundreds of Swiss who handed in their modest loot with excuses ('I had a horse, but it ran away'; 'I got some armour, but someone stole it') were in fact busily squirrelling away cloth, gold, silver, arms, nails, sugar, tools, clothing, shoes and a thousand other things. In spite of searches, road blocks and arrests, many got away with it; and many a serious private fortune was made that day. (Photos: above Carlos Oliveira, right John Howe)

Lucerne Chronicle Schilling

What did the three soldiers from Ebikon look like? We can try to guess. They were not poor men, but craftsmen earning craftsmen's wages. The earliest of the Schilling Chronicles and the Chronicle of Tschachtlan agree on the dress and equipment of the Swiss. They probably wore their own stout woollen doublet, hose and jacket; red and white seem to have been favourite military colours, but far from universal. Perhaps one or more had helmets: sallets, or small, deep bascinets, or round, narrow-brimmed kettle hats. The chronicles show many helmets of which we do not have surviving examples. Perhaps they wore twisted round them turbans in Ebikon's colours, or the blue and white of Lucerne canton.

They might have worn mail shirts with or without breastplates, or full plate upper body armour. The latter was the more likely if any or all of them carried the 17ft (5m) pike - once a Lucerne speciality, but by now skilfully used in massed formations all over what is now Switzerland. Otherwise they would probably have been armed with the halberd - a 6ft (1.8m) shaft with a long, shallow axehead drawn out into a broad spike at the end and a hook on the back. The weapons were supposed to be their own, but some might have been borrowed when the three were named as part of the conscripted 'Out-Troop' by the village council. They would have worn hoods and gowns against the weather, or carried them on their backs.

On the way home to Ebikon they were probably dirty, unshaven and tired - certainly exhilarated, but perhaps a little evasive, thinking of the bundles of plunder they had hidden in the woods for retrieval later. Unlike their neighbour Tscholi j. who would stay on the battlefield forever, they were going home not just safe but richer men. (Photo Gerry Embleton)

Anna from Zurich - a travelling lady - was a follower of the Swiss army at Grandson. She got a share of the booty, probably more than she handed in. Beyond that we know nothing about her, nor, apart from a few names, anything about the thousands like her.

She pauses on the march, a noise up ahead - a rabbit for the pot? - or trouble? She has a light bow, and can use it. The Swiss chronicles occasionally show women armed with halberds, even one with a gun. We have occasional references to women, both nobles and commoners, taking up arms and fighting beside their men.

She wears all the clothes she owns - two shirts, a blue linen dress, a hood, and a old woollen coat 'found' among the wreckage of a pillaged hamlet. On her legs are woollen cloth hose, gartered below the knee, and stout boots. She is capable of. and equipped for, long hard marches and nights spent in the open. Under her hood she wears a typical headcloth over her plaited hair. In the centre is a small pewter coquille Si Jacques badge, a relic of the pilgrimage to Compostella which she made some years before - in another life, it seems now ...

She carries one of the big pewter canteens to serve the men around her; her blanket of cheap striped wool; and a well-stuffed haversack with some biscuit, cheese, smoked fish and dried apples. A small brass lantern, also 'found', hangs from her blanket roll. It will serve as a hearth in her bivouac tonight.

We may wonder if Anna took part in the Zurich contingent's forced march to relieve besieged Morat three months after the battle of Grandson - 87 miles (140km) in three days, and straight into battle. There, too, Charles the Bold's plans would come to nothing, leaving 12,000 Burgundian troops encircled and butchered on the field or driven into the lake to drown. (Photo Gerry Embleton)

Burgundian SoldiersSwiss Soldiers

Troops serving with well-organised commands were usually billeted on civilians, but in sparsely populated areas they made what shelters they could or slept in the open. Tents were not usually carried for the 'rank and file'. Stoutly made boots and shoes would have been necessary for all who marched, though it is surprising how often troops seem to have been mounted. There would have been a strong natural tendency to keep all one's belongings about one's person; other than those contingents owning wagons or packhorses, there was nowhere else to put spare clothes, cloaks, etc. Soldiers and their followers must have carried packs and bags, but we have almost no references to them.

Life for the women - and their children - must have been very hard, and downright cruel at times. Cold, hunger and fatigue would find out the weak and sickly and cut them down. There are mentions of severe frostbite during 15th century winter campaigns.

As for women's treatment by their fellow men, it certainly varied as widely as in the war zones of the 20th century. On the one hand, the still unchallenged Church of Rome 'set the moral agenda' throughout Europe; most people believed in God, the Devil, and a literal Heaven and Hell. Since before the Conquest the church had preached the moral duty of fighting men to spare and protect the weak -helpless peasants, women, children and the old.

On the other hand, it was believed that the stains a man put on his immortal soul even by 'mortal war' - total war against populations, marked by large-scale atrocities - could later be cleansed by repentance, confession, and donations. The fate of female camp followers after a defeat in enemy territory, or of villagers during the crushing of rebellion, must often have been hideous; but - just as in our own day - some would have found unexpected protectors. (Photos: above & above right Gerry Embleton; right David Lazenby, M iddelaldcrcentret)

X huge scope. Nevertheless, to simplify a complicated subject brutally, we may say here that the two main styles of plate armours in widespread use in the 15th century were the smoother, more rounded Italian, relying on large glancing surfaces; and the 'spikier' German style now called 'Gothic', characterised by an appearance of raised ridges and drawn-out points. The armourers of the two great centres of production - southern Germany, around Augsburg, Nuremberg and the Tyrol; and northern Italy, around Milan -copied each other, nevertheless. They exported their armours (and took their skills) all over Europe; and were widely copied in turn by the armourers of other countries - of which there were many, but about whom we know surprisingly little. Our ignorance may be due to the fact that libraries were destroyed and many sculptures and tomb effigies wantonly smashed by iconoclasts during the Reformation, various civil wars and the French Revolution. Some English effigies show armour of a very slightly different style (as do French, Burgundian and Spanish sculptures); but we cannot be sure if this is a purely native style, or represents armours imported from France or Flanders. Much research has still to be done, and it is only in recent years that definite English, Burgundian. French and Spanish styles have been given recognition.

(Left & opposite) These armours are worn by well-equipped soldiers of a garrison - horsemen who can extend the castle's circle of influence to a day's ride in any direction, or defend the castle itself, adapting the armour and weapons they possess to both tasks.

The armour is simple, typical of German export production. Each man's armour might as often be composed of separate purchases or captures as a completely matching harness. Much of the armour worn by soldiers - rather than nobles -must have been put together in this way. We read of the Pisa agent of an Avignon-based merchant instructed to buy up armour after the disbanding of a 'free company' in 1382 - 'for when peace is made they often sell all their armour'. (Photos Gerry Embleton)

Gerry EmbletonCranequin WindlassCentury Armor German

There is a certain consistency in the rare surviving images and descriptions of what was worn under armour between cl460 and 1580. We see a logical development of practical foundation garments consisting of stoutly constructed doublet and hose, lightly padded where necessary, the seams strengthened with leather or webbing strips. Mail patches were sewn or laced on to cover vulnerable gaps between the plates, and points were attached to fix the plates on where necessary. The cut of these garments followed fashion; the 15th century armed man's silhouette was reflected in fashionable dress, and arming doublets seem to have been acceptable dress when out of armour. For evidence relating to these important garments see pages 82-83.

With help, a knight or man-at-

arms' full armour was put on over this foundation in the following manner. A collar of mail was added first, buckled at the side or rear. Tight mail 'shorts' were tied on over the hose with points. The plate shoes (sabetons) were put on; then the greaves enclosing the calf, hinged vertically down the outside. The cuisses and poleynes (thigh and knee defences) came next, strapped against the legs and probably laced to the top of the hose. Breast and back plates followed, with the attached skirt piece or fauld, and were buckled down the right side. The arm and shoulder pieces were laced to the arming doublet and buckled about the arms in four parts: the pauldron protecting the shoulder, the rarebrace on the upper arm, the couter at the elbow, and the vambrace on the forearm. Spurs, helmet, sword and dagger completed the equipment.

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