Although not as often talked about as other mercenaries like the Varangian Guards of the Byzantine Emperor or the Catalan Grand Company, the Swiss pikemen were one of the most formidable military infantries from the Middle Ages. Even when their weaponry was not as impressive as the others, their speed and ingenuity sure could defeat the enemies. The Swiss pikemen were both feared and respected throughout Europe, and for good reasons.

Fiercest Fighters of Europe

The Swiss pikemen could be traced back to the 1300s, after the time when Switzerland decided to split from the Holy Roman Empire. Switzerland’s cantons declared a Confederacy, which means each person was free to live outside the rules of a leader. They were, at that time, the only territory that permitted such.

Duke Leopold I of Austria did not like the idea that Switzerland veered away from the Holy Roman Empire, and he was angry about it. In 1315, he sent his Hapsburg Army into Switzerland on a mission to force the cantons back to the Empire. He underestimated the Swiss as peasants with zero knowledge of armor or weaponry, which meant it would be an easy peasy fight for the army. This, however, was far from the truth.

Swiss mercenaries crossing the Alps (Luzerner Schilling). (Diebold Schilling the Younger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

On November 15 of the same year, the peasants of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden joined forces and assaulted Leopold’s army with nothing but pikes. The peasants went home victorious, and their triumph allowed the three cantons to join forces and form the core of the Swiss Confederacy.

The encounter was known throughout history as the Battle of Morgarten, which allowed the Swiss to etch their name in history as the fiercest fighters of Europe.

Using Pikes

Before the Battle of Arbedo against the Milanese in 1422, the Swiss used pikes alongside other common infantry weapons during the different battles of the 14th century, including the Battle of Sempach on July 1386 against another Leopold. This time, it was with Leopold III, Duke of Austria, and they worked just fine.

However, during the Battle of Arbedo, the Swiss were outnumbered by the Milanese five-to-one. The Milanese used their lances like spears and charged toward the Swiss, who had formed a defensive circle. The Milanese’s lances outreached the halberds that the Swiss were using at that time, and they ended up being defeated.

Because of what happened, it was decided that the halberdiers would be tasked to guard the banners and dispatch enemy forces in case they broke through the preliminary pike infantry. Their formation would be the vanguard first, followed by the body, and then the rearguard. Each column of the formation was interspersed with pikemen, halberdiers, and double-handed swordsmen at the center. They were covered by crossbowmen and hand-gunners who were not only there to protect against the attack but also to serve as a form of distraction to enemies. All in all, there were about 8,000 of them.