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.
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.
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.
This formation could provide support for the whole infantry, even if one column fell to enemy assault. The columns could also be easily turned into a hedgehog formation, which created a compact square of pikes before marching forward.
If the adversaries did not back down, it was the pikemen’s task to attack and break their lines, as they were basically an impenetrable wall. They would then use their swords and daggers to overwhelm their opponents.
After the many victories of the Swiss pikemen, word about them spread across Europe like a plague. In the 14th and 15th centuries, rulers would hire them as mercenaries instead of taking the chance someone else would hire them first and they’d end up fighting against them.
Their involvement in battles allowed for numerous victories, one of which was the 1494 conquest of Naples, and another was the conquest of Milan by the French in 1525. The Swiss pikemen were merciless during battles, and their presence instilled fear in their enemies. Their reputation was very much trusted in terms of fighting that the Valois King of France believed it was impossible to engage in battles without the Swiss pikemen on his side at the core of his army.
The downfall of the seemingly formidable mercenaries would be technological advancement. At the time they were fighting in the Italian Wars against arms and artillery fire, it was then that they saw how even the sharpest of pikes were no match against cannon balls. Their biggest defeat was in 1522 in the Battle of Bicocca while they were serving the French against the forces of Tercios and Landsknecht.
By the 16th century, they began adopting the tactics and formations of other mercenaries that served across Europe, which was not their usual stance. Nonetheless, they continued to serve as mercenaries with a number of European armies between the 17th and 19th centuries. Beginning in 1859, only one pikeman mercenary group was allowed to exist, the Vatican Swiss Guard that we know. They are tasked to protect the Pope, and they represent the official army of the Vatican, known for their signature colorful uniforms.