A Rhineland Army: Composition and Regional Distribution of Cologne’s Contingent to the Imperial Army of 1532

In 1532 the Holy Roman Empire was on the march. Three years after the long, bloody and ultimately successful defence of Vienna in 1529 another large Ottoman army was on its way, led by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and trying to finish the tasked left undone.[1] To meet this threat, the Imperial Diet in Regensburg called for troops from the Imperial Estates, a so-called ‘eilende Türkenhilfe’ (emergency relief force to help against the Turks). The Imperial Army, which had not always proven to be a fast or efficient force,[2] raised about 6000 horsemen and 30.000 foot-soldiers. However, the fortunes of war prevented a big battle, as the Ottoman army was halted by the Hungarian fortress of Kőszeg (then known by its German name Güns). The major Ottoman host retreated south, but smaller contingents remained and raided the surrounding country. Such a group of roughly 8000 men was defeated at Leobersdorf (in today’s Lower Austria) by Imperial troops. This remained their only major battle and with the threat gone, the Imperial army dissolved in October 1532.

The aim of this short essay is to examine one of the contingents sent to the Imperial Army. The Imperial City of Cologne, located on the left bank of the river Rhine in modern Northern Rhine-Westfalia, Germany, was one of the biggest cities north of the Alps. After the formal recognition of its status as an Imperial Estate in 1475, its military and financial resources were frequently used by the Habsburg Emperors for their numerous wars.[3] Troops from Cologne served for the Empire in Maximilian’s wars in Flanders in 1477, in the war against the Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus in 1482, in another campaign in Flanders against Bruges to liberate the imprisoned Maximilian in 1488, in the siege of Arnhem in 1505 and in the campaign against the outlawed knight Franz von Sickingen in 1517. Therefore, the army raised to defend the Empire in 1532 belongs in the context of this tradition.

Troops from Cologne guarding an execution in 1587. Detail of: Franz Hogenberg, Execution of Hieronymus Michiels in Cologne, 1587. Rijskmuseum Amsterdam, RP-P-OB-78.785-230. (CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) license).

One may wonder why this campaign deserves a closer analysis, as the contribution of Cologne to the outcome of the war was minimal, if not insignificant. For that very reason, the focus lies not on the activities of the city’s men in Austria, but on the composition of this army as such. The archives of Cologne keep a little booklet entitled as Monster zedell (inspection paper), that lists all 500 men, who took part in the campaign.[4] In the document, they are called landtzknecht though we might not necessarily suspect them to be professional or battle-worn soldiers. Their leaders are Andreas of Esslingen, most likely a south German mercenary, and Johann vom Hirtz, a member of a well-established family of the city’s elite. In fact, all of these men were paid for their service. The employment of paid men to guard the city’s walls and to fight the city’s conflicts is a practice that, in the case of Cologne, dates back to the late 13th century. Yet this does not imply in any way, that the city relied on ‘foreign’ troops to keep it safe, but often employed its own citizens as mercenaries.[5] Thus, paid men cannot easily be equated with foreigners, as traditional military history has abundantly done.[6]

One of the aims in the analysis of the Cologne army of 1532 is to highlight this statement, supplemented by the question from which areas the mercenaries came. To answer both a presumption has to be made – one that is important to the argument but cannot be ultimately proven. The great majority of the men enlisted in the Monster zedell are named after places, so-called toponymical surnames. Examples are Daim van Guylich (of Jülich), Hanß van Covelens (of Koblenz) or Hanß Arndtz van Norenberch (of Nuremberg). Such names usually imply an origin from a certain city or region, but do not always prove where the person was born. This can be demonstrated by taking a quick look at the elite of Cologne in the examined period, where families such as the von Siegen, von Heimbach or von Stralen can be found. They might have migrated from the places their toponymical surnames refer to and were named after them when arriving in Cologne, but these surnames were passed on to their families. Therefore, in 1532 e.g. Arnold von Siegen, several times mayor of Cologne, was born citizen of this city and not of Siegen.

This process and information is important to the following analysis. However, while not every man with a toponymical surname might actually originate from that town, there is a strong indication that this still holds true for the majority of the mercenaries. If we consider the 35 men called ‘from Düren’ or the 38 men called ‘from Cologne’ it becomes obvious that we are not dealing with huge families collectively enlisting but with a group of men from the same place.

Out of the total of 500 men 288 could be assigned to 106 (identifiable) places. Their medium distance from Cologne is 89.83 km, but many of them are located in the Rhineland region close to the city. The majority of places (69 in total) is just mentioned once, 12 are mentioned twice and 9 three times. This geographical distribution gets more precise if we now extract the 17 places mentioned the most. They provided 168 landsknechts, thus only 16 % of the places provided 58.33 % of the 288 men that could be assigned. Leading amongst them is Cologne itself with 38 men, followed by Düren (42 km Distance from Cologne) with 35 men. Next are Linnich (53 km) with 14, Jülich (46 km) with 13 and Nijmegen (135 km) with eight men. Seven mercenaries came from Aachen (71 km) and Euskirchen (35 km), six from Geldern (85 km) and Kempen (66 km), five from Herzogenrath (68 km) and Neuss (37 km), four from Bergheim (25 km), Bonn (28 km), Kerpen (23 km), Sittard (83 km), Wijk bij Duurstede (179 km) and Zons (24 km). Thus, the majority of men came from a medium distance of just 58.82 km. More than every tenth originated from Cologne itself.[7] Besides this strong regional aspect, there is a minority, which came from rather distant places such as Trier (155 km), Frankfurt (173 km), Osnabrück (188 km), Delft (243 km), Bruges (288 km) or Nuremberg (382 km), but all of these cities are mentioned only once.

In conclusion we see that the army of 500 landsknechte the city of Cologne fielded in 1532 was in large parts drawn together from the city itself and the surrounding Rhineland with a clear emphasis on the left bank of the river. In this region, the city could rely on its longstanding network spanning the lands between the Rhine and the North Sea. At the same time, it is clear that even in the age of the mercenary an army raised based on paid service could still have strong local ties. Constructing a clear opposition between the local militiaman and the foreign mercenary, as Niccolò Machivelli so famously did in his Il Principe (Cap. XII) is an unsuitable simplification, that should be avoided by modern research.

Cite this article as: Markus Jansen, "A Rhineland Army: Composition and Regional Distribution of Cologne’s Contingent to the Imperial Army of 1532," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 17/09/2020, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/1067.

[1] A brief contextualisation of this campaign can be found in: Alfred Kohler, Das Reich im Kampf um die Hegemonie in Europa 1521–1648 (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1990), pp. 13-14.

[2] The best in-depth study of Imperial Armies to date has been written by Patrick Leukel, „all welt wil auf sein wider Burgundi“ Das Reichsheer im Neusser Krieg 1474/75 (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2019), who outlines the problems involved in raising an Empire-wide army.

[3] Brigitte Maria Wübbeke, ‘Die Stadt Köln und der Neusser Krieg 1474/75‘, Geschichte in Köln, 24 (1988), 35-64.

[4] Historisches Archiv der Stadt Köln, Best. 50 (Köln und das Reich (K+R)), A 30.

[5] A practice that will be discussed in detail in my forthcoming dissertation of Cologne’s late medieval elite.

[6] The distinguished military historian Charles Oman, to give one of many possible examples, called the mercenary “A stranger to all the nobler incentives to valor, an enemy to his God and his neighbor, the most deservedly hated man in Europe.” Charles W. Oman, The Art of War in the Middle Ages, ed. and rev. by John H. Beeler (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1953), pp. 65-66.

[7] One might argue that all those men without toponymical surnames might also be inhabitants of Cologne and thus there was no need to note their place of origin. Yet this is a hypothesis that can only be proven by a prosopographic in-depth analysis.