Part 17 - the Imperialists

by George Gush

'IMPERIALIST' IN the 16th Century was not yet a political expletive, but referred to the forces of the only European Emperor, the Hapsburg ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, who presided more or less shakily over a conglomeration of semi-independent states stretching from the Rhine to Poland, from the Danish border to the edge of the Turkish Empire.
    The elected Emperor was largely dependent on the troops and cash he could beg from the Imperial Diet or borrow from the Princes; there was no standing army till the end of the 30 Years' War, and it was then a modest force of nine regiments of foot and ten of horse, supported by the hereditary Hapsburg lands of Austria and Hungary. Hence the fact that the Lansknechts and Reiters spent most of their time and gained their chief fame, in foreign service.
    Chief external enemies for the Imperialists were the Turks and the French, but they were also occupied against internal Protestant opposition, both in the 16th Century and in the vast and horrifying conflict of the 30 Years' War (1618-48) which 1 have taken as the close of our period.
    The mass of a 16th Century Imperial army would be of Lansknechts with pikes and firearms (see Part 8), but under Charles V (1519-58) Spanish troops would also be available, and they were in fact lent as late as the 30 Years' War, while Imperialist infantry normally followed Spanish tactics, with very large pike-squares surrounded with shot.


    'Reiter' means simply 'rider', or cavalry, but in the 16th Century, when German mercenary cavalry were used in great numbers, came especially to signify a mercenary mounted pistolier.
    At the outset of our period, the German cavalry, like that of other nations, centred on the man-at-arms with full armour and lance; however, they seem to have been generally inferior to, say, their French counterparts, lacking horse-armour and not being well-protected themselves.
    The Emperor Maximilian seems to have founded French style 'Bands d'Ordonnance' in an attempt to improve on this, but apparently they did not survive long. German men-at-arms also seem to have used deep formations, unlike the single rank used elsewhere. This deep column or wedge formation was recommended by a German writer of the 1480s (number of files in each rank, from the front): 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 17, 19 (with banner), 21; then 20 ranks of 45.
    The first German cavalry met in large-scale mercenary service appear around the 1540s, and may represent the lighter 'archer' types who would have supported the men-at-arms. These 'reiters' as hired by Henry VIII wore armoured cavalry on unarmoured horses, with as their main weapon a boar-spear (a broad-bladed spear around eight or nine feet long, usually with a small cross-bar below the blade). The wheel-lock pistol, a German invention, was soon carried in addition to the spear, and by mid-century was displacing it, to produce the typical 'Reiter', who played an important role in warfare to the end of our period, serving in almost all European armies.
    Their armour could vary from (in the mid-16th Century) mail shirt or cape, through corselet, often with mail sleeves, to 3/4 armour like that illustrated, with helmets from simple 'iron hat' to closed types (open burgonets or morions the most usual). A Reiter would carry up to three large 'faustrohe' type pistols, two in holsters at the saddle bow, the third sometime thrust perilously into his right boot. Their armour was often blackened (a common anti-rust measure) giving rise to the name 'Schwarz Reiter'. The French, either from their fighting qualities or behaviour off the field, called them 'Diables Noirs'.
Hungary and the Fall of Eastern Europe icon     Reiters were organised in rather large squadrons of, usually, 300 to. 350 men, and in battle formed in close order blocks of ten to 20 ranks each. As with infantry 'shot', this deep order was primarily to give the rear men time to reload; each rank would ride up to close range of the enemy, fire, and file off to flank and rear to reload, until sufficient damage had been done to allow a ponderous charge to contact at the trot, using thrusting sword and clubbed pistols. They were rather vulnerable to lancers who charged home, partly because a rider with a large and not very gas-tight pistol could not fire straight ahead without injuring, or at least seriously annoying, his horse, so that the rank engaged usually turned side-ways-on to fire, thus getting hit in the flank by the lancers.
    Accounts of their fighting prowess vary, but in the French Wars of Religion their efficiency was reported to be such that 'a man could see nothing but fire and steel', and heavy losses in some engagements argue for determination.
    As well as pistoliers, Germany in this period produced smaller numbers of mounted arquebusiers, and the Turkish frontier was a useful source of irregular troops. The non-Turkish part of Hungary produced militia, and from 1548 'Hussars' (meaning the 'twentieth' man, one from every 20 having to serve) were found in the Austrian forces, while in the 1530s Austria began to settle Serb and Croat refugees along her Turkish border in return for their service as 'Grenzers' or frontier-troops. Infantry and cavalry from these sources would serve against the Turks but the cavalry seem to have first made an impact in Europe in the 30 Years' War, the infantry not till the 18th Century. In the 16th Century Serbian hussars carried a light Turkish lance, while Hungarians included horse archers but seem to have been primarily armed with the sword, both sabre and the long straight armour-piercing variety.

Imperialist Armies of the 30 Years' War

    Typically, the Emperor found himself almost without an army at the outset, and had to borrow 25,000 mercenaries under Count Tilly from Bavaria and the Catholic League; to these and their successors were added in 1625 the first 'private army' raised under contract by the extraordinary and enigmatic Czech, Wallenstein, who earned wealth, a dukedom and finally assassination from his career as private-enterprise general and military entrepreneur.
    Troop types and organisation at this period were fairly standardised, though Wallenstein's armies were better-dressed and possibly more uniformed (being supplied with clothing from Wallenstein's own workshops) than those of Tilly (a believer in 'a ragged soldier and a bright musket').
    Some of Wallenstein's regiments at least were identified by coat colour, but it was still necessary to wear a red sash or a scrap of red cloth since there was certainly no army uniform.
    Infantry would be pikemen in corselet and perhaps tassets, or musketeers with at the most a helmet and buff coat for protection, in a ratio of about 2:3 (though a Bavarian ordnance of 1634 lays down a 1:2 ratio and the trend was probably in that direction). Imperial forces had begun to be grouped in regiments of varying size considerably earlier, and Wallenstein at least seems to have aimed at a ten-company regiment, though regiments of five, six, eight or even 20 companies still existed, and independent or detached companies were not uncommon. As company size had been reduced to 300 (from the 400 of the earlier Lansknechts), so this would give a theoretical 3,000, like a tercio.
    In practice, desertion (often 50 per cent in winter) and 'dead pays' (non-existent men whose salaries enriched their officers - universal in this period) would very greatly reduce this. At Lutzen (1632), Wallenstein's regiments were mostly 500 to 800 strong - perhaps connected with his apparent move toward Dutch or Swedish type tactics, with 'battalions' about 1,000 strong drawn up ten ranks deep on the battlefield, rather than the big Spanish type squares used previously.
    German cavalry had abandoned the lance in the later 16th Century, and the only heavies now carrying it were bodyguards - Wallenstein had a splendidly accoutred guard of 200, and the Croats' commander, Isolani, had a lancer guard. Most cavalry were still 'Cuirassiers' wearing 3/4 armour and often a closed helmet, but armed with sword and two pistols. An arquebus could also be carried, though Wallenstein ordered his cuirassiers to give this up. Lighter 'Arquebusiers' or 'Carabiniers' carried arquebuses, and in the latter case pistols also, and would usually have open helmet, and often corselet, or at least breastplate.
    Light lances were still carried by irregular light cavalry, with which Imperial armies were better-provided than their opponents in this period. Those whose chief weapon it was were referred to as 'Poles', or 'Cossacks', while those whose main weapon was the 'Panzerstecher', or long straight thrusting sword, were called 'Hungarians' or 'Hussars'. The most numerous and important of the irregulars, at least in Wallenstein's armies, were the 'Croats'. Though their tactics were influenced by their usual enemies, the Turks, these Balkan frontiersmen were essentially firearm cavalry, with a short arquebus and often two pistols as well. They had sabres (slung from the saddle to facilitate dismounted action) and a quarter to a fifth of each company also had light lances, which could serve as pikes when dismounted. They could be unarmoured, but some would have breastplate or corselet, and helmets with peak and cheek-flaps could be worn. They evidently made an impression on their opponents, as 'krabater' still means 'a funny chap' in Swedish.
    Finally, Imperial armies usually included a small body of dragoons, mounted infantry who did not fight on horseback. They carried axe and sword, and at the beginning of the 30 Years' War included armoured pikemen and officers with halberd, though later all were buff-coated musketeers. Cavalry were organised into 'Cornets', usually 100 each for the heavies, 60 for arquebusiers etc, though Wallenstein's were all supposed to be 100. Regiments had five to 12 cornets, but could in practice be as small as 100 men, though typical strengths would be 250 to 500. Battlefield 'squadrons' would also be around this size.
    Among the most famous were Pappenheim's Black Cuirassiers. Deep formations were still used; Tilly formed his cuirassiers ten ranks deep, and lighter cavalry six, while Wallenstein, again more 'progressive', favoured eight and six ranks respectively (at Lutzen all his cavalry seem to have been six deep).


    Even in the 16th Century Imperial armies were well-provided with artillery, the Emperor Maximilian I collecting no less than 105 pieces of varying size, and, as well as substantial arsenals, the Emperors appear to have maintained a permanent body of artillery technicians, organised on trade-guild lines. In the 17th Century, Wallenstein's army was particularly well-equipped, the Duke of Freidland 'borrowing' guns from the Dukes and Princes in whose territories he found himself. In 1632 his train had at least 44 cannon, 280 artillerists, 151 'Haiduken' (Hungarian irregulars possibly acting as guard, or as pioneers) and about 1,800 horses, hired, with their drivers, from civilian sources. Again, he seems to have moved toward the Swedish pattern, endeavouring to provide each infantry unit with two 'short-barrelled' light guns (in his case six-pounders).

Wargames armies

    For Imperialist wargames forces of the 30 Years' War period, fair historical proportions would be - up to 75 per cent infantry, of whom 3/5 to 2/3 would be musketeers; up to 33 1/3 per cent cavalry, of whom over half should be cuirassiers, about ten per cent Croats, not over five per cent dragoons. As the dress of Imperial infantry was that virtually 'standard' by this time, any English Civil War figures of suitable type can be used. The only difficulty might be Croats and the like, but Miniature Figurines' Renaissance Range Poles might provide a basis.

Flags and uniforms

    As stated, some Imperial units of the 30 Years' War had coats of a regimental colour; this might correspond with flag colours - in Wallenstein's army, Berchtold von Waldstein's Regiment had green flags, Max von Waldstein's yellow. Wallenstein's pages wore scarlet and light blue livery, so these colours might perhaps also appear on his lancer-bodyguard, and on his foot-lifeguard of 600, who had gold-laced clothing, silver-laced bandoliers, and silvered pike-points. The Croats were very fond of gold lace, jewellery, and bright colours, especially red, and like most Balkan irregulars wore striped waistsashes. They avoided green and blue for fear of confusion with the Turks, and wore black boots for the same reason. They carried large triangular flags with devices including Fortune and the Imperial Eagle. The Lansknechts, and some 17th Century Imperialists too, were given to standards with geometrical patterns - checks, diamonds etc - in bright colours. The Imperial Eagle could appear on both white and yellow backgrounds, and on a white standard of 1620 was seen crowned, depriving Frederick of Bohemia of his crown. On some, cavalry flags of 1631 it grasped the Pontifical Crown in its right talons, a sceptre in its left, with the motto 'Pro Ecclesia et Pro lmperio' (a heavy cavalry flag like this would be square, a light cavalry one usually with two rounded points). Other common devices on Imperial flags of this period were the monograms of the Emperors Ferdinand II and III, and the Virgin Mary. It would appear that the custom of having a white Colonel's flag in Austrian regiments dated from the 30 Years' War.
Note: the 'shoots' on the Cross of Burgundy were normally placed alternately, as shown on the Imperial flags accompanying this article, not directly opposite each other, as incorrectly shown on the drawings of Spanish flags earlier.


German 3/4 armour 'black and white' c1550. Reiter type - gives an idea of appearance of later Reiters, who would have worn similar armour with morion, Burgonet or other open helmet (Tower of London - Crown Copyright).

a Imperial musketeer, 30 Years' War. Conical floppy felt hat seems to be typical and is seen on some cavalry and pikemen too. Musketeers, as well as pikemen and officers, are sometimes seen wearing a sash, as here. It is worn over the right shoulder, possibly so as to avoid obstructing the bandolier, worn over the left. Note hanging sleeves of the outer jacket, which seems to be common. The rag around the hat, and the sash, are likely to have been red. Dagger is attached to belt rear, not bandolier. Bandolier also carries a bullet bag and powder flash. The very voluminous breeches are also typical. b - e Grenz troops of the 17th Century. From left to right their areas are indicated by their costumes - Karstadt, Warasdin, Zengg and Slavonia. The Slavonian is a cavalryman, the others could be infantry. The coats slung from the shoulder are typical and gave rise to the later Hussar pelisse. f - g Hungarians, from a 1636 print. Shaven heads and chins with big moustaches and eagle feathers in the caps seem to be typical. The chap on the right is obviously not fully won over to firearms yet! The fur brimmed caps, like many Poles wore, and striped sash are also typical, as are the very tight trousers which bulge out slightly over their boots. h German Imperial Herald (after Holbein). Heralds like this were still used in the early 16th Century. Note double-headed black eagle, also seen on flags. i 30 Years' War cuirassier in rather Eastern-style armour, similar to a Polish hussar. j Imperial cuirassier, 30 Years' War. Wears a helmet with barred visor, 3/4 armour, red sash and floppy leather boots. This is a fairly typical style of cuirassier armour, which could also be worn by Dutch, English or French cuirassiers of the period. Note peak at top of visor, shaped knee-pieces and unusual elbow pieces.

German petronel or cavalry firearm of later 16th Century (wheel lock).

German Estoc or thrusting sword of type carried by Reiters.

Pair of German wheel lock pistols of later 16th Century. Note ball-butt, highly suitable for bashing enemy! (Tower of London - Crown Copyright).

k - l mid-16th Century Reiters. Note horse trappings, square-toed boots typical of this period, and hats which seem to be normal with early Reiters. k carries a boar spear, l has a mail cape and pistol. Note knotted horse tail. Note also metal gauntlets worn on left (reins) hands only. m 30 Years' War carabinier. He wears morion and breastplate only (held on by the crossbelts). His wheel lock carbine is carried (as usual) on a shoulder belt. His baggy breeches resemble those worn by infantry. Note leather holder with bullet bag, wheel lock key and powder flask. n 30 Years' War dragoon in sleeveless buff coat and infantry shoes and stockings. The musket was normally slung as shown. o - p Croat light cavalry of the 30 Years' War. Caps are trimmed with wolf skin. Clothes are varying colours, often reds. The elaborate striped waist sashes and other trim included much gold thread. When mounted, sabre was slung from horse, not rider. A large saddle cloth could replace the leopard or other pelt. Hungarians often wore fleece over the saddle. Bridles etc were richly decorated, and red cloaks are sometimes mentioned. q - r Serbian hussars of the early 16th Century (of the type who later gave rise to the Polish hussars). These could be found in Austrian, Hungarian, Polish or Lithuanian forces. Note shield, convex in horizontal section and concave in vertical section. Hats seem to be fur.

a - c three flags in the red and white Hapsburg colours. a and c are infantry flags of Charles V's time, b is from an artillery wagon of Maximilian I's. d at Pavia, 1525. Another version shows three black (?) stripes on lower part of flag. e also at Pavia. Black and white checks, red cross of Burgundy on white ground. f Pavia. Yellow cross on red; stripes from top to bottom black, yellow, blue (?) and white (?). g infantry of Charles V's reign. Top yellow on blue, bottom white on yellow. h Imperial flag captured at Lutzen, 1632. Red cross raguly of Burgundy, other colours unknown. The cross of Burgundy was probably the most common symbol on Imperialist flags. i standard of Imperial cuirassier regiment, 1631 (fringes were usual on 17th Century cavalry standards). j standard of Tilly's Guard Regiment at Breitenfeld, 1631. k standard from Tilly's army. The motto around the centre reads 'In Nomine Jesu omne Electatur Coelestium Terrestrium et Infernorum'. l Imperial infantry flag, early 30 Years' War. The background under the design would be the usual elaborate pattern brocade - presumably in only one colour.

m 'Fortuna' as she appears on flags of this period, normally sailing over the sea with the aid of this banner-like sail!

Previous: Part 16 - The French
Next: Part 18 - Persians and other easterners

Return to Contents

Light Horsemen by Albert Dürer, 1489
Knight, Death and the Devil by Albert Dürer, 1513
The Adventures of the Knight Theuerdank, 1517 or mirror
The Triumph of Maximilian
Examples Of Imperial Military Dress c.1578 by Simon Chick

Prints of Hungarians after Caspar Luyken, 1702