below Hans Holbein the Younger’s depiction of Swiss pikemen fighting German landsknechts in the early 16th century.

A late medieval military elite

The Swiss army of the late Middle Ages ruthlessly used terrain to its advantage and had a genius for knowing which battles not to fight. Edmund West explores its achievements.


Where are my Switzers?
Let them guard the door.

-Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5

In the Late Middle Ages, there were waves of peasant revolt across Europe. All were brutally crushed – except for that of the Swiss.

Today, we associate Switzerland with peace and neutrality; but from 1315 to 1515, the territory contained Europe’s most formidable army.

It expanded from three to 13 cantons (federal states), and Swiss mercenaries were sought after all over Europe.

Even today, Switzerland has national service and upholds the right of every citizen to keep their gun afterwards. But the country has maintained a policy of strict neutrality since 1515, following defeat at the Battle of Marignano. And its more powerful neighbours have, given the country’s small size and forbidding mountain terrain, chosen to respect this.

How did such a tiny country achieve independence and then repeatedly defeat its enemies over two centuries?


On 1 August 1291, the cantons of Schwyz (whence Switzerland got its name), Unterwalden, and Uri formed the first Swiss Confederation. They were known as the Waldstätten or ‘Forest Cantons’.

below Hans Holbein the Younger’s depiction of Swiss pikemen fighting German landsknechts in the early 16th century.
Hans Holbein the Younger’s depiction of Swiss pikemen fighting German landsknechts in the early 16th century.

They rebelled against Albrecht I (of Germany), who wanted to end their autonomy and install his own governors – and impose massive fines and taxes.

The German castles were burned down by the Swiss rebels – most of whom were serfs – and they then founded the Eidgenossenschaft or Swiss Confederation, signing the Bundesbrief zu Schwyz (‘Federal Charter of the Swiss’) in the meadow of Rütli. It stated that the three cantons should use arbitration to settle disputes, live by the rule of law not by violence, punish criminals judicially, and form a mutual defence pact.

Banding together against aggression is the only way states have ever been founded other than by direct conquest. Examples include the 13 American Colonies, the Iroquois Confederacy, and the Hanseatic League.

Like the American Colonies, the Forest Cantons were already self-governing. The American and Swiss Revolutions were fought to preserve, rather than gain, liberty.

The Hapsburg Dukes of Austria wanted to reclaim the region, as it contained their ancestral lands. However, Albrecht I was too busy trying to make himself Holy Roman Emperor to respond immediately. The Austrian invasion had to wait till 1315, by which time Albrecht’s son Leopold was Duke of Austria. The Swiss were now backing Louis IV of Bavaria to become Holy Roman Emperor instead of Leopold’s brother Frederick.

This finally prompted invasion, but it was too late. No one had tried to invade Switzerland before. The Swiss had enjoyed nearly a quarter of a century of independence and would not be giving it up easily.

Leopold swore he would ‘trample the audacious rustics under his feet’. He wanted ‘the extirpation of the whole race of the people of Waldstätten’.

The Battle of Morgarten

On 3 November, Leopold reached his ancestral castle of Baden in Aarberg with an army of 2,000 mounted knights and 7,000 infantry. He decided to mount an attack on Schwyz through the Sattel Pass near Morgarten, guarded by 1,500-3,000 armed Swiss peasants. A feint was made at Arth.

The Austrians were so confident that they had brought ropes with which to tie up captured cattle. They ignored the advice of Jenni von Stocken, the Austrian Duke’s jester: ‘You have all taken counsel how best to get into the country, but have given no explanation of how you are going to get out again.’

According to local folklore, the Swiss learned of the Austrians’ plan from Henry of Hünenburg, a pro-Swiss Austrian baron who shot an arrow into their camp with the message: ‘Guard Morgarten on the eve of St Othmar.’

RIGHT A near-contemporary depiction of the Battle of Morgarten. Note the wooded mountain terrain and the lake. The terrain was a decisive factor in the defeat of the Austrian chivalry.
A near-contemporary depiction of the Battle of Morgarten. Note the wooded mountain terrain and the lake. The terrain was a decisive factor in the defeat of the Austrian chivalry.

The Swiss blocked all the easier routes through the pass. They were led by Werner Stauffacher. Most were from Schwyz and Uri, and were armed with morning stars, scythes, and halberds. Halberds were part-axe, part-spear, some two metres long with a 40cm blade at the top.

Morgarten was a steep mountainside in the Alpine foothills. The path the Austrians took was between this and the eastern shore of Lake Egri. It was the worst possible terrain for the knights and they were at the front of the Austrian column.

On 15 November, the Austrians reached a section of the path by the Tower of Schorno. There was the steep path behind them, a hillock to the right and the ridge leading to the lake on the left. The Swiss were waiting in the Figlerfluh mountain spur. When the Austrian cavalry became overcrowded and disarrayed, they were hit by an avalanche of boulders, stones, tree trunks, and arrows.

When they tried to retreat, the Swiss charged down the mountain, killing the knights with their halberds. Surviving Austrians fled to the rearguard, spreading the panic, so that the whole army was routed and streamed away towards Zug.

The Zurich soldiers (not yet organised as a Swiss canton) fighting for Austria were the only men who stood their ground, possibly because they were more used to the terrain. Perhaps Leopold would have been more successful if he had used local recruits better versed in mountain warfare.

Some 1,500 Austrians were dead, but just a dozen Swiss. Many of the invaders had drowned in the lake attempting to flee. The Swiss reaffirmed their mutual defence treaty on 9 December, with each canton agreeing never to sign a separate peace treaty with the Hapsburgs.

The Battle of Morgarten resembles the Battle of Pliska of 811. Both battles saw a larger army trapped by natural barriers in a bottleneck, with the smaller, victorious forces attacking from above and from the flanks.

It also resembles the Battles of the Golden Spurs and Bannockburn in that outnumbered infantry had defeated knights in terrain totally unsuited to cavalry charges.

The Battle of Laupen

The Battle of Laupen was fought between Bern, a pro-Swiss canton, and pro-Austrian Freiburg. An army of Austrian nobles and a league of six anti-Bern cantons was formed. It comprised 15,000 foot and 1,000 horse, and was led by Count Rudolf von Nidau.

On 16 May 1339, the Bernese tried and failed to take the fortified town of Aarburg. The Freiburgers then besieged the village of Laupen and its 600 Bernese defenders on 10 June. The village had previously belonged to Freiburg, so the inhabitants expected no mercy.

The Bernese army rushed to their relief on 21 June. They had 6,000 infantry, including more than 1,000 from the Swiss Confederation. Most were spearmen; there were a few archers. The Bernese army was led by Rudolf von Erlach.

Erlach refused to attack the much larger enemy. Instead, he took up a defensive position on a hill near the village, where his men could observe the enemy’s approach.

OPPOSITE Another near-contemporary image, this of the Battle of Laupen. The artist has depicted the mountainous terrain and shows the doomed Austrian chivalry on the left, Erlach’s Swiss on the right.
Another near-contemporary image, this of the Battle of Laupen. The artist has depicted the mountainous terrain and shows the doomed Austrian chivalry on the left, Erlach’s Swiss on the right.

Erlach wrote taunting letters to the enemy, challenging them to attack. The Austrian knights charged and 2,000 Bernese infantry fled. The cavalry then circled the remaining Bernese looking for weak points. The Freiburger infantry attacked them from the north and the south.

According to the Conflictus Laupensis (written less than two years later):

The Bernese, bursting the chains of all their fear like Samson, received the assault of the Freiburgers. And they took all of their standards and slew the standard-bearers and many others, all infantry, and the rest they put to a pitiable flight. When those who were circling with their horses charged to their aid, the Bernese without delay either killed all of them or put them to flight.

The Swiss Confederate unit broke the knights’ formation by feigning retreat to another ridge. They assailed them with slingshot and by rolling down carts armed with scythes; when the cavalry charged straight into the carts, it broke up their ranks. The Swiss Confederates held the second ridge.

LEFT A vivid modern reconstruction of a clash between Swiss pikemen and mounted knights.
A vivid modern reconstruction of a clash between Swiss pikemen and mounted knights.

Erlach then led the majority of his Bernese force in a charge at the enemy’s infantry. These fled, allowing Erlach to reinforce the Swiss Confederates, who were still under heavy cavalry attack. The Austrian knights retreated when they saw the flight of their infantry.

The battle had lasted 1½ hours. The anti-Bernese league had lost 2,000 men, including 16 nobles and 80 knights. The Bernese captured 80 crowned helmets and 27 banners. They had lost between 1,000 and 1,500 men, but, despite a third of their army fleeing the field at the first onset, and having no cavalry or reserves, they had beaten the Freiburgers and relieved the Siege of Laupen.

Among the dead was the Austrian commander Nidau. Erlach, considered a hero in Bern, retired without seeking any reward. Bern joined the Swiss Confederation in 1353.

The Battle of Sempach

The Battle of Sempach was fought between the Hapsburgs under Leopold III and the Swiss allies of Lucerne, which was now fighting for its independence.

Even though Duke Leopold had not waited for reinforcements before launching his attack, his 4,000 Austrian infantry and 1,400 cavalry faced 1,300 Swiss.

On 9 July 1386, the Hapsburgs attacked first, by mistake, thinking they were facing a peasant band. The Swiss, on the other hand, were taken by surprise, not wanting to fight on the low-lying ground near Lake Sempach.

The Austrian chivalry had learnt its lesson at Morgarten: they would ride to battle but dismount to fight. They were armed with lances, swords, and daggers. They refused to let their mercenaries attack first, fearing they would miss out on the fighting.

The Swiss army, which was drawn from the Forest Cantons but also from Zurich and Lucerne, relied on the halberd, the sword, and the dagger.

At first, the Austrian knights had the upper hand with their lances, but over time their heavier armour worked against them. Leopold himself dismounted and joined in the fighting when he saw the Austrian banner fall twice.

According to a contemporary chronicler,

The Swiss order of battle was angular, one soldier followed by two, these by four and so on. The Swiss were all on foot, badly armed, having only their long swords and their halberds, and boards on their left arms with which to parry the blows of their adversaries, and they could at first make no impression on the close ranks of the Austrians, all bristling with lances.

ABOVE A 17th-century fresco in the Chapel at Sempach depicting the Austrian Swiss battle on 9 July 1386.
A 17th-century fresco in the Chapel at Sempach depicting the Austrian Swiss battle on 9 July 1386.

But Anthony Zer Pot, of Uri, cried to his men to strike with their halberds on the shafts of the lances, which he knew were made hollow… at the same time, Arnold Winkelried, a knight from Unterwalden… cried out ‘I’ll open my way for you, Confederates’, and, seizing as many spears as he could grasp in his arms, dragged them down with his whole weight and strength upon his own bosom, and thus made an opening for his countrymen to penetrate the Austrian ranks.

The grooms and the horses fled. The heavily armed Austrians were hot and tired. They ran, only to be cut down by the halberdiers. They lost 700 men; the Swiss, 120. Leopold was among the dead.

After the battle, a pile of shoe tips was found: the Austrian knights had chopped them off so they would be more nimble on foot.

The Austrians liked to blame the heat for their defeat, as most of them were fighting on foot in 30kg of armour. Whatever the case, they were forced to relinquish their claims over Swiss territories.

Marignano: the start of Swiss neutrality

In June 1515, the new French King Francis I invaded Italy with 60,000 men. He was allied with England and Venice against the Pope, the Hapsburgs, and Switzerland. He managed to bribe 10,000 Swiss in Lombardy to return home, leaving 15,000 in Milan. The remaining Swiss had thought of withdrawing but were tricked into fighting by the anti-French Cardinal Schinner.

The Battle of Marignano took place on 13/14 September, 20km from Milan. The French had 20,000 infantry, 17,000 landsknechts (German mercenary halberdiers), and 1,700 cavalry, against 22,000 Swiss infantry and 200 cavalry.

It started well for the Swiss. They made a surprise attack at 5pm so that the French artillery could not be used. They broke through the French lines, repelled a cavalry charge led by Francis himself, took 12 banners and some cannon.

By 10pm, both sides had retired for the night. Following a day of exceptional confusion, many soldiers found themselves in the wrong camp and were killed when they could not repeat the passwords. Francis fell asleep on a gun carriage, unaware that a Swiss battalion was a mere 50 yards away.

At dawn, the Swiss tried attacking again, but this time the French artillery was ready, and they were also attacked in the rear by Venetian reinforcements, who had been marching all night.

The Swiss suffered 6,000 casualties against 5,000 French. Francis took Milan and most of Lombardy. In November 1516, the Swiss signed the ‘perpetual peace’ with France. They renounced their claims to the Duchy of Milan in exchange for 400,000 crowns.

The surprising thing is that Marignano was not that terrible a defeat. The Swiss retreated in good order and got to keep the territory they had conquered, Appenzell, which duly became the 13th canton.

The Swiss were relying on the pikes and halberds that had brought them victory for 200 years. The cannon and muskets of Renaissance princes had rendered their tactics obsolete. This was the beginning of Swiss neutrality.

Swiss tactics

Whether it was a lake, a forest, or a mountainside, the Swiss always used terrain to maximum advantage. This provided protection – especially against the charges of heavy horse – and auxiliary weapons in the form of avalanches of boulders and tree trunks.

While their enemies wore heavy armour of mail and plate, the only armour worn by most Swiss – who were peasants and could afford little – was a visorless kettle helmet; the wealthier few had sleeveless hauberks. Armour, though, could prove fatal to opponents fighting in mountain terrain, especially in the heat of summer.

Also significant was the overconfidence of feudal enemies, who looked down on peasant rebels. Waiting 24 years before responding to the original uprising was the height of foolishness, allowing the Swiss to consolidate their political and military organisation.

This contemporary woodcut shows a clash of pikes in the foreground and of heavy horse in the background, but note the artillery. The advent of gunpowder weapons made combined-arms operations cavalry, pikemen, musketeers, and cannon working in harness essential to battlefield success. The Swiss heavily reliant on peasant pikemen retreated into their mountains and maintained a policy of neutrality; though they continued to hire out their services to Renaissance princes as mercenaries.

The Hapsburgs never took these wars as seriously as the Swiss. This was despite the fact that the Hapsburgs were a Swiss family who had inherited the Duchy of Austria. (In 1415, the Swiss took the ancestral Hapsburg castle at Aargau, the ultimate humiliation.)

In wider perspective, a new class of ‘middling sort’ infantry was of growing importance across Europe in the Late Middle Ages – Scottish pikemen, English and Welsh longbowmen, French artillerymen, Flemish goedendag-men, Burgundian hand-gunners, and others. The Swiss were part of this ‘anti-feudal military revolution’.

One final comparison can be made: with the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan. This regime imposed military neutrality and political isolation for two and a half centuries. The Swiss and the Japanese regimes showed a genius for knowing when to quit – respectively, after defeats at Marignano and in Korea, in both cases new and shocking experiences.

Edmund West is a freelance journalist with an MA in History from the University of East Anglia. He has written for Military History Matters, History Today, Wired, The Spectator, and other publications.
All images WIPL