Willensstark Fahnlein

The Willensstark Handbook

By Captain Lothar Von Degen

-A History of Willensstark Company of Mercenaries-

15th century mercenary company, historical reenactment, deer river mn
Captain Lothar von Degen

Like many mercenary companies of the age, Willensstark was created by an ambitious knight seeking wealth and reputation from the opportunities created within a militaristic society. Demand for professional fighters was high, pay was good, and social culture esteemed the capable warrior. New tactics, new technologies, and a growing belief in the potentials of personal achievement drove this trend into full fruition. Knights took the rank of Captain and organized their own independent armies to be hired not just to nations but cities, churches, and wealthy merchants as well. The independent contractor, as opposed to nationalistic conscription, had become an expression of this early renaissance thinking, resulting in the year 1494 to become known as the “Age of Condottiere” – the age of the contractor. It marked a fundamental change in military philosophy that would come to evolve into what we might now label “the modern concept of military organization”.

After fighting seven years in the Austro-Hungarian war (1479-1491) and earning his knighthood by both deeds and heredity, Lothar Von Degen (a German nobleman from Koblenz, Germany) formed the Willensstark Fahnlein of mercenaries in the year 1490. Hastily securing business, Willensstark’s first engagement was with fifty men during the final two years of the Conquest of Granada (1481-1492) against the Moors.

The independent contractor, as opposed to nationalistic conscription, had become an expression of this early renaissance thinking…

Despite the company’s small size casualties were low, though the pay was wanting. Payment failed to cover all the expenses invested, however the lack of monetary gains was off-set by gains in reputation.  Averaging three Moors killed per company member, the common opinion arose that the company was indeed deserving of its name (Willensstark meaning strong-willed). The establishment of this “never back-down” reputation would ensure future employment, but perhaps more attractive to employers was the strong sense of honor with which the company had conducted itself. The old laws of chivalry had combined with the modern practicalities of Humanism to create a mercenary company that could be considered safe – that is one that would not turn against their employer to further personal gains through raids of the local populace. It was at this time that Captain Von Degen chose to accentuate the company’s qualities by adopting the popular phrase as a motto: “do right and fear no man”.

15th centruy soldiers, formation, drill
Soldiers marching in the daily formation drill.

Re-supplied and furnished with then eighty men, Von Degen accepted employment from the League of Venice against the French in the Neapolitan War (1494-1495).  Willensstark went by ship from Spain to Italy. Italy was a bastion of the old feudal city-states in constant conflict with their neighbors . . . a true feeding frenzy and breeding ground for the soldier-for-hire. Lothar did not like working for the League of Venice, mostly due to the atrocities and corruption of Pope Alexander VI. Regardless of all motivations, payment was fair in the few engagements Willensstark participated in. More engagements would have been tempting to accept, however growing concern of the “French” disease convinced an early departure to prevent infection in the company. The Alps were crossed a second time, through the Brenner Pass, back towards Innsbruck and lands that would be less of a threat. Loss in battle could still make a profit with honor, but loss by disease would have only served to diminish numbers in the ranks without accomplishment. It was a risk that could not have been afforded.

Now, having found temporary employment from England, Captain Von Degen sets about the business of re-supplying, recruiting, and training while keeping guard against the French threat to King Henry VII’s small hold on continental Europe. Rumblings of the coming conflict between the Swedish and the Russians and that the Captain has landed employment with the Swedes has generated excitement and anticipation.

-Business and Discipline-

15th century, mercenary, willensstark
15th Century Mercenary

The fourteenth century mercenary is gone, and with him goes the reputation of a rampaging pillager terrorizing the countryside to feed a never-ending appetite of violence.  At that time now passed, mercenaries were a threat to all. When they were between employments they simply settled where they chose and lived off the people surrounding.  Yet now, in 1495 A.D., mercenaries are the primary, or even only, combative units at a nation’s disposal.  Regular national armies are few and all were poorly trained, if at all. Between these two times had come a change. Plagues, war, and civil upheaval had caused a re-thinking of old and traditional structures of law, government, and the role of the individual within it. The fifteenth century mercenary is one of many examples that arose of this great change.

Mercenaries of the fifteenth century were flanked by four basic belief systems that governed their concepts of business and discipline: the old laws of chivalry, national allegiances, religious allegiances, and renaissance Humanism. A base understanding of each is needed that a sort of “transitory hybrid” can be formed – a model of what might have been likely for the time period. It is important for portrayal to realize these influences, rarely if ever strictly adhered to as they may have been, that a theoretically more accurate depiction may be formed.

Chivalry, in simple definition, is the four basic rules based on Christian values of decent behavior.  The rules of chivalry are: 1 – Bravery in battle; 2 – Mercy to the defeated enemy; 3 – Defense of the weak, and; 4 – Courtesy to women.  Though in reality very few mercenaries or even knights ever lived-up to this ideal, the concept was important to the maintaining of discipline and therefore steady employment. The problem most encountered was that these qualities seemed to almost universally clash with the traditional culture of military life. They could be translated very loosely, and often were, but remain as a kind of fantasy ideal.

National and religious allegiances have always been and continue to be a factor. Different folks – different strokes, but when so many differences come together as in a mercenary company, it’s hard to determine what might result. German culture is perhaps the best starting place, as Willensstark’s creator is German, and so we can have some assumptions.

More than one massacre has occurred in history due to lack of quality food, and when dealing with a hundred or so trained and armed soldiers, the risk of not providing it is not an option.

Discipline would be strict and schedules would be orderly. French, Italians, and Swiss might be less regarded – Swiss for their competition, French for tradition, and Italians perhaps for both – not that these feelings should be over-emphasized. In truth, both national and religious allegiances would be like chivalry: things which have contributed to your character but might now be given a bit more of a dismissive attitude.

Renaissance Humanism would be more the cultural force that company business and discipline would be moving into. Humanism was the belief in reason, personal achievement, emphasis on secular concerns, and the revival of Greek and Roman classics. It also created a new form of military management known as the condota. The new condota (from the Spanish condotieri) system of employment is where the troops are paid even when inactive. They are hired for a set period or purpose (known as ferma) then afterwards enter a period of waiting (known as aspetto) where they are forbidden to be contracted to attack the former employer. Throughout both periods (ferma and aspetto) the company troops receive a regular wage. It was the duty of the company’s condottiere, or contractor, or captain, to make sure these wages were paid. Pleasing employers with honorable and principled service was more than a fashion, it was absolutely essential. It is entirely likely that a Captain would encourage some code of behavior amongst his troops for this reason.

Keeping order and discipline in the military, especially amongst a mercenary company, has always been challenging.  In a company of mixed nationalities and confusing loyalties, bitterness and rivalry can be very damaging.  Eruption of fights, hampered training, and distraction from essential duties can all result from lack of discipline. Order must be maintained. Although they always receive payment, money can be fined away from mercenaries with non-chivalrous or unenlightened behavior.  Raiding the locals to make-up the lost difference (as would be done in the previous century) could have serious consequences for a mercenary.  If you weren’t killed, you would most likely be severely beaten and ostracized – or perhaps better yet is to impair the individual’s ability to be individual. Control of the money was perhaps the contractor’s greatest leverage. Less serious than physical discipline, and therefore less likely to cause lasting problems, fines provided a stern yet reasonable alternative.

swords, hammers, axes, 15th century soldiers
Soldiers practicing with a variety of swords, hammers, and axes.

Money may be able to buy a man’s aggression and strength, but not their hearts.  Trust and respect of the company’s leaders (in particular the Captain) was highly influential in the discipline, morale, and quality of a company.  Trust and respect were gained in several ways. The Captain had to be an example worth respecting, pay had to be decant and fair, but maybe most important is food.  Willensstark, like many other companies, guarantees a meal every day to every soldier.  This gesture helps threefold by keeping strengths high from nourishment, bellies content (and so tempers content), and the psychology that the captain truly cares for every individual member of the company.  More than one massacre has occurred in history due to lack of quality food, and when dealing with a hundred or so trained and armed soldiers, the risk of not providing it is not an option. As strange as it may seem, food is indeed an integral part of company discipline. Good behavior means more food; bad behavior, less food. Sometimes discipline could be as simple as that.

Careful wielding of justice could be key to a company’s behavior.  Harshness such as beatings, locking in stocks, or even executions was all accepted to be within the captain’s options for administering justice. Ruling by fear could be effective, and definitely encouraged careful behavior by showing off  the captain’s power, but if used too often it could shatter the troop’s morale and trust. It discourages new recruits and severely limits the number of potential employers.  Less severe justice was often much more effective (not to mention morale), and is the preferred philosophy of Willensstark company.  Cutting pay or rations, assigning long patrols at night, or being made to do menial labors is to be considered ample enough for most circumstances.

Contracts of employment are accepted at the discretion of the captain aided by the advice of his officers.  The highest bidder is not always the winner and a good captain considers the political, religious, logistical, and tactical sides as well.  The reliability of the employer and his ability or willingness to pay is also a factor in deciding whether or not to accept employment. The payment he receives is used, among other things, as payment for those whom he contracts. A mercenary’s contract is with the hiring officer, not the nation or entity that he serves. Every company member is hired on an individual basis but is still subject to company policy.