German Peasants War 1524-1526: Landsknechts and the Swabian League

In the summer of 1524 near the Black Forest in what is today Stühlingen, Baden-Wurttemberg in southern Germany, one of the largest and most significant popular uprisings of recorded history in the middle and renaissance ages began. A quibble between peasants and the ruling countess in the province of Swabia led to a greater revolt of a loosely confederated Serf/Peasant alliance that became the catalyst for great conflict, upheaval, and civil war in the early Renaissance age in the central European Germanic kingdoms associated with the Swabian League. The league was lead by Emperor Charles V; locked in continuous series of campaigns with the Italians throughout his reign from 1519-1556.

Period drawing, Landsknechts depicted with eerie symbolism 

The king appointed his brother and successor, Archduke Ferdinand of Austria (sharing the same name of his late ancestor, who’s assassination sparked the Great War in 1914) to crush the rebellion in mostly the south & southwest of Swabian League territory. The Peasants Rebellion eventually ignited a near national revolution with hundreds of thousands fighting for the rights of religious and social liberty in Southwestern Germany.

For the Swabian League forces it was a war to defend property, the greater social order & culture, and also a secondary rebellion, between disaffected lower nobles and knights, many of whom were or who were at one time employed as landsknecht mercenaries, professional, well armed and trained soldiers from within and outside Austro-German provinces. Rather ironically the title of the Peasants War or Peasants Rebellion is somewhat misleading because many of the enemy rebel forces were laborers, artisans, or lower gentry. Many of the fighting men on both were outlaw knights, mercenaries and former soldiers from Switzerland and the other German kingdoms. The infrequent regional or national makeup of the rebels was most evident especially in the ever-lacking leadership of the Peasants movement itself.

Radical theologian, Protestant reformer, and leader of the 'Rainbow' band Thomas Müntzer

One of the early participants in the rebellion which opened up the conflict into a larger war was the disinherited Duke Ulrich of Württemberg, fighting with the help of peasant levies and with distraction of the Swabian League reeling from peasant risings throughout the kingdom. Many of these men certainly had no affiliation with the Peasants movement and though they tolerated, though most certainly disagreed and personally despised those of lower social class. Of the most important leaders was a man essentially thrust into a military role without any previous experience, the radical theologian and reformer Thomas Müntzer (b.1488-1525).

Many of the peasant bands small or large (most numbering from around 300-500 to as large as 5,000-<10,000) were indeed led and commanded by men with little or no military experience, who were elected or assumed command because the men under them thought they were best suited, a radical idea. However some bands did receive the services of less than savory types such as ruthless mercenaries, free lancer landsknechts who fought for payment and plunderalso  former robber knights who had taken to the cause for personal or culutural reasons.

One knight of noble birth and status who surprisingly threw his lot in with the Peasants was Sir Gottfried, Götz von Berlichingen (b.1480- 1562), a knight known alternatively as Götz of the Iron Hand, because he wore a prosthetic iron gauntlet after loosing his sword hand in the year 1504 at the Siege of Landshu whilst in the service of the Bavarian Duke Albert IV. Ironically he too had helped crush the earlier Peasants Rebellion of the Poor Conrad band, the truth being that the Peasants rebellion was fought by many men who were not indeed peasants at all. This greater period from dating back as far as the 1480’s during the tail end of England’s Wars of the Roses 1400-1499. In the same time-frame many of the German states can were rife with similar princely wars, upheavals, and civil conflicts.

Knight and at one time rebel commander, Götz of the Iron Hand

However the influence of the peasantry and the oppressed serf classes on the overall conflict cannot be overlooked, as highlighted by the many 1930's-1980’s contemporary, and more recent histories & narratives, from Frederick Engels 1850, The Peasant War in Germanyto modern socio-religious and military studies of the conflict, which examine the conflict through alternative viewpoints. Engel’s originals study has since become a classic in revolutionary or Marxist historical revisionism, alongside perhaps similar comparative studies of the English Civil War, like historian Christopher Hill’s (b.1912-2003) The English Revolution 1640 (1940, Lawrence & Wishart).

Warfare & the Peasants War

Chronologically the first organized rebellion of the Peasants movement against Swabian League rule begins from October 1524 to the winter of 1525, as Peasant armies from Tyrol in the South to Upper Swabia in the North mobilized for total war with the League’s forces. Looting and sacking keeps, manors, or monasteries was common and peasants often overwhelmed lightly defended keeps of the rich upper class where treasures with most certainly plundered in great abundance.

One of the first pitched battles of the German Peasants War was the Battle of Leipheim April 1525. Coupled with Sir George Truchsess and the Swabian League’s campaign in Northern (Upper) Swabia, and the revolts in south and in the Black Forest, the Swabian League military fought a two front campaign against a much larger force that was most certainly ill trained and ill equipped to face a more modern, trained, and disciplined force.

Period interpretation of a landsknecht mercenary who could have fought for either side

Though no precise numbers can be ascertained anywhere between 100,000-350,000 peasants may have mobilized between 1525-1526, especially if one counts the rebellions of the early 1500’s including the revolts of Poor Conrad’s band against Duke Ulrich of Württemberg in 1514 and other revolts around Stuttgart and the Rhine valley in the prelude to the Peasants War in 1524. The military of the Swabian League depended heavily on the feudal service of lowly to middle social strata knights to form the ‘vanguard’ of their military force, centered around the mounted soldier who could fight dressed in full or half armor, fighting with a heavy sword.

Pikemen in a more ‘Swiss’ style were also most common and landsknechts, mounted and infantry, were key to the advanced military prowess of the Swabian League forces, which outclassed the Peasants in every respect. The great problem for the Swabian League was whether or not they could find the coin to finance these landsknechts; many of whom held little allegiance to the League. If they were not paid and compensated with plunder for their service they would likely mutiny thus threatening the resistance to the rebellion.

Against the peasant armies who fought mostly unarmored with improvised (farm & industrial tools) or looted weapons, with little or no artillery, the path to victory was simple for the Swabian League commanders like ‘Bauernjörg’ Sir Truchsess- break the peasant ranks with cannon and then with steel in a charge that kills or scatters them in one fell, decisive action. This tactic proved throughout the war to be the decisive factor in defeating the more numerous but scattered and often independent Peasant bands. Those who were captured faced certain execution and possible torture at times, the dukes and princes of this era taking a very blooded minded stance toward the rebels.

Battle of Frankenhausen 1525: The Conclusion & Greater Legacy of the German Peasants Revolt

Though it was not the final battle or skirmish of the war, the Battle of Frankenhausen was one of the most decisive and overall crushing defeats of the peasants at the hands of the Swabian League throughout the rebellion. The battle fought in Thuringia in May of 1525 broke the peasants will and means to field an army. It was here that the ‘Rainbow’ band of reformers, radicals, and landsknechts under Thomas Müntzer were defeated, their wagon/war van besieged, and eventually stormed by the combined armies of Hesse-Brunswick and George the Duke of Saxony. Despite the initial safety of the laager (chained wagons formed in a defensible oval or circle) formation, a the ferocious charge by the Swabian forces many of whom were landsknechts themselves, broke the Peasant line capturing Müntzer.

At Frankenhausen, Müntzer’s band was finally defeated with heavy casualties by the Swabian League army of Saxony intent on defeating and capturing this dangerous rebel leader. Müntzer was dragged from the safety of the wagon laager to a dungeon after the battle, humiliated and utterly defeated. The rebel leader was then tortured by his Swabian League captors before being executed in late May of 1525, a historically important religious martyr in the Catholic-Christendom (Protestant) reformation period

Sir George Truchsess III, known as Bauernjörg, The Scourge of the Peasants

By 1526 with perhaps 75,000 or more casualties in the war already, uprisings in Tyrol were crushed yet again and the Peasants War had all but ended in a bloody Swabian League victory. In concluding a narrative of the Peasants Rebellion one must be led to believe that it as a general uprising and military campaign. However the uprising of the peasants bands succeeded in spawning a greater declaration of human rights and religious reformation, as well as a new conscious of personal rights and freedoms. 

The Peasants War is notable and perhaps today infamous because of religious implications behind much of the conflict. Indeed much of religious teachings bordered on the occult, touting apocalyptic visions in the name of the Protestant reformation. These were essentially radicalist ideologies which in-turn spawned a massive militia and peasants upheaval in Renaissance Germany and Austria during the period. Besides the important religious reformation and societal radicalism of the individual religious leaders during the rebellion, the peasant combatants of this period also tried to enforce idealized Laws of War predating modern codes enforced by the United Nations and other institutions today by centuries.

Notable Peasant rebel groups

‘Poor Conrad’ band 1514- Failed Revolt against the Duke Ulrich of Württemberg led by the peasantry in Rems ValleyStuttgart

The Allgäu band

‘Baltringer Haufen', Baltringen band- Active December 1524-1525, known for making a series of demands to abolish serfdom and increase living standards.

Christian Brotherhood-Formed by the Upper Swabia peasant bands, including Allgäu, Baltringen, and Thuringian in March 1525.

The ‘Lake’ bands-Peasant army of the villages, manors, forests that surrounded Lake Constance.

Müntzer’s ‘Rainbow’ Thuringian band-Led by the populist radical anti-Lutheran but pro-reform theologian Thomas Müntzer. One of the leading bands in any of the German regions during the great rebellion of 1524-1525.

Swabian League lords and armies
   War council and supreme command headquarters at Ulm, on the River Danube, Baden-Württemberg

Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, Ferdinand I (b.1503-1564), King of Hungary & Bohemia. Archduke of Austria, 1521-1564, Holy Roman Emperor 1531-1564. Fought a great war with the Ottoman Empire for most of his reign as Holy Roman Emperor.

Ferdinand I

George Truchsess of Waldburg (b.1488-1531)-Governor of Waldburg, Austria, a knight, lord, and general of the Swabian League armies during the German Peasants War. Nicknamed Bauernjörg, meaning the scourge of the peasants, he was literally the ‘Field Marshall’ of the Swabian League armies during the conflict.

George Duke of Saxony (b.1471-1539), Son of Albert III, Duke of Saxony. Known as George the Bearded, opponent of the Reformation who commanded Swabian League forces at the Battle of Frankenhausen.

George, Duke of Saxony


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