The garishly dressed, swaggering mercenary bands known as the Landsknecht were founded in 1486 by the German Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, who wanted his own infantry force to match the Swiss pikemen who had been victorious at the battles of Murten and Nancy in 1476–77. Officially, the Landsknecht were bound to serve the emperor, but the lure of pay and plunder soon led many of them to seek alternative employers. Feared and admired, they were a ubiquitous presence on European battlefields in the first half of the 16th century. Together with the Spanish Tercio, these German fighters were the fiercest warriors in Europe.
The core of the Landsknecht battlefield formation was a phalanx of pikemen, supported by skirmishers armed with crossbows and harquebuses and, in the van, the regiment’s best soldiers armed with two-handed swords. On the battlefield, the Landsknecht were disciplined and courageous but, when their wages were not paid, they gained a reputation for mutiny and plundering. Individual mercenary captains were contracted to recruit, train, and organize regiments about 4,000 strong. The majority of recruits came from German-speaking areas, although some hailed from as far afield as Scotland. They were tempted by pay of four guilders a month, a good income for the time, but they had to supply their own equipment. Only the better off could afford full armor or an harquebus. The weapon of the majority was the pike, 15 or 20 ft (5 or 6 m) long, and costing around one guilder.
In 1525, at the Battle of Pavia, during the Italian Wars, the Landsknecht Black Band, employed by French King Francis I, fought to the last man, being defeated by the Spanish Tercio Infantry of Charles V (I of Spain), while the rest of the French forces fled the field. However, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, hired their services after this war, and, in 1527, during a conflict between the Emperor and the Pope, the Landsknecht and Spanish forces occupied and looted Rome, wreaking havoc as they went. The occupation lasted nine months, with the mercenaries refusing to leave until they had been paid.