Many Swiss men earned their daily bread as soldiers in foreign military service well into the 19th century. These soldiers were known as mercenaries and lansquenets. It was not until the founding of the Federal State that Swiss mercenaries were reined in. Swiss citizens, however, continued to serve in foreign military services – in the papal Swiss Guard, for instance, or in the French Foreign Legion or as Spanish brigadists.
The rise and fall of Swiss mercenaries
Swiss mercenaries had their heyday between the 15th and 18th centuries. Documents on former mercenaries and the Foreign Legion can be found in the Foreign Affairs fonds (1581-1971), for instance in the Foreign Military Service Series. The Swiss Federal Archives hold fonds of Swiss brigadists from the 17th,18th and 19th centuries who served in French, Spanish, Dutch, British and Napoleonic military divisions and also in the service of the Vatican.
The French Revolution accelerated the fall of Swiss mercenary services that by this time were being questioned as a result of the introduction of general national conscription and the establishment of a national army. The young Federal State restricted mercenary service for foreign powers and finally prohibited them altogether. The dissolution of Swiss brigadists under foreign flags and the enforcement of the ban was a central concern of the authorities during the early years of the Federal State. Documents relating to the era of the Helvetic Republic (1798 – 1803) can be found mainly in the series maintained by the Ministries of War (B0#B.08 and B0#C.05). The fonds of the Act of Mediation (1803 – 1813) and the Tagsatzung era (1814 – 1848) contain documents organised by country in the series on relations with foreign countries, negotiations and treaties (C0#D.2 and D0#D.2).
Up to 40,000 Swiss mercenaries have served in the French Foreign Legion since its founding in 1831. Swiss citizens who participated in wars on account of their political conviction, for instance in the American War of Secession (1861-1865), the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) or fighting for Germany during the Second World War (1939-1945), are also considered modern-day mercenaries. The only Swiss mercenary troop in existence today is the papal Swiss Guard in Rome. The troop has been responsible for the safety of the pope since the early 16th century.
Tips for further research
- Historical Dictionary of Switzerland (ger) with, among others, articles on foreign services (ger) and the Swiss Guard (ger).
- Federal archives of the cantons (ger): documents relating to mercenaries, for instance on the Lucerne mercenaries (ger) in the Cantonal Archives of Lucerne (ger) or the private archives of the influential mercenary family De Courten (french) in the Cantonal Archives of Valais (ger) with documents dating back to the 16th century.
- Official website of the Swiss Guard and that of former guardsmen (ger).
- Interest Group on Volunteers in Spain (ger): a list of all Swiss volunteers and brigadists who fought in Spain including a brief biography and references to other sources and literature.
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