Handgonnes and cannons of the middle ages

We could start this text by telling you about the Chinese origin of black powder, as can be found on dozens of pages on the web. But we won’t, because it’s not relevant. This article is about the use of handgonnes and black powder during the European middle ages, and that is a whole other thing. So we’ll start at black powder as a phenomenon.


In medieval Sweden gunpowder was called just “pulver”, wich translates into “powder”. There are quite a few old powder recipes still around, and the ones that suits our selected historical period
are referred to as, for example, Rouen, Lille, Rothenburg and Marcus Graecus. They all use the same ingredients, but the amounts differ. In the table below, they are compared to a modern “perfect”


Tests made at the Middelaldercenter in Nyköbing, Denmark show a correlation between higher muzzle velocity and higher amount of salpetre. The ingredients were ground up and mixed, resulting in a so called dry mixed powder. This can be used as it is, but it will be more effective if mixed with alcohol, shaped into bars or pellets and then ground again, producing wet mixed powder or meal powder. The alcohol dissolves the salpetre, and lets the tiny sulphur crystals divide and evenly on the grains of charcoal, making the powder burn more even. It is important to note that there has
been some debate about the use of alcohol in medieval gunpowder, as distilled beverages is barely known at the time. However, sources speak of a “Henricus Brännewattnmakare” (Henricus, maker of burnt (distilled) water, meaning a producer of alcohol) in the city of Lund in the 1350’s, wich means that alcohol was in use at the time. If it was used to make gunpowder we do not know. Sulphur could be collected in volcanic areas in Iceland or Italy, while salpetre was produced by collecting dung and urine from livestock, and processing it, to extract the salpetre. Charcoal was abundant in medieval society.


The name of our group contains the word “Bössor”, and in modern Swedish “Bössor” means some sort of handgun like a rifle or shotgun. In the middle ages the term “bössa” (sg.)/”bössor” (pl.) is applied to both handgonnes and cannons. In other words there are two different types of “Bössor” in the fourteenth century, and it can be used as a very rough measurement regarding calibre and purpose; “Stenbössa” – firing stones, and “Lodbössa” – firing lead shot. The “Stenbössa” seems to stand for larger calibre – possibly a cannon, whilst the “Lodbössa” seems to have had smaller calibre – possibly a handgonne.

The projectile

The handgonne and the medieval cannon fired mainly lead shot (“lod”), stone balls, “grape shot” or arrows. The use of arrows is a bit peculiar – it doesn’t seem to have any obvious advantages in comparison to stone balls. One theory is that the cannon presented an alternative to the so called ballista (a siege engine for firing huge arrows), and that gunpowder was just another method of propelling the projectile. The lead shot was probably cast by the gunner himself, using a cast made of sand stone, soap stone or bronze – as there was no fixed system for calibre, each man had to provide for himself.


A mould for casting lead bullets. From the National museum in Helsinki

The grape shot (Swe: kartesch) , which turned the handgonne or cannon into sort of a shotgun, was used against people and animals (like war horses) at close range. Virtually anything could be used as grapeshot, but shards of flint seem to have been common, as the razor sharp flint shards inflicted massive damage. The grape shot could be free loaded, or put into a triangular container for bigger guns; the Museum of Medieval Stockholm displays some of these, found on a sunken ship. When fired, the walls of the “pyramid” fall away some distance from the muzzle, thus giving the grape
shot a longer effective range before it disperses.


15th-16th century grapeshot containers filled with flint


There is an ongoing discussion about the effectiveness of the medieval handgonnes. A lot of people claim the handgonne was a weapon with a mere psychological effect; that the smoke, sound and fire scared enemies, and that the weapon really didn’t have any tactical use. A battlefield is a horrifying place, with death, fear and suffering all over, and even if loud bangs, smoke and the smell of sulphur probably would increase the chaos and confusion, it wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference. Furthermore, soldiers would not have gone into battle time and again with a weapon they didn’t trust, and was just for “show”, a city would not have bought 500 of them, and the handgonne would not have developed into what it is today. Let’s take a closer look at what a handgonne is really doing.

One of the differences between the handgonne and other ranged weapons of the age is that arrows and crossbow bolts are that the latter do cutting damage, similar to knives or other edged weapons. They harm by puncturing or cutting organs and limbs. The area affected is small, about the size of the arrow head. This means that you have to hit a vital organ or nerve-centre to put an opponent out of action. There is more than one account of people continuing to fight even when pierced by several arrows. The handgonne on the other hand does kinetic damage. The projectile from a handgonne doesn’t pass through the target as easily as an arrow would, and this means it transfers more of its motive energy into what ever is being hit. The motive energy affects a larger area of an opponents body, as it sets the fluids and fat in the human organism in vibrating motion, which in quite a few instances can injure vital organs. How big an area affected depends of the velocity and weight of the projectile – the higher the weight and speed, the worse the effect.

The usual way to evaluate the damage done by modern firearms is to see how many joule of energy it transfers into its target. The higher the amount of transferred energy, the bigger the damage to the tissues of the body. Tests have shown that the energy transferred by a handgonne is about 1000 joule – a modern assault rifle transfers about 1100. Handgonnes also worked like a charm against the armour of professional soldiers and knights. As these were mainly adapted to cope with arrows and sharp weapons, the sheer power of a projectile from a handgonne would strike an unlucky target to the ground, and with great possibility severely injure him, or at least make him unable to continue the fight.

To have a closer look at how effective handgonnes really were, visit Ulrich Bretscher’s page about handgonnes.

Range and accuracy

Surely, the short barrelled handgonnes would not outshoot a longbow? Perhaps not. The above mentioned Middelaldercenter did some scientifically recorded test firing of a replica of the Swedish Loshultbössan in 2002. It was fired several times with different kinds of gunpowder, based on the recipes above. Also, some shots were fired with modern gunpowder. Different projectiles were used; the handgonne was loaded with 50g of gunpowder, and fired at an angle of 40 degrees. The range of the shots averaged between 600 metres up to 950 metres. Two shots travelled over a 1000 metres, with 1100 being the longest, using modern gunpowder. The muzzle velocity was between 150-250 metres per second. This shows that handgonnes could match longbows as far as range is concerned.

The accuracy of the early firearms might not be excellent, but not totally worthless either. According to Ulrich Bretscher’s experiments, an inexperienced hand gunner would score about 80% hits at a man sized target at a distance of 25 metres, but as the weapons fire a round projectile with the help of non consistent gunpowder from a short barrel, the conditions for marksmanship is limited at the least. The handgonnes, however, seems to have been used mainly in greater engagements, where the target was not an individual but a couple of hundreds in a unit. Even a blind shooter would probably hit someone in a unit of hundreds of spearmen.

From the early examples to later specimens

So what do we know about this? To be honest, not a whole lot, especially when we are talking about Scandinavia. This has a lot to do with a great fire in the seventeenth century, when the royal castle of Stockholm was burnt to ashes, along with a huge pile of medieval documents. This forces us to use sources from the rest of Europe. Applying theory, we might be able to get a decent picture.

We know that the Europeans have known about black powder since about 1260. Roger Bacon comments on it, but as far as he is concerned, it is only fit for amusement. He is possibly referring to fireworks. In 1326 the Italian city of Florence orders a manuscript (De NobilitatibusSapientiset Prudentia Regum), written by Walter de Milemete, said to be a member of the English clergy. The text is believed to be copy of an already existing volume, and shows the earliest known picture of a firearm. We see a gunner standing by a vase shaped gun lying on a table. This so called “pot-de-fer” cannon is loaded with an arrow projectile.


The earliest known European image of a firearm. Circa 1320

1334 cannons are involved in the defence of Meersburg in south west Germany. Next we hear of an English ship carrying guns in 1338. The battle of Crecy in 1346, also saw guns in action. The guns mentioned above, is with great probability cannons rather than handgonnes. In 1360 the Rathaus of Lübeck explodes, probably due to fault handling of gunpowder. Lübeck was a centre for mercenaries, and as all sorts of Germans, mercenaries and merchants, regularly travelled or even moved to Sweden, the use of gunpowder and it’s companion the handgonne, would have been well known in Scandinavia by the time of the Rathaus explosion. In 1362 the Italian city of Pergua purchase 500 handgonnes, giving us a trace to how many handgonnes were used. In the same year, Kristoffer, the son of the Danish king, Valdemar Atterdag, is struck in the jaw by a projectile believed fired by a handgonne, and dies from it the year after. Ten years later, handgonnes are mentioned in a Danish manuscript, and gunners are employed by the German city of Hamburg from at least 1360. 1395 firearms are first mentioned in Swedish sources, when the Swedes “borrow” a big gun from the Germans administering the castle in Stockholm.

Gun evolution

The first guns were cast in bronze. They were often vase shaped, and seems to have been used primarily in some sort of mount. They were fired by sticking a burning match or a piece of red hot iron in a priming hole or sometimes in the front end of the gun. Soon guns made of iron staves held together by iron hoops (much like an ordinary barrel) appear alongside the cast bronze guns. Welding is another known method of making guns – you “simply” take a sheet of iron and fold it into at tube, and weld the seams together. Smaller guns were mounted on wooden shafts and used more or less like rifles by “handgunners”. In England, these devices were referred to as “hand gonnes”. Some of these weapons was constructed with a hook, allowing the gunner to hook his weapon over a wall or the like, so that the recoil of the handgonne wouldn’t affect him. As some gunners operated single handedly, holding the gun with one hand and the match with the other, this support was surely appreciated. In the latter parts of the fourteenth century cannons with free chambers appear (called Föglare in medieval Swedish). This construction allowed a hugely increased firing rate, as pre-loaded chambers could quickly be inserted in the cannon. Another advantage was that the crew was not as exposed when reloading. Some evidence however, seems to point to these guns not being as reliable as muzzle loaded guns; they were more prone to explode.

1411 the first known triggers appear in sources. They are little more than just an s-shaped or z-shaped lever pivoting around its centre, not unlike crossbow triggers. When pressing the part under the stock, the upper part (holding the match) descends to ignite the primer, firing the handgonne. Some time later, the stock evolves from having been just a stick held under the arm or like a pike, with the end of the stock in the ground, or atop the shoulder, like a bazooka, into a “real” stock, made to hold against the shoulder. This model coexists with the earlier type. The barrels tend to get longer with smaller calibre.

The first known possible handgonne to survive to this day is the so called Loshultsbössan (the Loshult gun/cannon), found in the southernmost part of Sweden. It is a small 31 millimeter bore gun cast in bronze. It is dated to the middle of the fourteenth century, and has been extensively examined by Middelaldercenter i Denmark.


The Loshult gun. It is dated to circa 1340-1350. Note the similarity with the earliest known depicted cannon above

Another gun, Mörköbössan (The Mörkö Handgonne), found south of Stockholm, is dated to the last quarter of the fourteenth century.


The beautiful and unique Mörkö handgonne, dated to circa 1380-1400

A third Swedish handgonne, the Borgholmbössan, will soon be presented on this page.

How were gunners organized?

The above indicates that different forms of gunners have been around in Sweden/Scandinavia since the middle of the fourteenth century, but what it doesn’t tell us, is how common they were. They don’t appear in Scandinavian pictorial evidence until the beginning of the fifteenth century, on the brass of bishop Henrik of Finland (at the time, Finland was called “the Eastern half of the realm”, an integrated part of Sweden). We have a very vague idea of how gunners were organized, thanks to European sources; the most common seems to have been in groups, like bowmen.

Some examples: At the battle of Ravenspur 1471, 320 Burgundian gunners reportedly participated. John of Burgundy allegedly had 4000 handgonnes in his armoury, and at the battle of Stoke, the earl of Lincoln is said to have fielded 2000 handgonnes! In Scandinavia it is reported that Karl Knutsson in his campaign on Skåne, had enough gunners to organize them into one separate unit, marching under the flag of saint Erik, national saint of Sweden. Karl Knutsson is also reported to have brought “Wagon guns” (kärrebössor)on the above mentioned campaign.

The naming of guns

Christine de Pisan, a lady who wrote quite a bit on how war was to be waged in the early fifteenth century, clearly states the necessity of naming the guns and cannons. The reason for this, she claims, is that a commander would have a lot of different calibre guns to keep apart, and since the common soldier could not be trusted to remember calibres it was necessary to be able to refer to the gun by its name: “I would like Katrina placed over here, and Anna placed over there!”. The soldier would then know what gun was which, and what kind of ammunition would go with it.

The most famous guns in Sweden was “Diefulen” (“The Devil”) and “Diefuls Mater” (“The Mother of the Devil”), that protected the Stockholm Castle in the sixteenth century. The named handgonnes of Albrechts Bössor is named Örsdöder (Destrier killer), Keterlin Haverblast, Faule Agnes and Mathilda.

The other guns are yet to be named.

This article, written by Johan Käll & Peter Ahlqvist, was previously published on our old webpage.

Swedish medieval armour terminology

Svenska medeltida termer för rustningar

Inom rustningsterminologi såväl som kläder från medeltid råder ibland stor förvirring. Engelska och franska termer samsas tillsammans med lokala termer och latin. Dessutom används termer från hela medeltiden och under 500 år ändrades både rustning och termer. Skillnader i rustning som var uppenbara för dem har gått förlorade för oss. Vi har nu föga aning vad som skiljer en aketon från en gambeson. Nya tolkningar har gjorts som vissa använder sig av, vissa inte. Inom Albrechts Bössor försöker vi värna om den svenska medeltida terminologin och letar med ljus och lykta efter samtida termer. Här följer en liten sammanfattning av något vi funnit.


Den medeltida benämningen för krigsmateriel var Tygh, något som i viss mån även gäller även idag. De som gjort värnplikt vet att tygförrådet är det som man hämtar sina vapen ifrån. Detta används i Erikskrönikan ’ok redde sik tha wapn ok tyghe’ på sidan 30.



Vanligen kallad bascinet. 1350 säljer en viss Niklas Pekkilhuva jord i Kalmar. Hans vapen visar en bascinet med fjällanventail (Raneke, sidan 593).

Även kung Magnus Eriksson var stolt ägare till ” jtem vnam pekkelhwæ. cum slappor.”


Uttrycket ’Slappor’ är till viss del höljt i dunkel, men det är mycket sannolikt rör det sig om någon form av skydd för halsen, så som en ringkrage hängande från en hjälm (en så kallad aventail) eller en lös halskrage av läder, tyg, ringbrynja eller lameller.



En rustning för bålen bestående av stål- eller järnplattor nitade på insidan av läder eller tyg. Även kallad coat of plates, Visbyharnesk eller överdragsrustning. Erikskrönikan nämner dessa många gånger: ”mahrg plata bleff ther ospent” (sidan 57), “hielma plator och panzere” (sidan 30), ”min hielm min brynia ok min plata” (sidan 37), ”harnisk plator ok anat meer” (sidan 106) för att nämna några exempel. Även Kung magnus hade en, fast han hade glömt den i Norge: ”et vna platæ remansit in akersborgh.”



En tygrustning, att ha under annan rustning eller för sig själv. Kallas annars gambeson eller aketon. Erikskrönikan kallar den panzar eller panzare; “hielma plator och panzere” (sidan 30). Att den nämns tillsammans med platan visar att den inte bara är ’ett pansar’ utan något speciellt sådant. Under denna tid används bara plata, brynja och tygrustningar vad man vet. Kung Magnus Eriksson hade förutom ovan nämnda rustningstyper ”jtem vnum panzer”. Ett senare omnämnade av panzare finns i Stockholms tänkebok från 1400-talet.



Det finns många omnämnanden om denna hjälm som i olika former lever kvar än idag. Järnhatten var mycket vanlig och kan enklast beskrivas som en järnkalott med brätte. Järnhatten är den hjälm de medeltida landslagarna säger att folkuppbådet skall ha.



Den vanligaste tolkningen av muzza eller muza är att det rör sig om en ringbrynjehuva, en huva av ringbrynja som vanligtvis bärs under en annan hjälm. Det påminner mycket om hur “mössa” stavas under 1300-tal i olika dokument. Muzzan var en del av den rustning folkuppbådet skulle ha. En riddare vid namn Anders testamenterar 1299 även sin ”cum sella muzam cum plata” Senare skall hans ”armatorum” (rustning) säljas för att ge pengarna till hans biktfar. Muzam var alltså inte del av rustningen, som troligen var en ringbrynja vid denna tid.



Ringpansar, ringbrynja. Ordet nämns ofta i källorna, till exempel i Erikskrönikan: ”min hielm min brynia ok min plata” (sidan 37), i Karl Magnus (sidan 255) ”oc före han i twa brynior” eller i Riddar Ivan – Lejonriddaren (sidan 50) “brynior ok hiälma the sunder slitu”. Rustningstypen benämns malioharnisk i ett brev från 1408: ”för en fating och ena plato och för ett malaharnisk, som han hadhe lanth wårom fadher”

Kung Magnus ägde även ”jtem I. par maliotygh ” och ”I. par maliohuso”.



Harnisk är ett något luddigt uttryck. I Erikskrönikan talar man om ”harnisk plator ok anat meer” (sidan 106), ”man saa ther margt eth harnisk blangt” (sidan 117), något som antyder att ett harnisk var gjort av (putsad metall). Kanske rör det sig om tidiga plåtrustningar för bålen. Ordet kopplas också samman med andra rustningsdelar. I Raven von Barnekows räkenskaper för Nyköpingshus står att Kung Albrecht köper ’benharnesk’ för 4 öre. Kanske är det så att harnisk är en samlingsterm för rustningsdelar i plåt? Detta motsäges av termen Malaharnisk (mala/malia/malja, ring) som nämns i ett brev. Kanske är det bara ett allmänt ord för rustning.

Andra termer

Kopartygh – Hästrustning
Tasteer – Stjärn, skydd för hästens huvud

Båda dessa enligt tolkningar är gjorda av Sven-Bertil Jansson. Han tolkar passagen på sidan 106 i Erikskrönikan. Dessutom nämns begreppen i ovan nämnde riddar Anders testamente: ”confero dextrarium meum cum cuparthyr taster”.


Svenskt diplomatarium
Danskt Diplomatarium
Medeltida romaner 1300-tal
Ivan Lejonriddaren
Karl Magnus
Flores ok Blanzeflor
Medeltida dokument 1300-tal
Raven von Barnekows räkenskaper för Nyköpings Fögderi
Om Koningx Styrilsi
Magnus Erikssons Landslag

Raneke/Svenska Medeltidsvapen III
Kung Magnus boupteckning för Bohus slott
Karl Magnus, en roman från sent 1300-tal
Ivan Lejonriddaren

Den här artikeln, skriven av Johan Käll, var tidigare publicerad på vår gamla hemsida i annan version.

A note on 14th century warfare

To begin with, we shall have a short introduction to which types of arms and armour that were used in fourteenth century Sweden. The law of each county (or country, as Sweden more or less existed as a form of confederacy at this time) stated that each and every free man where to own arms and armor so they would be able to do service in the levy. Although this differed from one place to another, the laws provided very specifically which types of weapons and armor that the peasants were obliged to have in their possession.

The law stated that each man should have a muza (probably mail coif – a disputed interpretation), chainmail or plata (some form of body protection, most likely a coat-of-plates), järnhatt (generally kettlehat, but other types of helmets were also used) and a shield (the round shield existed side by side with the heater shield. Pavises however, doesn’t seem to have been in high use). Have a look here to learn more about the armor of the time. The weapons mentioned in the laws are first of all bows, with a specific amount of arrows (three tolfter, dozens). Some of the county laws state that a spear also should be part of the soldiers weaponry.


The kettlehat was a very common type of helmet for the foot soldier

The equipment mentioned in the laws correspond well with the archaeological finds from the excavation of the mass graves of the so called Korsbetningen. These graves were dug for the around 1800 local Gotland peasants, who died fighting invading Danes in the battle of Visby, the 27th of July, 1361, and are situated outside the city walls of Visby in the Swedish province of Gotland. One aspect that does not comply with the weaponry prescribed in the laws, is the lack of arrow points. A handful if any were discovered. Instead a great number of points of crossbow bolts were found. Whether this means that the crossbow had superseded the bow as the regulated weapon, or if bows simply were not used in this particular battle, is not easy to know.

The axe seems to have been a favoured weapon. The Viking style long axe survives long after the dark ages, and is still popular in the fifteenth century. The halberd does not appear until later (the first evidence – however doubtful – is dated to 1410-1415). Different types of war hammers and maces were in use, leaving tell tale holes in the skulls of excavated fighters.


Big war axes were used extensively

There is also evidence handgonnes were used. To which extent we do not know, but the oldest handgonne known is the Swedish Loshult handgonne (Loshult is a parish in the south of Sweden), dated to 1340-1350. Several other handgonnes have been found, like the famous Mörkö handgonne (dated to late fourteenth century), and this indicates they were not extremely uncommon. As Sweden was very influenced by Germans and German fashion, the weapons and armour in use were generally of German style.


The unique Mörkö bronze handgonne

The armoured horseman

The Alsnö stadga (the statute of Alsnö), 1279-1280, stated that each man that presented an armoured horseman to fight for the king would be void of taxes. It was a general opinion that the king should “live off his own” (“his own” being the area of Uppsala öd north of Stockholm, lands with the purpose of providing the king with an income – generally referred to as Kronolän – “the crown’s fief”), and therefore the taxes were not very high to begin with. Even so there weren’t many knights in Sweden, and hence the Swedish military forces during the fourteenth century was an army mostly consisting of free peasants. It has been suggested that at the height of Swedish chivalry, the kingdom could muster maybe 500 knights. During a period Sweden had as little as three knighted families.

A reason for the relatively few knights is the Swedish terrain. Apart from some areas in central Östergötland, Västergötland and parts of Svealand, it consists mainly of rocks, dense woods and lots of lakes and streams. When the knight was mounted he would have trouble manoeuvring the rough ground, and as the he relied much in his advantage of being on horseback, the terrain was certainly not an ideal one. As dense forests with lots of obstacles provides to little space for an army of riders, the purpose of knights are lost. The terrain simply prevents them from charging enemies in a broad line of battle (which were the knight’s preferred way of fighting). Another reason for the lack of knights might be that they could only be knighted by the king himself. The knights where divided in two groups, riddare (knight) and knape/väpnare/sven (squire). To keep their status as nobles, they were obliged to present themselves once a year at muster points.


Foreign knights were having trouble negotiating the dense forests

An army of peasants…

Sweden never had a continental style feudalism, and the free class of peasants were a strong and respected group. The nobles were always keen to have them on their side – for example to overthrow the king without the aid of the peasants, was impossible and unthinkable. Then again, the peasants mainly wanted to be left out of big game politics and mind their own business. Even so, the peasants were required by law to fight for the king in times of need. Even in the fourteenth century, this was an old law. It was based on the so called “ledung” law, which stated the peasants obligation to provide ships for the fleet, but was some what modernized to fit the needs of the time.

The army was probably never very big. In chronicles such as Erikskrönikan absurd numbers of soldiers are often mentioned, but one must take into account that ballads and other poetic texts might mostly be fiction. In the case of the mentioned Erikskrönikan, it is a question of political propaganda, and this force us to be suspicious to the numbers described. However, other numbers has been suggested, based on treaties and personal letters.. In 1363, for example, Albrecht departs from Warnemünde in Germany along with Swedish nobles and not more than 1600 soldiers to claim the Swedish crown.

In the same year Albrecht’s predecessor Magnus and his son Håkan, king of Norway, puts up an army together with the Hanseatic league. It consists of about 4000 soldiers, siege engines and ships. Note that this relatively large army is put together by two kings and one of the mightiest political factions of the time. 1389 the Danish queen opposes king Albrecht with an army consisting of “1500 horsemen along with footmen”, and four years later is mentioned a pirate fleet of 1200 men. As mentioned above the battle of Visby left about 1800 dead bodies, and it has been said that very few of the Gotlanders defending Visby survived. This can be compared to Henry Vs army of Azincourt – about 7000 soldiers (at the siege of Harfleur it has been said it was even bigger).


Approximately 1 800 peasants were killed outside Visby in 1361

The somewhat puny number of soldiers in the Swedish armies are probably based on two factors, the first being that Sweden at the time only had about a million inhabitants, of which only about 30% – at the very most – were suited for battle. Taking into account that a nation wide muster was impossible due to communication and transportation difficulties, 1500-2000 men is about the most that could be enrolled from the areas adjacent to the muster points. The second factor is simply a matter of logistics. In a country of poorly developed agriculture, armed free peasants and dense woodland it is not easy to provide enough food to sustain much more than about 2000 marching soldiers.

…reinforced by Germans

As complement to the levied troops, especially when waging war in foreign land (in this case mostly Denmark, Russia or Novgorod), the use of German mercenaries were common. They consisted mainly of different kinds of specialists (like for example gunners and bombard crews). The Hanseatic league supplied both Danes and Swedes with troops depending on who gave them the sweetest deals. Free mercenaries, not tied to the Hanseatic League, were most likely also employed. The North German Hanseatic city of Lübeck was the site of the North European mercenary market for centuries. Mercenaries were expensive, however, and the economy of the realm was almost always strained (the cocky Swedich peasants weren’t willing to pay too heavy taxes).


Mercenaries gathered in the north German city of Lübeck

This resulted in that parts of the land occasionally was held by German nobles as security for loans that the king could not pay. To squeeze out as much as possible from the stalwart peasants, these nobles themselves employed German mercenaries. These men did not care who got in their way; they were professional soldiers with no ties or bonds to the population – they might even have seen the Swedish commoners as nothing less than enemies, and Swedish laws meant little to them and their masters, as they were only “guests” in the country.

This problem worsened under the realm of king Albrecht of Mecklenburg, himself a German, invited and elected to the throne by Swedish nobles, as a strategy in the always ongoing struggle for power; their plan was for Albrecht to serve as a puppet, and rule the land themselves. The monk Andreas Lydekini later describes the state of the realm: “Then the birds of prey settled on the cliff tops, for the Germans oppressed the land for many a year.” Once Albrecht was seated in the throne, he realized that he hadn’t much to work with – it was expensive business being king, and he sort of inherited a lot of huge debts. His solution was to give his German knights and sheriffs areas of land as deposit.

The army in battle and on campaign

Most campaigning in Scandinavia took place during the winter time, when the ground was covered with snow, and the lakes and streams were frozen. The snow usually settles in November-December, and with few exceptions it stays until February-March. The army could travel the short routes across the frozen waters, and in some cases use sleighs to move quickly on the snow. We know at least scouts and vanguard used skis in the 15th C. It is mentioned that Karl Knutsson used skiers in his campaign against Skåne (Scania – a province in the south of Sweden, at the time more or less a part of Denmark), and there is little reason to doubt the usage of skis in the fourteenth century, as finds of skis from as early as the viking age has been made. Skiing and sleighing is a lot faster than to negotiate the hilly, dense forests by foot. Itineraries most often lists two different routes of travel, one during winter time and one during summer time. The one describing the winter time route generally describes a road that is two thirds shorter in both distance and time.

Another positive aspect of winter time campaigning is that the peasants were not needed at home to bring in crops, plough or tend the farm as much as during spring, summer and autumn. In some instances the winter was an advantage during defensive warfare. The Swedes made defensive position on the ice of a lake, cut holes in the ice in the evening, and allowed the water to freeze over night. In the early morning they covered the thin layer of ice with snow and waited for their enemies to charge them. There is, of course downsides with winter campaigning.


Winter campaigning has its disadvantages, but also its advantages

First of all, it is the cold. This could not have been a very big problem; the soldiers were used to being out in winter cold. Campaigning was not much different from the ordinary work day at the farm, in terms of physical efforts and being exposed to cold. Still, it is challenging to be outdoors for days, marching and maybe not having as much food and drink as you need. The real problem though, must have been the short days. During the darkest winter days, the sun sets at three or four in the afternoon, and rise again about nine or ten in the morning (in some parts of Sweden, the sun never rises at all during parts of winter time), which gives us seven hours of daylight at the most. As it is difficult to navigate an entire army through pitch black winter forest in the snow, the darkness put a hamper on the army’s movability.

How did this army of peasants and a handful of mercenaries stand up to the more continental armies of the Danes, packed with knights and great numbers of hired soldiers? As history tells us, quite well. The Swedes most often tried to avoid battle on open ground, where Danish knights would have the opportunity to ride them down. Instead they kept to the forests, which were essentially roadless, apart from the highways – little more than trails of mud or gorges, merely adapted for wanderers with sumpter horses. The roads were also kept to high ground, so that they wouldn’t turn into streams in case of heavy downfall. On these already narrow paths, the Swedes lay in wait for the invaders.


Swedish peasant soldiers lay in wait in the dense forests

When the enemy least expected, the defenders felled trees across the path, so called bråtar, and to make things worse for their visitors, they cut of any route of escape by chopping down trees at the rear of the enemy troupe. As soon as the falling trees hit the ground, the defenders started a deadly crossfire of arrows and crossbow bolts. Most peasants relied on hunting as well as farming for survival, they where most likely skilled archers, that did not have to be ordered to the butts for training like for example English bowmen. The enemy had no choice but to try and clear the road of the heavy trees, but the bråtar was well defended by Swedes with a grudge. The Danish cavalry was at a disadvantage when trying to charge over the bråtar, so clearing the trees from the opposition was not an easy task.

As soon as the Swedes were driven off, the time consuming work of dragging the bråtar from the trail began. At the meantime, the defenders went some kilometre along the path to the next prepared ambush, had a meal, bandaged their wounds and had some hours rest, until the invaders reached their spot, weary and with bruised morale. And then everything happened all over again. It was a hard, nigh impossible task to invade Sweden by land. The Swedes also enjoyed the advantage of being at their own turf, hence knowing every path and every bit of land in the area, and so they could navigate at their own leisure, when the invaders had to stick to the trails or get hopelessly lost.

Insignias and field markings

The Swedes does not seem to have made much use of insignias, badges, tabards or shield heraldics. As far as we know, no pictorial or written evidence speak of soldiers displaying badges or their masters colors, even in those sources when one might expect them. Shield paintings often seem to have had more decorative than heraldic purpose. It might be of interest, that no “Grant of arms” was (or is) needed in Sweden. You simply painted a shield with a motif of your liking, and started to work the trademark in. German troops might have followed German fashion, and some of the mightier families might also have adapted to the German trend, as many nobles in Sweden were actually from Germany at the time. Even the society as a whole was greatly influenced by German habit, language and culture, as many merchants and people in positions of power originated from Germany.

In the above mentioned Karl Knutsson’s campaign against Skåne, we know that the gunners marched under the flag of St Erik (considered national and patron saint of Sweden, although he has never been canonized by the Vatican). Otherwise, evidence are scarce. The symbol of the kingdom of Sweden, three golden crowns on a blue field (as seen in Albrecht of Mecklenburg’s seal) seems to have been displayed on flags in the army. First appearing as the arms of Sweden in a cardinal palace in Avignon 1320, it is still the field insignia of the Swedish military. King Magnus Eriksson (Albrecht of Mecklenburgs predecessor) might have used it, and it fits well with him being king of Norway, Sweden and Skåne. We know for sure that king Albrecht used the three crowns, and on the effigies of bishop Henrik of Finnland, dating to early fifteenth century, Swedish crusaders are happily waving their three crown banners.


An old Swedish trademark, still used by our hockey team and the army – the three crowns

It took a long time before the Swedish army adopted uniform clothing. Even in the eighteenth century it was stated that “the soldier fights in his own clothes”, even if royal regiments had uniforms. To recognize each other in battle, a sheaf of straw or a twig of fir was attached to the hat or helmet. Something close to insignia was the use of foxtails and wolf tails. The otherwise notoriously unreliable sixteenth century writer Olaus Magnus writes: “To taunt their enemies, the Swedes tie wolf or fox tails to their spears.” Normally, we would treat this as nonsense, more or less, but as the German painter Albrecht Dürer actually depicts knights with foxtails or wolf tails on their lances, this might really be the case.

What is so taunting about wolf tails and fox tails? These animals was hated and scorned for killing livestock and (in the case of the wolf) sometimes even pose a threat to human beings. The punishment “to be hanged with wolves” where a convicted man or woman was hung up alongside the bodies of wolves, was a most degrading execution.

Article by Johan Käll, previously published at our old webpage