The exotic horsemen of Augsburg


Some readers may remember I have posted the above picture before. It is one of a series of ten woodcuts depicting the arrival of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. The initial drawings were made by Jörg Breu the Elder and the assistants of his workshop. You can have a distant view below but the groups are not in the actual order as intended, assuming there ever was one, and the correct sequence, as indeed the identification of groups and individuals, is a disputed matter. I have marked the emperor with a red arrow though, dressed quite simply in comparison with various princes and officials.

The woodcut with the ten light cavalrymen has not until now been an object of dispute. It is described as ‘Ten Hungarian lancers’, or something similar, in every source I have seen. They never fail to mention the word Hungarian. For a long time I assumed there must be a note by the artist in existence, or some other solid evidence, behind this unanimity of description. As a matter of fact there is no such evidence, not a shred of it, as I have since found out. It is one of those cases where one expert lays down his opinion, not necessarily well researched, and every other expert coming along treads on the same conveniently laid path.

My objection is three-pronged. First, these riders do not look like ethnic Hungarians. Second, the presence of Hungarian light cavalry in the imperial procession in Augsburg is not easily justifiable. Finally, these men look too much like stradiots to be anything else, especially as the presence of stradiots in that procession is not simply justifiable but almost natural. You can better understand the first leg of my objection by looking at some depictions of Hungarians from the 16th century.

Five men with Pavese (2) shields and Hungarian maces, plate 39 from ‘The Triumph of Maximilian I’.


Three Hungarians from the ‘Kostüme der Männer und Frauen in Augsburg und Nürnberg, Deutschland, Europa, Orient und Afrika’.

The costume of Hungarian and Croatian nobles from Cesare Vecellio’s ‘Costumes anciens et modernes’, volume 2, plate 414. Note the war-hammer, a weapon they made much use of.

Since we are dealing with horsemen, here is some Hungarian cavalry being decimated by the Ottomans in the battle of Krbava Field. The battle took place in 1493 and the horsemen were actually mainly Croats. However, the drawing, from Weisskunig, was made in the early 16th century and was meant to depict men of the Green King, the King of Hungary.

Looking at 16th century pictures one cannot but notice there were few differences in dress between the nations of Eastern Europe. The most conspicuous was headgear. The Turks, for example, were distinguishable by their turbans. Not all Turks wore turbans but it would be highly unusual to see a group of them depicted and the turbans being absent. In the same way the people of Central-Eastern Europe – Croats, Hungarians or Poles – were usually shown in relatively low and flat hats, often adorned by feathers, and it would have been strange to see a group of ten in Augsburg without a single one of those hats in sight.

It is true that the dress code of certain groups and military units deviated from the norm. Monks for example wore hoods (cowls) and janissaries wore strange headdresses and not turbans. Similarly, the early formations of hussars showed a strong preference to hats that resembled the brimmed hats of the stradiots. With that in mind, I tried to compromise with the visual discrepancy by speculating these horsemen could represent mercenaries from the central or southern Balkans in the service of a Hungarian lord. One of the most prevalent theories for the birth of the hussars is that they sprang up from Serb refugees in the border areas of the Hungarian kingdom. I was miles, or rather decades, off a realistic approach. This drawing was made in 1530, not 1480. The hussars had, by then, been around for a long time and had spread to Poland-Lithuania. They already had their own distinctive look, and it differed from that of the stradiots and the lancers of Augsburg. Let’s illustrate the point with some Polish hussars from the battle of Orsha in 1514. The painting of the battle is considered contemporary, and so very accurate that the artist is thought to have witnessed it.

The most common hussar hats in the painting look like the cylindrical brimmed hats of the stradiots but the periphery of the top has, in the vast majority of cases, been enlarged and they have wide bands with feathers. We never see widened tops of hats in depictions of stradiots, neither do we see them in the Augsburg drawing. The stradiots occasionally adorned their hats or their horses heads with plumes but it was relatively rare, a custom possibly in line with their well known poverty. In Augsburg only one of the lancers wears a plume. In addition, in Orsha we see flat Central European hats and what looks like a kalpak. We do not see those in Augsburg or in depictions of stradiots. These are not the only differences. Stradiots, and the Augsburg horsemen, were bearded, while several hussars appear clean-shaven or with just a moustache. Most hussars have collars that stand up while the wide collars of the stradiots, and of those in Augsburg, lie flat on their shoulders. The majority of the hussar shields have one of the top corners raised to a sharp point, just like many of the Turks’ later in that century, but I have not seen any stradiots with those and they are not evident in Augsburg.

Even if Jörg Breu himself had written underneath the horsemen ‘Hungarian lancers’ and signed it, someone should have wondered what such men were doing in the procession. Charles V did not employ Hungarian cavalry until the second half of the 1540s, considering that Luis de Ávila y Zúñiga – chronicler of the war against the Schmalkaldic League and earlier in Tunis with the emperor – had not seen them before. Ávila y Zúñiga was so impressed by them he thought they were the best cavalry in the world. He described their lances and their shields that ended in a narrow point at the top, their sabres, their straight swords and war-hammers. It has to be noted that none of the last two weapons is in show in Augsburg. Of course, the Spaniard having not previously come across them does not necessarily mean they had not served under imperial banners before. Neither does it mean they could not have come with Charles’ brother Ferdinand I.

Ferdinand was Archduke of Austria and since 1526 King of Hungary. In fact he ruled over very little of Hungary and what he did rule was actually populated by Croats and Slovaks. A very big part of Hungary was under Ottoman control and the rest under a rival King of Hungary, John I Zápolya. The powerbase of John I was Transylvania, of which he was voivode before he was crowned. It is likely then that Ferdinand did command forces from Hungary, even if they were composed of ethnic Slavs. Why bring some of them to Augsburg though? To reinforce his claim to the Hungarian throne in the eyes of the Germans? Very different issues were at stake in this very German Diet. Even if we assume he would have gained from such a display, would a group of magnificent Hungarian lords or knights not have served his aim much better? These horsemen bear fewer ornaments than even ordinary hussars.

One could think the lancers had perhaps joined the magnificent and elaborately adorned horses of the emperor as an item of curiosity due to their exotic appearance. Imperial Augsburg though was not the back of beyond, and may be in Bavaria but was not lost in the Black Forest. Hungary was not exactly the end of the world for them either. Many amongst the adult population would have had the chance to see a few Hungarians in their time, even if they had probably not been holding lances. It would have been a rather poor show of the imperial circus, let alone that this parade does not give the impression it was meant very much as entertainment. There was much of the usual monarchic fanfare but it was rather an opportunity for locals to see the emperor and proclaim their obedience and support – and for German lords to do the same, or not, and show off their high status – it was no funfair.

An altogether different issue that appears to complicate things is the existence of a crescent on one of the pennants of the lances. Unless these lancers were in the service of the Sultan its presence would be difficult to explain. The British Museum exhibits an early print of the lancers, in which the crescent is missing. Therefore, I suggest the crescent was not on the original woodblock and was added later by an engraver who thought it was a representation of Turks and that it was a good way to convey it.

What remains now is to explain why I think the exotic riders of Augsburg are stradiots. I have previously posted pictures of stradiots several times and you can see them by clicking on the label Στρατιώτες. The ones from the two anonymous drawings, depicting the plundering of the goods of the King of France in the battle of Fornovo, are particularly illuminating and anyone can see the similarity with the riders of Augsburg. I post here one more, of stradiots in French service this time, and, though it is one of the least detailed and accurate ones, it can be useful for comparisons (3). Note that one of the four stradiots is wearing a beehive type hat (pilos) just like three of the horsemen in Augsburg.

There are also well known descriptions of them, and I have contributed with English references to their short stirrups – funnily enough the style of riding called ‘à la estradiota’ has come to mean exactly the opposite – and their beaver hats. I have posted a French source too about the layers of paper inside those hats – a kind of armour based on the same principle as the ancient linothorax. Finally I have posted several depictions of 15th and 16th century Greeks that prove the stradiots did not wear some sort of uniform, until they were made to in the middle of the 16th century, neither had they copied anyone else. They went to war in what were pretty much their everyday clothes.

Greek from the ‘Kostüme der Männer und Frauen in Augsburg und Nürnberg, Deutschland, Europa, Orient und Afrika’.

The reason stradiots paraded in Augsburg along with the Holy Roman Emperor, important dignitaries and knights in shining armour is simple. Charles V was not only the German emperor but also the King of Spain. Catholic Spain was the powerbase of this staunchly Catholic ruler and the country where he spent most of his life. Spaniards accompanied Charles everywhere. This gentleman below, who took part in the procession, bears on his chest the Cross of St James, an unmistakable sign he is a knight of the Spanish Order of Santiago.

Ferdinand the Catholic, Charles’ maternal grandfather, had in 1507 transferred from Italy to Spain a group of stradiots. The reason for this transfer was to incorporate them in the royal guard. These estradiotes, as they were known in Spanish service, Charles inherited along with the Spanish crown. They remained in his guard until the end of his long reign. There is nothing more natural than a group of mounted royal guardsmen to ride into a city as part of the monarch’s entourage. What better reason could anyone ask for?

(1) While writing in English, I opt to describe these men as stradiots, for this is the term mostly used in English texts, even though the Venetian texts that give us most of the relevant information usually call them Stratioti and they are better known universally as stradioti. In Greek I use the term Στρατιώτες (Stratiotes), always with a capital ‘S’ in order to distinguish them from common soldiers, which is what the word stratiotes means. I continue to find difficult to digest the fact so many people who have written about them, including contemporary writers, dither on the etymology of their name. The stradiots themselves referred to a collection of their nuclear units as stratia, army, which is telling. Attempts to link them to the Italian word strada, road, are arbitrary and erroneous.

(2) Thought of as Bohemian at the time according to The Triumph of Maximilian I: 137 Woodcuts by Hans Burgkmair and others, with a translation of descriptive text, introduction and notes by Stanley Appelbaum, p. 7.

(3) Detail of miniature from Le Voyage de Gênes by Jean Marot, circa 1508.


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