The English word ‘mercenary’ is derived from the Latin mercenarius, a hireling or someone who is paid for his work. The original etymology of the mercenarius is rooted in two other Latin words mercari, to trade or exchange, and merx, commodity or merchandise. This relationship between the mercenary and the mercantile shaped most early modern English and European perceptions of mercenaries. As professional soldiers who fought for pay and and not their prince, mercenaries became increasingly perceived as the antithesis of the sixteenth and seventeenth-century archetype of the military profession.

During the Elizabethan and Stuart eras, the persisting influence of medieval views of warfare as a marker of nobility cemented a military ethos based on a voluntary service, where worthy and honest subjects would serve their prince and acquire honour and glory through their military prowess.[1] Such views were often promoted by authors like Philip Sidney, Fulke Greville, or Ben Jonson, who served the Protestant cause across Europe. In his Defence of Poesie, Sidney praised ‘souldiours’ for being ‘the noblest estate of mankinde, and horseman the noblest of souldiours’, and encouraged his brother, Robert Sidney, to ‘joyne the th[o]rough contemplation of it with the exercise, and so shall you profite more in a moneth than others in a year’. Lovel, one of the characters of Ben Jonson’s New Inne, epitomized the early modern English chivalric ideal and is presented as ‘compleat Gentleman, a Souldier, and a Scholer … knowne to have beene page to the old Lo. Beaufort, follow’d him in the French wars’.[2] Indeed, military service was for many aristocrats the preferred pathway for the acquisition of new privileges. Barnaby Rich, a veteran of the Elizabethan campaigns in Ireland, praised the ‘Art military’ for being the domain of the nobility par excellence noting that ‘for him that is noble what tytle so honourable as to be called a great souldier’.[3] Francis Markham, who served in Ireland and the Netherlands, argued in his memoirs, The Epistles of Warre, that the ‘Profession of a Souldier is necessary, his ends glorious, and his qualitie honourable’, and concluded that ‘the fittest man to be a Souldier, is a perfit Gentleman’.[4] The fundamental importance of the honourable qualities attributed to warfare were associated not only with the fame and benefits granted by victories or acts of military prowess, but above all by the links of personal loyalty between the soldier and the monarch. For many aristocrats, military service was the ultimate demonstration of loyalty to the monarch, who, as a figure that epitomized both pure nobility and a nation or community, conceded and validated the honourable status of his subjects. Allegiance to a monarch enhanced the honour of a soldier, but matters of personal honour such as loyalty to a family, religion or a political cause often questioned the fidelity of military men towards their princes or ruling houses.[5]

These ideas of honourable military service were somehow problematic for the reputation of many English military men who, due to the vicissitudes of Elizabethan and Jacobean foreign policies or instigated by their own religious zeal, become itinerant soldiers at the service of the Protestant cause in France or the Low Countries. Former professional or voluntary soldiers, like Thomas Churchyard, who fought in the Low Countries, distanced themselves from the negative connotations associated with mercenaries. Churchyard praised, in his, praised those, who like him, were ‘Souldiers, whose venter and valliance hath beene great, seruice and labour not little, and dayly defended with the hazard of their liues, the libertie of the Countrey’ and complained that ‘it may bee thought that euery mercinarie man, and common hireling (taken vp for a while, or seruing a small season) is a souldier fit to be registred, or honoured among the renoumed sort of warlike people’.[6] Another English veteran of the Low Countries, Thomas Digges, presented himself as a part of a group of soldiers who were ‘not mercenarie[s] for pay of strangers’ but who fought abroad under a foreign flag at the service of ‘our naturall Prince and Country, (to whom we owe our bodies and liues)’.[7] Walter Raleigh, who served under the French Huguenot leader Gaspar de Coligny, presented mercenaries not as foreign soldiers for hire, but as men who were not motivated ‘by any love to the State, but to mere desire of gain, that made them fight’ and whose full occupation was to sell their soldiering skills to the best offer.[8] The services provided by mercenaries were thus less motivated by a political allegiance to a ruler or state, than by a simple mercantile transaction. Mercenaries had little interest in the cause for which they fought, their involvement only motivated by their own private benefit. This element of free agency both allowed mercenaries to choose their employers, and even change sides, contributing to their widespread negative image.[9]

As Churchyard, Digges and Raleigh suggested, for many aristocrats to serve a foreign prince was an honourable deed which could enhance their prestige and privileges, especially if their service was related to the alliances established by their natural prince. Indeed, the English who served in the Dutch and Huguenot troops against Spain and the Catholic League were rarely perceived as mercenaries, but as military men who were serving the realm by protecting the integrity of Protestantism both at home and abroad. The triumph of the Reformation in England contributed to a perception that adherence to Protestantism was an essential element of English identity and national allegiance. Geffrey Gates, in his Defense of the Militaire Profession (1579), for example, considered that the ‘exercise of Armes’ in defense of England and Protestantism was an essential duty for ‘euery citizen & rurall man, gentle or ungentle, noble or unnoble, riche or poore, that meaneth to prooue himself a good christian, a faithful Englishman, zealous toward the state publike of his country, of conmendable integrity toward his prince and fervent in the love and maintenance of Gods kingdome and glory upon earth’.[10] This made the position of English Catholics extremely delicate. In fact, the ‘Popish’ aristocrats or commoners who went abroad to serve Catholic princes, even when sent, allowed or tolerated by the English Crown, were usually regarded as mercenaries or potential traitors. Relegated to a subaltern position due to their religion, English Catholic military men were often tempted to change sides or serve Catholic rulers. In 1587, Sir William Stanley, a Catholic officer sent by Elizabeth I to Flanders, surrendered his garrison to the Spanish army and entered into the service of Philip II of Spain. His actions were presented by Cardinal William Allen not as a vile act of a mercenary or traitor, but a demonstration of ‘Christian knighhood, & an act much renowmed’ of a true Englishman which offered an example to other English Catholics on how to enhance and defend the ‘honour, conscience, and Religion, of our countrie’ by fighting against Elizabeth I, a ‘usurper, & Haeretical Quene’.[11] Like Gates, Allen developed a discourse in which English identity was linked to religion, in his case Catholicism, justifying the actions of English Catholics fighting against their country as an act of rebellion against an unlawful and illegitimate monarch who attacked the true faith at home and abroad. However, the increasing rivalry and conflicts between England and the Catholic Iberian Crowns in Europe, the Atlantic and Asia reinforced the links between Protestantism and English national interests and identity. In 1626, the clergyman Thomas Barnes, for example, praised those faithful English Protestants who went abroad to fight against the Catholic powers and appealed to the ‘meaner and vulgar sort’ to join these just wars, a call to arms that repeated the concerns and rhetoric used by Geffrey Gates in 1579. Indeed, Gates’ and Barnes’ views echoed both the development of a utilitarian and crusading perspective that allowed English private soldiers to serve foreign masters whenever this served both the interests of the state and Protestantism.[12]

This crusading spirit also made acceptable the involvement of Protestant Englishmen in the expeditionary campaigns of the Catholic powers against the Ottoman Empire in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. Thomas Churchyard, for example, praised the English private soldiers who fought under the Spanish flag against the Great Turk for impeding the expansion of the Ottoman Empire and Islam. Churchyard praised in particular John Smythe was ‘so honourable that he adavunced the fame of his country by the nobleness of his minde'.[13] Despite being accused of treason for his Catholicism and allegiance to Rome and Philip II of Spain, the life of Thomas Stukley, who fought under the Spanish flag in Lepanto and died serving Sebastian I of Portugal at the Battle of Alcazar, was celebrated in plays like for his actions against the Turk and the Moor in a play written by George Peele, The Battell of Alcazar with the Death of Captain Stukely, and popular ballads such as the anonymous The Famous History of the Life and Death of Captain Thomas Stukeley.[14]

If English private soldiers fighting against Islamic powers evoked an honourable crusading and chivalric spirit which made it acceptable to serve a Catholic prince in the defense of Christendom, to fight for non-Christian rulers was extremely problematic. Indeed, the Englishmen who served the Ottoman sultan or the Mughal emperor were not presented as worthy soldiers, but as mercenaries or renegades. In South Asia, the East India Company was frequently troubled by desertions of military men who opted to join local potentates or serve the Dutch East India Company or the Portuguese Estado da Índia. Although his brother Anthony served the ruler of Morocco in 1606, Sir Thomas Shirley, for example, complained about the English and Europeans who served the Great Turk who were ‘for the moste parte roagues, & the skumme of people, whyche beinge villanes and atheistes, vnable to Hue in Christendomme, are fledde to the Turke for succoure & releyffe, & of these are most of his bashawes made’.[15]

While voluntary military service was honourable and a sign of nobility, mercenaries tended to be portrayed as marginal individuals who acted outside the martial ethos and the social order. They were often depicted as rogue plebeians or aristocrats who for different economic, political or religious reasons did not belong to the social fabric. This perception was often motivated by the frequent recourse to the forced conscription of convicted criminals, vagrants and unemployed men in Tudor and Stuart armies, especially in the expeditionary forces sent to Ireland. The background and rather disorderly behaviour of these recruits led, for example, Thomas Churchyard to criticise the ‘mercenarie multitude of troops’ led by the earl of Essex in Ireland.[16] Mercenary was thus a term that could be applied not only to a group of professional hired soldiers, but also to disliked volunteer soldiers whose behaviour or social origin clashed with the martial ethos. These two uses of the term denote a difference between a regular soldier, who was voluntarily conscripted into the army of his state or ruler, and the professional hired military man or the ill-behaved forced recruit. This distinction made ‘mercenary’ a pejorative term that was used to attack the loyalty, legitimacy or credibility of political or religious groups.[17] Catholics for their obedience to the Pope were usually insulted as mercenaries. In a response to Jerónimo Osório’s letter to Elizabeth I, Walter Haddon attacked the Catholic ‘mercinarie eare confession’.[18] The puritan Henry Barrow, in his A brief discouerie of the false church, accused the Church of England of being formed by ‘hireling Lecturers, vagrant & mercenarie Preachers’ who, for preserving ‘romish brawling bawdy court, with all their popish canons, customes’, were nothing more than ‘mercenarie romish Doctors, pleaders, proctors &c. which are to couller & plead the most vile hatefull causes which a christians eare abhorreth to heare of, or by such wicked blasphemous customes, othes, purgations &c.’[19]

Although nationality was not a prime descriptor in describing mercenaries, the employment of foreign soldiers became problematic during the English civil wars. The high number of desertion and defections among the foreign soldiers serving both royalists and parliamentarians contributed to a widespread distrust on the reliability of ‘outlanders’. Foreign soldiers of fortune such as the Croatian Carlo Fantom gained a notorious reputation for treacherous and vile behavior. Described by John Aubrey as ‘very quarrelsome and a great Ravisher’, Fantom served initially the parliamentary forces until he changed sides for the royalist camp. According to Aubrey, Fantom assumed his mercenary condition having declared once: ‘I care not for your Cause: I come to fight for your halfe-crowne, and your handsome woemen: my father was a R. Catholiq; and so was my grandfather. I have fought for the Christians against the Turkes; and for the Turkes against the Christians.’ Aubrey’s short biographical notes on Fantom present this peripatetic Croatian who ‘spake 13 languages’ as a true personification of the villainy associated to the mercenary who served anyone who paid him accordingly. Although Fantom was an extreme example of the untrustworthiness of foreign mercenaries, his ravishing, Catholic sympathies and past services for the Ottoman Empire made him a perfect case of the dangers of employing foreign soldiers. The violence and devastating impact of the English Civil Wars and the significant presence of foreign soldiers reinforced rising xenophobic feelings, especially among parliamentarians. Rumours that Charles I planned to recruit mercenaries and foreign troops across Europe allowed the Parliamentarian propaganda to present the New Model Army as a true English army with no foreign elements.[20]

Though the term contained strong military connotations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, English writers transferred and adopted ‘mercenary’ into other contexts. Possibly because of English experience fighting in wars on the Continent and eventually within the British Isles, ‘mercenary love’ or ‘mercenary gain’ expressed faithlessness and the subordination of greed or desire over fidelity, signalling concerns over the breakdown of traditional societal stability. ‘For the obsequious, mercenary Minde’, wrote the lawyer and poet Christopher Brooke, ‘Few love the Merrit, all affect Reward’.[21] The earl of Essex, writing to Queen Elizabeth, professed that ‘the two ends of my life have been, the one to please you, the other to serve you’, promising that these aspirations were ‘not led with any mercenary or self-loving respect’.[22] ‘The mercinarie tongues of thy false Preachers’ were likewise related to ‘cosenages and impostures … of slender valewe’.[23] ‘The covetous man loves money better then his owne soul’, preached Thomas Adams in the 1610s, and ‘[t]his mercenarie Souldier is fit for any office in the Devils Campe’.[24] The equating of ‘mercenary’ not just with trade or exchange, but with self-serving covetousness, was not always gender-specific. Women, too, were condemned for showing mercenary spirits. ‘A whore … while youth lasteth shee is loath to leave her profitable spot, and when both faile, she sees that … she may turne an old bawd’, wrote Thomas Gainsford. ‘A whore that is mercenary, will hardly bee drawn from her filthy life, she is so fast linked to the love of money’.[25] Existing alongside early modern discourses about war and military strategy, therefore, English moralists and writers also used ‘mercenary’ in a rhetorical sense, condemned individuals who were entangled in their economic pursuits, and who subordinated virtue and public good to monetary desire.
The Portraiture of Captayne John Smith Admirall of New England[26]
1. William Hunt, ‘Civic Chivalry and the English Civil War’, in The Transmission of Culture in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Anthony Grafton and Ann Blair (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press, 1990), pp. 204-37; Adam N. McKeown, English Mercuries: Soldier Poets in the Age of Shakespeare (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2009).
2. Sir Philip Sidney, An apologie for poetrie (London, 1595; STC 22534), sigs. B1r-v; Ben Jonson, The New Inne (London, 1631; STC 14780), sig. A1r.
3. Barnaby Rich, A souldiers wishe to Britons welfare: or a discourse, fit to be read of all gentlemen and souldiers (London, 1603; STC 21000), p. 14.
4. Francis Markham, Five decades of epistles of warre (London, 1622; STC 17332), p. 17.
5. Paul Scannel, Conflicts and Soldiers’ Literature in Early Modern Literature: The Reality of War (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).
6. Thomas Churchyard, Churchyards challenge (London, 1593; STC 5220), p. 85.
7. Thomas Digges, Foure paradoxes, or politique discourses, ed. by Dudley Digges (London, 1604; STC 6872), p. 69.
8. Walter Raleigh, The history of the world (London, 1617; STC 20638), p. 379.
9. Sarah Percy, Mercenaries: The History of a Norm in International Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 51; Frank Tallet, ‘Soldiers in Western Europe, c. 1500—1790’, in Fighting for a Living: A Comparative History of Military Labour, 1500—2000, ed. by Erik-Jan Zurcher (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2013), pp. 163-4.
10. Geffrey Gates, The defense of the militaire profession (London, 1579; STC 11683), sig. G2r.
11. William Allen, The copie of a letter written by M. Doctor Allen (London, 1587; STC 370), sigs. B3r-v.
12. Thomas Churchyard, A pleasant discourse of court and wars (Londo, 1596; STC 5249), sig. B3v; Thomas Barnes, Vox Belli: or, an Alarum to Warre (London, 1626; STC 1478), p. 40.
13. Thomas Churchyard, A generall rehearsall of warres (London, 1579; STC 5235.2), sig. D4r.
14. George Peel, The battell of Alcazar (London, 1594; STC 19531); The famous historye of the life and death of Captaine Thomas Stukeley With his marriage to Alderman Curteis daughter, and valiant ending of his life at the Battaile of Alcazar. As it hath beene acted (London, 1605; STC 23405).
15. Sir Thomas Sherely, ‘Discours of the Turkes by Sir Thomas Sherley’, in Camden Miscellany, Vol. XVI, ed. by E. Denison Ross (London: Offices of the Society, 1936), p. 4.
16. Thomas Churchyard, ‘The Fortunate Farewell to the most forward and Noble Earl of Essex [London: 1599]’, in The Progresses and Public Progressions of Queen Elizabeth, Vol. III, ed. by John Nichols (London: J. Nichols and Sons, 1823), p. 433.
17. Percy, Mercenaries, p. 51.
18. Walter Haddon, Against Jerome Osorius Byshopp of Silvane in Portingall and against his slaunderous invectives (London, 1581; STC 12594), p. 50.
19. Harry Barrow, A brief discoverie of the false church (London [?] 1591; STC 1517), pp. 46, 230.
20. Matthew Hoppe, Turncoats and Renegadoes: Changing Sides during the English Civil Wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 69-72; Mark Stoyle, Soldiers and Strangers: An Ethnic History of the English Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), pp. 102-10, 149, 204.
21. Christopher Brooke, The ghost of Richard the Third (London, 1614; STC 3830.3), sig. C3r.
22. 'The Earl of Essex to the Queen, 1595 [?]', Hatfield House, CP 58/20r.
23. Anthony Munday, The masque of the League and the Spanyard discovered (London, 1592; STC 7), sig. Cv
24. Thomas Adams, The devills banket (London, 1614; STC 110.5), sigs. L4v-Mr.
25. T[homas] G[ainsford], The rich cabinet (London, 1616; STC 11522). p. 166
26. The Portraictuer of Captayne Iohn Smith Admirall of New England, engraving by Anonymous (c.1616)
Usage Examples
'Againe in this our age Kings generally have made their warres (not so much with their owne people, as with mercenaries and hired Souldiers. Who have reason for their private benifite to use a government and Discipline farre different from that they ought & would if they were led and commaunded by a King of their owne.'