‘Heerloese knechten’: Unemployed Soldiers as a Security Threat in the Sixteenth-Century Netherlands


  • Erik Swart




lordless soldiers, history of security, labour history, rural militias, passports


The sixteenth century saw increasing problems with disbanded, unemployed soldiers (‘heerloese knechten’) in Europe. In the Holy Roman Empire they had by the middle of the century come to be regarded as the primary threat to the Eternal Public Peace (Landfrieden). This article looks at why and how unemployed soldiers became a security threat in the sixteenth-century Netherlands. It does so by analysing the developing discourse on this topic and the measures taken to combat the threat in comparison with the Empire. In practice both the Netherlands and the Empire developed a collective security regime, which depended on cooperation to maintain the peace against threats like unemployed soldiers. There is, however, no contradiction here with rulers extending their grip on their territories. But there is a clear difference between the Netherlands and the Empire. Within the latter, an appeal to the Landfrieden allowed the implementation of supra-territorial, regional security policies, from 1555 in the Imperial Circles. For the Netherlandish provinces, on the other hand, such policies for combating the unemployed soldiers remained elusive, even under the Union of Utrecht of 1579.


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How to Cite

Swart, E. (2020). ‘Heerloese knechten’: Unemployed Soldiers as a Security Threat in the Sixteenth-Century Netherlands. Early Modern Low Countries, 4(1), 58–81. https://doi.org/10.18352/emlc.128