‘The Lady Captain’ Recruited Only the Best Looking Men For Her Swiss Mercenary Band

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Mercenary bands in Switzerland for centuries were much feared by their enemies – and prized by the families that owned them. One group in particular – the Zerlauben family – ran a robust mercenary enterprise during the old Swiss Confederacy, supplying men for the Swiss Guards and other outfits.

Family members were hands-on. Maria Jakobea Zurlauben, for example, ran the family’s operations in Zug for many years, and acted as a link to her brothers outside the country. It was a busy position, especially in times of war which, during the reign of King Louis XIV (1638-1715), were plentiful.

Maria had strict requirements when recruiting mercenaries. The men had to be handsome, tall and robust. 

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Those volunteering for service reported directly to the “Frau Hauptmannin,” the lady captain. She also coordinated a network of subscription agents who systematically targeted men for recruitment. The peak activity period was in winter. The company headcounts had to be topped up in good time for medical examinations in the spring. 

When Maria found the men, she didn’t keep them around for long. As soon as “Frau Zurlauben” gathered a dozen men who committed to mercenary service, she immediately sent the recruits to march westwards to France, with an escort of armed soldiers.

At the French royal court, the Zurlaubens owned a half company of guards, which they had managed for generations. It was the centerpiece of the family’s mercenary business, allowing them exclusive access to court society. 

As part of the Swiss Guards, the company belonged to the monarch’s external bodyguard. The company guarded the royal residences, accompanied the king when he traveled, and fought in campaigns. Only the perfectly proportioned recruits – the ‘handsome ones’- would make the cut. Others were allocated to the family’s other companies of mercenaries in France.

To keep each other informed, the Zurlauben siblings often sent several letters each week: How many recruits did the companies need? How many had deserted en route, or had had to be left behind in infirmaries? How much cash was left to pay the hostelry bills, prest money, wages for the recruitment agents, guides and messengers, and to buy tobacco, clothes and new shoes for the recruits? Incidentally, the soldiers had to pay back most of this money to the company owner after their arrival in France.

The portraits of highly decorated mercenary leaders, their ostentatious stately homes, heroic tales and genealogies extending centuries back into the past provide a glamorous backdrop for the seductively simple story of a dynastically organized mercenary business. 

Within individual dynastic houses, companies of mercenaries were passed on, down the generations, as much an inheritance as money or property. 

From the Swiss National Museum.

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