The Indentured Soldier


 During the fourteenth century soldiers were becoming more professional. That is, they were paid to fight, whereas they had previously provided their services as part of their feudal duty to their lord. By the 1330s the English army (in reality a number of small, temporary armies) was a wholly paid force, although some still fought from a sense of feudal obligation to the king.

Most of these men were indentured. An indenture was the legal contract between the soldier and the man he served under. The contract was written out twice on one piece of paper. It was cut into two in such a way that the jagged edges would fit together.  It was from the supposed  teeth-like nature of the edges that the document got its name. The soldier got one piece and the captain the other. If there was ever a dispute about what was owed to whom the two pieces could be joined to show that they had once formed a single document. Obviously there was the temptation for the party with the most to lose simply to destroy his half of the document, but that could be managed by having a third copy kept by a lawyer so that there could be no dispute.

Indentures had been in use since the end of the thirteenth century. They described the pay, the equipment provided by or to the soldier and the rules governing any booty that was taken. Usually the soldier had to share it with his captain and the king. Some contracts even specified where in the hierarchy the soldier could take his meals.

Just as the soldier entered into a contract with his captain, so the captain entered into a contract with the king. He promised to bring a certain number of soldiers of each type in his retinue – archers, men-at-arms, knights. A retinue could be smaller than ten men or larger than two thousand. All of this would be written out in the indenture. An indenture specified the length of service and where it was to be given. If the service was abroad the contract would give details about how the soldier was to get there.

The indenture for a knight would often include an allowance of hay for his horses as well as stabling. Sometimes an agreement would be made that any horses lost by the knight would be replaced by his commander. These indentures also talked about how any ransom for captured prisoners would be split between the two of them.

Interestingly, indentures were not used where the king led the campaign. He would be there in person to oversee the administration of his army. They became more widely used from the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War, as there were often two or three campaigns going on at the same time in different parts of France and the king couldn’t lead them all. Wages were still paid, even if there were no indentures setting out the terms.

The system of indenture meant that some men became professional soldiers and fought in campaign after campaign rather than return to working the land or to other occupations. In turn, this improved the quality of the soldiers available to the king, making his armies more effective. This goes some way to explaining why English armies tended to be smaller than French ones. Soldiers, as well as their commanders, would fight together over years of different campaigns, enabling them to work together and to fight as a single unit. Their equipment was checked frequently and, in the cases of archers’ arrows, provided by the crown. This meant that the equipment tended to become standardised. Whilst not necessarily improving the quality of the equipment, this did improve the armies’ efficiency.

Even at the end of the fourteenth century many found it repugnant that men were paid to fight for their king and mourned the passing of the old values, but it provided the king with a reliable method of recruiting soldiers to fight in France and Scotland.

In some ways the logical outcome of the indenture system was the formation of the groups of mercenaries who roamed France terrorising towns and villages during times of peace, particularly in the 1360s. If a man was to be paid to be a soldier, why shouldn’t he serve any man who would pay him?



Filed under Fourteenth Century

9 responses to “The Indentured Soldier

  1. I didn’t know indentures got their name because of teeth! I thought it was because the document was dented. You learn something every day. Very interesting April

    Liked by 2 people

  2. That was an education. I love unexpected facts that make you go, ahh, now I get it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What an interesting article. The fitting together like teeth makes sense, although I didn’t know it before. Funny how people always moan whenever there is change of any kind. They still do today. I guess some people just like moaning.

    Liked by 1 person

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