The hero of my current work in progress has just been assigned to garrison duty in a castle in Aquitaine. Why is he less than thrilled at the prospect and what’s in store for him?
Stephen is a knight and has spent most of his life training to fight on horseback in large battles. Garrison duty means being enclosed within the walls of a castle or town for months at a time. He has been used to raiding the French, but now he has to wait for them to come to him and possibly besiege the castle.
Life in a garrison was fairly dull for a knight. There would be training, of course. It was essential for a knight to retain or improve his skills every day. This would include practising with swords, maces and axes. Practising with spears was also a necessity. The knight would ride his horse towards a target and hit it with the spear in order to improve his aim. He would also have to scale ladders in full armour, so anything that increased his strength or his stamina would be useful.
The castle to which Stephen is sent is in the east of Aquitaine, near the border with France. It’s possible that the castle will be besieged by the French. If the castle were besieged, a knight might persuade his commander to allow him to lead a sally outside the walls. These were occasionally very successful actions where a large force would leave the castle and attack the besiegers, sometimes causing so much harm that the besiegers would leave. Sometimes they were complete disasters, with members of besiegers’ army mingling with the besieged, entering the castle with them when they returned, and taking it from within.
A knight like Stephen could expect to be taken for ransom rather than killed if the castle had to surrender. It’s the summer of 1357 and he’s become very wealthy from taking part in two chevauchées (long range raids) with the Black Prince and he’s also the son of an earl. He would be a good prize. The men serving with him would not be so fortunate. If they escaped with their lives they would be lucky. It’s quite common for the ordinary soldiers in a garrison to be mutilated in some way, perhaps by having their noses sliced with a knife, or their eyes put out, or their hands and feet cut off. They might simply be killed. All of this would serve as a warning for the next place the besiegers went to.
As an Englishman in France, Stephen might decide to make some money by terrorising the surrounding towns and villages. This was a common practice among the English garrisons in Brittany, where there weren’t always the funds to pay for the garrisons upkeep. They demanded a ‘patis’ (protection money) in order to leave their neighbours alone. This wasn’t simply a way of raising money, it was also a way of showing who was in charge.
Garrison duty also provided many opportunities for a soldier to spend the money he had earned or looted. Because castles provided some form of protection, people tended to build towns around them ,and towns attracted markets and wealth. There would be goods from distant lands to purchase, taverns to drink and gamble in, and brothels to frequent. There would be skilled craftsmen offering their goods for sale: goldsmiths, embroiders, armourers, tentmakers, apothecaries (medieval pharmacists), potters, furniture makers, basket weavers and so on. There would be plenty of distractions for a bored soldier to buy.
It will take a strong man to resist these temptations and Stephen doesn’t know yet which ones he’ll have to face.