Category Archives: Medieval Warfare

Rates of Pay for Medieval Soldiers

Medieval Indenture

If we think about it at all we probably think that medieval armies were feudal and unpaid, that is that the soldiers were in an army because they owed a certain number of days service to their lords. This would be true for some times in some places in medieval Europe and there are stories of men who took their retinues home halfway through a siege because they’d given their required number of days of service. In England under Edward III, however, that had mostly ceased to be the case, and soldiers and their captains were paid.

They served under a contract called an indenture, which I wrote about here.

In the book I’m reading at the moment, Henry of Lancaster’s Expedition to Aquitaine, 1345-46, the indenture between Edward III and Lancaster requiring the latter to go to Aquitaine in 1345 is given in full in Anglo-Norman and modern English. It’s very specific about what Henry of Lancaster is to do and how much he is to be paid to do it. He was to go to Aquitaine as the king’s lieutenant and take 500 men-at-arms, 1,000 archers (500 mounted and 500 on foot) and 500 Welsh archers on foot. He also had to leave Southampton on 14th May and stay in Aquitaine for six months.

The indenture set out how the earl was to be paid and how horses were to be assessed for compensation should they be killed. It also covered what was to happen about ransoms and booty taken in the course of the campaign. For the avoidance of doubt, should there have been any, the indenture made it clear that what was to happen to anything that the earl received that wasn’t connected with the campaign, which was as well, since his father died while he was in Aquitaine and he inherited money and properties in England.

The earl, of course, had similar indentures with each of his bannerets and knights and esquires, some of whom, in turn, had indentures with the soldiers they employed in their retinues.

Lancaster’s campaign was well-documented and there are extant records of the men who went with him in his retinue. I’ve looked and there are no Mundays on the list, which is not surprising as Lancaster’s men came mostly from places where he had properties such as Cheshire, Nottinghamshire, Lancashire and Derbyshire. My ancestors were in Hampshire, but there were certainly Mundays at Agincourt for which there are also extensive records about the ordinary soldiers.

What I really wanted to cover in this post is the sums paid to the soldiers. I always use the daily rate for a skilled labourer (4d) as an illustration of how much things cost in the fourteenth century, but not everyone was a skilled labourer. Some men earned more, others earned less. For those earning less, serving in a retinue during the Hundred Years War wasn’t just a useful way to earn a good daily rate of pay, provided you lived to spend it, but there was always the chance of a share in booty or a ransom.

Lancaster’s indenture didn’t just set out how much money he was to receive, but also the daily rates for his men. The earl had 6s 8d per day, a banneret 4s, a knight 2s, an esquire 12d, a mounted archer 6d, a foot soldier 2d. There were 12 pennies (d) to a shilling (s). As you can see, if you were an unskilled labourer, the daily rate for a foot soldier might make it worth the risk to go to war.

Sources:
Henry of Lancaster’s Expedition to Aquitaine, 1345-46 by Nicholas A. Gribit

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Medieval Ransoms Part 3

This post is less about ransoms as such than the conditions under which medieval prisoners of war were kept whilst waiting for their ransoms to be paid. Fragglerocking asked last week if they were kept in prisons. Sometimes they were, but mostly they weren’t. This could have something to do with the status of the prisoner, or with the ability of the captor to pay for secure accommodation.

During the fourteenth century, there really weren’t that many places to keep prisoners. Criminals were usually kept in town gates whilst awaiting trial. There were always guards there to check on people coming in and going out of the town who might have to pay a toll, so they could also keep an eye on the prisoners. As you can see from the photograph of Southampton’s town gate above, though, there wasn’t room to keep many prisoners. It didn’t fit well with the chivalric code, either, to treat men who had been captured in a battle like common criminals. Then there was the problem of status. You might want to keep a man who was a servant or a minor knight in a place like this, but you wouldn’t want to keep a knight from whom you were hoping to receive a large ransom here. Some men did, though, in the hope of extracting an even larger ransom from them. Generally speaking, though, the higher status a prisoner had, the better his accommodation.

Town gates weren’t the only places with prisons; some castles also had them, like this one at Portchester Castle.

The Prison, Portchester Castle

As you can see, it’s little more than a pit. Sadly none of the children in the castle that day got down there to give you an idea of scale, but it’s small. It’s probably about six feet wide by eight or ten feet long, which would be reasonably comfortable for one man, but there might be more than one prisoner to be kept. The pit is certainly secure (although prisoners managed to escape from both town gates and castles, mainly because they weren’t kept in good repair or because they bribed their keepers), but it’s not somewhere you’d want to keep an honoured prisoner, especially if there was the possibility that you might be his prisoner in a few years.

Unless you were the holder of the castle, accommodating your prisoner there or in the town gate was expensive, especially if their captivity was lengthy. We looked at some of the reasons why it could take a while for a ransom to be paid last week.

Captured knights were often left in the hands of other people in prisons like these, but many were kept in their captors’ own homes. Not only were landholders very mobile, moving frequently between their properties, but fighting was probably continuing elsewhere. Someone might be prepared to take one or more prisoner with him from place to place, but he wouldn’t want to take them somewhere where they could provide assistance to their own side, either by escaping or by acting as spies.

Some knights were allowed quite a bit of freedom within the bounds of their captivity. They were allowed to move freely within the building where they were kept and some were allowed to walk around outside, with a guard, of course. Some were even allowed their own servants and horses. At least one man was allowed to have his wife with him.

I don’t know yet how my protagonist, Geoffrey, will spend his captivity. It will, I think, suit his personality to spend his first weeks in the castle in close confinement, but that won’t help at all with building the relationship that will be at the centre of the novel.

Sources:
Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years War by Rémy Ambühl

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Ransoms in the Hundred Years War

This week I’ve been working on the plot of a novel in which the male protagonist is one of the few English knights taken prisoner at the battle of Poitiers. I reached the part of the story where he and his captor are negotiating his ransom and thought that it would be interesting to work out what a prisoner like him would have been worth.

Geoffrey, his name at the moment, is the second son of the second son of an earl. With his older brother, he serves in the retinue of his cousin, who is the current earl. He has taken some booty whilst on chevauchée with the Black Prince, so he’s not entirely without financial resources. He and his brother have decided what they think they’re each worth if either of them has to pay a ransom for the other and they have the funds to cover this.

Calculating a ransom could be a complicated business and fortunes could be made and lost, depending on the prisoner’s ability to pay. There could also be arguments about who had taken someone prisoner. Legal cases could go on for years to sort this kind of thing out, even for prisoners who weren’t really worth very much, but the man who has captured Geoffrey has taken his sword, so there can be no questions later.

In addition to a ransom, the prisoner, or his friends or family, had to pay for his accommodation and food. It was, therefore, in his best interests, to ensure that the ransom was paid as quickly as possible. Costs could mount up quickly over the months and years (possibly) that a man was held while he was raising the money to pay his ransom. The figures that I have, from Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years War, relate to ransoms demanded by the English for their French prisoners, since there were many more of these after the battle of Poitiers. This is the kind of information that would have guided Geoffrey and his brother when they decided how much they might have to pay for their freedom if they were captured.

The first category of prisoner is rather shocking, as it covers earls, counts and bishops. I suppose a king might take a bishop to war with him and I know that a bishop did lead an army against the Scots when they raided the north of England while Edward III was in France, but it’s still a bit of a surprise that bishops were taken prisoner and ransomed. They were not supposed to fight and non-combatants weren’t supposed to be captured. Men of this rank were worth between £2,000 and £8,000. This is an eye-wateringly large amount. As always, I’ll remind you that a skilled labourer earned about 4d a day. For those of you not familiar with the workings of pounds, shillings and pence that’s 120,000 days of labour for the lower ransom. If our skilled labourer worked every single day, it would take him 330 years to earn that amount. Fortunately, earls, counts and bishops were usually fabulously wealthy. Even so, a ransom of this size would put a serious dent in that wealth.

Men in the next category, barons, could expect to pay a much lower ransom. They were worth £500, or 30,000 days of labour. Knights and esquires were worth between £50 and £500. Other high-status servants were valued at £50 or less. Eight years of labour.

In 1360 a ransom of £16 was paid for Geoffrey Chaucer, who was captured by the French while he was out foraging. This was still 960 days worth of labour and clearly impossible for even an important and trusted servant like Chaucer to raise. Four years earlier he had been a page and it’s unlikely that his position in Lionel of Antwerp’s retinue was much more than that. Fortunately for him, the ransom was paid by the king, which makes me wonder whether Chaucer really was foraging or doing something entirely different on the king’s behalf.

Although he has no land, my Geoffrey has rich relatives and a name that his captor recognises, so he can expect his ransom to be more than that for other knights of similar wealth. His only hope for a quick release is that his captor won’t be too greedy, because Geoffrey knows that there’s no hope of any help from his cousin. I think he might have valued himself at about £175.

Sources:
Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years War by Rémy Ambühl
The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Mercenary versus Condottiero

John Hawkwood

It’s not often that I go into my local and the barman greets me with “what’s the difference between a mercenary and a condottiero?”, but since Greg asked, I thought about it and said that I thought a mercenary was someone who sold himself to the highest bidder, but a condottiero was someone who was part of a group that sold itself to the highest bidder in Italy. Then I thought about it a bit more. We bandied some names about. I mentioned John Hawkwood, the famous fourteenth-century mercenary who is celebrated by a painting in Florence Cathedral. He mentioned Richard I’s head mercenary and right hand man, Mercadier, who is said to have avenged the king’s death by murdering the man who had killed him, before being assassinated in turn by a mercenary employed by King John.

As it turns out, my initial answer was incorrect. According to Treccani.it, the great Italian online dictionary and encyclopaedia, a condottiero was the leader of a group of mercenaries. John Hawkwood was, therefore, both a mercenary and a condottiero.

Mercenaries have a bad reputation today and it wasn’t much better in the fourteenth century, at least among the people they terrorised for money. Among knights, however, it was different. Being a mercenary was a perfectly respectable way to make a living. What else was a knight supposed to do when he wasn’t required by his king? Geoffroi de Charny, who wrote the book on chivalry, said that it was a good way for a knight to gain experience.

Most knights didn’t come from a noble background and didn’t have a large sum of money to fall back on during the very long periods when wars weren’t being fought. Although the name the Hundred Years War implies that war was being waged continuously, it wasn’t. There were treaties that meant that there was a peace of sorts for several years at a time and there were other times when Edward III simply couldn’t afford to take an army to France. A professional knight had no other skills than fighting. He had trained hard to become a knight and he had many expenses once he became one. Apart from his armour and his arms, he had to have horses and he had to have servants who needed to be fed and clothed. A pause in the fighting in France meant that he was no longer being paid, but his expenses continued. Some men banded together to hold local towns to ransom, but others decided to go to Italy where there was very good money to be made.

Italy wasn’t a single state in the fourteenth century: it was many, often small, states based around cities. In the north and centre of Italy those states were almost constantly at war. The large states overpowered the small states, who employed mercenaries to fight back on their behalf. The large states fought one another by proxy, employing mercenaries. Even the papacy employed mercenaries, whilst at the same time deploring their activities. There were fortunes to be made here, even for men who didn’t end up leading their own company of mercenaries.

Italy’s situation was a bit of a vicious circle. The fighting had been going on for some time, making Italy so unsafe that Clement V decided in 1309 that it would be sensible set up the papal court in Avignon. The fact that he was French played no part in this decision, allegedly. Most European armies employed a few mercenaries, so it wasn’t unusual that some English and German mercenaries went to join Italian armies. I’ve been to Italy and fallen in love with it, so I can easily believe that these northern Europeans did the same and encouraged others to join them, until the numbers of mercenaries in Italy became a real problem. They formed themselves into armies called companies and the city states found that they either had to employ them or have them as their enemies.

A mercenary company in Italy was a business. It made contracts with its clients, necessitating the employment of lawyers, usually Italian. It had full-time accountants who were responsible for collecting the fees and dividing them up among the members of the company. The condottiero, of course, received the largest share. The company also employed women to do the washing, cooking and, as my source puts it, provide other services.

Being a condottiero was far from safe, even when they weren’t fighting. Some were assassinated by their own men, who had ambitions to lead the company themselves. Others were assassinated by a former employer they had abandoned when they received a better offer. A few, like John Hawkwood, managed to grow old. He lived into his seventies, having served a single employer, Florence, for several years. Some condottieri even became heads of states: Biordo Michelotti became lord of Perugia, but he was ultimately assassinated.

English mercenaries did rather well in Italy. They had a reputation for being very loud (how little times change) and being able to shout was useful for frightening the opposition, apparently. Loud music was also used. I’m beginning to suspect that my neighbours are descended from mercenaries. English mercenaries also had the useful ability to travel long distances, sometimes overnight, which some of them probably learned whilst on chevauchée with Edward of Woodstock (the Black Prince) in the south-west of France in the 1350s. This meant that they could appear somewhere long before they were expected and take the enemy by surprise.

At the end of the fourteenth century there was very little work for English knights in France. The young Richard II preferred peace and his uncle, John of Gaunt, was nowhere near the soldier Richard’s father had been. It wasn’t until the time of John of Gaunt’s grandson, Henry V, that English knights were needed in France again. Most English knights in Italy remained loyal to their king and John Hawkwood even had it written into his contracts that he wouldn’t fight against England’s allies.

Sources:
Knight by Michael Prestwich
Hawkwood by Frances Stonor Saunders

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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A Brief History of the Hundred Years War by Desmond Seward – A Review

Pages: 296
Published: 1978

You will be able to tell from the number of pages that Desmond Seward’s A Brief History of the Hundred Years War really is brief. In his Trial by Battle, the first volume of his five volume history of the Hundred Years War, Jonathan Sumption takes 200 pages just to cover the causes of the war, so it’s fairly obvious that a book of this size isn’t going to help anyone understand why things happened. I still don’t really understand the political situation in France in the first half of the fifteenth century that allowed both sides in a civil war to ask for Henry V’s help, only for one side to assist him later in his goal to obtain the French crown. I do have a better idea of the battles and sieges of that period, though.

The book is a chronological telling of the events of the Hundred Years War, with the exception of the chapter in which Joan of Arc appears. As it must have seemed to the English and Burgundian armies at the time, she appears out of nowhere and Seward goes back in time to explain her arrival. In many ways this underlines Seward’s bias towards the French. Joan appeared as a kind of saviour figure outside the walls of Orleans, which was besieged by the English and the Burgundians.

I found this bias quite tiring, as the worst thing Seward (who was born in Paris) has to say about any French king, save Charles VII, is that he wasn’t a very good soldier (all of them except one) or that he had a taste for luxury. Charles VII, he says, was physically and mentally weak, and his confessors thought he was a heretic. Edward III, in comparison, was a womaniser who spent his senile last years drinking. Richard II became ‘insanely tyrannical’ and Henry V is compared to Napoleon and Hitler. English soldiers carried out atrocities, while French soldiers, presumably, behaved like perfect gentlemen. Seward also says that Roger Mortimer was ‘perhaps the nastiest man ever to rule England’. I’m fairly certain there would be more votes for John Lackland on that score.

The only Englishman for whom he has a good word is the Duke of Bedford, Henry V’s brother and regent for Henry VI in France, who ‘loved the French’. The French apparently loved him in return, but that’s possibly because there was order and, more or less, peace in the part of France that he controlled.

1978 was a long time ago and Seward includes a few things that contemporary historians would feel less able to be dogmatic about. He states confidently, for example, that Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella were lovers and that the queen was carrying his child. He’s also happy to write that Edward II was killed by a red hot poker and that Isabella spent the rest of her life after Mortimer’s fall as a prisoner. I suspect there are similar bald statements about the fifteenth century part of the war, but I know a lot less about what was going on then to be able to know.

As you can tell, the book doesn’t have a huge amount to recommend it, other than the brevity which is mostly the reason for for its faults. It is easy to read, which is a plus and it does include all the major battles and a few of the sieges in the war. If you want something that you can read in a couple of days that will give you an idea of what happened during the Hundred Years War, this might be the book for you. If you want to understand why and how things happened, I’d recommend saving your pennies for Jonathan Sumption’s more comprehensive history of the war.

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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De Charny at the Battle of Poitiers

Last week we left Geoffroi de Charny about to join battle with the English near Poitiers. It was Monday, 19th September 1356. An army led by the king of France, Jean II, had been pursuing an English, Welsh and Gascon army led by Edward of Woodstock (better known now as the Black Prince) for some days.

For most of his career, de Charny had the good fortune not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He wasn’t, for example, at the battle of Crécy, where so many French knights and nobles were killed or taken prisoner that Philippe VI couldn’t raise an army large enough to take on Edward III at the siege of Calais a few months later. De Charny gained his reputation in siege warfare, but he was probably disappointed not to have faced the English in battle. His chance had finally come.

That morning it looked as if he still might be denied the opportunity of fighting in a battle. The prevailing opinion in the French camp was that the English army was in no state to fight and would retreat at the first opportunity, which was probably what Edward of Woodstock intended. He was at the end of a summer’s campaign of raiding in south-west France. As with many campaigns in the Hundred Years War, the objective was to show that the king of France was unable to protect his subjects, the main duty of a medieval king, and to take some booty along the way. After two years of such raids, it was a point so well made that the king had to do something.

Jean II was able to put together an impressive army made up of knights of the Order of the Star, men from the duchies and kingdoms on the eastern borders of France who owed allegiance to the French king, a large Scottish retinue and some mercenaries. They were all well-rested and well-supplied. Their main difficulty had been finding the enemy in order to engage them.

Edward of Woodstock had been leading his men in raids for two summers. It was a relatively small army and their supplies were exhausted. There had been almost nothing to eat or drink on the day before the battle. They had been avoiding the larger French army for some days and were very tired. Although they had picked a good spot for the battle and had reinforced it, the plan was still to slip away before battle could be joined.

De Charny was entrusted with the Oriflamme, the French king’s battle standard. It was a huge honour and it had been put into his hands during a religious ceremony at the abbey of St. Denis. When it was carried into a battle it was a sign that no prisoners would be taken. This was meant to scare the opposition into surrender, as most nobles didn’t expect to die in battle, but to be taken prisoner for ransom, as had happened to de Charny himself, twice. On this day, however, he could look forward to the knights of France demonstrating all the aspects of chivalry that he had written about and defeating the English.

There really could be little doubt about the outcome. The English army was about 6, 000 men strong. The French army was twice the size. The scene was set for a great French victory, except …

Except Jean II was no strategist. He was a man of great personal bravery, but he didn’t really know what to do with an army. Despite all his advantages going into this particular battle, he wasn’t a leader of men. Even had his opponent not been the greatest soldier of his time, Jean II would have struggled.

Except he French knights had not learned what de Charny had tried to teach them. Personal glory was still their main motivation and they couldn’t work together under the king or even obey him. The English and the Gascons, on the other hand, had been fighting together as a unit for months, under a commander who knew what he was doing.

Except no one had worked out a proper strategy for dealing with the English and Welsh archers. They had played an important role in defeating the French at the battle of Crécy and 10 years later the French still had no plan for opposing them. The only thing they had really thought about and prepared for (at the last minute) was the English preference for fighting on foot, which they had learned from the Scots.

In the end, the English didn’t run away, but fought. All day de Charny was in the thick of the battle holding up the king’s standard. We can’t know if he saw or understood much of what was going on around him, but he probably died, the battle standard still in his hands, before Jean II was captured by the English. He certainly didn’t live to know that more than eighty members of the Order of the Star had been killed or that more than a quarter of the army had been taken prisoner. Over two and a half thousand men from the French army died. The day that should have demonstrated the renewal of French chivalry ended in its complete defeat.

Sources:
Trial by Fire by Jonathan Sumption
The Book of Chivalry by Geoffroi de Charny by Richard W. Kaeuper and Elspeth Kennedy

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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De Charny and Chivalry

Perrin Remiet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Geoffroi de Charny literally wrote the book on chivalry. In fact, he wrote three. It’s not known, however, how much what he wrote reflected or influenced the behaviour and beliefs of fourteenth-century French knights.

Chivalry and knighthood underwent many changes in France during the fourteenth century, beginning with the destruction of the Templars during de Charny’s childhood at the beginning of the century. If the soldier monks couldn’t survive, what hope could there be for the ordinary knight?

As he grew up, it must have been obvious to de Charny that French knights were missing an essential element of chivalry: prowess. They were defeated by the English at Sluys (1340), Crécy (1346) and Calais (1347). They could no longer protect France even against one of the least powerful countries in Europe.

Loyalty to the king, another aspect of chivalry, had been undermined by the change of dynastic house. In 1328 the Capetians had died out, although Edward III was the nephew of the last three Capetian kings, and Philippe VI, a Valois, did not instil as much loyalty in his knights as his predecessors had done. This loss of loyalty contributed to Philippe’s inability to protect his kingdom against his counter-claimant to the French crown, Edward III. The knights in French armies were more interested in their personal glory and gain than in supporting their king.

Philippe’s son, Jean II, recognised the need for reform probably even before his father’s defeat at Crécy. This led him to create the Order of the Star in 1352, two years after he became king. As part of this reform, he asked de Charny to write about chivalry.

De Charny wrote three book: Demandes pour la joute, les tournois et la guerre, Le livre Charny, and Le livre de chevalerie. The first is a series of questions about jousts, tournaments and war. There are no answers, so it’s possibly a book intended to provoke discussion between knights or between squires and their teachers. The Livre Charny is in verse and is about the chivalrous life and the qualities required of a knight. The Livre de chevalerie is his most famous work and is an examination of what it means to be a knight and how a knight should behave.

All were probably dictated, possibly while de Charny was a prisoner in England in 1350 to 1351. They were written in French rather than Latin, so were not meant to be academic works, but accessible to knights. They’re not great works of literature, but they are interesting historically. There’s little evidence that they had much of a readership even in the fourteenth century, but they show what the man who was acknowledged as one of the most chivalrous men of his age thought about chivalry.

There was a constant tension between knights and clergy as to who had the higher calling. Medieval society was divided into three: those who prayed, those who fought and those who laboured. Publicly, everyone said that the clergy was the most important class, but there were obviously different private opinions. Being pious didn’t stop de Charny from being critical of the church, although he retracted a little by writing that people shouldn’t be critical. It’s obvious from his writing, however, that he clearly thought being a knight was a holy calling and that being a knight could be a form of martyrdom.

In his writing he emphasised how hard it was to be a knight. A knight had to train his body all the time and could not have an easy life. He also risked everything in battle. At the very least a knight could expect to be wounded or to break some bones while on campaign. De Charny also touched on the mental aspects of a knight seeing his friends wounded or killed.

When de Charny marched to battle near Poitiers in 1356, he must have thought that the future of French knighthood was bright. The king and his Order of the Star would encourage the chivalrous life and de Charny’s writings would give its members the guidance they needed. They had even sworn an oath not to run from battle.  On that day they were going to fight a much smaller, exhausted English army that had been trying to avoid battle. De Charny had even been given the honour of carrying the king’s personal banner. It was going to be a good day for French chivalry.

Sources:
The Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charny by Richard W. Kaeuper and Elspeth Kennedy

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Geoffroi de Charny in December 1349

I said last week that we’d look at Geoffroi de Charny’s attempt to take back Calais two years after it had surrendered to Edward III. Before we get to the story I wanted to set the scene a bit. There are four main characters in this story: de Charny, Edward III, Edward of Woodstock and Aimeric of Pavia. At the time de Charny was at least 43 years old, Edward III was 37 and Edward of Woodstock, his oldest son and heir, was 19. I have no idea how old Aimeric was. I include this detail to show what was expected of young heirs to kingdoms in the Middle Ages. Edward of Woodstock had already proved himself in battle at the age of 16 and was about to prove himself again.

The other important point is that in 1349 Europe was still in the grip of the Black Death. I can’t emphasise enough how little what we’ve gone through in the last few months has resembled the Black Death. I know that people have made the comparison, but even the number of deaths in the First World War combined with deaths from Spanish flu a hundred years ago don’t come close. During the three years of the Black Death, somewhere between a third and a half of the population of Europe died and they died horribly. Despite that and the fear in which people must have lived, life seems to have gone on fairly normally, as we shall see.

After a long siege, the French town of Calais had surrendered to the English in 1347. Most of those who lived in the town and survived the siege were allowed to leave and Edward III filled the town with English merchants and soldiers. It was incredibly useful for a king who was expecting to continue to wage war on French soil to have a port in France just over 30 miles from the English coast. This, of course, presented a huge problem to the French king. Fortunately, de Charny had a plan for getting Calais back which didn’t involve besieging it.

There are different versions of the story, mainly told by people who weren’t there, but we’ll look at the story as told by Geoffrey le Baker, an English chronicler. According to him, Aimeric Pavia, a Lombard mercenary, was the governor of Calais. De Charny bribed him to open the gates to let in some French soldiers. Aimeric was greedy, but not stupid, and he wrote to Edward III, explaining about the plot, obviously hoping to be in good standing with both sides.

Edward III wasn’t stupid either and he decided to go to Calais himself. He took his oldest son and a few other men. (Other versions say that the news reached the king on Christmas Eve and he took his household knights and the retinues of some of the lords who were celebrating Christmas with him.) Le Baker says that they entered the town secretly, which they might have done, but he also says that they managed to build a false wall behind which they hid and they also sawed through parts of the drawbridge so that it would collapse if a heavy stone were thrown down on it, all without anyone noticing, which seems unlikely.

On 31st December, De Charny went with fourteen men into the castle, through the gate opened by Aimeric, on the day before the raid was to take place. Their task was to check that everything was as it should be and to pay Aimeric part of his money. Despite checking the castle thoroughly, they noticed nothing wrong. Again, I’m not sure how fifteen Frenchmen could stroll around a castle held by an English garrison without someone noticing, but apparently they did.

The next morning they raised French standards around the castle and opened the gates. The English garrison attacked them, despite the efforts of those who were in on the plan to trap the French inside the castle.

By this point the king and his men had been in hiding for three days. One of them was hiding near the drawbridge and he dropped the huge stone onto it, trapping the soldiers inside the castle. They were swiftly defeated by the king and his men when they emerged from their hiding place.

The French forces who had remained outside retreated, realising that the plan had failed. The king took 16 of the men he had brought with him and 16 archers from Calais, who didn’t know him, and chased after the French.

He attacked a force of 800 men. When the French realised how few men were pursuing them, they turned and fought. The king revealed his identity to the archers and le Baker points out that he positioned his meagre forces wisely. He doesn’t say, for obvious reasons, how lacking in wisdom the king was to chase after the French with so few men.

The king and his men managed to kill or capture many of the French soldiers, but they were facing overwhelming odds and it was obvious that they were going to lose. In true Boys’ Own Adventure style, however, Edward of Woodstock arrived with reinforcements just in time and rescued his father.

Le Baker tells us that 1,000 French knights with 600 men-at-arms and 3,000 foot soldiers had tried to take the castle. It would certainly have needed a large force, so perhaps it’s not an exaggeration. More than 200 French men-at-arms were killed and about 30 men were captured for ransom, Geoffroi de Charny and his son among them. Many French soldiers drowned in the marsh.

There are some incorrect details in le Baker’s account. Aimeric wasn’t the governor of Calais. During the siege of Calais he had been employed by the French. After the siege he changed sides and became master of the royal galleys and crossbowmen. In 1349 he was part of the English garrison at Calais and was in command of one of the gate-towers, which was why it was easy for him to let the French in.

As we learned last week, Aimeric enjoyed his bribe and the pension given to him by the king for a very short time before de Charny tortured and killed him. This whole episode wasn’t de Charny’s finest hour. Not only was he captured, but he was also wounded in his failed attempt to retake the town. Fortunately for him, the king who had provided soldiers to support his plan died while de Charny was a captive in England. The new king paid part of de Charny’s ransom. De Charny even managed to put a good gloss on the murder of Aimeric, since he made it clear that he was avenging an act of personal betrayal.

Next week we’ll have a look at another aspect of de Charny’s life.

Sources:
Life and Campaigns of the Black Prince by Richard Barber
Edward, Prince of Wales and Aquitaine by Richard Barber
Trial by Fire by Jonathan Sumption
The Black Prince by Michael Jones

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Geoffroi de Charny

I don’t very often write posts about famous or important people in the Middle Ages these days, but Geoffroi de Charny is worth looking at for many reasons, not least because he wrote a book about chivalry: Le Livre de Chevalerie. He also had the responsibility of carrying the Oriflamme, the King of France’s personal standard, and was the first owner that can be verified of the Shroud of Turin.

De Charny’s date of birth is not known, but his mother died in 1306. He was, therefore, probably born in the first few years of the fourteenth century. Although strictly speaking noble, he came from a junior branch of a junior branch of a great family. He had no land, no money and knew no one of any influence to help him. His first wife died after 1341 and his second wife was Jeanne de Vergy with whom he had two children. She brought him land and money, but, by that time, he had already come a long way by his own efforts.

The first major campaign he fought in was in 1337, at the beginning of the Hundred Years War. He fought first in Aquitaine, where Edward III was the duke. Later, when Edward III began creating alliances in the Low Countries, de Charny went to the north east of France, where he helped defend Tournai against the English and their allies. In 1341 Edward’s military interest moved to Brittany and de Charny was sent there, only to be captured and taken to England as a prisoner. He was released and allowed to return to France to find his ransom, which he did. By the following year he had been knighted.

Possibly bored by the lack of action once he was back in Brittany, de Charny joined a crusade against the Turks in Smyrna, arriving there in June 1346. He wasn’t terribly impressed by the experience, referring to it later as almost a martyrdom. He was probably back in France late in the summer of 1346 and was sent back to Aquitaine, thus missing the battle of Crécy in which much of the French army was killed in August. After they had defeated the French at Crécy, the English besieged Calais and Philippe VI sent for de Charny, who had a bit of a reputation for breaking sieges. De Charny went to Edward III, ostensibly to negotiate an end to the siege, but in reality to assess the English fortifications. What he saw made him advise Philippe VI against trying to break the siege, not that the king had any intention of throwing his newly-gathered army against the English. The French retreated and Calais eventually surrendered to the English.

The defeat of the French at Crécy and the loss of Calais led to changes in Philippe’s court and de Charny became a member of the king’s council. Since Philippe was not in a position to fight a war at the time (partly due to the unwillingness of the French to pay taxes for an army which had failed to protect them and partly to the Black Death) de Charny was entrusted with the task of negotiating truces. He was very successful in this diplomatic role. At the same time, however, he was behind an attempt to regain Calais by bribery at the end of 1349. He was betrayed and a small force led by Edward III and his son, Edward of Woodstock, defeated the men led by de Charny, who was taken prisoner again. Once more he found himself in England.

This time he couldn’t raise his own ransom, which would have been considerably higher than the sum he had paid in 1341. The new French king paid part of it, Philippe VI having died, and invited de Charny to be a member of the new order of chivalry that he founded in 1352. The Order of the Star was based on the Order of the Garter, created by Edward III in 1349 (or 1347 or 1348). There have only ever been 24 Garter knights at any one time and the order still exists today. Jean II originally intended to appoint over 500 knights and the Order of the Star fell apart after the French defeat at the battle of Poitiers in 1356, when 80 (possibly 90) of its members were killed and the king himself was taken prisoner by the English.

Once he had taken his revenge on the man who had betrayed him at Calais, decapitating him and quartering his body, de Charny wrote, probably at the request of the king, three books on chivalry. In 1347 and from 1355 until his death de Charny was the bearer of the Oriflamme, the personal standard of the King of France, which was a great honour. It was carried at the front of the French ranks in battle. Its bearer promised not to abandon it. It was an oath that de Charny kept. At the Battle of Poitiers he was killed and fell with the banner still in his hands.

Next week we’ll have a closer look at what happened in Calais in 1349, as it’s an interesting story.

Sources:
The Book of Chivalry by Geoffroi de Charny trans. Richard W. Kaeuper and Elspeth Kennedy
The Origins of the Shroud of Turin in History Today November 2014 by Charles Freeman

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Medieval Heralds

Last week we looked at heraldry, so it only seems right that we should look this week at the men whose role it was to be so thoroughly acquainted with the arms of knights from all over Europe that they could identify them on a crowded battlefield just from a banner like the ones in the picture above.

The role of the herald developed and changed over the course of the Middle Ages. Initially they were no more than minstrels who opened and closed the proceedings at a tournament, but over time they became the emissaries and spokesmen of kings.

Their only connection with the battlefield to begin with was the tournament. In their early days, though, this was not as remote a connection as it became later. Tournaments were originally very violent, involving large numbers of men fighting one another over huge swathes of countryside, and they could get out of control. The more sedate tournaments in enclosed spaces that were well-behaved enough to be viewed by women came much later.

Tournaments were associated with fairs and general entertainment, which meant music and minstrels. Heralds began as minstrels, starting and ending tournaments by sounding their trumpets, but they managed to turn their role into something far more substantial. This caused jealousy among the other minstrels, who said that the heralds were corrupt, which some of them undoubtedly were.

Tournaments were events that needed to be organised, taking months and even years of preparation. Heralds were an integral part of this. They planned the tournaments and knew how they were supposed to proceed. Once the arrangements were made, they took the invitations to the invited participants.

When the tournament started, the heralds introduced the knights who were going to take part, praising their skill and bravery. By the time that tournaments had become a spectator sport rather than a rehearsal for war, the spectators were interested in knowing who the participants were.

During the tournament, the heralds gave the command to start the jousts. They were also the tournament referees and recorded what happened during the course of the tournament. They judged, or helped to judge, who the winners were and awarded the prizes.

Under a statute of Edward I to prevent open warfare at tournaments, heralds and other tournament officials were not permitted to carry weapons. Servants of participating knights and the spectators were also prohibited from carrying arms. Tournaments had been banned in England altogether during the reign of Edward I’s father, Henry III, for fear of knights meeting together there with their retinues and fomenting revolution. It was all too possible that trained knights could turn their expertise on the king, taking their armed followers with them.

Towards the end of the Middle Ages, heralds were advising on chivalric disputes arising from a tournament. By then, though, they had an important role elsewhere.

Since heralds could identify participants at a tournament from their arms, they were also useful on the battlefield. It was helpful to know who the knights on the other side were and whether they had reputations as good fighters or were men of little experience. A herald would know those details.

At the beginning of an engagement heralds were probably taking notes of who was in the opposing army by reference to their banners, which would have been visible while the two sides were waiting for the other to attack. It’s thought that one of their roles was to report the heroic deeds of knights in battle. This meant that they had to get close to the fiercest fighting, whilst not taking part. Even heralds could make mistakes, though, and the similarities in colour of the arms of some French knights led the English heralds at the battle of Crécy to declare that some knights had died, only to discover later that they had survived.

As it had in tournaments, the herald’s role increased on the battlefield. They eventually became officers of the crown and served as emissaries, spokesmen and diplomats. They had come a long way from being mere entertainers.

Sources:
The Road to Crecy by Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel
Tournaments by Richard Barber and Juliet Barker
The Tournament in England by Juliet Barker
The Battle of Crécy, 1346 by Andrew Ayton and Philip Preston

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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