Tag Archives: mercenaries

You Can’t Take It With You

Medieval coin

Recently, on the recommendation of a fellow history blogger, Toutparmoi, I read The White Company by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s about a group of mercenaries (the eponymous White Company) who, in 1367, go to fight in Spain with the Black Prince under the command of Sir Nigel Loring, who had whole book by Doyle to himself. In reality in 1367 the White Company was led by Sir John Hawkwood and was fighting in Italy, but why should facts spoil a good story.

Long before the hero gets to Spain, something occurred in the novel that gave me pause. One of the mercenaries had come to England to recruit new soldiers and he stayed at an inn in the New Forest.  When he went on his way the next day, he left all his worldly goods, which were quite substantial, in the care of the innkeeper. What a daft thing to do, I thought. They won’t be there when he gets back. But they were.

A couple of weeks after I finished the book I was reading about inns in the Middle Ages and it seemed that Doyle had done his research. Travellers did indeed leave things at inns to be retrieved later. Inns were also used by merchants to store their goods as they were transported from one place to another.

Some towns had public warehouses, where goods could be stored while their owners were elsewhere or while they were waiting for transport. Where these warehouses were not available, goods could be left in certain inns. Innkeepers would not only store goods, but could be trusted to act as part of the supply chain, sending goods on the next part of their journey.

Obviously this did not apply to all innkeepers. Some could not be trusted as far as they could be thrown, but merchants built up a network of inns all across Europe, whose owners could be trusted not to steal or cheat or collude with local officials.

These were wealthy innkeepers. They might have to hold onto the goods for some time, waiting for ships, boats, carts or horses to come through to take the goods on the next stage of the journey, and they needed capital in order to do all this. Storing and sending the goods on could involve them paying tolls and taxes, dealing with officials, and organising and paying carriers. These were often innkeepers who had either become wealthy initially in other trades or were inherently trustworthy, such as priests or notaries.

Some innkeepers acted as brokers, introducing parties who had need of one another. Others helped foreigners change money into the local currency, or other currencies if they had the means. In some towns, the inns were owned by moneychangers and coins were constantly being carried back and forth to make sure that merchants and other visitors could change currencies. Where they were not owned by moneychangers these inns would have close relationships with bankers, so that they could have available the range of currencies required.

In some places the inns were also near other ‘facilities’ required by travellers and merchants. Southwark, a town on the other side of the Thames to London, was where the roads from the Channel ports and Canterbury met before crossing the river. It was renowned for its brothels and bathhouses for centuries.

Travelling in the Middle Ages might have been more complicated than I thought.

 

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Soldiers for Hire

Battle_of_Crecy_(crossbowmen)

Following on from last week’s post about paid soldiers, this week I’m looking at the ultimate paid soldier:  the mercenary.

Some great soldiers became mercenaries in the fourteenth century, including Bertrand du Guesclin, who later became Constable of France and was buried near his king in St-Denis. It was du Guesclin who led the Great Company and was also the leader of the mercenaries who fought against the Black Prince at the battle of Nájera in 1367. One of his companions in that army was the English knight Sir Hugh Calvely, who changed sides and proved very useful to the Black Prince by securing the route through Navarre to Castile for the English and Gascon army. Robert Knolles was another sometime mercenary greatly valued by the Prince and his father, although his lowly origins sometimes caused problems for the nobles who served under him.

Mercenaries were used from the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War and the crossbowmen who formed the first wave of the French attack against the English army at Crécy were Genoese mercenaries. The English also used mercenaries in their garrisons in Brittany in the 1340s and 1350s, although they learned the hard way that mercenaries were difficult to control.

It was in peacetime that mercenaries became a real problem. King Jean II was captured at the battle of Poitiers in 1356. This led to a series of peace negotiations culminating in the treaty of Brétigny in 1360.With much of the French nobility dead or captured and the king a prisoner in London, it was almost impossible for the French to continue the war.

Men who were used to being paid to fight didn’t have anything to return to in England. Soldiers at a loose end joined together to form the free (not controlled by kings or governments) companies. They made money in two ways. One was a form of protection money. They would threaten towns and villages and allow themselves to be paid not to attack them. The money they collected was called a patis. The other was to be paid to fight on behalf of a lord, king or, in the case of Italy, city state.

After the Jacquerie, the French peasants’ revolt in 1358, the Dauphin (the heir to the French crown) had internal problems to deal with as well. This meant that there were thousands of soldiers in France with nothing to do and no way to earn money. Mostly these were English soldiers, but there were also French soldiers who thought that hiring themselves out would increase their wealth and social standing.

The best known of the free companies was the Great Company. It was made up of ever-changing smaller bands of mercenaries. It was originally formed out of some small Gascon groups, and the Gascons remained as its core, which goes a long way to explaining why Aquitaine was rarely troubled by them. Not surprisingly the free companies tended to be unstable. They were made up of the worst kinds of men from all social classes except the nobility. Many of them were criminals and thieves on the run from justice. All were self-seeking and ambitious. Interestingly it was the English groups that were the most stable. This was possibly because they had become used to fighting together in various campaigns, were better disciplined and tended to trust one another.

The bands of mercenaries became a great menace and Charles V used them creatively by hiring the Great Company to aid his ally Enrique de Trastámara in Castile when the king, Don Pedro, gave his support to Edward III. Du Guesclin led a band of French and English mercenaries into Spain to help depose Don Pedro. Most of the English mercenaries in the Great Company fought against their captain when they joined the Black Prince to fight on the side of Don Pedro.

One of the most famous and most successful English mercenaries was Sir John Hawkwood, who spent most of his career in Italy. One of the reasons why the papacy moved from Rome to Avignon at the beginning of the fourteenth century was the incessant fighting in the north of Italy, which made it dangerous for the pope to remain in Rome. There was much work there for mercenaries. Hawkwood was completely ruthless and fought for most of the Italian states before ending up in Florence in 1380. Although he was known as Sir John, he was probably not made a knight by Edward III or by the Black Prince.

He was part of du Guesclin’s Great Company that attacked Avignon in 1361, but he later joined the army Innocent VI hired in order to move the papacy back to Rome. This became the White Company, which he eventually commanded. The White Company did in Italy what the Great Company was doing in France. It didn’t take long for the White Company to become known for its brutality. Eventually Hawkwood became commander-in-chief of the Florentine forces in the 1390s. At the end of his life he wanted to return to England, but died before he could do so.

Hawkwood was the orchestrator of more than one atrocity and had a reputation for brutality. Despite this, unlike many other mercenary captains, some of whom were killed by their own men, he died in his bed in 1394. At his death he was very wealthy, owning property and even a castle in Tuscany.

Avignon and, therefore, the pope, was forced to pay to rid itself of  mercenaries four times: in 1357, 1361, 1365 and 1368. By 1368 the pope had returned to Rome, but Provence was still perceived to be a place of wealth compared to France, which had been stripped bare by thirty years of war.

Whilst a mercenary might hope to become very rich, his fate was more likely to be that of the Genoese crossbowmen at Crécy who were either killed by the English and Welsh archers or trampled by the advancing knights behind them.

Fighting as a mercenary does not seem to have harmed the careers of the captains, as many of them returned to fight for their kings when hostilities began again in earnest in the 1370s. Being a mercenary wasn’t seen as incompatible with chivalry. Some praised knights for taking the opportunity to gain experience, but for many towns and villages in France their presence meant that there was never peace.

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The Indentured Soldier

Indenture.jpg

 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?

 

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