The first of my new series of books will be published shortly and posts for the next few weeks will relate to those books. The Soldiers of Fortune series is about four brothers whose lives are changed at the battle of Poitiers.
All four brothers were squires under their uncle William. It was perfectly normal for aristocratic boys to be sent to a relative or a friend of their parents to learn the skills necessary for adulthood.
In the twelfth century, when William Marshal was sent from his home in Wiltshire to live with his uncle in Normandy, there was little difference between squires and servants. Some went on to become knights and others remained servants. William clearly received a good education for he was close to four kings of England and served one as regent. In addition, he found fame and fortune as a competitor in tournaments.
Going away to another noble household to be taught how to be a squire was like a mixture of boarding school and an apprenticeship. The boys’ education was broad and learning how to fight, with the aim of becoming a knight, was only part of it.
They began as pages, waiting on their lord and looking after his horses and armour. These were not considered demeaning tasks, but an honour. The boys were also learning about how to put armour on, which parts of the body it protected and how to look after it. Horses were expensive and a knight was expected to have a few, so knowing how to look after them was vital.
The pages learned from the knights in the household. They listened to tales of past battles and learned to tell which coats of arms belonged to which knights. Although there were usually heralds on campaign who trained specifically to identify knights by their coats of arms, it was always useful if you could tell your friends from your enemies yourself.
The first part of their military training was probably wrestling. The boys had to learn how to move, how to balance and when to attack an opponent. This would all be very important when they moved on to training with weapons.
They learned to use a lance against a quintain, which might be no more than a target on a post, but might be a length of wood with a target at one end and a weight at the other. It would swivel when the target was hit and the rider had to keep going so that he wasn’t hit by the weight from behind.
They practised riding as well as using a lance and a sword, both on foot and on horseback. They learned to hunt and to use a bow and crossbow. Neither of these was a weapon really used by knights, except when hunting, but some nobles were very accomplished with them. Richard I was a very good shot with a crossbow.
Sometimes one team of boys would fight another as they learned to fight as part of a unit. They could also attend tournaments. Edward III was fond of tournaments and used them to celebrate important events.
The boys were supposed to learn to read, but not all did. There were usually clerics around who could read for them.
Once they were trained they were squires. Some squires never became knights, particularly towards the end of the fourteenth century, when there was increasingly little difference between the two.
A squire could go on campaign at a very young age. Edward III was 14 when he first led troops (unsuccessfully) against the Scots. His son, Edward of Woodstock, was 16 when he fought at Crécy.
One of the pilgrims on the way to Canterbury in The Canterbury Tales was a squire. Chaucer’s squire was about 20 years old and the son of the knight, the highest-ranking pilgrim in the group. The young man was well-dressed and was asked to tell a tale of love, about which he was supposed to know a great deal. His tale promised to be of epic proportions, but was interrupted by another pilgrim and never finished. Chaucer had been a page and a squire and might have used himself as the model for the knight’s son.