Medieval French Army



Traditional feudal military obligations, and a large population, permitted France to raise armies comprised almost exclusively of knights and men-at-arms, supplemented by occasional peasant and town levies. However, after the crushing defeat and slaughter of the French nobility at Courtrai (1302), Philip IV (“The Fair”) and the monarchy claimed a right to summon all and sundry physically fit to bear arms under the arrièreban (until 1356), without making the old and legally and socially accepted distinctions as to whether such men were subjects of the crown, other liege lords, or the Church. Also, a tax was offered to those who wished to substitute cash payment to the crown for personal military service. This allowed the crown to hire more professional soldiers, mainly infantry, and the wealthy to avoid risks in battle. During the first half of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) France developed a recruitment scheme known as “lettres de retenue” that paralleled English “indentures for war.” This allowed French kings to engage military contractors for set sums in exchange for provision of agreed numbers and types of troops. Overseeing the national muster were two Maréchals of France, assisted by eight lieutenants, who were charged with ensuring that the terms of contracts were met, appointment of captains, inspection of arms and equipment, and payment of the king’s coin to the contracted soldiery. In France to a greater extent and later date than in England, feudal recruitment under the servitium debitum was still enforced. For instance, in garrisoning frontier posts or when serving as auxiliaries town militia were paid only from the forty-first day of enlistment, affirming the traditional obligation to provide 40 days of free military service to the crown.

A national French army emerged from the great trials of the Hundred Years’ War as one of the most powerful in Europe. For most of the war the French defended fortified positions well, but suffered bloody and humbling battlefield defeats. In the field, the French Army remained a medieval force overly dependent on heavy cavalry. For this it paid a huge price in blood at Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and remarkably, as late as Agincourt (1415). From 1444 to 1448, Charles VII brought roving mercenary bands under control by organizing “compagnies de l’ordonnance du roi” (1439). These gave the best soldiers royal pay, and swore all officers to personal service to the crown. Charles paid for these troops with the “taille,” a central tax that became the basis of royal military control over what became under his successors one of the great armies of Europe. What was most remarkable was that the French added a corps of permanent infantry (“camp du roi”) in form of the franc-archers to the previously established permanent heavy cavalry and artillery corps. By 1500 the royal army totaled about 25,000 men. French reforms were paralleled in Burgundy under Charles the Rash, who organized his army around lances with accompanying reforms in drill, officering and equipment. However, Charles rolled the “iron dice of war” far too often, and eventually lost everything- including his army-on the field of battle against the French and Swiss.


The shock of the crushing defeat of France’s heavy cavalry at Courtrai (1302) at the hands of Flemish militia prompted Philip IV (“The Fair”) to undertake major military reforms aimed at raising trained infantry for his army. He also sought to more efficiently mobilize money by asserting a royal right to summon all able-bodied men of fighting age to military service to the crown. This was an ancient right of French kings (the “ban et l’arrièreban,” or feudal levy) that had fallen into disuse and disrespect. Its reassertion by the monarch after Courtrai was a novel and important response to the new role of infantry on the field of battle, mainly because it allowed the crown to impose a tax in lieu of service. The money raised was then used to hire and equip military professionals, lessening the king’s reliance on the old aristocracy. Still, it was not until 1448 that Charles VII used the system to establish a royal infantry reserve of 8,000 franc-archers. The dukes of Burgundy used a similar system until the reforms implemented by Charles the Rash, starting in 1470. By the 16th century, during the Italian Wars (1494-1559), French nobles served seasonally or they paid to avoid military service altogether, as the arrière-ban became a substitute military tax. Many nobles had to mortgage property or borrow against future rents at ruinous rates to avoid serving.

compagnies de l’ordonnance (du roi)

Mid-15th-century military reforms carried through by Charles VII set up mixed units of infantry archers and heavy cavalry (nobility of the sword), supported by smaller groups of specialist troops. All told, they comprised 1,800 men-at-arms, 3,600 archers, and 1,800 auxiliaries. They were organized at the tactical level into lances. These “compagnies” comprised a rudimentary corps in peacetime, not a full standing army. Still, this was a rare permanent force in early modern Europe. Also, it provided a military option for that important minority of French nobles who were determined to display their nobility the old way, in feats of arms. As captains, they filled the compagnies with relatives and “clients” who wore their family livery and carried their pennants into battle. The French compagnies served in the final campaigns in Normandy (1449-1450) and Guyenne (1451-1453) that closed out the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). They were the mainstay of Royalist armies deep into the French Civil Wars (1562-1629), surviving until France adopted reforms on the Dutch model pioneered by Maurits of Nassau. Comparable reforms and units, utilizing the same terminology, were made in Burgundy by Charles the Rash.


“Skinners” Successors to the routiers and Free Companies, these murderous, pillaging bands ran amok in France and western parts of Germany in the later part of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). Many were former Armagnacs. Charles VII turned some of these dangerous men into frontier garrison troops, taming their wilder and more desperate natures with a constant salary. He placed others in his compagnies de l’ordonnance.


French mercenaries, leftovers from the Free Companies brought together by the Count of Armagnac in Languedoc. In 1407 they became embroiled in a local civil war, gaining a fearsome reputation for atrocities committed in the region of Paris. They were hired by French kings during the final decades of the Hundred Years’ War. The Dauphin (later, Charles VII) allied with them, which helped drive Burgundy into alliance with England. The French army which lost to Henry V at Agincourt (1415) had a large Armagnac contingent. During this nadir of French military fortunes, when most royal resistance to the English invasion collapsed, Armagnac captains and companies continued to resist English and Burgundian advances. After the Peace of Arras (1435) many Armagnacs joined companies of comparably brutal Ecorcheurs.

servitium debitum

The feudal military obligations of a medieval European lord and his knights and retainers (men-at-arms). It invoked three main obligations. The first was chevauchée, or riding service, the basic means of assembling early medieval cavalry. This faded out of existence over time. The second duty under the servitium debitum was “watch” or garrison service. Over time, this too was replaced by a substitution of money (tax) in lieu of service. Finally, there was “service in the host” or the responsibility to give 40 days free military service when called to arms by one’s liege lord. Once more, over time this was eroded by the practice of instead paying scutage, in England in particular. Elsewhere, it was undermined by the success of vassals in placing sharp geographical and time limits on their service, which forced monarchs to seek out professional troops instead. By 1300, recourse to the servitium debitum was seldom made in England or France.