Early 15th Century Hundred Years’ War Arms and Armour II

A period illustration of the Battle of Crécy. Anglo-Welsh longbowmen figure prominently in the foreground on the right, where they are driving away Italian mercenary crossbowmen.

England
Our picture of arms and armour in medieval England is dominated by images of archery. The English war-bow was about 6ft (1.83m) long, made from a self stave, that is a naturally occurring stave with no gluing or laminating. This bow was used with a long draw; the largest group of the arrows found on the Mary Rose suggest a draw of about 30in (c.760mm). Modern replicas of these bows made from similar woods to those available to the medieval bowyers have a draw weight up to maybe 170lb. These bows were able to launch heavy arrows (about 2¼ oz or 64g min) up to about 270yd (c.247m) if the performance of modern replicas is any guide. We have very little archaeological evidence from the medieval period in general for the bows or arrow shafts, although a good range of arrowheads have survived. The main find of bows and arrows was made in the wreck of the Mary Rose, which sank in 1545. The date of this find means that these bows and arrows come at the end of over two centuries of development driven by real experience of using the war-bow in battle. As a result the performance of the modern replica bows which are made according to the evidence from the Mary Rose may well be better than the majority of bows in use at Crécy and Poitiers but not necessarily of those in use at Agincourt and Verneuil. From the mid-fourteenth century onwards, French, Breton and Burgundian allies of the English kings often bought war-bows in England rather than developing a local bow-making industry. One example of this practice contemporary with the Battle of Verneuil was when Hugh de Lannoy, the Burgundian captain of Meaux, along with four other men, whose names sound French or in one case Italian, were given a licence to ship a number of bows from England without paying duty. Why import rather than make locally?

1. English bowyers had about a century of experience of making war-bows. Their understanding of what wood could do and the efficient design of war-bows would have been unrivalled.

2. England had already established an international timber trade to supply good quality bowstaves to the bowyers.

Despite these two points, there is no doubt that local bowyers in western Continental Europe made longbows and war-bows.

English and Welsh archers in the fifteenth century were expected to turn up at the muster properly and completely equipped, so the English royal administration only had to supply replacement bows. Significant efforts were made to ensure that supplies of these, all of excellent quality, were available for the military archers. As a result there was probably very little variation in the bows the archers used, and no incentive for them to spend money on buying a bow. It is quite possible that some military archers may have had their bows altered to suit them by a local bowyer. Indeed, some of the archers would have the skill to do this themselves. There are occasional references to bowyers being part of a retinue or garrison.

The skill to use these heavy bows effectively does not come easily and the men of England and Wales practised from childhood to develop it. In part they did it because they wanted to but from 1363 onwards they did it because the law said that they should practise archery. There is one question that remains very difficult to answer: is it that only the English and Welsh developed the ability to use this weapon effectively before the fifteenth century? Even after the military reforms of Charles VII in the 1440s, there is no evidence of French archers defeating the English and Welsh archers. The French left the English to their ‘old’ technology and made greater use of gunpowder weapons than the English did, particularly those that could be used in the field rather than purely for sieges or defending fortifications.

The development of arms and armour in England followed the western European traditions as the effigies in many parish churches showing knights and nobles in armour make clear. English armourers of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries could not compete with their Continental rivals for quality and design of armour but they produced perfectly serviceable plate. ‘Soft’ armour rather than plate armour became well developed in England, possibly because of the dominance of the archer in English military thinking. It is also probable that since the English knights and men-at-arms expected to be fighting on foot, they wore lighter armours in general, probably with less plate on the legs than was the practice with some of their enemies, particularly the north Italian mercenaries employed by the French. The archers needed to wear protection which allowed their arms and bodies the easy movement necessary to draw a heavy war-bow. These movements are different from those made in hand-to-hand fighting, particularly the way the shoulders and back have to work (a sort of backward curving motion which can be seen in illustrations in many western European medieval manuscripts). As a result the archers tended to wear gambesons, or to a lesser degree brigandines, because these had a degree of flexibility. They would have had limited arm protection, since whatever they used would have to be close-fitting so that it didn’t interfere with the bowstring. This meant that the best protected archers probably wore a sallet, a brigandine which would be sleeveless and short enough to allow the movement necessary and chainmail sleeves and leggings. As with everything else concerning military equipment in the English armies of this time, except for the war-bow, the type and quality of hand weapons owned and used by the individual soldiers depended on their wealth, social status and military experience.

While all the knights and men-at-arms would own and carry a sword and dagger into battle, many had a preference for some other weapon as their primary means of attack. Because they expected to fight on foot some may have used the great sword, but English knights and men-at-arms often preferred the poleaxe. By the beginning of the fifteenth century, this weapon seemed to have a standard length of about 5ft (1.5m), including the head. (The halberd was a parallel development but commonly less ‘stylish’ than the poleaxe, often up to about 9ft (2¾m) long overall, and was widely used by European infantry.) The head of a poleaxe had an axe blade on one side and a hammer head on the other which was spiked like a big meat tenderiser, and a spike on the top. The head often had long, iron fastening strips which provided the wooden haft with some protection against cutting blows. A modern author described this weapon as ‘… to all intents and purposes a can opener, each blade, spike and face designed to crush and pierce armour plate’. This was a devastating close quarters weapon which was used with both hands, the user relying on his armour, skill and ferocity for survival. Shorter battle axes and battle hammers designed for one-handed use, which could be used mounted or on foot, were also used, often with a shield. How much the English knights and men-at-arms used lances or spears on foot is not clear. The English and Welsh archers demonstrated in most battles that they were good close quarters infantry when necessary. Indeed, they seemed to think that this was as much their job as shooting arrows, and enthusiastically took part in close fighting. They did this for a number of reasons: professionalism, loyalty to their comrades, the chance to take ransom-worthy prisoners or other booty and, in many of the battles, survival. Victory was the only way to ensure this; although there is evidence of archers being captured and ransomed, their prospects were very uncertain in defeat. Every archer would have at least one knife, most likely a bollock dagger, and many would have an arming sword or a falchion. Some muster records show that a sword was regarded as part of the basic equipment of an archer, that he must have to be accepted at muster by the late 1420s at least.83 Many may have used a buckler with their sword, showing skills in the traditional English fighting art of sword and buckler play. The buckler is a small shield 6 to 18in (15 to 45cm) in diameter, held in one hand by a grip made behind the central boss. In addition archers may have used weapons that could be hung in their belts like axes and maces.

Scotland
Scotland had its own traditions in arms and armour. These were influenced both by native traditions in the Gaelic areas of the country, particularly those described in chronicles, histories and other accounts written in medieval Scotland and in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and Continental traditions imported from England and from France as part of the Auld Alliance. However, the development of arms and armour in Scotland was restricted by the relative poverty and lack of surplus income throughout the medieval period in comparison with England and France. By the start of the fifteenth century, soft armour was the Scottish standard for nobles, knights, chieftains and elite soldiers (Gallowglasses in Irish and West Highland military affairs). This comprised a long-sleeved knee-length aketon made of linen or leather vertically stitched into long, stuffed strips. A full-length mail shirt might be worn over this by the better-off warriors. If grave slabs are any guide, the head was protected by an open-faced bascinet with a chainmail cowl attached to reinforce the protection on the neck and shoulders. It is difficult to know how much reinforced protection for arms and legs was worn. Chainmail leggings or metal splints on forearms and lower legs, if used at all, were more likely among men from the lowlands than among those from the west and the Highlands. Members of the royal family and the high nobility used suits of plate armour by the beginning of the fifteenth century, which were usually imported from Europe. Alexander Stewart, the Wolf of Badenoch, who died in 1405, is shown in full armour on his tomb in Dunkeld Cathedral, while Archibald Douglas, 4th Earl of Douglas, was allegedly wearing armour three years in the making at the Battle of Homildon Hill. At this battle Douglas was wounded five times, including losing an eye and a testicle, which shows that even very good armour (allowing for some exaggeration over the manufacturing time) was not impenetrable in the press of a medieval battle. Ordinary fighting men wore just an aketon, sometimes coated with pitch or covered in leather, and simple open-faced helmets. In 1385 Jean de Vienne, Admiral of France, reported to the French royal council after an expedition to Scotland that he had seen the whole of the Scottish military array and that there were no more than 500 men-at-arms equipped to the standard expected in France. The rest of the men (he thought about 30,000) he considered to be poorly armed and trained and not to be relied on once the enemy was sighted. This comment shows three things. One is the relative poverty of Scotland reflected in the arms and armour that its people could afford. Secondly, since we can assume that a good number of the men he dismissed wore aketons, he was ignorant of how effective a good one could be. Thirdly, by showing his knightly disdain for many of the Scots, he showed no understanding of their fighting spirit, particularly when facing the English. It is probable that over twenty years later, when the Scots were preparing to send men to fight in France, there were more men with better armour because of the profits made from some substantial cross-border raids in the intervening years. But it would remain the case that a good number of the Scottish men-at-arms would be more lightly armoured than their opponents.

The weapons used varied not only with the wealth and status of the individual, but which tradition he belonged to. As with the English, every man carried a knife. In the Lowlands these might be bollock daggers, but specialised ‘anti-armour’ daggers like the rondel dagger seem to have been rarer, no doubt because there was less need for them in most Scottish warfare. In general, Scottish fighting knives were single-edged and the blade could be as long as 18in (46cm). Men from the west of Scotland (possibly including Galloway, which had a long tradition of being different from the rest of southern Scotland, in part because Gaelic survived there longer than in other parts of southern Scotland) and the Highlands used both one- and two-handed swords, axes of varying sizes, spears, and bows and arrows. The men from the rest of Scotland at this time were less likely to be using two-handed weapons, although the knights and nobles who followed the European tradition of arms probably used the great sword. Arming swords, small battle axes and maces would have been used by the better-off soldiers of all types, or infantrymen who had gained battlefield booty. Spears were common among all classes, almost always for use as hand weapons in the schiltron rather than as javelins. There was some tradition of military archery but it is difficult to know now how widespread it was across Scotland.

France

The use of plate armour developed rapidly in France in the fourteenth century for a number of reasons. There was a large number of men-at-arms including many nobles and knights who had sufficient resources to keep up with developments in military equipment. It is likely that, since France was a much richer kingdom than England or Scotland, there were more men who had excellent imported armours made to more up-to-date standards than could be found in the other two kingdoms. But such men would still be a minority. French nobles, knights and men-at-arms not only fought the English, and amongst themselves in the Orléanist/Armagnac struggles, but also took part in major international adventures like the ill-starred ‘crusade’ that ended at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396. The French knew from bitter experience the dangers the war-bow posed to them and were determined to nullify it if possible by improving their personal protection. Because they hoped to fight on horseback more than English knights and men-at-arms did, and because of their expectation that they would be facing the war-bow, French knights and men-at-arms may have tended to carry shields more than their opponents. In turn, this would have meant that they were less likely to use poleaxes.

The arms and armour of the non-noble troops are less well described. It is reasonable to assume that the urban militias had gambesons and open helmets at least, and that whatever their main weapon, they carried daggers and possibly swords. It has been noted above that an important role for these militias was providing practised missile troops – most commonly, but not exclusively, crossbowmen. These militias had two major roles; they could defend their own walled towns and cities, and they could provide missile troops in field armies.

Other nations

Men from other nations served in these wars, mainly as part of mercenary companies, although some individuals served, maybe bringing some retainers for support. These individuals can be found in both the French and English armies, but most commonly were men-at-arms from Flanders and the Rhineland serving the English king. While there were never large numbers of these men, they were drawn by the prestige of serving such a renowned soldier as Henry V. They were also drawn by the opportunity to earn pay and booty. The French armies included many mercenaries, mainly from Spain, northern Italy and Scotland. With the exception of the Scots, whose arms and armour have been discussed above, these men wore both plate armour and soft armour according to their status, very much within the military traditions of western Europe. It is quite possible that the Spanish troops may have worn less plate, reflecting their experience of fighting the Moors.

The most advanced mercenary troops in terms of equipment were the armoured horsemen from Lombardy. They benefited from the rapid technical advances made by the north Italian armourers noted above and wore high-quality full plate armour with similar quality protection for their horses. Sometimes a north Italian captain would be hired with a number of men-at-arms, but on a number of occasions it is recorded that these men were hired in ‘lances’. The Italian lance at this time was made up of three men: a man-at-arms wearing full armour and often riding an armoured horse, a valet who wore light armour and fought as a light cavalryman, and a page who was primarily non-combatant.

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2 thoughts on “Early 15th Century Hundred Years’ War Arms and Armour II

  1. Your assessment of the army of Scotland was stereotypical nonsense. The “backwards” equipment you describe only pertains to the highlands. Lowland Esquires and Gentry had full plate and were indistinguishable from their counterparts. Scotland was doing quite well in this period it was just an eighth the population of England so when fielding an army of equal size it had more filler troops and less professionals.

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