Medieval Mercenaries

The oft-quoted remark of Richard Fitz Neal in his preface to the Dialogus de Scaccario about the supreme importance of money in war has been shown by J. O. Prestwich to have been as much a commonplace in 1179 when he wrote it as it seems today. ‘Money appears necessary not only in time of war but also in peace’ Richard wrote, adding that ‘in war it is poured out in fortifying castles, in soldiers’ wages, and in numerous other ways, depending on the nature of the persons paid, for the preservation of the kingdom.’ This was his way of explaining the central position of the Exchequer in the wars of Henry II. It introduces us to a concept of paid military service which was already clearly established in his day alongside more traditional concepts of military obligation. However, this chapter is not just about paid military service; the introduction of pay in various guises may have aroused the envy and suspicions of the feudal class, and the wrath of the Church, but it was not generally a matter of either surprise or despite by the eleventh century. Early examples of pay took many forms: money fiefs, supplements to obligatory service, subsistence allowances, rewards, and indeed pay to attract service, pay to create profit. It is the concept of fighting for profit, together with the gradual emergence of a concept of ‘foreignness’, which distinguish the true mercenary, the subject of this chapter, from the ordinary paid soldier.

Hence the problem is not just one of assessing the growth of the money economy, the accumulation of treasure, the raising of war taxes, the development of scutage (a payment in lieu of personal service), and other forms of commutation. Indeed as paid military service became a standard feature of European warfare by the end of the thirteenth century, these factors have to be taken for granted and form part of a quite different study. It is the motivation of mercenaries, soldiers who fought for profit and not in the cause of their native land or lord, and the circumstances and nature of their employment that we have to try to identify.

Here it is not profitable to spend too much time on the vexed question of the perception of who was a ‘foreigner’. The emergence of independent and increasingly centrally administered states where distinctions between local, ‘national’, ‘own’ troops, and ‘foreign’ troops became gradually apparent has also to be accepted without too much attempt at further definition. War itself was a primary factor in creating the distinctions and encouraging the patriotism and xenophobia which led to a certain suspicion of ‘foreign’ troops. Even so, the distinction between foreign and native forces is not always sharp: the occasional repressive actions of centralizing governments were sometimes best supported and carried out by ‘foreign’ troops when their loyalty was deemed more to be relied on than that of subjects.

Both supply of money and the changing needs of government are demand factors; what we need to examine more carefully at the start of a study of medieval mercenaries are rather supply factors. What did mercenaries have to offer? The answer in this period was not just general military expertise and experience, but increasingly specialist skills, particularly of infantry. It was the growing sophistication of warfare which created the mercenary, together with a series of local environmental factors which made certain specific areas good recruiting grounds for soldiers. Underemployment, whether in a pastoral economy or in a rapidly expanding city, has to be a part of the equation.

But at the heart of the equation is the problem of loyalty. Mercenaries, in the middle ages as now, stand accused of fragile loyalty, loyalty dependent entirely on regular and often extravagant pay, and a concern for personal survival. But the middle ages saw a very clear distinction between the loyalty of the errant adventurer or the free company, and the loyalty of the household knight or the long-serving bodyguard. The real categorization of mercenaries is one of length of service; long service established personal bonds just as strong as those between vassal and lord; it created commitments as binding as those of emerging patriotism and nationality, once again blurring any tidy distinction between native and foreigner.

The central theme of this chapter is that, while mercenary service, in terms of service for pay, became increasingly accepted and organized from at least the middle of the eleventh century, there was a real change in the perception of the issue from the later thirteenth century. This had little to do with economic growth, much more to do with changes in the nature of society, of government, and of warfare. The thirteenth century was a period in which the universality of the Church, of crusading, of the early universities, of the widespread use of Latin, was giving way to the creation of more local identities and loyalties, to concern with frontiers and problems of long-term defence, to vernaculars and lay culture. The monopoly of military skills held in the central middle ages by select bodies of aristocratic cavalry was being challenged by the emergence of mass infantry, often with new specialist skills, and of concepts of more general military obligation. The thirteenth century is the period in which the mercenary became distinguished by his foreignness and his expertise; and it is on this period and that which followed it that I shall concentrate most attention, avoiding, however, the exaggerations of the hallowed generalization of the ‘age of the mercenary’!

While it is probably true that elements of hired military service survived throughout the early middle ages, the main characteristics of the barbarian tribes which came to dominate Western Europe with the decline of the Roman Empire were the bonds of personal obligation and dependence within societies organized for war. As conditions eventually became more settled in the eleventh century, we hear increasingly of forms of selective service, of commutation of obligations, and of the maintenance of fighting men by collective contributions. This was particularly true in Anglo-Saxon England. However the Norman enterprises of the mid-eleventh century were something of a turning point. William the Conqueror, in order to assemble a force sufficient for his purposes in the invasion of England relied heavily on volunteers from Brittany, Flanders, Champagne, and even Italy, and the military strength which he maintained in being during the early years of the Conquest was also significantly dependent on paid volunteers. There was indeed eventually a settlement of William’s knights on the land and the re-creation of a system of military obligation, but it was never adequate for defence of the realm from significant threat and particularly not for the defence of Normandy. The Anglo-Norman kings came to rely on a permanent military household made up partly of royal vassals in constant attendance and partly of volunteers, often landless younger sons of feudatories, who were maintained by the King and generously rewarded after any military action. Significant numbers of these household knights came from outside the bounds of the Anglo-Norman state. It was the household, the familia regis that provided the core and the leadership of the armies of William I and William II, the latter in particular being described as ‘militum mercator et solidator’ (a great buyer and purveyor of soldiers). A particular moment which is often cited by the main authorities on this particular period of military activity was the treaty of 1101 by which Count Robert of Flanders undertook to provide Henry I with 1,000 Flemish knights for service in England and Normandy. These knights were to be incorporated temporarily into the royal household and maintained by Henry at his own expense; this was already an indication of the potential size of the household in arms. Count Robert was to receive a fee of £500 for providing these troops which places him in the role of a very early military contractor.

There is a good deal less evidence of such use of volunteers and paid troops by the early Capetian kings whose sphere of influence and military potential were a good deal less than those of the Normans. However in the Holy Roman Empire the same pressures to supplement the limited obligation for military service were being felt by the Emperors, particularly in campaigns in Italy. With the twelfth century came the Crusades, offering an outlet to military adventurism and at the same time prompting a greater concern amongst Western European monarchs to husband and nourish their military households. It was Henry I of England’s military household which in 1124 at Bourgthéroulde defeated a Norman baronial rebellion, an event which provides us with a classic contemporary distinction, in the words of the chronicler Orderic Vitalis, between the hireling knights of the King fighting for their reputation and their wages, and the Norman nobility fighting for their honour.

At Bourgthéroulde, despite Orderic’s attempt to portray the royal troops as ‘peasants and common soldiers’, the battle was clearly still one between mounted knights. But the hiring of infantry became an increasingly common feature of twelfth-century military practice. Louis VII, as he began to gather together the threads of central authority in France hired crossbowmen, and the civil wars of Stephen’s reign in England were filled with the activities of both cavalry and infantry mercenaries.

By the mid-twelfth century the sustained use of royal household troops, particularly in the exercise of government central power in both France and the Anglo-Norman empire, the proliferation of castles and of siege warfare, and the growth of urban populations, all pointed towards a growing role for infantry in the warfare of the day. It was the use of infantry that could expand the size of armies beyond the narrow limits of the feudal class; it was infantry that could storm cities and bring sieges to an abrupt end. It was also small companies of infantry that provided the long-serving paid garrisons of castles. A clear role for the mercenary was beginning to define itself.

It is not clear whether the companies of infantry mercenaries which became a feature of the warfare of the second half of the twelfth century emerged as a result of expanding population and underemployment or whether royal initiative and deliberate recruitment was the key factor. Certainly they were seen by contemporaries in two quite different ways: on the one hand, they were denounced as brigands and outlaws, roving in ill-disciplined bands to despoil the countryside and brutalize the population; on the other, they appear as effective and coherent military units, led by increasingly prestigious captains and often provided with uniform equipment and arms by royal officials. The phenomenon was clearly a mixed one, and the same company, led by a Mercadier or a Cadoc, could give useful, indeed invaluable, service if properly paid and directed, and yet become a disorderly and dangerous rabble when out of employment and beyond the reach of royal justice. The names given to these companies—Brabançons, Aragonais, Navarrais, and ‘Cotteraux’—reveal their tendency to originate in the poorer rural areas and on the fringes of the Flemish cities. The last name is thought to originate either from their lowly status (cotters) or from their use of the dagger (couteau) rather than the sword. Certainly the non-feudal nature of their employment and status is clear, and the increasing use by the companies of the bow and the crossbow added to the fear and despite which they aroused.

Henry II used these troops extensively in his French lands, both to suppress baronial revolt and to ward off the growing pressures from the Capetian kings. It was quickly clear that he could not expect effective service from his English knights across the Channel, except on a voluntary basis, and so the levying of scutage became a standard feature of his financial administration and the means by which the mercenaries were paid. However Louis VII and, particularly, Philippe Augustus also quickly learnt the value of the companies, and the Emperors too began to employ Brabançons in their campaigns in Italy and eastern France. The problem was that even the Anglo-Norman state did not have the resources to maintain the companies in times of peace and truce, and so there was an endless process of short-term employment and often longer term dismissal with all the implications of this for the security of the countryside. The outcry of the Church and the ban on the employment of mercenary companies at the 3rd Lateran Council in 1179 had little practical effect as long as the service they gave was useful. But monarchs did learn that such service was most effectively directed outside their frontiers, so as to avoid both the worst impact of demobilization and the growing dislike of their subjects for such troops. Henry II is thought to have used the Continental companies only once in England on a significant scale, in 1174; John, on the other hand, aroused bitter criticism for his lack of restraint in this respect.

The role of townsmen as infantry in this period was particularly apparent in Italy but initially in the form of urban militias rather than mercenary companies. The army of the Lombard League which defeated Barbarossa at Legnano in 1176 was in part made up of the militias of the cities of the League, moderately well-trained, undoubtably paid at least living expenses while on campaign, and on this occasion supported by cavalry. The specialist skills which converted elements of these militias into true mercenaries were however already emerging. The use of the crossbow as the main weapon for the defence of galleys led to large numbers of Genoese, Pisans, and Venetians acquiring this skill and, in the case particularly of the Genoese, selling their services abroad. Italy also provides the example of another professional mercenary group in this period, the Saracen archers of Frederick II. The colony of 35,000–40,000 Saracens settled round Lucera by the Emperor provided him and his successors with a skilled force of 5,000–6,000 archers, mostly on foot but some mounted, until 1266, when it was annihilated by the Angevin cavalry at Benevento.

The destruction of the Saracens coincided with a sharp decline in the role elsewhere of the Brabançons and other mercenary companies of the period. These relatively small infantry companies, rarely more than 1,000 in size, had proved vulnerable to concerted mass attack, and the tendency in Western Europe, by the second half of the thirteenth century, was towards the employment of larger numbers of increasingly professional cavalry and the development of general obligations for military service amongst the populations at large to provide infantry. Detailed studies of Edward I’s English armies have been very influential in defining the move towards contractual employment of cavalry companies made up of enfeoffed knights banneret alongside increasing numbers of paid knights bachelor and professional men at arms. Improvements over the next century in armour and weapons, and an emphasis on collective training, ensured that the cavalry remained at the forefront of European armies. On the other hand, the tendency of the late thirteenth century was also towards the use of mass infantry. This was not necessarily at the expense of skills as was illustrated by the effectiveness of the English archers and the Swiss pikemen; but in both these cases a part of their success lay in their use in large, disciplined numbers. Soldiering was becoming a way of life for many foot soldiers as it had long been for the knights. By the fourteenth century, pay was an essential component of this life and also by that time the term ‘mercenary’ was being reserved for the adventurer and the companies of ‘foreign’ specialist troops who continued to be sought after. The Hundred Years War between the English and French monarchies was to confirm these trends.

The long series of wars which started in 1337 involved an English crown which still controlled Gascony, and (under Henry V) regained for a time Normandy, and a French crown the authority of which was only grudgingly recognized in many outlying parts of France. Gascons, as subjects of the English crown, appeared in large numbers in English armies throughout the wars, as did Bretons and Flemish who saw themselves as natural allies of England against the pretensions of the French crown. In French armies Normans, Burgundians, Poitevins, and others fought somewhat uneasily side by side, but long experience of such comradeship undoubtedly played a major part in creating a sort of national feeling. The terms ‘English’ and ‘French’ became more meaningful as the wars went on. But there was always a role for adventurers, allied auxiliaries, and true mercenaries in the armies. Blind King John of Bohemia and his knights fought at Crécy in the French army as did large companies of Genoese crossbowmen; half of John of Gaunt’s captains on his expedition to France in 1373 were ‘foreigners’, particularly Gascons and Flemings but including three Castillians; Piedmontese knights and Scottish archers fought for Charles VII in the 1420s. However the moments at which mercenaries became particularly apparent were the moments of truce and peace when large parts of the armies were disbanded and the phenomenon of the free company re-emerged. The 1360s, following the peace of Brétigny, was such a moment; mixed companies of English, reluctant to return home, and of French temporarily deprived of royal pay, became adventurers seeking booty and employment. These were essentially footloose companies of professionals led by their natural leaders; more than a hundred such companies have been identified and they gravitated first towards Southern France where political authority was weakly established, and then on towards opportunities and possible employment in Italy and Spain. Charles V of France learnt many lessons about the dangers of sudden demobilization and the need to create greater permanence amongst his troops as he struggled to track down and destroy the companies which were ravaging his kingdom. They were lessons which were not easily absorbed and the same problem arose after the peace of Arras in 1435 when the ‘Écorcheurs’, mostly French by this time, became a threat and prompted Charles VII’s better-known ordonnances for the organization of a standing army.

The arrival of the foreign companies in Italy and the development of mercenary activity in that area is a very familiar story. It is a story which goes back much further than the fourteenth century and the truces of the Hundred Years War. Early urbanization, the accumulation of wealth in the towns of north and central Italy, and the relative weakness of feudal institutions, all pointed the way towards paid military service at an early stage. As already discussed the towns provided abundant infantry manpower, and the growing rivalries amongst them led to frequent confrontations, skirmishes, and sieges. The urban militias which conducted these campaigns were provided with subsistence, but it was not long before the escalating local warfare began to create opportunities for more permanent and lucrative employment for hired troops. Rural nobility with their followers, exiles, dispossessed and underemployed peasants, all contributed to a pool of manpower which the urban authorities could call on. The more successful a city was in expanding against and taking over its neighbours, the more it required a system of permanent defence beyond its walls with castles and professional garrisons. The gradual decline of communal republicanism and its replacement by a series of urban lordships or Signorie in the later thirteenth century encouraged this process as did the relative weakness by this time of the central authorities of pope and emperor.

A large number of potential employers, abundant wealth both to be earned and looted, pleasant campaigning conditions, these were the attractions of the Italian military scene which began to draw in fighters from other parts of Europe. Italy was also a forming-up point for crusading armies and an objective for Norman, Imperial, and Angevin expeditions many of which left a residue of ultramontane troops ready to exploit the opportunities available. By the end of the thirteenth century the organized mercenary company, operating either as a collective or under the command of a chosen leader, was a common feature.

One of the largest and best-known of these companies, the existence of which spanned the turn of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, was the Catalan Company. This formed itself during the wars in Sicily between Aragonese and Angevins, but was partly made up of Almogavars, Aragonese rural troops who had for years earned their living in the border warfare of the Reconquista. After the peace of Caltabellota in 1302 which settled the fate of Sicily, the Company, some 6,000 strong, took service with the Byzantine emperor against the advancing Turks, and in 1311, still in Byzantine service, it overthrew Walter of Brienne, the Duke of Athens, and seized his principality. From this base the Catalans were able to conduct a profitable military activity until 1388.

The story of the Catalan Company was an exceptional, and only initially an Italian, one. However, the fourteenth century did see companies of similar size appearing in the peninsular and often extending their activities over several years. While initially such enterprises often operated on a sort of collective basis, electing their leaders, and deciding on and negotiating contracts with employers through chosen representatives, it was inevitable that successful leaders should emerge to take control and give continuity. The contracts for military service were known as condotte, the contractors whose names began to appear on them were the condottieri. The service which was contracted for was initially of a very short-term nature. Italian city-states were seeking additional protection or an increment to their strike power for a summer season at the most and often just a matter of weeks. The presence of the companies beyond the moment of immediate need was certainly not encouraged but it was not simple to get them to withdraw, and the inevitable gaps between contracts and the long winter months created the conditions of uncontrolled marauding so often associated with this phase of Italian warfare.

Much of the manpower and the leadership of these companies during the first half of the fourteenth century was non-Italian. Germans were particularly prominent at this stage with the Great Company of Werner von Urslingen appearing in 1342. During the period between 1320 and 1360 over 700 German cavalry leaders have been identified as being active in Italy, and as many as 10,000 men-at-arms. Werner von Urslingen remained the most prominent figure throughout the 1340s when he organized successive companies to manipulate and terrorize the Italian cities. The only solution to this problem of very large companies of well-armed men spending much of their time devastating the countryside was for leagues of cities to pool their resources to resist them. But the political instability of the period made this a rare possibility. By 1347 Werner von Urslingen had new allies in the form of Hungarian troops coming to support the Angevin Queen of Naples, Joanna I, who had married the younger brother of King Louis of Hungary. By the late 1340s other leaders had also emerged; Conrad von Landau, a long-term associate of Werner, now came to the fore, as did the Provençal ex-hospitaller Montreal d’Albarno, known in Italy as Fra Moriale. The union of these three leaders produced the largest company yet seen in Italy which, on behalf of Joanna I, defeated the Neapolitan baronage at Meleto in 1349 and took over half a million florins’ worth of booty. This was the beginning of a decade which was dominated by the Great Company of Fra Moriale and Conard von Landau. This company, over 10,000 strong, established a remarkable continuity in these years, holding cities to ransom and creating extraordinary wealth. The execution of Fra Moriale in Rome in 1354 did not disturb this continuity which went on until Conrad’s death in 1363. While ultramontane troops, particularly Germans and Hungarians, but increasingly also southern French, continued to dominate in these companies up to the 1360s, it is important also to see strong Italian elements. Members of the Visconti and Ordelaffi families were prominent amongst the leaders of the companies, usually with very specific political agendas to regain control in their native cities. Undoubtedly substantial numbers of Italians fought in the great companies, and some of the smaller companies were predominantly Italian. But, of course, at this time a Sienese, or a Pisan, or a Bolognese was as much of an enemy to a Florentine as a German was, and possibly more distrusted and feared because of long-standing local rivalries. The depredations of a German company were a temporary phenomenon which could be bought off; those of a rival city-state were aimed either at takeover or at least at economic strangulation.

After 1360 the scene changed as the free companies from the wars in France began to reach Italy. The most prominent of these was the White Company, eventually led by the English knight, John Hawkwood, but initially made up of mixed elements and leaders from the Anglo-French wars. However the White Company was always associated with the English methods of warfare, the use of archers and dismounted men-at-arms giving each other mutual support, and under Hawkwood’s leadership it became a highly disciplined and effective force which Italian states became increasingly anxious to employ on a long-term basis.

The last three decades of the fourteenth century were a formative period in the history of mercenary warfare in Italy. The main Italian states were beginning to emerge from the maelstrom of political life in the communal period. As the Visconti gradually established their authority in Milan and western Lombardy, the Florentines extended the control of their city over large parts of central Tuscany. At the same time the Avignon popes were devoting huge resources to restoring order within the Papal States, and Venice was beginning to exert greater influence on the political situation in eastern Lombardy, prior to its decisive moves to establishing formal authority after 1404. The governments of these states were becoming stronger, more organized, better financed; they began to think more seriously about the permanent defence of their larger states. But, given the availability of large professional mercenary companies, of experienced leaders like Hawkwood, and a generation of Italian captains who were emerging in the 1370s, and given also the inevitable reluctance of the governments of the larger states to entrust defence to the untested loyalty of their new subjects, a military system based on extended and better managed contracts to experienced mercenaries became an obvious development. The process was a gradual one; foreign companies began to meet sterner resistance, the wars in France resumed and created counter attractions and obligations, assured pay began to look more attractive than casual booty. At the same time Italian leaders began to emerge strongly; men like Alberigo da Barbiano, Jacopo dal Verme, and Facino Cane saw the advantage of creating semi-permanent links with Giangaleazzo Visconti, just as Hawkwood began to associate himself more and more with Florence.

There was indeed a rapid decline of the foreign companies in the last decades of the fourteenth century. Alberigo da Barbiano’s famous victory over the Breton companies at Marino in 1379 became a sort of symbol of the recovery of Italian military prowess and of the end of a humiliating and damaging period of dominance by foreign mercenaries. However Alberigo’s Company of St George was little different in function or intention from those which preceded it or which it defeated; Italians had played a considerable part in the warfare of the previous decades, and Hawkwood remained for a further fifteen years as the most feared and respected soldier in Italy. His later years were spent largely in the service of Florence with lands, a castle, and a large salary for life provided to encourage his fidelity as captain-general. But he died in 1394 whilst preparing to return to England, leaving behind him a military scene which was in an advanced stage of transition.

The most powerful state in Italy at the turn of the century was undoubtedly the duchy of Milan where Giangaleazzo Visconti had attracted to his service a bevy of leading captains, including Jacopo dal Verme, a Veronese noble who was his captain-general for thirty years. Milanese expansionism inevitably provoked its main neighbours, Florence and Venice, into taking similar steps to protect themselves, and although the death of Giangaleazzo in 1402 led to a temporary break-up of the Milanese state, the threat of Milanese expansion had returned by the 1420s. The competition between the three states then continued until the peace of Lodi in 1454 and was the context for a stabilization of the mercenary tradition in northern and central Italy. The role of Venice in this was particularly important. Venice, long accustomed to maintaining a permanent military stance in its empire in the eastern Mediterranean with garrisons and galley squadrons, became involved in a quite dramatic way in the occupation and defence of a terraferma empire in the period between 1404 and 1427. The speed with which Vicenza, Verona, and Padua were absorbed, followed quickly by Friuli, and then Brescia and Bergamo, led to a perception of the problem of how to maintain effective military strength which was more coherent than that of its neighbours. A determined search for good captains, a gradual extension of the length of the condotte to allow first for year-round service and then for service for two or three years, the allocation of permanent billets and enfeoffed lands to the captains who accepted these contracts, the erection of a system of military administration which watched over and served the companies, and the realization that regular pay was the key to faithful mercenary service, these were the mechanisms which Venice in this period succeeded in implementing rather more effectively than any of the other Italian states. They were the essential mechanisms of standing armies, applied to an Italian situation in which the majority of the troops were still mercenaries in the ordinary sense of the word. Venice’s leading captains in the early years of the century all came from outside the new expanded state, and the companies which they brought with them contained few Venetian subjects in this period. The same remained true of Milan and Florence, although the Visconti were more inclined to use local nobility as lesser captains. The major captains in the first half of the fifteenth century, Jacopo dal Verme, Francesco Carmagnola, Musio and Francesco Sforza, Braccio da Montone, Niccolò Piccinino, Gattamelata, rarely served under a flag that could be described as their own. But their service was often sustained, their companies were surprisingly permanent and well organized, their moves were watched with admiration and satisfaction as much as suspicion. Only one of them, Francesco Sforza, established himself as a ruler; only one, Carmagnola, was executed for suspected infidelity.

This relative maturity of mercenary institutions was a good deal less apparent in the south of Italy where the political instability created by the Angevin—Aragonese rivalry for control of Naples, and the prolonged crisis of the Schism discouraged such developments. Many of the captains mentioned above came originally from the Papal States and had learnt their soldiering in the endemic local warfare of the area and the spasmodic papal attempts to control this. Many also saw service on one side or other of the warring factions in Naples. In these circumstances the condottieri behaved inevitably in a more volatile, self-interested fashion; desertions and treachery were rife, and booty continued to be more common than pay. It is interesting that despite the continuation of these unsettled conditions through the 1430s and into the 1440s, many of the leading captains had by then abandoned the uncertain prospects of the south to seek their fortunes in the more controlled and disciplined world of north and central Italy.

The establishment of Alfonso V of Aragon on the throne of Naples in 1442 and the growing recognition accorded to Eugenius IV as Pope as the influence of the Council of Basle declined led to a gradual lessening of this difference between north and south in Italy. In fact both the Papal State and the kingdom of Naples had greater possibilities of raising military manpower within their own frontiers that did the northern states. Nevertheless the tensions that existed between the two states led to kings of Naples seeking to attract condottieri from the Roman baronial families into their service in order to weaken the Pope and create disruption in Rome. At the same time the Popes of the second half of the century did their best to prevent the warlike signorial families of Umbria and the Romagna from taking service in the north.

The wars in Lombardy in the 1430s and 1440s were in many ways a high point of conflict in later medieval Italy. Armies of over 20,000 men on either side confronted each other in the Lombard plain; armies which had become reasonably stable in terms of their composition and organization, and in which one senior captain changing sides could significantly affect the balance of power. Francesco Sforza used his substantial company in this way as he worked towards political control in Milan in the vacuum created by the death of Filippo Maria Visconti (1447) without male heir. His cousin Michele Attendolo Sforza, on the other hand, lacking perhaps the same political ambition and military prowess, but nevertheless controlling as large a company (details of the organization of which have survived to us) timed his moves less well. During a career as a major condottiere spanning nearly twenty-five years, Michele (or Micheletto as he was usually known) moved at long intervals from papal service to that of Florence and back again, and eventually served Venice as captain-general for seven years in the 1440s. He came from the Romagna, as did his better known cousin, and a significant proportion of his troops were Romagnol recruited by his local agents and dispatched to wherever the company was based. That company, normally consisting of about 600 lances and 400 infantry, also contained soldiers from all over Italy and at least 20 capisquadra many of whom came from aristocratic families and were on their way to themselves building a career as condottieri. As a reward for his services to Venice, Micheletto was given the important garrison town of Castelfranco, in the Trevigiano, as a fief and base. However his career fell apart when he was dismissed and his company disbanded after he lost the battle of Caravaggio to his cousin Francesco in 1448.

After his dismissal many of Micheletto’s lances were taken into the direct service of Venice as lanze spezzate (individual detachments, which could be combined together to form a company). In doing this Venice was following a clear trend by the middle of the fifteenth century of the better organized Italian states taking the opportunity, on the death or retirement of a condottiere, of retaining their troops in composite companies commanded by captains chosen by the government. To see this as a deliberate attempt to reduce the mercenary element in Italian armies is probably misleading; the prime consideration was the retention of good troops who had probably spent some time under their former leader in the service of the particular state. It was common Venetian practice to give command of a company of lanze spezzate to a minor condottiere who already had his own company but who had given faithful and effective service.

The Battle of San Romano (1432) was a much vaunted minor victory of the Florentines over the Sienese. Paolo Uccello painted three scenes from the battle for the Medici palace in the 1450s, and here illustrates the final phase when Michele Attendolo led his contingent of the Florentine army into an attack on the Sienese rearguard.

After the succession of Francesco Sforza as the new Duke of Milan in 1450, the Milanese army began to emerge as the prototype of the later fifteenth-century Italian army in which certain mercenary institutions survived but the overall impression was one of a large standing army which could be expanded rapidly when needed. Army lists of the 1470s reveal an organization which paid about 20,000 troops in peacetime and anticipated a doubling of the number if needed in war. At the heart of the permanent force were companies of lanze spezzate commanded by four chosen captains who formed part of the ducal entourage, and an equivalent force known as the famiglia ducale which served as the Duke’s bodyguard. There were then the senior condottieri on long-term contracts which bound them to maintain their companies at half strength in peacetime, and the main feudatories, including the sons and brothers of the Duke, who were condottieri ‘ad discretionem’ with no specific obligations or pay in peacetime but clear expectations for service in time of war. Finally over 18,000 infantry, many of whom were in permanent service as garrison troops etc. were included in the mobilization plans. The bulk of this force, therefore, was based firmly within the frontiers of the state, although some of the senior condottieri, such as the Marquis of Mantua, had their own independent bases where they maintained their companies. Mobilization did not mean a hurried search for new companies to hire but a more or less measured increase in the size of the existing companies, supervised by government officials.

Inevitably, after the peace of Lodi and the ending of a period of almost continuous warfare in Lombardy in which Neapolitan and papal armies had become involved by the early 1450s, the second half of the century with only spasmodic outbreaks of fighting has been seen in military terms as an anticlimax. However, more recent historical perceptions of the Italian scene in the second half of the fifteen century have emphasized the considerable political and diplomatic tensions which existed between the states, the need for a constant state of military preparedness, and the effectiveness of the armies which were brought into action on frequent occasions during the period. It has to be remembered that some of the most distinguished names in the annals of the condottieri belong to the post-Lodi period: Bartolomeo Colleoni, Venetian captain-general for twenty years, garrisoning the western frontiers of the Venetian state from his base at Malpaga; Federigo da Montefeltro, the most famed and trusted soldier of his day, Duke of Urbino, commander of the papal army, sought after in every emergency; Roberto da Sanseverino, linked to the Sforza but a brooding spirit with a progeny of ambitious soldier sons whose restlessness added to the tensions of the period; the rising generation of leaders who were to play a prominent part in the Italian Wars after 1494, Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, Niccolò Orsini Count of Pitigliano, Francesco Gonzaga. These were all condottieri; they continued to receive contracts of employment from states within which they had not been born, but nevertheless it is increasingly difficult to describe their role as that of mercenaries.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.