Medieval Free Companies I

The free companies of 100 Years War soldiers made redundant by the truce of Bordeaux and the Treaty of Bretigny and later by the truce of Tours. Although many of the companies of the first phase went back into their own nation’s service when the war broke out again, some that had moved to Italy stayed there and drifted into formal contractual relationships with Italian city states. Prominent among these were the English “White Company” under John Hawkwood, the German “Company of the Star” under Albrecht Sterz and Hannekin Bongarten, and the Breton and Gascon company of Bertrand de la Salle. They were gradually replaced by native Italian condottieri, the last to disappear being the Company of the Rose in 1410.

Mercenaries who lost their jobs as a result of the Treaty of Brétigny (1360) soon coalesced into the Great Companies. One of the most famous of these mercenary companies was the White Company, led by the English chieftain John Hawkwood. Chandos Herald tells how, in 1367, the Black Prince used mercenaries effectively in the civil war in Spain. The conversation between the colorful mercenary commander the Bascot de Mauléon and the chronicler Froissart in 1388, and the battles of Brignais (1362) and Grunwald/Tannenberg (1410) are also covered below.

The Great Companies were newly-minted military units, drawn from the many thousands of experienced but out-of-work mercenaries who were trying to survive after the Treaty of Brétigny between the kings of England and France in 1360.1 By the spring of 1362, the process of evacuating fortresses and transforming territories between England and France was nearly finished. However, the unforeseen result was that many of the disbanded forces quickly became independent companies under new captains. When they joined forces, they were sufficiently powerful not only to seize well-defended fortresses and towns, but also to undertake major engagements in the field.

These companies would remain active in much of Western Europe until the renewal, in 1369, of the war between England and France. The modern French scholar Jean Favier defines such a mercenary unit as follows:

A company consisted of from 50 to 200 men under the orders of a captain, who was both the organizer and executive officer of this military society and its leader in combat.

One of the best summaries of how the companies arose is that offered by the modern Italian scholar Franco Cardini. In an article first written in Italian, then translated into French, and now quoted here in an edited free translation into English, Cardini explains that two factors were at play in this process:

On the one hand, if businessmen, entrepreneurs, and bankers had now become the governing class, most notably in the urban communes of Italy, they did not have, despite all that, a style of life they found suitable to their new status. In fact, they remained fascinated by what could be called the ”knightly-courtesy” manner of life and were eager to duplicate it in their own city palaces and country estates. On the other hand, however, they did have to tend to business and thus could not afford to throw themselves into the periodic military expeditions which were popular at that time.

This state of affairs was the principal reason why companies of mercenaries multiplied in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. The leaders of these companies made all-inclusive offers to potential employers: they had their own weapons and their own equipment, which were immediately available and were more or less in good working order. But the fact that the mercenaries had to fight simply in order to live created real problems of its own.

In the first place, it was in their own interest to prolong conflicts: for them, peace meant idleness and poverty. Thus the battles the mercenaries fought were never decisive. By mutual agreement, commanders tried to reduce their manpower losses and the expense of fighting. Finally, in times of peace, the mercenary companies became terrible bands of brigands. For these reasons, even when they had no military need to do so, governments preferred to prolong wars indefinitely and to pay the high price of hiring mercenaries: it was much better to pay this price rather than letting the mercenaries roam around freely without any money.

There was no single overall organization or individual guiding the formation of the Great Companies, which were simply larger versions of existing mercenary companies. About 166 mercenary captains are known to have commanded companies operating in or from France during the decade after 1360; 91 of these men are referred to in contemporary sources as being the captains of one or another of the Great Companies. (Of these 91 commanders, eight are known to have died in battle, one was poisoned, and one was executed.) Thus there were at least 91 Great Companies and may possibly have been even more.

The formation of these companies was a spontaneous, need-driven process. Mercenaries were of many “nationalities” (to use a modern term)—for example, Italian, German, Hungarian, Spanish, Greek, Albanian, French, Swiss, English, and Scottish. They enlisted under commanders who they hoped could win battles and who would pay them well. As the modern scholar Guido Guerri dall’Oro explains,

The effectiveness of the mercenary companies was chiefly a function of their organizational skills, of their strict discipline, and of their military competence. These features made them superior in combat when compared to the heavy cavalry of the aristocrats, who in general aspired only for personal glory and who knew nothing at all about the rules, the tactics, and the techniques of war….

Pay for the mercenaries: that was the essential thing. To hire mercenaries was not hard to do; to pay them regularly, whether one won or lost a given battle, was indeed hard to do. If an employer could not honor his contract with mercenaries, his problems began then and there….

There is no single, definitive figure on the total strength of the Great Companies. Their numerical strength was in fact a function of the number of mercenary bands that could be recruited for a given operation, and on the size of each band. Contemporary sources, however, do give some rough indications about how many men could be involved.

We will soon meet, for example, a memorable Basque mercenary, the Bascot (or Bastot) de Mauléon. Both variants of this title mean “a soldier of fortune.” In an interview in 1388 with Froissart, the Bascot indicated that 12,000 men had been available in 1360 after the conclusion of peace at Brétigny; of these, 3,000 to 4,000 were, he added, “really fine soldiers.” The rest, it must be assumed, were rank and file mercenaries with no special skills but were competent fighters nonetheless.

In 1363, the governor of the regions of Berry and Auvergne estimated the strength of the companies who congregated around the city of Brioude during the week after its capture at 2,000 lances (as indicated earlier, a “lance” was a three-man combat team), plus 1,000 mounted archers and infantrymen.8 The mercenary companies sent into Spain by the French and the English in 1366–1367 probably included around 3,000 men-at-arms.9 In a letter written in 1367 by King Peter IV of Aragon to the governor of Roussillon, the king said that a rival noble had recruited 13 captains of the companies then serving with the Black Prince; these captains commanded a total of 1,600 lances.10 Froissart says that when war between England and France broke out again in 1369, some 4,500 mercenaries joined the armies of these protagonists.

Here is a sampling of what some contemporary observers had to say about the Companies:

• The author of the Grandes Chroniques de France says that “At that time [November 1360], there were great numbers of English and others in Brie and Champagne, who ravaged all the countryside, killing and ransoming men, and doing all the evil they could, of whom some called themselves the Great Company.”

• Froissart mentions gatherings of such men in Burgundy and Champagne, some of which were known as les Tards-Venus (“the Latecomers”) because they were foraging in provinces that had already been stripped by other mercenaries.

• The Carmelite friar Jean de Venette says that “these sons of Belial [i.e., these sons of lawlessness] and men of iniquity [were] warriors from various lands who assailed other men with no hope of right and no reason other than their own passions, iniquity and hope of gain, and yet were called the Great Company.”

• The monk Henry Knighton had this to say about the Anglo-German company commanded by Albert Sterz:

At this time [late 1361] was organized a certain company of strong men called the Company of Fortune [Societas fortunae; later it became known as “the White Company” and is covered at greater length later], which some called the Great Company. It was composed of men from different parts, who, now that there was peace between the two kingdoms [England and France], had no means of livelihood other than through their own efforts. They were bold and warlike fellows, experienced and strenuous, who congregated together from different nations, and who lived by war, since in time of peace they had nothing.”

• An institution’s own interests could strongly influence its views on mercenaries. For example, when the famous English mercenary John Hawkwood fought for Milan against the papal armies in 1371, the pope denounced him as being “a son of Belial.” But, the next year, when Hawkwood sided with the pope and won several battles, he was praised as being “an athlete of God and a faithful Christian knight.”

It should not be a surprise to learn that being the commander of a Great Company could be a very hazardous calling. Consider, for example, what happened to a previously-successful mercenary leader named Guillaume Pot (also known as Guillemin Pot or Guillampot) in 1364. This account comes from a letter written by Guillaume de Clugny, the bailli of Auxois (a bailli was a local administrative officer in northern France), to the ducal council:

Very dear and good friends, on Wednesday [18 September 1364] Guillemin Pot, who was lodged at Maisières, was passing by Beaune with 120 good lances and at least 100 other combatants, not counting the pillagers. As soon as they had passed we mounted our horses and pursued them until we took four or five of their men-at-arms and some 30 pillagers, who were killed, hung or taken prisoner, the others returning to their quarters.

We then continued our journey to Dijon, as was our intention, and this Thursday morning the marshal [i.e., Gui de Pontallier, the marshal of Burgundy] sent 15 glaives [a glaive was a polearm, that is, a single-edged blade mounted on a pole, but the word is probably used here to mean “a well-armed soldier”] to form an ambush on the road they [Pot’s mercenaries] would have to take, but it was discovered and the entire route [Pot’s mercenaries] fell upon our men, who fled to Givrey, where they fought for a long time at the barriers…

…and while passing between Rouvres and Dijon we fell upon them [i.e., upon Pot’s band] … and with God’s help they were defeated and either killed [in the engagement], taken prisoner or put to death. And Guillemin Pot and others of his route have been taken prisoner to Dijon.

Pot was released under certain stringent conditions which required him not to act illegally, but he subsequently ignored them and returned to his old ways. He was recaptured by a Burgundian knight in October 1364 while raiding merchants who were attending a fair at Chalon. The knight handed him over to the duke’s officers for a reward of 200 livres (the approximate price of a good sword]. Pot was then executed. His head was pilloried in the main square of the town, where it remained on pubic view for some eight months before being carried off by another mercenary company as a ghastly souvenir.

Popes were concerned not only about the wanton destruction inflicted on the countryside by the Great Companies but also because these bands jeopardized papal supply lines and the constant flow of clergy, bankers, and courtiers going to and from Avignon, the current seat of papal power. (From 1309 to 1378, the years of the Avignon Papacy, the papacy was based in Avignon, not in Rome.) Urban V, for example, issued three bulls against the companies. The first was Cogit nos (27 February 1364), which provided spiritual support for the anti-mercenary forces of Languedoc. It stated in part:

The wickedness of our age, in which the sons of iniquity have multiplied and, fired by the flames of their own greed, are dishonestly attempting to gorge themselves on the labour of others, and for that reason rage the more cruelly against the innocent peoples, compels us to draw on the resources of the apostolic power to counter their evil stratagems and to strive with even greater energy and effectiveness to organise the defense of these peoples, especially of those whom the wicked men have so far attacked, and are now attacking.

This bull called on princes and other leaders to fight against the mercenaries, and offered a plenary indulgence for two years to those who were killed in such battles. (An indulgence is the full or partial remission of spiritual punishment for sins which have already been confessed and forgiven.)

The second bull, Miserabilis nonnullorum (27 May 1364), was also cast in terms designed to isolate the companies. The pope ordered them, under threat of excommunication, immediately (i.e., within one month) to disband their troops, to surrender the places they were occupying, and to repair the damage they had done. Clerics and laymen alike were forbidden to join them, hire them, or favor them in any way. Anyone who provided them with money, food, horses, arms, carts, boats, and any other provisions or merchandise, or who aided or advised them in any way whatsoever, would also be excommunicated. Bishops were ordered to report the names of the mercenaries and their accomplices so that action could be taken against them. A plenary indulgence was granted to anti-mercenary forces if they were killed in action.

The third bull, Clamat ad nos (5 April 1365), focused on those who hired and led the mercenary companies, as well as on those who joined or supported them. It provided that all towns, villages, and individuals who negotiated with the companies and who paid protection money to them would be dealt with severely. It appears, however, that these bulls had little if any real impact on the ground, though some mercenary captains did take advantage of these opportunities to get absolution for their many sins.

Mercenary commanders were well-known and were often feared in their own times, but probably the most famous of the lot was the Englishman John Hawkwood (d. 1394). Variously said to have been the second son of an Essex tanner or the son of a tailor, Hawkwood served initially in the English army in France during the early stages of the Hundred Years’ War. He reportedly fought in the battles of Crécy and/or Poitiers but was demobilized after the Treaty of Brétigny in 1360. Moving to Italy, he served with the White Company (discussed below)—a group English and German mercenaries under the command of Albert Sterz. In 1361 he joined the small mercenary groups known as the free companies and later served with the Great Company when it fought against papal troops near Avignon. By 1365, he had risen to become the commander of the White Company, a mercenary force so named either because of reflections from the men’s brightly-polished plate armor or because the men originally wore white surcoats over their armor.

This job paid him very well. Income data for the 1360s are not readily available but an idea of wages then can be formed by looking at some of the comparable incomes in Florence in 1390. At a time when the estimated subsistence level for a man was 3 soldi per day, earnings were as follows:

   Typical construction worker—9.4 soldi per day

   Farm laborer roughly—9.4 soldi per day

   Spinner of wool cloth—12.17 soldi per day

   Master builder—17.1 soldi per day

In that year, Hawkwood’s salary was 37,500 soldi per month—a sum 72 times greater than the wage of a master builder and more than 140 times greater than that of a construction worker. Most of his troops were paid adequately but not handsomely. For example, a lance unit, consisting of three men with three horses to maintain, earned a total of 44 soldi per day. Crossbowmen earned 9.7 soldi per day. However, common infantrymen with no special skills were paid only 3.8 soldi per day.

Medieval Warfare VIII.1

Theme: John Hawkwood in Italy

  • William Caferro, ‘An English mercenary in Italy – The career of John Hawkwood’.
  • David Balfour, ‘The massacres at Faenza and Cesena – The dark side of a hero’.
  • Sean Manning, ‘The merchant of Prato’s little secret – Hidden protections’.
  • Nick Bohmann, ‘Why did city-states hire mercenaries – The dilemma’.
  • Niccolò Capponi and Kelly DeVries, ‘Hawkwood’s greatest victory – The Battle of Castagnaro’.


  • Kay Smith and Ruth R. Brown, ‘Many questions with few answers – The longbow’.
  • Michael Livingston, ‘If it even happened – The Battle of Hyddgen, 1401’.
  • Joanna Phillips, ‘Why sieges were hard on your health – Besieging bodies’.
  • Georgios Theotokis, ’11th century Norman mercenaries in the Mediterranean – Fame, faith, and fortune’.
  • Murray Dahm, ‘Swords for hire, Hollywood style – Condottieri on film’.

The White Company was composed of many different nationalities, e.g., Germans, Italians, Englishmen, and Hungarians. At its high point in 1361, it could field about 3,500 cavalrymen and 2,000 infantrymen (the latter term also includes the archers); at its low point in 1388, it had shrunk down to a mere 250 men. In its glory days, it was based on the “lances” of three men: a man-at-arms, a squire, and an unarmed page. A group of lances, known as a contingent, was under the command of a corporal, who was frequently an independent sub-contractor. As befitting a tightly-run military organization, the White Company also had an effective administrative staff, consisting of Italian chancellors (men trained in law), Italian notaries, and an English treasurer.

The Florentine chronicler Filippo Villani remarked that if the Company had any military failings, it was only an “excessive boldness,” i.e., aggressiveness, which made the men restless and encouraged them to set up camp “in poor order.” Villani makes it very clear that these men were not angels. The modern scholar William Caferro, quoting contemporary sources, says this:

The band’s first moves on Italian soil were intensely brutal. It entered the Piedmont region setting fires, looting, raping women, maiming non-combatants, and mistreating prisoners. Azario called them “better thieves than any others who have preyed on Lombardy.” Villani said they were “young, hot and eager” and “accustomed to homicides and robbery, current in the use of iron [i.e., the use of swords and other metal weapons], having little personal cares.” Azario describes how the band shut captives in boxes and threatened to drown them to hasten payment of ransoms, how the band systematically dismembered victims, beginning with the hands, then the nose, the ears; the trunks of the corpses were left in ditches outside the castles to be eaten by dogs.

The White Company introduced into Italy a practice already common in France during the battles of the Hundred Years’ War: sending dismounted men-at-arms into battle. When so doing, the Company fought dismounted and in close order, walking forward at a slow pace, often with two men-at-arms holding the same very long spear and bellowing battle cries. The archers followed close behind them. The Milanese writer Azario describes the Company’s battle formation in these terms:

[The soldiers had dismounted from their horses, which were held by pages during battles, and fought on foot.] They had very large lances with very long iron tips. Mostly two, sometimes three of them, handled a single lance so heavy and big that there was nothing it would not penetrate. Behind them, toward the posterior of the formation, were the archers, with great bows which they held from their head to the ground [i.e., the bows were as long as a man is high] and from which they shot great and long arrows.

The White Company would fight under many employers and would change sides whenever this seemed profitable. In 1369, Hawkwood fought for Perugia against the forces of the Pope; in 1370 he joined Bernabò Visconti, the Duke of Milan, in a war against an alliance of cities, including Pisa and Florence; in 1372 he fought for Visconti against his former master, the Marquis of Monferrato; then he resigned his command and the White Company served the Pope for a time.

The White Company distinguished itself as the best force in Italy. In 1363, when the city of Pisa was at war with Florence, its neighbor and rival, and needed more troops, the Florentines were unwilling to pay the very high price demanded by the White Company for its mercenaries, but Pisa was. The Florentine poet Antono Pucci captured this moment in verse to decide whether “the lion,” i.e., Florence, knew more than “the fox,” i.e., Pisa:

In Lombardy there was a band

that was called the White Company

so cruel and with every vice

that it had worn out all of Lombardy.

Florence … refused it [i.e., Florence refused to pay the White Company], and the fox embraced it.