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.


Battle of Płowce

Battle of Płowce, fought between Kingdom of Poland and Teutonic Order. Despite the Polish victory on the field, the battle is traditionally regarded as inconclusive given that the Teutonic Order was not destroyed . Nevertheless, it was an important battle for Poland, which was just regaining its stature as a country on the international scene, and held its own against a powerful military force.

The Battle of Płowce took place on 27 September 1331 between the Kingdom of Poland and the Teutonic Order.

The period of Polish history is known as the Division in the Provinces, and lasted from 1138 to 1320. This long era of fragmentation was characterized by a decline of part-time militias in favour of professional – or at least, better-trained – household and local troops. It was upon these that the rulers of Poland now relied. It was also during this period, from the mid-12th to early 14th century, that a true Polish knightly class emerged as part of a gradually developing feudal system of government and social organization. Furthermore, in 1154-55 the crusading military orders – the Hospitallers and Templars – gained their first footholds on Polish soil. Later in this notably turbulent period the Teutonic Knights joined the older established military orders, arriving on the scene in 1226, almost simultaneously with the foundation of the specifically Polish Brethren of Dobrzyn (Knights of Christ). Then came the Mongol invasions, with raids deep into Europe that culminated in the battle of Liegnitz/Legnica in 1241.

The 14th century saw the reunification of Poland under the rule of King Wladyslaw I Lokietek, who came to the throne in 1320. He was faced with numerous opponents and experienced the ups and downs typical of all medieval power struggles; but the main challenge to the Polish monarchy remained that posed by the Teutonic Order in Prussia and Livonia. This religio-military order, though defeated at the battle of Plowce in 1331, continued to be a significant military power that the Polish kings could not ignore. Consequently, the main aim of Wladyslaw I Lokietek’s son and successor Casimir III ‘the Great’ was to further consolidate the military and economic strength of the kingdom that Wladyslaw had effectively rebuilt. It is worth noting that, despite Casimir the Great’s brilliant campaigns – including the conquest of Galich Vladimir in 1340-66 – he is primarily remembered in Polish history as one of the country’s greatest administrators and fortifiers, and a remarkable number of castles and other strongpoints were constructed during his reign.

As a consequence of his relatively peaceful reign. King Casimir III went down in Polish history as one of the country’s greatest administrators and castle-builders; about 80 strongholds were constructed during his time.

The Battle

The Teutonic Order attempted to take Brześć Kujawski after standing all day in the sun. The German army from the Teutonic Order had 7,000 men, and was opposed by a Polish army of 5,000 men. On 27 September 1331, one-third of the Teutonic Order’s force of knights under Dietrich von Altenburg left the blockaded peasant town of Płowce. The Poles, under Władyslaw Łokietek (Władysław I the Elbow-high) and his son Casimir, immediately attacked in a frontal assault. They were immediately joined by Polish detachments hiding in a forest to the left of the town. Reportedly, during the first phase of the battle Prince Casimir was ordered to depart so as not to deprive the Polish Kingdom of the presumptive heir. Despite this, in three hours the Teutonic knights had been defeated and their leader captured. The Polish forces were victorious in this phase of the battle, took prisoner 56 knights, and freed many Polish captives.

However, upon hearing the sounds of battle from Płowce, rear elements of the German formations rushed to aid their fellow knights, and soon another third of the Teutonic Order’s forces arrived. The long and bloody battle resumed and continued until dark, with high casualties on both sides. Poland scored a clear victory, with Reuss von Plauen, commander of the German army, and another 40 knights taken prisoner by the Poles. After fleeing Płowce, the knights withdrew to Toruń (Thorn).

Despite the Polish victory on the field, the battle is traditionally regarded as inconclusive given that the Teutonic Order was not destroyed . Nevertheless, it was an important battle for Poland, which was just regaining its stature as a country on the international scene, and held its own against a powerful military force.


An estimated over 4,000 men (combined) were said to have fallen on the field of the battle. Of these, 73 were Knight Brothers of the Teutonic Order (the highest-ranking members of the Order). Over one half of the dead were Germans, who had to retreat back to Toruń, their death toll climbing to one third of all their knights taking part in the war. The Polish armies, also suffering heavy casualties, did not follow the retreating Germans.

Teutonic Knights’ War with Poland of 1309-43

Gdansk, 1308; Plowce, 1331; Reval, 1343

Poland called on the Order of the Teutonic Knights to assist in resisting the attack of Brandenburg against the Polish territory of Pomerelia (eastern Pomerania). The knights, who had acquired control of Prussia in the five decade-long TEUTONIC KNIGHTS’ CONQUEST OF PRUSSIA, eagerly entered the conflict, driving the Brandenburgers out of Pomerelia; in 1309, the order seized the territory for itself, including the key port city of Danzig (Gdansk, Poland). In taking Danzig, the knights attacked not only Brandenburgers but also Polish troops and Danzig civilians. To consolidate the claim on Danzig and the order’s control over it, the Teutonic grand master established his principal home and headquarters in a castle, Marienburg, adjacent to the city.

Having warded off Brandenburger occupation of Pomerelia, Ladislas I (1260-1333) of Poland lost the region-the only direct Polish access to the sea-to the Order of the Teutonic Knights. He attempted to persuade the pope-Clement V (1264-1314, reigned from 1305) and John XXII (1249-1334, reigned from 1316)-in whose service the knights had pledged themselves, to intervene. In the meantime, Ladislas concluded an alliance with Lithuania, longtime enemy of the knights. However, in 1331, Bohemian forces threatened Poland, and Ladislas focused his attention there. Taking advantage of the situation, the Teutonic Knights marched into Poland in 1331 and again in 1332. The Poles prevailed against the invaders at the Battle of Plowce on September 27, 1331, but this did not block the knights’ advance. The order continued to raid and ravage territory throughout northwestern Poland. In some areas, the knights seized and occupied territory.

In 1333, Casimier III (the Great; 1309-70) succeeded to the Polish throne on the death of Ladislas I and, 10 years later, concluded the Treaty of Kalisz, by which Poland regained the territory it had lost in exchange for giving the Teutonic Knights control of Pomerelia.

Further reading: Helen J. Nicholson, Templars, Hospitallers, and Teutonic Knights: Images of Military Orders, 1128-1291 (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993); Adam Zamoyski, The Polish Way: A Thousand-Year History of the Poles and Their Culture (New York: F. Watts, 1988).


Early medieval Europeans received from their predecessors two broad ranges of wooden shipbuilding traditions, one in the Mediterranean and the other in the northern seas. At the same time Chinese shipwrights had already developed the central features of the design of the junk. Its watertight compartments, adjustable keel, and highly flexible number of masts each carrying a lug sail with battens, made the junk a highly versatile and reliable seagoing ship. Junks by the year 1000 were much larger than any ships in Europe or in the great oceanic area where a Malaysian shipbuilding tradition predominated. There, ocean-going rafts with outriggers or twin hulls and rigged with, at first, bipole masts ranged much more widely than vessels from any other part of the world carrying the designs and building practices across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar and around the Pacific Ocean to the islands of Polynesia. Along the shores of the Arabian Sea shipbuilders constructed dhows, relatively shallow cargo vessels rigged with a single triangular or lateen sail. The planks of the hulls were typically sewn together with pieces of rope, a loose system which made the hull flexible, and so able to handle rough seas, but not very watertight. There were also serious limitations on how big such hulls could be built, unlike junks where vessels of one thousand tons and more seem to have been feasible.

Mediterranean Practice

Roman shipbuilders followed Greek practices in building their hulls with mortise and tenon joints. Wedges or tenons were placed in cavities or mortises gouged out of the planks and held in place by wooden nails passed through the hull planks and the tenons. In the Roman Empire the methods of fastening predominated on all parts of ships, including the decks, and the tenons were very close to each other. The resulting hull was extremely strong, heavy, and sturdy so the internal framing was minimal. The hull was also very watertight but even so the surface was often covered with wax or even copper sheathing to protect it from attack by shipworm (Teredo navalis). Propulsion came from a single square sail stepped near the middle of the ship. Often the mainsail was supplemented with a small square sail slung under the bowsprit. Roman shipbuilders produced vessels of two general categories, round ships with length-to-breadth ratios of about 3:1 propelled entirely by sails, and galleys with length-to-breadth ratios of about 5:1 propelled both by the standard rig and by oars. Although it was possible to have multiple banks of rowers, in the Roman Empire there was typically only one, with each rower handling a single oar. Shipbuilders gave all those vessels at least one but often two side rudders for control.

As the economy declined in the early Middle Ages and the supply of skilled labor was reduced, the quality of shipbuilding deteriorated. The distance between mortise and tenon joints increased, and on the upper parts of hulls such joints disappeared entirely with planks merely pinned to internal frames. The trend led by the end of the first millennium C.E. to a new form of hull construction. Instead of relying on the exterior hull for strength, shipbuilders transferred the task of maintaining the integrity of the vessel to the internal frame. The process of ship construction as a result reversed, with the internal ribs set up first and then the hull planks added. The planks were still fitted end-to-end as with the old method but now to maintain watertightness they needed to be caulked more extensively and more regularly. The internal frames gave shape to the hull so their design became much more important. The designer of those frames in turn took on a significantly higher status, the hewers of the planks a lesser position. The new type of skeleton-first construction made for a lighter and more flexible ship which was easier to build, needed less wood, but required more maintenance. Increasing the scale of the ship or changing the shape of the hull was now easier. Builders used the new kind of construction both on large sailing round ships and oared galleys.

In the course of the early Middle Ages Mediterranean vessels went through a change in rigging as well. Triangular lateen sails were in use in classical Greece and Rome for small vessels. As big ships disappeared with the decline of the Roman Empire and economy the lateen sail came to dominate and square sails all but disappeared. Lateen sails had the advantage of making it possible to sail closer to the wind. Lateen sails had the disadvantage that when coming about, that is changing course by something of the order of ninety degrees, the yard from which the sail was hung had to be moved to the other side of the mast. In order to do that the yard had to be carried over the top of the mast, which was a clumsy, complex, and manpower-hungry operation. There was a limitation then on the size of sails and thus on the size of ships. It was possible to add a second mast, which shipbuilders often did both on galleys and on round ships since that was the only way to increase total sail area.

Northern European Practice

Shipbuilders around the Baltic and North Seas in the early Middle Ages produced a variety of different types of vessels which were the ancestors of a range of craft that melded together over the years to create one principal kind of sailing ship. The rowing barge was a simple vessel with overlapping planking. The planks could be held fast by ropes but over time shipbuilders turned to wooden nails or iron rivets for the purpose. That type of lapstrake construction for hulls meant that internal ribs were of little importance in strengthening the hull. At first shipwrights used long planks running from bow to stern but they discovered that by scarfing shorter pieces together not only did they eliminate a constraint on the length of their vessels but they also increased the flexibility of the hulls. At some point, probably in the eighth century, the rowing barge got a real keel and also a single square sail on a single mast stepped in the middle of the ship. The new type, with both ends looking much the same, was an effective open ocean sailor. Scandinavian shipbuilders produced broadly two versions of what can be called the Viking ship after its most famous users. One version was low, and fitted with oars and a mast that could be taken down or put up quickly and with a length-to-breadth ratio of 5:1 or 6:1. The other version had a fixed mast, few if any oars at the bow and stern which were there just to help in difficult circumstances, and a length-to-breadth ratio of around 3:1. Both types had a single side rudder which apparently gave a high degree of control. The Viking ship evolved into a versatile cargo ship which was also effective as a military transport and warship. Often called a keel because of one of the features which allowed it to take to the open ocean, it was produced in variations throughout northern Europe and along the Atlantic front as far south as Iberia.

The other types that came from early medieval northern shipyards were more limited in size and complexity. The hulk had a very simple system of planking which gave way over time to lapstrake construction. The hull had the form of a banana and there was no keel so it proved effective in use on rivers and in estuaries. The hull planks, because of the shape of the hull, met at the bow in a unique way and were often held in place by tying them together. Rigging was a single square sail on a single mast which could be, in the case of vessels designed for river travel, set well forward. The cog had a very different form from the hulk. While the planks on the sides overlapped there was a sharp angle between those side planks and the ones on the bottom. Those bottom planks were placed end-to-end and the floor was virtually flat. With posts at either end almost vertical the hull was somewhat box-like. The type was suited to use on tidal flats where it could rest squarely on the bottom when the tide was out, be unloaded and loaded, and then float off when the tide came in. There was a single square sail on a single mast placed in the middle of the ship. The design certainly had Celtic origins but it was transformed by shipwrights in the High Middle Ages to make it into the dominant cargo and military vessel of the North.

Shipbuilders, possibly in the Low Countries, gave the cog a keel. In doing that they also made changes in the form of the hull, overlapping the bottom planks and modifying the sharp angles between the bottom and side planks. The result was a still box-like hull which had greater carrying capacity per unit length than keels. The cog could also be built higher than its predecessors but that meant passing heavy squared timbers through from one side to the other high in the ship to keep the sides in place. Shipbuilders fitted the hull planks into the heavy posts at the bow and stern and also fixed a rudder to the sternpost which was more stable than a side rudder. In the long run it would prove more efficient as well. Cogs could be and were made much larger than other contemporary vessels. Greater size meant a need for a larger sail and a larger crew to raise it. To get more sail area sailors added a bonnet, an extra rectangular piece of canvas that could be temporarily sewn to the bottom of the sail. That gave the mariners greater flexibility in deploying canvas without increasing manning requirements. Riding higher in the water and able to carry larger numbers of men than other contemporary types cogs became the standard vessels of northern naval forces, doubling as cargo ships in peacetime.

While the two shipbuilding traditions of the Mediterranean and northern Europe remained largely isolated through the early and High Middle Ages, from the late thirteenth century both benefited from extensive contact and borrowing of designs and building methods. Sailors in southern Europe used the cog certainly by the beginning of the fourteenth century and probably earlier. Shipwrights in the Mediterranean appreciated the advantages of greater carrying capacity but they were also conscious of the limitations set by the simple rig. They added a second mast near the stern and fitted it with a lateen sail. They also changed the form of hull construction, going over to skeleton-first building. The result was the carrack, in use by the late fourteenth century. It was easier to build, probably lighter than a cog of the same size, and could be built bigger. Most of all the two masts and the presence of a triangular sail gave mariners greater control over their vessels and made it possible for them to sail closer to the wind. The next logical step, taken sometime around the end of the fourteenth century, was to add a third small mast near the bow to balance the one at the stern. The driving sail and principal source of propulsion was still the mainsail on the mainmast but the combination or full-rig made ships more maneuverable and able to sail in a greater variety of conditions. While older forms of ships, such as the keel or the cog or the lateen-rigged cargo ship of the Mediterranean, did not by any means disappear, the full-rigged ship came to dominate exchange over longer distances, especially in the form of the full-rigged carrack travelling between southern and northern Europe. Northern Europeans were slow to adapt to skeleton-first hull construction, in some cases even combining old methods with the new one. By the end of the fifteenth century the full-rigged ship was the preferred vessel for many intra-European trades, in part because of its handling qualities, in part because of its versatility, and in part because its crew size could be reduced per ton of goods carried compared to other types. The greater range also led to its replacing, for example, the simpler, lower, lateen-rigged caravel in Portuguese voyages of exploration along the west coast of Africa. Full-rigged ships in daily use were the choice for voyages of exploration and became in the Renaissance the vehicles for European domination of the ocean seas and for the resulting international trading connections and colonization.


The Arabian Peninsula, surrounded by the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf, had a geostrategic position in relations between East and West. Before the beginning of Islam in 622 the Arabs had had some nautical experience which was reflected in the Qur’an (VI, 97: “It is He who created for you the stars, so that they may guide you in the darkness of land and sea”; XIV, 32: “He drives the ships which by His leave sail the ocean in your service”; XVI, 14: “It is He who has subjected to you the ocean so that you may eat of its fresh fish and you bring up from it ornaments with which to adorn your persons. Behold the ships plowing their course through it.”) and in ancient poetry (some verses of the poets Tarafa, al-A‘sha’, ‘Amr Ibn Kulthum, and others). Arabs used the sea for transporting goods from or to the next coasts and for the exploitation of its resources (fish, pearls, and coral). However, their experience in maritime matters was limited due to the very rugged coastline of Arabia with its many reefs and was limited to people living on the coast. Because they lacked iron, Arab shipwrights did not use nails, but rather secured the timbers with string made from palm tree thread, caulked them with oakum from palm trees, and covered them with shark fat. This system provided the ships with the necessary flexibility to avoid the numerous reefs. The Andalusi Ibn Jubayr and the Magribi Ibn Battuta confirm these practices in the accounts of their travels that brought them to this area in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, respectively. Ibn Battuta also notes that in the Red Sea people used to sail only from sunrise to sunset and by night they brought the ships ashore because of the reefs. The captain, called the rubban, always stood at the bow to warn the helmsman of reefs.

The regularity of the trade winds, as well as the eastward expansion of Islam, brought the Arabs into the commercial world of the Indian Ocean, an experience that was reflected in a genre of literature which mixes reality and fantasy. Typical are the stories found in the Akhbar al-Sin wa-l-Hind (News of China and India) and ’Aja’ib al-Hind (Wonders of India), as well as the tales of Sinbad the Sailor from the popular One Thousand and One Nights. But medieval navigation was also reflected in the works of the pilots such as *Ahmad Ibn Majid (whose book on navigation has been translated into English) and Sulayman al-Mahri.

In the Mediterranean Sea

The conquests by the Arabs of Syria and Egypt in the seventh century gave them access to the Mediterranean, which they called Bahr al-Rum (Byzantine Sea) or Bahr al-Sham (Syrian Sea). Nautical conditions were very different in this sea: irregular but moderate winds, no heavy swells, and a mountainous coastline that provided ample visual guides for the sailors on days with good visibility. The Arabs took advantage of the pre-existing nautical traditions of the Mediterranean peoples they defeated. In addition, we have evidence for the migration of Persian craftsmen to the Syrian coast to work in ship building, just as, later on, some Egyptian craftsmen worked in Tunisian shipyards.

The Arab conquests of the Iberian Peninsula (al-Andalus) and islands such as Sicily, Crete, and Cyprus set off a struggle between Christian and Muslim powers for control of the Mediterranean for trade, travel, and communications in general. Different Arab states exercised naval domination of the Mediterranean, especially during the tenth century. According to the historian Ibn Khaldun, warships were commanded by a qa’id, who was in charge of military matters, armaments, and soldiers, and a technical chief, the ra’is, responsible for purely naval tasks. As the Arabs developed commercial traffic in Mediterranean waters, they developed a body of maritime law which was codified in the Kitab Akriyat al-sufun (The Book of Chartering Ships). From the end of the tenth century and throughout the eleventh, Muslim naval power gradually began to lose its superiority.

In navigation technique, the compass reached al-Andalus by the eleventh century, permitting mariners to chart courses with directions added to the distances of the ancient voyages. The next step was the drawing of navigational charts which were common by the end of the thirteenth century. Ibn Khaldun states that the Mediterranean coasts were drawn on sheets called kunbas, used by the sailors as guides because the winds and the routes were indicated on them.

In the Atlantic Ocean

The Atlantic coasts of Europe and Africa, despite their marginal situation with respect to the known world at that time, had an active maritime life. The Arabs usually called this Ocean al-Bahr al-Muhit (“the Encircling or Surrounding Sea”), sometimes al-Bahr al-Azam (“the Biggest Sea”), al-Bahr al-Akhdar (“the Green Sea”) or al-Bahr al-Garbi (“the Western Sea”) and at other times al-Bahr al-Muzlim (“the Gloomy Sea”) or Bahr al-Zulumat (“Sea of Darkness”), because of its numerous banks and its propensity for fog and storms. Few sailors navigated in the open Atlantic, preferring to sail without losing sight of the coast. The geographer *al-Idrisi in the middle of the twelfth century informs us so: “Nobody knows what there is in that sea, nor can ascertain it, because of the difficulties that deep fogs, the height of the waves, the frequent storms, the innumerable monsters that dwell there, and strong winds offer to navigation. In this sea, however, there are many islands, both peopled and uninhabited. No mariners dare sail the high seas; they limit themselves to coasting, always in sight of land.” Other geographers, including Yaqut and al-Himyari, mention this short-haul, cabotage style of navigation. Yaqut observes that, on the other side of the world, in the faraway lands of China, people did not sail across the sea either. And al-Himyari specifies that the Atlantic coasts are sailed from the “country of the black people” north to Brittany. In the fourteenth century, Ibn Khaldun attributed the reluctance of sailors to penetrate the Ocean to the inexistence of nautical charts with indications of the winds and their directions that could be used to guide pilots, as Mediterranean charts did. Nevertheless, Arab authors describe some maritime adventurers who did embark on voyages of exploration.

Fluvial Navigation

Only on the great rivers such as the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Nile and, in the West, the Guadalquivir was there significant navigation. It was common to establish ports in the estuaries of rivers to make use of the banks to protect the ships.

Nautical Innovations

Two important innovations used by the Arabs in medieval period are worthy of mention: the triangular lateen sail (also called staysail), and the sternpost rudder. The lateen sail made it possible to sail into the wind and was widely adopted in the Mediterranean Sea, in view of its irregular winds. The Eastern geographer Ibn Hawqal, in the tenth century, described seeing vessels in the Nile River that were sailing in opposite directions even though they were propelled by the same wind. To mount only one rudder in the sternpost which could be operated only by one person proved vastly more efficient that the two traditional lateral oars it replaced. Although some researchers assert that this type of rudder originated in Scandinavia and then diffused to the Mediterranean Sea, eventually reaching the Arabs, it is most likely a Chinese invention which, thanks to the Arabs, reached the Mediterranean.

Toward Astronomical Navigation

The Arabs made great strides in astronomical navigation in the medieval period. With the help of astronomical tables and calendars, Arab sailors could ascertain solar longitude at a given moment and, after calculating the Sun’s altitude as it comes through the Meridian with an astrolabe or a simple quadrant, they could know the latitude of the place they were in. At night, they navigated by the altitude of the Pole Star. For this operation Arab sailors in the Indian Ocean used a simple wooden block with a knotted string called the kamal which was used to take celestial altitudes. They also knew how to correct Pole Star observations to find the true North. Ibn Majid, for example, made this correction with the help of the constellation called Farqadan, which can only be seen in equatorial seas.

The determination of the longitude was a problem without a practical solution until the invention of the chronometer in the eighteenth century. Arab sailors probably may have used a sand clock to measure time, because they knew how to produce a type of glass that was not affected by weather conditions. So they could estimate the distance that the ship had already covered, even though speed could not be accurately determined. The navigational time unit used was called majra, which the geographer Abu l-Fida’ defines as “the distance that the ship covers in a day and a night with a following wind,” a nautical day that it is the rough equivalent of one hundred miles.


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Battle of La Rochelle (1372)

Battle of La Rochelle (1372), a Castillian fleet annihilate the English fleet at the early stages of the Hundred Years’ War by Giuseppe Rava.

King Charles’s reconquest had continued. Although the Mayor of Poitiers supported the English, its people opened the gates to du Guesclin in 1372 and the rest of Poitou soon followed its capital. In June the same year, off La Rochelle, a Castilian fleet defeated an English fleet under the Earl of Pembroke—the new Governor of Aquitaine—sending the ship carrying his troops’ pay to the bottom and taking the Earl back to Spain as a prisoner. In consequence the Mayor of La Rochelle overpowered the English garrison and admitted du Guesclin. The Constable also took Usson in the Auvergne, while the whole of the Angoumois and the Saintonge went over to the French. There were not enough English troops to provide adequate garrisons and the enemy seemed to be everywhere. The English strongholds in Normandy and Brittany were falling and even Guernsey was invaded by a French force under Evan of Wales (a member of the former ruling family of Gwynedd).

The Battle

The development of battle tactics are also clearly illustrated in the course of this encounter, which took place in June 1372 at a time when England’s military prowess was on the wane. Edward III was now old and had lost his wife, Philippa, probably to a recurrence of the plague in 1369. Both 1370 and 1371 had seen invasion scares, with the south-coast towns on alert for raiders, and stories circulating widely of large French fleets being gathered for a descent on the English coast. John of Gaunt was actively pursuing his ambitions in Spain and attempting to put together an expedition and a fleet for that purpose. In France itself, English forces in the southwest were under pressure. In these rather unpromising circumstances the young Earl of Pembroke was commissioned in April as royal lieutenant in Aquitaine. He finally left to take up his position in June, leading a small force of probably under twenty ships, mostly small transports, but with three large vessels as escorts. He had with him 224 knights, fifty-five esquires and eighty archers. He also received a large sum of money in gold and silver, about £12,000, so that he could recruit and pay an army of about three thousand men when he reached his destination.

The various chronicle accounts then differ markedly as to what then ensued. Froissart as usual has a stirring tale to tell, which also changed between the different versions of his work. The foremost English chronicles hardly mention the incident. The Anonimalle Chronicle merely states that ‘the young count set out towards Gascony with too few men to the great damage of England’. He encountered enemy ships and was captured along with some of his companions and others were killed.38 A French chronicle, the Chronique des Quatre Premiers Valois, explains that on 22 June the English squadron arrived off La Rochelle and found a force of Castilian galleys already barring their way. The English thought little of the Spanish and were not unduly disturbed. An action ensued with the crossbowmen on the galleys opposing the archers on the English sailing ships. At nightfall this was still inconclusive so the two fleets parted. The chronicle also implies at this point that low tide was around dusk, perhaps around 9pm. This chronicle is then adamant that at dawn the next day after the first attack the English were aground because of the falling tide. The galleys, drawing much less water, were still able to manoeuvre freely and attacked, this time using flaming arrows and pots of grease and oil to set the English ships on fire. Soon most of the English ships were alight, with terrified horses in the holds adding to the confusion and uproar. The earl’s vessel was grappled by no fewer than four galleys and despite fierce fighting on the deck those who remained alive were forced to surrender and were captured. The treasure intended to pay the army in Gascony also fell into enemy hands.

This account of the battle has generally been accepted, although there is some disagreement over whether the English ships went aground. The timing of the crucial tide changes must remain uncertain without precise information but it seems likely that the tide was ebbing from around 2–3am on the morning of 23 June so that at dawn when the Castilian attack went in this would soon be a problem for the English ships if they had anchored not far from the shore. More controversial is the effect of this battle. One historian has called it ‘the greatest defeat ever sustained by the English navy’. Another has claimed that the effect was, ‘to stimulate naval activity’. The most recent writer’s view is that ‘the loss of prestige incurred by this first major English defeat was incalculable.’ For most contemporary English chroniclers the most important matter was the capture of the Earl of Pembroke by the Spanish.

Despite the loss of ships in this disaster and the need to compensate the owners of three of the largest with grants of royal ships, a large fleet was raised later that same summer for an expedition to France, which came to nothing because of a long spell of adverse winds. There is also evidence that the fact that a galley fleet had destroyed one made up of sailing vessels lay behind the decision to set in train the building of more balingers and barges for the Crown. Feelers were also put out to both Genoa and Portugal in the hope that they might be able to provide galleys or oarsmen to power the new balingers. More generally, English military power was receding as Charles V of France reinvigorated his forces both on land and at sea; the era of English success and stunning victories seemed to have ended, as the enormous expense of the wars became more and more apparent to a people who had lost much of their enthusiasm for the whole endeavour.

English Naval Forces

The idea that all ships in the possession of Englishmen and able to go to sea made up the navy of England was deeply rooted in the minds of English monarchs and accepted by English seafarers. However reluctant they might be at times to obey a royal summons to serve the King and defend the realm with their vessels at sea, the existence of this principle was not questioned. English kings from at least the tenth century had at times also owned ships themselves and had used these in a variety of roles. The twists and turns of external circumstances and royal policy ensured that there was little continuity in the royal ownership of ships, or in the way they were financed or maintained. We have seen that some English kings devoted considerable time and energy to the well-being and the proper use of their ships, while others neglected them, or in fact disposed of them entirely. How did the rulers of other states approach the same problem of defending the dwellers on their coasts, their ports and their trade? How did they also attempt to supply the need for ships that could give a good account of themselves in war at sea?


Facing the North Sea and the Atlantic, the kingdom of France possessed, in theory, around 2500 kilometres of coastline, stretching from the estuary of the Zwyn in Flanders to Hendaye on the frontier with Castile. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, however, only the counties of Ponthieu and Artois on the north coast were ruled directly by the French king; other territories including Flanders, Normandy, Brittany, Poitou and Gascony were fiefs of the French Crown, but were ruled directly by dukes or counts who often followed their own policies. This was particularly the case with the territories which were ruled by the Kings of England as dukes, first of Normandy from the Conquest till c.1204 and from c.1417 to c.1450, and second of Gascony (also known as Aquitaine) from 1152, when the future Henry II of England married Eleanor of Aquitaine, till 1453. Brittany, under its own duke, also pursued independent policies until the last years of the fifteenth century, when the French king took over the direct rule of the duchy by marrying Anne, the heiress of the last duke in 1491. As a consequence of this situation, kings of France had taken little interest in maritime matters, until the collapse of English rule in northern France in the reign of King John extended their power over most of the Channel coast. The kings of France, initially Philip II Augustus, now had control over a coastline in the north of their kingdom with excellent ports, where maritime trade was on the rise, and where skilled and adventurous seamen could be found in large numbers. They also had the power to demand feudal service at sea from these mariners and their ships in much the same way as the English Crown could rely on its power to conscript ships and crews for royal fleets. As Michel Mollat put it, ‘Philip [II] did not have a fleet but he had ships’. It was a fleet raised in this manner which met with the English at the battle of Dover in 1217.

Sources for French naval forces

There are not, however, many surviving French equivalents of the letters patent, commissions and accounts which allow historians to examine in detail the fleets largely made up of conscripted merchant ships raised by English kings from the thirteenth century onwards. It is easier to find evidence of the measures taken by French kings to defend their coastline by fortifying ports and building castles, for example at Montreuilsur-Mer and Boulogne. After their control also extended by the mid thirteenth century to the coast of Poitou and Saintonge, the fortifications of the major port of La Rochelle were also strengthened, although it was not until 1345–47 that the twin towers which guard the harbour entrance were built. These still exist and the Tour St Nicholas, in particular, is a very imposing structure; the watch tower is more than 35m above sea level. A chain was stretched across the entrance to the harbour between the two towers on which cannon were also mounted. Harfleur had similar towers, while at Honfleur across the estuary of the Seine one tower was built by the French in the mid fourteenth century, and another built c.1430 when the town was ruled by the English.

Matilda of Tuscany (1046–1115)

The states of the Apennine Peninsula in the second half of the 11th century.

The name Matilda means “mighty in war.” The gran contessa Matilda of Tuscany (1046–1115) lived up to her name. According to military historian David Hay, she was not only the most powerful woman of her time but was among the best European military commanders of her day—high praise for a woman who at best plays a supporting role in general histories of the period.

Matilda was born in 1046, at the start of the “high middle ages,” a period when Europe was beginning to recover from the political and economic chaos left behind by the unraveling of the Roman Empire in the West. She was the daughter of Margrave Boniface II of Canossa and his second wife, Beatrice, who was the daughter of the Duke of Upper Lorraine and a military commander in her own right. Through Beatrice, Matilda was a cousin of the Holy Roman Emperors Henry III and Henry IV.

Her father’s assassination in 1052 and the subsequent deaths of her older siblings left Matilda the sole heir to extensive lands. She held much of the territory between northern Italy and Rome, including a system of fortresses that controlled access to the two main road systems across the Apennine Mountains. Although she was pressured twice into marriages that were politically advantageous to others, she kept control of her inheritance and the power that went with it at a time when it was not common for women to do so.

In 1076, a long-standing dispute between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire flamed into armed conflict. As the ruler of lands lying directly between the two greatest powers in Latin Christendom, Matilda was physically in the middle of things.

The Investiture Controversy was the culmination of several generations of conflict surrounding the relationship between religious and secular power in general and the relative power of the papacy and the Holy Roman emperor in particular. The issue at the heart of the controversy was who controlled appointments to church offices—and the wealth and power church officials wielded.

Unresolved issues regarding lay investiture of bishops came to a head with the consecration of the reformist monk Hildebrand as Pope Gregory VII in 1073. Secular rulers had long claimed the right to appoint bishops and abbots in their realms and to perform the ritual that installed them in office. Gregory initiated reforms throughout the church, including a ban on simony, aka trafficking in ecclesiastical offices. Gregory expanded the definition of simony to include lay investiture of bishops. His ban on lay investiture of bishops was not just a religious reform. It also struck at the power of secular leaders.

The routine appointment of the archbishop of Milan in 1075 provided the spark for ten years of war. Local reformers in Milan had elected a new archbishop, but after initially accepting the local choice, Emperor Henry IV attempted to install the chaplain of his Saxon campaign in the position instead. Gregory ordered Henry to stop interfering in church affairs. In January 1076, Henry pushed back. He called a council of German bishops and convinced them to depose Gregory. Gregory then excommunicated the emperor. For good measure, he excommunicated Henry’s most active supporters among the bishops.

The potential consequences for Henry were serious. In theory, excommunicating a monarch absolved his subjects from their obligation to obey him. In the Kingdom of Germany, where the monarch was elected by his peers, an excommunicated king could easily be deposed.

Henry discovered he had overestimated the strength of his position. Many of the German bishops backed away from Henry as fast as their ceremonial robes would allow and reconciled with the pope. With the validity of their oaths of allegiance in question, his newly pacified Saxon subjects rose once again in revolt, while his opponents among the German princes pressed for the election of a new king. His supporters won Henry a year and a day to free himself from excommunication before a new king was elected. He needed to grovel hard and he needed to do it fast.

In January 1077, Matilda and an armed force escorted the pope through her territory as he traveled toward Augsburg to meet with the German princes and bishops. When Matilda and Gregory reached Mantua, where he was scheduled to meet his escort from Germany, they learned Henry was nearby. Matilda moved the pope from Mantua to her castle at Canossa—a fortress in the heart of the Apennine Mountains where she could ward off a small imperial force if necessary.

Matilda was prepared to defend the pope against attack, but Henry came to Canossa not as an aggressor but as a penitent.

Having crossed the Alps with a small escort, including his queen and infant heir, through what contemporary chronicles unanimously describe as unusually severe winter conditions, Henry presented himself at the gates of Canossa without any of the trappings of royalty. For three days he stood before the gates, barefoot and dressed in a plain wool robe, begging for the pope’s mercy—sometimes in tears. Occasionally, he knocked on the door, but was not allowed to enter. On the fourth day, after negotiations in which Matilda played a key role, the shivering emperor was allowed into the fortress to beg face-to-face.

Gregory granted Henry absolution, but the emperor’s humiliation at Canossa did not end his quarrels with the pope or his problems in Germany. Despite the fact that Henry had been reinstated in the church, his opponents back home elected a new king to replace him, Rudolf of Swabia. Both king and anti-king petitioned Gregory for his support.

At the Lenten synod of 1080, representatives of both would-be kings presented their petitions to Gregory in person. After hearing their arguments, Gregory excommunicated Henry a second time, on the grounds that he had not kept the promises he made at Canossa, and gave Rudolf his support. Henry convinced another council of German bishops to depose the pope. This time Henry’s bishops elected an antipope, Archbishop Guibert of Ravenna, who took the title of Clement III (1080–1100).

On October 15, 1080, Rudolf died in battle. No longer threatened by the existence of a rival candidate for the crown, Henry returned to Italy at the head of an army, to settle the question of the papal succession and his long-delayed coronation as Holy Roman emperor.

Matilda of Tuscany stood in his way.

Matilda had been an ardent supporter of church reform since childhood. She supported the monk Hildebrand before his election to the papacy in 1073 and continued to support his efforts after his investiture as Gregory VII. While Henry and Rudolf faced off in their final battle, Matilda mustered troops to defend Gregory against Henry and Guibert. She would provide the main military support for Gregory and his successors in their struggles with Henry for the next twenty years.

The first battle of the Investiture Controversy took place in October 1080, as soon as word of Rudolf’s death reached Italy. Henry’s Italian supporters attacked and defeated Matilda’s troops near her castle at Volta: the first of several defeats Matilda suffered at the hands of Henry’s supporters. Matilda was not yet a seasoned commander, unlike her younger cousin Henry, who had spent most of his adulthood on the battlefield. According to contemporary accounts from both sides of the conflict, she suffered heavy losses after Henry entered Italy in the spring of 1081. Bishop Benzo of Alba, a hard-core Henry supporter, mocked her as “wringing her hands and weeping for lost Tuscany.”

And yet there are signs Matilda was still a serious force in Italy. Henry felt threatened enough to convene a court that judged her guilty of treason for refusing to honor her feudal allegiance to him, placed her under “ban of empire,” and stripped her of her title and her lands. Like Gregory’s excommunication of Henry, this act released her vassals from their feudal obligations.

The ban was easy to pronounce but proved hard to enforce. Rather than meet Henry’s forces on the battlefield, Matilda retreated to her fortress at Canossa. While Henry’s main army besieged Rome, Matilda’s forces attacked Henry’s supply lines and raided the holdings of his northern supporters from the protection of her network of mountain castles. She kept Gregory’s communication lines open and provided him with information about Henry’s movements—military and diplomatic. She exerted enough pressure on Henry’s allies from her mountain stronghold that by 1082 his beleaguered supporters insisted he come north and campaign against Matilda in person.

After systematically ravaging the north, Henry besieged Rome itself. He captured the city on March 21, 1084. With Henry in control of the city, Guibert was consecrated as pope on March 24. Seven days later, on Easter Sunday, Guibert returned the favor and crowned Henry as Holy Roman emperor—which had to be a relief to Henry, who had ruled as king of the Germans since 1056 without papally approved imperial authority.

With the imperial crown on his head and a consecrated pope in his pocket, Henry left Rome on May 21, 1084. As he hit the road for Germany, he ordered his Italian allies to capture Matilda and destroy her fortresses, which would secure his lines of communication with Rome and gut the military strength of the papal reformists.

The combined troops of Henry’s supporters marched along the Via Emilia, through the Po Valley—pillaging as they went. Matilda monitored their progress from the security of her Apennine fortresses. On the night of July 1, 1084, her opponents camped on the plain at Sorbara, close to one of Matilda’s castles. Having crossed the valley from Parma to Modena unopposed, the invaders grew careless and did not set an adequate guard.

The next day, Matilda led a small force in a dawn raid on the sleeping camp of Henry’s supporters—the first time she met imperial forces in open battle in three years. Her troops broke through the camp’s outer defenses, causing panic among the enemy ranks. They slaughtered large numbers of fleeing foot soldiers, captured a hundred knights, and took more than five hundred horses as part of their booty. Matilda lost a handful of her men and “no one of note”—the medieval assessment of a successful battle. Sorbara was a major victory in medieval terms and a turning point in the war, giving new hope to the reform party at the moment when Henry seemed triumphant.

For the next six years, Matilda was on the offensive against Henry’s supporters. Pope Gregory’s death in exile in 1085 did not end the conflict. Matilda became the secular rallying point for the reform cause and the armed supporter of two reformist popes in succession: Victor III, whose papacy lasted only four months, and Urban II, who completed Gregory’s reforms, launched the first crusade, and left the papacy stronger than he found it.

In the spring of 1090, Henry mounted a counterattack. He seized Matilda’s remaining lands in Lorraine, then invaded northern Italy. Over the next two years, he drove his armies toward Canossa. He took city after fortress after city with a combination of military victories and bribery. (The promise of imperial privilege, in which an autonomous town owed fealty only to the emperor, was a tempting offer to towns held in feudal tenure to a more-or-less local lord.) When she lost Mantua and Verona, the first to bribery and the second to betrayal, Matilda fell back south of the river Po. Henry continued to press her.

In September 1092, after a string of imperial victories, Henry offered Matilda generous peace terms if she would recognize Guibert of Ravenna as Pope Clement III. Against the advice of many of her supporters, she refused.

That October, Henry moved against Canossa, hoping to force Matilda to surrender by trapping her in her fortress. Warned of his approach, Matilda withdrew with an armed force to an outlying castle. After Henry exhausted his troops against Canossa, she attacked. Henry’s siege turned into a rout, with Matilda’s forces harassing the emperor’s troops as they retreated in disorder across the Po.

Henry remained in Italy for the next three years, but the war was effectively over.

Whether or not Matilda actively fought, sword in hand, she was a “combatant commander” by any standard. Over the course of a forty-year military career, Matilda mustered troops for long-distance expeditions, fought successful defensive campaigns against the Holy Roman emperor (himself a skilled commander), launched ambushes, engaged in urban warfare, directed sieges, lifted sieges, and was besieged. She built, stocked, and fortified castles. She maintained an effective intelligence network. She negotiated alliances with local leaders. She rewarded her followers with the favorite currencies of medieval rulers: land, castles, and privileges.

Matilda fielded her last military action in 1114, putting down a revolt in the city of Mantua less than a year before her death. Mighty in war to the end.

Anglo-Saxon Military Organisation Part II


Many of the warriors of Anglo-Saxon England came to the battlefield armed and armoured, but how did they come to possess such equipment? The inclusion of heriots, or ‘war-gear’, in some surviving Anglo-Saxon wills of the later period provide us with a glimpse into an ancient custom and an insight into the importance of the bond of lordship throughout the period. A heriot (‘heregeatu’) was basically a death due liable for payment from people of thegnly rank or higher. It was in essence the returning to one’s lord of the military equipment that the warrior had obtained for taking service with his lord in the first place. The broad notion behind it was that by returning the arms and armour given to you by your lord on your death, your lord would be able to attract the service of another warrior to his household. The poem Beowulf is full of the giving of such arms by a lord to his man. For the modern historian, the heriots reflect the nature of military service in terms of numbers of men and equipment that was expected of different ranks of society. Although only broad conclusions can be drawn, they are useful nevertheless.

The giving of arms was deeply rooted in Germanic custom. In Anglo-Saxon England it continued over a period of centuries whereby it is possible to see a trend developing over time. According to surviving documentation it would seem that in the Danelaw heriots were often paid in hard cash instead of arms and armour, although the one surviving will of a man called Ketel, an eleventh-century thegn of Archbishop Stigand, shows that arms and armour could still be the method of payment even in the Danish areas. For such a thegn the material in question centres around his horse and his weapons and armour, enough to equip one man. Generally, the higher up the social rankings you were, the more arms and armour you were required to provide. There are sixteen heriots mentioned in the wills stretching from 946 to the period immediately preceding the Norman Conquest. Some of them include material additional to the basic weapon and armour set such as one with a handseax, and one with a javelin. There is also mention of hawks, deerhounds, cups and dishes in some of them.

In short, as the heriot of Ketel shows (1052–1066), it is possible to determine that the war gear for one well-armed aristocratic warrior amounted to one horse with tack, one helmet, one byrnie (mailcoat), one sword, one spear and one shield. But it had not always been this straightforward. The earliest surviving heriots of Ealdorman Æthelwold (946–947) and Bishop Theodred (942–951) would seem to have been based on the rating of an ealdorman at the time of King Edmund I (939–46). Here, the provision is for four men with horses, swords, shields and spears. There is no mention in these heriots of helmets or byrnies or of additional unsaddled horses, spears and shields for retainers as there is in later heriots. It seems the early requirements were fairly straightforward and centred round multiples of two. Noticeably absent from all heriots, of course, is the bow, not a weapon to be associated with Anglo-Saxon nobility.

During the reigns of Eadred (946–56) and Edgar (959–975) the requirement seems to escalate with multiples based now on a factor of three. For example, the heriot of Ealdorman Ælfheah (968–971) is rated at six horses, six shields, six spears and six swords. The tendency to increase the heriot of the highest ranking member of society reflects a royal concern with the defence of the realm. By the time of Æthelred II (979–1016), there is a further evolution, which although complex, is possible to interpret. The ealdorman rank or its equivalent goes up from six of everything to four fully armed and armoured men and four lesser armed men with the appearance of the helmet and byrnie for the first time. In fact, all heriots appearing after 1008 contain helmets and byrnies, probably reflecting Æthelred’s decrees about the increased production of such armour throughout his kingdom. It is this evolution that is represented in the law code II Cnut 71 (1020–3), which sets out specifically the heriots owed by different ranks. Here, we can see the discrepancy between the expectations of the men of the Danelaw and those of other parts of the kingdom.

It is clear that an earl’s heriot represented the equipping of four fully armed men and four attendants to them equipped with just spear and shield. Each of them rode to battle. It is not clear how the unsaddled horses were used. They may have been used as pack horses to carry baggage or may have been ridden without saddles by the four lesser armed retainers.

The king’s thegn of the English list seems to have been expected to provide one fully armoured man (presumably the king’s thegn himself) and one lesser armoured man who has a saddled horse, sword, spear and shield, but no helmet or byrnie, plus two attendants with spear and shield looking after two unsaddled horses. The lesser thegn is listed as one might expect. He has to bring to the battle just himself, fully armed and prepared.

The Danelaw evidence is more problematic. There seems to be a cash payment expectation for a ‘king’s thegn with soke’ and for a lesser thegn, but quite why the ‘king’s thegn closer to the king’ is rated at two horses (one saddled), one sword, two spears and two shields with no helmet or byrnie listed is a mystery. It seems unlikely that the late Anglo-Saxon kings were not able to impose such a burden on the Danelaw given that Æthelred had demanded many coats of mail to be made across his kingdom.

Heriots later became less militarised and more associated with the concept of tenurial succession. The difficulty is in trying to apply them to the given military situation at the time of their writing. If they provide nothing else, heriots give us a general idea of the type of equipment an Anglo-Saxon warrior was expected to possess in order to do his duty. When he performed that duty, the warrior became part of a well-organised machine and not, as some have contended, an ad hoc reaction to the latest crisis.

Logistics and Communication

King Harold lost the campaign of 1066. This fact has tended to deflect our enquiries into the effectiveness of logistics in this era. Often we assume there was inadequate provision in Harold’s army or that what existed was somehow archaic. But we do not give sufficient credit to the Old English military system. Here, we must concern ourselves with the evidence for the wider apparatus of how forces were supplied and informed on their long campaigns. That the earlier Anglo-Saxon kingdoms possessed the capability of large-scale feats of organisation is surely evidenced by the building of Offa’s Dyke.

King Alfred’s three-way split of fyrd service into garrison service, army service and land service is our first clue that logistics were to be a central part of military planning. The forces were rotated so there were always fresh men to hand, but we are not told how they were provisioned in the field. Later sources indicate the fyrdsmen were supposed to supply themselves, but as we have seen they were to bring money with them indicating that there must have been an arrangement for them to spend it at certain markets or on certain things. The Frankish Annals of St Bertin record that shield-selling merchants were present in the baggage train of Charles the Bald at the Battle of Andernach in 876. It is difficult to dismiss the notion that such arrangements must have been made in England.

The idea that a campaigning army sent out its own foragers is supported by some early evidence. It would also appear that such men acted as scouts for the army too. The Venerable Bede indicates that the men in the baggage train of early Northumbrian armies were married poor peasants whose job it was not to fight as such, but to bring provisions to the troops. This is a specific reference to the thegn Imma, who after the Battle of the Trent in 679 disguised himself as such an individual to escape capture and recognition by his captor’s kinsmen. He declared that he had come on campaign with others of his kind to bring provisions to the troops. His enemies in the Mercian army clearly bought his story. It is likely that Bede’s thegn Imma was among those responsible for managing the baggage train. It is tempting to see this sort of arrangement running right through the period as a whole.

Evidence from France suggests that men summoned to the Carolingian host were to bring with them enough provisions for three months in carts. Meat and other such provisions, it is argued for the Carolingians, was brought on the hoof or in carts. Supply dumps were arranged in advance and other foraging was undertaken while on campaign. Again, the likelihood of similar arrangements in Anglo-Saxon England is very high, but as always, much harder to find. Those responsible for overseeing supply dumps of hay for horses, grain and ale etc. may well have been the royal horse-thegns who were thought to have performed a role similar to their Frankish counterparts, the Marshalls (Marescales), whose association with mounted logistics is inherent in their title.

Despite the extreme likelihood that the level of organisation in terms of supplying an army in the field was very high, there is evidence that it could all go horribly wrong during a campaign. The sheer volume of produce required for supporting an army meant that it might have to engage wholesale in foraging. After Alfred’s death, during the campaign of Edward the Elder against the renegade Æthelwold, which is described below (see p. 101), the king’s Kentish contingent (traditionally in the van of a combined Anglo-Saxon army) ignored the royal pleas brought to them by no less than seven messengers to come out from East Anglia after playing their part in a punitive campaign. It is argued that the Kentish refusal to obey the king was due to the fact that they had dispersed in order to forage for supplies.

The scouts and foragers in the army, particularly those of the border areas will have had great knowledge of route ways and track ways in their area. The route ways and roads of Anglo-Saxon England were both a result of thousands of years of evolution and, in some cases, brand new innovation. For example, the Icknield Way, which is generally regarded as the oldest road in England, running from Knettishall Heath in East Anglia in a diagonal line across the heart of England to the West Country for 105 miles, probably had its origin in the Neolithic period some 3 millennia prior to the Anglo-Saxon era. The Danish Great Heathen Army is even thought to have boldly marched down this ancient track to attack Wessex in 871.

On the other hand, parts of the surviving Roman road network were still very much in use with the old roads given English names, such as Watling Street. That the Roman network was still widespread is undoubted. Its state of repair may have varied, however, and there is one reference to a Roman road in the bounds of a Chiseldon charter, dated to 955, which names the road as ‘brokenstret’. However, the building of a grand fortification scheme in southern England by Alfred the Great certainly took advantage of the Roman network. From Exeter you could travel along Roman roads north to Bath, Cricklade, Malmesbury and Axbridge and east towards Winchester via Bridport and Wilton and, of course, on to London.

There are, however, fascinating and repeated references to track ways that appear to be dedicated to military usage. In many charters from the Anglo-Saxon period the word ‘herepath’ appears in the bounds. In fact, there are 41 ‘herepaths’, 3 ‘fyrdstreats’ and 4 ‘herestreats’. Today, where these paths survive, they are often referred to confusingly as ‘people’s paths’. But in Anglo-Saxon times it is probable that these paths represented a specific network of minor roads dedicated to the assembling and quick transportation of forces between towns, fortifications, monastic centres and estates. Some examples seem to run parallel to Roman roads indicating their exclusivity, such as the A350 in northern Dorset and the A30 in Wiltshire. Where a Roman network may not have existed or where it was inadequate for the new military needs of a region, we find herepaths being used to link outlying estates to royal vills or monastic centres. Such is the case with the herepaths mentioned in the boundaries of Corston, Priston and Stanton, which were three estates belonging to the monastery at Bath.

Another example of a herepath is one that seems to have run from Wroughton in Wiltshire to the burh of Marlborough, travelling through Yatesbury and the ancient monument at Avebury. Archaeologists contend that of the four entrances to the great prehistoric monument at Avebury, the eastern one is likely to have been either made or substantially altered by the Anglo-Saxons to accommodate the herepath that ran through it. This herepath is thought to be early tenth century in date and would have represented an era when Edward the Elder (900–24) was working to consolidate his hold on Wessex while actively seeking to expand his kingdom to the north. The Yatesbury Lane herepath linked the minster church at Avebury to the burh and along its route around the Marlborough Downs was a small defended enclosure at Yatesbury, the ditches of which are dated to the Anglo-Saxon period. This represents an effort on the part of the Anglo-Saxon military planners to make defensible even the smaller enclosures along the route ways of the kingdom. The Yatesbury Lane herepath, like many others, also commanded good views of the surrounding landscape along its route. Many herepaths are associated with ridge ways probably for this very reason. A picture emerges then of a surprisingly sophisticated level of military planning by the Anglo-Saxon kings of England.

What a herepath actually looked like is another question. They do not seem to have been metalled roads in the Roman sense, but the one at Yatesbury Lane had a ditch on one side only and was about 5m wide, with some tantalising geophysical evidence for wheel ruts. Elsewhere in the Somerset Quantocks these track ways are described as 20m or 64ft wide. Quite how often an English warrior’s boots trod down these pathways and intricate networks is unknown. Nor is it understood how often herepaths were used for logistical provision between towns and forts throughout the kingdom. What little evidence we have once again points to a level of sophistication that perhaps should not surprise us.

If the herepaths of the kingdom could aid transportation and supply of troops and goods, then what do we know of any early warning systems? There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the Anglo-Saxons had an elaborate system of beacons dotted around the countryside. The very word ‘beacon’ is Old English in origin and comes from the word ‘becun’. But it is suggested that there are other words in Old English that imply a place name of a similar function to a beacon site. Such words are ‘weardsetl’ and ‘tot’. Weardsetl, which means ‘watch point’, appears in a number of charters from the Anglo-Saxon period and tot was another name for a look-out point. The key to these systems was in their inter-visibility. One fire lit on the Isle of Wight could by a series of relayed fires get a message to the Thames Valley in a very short space of time.

The systems seem to have been related to the office of the coastal watch. This duty seems to have been divided across the ranks of later Anglo-Saxon society. Æthelweard, our much quoted chronicler, held land granted by Edward the Martyr (in 977) at St Keverne, Cornwall ‘free from all royal dues except military service and the fortification of fortresses and maritime guard’. Here the expected bridge work is replaced by the coastal watch and it seems Æthelweard’s responsibilities were great indeed. However, an ealdorman could clearly not watch the sea all by himself, which might be why an eleventh-century document known as the Rectitudines Singularum Personarum (the ‘Rights and Ranks of the People’) describes some of the duties of a thegn as arising out of the king’s command to include equipping a guard ship and guarding the coast. Nor did it stop with the thegn. The same document also mentions the cottar’s right. The cottar, a peasant freeman, is referred to as having to perform the duty of keeping a coastal watch.

The mechanics of the coastal watch may have worked by the cottar keeping watch on the coast under the instruction of the thegn whose duty it was to organise it. Any sighting of an enemy fleet would cause the cottar to light the first in a chain of beacons leading inland along sight lines carefully prepared. The result would be the early warning to the population who could flee their homesteads and get to the burhs and other fortifications in plenty of time. A picture emerges, then, of a landscape dominated by signalling and communications networks no less effective than the beacon systems of the days of the threat from the Spanish Armada, the very organisation of which seems to have been largely based upon its Anglo-Saxon predecessor.

The evidence for Anglo-Saxon beacon systems is overwhelming, even though their study is still in its infancy. For example, evidence of London’s defence is provided by a tot site at none other than Tothill Street in Westminster, near to which archaeologists believe was an artificially created mound set up for the purpose of such communication. There is also evidence that the herepath system was inextricably linked in with the beacon system, with roads identified as far away as Beaford in North Devon leading directly into Oxford Street in London, where a charter records a ‘here-strete’, possibly identifiable with the Lunden herpathe of a charter of 909. At Nettlecomb Tout in Dorset a beacon seems to have been placed directly on the course of a herepath. A further postulated system exists along the line of the old Roman road Stane Street, running from Chichester to London, where out of fifteen identified sites six contain the place-name element tot. At the seaward end of the system would have been the seawatch beacon at Chichester. There are hints in the sources that these grand civil-defence systems were much vaunted by the Anglo-Saxons and that their Viking enemies took some pride in out-manoeuvring the English in such deeply defended landscapes as the campaigns of 1006 may demonstrate.

Logistics seem to have played a part in joint land and sea operations. Whether ships supplied campaigning forces with victuals alone, or strategically landed fresh troops or reduced areas of coastline is unknown. One suspects a mixture of all these. Athelstan’s grand campaign of 934 in Scotland can only have been sustained with support from the sea. Also, King Edmund I’s (940–6) extraction of support from Malcolm of Scotland was to include a promise of support on both land at sea. Other examples include Earl Siward’s Scottish expedition of 1054 against Macbeth and Earl Harold’s combined operation alongside his brother Tostig in Wales in 1063. In the analysis below, of the mounted provision, mercenary provision and naval provision in Anglo-Saxon England, the administrative and logistical capability of the Anglo-Saxons is a central theme. Despite the huge expense of maintaining such a system and despite changes and a subsequent decline in the later tenth century, the king of England in the early eleventh century had at his disposal a capability the envy of any ruler of Christendom. Perhaps this explains why, in 1066, so many people wanted it for themselves.

The Longbow in the Wars of the Roses

At the time of the expulsion of the English from their Continental possessions, no blame was laid at the door of the longbow, nor did there seem to be any permanent discrediting of its power. Nevertheless, as future events proved, in spite of the triple victories of Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt, to say nothing of many lesser successes, archery as a weapon of war was on the downgrade in the mid-fifteenth century. The bow still retained its supremacy as a missile weapon over the clumsy arbalest, with its complicated array of wheels and levers. In fact, the testimony of all Europe was given in favour of the longbow – Charles of Burgundy considered a corps of 3,000 English bowmen to be the flower of his infantry; thirty years before, Charles of France had made the archer the basis of his new militia in a vain attempt to naturalise the weapon of his enemies beyond the Channel. After a similar endeavour, James of Scotland had resigned himself to ill success and so turned the archery of his subjects to ridicule. Before that, however, he had ordered a law to be passed by the Scottish Parliament in 1424:

‘That all men might busk thame to be archares, fra they be 12 years of age; and that at ilk ten pounds worth of land, thair be made bow makres, and specialle near paroche kirks, quhairn upon hailie days men may cum, and at the leist schute thrusye ab out, and have usye of archarie; and whassa usis not archarie, the laird of the land sail rais of him a wedder, and giff the laird raisis not the same pane, the kings shiref or his ministers sail rais it to the King.’

In England Edward IV proclaimed that every Englishman and Irishman living in England must have of his own a bow of his own height ‘to be made of yew, wych, or hazel, ash or auborne or any other reasonable tree, according to their power’. The same law provided that buttes or mounds of earth for use as marks must be erected in every town and village, and listed a series of penalties for those who did not practise with the longbow.

Richard III was one of the kings who recognised the value of the archer; Shakespeare makes him say, just prior to the Battle of Bosworth: ‘Draw archers, draw your arrows to the head!’ There are also records telling that Richard sent a body of 1,000 archers to France to aid the Duke of Brittany. Henry VII also provided anti-crossbow legislation and sent large levies of English archers to fight for the Duke of Brittany. During this entire period English longbowmen served in many parts of the then-known world.

The introduction of gunpowder was the beginning of the end for the archer; although over 400 years were to pass before the bow and arrow were finally overcome by gun-fire, the seeds were sown in the fourteenth century at Crécy and Sluys. The making of a skilful archer was a matter of years, but an adequate gunner could be produced in a few months – it was far too easy to attain a certain amount of proficiency with the new weapons for the bow to remain highly popular. At first the longbow was vastly superior to the newly invented handguns and arquebuses, which did not attain any great degree of efficiency before the end of the fifteenth century. When they did, the bow – the weapon par excellence of England – fell into disuse, although the archer could discharge twelve or fifteen arrows while the musketeer was going through the lengthy operation of loading his piece. The longbow could be aimed more accurately and its effective range of 200 – 240 yards was greater; the hitting-power of a war-arrow, weighing about two ounces, was far greater than that of a musket-ball, weighing from one-third to half an ounce. Archers could be lined up as many as ten deep and shoot together over each other’s heads to put down an almost impassable barrage; and it was a terrifying barrage that could be seen descending. It is not outside the bounds of possibility to claim that the musket used at Waterloo in 1815 was inferior to the longbow used at Agin-court in 1415, both in range and accuracy.

Early firearms were reasonably good weapons of defence when they could be rested upon ramparts and their powder kept dry, otherwise they were far less deadly than the longbow in competent hands. In 1590 Sir John Smyth, a formidable military writer of the time, in his work The Discourse presented a wholesale condemnation of the new weapons, the mosquet, the caliver and the harquebus. The book was hastily suppressed by English military authorities; the stern, lone voice, crying for a return to the older and more effective ways of the longbow did not coincide with current military thinking. One also had to consider that the merit of early firearms lay in the prestige which they brought to the princes who armed their men with them.

In many of the battles of the Wars of the Roses, artillery was combined with archers, so that the enemy was put in a position where he had either to fall back or to charge in order to escape missile fire – just as similar tactics had won the field of Hastings for William in 1066. Edgecott Field was notable as a renewed attempt of spearmen to stand against a mixed force of archers and cavalry. Here the Yorkists were entirely destitute of light troops, their bowmen having been drawn off by their commander, Lord Stafford, in a fit of pique. This meant that Pembroke and his North Welsh troops were left unsupported. The natural result followed; in spite of the strong position of the King’s son, the rebels, by force of archery fire, quickly caused them to descend from the hill into the valley, where they were ridden down by the Northern horse as they retreated in disorder.

During the period of this war, armour had possibly reached its elaborate peak, as an old description of a knight arming for the Battle of Tewkesbury indicated: ‘… and arming was an elaborate process then, as the knight began with his feet, and clothed himself upwards. He put on first, his sabatynes or steel clogs; secondly, the greaves or shin-pieces; thirdly, the cuisses, or thigh-pieces; fourthly, the breech of mail; fifthly, the tuillettes; sixthly, the breastplate; seventhly, the vambraces or arm-covers; eighthly, the rerebraces, for covering the remaining part of the arm to the shoulder; ninthly, the gauntlets; tenthly, the dagger was hung; eleventhly, the short sword; twelfthly, the surcoat was put on; thirteenthly, the helmet; fourteenthly, the long sword was assumed; and, fifteenthly, the pennoncel, which he carried in his left hand.’

Notwithstanding the undoubted strength of this array, the archer still appeared to achieve sufficient penetration with his shafts to be considered a worthwhile part of the forces.

At Towton, on Palm Sunday, March 29th, 1461, Lord Falconbridge, commanding part of the army of Edward IV, used his archers in an interesting tactical expedient which sufficed to decide the day when both armies were employing the same weapon. The snow, which was falling very heavily, was being blown by a strong wind from behind the Yorkists and into the faces of the Lancastrians; it rendered the opposing lines only partially visible to each other. Falconbridge ordered his archers to the front, to act more or less as skirmishers. It must be explained that two types of arrows were then in use – the flight arrow and the sheaf arrow; the former was lightly feathered, with a small head; the latter was high-feathered and shortly shafted with a large head. Flight arrows were shot at a great distance and, at proper elevation, could kill at 240 yards. Sheaf arrows were for closer fighting, requiring but a slight elevation, and were often shot at point-blank range.

The advancing archers had been carefully instructed to let fly a shower of sheaf arrows, with a greater elevation than usual, and then to fall back some paces and stand. Aided by the gale, the Yorkist arrows fell among the Lancastrian archers, who, perceiving that they were sheaf arrows and being misled by the blinding snow as to their opponents’ exact distance from them, assumed that the enemy were within easy range. They commenced firing volley after volley into the snowstorm, all of which fell sixty yards short of the Yorkists until the snow bristled with the uselessly expended shafts like porcupine quills. When the Lancastrians had emptied their belts, the Yorkists moved forward and began firing in return, using not only their own shafts but also those so conveniently sticking out of the snow at their feet. Their shooting had great effect and men fell on all sides as the wind-assisted shafts came hissing into them; in a short time it was possible for the billmen and men-at-arms of Warwick and King Edward to advance comfortably forward without receiving any harassing fire from the Lancastrian archers. Needless to say, the Yorkist archers then laid aside their bows and went in with the more heavily armed infantry. It was a strategem that won the battle, and was one that could only be used when the adversaries were perfectly conversant with each other’s armaments and methods of war.

Even in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries the longbow still retained its supremacy over the arquebus and had yet some famous fields to win, notably that of Flodden in 1513, where, as will be seen from the next chapter, the old manoeuvres of Falkirk were repeated by both parties, the pikemen of the lowlands once again being shot to pieces by the archers of Cheshire and Lancashire. As late as the reign of Edward VI we find Kett’s Insurgents beating, by the rapidity of their archery fire, a corps of German hackbuteers whom the government had sent against them. Nor was the bow entirely extinct as a national weapon even in the days of Queen Elizabeth. It was in the reign of the Virgin Queen that the first really great archery writer appeared on the English scene. Roger Ascham, tutor to Elizabeth when she was a princess, was the author of the book Toxophilus, which remains the classic in the field. Allowing for certain minor differences, the phraseology and certain advances which have been made in equipment, Ascham’s book is as valuable to the archer today as it was when it was written four centuries ago. His ‘instructions’ can be, and are, used today in teaching novice archers. Ascham’s relation to the bow corresponds to that of Izaak Walton to the rod and reel.