Fourteenth-Century Mercenaries

based on Froissart; P. Contamine, War in the Middle Ages; William P. Caferro, “’The Fox and the Lion’: the White Company and the Hundred Years War,” in Hundred Years War: a Wider Focus, ed. L.J.A. Villalon and D.J. Kagay (2005); Caferro, John Hawkood: An English Mercenary in Fourteenth-Century Italy (2006);  Jonathan Sumption, Trial by Fire: The Hundred Years War II (1999)

Free Companies, Routiers, ecorcheurs (15th century)

Free Companies was the generic name for contingents of mercenaries led by captains who were most usually from the lower nobility or bastard sons of higher nobility, though a number of commoners also rose to command them. The Free Companies were very professional relative to other military forces of the age: companies had established command structures as well as butiniers to share out the loot and secretaries to record loot and to write out the captain's demands. Some even had uniforms (e.g. the bandes blanches of the Archbpriest Arnaud de Cervole).

Battle of Brignais (1362). The French army is defeated by the Free Companies, bands of mercenaries who pillaged France during the Hundred Years' War.

(BNF, FR 2643) Jean Froissart, Chronicles fol. 272 , Flanders, Bruges 15th Century.


Sir Arnaud de Cervole (the Archpriest) (c.1320-66)

        The Arnaud de Cervole was the cadet of a minor noble family on the Gascon march. He entered the Church and became the archpriest of Velines in the diocese of Perigueux (hence his nickname). Deprived of his benefice by the archbishop of Bordeux because he was mixing "with brigands and men of base extraction" in the pursuit of war, he embraced a military career.




        In 1350s Arnaud appears in the pay rolls of the French army with his own company of 80 men. He was already known by that time for his skill at taking walled cities and castles by escalade (ladders). On the recommendation of Charles of Spain, constable of France and cousin to King John II of France, in 1351 he was appointed a royal lieutenant entrusted with defending the region between the Loire and Dordogne rivers.  Arnaud, however, repeatedly crossed line between military service and banditry. He took advantage of confusion in 1354 when his patron Constable Charles of Spain was murdered by Charles the Bad, King of Navarre to seize three castles in Angouleme as security for arrears in wages. When serving King John II at the siege of Breteuil, he went off on his own to seize a castle in Normandy, which the Crown's investigation recorded as "simple theft." Subsequently he relocated his power base to the north. He received a royal pardon, however, and was granted the lordship of the large fortress of Chateuneuf-sur-Charente on the frontier of Angoumois. In 1356 he fought in the battalion of the Count of Alencon at Poitiers, where he was wounded and captured. When he recovered he married a rich widow with several lordships in Berry (central France), which, however, did not end his career as a mercenary captain.

The capture of King John II of France at Poitiers and the negotiations between the English and French brought a halt to military actions and to pay and plunder for the Free Companies in John’s employ. The result was that the Free Companies began to fend for themselves, pillaging the countryside and extorting money from villagers in a sort of protection racket known as pâtis.  Anaud came to prominence in 1357 when he assumed command of the so-called Great Company. This was a societas societum, a collection of companies of freebooters of various nationalities. Ordinary companies numbered no more than a few hundred men; this shifting conglomeration of companies at its height was an army of 2700 men. There was in fact no one Great Company. Individual companies came and went. The leadership of the whole was elected by the individual captains, who themselves were elected by the men of their company, which is how Arnaud emerged as its leader. 

            Having lost employment with the capture of King John II, Arnaud took his newly formed Great Company into wealthy and hitherto untouched Provence in the realm of Jeanne d'Anjou, queen of Naples. There they took castles and towns by assault and plundered land as far as Avignon, terrorizing Pope Innocent VI and his cardinals, who opened negotiations with him. According to Froissart: "He entered Avignon with most of his followers by friendly agreement, and was received with as much respect as if he had been the king of France's son, and dined several times with the Pope and the cardinals. All his sins were remitted him and when he left he was given forty thousand crowns [20,000 gold florins] to distribute among his companions. The company left the district but still remained under the command of the Archpriest." (F 148).This was not really that large a sum and in order to get it Arnaud had to give up all the castles his men had occupied in the papal territories. In fact, the Great Company by April 1358 were looking for a way out of Provence. They had banked much on taking Marseilles, but based on reconnaissance and military intelligence Arnaud had concluded that the city was too large, too populous, and too well defended (the citizens had prepared by demolishing bridges and cutting fresh ditches around the city's walls). They could not surround the port city, since they did not have a fleet. The scorched earth policy of the Queen's commanders, coupled with a poor harvest, meant that the besiegers were in greater danger of starvation than the inhabitants.

The Archpriest also served Charles V of France as castellan of Nevers. Arnaud went back and forth between private and public war, and in doing so amassed a fortune. The Archpriest's company was even used by King John II to destroy other Free Companies terrorizing Burgundy in the early 1360s. Unfortunately, the French forces were led by the Jean de Tancarville and the Count of Marche (Jacques de Bourbon), whose faulty reconnaissance had failed to report that the combined free companies under a thug named 'Petit' Meschin had swelled to about 5,000, a larger force than the royal army. Because they despised the brigands, they took no steps to protect their encampment at Brignais from attack from behind. On the morning of 6 April, 1362, the companies launched a surprise attack and caught much of the royal army asleep and unarmed. The result was a stunning victory by the brigands. The Battle of Brignais (1362) was a second Poitiers. Bourbon was killed, Tancarville and Arnaud captured, and the so-called Tard Venus, late comers, were free to continue pillaging the southeast.. But the problem of food forced the victorious army to break up into smaller bands. Arnaud's company, now unemployed, joined the Tard Venus in pillaging.

            The Archpriest went on to occupy castles in the county of Burgundy in 1364, until he was bought off by the Count for 2500 gold francs. In 1364 Arnaud's company, though not Arnaud himself, fought again under the royal banner, this time against other Gascon companies in the pay of Charles of Navarre. The result was a French victory at Cocherel. In the following year Pope Urban V convinced Arnaud to take the lead in recruiting the Free Companies for a Crusade against the Turks in aid of Byzantium. The pope's purpose was to get rid of the Free Companies from the Rhone region. The 'Crusading army' only got as far at Lyons, where it refused to cross into Italy and embark on ships east. The companies, except for Arnaud's, disbursed. (In the following yearBertrand du Guesclin solved the problem temporarily by recruiting them for an expedition to Spain to fight against the English in a civil war.) Unfed and unpaid Arnaud's men became restless. In 1366, the Archpriest was murdered during a dispute with his men.          

            Arnaud de Cervole made a fortune at war, but was eventually killed by his own men.  Michael Chrichton uses him as a character in the novel and movie Timeline.


Sir John Hawkwood (1320-94): Image:Paolo Uccello 044.jpg


            John Hawkwood was one of the few mercenary captains to die a natural death and to be buried with honors. He was the son of a tanner and minor English landowner from Essex, and was recruited to fight in France. In 1360, when the companies were paid off after the Treaty of Bretigny, Hawkwood formed a composite company, though mostly English in origin, and joined with the Great Company. By 1363 he had taken this company into Italy and joined up with the White Company under the command of two noble English adventurers, Hugh Mortimer, son of Roger Mortimer, and Andrew Beaumont.  In 1364 this company suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of German mercenaries led by a captain named Sterz. Both of its leaders were captured and imprisoned. Hawkwood took command over the survivors, perhaps 800 men or so, a fifth of the company's strength at its height. Throughout its existence the size of the White Company fluctuated, usually between 1,500 and 3,500 cavalry and 500 and 2000 infantry.

            The White Company, like the Great Company in France, was a coalition of different companies under individual captains. It had an established organization. At the top was its captain-general (Hawkwood). He was advised by a council representing the individual companies, and had under him a hierarchy of constables, marshals, sub-marshals, and corporals. The Italian chronicler Villani described them as follows: "They were all young men bred in the long wars of England and France, fierce, enthusiastic, quite used to the routine of killing and looting." 

            They struck terror into the hearts of the Italians. They were accustomed to marching through the night, fighting in winter as well as summer in a country where war had been restricted to the summer. They were equipped also differently from existing Italian armies. They wore light armor, often no more than an iron breastplate over a leather doublet, with a thigh-piece, leg-armor and unvisored bascinet helmet.   (The origin of their nickname “The White Company” was once thought to refer to their penchant for polishing their plate armor so that it would glint in the sun. William Caferro has pointed out that no contemporary chronicler makes this association and that initially they did not wear plate armor; according to Caferro, the name more likely derives from their custom of wearing white surcoats.) They fought in the English style. They rode on campaign but dismounted to fight, forming up in units of three known as 'lances,’ consisting of a man-at-arms supported by a fighting squire and a page who protected the horses during the battle. The men-at-arms were supported by archers armed with English longbows made of yew, who were deployed at the rear of the battle lines, but unlike fourteenth-century English armies, the men-at-arms and squires of the White Company always greatly outnumbered the archers. To augment the firepower of the brigade, Hawkwood would employ Hungarian crossbowmen. Contemporary chroniclers (Villani and Azario) describe them as fighting in semi-circular, densely packed formations, with long, heavy lances held by two men, which they carried with the point toward the ground in Swiss fashion as they advanced against the enemy. The model for this may have been the Scottish schiltron.  Italian contemporaries were impressed by their discipline, morale and comradery based on a shared sense of “Englishness,” their loyalty to their employers, their aggressive approach to war, which sometimes bordered on rashness, and their greed for loot.

Despite their battle effectiveness, the White Company rarely fought general engagements. Their main military activity was the chevauchée, raids designed to destroy the enemy’s economy by burning fields and destroying harvests. To do this, they fanned out in small units and moved with unusual speed. What most shocked the Italians was their brutality, which even exceeded that of German mercenaries. They systematically burnt villages and captured towns. They tortured and murdered prisoners who would not pay ransom. They also excelled at seizing towns by trickery, specializing in night and surprise assaults in which they used specially constructed scaling ladders that were assembled in section. 

Hawkwood was in the employ of several Italian cities, and, although he switched sides several times, he always fulfilled his contract (condotta, from which the Italian word for mercenary captain condottiere derives). In 1363 he was in the employ of Pisa against Florence. He fought against Florence, against the pope and against Emperor Charles VI, but in 1372 went over to the papal side to fight against Duke Galeazzo Visconti of Milan, whom he defeated in battle in 1373. When peace between the pope and Milan left him unemployed, he made ends meet by ravaging the territories of Florence. Catherine of Siena pled with him to go on Crusade against the Turks, but Hawkwood refused. In 1375 he was in papal service again and once more invaded Florentine territory. This time Florence paid him off with an offer of 130,000 florins (225,000 florins when the contributions of PisaLucca,Arezzo, and Siena were added to it), and an annual salary of 1,200 florins for life. He continued, however, in papal service. In 1377 he oversaw the massacre of about 5,000 people at Cesena in the Romagna, and then openly entered Florentine service for an addition 250,000 florins a year. He then married Donnina, the illegitimate daughter of Bernabo Visconti, Lord of Milan, and became an owner of a castle and extensive lands. He remained faithful to Florence until his death in 1394. But he could not keep his fortune and just before his death he sold his villa near Florence and his castle near Arezzo to relieve himself from debt and enable him to return to England. He died before he could do this. The Republic of Florence honored him with a lavish state funeral in Florence Cathedral. His tomb was graced by a magnificent equestrian statue by Ucello.

            Hawkwood was an exceptional and prudent tactician who put a high priority on rapid movement and surprise. He paid his men regularly and they never mutinied. 



            Betrand du Guesclin (1323-1380): Constable of France (and freebooter who made good). Image:Bertrand du Guesclin P1210353.jpg

If Hawkwood was given a place of honor in Florence after his death, Betrand du Guesclin did him one better by rising to the highest levels of French politics and society. Born in 1323, the son of a minor Breton noble, Bertrand du Guesclin made a reputation as a young man by organizing a guerilla campaign against the English army besieging Rennes in the winter of 1356-7. He became protégé of Charles of Blois and Philip, Duke of Orleans, the king's younger brother. In 1357 Charles of Blois rewarded him by making him captain of border castle of Pontoron. During the War of Breton succession, Du Guesclin fought a war of raid/counter-raid in Brittany and Normandy.

Du Guesclin was essentially an adventurer and military contractor. He acquired the reputation for being an outstanding strategist with ability to execute rapid movements over great distances and to control his men in battle. He entered the service of King Charles V of France upon the latter’s succession to the throne in 1364 and almost immediately helped the king win a victory over his rebellious cousin King Charles II of Navarre at Cocherel. But in the very same year Du Guesclin was captured in the Battle of Auray by the English commander Sir John Chandos. King Charles V ransomed him and placed him in command of the free companies, the bands of mercenaries who had fought for both the English and French before the Treaty of Bretigny and who were now ravaging France. Fashioning them into the Great Company, Du Guesclin led them into Spain in support of Henry of Trastamara’s successful attempt to oust his half-brother Peter the Cruel from the throne of Castille.  The exiled Peter turned for help to the English, who sent an army under the command of King Edward III’s eldest son, Edward the Black Prince. In 1367 Du Guesclin lost to the Black Prince in the Battle of Najera and was again captured. The Black Prince claimed Du Guesclin as his prisoner and received 19,200 pounds from King Charles V as his ransom. In 1368 Charles V raised him to the position of Constable of France, despite his lowly origins. 

            Charles V masterminded a new Fabian strategy of scorched earth, guerilla raids, and refusal to fight battles. Du Guesclin was chosen for Constable probably because he had been a guerilla fighter and did not have the upper nobility's ethos of glory-seeking and honor. The type of war he fought involved raid, ambush, night attack, picking off foraging parties and baggage trains, cutting communications, and wearing down the enemy with surprise raids. He wasn't particularly adept at sieges, but instead used persuasion, bribery and threats to bring back to the French side towns and castles that had gone over to the English after the Treaty of Bretigny.

            John of Gaunt's great chevauchee of 1373, described well by Froissart, shows Du Guesclin at his best. John led about 3,000 men at arms and 8,000 archers out of Calais in a large raid of 600 miles in five months covering PicardyChampagne, BurgundyAuvergne, and the Limousin, burning and destroying as he rode. But his devastation was limited by the constant shadowing of a French army that refused to engage him but forced him to keep his forces together, making it difficult to forage. His army arrived at Bordeaux with only 6,000 of the original 11,000. He had lost most these men to cold and starvation.