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
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'
(BNF, FR 2643) Jean Froissart, Chronicles fol. 272 , Flanders, Bruges 15th Century.
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
where he was wounded and captured. When he recovered he married a rich widow
with several lordships in Berry
which, however, did not end his career as a mercenary captain.
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.
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
The Archpriest also served Charles V
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
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.
went on to occupy castles in the county
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
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):
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.
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
fierce, enthusiastic, quite used to the routine of killing and looting."
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
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
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
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 Pisa, Lucca,Arezzo,
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
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
(and freebooter who made good).
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
During the War of Breton succession, Du Guesclin fought a war of
raid/counter-raid in Brittany and Normandy.
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.
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.
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 Picardy, Champagne,
Burgundy, Auvergne, and
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.