medieval armies -- 5/10/22

Today's selection -- from Chaucer's People by Liza Picard. How certain medieval armies were raised:

"The feudal system imposed on his new kingdom by William the Conqueror in 1066, [was described as] ...  unwieldy, and became more so as the centuries passed. Edward III attempted to modernize it, without much success. Local 'commissions of array', amounting to local conscription, were another way of raising an army when needed, but they were deeply unpopular, and conscripts were probably obliged to serve only in the event of a foreign inva­sion. They might refuse to go overseas, which was where Edward wanted them.

"So a royal commission was appointed to list everyone who had an annual income above 100 shillings. Someone with that amount or more had to provide a mounted archer. Twice that amount, a lightly armed horseman. At £25 or more, a fully equipped man-­at-arms. At £1,000, an improbable amount in those days, forty men-at-arms. The men were led in battle by their lord, or added to the 'retinue' of another lord. A retinue was the group of 'retained' men contracted to serve under one lord. The contract would specify the period -- either a defined term, or the whole of a campaign. It was a formal document, agreed by both sides, detailing the soldier's pay, even specifying the currency in which it would be paid, and the soldier's rights to a share in any hooey and ransom. In 1380, for example, Sir Hugh Hastings contracted to serve the earl of Buck­ingham in war, 'sufficiently arrayed and mounted', with a retinue, a mixed force of seven other knights, sixty men-at-arms and sixty archers. He sub-contracted almost all of the retinue he had con­tracted for, remaining personally responsible for only seven men. Chaucer's Knight was part of a lord's retinue, but had personally a retinue of two -- his son the Squire, and his Yeoman.

Infantrymen at the Battle of Aljubarrota, 1385

"Some landowners preferred to commute their duty to supply soldiers into a cash payment. This gave the Crown a welcome source of revenue, alleviating the severe cash flow problem which bedevilled royal affairs throughout the period.

"In our time we have seen how strongly soldiers rely on their brothers-in-arms to support them in danger, as members of the same family. The same loyalty bound together the English army in the fourteenth-century war against the French. The retinues trained and fought together as coherent bodies, archers and foot soldiers and esquires and knights all relying on each other, and with strong territorial links. The French did not adopt this system, keeping their aristocratic mounted knights together, well away from mere foot soldiers. This may have contributed to the crushing defeats they suffered at Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356)."



Liza Picard


Chaucer's People


W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


Copyright 2017 by Liza Picard


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