14th Century Mercenaries

The Wolf & the Witch, book one of the Blood Brothers trilogy of medieval Scottish romances by Claire Delacroix

The hero of The Wolf & the Witch, Maximilian de Vries, is a mercenary and formerly the leader of a free company called La Compagnie Rouge. That free company was formed by his father, Jean le Beau, the bastard son of a baron with a reputation for violence. This is fiction, but based on historical fact. Today, I thought we’d talk a bit about those 14th century free companies of mercenaries.

In theory, medieval kings summoned armies from their vassals, who owed military service—or the service of knights sworn to their service—to the monarch on demand. In reality, this didn’t always work out well. Military training was likely to be inconsistent. Knights might not arrive on time or prepared for battle. Mercenaries, which were warriors paid to take any cause, filled the gap. They were professional fighters who could be hired at a price. In the fourteenth century, mercenaries proliferated in Europe and joined together in free companies: “free” because they weren’t bound to any particular monarch or territory. Philippe Contamine (in Wars in the Middle Ages) defines mercenaries as warriors who are 1/ specialists; 2/ stateless; and 3/ paid.

What’s interesting about these men is that even though they contributed to the course of history, often in significant ways, they are seldom named in chronicles. This doesn’t mean that they all had humble roots—remember that being trained for battle was a privilege of aristocratic society. I suspect there were a lot of bastard sons and younger sons without legacies in these companies. As Jean Froissart notes in his Chronicles (a 14th century account of the Hundred Years’ War), Scottish warriors often journeyed to the continent to seek their fortune as paid mercenaries.

Here’s a wonderful excerpt from Medieval Mercenaries by William Urban, for those of you who like words as much as I do:

“Territorial rules wanted warriors who were young, skilful, ready to obey orders…and numerous. Vassals often failed on all four counts, especially the last one. Therefore, rulers turned to mercenaries. A mercenary soldier is obviously one who fights for pay. Strictly speaking, to say mercenary soldier is a redundancy. Mercenary comes from mercer, meaning to buy and sell. Sold is the German word for money; solde in French. Both have their roots in the word for a silver coin, a solidus, which ultimately goes back to the Latin word for salt, which Romans used for paying salaries (“worth his salt”). Consequently, the word soldier implies an individual who hires out his talents, much like a common workman. We only need the two words together now because the evolution of governmental institutions later transformed irregular hired warriors into a professional class. Warriors who fought because of personal obligations, such as knights, were referred to as one’s men or one’s vassals. Today soldiers are committed to serve a nation no matter whether they are volunteers or in a professional army. A soldier no longer changes employers and rarely goes on strike for higher wages.”

The French word for free companies of mercenaries is routiers, which certainly brings to mind the idea of a raiding company roving over the countryside. When free companies were not employed (or not paid), they pillaged. All the same, their numbers grew during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France—because they were so useful. By the middle of th fourteenth century, several companies were sufficiently large and successful to be known by their names and reputation.

The White Company was composed primarily of English warriors who left France after fighting in the Hundred Years’ War, traveling to Italy in 1361. They were hired by the count of Montferrat to battle the Milanese Great Company employed by the duke of Milan—they won. They wore plate armor, highly polished, which might have contributed to their name (or they might have worn white tabards in battle.) They also had many archers with longbows in their company, an effective weapon mastered by the English. In 1364, the Florentines offered the White Company a ransom to leave Tuscany, the money was accepted. Part of the company moved south toward the Papal States, following Albert Sterz and calling themselves the Company of the Star. The remainder of the White Company followed John Hawkwood and remained in Pisa.

John Hawkwood (1323- 1394) was an English mercenary and longbowman who later led the White Company. He was knighted at some point, married twice, and had five legitimate children as well as many illegitimate ones—two of his illegitimate sons are documented. What is striking is the money he earned as leader of the White Company: he was paid in gold florins, and according to L.W. Mazzeno’s John Hawkwood, “In the 30 years that he served as a captain, Hawkwood’s earnings ranged between 6,000 and 80,000 florins annually (in comparison, a skilled Florentine craftsman at the same time earned 30 florins a year).” He was reputed to have been brutal and cunning, as well as loyal, even though the record challenges that last one. John died in Florence and there is a fresco in the Duomo of him on horseback. You can read more about the specifics of his military career in the Wiki about him.

John Hawkwood was not specifically my inspiration for Jean le Beau, Maximilian’s father (I had already chosen his name by the time I dug deeper into the history of free companies) although his story helped me to add details to Jean’s history and to understand better how free companies functioned. Jean le Beau is much nastier piece of work than I believe John was, and is much more enthusiastic about sexual conquests. When I named Jean le Beau, I was thinking of Philip le Bel (Philip IV, King of France 1285-1314) who was notoriously handsome but so inflexible that he was also called the Iron King.

There were more mercenary captains in Italy—called condottieri—including Giovanni de’ Medici (della Bande Nere), and Cesare Borgia—but these tend to be later, in the fifteenth century. If you watch The Borgias, you can see them in action in that era. If you watch The Tudors, you’ll see how reliant Henry VIII became upon mercenary armies in the fifteenth century. Watching either series, you’ll get to enjoy some wonderful eye candy, too.

One of the things that interests me is how a father’s nature will shape the choices and the characters of his sons, legitimate or illegitimate. All four of the heroes in Blood Brothers struggle with the legacy of Jean le Beau, partly based on how well they knew him and how close they were to their mothers. They all despise their father, but that manifests differently for each one—and they all find it particularly troubling to notice any resemblance between themselves and Jean le Beau. That struggle is something we’ll see more of in the rest of the series.

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