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.

William II de Soules

I promised you another post about my inspiration for The Wolf & the Witch, but things got away from me. The last two months have been hectic, but I’m catching up.

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

In The Wolf & the Witch, the father of the heroine, Alys, was Robert Armstrong. He died when she was a child (no spoilers from me!) but had a reputation as a man who had made a deal with a demon. She reveals that he had lost a great deal before he died himself: her mother had died in childbirth, so he was a widower; he had made some poor decisions in administering his holding and household, so had no servants or villeins any longer; he had been robbed of all his wealth and his treasury was empty; and finally, he was reputed to have made a deal with a demon of the classic one-soul-for unlimited-power variety. (Why he would have been in such dire straits after making such a deal is another question altogether.) The ruin of Kilderrick is said to be haunted by a redcap goblin, which was Robert’s familiar – a detail that Alys uses to advantage to keep intruders away. In the course of the story, Alys realizes a few key truths about her father.

But the point of this post is to share my inspiration for Robert, which was William II de Soules. (I’ve already posted about Hermitage Castle being the inspiration for fictional Kilderrick.) William was a nobleman in the fourteenth century who held Hermitage castle and died in 1321. Like the fictional Robert, William had a considerable reputation, not all of which was true.

Let’s go back a bit. The first William de Soules was a Scottish nobleman granted the holding of Liddesdale by the Scottish king, and Butler of Scotland. His son, Nicholas de Soules, inherited the holding and the titles upon his father’s death around ???. When Margaret, the Maid of Norway, died in 1290, Nicholas was one of the contenders for the Scottish crown—the story was that his grandmother had been an illegitimate daughter of King Alexander II. His quest for the throne did not succeed and in 1296, he pledged homage to Edward I of England. He and his wife, Margaret Comyn, had two sons, William and John.

Nicholas’ son, William (II), was received into the peace of England by Edward I in 1304. He remained in the service of the English until Robert the Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn in 1314—then he changed his allegiance back to Scotland. He became Butler of Scotland, like his father and grandfather, but then, in 1320, was part of a plot challenging Robert the Bruce. It seems likely that the old idea of the de Soules line having a claim to the throne might have been behind this. The plot was found out and William arrested at Berwick. He confessed to his treason at the Black Parliament of 1320, but the king spared his life, making his considerable lands forfeit instead. William was imprisoned in Dumbarton Castle, where he died in 1321, leaving a daughter and heiress, Ermengarde.

The rumors about William are far more interesting! He was reputed to be a sorceror, tutored by the famous (dead) magician, Michael Scot. William could not be bound with ropes, injured by steel or killed by ordinary means because of his powers. He was large and cruel, seizing children for his blood rites and terrorizing both his vassals and his neighbors. He was said to have fortified his fortress, Hermitage Castle, against the king using supernatural means. (Even so, it wasn’t the castle that we recognize on that site: the castle that survives is a remnant of the fortification build by the Earl of Douglas after the holding was forfeited by Soules.) William’s abused vassals complained repeatedly to the king, Robert the Bruce, who is dismissive of their concerns in these stories, telling them “Boil him, if you please, but let me hear no more of him.”

And so, they do. The villagers have a chain forged to restrain the large and powerful William. He is taken forcibly to the Ninestang Ring and boiling him in molten lead. The story continues that Hermitage Castle sank into the ground after the passing of its lord, and that the keep is haunted still by William’s familiar, Robin Redcap.

There is a ballad about William called Lord Soulis composed by J. Leyden and included by Sir Walter Scott in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. (It’s in Volume IV). It ends like this:

At the Skelf-hill, the cauldron still
The men of Liddesdale can show;
And on the spot, where they boil’d the pot,
The spreat and the deer-hair ne’er shall grow.

I didn’t have nearly enough fun with Robin Redcap in The Wolf & the Witch, but we’ll see more of him in The Scot & the Sorceress. I think Nyssa knows a lot more about goblins and hauntings than I do—and more than Murdoch would like to believe.

A Fifteenth Century Dress

One of the things going on behind the scenes here is the translation of many of my books into other languages. This is a really interesting exercise: I love seeing the covers translated and also the discussions with my translation teams. One team in particular sends me questions to make sure they get the details right. This can require a bit of detective work on my end, since we’re starting translations with the Jewels of Kinfairlie series, which I wrote in 2005. Sometimes I just don’t remember! I thought I would share one of my recent investigations with you, when I went looking for a 15th century dress.

The Rose Red Bride, #2 of the Jewels of Kinfairlie series of medieval Scottish romances by Claire Delacroix

The translators are working on The Rose Red Bride, and wanted more explanation about Vivienne’s dress. Here’s what it says in the book:

“Her finest chemise of sheer linen was an obvious choice, as she wished to impress her fairy lover with her finery. It was cut full and gathered at the neck on a drawstring, as was typical, but was distinguished by sleeves fitted from elbow to wrist and secured with dozens of tiny buttons made of shell.

It was no small feat to don the chemise without the aid of one of her sisters or their maid, but Vivienne managed the deed.

She then donned her favorite kirtle, also a gift from Rosamunde, which was wrought of silk woven in two shades of emerald. The sleeves were slit from the shoulders to reveal the chemise and trailed to the ground, while the hem pooled upon the floor. The hem and neckline and sleeve edges were all graced with intricate golden embroidery. The men in her family had called it a most impractical garment, while her sisters openly coveted it.”

Illustration from The Chronicle of Western Fashion by John Peacock

It sounded to me as if I’d been inspired by a specific dress, so I went looking in my library for the source. I found it in The Chronicle of Western Fashion, by John Peacock, a book of illustrations I’ve had for a long time.

It’s labelled as being the outfit of an Italian lady from 1410. If you look closely, you can see the buttons along the sleeve of the ochre chemise, from elbow to wrist.

I did wonder whether I could find more detail, though, and kept looking.

In Medieval Costume in England and France by Mary G. Houston, I found the image below. It looks like the same dress but the woman is illustrated with three other people.

Illustration from Medieval Costume in England and France by Mary G. Houston

One of the interesting things about medieval costume is that there aren’t that many sources, and the sources are a bit different than you might expect. Queens and kings carved onto cathedrals, for example, or depicted in marginalia of manuscripts or woven into tapestries will usually be dressed in the style of the times of the artist and not of their actual era. An illustration of Noah at the flood could show 13th century court dress very well.

This line drawing was inspired by an image in the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry, a 15th century book of hours filled with miniature paintings. Books of prayer are also a great source of social history details, including clothing styles.

This is the painting for April from the Très Riches Heures, which shows fruit trees in bloom in a walled garden, maidens picking flowers, men fishing and a couple pledging their troth. It’s just what you might expect to happen in April in the northern hemisphere. You’ll recognize the woman in blue as the inspiration for the drawings, and for Vivienne’s dress.

April from the Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry

This image is from a website called Digital Medievalist. You can see it in more detail, here.

Here’s the Wiki on the Très Riches Heures, too, which is a comparatively large book of hours. It measures about 8″ by 12″ but many books of hours are tiny, only four inches or so in each dimension. The detail in them is incredible! If you’re ever at the Cloisters in New York, they have a collection of books of hours and there are always a few on display. You can also see selected pages from the books of hours in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum (which owns the Cloisters) on this page of search results.

The Rose Red Bride, book two of the Jewels of Kinfairlie series of medieval romances by Claire Delacroix, German edition

So, I found Vivienne’s 15th century dress, and now the translators know what the sleeves look like.

The German edition of The Rose Red Bride – which will be called die rosenrote Braut – should be available in January.