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.

Inspiration for Kilderrick

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

When I began to plan for my Blood Brothers trilogy, I wanted to visit some new territory, so to speak. I’ve written books set in medieval France and England—as well as less conventional settings, like Persia—and my Scottish medievals begin at Ravensmuir, inspired by Tantallon to the east of Edinburgh. My Scottish medieval family at Kinfairlie had links to the throne and to France, and their background was Norman. Ultimately, they married into families from the Highlands. The Rogue begins in 1371 and The Beauty Bride in 1421: I like to stay clear of the years that the black plague was in Scotland, 1349-50 and 1362. In my Champions of St. Euphemia series, Fergus returns home from Crusade to Galloway in 1188 in The Crusader’s Vow, while in The Beauty, Alasdair has returned home from Crusade to the Highlands in 1183, which sets those stories on the other side of the plague.

The heroes in the Blood Brothers series are warriors and sons of a successful mercenary. Mercenaries—or blades-for-hire—existed throughout the Middle Ages, actually even longer than that. They traveled to wherever there was a battle, hiring themselves and their companies out to the highest bidder. They were particularly successful before kings established standing armies, because their services were needed by those kings – it was true that vassals owed military service or knights to their overlords or king, but these men weren’t always as well equipped, trained or sufficiently numerous. In the fourteenth century, mercenaries proliferated in Europe – some were nobly born, some weren’t, and they tend to be left out of the chronicles. I like the sons of mercenaries as heroes: they are often conflicted about their legacy and their livelihood, which makes them ideal candidates for the Beauty-and-the-Beast stories I so love to write.

The Scot and the Sorceress, book two of the Blood Brothers trilogy by Claire Delacroix

I chose the titles for the books because of their alliteration, and because they reminded me of the titles of historical romances when I first started to read these books. I loved those sweeping stories, filled with history and passion, and that was what I intended this series to be like. (And yes, the swishy type is a bonus.) Since the heroes were warriors, the women needed to have some abilities of their own: the first two heroines are called Witch and Sorceress, but I knew that would only be their cover story to keep unwanted suitors and intruders away. I envisioned them like the witches in MacBeth, surviving on the edge of the wilderness, fiercely independent and fearless.

This series was to be set in Scotland and I was fascinated with the Border Reivers who operated on the Western Marches. Although these border raiders operated from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, most of the stories about them are from the later period, and I expected this series to be set in the late fifteenth or even the sixteenth century. I had mixed feelings about this era, but liked the idea of my heroines being rebels who were indifferent to authority.

Then I dug into my research and—as is so often the case—the pieces fell into place, as if by magic. It seemed as if I’d brought together the perfect combination of elements. Liddesdale is a valley to the north and east of Carlisle, notorious as a retreat for reivers, with a large forest to the east which is today preserved as the Border Forest Park. South of this park, Hadrian’s Wall remains. At the north end of the Liddesdale valley is a castle ruin at Hermitage.

The ruins of Hermitage Castle on the Scottish Borders

Many of the medieval stone buildings in the area frequented by the reivers are fortified towers, but this is a fortress. Hermitage is said to derive from the French l’armitage or guardhouse and this keep was called “the strength of Liddesdale”. The original structure was built in 1240 by Nicholas de Soulis and was a motte-and-bailey keep. In 1320, his descendant William de Soulis was said to have practiced witchcraft and/or been a magician who could not be harmed by steel or rope. He terrorized his tenants and the story is that they rose up and boiled him in molten lead in a nearby stone circle called Ninestang Ring. The keep is said to be haunted by his familiar, Redcap Sly, and that story was recorded by Sir Walter Scott in his Minstrelsie of the Scottish Border. (We’ll talk more about this next week.) It’s a great story, but William was actually imprisoned by his overlord and died imprisoned in Dumbarton Castle. The current structure, imposing even in ruin, was built by the Earl of Douglas in the late fourteenth century, likely with the services of John Lewin, the master mason from Durham Cathedral.

The ruins of Hermitage Castle on the Scottish Borders

And so, I have a fourteenth century story inspired by historical events: I now know that the mercenary (and son of a mercenary) Maximilian burned Kilderrick, the motte-and-bailey keep held by Alys’ father, at his own father’s command. Hermitage is the inspiration for Kilderrick, making Alys the sole survivor of a family experienced in border raiding (as the Armstrongs were said to be). Of course, she remembers the fire and blames Maximilian for everything she’s lost. Of course, Maximilian will be the one to build the new keep in stone when he returns to claim the holding – he’ll want to ensure that it is a fortress that can never be taken from him, as his rightful legacy has been. We’ll miss the plague of 1365, although both protagonists remember its ravages. Maximilian arrives at Kilderrick in 1375, fifteen years after he left it smoldering. England and France have signed the Truce of Bruges that will last only until 1378—which means Maximilian will be able to travel from Normandy to Scotland with comparative ease. The Scots and the English will ride to war in 1384, although both sides were already making preparations for the inevitable conflict, which is why Maximilian will be able to secure the financing for construction from the Earl of Douglas in exchange for his alliance.

Is there a ghost in the ruins? Alys would like Maximilian to think so—and as Maximilian’s unwilling bride, she has the ways and means to make her husband doubt his own sanity, as well as the motivation to do so. (Enemies-to-lovers stories are so fun.)

Next week, we’ll talk about the story of William Soulis.

Learn more about The Wolf & the Witch.