Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Archer's Tale - Part 3: The Men of the Bow

After their humiliating defeat at Poitiers coupled with the loss of their sovereign as an English prisoner, France sued for peace by means of the Treaty of Brétigny in 1360AD.  In the treaty, France ceded to the English Crown all its ancestral Angevin possessions along with substantial gains in Maine and Ponthieu, a foothold in the now-English client state of Brittany, and the port city of Calais along with its surrounding lands.  In return, Edward III curiously dropped his claim to the throne of France and promised a truce with the House of Valois.  In just 23 years, England had burst onto the scene of Continental politics as a first-rate power and the military exploits of Edward’s armies were now the talk of Christendom.  This is in no small way due to the archers that bore the Cross of St. George.  But, who were these men?  Military history often focuses much of its attention to weapons and tactics at the expense of investigating the human warriors who employed them.  Fortunately, a plethora of sources contemporary to the men who carried their warbows onto the fields of France, Spain, Italy, and the British Isles still exist today and have given valuable insight to scholars in our times as to who these intrepid adventurers were.

France post 1360AD - English lands shown in red and pink and English allies and dependencies shown in white and yellow.
Due to the military reforms enacted by Edward I and his successors, English armies deviated from the old Continental systems of feudal obligation and conscripted levies and adopted what might today be called a more volunteer “citizen army” concept.  This concept was not that strange to England, however, as it had roots in the ancient Anglo-Saxon Fyrd system that predated the Norman Conquest.  Starting with Longshanks, the Crown issued Assizes of Arms that, more or less, divided all men of military age (15 through 60 years old) into their respective social classes based on their total property value.  Then, accompanying Statutes would mandate what sort of weaponry and equipment should be maintained by men in those brackets.  Take this example from the Statute of Winchester (1284AD):

“Every man between fifteen years and sixty years shall be assessed and sworn to armour according to the quantity of their lands and goods ; that is to wit from £15 land or 40 marks* goods a hauberk, sword, knife, and a horse: £10 land or 20 marks goods a hauberk, sword, and a knife … and he that have less than 20 marks in goods shall have swords, knives, and other less weapons: and all others that may shall have bows and arrows out of the Forest and in the forest bows and boults. And that view of armour shall be made every year two times.”
(*A “mark” in Medieval England equaled 13 shillings and 4 pence – roughly two thirds of a Pound sterling)

However, in the late 13th Century, actual service was still seen as compulsory when the Crown went to war.  What changed dramatically under Edward III was that Englishmen were no longer compelled to serve out of obligation, but were offered the reward of financial compensation.  Edward’s Assizes established a contractual system in which bands of volunteers (both men-at-arms and archers) agreed to serve for wages – something that could be sweetened with the prospect of additional bonuses in the form of enemy loot.  As to exactly how these men were recruited, there were two systems.  The first was the Commissions of Array.  This was the older system that had been enacted by Edward I in which knights and minor nobles were assigned a particular county or shire within the Realm and, when the King called for troops, these commissioners selected the most fit men from their respective county to meet that county’s particular quota.  Although this system was used initially at the start of the Hundred Years War, it was fraught with numerous problems due to logistical inefficiency, desertion, and corruption on the part of certain commissioners (See Shakespeare’s character “Falstaff” from Henry IV Part 1).  Gradually, a more efficient and lucrative system took the Commission’s place – the Indenture system.  Under this, the Crown would grant Nobles and professional men-at-arms the authority to issue “indentures” in the King’s name to any volunteers.  These volunteers would then form a “retinue” under the figure who hired them and would be under his operational command for the duration of the campaign.  However, these indentures always had an end date and stipulated in exhaustive detail the terms of service.  The Indenture system also allowed the formation of highly skilled retinues of specialists – the archers from Cheshire, Lancashire, and southern Wales gained such an elite reputation that they were allowed to negotiate indentures with and serve directly under the Crown itself.

For the average archer, the financial compensation (both offered and potential) more than served as an attractive incentive for service with the King abroad.  Archers, along with the rest of the army, were paid at contracted daily rates agreed to in the terms of their service.  At the time of Edward III and his son, the Black Prince, mounted archers (“mounted” here refers to their mode of transport, not how they deployed onto the battlefield) were paid at the rate of 6 pence a day – foot archers received 3 pence.  Be aware that, in 14th Century England, 1 penny could buy a gallon of ale.  By the time of Henry V, professional archers were being indentured for 9 pence a day (although, that may have been due to minor inflation).  This was a vast improvement over what would be earned yearly as a farming landowner or a simple craftsman.  The prospects of loot would only enhance the attraction to service.  English kings and lords who led armies into France made it clear that all spoils of war would belong to those that captured it – some English nobles even refused any booty for themselves as an act of loyalty to the Crown.  For the common soldiers and archers, the spoils of a victory could be immense.  John Jodrell, an archer in the elite Cheshire retinue that served at Poitiers, sold a French silver salt cellar he seized to the Black Prince for £8 – a bonus of a year’s worth of pay!  After the fall of Caen to Edward III in 1346AD, Froissart records entire barges being loaded with furs, jewels, gold, silver, and wine.  With the possibility of such prospects, it is easy to see how English commoners – trained in the use of the warbow from childhood – would volunteer in droves when the King called for men.

Looting on campaign, 14th Century.
One must also take into account the culture and society from whence these warriors were drawn.  Far from being the idealized heroes of Agincourt mythos that remains in the English-speaking world to this day, the men of the bow were a rather refreshingly simple, if rough, bunch.  Of all Medieval Europe, England had for the longest time possessed a cultural admiration for the “common freeman” that went all the way back to its shadowy Anlgo-Saxon period of huscarls, fyrdmen, and theigns.  With the establishment of official checks on royal power under Magna Carta and the formation of the legislative body of Parliament, such traditions simply became entrenched.  Commoners in England commanded far greater respect than their contemporaries on the Continent, and any English king or noble who forgot this fact did so at his own peril!  The men who wielded the bow usually came from diverse backgrounds, but all of them were accustomed to the hard living required of every human in the Medieval period.  At best, they were rough-hewn farm boys and city ruffians – at worst, they were professional brigands and outlaws attracted to service by the prospect of a Royal pardon.  All of them sought wealth, adventure, and maybe even a ticket to climb higher in society … as many did.  It was not uncommon for an archer in the 14th and 15th Centuries to gain enough wealth or prestige to return home in far better social standing than when he left.  A few even won the favor of the aristocracy and were granted arms of nobility.

The prospects of the archer didn’t end with service to his own country, either.  After the Treaty of Brétigny and the uneasy truce that followed, many archers and men-at-arms faced lack of employment as their indentures were finished.  Having grown accustomed to war and the rewards that came to those that survived, many veterans simply never returned home and instead formed “Free Companies” that roamed throughout Christendom offering their considerable skills to the highest bidder.  Perhaps the most famous stomping grounds for these soldiers-of-fortune were the fabulously wealthy and forever-fighting merchant city-states of Italy.  These English mercenaries became both a scourge and a boon for the city-states of Tuscany and Lombardy, depending on which side had hired them.  Their efficacy on the field was unquestioned and English Free Companies soon became some of the most highly priced mercenaries in Italy.  The men themselves often grew phenomenally wealthy and some even influenced Italian affairs on a grand scale.  Perhaps the most famous example of these adventurers is the notorious John Hawkwood (Giovanni Acuto to the Tuscans).  Originally the younger son of a common landowner in Essex, Hawkwood answered the King’s call to fight in France – possibly serving in both the Crécy and Poitiers campaigns.  While in France, he fostered close relationships with other professional English warriors who, together with Hawkwood, would form the “White Company” after the end of hostilities in France.  Gradually, Hawkwood would gain sole command of the White Company and became the most famous (and dreaded) mercenary leader in Tuscany.  Called “Il Volpe” (The Fox) by friend and foe alike due to his cunning use of maneuver in his tactics, Hawkwood served in the employ of numerous Italian city-states to include Milan, Pisa, Florence, Naples, and even the Papal States.  Over the course of his long life, he amassed unbelievable wealth and power, becoming a powerful Tuscan lord in his own right and rubbing shoulders with other famous men and women of his day like Chaucer, Petrach, St. Catherine of Siena, and Froissart.  However, he never forgot the key to his success – at the battle of Castagnaro in 1387AD, Hawkwood deployed his English archers in a manner reminiscent of the Black Prince’s own tactics at Poitiers and won a smashing victory for his Paduan employers.  He died an honorary citizen of Florence and was buried with full honors in the great basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore (commonly known as Il Doumo in Florence) where his tomb can be seen to this day.  Not bad for the landless son of a humble farmer from Essex.

"Monsignore, God grant you peace," said the monks.
"And may God take away your alms," Hawkwood responded immediately.
"Lord! Why do you speak to us this way?" asked the frightened monks.
"Indeed, because you spoke thus to me," replied John ... "How can you think you spoke well," said Hawkwood, "when you approach me and say that God should let me die of hunger?  Don't you know that I live from War and peace would destroy me?  As I live by war, you live by alms."
Conversation attributed to Hawkwood by 14th C. writer Franco Sacchetti in his work Il Trecentonovelle
However, such stories of riches and adventure should not be allowed to obscure the hardships suffered by the average archer on campaign.  As in all military endeavors throughout human history, the possibility of death lay behind ever hill and hedgerow.  Other than the obvious deaths from combat and improperly tended wounds, there were a myriad other dangers that faced archers every day.  Disease often ran rampant on campaigns – Henry V lost over a third of his original force in 1415AD to dysentery.  Poor food and dirty water often compounded the effects of disease.  The elements could also take their toll if commanders failed to time their campaigns properly, as befell John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, when his chevauchée was caught deep in enemy territory during a fierce winter in 1373AD.  However, contrary to modern misconception, the average Medieval commoner was fairly naturally resilient and most had an average life expectancy of 60-70 years.  Although medical knowledge was certainly not what it is now, there was still basic understandings of what things caused disease and how to avoid them.  Surgeons that often accompanied armies were fairly skilled at mending all but the worst of combat wounds and even used substances that served as natural antiseptics.  A young Henry V, then Prince of Wales and commanding his father’s flank at Shrewsbury in 1403AD, was saved by surgeons who removed a Welsh arrow from his face and treated the wound with honey – a natural antimicrobial agent.

All in all, the English archer became somewhat of a rockstar on the Continent.  Their fame (or villainy … depending on whose side you were on) extended throughout Christendom to places as exotic as Rhodes - in service to the Knights Hospitaller against the Turks, Castile (the Black Prince won a famous victory with his archers at Nájera in 1367AD while supporting King Pedro against his French-backed pretender Enrique II), and Prussia fighting pagan Lithuanians during the Northern Crusades.  This fame later became an integral part of the national pride of England – a pride that carried on to the present day.  In my opinion, I think lifelong warbow expert and red-blooded Englishman Robert Hardy put it best, however:

“Of the archer himself we shall learn much more, from a detail here or a clue there, as we go on. Broadly speaking, he was drawn from the villages and fields, a man of small property, sometimes none, sometimes an outlaw or a poacher pardoned for service; a man of no great estimation in the world, but a man of country skills and strength, rough living and hard working, accustomed to things of wood and finding pleasing familiarity in the wooden bow ... With two quivers at his back, he shouldered his bow in its canvas bowcase and marched his way to much estimation in Britain, and after 1346 to find great esteem and to inspire great dread throughout Europe.
It had been hard to train him to his best; it proved impossible to keep him to it; but at his best there was no man in the world to beat him, no matter the odds against him; and his breed lasted long beyond the warbow; he used the musket and the rifle; he endured in 1915 the same - and worse - than his forefathers suffered in 1415. There has been a fashion lately to deride, not his kind, but his service to his nation as an exploitation by his rulers of his servitude and simplicity. Neither he nor his nation has ever taken kindly to servitude ... He will never entirely perish because, for all the sloth and cantankerous emulation that lie side-by-side in his nature, he shares with the best of mankind: courage, clear sight, and honesty."

Sources referenced:
William Caferro, John Hawkwood – An English Mercenary in 14th Century Italy, John Hopkins University Press, 2006.
Jean Froissart, Chroniques, 1388AD
Robert Hardy, Longbow – A Social and Military History, Haynes Publishing, 2012.
Peter Hoskins, In The Steps of the Black Prince, Boydell Press, 2013.
David Nicolle, The Great Chevauchée – John of Gaunt’s Raid on France 1373, Osprey Publishing, 2011.
Richard Wadge, Arrowstorm – The World of the Archer in the Hundred Years War, The History Press, 2007.


  1. Any way you can make the comment system anonymous? Currently it requires linking to another account. That stops me every time.

    1. I mean, anonymous from Google. This is V.