Medieval armies




Medieval armies varied considerably in size and composition. One of the major problems is to find trustworthy sources. Chroniclers were notoriously unreliable on numbers-for a single battle one can have very different estimates. Even administrative sources are not necessarily accurate, usually incomplete and often pose problems of interpretation.

One needs to combat modern misconceptions about medieval armies, in particular to address the idea of what was a `feudal’ army, and the proportion and significance of heavy cavalry. In brief most armies of any importance contained both cavalry and infantry. There were obligations in most nations for men to provide military service, often a duty to serve in a national crisis. We need not broach arguments over the nature of feudalism but it was common in the central Middle Ages for rulers and princes to give land in return for obligations of military service. Commonly this was tied to the provision of a knight, a well-armed and trained cavalryman. There are similar arrangements in Byzantium and the Middle Eastern states and even further afield.

It is clear that armies were rarely composed only of feudal forces. Practically all armies contained an infantry element. In the later Middle Ages infantry, sometimes zv2 72 supplied by urban militias, became increasingly important. In English armies the ratio of archers to men-at-arms increased to about three to one. It was rare for a large medieval army to be without mercenaries or stipendiaries. Paid soldiers were employed in princely and noble military households. `Allies’ might also be paid, as were the hired troops in late medieval companies. By then whole armies often consisted of paid men.

Military households descended from the war-bands of barbarian kings or chieftains. Members owed allegiance to their lord, often reinforced by oaths. In return the lord gave shelter and sustenance. Practically all medieval rulers had military households, often expanded in war. Most household men needed the lord’s wealth to support their living. One example is the huscarl of Scandinavian and late Anglo-Saxon kings. Perhaps their greatest significance is their permanence; trained soldiers, they were the precursors of professional troops and standing armies.

Mercenaries were also significant. An individual could easily exchange one status for the other. Basically a mercenary required pay in return for his fighting presence. Mercenaries might be employed short- or long-term. The increased financial resources of medieval rulers made possible the employment of more mercenaries more often. They replaced traditional forces raised through national duty or feudal obligation. Mercenaries could be employed throughout the year for long campaigns. National and feudal troops were not normally poorly trained and we should remember that medieval man was accustomed to a state of almost permanent war, so that most men were prepared and experienced in action. Nevertheless mercenaries came closest to being professional warriors. In the later Middle Ages they appeared in cohesive bands under captains, employed en bloc by a ruler. They were often engaged as specialists-heavy cavalry, light cavalry, archers, spearmen, pikemen and so on.

It has been argued that medieval armies were smaller than once assumed. Exact figures are rarely if ever available but reasonable estimates support this thesis in general. Medieval armies seldom consisted of more than a few thousand men and sometimes of only a few hundred. We must however be cautious, since large numbers were often available and we can rarely be certain how many were used.

It is important to analyse the composition of medieval armies. They were normally well organised in units, small and large. The major divisions were often called `battles’- three, four, or more, to an army. Men often fought in regional groups-Bretons on the left, Normans on the right. There were smaller units, such as conrois, consisting of 10 or 20 men.

If armies were less feudal than has been thought, in their command they were mostly royal and aristocratic-social position taking precedence over military ability. No one could command an emperor or a king. Overall command of allied forces was a tricky affair and allied armies often, as a result, did not combine well. Kings were usually expected to lead their armies and it was rare for lesser men to receive the same respect. A sensible king could recognise military capacity in subordinates, and trusted lieutenants could improve their master’s command ability or compensate for lack of it; one thinks of Mercadier serving Richard the Lionheart or Cadoc for Philip Augustus. The army was subdivided and commanders were required for the battles and divisions. These would commonly be nobles, who usually brought, under their personal command, a proportion of the whole army.

Armies needed organisation. There were numerous necessary tasks such as assembly, grouping, feeding, supply, weapons and clothing, accommodation, pack animals, arrangements for river crossing or transport overseas. The royal or noble household was often vital, with officials responsible for particular tasks. When one considers the problems of travel and transport one realises that organisation in some ways posed greater difficulties than in modern times.


The overall planning of warfare, particularly of campaigns, from Greek, the plan of the strategos or general. As with tactics so with strategy, older historians sneered at medieval methods, denying that strategy existed. More recent studies (for example Smail, Contamine, Gillingham) show this is untrue. It could normally only be a concept of princes and kings. Thus strategy might be determined by a ruler’s decision to invade and conquer, as Edward I did in Scotland or Henry V in Normandy. Most princes followed a cautious strategy, avoiding pitched battle and favouring control through sieges and garrisons. Sometimes strategy was limited to creating damage and panic, as with the chevauchées of the Black Prince. Popular medieval military handbooks, such as those by Vegetius, Pierre Dubois and Christine de Pisan, contained views on strategy.


The provision of what an army requires-food, drink, clothing, transport, camp gear, arms, armour, fodder and so on. Food and drink were the main necessity, with the need for fresh supplies. Well-organised supply was always a major factor in war. Supply for distant campaigns could be particularly difficult, requiring careful planning. When supply is insufficient, problems follow-desertion, atrocities, damage from foraging to compensate for failed supply, even death. Good supply is often the province of government and requires good communication with the army, with information on its changing needs. Medieval armies realised the need for good supply. Carolingian capitularies reserved two-thirds of grazing in some regions for the army and arranged for carts to transport supplies. Improvement came with the streamlining of taxation and bureaucracy. Ability in this area explains the military success of some rulers who may not have been great generals-Philip Augustus springs to mind. It was important to disrupt the enemy’s supply, hence the emphasis on crop destruction, pollution of water sources, attacks on supply trains, and breaking lines of communication-destroying bridges, blocking roads and ports or barring river traffic. In England from about 1300 the development of prise (the compulsory purchase of food for armies, later called purveyance) was a move towards larger-scale organisation. Protection and storage mattered. On crusade in Cyprus, St Louis collected heaps of wheat and barley as large as hills. The corn on top sprouted after rain and was wasted but that underneath remained useable.


It was formerly believed that medieval armies had little planning or organisation. It is now acknowledged that strategy and tactics were a constant part of medieval warfare. There are so many factors involved in tactical decisions that one cannot give comprehensive cover in a brief note but there are countless examples of the use of tactical positioning-for example on a hill, or with flanking cover, as from marsh or river. The benefit of surprise was recognised, of using hidden forces and reserves. The past was studied for information. Geoffrey V of Anjou, while at a siege, studied the De Re Militari of Vegetius-a frequently copied work. The bishop of Auxerre expatiated on Vegetius before a crowd of knights in c. 1200. The nature of weapons and troops available influenced tactics such as concerted knightly charges, dismounting men-at-arms, use of missile forces like archers, or defensive pike formations. The importance of training was understood, as shown in tournaments, or by practice manoeuvres of militias. Armies were formed from tactical units-major divisions such as battles and lesser groups such as conrois or lances, making possible battlefield moves including steady advance, angled advance, advance in echelon, flanking attack and organised retreat. Mistakes were made and some commanders lacked tactical ability but medieval warfare usually involved tactical thinking. The survival of a document on how Agincourt might have been fought (in the way it never was) shows that tactics were considered before battle as well as during it. There is evidence for the use of scouts to give advance warning of enemy movements (as at Brémule), and of messengers to keep the command informed during battle. Major considerations were how to use available forces, such as mounted knights or gunpowder weapons, to their best advantage, how best to counter enemy strengths, for example by taking good positions or presenting obstacles such as stakes, trenches or missile troops, and how best to attack the particular opposition.

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