Medieval Free Companies II

Battle of Halmyros, a battle between the lightly armed but battle-hardened Almogavars of the infamous Catalan Company and the French Knights of the Duchy of Athens.  By Darren Tan

Mercenary bands like Hawkwood’s could be accurately described as “traveling city-states.” Hawkwood, for example, had to hire his own spies, informers, treasurers, chancellors to draw up papers, business managers, and different levels of employees to run his estates. Financially, he did extremely well. In 1376, for example, his mercenary army was paid 481,800 gold florins. An army does have considerable expenses but, even so, to understand the magnitude of this figure it must be noted that in 1377 the city of Siena, with approximately 50,000 people, had a total income of only 93,962 florins.

Time does not stand still, however, and after 1370 most of the mercenary companies had ceased to operate under the name of the “Great Companies.” The reasons were that many of the captains who had founded them were retired or dead, and many of their troops had been absorbed into the royal armies of England and France. While some of the descendants of the mercenary officers who had held most of France to ransom in the 1360s were still active in central and eastern France as late as the early 1390s, the glory-days of the Great Companies were by then in the past. Hawkwood, however, still managed to prosper. His 500-florin salary had a great deal of purchasing power: in Florence in 1390, it was worth approximately 992 bushels of grain or about 401 barrels of wine.

It is time now to look at an excellent first-hand account of the role of mercenary troops during the civil war in Spain in the 14th century.29 This struggle pitted the legitimate ruler of Spain, Pedro I of Castile (1350–1369), supported by the mercenary and other forces of the Black Prince, against Pedro’s illegitimate half-brother, Count Enrique of Trastámara. Since neither man could win the fight unaided, the civil war became internationalized: mercenary troops joined the fray in 1366.

The source for the following account is Chandos Herald (fl. 1360s–1380s), the author of a long poem about the life of the Black Prince. Chandos Herald is so-named because he was the herald of the English warlord John Chandos, the closest friend of the Black Prince. The following account, set in 1366–1367, shows how the Black Prince prepared for his foray into Spain with mercenary troops and how by the battle of Najera he restored Pedro of Castile to his throne.

The immediate background of this story is that, in the autumn of 1366, Pedro of Castile, an ally of Edward III, asked for the Black Prince’s help in reclaiming his throne, which he had lost to his half-brother, Enrique of Trastámara. The Black Price saw this proposed expedition as a welcome change from the politics of Gascony, in which he was deeply embroiled, and persuaded his father to let him lead his troops and his mercenaries into Spain. As Chandos Herald says,

The prince returned to Bordeaux and got his men ready. He sent for many noble and valiant knights from all over his lands, leaving out neither great nor small; nor did Chandos stay idle, because he went to fetch men of the Great Company, as many as fourteen squadrons, not counting those who returned from Spain when they heard that the prince was going to the aid of king Pedro. They took leave of king Enrique, who let them go and paid them well, for he no longer needed them. He was then king of Castile, and was well content, because he did not think that anyone could overthrow him, since his power was so great….

…as soon as the Bastard [i.e., Enrique of Trastámara] learnt that the prince [with his troops] was hastening to the aid of king Pedro, he did his best to prevent them; he cut off the roads and every morning and evening laid ambushes for them, and got men at arms riding mules and other ruffians to attack them. But the Lord God brought them to the safety of the prince’s lands, which pleased the prince greatly, because he was very keen to achieve his plan. And then he gathered gold, silver and coin to pay his men. All this took place three weeks before Christmas in the year 1366….

…The noble prince ordered payments [to his men] on a generous scale. Then the armourers at Bordeaux forged swords and daggers, coats of mail, helm, short swords, axes, gauntlets, in such number that it would have done for thirty kings….

The prince’s army assembled at Dax [a town in Aquitaine in southwestern France], and all the barons and knights from the country around gathered there. All the companies encamped then in the Basque country [i.e., the traditional homeland of the Basque people, which is located in the western Pyrenees and which spans the border between France and Spain], in the mountains, and waited for two months, with much hardship, until the passes were clear and they could set out on their expedition. They waited all winter, until February [1367], until those from far off and nearby had all gathered.

In April 1367, near Najera, in the province of La Rioja in Castile, the forces of the Black Prince, and their allies met and defeated the opposing army of Enrique of Trastámara, who had to seek shelter in Aragon and in Avignon. Froissart gives local color and sets the stage by telling about the participants in the battle:

Under the pennon [a triangular banner] of St. George, and attached to the banner of Sir John Chandos, were the free companies, who had in the whole twelve hundred streamers. Among them were good and hardy knights and squires, whose courage was proof: namely, Sir Robert Cheney, Sir Perducas d’Albret, Roger Briquet, Sir Garsis du Chastel, Sir Gaillard Viguier, Sir John Charnels, Nandon de Bagerant, Aymemon d’Ortige, Perrot de Savoye, le bourg [i.e., the illegitimate son of] Camus, le bourg de l’Esparre, le bourg de Breteuil, Espiote, and several others.

Chandos Herald explains the battle in these words:

There was not a single man, however humble, in the prince’s company who was not as bold and as brave as a lion…. The Spaniards turned and fled, all giving their horses their heads…. Then the slaughter began, and you could see foot soldiers being killed with daggers and swords….

The site of the battle was a pleasant plain, without a tree or a bush for a league around, beside a fine river, very swift and strong; and this river caused much harm to the Castilians that day, for the pursuit continued as far as the river. More than two thousand drowned there. On the bridge in front of Najera the pursuit was very fierce; you could see knights leaping into the water for fear, and dying one on top of each other. And the river ran crimson, to everyone’s amazement, with the blood of dead men and horses. There was so much slaughter there that I do not think that anyone ever saw anything like it; the dead were so many that the total came to seven thousand seven hundred [almost certainly an inflated estimate] … So the Spaniards were killed and taken, much to the joy of the prince, who waited on the battlefield, his standard raised, to rally his men.

Froissart’s account of how Sir John Chandos fared in this battle gives a vivid picture of medieval hand-to-hand combat:

Sir John Chandos showed exceptional bravery under his banner, and forged so far ahead into the fray that he was surrounded by the enemy and unhorsed. A huge man of Castile, Martin Ferrans by name, whose boldness and courage were far-famed, determined to kill him. But Sir John had not forgotten a knife that he had under his chain-mail; he now drew it and stabbed his attacker to death, when the latter was already on top of him. Sir John jumped up and his men rallied round him.

The battle of Najera was a clear military success for the Black Prince but a clear failure in other terms. Pedro had promised the Black Prince huge sums of money for his help but, in the end, he was unable to provide them. This is not at all surprising, because it is estimated that the ultimate bill for the campaign came to a staggering total 2,720,000 florins—equal to nearly 22,000 pounds of gold. While vainly waiting in hope of payment, the Black Prince caught some kind of dysentery which was to bedevil him for the rest of his life. Moreover, when he returned home to England, he faced discontent both from his own army, which had not been paid, and from the Gascons, whom he wanted to tax so that he could pay off his debts. The illness of the Black Price later became acute and although he would rise from his sick-bed to capture the city of Limoges in 1370, he eventually died at Westminster in 1376.

Reversing usual chronological order, one of the most interesting mercenary leaders, the Bascot (or Bastot) de Mauléon, who is speaking with Froissart in 1388, can be introduced here. Bascot invokes the account, written by the Florentine chronicler Matteo Villani, of the battle of Brignais—a battle which had taken place 26 years earlier (in 1362) but one which the Bascot de Mauléon would still cite with pride as a fine example of mercenary prowess. At that battle, companies of mercenaries had inflicted a heavy defeat on a small French royal army.

The story begins in 1388, when Froissart visited the court of Gaston Phoebus, the Count of Foix, at Orthez in southwestern France. Orthez was an excellent place to collect information on the region. It was the chief town of Béarn, a viscounty located on the French side of the Pyrenees, and shared common frontiers with the kingdoms of Navarre and Aragon. Froissart stayed for 10 to 12 weeks and met many of the men-at-arms gathered there. One of them was the Basque mercenary chieftain Bascot de Mauléon.

This chance meeting would give the Bascot de Mauléon, who in reality was little more than a common highwayman, a modest but permanent niche in medieval history. He would admit candidly, “Sometimes I have been so thoroughly down on my luck that I hadn’t even a horse to ride, and at other times I have been fairly rich, as luck came and went.” In any case, he gave Froissart an excellent and memorable interview. As Froissart puts it:

I saw there [at the count’s court] a Gascon squire, called le Bastot de Mauléon, an expert man at arms, and about fifty years old, according to his appearance. He arrived at the Hostelry of the Moon, where I lodged with Ernauton du Pin, in grand array, having packhorses with him which were being led, as in the case of a great baron, and he and his attendants were served on plate of gold and silver.”

During his meeting with Froissart, the Bastot de Mauléon said:

This treaty of peace [the Treaty of Brétigny, 1360] being concluded, it was necessary for all men at arms and free companies, according to the words of the treaty, to evacuate the fortresses or castles they held. Great numbers collected together, with many poor companions who had learnt the art of war under different commanders, to hold councils as to what quarters they should march, and they said among themselves, that though the kings had made peace with each other, it was necessary for them to live.

They marched into Burgundy, where they had captains of all nations, Germans, Scots, and people from every country. I was there also as a captain. Our numbers in Burgundy, above the river Loire, were upwards of twelve thousand, including all sorts; but I must say, that in this number, there were three or four thousand good men at arms, as able and understanding in war as any [that] could be found, whether to plan an engagement, to seize a proper moment to fight, or to surprise and scale towns and castles, and well inured to war, which we showed at the battle of Brignais, where we overpowered the constable of France, the count de Forêts, with full two thousand lances, knights, and squires.

This battle was of great advantage to the companies, for they were poor, and they enriched themselves by [capturing] good prisoners [who could then be ransomed], and by the towns and castles which they took in the archbishopric of Lyons on the river Rhone.

King John II commissioned Count James Bourbon and Jean de Tancarville to raise an army to put down the “Free Companies” under the informal leadership of Petit Meschin before they could overrun Burgundy. Bourbon and Tancarville gathered their army at Brignais.

The French King‘s forces were besieging the town of Brignais, which had been seized by the Companies in March as an operating base.[4] Never dreaming that the companies would dare challenge them in the open the Royal forces took few steps to secure their camp and when the companies attacked that morning of 6 April 1362 they were taken completely by surprise. In the battle that followed the government army was routed and James Bourbon and his oldest son were mortally wounded.

More can be learned about the details of the battle of Brignais by reading a contemporary account by Matteo Villani (d. 1363), a chronicler from Florence. Petit Meschin, i.e., Meschin the Young, was a Gascon mercenary who would later (in 1369) be drowned in the Garonne River, along with his companion, on the orders of Louis, the duke of Anjou. Louis ordered their execution because they had conspired to hand him over to his enemies, the English.

Villani gives this report of the battle:

In March [1362], the king of France, affronted by the [mercenary] company of Petit Meschin of Auvergne, his fugitive little servant [i.e., his vassal] … hastily assembled an army of around 6,000 cavalry, of French, Germans and others then in France, and having given command of it to Jacques de Bourbon, a prince of the blood, he sent him into Bourbonnais with 4,000 sergeants.

At this time, the company of Petit Meschin had taken one of the king’s castles, called Brignais, and having garrisoned it with 300 men from his company, he raided the county of Forez with [5,000 mercenaries], the major part [being] Italians of his company. Meanwhile, Jacques de Bourbon arrived with his army, camped near Brignais, and believing he would rapidly secure it, besieged the place fearlessly. But, having nothing but contempt for his adversary, he took no proper precautions and was not on his guard.

Petit Meschin, who was experienced in matters of war and captain of a well-organized company which was spoiling for a fight, was a day and a half from Brignais. Having been informed of the disorder in the French camp, with the agreement of his company and tempted by the prospect of considerable booty, he hurriedly retraced his steps and, taking a short cut, arrived unexpectedly above the French camp several hours before daybreak and without any let-up attacked them with great noise and clamour.

Taken by surprise, and frightened by the terrible cries, the French lost heart and although they ran for their arms to repulse the enemy, the companies already pressed so hard upon them that they gave them no time to arm themselves. An army which included so many barons and valiant knights thus had the misfortune to be routed and put to flight, and many were killed and wounded. Those who were able to mount their horses and don their armour nearly all fell into the hands of that vassal of the king of France, Petit Meschin.

So great was the value of the ransoms and booty that all the company became rich. Their victory made them so confident and daring that the court of Rome [i.e., the papacy], which had experience being fleeced by the companies, feared that it would see them arrive at Avignon [then the seat of papal power].

Mercenaries also played a role in 1410 in what the Polish call the battle of Grunwald and the Germans know as the battle of Tannenberg. In the interests of impartiality, both names, i.e., the battle of Grunwald/Tannenberg, are used here. This was a complicated struggle which involved many different units. On one side, a total of 16,000 to 39,000 men came from various sources, e.g., from the Kingdom of Poland; from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania; and from various Polish-Lithuanian vassal, allied, and mercenary forces. On the other side were 11,000 to 27,000 men from the Teutonic Order, led by its Grand Master, Ulrich von Jungingen; its allies; guest crusaders; and mercenaries from Western Europe.

The Teutonic Order, whose formal name was the Order of the Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem, was a German medieval military order formed in Acre at the end of the 12th century to help pilgrims in their travels to the Holy Land and to establish hospitals. It was also a crusading military order in the Middle Ages, consisting of a small military component which was strengthened by mercenaries as the need arose.

Because the Teutonic Knights had a strong economic base, they could afford to hire mercenaries throughout Europe to augment the troops they could raise via feudal levies. Reliance on mercenaries was sometimes a controversial policy, however. For example, the chronicler of the Teutonic order, Johann von Posilge, expressed dismay at the Polish king’s policy of hiring mercenaries from Bohemia, Moravia, and elsewhere. He complained that such men “spurned honesty and God and went against the Christians to destroy the land of Prussia.”

The Teutonic Order arguably reached its high point in 1407, when it controlled many of the lands lying south and east of the Baltic Sea. Three years later, however, a combined Polish-Lithuanian army decisively defeated the Order at the battle of Grunwald/Tannenberg (1410). Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen and 50 of the Order’s 60 most senior officers died in this one fight. Polish and Lithuanian forces seized several thousand captives, keeping those who were rich enough or well-connected enough to pay ransom. The mercenary Holbracht von Loym, for example, had to pay the equivalent of 66 pounds of silver to secure his freedom.

The precise number of soldiers involved in the battle of Grunwald/Tannenberg is not known. It is clear, however, that both sides used troops from several states and lands, plus numerous mercenaries. These mercenaries included two Banners of Czechs. (A Banner was not a flag or a standard but the basic military unit involved in this battle. Each Banner consisted of between 50 to 120 lances of two to five men each.) There was also a mercenary Moravian Banner and, in the Banner of St. George, a mixed contingent of Czechs and other mercenaries.

This battle broke the power of the once-mighty Order. The loss of 200 knights and thousands of foot soldiers weakened the Order’s fighting ability so much that it had increasingly to rely on mercenaries. By the end of 1410, some 7,500 mercenaries had arrived in Prussia to strengthen the Order’s forces. But mercenaries were always a mixed blessing for leaders: in 1411, for example, one group of mercenaries in Danzig seized a ship on a local river and turned pirate. In the long run, the Order’s devastating losses in 1410 would prove to be fatal.