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15.10.03, Bell, et al., The Soldier in Later Medieval England

The Medieval Review

15.10.03, Bell, et al., The Soldier in Later Medieval England

This work presents the first fruits of a major research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and accessible to the public through searchable online databases available at It can also be seen as an example of what has been called the New Military History, which contextualizes traditional interests in battles and troop movements by application of methodologies that explore the full cultural impact of warfare. At its core is a listing of every soldier known to have served the English crown from 1369 to 1453, during the campaigns of the Hundred Years' War in France as well as engagements throughout the British Isles. Career information is supplemented where possible to provide the fullest biographical notices, not only for the well-recorded upper classes, but also for more modest campaigners. Although fairly bristling with statistical data presented in over sixty tables and an appendix, the material is saved from dry matter-of-factness by the inclusion of personal details that illuminate individuals and highlight relationships. This is an essential study written with grace and gravity.

Chief among the primary sources used in this study are the muster rolls, mainly to be found in the Exchequer records of The National Archives at Kew and supplemented by other European collections. These consist of contracts for captains with the royal government, listing combatants usually in order of social precedence and recording the size and composition of the force, the rates of pay, and the length of service. Supplementing the rolls are letters of protection soldiers could gain to protect their property and business while on campaign, and appointments of attorneys for similar assistance, although these records tend to favor the better-off and are no guarantee that the person who gained them actually performed military service. Nevertheless, they can provide valuable prosopographical details of careers and family ties unavailable elsewhere. The archival sources are joined by abundant references to the pertinent secondary literature, helpfully placed in footnotes for ease of consultation.

The introduction sets out the major research questions to be investigated in the course of the volume. Who were the combatants in terms of social position and training? Can career paths be discerned? Was there a professional soldiery in a society without a standing army, and what would it look like? How did patterns of service and commitment change over time, and were they influenced by changes in royal dynasty and campaign strategy? What role did economics play? Just how militarized can we judge English medieval society to be? This section also discusses some of the difficulties of dealing with the primary sources. The authors are forthright about the problems presented by men with the same name and with linking records of individuals named in different sources. Given that the work is based on about 250,000 entries for individual soldiers (some appear more than once), we can not only be certain there is a statistically significant base, but that the judgments of the authors who have assembled this data are firmly grounded.

The first four chapters examine the participants in the same social order witnessed on muster rolls. Chapter one deals with the peerage (technically those who received a personal writ of summons to parliament). The closer one's relations to the king, the sooner such men tended to begin their military participation--sometimes as early as age ten or twelve. Over ninety per cent gave military service on at least one occasion, indenting for and commanding the largest retinues. Mean age at first service was twenty-two and last service forty-four, but almost one-third continued into their fifties. Twenty per cent experienced death in militarily-related service in the early period, a figure that rose as artillery shot grew more common. After Henry V's reign and as garrison establishment replaced pitched battles and land expeditions, peerage participation tended to wane, although military skills and preparedness remained part of the group's essential character.

Chapter two examines the knights, a group whose numbers were already declining before the start of the period under study. The authors discuss the reasons why men avoided taking up knighthood (cost, reluctance to neglect land and household obligations), noting the dramatic fall in this group by 1389 (associated with the establishment of peace through the Truce of Leulinghem) and a steady downturn after 1422. Once again, the shift to garrisons discouraged many knights and the gentry families they came from, although some dedicated their careers to military service, such as the thirteen knights who served with the duke of York in 1441, one of whom was a veteran of Agincourt.

Moving down the social ladder, chapter three looks at men-at-arms--all 53,558 entries for them in the databases. This was another group declining in numbers over the span of the period as the participation of archers increased (from the 1370s when armies held half men-at-arms and half archers, to ratios of 1:3 under Henry V, and as high as 1:10 near the end of the period). The personal participation of royalty tended to inspire more men-at-arms to participate in campaigns, and garrison leadership did not discourage them as much as their social betters. Some hailed from families who had been of the knightly class, and knighthood itself was not out of the question if one distinguished oneself. The records of the Court of Chivalry prove helpful to assess men-at-arms' social roles, revealing through their testimony that they could gain long experience in the field, serve in geographically diverse theaters from Scotland to Iberia, and provide testimony that was valued by their superiors.

Chapter four on the archers proves especially valuable in overturning stereotypes and illuminating the real men behind the longbows. Throughout the period, there appears to have been no shortage of archers. Given that groups of archers as large as 11,000 could be raised (as occurred in 1400 for one of Henry IV's Scottish expeditions), the recruitment pool had to be very deep. The least expensive to remunerate (sixpence per day, compared to twice that for men-at-arms), nonetheless they could not be the dregs of society as they were required to bring a horse, their bows, and other small weapons. Some, in fact, were members of the same families as men-at-arms and even knights, often younger kinsmen eager to grab the opportunity for adventure, booty, and possible social advancement. This group had ample opportunity to become professionalized, especially with garrison service at one or more centers, often being rewarded with houses or holdings in or near the center committing the men to the English occupation of France and giving them a vested interest in defending their own property. What is not found in abundance is the Welsh archer: after the Agincourt campaign, few appear in the records, their service on foot not as valuable as their mounted counterparts.

Discussion of crossbowmen is postponed until chapter five, grouped with other military specialists. Almost half of all recorded crossbowmen were drawn from other realms (Castile, Portugal, Genoa, Germany), and proved most useful for naval campaigns. The weapon required less strength and accuracy than the longbow, so that archers could take up the crossbow when required. Other specialists in this chapter include hobelars (lightly armored soldiers with spears), miners, fletchers, and gunners (another group recruited from France, Normandy and Germany).

The geographic origins of the soldiers are examined in chapter six. Although some areas could see targeting (the northern counties for Scottish campaigns, for instance, and Welshmen raised for local defense against expected French invasions), by and large war and recruitment remained a national effort throughout the period. Raising men from all over England proved the best way to create national unity, as combatants fought together sharing experiences and cultures.

The conclusion reviews the findings previously expounded, and focuses on discerning particular periods of change and adjustment. The nobles and gentlemen raised from childhood to be prepared for military service displayed a socio-professionalism deeply entrenched in their social position. The gentler-born knights and men-at-arms shared this mindset as well, some even starting their careers in their teens as archers serving within family groups. But these were the groups least interested in the new kind of warfare evident from the second decade of the fifteenth century--one that stressed garrison duty and long-term commitment away from home. The archers, and some men-at-arms, stepped up to the plate instead, embarking on lifelong careers in the hope of decent wages and land grants. The authors identify the shift as the result of royal policy, linked to the Lancastrian usurpation and its resultant financial difficulties. The archers who were cheaper to commission and undeterred by garrison duty dominated recruitment after 1420, marking the move from the socio-professional soldier of high rank, to the true professional soldier. While not exactly a society organized for war in the mold of the Iberian militias, England in the later middle ages must henceforth be seen as one characterized by the militarization of its numerous free and relatively prosperous subjects.