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The Hundred Years’ War and the English soldier

By Andrew Latham and Rand Lee Brown II

An aspect of the Hundred Years’ War that many scholars tend to overlook is the impact that English soldiers – those warriors, both noble and common, who collectively represented the “military revolution” of 14th Century England – had on the society and culture of late medieval Europe as a whole. 

It is important to remember that this titanic conflict was not merely a fight between England and France, but involved almost every major power in Western Europe in some fashion, constituting what can accurately be called the “Great War” of its time. Networks of alliances and proxy battlefields are interwoven throughout the story of the war – even during times when both kingdoms were technically under ceasefire terms.

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In terms of aggression, be it militarily or diplomatically, the English far outshone their opponents in initiative. After brutally gaining the upper hand in a proxy fight started by the French in Scotland, King Edward III launched an ambitious diplomatic programme on the Continent to solicit allies for his cause against the Valois. While his efforts were enthusiastically embraced by anti-French factions in the Low Countries (whose textile economy was massively dependent on English wool trade), Edward’s ultimate diplomatic goal of a firm alliance with the Holy Roman Empire miscarried when German support for his war was revealed to be nothing more than talk – despite Edward having spent exorbitant amounts of cash trying to persuade them.

However, he had far better luck in Brittany, where the de Montfort claimants to the Duchy pledged their unwavering allegiance to Edward in return for active military assistance against the Paris-backed de Blois claimants.  This gave Edward an opportunity to unleash his newly developed military power upon France under cover of supporting an independent ally – and with the additional bonus of conducting operations and spreading influence within just a few days journey of French heartland. Starting in the 1340s, English soldiers – both men-at-arms and their lethal archer companions – began to make their presence felt across all of Western Europe.

After the brilliant campaigns of Edward III and his son, “the Black Prince,” and the subsequent English triumph with the Treaty of Bretigny of 1360, all Christendom stood in awe of English military prowess. The English soldier found that he had become a sort of “military rockstar” – one that every other realm either wanted in their service or wanted their own forces to be like. Ironically, the ceasefire of Bretigny presented many of the very soldiers who had won it with the imminent prospect of unemployment, a prospect to which many responded by offering their invaluable services to the highest bidder.

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Many veterans banded together into so-called “free companies” – fraternal organizations that, in many ways, were the private military corporations of their day. Living off the lands in which they operated, the free companies became such a scourge on the local populace of France that the Pope himself threatened excommunication to any that did not disband – a warning that few heeded.

Mercenary bands, of course, were nothing new to Europe in the medieval period. The English, however, did manage to take the depredations that had always been a defining part of the modus vivendi of these bands to new and ever more terrible extremes – though it is worth pointing out that, however terrible their conduct against the enemy, there are no recorded instances of English free companies fighting against each other or against their own realm. In fact, their loyalty to their homeland and esprit de corps with one another was renowned. When the Black Prince announced his entry into the Spanish succession crisis on the side of Pedro the Cruel, all of the English free companies that had, to that point, been fighting for the French-backed Enrique Trastamara almost immediately abandoned their employer to join their own prince’s army.

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The honor roll of 14th and 15th century military victories won either directly by English veterans or under their direct supervision is a long one, English soldiers having fought and won battles locales as far afield as Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Prussia, Rhodes, and even Alexandria. But perhaps the one place the English soldier had his greatest impact was in medieval Italy. Italy of the 14th and 15th centuries was an ideal pasture for those living the mercenary life – what the various city-states and republics lacked in territorial size and native population, they vastly compensated for in mercantile wealth and constant internecine rivalries between one another. Here, the English soldier found himself in the highest of demand – surviving Venetian state records from the time mandate that any archers being hired as mercenaries must be “from England, Ireland, or from other subjects of the King of England.”

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The first English companies arrived sometime in the 1360s, the most famous being the White Company, led by the notorious Sir John Hawkwood. If anyone personified the social and cultural rise of the Medieval English solider, it must be Hawkwood. Originally of obscure yeoman origins in Essex, Hawkwood is widely believed to have enlisted in the armies of the Black Prince as a teenager and was very likely present at the Battle of Poitiers. After the Treaty of Bretigny, he joined other like-minded adventurers in the free companies rather than return home and eventually found himself in Italy in command of his own.  His life-spanning career as a condotierre found him in service to nearly every major Italian power of the time – to include the Papal States. His unique implementation of English tactics and weaponry (including the famed longbow) made him stand out among other mercenary bands and his became one of the most highly sought after. Hawkwood ended his life peacefully in his eighties, having risen to become one of the wealthiest and influential figures of medieval Italy – buried with full state honors by his last employer, the Republic of Florence, in the Duomo where his funerary monument by Paulo Uccello can still be seen today.

Ultimately, the other states of Europe could not replicate the unique characteristics of the medieval English military revolution and the martial reputation of the English soldier did not survive past the 15th century, being eclipsed by the ultimate defeat of his nation in France and the gradual evolution of early modern warfare in Europe. However, the significance of the English who went to war on the Continent in the later medieval period cannot be understated. Even as many of the continental powers began embracing military modernization, echoes of the English warfighting methods could be seen among many of them, including their own ancient enemy of France.

Further Reading:

Caferro, William. John Hawkwood: An English Mercenary in Fourteenth Century Italy (John Hopkins University Press, 2006)

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Wadge, Richard. Arrowstorm: The World of the Archer in the Hundred Years War (The History Press, 2007)

Dr. Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of a monograph entitled Medieval Sovereignty, to be published in 2020 by ARC Humanities Press.  You can visit Andrew’s website at www.aalatham.com or follow Andrew on Twitter @aalatham

Capt Rand Lee Brown II is a commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps currently assigned to Marine Forces Reserve.  Holding a Master of Arts degree in Military History from Norwich University with a focus on medieval warfare, Capt Brown has written on military history for a variety of forums, including the Marine Corps Gazette and Medievalists.net.

Click here to read more Medieval Geopolitics

Top Image: British Library MS Royal 20 C VII fol. 186

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