Reiver by David Pilling

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Edwardian armies

This is another in a series of blog posts on the military aspects of Edward I's reign. Some may call it an obsession, but it could be worse - I could be a Ricardian (that's a joke, in case any Ricardians out there are reading this.)

Warning: the rest of this post is a bit of a nerdfest, so any readers with no particular interest in military terms and military history might want to look away now...

Yep. Him again.
Edward seldom gets any credit for the way he restructured the old-fashioned English feudal host. He introduced the concept of paid military service in place of feudal dues and privileges, as well as a new command structure and innovative tactics. His reforms were by no means thorough, and many of them fell away during the reign of his son, Edward II, to be picked up again and improved to perfection by Edward III. Nevertheless, it was old man Longshanks who got the ball rolling.

Prior to Edward I, the English feudal army was reasonably large, but cumbersome and lacking in experience. The majority of Englishmen in the reign of Henry III were raw fighters, and made for poor soldiers, with the exception of those living on the Welsh March and the poachers and huntsmen of Sherwood, who enjoyed some reputation for archery. Otherwise native infantry were quite useless, and largely there to make up the numbers. Desertion rates were high, training minimal, and wages pathetic. The real military elite was still composed of the mounted knights and barons and their retinues. Knights never dismounted to fight - beneath their noble dignity - and companies of horse and foot never brigaded together.

Battles such as Lewes and Evesham were won by charges of heavy horse, while the hapless infantry were ridden down and slaughtered. At Lewes Simon de Montfort drew his knights up into three bodies with a reserve. They rode forward in a single level charge, 'boot to boot', the riders heavy in their mail coats and leggings, wielding couched lances that packed a mighty punch, but were massive and difficult to wield. Rapid movements and elaborate manoeuvres were impossible. These simple, inflexible tactics were exactly the same as used by Simon de Montfort's father at the Battle of Muret in 1213, and worked well enough so long as feudal hosts fought each other. In North Wales, where the natives avoided pitched battles and led the lumbering knights a merry dance in the mountains and forests, they were ineffective. Time after time, one English feudal host after another was 'beaten bootless back' - as Shakespeare put it - from Wales, defeated by Welsh guerilla tactics and Welsh weather.

Edward, who had ample experience in his youth of the difficulties of fighting in Wales, saw the need for change. I've described in a previous post his efforts to create a bow-armed infantry, but his reforms went further than that. His first task was organisation and the systematic use of paid contracts in place of feudal dues, which allowed him to reorganise the army along structured, professional lines. For instance, a baron or 'banneret' might be contracted to raise a company of a hundred or more lances. The company was itself divided into troops, with each smaller troop led by an officer on a sub-contract. This system allowed for subordination of command, which meant that companies could act independently under their own officers instead of relying entirely on the commander-in-chief.

Companies or squadrons of cavalry could join together to form a single 'brigade' under the overall command of the king, or be split apart again under one of his nobles. In 1277 the Earls of Warwick and Lincoln each had command of a company of 125 lances, while Pain de Chaworth had 75 lances. These men, including their leaders, were all contracted to serve for a renewable period of forty days. Troops led by earls, barons, knights and ordinary troopers could be subdivided into smaller units, each with an officer, depending on necessity. Most captains were men of some status - this was still the 13th century, after all - but performance was prized above noble blood. Even the Earl of Gloucester, one of the greatest nobles in the land, was stripped of his command after leading his troops to defeat at Llandeilo in 1282.

Until his conquest of Wales, the best footmen Edward could muster were the famed mercenary crossbowmen from his duchy of Gascony. These men, described as 'the Swiss of the 13th century', were expensive and summoned in relatively small numbers. 'They came pompously', according to one chronicler, and fought with an arrogant swagger worthy of D'Artagnan, perhaps the most famous Gascon of all. Langtoft described their performance in Wales:
A medieval D'Artagnan...

'They (the Gascons) remain with the king, receive his gifts.

In moors and mountains they clamber like lions,
They go with the English, burn the houses,
Throw down the castles, slay the wretches,
They have passed the Marches, and entered into Snowdon..."

The king was not content to rely entirely on Welsh mercenaries and the 'lions' of Gascony for his infantry. He took steps to at least improve the organisation of English footsoldiers, as he had done with the cavalry. From 1277 onwards he appointed special officers in place of regional sheriffs to oversee the raising of footmen from the English shires, and these officers were tasked with picking the best and strongest men and forming them into regular companies. A company of English foot consisted of a hundred men, led by a mounted constable or centenar. Each company was divided into units of nineteen, led by under-officers or vintenars. Thus a proper system of pay and command was introduced, though desertion rates remained high and the quality of the average English footsoldier took decades to improve: for his war in France in 1294, Edward was compelled to recruit criminals and outlaws into the infantry, since none better could be found elsewhere.

Edward's introduction of new tactics and organisation, the combination of horse and foot and introduction of the Welsh longbow as a common weapon in English armies, all paid off. At Orewin Bridge, Maes Moydog and Falkirk his enemies were destroyed by units of cavalry, archers and crossbowmen working in concert. His troops had also learned guerilla tactics from the Welsh: after the victory of Maes Moydog, units of English and Gascons in camouflage gear (white cloaks so they merged into the snow) pursued the Welsh into their own mountains.

The king had learned from bitter experience, and there were plenty of bitter experiences to come before the glory days of Edward III. Falkirk was almost lost by a foolish charge of mounted knights, straight onto the Scottish spears, and the situation only restored by the arrival of Edward and his Gascons. The arrogance of the English baronage, their ingrained belief that they could still sweep all before them with a single mounted charge, was something the king could do little to eradicate. The result was total disaster at Bannockburn in 1314, where all the lessons of Edward I's reign were forgotten and the chivalry of England smashed to pieces on Bruce's schiltrons. Even thick-headed aristocrats could hardly ignore such a lesson, and the third Edward was savvy enough to remember the innovations of his grandfather, as well as introducing a few of his own.


  1. Great post! Of course, mercenaries had their place in all of Henry II's armies and that the charge of heavy chivalry was strikingly effective during crusades against Saracen armies of light horse and infantry. But times change. Thanks!