The Feudal Army

During the high Middle Ages, warlords do not dispose of regular armies. Soldiers are either hired or are forced into service for a single campaign and the troops return home after the battles are won or lost. A typical 13th Century continental army is a combination of cavalry and infantry, with a small proportion of archers and in some cases heavy projectile throwing weapons.

The count goes off to war

A medieval head of state -usually a king - divides his land amongst a number of counts or earls. Such a local count sits at the top of the feudal system and acts as liege lord of a number of local noblemen. These vassals owe their lord 40 days of military service per year and each of them is responsible for assembling their lords and their accompanying troops in times of war.

Copyright Koninklijke Bibliotheek Den Haag KA XX, fol.255 rį
The count of Flanders shown at the siege of a town.

The count not only acts as feudal liege lord, but is also the territorial head-of-state of his land and can call up all free men to serve in his army. Every community can be forced to provide a number of warriors for the count's army. These are of course common citizens without any military training or background whatsoever. The local lord is required to arm his men, but commoners are frequently seen carrying plain and basic pole arms or even their tools of trade. The quality of these poorly armed and unarmoured troops usually leaves much to be desired.

The villages along the Flemish coast usually provide the sailors for the count's fleet. Again, this fleet is composed of hired or pressganged merchant vessels and the crew is provided by civilian fishermen and masters. There is no strict separation between the army and the navy. Infantrymen are simply embarked whenever necessary and are required to serve at sea as well.

Knights and Squires

Guy of Dampierre's vassals are a good example to illustrate how an army of knights was raised. When the count decided to call up his nobles in 1297, each of the vassals and mercenary knights were demanded to bring a number of mounted and armoured men.

This system enables to count to ride out with an army of armoured cavalry with an approximate strength of 1200 warriors. The knights and squires receive a daily wage in relation to their status and importance. At the end of the 13th century, Flanders has 43 bannerlords who each command a unit of approximately 20 noblemen. Under Guy of Dampiere, such a unit commander is paid 20 Flemish shillings per day. That would be the amazing sum of 60 shillings in English currency. A knight is paid half that amount and receives 10 shillings a day, while a squire is paid 5/-, only if he has a full set of mail armour.

Each nobleman has to have his own set of mail armour. He also has to acquire enough baggage, food and tents for the entire length of the campaign. The higher his status, the higher these financial implications.

Knighthood in crisis

Knights and other noblemen ride extremely expensive destriers or war horses. Willem van Gullik's horse for the Courtrai campaign had costed about 180 Flemish Pounds. A full set of armour for the upper classed is estimated to have costed around a 1000 Flemish Pounds. In comparison, a craftsman would have made only a few Flemish Pounds per year. Many noblemen are experiencing considerable difficulties in meeting these requirements and maintaining their horses, knights and squires. Late 13th century feudal armies therefore have a large proportion of squires, who work as mercenary warriors and do not feel up to the duties and expenses of knighthood.

an aquamanille from the Bargello museum in Florence
An aquamanille formed as a knight from the Bargello museum in Florence.

An efficient weapon

Armoured knights form a most efficient weapon. Their advanced training and their knightly esprit-de-corps gives them every opportunity to be victorious in battle. Squires are teached from childhood to handle both horses and weapons and when they're finally knighted, they can draw upon a long and intensive training. A medieval nobleman is also convinced that he belongs to a chosen mini-society standing above the common man and woman. This means that they would not hesitate to ride into a line of common and plain infantry and this attitude is amplified by the ever-important knightly honour. A knight can and will not yield and will therefore attack aggressively, if necessary against all odds.

Finally, one needs to know that during the Courtrai campaign the knights of Flanders, Brabant and France already have few years of war behind them and are experienced and battle-hardened veterans.

Battlefield tactics

The armoured cavalry is mostly deployed in densely packed formations. The horses touch each to form a small front with an enormous punch. The knights and squires are grouped in units -banners- of around 20 horses, led by what is known as a bannerlord. This troop would be formed into a square with a front of six to eight horses, two to three rows deep. Three to four of these banners form a battle. The battle is the standard tactical unit and has a strength of sixty to eighty horses. These numbers can vary considerably and there are no universal tactical rules yet.

A good army would maintain a strict discipline. An army commander would want his warriors to be in permanent control of their weapons and horses and would insist on a tight regime. If a cavalry charge is to be successful, he cannot afford his knights to loose their formation. Everyone knows that a tightly packed battle is the best guarantee for a successful breakthrough. He will also make the best use of the horses' mobility and will try to swiftly outmanoeuvre the opposing force, attempting to ride into their flank. The late 13th century infantry quickly learns to use the pike and "goedendag" to discourage a frontal attack.

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Copyright on text, images and photos by Joris de Sutter, unless noted otherwise.
The miniature comes from "Spiegel Historiael", Jacob van Maerlant, Copyright Koninklijke Bibliotheek Den Haag KA XX, fol.255 rį.
The aquamanille is in the Bargello museum in Florence.
This information is provided by De Liebaart and was last updated on March 30th 2001.