Though it’s not as true today, we’ve traditionally looked to Medieval Europe to inspire our fantasy settings. And our fantasy settings tend to include a lot of war – because otherwise they wouldn’t be very interesting, would they?
However, we don’t put much thought into how war and armies worked in Medieval Europe. So I’m going to shed some light on this for you. It might inspire some cool stories!
If you want a comprehensive source, check out The Organization of War Under Edward III by H. J. Hewitt. It covers everything you could possibly want to know about how Medieval societies turned civilians into soldiers and got them to battlefields, as well as what they did on campaign – which I’m not covering here.
In the early Middle Ages, the vast majority of military service was fulfilled through the feudal system. In theory, this meant that every lord who swore fealty to the king had to be able to raise a small army to fight for the king when needed. These men were usually equipped at the lord’s expense.
But by Edward III’s reign in the 1300s, it was becoming more common to hire soldiers directly. The nobility, who had primarily served as cavalry before, were becoming recruitment agents. In these circumstances, the king (or an agent working on his behalf) would tell the noble how many soldiers of each rank to hire, for how many days, and for how much pay. In many cases, they raised the exact number requested. Pay for all ranks of soldier was decent, the same – or even more – than the wage of a skilled labourer.
There were other incentives too: pardons for criminals, as well as the promise of paid-for equipment and the chance to loot dead enemies or even whole settlements. Of course, for some, just the thrill of war and the promise of accommodation and food was enough.
There were still people who were recruited because they had an ‘obligation’ to serve. To raise these men, the king would issue a commission of array. This designated a series of officers or nobles as arrayers, making them responsible for raising soldiers. Most of the time, the king would send the arrayers a message telling them how many men to raise, where to recruit them, what to do with them and where to send them.
The arrayer and his officials nearly always operated in their own county: they’d go from hundred to hundred (a Medieval English local division) picking out the able-bodied men and recruiting them. We aren’t sure exactly how the recruitment worked, and it may have varied between counties – or even individual arrayers.
In some cases, it appears that individuals could refuse to serve as long as they paid a ‘reasonable fine’, but often these problems don’t emerge – it’s possible they received more than enough volunteers, since those who joined could expect to be free of their usual toil for a while and go and see new places. We have many instances of raised soldiers being sent back home because they weren’t fit enough, suggesting either some arrayers weren’t thorough in their picking or some men were willing to lie about their health in order to serve.
Some may have been forced to serve.
Once recruited, it was the arrayer’s job to arm, clothe and feed the recruits, and either hold them until given further instructions or send them to a muster point chosen by the king and his officials.
Payment of these drafted men was often disputed. They were considered to have an ancient obligation to military service in their home county, so they weren’t paid while there. The end compromise seems to have been that their county would pay their wages once they left the county boundary and would continue to do so until their reached the muster point, usually a port, at which point the king himself would pay their wages.
Once they’d signed up, the new soldiers had to go to their muster point. When we factor in inevitable delays and changes of strategy, some men could go months marching from one place to another. In Hewitt’s book there’s an account of some soldiers from North Wales who marched to Ipswich – the far east side of England – then to Portsmouth and Southampton, on England’s southern coast, and finally to Plymouth in the west, almost doing a whole circuit of southern England along the way.
It’s easy to imagine that signing up and knowing you were going on an adventure with good pay, fresh clothes, food and shelter would be exciting. However, the reality of the situation would no doubt hit home as you endured the vigorous march and found yourself further and further from home, possibly dreading the fighting that lay ahead. Though accounts are rare, we do see that some soldiers got into trouble on the march, harrassing locals and the like. Some deserted, taking their pay and disappearing. Such accounts are not numerous but they did happen.
In those times when people travelled much less than they do today, bringing men together from different parts of the country could cause tension: Hewitt details an account where a man from London and a man from Devon had their ears cut off by local mariners when waiting in Portsmouth.
Once at their muster point, they would be organised into smaller units and put under the charge of a captain or noble, who would have with him their payroll and wages. Larger units, usually led by the nobility, would then go off on campaign.
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