The Nitpicker’s Guide to Ancient Warfare: Free Companies

By David Flin

This series of articles is the first draft of what will hopefully be a book published by Sgt. Frosty Publications

Entry of Roger de Flor in Constantinople by José Moreno Carbonero. De Flor was the leader of the mercenary band, the Catalan Company, who would end up conquering Athens.

Landless knights, troops who acquire specialised skills, feudal levies who prefer war to peaceful activities. These all chafed at the prospect of a quiet, peaceful life.

The availability of these men to be hired meant that the armies of kings became increasingly professional and mercenary, often with skills that aren’t available to the average peasant. Crossbowmen, for example, tended to be hired. The equipment was expensive and difficult to maintain and required specialised skill to use.

Meanwhile, courtly knights stayed at home jousting and feasting and paying someone else to fulfil their duties and fight on the battlefield. When Edward III landed in France in 1337 at the start of the Hundred Years War, his army was around 12,000 strong. Of those, just 1,500 were knights. The rest of his army, armoured men on horseback, archers and pikemen, over 10,000 in total, were paid wages and owed fealty to no-one.

The system worked for a while. It worked while kings waged war and could afford to pay the wages. The problem inherent in the system rapidly became apparent – especially to the people of France and later the city states of Italy. When there was no war, these professionals were unemployed and didn’t get paid. When kings couldn’t afford them, they didn’t get paid.

The Treaty of Brétigny was signed between England and France in 1360. Suddenly, a large number of troops had no employment, no income, and no home to go to.

They started with freelance pillaging. Edward sent officers and troops to bring them under control, but these were sent ignominiously packing by the mercenaries.

The mercenaries soon began to band together so that they could pillage richer targets. There were a lot of these bands, generally known as Companies. The best known of these is the White Company, also called the Great Company or the English Company (they would immortalised by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in a tale that bears little resemblance to reality). The White Company, at its peak, grew to a size of 16,000 – larger than armies that most kings could bring to the field. There were also, among others, the following Companies: the Catalan Company, the Navarrese Company, the Compagnia di San Giorgio, the Company of the Hat, the Company of Bretons, the Black Company, and many others.

The Pope tried to raise a Crusade against the Free Companies. Unfortunately for the Pope, many potential crusaders in this cause were dissuaded by the fact that the mercenaries had no land or wealth to take, the Pope couldn’t pay them, and they really didn’t fancy the odds. Indeed, in the end, over 5000 potential crusaders joined the various Free Companies.

The White Company attacked the Pope at Avignon, until he was persuaded to give them the spiritually uplifting sum of 100,000 florins to go away. After some internal debate, the White Company was persuaded to leave peacefully with this sum, and an Absolution for “all future sins”. The Company left, one assume, in a state of Grace and headed to the Italian peninsula.

The Italian peninsula consisted of a lot of city states: Pisa, Milan, Rome, Florence, Mantua. These employed mercenary companies to do their fighting for them. In due course, the city states found themselves employing mercenary companies as an alternative to having the companies lay waste to the city. The old protection racket. “Nice city you’ve got here. Be a shame if it were to be burned to the ground.”

From that point on, the leaders of the Free Companies operating on the Italian peninsula, such as Sir John Hawkwood of the White Company, were key figures in the political landscape, and the Free Companies ran riot.

The structure of each of the companies varied, usually depending on what they offered on the battlefield. There’s a lot of information available regarding the White Company; other companies would be different in their structure.

The White Company was formed of a number of Lances, each Lance consisting of an armoured man-at-arms on a charger, a less heavily armoured squire on a charger, and a page on a palfrey. These lances were organised into contingents, headed by a corporal. There were, generally, five lances to a contingent, and five contingents to a troop. The troop was the tactical unit of manoeuvre. These troops were supported by a variable number of longbow archers and crossbowmen.

After a time, the various city states – later Florence alone – employed the White Company to damage the hinterland of their competitors. The White Company generally carried this out by night raids on towns, massacring the civilians and burning what couldn’t be carried off.

When it came to fighting battles, it was usually against another mercenary company. These battles soon came to involve discussions between the opposing commanders as to who held the best position and would gain probable victory. The result might well be agreed and the risk to all involved minimised.

Not that this had much impact on the devastation visited upon the countryside.

Mercenaries had turned warfare into a business.


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David Flin is a writer and owner of Sgt. Frosty Publications. His books can be found there.