People of the Hundred Years' War

Warfare underwent a gradual transition during the Hundred Years' War.

Medieval armies had been traditionally formed by using the feudal obligations of lords and tenants. However, as the feudal system was increasingly unable to supply the numbers of soldiers needed for sustained campaigns overseas English kings turned to a system of paid contracts instead to raise men-at-arms and archers. French kings also paid their troops but still relied on older feudal powers to raise their soldiers. A career as a professional soldier was made possible because of the many wars.

The University of Southampton's The Soldier in Later Medieval England Database may provide further information about the people of the Hundred Years' War.

  • Monarchs


    One of the qualities expected of a medieval monarch was to be successful warrior on the battlefield. English and French monarchs and princes personally led their armies into battle. They were very well armed, wearing finely-crafted suits of armour and carrying the best quality arms.

    As well as their retinues of nobles, knights, men-at-arms and archers, royal commanders brought their household staff with them, including personal body servants, secretaries and clerks, armourers, and kitchen staff.

    Despite their retinues and close personal servants to protect them, the battlefield was a dangerous place for monarchs. Henry V only narrowly escaped being cut down by French soldiers at Agincourt. The monarch was the ultimate prize; their death or capture could have dramatic consequences for a kingdom. The capture of the French king John II at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 severely weakened the French and forced them to make peace with Edward III in 1360 through the Treaty of Brétigny.

    Image © Matthew Ryan Historical Illustrator

  • Footsoldiers


    The battles of the Hundred Years' War were largely fought on foot. Archers had a range of weapons they could use after they had shot their arrows. They served alongside the men-at-arms, in the thick of the fighting. Their armour would have been comparatively light, but included a thick jacket and a helmet.

    Men fighting on foot had a variety of staff weapons, often developed from simple agricultural tools, or hunting tools such as axes and spears. As the war progressed, they also carried early handguns. One English soldier is noted in the records as killed by a gun at the battle of Agincourt. We also find specialist ordnance companies. The English had German and Dutch cannoneers in their armies. Henry V also took a company of miners from the Forest of Dean on his campaign of 1415.

    Image © Matthew Ryan Historical Illustrator

  • Nobles


    Men of noble status - dukes, earls and barons - were expected to follow their king to war. Like their monarch, they were normally equipped with the finest quality arms and armour.

    Each noble brought with them their own retinues of soldiers consisting of their tenants and servants as well as other men recruited for wages. Noblemen normally played a significant part in battles, usually commanding different sections of the army.

    There was much incentive to capture nobles because they would have been worth a significant ransom. Charles Duke of Orléans was captured at the Battle of Agincourt after being discovered under a pile of bodies. He was brought to England and kept in various castles for 25 years including the Tower of London until his release was negotiated in 1440.

    High status did not guarantee survival. Edward, Duke of York died at the Battle of Agincourt. As commander of the English vanguard he bore the brunt of the French attack. It is unclear how he died, possibly cut down in the heat of battle or from overheating and suffocation caused by the press of soldiers on top of him.

    Image © Matthew Ryan Historical Illustrator

  • Men-at-arms


    A man-at-arms was a military rank but many in both France and England had the social status of esquire.

    The man-at-arms fought in full armour, both on foot and on horseback.

    In the battles of the Hundred Years' War, men-at-arms fought in close combat. They wielded staff weapons and swords, hacking, stabbing and chopping at their opponents.

    The French always had higher numbers of men at arms than the English, In 1415 men-at-arms, knights and nobles made up about a quarter of the English army but over three-quarters of the French army.

    Image © Matthew Ryan Historical Illustrator

  • Knights


    Knights were a social group below the nobility who were expected to go to war and to bring companies of troops with them. Knights needed to be wealthy enough to buy the sophisticated arms, armour and horses. They were expected to fight on foot. Some men received their knighthoods on the campaign: several French soldiers were made knights before the battle of Agincourt. Moreover, Henry V knighted some soldiers at his landing in France and during his march along the Somme for their good service.

    The Hundred Years' War saw the establishment of several chivalric orders to which nobles and knights were admitted. The most famous is the Order of the Garter, founded by Edward III after the battle of Crécy. Knighthood is closely associated with a certain code of chivalrous behaviour and military professionalism. Failure to observe those principles would result in criticism. Even Henry V was criticised in some quarters for ordering the execution of prisoners after Agincourt.

    Image © Matthew Ryan Historical Illustrator

  • Mercenaries


    The Hundred Years' War offered many opportunities for paid military employment and encouraged the development of professional soldiers, well trained and better equipped. War was their way of life.

    Mercenaries came from other countries to serve in English and French armies. The French had Genoese crossbowmen at the battle of Crécy, and many Scottish soldiers served in French armies in the 15th century. Later, French kings drew on Swiss soldiers with their famous pikes.

    It was possible to rise professionally as a mercenary. The Essex man, John Hawkwood was a successful mercenary commander in Italy in the late-14th century and is commemorated in Florence Cathedral. Recruited into Edward III's armies it has been suggested he fought at both Crécy and Poitiers, perhaps beginning as an archer before being knighted. Whatever the precise circumstances he ended his life as one of the richest mercenary commanders in Europe.

    Image © Matthew Ryan Historical Illustrator

  • Archers


    Archers came from a variety of social backgrounds, but were sometimes the younger relatives of men-at-arms. Their volleys of arrows normally began the battle and could break up defensive formations and bring down charging cavalry as happened at Agincourt.

    The English and Welsh used the longbow: a tall wooden bow from which arrows could be shot at a rapid rate. The French more commonly used the crossbow: a mechanical bow that was slower but more powerful. Many crossbowmen came from towns.

    Mass archery helped the English to victory at the Battles of Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356). After these victories, in 1363 Edward III ordered that all able bodied men should own and practise with the bow on Sundays and other holidays rather than play football.

    Image © Matthew Ryan Historical Illustrator