The History of Free Companies

What were the Wars of the Roses?

The Wars of the Roses were a series of civil conflicts fought amongst the noble houses of Lancaster and York. They were fought in the latter half of the 15th century and are said to be the county's last medieval conflict before England entered the modern era with the ascension of the Tudor dynasty to the throne. The Wars were characterised by their larger-than-life protagonists; by the frequent betrayals and sudden and dramatic shifts in the balance of power; and by the brutal and merciless battles fought by men on foot in plate armour, massacring each other with axe, sword, hammer and bow.

The Wars of the Roses are today often viewed as a concern only of the aristocracy and ruling classes of the late medieval era ; its protagonists were fighting primarily for political power and control of the throne of England. And, unlike in more modern conflicts, during the Wars of the Roses life went on as normal for most folk even during the infrequent campaigns. However, many "commoners" - those below the rank of Knight - had vested interests and personal stakes in seeing the "right" King on the throne, to say nothing of the national and regional pride which would sometimes have men and women up-in-arms supporting one party or another. Like the modern supporters of rival football teams today, aristocrats, knights, gentlemen and ordinary folk would don the badges and colours of their faction and engage in partisanship for their chosen side.

What were Free Companies?

During the Hundred Wars what did the soldiers do after a major campaign? For many the option was to return to serfdom, working the land, or to try and find employment in a garrison. As a skilled weapon of mass destruction, the archer was potentially highly marketable, but such work was limited in times of peace, so where did they look?

After the battle of Poitiers in 1356, France descended into anarchy without a King to rule. Into this vacuum went vast, unemployed bands of soldiers of varing experience, seizing control of castles and ransoming towns and villages. These bands were known as Free Companies or Routiers or simply Brigands.

Although they began to loose prominence in the 1400s, Free Companies remained, less as brigands and more as bands of Mercenaries available for hire. For the English, both Men-at-Arms and Archer opportunities remained in France up until the loss of English territories. Those surviving soldiers came home to serve in the households of the great nobles or to find employment within rival armies in the Wars of the Roses.

Archery in the 15th Century

The 15th century Longbowman was tall and well built, he practised "shooting" in the bow from the age of 4 or 5, having to be capable at the age of 6 to draw, loose and aim his shafts. It was a father's legal duty to provide each son with a bow and two arrows. Upon reaching the age of 17, a young man was legally responsible for sourcing his own bow and four arrows. At maturity he could be capable of drawing a 160lb draw weight which would drive a shaft of 36 inches long, and weighing over 1100 grams. This over a distance of 400 yards or more.

For the vast rural population, Archery would have been an essential skill, without the mastery of which, survival in a hostile and war torn world, would have been immeasurably harder.

As a weapon of war the longbow was the equivalent of the modern machine gun, capable of taking down vast numbers of soldiers at a great distance, whilst exerting relatively little physical effort. Take the battle of Agincourt in 1415 for example, there were approximately 5000 - 7500 longbow archers within the English army and practically none on the French side. Their army was composed mainly of knights and men-at-arms.

Bearing in mind that a well trained archer could loose 12 arrows a minute, at maximum efficiency the English archers could have rained down 90,000 on the French army in just one minute. These insane volleys would have darkened the sky, maddened the French horses causing chaos in the tightly packed ranks of foot soldiers, could wound at 400 yards, kill at 200 and penetrate the thickest armour at 100 yards.

Truly a weapon of mass destruction.