The Employment of Foreign Mercenary Troops in the French Royal Armies 1415-1470

FranceThe Employment of Foreign Mercenary Troops in the French Royal Armies 1415-1470

By Brian G.H. Ditcham

University of Edinburgh, Ph.D. Dissertation, 1978

Abstract: In the early years of the fifteenth century, the impact of English invasion, civil war and military defeat forced the French monarchy to seek military assistance from its allies abroad. Large numbers of men from this source served in French armies throughout the century, and this thesis sets out to examine this rather neglected phenomenon. The first part is a chronological survey of the history of this involvement, which can be divided into three phases. In the first, large foreign armies operated as separate units alongside the French and were involved in the major battles of the period such as Bauge, Cravant and Verneuil. After the siege of Orleans, these armies broke up into a host of smaller companies without any close central organisation and only under very limited royal control. After the reforms of 1445, the system of Compagnies d’Ordonnance restored this and tied the soldiers into the royal patronage network, giving the king a theoretical monopoly of organised military force. In the second half, various themes are studied in more detail; the close involvement of French diplomacy with matters of recruitment, the origins of the soldiers and the potential rewards and problems which service of the French crown might bring them. It then studies the alternatives to royal service, the problems of discipline and the political dangers which these posed. A re-examination of the actual effects of the 1445 reforms leads into an attempt to comprehend the realities of the life of soldier and captain on a day to day basis, concluding with an examination of the relationship between the soldiers and the native French population. The thesis concludes that the role of foreign troops in sustaining the Valois dynasty was considerable and their experiences illuminate they realities of military service in the later middle ages.


  • Chapter 1: The Beginnings – Foreign Troops in France to 1418
  • Chapter 2: The Time of the Great Armies – Mercenaries 1418-29
  • Chapter 3: The Time of the Independent Companies
  • Chapter 4: All the King’s Men: The Time of the Ordonnance Companies
  • Conclusion to Part One
  • Chapter 5: The Process of Recruitment
  • Chapter 6: The Structures and Rewards of the Military Life
  • Chapter 7: The Limits of Discipline
  • Chapter 8: The Realities of Military Life
  • Chapter 9: Foreign Troops and Native Reactions
  • General Conclusion
  • Select Bibliography

Introduction: In some fields there has never been any shortage of writings on the fifteenth century half of the Hundred Years War. The bibliographies of work on French history produced annually show a very considerable volume each year. Most of this, however, is concentrated on a few of the more picturesque aspects. French production tends to concentrate firmly on Jeanne d’Arc at all levels (serious, popular and plain lunatic fringe) while English language studies have been rather thin on the ground and concerned more with the glories of Agincourt or the problems and diplomacy of the Lancastrian government in France than with its French enemies. Part of this is due to the state of the sources; from 1415 on to the 1440’s documentation is very disorganised and sparse. Part, one suspects, is due to an understandable distaste on the part of French historians for a period when France came as near as she was to for many centuries to losing most of her political identity to a foreign invader; the general diversion of French historical endeavour from the narrowly political and diplomatic to social and economic fields, perhaps combined with a certain bias against a century when France was anything but “One and indivisible” on the political front, has seen to it that, while splendid social and economic studies of individual regions and provinces exist, surprisingly little seems to have changed on the political front since Beaucourt was producing his still-fundamental work on the reign of Charles VII in the 1850’s. Many areas of the actual conduct of the war which occupied so much of the time of royal government, and which is the ever-present backcloth to so much of the social and economic change of the period, still remain obscure. One of these has been the role and activities of the very considerable numbers of foreign soldiers who served in the French royal armies in this period.

Certainly they have never quite been completely forgotten; any reader of Sir Walter Scott who read “Quentin Durward” would be aware of the existence of Scottish units in France, and to a certain extent the mythology of the “Auld Alliance” remains potent on both sides of the North Sea (I myself, while working in France, found it alluded to (in conversation) by Frenchmen of no historical training.) Detailed studies of what it actually meant in the fifteenth century (one of the periods when the Franco-Scottish diplomatic alignment was at its most conspicuously effective), as well as ones on the role of other foreigners in France have, however, been notable by their absence. Certainly they appear on the fringes of other subjects. P.S. Lewis notes the grants of considerable lands and titles to favoured foreign soldiers but never digresses from his main subject to pursue the matter in detail. Foreigners appear on the edges of Vale’s biography of Charles VII, but again his main interests do not lead him into a closer examination of their role. Even Contamine in his fundamental study of the French armies of the later middle ages seems, to my mind, to rather underplay the importance of the foreign element in these armies. The section on the Kingdom of Bourges, which was the time of greatest involvement by such elements is comparatively short and devotes much space to the collapse of French military administration which makes the careers of all soldiers in this period so hard to follow. His attitude to the foreigners seems to be that they are in themselves a symptom of the collapse of royal control; a fair enough conclusion as far as it goes but by no means the last word which can be said on the subject. Indeed, the only major work on the life and career of one of the leaders of such foreign troops dates back some hundred years – Jules Quicherat’s biography of the spectacular and perhaps atypical career of Rodrigo de Villandrando. This sparked off quite a Villandrando industry in the columns of French learned journals with local archivists and antiquaries combing their localities for traces of the passage of the great Ecorcheur (one sometimes gets the impression that some areas in the south of France were really rather disappointed if they failed to find any) – perhaps the first time in history that Villandrando had ever been positively welcome anywhere. Other nineteenth-century writers like Francisque-Michel and Forbes-Leith produced works on the Scots in France, but their interpretations are often at fault and their statements of fact downright misleading; the former in particular has an irritating habit of not quoting his sources and a determination to find Scottish ancestry for large numbers of noble families in France, even where the evidence, to say the least, is thin.

Nevertheless, this generally untilled field is potentially a fertile one. Henry V was to die raving that he could not escape from the Scots; a Scot became briefly Constable of France and perhaps the greatest Anglo-Scottish battle between Bannockburn and Flodden was to be fought in France. This suggests very considerable armies and an important role for Scots and other foreigners in the French armies. It is the purpose of this study to examine just how substantial a role they did play. Because of the limited state of knowledge at the present (especially given that military history has been unfashionable until within the last twenty years and has tended to be left to retired military men of limited historical training) it has to operate on at least two levels. The first half is largely a narrative history which attempts to trace the fate of foreign troops from the beginning of their large-scale employment in the aftermath of Agincourt to the reign of Louis XI when a new orientation begins to appear as far as such recruitment was concerned. It is largely a tale of battles fought (often major ones; Verneuil, the greatest battle in which foreigners were to be heavily involved, was one of the main battles of the war if one of the most neglected) and troop movements, though with much to say about the diplomacy of recruitment, the importance of non-royal directed warfare and, after 1445, the organisation and operations of the compagnies d’ordonnance. The second half is more analytical in its aim; foreign troops are used as a group in the light of whose careers one can examine certain problems not peculiar to them in addition to trying to look at them more in their own right. In this section we shall examine such matters as recruitment, the reward and problems of service, the difficulties which they caused in the matter of discipline, their style of life in the army after 1445 and their success or failure in adapting to French society. This format permits one to examine wider issues concerning the French royal army as a whole, the actual effects of the 1445 reform on the lives of those, both soldiers and civilians involved in it, the old debate over the profits of war to those involved in it, the actual role of Ecorcheur companies in French warfare and their relationship with the crown. In addition, the operations of French diplomacy in the 1420’s are bound to come tinder examination.

It has not always been easy to produce a coherent narrative; the sources for this period are highly disjointed, since the Revolution destroyed much of what were always at best fragmentary official records, and the largest of the foreign groups, the Army of Scotland, was almost completely cut off from the mainstream of French military administration. This means that some questions are always likely to remain unanswerable. For instance it becomes almost impossible to make any estimate worthy of serious consideration of the actual numbers of foreign troops engaged outside very vague limits. Chronicle accounts do not always record the presence of foreigners in the armies engaged in the battles they report, and involvement must often be guessed at rather than firmly proven. Town records, especially in the case of Tours, are invaluable in reconstructing the relationship between towns and the armies of the day while giving information on movement of forces too humble to attract the attention of other writers, while the letters of remission in the JJ series of the Archives Nationales are invaluable for information about daily life in the ordonnance companies with a few glances back to earlier days. With the kind of comprehensive aid which Quicherat was able to inspire, it might be possible to find out much more about the activities of foreign soldiers at a local level, but a lifetime could be spent combing the archives of large and small towns alike without anything of very great moment coming to light and it seemed better to place the results of my researches to date on record, patchy though the picture which they give sometimes is, in the hope that if there are radical deficiencies they can be corrected by other researchers. There are other problems as well; as a Scot working from a Scottish university, I have always been conscious that there is a real danger that the Scottish element in the story will come to blot out the others. If there seems to be a heavy concentration on the Scots, this is not because I have been unaware of the problems of balance but rather because the evidence itself commands this bias. There can be little doubt that the Scots were by far the most numerous of the foreign groups in France and their compatriots certainly maintained a deep interest in their exploits overseas; indeed the two Scottish chronicles which cover the 1420’s concentrate so deeply on the events in France that purely domestic Scottish affairs are relegated to a very inferior position. This did not happen either in Spain or in Italy. In addition, the official record in France seems to be much more concerned with the Scots than with other nationalities because of their greater numbers and military importance in the context of the royal armies (the picture may well have been rather different in the more independent companies, but there is far less material on their internal organisation).

Inevitably a work of this kind could not have proceeded without a considerable amount of assistance and encouragement from very many people; far more than I can hope to mention here. First should come my parents, who have supported me through the three years of my researches in every possible way with great generosity. In many ways, it was my father who initially inspired a youthful interest in military history from the experiences of his own life as a regular soldier in war and peace. I hope this study will be an adequate product of this interest. I would also like to thank the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, whose grant of a scholarship enabled me to pay the bills on both sides of the Channel during my travels and researches. The study itself owes a vast amount to the aid and council given by my supervisor, Professor Kenneth Fowler of the University of Edinburgh, whose guidance has often been crucial in setting me on the track of source material which I might otherwise have missed. I should also like to express my gratitude to all the staff at both the universities which I have attended. The department of Mediaeval History at St. Andrews has aided my work even after I left its fifteenth century precincts for the 1960’s concrete of Edinburgh University Department of History; my thanks go to all in both departments who have helped me, especially Miss A J Kettle, Dr. G Parker, Mr. A Goodman and Dr. M G Dickson. In France, I obviously owe much to the staffs of the Bibliotheque Nationale, Archives Nationales and the various Archives Departmentales and Municipales who have guided me on the various stages of my travels through the records of fifteenth century France. My special thanks go to Professor Pierre Capra of the University of Bordeaux for his very generous hospitality and help during my visit to his most beautiful city during one of the coldest Easters on record, and to Miss Laura Hamson, then of the University of Alberta and student of mediaeval Bourges for fascinating discussions about this city, its contacts with foreigners, and the realities of France in that period. Indeed, I should like to record my thanks to my various friends, both professionally interested and purely amateur, who have had to put up with my sometimes curious interest and concerns and have done so with amazing tolerance; thanks especially to Sue Willdig and Sarah Hardy for their much-appreciated friendship both during and after the sometimes rather lonely months in Paris and above all to Lesley Pattinson for her deep and abiding concern for and interest in my doings at all times. Finally, specially large thanks are due to my aunt, Miss May Hunter for tier near miraculous transformation of a very messy typescript indeed into its present splendid state. I can only hope that the resulting thesis is worthy of the great amounts of help and friendship which the author has received from these and many more besides too numerous to mention by name in the course of its creation.

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