Profit and Loss in the Hundred Years War: the Subcontracts of Sir John Strother, 1374

Profit and Loss in the Hundred Years War: the Subcontracts of Sir John Strother, 1374

By Simon Walker

The Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Studies, Vol.58 (1985)

Among the Swinburne manuscripts in the Northumberland County Record Office is preserved a small batch of indentures concluded between Sir John Strother of Lanton in Glendale and those who contracted to serve with him under the command of the earl of March in Brittany and France in 1374.1 Indentures between a captain who had concluded his own contract with the Crown and his subcontractors are rare but not unknown: 2 Strother’s indentures are unusual in preserving the subcontracts of a subcontractor. They come from one step further down the ladder of military organization than most surviving documents of this type and they consequently reveal some of the administrative and financial complications that lie behind the suspiciously neat accounts eventually rendered by the captains at the exchequer.

Sir John Strother was the eldest son of Henry Strother of Kirknewton and Learchild.3 The Strothers’ prominence in Northumberland went back no further than the early fourteenth century, when William de Strother the elder bought up the lands forfeited by the Corbets for their complicity in the rebellion of Sir Gilbert de Middleton but, like the Hetons (into whom Sir John was married),4 they were among the lesser Northumbrian families who had profited from the disruption wrought by the wars against Scotland to establish themselves at the expense of older and less adaptable lineages.5 By 1375 they were among the most influential gentry families in Northumberland. Sir John’s father, who was still alive at the time these indentures were concluded, was a former sheriff of Northumberland and a man of some importance on the Border, leasing the castle and lordship of Wark on Tweed from its absentee lords.6 One of his uncles, William Strother, was a substantial woolman and mineowner, mayor of Newcastle upon Tyne between 1353 and 1360.7 Another uncle, Alan Strother of Kirkharle, was still more influential: as constable of Roxburgh castle, bailiff of the liberty of Tynedale and farmer of the royal lands within the liberty, as well as a former sheriff and M.P. for Northumberland, he exercised as effective an authority over North Tynedale as Henry Strother did in Glendale.8

Sir John Strother’s own career hardly matches the prominence of his family. This was principally because his father remained alive and active until the beginning of Richard II’s reign 9 and, as head of the family, naturally received all the more important public appointments and commissions himself. Sir John’s first administrative appointment, as an assessor of the poll tax in Northumber–land, came in May 1379 and in the following December he was appointed one of the joint-keepers of the East March, but his brief official career was cut short by death in April 1380.10 For such young men, living under the shadow of their fathers, fathers, soldiering abroad provided alternative occupation, and the fact that Sir John was a knight whilst his father remained a commoner suggests that he already possessed some military experience. He had the additional incentive that, whilst his father remained alive, he would always be short of the money necessary to maintain his knightly estate.11 Service overseas was consequently a attractive, perhaps a necessary, means of supplementing his exiguous landed income: an examination of his indentures indicates how he hoped to manage this.

Six of Strother’s indentures with the men who were to serve in his company were dated at London between 26 and 30 September 1374; a seventh, also dated at London, was concluded on 15 October and the last at Plymouth on 1 February 1375.12 With some minor variations, each indenture witnessed that Sir John and his man-at-arms had agreed that the latter was to serve him in war in the company of the earl of March for a whole year in the parts of Brittany and France. Each man-at-arms was to be mounted at his own expense and be accompanied by an unarmed archer, both being well enough arrayed that Sir John would not suffer any loss or reproach at his muster, under pain of forfeiting the obligation made by the man-at-arms pledge.13 He was to serve entirely at Sir John’s cost and to receive for his year’s fees and wages and all other expenses, apart from the costs of passage and repassage to and from Brittany at the earl’s expense, a payment of forty pounds. Strother was careful to stipulate that this sum would be paid in proportion to the amount he was himself paid by his lord the earl of March,14 so that, if there was to be any default on March’s behalf, he was insured against having to pay his own men their full annual tee. It was a condition with particular relevance to the circumstances of the Brittany expedition, since the captains were to be paid by the Crown only for their first six months’ service and thereafter were to live off the ransoms of the countryside,15 and the payment of wages to their subcontractors could be expected to be correspondingly irregular.

The man-at-arms was to be in London on the date Sir John informed his pledge,16 to begin his year of service on the day Strother began his and to remain armed and arrayed in his company for the whole year.17 Strother was to have one-third of all gains of war made by the man-at-arms and his archer 18 for his lord the earl, and of the remaining two-thirds he was to have a quarter for himself. If any chieftain or captain was taken by his men, Strother was to have him for his lord the earl, making reasonable reward to the captor according to the size of the sum he received from March for the prisoner; no prisoner was to be released or the amount of his ransom finally agreed without the assent of Sir John. Every contract ends with a standard sealing clause, witnessing that both parties had attached their seals to the other’s indenture. Exceptionally, Thomas Schorwether’s contract also offers him bouche of court, presumably in the earl of March’s household, for the year of his service.

Strother’s own indenture with March has not survived, but his receipt for the first instalment of his company’s wages and regard makes it clear that he had contracted to provide thirty men-at-arms and thirty archers for a year’s service.19 This was a significant proportion of the earl’s complete company of Boo men but Strother’s connection with March appears to have been a purely temporary one, for the duration of the campaign alone, since there is no sign of him among Mortimer’s permanent retinue.20 There was certainly no tenurial link between the two men, since March held no land in Northumberland and very little in the North of England, but they may have established contact when Mortimer journeyed to the Border in June and July 1373, as chief guardian of the truce with Scotland.21 Strother’s indenture does, however, seem to have brought him a place in March’s household for the term of his contract with the earl 22 and this temporary assurance of magnate protection may have acted as an additional inducement to service, since he was currently involved in a dispute with Sir John Montagu, nephew of the earl of Salisbury, and his ministers in the lordship of Wark.23

Whatever the precise nature of their connection, Strother’s contract with March was undoubtedly an advantageous one. March’s indenture with the Crown was for a year’s service at accustomed wages and double regard but he offered Sir John Strother rather better terms, paying him £213 17s for the wages of himself and his company for the first quarter and £326 13s 4d as the first half-year’s regard for himself and his men-at-arms.24 Strother was thus being paid wages at the normal Crown rate, but double regard for thirty men-at-arms at the standard rate of 100 marks a quarter 25 adds up to only £266 13s 4d. Effectively, therefore, Strother was receiving a personal regard of sixty pounds rather than the nine pounds to which he would normally have been entitled. The reasons for so large a premium can only be guessed at, but in view of the delays already besetting the departure of the expedition,26 it was clearly worth while to bid high for the services of a man who could undertake to produce a sizeable company at short notice. This regard was not, however, the full extent of the profit Strother stood to make. At Crown rates, a man-at-arms serving with an archer for a full year should have received £45 2s in wages and regard; Strother’s contracts all offered a flat rate of forty pounds. Thus, he stood to make a profit of £40 16s on the eight subcontracts that survive and, if this was the standard rate at which his whole company served, he could expect to clear a profit of £153 on their wages over the whole year.

On top of this considerable sum, Strother also claimed 16.66 per cent of his men’s gains of war for himself. By 1375 the general but not invariable convention for the division of the spoils of war was that the commander of a company received a third of all the gains of war made by the men under his command and the king then received a third of this third;27 a subcontractor could claim, in his turn, a third of the winnings of his own men 28 whilst a man-at-arms could probably impose the same conditions on the archer he brought with him. Strother’s demand on his men has, therefore, good precedent but the quarter stipulated in his indentures is an unusual proportion, claimed by the Crown in the case of gains of war won at sea,29 but apparently unique among indentures for a campaign on land. He may have had to moderate his claim on his men in order to induce them to accept service below the Crown rate. All the same, if everything went according to plan, Strother could still expect to receive a premium of £102 on his regard and make a profit of £153 on his company during the year, over and above the wages to which he was entitled. In all, he stood to make £255 – a sum approximately equal to the annual income of a banneret. The availability of profits of this size from a war that lacked the spectacular success of Edward III’s prime helps to explain continued English enthusiasm for its prosecution and the strength of domestic hostility to the proposals for a temporary truce or permanent peace with France.

Who were the men who took service with Strother? Four of the eight men-at-arms described themselves as esquires 30 but their background is uniformly obscure and there is little else that can be said about their careers or social status. Only two of Strother’s company thought it worth while to take out letters of protection.31 Their geographical origins seems to have been primarily East Anglian: John Lucas came from Great Dunmow in Essex, William Swanton from Norwich, Wifliam Doget from Cambridgeshire.32 Thus, in raising his company Strother seems to have relied less on the geographical and tenurial contacts of his native Northumberland than on the large pool of unemployed military manpower that gravitated towards London.33 This had the advantage of convenience but it meant that Strother had little idea of the reliability of the men he was employing. As the many revocations of letters of protection on the Patent Rolls show, contracted men had a perennial tendency to default or desert. Strother’s indentures cast some light on the steps he took to prevent such defaults, since they provide that the man-at-arms is to be present on the day of muster under pain of the obligation of his pledge, who is also obliged to inform the contracting party of the day for which the muster is set.34 Two such obligations survive amongst the Swinburne manuscripts, in both of which citizens of London bind themselves to Sir John Strother in the sum of eighty pounds to be paid in London at the following Martinmas (11 November 1374) for the performance of certain covenants contained in deeds of the same date.35 Their function was to ensure that the man-at-arms did not disappear with his first quarter’s pay: if he did, the pledge was personally liable for a sum twice or four times as great and might be imprisoned until it was paid.36

In the case of this expedition to Brittany, however, Strother probably suffered less from the unreliability of his men than from the incompetence of his commanders, for the army’s departure was continually postponed until April 1375 and the campaign itself curtailed even further by the conclusion of an Anglo-French truce in early July.37 In consequence, the captains and their men were paid wages and regard for only half a year’s service, so that Strother’s opportunity for profit on his indentures was proportionately reduced. March’s original indenture with the Crown covered him against any financial loss from such an eventuality and he was able to use his political standing to gain an extra series of allowances on his account at the exchequer.38 By paying his men only when he received payments for them from March, Strother had carefully ensured, in his turn, that he would not be left out of pocket, but some of the humbler members of his company were less fortunate in their financial dealings, as a letter Strother received after the truce became known graphically illustrates.39 This was written from the fortress of Saint-Brieuc on 9 June by Walter Ferrefort, apparently the archer-companion of Strother’s man-at-arms, William Doget. He pleaded that Strother should deliver him from imprisonment by paying 120 gold francs to his master, Jean de Commin. Ferrefort was obliged to Commin for this sum on behalf of another Englishman, John More, who had been given parole in order to raise his own ransom of forty francs. More had promptly abused his parole and disappeared, leaving Ferrefort (so he said) bound hand and foot in the great prison of Saint-Brieuc. The sums involved in this affair are trifling compared to the profit Sir John Strother could hope to clear on the expedition as a whole, but Ferrefort’s entreaties serve as a timely reminder that although the captains and commanders of English companies could still derive a profit from the war with France, it was not the French alone who paid for their gains.


End Notes

1. Northumberland Record Office, Swinburne MSS., ZSW 4/43-50

2. J. W. Sherborne, ‘Indentured retinues and English expeditions to France, 1369-80’, Eng. Hist. Rev., Ixxix (1964), 742-4; A. Goodman, ‘The military subcontracts of Sir Hugh Hastings, t 380′, ibid., xcv(1980), 114-20.

3. N.R.O., ZSW 4/30; Calendar of the Laing Charters, ed. J. Anderson (Edinburgh, 1899), nos. 30, 61. Besides these manors, Henry Strother also acquired the manor of Moneylaws in 1369 and held land in Newton and West Newton (Calendar of Patent Rolls 1367-79, p. 292 ; N.R.O., ZSW 4/52, 29).

4. N.R.O., ZSW 4/29; Cal. Laing Charters, no. 6 1.

5. Cal. Laing Charters, nos. 21, 29, 30; Cal. Pat. Rolls 1364-7, p. 39; J. A. Tuck, 6. ‘Northumbrian society in the 14th century’, Northern Hist., vi (1971), 35-9.

6. List of Sheriffs for England and Wales (Lists and Indexes, ix, 1898, repr. 1963), p. 97 ; N.R.O., ZSW 1/32-6.

7. Catalogue of Ancient Deeds, iv, nos. A 6148, 6866; Cal. Laing Charters, nos. 42, 44; Archaeologia Aeliana, 4th ser., xviii (1940), 6. The relationship is established by the pleadings in King’s Bench, cited below n. 11.

8. Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem, xv, no. 419. Alan Strother was constable of Roxburgh, 1364-76, bailiff of the liberty of Tynedale from 1369 until his death in 1381, sheriff of Yorthumberland 1356-8 and M.P. for the county in 1363 (Public Record Office, E 101/29/17, E 101/68/4 no. 89, 6 no. 142; Calendar of Fine Rolls 1369-77, p. 32; N.R.O., ZSW 4/54; List of Sheriffs, p. 97; Calendar of Close Rolls 1360-4, p. 558).

9. N.R.O., ZSW 4/61; Cal. Laing Charters, no. 61.

10. Cal. Fine Rolls 1377-83, pp. 144, 205; Rotuli Scotiae, ii. 20a.

11. Apart from the manor of Lanton, demised to him by his father in 1372, Sir John enjoyed a rent of only £10 p.a. from the family lands in Newton and Kirknewton and the income from some parcels of lands (amounting to a few hundred acres) in Felton, Framlington and Thurston (Cal. Laing Charters, no. 61; N.R.O., ZSW 4/29, 58; 1/79). He held the manor of Henshawe for x years by his father’s demise but the Strothers’ title to this property was successfully contested by the Crown (Cal. Inq. Post Mortem, xii, no. Sob; P.R.O., KB 27/457 Rex m. 20).

12. 26 Sept. 1374, N.R.O., ZSW 4/49 (Robert Sparr); 28 Sept. 1374, ZSW 4/43 (Nicholas Doget), ZSW 4/44 (Nicholas de Wastby), ZSW 4/45 (William Doget); 30 Sept. 1374, ZSW 4/46 (Henry Beumys), ZSW 4/47 (William Swanton); 15 Oct. 1374, ZSW 4/48 (John Lucas); 1 Feb. 1375, ZSW 4/50 (Thomas Schorwether).

13. This penalty clause was initially omitted and later interlineated in 3 indentures (N.R.O., ZSW 4/43-5) For a discussion of the pledge system, see below.

14. ‘don’ il sera paie solonc ceo clue le dit monsieur Johan est paie de son seigneur le Conte pur lan’ N. R. O., ZSW 4/43, 44, omit this phrase and ZSW 4/48 omits the last two words, interlineating `bien et loialement’ after the third word of the phrase.

15. P.R.O., E 364/10 m. 4.

16. N.R.O., ZSW 4/50 omits this stipulation, for obvious reasons. In ZSW 4/49 it is accidentally omitted and added at the bottom of the indenture, after the sealing clause.

17. N.R.O., ZSW 4/43, 44, 48 omit this final stipulation.

18. N.R.O., ZSW 4/43, 44 have `et son archer’ crossed out and `ou aucuns de soens’ substituted; ZSW 4/48 has ‘aucuns de soens’ in the original text; ZSW 4/45, 5o have the phrase `et ses gentz’.

19. N.R.O., ZSW 4/42.

20. He does not appear in March’s receiver-general’s account for 1374/5 nor in a list of the earl’s creditors drawn up in 1375 (British Library, Egerton Rolls 8727, 8751).

21. Rot. Scot., i. 985; P.R.O., E 364/7 m. 5.

22. He is referred to as `demourant o le seignour de La Marche’ in June 1375 (N.R.O., ZSW 4/60).

23. N.R.O., ZSW 4/27, 53, 57; Calendar of Plea and Memoranda Rolls of the City of London, 1364-81, ed. A. H. Thomas (Cambridge, 1929), p. 221.

24. P.R.O., E 364/10 m. 4; N.R.O., ZSW 4/42. Accustomed wages for this campaign were 2s a day for a knight, is a day for a man-at-arms and 6d a day for an archer.

25. This was the rate the Crown paid March, who received £3,466 13s ½d for the regard of 390 men-at-arms for half a year (P. R. O., E 101/34/6 m. 4).

26. G. Holmes, The Good Parliament (Oxford, 1975), pp. 39-40.

27. D. Hay, `The division of the spoils of war in 14th-century England’, Trans. Royal Hist. Soc., 5th ser., iv (1954), 105-6; M. H. Keen, The Laws of War in the Late Middle Ages (1965), pp. 148-9.

28. Sherborne, p. 744.

29. E.g., Brit. Libr., Add. MS. 37494 fos. Sv, g.

30. Henry Beumys, John Lucas, Robert Sparr, Thomas Schorwether.

31. P.R.O., C 76/57 m. to (Robert Sparr); C 76/58 m. 18 (Thomas Shebeden).

32. N.R.O., ZSW 4/48; Cal. Close Rolls 1374-7, p. 224; ZSW 4/47; Cal. Pat. Rolls 1367-70, p. 10.

33. John Lucas, for example, took out letters of protection to go abroad with John Lord Neville in 1372 (P.R.O., C 76/55 m. 34).

34. ‘a son moustre sous peine del obligacion de son plegge . . . le iour clue le dit monsieur iohan ou son attorne ferra garnir son plegge . . .’

35. N. R. O., ZSW 4/39, 40.

36. The system is well illustrated by the petition of Roger Gaylord, citizen of London, and Olive his wife in 1388. He complains that he became the pledge for John Drew of Northumberland who had contracted to serve with Sir Henry Ferrers on Bishop Despenser’s Flemish crusade. Drew received £25 from Ferrers `et ensurance clue le dit Johan bien et loialement dust tenir et perfourner ses diu covenantz ovesque le dit monsire Henri, le dit Roger devent pleg’ et fust oblige al dit monsire Henri put le dit Johan en cent livres, les queux covenantz le dit Johan Drew ne tenoit ne perfournoit, pur quoy le dit monsire Henri ad detenu en prison lavantdit Roger pur cestes v ans et pluis et unquore detient, et pur quele temps la dite Olyve ne puist avoire connissance ou le dit Johan fuist demorrant . . .” (P.R.O., SC 8/223/1 1140; cf, Cat. Pat. Rolls 1385-9, p. 470).

37. Holmes, pp. 87-40; R. Delachenal, Histoire de Charles V (5 vols., Paris, 1909-31), iv. 515-20; C. C. Bayley, `The campaign of 1875 and the Good Parliament’, Eng. Hist. Rev., IV (1940), 870-83 for this campaign.

38. P.R.O., E 101/34/6 m. 4; E 159/153, Brevia Baronibus, Hilary m. 9d, Easter m. 6. The warrants for these allowances were issued under the privy seal on 4 and 5 Feb 1377, just as March was demonstrating his reconciliation with the court by presenting the king’s demands for taxation to convocation (Holmes, p. 186).

39. N.R.O., ZSW 4/60. `Trescheir seignour et mestre monsour Johan ceStroude [sic] demourant o le seignour [de la Merche crossed out] de La Marche, Gautier Ferrefort vostre familier. Je me [interlineated] recommande a vous et vous prie et suplie clue il vous plesse de me delivrez envers Johan de Commin Mon mestre de la somme de seix vingts frans dor, de laquelle somme ge suy plege pour Johan More de quarante frans dor. Si vous pri Mon treschier seignour clue il vous plesse me delivrer. Car ge suy a Saint Briouc en grant prison ou sepes et es fers par les piez et par les mens. Et sachiez clue ge suy grandement pene et en coutage pour ledit Johan More depuys clue ii s’en ala, et il a fait clue faux et clue mauves de m’aver lesse ainxin ou come [?] et d’aver fauce ainxin sa fay et son service comme il a fait vers son mestre et vers moy. Et s[i] vous suplie de y mestre remede,mon cher seignour, et de me delivrer et oster de ceste paine ou ge suy. Et de ce clue il vous en plera ffere pour moy, plesse m’en mander la responce, et de ce, cher seignour, ne me veillez fallir. Et [de ce crossed out] auxi Mon cher seignour, vous pri clue il vous plesse me recommander a Guillaume Doguet Mon cher compaingnon, et mestre paine de me delivrer. Mon cher seignour le saint Esperit fait garde de vous. Escrtpt a saint B[rilouc le[xje crossed out] ixme jour de juinet et de par le vostre Gautier Ferrefort, moult esbahy’.


This article was published in The Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Studies v.58 (1985). We thank the Institute of Historical Studies and Simon Walker for their permission to republish this article.

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