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How Was War Waged During the Middle Ages?

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The Middle Ages were marked by constant warfare, as European dynasties sought to expand their territory and win glory on the battlefield.

The foundation of feudalism—the political system that dominated the era—was the pledging of military support by nobles to the king in exchange for land. Thus, for an entire social class, war was the primary purpose of their existence.

Here is an overview of medieval warfare. The points covered here:

  1. How armies were raised
  2. How armies were organised
  3. How armies were used
A depiction of a man-at-arms. They were usually land-owning commoners who could afford better equipment than your average peasant.

A depiction of a man-at-arms. They were usually land-owning commoners who could afford better equipment than your average peasant.

How Armies Were Raised in the Middle Ages

Initially, military service was provided in exchange for land. Over time, it was replaced by military service for payment.

Service for Land

Armies were raised through feudal levy. Royal commissioners were dispatched throughout the land to sound the call to arms, and the king's vassals were expected to make themselves and their retainers available for service.

Service for Pay

By the 1300s, the feudal levy had been largely abolished and replaced by contracted service (indentured retainers).

Nobles were no longer obligated to fight in exchange for land, and many preferred not to. They could pay rent in lieu of military service, and their lords used this money to raise armies of private retainers.

What About Commoners?

Commoners were expected to fight for the king if called upon. The Statute of Westminster (1285) required that all able-bodied Englishmen between fifteen and sixty be available for service.

Contrary to popular belief, commanders would rarely be seen leading hordes of peasants around the countryside. It didn't serve them to have poorly trained, poorly equipped fighters in their army.

But over time, a class of land-owning commoners known as yeomen emerged who could afford better equipment. Many also had military training, such as the longbowmen who practised archery from a young age. They were a powerful asset to medieval armies.

What About Mercenaries?

They were certainly useful, although viewed with suspicion due to having no loyalty to the cause.

They primarily served as infantry. Famous examples of mercenary units include the Genoese crossbowmen and the Swiss halberdiers. In the east, the services of Vikings were highly prized by the Byzantine Empire.

Knights attacking infantry, from a vintage illustration by Gustave Dore.

Knights attacking infantry, from a vintage illustration by Gustave Dore.

How Armies Were Organised in the Middle Ages

A medieval army comprised:

  • Heavy cavalry in the form of knights. Knights were initially just mounted warriors; only from the 12th century were they assigned special social status and expected to practice the code of chivalry.
  • Light cavalry, usually made up of wealthy commoners.
  • Infantry, comprising spearmen, unmounted soldiers and archers. The sword may be the enduring symbol of medieval combat, but pole-arms such as spears and halberds were actually the weapon of choice in warfare.
Knights were generally members of the nobility, as only they could afford the horse and armour.

Knights were generally members of the nobility, as only they could afford the horse and armour.

The Role of Class

Each social class in the feudal hierarchy played a specific role during warfare.

  • Nobles served as knights, as they could afford the armour and horse and were trained in mounted combat from an early age.
  • The Middle Class provided men-at-arms and, later, the devastating longbowmen. Knights could also be referred to as "men-at-arms", but the term is often used as a catchall for non-noble soldiers.
  • Peasants served as primitive foot soldiers. As mentioned, military commanders preferred not to rely on such untrained rabble.
The Battle of Hastings, 1066. The Anglo-Saxon infantry was no match for Norman knights.

The Battle of Hastings, 1066. The Anglo-Saxon infantry was no match for Norman knights.

How Warfare Was Conducted in the Middle Ages

Medieval warfare primarily took three forms:

  • Raids
  • Battles
  • Sieges

Raids

Films set during the Middle Ages regularly feature titanic clashes on blood-soaked battlefields, but military commanders actually preferred to avoid pitched battles if possible. Gambling your entire army on a single encounter was not ideal.

The foundation of the feudal economy was agriculture, so it made more sense to attack your enemy's farmland. Armoured warriors burning crops, killing livestock and cutting down peasants may not make for a heroic image, but it was the brutal reality of medieval warfare.

Battles

Nonetheless, battles were a frequent occurrence, and the Middle Ages are replete with decisive encounters that helped determine the course of history, such as the Battle of Hastings (1066), the Battle of Agincourt (1415) and the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485).

Any number of factors could determine the outcome of a battle. Obviously, it helped to have a larger army than your opponent, but military innovations also played a major role.

For example, William the Conqueror's Normans triumphed at the Battle of Hastings because they had knights, which the foot soldiers of King Harold Godwinson's Saxon army could not hope to stand against.

During the Hundred Years' War between England and France, the English frequently triumphed against superior numbers thanks to their secret weapon, the longbow.

Shifting alliances played a major role in the Wars of the Roses. Henry Tudor emerged victorious at the Battle of Bosworth Field because Richard III's ally, Lord Stanley, switched sides at a critical point.

A depiction of the siege of Lisbon, 1147.

A depiction of the siege of Lisbon, 1147.

Sieges

Castles were the focal points of military and political power during the Middle Ages. A successful military campaign usually required the taking of castles, so a military commander could expect to have to conduct a siege at some point.

The preferred approach was to surround your enemy's castle and starve them out. Attacking the fortress directly was costly but sometimes necessary if defenders were well-stocked with supplies.

This required engines of war such as battering rams (for assaulting the castle gate, usually the only weak point), siege towers (for storming the walls), and the mighty trebuchet (the weapon of choice until the advent of gunpowder).

The largest trebuchet ever built was deployed by King Edward I during his 1304 siege of Stirling Castle and could fling boulders weighing 150 kilograms over a distance of 200 meters.

The Siege of Orléans in 1429  made use of cannons. A 15th-century depiction from Les Vigiles de Charles VII by Martial d'Auvergne.

The Siege of Orléans in 1429 made use of cannons. A 15th-century depiction from Les Vigiles de Charles VII by Martial d'Auvergne.

The Rise of Gunpowder

It took time for gunpowder to stake its place on the battlefield. Early gunpowder weaponry was basic and unreliable, while cannons were difficult to transport.

Nonetheless, Edward IV used cannons to utterly demolish Bamburgh Castle in 1464, providing a glimpse of their potential effectiveness. It was said that stones of the walls flew into the sea.

As gunpowder weaponry became more advanced, a new kind of warfare emerged, and the era of knights and castles came to an end.

References

Warfare in Western Europe in the Central Middle Ages. Swansea University.

General information. English Heritage.

Latham, Andrew. Medieval Geopolitics: The Medieval “Military Revolution”. Medivalists.net.