Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Louis XI's Army

The Battle of Montlhéry in 1465 pitted a 'modern' French Army against a version of its former self, in the guise of the mixed feudal and mercenary forces of the premier nobles of France and the future Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold. Despite its somewhat more radical professional basis, the French did not perform as well as might be expected.   
When Louis XI gained the French throne in 1461, he inherited from his father, Charles VII, a military machine which was, North of the Alps at least, the envy of all of Europe. At its core was a body of professional soldiers, which if not actually a 'standing army' (i.e. where the soldiers signed on for several years service), it was at least a permanent one (i.e. approximately the same number of men were in service from one year to the next, many of whom were effectively in continual service in any case) and it was maintained by a special permanent tax, the Taille Royal.

This was backed by an organised part-time volunteer force of infantry (Francs-Archers), which was maintained by individual parishes and whose members were 'paid' for their service in the form of tax concessions. On top of this there was a permanent artillery park, staffed by professional gunners and lastly there was also the feudal aristocracy (the Ban and Arrière-ban), who could be summoned on a temporary basis, so as to swell the ranks even further.

This very same military structure had driven the English from France (with the exception of the Calais Pale), but had faltered against an alliance of feudal nobles during the War of the Public Weal (1465). Regardless of its occasional shortcomings, in sheer numbers the army was impressive; in 1461 Louis had a total of 40,000 men in service, which had only risen to 45,000 by 1482, despite being almost continuously at war with the Burgundians since 1477. Of this total only around 15-16,000 were professional soldiers, the remainder being drawn from the Francs-Archers, the Ban and the Arrière-ban.

Compagnies d'Ordonnance du Roi

The 'Companies of the Royal Order' had been originally commissioned through what became known as the Grande Ordonnance in 1445 and thereafter became a permanent military force, wholly mounted and maintained by a special tax - the previously mentioned Taille Royale. While the force has often been described as being composed of twenty companies, each of 100 'lances', this was not actually the case. What did happen was that twenty captains were originally commissioned by the King (Charles VII) and the order given to raise 1,500 'lances', of which only 1,436 were actually raised at that time.

The majority of captains were assigned to a region and the number of lances per captain varied as to the perceived need for the defence of their particular region. Those captains assigned to border regions were predictably allocated more lances than those assigned to interior areas. In peace time the lances were distributed across their respective regions, which had to supply pay, billets and rations for them. In return the troops acted as local police, patrolling the highways and dealing with brigands as needed. In wartime however, they would be mustered at a centralised location and marched off to where the royal army was assembling; probably sped on their way with a collective sigh of relief from the communities that had been maintaining them.

The original 1,436 lances were steadily increased over time, supplemented as required by lances drawn from the Ban and the Arrière-ban. When the Langue d'Oc region was included in the grand plan, a further 500 permanent lances were raised and for the Normandy campaign of 1450, a further 754 lances were raised, albeit only for the duration of the campaign. By 1477 forty captains and some 2,600 or so lances was the overall average, but by 1480 there were 58 captains and 4,000 lances in service. With each lance containing four combatants and two non-combatants, the crown was maintaining an army of some 24,000 men in the permanent companies alone.

The Francs-Archers

As the name suggests the original force envisaged was to be wholly composed of archers or crossbowmen, presumably as a counterbalance to the numbers of archers fielded by English armies of the time. Contrary to popular belief, the predominant missile weapon in France North of the Loire in the 15th Century, was the very same weapon as wielded by the English archers. Only South of the Loire and in the various town and city militias, did the crossbow predominate.

The system itself was a virtual copy of that maintained in the Duchy of Brittany; each parish was to provide a volunteer to serve as a soldier and the community would bear the cost of providing his arms and equipment. With the number of parishes being quite difficult to determine, this was quickly changed to 50 'hearths' (households). The individual himself was exempt from a number of specified taxes, which was his reward for making himself available to serve and the community also waged him for the time allowed for him to join the Royal Army, after which time he would be paid by the King.

With an area as big as France to consider, it is perhaps not surprising that the supervision of the system was delegated to the regional royal officers who were to command the force in battle. Initially there would be sixteen regions, each with its own captain, who was responsible for the 500 men to be raised by each region. In 1466 the sixteen 'bandes' were increased to 28, divided into four larger regions. The troop types permitted were also widened to add piquetes (spearmen) and voulgiers (men with polearms), the ratio of which to the already existing archers and crossbowmen, seemingly variable from one bande to the next.

In contrast to the 'force of patriots' raised to finally remove the English from French soil, there seems to have been a degradation in the quality of the Francs-Archers over time. Popular folk history of the time describes them as slow in the advance and quick in the retreat, as well as only being able to kill chickens. The Paris Militia who now fell under the broad heading of Franc-Archer, may have given its usual excellent service according to chroniclers, but the overwhelming impression as far as history is concerned, is that by 1479 and beyond, the corps was a shadow of its former self.

The Swiss

As a younger man Louis had fought and bested the Swiss at St. Jakob an der Birs, but had also witnessed their defeat of his rivals Charles the Bold and the successive Holy Roman Emperors Sigismund and Frederick. With individual cantons offering mercenary contracts for bands of their young men, the Reisläufer, Louis did not hesitate to take on some 500 cavalry and 6,000 infantry as a core component of his army in 1477. Thereafter and into subsequent reigns, Swiss troops could almost always be found to be in service to France.

The Bandes Française

The disappointing performance of the Francs-Archers in 1479 prompted Louis XI to raise a force of professional infantry to complement his professional mounted arm; the Compagnies d'Ordonnance. Louis decided on a force similar in style to his Swiss mercenaries and specifically contracted with individual cantons for men to train this force. A base for training them was set aside within the massive military cantonment at the Pont-de-l'Arche and recruitment and training began in late 1480.

The plan was for 24 bandes, each divided into hundred-man companies, of which there were two crossbow and handgun companies and eight companies of pikemen and halberdiers. The number of bandes actually raised is hard to determine, as the base was disbanded after Louis's death in 1483 and the troops dispersed into a number of frontier garrisons. Some 4,000 men from the bandes were apparently provided to Henry Tudor for his invasion in 1485 and four bandes were to join the French Invasion of Italy in 1494, but within the ten years since they had been established, any benefit they had gained from their Swiss trainers was long behind them.  

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