Monday, 15 February 2016

Compagnies d'Ordonnance du Roi 1477-1482

A late 15th Century depiction of Ordonnance troop types. To the front are the Gendarmes, while behind them can be seen the various polearms carried by the coustillier. In the foreground a page holds the herald's horse.
Since their inception in 1445 the Compagnies d'Ordonnance du Roi (Companies of the King's order) had, until Charles the Bold's own experimentations, been the sole military force maintained on anything like a permanent basis by any European state. It was not a standing army as such, technically both officers and men were on yearly commissions and contracts, although many, if not most, did serve from one year to the next without interruption. It was maintained by a special tax on the population, the taille royale and in peacetime was billeted and maintained by the civil population, the whole being divided across the major centres of population. It then acted as a national police force very much in the same way as modern day France's Gendarmerie, which draws its name from their principle element the gens d'armes (men at arms).

In wartime however the compagnies were the principle element of France's military power. As they were kept permanently in arms, they could be gathered from their billets and be ready to march in a matter of days. As they contained both a shock cavalry element and equal numbers of mounted archers, each of the companies was a self-contained fighting formation. Like a modern military unit it could be sub-divided so that individual elements could be detached for specific missions and a standard set of trumpet calls were used that could identify individual elements and issue instructions to them. Many French cavalry calls had their origin with the ordonnance companies, not least the 'a boute-selle' - 'boots and saddles'; the call for the company to mount.

The army available to Louis XI in 1477, just in terms of the men of the ordonnance companies alone, was 2,846 lances divided between 40 captains (the equivalent of a modern day colonel). Most modern historians give 100 lances as the 'official' number of lances for a company, but in fact this was the nominal ideal. The actual average from the above figures is 76 lances for each one of 37 companies (there were three captains who had no authorisation to maintain any lances). In reality the numbers of lances were far more arbitrarily assigned. By 1480 Louis had increased his 'royal army' to 4,000 lances divided between 58 captains (an average of 68 lances per company), although all were not deployed in the Low Countries. There were nevertheless something in the region of 2,000 lances present in the army that fought at the Battle of Guinegate in 1479. 

Louis XI actually pursued a policy of using commissions to raise companies as a sign of favour; the more lances you had, the more in favour or trusted you were. He had already dismissed almost every captain employed in his father's reign when he gained the throne in 1461 and apparently he often did not renew (for a time at least) the commissions of those that displeased him. He chose his captains carefully and in any case chose their lieutenants for them too. Unlike the companies raised by the nobles and grand captains before 1445, the king of France was indisputably in control of these.  
Lances Fournie ou Garnie

The building block of the Compagnies d'Ordonnance were the Lances, or more correctly Lances fournie ou garnie - 'well-equipped and armoured lances', as opposed to just lance which was the traditional term for a single man at arms. The lance himself (or the homme d'armes as he was increasingly being called) was thtête de lance (head of the lance) and responsible for the members of the lance. Besides himself there were two archers, a coutillier (or coustillier), a page and a 'valet de guerre' (or gros varlet).

The 1445 Ordonnance describes the lance as follows (my comments in brackets);
To wit, the men of arms each had three horses, for them their valet and page. They (the men at arms) were all armed with breastplates, leg armor and sallets, daggers and swords, and spears topped with silver (presumably silver-plated) to be carried by their pages. Their valets (coustilleur) were to be armed with sallet, brigandines, jacques or haubergon, an axe or guisarme, and every one of these men at arms had two archers on horseback most armed with brigandines, leg armour and sallets, including several that were lined with silver, and all had at least good jacques or haubergons.
So essentially we have a fully-harnessed man at arms, two archers also effectively harnessed albeit other armour replaces breastplates and there is no arm armour, and a somewhat less well-protected coustillier. The term coustilleur is exchanged for the role of valet de guerre in a 1454 ordonnance, contrary to the 1445 one. That the coustillier is armed with an axe ('haiche' presumably means 'hatchet') or a guisarme (polearm), leaves some doubt as to his exact role. The weapons to be carried are expanded on further;
As for swords the archers carry long ones, sharp as a razor and are two hands (in length? i.e. 20"), and have daggers longer than those of the men at arms, the coutille and (which are) also sharp like razors. ...
The Coustillier carried axes or guisarmes (as above) or "portent vouluntier en leur main une faczon de dardres qui ont le fer large que l'en appelle langue de bœuf"; which I believe means they "choose to carry a broad weapon fashioned from iron which is called a 'beef tongue'. I could be wrong on that though as it was a very difficult phrase to translate for my level of French. I also could not quite fully understand if the archers' swords were two hands long (a 'hand' is 9.75"), or wielded in two hands. As the coutille is also mentioned, I expect what is meant is a single-edged weapon around 20" long.

In my head I am picturing something like this.
That being said I would expect such weapons to be relegated largely to the coustillier by the Late 15th Century. The increasing gentrification of the archers would almost certainly have led to the employment of similar swords to the ones the men at arms were using.

Higher Organisation

A touch anachronistic in terms of the mix of armour types, but there is a complete range of types, from leader in full harness on a barded horse, more typical men at arms, coustillier behind them and a mounted crossbowman or two. The nearest man at arms is wielding a langue de bœuf.

Initially it appears that the companies were divided into dezaines (tens) of ten lances, each led by a dizenier. The number of dizaines varied according to the number of lances a captain was commissioned to raise. Louis XI used this as a kind of reward system whereby those men in favour were authorised the full quota of lances, while those who were not were not.

Only ten companies actually had the expected 100 lances and one of them, that of Philippe de Culant - Marshal of France, actually had 113 lances. Three companies had between 70-80 lances, a further three had between 40-60, five had 20-30 lances and one had just 10 lances. A further three captains were not commissoned to raise any lances at all and just drew a captain's pay. The figures for a further fifteen lances are not known and these were presumably temporary lances drawn from the feudal nobility by means of the Ban and Arrière-ban.

Within the total number of lances a number of lances were sometimes allocated to form the personal maisons (household or bodyguard) of a captain, something normally paid for by a captain at his own expense, but in these cases the cost was bourne by the King. This is clearly the case with the oversized company of Philippe de Culant, but others were allocated smaller numbers of lances, typically between three and six in a similar fashion. Culant and others like him, besides serving as company captains, usually also acted in other roles away from their companies. The maintenance of a bodyguard for them while they were conducting those duties was clearly deemed reasonable.

If the organisation pattern changed from the use of dizaines to larger squadrons, as was the case with the Burgundian companies, that documentation has yet to be found. If there was a need for a detachment of men, a band or banniere was formed by the simple expedient of detailing a number of lances for the task and appointing one dizener as 'chef' for the mission. However instances of 25 lances being despatched for a mission might seem to imply that 'tens' had ceased to be the preferred division of the company. If this is the case, then Charles the Bold's 1473 Ordonnance of Treves, might be less innovative and more imitative.

While the coustillier seem to have formed up as a supporting rank to the men at arms, the archers formed their own detachments in a supporting role. It is not clear what their command structure was and while a vintaine ('twenty') of archers could be led by a vintainer, traditionally that rank was superior to that of the dizenier who led the entire body. Ultimately there would be two centaines ('hundreds') of archers, each led by a centenier and answerable to the company's maréchal-des-logis (quartermaster); the company's 'third officer'.

Command of the company was primarily in the hands of the captain. His second in command was called a lieutenant, who was typically chosen by the king rather than by the captain. With most captains being members of the royal court and often having estates into the bargain, there was little time left to actually command their men and unless there was a battle to be fought, the captain was rarely with his company. Company captains could also be designated as a king's lieutenant over an area, or a larger body of troops. The actual command of the company in all these cases would therefore fall to the lieutenant, in the literal meaning of the title 'serving in place of'. In modern terms the lieutenant would be a lieutenant-colonel. 

Changing Times

The original companies had been raised by Charles VII from the best of the professional soldiers in the army at the time. By the time Louis XI sought to recover his Burgundian territories, the companies contained far fewer experienced professionals, thanks to his policy of spending francs to avoid the expense of war. France also had no shortage of poor nobles, junior sons of chivalrous families and gentry wishing to elevate themselves via service to the state. Acquiring arms, armour and horses was a considerable expense too, as was living in a style that made you equal in the eyes of your fellows.

To serve as a man at arms you had to have reached 19 years, but many of them already had several years of service behind them by this point. As they entered their teens a relation or friend of the family would take them on as a page; essentially what was formerly a squire before the word came to denote social rank. At 17 the page was old enough to sign up as an archer. All nobles and gentry used bows for hunting (on foot and mounted) and the page would have learned the skills of fighting and shooting as part of his service. What was more he was a known quantity to the company, which was not the case with a commoner seeking to enlist.

As a result the ranks of both archers and men at arms were largely the reserve of the higher social classes. Only the coustillier remained a position for the commoner, largely because of its menial component, the lower standards of equipment required and there being no need to own a horse (they rode one of the man at arm's, like the page). By 1480 only 10% of the men at arms did not come from noble or chivalrous families. Only one company commander was of non-chivalrous birth and he did not gain that post until after he was ennobled by the King. 

Gens d'Armes

King Charles VII resplendent in his gold helmet fights alongside his accompanying gens d'armes. The lack of horse armour at this point in time is a common feature of contemporary illustrations. With the exception of chanfrons (armour for the horse's forehead) horse armour is rarely depicted until the 16th Century. 

The homme d'armes (man at arms) usually referred to in the plural as the gens d'armes, was the principle fighting element of the compagnies d'ordonnance. Everything a company did was geared towards creating the best conditions for them to enact a mounted charge into contact (or if necessary perform an attack on foot). While strictly professional soldiers by definition, they were very much the same class of nobles and knights who had formed the main battle lines of French armies for centuries. Even the requirement to own three horses (a principle war mount and two remounts) and to be attended by a squire (now invariably called a page) and a valet (who had since been absorbed into the 'coustillier') was unchanged from earlier times.

The principle reason for the survival of the 'knights' was the sheer cost of being a man at arms. The cheapest of the three horses was to be no less than 30 écus in value (in relative terms something like 5,000). The lowest figure equivalent that could be placed on the cost of weapons and armour at a level deemed acceptable (both in terms of the regulations and by your fellow men at arms), would be the price of a standard 'sports saloon' car; whether purchased brand-new or second hand.

Men at arms with the means 'dressed to impress' and so pushed this level up to the equivalent of buying a Ferrari and all levels in between. Extravagant outward displays of wealth, 'bling' if you like, was the norm for the class of men who were men at arms and those amongst them who lacked their means would almost certainly be dubbed 'scarecrow' or 'hedge knight'. Prowess at arms and valour in battle, and the respect gained as a result were perhaps all that might stand between the poorer or 'less noble' of the men at arms and social exclusion by their wealthier fellows.

On top of the value of the equipment and its maintenance and repair, the page and coustillier had also to be maintained, a horse for baggage was a necessity and was not covered by the man at arm's pay, as was also the case if a tent was required when in the field. A man at arms did not billet with the lance and so had to find lodgings and pay for them; although men at arms sharing such lodgings was acceptable.

As was the case in later times, perhaps the archetypal officer's mess of a Victorian army regiment, the cost of being a man at arms far exceeded the pay received for being one. There was a social aspect to service and being able to pay your 'mess bill', be seen to be drinking the best wine, paying your losses at dice promptly and generally being seen as a 'good fellow' were all-important. As one of them, Pierre de la Guische, wrote to his mother in 1495; "... few men profit from the Gendarmerie"..

Coustillier and Valets

What appears to be a French coutillier from an edition of the Vigiles of Charles VII, dated to the 1470s. 
References to the above two members of the lance are both infrequent and confusing. Going back as far as Agincourt or beyond, the Valet de Guerre (or Gros Varlet) appears to have been a combatant and the Coutilleur (knife-man) merely a camp follower of sorts. At Agincourt there were apparently so many men at arms in the divisions that were to attack on foot, that many of the Valets were detached and sent to the rear, so as to form the two mounted wings that were to envelop the English archers; a far less chivalrous role than facing the English men at arms. The Coutilleur on the other hand barely get a mention, except for the cryptic comment "if they are armed".

Like most of Medieval Europe (including England) the Valet was the 'second' for his man at arms. In the press of the melee he 'had his back' and supposedly finished off those men who his senior had not killed outright. In modern terms we might describe him as a lesser man at arms and we can imagine that he wore somewhat less armour than his sire, which itself varied as to his means. Effectively some valets had better arms and equipment than the poorest of the men at arms.

At some point in the 15th Century the term Valet was exchanged for Coustillier (or Coutilleur still, or in England Custrill, Costrill, or Currour). The Valet or Varlet increasingly assumed the unsavoury reputation that the name implies. One contemporary mentions that many men at arms were employing 'boys' in the role, to the detriment of the corps of men at arms. As an analogy think of a character like D'Artagnan's servant Planchet in the Three Musketeers (as portrayed by Roy Kinnear in the movie, not as he appears in the book); inept, cowardly, unintelligent and subservient.

The Coustillier however goes from strength to strength and has shed his cut-throat image in the process. As mentioned above, he now wears the standard armour of the professional of the day; brigandine or haubergeonand/or jack and a helmet. He carries a polearm of some form, but the 'langue de bœuf' - a spear with a broad-bladed, which can be used on foot or mounted, is singled out for mention. In the same time period Charles the Bold's ordinances only mention Coustillier and in England men at arms are listed as 'with his custrell' or similar renditions.

What cannot be ascertained is whether they were ever detached from their men at arms like the archers were, so as to form a corps of what would only be slightly lighter cavalry. I'm inclined to say no they were not. Being only slightly less-well protected than the men at arms (and on second rate mounts), I don't see how they could perform 'light cavalry tasks' any better than the men at arms themselves, or the archers who do already perform that function and would eventually become 'medium cavalry' to the 'heavies' that were the men at arms. If there was a functioning and able 'light cavalry corps', then the impact of the English Border Horse and the Stradiots would be less pronounced when they emerged.    

Although depicting an earlier period, all the elements are there. The lead man wears leg armour, a typical sign of a cavalryman, infantry would acquire arm armour instead. In the background an archer shoots fire arrows from horseback. If you could bring down a stag from horseback with arrows, you could bring down a man, especially as men cannot move as fast as a stag.

The mounted bowmen and crossbowmen of the companies (collectively termed Archers) were initially common professional soldiers when the original ordonnance was passed. By the late 15th Century and notably more so in the 16th Century, it had become a corps of gentry and nobility, distinguished from the men at arms only in terms of the armour worn. A number of gens d'armes attest to having served as archier previously and some, including the Chevalier Bayard, also began their service as pages prior to that. One recalls that his father ran away from home and joined the archier before he too became a homme d'armes, so by extrapolating that must have been sometime around the 1470s.

Bows and crossbows were traditional hunting weapons and were routinely employed on foot or on horseback (one letter form the King requires that archers are capable of fighting and shooting from horseback). Some nobles competed in the various contests across Northern France and the Low Countries, Antoine Grand Bâtard de Bourgogne actually won a title five years running for his skill with a bow.

It is not to be taken that French (or German, or English) mounted archers were something like the Mongol Horde in terms of their use of the bow on horseback, but that they could shoot from a standing horse. It does not go without saying however that a bowman shooting from the ground does not have to worry about the ground moving under him at the wrong moment. On foot and en-masse was still the best way to employ archers.

An archer's equipment was also far more reachable for nobles and gentry of modest means. The minimum value of their horse was to be only 10 écus (as compared to the 20 of the last of the man at arms three horses) and leg-armour, helmet, brigandine, or haubergeon and/or jack were far cheaper than a full harness. While lowly-born archers no doubt picked up fighting and riding skills as their career progressed, the 'young gentlemen' presenting themselves for service until they were old enough (or could afford) to take on the role of man at arms, had often been tutored in various martial pursuits as they grew up.

Make of it what you will, but those are definitely archers shooting from horseback on the left, although the horses are displaying little in the way of motion. A mounted crossbowmen is also shooting from the right. 

Contemporary illustrations often show the gens d'armes in one body and the archers in another, often preceding them on the march. The role of the archers was to 'prepare' the enemy for the charge of the gens d'armes, possibly somewhat like the dragoons of later times. In addition they could scout, forage, raid and perform all of the usual non-combat functions of cavalry. Like their English contemporaries they were a very versatile troop type. The very mention of leg armour in their required equipment points to the fact that they were intended to fight mounted as a matter of course, if they were to fight wholly on foot it would not be necessary; a riders legs are the most easily accessible part of him to a man on the ground. 


  1. Excellent account of troop types, well done for making this available.

    1. Thank you... glad you found it of use.

  2. My Friend in Paris sad you translated "portent vouluntier en leur main une faczon de dardres qui ont le fer large que l'en appelle langue de bœuf'.
    correctly as they carried a large peace of iron called 'beef tongue'. But she says that the French it self is full of errors.
    Is that a direct quote from your source? Ether way she said she would be happy to translate it if she ahs the original text.

    1. It's Old French Chris and like Middle English is hard work. Words like être come out as 'estre', un as 'ung' and stuff like that. Then there are the idioms like 'argent' - do they mean silver or do they mean something that shone like it was silver.

      The bits I quoted were from : Charles VII et les reformes de l'armee Francaise. I would of course like to hear if I got any of it wrong.

    2. I figured it was most likely old French. Languages just change. along with spelling.
      But I will float the link her way.
      I am pretty sure you got it, she was just put off by the from the older style.

    3. Well as much as I strived to get it right, that's no substitute for a native speaker, or someone at least proficient in the language going over it. It's not only spellings that change but abbreviations and entire meanings of words in some cases.

      The most obvious example in English is 'Ye' as in 'Ye Olde Tea Shoppe', which is typically pronounced how it is written. It is actually pronounced 'The' as 'Y' is 'Th' abbreviated. Likewise in the carol, 'God rest ye merry gentlemen' is actually 'God rest thee merry gentlemen'.

    4. Interesting, I was not aware that the "Y" was to be pronounced as a "Th".

    5. I was surprised by it all, there are other oddities and all the vowel sounds were different too. Not quite a foreign language but well on its way.

  3. Excellent post Jim. Very useful and an enjoyable read. The d'Ordonnance info is building nicely and sure to prove useful at some point!

    Happy W

    1. Cheers HW! I'm a firm believer that knowledge is never wasted. Who knows maybe it will come in for the 'Chainmail of Command' supplement. :-D