Sunday, 21 February 2016

The Burgundian Hereban 1477-1482

Sir John Gilbert's 'Morning of Agincourt'. Although depicting an earlier time this is actually visually more representative of the Late 15th Century. If I was trying to picture a 'look' for Burgundian feudal men at arms, something along these lines would not be far off the mark.

Across North-West Europe there was a core tradition concerning the raising of armies, which had its roots in the way that Charlemagne raised his own forces. While more recent trends had largely replaced the notion of feudal service with a payment in lieu of service, the fundamental principle that free men between the ages of 16-60 had both a right and a duty to bear arms in defence of the land were still in place. What service was required and with what weapons and armour varied, and was based on the value of land and/or goods owned.

There was a two-stage element to the method of raising men; all those who held land directly from the Duke formed the Hereban (Heerban in Flemish), and those who essentially sub-let their land from those primary holders formed the Arrière-ban (Achterban). Typically the Hereban were counts (comtes or graafs), lords (signeurs or heers), knights (chevaliers or ridders), esquires and the other 'armigerous' elements (men with a coat of arms or a 'lineage', the écuyers or landjonkers and hommes de lignage or welgeborenen), although there were also more common tenants on the Duke's own lands.

The Arrière-ban also had its share of hommes de lignage or welgeborenen too, but the bulk of the men who fell into this category were more typically wealthy commoners, typically ranging from the middle class freeholding, leaseholding and copyholding farmers (doyens and franc-tenancier or eigenerfde or eigengeërfde), and the wealthier of what were termed 'husbandmen' in England (bon hommes or goedsheren). The un-free (serfs and bondsmen) were actually legally prohibited from owning or bearing weapons; the idea of large bodies of armed peasants is a medieval myth.

Duchess Marie, as the heiress of the Duchies of Brabant, Limburg, Lothier, Luxembourg and Guelders; Margravine of Namur; Countess of Artois, Flanders, Charolais, Hainaut, Holland, Zeeland and Zutphen, therefore theoretically had a lot of vassals which she could summon to her service. Even the 'free cities' that had been granted charters making them effectively independent, still had to provide men to serve when summoned. 

The Feudal Elite

A collection of German men at arms flanked by mounted crossbows and lighter horse. The obvious thing is the general lack of armour in comparison to what you might expect to see. This certainly seems to corroborate comments made by Commines below. 

While both Charles the Bold had introduced his famous series of Ordonnances which slowly transformed the Burgundian Army from essentially a collection of mercenaries supplemented by feudal forces, to a wholly professional force, he still relied on feudal forces to supplement this force for specific campaigns. During the War of the Public Weal (Guerre du Bien Public) in 1465 the standard of these forces apparently left much to be desired, as Philippe de Commines wrote;
"I do not believe that there were fifty amongst the 1,200 men at arms or thereabouts who were there, knew how to couch the lance in the arrêt. There were no more than 400 wearing breastplates and there were hardly any armed valets..."
With Charles relying in the main on professionals, even to the point of raising forces from the Condottieri bands of Italy, it can only be imagined that the standard of the feudal forces as a whole declined. The cost of outfitting oneself for war was not getting cheaper and if the call to arms was to be unlikely, then why go to the expense? The situation after Charles's death was that there were no appreciable funds with which to hire professionals however and any resistance to the French could only be made with what was to hand.

The principal areas where such a force could be raised were Brabant and Hainault, which in comparison to Flanders were very much rural areas, with somewhat fewer and smaller 'free cities'. Unlike Flanders these communes were far more aligned with the aristocracy as their respective needs were generally identical and there was not the conflict between rural aristocracy and urban elites that was found in Flanders.

At the lowest level the rural areas were divided into fiefs (fieffé in French and leen in Flemish); areas of land of varying size and population, which were each assessed in terms of the numbers of men at arms and their followers each vassal was to provide. This had been re-assessed in terms of a monetary value to be paid to the landlord in lieu of providing that service. The landlords were the various counts, lords and knights, who themselves were vassals of the Duke (or in this case Duchess).

Although some twenty years on from the Franco-Burgundian War, this partially-armoured man at arms would not be un-typical of the average, if not actually above average. 


Typically each fief was to furnish a single man at arms and his supporting 'staff', some fiefs were valued somewhat more highly and had to provide more than one man at arms. The number of fiefs held by an individual naturally increased the number of men to be raised. Where the holder was aged, infirm, a woman (typically a widow), the church, or just did not want to serve at all, they were still required to furnish men and generally had to resort to hiring professionals to perform their service for them.

Each individual man at arms (termed a lance in French or a gleve in Flemish) was to provide three horses; one for himself, one for his valet de guerre (dienaar in Flemish) and one for his page, which was typically a re-mount for the man at arms. Where the landholder was a knight banneret or above, he also had to provide a second valet who bore his banner and his horse. Typically therefore a 'lance' consisted of either two or three mounted fighters. There was also a collective military requirement for communities too, so each man at arms was accompanied by two or three mounted men (typically the aforementioned doyens or other free men, or men hired by them) who served as mounted archers or crossbowmen.  

Equipment standards had not been updated over time and essentially all apart from the man at arms were required to possess a jack or haubergeon, a helmet, a handweapon and their principal weapon. The man at arms was to have a breastplate, leg armour, a helmet, a sword and a lance. It appears that a brigandine was an acceptable substitute for a breastplate. These are of course the minimum levels of equipment and naturally those who had access to, or the funds to buy, better equipment would do so; although judging by Commines's comments many did not. 
The lances (or gleven) of the vassals of a landlord were added to his own to form conrois (or conroets in Flemish), typically of five to ten lances. Several conrois were grouped into a larger route (rotte in Flemish, a term used interchangeably with bannière, compagnie and hoep) of several conroi, of which the ideal seems to have been around eighty lances in total. The 'routier' of a noble would serve under his banner alone however, so contingents varied widely. Once assembled at the muster point these forces were assembled into somewhat more equal groups and paid. Some individuals who would command groups of routes were paid additional sums, known as égards (regards), in terms of notional additional lances, for their enhanced command duties.

Traditionally the various chivalric classes had a distinct command structure. The low-ranking knights and ordinary gentry; the chevalier bachelier and écuyer (ridder and edelknapen in Flemish), formed the rank and file, while the 'knights banneret' (chevalier banneret in French and ridder vaandel in Flemish) led each conroi and sometimes routes too. The higher aristocracy (barons and counts) led routes and groups of routes, in some cases formed entirely from their personal hôtel (households) and funded by their sub-tenants in lieu of service.

Like almost everywhere else however, the appearance of 'non-chivalrous' men at arms and the general disinterest of the heads of noble houses in war, resulted in the formal structure becoming largely abandoned. Écuyers could be found commanding conrois and bearing in mind that junior members of European noble families did not automatically become knights (i.e. they were always 'Esquire' and never 'Sir'), could also be found commanding routes which contained knights.

The practice of some nobles of appointing or hiring someone to act as maître d'hôtel (head of the household), whether a relation or a professional, further muddied the traditional command structure. With so many of equivalent rank at varying levels, it became necessary to create titles to set them apart and so titles such as 'maître', 'marshal' or 'constable' (or their Flemish equivalents) were applied to set individuals apart as leaders of their peers.

The accompanying mounted archers and crossbowmen did not form part of the line of battle with the men at arms, but were likewise formed into units. A conroi would therefore typically have between ten and twenty mounted archers (a dizaine or vintaine), while a route could have anywhere between forty and 150 divided into 'forties', 'fifties' or 'hundreds' (quarantaines, cinquantaines or centaines) as necessary. From amongst their number would be drawn their leaders, although 'centainers' would usually be appointed from amongst the men at arms.


While the men of Artois, Picardy and Boulogne drew their traditions from France, it appears that those of Brabant, Hainault and the more Northern parts of the Low Countries and certainly Cleves, drew theirs from Germany, at least the closer the area they were drawn from was to it. Unlike the French idea of attack En Haye (in line) the Germans tended to attack En Host or En Masse (in 'mob' essentially). While this probably simplifies the concept, it was observed commonly that German men at arms tended to form in very deep formations, up to nine men deep on occasion (according to a German manual of c.1480).

The Keil (wedge) is often associated with German cavalry of the time, although with both the elite and the headstrong towards the front and the less well-equipped and the more cautious majority at the rear, a wedge-shaped formation would naturally form behind the leader regardless. Commentators of the time suggest that if an apple were to be thrown into a formation of men at arms, it should not hit the ground; but as these men were barely used to serving together, let alone conducting any training, I suspect it was more wishful thinking than anything.

The Arrière-ban

A German illustration, but probably a fair rendition of feudal troops on the march.

While the Hereban provided a ready supply of men at arms and their supporting elements, their expense in comparison to their utility, had seen the steady rise in the numbers of infantry utilised in comparison to them. Besides the citizens of the cities and towns, who more correctly fell under the Hereban, a more general levy of the population was administered through the tradition of the posse comitatus; the duty for free men to serve as soldiers to protect their homeland.

Rather than summon the entirety of the population, with the attendant loss of production of food and other produce, the landholders were given quotas of men to raise in proportion to their holdings. Whether their tenants served in person, or whether they paid a fine to avoid it, allowing their landlord to hire professionals, was not important under the terms of the law. Certainly in the case of the 'robber barons' of the border marches, payment was preferred as it allowed them to maintain small private armies with which to use to compete with their fellows.  


Individual villages, farms and hamlets produced wildly differing numbers of men and these were combined with other local groups to form units of 25 to 30 men, who were led by either their local constable (koningstavel) if they were an urban contingent, or their doyen (hoofdman in Flemish) if they were a rural community. Each such unit would have a pennant bearing the saint of their parish, or the badge of their landlord.

These groups would be formed into larger bandes (bendes) of a hundred or so men, placed under the command of local magistrates, councillors or other prominent figures. The majority of such men would be the typical pikemen of the region, but some amongst them would be armed with various polearms. Members of the local schuttersgildes provided archers and crossbowmen under the leadership of their own maîtres or dekens and had their own standards.


By April 1477 Adolphus van Cleef - Lord Ravenstein and Louis de Bourbon - Prince-Bishop of Liège had gathered an army of some 2-300 lances and 8,000 footmen from across Brabant. The whole process having taken two months to complete, albeit that some troops had been able to be despatched within the first month. The large numbers of foot in this force is due to the contingents supplied by the towns. Namur for example supplied 1,000 infantry and Liège probably a similar amount.  A later contingent of 200 lances, 200 crossbowmen and 400 pikemen, raised in July 1477, is far more what would be typical of a rural force, with its three footmen to each man at arms.

When Antwerp raised a contingent in 1489, Jan de Merode raised 25 horsemen and 100 footmen, while another Jacob van Blaesvelt raised 50 horsemen and 200 footmen. Curiously this was a ratio of four footmen to every horseman, and one four-man lance to three three-man lances (not counting the pages in them as combatants), plus presumably an even number of attached mounted crossbows or archers; seemingly a quite deliberate ratio. The other contingents (presumably the city quarters) raised just footmen, or a nominal number of horsemen with a large contingent of footmen. 


  1. I am really enjoying this series of articles Jim.

    Where is the picture of the Pikemen in sallets under the black cross from? I have never seen it before?

    1. Hi Oli and thanks... I hope I can maintain your enjoyment.

      I have scoured the internet for pictures, so I'm struggling to recall where that one came from. I'm fairly certain it was from one of the Swiss Chronicles and may either represent Swiss troops from the 'Old Zurich Wars'... or Swiss fighting for Matthias Corvinius. If it comes to me, I'll be in touch.