Monday, 29 February 2016

The Francs-Archiers 1477 - 1482

Charles VII decrees the formation of the Francs-Archers in 1448. Surprisingly bows are notable by their absence from the illustration. 
Louis XI inherited the part-time militia known as the 'Francs-Archier' (or archers in Modern French) that his father had created in 1448. The system worked tolerably well, especially given that even the most gifted and proficient of royal accountants or civil servants could not even begin to guess at what France's population was at the time.

The system was based on the parish by this time, rather than the previous '50 households' (hearths) and the parish's doyen (village leader, like a 'country squire') was responsible for ensuring that there was both an archer, suitably equipped as defined in the ordonnance and that the requisite funds were available to cover the costs for the maintenance of his equipment (the gage ménagerand when called to serve that he received a payment (an égard) to cover both his wages and expenses for the time between leaving the parish until he joined the royal army, typically set as ten days.

The outlay in terms of equipment was quite modest a sallet (which just means 'helmet' at this time), a dagger, a sword, a haubergon and/or jacque (or a brigandine or breastplate), covered the man's defensive needs and either a longbow or crossbow completed his equipment. North of the River Loire there was a predominance of longbows, while South of it (particularly in Gascony and Provence) the crossbow was virtually the sole weapon presented.

As the doyen was also responsible for the assessment and collection of taxes, he was also able to ensure that the archer was also alleviated of his own payments, commensurate with his status as a 'Free Archer' (i.e. free from certain taxes). It might come as no surprise that many doyens choose to be the parish's Francs-Archer, especially as their own income could thus be disregarded under the rules. Given that these men were often landholders or 'tenants in chief', this could be quite a saving for them.

Sixteen regional captains were appointed, each commanding a bande of 500 Francs-Archers. They were to ensure that Sunday practice sessions occurred and to inspect the equipment of the archers in the process. Quarterly musters of larger parts of the whole bande were also called, so as to ensure that members were not actually exchanging equipment between Sunday inspections. Such musters were to take place no more than a day's travel from each parish, so the old feudal system of chatellenies (lordships - a collection of parishes) was presumably still in use.

At these musters there would be an 'old for new' and 'like for like' exchange of unserviceable weapons and equipment. In 1466 however this was changed so that when a brigandine was returned, it would now only be replaced by a jack. At the same time it was made a felony to have been found to have sold equipment, or to have claimed its loss or theft fraudulently. Specially appointed royal commissioners might also have been despatched to attend these musters, both to oversee the inspections and to ensure that the captain himself was beyond reproach. At the same time each member had to prove his ability to draw a bow, so that the infirm could be weeded out and replacements for them arranged.


While the size of each bande was set at 500 men, the numbers of parishes in a chatellenie was variable and the sub unit sizes reflected this. The smallest sub-unit was the dizaine ('ten') led by a dizenier, two of which combined to form a vintaine ('twenty') led by a vintenier. These would be formed into provisional 'platoons' of fifty - a cinquantaine led by a cinquantenier and 'companies' of a hundred - a centaine led by a centenier

Each dizaine was permitted a baggage cart for their camp and personal items, the cost of which was borne by the parishes they belonged to. This means that not counting the additional wagons that the officers bought along, each bande had a 'tail' of fifty wagons, as well as their drivers and for those who could afford them, or to contribute to a pool to pay for them, an unspecified number of servants and other camp followers, as well as pack horses.

Another illustration from Froissart showing French infantry in action. There is an apparent division between 'fighters' and 'shooters', but the bowmen are also together, as are the crossbowmen, albeit both groups adjoin each other. The variety of armour types can also be seen.

After the War of the Public Weal (La Ligue du Bien Public) of 1465, Louis XI overhauled the Francs-Archers. Instead of the sixteen separate bandes, there were now to be 28, although each was still to be 500 strong. France was now also to be divided into four large regions, each with a Capitain-Generaul, who were each to command seven bandes of 500 men. Southern France had its Northern border at the Loire River and was divided into two regions using the Dordogne for part of the border and the Eastern limits of the Limousin region for the rest.

North-West France from the Loire to the Somme, with an eastern border that began at Blois and followed a line North to Chartres and then Dreux, then Beauvais to Amiens, then along the Somme to Eu, formed another region. The last was formed using the Seine, Paris and the Île-de-France as its border with that region to its West, with the Somme forming its Northern one as far as the border with the Duchies of Luxembourg, Alsace and Lorraine.  

As the aim was continue to use the existing catchement areas, but to include those parishes that had avoided providing a man previously, this meant that the existing bandes would need to be re-organised to accommodate new local men. Those parishes that had previously provided archers would continue to do so, as would some of the new ones, but there would also now be a proportion of 'gens du trait' (other footmen); voulgier and piquenier, included in the men drawn from the area after the archer pool had been exhausted.

The Captain-Generals were to each have a Lieutenant-General, two mounted archers, and a courier, all of whom were permanently employed at the King's expense. Both officers also had the power to summarily hang any Franc-Archer who failed to attend a summons, or who deserted after mustering. Each bande captain was also to have his own lieutenant. Francs-Archers were banned from bringing their own pack horses and all men must share the carts mentioned above for their baggage.

If we assume that the existing archers were spread across the full 28 bandes and that at least 15 of the new parishes provide an archer, then that averages out at 300 archers for each band. Regional variations would skew this amount however. It can be imagined that both Gascony and Provence could have almost 100% crossbowmen in their bandes. Those bandes based on an urban area would include their existing and usually crossbow-armed militia, with the remainder formed from voulgier and piquenier. In essence no two bandes might be alike.

French infantry pay obeisance to the King from an edition of Froissart from the 1470s. Depictions of French infantry of the period always seem to show mixed groups, with no apparent division between 'missile' and 'melee' types. Whether this was artistic convention, or their painting what they saw, is open to debate. Pole-arms are always shown as the majority weapon type, which calls into question just how many Francs-Archers were actually archers by the Late 15th Century. 

A quite accurate modern rendition of a Franc-
Archer, as outlined in the sources.

The universal equipment specified for the Francs-Archer was a helmet (sallade) and a jack (jacque). The latter was recommended to be of 25 to 30 folds of cloth and to be covered in deer leather. This could be supplemented by a haubergeon, or replaced entirely by a brigandine. Replacement of those items that became unserviceable would only be in terms of a new jack.

Crossbowmen and archers were to only have helmets that did not interfere with their shooting. A sword of some description was required and 'bastard swords' are mentioned. Bucklers were recommended, as were daggers of an 'average' type, but not the Rondelle type.

Voulgiers were to ideally supplement that weapon and the basic armour with gauntlets, a long dagger, but not necessarily a sword. Piqueniers were equipped the same, except with a spear to be as long as a man at arm's lance (9-14'), with a long head and languetes (the long strips to reinforce the shaft). If the spear was on the shorter side of the range, it was recommended that some length could be added by the use of a 'small arrest', which would presumably alter the point of balance allowing the spear to be held more to the rear of the shaft and extending its reach.

The biggest men, but who 'weren't big in the belly' were recommended as voulgiers. Nothing is said as to whether the voulgiers were to be in their own companies or not, but as is the case from other examples of infantry in Europe, it is probable that the voulgiers formed the foremost ranks of mixed bodies, backed by the piqueniers.  

Apart from the long dagger, this is pretty much the specified equipment of the voulgier. The gauntlets have been supplemented by splints from wrist to shoulder to reinforce the protection for the arms; a cheap and effective supplement.
'Slow as mules, unless they advanced on chickens, the lame, or the blind, but they wore their shoes out retreating from Hainaut, to be home before the last of the army even reached France, leaving them eating their dust'.
Contemporary Ditty 1479

The historic reputation of the Francs-Archers is hardly one of valour or sacrifice 'pour la patrie', yet this was the same corps, who with the professionals of the ordonnance companies performed so well in the final years of the Hundred Years War and were an important contribution to France's ultimate victory over the English. The initial volunteers were of course of the relatively prosperous archer class and it is indeed possible that Louis XI created his own problems by diluting that when he expanded the corps in 1466. That being said, the very reason for the changes was that they had not performed that well the year before either.

A typical French Voulgier. Infantry are often
depicted with large shields. Why is not exactly
clear, especially as they needed both hands to 
wield their weapons. Protection from missiles
in the initial stages of a battle is of course a 
One problem was that some parishes were simply hiring substitutes to perform actual service and simply retaining the equipment until it was needed. Presumably they were happy to attend the musters, which were no doubt a welcome social event, with time to catch up with friends you had not seen for three months and of course enjoy a break away from hearth and home.

When it came to a call up in earnest however it became a far more dangerous proposition. It was acceptable to send a substitute, as long as they could draw a bow if needed, or otherwise had the requisite equipment. As one such hireling said though "the loss of the whole kingdom would matter to me as much as my losing a nail". With such men in the ranks and with no more commitment than the money they were being paid, it was hardly the 'national militia' envisaged.

Previously the Franc-Archer was to supply his own equipment, but would have it replaced if it became unserviceable as a result of his service to the king. In 1474 something is clearly wrong and there is a general issue of jacques, voulges and piques to men who lacked them. Although a bond was levied from them for the items and the cost would be recovered from their successive muster payments, this was a major departure from what was usual. 

This practice continued and while it did not necessitate the issue of clothing and footwear that became necessary by the 16th Century, it had begun its journey on that slippery slope. There were complaints of disorder, pillaging and theft by Francs-Archers travelling to and from musters and in a few cases even worse crimes. While some men sent substitutes to perform active service, many did  not even do that and claimed sickness or other excuses as to why they could not serve. 1474 seems a watershed year, as the King was forced to issue a proclamation addressing these problems and to extend the powers of his officers to deal with offenders. 

Arbelestrier of the Franc-Archers. Pavaises 
do not appear on any requirement, but it is 
clear from illustrations that they were still
being used

It could be stood behind as a form of cover, 
or if worn on the back, simply turning 
round protected you while you reloaded. 

To the men of the ordonnance companies the Francs-Archers had been seen as second-class soldiers from the very start. Due to the utilisation of the Francs-Archers to dig saps and trenches in sieges, as well as other similar tasks, they were dubbed 'Francs-Taupins' (free-moles or beetles) and even worse names. There are reports of ordonnance troops striking Francs-Archers if they impeded their march, or were simply not quick enough to clear a path in the street for them. While the ordonnance companies had 'gentrified', the Francs-Archers seem to have deteriorated vastly in a social sense.  

Other than on France's borders the years 1453 to 1477 had been largely peaceful, with the exception of the War of the Public Weal and the occasional brief noble uprising. For men with an eye to save paying taxes, signing up as a Franc-Archer must have seemed quite risk free. Usually wars could be seen coming long before they happened and King Louis was noted for preferring bribes and subterfuge over military action, as it was far cheaper.

The death of Charles the Bold and the operation to seize those parts of the dukedom that belonged to King Louis, literally came out of the blue and suddenly without warning, the Francs-Archers were being called up for war. A similar situation occurred in more recent times, after decades of playing soldier in their free time and getting paid, units of weekend warriors suddenly found themselves posted off on active service. While not that many of them refused to serve when all things are considered, the sudden exodus of personnel in some units was hard to ignore too. I imagine that things were very much the same in January 1477.  

Certain contingents appear to have been cut from a different cloth however. Paris's militia seem to have given their usual exemplary service, which was commented on. Those Francs-Archers drawn from the Somme towns were also no stranger to war against Burgundy either, as raids from Picardy were a feature of normal life. For those from further South however, especially from interior areas that had known peace for decades, it must have been a very daunting prospect.

The key event that has damned the Francs-Archers to become relegated to the club of 'worst soldiers of all time' was the Battle of Guinegate in 1479. With most of the men of the ordonnance companies and the army's commanders pursuing the opposing cavalry, the 600 Swiss, 8,000 Francs-Archers and some other infantry present were left to face some 11,000 Flemish  pikemen. These were fronted by a fair number of Burgundian men at arms who had dismounted to add some weight to them, or in some cases had managed to join them to avoid the French gens d'armes. On top of those were the archers and crossbowmen of the Flemish, which alone were in the region of 2,000 strong.

Some of the French forces, probably the 2,000 men raised by Tournai and other cities in the area, apparently decided to return there to defend them, seeing as defeat appeared to have been snatched from the jaws of victory. Somebody must have fought the Flemish (besides the 600 Swiss and those remaining ordonnance troops), as accounts mention hard fighting, but the only mention of the Francs-Archers is that they attacked the baggage train and a force needed to be sent to drive them off. I'm inclined to believe that 'some' Francs-Archers attacked the train, while most of them were fighting the Flemish and getting the worst of it.

While the defeat can be blamed on the disappearance of the ordonnance companies into the wild blue yonder. Those men who sacked the Burgundian baggage train are responsible for the reputation history has given the Francs-Archers; no use except for killing chickens and able to retreat far more quickly than they could advance. If it was the Tournai contingent that retreated, they were not even Francs-Archers in any case, although essentially a militia all the same and who had given good service previously. Whatever the truth, the Francs-Archers gained their reputation regardless.

It is commonly said that the Francs-Archers were disbanded after Guinegate, but that did not happen until the Mid-16th Century. They were however never relied on again in so large a fashion. The 12,000 were raised in 1488 are their only notable reappearance however. Nevertheless Louis XI was so displeased with their performance that he set about raising a permanent infantry force, the bandes françaises, to replace them.   


  1. Thoroughly enjoyable in it's details, Jim! Thank you!

    1. Thank you! I nearly missed this as the notification e-mail never happened, so apologies for the late reply.