Monday, 21 March 2016

The Swiss & The Bandes Françaises 1477 - 1482

Louis XI of France in his younger days as the Dauphin, is perhaps the only leader of the 15th Century who beat a Swiss force in Battle. At St. Jacob-an-der-birs in  1444, he led a force of some 30,000, mostly Armagnac écorcheurs (many of whom would be the first men signed up to the compagnies d'ordonnance the following year) against the Swiss vanguard of 1,500. While their defeat was certain, the Swiss made quite an impression on the Dauphin; probably when their response to being outnumbered 20:1 was to attack and then kill 3,000 of Louis's men and break his infantry centre.

That first impression was to be reinforced when his chief rival, Charles the Bold, was killed facing the Duke of Lorraine, whose army included a large amount of Swiss Reisläufer (effectively mercenaries, but with their cantons handling the money and contracts). Almost immediately after the Battle of Nancy in 1477, Louis entered negotiations to employ Reisläufer in his own army, which was mustering to seize those former territories of Charles that Louis thought should revert to France (in French Law female heirs could not inherit, so effectively he was correct).

A force of 6,000 foot and 500 horse to serve for a year was agreed and after a short period supporting French efforts in the Duchy of Burgundy itself, the force marched North to join the main French army in Picardy. Like many of the actions in the Franco-Burgundian War, the activities of the Reisläufer can only be guessed at, but they reappear in the French Army at the Battle of Guinegatte in 1479, where there were reputedly 600 Reisläufer present (the remainder presumably were elsewhere, as it is assumed that their contract was renewed after 1477).

The lacklustre performance of the Francs-Archers at Guinegate prompted Louis to create a permanent force of infantry to complement the mounted troops of his ordonnance companies and decided to hand over the training of them to the Swiss. The contract with the cantons for 1480 provided a further 6,000 men, under Wilhelm von Diesbach (who may also have been the commander of the original 6,000) for this purpose. A vast plain near Pont de l'Arche in Normandy was already in being as a large military camp for the ordonnance companies and it was now extended to incorporate the men who would arrive to form this new infantry corps, the Bandes Françaises.


Louis's plan was for 24 bandes to be raised, each of 1,000 men. To equip the initial drafts 4,000 pikes of 18' in length were ordered, as well as 10,000 halberds. 3,000 bows were also ordered, but it is unclear whether these were longbows to re-equip the ordonnance companies, or for the new infantry, or in fact they were actually crossbows instead. Each bande was to be formed from ten companies, two of which were to be wholly of 'shooters' (it is not known whether these were archers, crossbows, or both), the remainder to be halberdiers and pikemen (again whether they were to be in separate units or mixed is not known).

Each company broke away from the normal pattern of organisation for French infantry. The smallest unit was the Chambre of five men, one of whom was the Chef de Chambre. It is believed that this number was the number of men who would share a tent or billet. Two chambres formed a dizaine ('ten') under the senior of the two chefs, who was termed a dizenier, but it also seems that three chambres could also form a quintaine, led by the senior chef who was now termed a quintenier.

The Swiss themselves are said to have used Rotte of ten men. It is possible that the two types of 'section' may have been required due to the differing needs of the troop types. The missile troops may have been formed in tens, while fifteen men sounds about right for a file of men in a 15th Century Swiss pike and halberd block. The Swiss apparently organised their men into Fähnlein of between 50 to 150 men. The usual French pattern was cinquantaines of 50 and then centaines of 100.

Given that French junior officers were being called Chefs d'Escadron and Petit Capitaines rather than cinquanteniers and centeniers, may point towards an equivalence of rank as 'unit leaders', rather than in terms of the numbers of men being led. Five 'sections' apparently now formed an Escadre (squadron) of either 50 or 75 men, and two squadrons a 'compagnie' of either 100 men or 150, which roughly corresponds to the Swiss pattern. If this was correct then a bande would have two companies of 'shooters', each of two fifty-man squadrons and eight companies of  'gens du trait' (infantry) organised as blocks of ten files in fifteen ranks, for a total of 80 files in width.

French infantry traditionally formed 'Grand Companies' of 500 men, so it may have been that a bande could be split into two parts if required too. Certainly two infantry blocks of 40 files of fifteen would be far more manageable than one massive block at least. Each 'section' was authorised a baggage cart, one was added at 'squadron' level for the commander and one each for the company captain and his lieutenant. Each company was supposed to carry a chaplain, a barber-surgeon, a trumpeter and a standard bearer on its strength too.  

Tactical deployment of the bande is difficult to determine, as what sources survive are usually form the 16th Century and may have been different to those adopted in the 1480s. It appears to be the case however that the manoeuvring of Swiss armies in earlier wars was not carried over into service as Reisläufer. The Swiss typically formed the centre of the French infantry line and essentially acted like a steamroller. It is therefore possible that 'Swiss Training' delivered to the bandes followed this format.

The perception of a 'Swiss Block' is that there was an outer ring of pikes, backed by an inner ring of halberds, the whole forming a hollow formation. In the centre the officers, banners and staff were located and where casualties could be withdrawn to for the ministrations of chaplain and surgeon. The shooters typically preceded the formation and then retired inside the square, or to its flanks as the battle lines closed. As French missile troops are thought to have normally formed a shooting line, training as Swiss-style skirmishers would have been required.

Unfulfilled Potential

Exactly how many of the proposed 28 bandes were actually raised is uncertain. Presuming that there is no further order for weapons waiting to be discovered, there were only enough for 17 bandes in that single order. The period from their inception in 1480 to the restoring of peace between Burgundy and France in 1482, seems to have witnessed no contribution by the bandes whatsoever, albeit two years seems a long time to train an army.

Some of the bandes ended up in Picardy, were they were subsequently known as the 'Bandes of Picardy'. Despite the low tempo of operations after the Battle of Guinegate, there were still raids and incursions, although the contribution of the bandes is not noted. Louis XI died in 1483 and his 13 year old son Charles VIII had his country managed in the meantime by his older sister Anne, who their father had described as the 'least insane woman in France'. Anne and her husband Pierre de Beaujeu embarked on an austerity programme for the royal finances, which saw the reduction in size of the royal army.

The base at Pont de l'Arche was reduced in scope and the men there let go. Whether the 'Bandes of Picardy' were despatched there before or after Louis's death is not confirmed, but the remainder went to the four winds. Some 4,000 men of the bandes (including some Scots there) are believed to have been loaned to Henry Tudor in 1485 and were possibly the men led by the Earl of Oxford, who essentially held back Richard III's army until his fateful charge and the entry of the Stanley's into the battle. Certainly a letter from one of the Frenchmen involved in the battle and the subsequent mopping up has survived to support this.      

The survivors of the cuts subsequently suffered the usual arrears of pay, non-replacement of equipment and men, and other typical features of medieval armies that were normal before their inception. The dismissal of the Swiss who trained them also meant that what training actually occurred was done by French trainers. Ten years on four of the bandes were in Piedmont and joined Charles VIII's Italian expedition, but had deteriorated so badly that they were never called upon again for similar campaigns. The numerous cheap and cheerful Gascon 'aventurier' formed almost the whole of the French infantry and where themselves less numerous than the Swiss and German mercenaries hired on a campaign by campaign basis.  


  1. Great post , it's a really interesting transitional period, mid 15th to mid 16th century and as you note difficult not to apply later information onto the earlier period.
    Best Iain

    1. Thanks Iain. I have to agree obviously, I find this last quarter of the 15th Century quite compelling and indeed varied as old and new combine and clash.