Medieval Armies and Navies

The following text is an edited version of two chapters from Arthur Tilley's
Medieval France: A Companion to French Studies. (London: 1922), pp. 154-178.

[While Tilley's article provides a very fine tour de horizon of the medieval military and naval arms as they deveolped prior to, and emerged from the Hundred Years' War (HYW), some of his observations are anchored to the perceptions of early twetnith-century scholarship. There are many historical books that address this topic, but few texts have suceeded as well as did Tilley in encompassing the French medieval forces in a single article. Rather than attempting to conger up new phrases to say what about eighty percent of what Tilley's article says so effectively, this page take the course of annotating his fine piece where appropriate. Edited portions can be identified as being in brackets and in green color, as is this statement
Further edited changes in format of the article (use of bold text text, etc.) will not be noted.]

The Army The Navy

Chapter Three: The Army

By the sixth century the successive invasions of Gaul from the North were over, and the victorious Franks substituted their own military organisation for that of the Romans which they had destroyed. Their system lasted throughout the Middle Ages, subject, however, to profound transformations. But of its evolution through all these centuries it is only possible to give the essential characteristics, and no more than this will be attempted here.
[Recent works by Bernard S. Bachrach has impressively challenged the long-held perception that Roman military traditions in Gaul had been 'destroyed' and were 'replaced' by the early Franks. Rather, the Gallo-Roman society developed retained some of their military heritage after the collapse of the Roman empire. See: B.S. Bachrach's Merovingian Military Organization 481-751 (Minneapolis, 1972).]

In Gaul under the Merovingian kings, as at all times and in all countries, military organisation and social organisation were closely related.

It was, in principle, the duty of every free man owning land to serve in the army on reaching the age of fifteen. At first only the free men of Germanic or Frankish descent were called up, but it soon became customary to summon also those who were of Gallo-Roman origin. Permanent service was not required of them. As soon as the expedition for which they were levied was over they were disbanded, and they were rarely kept as long as six months. Generally speaking, the army broke up on the approach of winter.

The royal call to arms or hériban was sent to the dukes and counts. These made it known to the men of the territory which they governed, and assembled and led them to the appointed rendezvous. Defaulters were punishable by fines.

A soldier in Merovingian times received no pay and no allowances for clothes or weapons. His only hope of gain lay in spoil and plunder. And this hope produced volunteers in sufficient numbers to form the basis of the army, which was brought up to full strength by contingents requisitioned, as far as possible, from the regions bordering on the theatre of war: for the king wished and was expected to spare his subjects and not to abuse their willingness to serve or wear out their patience by too general and too constantly repeated levies.

On the whole the military organisation of the Merovingian kings closely resembled that of the ancient Germans and proceeded directly from it.

Under the Carolingians a notable change took place. Charlemagne knew how to make himself obeyed. Furthermore he found himself obliged to carry on wars longer and fiercer than those of the preceding age. He kept the instrument of war which his predecessors had left him, but he retempered and strengthened it.

Recruiting continued on the same principle. All free men possessing land were subject to military service. The age when service began was raised from fifteen to twenty.

On the Emperor's call to arms, which was transmitted by the count, the bishop, or the missus dominicus acting for him, a soldier had to report at the appointed time and place, with arms and equipment, a change of clothes, and some food. Absentees were punished.

The period of service lasted three months on an average. Even thus limited it was a heavy burden for small holders, insufficiently compensated by the scanty spoils won in the course of distant campaigns in Germany or Spain. Attempts, therefore, were made by the Emperor to lighten it, first by avoiding general levies and then by introducing exemptions even in partial levies. A capitulary of the year 803, for instance, shows that owners of a certain amount of land, four manses and upwards, owed personal service; owners of two manses must combine to furnish one fighting man for every four manses of ground. A later capitulary, dated 807, calls up owners of three manses and upwards. Those who possessed more than twelve manses must serve on horseback.

But an army composed of landowners only would not have sufficed. The emperor had recourse at the same time to the class of 'beneficiaries'.

In the rude society of the eighth and ninth centuries isolation had its dangers, and it was customary for an individual in humbler circumstances to 'recommend' himself for protection to some powerful layman or ecclesiastic who was called his senior and whose vassus he became. The vassus owed military duties to the senior, and in many cases the senior granted him, as payment or reward, the usufruct, or, as it was then called, the "benefice" of a piece of land. Sometimes a freeholder by recommending himself to a senior for protection caused his freehold to become a 'benefice'.

The Merovingian kings had already followed this practice, as well as the dukes and counts. The Carolingian Emperor still further extended its use. It had the advantage of attaching to him by close personal bonds a devoted following. But he had, on the other hand, to allow a senior who brought his own vassi to the army to keep command over them. This state of things had the disadvantage of placing the senior between the sovereign and his subjects and so preparing the way for feudalism.

In the course of the tenth century social changes took place in France of which, for want of documents, we know little. By the eleventh century we find that important modifications have taken place in the military system.

To obtain troops, the Capets [Capetians], who succeeded to the Carolingian dynasty, appealed both to their own vassals of the royal domain and to the feudatory lords of the crown and their vassals. But from both these sources they could only expect limited support. The fact was that the 'benefice', which could be withdrawn and which implied an unconditional military obligation, had been replaced by the hereditary 'fief', to which only an intermittent military obligation fixed at an average of forty days in the year was attached.

With men whose period of service is so short it is impossible to form a military force worthy of the name. This is why we see the armies of the period more and more composed of a new element--mercenary troops. From the twelfth century, whether among the king's knights, of more or less noble descent, or among his "sergeants" on foot or on horseback, or among the light-armed troops, cross-bowmen or archers, professional soldiers are numerous in the armies of the Capets.

Exaggerated importance has sometimes been attached to the part played in the king's army during this period, particularly under Philip Augustus, by the militia of the non-noble communes of the royal domain. These communes were required to rise in a mass and come to the king's help on proclamation of the levy of vassals and sub-vassals. But the king ws not inclined to resort to this extreme measure, which might offer more drawbacks than advantages, and he declared himself satisfied on receiving from the communities contingents of men-at-arms recruited and equipped by them or, instead, the money required to raise and pay them.

It was by establishing little by little throughout the kingdom, as well as in the royal domain, the double principle, that military service was owing to the king and that exemption from it could be obtained for money, that the French kings succeeded in creating a standing army and a royal system of taxation at one and the same time.

One example of the application of this policy may be quoted. In 1302 a great need of troops arose from the rebellion in Flanders. And this is how Philip the Fair met it. He first called up for a period of four months all commoners possessing a stated minimum of wealth, either in goods or property. Next, at the close of 1303, in view of the next year's campaign, a fresh summons was issued, by which commoners of the domain and of the kingdom had to serve either in person or in the proportion of so many men per group of householders. This was appealed against, and the king moderated his demands, allowing, in particular, the townships and villages of the domain to pay for exemptions at the rate of two sous a day per man. These exemptions proved numerous and the money which they brought in was used for the enrolment, at half a sou a day per man, of infantry from Dauphiné and the South of France and of cross-bowmen from Italy. The army so constituted and numbering 60,000 infantry won the battle of Mons-en-Pévèle.

Speaking generally, recruiting in the thirteenth century and the first half of the fourteenth century continued on the same spasmodic lines as in the preceding period. Its evolution was slow and by sudden leaps. The system of pay and the command of troops underwent some changes. But to make it a reliable instrument of warfare the king's army still needed organisation by statute. This was to come, under the stress of necessity, in the Hundred Years' War.

In 1351 under John the Good, by an ordinance which determined the organisation of all troops, infantry were to be formed into connétablies of twenty-five to thirty men. Their equipment and pay were fixed. But much more important were the reforms brought about by Charles V.

They consisted first of all in permanently establishing in the king's army a preponderance of mercenary bands. The king scarcely made any further attempts to enroll men-at-arms individually. Rather, extending a practice which appeared as early as the thirteenth century, he relied on routiers, leaders of mercenary bands, for the hire of their troops to him. He had, indeed, no choice in the matter, for the state of war had become almost permanent since the middle of the fourteenth century and greatly increased the number of the mercenary companies, which were joined by all whom thoughts of battle and plunder attracted. This living force had to be looked for where it could be found. The system insured a permanent nucleus of troops, but it was not without drawbacks. For these adventurers grouped round their captains, and the captains themselves were with difficulty brought under discipline. Fraud, too, was common: there was always a danger that the captains, who were not over-scrupulous about such practices, were making false returns to the pay-masters, showing more troops than they possessed.

To combat this abuse, which would have been fatal to his finances, if allowed to spread, Charles V, like his predecessors, ordered returns (montres) to be as frequent and as exact as possible. But above all--and this was really his own and his counsellors' achievement--he did his best to get the army under better control and to make of it an organic whole with an order of battle, a fixed strength, cadres, and a graded staff.

Next came the infantry, which included contingents of militia furnished by the communes, whether of archers or cross-bowmen, and companies of routiers, professional soldiers, archers, cross-bowmen, or pikemen, who, in the main, were foreigners. In the fourteenth century Genoese cross-bowmen were held in high repute and much sought after.

The army might still include as accessory troops feudal contingents raised in the customary way. But these vestiges of past times were now rarely met with and are only mentioned to recall their existence.

Lastly, there were artillery serving the new guns already in use, as we shall see later; pioneers, sappers and miners for siege operations; and troops belonging to the base, particularly the pay-corps, which played so important a part in an army of mercenaries and which had been divided since 1366 into trésorerie ordinaire des guerres and trésorerie extraordinaire des guerres according to the permanent or temporary service of the troops which it paid.

The higher command was in the hands of the king's lieutenants, who were princes of the royal blood or great vassals, and of the Constable of France, under which title Du Guesclin held the supreme command. One step below these were the two marshals and the master of the cross-bowmen, and under them the captains with more or less wide powers.

This army strongly constituted by Charles V suffered seriously from the general disorganisation which marked the following reign. To restore it was one of Charles VII's chief tasks; a task which proved difficult and which could only be accomplished by stages in the intervals between campaigns.

In his first ordinance dated 1439 Charles VII tried to bring back into force the provisions of 1374, but in vain. In 1445, after the truce of 1444, a new ordinance followed and was better carried out.

The two characteristics of Charles VII's army were the companies known as compagnies d'ordonnance and the francs-archers.

The compagnies d'ordonnance were cavalry units of a nominal strength of a hundred 'lances', each 'lance' consisting of six men. There were twenty of these companies, forming a total of some ten thousand men. They were commanded by captains chosen by the king and subject to his dismissal. Garrison towns were assigned to them. Their pay was at the rate of 30 livres tournois a month per 'lance'.

These companies were the pick of the army; they were sent into battle at the decisive moment. They were really the same as the companies of Charles V's organisation, reconstituted, reinforced, and with more strongly marked characteristics of regularity and permanence.

The francs-archers were a more original institution, in a sense, but they were not as important as they were long thought to have been. They had come into existence spontaneously and in rudimentary form under Charles V. Companies of archers had been formed in the towns and in country districts. They met on Sundays for target practice. The nobles had looked askance on the movement and had succeeded in preventing it from spreading, at least in the country districts. Townships and villages kept their militia and continued in time of war to furnish the king with archers and cross-bowmen.

Charles VII set himself to make a fuller use of this spirit of competition and willing service. In 1448 he entrusted by ordinance the control of local forces to inspectors chosen on the spot. A fresh ordinance, dated 1451, replaced these inspectors by captains, each of whom was entrusted with a fixed territorial command, and laid down the conditions of pay and service for the free-archers (or cross-bowmen). One of these was to be supplied by every fifty households. He had to keep his arms and equipment in good order before him and hold himself in readiness to start at once when the call came. In the field he received pay from the king; in peace-time he was free (franc) from taxation, whence his name.

These free-archers were never more than an auxiliary force. There is only a distant and vague analogy between them and the national infantry of modern states. On the field of battle they played a scarcely more important part than that of the feudal contingents, which still continued to be raised at certain times in certain reigns. Charles VII's successor Louis XI added to their number and in 1469 reorganised them. The kingdom, as far as the free-archers were concerned, was divided into four main commands. Each command had to furnish 4000 infantry (pikemen, archers, cross-bowmen) and 500 pioneers. Orders were issued concerning the distribution and command of troops and their pay. But these reforms did not improve the quality of individual free-archers as soldiers, and they were only to a limited degree effective.

On the whole at the end of the fifteenth century the really strong elements in the king's army were the paid professional troops: the compagnies d'ordonnance, the foreign detachments of infantry, and the artillery. These constituted a powerful instrument of warfare soon to be put to the test in Italy.

After this rapid survey of the recruiting and organisation of the armies in general, a few remarks are necessary on arms and methods of warfare.

In the sixth century the Merovingian army was made up almost exclusively of infantry irregularly equipped. Some wore helmets and body-armour, but many others used the skins of animals for protection, as their Norse ancestors had done before them. They carried shields and fought hand to hand (missiles were as yet little used) with the sword or the framée, a kind of axe. In the seventh century the proportion of horsemen increased; missiles reappeared, and also the pike; the defensive armour of infantry improved.

The art of war had at that time fallen back into its infancy. Campaigns were mere plundering raids, in which bands of adventurers sometimes reached as far as Italy and the ancient Germanic realms. There were no lines of communication or supply. The raiders lived on the invaded country and left it only when they had exhausted its resources. They had few means of conducting a regular attack on a fortified place. An attempt would be made to storm it: if it failed, the attackers did not persist; they retired and went elsewhere. A battle was nothing but a series of single combats; the idea of manoeuvre was for the time being abolished.

In the eighth and ninth centuries there are two salient points to notice. There was on the one hand an increase in the proportion of cavalry (it would be more correct to call it mounted infantry for it constantly fought on foot), a slow increase as yet under Charles Martel and Charlemagne, but a more rapid increase under their successors, particularly Charles the Bold, who in his capitulary, dated 864, perhaps out of a desire to possess a more mobile system of defence against the Norman raiders, aimed at a general use of mounted troops. On the other hand there was constant improvement in defensive armour: protection was afforded by means of leather and steel, steel helmets, coats of mail, and even, as early as Charlemagne's day, full armour.

In the course of the two succeeding centuries the familiar aspect of the feudal army, the army of the first crusade, became stereotyped. Cavalry had grown to be the main element, the infantry though still more numerous being subordinate to it. The unit of this army, and which was in a sense its portrait in miniature, was the feudal troop which issued forth from such and such a fief: at its head the lord, possessor of the fief, mounted and clad in armour from head to foot; beside him, similarly equipped and mounted, a few men-at-arms, and with them several foot-soldiers to help them in the fight and protect their horses against the enemy's infantry. In the open this feudal cavalry fought on horseback with sword and lance according to the now accepted practice; to take part in a siege they dismounted. Missiles, so long out of use, had returned to favour, with improvements: thus, when, in 1066, William the Conqueror's army embarked for England, it included a strong force of archers, a fair number of whom carried steel cross-bows.

In the twelfth century under Philip Augustus and his foe, Richard Coeur-de-Lion, a real efflorescence of military science took place. It was seen in fortification and siege warfare. "Poliorcetics," the engineer's art, had never quite fallen out of knowledge, even under the Merovingian kings, because the Roman system of fortifications had remained partially intact and had not ceased to be made use of. Progress was made once more in these arts in the course of the unceasing struggles between the feudal lords and of the frequent attack and defence of castles which these struggles involved. By the end of the twelfth century great skill both in constructing and in storming powerful fortifications had been acquired. It will be sufficient to recall among many instances the celebrated siege of Chateau-Gaillard. It was during the attack on this formidable castle of Richard Coeur-de-Lion, which overlooks the Seine on the heights above Les Andelys, that the engineers and sappers of the king's army so much distinguished themselves, particularly in their use of war material, which from that time onward became an important item, both in bulk and variety.

During the same period however a want of knowledge continued to be shown in the conduct of operations in the open. Let the famous battle of Bouvines be taken as an example. On July 27, 1214, Philip Augustus's army, which had been encamped south of Tournai, marched on Lille in three "battles"--advance-guard, main body, rear-guard--each composed of cavalry and infantry and advancing in column. It was beginning to cross the River Deule at Bouvines bridge, when the Emperor Otho's army appeared in its rear. The French army turned about and deployed and the engagement began. There was confusion, however, and no attempt at keeping together; successive melées of cavalry, a series of single combats, were all that took place. The infantry played a secondary part. The communal militia of Philip Augustus's army were broken by the German and English cavalry. These were, however, routed in turn by the French cavalry, which went on to destroy by repeated charges the Comte de Boulogne's infantry, who were drawn up in squares.

In point of weapons there was little difference between the armies of Philip Augustus and St Louis. In both the cavalry bore knightly arms and equipment: the large hauberk of mail with its hood, the conical head-piece known as a helm (heaume), the sword, lance, and oblong shield (écu). The infantry had a light hauberk, an iron or leather hat, a pike or a mace, or else used missiles. The use of the steel cross-bow, which shot a bolt (carreau) more formidable than an arrow, became more and more widely spread. In the army which landed at Damietta in 1248, out of a total of 50,000, 5000 were cross-bowmen. The army of the Comte d'Artois, which was defeated at Courtrai in 1302, and which also numbered some fifty thousand men, placed in the field 10,000 French or foreign cross-bowmen.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century the discovery was made which was to revolutionise the equipment and operations of troops, that of gunpowder. It was first used in 1324 in Lorraine, Spain, and Italy. France was slower to become convinced of the importance of the discovery, but she afterwards made up for lost time. From the outbreak of the Hundred Years' War, about 1335-1340, artillery using gunpowder was in current use in the French king's army.

At first the new artillery was not differentiated from the old, because the use of gunpowder was only at the experimental stage, whereas catapults were the familiar arm. This, however, did not retard the development of the new arm. Even before Charles V, under John the Good, the king's artillery included a large variety of bronze cannon. Progress continued throughout the following century. At the end of the Hundred Years' War the king's artillery possessed abundant war material, parks, magazines, and a well-trained personnel, and had become a force to be reckoned with. In the last battles fought against the English, at Formigny and at Castillon, its share in the success was large.

Besides the artillery proper, in order that the fullest results might be obtained from gunpowder a one-man portable fire-arm had still to be invented. And towards the end of the fifteenth century it was invented in the form of the arquebus (hacquebute, later arquebuse), which replaced the hand-culverin (coulevrine) requiring two men. The arquebus was eventually to turn into the musket. It was not until 1470 that soldiers bearing portable fire-arms left the artillery park to take up their stand in the ranks of the infantry.

At the close of the Middle Ages, the king's army showed many survivals of the past in its composition, its arms, and its tactics, along with germs of far-reaching changes in the future. The fifteenth century foot-soldier with his light helmet (salade), his coat of leather, cloth, and metal (jacque or brigandine), and his cross-bow and firing-rest, was very much like the infantryman of the fourteenth or even the thirteenth centuries. And still more like his forerunners was the horseman of the compagnies d'ordonnance with his heavy armour. As for the battle, it had scarcely changed in type during the whole course of the Hundred Years' War. But the use of gunpowder had already and once for all introduced that new element of fire-power which was to be the characteristic of modern warfare.

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Chapter Four: The Navy

In a country which is bounded by the sea on the north, west, and south-east the navy has come under numerous foreign influences, which have left their mark on the language. One may even ask oneself whether the French race did not accustom itself to sea-faring as a result of the Greek, Roman, Breton, and Scandinavian invasions, which successively burst on her shores. There is nothing so symbolical in this respect as the marriage of the daughter of a Ligurian chief to the captain of a Phocaean galley, to which fact Marseilles owes its origin, six centuries before our era. The Phocaeans, who came from Asia, introduced us to maritime commerce, and strove with other Asiatics, established at Carthage, for the conquest of the markets of the ancient world. If Euthymenes of Marseilles was less bold than the Carthaginian Hanno, and did not in Africa pass beyond the Senegalese river of crocodiles and hippopotami, his compatriot Pytheas outsailed Himilco in the exploration of the northern seas, and pushed on to the Shetland Isles and the Arctic Ocean, where navigation is checked by the icebergs or "lungs of the sea."

I. The Gallo-Roman Navy

The Punic Wars gave Marseilles an opportunity for satisfying her instinct of rivalry against Carthage. As soon as Rome had become a maritime power, and when the naval victories of Duilius in Sicily and of Cornelius Scipio at the mouth of the Ebro in 260 and 218 B.C. had destroyed the supremacy of the Punic fleets, Marseilles threw in her lot with the victors. She became then a base for naval operations and the point of departure for their infiltration into Gaul; Aquae Sextiae (Aix), the first Roman colony, dates from 123 B.C.

But when Caesar wished to subjugate the Phocaean city in 49 B.C., the fleet of Marseilles engaged battle with Decius Brutus, prefect of the Roman fleet; the naval battles of the Ile du Levant and of Tauroentum were defeats which cost Marseilles her ships, her treasures, her arms, and her engines of war; and she was subjected to the supervision of a naval station, which was created by Julius Caesar at Forum Julii (Fréjus). Seven years before, Brutus had crushed the fleet of the Veneti off the Breton coast, after a terrible struggle which had lasted a whole day. The Gallic fleet having been thus destroyed, Caesar embarked five legions, half of his cavalry, and 4000 Gallic horsemen on the Liane, at a point where the coasts of Gaul bend towards the north. One evening, when the wind had ceased blowing from the north, Caesar left PORTUS ITIUS. On the morrow, 54 B.C., he disembarked in Great Britain. In vain did the kings of Cantium (Kent) attack his Castrum navale in order to destroy the ships drawn up on the shore under the shelter of an entrenchment. They were repulsed and forced to pay tribute.

To secure the defence of the British channel, the Romans organised a naval station near Portus Itius. At the foot of the Gallic oppidum Gesoriacum, the name of which was changed to Bononia Oceanensis (Boulogne-sur-Mer), was stationed the classis Britannica, which was formed after the model of the Pretorian fleets of Misenum and Ravenna. Caligula, who honoured it with a visit in the year 40 A.D., ordered the construction of a lighthouse of vasst proportions, the twelve stories of which were each smaller than the one below, and which held a light at the height of two hundred feet. The Tour d'Ordre (Turris ardens) or Old Man did not fall until 1644. Natives of all the provinces of the Empire, Africans, Asiatics, Dalmatians, Pannonians, the sailors of the triremes of Boulogne swarmed on both sides of the British channel, with their brickwork stamped Cl. Br. and their ex votos to Aesculapius, Neptune, and Apollo. For the prefecture of Boulogne had posts on the other side of the strait, for instance at Dover, where there still exists a fragment of a Roman lighthouse. This fragment, the Bredenstone, serves as a seat for the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports at the ceremony of his investiture. In the 5th century the Boulogne fleet disappeared. The invasion of the Franks was beginning.

II. The Vikings

The great movement of monarchical centralisation which took place in the Scandinavian countries during the 9th century caused the exodus of many liberty-loving warriors. Bearing with them from the paternal house the pillars with the heads of Thor or Odin, which had adorned the household seat, they flaunted these sacred emblems of home in the sight of new countries; and, whithersoever fate carried them, they threw an axe ashore to mark their seizure of the land. This proceeding was unobjectionable in the half-deserted countries of Iceland, Greenland, and perhaps of American Vinland. But it was not so in Western Europe.

The people fled at the sight of their long-ships, with heightened prows, whence grinned the head of a dragon or a serpent (for which reason they were called drakkar or snekkar), 22.76 metres long, by 5 metres wide, and 1.75 in depth--these are the dimensions of a long-ship, dug up near Christiania, in which there still reposed the body of a viking, in the carved seat whence he directed the working of the ship. The dragons came safely up the rivers; in 841 they appeared before Rouen, in 843 before Nantes, in 887 before Paris. The capital barred the passage of the river to their seven hundred boats by two fortified bridges. She repulsed the scaling-ladders and fireships directed against the bridges; a siege of ten months heroically borne wearied the assailants, whose withdrawal was purchased by Charles the Fat. One of these vikings, Rollo the Dane, established himself so firmly at Rouen that Charles the Simple preferred to come to terms with him, and, by the treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, in 912, ceded Neustria, which became Normandy. The vikings took wives there.

Once again the law which governs conquests, the reaction of the conquered civilised race over the victorious army of barbarians, fulfilled itself. The children of the Northmen and the Neustrian women learned their mother's tongue, with only one exception: the terms unfamiliar to women, the Scandinavian sea-terms, persisted. They have remained up to our day, not many having fallen out of use. Thus the terminology of our ocean-going seamen is the last vestige of a vanished language, the language of the runes on the lions of the Piraeus, and towards the North, on the rocks of Greenland, the language of the Icelandic sagas, wherein we find the origin and the primitive meaning of our commonest sea-terms: quille or keel ("Kjoll," backbone), tribord or starboard ("styri-bord"), haubans or shrouds ("hofud-band," neck-band), lof or luff, ralingue or rope, tillac or deck, girouette or weather-cock ("vedr-viti," indication of weather), étambrai or framework, a round hole in the deck, through which the mast passes ("tappr," cork), etc., etc.

The Norman dukes kept up a strong liking for the navy. One of them was proud of the name of "duke of pirates"; and Duke William, having in 1066 put forward a claim to the throne of England, a crowd of great lords, bishops, and abbots of Normandy promised him ships, one twenty, another sixty, a third a hundred. On the 27th of September the flotilla appeared at the mouth of the Somme, as soon as the gilded weathercock placed at the top of the ducal mast had pointed its arrow towards the north. Some days later (October 14), the victory at Hastings made William the Conqueror King of England.

On the same date, the sons of a small noble of the Cotentin, Robert Guiscard and Roger, being summoned to fight the Arabs of Magna Graecia and Sicily, formed the vaguely-defined states of which there were so many in Southern Italy into the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The naval victory at Corfu in 1084 consolidated it. This was one of the first regular battles of the Middle Ages; Robert Guiscard had known how to avail himself of the tactical science of the Greco-Venetians, and his four squadrons of five ships each, supported by light vessels, were successful against the heavy Byzantine craft.

III. Influence of Byzantine Civilization

Now, the Byzantine navy was the only regular war-navy which existed at that time. Western emperors and Carolingian kings were so little anxious about the defence of the seas that they applied to the neo-Greek navy for the protection of their coasts against the Saracen invasions: "Thy master has no ships," said Nicephorus Phocas to one of their ambassadors; "but as for me, I am powerful on the sea; let him say a word, and my fleet will force all his rebel ports to return to their obedience." It was thus that in the 9th and 10th centuries dromonds, carabs, and flat boats (chargers, crabs, and tortoises), from Byzantium, lighted at sea by "catships," made their way to our Provencal coasts, where the nautical vocabulary--estoire (fleet), eschar (stocks), issartia (rigging) etc. long betrayed the neo-Greek influence. But we retained the words without penetrating the spirit of Byzantine strategy; the swift dromonds, whence a battery of siphons poured forth Greek fire in flaming torrents, became in our hands heavy ships, robbed of the terrible weapon, of which we had not discovered the secret, and which Ives de Chartres thought to be made of resin and grease.

IV. The Transports of Marseilles at the Time of the Crusades

The ships were sometimes of quite high tonnage. As permits of travel between the Latin cities and the infidel country were limited by Papal bulls to one or two vessels, those interested gave the absolved ships such vast proportions that the statutes of Marseilles forbade more than fifteen hundred pilgrims being embarked in any one ship. What admirable maritime legislation we find in the statutes promulgated between 1253 and 1255 by the great Provencal city! All possible guarantees for security were assured to the pilgrims and the crusaders--but not comfort. And how could a passenger demand comfort, when, thanks to the competition between Marseilles and Genoa, the price of a voyage to the Holy Land had fallen to sixty sous for the first class, forty for the second, thirty-five for the third and twenty-five for the fourth! The first-class passengers enjoyed the airy deck-cabins, the second class those between decks, the third had the right to the stuffiness of the lowest deck, and the fourth to the stench of the stables. Each pilgrim received a numbered ticket, after previous inscription of his name and that of his backer in a register, which was kept in duplicate, one copy being preserved in the communal archives. Three inspectors were appointed for the Palestine convoys, and watched to see that the regulations were strictly enforced; experts, foot-rule in hand, calculated the number of places available on board, and took care that the scale of charges, marked by three tags painted white, should not be exceeded by any covetous captain. Sea-consuls, chosen by the municipalities of Marseilles, Aigues-Mortes, and Montpellier, were embarked as judges to arbitrate in disputes and to provide for emergencis which might arise. Finally, in the sea-ports of the Levant, the passenger found help and comfort with the resident consul, which each of the great Mediterranean ports employed there; the Levantine fondachi were private companies occupying a special quarter, in which the customs of the home city were maintained.

V. The First Naval War in the Mediterranean

The kingdom had still neither navy nor port - Marseilles belonged to the Counts of Provence--when the crusades of St Louis brought him face to face with this unpleasant fact. So he provided himself with a fortified port. In the solitude of unhealthy marshes, Aigues-Mortes, a declining city, doomed to a lingering death, sheltered the great ships which were bought as transports by the saintly king; his transport was the Paradise when he died on crusade.

His son, Philip the Bold, when throwing himself into the adventure of the war with Aragon, imperiously felt the urgent necessity of a war fleet. He collected a hundred galleys, from Pisa to Narbonne. But experience was to teach him that, even if vessels can be collected, strategy and admirals cannot be improvised. The twenty-five galleys of Guillaume de Lodève, surprised in the port of Rosas by eleven Catalan galleys, tried to surround their adversaries. But the unfortunate French soldiers under a rain of steel which swept their decks, fell stricken by the terrible arrows of the Catalan crossbowmen; artillery had triumphed over side-arms. Some weeks later, on the night of September 9, 1285, the French fleet received its death-blow. As it was proceeding in column of sail, with masked fires, between the two islets which have been named the Ants, "Las Hormigas," on account of their narrowness, the redoubtable Aragonese admiral, Roger di Loria, appeared out of the shadows, and falling on the fleet, sank the galleys by ramming them. A second squadron had turned the French flank. No resistance was possible. The great Neapolitan admiral, Henri de Mari, who was in command, turned tail and succeeded in escaping from the scene of slaughter by imitating Loria's signals. Deprived of food, the army was obliged to retreat and recrossed the Pyrenees behind the litter of a dying king.

VI. From the Conquest of Normandy to the Continental Blockade

Surrounded on three sides by powerful vassals, the Capet kings had no sure hold on the sea, except in Picardy. The Duke of Normandy was by conquest King of England and had by marriage acquired Guienne, Saintonge, and Poitou. To relieve the pressure, Philip Augustus allied himself with the Bretons, who also felt the weight of it. John Lackland had seized the English crown to the detriment of his nephew, Arthur of Brittany, whom he had stabbed to death. Attacked in front by the French troops, and from the rear by the Bretons, in three years, 1202-1204, he lost Normandy and Poitou. He was in danger too of losing Englsnd: seventeen hundred ships under the command of Philip Augustus were to cross the Channel, when on May 31, 1213, they were surrounded in the port of Dam and destroyed by fire; this surprise was executed by the English sailors, under the command of William of Salisbury and Renaud of Boulogne. "The French know little of naval methods," sadly concluded Philip Augustus.

Nevertheless his son Louis disembarked in the Thames. A sailor who had joined his party after having in the first place followed the fortunes of John, Eustace the Monk, whose exploits have been told in an epic, had robbed the English of the mastery of the seas. But the naval battle near Sandwich, where he met with his death on August 24, 1217, was the salvation of Englsnd. A fortnight later, Louis, being cut off from communication with France, signed peace, and abandoned all pretensions to conquest; he even renounced the Anglo-Norman Islands, which Eustace the Monk had occupied in the days when he was still in the service of John.

A latent cause for war existed between the two countries, because England still kept a foothold in Guienne. In the reign of Philip the Fair relations became so strained that he hastily provided himself with a fleet-of-war in the Western Ocean. Everything had to be found, in 1294, material and tactics, personnel and arsenals. All Europe was put under contribution: the Hanseatic towns and the Basques sent ships; Norway promised three hundred vessels; a squadron came from Provence, and from Genoa came ship-builders, who organised the arsenal at Rouen, the clos des Galées or enclosure of galleys. An army corps was ready in the camp at Boulogne, but the Dukes of Harcourt and Montmorency were novices at sea. Summoned from Genoa, the great leader of the Byzantine fleets, Benedetto Zaccaria, did not arrive until later. For want of an admiral the campaign failed.

Together with the plan of invasion, another plan was elaborated. Abandon force; bring cunning into prominence; for Napoleonic victories substitute victorious treaties; and you can compare Philip the Fair with Napoleon. To these two rulers, so different in genius, the same anxiety, the same deficiency in naval command, inspired the same policy--the Continental Blockade. The ports of Europe from Gibraltar to the polar sea, from the Sicilian coast to the end of the Baltic, were closed to England. But in 1296 the river arteries of the Rhine and the Gironde remained open to British trade, in spite of the cruises of Admiral Othon de Coucy, and thereby England was saved.

VII. The Hundred Years' War

The continental blockade was the prelude of the hand-to-hand struggle which France and England were to wage with each other for a Hundred Years. The death of Philip the Fair without male heirs brought into conflict his grand-nephew and his cousin, Edward III of England and Philip of Valois, who both claimed the crown of France. Philip replied to the pretensions of the English king by mobilising the Norman fleet, by the Journée des Normands, thinking to repeat the exploit of William the Conqueror. But he had made the mistake of dismissing two squadrons of Levantine galleys, one of Genoese Ghibellines, the other of Guelfs from Monaco, who in 1338 had given him the mastery of the Channel. His fleet now only consisted of two hundred heavy ships, encircled by the royal barges, which a plan of action had arranged in three divisions, the vanguard being given to men from the Seine, the main body to the men of Dieppe, and the rear-guard to the men from Lower Normandy.

In a narrow bay, the point of which then extended as far as Bruges, but which the polders have filled up, twenty-five thousand men were about to start for England when Edward III himself shattered their attack. He drove them into a corner in the impasse of Dam and Écluse (now Sluys) where the admiral Quiéret had anchored, in spite of the sinister lesson formerly given to Philip Augustus, and in spite of the wise counsels of the Genoese Barbavera, who wished to fight at sea. Surrounded by the English fleet, taken in the rear by Flemish pillagers, crushed by the fire of twelve thousand archers to which only four hundred crossbowmen could reply, the French sailors were pressed against great dykes, such as Dante describes in his Inferno. In a hopeless attempt to make their way out, they made an onset on a large hull with its mast topped by a crown, whence floated a standard quartered with the arms of France and England. But a crowd of knights made a rampart of their bodies before Edward III; the action was definitely lost and had a decisive result. The loss of a hundred and ninety ships and twenty thousand men left the French disarmed, and the tide of invasion turned.

The remains of the fleet could only delay this result by a final sacrifice. If the siege of Calais has rendered famous the name of Eustace of Saint-Pierre, it is only fair that with his memory should be associated that of the sailors, who at the risk of their lives ran the blockade and revictualled the town for a year: such men as Enguerrand Ringois of Abbeville, who captured later and summoned to swear allegiance to Edward III, replied, "Never," and was thrown into the sea.

"The fleet should be proportionate to the necessities of the city." This principle, formulated in the Politics of Aristotle, which had just been translated by Nicholas Oresme, counsellor of Charles the Wise, ruled the conduct of that king. Fifty barges and galleys, which had been built in the clos des Galées at Rouen, gave the command of the Channel to the admiral, Jean de Vienne, and by repeated diversions in 1378, 1380, and 1385, caused anxiety on the other side of the Channel, paralysed the despatch of reinforcements and thereby greatly helped the operations of the High Constables Du Guesclin and Clisson on the Continent.

Charles VI wished to improve upon his father. But the Great Army of the Sea, assembled in 1386 at the very place where we had suffered the two disasters of Sluys, was never able to threaten England. The stormy season was enough to break it up. The King's madness allowed everything to drift.

The only ray of glory which shone on the French navy came to it from a marshal of France. Marshal Boucicaut, Governor of the town of Genoa, which had given itself to us, felt himself bound by the interests of the people under his administration. He brought help to Constantinople, where the Genoese had an important colony, raised the blockade of their settlement at Famagusta, sacked the Mussulman port of Beyrout, and on October 7, 1403, engaged the Venetians in the naval battle of Modon. In spite of the epidemic of influenza, which weakened his crews, he carried off the victory.

In the Channel, the kingdom no longer had a fleet: the clos des Galées was disused. France was ripe for invasion. The awakening was terrible. It came at Agincourt. In haste, the admiral, Guillaume de Narbonne, summoned several Genoese carracks from the Mediterranean, where a campaign had been carried on. With eight of these he attempted to bar the entrance of the Seine to three hundred ships full of troops on August 15, 1416. Half of his squadron perished: the last four carracks "got away with honour," a truly French sentiment; honour was saved, but the cause was lost, and Normandy again became English. And English it was to remain, until an outburst of patriotism, aided by Joan of Arc, freed the country. In 1453 there remained to the English only one place in France - Calais.

VIII. The Canaries and "The Green Island"

The Hundred Years' War had not destroyed the initiative of our seamen. In the way of discoveries they had out-distanced most nations. If one can believe a 17th century traveller (Villaut de Bellefonds), they had placed settlements ("Petit-Dieppe and Petit-Paris") on the Ivory Coast and the Gold Coast about 1364. The authenticity of these expeditions from Dieppe has caused violent discussion, and so far no positive proof has been found; the Briev estoire del navigaige Monsire Jehan Prunaut au reaume de la Guinoye, which was produced as a reference, is an imitation or a forgery.

On quite another footing, and a sure one, stands the narrative of expeditions to the Canary Islands, which the Middle Ages had endowed with the charming name of the Fortunate Isles. The Pope had conferred the investiture of them on the Admiral of France on November 15, 1344, when he bestowed on him the title of Prince de la Fortune. It was some years since the Genoese, Lanzarotto Maloisel, had undertaken their conquest, without leaving any other trace but his Christian name, which is still borne by one of the islands. Admiral Louis d'Espagne, Prince de La Fortune, did not become "King of the Canaries." On the way he abandoned his enterprise, which was again undertaken in 1402 by an unassuming chamberlain of the Duke of Orleans, Jean de Béthencourt. Supported by Gadifer de La Salle, seneschal of Bigorre, he occupied four islands of the archipelago, but failed in his attempts on the Guanchos of Grand Canary. He colonised the green plains of Ferro Island with peasants from the Caux district, while workmen and craftsmen collected, under the guidance of two priests and two sergeants of the people, round Santa Maria de Bethencuria at Fuerteventura, and near the cathedral of Rubicon on Lanzarote. At the bottom of a great ravine, in a circle of mountains, Santa Maria de Bethencuria is still standing. But since June 30, 1454, when Spain turned out the heirs of the Norman knight, the archipelago has been held by the Catholic King. The epic, which was chronicled by the chaplains of the expedition, was for ever closed. Le Canarien, who told it, has been forgotten.

A curious belief was the cause of our visits to another archipelago. In a record of the year 1483, we read that the captain of the royal ships was sent in haste "to the Green Island and Country of Barbary to cure any thing which closely concerned the welfare and health" of the king. Saint-Jacques, otherwise called Cape Verd Island, enjoyed a unique reputation; leprosy was cured there by bathing in the blood of great turtles; it was whispered that Louis XI actually believed himself to be suffering from leprosy. But no weight would attach to these rumours, reported only by one chronicler, Thomas Basin, were they not confirmed by the mysterious expedition to the Green Island, whereby a light is thrown on the atrabiliary disposition of the lord of Plessis-les-Tours. For leprosy was a living death.

IX. Protection by Force of Arms Under Louis XI

Louis XI presents a curious figure. "One would say that he had been brought up in Italy," was said of him by foreigners, and Machiavelli would have found in him a model. The Hundred Years' War left us face to face with distressing economic problems; it had removed the commercial axis of Europe from the Rhone and the Seine towards the Rhine. In order to correct this and to bring back to the fairs of Beaucaire the trade of the Levant, which showed a tendency to become diverted to the States of the Duke of Savoy, the royal silversmith, Jacques Coeur, had, in 1442, obtained from the States of Languedoc bounties in aid of navigation, "the navigation of galleys being the principal source of the substance and nourishment of the country." And he received half-a-dozen galeasses to carry on trade with the Levant and the Barbary ports.

Louis XI, even bolder than the silversmith, contemplated becoming in the West the broker of the Levant. And his little fleet of warships had the task of preparing the way by expelling our competitors. In the rare leisure left to them by the wars of Louis XI against the English, the Bretons, and the Aragonese, Vice-Admiral Guillaume de Casenove, called Coulon, and Captain George Palaeologue de Bissipat, descendant of the emperors of Constantinople, practised protection by force of arms. They denied the Hanseatic traders access to the Straits of Dover, kept the Venetians out of the Straits of Gibraltar, and fought with the Flemings and even with the Genoese, whom they crushed on August 13, 1476, in the naval battle at Cape St Vincent.

But the King reckoned without the nation. First of all with the help of the Genoese, later with the assistance of his "good towns" only, he hoped to form a Compagnie Générale de navigation dans le Levant, with a capital of 100,000 livres; by giving it a monopoly he would have realised immense profits. But the delegates of the "good towns" of France, assembled at Tours in 1482, did not agree to the King's wishes. They refused to subscribe and made havoc of his plans. In answer to the royal prohibitions the nation upheld the contrary view, the reciprocity of treatment for "all foreign nations." On the morrow of the Hundred Years' War the first war between Protection and Free-trade took place. And Protection emerged from the struggle vanquished.


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This page posted 4 August 2002, last revised 4 August 2002.