The 15th Century Mercenary


15th century mercenary company, historical reenactment, deer river mn
Captain calls troops to assemble.

The fourteenth century mercenary is gone, and with him goes a reputation of a rampaging pillager.  At that time mercenaries were the primary, or even only, combative units at a nation’s disposal.  Regular national armies were few and mercenaries were a threat to all, even their employers.  When they were between employments they simply settled where they chose and lived of the people surrounding.  Mercenaries were brigands without morals or loyalties, and so obviously a time of change would be inevitable.  The fifteenth century mercenary is the result of the change.

Mercenaries of the fifteenth century were believers in the concept of chivalry.  Chivalry, in simple definition, is four basic rules based on Christian values of decent behavior.  The rules of chivalry are: 1 – Bravery in battle; 2 – Mercy to the defeated adversary; 3 – Defense of the weak, and; 4 – Courtesy to women.  Though in reality very few mercenaries or even knights ever lived-up to this ideal, the concept was important to the maintaining of discipline and therefore steady employment.

The new condota (from the Spanish condotieri) system of employment where the troops are paid even when inactive, was a major influence encouraging men to strive for some show of chivalry.  Although they always received payment, money could be fined away by un-chivalrous behavior.  Raiding the locals to make-up the difference (as would be done in the previous century) could have serious consequences for a mercenary.  If you weren’t killed, you would most likely be severely beaten and ostracized.  Unless particularly foolish or twisted, most saw the logic in attempting to obey the rules of chivalry and the condota system.

william godwin, master at arms, 15th century mercenary
William Godwin – Master at Arms

Keeping order and discipline in the military, especially amongst a mercenary company, has always been challenging.  In a company of mixed nationalities and confusing loyalties, bitterness and rivalry can be very damaging.  Eruption of fights, hampered training, and distraction from essential duties can all result from lack of discipline.  Money may be able to buy men’s fight and strength, but not their hearts.

Trust and respect of the company’s leaders (in particular the captain) was highly influential in the discipline, morale, and quality of a company.  Trust and respect were gained in several ways, one of which is food.  Willensstark, like many other companies, guarantees a meal every day to every soldier.

Over drilling tells the men they are incompetent and can fuel delicate egos for explosion. Not drilling enough makes poor fighters who are uncertain at times when certainty is necessary for efficiency.

This gesture helps threefold by keeping strengths high from nourishment, bellies content (and so tempers content), and the psychology that the captain truly cares for every individual member of the company.  More than one massacre has occurred in history due to lack of quality food, and when dealing with a hundred or so trained and armed soldiers, the risk of not providing it is too great.

Careful wielding of justice could be key to a company’s behavior.  Harshness such as beatings, locking in stocks, or even executions were all accepted to be within the captain’s options for administering justice. Ruling by fear could be effective and definitely encouraged careful behavior and showed off the captain’s power, but used too often it could shatter the troop’s morale and trust, discourage new recruitments, and severely limit the number of potential employers.  Less severe justice was often much more effective (not to mention moral), and is the preferred philosophy of Willensstark company.  Cutting pay or rations, assigning long patrols at night, or being made to do menial labors was typically persuasion enough to prevent further infringements and didn’t cause so much rage or uprising.

15th century mercenaries
15th Century Mercenaries

Training and drilling was a flexible issue for a fifteenth century mercenary company.  Some, in particular the Swiss, rarely if ever drilled and training was what your first battle was.  Others, usually German or English, would drill constantly every day.  Some of the biggest companies like Great Company (who boasted over 8,000 men) were strong believers in regular training. Over drilling tells the men they are incompetent and can fuel delicate egos for explosion.  Not drilling enough makes poor fighters who are uncertain at times when certainty is necessary for efficiency.  Willensstark takes a moderate approach allowing more freedom (and therefore like of the captain), but also regular training with arms and tactics.

Contracts of employment are accepted at the discretion of the captain aided by the advice of his officers.  The highest bidder is not always the winner and a good captain considers the political, religious, logistical, and tactical sides as well.  The reliability of the employer and his ability or willingness to pay is also a factor in deciding whether or not to accept employment.