During the first phase of the Hundred Years War, the kings of France and England tended to hire lots of mercenaries who were paid by campaign. When there was no fighting, the pay stopped. This caused serious societal difficulties because one of the last things you want is a lot of unemployed armed men.
One of the most violent periods during the 14th century in France was actually the 1360s, when technically France and England were at peace. It was so violent because the mercenary bands were not paid during the 1360s because of the peace treaty, and so they began to pillage France and neighboring territories because they no longer had any income.
Learn more: Medieval Prelude—1377–1455
The solution to this problem was permanent standing armies whose members were paid regardless of whether there was a war going on or not. This course of action would be adopted in roughly the middle of the 15th century, first by France, with other kingdoms following suit. It was an expensive solution, but it was preferable to disbanding armies at the end of every campaign and leaving them to pillage your kingdom and reimburse themselves from whatever they happened to find.
Standing Armies and Foot Soldiers
Starting around 1450, the kingdom of France began to assemble the first standing army that Europe had seen in more than a thousand years. It was not a huge army, and by about 1500, the French army consisted of only about 20,000 to 25,000 men. Certainly for many centuries, it was a standard practice for kings to go out and hire more troops whenever a war broke out. Nonetheless, the creation of permanent standing armies, which are paid a salary by kings, was going to benefit royal authority considerably because it was easier to cut off a moneyed salary than it was to repossess a fief from a knight. Now the kings had an important counterweight to the authority of the nobility within their kingdoms.
Learn more: The New World & the Old—1400–1650
At roughly the same time, a change in military technology made foot soldiers a more and more important part of any military campaign or strategy. This was a change that the English adopted more quickly than the French, and that helps to explain, in part, why the English were so successful at battles such as Crécy and Poitiers, and then ultimately at Agincourt.
Practice Makes Perfect
During the course of the 13th century, England had been at war frequently with Scotland and Wales. In a sense, this had been good for England because it meant that its armies were in peak condition. At the time that the Hundred Years War broke out, there was a tradition of warfare that had allowed people to train and try out new tactics. France had been mostly peaceful during the 13th century and had not fought many wars. Perhaps more importantly, during the course of their wars against the Welsh, the English had come across a new missile weapon that the Welsh had developed and that the English were happy to borrow from them, the longbow. The longbow gave the English their great victories at Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt.
The Short Bow, the Crossbow, and the Longbow
The longbow was different from two other sorts of missile weapons that had been used earlier, the short bow and the crossbow. The short bow had the advantage of being small and easy to use. It didn’t require much training. It had a very rapid rate of fire, but it did not pack much of a punch, certainly not when used against a knight in armor. The crossbow had a tremendous wallop, and you could shoot a knight with a crossbow at a considerable distance and expect to transfix the knight to the knight’s horse. But there was a big disadvantage to the crossbow, which is that, while you can take down a knight with a crossbow, it takes a long time to load a crossbow. While you’re loading your crossbow, the knights will be charging you. You can speed up the process of loading a crossbow, which involved placing the crossbow on the ground and slowly cranking it up again, by lying down on the ground and cranking it up while you’re staring at the sky. But lying prone on your back with your stomach facing up is really not the best position to assume when you’re in a battle.
Learn more: Being a Medieval Knight
The Downfall of the Medieval Knight
The longbow combined all the advantages of a short bow with all the advantages of a crossbow, with disastrous consequences for medieval knights. The longbow had a very rapid rate of fire—a good English longbowman could get off 10 or 12 arrows in a single minute—but it packs the wallop of a crossbow. If you hit a knight in armor with a longbow, even at a considerable distance, there’s a good chance that you are going to penetrate that knight’s armor. If you’re able to amass longbowmen together and fill the sky with arrows, then charging knights, who happened to be French during the course of the Hundred Years War, are going to be mown down. It did require a fair amount of training to learn how to use a longbow properly. You couldn’t just pick it up the way you could pick up a short bow and hope to fire it effectively. Don’t rush out and try a longbow at home.
But it did not require the same amount of training that fighting as a knight did. It didn’t require the same material resources that fighting as a knight did, either. You didn’t need a suit of armor. You didn’t need half a dozen of the strongest war-horses you could find because, undoubtedly, many of those war-horses would be killed in battle. As a result, the spread of the longbow during the Hundred Years War, in an important sense, democratized warfare. It allowed individuals of a fairly humble social origin—peasants, for example, townspeople or artisans—to be militarily effective in a way they had not previously been during the Middle Ages. This spelled bad news for the nobility of late medieval Europe, which found its military effectiveness challenged and undermined.