Medieval Geopolitics: The English Military Revolution

Medieval Geopolitics: The English Military Revolution

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By Andrew Latham and Rand Lee Brown II

“All Englande were but a fling – but for the crooked stick and the grey goose-wing.” ~ Thomas Fuller, in History of the Worthies of England

When the Hundred Years’ War broke out in 1337, the English found themselves at a distinct military disadvantage vis-a-vis their French opponents. During the era of what John France called “proprietorial warfare,” encompassing both the early and high medieval periods, was dominated by the knightly caste. These warriors were obliged by oath to render their services as crack armored shock cavalry (or infantry, if dismounted) to their liege lords in return for lands and social privileges. With a landmass five times that of England and triple the population, France had for some time been vastly more effective at proprietorial warfare than their English rivals.

On the eve of the Hundred Years’ War, the French crown could easily call thousands of petty nobles and knights to their banners, making French mounted chivalry one of the most intimidating military forces in all of Christendom. By contrast, England had far fewer resources and manpower in the traditional feudal sense. This was a disadvantage that the English would have to overcome if they were to prevail over the “ancient enemy” on the battlefields of Europe. England’s King Edward III would rise to this challenge, to embarking on an ambitious programme of military transformation that would ultimately give rise to a revolutionary new “English way of war.”

Knowing full well that he could never hope to match the chivalric might of France in the same manner, Edward III looked to reshape his tactical and operational approach by creating armies made up almost entirely of professional and disciplined infantry. In doing so, Edward was by no means radically breaking from established traditions in the British Isles. Precedents for an English civic infantry tradition went as far back (not counting the ancient Saxon fyrd system) as Henry II’s 1181 Assize of Arms and Edward I’s 1285 Statute of Winchester – both of which called for each Englishman, noble or common, to maintain a specific military kit determined by his income level and stand ready to mobilize when called upon.

However, Edward III took this much further than any of his predecessors and initiated a military system based on contracted indenture, in which companies of men were voluntarily recruited and served under professional captains (mostly minor nobles from their local shires) for regular pay determined by the Crown and Parliament. This system produced a culture of civic military professionalism across all levels of society within 14th and 15th Century England that contrasted sharply with the overly class-conscious “chivalric” military systems they faced in France – encapsulating a phenomenon medieval military historian Clifford Rogers of West Point dubs the “Infantry Revolution.”

The Longbow

One cannot speak about English military innovations of the Hundred Years’ War without mentioning the weapon that is so often used as the symbol for English tactical dominance – the longbow. While far more likely the product of a gradual evolutionary development on a basic weapon form that had existed for millennia rather than a deliberate technological invention of the time, the 80 to 120 pounds draw-weight English warbow was an impressive weapon system in its own right, even by modern standards – boasting a maximum effective range of 300 yards and capable of puncturing even plate steel armors with lethal velocity within 50 yards.

However, impressive as these qualities may be, the key to English tactical success is not to be found in the weapon alone, but rather in the yeoman archers that wielded it and their men-at-arms counterparts who they supported both on campaign and in the heat of battle. Utilizing a tactical disposition that would become their calling card, English armies typically fought in formations of solid ranks of dismounted men-at-arms in the center with the archers on the flanks providing withering enfilade fires with their armor-piercing longbow arrows – making them the unquestioned masters of the tactical defensive and racking up a litany of famous victories still renowned to this day.

The reforms of Edward III would transform English armies into relatively small (5,000-6,000 men was considered the norm for the majority of the conflict), cohesive, disciplined, expeditionary teams that reliably delivered a strategic mobility and lethality that had seldom been seen before on that scale in all of Europe. Although medieval Christendom had long before seen isolated examples of determined infantry turning the tables on feudal armies comprised of knightly cavalry, the English armies of the Hundred Years’ War demonstrated the “Infantry Revolution” on a scale that would resonate within European society forever after and very likely laid the initial foundations of the military transformations that later defined the Early Modern period.

Lastly, one cannot overlook the wider effects of the English military revolution on medieval English society, politics, and even culture. The unique cohesion between the yeoman archers and their men-at-arms counterparts as well as their voluntary and contractual bonds of service with their noble commanders produced a society in which the boundaries between classes was not nearly as sharply divided from one another as in other, more traditionally feudal states in Europe at the time. In the words of Jonathan Sumption, English armies of the Hundred Years’ War became “a miniature of English provincial society projected onto the battlefields of France.”

Later, these same veterans – if they indeed chose to leave the life of professional military service, which many did not – would return to their shires and take on even more elevated roles in society, many even serving as representatives in Parliament. While certainly more infamous examples of this societal influence, there should be no real surprise that Wat Tyler and Jack Cade, ringleaders of popular uprisings in England in 1381 and 1450 respectively, had been veterans of the wars in France. This military revolution even made its impact on culture and the arts of its day – the rise of the “Robyn Hoode” mythos in the fourteenth Century, still wildly popular in our own time, can be directly tied to the yeoman archer and his pivotal military and social role, as can Geoffrey Chaucer’s touching portrait of the Knight and his faithful Yeoman archer in his timeless classic The Canterbury Tales.

Ayton, Andrew. “English Armies in the Fourteenth Century” in The Wars of Edward III. Ed. Clifford Rogers. Suffolk UK: The Boydell Press, 1999.

Rogers, Clifford J. “The Military Revolutions of the Hundred Years War” in The Military Revolution Debate. Boulder CO: Westview Press, 1995.

Sumption, Jonathan. The Hundred Years War: Trial by Fire. Vol 2. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

Wadge, Richard. Arrowstorm – The World of the Archer in the Hundred Years War. Gloucestershire, The History Press, 2007.

Capt Rand Lee Brown II is a commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps currently assigned to Marine Forces Reserve. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Military History from Norwich University with a focus on medieval warfare, Capt Brown has written on military history for a variety of forums, including the Marine Corps Gazette and Our Site.

Top Image: English archers at the Battle of Crecy – Bibliothèque nationale de France MS FR 2643, fol. 165v

Watch the video: Medieval Battles. What Went Down At The Front Lines (June 2022).


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