The high lords and king – if present – serve as the generals. There is no “leading from behind”. Nobles are expected to fight on the battlefield alongside their men. The Prince Edward of Woodstock (the Black Prince) fought on and led the front lines in the Battle of Crecy when he was only sixteen years old.
Lower-ranking lords and their knights came next. Armor was very expensive and not all knights or lords could afford a full suit of armor. Some were not even mounted. However, knights fought on foot and on horseback, so not having a horse was not too much of a hindrance.
Untrained peasants made up most of a medieval army. Some of them have never seen a weapon before or come armed with their scythes. They will have reinforced gambesons or boiled leather as their armor. That’s it. Also, they must answer their lord’s call to battle, giving you a large portion of the army that doesn’t want to be there. It’s not all bad; peasants and their lords set a maximum number of days out of the year that the peasants are required to serve. The average number of days a peasant needs to serve in the lord’s army is forty days.
Mercenaries are an important part of warfare as well. They are often bored young noblemen, dispossessed knights, or general rabble. They have seen battle before and as a result are much better trained than your average peasant. However, mercenaries were also prone to deserting a losing army, stealing, being bribed, or even attacking their own side.
- Knights – often mounted; served as the “shock” element of medieval warfare
- Pikemen – countermeasure against charging knights; first line of an army’s defense
- Archers – countermeasure against charging knights and infantry; often had to carry a shield to hide behind if fighting in a pitched battle; mostly peasants/yeomen; considered the lowest of the low by most nobles
- Infantry – mostly peasants; defended the baggage train; biggest part of the army; often served a defensive role, holding off the enemy so the knights could retreat behind friendly lines to catch their breath or organize a charge
- The king controls the whole army
- A high lord controls a “battle” or a unit of several thousand men. A typical medieval army had three to five battles. One battle could make up the entire rearguard, while another made up the vanguard, and the rest was the centre
- Within the battles were conrois, which was a group of ten to twenty related or friendly knights
- Equal in size with the conrois was the lance. A single knight controlled the lance. In the 14th century, a lance was one armored knight and several mounted archers. By the 15th century, a lance could be one armored knight, his squire, an armored sergeant, three mounted archers, a pikeman, and a handgunner.
Each subdivision of the army has its own flag, banner, sigil, or other standard. The flag was important in signaling maneuvers and stood high above the fighting to serve as a rallying point. It was also the symbol of an individual lord or nobleman. Losing the flag was considered extremely disgraceful.
Pitched battles were where two opposing sides agreed on a time and place to fight. The first thing you need to know about pitched battles is that they were extremely rare in the medieval world. In the entirety of the Hundred Years’ War, there were only three “big battles” with nobility present on both sides. The moral reason for avoiding pitched battles was religion. Most believed God would let the “righteous” side to win. While the righteous side was obvious when the Christians fought the Muslims, setting Christians against Christians muddled the matter entirely. Neither side wanted to be proved as the “evil” one. (Some Christians justified this by claiming God had inflicted a defeat against the morally righteous side merely to test their faith.)
The practical reason for avoiding pitched battles was the contemporary military doctrine. Common wisdom of the time held that capturing castles and other fortifications would lead to victory. After all, once a castle fell, the lands it owned also fell to the conquerors. Medieval warfare mostly consisted of leapfrogging from castle to castle until you or the enemy gave up
Chivalry on the battlefield demanded that knights would not sneak-attack other knights, kill helpless men even if they were the enemy, maintain all loyalties previously made, refrain from targeting a knight’s horse to bring him down, not attack an unarmored knight, accept the enemy’s surrender without inflicting further damage, and so on. Some knights took it seriously. (There is one case of a castellan surrendering his castle merely because he was impressed a certain lord was besieging him.) Most … didn’t.
Chivalry, when practiced only by one side, put the other side at a distinct advantage. Most pitched battles discarded chivalry altogether, especially the rule about not inflicting further damage after a surrender.
Archers had the worst of it. Knights hated archers because they were often peasants, and could bring down a knight while standing two hundred yards away – like a coward. Captured archers could expect no mercy. At the very least, their hands would be chopped off so they could never wield a bow again. At the worst, they served as human dummies for sword practice.
~Note: To learn more, read the fabulous book Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World, by Matthew Bennett, Jim Bradbury, Kelly DeVries, Iain Dickie, and Phyllis G. Jestice~