An Englishman at the Siege of Guînes (1558)

In January 1558, a small force of English, Spanish, and Burgundian soldiers garrisoned at Guînes castle attempted to hold off a French besieging army. Calais had fallen earlier in the year, constituting a major English defeat – Guînes was the last bastion of English power in the Pale of Calais, a region that they had held for more than two centuries. By 1558 the Hapsburg-Valois War (1551-1559) saw the English, under the reign of Phillip II of Spain and Mary I, once again drawn into conflict with their longstanding rivals from across the channel. Amongst the soldiers garrisoned at Guînes was the young soldier-poet Thomas Churchyard.[i] His defence of the town was recorded in his 1579 General Reheresal of Warre or Churchyard’s Choise, a collection of military accounts and memoirs from the past four decades that showcased exemplary English military conduct.[ii] Churchyard’s Choise contributed to a burgeoning genre of printed military news, treatises, and histories, an industry that was largely restricted to London due to overarching state regulation.[iii] Thus, Paternoster Row and St Paul’s Churchyard became a hub of commercial activity which sated a public appetite for literary consumption. Churchyard’s 1579 account of his service at Guînes provides an insight into how contemporary reports of war could be contested within London’s literary milieu and sheds light on how a culture obsessed with honour and reputation came to terms with defeat and surrender.         

Anonymous, Siege of Guînes (1558), depicting encampments and French forces breaching the walls, The Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 721026.

The Siege

The loss of Calais and Guînes was a devastating blow to English strategic interests on the continent and was felt more widely in popular culture. Churchyard begins his account by acknowledging that the defeat was still being discussed despite occurring over twenty years prior: ‘by some fortune or misshape (let the blame faule where it ought) we lost Callice, and Gines … sondrie reports hath been raised thereof, by those that never knewe, or understood the matter’. Churchyard’s motivations are clear, he sought to challenge contemporary accounts and revise the narrative surrounding the loss of Guînes, presenting the English surrender in a more favourable light. Amending the story of this famous English defeat served to further Churchyard’s own sense of honour, whilst bolstering the image of the English military. His account would show the ‘verie trothe’ of the matter, his own martial experience thus imparting greater veracity and credibility.

Anonymous, A View of the Keep and Part of the Walls of the Castle of Guines, France (1540?) The British Library, Cotton Augustus I.ii.f.12.

Churchyard discusses his own role in the defence of Guînes with a distinctly rich level of detail.[iv] He makes it clear that the English were proactive and took the fight to the French, meeting the initial enemy probe with ‘a hotte and stout skirmish’. In one successful ambush he managed to take prisoners and even acquired ‘a couple of faire horses’ from a contingent of French soldiers ‘that came from the spoil of Callice’ – a hollow reprisal. The English were eventually forced back to the castle under increasingly heavy ‘great canon’ fire. At this point the account appears vivid in its reports of casualties. Commander Harry Palmer had his leg broken by shot, a wound he would later die of, and ‘master Waikes’ had his head taken off by shot whilst ‘slepyng vnder a greate tree’, a fate shared by Churchyard’s captain. He paints a picture of utter carnage and destruction in which his men are being indiscriminately killed and maimed by modern weapons of war; the level of detail and palpable sense of peril serves to illustrate the hardships endured by the garrison.

Anonymous, A Coloured Plan of “the towne and castle of Guynes” (1541), The British Library, Cotton Augustus I.ii.f.23.

A series of French assaults ensued and Churchyard places himself at the centre of the narrative. The defenders take heavy losses and Churchyard is hit: ‘Captain Lambert was crossed with a greate shot, and myne arnour with the breaking of a greate peece, was stricken flat vpon my bodie, but being unbraced I might continue the service’.[v] The initial assault is repelled, despite the garrison being heavily outnumbered, and Churchyard comments on how the assault was ‘so terribly handled by the Frenche’. Further assaults continue ‘into the very darcke night, with as much crueltie as could be devised’. The French are depicted as a hoard, unskilled but numerous, whilst the English are depicted as well-drilled and motivated yet hopelessly outnumbered:

‘alwaies when the enemies first men did wax feeble with labour, there was a seconde and newe relief of fresh bandes to continue the assault … it seemed by the fight the bloodie broile hath no ende, nor season to take breath in’.[vi]

The French eventually took the castle court and sent two thousand men to attack the isolated bulwark. The defenders were forced to leap into the dikes below or face certain death, whilst Churchyard and a few of his men managed to escape to the remaining fortified positions. Terms of surrender began to be discussed.   

Richard Lee, The Town and Harbour of Calais (1535), The British Library, Cotton Augustus I.ii f.70.

The Surrender

Churchyard once again places himself at the centre of these negotiations. He states that he was chosen by the captains to parley with the French commanders, a task that involved a perilous journey to the French camp: ‘I must wade over water in which lay  … great bordes, full of long spikes of iron … I was taught daintily to tread’.[vii] The French took pot-shots at him in the dark, yet he arrived safely. Churchyard defiantly addressed the French command, expressing his desire that his men be permitted to retreat orderly with ‘bag and baggage’, retaining the valuables that the French sought to loot: ‘our soldiers had sworne, rather to dye in their defence, then not to marche awaie like men of warr’. The Duke of Guise remined Churchyard of his hopeless position: ‘there was no hope to be had, but to become all captives and prisoners of the French king: not so sir, I answered, and that should the nexte assault make trial thereof’. Seemingly moved by Churchyard’s determination, the French nobles agreed to his terms on the condition that the officers would become prisoners. The besieging troops became furious when hearing the news, threatening to cut Churchyard’s throat if the castle was not yielded and attempted to breach the castle gate. Order was restored and Churchyard describes the fate of his men:

‘looke what promesse Mounsier Degwise made, it was so well kept and obserued, that our soldiours marched awaie with all their wealthe, money, and weapons: and greate wealth was by them borne from Gines … the bandes that parted either sicke or sounde, hurte or whole, were honestly conueighed, and truely dealte withal.’

The surrender itself is presented positively, the English common soldiers walked away with their weapons and wealth as if they were victors. The officers are imprisoned yet treated respectably, whilst Churchyard commends the honour of Guise as a worthy foe.[viii] He stresses the distinguished military service of the English and their allies, stating that the English took 800 casualties whilst ‘the enemie confessed that thei had loste over fower thousand’.  Churchyard ends his account by revising contemporary reports of the defeat:

‘I think our peace was not so dishonourable, as some reporte: for succour had wee no hope of: the next assault had overthrowen … we lost eight hundredth men, in these assaultes and services, which did their dutie so well’.

Front of Thomas Churchyard, A generall rehearsall of warres (London, 1579), printed by Edward White ‘dwelling at the little North-doore of S. Paules Churche, at the figure of the Gunne’.

Concluding Remarks

Churchyard’s account provides the modern reader with an insight into the world of Elizabethan martial culture. We see Churchyard attempting to preserve his own sense of honour whilst describing a difficult moment in his military career, one which he describes as an ‘uncomfortable discourse’. He places himself at the heart of the events and shifts the focus of the account onto the hardships that he and his men endured, the stout defence they put up, the military superiority of the English, the insurmountable odds against them, and eventually the intransigent negotiating that saved his men’s honour. Within Churchyard’s writing, we can observe a genuine admiration for the service of his comrades and a lamentation on those that were killed, yet we also detect pride in his determination to refute the reports that had been circulating in London concerning the defeat. Churchyard may have lost Guînes in 1558, yet in London he was still battling for his honour over twenty years later.

Cite this article as: Michael E. Broughton, "An Englishman at the Siege of Guînes (1558)," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 17/04/2022,

[i] For the life and works of Thomas Churchyard, and particularly his analysis of the Siege of Guînes, see Matthew Woodcock, Thomas Churchyard: Pen, Sword, and Ego (Oxford, 2016), pp.101-105.

[ii] Thomas Churchyard, A generall rehearsall of warres, called Churchyardes choise wherein is fiue hundred seuerall seruices of land and sea as seiges, battailes, skirmiches, and encounters … (London, 1579)

[iii] During this period the Stationers’ Company regulated the printing industry and permitted presses to be operated in London, as well as the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. See, Cyprian Blagden, The Stationers Company: A History, 1403-1959 (London, 1960)

[iv] Churchyard’s account reads more like the genre of military memoir in contrast to the more terse or matter-of-fact reports that litter Churchyard’s Choise, a feature noted by Matthew Woodcock, Pen, Sword, and Ego, p.102.


[vi] A common trope in contemporary English military literature, the small size of English expeditionary forces and the theme of ‘God’s will’ or ‘righteous cause’ overwhelming a numerically superior enemy feature heavily in Churchyard’s Choise.

[vii] Matthew Woodcock has noted that the account of the negotiations of surrender at Guînes is presented differently in both Richard Grafton’s Chronicle at large (1559) and the account of Arthur Grey, son of Lord Grey, commander of the Guînes garrison. Woodcock notes that Churchyard replaces Grey as the heroic negotiator, Pen, Sword, and Ego, p.104.   

[viii] Churchyard treats nobility with exceptional reverence in Churchyard’s Choise. His descriptions of nobles, whether friend or foe, are often complimentary and he reports honourable deeds done by them in and off the field of battle. This courtesy even extends to the notorious Spanish general the Duke of Alva, who Churchyard commends as trustworthy and ‘faithfull’ in his dealings with William Morgan.

How Common Men Shall Be Armed: Equipment of the Common Soldier of England 1450 to 1500

By the second half of the fifteenth century, the martial equipment of the elite class of England was as impressive as it was encompassing. Enclosed in an expertly wrought suit of plate armour from head to toe the knight had never been so well defended. We have a fairly in-depth view of the types of equipment available to the elite warriors of this day as there are several complete harnesses remaining in collections such as those of Mantova and Churburg in Italy, and from a plethora of documentation such as the Hastings Manuscript f. 122b. In this manuscript, the author describes in great detail the armour and supplementary equipment needed to equip a man-at-arms, not only from head to toe but also in sequence. While the elite warrior of the day has been the focus of much research the common soldier typically gains less attention. Perhaps this is due to the rather simple equipment they utilized compared to the much more complex systems of armour that developed for the elite. As well much of the arms of common troops must have been used until its eventual disposal. While the man-at-arms was a crucial part of later medieval warfare other soldiers shared in the burden of war.

English military organization went through major developments throughout the late medieval period. The retinue system came to replace the outdated feudal summons of English knights and other soldiers with a more efficient system of contracted service allowing the king to create armies of soldiers that would fit his needs. While the feudal summons was relegated to near abandonment in England, the old system of the general levy and the more streamlined version of the Commission of Array continued to be used to create the bulk of many English armies. In this article, the martial equipment of commoners of 1450 to 1500 will be examined and the capacity they fulfilled. It will be divided between commoners as levied men by both rural and urban accounts, and last by exploring the types of equipment and soldiers that were used by men in a retinue of a great magnate. By looking at these three areas of recruitment a more complete view of how these common soldiers would have been armed can be made.

The Levy

The General Levy and Commission of Array all go back to the same concept. The right of the English king to demand military service from his male population was an ancient custom by the later medieval period, with evidence of this dating from Anglo-Saxon England and centuries before.[1] In 1495 Henry VII reasserted this right and stated that all men were required to be able to do service if required.[2] He also required that all men be adequately armed and armored to do this service.[3] This was nothing new; from the reign of Edward I on to his grandson Edward III’s reign increasingly heavier demands were required for the arms and armor the men of their kingdom possessed.[4] The use of commoners as soldiers had remained a mainstay through the entire medieval period and continued to be such into early modern times, in many ways intensifying. The king expected the men to be equipped for war but as revealed below the actual items used varied immensely.


Towns were a common recipient of demands for soldiers by the king. They also were charged to maintain their own martial forces, ready, and equipped. A review of such a force exists from the Town of Southampton in 1488. The Southampton Book of Fines 1488 to 1540 sheds light on the types of soldiers and equipment provided by townsmen.[5] This entry from the late fifteenth century is a summary of men present in total, troop types they represent, and their armaments, presumably for fines issued for men not present or lacking such equipment. Unfortunately, the opening page is now difficult to read, but that which is legible shows a large number of soldiers and martial equipment was indeed present in Southampton at that date.

The civic soldiers presented at the time are listed as 150 archers, 295 billmen, and 2 pikemen.[6] There is a possible addition that is hard to make out that appears to be gunners, which would add 17 gunners to the tally. This seems probable as the four wards listed have 120, 119, 75, and 156 men listed respectively, totaling some 470 people, and when listed by troop type there are 464 men listed. With the numbers matching so closely, the addition of 17 gunners seems to fit into the total numbers nicely. That said, traditionally in Southampton, there was a fifth ward which would indicate that these numbers were actually higher than recorded.

Fig. 1: © British Library Board. London, The British Library, The Holkham Bible 1327-1335, Additional 47682 f. 40.

Along with these categories of soldiers and the number of men per ward, there are a number of items listed. These include habergeons, harnesses, jacks, bills, pikes, handguns, and half pikes. Of these most are clear enough to make out with certainty: 23 habergeons, 162 harnesses, 9 jacks, 134 bows, and 120 pikes. The numbers of bills, handguns, and half pikes are difficult to make out entirely. There appear to be at least 200 bills and around 10 handguns, sadly half pikes are simply illegible. In all cases, there are more men listed in the specific soldier category than arms, except for pikes which may make up for the discrepancy with only 2 pikemen and 120 pikes.As well, there is a category under equipment that is difficult to identify though there are 107 of them. If the current trends in such reviews are in common, then they are perhaps sallets as it is an item consistently found in such documents, but conspicuously missing from this one. At times sallets may be included under harnesses as well, which is another possibility.

There are several phenomena that can be seen here. First, a rather large number of the men present had some form of arms. As far as we can ascertain all men could be provided with a weapon. As well many were armored, at least 42% having some form of armour, mostly ‘harnesses.’ Lastly, if archery was still of importance to English armies Southampton has a rather small proportion of them with only roughly a third being archers. This document, while difficult to decipher, indicates a large number of men largely readied for war with both arms, and to a lesser extent, armour demonstrating what may have been present in the town in the late fifteenth century.

There are some other variables to consider as well. There is significant evidence that the town of Southampton owned arms and armour to equip their townsmen. The steward’s inventory in 1468 lists one linen banner with the king’s arms, another unidentified, three old poleaxes, six lead mallets, five pavises, and rusty, broken harnesses.[7] Not only do we have a list of objects but specific examples of such objects being lent out. John Payn of Southampton bought several brigandines in 1470 for the town armoury.[8] In 1481 the town paid to have three loads of weapons brought from Christopher Ambroise’s house for town use.[9] In March 1484, Henry Brathwayte, one of the collectors of the king’s customs, borrowed a pair of brigandines from town.[10] On the last day of March, Robert Wilson was loaned a pair of brigandines and a sallet.[11] So in addition to the equipment personally possessed by the townsmen from the 1488 review, they also would have been reinforced with equipment from the town which would improve the numbers above.

While these documents are useful to see general arms and types of soldiers provided by urban bodies, individual inventories can give an enhanced view of the types of equipment owned by a single citizen-soldier. York was another important city of England and a frequent provider of soldiers for the armies of the king. We have an excellent source for the types of arms and armour of the men of York in the form of the Probate Inventories of the York Diocese.

From this document, the types of arms and armour the citizens of York possessed are demonstrated. The inventories range from the Archbishop of York, William Bothe, who died in 1464 and owned a fairly large cache of arms and armour, to those with arms only sufficient for themselves such as Thomas Kirkeby. From a total of fifteen inventories which included arms, seven have supplies of arrows but only four have bows. There were fifteen axes present, five swords listed, four knives, and two baselards. Of pole weapons eight bills and two pikes were reported. Regarding defensive armour, there were two bucklers and one shield, nine men had jacks, and seven had sallets. Only two men, Robert Fawcett and John Carter, had any plate armour outside a helmet listed and these were elbow defenses for Robert and a pair of splints for John. With the civic promotion of all men having sallets and jacks, it is surprising that about a third of these accounts lack jacks and half lack sallets.

Fig. 2: © British Library Board. London, The British Library, The Holkham Bible 1327-1335, Additional 47682 f. 29.

Upon looking at these specific examples a few trends are drawn into focus. Few were as heavily armed as a man-at-arms, with most owning little or no plate armour. This is curious compared to Southampton, which had far more harnesses, presumably of plate of some type as their review included both mail and jacks. As well, the lack of sallets in both York and Southampton is interesting as the head is so vulnerable. This may be due to the small sample size of York’s accounts. As for Southampton, as the document is difficult to read we cannot be certain if sallets were originally listed or not. One deduction is that some citizen-soldiers possessed more arms than they could use themselves.

The leading example of a man with far more martial equipment than could be used personally would be William Bothe, Archbishop of York: fourteen jacks, thirty-seven sallets, eighteen handguns, and twenty sheaves of arrows (c.480 arrows).[12] But his was not an isolated case. Robert Fawcette, a pewterer, had a bill, a Carlisle axe, two swords, a variety of arrows, a black quiver with various arrows, seven broad head arrows, a pair of plate elbow defences, doublet, yellow staff, and a shield.[13] Thomas Vicar possessed three axes, two slaughtering axes, an iron pike, and a bill.[14] Richard Symson is reported to have had five old battle axes, three Normandy bills, two broken bills, and an old worn sallet.[15] John Stubbes, a barber, had two bows, and arrows for them.[16] These men possessed more equipment than could possibly have been used by an individual. The Archbishop alone could have armed all the people included in these probate inventories with his jacks, sallets, guns, and arrows. Yet even men of lesser means such as Robert, Thomas, Richard, and John had enough weapons to provide for themselves in a fashion as well as others. Thomas Vivar with a total of five axes, a pike, and bill, or Richard Symson with five axes and five bills, could have provided arms for a half dozen men or more each. And even though bows are lacking in number it is probable archery still played a major part of the town’s military activity as about half the people of these fifteen had archery equipment, especially arrows.

Most men seemed to have had arms largely for themselves. Jack Carter is an excellent example of a man who seems to have been equipped as an individual. Jack Carter, a tailor by trade, had a jack, doublet, sallet, pair of splints, a dagger, baselard, sword, arrows, and a bow maker (a tool to bend the bow used in the shaping process).[17] We see several other examples of men with equipment for themselves including Thomas Kirkeby with a bow, arrows, and jack[18]; John Gaythird, a husbandman, with an axe and bill[19]; John Jakson, a husbandman, with sallet, bow, dozen arrows, Carlisle axe, and pike staff [20]; John Jackson, son of John a husbandman, with jack, bow, and arrows[21]; William Gale owned a sword, jack, and buckler[22]; John Brown with three knives, two battle axes, doublet, and sallet[23]; Jacubus Lune had a sword, buckler, and sallet[24]; Thomas Symson, a parson, had a doublet, sword, and small baselard[25]; and John Stevynson a jack and Sallet[26]. Although no doubt there is a wide variety of equipment owned by these men, these inventories paint a picture of how a common man might have been armed for war.

We can gain further information by examining some of York’s civic documents. York not only enforced the king’s demands for the proper armaments of war but created their own as well.[27] In one example, the minimal required arms and armour are set forth as, “All men in wards should have a jak, salet, bow, arrows and other defensive weapons.”[28] Although rules were created, we don’t know how well the town abided by them. Sadly, we have no muster from this period but we do have other information. With a larger sample of townsmen, the general trends found above might change substantially, but given the information available, the individual townspeople and their inventories give some idea as to how they may have been equipped at least minimally. As we saw before in Southampton, York also helped to equip their troops.[29]


From the villages of England came many thousands of soldiers throughout this period. As the bulk of the population of most European states was rural, it was an invaluable resource for the masses that would fill the ranks of medieval armies. Employed here are two examples of men that would have been raised in this manner. The first is from 1457 at Bridgeport, Dorset County, and the second from c. 1480 in Ewelme, Oxfordshire. Here can be seen the types of soldiers, probable equipment and trends relating to commoners from rural environments of this time.

As Dr. Richardson points out the Bridgeport muster was in response to a commission of array originally ordered in 1453-1454.[30] The muster of Bridgeport included 201 people though not all are legible. Of the 201, some 119 have equipment listed, though 82 have nothing listed. Offensive equipment listed comprises 114 bows, many arrows, 69 swords, 64 daggers, 11 glaives, 10 pollaxes, 10 axes, 5 spears, 3 bills, 3 heavy maces, 2 staves, and 1 hanger. Defensive equipment included 74 sallets, 67 jacks, 27 bucklers, 23 pavises, 4 pairs of gauntlets, 3 mail shirts, 2 brigandines, 2 complete armours, 1 set of leg armour, and 1 cuirass.[31] Of the 119 that appear, it is apparent that some were well-equipped and others had more modest protection.

A few examples demonstrate how a man from the rural environs of England may have appeared. John Cye had come to the muster well provided for with a jack, sallet, sword, dagger, glaive, bow, and two sheaves of arrows. One unknown man brought a full suit of armour with two jacks, two sallets, two bows, two daggers, and two sheaves of arrows.[32] Here it is probable that he was either bringing an extra in case his bow broke or to provide for another man arrayed alongside him.

Several points should be made examining this, first that many had no equipment. Out of 201, 82 were unequipped at all, fully 40% of the men present. Only a third had jacks and 37% had sallets. It is possible that the arrayers would have been required to outfit them for conflict though. A second assertion is that even though there was a great degree of variation, from no equipment to fully equipped, archery was of great importance. There were 114 bows from the 119 armed men present, enough to equip 95% of them with arms and 60% of the total number. Perhaps the most surprising finding is the lack of pole weapons, especially bills with only three.

From the review of arms of Ewelme in Oxfordshire and several surrounding villages in 1480, we can see another such example. The listing of men (including constables) includes about 100 men. Of these, we can only assess the armaments of 30  by looking at their designation of archers or billmen. Of these thirty men, eighteen were archers, six were billmen, five had staves and one had an axe. As the majority of the entries simply state ‘men,’ it is probable that archers, billmen, and other soldiers make up this group of unidentified commoners. If the pattern for these 30 men carried over, the unaccounted 70 men were mostly archers. From this muster, as before, we can see the continued focus on archery. Of the 30 men where details are given fully 60% are archers. And of the total group there are listed 46 in harness. With 46% with some armour, this is actually one of the higher percentages of armored men we have examined here between the urban and rural men raised.

This muster is vague in details of the equipment and the types of soldiers provided for most entries. Even the term ‘harness’ is complicated as some are listed as full harnesses in the first entries, but the latter are simply stated as harnesses, present or not. One example from this muster is Richard Slythurst who has a harness and a bow, and another being John Holme with a ‘hole’(whole) harness and a bill. An obvious question raised by this is: what is the difference between a ‘harness’ and a ‘whole harness’ in this document? We can assume a whole harness is more complete protection than simply a ‘harness’ but to what standard? A full plate harness? Head-to-toe protection of textile and iron elements combined? What does that mean of those listed with simply a harness then? Does that include a jack and sallet, or a brigandine and/or jack and sallet? As most simply are listed as to whether their harness is present or not, what do these 46 people actually have as far as armour? So while the document provides excellent information on the types and proportions of troops raised and some of their equipment, there are still a number of unanswered questions.

One other interesting example of the types of equipment common soldiers may have possessed is from a rebellion in the mid-fifteenth century. During the Jack Cade rebellion of 1451 in the Southeast of England, thousands of commoners rose up against the government. Following years of loss in the Hundred Years War, including all English possessions in France but parts of Gascony and Calais, people in several counties in the Southeast began attacking various targets, especially those with links to unpopular government offices. A number of royal records account for these attacks and in addition to  numbers and at times names of men listed as assailants their equipment is often listed as well. One account from this event in Kent states the men were, “armed with staves, bows, arrows, shirts of mail, defensive doublets, battle-axes, briganders, scythes, salets, iron caps, longbills (longis rostris) and other arms”[33] and “swords, ‘jakkes,’ salets, bows and arrows.”[34] Another account from Essex states perhaps summarily that the assailants were “armed with swords, staves, bows, arrows, jakkes and palets,”[35] From such a document we can see a large variety and some of the types of weapons and armour that had disseminated amongst commoners from the beginning of the second half of the fifteenth century. Although the percentages of troop types are not available, this is still palpable evidence that these citizen soldiers were present and armed as listed above.

The Retinue

Retinues were the other major method of raising troops for English kings of the later medieval period. For offensive actions, the retinue was a very valuable means for the king to raise a specific number of soldiers or desired varieties for a specific duration of time. In these contracts, it is clear the king expected these men to be well-armed and armored, which would provide better-equipped troops. Retinues could range from a few archers and the contracted knight or man-at-arms, to archers numbering in the hundreds or more. Larger retinues were often made up of smaller retinues merging into larger ones. A good example of this is from the campaign of 1475.

George, Duke of Clarence, brother to King Edward IV had one of the largest retinues of the campaign to France in 1475. It incorporated some 120 men-at-arms and 1000 archers.[36] This force was made of smaller units under contract to the Duke of Clarence. One such example was John Archer, esquire. On February 28, 1475, he contracted to serve George, Duke of Clarence, with himself as a man-at-arms and provide three archers. These four men made up John’s retinue and many of these smaller groups together created the 120 men-at-arms and 1000 archers. Something also of interest is that it is stated in the indenture that the archers would be “wele and suffisantly abled, armed and araied.”[37] The strong emphasis on archery remains constant but also provides the means to create such large forces with higher percentages of better equipped men by contract.

One excellent document to see the types of equipment that such men in these retinues may have been equipped with is the Howard House Books. This collection is the accounts of John Howard, Duke of Norfolk and Lord Admiral of England. Jacks, brigandines, sheaves upon sheaves of arrows, sallets, bows, knives, swords, spears, bills, doublets de fence, mail standards, cuirasses, harnesses, arm armour, gorgets (of steel), greaves, bolts for crossbows, guns, pavises, darts, and other objects show up in Howard’s accounts.[38] Many of these are in large volumes, sallets, brigandines, standards of mail, jacks, bows, and sheaves of arrows being found in the dozens in the ledgers. One entry lists three chests of arrows alone.[39]

It is evident Howard equipped his retainers for his service with these armaments. In 1463-1464 there are a few interesting examples of this process. In one instance there is the provision of ten bows along with twenty sheaves of arrows for his armed retainers. At the same time, John Strawenge is given a brigandine, a standard of mail, a bow, and a sallet with a visor, more or less fully equipping him. One Throston Par is lent a jack, brigandine, and a sallet with visor.[40] Will Hervy received a doublet of fence but already owned his own sallet with visor so he did not need to borrow that equipment.[41] As well the author of the entries includes whether they are on their own horse or not, indicating the duke often has to provide horses. As can be seen, the great magnates of the land could equip many troops at need but it appears to have been to supplement items the retinue soldiers lacked to become ”wele and suffisantly abled, armed and araied” as seen above. Archery once again has a great focus for retinues of the period in these examples. It also appears that the retinues were indeed better equipped than their levied counterparts, for the most part having a higher percentage of well-equipped men to urban or civic soldiers, though in many of these cases lent by the contract captain.


Several phenomena can be seen from these various examples. One is that there were many sources of soldiers available for English kings and nobles. Kings could draw upon towns, villages, and lords to raise armies for their various needs but that does not mean they were all equal in quality. This inequality probably would lead to utilizing soldiers by specific troop type.

From these few examples, archers are obviously important but not overwhelmingly so in all cases. The Southampton review of 1488 shows of the total men present only around a third are archers. While perhaps not indicative of all English towns, Southampton’s proportion of archers compared to the rural musters is a major difference, with roughly half what the Bridgeport and Ewelme had, proportionately. Additionally, the retinues of 1475 also greatly favor archers, with John Archer’s retinue being 75% archers, and that of George Duke of Clarence’s being 88% archers. That said it has been argued that the campaign of 1475 was not characteristic of warfare in the last decades of the fifteenth century. However, we have evidence when reviewing Lord Howard’s accounts that archers made up a large part of the common soldiers in retinues well into the end of the fifteenth century.

What is perhaps surprising is the lack of larger numbers of men with pole/staff weapons in rural environs. In towns such as Southampton and York, pole weapons appear commonly among the examples above, around two-thirds of the Southampton examples being billmen. At Bridgeport, the total staff weapons (bills, spears, pole axes, and more) made up only 10% of the total weapons present. The Ewelme muster indicates roughly a third had pole weapons. Retinues archers do seem of great importance but there are also a number of bills and spears that appear so it is probable that some men of the retinues fought as non-missile infantry troops.

Another consideration is the equipment these men possessed. As far as documented men in harness, the 100 of Ewelwe are the best armoured of those levied with 46%, though by comparison it appears Southampton and Bridgeport were not far behind. While this holds true for armour, Southampton by far has the most arms present numerically, by the percentage they are roughly the same as Bridgeport. With Ewelme we have no finite number. In all cases, arms matched or came close to the number of men present, though many men owned more than one weapon. That said the information from the retinues above indicates all men were expected to be armoured and armed in actuality, not just theory, which indicates that the retinues would have provided a significant number of well-armoured soldiers. Men such as John Strawenge, Throston Par, and Will Hervy were armed with weapons and armour to be well suited for the war of the day. In all these cases there probably were sufficient weapons for all present, though armour seemed to have been lacking for a significant number of the non-retinued soldiers especially. It is worth adding though that the captain they took a contract with did much in providing their military equipment to be fully armed. It is possible that the town and counties provided some degree of equipment to the levied soldiers as well. Though it is unclear how well these levied soldiers were arrayed by the town or county, we have indisputable evidence for retinues of the great lords being very well equipped in this fashion.

One of the most interesting aspects of this research has been seeing the types of equipment commoners owned or were able to access. We can see that men that were from urban or rural levies or in retinues all might possess similar types of armour and arms. Bows, bills, axes pikes, swords, daggers, and other arms seem to have been ‘common’ weapons for ‘common’ soldiers. While it appears to be more common for men in retinues to have been better equipped, men like Jack Carter from York, John Holme of Ewelme, and others could be well-armed and equipped with arms and armour. It is also apparent that some were like the 82 from the Bridgeport Muster, men like Thomas Chere, who showed up with no equipment at all. So in the end, one could be from a retinue or levy and be armed well or even very well, but on the other end of the spectrum, a retinue soldier would be equipped with some form of armour while those of the levied men may not have had any at all.

While commoners often are looked at as being unimportant or a simple rabble of poor, this research shows that is an overly simplistic view. Although there may have been some that closely fit the stereotype of a peasant with torch and pitchfork, there were others that were very much equipped with arms and armour that would have been satisfactory for their required duties. As thousands upon thousands of the soldiers that made up armies from 1450-1500 in England were from this social group and played a vital role in wars, it is well that most were adequately prepared.

Cite this article as: randallpmoffett, "How Common Men Shall Be Armed: Equipment of the Common Soldier of England 1450 to 1500," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 01/10/2021,

Recommended Bibliography:

Claude Blair, European armour, circa 1066 to circa 1700 (London: Cambridge Press, 1958)

Peter M. Konieczny ,”London’s war effort during the early years of the reign of Edward III “, in The Hundred Years War : a wider focus, ed. Andrew Villalon and Donald Kagay  (Boston: Brill, 2005) pp. 243-61 (pp. 244-248).

Clifford J. Rogers, Soldiers’ Lives through History: The Middle Ages (Santa Barbara: Greenwood Press, 2007)

Thom Richardson, “The introduction of plate armour in medieval Europe”, in Medieval Warfare 1300–1450 , ed. Kelly DeVries (London: Routledge, 2010) pp. 441-46 (pp. 441-43).

Thom Richardson, The Tower Armoury in the Fourteenth Century (Leeds: Royal Armouries, 2018)

[1] Calendar of Close Rolls of Edward I 1288-1296, p. 439; Calendar of Close Rolls of Edward I 1296-1302, pp. 112, 388 and 395; Calendar of Close Rolls of Edward I 1302-1307, p. 86; Calendar of Close Rolls of Edward II 1313-1318, pp. 122 and 201; Calendar of Patent Rolls of Edward II 1324-1327, p. 219; Calendar of Close Rolls of Edward III 1343-1346, p. 450; Calendar of Patent Rolls of Edward III 1343-1345, p. 427; Statutes of the Realm volume 1 ( London: 1963), p. 259.

[2] Statute of the Realms volume 1, p. 336.

[3] York House Books volume 1, ed. by Lorraine Attreed (Avon, 1991), p. 381.

[4] Calendar of Close Rolls of Edward I 1288-1296, p. 439; Calendar of Close Rolls of Edward I 1296-1302, p. 112, 388, 395; Calendar of Close Rolls of Edward I 1302-1307, p. 86.

[5] Southampton Books of Fines, 1488-1540, SCA 5/1, f. 1 and The Book of Fines: The Annual Accounts of the Mayors of Southampton, vol. 1 1488-1540, ed. by Cheryl Butler, Southampton Record Series 41 (Southampton: 2007). 

[6] Unfortunately the number of archers listed is very difficult to read. Over the years I have looked this manuscript page over many times and am fairly confident there are three letters, the first being C and the last L. The middle is very hard to decipher as it is nearly non-existent under special lights or with digital manipulation. Thought if I, V or X it changes the number very little if it were a C it would be far more significant. It may be there that were no other letters and that it is simply CL. Cheryl Butler thought they were two X’s but with the UV lights I am fairly confident the letters are C?L.

[7] Steward’s Book of Southampton 1467-1468, ed. by Berry N.D. Chinchen (Eastleigh), p. 34.

[8] Steward’s Book of Southampton 1470-1471, ed. by Berry N.D. Chinchen (Eastleigh), p. 1.

[9] Steward’s Book of Southampton 1481-1482, ed. by Berry N.D. Chinchen (Eastleigh), p. 19.

[10] The Books of Remembrance of Southampton 1485-1563 vol. 3, ed. by Harry W. Gidden, Southampton Record Society 30 (Southampton: 1930), p.3.

[11] Ibid, p.3.

[12] The Probate Inventories of the York Diocese, ed. byP.M. Stell and L. Hampson (York, 1998), p 133.

[13] Probate Inventories, pp. 58, 129 & 130.

[14] Probate Inventories, p. 101

[15] Probate Inventories, pp. 181-182.

[16] Probate Inventories, p. 97.

[17] Probate Inventories, p. 160.

[18] Probate Inventories, p. 157.

[19] Probate Inventories, p. 180.

[20] Probate Inventories, p. 134.

[21] Probate Inventories, p. 135.

[22] Probate Inventories, pp. 143-144.

[23] Probate Inventories, p. 147

[24] Probate Inventories, p. 168.

[25] Probate Inventories, p. 177.

[26] Probate Inventories, p. 186.

[27] L. Attreed, House Books I, p. 381.

[28] L. Attreed, House Books II, p. 662.

[29] L. Attreed, House Books II, pp. 551 and 662.

[30] Thom, Richardson, “The Bridgeport Muster of 1457”, Royal Armouries Yearbook 2 (1997)p. 1. Thom Richardson’s translation of the Bridgeport muster provides the most current version of this document.

[31] T. Richardson, “Bridgeport”, p. 1.

[32] T. Richardson, “Bridgeport”, p. 2.

[33] Calendar of Patent Rolls of Henry VI 1446-1452,  p. 453.

[34] Calendar of Patent Rolls of Henry VI 1446-1452, p. 469.

[35] Calendar of Patent Rolls of Henry VI 1446-1452,  p. 503.

[36] M.A. Hicks, Bastard Feudalism (New York:1995), p. 190

[37] ER 3/667, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

[38] Howard House Books: The Household Books of John Howard 1425-1485, Volumes 1 and 2, ed. by Anne Crawford (Avon: 1992).

[39] Howard House Book vol 1, p. 440.

[40] Howard House Books vol 1, p. 195.

[41] Howard House Books vol. 1, p. 444.


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