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Routiers (French:  [ʁutje] ) were mercenary soldiers of the Middle Ages. Their particular distinction from other paid soldiers of the time was that they were organised into bands or routes. [1] The term is first used in the 12th century but is particularly associated with free companies who terrorised the French countryside during the Hundred Years' War.

Mercenary soldier who fights for hire

A mercenary is an individual who is hired to take part in a conflict but is not part of an army or other-governmental organisation. Mercenaries fight for money or other forms payment rather than for political interests. In the last century, mercenaries have increasingly come to be seen as less entitled to protections by rules of war than non-mercenaries. Indeed, the Geneva Conventions declare that mercenaries are not recognized as legitimate combatants and do not have to be granted the same legal protections as captured soldiers of a regular army. In practice, whether or not a person is a mercenary may be a matter of degree, as financial and political interests may overlap, as was often the case among Italian condottieri.

Middle Ages Period of European history from the 5th through the 15th centuries

In the history of Europe, the Middle Ages lasted from the 5th to the 15th century. It began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and merged into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The Middle Ages is the middle period of the three traditional divisions of Western history: classical antiquity, the medieval period, and the modern period. The medieval period is itself subdivided into the Early, High, and Late Middle Ages.

Hundred Years War Series of conflicts and wars between England and France during the 14th and 15th-century

The Hundred Years' War was a series of conflicts waged from 1337 to 1453 by the House of Plantagenet, rulers of the Kingdom of England, against the French House of Valois, over the right to rule the Kingdom of France. Each side drew many allies into the war. It was one of the most notable conflicts of the Middle Ages, in which five generations of kings from two rival dynasties fought for the throne of the largest kingdom in Western Europe. The war marked both the height of chivalry and its subsequent decline, and the development of strong national identities in both countries.


Routiers of the 12th and 13th centuries

Although paid soldiers were known before the 12th century, the phenomenon of distinct bands (German Rotten, French routes) of mercenary soldiers, often mainly footsoldiers (spearmen, slingers, javelineers, archers and crossbowmen), appears to date from the mid 12th century. [2] Exactly what distinguishes these mercenaries from simple paid soldiers is disputed by scholars but common elements include fighting for profit (as opposed to other reasons such as fealty or faith) and a "foreignness" of coming from a different geographical area to that in which they were fighting. [3] Numerous different terms were used for these troops, some geographical (e.g. Brabançons from Brabant, Aragones from Aragon, Bascoli from the Basque country) and other nicknames (e.g. cotereaux or cotereli, perhaps from the knife they carried).

Duchy of Brabant State of the Holy Roman Empire

The Duchy of Brabant was a State of the Holy Roman Empire established in 1183. It developed from the Landgraviate of Brabant and formed the heart of the historic Low Countries, part of the Burgundian Netherlands from 1430 and of the Habsburg Netherlands from 1482, until it was partitioned after the Dutch revolt.

Aragon Autonomous community of Spain

Aragon is an autonomous community in Spain, coextensive with the medieval Kingdom of Aragon. Located in northeastern Spain, the Aragonese autonomous community comprises three provinces : Huesca, Zaragoza, and Teruel. Its capital is Zaragoza. The current Statute of Autonomy declares Aragon a historic nationality of Spain.

Basque Country (greater region) cultural and historic land of the Basque people

The Basque Country is the name given to the home of the Basque people. The Basque country is located in the western Pyrenees, straddling the border between France and Spain on the coast of the Bay of Biscay. Euskal Herria is the oldest documented Basque name for the area they inhabit, dating from the 16th century.

Mercenary bands were mainly seen in France, Aquitaine and Occitania but also Normandy, England and the lands of the Holy Roman Emperor. They were noted for their lawlessness, with many complaints from the church about their depredations, leading to an explicit condemnation by the Third Lateran Council in 1179. Mercenary bands continued to be used but by the early 13th century they began to decline. While useful, they became increasingly unpopular. In England, not only was their brutality condemned, but the rise of mercenary leaders of lowly origins to high office caused friction within the nobility. King John's use of mercenaries in his civil wars led to condemnation and banishment of mercenaries in Magna Carta in 1215. [4] Mercenary bands also fell from favour in France in the early 13th century, the end of the Albigensian Crusade and the beginning of a long period of domestic peace removing the context in which the routiers flourished. [5]

France Republic with mainland in Europe and numerous oversea territories

France, officially the French Republic, is a country whose territory consists of metropolitan France in Western Europe and several overseas regions and territories. The metropolitan area of France extends from the Mediterranean Sea to the English Channel and the North Sea, and from the Rhine to the Atlantic Ocean. It is bordered by Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany to the northeast, Switzerland and Italy to the east, and Andorra and Spain to the south. The overseas territories include French Guiana in South America and several islands in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. The country's 18 integral regions span a combined area of 643,801 square kilometres (248,573 sq mi) and a total population of 67.3 million. France, a sovereign state, is a unitary semi-presidential republic with its capital in Paris, the country's largest city and main cultural and commercial centre. Other major urban areas include Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lille and Nice.

Aquitaine Region in France

Aquitaine, archaic Guyenne/Guienne, is a traditional region of France, and was an administrative region of France until 1 January 2016. It is now part of the region Nouvelle-Aquitaine. It is situated in the south-western part of Metropolitan France, along the Atlantic Ocean and the Pyrenees mountain range on the border with Spain. It is composed of the five departments of Dordogne, Lot-et-Garonne, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, Landes and Gironde. In the Middle Ages, Aquitaine was a kingdom and a duchy, whose boundaries fluctuated considerably.

Occitania Nation in Europe

Occitania is the historical region and a nation, in southern Europe where Occitan was historically the main language spoken, and where it is sometimes still used, for the most part as a second language. This cultural area roughly encompasses the southern third of France, as well as part of Spain, Monaco, and smaller parts of Italy. Occitania has been recognized as a linguistic and cultural concept since the Middle Ages, but has never been a legal nor a political entity under this name, although the territory was united in Roman times as the Seven Provinces and in the Early Middle Ages.

Routiers in the Hundred Years' War

The Hundred Years' War, which lasted from 1337 to 1453, was the backdrop to their pillaging. The Hundred Years' War was fought between two royal families over control of the French throne: the Plantagenets from England, and the House of Valois from France. The War, which is divided into three stages - the Edwardian War (1337-1360), the Caroline War (1369-1389), and the Lancastrian War (1415-1429) - saw the development of new tactics and weaponry that revolutionised warfare during that time period.

House of Valois cadet branch of the Capetian dynasty

The House of Valois was a cadet branch of the Capetian dynasty. They succeeded the House of Capet to the French throne, and were the royal house of France from 1328 to 1589. Junior members of the family founded cadet branches in Orléans, Anjou, Burgundy, and Alençon.

By 1348 the Black Death was tearing though Europe, England was bankrupt, and Edward was invading mainland France. In 1347 Edward besieged the city of Calais on the English Channel. Capturing Calais was a major strategic victory, which allowed the English to permanently keep troops in France. King Edward’s son, the Black Prince, led a large band of routiers, captured the French King John II, and soon the French government began to fall apart.

Black Death pandemic in Eurasia in the 1300s

The Black Death, also known as the Great Plague, the Black Plague, or simply the Plague, was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 million people in Eurasia and peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351. The bacterium Yersinia pestis, which results in several forms of plague, is believed to have been the cause. The Black Death was the first major European outbreak of the second plague pandemic. The plague created a series of religious, social and economic upheavals, which had profound effects on the course of European history.

Calais Subprefecture and commune in Hauts-de-France, France

Calais is a city and major ferry port in northern France in the department of Pas-de-Calais, of which it is a sub-prefecture. Although Calais is by far the largest city in Pas-de-Calais, the department's prefecture is its third-largest city of Arras. The population of the metropolitan area at the 2010 census was 126,395. Calais overlooks the Strait of Dover, the narrowest point in the English Channel, which is only 34 km (21 mi) wide here, and is the closest French town to England. The White Cliffs of Dover can easily be seen on a clear day from Calais. Calais is a major port for ferries between France and England, and since 1994, the Channel Tunnel has linked nearby Coquelles to Folkestone by rail.

English Channel Arm of the Atlantic Ocean that separates southern England from northern France

The English Channel, also called simply the Channel, is the body of water that separates Southern England from northern France and links the southern part of the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. It is the busiest shipping area in the world.


The routiers' history can be traced back to a few years after the start of the Hundred Years' War, to Brittany in the early 1340s. No revenue was being generated from the revenues of the Duchy of Brittany for the English army, which meant that the English soldiers had to live off the land. This “living off the land” began as simple freebooting, but quickly transformed into patis, or “ransoms of the country”. A village near a garrison would usually be ransacked for any supplies. Subsequently the village would be forced to pay the respective garrison for future protection. [6]

This system soon caused much instability in the region for a few reasons. The patis system did not generate any revenue for the English cause but it made small fortunes for individual captains. These captains, whose income depended on controlling an area, rather than wages from the Duchy, were hard to control. While in theory, the King's Lieutenant could rely on his garrisons in time of war, they were scarcely enthusiastic combatants. Furthermore, garrisons that were stationed in fringe territories were subject to boredom, which was relieved by random brutality. That state, coupled with the fact that they were surrounded by hostile inhabitants, caused a lot of animosity between the peasants and soldiers, which in a few instances led to skirmishes and made the task of governing the Duchy harder. [7]

The problem was not confined to Brittany. Lusignan was a fortress near Poitiers captured by the Earl of Lancaster in September 1346. When the Earl withdrew from the area he left a garrison under the command of Bertrand de Montferrand. Many of his troops were men with questionable pasts; criminals and misfits. Despite a truce between 1346-1350, the garrison laid waste to over fifty parishes, ten monasteries, and destroyed towns and castles throughout southern Poitou. In May 1347, a French force was sent to recapture the fortress but were ambushed by the garrison and forced to retreat. [8]

Nature of the Companies

Geographical origins

Routiers were usually referred to as “Englishmen” by their victims, but they were actually composed for the most part by Gascons, after the name of the region of what is now South-West France in which they resided. [9] But the Gascons were considered then as a distinct people from the French. The full demographic that filled the ranks of the routiers included Spaniards, Germans, English, and Frenchmen. [10] Although there had been major raiding campaigns led by English noblemen such as the Prince of Wales, many individual routes were led by Gascon officers. Kenneth Fowler has examined the origins of 166 named captains. Ninety one of these were involved in the Great Companies. 36 were English, 26 from English Aquitane, 19 were Gascons, five from Béarn and five from Germany. In addition to these, there were a group of 45 Breton captains and a further group from Navarre. [11]


Unlike the earlier routiers companies, the routes of the Hundred Years' War were primarily mounted forces. Their main fighting men were men-at-arms, sometimes accompanied by mounted infantry including mounted archers. For example, the companies operating around Auverne in September 1363 were estimated at 2,000 lances of men-at-arms and 1,000 mounted infantry. [12] In addition, the companies could be accompanied by groups of pillagers. A route operating around Beaune in September 1364 were numbered as 120 "good lances", 100 other combatants "not including pillagers", suggesting these last were not considered as militarily significant [13] Larger companies of routiers could be surprisingly well organised. They each had a command structure with a staff that even included secretaries to collect and disperse their loot. [14] A few of the groups had their own uniforms, such as the notorious Bandes Blanches of the Archpriest Arnaud de Cervole.

Examples of routiers

John Hawkwood is the most famous of the English routiers. Beginning as a routier, he ultimately spent three decades as a mercenary captain in Italy.

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The écorcheurs were armed bands who desolated France in the reign of Charles VII, stripping their victims of everything, often to their very clothes.

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The Battle of Nájera, also known as the Battle of Navarrete, was fought on 3 April 1367 near Nájera, in the province of La Rioja, Castile. It was an episode of the first Castilian Civil War which confronted King Peter of Castile with his half-brother Count Henry of Trastámara who aspired to the throne; the war involved Castile in the Hundred Years' War. Castilian naval power, far superior to that of France or England, encouraged the two polities to take sides in the civil war, to gain control over the Castilian fleet.

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  1. OED definition of routier
  2. Verbruggen, J.F. (1997). The Art of Warfare in Western Europe during the Middle Ages (2nd. ed.). Woodbridge: Boydell Press. pp. 127–44. ISBN   0851156304.
  3. Mallett, Michael (1999). "Ch. 10. Mercenaries". In Keen, Maurice. Medieval Warfare: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 209–29. ISBN   0199690901.
  4. Prestwich, Michael (1996) Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages: The English Experience, New Haven: Yale University Press ISBN   0-300-07663-0, pp. 152-3
  5. Norman Housely (1999), Ch.6 European Warfare c.1200- 1320 in Keen (1999), p. 115
  6. Sumption, Jonathan (2001) The Hundred Years War II: Trial by Fire, University of Pennsylvania Press, ISBN   0-8122-1801-9, pp27-9
  7. Sumption (2001), pp29-30
  8. Sumption (2001), p.43
  9. Urban, William (2006) : Medieval Mercenaries, Greenhill Books, ISBN   978-1-85367-697-0 p.95
  10. Urban (2006), p.106
  11. Fowler, Kenneth (2001) : Medieval Mercenaries vol.1 The Great Companies, Blackwell, Oxford, ISBN   0631158863, pp.6-7
  12. Fowler (2001), p.6
  13. Fowler (2001), p.106
  14. Fowler (2001), p.9


See also