The 14th Century Military Revolution

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The nature of warfare changed in the 14th C as battles moved from being won by knights, to being won by the effective use of archers and infantry.

During the 14th C many armies had to alter and adjust the ways in which they raised, structured and utilised large armies in national campaigns. As knights rose to dominance on the battlefield in the 13th C, so too did a more ‘feudal’ method of managing national armies. In England obligations to fight were placed on the nobles through the structure of feudal tenure. The majority of nobles would be expected to provide a set number of soldiers for the king and they would be obliged to go on campaign for a minimum of 40 days a year.

The Changing Structure of Armies

This sort of feudal army was successful at the start of the 14th C, with the English winning major battles in both Scotland and Wales, however it was unsuitable for waging war in France. Nobles were obliged to fight for 40 days, but this wasn’t long enough to engage in a successful campaign on the continent and alongside this many were unwilling to fight in wars which were aggressive and not in the ‘defence of the realm’.

This led to the development of paid, contractual armies in which infantry would be raised via ‘commissions of array’. Cavalry would be assembled not through obsolete feudal obligations but instead the king would pay nobles to serve. This system eventually led to English recruitment being contracted out to military entrepreneurs who would agree to recruit and lead a set number of men-at-arms and three times that number of archers.

Changes in Battlefield Tactics

The battles which took place in the early years of the 14th C indicated that the traditions of warfare were slowly changing. It was no longer the case that the army with the most heavy cavalry would automatically win the day. The English were learning this lesson in their engagements with the Scottish. During the Battle of Falkirk the Scottish, despite losing the battle, managed to destroy the English cavalry by encircling them with pike wielding infantry and archers. In 1314 at the Battle of Bannockburn the Scottish forces led by Robert I decisively defeated the English army by again using pikemen to counter Edward II’s army which was overly reliant on heavy cavalry.

This same trend was taking place in continental Europe. In 1303 at the Battle of Courtrai Flemish pikemen defeated a French army by negating the heavy cavalry in the more traditional French force. This same scenario played out again in 1315 at the Battle of Mortgarten where a Swiss army beat an Austrian army in the same way.

The Military Innovations of Edward III

Edward I perfected the military tactic of having masses of infantry (usually 30,000 or more men) backed up by a cutting edge of heavy cavalry. By Edward III’s reign it was apparent that these tactics would not work as the Welsh and Scottish had changed to guerrilla warfare meaning that the slow, ponderous armies Edward I favoured became easily defeatable.

Edward III instead initiated strategies based on Chevauchees, or fast-moving raids by mounted infantry. Infantry and archers would be mounted to enable them to travel quickly and then would dismount to fight. This formed the basis for the English method of fighting and it proved particularly effective in France. The most famous battles in which this tactic was used to great effect include Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1356) with Henry V using it again to win at Agincourt (1415).

The Longbow

One of the main reasons that warfare changed from being dominated by charging knights to fast paced infantry was due to the mass utilisation of the longbow. Large groups of archers proved capable of consistently rendering knights ineffective and obsolete. Massed, accurate archer fire disrupted attacking troop formations and punched through most armour. Although archers alone never won any battles, to win battles they had to be used correctly alongside infantry and cavalry.