By Máiri Norris
One of the things I love most about writing historical romance is that integral component of the subject, research. History is endlessly intriguing as one delves into cultures, customs, languages and habits of peoples who lived in times and places far different from one’s own.
As I study the refined societies of the ancient Brythons or those of the High Medieval period, I occasionally feel as if I’ve wandered, not into another time, but onto an alien planet. Amazingly sophisticated levels of knowledge and technology often coexisted hand in hand with bizarre—and sometimes deadly—beliefs.
One of the most gripping areas of inquiry is the art of war. Brutality and conflict have characterized humanity’s struggle for life from the very earliest of oral tradition and written record. There is an undeniable fascination in the study of the ancient methods of conquest.
An enduring aspect of the making of war throughout the centuries was the mercenary—that hardy soul, peculiarly of ‘foreign’ birth trained in the art of combat-for-pay. Also known in those early days by the various terms ‘mercennarios’, ‘solidarii’ and ‘stipendiarii’, the reputation of these warriors was such that they might be hated and feared or glorified and blessed, both at once.
However, more often than not their chosen profession was vilified by the general populace, but not, as is the modern viewpoint, because they owed loyalty only to the one who paid them. It was common practice of those days for knights and warriors to fight for coin [even Crusaders], once they had fulfilled their forty-day ‘duty’ to their lord. But the monarchs and noblemen who hired them understood their positions—and frequently their very lives—depended on these skilled fighters. They used them as extensively as their coin would allow.
Historians agree mercenary armies in general were no more rapacious than regular troops. ‘Ravaging’ and ‘siege-craft’ were methods of warfare practiced by all armies. Kings routinely pursued the ‘scorched earth’ policy as a first step in launching war.
As specific units, there were among the mercenaries those with reputations as ‘honorable’ fighters, and those who became famous for their brutality, cruelty and excessive use of force. One particular band generally classed with the latter was the Brabanters [aka Brabácons, Cotereaux or Routiers (‘ravagers’)], so called because they originated from the area of Brabant located in what is now the Netherlands and Belgium. [Brabant was made a duchy of the Holy Roman Empire, c. 1190.] Later men of this affiliation were drawn from all areas of northern Europe.
The expense of hiring Brabanters was significantly greater than other early medieval troops, but they were among the elite warriors of their day. Unlike the regular armies composed of knights performing their required forty-day service, Brabanters willingly fought year round. Warfare was their way of life.
History records that more than one king owed his continued reign to the service of the Brabanters. One example was King Henri II’s successful use of Brabanter warriors in the Battle of Dol, Brittany, during the rebellion of 1173.
Among the most famous of the Brabanters was Mercadier, “prince of the Brabanters” and commander of the Brabanter forces in southern France. He fought in the Third Crusade. Later, his loyalty was given to Richard I, Coeur de Lion, whom he faithfully served until the king’s death (and after, when he captured the archer who shot and killed the king and had the man flayed.)
Brabanter archers—crossbowmen—may be the originators of the word “gaffle”. This was a steel piece on a crossbow that provided the leverage to bend the bow.
The Brabanters were among the most ruthless and brutal of the mercenary forces. Bloodthirsty and savage, they terrorized entire populations. As a result, the Third Lateran Council of 1179 condemned them en masse, directing that all who hired them be excommunicated.
Finally, the Magna Carta of 1215 banished all foreign mercenaries from England (which King John promptly ignored by hiring large numbers of Brabanter forces under the leadership of Walter Buc.)
Mercenaries of Brabant were first seen in England with William the Conqueror, though it was not until the time of King Stephen they appeared in significant numbers. King Henri II used them extensively, but for the most part kept them out of England (they served mostly in France). A little over a century later Brabanter mercenaries served in the Hundred Years War, fighting with the English armies in Cambrai and Tournay, France.
Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases. Christopher Coredon with Ann Williams.
Henry II: A Medieval Soldier At War, 1147-1189, 1189, John D. Hosler
Mercenaries in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, Hunt Janin with Ursula Carlson
Chivalry in Medieval England, Nigel Saul
English Historical Documents. 4. [Late Medieval]. 1327-1485, edited by A.R. Myers
Mercenaries of the Angevin Empire: Reputations and Royal Power, Andrew Rice, Florida Gulf Coast University
A Glossary; or Collection of Words, Phrases, Names and Allusions to Customs, Proverbs, Etc., Robert Nares
The Influence of Low Dutch on the English Vocabulary, E.C. Llewellyn