Free company

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The French army harassed by members of a free company.

A free company (sometimes called a great company or grande companie) was a late medieval army of mercenaries acting independently of any government, and thus "free". They regularly made a living by plunder when they were not employed; in France they were the routiers and écorcheurs who operated outside the highly structured law of arms.[1] The term "free company" is most applied to those companies of soldiers which formed after the Peace of Brétigny during the Hundred Years' War and were active mainly in France, but it has been applied to other companies, such as the Catalan Grand Company and companies that operated elsewhere, such as in Italy[2] and the Holy Roman Empire.

The free companies, or companies of adventure, have been cited as a factor as strong as plague or famine in the reduction of Siena from a glorious rival of Florence to a second-rate power during the later fourteenth century; Siena spent 291,379 florins between 1342 and 1399 buying off the free companies.[3] The White Company of John Hawkwood, probably the most famous free company, was active in Italy in the latter half of the fourteenth century.

Early history[edit]

Mercenary groups first appeared in the 12th century, when they participated in the Anarchy (a conflict of succession between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda between 1137 and 1153). They were integrated into the army of King Henry II of England in 1159. In the 1180s, similar groups were integrated into the armies of the King of France under Philip II of France. These troops of seasoned mercenaries were organized and mobile, a valuable advantage during the battles of the time and were important elements of the armies of King Henry, his son Richard I, and King John. Philip II used them to overcome the Plantagenets.

The Tard-Venus pillage Grammont in 1362, from Froissart's Chronicles.

During the Hundred Years War between England and France there were intermittent hostilities punctuated by periods of truce, when soldiers would be laid off en-masse. In the absence of civilian skills and opportunities many, especially the foreign soldiers, formed armed bands known as bandes de routiers or écorcheurs and made a living by pillaging the countryside of southern France until hostilities resumed. Similar events occurred in Spain and Germany. By the time of the Treaty of Brétigny (1360) the bands had grown in size to the point where they had evolved an internal structure and adopted romantic names. The Tards-venus (late-comers), led by Seguin de Badefol ravaged Burgundy and Languedoc and even defeated the forces of the Kingdom of France at the Battle of Brignais in 1362.

Amongst the earliest companies were the Catalan Company, formed in Spain in the early 1300s, which fought in the Byzantine Empire before ending up in what is now Greece and the Navarrese Company, also formed in Spain, which followed them there.


The structure of 14th-century Italy, where a patchwork of rich city states were in a state of perpetual dispute with their neighbours, provided an ideal base for the later and larger mercenary groups with their complements of cavalry, infantry and archers and complex internal structure. Predominantly made up of English, Spanish and German troops, they included the Great Company formed by the German knight Werner von Urslingen (1342), the Compagnia di San Giorgio formed by the Italian nobleman Lodrisio Visconti in 1339, the White Company formed by Albert Sterz (1360) and the Compagnia della Stella of Anichino di Bongardo (Hannekin Baumgarten) (1364).

The companies made a good living by extortion (Siena paid the companies 37 times not to attack them) or by contracting to fight on behalf of one city state against another. They came to be known, in particular their leaders, as Condottieri, from the Italian word for contractor. On several occasions the companies were contracted by different states to fight each other.

By the mid-1400s the power of the Free Companies had come to an end with the rise in centralised state power and military force.

List of Free Companies[edit]

Company Founded Leaders Notes
Catalan Company 1302 Roger de Flor; Bernat de Rocafort Disbanded, 1390
Navarrese Company c.1360 Mahiot of Coquerel; Pedro de San Superano Disbanded, c.1390?
Great Company 1342 Werner von Urslingen; Fra' Moriale; Konrad von Landau Disbanded, 1363
Compagnia di San Giorgio (I) 1339 Lodrisio Visconti Disbanded, 1339
Compagnia di San Giorgio (II) 1365 Ambrogio Visconti Disbanded, 1374
Compagnia di San Giorgio (III) 1377 Alberico da Barbiano Italians only
White Company c.1360 Albert Sterz; John Hawkwood Disbanded c.1390
Company of the Hat 1362 Niccolò da Montefeltro Disbanded, 1365
Compagnia della Stella (I) 1364 Anichino di Bongardo; Albert Sterz Disbanded, 1366
Compagnia della Stella (II) 1379 Astorre I Manfredi Disbanded, 1379
Company of Bretons c.1375 Jean Malastroit
Company of the Hook 1380 Villanozzo of Brumfort; Alberico da Barbiano
Company of the Rose 1398 Giovanni da Buscareto; Bartolomeo Gonzaga Disbanded, 1410

See also[edit]


  1. ^ M.H. Keen, The Laws of War in the Late Middle Ages (University of Toronto Press) 1965.
  2. ^ The free companies headed by condottieri are discussed as a social rather than biographical phenomenon in Michael Mallett, Mercenaries and Their Masters: Warfare in Renaissance Italy 1974.
  3. ^ William Caferro, Mercenary Companies and the Decline of Siena (Johns Hopkins University Press) 1998.

Further reading[edit]

  • Carr, A. D. (1968/9), Welshmen and the Hundred Years' War, Welsh History Review/Cylchgrawn Hanes Cymru, 4, pp. 21–46.
  • Contamine, Philippe (1984) War in the Middle Ages, part I, sect. 4 "Free Companies, Gunpowder and Permanent Armies" The relevant section in the definitive book on medieval warfare.
  • Mallett, Michael (1974), Mercenaries and their Masters. Warfare in Renaissance Italy
  • Severus, Alexander (1941), "The Fetish of Military Rank", Military Affairs, 5, pp. 171–176.
  • Showalter, Dennis E. (1993), Caste, Skill, and Training: The Evolution of Cohesion in European Armies from the Middle Ages to the Sixteenth Century, Journal of Military History, 57(3), pp. 407–430.
  • Rowe, B. J. H. (1932). John Duke of Bedford and the Norman 'Brigands'.The English Historical Review, 47(188), pp. 583–600.