The Writer’s Guide to Medieval Army Tactics

Now that your protagonist has raised an army, he or she must learn how best to deploy it. There have been many tactics used throughout history to win battles, and the list below is not exhaustive. Some tactics can be used by all the types of soldiers I covered in my The Writer’s Guide to Medieval Armies. This is not even including magic, which could massively change battlefield dynamics.

Terrain

Where an army is set up on the terrain can have a tremendous impact on their chances of victory. Examples include holding the high ground, so your enemies are exhausted by the climb, and narrowing the field of battle. Natural obstacles such as rivers, forests, and cliffs can protect an army’s flank and limit the directions an enemy can approach from. I recommend reading my Deep Dives in the battles of Agincourt and Crecy because they are wonderful examples of how terrain can be used to your advantage.

Using the high ground. Image source.

Deployment of Forces

How an army is deployed also plays a big role. Several TV shows and movies show big blocks of one type of soldier, such as cavalry or infantry. But it was common during the Middle Ages to mix and match. For example, infantry can be placed in between formations of archers to protect them if they are attacked.

Scouting was critical when placing forces. Commanders relied on their scouts to inform them of the terrain and other pieces of intelligence so they could plan out their deployment.

How an army is deployed could mean the difference between victory and defeat. Image source.

General Tactics

The first basic tactic used in the ancient world was forming a line. This formation was enhanced using shields and was employed by the ancient Romans, the Vikings, and modern riot police. It usually relied on having the bigger army.

A tactic used against the line formation was the concentrated center where an army would force a gap through the center of the enemy’s line. This allowed reinforcements to surge through and get to the sides and back, a tactic known as flanking.

A variation of this tactic is to conceal a unit on your flank and have them swing around to the side of the enemy once they have engaged. As enemy units are neutralized, it frees up soldiers to continue enveloping the enemy.

A favorite tactic of mine is the inverted wedge, which was used by Hannibal at the battle of Cannae in 216 BC. As the Romans attacked the center of his line, Hannibal’s forces fell back, pulling the Romans further in which Hannibal’s forced wrapped around them.

Another family of tactics involved goading your enemy into chasing after you. This was achieved by feigning a retreat or by performing a series of hit-and-run maneuvers. The enemy formations will probably lose cohesion during the chase, especially if it is over rough terrain. They can also break up as sections move faster than others.

The bottleneck was an effective tactic if an army was outnumbered. They would pick a location where the terrain narrowed, limiting how many of the enemy soldiers could engage them. This tactic was used by the Spartans in the battle of Thermopylae and William Wallace at the battle of Sterling Bridge.

The deployment of forces at the battle of Cannae. The center of Hannibal’s line fell back while the flanks enveloped them. Image source.

Infantry Tactics

Since infantry moved more slowly than cavalry and were also vulnerable to charges by them, several tactics were developed to minimize their vulnerability. One of these was the schiltron, a compact formation, usually round or rectilinear, with the pikes and other polearms pointing outward at all angles. It was used by Robert the Bruce and William Wallace in their battles against the English. Variations used in later periods included the hedgehog and were used as late as the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, since they were incredibly effective against cavalry charges.

The use of the schiltron formation at the battle of Falkirk. Image source.

Cavalry Tactics

Tactics for cavalry depended on the type of horsemen. Light cavalry usually focused on hit-and-run tactics and used light weapons or bows. Heavy cavalry were the tanks of their day and were used to smash through infantry and archery formations. Often, they were deployed in three divisions, with the first creating a gap in the line and the following ones flooding through to flank.

Ranged Tactics

As I’ve shown in my Deep Dives into the battles of Agincourt and Crecy, archers could win battles if deployed correctly. One tactic was to place them at a distance from the enemy, usually behind cover, such as sharpened stakes pounded into the ground. If the enemy could be drawn into charging their position, they would unleash deadly volleys of arrows that would decimate their ranks before they even reached the archer’s line.

Another tactic was putting archers on the high ground, which slowed attackers and gave them greater range. This tactic was used successfully in the battles of Crecy.

A third tactic was drawing the enemy into a crossfire, where archers fired from multiple sides. It was commonly used in ambushes.

Archers shooting at charging cavalry. Image source.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or by writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

If you want my blog delivered straight to your inbox every month along with exclusive content and giveaways, please sign up for my email list here.

Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2022 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

Writer’s Deep Dive: The Battle of Crécy

Today I am covering a battle in which an outnumbered force on the run was pitted against a superior enemy. I hope it will give you inspiration when you throw your protagonist and their scrappy group of followers against a larger force.

Now, let’s dive in!

The Basics

The battle of Crécy was fought at the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War. The English army, led by King Edward III and accompanied by his heir, Edward the Black Prince, landed on the Cotentin Peninsula on July 12th, 1346. Their landing took the French completely by surprise. They began cutting a swath southwest through the fertile region. [1] Their biggest prize was Caen, which they looted for five days.

The English had picked an ideal time to invade. The main French army was committed to the siege of Aiguillon, in the southwest. Plus, the French treasury was almost empty. The English army carved a path of destruction to within two miles of Paris.

King Philip VI of France ordered every able-bodied man into his service and showed up on July 31st at Rouen to lead them personally. [2] On his orders, the French carried out a scorched earth tactic, removing or destroying all sources of food in the surrounding countryside. This forced the English to spread out to forage. Phillip then hemmed them into an area that had been stripped of all food. However, King Edward broke his army out and choose a defensive position at Crécy-en-Ponthieu to face the pursuing French. [3] He had between 7,000 and 15,000 soldiers against a French force that number between 20,000 and 30,000.

Edward III’s route through France. Image source.

While he waited, King Edward had his army dig pits and ditches, then carefully arrayed them on a sloping hillside. His flanks were protected by the towns of Wadicourt on his right and Crécy on his left, which stood on the banks of the River Maye.[4] The other advantage they held was the 5,000 archers armed with English longbows. Many of them were shooting arrows tipped with bodkins, pointed thin arrowheads that could penetrate plate armor, especially at close range. Contemporary sources record arrows frequently piercing armor. [5] These archers were also shooting between ten to twelve arrows in a minute.

The placement of forces. Image source.

The French advanced in the afternoon, displaying their sacred banner, known as the oriflamme, which indicated that no prisoners would be taken. [6] A sudden heavy downpour started. The French brought out their Genoese crossbowmen, but they had a shorter range and slower rate of fire than the English archers. Also, the rain caused their strings to stretch since they couldn’t unstring their crossbows like the English could unstring their longbows. They shot off a few half-hearted volleys before retreating. Many were cut down by the French for cowardice. [7]

A 15th century painting of the English longbowmen facing the Genoese crossbowmen. My favorite detail is the man in the bottom left corner running away with an arrow in his bottom. Image source.

The French cavalry charged, but it was disorganized, and uphill on muddy ground pocked with pits. [8] Plus, they were under withering fire from the English archers, many of whom targeted the horses rather than the well-armored knights. The charge disintegrated as riders were thrown from dead or wounded mounts and injured horses ran panicked across the battlefield. The French who reached the English line were exhausted and easily cut down by the men-at-arms. However, the French mounted charge after charge, late into the night. King Philip had two horses killed from beneath him and took an arrow to the jaw. [9] The bearer of the oriflamme was wounded and abandoned the banner. [10] When fresh French forces arrived in the morning, they were routed and chased for miles by the English. [11]

The losses were incredibly lopsided, with the French taking significant causalities, numbering between 2,000 to 4,000. The English, however, lost roughly three hundred men. [12] King Edward marched his army to Calais, which he captured after a siege of eleven months. The English would hold the port for the next two hundred years, and it provided them with a base of operations in France that gave them an advantage throughout the rest of the war. [13]

Edward III counting the dead after the battle. Image source.

The Write Angle

The battle of Crécy proves that a smaller force can defeat a larger one, even when behind enemy lines. The superb use of terrain, tactics, and battlefield preparation prove to be an enormous advantage to the English. They might not have been as successful if they had not picked the ground as carefully.

The other major advantage was the use of the longbow, a weapon that was unique to the English. The French tried using the Genoese crossbowmen to counter the longbowmen, but they were outmatched in rate of fire and range. Plus, it is incredibly hard to unstring a crossbow. The rain caused the strings to stretch, reducing their range. The English, however, could unstring their longbows easily and store the strings in oiled pouches until they were needed, preventing them from stretching and preserving their power.

One of the biggest reasons the French lost this battle was because they were in too much of a hurry and continued to mount disastrous charge after disastrous charge. A chronicler of the period put it best: “By haste and disorganization were the French destroyed.” [14]


I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or by writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

If you want my blog delivered straight to your inbox every month along with exclusive content and giveaways, please sign up for my email list here.

Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2022 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Rodger, N.A.M. (2004). The Safeguard of the Sea. London: Penguin. ISBN 978-0140297249.
[2] Sumption, Jonathan (1990). The Hundred Years War 1: Trial by Battle. London: Faber & Faber. ISBN 978-0-571-13895-1.
[3] Burne, Alfred (1999) [1955]. The Crécy War. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions. ISBN 978-1840222104.
[4] DeVries, Kelly (1998) [1996]. Infantry Warfare in the Early Fourteenth Century. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press. ISBN 978-0-85115-567-8.
[5] Rogers, Clifford (1998). "The Efficacy of the English Longbow: A Reply to Kelly DeVries" (PDF). War in History. 5 (2): 233–242. doi:10.1177/096834459800500205. S2CID 161286935. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 February 2019. Retrieved 22 October 2018.
[6] DeVries, Kelly (1998) [1996]. Infantry Warfare in the Early Fourteenth Century. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press. ISBN 978-0-85115-567-8.
[7] DeVries, Kelly (2015). "The Implications of the Anonimo Romano Account of the Battle of Crécy". In Gregory I. Halfond (ed.). The Medieval Way of War: Studies in Medieval Military History in Honor of Bernard S. Bachrach. London: Routledge (published 5 March 2015). pp. 309–322. ISBN 978-1472419583.
[8] Bennett, Matthew (1994). "The Development of Battle Tactics in the Hundred Years War". In Anne Curry & Michael Hughes (eds.). Arms, Armies and Fortifications in the Hundred Years War. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press. pp. 1–20. ISBN 978-0851153650.
[9] Rogers, Clifford (1998). "The Efficacy of the English Longbow: A Reply to Kelly DeVries" (PDF). War in History. 5 (2): 233–242. doi:10.1177/096834459800500205. S2CID 161286935. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 February 2019. Retrieved 22 October 2018.
[10] Livingstone, Marilyn & Witzel, Morgen (2004). The Road to Crécy: The English Invasion of France, 1346. London: Routledge (published 19 November 2004). ISBN 978-0582784208.
[11] DeVries, Kelly (1998) [1996]. Infantry Warfare in the Early Fourteenth Century. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press. ISBN 978-0-85115-567-8.
[12] Ayton, Andrew (2007c) [2005]. "The English Army at Crécy". In Ayton, Andrew & Preston, Philip (eds.). The Battle of Crécy, 1346. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press. pp. 159–251. ISBN 978-1843831150.
[13] Burne, Alfred (1999) [1955]. The Crécy War. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions. ISBN 978-1840222104.
[14] Schnerb, Bertrand (2007) [2005]. "Vassals, Allies and Mercenaries: the French Army before and after 1346". In Ayton, Andrew; Preston, Philip (eds.). The Battle of Crécy, 1346. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press. pp. 265–272. ISBN 978-1843831150.

The Writer’s Guide to Raising a Medieval Army

Wars and battles are all well and good in fantasy, but to fight them, you first need an army. But how can your protagonist convince a group of people to put their lives on the line? Throughout history, armies have been raised through various methods and they varied in size, skill, equipment, and dedication.

As always, magic is the exception to the rule. Because magic.

Calling Up Vassals

The most common method of raising an army in medieval Europe was to call up your vassals. The feudal system was a web of alliances and oaths of loyalty and service. At the top was the king, or sometimes the queen. He would call upon the nobles who had promised their service. Usually, this was in return for land and titles. The nobles would call upon their vassals, who would call upon their vassals. Lower-level vassals may only muster a dozen men, but when combined with everyone else called up, those numbers added up at an army. In the book series, The Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin uses the term “calling the banners.”

The king could also openly call for soldiers and men who were not obligated to serve under the feudal system could volunteer. This method is how many English archers were recruited during the Hundred Year’s War. Village militias and other regional military groups were common, especially along frontiers, and could be recruited into larger armies.

Robb Stark calling up his vassals in Game of Thrones.
Image source.

Common Cause

Armies could also be formed by a large group of people rallying to a common cause. The Crusades are a prime example. The pope put out a call for soldiers and people from across Europe, and every social class answered. [1] There was even an army of children in 1212 known as the Children’s Crusade that recruited across Germany and France. [2] I have covered other examples in previous articles such as the army raised by Boudica against the Romans and the peasants revolting against the cruelty and corruption of the nobility and clergy in the German Peasants’ War.

The Children’s Crusade. Image source.

Standing Armies

Although standing armies have become the norm today, in the Middle Ages, they were uncommon. They existed in antiquity, the most notable being that of the Roman Empire, but they were expensive. The expense could be offset by a large economy or by constantly conquering new resources.

Another problem was that they caused problems when they were bored. A standing army with nothing to do led to several Roman emperors being assassinated or overthrown. One way to mitigate this problem is to keep the army constantly busy. The Romans achieved this through near-constant expansion. The Holy Roman Empire in the 15th to 17th centuries came up with another solution. When not at war, they let their soldiers, known as landsknechts, hire themselves out as mercenaries under the condition that if the emperor ever called them up, they would return to fight for him. They were also prohibited from taking any contracts to fight against the emperor. This kept them busy but available when needed. However, this solution wasn’t perfect. One unit of landsknechts, known as the Black Band, refused a recall from the emperor and was killed almost to a man by loyal landsknechts at the Battle of Pavia.

German Landsknechts. Image source.

Free Companies and Mercenaries

If your protagonist doesn’t have access to a standing army and can’t raise one through feudal obligation or common cause, they can always buy one. Mercenaries and free companies were common in medieval Europe. Free companies were professional military units for hire while mercenary was a term for hired thugs. Free companies were used in peacetime and war as city guards and police forces. With mercenaries, once they did what you had hired them for, you wanted them to go away.

The downside to using soldiers for hire is that they can turn on their employer. Violent betrayals were frequent, especially in Italy during the 16th century. In his book The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli argues against the use of mercenary armies for this very reason.

The papal Swiss Guard started as mercenaries. Image source.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or by writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

If you want my blog delivered straight to your inbox every month along with exclusive content and giveaways, please sign up for my email list here.

Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2022 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Duncalf, Frederic (1969). "The Councils of Piacenza and Clermont". In Setton,K., A History of the Crusades: Volume I. pp. 220–252.
[2] Russell, Frederick H. (1989). "Children's Crusade". In Strayer, Joseph R. (ed.). Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Vol. 4. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 14–15.

Writer’s Deep Dive: The Battle of Agincourt

If you’re writing a battle scene for your book, it pays to study historical engagements. Learning the tactics and progression of actual battles can go a long way in making your fictional ones more realistic. Today I will cover a battle in which the underdog won.

Now, let’s dive in!

The Basics

The battle of Agincourt was fought in France as part of the Hundred Years’ War. The war was a dispute between France and England and lasted from 1337 to 1453. This was the same conflict in which Joan of Arc rose to prominence. If you would like to learn more about her, please read my Writer’s Deep Dive: Joan of Arc.

King Henry V of England invaded France with an army of 12,000 men on August 13th, 1415, to gain the French throne, which he claimed through his great-grandfather, Edward III of England. He besieged the port of Harfleur, but the city didn’t surrender until September 22nd, longer than he had expected. [1] The English army didn’t leave until October 8th. By that point, the campaign season was ending, and winter was approaching. The army had dwindled to 9,000 men between deaths in battle and disease. Henry marched his army through Normandy, the land he was claiming, to the English held port of Calais. [2] It was also an insult to the dauphin, who had ignored his challenge to personal combat at Harfleur. [3] The French army failed to prevent the English from crossing the River Somme and shadowed them while they waited for reinforcements. Finally, Henry forced a fight before more French forces could arrive. [4]

The English route from Harfleur toward Calais. Image source.

The armies faced each other on a narrow field between two stands of woods near the village of Agincourt. It had heavily rained the day before and the ground was newly plowed. [5]

The battlefield of Agincourt. Image source.

Henry was at a disadvantage. His army numbered between 6,000 and 8,100 men, 80% of which were archers. Bowmen were not effective at close-range fighting and were more lightly armored than men-at-arms or knights. Most were lower or middle class. As well, they were battling hunger and dysentery.

The French numbered between 15,000 to 25,000 men, including 10,000 knights. [6] They were better equipped and better rested than the English.

The battle began, after a delay, as the French waited for reinforcements, with a charge by the French cavalry. The English archers began firing arching volleys of what a French monk of Saint Denis called “a terrifying hail of arrow shot.” A skilled archer during this period could fire twelve arrows in a minute, meaning that the roughly 6,000 English archers were firing 72,000 arrows a minute!

Most of the French knights wore plate armor, and the main body pieces, such as the breastplate, were practically impervious to arrows. An archer would have to penetrate the limb armor or find a gap such as the eye slit to damage the knight. The knights’ horses, however, were much less armored and many were hit with arrow fire, which caused them to spook, throw their riders, and run into each other. [7] The charge also churned up the already boggy ground. As well, the French didn’t realize that the field narrowed approaching the English line, forcing the knights into each other, and causing what we now call a “crowd disaster.”

A 15th century miniature of the battle of Agincourt. Image source.

Very few French knights reached the English line while still on their horses. Most were thrown by an injured mount or had their horse shot out from underneath them. They had to slog their way through the mud, keeping their heads down to protect from arrows while walking around or over fallen comrades and in danger from being run over by a panicked horse. [8] Many went down in the mud and could not get up again, and there are accounts of knights drowning in their helmets. [9] The weight of their protective plate mail caused the French knights to be exhausted by the time they reached the English lines, and they were being pressed from behind their comrades. [10] The archers, who had kept up a steady rate of fire, were now loosing at point-blank range. The English men-at-arms fought them in melee combat. The archers joined with their axes, knives, and mallets when they exhausted their supply of arrows and moved much easier through the mud in their lighter armor. Thousands of Frenchmen were killed or taken prisoner.

The bloody muddy battlefield of Agincourt. Artwork by Donato Giancola. Image source.

The only French victory was an attack on the English baggage train. Henry ordered the execution of the French prisoners, fearing it was a counterattack that put them in real danger. Eventually, it was driven off. [11]

The French defeat was catastrophic, with roughly 6,000 men killed. This included many political and military leaders, among them three dukes, nine counts, an archbishop, France’s constable, an admiral, the Master of Crossbowmen, the Master of the Royal Household, and 3,069 knights and squires. [12] There were noble families that had their male line wiped out, bringing an end to their house. [13] The English, however, suffered only 600 dead.

The Write Angle

The battle of Agincourt shows how an outnumbered and disadvantaged force can still triumph. The English choose the battlefield wisely, using the terrain to their advantage. The most brilliant part of their choice was that the French didn’t realize how much the battlefield put them at a disadvantage and literally charged into a trap.

The other advantage the English had was the longbow, a formidable weapon that allowed them to cause a large amount of damage to the French before they even got close. There was a law in England that required all men between the ages of 15 and 60 to own a bow and practice for two hours every Sunday. England had a large pool of skilled archers to call upon in times of war.

Henry V was not afraid to make the hard calls, including those that went against the chivalric expectations of his time. There are accounts that several men resisted his orders, and he had to threaten them with hanging.

The English, under the command of a shrewd tactician, could pull out an impossible victory against a larger force.


I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or by writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

If you want my blog delivered straight to your inbox every month along with exclusive content and giveaways, please sign up for my email list here.

Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2022 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] "Guardian newspaper:French correction: Henry V's Agincourt fleet was half as big, historian claims, 28 July 2015".
[2] Hibbert, Christopher (1971). Great Battles – Agincourt. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 978-1-84212-718-6.
[3] Barker, Juliet (2015) [2005]. Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, the Battle [US title: Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle that Made England] (revised and updated ed.). London: Abacus. ISBN 978-0-349-11918-2.
[4] Mortimer, Ian (2009). 1415: Henry V's Year of Glory. London: The Bodley Head. ISBN 978-0-224-07992-1.
[5] Wason, David (2004). Battlefield Detectives. London: Carlton Books. p. 74. ISBN 978-0-233-05083-6.
[6] Rogers, C.J. (2008). "The Battle of Agincourt". In L.J. Andrew Villalon & Donald J. Kagay (eds.). The Hundred Years War (Part II): Different Vistas (PDF). Leiden: Brill (published 29 August 2008). pp. 37–132. ISBN 978-90-04-16821-3. Archived from the original (PDF) on 23 August 2019.
[7] Barker, Juliet (2015) [2005]. Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, the Battle [US title: Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle that Made England] (revised and updated ed.). London: Abacus. ISBN 978-0-349-11918-2.
[8] Barker, Juliet (2015) [2005]. Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, the Battle [US title: Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle that Made England] (revised and updated ed.). London: Abacus. ISBN 978-0-349-11918-2.
[9] Barker, Juliet (2015) [2005]. Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, the Battle [US title: Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle that Made England] (revised and updated ed.). London: Abacus. ISBN 978-0-349-11918-2.
[10] Curry, Anne (2000). The Battle of Agincourt: Sources and Interpretations. Woodbridge: Boydell Press. ISBN 978-0-85115-802-0.
[11] Curry, Anne (2006) [2005]. Agincourt: A New History. UK: Tempus. ISBN 978-0-7524-2828-4.
[12] Curry, Anne (2000). The Battle of Agincourt: Sources and Interpretations. Woodbridge: Boydell Press. ISBN 978-0-85115-802-0.
[13] Sumption, Jonathan (2015). The Hundred Years War IV: Cursed Kings. London: Faber & Faber. ISBN 978-0-571-27454-3.

The Writer’s Guide to Medieval Armies

When you ask a reader for their favorite scene in a book it is often a battle. From the despair and deliverance of Helm’s Deep to the brutality of the Battle of the Blackwater to the desperation of the Battle of Hogwarts, nothing has quite the power of a battle to get our hearts pounding and keep the pages turning.

War is common in the fantasy genre. It’s a great vehicle for drama and change, as well as providing excitement and tension. The stakes for your characters are never higher than when they are in battle. Yet to have a battle, you need an army. Medieval Europe and its bloody history are a great source of inspiration.

As always, magic is the exception to the rule. Because magic.

Average Size

Medieval armies were smaller than they are commonly depicted in movies, TV shows, books, and video games. There is a misconception that medieval armies numbered about 200,000 soldiers. Although some ancient armies were quite large, by the Middle Ages most armies were between 5,000 and 15,000 men. For example, at the battle of Agincourt in 1415, the French army numbered roughly 15,000 men while the English army had between 6,000 and 8,000 soldiers. [1]

A 15th century depiction of the battle of Agincourt. Image source.

Makeup of Forces

Just like modern armies, those in the Middle Ages had different types of soldiers that were utilized in different ways.

Infantry – Also known as foot soldiers or men-at-arms, infantry units were the backbone of most medieval armies and comprised most of their numbers. They would engage the enemy on foot. Heavy infantry had substantial armor while light infantry was more lightly armored and could move faster. Skirmishers were a type of light infantry that would engage ahead of the main force. Infantry units could be specialized in a weapon such as the Swiss pikemen.

Swiss pikemen. Image source.

Ranged – Ranged fighters included archers, crossbowmen, and later cannon crews and musketeers. They were often grouped together in formations to concentrate fire on the enemy. There were specialized fighters in this group as well, including the English longbowmen and the Genoese crossbowmen.

English longbowmen. Image source.

Cavalry – Cavalry fought from horseback. The most well-known members of medieval cavalry were knights. Just like infantry, there were light and heavy versions of cavalry. While they limited themselves to only using horses as mounts in medieval Europe, in other parts of the world they used other animals such as elephants and camels.

A medieval illustration of knights. Image source.

Sappers – Sappers were trained to take down enemy fortifications. I spoke about them in my Writer’s Guide to Besieging a Castle. They would use tunneling, explosives, or a combination of the two to destroy walls, letting their allies in.

Support Staff –Every army needs its noncombatant support staff. Collectively, they were known as the baggage train during the Middle Ages and included cooks, nurses, blacksmiths, farriers, clerks, laundresses, engineers, carters, and carpenters. Sometimes the families of soldiers would travel with the army in the baggage train.

To give you an idea of the numbers and breakdown of roles, below is the makeup of the English army at the Battle of Crecy in 1346, which numbered 15,250 men.

651 Knights

2,000 Squires/Men at arms

109 Mounted crossbowmen

556 Hobelars/archers

2,163 Mounted archers

4,740 Foot archers from the counties

2,290 Welsh foot archers

2,290 Welsh Spearmen

451 Gun crews, clerks, engineers, blacksmiths, carpenter etc.

That’s 7,030 Foot archers (including officers), 3,250 mounted archers (including officers and crossbowmen), 5,296 non-retinue archers, and 9,749 archers all together.

Here is the makeup of the French army at the battle of Agincourt:

2,000 Knights

4,000 Squires

4,000 Men at arms

2,000 Armed Valets

8,000 Valets

4,000 Archers

1,500 Crossbowmen


I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or by writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

If you want my blog delivered straight to your inbox every month along with exclusive content and giveaways, please sign up for my email list here.

Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2022 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Rogers, C.J. (2008). "The Battle of Agincourt". In L.J. Andrew Villalon & Donald J. Kagay (eds.). The Hundred Years War (Part II): Different Vistas (PDF). Leiden: Brill (published 29 August 2008). pp. 37–132. ISBN 978-90-04-16821-3. Archived from the original (PDF) on 23 August 2019.