The 14th and 15th Centuries were a time in our history when almost perpetual conflict and war was raging throughout Europe, not only between individual countries, but also between different groups involved in civil conflict, within those countries. It was a time when men flocked in support of either their King or their favoured Lord or Baron, often disappearing from their loved ones for long periods on campaign to foreign places.
During this period, the English armies were involved, initially with wars against the Scots in the North and the Welsh uprisings in the West, followed by The Hundred Years War against the French. The latter half of the 15th Century saw internal strife between supporters of the Yorkist and Lancastrian claims for the Crown during the time which later became known as The Wars of the Roses.
Although much of the nobility would have groups of retained soldiers under their command, these would have been comparatively small in number. As there was no national army to speak of, the men required for any major campaign would be gathered from all walks of life, including farm workers, traders and the peasantry. In fact it was not unknown for criminals to be released from serving their prison sentence in order to serve their country.
Many of these men found campaign life an exciting release from the every day existence that they had been leading, and at the conclusion of the campaign felt little or no desire to return to their homes as farmers, bakers, carpenters or such-like. When the call to disband was received they formed into bands of mercenary soldiers, relying upon their warrior training, and living an almost nomadic lifestyle in tented encampments. They would serve whichever Lord or Baron required, and could afford, their services as “Soldiers of Fortune”. These became known as Free Companies.
The size of these groups varied, and although most would be comparatively small, up to two thousand men have been chronicled in some. There would also be large groups of camp followers within the encampment, including wives and children. Because of their former lifestyles the company members would bring many different crafts and trades to the group which assisted in their self-sufficient way of life.
Often they were led by well known Knights, who were perhaps in some way disaffected because they had not received what they felt to be their just rewards at the end of a campaign. When not involved in one battle or another, they would travel the countryside robbing and pillaging and even on occasions holding towns, cities, or important people to ransom. Very large proportions of the Free Companies were active in the northern regions of France during, and after, “The Hundred Years War”. All in all, they became rogues and villains, during a time when civil unrest was already rife.