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Thursday, April 27, 2017

Squires: the Invisible Component in Medieval Armies

Everyone vaguely familiar with the Middle Ages has heard of them, but very few people appreciate  just how essential "squires" were to medieval warfare. Squires were, in fact, quite simply indispensable because, in the military context, the term “knight” did not refer to a single individual but to a fighting unit composed of a knight and at least one destrier (warhorse), palfrey (riding horse), pack horse and squire. Wealthier knights could afford two or more of each (or all) of these supporting elements. Yet while most people understand that a knight was without a horse lost his utility on the battlefield, the importance of squires is often overlooked. Today I’d like to redress that.

A Knight and his Squire from a German Medieval Manuscript
The problem starts with the definition of the word “squire.” Long after squires had lost their utility and role on the battlefield, the term came to mean much the same thing as “gentleman.” It was used simply to refer to rural landowners who were neither knighted nor noble. With more time, it became nothing more than a title of respect, applied to magistrates and justices and the like.

Understanding the role of medieval squires is further complicated by the fact that it was not constant. Rather — like the definition and role of knights themselves — it changed over time and across geography. Thus, while the notion of a young man of noble birth serving in the household of another (usually related) nobleman is the most familiar face of the medieval squire today, in fact, in the 11th and 12th century squires were often waged servants of unspecified heritage.

In short, the term does not describe a clear and distinct class of medieval society, but rather a function or a job that might be performed by a duke’s son or a hired man of low birth. Furthermore, there was nothing automatic about a squire moving from his position/status to that of knighthood. A squire who lacked sufficient means to support himself even as a bachelor knight, or who had no prospect of being retained by a wealthier lord, might remain a squire all his life. Another example of this lack of promotion prospects were the squires of the Templars. They were quite simply hired men, who did not take Templar vows and were not subject to the Templar Rule. They could not become Templar knights unless or until two prerequisites were met: 1) they had been knighted, and 2) they had taken vows and been admitted to the Order.

Nor should we forget that squires performed a variety of functions not related to warfare. One of the most important was that of serving their lords at table, specifically carving the meat and pouring the wine. They also cared for and prepared their knight's clothes, helping him dress and undress. They were messengers and errand-boys, sent both to deliver information, letters or goods and to collect the same. They were often essential go-betweens between a knight and the lady of his affection, but they were just as often sent to buy things or pay tradesmen and more mundane tasks. They might be expected to entertain their employer with music, reading or just playing dice, checkers or chess. In all these functions, they did not seriously distinguish themselves from ordinary servants and their status would not have been elevated above that of other hired men had it not been for their essential services in warfare. 

It was because a knight could not perform his military role without a squire that squires had a higher status, but it was also because that role took them to the very brink of — if not into — battle that serving as a squire gradually evolved into an apprenticeship for knighthood. Thus, while it was not necessary that a squire be a youth of noble birth, it was necessary for a youth of noble birth to have been a squire if he wanted to have a chance of knighthood.

The militarily relevant services of a squire were first and foremost the care of the all-important warhorse, upon whose health, soundness, and temper a knight’s life depended. Squires were responsible for seeing that their lord’s precious (and very expensive!) warhorse was in optimal condition. This started with making sure he was properly fed and watered, but also meant ensuring he had clean straw in his stall and a blanket in cold weather. It further entailed ensuring that his feet were trimmed and properly shod, that any injuries were treated, that colic was prevented (to the extent possible), and, of course, that he was groomed and tacked up whenever needed.

The second military function of a squire was the care of his lord’s equipment, including his tack but also his arms and armor. A lazy or inept squire, who failed to ensure his knight’s sword belt, scabbard, hauberk, coif, chausses, helmet etc. were in the best possible condition, could cost a man his life. Care of medieval equipment was very labor-intensive and often required specialty knowledge. What kind of fat best prevented chainmail from rusting without stinking infernally? What was the best method of removing sweat from the lining of aventails or coifs without getting the chainmail wet (and so likely to rust)? etc. etc. etc.

Both of these duties (horse and equipment maintenance) were particularly important and difficult when a knight was on campaign, moving across long distances, sleeping in strange inns or castles, tents or in the open field. Furthermore, when campaigning, a squire also had to look after his lord’s belly and comfort, to ensure the knight himself was as fighting-fit as possible.

Finally, when battle itself was joined, the squire tacked up and brought forward the destrier, turned it over to the knight (helping him mount), and handed up a lance. Ideally, the squire then retreated to the “rear” (the baggage train) with his knight’s palfrey to await developments. His duties were not, however, over. He might be called upon to bring his knight another lance, or even another horse (if he had one), to bring him water during a lull in the fighting, or to drag him off the field if wounded and apply first aid, or, lastly, to recover the body if he were killed.

These duties were anything but risk-free. Quite aside from the risks involved in caring for high-strung, bad-tempered stallions, the responsibility for the horses often entailed foraging for fodder — a duty that frequently took squires into enemy territory. One of the instances during the Third Crusade in which Richard the Lionheart was nearly captured or killed started with the Saracens surprising “the squires” while they were foraging. (Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, Book 4, Chapter 30).

Furthermore, there were often circumstances that precluded a safe retreat to the rear. Ambushes generally placed everyone from the baggage-cart drivers to the commanders at equal risk. Likewise, campaigns deep into enemy territory made engagement without the opportunity to separate the squires from the other fighting men a greater probability. At the Battle of Hattin, the Frankish army was completely surrounded, and the squires had no choice but to fight in the very thick of the battle.

As a result, squires represented not only an essential component of a knight’s battlefield effectiveness but also made up a significant portion of medieval army strength.  They are, however, largely invisible to us today precisely because they were treated by contemporaries as a part of the “knight.” Thus, when describing the composition of a medieval army chroniclers recorded so-and-so many knights and infantry; sometimes (if being particularly precise) they might talk about bowmen vs. men-at-arms, or mention “pikemen” or other infantry, based on the weapons they carried. Only on very rare occasions do squires emerge from the dust of battle, as in the above example, where they are identified as the cause of an engagement involving the English King. 

Nevertheless, because the number of squires were at least equal to the number of knights engaged they represented a significant component of the fighting strength of medieval armies. They were not as heavily armored as knights, and did have the same caliber of horse, but the more experienced squires were undoubtedly skilled — and mounted — fighting men, who, when circumstances allowed, could make a significant contribution.

This is evidenced by a number of incidents in which squires were knighted because of their actions in battle. Of course, battlefield knightings were not confined to squires, at least not in the early centuries of knighthood, but there was a bias in favor of knighting squires before or after battle in the Late Middle Ages because by then squires were increasingly youth or young men of good family pre-destined for knighthood anyway.

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