Was Shakespeare’s ‘Band of Brothers’ Really As Dramatic As Seen in Film?
Medieval chroniclers were often marvelously casual with numbers when they wrote about battles and armies, and the problem of numerical accuracy is a perpetual challenge in the study of medieval warfare. Sometimes these inaccuracies were deliberate cases of propaganda or exaggeration, but more often writers of the day simply did not know how many men an army fielded in a particular battle and either went with their best guess, or just accepted the going figure. One medieval source, however, is remarkable for the detailed accuracy of its records—the Soldier Rolls of the English Exchequer.
In their modern digitized version, the Rolls contain 94,962 individual service records—list after list of names, dates and other information covering a period of eighty-four years from 1369 to 1453. At first glance they might seem little more than old accounting documents and interminable muster lists. On deeper scrutiny, however, the dry, repetitious figures on those pages contain a wealth of information about the structure of the medieval English army and an insight into the details of military service at the height of the Hundred Years War.
The Soldier Rolls list soldiers by their first name, last name, titled status (if any), the military rank under which they enlisted (because a man’s rank determined his pay), the captain whose muster they filled, the commander of the expedition or garrison in which they served, the years of their service, and the type of military activity (such as an expedition in France, a garrison at Southampton, or campaigns in Ireland or Scotland). Unfortunately, the timespan covered by the Rolls omits the pivotal battles of Crecy and Poitiers, which were fought in 1346 and 1356, respectively. But the Rolls reveal fascinating details about the most famous campaign in all of the Hundred Years War—Henry V’s expedition to France in 1415 and the battle of Agincourt.
Agincourt was such a one-sided engagement that it has assumed an almost mythic status in British history, enshrined in the familiar image of lean, shabby English yeomen, road weary and worn, standing stalwartly in their ranks while the gleaming, armored mass of French chivalry opposed them across the muddy field, cutting off their route to the sea and safety. Popular versions of this story always emphasize the numerical disparity of the armies: on one side the French, numerous and overconfident; on the other the English, outnumbered and resolute. Part of the story’s enduring appeal (to Englishmen, at any rate), is the stirring imagery in Shakespeare’s line, “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” There is no question that the English were outnumbered that rainy October morning, but the question is, outnumbered by how many?
It is not possible to say exactly how many men Henry was able put onto the field that day, but by working backward from information recorded in the Soldier Rolls and cross-referencing that against other contemporary sources, and considering it in light of important recent scholarship by historians such as Ann Curry and Juliet Barker, it is possible to arrive at a reliable number.
The muster rolls for the 1415 expedition list 11,285 men in Henry’s army when he sailed for France that summer. Henry laid siege to Harfleur in the middle of August and things went wrong almost immediately. A month later the city was still holding out, and the English army had begun to suffer the effects of too much time in a static position. “Exactly when the first cases of dysentery appeared in the English army…is not recorded,” one historian says, “but within a few weeks dysentery was ravaging Henry’s army. Because of “the sweltering heat of high summer, partly because many of them [the English] had to sleep on marshy ground and partly through drinking bad wine and cider and contaminated water, dysentery and probably malaria broke out.”
When Harfleur finally surrendered at the end of September, Henry’s army was no longer what it had been when it sailed from England. Juliet Barker estimates that “it is likely that Henry lost between 10 and 20 per cent of his army, which translates as something in the region of 1200–2400 men. Whatever the actual numbers, the chroniclers on both sides of the conflict were all united in one belief: more men died from disease at Harfleur than from the fighting during the campaign. These losses from combat and disease were further exacerbated by the number of men who were still alive but too badly wounded or too ill to march and fight. Many of those were sent back to England. On top of this, Henry also had to detach a portion of his army to garrison the town he had just spent more than a month fighting for.
By these calculations, Henry had a force of about 7,000 men when he finally marched out on his chevauchée , which by that point was more of a symbolic gesture than a tactical maneuver. Straggling and desertion were problems for medieval commanders in most military campaigns, but Henry probably did not have to worry about those issues to the same degree he might have in other situations. The English were deep in the enemy’s territory, that enemy was on the move trying to intercept them, and once Henry committed his army to the chevauchée his only hope of extraction lay in reaching the channel port at Calais. Even soldiers who might normally have been tempted to fall out of the column in search of a little personal plunder were probably not as eager to do so in those circumstances. While the English army probably lost a few men on the march, those losses were not enough to drastically alter its numbers when Henry finally decided to stand and fight on Oct. 25. With all this considered, it is reasonable to say that the English probably still mustered about 7,000 men at Agincourt, allowing for a very slight variance higher or lower.
GET HISTORY'S GREATEST TALES—RIGHT IN YOUR INBOX
Subscribe to our HistoryNet Now! newsletter for the best of the past, delivered every Monday and Thursday.
Thank you for subscribing!
The Soldier Rolls also have something to say about the other great popular image of the battle of Agincourt—that it was primarily a contest between English yeoman archers on the one side, and mounted French knights on the other. As numerous historians have pointed out, most of the heavy combat at Agincourt was actually on foot as dismounted ranks of English and French men- at-arms came to grips with each other, fighting and dying in the mud. The extent to which the English longbowmen were essential to Henry’s application of combined arms doctrine is demonstrated by the fact that the Rolls show a 3:1 ratio of archers to men-at-arms in his army. In part this was a financial matter. Men-at-arms cost much more than bowmen in both pay and equipment; archers were essential combat multipliers in the English way of war. The longbowmen might not have won the day single-handedly at Agincourt, but it is fair to say that Henry would have lost the battle without them.
The reason why the Soldier Rolls are so exacting in their tally of every soldier who marched with Henry’s army was because the clerks of the Exchequer were concerned with the expenditure of government funds. They had to account for every soldier receiving pay in that campaign, and they were meticulous in their bookkeeping. The medieval English government had at least one thing in common with modern governments: it needed money to function, and lots of it.
The Soldier Rolls begin in 1369 during the reign of Edward III, a king whose financial problems were legendary. Edward borrowed, extorted, impressed, and did everything short of alchemy to raise money, but in spite of his exhaustive efforts, the constant need for more revenue vexed him throughout his reign. As one historian says, the king “raised vast sums from Lombard bankers—the Bardi, the Frescobaldi and the Peruzzi—from merchants in the Netherlands, from English wool merchants, pledging either English wool or the duties on Guyennois wine as security. Almost everyone who lent him money went bankrupt.” This overarching need for more money also created the need for better accounting and management of what monies the Crown did acquire, especially the cash raised to support the king’s perpetual wars, and the Soldier Rolls were part of that administrative process.
Reading the Rolls in the context of broader history reveals a trove of fascinating information amid the dry repetition of names and dates. The Rolls list military service in the Welsh Marches; the Scottish Marches; the Southampton Garrison; Expeditions to France in 1373–74, 1375, 1415, 1443, and 1449; Naval Expeditions in 1372, 1373, and 1378; the Standing Force in Ireland; the Portsmouth Garrison; Keeping of the Sea; Escort duties; the Standing Force in Gascony; the Berwick Garrison; the Expedition to Scotland in 1400, the Standing Force of the King’s Bodyguard in 1398, the Standing Force in Aquitaine; Reinforcements to the Calais Garrison; and the Standing Force in France in 1421.
The Commanders named in the Rolls are familiar to any student of medieval English history: Edward III; Edward Prince of Wales (famous as the Black Prince); Richard II; Henry V; Henry Percy; John of Gaunt; and others. Captains of the sub-retinues, into which men were mustered to fill local levies, include Lord Edward Dispenser, Sir Hugh le Dispenser, the Earl of Warwick, and Sir John Fastolf. Some of these names are famous in their own right and some are immortalized in literature, as is the case of Fastolf, a professional soldier and adventurer who was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Falstaff (a character whose literary depiction, it should be noted, was a marked departure from the real Sir John’s famed bravery and martial skill). The historical John Fastolf makes his first appearance in the Soldier Rolls when he is listed as a man-at-arms with the status of Esquire in the sub-retinue of the Earl of Suffolk for Henry V’s 1415 expedition to France.
The Soldier Rolls also provide a glimpse of the structure of English society in that era. Titles of social status are encountered frequently in the Rolls, from princes of the blood all the way down to men who were of low birth but who possessed important skills. Reading through the Rolls, one encounters dukes, earls, barons, baronets (a title of some significance in the discussion of the Crown’s efforts to raise money during this period), knights banneret, knights, esquires, gentlemen, yeomen (also listed under the Latin term valettus ), masters, and clerks.
Military rank, then as now, was not only important for reasons of authority and privilege, but also because a man’s military rank determined his pay during the period of his service with the army. Since the exchequer was trying to account for every penny it was spending, its clerks meticulously recorded the working hierarchy of the medieval army. The Rolls show men listed, in descending order of pay, as men-at-arms, archers, armed Archers, archers of foot, hobelars, penoners, and crossbowmen.
The surnames on the Rolls run the full gamut of medieval ethnography. There are residual Saxon names such as Kynggeswode and Ughtred, along with French names like Barbour, Trivet, and Bourchier. Welsh names are quite common, including ap Llywelyn, ap Madoc ap David, and one fellow who enlisted under the impressive name of Llewellyn ap Egwasorboullgh. There are partially anglicized Norman names like Fitz Henry, Fitz Hugh, and Fitz John. And there are many names that we today think of as prototypically “English,” such as Lincoln, Hill, Baker, Ford, Smith, Walker, and Greenacres. The muster rolls show that at this point in English history hereditary surnames were already well-established, but some vestiges of earlier medieval naming conventions were still in use, such as “of the.” Two men named Robert of the Hill and John of the Hill were listed as archers in the 1372 Naval Expedition.
The family connections revealed in the Soldier Rolls are also interesting for what they tell us of medieval social history. John Levenes, Senior, and John Levenes, Junior, are listed as serving together as men-at-arms as part of the Standing force in Ireland, 1371–72. The post-nominal identifiers “Senior” and “Junior” are rare in the Exchequer lists, but not entirely unheard of; the 4498 records listed for the years 1371–73 include six identifiable father-son pairs serving together, and half a dozen other men designated as Seniors or Juniors listed singly.
Using the Exchequer records, it is sometimes possible to track a single individual through the various stages of a military career that spanned decades during which he might have served in as many as a dozen campaigns. Stephen le Scrope, who is first listed in 1372 as a man-at-arms with the status of knight in the sub-retinue of his father Sir Henry le Scrope, reappears 28 years later during the 1400 expedition to Scotland as the captain of his own sub-retinue. In the intervening years he had inherited his father’s title, with his son Stephen le Scrope the younger now enlisted under his command.
It is also possible to observe the rise of a family’s fortunes, from that of wealthy but untitled commoners, to titled members of the aristocracy. Because of Edward III’s insatiable need for money, one family in particular climbed the ladder of social rank. “The provision of money [to the crown],” one historian says, “also advanced the Hull merchant, William de la Pole, whose family rose from commoner to duke in four generations…” William de la Pole was knighted by Edward III, his son Michael de la Pole served as Chancellor of England and was created Earl of Suffolk by Richard II in 1385; the Second and Third Earls of Suffolk were his son and grandson, respectively, both also named Michael. The Soldier Rolls show Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, listed as captain of a sub-retinue in Henry V’s 1415 expedition to France. His two sons, Michael and William, are listed in the same muster. William later became the first Duke of Suffolk and Lord Chamberlain to Henry VI.
The de la Pole family might have improved its station by its association with the Crown, but the 1415 campaign came at a great personal cost for them. When the attempted capture of Harfleur bogged down in a siege, frustrating Henry’s hopes for a quick, decisive reduction, disease ravaged his army and Michael de la Pole, the second Earl of Suffolk, was one of the many who died of dysentery. After Harfleur finally surrendered on September 22, Henry led his rump army out on the brief chevauchée that took them to the muddy field of Agincourt. In the ranks that morning was the new Earl of Suffolk, third of that title. When the English tallied their casualties after the battle, only two peers of the realm were reported killed, one of whom was “Michael de la Pole, the young Earl of Suffolk, whose father had died of dysentery at Harfleur a few weeks earlier.” Two years later, the muster list for the 1417 expedition to France includes the name of William de la Pole, now the fourth Earl of Suffolk after his brother’s death at Agincourt.
The Rolls also indicate what an international affair the Hundred Years War truly was. In addition to the menagerie of ethnically specific names from across the breadth of England, the Soldier Rolls also list men who were clearly not English. Sir Rhys ap Gruffydd, a Welshman, is listed both as a captain of sub-retinue and a commander in his own right in the muster list for the standing force at Milford Haven in 1377. A man named Sir Aymer de Saint Amand (who was most likely from Brittany) is carried on the rolls as a captain in the 1369 Southampton Garrison. Sir Fernan Rodriquez is recorded as a captain in the 1379 muster for Keeping of the Sea. Ferant Alfonso is tallied as a captain on the naval expedition of 1377–78. These men were Welsh, Breton, Spanish, and Italian (or Genoese), respectively, because the Hundred Years War was never a strictly English-French conflict drawn along rigid national lines. Professional soldiers of all nations plied their trade on both sides of the war.
Possible connections to other aspects of English history are also buried in the Soldier Rolls. For instance, the Soldier Rolls list Richard Donne and John Donne as men-at-arms with the status of esquires in the 1398 muster of the Standing force of the King’s Bodyguard. There is absolutely no way to know, on the basis of this single source, whether these men were in any way related to the great metaphysical poet John Donne, who wrote his famous poetry two centuries later, but the possibility raises a tantalizing research question. And the muster list for the 1415 expedition to France lists a Sir Thomas Chaucer as captain of a sub-retinue in the service of Henry V. Sir Thomas was the son of the famous poet and author Geoffrey Chaucer, who himself had been a soldier in the retinue of Edward III during an earlier campaign in France.
Taken as a historical record, the Soldier Rolls of the Exchequer corroborate and illuminate some of the contemporary chroniclers’ accounts of events and also provide evidence for refutation, in other cases. The lists show that there was far more to the Hundred Years War than just battles – there was also administration, clerical work, garrison duty that was probably as boring for soldiers then as it has always been in every era, and long tours of military service in lonely places.
Through it all the army’s paymasters had to account for every penny of soldiers’ pay and all the associated costs of recruiting, mustering, and provisioning an army in the field. The Exchequer Rolls provide fascinating insights into the working world of the medieval English army, and are a vivid example of how a compilation of straightforward, simple facts can illuminate history in ways that transcend the mere recording of information.