Band of Brothers by John Putley

Band of Brothers – Medieval Soldiers in Gloucestershire

John Putley

Meeting of 14 March 2019

John arrived with the replica clothing, weapons and possessions of a soldier who could have been based at English Bicknor Castle around 1000-1500. At most 12 to 15 men would have been garrisoned here, usually with very little to do. On marching into Wales with Edward I or France with Henry V they would have had very few personal possessions and probably one change of clothes at most. The local lord would provide weapons and livery, which was usually just a hat in his colours, but sometimes the jacket.

Clothes were a rough linen shirt; basic pants formed from a tube of material then wool hose tied to the pants. A waistcoat and a jacket went over the top. The large medieval hood was common, and became a victim of fashion, extending to about 15’ long in the 1380s. A woollen cloak doubled as a blanket.

They would carry a rosary, flint and steel in a pouch, a knife and pricker set and a spoon (forks had not been invented yet), a wood plate and/or bowl, a mug, a dagger and a leather pouch with – hopefully – a few coins. The larger items would have gone in the baggage train, but this would not have included a tent; only the lords had this luxury, a medieval soldier slept where he could. Food was mostly potage (vegetable soup) with meat maybe once a month. As milk did not keep it was mostly made into cheese. The lord probably provided bread, but the rest was what you could find.

Weaponry depended on what the lord could afford – sometimes it was just a bill hook on a long pole (which became the pole axe). The main aim of medieval fighting seems to be to keep the enemy at a distance and battle started with long bows and cross bows. If lucky, the lord may provide soldiers with a helm, leather gauntlets and perhaps a gambeson (a jacket stuffed with oakum that could stop an arrow but was very hot to wear).

Long bows were made of Mediterranean yew with flax string. Weekly practise was expected. Cross bows went in and out of fashion – when ladies started using them for hunting, they stopped being used in warfare! Cross bow quarrels were made at St Briavels in huge quantities, and millions would be used on a campaign.

We were allowed to try out the (very heavy) swords. Those for the archers were fairly basic and single-edged as they were not skilled, and were also used for chopping wood. There was a small shield (bucker). The men at arms had proper swords and generally wore chain mail.

Fighting was extremely hard work, (as John testified from his re-enactment experiences) so probably only done in short bursts, and only undertaken in summer so the workforce could return in time for crops to be harvested. The greatest casualties were caused by a rout, when those running away dropped everything. In a battle around 10% losses would be normal, and an important part was to see how the battle was going and surrender before many died. Of course, knights were not killed as they were worth ransom money.

There was no organised medical care until the New Model Army of the Civil War and soldiers relied on their mates to do their best. In reality, more died of disease before the battle. (At Agincourt, dysentery was so bad that the archers fired with their pants down).

John recommended the annual re-enactment at Tewkesbury Medieval Festival and a visit to Cosmeston Medieval Village (a living history experience based around the 1350 settlement on the site) to get a flavour of the life. CS