You Would Not Want to Have Been a Soldier 800 Years Ago

By Joe Darby

It’s really quite odd how ideas for columns can generate themselves.

Earlier this week, Mary and I were eating at a local restaurant (we do eat out a lot) and the TV set I was facing had a boxing match on, a fight between a Canadian lad and a young man from Mexico.

Service was a little slow that day so I got to see the whole eight-round match. The Canadian won but what struck me was that both men appeared pretty tired after their fight. Now that’s entirely understandable because boxing has to be one of the more strenuous and stressful sports.

But, being the military history buff that I am, my thoughts turned to what it would have been like to be a soldier in the middle ages. What does that have to do with boxing, you may well ask.

Well, both the sport and medieval combat involved the constant need to almost simultaneously attack and defend yourself, in one case the boxer being somewhat protected by the use of padded gloves and in the other, the warrior is in intense danger of death or horrible mutilation.

I more or less made that remark to Mary, waiting for my hamburger. “Yes,” she said, “but all war is horrible.” That is certainly true and I agreed. But I pointed out that the physical exertion of a medieval warrior had to be as difficult as that which any man at arms has ever faced, with the possible exception of BUDS, the special training that today’s Navy SEALS undergo.

I mean, consider. First of all, like all infantrymen, the medieval foot soldier had to walk wherever he went to fight. That could be hundreds of miles in some cases. And while he was not encased in heavy armor like a knight on horseback, he did usually have some kind of protection, which added to the weight he had to carry.

His weapon my have been a sword, a battle axe, a hammer, mace or other instrument that could cut and bludgeon.

Okay so let’s conjure up an individual soldier to make this more personal. Thomas is a farmer’s son from the county of Kent in England. He’s 18. The lord of the manor on which he lives has drafted him along with other young men of his village to accompany the lord to France. The lord is serving King Edward III, who wants the throne of France for himself, you see. So William and his mates are in France.

After many miles of marching, with horrible food to sustain them, they encounter the French. William and his cohorts are ordered to run to meet the enemy. The poor French peasants, now serving as soldiers, are ordered to do the same.

William carries a battle axe, a pretty heavy weapon. He must try to kill as many Frenchmen as he can. constantly chopping with his unwieldly instrument, for as long as several hours. He’s lucky if he isn’t killed or has a limb chopped off. There’s no respite, for as soon as the Frenchmen immediately surrounding him are disposed of, more run up to take their place.

William sees many of his mates lying dead or mutilated on the ground near him. His arms feel like they’re about to fall off. But he must continue to attack with his battle axe, which seems to grow heavier by the minute.

Finally, the battle is over. William has survived. He is totally exhausted and even with his eyes closed he still sees a red sea of blood from the battlefield. But he must rest. Because the French may attack again tomorrow.

All right. This is what the medieval warrior had to contend with. As utterly horrible as all war is, as Mary said, the soldier of 800 or 600 years ago had to have unbelievable endurance. Not carrying a rifle or other such weapon, he had to kill all of his enemies up close and personal.

This may be more than you ever wanted to know about a medieval warrior. But I found this fascinating and I hope you shared my interests.

2 thoughts on “You Would Not Want to Have Been a Soldier 800 Years Ago

  1. And, usually, no quarter was given. So, after the actual battle was over the victors would hunt down the survivors of the vanquished army and continue the slaughter. This would often take days, or even weeks. Except when slaves were wanted, no prisoners were taken. It was brutal.

    • Very true, Jim. Nobles were often saved because they could pay a large ransom but the poor grunts of the day were terribly vulnerable. By the way, I noticed that I inadvertently changed the name of my poor Kentish foot soldier, from Thomas to William. I suppose his full name was Thomas William!

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