A free company (sometimes called a great company or grande companie) was an army of mercenaries between the 12th and 14th centuries recruited by private employers during wars. They acted independently of any government, and were thus "free". They regularly made a living by plunder when they were not employed; in France they were the routiers and écorcheurs who operated outside the highly structured law of arms. The term "free company" is most applied to those companies of soldiers which formed after the Peace of Brétigny during the Hundred Years' War and were active mainly in France, but it has been applied to other companies, such as the Catalan Company and companies that operated elsewhere, such as in Italy and the Holy Roman Empire.
The free companies, or companies of adventure, have been cited as a factor as strong as plague or famine in the reduction of Siena from a glorious rival of Florence to a second-rate power during the later fourteenth century; Siena spent 291,379 florins between 1342 and 1399 buying off the free companies. The White Company of John Hawkwood, probably the most famous free company, was active in Italy in the latter half of the fourteenth century.
In the 1180s, similar groups were integrated into the armies of the King of France under Philip II of France. These troops of seasoned mercenaries were organized and mobile, a valuable advantage during the battles of the time and were important elements of the armies of Henry II of England and his son, Richard I. King John, used them at the beginning of his reign, when he was richer and more powerful than the King of France. However, in 1204, he did not pay the mercenaries. Philip Augustus used them to overcome the Plantagenets.
During the Hundred Years War between England and France there were intermittent hostilities punctuated by periods of truce, when soldiers would be laid off en masse. In the absence of civilian skills and opportunities many, especially the foreign soldiers, formed armed bands known as bandes de routiers or écorcheurs and made a living by pillaging the countryside of southern France until hostilities resumed. Similar events occurred in Spain and Germany. By the time of the Treaty of Brétigny (1360), which brought about a several years suspension of the Hundred Years War, the bands had grown in size to the point where they had evolved an internal structure and adopted romantic names. The Tards-venus (late-comers), led by Seguin de Badefol ravaged Burgundy and Languedoc and even defeated the forces of the Kingdom of France at the Battle of Brignais in 1362.
By 1356, free companies, men at arms, and brigands had spread throughout the country from the Seine to the Loire engaging in unlawful activities. They had especially infested the roads from Paris to Orleans, Chartres, Vendôme, and Montargis.
Brigands were recruited from all nations, but mainly from troops dismissed from the army of Edward III of England after the peace treaty of Brétigny. On October 24, 1360, after the Treaty of Calais ratified the ceasefire of 8 May, Edward III had ordered the evacuation of English troops from fortresses in many parts of France.
One of the main brigand leaders was a Welshman named Ruffin, who was enriched by robberies and became a knight. These bands of brigands occupied and ransomed towns such as Saint-Arnoult, Gallardon, Bonneval, Cloyes, Étampes, Châtres, Montlhéry, Pithiviers-en-Gatinais, Larchant, Milly-la-Forêt, Château-Landon and Montargis. Meanwhile, Robert Knolles headed an Anglo-Navarrese band of brigands near the borders of Normandy, where he earned 100,000 écus.
Eventually the King of France sent his constable to escort these bands to Spain in order to rid France of them. There they could assist Henry of Trastamara in his ongoing feud with his half-brother Peter of Castile. However, after placing Henry of Trastamara on the throne of Castile, the companies returned to France. One company plundered Vire in 1368 and another, conducted by John Cresswell and Folquin Lallemant, seized Château-Gontier.
The Tard-Venus were mercenaries who had been demobilized after the Treaty of Brétigny of 8 May 1360. Under the orders of Seguin de Badefol, they raged from Burgundy to Languedoc. In 1362, in Brignais, they defeated Jacques de Bourbon, Count of La Marche.
The Bretons and the English in Dauphiné were companies which operated from 1374 to 1411, and accompanied the Counts of Armagnac, Turenne and Duguesclin during their conflicts in Provence and Italy, which brought about the Great Schism between the popes of Avignon and Rome. One of their achievements was taking the Château de Soyons in 1381, from which they were later dislodged by Bouville, governor of Dauphine and Marshal Clisson. Their leaders were Guilhem Camisard, Amaury de Sévérac (the Bastard of Bertusan) and John Broquiers.
The structure of 14th-century Italy, where a patchwork of rich city states were in a state of perpetual dispute with their neighbours, provided an ideal base for the later and larger mercenary groups with their complements of cavalry, infantry and archers and complex internal structure. Predominantly made up of English, Spanish and German troops, they included the Great Company formed by the German knight Werner von Urslingen (1342), the Compagnia di San Giorgio formed by the Italian nobleman Lodrisio Visconti in 1339, the White Company formed by Albert Sterz (1360) and the Compagnia della Stella of Anichino di Bongardo (Hannekin Baumgarten) (1364).
The companies made a good living by extortion (Siena paid the companies 37 times not to attack them) or by contracting to fight on behalf of one city state against another. They came to be known, in particular their leaders, as Condottieri, from the Italian word for contractor. On several occasions the companies were contracted by different states to fight each other.
By the mid-1400s the power of the Free Companies had come to an end with the rise in centralised state power and military force.
|Catalan Company||1302||Roger de Flor; Bernat de Rocafort||Disbanded, 1390|
|Navarrese Company||c.1360||Mahiot of Coquerel; Pedro de San Superano||Disbanded, c.1390?|
|Great Company||1342||Werner von Urslingen; Fra' Moriale; Konrad von Landau||Disbanded, 1363|
|Compagnia di San Giorgio (I)||1339||Lodrisio Visconti||Disbanded, 1339|
|Compagnia di San Giorgio (II)||1365||Ambrogio Visconti||Disbanded, 1374|
|Compagnia di San Giorgio (III)||1377||Alberico da Barbiano||Italians only|
|White Company||c.1360||Albert Sterz; John Hawkwood||Disbanded c.1390|
|Company of the Hat||1362||Niccolò da Montefeltro||Disbanded, 1365|
|Compagnia della Stella (I)||1364||Anichino di Bongardo; Albert Sterz||Disbanded, 1366|
|Compagnia della Stella (II)||1379||Astorre I Manfredi||Disbanded, 1379|
|Company of Bretons||c.1375||Jean Malastroit|
|Company of the Hook||1380||Villanozzo of Brumfort; Alberico da Barbiano|
|Company of the Rose||1398||Giovanni da Buscareto; Bartolomeo Gonzaga||Disbanded, 1410|