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Part 16 - The French

by George Gush

THE FRENCH MAY be said to have introduced the new era of warfare with Charles VIII's invasion of Italy in 1494, and until 1559 their struggles with the Hapsburgs dominated the military history of Europe.
    In the second half of the 16th Century, French arms were turned against each other in the religious wars of Catholic and Protestant Huguenot, but in the 17th Century, with the new Bourbon dynasty upon the throne, France emerged with reorganised forces and began to climb back toward dominance of European affairs.

The Italian Wars


    In some ways still resembled that of Agincourt; the fully-armoured man-at-arms (gendarme) was still the pride and chief striking-power of France's forces. Like other such troops, the French gendarmes charged, in single rank (en haye) with the heavy medieval lance, backed up with mace and sword in melee, but they were more overwhelmingly aristocratic than those of other nations (even in the 1580s, when many persons 'of vile condition' had joined their ranks, over 60 per cent of them were still gentry). This probably gave them extra elan, but made them harder to control (La Noue, in the 1580s, suggested that their single rank formation was dictated by the refusal of any true gentleman to serve anywhere but in the front rank!). Their appearance emphasised their status - masses of multi-coloured plumes, richly-embroidered velvet coats worn over armour, horse-armours of mail or plate (officially reduced to frontal armour only in 1534) covered with a bard often in the colours of the captain of the company. Their furious gallantry, and the French tactic of hurling in many companies together, came as a shock to the similarly-armed Italians, and won many battles of this period.
    The Ban and Arriere-Ban, strictly feudal cavalry, were used mainly in time of emergency (up to the early 17th Century), while the main strength of the Gendarmerie were the Compagnies d'Ordonnance, paid and semi-regular, though still gentry. They originally comprised 15 Compagnies each of 100 'lances'; a lance contained, beside a Gendarme, two archers, (really heavy cavalrymen, later referred to as Chevaux-legers, with at least half-armour, mail sleeves, light lance, and unarmoured horse, they may still have had a bow for dismounted use in the 1490s, later carried a pistol), a coutillier ('finished-off' enemy unhorsed!) valet, and page. Of these only the archers were combatants, possibly originally supporting the gendarmes in second and third rank, later usually formed on their own. Their proportion compared with the Gendarmerie was reduced to 1½:1 in 1534 and probably later to 1:1. Gendarme companies fell to a usual strength of 50 by the mid-16th Century, but tactical units usually seem to have been about 400 strong. Additional gendarmes were provided by the Royal Guard (usually 100 Scots, 100 French, with 400 'Archers', 100 of them Scots too) and by the companies of princes or great nobles, often over- strength.
    In the Italian Wars, Italian gendarmes and mounted crossbowmen, or later arquebusiers, fought alongside the French, who also hired some thousands of Stradiots - Balkan irregulars with double-headed assegais - and introduced 'Argoulets' in imitation of them; wearing cabacete morion, light cuirasse and mail sleeves, they were armed with crossbow - later arquebus - mace and sword. From 1529, arquebusiers a cheval were attached to support the Gendarme companies. In the earlier Italian wars - and the Wars of Religion, one third or more of a French army could be cavalry.


    The native French infantry, in contrast to the cavalry, were considered unfit to take the brunt of the infantry battle. In the 15th Century a militia of 16,000 'Francs-Archers' had been set up, and some thousands of these were employed in the earlier Italian wars period, but proved highly unreliable, being finally abolished in 1535.
    They were variously armed and probably still included some longbowmen at the end of the 15th Century. The greater part of the French infantry, however, were mercenary bands of 'aventuriers', some of them, like the 'Vielles Bandes de Piedmont' so constantly employed as to become virtually regulars. Gascons, who were considered (particularly in their own eyes) the best soldiers in France, predominated.
    The chief weapon of the infantry was the crossbow, not replaced by the arquebus until the 1520s, but there were also pikemen, for the French foot in the early Italian Wars emulated the tactics of the Swiss (who were called in to train them at times) 'with the same discipline and method, though not with the same courage'. Infantry bands or 'ensigns' were 500 strong for Francs-Archers, otherwise 230 to 300 men.
    50 per cent or more of the infantry of French armies, however, was normally mercenary; predominantly Swiss (exclusively in French service after 1516 - see part 9) otherwise Lansknechts both at this period around 65 per cent pikemen, 25 per cent halberdiers and the like, ten per cent arquebusiers. There were also Italians, mainly skirmishers.
    A new attempt at a French national infantry was made in 1531, when Francis founded the 6,000 man 'legions' of Normandy, Langedoc, Champagne and Picardy; as with the Compagnies d'Ordonnance, only a cadre was permanently embodied, the rest mustering only occasionally in peace. Composition varied but was around 60 per cent pikemen, in burgonet, corselet and tassets, ten per cent halberdiers, and 30 per cent shot, in morions. Though of dubious value, they were maintained or revived until the wars of religion, two or three more being added. Bands of around 1,000 were sometimes detached for separate service.


    The French guns made perhaps the greatest impression in Italy; Charles VIII's 36 bronze horse-drawn pieces were the first effective field artillery. By 1536 the French artillery train of some 40 pieces had over 100 gunners, conductors and craftsmen, 800 pioneers, 680 horses and a picked escort of four ensigns of foot. Guns wore heavy - in the '50s cannon, culverins or culverin bastard-calibres being standardised in that decade (see part 4).

The Wars of Religion


    For most of the period also the royal side, so inherited most of the existing army. Their cavalry centred on the gendarmerie using their old tactics, though with unarmoured horses, supplemented by German reiters (heavy cavalry with pistols using 'caracole' tactics based on firepower - see part 5), similar French pistoliers, and mounted arquebusiers, now referred to as 'carabins'. They had the legions (except Languedoc, which mostly deserted to the Huguenots) and the much better 'Vielles Bandes' of mercenaries; from these were developing the Regimental organisation which gave France her first permanent regular infantry units; by the later wars being of ten to 12 companies, and around 1,000 strong, but still often grouped on the battlefield In large 'battalions' of up to 5,000. They also had the Swiss, hired lansknechts in large numbers, and were lent Spanish Infantry. Their armies, especially the cavalry raised by nobles, were very showily-dressed, with plumes, gilt armour, velvet and gold embroidered mandelions and so on.


    For cavalry wore dependent upon the 'squirearchy' of the Protestant areas, who produced a brave and Ironside-like horse, distinguished by the long-sleeved white casaques they wore over their armour in old-fashioned style (their opponents nick-named them 'Millers'). They wore mostly half-armoured, and armed with sword and pistols, and though originally formed 'en haye' ware taught under Henry of Navarre to form in squadrons six or seven ranks deep, charging home with the sword and using their pistols in the ensuing melee, highly-effective tactics. Again rollers wore hired, some of them adopting the new tactics, and most lighter cavalry wore arquebus-armed.
    Huguenot infantry, especially at the outset, were somewhat improvised, and, even when their discipline improved, almost totally lacked pikes, being at first all arquebusiers, by the end of the wars nearly all musketeers. By 1587 they were taught to fire regular volleys, two ranks at a time, the front kneeling. They also had regimental organisation, gut seem to have often operated in smaller tactical groups, sometimes interspersed with cavalry. They were supplemented by smallish numbers of lansknechts, some not-very-effective English and Scots, and at the end of the wars by the Royal Swiss.

17th Century armies

    Henry IV (Navarre) established the regular army in 1597 from both Catholic and Protestant troops. The French regiments, starting with 'Les Vieux'- Picardy, Champagne and Navarre, and the Garde Francais, were made permanent, and new regiments such as Picardy, Lorraine, Normandy added; 1,200 strong, one-third muskets, two-thirds pikes. By 1609 there were 20,000 French infantry, and 12,000 foreign, mainly Swiss.
    Basis of the cavalry were 4,000 regular Gendarmes, now half-armoured pistoliers, supported by sections of 'Carabins', and there was a 1,000 strong 'Cornette Blanche' of noble volunteers, a company of 200 Guard Chevaulegers, and a unit of gentlemen, the 'Carabiniers du Roy' who In 1622 became the famous company of Grey Musketeers (a company of Black Musketeers was added in 1661 - despite their name, both wore heavy cavalry, the colours being those of their horses).
    Under Richelieu, In the 1640a, the army was further overhauled and expanded, partly by the take-over of an army of 8,000 ex-Swedish troops previously led by Bernard of Saxe-Weimar (foreigners wore reckoned - worth three men - one more for France, one less for the enemy, and one Frenchman released for productive work!). Infantry began to operate In small battalions of 600 to 800, usually formed six-deep, pikes (now perhaps as few as one third) in the centre (regiments could form half, one or two battalions).
    Cavalry companies and cornets began to be grouped in regiments, but fought in 'squadrons' of about 200. By 1660 there were 109 infantry regiments (30 foreign, mainly Scots and Swiss), and 30 cavalry regiments. Most cavalry wore ¾ or half-armoured pistoliers; there was at least one buff-coated dragoon regiment, and there were some irregular light cavalry or 'Croats'.
    The French did not adopt uniform until well into the later 17th Century, though some companies and perhaps regiments had distinctive coat colours; light grey was common, but red and blue were also worn (the latter by the Gardes Francaises). 17th Century French seem to have been distinguished by an addiction to frills, bows, ribbons and plumes, suitable to the future leaders of European fashion. In the Guards, the Scots archers in 1494 wore red, white and green striped sleeveless jacket with white and yellow collar, later usually white, trimmed with silver. Guard Gendarmes probably had red coats. Many Guard troops would wear the Royal badge on back and breast - for example: Louis XII - a crowned porcupine; Francis I - a crowned salamander; Henry II - a crowned 'H' with a silver crescent below; and Henry IV - a club of Hercules, wrapped in a streamer bearing his motto 'Haec Quoque Cognita Monstra'. National signs were, in the 16th Century, a white cross on back and breast, in the 17th Century a white sash.
    For information of the Swiss Guard, see part 9.


    Apart from those shown, a number of regiments in the 17th Century had white flags, and these were used a good deal by the Huguenots (white being the Bourbon colour).
    Charles VIII's Scots guards had a six-foot long banner in red, white and green, with St Michael (very common on French banners) and a Sun in Glory, its rays covering the whole field, both in gold.
    Some of Louis XII's guards had a red and yellow flag with St Michael on it and the field charged with porcupines, while Henry II's guards had white flags with a silver crescent and the motto 'Donec Totum Compleat Orbum'. Under Louis XIII the Scots company of the Guard du Corps had a white standard with a greyhound running on a field surrounded by trees and the motto 'In Omni Modo Fidelis'.
    17th Century French infantry flags seem often to have had devices such as a wheel, or the sun surrounded by pointed rays and sometimes with a smiling face on it.


Battle of Dreux, 1562, showing mounted French arquebusiers and infantry, with Lansknechts in 'pluderhosen' on right.

French musketeer circa 1585. Hat black, ruff white, bandolier blue, upper sleeves red and white, lower orange and white; breeches orange with gold trim, stockings blue. Has either copper coloured cuirasse or possibly sleeveless leather jacket.

a and b French musketeers circa 1640; note short sabre carried by 'a'. c Scots Guard archer of Francis I's reign showing the type of dress and armament used on dismounted guard duty at court. d French musketeer, mid-17th Century; hat grey or black with gilt trim and red plumes; tabard or casaque blue, cross and edge white, 'flames' in angles of cross red for Grey Musketeers, yellow for Black; jacket and breaches blue, trimmed gold; boots black with red heels; sword probably slung from embroidered shoulder belt; cuirasse under casaque. e French pikeman circa 1640; note extremely large garters and shoe bosses. f Guard Chevauleger, early 17th Century; armour and horse trappings black; sash white and gold, pennon black and white, plumes white (a 17th Century Gendarme would be similar except for the lance); armour to knees. Note pistol holsters at front of saddle. g French Gendarme of late 15th or early 16th Century; horse bard is that of Francis I - probably blue and gold. The rider could wear only the 'skirt' of his coat, leaving the rest of his armour (torso and arms) fully exposed.

French flags. a the standard pattern. White cross of France. Background variable, in Italian Wars often red, but could also be striped as in b and c, or carried in alternative shapes as d and e. The older regiments carried 'a' with the following backgrounds: Gardes Francaises - blue; Picardy - scarlet; Navarre - russet; Champagne - green; Piedmont - black. f Royal Standard. Gold fleur-de-lys on blue background until Henry IV's reign, then and afterwards white. g cavalry flag 1643. Many had devices and slogans like this, but could also be a small square version of 'a', h and i banners of Francis I's gendarmes (probably Royal Guard). Red or red and yellow with gold salamander ('h'); St Michael and dragon ('i'). Suns often appear on similar flags. j Catholic flag of the Wars of Religion. Background green with black and gold St Michael, wings and cross on shield white, dragon gold, red blood, anchor silver. k infantry (left) and cavalry flags, also from the Wars of Religion.

Previous: Part 15 - Spanish Ginetes to Caballos Corazas by George Gush
Next: Part 17 - The Imperialists by George Gush

Return to Contents of Renaissance Warfare by George Gush (Airfix Magazine Articles)

See also A 1506 print of the Battle of Fornovo 1495
Louis XII and his uniformed guard in Les Alarmes de Mars sur le voyage de Milan, 1507, BnF MS Français 5089
Le Voyage de Gênes (The Journey to Genoa) by Jean Marot, 1510-1520, BnF MS Français 5091
France: 16th-Century Military Costume by Racinet
France: 16th-Century Peasants And Soldiers by Racinet
Soldiers in the 'The Sack of Lyon by the Calvinist Reformers', (formerly attribured to Pierre Caron), France, 1565
French Soldier in Recuiel de la diversite des habits qui sont present en usage, tantes pays d'Europe by Francois Desprez, Paris, 1567
Flags, Uniforms and Fieldsigns of The Huguenots