250,000 medieval soldier service records published online offer a unique insight into social mobility in the ranks of England's first professional army.
An invaluable new resource for genealogists and people interested in social, political and military history has been launched this week. An online database containing 250,000 service records of soldiers who saw active duty in the latter phases of the Hundred Years War, has been published as part of the Medieval Soldier Research project.
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the researchers at the University of Reading and University of Southampton have analysed historic sources such as muster rolls records in the National Archives at Kew and the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris ( for records of English garrisons in France ). The resulting Medieval Soldier database enables people to search for soldiers by surname, rank or year of service.
Using resources such as the proceedings of the Court of Chivalry, the researchers have also been able to build a picture of career progression and class mobility through what they believe are the origins of England's first professional army, creating complex profiles of individual soldiers. The database includes, for example, the names of many archers who served with Henry V at Agincourt.
The researchers have been able to identify where individual soldiers fought and for how long, who advanced in rank as a result of military success, which campaigns they fought in, what they were paid, who was off work sick, who was knighted, how much they received in ransoms, who was the most modest, the youngest or even who rode the furthest. Examples include Thomas, Lord Despencer, who began his career in arms at just 12 years old in 1385 or Thomas Gloucestre, esquire, who fought at Agincourt, and whose career can be traced over a 43 year period from Prussia to Jerusalem.
Dr Adrian Bell, Senior Lecturer at the ICMA Centre, Henley Business School, University of Reading, said: "The service records survive because the English Exchequer had a very modern obsession with wanting to be sure that the Government's money was being spent as intended. Therefore we have the remarkable survival of indentures for service detailing the forces to be raised; muster rolls showing this service and naming every soldier from Duke to Archer; accounts from the captains demonstrating how the money had been spent; and entries showing when the Exchequer made the requested payments.
"It is the survival of the muster roll evidence that allows us to begin to reconstruct the service of soldiers. This allows us to look for repeated service in the retinues of particular captains, and also service alongside a network of colleagues and family members. We can see that careers in arms regularly lasted over 20 years, and soldiers served from their teenage years to their 60s and older!"
The social mobility made possible by progressing through the ranks is demonstrated by the case of Robert de Fishlake. He enlisted, aged 16, in 1378 and progressed from humble archer to man-at-arms through the military campaigns at St Malo in 1378; the Duke of Buckingham's expedition to Brittany in 1380 and subsequent campaigns in Scotland. He even visited the Middle East. His stature had increased sufficiently to be called as a witness, aged 46, by Sir Edward Hastings at a Court of Chivalry.
Volunteers have played a large part in helping to build profiles of individual medieval soldiers, such as that of Robert de Fishlake. David Judd, volunteer, said: "The project has given me a feel for my medieval ancestors, who I had an inkling may have been Men at Arms or Archers but never had the evidence to prove it. With the soldier database I now have the evidence and material with which to research and add to my knowledge of early medieval family. It is absolutely fascinating to learn more about the detail of my medieval ancestors who must have lived through very troubled times."
Dr Bell recognises the involvement of the volunteers in the project: "Putting these records freely online has inspired a number of interested volunteers to write 'soldier profiles' of ancestors or of interesting individuals. The quality of the work by the contributing authors is of a very high standard, and demonstrates what can be produced, once original sources have been made accessible online."
The project was undertaken jointly by Dr Adrian Bell at the ICMA Centre, Henley Business School, University of Reading and Professor Anne Curry of the University of Southampton.
You can access the database here.