The Alienage
All Things Relating to Trade, Shipping, and Commodities

Urban Militias

Urban Militias

Historical References on Medieval Europe

The Assize of Arms (1181) - Henry II

    Urban Militias

  • "Item, all burgesses and the whole community of freemen shall have [each] a gambeson, an iron cap, and a lance."
  • "Any burgess who has more arms than he ought to have by this assize shall sell them, or give them away, or in some way alienate them to such a man as will keep them for the service of the lord king of England. And none of them shall keep more arms than he ought to have by this assize."

The Assize of Arms (1242) - Henry III

    Urban Militias

  • "For chattels worth 60m., a shirt of mail, an iron cap, a sword, a knife, and a horse."
  • "For chattels worth 40m., a hauberk, an iron cap, a sword, and a knife."
  • "For chattels worth 20m., a purpoint, an iron cap, a sword, and a knife."
  • "For chattels worth 40s. or more, up to a value of 10m., falchions, knives, halberds, and other small arms."

Contamine, Philippe. War in the Middle Ages. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989

"With the commercial revolution, the rise of craft industry, changes in government and administration, even in the intellectual training of men, the twelfth and thirteenth centuries witnessed an accelerating growth of cities and large towns."

"Whatever their dimension, urban centers provided important military vantage points because of their fortified walls (although there was always a number of them which were never provided with these), for the castles with which they were frequently associated and because of their resources of men, money and arms. Nor did kings and princes fail to use their often decisive aid, by inviting them to ensure their own defense and to provide men, war supplies and foodstuffs."

"Many towns had at their own command their own military organization, controlled by municipal authorities. The inhabitants were grouped militarily, either by quarter or by craft, They had permanent control of military equipment appropriate to their social position and fortune, to ensure public order within a certain district and to share in the construction, upkeep and guard of the ramparts. In London, for example, there were 24 wards. If in peacetime they were content with a perfunctory watch, in time of war each of them, under the direction of its alderman, had to defend a sector of the walls. On campaign, command of the urban contingent was traditionally assumed by the captain of Baynard's Castle, a fortress situated within the city, near to the Thames."

"The French monarchy used the resources of the towns and communes on a massive scale from the reign of Philip Augustus onwards."

"It also seems that the period of service expected from these communities was three months, though, since the pay of a sergeant at that time was 8d. a day (a pound a month), it follows that, ignoring the carts, if the king accepted full monetary compensation, he would have received every year service was due 35,048 l.p. Conversely if he preferred men, he could have obtained a force of 11,683 sergeants; this would be the equivalent of host service by 2,920 knights for 40 days."

Heath, Ian. Armies of Feudal Europe 1006-1300. Lancing, Sussex: Flexiprint, 1989

French Examples:

"By the end of Louis VII's reign (1137-80), after which the old parish and diocesan militia were effectively never summoned again, the majority of French infantry were supplied wither by mercenaries or by sergeants levied from church lands and communes. The later had begun to appear in France at the very beginning of this era (Le Mans 1070, Cambrai 1076) and as early as the reign of Louis VI were being granted charters, not least because the crown valued highly the militia contingents that they were able to raise."

"From a document of 1284, recording details of the review of sergeants owed by the abbey of Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, we know that the equipment of such militiamen was comparable with, and almost identical to, that of their English counterparts: those possessing 60 livres or more had a hauberk or habergeon, helmet, sword and knife; those with less than 30 livres had gambeson, sword and knife, those with 10 livres or more had helmet, sword and knife; and those with less had bow, arrows and knife. Probably all but the last category also had a spear or polearm and many doubtless had shields."

English Example:

"Town militias also feature as sources of infantry, particularly those of London and Lincoln in the civil wars that wracked the country in King Stephen's reign. The 'Gesta Stephani' records 1,00-strong contingents of London's militia in the royalist army at the siege of Winchester in 1141 as 'magnificently equipped with helmets and mail corselets', and Henry of Huntington records a large number in the king's army at the capture of Faringdon in 1145. In the 1170s another chronicler claimed somewhat optimistically that London's militia comprised 20,000 cavalry and 60,000 infantry — probably in reality 2,000 and 6,000 respectively, still a sizeable force."

Northern Italian Examples:

"The militia of each town was traditionally divided up into quartieres, sesti, terzo or portae, basically 'quarters' or 'gates', each providing a company of infantry and a company of cavalry; as early as 705 Revenna had divided its militia into 12 companies, while Rome's division into 7 companies may have even predated that. By the 12th century the majority of towns seem to have comprised about 6 quarters. When called up each man served in the company of his respective quarter, though only rarely (normally when a local battle was eminent) were all the quarters called up at once, the number called up at any other time varying according to circumstances; 2 or 3 quarters often served at a time by the 12th century. Usually at least one quarter was always left behind in the town to guard it, whatever the circumstances. The infantry of each quarter was organized in separate companies of archers, crossbowmen, spearmen and specialist troops such as pavesarii (shield-bearers who carried pavises to protect the crossbowmen), guastatori (sappers), etc, all with their own flags (for the different troops-types of each quarter) and officered by citizens salaried on a full-time basis but serving only in wartime. Within the quarter organization appears to have been based on a unit of 25 men called a venticinquina. All able-bodied freemen between the ages of 14 and 70, or in some cases 18 and 60, were obliged to perform such military service, though in effect only 'citizens' served, these being classified as long-standing residents or possessors of land or cash within the city. Service was obviously personal but under special circumstances, such as ill-health, a substitute might serve instead. In addition citizens deemed 'politically unreliable', such as Ghibelline sympathizers in a Guelf city and vice versa, might also be forbidden from serving in person. The terms of service varied but sometimes only involved manning the town walls during sieges. From the early-12th century at the very latest all militiamen received pay.quot;

"By the mid-12th century, and probably earlier, all those who could afford a horse were obliged to serve as cavalry."

"Overall command of a town's militia was in the hands of its podesta and a council of captains representing the various quarters."

"The Popolo evolved in most cities in the early-13th century as an elite body of militia designed to check the power of a town's own magnates and the ambitions of its nobility whenever it felt this to be necessary. Consisting entirely of infantry, the Popolo theoretically numbered 1,000 men, though some smaller towns could only muster a few hundred while others could raise 2,000 or even more; at the time of its foundation in 1250 Florence's Popolo comprised 20 companies, each probably of 100 men. By the middle of the century most Popoli were commanded by a hired captain, usually employed from outside the city (in order to ensure his impartiality) for a 6- or 12-month contract period."

Low Countries Examples:

"Flemish communal militias are first specifically recorded only in 1127, but it is clear even then that they had already existed for some time, probably since the last quarter of the 11th century. The first were those of Ghent, St. Omer and Aire. Their armies included spearmen and archers as well as siege specialists with their own trains of equipment and baggage-wagons, the wagons generally being taken into battle with the army (one actually had the communal standard mounted on it carroccio-fashion) and used wither as a fortress or else to protect the rear of the army."

"By the end of the 12th century each able-bodied man in Flanders aged between 15-60 years (or 16-, 17- and 20-60 in some cases) was obliged to possess and bear arms 'according to his means'. The towns were divided into district constabularies, led by constables appointed by the aldermen, and later they were further subdivided into streets. By the mid-13th century the service of richer townsmen was beginning to be expected on horseback, and Bruges, introducing such an obligation in 1292, divided up its burghers into 5 distinct classes of cavalry of which the wealthiest two were even expected to ride barded horses. Bruges' other citizens were organized according to their guilds by this date, and the whole communal militia was subdivided into 12 vouden, each of 96 burghers (ie, cavalrymen) and 511 guildsmen. The mustering of militia by guilds, however, first appeared only in the late-13th century, prior to which it had been usual practice instead to recruit them according to their town quarters, and in the 13th century at least richer burghers actually wore the arms of their quarter in action. Also in the late-13th century there appeared small companies of 'marksmen' (usually crossbowmen but sometimes archers), paid for and uniformed by the town authorities."

Nicholas, David. The Later Medieval City 1300-1500. London and New York: Longman, 1997

Parishes, quarters and urban militias in the later Middle Ages:

"Cities were organized into parishes or civil subdivisions, variously called thirds, quarters, sixths, constabularies or wards, for purposes of administration and defense. In the late Middle Ages as earlier the communal identity of many citizens, particularly of the lower orders, seems to have been focused more on these districts than on the city as a whole."

"The citizens of Nuremberg swore obedience to their quartermasters. In other cities the gates were focal points both for quarters and militia organizations. From 1442 Vienna was divided into four quarters, each with an arsenal in a tower gate at the entrance of the city. Guilds mustered their members within the quarters. The changing demographic patterns of the late Middle Ages required some alteration to keep the districts roughly equal in terms of wealth and population."

"London had twenty-five wards from 1394, each with an alderman and subordinate officials, a beadle, sergeants, and constables. The ward administration handled routine matters and defense, police and sanitation. The aldermen held biennial courts, the 'wardmotes'. Aldermen were originally elected directly at the wardmote, but by the fourteenth century they were chosen by ward representatives meeting at the guildhall. From 1376 the mayor was elected by the aldermen and the 'commons' (actually the wealthier of them in council). The six wards of York, whose courts handled much of the city's business, were also militia units. Their constables levied contributions to repair the walls and in 1482 were made responsible for closing the gates. In the fifteenth century two aldermen and a varying number of wardens were assigned permanently to each ward. The parishes of York also had organizations, with two or three constables to keep the peace."

"Paris had sixteen quarters, each under a quartenier who was responsible to the provost of the merchants. The quarters were divided into tithe groups. The 128 dizainiers, who amounted to ward captains in charge of one or two streets, reported to the quarteniers. They were unpaid and unpopular neighborhood officials who supervised the watch. The occupational guilds rotated the night watch every three weeks but organized it by the quarter and recruited it in the dizaine. The dizainiers were well placed to know political opinions.quot;

"The assemblies of Languedoil in 1317 had placed royal captains at the head of the city militias, and this had spread to Paris by 1359, where mounted royal guards supplemented and commanded the guild contingents. Their duties included making certain that the guildsmen were at their posts."

"Elsewhere the guildmasters supervised the guards directly, but a royal officer commanded the militia on expeditions outside the city. The military responsibilities of the crafts of Paris were confirmed in an ordinance of 1467 that divided them into twenty-five banners, most of which were either large individual guilds or groups of related guilds. While previously the watch had been arranged by neighborhood, the 1467 ordinance substituted a guild watch that included sixty-one separate trades. All males aged 16-60, masters and journeymen alike, were to register, and those who were not in guilds, including rich persons and jurists, were assigned to a banner and required to serve."

"Citizens who were subject to the militia were frequently divided into tax groups, with more elaborate weaponry required of the wealthier townspeople, since the cities did not provide weapons except for specialists such as archers, who were not in the constabularies. All citizens were supposed to own arms for defense of the town but were generally forbidden to carry them on the street. This was difficult to enforce and contributed to violence. Although elaborate weaponry reflected prestige, doing night watch was a burden that the elite tried to shift to the guild militias. By the fourteenth century the untrained citizen militias were hopelessly inadequate, and during wartime most cities had to rely on mercenary troops. Vienna started hiring entire contingents in 1368, drawn mainly from farm laborers from the environs. By the mid-fifteenth century the city was supplementing the citizen watch with mercenaries and ordering masters whose journeymen did military service for the city to hold their jobs open for them."

Nicholas, David. The Growth of the Medieval City. London and New York: Longman, 1997

The city militia:

"All cities had citizens' militias to defend their numerous privileges beyond the walls, and some used them for aggression. Even in the eleventh century the fueros given to the Spanish towns required citizens to serve in the royal army and the settlers of the environs to help defend the town wall. Most early charters in the north limited burgesses' military obligation to home guard duty or at most restricted service on the lord's behalf to areas within a day's journey of the city, compared to a three-day limitation in the Aragonese charters. Perhaps reflecting this difference, urban militias fought well for Alfonso VIII in 1212, while those of Amiens, Beauvais Arras serving Philip II of France performed badly in 1214."

"The communal oath required mutual assistance and included an obligation to assist in the common defense, but the northern charters said nothing of the towns maintaining their own troops. The Flemish cities had militias by 1127, but they did not have to serve the count since the cities did not owe feudal military service to their lords. Wealth determined individuals' liability in most cities. A chronicler describes an assembly of the militia of Magdeburg in 1277: summoned by the city bell, the rich came in splendid colors, including raiment for their horses, the 'middle group' armed with strong horses, and the 'commoners,' with clubs, swords and pikes."

"Most cities thus had a militia for emergencies, but they were small and poorly equipped. In England the Assize of Arms of 1181, which required men between the ages of fifteen and sixty to maintain weaponry appropriate to their wealth, applied to the towns. The cities also furnished materiel for the royal armies, often deducting the costs from the farm of the borough. The English cities, however, did not have militias to use beyond the walls. A royal ordinance of 1252 did oblige them to maintain a night watch during the summer. Most, including London, Norwich and York assigned defense obligations on the basis of ward boundaries that in turn were sometimes centered on towers."

"From the late thirteenth century and particularly after guild regimes came to power, most cities based military liability on guild or parish organizations, a change that circumvented the patrician domination of the military that was the inevitable result of basing liability on wealth. Provins levied a special tax for a night watch of a mere three guards in 1293. By 1315 the city was divided into twelve districts for night watch, and the number of guards was raised to four by 1319. Even this was only for the first three nights of each fair, not continuous guard duty; and the watchmen were hardly a deterrent to crime, since they paraded about with torches, accompanied by minstrels.quot;


"Virtually all Italian cities were divided geographically into groups of parishes for purposes of administration. At a time when membership on most city councils in northern Europe was based on lineage or affiliation to a merchant guild, the consuls of the Italian cities and later the councils that limited the podestà were apportioned by districts. These were initially units for raising the city militia, but some became identified with the trades whose practitioners resided in them. Many districts were centered on a prominent feature, particularly a tower. Each of the seven divisions of Genoa, called campagne (companies), extended across the city and was responsible for defending a space at the port and a share of the wall on the hill side of the city. By 1219 Bologna had four gate-based quarters, each with its own militia, standard and captain. Each quarter chose two of the eight 'elders' who were heads of the city government. Each of the nearly one hundred parishes (cappelle) also had its own organization and officers. Venice was divided into sixths, within which the parishes (contrade) had their own organizations and 'heads' (capi). Siena was divided into popoli, most of which took their names from parish churches, but representation on the Councils was based on larger divisions called terzi (thirds).quot;

Municipal Government Under the Popol:

"The popoli included both wealthy and poorer persons, who were forged into a single political unit only with difficulty. Notaries and lawyers were popolani, which may help to explain the bureaucratic character of popolo governments. Military societies, based on parishes, were at the base of the popolo, not guild organizations, which were superimposed upon them later. At Lucca armed, voluntary, parish-based 'societies of concord of infantry' are mentioned by 1197. The popoli linked groups that were threatened by magnate feuds that disturbed the peace. The magnates were also diverse. Although all citizens were required to serve in the militia, the wealthier were expected to equip themselves more elaborately, with the top group required to do service on horseback. Only a small proportion of the persons called milites in the Italian sources were actually dubbed knights, a title of great prestige but involving considerable expense. Only eighty knights are known by name from Padua between 1256 and 1328, but several hundred 'milites for the commune' did mounted military service for the city. Most members of the Great Council at Padua in the thirteenth century were in this group. They were not knights in the social sense, and many of them were actually in the popolo."

Return to top of page