The Soldier in later Medieval England

Robert de Fishlake*


By the later fourteenth century it was very common for English armies to comprise roughly equal numbers of men-at-arms and archers. In 1378 John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, indented to lead a naval expedition, and his army in that year contained 2,500 men-at-arms and 2,500 archers. Just a few years later, in 1381, the duke’s younger brother, Edmund of Langley, earl of Cambridge, led a smaller force to Portugal, consisting of 3,000 men. Once again, his army was made up of roughly equal numbers of archers and men-at-arms. [1] This system of employing equal numbers of the two types of soldier dated back to the early years of the reign of Edward III, and had been largely responsible for the English victories at the battles of Crécy and Poitiers. However, relatively few muster rolls survive from the early stages of the Hundred Years War, [2] and we consequently have to wait until the reopening of hostilities in 1369 to be able to trace the names of large numbers of archers.


Creating career profiles of archers who fought for the English Crown during the Hundred Years War is far more difficult than reconstructing the careers of men-at-arms. As such men were socially more obscure than knights and esquires, they tend to be far more difficult to trace in the public records. Moreover, archers were rarely commemorated in effigies and brasses, they did not possess coats of arms, and chronicles were seldom interested in glorifying their exploits. However important archers may have been to the English war effort, the man-at-arms, armed with lance, shield and sword, was generally regarded as the superior type of soldier.


The relative dearth of knowledge of the military careers of archers is a great shame, for their activities could be just as prolific as those of their social superiors. One example of this is provided by a certain Robert de Fishlake, who in 1408 x 1410 testified on behalf of Sir Edward Hastings in his Court of Chivalry dispute with Reginald Lord Grey of Ruthin. [3] In his deposition, Fishlake recalled that he had served on John of Gaunt’s expedition to St Malo in 1378; in the ill-fated fleet commanded by Sir John d’Arundel in 1379, when the ships had been scattered by a violent storm; on the duke of Buckingham’s expedition to Brittany in 1380; and on Richard II’s campaign to Scotland in 1385. [4] This is a fascinating testimony that reveals many additional details about Fishlake’s age, background and military career. He stated that he had been living in Elsing, Norfolk, for eight years, and that he had spent the greater part of those eight years in England. [5] Elsing was the seat of the Hastings family; and the local parish church still contains the famous brass of Sir Hugh Hastings (d.1347), which includes images of Edward III, Henry, earl of Lancaster and the earl of Warwick among the mourners. [6] Fishlake may have moved to Elsing in order to be nearer to his patrons. He may even have been a member of the Hastings household. His age at the time of the deposition is recorded as forty-six. This would have made him around sixteen years old at the time of his first spell of service in 1378, and this accords with what we know about the ages of many first-time warriors during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. On the face of it, as Fishlake did not state his military rank when giving his deposition, it seems difficult to say a great deal about his social status. He was evidently not a knight; but the range of his military activities, as recorded in his Court of Chivalry deposition, suggest that his connections to the Hastings family had served him rather well. Indeed, he testified to having served with Sir Hugh Hastings III ‘in the Eastern Mediterranean, to Jerusalem and elsewhere’; and he recalled that ‘in all the important places where he stayed (including the Hospitallers’ Maison d’Honneur at Rhodes), Hugh left an escutcheon of his arms’. [7]


Unfortunately it is not possible, by referring to the extant muster rolls, to confirm all aspects of Fishlake’s account of his career in arms. [8] There does not appear to be a record of his service on the naval expeditions of 1378 or 1379, nor of his journey north to Scotland in 1385. This reminds us that the muster roll evidence for the years following the reopening of Hundred Years War in 1369 is extensive but far from complete. One would not expect to find any confirmation of his service in the Latin East, for this kind of activity fell outside the purview of the exchequer clerks. Nevertheless, one crucial piece of evidence relating to Fishlake’s early military service does survive, and this concerns his participation in the earl of Buckingham’s expedition to Brittany in 1380. A Robert de ‘Fysshlake’ is named on a muster roll for this campaign; [9] and we can be sure that this is the man who gave a deposition at the Court of Chivalry case in 1408 x 1410 as he appears on the muster roll in the retinue of Sir Hugh Hastings, the ancestor of the Sir Edward Hastings on whose behalf Fishlake testified during the reign of Henry IV. Moreover, only one man of this name appears in Hastings’ retinue, and there is therefore no reason to doubt that this Robert de Fishlake and the deponent in 1408 x 1410 were the same man.


What is particularly intriguing about Fishlake’s appearance on the muster roll for 1380 is that he is described there as an archer. This is interesting as the great majority of soldiers who gave depositions at the Court of Chivalry were of relatively high social status. Indeed, the rival parties in such disputes tended to call on the testimony of the most high-ranking witnesses that they could find, for this increased their chances of winning their case. The word of an earl or a knight was, one can only presume, far more trusted than that of a social inferior. For a man like Fishlake, who had once served as an archer, to testify at the Court of Chivalry was probably quite a rare event. It may be that many of the knights who had served with Sir Hugh Hastings III were now dead, and that Fishlake’s proximity to the Hastings family in Elsing made him a convenient witness to call upon. That following the expedition of 1380 he went on to serve in Scotland and the Latin East, and by the reign of Henry IV had become sufficiently respected to testify at the Court of Chivalry, shows that the geographical and social horizons of archers during the Hundred Years War could be just as wide as those of the men-at-arms. Moreover, the fact that Fishlake served on three successive expeditions in 1378, 1379 and 1380, presumably in each case as an archer, before going on to give further service in Scotland and elsewhere, shows that archers might be just as professional in attitude and outlook as knights and esquires.


At this point it is pertinent to consider for how long Fishlake continued to serve as an archer following the campaign of 1380. Was he truly an archer by profession, serving as such on several expeditions over a number of years, or might the campaign of 1380 have been a one-off? If his Court of Chivalry deposition is to be trusted, Fishlake had been a very young man of around eighteen years old at the time of the earl of Buckingham’s expedition to Brittany. Consequently, further evidence is required to show that Robert de Fishlake had spent a large part of his military career as an archer. Fortunately, his name appears on two further muster rolls during the 1380s, for successive naval expeditions led by Richard Fitz Alan, earl of Arundel, in 1387 and 1388. On the first he appears as an archer in the retinue of the earl of Arundel; [10] but on the second he had switched retinue and was serving in the company of Thomas de Mowbray, earl of Nottingham and earl Marshal. [11] Yet in both years he is recorded as an archer. Was this the man who had served with Hugh de Hastings in 1380? This seems likely. The name Fishlake – variant spellings include ‘Fysshlake’, ‘Fyshlake’ and ‘Fischelake’ – seems to have been quite uncommon, with relatively few men of this name appearing in the online soldier database. Furthermore, a search of the printed chancery calendars for this period reveals very few men of this surname, and not any named Robert de Fishlake. [12] The fact that Robert de Fishlake did not mention his service during the Appellant crisis of 1387 and 1388 in his Court of Chivalry deposition should not occasion surprise, as he was only required to mention the occasions when he had served in the retinue of a member of the Hastings family. [13] As we have seen, he had served under different lords in 1387 and 1388.


It seems reasonable to conclude, then, that this Robert de Fishlake had served as an archer for at least ten years, between 1378 and 1388, and that his service in this capacity was more than just a passing phase. Given that archers were not drawn from the highest echelons of society, it must also be concluded that Robert de Fishlake was a man of relatively lowly social origins, and that his testimony at the Court of Chivalry in 1408 x 1410 did, therefore, represent something of a rapid ascent. Once again, the evidence of the muster rolls can be of some assistance here, for it enables us to trace Fishlake’s promotion from an archer to a man-at-arms. In 1404, following a sixteen-year gap in his service record due to the truce between the realms of England and France during the 1390s, Fishlake appears on a muster roll, as Robert de ‘Fischelake’, in the retinue of Sir William de Etchingham. [14] On this occasion he is described not as an archer but as a scutifer: a man-at-arms of the secondary order, roughly equivalent to an esquire. [15] Presuming that this was the same Robert de Fishlake as the man who had served during the 1380s (and again there seems little reason to doubt this), he had finally managed to gain promotion, almost two decades after his military debut, to the rank of man-at-arms. Such an ascent was not unheard of during this period. On the contrary, Sir Thomas Gray of Heton recalls, in his Scalacronica, that many English soldiers in France began their careers in arms, as youths, as archers, before later becoming knights and sometimes captains. [16] Famous examples of such social climbers among the English soldiery include Sir Hugh Browe, Sir Nicholas Colfox and Sir Robert Knolles. [17] The career of Robert de Fishlake provides a less famous and less astonishing instance of an archer who rose in rank, but one that is probably more representative of the common experience.


Further consultation of the soldier database adds to the impression that the Fishlake family straddled the social and functional dividing-line between the ranks of archer and man-at-arms. [18] Robert may have been the son or younger brother of a Hugh de ‘Fisselak’ who had served at sea as a man-at-arms under John Lord Neville in 1371. [19] If this were so, it might explain why Robert eventually became a man-at-arms after years of service as an archer. Later, another man of this surname, John de Fishlake, clerk, served on the Agincourt campaign as an archer. [20] He was a member of the household of John de Mowbray, earl Marshal, a descendant of the Thomas de Mowbray with whom Robert de Fishlake had served in 1388. [21] Given the significant element of stability with the Mowbray affinity that has been identified by Rowena Archer, [22] it may be that Robert de Fishlake had once been a member of Thomas de Mowbray’s household or affinity. Although John de Mowbray and many of the men in his retinue suffered from dysentery in 1415 and were invalided home on 5 October, John de Fishlake and many other members of the retinue stayed on and fought at Agincourt. [23] Two years later, in 1417, John de Fishlake was serving in the garrison at Harfleur as a man-at-arms, [24] having set out for France in that year, again with John de Mowbray, as an archer. [25] His service as an archer in 1415 and 1417 suggests that the Fishlake family remained of relatively modest status during the opening years of the fifteenth century (a point supported by the fact that not one member of the Fishlake family took out a letter of protection or attorney for their service in France), [26] and that there was a family tradition of military service. It was probably quite common for soldiers of the middling sort, such as members of the Fishlake family, to serve as archers early in their careers before later scaling the military and social pecking order. Furthermore, John de Fishlake’s service as both a household clerk and a soldier shows that ‘a position in the household did not render a man unfit for war, whatever his office’. [27] Indeed, a John de Fishlake was present in John, Lord Talbot’s army of 1437, which mustered at Les Andeleys and was charged with the recovery of places in the Vexin. [28] One can easily imagine how stories of exploits on past campaigns must have been passed down from one generation of the Fishlake family to the next.


The story of Robert de Fishlake, then, reveals something of what can be discovered about the military careers of English archers during the second and third stages of the Hundred Years War; but it also reminds us of some of the difficulties of career reconstruction. Robert appears to have been a highly competent soldier, whose repeated service as an archer during the late 1370s and 1380s enabled him, by the early stages of the reign of Henry IV, to gain promotion. His progress from archer to man-at-arms shows that social mobility was possible. His testimony at the Court of Chivalry Case in 1408 x 1410 must have been one of the proudest moments of his life, as he looked back over what had been a very busy but rewarding military career.


David Simpkin


* I would like to thank the other members of the ‘Soldier in Later Medieval England’ team for their comments and advice on this piece.

[1] A.R. Bell, War and the Soldier in the Fourteenth Century (Woodbridge, 2004), p. 10, table 1.

[2] A. Ayton, Knights and Warhorses: The English Aristocracy and Military Service under Edward III (Woodbridge, 1994), p. 5.

[3] The fullest transcription of these proceedings can be found at: College of Arms, Processus in Curia Marescalli, 2 volumes, i. Fishlake’s deposition can be found at pp. 429-35.

[4] Ibid, pp. 430-2; M. Keen, ‘English Military Experience and the Court of Chivalry: The Case of Grey v. Hastings’, in Guerre et Société en France, en Angleterre et en Bourgogne XIVe-XVe siècle (Lille, 1992), pp. 132, 139-40.

[5] College of Arms, Processus in Curia Marescalli, i, p. 429.

[6] For an image of and information about this brass, see N. Saul, ‘Bold as Brass: Secular Display in English Medieval Brasses’, in Heraldry, Pageantry and Social Display in Medieval England, ed. P. Coss and M. Keen (Woodbridge, 2002), pp. 179-80.

[7] Keen, ‘English Military Experience and the Court of Chivalry’, p. 132.

[8] All of the surviving muster rolls for the expeditionary armies of this period are now online and can be found in the database on this website. Most of the details that follow have been extracted from this database.

[9] TNA, E 101/39/9, m. 5d.

[10] TNA, E 101/40/33, m. 2d.

[11] TNA, E 101/41/5, m. 3d. For further discussion of Fishlake’s service on the expeditions of 1387 and 1388, and a summary of his military career, see Bell, War and the Soldier, pp. 145-6.

[12] On 8 January 1382, a William de Fishlake of Barton on Humber was mentioned as the owner of a ship, which he had been forced to abandon due to the threat of attack by the French: CCR 1381-5, pp. 34, 57. Later, in 1393 and 1398 respectively, a John Fishlake and a Thomas Fishlake were named in writs of supersedeas: CCR 1392-6, p. 229; CCR 1396-9, p. 399. The name Fishlake comes from a village – Fishlake – in Yorkshire, so it is interesting to find that at least two men surnamed Fishlake were admitted to the freedom of York during the reigns of Edward III and Richard II, including a Robert de Fishlake, mariner, who was admitted in 1345: www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx? compid=48266; www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid+48265&strquery=Fischlake. The author has contacted the present vicar of the church of Fishlake, Reverend Eve Atherfold, about the subject of this piece, but neither she nor local historians have heard of a Robert de Fishlake. I acknowledge Reverend Atherfold’s kindness in responding to my enquiries.  

[13] See Keen, ‘English Military Experience and the Court of Chivalry’, p. 124, where he makes a similar point about the deponents at the Scrope-Grosvenor case.

[14] TNA, E 101/43/32, m. 4.

[15] The evidence suggests that the terms scutifer and armiger were used interchangeably to denote men of the status of esquire. For example, in 1387 a certain William Arderne served at sea under Sir Reginald de Cobham. He is described on the muster roll as an armiger: TNA, E 101/40/33, m. 6. In the mid-1390s a man of the same name served in Ireland under Sir John Neville, but this time he is described on the muster roll as a scutifer: TNA, E 101/41/39, m.1i. In 1372, William Barry served as a scutifer under Sir John de Clynton (TNA, E 101/31/33, m.4), but on the muster roll for the duke of Buckingham’s expedition of 1377-8 he is described as an armiger: TNA, E 101/36/29, m.2. A John Prescote served under Sir John de Charlton, in 1372, as an armiger (TNA, E 101/31/37, m.1), but in 1384 a man of that name was in the garrison at Berwick upon Tweed as a scutifer: TNA, E 101/39/40, m.1. The terminology used to describe men-at-arms of sub-knightly status seems to have varied according to the whim of the clerks who drew up the muster rolls. For example, a Richard Pocok served in Wales in 1377 as a scutifer (TNA E/101/34/29, m.10i), but in the following year a man of that name was included on a muster roll among a group of men described as gentils hommez armez: TNA, E 101/39/40, m.1. Although it may be that such terms were used more precisely as the fifteenth century progressed, in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, when Robert de Fishlake was active, it seems that the terms armiger and scutifer meant roughly the same thing.   

[16] Gray, Sir Thomas, Scalacronica 1272-1363, ed. A. King, Surtees Society, ccix (2005), p. 157.

[17] M.J. Bennett, Community, Class and Careerism. Cheshire and Lancashire Society in the Age of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Cambridge, 1983), p. 182.

[18] The online database reveals that many other families straddled this dividing line between archer and man-at-arms. For example, the earl of Northumberland’s retinue in Scotland in the mid-1380s contained a William Chamberlayn, man-at-arms, and John and Robert Chamberleyn, archers; a John Hedworth, man-at-arms, and a Nicholas Hedworth, archer; and John and Robert Corbet, men-at-arms, besides a John Corbet, archer: TNA, E 101/40/5.

[19] TNA, E 101/31/17, m. 1.

[20] TNA, E 101/47/38, m. 1.

[21] For details of John de Fishlake’s service as a member of John de Mowbray’s household, see R.E. Archer, ‘The Mowbrays, earls of Nottingham and dukes of Norfolk to 1432’, Oxford D.Phil., 1984, pp. 173, 184, 318 n.4 and appendix 2. John de Fishlake had very close links to John de Mowbray. In 1423 he acted as an attorney on the earl’s behalf; and the accounts of the earl’s receiver-general show that a ‘John de Fyshelake’, clerk, was in receipt of a fee from the earl: A. Curry, ‘Personal Links and the Nature of the English War Retinue: A Case Study of John Mowbray, earl Marshal, and the campaign of 1415’, in Liens, réseaux, solidarités et France et dans les iles Britanniques (XIe-XXe siècle), ed. E. Anceau, V. Gazeau and F.J. Ruggiu (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2006), pp. 157, 165.

[22] Archer, ‘The Mowbrays, earls of Nottingham and dukes of Norfolk’, appendix 2. Archer does not mention a Robert de Fishlake but the records for the followers of Thomas de Mowbray are less complete than those for the followers of John de Mowbray.

[23] Ibid, p. 318, n.4.

[24] TNA, E 101/48/17.

[25] TNA, E 101/51/2, m. 29.

[26] Letters of protection or attorney were usually acquired by men-at-arms during the build-up to campaigns in order to protect their landed and other financial interests while they were away fighting: Ayton, Knights and Warhorses, pp. 156-64. The fact that not one member of the Fishlake family acquired a letter of protection or attorney may suggest, therefore, that they did not have many lands to protect.

[27] Archer, ‘The Mowbrays, earls of Nottingham and dukes of Norfolk’, p. 318 n.4.

[28] Archives Departementales d’Evreux IIF 4069.


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