When a movie shows a medieval battle then that battle usually ends with one side being either completely or almost completely wiped out. But was that really the case? How high was the casualty rate of medieval battles in reality?
The casualty rate of French knights at the Battle of Crecy was unusually high at around 25% while the English casualty rate of the entire Crecy campaign (including the Battle of Crecy) was under 10 %. Generally, a casualty rate of under 10-15% seems reasonable when talking about medieval battles.
So let`s now look at the average casualty rate of medieval soldiers and why medieval knights usually had an extremely low casualty rate (at least when facing other European armies). After that, I would like to talk about the Battle of Crecy and the English Agincourt campaign to present a couple of reasons for the relatively high casualty rates during these endeavors.
And at the end of this article, I would also like to briefly touch on the subject of how disabled soldiers and the families of fallen soldiers were fed during the Middle Ages.
So let`s get started!
The average casualty rate of medieval battles & why knights rarely died in battle
Ok, first things first.
When we talk about the casualty and mortality rates of medieval battles then we are mostly speculating. The reasons for that can be found in the fact that the data on the fallen and wounded of a battle was not collected to the degree that it would allow us to put out an exact number. Especially the bodies of fallen infantrymen were rarely counted while the number of fallen knights is usually pretty well documented.
However, knights generally had a lower chance of getting killed during a medieval battle than medieval infantrymen.
There are 4 reasons for that that I present in my article here in depth. But the two most important are the armor of medieval knights that was highly effective in keeping him alive and the practice of rather taking an enemy knight prisoner (and releasing him for ransom money) then killing him.
Together with the other two reasons, more on them here, the effective armor (a knight usually had more armor than an infantryman) and the possibility to get decent ransom money for a captured knight (but close to none for a captured infantryman) increased the chances of a knight to survive a battle, even if his side lost.
One battle in the second half of the 12th century especially comes to mind when we are talking about the mortality rate of medieval knights. In that battle, a total of 900 French and English knights were involved but only 3 of them died!
So we can generally say that knights (as long as they fought other knights or at least Western European armies) had a relatively low casualty rate. That can not be said about the casualty rates of knights during the crusades since there the opponents were not bound to ideas like rather taking a knight prisoner than killing him.
But there were also battles in Western Europe where the casualty rate of medieval knights was unusually high. For that (and a better idea of the casualty rate of medieval soldiers in general) I would like to take a look at the Battle of Crecy (1346).
The Crecy Campaign and the Battle of Crecy (1346)
The Crecy Campaign lasted from 26. July to 4. September 1346 and is most famous for the English victory at the Battle of Crecy where especially the English Longbowmen were able to inflict extremely high casualty rates on the French knights and their allies.
The English casualties during the Crecy Campaign
So let`s first look at the English casualties of both the Crecy Campaign and the actual Battle of Crecy.
The English army that fought at the Battle of Crecy in 1346 was made up of 12.000-15.000 men. While the exact number of fallen English soldiers is unknown the number is usually put at around 300 men. Another 1.000 men were either killed or invalided between the start of the Crecy campaign in July of 1346 and the battle of Crecy itself, putting the total casualty rate of the Crecy Campaign at under 10%
And that pretty much falls into the already mentioned casualty rate of medieval wars of under 10-15%.
Now one might say that the Crecy campaign was a big English victory and so the English casualties were of course relatively small.
And yes, while the casualties at the actual battle of Crecy were rather low especially the siege (and capture) of the city of Caen weeks before the Battle of Crecy was rather costly. And we must also not forget that especially diseases could decimate medieval armies without any kind of battle!
So an English soldier had a relatively good chance of surviving a deployment to France when he enlisted for comparatively low pay. Here you can find out more about the pay of medieval soldiers, why it was comparatively low, and how soldiers could make some extra cash while on a campaign.
So after we have looked at the English casualties we now have to look at the French casualties during the Battle of Crecy.
The French Casualties in the Battle of Crecy
First of all, it is important to note that not only French knights and soldiers fought on the French side in the Battle of Crecy. Instead, the French king Philip VI had assembled a quite diverse army including several thousand Genovese crossbowmen as well as knights and magnates from the Holy Roman Empire.
The most famous knight to fight (and die) at the Battle of Crecy was probably the 50-year-old John of Luxembourg, the king of Bohemia, who joined the fighting despite being blind. He was accompanied by knights from all over the Holy Roman Empire and his son, who escaped the onslaught at Crecy and would later be known as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. Here you can find out more about the Holy Roman Empire and where it got its name from despite being neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire (As an old historian joke says).
When it comes to the size of the army facing the English troops at Crecy then the English Prince Edward III estimated the number of men-at-arms to be roughly 12,000 including 8,000 knights and esquires. Additionally, there were several thousand Genovese crossbowmen and roughly 12,000-15,000 infantrymen.
Unfortunately, we don`t know anything about the casualties among the French infantry. So we have to look at the French knights and men-at-arms (that outnumbered the English men-at-arms 4:1). We actually know the casualty rate of these knights pretty well since after the battle, heralds were sent over the battlefield to identify the fallen by their coats of arms.
In the weeks after the battle, their names were published by newspapers all over Western Europe.
Of the 8,000 knights and esquires that participated in the Battle of Crecy on the French side at least 2,000 died putting the casualty rate at 25%! The casualty rate of the French infantry is unknown.
Another interesting thing when looking at the fallen knights who fought on the French side is that many of them were magnates who left a big gap in politics behind. Prominent magnates who died in the Battle of Crecy are the Bohemian king John of Luxembourg and Charles, the count of Alencon and brother of the French king Philip IV.
For more information on the duties of a medieval count, I would like to recommend you my article here.
So now we have talked a lot about casualties. But these casualties did not only include men who died, more on how the fallen of a medieval battle were buried in my article here, but also men who were invalided.
The question that still remains is what happened to these invalided men, their families, and the families of fallen soldiers.
Let`s find out!
What happened to the families of killed or invalided medieval soldiers?
To find out what happened to invalided soldiers, their families, and the families of fallen soldiers I would like to look at another English campaign during the Hundred Years’ War. The Agincourt campaign.
During the entire Agincourt campaign (including the Battle of Agincourt in 1415) 16-17% of the approximately 12,000 English soldiers who had landed in Northern France were invalided or died either in battle or due to illness.
When a soldier was wounded but not killed then he was eventually taken care of by surgeons who accompanied the army. And although medieval surgery was much better than its modern reputation, more on that here, it was still limited even though soldiers oftentimes received better medical attention than the average civilian due to the experience of the surgeons accompanying medieval armies.
Because of that, it should not come as a surprise that many sceletons of medieval soldiers show signs of healed wounds. However, the medieval treatment of wounds, especially the restoration of the musculoskeletal system had its limitations.
Because of that, there was a considerable number of invalids that were sent home and had to be taken care of. Invalid medieval soldiers mostly had to rely on the charity of their families or the church. But many invalided medieval soldiers, their families, and the families of fallen soldiers had to try to make a living as beggars.
That was actually a lot different from the fate an invalided Roman soldier had. You can find out more about how invalided Roman soldiers were taken care of financially in my article here.
And here you can find out more about how medieval battles worked.
The casualty rate of French knights at the Battle of Crecy was 25% which was extremely high, especially for knights who usually had a much lower casualty rate than infantry. Even for medieval infantry, the average casualty rate during a battle was usually under 10-15%. That shows when sources describe the casualty rate of 16-17% during the entire English Agincourt campaign as unusually high.
While soldiers who survived their deployment did not only get paid for each day they served but also had the possibility of war bounty as additional income, invalided soldiers, their families, and the families of fallen soldiers either had to rely on the charity of their extended family and the church or outlive their days as beggars.
Here you can find out more about the Pay of medieval soldiers.
I hope you found our trip to the Middle Ages interesting. In this article, we have also talked a lot about the longbow (more on its effectiveness here). But have you ever wondered about the reasons why a highly effective weapon like the longbow was eventually replaced by firearms that were inferior in a one-on-one comparison?
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Malte Prietzel: Krieg im Mittelalter (Darmstadt 2006).
Richard Wadge: Arrowstorm: The world of the archer in the hundred years war (Gloucestershire 2007).
John Keegan: Kultur des Krieges (Berlin 1995).