When we think of a medieval army then we usually think of charging knights in heavy armor and armies of infantrymen fighting massive battles. And while that was part of medieval warfare one extremely important part of medieval warfare is often forgotten.
And that is the question of how fast medieval armies could actually move through the land.
Under normal weather conditions, a medieval army and its baggage train could cover a distance of 12,5 miles (20 km) per day. Units that exclusively consisted of mounted men and did not have a baggage train with them could cover up to 31 miles (50 km) per day although that number dropped to 18,6 miles (30 km) when the unit came close to hostile strongholds.
Let`s take a closer look!
External influences on the marching speed of a medieval army
The marching speed of an army heavily depended on external influences and medieval armies were no exception. The daily marching distance of an army was obviously higher when the streets and the weather were decent than when the army had to march through thick brushwork or over fields that were soaked from days or weeks of rain.
Another important factor is that the daily march over long distances could not be repeated over and over again, especially since the men (and horses) still had to be able to fight without first having to rest for days. But more on how medieval battles worked and why commanders would even try to save their men`s energy during a battle in my article here.
But not only the danger of fatiguing the men and horses was a limiting factor to the marching speed of an army. The baggage train could also slow down an army. But more on the speed and the significance of the baggage train and how the logistics of medieval warfare worked in my article here.
But let`s now look at the marching speed of medieval armies.
The marching speed of medieval armies
The distances that a medieval army could march per day are an average that was possible under average weather and street conditions.
Medieval infantry could march up to 12,5 miles (20 km) per day which was quite advantageous since that was also the distance that a baggage cart that was pulled by oxen could cover per day.
Problems arose when the carts of the baggage train were not pulled by oxen but by horses since they could then cover 18,6 miles (30 km) per day. So in that case the infantry would not be able to keep up with the supply train. However, the use of horses as draft animals also had other disadvantages (but also some advantages) that will be presented in my article here.
But even baggage carts that were pulled by horses could not keep up with mounted men.
While medieval footsoldiers could cover 12,5 miles (20 km) per day and a baggage cart that was pulled by horses could cover up to 18,6 miles (30 km) per day a unit of mounted men could cover as much as 31 miles (50 km) per day as long as they were far off the enemy. As soon as a mounted unit came close to the enemy the daily distance the mounted unit could cover dropped to 18,6 miles (30 km) since the men had to pay higher attention to their surroundings.
But it is noteworthy to mention that mounted warriors only made up a small part of most medieval armies. Here you can find out more about the composition (and organization) of medieval armies.
So a medieval army that moved through the land must have been a pretty impressive sight. Not only because of its relatively high marching speed but also because of its size. If you want to find out more about the size of medieval armies then I would like to recommend you my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
David S. Bachrach: Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012).
Malte Prietzel: Krieg im Mittelalter (Darmstadt 2006).