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Medieval Military Ranks 101
Combat in the middle ages was drastically different from today or even during the world wars. Medieval warfare was intensely personal, bloody and painful. Battles often occurred on a small scale with neighbouring kingdoms in nearby regions. Taking over new land and pillaging their resources was a common tactic kings would use to expand.
In this post, we’ll look at the different medieval military ranks and their role in combat. This list starts with the king who had the most status and power and ends with the infantry who had the least status and most challenging job. By looking at all the medieval military ranks, you can see how the burden of responsibility would flow down the totem pole of status.
Table of Contents
- Armed Forces – Military ranks medieval
Perhaps the most recognized and self-explanatory rank, the king rules all within his domain. Unlike modern leaders, Kings were expected to lead their men on the battlefield. Most kings were selected by bloodlines, but fighting off coups and assassination attempts was a full-time job as a king. Kings earned money from taxes paid by the peasantry and from winning battles, which allowed them to pillage new lands. During battles, bringing down the king could completely shift the tide of the war.
In the middle ages, Queens were often left behind the scenes, but they still played a critical role. Their primary responsibilities were to help the king make intelligent decisions, spy on rivals and strategically spread gossip. With everyone trying to overthrow the king, the queen was one of the few people he could trust and confide in during difficult times. Queens also acted as regents during times the king was at war or too ill to perform their duties.
Medieval princes were groomed to become king from the moment they were born. Princes were trained in warfare from a very young age as they had an enormous burden they were about to inherit. During times of peace, princes were responsible for ensuring the welfare of the people or sometimes given a critical assignment in the military.
Similar to princes, princesses were also trained in combat and weapon warfare at an early age. If the king, queen, and princes all fell ill, the princesses were expected to assume leadership. Many princesses in the middle ages conducted battles and sieges of their own in order to benefit their kingdom. At the same time, princesses were also used as political pieces by promising arranged marriages. Kingdoms relied on the princess or queen to produce a male heir for the next generation.
Barons were high ranking nobles who often reported directly to their king. Barons had significant influence and power, which caused kings to pay many of them in land. One of the main responsibilities for barons was maintaining the kingdom’s army and having it ready to go at a moment’s notice. If the barons didn’t adequately supply and prepare the army, they paid a tax to the king instead. In some countries like Italy, barons had extensive jurisdiction powers and could even enact the death penalty by choice.
During the middle ages, lords and ladies often managed the land ruled by barons. Lords were also often tasked with running local manors. Lords could use their power to enforce laws while getting the general population to do things such as produce food at an extremely low cost. In many cases, the peasantry would also pay taxes to lords to live on their large properties. Lords usually owned everything on their property, including the crops, the people, and the village itself.
The majority of people during the middle ages lived their lives as peasants or serfs. Life wasn’t easy back then. Many peasants were treated like slaves by not being allowed to own anything and paying ridiculous amounts of tax. As previously mentioned, the lord would benefit from a lot of the labour done by the peasantry. Despite working 6 days a week, they barely earned enough to survive. Some peasants were granted freedom and were allowed to own specialized businesses such as bakeries, forges, and carpentry shops.
Armed Forces – Military ranks medieval
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Knights were armoured warriors, usually on horseback, who fought for their kings. Knights trained for combat from as young as 7 years old. Training would often include close-quarters combat, combat, and specialized weapon training. Because training started so young, it was often expensive, which caused most knights to come from wealthy families. Risking your life in battle to serve the king or the lord was seen as a great honour in medieval society. Young men training to become knights were called squires. The knight dubbing ceremony was an important event, which was followed by a large feast and party. Squires could bypass the dubbing ceremony by showcasing their skills on the battlefield. Knights who were successful in combat were paid in land, which made them high ranking members of society.
Archers were soldiers who stood out thanks to their skill with the bow and arrow. Archery was an essential part of military attack and defence strategies in the middle ages. The archers would often start the action when engaging a new army. Archers could also specialize as longbowmen, which was a similar weapon with longer range. Longbowmen often used shields during combat to compensate for the slow fire rate of the longbow. As weapon technology evolved, archers became crossbowmen as the crossbow was easier and faster to use.
The cavalry was an armoured unit that included mounted knights, lancers, and dragoons. The calvary had the advantage of being highly mobile but well protected by their armour. Larger horses or sometimes even camels were used to compensate for the extra weight from the armour. Soldiers often converted horses in the calvary to “warhorses,” which were equipped with armour and weapons. Javelins were a common weapon for the cavalry as they increased their range while using their mobility to their advantage.
The infantry relied on large numbers of men using weapons such as spear, shields, axes, and swords. Infantry units wore helmets for protection but were otherwise exposed to the harsh realities of medieval combat. Infantry units used different formations such as the wall or a rectangular deep solid formation to safely enter enemy territory. Tight formations were seen as a key factor to success during infantry versus infantry combat. Infantry battles could last for hours at a time, with some people stopping to take breaks or retreat the wounded from the battlefield. Of all military positions, infantry was the most difficult and most likely to result in a painful death.