Gendarme (historical)
A gendarme was a heavy cavalry
Cavalry or horsemen were soldiers or warriors who fought mounted on horseback. Cavalry were historically the third oldest and the most mobile of the combat arms...

man of noble birth, primarily serving in the French army from the Late Medieval
Late Middle Ages
The Late Middle Ages was the period of European history generally comprising the 14th to the 16th century . The Late Middle Ages followed the High Middle Ages and preceded the onset of the early modern era ....

 to the Early Modern periods of European History. Their heyday was in the late fifteenth to mid sixteenth centuries, when they provided the Kings of France with a potent regular force of heavily armoured, lance-armed cavalry which, when properly employed, could dominate the battlefield.


The word gendarme derives originally from the French homme d'armes (man-at-arms
Man-at-arms was a term used from the High Medieval to Renaissance periods to describe a soldier, almost always a professional warrior in the sense of being well-trained in the use of arms, who served as a fully armoured heavy cavalryman...

), plural of which is gens d'armes. The plural sense was later shortened to gendarmes and a singular made of this, gendarme.


Like most fifteenth century sovereigns, the Kings of France sought to possess standing armies of professionals to fight their incessant wars, most notable of which was the Hundred Years War. By that period, the old form of feudal levy had long proven inadequate and had been replaced by various ad hoc methods of paying vassal troops serving for money rather than simply out of feudal obligation, a method that was heavily supplemented by hiring large numbers of out-and-out mercenaries.

These methods, though improvements on the old annual 40-day service owed by knights (the traditional warrior elites of Medieval Europe), were also subject to strain over long campaigns. During periods of peace they also resulted in social destabilization, as the mercenary companies—referred to in this period as routiers
The routiers were mercenaries associated with free companies who terrorized the French countryside during the Hundred Years War. The word routier is French for "road-man", referring to their travelling nature. -Background:Routiers were a product of their time...

-- refused to disband until granted their back-pay (which was invariably hopelessly in arrears), and generally looted and terrorized the areas they occupied.

The French kings sought a solution to these problems by issuing ordinances (ordonnances) which established standing armies in which units were permanently embodied, based, and organized into formations of set size. Men in these units signed a contract which kept them in the service of the unit for periods of one year or longer. The first such French ordinance was issued by King Charles VII
Charles VII of France
Charles VII , called the Victorious or the Well-Served , was King of France from 1422 to his death, though he was initially opposed by Henry VI of England, whose Regent, the Duke of Bedford, ruled much of France including the capital, Paris...

 at the general parliament of Orléans in 1439, and was meant to raise a body of troops to crush the devastating incursions of the Armagnacs.

French gendarme companies

Eventually more ordinances would set the general guidelines for the organization of companies of gendarmes, the troops in which were accordingly called the gendarmes d'ordonnance. Each of the 15 gendarme companies was to be of 100 "lances
Lances fournies
The Lances fournies was a medieval army squad that would have surrounded a knight in battle, consisting of a small team built of squires, men-at-arms , archers, attendants and the knight himself...

", each "lance" composed of six mounted men—a noble heavy armoured horseman, a more lightly armed fellow combatant (coutillier), a page (a non-combatant) and three mounted archers meant as infantry support. The archers were intended to ride to battle and dismount to shoot with their bows, and did so until late in the fifteenth century, when they took to fighting on horseback as a sort of lighter variety of gendarme, though still called "Archers." These later "Archers" had armour less heavy than the gendarmes, and a light lance, but could deliver a capable charge when necessary.

This organization was provisional, however, and one of the mounted archers was commonly replaced by another non-combatant, a servant (valet).

In 1434, the pay for the members of the company was set as 120 livres for gendarmes, 60 for coutilliers, 48 for "archers", and 36 for the non-combatants.

Gendarme unit organization evolved over time. The retention of the "lance" as a relevant small unit formation, a relic of medieval times, gradually fell away in the sixteenth century, and, by an edict of 1534, Francis I
Francis I of France
Francis I was King of France from 1515 until his death. During his reign, huge cultural changes took place in France and he has been called France's original Renaissance monarch...

 declared that a company of gendarmes would be made up of 40 gendarme heavy, and sixty "Archer" medium, cavalry (each gendarme having two unarmed attendants, pages and/or valets), thus practically ending the old proportions of troop types based on the number of "lances." By the 1550s, advances in firearm technology dictated that a body of 50 light cavalry armed with an arquebus
The arquebus , or "hook tube", is an early muzzle-loaded firearm used in the 15th to 17th centuries. The word was originally modeled on the German hakenbüchse; this produced haquebute...

 be attached to each gendarme company.

The heavy cavalrymen in these companies were almost invariably men of gentle birth, who would have served as knights in earlier feudal forces. In many ways they still closely resembled knights—wearing a complete suit of plate armour
Plate armour
Plate armour is a historical type of personal armour made from iron or steel plates.While there are early predecessors such the Roman-era lorica segmentata, full plate armour developed in Europe during the Late Middle Ages, especially in the context of the Hundred Years' War, from the coat of...

, they fought on horseback, charging with the heavy lance
A Lance is a pole weapon or spear designed to be used by a mounted warrior. The lance is longer, stout and heavier than an infantry spear, and unsuited for throwing, or for rapid thrusting. Lances did not have tips designed to intentionally break off or bend, unlike many throwing weapons of the...

. (It should be noted that throughout the Hundred Years War, knights and, later, gendarmes fought on foot as well, as was the custom of that period, a response to the arrow storms unleashed by the massed longbow
A longbow is a type of bow that is tall ; this will allow its user a fairly long draw, at least to the jaw....

men of English armies.) according to some, the gendarme are simply heavy cavalry for the fact that not all the members were knights however, for the fact that they were of a knightly position and the majority of the members were, or eligible to become knights it would be more appropriate to call them the gendarme knights.

A gendarme company was formed by the crown, the king appointing a magnate to raise the company and be its captain, and paying him for its maintenance. In this way, the bonds between the crown and the magnates were maintained, as the king's patronage essentially bought the loyalty of the nobility. Likewise, appointment of individual gentlemen to a gendarme company (a matter of provincial administration) was mostly accomplished by patronage and recommendation, favouring those with the right family connections. Recruits preferred positions in companies stationed in their home province, but did not always obtain them.

The total number of gendarmes in the companies varied over the decades. The high point was roughly 4,000 "lances" during the latter part of the reign of Louis XI, but the Estates General of 1484 reduced this to 2,200 "lances", which number was thereafter, more or less, the peacetime average. This was generally increased by another 1,000 "lances" in wartime. When conflict ended, the reduction came either in the number of companies, or in the number of "lances" in the companies (or by a combination of these two methods). Captains dreaded a reduction of their company as a diminution of their prestige and income, and worked hard to prevent this—which companies were reduced usually reflected the influence of the respective captains at court.

The gendarme companies were permanently stationed in towns in the provinces throughout France, subject to be summoned during wartime and concentrated in the Royal armies. Some became closely associated with the towns where they were stationed. If these garrison towns did not have sufficient resources to support the gendarmes present, as was often the case, individuals often found lodging in nearby areas. This lack of lodging could apply even in times of peace, when many of the men retired to their homes instead of remaining in the garrison (particularly in winter), and despite the "leave" system, which allowed up to one quarter of the company to be away at any given time. Men who were away for these reasons were to be brought back to the company by the captains when ordered to do so by the provincial governor. Long-term absence was a chronic problem in the companies.

The French ordinances established regular infantry forces as well, but these were substantially less successful.

Burgundian gendarme companies

It was with his increasingly professional army, including its gendarme heavy cavalry, that the French king ultimately defeated the English in the Hundred Years War and then sought to assert his authority over the semi-independent great duchies of France. When the Burgundian duke
Duke of Burgundy
Duke of Burgundy was a title borne by the rulers of the Duchy of Burgundy, a small portion of traditional lands of Burgundians west of river Saône which in 843 was allotted to Charles the Bald's kingdom of West Franks...

 Charles the Bold wished to establish an army to stand up to this royal French threat, he emulated the French ordonnance army, raising his own force of gendarmes in ordonnance companies starting informally in 1470, officially establishing these by means of an ordonnance issued in 1471, and refining the companies in further ordonnances issued in 1472, 1473 and 1476. These created twelve ordonnance companies, for a total of 1,200 gendarmes.

Like French companies, the Burgundian gendarmes d'ordonnance companies were also composed of 100 "lances", and were similarly raised and garrisoned, but were organized differently, being split into four squadrons (escadres), each of four chambres of six lances each. Each Burgundian lance still contained the six mounted men, but also included three purely infantry soldiers—a crossbowman, a handgunner and a pikeman, who in practice fought in their own formations on the battlefield. There was a twenty-fifth lance in the escadre, that of the squadron commander (chef d'escadre
Chef d'escadre
In the ancien Régime French Navy, the rank of chef d'escadre was equivalent to the present-day rank of rear admiral. It was replaced in 1791 by the rank of "contre-amiral" ....


The newly established Burgundian Ordonnance companies were almost immediately hurled into the cauldron of the Burgundian Wars
Burgundian Wars
The Burgundian Wars were a conflict between the Dukes of Burgundy and the Kings of France, later involving the Old Swiss Confederacy, which would play a decisive role. Open war broke out in 1474, and in the following years the Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold, was defeated three times on the...

, where they suffered appalling casualties in a series of disastrous battles with the Swiss, including the loss of the Duke himself, leaving no male heir. Ultimately, however, elements of his gendarmes d'ordonnance were re-established by Philip the Handsome on a smaller scale, and these companies survived to fight in Habsburg
The House of Habsburg , also found as Hapsburg, and also known as House of Austria is one of the most important royal houses of Europe and is best known for being an origin of all of the formally elected Holy Roman Emperors between 1438 and 1740, as well as rulers of the Austrian Empire and...

 forces into the sixteenth century.

Gendarmes in battle in the early Sixteenth Century

France entered the sixteenth century with its gendarme companies being the largest and most respected force of heavy cavalry in Europe, feared for their powerful armament, reckless courage and esprit de corps. As the fifteenth century waned, so did the tactical practices of the Hundred Years War, and the gendarmes of the sixteenth century returned to fighting exclusively on horseback, generally in a very thin line (en haye), usually two or even just one rank deep, so as to maximize the number of lances being set upon the enemy target at once.
As such, the early to mid sixteenth century may appear to modern viewers to be a period of military anachronism—heavily armoured cavalry, appearing to all the world as the knights of old, careened across the battlefield alongside rapidly modernizing heavy artillery and infantry bearing firearms.

However, the gendarme cavalry, when properly employed, could still be a decisive arm, as they could deliver a potent shock attack and remained fairly maneuverable despite the extremely heavy armour they now wore to defend themselves from increasingly powerful firearms. At some battles, such as at Seminara
Battle of Seminara
The Battle of Seminara, part of the First Italian War, was fought in Calabria on June 28, 1495 between a French garrison in recently conquered southern Italy and the allied forces of Spain and Naples which were attempting to reconquer these territories...

, Fornovo
Battle of Fornovo
The Battle of Fornovo took place 30 km southwest of the city of Parma on 6 July 1495. The League of Venice was able to temporarily expel the French from the Italian Peninsula. It was the first major battle of the Italian Wars.-Antecedents:...

 and Ravenna
Battle of Ravenna (1512)
The Battle of Ravenna, fought on 11 April 1512, by forces of the Holy League and France, was a major battle of the War of the League of Cambrai in the Italian Wars...

, they clashed with their heavily armoured opposite numbers, and prevailed, dominating the battle. In others, such as at Marignano
Battle of Marignano
The Battle of Marignano was fought during the phase of the Italian Wars called the War of the League of Cambrai, between France and the Old Swiss Confederacy. It took place on September 13 and 15, 1515, near the town today called Melegnano, 16 km southeast of Milan...

, they were part of a de facto combined arms
Combined arms
Combined arms is an approach to warfare which seeks to integrate different branches of a military to achieve mutually complementary effects...

 team, operating in conjunction with infantry and artillery to achieve battlefield victory against an all-infantry foe. They could also function, by plan or by chance, as a decisive reserve which could enter into a confused battle and crush disordered enemy infantry. The prime example of this would be at Ravenna
Ravenna is the capital city of the Province of Ravenna in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy and the second largest comune in Italy by land area, although, at , it is little more than half the size of the largest comune, Rome...

, where the gendarmes, having just driven the Spanish cavalry off the field, then reversed the results of the infantry clash in which the Spanish had prevailed, riding down the disordered Spanish foot.

However, when unsupported and facing enemy infantry in good order, particularly those in pike and shot
Pike and shot
Pike and shot is a historical method of infantry combat, and also refers to an era of European warfare generally considered to cover the period from the Italian Wars to the evolution of the bayonet in the late seventeenth century...

 formations or in a strong defensive position, they suffered heavy casualties despite their now immensely thick armour. Examples include the Battle of Pavia
Battle of Pavia
The Battle of Pavia, fought on the morning of 24 February 1525, was the decisive engagement of the Italian War of 1521–26.A Spanish-Imperial army under the nominal command of Charles de Lannoy attacked the French army under the personal command of Francis I of France in the great hunting preserve...

, when the French cavalry were shot down by Spanish infantry who sought cover in broken terrain, and at Ceresole
Battle of Ceresole
The Battle of Ceresole was an encounter between a French army and the combined forces of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire during the Italian War of 1542–46...

, when the French gendarmes sacrificed themselves in fruitless charges against the self-supporting Imperial infantry regiments. The pike and shot formation developed by the Spanish was particularly deadly to the gendarmes, who suffered heavy casualties from arquebus and musket fire, but were unable to overrun the vulnerable shooters due to the protection offered by the pikemen of the formation.

Evolution into lighter cavalry in the later Sixteenth Century

Gendarmes faced a further challenge in the second half of the sixteenth century when confronted by a newly emergent troop type, the cavalry pistolier, which fought with massed pistol fire in deep columns. In the battles of the French Wars of Religion
French Wars of Religion
The French Wars of Religion is the name given to a period of civil infighting and military operations, primarily fought between French Catholics and Protestants . The conflict involved the factional disputes between the aristocratic houses of France, such as the House of Bourbon and House of Guise...

, the pistoliers—often German mercenary cavalry called Reiters or "Black Riders" -- shot down many of the gendarmes, and this created holes in the very thin lines of gendarmes which put the lancers at a significant disadvantage when they finally closed with the deep formations of pistoliers. As a result, the French, starting with the Huguenot rebels, eventually replaced the heavy gendarme lance with a "brace" of pistols, and the armour of the gendarme rapidly lightened to give the horseman more mobility (and to cut the extreme cost of fielding such troops).

Gendarmes after the Sixteenth Century

Cavalry called gendarmes continued to serve in French armies for centuries to follow, often with prominence (such as in the wars of Louis XIV
Louis XIV of France
Louis XIV , known as Louis the Great or the Sun King , was a Bourbon monarch who ruled as King of France and Navarre. His reign, from 1643 to his death in 1715, began at the age of four and lasted seventy-two years, three months, and eighteen days...

), but with less distinctive features than during the sixteenth century. The Royal Guard, known as the maison militaire du roi
Maison du Roi
The Maison du Roi was the name of the military, domestic and religious entourage around the royal family in France during the Ancien Régime and Bourbon Restoration; the exact composition and duties of its various divisions changed constantly over the Early Modern period...

, had two units of gendarmes : the Gendarmes de la garde (Guard Gendarmes), created in 1609 and the Gendarmes de France or Gendarmes d'Ordonnance, units of regular cavalry continuing the traditions of sixteenth-century Gendarmes.

In 1720, the Maréchaussée de France, a police force under the authority of the marshals of France
Marshal of France
The Marshal of France is a military distinction in contemporary France, not a military rank. It is granted to generals for exceptional achievements...

, was put under the administrative authority of the Gendarmerie de France. The Gendarmerie was dissolved in 1788 and the Maréchaussée in 1791, only to be recreated as a new police force of military status, the gendarmerie Nationale, which still exists. This explains the evolution of the meaning of the word gendarme from a noble man-at-arms to a military police officer.

Napoleon I
Napoleon I of France
Napoleon Bonaparte was a French military and political leader during the latter stages of the French Revolution.As Napoleon I, he was Emperor of the French from 1804 to 1815...

, desperate for troops after suffering heavy losses in the Russian
French invasion of Russia
The French invasion of Russia of 1812 was a turning point in the Napoleonic Wars. It reduced the French and allied invasion forces to a tiny fraction of their initial strength and triggered a major shift in European politics as it dramatically weakened French hegemony in Europe...

 and Central European campaigns after 1812, attempted to lure young men of noble birth to the ranks of his cavalry by establishing regiments of gendarmes d'élite, recalling the glamour and fame of the early noble-dominated gendarme companies. The resulting light cavalry units, though inexperienced, surprised the skeptical regular cavalry regiments by performing quite bravely in the end stages of Napoleon's wars.


  • Carroll, Stuart. Noble Power During the French Wars of Religion: The Guise Affinity and the Catholic Cause in Normandy, 1998.
  • Contamine, Phillipe. War in the Middle Ages, 1980 (reprint edition, 1992).
  • Potter, David. War and Government in the French Provinces, 2002

Further reading

  • Delbrück, Hans
    Hans Delbrück
    Hans Delbrück was a German historian. Delbrück was one of the first modern military historians, basing his method of research on the critical examination of ancient sources, the use of auxiliary disciplines, like demography and economics, to complete the analysis and the comparison between...

    . History of the Art of War, 1920 (reprint edition, 1990), trans. Walter, J. Renfroe.
Volume 3: Medieval Warfare
Volume 4: The Dawn of Modern Warfare.
  • Elting, John Robert. Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon's Grande Armée, 1997.
  • Oman, Sir Charles, A History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century, 1937.
  • Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, volume 18 (1939), page 83.
  • Oman, Sir Charles, A History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages, rev. ed. 1960.
  • Taylor, Frederick Lewis. The Art of War in Italy, 1494-1529, 1921.
  • Wood, James B. The King's Army: Warfare, Soldiers and Society during the Wars of Religion in France, 1562-76, 1996.
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