Livery and Maintenance

First in England, and later on the continent, there developed the practice of quickly raising armies of mercenaries with a system that came to be known as "livery and maintenance." The "livery" referred to a coat of distinctive color and design that indicated who the soldier was fighting for. The "maintenance" was the Medieval term for the money payment made to the mercenary soldier.

Livery was already an old custom by the 14th century, but it was used almost exclusively for servants. People who worked for nobles were generally called "servants" no matter what their pay or specific job. The overlord was obliged to provide food, lodging, care if the servant got sick or lived to old age, and, of course, clothing plus any other gifts the lord felt like handing out. For servants who attended the lord personally, it became fashionable to dress them in distinctive uniforms. Bright colors were favored, and there were usually designs on the livery jacket that corresponded to the lord's coat of arms. A well cared for servant often had several sets of clothes, one being the livery that was worn on special occasions when the lord wanted to show off.

As the Hundred Years War progressed, and more people became professional soldiers, there were also economic changes which made available more cash money with which to hire mercenaries. The economic changes were a long time in coming, as the barter system was gradually replaced by increasing amounts of gold and silver coins minted by governments. While the governments could enforce a monopoly on coinage, the great lords still had enormous wealth with which to raise their own armies. The decline of fedual vassals willing to pay their obligations in military service had led to increased use of cash payments to overlords in lieu of this service. But the kings were not the only ones with large amounts of cash. England and France each had several magnates, the great nobles, whose wealth approached that of the king himself. Moreover, the king had to run the kingdom largely out of his private income. The mandatory expesnses of the magnates were much less and this allowed the great nobles to build up war chests of millions of ducats. With this ready cash, they could hire an army of seasoned, professional soldiers on short notice. Dressed in the magnate's livery, these troops made an imposing sight, and this was often all that was required for the magnate to get his way.

The Golden Age of Livery and Maintenance was the late 15th century. In England, the War of the Roses went on for thirty years, as two coalitions of nobles fought over who was to control the crown. In France, the greatest magnate of them all, the duke of Burgandy, held the king of France at bay. The English magnates bankrupted themselves during the War of the Roses, leaving the monarchy the premier power in the land until parliament asserted itself in the 17th century. The French magnates were worn down by a succession of astute kings and the efficient Royal Army (the first professional, full time army to exist in Europe since Roman times). The dukes of Burgandy destroyed his own power with unsuccessful attempts to weaken the power of the kings of France and equally unsuccessful efforts to conquer Switzerland, until the last Duke --Charles the Rash-- had an unfortunate encounter with a Swiss halberd in 1477.

Thus, in the 16th century, ended the era of Livery and Maintenance. Although kings had tried to eliminate Livery and Maintenance by issuing laws, it was formidable Royal armies that finally accomplished the deed. Private armies became less common, and national armies more so and Livery and Maintenance went back to a custom for hiring unarmed servants.