An extract from Armies of Feudal Europe 1066-1300
by Ian Heath

[c.f. the Roda Bible][Based on the Winchester Bible][Based on the Battle of Bouvines in Matthew Paris' 'Chronica Majora']
17, 18 & 19.      SERGEANTS, 11th-13th CENTURIES

Sergeants (Latin servientes, French serjants or sergents) came in many different guises. In feudal terminology they were vassals of less than knightly status holding a fraction (usually half) of a knight's fief in return for services rendered, chiefly military but sometimes agricultural or domestic. Probably a knight's own non-knightly retainers bore the title of sergeant too, though the terms clientes and sateillitsales occur in this capacity. However, the chroniclers also tended to use the term sergeant indiscriminately for all non-knightly soldiers, without differentiating between those of feudal and non-feudal origin or even between infantry and cavalry.

The sergeantes with whom we are chiefly concerned here, the non-noble vassals and retainers, usually fought as horsemen by the 12th century. Their equipment is most often described as similar to but somewhat lighter than that of knights, but in fact in the late-11th and early-12th centuries it may have been even lighter than is usually thought. The 'Inquest of Bayeux' (1133) records that men holding less than a knight's fief were to serve mounted and armed with lance, shield and sword, but does not mention armour at all, while mss. often likewise show knights accompanied by men with only lance, shield, sword and helmet who are undoubtedly sergeants. Figure 17 wearing a red tunic and blue hose, depicts one such horseman. These unarmoured figures disappear from the sources by the middle of the 12th century. Thereafter only armoured horsemen appear, usually so little different from one another that his almost impossible to distinguish between sergeants and knights; it can only be surmised, therefore, that figures such as 18 and 19 (an Englishman from the Winchester Bible of c. 1150, and a Frenchman from an illustration of the Battle of Bouvines in Matthew Paris' mid-13th century 'Historia Majora'), equipped with incomplete or old-fashioned armour, represent sergeants. The short mail corselets they both wear are usually described as haubergeons (the diminutive of 'hauberk'), this being the regulation form of body-armour of sergeants in the Order of the Temple, whose 12th century 'Rule' also states that their corselet sleeves were to be without mittens and their chausses without foot-pieces, in addition to which they were to substitute an iron cap for a helmet. Being less well-armoured than knights, however, they were not expected to stick it out for as long on the battlefield, the 'Rule' actually stating that sergeants will have the gratitude of God and the Order if they fight well, but if they see they cannot endure or are wounded, they may withdraw without asking permission, and without punishment. However, this applied only to sergeants with little or no armour; those equipped like knights were expected to fight like knights.

After heraldry came in sergeants as well as household knights sometimes carried their lord's device on their shield, lance-pennon and surcoat (see, for example, illustrations in Pietro da Eboli's late-12th century 'Carmen de Rebus Siculis', where groups of horsemen all have the same device on shields and helmets; see also page 133). The surcoats themselves may even have been of a uniform colour within retinue, the instance of an English outlaw in 1218 buying 100 marks' worth of cloth for his band 'as if he had been a baron or an earl' often being quoted as early evidence for this practice. Such use of liveries probably began on small scale in the late-12th century.