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Yeoman was first documented in mid-14th-century England, referring to the middle ranks of servants in an English royal or noble household. Yeomanry was the name applied to groups of freeborn commoners engaged as household guards, or raised as an army during times of war. The 14th century also witnessed the rise of the yeoman longbow archer during the Hundred Years War, and the yeoman outlaws celebrated in the Robin Hood ballads. Yeomen also joined the English Navy during The Hundred Years War as seamen and archers.
In the early 15th century, yeoman was the rank of chivalry between page and squire. By the late 17th century, yeoman became a rank in the new Royal Navy for the common seamen who were in charge of ship's stores, such as foodstuffs, gunpowder, and sails.
References to the emerging social stratum of wealthy land-owning commoners began to appear after 1429. In that year, the Parliament of England re-organized the House of Commons into counties and boroughs, with voting rights granted to all freeholders. The Act of 1430 restricted voting rights to those freeholders whose land value exceeded 40 shillings. These yeomen would eventually become a social stratum of commoners below the landed gentry, but above the husbandmen. This stratum later embodied the political and economic ideas of the English and Scottish enlightenments, and transplanted those ideas to the Thirteen English colonies in North America during the 17th and 18th centuries. The yeoman farmers of those colonies became citizen soldiers during the American Revolution against Great Britain.
The 19th century saw a revival of interest in the medieval period with English Romantic literature. The yeoman outlaws of the ballads were refashioned into heroes fighting for justice under the law and the rights of freeborn Englishmen.
The etymology of yeoman is uncertain for several reasons.
The earliest documented use occurs in Middle English. There are no known Old English words which are considered as acceptable parent words for yeoman. Nor are there any readily identifiable cognates of yeoman in Anglo-Norman, Old Frisian, Old Dutch, Old Saxon, or Middle Low German. All of these languages are considered as being closely related to Old English at the time they were spoken. Taken together, these facts would indicate that yeoman (1) is a word specific to the regional dialects found in England; and (2) is nothing similar to any word used in continental Europe.
Another complicating factor for the etymology is that yeoman is a compound word made by joining two other words: yeo + man. Linguists have been perplexed about the origin of yeo ever since scholars such as John Mitchell Kemble and Joseph Bosworth began the modern linguistic study of Old English in the early to mid 19th century. Two possible etymologies have been proposed to explain the origin of yeo.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has proposed that yeoman is derived from yongerman, which first appeared in a manuscript called Pseudo-Cnut's Constitutiones de Foresta. Although the manuscript has been demonstrated to be a forgery (it was produced during the reign of King Henry II of England, rather than during the reign of King Cnut), it is considered authentic to the 11th and 12th century forest laws. According to the OED, the manuscript refers to 3 social classes: (1) the thegn (noble) at the top; (2) the tunman (townman) at the bottom; and (3) the lesser thegn in the middle. Yongerman is considered a synonym for a lesser thegn. OED then suggested that yongerman is related to youngman, meaning a male youth or young male adult who was in the service of a high-ranking individual or family.
What is interesting about this proposed etymology is that youngman is in turn related to Old Norse ungmenni (youths); North Frisian ongman (lad, fellow); Dutch jongeman (youngman); and German jungmann (deckhand, ordinary seaman). Thus this etymology provides a plausible semantic link from yongerman to youngman, while at the same time providing most of the earliest definitions of yeoman (see Historical Meanings below).
The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology (CDE) is another well-respected scholarly source, as it is published by the same company which produces The Chambers Dictionary. Their proposed etymology reconstructs a possible Old English word, *amann, as the parent of yeoman. (The asterisk or star as the first letter is a linguistic convention to indicate the word has been reconstructed; not a real word which was used at the time.) The reconstructed word is a compound word made from the root word , a (district, region) + mann (man). To further strengthen their etymology, CDE compares their reconstructed word to Old Frisian g?man (villager), and modern West Frisian gea, goa, Dutch gouw, German Gau (district, region).
When comparing the simpler and more comprehensive OED etymology with the CDE etymology, modern linguists have expressed dissatisfaction with the CDE version.
In the history of the English language, the earliest recorded usage of yeoman occurs in the Late Middle English period, and then becoming more widespread in the Early Modern English period. The transition from Middle English to Early Modern English was a gradual process occurring over decades. For the sake of assigning a historical date, OED defines the end of Middle English and the beginning of Early Modern English as occurring in 1500. The year 1500 marks the end of nearly 200 years of political and economic upheaval in England. The Hundred Years War, the recurring episodes of the Black Death, and over 32 years of civil war known as the War of the Roses all contributed to the end of the Middle Ages in England, and the beginning of the English Renaissance. It was during this time that English gradually replaced Norman French as the official language.
The first single-language dictionary of the English language, Robert Cawdrey's Table Alphabeticall, was published in 1604. According to its subtitle, the dictionary only included unusual English words, and loan words from foreign languages such as Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or French. Yeoman is not included in this dictionary. This suggests that in 1604, yeoman was a very commonly-used English word. A more comprehensive, or general dictionary, was published in 1658. Edward Phillips' The New World of English Words contained basic definitions. Yeoman is included; probably for the first time in an English language dictionary. But only a legal definition was given: (1) a social class immediately below a Gentleman; and (2) a freeborn man who can sell "his own free land in yearly revenue to the summe of 40 shillings Sterling". The fact that only the legal definition (introduced in the Act of 1430) was given is another suggestion that yeoman was a common word at the time.
Therefore, between the 12th century Pseudo-Cnut de Foresta and The New World of English Words in 1658, linguists have had to re-construct the meanings of yeoman from the surviving manuscripts. The various meanings of yeoman were apparently widely understood by the document author and his audience, and were not explained in the manuscripts. Linguists have deduced these specific historical meanings based on the context in which yeoman was used within the document itself. It is these meanings which are described in the following sections.
This is one of the earliest documented uses of yeoman. It refers to a servant or attendant in a royal or noble household, usually one who is of higher rank in the household hierarchy. This hierarchy reflected the feudal society in which they lived. Everyone who served a royal or noble household knew their duties, and knew their place. This was especially important when the household staff consisted of both nobles and commoners. There were actually two household hierarchies which existed in parallel. One was the organization based upon the function (duty) being performed. The other was based upon whether the person performing the duty was a noble or a commoner.
During the 14th century, the sizes of the royal households varied between 400 and 700 servants. Similar household duties were grouped into Household Offices, which were then assigned to one of several Chief Officers. In the royal households of Edward II, Edward III, and Edward IV, the Chief Officers, and some of their responsibilities, were:
Even from this small list of duties, it is evident that there were duties which only the nobility were entitled to perform. The Chief Officers were obviously nobles, and any duties which required close contact with the lord's immediate family, or their rooms, were handled by nobles.
The servants were organized into a hierarchy which was arranged in ranks according to the level of responsibility. The highest rank, which reported directly to the Chief Officer and oversaw an individual Household Office, was the Sergeant. The word was introduced to England by the Normans, and meant an attendant or servant. By the 15th century, the sergeants had acquired job titles which included their household office. Some examples are Sergeant of the Spicery, Sergeant of the Saucery, and Sergeant of the Chandlery. The lowest rank of the Household Office was the Groom. First documented in Middle English, it meant a man-child or boy. When used in this sense as the lowest rank of a Household Office, it referred to a menial position for a free-born commoner. A stable boy was one of these entry-level jobs. The modern meaning of groom as a stable hand who tends horses is derived from this usage.
Yeoman was the household rank between Sergeant and Groom. One of the earliest contemporary references to yeoman is found in the Household Ordinances of King Edward III written near the end of the English Late Middle Ages.
A Household Ordinance is a King's Proclamation itemizing everyone and everything he desires for his royal household. In modern terms, it is the King's budget submitted to the English Parliament, itemizing how the tax revenues allotted to the King would be spent. Any budget shortfalls were expected to be made up from either the King's revenues from the Crown lands, or loans from Italian bankers. The Ordinance can contain, among other items, the number of members of his royal household and their duties.
Fortunately, two ordinances have survived from Edward III's reign which provide a glimpse into the King's Household during times of war as well as peace. They were recorded by Edward's Treasurer, Walter Wentwage. The 1344 Ordinance described the King's household that went with him to war in France. The 1347 Ordinance describes Edward's household after the Truce of Calais. Edward returned as the Black Death swept thru France and into England.
In the 1344 Ordinance, there are two groups of yeomen listed: Yeomen of the King's Chamber and Yeomen of the Offices. Both groups are listed under Officers and ministers of the house with their retinue. (Spellings has been modernized.) The separation into two groups seems to follow the contemporary social distinction between noble and common yeomen who share the same rank. This same distinction is found in the 1347 Ordinance, where Yeomen of the King's chamber are contained in the same list with Yeomen of offices in household.
Comparison of the two manuscripts reveals that Edward III had nineYeomen of the King's chamber while on campaign in France, and twelve while he was home in England. Of the Yeomen of the Offices, Edward had seventy-nine, and seventy while in England.
Both the Yeomen of the King's chamber and the Yeomen of the Offices received the same wages. While on campaign, the yeomen received a daily wage of 6 pence. Sixpence at the time was considered as standard for 1 day's work by a skilled tradesman. To compare with modern currency, the sixpence (half-shilling) in 1340 was worth between about £18.73-21.01 ($24.14-27.08 US) in 2017. A slightly different comparison is with the median household disposable income in Great Britain was £29,600 ($37,805 US) in 2019. Since the yeoman worked 7 days/per week, he would have earned between £6836-7669 ($8,730-11,072 US) per year in 2019 currency. While serving his King at home, the yeomen received an annual salary of 13 s 4d, and an annual allowance of 4 s for his livery. Livery was a symbol of the lord, conveying a sense of membership in the lord's house. The yeoman would be expected to wear it every day in the presence of the lord. His rank entitled him to dine in the Great Hall.
By the reign of King Henry VI, some of the Household Yeomen had acquired job titles. The Household Ordinance of King Henry VI, written in 1455, listed the names of those yeomen with functional titles. The following is a partial list, arranged by the Office:
An unusual-sounding job title was Yeoman for the King's Mouth. This was not a food taster for poison. Rather it applied to any job which required the handling of anything that touched the King's mouth: cups, bowls, table linen, bed linens etc. The Household Ordinance lists the following as Yeoman for the King's Mouth and the Office in which they worked:
Detailed descriptions of the duties assigned to these and other yeomen in the Household Offices are given in Liber Niger Domus Regis Angliae Edw. IV (Black Book of the King's Household Edward IV).
These were 24 yeomen archers chosen from the best archers of all the lords of England for their "cunning and virtue", as well as for their manners and honesty. The number of archers was a reminder of the 24 archers in Edward III's King's Watchmen. Four of the yeomen: Yeoman of the Wardrobe; Yeoman of the Wardrobe of Beds; and 2 Yeomen Ushers of the Chamber ate in the King's Chamber. The rest ate in the Great Hall with the Yeomen of the Household, except for the four great feasts (Christmastide, Eastertide, Whitsuntide, and Allhallowtide), when all the Yeomen ate in the King's Chamber. Additional duties were: Yeoman of the Stool; Yeoman of the Armory; Yeoman of the Bows for the King; Yeoman of the King's Books; and Yeoman of the King's Dogs. The Yeoman on night watch were armed with their swords (or other weapons) at the ready, and their harness (quiver) strapped to their shoulders.
The duty of serving the King's person was assigned to the Sergeant of the King's Mouth, who had a Yeoman and a Groom as his deputies. Anything that touched the King's mouth at the dining table was considered as their responsibility. The King's personal tableware (plates, cups, ewers, his personal eating utensils) made of precious metals and jewels, as well as his personal table linens (some were embroidered with silver or gold thread) were retrieved from the Household Treasurer. The Treasurer drew up a list of the valuable objects being withdrawn from the Royal Treasury, and each object was weighed before it was released to the Sergeant and/or his deputies. Whether the King dined in his Chamber in the Great Hall, the Groom's duty was brush the tables clean, and cover them with the King's table linens, which were "wholesome, clean, and untouched" by strangers. During the meal, the Sergeant attended the King with "clean basins and most pure waters" and towels untouched by strangers for cleansing his hands as needed. If the Sergeant was away or not fit to appear at the King's table, the Yeoman would take his place. After the meal, the soiled linens were taken to the Office of the Lavendrey (Laundry), where they were carefully inspected and counted by the both the Ewery deputies and those responsible for the King's Laundry. After being washed and dried, they were counted and inspected once again. The tableware was cleaned in the Ewery and returned to the Treasurer, where they were re-weighed to verify that no silver or gold had been removed. The table linen was closely inspected for any damage by the Treasurer. This traceability helped to discourage theft or intentional damage, as the servants were "upon pain of making good therefore, and for the lost pieces thereof."
Yeoman service (also yeoman's service) is an idiom which means "good, efficient, and useful service" in some cause. It has the connotations of the work performed by a faithful servant of the lower ranks, who does whatever it takes to get the job done.
The sense - although not the use - of the idiom can be found in the Gest of Robyn Hode, dated to about 1500. In the First Fitte (the first section of the ballad), Robin gave money to a poor knight to pay his debt to the monks of St Mary's Abbey. Noticing that the knight was traveling alone, Robin offered him the service of Little John as a yeoman in lines :
Here Robin vouches for Little John as a yeoman, a faithful servant who will perform whatever duties are required in times of great need.
The phrase yeoman's service is used by William Shakespeare in Hamlet (published in 1601). In Act V, Scene II, Hamlet tells Horatio how he discovered the king's plot against himself in a commission (document). Hamlet then says he has substituted for the original a commission which he himself wrote:
Hamlet remarks that he "wrote it fair", that is, in elegant, gentlemanly prose; a style of writing which he tried very hard to forget. But in composing the fake commission, Hamlet had to resort to "that learning". He tells Horatio that "it did me yeoman's service", that is, his learning stood him in good stead. Standing one in good stead is another idiom very similar in meaning to yeoman service. Note that it was used in the third line of Stanza of the Gest of Robyn Hode quoted in the paragraph above.
Marshalsea Court was a court of the English royal household, presided over by the Steward and the Knight-Marshal. The court kept records from about 1276 until 1611. Unfortunately, only a few survive from the years 1316-59. Some information on the yeomen of the Marshalsea Court can be found in the Household Ordinance of King Edward IV from about 1483. The author of the Ordinance, looking back to the earlier household ordinances of King Edward III wrote: "Our sovereign lord's household is now discharged ... of the Court of Marshalsea, and all his clerks and yeomen." The writer was referring to the transfer of the Marshalsea Court from the royal household.
The Ordinance describe the duties of the Steward of the Household, who was also the Steward of the Court of Marshalsea. The Steward was assigned one chaplain, two squires, and four yeomen as his personal retinue. One yeoman was specifically attached to the Steward's rooms at the Court of Marshalsea "to keep his chamber and stuff". When the Steward was present in Court, he was entitled to a 10-person retinue. Besides the Steward and the Knight-Marshal, two other members of the royal household were empowered to preside: the Treasurer and the Controller. Of the Steward, Treasurer, and the Controller, at least one of them must preside in the Court everyday.
One of the earliest documents which contains yeoman as a chivalric rank is the Chronicon Vilodunense (Life of Saint Edith). Originally written in Latin by Goscelin sometime in the 11th century, it was later translated into the Wiltshire dialect of Middle English about 1420. Part of the manuscript relates a story about the archbishop of York caught in a storm at sea while on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He prayed to Saint Edith for the storm to subside, and suddenly he saw Saint Edith standing beside him. The Blessed Virgin had sent her, she said, to assure the archbishop he would arrive home safe and sound. Miraculously, the storm stopped. The archbishop kept his vow, and visited St Edith's tomb at Wilton Abbey. There he preached a sermon about the miracle to each man there: knight, squire, yeoman, and page.
Although Wilton Abbey was a Benedictine nunnery, it held its lands from the king by knight service. The Abbess' knights were her tenants, who in turn held land from the Abbey by knight service. Usually the abbess fulfilled her duty to the king by scutage or paying a fine. But she had knights with King Henry III on his 1223 Welsh campaign, and at the Siege of Bedford Castle the following year. Between 1277 and 1327 she offered knight service at least 4 times.
About 50 years later in 1470, another reference to yeomen is made in the Warkworth Chronicle. The scene is King Edward IV's coronation, and the chronicler lists the nobles who received titles from His Majesty. At the end of the list is the note: "And other gentlemen and yeomen he made knights and squires, as they had deserved." (modern spelling) The chronicler makes no further mention of these men.
An early historical meaning that seems to have eventually disappeared is "something pertaining to or characteristic of a yeoman", such as the speech and the dress. The Ballad of Robin Hood and the Potter is considered as one of the earliest, surviving as a manuscript dated to about 1500. Robin demands a one penny toll of the Potter, and the Potter refuses. A scuffle ensues, in which the Potter overcomes Robin. The Potter then wants to know whom he has beaten. After hearing Robin's name, the Potter responds:
What Robin noticed was the way in which the Potter spoke. Whether he was referring to his direct straight forward manner, or his dialect, or both, is unclear.
The Yeoman Archers were the English Army's response to a chronic manpower problem when trying to field an army on the European continent during the 14th century. Against 27,000 French knights, England could only muster at most 5,000 men-at-arms. With this 5:1 tactical disadvantage, the English needed a strategic advantage.
When Edward I invaded Wales in 1282, he quickly realized the battlefield importance of the opposing Welsh archers. Firing from ambush, they inflicted serious casualties on Edward's army. When Edward invaded Scotland for the second time in 1298, his army consisted mostly of infantry (12,500 of 15,000 men). His infantry included about 10,500-10,900 Welshmen. 2,000 men, including archers, were raised as part of the Lancashire and Cheshire levies under the Commission of Array. At the Battle of Falkirk, the English army archers opened up the Scottish schiltrons with hails of arrows. The Scottish infantrymen fled the battlefield, to be pursued and killed by the English cavalry. Between 1300 and 1304, Edward returned to Scotland four more times to complete his conquest. However, the size of his army grew smaller with each campaign, as the Scots refused to meet Edward in battle. Edward appeared to realize that large numbers of infantry troops were not mobile enough to chase and do battle with an elusive opponent. However, North Wales and the English counties along the Scottish border were acquiring military experience. The yeoman archers were learning new skills as mounted archers.
Edward died in 1307, while en route to Scotland for yet another invasion. His son, now King Edward II, continued his father's Scottish campaigns beginning in 1313. Then came the disastrous defeat at Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. The army was in marching order, with the archers at the rear of the column. They could do nothing against the Scottish spearmen attacking the front of the column. Edward II was deposed in 1327 by a coup engineered by his wife, Queen Isabella and her paramour, Roger Mortimer. Three years later, his son King Edward III, wrested control of England from his mother and executed Mortimer. In 1333, Edward III undertook his first invasion of Scotland, which culminated with the Battle of Halidon Hill. Halidon Hill is where the 20-year old Edward III learned how to combine archers and dismounted men-at-arms - tactics that he would employ during his Crecy Campaign in France.
The 1344 Household Ordinance of King Edward III provides some contemporary evidence for the use of archers in Edward's Crecy Campaign in France. Only The King's Archers (a total of 121 men) are identified with a functional title. The rest of the archers are listed as either Archers, Archers on foot, or Archers on horse. The latter title does not imply archers shooting from horseback. It refers to the English practice of having mounted archers being able to reach the scene quickly, dismount, and set up a firing line. The Archers on foot would then follow as reinforcements. The Esquires of the King's Household (a total of 101) were responsible for 60 Archers on horse, and 21 Archers on foot.Household Officers and Ministers had 21 Archers on horse for their protection. Even the 19 Minstrels had 3 Archers on horse and 3 Archers on foot assigned as protection. At the end of the listing, a total of 20,076 Archers was given for Edward's entire army. The daily wage for the three classes of archers is interesting when compared to the Yeomen of the King's Chamber, who received 6 pence a day. The King's Archers received 6 pence; Archers on horse received 4 pence; and Archers on foot received 3 pence. In contrast, the 4,244 Welshmen on foot received just 2 pence. From the description Welshmen on foot and only receiving a daily wage of 2 pence, it is not certain that these Welshmen were archers.
Crécy was followed by another English victory at the Battle of Poitiers, and a final victory at the Siege of Calais. By the end of the Hundred Years War, the Yeoman Archer had become as legendary as his bow.
Edward I had used the Commission of Array to conscript his infantry & archers. Unfortunately, this method tended to scoop up men from the very bottom rungs of feudal social ladder, and very few archers. His grandson, Edward III, introduced a new recruiting technique called contracted indentures. They were agreements for military service for a specified period at a specified price. The indenture was agreed between the King and an individual commander. Usually, these were the same men who would have owed the King feudal military service. Under the indenture, the commander would recruit his own archers and men-at-arms as a single cohesive force. Thus, those going into battle were among men they knew and had trained with. Furthermore, since the archers had to provide their own horses, they would be of at least moderate means. Economics of war drew the social levels of the men-at-arms and the yeoman closer together. Yeomen were becoming the lower level of the gentry.
There were four reasons why a man-at-arms or a yeoman would go to war in France: pay; plunder; patronage; and pardon. The daily wage was rather attractive; as described above in section (). But English kings were notoriously slow with their pay, especially in time of war. Plunder was a much greater attraction. The division of battle spoils was actually written into the indentures. Normally, the king was entitled to one-third of all the spoils taken by his contracted commanders. In turn, the commanders were entitled to one-third of the spoils taken by their men. Patronage was almost as attractive as booty. Combat camaraderie counts for a lot once the war is over. Just as the king would look more favorably upon a commander who served him well in the campaign, so would that commander look more favorably upon a yeoman who served him faithfully. Finally, there is a pardon. Many excellent archers were outlaws. The king offered pardons for all their offenses, including murder.
On 22 August 1485, near the small village of Stoke Golding, Henry Tudor met King Richard III in battle for the Crown of England. The War of the Roses had persisted intermittently for more than 30 years between the rival claimants of the House of York (white rose) and the House of Lancaster (red rose). In 1483, Richard, of the House of York, had deposed his young nephew, 12-year old Edward V. Henry Tudor, of the House of Lancaster, was the favored candidate to replace Richard.
Three armies met that day on Bosworth Field: Richard, with his supporters, Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Northumberland; Henry, with his troops under command of the veteran John de Vere, Earl of Oxford; and the troops of Thomas, Lord Stanley. Stanley was a powerful lord in northwest England. But he was stepfather of Henry Tudor, and Richard was holding his son hostage. Stanley's forces remained uncommitted as the battle raged. As Oxford advanced, the troops appeared to leave Henry, his bodyguards, and some French mercenaries isolated. Or so it appeared to Richard. Sensing an opportunity, Richard charged toward Henry. Seeing this, Stanley made his decision, and charged to reinforce Henry. Henry's bodyguards fought bravely to hold off Richard's bodyguards until the arrival of Stanley's troops. During the melee, Richard's horse became mired in the marsh, and he was killed. Henry had won.
Henry rewarded his bodyguards by formal establishing the Yeomen of the Guard of (the body of) our Lord the King. The King of England always had bodyguards (see Yeoman of the Crown). This royal act recognized their bravery and loyalty in doing their duty, and designated them as the first members of a bodyguard to protect the King (or Queen) of England forever. In their first official act on 1 October 1485, fifty members of the Yeoman of the Guard, led by their Captain, John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford, formally escorted Henry Tudor to his coronation ceremony.
The Tower of London was used as permanent royal residence until 1509-10, during the reign of King Henry VIII. Henry ordered 12 Yeoman of the Guard to remain as a garrison, indicating that the Tower was still a royal palace. When the Tower no longer served that function, the garrison became warders, and were not permitted to wear the Yeoman of the Guard uniform. During the reign of Henry's son, Edward VI, the warders were given back the uniform. This was done as a result of petition from the former Lord Protector of the Realm, Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset. Seymour, who was Edward's uncle, had been confined there, and found the warders to be most considerate.
The earliest documented use of yeoman relative to a navy is found in the Merchant's Tale of Beryn: "Why gone the yeomen to boat - Anchors to haul?" The context of the quotation sheds no further light on either yeomen or boats. What is important is the date of the manuscript: between 1450-70. This places the Merchant's Tale of Beryn about the same time as the Robin Hood and the Monk manuscript, and shortly before the end of the Hundred Years War. Therefore, this meaning of yeoman occurs very early in Middle English. To understand the connections between yeoman and the English navy, it is necessary to examine King Edward III's reign and the beginning of the Hundred Years War.
England did not have a standing navy until the Tudor Navy of King Henry VIII. Before then, the "King's Ships" were a very small fleet allocated for the King's personal use. During the Hundred Years War, King Edward III actually owned only a few ships. The rest were made available to the King through agreements with his nobles and the various port towns of England. About 25 ships of various sizes were made available to Edward III every year. They ranged from the small barges (descended from the famous Norman longships of the Bayeux Tapestry) which shuttled the royal retinue up and down the River Thames, to the large cogs. The cogs were merchant ships, built large to carry cargo. They had high prows and sterns, and a single mast with a single square sail. The largest cogs were built to carry the large casks of the wine trade. The Vintners' Company, in return for their monopoly on the wine trade, had to make their cogs available to the King on demand.
The 1345 Household Ordinance of Edward III provides a brief summary of the Fleets organized for the Crécy campaign. The South Fleet (which included all English ports south and west of River Thames) consisted of 493 ships with 9,630 mariners. Of these, the King's Ships (25 ships with 419 mariners), the ports of Dartmouth (31 ships with 757 mariners), Plymouth (26 ships with 603 mariners), and London (25 ships with 602 mariners) were the largest contingents. The North Fleet (which included all English ports north of River Thames) consisted of 217 ships with 4521 mariners. The port of Yarmouth, with 43 ships with 1095 mariners, was the largest contingent. The definition of a mariner is unclear, as is the difference between a mariner and a sailor. The number of mariners given is about twice that needed to man a ship. Edward's warships carried two crews. The second crew was used for night sailing, for providing a crew for prize ships, and for providing more fighting men.
Early in the Hundred Years War, the largest existing merchant ships, such as the cog, were converted to warships with the addition of wooden castles. There were three types of castles: forecastle (at the prow), aftcastle (at the stern), and the topcastle (at the top of the mast). A record from 1335 tells of the vessel Trinity (200 tons) being converted for war. As new ships were built, the castles became integral with the ship's hull.
As the King was impressing all the big ships and their crews for the war effort, the mayors and merchants of the port towns were retrofitting old ships and building new ones for harbor defense, and patrols to protect coastal ships and fishing boats from enemy ships and pirates.
By this time (mid-14th century), the Captain of the ship was a separate military rank. He was responsible for the defense of the ship. For every 4 mariners aboard the warship, there was 1 man-at-arms and 1 archer who was stationed in the castles. For a vessel the size of the Trinity, which carried about 130 mariners, there were at least 32 men-at-arms and 32 archers.
These illuminations from a 14th century manuscript provide some insight as to how the retrofitted castles were used in battle. The first illustration shows a 2-masted vessel, with a man-at-arms in the retrofitted aftcastle, and an archer in the retrofitted topcastle.
The next illustration shows a battle scene. The tactics included using grappling hooks to position the ships so that the archers on the aftcastles had clear shots into the opposing ship. After raking the deck with arrows, the men-at-arms would swing over to finish the job.
The warship Captain was also responsible for convoying 30 merchant vessels from English ports to the French shore. These vessels carried the troops, horses, food, forage, and whatever else was needed upon landing in France.
The Master (or Master Mariner) was responsible for sailing the vessel. Under him were the Constables (equivalent to today's boatswains). One constable oversaw twenty crewmen. Collecting a crew was traditionally the task of the Master. However, with the need for double-crews, the King authorized his Admirals to offer the King's pardon to outlaws and pirates. In 1342, the number of men who responded exceeded the demand. Edward's deputies never had trouble again raising the crews they needed. This is reminiscent of the pardons offered by Edward to outlaws of the Robin Hood ballads. Therefore, it is possible that the real answer to "Why gone the yeomen to boat - Anchors to haul?" was a pardon.
Instances of yeoman in a naval context are rare before 1700. In 1509, the Office of Ordnance had a Master, Clerk, and Yeoman. In 1608, a House of Lords manuscript mentions a ship's gunner and a yeoman. Then in 1669 appeared The Mariner's Magazine, dedicated to the Society of Merchant-Adventurers of the City of Bristol. Among the various chapters on the use of mathematics in sea navigation and gunnery, the author suggests "He [the Gunner] must be careful in making Choice of a sober honest Man, for the Yeoman of the Powder."(modern spelling) In 1702, actual titles of seamen appear in the London Gazette: Yeomen of the Sheets, and Yeomen of the Powder Room.
This review of the yeoman freeholders is divided into three periods: (a) up to 1500; (b) between 1500-1600; and (c) between 1600-1800. This division corresponds roughly to the historical changes experienced by the freeholders themselves, as well as the shifting contemporary social hierarchies in which they lived. It is also influenced by the availability of sources for each period.
The Parliament of 1327 was a watershed event. For the first time since the Norman Conquest, an English king would be disposed peaceably, and not usurped by military means. Although Edward II had been previously threatened with deposition in 1310 and 1321, all those who attended that Parliament were aware of the constitutional crisis. The king was imprisoned by his Queen Isabella and her paramour Roger Mortimer after their invasion of England. The Parliament was a legal pretense to confer legitimacy upon their actions. The Lords Temporal, the Lords Spiritual, Knights of the Shire and Burgesses from the towns, as well as representatives from the Cinque Ports were summoned. (Note 13) According to Michael Prestwich: "What was necessary was to ensure that every conceivable means of removing the King was adopted, and the procedures combined all possible precedents". Hence, establishing the legitimacy of Edward III was paramount. But it was the commons who drove the proceedings, both before and after Edward III's coronation. Restoration of law and order was their primary concern, thus beginning the tradition of the commons responding to judicial concerns.
That such an event never occurred on the continent (Note 16) indicates that England was somehow different from the continent.
During the 1790s, the threat of French invasion of Great Britain appeared genuine. In 1794, The British Volunteer Corps was organized for home defense, composed of local companies of part-time volunteers. Their cavalry troops became known as the Yeomanry Cavalry. The infantry companies were disbanded by 1813, as the threat of Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion evaporated. However, the Yeomanry Cavalry was retained. They were used to quell the food riots of 1794-95 and break up workers' strikes during the 1820s-1840s, as part of their mandate was to maintain the King's Peace. The rise of civilian police forces during this same period (the 1829 Metropolitan Police Act, the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act, and the 1839 Rural Constabulary Act) replaced the Yeomanry Cavalry as an instrument of law enforcement. In 1899, the Yeomanry Cavalry were deployed overseas during the Second Boer War, after a series of devastating British Army defeats. In 1901, the Yeomanry Cavalry formed the nucleus of the new Imperial Yeomanry. Eight years later, the Imperial Yeomanry and the Volunteer Force were combined as the Territorial Force.
The Continental Navy was established by the Continental Congress in 1775. The legislation called for officers, warrant officers, and enlisted men. The roster of enlisted men was left open to each ship captain to fill as he deemed necessary. After the Treaty of Paris, the Navy was considered unnecessary by Congress. It was disbanded in 1785, and the surviving ships were sold off.
The US Constitution (Article I, Section 8, Clause 14) granted the new US Congress the power to build and maintain a navy. It wasn't until 1794, when the worsening US relations with Great Britain and France, as well as the continuing attacks by Barbary pirates, forced Congress to appropriate funds to construct 6 frigates. The US naval hierarchy established followed the precedent set by the British Royal Navy. To which the US Navy added Petty Officers, which included the jobs traditionally assigned to naval yeomen. One petty officer was called Yeoman of the Gunroom; another was Captain's Clerk, which evolved into the generic Yeoman. The petty officers were appointed by the ship's captain, and served at his pleasure. They did not retain their rank when they moved to another ship.
As the US Navy transformed from sail to steam, and from wood to steel, the yeoman's duties gradually changed to more administrative tasks. The Gunner's Yeoman was eliminated in 1838, the Boatswain's Yeoman in 1864, the Engineer's Yeoman and the Equipment Yeoman in 1893. The Captain's Clerk of 1798 became a Yeoman in 1893. Which makes the humble Yeoman a descendant of one of the original rates and ratings in the US Navy.
A J Pollard, in his book Imagining Robin Hood: The Late Medieval Stories in Historical Context, proposed that the first Robin Hood was a literary fiction of the 15th and early 16th centuries. Note that Pollard does not claim that Robin Hood was not historical. He considers that what we think we know about Robin is actually based upon how previous generations over the last 500 years have viewed him. In his review of Pollard's book, Thomas Ohlgren, one of the editors of the University of Rochester's The Robin Hood Project, agreed. Because A Gest of Robyn Hode is a 16th-century collective memory of a fictional past, it can also be seen as a reflection of the century in which it was written.
This section uses Pollard's proposition to follow the Yeoman from the primary sources examined above, through the English language literature of the 14th-16th centuries, and into the 19th century Romantic historical novels below.
Rhymes (ballads) of Robin Hood were being sung as early as the 1370s. William Langland, the author of Piers Plowman, has Sloth say that he does not know his Pater Noster (Latin for the Our Father prayer) as perfectly as the priest sings it, but he does know the rhymes of Robin Hood. Unfortunately, the rhymes that William Langland heard have not survived. The earliest surviving ballads are Robin Hood and the Monk (dated to 1450) and Robin Hood and the Potter (dated to about 1500).
Note that all three works were written in Middle English, which was spoken by the common people. Norman French had been the official language since the Norman Conquest, and Latin was used by the Catholic Church. But Norman French was as unknown to the commoners as was Church Latin. The Pleading in English Act of 1362, which allowed the English language to be spoken in law courts, had been passed barely a decade before Piers Plowman. Chancery Standard English was introduced as the official language of the English Court in 1417, just 1 or 2 generations before the earliest surviving manuscript of Robin Hood and the Monk. These earliest Robin Hood ballads are witnesses to the rise of Middle English and the decline of Norman French in England.
The oldest copies of A Gest of Robyn Hode that have survived are print editions from between 1510 and 1530. This is some 30-60 years after Robin Hood and the Monk and Robin Hood and the Potter; and between 80 and 130 years after the Robin Hood rhymes were circulating in oral form. Therefore, as many as four or five generations had passed before they were written down as ballads in manuscript form.
The opening line calls the audience "gentlemen". Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren suggest that the "Gest" audience was a literate audience interested in political resistance. This interpretation appears to be supported by the rise of the new social class of yeoman discussed above. Compare the Gest opening with the opening of Robin Hood and the Potter:
Here the audience were yeomen, and yeoman Robin is being described with knightly virtues of courtesy (good manners), goodness, generosity, and a devotion to the Virgin Mary. (link back to chivalry section) Thomas Ohlgren considers this shift as indicative of the social changes the yeoman class was undergoing.
In the Gest, Robin is an outlaw, someone who has been summoned to appear before a court, but never responded. Being proud implies Robin considers the charges being brought against him as being of little importance. Nevertheless, Robin is the King's Man:
King Edward (most probably Edward III) searches for Robin throughout Lancashire, looking far and near. The King is persuaded to disguise himself as a monk carrying the King's Seal. Robin encounters the King and his party in the forest, is shown the seal, and invites the disguised Edward to a feast - which features the King's own deer as the main course. During the sport archery contest afterwards, Robin suddenly recognizes Edward. He kneels to offer homage, asking for mercy for himself and his men. Edward grants his pardon and invites Robin to come work for him. Robin agrees, and offers 143 of his men as a retinue.
This last gesture is reminiscent of the contracted indenture offered by Edward III, where pardons were granted for war service. Robin is behaving as a commander of men (see Yeoman Archers). It is interesting that this small detail had been preserved through the oral tradition to be captured in written form in the Gest.
In the General Prologue, Chaucer describes The Yeoman as being the only servant The Knight wanted on the pilgrimage. From the way he was dressed, Chaucer supposes he is a forester. The man is wearing a green tunic and hood. His hair is closely-cropped, his face is tan and weather-beaten, and his horn is slung from a green baldric. The Yeoman is well-armed. He carries a "mighty bow" in his hand with a sheaf of arrows hung from his belt. Chaucer points out that the peacock feather fletching was well-made. The archer obviously took great care when making his arrows. He also carries a sword, a buckler, and a small dagger. (Note the similarity between this yeoman's accoutrements and those of the Yeomen of the King's Crown.) The forester's final protection is a medal of Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers.
The very first line of The Yeoman's description is the statement the Knight wanted no other servant. Kenneth J Thompson quoted Earle Birney as saying that a forester was the only attendant the Knight needed; he was a "huntsman-forester, knight's bodyguard, squire's attendant, lord's retainer, king's foot-soldier". The forester's job was to protect the vert and venison - the deer and the Royal forest they inhabited. The foresters not only discouraged poaching, but provided winter feed, and cared for newly born calves. The medieval English foresters also provided basic woodland management by preventing unauthorized grazing, and illegal logging. Another function of the forester was assist the King's Huntsmen in planning the royal hunts. The foresters knew the game animals, and where to find them.
When his lord was campaigning in wartime, the forester was capable of providing additional meat for the lord's table. During the 1358-60 campaign in France, Edward III had 30 falconers on horseback, and 60 couples (or pairs) of hounds.
The Yeoman has his "mighty bow" (most probably a longbow) at the ready, implying he is on duty serving as bodyguard against highwaymen & robbers. He carries a sheaf of arrows under his belt, which implies an arrow bag suspended from his belt.
Chaucer's description of The Yeoman has been interpreted as an iconographic representation of the dutiful servant, diligent and always ready to serve. In other words, the very picture of yeoman service.
Thompson quotes an interesting excerpt from the Anonimalle Chronicle. It is part of the description of King John II's journey to London, after he had been captured by the Black Prince at the Battle of Poitiers:
The encounter was obviously some political posturing staged by Edward III for the benefit of the French king. It displayed the opposition the French army would face should the King decide to invade England.
In the tale told by the Friar, the devil assumes the disguise of a yeoman dressed in a green tunic, a hat with black fringes, and carrying a bow and some arrows. The devil meets a summoner on his rounds. The tale continues as a scathing condemnation of the vile corruption of the summoner, whom the devil eventually takes to hell:
Chaucer constructed this tale quite differently than the other ones. The Canon and his Yeoman are not part of the original party. They are introduced when the group reaches Boughton under Blean, only 5 miles from Canterbury. From the top of Boughton Hill, those traveling along the Pilgrim's Way from London can see the towers of Canterbury Cathedral for the first time. This close proximity to Canterbury makes the entrance of the Canon and his Yeoman suspicious. Even more suspicious is the sudden exit of the Canon, leaving his Yeoman to tell the tale himself.
Two Chaucerian scholars have different but complementary interpretations, and neither concern a satire on alchemy. Albert E Hartung proposes that the Canon's Yeoman's Prologue is a device to include a previously-written story into the Canterbury Tales as the Pars Secunda. Jackson J.Campbell proposes the interruption of the pilgrims' journey by the Canon and his yeoman so near to Canterbury is a device to prepare for the Parson's Tale, which is actually a sermon. Both interpretations place importance on the characterization of the Yeoman.
Hartung proposes that the real reason the Canon rode so fast and so hard to join the pilgrims is that he was seeking new victims. The Yeoman urges that it would be to the pilgrims' advantage to know the Canon better; that he is a remarkable man. The Canon knows the secret of turning the road they are traveling upside down, and repaving it with silver and gold. When The Host asks why The Canon is dressed in dirty rags, when he can afford clothes of the finest material, the Yeoman deftly replies that the Canon will never prosper, because his faith will not allow him to enrich himself though his knowledge.
The impression that it was time for the Canon and his Yeoman to move on is reinforced by the Yeoman's description of where they lived:
At this point the Canon reins his horse in beside his Yeoman, demanding that he not reveal any secrets. The Host dismisses the Canon's threats as mere bluster, and the Canon gallops away. The Yeoman's reaction implies that he may have hoped that this would happen. It was the Yeoman who noticed the Pilgrims leaving the hostelry that morning, and informed the Canon.
At this point, at the beginning of the Prima Pars ("First Part"), Campbell draws attention to the Yeoman's manner of speaking. He notes that the Yeoman rambles on impulsively in an unorganized fashion. His speech is full of free association and stream of consciousness.(p 174, 176) Seeing the Canon ride off unleashes a torrent of inventive against the Canon - and against himself. He sorrowfully remembers when his face was fresh and ruddy; now it is the color of lead. He used to wear fine clothing and have "splendid furnishings", now he wears a legging on his head. When their experiments failed to convert one gold coin into two, he borrowed the gold to pay the customer. Campbell describes the self-revulsion felt by the Yeoman for the futility of alchemy, and the deception and dishonesty employed while searching for the philosopher's stone. He hates it, but is fascinated by it at the same time.
Hartung agrees that Chaucer is presenting the pursuit of the philosopher's stone as an affliction He contrasts the Yeoman's Canon in the Prima Parta with the charlatan alchemist in the Pars Secunda ("Second Part") of the Yeoman's Tale. Huntung proposes that this part of the Tale was composed for a audience of clergymen. The alchemist is compared with the devil, and the "worshipful canons" who pursue the study of alchemy are no better than Judas, who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. But the tirade is not against alchemy itself.
The penitent Yeoman reinforces the overall theme of pilgrimage, with its emphasis on repentance, and forgiveness. Chaucer is preparing the reader (or listener) for the Parson's Tale, which a sermon about penitence, "which can not fail to man nor to woman who through sin has gone astray from the right way to Jerusalem celestial".
The initial performance of William Shakespeare's Henry V was in 1599. The focus of the play was the Battle of Agincourt, which had occurred 184 years before. It is a rousing patriotic play, but it was also propaganda. Elizabeth I sat upon a shaky throne. The Catholic threat from Spain and at home, war with Spain, concern over who she would marry, concern over the succession.
The Nine Years War was underway. The English army had suffered defeat by the Irish at the Battle of the Yellow Ford in 1598. Elizabeth and her counsellors were preparing an invasion in 1599. However, her Privy Council was no longer composed of her most trusted advisors. Most of them - Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Sir Francis Walsingham, & Sir Christopher Hatton had died by 1591. William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley died in 1598. The council was split between Robert Cecil (Burghley's son) and Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who were locked in a bitter rivalry.
In 1599, Elizabeth was 66 years old, and her personal power was waning. She could not prevent the execution of her personal physician, Roderigo Lopez on a false charge of treason brought by the Earl of Essex. In spite of his irresponsibility, the Earl of Essex was appointed Lord Lord Lieutenant, and given command of the 16,000-man Irish invasion force.
Shakespeare wrote Henry V to rally support for the Ireland invasion. The play followed naturally after his Henry IV, Part 2, written between 1576 and 1599. Henry's victory at Agincourt in spite of overwhelming odds was the perfect plot. Shakespeare presented Henry's invasion of France and his Agincourt victory in all its complexity. The play can be interpreted either as a celebration of Henry's military skill, or as an examination of the moral & human cost of war.
In this rousing call to action, Henry urges his yeomen to show the French what fine bowmen are raised in England. His yeomen are not "mean and base", but possess a "noble luster" in their eyes. "Unto the breach, dear friends, once more", he almost pleads. The yeomen have been besieging Harfleur for over a month; they are suffering from dysentery. "Follow your spirit" and charge, Henry commands.
But Shakespeare's ultimate speech comes on 25 October:
Henry now calls his army a "band of brothers". The camaraderie of combat has made gentlemen of them all. When they hear a veteran speak of what happened on St Crispin's Day, "gentlemen in England" will be ashamed of being asleep in bed at the time such deeds were done.
Ivanhoe was Sir Walter Scott's first novel about English, rather than Scottish, history. Set in 12th century northeast England, it started the Medieval revival of the 19th century. Raised in the Scottish Borders by a historically-minded family, Scott was familiar with local traditions and tales. Medieval ruins still scattered the landscape. According to William Simeone, Ivanhoe was "...an historical reconstruction of 12th century England in the spiritual image of the 19th." It was a device to explore the struggle between good and evil as the struggle between Anglo-Saxons and their Norman overlords shortly after the Conquest. Scott's focus is on the ordinary people, not the nobility. His message is that ordinary people had an important role to play in making a new nation.
It is not until Chapter VII, at the Tournament of Ashby, that Scott presents his first closeup view of his yeoman hero. And the influence of Chaucer's Knight's Yeoman is clearly evident: "... a stout well-set yeoman, arrayed in Lincoln green, having twelve arrows stuck in his belt, with a baldric and badge of silver, and a bow of six feet length in his hand, turned short round, and while his countenance, which his constant exposure to weather had rendered brown as a hazel nut ..."
In Chapter XI, Scott shows his hero in action as the Captain of the outlaws who waylay Gurth on his way back from Isaac of York. Feeling Rebecca's gold through the pouch, he demands of Gurth how he came by the coins. Gurth tells of the exploits of his master, the Disinherited Knight, who defeated five knights that day in single combat. The Captain looks inside the pouch and verifies Gurth's story by the Hebrew characters on Rebecca's bag.
Note how Scott has replaced Robin Hood's traditional villains with new ones - the Knights Templar and the Knights of Saint John, who are allied with Prince John.
One among the company is unsatisfied: the Miller. The Captain suggests a quarterstaff contest between Gurth and the Miller. If Gurth wins, he goes free with all his money. If he loses, the Captain will pay Gurth's ransom to the company out of his own ill-gotten gains.(p 187) Thus Scott works in the quarterstaff duel recounted in so many Robin Hood ballads. Note that the Captain is not autocratic; he leads through consensus. When the Miller finally lies prostrate on the ground, the company shouts: "Well and yeomanly done!" "... fair play and Old England for ever! The Saxon hath saved both his purse and his hide, and the Miller has met his match."
The great archery contest occurs in Chapter XIII. The contest is recounted in the early ballads. In The Gest of Robin Hode, it is Little John who competes, while in Robin Hood and the Peddler, it is Robin himself. Both must disguise themselves. Scott has his yeoman hero declare his name to Prince John: Locksley. After the preliminary round (in which Locksley did not compete), Hubert, the forester of Malvoisin, was declared victor. Prince John, sneering, asks Locksley if he will compete against Hubert, or lose his bow, quiver, and baldric. Locksley agrees, provided that Hubert shoots at Locksley's target. John accedes. Thus occurs one of the most iconic scenes of the Robin Hood legends: splitting the arrow. Which Scott improves upon by having Locksley set up his target, "such a mark as is used in the North Country", a willow wand scarely thicker than a man's thumb. "... he that hits that rod at five-score yards, I call him an archer to bear both bow and quiver before a king, an it were the stout King Richard himself." Hubert declines to shoot, saying he can barely see the wand. Locksley takes careful aim, releases his arrow, and split the wand at 100 yards (300 feet). Locksley has established himself as a super-hero. In amazement, John offers him a bonus to join his yeoman body guard. "Pardon me, noble Prince," said Locksley, "but I have vowed, that if ever I take service, it should be with your royal brother, King Richard." He gives his prize money to Hubert, takes the prize horn, and disappears into the crowd.
But the archery contest was a only a device to establish Locksley's legitimacy as a leader of men. In Chapter XXXI, for which Scott uses Shakespeare's speech "Once more unto the breach..." (see Henry V above) as a header. Together, the Black Knight, with his tactical battle skills, and Locksley, with his archers, storm Front-de-Boeuf's castle. Aided by the yeomen of the countryside, they capture the fortress.
Locksley has just one duty left - to save the Black Knight in Chapter XL. Waldemar Fitzurse, Prince John's closest advisor, attempted to ambush and kill the Black Knight. Before leaving the Trysting Tree, Locksley had forced the Black Knight to accept the silver prize horn. 3 blasts on the horn would bring Locksley's men to his aid. The Black Knight would take Wamba as his only companion. When Fitzurse's men attacked, Wamba blew 3 blasts on the horn. Locksley himself responded. (No doubt he was trailing the Knight at a discreet distance.) As the Black Knight sends Fitzurse into exile, Locksley says:
Howard Pyle's contribution to the Robin Hood revival of the 19th century was his richly illustrated children's book The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. Pyle is the author who first portrayed Robin as a kind-hearted outlaw who "robs from the rich to give to the poor". Each chapter covered one of the Robin Hood tales and the chapter sequence was arranged to present a coherent narrative. The resulting storyline was reused in early films such as Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood and Errol Flynn's The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Pyle's characters use a manner of speaking that has since become familiar as a sort of Middle English dialect. Here is part of the exchange between Robin and the Butcher:
The conversation is reminiscent of the conversation between Robin and the Potter described above.