Henry II's Assize of Arms


Towards the end of the 12th century there was something of a move towards a militia of free peasants in several European countries. Henry II of England started the trend with the Assize of Arms in 1181. Mercenaries had gained a bad reputation in England itself (Henry only dared bring his Brabancons into the country once), and his basic idea was to recreate the Anglo-Saxon "fyrd". Philip Augustus of France, who had good reason to keep a close eye on Henry, soon followed suit with a similar proclamation, as did other leaders. There are records of these edicts being enforced into the early 13th century, but they seemed to fall out of favour during the course of the 13th century.

The following is my translation of the Latin text of the Assize of Arms published in Stubbs' Select Charters (9th edn, 1913). Be warned that I am not particularly good at reading medieval Latin, and the following translation is neither elegant nor 100 per cent reliable. I've been able to check all but the last three sections against the English translation in English Historical Documents, vol II, so rest assured that up until then the translation is accurate in gist, if clumsy. Caveat emptor, and beware of geeks bearing gifts.

The Assize of Arms

(1) Whoever holds a knight's fee must have a hauberk and helmet and shield and lance, and all knights should have as many hauberks and helmets and shields and lances as they have knights' fees within their lordship.

(2) Whichever free laymen who have chattels or rent of 16 marks should have a hauberk and helmet and shield and lance; whichever free layman has chattels or rent of 10 marks must have a light hauberk [aubergel], an iron cap and a lance.

(3) Likewise all burgesses and the whole body of free men must have a gambeson [wambais], an iron cap and a lance.

(4) To that end everyone must swear an oath before the Feast of St Hilary [Jan 13] that they will have these arms and will carry them faithfully for our lord king Henry, son of the Empress Matilda, and that he will be armed according to this order in allegiance to our lord king and his realm. And none who have these arms must sell them nor pledge them nor give them away nor in any way alienate them; no lord must in any way deprive his men of them, not as punishment nor as a gift or as a pledge nor in any other fashion.

(5) If anyone who has arms should die, his arms should remain with his heir. And if the heir is of too tender age to use the arms, he who has him in wardship should have them, and he should find a man to hold these arms in the service of the lord king until the heir comes of age to carry said arms, then let him have them.

(6) Whichever burgess has more arms than he should according to this assize, let him sell or give or bestow them to such a man who can retain them in service to the lord king of the English. And no one should hold more arms than he should according to this assize.

(7) Also no Jew [Judeaus] should have or hold a hauberk or light hauberk, but should sell, give or otherwise dispose of it so it may remain in the king's service.

(8) Also no one should take arms from England except by order of the king; nor should anyone sell these arms that thereby they are carried from England, nor traded nor in any other way carried from England.

(9) Also, let justices cause an oath to be sworn by lawful knights and other lawful and free man of hundreds, neighbourhoods and towns, as many as they deem necessary, who have goods worth by this account a hauberk, helmet, shield and lance [ie, those with 16 marks or more] to name individually everyone of their hundred, neighbourhood or town who has 16 marks either in chattels or rent; similarly those who have 10 marks. And thereafter let the justices ask the oath-swearers and others named how much chattels or land they have, and whereby what arms they should have; and thereafter, in their communal presence and hearing, he should cause this assize of the holding of arms to be read, and have them swear they will have arms according to the value of their aforesaid chattels or rents, and that they will hold them in the service of the lord king in accordance wit this aforesaid assize, and at the command of and in allegiance to the lord king Henry and his realm. If in fact it should pass that someone who should have these arms is not in the county when the justices were in that county, let the justices set a time by which he must come to them in another county. And if he is not in any county through which they travel, and is not in the land, let them set a time for him to come to Westminster, before the seventh day after Michaelmas, to make his oath of allegiance, if he loves his life and all he owns. And before the Feast of St Hilary let him have arms as he should as far as concerns his holdings.

(10) Also let justices cause to be said in every county through which they travel, if any does not have arms in accordance with this order, the king shall take his life and limbs and not only his land and chattels.

(11) Also no one will swear concerning good and free men who do not have 16 marks or 10 marks in chattels.

(12) Also let justices order in every county through which they travel that no one, if they love their life and all they own, shall buy or sell one way or another a [ducendum - 200-weight?] ship from England, nor shall anyone carry or cause to be carried ?timber [maironiam] from England. And the king orders than none shall take the oath of arms except free men.