Note on terminology: by “professional” here I mean “people whose job is fighting”. It does not mean that it is necessarily their only job or that they are under arms 365/y, but rather, that they are trained and organized military force. Example of part-time professionals would be US Army Reserve or US National Guard for modern-day forces, or else Byzantine themata. “Professionals” as “troops whose only job is fighting” is what I consider to be specifically “standing troops” or “full-time professionals” – such as US Army regulars today or Byzantine tagmata during 8th to 11th centuries. Thus it should not be assumed that there is binary setup of “full-time professional” vs “peasants with pitchforks”. These are merely extremes of organization, but significant variation is possible between those two end states, with differing advantages and disadvantages.
Looking at real life, it is almost certain that most of Westerosi soldiers are yeomen – commoners who cultivate their own land – and thus socially peasants. However, that does not mean that they are untrained conscripts, which is the unspoken implication of “peasant infantry” stance. Historically, yeomen were wealthier peasants who possessed land, owned arms and took part in fighting on behalf of their lord. Yeomen served as guards for their lord, and were expected to regularly train with whatever weapons they used, which were typically of high quality. In fact, in England, yeomen used weapons which were absolutely dependent on regular training, such as longbows. All and all, they were professional soldiers. Socially, wealthier yeomen could easily be wealthier than poorer knights.
These peasants – yeomen – did very well in many battles. English and Welsh yeomen did well at Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt, even if greatest weight of fighting was carried by fully professional men-at-arms. Flemish burghers were successful at Courtrai, and Swiss peasants likewise at Granson, Morat and Nancy, as well as Scots at Bannockbourn.
Before getting into more technical/specialist elements, I will note a general argument for why Westerosi armies cannot consist of conscripted peasants. Army is naturally a reflection of society which spawned it, and will thus reflect relations of power within the society. Army which relies on conscription of a large body of low-class individuals will have to give that class a stake in maintaining the existing order. If society itself is oppressive, then soldiers become a danger to the government, unless soldiers themselves are a separate social class. This is done by professionalization – professional army is relatively separate from the society itself and is in fact a society for itself. It is for this reason that a standing army is a very capable tool of oppression for whoever rules the society. A citizen militia however transfers power into hands of citizens, and thus automatically leads to a more equal society.
Therefore, one can have either a highly oppressive society or a highly distributed military system. It is generally agreed that Westeros is a feudal dystopia rather than a healthy feudal society. Thus, it makes no sense for Westerosi armies to consist of anything but professional troops. In Croatia, relatively equal tribal system also meant that army itself is tribal; feudal banderial system came with introduction of feudalism itself: army thus came to reflect inequality of the society. In Byzantine Empire, introduction of thematic system in 7th century ushered in an era of political activism by troops of provinces, which expressed itself in provincial armies overthrowing Emperors who favoured the center. And in feudal system, magnates held all the power because military power of the kingdom – and, often, of the king himself – depended on their retinues.
Clanking tin cans – Mobilization and equipment
Feudal knights and men-at-arms were full-time professionals, but they made up minority of the army and often could have issues with discipline (or at least French did – English and German knights could be highly disciplined). In 12th century Henry II of England could call on 6 000 to 7 000 knights. Between England, Normany, Anjou and Aquitaine he had maybe 11 – 12 million people (England had 5 million people, France in total some 13,4 million, and Henry had western half of France). Thus knights were between 0,05% and 0,064% of total population. In 1100, England had 5 000 knights from population of 1,8 million, or 0,28%. However, heavy cavalry – what is considered “knights” in common speech – were mostly not knights, but rather mounted men-at-arms, of which knights would be a small part.
This is also the case in Westeros. Robb Stark fields perhaps 300 knights among 3 000 armoured lancers (that is, mounted men-at-arms). Infantry, some 8 000 strong at that point, is comprised of pikemen, archers and dismounted men-at-arms. Winterfell is guarded by crossbowmen. In fact, all hosts of northern vassals are highly structured and professional. Karstark infantry consists of pikemen, as does that of Manderlys and Freys. Freys lead “a long column of pikemen, rank on rank of shuffling men in blue steel ringmail and silver grey cloaks”. At same point, northern infantry is described as consisting of “pikes and archers and great masses of men at arms on foot”.
At Oxcross, Tywin Lannister fields archers, pikemen and dismounted men-at-arms:
His uncle would lead the center. Ser Kevan had raised his standards above the kingsroad. Quivers hanging from their belts, the foot archers arrayed themselves into three long lines, to east and west of the road, and stood calmly stringing their bows. Between them, pikemen formed squares; behind were rank on rank of men-at-arms with spear and sword and axe.
These two descriptions are significant because all three groups have to be professional, that is, trained troops. Pikemen are absolutely dependant on maintaining formation, which means that pikes can only be used by well-drilled troops. This is especially true for offensive use of pike, which is also seen in Westeros – untrained troops would see their formation fall apart long before reaching enemy. Pike is useless for hunting and no peasant would have it unless he expected to regularly go to fight. Historically, pikemen had to have at least three months of drill to be considered trained – and this was minimum. Dismounted men-at-arms would be equipped similarly to knights and belong to same social group, or else be well-paid professional soldiers. Therefore, both would receive at very least regular training and drill. Archers in this time period could refer to either longbowmen or crossbowmen. Former have to regularly practice, and are thus at least yeomen, while crossbowmen were usually full-time (typically mercenaries) or part-time professionals due to expense of their equipment (rich cities could also field them as part of their militia force). All of them – except men-at-arms – would be socially peasants in Westerosi context, but would be neither untrained nor undisciplined. That this is so can also be seen from mobilized numbers. Further, axes – weapon that peasants would use in war, as they would be familiar with it – are given to men-at-arms, which are definitely professional soldiers.
In fact, northern infantry at Oxcross displays high degree of discipline. Northern infantry holds against missile barrage, and only breaks under heavy cavalry charge. Later, another group of Northern pikemen holds against Lannister pikemen, and breaks under missile barrage. And even then they don’t actually break but rather stage a fighting withdrawal, as Roose manages to extract most of his infantry from the battle. Peasant levy would have broken and likely routed already at step 1 or 2 of the listed. Further, every northman Tyrion fights is described as wearing mail, which is very expensive form of armour – even Byzantine Empire preferred to equip its infantry with textile armour as opposed to metal one. By 15th century mail was actually more expensive than plate, though it is possible that North lacks technology for mass production of plate. Whatever the case, mail is the sort of armour which could only be really afforded by professional soldiers, and many descriptions of Northern infantry show soliders using mail. This is even more important because North is one of poorest kingdoms, and if any kingdom made use of peasant rabble, it should have been North.
We also see new recruits being trained before being sent to battle: Lannister host at Oxcross was in the process of training, and Rodrik Cassel also trains more men which would then be sent to Robb as reinforcements. In fact, Stafford’s army had already been training for a few months, yet that amount of training was clearly considered insufficient as it was still encamped safely within the heart of Lannister territory (Oxcross is within three days’ ride from Casterly Rock and Lannisport). Ser Stafford was also responsible for arming them – which means that they did not bring their own weapons. Thus there would be no scythe-wielding peasants in that army.
Ser Jorah states about Westerosi troops that “When Rhaegar fell, many threw down their weapons and fled”. On face of it, this suggests that they are not professional troops, but rather conscripts. This, however, is incorrect. Even fully-professional armies such as Roman and Byzantine were known to flee if commander had fallen: one such example is Battle of Manzikert. Further, by the time Rhaegar had fallen, battle was lost: all three of his sub-commanders had either fallen or been captured, with their divisions likely destroyed. Rhaegar’s division was thus last in the field, and his attack was a last-ditch effort to turn around a lost battle. Fact that his division was still fighting when rest of the army had been either destroyed or suffered massive casualties implies extreme discipline. This is further confirmed by the fact that some of them made orderly retreat all the way back to King’s Landing. This is something only ever done by highly cohesive – usually highly professional – forces, such as Roman soldiers who fought their way out of encirclement at Cannae. In fact, orderly retreat is one of the most difficult maneuvers that an army can perform; fact that remnants of Rhaegar’s crushed army did so is nothing but amazing. Overall, Jorah’s description in fact shows Westerosi troops to be highly disciplined, highly organized, well-trained and well-equipped.
Stannis’ army which he brings to the Wall consists of “not only knights now but freeriders and mounted bowmen and men at arms in jacks and kettle helms, dozens, hundreds of men”. Again, there are no conscripted peasants in evidence. The only conscripts present are the wildlings: and they break hard and break fast, just like Gold Cloak conscripts at King’s Landing. While Northerners at Oxcross do get defeated, they do not actually break; and in few examples where Westerosi armies do break, they last far longer and/or break under far less favourable circumstances than is the case with wildlings.
Professionalism of typical Westerosi army is supported by Dunk novels:
Ser Lucas Inchfield appeared half a heartbeat later, armored head to heel… More knights came after, half a dozen of them, attended by as many squires. A column of mounted crossbowmen brought up the rear, and fanned out to either side of the road when they reached the Chequy Water and saw Dunk waiting on the other side. There were three-and-thirty fighting men all told, excluding the septon, the maester, and the Widow herself
Again, a proper force consists of knights, squires, mounted crossbowmen – all of these would be professional troops, possibly even full-time professionals. Ser Jorah states that 1/10 of Westerosi armies are knights, but being the liar he is, he “forgets” to mention mounted men-at-arms – who even outside the North actually form majority of heavy cavalry. At Green Fork, as shown later in this article, some 32,5% of Tywin’s army are heavy cavalry – with total of 9 500 infantry and 10 500 cavalry and mounted infantry. When Mace musters Reach for Renly, there are 20 000 cavalry and 60 000 infantry in the (combined) army. Robb at Winterfell had 3 000 cavalry out of 12 000, and at Moat Cailin 4 500 cavalry out of 19 500 men. In all these cases cavalry is 25% of the army – much lower than in most historical 15th century armies, but still far more than 10%. Edmure had 8 000 infantry and 3 000 cavalry, for 27% cavalry.
Feudal society could mobilize 10% of their population if going all-out. But population of Westeros, ignoring estimates derived from size of military forces to begin with, should be between 75 million and 100 million people (though 43 million to 54 million is not unlikely). Comparing this with army sizes (~388 000 troops), the resulting proportion of troops as percentage of population goes from 0,4% to 0,5%. In 1189., Frederick I Barbarossa raised an army of 15 000 men, including 4 000 knights, according to modern estimates, or 100 000 men including 20 000 knights according to contemporary sources. Population of Holy Roman Empire around 1200 AD was some 5 000 000 people, making for proportion of 0,3% according to today’s estimates or 2% according to contemporary sources. Smaller army is likely, as only 5 000 troops arrived to Holy Land after most of the army went home. But even 2% would still assume professional army – and at worst plausible population density of 7 people per km2, population of Westeros would still be 37 700 000 people, which at 388 000 troops would give army proportion of 1%. This proportion cannot be explained in any way other than assuming that all troops are at least part-time professionals. This is best illustrated by the graphic below (by Imperator Zor, who thus saved me from having to make my own).
Some people have estimated as few as 14 million, but that would lead to population density of 2,6 per square kilometer – for reference, Sahara desert is 0,27 per square km. More importantly, that is overall population density of Westeros as such. But North, going by army numbers, has between 7,6% and 12,5% of total population. Even raising proportion to 10% and 15% to account for presumably lesser efficiency of mobilization would still give it 1,4 to 2,1 million people. At two million square kilometers, density would be 0,7 to 1 person per square kilometer – most of it concentrated in the south. Yet we see castles and keeps very far north. In fact, Winterfell – seat of Northern power, major castle and with a presumably large town nearby – is halfway between the Neck and the Wall. Dreadfort, another major regional seat, is at similar latitude, while The Last Hearth is less than 300 miles south of the Wall. Plus, even with 14 million people army would be 2% of populace which – as noted – still indicates a professional force and is in fact maximum which can be deployed for long-distance campaigns.
An agricultural society could mobilize significant portion of population for short periods of time if it went full “peasant conscription” route. Roman Republic was able to mobilize 10% of population for Second Punnic War and 6% for Second Mithridatic War. This was because even in summer no more than half of available population could be done without on the farm, so 7,5-10% of population was absolute maximum which could be mobilized; only for local (town, village) defense could up to 15% population be raised. For North, with army of 40 000 troops in total, this proportion would mean population of 400 000 to 700 000. Resultant population density would be 0,2 to 0,35 people per square kilometer. This is just around the density of Sahara desert – a place, it should be noted, not well known for highly developed feudal societies.
It is true however than not all of them are full-time professionals. In fact, Westerosi armies can be divided into several categories:
- full-time professionals
- part-time professionals (professional levies)
- peasant levy / armed camp followers
Full-time professionals are soldiers whose only job is fighting, and nothing else than fighting. These would be knights and men-at-arms – landed knights, household knights and either landed or mercenary men-at-arms. Such troops would be well-equipped and very well-trained. This is especially true for household troops of nobles, who would be elite within elite. Another group in this category might be city guard of richer cities.
Professional levies are most likely similar to Hungarian banderial system. In this system, noblemen contracted to provide a specified number of troops (mostly cavalry) for the crown. Banderium (“banner”) numbered usually 400 or 500 men (depending on period). Smaller nobles would band together to provide a single banderium, while magnates could field several banderia each. However, term was also used for a force provided by any individual noble, regardless of its size. This similarity is made quite clear by the phrase “calling the banners” which outright spells out that this is the system being used. Problem is that in Westeros every lord and knight gathers his own men and marches under his own banner, which may argue against this. Yet some form of banderium-type formalization must exist, considering the sizes of armies being fielded, else logistics would be impossible. Banderial soldiers are professionals, and while they are normally supported from estates of nobles who raise them, when campaigning they are paid campaign wage.
In Hungary, nobles had to raise one cavalryman per 20 houses, which would give army of somewhat less than 1% of populace; later on this was raised to one cavalryman per 10 houses due to Ottoman threat. Westeros is not under constant threat, but also has significant numbers of infantry, which are much cheaper than cavalry (in Westeros, armies have some 20% – 30% cavalry, whereas in Hungarian armies that proportion was between 60% and 80%). Thus 1% of professional soldiers as proportion of populace is a reasonable assumption; as can be seen before, Westerosi army is likely actually less than 1% of populace.
Any peasants in the army would actually be members of professional levy. Even cheap weapons and armour would likely be outside the means of average peasant. Thus the solution would be for several households to band together and equip one soldier at common expense. This soldier would be well-equipped and well-trained, and capable of going onto longer campaigns.
In addition to these, 15th century Hungary had one – and later two – full-time professional standing armies. First such army were garrisons of border forts, which were maintained from 1420s. Second was the Black Army of Matthias Corvinus, established in 1460s. This latter army was in fact completely outside the financial means of the kingdom, and had to be financed by constant offensive warfare – living, essentially, off the enemy’s resources. Such armies do have a parallel in Westeros. First group is paralleled – albeit on a much smaller scale – by the Night’s Watch. The Black Army has no direct parallel, but there is evidence of employment of mercenaries.
Mercenaries can be contracted individually or in groups. Latter also includes mercenary companies such as those in Essos, though lack of domestically-grown mercenary companies in Westeros is weird. Most mercenaries in Westeros appear to be contracted in small groups, or individually (hedge knights).
Peasant levy is the last category. Impression among many fans of series is that it comprises a backbone of Westerosi armies. Yet, as explained earlier, Westerosi armies are far too small relative to total populace to contain any significant numbers of peasant levies. Historically, peasant levies were relatively well-armed – with spear, axe, sword or bow – but would not use more expensive weapons (e.g. Crossbow) and armour would be quilted gambeson at best, and possibly none. Peasant levies were used as skirmish troops if needed, but their primary purpose was as local defence militia. Maximum proportion of these troops would be 10% of populace, but they could only ever be raised for short term and for local defence only. For longer campaigns, community would band together to train and equip a certain number of people – which would thus be equivalent to professional levies.
And there lies another argument against significant presence of conscripted peasants in armies of Westeros. Peasants, unless being mobilized to defend their homes against immediate threat, tended to desert on campaign. Edward I had to call off one of his campaigns in Scotland due to large number of conscripted infantry deserting. Hungary had to replace general levy (Generalis Exercitus) with already-discussed banderial system for the same reason. Yet there are no such issues in Westeros; desertion when it happens does not seem out of line for actually professional armies. Stark, Lannister and Tyrell hosts stay in the field for many months – up to two years in some cases – yet losses they suffer are primarily due to combat or else disease and supply problems – desertion as a problem hardly even merits mention. Even looting does not appear to be significant problem, where in real world conscripts would tend to carry off everything that was not nailed down – and even some things that were. What looting we do see in Westeros – looting as terror tactic, looting dead bodies for equipment and foraging for food – was something which was done by all armies through history up until invention of canned food (and even afterwards although to smaller extent). In fact, looting as tactic – called chevauchee – was not only terror tactic but was aimed at destroying enemy’s economic basis. It was used for this purpose by professional armies such as Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and 15th century Hungarian ones. Likewise, looting dead bodies was always usual, as one’s own weapons could be damaged or simply worse. Lastly, foraging for food formed basis of logistics for army in enemy territory, whether it was Roman, Byzantine or 15th century feudal – food can only be transported a limited distance, and in the enemy territory there would be no depots army could use.
Further, while historical peasant levy was well-equipped, Donal Noye’s quote suggests that only 1/20 of peasants own swords. This may indicate that either peasant levy is not relied on or only select peasants are levied – which then would imply that they are different in status from majority of peasants and given at least some training.
Lords and cities also keep soldiers in permanent employ for purposes of law enforcement. These men catch criminals (many were sent to Night’s Watch for raping and poaching) and protect king’s peace. Further, low-level disputes between lords or minor nobility are not unknown (as shown in Dunk and Egg novels), and these also necessitate trained troops to deal with. They are rarely mentioned – not because they are rare, necessarily, but because there is usually more important stuff going on.