Friday, December 26, 2008

Gendarmes d'Ordonnance

The line cavalry of the French army at the time of the Thirty Years' War and during the late 17th century included three types: gendarmes; chevau-légers (also called cavalerie=cavalry); and carabins (also called cavalerie légère=light cavalry). This post describes the first of these types.

Gendarmes d'Ordonnance

The gendarmerie of France was the most ancient corps of line cavalry in Europe, and as such it had the precedence of all other French line cavalry. The corps had been established by King Charles VII in 1445 and had existed continuously since. However, the gendarmes of the Thirty Years' War little resembled their ancestors. They were still organized in companies, as they would remain until their disbandment, but they had abandoned the lance in 1605 and were no longer armored "cap à pie." In fact, they had become pistoleers, armed and armored in all respects like the more common chevau‑légers.

The gendarmerie had suffered terribly in the Religious‑Civil Wars and was further reduced in the disbandment of 1598. Purposely neglected by Henry IV, the companies dwindled. In 1602 there were only 200 gendarmes, in two compani­es‑‑the Queen's and the Dauphin's. On the other hand, this pathetically small number did represent 12 per cent of France's line cavalry. In 1640, at the height of the Thirty Years' War, there were 2,338, representing 13% of the line cavalry.

Captains of the gendarme companies were nominated by the king. The recipients were invariably grand seigneurs--princes, dukes, and other nobles. One reads frequently in the biographical notices of the great military men of the period that they were, inter alia, "captain of 100 [or so, the number varied] gendarmes." Of course, very few of these captains actually took the field with their company in our period. Companies in the field were commanded by lieutenants.

The gendarmes were essentially cuirassiers, but they were not heavily armored like their predecessors. Armor for the thighs and arms (cuissards and brassards) generally had not survived the reign of Henry III, and during the reign of Louis XIV the casque, the cuirass, and the gantelets were gradually abandoned. But this did not occur until after the Thirty Years' War. Bellon, writing in 1641, stated that the defensive armor of the French horse consisted of cuirass (proof against the arquebus), tassets, genouilleres, hausse-col, brassarts, gantelets, and salade with visor (cited in Ambert, 1:306). Still, cavalrymen had to be kept in armor by royal decree, an ordinance of 1638 stipulating that gentlemen had to have defensive armor under pain of degradation.

Louis XIV abolished nearly all the gendarme companies after the Treaty of the Pyrenees (1659), permitting companies only to the princes. The corps recovered only gradually afterward. By 1700 there were 16 companies.

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