A gendarme was a heavy cavalryman of noble birth, primarily serving in the French Army from the late Middle Age to the early Modern Period of European history. Their heyday was in the late fifteenth to mid-sixteenth centuries, when they provided the kings of France with a potent regular force of heavily armoured, lance-armed cavalry which, when properly employed, could dominate the battlefield.
The word gendarme derives originally from the French homme d’armes (man-at-arms), the plural of which is gens d’armes. The plural sense was later shortened to gendarmes and a singular made of this: gendarme.
Like most fifteenth century sovereigns, the kings of France sought to possess standing armies of professional soldiers to fight their incessant wars. By that period, the old form of feudal levy had long proven inadequate and had been replaced by various ad hoc methods of paying vassal troops serving for money, rather than simply out of feudal obligation, a method that was heavily supplemented by hiring large numbers of out-and-out mercenaries.
These methods, though improvements on the old annual 40-day service owed by knights (the traditional warrior elites of medieval Europe), were also subject to strain over long campaigns. During periods of peace they also resulted in social destabilisation, as the mercenary companies refused to disband until granted their back-pay, and generally looted and terrorised the areas they occupied.
The French kings sought a solution to these problems by issuing ordinances (ordonnaces) which established standing armies in which units were permanently embodied, based, and organised into formations of a set size. Men in these units signed a contract which kept them in the service of the unit for periods of one year or longer. The first such French ordinance was issued by King Charles VII at the General Parliament of Orléans in 1439, and was meant to raise a body of troops to crush the devastating incursions of the Armagnacs.
Organisation at the beginning
Eventually more ordinances would set the general guidelines for the organisation of companies of gendarmes, the troops in which were accordingly called the gendarmes d’ordonnance. Each of the 15 gendarme companies was to be of 100 lances fournies, each composed of six mounted men—a noble heavy armoured horseman, a more lightly armed fellow combatant (coutillier), a page (non-combatant) and three mounted archers meant as infantry support. The archers were intended to ride to battle and dismount to shoot with their bows, and did so until late in the fifteenth century, when they took to fighting on horseback as a sort of lighter variety of gendarme, though still called “archers.” These archers later had armour less heavy than the gendarmes, and a light lance, but could deliver a capable charge when necessary.
With time Gendarme unit organization evolved.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century French gendarme companies were the largest and most respected force of heavy cavalry in Europe, feared for their powerful armament, reckless courage, and esprit de corps. As the fifteenth century waned, so did the tactical practices of the Hundred Years’ War, and the gendarmes of the sixteenth century returned to fighting exclusively on horseback, generally in a very thin line (en haye), usually two or even just one rank deep, so as to maximise the number of lances being set upon the enemy target at once.
With the development of firearms, the heavy gendarme lance was replaced by two pistols, and the armour of the gendarme rapidly lightened to give the horseman more mobility.
After the sixteenth century
Cavalry -called gendarmes- continued to serve in French armies for centuries to follow, often with prominence but with less distinctive features than during the sixteenth century. The Royal Guard, known as the “Maison militaire du roi de France”, had two units of gendarmes: the Gendarmes de la Garde (Guard Gendarmes), created in 1609, and the Gendarmes de France or Gendarmes d’Ordonnance, units of regular cavalry continuing the traditions of sixteenth-century Gendarmes.
In 1720, the Maréchaussée de France, a police force under the authority of the marshals of France, was put under the administrative authority of the Gendarmerie de France. The Gendarmerie was dissolved in 1788, and the Maréchaussée in 1791, only to be recreated as a new police force of military status, the Gendarmerie Nationale, which still exists. This explains the evolution of the meaning of the word gendarme from a noble man-at-arms to a military police officer.
Under Napoleon I, the Gendarmes d’Élite de la Garde Impériale (English: “Elite Gendarmes of the Imperial Guard”) were a gendarmerie unit formed in 1801 by Napoleon as part of the Consular Guard which became the Imperial Guard in 1804. In times of peace, their role was to protect official residences and palaces and to provide security to important political figures. In times of war, their role was to protect the Imperial headquarters, to escort prisoners, and occasionally to enforce the law and limit civil disorder in conquered cities. The unit was renamed Gendarmes des Chasses du Roi during the First Bourbon Restoration but was disbanded in 1815 during the Second Restoration.