The Catalan Company was probably one of the earliest of these outfits; in its original form it was a body of ex-soldiers from Catalonia (then part of the independent kingdom of Aragon in Spain) who had been fighting for the king of Aragon in his war to take over Sicily from the French-aligned Kingdom of Naples (then run by a junior branch of the French royal family, the House of Anjou, and including Sicily). The Papacy had invited the French duke Charles of Anjou, brother of Louis IX, to take over Naples/ Sicily in 1266 to drive out the German dynasty of Hohenstaufen, but this excluded the rights of the king of Aragon to inherit N/S as the husband of its heiress so he helped the Byzantines to assist a revolt in Sicily in 1282; a long war followed before a truce in 1302 that left the House of Anjou running Naples and the Aragonese in control of Sicily. The truce left a large number of Catalan mercenaries out of work, so the cash-strapped and short of troops Byzantine emperor Andronicus II (r 1282 - 1328) invited them to Anatolia to fight the Ottoman Turks and other Turkish emirates who were pushing the Byz back into the Aegean and sending a flood of refugees into Europe. The Byz did not have enough money to pay the Catalans, and the latter started looting and ill-treating the locals; the Byz then lured the brigandish Catalan leader Roger de Flor to a meeting and murdered him (1305) to try to decapitate the Company but the survivors refused to give in and seized Gallipoli. They had ships and the Byz had laid up their fleet to save money (shades of the short-termist UK naval cuts of the 2000s?) so the Catalans could call in help by sea from Aragon and ravaged a lot of the locality in Anatolia and Thrace (modern NE Greece) - with long tern consequences as the locals fled and it was a lot easier for the Ottomans to take over and enter Europe a generation later. Eventually the small and badly-led Byz army managed to bottle up the Catalans in Gallipoli, but they broke out and headed West by land to Thessalonica, and ravaged Macedonia too - making it easier for the Serbs to take over later. In 1311 they ended up defeating the local Crusader French (established 1204 in the 4th Crusade) duchy of Athens in a battle outside Thebes (where their pikemen decimated the French heavy cavalry) , took over Athens, and ruled it as an autonomous 'robber state' under their elected leaders until removed by a Florentine banker and his own mercenaries in the 1380s.
A bizarre footnote to SE European history - but in terms of gaining land and loot a major success , with a state set up that lasted for 70-odd years, and a major reason why the Turks found it so easy to take over the war-ravaged region later in the C14th. The man who had invited the Company to Gallipoli, the weak and short-termist Andronicus II, was a major disaster for Byz whose 46 year reign saw a lot of the Empire collapse, though he faced an unenviable inheritance with a war-exhausted state and an army and fleet that he couldn't afford to pay as the nobles were dodging taxes and the burden fell on the poorer farmers, causing agriculture to stagnate. The Company were more interested in loot and land than in saving Anatolia from the Turks, which was one of his worst miscalculations - but they had the skill and motivation to carry on and eventually evacuate to a safe haven in Athens , and kept a small but secure regime going there for decades. The Catalan and then Florentine regimes kept control of Athens until the Ottomans took over in 1456 but they are now largely forgotten - though their title of 'Duke' for the then ruler of Athens was remembered well enough in England for Shakespeare to use it for his version of Theseus as ruler of Athens in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' in the 1590s.
though their title of 'Duke' for the then ruler of Athens was remembered well enough in England for Shakespeare to use it for his version of Theseus as ruler of Athens in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' in the 1590s.
Du Guesclin famously led the Great Companies out of France and into Spain. Partly to get them out of the country and to be someone else's problem, partly to intervene in the civil war on the side of Henry, against the side supported by the English.
Among the leadership, you had such colourful people as Arnaud de Cervole, called the Archpriest because he had been a clergyman before figuring he liked violence more, and who was instrumental in ransoming the Pope.
By the fifteenth century, former companymen were called Ecorcheurs. Flayers.