A free company or free lance was a late medieval army of mercenaries acting independently of any government, and thus "free". They were not called "free" because their services were gratis, rather they sold their services to the highest bidder. They were bands of lawless mercenaries operating mainly during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). They first appeared after the Battle of Poitiers (1356) and were composed of soldiers from several European countries, including England and France. The companies were often led by younger or illegitimate sons of the nobility who established themselves in castles, and sometimes dominated whole regions, causing widespread destruction by pillaging, especially during lulls in the fighting. Attempts by successive French kings to eradicate the Free Companies, which both sides employed, were only partially successful until the final peace settlement made them redundant.
The Italian city of Siena spent 291,379 florins between 1342 and 1399 buying off the free companies. The White Company of John Hawkwood, probably the most famous free company, active in Italy in the latter half of the fourteenth century, was the worst offender among those that preyed upon Sienese factions.