Soldier of Fortune II

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Edwardian armies

This is another in a series of blog posts on the military aspects of Edward I's reign. Some may call it an obsession, but it could be worse - I could be a Ricardian (that's a joke, in case any Ricardians out there are reading this.)

Warning: the rest of this post is a bit of a nerdfest, so any readers with no particular interest in military terms and military history might want to look away now...

Yep. Him again.
Edward seldom gets any credit for the way he restructured the old-fashioned English feudal host. He introduced the concept of paid military service in place of feudal dues and privileges, as well as a new command structure and innovative tactics. His reforms were by no means thorough, and many of them fell away during the reign of his son, Edward II, to be picked up again and improved to perfection by Edward III. Nevertheless, it was old man Longshanks who got the ball rolling.

Prior to Edward I, the English feudal army was reasonably large, but cumbersome and lacking in experience. The majority of Englishmen in the reign of Henry III were raw fighters, and made for poor soldiers, with the exception of those living on the Welsh March and the poachers and huntsmen of Sherwood, who enjoyed some reputation for archery. Otherwise native infantry were quite useless, and largely there to make up the numbers. Desertion rates were high, training minimal, and wages pathetic. The real military elite was still composed of the mounted knights and barons and their retinues. Knights never dismounted to fight - beneath their noble dignity - and companies of horse and foot never brigaded together.

Battles such as Lewes and Evesham were won by charges of heavy horse, while the hapless infantry were ridden down and slaughtered. At Lewes Simon de Montfort drew his knights up into three bodies with a reserve. They rode forward in a single level charge, 'boot to boot', the riders heavy in their mail coats and leggings, wielding couched lances that packed a mighty punch, but were massive and difficult to wield. Rapid movements and elaborate manoeuvres were impossible. These simple, inflexible tactics were exactly the same as used by Simon de Montfort's father at the Battle of Muret in 1213, and worked well enough so long as feudal hosts fought each other. In North Wales, where the natives avoided pitched battles and led the lumbering knights a merry dance in the mountains and forests, they were ineffective. Time after time, one English feudal host after another was 'beaten bootless back' - as Shakespeare put it - from Wales, defeated by Welsh guerilla tactics and Welsh weather.

Edward, who had ample experience in his youth of the difficulties of fighting in Wales, saw the need for change. I've described in a previous post his efforts to create a bow-armed infantry, but his reforms went further than that. His first task was organisation and the systematic use of paid contracts in place of feudal dues, which allowed him to reorganise the army along structured, professional lines. For instance, a baron or 'banneret' might be contracted to raise a company of a hundred or more lances. The company was itself divided into troops, with each smaller troop led by an officer on a sub-contract. This system allowed for subordination of command, which meant that companies could act independently under their own officers instead of relying entirely on the commander-in-chief.

Companies or squadrons of cavalry could join together to form a single 'brigade' under the overall command of the king, or be split apart again under one of his nobles. In 1277 the Earls of Warwick and Lincoln each had command of a company of 125 lances, while Pain de Chaworth had 75 lances. These men, including their leaders, were all contracted to serve for a renewable period of forty days. Troops led by earls, barons, knights and ordinary troopers could be subdivided into smaller units, each with an officer, depending on necessity. Most captains were men of some status - this was still the 13th century, after all - but performance was prized above noble blood. Even the Earl of Gloucester, one of the greatest nobles in the land, was stripped of his command after leading his troops to defeat at Llandeilo in 1282.

Until his conquest of Wales, the best footmen Edward could muster were the famed mercenary crossbowmen from his duchy of Gascony. These men, described as 'the Swiss of the 13th century', were expensive and summoned in relatively small numbers. 'They came pompously', according to one chronicler, and fought with an arrogant swagger worthy of D'Artagnan, perhaps the most famous Gascon of all. Langtoft described their performance in Wales:
A medieval D'Artagnan...

'They (the Gascons) remain with the king, receive his gifts.

In moors and mountains they clamber like lions,
They go with the English, burn the houses,
Throw down the castles, slay the wretches,
They have passed the Marches, and entered into Snowdon..."

The king was not content to rely entirely on Welsh mercenaries and the 'lions' of Gascony for his infantry. He took steps to at least improve the organisation of English footsoldiers, as he had done with the cavalry. From 1277 onwards he appointed special officers in place of regional sheriffs to oversee the raising of footmen from the English shires, and these officers were tasked with picking the best and strongest men and forming them into regular companies. A company of English foot consisted of a hundred men, led by a mounted constable or centenar. Each company was divided into units of nineteen, led by under-officers or vintenars. Thus a proper system of pay and command was introduced, though desertion rates remained high and the quality of the average English footsoldier took decades to improve: for his war in France in 1294, Edward was compelled to recruit criminals and outlaws into the infantry, since none better could be found elsewhere.

Edward's introduction of new tactics and organisation, the combination of horse and foot and introduction of the Welsh longbow as a common weapon in English armies, all paid off. At Orewin Bridge, Maes Moydog and Falkirk his enemies were destroyed by units of cavalry, archers and crossbowmen working in concert. His troops had also learned guerilla tactics from the Welsh: after the victory of Maes Moydog, units of English and Gascons in camouflage gear (white cloaks so they merged into the snow) pursued the Welsh into their own mountains.

The king had learned from bitter experience, and there were plenty of bitter experiences to come before the glory days of Edward III. Falkirk was almost lost by a foolish charge of mounted knights, straight onto the Scottish spears, and the situation only restored by the arrival of Edward and his Gascons. The arrogance of the English baronage, their ingrained belief that they could still sweep all before them with a single mounted charge, was something the king could do little to eradicate. The result was total disaster at Bannockburn in 1314, where all the lessons of Edward I's reign were forgotten and the chivalry of England smashed to pieces on Bruce's schiltrons. Even thick-headed aristocrats could hardly ignore such a lesson, and the third Edward was savvy enough to remember the innovations of his grandfather, as well as introducing a few of his own.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016


Anyone who reads this blog will know my interest in King Edward I and his military campaigns. Lately I've been reading about his early battles against the Welsh and the baronial rebels in England. These weren't always successful, and quite often ended in humiliating defeat for the young prince: in 1257 an army of mercenaries sent to pacify West Wales on his behalf was exterminated at Coed Llathen, while Edward himself was famously defeated and captured by Simon de Montfort at Lewes. Edward's lands in the March were ravaged by his bitter rival, Robert de Ferrers, the 'wild and flighty' Earl of Derby, who also (briefly) seized many of the prince's castles.

Battle scene from a 1200s MS
The watershed moment for Edward was the Battle of Evesham, where he turned the tables on his enemies and massacred de Montfort and his army. Here Edward gave the world a taste of the cold, machine-like efficiency that would define his later military career. De Montfort was hunted down on the field by a specially chosen death-squad led by the ruthless Marcher lord, Roger de Mortimer, while no quarter was given to the rebel knights and barons. Thirty noblemen were slain at Evesham, a small number compared to the thousands of common men slaughtered, but still the greatest number of nobles killed in a single battle in England since Hastings. Amid the reeking carnage and piles of dismembered corpses, Edward proved he had come of age. 

After Evesham, there was still plenty of fighting to do before England was settled. In the two years of hard campaigning that followed, Edward showed he had learned from his tough experiences in Wales and the March. In particular he had learned the value of the Welsh bow and the warlike qualities of Welsh soldiers, especially the archers of Gwent and Glamorgan and the spearmen of Gwynedd and Merioneth. In the spring and summer of 1266 Edward and his lieutenant, Roger Leyburn, were engaging in clearing out bands of rebels in the deep forests of the Sussex Weald and retaking the Cinque Ports, which controlled access to the Channel. This required hard fighting in thickly wooded areas, and the royal account rolls show that Edward and Leyburn hired over 500 Welsh archers to destroy the rebels hiding in the Weald. Since the Welsh were renowned as superb guerillas, skilled at ambushes and fighting in difficult terrain, they were ideal for the task. 

Welsh archer, from a 14th century MS
These men were paid 3 pence a day, an unusually high wage: in Edward's later campaigns English archers were paid 2 pence a day, while his Welsh mercenaries only got 1. The Weald archers were provided with tunics priced at 3 shillings each, the cloth costing in all £30, while their total wages came to £143. This was a fairly considerable outlay, and it could be that the Welsh archers employed in this campaign were regarded as elite troops. After the rebels were defeated and the Cinque Ports reduced, many of the archers were left to guard Essex as a kind of police force. What the locals made of hundreds of Welshmen garrisoning their towns and villages is anyone's guess. 

The 12th century writer, Gerald of Wales, left a vivid description of Welsh soldiers:

"They are lightly armed so that their agility might not be impeded; they are clad in short garments of chain mail, have a handful of arrows, long lances, helmets and shields, but rarely appear with leg armour...those of the foot soldiers who have not bare feet, wear shoes made of raw hide, sewn up in a barbarous fashion. The people of Gwent are more accustomed to war, more famous for valour, and more expert in archery than those in any other part of Wales...."

Gerald goes on to describe the lethal efficacy of the Welsh bow, made of wild elm 'rude and uncouth, but strong', and tells of how arrows shot during an assault on Abergavenny Castle penetrated 'an iron gate which was four fingers memory of which the arrows are still preserved sticking in the gate.' Whether arrows shot from any kind of bow, even Welsh longbows, were capable of penetrating iron may be open to doubt, but Gerald's writings clearly show the Welsh bow was regarded as a fearsome weapon. 

Edward wasn't the first King of England to realise the importance of archers - bowmen are mentioned in the assize of arms of Henry III's reign - but he did make a serious effort to create an organised, disciplined force of bow-armed infantry. A specially raised body of crossbowmen and archers was hired to root out rebels in Sherwood Forest in 1266, and archers from Notts and Derbyshire were often recruited to serve in his Welsh wars. In the 'little war of Chálons', fought in 1273 during Edward's return from Crusade, the French knights were dragged from their horses and butchered on the ground by Welsh bowmen and slingers in the king's retinue. 

During the first Welsh war of 1277, two small, purely bow-armed corps of infantry were raised. One was drawn from Gwent and Crickhowell, the other (numbering a hundred men) from Macclesfield in Cheshire, close to the Welsh border. The Macclesfield corps served Edward as a personal guard, and the tradition of kings being guarded by a 'Macclesfield Hundred' was continued by Edward's descendants: Richard II was accompanied on his travels by a hundred Macclesfield and Welsh archers, kitted out in green and white livery (see right).

Edward's conquest of the Welsh heartlands gave him access to some of the best fighting men in Europe, and he wasn't the man to ignore such a resource. Many thousands of Welsh archers and spearmen were employed in his later wars in Gascony and Scotland (and Wales). The numbers of Welsh employed in English armies continued to rise during the reigns of Edward's immediate successors, reaching a high point in the Crécy campaign of 1346...but more of that in future posts. 

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Soldier of Fortune (II): The Heretic

Drums...trumpets...pipes...fanfare...etc! As promised in my last post, Soldier of Fortune (II): The Heretic is now available on Kindle.

“Ye who are God’s warriors and of His law...”

“Ye who are God’s warriors and of His law...” 

Constantinople, 1453 AD. Sir John Page, English knight and mercenary captain, has been taken prisoner by the Ottoman Turks. To avoid execution, Page is forced to entertain the Sultan with stories of his adventures as a soldier in France, Bohemia and Italy. 

In this, the second tale, Page describes his time among the fanatical Hussites in Bohemia. Condemned by the Pope as heretics, the Hussites dared to defy the might of the Catholic church and the Christian princes of Europe. In response the Pope ordered their destruction, down to the last child, and the brutal subjugation of their country. 

Page joins the Hussites just as another crusade is launched against Bohemia. Led by the merciless King Sigismund, known as the Dragon of Prophecy, the crusaders will drown the land in blood rather than let heresy prevail. Bohemia’s only hope lies in Jan Zizka, a blind soldier of genius, and his army of peasant soldiers. 

Caught up in a savage war of religion, Page struggles to earn the trust of his new comrades, who regard the Englishman as a potential spy. On bloody battlefields fought in nightmarish conditions, with his life and immortal soul at stake, Page is faced with a stark choice: win, or perish...

The paperback version will follow shortly - watch this space, as they say...

Monday, 25 April 2016

The Soldier of Fortune cometh (again)

I interrupt my recent series of posts on Edward I and his wars in Wales to bring you news of my latest book. Titled Soldier of Fortune (II): The Heretic, this is the second of a planned trilogy following the adventures of Sir John Page, a semi-fictional English mercenary or 'soldier of fortune' in the early to mid-15th century. 

Fall of Constantinople
Captured at the final siege of Constantinople in 1453, Page is literally forced to sing for his supper (or rather, his life) by the victorious Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed the Conqueror: to save his neck from the executioner's blade, Page must tell a series of Arabian Nights-style stories for the sultan's entertainment. As an old soldier with a long military career behind him, Page chooses to tell stories from his own life - possibly a little exaggerated, but only he knows that. 

Having already recited his first tale, based on his early career as a soldier in Normandy in the army of King Henry V, Page now recounts his time among the Hussites in war-torn Bohemia (part of the modern-day Czech Republic). The Hussites were followers of the martyred Bohemian preacher, Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake as a heretic in Constance in 1415. Hus was a radical who believed in cleansing the Catholic church of sin and corruption, and unsurprisingly hated by the Pope. After being thrown out of Prague University he wandered the country, preaching his ideals to the poor. He gained immense popular support, and when the news of his death reached Bohemia the people flew to arms to avenge him. 

The Hussite armies were essentially made up of peasants, supported by a handful of nobles. Outnumbered and (supposedly) outclassed by the vast armies commanded by the Pope and his allies in Germany and Hungary, they should have been wiped out in a matter of weeks. Instead, thanks to innovative battle tactics and superb use of artillery, they won a series of unlikely victories against the odds. Thus the cream of the elite warrior nobility of Christendom was humiliated, time and again, by a few thousand commoners and some farm carts converted into gun-toting 'war wagons'.

The Hussite Wars, as they were called, raged for seventeen years. Page's story covers the years 1421-24, when the wars were at their height. For his sins, Page fights in the major battles and sieges, and witnesses some of the worst atrocities committed in a land riven by bitter civil conflicts, external invasions and extreme religious zealotry. During the course of the tale Page meets Jan Zizka, the famous Hussite general, meets a new love and loses old friends. 

My good friend Martin Bolton has drawn a splendid map of Bohemia c.1420, which will be inside the paperback version of the book:

Soldier of Fortune (II) The Heretic is currently in the last stages of editing and will be available very soon. More details to follow soon... 

A previous update on the book, including a brief account of Jan Zizka, can be read under the link below:

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Edward and Llewellyn, Part One

In August 1267 the ageing Henry III of England travelled with his court to the Welsh border at Montgomery. There he met with Llewellyn ap Gruffydd and granted the Welsh prince all he had long desired, including the Four Cantrefs of Perfeddwlad, the castle and lordship of Builth, and the greatest prize of all, formal recognition by the English crown of Llewellyn's title and supremacy over Wales.

Llewellyn's arms as prince of Gwynedd
Among the signatories to the deal, known as the Treaty of Montgomery, was Henry's eldest son, Edward. This was the first time Edward and Llewellyn had met in person, though they had stood on opposite sides in the recent baronial wars and fought over territory in the Welsh March. An army of mercenaries, sent into Wales on the young Edward's behalf, had been destroyed by Welsh forces at Coed Llathen in 1256. Edward's former lordship of Builth, taken by Llewellyn in 1260, was now officially given over to the prince. Yet despite this long history of antagonism the two men seemed to have got on rather well: two years later, Llewellyn wrote of his 'delight' at a second meeting with Edward. After Edward had departed for the Holy Land, Henry wrote back to Llewellyn, describing in warm terms the prince's friendship with his eldest son.

Thirteen years later, Llewellyn was fated to die in a ditch, slain by Edward's troops. His head was cut off and paraded on a spear through the streets of London, crowned with a wreath of ivy, in mockery of his princely status. Wales itself was conquered and occupied and turned into an English colony, while Llewellyn's regalia was broken up and sent to London, and his living descendants (children of his brother, Dafydd) locked up in convents or English prisons. How, from a promising start, did his relations with Edward collapse so dramatically?

The decline was slow, and far from inevitable. Relations were still amicable in 1269, when Edward intervened on Llewellyn's behalf in a violent territorial dispute with Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester. Edward risked much in doing so, for de Clare was one of the most powerful and volatile nobles in England. He had fought on both sides in the civil wars, and Edward needed his support (and cash) for the planned Crusade. De Clare was furious at Edward's judgement, and chose to stay and fight it out with Llewellyn rather than go east with his royal master.

Llewellyn's failure to prevent de Clare building his impressive castle at Caerphilly in Glamorgan might be seen as the turning point in the prince's fortunes. Up until now his career had been one long success story. Now the Marcher barons detected signs of weakness. In 1273 Humphrey de Bohun, heir to the earldom of Hereford, started to push his ancestral claims to the lordship of Brecon. He moved troops into the region, secure in the knowledge that the regent Edward left behind to govern England, Roger de Mortimer, was himself an aggressive Marcher baron and no friend of Llewellyn.

From Edward's point of view it made sense to leave Mortimer as gatekeeper: he was a strong hand and England was unlikely to fall back into civil conflict with him in charge. For Llewellyn the appointment of Mortimer was a disaster. When he complained to the English court over de Bohun's illegal invasion of Brecon, Mortimer and his advisors responded with shameless duplicity. Having checked the Treaty of Montgomery, they found that 'the land of Brecon' had indeed been ceded to the prince. However, the terms said nothing of who should hold the castles in the region. De Bohun, therefore, was perfectly within his rights to occupy and fortify those castles as he pleased, and hold them against all comers. They finished with an expression of shock and dismay that Llewellyn 'had presumed to besiege and occupy those castles' and warned him to keep the peace in future.

Dolforwyn Castle
Fully aware that he could not afford to let the Marchers get on top, Llewellyn ignored the warning and started work on his new castle at Dolforwyn. When the regents ordered him to cease construction, his bitingly sarcastic response was addressed to the absent king instead of them: "We received letters in your majesty's name," he wrote, "but we are sure they did not have your consent...if you were present in your kingdom. as we hope, we are sure they would not have been sent." Ironically, considering later events, Llewellyn appears to have regarded Edward as his saviour at this point. Only the King of England had the power to stop his over-mighty Marchers from building castles on Llewellyn's lands and doing all they could to expand their power and influence at his expense.

When Edward finally returned in 1274, having survived an assassin's knife in the Holy Land, one subject loomed large in his mind: money. The crusade might have done his reputation a power of good, but it achieved little in material terms and incurred massive debts. He needed cash, fast, and expected large sums from Wales. As the price for his acknowledgement in 1267, Llewellyn had promised to pay the English crown the enormous sum of 25,000 marks (£16,667). For the prince of a proud but poor country, with an estimated annual customs revenue of about £17 (the comparative revenue of England was £10,000 per annum) this was optimistic to say the least. After some bartering, it was agreed he could pay off the amount at a rate of 3000 marks (£2000) a year. At the height of his power, in the mid-1260s, Llewellyn's total income was no more than £6000, so he had effectively waved goodbye to over a third of his annual revenue.

By the early 1270s, Llewellyn's slender finances were creaking under the strain. He was three years in arrears on the annual payments, and had resorted to crippling taxation in order to pay for the arms race with the Marchers. The prince of Wales, as Gwyn A. Williams noted, taxed the subjects of a small country with no major towns and a severely restricted currency to the hilt, built castles on their backs, used every method he could think of to raise money. In this he was no different to any other 13th century princeling, but in Llewellyn's case the available resources did not match his ambition.

In the end he tried to use the fraught political situation as a way of putting off his debts: "The money is ready to be paid to your attorneys," he wrote to the regents in February 1274, "provided you compel the Earl of Gloucester, Humphrey de Bohun and the other Marchers to restore to us the lands they have unjustly occupied." The result was an unsustainable Catch-22. Llewellyn knew that Mortimer would not order the Marchers to desist, which in turn meant Llewellyn was justified in not stumping up the £6000 he owed. Whether he really did have the funds available, as he claimed, is open to doubt.

Edward I 
Edward - perhaps surprisingly, for those who regard him as incapable of compromise - did his best to patch up the situation. His own debts were pressing, and he couldn't afford to let his avaricious Marchers ruin any chance of payment from Llewellyn. He ordered the Sheriff of Shropshire to bring an end to hostilities, stressing that he 'did not want Llewellyn to have any cause for complaining about the settlement made'. If the prince had no cause for complaint, he reasoned, there was no further excuse for defaulting on the arrears.

By now (1274) Llewellyn was in his early fifties, and there was little sign of the final disaster to come, just eight years later. Some compromise over the money and territorial squabbles in the March might yet have been reached. Certain English baronial rebels, such as John de Eyvill, had negotiated favourable terms with Edward under similar circumstances. Edward and Llewellyn were scheduled to meet at Shrewsbury in the autumn to hammer out terms, but Edward fell sick and couldn't attend. If that meeting had gone ahead, Llewellyn - and his country - might yet have been saved.

The fly in the ointment came in the shape of Llewellyn's younger brother, Dafydd. More of him, and the wars of 1277 and 1282, in part two.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Ed One, Part One

King Edward I (reigned 1272-1307) isn't everyone's cup of mead these days. His reputation has taken a battering in recent times, thanks in part to his villainous turn in Braveheart and popular novels by Edith Pargeter and Sharon Penman. My intention here isn't to try and give his character a polish, or tip another bucket of slime over it, but to take a look at him as a fighter. His career was a long one, so I'll divide it into two parts.

Ned Longshanks
Sandwiched between two kings (Henry III and Edward II) with little military capacity, Edward has traditionally been held up as a great soldier and battlefield commander. Some doubt has been cast on that recently - were all those huge castles in Wales really necessary? Wasn't the invasion of Scotland nothing but a massive waste of time and resources? Etc. Personally I'm not convinced by the revisionism, and want to steady General Longshanks on his wobbling pedestal.

As a youth, Edward didn't show much promise as a soldier or anything else. Encouraged by his ambitious kinsmen, the Lusignans, he rode about with a band of cronies behaving like a vicious thug and making a fool of himself at tournaments. The chronicler Matthew Paris, no fan of the prince, reported with glee that Edward and the Lusignans were badly beaten at certain tournaments in France, and lost all their horses and armour. Paris also recounted a nasty story of Edward ordering his cronies to mutilate a peasant they met on the road, lopping off the luckless youth's ears and gouging out an eye. Whether the story was true or not, the teenage Edward doesn't come across as a pleasant individual. "If he does these things when the wood is green," wrote Paris, "what will he do once it is ripe?"

Matthew Paris
There were hints of something more to Edward. Men were drawn to him, and he showed a definite talent for leadership. When the tension between his father Henry III and Simon de Montfort exploded into civil war, Edward was keen to prove his worth. In April 1264 he stormed Northampton via a clever ruse, sending troops through a side-entrance to catch the rebel barons in flank while they were busy fending off an attack on the gatehouse. Edward also showed his devious side: at Gloucester he was almost caught by his hated rival, Robert de Ferrers, but persuaded the gullible Henry de Montfort, one of Simon's sons, to strike a truce - long enough for Edward to slip out of the town and get away.

Edward's inconstancy, his willingness to break his word for the sake of advantage, was remarked on by contemporaries. The Song of Lewes, composed to praise the rebel barons, described him as "a lion in pride and fierceness, but a pard (a semi-mythical creature) by his inconstancy and changeableness...changing his word and promise, cloaking himself in pleasant speech." In fairness his enemies were no different. When a party of rebel barons surrendered to Edward at Bycarr's Dyke in Lincolnshire, promising never to rise in arms against the crown again, they promptly broke their oath and went on the rampage, burning and looting and ravaging the northern counties.

'Use up the Irish'...etc etc
At the Battle of Lewes in May 1264 Edward famously lost the battle for the royalists, charging off after the beaten Londoners and only returning after the rest of his father's army had been routed. The prince had no choice but to surrender to the victorious de Montfort. He spent the next year as a hostage, and the sheer humiliation and danger of his position seems to have forged a new resolve in him. With the Earl of Gloucester's connivance, he engineered a clever escape, riding away from his baffled guards to raise a new army in the Welsh Marches.

The following campaign saw Edward out-fox and out-fight the de Montfort clan. At Kenilworth he fell upon the rebels quartered in the town, slaughtering and killing many, taking others captive. Simon de Montfort's son, another Simon, only escaped by swimming the moat in his nightshirt to the safety of the castle. Deprived of his son's troops, Simon senior was trapped inside the Vale of Evesham. The old man took a certain grim pleasure in the cleverness of Edward's tactics: "Our enemies come on well," he remarked as the royalists advanced on Evesham under false banners, "but they learned it from me." In the following battle de Montfort's outnumbered army was smashed and their commander's corpse hacked to pieces. Here Edward showed his savage and vengeful side, hanging the dead man's testicles either side of his nose and sending his severed foot in a box (gift-wrapped, perhaps?) as a present to the wife of a royalist baron. Edward's cruel streak, inherited from his Angevin forebears - the 'Devil's Brood' - never left him, though it was arguably softened for a while due to the influence of his wife, Eleanor of Castile.

After Evesham, Edward truly came to the fore. With his aged father gently fading into the background, the prince assumed full control of the royal armies. He was in the field for almost two years fighting to suppress the Disinherited, a second wave of rebel barons who sprang to arms shortly after Evesham. In the winter of 1265 and spring of 1266 he was constantly on the move, crushing a rebellion in Northumberland and besieging the Isle of Axholme in Lincolnshire, where northern barons led by John de Eyvill had holed up. He also found time to rush south and flush out a gang of outlaws haunting the region of Alton Pass, which controlled the highway to Southampton. While his men stormed the barriers guarding the outlaw hideout, Edward engaged their leader, a gigantic knight named Adam de Gurdon, in single combat. Edward beat de Gurdon to his knees and had him carried away in chains to Windsor. There was no such mercy for the outlaw knight's followers, who were hanged on trees near their camp. After this exploit Edward was present at the epic siege of Kenilworth, the strongest castle in England. The bloody-minded rebel garrison held out until December 1266, when cold and starvation forced them to surrender.

As a general, Edward had showed he could move swiftly when the need arose, taking even skilled veterans like Simon de Montfort by surprise. He also seemed to be trying to improve the quality of English infantry. In 1266 he and his chief lieutenant, Roger de Leyburn, were engaged in clearing Essex of rebels and retaking the Cinque Ports, which controlled the Channel and English trade with France. The surviving pay rolls for this brief campaign show that Edward was employing hundreds of Welsh archers, expert longbowmen from Gwent and the Marches. More archers and crossbowmen were recruited to serve in the Nottingham garrison and fight outlaws in Sherwood. Edward, it seemed, had come to appreciate the value of missile troops and the longbow in particular.

The long civil war finally came to an end in the summer of 1267, when the last major baronial rebels laid down their arms and received a pardon at St Pauls in London. After receiving their submission, Edward reduced the last rebel outpost at the Isle of Ely, building a pontoon bridge and setting fire to the dry reeds (William the Conqueror's old strategy) to force the outlaws inside to surrender.

There's little doubt that without Edward's energy and leadership, the revolt of the Disinherited might have dragged on for much longer. Two years later, with England at peace, he felt confident enough to head off on Crusade, taking a few chums with him. Of his adventures in the Holy Land, and the wars in Wales, France and Scotland, more to come in Part Deux...

Friday, 26 February 2016

Civil war, gout, and rebel earls...

Robert de Ferrers, 6th Earl of Derby (1239-79), was one of the strongest - and strangest - characters in a period of English history stuffed full of dynamic, larger-than-life personalities. He tends to get a bit overlooked or dismissed in the histories, so I thought I’d shine a flashlight on him for this post. 

Ferrers' ancestors were among the original mob of land-hungry Normans who came over with the Conqueror in 1066. The centre of their power was in Derbyshire, though it wasn’t until the early 13th century that they really started to piece together a mighty chunk of territory in the north and midlands. Despite their wealth, they were an unlucky family in some ways: the males suffered from hereditary gout, a debilitating and embarrassing disease for noblemen required to take active roles in war and politics. Robert’s father William, the 5th Earl, suffered so badly from the malady he had to be carried everywhere in a litter. In an age when only condemned men travelled in litters, this was a severe humiliation. The final insult came in 1254 when his litter overturned on a bridge and tipped him into the river. He did shortly afterwards of injuries sustained in the fall.

Ferrers, only fifteen when his father died, was left in a difficult position. Too young to inherit, the wardship of his estates was handed over to his cousin Lord Edward, Henry III’s eldest son and future Edward I. Edward promptly sold the wardship to his mother, Eleanor of Provence, and Peter of Savoy for the handsome sum of 6000 marks. The sale effectively mortgaged his kinsman, body and soul, until he was old enough to do homage and take possession of his lands. When Ferrers finally came of age in 1260, he encountered further difficulties. His mother’s dowry ate up most of his income, while he also had to provide for his younger brother William, his wife Mary, and his kinsman Edward, who retained some of the Ferrers estate after the earl came of age. There were also debts to pay, inherited from the previous earl. Ferrers was left with a stipend of just £100 a year to run one of the largest estates in England and sustain thousands of dependants.

Peveril Castle in Derbyshire
His money woes, allied to his wild and ungovernable nature, drove Ferrers to violence. Shortly after coming of age he attacked Tutbury Priory, a religious house his family had been patrons of for generations, and partially destroyed it. He also encouraged his tenants to illegally hunt beasts inside the Derbyshire forests, as well as commit assaults and robberies against his neighbours.

In 1263 Ferrers fell in with the baronial reform movement, keeping company with Simon de Montfort and Richard de Clare, Earl of Gloucester. After de Montfort’s return to England in April 1263, as the leader of an armed rising against Henry III, Robert swung into action. In May and June of that year his forces were active on the southern marches of Wales, seizing the ‘Three Castles’, as they were called, that belonged to the Lord Edward. His long-running rivalry with the prince was the defining feature of Ferrers’ life: “of no-one was Edward more afraid”, wrote the chronicler Robert of Gloucester.

In February 1264, after some skirmishing and renewed war on the marches, Ferrers’ army descended on Worcester. The town was stormed, and the Jewish quarter sacked, with many Jews murdered or kidnapped by his troops. The earl deliberately stole bonds recording Jewish loans he had taken out and carried them off to his castle at Tutbury - a neat way of wiping out one’s debts. He then advanced down the Severn to Gloucester, where he hoped to snare Edward. To his fury, a truce made by Henry de Montfort allowed Edward to slip away to his father at Oxford, ravaging Ferrers’ lands en route. The gloves were now off between the two noble kinsmen, who embarked upon a series of brutal tit-for-tat raids. In March Edward harried his enemy’s lands in Staffordshire, stormed Chartley Castle, and in the following month razed Tutbury and extorted protection money at swordpoint from the earl’s tenants.

After Edward’s capture at the Battle of Lewes, Ferrers was able to respond in kind. His forces overran Edward’s castles in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, captured the castle of Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire, and in late June seized the prince’s chief stronghold, Peveril Castle in Derbyshire. Flushed with his successes, Ferrers then swept west at the head of twenty thousand horse and foot, seized Edward’s base at Chester and routed an army of Welsh troops under the command of Dafydd ap Gruffydd. By now his fearsome reputation preceded him: “they did not dare to come against the earl in battle,” a chronicler wrote of Dafydd’s men, “and so fled....when it came to the pursuit, he killed up to a hundred of them, and captured others; and only one of his men was wounded.”

Ferrers’ days of glory were numbered. Simon de Montfort himself was nervous of his violent and unpredictable ally, and wanted the power base of Chester for himself. He soon cooked up a scheme to nullify the earl. Displaying a typical lack of political cunning, Ferrers accepted de Montfort’s summons to London, where he was promptly arrested on various trumped-up charges and thrown into the Tower. With few friends among the English nobility, Ferrers was powerless to prevent de Montfort stripping away the assets he had only recently made his own. Thus the vicious circle was complete: Edward had robbed Ferrers, Ferrers had robbed Edward, and now Ferrers was robbed by de Montfort.

The victor didn’t have long to enjoy his spoils. In August 1265 Edward pulled off a spectacular reversal of fortune and smashed the de Montfort clan in two bloody engagements at Kenilworth and Evesham. Simon himself was hunted down by a specially chosen death-squad and his body mutilated on the field at Evesham. Perhaps surprisingly, the vengeful prince took no action against Ferrers, still cooling his heels in the Tower. In December the prisoner was released and allowed to buy a pardon for 1500 marks and a gold cup studded with gems. Despite his hatred of Edward, Ferrers was too important to be done away with: he was popular among his tenants in the north midlands, and the ageing King Henry needed his money and support in the region.

Edward I
Dame Fortune had chosen to smile on Ferrers. His response was to spit in her eye. In the spring of 1266 he joined a new band of rebels in the north, headed by Baldwin Wake and John de Eyvill, a rough northern baron described as ‘the bold d’Eyvil, a canny and hardy warrior.” This new baronial coalition ravaged the northern and eastern counties of England in an orgy of fire and sword and rampant bloodletting. They made their base, like so many Robin Hoods, in the greenwood at Duffieldfrith in Derbyshire, close to Ferrers’s chief stronghold at Tutbury. 

Ferrers’ decision to go back into rebellion has baffled historians. He is generally assumed to have acted out of sheer greed and stupidity, but that seems a little unfair. Efficient roughnecks like John de Eyvill wouldn’t have accepted a fool for a leader, and Ferrers and his allies may have had valid causes for complaint. King Henry was still hanging on to their lands, even though they were supposed to have been returned the previous year. For the barons, raised and trained to settle every dispute with the sword, there could only be one response.

Henry’s response was to send an army racing north to quash the rebellion. The rebels were ambushed at Chesterfield and their forces scattered. John de Eyvill escaped to carry on the fight, but Ferrers was quite literally caught with his pants down: he was being bled for his gout when the royalists attacked, and had to stagger away and hide under a pile of woolsacks in a nearby church while his enemies looked for him. In the end he was betrayed, locked up in a cage and carted south to Windsor. No matter what they did, his family just couldn’t stay out of carts.

This time the King and his sons meant to de-fang the troublesome earl once and for all. He remained in prison for three years while a scheme was hatched to strip him of all his lands and goods. Finally, in October 1269, the prisoner was offered a hopeless deal: unless he paid the sum of £50,000 inside ten days, the whole of his estate would be taken away and given to King Henry’s second son. Edmund. Ferrers could not possibly hope to find the money in such a short time. Even so his enemies took out a bit of extra insurance, just in case. On 9th July he was taken from Windsor to Chippenham, where in the presence of the Chancellor he was ordered to formally sign away his inheritance. The demand was almost certainly made with the threat of physical torture if he refused: in later years Ferrers certainly claimed as much. He had no choice but to obey, and at the end of May was released, a free man, but now landless, penniless and utterly dishonoured.

Whatever else he might have been, Ferrers was no quitter. Even a broken man may still have teeth, and he still had the loyalty of his old tenants. Shortly after his release the Midlands was hit by a staggering wave of violent crime, as bad as anything experienced in the civil war. Hundreds of armed robbers, mounted and on foot, plagued the forests and highways, attacking secular and religious persons alike, thieving and murdering with impunity. At the same time a band of ‘night robbers’ emerged from the Derbyshire woods and attacked Nottingham, smashing the timber defences and killing a number of the citizens.

Battle of Lewes

The leader of this army of footpads was one Roger Godberd, a yeoman farmer who held the manor of Swannington in Leicestershire of Ferrers. Evidently a useful bit of muscle, Ferrers had employed him in the garrison of Nottingham Castle in 1264, from where Godberd and other men rode out to commit large-scale poaching offences inside Sherwood Forest. Given the close relationship between lord and tenant, and the timing of Godberd’s revolt, it seems most likely that this new uprising was inspired by anger at Ferrers’ disinheritance. Alternatively, Godberd may simply have been acting on his master’s orders.

Ferrers himself was not idle. While the Midlands descended into anarchy, he led a band of armed men to seize and occupy the manor of Stanford in Berkhire. Stanford was one of his confiscated manors, recently given to Roger de Leyburn, the Lord Edward’s favourite crony. Leyburn had gone to the Holy Land on Crusade with his master, and his absence may have encouraged Ferrers to make the attempt. However, King Henry’s troops soon arrived on the scene and turfed him out again. Soon afterwards he suffered another blow when his ally, Roger Godberd, was finally captured inside Sherwood by royalist forces and imprisoned. Godberd was shunted about between various prisons until his trial at Newgate in 1276. Incredibly, he was acquitted of all charges and released.

Even now, Ferrers was not done. By this point he was little more than an outlaw, leading a gang of brigands in the woods and wild places of the land he had once owned. In 1273 he popped up in Staffordshire at the head of another band of armed loyalists and drove out the royalist garrison at Chartley Castle. His old rival Edward, now King Edward I, was informed that the rebels had not only seized the castle but started working the land nearby, felling timber for sale and using the mills to grind corn. Alarmed and no doubt deeply irritated by Ferrers’ stubborn refusal to go away, Edward despatched an army to retake Chartley and smoke out the men occupying it. His troops were succesful, though not without suffering casualties. Ferrers escaped, thus avoiding a probable third term of imprisonment.

After this latest setback, Ferrers switched tactics. He finally found a friend in the person of Gilbert ‘the red’ de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, and with his support tried to seek redress at law. Technically he had a good case - his disinheritance in 1269 was a monstrous injustice - but the crown had no intention of allowing the fallen earl to rise again. Almost all of his claims were thrown out of court, though in 1275 King Edward relented a little and allowed Ferrers to recover the manor (though not the castle) of Chartley and the manor of Holbrook in Derbyshire.

If this was a sop to keep the old pest quiet, it had the required effect. Ferrers spent his last years living quietly at Chartley with his second wife, Eleanor de Bohun, and their young family. Having lost the majority of his vast inheritance, he did at least suceeed in fathering a son, John, to inherit what remained. He died in 1279 at the relatively young age of forty, probably from an illness related to gout, and was buried at the Augustinian priory of St Thomas in Staffordshire. His descendents, reduced to the lower levels of the English baronage, proved remarkably enduring, and the title of Earl Ferrers has survived to this day. Hopefully the present incumbent doesn’t suffer from gout.