Longsword by David Pilling

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

Archers!

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 thick...in 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...