Saturday, 26 September 2020

The Ambassador

‘Ah, Ferdie, there you are.’

‘Good morning my pretty little crusader. How does the day find you, my flower.’

‘Don’t patronise me, Ferdie. And anyway, it is mid-afternoon. You missed the intelligence meeting.’

‘You should have waited until I got there.’

‘We’d still be waiting, Ferdie. How is your hangover?’

‘Fine. Hang on, what hangover? I mean how did you know, or think, that I have one? I don’t.’

‘I count, Ferdie. I count how many drinks you have, and see how you manage to stagger off to bed. But anyway, we have important matters arising.’

‘Oh, like what? Could I have a drink?’

‘No. There is an ambassador coming to Granada from the Barbary States to negotiate with them. I think we need a word with him.’

‘Fine, I will send him an invitation to come to Seville.’

‘Don’t be a twit, Ferdie. He is going to negotiate an alliance with the Nasrids to fight us off.’

‘Oh. Well, can’t we persuade him not to? I mean, a barrel of beer and some trinkets sometimes work.’

‘We will, as you say, persuade them not to. But it will require a little work on your part.’

‘Oh, fine, no problem. What do I have to do? Order a letter to be written?’

‘No, you leave in an hour for Cadiz. The joint fleet is mobilizing and you will take command, leading the force to intercept the ambassador and bring him here, where we will negotiate with him.’

‘But I’m busy with other things. This war won’t fight itself, you know.’

‘I know, but your war is a brave but foolhardy attempt to drink all the wine produced in the country. Incidentally, that is stopping now; our ships have been issued with beer only, for all ranks. I am sure that a nice trip by boat will blow the cobwebs away for you.’

‘I’m not sure I’m the right person. I don’t do admiral type stuff really. I’d better stay here while someone….’

‘Ferdie, are you the king of Aragon?’

‘Of course, you know that.’

‘And is Aragon the foremost naval power in the Western Mediterranean at this time?’

‘Oh yes. It is a matter of great pride. Castile has the soliders, but we have the sailors, and I am their leader!’

There was a pause. Isabella raised an eyebrow.

‘I’ve just talked myself into this, haven’t I?’

‘You have, my dear. Well done; I don’t think I could have done better. I’ve ordered some new bed sheets for when you return, by the way.’


From the above you may well, correctly, divine that I have completed the refurbishment of my renaissance galley fleets. This was a bit more difficult than I imagined, as a number of flagstaffs have simply disappeared and spare parts are not available. Still, I managed to cobble together thirty-two ships of assorted sizes, and only one seems to be destined for the scrapyard at present, unless I have a sudden rush of improvisation to the head and an unwarranted and unprecedented attack of creativity in the modelling department.

Rules are a bit of a puzzle. I, of course, only have two rule sets and both of them are old. I have ‘Armada’ which might be suitable but seems to be more for small numbers of ships and is an old-style rule set with extra points for English sea dogs. To be fair, it also has extras for Spanish sea dog, just not as much. It also relies on record-keeping which, as many who read the blog might have discerned, is an anathema to me. The other possibility is Unholy Alliance and old set from Hallmark. I confess to never having used these, either. While claiming to be fast play they still seem a bit fussy to me, although I shall, of course, pinch some of the mechanisms and ranges.

Inevitably, I shall cobble my own rules together. Renaissance galleys did not particularly ram each other but relied on forward-mounted (and facing) heavy artillery and boarding. The Spanish have the heaviest and most heavily manned galleys, the Barbary Coast states the lightest. The Venetians had the best artillery but were more lightly manned than some others. Galleass were the big beasts and could mete out massed destruction but were less manoeuvrable and slow. And so on.

Interestingly, it was the artillery on the galleys that drove the development of fighting sail. Northern warships had to find a response the heavy guns on galleys or get blown out of the water. Even at the end of the Sixteenth Century the English government was concerned by the possible deployment of Spanish galleys in the Low Countries. The answer was, first, stern-mounted artillery in sailing ships, followed by bow-mounted chasers. Finally, the broadside was developed with closing port-holes for inclement weather. After a few hiccoughs (Mary Rose, Wasa) the sailing ship outclassed its oared rival.

Anyway, back to the scenario. After the successful capture of Al Hambra (see the Reconquista link to the right for the details) it would be natural for the Grenadines to seek some help against the Castilian hordes. The natural allies are the Barbary states of North Africa – this was before they became vassals of the Ottoman sultan, of course – and so, as Isabella has observed, an ambassador has been despatched to negotiate a treaty. This man Ferdinand must intercept before he lands at Malaga.

The ambassador is travelling by a comfortable merchant galley. The Barbary Coast fleets tended to the lighter galley (much used for raiding, piracy and other seaborne activities), but they will need a flagship as well, and could have a couple of medium galleys too, something like eight lights, three mediums and a Lanterna as flagship.

The Spanish tended to heavier galleys (and bigger guns, apparently). That would amount to something like a flagship galley, ten heavy galleys and a light (for scouting). The North Africans have to land their man at Malaga, the Spanish have to stop that and, preferably, seize him for themselves.

Saturday, 19 September 2020

Domesday: The Inquest and the Book

It seems to be fairly uncontentious that there was a Domesday Inquest, and, of course, we have the Domesday Book (or books, for there are two, one, the Great Domesday Book and the other, the Little Domesday Book; the latter covers East Anglia). It is also fairly clear that the Domesday Inquest or inquiry was carried out in 1085 – 6 by order of the King (William the Whatever) as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The results, it is said, were taken to the King

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is fairly clear. At mid-winter 1085 Bill was in Gloucester with his council and had ‘great thought and very deep conversation with his council about this land’ (ASC (E) 1085, p 216 in my translation Swanton, M., ed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (London: Phoenix, 2000)). ‘And all the records were brought to him afterwards.’ So William sent out a whole load of officials to see what was there and got the records back, which somehow became our Domesday Books.

It is often (perhaps usually) thought that Domesday Book was the aim of the whole undertaking. After all, if today someone were to do something similar, the records may well be published in a book, at least as a digest of all the interesting and useful stuff. It is known that the Books landed up in the King’s treasury in Winchester and, over the course of a century of so acquired the name by which we know it so well.

But what was this process and how (or why) did to book itself come into being? While the scope of the survey might have been larger than previous efforts in England, the use of inquest was a well-established method of finding out the truth. For the moment, dismiss from your thoughts ideas of coroners and trial by juries. Juries were there, usually of eight men from the hundred and some from each vill. A vill, incidentally, is sort of a village but not necessarily – the dwellings could be much more scattered; it all depended on the sort of agriculture undertaken in the area.

The inquiry was related to land and tax returns and all the sorts of things a medieval government would be interested in. Who owned what and how much was it worth in tax (geld)? There have been extensive efforts to reconstruct English society in 1086 from the Domesday Book, but it has to be recognised that the Book is selective – only tenants in chief and their tenants, people who had land directly from the King (it will be remembered, of course, that William claimed to own the whole lot) were recorded.

Once this was done, William called ‘everyone’ (everyone who mattered, anyway) to Salisbury and received their oath that they would be loyal to him, and then he bimbled off to Normandy where he died. This Salisbury other seems to have been a deal between the King and his tenants in chief that they would pay him more taxes and he would give them (or confirm them in) certain rights. Exactly what these were is hard to say.

The rest of the process and production of the books are controversial. Whether the big landowners ‘cooked the books’ to enhance their landholding and prestige is an open question (probably not). Whether the jurors were forced to testify; whether the testifying was terrifying or affirmed that a geld payer was a free man or not. Historians have argued (and still do, I presume) over these issues for ages.

I have recently finished

Roffe, D., Domesday: The Inquest and the Book (Oxford: OUP, 2000).

This is something of a companion piece to Decoding Domesday, which was written apparently at about the same time but published separately. I wrote about it not too long ago. Anyway, Roffe is in the ‘revisionist’ camp here, in that he thinks that the survey was a reaction to the crisis of 1085 (I think most would agree on that) but that it was a negotiated activity in which the barons and communities of the shires aimed at a common end, that is trying to find the resources for paying for a large army of mercenaries that William had brought over from Normandy to oppose a projected Danish invasion. The process aimed at establishing ‘a body of established fact on which an agreed course of action could be decided’ (p. x).

Roffe also argues that the construction of a book was not the aim of the inquest. The book he thinks, came a bit later, probably in the reign of William II (‘Rufus’) and, Roffe suggests, it was done under the supervision of Rannulf Flambard just after the revolts against Bill II in 1088. Apparently, there was some tenurial chaos then; I imagine that there was a fair bit of dispossession of lands from the revolting barons.

This reveals one of the problems with dipping into a ‘new’ area of history. I have no idea what happened in 1088. My books stop with the death of BtB in 1087. What happened next is a mystery to me, except that BII was mysteriously shot by an arrow while hunting in the Savernake Forest, which happens to be the most interesting thing that happened, historically, near the town where I was brought up and was, therefore, the subject of a history lesson in school. The next most interesting thing was the reading of the riot act in 1910 (I think). I dare say, when I look into it, that Bill II probably did not die in the way I have just described, because history, at least where I grew up, was never that interesting.

Anyway, it is an interesting book. I may have slightly shot my project on Domesday Book in the foot, however, by reading the revisionists first. Now I have to work out what the historiography they are reacting against was about. And, of course, I have to find out what really happened in 1088, and beyond. One bit of history leads to another.

Saturday, 12 September 2020

A Small Town in Bohemia


‘Um. Hi.’

‘Your name, please?’

‘Erm, Jez. Yes, Jez.’

‘How do you spell that?’


‘OK. Do you know that this is?’

‘It’s a pitchfork.’

‘Yes. Now, do you know which end of it to hold, and which end is dangerous to other people?’


‘Show us…. Yes, that’s right. Now, you see that bundle of straw with the turnip on top?’


‘I want you to imagine that it was a priest who had just refused you communion in both kinds. Now, what do you do?’

There was a blur of activity.

‘Ah, yes. Thank you. That’s fine. Sergeant, could you get us some more straw, please. And another turnip.’

‘Yes sir. Sir….?’


‘I didn’t know you could do that to a turnip with a pitchfork.’

‘Nor did I sergeant, nor did I.’

‘Was it wrong?’

‘No, no, Jez, not wrong. I think we will recruit you, cart thirty four, I think, please.’

‘Which one is that? There are only three there.’

‘It is the first one, to the left.’

‘Why not call it cart number one?’

‘Because if we did that the enemy would know we have only three carts, one, two and three. But if we say thirty four, thirty five and thirty six, they’ll be expecting another thirty three carts along shortly.’

‘Here is the straw and turnip, sir. Would you like me to mop up the turnip juice before the next candidate?

‘It might be an idea, sergeant, thank you. I think this might be a long revolution, you know.’


The Hussites are back in town, as it were. Or at least, I have started to implement my vague idea for a narrative campaign with my newly minted Hussite armies. The outline above is the story of a recruitment drive. The Hussites are famous, theologically, for demanding communion in both kinds (bread and wine) at a time when it was only clergy who received both. The recent peculiar times have seen a return to the medieval distribution, of course, but this time for disease control rather than privilege of clergy.

Anyway, the Hussites have set out from their recruiting grounds and laid siege to a small town, held by a garrison of German crusaders. As you probably know, the Hussites were subjected to five crusades declared against them, which gathered forces from across Europe to duff up the heretics. The most consistent opponents were Germans, from the north and Hungarians from the east. To those of us brought up during the Cold War this still feels a little odd. Prague, historically, was at the centre of Europe, not behind some Iron Curtain of communist absolutism.

Anyway, the idea of the wargame is that the Hussites are besieging the town, the Germans are in it and the Hungarians are attempting to relieve them. I have, of course, therefore deployed two Hussite armies, one to keep the Germans in and the other to stop the Hungarians. From behind the Hungarian lines it looked like this.

The Hungarians are nearest the camera, and then the Hussite blocking army (Hussites A in my nomenclature) on a hill, then the besieging army and the Germans are in the town. The deployment of the Hungarians might suggest to you that I am trying something different from the last battle, and indeed I am. However, given the historical propensity of mounted knights to gallop off at a moment’s notice to charge the heretic peasants, they need either the presence of the commander in chief of a dice roll of one to three to stay put waiting patiently.

After a brief delay, the German column, headed by dismounted men at arms, emerged from the town gate and advanced on the siege works.

The Hussites moved their war waggons forward in an attempt to bring firepower on the column, while the bombards did their best and delayed the advance by some time. I think this is the first time the medieval bombards I painted just after Christmas have been in action. Mind you, it is also the first time the dismounted men at arms have been on the table top for a decade or so. The figures are Irregular and H&R, by the way. The castle and town are Leven, the trenches are very old Baccus, I believe.

The battle resolved itself into two, as you might expect. The first action was the Hungarians trying to break through the Hussite lines. The new tactics involved bringing up the infantry first to break the waggon line and then using the cavalry to outflank and destroy it. How well this worked can be seen in the next picture.

The infantry were held by the firing of the war waggons and failed to make contact, much like the cavalry in the trial battle. The knights eventually attacked on the Hussite left wing and were bounced, the general falling in the melee (such seems to be the fate of Hungarian generals at the moment). This did not much affect the morale of the Hungarian army, but it did inhibit its operations rather.

At the other end of the table, the German attack on the siege lines gained momentum, the dismounted knights driving deep into the siege lines and some spearmen breaking from the column to oppose the flanking war waggons.

This was a close run thing as the Hussite billmen resisted and put to flight the lead men at arms, but their supports pushed the Hussites back. The charge of the Hussite knights nearly swung the action in their favour but not quite – the supporting pikemen saw off the Hussite cavalry and the detached pike accounted for one of the war waggons.

At the end the Hussite besieger army’s morale got to withdraw, and so they did. As maintaining the siege was the whole point for the Hussites, a general withdrawal followed, the besiegers covered by the field army which had stalled to Hungarians (but not beaten them, this time, as the Hussites had not counter-attacked).


‘Withdraw? I never withdraw!’

‘Now Jez, calm down. We have to go because we’ve been ordered to.’

‘But we’re still alive! We fight on, we fight to win!’

‘Yes, yes, I know, but we need to make sure everyone lives to fight again, so we’re forming the rear guard.’

‘The rear guard?’

‘Yes, to, um, to prevent the heretic crusaders from dragging everyone to the gates of Hell.’

‘Oh. OK. Hitch up the horses.’


Saturday, 5 September 2020

Hitch Your Wagon

Have army, will have wargame. Or at least, have a newly painted army, will want to get them onto the table. I do, in fact, have a campaign (of my normal narrative sort) in mind for the Hussites but decided that I really needed an experimental battle as a try out, to see how the war wagons performed on the table.

First, I needed some rules for them of course. While the Polish war wagons of my acquaintance have been seen before (in one of Colonel Cranium’s adventures) I am not sure they strictly got into action, and my current use rules (or ‘work in progress scribbles’, as they are more accurately known) do not have any guidance for them. However, my normal trusty cribs came out and they were added to the table easily enough.

War wagons were tough, of course. The whole idea of them was to provide cover and a stable firing platform for all sorts of missiles to be shot, hurled or projected at the enemy. Hussite wagons even had baskets of stones on board, which served two purposes. Firstly, the helped stop the enemy overturning the wagons, and secondly they provided a handy projectile resource for the defenders. I would imagine the rate of fire of chucking a stone at someone is rather faster than reloading a very early handgun.

War wagons therefore score a hefty plus four on the combat table, but can only fire to the side (strictly speaking, they can only fire to the left hand side of the wagon, the other side had a ramp for crew access). The Hussites had a neat formation for the wagons where they parked side by side, the body of one wagon covering the traces of the next. The horses were usually removed to within the laager before the shooting started. Within the rules (indeed, within all the rules that I have seen) this is abstracted away in the base. Who am I to argue with that?

Detailed historical research (I read the Osprey and another book) suggested a Later Hungarian army for the opposition, and so my trusty copy of DBA was tracked down and yielded up its goodies in the form of the two armies. Translated from the jargon, I got five war wagons, four Hussite foot with nasty peasant style polearms, one gun, one base of mounted crossbowmen and one base of noble knights. For the Hungarians, there were three knights, three light horse, two archers, one crossbow and one spear base and two crossbow skirmishers.

The classic Hussite tactics were to take a position on the top of a hill and await the lunatic aristocracy and their charge. Usually, at least early in the wars, the said lunatics obliged. Therefore, as a one off battle, I set the Hussites on a hill and deployed the Hungarians such that the knights would have a clear run at the upstart peasants who dare defy their social superiors. Not only that but they are heretics as well.

I doubt if I need to say it, but the Hungarians are nearer the camera. Most of the figures are Irregular, although I think one base (the Hungarian pike) is Baccus. I do actually have a fair few more war wagons than the five deployed here. The gun is probably anachronistic. Hussite guns seem to have been on trestles or mounted on wagons. I have a cunning plan for that.

For the Hussites, the battle proceeded as planned. The Hungarian knights, anxious to teach the heretic peasants a lesson, advanced rapidly and stalled at the foot of the slope occupied by the war wagons.


The war wagons can certainly lay down some significant firepower, but not enough to really damage the knights, although sufficient to prevent them from charging home. The charges, when they did come, were more piecemeal that the Hungarians would have liked.


Under the tongue lashing of the general, the two rightmost knights have charged home. The left of these has pushed back the facing peasants, while the rightmost has recoiled the facing war wagon. As wagons cannot recoil, it has been lost and a gap has been opened in the Hussite lines.

The gap did not last long. The Hussite reserve knights countercharged the victorious Hungarians and drove them back down the hill, while the Hussite foot ensured that the other base in contact also recoiled back down the slope. Heavy fire from the other war wagons ensured that the third assaulting knights never got into close combat.

Meanwhile, the Hungarians, perhaps detecting that resistance was stronger than at first thought, started to move their wings forward. The light cavalry on the left are skirmishing ineffectively with the rightmost Hussite wagon and the mounted crossbowmen. This was the first outing for the revised skirmishing rules, and the as wagon kept stopping the light horse from carrying out their orders. It seemed to work.

The end came when the Hussites, having rallied their knights and seen off two bases of the Hungarian’s ordered a general advance by the infantry. This destroyed the supporting Hungarian infantry, who can be seen fleeing in the centre of the field. Meanwhile, on the Hungarian left, the mounted crossbowmen and war wagons have caused significant damage to the skirmishers. You might also note that, after a number of close shaves, the Hungarian commander has also become a casualty, although initially Hungarian morale was not affected by that. At this point, however, Hungarian morale did collapse, although most of the remaining troops should be able to get away.

I have to say that I was quite pleased with the dynamic of this battle. The Hussite tactics of absorbing the initial charge on the wagons and then counter attacking worked. By the same token, of course, Hungarian tactics were as bad as they were historically. As a sudden war wagon bolt on to the rules I was pleased that not too much had been messed up. There are still a few issues, such as interpenetration and the declaring of charges while friendly troops are in the way (the Hussite cavalry had to dodge around a billman base).

A good time was had by all, apart from the aristorcratic Hungarians, and now I need to think of a campaign.


Saturday, 29 August 2020

Otranto: The Battle


I mentioned before having an underemployed Ottoman army, so what better opportunity could I have to deploy it than a go at Otranto, as described a post or two ago. The lack of detail as to what happened was not going to deter me, of course. After all, I do have an ongoing Spanish Armada campaign based around the fleet landing near Whitby in North Yorkshire.

Not being one for too much historical research on what I have to admit is a bit of a side-line battle for me, I used the army lists from DBA for both the Ottoman side and the Neapolitans. They both came up looking a little odd to my mind – the Italians were gendarmes heavy while the Ottomans were azab light and only had one base of Janissaries, although the fact that a third of the army were light horse seemed reasonable.

Anyway, not having yet renovated my Renaissance galley fleets I decided that the Ottoman army would already have come ashore, and diced for their arrival side on the table. This meant that they arrived in a rather narrow pass between the sea and a stream and the walls of Otranto itself.

The photograph shows the peaceful scene. The Italian foot is within the walls of Otranto itself, while the Ottomans, doubtless cursing their scouts, approach from the gap between the stream and the sea. The relieving Neapolitan cavalry approach along the road to the right.

The buildings are Leven with I suspect some Timecast and Irregular, the troops (when you can see anyone) are my usual eclectic mix of Baccus, Irregular and, I think H&R. The walls of the enclosure in the foreground, and the fruit trees are Irregular.

Within the town are concealed three bases of crossbows and two of spears. The remaining Italian forces were five bases of gendarmes and a mounted crossbowman (and an artillery piece, on the end of the quay in Otranto. I know that Italian forces had largely concentrated on heavy cavalry in this period (because I have read Oman, like the good wargamer I am) but it does feel a bit odd.

Anyway, after a few moves everyone had arrived on the table.

The Ottoman plan was to get the light horse into action against the relieving column, while the sipahis back them up, and the following infantry and gun come through to block any sally from the town. Unfortunately, marching past the city walls, in crossbow range, has already started to disrupt the plan. While the light cavalry are unscathed, the sipahis have taken hits and are stalled in a rather embarrassing position, under fire but unable to respond.

A few moves later it has all gone rather pear-shaped for the Ottomans


While the sipahi have managed to get away from the walls, the cost has been the breaking of the Janissaries by concentrated crossbow fire from the city walls, and their rout has swept away the supporting azabs. The general messing about has cost a good deal of tempo, and so the gendarmes have had ample time to deploy and hatch a cunning plan against the akinji. The two bases of gendarmes lurking by the city walls are just about in charge distance of the line of light horse.

“And we’ll wrap it up there,” as someone says on an annoying TV advert. The charge of the flanking gendarmes has destroyed the akinji, the remnants of which are fleeing towards the camera. Along the way they have also accounted for a couple of bases of sipahi by crashing into their flanks while pursuing. The Italian infantry in the city were just about to sally forth to do battle with the infidel, but seeing the carnage before their doors and sensing a Christian victory, they decided to stay put and return to their cappuccinos.

Ottoman morale had, indeed, slumped to the lowest I recall seeing in one of my games – minus two on a zero to twelve scale. The heel of Italy had clearly been preserved.

After such a debacle, the honest wargamer has an inquest. Am I prejudiced against the Ottomans? I don’t think so – the terrain was, admittedly, against them but I did not expect the crossbow fire from the walls to be so effective. I did ponder the rights and wrongs of the routing Janissaries sweeping away their supports, but it does seem to me to be correct here. The fact that the sipahis were not properly deployed didn’t help either.

In the real life campaign the Neapolitans were heavily outnumbered and could only keep a watching brief on Otranto once the Ottomans had captured it, hoping, presumably, for something to turn up. That something did is not necessarily a tribute to their political leadership which struggled to raise much in the way of reinforcements. An organised army (or, possibly, navy) would probably have given the invaders a harder time.

So, was it a historical battle? Well, I have expressed doubts about more or less every aspect of it – the army lists, the accuracy of the landscape (I did not even Google Otranto), the Ottoman plans and, I suppose, I could further question the rules. It did not bear much resemblance to what I know about the history of the campaign. Admittedly, that is not much and it is quite likely that there is not much more to be known.

Still, it was an interesting action, if a bit of a minor and one sided one as it turned out. The best, I think, the Ottomans could have done was refuse to fight on that ground, but that was not really an option. The Ottomans are also, it seems to me, another example of an army that was usually in this time frame on the strategic offensive, but stood more frequently on the tactical defensive. Again, attempting to deploy to besiege a city is not really the time to be standing on the tactical defensive, at least, not until the army has deployed.

Saturday, 22 August 2020

Hooray for Hussites

A long, long time ago, I can still remember, the way the army lists used to go….

I have finally (at least, very nearly) achieved a long held wargame ambition: to own a Hussite army. I suspect that many wargames might have a soft spot for the Hussites; they are, after all, a bunch of oddballs, an interesting anticipation of what came a lot later (e.g. the tank) and, of course, they were a bunch of peasants who seriously embarrassed the most powerful of states and rulers in Europe of the time.

I worked out recently why it was that I liked and would like to have this army. On my shelf downstairs in the snug / wargame room is a copy of George Gush’s Wargames Research Group Renaissance Rules Army Lists. While looking for something else (serendipity will out) I flipped it open and there, on the first page of the lists themselves, was a Hussite army. I bought these lists an awful long time ago. I have no idea where or when, but clearly the idea of the Hussites had never quite left me.

This happens to me from time to time. The last I remember it was a craving for armies of hoplites, assuaged a while ago by actually buying and painting a load thereof. This arose, so far as I recall, from two sources. The first was Charles Grant’s articles on the Battle of Marathon, which were in Military Modelling in the 1970s (I was extremely young at the time). The second was my first ‘real’ wargame figure, which was a 25 mm Spartan hoplite from, as I recall, a company called Asgard in Nottingham. 25 mm was way out of my budget at the time, of course, but it was a nice figure and I did paint him. He served sterling work for years as my role playing game player character figure, even though he really annoyed some of my fellow gamers by not having a weapon in his hand.

Anyway, having reacquainted myself with the idea of the Hussites, I scanned the web for books on the subject. When I last looked, fifteen years ago or more, there was very little about on the revolt or the battles. That situation has improved a little over the intervening years, but not hugely. Nevertheless, I am the owner of the Osprey on the subject and also

Verney, V., Warrior of God: Jan Zizka and the Hussite Revolution (London: Frontline, 2020).

This appears to be a 2020 reprint of a 2009 text.

I have also squirrelled through my other books. Oman has a chapter on the Hussites in his Art of War in the Middle Ages. He is not all that impressed by them, it has to be admitted, regarding them as having been lucky to be up against some rather poor commanders. It is true that the Emperor Sigismund was a far better politician than war leader, but nevertheless, you have to give Zizka some credit for finding a way for peasants to resist the charge of noble cavalry.

Oman, in fact, seems to regard the Hussite war wagon as a bit of a historical dead end. Perhaps so but, the Polish and others continued to use war wagons into the Seventeenth Century (at least). Duffy, in Siege Warfare reckons that the Muscovite gulyai-gorod might have been inspired by the Hussites (p. 171), although Oman suggests that the technology transfer was the other way.

Hall, in his Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe observes that the important thing about the Hussite war wagon laager was the density of fire available at threatened points. While Zizka recognised the usefulness of firearms, there were in fact three to four times more crossbows available in the mix (p. 112). There were also some cannon, and the whole thing seems to have resembled a small city, stoutly defended.

Of course, the main answer to the Hussites would have been either to use artillery to bombard the wagon fort until it fell apart, or not to attack it at all. Artillery was not that mobile at the time, and the fact is that the Hussites would have simply moved somewhere else before the bombards were in place. Politically, not attacking the rebel heretics was not an option either, whether or not the impetuosity of the noble classes would have really accepted it as an option. Ultimately, only Hussites could successfully fight Hussites.

The problem for the Hussites, as it was for the English in France in the later Hundred Years War, was that you have to have an enemy who is willing to attack you. Both the English armies and the Hussites were often on the strategic offensive but the classic victories of both relied on the charge of upper class knights determined to grind the faces of the peasants back into the mud where they belonged. The shock waves the defeats created across Europe were because the knights were not supposed to be defeated and killed by their social inferiors.

The problems come, of course, in trying to work out how to run wargames with these loonies. The Hussites, some of them at least, were religious fanatics; the background to the revolt is complicated and interesting and includes theological issues and nationalism. But the problem for a wargamer is to ensure that the enemy attacks, even though we sort of know what the outcome of a frontal assault on a wagon fort will be. How do we simulate the fact that the heavily armoured noble knight simply could not believe that the peasants were not just grist for his mill?

Hall reckons that the Hussite revolution and subsequent wars led to a great increase in the use of firearms in Germany, and this seems to have given a fillip to the gun trade in the south. Fear of the Hussites seems to have led to a proliferation of firearms and, presumably, gave a stimulus to the development of more effective small arms, which led to the development of the arquebus in the 1450s to 1470s.

Saturday, 15 August 2020

Granddaddy Oman

I have commented before on the idea that in any scholarly community, there is a work which is the one everyone starts from. Last week I commented on Stenton’s work on Anglo-Saxon England. This week it is the turn of another ‘old school’ scholar, Sir Charles Oman.

I recently discussed, in fact, Oman’s ‘Art of War in the Sixteenth Century’, with the comment that despite complaints about it, no-one has actually managed to produce a work that replaces it, and so it is still in print, much to the chagrin of serious military historians who think that its ‘drums and trumpets’ approach gets them a bad reputation in the serious academic historian areas. It is quite likely that it does.

Still, I have recently read another of Oman’s tomes (or perhaps it is the other):

Oman, C. W. C., History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages (Uckfield: Naval and Military Press, 1924).

I managed to get this two-volume work for a decent price in the Naval and Military Press (for it is they who have published a facsimile) New Year sale, and have just about managed to finish reading it. Volume one is from 378 – 1278 AD, and Volume to covers 1278-1485. It is an interesting if slightly irritating read.

Firstly, the irritations are comparatively minor. Oman has a habit, probably widespread at the time, of referring to Muslim armies and commanders as ‘the infidel’. I am almost certain that this terminology would not be printable today, but it does suggest a certain mind-set. Again, Oman spends a great deal of time dealing with British and specifically English warfare. For a lot of the time English warfare, that is, warfare in England was neither terribly distinct from other European warfare nor terribly interesting. Of course, Edward III’s army did somewhat leap out the cupboard unexpectedly in France in the 1340s, but the arrow storm was hardly unprecedented.

So apart from the orientation to Christendom and being somewhat Anglo-centric, Oman does an interesting job. His major argument is that, in the art of war, the light horse archer was mainly dominant in the earlier part of the period. As a response to the invasion of Europe, the castle and other defences were created which blunted the effect of the lights, but also meant that the defence of fortifications became dominant over the offence, at least until effective gunpowder siege artillery came on the scene in the fifteenth century.

The other major theme running through the latter part of the period is, of course, the annoying habit of European knights of charging off in all directions. You can almost sense the author’s despair as another lot of Crusaders go down to feigned flight and overextension by the heavy cavalry. Even Richard I nearly suffered from it at Arsuf.

I mentioned before the problems I had in my rule sets of the interaction between foot and horse archers. This stems from a comment Oman makes to the effect that horse archers detest foot ones because they are outranged by them. This is, in fact, the lesson of Arsuf – the steady fire of the Crusader crossbowmen meant that the army could not be worn down by the horse archers, so Saladin had to commit the rest of the army before the Crusaders were demoralised and disorganised. That meant, of course, that the shock troops of the Crusaders got a decent crack at the Muslim (aka ‘infidel’) army.

I may have mentioned before the idea of reducing the ranges of the horse archers to bring them into range of any passing foot archer. I did try that out in a battle based around Otranto, but (if I get around to writing it up) the battle itself did not give much enlightenment. And anyway, I have changed my mind. There is a simpler answer – if foot archers are being skirmished by horse archers, they can simply shoot back for effect in their own bound. After all, the model for skirmishers is of small packets of men galloping up to the enemy and shooting. If they return to their lines looking like porcupines the rest are likely to be less enthusiastic in having another go.

Anyway, I digress (sort of). The latter part of the period saw the resurgence of infantry – the Swiss, the English and the Hussite. These exploited the propensity of the noble classes to attack them, even once the said noble classes had decided that dismounting was a good idea. This actually seems to relate to the idea that armies reflect the societies from which they come. The very idea that a commoner, possibly even a serf and certainly a peasant, could stand up to a noble was anathema to the society of the time. Famously, the Second Lateran Council attempted to ban the use of the crossbow so that peasants could not dispose of their betters.  Shooting crossbows at ‘infidels’ was, of course, permitted. Unfortunately, that led to a large number of Crusades being declared, as heretics were beyond the law in these sorts of respects. So everyone could ignore it anyway.

Is it a good book? Well, yes. I confess that I enjoyed it. It is well written and easy to follow, and in fairly small chunks, so I could pick it up and put it down easily. I confess that I did get a bit lost in the account of Bannockburn, but it was rather a lengthy chapter by comparison with some of the others. Oman also ignores the effects of naval warfare – I think he mentions the problems the English losing control of the Channel in the Hundred Years War caused them, but on the whole, I suppose there was not a great deal of strictly naval warfare going on at the time. I have also griped before about his ending of the period at 1485, although he does confess that this chops the Reconquista up. On the other hand, given his location in space and time, when else would he have given the medieval the chop?