Saturday, 4 July 2020

The Wargamer Workout

Of late there has been a spate, for reasons I will not dwell on as everyone will know about them, of internet sensations concerning exercise and a workout. Internet exercise gurus have gritted their teeth and carried on through all the difficulties of late, including sprained wrists and cheesy smiles, to bring us fitness in the midst of gloom, doom and disaster.

Never being a blog to ignore the latest in cultural trends, I, therefore, present, in the hope of becoming an internet sensation and bagging my own YouTube channel and lucrative advertising deals, the Wargamer’s Workout.

Firstly, you have to look at your environment. You need enough space for your exercise. Many wargamers believe that about eight feet by four feet is enough, but you will have to make your own decisions depending on how much room you have. This, of course, can depend on factors beyond your control, such as spousal opinion, size of wargamer and other, less important factors such as availability of space in your dwelling. Think, as they say, big.

Next, you will need to get into some training. We will start with some weights. The idea here is to buy the biggest and heaviest wargame figures that you can find. An internet search , unfortunately, does not show any manufacturers who cast in iridium. I am sure there is a niche in the market there, and if anyone would like to start using these casting media, please let me know and I am sure I can let you have a licence on reasonable terms for using my idea.

Fifty-four-millimetre lead soldiers are probably the best you can manage for the moment, although of course you will have to refer to the quantity of space you have reserved for your exercise, above. If these are too big for you then you can use smaller figures, although of course, you will have to increase the quantity proportionally. Thus, for each fifty-four-millimetre figure you can lift (this is weight training, after all) you should have two twenty-eight millimetre figures, about three and a half fifteen-millimetre figures, five and a bit ten-millimetre figures and nine six-millimetre.

Once the figures are delivered, you will need to lift them, of course. A parcel of figures will, usually (depending on space allocation) need to be lifted up at least one flight of stairs. Taking a normal story of a house to be approximately three meters, and the weight of a parcel to be around a kilogram (say, one hundred figures) then lifting the parcel upstairs (from the ground where the postman has deposited the package) will burn a whacking three joules. Naturally, as more packages arrive you can keep increasing this activity. Spousal objection to the expenditure can be waved aside on the grounds that it is still cheaper than joining a gym.

For the really keen, the activity can be increased by lifting the package from the floor to a full stretch several times. This is often done in private by wargamers who take a ‘victory lap’ of their wargame space (see above) with new acquisitions anyway, before photographing the ‘loot’ and putting it on the internet to make other, less fit, wargamers jealous.

Next up is the activity of painting. Normally, we would not regard this as being exercise, but heck, if Tai Chi can get away with it because it calls for ‘muscle control’ then painting the boot buttons on the Imperial Guard must be in with a chance. Not only that but there is also the transport of assorted paints from the front door to the painting room, which counts as heavy lifting. After all, a bottle of Vajello acrylics is 17 ml, which equates roughly to 17 grams. Add a bit for the weight of the bottle (and because this is an exercise in exercise, not in mathematics) to make it 20 g, and you only need to order fifty to make up a kilogram and three more Joules in energy expended, which, by my calculations is about one eighty-thousandth of a chocolate bar.

Once all that energy has been expended on painting and basing your ‘weights’ (as you can come to call them for those cosy family chats about the credit card bill) you need to pay attention to using the figures on a table. The advice here is simple in theory, but a bit trickier to achieve in practice. Many wargamers are prone to a disease known, rather rudely, by others not so afflicted, as a “beer gut”. To counteract this, bending is often recommended, from the waist. Obviously, this is easily achievable over a wargame table, but being the fitness fanatic you now doubtless are, the further you bend the better. Therefore take a saw to the legs of your wargame table and make it lower, so you bend down further. This will increase the amount of bending, of course, but you do need to make sure that the legs of the table are, at least approximately, the same length.

You will, of course, have based your figures individually. This will lengthen the time you have to bend over and improve your suppleness as well as fine manipulation skills. The weight of the figures, of course, will also improve your muscles, particularly in the important bicep and triceps regions. Also, consider carefully your dice. Many are a bit lightweight but they can be improved by carefully boring out the centre and adding some lead. This will mean an increase in weight when rolling them and can be an important factor in the wargame workout, particularly in some sets of rules. Do not worry if your lead is slightly off centre, by the way: it is recommended that the insert is done via the one side of the die, so if you do not proceed too deeply, you will be able to proceed more quickly to the final exercise recommended in this workout.

The final exercise is the wargamer victory dance. This is done when the crucial die roll (see above) comes out as a six. The arms are raised in triumph, a cheer may be heard to emanate from the wargamer’s lips and a dancing movement is carried out, the vigour of which depends on the space available. This activity might be repeated several times during a particularly close game.

So there you have it. The wargamer’s workout and remember, you heard it here first.

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Viking Age Yorkshire

There is a degree of exceptionalism about the part of the country I have the honour to dwell in. It is quite hard to view the television schedules today (indeed, I suspect since the 1970s) without dropping across something about ‘Yorkshire’. The scare quotes are deliberate – the Yorkshire portrayed may have little to do with the Yorkshire that is here in reality.

Exceptionalism is not, of course, and exclusively Yorkshire concern. British exceptionalism is also rife (c.f. B****t), although that smug assumption that the ‘British are best’ should have been undermined by the recent health crisis and fair criticism from the foreign press about a slow response from an incompetent government and a chronically underfunded and overly bureaucratic health service, albeit staffed by heroes (have we been applauding them every week to salve our consciences over not paying them a decent wage, I wonder.)

Anyway, this blog is decidedly non-political, and I want to talk a bit about a book which explains why Yorkshire might be considered as a bit different from the rest of the country, or at least parts thereof:

Townend, M., Viking Age Yorkshire (Pickering: Blackthorn, 2014).

This is an academic tome which has a mix of narrative chapters involving the fall of York to the Vikings in 866, the conquering of the Viking kingdom by the Wessex Saxons a hundred years later or so, and finishing up with the last gasp of the Vikings around the time of the Norman Conquest. There is a lot to say, although often exactly what happened is lost in the mists (or perhaps myths) of time.

The overall narrative is fairly clear, except for the details of who ruled and what happened. The Saxon kingdom of Deria ruled roughly from the Humber to the Tees and was more or less taken over directly (insofar as any political entity could be said to rule directly at the time) by the Vikings. Norse influence, however, does not seem to have crossed the Tees in any significant quantity. There are a few Viking influenced bits of sculpture north of the Tees, but not very far north.

Once here, the Vikings seem to have rather given up on the idea of extracting money by violence – perhaps they had already extracted what they could – and started to settle down to farming. After a lapse of about thirty years coins started to be produced again in York and there are, inevitably, arguments over how much Viking / Norse culture displaced Anglo-Saxon, how much synthesis there was and whether an Anglo-Scandinavian culture emerged.

From reading the book (and my memory of reading it, it has taken a few weeks to get around to this post) mostly the answers to those questions are unclear. The Norse seem to have become Christians fairly quickly, so there are relatively few pagan Viking burials in Yorkshire. But there are a few, most spectacularly at Kildale, where about fiver warriors were found in mid-Victorian times. The bones and artefacts are, alas, lost, but there is some evidence for pagan Vikings running around the place.

More evidence comes from place-names. The density of names, for example, starting with Kirkby (or, equivalently, Kirby) is high: Kirkbymoorside, Misperton and so on. These are Old Norse names. There are also a lot of Norse personal names around, as well as others, many and various, referring to places and geographical features. Of course, this adds grist to the mill of the assimilation or replacement arguments: does a place name represent a new landlord declaring their arrival, a simple renaming of a local place or feature so everyone around understands it or new settlements in the landscape? I doubt if that question will ever be definitively answered.

Still, there are many features of the Yorkshire landscape which have landed up as being Norse influenced. There is a fair bit of sculpture, particularly in churches, around the place which show Norse influence, if not Norse cultural symbols, some of them possibly Christianised, some of them in juxtaposition with Christian symbols. Part of the point seems to be that even if the leaders (and, indeed, many followers, subjects etc.) were baptised, the old stories and (possibly) beliefs carried on. A sculpture of an ancient Norse tale does not entail belief in that tale, any more than a figure of Christ on a cross entails wholehearted Christianity by either the sculptor or the person who erected it.

Still, it has to be admitted that Christianity did come back to Yorkshire and the Scandinavians were baptised. Indeed, the Scandinavians in Scandinavia were baptised and Christianity became the official creed and, so far as most people went, the only game in time. The Norman Conquest, after all, was a fight between three Christian kingdoms, not between the forces of Christ and pagans. William seems to have been pious as well as having been a violent power politician.

So far as the Harrying of the North goes, Townend has a paragraph or two towards the end of the book. His view is that while William’s army could and did carry out a great deal of destruction in the winter of 1069-70 there was a limit to exactly how much they could do in winter. Many Yorkshire estates declined in value between 1066 and 1086, but there were a variety of reasons why that might be the case. Domesday Book records of ‘waste’ could be ‘destroyed by the Normans in 1070’, or simply mean ‘untenanted’ or ‘unknown by the commissioners’ (p. 216). On the other hand, there was enough destruction and hardship for the twelfth-century chroniclers to note it, record it and, possibly, exaggerate it.

The post-Conquest settlement in Yorkshire did lead, albeit a bit slowly, to changes in society. Thegns were addressed as both French and English. Lands were redistributed, although as Townend notes, estates were not formed geographically but transferred piecemeal as they were held before, so an estate was formed of bits and pieces of land across a region or even, in the case of some of William’s own retainers, across the country.

A good read and a good book, I think. I certainly will not be looking at the places where I live, or at least their names, in quite the same way again. And the Cleveland dialect, I believe, contains still some Old Norse-isms, if not the actual words themselves.

Saturday, 20 June 2020

The Battle of Ibiza

‘Hey, it’s kingy!’

‘Hiya kingy’

‘What is going on here?’

‘Chill out, kingy baby! Have a mug of something relaxing and join the party.’

‘Hey, Alex kingy, have you seen this?’

‘That? It’s a stick. Can I use it to beat some discipline into you?’

‘Nah, kingy. It’s a pipe. Look at this.’ The soldier put the end into the barrel, bent it over, and lay down beneath it. ‘Now, see, if I suck…’ The wine poured into the man’s mouth.

‘It doesn’t stop until the barrel is empty,’ his colleague said.

 ‘Want some?’ spluttered the prone pikeman.

‘Sire! Sire! A fleet has been spotted, coming from the east.’

‘Ah, excellent. Those will be the reinforcements the Queen Mother has organised.’

‘Um, the only thing is, sire, that there is another fleet coming from the north.’

Alexander frowned. ‘No reinforcements from there. Mummy didn’t say that…’

‘Awwww. Alexy kingy got mummy to send him some reinforcements because those nasty Moors beat him up…’

‘When the reinforcements get here, you will be punished for that comment.’


Alexander IV of Macedon has been, as I am sure you will recall (if not, read the Anabasis of Alexander IV page on the right), holed up on Ibiza after losing most of his army to the Moors. His next port of call, as it were, is Spain, to punish the Spanish tribes who have supported both Carthage and the Moors against him. To do so he needs an army; this is now sailing towards Ibiza, interrupting the party.

The Spanish of the mainland, or at least the Greek cities thereof (which I have noted as Valencia and Cartagena, but cannot remember why those two) are not too impressed with the idea of being invaded, and have dispatched fleets to intercept the reinforcements.

There are, in fact, two Macedonian fleets, one containing twelve bases of the Macedonian army, and one containing twelve bases of a late Persian army, recruited by Roxane, Alexander III’s wife and Alexander IV’s mum. These are contained in the merchant ships of the fleet. Also dispatched are ten triremes and five quinqueremes per twelve merchant ships.

In total, therefore, there are twenty-four merchant vessels, twenty triremes and ten quinqueremes. The Macedonian reinforcements are to the left, with the warships to the front, the Persians are to the right, with the warships providing flanking guards. Thus there are fifty-four vessels in the picture above.

The Spanish have fifteen triremes apiece, plus five penteconters each, giving a total of forty ships.

Lest anyone object that there are only forty-five ships in the photograph, there is another squadron of five to the far left, just out of the field of view. The Macedonian target is the bay on Ibiza, the island to the right.

The plans of the two sides were fairly straightforward. The Macedonians ordered their merchantmen to sail straight for the bay, ignoring all distractions, while the warships dealt with any opposition. The Spanish ordered their ships to focus on the merchantmen. The rules were my own ‘Are you sure they should be black?’ available from the rule page on the right, adjusted for large fleets. The ships are from Outpost, 1:3000th ancient range.

After a number of moves, the two plans started to shape up.

Both Spanish fleets have decided to concentrate on the Persian wing, initially, while deploying their penteconters as backstops across the bay. Both have also detached a squadron to try to outflank oncoming fleets and get onto the wings to deliver devastating ramming attacks. The main squadrons are beginning to deploy.

The first clash (above) shows a set of fairly devastating attacks on the Persian half of the merchant fleet. The entire left-hand column has been rammed and sunk while two more Spanish squadrons lurk looking for further opportunities. The flanking Spanish squadron has distracted the left-hand escorts sufficiently to expose the merchants but is now looking a bit vulnerable to the Macedonian heavies. At the top of the picture, the other flank squadron has forced an escort squadron to deploy into line to protect the merchants, while the Macedonian squadrons in the middle have also deployed. The quinqueremes of the Macedonian fleet continue to advance towards the Spanish penteconter line (which you can just see to the left) expecting, not unreasonably to dispose of them fairly easily.

A few moves later and the Macedonian misery has continued.

Further attacks have sunk more of the Persian merchants, while the Spanish right flanking squadron has pretty well evaded the Macedonian heavies and left hand trireme squadron. The Macedonian right heavies have been forced to deploy to protect the Macedonian merchants from rampaging individual triremes withdrawing from attacking the other merchantmen.

A move or two later and some degree of order is being restored by the Macedonian right fleet heavies. After the last naval battle, I had decided not to try and take them on with triremes, so even though the Macedonian fleet has lost a ship to a rogue attack the Spanish ships are mainly too far away to do anything and even a few Persian merchantmen are still extant. The escorts have also managed to sink one of the other rogue Spanish in the centre. However, the Spanish penteconters have started to redeploy to delay the merchantmen until the triremes come up.

A move or two later and the Persian half of the merchant fleet has more or less vanished. The escorts are hampered by being deployed (you get combat advantage but move slower in line abreast than in line ahead). The Macedonian left wing is too far away to influence anything much now, while the right-wing heavies have turned to escort the merchants home. The Spanish penteconters and last organised squadrons are closing in, however.

The penteconters are now blocking the merchant fleet while the rogue Spanish triremes lurk dangerously. One has even cheekily rammed a quinquereme (albeit to no avail). But you can’t sail a ship through another one….

The penteconters have done their job, and the remaining merchantmen have been forced away from the bay. The Macedonian right-wing quinqueremes have got amongst the scattered Spanish triremes and have wreaked a bit of havoc, but they, and the remaining Macedonian warships are now too far away to affect the outcomes for the remaining merchants.

The final positions are above. The penteconters have attacked and sunk a few more merchants. The quinqueremes have taken out a penteconter or two, but now the wrecks are in the way of their coming to the rescue any more. An intact Spanish squadron is moving to take out the rest of the relieving forces. At this point, I called a halt: a decisive loss to the Macedonians.

The game was a great deal of fun, and also, I realised, one of the largest sorts of games I ever do with 94 ships on the table. That is more than twice as many as I usually have in land battles. The rules work and give a fast and furious game with lots of incidents, as I hope the large numbers of photographs show. Now all I have to decide is whether Alexander lives to fight another day or not.

Saturday, 13 June 2020

Two Book Challenge

Doing the rounds a bit is a challenge to name the two books, one fiction and one non-fiction that have informed your wargaming the most. As the reader might be aware, I’m not great at reading fiction, but I can certainly go with the non-fiction part of the challenge. Further refinements have been to describe three books, and to do two books from different periods. As someone who wargames in two disparate periods, I’ll go for the latter.

The first set of books is for the early modern period and the first of those is the grandfather of them all:

Oman, C. W. C. (1937) A History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century, Greenhill, London.

Oman, of course, gets widely criticised by more modern military history and by some amateurs (guilty as charged) but you really cannot ignore him. He did do the leg work, he read the sources, he constructed narratives and tells us what happened. Yes, his work might be a bit ‘drums and trumpets’. Yes, he was a Victorian with Whiggish historical views that progress was a good thing. But if you want to know what happened tactically you need to start with Oman.

Oman does, of course, get picked up on some of the detail. This is rather inevitable in the seventy-odd years since he wrote. As I noted a few weeks ago he misses the importance of the Spanish Reconquista. He is also a bit dismissive of Machiavelli’s views of the utility of gunpowder (hence the idea of the Whig view of history – Oman was actually a Conservative MP 1919 – 1935, but I don’t think that affects his views of progress). Perhaps a bigger fault is that he does not seem to think that anything very interesting was going on in Elizabethan England, at least militarily. While he discusses the decline of the longbow and assorted Elizabethan expeditions abroad, he relegates the Irish wars to a series of distressing incidents and seems to think that Elizabeth, had she wished to, could have raised and maintained a standing army.

As noted, Oman gets rather widely criticised, and some historians wonder why he is still in print and still read. This is usually dismissed as being the military history reading public only being interested in battles and campaigns, and there might be some degree of truth in that. However, there is also the possibility that no-one since Oman has even tried a synthesis of the breadth of his work and elegance of his writing. Things have changed, yes, interests have changed and the methods of analysis have evolved. We might be more interested now in what the composition of an army tells us about government, society, finance and so on. But armies are designed to fight and only be examining how they fought can some of the other elements be brought into close relationship.

The second book for the early modern period has to be this one:

Parker, G. (1988) The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500 - 1800, Cambridge, CUP.

Again, this is a book of wide (global) scope here and has created a great deal of argument and genteel controversy since it was first published. A rarity among history books it ran quite quickly to a second edition. The work re-ignited the whole set of arguments about how western nations came to rule the world, in particular, how the largely ignorable, squabbling counties of the far west of the Eurasian continent suddenly (well, over the course of three centuries) stood on the brink of global empires.

Parker’s thesis, that the expansion of the west was due to efficient gunpowder weapon usage, particularly on board ships, and the trace italienne fortifications enabling small forces equipped with cannons to stand siege by large forces with less sophisticated weaponry has been widely criticised. If you put such a thesis out there, you expect such. I am not sure that it has been refuted except in detail. Naturally in a work of such scope details escape the author. Like Oman, as I noted a while ago, Parker rather neglects the development of siege tactics under the Catholic Monarchs in Spain. Questions also arise, in my mind at least, as to how the Portuguese and Spanish navies managed to rule the world and then, in popular history at least, go down so easily to the English (and mostly the Dutch) at the end of the Sixteenth and into the Seventeenth Centuries.

The idea of the military revolution in early modern Europe was not original to Parker, but he did change the terms of the debate and made it ‘mainstream’. The implications of his ideas are large for the concepts of state formation in the period. The new fortifications were expensive, requiring deep pockets to build and maintain. To garrison and besiege them required ever-larger armies and these too were more expensive. The rulers, therefore, needed to control their populations more closely and tax them more heavily. The consequence of this was that the modern state, with all its bureaucracy, came into being, and parts of the world, such as the Ottoman and Mughal spheres, along with China and Africa, which did not go along this trajectory, were ripe for colonisation in the Nineteenth Century.

Of course, there are a number of books which should also be read by the aspiring early modern wargamer. I have managed to avoid anything on the English Civil War, which got me into ‘serious’ wargaming. There are regional studies as well, some of which I have discussed on the blog. Following on from Parker, the essays in

Rogers, C. J. ed. (1995) The Military Revolution Debate: Readings on the Military Transformation of Early Modern Europe, Oxford, Westview.

move the discussion along. Parker’s recent work:

Parker, G. (2013) Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, Yale, Yale University Press.

is excellent and depressing but lacks the military detail most wargamers crave.

Still, I have probably said enough so far. I might get around to the ancients sometime soon.

Saturday, 6 June 2020

Stream of Consciousness

 'Vodkaschnapps, King of the Sarmatian Nation, To G. Inand Tonicus, Governor of Macedonia,


I wish to assure you, Sir, of the peaceful intentions of our tribe. We intend no ill to any man or beast. We will establish our nation on this soil and keep the peace if you agree not to attack us. As we have demonstrated, if anyone shows us hostile intention we will defend ourselves and our gods will grant us the victory of the rightness of our course.

Fare well.'

‘Oh, hell.’


‘Well, we had better go and see them off. The Emperor expects us to react and deal with such threats.’

‘Yes, sire, but the Dacians have already failed to stop them.’

‘I know. They are heavy cavalry and we are mostly infantry, but we’ve got to do something; doing nothing is not an option. At best we’ll spend our days admiring the shore on a small island. At worst we’ll be facing a significant haircut.’


The Sarmatians have, of course, moved into Roman Macedonia after their victory over the Dacians. The above conversation is about the usual Roman response to such incursions, at least in the early Empire, which was that the local garrison should get there quickly and nip anything untoward in the bud. G. Inand Tonicus, therefore, has to gather his troops and set out. 

The slightly blurry initial positions are above, Romans to the right. The Roman plan was to hold the line of the stream, forcing the Sarmatians to come to them. Tonicus did not intend to get into a cavalry match with the Sarmatians, being both outnumbered and outgunned. However, he reckoned that the stream, and deploying some of his troops two bases deep, could hold and defeat the barbarians.

After their success against the Dacians, the Sarmatians, as you will see, have used a similar deployment, in two blocks. The idea is that their right will hold the Romans while the left outflanks the Roman line and rolls it up along the line of the stream. The Sarmatian lights, in the meantime, will amuse the Roman centre.

The troops are all Baccus, the trees are Irregular. The regular reader of this blog might notice a slight difference in the sections of road and stream. As part of my ‘lockdown’ wargaming activities, and my Easter holidays, I have redesigned and rebuilt my rivers, roads and stream sections. It turned out I had quite a few, and it took a while, but the sections are now reinforced with ‘banks’ of another layer of foam, and that seems sufficient to keep them from curling up, so far at least. What you cannot see is that the new sections are, in fact, on the underside of the old which meant that purchase of craft foam and such like was not necessary: probably just as well as, however important, foam purchases could hardly be deemed essential.

Anyway, the next picture shows how the plans were developing.

The Roman left flank cavalry had advanced to the stream, rather incautiously and had attempted to cross it and charge the leading Sarmatian cataphracts. However, the infamous crocodile-filled stream of Polemos SPQR had prevented one base crossing, the other two were countercharged and routed by the Sarmatians. This led to a wholesale right-hand move by the Sarmatian centre, the second block of three bases of whom charged the remaining Roman cavalry base and overwhelmed it. Being well out on the right and a long way from the Roman lines the cavalry had the opportunity to rally from their pursuits. The first wave is rallied and lurking ominously towards the right of the picture, the second wave just rallying to the left, while the original left-centre of the Sarmatian army is about to cross the stream. On the far side, the Sarmatians have deployed their cataphracts as the Roman reserve cavalry blocks their crossing of the stream. The Sarmatian lights and Roman bolt-shooter are exchanging shots, more or less ineffectively. Tonicus has felt obliged to pull his second rank from the centre and send it to the left to shore up the refused flank there.

The whole thing was starting to feel a bit like Carrhae, and household duty called at this point. In the meantime, something tugged at the back of my mind about the Sarmatians as I pondered how they were going to try to crack the Roman position. Re-reading the army list in PM: SPQR gave the answer – all Sarmatian cavalry can act as skirmishers. The result was that the Sarmatian left started pelting the Romans with arrows, javelins and whatever, leading to the wilting of the cavalry and the destruction of the bolt shooters (deployed artillery cannot recoil, and they suffered a 6-1 roll).

In a desperate attempt to find a Roman solution I sent the archers forward to try to catch the Sarmatians crossing the stream. This failed and the archers were charged in their turn and, doubtless seeing how the wind was blowing, immediately routed. Roman morale at this point was surprisingly good for a force having lost 6 bases to none, but in the campaign context, Tonicus’ only option was to retreat while he still had some cavalry to cover it.

The end is shown above. The leftmost Sarmatian cavalry nearer the camera have just routed the archers, the rightmost are advancing on a mixed force of legionaries and auxilia. In the distance the Romans are pulling back from the stream edge under the barrage of skirmishing, while the rest of the Sarmatian cavalry waits its chance to cross and wreak destruction.


‘Well, that didn’t work.’

‘No, sire.’

‘Why did the cavalry get so far ahead? What were they thinking of?’

‘No idea, sire.’

‘Well, at least we got the rest off in good order.’

‘More or less, sire.’

‘Ah, yes. Round up any passing archer and execute every tenth one, would you, please.’

‘Um, if we are going to stand a siege, sire, we might need some archers.’

‘Good point. Good point. Um. Well, round them up anyway and try not to execute many of them. A good job we have some decent fortifications around here, isn’t it?’

Saturday, 30 May 2020

The English Resistance

Apologies for another off-piste post, which makes two in a row, but there may be some wargaming context here. This is actually being written during the Covid-19 coronavirus ‘lockdown’. Hopefully, when you read it said lockdown might be lifted and the virus reducing. Just as an aside, it is funny how we (not just wargamers) automatically reach for military metaphors for this sort of thing. We have a ‘battle’ with a virus. We have ‘brave fights’ against cancer. Cancer charities, I know, are objecting to that usage, as it makes those who die as a result of cancer losers. Anyway, I shall stop my slightly grim musings and move on.

I have been reading again:

Rex, P. (2014) The English Resistance: The Underground War against the Normans, Stroud, Amberley.

This is a more popular sort of title than the one from last week – occasionally even I get a bit tired of detailed, lengthy academic works, particularly about things I know relatively little about. Rex writes about the resistance to the Norman conquest after 1066, and a very odd book I found it too.

Firstly, the narrative is a bit broken up. Stuff is assumed, mentioned, and then referred to as if the reader now knows all about it. The narrative anyway is a bit confusing, with various names of people popping up and down, swapping sides, reconciling and revolting. Even at a more popular level, this can get a bit bewildering.

The terms in which Rex analyses the resistance to the conquest are also a bit stark. The likens the resistance to the French Resistance in World War Two, carrying out raids against the occupying power but needing outside assistance to make any headway towards expelling the invaders. I suppose that at a grand strategic level this might be true enough. The French, of course, had the Allies to help and, eventually, invade and liberate. The English had the Danes, who were brought off (it seems) rather easily by William.

It seems to me that the historiography of the Norman Conquest has two extremes. Either, as with Rex, it was an invasion, a trashing of the liberties of Anglo-Saxon England, and the imposition of a foreign elite on the English nation and the start of centuries of subjugation. This is, perhaps, the received view, certainly amongst a section of the English political left: the imposition of the Norman Yoke, feudalism, serfdom and so on, on the true English people.

The alternative view is that it did not make that huge a difference. England was a fairly centralised hierarchical sort of nation at the time, and William and his cronies simply replaced the upper echelon with themselves and life for the rest carried on much as before. If you were an Anglo-Saxon thegn, naturally, you were in a bit of trouble, particularly if you had fought at Hastings, but mostly you just moved down a level, had an overlord other than the king, and had to redeem your own lands. Vexing, but not too devastating.

I doubt if I need to describe the resistance to wargamers. Assorted people associated with the old regime attempted, falteringly, to retake the country for themselves. They failed, due to bad organisation and lack of external aid. Rex also complains at length about the collaborators and quislings in the Anglo-Saxon polity that supported William. Well, maybe. It would, I think, have been a tricky judgment about whom to support, but God had shown in battle that He favoured William, and anyway Harold and his brothers were no more, so there was not a single decent figurehead to rally around.

The most interesting and romantic (or, if you like, semi-historical, mythical) figure is Hereward ‘the Wake’. My interest in this resistor stems from the 1970s when I used to visit my grandparents who lived in the Fens. The local independent radio station was Radio Hereward. I had no idea why, but I liked the name. It got confused in my junior mind with Robin Hood, the Disney film of which had just been released.

Anyway, Hereward was a South Lincolnshire minor thegn and eventually, for obscure reasons raided Peterborough with some Danes (who then pushed off) and was besieged with is men in Ely. As the place was then awash with rivers, streams, marshes and so on, this reduced William and his army to semi-amphibious activity, building causeways, bringing in ships and fighting boggy skirmishes. Eventually, of course, might overcame the resistance and Hereward disappeared, to re-emerge in myth, legend and radio stations.

Rex spends some time trying to work out from the records exactly who Hereward was. The ‘Wake’ bit was a later addition, created by the Wake family to give themselves a decent ancestor. This is an interesting aside, and really goes to show that medieval families were not above reinventing history for their own purposes. If they had not done so, of course, there might be little interest in an obscure Lincolnshire thegn and a boggy siege in Fenland. Hereward might be a little bit more interesting than just an obscure Anglo-Saxon who gathered a band of robbers did a bit of raiding and then disappeared when the police turned up, but it is hard to tell. As so often when trying to trace medieval individuals, there are a lot of ‘ifs’ and ‘perhaps’ in the account.

Overall the book is an interesting light read even if some of the analogies drawn as a bit overblown. There was post-Hastings resistance to William. Rex is in the camp that equates the Harrying of the North with the total devastation of the area from York to Durham, following the Chronicles. Again, you seem to have to pick one side or the other here. Rex dismisses the ‘revisionist’ views of the Harrying and re-interpretations of ‘waste’ entries in the Domesday Book. Here he lines up with older historians who thought they could trace the movements of William’s armies through waste entries. That seems a little, um, optimistic.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Decoding Domesday

In further pursuit of my Domesday project, I have been reading one of the ‘big academic’ names in the subject, David Roffe, or at least, one of his books:

Roffe, D. (2015) Decoding Domesday, Woodbridge, Boydell.

Before you start to think that I have way too much money and am deficient in the head department (which may, of course, be true) I hasten to add that this is the paperback version of an academic tome first issued in 2007, which would have been, almost certainly, beyond my means.

The problem that Roffe tackles is twofold: Firstly, the question is about what the Domesday survey, the seven circuits of investigation (called the ‘inquest’) were for. Various ideas as to this have been put forward, such as a survey of the population if England for tax purposes, and assessment of how much tax was supposed to be paid, the assertion of Norman control over government locally as well as nationally and so on. The problem here is that none of the chroniclers say why the Domesday inquest was conducted, and, of course, most later commentators read into the Domesday book what they are looking for.

The second part of the problem identified is the relation between the Domesday inquest and the book itself. It is not obvious that the returns from the inquest were immediately turned into a book. It is not even obvious that the intention was to obtain anything except a snapshot of the nation and its service levels (i. e. tax and service to the King whether directly or indirectly via tenants in chief), as a response to the military and fiscal crisis of 1085. William needed money and men and needed them quickly. To know what he could call upon in 1086 was probably a good idea.

The uses to which the Domesday Book and its ‘satellites’ documents were put is interesting. It was originally held in Winchester, the seat of the King’s treasury and was used for quite a long part of the medieval period as the definitive base-line for landholding, tax and service. Roffe observes that in Anglo-Saxon times tax paying and landholding went together – if you held land you proved it by paying the geld. Thus the juries and landowners in hundreds and shires were quite content to name their lands and the tax due from them, as it cemented their claim on the land. Of course, non-taxpayers and non-tax paying land were ignored.

That last statement is not quite true, of course. It would seem that some of the inquest returns (and, maybe, all of them) did do things like count people (including slaves), beasts, areas of woodland and pasture and so on. But, eventually, such items were excluded from the Book itself, because they were not interesting, not being about tax or service. Hence the Domesday Book itself is incomplete as a survey of all England (aside from the fact it excludes the northern counties anyway).

Many of the uses to which the Domesday Book have been put are, therefore, liable to be in some error. We can count the number of people named in the book and obtain some idea about the chief landholders. Thus we do get lists of lands held directly by the King, by his chief henchmen, by various bishops and so on. We also get some idea of how much tax these lands were liable for. We also get some ideas of the next slice down in society, that is, the people who held lands “of” the tenants in chief. These are often (but not always) named, as often is the tenant or owner in 1066. A number of disputes are also recorded in some parts of the Domesday Book, but while some entries have the number of ordinary people residing on a manor, many do not, and so the whole can only give us a lower limit to population.

There are further oddities as well. The village I live in had a Saxon church – the local history society seems to have found the foundations near the present (Georgian) structure. No church is recorded here in Domesday, presumably because it rendered no tax to the King. The church in the nearest market town is recorded, with a priest, and also how much it was worth. One of the nearby upland parishes also has an entry and a priest.

The upshot of all this is that the Domesday Book has, in the past, been used in rather naive ways by historians, both professional and amateur. The assumptions made do not always square with the realities of the documents preserved in the Book. When peering this far back into history, there is a tendency to grab any bit of information which seems fairly solid and build upon it. That can lead to building historical castles in the air or projecting our own interests back onto the past.

The Domesday Book is a bit of a pig, therefore. We would like it to be able to tell us more than it can. It does give us some ideas of some things: landholding at the highest levels of society in a shire; how those holdings might have changed over the twenty years since William came to the throne; geld levels in those places. We can guess that some holders of land in 1066 were English from their names and that some of the holders in 1086 were not. What we do not know is how the holdings were transferred, at least in many cases where the 1066 holders were not at Hastings and did not rebel.

Overall, I read the book as an appeal to allow the Domesday Book to tell us what it can tell us about Anglo-Norman society and how it worked. The Hundred / Wapenshaw / Shire complex of courts and juries is, in itself, interesting enough, but on the whole, historians have not read it for that information. And that is even before we get into the question of ‘waste’ and what that might mean….