Saturday, 13 May 2017

Honourable War

‘In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem’
2 Samuel 11:1 (NRSV)

King David is, of course, the hero of the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible, depending on taste and political correctness). And yet, somehow, in those two sentences, there is a mood of criticism. Even more so, in fact, when one reads the rest of that chapter and the next one. But I will leave that as an exercise for the reader.

The point here, is that the king was expected to go to war, in the springtime, presumably after the planting had been done for the growing season and men were available for warfare. In the world view of 2 Samuel, whenever it was written, edited, polished and finalised, kings go to war.  In that, it seems, they are a little like wargamers. The rationality of the battle does not matter. The point is to have a battle.

I mentioned last time that I was rereading, a bit, a book about the origins of war in early modern Europe. I have actually started on a chapter, specifically Steven Gunn’s ‘The French Wars of Henry VIII (p. 28-51). I have not finished it yet (that would be expecting too much, especially for an amateur commentator to actually finish reading something) but it has thrown up a number of interesting things.

As a wargamer, I sometimes think that Henry VIII is a bit underrated, a bit under used. His was an interesting reign for all sorts of reasons, both militarily and otherwise. Normally, of course, he is seem as something of a transition figure, between the medieval world of his father and the end of the Wars of the Roses and the modern world of the England of the Protestant reformation and beyond, with exciting things like the Armada and the beginnings of Empire.

Another view places Henry and England on the periphery, a bit player and observer in the Hapsburg-Valois wars of the early sixteenth century. The main issues were Milan, Naples and the expansion of France to the north and east. This was only going to bring conflict with the Hapsburgs, and that intensified when Charles V ascended the throne of Spain as well as the Holy Roman Empire. England did not have to participate in these wars, and yet she did.

We can of course adduce evidence of economic ties between England and the Low Countries to suggest that Henry made war in the best interests of the country. Customs duties relied heavily on the sale of cloth at Antwerp, and Henry’s revenue relied heavily on customs dues. It has to be said that, while these links rather tied Henry’s hands internationally, they did not determine his policy.

Henry spent quite a lot of his reign at war with France, and there were reasons for this. Firstly, it was because it was rather easy to motivate the English into fighting the French. In a world of generally little travel, strangers were treated with deep suspicion and the French were historical enemies. Poems about Agincourt were written; chronicles of the Hundred Years War were translated. The French were a ‘natural’ enemy.

The King also liked war. He liked the gadgets, and spent on artillery and fortifications. More than that, he liked the honour of war. Honour was interpreted in martial terms. The rhetoric of foreign policy war suffused with war. It has to be noted that honour rarely was found to conflict with common sense, but honouring oneself was pride. Honour had to be validated by others, and in this case Henry’s honour was dependent on the views of other monarchs and princes in Europe.

Battle was the ultimate test of honour and chivalry. Indeed, it has been argued that chivalry was the greatest cause of pitched battles between 1450 and 1530. English armies in France appeared to be rather aimless, wandering the countryside seeking to bring the French to battle. While defying the enemy without riposte was a reasonable way of obtaining honour, it was not the same as winning a battle. A siege was better, but Henry never managed to be present at a major battle and, by some measures, was inclined to be a little unhappy with subordinated who won major victories while he was otherwise occupied.

Policy was generally aligned towards the king’s honour. When it was not, the king was a bit uncomfortable. Handing a propaganda coup to an enemy by breaking an oath was not a great idea, of course. On the other hand, various claims could be ignored until they were found to be useful. The historic claim of the English crown upon the French was along these lines. To modern eyes the claim looks flexible, or a diplomatic ploy. It would seem that Henry did take it more seriously, at least when it suited him. He was not, for example, going to give it up. The French paid him a pension over it; he viewed this as a sort of rent for his rightful inheritance until he saw fit to claim it.

Such claims meant that attention had to be paid to the past. Henry VIII seems to have paid a great deal of attention to the activities of Henry V. There were lots of parallels, even if some of them, for instance being the son of a usurper, would not have pleased either monarch if it had been pointed out. The claim to the French crown was based on both honour and history. Henry v was moved by justice and right. Henry VIII was not going to do less, even if the claims were not pressed for the moment.

While, at some level, therefore, kings simply go to war, the reality is a lot more complex. Revenue, history, honour, justice and the inclination of both nobility and commoner as to their enemies also play a part. The inclinations of the monarch are significant, but not to the point of overriding everything else. Elizabeth I, after all, was a fairly pacific monarch, but towards the end of her reign was involved in a rather wide-ranging war. For the early modern state, forming as it was during the sixteenth century, war was the most complex and expensive activity it engaged in. 

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