Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Anglo-Norman Warfare

One of the really annoying things about being on the edge of the academy is that you read stuff, like Stephen Morillo’s book I discussed a few weeks ago and find that it references a load of papers and conference proceeding that you have little hope of ever finding or reading, even with access to a reasonable research library.

The reasons for this are manifold. Firstly, the older the papers are the less likely they are to be online (some honourable exceptions here among the bigger journals) or accessible in paper form, especially in the last year or so when libraries have been, broadly speaking, shut. Secondly, some of them are simply obscure, in festschrifts for older academics which probably had a print run of 500 or so and are inaccessible. That does not mean that they are not interesting or widely referenced; it simply means that ordinary people like me cannot find them. Finally, there are likely to be quite a lot of them. As I tell my students sometimes, most academic subjects have been going for over 100 years now, and that means there is a lot of stuff out there. It can be hard to tell from a reference in a book, or even multiple references, whether it is worth the trouble of tracking something down.

Still, sometimes something comes along which makes life a bit easier, or at least shuts grumblers like me up for a while. One such is this:

Strickland, M. (Ed.) (1992). Anglo-Norman Warfare: Studies in Late Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman Military Organization and Warfare. Woodbridge: Boydell.

As the title suggests, the book collects a lot of pre-1990 or so papers about Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman warfare. A lot of these were in the early numbers of the Proceedings of the annual Battle Conferences, which were published as Anglo-Norman Studies (and still are) but are difficult to get hold of. This seems me to be a very useful exercise for any budding academic – decide on what is important, really important, in your subject and publish the compendium of works for the use of other people.

So, what is important? There are the normal modern military history subjects: how troops were raised, what they thought about it, how they were paid and so on. For example, the book starts with a couple of papers by Nicholas Hooper, one on the housecarl in the Eleventh Century and one on the late Anglo-Saxon navy. Housecarls, it seems, were nothing particularly special, simply members of the lords (or King’s) household who did stuff, including fighting and commanding military units. Treating them in wargame rules as a professional military unit, set apart for the purpose may not be all that accurate. On the other hand, the Anglo-Saxon navy seems to have had some sort of existence until it was paid off in 1049 and 1050. The lithsmen and butescarls (men of the fleet or army and boatmen, respectively) seem to have had a semi-permanent establishment, and the embryonic Cinque Port organisation, Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich seem to have been important too.

The imposition of feudalism on England is an ongoing issue in Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman England. It is assumed that this was imported by the Conqueror from Normandy. In fact the essays here collected suggest that feudal knight service in Normandy was retrofitted from the successful imposition of the system on England. As I noted from Stephen Morillo’s book, the knight’s fee did not necessarily mean that the baron turned up with a knight or knights. It seems to have been a system which much more quickly than assumed turned into a monetary one that rather turning up with a few men in shiny suits when summoned.

For me, two essays stood out, both by John Gillingham. The first is William the Bastard at War, which suggests that William was a good military commander but only really fought three battles: Val-es-Dunes (1047), at which he was not in command, Hastings, and, probably, a battle outside York in 1069. Yet William was one of the most successful military commanders of his age.

A similar argument applies to the other essay, entitled Richard I and the Science of War in the Middle Ages. Again, Richard was widely acclaimed as the foremost military commander of his age, yet he, too, fought in at most three pitched battles, and that depends rather on how generously you count them. The three are his rout of rebels in 1176, Arsuf (1191) and Jaffa (1192); neither of the latter were decisive.

Often medieval commanders are thought to have been battle averse, of being incapable of bringing on the decisive battles which more modern writers crave (along with more romantic wargamers, perhaps). Gillingham observes that the point of a decisive battle was that it was decisive – Hastings being the key example. One side won big and the other lost big, but it was a gamble. What makes it fascinating is that the sides were quite equally matched and the Normans could have lost.

The really decisive point of military campaigns of the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries were, in fact, related to castles as both points of defence and as points of offence. Most of the warfare related to ravaging lands, to deny supplies to the enemy, to bring rebels to heel by denying them the revenue from their lands, to draw enemy armies away from your lands, to deny castles supplies and so on. Battles, on this basis, were unnecessary gambles, undertaken only by the rash, the surprised, the overconfident with a large army or the incompetent. No one has accused either William or Richard of being any of them.

I have mentioned before that the wargamer who ventures an Anglo-Norman army expecting a plethora of battles is liable to be disappointed. Ravaging, manoeuvre and sieges were the name of the game. In many senses the art of war was not the expected ‘line the knights up and let them rip’, but careful and cautious logistics, preparation, strategic manoeuvrer, and thrusts against enemy lands.

This is not what most wargamers want to hear. But if we are trying to be in any sense ‘historical’, then we have to accept the reality and break out the castle walls.


  1. Isn’t that the way with most periods? At least until Napoleon. Even a noted battle seeker like Old Fritz only managed about one and a half per year in the Seven Years War, and he was both commander-in-chief and absolute monarch with little or no internal interference in his campaigns.

    1. Indeed, but there is also a historiographical myth at play here, I think, that the 'western way of war' is to seek battle and make them decisive.

      Actually, most commanders seem to seek to win wars; battle capture our imaginations with the colour, 'romance' and so on. It just so happens that they also distort our history, although not so much as some brands of military history which ignore them totally do.