Saturday 10 December 2016

Missed Battles

I am currently engaged in reading the fourth volume of Jonathon Sumption’s History of the Hundred Year’s War. This volume is called ‘Cursed Kings’ and covers 1400 – 1422. Big wars, someone once said, deserve big books. Sumption’s volume is about 900 pages long, and is of a similar size to his previous efforts. Big war, big book.

Sumption’s is a volume that should be dear to every wargamer with an interest in history. It is a history of big things: Kings, wars and battles. High politics is the centre stage, both within and between countries. While intellectual and cultural developments are nodded to, Sumption is interested in other things, the decisions of politicians, the efforts of generals and soldiers, the contingency of things.

Of course, he covers other things. War, especially the destructive and debilitating kind of the medieval period, was often followed, if not accompanied by, famine, plague and pestilence. The second volume of the series chronicled in depressing detail the destruction of France by war, routier gangs, plague and dislocation. Life as a peasant became nasty, brutish and short. Life as anyone else was not hugely better, unless you were a great noble or king.

By 1400, of course, the situation had improved massively. Most of France proper had been recaptured during the 1380’s. There was a truce with England, with a suggestion that a permanent peace might be on the cards. France was prospering. There were only a few dark clouds on the horizon. Firstly, Richard II of England was deposed and murdered by Henry of Lancaster. As Richard was married to a French princess, this caused alarm in Paris, but as Henry IV had been supported by Louis of Orleans in his bid for the English throne, not much was going to be done about that, except increasingly impolite requests for the 13 year old girl to be returned to France and (rather more optimistically) the return of her jewels and dowry.

The second cloud was the insanity of the French King. From the early 1380’s he had lapses into what appears to be paranoid schizophrenia, or something similar. Ruling the country during the king’s ‘absences’ became increasingly difficult. This was exacerbated by the existence of a number of the king’s uncles, the Queen, and Prince Louis, who proceeded to loot the state of taxes and fall out among themselves. The number of times France stood on the edge of civil war in the early 1400’s are quite large. Eventually, of course, it all fell apart.

The English were not in any better state, and were probably worse off. The English crown was without money, and Parliament, as Parliaments were wont to do, assumed that the king should be able to live off his own income and not bother the state for taxes (the Long Parliament of the early 1640’s had the same view). Henry IV was, as an usurper, weak anyway and had to spend to maintain a glorious court (to establish the mystique of kingship), buy off supporters and semi-supporters, and to try to fight off pretenders, the Scots, the Welsh (Glendower) and protect Gascony and Calais.

Given all this, it is a wonder that there were so few battles. All right, Shrewsbury happened in 1403, when Hotspur rebelled. There were some ambushes and a couple of small scale battles in Wales. But the big plans for invasion rarely were delivered. For example, Louis had a wonderful strategic vision for a multiple invasion of English assets – an assault on Calais, an invasion of Gascony, an expeditionary force to Wales to invade England in association with Glendower, and persuasion on the Scots to invade the north. Such a combination would have been very difficult for Henry to survive.

Of course, it all came to something and nothing. A few men at arms landed in Wales, only to have their shipping dispersed by the English. They helped to capture a couple of castles for the Welsh, but the invasion of England petered out as Glendower was unwilling to risk poorly armed Welsh levies against English men-at-arms, even with French support. The invasion of Gascony went ahead, and landed up with the capture of a castle or two and a threatening of Bordeaux. The commercial ties between the city and England, however, meant that there was no way for the French to make much progress. Threats to Calais fell apart anyway, immured in the politics of the French court.

Overall, then, we have a huge range here of ‘missed’ battles. Battles that might have happened, but did not. These non-battles did not happen because of a variety of reasons – malice, timorousness, incompetence and impoverishment. The crowns involved simply could not afford to implement their grandiose schemes. Further, the grasp of geography was a bit dodgy, as well. Louis seems to have thought that the Welsh and Scots could unite somewhere in the English Midlands and march on London. Well, perhaps they could, but it was a lot further than he seems to have thought.

Finally, there was logistics. Feeding an army was a problem. Living off the land was one way of going forward, but most farming was subsistence. There was not that much surplus food around. Established garrisons, such as those around Calais were small for a good reason: they could be fed. Paying an army was another problem. Both sides could and did raise money from Estates and by loans from merchants. But when nothing much was achieved, the taxes set aside for war were spent anyway, and the Estates grumbled and demanded investigations into corruption and misuse before being willing (let alone able) to vote for any more.

For a wargamer, of course, these are rich pickings. Some of the battles which did not happen are so much more interesting than those that did. There were, for example , several times that Edward III offered battle in the years before Crecy, sometimes in much less favourable circumstances than in 1345. What would have happened if the French could have taken the gambit? Similarly, the invasions scenario outlined above could make the basis of a good campaign. As wargamers, we can magic the logistical problems away; we still have coordination as an issue, but who can tell what might have happened. I might even be typing this blog in French (or Welsh).

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