Saturday 28 July 2018

Reality is Odder…

… than fiction. Often.

492. Sir Henry Woddryngton to [Hunsdon?] [Aug. 11.] Cott. Calig., D. I., fol. 276.

… (fn. 4) ay last in the mor … the Spanish fleet to the Fryth … there cast anchor and launched out … cockboat with 12 or 14 men in her, all Spaniards, directed to Colonel Simple, who … conveyed to him safely to Edinburgh. After conference with him, the town understanding that they were Spaniards committed them to ward; who confessed that in that ship there is about 100 soldiers with victual and munition.

"Upon thapprehension of those that came ashoare, Collonell Simple road in great haste to therle Bothwell to his howse of Creighton, viij myles from Edenbrowghe. And Carmighell understand[ing] therof made ready and pursewed him with all speed and brought him back to Edenbroughe."

'Elizabeth: August 1588', in Calendar of State Papers, Scotland: Volume 9, 1586-88, ed. William K Boyd (London, 1915), pp. 587-606. British History Online [accessed 17 July 2018].

I have the good fortune to work for an academic institution, which gives me free access to a range of resources, including a decent research library (although having worked in Oxford, it is not a patch on the Bodleian; but then, few places are) and online resources. One which recently came to my attention was ‘British History Online’ ( which, to my interest at least, has digitised a great number of historical items, including the Calendars of State Papers, which are one of those resources much seen referred to by the amateur, but rarely (or never, in my case) accessed.

Unfortunately, for those who are not attached to academia by however tenuous a thread, accessing some of the content takes money. You can subscribe as an individual, but I am not sure how much it costs, The focus is on 1300 – 1800 documents, which is perfect for me, but then I wargame in an odd corner of the odd world of wargaming anyway.

The point I am vaguely gesturing to in the title of the post is that what really happened is often as weird, if not more so, than what we can imagine. I am, as some of you probably know, engaged in a narrative wargame campaign set in 1588 when a breakaway section of the Spanish Armada landed at Whitby in North Yorkshire. Being somewhat interested in events in Scotland as a result of this, I was intrigued to come across the above entry in the August 1588 entry in the Calendar of State Papers: Scotland.  These documents are summaries of letters sent to and from English agents in Scotland to the Elizabethan regime and preserved there. Thus, you do not get a full picture of what is going on – it is a bit like hearing one end of a telephone conversation. Nevertheless, the bit I have reproduced above is suggestive of a few things.

The most obvious deduction from the above is that contemporaries did not know about the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Obviously, they knew that it was, that it had sailed up the Channel and been dispersed by a gale with a little help from the English fleet, but no-one knew where it was or in what state. It may well have landed up off the coast of North Yorkshire, or Scotland, or Ireland. Individual ships probably pitched up in all of these places. Some of the ships were indeed wrecked in them. But it was perfectly possible, in the world of 1588, that some ships, 20 is mentioned a bit further on in the CSPS, might have made a landing. The uncertainties of how the various factions of Scotland would react to that remain, precisely, uncertainties. James certainly acted against some, if temporarily.

That is, of course, the second deduction. How either English or Scots would have reacted to the Armada landing is a matter of speculation. Some think that the troops would have romped through to London, captured the Queen and either deposed her or insisted on her return to the Catholic faith. Others think that an offer of a treaty including toleration for Catholics and an exit from the Low Countries would have been sufficient. Opinions vary on how English Catholics would react, as they do as to how the English trained bands and so on would do in battle.

There are, here, mighty imponderables, questions which contemporaries would have wondered about but which they did not have to answer. As a wargamer interested in such things, I do have to find some sort of answer. As you have probably seen, my answer is that the results would have been neither as good as the optimists expected, nor as bad as the pessimists feared. Some English would have fought; there were enough vested interests in the regime to ensure that, to say nothing of residual anti-Spanish resentment, left after the marriage of Mary to Phillip II. Some Catholics may have joined the Spanish. It rather depended – the factors making people choose sides are many and various.

The other issue is that, of course, the passage above from CSPS really makes no comment about the importance or otherwise of the events. Was there a Scottish Catholic conspiracy? Was it just a few minor malcontents? I have no idea. In the general run of things, there is little about Scotland and the Armada. There does not need to be. Aside from the aforementioned wrecks, the Armada changed little in Scotland, except that James VI received an enhanced payment from the coffers of the English government. Various claims by English diplomats and agents that Phillip had offered James 20,000 French crowns, 20,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry are just that: claims. I doubt if there is any evidence even if the papers of the Scottish government were extant (they might be, I don’t know).

Nevertheless, the point is that my Armada lands scenario is a realistic one in terms of the history of the period. It is made up; it did not happen. But contemporaries certainly did not see that it was impossible. My fiction relates quite closely to the reality. 

Saturday 21 July 2018

It Was Inevitable…

With the predictability of a window breaking during a game of garden cricket, the protestations about sizes of wargame armies and wargame tables that the dedicated reader of the blog might recall from last year have been overtaken by, well, the eyes of the wargamer. In short, the table has grown:

Now, the above is likely to gain me a prize for all comers most boring blog photograph. If, however, you are anything like me, you will spend hours of endless fascination attempting to identify the books at the far end of the tables.

Yes, that was not a typo. Tables; the plural was intentional. Another table has been added to the collection. Another table the same has been obtained, meaning that the potential surface area for the conducting of a wargame has been doubled.

To be consistent I have to insist that my arguments about force to space ratios, flanks, and all the rest of it remain unchanged. Nor will the action at Coldingham be on a larger scale than before – it will be fought out on the same basis as was posted last week. I am not doubling the size of the armies. Honest. No, really, I’m not.

The issues, such as they are, have nothing to do with the land battles, at least, of the Abbeys Campaign. The increase in table size does have a little to do with the naval aspects of the campaign, of which progress has just been a few scribbles of rules on a piece of paper (give me some kudos – it was a proper piece of paper, not the back of an envelope). After all, more space is needed for your average naval battle than for a land battle as ships have a tendency to move a bit and falling off the edge of the world seems to be a bad idea.

The real drivers for the increase in table size are two-fold. Firstly, there is the issue of my ancients battles and armies. Some of you may recall that, a long time ago, I starting a ‘doubling’ project. That is, I aimed to produce a second 20 base army for each army I already have. Progress has been a bit on the slow side for reasons of sloth, real life intervening and an unfortunate inability to count. To explain the last bit, I now have, for example, 57 bases of Ancient Spanish.  You might easily note that the remit, for 40 bases (forty is, as I’m sure you know, twice twenty – I have two degrees in numerate subjects but you would not know that from here) has been exceeded.

Admittedly, calculational dysfunction is only part of the reason (although it is, embarrassingly, part of the reason). I have also been reducing my lead pile. Mr Berry of Baccus was kind enough to note that the Spanish foot that he cast and I was painting have been out of production for many years. He suggested keeping them in pristine condition as antiques. I fear he may have only been partially joking. Anyway, the upshot of all this is the aforementioned overproduction of bases of figures, although I still have some left over Spanish foot to preserve and, hopefully, sell, to augment my pension.

Now, for those of you who have kept reading thus far, a point is about to emerge. That point is that a twenty base army fits, just about nicely, onto to the original 80 cm square table. There is not much room, granted; my troops are based on a defiant standard of 40 mm width, and even my mathematics is up to the calculation that shoulder to shoulder they fill the entire width. Still, even the most naïve wargamer does not always put his toys in a single line.

Nevertheless, there is a problem, given that I like the wargamer to worry about things like flanks. It is possible to fill up the width of the table, pretty well, so that the edge of the wargame world is the flank guard, even if some bases are held back in reserve. So a bigger width of table is really called for.

The other issue is that of rolling dice. In my youth, I had a six foot by four-foot table, which had six inches at each end marked off. This was to provide room for boxes of soldiers, reserves, rules, drinks and the rolling of dice. If the whole table is required for deployment (and even a twelve base army needs some room) then one’s dice rolling activities have to be on the battlefield, and, usually, the dice roll either onto the more important bits of the action (potentially displacing toy soldiers, of course) or land up on the floor. I know that dice rolling trays are available, and I might yet invest in one, but I would have to put it down somewhere.

Finally, of course, there is the fact that a wargamer is always looking for the biggest, the best, and the shiniest. Most wargamer’s collections seem to grow rather than shrink. Mine is no exception, but I really, really have sworn off expansion on any major scale. I am planning to have firstly, a lot more wargames (justifying the investment in real estate) and to expand my rebasing project, to include my extant Muscovites, Poles, Ottomans, Mughal and other Indians, Vietnamese, Chinese and, yes, you’ve guessed it, Tibetans. But I have no real expectation that an expansion in numbers will be required, except on a very modest scale.

So, there you have it. This is my last territorial claim. My empire shall expand no further; it has hit the limits of resources and energy. With this I shall be satisfied. Twelve base renaissance armies are the bee’s knees; twenty base ancient armies are also the bee’s knees. I think we have a deformed bee, here, but you get the point. We go for quality, not quantity.

And you can believe all that if you will, but I cannot fit another table into the room.

Saturday 14 July 2018

Coldingham Conflict

So, what is going on here then?

This is, of course, the mock-up for the next Abbeys Campaign battle. The government forces are advancing from the north, nearest the camera, heading south to succour the English forces opposing the Armada break-away army landed at Whitby a couple of battles ago. The Scottish Catholic ‘rebels’ are advancing from the west, that is, from the right.

The point of conflict is the bridge at Coldingham. The government forces have to exit the table, along the road on the far side, right of the bridge, heading, naturally, south. The rebel forces have to stop them and nip the intervention in the bud.

The photograph is, as I mentioned, a mock-up. I have to make a few extra road sections to ensure everything fits. I would also like to paint up the six Scottish pike and six shot bases I have (half of which are on the painting stands as I type) but reflection on my painting to playing ratio suggests that perhaps having a wargame to keep the momentum going might be an idea. After all, I have a sufficiency (if not a surfeit) of pike and shot bases for the game, even if they are not specifically Scottish.

That, of course, raises another issue, that of the army lists for Scottish forces in the later sixteenth century. This suffers from a bit of a hole in history – the Scots were not really involved in any large-scale conflicts in the period. That is, from the defeat of the French in the early 1570’s, until the first Bishop’s War in 1639, there was no large-scale military activity in Scotland.

I use the term large scale advisedly. There was a lot of small-scale activity, on the Borders and, I imagine, in the Highlands and Islands. The Scots were also peripherally involved in the Tyrone Rebellion, both as suppliers of military hardware and as mercenaries. But it is not as if specific Scottish armies were involved.

This, incidentally, raises another marginally interesting issue. The DBR army lists for the ’Scots Common Army 1513 AD – 1602 AD’ claim that the Scots had no firearms up to the terminus date of the list. My limited historical resources would beg to differ. A ‘contemporary sketch’ of Carberry Hill, 15th June 1567 seems to me to clearly show Scottish foot armed with firearms:

According to Wikipedia (OK, not a great source), Mary had about 200 hagbutters at Carberry.  

Looking a bit further back in time, Caldwell observes that the Scots, in the aftermath of Pinkie and the mauling given to the army then (1547, as any wargamer will know) the Scots took a serious interest in hand firearms. Arran could (or did) deploy rather few, although handguns were not unknown in Scotland. As the Scots relied on the pike, it is possible that they simply did not fit the tactical plan.

The upshot of all this is, of course, a problem for a wargamer engaged in an imaginary campaign tied to a historical context. There are other issues as well. Mention ‘Early modern Scottish army’ to most people and they will inevitably think of hordes of wild highlanders rushing down hills at people. As I mentioned in the Sherrifmuir post, while this is not entirely fictional, it is not wholly accurate either. There is thus much pondering of imponderables.

I do overthink things, I know. At some point, a plunge has to be taken, and so I can hazard a guess as to what these armies will look like. The rebels, having moved through border country, may well have an advantage in light cavalry; on the other hand, the government will probably have the edge in heavier cavalry and musketeers. The question of what the heavier cavalry might be is a bit questionable. Famously, the Scots went into the English Civil War with lancers, although they did have more conventional sword and pistol cavalry as well. It seems moderately likely that any heavier cavalry would be of the lance armed persuasion.

Therefore, the army lists will look something like this:
Scottish Government: 1 light horse; 1 demi-lancer; 5 pikes; 5 muskets.
Scottish Catholics: 2 light horse; 4 pikes; 4 muskets; 2 Highlanders.

This probably ensures that there is sufficient difference between the two sides to give an interesting game.

Tactically, the rebels have to seize the bridge at Coldingham. If they can manage that, the government forces are going to struggle, although the stream is passable. Google Maps suggests that the banks are quite steep, at least in the town, but the water is neither deep nor wide. It is also quite possible that it has been canalised in recent decades (or centuries).

The rebel advance will, therefore, have to push the light horse forwards to grab the bridge, and then hope that they can hold it long enough for the rest of the army to come up. It is always possible that the two sides will negotiate rather than shoot at each other from that point, which would probably be a winning draw for the rebels. However, the government army can try to cross the stream and then take the bridge from both sides. As I discovered in the action at Guisbrough, taking a bridge when it is actively defended, even by musketeers, is a tricky option. This one has the added complication that government forces would have to advance through the town first, which will give them a terrain disorder marker to start with.

Quite what the highlander contingent will be doing during this is anyone’s guess. They are not really adapted to urban warfare or the holding of terrain items. Perhaps the best bet is to deploy them as flank guards back from the stream, to charge any government forces that try to cross while they are still disordered from doing so.

It could be an interesting game – I hope so anyway – and the dice will, I’m sure, have something to say about the situation. Now I must paint those new road sections…..

Caldwell, D. H., 'The Battle of Pinkie', in Macdougall, N. (ed.), Scotland and War AD 79 - 1918 (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1991), 61-94.

Saturday 7 July 2018


The regular reader of this blog will be vaguely away, as I am, that I have a passing interest in the Jacobite rebellions of the early eighteenth century. In a sense, I suppose, this is a natural progression from an interest in the seventeenth century. The Jacobites, after all, were something of a bit of leftover business from the later seventeenth century and the ‘Glorious Revolution’, of 1688. How glorious it was depends, of course, on whose side you were on.

Much of the interest of the Jacobite rebellions is focused on 1745, of course. It was, after all, bigger, better organized and had more of a chance of success than the earlier efforts. Furthermore, it was also romantic: Bonnie Prince Charlie and all that. I suppose we could also note that it was decisive: there were no more Jacobite wars after it.

Anyway, I have been reading this:

Reid, S., Sheriffmuir 1715: The Jacobite War in Scotland (London: Frontline, 2014).

This is, of course, by Stuart Reid, who is a well-known writer on Scottish military affairs. The book covers quite a lot more than the title suggests, including the Battle of Preston which, last time I looked, was in England.

Reid gives a thorough and, so far as I can tell, well-balanced account of the activities of the various sides and factions in the rising. One of his main points is that the Jacobites were not really attempting to start a war. They seem to have reckoned that they could carry out a change of government in Scotland without one. That change was, of course, to put James (the ‘Old Pretender, of James VII & III, or the Chevalier – you picks your title and takes your choice) on the throne rather than George I of Hanover (and England, Ireland and Scotland).

Presumably, the model for this revolution was the 1688 one in England. That was, within that kingdom at least, a fairly bloodless change of government. Residents of parts of Scotland and, in particular, Ireland might choose to disagree, of course. Whether the goal was even slightly achievable was somewhat moot, right from the start.

The revolution would have to be backed by force, and so recruiting was started. The Jacobites are often thought of, in popular imagination, as being highlanders, and many of them were, but the leadership, as Scottish military leaders throughout the early modern period did, preferred, if possible to arm them with conventional weapons. This was simply because, despite a load of myth and mystique, conventional fighting was a lot more effective, in most circumstances, than the highland charge.

We can reach back to at least Montrose and the Scottish Civil Wars of 1644-6 to see this. When Montrose was just starting out, the troops fired a single volley and charged with cold steel. This was very effective, admittedly, against unsteady reserve line troops, as those who faced Montrose were. However, as soon as was possible, the troops were rearmed with musket and pike and became a lot more conventional, although they did retain strategic mobility and Montrose was the master of deception, if not of scouting.

Similarly, the rebellious troops of the ’15 were armed conventionally, so far as the commanders could manage. They had a fair bit of trouble with the Royal Navy intercepting supplies, and so some troops remained under-armed by the standards of the day, but they managed. The Royal Navy also got in the way of operations. The project to land an army on the south side of the Firth of Forth was partially blocked by the arrival of warships.

The Jacobites thus landed up with two armies. One based around Fife, the other south of the Forth attempting to link up with rebels on the Border and in northern England. After a lot of wandering around, fairly optimistically, trying to recruit, the latter army landed up in Preston, where it was attacked and defeated, and surrendered to a bit of a ragtag army, which did have some regular units.

North of the border, things were fairly farcical. In fact, it seems to me that if the events had not led to tragic loss of life, it could be called a comedy. Argument, recrimination, lack of direction, failure of both political and military leadership all contributed to the government and rebel forces clashing at Sheriffmuir on 13th November 1715.

As I am fairly sure few wargamers will need reminding, Sheriffmuir is really only memorable for one fact: both armies ran away. That is, of course, a bit of an over-simplification. In fact, one wing of each army ran away, and it took a while for the other wing to work out what had happened and even longer to decide what to do about it. As it was neither side fancied their chances of a second go, the rebels, in part, because the highland charge which had been effective meant that some of their victorious men had no muskets and no cloaks, as they were discarded before the charge, of course. It was a chilly night.  

The upshot was that even, as is probable, the battle could be called a draw, the Jacobites lost because they needed a win. A draw was a perfectly good result for the government; the army was in being, Edinburgh was held and any waverers were discouraged from supporting the Jacobite cause.

The arrival of James VIII & III after the battle did not help much. The cause was shattered. Reid notes that the best thing he did was leave again quickly, allowing his supporters to make what peace they could with the government. It was notable, incidentally, that in some parts of Scotland, no matter what orders arrived from the different sides and the choices of neighbouring lairds, they had no intention of fighting each other. Some even asked permission of opposing landlords to march over their land on their way to join forces with their own army. We have to admit that it was civilized, if, as noted above, rather farcical.

Wargaming potential? Well, I am still thinking about it. Wild charges aside, finding a set of rules which permit half of each army to scarper and the rest still to be in the field might be a little tricky. It would probably make a very nice, multi-player campaign to while away a few winter afternoons, though.