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?’