Saturday, 26 September 2020

The Ambassador

‘Ah, Ferdie, there you are.’

‘Good morning my pretty little crusader. How does the day find you, my flower.’

‘Don’t patronise me, Ferdie. And anyway, it is mid-afternoon. You missed the intelligence meeting.’

‘You should have waited until I got there.’

‘We’d still be waiting, Ferdie. How is your hangover?’

‘Fine. Hang on, what hangover? I mean how did you know, or think, that I have one? I don’t.’

‘I count, Ferdie. I count how many drinks you have, and see how you manage to stagger off to bed. But anyway, we have important matters arising.’

‘Oh, like what? Could I have a drink?’

‘No. There is an ambassador coming to Granada from the Barbary States to negotiate with them. I think we need a word with him.’

‘Fine, I will send him an invitation to come to Seville.’

‘Don’t be a twit, Ferdie. He is going to negotiate an alliance with the Nasrids to fight us off.’

‘Oh. Well, can’t we persuade him not to? I mean, a barrel of beer and some trinkets sometimes work.’

‘We will, as you say, persuade them not to. But it will require a little work on your part.’

‘Oh, fine, no problem. What do I have to do? Order a letter to be written?’

‘No, you leave in an hour for Cadiz. The joint fleet is mobilizing and you will take command, leading the force to intercept the ambassador and bring him here, where we will negotiate with him.’

‘But I’m busy with other things. This war won’t fight itself, you know.’

‘I know, but your war is a brave but foolhardy attempt to drink all the wine produced in the country. Incidentally, that is stopping now; our ships have been issued with beer only, for all ranks. I am sure that a nice trip by boat will blow the cobwebs away for you.’

‘I’m not sure I’m the right person. I don’t do admiral type stuff really. I’d better stay here while someone….’

‘Ferdie, are you the king of Aragon?’

‘Of course, you know that.’

‘And is Aragon the foremost naval power in the Western Mediterranean at this time?’

‘Oh yes. It is a matter of great pride. Castile has the soliders, but we have the sailors, and I am their leader!’

There was a pause. Isabella raised an eyebrow.

‘I’ve just talked myself into this, haven’t I?’

‘You have, my dear. Well done; I don’t think I could have done better. I’ve ordered some new bed sheets for when you return, by the way.’


From the above you may well, correctly, divine that I have completed the refurbishment of my renaissance galley fleets. This was a bit more difficult than I imagined, as a number of flagstaffs have simply disappeared and spare parts are not available. Still, I managed to cobble together thirty-two ships of assorted sizes, and only one seems to be destined for the scrapyard at present, unless I have a sudden rush of improvisation to the head and an unwarranted and unprecedented attack of creativity in the modelling department.

Rules are a bit of a puzzle. I, of course, only have two rule sets and both of them are old. I have ‘Armada’ which might be suitable but seems to be more for small numbers of ships and is an old-style rule set with extra points for English sea dogs. To be fair, it also has extras for Spanish sea dog, just not as much. It also relies on record-keeping which, as many who read the blog might have discerned, is an anathema to me. The other possibility is Unholy Alliance and old set from Hallmark. I confess to never having used these, either. While claiming to be fast play they still seem a bit fussy to me, although I shall, of course, pinch some of the mechanisms and ranges.

Inevitably, I shall cobble my own rules together. Renaissance galleys did not particularly ram each other but relied on forward-mounted (and facing) heavy artillery and boarding. The Spanish have the heaviest and most heavily manned galleys, the Barbary Coast states the lightest. The Venetians had the best artillery but were more lightly manned than some others. Galleass were the big beasts and could mete out massed destruction but were less manoeuvrable and slow. And so on.

Interestingly, it was the artillery on the galleys that drove the development of fighting sail. Northern warships had to find a response the heavy guns on galleys or get blown out of the water. Even at the end of the Sixteenth Century the English government was concerned by the possible deployment of Spanish galleys in the Low Countries. The answer was, first, stern-mounted artillery in sailing ships, followed by bow-mounted chasers. Finally, the broadside was developed with closing port-holes for inclement weather. After a few hiccoughs (Mary Rose, Wasa) the sailing ship outclassed its oared rival.

Anyway, back to the scenario. After the successful capture of Al Hambra (see the Reconquista link to the right for the details) it would be natural for the Grenadines to seek some help against the Castilian hordes. The natural allies are the Barbary states of North Africa – this was before they became vassals of the Ottoman sultan, of course – and so, as Isabella has observed, an ambassador has been despatched to negotiate a treaty. This man Ferdinand must intercept before he lands at Malaga.

The ambassador is travelling by a comfortable merchant galley. The Barbary Coast fleets tended to the lighter galley (much used for raiding, piracy and other seaborne activities), but they will need a flagship as well, and could have a couple of medium galleys too, something like eight lights, three mediums and a Lanterna as flagship.

The Spanish tended to heavier galleys (and bigger guns, apparently). That would amount to something like a flagship galley, ten heavy galleys and a light (for scouting). The North Africans have to land their man at Malaga, the Spanish have to stop that and, preferably, seize him for themselves.

Saturday, 19 September 2020

Domesday: The Inquest and the Book

It seems to be fairly uncontentious that there was a Domesday Inquest, and, of course, we have the Domesday Book (or books, for there are two, one, the Great Domesday Book and the other, the Little Domesday Book; the latter covers East Anglia). It is also fairly clear that the Domesday Inquest or inquiry was carried out in 1085 – 6 by order of the King (William the Whatever) as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The results, it is said, were taken to the King

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is fairly clear. At mid-winter 1085 Bill was in Gloucester with his council and had ‘great thought and very deep conversation with his council about this land’ (ASC (E) 1085, p 216 in my translation Swanton, M., ed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (London: Phoenix, 2000)). ‘And all the records were brought to him afterwards.’ So William sent out a whole load of officials to see what was there and got the records back, which somehow became our Domesday Books.

It is often (perhaps usually) thought that Domesday Book was the aim of the whole undertaking. After all, if today someone were to do something similar, the records may well be published in a book, at least as a digest of all the interesting and useful stuff. It is known that the Books landed up in the King’s treasury in Winchester and, over the course of a century of so acquired the name by which we know it so well.

But what was this process and how (or why) did to book itself come into being? While the scope of the survey might have been larger than previous efforts in England, the use of inquest was a well-established method of finding out the truth. For the moment, dismiss from your thoughts ideas of coroners and trial by juries. Juries were there, usually of eight men from the hundred and some from each vill. A vill, incidentally, is sort of a village but not necessarily – the dwellings could be much more scattered; it all depended on the sort of agriculture undertaken in the area.

The inquiry was related to land and tax returns and all the sorts of things a medieval government would be interested in. Who owned what and how much was it worth in tax (geld)? There have been extensive efforts to reconstruct English society in 1086 from the Domesday Book, but it has to be recognised that the Book is selective – only tenants in chief and their tenants, people who had land directly from the King (it will be remembered, of course, that William claimed to own the whole lot) were recorded.

Once this was done, William called ‘everyone’ (everyone who mattered, anyway) to Salisbury and received their oath that they would be loyal to him, and then he bimbled off to Normandy where he died. This Salisbury other seems to have been a deal between the King and his tenants in chief that they would pay him more taxes and he would give them (or confirm them in) certain rights. Exactly what these were is hard to say.

The rest of the process and production of the books are controversial. Whether the big landowners ‘cooked the books’ to enhance their landholding and prestige is an open question (probably not). Whether the jurors were forced to testify; whether the testifying was terrifying or affirmed that a geld payer was a free man or not. Historians have argued (and still do, I presume) over these issues for ages.

I have recently finished

Roffe, D., Domesday: The Inquest and the Book (Oxford: OUP, 2000).

This is something of a companion piece to Decoding Domesday, which was written apparently at about the same time but published separately. I wrote about it not too long ago. Anyway, Roffe is in the ‘revisionist’ camp here, in that he thinks that the survey was a reaction to the crisis of 1085 (I think most would agree on that) but that it was a negotiated activity in which the barons and communities of the shires aimed at a common end, that is trying to find the resources for paying for a large army of mercenaries that William had brought over from Normandy to oppose a projected Danish invasion. The process aimed at establishing ‘a body of established fact on which an agreed course of action could be decided’ (p. x).

Roffe also argues that the construction of a book was not the aim of the inquest. The book he thinks, came a bit later, probably in the reign of William II (‘Rufus’) and, Roffe suggests, it was done under the supervision of Rannulf Flambard just after the revolts against Bill II in 1088. Apparently, there was some tenurial chaos then; I imagine that there was a fair bit of dispossession of lands from the revolting barons.

This reveals one of the problems with dipping into a ‘new’ area of history. I have no idea what happened in 1088. My books stop with the death of BtB in 1087. What happened next is a mystery to me, except that BII was mysteriously shot by an arrow while hunting in the Savernake Forest, which happens to be the most interesting thing that happened, historically, near the town where I was brought up and was, therefore, the subject of a history lesson in school. The next most interesting thing was the reading of the riot act in 1910 (I think). I dare say, when I look into it, that Bill II probably did not die in the way I have just described, because history, at least where I grew up, was never that interesting.

Anyway, it is an interesting book. I may have slightly shot my project on Domesday Book in the foot, however, by reading the revisionists first. Now I have to work out what the historiography they are reacting against was about. And, of course, I have to find out what really happened in 1088, and beyond. One bit of history leads to another.

Saturday, 12 September 2020

A Small Town in Bohemia


‘Um. Hi.’

‘Your name, please?’

‘Erm, Jez. Yes, Jez.’

‘How do you spell that?’


‘OK. Do you know that this is?’

‘It’s a pitchfork.’

‘Yes. Now, do you know which end of it to hold, and which end is dangerous to other people?’


‘Show us…. Yes, that’s right. Now, you see that bundle of straw with the turnip on top?’


‘I want you to imagine that it was a priest who had just refused you communion in both kinds. Now, what do you do?’

There was a blur of activity.

‘Ah, yes. Thank you. That’s fine. Sergeant, could you get us some more straw, please. And another turnip.’

‘Yes sir. Sir….?’


‘I didn’t know you could do that to a turnip with a pitchfork.’

‘Nor did I sergeant, nor did I.’

‘Was it wrong?’

‘No, no, Jez, not wrong. I think we will recruit you, cart thirty four, I think, please.’

‘Which one is that? There are only three there.’

‘It is the first one, to the left.’

‘Why not call it cart number one?’

‘Because if we did that the enemy would know we have only three carts, one, two and three. But if we say thirty four, thirty five and thirty six, they’ll be expecting another thirty three carts along shortly.’

‘Here is the straw and turnip, sir. Would you like me to mop up the turnip juice before the next candidate?

‘It might be an idea, sergeant, thank you. I think this might be a long revolution, you know.’


The Hussites are back in town, as it were. Or at least, I have started to implement my vague idea for a narrative campaign with my newly minted Hussite armies. The outline above is the story of a recruitment drive. The Hussites are famous, theologically, for demanding communion in both kinds (bread and wine) at a time when it was only clergy who received both. The recent peculiar times have seen a return to the medieval distribution, of course, but this time for disease control rather than privilege of clergy.

Anyway, the Hussites have set out from their recruiting grounds and laid siege to a small town, held by a garrison of German crusaders. As you probably know, the Hussites were subjected to five crusades declared against them, which gathered forces from across Europe to duff up the heretics. The most consistent opponents were Germans, from the north and Hungarians from the east. To those of us brought up during the Cold War this still feels a little odd. Prague, historically, was at the centre of Europe, not behind some Iron Curtain of communist absolutism.

Anyway, the idea of the wargame is that the Hussites are besieging the town, the Germans are in it and the Hungarians are attempting to relieve them. I have, of course, therefore deployed two Hussite armies, one to keep the Germans in and the other to stop the Hungarians. From behind the Hungarian lines it looked like this.

The Hungarians are nearest the camera, and then the Hussite blocking army (Hussites A in my nomenclature) on a hill, then the besieging army and the Germans are in the town. The deployment of the Hungarians might suggest to you that I am trying something different from the last battle, and indeed I am. However, given the historical propensity of mounted knights to gallop off at a moment’s notice to charge the heretic peasants, they need either the presence of the commander in chief of a dice roll of one to three to stay put waiting patiently.

After a brief delay, the German column, headed by dismounted men at arms, emerged from the town gate and advanced on the siege works.

The Hussites moved their war waggons forward in an attempt to bring firepower on the column, while the bombards did their best and delayed the advance by some time. I think this is the first time the medieval bombards I painted just after Christmas have been in action. Mind you, it is also the first time the dismounted men at arms have been on the table top for a decade or so. The figures are Irregular and H&R, by the way. The castle and town are Leven, the trenches are very old Baccus, I believe.

The battle resolved itself into two, as you might expect. The first action was the Hungarians trying to break through the Hussite lines. The new tactics involved bringing up the infantry first to break the waggon line and then using the cavalry to outflank and destroy it. How well this worked can be seen in the next picture.

The infantry were held by the firing of the war waggons and failed to make contact, much like the cavalry in the trial battle. The knights eventually attacked on the Hussite left wing and were bounced, the general falling in the melee (such seems to be the fate of Hungarian generals at the moment). This did not much affect the morale of the Hungarian army, but it did inhibit its operations rather.

At the other end of the table, the German attack on the siege lines gained momentum, the dismounted knights driving deep into the siege lines and some spearmen breaking from the column to oppose the flanking war waggons.

This was a close run thing as the Hussite billmen resisted and put to flight the lead men at arms, but their supports pushed the Hussites back. The charge of the Hussite knights nearly swung the action in their favour but not quite – the supporting pikemen saw off the Hussite cavalry and the detached pike accounted for one of the war waggons.

At the end the Hussite besieger army’s morale got to withdraw, and so they did. As maintaining the siege was the whole point for the Hussites, a general withdrawal followed, the besiegers covered by the field army which had stalled to Hungarians (but not beaten them, this time, as the Hussites had not counter-attacked).


‘Withdraw? I never withdraw!’

‘Now Jez, calm down. We have to go because we’ve been ordered to.’

‘But we’re still alive! We fight on, we fight to win!’

‘Yes, yes, I know, but we need to make sure everyone lives to fight again, so we’re forming the rear guard.’

‘The rear guard?’

‘Yes, to, um, to prevent the heretic crusaders from dragging everyone to the gates of Hell.’

‘Oh. OK. Hitch up the horses.’


Saturday, 5 September 2020

Hitch Your Wagon

Have army, will have wargame. Or at least, have a newly painted army, will want to get them onto the table. I do, in fact, have a campaign (of my normal narrative sort) in mind for the Hussites but decided that I really needed an experimental battle as a try out, to see how the war wagons performed on the table.

First, I needed some rules for them of course. While the Polish war wagons of my acquaintance have been seen before (in one of Colonel Cranium’s adventures) I am not sure they strictly got into action, and my current use rules (or ‘work in progress scribbles’, as they are more accurately known) do not have any guidance for them. However, my normal trusty cribs came out and they were added to the table easily enough.

War wagons were tough, of course. The whole idea of them was to provide cover and a stable firing platform for all sorts of missiles to be shot, hurled or projected at the enemy. Hussite wagons even had baskets of stones on board, which served two purposes. Firstly, the helped stop the enemy overturning the wagons, and secondly they provided a handy projectile resource for the defenders. I would imagine the rate of fire of chucking a stone at someone is rather faster than reloading a very early handgun.

War wagons therefore score a hefty plus four on the combat table, but can only fire to the side (strictly speaking, they can only fire to the left hand side of the wagon, the other side had a ramp for crew access). The Hussites had a neat formation for the wagons where they parked side by side, the body of one wagon covering the traces of the next. The horses were usually removed to within the laager before the shooting started. Within the rules (indeed, within all the rules that I have seen) this is abstracted away in the base. Who am I to argue with that?

Detailed historical research (I read the Osprey and another book) suggested a Later Hungarian army for the opposition, and so my trusty copy of DBA was tracked down and yielded up its goodies in the form of the two armies. Translated from the jargon, I got five war wagons, four Hussite foot with nasty peasant style polearms, one gun, one base of mounted crossbowmen and one base of noble knights. For the Hungarians, there were three knights, three light horse, two archers, one crossbow and one spear base and two crossbow skirmishers.

The classic Hussite tactics were to take a position on the top of a hill and await the lunatic aristocracy and their charge. Usually, at least early in the wars, the said lunatics obliged. Therefore, as a one off battle, I set the Hussites on a hill and deployed the Hungarians such that the knights would have a clear run at the upstart peasants who dare defy their social superiors. Not only that but they are heretics as well.

I doubt if I need to say it, but the Hungarians are nearer the camera. Most of the figures are Irregular, although I think one base (the Hungarian pike) is Baccus. I do actually have a fair few more war wagons than the five deployed here. The gun is probably anachronistic. Hussite guns seem to have been on trestles or mounted on wagons. I have a cunning plan for that.

For the Hussites, the battle proceeded as planned. The Hungarian knights, anxious to teach the heretic peasants a lesson, advanced rapidly and stalled at the foot of the slope occupied by the war wagons.


The war wagons can certainly lay down some significant firepower, but not enough to really damage the knights, although sufficient to prevent them from charging home. The charges, when they did come, were more piecemeal that the Hungarians would have liked.


Under the tongue lashing of the general, the two rightmost knights have charged home. The left of these has pushed back the facing peasants, while the rightmost has recoiled the facing war wagon. As wagons cannot recoil, it has been lost and a gap has been opened in the Hussite lines.

The gap did not last long. The Hussite reserve knights countercharged the victorious Hungarians and drove them back down the hill, while the Hussite foot ensured that the other base in contact also recoiled back down the slope. Heavy fire from the other war wagons ensured that the third assaulting knights never got into close combat.

Meanwhile, the Hungarians, perhaps detecting that resistance was stronger than at first thought, started to move their wings forward. The light cavalry on the left are skirmishing ineffectively with the rightmost Hussite wagon and the mounted crossbowmen. This was the first outing for the revised skirmishing rules, and the as wagon kept stopping the light horse from carrying out their orders. It seemed to work.

The end came when the Hussites, having rallied their knights and seen off two bases of the Hungarian’s ordered a general advance by the infantry. This destroyed the supporting Hungarian infantry, who can be seen fleeing in the centre of the field. Meanwhile, on the Hungarian left, the mounted crossbowmen and war wagons have caused significant damage to the skirmishers. You might also note that, after a number of close shaves, the Hungarian commander has also become a casualty, although initially Hungarian morale was not affected by that. At this point, however, Hungarian morale did collapse, although most of the remaining troops should be able to get away.

I have to say that I was quite pleased with the dynamic of this battle. The Hussite tactics of absorbing the initial charge on the wagons and then counter attacking worked. By the same token, of course, Hungarian tactics were as bad as they were historically. As a sudden war wagon bolt on to the rules I was pleased that not too much had been messed up. There are still a few issues, such as interpenetration and the declaring of charges while friendly troops are in the way (the Hussite cavalry had to dodge around a billman base).

A good time was had by all, apart from the aristorcratic Hungarians, and now I need to think of a campaign.