Saturday, 29 May 2021

The Battle of Arousa

 ‘Now, sergeant, what do you think of the young lady singing?’

‘She has a fine voice, sire.’

‘That’s not all that is fine, eh? Get a message to her that I shall look forward to entertaining her in quarters this evening.’

‘I am not sure I can do that, sire.’

‘You got through to the army, man.’

‘Yes, sire, but there are other complications with delivering messages to ladies. The queen’s orders, for one thing.’

‘Oh, bosh man! She’s not here. Look, invite her friend to your tent as well, and we’ll say no more about it, eh?’

‘I cannot do that, sire.’

‘Oh, really. I mean…. Sergeant?’

‘Yes, sire?’

‘Are you the commander of my bodyguard?’

‘Yes, sire.’

‘Are you not supposed to stop people from, for example, holding daggers to my throat.’

‘Yes, sire, with exceptions.’

‘What exceptions would they be?’

‘When the person holding the dagger is Her Majesty, sire.’

‘And so in the current instance…?’

‘My orders are not to intervene, sire.’

‘Oh. Izzy, how nice of you to stop by.’

‘Just in time to stop you doing something which I might have let you live to regret, Ferdie. Now, come away, because I have a job for you.’

‘Is it an enjoyable job?’

‘It is, being as how it is your duty to lead our army against the enemy, and that they are on the march to reach Arousa town before your roistering is done.’

‘That isn’t what I had in mind for this evening, Izzy my dear.’

‘I am well aware of that, which is why I needed to bring the dagger. If you stop the Granadines, I might consider your future more enjoyable employment in my tent. I’ve bought a new moveable bed.’


Having taken the castle of Al-Arousa, Ferdinand was anticipating having an evening off. However, the Granadines are attempting to throw a garrison into Arousa town, so he has to get on his horse and see them off. The opening dispositions are in the picture.

Ferdinand has deployed his heavy cavalry to the right, across the river (which is fordable), and is aiming to deploy his jinites at the bridge to block it, along with infantry support. The Granadines are going to have to deploy their jinites to delay the Castilian heavies and get their foot across the bridge. I reckoned that they might have to deploy their crossbowmen to see off the gendarmes, but that should be possible.

The aims of the commanders were fairly well mirror images. The Granadines aimed to get at least half their army into Arousa (to the near left of the table. Ferdinand’s aim was to stop them (and then test his new bed). The balance of the scenario seemed to be reasonable…

The interim photographs did not fair well, but the final one shows the Granadine problem in spades.

As you can see, Ferdinand’s plan succeeded, probably more easily than he (and certainly than I) expected. While the Granadine jinites did delay one of the three gendarme bases, they were forced to retreat by the others onto the deploying infantry and were then charged and routed. The gendarmes then crashed into the infantry supports and damaged them, forcing them back behind their supporting lines, which the gendarmes (at increasingly unlikely odds, it has to be admitted) then forced back again, and routed the original shaken first-line troops, causing the whole lot to rout. Two bases had basically destroyed half the Granadine army.

Meanwhile, at the bridge, the Castilian jinites have forced the Granadine cavalry back by sheer weight of fire (and luckier dice rolls than their colleagues on the other side) while the Castilian infantry have started to deploy and ford the river. At this point, while Granadine morale had not completely collapsed (and the remaining gendarmes, off-camera to the right, had refused to charge the Granadine jinites from behind) the Granadines have clearly failed in their attempt to put a garrison into Arousa and therefore withdrew their remaining forces.

I really thought here at one point the I had the beating of the Castilian gendarmes. They beat the jinites fair and square, but then ploughed into crossbows supported by spearmen, without support themselves. Ferdinand, however, proved himself to be a lucky general: while one base recoiled, the other rolled a five to the spears’ one and the spears recoiled shaken.

One of the rules of campaigns is, I have found over the years, what happens on the table happens. Going back and re-rolling events or combats is normally not a good idea. But I think, in all fairness I do need to find a way of blunting the Castilian gendarmes. The Granadine army does not really have an answer to the sheer violence of the assault even by two bases, unsupported.


‘Good morning my sweet.’

‘You seem cheerful this morning Ferdie.’

‘After last night, my dear, why shouldn’t I? I think we gave that bed a thorough testing, don’t you?’

‘It stood up well to the activity Ferdie. I expected you to be a bit tired, however.’

‘Oh, well, some things energise one for the day.’

‘You might feel a bit less energised when I read you this.’

‘What is it, my dear? You seem a bit downcast by it.’

‘It is a letter from the Masters of the religious orders. You know, the ones who supply most of the heavy cavalry.’

‘Oh yes. My favourite battle winners. Launch them at the foe and ‘Boom!’, no foe. What do they want?’

‘I’ll summarise. In essence, the letter says that they are withdrawing from the army for the celebration of Lent and Easter, as per the latest edict from the Pope regarding the celebration of the same. They will be praying for your continued success against the infidel.’

‘Oh. Right. Fine, no problem….What?

‘I am sure you heard me, Ferdie. They will replace the troops they withdraw, the Brethren, with paid men, some jinites and some crossbowmen.’

‘But without the gendarmes how am I going to win battles?’

‘Well, you’d better figure that out Ferdie, otherwise last night could be the last night of passion for a while.’

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Normans in the North

From what I have read, historians of the Norman Conquest fall into two camps when thinking about the Harrying of the North. Firstly, there are the minimalists, who minimize the damage done to northern society, peasants, agriculture, and so on. They argue that while something clearly happened, and what happened did shock the contemporary chroniclers, it was only a little out of the ordinary and the region quickly recovered its balance, with increased attention from Norman (colonizing) lords. Thus, by the time we get to the Domesday Inquest of 1086 the signs of the Harrying are few and far between and the extensive ‘waste’ recorded in Yorkshire (Domesday Book does not extend further north) arises from other causes, principally the ignorance of the new landowners.

On the other side of the coin, as it were, are the maximalists, those who believe that William’s activities based on York in the winter of 1069-70 seriously damaged northern society, leading to a famine and the practical breakdown of agriculture and population. Into this void, new Norman lords came and the extent of recovery by 1086 is a function of how much attention these new lords gave to their estates. If that was little, then the manors laid waste in the Harrying remained waste in 1086.

At the maximalist end of the spectrum is this book:

Kapelle, W. E. (1979). The Norman Conquest of the North: The Region and its Transformation, 1000 - 1135. London: Croom Helm.

As you might note, it is a fairly elderly tome, but interesting none the less. It is also, of course, about far more than the Norman Conquest and its effects on the north, but Kapelle is among the historians who think that the Harrying more or less destroyed northern society, caused starvation, and the forced integration of the north into the rest of England.

I am not expert enough to comment on the overall text, but it is interesting. Kapelle re-interprets some of the events of the earlier Eleventh Century as expressions of the relative independence of the northern regions – today’s Yorkshire, Lancashire, Durham, Northumberland and Cumbria and Westmoreland. The assorted feuds and murders which happened (quite frequently) in the north are not dismissed as just what the barbarian northerners did, but as calculated assassinations to preserve the independence of the north from encroaching Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Danish kings.

Kapelle argues that as the likelihood is that the geld returns recorded in Domesday Book were probably taken from an Anglo-Danish geld list held in York, the north was relatively lightly taxed by comparison with southern regions. Thus the arrival of southern nobles as Earls was unpopular, as they brought with them increased tax demands. This may or may not be true – given that Domesday Book records the number of geladable carucates, which were fiscal rather than real units of land (a carucate is a ‘ploughland’, but the round numbers which occur suggest that it was a top-down system, not one related to actual land) it is a bit difficult to tell. Certainly further south the hide (the southern measure of fiscal land) was more heavily taxed per unit, but it is unclear if that was a function of lighter taxation or land which was simply less good, or less exploited, for agricultural purposes.

Still, if we take Kapelle seriously, we do have to engage with his argument that William’s army in 1069 – 70 could destroy most of northern society from Durham to York. This is beset with problems, I suspect. We do not really know how much damage an army of a few thousand horsemen could do to a region in winter. The Chroniclers claim that they did huge damage; many recent historians cannot see how that damage could have been inflicted. The Chroniclers also say that William pursued the remaining rebels deep into the wilds of (probably) Teesdale and there took their submission. Could he do that while, at the same time, destroying all the land? It is, at best, unclear.

Kapelle is at his best when discussing the uncomfortable strategic situation of the north. If Cumbria was held by the Scots, which it was until the reign of William II, then the Scots could raid across the Pennine passes and there was not much that anyone could do about it. This also (quite likely) happened in 1070 when Malcolm Canmore ravaged Cleveland. In turn, William (the Conqueror) started to apportion land to his highest nobles to create castleries blocking these passes, such as Richmond and Pontefract. In 1072 William also invaded Scotland and came to an agreement with Malcolm, but it was up to Rufus to establish something that looks vaguely like the modern frontier.

Another interesting aspect of the book is the discussion of the Norman nobles who took land in the north. Initially, Kapelle argues, they were William’s closest allies from eastern Normandy, who were used to eating wheat bread. They were not interested in the higher lands of the north, where only oats and rye would reliably grow. Later on, in the reign of Henry I, the higher ground was divided up between ‘new men’, Henry I’s closest confidants, who came from western Normandy, where Henry’s power base was, and who were used (as the land there is poorer, apparently) to rye and oats.

Furthermore, Kepelle suggests, and I am not sure if this is an academic jest or not, that the eastern Normans came originally from lowland Yorkshire and so ate wheat and were before that from Denmark, where wheat was the staple bread. The Vikings from Norway, however, had colonized the western parts of Britain and ate rye and oats, and then colonized western Normandy, and hence returned to western, upland England (and, in due course, in fact, Scotland) where oats and rye were grown.

In the end, then, the whole of the Norman Conquest and the upheavals it caused, depends mostly on which sort of grain crop could be grown. I am not sure if the uncouthness of rye bread eaters as opposed to the civilized culture or wheat bread made that much of a difference, or even existed, but we do seem to be back to a long, long Viking Civil war.

Saturday, 22 May 2021

Bits. And Pieces.

 It has all been a bit heavy duty this year – all battle reports which no-one reads and book reports (it would be incorrect to call then ‘reviews’) which most people ignore. Not that I am complaining; being ignored is one of the good things about blogging. You can, after all, claim to be doing things in public while no-one is looking.

Still, in an effort to lighten to mood, I have a few things to show. The first is this:

 This is, of course, a Vauban-style‘ star fort’. The original is from Irregular, the painting and basing is my negative added value. It has to be said that it is a fair weight of metal. The guns, incidentally, are Langton naval guns, and the crew are from the same source.

You might very well object that there are gaps in the walls. Fair enough, there are. This is due in part to the way the fort is cast. If you look at the Irregular catalogue, you will find a picture of the said star fort. If you look more closely you will see that the picture is without the flankers to the bastions. It takes a little while to work out how it is all supposed to interlock, but it does, it is neat and ingenious. However, I am a wargamer who wants modularity in his scenic items, and so each piece has been individually based. Hence they do not really interlock any more. If I had put them onto a single base and filled the gaps, it would look more continuous, of course, but be less useful in a wagame.

I did, incidentally, consider the Leven alternative, but two things stopped me. While it is quite likely a very nice model in its own right it was a) a lot more expensive and b) a lot bigger. While the Estimable Mrs P is indulgent of her husband’s follies, a kit too big to use would not go down well in that quarter.

Still, in terms of the modularity I think it works, given that I can also do this:


 This is, of course, three bastions and two ravelins from the star fort with my very old Baccus walls (which have been painted / repainted), so I can also have a nice fortified town in the corner of the table. Again, I have ‘well garnished’ the walls with guns. The Langton guns and two crew fit nicely on a 10 mm by 15 mm base, which fits nicely in the ravelin and bastion spaces for them, and in the flankers. They also fit on the Baccus walls, as seen, but that was, admittedly, by chance. I also have extended my range of trenches, and also acquired (from the Irregular) some pioneers / sappers and painted up some officers and snipers (which I’ve had for years). I do not have any rules, as yet.

What, you might ask, are you going to do with all this real estate? I confess I am not entirely sure at this point, but a campaign will doubtless emerge. I feel an urge to return to Colonel Cranium; I am unsure as to whether the trace italienne was much used in early modern Muscovy. I have seen one work which categorically states it was not, and another which argues that it was. It might depend on which bit of Russia you are looking at.

Anyway, speaking (writing) of things Muscovite, the latest painting project (is there no end to the madness?) is here:

 This is, of course, an Irregular Muscovite army – 15 bases of cavalry, 16 of infantry, a general, and a gun. Behind them is a Russian village from the same source. All that is needed now is for me to paint them. The cavalry to the left, incidentally, have been cleaned up and stuck on lollipop sticks for painting. They are the noble style cavalry, I think – the horses are barded. To my eyes, they look very much like the Ottoman Spahis of the Porte from Irregular, but then Muscovy was heavily influenced by its Mongol and Turkish inheritance.

This more than doubles my Muscovite forces, or will when they are painted. That might take a while, however. I have also, way too late, solved the lack of Russian-style buildings in my collection, a lacuna noted during the Great Northern War refight recently. It might inspire me to have another go; the pictures still raise a smile.

Anyway, the Muscovites and the village were a birthday present. My birthday, incidentally was in February and, when I unpacked the goodies as above to take their pictures, I happened to glance out of the window and noted that Russian reinforcements had arrived already.

 General Winter had indeed arrived in force, at least for this part of the world in the Anthropocene era. It looks a bit more impressive than it was; as the Estimable Mrs P observed there was enough to be a nuisance without giving us an excuse for not doing stuff.

Finally in this rather erratic post, I thought you might like a picture of our resident Corporate Activist Terrorist and her activities in the snow:

That expression on her face is the one she reserves for ‘What is that stupid human up to now?’ and she is, indeed, curled up next to a radiator. She remains there until later afternoon when the wood-burning stove is lit, and then adjourns to the living room to snooze with her chin on the hearth. All I can say is that some animals have the life of Reilly, except for passing humans with cameras.

The other thing I can say is that I expect a surge of interest in the blog now, as cat pictures are supposed to achieve a boost in views almost as much as pornography is supposed to.

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.

Saturday, 15 May 2021

Inca Incoherence

It is a ‘well-known fact’ that the Spanish conquered South and Central America by being Western, Christian, having better weapons, moral superiority and all-round heroes, while their opponents were disorganised rabble slaves, the minions of superstates which were barbarians and needed the light of proper civilisation bringing to them.

Yes. Well, if I started to unpack everything that was wrong with that paragraph we could be here for a while. Perhaps I can suggest that a little further nuance is required from the normal ‘colonial’ narrative, which permits some degree of agency to the natives. The Spanish had the good fortune to arrive in Mexico while there was an uncertain ruler on the throne who negotiated rather than wiped the conquistadors out. In South America, the Inca Empire was in the midst of a civil war when Pizarro and his men arrived.

If, therefore, something to do with the Inca is on the cards, we need to start with a civil war, Inca versus Inca. The two leaders at the time were Huascar and Atahualpa, and so an action between the two would seem to be the place to begin. The civil war seems to have been fairly brutal, and the Spanish arrived towards the end, but not at the end of it. Thus, they were allowed to settle. Atahualpa’s principal aim seems to have been preventing his brother from forming an alliance with them at this stage.

There is always in my mind a question about wargaming the Aztecs and, by extension, the Inca. I have probably said enough in the past to discuss the Aztecs, and the Inca probably follow a similar path. However, wargaming is a legitimate part of exploring history, and somehow I will struggle on. For the Aztec campaign I am using DBA; for the Inca, I decided to use my own WotCR rules, for no better reason than trying to develop them a bit. For this battle I added some ‘march column’ rules, allowing one base wide columns of bases to move at double speed, although woe betide them if they are contacted while so undeployed.

The forces were the same for each side. 6 bases of tribal foot, 3 skirmishers and 3 militia. I have no idea (I used to, but I’ve forgotten) exactly how the Inca fought, but I was not going to let a mere detail like that stop me.

In keeping with my present ‘keep it simple’ approach, neither deployment was complicated. To test the march column rule Atahualpa’s men, to the left, deployed in columns (some of them) while Huascar’s were ‘semi-deployed’, to the right. The terrain was fairly simple – road, river, rough ground and a village. You might think the village looks more Aztec than Inca, but if I say it is an Inca village, an Inca village it is.

The action proceeded fairly straightforwardly. Atahualpa’s men moved forward swiftly and deployed, which Huascar’s moved forward slightly more slowly. The skirmishers fronting Atahualpa’s main columns absorbed the first charge of Huascar’s warriors, which rather blunted the latter’s efforts.

Huascar struggled to get his militia and skirmishers into the action, while Atahualpa had deployed his militia in line, so the main fighting was conducted by the warriors. The picture shows the main clashes. On Huascar’s left, the opposing skirmishers are in flight, but the charge of the warriors was blunted by them and the counter from Atahualpa’s warriors has routed two bases. Further to Huascar’s left two more bases of his warriors are locked in combat with a single opponent, but are not making a great deal of headway.

In the centre, Atahualpa’s skirmishers have withdrawn, shaken, and the warriors are now locked in combat, with the generals in control. Huascar’s men are, however, flanked by Atahualpa’s slightly superior numbers, and that was decisive.

The picture shows the end of the game. Huascar’s centre is now being forced back, and the general has been lost as a consequence. The army, which had wavered, is now into withdraw mode and Atahualpa is victorious.

This was an interesting battle and I enjoyed it. The rules worked, but need a bit of development on how exactly you move from march column to deployed in line. I know how it should work, but writing it down in a manner I will understand in six months time is a bit more of a challenge.

Numbers were important here, even though the two sides were mirror images of each other. Atahualpa had the edge in the centre and it paid off. Husacar had more on his left flank, but they were held by a heroic single base of warriors (who, in fact, drove back twice their numbers). Dice can be funny like that. The involvement of generals in my rules is often necessary but is also highly risky. I will have to find out whether Huascar survived to fight another day or not.

The next stage is problematic, of course, because it involves small numbers of Spanish (Pizarro started with 168 men, I think). They did have a disproportionate effect on the battlefield, but we should not over-emphasise that. If the native rulers had been prepared to accept the casualties (or been able to due to local political considerations) the Spanish could simply have been swamped. As I recall, anyway, with the Inca Empire the more interesting actions were a bit later than the actual conquest, as the Spanish fought among themselves, with Inca allies. As I recall (I’ll have to do some more reading) the Spanish government tried to assert authority over the rather unruly conquistadors, and this led to cycles or civil wars and rebellions, let alone what the remnant of the Inca Emperors were doing.

As far as I recall, my Incas had not been on the table at all before this, although I must have had them for well over 20 years. I think it was the realisation that under DBR rules I needed a huge number more Inca to raise a second army to fight the first, along with a few Spanish, that rather broke my early modern wargaming morale and led to my fifteen-year exile in Ancients wargaming. But I think I’m back now...

Saturday, 8 May 2021

King John

 I do choose my times. The loyal reader might recall, a long time ago, that I temporarily stopped reading Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis during, I think, the last US presidential election. Before that, I gave up on one of Jonathan Sumption’s books on the Hundred Years War (I think it was Cursed Kings) for a similar reason. This time, I had to stop reading

Morris, M. (2015). King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta. London: Hutchinson.

during the recent US presidential elections. The reasons were the same. Reading political history, at these levels, brings home exactly how useless most leaders have been during history, how self-seeking, careless of the lives of their subjects or citizens and ideologically committed to their own well-being, over and above that of others, that they are. Human nature has not changed much, it seems to me, although the translation from medieval and early modern history to the present I shall leave to my reader.

As I read parts of the book, I started to feel that there was an apostrophe missing from the start of the title: ‘king John. Mind you, his brother Richard was not much better it seems, being mostly engaged in warfare. They both seem to have believed that England was a cash cow for their military adventures. Richard was a bit more successful than John (it would not have been hard) and so gets a rather better historical press, I suspect.

The general outlines of John’s reign are probably quite well known to wargamers generally, as well as anyone who has watched Disney’s Robin Hood. He attempted to take the throne while Richard was on crusade (and while his brother was awaiting ransom), extorted taxes from all and sundry and finally managed to upset, annoy and outrage a sufficiently large number of his barons that he was forced to sign Magna Carta and hence establish the liberties of the free-born Englishman.

It all needs a bit more nuance, I suppose, although that is not to say that John seems in any way to have been a nice person. There are questions as to whether the Angevin Empire could have been held together by the most able English king. It was simply too big and too sprawling and had too many enemies, to permit that. The English, after all, saw no particular reason to go and fight, or to pay, for their king’s foreign wars. Wars against the Welsh, Scots, or even Irish might be acceptable, but adventures on the Continent to secure even more power for an already unpopular king were not going to play well.

The whole era seems to have been one of unreliable alliances, personal animosities, petty jealousies, and a determination to win land and power at whatever the cost to other people. The switching of sides of assorted nobles on both sides of the Channel was, to this reader, a bit bewildering, although the author did his level best to explain it all. This is all fairly normal medieval fare (fayre?) it seems, but John took it to a new level, ordering the wives and children of some of his enemies to be starved to death (enemies in the sense of ‘having fallen out with’), certainly ordering and possibly executing the murder of his nephew Arthur of Brittany, starving to death a number of other people who had crossed him, both ‘great’ and ‘small’ (as if the status of the person meant that their death was any less significant).

I suppose if John had won any of his wars, or even successfully usurped the throne, he might have received a better account. But the fact is that he failed at, well, pretty much everything. I think the only successful military operation he ordered that is in the accounts was the siege of Rochester Castle. Even then he was losing the war when he died, having managed to unite his barons (or a sizeable chunk of them) and the French against him. He was fleeing from this lot when, as those of you who remember the Ladybird book of Kings and Queens of England, he lost the crown in the Wash.

Having been forced to sign Magna Carta, John seemed to have no intention of sticking by it. If he had not died rather suddenly he would have spent considerable effort, money, and lives (but only of ordinary people and barons who opposed him, so he would not have worried about it) in undermining its terms. Foreign invasion and civil war did not seem to have convinced him that, perhaps, his behaviour was proving unacceptable to a significant chunk of the political nation, a chunk that could afford the soldiers to oppose him and who had an ally, in the shape of the son of the French King, willing to invade in exchange for the throne. Anyone was better than the incumbent, it seems.

The ease with which King John upset people, and with which he took offence and propagated murder against the offenders are startling. Not only that but his extortion against both ordinary and noble figures is notable. It was as Morris notes, a cruel age, but John took such cruelties to a new level. His acts of violence were considered excessive at the time. While the chroniclers were mostly clergy or monks, and therefore would have had an interest in denigrating John (due to his falling out with the pope and managing to get the country placed under interdict – this is possibly a better analogy for Brexit, historically, than the Reformation) the few secular chronicles are also horrified by his behaviour, attitudes, and general all-round ineptness as king.

In terms of history, Magna Carta is something that lots of people know about, even if they have never read it (Morris includes a translation – most of it is irrelevant to today). What is more sobering is that if he had lived a few more years, John would have done his absolute best to undermine it, and, quite possibly, have succeeded. History might have been a little different in those circumstances.

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Warfare Under the Anglo-Norman Kings

I suppose that it was inevitable that, as a wargamer undertaking a non-wargaming historical project (or at least one which is not supposed to land up with a new set of armies and games) I would start reading about the military aspects of the period. The fact that it also fits with the project, which is roughly to find out what really happened during the Harrying of the North, that it is part and parcel of the way military operations were carried out in the period, is just coincidence.

Anyway, the book in question this time is:

Morillo, S. (1994). Warfare under the Anglo-Norman Kings 1066 - 1135. Woodbridge: Boydell.

A jolly decent book it is, too. Morillo is a well know academic military historian who specialises in the medieval period, so it is worth taking what he says seriously.

The first chapter is a bit of scene-setting. The military was one branch of the crown, of government as it was in the Anglo-Norman state. In fact, a general theme running through the book is that the thing that was important for both civil and military government was the royal household, the familia regis. Another aspect that runs through the book is that feudalism, as it is normally construed, did not exist, and was broadly speaking a construct of late Victorian historians and their interpretation of the evidence.

If you think about it, feudalism, in the military sense of holding land in return for military service to the crown, could not really have ever worked. In England, the tenants-in-chief held land all over the country, from Yorkshire to Suffolk, Cheshire to Surrey. Suppose the tenant-in-chief was at court, and the king decided to go to war. Suppose, for ease of pondering, that the court happened to be at Winchester when the decision was made. What happened?

The tenants-in-chief are summoned and told to muster their hosts for such and such a date. When could that date be? Well, if you have to summon men from Cheshire to a Channel port you have a bit of a communication problem. First, you have to get a message to your people in Cheshire. Then they have to summon your feudal host for such and such a time and place, and then they have to march south to the designated port. Giving a week for the initial message, a fortnight for the summons, and at least two weeks for marching south, your contingent is not going to arrive at the port for at least five weeks, even assuming that everything goes swimmingly. Raising the feudal host from the whole country would be a very slow process for any campaign and, so far as the evidence goes, it did not happen.

You can argue that the host was not summoned from the whole of the country. That would be quite correct, but then the burden of the summons would be felt in certain parts of the country. This did happen – the Lords of the Marches were given much more compact fees to better enable them to defend against the Welsh, for example. However, the tenants-in-chief might not look too kindly on a king who kept calling certain of their people out.

So, what really happened? Given the relatively small size of Anglo-Norman armies, the core was made up of the familia regis. Contingents from the tenants-in-chief’s own household were then added to make up the force which was to march to suppress the rebellion or whatever. The knight’s fee, which obliged military service was something of a convenient fiction – the fact that the original fees were in fives and tens suggests that they were artificial, and the fact that the obligations were divided down through, for example, split inheritance, until someone could straight-faced record the fact that a certain fee owed ten and one eighth knights suggests that it was a matter of accounting, not actual men on horses.

The military service which was rendered was more in the nature of castle ward, that is, being the garrison of the local castle for a month or so at a time. The real army was formed of the households of the king and his tenants-in-chief, with extras being paid for mercenaries. These could be mounted or foot, and actually had a reasonably high reputation at the time. It would seem that very soon after feudalism was imposed on England (if indeed it really was superimposed on the Anglo-Saxon state) it became ‘bastard’ feudalism of a form. Knights were in households of powerful men hoping for advancement, to be given their own fee, for an advantageous marriage and, if need be, to fight in the cause that their lord espoused.

As for the fighting, there were many wars and relatively few battles. Hastings, of course, was the main action but Morillo argues that it was a very strange battle indeed between well-matched foes. His main point is that the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman state was relatively wealthy compared to its neighbours and could therefore field sufficient numbers of infantry to make a difference in war. Most other states of the time could not, and so were reliant on the mounted knights of the household. Thus came about the idea in historiography that medieval commanders despised infantry – given the number of sieges around they really could not afford to, even if they had been minded to.

Morillo makes a number of other important points about the relationship between field forces and castles, movement and logistics. Opinion seems to be that Harold lost at Hastings because he lost the logistical battle with William even before William set sail. He describes a number of Anglo-Norman battles – Hastings, Dol and Gerberoy, Tinchebrai, Alencon, Bremule, and Bourgtherolde – although he does note that for many of these the sources do not allow us to reconstruct what happened. He also has a section on naval combat, something to warm the heart of a wargamer who has been banging on about the importance of naval activities for years (and sieges, for that matter).

An excellent book all round really, and it does still give me an excuse for not buying wargame armies for the period. Except, maybe, I will have a look at the DBA army lists for the Anglo-Normans….

Saturday, 1 May 2021

Wet Feet

In 55 BC, as every schoolboy used to know, Julius Caesar invaded Britain. He claimed this was in retaliation for the British tribes' support for the Gauls during his campaign there, but, this support is unlikely to have been significant. As the notes in my Penguin translation of The Conquest of Gaul observe, the Romans were now in control of the Channel and the British were not going to be crossing in force to raise rebellion.

It is a lot more likely that Caesar crossed the Channel for the same reason Caesar did most things, including writing The Conquest of Gaul. That reason was, of course, to big up Caesar himself. What other way of doing so could there be apart from leading an army to a desolate spot half in and half out of the civilised world? (Parallels with Brexit are noted but ignored in a wargaming blog.)

Caesar, for reasons of transport, split his army into the infantry which sailed, with himself, from Boulogne, and the cavalry which embarked from Ambleteuse, six miles north. Jules arrived off Dover at about 9 am and found the British on the cliffs ready to pelt him with rocks, javelins, and other things. He sailed along the coast a bit and decided to land, probably between Deal and Walmer Castle.

The British responded by sending their cavalry and chariots along the coast to oppose the landing. Caesar’s cavalry were slow to embark and were nowhere to be seen, so the infantry attempted to land. The result was a fair bit of chaos; the Romans were not keen on landing on an unknown beach in the teeth of mounted opposition. A tough fight ensued, even Caesar admits that ‘great confusion resulted.’

Having examined the state of my wargame cupboard, I noted that, in the ancients pile the Celtic box was at the bottom. In the early modern pile, incidentally, the Inca box is at the foot. I have yet to really work out what to do with the Inca, although I think there are some interesting battles to be had post-Spanish conquest, as the Spanish fell out among themselves.

Still, having decided on something Celtic, I considered assorted opponents. I did nearly go for Marius against the Gauls and Germans, but decided to stay on firmer ground (as it were) with Caesar in Britain. Looking Britain up in the index of The Conquest of Gaul gave the scenario described above. A bit of pondering yielded the forces and terrain for an interesting looking wargame.

The Celts are deployed on the beach – 8 bases of light cavalry and four light chariots. The Romans approach from the sea in two waves of six. They have 10 bases of legionaries and two of archers – Caesar refers to the warships firing slings, bows and artillery to drive the Britons back from the shallows, so some firepower seemed relevant.

I should note here that this was the second play-test of the new, simplified, Polemos style Ancients rules (the first was Marathon, which led to more detail on interpenetration). The figures were all Baccus, the boats are Irregular, as are the trees.

As the Romans hit the beach, the Britons moved slightly forward and opened fire. The legionaries did not, on the whole, hesitate (they had to throw a six to fail to disembark), but at -2 terrain shaken, they were only at evens in the dice roll against the light horse. Oddly, the chariots were at +4, which seemed rather a lot, but I played along with it but it has now been reduced to a more reasonable +2.

After a few moves, I examined the Roman position. It was, as you might say, parlous.

The incoming fire from the Britons made it difficult for the Romans to organise (i.e. remove the terrain shaken) on the beach (they needed to be unengaged in combat for that). On the left, one cohort moved in front of the other to give the latter time to form up. This worked, but the first cohort was routed before their comrades could return the favour. Elsewhere, the Romans were more or less pinned to the shallows, taking casualties and, except for the archers (you can see the left flank archers are making a bit of a difference), not able to return anything much.

A few things saved our Jules’ blushes. Firstly, the British dice deserted them – Jules managed to keep the tempo throughout most of the game. Secondly, his left flank troops, thanks to the self-sacrifice of the hero cohort,, got ashore and into contact with their tormentors in an organised way. Light cavalry in close combat with legionaries usually ends badly for the former. Thirdly, Jules himself took the risk of leading a disorganised cohort into another British light cavalry base and, after some very dodgy moments (I think I had to roll for the general’s life three times) routed them.

The impact of these fights made the British line waver (bad rolling again, I’m afraid) and that gave the Romans more time to form up (troops with terrain shaken remove one level automatically if they are not in combat) and move forward in a more threatening manner. Jules got onto the flank of some chariots and the archers on the left and right routed a base of light horse each. As a consequence the British went into ‘fall back’ mode and I decided that they should ride off at this point. The Romans were ashore.

The game was a lot of fun. I have a photo of the Roman left early in the battle (unfortunately a bit blurry) where every Roman base is shaken, some at level two. The message was ‘General, it is not going too well’. With the exception of the anomaly over the light chariots’ ranged combat rating (they cannot be a huge amount better than the light horse, although chucking sticks from a platform might be better than from a horse) the rules seemed to work quite well and I only have a few pencilled amendments to add, mostly around the use of chariots for skirmishing.