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….

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