Saturday, 28 August 2021

Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades

 As the title suggests, I have been reading again, in the general area of the central medieval period, in this case, 1000 – 1300:

France, J. (1999). Western warfare in the Age of the Crusades 1000-1300. Ithaca: Cornell University.

I have read this book before, but I recall very little about it except for the account of Bouvines (1214), at which King John managed to lose Normandy without even being there. Still, there is a lot more to it and if I had the time I would be following up some of the references.

Interesting stuff is to be found on most of the pages. Obviously, as a wargamer, I am drawn to the brief accounts of many different battles, most of which I have not heard of (or do not remember hearing of) before, especially those in Italy in the period. Interesting stuff.

One of the things that France wants to do in the book is dispel the idea that there were no battles in the period. He points out that, depending on what you mean by a battle, there were lots of them. If by ‘battle’ you mean ‘large scale decisive action be\tween big armies’ then there were, admittedly, few. But there was a lot of combat and a lot of intricate maneuvering. As a lot of the military activity was raiding and ravaging, a lot of combat involved small groups of soldiers clashing.

This is even more so when the interaction between castles and field armies is considered. In general, the defensive had the advantage of the offensive in terms of siege. Even a small castle could seriously impede the progress of an invasion, even though castles were not generally built as networks to do so. Given the fact that most castles were built by the landowners to their specifications and requirements, they may well be at strategic locations but not necessarily so. Thus an invader might find themselves bogged down by castles, but not seriously hampered.

The main issue was, of course, the relief of the besieged. The besieged, in order to hold out, needed to know that relief was going to come, otherwise, there was no point in hanging on. Thus their side needed a field army. This had two effects: firstly, the attackers needed to split their forces to both besiege and cover the siege, and secondly, the field army of the besieged side could seriously impair the foraging of the besiegers. Without the field army, the besieged had no chance. This is why most rebellions failed: the rebels locked themselves in castles and hoped for the best. The best was usually the arrival of the King’s army and no hope of relief. The best possible outcome was then a negotiated settlement.

The other thing an extant field army could do was shadow the enemy, picking off their raiding and foraging parties. This had the effect of preserving the invaded land better (more or less, depending of the defender’s state of supply) as the ravaging was much less effective and it should not be too long before the invader’s state of supply was sufficiently poor for them to decide to go home.

A lot depended on the commander. Some Kings’ who were the ultimate commanders, were very good: Richard I, for example. His brother, John, was in the ‘not so good’ category. But commanding was an odd combination of personal example, decisiveness, and consultation. Kings were expected to take counsel from their major allies and vassals; not doing so could be construed as an insult, and if it went wrong, would heap opprobrium on the king’s head, not a happy place for a medieval monarch.

On the other hand, kings had to act decisively and honourably, as well as chivalrously and bravely. Richard I died of a crossbow bolt wound after doing exactly that. It was the only way to gain and retain the respect of the nobility and barons who supplied most of the men.

The other point that France wants to make is about the myth of cavalry superiority in the period. The case dates back more or less to Oman, for whom Hastings was the start of it in the medieval period (although it does go back to the Goths, for example). The fact is that cavalry, on their own, could and did lose in Western Europe. The terrain, for example, was against them. Hastings showed the effect of combined arms, not cavalry superiority. Cavalry were more mobile, of course, and thus in the raid and counter-raid warfare of the time had advantages, at least until they were ambushed.

This appearance of superiority is compounded by the chronicles, which were written by and had an intended audience of the nobility and barons, who formed the cavalry, and were the commanders. Thus a lot of the things we know about campaigns and battles focusses on the cavalry. The fact that infantry was important has to be inferred from the accounts (except for something like Courtrai, (1302) for example, where their victory was a shock), from the fact that there were more sieges than battles at which cavalry was fairly useless, and from the few accounts which mention them.

France also discusses Western warfare in the Near East, particularly with respect to Hattin (1187). The problems were various, and he suggests that King Guy simply had to respond to a vassal in trouble, which caused the disastrous march into the desert. He also notes that the results of the battle were predictable, as it was the only army that Outremer could raise. The loss of the field army meant that Saladin could pick off the fortresses at leisure. The fact that the Crusaders clung on to the coastal towns was largely a result of naval superiority: the Muslim states had few forests and thus no fleets, so they could not even really contest control of the sea. On the other hand, the Kingdoms were a long and difficult journey away from their resource base, and most crusaders arrived, did a bit, and went home.

A very interesting book and it does inch me a little along the road of central medieval armies but, as I have read it before, I have been here before and resisted.

Saturday, 21 August 2021

Another Marathon

As I have mentioned before, I’m sure, Marathon is probably my favourite battle, at least to get onto the wargame table. Partly, I think, because it is basically a simple action. The Greeks attack, the Persians try to shoot them off and fail. There are some extras, of course. The role of the Persian horse, for example (assuming that they were present), and the Greek formation with a weaker centre and stronger (deeper) flanks.

A second reason for liking Marathon is that it was the subject of the first ‘proper’ wargame articles I read, a long time ago in Military Modelling in the 1970s, by Charles Grant. I suspect I still have the articles in my archives somewhere, and a jolly good read they were too. Of course, it took me decades to get around to painting appropriate Greek and Persian armies, but now I have managed that, nothing is going to stop me.

I confess that the Persians are a bit of a minimalist operation at the moment. I had just enough for the nineteen bases of foot which seem to be required for the battle according to my calculations, plus three of hoplites (Ionian Greeks, probably fairly reluctant recruits) and two bases of cavalry (one heavy and one light). I have a great number of Greek hoplites, of course, from having to paint both sides for the many Greek against Greek actions there were. But Marathon keeps returning.

That is all the more so because I have just finished another nine bases of Persian archers. The first battle of the Marathon was slightly marred visually because I had to use a few bases of Immortals to make up the Persian numbers. So another outing for the battle was on the cards.

I had managed to preserve the army lists for the two sides in the Ancients rules, which was remarkably well organised of my (and quite out of character). However, the sketch for the terrain had vanished, if, indeed, it ever existed. I was forced back to my sources – Herodotus, Phil Sabin’s Lost Battles and Peter Krentz’s The Battle of Marathon. Of course, the terrain is fairly simple – a plain with the sea on one side and steep hills on the other. Controversies abound, however, about the line of the coast, whether there was a marsh or a lake behind the Persian lines and the location of the Persian horse.

In this refight, I have followed Krentz and to some extent Sabin. Krentz argues that the marsh was a lake and that the Persian horse were camped there (for the purpose of foraging) and so were a bit late to the party when the Greeks attacked. That means that the Persian horse should start the game behind the Persian right.

The picture shows the setup. The Greeks are to the left, already moving, while the Persians have deployed in three lines. The idea was for the first line to shoot and disrupt the Greeks, while the second and third lines (the third line were the Ionians Greeks) mopped up any breakthroughs. The Persian cavalry has just arrived in the top right-hand corner. Their brief is to delay the Greek left.

The Persian set-up shows, in fact, that I cannot remember my own rules. The Persian foot (who are a specific category of their own) get a +1 for being rear supported by other Persian foot. I confess to not being a believer in the ‘Sparabara’ formation. Perhaps it would work against light horse, but it does not really seem a viable or practical formation against heavy foot. I might be wrong. By the same token, I do not believe in the classic early modern tercio formation of Spanish foot. It just does not seem to be a formation that would be adopted on a battlefield by practical people like colonels and generals. But I could be wrong.

So what, you might ask, happened? Well, the battle was fairly predictable given my unexpected weakening of the Persian front line.

You can see that the one thing that went to plan was the Persian cavalry activities: they have delayed the far left of the Greek army. However, the heavy cavalry have routed off the table, while the lights are still throwing javelins, ineffectively, at the hoplites. In the centre, more or less, carnage reigns for the Persians, at least. Where they managed to get a lucky shot at the Greeks, they have disrupted the assault. However, due to some poor dice rolling, this only happened in two places. Everywhere the Greeks got into contact, they won the subsequent melee. The result is that while you can see a fair number of Persian foot on the table, seven of the bases are routing, and some of the others are in trouble having recoiled shaken against still advancing foes.

When I realised my mistake with the Persian deployment I reset the battlefield for another go, but domestic duties and a spot of ill-health (nothing serious, but a nuisance) led me to pack it away. They will be back; part of the idea was to establish a ‘baseline’ Marathon to see what the effects of adding extra Persian foot to their army would be. Sabin suggests that the number of Persian horse and the orientation to the coast are less important factors in the outcomes than Persian infantry numbers. Now I have some extras I intend to give it a go. But I need to establish a proper basis first.

The problem for the Persians is that the archery fire is not terribly effective against the Greeks, and the Greeks advancing into contact can be terrifically destructive against them. There is only a factor or one between the two, but advancing into contact gives one extra, and being two deep gives another. If the Greeks get into range and then win the initiative, the Persians only get one opportunity to shoot anyway, which seems to model the Greek ‘charge into contact’ Herodotus reports quite nicely.

Anyway, Marathon is a nice and easy quick battle to set up and play, so I will have another go sometime soon.

Saturday, 14 August 2021

Assorted English Civil Wars

This book:

Dunn, D. (Ed.) (2000). War and Society in Medieval and Early Modern Britain. Liverpool: Liverpool University.

has been on my shelf for quite a long time. I guess it arrived before my lengthy sojourn in the ancients period, and part of it, I suspect, remained unread until recently. My supposition is that I got it for the last essay or two, which are on the English Civil Wars (a misnomer, of course) of the Seventeenth Century. Earlier chapters cover the Anarchy (under Stephen and/or Matilda) and the Wars of the Roses (misnomers abound, of course), with an outlier on the falling out between Sir John Fastalf and Lord Talbot over the former’s activities at Patay, in the Hundred Years War (further misnomers apply).

The first two chapters are intriguing, the first discusses how wars were reported in the Middle Ages. The fact is that the reportage changed during the period. In the early part, say from the Norman Conquest until around 1400 – 1450, wars were reported by chroniclers, mainly in monastic houses. Some of them might have had military experience before becoming a monk, but most did not and so the reports are partly fanciful. Further, if you compare the reports of say, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for battles before the Normans arrived and those of say William of Poitiers (who, to be fair, was a military man) you get very different accounts (or rather, in the case of ASC, not much of an account at all).

After 1400 or so, there is an increase in secular accounts – letter, diaries and so on. The raising of forces is also recorded, in some cases detailed records are available. Propaganda is also extant, even before printing arrived; proclamations by assorted royals and rebels, declarations and so on. You also get a few bits in Parliament and courts (as with Fastolf and Talbot). That does not mean we have a huge quantity of data available, but we do have more than for, say, before 1000.

The second essay is on how battlefields got their names. This is kind of interesting as well. For example, The Battle of the Standard is a bit of an outlier name-wise. Most battles, as I am sure you will know, arise from geographical features – villages and towns, nearby. But how did a battle just north of Northallerton obtain the name of ‘the Standard’? Alternatives to topographic (e.g. Bannockburn) are toponymic (e.g. Tewkesbury). Other ideas might relate to the chronology of the battle – Palm Sunday Field refers to Towton.

The third category is ‘iconic’, making a political, cultural or religious point. The Standard is in this camp, as is The Battle of the Herrings – Fastolf was protecting a convoy of Lenten victuals when he won at Rouvray. Mortimer’s Cross and Neville’s Cross are actually mixes of the name of the commander (Edward Mortimer, Earl of March, and Sir Ralph and Sir John Neville respectively). Iconic names, as the author points out, might decay faster than toponymic or topographic names. Palm Sunday Field is not widespread at least in later accounts; it becomes Towton.

Three essays cover the Anarchy of Stephen’s reign, one on the role of bishops and other ecclesiastics in negotiating peace during the period. The bishops and abots were major landowners as well, remember, and also got fed up with constant pillaging and bloodshed. They also had more of a concern for the peasants, both as ecclesiastical landowners and as Christian leaders in a (putatively) Christian land. There is also an essay on Stephen’s appointment of Earls, and why these did not last into the next reign. This is mainly due to the relativel weakness of the crown. The third Anarchy essay focusses on ‘foreign’ troops, by which Matthew Bennett means Welsh, Scottish and Flemings. These were mostly viewed as barbarians, although they were of course useful barbarians.

I have mentioned Fastolf and Tablot’s argument over whether Fastolf displayed cowardice at Patay and left Talbot to be taken prisoner. Fastolf’s defence, that there was nothing left for him to do except to rescue what he could from the debacle seems, eventually, to have won the day, but the dispute lasted about 20 years and involved the Order of the Garter as some sort of court.

One of the more interesting essays is about Henry VI’s queen, Margaret of Anjou and how she was involved in the Wars of the Roses, basically keeping the Lancastrian cause alive when her husband was away with the fairies. As with the essay about Fastolf and Talbot, a lot of the blame for our perceptions lies with Shakespeare. He portray Fastolf as a drunken buffoon, of course, while Margaret is portrayed as a militant, cruel and vindictive person, barely a woman at all. That is a bit unfair (or, more likely, a lot unfair). The role of queens in the medieval period is examined, and a few comparisons are possible. Isabella of France, for example, was instrumental in overthrowing her husband Edward II. Queens were expected in intervene for the church, the poor, and so on; the Biblical model is Queen Ester, in the book of that name.

There are interesting comparisons between Matilda, Empress of Germany and aspirant to the English throne, and Matilda, wife of Stephen. The former is arrogant and unwomanly for taking leadership of her own cause when Stephen was captured at Lincoln. The latter praised for leading her husband’s cause on the same occasion. Margaret of course had a similar problem. Her husband was incapacitated and her son underage. She was the rallying point for the Lancastrians until the death of both King Henry VI and Prince Edmond in 1471. Her political career was ended.

The other essays are on the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, specifically about the representation of the Welsh in the London press (not positive) and the Montgomery in the Civil War. Hardly surprisingly there is a section on the battle itself, but more interesting is the impact of the conflict on the town itself. Aside from the taxation and the disruption of the actual battle, life proceeded pretty well as usual.

So, there you have it. An interesting set of essays, quite diverse and certainly worth a read, especially now I have found out something about the Anarchy.

Saturday, 7 August 2021

Stephen and the Anarchy

For someone who has sworn off buying an Anglo-Norman army, I am reading quite a lot about the period. You might have noticed. I doubt if many people in the general population share my interest, and also that few wargamers do. It is not as if there are too many refights of Clitheroe or Lincoln around (although I seem to recall the Heretical Wargamer did a Standard refight; actually, I think I wrote an article for Miniature Wargames many years ago about the Battle of the Standard).

Anyway, I have just finished another book on the period:

Peers, C. (2018). King Stephen and the Anarchy: Civil War and Military Tactics in Twelfth-Century Britain. Barnsley: Pen and Sword.

This is not a bad book, so I really do not want to criticse, but it is a bit of an odd book, or at least, it has a very strange bit in it.

One of the motive for the book, apparently, was to insert the Welsh and Scots into the narrative of the Anarchy. Most attention is focussed on the South and Midlands, which is understandable because that is where much of the action took place. But the Welsh and Scots were influential as well, as distractions at least and also as parts of armed forces. A work which puts these foreigners into the story, as players and not just hired hands or opportunist raiders is a good thing, in my view.

You can have a bit too much of a good thing, however, and Chater 12 of the book is, as I said, a bit odd, being a diversion into the succession and anarchy in the Orkney Islands. I imagine that it was included for the comparison with England, but it does sit a little uneasily with the rest of the text; I hope that it was not just padding.

The book proceeds in a more or less chronological order. I am not entirely sure as to whether it really is about either ‘civil war’ – there is some dispute, after all, as to whether the Anarchy was one – or military tactics. The obvious point is not made particularly strongly, that being that battles were risky (both Stephen and Robert of Gloucester were captured in action) and that castle defence had the ascendency over the offence in a siege. Thus the war was sporadic and largely changed little.

What did happen, of course, was that the kingdom started to fall apart. Once Stephen had spent Henry I’s treasury the war bogged down. Whether Stephen appointed earls to some of the counties as mere honorific titles to make the major Anglo-Norman families better disposed to him, or whether he saw it as a serious devolution of royal authority is not known (it was probably the former) but the effect was to make some of the earls, such as Ranulf of Chester and William of York semi-autonomous, at least, and beyond the royal watch, especially as the King was usually distracted by the activities of his cousin.

The result was that such earls could, and did, start using their positions to exploit their neighbours, obtain lands for their families and, as I have mentioned before, even form alliances with foreign powers (the Scots and the Welsh, of course). It is entirely unclear whether some of these magnates aimed for some sort of independence or not. Some would have seen their activities as carrying out the king’s wishes, whether stated or unstated; others would have said they acted in the interests of their people, or their families , or themselves.

The impact of the anarchy is unclear. There are various arguments one way or another. Mostly, aside from places in the direct line of the fighting – the Bristol – London belt, for example, little direct destruction is likely. The fact that the chroniclers complain about it might reflect destruction in general, or more local conditions where some landowners clashed and needed the money and supplies to fight back, or even the fact that there was an emerging view among the chroniclers (who were almost all religious, after all) that churches, abbeys and the like ought to be sacrosanct and the fact that they were not was outrageous. At this distance it is hard to tell.

As Peers points out in the Introduction, the Anarchy was not an anarchy in the usual sense. Law and order, in many places, persisted. Barons still issued and abided by terms of charters, albeit they issued them without reference to the king. Law and order did not break down. I suspect the major imapct of the Anarchy was the need to pay soldiers and keep them in supply. I further suspect that this, related to the desparate need for money and an unwillingness to get bogged down in sieges, was the main reason that Stephan, at least, got a reputation for starting something and not finishing it.

The Anarchy is an interesting period. As I noted last week, there are plenty of opportunities for a wargamer with a bit of imagination here. I suppose the down side is that reluctance of the two sides, indeed of armies in the period at all, to come to battle. There were few battles of any size – The Standard and Lincoln are the only ones mentioned – with possibilities of Clitheroe and Winchester (the rout, thereof). But that does not necessarily mean that the protagonists were unwilling to fight, just that they would only do so on their terms.

In the end, it seems, everyone got a bit fed up. When Henry of Anjou finally invaded and Stephen raised an army against him, the nobles on each side of the confrontation refused to fight. They miht have decided that they did not really want either to be the king, but it seems a bit more likely that some sort of stability was being demanded. The death of Stephen’s son Eustace cleared th way to a peace deal whereby Stephan would reign and be succeeded by Henry. The death of Ranulf of Chester also helped smooth the path. While Stephen’s younger son William could have disputed the throne, he chose not to when Stephen died in1154. Peace, of a sort, returned.