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.

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