Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Killing and Clemency.

Five Hundred and ninety one years ago today An English army won one of it's most famous victories over the French at the battle of Agincourt (1415). The battle is remarkable for the very high number of prisoners that the English took - possibly they may have outnumbered the victors by a factor of ten to one.

Notoriously, the great majority of these prisoners were put to death on the orders of the English commander King Henry V. Nominally , this was caused by a late (but feeble) French attack on the English rear that resulted in the plunder of the English baggage train. Henry was reportedly panicked into thinking that he was being encircled. Furthermore there was probably an element of personal affront in that at least one of his crowns was stolen.

Viewed from both a purely moral standpoint and also through the lens of the prevailing climate of Chivalry towards one's high-standing peers , the killing of unarmed prisoners is indefensible. What's more Henry certainly had a hand in further questionable behaviour - he oversaw a massacre at the taking of Caen in 1417 and during the seige of Rouen he refused food to women and children expelled from the city and trapped between the seige-lines and the city walls. He also reportedly hung prisoners after such seiges.

The deployments during the battle : ( from )

Saturday, October 21, 2006

England expects ...

On this day ...

Two hundred and one years ago, the British Navy achieved it's most celebrated victory ... Trafalgar (1805). The image above shows the famous signal "England expects that every man will do his duty" flying from the masts of HMS Victory on the occasion of the battle's bicentennial celebrations. For an interesting article on the background to this signal follow this link :
England expects that every man will do his duty - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

It is arguable that the new clearer signalling system that the English employed at Trafalgar allowed their commander Lord Nelson greater flexibility to make last minute adjustments and ensure his revolutionary tactic of bisecting the enemy line was properly co-ordinated.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Danes, Deceit and Disaster

On this day...

Nine hundred and ninety years ago , an English army led by King Edmund (Ironside) was defeated by a Danish invasion force led by the Danish King Cnut at the battle of Ashingdon (1016). The battle is famous for the treachery of the English collaborator Eadric Streona who held back the right wing of the army , allowing the Danes to envelop Edmund's flank.

There are some striking similarities between this battle and the battle of Hastings , that occurred fifty years later almost to the day :

  • Many important members of the English nobility were killed in the fighting.
  • The victors went on to impose a foreign dynasty on the natives.
  • The English were hampered by the absence of an effective fleet with which to co-ordinate opposition to the invaders.
  • The invaders had good intelligence on the approach of the English army.
  • The invaders seized the initiative from the English at the last moment ( Both Cnut and William were able to manouver their force away from their base and avoid being pinned with their backs to their fleet).

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Scots stung by a blizzard of English arrows

Battle of Neville's Cross from a 15th century Froissart manuscript (BN MS Fr. 2643).

On this day ...

Six hundred and sixty years ago a large Scottish army of invasion commanded by King David II was decisively beaten at the battle of Neville's Cross near Durham (1346) by a hastily formed English force raised by William Zouche, the Archbishop of York and commanded by Lord Ralph Neville.

Apparently neither side was keen to go on the offensive but what tilted the balance was the attack by anything up to a thousand Lancastrian bowmen that forced the Scots to advance rather than face continued punishment. This meant the Scots traversing difficult terrain that disrupted their formation so badly they were easily dealt with by the English men at arms. King David suffered the indignity of being held prisoner in the Tower of London for eleven years until his ransom was finally paid in full.

The battle is notable for the following points :

  • It demonstrated the organisational resilience of the English war machine. England was able to mount a rapid response that took the Scots by surprise within 24 hours of the Scots encamping outside Durham.
  • What is even more impressive is that this response took place when the vast bulk of the English army was away in France, laying seige to Calais.
  • Furthermore , the two men who would otherwise have commanded an English response were also on the French Campaign - King Edward III and the Bishop of Durham.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Hastings - The Phantom Menace

On this Day ...

Nine hundred and forty years ago a combined Norman, French and Breton force defeated an Anglo-Scandinavian force in , arguably , the most famous battle to take place on British soil – Hastings. Whilst the result was devastatingly clear-cut, this battle seems to me at least, to have two strange features.

Firstly , for battles of the time , or indeed any but modern times , it had an extraordinarily long duration - around nine hours. Secondly, Hastings has entered the imagination as a battle between English infantry and Norman mounted knights – Norman infantry get scarcely a mention and indeed are all but invisible in the Bayeaux Tapestry.

For what it's worth I’d like to suggest that the first of these features – the unusually long duration of the battle – is actually a consequence of the second – the ‘absence’ of Norman infantry.

Here I am talking specifically about ‘heavy’ infantry – men whose armour included the full 30 pound metal hauberk , full-length metallic ‘kite’ shield or rounded metallic shield , Spangelhelm helmet and a heavy cutting, slashing or thrusting weapon suitable for close combat – i.e. a sword, dagger or battle-axe ( although the latter seems exclusively English ).

Almost without exception, accounts of other Norman military engagements stress the role played by mounted knights. This seems to be a reflection of Norman society. Each of the French Dukedoms / Counties could not compete with the wealth and manpower available to the English. What wealth there was was concentrated on a relatively few individuals who chose to invest in the full panoply of military hardware both for their own protection and as a status symbol – and what better way to ensure both of these than to fight on horseback ?

These individuals required retainers – squires to tend their horses and also a small personal bodyguard. By definition these retainers could not afford to finance all their own equipment – what they supplied was their loyalty. Is it not unlikely that in times of conflict these retainers formed an (inexpensive) force of archers and lightly-armed infantry (skirmishers) ?

Hand to hand combat is hard physical effort combined with high emotional stress. Such contests could not last long before both sides were physically exhausted – it has been estimated that they only lasted around 15 minutes before one or both sides retreated a few yards to recover before resuming the contest. Normally the whole confrontation would be over in around an hour , with one side breaking and being routed.

So why did the battle last so long ? I think it was because the Normans/French had no heavy infantry. They employed archers and skirmishers to run forward , fire a volley of arrows and javelins but not actually close with the English ranks. This was done repeatedly to disrupt the English formation by causing casualties before the main battle, and to tempt the opposing infantry into attacking prematurely. If they did so, the skirmishers engaged them in a melée supported by the cavalry ( this is an alternative interpretation of the ‘feigned retreats’).
This tactic was alternated with full cavalry charges (in their turn also supported by the skirmishers).

Whilst this approach gradually thinned the English ranks throughout the course of the day, it still required a climactic hand-to-hand contest at the very end. Here it seems likely that some of the Norman knights were fighting on foot as heavy infantry either by accident – they had been unhorsed - or by design as part of a ‘final push’.

Both sides faced a battle like no other they had experienced. The English had never faced large numbers of determined and skilled cavalry before and thus adopted a defensive densely packed formation ( which made sense) . The Normans were used to raids, chevauchée (terrorising) and sieges and approached the obstacle accordingly, using mobility and disruption.