Reiver by David Pilling

Friday, 19 May 2017

Medraut - the cover!

I've just received the new cover for Leader of Battles (V): Medraut and couldn't wait to show it off. Here she be! This will adorn the Kindle and paperback versions of the book, which is steadily galloping towards completion - a mid to late summer release date looks most likely.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Leader of Battles (V) - Medraut

Following my book on the wars of Edward I, I have now started work on the fifth (and last) installment of the Leader of Battles, my effort to retell the story of King Arthur set in the bloody, dirty and generally grim world of 5th century Britain. This last book is subtitled Medraut and tells the story of the famous traitor, better known as Sir Mordred, who brought about the final destruction of Arthur's kingdom. Medraut or Mordred has been depicted in many previous versions of this very old story. Mary Stewart recast him as a sort of misunderstood hero, driven by fate, and there is an element of this in my version of the character. On screen he was memorably played by the late Robert Addie in John Boorman's 1981 film Excalibur; here Mordred was the bastard son of Arthur's unwitting incest with his half-sister, Morgana, and played as a perverted angel in golden armour/fetish gear.

Mordred owes much of his villainous reputation to later French and Breton romancers. In the early Welsh chronicles he isn't necessarily Arthur's enemy, and his exact relationship to the king is unclear. In some versions he is Arthur's bastard son, in others his nephew. The earliest known reference to him, from a 9th or 10th century entry in the Annales Cambriae (Annals of Wales), doesn't mention any blood-connection between the two men at all:

'The strife of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut perished, and there was plague in Britain and Ireland.'

From this all we can gather is that Arthur and Medraut were thought to have died together at the final battle or 'strife' of Camlann, implying some internal war among the Britons. At the same time a plague was raging in Britain and Ireland. This brief line in the AC forms the basis for my version of the downfall of Arthur, played out amid the mud, carnage and disease of his decaying kingdom...

Monday, 3 April 2017

The Leopard strikes!

I've been very slack with updates for this blog recently - various writing projects and social media groups have kept me busy! Today I can announce that the Kindle version of my first effort at non-fiction  is released - THE WARS OF EDWARD I (I): THE LEOPARD 1255-74. As the title implies, the book focuses on the military campaigns of the young Edward I of England (reigned 1272-1307), and is the first of a three-part study. Later books will focus on his wars in Wales, Flanders and Scotland. 

The altogether fab and groovy cover was painted by Matthew Ryan, historical illustrator extraordinaire! I'll announce the paperback version when it is ready for publication.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

This is my review of 'Medieval Battles 1097 to 1295' by Paul Martin Remfry. Paul is a fine writer and historian and his books deserve to reach wider notice. Link to the product on Amazon at the end. 


A review by David Pilling This is a comprehensive study of mainly Anglo-Welsh military campaigns between 1047 and 1095 (though it actually ends with the campaign of Edmund of Cornwall against Rhys ap Maredudd in 1287). The author has done an extraordinary job of accessing and translating most of the available primary sources for each campaign; these include chronicle entries, muster rolls, payrolls, detailed records for army supply and logistics (etc). By relying on primary material instead of second or third-hand information - as every responsible historian should - Remfry provides as realistic and accurate a picture of events as the sources allow.

The first half of the book focuses on different aspects of warfare in this period: changing fashions in armour and weaponry, the importance of siege tactics and engineers, mercenaries, trade, tactics and pay, naval transport and fleets, casualties and battle cairns, treatment of wounds, the difficulties of raising armies and maintaining them in the field. There is also an interesting analysis of knightly effigies, royal and baronial seals and what they can tell us about styles of equipment and battle-gear. The sheer depth of Remfry's knowledge provides a well of useful information. For example his complete translation of the account of Edward I's war in Flanders in 1297, from the Chronicle of Bury St Edmunds, was invaluable for my own research.

In the second half Remfry switches to analysis of separate campaigns in Wales, starting with Henry II's march to Corwen in September 1165 and ending in the war of Rhys ap Maredudd in 1287. Again his research is pinpoint, and the use of primary evidence spot-on. Unlike many who write of this era of Anglo-Welsh history, Remfry has no axe to grind, grants zero concession to irrelevant modern sensibilities, displays zero favouritism towards English kings or Welsh princes. Those who lean towards fantasy and romance should give this book a wide berth. The author deals in reality, not prejudice.

Stripped of modern accretion, Henry II's campaign of 1165 is revealed as a partial success, though his strategy was dubious and he made little headway against appalling weather and determined Welsh resistance. However the campaign stabilised the crown’s interests in Powys for a generation, and reinforced a permanent English military presence in the North Shropshire plains. I was surprised to learn how many Welsh mercenaries the king recruited for his later campaigns in France, a practice continued by his successor, Richard I. One French chronicler provides a terrifying account of the savagery of Richard's Welsh troops, and the widespread damage and loss of life they caused. In the end, the threat posed by the Welsh was so acute the French army trapped three and half thousand of them in a valley at Les Andleys and massacred the lot.

Remfry skips over King John and moves on to the Welsh wars of Henry III. Much of this will make gruesome reading for Henry's admirers. No amount of hopeful revisionism or baronial discord can excuse the king's dismal failure to adequately supply his armies in Wales, a mistake he repeated time and again: Ceri in 1228, Painscastle in 1231, Deganwy in 1245 and his final Welsh campaign in 1257. That said, from a Welsh perspective Henry was a persistent opponent, with a habit of bouncing back from his defeats. Llywelyn ab Iorweth repelled most of Henry's badly planned and supported invasions, but after Llywelyn's demise the situation changed. In the mid-1240s, via sheer persistent hammering, Henry managed to reduce the princes of Gwynedd to some level of obedience. This enforced settlement only lasted a few years before the rise of Llywellyn ap Gruffudd saw the English hegemony in Wales virtually swept away by the early 1260s. By now, Henry and his hard-nosed son, the Lord Edward, were embroiled in domestic conflicts and could do little to remedy the situation.

The final section concentrates on the wars of Edward I against Llywellyn. These could reasonably be viewed as the climatic episodes of a conflict stretching back decades, perhaps even centuries. Scholars are moving away from interpreting Edward merely as a king who reversed his father's mistakes, but in one respect the old comparison holds true. Edward's preparations for war suggest he harboured nightmares of previous failures in Wales: hapless English armies dying on their feet through lack of food, their supply lines strangled, their soldiers harried and slaughtered by constant Welsh ambushes.

The statistics are almost beyond belief. In July 1257 Henry III collected the following supplies for his army: 600 quarters (38,400 gallons) of wheat, 400 (25,600 gallons) of oats, 600 fat oxen and cows, 800 salmon, 2000 congers, 6000 hake, 200 tuns (51,200 gallons) of wine. In 1282, by contrast, the English supply centre at Chester alone contained 1,472,000 gallons of grain and 1,689,000 gallons of wine, while for his 1297 campaign in Flanders Edward called for an enormous 6.4 million gallons of grain (for an army of barely 9000 men!). The conclusions to be drawn from these stats are unavoidable. Henry III barely supplied his men with enough food to keep them in the field for the requisite forty days of feudal service. Edward I supplied enough to keep them in chronic indigestion for months at a time.

In summary, anyone interested in the hard realities of 12th and 13th century warfare, with an emphasis on Wales, should get this book. The evidence presented is tilted towards the English side, but this is inevitable due to the nature of the surviving evidence. The records of the English military machine for the mid-to-late 13th century are fairly comprehensive, while little survives for the Welsh save chroni cle references and reasonable supposition. As an example, the most useful indicators for the size of the armies of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in the 1260s are taken from English correspondence.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

The following is my review of 'The Killing of Prince Llywelyn of Wales' by Paul Martin Remfry. The book is a bit pricey, but the most exhaustive and valuable study yet of the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Wales, in December 1282.

The first half of the book acts as build-up to the main event. The career of all the main players - Llywelyn, Edward I, John Pecham etc - is discussed, as well as every relevant Marcher and Welsh lord. The correspondence between Llywelyn, Edward and Pecham is given in full, and the religious nature of the final war of 1282 explained. This last is important, as it was one of the defining features of the war and something a modern, largely secular audience might neglect.

I'll cut the cackle and get to Cilmeri. Unless stated otherwise, the opinions expressed below are the author's rather than mine. Every single known medieval source for Llywelyn's death is listed and discussed in turn. Remfry sorts these into Early Primary/Secondary Primary/Secondary/Later. I've never read the sources in their proper date order and context before. The results are illuminating.

 The Early Primary consists of 12 sources, all written soon after Cilmeri, within months at most. Only 2 are Welsh: Aberconwy and the Annales Cambriae. Aberconwy is a likely 14th century copy of an original account dated before June 1283. It says that Llywelyn was 'captured and killed by Edmund Mortimer by a conceived deceit'. The Annales merely says Llywelyn was killed. 6 of the 10 English sources explicitly name Edmund as responsible.

Pecham's letters enforce Edmund's guilt. Edmund is described as in possession of the items found on Llywelyn's body after he was killed. Pecham's first letter to the king practically describes the method of death. Llywelyn had time to talk to his captors before he was killed. He asked for a priest and a white monk sang Mass to him. He was then beheaded in the presence of Edmund's valets, apparently out of their master's earshot; Pecham says they had to inform Edmund of Llywelyn's last requests. Thus Llywelyn was killed much as depicted in the famous drawing (attached). This picture appears in the margin of The Chronicle of Rochester Cathedral Priory, in a section dating 20-40 years after Cilmeri. It seems the manner of Llywelyn's death was no secret. Lured to a meeting, captured, shriven, beheaded. An almost formal execution/murder/assassination (delete according to taste).

Regarding the fate of his army. One of the English Primary sources (Dunstable) says that the prince was killed along with three of his magnates, up to 2000 of his infantry and not many of the cavalry. Dunstable Priory was under feudal obligation to send troops to fight in Wales, especially to the command at Montgomery. Hence the scribes took a great interest in Welsh affairs, military in particular, and this version may well be transcribed from the eyewitness account of a returning soldier.

Of the Secondary Primary, Remfry identifies the Peterborough account as the most valuable. Peterborough Abbey was also required to send money and men for the Welsh wars. This account was written c.1295 and is the first to provide a full list of the Marchers present at Cilmeri. It also provides casualty figures, though the 'Chinese Whispers' process means that by this time the number of Welsh dead had swollen to 3000 and all of the cavalry slain.

Peterborough is also the first to say that no English were killed. This is the basis for the recent theory that Llywelyn's men were all murdered under truce. The real problem here is the lack of a payroll for the English army; a comparison (my opinion) could fairly be made with the Hagnaby account for the Battle of Maes Moydog in 1295, which claims only 6 English were killed. The payroll for this battle does survive and shows that in fact 91 English lost their lives. In any case none of the earliest accounts claim that all of Llywelyn's men were slain.

Guisborough, the most oft-quoted source for Cilmeri, is bracketed among Secondary Primary. Remfry takes an axe to Guisborough, pointing out - quite correctly - the author's unreliability. His account of the history of England from 1066 onward is a tissue of errors, and hence his description of Cilmeri cannot be trusted. It's a fair point, though Remfry is perhaps a little too quick to sweep aside Helias Walwyn and Stephen de Frankton. At the time of writing he wasn't in possession of all the evidence for either, something I hope to discuss with him.

Remfry also has little time for the Hagnaby source favoured by J Beverly-Smith. The date given in the source is wrong (1283) and the idea that the Prince of Wales would be unidentifiable until he called out his name ludicrous. In addition, Hagnaby describes Llywelyn being killed after his army was defeated, while all the other sources put it the other way round.

The author's conclusion agrees with mine. Llywelyn was lured to his death and executed/murdered by the Mortimer brothers at dusk on 10th December 1282. Early on the morning of the 11th his army was ambushed by the forces of Roger Lestrange and worsted - or 'discomfited', to quote Lestrange - though half to two-thirds of Llywelyn's men got away.

Away from Cilmeri, Remfry makes the interesting suggestion that Roger Mortimer the elder (died October 1282) was in cahoots with Llywelyn and secretly passing supplies to Welsh forces. On closer inspection, this idea falls down a bit: the Welsh Rolls show that the problem of English merchants trading with the Welsh was a wide-ranging one, and Edward was frequently obliged to forbid the practice. Mortimer's excellent record of past service to the king would also argue against it.

It may well be that Mortimer had some pretension to the title of Prince of Wales. He had a decent blood claim, though far from the only one. Edward's failure to reward his son Edmund for killing Llywelyn also seems inexplicable. Remfry suggests the king was unhappy over the dishonourable nature of Llywelyn's killing, though this seems unlikely for the man who organised a death-squad at the Battle of Evesham. Remfry's other suggestion, that Edward was alarmed at Mortimer methods and could see himself going the same way as Llywelyn, is more convincing.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Medieval IV: Ring of Steel

So I swapped my writer's hat for the one marked 'critic' and posted a short review of Medieval IV: Ring of Steel by Kevin Ashman. This was an interesting effort to write a series of novels based on the revolt of Madog ap Llywelyn in 1295-5. It wasn't quite my thing, but the author can certainly write and others may like to give it a whirl:

'An easy read, and the author has a flowing prose style and good grasp of how to write battles and adventure fiction. Ashman is clearly a Welsh patriot and at times his patriotism shines through a little too brightly: his hero, Madog ap Llywelyn, is forever giving chest-thumping speeches that might have come straight from the mouth of Gwynfor Evans, John Davies or one of the angrier members of Plaid Cymru. The word 'nationalism' is often touted in the text, a term alien to the late 13th century.
Otherwise the story is reasonably accurate, though overtaken by more recent research. Ashman sticks with the traditional account of the Battle of Maes Moydog, supposedly won by the Earl of Warwick's clever mingling of archers with cavalry. In fact the muster rolls show that his army only contained 13 crossbowmen and archers, and the army itself was not large: no more than 2500 men, mainly from Shropshire. Madog's army was defeated, however, and suffered the loss of 700 men. Most of these were probably killed in the rout.
As someone with a deep interest in Edward I - Longshanks - and his reign, I was slightly disappointed with Ashman's depiction of the king. His Longshanks makes for a fairly bland villain, not much more than a one-dimensional bogeyman for proud (and loud) patriots to hurl insults at. Little is made of Edward's reckless dash from Conwy to Nefyn, an unnecessary and apparently suicidal foray that still baffles historians. The depiction of the Welsh attack on Conwy Castle is overcooked and places Edward in far more danger than was the case. Madog's army had no artillery or siege equipment and the castle was well-supplied by sea. The inclusion of the English raid on the Welsh camp, a little-known incident described in the Hagnaby chronicle, is a nice touch.
Madog himself, leader of the Welsh revolt, is painted in equally broad strokes. The author's desire to bring Welsh historical figures to wider notice is commendable, but Madog is basically Mel Gibson's William Wallace come again, albeit in chainmail instead of a kilt. He makes speeches (in fairness, the real man was said to be an effective speaker), slaughters hapless English soldiers by the score, and is generally wonderful and charismatic and heroic. Perhaps Madog was all these things, but a little nuance wouldn't go amiss. No mention is made (unless I missed it) of the awkward fact that his son, Maredudd, entered the service of Edward's personal Welsh bodyguard - the Wallenses Regis or King's Welshmen - and later rose to be a king's esquire under Edward II.
All in all, a good adventure read and nice introduction to a little-known (outside Wales) period of Welsh history, but a somewhat loose and biased interpretation of events.'

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Henry III: the Son of Magna Carta

Recently I was asked to write a review of a new book on Henry III of England - 'Henry III; the Son of Magna Carta', written by Matthew Lewis and published by Amberley. Below is my review and a link to the book on Amazon.

Henry III: the Son of Magna Carta 

Matthew Lewis’ new biography of Henry III of England seeks to fill, as the author puts it, ‘a huge, gaping hole in our understanding of medieval England’. Henry, he contends, has been dismissed in the past as a boring king, much overshadowed by the domineering personalities of his reign - Simon de Montfort, Hubert de Burgh, William Marshal, Prince Edward etc. This book is an effort to draw Henry out of the shadows and realign him as a ‘father of nations’.

Lewis follows a similar approach to Marc Morris’ treatment of Edward I i.e. he starts at the beginning and ploughs straight through to the end. This strictly linear narrative makes for a more easily digestible read, especially for non-experts. Some context is provided by a short prologue describing the death of Henry II in 1189 and the reigns of Richard I and John. This section could have perhaps been a little longer, since Henry III’s life and reign was so dominated by problems inherited from his forebears. However, at just 253 pages to cover a reign lasting 56 years Lewis can’t afford to get bogged down. The reader is very quickly pitched into the turmoil of 1216, with King John newly dead - poisoned, possibly - and England lost to the chaos and disorder of civil war. Prince Louis, son of Philip Augustus, had invaded with the intention of making himself King of England. Many of the English barons had rallied to his cause, and the prospects of John’s heir, the nine-year old Henry, looked bleak. Lewis’ account of the war that followed, and the prominent role played by the aged William Marshall, is brisk and exciting. Happily, he also gives long overdue credit to one William of Cassingham, an obscure country esquire who organised crucial guerilla resistance in the Weald forest against the invading French.

Throughout Lewis keeps the spotlight on Henry in an effort to weigh up the king’s personality. This is no easy task. Henry’s conduct was often baffling, and like most of the Angevins his character defies any glib summary. He seems to have had a dry sense of humour, highlighted by two anecdotes quoted in the book. Once, on the return journey from a distastrous campaign in France, Henry was cheerful enough to play an extended practical joke on a servant. At another time, he was confronted by four clergymen who angrily demanded the king should cease to promote men above their natural station in life. Henry pretended to agree, and then casually remarked he had better strip all four men of their office, since they themselves had been raised from nothing. Apart from his wry humour, Henry was also a devoted family man, with demonstrably close relationships with his wife, brother and eldest son.

Balanced against these pleasant traits are Henry’s explosive temper - typical Angevin - and a marked lack of sensitivity and judgement. His shabby treatment of Hubert de Burgh and the sons of William Marshal suggest a streak of ingratitude, perhaps envy. The story of de Burgh’s downfall makes for unpleasant reading: he was effectively framed on nine exaggerated charges of corruption, then imprisoned and subjected to at least one savage punishment beating. He was later released and permitted to live out his days in quiet retirement, a happier fate than many former royal favourites, but his calculated destruction was not Henry’s finest hour. Nor does his hostility towards the younger Marshals, Gilbert and Richard, do him much credit. 

Lewis makes the point that Henry was trapped in a uniquely awkward situation. His father had sold England to the papacy, which made the Pope Henry’s feudal overlord. From the earliest days of the reign, Henry’s actions were constantly criticised and hamstrung by the meddling of successive popes, who regarded England as their treasure chest and the king their puppet. No other king had to submit to such outside interference. For instance, the firm action Henry took against Fawkes de Breauté, a foreign mercenary who had outstayed his welcome in England, was met with an angry rebuke from the Vatican. Throughout the reign England was plagued with a constant stream of greedy papal legates, who came to milk cash to fund new crusades. Their arrogant demands were met with outrage from English barons and prelates, while Henry was stuck haplessly in the middle, unable to mollify one party or the other. In other respects, Henry was often the architect of his own downfall. He repeatedly infuriated his barons by inviting a constant stream of foreigners to his court (many of them his Savoyard in-laws) and granting them rich manors and benefices. The king appeared to be incapable of appreciating the resentment this caused, even when the consequences threatened the peace of his realm. Lewis briefly mentions the revolt of Robert de Thweng, a Yorkshire knight, in the late 1220s, as an example of the popular unrest caused by Henry’s short-sightedness. Not enough is made of this, a serious revolt against the imposition of Italian clergymen into English church benefices, and an early example of aggressive English self-identity from a baron of Norman descent. Again, this may be down to lack of space.

The author is slightly less than fair in his judgement of Henry’s military capacity. Henry has traditionally been depicted as a poor soldier - his DNB entry claims he had no military talent whatsoever - and a limp contrast to his more able son, Edward I. In fact Henry’s military performance was as wildly erratic as the rest of his career. He performed spectacularly badly on the French campaign of 1240-1, where his defeat at Taillebourg recalled the worst personal failures of King John. At other times he did show ability. He was initially successful in Poitou in 1230, won a notable victory in Gascony in 1253, and up until the 1250s campaigned with reasonable effectiveness in Wales. At Northampton in 1264 he won a signal victory over the rebel barons under Simon de Montfort the Younger. Lewis gives the credit for this victory to Edward, which is inaccurate: R.F. Treharne’s detailed analysis of the battle clearly describes the King’s presence at Northampton, and the unfurling of the royal banner. At the Battle of Lewes Henry fought in the front rank of his army and had two horses killed under him, a remarkable - if unsuccessful - display of personal bravery for a man in his mid-50s, quite elderly for the time.

One of the best aspects of this book is Lewis’ account of Simon de Montfort, the Earl of Leicester who led a serious rebellion against Henry in the 1260s. After his death Simon was regarded by many as a saint, and in recent years this image has been resurrected in certain popular novels. Lewis has no truck with Saint Simon, and instead portrays the Earl as an ambitious, austere and unusually bigoted man who deliberately whipped up violent anti-Semitism in London in order to bolster popular support. As a soldier he was certainly competent, but not the genius often portrayed: Lewis highlights Simon’s multiple failures in Gascony, where his brutality and insensitivity to Gascon concerns threatened to destroy English authority in the region. Henry’s rage and disappointment at Simon’s calamitous performance, eloquently recounted by Lewis, were for once understandable. The greedy and selfish behaviour of Simon’s sons - one, Henry, was nicknamed ‘the woolcarder’ after his illegal seizure of English wool reserves - is also neatly described.

Lewis certainly succeeds in demonstrating that Henry and his reign were far from boring. I’m less convinced that Henry deserves to be remembered as a ‘father of nations’, largely because the author’s meaning escaped me. Perhaps, as Lewis suggests, the king did act as a ‘bridge between chaos and union’, but Henry would not have perceived himself as any kind of bridge or national parent figure. For me his kingship recalls RR Davies’ summary of Edward I:

“As to his power and status within Britain we need not assume that his attitude was unchanging, cynical, or conspiratorial. Like most men of power he was the servant of circumstances and, when he could be, the master of opportunities.”

In the end, for all his failures and misjudgements, it is difficult not to feel some sympathy for Henry III. Lewis’ biography suggests to me no underrated nation-builder, but a moderately intelligent man of limited ability, utterly convinced of the divine superiority of his royal status. In other words, an ordinary man conditioned to believe he was a great one. Like his father and son, Henry was imbued with a grim determination to cling onto absolute power by any means possible. At times this determination was an asset, at others a curse. Despite being essentially inadequate for his role, Henry clung on like a limpet, year after year, decade after decade, until he finally died in an agony of bodily pain and pious self-reproach.

As I read through this book, the sheer grinding horror of being born into such a position, with no way out save death, gradually became apparent. To quote Oscar de Vill - a descendent of John de Eyvil, another of the baronial rebels who made Henry’s life a misery:

“I have sometimes wondered whether, in writing our history, we allow for the awful demands of top jobs…all day, every day, for years on end. Henry III has been heavily criticised, understandably, in that he did not shine in hard politics, or waging war. But he seems to have been a decent man, an idealist even, in a lonely job at a difficult time. It is sobering to think he had already been on the throne for thirty years at the time of the Provisions, six years before Simon de Montfort struck for power.”

Overall, in spite of a few quibbling reservations, I would highly recommend Henry III: the Son of Magna Carta. The book is a fine example of ‘popular history’ rather than dry academic analysis, and a useful and eloquently written general overview of a long, complex reign. Newcomers to Henry III and his times should glean much from it.