Longsword by David Pilling

Friday, 26 July 2013

Soldiers and warfare, Wars of the Roses-style...

....*warning*, this may not be for the faint-hearted.

To tie in with the release of 'Rebellion', Part Two of The White Hawk, I thought I would post something about the mechanics of combat during The Wars of the Roses. It can't help but make for a grisly read...

The Battle of Barnet - not half as much fun as it looks

Imagine you are a common or garden foot-soldier in one of the armies mustered by York and Lancaster to settle their differences on the battlefield. You are a youngish man, in your mid-twenties, and relatively healthy and well-nourished: it was in the interests of the nobility to ensure their fighting men were fit and well-fed. You are 'liveried and fee'd' i.e. you wear the arms of your lord on your coat (or possibly just a badge), and are paid a wage to fight for him.

It's a cold, wet morning. Mist lies heavy on the land. The enemy are just about visible as a mass of silhouetted banners and spear-points slowly moving in your direction. Their progress is accompanied by the steady pulse of drums, accompanied by squalling trumpets and the occasional toot of a pipe.

Are you feeling brave? Perhaps you did last night, when you were deep in your cups and boasting to your fellows of the heroic deeds you would perform in tomorrow's battle. Reality is somewhat different. The ale has worn off, leaving you with a cracking headache and a mouth that tastes like m'lord's charger has taken a dump inside it. Your limbs tremble. Your hands are slick with sweat.

A young soldier in the Middle Ages (a real one this time) summed up the feeling of pre-battle nerves thus:

"When we are in the tavern drinking strong wine, and the ladies pass and look at us with those white throats and tight bodices, those sparkling eyes resplendent with shining beauty; then nature urges us to have a desiring heart. Then we could overcome Yaumont and Agolant, and the others could conquer Oliver and Roland. But when we are on campaign on our trotting chargers, our bucklers around our necks and our lances lowered, and the great cold is congealing us together, and our limbs are crushed before and behind and our enemies are approaching us, then we could wish to be in a cellar so large that we might never be seen by any means..."

Sounds like fun, eh? The best is yet to come.

So, what are you, our trembling footsoldier, kitted out with? Assuming your lord could afford it, your body should be protected by a 'jack', a kind of tunic stuffed with tow. According to Dominic Mancini, writing in 1483, "...the softer the tunic the better do they withstand the blows of arrows and swords, and besides that in the summer they are lighter and in the winter more serviceable than iron."

That's about it for body armour: if you had a bit more cash, you might have been able to buy a brigandine (a tunic stitched with hundreds of steel plates), and various types of knee guards and armour for your legs and arms. But you're not, so you haven't. Your head is protected by a sallet, a popular form of open-faced helmet. You also have a pair of leather gauntlets, so whatever else happens at least you shouldn't suffer from any nasty splinters.

What about weapons? Well, your principal bit of killing gear is a bill, a sort of converted farm implement consisting of a long ash shaft (no snickering, please), hexagonal in shape to improve grip, about seven feet in length (I said NO SNICKERING), and topped off with a lethal combo of hook, spike and blade. The general idea is to whack your foe with the blade, trip him up with the hook, and then ram the spike into his essentials. That generally does the trick. He, of course, will be trying to do the same to you.

If you were a really lucky boy - which we have already established you're not - you might have a sword thrust into your belt. Instead your secondary weapon is a dagger with a long, slender blade, useful for thrusting into visors and vulnerable joints in armour.

It's starting to rain. Brilliant. Some beefy nobleman covered from head to toe in richly decorated steel shouts an order, and the line starts to tramp forward towards the enemy. You keep pace with the rest, your feet slipping on damp, uneven ground. Your limbs won't stop trembling. Your bowels are doing a jig. Your head is thumping, and your mouth is dry as dust. You are frightened, more frightened than you have ever been, and with good reason.

Have some

The enemy march into view through the mist. Both sides fight on foot, even the nobles, and form two dense lines, bristling with bills and halberds and other pole-arms. Men cheer and shout curses and war-cries as the lines slowly flow together. Many will shortly be crying for their mothers.

What follows is pretty much unimaginable, except perhaps to anyone who has been at the bottom of a rugby scrum. The front lines of both armies hack and thrust and stab at each other, attempting to punch gaps in the opposing line. A disabling blow to the face or leg is what's needed - if you can drive a spike through someone's teeth, or rip away their tendons or hamstring with a hook, great. Anyone who gets knocked over is most likely a goner, either bludgeoned to death by the enemy or trampled by his comrades. If you're really lucky, you might be able to crawl to the rear through a forest of legs.

Your world is a living hell of sweat and cramp and pain and muscle-ripping effort allied to visceral, eye-bulging terror. The sheer physical strength needed to wield your heavy bill is exhausting. The screams of wounded and dying friends rattle in your ears. The stench of excrement and urine and spilled guts fill your nostrils. All you can see is a tightly-bunched row of bodies and ghastly, contorted faces, most of them spitting hatred and abuse at you. They are doing their best to stick sharp metal things inside you. You are doing your best to prevent them and return the favour.

This happy meeting goes on for quite a while - hours, even, as the two sides slug it out in what can best be described as a gigantic shoving-match. Eventually one side will give way, either through exhaustion or some slight advantage gained by the enemy: an unexpected flank attack, perhaps. That's what did for the Lancastrians at Barnet.

Tired as you are, frightened as you are, you had best hold your ground and pray that your side are not the first to lose heart. If the men around you should fail, if their line starts to crumple and retreat, then the day is lost and you are almost certainly fated to a hideous death. The wounds on the skeletons of men recovered from the grave-pits near Towton bear stark testimony to the pitiless frenzy of killing that usually followed a battle.

So what happens to YOU next? Roll a ten-sided dice. If you roll 1-7, please turn to Page 56. If you roll 7-10, please turn to Page 73 - actually no, I'll stop there, this is turning into a Steve Jackson adventure gamebook...

The White Hawk (II) Rebellion

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Folville's Freebie

My novel, 'Folville's Law', published by Musa Publishing way back in November 2011, will be available as a free download from 27th-29th of this month. I'll post another reminder in a couple of days, but in the meantime here is a taste of the plot...

"England in 1326 is a land ruled by the corrupt and inept Edward II and his hated favourites, the Despensers. Threatened by invasion from Edward's estranged Queen, Isabella, and her lover Roger Mortimer, they turn to desperate measures to preserve their precarious hold on England. Caught up in the vicious game of war and politics is Sir John Swale, a landless Northern knight with a dark past, who in the course of serving his masters makes a lethal enemy in the shape of the ruthless outlaw, Eustace Folville..."

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Sunday, 21 July 2013

The White Hawk - Part Two!

Part II of The White Hawk, my Wars of the Roses saga, is now available.

It's a novella - about 40, 000 words - and so not as long as the first book: the historical events of the year 1469 that the story covers are very complex, with all manner of conspiracies and plots and counter-plots and rebellions, so I thought it best to divide the sequel into two sections. "Rebellion" covers the Battles of Edgecote and Lose-coat Field, and the endless machinations of the Earl of Warwick.

The Boltons are, of course, very much caught up in it all...read on to discover their fate!

The White Hawk (II): Rebellion

Thursday, 18 July 2013


My latest novel, "Nowhere Was There Peace", has just been unleashed by the lovely folks at Fireship Press! The ebook is now available, and the paperback will follow in just a few days. 

I love the cover (see above), a brooding image of a knight against a dark background: it really captures the mood of the story. Below is a summary of the plot:

"England, 1266 AD. Simon de Montfort is dead, butchered at the slaughter of Evesham, and England lies in ruins after years of civil war. Eager for revenge on his barons, King Henry III has disinherited all of de Montfort’s surviving followers.

The war is renewed as thousands of men are left with little choice but to snatch up their swords and fight to recover their stolen lands.

Hugh Franklin, a humble mason’s son from Southwark, is plunged into the eye of this storm when the Lord Edward, King Henry’s son and heir, recruits him as a government agent.

With the safety of his family at stake, Franklin must survive encounters with rebel knights, blood-hungry outlaws, and a beautiful Jewess as England crumbles in smoke and flame around him…"

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The Battle of Lewes, 1264

Today I'm going to talk about the famous Battle of Lewes, fought on the 14th of May 1264. The battle forms back of the backstory to my next book, Nowhere Was There Peace, shortly to be released by Fireship Press.

Much has been written about Lewes, but I want to concentrate on the fate of the unfortunate Londoners who supported Simon de Montfort against the army of King Henry III. Below is a rather good map of the battle and how it went down:

The causes of it are complex, but can be summarised thus: Henry III was something of an autocrat, and the favouritism he showed his wife's foreign relatives, refusal to compromise with his Barons and general political and military incompetence all came to a head in the 1260s. The French nobleman and Earl of Leicester, Simon de Montfort, put himself at the head of a coalition of baronial rebels. After much argument and grave wagging of beards, both sides started to gather armies in the spring of 1264.

The seal of Simon de Montfort (c.1208-1265)

By May the King's forces had arrived at Lewes in Sussex, where they camped to allow time for reinforcements to join them. Henry based his troops near Saint Pancras Priory, while his eldest son, the hard-nosed Lord Edward, commanded a force of mounted knights and men-at-arms at Lewes Castle, to the north of his father's position.

There had been no wars in England since the reign of King John, Henry's father, and the preparations for the battle seem to have been pretty messy, with both sides gathering men where they could. De Montfort only had about five thousand men, about half the number of the royalists. His army was split into four divisions: one led by himself (though he had broken his leg in an accident and had to lead from the back in a litter), one by his son Henry, another by Gilbert de Clare, and the fourth by Nicholas de Segrave.

This last division consisted of what might be fairly described as a rabble of volunteers, ill-armed London citizens who had flocked to join de Montfort's army. The King and his family were particularly unpopular in London, thanks to the severe taxes Henry imposed on the citizens and the perceived tyranny of his Queen, Eleanor of Provence, and her foreign relatives. Some time prior to the battle, the citizens had expressed their dislike of Eleanor by pelting her barge with mud and stones as it floated down the Thames. Her son Edward had never forgotten the insult dealt to his mother, and waited impatiently for his chance of revenge. At Lewes he got it.
Tomb of Henry III

Knowing that he was outnumbered, de Montfort tried to avoid a battle by opening negotiations with the King, who refused them. De Montfort responded by making a sudden night march from his camp at Fletching to Offam Hill, just a mile from Lewes. The royalists were surprised by this maneuver, and even more surprised when de Montfort launched a surprise attack in the early hours of the morning, attacking and routing a group of royalist troops sent out to forage for supplies.

The royal army now heaved into life. Edward moved the quickest, and led his knights in a charge straight at Segrave's Londoners, still performing an excellent impression of a hopeless rabble. Unsurprisingly, they broke and ran like rabbits before the onrushing steel-clad monsters on enormous horses, and were slaughtered as they ran. The merciless pursuit continued for several miles - Edward had allowed his savage temper and desire for revenge to get the better of him, and had left his father's left flank exposed.

Royalists and rebels get stuck into each other at the Battle of Lewes

In the absence of Edward's cavalry, the King was obliged to order his centre and right flank to advance up Uffham hill and engage the baronial forces waiting for them. Many of the royalist soldiers had no experience of warfare, and had to endure an arrow-storm as they struggled up the slope towards a line of dismounted knights and men-at-arms, all bristling with various killing tools.

Neither the King or his brother, the Earl of Cornwall, possessed much in the way of military ability. Cornwall's division was the first to crumple, his men succumbing to panic shortly after the first blows were exchanged and streaming back down the hillside. Henry's men stubbornly fought on for a while longer, but broke when they were attacked in flank and rear by de Montfort's reserves.

By now, Edward had managed to regather his knights and lead them back to the battlefield. There they witnessed the royalists in full retreat back to the castle and priory, closely harried and pursued by the rebels. Edward was all for launching a death-or-glory counterattack, but first tracked down his father, who persuaded him that it was better to surrender and accept de Montfort's terms. His uncle, the luckless Cornwall, was found hiding in a windmill and dragged out to taunts of "Come out, come out, you wicked miller!"

The verdict of battle was reversed in the most emphatic fashion at Evesham, over a year later, but the slaughter of the Londoners at Lewes is significant to my tale. One young stonemason's son in particular manages to escape from the field, slung over the back of a packhorse and bleeding from wounds inflicted by the swords of Edward's knights. Who is he? Wait for the book to find out...

Sunday, 7 July 2013

A hiatus and a preview...

I will be away for the next fortnight or so doing some freelance work on behalf of the National Trust, so this blog will probably be very quiet for a while.

Just to (hopefully) whet a few reading appetites while I'm away, I will sign off with a sneak preview of my next book. It is called "Nowhere Was There Peace" - a quote taken from Walter Bower's 15th century chronicle of the history of the British Isles - and will be published very soon by Fireship Press. Below is the mean and moody cover, which I really like.

Fireship are an up and coming press, dedicated exclusively to publishing historical fiction. They have been fantastic to work with and you can check out their website at the link below:

Fireship Press

And here is the full quote from Bower's text, just to give a flavour of the story...

“Moreover all those who supported Simon in that battle were outlawed and disinherited.  The greater part of the Disinherited infested the roads and streets and became robbers…a deadly struggle broke out between the king and the disinherited, in the course of which villages were burned, towns wrecked, whole stretches of land depopulated, churches pillaged, religious driven from their monasteries, clerics had money extorted from them and the common people were ruined. Nowhere was there peace, nowhere security.” 
Walter Bower, The Scotichronicon, p355 
...and that's it, for now! Be back soon :)

Monday, 1 July 2013

New covers...

"The White Hawk (I)" and "Caesar's Sword: The Red Death" have just acquired some smashing new covers...check 'em out!