Leader of Battles (V): Medraut by David Pilling

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

The cowardice (or not) of Henry Tudor

I'm a few days late with this, since the anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth was on August 22nd, but I want to talk about something that I regard as a modern popular misconception, and an interesting example of the effect of romantic fiction and wishful thinking.


King Henry VII - no coward he

Henry Tudor, later King Henry VII (1485-1509), is often charged these days with what a modern general would term cowardice in the face of the enemy. During the final climactic moments at Bosworth, when Richard III and his household knights were galloping directly at Henry and his bodyguard in a last-ditch effort to kill the pretender and end the battle, he is said to have cowered behind his men until the Stanleys arrived to save his bacon. Richard, as the chronicler Polydore Vergil put it, 'was killed fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies'. As the recent discovery of Richard's remains under the famous Leicestershire car park has proved, the last Plantagenet certainly suffered an extremely painful death on the field.

I can already hear the distant rumble of Ricardian cannon, so let me state clearly that my intent is not to denigrate Richard in any way (God forbid), or whitewash Henry. I'm fully aware that Henry had a cold and ruthless aspect to his personality, and that he did some dark, devious things to cling onto the throne he had won in such spectacularly unlikely fashion. But cling on to it he did, and left England a more peaceful and prosperous country than he found it.

Put simply, there is no reference to his cowardice in any of the handful of contemporary or near-contemporary sources that describe the battle. Quite the reverse. Polydore Vergil, in the same account in which he describes Richard's heroic demise, says the following:

"Henry perceived King Richard come upon him, and because all his hope was then in valiancy of arms, he received him with great courage...Henry abode the brunt far longer than his own soldiers would have weened (thought possible)..."

There are also fragments of a letter written by an archer who actually fought at the battle and helped to repel Richard's final charge. The archer, who was one of Henry's French mercenaries and bore the fabulous name of Colinet Leboeuf, describes Richard as shouting "These French traitors are today the cause of our realm's ruin" in his last moments. The letter also says of Henry:

"He wanted to be on foot in the midst of us (the French) and in part was the reason why the battle was won."

In other words, Henry tried to put himself among his bodyguard instead of behind them, and his brave show was partially the reason why they stood their ground long enough for the Stanleys to come to the rescue. This version accords with Vergil's, and you can imagine the thin line of footmen, supported by a few mounted knights (including William Brandon, who was killed by Richard in single combat) waiting with their hearts in their mouths as the grim tide of Yorkist steel and coat-armour rolled towards them.

So where did the popular notion of Henry's yellow streak come from? In part, perhaps, from his own slightly shady behaviour when he was king: the backdating of his reign, allowing him to attaint those who had fought for Richard at Bosworth, was a sly act, and the trial and execution of poor Edward, Earl of Warwick and last of the direct male Plantagenet line, was pretty much a put-up job instigated by the king.  

More significant (in my view) is the influence of historical fiction. As an aspiring writer myself, I can appreciate the influence of powerful and emotive writing, and the last fifty years or so has witnessed a burst of novels written from a firmly pro-Richard III perspective. This includes works by Josephine Tey, Jean Plaidy, Sandra Worth and (perhaps most famously) Sharon Kay Penman and her excellent book "The Sunne in Splendour".

Here is the description of Bosworth, taken from Plaidy's "The Goldsmith's Wife":

"...Richard, his axe in his mailed fist, rode forward, straight towards that spot where, surrounded by a few supporters, Henry Tudor cowered in terror.
   Richard laughed in desperate relief. The day was not lost. Once Henry Tudor lay dead, all those who supported him would turn back to Richard. Stanley and Northumberland should go the way of all traitors.
   As for the Welshman, Richard could laugh - the crafty Welshman, cunning as a monkey, was timid as a mouse before the roar of the English lion..."

You get the idea. Apart from the bizzare image of Richard laughing hysterically as he rode to his doom, and the dubious monkey reference, Plaidy's sympathies are all too clear. Richard III is a knightly hero, and once you make a man a hero, you inevitably have to cast his enemy as a villain. A cowardly villain, of course. Josephine Tey's "Daughter of Time" is no less damning of Henry, and makes a great fuss of how 'shabby' a person he was, and the awful state of his teeth (though to be fair, they were apparently quite shocking).

None of this fluff, enjoyable as it is to read, has any obvious foundation in reality. Whatever you think of the first Tudor, no man who attempts an invasion with a ragbag army of mercenaries and exiles, and takes on an army twice to three times the size of his, led by a vastly more experienced general, can be labelled a coward. As a true-blue craven myself, I would have stayed in Brittany and looked for a good dentist.

I rest my case!

Blog hop winner!

I'm a bit late with this, thanks to life and its various distractions getting in the way, but MANDA SCOTT is the winner of a free copy of my novel, Caesar's Sword.

Well done, Manda, and a shiny new paperback will be heading your way very soon :) And thank you to everyone else who participated and contributed, it was a lot of fun!

....I was going to post a picture of a chocolate cake with 'Well Done' written on it, but Blogger has gone squiffy and won't let me. Boo :(

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Robyn Hode (I)



Hot on the heels of The Wonder of Rome blog hop, I have compiled and re-released the first part of my version of the legend of Robin Hood. 'Robyn Hode (I)' is a novella set during the lethal wilderness of northern England in the early 13th century, and now available on Amazon - see link and blurb below!

"Robyn Hode in Barnsdale stood..."

England, 1224 AD. The north of the country is wild and lawless, plagued by bands of outlaws and robbers and broken men. There is little justice and less order, and the King's officers struggle to impose their royal master's law. 

Book One of Robyn Hode tells the story of Robert Hode, a yeoman farmer and petty thief, forced to flee into the forests of Yorkshire after defending his home and family against the malice of Sir Gui de Gisburne. Hunted like an animal through the woods, he falls into the company of Hobbe of Wetherby, a notorious murderer and the most wanted felon in the north. Robert must rely on his all his courage and skill to survive and avoid ending as crowbait on the gallows.

Mingling fact with fiction, and drawing heavily on surviving contemporary records, "Robyn Hode" is a tough and unsqueamish tale and like no other version of the ancient legend.


Monday, 5 August 2013

The Wonder of Rome!


Welcome, Ave and Salutem to The Wonder of Rome blog hop! Myself and a whole legion (or cohort) of authors specialising in Roman-themed historical fiction have got together to write a series of posts on different aspects of the Roman Empire - all for the enjoyment of you, the lucky readers.

As you can imagine, the Empire is a pretty big topic, and the posts cover a very wide variety of subjects, so you won't get bored. The list of other participating authors is at the foot of this page - once you've read this you can 'hop' from one blog to the next.

Every author is also offering a free prize or giveaway: simply leave a comment below a post, and your name will be put into a lucky dip. The winner will be announced shortly after the hop ends on the 19th August. I am offering a free paperback copy of my novel, "Caesar's Sword."


Caesar's Sword is set during a later period of the Empire, after Rome itself had fallen and the centre of imperial rule had switched to the city of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). The story takes place during the reign of the Emperor Justinian I (reigned 527-65) and follows the adventures of an exiled British warrior as he joins the Roman army and finds himself fighting for his life in the Hippodrome and on bloody North African battlefields.

For the hop I have chosen to write about the bucelarii, an elite regiment of Roman horse-soldiers that played a crucial role in the wars of this era. 'Bucelarii' is the Latin plural of Bucellarius, and translates as 'biscuit-eater', after the hard tack that the soldiers ate. These elite troops play an important role in my novel, and were vital to the survival and expansion of the Empire in the sixth century.

The Roman army of Justinian's reign was a very different beast to the army of the 'classical' era (roughly 100 BC-250 AD) which was made up of the famous legions and their auxiliaries. By Justinian's reign the legions were long gone: the shrunken Empire could no longer afford to maintain such large bodies of men - a legion usually comprised some 6000 men - and the army was divided into much smaller squadrons of about 900 men each.

Nor were there a great many ethnic 'Romans' serving in this much-changed army. Italy, including Rome herself, had long since been conquered by the Goths and Ostrogoths. The Emperors that now ruled from Constantinople stuffed their armies with mercenaries drawn from all over their remaining territories: fierce Germanic warrior tribes such as the Huns and the Herulii were much in demand. The old legions had largely fought on foot, with a few cavalry as auxiliaries, but by 500 AD the cream of the Roman army was mounted. Ceaseless wars against barbarian tribes that relied on light cavalry and horse archers had forced the Romans to adapt their way of fighting.

So to the bucelarii. These men were recruited by powerful individuals, such as generals and governors, rather than the state. They fought as personal bodyguards and household troops, and were usually quite small in number, though could grow to several thousand during the many civil wars that wracked the Empire. They were often better trained and kitted out than regular troops, and paid a great deal better as well. Flavius Belisarius, possibly the last great Roman general and a star of Caesar's Sword, had a personal guard of about seven thousand bucelarii at the height of his fame and power.

Flavius Belisarius

Belisarius's master, the Emperor Justinian, dreamed of restoring the glory of the Western Empire. Belisarius was the officer he picked to make that dream reality. He had a problem in that his armies were vastly outnumbered by the peoples that had invaded and occupied the old Roman territories of Italy and North Africa. Tasked with the seemingly impossible job of reconquering these lands with just a few thousand men, Belisarius had to think of some way of evening the odds.

The Emperor Justinian I and his court

His plans centred on the bucelarii. He had set about training them in the 520s, when Justinian had dispatched him to deal with the hordes of Sassanid Persians that were threatening to overrun the Empire's eastern frontiers. To counter the Sassanid horse-archers Belisarius raised an elite corps of heavy cavalry, armed with bows and lances and intended to act as skirmishers as well as shock troops.

The bucelarii were loaded down with armour and weaponry. As well as the short compound bows and lances, they carried long, heavy broadswords called spathas and a number of feathered darts clipped to the inside of their shields. The darts were intended to be thrown at close quarters, an extra nasty surprise for anyone unfortunate enough to be facing them in combat. For protection they were long scale mail coats reaching to their thighs, a type of four-piece conical helmet called a spangenhelm, and small round shields strapped to their left arms.

It took a lot of drill to train men to handle all these weapons and control their horses at the same time. Belisarius's men were trained to use stirrups to support themselves in the saddle (stirrups were a relatively new invention at this time and took pressure off certain parts of the anatomy...) and to control their horses with their knees. The Romans had always been experts at stealing fighting techniques from others and improving on them, and Belisarius did the same with his bucelarii: their archery methods were copied from the Huns, and their method of tilting with the lance from the Goths.

One training exercise required a soldier to gallop directly at a stuffed dummy hanging from a gallows. He had to string his bow as he charged, shoot three times at the dummy and finally impale it with his lance or darts. Those dummies didn't know what had hit them! Rates of pay, rations and rank were decided according to the skill of individual riders, rather than noble status.

Properly trained, equipped and led, the bucelarii were ferociously effective. They first proved their worth at the Battle of Dara, where Belisarius routed a much larger Sassanid army. The battle lasted all day, and was finally decided by a charge of the bucelarii, which Belisarius had held in reserve until the crucial moment. When he was transferred to North Africa, to reconquer the Roman province that had been overrun by the Vandals, the bucelarii again played vital roles in his victories at Ad Decimum and Tricamarum. On his return to Constantinople, Belisarius was the first Roman general in centuries to be awarded a triumph, and marched through the streets of the city at the head of his seven thousand guards.

Belisarius went on to win further victories in the West over the Goths and Ostrogoths, reconquering much of Italy and recovering (for a time) the city of Rome itself. The bucelarii were central to all his victories, and formed the nucleus of the new Roman and later Byzantine military. Capable of matching the 'barbarian' nations in mobility and bettering them in terms of equipment and strategy, they played a vital role in preserving the Empire for centuries to come.

Below are the links to all the other participating authors on this blog hop. Enjoy!

Friday, 2 August 2013

The White Hawk flaps to Freedom


Part II of The White Hawk will be available as a FREE download - that's FREE, in block capitals - from tomorrow through to Monday the 5th August. Snaffle it up while you can :)

The White Hawk (II): Rebellion