Leader of Battles (V): Medraut by David Pilling

Monday, 27 April 2015

The Battle of Dunbar

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Dunbar, one of the lesser-known battles of the Scottish Wars of Independence. It was also the first pitched encounter between the English and Scottish forces, and the only battle to be fought in Edward I's invasion of 1296. It's a while since I 'celebrated' an anniversary on this blog, so thought I would give my take on it.

Clang, hack, slay...
First, some context. Edward's invasion of Scotland was the end result of years of haggling to and fro over the rightful claimant to the vacant Scottish throne, which ended in John Balliol being installed as King of Scots in return for acknowledging Edward as his feudal overlord. Balliol's own countrymen considered him something of a nonentity, and nicknamed him 'Toom Tabard' or the Empty Coat, mocking him for being a spineless puppet of the English king.

In fact Balliol seems to have been used by both sides: when Edward started demanding Scottish troops to aid him in his war against France, a council of twelve Scottish nobles took the decision out of Balliol's hands, refused to supply Edward with soldiers, and instead signed a treaty of mutual aid with the French.

Edward's reaction was predictably furious. Having ordered a huge army to assemble at Newcastle, he led his host up to the castle of Wark on the Tweed, where news reached him that the Scots were getting their retaliation in first: on Easter Monday a Scottish force made an unsuccessful attack on Carlisle, while bands of outriders ravaged the border with fire and sword. One English chronicler claimed that the Scots committed a particularly heinous act of savagery at Hexham, rounding up a hundred schoolboys and burning them alive in a church. The tale might have been exaggerated or plain invented as useful propaganda, but on the other hand such incidents were by no means uncommon in medieval warfare.

John Balliol or 'Toom Tabard
Edward didn't seem worried by these events. When he received a message from Balliol, in which the Scottish king formally renounced his homage, he smiled and remarked: "What folly he commits. He shall have no need to come to me, for I shall go to him."

Any Scottish atrocities were soon eclipsed by the horrors of Edward's sack of the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. Seven hundred years on, this incident is still clouded by contemporary propaganda and modern nationalist sentiment - much like the later sacks of Drogheda and Wexford in Ireland. Trying to see through these mists is difficult, but what seems to have happened is that Edward initially offered the town terms of surrender. These were scornfully rejected, and a number of his sailors were killed by the people of Berwick when his ships ran aground near the harbour.

Edward, who from boyhood onward had displayed a streak of cruelty when roused, lost control of himself.  He unleashed his shock troops on the town and personally led the cavalry charge on his war-horse, Bayard: it says something for Berwick's pitiful defences that his horse was able to leap the dyke and gallop into the streets.

Three days of bloody massacre followed. It's unclear whether Edward ordered the general extermination of the citizens, or of the men of the garrison. Either way, many thousands of innocents died, and Berwick was reduced to a gory, reeking shambles. Accounts vary of what finally persuaded Edward to put an end to the bloodshed: one story claims that a group of priests appeared before him, bearing the Host and begging on their knees for him to show mercy. Another says that Edward was violently sick after witnessing a soldier run his sword through the belly of a pregnant woman, and cried out 'Laissez! Laissez' - "Let be, let be!" as the signal to halt.
Arms of John de Warenne

Whatever the state of Berwick after this orgy of destruction, the crucial port town on the Tweed was now in Edward's hands. He followed up by sending his lieutenant and drinking crony, the Earl of Surrey, to secure the castle of Dunbar, a few miles up the Tweed. Surrey, a typically hard-faced baronial ruffian who had once waved a rusty sword under the noses of Edward's lawyers when they started asking difficult questions about his ancestral rights, duly sped off with a strong body of mounted knights and men-at-arms.

A note on warfare in this era. Descriptions of medieval campaigns can sometimes come across as a bland recitation of dry facts - King Wotsit marched over here and took this castle, then this town, and then marched back again. It's difficult for us modern, civilised, 21st-century types to imagine the smell and the stench of it, the hardship and the suffering of soldiers and civilians as oversized, indisciplined feudal hosts straggled up and down the country, often in appalling weather and over bad roads, all the while losing men to guerilla attacks, disease and desertion.

Desertion in particular was a serious problem for Edward I in his Welsh and Scottish campaigns. The majority of his infantry were made up of badly armed and trained feudal levies - conscripts, essentially, townsmen and peasants, often armed with little more than knives. To counter the problem, Edward supplemented his forces with large numbers of Basque and Gascon mercenaries, and after the conquest of Wales was able to call upon the services of thousands of tough Welsh archers and spearmen. Rather than starve in their own lands and be treated as second-class citizens by English immigrants, many of the Welsh chose to enlist in the armies of their conqueror.

By 1296, then, Edward's army was a pretty formidable beast, hardened by years of campaigning in Wales and France. The king's grasp of logistics could be pretty tenuous - he once sent out orders for 60,000 infantry to be raised, when there was perhaps a third of that number of able-bodied men in the whole of England - but he knew how to lead and direct an army. The same went for Surrey, another veteran of the Baronial wars and Welsh campaigns.

The Scots, by contrast, had nothing like the same degree of warlike experience to call upon. Scotland had largely been at peace for the past century, bar a couple of minor battles against the Norwegians and the Manx, and poor old Toom Tabard wasn't blessed with military genius. Balliol was camped at Haddington with the main body of the Scottish feudal host when urgent messages reached him from the garrison at Dunbar, warning that the English were on the move.

Balliol despatched his own knights, probably led by the Comyns, to meet Surrey. The two forces came in sight of each other near the castle, and for a while engaged in a staring contest. The Scots held the high ground, and may have expected Surrey's men to withdraw rather than risking attacking such a strong position. Instead he led his men down into a gulley and across a river called the Spott Burn.
Dunbar Castle today

As they struggled across the river, the ranks of English knights started to break up. Seeing the enemy host apparently dissolve into chaos, the Scots launched an all-out charge. It must have been a pretty rare and glorious spectacle, hundreds of mounted knights streaming downhill, pennons waving, lances couched as the earth quaked under the racing hoofs of their destriers.

Alas, they were deceived. Old Surrey was something of a general as well as a hooligan, and had deliberately ordered his men to feign indiscipline when they crossed the burn. As the disorderly horde of Scots thundered down towards them, the English knights suddenly closed up again and launched a counter-charge, a difficult manoeuvre that Napoleon's cavalry might have been proud of.

It was all over in minutes. After a brief fight the Scots panicked and fled westwards to the refuge of Ettrick Forest. They probably didn't suffer many casualties: one English source boasted that ten thousand of them died, but in reality only one minor Lothian knight, Sir Patrick Graham, was slain, and a hundred Scottish lords, knights and men-at-arms taken prisoner.

The blow to Scottish arms, however brief and bloodless the actual fighting, was devastating. Berwick and Dunbar knocked the fighting spirit out of the Scots, at least for a time, and the remainder of the campaign was little more than a promenade. Edward swaggered about the country, taking castles, towns and prisoners as the fancy took him, and sent hundreds of Scottish nobles south to England as captives.

Toom Tabard, needless to say, was one of them. After having the royal arms of Scotland torn from his body in a humiliating ritual at Stracathro near Montrose, he was packed off to the Tower of London for safe keeping. Edward eventually let him go to France, where he ended his days on his family's ancestral estates in Picardy: a far more pleasant fate than most of Edward's enemies.

In the long run, Dunbar was not the decisive blow it may ave appeared at the time: a year later Surrey was embarrassed by William Wallace and Sir Andrew de Moray at Stirling Bridge, and Edward spent the rest of his life leading one army after another across the border, determined to hammer them into submission. Eventually the hammer ran out of steam, and it was left to Edward II, he of Piers Gaveston and red-hot poker fame, to finish the job of conquering Scotland. Let's just say it didn't turn out too well for him...

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Uhtred, Schmutred

This is the second of the arguments/debates with my friend and co-author Martin Bolton. Last time we raved at each other about Game of Thrones, the world-conquering fantasy series by George R.R. Martin. Now we're going to cross swords - or axes - over an almost equally popular series, the Saxon Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell. My task is to tear the series to bits, Martin's is to stick it back together again. Any comments and opinions by readers are welcome!


So. Uhtred of Bebbanburg. It all started so well, didn't it? The first book in the series, The Last Kingdom, brilliantly depicted the muddy, bloody, rainy world of ninth-century Britain, where crazed psychopathic killers were hailed as heroes, and ramming a knife into someone's guts was regarded as career advancement. Cornwell did an equally brilliant job describing Dark Age Britain in his Warlord series, based on the legend of King Arthur.

Sadly, for all Cornwell's skill at capturing past worlds, he isn't so good as depicting past lives. My problem with the series started the moment Uhtred encountered the young Prince Alfred, later to become Alfred the Great.
Get stuffed, Uhtred. I'm the man, not you.

This version of Alfred is all but unrecognisable from the stubborn warrior-king of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, who fights the Danes 'like a wild boar' at Ashdown and is later hailed as 'England's shepherd, England's darling'. Alfred in this version is a long-nosed, watery-eyed, insufferably tedious little man who stinks of faeces, is devout to the point of insanity, and putty in the hands of the evil black-robed priests who cluster about him, dripping poison into his ears.

The ludicrous nature of Christian piety, and the essential nastiness of the Christian church, are themes that crop up over and again in Cornwell's work. It's especially overdone in the Saxon series, though to sweeten the pill Cornwell introduces a nice priest, Pyrlig, who rejects the standard teachings of the church and is a sort of Welsh Friar Tuck: fat, jovial, good at breaking heads. Uhtred, for his part, is especially talented at humiliating and beating up corrupt priests, something Cornwell clearly enjoys writing about. Which is why he writes it again. And again. And again. After a while you start to wonder if the author has got some personal grudge against the church.

As it happens, he might well do. As a child, Cornwell was raised by a particularly strange sect of Christian fundamentalists, and this experience seems to have affected his attitude towards Christianity in general. I mention this, not so much to have a personal dig at the author, but because it is clearly relevant to his writing. Alfred was a devout Christian, so Cornwell portrays him as a sickly weirdo who has to get a pagan to fight his battles for him. He also depicts priests, with few exceptions, as rapists and liars and villains. Some of them end up being righteously murdered by Uhtred - and of course, they always thoroughly deserve their comeuppance. It's dull and repetitive and slightly disturbing, and speaks volumes for the writer's own prejudices - however understandable they may be - rather than any kind of historical reality.

Cornwall is not only a talented writer, but a shrewd one who knows how to appeal to a mass market. Uhtred, who on the surface appears to be a rough, tough man of his time, is really a fantasy Alpha Male figure for a modern secular age: unbeatable in a fight or an argument, attractive to women, poetic, intelligent, and inclined to laugh at the mores and values of his day. I could just about take three books of Uhtred the Indestructible, though my gorge rose when it became clear that Cornwell was going to give all the credit for the Saxon victory at Ethandun - one of the most vital battles fought on English soil - to his fictional Rambo instead of Alfred, who really led the line against the Danes on that day.
An evil priest, probably off to stamp on some puppies. Booooo!!!
I think my breaking point came near the end of the third book in the series, Lords of the North, when a witch manages to calm some angry dogs by singing at them. Coupled with an earlier episode, in which Alfred's son Edward is cured of an illness by being dragged through a hole in the ground, it became apparent that Cornwell is pushing yet another agenda: not only is Christianity false, but paganism is real, and actually works.  Having mocked the rituals of the Christian religion, he now gives us singing witches and magic tunnels.

Now, I can just about accept an anti-religious stance, so long as it is consistent, but to be told that one faith is somehow 'better' than another - sorry, Bernard, no. That's not right. It's not particularly brave either. The Christian church is fair game these days, but would fiction writers like Cornwell dare to present Islam in the same light? Can anyone imagine a series of novels in which a tough, charismatic, no-bullshit Christian warrior mocks imams for their piety, and makes a fool of some famous Islamic historical figure - Mehmed the Conqueror, perhaps? I very much doubt it.

A Viking. Just because I needed a picture here
Speaking of Alfred's children, Cornwell fails spectacularly in his portrayal of Edward and Aethelflaed. For some reason he shows Edward as a callow teenager when he becomes King of Wessex, though in reality he was thirty years old and a veteran of several battles. Uhtred acts as a sort of unofficial tutor to Edward, and at one point hurls him into a ditch as a lesson in kingship. The idea of anyone hurling Edward the Elder, a hard-faced warlord who killed more Danes than the plague, into a ditch or anywhere else is frankly absurd.

Then we come to Aethelflaed, the famous Lady of the Mercians. Cornwell is a bit uncomfortable with female characters, and generally has them falling into bed with his heroes for lack of anything else to do. He does the same with Aethelflaed, who has an affair with Uhtred in an entirely pointless sub-plot. She also gets kidnapped by the Danes at one point, and is abused by her savage husband Aethelred. There's no evidence whatsoever for either incident, though Cornwell does at least admit that his treatment of Aethelred is extremely unfair.

There seems little sign of the Saxon series coming to an end any time soon: it's far too lucrative and Cornwell has said he wants to take the story all the way up to the Battle of Brunanburh, by which time Uhtred will be in his mid-80s or thereabouts. No doubt our hero will still be fully capable of tearing apart umpteen Viking warriors without breaking a sweat, while at the same urinating on a dead monk.

The case for the prosecution rests. In a few days Mr Bolton will take up the cudgels for the defence....