Longsword by David Pilling

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Soldier of Fortune

Back in the mists of time - all the way back in 2012 - I published a book called The Half-Hanged Man. It followed the adventures of Thomas Page, an English mercenary captain who carved out a brief career for himself in 14th century France and Spain. 

The Half-Hanged Man came to an adrupt and brutal end, with little prospect of a sequel. Until now, that is, and my brand spanking new novel SOLDIER OF FORTUNE (I): THE WOLF CUB. 

The Soldier of Fortune series is intended as an indirect sequel, and follows the career of Thomas Page's bastard son, John, during the first half of the 15th century. John is very much a chip off the old block, though he is something of a poet as well as a warrior: I have based him on a real-life poet named John Page, whose eyewitness account of the siege of Rouen, ducal capital of Normandy, by the army of Henry V in 1418 survives in a single manuscript. 

My John Page is a poor esquire of Sussex who flees England after slaying his cousin in a duel, and eventually ends up as a soldier in the English army in Normandy. After a long and eventful career he is captured at the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and forced to describe the story of his life to the Ottoman Sultan...

1453 AD. The great city of Constantinople, last remnant of the once-mighty Roman Empire, falls to the Ottoman armies of Mehmed the Conqueror.

An English knight named Sir John Page is taken prisoner by the Ottomans, and forced to entertain the Sultan with tales of the West. Page chooses to tell the story of his own long career as a soldier of fortune in France, Bohemia and the Italian city-states. 

Page's tale begins in the year of Agincourt, Henry V's famous victory over the French. As the bastard son of Thomas Page, a famous mercenary captain known as The Half-Hanged Man or The Wolf of Burgundy, Page soon acquires the nickname of The Wolf Cub. 

After slaying his cousin in a duel, Page flees his home and joins a band of outlaws in the forests of Sussex. At last - tired of the brutality of his companions - he decides to leave England and join the English army in Normandy. There he endures brutal sieges, vicious combats, torture, betrayal and imprisonment, all to win glory and redeem his father's name. 

Trapped in the Sultan's prison, Page must hope his story is enough to save him from the executioner's blade...at least for another three days...

SOLDIER OF FORTUNE (I): THE WOLF CUB is now available on Kindle, and will shortly be available on paperback.

Monday, 22 June 2015

The murder of Towton

Towton. No fun at all. 
For the third and last of my blogs concerning the lives of ordinary soldiers in the medieval period, I have arrived - perhaps inevitably - at the Battle of Towton. Fought in a snowstorm on Palm Sunday, 29th March 1461, Towton is reckoned to be the biggest and bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil, with the possible exception of the massacre of Boudicca's forces by the Romans.

Towton was fought as part of the dynastic conflict remembered as The Wars of the Roses. Put simply, the House of York, led by the teenage giant Edward, Duke of York, fought against the House of Lancaster, led (in name only) by the insane King Henry VI. Henry was too mentally fragile to fight, and on the day his army was commanded by Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. The two sides brought some 50,000 men to the field, and for hour after dreadful hour they slugged it out amid the snow and ice until the Lancastrians finally broke and fled. Once the rout began, the real butchery could begin as men were cut down from behind as they ran or killed when they surrendered. Many Lancastrians were caught as they tried to escape across a field that later became known as Bloody Meadow, and slaughtered without mercy.

There is something different about Towton. The other battles of the era were bloody enough, but at Towton a kind of madness was unleashed. Civil conflicts are always the worst, and the nobles of both sides had a great deal of bad blood to avenge: the Lancastrians, for instance, had killed Edward's father, the old Duke of York, at Wakefield, and set up his head on Micklebar Gate at York wearing a paper crown, in mockery of his ambitions.

Exhibit A
Edward therefore had his own private scores to settle, and the lesser knights and barons on both sides also had debts of blood to avenge. The usual rules of chivalry were cast aside, and the mutual hatred of the nobles seems to have infected their soldiers. It was claimed afterwards that over 30,000 men died on the field, though this was probably an exaggeration. Even so, it was clear that the Lancastrians at least suffered horrific casualties.

The true extent of the carnage only became clear to modern eyes in 1996, when workmen uncovered a mass burial pit while doing building work on the site. A team of osteoarchaeologists and archaeologists were called to the scene, and set about excavating and studying the remains of 43 individuals discovered in the pit.

It's hard to describe the evidence of battle-injured on the skeletons without a sense of revulsion. Most of the wounds were to the face or head, and caused by a terrifying variety of projectile and close-combat weapons: war-hammers, swords, daggers, battle-axes, maces, pole-axes and all the other killing tools of the era. Hideously, the pattern and distribution of the wounds suggests that most of them were inflicted on men already dead or unable to defend themselves. In other words, they were run down and mutilated with an almost ritualistic savagery, eyes gouged from their sockets, noses and lips cut off, faces smashed in, vertebrae crushed, and other horrors best left to the imagination. The images I have posted here should give an adequate impression.

Exhibit B

The study of the remains, which is ongoing, has yielded other, less grisly results. It seems the men in the pit were in generally better health than many people of the era, and more robust and well-built, with evidence of high muscle development due to constant physical exertion. In contrast to the average peasant, these soldiers were strong and athletic, and enjoyed a better diet. This suggests that their lords and masters knew the value of keeping one's fighting retainers in good condition, and made sure they were well-fed, housed and exercised, like prize animals. Some of the skeletons bore the marks of previous wounds that had healed, such as the cleft jaw of one specimen. Many of the soldiers at Towton, then, would have been old campaigners, veterans who had escaped death in the past only to find him waiting for them on a snowbound field in Yorkshire.

Reconstruction of a soldier's face. Note the scar to the jaw
The raw, vivid awfulness of what happened at Towton is almost beyond comprehension. It wasn't fought over some especially high or noble purpose - the Wars of the Roses were a purely dynastic quarrel, fought between inbred cousins over which of them got to wear the crown.  The whole thing might have been easily settled by a dozen picked champions from either side having a duel, or maybe a game of dice.

Instead we got a mass slaughter, and one that didn't even have the virtue of permanence. A few years after Edward's victory the wars started up again, and more battles had to be fought, and yet more battles, until the entire bloodstained circus finally juddered to a halt at Stoke Field in 1487, 26 years after Towton. Stoke was a Lancastrian/Tudor victory over the last fag-ends of the House of York, not that the men lying quiet inside their pit at Towton were in any position to appreciate it.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Missing eyes and broken cheekbones

Today is the second part of my series of posts on the fate of soldiers in the medieval period - not the kings, knights and nobles, but the faceless grunts whose corpses littered the fields of Hastings, Bannockburn, Agincourt and many others. To my mind, these men have just as much right to be remembered and admired - or pitied, as the case may be - as any inbred, sword-wielding clown on a horse.

Last time I wrote about Stephen Franckton, the Shropshire man-at-arms thought to have slain Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, last native prince of Wales. Now I'll fast-forward from the 13th to the 15th century, and the reign of Henry V (1413-22).

Most people who know anything about the medieval era will have heard of the Battle of Agincourt, later glorified by Shakespeare, where Henry's little army ('four or five most vile and ragged foils/right ill-disposed in brawl ridiculous) put to flight the much larger French host.

The names of many of Henry's soldiers are preserved on the surviving muster rolls, which are now available to browse online. I've picked out one soldier in particular, an esquire or man-at-arms named Thomas Hostell.

An extremely rare petition survives, in which Thomas begs for financial aid from the government of Henry VI (1422-1471). Here is part of the text:

'To the king our sovereign lord,

Beseeches meekly your poor liegeman and humble petitioner Thomas Hostell that in consideration of the service which he performed to your noble progenitors of full blessed memory King Henry the Fourth and King Henry the Fifth, on whose soul God have mercy, being at the siege of Harfleur, there smitten with a crossbow bolt through the head, losing one eye and having his cheekbone broken, and also at the Battle of Agincourt, and later at the taking of the carracks on the sea, there with an iron bolt having his coat of plates broken asunder, and being sorely hurt, maimed and wounded...'

This one paragraph gives us an account of Hostell's extraordinary military career: first he served Henry IV (1399-1413) and then Henry V, fighting at the siege of Harfleur where he suffered a horrific wound, losing an eyeball and having his cheekbone broken by a crossbow bolt. Somehow he not only survived, but was fit enough to march on and fight at Agincourt. Later he fought at a sea-battle where he was again struck by a missile (it seems Hostell was something of a walking target) and had his shirt of iron plates burst to pieces.

The injuries he suffered at sea more than likely put an end to his military career. Like many another old soldier, Hostell had no means to support himself, and sometime during the reign of Henry V's successor was forced to live off alms. He describes himself in pitiful terms:

'...as a result of which (injuries) he is much enfeebled and weakened, and now being of great age has fallen into poverty, being much in debt and unable to help himself, having not the means whereby he can be sustained or relieved save only by the gracious almsgiving of other persons...' 
Henry V

In other words, he was forced to beg. Here is the grim reality of the lives of medieval soldiers, as opposed to the fictional likes of Thomas of Hookton, the archer in Bernard Cornwell's Grail Quest series. Thomas of Hookton ends his distinguished career as a lord, with lots of money and thousands of acres of land. Thomas Hostell, whose real-life services to the English crown were no less brave, ended with nothing.

What seems to have happened is that Hostell 'fell through the cracks' of the system. His petition goes on to claim that he was 'never yet recompensed or rewarded' for his services, meaning that he never actually got paid while he was in the army. This sounds incredible, but was by no means unusual: the army commissariat of the time was not very efficient, which was why many soldiers took to looting and plundering the countryside. Henry V, however, forbade this practice, which was good for his reputation but extremely bad for the financial security of his rankers. One English archer on the Agincourt campaign who broke the rules, and stole a pyx from a French church, was hanged for it.

Thomas Hostell ends his petition by begging for alms from Henry VI, offering in exchange to pray for the king and the souls of his ancestors. There is no record of whether the petition was successful or not, but I like to think so: for all his faults, Henry was a kind and pious man, and would surely have taken pity on the battered, penniless, one-eyed veteran who had done his father and grandfather such good service.

As the wars in France wore on, there must have been many other weary veterans, turned loose to fend for themselves once the fighting was done. Large numbers of them found employment as retainers in the households of English nobles, and the existence of so many private armies was one of the causes of The Wars of the Roses. This leads me on to my next post, and the grave-pits of Towton...

Thursday, 11 June 2015

God help poor soldiers...

As part of my research for the next novel - an indirect sequel to The Half-Hanged Man - I've been researching the lot of common soldiers in the medieval period. Not the usual kings and knights and nobles, but the grunts or Poor Bloody Infantry. 

Unlike the nobles, whose deeds were recorded by chroniclers, poets and bards (etc) the rank and file of medieval armies are a shadowy, faceless cast of thousands, mere also-rans to the 'glorious' deeds of their high-born masters. As individuals, they generally left no mark other than lists of names on muster rolls, and the occasional petition or passing reference in a chronicle. I've decided to rectify the situation, in my own small way, by writing a series of posts about some of the common soldiers who did make their mark on written medieval history. 

First, one Stephen de Franckton of Ellesmere in Shropshire. This man lived in the 13th century and was a tenant of Roger Le Strange, a powerful baron of the Welsh March. He served his lord as a 'centenar' or minor officer in charge of a small troop of cavalry, and is remembered (not with any great affection by the Welsh) as the man who struck down Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, the enemy of King Edward I. 

Memorial for Llewellyn 'the Last'
Accounts of Llewellyn's death vary, but one version claims that the prince somehow got isolated from his main force at Orewin Bridge in mid-Wales, and encountered Franckton by chance. Franckton stabbed Llewellyn with his lance and rode on, not realising who he had been fighting. Later that day, the dying prince was discovered by another English soldier, Sir Robert Body. Body recognised the prince and cut off his head, to be sent as a welcome present to King Edward. 

Other accounts claim that Llewellyn was deliberately lured into a trap by the Marchers and murdered/executed while unarmed and defenceless. Perhaps de Franckton and Body together acted as Llewellyn's executioners, watched by the Marcher Lords and Welsh nobles who had conspired to lure the prince to his doom.  

A closer look at Franckton's career yields some startling results. Back in 1275, some seven years before Llewellyn's death, he was granted a pardon for past offences:

'Calender of Patent Rolls, Chester, September 10th 1275:

Ratification, at the instance of Roger Le Strange, of a pardon to Stephen de Franckton, granted by Henry III, at the instance of the said Roger, of his abjuration of the realm and also of all trespasses during the late troubles of the realm or at other times, and pardon to him at the king's suit for the said abjuration and trespasses...'

Intriguingly, this entry appears just under one of the formal summons made by Edward, ordering Llewellyn to come to court and pay homage to the English king. It seems that our Stephen was no common or garden grunt after all, but a former rebel who fought against Henry III during the Second Baron's War of the 1260s. 'Abjuring the realm' doesn't necessarily mean he fled the country. He might just have easily fled into Wales for a time, or another part of the March where the King's writ did not run. 

Le Strange evidently valued him as a useful bit of muscle. One can picture Franckton as an experienced soldier and hired killer, a hard-faced old sweat untroubled by moral doubt: just the man to do a spot of dirty work when required.... 

King Edward I
Franckton seems to have profited little from his part in Llewellyn's death. He next appears in 1287 as a centenar or officer in charge of the soldiers raised in Ellesmere to help crush the revolt of Rhys ap Maredudd, a disgruntled Welsh lord who had rebelled against Edward I. Franckton led his company at the siege of Dryslwyn Castle in Carmarthenshire, again under Roger Le Strange. Other than his command of the Ellesmere men, there is no hint of any promotion or reward for his role in the death of Llewellyn. 

Possibly Franckton got himself into fresh trouble, or the validity of his earlier pardon was questioned, for in 1293 Le Strange was obliged to seek a pardon from Prince Edmund, King Edward's brother. He was charged with harbouring a known felon, namely Stephen de Franckton, in Suffolk, back in the reign of Henry III. A separate record from the time places Franckton in York, again with his lord. What he and Le Strange were up to in York and Suffolk, far from their home territory in the Marches, is something of a mystery. It could be they were among the many groups of rebels and outlaws that roved about England in the last years of Henry III's reign, robbing and pillaging and generally making a nuisance of themselves. 

Le Strange got his pardon, probably because by this time Franckton was dead. Sometime before 28th May 1292 he was killed, in unexplained circumstances, by a knight named Sir William de Vaus or Vaux. As yet I've been unable to discover much about Sir William. He served on the ill-fated Stirling campaign in 1297, and so could have been a knight of the royal household. 

Arms of Sir William de Vaus

There's something sinister about Franckton's death. Not long after he was killed, his old lord Roger Le Strange forcibly disinherited his wife and son, and gave their lands over to another man. The son, Stephen Fitz Stephen, was still petitioning to get his lands back nearly forty years later, towards the end of Edward II's reign.

What secret history lies behind all this? Did Franckton know too much about the murky circumstances of the death of Llewellyn? Did Sir William kill Franckton in some private quarrel, or was he acting under orders? Why did Franckton's long-time lord and master, who had always favoured him in the past, suddenly turn against his bereaved family and throw them off their land? 

It's all too easy to wallow in conspiracy theories, and suggest that Franckton was assassinated by the English crown for 'knowing too much'. Still, there is something murky and mysterious about his fate, and the sudden change in attitude of his lord. Plenty of room for speculation, if nothing else! 

So much for Stephen de Franckton. Next, I fast-forward to the 15th century and a one-eyed veteran in the service of Henry V...