Longsword by David Pilling

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.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

REIVER reviews

The first couple of reviews are in for REIVER, and they are goodies.

'Set in the 16th century in the March lands between England and Scotland, 'Reiver' is a very enjoyable blend of fact and fiction. It is a fast-paced, captivating novella, packed with action, intrigue, blood-feuds and exciting battles.

The characters, a colourful mixture of real and fictitious ones, are both realistic and engaging. I particularly liked the author's portrayal of Sir John Forster, but also his Richie Reade and his mate Ruth.
The story is well-told. I enjoyed the regional dialogue and reading about the weapons of the day. The occasional flashes of humour also brought a smile.

In short, a great read about a fascinating period in British history!'

'It's got it all going on, for a novella. Action, intrigue, love and politics - all in 190 pages.in fact, my main problem with Reivers is that it wasn't long enough - not only in that I wanted to know more, but that I was left with a strong sense of questions unanswered at the end, as if this was a prequel to a full novel.

There's a strong sense of the Robin Hood about Richie o'the Bow, the young hero - he very young hero, aged all of sixteen, we meet in the opening pages with his equally-young lover, Ruth. (As an aside, I liked Ruth a good deal. She's that rare thing in the world of historical adventure, a young woman with her head screwed on, whose femininity is not germane to the plot.) And the reader is lulled into a false sense of Wolfshead security: that when Richie and his Bairns hole up at Hope's End, we are venturing into the territory of Merrie Men, with Ruth in the sweet guise of Marian under the greenwood tree.

Nah. This is a much harder, much darker, story than that.
Richie is a “broken man” but he's not by any stretch broken by his outlawry.
These are not a band of tragic outcasts and misfits. They're rough fighting men who - for the most part - are the instruments of their own destruction, part of a society with all the moral rectitude of a weasel in rut. At one point, Richie suggests that they ought to stop fighting and try and work towards a society where they can all live in peace. His lads look at him blankly…He can't see it happening, either. It's the only world they know, every man for himself and Devil take the hindmost. And they quite enjoy it...no wrestling with conscience here, thank you.

David Pilling writes with a zest and a very appealing black humour, and a firm grip of the chicanery of 16th century Scots and English politics. Wonderful, vicious action sequences vy with regional dialogue that thrums with colour and threat. Most of my knowledge of the Border reivers - to my shame, my mother being a McLellan, descended from this brawling knot of amoral cattle-rustlers! - comes from George Macdonald Fraser, and the author is kind enough to give his source material for those who want to go further.

I can see this as an early episode in the career of Richie’s Bairns, despite its completeness as a work in its own right. Is the Countess going to be Richie’s own Milady de Winter, in future books? Will the Bairns come to acquire a moral compass, under the shadow of the English?

I do hope we’re going to find out.'

Friday, 11 November 2016


Mane tossing, nostrils flaring, hooves flailing - my new novella, REIVER, has just plunged out of the stable. Set in the late 16th century, during the reign of Good Queen Bess (or Bad, depending on one's preference), REIVER follows the adventures of Richie Reade or Crowhame, otherwise known as Richie O'the Bow or Richie Crow-Bait.

Richie is one of the Border Reivers, those famous criminal gangs who made the Anglo-Scottish border a living hell and left a tremendous legacy in the form of the Border Ballads, first compiled by Sir Walter Scott in the 18th century. Bold, brutal, belligerent, the reivers lived by the sword and generally died by it, assuming the hangman didn't get them first. Richie is just such a man, and he and his followers, known as Richie's Bairns - Richie's Children - must survive treachery, blood-feud, raid and counter-raid, even as the clouds of war pile high over the Marches....

REIVER is currently available on Kindle only, but a paperback version should be available soon.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Wedding day

Today is the anniversary of the marriage of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, married at the monastery of Las Huelgos, Burgos, on 1st November 1254. Edward was 15, Eleanor just 12.

 Theirs was one of the more successful royal partnerships. Over the course of their 36-year marriage the couple produced 16 children, though only 6 lived to adulthood. The sheer number of stillborn and infant deaths may have induced a certain emotional detachment in the parents: for instance, they made no effort to visit their 6-year old son Henry as he lay dying at Guildford in 1274. Of their adult children, the longest-lived was Margaret, Duchess of Brabant, who achieved the grand old age of 58.

Eleanor was unpopular in England. She didn't bother to learn English and amassed a fortune by buying up cheap or encumbered manors and squeezing maximum profits out of them. This made Eleanor very rich and the English very annoyed. As a popular rhyme had it: "The king desires to get our gold, The queen our manors fair to hold..."

When Eleanor died in 1290, aged 49, the annalist of Dunstable recorded her passing with a terseness that spoke volumes: "A Spaniard by birth. She acquired many fine manors."

One person at least adored the Queen. Edward, extreme in all his passions, clearly loved Eleanor with deathless intensity. After her death in 1290, aged 49, he said thus of his late wife in a letter to the abbot of Cluny in France: "My harp is turned to mourning. In life I loved her dearly, in death I cannot cease to love." 

Edward seems to have been paraphrasing Job 30:31, a modern translation of which reads thus and may give an insight into his state of mind:

'When I hoped for good, evil came,
When I looked for light, then came darkness.
The churning inside me never stops,
Days of suffering confront me.
I go about blackened, but not by the sun,
I stand up in the assembly and cry for help.
I have become a brother of jackals,
A companion of owls,
My skin grows black and peels.
My body burns with fever,
My lyre is turned to mourning,
And my flute accompanies those who weep.'

Monday, 24 October 2016

Once again, I've been very slack recently with updates for this blog. Below is another piece on a little-known aspect of the reign of Edward I, taken from the Facebook page. In the near future I hope to post articles and commentary more directly related to my books. Stay tuned!


 Fancy a holiday? Somewhere nice in the sunny Dordogne, perhaps? Look no further than the Hotel-Restaurant Edward 1 in Monpazier, a delightful region of Aquitaine in south-west France. The hotel offers stunning views, ensuite bedrooms with flatscreen television, a fine restaurant offering a choice of local delicacies, as well as…

…here endeth the advert. The hotel in Monpazier, otherwise known as the Hotel Edward Premier, really exists and is named after King Edward I (reigned 1272-1307). Unlike Wales and Scotland, where the only building likely to be named after Edward is a public toilet, the king’s reputation in his former duchy of Gascony is still golden. Monpazier was part of the duchy, and one of the fifty bastide - meaning ‘to build’ - towns constructed in Gascony during his reign.

Of all the bastides, Monpazier is the one that still retains most of the original features. It was founded in 1285 and visited by Edward himself during his tour of the region the following year. The town is built to a quadrilateral plan, with a regular gridwork of streets that open onto a central square. At one end of the square is a market hall, where the original metal bins used for measuring grain can still be seen. The square is lined with vaulted archways known as ‘cornières’, another distinctive medieval feature.

All of the Edwardian bastides were built to this pattern. Edward himself was personally involved in the construction of Burgus Reginae - or Queensborough - built in 1288 at a confluence of the Garonne and Dordogne, the two major commercial arteries of Gascony. The new settlement was named in honour of his wife, Eleanor of Castile. Another new bastide, named Baa, was built on royal command in the winter of 1286-7. One Gerard de Turri was sent to plan the town, and Edward paid a visit to the site, during which he bought the workmen a round of drinks.

Edward also founded bastides in England, at New Winchelsea and Kingston upon Hull, and in Wales as part of his programme of colonisation. However the scale of bastide-building in Gascony was far greater than anywhere else. The project was driven, as usual, by Edward’s constant need for revenue: Gascony was a much smaller and poorer land than England, and generated far less cash. The new bastides acted as centres of commerce. To quote Marc Morris: ‘they were a source of profit, both direct (in the form of local tolls and taxes) and indirect (they increased trade that was taxed at other points, such as Bordeaux).’

Initially the bastides met with opposition from Gascon nobility. As landlords, they objected to these new towns being built on their territory, largely because it gave their tenants the opportunity to run off and become free towsnmen. A clever compromise was reached whereby the bastides were founded on the system of ‘paréage’, a form of public-private partnership. Local lords agreed to put up the land, Edward as duke gave the necessary permission, and subsequent profits were shared by all, including the townspeople. The promise of enrichment lured the rural poor to the bastides, which in turn helped to reduce lawlessness. New towns also meant new roads, which led to the clearing of forests and conversion of fallow ground into rich pasture. Thus the bastides were perceived as a way of generating commerce and profits for all - duke, lords and peasants - as well of pacifying unruly parts of the duchy. For once Edward behaved with a light touch, and his bastide scheme was both popular and successful.

Edward spent several years in Gascony and was evidently fond of the place, if not the inhabitants. In a letter of March 21st 1278 to the Bishop of Bath & Wells, he makes clear his opinions on Gascons and their unreliable ways:

‘As the Gascons are reputed to be very full of quibbles and changeable in their agreements, proposals, promises and deeds, the king believes it very necessary that the bishop… shall cause all and singular the things that shall be agreed upon, or ordained, and done by them with the Gascons…so that in times to come they shall not presume in their insolence boldly to contravene their own deeds, and so that their own deed and surety may be objected to their faces eye to eye to repress their malice forever.’ 

This last line is eerily similar to Edward’s later declaration regarding the Welsh, in which he promised to ‘put an end to their malice now and for all time.’

The king was not directly involved in the construction of all the bastides. Over two-thirds of them were partially founded by the crown, but only half were solely royal ventures. Nor were they intended to buttress the defence of Gascony against the French. Many never had any defences at all, and those with defences only had them added in the reigns of Edward II and III. They were founded during a period of relatively cordial relations between England and France, and Edward appreciated that the widespread construction of fortified towns would provoke French hostility. Besides which, they were mostly built on fertile, low-lying land near rivers, ideal for commerce but useless as military sites. One exception was Bonnegarde, where Edward revamped and enlarged an already existing castle, but the main purpose of the bastides was undoubtely to generate income.

Edward’s enthusiasm for bastides was also demonstrated in Wales and England. In Wales, after the war of 1277, he laid out new settlements on the familiar grid pattern at Flint, Rhuddlan and Aberystwyth. After the war of 1283 more were created at Conwy, Caernarfon, Criccieth, Bere and Harlech. Unlike Gascony, however, the new bastides in Wales were not built in a spirit of lucrative cooperation. Instead they were fortified colonial outposts, homes for imported English settlers, from which the native Welsh were largely excluded. Towns such as Nefyn and Llanfaes, which had been centres of commerce under Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, were allowed to become backwaters. Edward had no desire to develop native Welsh settlements, and at Llanfaes the population was forced to emigrate to a new town called, rather unimaginatively, Newborough. Llanfaes itself was replaced by another bastide, Beaumaris.

Today very little survives of Edward’s bastides in Gascony. Other than Monpazier, not one has survived into modern times as a settlement, though the outline of vineyards, banks and ditches can still be seen at the site of Burgus Reginae. Still, I have heard that the Hotel Edward Premier (see attached pic) does excellent cocktails…

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

The Rebels of Ely

I haven't been active on here recently - very slack of me. The new book is taking up a lot of time, as well as research for future projects. I've also been busy on my new Facebook page devoted to the reign of King Edward I. Below is a link to the page (again) and one of the recent articles. I'll post more on here in the future.

King Edward I on Facebook

The Rebels of Ely 

The Second Barons’ War in England ended with the fall of the Isle of Ely in July 1267, almost two years after the Battle of Evesham. Henry III’s vengeful decision to disinherit all of Simon de Montfort’s surviving followers prolonged the civil war, which ought to have ended with the earl’s death. The king also seized the lands of of men who had never supported de Montfort in the first place. Thus Henry succeeded in driving approximately half the landowning class of England into armed rebellion.

Ely in Cambridgeshire had been a natural home for rebels and outlaws since the days of the Conqueror. A vast, waterlogged stretch of misty bog and fenland in Cambridgeshire, it was virtually impenetrable save to those who knew the paths. The baronial rebels first occupied the isle in April 1266, and used it as a base from which to plunder and ravage the surrounding countryside. They sacked Lincoln, where they destroyed the chests or ‘archa’ containing bonds of debts taken out from Jewish moneylenders. A number of Jewish moneylenders were murdered or kidnapped for ransom, their synagogues razed, and a hundred and sixty women and children murdered in the street.

Efforts by local militia to drive out the rebels met with disaster. Henry ordered the commons of the counties to blockade the isle and prevent the barons from making sorties. In response the barons rode out in force and drove the ‘vulgar herd’ - as Matthew Paris termed them - to flight, driving them as far as Norwich. There some of the rebel party split off to carry away loot and provisions from the town. A short while later, the people of Lynn offered to attack Ely if Henry would guarantee their liberties. This he promised to do, and the citizens manned vessels with crossbowmen, archers and men-at-arms to sail upriver and storm the isle. The wily barons saw the fleet coming and planted their standards on dry land. When the people of Lynn saw the standards, they leaped off their boats and charged. The barons pretended to retreat, then turned and closed on the citizens from all sides. Some were captured, many slaughtered or drowned, and only a few limped back to Lynn - where they were ‘received with derision.’

In the spring of 1267 the captain of the Ely rebels, John de Eyvill, left the isle to join Gilbert de Clare in the march on London. They succeeded in capturing the city, and for three months the capital of England was a rebel camp. Peace was brokered when King Henry and his son, the Lord Edward, threatened to lay siege. After some complex bartering de Eyvill and de Clare were pardoned in return for payments of money and land. The severest punishment fell on de Eyvill, who was mortgaged to the crown for the rest of his life and had to do military service in Wales as part of his redemption.

After the surrender of the barons in London, Ely was left as the only rebel fortress of any note. The captain of the isle was now Henry de Hastings, an interesting brute with a sense of humour. Hastings had led the epic defence of Kenilworth Castle, at 172 days the longest siege in English medieval history. During the siege, the papal legate had called upon the garrison to surrender. Hastings’ response was to dress up as a cardinal and stand on the battlements waving his arms in mockery of the legate’s piety. Less amusingly, when the king sent an envoy to treat for peace, Hastings cut off one of the envoy’s hands and sent him back with the severed hand in a box.

Other knights in the isle included the likes of Sir Robert Peche and Sir Ralph Perot. Neither were ideal house guests. Peche had won a reputation as one of the chief ravagers, burning farms and villages near Ely and robbing barns of their grain. He had also extorted protection money from the burgesses of Cambridge, promising to leave them alone in exchange for cash. Perot rode as far afield as the Priory of St Peter in Dunstable, where the chronicler gloomily notes he stole a horse from the mill, more horses from the town, and took ten marks as protection money.

Edward, in his role as firefighter, was sent to destroy this nest of robbers. Easier said than done. The Conqueror himself had experienced difficulty in reducing the isle, and suffered several embarrassing defeats before finally overcoming Hereward the Wake and his Saxons. Tales of Hereward’s last stand were still popular in the late 1200s. Paris describes how medieval sightseers were in the habit of visiting an old earthwork known as Hereward’s Castle at Aldreth: probably the remains of the fortress built by the Normans when they laid siege to Ely.

The prince marched on Ely and ordered his men to build a bridge of hurdles and planks. This sounds similar to the pontoon or floating bridge William the Conqueror had built to cross into the isle. Edward, who had some knowledge of military history, may have taken a leaf from the Bastard’s book. As king, he made use of pontoon bridges in his campaigns in North Wales, though the strategy didn’t always meet with success: in 1282, at Moel-y-Don near Anglesey, the bridge collapsed under weight of bodies and hundreds of his men were drowned.

At Ely the bridge was merely a distraction. While his men laboured on the construction, Edward rode to the monastery of Ramsey and gave the monks a pep-talk, encouraging them to stand firm against the rebels. Shortly afterwards he had a private meeting with an aged noblewoman, Lady Amabilia de Chaucumb.

An observer might have wondered what Edward was up to, with his bridge and his monks and his mysterious old lady. All soon became clear. Amabilia was the mother of Nicholas de Segrave, one of the baronial rebels who had submitted at London. Segrave had been a member of the Ely garrison, and after his surrender escaped from London and went back into the isle. It seems his escape was pre-arranged. While in the capital he struck a secret deal with Edward to betray his comrades, and the prince later met with his mother to make final arrangements.

There was one main path into the heart of the isle, defended by a stockade of earth and timber. Segrave persuaded Hastings to let him garrison it. When the pontoon bridge was complete, Edward crossed the water with a strong force of archers and crossbowmen. He was now faced with the stockade, guarded by Segrave. As agreed, Segrave and his men promptly abandoned their post and let the royalists pass. Edward moved on through the marshes until he arrived within sight of the rebel camp, divided from his men by a narrow rivulet.

The barons, astonished by the sudden appearance of enemy soldiers, rushed to arms. While they dragged on their armour, some bowmen and slingers were hurled forward to block the royalist advance. Meanwhile Edward placed his missile troops on high ground overlooking the camp, so they could shoot down on the heads of the rebel archers.

Seeing this, the rebels hesitated. Edward now rode forward and read out the riot act: “Any man who attacks my soldiers, or tries to stop me entering the isle, will die. Either now or after my victory. The guilty shall be hanged or beheaded.”

In the face of these threats, the barons wilted. “Consumed by sudden dismay,” according to the chronicler, they “immediately lost their indolent savageness, and walking with their heads lowered, assumed the meekness of a lamb.”

Perhaps the grim memory of Evesham was still fresh in their minds. The Leopard - as the baronial poets called Edward - had presided over one massacre. He could do it again. In the event there was no bloodshed. Edward accepted their surrender, and Hastings and the other knights were allowed to redeem their lands. Segrave was well rewarded for his treachery, and later became 1st Baron Segrave. He died in 1295, rich and respected. No doubt his mother would have approved.

The lesser members of the Ely garrison scattered to the four winds. Many continued to live as robbers, and the Dunstaple chronicle records the miserable fate of some of them. Giles of Dunstaple, Ambrose, Michael and some others left the country, to be ‘starved or hanged’ in other places. Henry Albemarle, who had robbed a mill, was hanged in France. John the clerk was excommunicated and killed in unknown circumstances at Oxford. His companions Jeffrey, Hugh and Robert were arrested and sent to Newgate prison for trial. Jeffrey died in custody and the others bribed the jury to let them off. Both were shortly arrested again in London. Hugh was hanged, and Robert died in prison.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Longshanks hits Facebook

I've rejuvenated my old Facebook page focused on King Edward I, better known as 'Longshanks' of Braveheart fame. Given time, I hope to post regularly on there with various articles relating to any and all features of this controversial monarch's reign. If you fancy commenting, or even contributing, please feel free to drop me an email or visit the group:

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Folville's Law (II) Conquest

Some long-term followers of this blog may recall my first novel, titled Folville's Law and released way back in the mists of time (or 2011, to be more precise) by Musa Publishing. Musa have since folded, sadly, and I republished the book under my own steam under the new title Folville's Law: Invasion.

The sequel, originally published as a series of mini-adventures by Musa, has now been repackaged as a single volume and released today under the title FOLVILLE'S LAW (II): CONQUEST. The suitably dramatic, eye-catching cover is designed (as usual) by the good people at More Visual.

"England, 1330. The young King, Edward III, is a virtual prisoner, locked out of power by his mother Queen Isabella and her lover, the power-hungry Roger de Mortimer. Determined to rule, Edward gathers a band of loyal supporters and plots to reclaim his kingdom. 

Meanwhile war rages across the Channel in Gascony. Sir John Swale, forced into exile to escape his enemies in England, is caught up in a war for control of the province. Captured and ransomed by the French, he is sent back to England to restore his fortunes as one of King Edward's household knights. 

Yet Swale's former enemies have not been quiet. The outlaw Eustace Folville is still at large, and joined by the equally ruthless James Coterel. Together the Coterel and Folville gangs roam at will, robbing and slaying innocents. While they sow chaos, fresh war erupts between England and Scotland. 

As a loyal King's knight, Swale must face these dangers head-on. From pitched battles with outlaws in the heart of England to the hell of the Scottish March, he fights to a cruel finish for land and king and family..."

The book is available on Kindle now in all Amazon markets. A paperback version should be available soon!

Monday, 1 August 2016

Usher's Pass preview

Today I thought I'd provide a glimpse of the epic fantasy novel my friend and co-author, Martin Bolton, is currently working on. Together we wrote two fantasy tales - The Best Weapon (The World Apparent Tales Book 1) and The Path of Sorrow (Book 2) - and now Martin is writing a solo venture set in an entirely different fantasy universe to The World Apparent. Hopefully we'll work together on more projects in the future.

Below is the map of the immediate universe he has created, the world of Usher's Pass (also the provisional title of his novel). Martin has asked me to point out that this is only a rough sketch, and will considerably expand as the story develops. Click on the image to enlarge:

Here's a link to our joint blog, Darkness and Deep Night, where we post articles and reviews and general discussion - whatever dribbles out of our respective brains, basically - relating to fantasy fiction:

Darkness and Deep Night

Please feel free to visit the blog and post comments/start a discussion.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The Hooded Man cometh (again)

After claiming I rarely write reviews, I now find myself writing two in a row. This one is for Robin Hood and the Knights of the Apocalypse, a brand-new audio episode of Robin of Sherwood. For those who don't know, RoS (to use a convenient acronym) was a British TV series back in the 80s that offered a very different take on the legend of Robin Hood. More realistic in some ways - the outlaws were a convincing bunch of roughnecks living inside a damp English forest, a world away from the sun-drenched Californian redwoods of the 1938 Errol Flynn flick -  it was also the first screen version of the tale to introduce pagan elements. Unlike the devout Catholic outlaw of the medieval ballads, this Robin served Herne the Hunter, an ancient spirit of the forest, and took on the guise of The Hooded Man in the fight against Norman oppression.

For many Robin of Sherwood is *the* definitive screen version of the tale, and certain elements have influenced almost every version since: for instance, it was the first to introduce the idea of a deadly Saracen warrior among Robin's band of freedom fighters. This notion was picked up - or ripped off, to be unkind - and recycled in Kevin Costner's Prince of Thieves (1991) and the more recent BBC Robin Hood (2006-09). Alan Rickman's notoriously over-the-top turn as the evil Sheriff of Nottingham also owed much to Nickolas Grace's villainous Sheriff in RoS, though for my money Grace's performance was far more subtle and interesting.

So to Robin Hood and the KOTA. Before I go any further, I should acknowledge the huge degree of love and care and effort that went into this project. It was no mean feat on the part of Barnaby Eaton-Jones and his friends at Spiteful Puppet to gather all the surviving cast, raise the money needed to fund the recording (via crowdfunding), as well as hack through the legal jungle simply to persuade ITV (who own the rights to the series) to allow the project to go ahead. Also worth mentioning is that all the money raised from sales of the recording will go to charity.

Now for the difficult bit. I'm a fan of the original show - though nowhere near as devoted or knowledgeable as many fans - and my expectations for the actual quality of the new episode were modest. Granted, Spiteful Puppet were using a leftover script by the show's creator and original screenwriter, the late Richard Carpenter, but after thirty years could they really hope to recapture the magic? Early reviews were extremely positive, bordering on the ecstatic, so my hopes were raised a little.

After listening to KOTA twice, I have to say my reaction is mixed. It's not the car crash I was dreading, far from it, but nor does it come anywhere close to the heights of the first two seasons of RoS. Part of the problem is the awkwardness of fitting a script intended for a feature-length screen film into audio format. The action scenes in particular suffer, though the producers did their best by adding swishing arrows, clanging swords, galloping hoofs etc. None of these studio tricks, impressive as they are - and KOTA is very well produced - can suppress the unintentional comedy of actors describing the action as it happens: "my sword is at your neck," Nasir grimly informs a defeated opponent at one point. Unless he's fighting a blind man, his opponent would presumably know that already.

Such criticism is perhaps unfair, since the only remedy would be to cut out the action scenes altogether. Sadly there are other issues. The script itself is derivative of earlier TV episodes, and at times comes across like an edited highlights package: Robin is once again captured by insane cultists, as he was in The Time of the Wolf, and once again has to fight a manifested demon, as he did in The Swords of Wayland (though to be fair that was Robin of Loxley, rather than his successor Robert of Huntingdon). Some of the dialogue is very clunky by Carpenter's standards, and the banter between the Merries largely falls flat. Little John and Will Scarlet, played by Clive Mantle and Ray Winstone, are given some deeply unfunny jokes to work with, while the clumsy dialogue is not helped by a hefty slice of ham acting. Colin Baker is far too shrill as the villain Gerard de Ridefort, which makes his character come across as a dull, pompous buffoon. Fortunately Anthony Head rescues the situation with a nicely understated performance as the chief villain, Guichard de Montbalm, though even he occasionally breaks into some startling Dr Evil-style peals of maniacal laughter.

Elsewhere the cast suffers from one unavoidable omission. The late Robert Addie, so memorable as the Sheriff's blustering right-hand man Guy of Gisburne, was replaced by Freddie Fox. Fox is by no means bad as Guy, and has a certain sneering menace all of his own, but he sounds nothing at all like Addie. The difference jars, at least to my ears, and it might have been a better idea to omit Guy altogether and invent a new character for Fox. Nickolas Grace as the Sheriff initially sounds uncertain, as though he struggled to re-inhabit a character left behind thirty years ago (he isn't alone in this) but by the end of the episode he's back to his best, coldly informing the wounded Guy that he 'was never any good' and leaving him to bleed.

In case all this negativity sounds depressing or infuriating, I should point out some good bits. Jason Connery is very good as Robert of Huntingdon, and perhaps gives his best performance in the role. Connery's performance in the old series still divides opinion among fans, some of whom maintain he was too young and callow for the part and not a patch on his predecessor, Michael Praed. Now, three decades on, his voice has a deeper timbre and he carries it with more authority. At times he comes across like an exasperated staff officer, curtly snapping orders at the Merries, which makes him less charming but more realistic: Robert is supposed to be a young nobleman turned outlaw in charge of a bunch of unruly wolfsheads, not all of whom welcomed his leadership at first.

Robert's relationship with Marion is kept firmly in the background, perhaps wisely since the slightly unconvincing nature of it was one of the problems of the show. However this undercuts the big dramatic moment at the end of the third season when a heartbroken Marion, thinking Robert was dead, chose to go into a convent. Her decision to come out again and rejoin him in Sherwood is dealt with in just a couple of passing lines, which is a bit of a letdown - at least for those of who enjoy wallowing in melodrama (as I do).

A mention should also go to Mark Ryan as Nasir. The brooding Nasir was given hardly any lines in the original show, but here he is almost chatty and surprisingly engaging. His brief monologue with a bird in a tree, turning to rage when the birds are all frightened away by de Ridefort, is one of the best moments. Phil Rose as Friar Tuck gets a nice scene where he baptises infants in defiance of the Interdict, but otherwise has little to do except a few fat jokes.

Another nice feature is an enlarged role for Michael Craig as Robert's father, the Earl of Huntingdon. At one point the earl is called David, pretty much confirming that he is supposed to be the historical David of Huntingdon (1144-1219), brother to a King of Scotland. This in turn makes Robert an immensely powerful man if he wants to be, not only the heir to an earldom but with a decent claim to the Scottish throne. Disappointingly - at least for a history nerd like me - little is ever made of these connections, or the potentially fascinating narrative arc. As earl, with money and power and soldiers and a king for an ally, Robert would stand a far better chance of defeating injustice and curbing the excesses of King John. Instead he chooses to wander back to Sherwood and spend his days mooning over Marion and listening to some laddish banter. Oh well.

Despite my many criticisms of KOTA, it did leave me wanting more. There is life in this old dog (or wolfshead) yet, and plenty more scope for further adventures. Further audio episodes, provided the demand exists for them, would actually be written for audio and thus remove the problems of retro-fitting a screenplay. I see no reason why a team of able writers, steeped in RoS lore, couldn't produce quality scripts that would do the story justice and bring it to an intelligent conclusion. Now we just need to find an eccentric millionaire or two to fund it...

Friday, 8 July 2016

Henry IV

Book reviews generally aren't my forte, but I've just finished reading a new biography of Henry IV by Chris Given-Wilson, professor of Medieval History at the University of Saint Andrews. The book is excellent, if very detailed and extensive and perhaps not for a casual reader, so I thought I would try my hand at a review.

Henry IV is one of those kings that failed to capture the popular imagination. Sandwiched between his flamboyant cousin Richard II and famous son Henry V, he tends to get treated as a mediocre stopgap. His relatively short reign of 14 years was enlivened by the Glyn Dwr revolt and dynamic personalities such as Harry 'Hotspur' and the dashing Prince Hal, but Henry himself remains firmly in the background, a stolid, uninteresting figure of limited ability whose main achievement in life was to father a hero.

Chris Given-Wilson's exhaustive biography of Henry should go a long way to changing this perception. Academic but accessible, Given-Wilson gives a roughly chronological account of the reign and provides detailed analysis of major aspects: the king's household, the duchy of Lancaster, Henry's struggle for solvency, the war at sea, his wars in Wales and Scotland, the problem of heresy (etc). The book is particularly strong on Henry's youth and his military adventures in Lithuania, where he won a great reputation as a crusader. As a young man Henry was a star of European chivalry, a friend and comrade-in-arms to French and Italian princes, showered with praise by the chroniclers of all nations and lusted after by an Italian noblewoman, Lucia Galeazzo: Lucia declared that she 'would have waited all the days of her life' to marry Henry, even if it meant she would 'die but three days after the marriage.' Henry was flattered, but the starstruck Lucia had to make do with marrying the Earl of Kent instead.

Having deposed Richard II and upset the balance of power in England, within a very short time Henry found himself up to his neck in troubles. Wales exploded in revolt under the charismatic Owain Glyn Dwr, the Scots and the French declared war, the duchy of Guyenne was overrun, Ireland was in turmoil, and England itself threatened to dissolve into civil war. Henry's early blunders, such as the oppressive Penal Laws he threw at the Welsh and his execution of Archbishop Scrope, only served to inflame the situation. His efforts to reduce Wales by leading a series of hopeless chevauchées, all driven back by appalling weather, further damaged his reputation. Henry's foolish refusal to discuss terms with Glyn Dwr, when the rebel leader offered them in 1402-3, prolonged the revolt for another ten years and almost led to an independent Welsh state.

The great crisis of Henry's reign came in 1403 when his former ally Hotspur suddenly raised the banner of revolt against him. Had the rebels been joined at this crucial juncture by Glyn Dwr's army, the reign might well have ended in disaster and Henry himself consigned to the list of failed usurpers. In the event Hotspur rose too soon and Henry reacted with a speed his enemies clearly didn't think him capable of. The close-run Battle of Shrewsbury, where Hotspur was killed and Henry triumphed, marked the turning point. From then on, Henry's fortunes improved and he learned from his mistakes. The English strategy in Wales changed from one of chevauchée to economic blockade, while the French alliance with Glyn Dwr was carefully unpicked by skilled diplomacy. At sea the French were repeatedly humiliated by a fleet of merchant-privateers, tacitly encouraged by Henry, until the Privateer War (as it was known) ended with English ships in command of the Channel. When the Percies rose again, Henry again acted swiftly, racing north to smash the northern conspiracy and reduce the Percy castles with artillery: the first King of England to use cannon against rebels on English soil. By the end of his reign, an English army under Henry's son Clarence was marching virtually unopposed across French soil - the first successful invasion of France since the high days of Edward III - and the rival French factions were begging for Henry's friendship. Most importantly, from his point of view, the English overseas possessions of Calais and the duchy of Guyenne were secured for another generation.

Often criticised by his parliaments, at times embarrassed by the invective hurled at him, Henry was careful never to play the role of a wilful tyrant in the Richard II mould: he listened to criticism without suppressing it, engaged with his critics and several times handed over control of his finances. In an age of supremely personal kingship, when the king was still very much the god-figure at the heart of government, Henry took pains to rule with a degree of consent. At the same time he behaved with implacable savagery towards those he deemed traitors. The fate of William Serle, repeatedly hanged and then cut down while still alive in every major town from Pontefract to London until finally cut to pieces at Tyburn, is one hideous example. Serle's excruciating progress from Yorkshire to London followed the same route as the corpse of Richard II, and was meant as a calculated act of political theatre. Yet Henry was also noted for his generosity to paupers, several examples of which are recorded. The man who ordered 'traitors' to be slowly hacked to death in public was the same who granted a starving beggar two rabbits a day from one of his parks instead of one, demonstrating the almost schizophrenic nature of medieval kings: terrible to their foes, gentle to the faithful..

In his conclusion Given-Wilson suggests that Henry's real misfortune was to fall sick just at the moment when he had achieved a measure of security. Only forty-six when he died, Henry might have reasonably expected to live for at least another decade. With all his enemies laid low and his finances - a problem throughout the rein - finally on the mend, he could have turned his considerable natural ability to governing his kingdom instead of merely hanging onto it. Instead his fate was to die of a gruesome lingering sickness which left him horribly disfigured and unable to walk or ride. The security he had achieved after years of struggle was instead exploited to the full by his son, Henry V, known to any history buff as the victor of Agincourt.

I'll leave the last line to the author: 'Unlike his son, Henry IV is not remembered as a great king, but it is not impossible to imagine that, given different circumstances, he could have been.'

Thursday, 23 June 2016

New blog

I'm back from my travels in the Marches (in other words, Chester and North Wales) and would like to draw attention to a new joint blog, shared with my co-author Martin Bolton, which has now gone live. See the link below:

The focus of the blog is fantasy fiction and relevant subjects, as opposed to the mainly historical themes on here. If it sparks your interest, please do take a look - the first post, written by myself, is a short article on Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane (among other characters). Comment on the post to enter a draw for a free copy of one of our fantasy novels, The Best Weapon or The Path of Sorrow!

Saturday, 11 June 2016

John Page, soldier and poet and...?

Before I head away from the land of the internet for a week - on a research trip to Chester and its surroundings, which should be fun - I thought I would provide some context for John Page, the (somewhat reluctant) hero of my current trilogy, Soldier of Fortune.

Page is based on a real-life Englishman of the real name, of whom almost nothing is known. The only enduring mark he left on history was a poem, 'The Siege of Rouen', an eyewitness narrative account set to verse of Henry V's siege of Rouen in 1418-19. The poem is unique in English verse in that it provides a first-hand account of contemporary warfare, and has been summarised as 'a complex mix of patriotism and compassion, verse chronicle and historical romance.' 

Only a single version of the poem survives, inside a version of the Middle English 'Brut' chronicle. Page's intent was to flatter the king and his nobles, principally the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of Exeter, whom he describes in glowing terms as men of 'great renown.' Apart from sucking up to royalty, Page's account is invaluable for its description of siege tactics and the brutality of 15th century warfare. He begins by describing the siege of Rouen as an epic event, greater than the sieges of Jerusalem or Troy:

'And no more solemn siege was set.
Since Jerusalem or Troy were got...'

Page was exaggerating, but the siege and eventual capture of Rouen was perhaps Henry V's greatest victory, of more long-term significance than his more famous triumph at Agincourt in 1415. Rouen was the ducal capital of Normandy, Henry's ancestral homeland, and its capture gave the English a solid foothold in northern France. The king, who had cut his teeth fighting in Wales, was an expert in siege warfare: the city was surrounded on all sides by a network of ditches and trenches, while bands of Irish knife-men were sent out to scour the countryside for enemy troops, prevent supplies reaching the town and destroy French villages. 

The poet doesn't shy away from the grim realities of the siege and the appalling conditions faced by the people trapped inside. As winter came on and food ran low he describes the citizens forced to feed on some less than choice delicacies: 'horses, dogs, casts, mice, rats and other things not belonging to human kind...'

Siege of Rouen
French chroniclers accused Henry of refusing to allow the poorer citizens, ejected from the city as useless mouths, to pass through his siege lines. His hard-heartedness condemned the citizens to starve in the ditch below the walls, and there are horrifying accounts of babies being winched up to the ramparts in baskets to be baptised, then lowered again to die. Page admits that the city was starved into surrender - 'hunger breaks the stone walls' - but gives a different account of Henry's actions. According to him, Henry allowed his captains and private soldiers to take food to the citizens in the ditch if they wished, but refused any personal responsibility for their plight. "Who put them there?" he demanded of a party of French ambassadors when they begged him to allow the citizens through, "if the French wish to torment each other, it is none of my affair." The hard truth was that Henry had come to Normandy presenting himself as the scourge of the French nation, sent by God to chastise a corrupt people. He regarded the ejection of the citizens of Rouen as a deliberate ploy by the French to challenge his claim, and he could not afford to show mercy without being perceived as weak. 

The poet himself is a shadowy figure. We know nothing of him save the little he chooses to tell us. His reason for being present at the siege - 'at that siege with the king I lay' - is unknown, and the poem reveals nothing of his status or background. One theory is that he can be identified with a John Page who was Prior of Barnwell at the time, though it is unclear why the Prior of Barnwell should have been present at a siege in Normandy. 'John Page' was a fairly common name and the muster rolls listed on the Medieval Soldier Database reveal nine archers of that name serving in Henry V's army between 1415-17: one served under the Duke of Gloucester in the Normandy expedition that culminated in the siege of Rouen. Hence it could be that the poet was one of these archers - a very unusual archer, literate and with a taste for poetry, who penned his work for the ages and then vanished back into the faceless throng, lost to history forever.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Edwardian armies

This is another in a series of blog posts on the military aspects of Edward I's reign. Some may call it an obsession, but it could be worse - I could be a Ricardian (that's a joke, in case any Ricardians out there are reading this.)

Warning: the rest of this post is a bit of a nerdfest, so any readers with no particular interest in military terms and military history might want to look away now...

Yep. Him again.
Edward seldom gets any credit for the way he restructured the old-fashioned English feudal host. He introduced the concept of paid military service in place of feudal dues and privileges, as well as a new command structure and innovative tactics. His reforms were by no means thorough, and many of them fell away during the reign of his son, Edward II, to be picked up again and improved to perfection by Edward III. Nevertheless, it was old man Longshanks who got the ball rolling.

Prior to Edward I, the English feudal army was reasonably large, but cumbersome and lacking in experience. The majority of Englishmen in the reign of Henry III were raw fighters, and made for poor soldiers, with the exception of those living on the Welsh March and the poachers and huntsmen of Sherwood, who enjoyed some reputation for archery. Otherwise native infantry were quite useless, and largely there to make up the numbers. Desertion rates were high, training minimal, and wages pathetic. The real military elite was still composed of the mounted knights and barons and their retinues. Knights never dismounted to fight - beneath their noble dignity - and companies of horse and foot never brigaded together.

Battles such as Lewes and Evesham were won by charges of heavy horse, while the hapless infantry were ridden down and slaughtered. At Lewes Simon de Montfort drew his knights up into three bodies with a reserve. They rode forward in a single level charge, 'boot to boot', the riders heavy in their mail coats and leggings, wielding couched lances that packed a mighty punch, but were massive and difficult to wield. Rapid movements and elaborate manoeuvres were impossible. These simple, inflexible tactics were exactly the same as used by Simon de Montfort's father at the Battle of Muret in 1213, and worked well enough so long as feudal hosts fought each other. In North Wales, where the natives avoided pitched battles and led the lumbering knights a merry dance in the mountains and forests, they were ineffective. Time after time, one English feudal host after another was 'beaten bootless back' - as Shakespeare put it - from Wales, defeated by Welsh guerilla tactics and Welsh weather.

Edward, who had ample experience in his youth of the difficulties of fighting in Wales, saw the need for change. I've described in a previous post his efforts to create a bow-armed infantry, but his reforms went further than that. His first task was organisation and the systematic use of paid contracts in place of feudal dues, which allowed him to reorganise the army along structured, professional lines. For instance, a baron or 'banneret' might be contracted to raise a company of a hundred or more lances. The company was itself divided into troops, with each smaller troop led by an officer on a sub-contract. This system allowed for subordination of command, which meant that companies could act independently under their own officers instead of relying entirely on the commander-in-chief.

Companies or squadrons of cavalry could join together to form a single 'brigade' under the overall command of the king, or be split apart again under one of his nobles. In 1277 the Earls of Warwick and Lincoln each had command of a company of 125 lances, while Pain de Chaworth had 75 lances. These men, including their leaders, were all contracted to serve for a renewable period of forty days. Troops led by earls, barons, knights and ordinary troopers could be subdivided into smaller units, each with an officer, depending on necessity. Most captains were men of some status - this was still the 13th century, after all - but performance was prized above noble blood. Even the Earl of Gloucester, one of the greatest nobles in the land, was stripped of his command after leading his troops to defeat at Llandeilo in 1282.

Until his conquest of Wales, the best footmen Edward could muster were the famed mercenary crossbowmen from his duchy of Gascony. These men, described as 'the Swiss of the 13th century', were expensive and summoned in relatively small numbers. 'They came pompously', according to one chronicler, and fought with an arrogant swagger worthy of D'Artagnan, perhaps the most famous Gascon of all. Langtoft described their performance in Wales:
A medieval D'Artagnan...

'They (the Gascons) remain with the king, receive his gifts.

In moors and mountains they clamber like lions,
They go with the English, burn the houses,
Throw down the castles, slay the wretches,
They have passed the Marches, and entered into Snowdon..."

The king was not content to rely entirely on Welsh mercenaries and the 'lions' of Gascony for his infantry. He took steps to at least improve the organisation of English footsoldiers, as he had done with the cavalry. From 1277 onwards he appointed special officers in place of regional sheriffs to oversee the raising of footmen from the English shires, and these officers were tasked with picking the best and strongest men and forming them into regular companies. A company of English foot consisted of a hundred men, led by a mounted constable or centenar. Each company was divided into units of nineteen, led by under-officers or vintenars. Thus a proper system of pay and command was introduced, though desertion rates remained high and the quality of the average English footsoldier took decades to improve: for his war in France in 1294, Edward was compelled to recruit criminals and outlaws into the infantry, since none better could be found elsewhere.

Edward's introduction of new tactics and organisation, the combination of horse and foot and introduction of the Welsh longbow as a common weapon in English armies, all paid off. At Orewin Bridge, Maes Moydog and Falkirk his enemies were destroyed by units of cavalry, archers and crossbowmen working in concert. His troops had also learned guerilla tactics from the Welsh: after the victory of Maes Moydog, units of English and Gascons in camouflage gear (white cloaks so they merged into the snow) pursued the Welsh into their own mountains.

The king had learned from bitter experience, and there were plenty of bitter experiences to come before the glory days of Edward III. Falkirk was almost lost by a foolish charge of mounted knights, straight onto the Scottish spears, and the situation only restored by the arrival of Edward and his Gascons. The arrogance of the English baronage, their ingrained belief that they could still sweep all before them with a single mounted charge, was something the king could do little to eradicate. The result was total disaster at Bannockburn in 1314, where all the lessons of Edward I's reign were forgotten and the chivalry of England smashed to pieces on Bruce's schiltrons. Even thick-headed aristocrats could hardly ignore such a lesson, and the third Edward was savvy enough to remember the innovations of his grandfather, as well as introducing a few of his own.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016


Anyone who reads this blog will know my interest in King Edward I and his military campaigns. Lately I've been reading about his early battles against the Welsh and the baronial rebels in England. These weren't always successful, and quite often ended in humiliating defeat for the young prince: in 1257 an army of mercenaries sent to pacify West Wales on his behalf was exterminated at Coed Llathen, while Edward himself was famously defeated and captured by Simon de Montfort at Lewes. Edward's lands in the March were ravaged by his bitter rival, Robert de Ferrers, the 'wild and flighty' Earl of Derby, who also (briefly) seized many of the prince's castles.

Battle scene from a 1200s MS
The watershed moment for Edward was the Battle of Evesham, where he turned the tables on his enemies and massacred de Montfort and his army. Here Edward gave the world a taste of the cold, machine-like efficiency that would define his later military career. De Montfort was hunted down on the field by a specially chosen death-squad led by the ruthless Marcher lord, Roger de Mortimer, while no quarter was given to the rebel knights and barons. Thirty noblemen were slain at Evesham, a small number compared to the thousands of common men slaughtered, but still the greatest number of nobles killed in a single battle in England since Hastings. Amid the reeking carnage and piles of dismembered corpses, Edward proved he had come of age. 

After Evesham, there was still plenty of fighting to do before England was settled. In the two years of hard campaigning that followed, Edward showed he had learned from his tough experiences in Wales and the March. In particular he had learned the value of the Welsh bow and the warlike qualities of Welsh soldiers, especially the archers of Gwent and Glamorgan and the spearmen of Gwynedd and Merioneth. In the spring and summer of 1266 Edward and his lieutenant, Roger Leyburn, were engaging in clearing out bands of rebels in the deep forests of the Sussex Weald and retaking the Cinque Ports, which controlled access to the Channel. This required hard fighting in thickly wooded areas, and the royal account rolls show that Edward and Leyburn hired over 500 Welsh archers to destroy the rebels hiding in the Weald. Since the Welsh were renowned as superb guerillas, skilled at ambushes and fighting in difficult terrain, they were ideal for the task. 

Welsh archer, from a 14th century MS
These men were paid 3 pence a day, an unusually high wage: in Edward's later campaigns English archers were paid 2 pence a day, while his Welsh mercenaries only got 1. The Weald archers were provided with tunics priced at 3 shillings each, the cloth costing in all £30, while their total wages came to £143. This was a fairly considerable outlay, and it could be that the Welsh archers employed in this campaign were regarded as elite troops. After the rebels were defeated and the Cinque Ports reduced, many of the archers were left to guard Essex as a kind of police force. What the locals made of hundreds of Welshmen garrisoning their towns and villages is anyone's guess. 

The 12th century writer, Gerald of Wales, left a vivid description of Welsh soldiers:

"They are lightly armed so that their agility might not be impeded; they are clad in short garments of chain mail, have a handful of arrows, long lances, helmets and shields, but rarely appear with leg armour...those of the foot soldiers who have not bare feet, wear shoes made of raw hide, sewn up in a barbarous fashion. The people of Gwent are more accustomed to war, more famous for valour, and more expert in archery than those in any other part of Wales...."

Gerald goes on to describe the lethal efficacy of the Welsh bow, made of wild elm 'rude and uncouth, but strong', and tells of how arrows shot during an assault on Abergavenny Castle penetrated 'an iron gate which was four fingers thick...in memory of which the arrows are still preserved sticking in the gate.' Whether arrows shot from any kind of bow, even Welsh longbows, were capable of penetrating iron may be open to doubt, but Gerald's writings clearly show the Welsh bow was regarded as a fearsome weapon. 

Edward wasn't the first King of England to realise the importance of archers - bowmen are mentioned in the assize of arms of Henry III's reign - but he did make a serious effort to create an organised, disciplined force of bow-armed infantry. A specially raised body of crossbowmen and archers was hired to root out rebels in Sherwood Forest in 1266, and archers from Notts and Derbyshire were often recruited to serve in his Welsh wars. In the 'little war of Chálons', fought in 1273 during Edward's return from Crusade, the French knights were dragged from their horses and butchered on the ground by Welsh bowmen and slingers in the king's retinue. 

During the first Welsh war of 1277, two small, purely bow-armed corps of infantry were raised. One was drawn from Gwent and Crickhowell, the other (numbering a hundred men) from Macclesfield in Cheshire, close to the Welsh border. The Macclesfield corps served Edward as a personal guard, and the tradition of kings being guarded by a 'Macclesfield Hundred' was continued by Edward's descendants: Richard II was accompanied on his travels by a hundred Macclesfield and Welsh archers, kitted out in green and white livery (see right).

Edward's conquest of the Welsh heartlands gave him access to some of the best fighting men in Europe, and he wasn't the man to ignore such a resource. Many thousands of Welsh archers and spearmen were employed in his later wars in Gascony and Scotland (and Wales). The numbers of Welsh employed in English armies continued to rise during the reigns of Edward's immediate successors, reaching a high point in the Crécy campaign of 1346...but more of that in future posts. 

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Soldier of Fortune (II): The Heretic

Drums...trumpets...pipes...fanfare...etc! As promised in my last post, Soldier of Fortune (II): The Heretic is now available on Kindle.

“Ye who are God’s warriors and of His law...”

“Ye who are God’s warriors and of His law...” 

Constantinople, 1453 AD. Sir John Page, English knight and mercenary captain, has been taken prisoner by the Ottoman Turks. To avoid execution, Page is forced to entertain the Sultan with stories of his adventures as a soldier in France, Bohemia and Italy. 

In this, the second tale, Page describes his time among the fanatical Hussites in Bohemia. Condemned by the Pope as heretics, the Hussites dared to defy the might of the Catholic church and the Christian princes of Europe. In response the Pope ordered their destruction, down to the last child, and the brutal subjugation of their country. 

Page joins the Hussites just as another crusade is launched against Bohemia. Led by the merciless King Sigismund, known as the Dragon of Prophecy, the crusaders will drown the land in blood rather than let heresy prevail. Bohemia’s only hope lies in Jan Zizka, a blind soldier of genius, and his army of peasant soldiers. 

Caught up in a savage war of religion, Page struggles to earn the trust of his new comrades, who regard the Englishman as a potential spy. On bloody battlefields fought in nightmarish conditions, with his life and immortal soul at stake, Page is faced with a stark choice: win, or perish...

The paperback version will follow shortly - watch this space, as they say...

Monday, 25 April 2016

The Soldier of Fortune cometh (again)

I interrupt my recent series of posts on Edward I and his wars in Wales to bring you news of my latest book. Titled Soldier of Fortune (II): The Heretic, this is the second of a planned trilogy following the adventures of Sir John Page, a semi-fictional English mercenary or 'soldier of fortune' in the early to mid-15th century. 

Fall of Constantinople
Captured at the final siege of Constantinople in 1453, Page is literally forced to sing for his supper (or rather, his life) by the victorious Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed the Conqueror: to save his neck from the executioner's blade, Page must tell a series of Arabian Nights-style stories for the sultan's entertainment. As an old soldier with a long military career behind him, Page chooses to tell stories from his own life - possibly a little exaggerated, but only he knows that. 

Having already recited his first tale, based on his early career as a soldier in Normandy in the army of King Henry V, Page now recounts his time among the Hussites in war-torn Bohemia (part of the modern-day Czech Republic). The Hussites were followers of the martyred Bohemian preacher, Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake as a heretic in Constance in 1415. Hus was a radical who believed in cleansing the Catholic church of sin and corruption, and unsurprisingly hated by the Pope. After being thrown out of Prague University he wandered the country, preaching his ideals to the poor. He gained immense popular support, and when the news of his death reached Bohemia the people flew to arms to avenge him. 

The Hussite armies were essentially made up of peasants, supported by a handful of nobles. Outnumbered and (supposedly) outclassed by the vast armies commanded by the Pope and his allies in Germany and Hungary, they should have been wiped out in a matter of weeks. Instead, thanks to innovative battle tactics and superb use of artillery, they won a series of unlikely victories against the odds. Thus the cream of the elite warrior nobility of Christendom was humiliated, time and again, by a few thousand commoners and some farm carts converted into gun-toting 'war wagons'.

The Hussite Wars, as they were called, raged for seventeen years. Page's story covers the years 1421-24, when the wars were at their height. For his sins, Page fights in the major battles and sieges, and witnesses some of the worst atrocities committed in a land riven by bitter civil conflicts, external invasions and extreme religious zealotry. During the course of the tale Page meets Jan Zizka, the famous Hussite general, meets a new love and loses old friends. 

My good friend Martin Bolton has drawn a splendid map of Bohemia c.1420, which will be inside the paperback version of the book:

Soldier of Fortune (II) The Heretic is currently in the last stages of editing and will be available very soon. More details to follow soon... 

A previous update on the book, including a brief account of Jan Zizka, can be read under the link below:

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Edward and Llewellyn, Part One

In August 1267 the ageing Henry III of England travelled with his court to the Welsh border at Montgomery. There he met with Llewellyn ap Gruffydd and granted the Welsh prince all he had long desired, including the Four Cantrefs of Perfeddwlad, the castle and lordship of Builth, and the greatest prize of all, formal recognition by the English crown of Llewellyn's title and supremacy over Wales.

Llewellyn's arms as prince of Gwynedd
Among the signatories to the deal, known as the Treaty of Montgomery, was Henry's eldest son, Edward. This was the first time Edward and Llewellyn had met in person, though they had stood on opposite sides in the recent baronial wars and fought over territory in the Welsh March. An army of mercenaries, sent into Wales on the young Edward's behalf, had been destroyed by Welsh forces at Coed Llathen in 1256. Edward's former lordship of Builth, taken by Llewellyn in 1260, was now officially given over to the prince. Yet despite this long history of antagonism the two men seemed to have got on rather well: two years later, Llewellyn wrote of his 'delight' at a second meeting with Edward. After Edward had departed for the Holy Land, Henry wrote back to Llewellyn, describing in warm terms the prince's friendship with his eldest son.

Thirteen years later, Llewellyn was fated to die in a ditch, slain by Edward's troops. His head was cut off and paraded on a spear through the streets of London, crowned with a wreath of ivy, in mockery of his princely status. Wales itself was conquered and occupied and turned into an English colony, while Llewellyn's regalia was broken up and sent to London, and his living descendants (children of his brother, Dafydd) locked up in convents or English prisons. How, from a promising start, did his relations with Edward collapse so dramatically?

The decline was slow, and far from inevitable. Relations were still amicable in 1269, when Edward intervened on Llewellyn's behalf in a violent territorial dispute with Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester. Edward risked much in doing so, for de Clare was one of the most powerful and volatile nobles in England. He had fought on both sides in the civil wars, and Edward needed his support (and cash) for the planned Crusade. De Clare was furious at Edward's judgement, and chose to stay and fight it out with Llewellyn rather than go east with his royal master.

Llewellyn's failure to prevent de Clare building his impressive castle at Caerphilly in Glamorgan might be seen as the turning point in the prince's fortunes. Up until now his career had been one long success story. Now the Marcher barons detected signs of weakness. In 1273 Humphrey de Bohun, heir to the earldom of Hereford, started to push his ancestral claims to the lordship of Brecon. He moved troops into the region, secure in the knowledge that the regent Edward left behind to govern England, Roger de Mortimer, was himself an aggressive Marcher baron and no friend of Llewellyn.

From Edward's point of view it made sense to leave Mortimer as gatekeeper: he was a strong hand and England was unlikely to fall back into civil conflict with him in charge. For Llewellyn the appointment of Mortimer was a disaster. When he complained to the English court over de Bohun's illegal invasion of Brecon, Mortimer and his advisors responded with shameless duplicity. Having checked the Treaty of Montgomery, they found that 'the land of Brecon' had indeed been ceded to the prince. However, the terms said nothing of who should hold the castles in the region. De Bohun, therefore, was perfectly within his rights to occupy and fortify those castles as he pleased, and hold them against all comers. They finished with an expression of shock and dismay that Llewellyn 'had presumed to besiege and occupy those castles' and warned him to keep the peace in future.

Dolforwyn Castle
Fully aware that he could not afford to let the Marchers get on top, Llewellyn ignored the warning and started work on his new castle at Dolforwyn. When the regents ordered him to cease construction, his bitingly sarcastic response was addressed to the absent king instead of them: "We received letters in your majesty's name," he wrote, "but we are sure they did not have your consent...if you were present in your kingdom. as we hope, we are sure they would not have been sent." Ironically, considering later events, Llewellyn appears to have regarded Edward as his saviour at this point. Only the King of England had the power to stop his over-mighty Marchers from building castles on Llewellyn's lands and doing all they could to expand their power and influence at his expense.

When Edward finally returned in 1274, having survived an assassin's knife in the Holy Land, one subject loomed large in his mind: money. The crusade might have done his reputation a power of good, but it achieved little in material terms and incurred massive debts. He needed cash, fast, and expected large sums from Wales. As the price for his acknowledgement in 1267, Llewellyn had promised to pay the English crown the enormous sum of 25,000 marks (£16,667). For the prince of a proud but poor country, with an estimated annual customs revenue of about £17 (the comparative revenue of England was £10,000 per annum) this was optimistic to say the least. After some bartering, it was agreed he could pay off the amount at a rate of 3000 marks (£2000) a year. At the height of his power, in the mid-1260s, Llewellyn's total income was no more than £6000, so he had effectively waved goodbye to over a third of his annual revenue.

By the early 1270s, Llewellyn's slender finances were creaking under the strain. He was three years in arrears on the annual payments, and had resorted to crippling taxation in order to pay for the arms race with the Marchers. The prince of Wales, as Gwyn A. Williams noted, taxed the subjects of a small country with no major towns and a severely restricted currency to the hilt, built castles on their backs, used every method he could think of to raise money. In this he was no different to any other 13th century princeling, but in Llewellyn's case the available resources did not match his ambition.

In the end he tried to use the fraught political situation as a way of putting off his debts: "The money is ready to be paid to your attorneys," he wrote to the regents in February 1274, "provided you compel the Earl of Gloucester, Humphrey de Bohun and the other Marchers to restore to us the lands they have unjustly occupied." The result was an unsustainable Catch-22. Llewellyn knew that Mortimer would not order the Marchers to desist, which in turn meant Llewellyn was justified in not stumping up the £6000 he owed. Whether he really did have the funds available, as he claimed, is open to doubt.

Edward I 
Edward - perhaps surprisingly, for those who regard him as incapable of compromise - did his best to patch up the situation. His own debts were pressing, and he couldn't afford to let his avaricious Marchers ruin any chance of payment from Llewellyn. He ordered the Sheriff of Shropshire to bring an end to hostilities, stressing that he 'did not want Llewellyn to have any cause for complaining about the settlement made'. If the prince had no cause for complaint, he reasoned, there was no further excuse for defaulting on the arrears.

By now (1274) Llewellyn was in his early fifties, and there was little sign of the final disaster to come, just eight years later. Some compromise over the money and territorial squabbles in the March might yet have been reached. Certain English baronial rebels, such as John de Eyvill, had negotiated favourable terms with Edward under similar circumstances. Edward and Llewellyn were scheduled to meet at Shrewsbury in the autumn to hammer out terms, but Edward fell sick and couldn't attend. If that meeting had gone ahead, Llewellyn - and his country - might yet have been saved.

The fly in the ointment came in the shape of Llewellyn's younger brother, Dafydd. More of him, and the wars of 1277 and 1282, in part two.