Reiver by David Pilling

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Archers!

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. 




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