Longsword by David Pilling

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

This is my review of 'Medieval Battles 1097 to 1295' by Paul Martin Remfry. Paul is a fine writer and historian and his books deserve to reach wider notice. Link to the product on Amazon at the end. 


A review by David Pilling This is a comprehensive study of mainly Anglo-Welsh military campaigns between 1047 and 1095 (though it actually ends with the campaign of Edmund of Cornwall against Rhys ap Maredudd in 1287). The author has done an extraordinary job of accessing and translating most of the available primary sources for each campaign; these include chronicle entries, muster rolls, payrolls, detailed records for army supply and logistics (etc). By relying on primary material instead of second or third-hand information - as every responsible historian should - Remfry provides as realistic and accurate a picture of events as the sources allow.

The first half of the book focuses on different aspects of warfare in this period: changing fashions in armour and weaponry, the importance of siege tactics and engineers, mercenaries, trade, tactics and pay, naval transport and fleets, casualties and battle cairns, treatment of wounds, the difficulties of raising armies and maintaining them in the field. There is also an interesting analysis of knightly effigies, royal and baronial seals and what they can tell us about styles of equipment and battle-gear. The sheer depth of Remfry's knowledge provides a well of useful information. For example his complete translation of the account of Edward I's war in Flanders in 1297, from the Chronicle of Bury St Edmunds, was invaluable for my own research.

In the second half Remfry switches to analysis of separate campaigns in Wales, starting with Henry II's march to Corwen in September 1165 and ending in the war of Rhys ap Maredudd in 1287. Again his research is pinpoint, and the use of primary evidence spot-on. Unlike many who write of this era of Anglo-Welsh history, Remfry has no axe to grind, grants zero concession to irrelevant modern sensibilities, displays zero favouritism towards English kings or Welsh princes. Those who lean towards fantasy and romance should give this book a wide berth. The author deals in reality, not prejudice.

Stripped of modern accretion, Henry II's campaign of 1165 is revealed as a partial success, though his strategy was dubious and he made little headway against appalling weather and determined Welsh resistance. However the campaign stabilised the crown’s interests in Powys for a generation, and reinforced a permanent English military presence in the North Shropshire plains. I was surprised to learn how many Welsh mercenaries the king recruited for his later campaigns in France, a practice continued by his successor, Richard I. One French chronicler provides a terrifying account of the savagery of Richard's Welsh troops, and the widespread damage and loss of life they caused. In the end, the threat posed by the Welsh was so acute the French army trapped three and half thousand of them in a valley at Les Andleys and massacred the lot.

Remfry skips over King John and moves on to the Welsh wars of Henry III. Much of this will make gruesome reading for Henry's admirers. No amount of hopeful revisionism or baronial discord can excuse the king's dismal failure to adequately supply his armies in Wales, a mistake he repeated time and again: Ceri in 1228, Painscastle in 1231, Deganwy in 1245 and his final Welsh campaign in 1257. That said, from a Welsh perspective Henry was a persistent opponent, with a habit of bouncing back from his defeats. Llywelyn ab Iorweth repelled most of Henry's badly planned and supported invasions, but after Llywelyn's demise the situation changed. In the mid-1240s, via sheer persistent hammering, Henry managed to reduce the princes of Gwynedd to some level of obedience. This enforced settlement only lasted a few years before the rise of Llywellyn ap Gruffudd saw the English hegemony in Wales virtually swept away by the early 1260s. By now, Henry and his hard-nosed son, the Lord Edward, were embroiled in domestic conflicts and could do little to remedy the situation.

The final section concentrates on the wars of Edward I against Llywellyn. These could reasonably be viewed as the climatic episodes of a conflict stretching back decades, perhaps even centuries. Scholars are moving away from interpreting Edward merely as a king who reversed his father's mistakes, but in one respect the old comparison holds true. Edward's preparations for war suggest he harboured nightmares of previous failures in Wales: hapless English armies dying on their feet through lack of food, their supply lines strangled, their soldiers harried and slaughtered by constant Welsh ambushes.

The statistics are almost beyond belief. In July 1257 Henry III collected the following supplies for his army: 600 quarters (38,400 gallons) of wheat, 400 (25,600 gallons) of oats, 600 fat oxen and cows, 800 salmon, 2000 congers, 6000 hake, 200 tuns (51,200 gallons) of wine. In 1282, by contrast, the English supply centre at Chester alone contained 1,472,000 gallons of grain and 1,689,000 gallons of wine, while for his 1297 campaign in Flanders Edward called for an enormous 6.4 million gallons of grain (for an army of barely 9000 men!). The conclusions to be drawn from these stats are unavoidable. Henry III barely supplied his men with enough food to keep them in the field for the requisite forty days of feudal service. Edward I supplied enough to keep them in chronic indigestion for months at a time.

In summary, anyone interested in the hard realities of 12th and 13th century warfare, with an emphasis on Wales, should get this book. The evidence presented is tilted towards the English side, but this is inevitable due to the nature of the surviving evidence. The records of the English military machine for the mid-to-late 13th century are fairly comprehensive, while little survives for the Welsh save chroni cle references and reasonable supposition. As an example, the most useful indicators for the size of the armies of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in the 1260s are taken from English correspondence.

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