Reconstruction of the castle in the early 14th century, seen from the sea.


Gatehouses The King’s gate at Caernarfon is one of the most powerful of gatehouses, begun in 1283. In front of the entrance is a turning bridge; the front end rose up into a recess while the rear dropped into a pit behind. The passage was heavily defended: if the gatehouse had been completed it would have had no less than five wooden doors and six portsculli along its length. Evidence in the existing walls suggests that the never-completed rear section made the passage turn at right-angles, thence over a second drawbridge before arriving in the lower ward.

In order to enter the great gatehouse at Harlech, the visitor was required to pass the outer gatehouse with its twin turrets and turning bridge, the pit into which it dropped forming an additional obstacle. Then followed the main gate passage, arched throughout its length and flanked by huge towers. The first obstacle was a two-leaved door closed by a drawbar running into a slot in the wall thickness. There followed two portsculli, behind which was another door with drawbar. Further down the passage was a third portcullis, with possibly yet another set of doors in front. The room directly over the gate passage was a chapel flanked either side by a vestry but it also received the two forward portsculli when raised; the third came up into the larger of the two rear rooms. The fact that this floor housed the winches for operating the portsculli suggests it was used by the constable. Above was another floor, a residential suite laid out the same way and presumably designed for the king or some persons of rank. The rear of each tower was provided with a stair turret and, additionally, a door on the first floor at the rear led on to a platform and thence to an external stair to ground level, allowing access when all the gates were shut.

Master James of St George probably designed the splendid triple-towered gatehouse at Denbigh; once past the twin towers at the front, a vaulted hall was entered (with a chamber on the floor above). The rear tower blocked further egress, forcing a right turn into the ward.

On the estuary of the River Dwyryd, on the site of a former Welsh fort, built by Master James of St George for Edward I, 1283–90, costing £9,500. The sea was closer then to the castle. It had a concentric plan with a wide moat on two sides. A massive twintowered gatehouse faces east. The inner curtain has round corner towers. The curtain to the narrow outer bailey is low, dominated by the inner bailey. Master James became constable of Harlech 1290–3. It was besieged by Welsh rebels in 1294 but relieved. Repairs were made in the 14th century. Harlech was besieged and taken in  1404 by Owen Glendower with French allies, to become his base, and recovered by Lord Talbot in 1408. In the Wars of the Roses Harlech was taken over in 1468 by Dafydd ap Ieuan, whose men were the original ‘Men of Harlech’. The castle was besieged and taken by Yorkists under the Earl of Pembroke. It was held for the royalists in the English Civil War.

In the late thirteenth century, King Edward I of England built a sequence of castles from Caernarfon to Conwy to Harlech to secure his conquests in the north of the principality of Wales. In so far as the inhabitants of the country were the direct descendants of the British population of Rome’s province of Britannia and the last unconquered region of the empire north of the Alps, it has been said that Edward’s victories there represented the final fall of the Roman Empire in the West.

The financial outlay on these “Edwardian” castles was huge (in the 1970s it was calculated that each fortress cost in modern terms the equivalent of a Concorde supersonic airliner) not least because the most up-to-date principles and techniques of fortification were used. The strength of these places was to be demonstrated years later when in 1404 the Welsh rebel Owain Glyndwr laid siege to Harlech. For weeks the place was held by just five Englishmen and sixteen Welshmen—when the castellan made overtures to surrender, the garrison locked him up. In fact, the great castle fell not to assault by its Welsh attackers but because, in the end, the skeleton force defending it decided to accept terms and were bought out. Some sixty years later, it was once more in rebel hands, holding for the House of Lancaster when, in 1461, Edward of York became king as Edward IV. These “Men of Harlech” held out for seven years, harrying the neighboring countryside until in August 1468, after a protracted siege, William Herbert, earl of Pembroke, finally recovered the place for Edward. An indication of the effort involved and the obvious strength of the fortress is found in the Public Record Office, where the accounts show some £5,000 paid to the earl for his expenses.

The Siege of Badajoz: March-April 1812


Storming of Badajoz by Chris Collingwood.


The last siege of Badajoz conducted by Wellington’s army was typified by a failed main assault on the breech and a successful secondary assault on the castle. The Allies had failed to take Badajoz before, and the lack of an adequate British siege train, along with qualified engineer officers and engineer troops, would make infantry assaults the major instrument in the siege. The gallantry of the British infantry is legendary, and Wellington undoubtedly felt grief over the horrific losses. The skilled defence of Badajoz by General Phillipon and his garrison is contrasted with the amaterish way in which the British engineering arm conducted the siege. The heavy losses prompted the British to create the Royal Corps of Sappers and Miners.

There were four sieges of Badajoz during the Peninsular War, all taking place in 1811-12. The initial siege was undertaken by the French and was a success; it was followed by two failed British attempts. The fourth and last of these operations was also undertaken by the British. This time they carried the day, but it was a very bloody episode and the superb performance of the British infantry was marred by their disgraceful conduct afterwards. They indulged in a three-day orgy of rapine, drunkenness and plunder against an allied and friendly population that had not opposed the British siege operations in any way.

Wellington’s sieges in Portugal and Spain are not noted for the skill and thoroughness with which they were conducted. Many of them were failures, and those that succeeded were usually marked by heavy casualties incurred by the besiegers because the cities had to be taken by storm. Badajoz was one of the keys to Spain; it had to be taken so that the Allied army could continue into the interior and eventually into southern France. It stood on the Guadiana River and water formed a natural obstacle on two sides. The city was strongly fortified and had formidable outworks called the Pardaleras and the Picurina. Across the Guadiana was San Cristobal and the fortified bridgehead for the bridge over the river. The works were garrisoned by about 5000 men ably commanded by General Armand Philippon (1761-1836), who proved a redoubtable adversary.

Siege works were then opened against the eastern side of the fortress on 15 March 1812 amidst terrible weather that made construction difficult at best. The troops that worked on the first siege parallel laboured in water up to their waists and were under heavy French fire from the outset. The French sortied from the fortress on 19 March but were repulsed, and work continued.

Batteries were built to fire on the fortress and on 24 March six batteries opened fire on the Picurina as well as on the San Roque lunette. Additionally, artillery bombarded the main walls, or curtain, of Badajoz between the bastions of Trinidad and San Pedro.

Stolid Defence

Major-General Thomas Picton’s (1758-1815) division assaulted the Picurina on the night of 25 March and took it after a desperate fight; Picton’s casualties were heavy. The next day the British siege guns opened fire on Badajoz once more, this time bombarding the curtain between the Trinidad and Santa Maria bastions. The city wall was formidable however, and it was not until 5 April that two breeches were opened that were believed to be passable by an assault force. Still, Wellington ordered that another breech to be opened before an assault could take place.

Wellington underestimated the lengths to which the defenders had gone to make an assault upon Badajoz if not impossible, then at least as expensive as possible for any attacker. Obstacles had been built in the ditch to render it unusable as a customary rallying place. Although the walls had been breeched, the defenders had erected more obstacles within them and had shored up the defences behind the breeches to stop any penetration of the fortress.

Wellington had planned a main attack by two columns, consisting of the Light Division and the 4th Division, which would go for the breeches. A supporting attack against the fortress’s castle across the Roillas, which was flooded and could only be crossed by a dyke that was 60cm (2ft) under water, was to be made by Picton’s 3rd Division. Other, smaller supporting attacks were to be made on the Pardaleras, the San Vicente bastion and the San Roque lunette.

The attacks jumped off at 8 p.m. on 6 April. The assaults on the breeches were expensive failures, the defenders not only causing the attacking columns horrendous casualties but also taunting the attackers throughout the fighting. The performance and sacrifice of the British officers and men was exemplary, but the defence was too professional and savage, and the breeches were choked with British killed and wounded.

Picton’s attack on the castle at first failed, and Picton himself was wounded. He rallied his men, however, and they gained a foothold on the lower walls. Scaling ladders were raised and the British poured over the parapet. Again, resistance was savage, but the British fought through adversity, taking the castle but with heavy casualties. The San Vicente bastion was also taken, and the heart went out of the defenders.

General Philippon and the garrison withdrew into San Cristobal, where they surrendered the next day. Badajoz thereby fell, and the British troops who had behaved so well in the mayhem of the breeches now went wild and sacked the city. The orgy continued until it finally burned itself out and order was restored. The same would happen when San Sebastian was taken the following year.

Ancient Technology Transfer

Military technology is likely to be transferred to the enemy whenever it is used against them. Through battle the enemy at least learn of the existence and capabilities of the weapons and techniques used against them, and may attempt even on that basis to reproduce them. Thus Cato was said (by Pliny, NH pref. 30) to have been educated by Hannibal, as well as by Scipio. Or they may capture a specimen and/or people who know how to use it, and copy that with advice from the captive(s). If they do secure a specimen, they will also know more of its shortcomings (every weapon has some). The Nervii learned how to make siege-works by watching the Romans and being instructed by prisoners of war; Caesar elsewhere commented that they were very good at copying, and were inventive too, and some technologies could be transferred simply by intelligent copying. That, no doubt, was one method by which catapult technology was diffused, and would explain why some worked well and some did not.

The Romans were extremely adept at adopting technologies from peoples they conquered. In this process pragmatism was apparently unhindered by prejudice, and the best of ancient technology, wherever it originated, was absorbed into Roman traditions, where it met, modified, and was modified by other technologies, old and new. Their armor and weapons were in constant evolution because of contact and conflict with other peoples. For example, most forms of “Roman” helmet seem to have been based on Celtic designs, the pilum may have originated with the Etruscans, “Moorish” javelins came from Africa, and cataphract cavalry-archers were adopted from the Persian/Parthian tradition. The emperor Antoninos was nicknamed Caracalla after the Celtic or Germanic word for a type of cloak that he adopted and adapted—a full-length hoody. Sometimes the debt was explicit and acknowledged, for example, Polybios tells how the Romans first learned to build a fleet by copying a Karthaginian vessel that ran aground, and later copied Rhodian ships. Centuries later Vegetius added that experience in battle showed the Romans that their Liburnian allies’ warships were of a better design than anyone else’s, including their own, and as a result the Romans copied both the design and the name.

The Egyptians were reputed by Caesar so good at copying Roman tools and techniques that “no sooner had they seen what was being done by us than they would reproduce it with such cunning” that they seemed to be the originators. Away from the southern Mediterranean, in northern Europe, the Batavians, who were evidently much less skilled than the Egyptians at copying by sight, used deserters and captives to teach them how to make and use Roman siege engines and sheds. The Romans’ expertise with catapults meant that such “crude” machines were soon destroyed by Roman shot or firebrand, but the Batavians in due course became the Germans’ artillery experts, and other German tribal leaders asked them to build machines and siege works for later campaigns. It is likely that engineers, usually stationed by their machines, were captured if not killed whenever machines were captured; thus we are told that one of Pompey’s chief engineers, one L. Vibullius Rufus, twice fell into Caesar’s hands. Another method of technology transfer through battle was by accident, so to speak. Hanno moved Utica’s artillery to his camp, after (as he thought) chasing away the mercenaries who were besieging the town, but while he and most of his forces were celebrating in said town, the mercenaries came back and seized his camp, and thus obtained both his and the town’s artillery. Some Spaniards, after causing a Roman force to abandon its camp under cover of dark, entered the deserted camp and armed themselves with the equipment that had been left behind “in the confusion.” The Iapydes of the transalpine region used against Augustus Roman machines that they found lying around some years earlier, after a civil war clash in their territory between Brutus, on the one hand, and Antony and Octavian on the other. The tale of Bousas, who taught the Avars how to build helepoleis, siege towers, is another example.

Another vector is the arms dealer, moving either between allies, or between suppliers and customers whoever and wherever they may be. A negotiator gladiarius, procurer of swords, who pops up in the records of Mainz, was perhaps such an arms trader. This trade is notoriously secretive, as well as dangerous, and it would be naïve in the extreme to think that the paucity of evidence for arms traders in antiquity was an accurate reflection of the state of the business at the time. The largest businesses known from classical Athens were arms manufacturers (shield workshop and blade maker, respectively), and it is inconceivable that the arms trade was not flourishing in a world where warfare was more common and regular than tax collection. The Codex Theodosius laid down capital punishment for anyone caught teaching the barbarians how to build ships, but the Vandals (who had moved down from inland Eurasia) nevertheless had found out how to build a decent navy by A.D. 419. Cassiodoros meanwhile lamented that Italy (being governed by the Goths when he was writing) lacked a navy despite the abundance of timber.

To the victor went the spoils, and on surrender of a town, their catapults, along with their arms, ships, and money, were usually handed over. This could be a very effective method of acquisition of new technologies. Consider a comparative case from Hawaii. In 1790, the lightly armed American merchant ship Eleanor fired a broadside and killed about 100 natives. The natives responded by seizing the next American ship to reach the islands. They unloaded its weapons, and captured a white man (haole) who was able to teach them how to use the guns. Over the next few years they captured more ships and seized their weapons and gunpowder stores. By 1804, one of the chiefs could deploy 600 muskets, fourteen cannon, forty small swivel guns, and six mortars. Returning to antiquity, paperwork might be an asset to be exploited by the conquerors, or not, depending on the particular conqueror’s appreciation of the contents. Thus it appears that the Karthaginian libraries were given away by the Romans in 146 B.C., when they destroyed the city, making an exception only of Mago’s twenty-eight volumes on agriculture, of which the senate ordered a Latin translation be made. Polybios records that Philip V, not relying on another bout of such absent-mindedness by the Romans, kept his head in such an emergency and ordered the burning of his papers before the Romans could get their hands on them. Papers might include blueprints or other scientific or technological information of use to the enemy, as well as diplomatic documents. Certainly, Pompey recognized the value of Mithridates’ toxicology results, which arose from a program of research into poisons so successful that Mithridates was reputedly immune to all known venoms and toxins so that when he wanted to commit suicide he had to fall on his sword. Pompey ordered a Latin translation be made of them, apparently for his own use rather than that of the Roman reading public, since there is no hint that it was ever published either in its original Persian or in Latin.

Allies will copy good technology too, of course. Polybios’ belief in Greek superiority over the Romans leaks out through his text here and there. At one point he compares in detail the Greek and Roman methods of cutting and setting stakes around a palisade, and having concluded that the Roman way was better, said that if any military contrivance was worth copying from the Romans, then this was it. One could be forgiven for thinking (erroneously) that the phalanx had beaten the legion.

It is not just technology that is reproduced by enemies; fighting techniques are, too. Caesar observed that troops adopt the fighting techniques of the enemy if they fight them continuously over a long period. We are reminded of the Spartan Antalkidas’s criticism of his king, when he said that by persistently fighting the Thebans, Agesilaos had thereby provided them with the means necessary to defeat the Spartans. Agesilaos had apparently ignored a decree of the legendary Spartan lawgiver Lykourgos that forbade campaigning frequently against the same people, for that very reason.

Rome’s enemies did not always want captured ordnance, of course, and might destroy it instead. Thus the Parthians destroyed the siege engines apparently left behind by Antony in his haste through their country, including an eighty-foot-long battering ram and other equipment whose scale is indicated by the fact that it was being transported on three hundred wagons and protected by more than 10,000 troops. In the third to sixth centuries A.D., the Goths, Vandals, Huns, and sometimes even the Romans themselves destroyed more than they copied, and the western empire descended into the Dark Ages.


Devil’s Dyke – What was it for?

The Dyke was constructed in the 5th or 6th centuries – perhaps by the Saxon kings of the East Angles in order to defend their newly established lands from attack by the Britons. It would certainly have helped provide control over the movement of people through this important communications corridor. Perhaps traders could pass over or through the wall upon payment of tolls.

Who Built the Defensive Dykes?

Who built these stop lines is a question for which there is no simple answer. It is likely that people from the delimited estate constructed the smaller dykes that were boundary markers (like Aelfrith’s Dyke and Bica’s Dyke), probably under the direction of the estate owner, but it is far less certain who ordered the construction of those earthworks that had a military purpose. It is not just that we do not know their names; we do not know what type of people built them or at least ordered them to be constructed. The actual workers could have been local farmers sick of being raided, paid workers following the orders of a king, conscripted labourers, or slaves under the control of a warlord.

It is tempting to link dykes with the rise of kings and certain kingdoms. It is fairly certain Offa ordered the construction of the earthwork that bears his name and equally Aelfrith, Bica, Lawa and Eliseg (if Clawdd Lesg is named after him) may have ordered the building of earthworks to which their names are attached. Without precise techniques for dating dykes, attempts to connect other dykes with individual kings are foolhardy. Geographical location suggests that a Mercian king possibly ordered the building of Wat’s Dyke, an East Anglian king those in Cambridgeshire and a king of Wessex possibly ordered Wansdyke, but connecting other dykes with kingdoms, let alone individual kings, is highly speculative.

It is possible that the earthworks can tell us where shadowy lost kingdoms were once located and scholars have linked dykes like the Swaledale Dykes, Tor Dike in Yorkshire and the Giant’s Hedge in Cornwall with suspected lost British kingdoms. Unfortunately, these theories usually assume that a later administrative region was once a kingdom, then fit that hypothetical realm to a nearby, possibly unrelated, earthwork. The larger dykes certainly looked planned by an authority with wide-ranging powers (as we have noted, the larger dykes were more likely to have marker banks, ankle-breakers and revetments), but most early medieval dykes are small, simple structures built by 100 men in a single season. The vague descriptive names of many dykes, as well as the supernatural monikers, all suggest that the original builders were soon forgotten; the ‘rough dyke’ names of some confirm the idea they were hurriedly built. Perhaps kings did not order the construction of the majority of the earthworks and it is likely that small agricultural communities built them to defend themselves against the predatory warlords whose descendants probably became kings. The analysis in this book of the size of labour force needed to build these dykes suggests that most were not the grandiose gestures of a king.

As Paolo Squatriti has rightly pointed out, dykes are exercises in earth moving, that is, they were a typical farmer’s solution to a problem, as peasants were always digging the earth, for example for drainage, to get at root crops, to make hedgerows to control cattle, to terrace land for ploughing, to remove tree stumps, to dig out large stones, or to bury the dead. Digging the earth was probably not the natural action of an early medieval war leader. We can only ponder what the role of women was in the growth of dykes. They seem to be excluded from active roles in warfare, except as a victim who was robbed, murdered, raped or abducted into slavery. Perhaps they encouraged men to build the dykes to protect their communities and even worked on them, helping to move the earth themselves. Their male relatives may have even been inspired to build them to protect women in their communities, or alternatively went on raids to capture females. It has been suggested that women kept alive feuds and vendettas with songs and stories; if they were primarily victims it is perhaps unsurprising that they might want to remind others of wrongs suffered by their group in the hope that compensation or at least retribution would be sought.

Evidence for Beacons

When raiding was a problem in the early medieval period people often built beacons to warn of attack. We know the Vikings and their enemies used systems of beacons to warn of the arrival of raiders and the Romans used scouts (exploratores and areani) to warn of attack. If dykes were not manned (though they may have been patrolled) as archaeology suggests, there must have been a signalling system to alert people to danger so that they could assemble at the dyke. Can we find signs of beacon sites in the period ad400–850? Can we find evidence for a prominent location with good lines of sight at a reasonable number of early medieval dykes?

Hill postulated that beacons were used both to lay out Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke as well as to warn of Welsh raiders, but attempts to locate them through excavation have proved fruitless. No charcoal deposits have been found on the top of hills he thought to be signal points. As these dykes are very long, Hill could easily have selected the wrong location to excavate and if a warning beacon was never set alight there would be little evidence of it in the archaeological record. A substantial watch tower, especially if the foundations were sunk into the ground, would leave archaeological evidence, but more flimsy structures could leave no trace. A roving scout using flags or a horn would certainly leave no evidence. If the fires from burning barns gave abundant evidence of a raid in progress, perhaps beacon fires were not needed (obviously, if the raid occurred at night it would be these fires that warned people of attack and flags would be useless). Even so, we should find a prominent hill or similar landmark near every dyke that gives good views towards the area the earthwork faced if they were designed to combat raids and a warning was needed to gather defenders.

Development near some dykes, like Faeseten Dyke in Kent, makes it impossible to tell if there are any good candidates for a nearby signal point, while at Heronbridge and some of the East Anglian dykes the flat landscape means there are unsurprisingly no obvious candidates we can identify. Significantly, at most other dykes there are obvious sites for possible beacon sites or signal points. Despite housing developments (and forestry on Ockham Common) obscuring much of Fullinga Dyke in Surrey, St George’s Hill near the north end gives good views, while the hill on which a semaphore tower was built in 1822 at Ockham Common just to the east of the dyke (at TQ089585) is a clear candidate for a signal point. This is assuming that Fullinga Dyke was more than just a border marker, however. Bolster Bank in Cornwall defines a peninsula dominated by a hill tellingly called St Agnes Beacon (at SW710504), which affords superb views across the Bristol Channel and inland. While lines of sight from Tor Dike in Yorkshire down the steep valley to the south are obscured, the high hills that flank the valley on either side would make excellent signal points. An observer on the Swaledale Dykes cannot see anyone approaching from the east until they are quite close, but people on the adjacent hills can. Similarly, the views northwards from Grey Ditch in Derbyshire are rather poor, but Lose Hill (SK153853), 2.5 miles (4km) to the north, commands spectacular panoramic views over a vast area and the hill of Crungoed (SO185711) to the north of Pen y Clawdd dyke in Powys is an excellent candidate for a signal station.

To the north of the dykes in south Wales are the Brecon Beacons, which are so named because of the fires erected on them to warn of English raiders. An observer stationed on the hills near Black Dyke and the Bardon’s Mill dykes in Northumberland (like Catton Beacon at NY822592 and Bell Crags at NY772729 where there is actually a fire watch tower today) could have given warning of imminent attack. At Lanreath, near the middle of the Giant’s Hedge in Cornwall, a bulge in the course of the dyke encompasses a hill that gives superb prospects to the north. Today, the River Severn forms a rather formidable barrier across a gap in Offa’s Dyke between Rhos and Buttington, but before modern flood defences rivers meandered across their floodplains, so it would have been much easier to ford. There are two large hills on the eastern side (Breidden Hill at SJ295144 and Middleton Hill at SJ305133), which give commanding views, so a few watchmen with a beacon fire stationed on the hills could easily warn of any attempt to ford the river by raiders.

For some dykes the evidence is less circumstantial. The views forward from some sections of East and West Wansdyke are hardly panoramic, but the two hill forts incorporated into West Wansdyke (Maes Knoll and Stantonbury), or the Downs just to the north of East Wansdyke (Barbury Hill at SU156761 or Cherhill at SU048694 in particular) overlook large areas. There is evidence of beacon sites across Wessex used to warn of Viking raids (Elizabethans reused many of the sites for Armada beacons), which may have originated in warning systems related to early medieval dykes. To the north of Wansdyke, the late Saxon fort on Silbury Hill or even the burh at Avebury could have replaced an older early-warning system for people living near East Wansdyke. They could give advance warning of attackers approaching from the north and then hopefully the locals would have a chance to man the dyke.

The hill of Glastonbury Tor overlooks Ponter’s Ball and evidence for early medieval occupation at the site possibly suggests that it was a signal point. Hills obscure the views to the south of the nearby New Ditch, but 1.2 miles (2km) west of that earthwork is the Iron-Age hill fort of Dundon Hill, in the south-east corner of which is a mound called Dundon Beacon that overlays the Iron-Age ramparts. It may be a windmill mound (though that would be better placed on the western side of the hill to face the prevailing winds), or an aborted attempt to build a motte and bailey castle, but the name suggests that the mound was built as a beacon, perhaps working in conjunction with the earthwork. Dundon Beacon overlooks land to the south of the dyke so if watchmen were stationed there and at Glastonbury Tor, it would be almost impossible to cross the area unobserved. Near Bar Dyke and Broomhead Dyke in Yorkshire are two hills surmounted by what are assumed to be Norman fortifications (Bailey Hill at SK312726 and Castle Hill at SK271923), but both could be possible older beacon sites.

As briefly mentioned earlier, along the coast to the north of Dane’s Dyke was a line of at least five signal stations, which were probably the last Roman military structures built in Britain. While today many of these sites are no longer inter-visible, they were built on cliff tops subject to erosion, so it is likely that sites that would have connected the chain have long since fallen into the sea. There is evidence of post-Roman occupation at the Filey station and excavations at the Goldsborough signal station found bodies of people who seemed to have died violent deaths dating to just after the end of Roman rule in Britain. Flamborough Head itself would have been an ideal site for a signal station, as later use of the headland clearly shows. Three beacons were erected there in 1588, while in 1674 a lighthouse (the first post-Roman British lighthouse) was built at Flamborough and in 1796 a flag station was built there. While there is no surviving evidence of a Roman or early medieval signal station at Flamborough, quarrying and erosion could have destroyed such evidence. Nevertheless, the Roman signal stations to the north could easily have given early medieval people enough warning of seaborne raiders (Picts or Angles), so that they could gather behind the safety of the earthwork.

This topographical, archaeological and place-name evidence from so many dykes, though not conclusive, certainly suggests people were using hills (sometimes even artificially heightening them) to watch for enemy attacks. We do not know if beacon fires, flags or perhaps mounted messengers (or a combination) were used, but warnings were probably sent to locals. They could then man the earthworks that blocked routeways where they hoped to see off attackers. It is just unfortunate that we do not have the written sources to tell us how many times the earthworks were effective in preventing plunder-greedy warriors raiding their victims.


Though it would be highly speculative to try to match specific dykes to individual entries in Anglo-Saxon or Welsh chronicles, we can suggest how raiding and counter-raiding measures fitted into processes like the Anglo-Saxon conquest or the rise of kingdoms. Laycock has suggested that dykes are a symptom of the breakdown of Roman rule across Britain and its Balkanization into small British and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It could be that it was incessant raiding that caused this fragmentation of the Roman diocese of Britain.

Raiding and the coming together of people to build dykes to combat raids could respectively destroy and build new identities; dykes could have been crucial in the formation of kingdoms and raiding. If a raid led to the ambush and murder of a king, it would lead to a kingdom’s destruction. Booty from raids may have helped warlords to become established kings and the concentration of dykes around the border of Mercia could mark a reaction to the growth of that kingdom. Those earthworks around the heartland of Powys may have helped to maintain the power of their kings. The dykes that subdivided East Anglia (like Launditch and Bichamditch) suggest that region was once disunited, though the later written sources give us no hint of that division. The very act of building, maintaining and occasionally fighting at the Cambridgeshire Dykes, probably against Mercia, may have helped to create cohesion amongst those divided communities, which eventually led to the growth of the East Anglian kingdom. The building of the earthworks on the western border of Kent may have helped to reinforce the power of Kentish kings. As already discussed, the act of building and using dykes in Cornwall to counter West Saxon raids probably helped to unite the Cornish and maintain their identity in the face of growing Anglicization. Once kingdoms coalesced and kings gained control of large areas, they would probably try to stop localized raiding (the law codes certainly suggest an attempt to replace reciprocal violence with fines) and the rulers would try to focus energies against external threats. The incessant raids of the immediate post-Roman period may have died down by the ninth century, possibly thanks to the dykes, though they were soon replaced by the incursions of the Vikings. We should note that kingdoms could also form without any need to build dykes, such as the Scottish kingdom of Argyll, as well as the East Saxon and South Saxon kingdoms.

The theory that the fifth to ninth centuries consisted of widespread raiding complements the various theories about the nature of the Anglo-Saxon settlement of England (the Adventus Saxonum) and possibly also the Scottish takeover of Pictish territory. Broadly speaking, these movements have variously been characterized as mass invasions, coups by a small group of invading warriors and cultural changes that involved the movement of very few people. Let’s look at these theories in turn.

If the Anglo-Saxon invasion involved the replacement of the native population with Germanic incomers, aggressive raiding would help to explain how they could drive out the far more numerous indigenous population. The same logic could be applied to the Scottish takeover of the lands of the Picts. In recent years, such invasionist theories have been less fashionable and the Anglo-Saxon takeover of lowland Britain has often been characterized as a coup by some Germanic warriors. The arrival of a small class of hardened Germanic fighters that had a culture of aggressive and persistent raiding is consistent with the theory that the Adventus Saxonum was a takeover by a small elite group of warriors, with very little change in the composition of the majority of the population.

The theory that the Anglo-Saxon invasion was merely a cultural change does not, on its own, explain why the native Britons adopted new Germanic modes of dress, language and religion (nor why the Picts adopted Scottish customs). The theory lacks a driver or catalyst for such changes; people are unlikely to adopt a new language, culture and style of dress on a mere whim. Perhaps raiding was the driving force for these changes. It would certainly explain how a small group of warriors could cause such widespread cultural and linguistic changes. Raiding by small groups of aggressive Germanic incomers could have destroyed the indigenous culture and eliminated the native elite. In the Roman period, across Cornwall and much of Wales native settlements do not seem archaeologically particularly ‘Roman’; after ad400, although there is evidence of site continuity, building plans change from round to rectangular, Latin inscriptions appear and there is evidence of Christianity. Perhaps the educated Romanized Christian elite (priests, lawyers and teachers, for example) from the lowlands fleeing raiding Anglo-Saxons arrived in western Britain, as was recorded by Gildas, Bede and the Life of St Wilfred. Those left behind in eastern Britain would perhaps want to adopt the cultural identity of the most hostile raiders (their mode of dress and language) in the hope they would be spared from attack.

Not only can these three different models for the respective Anglo-Saxon or Scottish takeovers of England and Scotland (population replacement, an elite warrior takeover and cultural change) complement the idea of widespread raiding, they are not mutually exclusive. While the evidence for violence from Anglo-Saxon cemeteries is rare, this does not preclude victims of raids being less likely to be carefully buried in organized cemeteries, or violence being rare but unpredictable and sporadic. The Anglo-Saxon settlement was probably a complex process, so that at different times and in different areas any of these three theories could best describe the process.

The outbreaks of sporadic raiding may have also helped with the spread of Christianity, which characterized the early medieval period. The Christian Church tried to control violence (for example, St Patrick’s letter to Coroticus, Adomnáin laws and wergilds in law codes) and while there are records of attacks on monasteries (as in the 645 reference in the Annales Cambriae), these were newsworthy to chroniclers possibly because they were shocking and rare. A society constantly plagued by uncontrolled violence is unlikely to grow economically or culturally. The prohibitions around attacking monasteries and churches would make invasions less catastrophic. Christianity, by creating rules around violence and places where killing was considered taboo, provided a brake on the more destructive elements of early medieval society, which made it attractive for kings to adopt and promote this new religion.


Like most human phenomena, the rash of early medieval dyke building and the raids that they were designed to halt probably had a beginning, a peak, a decline and then an end. With so few contemporary documents and so little unambiguous dating evidence from the dykes, we can only make very tentative conclusions about chronology. Sadly, we have more evidence for later reuses of dykes than for their original functions and the end of dyke building is probably easier to date than the origins, due to the lack of written evidence from the beginning of this period. For these reasons, the framework is discussed in reverse chronological order.

The early medieval dykes soon faded from memory from the ninth century onwards. Later people often reuse earthworks in very different ways to how their builders envisioned. Modern walkers use some early medieval dykes as footpaths (Offa’s Dyke and the Devil’s Ditch). Fieldwork has clearly demonstrated that farmers often use sections of dykes as field boundaries and this has probably gone on for centuries. The medieval scribes who wrote charters often use dykes as landmarks when describing estates. Early medieval people reused dykes as places to bury the dead. Perhaps after their abandonment they occupied a liminal area outside the control of kings and God where the condemned were executed; this would explain why so many are named after the Devil or pagan gods. There is little evidence that they were used (or reused) as meeting places, but equally we cannot be certain they were not.

As has already been speculated, the establishment of more stable kingdoms as well as the raids of the Vikings probably changed warfare forever. New raids came initially from abroad or were a part of wars between large stable kingdoms rather than by local warlords. These changes ended the use of dykes as military structures. When dykes were first built, warlords were raiding neighbouring areas to steal cattle. These warlords gradually set themselves up as kings, who then used raiding to force weaker neighbours to give tribute and/or submit to their overlordship. Gradually these evolved into more stable kingdoms, where rulers extracted surplus production from the land through large agricultural estates rather than raiding.

When the Vikings arrived, raiding resumed, but their raids were unpredictable. The first account of an Anglo-Saxon murdered by a Viking was at Portland in Dorset in 789, hardly the nearest British landfall from Scandinavia. Without obvious land routes to block, people ceased to excavate dykes across routeways. Early medieval rulers did not have the ability to mobilize enough manpower to guard an extended frontier, so they decided to construct points where their troops could hold up or sally forth from if the raiding force looked weaker than anticipated. These strongpoints are the burhs of the ninth century. Those dykes that already existed probably then became a nuisance to traders travelling along the routes that the earthworks blocked, so they were punctured where roads passed through the dykes. There does seem to be evidence that the Vikings carried on digging dykes like that at Reading, but they designed theirs to protect raiding parties rather than oppose them.

The radiocarbon and Optically Stimulated Luminescence dates suggest early medieval dyke construction peaked across the very late sixth and the first half of the seventh century. As Offa ruled 757–96, his dyke was probably constructed during the dying days of early medieval dyke building. The massive scale of his dyke and the labour involved could have outweighed any benefit it may have had in deterring Welsh raids. Perhaps this king (whose coinage and whose letters to Charlemagne demonstrate that he wished to be seen as a quasi-imperial ruler) made a massive and grandiose version of a common practical type of earthwork as a demonstration of his power. With better dating techniques, in the future we might discover that the larger earthworks are later in date and reflect the rise of kingdoms, even if this was probably not the original intention of the builders of most earthworks. Dyke building may have helped to create clearly defined kingdoms, but such stability may have signalled the end of the need for the shorter dykes to counter localized raiding.

The origin of early medieval dyke building in particular is more problematic. As this study found no early medieval dykes in the Highlands of Scotland, all the early medieval dykes were probably located in areas that at some point had been part of the Roman province of Britain. Presumably, the imperial authorities would not have allowed locals to build earthworks that blocked the Roman road network, so the dykes must post-date the end of Roman rule in Britain, say 400. If people could not predict the direction from which Viking attacks would come, presumably the same would be true of the early Anglo-Saxon raids from across the North Sea, or other seaborne raids from the north or west (the Irish, Scots or Picts). There is evidence that Iron-Age hill forts like Cadbury in Somerset were reoccupied in the immediate post-Roman period and perhaps these functioned in much the same way as burhs later did, as strongpoints against seaborne raiders (Cadbury was rebuilt as a burh). However, we should be cautious in assuming that every hill fort was reoccupied for military reasons; their association with the pre-Roman elite could also have been a draw.

Once the raiders from across the seas had established themselves in Britain and local people knew the direction their raids would take along known land routeways, dykes coupled with signal points would then have been the best form of defence. There is a great deal of debate as to when the Anglo-Saxons firmly established themselves in Britain, but from Bede onwards most historians have given a mid-fifth century date and we know from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that the Viking raids on Britain started in earnest in the ninth century. This gives a date range of roughly 450–850 for dykes to work against overland Anglo-Saxon raiding (though the British could have raided each other prior to this) and this is in fact a close match for the archaeological dates of early medieval dykes. Pre-Viking raiding logically peaked in this time bracket. The transition from refurbished hill forts to dykes then to burhs can be summarized in the diagram included here. Note that this diagram is partly based on (and indebted to) one made by Stuart Brookes and first publicly shown at a 2007 conference at University College London.

There are at least three possible inspirations for early medieval dyke building. Dykes may have been initially inspired by prehistoric earthworks; there are interestingly no prehistoric or early medieval dykes in Devon, while in Norfolk early medieval people seem to have reused the widespread pre-Roman earthworks. The fact that the Anglo-Saxons gave the name Grim (a god associated with war) to many prehistoric earthworks suggests they thought such dykes had a military purpose. The second possible inspiration (and the one most likely to have inspired the Britons) was the northern frontiers of Roman Britain. Roman signal towers, in particular those on the Yorkshire coast, may have inspired the signalling sites that I have postulated were associated with many early medieval dykes. The third possible source of inspiration for early medieval dyke building (and the structures most likely to have inspired Anglo-Saxon dyke builders) was the numerous dykes found in Jutland just prior to the Anglo-Saxons settling in Britain.

Raiding and Dykes

Offa’s Dyke


As we lack detailed written descriptions of raiding in early medieval sources, let us examine periods of incessant small-scale military forays from other periods and places. By understanding how raiding worked, it may be possible to see how early medieval dykes functioned as a deterrent. Obviously, we have no records from prehistoric societies, but archaeologists have speculated that cattle raids plagued Bronze-Age British society, usually in the autumn when the harvest had been gathered in. Unsurprisingly, there is evidence of raiding from the Viking period from sources like the Orkneyinga Saga; interestingly Viking raiders usually went elsewhere when they faced fortifications, suggesting that dykes would have acted as a deterrent. In the later medieval period, there is evidence that rulers avoided decisive pitched battles and that raiding enriched one side while destroying the other side in a conflict. The raids that characterized life on the Anglo-Welsh and Anglo-Scottish borders in the later medieval period are well attested in written records, as well as in physical remains, like the Pele towers.

The incessant raiding in nineteenth-century East Africa was slightly ritualized, though forays in search of women, cattle and slaves could destroy kingdoms. In World War I, the British Army started systematically raiding enemy trenches, which lead to retaliatory raids along the Western Front. The objective of these raids was to demoralize the enemy, gather intelligence and ensure that all the attackers returned safely to their own lines. Halsall’s anthropological study of warfare in societies with a similar technology to early medieval Britain in Sudan, South America, New Guinea and the Maoris of New Zealand suggests that there was a great deal of raiding that involved the theft of goods rather than mass invasions to steal land. Even though these raids were often ritualized, in certain locations they could lead to a large number of fatalities. These studies confirm that raiding has often been an integral part of war. It was sometimes ritualized, usually involved the theft of animals or people, raiders often retreated if they encountered resistance and raids could demoralize or devastate the community under attack.

What these studies of other periods and places suggest is that raiding is often carried out by nomadic societies against more settled agrarian communities (for example, Berber raids on the Roman Empire, Mongol raids on China and Tuareg raids on their neighbours to the south). As well as the largest early medieval dykes, a great many earlier hill forts lay along the Anglo-Welsh border. This is possibly because this is the interface between higher land to the west (which supported a more pastoral economy) and the lowlands (mainly arable society) to the east. The dykes of the Anglo-Welsh border and southern Wales were probably designed to prevent attacks by highland raiders on settled communities to the south and east.


While it is dangerous to assume that dykes from other countries or even British dykes from different periods fulfilled similar purposes, a study of a phenomenon that treats it in isolation is flawed. It is impossible to go into the same level of detail, especially with foreign dykes, as was undertaken on early medieval dykes, so only those directly relevant are discussed.

Earlier and Later British Walls and Dykes

As we obviously have no written records, we are probably even less likely to understand the purposes of prehistoric dykes than those of an early medieval date. Witness Sauer’s study of Aves Ditch that contains fifteen pages discussing the issue, with numerous comparisons with other earthworks, but can only tentatively conclude that it was possibly a tribal boundary. Even then, he adds a question mark to the statement. Some earthworks may have been trackways or cattle droveways; others probably demarked land divisions, or were at the edge of wasteland to delimit a group’s cultivated territory; some look like they fulfilled a defensive role, while many appear to be territorial boundary markers. It is perhaps significant that while there are few finds from excavations of prehistoric dykes, they have produced some contemporary pottery sherds and metal objects; certainly more than early medieval dykes. Pottery finds from early medieval dykes are invariably prehistoric or Roman pottery sherds sealed under the bank, or residual material incorporated into it. As already mentioned, the pollen evidence does suggest that prehistoric dykes cut through more intensively cultivated areas. If the early medieval dykes were built in thinly inhabited contested borderlands that would explain the lack of contemporary pottery finds.

Like many early medieval dykes, prehistoric cross dykes are short (sometimes 100m or less in length) and tend to bisect ridges, usually with a single bank and a single ditch, making them difficult to distinguish from some early medieval route-blocking dykes. Perhaps the cross-ridge or cross-valley dykes are prehistoric dykes that fulfilled similar purposes to early medieval dykes in preventing cattle raids.

The Roman frontier works of northern Britain were highly visible features in the medieval landscape, so may have been an inspiration to early medieval dyke builders. Gildas and Bede mention them (though they misdate them to the end of Roman rule). These frontier works may have possibly been an inspiration to early medieval dyke builders, though they probably had little idea of how the Roman frontier works functioned. Roman writers described them as dividing the Romans from the barbarians to keep the latter out, but it is likely that they also controlled trade with the tribes to the north. The blocking of minor gateways in the late second century and early fourth probably represents an attempt to funnel trade through the more important crossing points. It is unlikely there was enough trade to make this the Romans’ primary stimulus for building the walls and forts, even if this role occupied much of a garrison’s time during periods of peace.

There are some obvious differences with the early medieval dykes. Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall have features not found on early medieval dykes: forts; gateways; a wall or palisade; and clear evidence of a resident garrison. Early medieval dykes are rarely contiguous with administrative boundaries like county or parish boundaries, suggesting that they were not located at borders. Similarly, the Romans set their frontier works back from the frontiers, though they also built signal stations and forts garrisoned with scouts in front of them to give advance warning of attack. Roman frontiers were not sharply defined lines on the ground, but zones. The walls, if properly manned, certainly could stop small groups of people crossing into Roman Britain and they do command good views to the north, but they do not seem designed to repel large-scale attacks. The wall was not wide enough to use as a fighting platform, therefore mobile troops would have to destroy any attackers held up at the frontier. The frontier works probably functioned in a manner closer to the Berlin Wall than the Maginot Line. The Romans would gather troops from the forts on or around the walls and engage large-scale invasion forces in open country, where the superior discipline, cavalry and heavy projectile weapons of their more mobile troops would be used to devastating effect. Perhaps some early medieval dykes worked in a comparable way.

While Romans walls may have influenced early medieval dykes, the latter in turn could have influenced later earthworks. As we have already discussed, the end of dykes probably coincided with the rise of the burh and the arrival of Viking raiders, whom the burh walls were designed to keep out (internal dykes are not much good at stopping seaborne raiders). The Vikings did build some dykes in England, but these were short features designed to defend a tongue of land, like the one on Danby Rigg in the North Yorkshire Moors, or the bank between the Thames and the Kennet recorded by Asser. Prior to the rise of the burh, the only earthworks of a comparable design to the dykes in early medieval Britain were the ramparts of hill forts. In the early medieval period in lowland Scotland these were often new constructions, while in lowland Britain they were reoccupied Iron-Age structures. Like the burhs, both Iron-Age and early medieval hill forts have palisades and gateways, of which archaeologists have found abundant evidence. This adds credence to the supposition that early medieval dykes did not originally have palisades or gateways, as the numerous excavations of these earthworks would surely have uncovered some evidence of them.


British dykes are not unique. There are similar prehistoric and medieval earthworks across Europe, with examples in Ukraine, Hungary, Apulia in Italy, Sweden (Götavirke) and Spain (the 2.5-mile/4km long El Muro near Teverga) and Romania. The nearest is a series of long south-facing earthworks in Ireland, which match in scale some in Britain; they run from Bundoran on the west coast to near Armagh, effectively dividing Ulster from the south. The largest are the Dane’s Cast, Black Pig’s Dyke and the Dorsey, but differentiating among them, especially the first two, is difficult as locals use the two names interchangeably and all three lie on a similar alignment.

Contact between Ireland and northern Britain may have influenced dyke building on either side of the Irish Sea in the early medieval period. Earthworks found across areas traditionally thought of as the Anglo-Saxon homelands (Denmark and northern Germany) may also have provided the inspiration for Anglo-Saxon dyke builders (and raiders). One European earthwork that British archaeologists have drawn parallels with since Pitt Rivers took a (borrowed) spade to it over a century ago is the Danevirke. This south-facing earthwork runs for 18.6 miles (30km) along the base of Jutland, blocking access into Denmark from Germany. It was built in at least seven phases and though the Royal Frankish Annals attribute it to King Godfred in 808, dendrochronology suggests that the earliest phases of building occurred shortly after 737. Interestingly, the Royal Frankish Annals also claim that it ran from sea to sea, a statement that is as inaccurate as Asser’s assertion that Offa’s Dyke performed the same feat, as the ends of the Danevirke lie on rivers. Even with a twelfth-century rebuild that clad the front in stone, the evidence for a wooden palisade in the earlier phases is obvious, suggesting that if the British dykes had been furnished with one, we would have found evidence of it by now. The Danevirke had a main gateway where the Hærvej, or army road that runs along the spine of Jutland from Germany, crossed the earthwork. The road is also called the Cattle Road, the Oxen Road, the King’s Road and the Main Road, suggesting that cattle under the control or protection of the king (possibly as tribute) walked along it in and out of Denmark. Though the references are frustratingly terse, early medieval battles were fought at the earthwork; the Danish army used to muster along the earthwork during times of international uncertainty up to the nineteenth century.

To the north of the Danevirke, there are at least twenty-eight earthworks in Jutland, many of which cut routeways, as well as six tree barriers built across narrow belts of sea. The most elaborate is the Olgerdiget: this was a 7.5-mile (12km) long stockade made up of large poles, though a 1.2-mile section (2km) has a ditch (1.6m deep by 4m wide) with a bank that is dated to 219 by dendrochronology. It was not garrisoned, but possibly patrolled with defenders mobilized in time of war, and seems to mark the dividing line between the Jutes and the Angles. This means that the Anglo-Saxons and Jutes had a history of building dykes before they gained control of England. Interestingly, this study found no records of dykes in Brittany, a place where so many other aspects of British culture were imported in the fifth and sixth centuries. This suggests that the building of a dyke to combat raiding was initiated in early medieval Britain by Germanic incomers (Anglo-Saxons), rather than being a part of native British culture, though of course prehistoric British dykes might also have been an inspiration. Unfortunately, like their British counterparts, few contemporary sources survive describing many of these European earthworks, so it is difficult to ascertain their original purpose. Even when records do survive (both inscriptions and texts), such as those associated with the 87-mile (140km) long dyke that the Bulgars built in Thrace against the Byzantine Empire, which clearly suggest that it had a military purpose, scholars claim it was purely symbolic. Other scholars (myself included) are less convinced that we should ignore such clear primary evidence. Earthworks were replaced by forts that had a clear military function as the main type of Bulgarian defence, which possibly parallels the change from dykes to burhs or forts that King Alfred built in ninth-century England.

Asian Dykes

With the Great Wall of China, there survives documentary evidence which tells why the Chinese built it and how (this study used evidence from China to calculate the labour needed to build linear earthworks). The earliest walls were anonymous, practical structures built when the Chinese Empire was weak or their diplomacy particularly unsuccessful to counter raiding by nomads to the north. Many of the dykes of southern Wales, like Tor Clawdd and Bedd Eiddil, seem to block access to the coastal plains from the mountains (where people lived a more pastoral and possibly nomadic lifestyle), while Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke possibly fulfilled the same purpose of keeping Welsh raiders out of Mercia. Perhaps Offa’s Dyke represents a breakdown of diplomacy with the Welsh during his reign; relations had been much closer when the earlier Mercian King Penda was a close ally of the Welsh King Cadwallon. Alternatively, like the later Chinese walls, whose remains we see today on tourist posters and which were often symbolic rather than anti-raiding defences, Offa’s Dyke merely reflected Offa’s imperial pretensions. These two very different functions, though not mutually exclusive if these structures were multi-functional, do highlight the danger of cherry-picking analogous examples from other countries or periods.


Linear earthworks in other countries and periods have controlled trade and delimited territory, but often were designed to protect areas from raiders. While it is possible to make analogies with early medieval British dykes, we should be cautious, as people can build similar structures in response to dissimilar circumstances. Such comparisons do suggest that gateways and palisades would leave obvious traces on early medieval dykes in Britain and therefore we can possibly dismiss the suggestion that they were ever created.

Australians at D-Day


On the night of 5/6 June Bomber Command conducted precision attacks on ten German coastal artillery batteries near the beaches where Allied troops were to land. Each battery was targeted by approximately 100 heavy bombers, and all four Australian heavy bomber squadrons took part in the operation. No. 460 Squadron dispatched 26 aircraft, which were evenly split between attacking the batteries at Fontenay-Crisbecq and St Martin de Varreville. No. 466 Squadron provided 13 aircraft to the raid on batteries at Merville-Franceville Maisy, 14 aircraft from No. 463 Squadron struck Pointe du Hoe and No. 467 Squadron dispatched 14 against batteries at Ouistreham. The RAAF squadrons did not suffer any losses. Many Australian aircrew posted to British units also participated in this attack, and 14.8 percent of the 1,136 Bomber Command aircraft despatched were either part of RAAF squadrons or were flown by Australians.

Australians posted to RAF units also landed paratroopers in Normandy and took part in diversionary operations. On the night of 5/6 June several Australian airmen served in heavy bombers that dropped “window” chaff in patterns that, on German radar, simulated the appearance of convoys headed for the Pas de Calais region of France. Other Australians served in aircraft that dropped dummy paratroopers and jammed German radar. One Australian pilot posted to No. 139 Squadron RAF took part in “intruder” bombing raids against targets in western Germany and the Low Countries that sought to divert German aircraft away from Normandy. Australian aircrew also served aboard the transport aircraft of No. 38 Group RAF and No. 46 Group RAF, which flew the British 6th Airborne Division from the UK to Normandy on the night of 5/6 June. About 14 percent of the transport aircraft in No. 38 Group were piloted by Australians, though the proportion of Australians in No. 46 Group was much lower. There were no completely Australian aircrews in either group.

Australian aircrew supported the fighting on 6 June. No. 453 Squadron was one of 36 Allied squadrons that provided low-altitude air defence for the invasion fleet and landing force. Many of the squadron’s pilots flew several sorties during the day, though they did not encounter any German aircraft. No. 456 Squadron also formed part of the force that provided air defence for the invasion area at night. In addition, about 200 Australian pilots were spread across the dozens of RAF fighter and fighter-bomber units that supported the landings. A small number of Australian aircrew also served in RAF reconnaissance units and 2TAF’s light bomber squadrons, which also saw combat over France on D-Day. The three Australian squadrons assigned to Coastal Command flew only a small number of sorties on 6 June as few German submarines or E-boats put to sea.

About 500 RAN personnel served on board RN ships involved in the operation. While most formed part of the crew of RN warships, several Australian officers led flotillas of landing craft and others commanded individual craft. For instance, Sub-Lieutenant Dean Murray commanded a force of six RN Landing Craft Assault that landed soldiers of the British 3rd Infantry Division at Sword Beach. Hudspeth also took X20 across the channel to mark the edge of Juno Beach during the landings there; he received his third DSC for completing this mission. Some of the warships with Australian crew members that supported the landings were HMS Ajax (which had three RANVR officers on board), Ashanti, Enterprise, Eskimo, Glasgow, Mackay and Scylla. Australian members of the Merchant Navy also participated in the D-Day landings, though the number of sailors involved is not known.

Few of the Australian Army officers attached to British units landed on D-Day. Major Jo Gullett, who was the second in command of an infantry company in the 7th Battalion, Green Howards, came ashore on Gold Beach as part of the invasion force. In his memoirs, Gullett described the landing as “easily the most impressive occasion of my life”. He subsequently led a company of the Royal Scots until he was wounded by German machine gun fire on 17 July. Most of the other Australian officers served in staff positions; for instance Lieutenant Colonel Bill Robertson was the chief of staff of the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division when that unit arrived in Normandy and was later posted to the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division where he served in the same role. Vincent came ashore on 7 June and served with XXX Corps, 7th Armoured and 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Divisions during the campaign.

Due to the lack of a nominal roll or other records listing the Australians who took part in the D-Day landings, it is not possible to determine the exact number involved. However, it has been estimated that about 3,000 Australian military personnel and merchant seamen participated in the operation. The total number of Australians killed on 6 June was 14, of whom 12 were RAAF airmen and two were members of the RAN.


Chastel Blanc: The fortified church and town of Safita (Castel Blanc) in the mid 13th century

The great tower or keep (1) of Castel Blanc in the Syrian coastal mountains was a massively fortified church rather than simply a castle. The lower chamber (2) formed the church with a semi-domed apse at its eastern end (3); a function which continues to this day. The upper chamber (4) consists of a two-aisled hall supported by three columns. Access to this upper chamber from the church was within the south-western corner (5) and was not particularly convenient for military purposes, while access to the roof was by stairs against the western wall of the upper chamber. A rock-cut cistern lay beneath the church (6). An extensive platform surrounds the church, and appears to have had a defensive wall which formed an inner enceinte (7). Apart from the platform, the only substantial surviving element of these inner defences is the small south-western tower (8). Even less remains of the outer fortifications of Castel Blanc, recreated in the lower illustration, with the notable exception of part of a great entrance tower on the eastern side of the hill (9). Photographs taken before the modern village of Safita expanded into a small but thriving town, indicate that this formed only part of a complex of fortifications around the entrance to the Crusader town.

An important development in medieval castle construction came with the Crusades to the Holy Land beginning at the end of the eleventh century. Called initially at the Council of Clermont on November 27, 1095, by Pope Urban II, the First Crusade attempted to regain the lands where Jesus Christ was born, lived, and died, which they called the Holy Land and which then, and for the previous five centuries, had been under Muslim control. The response to Urban’s call was enthusiastic, and a large army gathered to set out on Assumption Day, 1096. After a difficult journey to the Holy Land, which saw the Crusaders fighting more against the harsh conditions of the Middle East than against the Muslims, the Crusade was successful. The first prize, Antioch, fell on June 28, 1098, followed a year later, on July 13, 1099, by the fall of Jerusalem.

By 1101 the Crusaders had secured their presence in the Holy Land. Their initial success resulted to a large extent from a war that was being fought in the Middle East between the Seljuk Turks and other Muslim peoples, most notably the Egyptian Fatamids. This extended war had both depleted the fighting strength of the Muslims and brought disunity in the defense of their territories. For a while the Crusaders met little military reaction to their conquests. However, they soon realized that they would eventually be forced to defend their newly won territories. They would also have to do it with fewer soldiers than they had in the initial conquests, as many, perhaps as much as one-half to two-thirds of the initial force, returned to Europe following the fall of Jerusalem.

Eventually four Crusader kingdoms were carved out of the captured Middle Eastern territory: Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli, and Jerusalem. Kings were elected and a European socio-political structure created. In order to ensure the security of the kingdoms against both Muslim attacks from outside and Muslim/Jewish uprisings from inside these kingdoms, two practices were instituted. First, the Crusaders negotiated with the Muslims and Jews for peace. Treaties were made, bribes paid, and alliances formed; some Muslims and Jews were even used as tax collectors and policemen. Second, numerous castles were built throughout the four kingdoms. The Crusaders realized the need for building castles, and for building them quickly, and within three decades after the fall of Jerusalem most of their castles were completed. Of the two practices, the building of castles was the most effective. Treaties, alliances, and even bribes all failed to keep the peace during the century following the First Crusade. But the castles seldom failed, especially in the first hundred years of occupation, and when they did, it took a long time and necessitated a large number of men.

Of initial concern to these castle builders was the security of the Crusader kingdoms’ frontiers. Three were especially vulnerable, and the Crusaders concentrated their initial castle construction in these areas. The first, and perhaps most important, was the sea coast. At the end of the First Crusade the Christians had conquered almost all of the coast from Antioch to the Sinai Desert, with the exceptions only of Tyre (not captured until 1124) and Ascalon (not captured until 1153), and it needed to be protected. The second was the frontier facing Damascus. The third was to the south and protected the kingdom of Jerusalem against incursions from Egypt. Numerous castles were built along all these frontiers. A fourth frontier, west of Antioch and facing Aleppo, would also have been filled with castles, except that negotiations between the Crusaders and the Seljuk Turks led to a “demilitarized zone” without either Muslim or Crusader fortifications.

Castles were built along all major routes and in every major mountain pass, along the deserts, the mountains, the rivers, the lakes, and the sea. But protecting the frontiers was only one obligation undertaken by the Crusaders, and it was a responsibility that they could not completely fulfill. There was simply a limitation to the defensibility of the kingdoms’ frontiers, especially when so few soldiers were available as reinforcements should a border or a castle be attacked.

The function of many other castles built by the Crusaders was not the protection of the kingdoms’ boundaries, for they were built deep inside the Crusaders’ lands. These served as garrisons for soldiers who could be used to besiege nearby Muslim towns, such as Tyre and Ascalon, or to raid neighboring, unfriendly Muslim lands. Defensively they served as refuges against the attacks of strong Muslim leaders, like Saladin, until relief could come from elsewhere in the Crusaders’ kingdoms or from Europe. They served as centers of authority and police posts for the governance and security of the kingdoms against domestic insurrections. Finally, these castles were administrative centers and hubs of economic development and colonization.

With the exception of a few castles built to defend the larger towns of the Holy Land, at Tripoli, Tortosa, Tyre, Beirut, Acre, and Jerusalem, most Crusader castles were built in the countryside. It was here that the Crusaders could use the harshness and inaccessibility of the Middle Eastern terrain to add to the defensibility of their structures. Castles were built on the summits of precipitous rocks or next to steep ravines. At two places, Tyron and Habis, the Crusaders even fortified caves. Most castles had thick walls faced with stone. Because their inhabitants anticipated long sieges that might last until reinforcements could arrive from Europe, the castles were provided with reservoirs for water supply and large cellars for food storage. For example, at the castle of Margat it is estimated that there were sufficient food and water supplies to feed a garrison of 1,000 men for 5 years.

In general, two types of castles were built by the Crusaders. The first followed the style that began to be common in Europe at the end of the eleventh century: large rectangular keeps encircled by a stone wall. They were built with the same simple utilitarian character and the same solid construction as those in Europe. They were often also as large in area, but usually only two stories instead of three.

Two of the best examples of this type of Crusader castle were built at Safita and Jebail and were known to the Crusaders as Chastel Blanc and Giblet. Lying in the southern coastal region of Syria, the castle at Safita was built on a rocky knoll nearly 1,000 feet above sea level. At this height and with the precipitousness of its slope, defense was secured. The keep measured 30.5 by 18.3 meters and stood more than 25 meters high. It had two stories: in the upper story was a large, vaulted room, presumably the living quarters, which filled the entire extent of the keep and was lit by only a few arrow-slits; below it was a hall, also filling the extent of the keep, which was used as chapel. The flat roof was enclosed by a crenellated parapet. Around the keep was an oval wall with a large polygonal tower at its southwest end. There may also have been a gatehouse near this tower, although it has now disappeared. On the lower slopes of the knoll was another polygonal wall with a fortified gateway, adding to the defense of the castle above. It is not certain when the castle at Safita was originally built, although it must have been before 1166–67 when the Muslim leader Nur ad-Din is said to have captured it. It was also known to have been a Templar castle, although whether that Order initiated its construction is uncertain.

The castle at Jebail is a good example of a rectangular keep castle, but it is different from Safita in many ways. It was built not on a precipitous location, but at the southeast corner of a wall surrounding a town and a small harbor, the site of the ancient Phoenician seaport of Byblos. It was also much smaller, measuring only 17.7 by 22 meters, with only two stories. One of the strongest Crusader castles, the keep of Jebail Castle was built by reusing large blocks of ancient stone masonry, with old marble columns cut up and used for bonding. Enclosing this keep was a rectangular curtain wall reinforced with small corner towers. An extra tower in the center of the north face guarded the gate. Jebail Castle was constructed as early as the first decade of the twelfth century and served as a part of the fortifications of the kingdom of Tripoli.

Most of the Crusaders’ castles were not rectangular keeps, however. Such castles, too small in both keep size and overall size, simply could not sufficiently meet the military needs of the Christian force occupying the Holy Land. They could not house enough troops to stand in the way of an attacking force, nor could they store enough food and water for a prolonged siege. Rectangular keeps often took a long time to construct, and, as they were the focal point of a castle’s defense, there was little protection until they were completed. The Crusaders needed a fortification that was larger, more quickly built, and more defensible as it was being built. Therefore, they built most of their castles in the style of older Byzantine fortresses already prominent in the Holy Land.

On their journey to Jerusalem the Crusaders had seen and been impressed by the majestic walls of Constantinople. They then besieged the Muslim-held Byzantine fortresses at Nicaea and Antioch. Throughout the Holy Land they confronted other Byzantine defensive structures, so strongly built that they had been repaired by the Muslims who had inhabited them since the seventh century. These clearly influenced the Crusaders, and they began to imitate them.

This style of fortification can most easily be described as castle complexes, although they are most often called concentric castles. They did not rely on a single rectangular keep for their defense; instead, they imitated urban fortifications with large and powerful outside walls strengthened on the sides and in the corners with towers. The buildings inside the complex, none of which were like the rectangular keep castles, became less important in the defense of the castle. They were meant simply to provide housing and storage. These castles were also larger, their size determined by the extent of their outside walls, and could be more quickly constructed than rectangular keep castles.

The Crusaders built many of these castle complexes, most of which were impressive in their size and structure. Walls, sometimes double walls, surrounding a large bailey dominated each castle. As they were the primary means of defense, the walls were very tall and made of the strongest masonry. They were also protected at intervals by a number of crenellated towers. Entrance into the castle was through a single large gatehouse equipped with heavy wooden doors, portcullises, and occasionally a drawbridge. Buildings in the bailey varied in size, shape, and purpose. There were halls, barracks, kitchens, magazines, stables, baths, latrines, storehouses, and, especially in the cases of castles held by the monastic military orders, chapels and chapter houses. Most also contained large, deep wells and/or rainwater reservoirs that were meant to sustain their inhabitants if besieged for long periods until reinforcements could arrive, perhaps from Europe. In some castles there were also keeps, built as residences or barracks and meant to stand as a final line of defense should the outer walls fail.

The shape of these castles was determined by the terrain on which they were built: the harsher the terrain, the more defensible the castle. Many Crusader castle complexes were on high, precipitous hill tops or ridges. Often a deep and steep ravine or ditch, sometimes natural and sometimes hewn out of solid rock, was added. The terrain also determined that some castles, among them Saône, Beaufort, and Toprakkale, were divided into two separate baileys or fortresses accessible to each other only by means of a small drawbridge. In spite of the harshness of terrain on which most of these castles were located, though, most covered quite large areas. For example, the castles at Saône and Subeibe covered an area of 5 and 6.5 hectares respectively.

Krak des Chevaliers

Perhaps the most impressive of these castles, and certainly the one most studied by modern historians and architects, was Krak des Chevaliers. It remains to this day one of the best preserved and most awe-inspiring medieval castles in the world. No less a historical figure than T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) was struck by its beauty and endeavored to make a study of it. He described it as “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world, [a castle which] forms a fitting commentary on any account of the Crusading buildings of Syria.” Built in the mountainous regions of southern Syria not far from the castle at Safita, Krak des Chevaliers was constructed using the terrain to improve its defensibility. It was erected on a hilltop over 640 meters high and surrounded on three sides by steep slopes. Yet its area measured nearly 140 by 210 meters, making it one of the largest of the Crusaders’ castles.

The outer defenses consisted of a polygonal wall, which contained several defensive galleries and semicircular towers. A small gate in the northern face of this wall was guarded by two adjacent towers. Between the outer and inner defenses was a forecourt, 16 to 23 meters wide, with a deep rock-hewn ditch in the southern section serving as a reservoir. The stables, magazine, baths, and latrines were also located in the forecourt.

The inner stronghold of the castle lay on top of a steep revetment rising from the forecourt. It was large and spacious and contained a range of buildings serving different functions, including more water tanks and food storehouses. The inner stronghold also included a chapel, although whether this originated with the construction or was added later when the castle came under the control of the Knights Hospitaller cannot be determined.

The entrance to the castle was protected by three fortified gateways, between which are sharp-turning narrow corridors. For even more defense, on the walls were five massive towers, one on the northern, one on the western, and three more on the southern perimeters. All five towers contained many chambers in their several stories and were probably the living quarters of the knights. They were separated from each other and from the main fortress by a series of stepped bridges. All the buildings in the complex, like the outer walls, were built using the most proficient of architectural and masonic skill. The stone was solid—pierced only by arrow slits—and smoothly cut with some, albeit minor, ornamentation.

Krak des Chevaliers was built in the early twelfth century on the site of a Muslim fortress, which for the most part was dismantled, and it remained a formidable defensive stronghold during the entire Crusader occupation of the Holy Land. It also housed a large number of combatants. In 1212 Wilbrand of Oldenburg estimated that the castle held more than 2,000 soldiers, although most of these were probably Maronite or Syrian soldiers rather than Knights Hospitaller. Its location and garrison meant that it became a target of many Muslim sieges and attacks. The castle survived sieges by Alp Arslan, the Sultan of Aleppo, in 1125 and by Saladin in 1188, and withstood further Muslim attacks in 1163, 1167, 1207, 1218, 1229, 1252, 1267, and 1270. It also survived two major earthquakes during this time. Finally, after being almost completely evacuated by its inhabitants, and after an extensive siege, Mamluk Sultan Baibars captured the castle in 1271.

After their initial conquests, the Crusaders had limited military success. In time, the nearby Muslim rulers began to unite and threaten the Crusader kingdoms. The first major setback for the Crusaders came in 1144, when the poorly protected kingdom of Edessa fell to Nur ad-Din, leaving the other kingdoms open to conquest. In response, the Second Crusade was immediately called by Pope Eugene III. However, it proved to be a miserable failure. Arriving in the Holy Land in late 1147, the Second Crusaders began to quarrel with the resident Crusaders, primarily over the latter’s willingness to make alliances and treaties with the Muslims, and this divisiveness brought a lack of offensive military unity that ultimately led to failure at Damascus against the more unified Muslim forces.

With the failure of the Second Crusade, Nur ad-Din began to extend his power to the south: Damascus was taken in 1154 and Egypt fell in 1168. Nur ad-Din died in 1174, but he was succeeded by Saladin, the nephew of Shirkuh, Nur ad-Din’s lieutenant who had conquered Egypt. Saladin proved to be an even more capable general than both his uncle and Nur ad-Din. When he succeeded to the throne he controlled almost all of the land surrounding the remaining Crusader kingdoms, and it was only a short time before he began to think about extending his power there as well. By 1187 he began to move into the Crusader lands, and on July 4, 1187, he met and defeated a large Crusader army at the battle of Hattin. The road to Jerusalem lay open to him, and the city fell on October 2, 1147. Only Tyre, the kingdom of Antioch, and the kingdom of Tripoli remained in Crusader hands.

This again brought an immediate response from the papacy. Jerusalem, the gem of the Holy Land, captured by the First Crusaders, had fallen to the Muslims, and it was the responsibility of the kings and princes of Europe to retake it. The Third Crusade brought large armies from the three most powerful kingdoms of Europe: Germany, France, and England. All three armies were led by their kings. However, despite the royal and papal influence in this Crusade, it also met with failure. The German army, choosing to travel overland to the Holy Land, never reached its target. Its emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, 68 years old, drowned in the Saleph (now Göksu) River between Armenia and Antioch, and shortly thereafter much of his army, deprived of their royal leader and decimated by disease and Muslim attacks, returned to Europe. The French and English armies, traveling overseas rather than by land, did arrive at the Holy Land, but once there, the two kings, Philip Augustus of France and Richard I “the Lionheart” of England, could never agree on any military action. No major campaign was ever launched by the two together, and no battle ever fought. Acre fell in July 1191 to the Crusaders after a lengthy and uneventful siege, but then, in October 1191, Philip went back to France and began attacking Richard’s territory there. Richard campaigned further up the coast toward Jerusalem, but Saladin kept him from the city and, late in 1192, Richard also returned home.

With the failure of the Third Crusade came the end of defensible borders in the Holy Land; now there were only defensible areas, all of which were protected by castles. One by one they too fell to Muslim armies. Further Crusades had no better success. The Fourth Crusade became diverted to Constantinople, which was conquered in 1204, but did not proceed to the Holy Land from there. Crusades also failed in 1212, 1221, 1229, 1254, 1270, and 1272. One famous Crusader, King Louis IX (St. Louis) of France, saw not only a large part of his army captured in Egypt in 1250, but his own death in Tunisia in 1270. Only King Frederick II of Germany eventually retook some of the lost Holy Land, including Jerusalem, in 1228, but by this time Muslim power had shifted with the Mamluks to Egypt, and Frederick had no better success there than any other thirteenth-century Christian general. By the middle of the thirteenth century the remaining Crusader territory and castles in the Holy Land began to fall. In 1268 the kingdom of Antioch surrendered; in 1289, Tripoli capitulated; and finally, in 1291, when Acre fell, the last vestiges of the Crusaders’ conquest returned to Muslim control.

During this time, until finally forced out of the Holy Land, the Crusaders continued to build castles. But these fortifications, most of them erected in urban areas, were not nearly as elaborate or sophisticated as those constructed during the first half of the twelfth century. Indeed, there seems to have been an air of desperation in much of their construction. But one feature prominent in these later fortifications is important to note. The Crusaders had discovered during their attacks on Muslim fortifications and then later in the defense of their own castles that there were many disadvantages to rectangular keeps and towers. For one thing, the straight walls of a rectangular keep were relatively easy to destroy by a battering ram or siege machine. They also presented virtually unprotected corners to attackers, with almost no potential for flanking fire. A circular or multi-angular keep or tower was more easily defended than a rectangular structure. It presented no unseen or shielded cover to the enemy and often offered no straight walls to his battering machines. It would soon become an important option for European castle builders as well.

A parallel history of Crusader castle construction, both in chronology and style, is to be found in Spain. Muslim soldiers had crossed into Spain from Morocco in 711, and by 720, due both to the strength of their armies and to the disunity of the Visigothic kingdoms, had conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula. Only the kingdom of Asturias in the north successfully resisted their conquests, securing this success at the Battle of Covadonga in 722. This victory may have come because Muslim leaders had split their forces between those responsible for taking northern Iberia and those that had crossed the Pyrenees Mountains and entered France. The latter army’s defeat by Charles Martel in 732 at the Battle of Tours further secured the independence of the Asturias kingdom.

An uneasy peace settled on the Iberian Peninsula for the next few centuries. Neither Christian nor Muslim Spaniards lost their religious animosity toward the other, but both the lack of funds and the lack of unity seem to have kept them away from major military incursions into the other’s realms, although border clashes and raids were frequent. The disunity in the Christian lands would eventually see a division of Asturias into several separate kingdoms: Galicia and León in 910, Navarre in 987, Castille in 1035, and Aragon in 1035. Initially, this weakened Christian political and military power, prompting fears of Muslim invasion among those in kingdoms neighboring Al-Andalus, or Islamic Iberia.

To calm these fears, Christian kings built a large number of fortifications. One good example was Loarre Castle, built near the large Muslim town of Huesca. Constructed by King Sancho III Garcés “the Great” in c.1020 as one of a line of fortifications he built in the lower Pyrenees, Loarre consisted initially of three tall towers tied together and able to be defended on their own if needed. In 1073 the king of Aragon, Sancho I Ramírez, grandson of Sancho III Garcés, significantly added to this castle, while at the same time exhibiting his piety, by attaching an Augustinian priory to the front of the towers, which also served as an extended defense of the castle as a whole. Should it have been attacked, enemy soldiers would have had to fight through the crypt and nave of the church before they could even reach the central fortifications, which remained the three initial towers.

Loarre Castle

Another of these strongholds was a Muslim fortress that stood 10 kilometers from Loarre Castle and was easily seen from the walls of the Aragonese fortification. Although this fortress does not survive and has not been excavated, and thus its strength is unknown, it represents a similar castle-building policy held among the Al-Andalusian leaders. They also saw the need to protect their borders from invasions and raids wherever they faced a Christian threat. But slowly the Christian kings’ Reconquista, as it would be called later, began to cut into the Muslim realm. Coimbra was captured in 1064 by Ferdinand I of León and Toledo by Alfonso VI of Castille in 1085. Between 1073 and his death in 1094, Sancho Ramírez, using Loarre Castle as a base, captured the lands around Huesca, with the city itself falling to his successor, Peter I, in 1096. Afonso I Henriques, King of Portugal, with the help of Second Crusaders from England, Flanders, and the Rhineland, took Lisbon in 1147, with these same Crusaders and others from Catalonia, Genoa, and Pisa capturing Almeria later that year.

But the Reconquista was interspersed with warfare between and within Christian kingdoms, as evidenced in the military adventures of the famous El Cid (Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar), who fought both for and against the Castilian king Alfonso VI in the late eleventh century. Only with the Christian victory in the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 were significant inroads into Al-Andalus made, and by 1249 all but the emirate of Granada had fallen—although it would hold out until its conquest in 1492 by King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile.

At each phase of the Reconquista, as their borders moved, Christian kings constructed new fortifications, almost always answered by new Muslim fortifications. Often these were built in sight of each other. Soon the country was covered by castles, the largest number of any medieval land. On both sides some of these fortresses were controlled by kings, some by nobles, and some also by ecclesiastics, as elsewhere throughout Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean, but, uniquely, some were also built and controlled by the common people.

Perhaps no other event in medieval history had the impact on military technology, especially European fortifications, as did the Crusades. Because most Crusader and Reconquista castles were larger and more capable of a sustained defense than European ones, they tended to impress everyone who saw them. This, added to the fact that so many soldiers of different European kingdoms and principalities served in the Holy Land and Iberia, many of whom would authorize and control the construction of castles when they returned home, meant that the Crusader and Iberian castles greatly influenced late-twelfth- and thirteenth-century castle building throughout Europe. This would create a “golden age” of castle construction that produced perhaps the finest examples of what modern students see as the archetypical medieval castle.


The Lines of Torres Vedras were lines of forts and other military defences built in secrecy to defend Lisbon during the Peninsular War. Named after the nearby town of Torres Vedras, they were ordered by Arthur Wellesley, Viscount Wellington, constructed by Sir Richard Fletcher, 1st Baronet, and his Portuguese workers between November 1809 and September 1810, and used to stop Marshal Masséna’s 1810 offensive.

Wellesley led his men back to the temperate valleys of Beira and Mondego in southern Portugal. After their gruelling marches the mood of relief and lightheadedness in this cheerful winter quarters is caught by the episode when Wellesley, visiting a convent, was astonished to see a nun perform a somersault – until from her petticoats there emerged the boots of a British officer, the practical joker being Captain Dan Mackinnon (who also dressed up on another occasion as the Duke of York, fooling his Spanish hosts, until he dunked his head into the punchbowl in front of him).

Wellesley had now been awarded a peerage as Viscount Wellington, after the town in Somerset. The new milord knew that his position in Portugal was virtually impregnable because Lisbon, from which British forces could be evacuated by sea in a crisis, was at the tip of a peninsula twenty miles wide with the Tagus encircling it to the south and east and the Atlantic to the west. If he built fortifications across the neck of the isthmus on the hills to the north – which rose to 2,000 feet in some places – he had a defensible enclave.

At the end of October he ordered his chief engineer, Colonel Fletcher, to start building these lines of defence – one at the bottom of the Peninsula to cover an embarkation, another across the Cabeca de Monchique, a mountain area which formed an outer perimeter six miles to the north. The extent of the work was astounding: forests were cut down, walls erected and towers strung out along the lines. Much of this work, called the Lines of Torres Vedras, survives to this day, more than fifty miles in extent – a miniature version of the Great Wall of China.

While the Lines were being constructed, Wellington had to fight calls from England for the withdrawal of his army. He was accused of causing his men needless suffering after Talavera, which was partly true. With the fall of the Duke of Portland’s government, the new secretary for war was Lord Liverpool, a pleasant, deeply unimaginative mediocrity but a staunch admirer of Wellington. The latter defended himself with uncharacteristic modesty and urged a continuing presence in the Peninsula: ‘During the continuance of this contest, which must necessarily be defensive on our part, in which there may be no brilliant events, and in which, after all, I may fail, I shall be most confoundedly abused, and in the end I may lose the little character I have gained; but I should not act fairly by the government if I did not tell them my real opinion which is, that they will betray the honour and interests of the country if they do not continue their efforts in the Peninsula, which, in my opinion, are by no means hopeless.’

Liverpool was persuaded: ‘We must make our opinion between a steady and continued exertion upon a moderate scale and a great and extraordinary effort for a limited time which neither our military nor financial means will enable us to maintain permanently. If it could be hoped that the latter would bring the contest to a speedy and successful conclusion, it would certainly be the wisest course; but unfortunately the experience of the last fifteen years is not encouraging in this respect.’

Not since Addington had so mediocre a man as Spencer Perceval led Britain against France. Brougham sums up his personality:

Of views upon all things the most narrow, upon religious and even political questions the most bigoted and intolerant, his range of mental vision was confined in proportion to his ignorance on all general subjects. Within that sphere he saw with extreme acuteness – as the mole is supposed to be more sharp-sighted than the eagle for half a quarter of an inch before it; but as beyond the limits of his little horizon he saw no better than the mole, so like her, he firmly believed, and always acted on the belief, that beyond what he could descry nothing whatever existed; and he mistrusted, dreaded, and even hated all who had an ampler visual range than himself. But here, unhappily, all likeness ceases between the puny animal and the powerful statesman. Beside the manifest sincerity of his convictions, attested, perhaps, by his violence and rancour, he possessed many qualities, both of the head and the heart, which strongly recommended him to the confidence of the English people. He never scared them with refinements, nor alarmed their fears by any sympathy with improvements out of the old and beaten track; and he shared largely in all their favourite national prejudices.

Perceval’s absurd attempts to secure a monopoly of neutral trade for Britain led to the needless War of 1812 with America. In the absence of both Canning and Castlereagh, the most powerful players in his government were the Wellesley brothers – the marquess promoted from ambassador to Lisbon to Foreign Secretary – with Liverpool another mediocrity whom they dominated. Perceval was a narrow-minded conservative, whose response to the threat posed by Napoleon was of straightforward obduracy, as it was to any manifestation of popular discontent prompted by Britain’s economic difficulties under the Continental System and the rapid social and economic transformation the country was undergoing.

The sole benefit of such leadership was that it gave the domineering Wellington a free hand in Portugal. In addition to establishing the Lines of Torres Vedras, Wellington proved a genius in irregular warfare. He sought to integrate his Portuguese troops under General Beresford. In this Major Harvey, the assistant quartermaster-general with the Portuguese army, was the key. He was sent to organize a force of Portuguese guerrillas in Beira province. These became highly effective guerrillas, usually under the command of priests. On one occasion Harvey’s irregulars captured a heavy convoy near Penamacor, fighting off the 150 French irregulars accompanying it just four miles away from a full French division: no fewer than fifty-three cartloads of ammunition and tobacco were taken.

Another leader of irregulars was the ferociously disciplinarian Brigadier Robin Crauford, ‘Black Bob’, who flogged any man who broke ranks crossing a stream and who could get his men under arms from sleeping quarters at night in just seven minutes. Crauford’s guerrillas guarded the Portuguese frontier, bringing reports of suspect French troop concentrations. ‘The whole web of communication quivered at the slightest touch,’ wrote one observer admiringly. Both Harvey and Crauford reported back enemy movements in the valley of the Mondego from the vantage points of the Serra d’Estrella.

Wellington and his small army remained in their hill fastnesses in central Portugal, as Washington’s armies had done in the interior of America, while the imperial armies of their opponents blundered about the plains and plateaux, under constant and relentless harassment from the local population. Every day on average more than a hundred French soldiers were killed. While bungling and ill-equipped Spanish armies were always at the mercy of the French on the field of battle, in guerrilla fighting it was the other way around.

One fearsome guerrilla boasted that he had killed 600 Frenchmen himself. El Empecinado – Inky Face – roamed Castile with his guerrilla band, seizing and holding the sizeable town of Guadalajara for a day. Camilo, a guerrilla chief whose wife and daughter had been raped, formed a small army which killed thousands. Don Julian Sanchez sent the severed heads of French commanders to Wellington as trophies and massacred 160 prisoners in a single sitting, promising to slice Soult into strips. One of his commanders boiled a French general alive and sawed another in half.

The fortress of Gerona held out under its governor, Mariano Alvarez de Castro. He told his men when they ran out of food to eat the cowards, and instructed his officers that their only place of retreat should be the cemetery. Half of Gerona’s townspeople and 6,000 of its 9,000 defenders were killed before it surrendered.

Napoleon, relaxing with his pretty young bride after Wagram, had long promised to go to Spain to take personal charge of the campaign but perhaps sensing that the war there was unwinnable against resistance on this scale, he had already despatched his two best generals, André Masséna and Michel Ney. These two supported the forces under the incompetent King Joseph (known as Pepe Botellas by the Spaniards for his alleged fondness for the bottle), and other marshals: Soult in Andalucia, Suchet in Aragón (who alone controlled his fiefdom through enlightened policies designed to win over the local population) and Augereau in Catalonia. These men reported directly to the Emperor in order to prevent Masséna acquiring too much power, but the result was that they competed with one another, rarely combining their armies. They each ran their own areas of Spain as personal fiefdoms.

Wellington wrote with detachment in July:

This is not the way in which they have conquered Europe. There is something discordant in all the French arrangements for Spain. Joseph divides his Kingdom into préfetures, while Napoleon parcels it out into governments; Joseph makes a great military expedition into the south of Spain and undertakes the siege of Cadiz while Napoleon places all the troops and half the kingdom under the command of Masséna and calls it the Army of Portugal . . . I suspect that the impatience of Napoleon’s temper will not bear the delay of the completion of the conquest of Spain.

But Masséna with his 30,000 vanguard was already approaching the frontier town of Ciudad Rodrigo. Although the fortress was almost indefensible, its heroic Spanish commander General Herrasti held out for nearly two months with 5,000 men, until more than 1,200 had been killed. Some 30,000 shells and roundshot had to be fired before the French managed to take the garrison. Wellington refused to come to the rescue, for once out in the open plain he was easy prey for French cavalry. Masséna’s army now moved on to the more impressive fortress of Almeida. However, here a shell blew up the main ammunition dump, leaving the garrison almost out of ammunition, and it surrendered unexpectedly quickly.