In the summer of 1348 a ship docked at the Channel port of Melcombe Regis in Dorset. In the fleas infesting the fur of the black rats on board were the deadliest plague bacillae that have ever visited mankind. The Black Death emptied towns, wiped out villages, and struck at rich and poor alike, killing the wife and three of the daughters of King Edward III, along with swathes of his poorer subjects. Spreading swiftly inland from that fatal bridgehead in Dorset, the plague reached London by the autumn of the same year. Although the capital, by today’s standards, was still tiny – it was possible to walk right across London from the Tower to the city’s western wall at Farringdon in half an hour – it was a crowded labyrinth of cheek-by-jowl dwellings; a warren of filthy, mud- and shit-strewn streets, which were an ideal breeding ground for the pestilence.

In a thousand days after that first, fatal landfall, the Black Death wiped out between a third and a half of England’s entire population. In London alone one mass burial ‘plague pit’ north of the Tower accommodated 10,000 victims. Another, at nearby Blackfriars, held 42,000. Although this first blast of the plague had blown itself out by 1350, it was to return in recurrent waves right up to the mid-seventeenth century – the Great London Plague of 1665 in which fifty-eight of the Tower garrison’s soldiers died being its last major visitation.

The Black Death left a mixed legacy for the rest of the fourteenth century. With a world population brutally slashed by up to 350 million, labour became a precious commodity. Serfs and peasants, having survived this most perilous of dangers, knew that their time and labour were a prize to be won rather than a right to be demanded by grasping landlords, greedy nobles and arrogant rulers. The reign of young King Richard II coincided with the upsurge of violent protest by his poorer subjects known to history as the Peasants’ Revolt.

The revolt erupted in ugly violence like a plague buboe bursting. A cocktail of social ills brewed in the previous reign curdled to bring the pustule to a virulent head. The legacy of the Black Death, combined with the seemingly endless wars in France, had drained manpower away from the land: a labour shortage that the ruling caste vainly attempted to stem with a series of savage laws. The Statute of Labourers of 1351 pegged wages at their 1348 pre-plague levels, despite roaring inflation. Labourers were also commanded to work where and when their lords and masters required. Serfs and villeins who left their lord’s land in search of higher wages were threatened with branding, and even giving alms to roaming beggars was banned in a bid to starve the beggars into work. In a desperate effort to raise cash for an exchequer denuded by the cost of the French wars and decreasing productivity, the government slapped tax after tax on a declining population already struggling to survive.

Such was the grim inheritance of the boy king Richard II. A delicate nine-year-old with what the chronicler Richard Holinshed called ‘an angelic face’ framed by a halo of fair curls, Richard grew into one of those inept kings periodically thrown up by the Plantagenets in marked contrast to their usual run of strong, ruthless warriors. Unlike his fierce father and grandfather, Richard of Bordeaux was a ruler in the mould of Henry III or Edward II – unwarlike, pious, effeminate, and with a strong aesthetic interest. And also like those two ill-starred monarchs, the young king had a streak of stubbornness, coupled with the unwavering conviction that, as God’s anointed, he could do no wrong.

Richard’s unhappy reign began and ended at the Tower. The day after his grandfather Edward III’s death on 22 June 1377 he was taken there in procession, and sequestered until his coronation. Three weeks later, dressed all in white, the divine-looking child king was brought to Westminster Abbey to be crowned. Richard had inherited an inherently unstable and almost bankrupt country from his grandfather. Cash strapped and at a loss, in November 1380 the Royal Council called a parliament to approve a radical new moneymaking scheme. This was a single levy – the poll tax – payable by every English adult, prince or peasant, aged over fifteen, at the same rate: three groats (one shilling). The sum represented a week’s wages for a master craftsman, and perhaps a month’s hard-earned graft for an agricultural labouring serf.

The commissioners dispatched to the countryside to raise the new tax were bitterly resented and violently resisted. The chief serjeant-at-arms, a thug named John Legge, was reputed to line up young village girls and grope under their skirts to determine whether they were virgins and exempt from the hated tax. Such abuse bred a murderous loathing among the commons. It was the third tax hike in as many years, and rather than pay, many people temporarily vanished from their villages or attacked the tax collectors, who returned to London having only succeeded in raising two thirds of the expected revenue. Foolishly, the council sent them back again in the spring of 1381. This time, grumbling turned into a spontaneous outburst of popular rage the like of which had never been seen in England before.

By June, the temperature in the countryside was as hot as the midsummer sun. A spontaneous tax strike in the villages of northern Essex spread south like wildfire racing through a cornfield, and crossed the Thames into north Kent, where the revolt was coordinated by a popular leader Walter (or Wat) Tyler. Tyler may have been a discharged soldier from the wars in France, and/or a common highway robber. But he was clearly a charismatic, bold and determined character – the first popular revolutionary since ‘Longbeard’ Fitzosbert had rallied Londoners to the cause of social justice in the reign of Richard I. Tyler turned an inchoate mob of peasants into a focused – if undisciplined – people’s army. In early June 1381, some 20,000 strong, Wat’s horde converged on Kent’s county town of Maidstone.

They ransacked the town jail, releasing its prisoners. One of the freed men, John Ball, was an ordained priest sick of the steadily accumulating wealth and worldly ways of the established Church. Abandoning his parish in York and hitting the road, Ball had become an itinerant preacher of the sort known as Lollards. His proto-Protestant – and to the Church, heretical – doctrines were a potent mix of biblical simplicity – calling for a return to the tenets of poverty and justice preached by Christ – and an explosive social egalitarianism summed up in Ball’s oft-repeated couplet:

When Adam delved and Eve span

Who was then the gentleman?

Naturally, this inflammatory question did not go down well with Ball’s superiors in the Church, or the civil authorities struggling to keep a lid on simmering social tension. He was repeatedly jailed, and was serving out the latest sentence when Wat Tyler’s army arrived at the prison gates.

Ball’s wild oratory whipped the peasants on, but they needed little urging. When they arrived at Canterbury, chronicler Jean Froissart tells us, a substantial part of the city’s population swelled their ranks: ‘And in their going they beat down and robbed houses … and had mercy of none.’ They ordered the monks at the cathedral to elect a new archbishop, since, they threatened prophetically, the hated current incumbent, Simon Sudbury, was a dead man walking: ‘For he … is a traitor and will be beheaded for his iniquity.’ Ominously, the mob carried out their first executions, decapitating some of Canterbury’s wealthier citizens. Moving west towards London, the peasant army arrived at Rochester where they looted the castle built by Gundulf, the Tower’s architect; and took the children of the castle’s constable, Sir Richard Newton as hostages. Tyler sent Newton ahead with a personal message for King Richard. The ruffian peasant chief demanded that the boy king should meet him in three days’ time at Blackheath, a large expanse of common land south-east of the capital.

As Tyler’s ragged army trod grimly towards the city from Kent, an even larger peasant army, possibly totalling 50,000 or even 70,000, was simultaneously converging on the capital from Essex. Led by another self-appointed people’s tribune, Jack Straw, who harangued his followers from a hay wain on Hampstead Heath which became known as ‘Jack Straw’s castle’, the men of Essex were stirred by the same injustices, and fired up by the same hopes, as the men of Kent. This peasants’ pincer movement threw the unprepared royal authorities on to the back foot. The regime’s strong man – and chief target of the peasants’ wrath – the king’s uncle, John of Gaunt, was, fortunately for him, absent on a military mission against the Scots. One of his brothers, Thomas of Woodstock, Earl of Buckingham, was in Wales; while the third royal brother, Edmund of Langley, Earl of Cambridge, was embarking from Plymouth on a military expedition to Spain with the only substantial armed forces available to the administration. As the peasants converged on the fat capital bent on taking it apart, the naked city was defenceless.

Those members of the council still in London sent for King Richard from Windsor Castle, and withdrew with him and his mother Joan, ‘the Fair Maid of Kent’, behind the stout walls of the Tower, along with its garrison of around 1,000 men. England’s ruling class assembled in the fortress, astonished and fearful at the hurricane of discontent that had so suddenly blown up. The Earls of Kent, Salisbury, Warwick, Arundel, Oxford and Suffolk were there; along with Sir Robert Hales, England’s Lord Treasurer; Simon Sudbury, the hated chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury; John Legge, the loathed serjeant-at-arms and chief enforcer of the poll tax that had sparked the revolt; and William Walworth, a prosperous and hard-nosed London fishmonger who was the city’s lord mayor.

On Wednesday 12 June 1381, Tyler’s ragtag army arrived at Blackheath and pitched camp. Sir John Newton sailed up the Thames by barge to convey Tyler’s message to the king at the Tower. On being admitted to the royal presence, he prostrated himself on the floor and begged Richard’s pardon for the insolence of the demands he brought. He asked the king to meet ‘the commons of your realm’ and hear their grievances. Newton begged the king to give an appeasing answer, for if he did not, the peasants would slaughter his hostage children. On his council’s advice, Richard agreed to meet the rebels the next day. A grateful Newton hurried back to Tyler with the good news.

A tense night in the Tower followed. From the battlements, the fearful inhabitants could just make out, in the darkness to the south-east, tiny pinpricks of light from the fires of the rebel host encamped on Blackheath. During the night the elderly Archbishop Sudbury came quaking to the king and surrendered the Great Seal – symbol of his other job, the Chancellorship of England. Word had reached him of the destruction of his see at Canterbury, and now raiding parties of peasants had swarmed into his London palace at Lambeth on the south bank, and systematically vandalised it, tearing tapestries to ribbons and smashing plates while raucously yelling, ‘A revel! A revel!’. Sudbury clearly believed that by resigning his secular office he might appease the peasants’ fury. But it was too late for such a gesture.

The next day, Thursday 13 June, the feast of Corpus Christi was celebrated by King Richard with a morning Mass. Then the royal party left the Tower in a flotilla of five barges and rowed downriver to the agreed rendezvous. Awaiting their arrival, the peasants, too, had heard a Corpus Christi Mass – a fiery sermon preached by John Ball in which he harped on his favourite egalitarian theme of the yawning chasm between rich and poor.

They [the rich] are clothed in velvet and camlet furred with grise, and we be vestured with poor cloth. They have their wine, spices and good bread, and we have the dross of the chaff and drink water. They dwell in fair houses, and we have the pain and travail, rain and wind in the fields. And by our labours … they keep and maintain their estates. We be called their bondsmen … we be beaten … and we have no sovereign to whom we may complain, nor that will hear us, nor do us right.

As Ball spoke, their sovereign was on his way to hear their complaints. The court’s intention was to disembark between Rotherhithe and Greenwich and walk to Blackheath, but on nearing the river bank they saw the vast and threatening throng gathered there. The royal party understandably hesitated. Froissart reports, ‘When they saw the king’s barge coming they [the peasants] made such a cry, as though the devils of hell had been among them … And when the king and his lords saw the mood of the people even the best assured of them were in dread.’ Famished and thirsty in the midsummer heat, with the tempting prize of London lying before them awaiting plunder, the rebels were in no mood to parley with those they blamed for their misery.

With a nervous Sudbury and Hales whispering in either ear – like the archbishop, the treasurer had had his Essex estates trashed by the rebels – Richard stayed on the safety of the river and attempted to address the mob from his barge. In his thin, piping treble the boy king asked for their demands. He was answered by a cacophony of ribald shouts and jeers, from which the clear message emerged that nothing less than the heads of his advisers trembling beside him would satisfy the rebels’ thirst for revenge. Thoroughly alarmed, the king’s counsellors insisted on turning their barges round and returning to the safety of the Tower as fast as their oars could row them. Following them along the south bank with shouts of ‘Treason!’, the thwarted peasant army moved west too, in a race which the frantic crew of the barges narrowly won, gratefully regaining the safety of the Tower. Angry, and believing that the king’s evil counsellors were stopping Richard from hearing their case, the peasants turned their frustrated fury on the prostrate city before them.

Reaching London Bridge, they found the drawbridge guarding its southern side barred. Further inflamed, the mob set fire to a nearby Southwark brothel, staffed by Flemish prostitutes and owned by Lord Mayor Walworth. Either this persuaded the guards on the bridge to change their minds, or more probably the bridge gates were opened by sympathisers from within the city. There were plenty of Londoners of the poorer sort, who burned with the same sense of injustice as their country cousins. As the men of Kent swarmed across the bridge and into the city, with blood-chilling yells of ‘Burn!’ and ‘Kill!’, their allies from Essex, approaching from Stepney, also gained access through the Aldgate, a few hundred yards north of the Tower. The two peasant armies met and mingled with their allies from within the city, perhaps 100,000 strong: a greater number than the entire population of London.

Fuelled by copious consumption of beer and wine – looted or offered free by terrified tavern owners – the huge mob went mad with the joy of slaughter and destruction. For the first time in its history, London was ruled by an anarchic crowd, intoxicated and metaphorically drunk, too, with their sudden power. Their first target was the princely Savoy palace, riverside home of the hated John of Gaunt. The peasants were adamant that the contents of this all-too-conspicuous symbol of excess should be smashed rather than stolen. One of them, who tried to make off with a plate, was caught and burned alive.

After murdering the guards at the palace gates, the rebel commons took their bloody axes to the great vats and barrels in the Savoy’s cellars, releasing a flood of wine. Their next goal was John of Gaunt’s treasury. Again, they scorned to steal, and removed the jewels and precious stones, gold plates and silver tableware, only to throw them from the palace’s terrace into the Thames. A gorgeous jewel-encrusted padded jacket belonging to the absent duke was draped on a pole as a substitute for the hated tyrant and riddled with arrows. Then it was the turn of the ducal wardrobe to be laid waste. Shimmering silk, rich velvet, furs, plump cushions and ancient tapestries were ripped to shreds, before being piled into a gigantic pyre in the Savoy’s great hall and set ablaze. The inferno spread to the rest of the palace and soon the whole building was in flames. Many peasant lives were lost when three unopened barrels were hurled into the flames and exploded with shattering force – the ‘yokel band’ being unfamiliar with the properties of gunpowder. Scores more looters, overcome with alcohol, were trapped in the cellar when the Savoy’s roof collapsed, and slowly asphyxiated under the ruins, their ‘cries and lamentations’ horrifying all who heard them. By morning, the once proud palace was a smouldering heap of blackened stone, charred timbers and molten metal.

The mob fanned out across the city, searching for new targets. They broke into London’s jails and freed the prisoners. As so often, foreign immigrants were singled out for attack. In previous pogroms Jews would have been the chief scapegoats, but since Edward I had expelled them, the peasants turned on Italian Lombards, who had taken over the Jews’ moneylending functions, and dozens were slaughtered. Dutch Flemings, resented for their domination of the cloth trade, were another easy target. Thirty-five Flemings, who had sought sanctuary in St Martin-in-Vinery Church, were dragged out and beheaded on a single bloody block. Thirteen more were decapitated outside the St Austin’s friary. In all 150 died. A distinguished eyewitness to the savagery, the poet Geoffrey Chaucer – a future custodian of maintenance at the Tower as Clerk of the Kings’ Works who, having an apartment over the Aldgate, had seen Jack Straw’s Essex men swarm into the city – reported, ‘There was a very great massacre of Flemings, and in one heap there were laying about forty headless bodies of persons who had been dragged forth from the churches and their houses; and hardly was there a street in the City in which there were not bodies laying.’

Later, the poet put the savagery he had seen into verse:

They yelled, as fiends do in hell,

The ducks cried, as men would him quell, …

The geese, for fear, flew over the trees,

Out of the hive came the swarms of bees;

So hideous was the noise, ah Benidicte!

Certes, he Jack Straw and his men

Made never shouts half so shrill

When that they would any Fleming kill …

Any citizen who looked remotely prosperous, such as the corrupt banker Sir Richard Lyons, who was killed on sight, was at risk. To be a servant of the state involved in oppressing the poor meant immediate death, as the tax collector Roger Leggett discovered when he was hauled from his house in Southwark and beheaded at Cheapside. The frenzied mob ignored Church sanctuary, prising a terrified Richard Imeworth, hated keeper of the King’s Bench prison in Southwark, from the pillar he was desperately clinging to in Westminster Abbey, and slitting his throat.

Knowing that the chief targets of their rage were out of reach with the king in the Tower, the mob took their frustrated fury out on property. The Temple, St John’s Hospital at Clerkenwell and ostentatious private houses of the wealthy were all torched because their owners were immured in the Tower. These properties shared the Savoy’s fiery fate before the mob, their fury temporarily sated by the orgy of rape, looting, arson and murder, reeled eastwards along the river. Surrounding the Tower, they collapsed on either side of the fortress, throwing themselves down on Tower Hill and St Katherine’s Square, screaming taunts, threats and obscenities at the Tower’s dumb walls. Inside the fortress, calm amidst his cowering courtiers, was young King Richard. He climbed to the roof of the White Tower to observe the raging fires and the sack of the city by his rebellious subjects.

In the heart of the Tower, the Royal Council spent the short summer night in anxious session. It was split between hawks and doves. The hardliners, led by London’s tough-minded lord mayor, William Walworth, were all for taking the Tower’s garrison out on a sortie and scattering their ill-armed besiegers while they were dead to the world. Although the peasants were numerous, Walworth argued, few had weapons, many were too drunk to stand, and the rest would be sleeping off their bloody binge. Even outnumbered by some fifty to one, the Tower’s professional soldiers would easily defeat this scum of the earth.

The doves were represented by the old Earl of Salisbury, the council’s senior member. He advised the king to appease the mob ‘with fine words’, and buy time by pretending to grant their requests. Richard, wise beyond his fourteen years, decided to adopt this course. He would ride out to confront the mob – but only to draw them out of London so that the hated ministers, quivering inside the Tower, could escape. Any promises extracted from him under duress would be empty words. The urgent thing was to get the peasant mob out of London, disperse them – then deal with them at leisure.

At daybreak on Friday 14 June, after hearing morning Mass, the king went up to a perch on the Tower’s eastern wall. Shouting over the cacophony of yells from the slowly stirring rebel host, he agreed to meet them – so long as they promised to go home afterwards. In the meantime, added Richard, he was issuing a general pardon ‘for all manner of trespasses and misprisions and felonies done up to this hour’. To match his words, Richard flourished a parchment with the promised pardon and affixed the royal seal to the document in full sight of the mob. A few minutes later, the great gates of the Tower swung open and the king, with a knot of his more courageous courtiers, rode out. It was an indisputably brave thing for the boy to have done – the desperate and still-drunken mob could have torn him to pieces on the spot. But, miraculously, they did not.

Awestruck, most of the mob followed the slight figure of the king as he rode eastwards out of the city to the fields known as Mile End. The courtiers around Richard were jeered all the way through the city wall at Aldgate to the open country beyond. But some of Tyler’s followers – probably including Wat himself, along with Ball and Straw – hung back. As the Tower’s guards attempted to close the fortress’s heavy gates after readmitting Joan, the queen mother – who had tried to accompany her son in a wagon, but turned back because of the sheer press of people in the streets – the peasants swept the sentries aside and stormed into the fortress. Their hoarse cries of triumph as they insolently ruffled the hair and tugged the beards of the bewildered sentries echoed around the ancient walls. For the first time since its construction four centuries before, London’s pre-eminent castle and royal palace was in hostile hands.

The rebels rampaged through the Tower, smashing locked doors, helping themselves to food and drink, wrecking and looting as they went. Then, on the first floor of the White Tower, ignoring the sanctuary of the church, they burst into the Romanesque splendour of St John’s Chapel. Here they found the most hated men in the kingdom huddled in prayer. Anticipating their likely fate as they heard the raucous cries of the approaching mob, Archbishop Simon Sudbury had held a short service, shriving the sins of his terrified companions. Then the chapel door burst open, and their ragged enemies, stinking of blood, sweat and drink, were upon them.

With chilling roars of vengeance, the peasants made good the threats they had uttered to Sudbury’s monks at Canterbury. The archbishop just had time to gasp the brief prayer ‘Omnes sancti orate pro nobis’ (‘All the Holy saints protest us’). Then the old man – along with the equally detested treasurer Sir John Hales, tax commissioner John Legge, and William Appleton, personal physician to John of Gaunt – was roughly dragged out of the chapel, borne in savage triumph through the Tower’s gates and up the slope of Tower Hill. Luckily for him, the detested John of Gaunt’s eldest son and heir, young Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, and a cousin and almost exact contemporary of King Richard, who was also in the Tower, was hidden by one of his father’s retainers, John Ferrour of Southwark – an act of mercy that would have momentous if unintended consequences for the future Henry IV and English history, – and dire ones for Richard himself.

A log was laid on Tower Hill – and the luckless quartet from the chapel became the first of 125 people to be executed in the Tower’s shadow over the next 400 years. Archbishop Sudbury was first to suffer. With Christian charity he forgave the amateur executioner before stretching his neck on the block. Nervous and inexperienced, his killer bungled the blow. ‘Aha!’ cried the stricken archbishop, his hand rising instinctively to the gaping wound on his neck. ‘It is the hand of God.’ Without waiting for the cleric to remove his hand, the swordsman struck again, severing Sudbury’s fingers. Still the archbishop lived, collapsing on the ground. It took a total of eight clumsy strokes delivered to his head, neck and shoulders before death mercifully ensued and the archbishop’s head rolled free. Their bloodlust unslaked, the murderers took the mangled head, nailed it inside his clerical mitre, stuck it on a pole and set it up on London Bridge – the traditional display case for traitors’ skulls. After watching this horrifying spectacle, Hales, Legge and Appleton were brutally dispatched in their turn.

Meanwhile, similar scenes of horror continued inside the Tower. In the royal palace, the king’s bedchamber was vandalised and then, in an inner sanctum, the mob discovered the king’s mother: Joan, the first Princess of Wales, once a beauty so alluring that she was known as the Fair Maid of Kent, but now grown so obese that she waddled rather than walked. Reputed to be the damsel whose dropped garter inspired her father-in-law Edward III to found the noblest order of chivalry, Joan at fifty-one, despite her corpulence, was still the embodiment of refinement and female delicacy.

Not that this deterred Wat’s army of drunken peasants. They crowded into the chamber where Joan lay in bed surrounded by her terrified and weeping ladies. Tapestries were torn from the walls, coverlets were stripped from the queen mother’s bed, and lewd threats were uttered. One of Joan’s ladies was raped, and the same fate appeared to await Joan herself. The peasants, however, contented themselves with a few forced snatched kisses. Their beery breath and rough embraces made the queen mother faint away, before they trailed out of the room. For fear that they would return, Joan, still swooning, was disguised in rough commoners’ clothes, hustled out of the Tower and into a barge which rowed her upriver to the safety of Baynard’s Castle.

Knowing nothing of these bloody events unfolding back at the Tower, Richard spent the day haggling with the peasants, granting demand after demand for an amelioration of their conditions – a freeze on rents, an end to court fines for rent arrears, properly negotiated work contracts – with a show of reluctance, stringing out the negotiations in the hope that the crowds would weary and go home. Finally, some 40,000 rebels – mainly Essex men – turned homewards, some carrying the pardons which the king had granted them. A weary but relieved Richard and his courtiers headed back towards the Tower. They were halfway there when they were met by a herald who blurted out the terrible news of the murders and mayhem that had taken place in their absence. The messenger did not know what had become of the king’s mother, but it was clear that the Tower was an unsafe destination. They made instead for the Royal Wardrobe office at Blackfriars which was still in loyal hands.

Arriving there, Richard was relieved to learn that his mother was alive. Hearing the details of her near-death experience, and the confirmation that his senior ministers had been brutally murdered, he hardened his resolve to deal with their murderers in the only language they understood. Having seen that his appeasement had merely led to more bloody anarchy, the young king was now ready to listen to the hard-line William Walworth. Richard’s attempts to kill the revolt by kindness had failed, Walworth argued. More concessions would merely whet the rebels’ thirst for blood. If they carried on like this, they too would share the fate of the victims at the Tower. It was time for resolute action.

Richard and his courtiers again agreed to parley with Tyler the next day. This time the meeting place was to be Smithfield, the open space north of London where horses were traded and cattle penned and slaughtered. Smithfield had also witnessed the bloody evisceration of ‘traitors’ like William Wallace: it was an appropriate setting for the climactic act of violence in the Peasants’ Revolt. Saturday 15 June dawned hot and sultry. The king waited until the heat of the day had passed at 5 p.m. before riding out again to meet the mob, pausing en route to say his prayers at Westminster Abbey. He was accompanied by a retinue of around 200 knights, pages and foot soldiers, led by a grimly determined Walworth. Richard, his slight figure disappearing inside a long gown trimmed with ermine, arrived at Smithfield where Tyler and around 20,000 followers awaited him.

Tyler’s two days as uncrowned king of London had swelled him to foolish arrogance. In his sweaty pomp he rode up alone to confront Richard. Brandishing a dagger, he grabbed the monarch’s hand, insolently addressing him as ‘Brother King’. Tyler reeled off a list of new demands, each more outrageous than the last. They included the abolition of all ranks of nobility; the stripping from the former lords of their lands and goods; the confiscation of Church land and property, and the reduction of bishops from princes of the Church to the status of poor, wandering priests like John Ball. It was a redprint for social revolution. In Tyler’s primitive communist state, only Richard would be left as titular king, while real power would lie with Wat and his men. Richard replied quietly that all reasonable demands would be granted – providing the peasants now returned to their villages.

There followed a tense pause, as brooding as the torrid afternoon. Tyler demanded a jug of beer. He quaffed a mouthful, before coarsely spitting it on the ground in front of the king – itself an act of unpardonable lese-majesty in the eyes of the horrified courtiers. Then the tension suddenly snapped. Turning to the king’s personal page, the peasant leader demanded that he hand over the ceremonial Great Sword of State that he carried, since in future he, Wat Tyler, would be wielding the state’s power. Boldly, the page indignantly refused: the sword was the king’s property, he declared, and Tyler was not fit to hold it since he was ‘only a villein’. Enraged, Tyler stood in his stirrups and, waving his dagger over his head, vowed that he would not eat until he had the page’s head on a platter. This was the moment that the lord mayor had been waiting for. Walworth spurred his horse forward.

Wat Tyler’s death (left to right: Sir William Walworth, Mayor of London (wielding sword); Wat Tyler; King Richard II; and Sir John Cavendish, esquire to the King (bearing lance)

Shouting that Tyler was a ‘stinking wretch’, Walworth pushed between the peasant chief and the king. Tyler aimed his dagger at the mayor’s chest. The blow was deflected with a clang, since under his robes Walworth had taken the precaution of donning a breastplate. Now it was his turn to strike. Drawing his short sword, the mayor hit Tyler full in the forehead with the pommel, following up with a slashing blow across the rebel’s neck. Dropping his dagger, Tyler reeled back, grabbing instinctively at his bleeding neck. Seizing the moment, another courtier, Sir Ralph Standish, rode up and drove his sword deep into Tyler’s guts. Groaning, the peasant lord slid from his horse and collapsed in a bloody heap.

This was the moment of supreme danger for Richard. At the sight of their leader writhing on the ground, the peasants started forward with a collective roar of rage, clearly intent on killing the king and all who rode with him. Richard was equal to the peril. He fearlessly forced his horse forward, piping out, ‘Sirs, would you kill your king? I am your rightful captain, and I will be your leader. Let all those who love me, follow me.’ Quite alone, Richard rode up to and through the mob, which parted like the biblical Red Sea before the small figure in his royal robe. The king led them north into the open countryside called Clerkenwell Fields, and there, after again promising to pardon their rebellion and address their grievances, he left them – returning to the Tower where Walworth was already rallying a small contingent of troops and frightened Londoners. Returning to Smithfield with this armed following, Walworth’s first concern was to ensure that Tyler was dead. To his horror, he learned that the ruffian still lived. Tyler had been taken to the hospital of the nearby Priory of St Bartholemew. Mercilessly, Walworth had the dying man dragged from his bed, taken out to Smithfield, and beheaded.

Miraculously, this bloody climax marked the end of the uprising. Wat Tyler’s dream of a peasants’ paradise died with him. Without their charismatic leader, the fearsome host of peasants meekly returned to their homes and villages to await the inevitable royal retribution. It was not long in coming. In contrast to his honeyed words and the promises made at Mile End and Smithfield, Richard now proclaimed to the peasants, ‘Serfs ye are, and serfs ye shall remain.’ Tyler’s head replaced that of Sudbury on the spikes topping London Bridge. Some 150 other rebels, including Ball and Straw, were hunted down and paid the full penalty for their revolt. The social order of king, lords and commons which had been so briefly and brutally turned topsy-turvy was restored. But the fallibility of monarchy – in the form of the frail young monarch himself – had been rudely paraded for all to see, and neither peasant nor king would ever forget it.

What Drove the Rise of the English Longbowman?

The answer to this question can be found in the stories of the various ways people used bows and arrows in the times between the Norman Conquest and the Black Death. Sometimes their activities are lost to history because of the lack of records, at other times the royal administration may have discouraged popular archery either deliberately or by neglect. But an English tradition of popular archery existed throughout the period.

Much has been made of the Anglo-Norman experience of archery in their wars against the Welsh and its influence on the development of military archery in England. The Norman kings and Marcher Lords gained control of large parts of Southern Wales through conquest and alliance by the middle of the twelfth century. Then they used the archery skills of their new tenants and allies in their assault on Ireland. Part of the reason why the Southern Welsh archery skills have been emphasised is because of the graphic accounts of its effectiveness left us by Giraldus Cambrensis. Meanwhile there is evidence of archery skills developing in the English border counties, or more likely being discovered and exploited by the Anglo Norman rulers. But as accounts of military archery in Stephen’s reign make clear, there was an active English archery tradition at the same time as the Welsh archers were impinging on the Anglo Normans. But it is probable that the Welsh contribution to the development of military archery was to demonstrate the effectiveness of more powerful bows than were commonly used in the contemporary English tradition. At the same time, the Battle of the Standard strongly suggests that there was a tradition of archery in Northern England, probably encouraged by two centuries of Norse influence, and more centuries of warfare with the Scots. While the Norsemen did not make extensive use of military archery, they understood the value of archery. Their tradition of archery may well have concentrated more on longbow use, since there are tenth-century finds of longbows from Hedeby in Norway and Ballinderry in Ireland.

After King John lost the wealthiest parts of his cross-Channel kingdom to Philip Augustus of France military tactics in England developed surprisingly slowly. Despite the rapid expansion of both the types of weapons and the social classes included in the Assizes of Arms under Henry III it took until the end of the thirteenth century for the beginnings of the English tactical system became apparent. Edward I tended to use archers in the same way that William I and Stephen had: to provide general harassing or covering fire and to weaken bodies of stalwart infantry until the mailed horsemen could destroy them. That is men that might turn a battle their way rather than win it outright. The battles of the Standard in 1138 and Boroughbridge in 1322 are much more significant stages in the development of military practice in England. In both these battles, the small numbers of knights present dismounted to stiffen the infantry line while relatively large numbers of archers were placed in and around the front line to rebuff the oncoming enemy with arrow shot. But, for as long as the Norman and Plantagenet kings kept their focus mainly on Continental European matters, military practice continued to follow the Continental tradition with knights and mailed horsemen being the masters of the battlefield. As a result, the lessons of the Battle of the Standard were largely forgotten until the thirteenth century when a solution had to be found to a major military problem. England was no longer able to raise the numbers of mailed horsemen necessary to match those that could be raised in France and the German states.

The thirteenth century was the key period for the development of popular archery in England. Henry III and Edward I progressively extended the reach of the Assizes of Arms to include men from more social groups. Between 1230 and 1285 the duty of arms ownership for peacekeeping and military service was extended to include both free and serfs, so that by 1285 no healthy non noble layman aged between 16 and 60 was specifically excluded. Significantly, the most numerous groups were those that were expected to have bows and arrows. This was the time when the major official recognition and encouragement of archery happened; and by doing so it marked the recognition that an English tradition of popular archery existed. Edward III’s 1363 proclamation requiring archery practice only had force because the bow had been established as the legally required weapon of a majority of the population in the previous century. But a century earlier Henry III’s advisers must have discerned some level of interest in archery among the population of England when they added bows and arrows to the weapon types required by the Assizes of Arms. The reach and influence of the medieval kings of England was not sufficiently powerful that they could make men take up weapons that they had no interest in. This became apparent in the second half of the thirteenth century when Edward I was disappointed by the number and quality of knights coming forward in answer to his summons. While in part this had an economic cause, knightly arms were not cheap, there was also an element of weariness and resentment with Edward’s demands since he was at war so often. But it shows very clearly that it was difficult to force men to take up arms if they felt it was against their interests.

The main reason Henry III expanded the scope of the Assizes of Arms was the need to increase the pool of competent men available to recruit English armies from. With the loss of many of the his European lands, and resulting loss of both revenue and manpower, Henry and his advisers were left in a weak position in comparison with the king of France. So they had to look more closely at the potential military resources available in England. This led them to begin to include the English tradition of archery and so undo Henry II’s omission, after he had left archery out of his English Assize of Arms in 1181. They might well have remembered the ‘foundation myth’ of the Norman and Plantagenet kings of England, that an archer struck the fatal blow at the Battle of Hastings, they may have recalled the effectiveness of archery in Henry I’s and Stephen’s reigns as well as that of the Welsh archers. So they probably felt that the inclusion of military archery would help to balance the relative lack of mailed horsemen. The staged inclusion of archery in the Assizes of Arms may show that the royal administration didn’t realise initially the potential of the English tradition of archery to provide fighting men, and in particular were ignorant of the amount of archery practised by the peasantry, both free and unfree. Although there is very little evidence of archery as a sport in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, what little there is shows that members of the population at large enjoyed archery. While they were nowhere near as widespread and numerous as was the case in the late fourteenth, fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, they showed that popular archery existed. Whatever their motives, Henry III and his advisers could hardly have foreseen the fearsome power that the archers of England and Wales would bring to European battlefields in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

But one question remains: why did the Henry III and Edward I encourage military archery through their Assizes of Arms and the Statute of Westminster in the thirteenth century? Contemporary experiences of powerful infantry in North Wales, Scotland and Continental Europe all demonstrated the effectiveness of steady bodies of pike armed infantry. They could resist and even defeat mailed cavalry, the ‘battlefield kings’ of the time. Infantry armed with close-quarters weapons such as swords axes and shields found bodies of pike-armed men very difficult to defeat. Perhaps more importantly, steady pike-armed infantry could be raised and trained much more quickly than effective military archers regardless of whether the archers were using, shorter bows, longbows or crossbows. So why didn’t the English kings and their military advisors take the easier and more widely followed path and develop pike armed infantry? It was a sort of medieval military ‘scissors, paper, stone’. Good numbers of archers could negate pike-armed infantry and menace the horses at least of mailed cavalry. Pike-armed infantry could negate mailed horse but not archers. Infantry armed with close quarters weapons were not decisive forces in armies of the period because they were vulnerable to both mailed horse and archers. Mailed horse could negate unprotected archers (as the Scots managed at Bannockburn) and disordered pike-armed infantry. If the archers were protected by either infantry, including dismounted knights as at the Battle of the Standard or by mounted knights as at Falkirk they could to all intents and purposes win the battle. In addition to these abilities, archers were very useful as garrison troops, and light infantry for foraging and harassing the enemy. Looked at in these terms the real question becomes why was it only among the English and Welsh (and some English ruled lands like Gascony) that large numbers of men developed the ability to use increasingly heavy hand bows in war? This is particularly surprising since Henry II’s Assize of Arms issued in Le Mans in 1180 allowed those men belonging to the lowest income group included the option of having bows and arrows. It is believed that the robust tradition of popular archery in England and Wales is part of the explanation.

When did longbow archery become the dominant form of archery in England and Wales? The evidence recounted in this book makes it clear that shorter bows, between about 4 and 5ft in length, were in widespread use up to the middle of the fourteenth century at least. The most telling evidence comes from two legal reports mentioning bows and ell and a half in length (about 54in or 1.37m in length) and various illustrations. At the same time, direct evidence of longbows about two ells or yards in length also comes from other legal reports. Ireland has provided archaeological evidence of complete bows of both lengths; a shorter bow from twelfth-century Waterford and a longbow from late tenth-century Ballinderry. Yet by the start of the fifteenth century at the latest it is very difficult to find any trace of shorter bows still being use. They may well have been but longbows were the predominant form by then. Longbows are more demanding on the bowyer who has to find and work longer staves, and on the archer, who will have to master the long draw, and likely greater draw weight of the bow. The benefit is greater power in the arrow, and, vitally from the point of view of military archery, greater weight in the arrow and arrowstrike.

Evidence begins to emerge in the last two decades of the thirteenth century onwards of significant activities which point to deliberate development of the power of the bow used in England. It is possible that the archer freeman of York, Robert of Werdale made a small contribution to this change to the use of longbows in war, but we have no proof. This is a significant period in English military history since it marks the time when the Statute of Winchester completed the legal recognition of the English tradition of archery begun fifty years earlier. This royal encouragement of archery begins to be complimented by the development of an archery equipment industry in England. The earliest clear records of the import of bowstaves come from this time. The existence of craftsmen bowyers is confirmed in the records of expenditure on bows by royal officers for selected men that also comes from these decades. In the case of these purchase records the prices paid for the bows in the 1280s was the same as that paid by Edward III’s administration in the 1340s, implying a particular standard of bow was required. Evidence of this trend to more powerful bows also comes from stratified finds of arrowheads, where arrowheads with a socket diameter of at least 10mm become more common in the late thirteenth century and into the fourteenth century, demonstrating the more widespread use of heavy bows.

There is one piece of clear evidence of how and when long-draw bows that could be drawn to at least 30in, like those found on the Mary Rose, came to be the standard for military archery. It is a royal order made in 1338 to Nicholas Caraud, the King’s Artillier. He was instructed ‘to buy 4000 sheaves of arrows of an ell in length with steel heads.’ There would be no need for arrows a yard long if they were not going to be shot from longbows. As the Waterford bow and the description of John of Tylton’s bow and arrow show, bows around an ell and a half (c.54in or 1.37m) in length, shot arrows of around 26–27in (66–68cm) in length. Edward III was determined that the archers in his armies would have powerful bows, this was why the English and Welsh archers shattered the French armies. The first half of the fourteenth century was a time of significant technological change in the archery equipment used in the English tradition of archery. Long-draw bows became the norm; heavier arrows evidenced by arrowheads with larger socket diameters became the norm; stringers became more skilled at making strong thin strings that no longer required arrows to have bulbous nocks. Evidence of the way the royal administration drove these changes in the fourteenth century can also be found in the increasing number of records of imports of bowstaves including Edward II’s order for Spanish yew bows in the 1320s. By the 1340s the royal administration was issuing substantial orders for bows and arrows which give no measurements for the bows and arrows required. This suggests that bowyers and fletchers knew what the king expected by this time.

But this was also the time when the Luttrell Psalter showed some men shooting shorter bows at the butts. A reasonable deduction from all this is that the Royal standard for military bows was the longbow, and that this standard brought about a shift in the English archery culture to almost total practice with the longbow in the second half of the fourteenth century. This change might explain in part the complaints of both Edward II and Edward III between 1315 and the 1340s that the Arrayers were dilatory, corrupt and sending feeble, poorly equipped archers to muster. While the Arrayers may have been both dilatory and corrupt, they may also have been sending archers equipped with shorter bows like those shown in the Luttrell Psalter and other illustrations; men who were competent enough with shorter bows, but who struggled with the longbows in use in the royal armies.

How active and pervasive was the English tradition of archery? It is difficult to find much trace of it before the beginning of the thirteenth century, except for military archery mainly in Stephen’s reign, particularly the Battle of the Standard. This lack of evidence arises for two main reasons: lack of records and a general tendency to restrict the activities of much of the population through a rigid understanding of the significance of free and unfree status. Once Henry III started to erode this separation by including unfree men in the Assize of Arms, the wider tradition of archery was brought forward into national significance. The thirteenth century marks the time in history when written records increased enormously in number which gives us so much more information about the practice of archery in England. Much of this information is peripheral, just recording the ownership and use of bows and arrows. As such it provides illumination of the practice of archery by Englishmen of the time in a way that a tract from an enthusiast does not. The ordinariness of some of the records illuminates a tradition of archery among ordinary men which was the foundation of the near legendary skills and reputation of the English and Welsh archers in the coming decades.

Magna Carta and the Forest Charter restricted the physical penalties that could be exacted for offences against the aw in general and Forest Law in particular. This meant that more of the men engaged in illegal activities in the royal forests with bows and arrows survived to repeat their offences and develop their skills. Since the forests covered maybe a quarter of England in the thirteenth century, this was likely to be quite a large number of men. Moreover the vast increase in the number of private parks presented even more opportunities for men to practice archery illegally. In addition, the forests and parks provided opportunities for men with archery skills to gain good work as foresters, parkers and hunters. It is difficult to know how many foresters and foresters’ men used archery skills in their work in the royal forests, but given the number and size of the forests 1,000 would be the likely minimum. As has been noted above there were perhaps 3,200 private parks in the early fourteenth century, meaning at least 3,200 skilled archers could have been employed as parkers and hunters. In addition to these men there would have been a good number of men employed as hunters full or part time by noble and gentry households both lay and clerical. All these made up an elite in terms of skill, almost certainly men capable of using powerful longbows. Writs of summons and the pay records for Edward I’s Welsh and Scottish campaigns show larger numbers of archers being required than could have been supplied from this skilled group. He expected men who were conforming to the demands of the Assizes of Arms and the Statute of Winchester to come to his armies. These men would have had more variable levels of skill and quality of equipment and it is quite likely that many of them used shorter bows, 4 to 5ft in length. But as their achievements proved these bows were effective.

Huntsmen in England, regardless of class were more likely to practise bow and stable hunting than par force hunting. It is noteworthy that this was not just the case among the English before the Conquest but was also generally true in the reigns of the Norman and Plantagenet kings. The ‘Laws of Cnut’ noted above allowed all men the right to hunt on their land encouraging and acknowledging popular hunting before the Conquest which in turn suggests the existence of a popular archery tradition in England. After the imposition of Forest Law by William I this tradition was repressed, particularly where it related to hunting. Although the vast extent of the royal forests under the Norman and Plantagenet kings meant that forestry and hunting continued to provide employment opportunities for archers whether English or Norman. But when Magna Carta and the associated Forest Charter banned the imposition of ferocious physical penalties for illegal hunting in the royal forests in the first quarter of the thirteenth century popular archery grew. The importance of hunting to this growth of popular archery should not be underestimated.

When bows were used in illegal activities including poaching they seem to have been used by people from a wide range of social and economic groups. Many of the cases noted above were perpetrated by ordinary men and make clear that men carried bows at all sorts of times, not just when they were expecting trouble. This is made particularly clear in the cases where an unstrung bow was used as a club. But in the reports of both poaching and other illegal activities bows were used in a minority of cases. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, bows became more commonly used in crimes, reflecting the greater number of men practising archery in these later centuries. Before the fourteenth century it is fair to suggest that archery was a minority pastime.

There was a blossoming of popular archery in the thirteenth century and that this led to there being enough competent archers for Edward III to achieve great things in his wars. By doing so he ensured that popular archery became a defining characteristic of life in medieval England.


The joust is an individual conflict between two knights; it is distinct and different from the tournament. It will often be agreed that there should be three rounds; the two men ride at each other, aiming to pass each other on the left-hand side, and to strike each other with their lances. This began to be popular in the 13th century; jousting frequently takes place before the tournament proper begins, often on the previous day.

A particularly famous jouster of the past was the German knight Ulrich von Liechtenstein, who wrote up his experiences in verse. Ulrich, rather unusually, enjoyed cross-dressing, and described a journey he made dressed as the goddess Venus, during which he took part in innumerable jousts and tournaments, all for the unrequited love of his lady.

Thus like a woman I was dressed

And all I had was of the best.

The peacock feathers on my hat

Were rather dear, I’ll tell you that.

Ulrich was eccentric in other ways. On one occasion he even ordered a bath, during which two pages poured rose petals all over him, an experience which, curiously, he seems to have enjoyed. If you are considering taking part in tournaments under a pseudonym, then that of Ulrich would be a good one to choose, but it might be better to claim to come from Gelderland rather than his real homeland of Styria.


Scoring systems are complex, and will vary from event to event. In jousting, the top score normally comes for unhorsing your opponent; breaking your lance is the next best action; striking your opponent on the helmet comes third. The tournament’s overall prize, the ‘man of the match’ award, will be given to the knight who has most distinguished himself, and there may well be differing views on that. It could be that someone who has been unhorsed several times has shown conspicuous bravery, and deserves to be well rewarded.

There is a lot of technique to learn if you want to be a skilled jouster. Controlling your horse properly is important, but it is not easy with so many things to think about at the same time. You have to make sure that your horse takes a straight line, and does not veer off course, or even worse, cross in front of the other jouster. In Spain they have taken to erecting a barrier between the two jousters, so as to avert this, but no one has yet thought of introducing it in France or England.

Do not be tempted to impress by using an oversized lance: if you strike a low blow with a heavy lance, and your opponent strikes you a high blow with a lighter lance, he will unseat you. A medium-sized manageable lance will be much better than a great big one that will unbalance you and pull you out of your saddle. Your horse will go much better if you have a lighter lance. Think about what your opponent is doing, and adjust your own tactics accordingly. It is tempting to close your eyes just before the moment of impact. Don’t do this. Be careful not to turn your shoulder away; Edward Beauchamp made this mistake in a joust in 1381, and was knocked off his horse as a result.

Ulrich von Liechtenstein was expert in jousting techniques. He wrote a boastful account of one of his bouts:

I turned a little from the man

(to knock him sprawling was my plan)

I struck him in the collar then.

I turned and jousted with such skill

Sir Otte almost took a spill.

Here are a few key points to remember:

    Ride upright, with long stirrups, holding the reins in your left hand.

    Use a lance of manageable weight.

    Make sure your helmet is on straight, and that you have a good line of sight.

    Hold your lance in the palm of your hand, not just with your fingers.

    Do not let the tip of your lance tilt up or down.

    Do not twist, or turn your shoulder.

    If your opponent always aims for the same place, vary your own tactics.

    Keep your eyes fixed on the target, not on the tip of your lance.

During the Middle Ages, tournaments often contained a mêlée consisting of knights fighting one another on foot or while mounted, either divided into two sides or fighting as a free-for-all. The object was to capture opposing knights so that they could be ransomed, and this could be a very profitable business for such skilled knights as William Marshal. There was a tournament ground covering several square miles in northern France to which knights came from all over Europe to prove themselves in quite real combat. This was, in fact, the original form of tournaments and the most popular between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—jousting being a later development, and one that did not completely displace the mêlée until many more centuries had passed. The original mêlée was engaged with normal weapons and fraught with as much danger as a normal battle. Rules slowly tempered the danger, but at all times the mêlée was more dangerous than the joust.

The provenance of the heavily armoured, aristocratic equestrian warrior has excited much debate. It has been argued, most notably by Lynn White, that it was the arrival of the stirrup in eighth-century Western Europe that prompted the emergence of cavalry capable of ‘mounted shock combat’. with lance held tightly ‘couched’ under the right arm; and that, moreover, since warhorses, armour, weapons, and military training required landed endowment for their maintenance, it was in effect the stirrup which was responsible for the establishment of a feudal aristocracy of equestrian warriors. More recent research, by Bernard Bachrach among others, has suggested that the solid fighting platform necessary for a rider to engage in mounted shock combat depended upon a combination of stirrup, wraparound saddle with rigid cantle (back plate), and double girthing or breast-collars. With the rider thus ‘locked onto the horse’s back in a sort of cock-pit’, it was possible, experimentally from the later eleventh century, and with greater regularity in the twelfth, to level a couched lance with the assurance of the combined weight of horse and rider behind it. Furthermore, historians no longer accept that the medieval aristocratic elite was actually brought into being by advances in horse-related technology. Rather, an existing military aristocracy-great lords and the household knights whom they armed and horsed-adopted new equipment when it became available, and pursued the tactical possibilities which that equipment offered. Those possibilities could not ensure battlefield supremacy for the knightly warrior. Nor was he the only important component in field armies. But the elite distinction of mounted shock combat, associated as it was with the emergence of chivalry as an aristocratic code of martial conventions and behaviour, gave rise to an image of the nobleman as equestrian warrior which, while being firmly grounded in reality, proved irresistible to manuscript illuminators and authors of romance literature, Although presenting an idealized world, such artistic works reflected the martial mentalite of the nobleman while contributing to its further elaboration and dissemination; and they leave us in no doubt that the warhorse was at the heart of the medieval aristocrat’s lifestyle and mental world.

This was perhaps most clearly displayed on the tournament field. It is surely significant that tournaments begin to appear in the sources in the early twelfth century. Apparently connected with the emergence of the new cavalry tactics, the tourney provided a training ground for individual skills with lance and sword, and team maneuvers by controls of knights. They also offered opportunities for reputations in arms to be made or enhanced, although that depended upon the identification of individuals amidst the dust and confusion of the mêlée. It was probably this need for recognition on the tournament field, as well as the similar demands of the battlefield, which brought about the development of heraldry in the twelfth century. Along with lance pennons, surcoats, and smooth shields, the caparisoned warhorse was emblazoned with heraldic devices, thereby becoming a perfect vehicle for the expression of individual identity and family honour within the military elite. A similar message was conveyed by the martial equestrian figures which, until the fourteenth century, were so commonly to be found on aristocratic seals, and by the ceremonial involvement of warhorses, decked out in heraldic caparisons, in the funerals of later medieval noblemen.

The Regency of William the Marshal

The trebuchet was first introduced to England in 1216 during the invasion by the future king Louis VIII of France. In 1225, King Henry III of England invited an artillery engineer named Jordan, with the illuminating nickname of the `Trebuchet Maker’ to construct a large number of these engines for the royal government. By the late 1220s, trebuchets were the dominant type of stone-throwing artillery in the royal arsenal.

John’s sudden death in 1216 might have brought the end of his dynasty and a second conquest from across the Channel. Louis of France and the rebel barons who supported his claim to be king of England controlled the crucial south-east of the country: the ports of London, Southampton and Portchester and the castles of Guildford, Farnham and Winchester. It is true that access to the midlands was blocked by John’s foreign captains, Fawkes de Breauté and Engelard de Cigogné, and that the justiciar Hubert de Burgh was holding out in Dover castle. But now that John was dead, the French `were confident (in Wendover’s words) `that they had the kingdom of England in their power’. Even before John’s death French soldiers had been boasting that England was theirs and that the English had no right in the land. In principle this boast was a riposte to the English claim still to be entitled to Normandy. The French were going to redress the balance: William the Conqueror after all had taken England with a small army in 1066. Because of the power of armed knights a battle involving few troops could have decisive results, as Philip Augustus’s victory at Bouvines in 1214 and the Spanish crusaders’ victory at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 had recently shown. Louis’s invasion might even be seen as another Norman conquest. Certainly the Norman branches of families who had lost their English lands in 1204 took part in it, as they were excepted from the peace terms in 1217.

Louis had favourable conditions for victory: control of the centres of government, support of the rebel barons who claimed to be upholding Magna Carta, and a just cause in terms of avenging the disinherited Normans. That `hammer of kings’, Hugh bishop of Lincoln, had supposedly prophesied on his deathbed in 1200 that `this Frenchman, Philip, will wipe out the English royal stock, just as an ox plucks up grass by its roots, for already three of the sons [Henry the Young King, Geoffrey duke of Brittany, Richard I] have been eliminated and the fourth one [John] will only have a short respite’. Hugh thought this to be appropriate vengeance on the adulterous Eleanor of Aquitaine, who had insulted Louis VII of France by marrying Henry II with such alacrity. Prophecies are not facts, of course, but medieval ones often expressed significant points of view and they were much regarded in a culture which considered divine or devilish intervention a common experience in life.

The answer to the French threat in 1216 was to rely on William the Marshal. He became the hero of the hour, or at least that is the story in his biography which was written in romantic verse (that is, in French) in the 1220s. The Marshal had led an exciting and dangerous life from the time he had been handed over to King Stephen as a hostage in 1152 at the age of five or six. Reality and chivalrous romance blend in his actual life and in his verse biography in a way which it is impossible to disentangle. His recorded career is a model of chivalry: he was trained as a squire in the Tancarville family who were the master chamberlains of Normandy; as a knight he was ransomed by Eleanor of Aquitaine; he himself knighted the Young King (Henry II’s son) and fought in France with him against his father. After a pilgrimage to Jerusalem the Marshal returned to the allegiance of Henry II and saved him from defeat by killing a horse under the future Richard I. Yet he won Richard’s favour, just as he had won Henry II’s. To King John he behaved in a similarly firm way, refusing to give up his homage to Philip Augustus after 1204 and yet supporting John against the rebel barons in 1215. When John died so suddenly the next year, his will named William the Marshal first among his lay executors. The verse biography elaborates this and has John say with his last gasp: `Sirs, for God’s sake beg the Marshal to forgive me, and because I am surer of his loyalty than that of any one else, I beg you to entrust to him the guardianship of my son, for the land will never be held by anyone except with his help.’ The Marshal was reluctant to take on an almost hopeless cause but at last he was persuaded by the sight of the helpless child, the future Henry III, and by his sense of honour.

John’s men buried him at Worcester and went to Gloucester where the pathetic dignity of the future king, then aged nine, caused them to burst into tears. The boy seemed, as a poet put it with pardonable exaggeration, a `tiny spark of minute beauty, the sole hope of the torn kingdom’, like the star of Bethlehem. With dubious legality John’s men immediately crowned their little king as Henry III in Gloucester abbey with an improvised gold circlet, for they had no archbishop of Canterbury (Langton was in Rome and had been thought a traitor by John), no Westminster abbey (Louis held London), and no regalia (some of it had been lost in John’s disaster crossing the Wash and the rest was inaccessible in Westminster abbey). During the coronation dinner a messenger rushed in to say that the Marshal’s castle at Goodrich only twelve miles away was being attacked by Louis’s partisans.

The Marshal confided to his knights that he seemed to be embarking on a sea without bottom or shore. They replied that even if the worst happened and Louis took the whole of England, there was still an honourable course open to them by seeking refuge in Ireland. Heartened by this, the Marshal told his men that he would carry the little king on his shoulders from island to island and country to country and would not fail him even if he had to beg for his bread. The sentiments expressed here in the verse biography are not so much those of the Dunkirk spirit as of the knights errant in contemporary romances who pledge themselves to superhuman quests. The Marshal’s motives in upholding Henry III were presumably more complex than this. Nevertheless, as the verse biography argues, Henry’s cause might have foundered at the start if it had not been championed by the Marshal with his reputation as one of the best knights in Europe. This gave the regime prestige, and the Marshal stood as a focus of loyalty in terms of European chivalry as well as of English custom and feudal law.

Support for the boy king, however, did not depend as exclusively on the Marshal as his biography suggests. Like other apparently simple medieval narratives, the biography is a work of art which skilfully presents its author’s and hero’s point of view. Other elements favouring Henry can readily be cited. First of all, John’s death deprived his opponents of the personal cause of their rebellion. Instead of a tyrant they were now resisting a helpless boy, who was as entitled to his inheritance as any other heir. Magna Carta (clauses 2-6) had shown the importance the barons attached to laws of inheritance by specifying the rights of heirs immediately after the claims of the church. Secondly, the boy had the official backing of the new pope, Honorius III, through the legate Guala. He had added papal authority to the makeshift coronation ceremony at Gloucester by presiding at it, and furthermore within a month of John’s death he set his seal along with the Marshal’s to the revised text of Magna Carta, which was issued by the new government to all magnates and royal officials. This reversal of Innocent III’s condemnation deprived the rebels of another of their grievances, yet it did not release them from excommunication. On the contrary, Guala made the struggle against Louis into a holy war. The royalist forces wore the white cross of crusaders, they were absolved of all their sins before going into battle, and recruits were described as converts. The precedent for launching a crusade against fellow Christians had been established eight years earlier by Innocent III when he authorized the Albigensian crusade against the Cathar heretics of southern France. That was a frightening precedent, as a crusade meant that the enemy were considered infidels and were therefore given no quarter. Henry III’s troops were to show that this was what they too meant by a crusade when they sacked Lincoln and committed other atrocities in 1217.

A third element favouring the royalists in 1216 was the character of the men they had on their side in addition to the Marshal and the papal legate. They were few but formidable. First there were John’s foreign captains of whom the two most important – the Norman exile Fawkes de Breauté and the Poitevin aristocrat and troubadour Savari de Mauléon – had been named among John’s eight lay executors. Of great experience and the king’s personal tutor was the Poitevin bishop of Winchester, Peter des Roches. Then there was the justiciar Hubert de Burgh, who independently of the Marshal had refused to surrender to Louis at Dover when told of John’s death. Thirdly, there were loyal English nobles like Ranulf earl of Chester, and John’s agents of long standing such as William Brewer. The king’s side lacked numbers but not prestige nor experience.

Decisive victory for Henry III came in 1217 in the land battle at Lincoln in May and the sea battle off Dover in August. Battle was joined at Lincoln to prevent the French, who had won control of East Anglia, from penetrating northwards. It was an overwhelming victory for Henry’s side despite their inferior numbers: the count de Perche, the French commander, was killed and numerous knights were taken prisoner. The captain responsible for the surprise stratagem of attacking from within Lincoln castle was Fawkers de Breauté. The sea battle off Dover was thought even more crucial than Lincoln by both Louis and his opponents because it lost the French their access to Kent and London.


In the face of a royalist army of 406 knights, 250 or 317 mercenary crossbowmen and an unknown but small number of foot-sergeants, a combined army of rebel barons and their French allies besieging Lincoln castle withdrew within the old walled Roman portion of the city, having mistakenly supposed that the royalist force was in fact larger than their own, which numbered 611 knights and 1,000infantrymen. (This error resulted from the royalist commander, William le Marshal, having left a number of standards with his baggage-train, which from a distance therefore resembled a substantial body of troops.) The royalists were nevertheless able to enter Lincoln via a postern in the castle and also by breaking through an ‘ancient’ blocked gateway in the west wall, surprising the rebels between the castle and the cathedral. The royalist crossbowmen, under Fawkes de Brébuté, sallying from the castle, were repulsed, but the knights were successful in overrunning the rebels’ siege-engines and routing the Frenchmen in a street-fight, killing their commander, the Comte de Perche. The rebels’ flight was hampered at a narrow gate by a panic-stricken cow, as a result of which some 3-400 knights and 3 rebel earls were captured by the victorious royalists, whose own losses totalled just one knight and a handful of infantry.

DOVER, 24 August 1217

Abandoning his own siege of Dover following the defeat of his northern forces at Lincoln, Prince Louis (later Louis VIII) of France, to whom the rebel barons had offered the English crown, summoned reinforcements from Calais. These sailed over 900-strong in 70 nefs and 10 large warships under Eustace the Monk, the majority of them doubtless in the warships with their supplies and equipment in the nefs. They were intercepted én route to London by an English fleet of 16 Cinque Ports vessels and 20 smaller craft commanded by the justiciar Hubert de Burgh.

These managed to get to windward of the larger French fleet and then bore down on it from behind, laying down a heavy barrage of crossbow-fire and then throwing powdered quicklime, which choked and blinded the French. One by one the French vessels were overtaken and boarded, Eustace’s own being surrounded by 4 English ships when it was unable to fire its trebuchet because of a severe list. Some others sank, their sides ‘perforated’ (either by missiles or as a result of collisions), and only 15 ships are said to have escaped. Eustace was captured and unceremoniously beheaded on his ship’s rail. As a direct result of this decisive defeat Prince Louis, with his lines of communication cut, renounced his claim to the throne and evacuated his troops from England.

Matthew Paris has Hubert de Burgh, the justiciar and castellan of Dover, say, `I beseech you by the blood of Christ to allow me to hang rather than give up the castle to any Frenchman, for it is the key of England.’ Despite the nationalist bias of Matthew Paris (and of his predecessor Roger Wendover), these events should not be seen in simplistic terms as victories of the English over the French. This would be absurd, since the most effective of Henry III’s captains, Fawkes de Breauté, was a Norman, and the Marshal himself was Norman by upbringing and remained throughout his life – in his opinion at least – a true vassal of Philip Augustus as well as of the English king. Nevertheless this hard-fought struggle with Louis of France, coming on top of the loss of Normandy, polarized the difference between English and French interests and encouraged a sense of apartness on both sides of the Channel. Such apartness was foreign to the whole life experience of international knights like the Marshal and it was foreign too to the Poitevin and papal influences which shaped the education of the new king, Henry III. He could not have felt that his throne had been saved for him by the English, still less by the French of Paris, but primarily by people of southern (technically Occitan) speech who had come like his mother from south of the Loire or like Guala from Italy.

Although in the autumn of 1217 a formal peace was made with Louis, and another revised issue of Magna Carta (together with a new Charter of the Forest) symbolized settlement at home, the Marshal did not think that anything permanent had been achieved. The only solution he could see when he lay dying in 1219 was to entrust the kingdom to the pope in the person of his new legate, Pandulf:

Car n’a teil gent en nule terre

Comment il a dedenz Engleterre

De divers corages chascuns . . .

[Because there are no people in any land

like those in England,

where each person has his own opinion . . .]

That comment came from a man whose memory of strife extended back to Stephen’s reign, but it would apply equally well to the next fifty years and the struggles of Henry III with his barons.

Every Christian knight wished to die in Jerusalem. To the Holy Sepulchre the Marshal had borne the cloak of the Young King in accordance with his oath more than thirty years before. He himself was appropriately buried in that evocation of the Holy Land in England, the round church of the London Temple, which had been dedicated by the patriarch Heraclius of Jerusalem in 1185. The Marshal’s biographer gives Philip Augustus the last word: `The Marshal was truly the most loyal man I ever knew in any place where I have been.’ Such praise was possible from the king of France because the Marshal, through his conduct as a knight, stood above national rivalries. The Marshal symbolized old-fashioned idealism.

Portugal and the Changing Art of War


Portuguese kings needed more revenue by the late fourteenth century especially because of their escalating military costs. These cost increases were mainly a consequence of developments in the technology of warfare. Chain mail, long worn by knights, was being steadily replaced by more expensive plate armour. Fortifications were being re-designed and strengthened to better withstand sieges. Perhaps most important of all, the introduction and escalating use of the crossbow amounted to a revolution in weaponry. Systematic recruitment and training of crossbowmen (besteiros) probably began in Portugal during the first half of the fourteenth century, but progressed slowly. The process required complex organisation on a national scale, but was an essential step towards the creation of a permanent royal army. Units of crossbowmen were raised on a quota basis by the Portuguese municipalities. The archers were recruited primarily from the sons of tradesmen, not members of the nobility or their retainers, and they were equipped with their weapons directly by the crown.

Though in the struggle against Juan of Castile a substantial proportion of Joāo I’s army still consisted of feudal levies, the presence of the crossbowmen enabled Nuno Álvares Pereira to apply one of the most important lessons of the Hundred Years War – namely, that well-trained, disciplined bowmen drawn up in sound defensive positions could devastate slow-moving knights on horseback. So it had been at Crécy and Poitiers – and so it was at Aljubarrota. On that memorable field the Portuguese army, though smaller than that of Castile, was more coherent, better led and perhaps more advanced on the road to modernisation. While Portugal did not retain these advantages for long, they were nevertheless crucial in 1385, when the kingdom’s need was greatest.

Early in the fourteenth century the still more revolutionary powder weapons were introduced; but they were then too unreliable and therefore slow to gain acceptance. However, by the start of the fifteenth century cannon were proving their worth, especially in siege warfare. Under the early Avis kings they were gradually incorporated into the nation’s arsenal. Firearms and gunpowder were kept strictly under crown control, with a central arsenal maintained in Lisbon. Cannon were used to great effect by both Afonso V and later monarchs in Morocco. They were also mounted on warships.

The English also remained active in Spain, fighting against Castile as allies of Navarre, Aragon or, in the 1380s, Portugal. In 1381-82, for example, Edmund Langley, Earl of Cambridge, led 1,500 men-at-arms and 1,500 archers (mostly English but including Gascons and Castilian exiles) in an invasion of Castile alongside the King of Portugal, while some 4-800 English archers under 3 esquires were in the Portuguese army at Aljubarrota. The largest English expedition was that of1386-87, when the Duke of Lancaster, pressing his own claim to the throne of Castile, invaded Galicia and León in alliance with Portugal, his forces totalling as many as 2,000 men-at-arms, 3,000 archers and perhaps 2,000 further foot-soldiers.

With so many French and English troops around it is hardly surprising to find the Spanish states very soon beginning to emulate their military organisation and techniques. As early as 1372, for instance, we find King Fernando of Portugal stipulating that his vassals were in future expected to field troops equipped either in the French or the English manner. Full reorganisation was in hand by 1382, when both Portugal and Castile laid down new rules for the raising and administration of their armies. Fernando entirely abolished the Moorish military nomenclature that had been used for hundreds of years and replaced it with the current Anglo-French terminology of his allies. The ancient office ofalferez mor (Chief-standard-bearer), the military commander-in-chief in the king’s absence, was abandoned and replaced instead by a Constable (Condestabre) and a Marshal (Marichal).

Portugal, normally fielded only some 2-3,000 men-at-arms in the 14th century, plus at the most 10-12,000 infantry. Even in the Toro campaign as late as 1475 she put only 5,600 horse and 14,000 foot in the field, as compared to Castile’s 4,000 men-at-arms, 8,000 jinetes (spelt with a ‘g’ in Portugal) and 30,000 infantry in 1476.

The Military Orders

After 1275 the Orders had been gradually taken over by the aristocracy, and then by the crown, and were subsequently stripped of much of their wealth. In addition they were sapped of their strength by their use in the civil wars that so racked the Iberian kingdoms; in 1354, for example, the anti-Master of Calatrava, Pedro Estevaiiez Carpenteiro, mustered 600 lances against Pedro the Cruel’s own appointed Master, Diego Garcia de Padilla, brethren of Santiago, Calatrava and Alcantara fighting on both sides in the Trastamaran conflict of the 1350s and 1360s. It is hardly surprising, then, that one modern authority should state that ‘by 1330 all the Orders were smaller, weaker, more dominated by the kings and nobles and less effective against the Moslems’. By the end of this era their very independence had been stripped from them too; in Castile the crown effectively took the Masterships of Calatrava, Santiago and Alcantara for itself in 1487, 1493 and 1494 respectively.

Nevertheless, the Orders could still muster substantial forces throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. Calatrava alone housed 150 freyles caballeros (brother knights) in 1302, in addition to which the Order had 40 commanderies by the end of the 14th century and 51-56 by the beginning of the 16th. The Order’s Grand Commander and Castellan respectively raised forces of 500 cavalry and 1,200 infantry, and 1,200 cavalry and 800 infantry, against one another in 1442, while the Master raised 400 cavalry and an unknown quantity of infantry from the Order’s Andalusian estates alone 40 years later. Excluding its Portuguese commanderies the Order of Santiago could field some 250 freyles in the 14thcentury, and 400 freyles and 1,000 lances from its whole 84 commanderies by the 16th, while the Master of Alcantara was able to raise as many as 1,500 horse and 2,500 foot in 1472. Froissart tells us that even the Portuguese Order of Avis, of which the Mastership had been at the disposal of the crown since 1385, had 200 brethren. In fact the numbers of each Order’s brethren seem always to have been proportionately small, and most of the troops they raised were actually vassals or mercenaries. Thus brethren are frequently to be found in the role of officers commanding units of infantry or crossbowmen, or even artillery (of which the Orders had their own). The actual command structure of each individual Order was headed by its Master (Maestre or Mestre). His deputy was the Grand Prior (Prior Mayor; in the Order of Calatrava the Gran Prior came below the Clavero), after whom came the Grand Commander (Comendador Mayor); the Castellan or Key-bearer (Clavero), assisted by a Sub-Ciavero and a Quartermaster (Obrero); and finally the Alferez or Standard-bearer of the Order. Organisation of individual commanderies remained as before, except that most now only contained 4 brethren, not 12.

All this meant that well before the end of the fifteenth century waging independent war was inexorably moving beyond the means of even the greatest of magnates – unless they could act in unison with powerful outside forces. Great nobles might still retain a capacity to put into the field significant forces, but were at a growing comparative disadvantage to the crown. This was graphically demonstrated by the downfall of the duke of Braganc, a in 1483. From the time Joāo I became firmly established on his throne, no Portuguese noble dared to offer a direct challenge to the king militarily. The only exception was Pedro, the beleaguered ex-regent, who was easily overwhelmed at Alfarrobeira in 1449. Nobles who sought to get rid of a king were thereafter more inclined to try assassination. This helps to explain why from the time of Afonso V monarchs and their families were usually protected by a royal guard approximately 200 strong. In short, there is no doubt that by the Avis era advances in the art of war strengthened the king vis-à-vis the nobility and contributed significantly to Portugal’s advance towards modern statehood.


Prior to the arrival of the English and French in the mid-14th century, Spanish warfare depended for success on fast-moving raids and the systematic use of siege warfare, and though pitched battles were not exactly unknown they were certainly extremely uncommon. The Spanish therefore lacked the training and experience to meet du Guesclin’s and the Black Prince’s companies of veterans on anything like equal terms, and the latter consequently had a low opinion of them. Froissart says of the Spanish: ‘It is true that they cut a handsome figure on horseback, spur off to advantage, and fight well at the first onset; but as soon as they have thrown 2 or 3 darts, and given a stroke with their lances, without disconcerting the enemy, they take alarm, turn their horses’ heads and save themselves by flight as well as they can. This game they played at Aljubarrota.’

The reference to their throwing of darts is significant, because this was characteristic of the skirmishing style of warfare that the Spaniards had been involved in with their Moslem neighbours for centuries. It had even led to the evolution of a special troop-type-the jinete-whose light armour, low saddle, short stirrups and nimble horse put him on an equal footing with the light, javelin-armed horsemen of Granada. The role of the jinete in battle was identical to that of his Moslem counterpart-to charge towards the enemy, discharge his javelins, and wheel away again before he could reply. In addition jinetes patrolled the flanks and rear of the army and cut down fugitives. At Trancoso and Aljubarrota in 1385 and at Salamanca in 1387 the Castilians employed their jinetes to outflank the Portuguese and fall on their rear. At Najera too they were positioned on the flanks of the Franco-Castilian army, probably with a similar plan in mind, but on this occasion they proved utterly ineffective in the face of the Black Prince’s longbowmen. Their one success against the English was at Ariñez in 1367, where a large body of jinetes under Don Tello surprised Sir William Felton’s company of some 100 or 400 men-at-arms and archers on a hillside. Chandos Herald tells us how Felton himself charged them on horseback, ‘and the Castilians followed him on all sides, throwing lances and javelins at him. They killed his horse under him, but Sir William defended himself fiercely on foot, though it was of little use for he was killed in the end.’ Don Tello then turned on the rest of Felton’s company: ‘the Spaniards launched many attacks on them, pressing them hard and hurling javelins and lances and spears. And that brave band of men … charged down more than a hundred times with drawn swords and made them retreat, nor could the Castilians harm them by throwing lances and darts.’ In the end it took the French marshal d’Audrehem’s men to finish the action, these dismounting and attacking on foot once they arrived on the scene. The moral here is that although the jinetes had succeeded in pinning the English company down, it nevertheless took dismounted men-at-arms to successfully conclude the engagement, and prior to the coming of the French and English, Spanish men-at-arms were not prepared to dismount in battle. Even afterwards they dismounted only reluctantly, though it is noteworthy that the elite Order of the Sash accompanied du Guesclin’s vanguard on foot at Najera. That the Spanish nevertheless recognised the tactical potential of dismounted men-at-arms is clear from the fact that Pere IV, King of Aragon, categorically forbade his troops ever to attack Castile’s French mercenaries once they had dismounted, recommending (rather negatively) that they should keep their distance and wait until the French had remounted before attempting to attack them.

In the field Spanish troops, like those elsewhere in Europe, drew up in 3 battles (batallas), which were divided into so many quadrillas or squadrons, each commanded by a knight called a quadrillero. The best troops were stationed in the centre and at the extremities of the line, and the infantry (crossbowmen, javelinmen and slingers) were drawn up in front. Compared to the English or French they delivered disordered charges, both on horseback and on the rare occasions that they dismounted. The Granadines made the most of this weakness when they actually took the Castilians on in the field in open combat, resorting to sudden feigned or real charges by bands of yelling horsemen whose intent was to disorder, panic or draw the enemy in disorganised pursuit, at which the Moslems would wheel and hurl their javelins at them at close range.


More unusually, the Portuguese crown also developed one of the most effective fighting navies possessed by any contemporary European monarch in this period, its only serious rival being that of Castile. The origins of this Portuguese navy are obscure, though there are fleeting mentions of crown warships as early as the mid-twelfth century. In 1317 King Dinis, concerned to defend the coast and shipping from Muslim corsairs and to mount his own offensive operations, contracted with the Genoese Manuel Pessagno to establish a permanent galley fleet based in Lisbon. This was a far-sighted, long-term investment, for navies even more than armies could not be created overnight. During the next few decades, the Portuguese crown accumulated the necessary resources and experience to sustain a permanent fleet and to begin to build up a great naval tradition. In the fourteenth century, the navy consisted mainly of galleys for which rowers were recruited from Portugal’s coastal communities; but it must at times have also included various kinds of sailing ships.

The high cost and technical proficiency needed to maintain galley squadrons meant they were a military arm which only the state could sustain. Already in 1369 King Fernando possessed thirty-two galleys. Later, galleys played a key role in the successful defence of Lisbon by Joāo of Avis in 1384. Portugal also developed a capacity to move substantial military forces by sea using sailing ships. This capacity made serious campaigning in North Africa possible – and without it the famous Ceuta expedition of 1415 could not have been mounted. Moreover, it was Portuguese success in building and manning ocean-going sailing vessels that made possible the country’s role in early Atlantic exploration.

Hen Domen

This artist’s impression of Hen Domen, based on the archaeologists’ findings, shows how the castle might have appeared in the twelfth century.

How were these buildings actually constructed? The trees, as you might expect, were felled using axes and dragged to the site by animals in order for construction to begin. The

After his coronation, William was faced with the dilemma common to many conquerors: how to rule his new subjects with fairness, and at the same time reward his victorious comrades-in-arms. Having claimed to be the legitimate successor of King Edward, he wanted to prove to the English that he would be a good king, willing and able to uphold the laws and customs of his predecessor. At the same time, however, he had an army of seven thousand men at his back, all recruited by the promise of rich pickings, and all now hungry for payment. In the early days of his reign, we see William trying to balance these contradictory expectations and demands. Certainly, many Normans grew rich at the expense of Englishmen. Plunder and booty—which the Continental chroniclers called “gifts”—were shipped back to Normandy in large quantities.

Yet even as churches and monasteries were being pillaged, William was being lenient and generous in his dealings with the governing class of England. Of course, a lot of aristocrats, including Harold and his brothers, had perished at Hastings, but there was little anyone could do about that. To those who survived, however, William was quite charitable, allowing them (once they had sworn allegiance, naturally) to remain in possession of their existing lands and titles. When it came to governing his new subjects, the king exhibited the same sensitive streak. Letters drafted by his ministers continued to be written in English, and William was so keen to make a good impression that he even started learning the language himself. He seems to have believed that, given enough time, the English and the Normans could settle down and live happily side by side.

But William’s lenient approach did not endear him to the English. On the contrary, treating them with kid gloves actually provoked the opposite reaction. In the first five years of his reign, William faced a series of rebellions up and down the country. His response was to deal with them in much the same way as he had dealt with his opponents in Normandy. At the first sign of trouble, he marched his army into the affected region, put down the insurrection, and began to build a major new castle. These new royal foundations were, almost without exception, constructed in the larger towns and cities of England, where the population and the resistance were most concentrated. The king had already enforced his authority in London in the weeks immediately after his coronation, building a castle in the southeast corner of the city. When, early in 1068, the first rebellion broke out in the West Country, William wasted no time marching his troops down to Exeter and repeating the exercise. Likewise, when in the summer the two English earls who controlled the Midlands and the north cast off their allegiance, William pushed his way northward, establishing castles at Warwick and Nottingham. When he reached York, he began the construction of the giant motte that still stands in the city center (Clifford’s Tower). Returning south, the king planted three more new castles at Lincoln, Cambridge, and Huntingdon, mopping up pockets of resistance as he went.

None of this, of course, was especially good for Anglo-Norman relations. When building these new castles, the king and his engineers showed little concern for the English inhabitants of the town or city in question. Nothing was allowed to stand in the way once the optimum site had been selected. At Cambridge, twenty-seven houses were razed to the ground to clear a space for the works to begin. In Lincoln, the number of dwellings destroyed was 166. But while William showed few or no scruples about building castles over people’s homes, he could at least claim to be acting out of strategic necessity. Outside the towns and cities, the king was still reluctant to indulge in any wide-scale disinheritance of Anglo-Saxon landowners.

A handful of his leading men had been rewarded with grants of land at this time, and they were busy asserting their own authority in similar fashion. In Sussex, for example, a number of Continental-style lordships, each organized around a castle, were created immediately after 1066. But how far castle-building extended in general is not known. Writing just one year after the Norman invasion, a monk at Worcester said that, when the king was away in Normandy, his regents “built castles far and wide throughout the land, oppressing the unhappy people.” How much this statement reflects the general situation, however, is open to question. One of the regents, William Fitz Osbern, had been made earl of Hereford, and constructed several castles in the Severn valley region before 1070; our Worcester monk may have heard more horror stories about castles going up than most people. We should also perhaps allow for the fact he was clearly very depressed about the Conquest in general.

“Things went ever from bad to worse,” he said in his next sentence. “When God wills, may the end be good.”

What did transform the situation, however, was the great rebellion of 1069. It was a response, in part, to William’s castle-building program of the previous year. The king’s new foundations were seen as a provocation—an invitation, even, for the English to rise up and smash them. When the men of Northumbria and Yorkshire rose early in the year, the lightly defended motte and bailey at York was an obvious and tempting target. William soon retook the castle and ordered the construction of another, but the city still fell for a second time in the summer. On this occasion the northerners came in greater numbers, aided in their rebellion by the arrival of a Danish army.

“Forming an immense host, riding and marching in high spirits, they all resolutely advanced on York and stormed and destroyed the castle, seizing innumerable treasures therein, and slaying many hundreds of Frenchmen.”

For the third time in eighteen months, William was obliged to move his army into Yorkshire and retake its principal city. On this, his final attempt, defeating the rebels took considerable effort, and the Danes had to be paid to withdraw. By the time he rode triumphant through the smoldering ruins of York, the king himself was fuming.

Dealing with the rebellion of 1069 appears to have caused something inside William to snap. He had, after all, tried to be nice to the English, letting many of them keep their lands and promising to uphold their ancient laws and customs. Yet all they had done in return was repay his generosity with contempt, and force him to spend time, money, and energy in putting down their insolence. What’s more, even now, after three years, they showed no signs whatsoever of giving up. So, since the softly-softly approach had evidently failed, William now allowed the more brutal side of his character to take over. After a somber Christmas in York, he divided his army into small contingents and sent them out into the countryside of Yorkshire and Northumbria. Their mission was to burn crops, homes, and livestock, in order to render the entire region incapable of supporting human life. Modern historians have dubbed this the “Harrying of the North,” but only a contemporary author can fully capture the horrific consequences of the king’s decision. One northern chronicler described it thus:

So great a famine prevailed that men, compelled by hunger, devoured human flesh, [and also] that of horses, dogs, and cats . . . [Some] sold themselves to perpetual slavery, so that they might in that way preserve their wretched existence; others, while about to go into exile from their country, fell down in the middle of their journey and gave up the ghost. It was horrific to behold human corpses decaying in the houses, the streets, and on the roads, swarming with worms while they were consuming in corruption with an abominable stench . . . There was no village inhabited between York and Durham; they became lurking places to wild beasts and robbers, and were a great dread to travelers.

In retrospect, the Harrying was seen as the most savage and merciless act of William’s whole career. At the time, however, the king regarded it as just the beginning of a new direction in royal policy. If the English did not want him as their king, and were never going to give him their love or loyalty, why should he worry about respecting their laws or customs? This cold logic soon translated itself into action. Not only did William abandon his English lessons, and start spending much less time in England; he also decided there was no point in upholding the rights of Englishmen when there were loyal Normans who needed rewarding. In the year 1070, therefore, he deposed many native bishops and abbots, including the archbishop of Canterbury, and replaced them with Continental newcomers. In the same year, the king permitted English monasteries to be plundered for cash.

The biggest change, however, was not felt in church cloisters, but in the countryside at large. In the wake of the English rebellions, William created huge new blocks of power for his most trusted followers, and charged them with holding down their new territories by whatever means they chose. Above all else, this meant building many hundreds of castles.

One of the main beneficiaries of William’s change of heart in 1070 was Roger of Montgomery. Roger was one of William’s oldest and closest friends: we first spot the pair of them together when William was in his late teens, and their friendship may have stretched back even earlier. Two major things underline the degree of trust between the two men. First, when William set sail for England in 1066, Roger was the man he left in charge of Normandy during his absence. Second, when Roger joined William in England shortly after the invasion, the king rewarded him with large grants of land. Roger was one of the individuals who profited from the early redistribution of property in Sussex, and in 1070 he received an even bigger prize. In the carve up following the Harrying of the North, William made Roger earl of Shrewsbury (or Shropshire).

This was a very large gift, and it catapulted Roger right to the top of English society. In the list of the top ten Normans in England after 1066, Roger ranks number three—below William himself and his half-brother, Odo, but above the king’s other half-brother, Robert. With great power, however, came great responsibility. As earl, Roger was expected to keep order in the region, and also to defend the English border with Wales. Shropshire, like Yorkshire, was one of the remotest and wildest parts of William’s new kingdom. In order to carry out the task appointed to him, Roger built several new castles. One of the most important of these, to judge from its name, was the one he called “Montgomery,” after his own home town of Montgommeri in Normandy. This castle, a perfect little motte and bailey, still survives, but for centuries it has been known by its Welsh name, simply meaning “the old mound.” It is called Hen Domen.

Hen Domen provides an interesting contrast with castles built by William the Conqueror at around the same time. Rather than being constructed in the middle of a town or city, Roger of Montgomery’s new castle was built in the open countryside. Despite its isolation, however, it was of crucial importance for Roger in controlling his earldom. He picked the site in order to command an ancient crossroads, and also to control the traffic across a major ford on the River Severn. Today the castle is no less lonely than it was nine centuries ago. It squats between two farmers’ fields, is overgrown by trees and bushes, and looks for all the world like nothing more than a woodland copse. But despite its apparent obscurity, Hen Domen has once again become very important. In fact, it is one of the most talked-about castle sites in Europe.

For a period of almost forty years, Hen Domen was the site of a massive archaeological dig. Every summer, from the early sixties to the late nineties, archaeologists gathered at the castle for weeks on end to try to uncover its secrets. With a total of over two years spent digging, this was the biggest and most sustained archaeological investigation of its kind ever undertaken. Thanks to the work done at Hen Domen, a great deal has been learned, not only about the nature of early castles, but about what life was like within their vanished wooden walls.

In itself, Hen Domen has good reason to be considered special. Although it is only a small- to medium-sized motte and bailey, the strength of the castle’s defenses reflect both the high status of its builder and the dangerousness of its position on the border. As at the royal castle at Berkhamsted, built by either William or his half-brother Robert, we find multiple lines of defense. Three earthen ramparts ring the whole site, forming two deep ditches around the castle. Anyone approaching with hostile intent would have had to cross the first ditch, climb over a wooden fence with a fighting platform behind it, and then negotiate another, deeper ditch—all this before they reached the castle’s main walls, which stood twelve to fourteen feet high.

Of course, it is impossible to say exactly what stood above the ground by digging underneath it. Nevertheless, the excavations at Hen Domen permitted some reasonable estimates. They revealed two rows of post-holes, one set behind the other, which indicated that the walls must have been backed by a fighting platform, raised off the ground by the posts. In order to allow a man to pass underneath it, the platform must have been raised to a height of at least six or seven feet. Similarly, a man standing on top of the platform would need to be protected from attack, so we must assume that the wall rose at least another six or seven feet in front of him, bringing the total height of the wall up to the suggested height of twelve to fourteen feet.

In a similar fashion, the archaeologists were able to estimate the size of bailey buildings at Hen Domen. Certain post-holes were evidently home to very large timbers, and from the scale of these foundations the overall shape of the buildings can be guessed. At the foot of the motte, for example, the archaeologists uncovered the remains of a very large building. In all probability, this was the castle’s great hall. Judging by the massive size of its foundation ditch, the hall stood two stories high, providing space downstairs for storage, and a main first-floor room where Roger and his household would have sat and dined. Behind the hall the team discovered evidence of a flying bridge of exactly the kind depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. Again, it was the size of this structure that was striking. The foundations (and also, remarkably, a surviving timber that was found preserved in the ditch) indicate that the bridge must have been twelve feet wide; large enough to ride a horse up, if necessary. Finally, on the top of the motte, the diggers uncovered evidence for a great tower—or rather, several great towers, for it seems that the buildings on the motte were replaced several times over the years. Again, the scale of the foundations suggest that the greatest of these towers was at least two stories tall.

How were these buildings actually constructed? The trees, as you might expect, were felled using axes and dragged to the site by animals in order for construction to begin. The trunks, however, were not cut to shape using saws, but by the more efficient process of splitting. Starting with a large oak tree, wooden or metal wedges were driven into the trunk along its length, using a wooden mallet or hammer. Eventually a crack would open and, with a little encouragement from crowbars, the tree would split in half. After this, the process could be repeated several times—the half could be split into quarters, the quarters split into eighths, and so on. In fact, if you had a good-sized oak tree, it was possible to get over a thousand square feet of planking from a single trunk. Once you had produced enough timber in this manner, you could start building with them right away—provided your boss wasn’t too concerned about the rough quality of the finish. If, however, he demanded smoother surfaces on his castle walls, these could be produced by working the split wood with an axe, and then dressing it with a smaller, subtler tool called a T-axe.

Other materials besides timber went into constructing an early castle. The walls of buildings could be built or reinforced with clay, as well as the well-known “wattle and daub.” When it came to roofing, slate tiles may have been used in some cases, but no such slates were ever uncovered at Hen Domen. Thatched roofs may also have existed, but using thatch obviously meant that there was a much greater danger from fire. Bearing both these things in mind, the archaeologists assumed that the roofs at Hen Domen would also have been made of timber, built either from planking or by using shingles. There was nothing low-status about any of these materials—especially wood. Roger of Montgomery was a very powerful man, and wood was his material of choice. Likewise, the castles built by William the Conqueror and his brothers were constructed in almost every case from earth and timber. The diggers at Hen Domen were slightly disappointed that none of the buildings there seem to have been very ornate—no carved timbers were uncovered. Roger’s castle, it seems, was not a fancy example like the one at Bayeux on the Bayeux Tapestry, with its dragon’s head over the doorway. Nevertheless, the size and number of the buildings was in itself revealing. It gradually became clear to the archaeologists at Hen Domen that they were not uncovering a small huddle of shabby-looking structures, but a site that was thickly planted with buildings, built on a scale that matched the fabulous descriptions of the chroniclers.

The only genuine disappointment for the archaeologists at Hen Domen was the limited number of “small finds” they uncovered, and the fact that none of these items suggested a truly aristocratic lifestyle. There were no brooches or jewelry to compare with the finds at Threave (see Chapter Five); the most exciting find was half a wooden bucket. Of course, we can make certain allowances for the lack of luxury items. This was a castle, not a town or a battlefield; people were not necessarily dropping and losing things all the time. They must have had rubbish pits in which to throw away their unwanted or broken items, but these were never found: despite digging for forty years, the archaeologists only had time to excavate half the bailey. Who knows what treasures—or rubbish—might be concealed in the other half? Hen Domen has by no means given up all its secrets.

But even with all these excuses, the inescapable conclusion was that life at Hen Domen was not exactly luxurious. It was not a place where Roger of Montgomery turned up with his precious things: certainly no gold or jewels, and probably not even much money—only one coin was found on the site. In its early days at least, it was a garrison castle, manned entirely by knights and soldiers, whose standard of living was basic, not to say Spartan. Only two of the bailey buildings showed signs of being heated by fires and, to judge from the animal bones that were found, the diet of the occupants was quite simple. They typically ate beef, mutton, and pork, and from time to time they got to dine on deer—a slightly classier dish. All this food, however, could be sourced locally; there was no indication that fancier foodstuffs ever found their way to the castle.

But this would not have been unusual. In the eleventh century, knighthood was still a long way from the fine living and pageantry of the late Middle Ages. In Roger of Montgomery’s day, it was not such an exclusive club; knights were numbered in thousands, not hundreds, and the poorer ones were not much better off than peasants who had done well for themselves. The men whom Roger sent to Hen Domen to guard the fringes of his earldom no doubt cursed the cold and criticized the cooking. But their experience was probably little different from that shared by Norman knights all over England.

Medieval Campaign Organisation and Warfare I

William the Conqueror is probably the best known soldier and general of the eleventh century. The conquest of England in 1066 was not only a major historical event, it was also one which has stuck in the minds of at least the English-speaking world. William was a minor when his father died in 1035, and the struggle to impose himself upon Normandy was long and bitter. It was only with the help of his overlord, Henry I of France (1031–60) that the greatest rebellion against him was defeated at the battle of Val-ès-Dunes in 1047 of which we know almost nothing. However, the rebel leader, Guy of Burgundy, took refuge in the castle of Brionne where he held out for three years. Thereafter, although William’s position improved, the propensity for rebellion remained. In the wake of his capture of Tours in 1044 Geoffrey Martel, count of Anjou (1040–60), turned his attention to Maine, where the major city of Le Mans was captured in 1051. After the count of Maine’s widow, her son Herbert and daughter Margaret had fled to the Norman court, Geoffrey seized both Domfront, a fief held of the count of Maine by the Bellême family, and the Norman town of Alençon, offering as an inducement to their soldiers a licence to ravage in the Norman lands. William failed to take Domfront by coup de main and built four castles, probably earthwork and wood structures, to blockade it while maintaining an active posture which enabled him to rally his troops against an effort to relieve it by Geoffrey, whose forces retired intact and watchful. William now faced a difficult situation for their presence prevented him from ravaging. However, William had apparently kept a close eye on Alençon in the meantime, and, when he realised that its defences were weak, suddenly seized it, dealing so harshly with its garrison that Domfront decided to come to terms. The campaign certainly illustrates William’s generalship, with its tight control over events. It indicates how the castle and its supply dominated war yet not at the expense of mobility which was the key factor in William’s victory. It should also be added that Geoffrey was a good general, but here he was at the very edge of his authority, so his power was attenuated and his ability to bring it to bear without enormous effort limited. William’s own stabs against Maine failed for much the same reasons, until after Geoffrey’s death in 1063 when, taking advantage of the internal conflict then rending the house of Anjou, he advanced against Le Mans with fire and sword as described by William of Poitiers.

In the years 1051–2 there occurred a major shift in alliances in northern France. The Norman dukes had long been close allies of the Capetian royal house. William’s father, Robert I, had sustained Henry against the revolt of 1031 and in return the king had supported his son as we have seen. But the Capetians had also long been friendly with the house of Anjou, who had been their allies against the grave threat posed by the counts of Blois-Champagne, most recently accepting their conquest of Tours in 1044 from the Blésois.6 When these two allies quarrelled over Maine, King Henry supported the Angevins, posing a grave threat to William whose régime was still far from secure after his recent minority. In 1053 William of Arques, a great lord of upper Normandy with many allies, rebelled and his castle of Arques, newly built and well-fortified, was the focus of events. William’s men at Rouen, his principes militiae, tried unsuccessfully to interfere with the preparation of Arques, but when William arrived he built a counter-castle and settled down to a siege. King Henry led an army into Normandy, ravaging as he went, but was ambushed and, although he got supplies into Arques, his force was so weakened that the castle fell soon after his withdrawal. In the following year Henry tried again with two armies, one under Odo, his brother, striking into Eastern Normandy and the other under his own command, supported by the Angevins, advancing via Evreux. The duke adopted the classic tactic of shadowing his enemy, and one of his detachments fell upon French ravagers at Mortemer causing such loss that both French armies withdrew. The same tactics of shadowing the French, preventing them from spreading out to forage, were employed in 1057 and this time William fell upon the French and Angevin army as the tide cut it in two crossing the Dives at Varaville, causing very heavy losses. It was at this battle that, according to Wace, archers played a notable role. There is much to admire in William’s generalship in all these campaigns. He was a master of the contemporary techniques of war and succeeded in impressing his vassals and preserving their loyalty. Perhaps even more important is to notice the scale of effort which he managed to sustain despite his internal difficulties. He, and indeed his opponents, mounted major campaigns interspersed with sieges and lesser affairs over a period of very nearly ten years. This obviously says a great deal about the economic efficiency of the manorial economy, but it also says a great deal about the ability to organise, recruit and sustain armies. It is a theme not much discussed by modern historians of the period, but it was of course a vital skill in the circumstances of the crusade.

Even William’s admiring biographer, William of Poitiers, admits that he evaded battle whenever possible. Indeed, Varaville was the only occasion before Hastings when he engaged on any scale in the open field and it was then only in the most favourable circumstances. The qualification ‘on any scale’ is important, for there were many occasions during these years when there were fights, but they were of a limited kind which could only have limited results. In 1053 and 1054 King Henry simply absorbed minor defeats. William’s was not a technique without battles – rather he committed himself to a style of war which avoided heavy losses and conserved his forces, preferring the tactics we have noted above. In this he showed wisdom, for battle on any scale could be very expensive and was terribly hazardous. The battle of Cassel on 22 February 1071 was fairly widely noted by contemporaries. In 1070 Baldwin VI of Flanders died and the succession of his fifteen year old son, Arnulf III, who was supported by his mother Richilde, was contested by the dead count’s brother Robert I the Frisian, father of Robert II of Flanders who went on the First Crusade. Robert rallied support especially in northern Flanders and struck suddenly at Cassel where Arnulf’s army was concentrated; in its ranks was Eustace II count of Boulogne, a major vassal in Flanders and in England and father of three participants in the First Crusade, Eustace III of Boulogne, Godfrey de Bouillon and Baldwin. Arnulf was supported by his overlord Philip of France, whose aunt Adela had married Baldwin V of Flanders (1035–67), amongst whose forces was a contingent of ten knights from Normandy led by William FitzOsborn, a small force whose size indicates that the Conqueror, who had married Baldwin V’s daughter Mathilda, was very much more concerned with affairs in England. Robert seems to have advanced quickly toward Cassel, evidently seeing battle as offering a quick decision and needing to force it before the superior strength of his enemies could gather. We do not know for certain who held Cassel at the start of the battle, the details of which are largely lost to us. One source suggests that Robert lured the allies into an ambush by a feint, but beyond this there is confusion. What interests us is the extraordinary outcome of this battle. Arnulf III was killed and so was William FitzOsborn; Richilde was captured by Robert’s men, and Robert the Frisian was captured by Eustace II of Boulogne. Within a month the king of France had concentrated a much larger force at Montreuil and was ready to resume the war, but he was forced to recognise Robert who was freed in exchange for Richilde and was elevated to the county through the support of Eustace II. Baldwin of Hainault, the other surviving son of Baldwin VI, later unsuccessfully contested the county of Flanders, but was to die on crusade with Robert’s son, Robert II, in 1098. Robert the Frisian had had little option but to seek battle, for most of his support was in the poorer part of Flanders and his rival had powerful allies. The immediate outcome of his strategy was poor reward for his bravery, although in the long run the death of Arnulf opened the way for a favourable political solution. Over a century later the risks were just as great. In September 1198 Richard I of England (1189–99) fell upon the army of King Philip of France (1180–1223) as it tried to relieve Courcelles, inflicting a severe defeat during which the bridge at Gisors broke throwing the French king into the water where he ‘had to drink of the river’. Richard reported these events in a letter to the bishop of Durham which has a confessional, almost apologetic note, reflecting the hazards of resorting to battle: ‘In doing this we risked not only our own life but the kingdom itself, against the advice of all our councillors’. Such sober reflection from one of the greatest of all medieval generals explains why major battle was only to be undertaken in the most favourable circumstances, as William showed at Varaville, or for the highest stakes, as in the Hastings campaign.

Because of its spectacular and decisive results, Hastings is perhaps the most celebrated of all medieval battles. Certain aspects of the Hastings campaign need to be emphasised, however, because they illuminate the nature of war in the late eleventh century. In the first place the scale of the undertaking, requiring the collection and construction of a fleet, was enormous. The devoted biographer of William tells us that when his hero announced his intention of conquering England as news came through of the death of Edward and the usurpation of Harold, many advised him that such an undertaking was beyond the strength of the Normans and some seem to have refused to take part or promised, then reneged. Indeed it was a huge undertaking. William was obliged to consult with his magnates in a series of conferences at Lillebonne, Bonneville-sur-Touques and Caen at which they agreed to unprecedentedly heavy contributions to the army and, also apparently, to the provision of ships such as the sixty raised by William FitzOsborn. It seems likely that William established the number of troops which each lord owed him according to the extent of his lands, and then concluded agreements over and above such figures for the special circumstances of the great expedition. According to Wace, William FitzOsborn exhorted them to provide at least double their obligations and this caused anxiety amongst the magnates lest the increased contribution be seen as a precedent, leading the duke to assure them individually that this would not be so. Indeed, in one sense the critics of the expedition were proved correct, for William had to seek resources outside Normandy. The presence of Flemish, French and Breton troops in the host at Hastings, and afterwards amongst the new aristocracy of England, is too well known to need discussion here. The importance of Eustace II of Boulogne in the Bayeux tapestry testifies to this, and we know of the presence of soldiers from Poitiers. The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio suggests the presence of South Italian Normans. This indicates the range of his recruiting effort. Wace gives some hint of the diversity of the Conqueror’s arrangements when he speaks of soldiers coming to him in groups and singly. ‘Many wished for the duke’s lands should he conquer England. Some requested pay and allowances and gifts. Often it was necessary to distribute these, to those who could not afford to wait.’ Overall some 14,000 men including sailors were mobilised, of whom something like 8,000 were effectives, including 3,000 cavalry. Amongst the 5,000 foot were a lot of archers who appear, from the Tapestry, to have been lightly armed, and a sizable corps of what William of Poitiers calls pedites loricati, heavily armed footsoldiers. In the battle the duke would find it convenient to divide his force into divisions of Normans, Bretons and French. This vast assemblage must have stripped Normandy of troops, but such exposure was possible because two inveterate enemies had died in 1060, Henry I of France and Geoffrey Martel of Anjou. The regency of France was in the hands of William’s father-in-law Baldwin V of Flanders. This huge force had to be concentrated near Dives-sur-Mer where the fleet gathered in the summer of 1066, and it had to be supplied, for William of Poitiers tells us that William would not allow the troops to plunder and so arose what he describes as an extraordinary situation: despite the presence of squadrons of knights, farmers could get on with their business and travellers come and go without fear, an interesting comment on contemporary chivalry!

This concentration of forces at Dives of some 14,000 men and 2,000–3,000 warhorses presented a formidable problem of supply. The task of feeding and watering them, it has been suggested, demanded 9,000 cartloads of grain, straw, wine and firewood along with eight tons of iron for horseshoes alone. They generated 700,000 gallons of urine and five million pounds of horseshit during their stay and this had to be removed. In addition there must have been many draught animals and indeed the Bayeux tapestry shows us military supplies being moved on specialised vehicles. Warhorses were very valuable and supporting sizable numbers of them was a grave problem. Recent research indicates that the breeding of specialised strains of horses was a great burden, requiring enclosed parks to isolate mares and suitable stallions in well-found studfarms. In addition, it must be recognised that in western Europe there were few ranges where horses could graze and that these animals were stall-fed with grain and hay. They thus competed with men for grain while for the provision of hay, meadows needed to be developed. This explains the contrast between the west where the development of bigger and heavier animals was a necessary consequence of this costly regime, and the east where the availability of ranges in Asia Minor and the Euphrates plain, as in North Africa, fostered the development of a lighter breed, though the progress of this distinction was limited in the eleventh Century. Supporting such animals was a major drain on the peasant surplus at the best of times. In conditions of war, feeding horses presented terrible problems. In August and September of 1914 von Kluck’s First Army, which marched on the right of the German attack under the famous ‘Schlieffen Plan’, had 84,000 horses consuming two million pounds of fodder per day, or twenty-four pounds of grain and hay each. Although they were advancing in a most favourable season the cavalry were tired by the time they crossed the French frontier and in poor condition by the start of the Battle of the Marne on 6 September. The lot of the draught animals was worse and the guns were badly delayed. Difficult as the conditions of 1914 must have been, they were infinitely better for the survival of animals than in the eleventh century. William’s concentration at Dives took place at a most favourable time of year and his subsequent deployment enjoyed good fortune. However, the crusaders faced much more difficult conditions and the state of the horses rapidly became a major preoccupation for the army, as we shall see. Once into the Anatolian steppe, animals were very vulnerable, and it seems unlikely that any western Europeans animals survived the journey.

Contemporaries were deeply impressed by the fleet which William gathered, and which is so graphically illustrated in the Tapestry. Its actual size was not definitely known to contemporaries. The ship list of William the Conqueror suggests that the Norman lords should have produced some 776 ships, and Wace recollects being told that the fleet which sailed numbered 700 less four, though he had also found the figure of 3,000 written down. It is not necessarily the case that the Norman lords produced their quotas and figures as low as 400–500 have been suggested, but most writers believe that a total of between 700 and 1,000 concentrated at Dives where the army was gathering. William of Poitiers tells us that the duke ordered that ships be constructed, but it is unlikely that a huge fleet could have been built in the period between the death of the Confessor and the landing at Pevensey on 28 September. The evidence suggests that the duke acquired existing ships, in particular hiring them along with mercenaries from Flanders. The greater number of them were merchantmen suitable for the transport of horses and supplies as well as men, though a number of longships and skiffs were undoubtedly included. The emphasis on shipbuilding in William of Poitiers and the Tapestry probably owes much to the excitement generated by this activity. But evidently William was pressed to find enough ships, for the Tapestry appears to show unseasoned wood being cut for shipbuilding. It seems unlikely that William had special transports made for his horses, such as those used by the Byzantines, for the Tapestry does not show anything resembling them and the written sources do not give any indication of such exotic vessels. By early September the concentration of forces at Dives seems to have been complete and the fleet sailed on a westerly wind for St Valéry where it waited fifteen days until a gentle southerly took it to England. By any standards this was a remarkable logistical and organisational achievement. It is important to recognise that while exceptional, it was not unique.

King Harold of England knew of the intentions and preparations of the duke of Normandy; indeed William of Poitiers records the reception given to an English spy. By May Harold set in train his own preparations, hastened by the raids of his dissident brother Tosti on southern England. His fleet was apparently slow to mobilise, but he may well have attempted a spoiling attack on William’s forces across the Channel, while on land his troops stood ‘everywhere along by the sea’ for the English had an efficient military system. This Anglo-Saxon fyrd was centred on the retainers of the king and the great thegns and perhaps some mercenaries, supplemented by shire levies whose localities provided them with support. The peculiarity of the Anglo-Saxon military tradition was the failure to develop any effective cavalry. Although the élite of the army rode to battle there is every evidence that they fought on foot. Thus, although they could move quickly across country, they lacked battlefield mobility, the key factor in the coming war. Then on 8 September the Anglo-Saxon fleet and army broke up, the former going to London with losses, because, as the Chronicle tells us: ‘the provisions of the people were gone’. It is easy to contrast this logistic disaster unfavourably with the triumph across the Channel. However, to maintain an army and a fleet as long as this was a major achievement, especially as considerable forces stayed in the north to guard against the threat of attack from Tosti and Harald Hardrada. Moreover, when Harold heard of the Norse attack on York, he was able to gather his army and strike very quickly, which suggests that not all had dispersed. Probably the extent of his demobilisation has been exaggerated and the best troops remained with him. Furthermore, the English fleet took to the sea quickly to cut off the Normans after they landed on 28 September. On 12 September the Norman fleet left its concentration area in and around Dives and sailed east to St Valéry, just as Harold heard of the landing of Harald Hardrada at York with a fleet of 300–500 ships reinforced by Tosti; they defeated earls Edwin and Morcar at Fulford Bridge on 20 September with a great slaughter on both sides and took possession of York. By 24 September Harold, after a whirlwind march, was at Tadcaster. On 25 September he marched his troops through York and surprised and slaughtered the Danish army at Stamford Bridge. Hearing of the Norman landing at Pevensey of 28 September, he turned his army south and after spending 5–11 October raising more troops in London, marched out to confront William whose spies warned him of the coming of the Anglo-Saxon army on 13 October. The next day the battle took place and Harold was killed. The organisational effort made by both sides in this summer of 1066 was remarkable and it points to the abilities of commanders. It was paralleled elsewhere in Europe at this time. The Norman conquest of South Italy and Sicily reached its climax in the years 1071 and 1072 when the major cities of Bari and Palermo fell. Bari was the last major bastion of Byzantine power in Italy and its powerful fortifications were deservedly feared. When Robert Guiscard began the siege on 5 August 1068 he knew he was starting a major undertaking and that blockade by sea was vital. In 1060–1 the Normans had demonstrated their willingness to take to ships with a series of raids on Messina which culminated in its seizure by a force which included 700–1,000 cavalry whose mounts had to be ferried across to Sicily. This successful lodgement opened the way for a conquest made easier by divisions amongst the three major Muslim Emirates. Bari was a much greater operation in the course of which a land blockade was established and complemented with a sea blockade, during which the Norman ships were linked together to form a barrier to penetration into the port. A Byzantine relief force did break in, however, in 1069, and a sea and land diversion against Brindisi was heavily defeated. However, the Normans enjoyed aid from Pisa whose fleet brought troops and crossbowmen for land as well as sea operations. The defeat of a major Byzantine fleet in 1070 opened the way for negotiations which culminated in a negotiated surrender of the city in April 1071. This long operation was then followed by the siege of Palermo begun in August 1071, to which the Hauteville brothers, Robert and Roger, brought a force of fifty-eight vessels. On land they built siege machines and on sea a blockade was established which was not totally successful for a North African fleet broke through to provision the city. However, in the end hunger brought the city to a negotiated surrender on 10 January 1072.

These remarkable operations in the south were paralleled as feats of organisation by the German expeditions to Italy. Documentation on the military organisation of the German kings is sparse, but the Indiculus Loricatorum is a list of the reinforcements called for by Otto II (973–83) after his defeat in 982 at Cortone. A total of 2,090 mounted men were called to service on the basis of what appears to have been established servitia debita which formed the recruiting base of the imperial army. On the marches of Germany a regular levy, the census, was imposed upon the Slavs in order to maintain the garrisons and military forces of their conquerors. In 1026 Conrad II (1024–39) undertook the expedition to Italy which led to his imperial coronation. It is not generally seen as a major military action but Italy was unfriendly. After the crowning in Milan, Conrad ravaged the lands of hostile Pavia, though he was unable to take the city. He had to put down a revolt in Ravenna before proceeding to Rome. The imperial coronation was brilliant, but afterwards a German and a Roman quarrelled over a hide and severe fighting broke out involving the entire German army. The ‘Investiture Conflict’ was a German civil war involving bloody battles in a land where the castle was emerging as an important factor. During its course Henry IV led several major expeditions to Italy including the siege of Rome in 1083 in which Godfrey participated when siege machinery, including rams, was constructed. The regularity and scale of the Italian expeditions of the German emperors made a profound impact on the emergence of the German knightly class, the ministeriales. In the twelfth century the codes which governed their conduct were elaborated, particularly with regard to their duties on the ‘complicated and onerous imperial ventures into Italy’, with both heavy fines for failure to comply and fitting out allowances payable from their lord. In 1154 the archbishop of Cologne required that all holding land worth five marks should go, and they were given ten marks for equipment together with supplies, horses and pay of one mark per month once over the Alps. In 1161 the archbishop sent 500 men at a cost of 10,000 marks.

The organisation of war was the primary concern of government, but even at its best it remained, by our standards, simple. In essence those who held land of the king owed service in one way or another and this obligation co-existed with an older Germanic tradition that all free men had a duty to serve the king in moments of emergency. We have noted the establishment of quotas in Germany and the same process was at work in Normandy, although it should be stressed that ‘feudalism’ was emergent in the late eleventh century and that as yet there was only ‘a tangle of incipient feudal customs, partly built up from below’.39 In any case, powerful rulers had sources other than nascent feudal obligation for the raising of great armies. It is now clear that paid troops had always played a major role, as they did, for example, under William Rufus. The distinctions between mercenary, endowed knight and household knight are not clear – those serving from obligation beyond some fixed period might well be paid, and there was a strong tendency to argue about how far obligations went. The aristocracy and the knightly class certainly provided a large pool of skilled manpower trained in war from which soldiers could be recruited. Moreover, it was upon the royal household, their wealth and their leading followers, that the Norman kings relied to raise armies. These professional groupings of household followers around the king – paid and aspirant, or endowed and paid and hoping for better – were what the king relied on for the core of his army and its command. In time of war such a body could expand and serve as the command force of a great army. Through them the sinews of war were channelled, for in the end it was money which made victory. Although such bodies, such military households, can only be documented from the early twelfth century, it is unlikely that they were invented – rather they must have evolved over a period of time. In 1101 Henry I negotiated an arrangement with Robert II of Flanders whereby the latter swore to be his man and to provide 1,000 knights in return for a fee. William Rufus almost certainly made the same arrangement when he met Robert in 1093. It is interesting that the treaty specified that each knight was to be provided with three horses. It seems likely that this kind of organisation was the secret of Rufus’s reputation for raising and paying armies. A medieval army was a composite of forces around a core of loyal leaders whom we can regard as generals. They were not merely military men; they also formed an administrative corps for the vital task of handling and paying out money. Clearly both William Rufus and Henry I needed such a body if they were prepared to take on large Flemish forces. Of course we cannot describe such organisation with any certainty outside the Anglo-Norman sphere, and clearly for Suger such capacity was a matter of wonder. What is of interest is that such capacity had already come into being amongst the Normans on the eve of the First Crusade; they were a major element in the army of conquest which Urban II called into being in 1095. This organisational development indicates the degree to which war in the late eleventh century was not a matter of instinct, of ‘kick and rush’, but of guile and organisation, in short of generalship. This explains the rarity not of battle but of battle on a large scale. They understood the context in which they were making war. To attack your enemy’s economic base, isolate his castles, starve his population, these were surer methods and more applicable to the usually limited objectives for which men fought. However, there were occasions when the stakes were so high that all had to be risked on the throw of battle, and on these occasions the men who directed things sought to ensure that their chances of victory were as great as possible in what was the most risky of all undertakings.

Medieval Campaign Organisation and Warfare II

Fulk le Réehin, count of Anjou (1067–1109) described how he fought his brother for the county over a period of eight years:

But still he attacked me yet again, laying siege to my fortress of Brissac. There I rode against him with those princes whom God in His clemency, permitted to join me, and I fought with him a pitched battle in which, by God’s grace, I overcame him; and he was captured and handed over to me, and a thousand of his men with him.

The repeated invocation of God’s name shows how few illusions Fulk had about the chances of battle.

Duke William of Normandy shared his wariness, but in the expedition against England battle was unavoidable. Its risks probably underlay the unwillingness already noted of some of the Norman lords to join in the enterprise. William’s attack on England enjoyed great good fortune. His preparations had taken a very long time, yet he found exceptionally good weather very late in the year for the crossing on 27 September 1066. In the passage from Dives to St Valéry his fleet had suffered losses, but none are recorded for the main crossing on 27 September and this suggests that the favourable breeze that day did not exceed Force 3.5, about 10 mph. In any greater wind his precious horses would probably have suffered losses for they were housed in ordinary transports, not ships specially designed for the purpose. It seems likely that he had sent out light ships to watch the English fleet and coasts and so would have known of the partial collapse of the enemy defences on 8 September and probably also of Harold’s march north. Since William seems to have been well aware of Norse interest in England and had encouraged Tosti, Harold’s estranged brother, in his attacks on England, this was not mere good luck. William’s diplomacy to isolate Harold had been intensive and he was able to unfurl a papal banner before his army. After landing at Pevensey William soon realised that Hastings was a better site, and moved there a day later. Immediately he began to fortify his bases, building castles at both to protect themselves and provide safe harbour for the fleet. At the same time he raided the countryside, a process shown vividly in the Tapestry. It is possible that this ravaging, in Harold’s own earldom, was intended to provoke the enemy into an overhasty attack, but the feeding of such a large host would have compelled it anyway. With a secure base William could dominate the Sussex coast, but in the longer run his situation was not very favourable, for the English fleet would soon threaten his communications which in any case were at risk as the weather deteriorated and the autumn storms blew up. William wanted a quick solution, as he had probably known all along; he needed to seek battle and to capitalise quickly on his strength and the high morale of his army buoyed up by promises of English land. On the other hand, he hardly dared risk deep penetration of an enemy hinterland where he would find difficulties enough later, even unopposed. But he was ready for battle. According to William of Poitiers, a Breton servant of the Confessor, Robert Fitz-Wimarch, sent a message warning him of the coming of the Saxon army and urging him to take refuge in his fortifications, but William rejected this advice eagerly stating his desire for battle. It was William’s great good fortune that Harold played into his hands, but this was a miscalculation brilliantly exploited by the Norman duke.

Harold’s victory over the Danes at York on 25 September was, by all accounts, a bloody affair which, coming on top of the losses at Fulford on 20 September, must seriously have reduced the available effectives in the Anglo-Saxon army. Traditionally, he is supposed to have heard of William’s landing on or shortly after 1 October and then to have been obliged to retrace his thirteen-day 190-mile march to London, arriving at Hastings on 13 October. If this chronology is in any way correct, then we can suppose that not all of his army came with him, for Ordericus says he spent five days in London raising forces. This may or may not be precisely true, but Harold would have needed some time to concentrate troops and surely no considerable army could have moved so far so fast. Harold then set off and reached Battle on the evening of 13 October. We do not know what his intentions were. It is possible that he hoped to take the Normans by surprise as he had the Norse and this was certainly what the Normans later thought, even fearing a night attack which caused the army to spend an uncomfortable and sleepless night. It is equally possible that he wanted to force William’s army to concentrate by its fortifications, cutting it off from food – a tactic we have noted used by William himself. In either case his error was to march as close to his enemy as Battle, a mere seven miles from the main enemy encampment. This was the edge of the wooded lands and he could go no further for, like all Anglo-Saxon forces, his army was used to fighting on foot – although its leading members travelled on horseback. On the open Downs such an infantry force could be cut to pieces by the Norman cavalry. The error was compounded because William pounced on it. For William had been at pains to keep a close watch for enemy movements – his emphasis on good reconnaissance was a life-long characteristic. Early on the morning of 14 October he marched quickly to Battle and deployed his army catching Harold unawares, as the Chronicle E has it: ‘before all the army had come’ and D more interestingly: ‘And William came against him by surprise before his army was drawn up in battle array. But the king nevertheless fought hard against him with the men who were willing to support him’. Florence of Worcester says that only half Harold’s army had assembled and only a third deployed when the Normans struck.

Harold managed to seize a strong position at the mouth of a funnel through the woods on the main road by the present village of Battle. He had a strong position for defence and his men were determined. But they had no way of attacking the enemy who could retreat easily and attack once more, unless they obligingly panicked. Nor could Harold’s forces retreat for the enemy were upon them. Harold’s impetuous rush forward meant that his army was immobilised, unable to go forward or back, and though it barred William’s route inland the initiative in the forthcoming battle would lie with the Normans. This is the force of William of Poitiers’s famous comment: ‘What a strange contest then began, in which one of the protagonists attacked freely and at will, the other enduring the assault as though rooted to the ground’. Moreover, there was an additional problem springing from Harold’s haste; his army appears to have had very few archers. This does not mean that they were without missile throwers – javelins, axes and clubs fly through the air in the Tapestry. But the bow outranged all these: it was a striking vulnerability, and William’s deployment was organised to exploit it. His army advanced in three lines with archers thrown forward, followed by armoured foot and then the cavalry. In addition his line was divided into three divisions, with the Bretons on the left, the Normans in the centre and the French on the right. In effect William was assaulting a fortress – the close-packed Anglo-Saxon and Danish infantry settled in a strong position on top of the hill. Of these many were professionals as well armed as their enemies, but as the Tapestry shows there were many lesser folk, lacking anything except a spear.

William clearly intended that his archers should weaken the enemy by their fire, probably from about fifty yards, protected from enemy sally by the presence of heavily armed infantry who would then charge in to the assault making breaches which the cavalry could exploit. The strength of the Saxon position and the effectiveness of their weapons balked the Normans. The cavalry then joined in the mêlée until, on the left, the Bretons were repulsed and pursued by the English: William rallied his men by showing them that the rumour of his death was untrue and they fell upon the exposed English with great slaughter. It was perhaps a result of this near disaster that William resorted to feigned flight, twice drawing out substantial forces of his enemy who were then cut to pieces. This attrition was reinforced by direct assault on the English position, supported by volleys of arrows. In his description of this final stage of the battle, William of Poitiers makes it clear that the English continued to fight hard but were gradually surrounded, losses forcing the contraction of their line. However, it was probably the death of Harold and his brothers which led to the eventual flight.

The battle illustrates the skills of a late eleventh-century commander. The marshalling of resources speaks volumes for the duke’s ability to exploit the peasant surplus. Many of the soldiers in the Norman army were paid professionals from all over France, and there were similar people, English and Danish, in Harold’s force. William sought battle, but he had obviously planned to fortify his bases and to live off the country. He kept a close watch on his enemy who failed to surprise him. Unable to advance or retreat, Harold was himself caught, on the morning of the 14 October, by the speed with which the Normans advanced and deployed, but he managed to seize a strong position. The Norman order of battle was well designed, for the assault and the mobility which had given them the initiative was used with skill to erode the English strength. A feature of the battle was William’s control of his army. He led by example, an essential quality of a medieval commander, having three horses killed under him, while at the same time supervising his forces and encouraging them even at the very end when some English made a stand at the Malfosse. Harold’s failure to await reinforcements meant that he lacked archers and so exposed his men cruelly.

The decisive arm in the battle was, however, the Norman cavalry. It was not that they could charge home sweeping all before them, for clearly they could not. The Tapestry shows them not so much charging into the enemy as jabbing and hacking at them. The mass charge with the lances couched, which would be the feature of cavalry warfare later in the twelfth century, was not a feature of Hastings: in the Tapestry some figures carry their lances couched, but for the most part those with spears jab at their enemies overarm or underarm, or even throw them, while others hack with their swords. The question of when this style of ‘shock tactics’ was developed, with riders én masse in close order clamping their long and heavy lances under their arms, has been much debated. It is now generally accepted that the technique was only in its infancy in 1066, but views of when it became a widely accepted method vary from about 1100 to the 1140s. Inevitably much of the discussion has been based on medieval illustrations and their interpretation, a factor which has also complicated discussion of the size of horses. However, the illustrations used too often show individual warriors and discussions have focused on these portrayals. In fact mounted soldiers must quite often have tucked their lances under their arms; it was a natural and useful way of using the weapon, though others could be just as useful as the Bayeux Tapestry shows. What was novel was the employment of this technique by large numbers in disciplined units, a matter on which the illustrative material is not very helpful. It would appear to the present writer that the First Crusade represents a critical stage in the evolution of this technique, as will be indicated later. The Normans who fought at Hastings probably owed their cohesion and discipline, which enabled them to manoeuvre as in the feigned flights, to long practice in fighting alongside their neighbours grouped around the local lord. This was not the triumph of cavalry over infantry as portrayed by Oman, rather it was the triumph of a good commander who used all the means at his disposal to break down a courageous enemy. His campaign was methodical and his battle formation well adapted for its purpose. The archers weakened the enemy and were guarded by heavy foot who then moved to the assault followed up by cavalry. The resilience of Harold’s force blunted this plan but William was able to extemporise the feigned flights which weakened his enemy for the final bloody assault in which, amongst the English, it seemed as though the dead as they fell moved more than the living. It was not the shock value of the cavalry which triumphed, but their disciplined mobility and courage. Unbroken infantry was always highly dangerous to cavalry. At Bourgethéroulde in 1124 some of the rebels rejoiced when the English king’s household troops dismounted, but the experienced Amaury de Montfort took a more realistic view. ‘A mounted soldier who has dismounted with his men will not fly from the field – he will either die or conquer’. At Tinchebrai in 1106 Henry I of England (1099–1135) dismounted much of his force and it was these that halted Robert Curthose’s last charge. Indeed, the value of infantry in anchoring a line of defence was always recognised – Leo VI ‘the Wise’ (886–912) had suggested that infantry be posted behind cavalry in the line of battle so that the latter could withdraw behind them if things went badly, and King Baldwin of Jerusalem (1118–32) would use just this formation at Hab in 1119. An eleventh-century Spanish Muslim writer, Abu Bakr at-Turtusi suggested a rather more complex though not dissimilar tactical formation:

The tactics we use and which seem the most efficacious against our enemy are these. The infantry with their antelope [hide] shields, lances and iron-tipped javelins are placed, kneeling in ranks. Their lances rest obliquely on their shoulders, the shaft touching the ground behind them, the point directed towards the enemy. Each one kneels on his left knee with his shield in the air. Behind the infantry are the picked archers who, with their arrows, can pierce coats of mail. Behind the archers are the cavalry. When the Christians charge, the infantry remains in position, kneeling as before. As soon as the enemy comes into range, the archers let loose a hail of arrows while the infantry throw their javelins and receive the charge on the points of their lances. Then infantry and archers open their ranks to right and left and through the gaps they create, the cavalry rushes the enemy and inflicts upon him what Allah wills.

In recognising the limitations of cavalry and the value of infantry we need to bear in mind that the horses used at Hastings were comparatively small animals. Recent research suggests that in the late eleventh century a horse of twelve hands was quite large, and one of fourteen or more exceptional. To put this into perspective, a Shetland is ten hands, a twelve-hand horse would now be classified as a pony, and fourteen a small hunter. These estimates are based on examining the representations of horses in the Bayeux Tapestry, particularly in relation to their riders. In the Tapestry all the horsemen arc riding ‘long’, that is with their legs at almost full-stretch and feet in stirrups fully extended, a configuration which gives stability. In all cases the rider’s legs project well below the body of the horse, suggesting a small animal. It is possible that this is an artistic convention but the story of Richard, son of Asclctin of Aversa, who liked to ride horses so small that his feet almost touched the ground is well-known. Moreover, similar representations are known in quite different contexts; an eleventh-century Spanish marble relief and the early twelfth-century Commentaries of Beatus (BM Add 11695) arc examples and many more could be cited. It is interesting that in the Aquileia mural of a crusader with spear couched pursuing and killing a Saracen, no difference in the size of horses is suggested, and this seems to be generally true of early twelfth-century pictures. William’s knights charging uphill against steady infantry must have needed good nerves and it is doubtful if they were aware of the ‘shock’ effect which later writers would ascribe to them. What happened along the crest of that hill where Battle Abbey now stands must have resembled the sixteenth-century ‘push at pike’, not the charge of some Hollywood Light Brigade. William exploited his good luck and, decisively, used the mobility of his cavalry with great skill. But the fact that cavalry was decisive does not mean that it was totally dominant, as later experience mentioned here shows. William was certainly careful to bring plenty of foot-soldiers with him. Battle was always chancy – William was able to rally his men against one early moment of panic which could have destroyed him. Once this crisis was over he held the initiative and could plan his attacks and he did so to great effect. Hastings was a decisive battle largely because the killing of Harold and his brothers, together with a large number of thegns whose deaths came on top of the butchery at Fulford and Stamford, deprived the Anglo-Saxon realm of much of its leadership. Harold himself paid the price for his folly in engaging too soon. Even so, the battle did not deliver the whole realm to William. He would soon be crowned, but it was only by terrible devastation in the north and covering the land with a network of castles that he was able to secure his hold. This process of conquest was greatly facilitated by the lack of castles in England. The English learned – Hereward built a castle at Ely in 1071 – but by then it was too late and William’s long war of attrition, which followed Hastings, was on the brink of success.

The conquest of England is not isolated as an example of large scale and complex military effort in late eleventh century Europe. Only a few years later Robert Guiscard, the Norman conqueror of South Italy, launched a great expedition to capture the Eastern Roman Empire. This involved the raising of a fleet and a great army which was kept in the field for some four years from 1081–5. Guiscard had been seeking a Byzantine marriage for his family and when his efforts collapsed be took advantage of the internal weakness of the empire in the early years of Alexius I Comnenus (1081–1118). It was an extraordinarily bold act, for Robert’s brother, Roger, would not complete the conquest of Sicily until 1091, while he himself had promised to aid Pope Gregory VII (1073–85) against Henry IV of Germany. In these circumstances the Byzantines were able to create diplomatic difficulties by subsidising Henry IV, inflaming hostility amongst the many Norman leaders who had resented the Hauteville domination, some of whom were actually employed as mercenaries by Alexius, and by playing upon Venetian concern about a Norman dominion on both sides of the Adriatic. This diplomatic background severely hampered the Norman campaign. War opened late in 1080 when Bohemond landed at Avlona with the vanguard of an army 15,000 strong whose core was a purely Norman force of 1,300 knights. By 17 June 1081, after seizing Corfu, Robert and Bohemond were before Dyrrachium, the western terminus of the Via Egnetia, the great road to Constantinople, held for Alexius by George Paleologus. A close siege was established around Dyrrachium with the construction of a great leather-covered siege-tower. Against it, Paleologus built a tower on the wall equipped with wooden beams to hold off the Norman attack, and as the two towers engaged, his troops sallied out and burned the siege-tower. In July 1081 the Venetians largely destroyed the Norman fleet, and Guiscard was now faced with a strong Greek army under Alexius which by 15 October was close to Dyrrachium. Guiscard’s situation was now extremely difficult, his communications were cut and an enemy force was in the field. Alexius debated whether to attack, or to establish a counter-blockade which would starve the Normans. There was much to commend either course of action. The problem with blockade was that it would take time and Alexius had problems elsewhere, and it was probably because of this that he advanced to battle on 18 October 1081. Guiscard burned the remnant of his fleet, forcing his troops to fight. He seems to have surprised Alexius by leaving his camp early in the morning, so that it was captured by the garrison of Dyrrachium and other forces sent by Alexius. As the Greek army deployed, the Varangian guard, numbering in its ranks many Anglo-Saxons, prepared for action. Then they charged, contrary to Alexius’s orders and though they pushed back the horse and infantry under the count of Bari, they were overextended and defeated by an infantry charge in the flank. Many of Alexius’s compound force, including the Turks and the large Slav force under their ruler Bodin, then fled making no effort to intervene as the Normans fell upon Alexius in the centre. Guiscard’s victory opened the way for the fall of Dyrrachium in February 1082 enabling the Normans to advance via Deabolis to Kastoria in the spring of 1082. At this point Guiscard was forced to return to Italy by revolt in his own lands, fanned by Byzantine money and by Henry IV’s assault on Rome which Alexius had encouraged, leaving Bohemond to conduct a campaign whose immediate purpose was probably to secure a firm base for further advance. Although a number of cities fell and Bohemond twice defeated Alexius’s efforts to relieve Joannina the Norman expedition was now in difficulties. Bohemond failed to seize Ochrida and Berroea, while the fort at Moglena fell to a Byzantine counterattack. Skopia, Pelagonia and Trikala, amongst others, fell, but the siege of Larissa was undertaken late in 1082 at a time when there had been desertions and treachery in the Norman force. These symptoms of exhaustion prepared the way for Alexius to challenge Bohemond in the open field. His earlier experience had not been good. Anna tells us that after the defeat at Dyrrachium Alexius had decided that: ‘the first charge of the Keltic cavalry was irresistible’. In his attempts to relieve the siege of Joannina he used strategies to counter this. In his first effort he strengthened his centre with wagons mounted with poles, whose presence was intended to break up enemy cavalry assault. However, Bohemond was forewarned and attacked on the flanks. It was not a decisive defeat and the emperor returned, this time protecting his centre with caltrops, iron barbs scattered on the ground – but Bohemond again attacked on the flank. At Larissa in the spring of 1083, however, Alexius lured much of Bohemond’s force away from his camp which the Byzantines captured, thus forcing the Normans to raise the siege, although the victory left the Norman army intact. Bohemond was now faced with retreat and a discontented army which had not been paid and this forced him to return to Italy, while Alexius mopped up his garrisons. In the summer of 1083 a Venetian fleet took Dyrrachium and with the fall of Kastoria to Greek forces in November it seemed that the campaign was over. In the autumn of 1084 Robert Guiscard raised another army and a fleet of 150 ships. He defeated the Venetian fleet before Corfu, which he again seized, but his army was decimated by illness on the mainland and it dissolved totally when he died in July 1085.

Byzantine Horse Transport.

The Norman war against Byzantium was a long affair. It was almost certainly prompted by the weakness of the empire at this juncture, but Guiscard had underestimated his own problems and the range of his enemies, whose various attacks sapped his army. It became a war of attrition in which both sides were desperately short of resources. After his defeat at Dyrrachium Alexius had to resort to seizure of church wealth to raise another army. Bohemond, left in charge by his father, prosecuted a skillful campaign. The Normans continued to be a strong fighting force, but their two victories over Alexius were inconclusive, as was his sole victory over them. In the end, shortages of money and men were more acute on the Norman side than on the Greek, but it was a close-run affair. It is remarkable that the Normans of South Italy could sustain such an effort at all in the circumstances. Certainly the campaign made Bohemond’s name as a soldier.

The campaigns of William the Conqueror and Robert Guiscard were, however, somewhat unusual for the ferocity with which they were fought and the readiness of both sides to resort to battle. When the Conqueror died in 1087 he divided his land between his sons. Robert Curthose held Normandy and William II ‘Rufus’ became king of England. The third son, Henry, was given money which he used to found a lordship in the Cotentin. These dispositions were soon challenged by the brothers, each of whom hoped to gain the whole inheritance of his father. When Rufus died in a hunting accident in 1099 the youngest brother, Henry, took up the challenge with ultimate success, for he seized the English throne and then Normandy with the victory of Tinchebrai in 1106. In nearly twenty years of war Tinchebrai was the only major battle. In the first stage of the conflict, Odo of Bayeux conspired with many of the nobility of England against the king, and Robert Curthose sent Robert of Bellême and Eustace of Boulogne who seized Pevensey and Rochester. However, he failed to raise an expedition to support them and the plot fizzled out. In the next phase, William, with his far greater resources, set about seducing the duke’s vassals and thereby securing castles as bases. It was in eastern Normandy north of the Seine that William concentrated his efforts from 1089 onwards, building a strong position. Robert’s counter-offensive was supported by King Philip of France who, however, allowed himself to be bought off by William. In November 1090, the English king was able to take advantage of factional struggles in Rouen and all but seized the city. It was not until 1091 that William came in person to the scene of this desultory fighting and raiding, which were brought to an end in February 1091 by a peace between the warring brothers. This gave William a strong position in Normandy, in part at the expense of Henry’s lands in the Cotentin and inaugurated a period of rapprochement during which the two brothers tried to impose order in Normandy. By 1093, however, the two brothers were again at war and the following year William led a strong army into Normandy. This time Robert waged quite a successful campaign against William and his allies, seizing important castles and threatening his long-established hold on eastern Normandy, until Philip of France was once again bought off with English bribes. It was probably in anticipation of this campaign that in 1093 William met Robert II of Flanders and concluded a treaty under which the count of Flanders undertook to supply mercenaries to the English king. In the end, the English campaign came to a halt when Robert Curthose took the cross. Abbot Jarento of St Bénigne, the papal legate, then negotiated an arrangement whereby Robert pawned the duchy to William for three years for the sum of 10,000 marks. This freed Robert Curthose to join the crusade and provided finances for him.