The Pirate War, 1402–1404 Part III

The Percies’ resentment of the Nevilles’ growing status in the north was aggravated by their precarious financial position. They had personally borne much of the heavy burden of funding the defence of the Scottish and Welsh marches. Henry IV was tardy in repaying them, the result of his own acute financial problems. In July 1401 Hotspur reckoned that the arrears owed to him and his father had reached £5,000. Two years later they had risen fourfold to £20,000. The Percies were immensely rich, but cash was scarce and their lack of it demeaned them in the face of their followers. As the Earl wrote to Henry in June 1403, unless his fees and expenses were paid ‘the chivalry of your realm will be discredited in these parts and I and my son, who are your loyal lieges, will be dishonoured’. It did not help that the Percies’ tallies from the Exchequer were frequently dishonoured, whereas their Neville rival had so far experienced no difficulty in getting his own tallies paid. After the victory at Humbleton Hill, Northumberland and Hotspur and their followers had been covered in praise and honour but little if anything had been done to clear their arrears and their hopes of rich war profits had been dashed by Henry’s refusal to let them ransom the more valuable prisoners. Hotspur refused to comply with the King’s order to surrender the Earl of Douglas to him, an issue which was still unresolved. Medieval government was based on a combination of sentiment and bluff. The mental barrier to rebellion had been weakened by the events of 1399. One coup d’état by its nature encourages another. The Percies resolved to seize their chance to control the power of the Crown in their own interest.

In about April 1403 Hotspur assembled the Percy tenants and retainers and invaded Teviotdale in Lothian, one of the domains of the Earl of Douglas which had been granted to him by Henry IV after the battle of Humbleton Hill. He laid siege to Cocklaws castle at Ormiston, near Hawick. In May the defenders of this place agreed to surrender it on 1 August unless it was relieved before then by King Robert or the Duke of Albany. There are many odd features of this campaign. There is good reason to think that it was a charade plotted between the Percies and the Earl of Douglas to cover the assembly of a large army without arousing suspicion. Cocklaws was an insignificant stone peel defended by a small garrison. Indeed the Duke of Albany had some difficulty in persuading the general council of Scotland that it was worth relieving. Hotspur also brought Douglas himself on the campaign, although it was ostensibly directed against his domains, and allowed him to recruit troops among his followers in the region. It seems likely that the two men had done a deal by which Douglas traded his liberty for his military and political support against Henry IV. Hotspur had other supporters too. He had obtained sealed letters from prominent English lords, which the chronicler John Hardyng claimed to have seen, pledging their support for a rebellion to overthrow the King.

While the Percies were in Scotland they opened negotiations with Owen Glendower using one of Hotspur’s Welsh squires as a go-between. In July Glendower embarked on an offensive in Carmarthenshire which was probably concerted with Hotspur. The Welsh of the region rose in a body and thousands came to join him. At Llandovery, the nationalist leader mustered 8,240 men, the largest army that he would ever command. They captured Newcastle Emlyn and the royal castle at Carmarthen, one of the oldest English towns in Wales and the administrative centre of the south-west. English officials in Wales despaired. From the walls of Brecon castle one of them reported that the ‘whole Welsh nation’ was in arms. The border counties were gripped with panic. Writing to the King on 8 July the archdeacon of Hereford begged him to come in person to rescue the situation. ‘For God’s love, my liege lord, thinketh on yourself and your estate or by my trouth all is lost else.’ In fact the alarm was probably overdone. Glendower lost 600 of his men in an ambush and was forced to abandon Carmarthen. Shortly afterwards Brecon castle was relieved by a force sent from Herefordshire. Henry IV declined to intervene. He was on his way north. Suspicious perhaps of what was going on in the north, he had evidently decided to take control over Hotspur’s campaign in Scotland and apparently proposed to join him outside Cocklaws. The King had reached Nottingham when he learned that the Percies had risen in rebellion.

Hotspur had withdrawn from Cocklaws into Northumberland with his army. From here he marched on Chester, his old headquarters, accompanied by a handful of men, no more than 200 according to one account, including the Earl of Douglas and a company of his followers. Hotspur had acquired a large following in Cheshire and north Wales during the Welsh rising. He counted on being able to raise a new army there. He had apparently agreed to join Glendower on the banks of the Severn near Shrewsbury. His father would follow, bringing with him the army of Cocklaws and whatever additional troops could be raised among the Percy tenants and followers in Northumberland and Yorkshire. The sixteen-year-old Prince of Wales had recently been appointed as the King’s lieutenant in Wales. He had established his headquarters at Shrewsbury. The third Percy, Northumberland’s brother Thomas Earl of Worcester, was with him there. He was the Prince’s guardian and tutor and a highly influential figure in the counsels of the King. They had a small army under their command, about 600 men-at-arms and rather more than 3,000 archers who had been recruited in the Welsh marches for service against Glendower. When the news arrived of Hotspur’s approach, Worcester made off to join him at Chester. About a third of the army at Shrewsbury defected and went with him.

On 10 July 1403 Hotspur raised his flag at Chester. From here he published two manifestos. One was directed to potential supporters in England and was sent to them in sealed letters. In this document Hotspur presented himself as a reformer. He was acting, he said, in the public interest in order to reform the government, install wise and loyal councillors and stop the frivolous waste of tax revenues by Henry’s officials. The other was addressed to Hotspur’s own army and the military community of Cheshire, who had been Richard II’s most powerful and consistent supporters in his lifetime. To them he presented himself as a revolutionary. He announced that Richard II was alive and was with his father in the north-east. They were raising an army there which would shortly join him to challenge the usurpation of ‘Henry of Lancaster’. Hotspur knew well enough that Richard was dead. The real object, as he admitted to his intimates, was to put the eleven-year-old Edmund Mortimer Earl of March on the throne. The young Earl had the aura of legitimacy in England as the descendant of the senior surviving line of Edward III. He also had a strong appeal for Hotspur’s Welsh allies. His family were major landowners in Wales but unlike other marcher lords had intermarried with the native princely families. The Earl’s uncle, Edmund Mortimer, had become the partisan and son-in-law of Glendower. In a short time Hotspur raised a large army from the men of Chester and north Wales. Contemporary estimates gave him 14,000 men. The figure is certainly exaggerated but Hotspur probably had the largest army currently in the field. They included many of the surviving members of Richard II’s Cheshire guard, office-holders of the late King who had been excluded from favour after his deposition and many others who had lost out in the tumults of the past two decades.

Hotspur’s creation of an army from nothing was a tribute to his skill as a soldier and propagandist and to his famously affable personality. But from the moment that he had done it things began to go wrong. The Earl of Northumberland’s efforts in the north-east took longer than expected. Left to his own devices Hotspur decided to advance against the Prince at Shrewsbury without waiting for his father. His plan was probably to defeat the Prince before Henry IV could reach him with reinforcements, and then join forces with Owen Glendower to confront the King. The movements of the Welsh leader at this point are particularly obscure but according to one report a large body of Welsh wearing Richard II’s insignia on their tunics was making for Lichfield as if to head off the King. Henry IV reached Burton on Trent on about 16 July 1403 and for the first time sized up the rebellion. He summoned men from all the counties of the Midlands to join him on the road. But George Dunbar, who was with him, urged him not to wait for them but to make straight for Shrewsbury with only the men he had about him. They could deal with the Welsh later.

The King reached Shrewsbury on 20 July 1403, just before Hotspur, and joined forces with his son. On the following morning they drew up their combined army in battle array and advanced against the rebels, who were encamped about three miles north of them by the village now known as Battlefield. Hotspur and his men were taken by surprise. There was a brief pause while both sides tried to negotiate. But Henry and Dunbar were determined to fight before Hotspur had time to recover and array his forces. They cut the talking short and attacked. It was a bloody fight between two English armies with similar tactics and weapons. Both sides suffered heavy casualties from the opening volleys of the bowmen. The Prince was severely injured by an arrow in the face which penetrated six inches into his head. Thirty-six knights of the King’s personal retinue were killed around him. The royalists initially fell back. Some of them broke ranks and fled the field. Hoping to seize the advantage of the moment, Hotspur and Douglas gathered their men and charged what they thought was the King’s standard. But Henry IV had two doubles in the host and was quickly removed from danger by his companions. The charge was brought to a halt and Hotspur and Douglas found themselves trapped in the midst of the enemy army. ‘Henry Percy King’, some of his men cried. But at that moment Hotspur was struck and fell to the ground. Henry shouted out that Hotspur was dead. The cry was taken up and passed through the ranks on both sides. The rebel army began to melt away. Douglas, a huge man clearly visible across the battlefield, struck left and right about him and was one of the last to be captured. Wounded in the genitals, he became a prisoner for the second time in a year. All the surviving rebel leaders were captured. On the following morning 1,847 dead were counted on the field. Another 3,000 corpses had fallen in the pursuit, their bodies scattered over a distance of three miles from the site of the battle. The body of Hotspur was pulled out of the mass of corpses and put on display. The Earl of Worcester was taken to see it and broke down and wept. On the next day he was summarily condemned for treason and beheaded together with two of Hotspur’s Cheshire lieutenants.

A week after the battle the Duke of Albany appeared with a large Scottish army outside Cocklaws, thus releasing the garrison from their undertaking to surrender. In England what remained of the rebel cause quickly collapsed. The Earl of Northumberland’s efforts ended in fiasco. The army that he had commanded in Scotland consisted mainly of borderers from Northumberland, many of whom would not fight against the King. The Earl had found more recruits in Yorkshire, the real heartland of his family. But the mustering arrangements were confused and many of them were unable to discover where he was. Eventually the Earl collected all the men he could find and tried to join his son at Chester in time for the decisive battle. Marching south, he found his route blocked by a loyalist force under his arch-rival the Earl of Westmorland. He retreated to Newcastle but found the gates of the town closed in his face. The townsmen would only allow him to enter for the night with a small retinue, leaving the rest of his army outside the walls. Believing that they were about to be betrayed, the men mutinied. Next day the Earl abandoned the fight and fled to the Percy castle at Warkworth.

At the beginning of August 1403 the Earl of Northumberland came before the King at Pontefract, the great fortress of the dukes of Lancaster in Yorkshire where Richard II had been murdered. The Earl, who was in his sixty-second year, was a broken man. He submitted to the King and promised to surrender all his castles in the north of England in return for his life and ‘sufficient’ honour. Henry stripped him of all his offices and held him under guard while his council considered what to do with him. But his fortresses continued to hold out for several months even when presented with written orders to surrender under the Earl’s seal. Henry’s officers were obliged to engage in patient negotiations with the garrisons of the great Percy strongholds at Alnwick and Warkworth and a number of smaller castles including Cockermouth, where most of the Scottish prisoners of Humbleton Hill were being held. At Berwick, which was a royal fortress but held by a Percy garrison, the captain, Sir William Clifford, set out his demands in impudent detail. They reflected a characteristic mixture of self-interest and Percy loyalism: a pardon for Clifford and his men; the garrison to be paid its arrears; the Percy domains to be preserved for the benefit of Hotspur’s nine-year-old son Henry; and Clifford himself to have custody of both Berwick and the young Henry. These issues were not resolved until the following year.

When at the end of the battle Henry IV had sent to the veteran Lancastrian magnate Sir John Stanley for his advice on how to treat the defeated army Stanley, who had been wounded by an arrow in the neck, is said to have replied, ‘rattelynge in the throte’, ‘Burn and slay! Burn and slay!’ Yet when it came to it the King’s vengeance was brief and muted. The heads of Hotspur and Thomas Percy were taken to London and impaled above the gatehouse of London Bridge. Their lands were confiscated and part of them used to endow the real hero of the battle, George Dunbar, who had proved himself to be Henry’s ablest commander in the short time since his flight from Scotland. Most of the rebel dead forfeited their property and the county of Cheshire was fined 3,000 marks plus an extra 300 marks on the city of Chester. Apart from the two defeated captains at Shrewsbury, a handful of ringleaders and a hermit who had preached in favour of the pseudo-Richard at York were executed. But most of the rebels received a royal pardon. They included the Earl of Northumberland, the greatest of them all, who was eventually pardoned at the request of the Parliamentary Commons. He was restored to his domains and left in control of all his fortresses in the north, some of which were still holding out against the King’s forces. The Commons declared that they regarded the Earl’s conduct as treasonable. But they remembered his valiant service against the Scots and were plainly frightened by the thought that the north might be lost. Henry IV could afford to be magnanimous. As the events of the following years would show, the power of the Percies was broken for a generation.


On 14 October 1403 the Duke of Orléans addressed his last epistle to the English King, this time addressing him as ‘Henry of Lancaster’. It was a rambling, eccentric and self-indulgent document in which Louis proclaimed himself the champion of his insulted niece Isabelle of France and of all of French womanhood. ‘If I have loved them and they have loved me,’ he added, ‘then the stock of love has risen and I am grateful and glad of it.’ He formally defied Henry IV, repudiating whatever bonds might once have existed between them, and declared his intention of attacking England as soon as an opportunity arose. Louis’ previous letters to Henry IV had been couched as declarations of private war in the belief that this would not engage the responsibility of the French state or involve the repudiation of the truce. But by now the pretence this was a purely personal vendetta was wearing thin. As the English Chancellor told Parliament the following January, Louis’ letters were ‘a great outrage, a disgrace to our lord the King and a shame and offence to the whole realm’. In spite of its highly personal and undiplomatic tone, the latest letter was clearly conceived by its author as a public act. He directed the clerk of the Parlement of Paris to register it among the royal ordinances. The clerk was surprised and indignant. ‘Prolix, windy and devoid of judgment or consequence’, he wrote in the margin of the register, ‘and why now?’

If the clerk had known more about what was happening in the French King’s council he could have answered his own question ‘why now?’ Louis of Orléans left for his domains on the Loire in mid-October 1403 and passed the rest of the year in the Rhône valley negotiating with Benedict XIII and preparing his campaign in northern Italy. But in Paris the King’s councillors were actively engaged in planning the double campaign against Gascony and Calais intended for the following spring. In Brittany and the Channel ports, ships were being requisitioned and armed for war. One of Louis of Orléans’ chamberlains, Charles de Savoisy, was on his way to Castile to hire more. Meanwhile the French suspended all diplomatic contacts with England. When the English ambassadors arrived in Calais in November 1403 for talks with the representatives of France and Flanders they found that there was no one to talk to. They tried to make contact with the French delegation but their letters were left unanswered for weeks. Discussion with the Four Members about a separate treaty with Flanders were taken over by the Duke of Burgundy and buried.

The French were generally ill-informed about English domestic politics but they did take notice of the Percy rebellion. The brief civil war opened their eyes to the vulnerability of Henry IV’s government at home and the significance of the Welsh rebellion. The French government had employed Welsh mercenaries for many years but they knew very little about Wales. The country was far away and even less accessible than Scotland. So far they had taken little interest in Owen Glendower. But this was about to change. In August 1403 a small squadron of ships sailed from France to make contact with the Welsh leader. The absence of any trace of this expedition in the French records suggests that it may have been a private enterprise of its captain, a knight called Jean d’Espagne, who in spite of his name was apparently a Breton. Towards the end of the month he reached south Wales and landed a company of at least 200 French and Breton soldiers. At the beginning of October the constable of the Lancastrian castle at Kidwelly on the Carmarthenshire coast recorded their arrival and reported that they had joined forces with Henry Don, one of the leaders of the rebellion in south Wales. They had already destroyed the extensive unwalled suburbs of Kidwelly and forced an entry into the borough below the castle.

The French arrived in Wales at a low point of English fortunes there. Henry IV had recently been in Carmarthenshire but had been forced by want of funds to withdraw from the country less than a fortnight after entering it. The castles on which the English depended to hold down the country and defend their colonies were in a bad state. The garrison of Carmarthen, the largest in Wales, was unpaid and refusing to serve beyond the term of its indentures. Other important garrisons were poorly supplied and seriously below strength. Caernarvon, on the Menai Strait, the centre of English administration in north-west Wales, was supposed to be defended by at least a hundred men but had fewer than forty. Harlech, which been under loose siege for several months, was defended by just five Englishmen and sixteen Welsh. Aberystwyth, also under siege, was reported to be on the verge of surrender for want of money, stores and men. These immense fortresses, masterpieces of military architecture constructed by the engineers of Edward I at the end of the thirteenth century, were designed to be defended by relatively small numbers of men on the assumption that they could be rapidly reinforced and resupplied by sea in emergencies. This calculation was rudely disturbed by the appearance of Jean d’Espagne’s squadron with its complement of soldiers. At the beginning of November 1403 he re-embarked his men and sailed north to the Menai Strait to support the Welsh siege of Caernarvon.

Henry IV’s response to the growing threat from France was constrained by his penury and his weak political position. His first instinct was to turn to privateers. On 26 August 1403 the King wrote to the bailiffs of all the leading privateering ports declaring that the Bretons, whom he had previously regarded as friends, were now to be treated as hostile and attacked wherever they could be found. In the following weeks a large fleet of armed privateers was assembled in the West Country ports: Bristol, Saltash, Fowey, Plymouth and Dartmouth. Their leaders were three prominent businessmen, John Hawley the elder, William Wilford of Exeter and Thomas Norton, reputed to be the richest merchant in Bristol. In about the middle of October they sailed against Brittany. In the course of this prodigiously destructive cruise the English captured ten ships off Finistère and another thirty which were found sheltering at Belle-Île laden with wine from La Rochelle. The crews were massacred, some of the ships sunk and the rest taken back to England with their cargoes. Many more were caught and sunk as they fled along the coast. At least eight of the captured ships were Castilian freighters carrying cargoes belonging to neutral merchants whose claims were to be a bone of contention between the Crown and the western seamen for years. Heading back with their spoil, the English completed their campaign with a series of attacks on coastal settlements in Finistère. They landed at Penmarch, burning the town and penetrating fifteen miles inland to destroy villages and manors. The famous victualling station at Saint-Matthieu a few miles north was destroyed. The garrison of Brest came out to challenge the invaders, supported by a large number of Bretons recruited inland, but were driven off with heavy casualties.

The English King was usually well-informed about what the French were doing. Ships were sent out to report on concentrations of shipping in French ports. The German Emperor’s ambassadors told him about Louis of Orléans’ efforts to recruit mercenaries in Germany and gave him a copy of one of his letters. At least one well-placed English spy reported regularly from Paris. Everything that happened in the French royal council, the English diplomats at Leulinghem unwisely boasted to their French opposite numbers, was at once reported to them. It was from this source that Henry’s council learned, probably in October 1403, about fresh operations at sea planned by the Count of Saint‑Pol.

Waleran Count of Saint-Pol was the leading territorial magnate of Picardy and the captain of the permanent French army which was stationed in a great arc from Gravelines to Boulogne to contain the English garrisons of Calais. He was a man with a past to live down. As a young prisoner of war in England in the 1370s he had married Richard II’s half-sister and done homage to the English King for his French domains. In 1379 he had been involved in an abortive attempt to put English garrisons into a number of castles in Picardy and Vermandois. Returning to France on the accession of Charles VI in 1380 he received a royal pardon, but many felt that he was lucky not to have been executed. In 1403 Saint-Pol instituted a blockade of Calais. He stopped overland traffic to the town through Picardy and Flanders, forbade French merchants to have any dealings there and ordered English ones to be arrested on the roads. He also sponsored privateering operations against English shipping in the Channel from the Flemish port of Gravelines in conjunction with professional corsairs from Flanders and Scotland. By October his ambitions had grown larger. He established a base at Le Crotoy at the mouth of the Somme. Here he recruited ships and seamen, mainly from Brittany, and soldiers from Picardy and Flanders, and laid in stores for a long campaign against coastal settlements in England. Shortly afterwards, finding that he had not enough ships, he moved his base to the great centre of French privateering at Harfleur in the estuary of the Seine, where he was able to increase his fleet to about 200 vessels.

On 9 November 1403, taking a leaf out of Louis of Orléans’ book, Saint-Pol wrote a letter of defiance to Henry IV in which he declared his intention of attacking England. He claimed that as Richard II’s kinsman and former ally he had a personal vendetta against the man who had murdered and supplanted him. By portraying his venture in this way Saint-Pol no doubt hoped to enable the French government to disclaim responsibility when the English complained, as they inevitably did. Henry IV regarded Saint-Pol’s venture as a serious threat. He was not deceived by his profession to be acting on his own initiative. The English ambassadors at Calais wrote a long protest to Philip of Burgundy. They found it hard to believe, they declared with self-conscious irony, that these things had been authorised by the King of France or his council and least of all by those such as Philip himself who had personally sworn to observe the truce in 1396.

The Pirate War, 1402–1404 Part IV

In England lessons were being learned from the debacle at Plymouth. During October, as reports came in from Calais of Saint-Pol’s activities, coast-guards were mobilised in the maritime counties, regional commanders assigned to them and beacons prepared on cliff-tops for the first time in more than two decades. Two new admirals were appointed, the King’s half-brother Sir Thomas Beaufort for the east coast and Sir Thomas Berkeley for the south and west. Berkeley, who bore the brunt of the defence against Saint-Pol’s fleet, was a flamboyant soldier, a munificent patron of fighting men, and an enthusiast for the war at sea who had once commissioned his own war barge. He knew how to work with professional seamen and forged a strong relationship with Harry Pay, the notorious corsair of Poole. Berkeley proved to be one of the more effective sea commanders of the age. Over the winter of 1403–4 some 260 requisitioned merchantmen were put at his disposal. About a third of these were concentrated at Dartmouth to confront Saint-Pol at sea while the rest were assigned to the defence of individual harbours.

At the beginning of November 1403 Saint-Pol sailed from Harfleur. He did not make straight for England as he had been expected to do. Instead he took his fleet south across the Bay of Biscay and into the Gironde. There he blockaded the city of Bordeaux, while on land French troops attempted to choke off the flow of goods reaching Bordeaux through the river valleys. Further south the Count of Armagnac was reported to be raising money and troops to invade the valley of the Adour towards Bayonne. These concerted operations, together with the concurrent blockade of Calais, were conceived as a softening-up exercise for the campaign planned for the following spring. They were designed to force England’s three major coastal strongholds in France to run down their food stocks in advance of a French siege. Leaving most of his ships in the Gironde, Saint-Pol returned to Harfleur at about the end of the month. From here on 4 December he sailed for England with twenty-nine large armed barges carrying 1,500 men-at-arms in addition to their crews and some companies of crossbowmen. After two days at sea they arrived off the Hampshire coast on 6 December. Their objective was probably Southampton. But they were unable to penetrate the Solent because a large naval force was concentrated there waiting to escort the annual wine fleet to Bordeaux. So the French landed instead on the Isle of Wight. Several of Saint-Pol’s companions were dubbed as knights as they disembarked and gathered on the foreshore. But they found no one to do battle with. The inhabitants had abandoned their homes and fled to the security of Carisbrook castle or hidden in the densely wooded interior of the island. The invaders began to burn the villages of the coast and round up cattle. Eventually a priest came before them to discuss a ransom treaty. But the negotiations dragged on. By 9 December, before they were complete, the English had managed to collect enough troops for a counter-attack. Saint-Pol drew up his men in battle array. But as Berkeley’s ships began to appear off the coast, threatening his line of retreat, he thought better of it. Hastily abandoning his spoil Saint-Pol re-embarked his men.

For the next three weeks the whereabouts of Saint-Pol’s fleet was unknown. The English King’s ministers believed that a large army was waiting somewhere on the French coast in preparation for a fresh landing on a much larger scale. They sent six ships to scour the ocean for sightings and a spy to listen out for gossip in France, all without success. In the English counties the old Ricardian loyalists were stirred by the spectacle of a government in disarray and by the usual heady mix of rumour, garbled reports and fantasy. Maud de Vere Countess of Oxford, the widow of Richard II’s favourite of the 1380s, was convinced that Saint-Pol would land with an army at Harwich at the end of December and that he would be accompanied by the Duke of Orléans and Queen Isabelle. At her manor at Bentley in Suffolk she and her friends and household, according to the prosecution at her subsequent trial, were making ready to destroy the warning beacons set up on the coast and guide the invaders to Northampton where they were expected to join with the forces of the pseudo-Richard II.

A few days before Christmas 1403 a great council met at Westminster to take stock of the crisis. The assembly had been planned as a show of unity in the face of what seemed to be a concerted French attempt to provoke fresh rebellions in England and Wales. All of the peers and prelates present renewed their oaths of fealty to Henry IV and his descendants. They swore to ‘live and die with him against all persons in the world’. A group of French heralds, who were at Westminster on diplomatic business, were invited to attend as observers. A few days later, on 28 December, the King’s permanent councillors met in the London mansion of the Countess of Salisbury to review the defences of southern England. They called on a group of experienced shipmasters to advise them. The meeting decided to reinforce Berkeley’s fleet and man it with double crews so that they could operate in shifts. A smaller squadron was to be sent south to Guernsey to seek out Saint-Pol’s fleet in the inlets of Brittany. Ultimately Berkeley was expected to have 1,000 men-at-arms, 2,100 archers and 5,000 seamen under his command.

In fact, although the council did not know it, the danger had already passed. Baulked of their spoil on the Isle of Wight, Saint-Pol’s ships had looted their way down the coast of Normandy before stopping to winter at Barfleur. His commercial backers had wasted the money that they had invested in victuals and equipment and had taken hardly any spoil. They decided to cut their losses and abandon the venture. Saint-Pol himself was received with mockery and embarrassment when he appeared in Paris to join the celebrations at court over Christmas. Henry IV learned most of this in the new year. His own naval forces were temporarily stood down and a herald was sent to France with a sarcastic message expressing his disappointment that the Count had not stayed long enough in England for Henry to attend to him in person. Later, in February 1404, the Calais garrison wreaked revenge on Saint-Pol’s domains in Picardy, looting and burning them for four days before returning to Calais with so many cattle that it was necessary to build a large temporary stockade outside the walls in which to hold them. In the following month Sir Thomas Berkeley was commissioned to hold the Channel for another three months with 21 ships, 300 men-at-arms and 600 archers. The cost of these operations was prodigious. The council estimated that Berkeley’s fleet would cost nearly £15,000 over the winter. Much of this was borne in the first instance by Berkeley himself. He sold his Essex estates in order to help fund the venture.

The Count of Saint-Pol was a braggart with ample resources and strong political support but no clear idea of what he was trying to achieve apart from fame. By comparison Jean d’Espagne’s tiny force in Wales won no fame, for it was ignored by all the French chroniclers. Yet it made a significant contribution to the operations of Glendower and his captains over the winter of 1403–4. His men passed more than two months at Caernarvon, engaged in the siege of Edward I’s mighty fortress on the Menai Strait. They wasted much of Anglesey, from which Caernarvon was usually supplied. They captured the English sheriff as he was proceeding with a large armed escort on his rounds and sent him as a prisoner to Glendower. By January 1404 the garrison of Caernarvon was desperate. The Constable got a woman to carry a message through the siege lines (‘because no man dared to do it’). She reported that the French and Welsh had begun to assault the fortress with stone-throwers, wheeled shelters (or ‘sows’) and extensible ladders. The Welsh never took Caernarvon, even with French help. But the garrison of Harlech finally agreed in February to sell out unless relieved within a short time limit. The circumstances of its fall are not recorded but Jean d’Espagne’s ships and troops are known to have participated in the later stages of the siege. Towards the end of April, they were taking part in an extremely destructive Welsh raid into Shropshire which was said to have wasted a third of the county and provoked large-scale emigration from the region. Shortly afterwards Sir Thomas Berkeley arrived with a fleet fitted out in Bristol. His orders were to resupply the beleaguered garrisons of north and west Wales and expel the French squadron. In this he seems to have succeeded, for nothing more is heard of Jean d’Espagne. The probability is that after maintaining itself in Wales for seven months the French expeditionary force returned home in May 1404. They brought with them to France Glendower’s chancellor, Griffin Young, and his brother-in-law, John Hanmer. They were charged to make a formal alliance between the Welsh leader and the King of France.


At New Year 1404 the French royal princes gathered in Paris at a court without a King. Charles VI had been ‘absent’ since shortly before Christmas. It was the traditional season for exchanging gifts and planning the military operations of the coming year. The full council assembled on 7 January 1404 to consider the war with England. The Duke of Orléans did not attend. Ever changeable, headstrong but easily disheartened, Louis had by now abandoned his plans to invade Italy and paid off the army that he had assembled in the Rhône valley. But he was detained in Avignon by difficult discussions with Benedict XIII and did not return to Paris until the following month. However, the critical decisions had already been agreed in the previous summer and reflected Louis’ agenda. The next major conference with the English was due to open at Leulinghem on 1 March 1404 and according to the French reckoning their commitment to observe the truce would expire three weeks later on the 20th. The council decided that it would not be renewed. As soon as it expired they planned to make war on England on several fronts. The main military operations would be the long-planned campaigns against the remaining English possessions in Calais and Gascony. But a third army was now envisaged, to be sent to Wales to support Owen Glendower. According to Henry IV’s informants the council also resolved to send embassies in search of assistance to Scotland, Milan and Brittany in addition to the embassy of Charles de Savoisy which was already active in Aragon and Castile. To pay for all this activity the new taille agreed between the princes in July was now confirmed and fixed at 800,000 livres, the largest imposition of its kind since the tax had been devised in the 1380s. It would be collected, they decreed, at the end of April. These decisions were eventually ratified by the King when he recovered his faculties towards the end of January. The taille was duly proclaimed on 30 January. The three royal dukes present swore to see it spent exclusively on the war, apart from 200,000 livres which was earmarked for the King of Navarre in return for the cession to the Crown of the fortress-port of Cherbourg. The Duke of Orléans, they declared, would in due course swear the same oath.

Reports of the proceedings at the French council meeting had already reached England when, a week later, Parliament opened at Westminster. The Chancellor’s opening address was filled with foreboding. He recited the recent events in Wales and Scotland, the rebellion of the Percies, the assumption of power by the Duke of Orléans in France, the raiding fleet assembled by the Count of Saint-Pol and the threat to Calais and Gascony. The deliberations of both houses were overshadowed by reports coming in daily of ‘enemies and rebels’. The Commons believed that at any moment a fresh rebellion might break out, forcing a dissolution of Parliament as the King and the lords were called away to deal with it. They repeated for a third time since 1399 their oaths of fealty. But any impression of unity was undermined by the Commons’ brutal attack on the King’s management of his finances. They were convinced, as so many of their predecessors had been, that if properly husbanded the customs and the revenues of the royal demesne together with the treasure left by Richard II would be enough to fund the whole cost of the war in Wales, the defence of the Scottish border, the protection of the coast against French fleets and the suppression of internal rebellion. The King, they complained, had authorised profligate expenditure on grants to favourites and ‘various ladies’ and on repaying borrowings from his Italian bankers, while his castles went unrepaired and his troops unpaid. There was some truth in the accusation that Henry’s household expenditure was extravagant and that his grants were excessive. But the Commons’ concerns were exaggerated. Their belief that the cost of defence could be met without general taxation was completely unrealistic, just as it had been when they had uttered the same complaints in the 1370s and 1380s. In the event all that they were willing to vote by way of taxation was a tax on incomes from land amounting to just £12,000, less than a third of the value of a standard Parliamentary subsidy. Moreover the proceeds were required to be paid not to the treasury but to a special commission of war treasurers answerable to the Commons. The commission, comprising a clerk and three London businessmen, was charged to disburse the money exclusively on defence. This parsimony was borne of distrust of the King’s competence and of his servants’ honesty. But it left England perilously exposed to the most significant threat from France for two decades.

It was not that the Commons were under any illusions about the reality of the threat. Much of February was passed in drawing up a great remonstrance in the name of King, Lords and Commons, addressed to the ‘prelates, peers, lords spiritual and temporal and the whole community of France’. This was a long protest against the conduct of the French over the past year: the challenges of the Duke of Orléans and the Count of Saint-Pol, the attacks on England and Bordeaux over the winter, and the suspension of diplomatic contact since the previous autumn. If the truce broke down and more Christian blood was spilled, they declared, it would be France’s doing, not England’s. The document pointed out that the English ambassadors were at Calais waiting for the conference fixed for 1 March to open, but there had been no sign of a French embassy and the English delegation’s letters were still unanswered. Were they going to attend or not? Parliament’s remonstrance was intended as a direct appeal to the French political community, an attempt to sidestep the personal animosity to Henry IV among the royal princes which had undermined four years of frustrating and inconclusive diplomacy. The task of delivering it was entrusted to the Gloucestershire knight Sir John Cheyne, who had served on the King’s council and had been four times Speaker of the Commons. His instructions were to take it to Paris and deliver it in person to the French royal council. Henry IV, perhaps unrealistically, expected great things of Cheyne’s mission. He ordered the captains of the fortresses on the march of Calais to refrain from all hostilities during the two months which it was expected to take, except for those directed against the Count of Saint-Pol personally. But the herald sent to apply for a safe-conduct was turned back by the French captain of Boulogne and the Count of Saint-Pol threatened to arrest Cheyne if he caught him. Cheyne seems to have been able to hand over the remonstrance to Jean de Hangest at Calais in June but he himself never got further than the town gates.

By the time that Hangest received the English remonstrance it had been overtaken by events. At Saint-Malo a very large privateering expedition had been fitting out since the beginning of the year. Some 150 Breton ships were concentrated in the harbour and more were being made ready in the ports of Normandy. About 2,000 men-at-arms had been recruited to embark on them in addition to their crews and some companies of crossbowmen. The captains were Jean de Penhoet and Guillaume du Châtel, the two Breton noblemen who had led the raid on Plymouth the previous August. They had the explicit approval of the royal dukes. When the French delegation failed to appear at Calais on 1 March, Henry IV and his ministers assumed the worst. It was the first time that the French had broken off diplomatic contact completely or allowed the truce of 1396 to lapse. A French landing in England was declared to be imminent. The admirals were ordered to concentrate all available ships in the Downs off the Kent coast. Men-at-arms were summoned to London from across England to board them and coast-guards were arrayed to defend the beaches.

In the second week of April 1404 the Breton and Norman fleets put to sea and joined forces in the Channel before making for the Devon coast. They met with no resistance at sea. But the ships were sighted and the coast-guards were ready for them. On 15 April the French landed at Blackpool Sands, about two miles from Dartmouth. They found that a long line of trenches had been dug along the escarpment behind the beach. A large force of armed men was gathered behind them. Guillaume du Châtel landed with the first companies of men-at-arms. His instinct was to wait for his crossbowmen and the rest of the men-at-arms, who were still disembarking from the ships, and then to try to take the defenders by the flank. But he was talked out of this cautious tactic by his companions. Instead it was decided to mount a frontal assault on the defenders from the beach. It was an act of courageous folly. The men advanced into a hail of arrows, suffering heavy losses. Those who penetrated to the trenches were killed in large numbers as they tried to fight their way across. Many of their companions were drowned as they tried to wade ashore from the ships in full armour to join the mêlée. Others were massacred by furious local levies with no conception of the value of a man-at-arms taken alive. About 500 French died including Guillaume du Châtel himself. When it was all over a large part of the French force, including Jean de Penhoet, was still on board the ships. Seeing the fate of their companions, they turned about and made for home. Twenty knights and three lords were taken alive in addition to a large number of men of lesser rank. They included a Scottish knight, Sir James Douglas of Dalkeith, an unnamed Welsh squire and two of Guillaume du Châtel’s brothers, one of whom, Tanneguy, was destined to play a notorious part in the wars of the next generation. In due course the leading prisoners were sent under escort to London to be interrogated about future French plans. Guillaume himself was pulled out from among the dead and buried in Dartmouth Church. Some time afterwards, another brother wrote to the King from Brittany asking to be allowed to visit the place where he had fallen and to take his body home. ‘Men who get caught up in war’, he wrote, ‘may perchance be blessed by good fortune or cursed by bad, for none of us knows the inscrutable ways of the Lord.’


The Duke of Burgundy had approved the Breton expeditionary force. His retainers and servants were prominent in Guillaume du Châtel’s army and some had had their expenses paid by their master. But it was to be Philip’s last contribution to the war with England. In the spring of 1404 a severe epidemic of flu swept across northern Europe. Philip, who had left Paris early in March, was taken ill at Brussels on 16 April. He deteriorated fast. On 26 April he left for Arras in a litter, preceded by a team of sweepers to smooth the road as he passed. On the following day he died at an inn in the small town of Halle at the edge of the Flemish plain. Over the following six weeks the Duke’s embalmed remains, clothed in the habit of a Carthusian monk and encased in a lead coffin weighing a third of a ton, were carried slowly across the rough roads of north-eastern France, escorted by his sons, courtiers and servants and sixty liveried torch-bearers. On 16 June he was buried in the magnificent Carthusian monastery of Champmol outside Dijon which he had built to serve as the mausoleum of his family, in the great marble tomb surrounded by mourners in carved stone on which teams of sculptors had been working intermittently for more than two decades.

Philip of Burgundy had been born in 1342, five years after Edward III had declared war on France. His whole life had been overshadowed by the struggle with England. He had been at the forefront of France’s public life since the day, nearly half a century before, when he had been captured with his father John II on the battlefield of Poitiers. Widely regarded as France’s most experienced international statesman, he had succeeded in maintaining his grip on power for more than twenty years after the death of Charles V in 1380 by dint of sheer experience, eloquence and force of personality. Only in the last few months of his life was he displaced by a younger generation. In a number of ways Philip’s death marked a turning point. He had plundered the resources of the monarchy to create the germ of a great transnational state standing across France’s eastern and northern borders, as much German as French. He had been too close to the French court and administration, too intimate a member of the inner circle of the French royal family to perceive any difference between his own interests and those of France. His successors were inevitably more distant and objective, and in their time the divergent destinies of France and Burgundy became more obvious. A younger generation of French royal princes, of which the 32-year-old Duke of Orléans was the figurehead, was coming to power. They had not lived through the catastrophes of the mid-fourteenth century. They lacked Philip’s cautious ways, his wider grasp of European politics and his understanding of the limits of French power, and they did not share his historic respect for England.

Merlin’s Prophecy I

  The Eagle of the broken covenant …

  Shall rejoice in her third nesting.

—Geoffrey of Monmouth, “The Prophecies of Merlin”

They found the tomb deep in the earth between two stone monuments erected so long before that no one could remember what they signified or what the words inscribed upon them meant. Digging deep, as the king directed, they at last encountered a wooden sarcophagus of great size, which they carefully drew up and opened. There they discovered two sets of bones—the huge ones of a man and, at his feet, the smaller and more delicate bones of a woman. Word spread quickly. The bodies of King Arthur and his queen, Guenevere, had at last been found.

From the outset, accounts of the discovery differed. Neither of the two men who first chronicled the event—Ralph of Coggeshall and Giraldus Cambrensis—was present at the scene, although Giraldus visited soon after. A monk named Adam of Domerham wrote of the exhumation a full century later, but he seems to have drawn upon eyewitness testimony. Adam was a monk of Glastonbury, the abbey in Somerset where King Arthur’s body was discovered and where details of the marvelous find must have been told and retold long after. Their very own abbey, the “glassy isle” that in the Saxon tongue had become “Glastingeburi,” had turned out to be the legendary isle of Avalon.

Yet according to legend, Arthur—who was a special hero of the Celts—had not died at all and would someday return in messianic fashion to lead his people to victory over all their enemies. Quite probably in response to this legend, as well as to the widespread Celtic unrest that simmered along his kingdom’s borders, England’s Henry II had set out to find Arthur’s remains and settle once and for all any question of the ancient king’s return.

The result was the remarkable discovery at Glastonbury. Almost as remarkable was the fact that it was Henry who told the monks where to dig. According to Giraldus Cambrensis, the king “had heard from an ancient Welsh bard, a singer of the past, that they would find the body at least sixteen feet beneath the earth, not in a tomb of stone, but in a hollow oak.” Giraldus then goes on to describe the dramatic scene of exhumation. Opening the coffin—wooden, although Giraldus specifically calls it a hollow oak—the monks discovered the bones of a man and a woman, the man’s of remarkable size. The woman’s hair still glinted gold, but when an overeager monk reached out to touch it, the hair crumbled to dust in his hand.

There could be no doubt about the contents. Above the coffin lay a lead cross bearing the words, “Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur with Guenevere his second wife in the Isle of Avalon.”2 Rejoicing, the abbot and monks of Glastonbury bore the precious bones into their abbey church, where they placed them in a marble tomb before the high altar. There, according to John of Glastonbury’s fourteenth-century account, they remained until 1278, when King Edward I and his queen opened the tomb and confirmed its contents with their seals and an accompanying inscription.

It is of course quite possible that the monks of Glastonbury, in response to pressure from the king or simply a desire for renown (and the wealth that a flood of pilgrims would bring), had successfully passed off a couple of old skeletons as Arthur and Guenevere. Even Edward I’s seal did no more than certify that the tomb’s contents were plausible; the king had no way of knowing for sure.

Bogus or not, the news of the Glastonbury discovery created a sensation. Henry II, however, did not live long enough to be gladdened by the news, for he died in 1189, shortly before King Arthur was found. Many had already taken due note of the relevance of some of Merlin’s prophecies to current events. Henry’s death brought to pass one of Merlin’s most famous prophecies: that the eagle of the broken covenant—which the twelfth century understood to mean Henry’s queen, Eleanor—would rejoice in her third son, or nesting. The broken covenant referred to her first marriage, to France’s King Louis VII, which ended in divorce. As for rejoicing, she certainly had cause. Upon the death of Henry II, who was her second husband, their third son—Richard Lionheart—became ruler over all the vast Plantagenet realms.

Richard was the apple of his mother’s eye. Born in 1157, two years after Prince Henry and a year after the death of three-year-old William, Richard from childhood was singled out as Eleanor’s designated heir, the future ruler of Aquitaine and Poitou.

He seems to have been a handsome lad, muscular and deep-chested like his father, but tall and long-limbed, with red-gold hair and a ruddy complexion. Named for his Norman forebears, he embraced his remarkable heritage with enthusiasm, devoting himself with rigor and single-mindedness to the pursuits of war. Without question, Richard loved nothing better than a good fight. By the time he was sixteen, he was a blooded warrior, and while his older brother, Prince Henry, contented himself with tournaments, Richard seems to have been dissatisfied with anything less than the real thing. Fierce and single-minded when focused on warfare (which he generally was), he soon mastered the combatant’s skills and moved on to the commander’s, absorbing the larger lessons of siegecraft and assault, fortress-building and defense, to such remarkable effect that—as Giraldus was quick to point out—scarcely a castle could hold out against him. The roll call of fortifications that crumbled to Richard, generally in record time, constituted one of the marvels of the age.

Far narrower in his interests than his father, whose talents lay in governance as well as war (and who preferred the former), Richard seems to have been bored by administration and little intrigued by the realm of ideas. Had he been born in the tenth or even the eleventh century, he would have bathed his steps in blood and never bothered to wash for dinner. Instead, under Eleanor’s tutelage, he became something far more complex—a very model of chivalry.

Eleanor adored him.

Bernard of Clairvaux had never much liked Eleanor. The saintly monk had never liked Henry, either, but he had a particular aversion to Eleanor and her family, the house of Poitou. Although renowned for his obliviousness to the things of this world, Bernard seems to have had a sharp eye when it suited him. He understood the appeal of Cluniac art and architecture, even as he rejected it, and he just as clearly noticed and understood the appeal of Louis’ first queen. Bernard did not necessarily speak for all ecclesiastics, as the Church had never been a seamless whole, whether in the exercise of power or opinions. Even as bishop jostled bishop and Cistercian took on Cluniac, Bernard did not sit well with all higher prelates, including the powerful Abbot Suger, whom Bernard had once scolded for worldliness. Always the politician and statesman, and ever devoted to the house of Capet, Abbot Suger tried to keep Eleanor—and her vast lands—by Louis’ side. But Bernard, who had early concluded that Eleanor was a bad seed descended from evil stock, pressed Louis to free himself from her influence. At length—after Suger’s death—Louis reluctantly did as Bernard urged.

For once, although for vastly different reasons, Eleanor and Bernard were in agreement. Still, her subsequent marriage to Henry of Anjou must have confirmed whatever evil the saintly monk believed of them both. She and Henry began married life in mutual defiance of Louis, with the bright overtones of sexual as well as political triumph. The thirty-year-old countess pleased her nineteen-year-old husband, and just as important, he pleased her. Both were passionate and strong, dangerous as well as attractive to the opposite sex. Henry had the more legalistic mind, while Eleanor was the more romantic—but neither gave place to the other in intelligence or wit.

Eleanor bore this lion of a husband eight children, five during the first six years alone—something of a record given the two children she had managed to conceive during her fifteen years with Louis.6 Even more remarkably, all but one of this strong brood survived infancy. Between them, she and Henry founded a dynasty.

In December 1166 or early 1167, at the age of forty-five, Eleanor gave birth to her last child, John. Henry had by this time taken firm hold of his empire, consolidating control over England and his extensive Continental domains—stretching from Normandy and Anjou down through Poitou and Aquitaine—as well as extending Plantagenet authority over Brittany. He also managed to put down rebellions in Wales, while preparing to bring Ireland and Scotland into the fold. It was an enormous undertaking, and Henry held his far-flung territories together by sheer tenacity; he was constantly in the saddle as he rode the considerable length of his strung-out domains.

Given Henry’s constant wars and travels, he and Eleanor had never seen much of one another—although the time they did spend together appeared to be productive, as Eleanor conceived little Plantagenets with remarkable regularity. Yet by the late 1160s, Eleanor’s childbearing years had come to a close. She had lived up to and even exceeded all expectations for a medieval queen, for Henry certainly required no more sons. The larger question, in fact, appeared to be how best to provide for them all.

Henry’s solution emerged early in 1169, at Montmirail, where he announced his intention of dividing his realm. His eldest, Prince Henry, who was heir to England, would receive his father’s own inheritance. In recognition of this, the young prince now did homage to Louis VII for Normandy and Anjou—his father’s lands, but subject to the French crown. Richard, as expected, bent the knee for Eleanor’s vast lands in southwestern France, while Geoffrey, the third living son, paid homage to Prince Henry—and through him, to the French king—for the English king’s recent conquest, Brittany. These youngsters—aged thirteen, eleven, and ten, respectively—now held the titles to go with their expected inheritances. The following year, Henry even had his eldest son crowned king. This was not an unusual procedure, as the Capetians and others had been doing it for years to secure the succession. The problem lay in the homage that these heirs of Henry II had now paid to Henry’s hereditary rival, Louis VII of France.

Exacerbating this potentially explosive situation was the inevitable question of when Henry’s sons would receive the lands, revenues, and responsibilities to go with their titles. To Henry, the answer was obvious: upon his own death. Yet in the following years, as the boys grew to manhood, they became restless under the restrictions their father imposed. Even Richard, who as duke and count of his mother’s lands had considerably more independence than the rest, was held on a tight leash. But it was Henry’s oldest, the duly crowned young king, who chafed the most, for by 1173 he was eighteen years old and a married man. To his mind, his father was treating him like a child.

Henry the Younger (or the Young King), as this young man was known, was the handsomest of all the Plantagenet brood, a striking fellow with an engaging manner and easy ways. A spendthrift and something of a dandy, he was surrounded by friends and hangers-on who urged him to claim what was rightfully his.9 After all, hadn’t his father received Normandy from his father, in fact as well as in name, when he was still in his teens? Marriage to Princess Marguerite of France only worsened the situation.

This remarkable union had taken place many years earlier, after Louis VII’s second wife most disappointingly gave birth to yet another daughter. Contemplating the English king’s growing brood of male children, Louis set pride aside and—looking to the future—proposed a marriage alliance with his erstwhile rival. If a Capetian son did not seem destined to rule over France, then perhaps a grandson could rule over France as well as the vast Plantagenet realms. Sweetening the deal, Louis offered an especially strategic piece of property between French and English crown lands called the Norman Vexin, which he had extracted from the Plantagenets some years before. The outcome was the betrothal of baby Marguerite to three-year-old Prince Henry, with the all-important Norman Vexin as her dowry. Marguerite, aged six months, went to be raised in the court of her future husband, as was the custom, while Louis sat back, prepared to retain control over the entire Vexin until Marguerite and her young prince reached marriageable age.

He failed to appreciate the wiliness of the elder Henry, who quickly outmaneuvered him, marrying off the youngsters—by now two and five years old, respectively—and reeling in the Norman Vexin before Louis could sit up and take notice. It was a brazen move, made possible only because a pope in dire need of Henry’s support was willing to overlook the extreme youth of the bride and groom and cast his blessing on the marriage. Louis himself, thoroughly preoccupied in the tumult surrounding the unexpected death of his second wife (while giving birth to yet another girl) and his almost-immediate remarriage to Adele of Champagne, did not catch what Henry was about until it was too late.

King Henry II of England had thus most grievously jeopardized relations with his Continental overlord, the king of France, on the heels of yet other causes for hostility (a tedious list for the reader, but not for the French king). It was hardly surprising that Louis’ animosity now grew increasingly open, as his marriage to Adele of Champagne so clearly signaled. Certainly neither Adele nor her brothers—the powerful Theobald of Blois and Henry of Champagne—were friends of the Plantagenets.

More than this, in the year 1165, Adele at long last presented Louis with a son.

It was a sweltering August night, and twenty-year-old Giraldus Cambrensis—drawn to Paris like other young students of his time—had retired from the heat to his room in the Cité. A zealous student (by his own account), he had remained up studying until well past midnight. At last, thoroughly exhausted, he collapsed upon his bed. But no sooner had he fallen into slumber than a great commotion of clanging bells awakened him. Fearful that a great fire had broken out, he dived toward his window and leaned out. The city was ablaze with bonfires, and people rushed westward toward the king’s palace, lighting the narrow streets with torches as they went.

“What is it?” he cried out as two old crones hastened by.

Recognizing from his accent that he was English, the one called out, “This night a boy is born to us, who by the blessing of God shall assuredly be a hammer to your King!”

At long last, at the age of forty-five, Louis VII had fathered a son. They named him Philip, but they called him Dieudonné (God-given), for God had finally answered their prayers. Bolstered by the event, Louis seems to have developed more sprightliness. He now took it upon himself to stir up flames of rebellion wherever they appeared within his rival’s vast empire, whether in Wales or Scotland, Aquitaine or Brittany. Most particularly, he offered asylum to Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, who had recently evolved from the English king’s closest friend into his bitterest enemy. Henry countered by marrying off his eldest daughter, Matilda, to the powerful Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony, and threatened to join with the German emperor in supporting a rival pope. It was at this moment that Louis decided to raid the Norman Vexin. Henry replied with a brilliant sack of Louis’ heavily fortified arsenal on the French side of the border, at Chaumont-sur-Epte. Louis in turn sacked the nearby town of Andely.

Thirty years later, Richard Lionheart would choose Andely as the site on which to build his magnificent castle, Château-Gaillard. But for now, Henry and Louis called a truce. This was the occasion that brought Henry and his three eldest sons to Montmirail in early 1169. And this was the place where Henry proposed to divide his realm, while Louis agreed to betroth the youngest of his four daughters, a princess by the name of Alais, to young Richard. Just as her older sister had brought the invaluable Vexin to Henry as her dowry, Alais promised to bring portions of the equally significant borderland of Berry into Henry’s hands. Louis, in turn, received homage from Henry and his sons, plus the promise of eventual joint Capetian-Plantagenet rule over the greater part of Henry’s realms. Both sides had reason to be pleased.

Yet Louis had reason to be wary as well. Becket, whose case figured large at Montmirail, warned the French king that Henry was not to be trusted, and Henry’s subsequent actions only heightened Louis’ concerns. Once again, the rivalry between the king of England and the king of France exploded into war, only this time—the year was 1173—there was an astonishing difference.

This time, in an amazing turn of events, Henry’s queen, as well as his three oldest sons, allied with Eleanor’s former husband, the king of France.

Sometime during the late 1160s and early 1170s, the dazzle faded and the remarkable marriage between Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II took a dismal turn. Eleanor left Henry and established herself at her court of Poitiers. Henry’s biographer, W. L. Warren, concludes that Eleanor was aggrieved because her marriage to Henry had brought “neither the power nor the influence she—a duchess in her own right, and a queen before she married Henry—thought to be her due.” This possibly accounts for it, for in Poitiers, Eleanor—with her favorite son and heir by her side—proceeded to establish herself in charge of her vast and turbulent lands to a degree quite impossible had she remained with Henry. Still, the acrimony that continued to grow between Eleanor and Henry has encouraged speculation that something more was afoot. Had Eleanor been merely dissatisfied or even aggrieved with her role as Henry’s queen, her years at Poitiers, in control of her own lands and court, should have brought her a measure of peace and satisfaction. Instead, Henry now was her mortal enemy, and marriage—all marriage—was a sham. Eleanor—still strong and beautiful, still the recipient of troubadours’ sighs—was behaving like a woman scorned.

If Giraldus can be trusted, it was not Henry’s infidelity per se that sent Eleanor packing, for over the long years of her marriage, Eleanor must have known what everyone else knew. Fidelity in a husband in those times was unusual—in Louis’ case, possibly even boring—and Henry was often far from her side. His many casual liaisons would have been beneath her contempt, and for years she seems to have successfully ignored them. Yet Rosamond Clifford was different.

The shock would not have been that Henry had taken a mistress; what seems to have been unique, and devastating, was how he loved this one, treating her as if she were his queen. In the fair young daughter of Walter de Clifford, the unsophisticated offspring of a simple knight, Eleanor of Aquitaine had most unexpectedly met her match.

The affair was a long one, lasting from around 1166 to Rosamond’s death in 1177, but Eleanor probably learned of it in its first bloom, while in England to give birth to John. This would explain, at least in part, the bitterness of the estrangement that arose between her and Henry following John’s birth, including Eleanor’s subsequent departure for her own court in Poitiers. Under her guidance, Poitiers became the most brilliant court in Western Christendom, as well as a hotbed of intrigue. Here, encouraged by Eleanor, troubadours sang of romantic love, knights learned courtly chivalry, and Eleanor’s four surviving sons learned to hate their father.

It was not a difficult task. A crafty and unreadable man of sudden and violent temper, Henry demanded total loyalty and utter dependency. Giraldus says that he was a kind father during his sons’ youth and childhood, “but as they advanced in years looked on them with an evil eye, treating them worse than a stepfather.” Giraldus, who himself harbored considerable resentment of Henry, having been denied a much-coveted bishopric, nevertheless could be perceptive: “Whether it was that he would not have them prosper too fast,” he ruminated, “or whether they were ill-deserving, he could never bear to think of them as his successors.”

According to Giraldus’s contemporary, Walter Map, Henry acquired this particular trait by training as well as by instinct, for his mother, Matilda, had taught her son to “spin out all the affairs of everyone, hold long in his own hand all posts that fell in,” and “keep the aspirants to them hanging on in hope.” She supported this Machiavellian observation with the analogy of an unruly hawk: “If meat is often offered to it and then snatched away or hid, [it] becomes keener and more inclinably obedient and attentive.” Map thought this teaching offensive, but concluded that it explained Henry’s less attractive qualities. Certainly Henry, who was an avid hawker, seems to have readily taken to it, baiting his filial as well as other relationships with hunger, and holding the choicest tidbits just out of reach.

Henry Plantagenet was thus a difficult and even dangerous man. Not surprisingly, his sons showed similar promise, although on a meaner scale. Young Henry, the heir, was handsome and a general favorite but, in the end, weak and pathetic. Geoffrey was a schemer, with a talent for behind-the-throne manipulation. John, the baby, was shamelessly crooked, with neither the talent nor the interest to disguise it. Richard, Eleanor’s favorite, was also flawed. Yet of the four sons who survived infancy, Richard showed the greatest promise, and Eleanor showered her affection on him.

It should therefore have come as little surprise when the discontented older sons, aided by their bitter mother and her former husband, Louis of France, led a general uprising against Henry of England. But even before this, Eleanor had carried on her own form of rebellion in Poitiers. There she not only turned Henry’s offspring against him, but undertook to turn the scruffy, blood-soaked sons of the nobility into gentle knights in the service of love, beauty, and fair womanhood.

Merlin’s Prophecy II

Although historians now question whether Eleanor’s famed court of love ever existed, the ideals behind courtly love were unquestionably held in high esteem at the court of Poitiers. Key to the concept was a new role envisioned for women, in which the suitor became his beloved’s vassal in love, learning to please her in any way she chose—from nicer table manners and gentler speech to more sophisticated and refined methods of courtship. Rugged young knights, accustomed to rowdy camaraderie and the smell of the stables, could be persuaded to clean up and behave if such sacrifice promised something interesting in return. Under sufficiently enticing circumstances, their more courteous and chivalrous behavior might become long-term or even permanent.

Behind it all lay the assumption—reinforced by the typical marriages of the time—that marriage had little to do with love. Everyone knew that marriages were essentially political or economic mergers, moves on the great chessboard of life. From there, it was but one step to the extreme statement, made by Andreas Capellanus, that love and marriage do not mix. Andreas put these scandalous words into Eleanor’s mouth in his treatise on the art of courtly love, and although there is nothing to indicate that she ever spoke them, there also is nothing to indicate that she would have found them repugnant. Indeed, the role of women in courtly love represented but another aspect of Eleanor’s striving in the personal and political realm for independence and power.

The fashions of Poitiers spread rapidly throughout the courts of Western Europe. Yet for all of their influence, it is questionable whether they accomplished any substantive change in the relationship between the sexes. Beneath the more colorful and civilized surface they encouraged, attitudes and relationships appear to have remained pretty much the same. The troubadour warrior, Bertran de Born, who had a particular interest in inciting Henry the Younger to war against his father, enthused about the joys of seeing castles besieged and smashed. His poems extolled the sound of trumpets and the flourish of pennants, which for him were rousing reminders that the world was good. Unquestionably, it still was a man’s world, and men continued to live for war.

Henry Plantagenet may have thoroughly enjoyed discussions with men of letters, but he could not be troubled with an elaborate code of etiquette or the sophisticated lifestyle it entailed. Furthermore, the barely masked subversiveness of Eleanor’s court at Poitiers was accompanied by outright treason. With some difficulty, Henry brought the great rebellion into check, granting surprisingly lenient terms to his sons. But toward Eleanor he was not in the least magnanimous. Swiftly Henry closed down her court at Poitiers and brought the totally unrepentant queen back to England and imprisonment.

There she remained for fifteen years, until Henry’s death.

Following Henry’s victory over all his enemies, he sent Richard, now aged seventeen, to subdue the insurgency that still raged throughout Aquitaine. Richard was not yet the warrior his father was, as Henry had made abundantly clear when he roped him in at the rebellion’s end. Still, the teenager took on his military duties with enthusiasm, razing castles and cowing his unruly subjects so convincingly that he won a lasting reputation for military prowess and savagery.

Peace now extended throughout Henry’s vast realms, giving him the appearance of invincibility. His sons subdued, the French king defeated, and even the German emperor shattered by the Lombards, Henry had no real rivals either at home or abroad. With all his other troubles for the moment resolved, he now took steps to rid himself of his queen.

Henry’s grounds for divorce were solid: certainly treason would do, if consanguinity would not. Yet he had no intention of allowing Eleanor to remarry. And so Henry now seems to have sought the pope’s help in agreeing to a divorce, followed by the queen’s permanent retirement from the world as the Abbess of Fontevraud. Over the years, Fontevraud had become wealthy and fashionable, a most suitable final destination for a former queen. Even more to Henry’s purpose, Fontevraud was located on the border between Poitiers and Anjou, near his castle of Chinon. He could readily keep an eye on Eleanor there.

Yet Eleanor was not about to be bundled off to Fontevraud—not even as an alternative to imprisonment. She protested mightily, and her sons promptly took their mother’s side. Adding to the furor was the persistent rumor that Henry had plans to remarry, repudiate his ungrateful sons, and father a new and better lot. By 1177, after fair Rosamond’s death, rumor even had a name for Henry’s new choice as queen: his son Richard’s betrothed, the French princess Alais.

Alais and Richard had been betrothed for many years but had not yet wed—a surprising omission, given the bride’s rank and the fact that she was now seventeen (almost an old maid by medieval standards). Why, court gossips wanted to know, had Henry put off marrying her to his now twenty-year-old son? Given Richard’s inclination to find his way to Paris, in his older brother’s footsteps, an obvious answer was that Henry was reluctant to provide yet another tie between his difficult progeny and the French king. But gossips soon had another and far more titillating answer: Henry had decided to wed the young princess himself. Indeed, tongues wagged that Henry, seeking solace for the dead Rosamond, had already made Alais his mistress. It was even said that Alais bore Henry a daughter, who did not survive.

Louis now complained to the pope and demanded that Richard marry Alais, as originally agreed. Henry (whose appeal to Rome for a divorce had come to naught) temporized and finally said the marriage would take place, but only if Louis gave up the city of Bourges as well as the French Vexin (Princess Marguerite’s dowry had included only the Norman portion). Louis did not accept—indeed, could hardly be expected to accept—and said nothing further about Alais or her marriage to Richard.

More than this, the Church (which had ordered Henry, under threat of interdict, to wed Alais to Richard or return her to her father) now grew remarkably quiet on the subject. Henry retained custody over Alais, and there was no interdict. Since it could not be expected that the pope would “openly countenance, much less use the authority of the church to enforce, a marriage between a man and his father’s concubine,” the Church’s sudden silence underscores the distinct possibility that the rumors were true. Certainly, from this point on, the pope’s interest in Alais’ fate came to an abrupt halt.

Meanwhile, Philip, heir to the French throne, was growing up. With his knightly training well under way, he could look forward to his kingly consecration, which Louis planned for August 1179. On that date, Louis’ dearly beloved son would turn fourteen.

Louis himself was ready to turn over the reins of government to Philip as soon as possible. Almost sixty, he had never possessed Henry Plantagenet’s restless energy or strength, and his long battles with the Plantagenets had taken their toll. A gentle man, he now napped frequently and seemed to be slipping toward a more permanent repose. One much-cited scene finds him sleeping virtually unprotected in the palace garden. When discovered, his courtiers admonish that he has placed his life and kingdom in considerable jeopardy. To which Louis mildly replies that he could hardly be in any danger, for he has no enemies.

It was true. Even Eleanor, who despised him, did not hate him, and Henry’s wrath seems to have fallen upon his own sons rather than upon the French king. Thus it was that when young Philip became severely ill just prior to his coronation, Louis did not hesitate on his course. In a dream, he beheld a vision of the martyred St. Thomas Becket beckoning him to pray for Philip’s recovery at Canterbury. Despite dire warnings from his barons, Louis donned a pilgrim’s habit and departed immediately for England. Steeling himself for the Channel crossing, he landed safely at Dover just as the king of England hove into sight, having ridden all night to meet him.

There never was a question of Louis’ safety on this his only visit to England. Henry accompanied him to Canterbury, where Louis gave copious gifts and prayed. Then, still in Henry’s company, Louis returned to Dover, where he once again set sail for France. There, to his infinite relief and joy, he learned that his only son had recovered.

Louis himself could not attend the coronation for which he had risked his life. En route home he became severely ill and spent his remaining months as an invalid. In September of the following year, he died, garbed in the modest robe of a monk.

He left a fifteen-year-old to rule as king.

It is possible that had Henry II been born eight centuries later, he would have made just as memorable a leader of a modern government as he did of his medieval realms. Personally unostentatious, with a talent for administration and an energy so boundless that he virtually wore out everyone around him, he was a creative ruler, a man of thought and action, a charismatic leader who—according to Giraldus, a longtime member of his household—never forgot a face.

Left to his own devices, this dynamo might have spent the 1180s in subduing, binding together, and providing the building blocks of government for his vast empire. But Henry had enemies, made over a lifetime of molding others to his will, and so he spent much of the last years of his life at war—with his barons, with his sons, and with the king of France.

Unlike Louis VII, who had begun his reign under the auspicious circumstances of civil war in England and a German empire in disarray, young Philip found himself pitted against the wiliest and most powerful ruler of his time. Heavily outmatched, he bided his time, poking a little here and a little there until at last he found the agent for his devices—Henry the Younger, the dissatisfied heir to the English throne.

Bored and aggrieved, young Henry took no interest in the government of those realms he would someday inherit and instead looked with envious eyes at his brothers, especially Richard, who had a realm of his own and warfare to occupy him. Young Henry, feeling sadly out of pocket and misused, drifted southward from a glittering but evanescent season of tournaments and soon found men eager to claim his leadership on behalf of their own causes. Brother soon fought brother, with Geoffrey taking the elder brother’s side against Richard, count of Poitou. Philip, watching closely, sent his own mercenaries to keep the pot boiling.

At length, fearing that his sons would tear each other as well as the Plantagenet empire apart, the elder Henry entered the fray on the side of the beleaguered Richard. Young Henry wiggled and squirmed, desolating the land and its religious sanctuaries as he tried to keep to the field and desperately sought to avoid defeat.

The end came suddenly, in the small town of Martel. There, young Henry fell into a fever and died. He was twenty-eight years old.

Suddenly Richard, Eleanor’s favorite, stood to inherit a crown. His father, looking for a way to provide for John as well as to contain Richard—who was far more of a threat than young Henry had ever been—now seems to have carved up his realm according to a different plan. Richard would inherit England and Normandy as well as Maine and Anjou, but John would receive Poitou and Aquitaine. At this, Richard—who had made Poitou and Aquitaine his business for years—became incensed. He had no intention of losing one iota of what he thought due him, nor had he any intention of assuming his dead brother’s empty titles and thankless role.

Philip of France was most interested by what he heard. Yet it was not Richard but Geoffrey who first bolted for Paris. Geoffrey still retained the promise of Brittany, but he had been denied additional territory and was bitter about it. Geoffrey, who was perhaps the brightest of the family, was also the most devious. He had, Giraldus commented, “more aloes than honey in him,” while his tongue was “smoother than oil.” Geoffrey was above all a master at persuasion, with a “sweet and persuasive eloquence” and an extraordinary talent for dissimulation. It was Geoffrey whom Giraldus suspected of being the mainspring behind young Henry’s revolt, and it was Geoffrey who now repaired to Paris, where Philip received him like a brother, carefully nurturing his grievances.

Still, despite his calculation, Philip could not foresee all events. In the summer of 1186, Geoffrey’s sojourn in Paris abruptly ended with his death—probably from wounds received in a tournament. Soon it would be Richard’s turn to visit Paris and seek Philip’s friendship. In the mean-time, Philip demanded the return of the Norman Vexin (his widowed sister Marguerite’s dowry) as well as the marriage of Alais to Richard.

It was a reasonable demand. Marguerite’s husband, young Henry, was dead, and Alais had been betrothed to Richard for more years than anyone cared to remember. Yet Henry Plantagenet resisted, on the grounds that the French monarchy had lost any right to the Norman Vexin when Marguerite and Henry the Younger originally wed. At length, with Marguerite on the verge of marrying a second time (to King Béla III of Hungary), Philip agreed to leave the Norman Vexin with the king of England in return for a hefty yearly monetary payment to Marguerite as well as Henry’s solemn oath that Alais and Richard would soon wed.

It is unclear whether or not the Norman Vexin now became Alais’ dowry. But from this point on, her fate and that of the Vexin would be intertwined.

With Geoffrey’s death, Henry was left with two sons, the elder of whom he did not trust. Richard, Eleanor’s pet, was a formidable warrior, but John—still in his teens—had yet to impress anyone on any grounds whatever. Rude, prone to vice, “more given to pleasures than to arms, to dalliance than to endurance,” he was the least as well as the last of all Henry Plantagenet’s sons. Henry—believing that he would outgrow these traits—now pinned all his hopes on him. Although John had proven a disaster in Ireland, where Henry originally planned to set him up as king, Henry now intended to use this unpromising lad to keep Richard in line.

By this time, Philip had reached his early twenties and was showing a thought-provoking willingness to assert the prerogatives of the French crown. Demonstrating that he understood the importance of protecting and enhancing his growing capital city, he went to the considerable expense of paving the streets of Paris as well as constructing a wall around the city’s new outskirts. And then, bolstered by the birth of a son and heir, he once again confronted the English king.

Alais and the Norman Vexin remained the outstanding issues. Alais still was not married to anyone, and Philip, tired of Henry’s evasions, wanted both the princess and the property back. Henry, despite a demonstrated willingness to pay homage to his French overlord for his French territories, had little inclination to let this young whippersnapper tell him what to do. The Norman Vexin was his, by God, and he was going to hold on to it. Philip thought about this briefly and then presented his answer to this powerful yet disobedient vassal: he invaded that other source of contention between the two kings, the disputed territory of Berry.

Henry responded, as was his wont, with massive force, but Philip did not back down as Louis would have. Perhaps judging his young rival in a new light, Henry now agreed to a truce. What he did not anticipate was this determined and calculating young king’s next step. Coolly assuming the initiative, Philip now undertook to turn Richard against his father.

Richard soon found his way to Paris, where Philip treated him as a brother—or, as some have recently contended, as a lover. They ate from the same dish—a common-enough indication of friendship, for trenchers generally were shared—and slept together in the same bed. Again, such accommodations may simply have amounted to a sign of close friendship, without necessarily implying sexual overtones, for beds were scarce and frequently joint-tenanted. Still, there would have been beds aplenty for the king and his royal guest, should they have chosen to sleep separately, and in light of Richard’s subsequent behavior, it seems possible that Philip calculatedly accommodated him.

It is possible that Philip previously had a similar relationship with Geoffrey as well, for their friendship appears to have been unusually intense, even for the emotion-laden twelfth century—where men readily cried, and a gift for tears was a valued asset. Philip seems to have been so overcome with grief at Geoffrey’s death that he could scarcely be restrained from hurling himself into his friend’s grave. In any case, whether or not fraught with sexual overtones, Philip and Richard’s relationship seems to have been a close one, and Richard left the court of the French king persuaded that his father was on the verge of disinheriting him in favor of John. Philip even hinted that Henry planned to marry John to the much-abused Alais.

Upon Henry’s urgent appeals, Richard at length returned. But young Lionheart fretted that his father remained decidedly mum about the succession. News from the Holy Land added urgency to Richard’s concerns, for he had recently taken the Cross and longed to be off on crusade. Yet he was understandably reluctant to leave while John stood ready and waiting to step into his place.

For a time, Richard’s attention was taken in fighting off rebellion in Aquitaine (which Henry may have instigated to keep his son diverted), while Philip continued to prowl and prod along the most vulnerable of Henry’s borders. Henry, feeling up to whatever Philip was inclined to dish out, was in a feisty mood when the two once again met in the summer of 1188 along the banks of the Epte, near Gisors.

In the shade of a giant elm, under which the dukes of Normandy and kings of France had traditionally conducted business, Philip returned to the question of Alais’ marriage and the Norman Vexin. Henry, however, refused to discuss anything but Philip’s most recent incursions into what he considered Plantagenet property. At loggerheads in the sweltering heat, the two sides almost came to blows. At last, driven beyond endurance, the French fell in a fury upon the giant elm under which they had parleyed, hacking it to pieces. As a symbol of where relations stood between the two houses, this sudden act of violence could hardly have been more pointed.

Henry now renounced his vassal’s allegiance to the king of France and went to war. The conflict promised to be drawn out and expensive, leading the two kings once again to meet. With considerable concern, Henry heard Philip offer to withdraw from Berry and allow Richard to retain disputed lands in Toulouse if Henry would only marry Richard to Alais and have his barons swear fealty to Richard as his heir. Furious, Henry flatly refused.

And now Richard suddenly stood forth. As Henry and his lords watched, thunderstruck, young Lionheart removed his sword and knelt before Philip, openly doing homage to the French king for all the Continental domains he claimed by inheritance, and swearing fealty to him “against all men.”

At last it had come to this.

Little happened for a time, as frantic intermediaries unsuccessfully sought to avert the inevitable. But at length, with the end of Lent, the open season for war arrived.

Repeated efforts to avert the upcoming tragedy met with repeated failures, while the last attempt—at La Ferté-Bernard, just over the border into Henry’s territory of Maine—gave clear evidence of just how hopeless the breach had become. Philip demanded that Alais marry Richard and that Richard’s inheritance be acknowledged. Richard added that, for his own security, he would not go on crusade unless John went with him. Henry flatly refused and, according to Roger of Howden, introduced the highly delicate subject of marrying Alais to John.

Ever since, people have wondered exactly what game Henry was playing. Had he indeed decided to disinherit Richard for John, as Richard now so plainly believed? Or was he merely “trying to discipline Richard by keeping him in uncertainty,” and then was caught in the coils of his own deviousness? Henry never could forget his eldest son’s rebellion after being crowned successor. But neither could Richard forget the abrupt way his father had removed Aquitaine and Poitou from his inheritance and given it to John.

The tragedy now proceeded to its grueling conclusion. Philip and Richard fell upon Le Mans, where Henry had taken refuge, and soon flames enveloped the entire town. Henry managed to escape, but Richard pursued him. Only the timely intervention of William Marshal, one of Henry’s most renowned warriors, saved the king from capture—or worse.

Instead of fighting his way back to Normandy, where he could mount an army or set sail for England, Henry fled to his great Angevin fortress of Chinon, high above the river Vienne. The old lion was defeated and he knew it. His body, which he had relentlessly pushed for years, no longer could be willed into action. Deathly ill, he awaited his end in the summer heat.

Castles and towns now promptly fell to Philip and Richard, suggesting that their inhabitants sensed which direction the wind was blowing. Even the city of Tours fell into Philip and Richard’s hands. At that body blow, Henry agreed to come to terms.

Henry consented but was so ill he could scarcely ride. Even Philip was moved to pity when he saw him. But Henry would have none of it, refusing the seat that Philip offered and remaining bolt upright in his saddle—supported by attendants—as he listened to the victors’ terms. These were rugged. He was to renew his homage to the king of France and pay a heavy indemnity for Philip’s trouble. He was to acknowledge Richard as his heir, and call upon his barons to swear homage to his eldest remaining son. Alais was to be turned over to a guardian of Richard’s choosing, who would keep her in safety until Richard wed her, upon his return from crusade.

As Henry listened, a roll of thunder broke forth. He nodded his assent, and yet another roll of thunder burst from the heavy summer sky. But perhaps the worst blow was yet to come. For when he sent for the list of names of those who had gone over to Richard, the first name on the list was that of his youngest son, John.

After that, death came quickly. In anguish, Henry “cursed the day on which he was born, and pronounced upon his sons the curse of God and of himself.” And then, knowing that he was sick unto death, he ordered that he be carried into the chapel, where he received communion and absolution before wearily drawing his last breath.

While Roger of Wendover reported a sedate funeral, with Henry lying in state in appropriately royal splendor, William Marshal (who was present) described a far more humiliating scene. According to the Marshal, Henry’s attendants stole his belongings, leaving the body naked until someone took pity and covered it with a cloak. With panicked courtiers tending to their own welfare, it was difficult to find anyone to enshroud the body or prepare it for funeral and burial. According to Giraldus, no one could even find an appropriate ring for the dead king’s finger, let alone a scepter or a crown.

Giraldus, keen to report the fall of the great, may have embroidered or exaggerated, but his dramatic account of Richard’s last encounter with his father is corroborated by both Roger of Wendover and Roger of Howden. When Richard, who had pursued Henry to the end, approached the body, all present were stunned to see blood suddenly burst from the dead king’s nostrils. An omen of the first order! they whispered among themselves. A curse on the living from the dead!

Yet Richard, a Plantagenet through and through, remained unshaken. He now was undisputed lord of England, as well as the vast Plantagenet holdings in France, and the future was his.

Merlin’s prophecy had indeed come to pass.

The Mongol Invasion of Hungary 1241 and its Consequences I


“In this year, after existing for 350 years, the kingdom of Hungary was annihilated by the Tatars.” This terse statement by the Bavarian monk Hermann of Niederaltaich appears in the annals of his monastery for the year 1241. At almost the same time, the Emperor Frederick II wrote to the English King: “That entire precious kingdom was depopulated, devastated and turned into a barren wasteland.” Contemporary witnesses and chroniclers still called the Asiatic attackers “Tatars”, although these already identified themselves as Mongols.

The “Mongol storm” had been in progress in Asia and Eastern Europe for half a generation, buffeting Russians, Cumans and Poles, yet Hungary was the first to be hit with full force by Genghis Khan’s successors. On 11 April 1241 at Mohi by the confluence of the Sajó and Hernád rivers, the Mongol horsemen led by Batu Khan annihilated the numerically superior but ill-led and barricaded Hungarian forces. Amid indescribable chaos the majority of the country’s religious and lay dignitaries were slaughtered, and it was as if by a miracle that the king and some of his young knights escaped. The Mongols followed in Béla’s tracks as far as Klosterneuburg, near Vienna, and finally even besieged the Dalmatian island city of Trogir, where he had taken refuge: in the Mongols’ eyes a country was not definitively vanquished while its rightful ruler still lived. For months the siege of Trogir continued, and the king and with him Hungary—indeed probably the West itself—were only saved by the sudden death of the Great Khan in far-away Karakorum. When this news reached Batu Khan in the spring of 1242, he promptly turned his Mongols around to be present at the contest for the succession. They pulled out of Hungary, laden with plunder and numerous prisoners: even thirteen years later, the missionaries Carpini and Rubruquis, travelling through the region of Karakorum, met Hungarian slaves still in bondage.

The Mongol storm resulted in a deep disruption for the Magyar population from which, according to medievalists such as György Györffy, Hungary never completely recovered. Györffy calculated that some 60 per cent of the lowland settlements were destroyed. The inhabitants who survived the massacres and abductions were threatened by starvation and disease. Failed harvests caused by destruction of the fields and the impossibility of tilling them added to the catastrophe. The situation was somewhat less severe in the regions west of the Danube, as these were only plundered and torched during the Mongols’ advance and never occupied; here the population loss amounted to about 20 per cent. The Slavs of Upper Hungary as well as the Székelys and Romanians of the Transylvanian mountains had come off fairly lightly. In all, according to older estimates, about half of Hungary’s 2 million inhabitants in 1240 became direct or indirect victims of the Mongol invasion.

The attack did not take Béla IV by surprise since he, alone in Hungary and perhaps in all the West, had recognized the deadly danger posed by the Mongols’ obsessive expansionist dreams of world domination. Owing to its still existing relationships with the Russian principalities, Hungary was quickly informed of events in the East, including the ruinous defeat of the Russians and Cumans by the nomad horsemen in 1223. Moreover, while still crown prince Béla had despatched a group of Dominican monks to the East in order to convert to Christianity the Hungarian tribes who, according to tradition, had remained in the old homeland; in his search for Magna Hungaria, the land of the early Magyars, Friar Julian actually came across people beyond the Volga with whom he could communicate in Hungarian, and it was from these “relatives” that he heard of the Mongols’ unstoppable westerly advance. After their return in 1237 one of the friars wrote an account of his travels and sent it to Rome. When Julian set out a second time on his adventurous journey to the East to scout out the Mongols’ intentions, he could no longer reach the ruined homeland of the distant tribesmen, who had by then been overwhelmed. Julian hurried back to Hungary with the terrible news and accurate information about the Mongols’ military preparations. Furthermore, he brought a threatening letter from Batu Khan to King Béla, calling upon him to surrender and hand over the “Cuman slaves” who had taken refuge in Hungary. Béla did not reply to the ultimatum. However, unlike the Pope and the Emperor, who had for years been entangled in a controversy over the primacy of Rome, the King took the Mongol threat seriously, being fully aware that if the charges and demands were ignored by those threatened, a devastating campaign would always follow.

Béla IV therefore suspected what was in store for his country, and prepared for battle. He personally inspected the borderlands, had defence installations prepared on the mountain passes, and tried to assemble a strong army. It was not his fault that, despite these precautions and warnings to the Hungarian nobles, and appeals to the Pope, Emperor Frederick II and the kings of Western Europe, the Mongols descended upon Hungary and wrought devastation following their victory at Mohi. Though intelligent and brave. Béla was not a general and did not have a powerful professional army at his disposal. Even before his father’s Golden Bull the nation’s warriors, formerly ever ready for battle, had become “comfortable landowners” and were no longer a match for the Mongol hordes operating with remarkable precision and planning.

Another factor was present, with consequences hardly ever considered by Western historians with no knowledge of the Hungarian language although it had decisive consequences already in the earliest days of the Hungarian state, and contributed to other great disruptions in the nation’s history—defeat by the Ottomans and Habsburgs. This factor was an ambivalence towards everything foreign. Oscillation between openness and isolation, between generous tolerance and apprehensive mistrust was probably the main cause of the essentially tragic conflict with the ethnic group which would eventually form the backbone of the Hungarian army: the Cumans. Although this Turkic people had repeatedly attacked Hungary in the past, they later sought refuge and support from the Magyars, especially in view of the unstoppable advance of the Mongols. While still crown prince, Béla endorsed the Cumans’ conversion by the Dominicans and accepted the oath of allegiance of one of their princes who converted together with 15,000 of his people—a bishopric was established for these so-called “western” Cumans. Ten years later the “eastern” Cumans also fled from the Mongols across the Carpathians, giving Béla the support of another 40,000 mounted warriors against the impending invasion from Asia. Before admitting them he had them baptized, yet the integration of this nomad people into the by then Christianized and westernized Hungarian society led to tensions and rioting. When the Mongol offensive was already approaching, the distrustful Hungarian nobles attacked and murdered the Cuman Prince Kötöny, whereupon his soldiers, swearing vengeance, took off to Bulgaria leaving in their wake a trail of carnage and destruction. Thus four weeks before the crucial battle at Mohi the King lost his strongest allies.

The same groups of nobles who had aggravated existing tensions in the early phase of the Cumans’ assimilation then complied only hesitantly and reluctantly with the king’s appeals to be in readiness with their contingents. In their accounts the two important witnesses of the Mongol onslaught, Master Rogerius and Thomas of Spalato, revealed clearly the profound differences between the king and a section of the magnates. According to a contemporary French chronicler, Batu Khan heartened his soldiers before the battle of Muhi with the following derogatory slogan: “The Hungarians, confused by their own discords and arrogance, will not defeat you.” The barons, as already mentioned, were incensed mainly by the fact that Béla sought to withdraw his father’s prodigal donations, and that he overrode their opposition in bringing the Cumans into the country and then giving them preferential treatment. They even spread the rumour that the Cumans had come to Hungary, as the Mongols’ allies, to stab the Hungarians in the back at the first opportunity.

The Italian cleric and chronicler Rogerius, who lived through the Mongol invasion, saw this differently. He praised Béla IV as one of the most notable of Hungary’s rulers, who had done a great service to the Church by his missionary work among the pagan people: he had tried—as they deserved—to subdue the “audacious insolence” and insubordination of his barons, who did not balk even at committing high treason. Rogerius defended Béla against the accusation of not having taken steps in time to avert the danger from the Mongols. On the contrary, the nobles had been urged early and repeatedly to gather their regiments and rally to the King. Despite Béla’s obvious inability to impose order on the army, Rogerius blamed the nobles whose antagonism to the King not only denied him vital support in the battle, but virtually willed his downfall—“because they thought that the defeat would only affect some of them and not all.”

Added to the mistrust of foreigners and the discord within their own ranks was the indifference of a silent Western world. The priestly chronicler accuses the European princes of failure to answer the Hungarian King’s calls for help; none of Hungary’s friends had come to its aid in its misfortune. Rogerius does not exclude even the Pope or the Emperor from blame; all had miserably failed. In a letter to Pope Vincent IV Béla wrote in 1253: “We have received from all sides…merely words. […] We have received no support in our great affliction from any Christian ruler or nation in Europe.” The Mongol nightmare determined, consciously or unconsciously, not only the King’s exchange of letters with the various popes and potentates, but also his foreign policy. By far the most important and lasting psychological consequence of the Mongol invasion was the inference “We Hungarians are alone”. The sense of isolation, so characteristic of Hungarians, hardened from then on into a “loneliness complex” and became a determining component of the Hungarian historical image. The calamities of the sixteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries set this reaction into concrete.

The Mongol Invasion of Hungary 1241 and its Consequences II



Fear of a second Mongol invasion was bizarrely echoed even in King Béla’s dynastic policy. He wrote in a letter to the Pope: “In the interests of Christianity, we let our royal dignity suffer humiliation by betrothing two of our daughters to Ruthenian princes and the third to a Pole, in order to receive through them and other foreigners in the East news about the secretive Tatars.” Clearly an even greater sacrifice, mentioned in the same letter, was the marriage of his firstborn son to a Cuman girl; this was supposed to bind the warlike nomad horsemen, called back a few years after the Mongol attack to the depopulated areas of the Danube-Tisza plains, even closer to the House of Árpád, and hasten their absorption into the Western Christian community.

The aversion to foreigners, even when they were urgently needed as allies; the friction within their own ranks, even in times of extreme danger; and finally the justified sense of aloneness and being at the mercy of others, formed the background to the first catastrophe in the history of the Christian Hungarian kingdom. That the Hungarians felt misjudged, betrayed and besieged by enemies was probably also, or perhaps primarily, the result of what is unanimously criticized in international historiography as “brazen blackmail”. The Austrian Babenberg Duke, Frederick II, set a trap for the fleeing King of Hungary (his cousin and neighbour, not to be confused with the Hohenstaufen Emperor) robbed and imprisoned him. The Austrian was already nicknamed “the Quarrelsome” because he had fallen out with most of his neighbours, even having been temporarily outlawed and divested of his fief in 1236 by the Emperor.

Rogerius, who—as mentioned above—had lived through the Mongol invasion as an eye-witness and was himself imprisoned for a year, described this deed in the thirty-second chapter of his account:

After his flight from the hordes the King rode day and night until he reached the Polish border region: from there he hurried, as fast as he could, by the direct route to the Queen, who stayed on the border with Austria. On hearing this the Duke of Austria came to meet him with wicked intentions in his heart, but feigning friendship. The King had just laid down his weapons and, while breakfast was being prepared, lain down to sleep on the bank of a stretch of water, having by an act of divine providence made his long escape alone from many horrible arrows and swords, when he was awakened. As soon as he beheld the Duke he was very happy. Meanwhile the Duke, after saying other comforting words, asked the King to cross the Danube, to have a more secure rest on the opposite bank, and the King, suspecting no evil, consented because the Duke had said that he owned a castle on the other side where he could offer more befitting hospitality—he intended not to entertain the King but to destroy him. While the King still believed he could get away from Scylla, he fell victim to Charybdis, and like the fish that tries to escape from the frying pan and jumps into the fire, believing that it has escaped misfortune, he found himself in an even more difficult situation because the Duke of Austria seized hold of him by cunning, and dealt with him according to his whim. He demanded from him a sum of money which he claimed the King had once extorted from him. What then? The King could not get away until he had counted out part of that money in coin and another part in gold and silver vessels, finally pledging three adjacent counties of his kingdom.

According to Rogerius, Duke Frederick robbed the Hungarian refugees and invaded the defenceless country with his army. He even attempted to capture Pressburg (now Bratislava) and Györ, which however managed to defend themselves. The chronicler did not realize that Duke Frederick II and Béla IV had old scores to settle. Frederick had attacked Hungary several times since 1233, and had supported an uprising by Hungarian magnates against their King. When András II and his sons. Béla and Coloman, resisted and chased him back to Vienna, the duke could obtain a peace agreement only in return for a costly fine. He had never forgotten this humiliation, and now, against the admonitions of Pope Gregory IX, exploited the Hungarians’ desperate situation.

The historian Günther Stökl referred to the “understandably very negative impression” which “the treachery of its western neighbour left in Hungarian historical consciousness”.5 As is well-known, none of the Central and East European states have school textbooks that treat in a particularly balanced way their own and their region’s history. Still, the chasm is rarely as wide as in the depiction of the episode described by Rogerius. Thus the Hungarian historian Bálint Hóman (1935): “Frederick… capped the disgraceful offence against the right of hospitality to the greater glory of Christian solidarity with an attack on the country suffering under the Tatars.” The Austrian historian Hugo Hantsch (1947) saw the role of the Babenberg Duke differently: “Frederick… stops the Tatars’ advance to Germany… Austria once again proves its worth as the bulwark of the Occident, as the shield of the Empire.”

It was an irony of fate indeed that the moribund kingdom was successful against the expansionist attempts of Duke Frederick of Austria in particular. After Frederick’s death in the battle at the Leitha in June 1246 Béla even got involved in the succession struggle of the Babenbergs and brought Styria temporarily under his control, his son and successor becoming its prince for some years. However, after a serious defeat by Ottokar II of Bohemia at Marchegg in Austria, the Hungarians were no longer able to assert themselves. The “annihilation of the kingdom of Hungary”—never actually came to pass. On the contrary, Béla IV steeled himself after his return for the enormous task of rebuilding the ravaged country, especially the depopulated lowland and eastern areas, which he did with considerable energy, resolve and courage.

Béla, not unjustly dubbed in his country as its second founder after St Stephen for his statesmanship and achievements, still had twenty-eight years ahead of him after the departure of the Mongols. Like Stephen, he was a ruler who practised openness, and the prime mover in an extensive policy of colonization. His realm extended over the entire Carpathian basin and embraced Croatia-Slavonia, Dalmatia and part of Bosnia. The reason why he so quickly regained his political power is partly that the most densely populated western areas of the country were those least affected by the Mongol depredations. Still, his entire domestic and external politics were always haunted by the nightmare of a renewed Mongol incursion, which led to the organizing of a completely new defensive system. The fact that only some castles had withstood the Mongol attacks showed that only well-built forts offered genuine security. That is why the King wanted to see so many cities and smaller places encircled by stone walls. He created a new powerful army, replacing the light archers with a force of heavy cavalry.

Béla managed to resettle the Cumans on the Great Plains, and this foreign tribe came to play an outstanding role in the new army. In his previously cited letter to Pope Innocent IV he wrote: “Unfortunately we now defend our country with pagans, and with their help we bring the enemies of the Church under control.” The Alan Jazyges, originally also steppe horsemen from the East, settled in the country with the Cumans. A royal document of 1267 states that the King had called peasants and soldiers from all parts of the world into the country to repopulate it. German colonists as well as Slovaks, Poles and Ruthenes thus came into Upper Hungary (today’s Slovakia); Germans and Romanians, but also many Hungarians, moved to Transylvania. Soon French, Walloon, Italian and Greek migrants moved to the cities. The Jewish communities of Buda (newly fortified as a royal seat), Esztergom and Pressburg were under the King’s personal protection. Already by 1050, according to the Historical Chronology of Hungary by Kálmán Benda, Esztergom was a centre for Jewish traders who maintained the business connection between Russia and Regensburg and are said to have built a synagogue. Minting was assigned to the archbishopric of Esztergom, which in turn entrusted the task to a Jew from Vienna named Herschel.

King Béla finally had to pay a high political price to the predominantly narrow-minded, selfish oligarchs for the surprisingly fast reconstruction, the promotion of urban development and—his priority—the establishment of a new army. The disastrous concentration of power in the hands of the great magnates remained in force, and in stark contrast to Béla’s radical measures and the reforms passed before the Mongol attack, they were able to assert their old privileges and, even more serious, they were not after all required to return the royal estates and castles, but even received further endowments. This soon created chaotic conditions.

During the last decade of his reign Béla was already embroiled in a serious conflict with his son, the later Stephen V, who was strong in military virtues but power-hungry. Stephen’s rule as sole king lasted only two years; he could not control the mounting tensions between the power of the oligarchs—who by now were feuding among themselves, as were some of the senior clergy—and the lower nobility, who had been supported by Béla as their counterbalance through the granting of privileges. But it was the particularly explosive and unresolved issue of the absorption of the Cuman horsemen into the Hungarian environment which once again impinged disastrously on the royal house itself. Although the Cumans were a mainstay of the new army, especially in campaigns outside Hungary’s borders, the complete socio-religious and linguistic assimilation of the tens of thousands of former nomad horsemen took another two to three centuries.

The marriage of Béla’s son Stephen to Elizabeth, daughter of the treacherously assassinated Cuman prince Kötöny, was meant to seal a lasting reconciliation with this ethnic group. The plan was to give the Cumans parity of treatment with the nobility, but Stephen’s untimely death brought an abrupt end to these endeavours.

Stephen’s son Ladislaus IV (1272–90) was still a child, and the Queen Mother Elizabeth, who called herself “Queen of Hungary, daughter of the Cuman Emperor”, proved to be a puppet in the hands of the power-hungry oligarchs and blatant favourites, and thus totally unfitted for the task of regency. She and her son trusted only Cumans, hindering rather than fostering the precarious process of integration by their exaggerated and demonstrative partiality towards the steppe warriors.

Only once did the young King Ladislaus IV show his mettle—by a historic action at a decisive moment for Austria’s future. It happened on the battlefield of Dürnkrut, where the army of Hungarians and Cumans, estimated at 15,000 men, resolved the conflict between Rudolf of Habsburg and Ottokar II of Bohemia. In the words of the Hungarian historian Péter Hanák, “In the battle of the Marchfeld [Dürnkrut] Hungarian arms helped establish the power-base and imperial authority of the Habsburgs.” Apart from this, the life of the young King, already known in his lifetime as “Ladislaus the Cuman” (Kún László), was an uninterrupted series of scandals, intrigues and bloody settling of scores. The passionate, spirited and, according to tradition, continuously love-struck King for some reason refused to produce a successor with his wife, the Angevin Princess Isabella of Naples, and had her locked up in a convent. When his pagan following and numerous mistresses resulted in a papal interdict, the psychopathic monarch threatened (as the Archbishop expressed it in a letter to the Pope) “to have the Archbishop of Esztergom, his bishops and the whole bunch in Rome decapitated with a Tatar sabre”. Incidentally, Ladislaus IV is supposed to have performed the sex act with his Cuman mistress during a Council meeting in the presence of the dignitaries and high clergy. He was excommunicated, and finally killed at the age of twenty-eight by two Cumans hired by the Hungarian magnates.

Ladislaus died without issue and anarchy followed. Groups of oligarchs ruled their spheres of interest as if they were family estates, and considered the entire country theirs for the taking, dividing it up between themselves. The last Árpád king, András III, was unable to re-establish central authority or prevent the country’s disintegration. He died in 1301, leaving only an infant daughter, and with him the male line of the Árpáds died out. Years of struggle for the coveted throne of Hungary, by now recognized as a member of the European community of states, resulted in 1308 in the victory of the Angevin Charles Robert, grandson of Mary of Naples, sister of Ladislaus IV.

In the long run the politically and, above all, psychologically most significant heritage of the time of “Ladislaus the Cuman” was the “new historical image” of the Hungarians, invented from A to Z by his court preacher Simon Kézai. In his famous letter to the Pope, King Béla still compared the Mongols with Attila and his murderous and fire-raising Huns. Barely a generation later, between 1281 and 1285, the grandson’s court scribe saw the Huns in a quite different light. Kézai, a gifted storyteller, perceived Attila as a worthy ancestor of the Christian kings. From sources he found “all around Italy, France and Germany” this court cleric, a man of simple background, calling himself in his preface an enthusiastic adherent of King Ladislas IV, concocted the evidently desired historical image. He produced the surprising theory of a “Dual Conquest”: the original 108 clans had in the distant past already made up the same people—who at that time were the Huns, and were now the Hungarians. Coming from Scythia, they had already occupied Pannonia once before, around the year 700, and under Attila conquered half the world. They then retreated to Scythia, finally settling permanently in Pannonia. The 108 clans of 1280 were thus, according to Simon Kézai, the descendants of the original community—without any mingling. Thus was born a historical continuity which had never existed.

The Battle of Tannenberg 1410 Part III

What the grand master did not understand was the need to remain calm and rational. When scouts reported to him that the invaders had gone as far as Gilgenberg and had burned the city, inflicting indescribable outrages on the citizens, Jungingen’s temper flared. No more positional warfare – he would march on the foe by night and attack by surprise at dawn. When the grand master set his army in motion he was taking a risk that he could have avoided. The best-informed German chronicler, Posilge, described the recent movements of the two armies thus:

The grand master with his forces and the guests and mercenaries rode against the king to the border near Drewenz, near Kauernik, and the two armies camped opposite one another. Because the king of Poland did not dare cross the Drewenz, he went toward Gilgenberg and took that city and burned it, and they struck dead young and old and with the heathens committed so many murders as was unholy, dishonouring maidens, women, and churches, cutting off their breasts and torturing them, and driving them off to serfdom. Also the heathens committed great blasphemies on the sacraments; whenever they came into the churches they ground the host in their hands and threw it under their feet, and in that way committed their insults. Their great blasphemies and insults went to the hearts of the grand master, the whole order, and to all the knights and men-at-arms among the guests; and they rode with righteous indignation against the king from Lubov to Tannenberg, to the village in the district of Osterode, and came upon the king without warning, having come in great haste fifteen miles by daybreak on the 15th of July. And when they could see the enemy, they formed their ranks and held the enemy in sight for more than three hours. The king meanwhile sent the heathens out to skirmish, but the Poles were altogether unready. If they had attacked the king immediately they would have won honour and booty, but that, unfortunately, did not happen; they wanted to call him out to fight chivalrously with them. The marshal sent the king two unsheathed swords with the heralds.

Such were the movements of the two armies. Jungingen had managed to bring his forces against the Poles and Lithuanians without warning, a considerable feat for any era. Then he wasted his advantage, letting the sleepless soldiers stand in battle order without food or drink until the enemy was ready. After that, he had his men dig camouflaged pits to trap the charging Polish cavalry, then ordered a withdrawal from that line so that the royal forces in the woods could have room to deploy in two lines in the open field against him. As a result, not only were his pits now part of the Polish defensive line, but his powerful artillery was now stationed at a place where it was ineffective; moreover, his infantry was standing where it was difficult to provide proper support for the massed bodies of knights. Even considering that the grand master could hardly expect the Polish knights to charge unless they had room to line up their units, this was poor generalship. Jungingen’s troops were tired, wet from a morning shower, hungry, and undoubtedly becoming nervous. Moreover, the day was unusually warm, and the men were not accustomed to heat. Nevertheless, Jungingen had a good chance of prevailing if only he could persuade the king to commit his troops to battle first, allowing the experienced knights the opportunity for one of their long-practised counter-strokes. The grand master’s pride, arrogance, and rashness were partly balanced by his courage and skill in battle – and he had a large force behind him. The masses of knights in the huge formations masked the poor placement of his supporting troops and gave him confidence in a total victory.

The sight of the armies forming their lines of battle was something that no participant ever forgot: the grand master’s elite corps of white-clad knights around his large white banner with the black cross, the colourful flags of the castellans and bishops; Jagiełło’s crowned white eagle on a red field; the archbishop of Gniezno’s white cross on a red field; the castellan of Cracow’s crowned bear; the Polish marshal’s lion-head breathing fire against a blue background; the Lithuanians’ white knight (Vytis) on a white horse; and the geometric symbol for Vilnius. The serried ranks of the infantry and bowmen paraded into place, accompanied by music; the artillery was dragged to whatever slight rise might give the cannon a better field of fire. Messengers rode back and forth, ordering units to make small changes in their stations, and officers encouraged their men to stand valiantly and fight bravely.

One cannot ignore the role contemporary values played in this contest. The grand master wasted his advantages by not attacking promptly, then delaying longer in order to send the chivalric challenge for battle – two swords. The king was meanwhile purportedly hearing masses, ignoring the requests by his commanders for instructions. Jagiełło had displayed excellent generalship in bringing his forces into the field, even considering the slowness of his advance after slipping away from the ford so cleverly; now he, too, seemed to let events run their course without his direction. Perhaps the king was using the religious services to delay the beginning of the battle, knowing that the German knights and horses would tire from wearing heavy armour; perhaps he was waiting for reinforcements; and perhaps he was paralysed by exhaustion and indecision. Historians’ arguments about this point will never be fully resolved. Perhaps genuine piety persuaded him that time spent in prayer was the most important activity he could undertake at that moment. Conventional religious practices were generally considered more important than cool-headed strategic or tactical decisions. ‘God’s will be done.’ His opponent, Jungingen, took time for prayer too. The German troops began singing their anthem, Christ ist erstanden (Christ is Risen). Meanwhile, the Polish and Lithuanian troops chanted their battle-song, Bogu rodzica dzewica (Virgin Mother of God).

The Combat

The knights with the two swords arrogantly presented them for the king’s use and Vytautas’, challenging them to come and fight. The king responded calmly, dismissed the heralds, then gave the signal for the battle to begin. While the Poles advanced in reasonably disciplined order, singing their anthem, the Lithuanians charged wildly and scattered the lightly armed units opposite them. Then the contending forces hammered away at one another for about an hour. Beyond this, there is little agreement in the various accounts. Apparently the Poles did not commit their major units, because the Germans remained on the defensive, awaiting an opportunity to charge ruthlessly into the rear of some retreating formation or gap in the lines.

The battle of Tannenberg is still being refought by historians today. Although the outline of the combat is very clear, German, Polish, and Lithuanian historians are not in agreement about the various actions which occurred during the battle, or even where the fighting took place on the broad field. The memorial chapel and mass graves have been located by archaeologists, but since some of those might indicate the slaughtered prisoners and wounded who perished over the following few days, there is no agreement even as to where the armies lined up. This much is agreed upon: the visiting crusaders were stationed on the left opposite the Lithuanians, presumably because they would be more motivated to fight against Tatar pagans than Polish Christians, but perhaps just because that was the most convenient posting; the Teutonic Knights held the centre and right of the line, opposite the Poles and their mercenaries.

The most important description of the battle is that of Jan Długosz, the Polish court historian. It is brief and tends to glorify the Polish contribution to the victory at the expense of the Lithuanian. In sum, he wrote that one wing of the ‘crossbearers’ defeated the horsemen under Vytautas after fierce fighting. Although Vytautas and the Smolensk regiments remained on the field, the Tatars fled, followed by many Lithuanians and Rus’ians. The German crusaders, seeing the wild flight of the enemy, assumed they had won a victory and left their positions to pursue them. This left a gap in the order’s lines. The Poles, meanwhile, had been holding their own against the Teutonic Knights. Now, seeing their opportunity, they pressed harder, and came in through the gap created on the left when the crusaders broke ranks to pursue the Tatars; soon the Polish knights had put the main battle force of the Teutonic Knights in great difficulty.

This generally accepted understanding of the battle has been modified significantly by a recently discovered letter written in 1413 by a well-informed noble or mercenary captain. Its finger-wagging admonition to keep the ranks of the knights firmly in hand supports an alternate version of the combat given by less well-known chroniclers, that a small number of crusaders attached to the Teutonic Knights had fallen for a tactical ruse by the Lithuanians, a feigned retreat that led pursuers into a trap sprung by Polish knights waiting on the flank. The Lithuanians and Poles then drove into the disordered lines and rolled up the crusader formation.

Jungingen, seeing the disaster unfolding, should probably have sounded the retreat. Nothing of the kind entered his mind, however. His hot blood raging, he gathered together all the knights he could into a wedge formation and charged directly for a slight height where he supposed the king would be found; certainly, he could see the royal banner flying there and a large number of heavily-armed knights. Jungingen did not lack the courage to stake everything on this one charge – he knew that the warhorses would be too exhausted to bear his men from the field if the attack failed. Perhaps he hoped that his charge, coming at a somewhat unexpected angle, would find the Polish forces insufficiently disciplined to change their formation quickly enough to meet him. He was wrong. Vytautas, seen at the centre of Matjeko’s painting, had seemingly been everywhere at once on his wing of the battlefield, performing fantastic and courageous feats; he now hurried over to the royal position with his men, perhaps to urge the king to reinforce the main battle lines with his reserves. In any case, Jungingen’s advance fell just short of the royal bodyguard. In vain, he yelled ‘Retreat!’ Surrounded and exhausted, Jungingen perished with a multitude of his best men. The rest of the cavalry, seeing him fall, fled in disorder. Panic quickly spread through the German ranks. The light cavalry from Culm seem to have led the flight. The Polish knights, once they had destroyed the main battle force, turned on the disordered surviving units as they tried to escape down the narrow roads and chewed them up one after another. The rearmost German knights were hindered in their terrified flight by the tangled units ahead of them. Unable to get past the masses of men, horses, and wagons, unable to fight effectively against an enemy coming up from behind, all they could do was to try to surrender or die fighting against hopeless odds. The crusaders on the victorious left wing came back booty-laden only to fall into the hands of those who held the battlefield. This was Długosz’s account of the battle; it quickly became the accepted story. Even the Germans agreed with Długosz, perhaps because he credited the Teutonic Knights with at least a partial victory, a rout of the pagan wing of the great army.

Polish historians emphasise royal generalship. They describe Jagiełło’s determination to participate in the combat personally, how the royal banner was brought to earth at one point, and how the king was saved from injury only by the last-moment intervention of Zbigniew Oleśnicki, the royal secretary, when a knight from Meissen, Luppold von Köckritz, charged directly for him. Mythology did not hesitate to turn this incident into a personal combat between Jagiełło and Jungingen. In short, according to Polish patriotic scholarship, Polish intelligence, courage, gallantry, and self-sacrifice had won the day.

Lithuanian historians disagree sharply with this interpretation of events. They insist that Vytautas’ men had made a tactical retreat, one common to warfare on the steppe, a ruse that tricked the crusaders from Germany into breaking ranks and dashing into an ambush. They regard the presence of Vytautas and the units from Smolensk fighting in the ranks of the victors during the decisive period of combat as proof that the main Lithuanian forces did not run away, but only lured the Germans into disordering their forces so badly that the way was open for the Polish attack. Credit for the victory should go to the grand prince, who inspired the tactics, who exhausted horse after horse in his relentless direction of the cavalry units, first on the right wing, then at the height of the fighting in the centre, when he brought the reinforcements that repelled Jungingen’s charge; not to his rival, Jagiełło, who was practically useless during the entire combat, unable to give commands or to inspire by personal example.

Modern scholars, despite new archaeological information and newly discovered archival material, have not come to complete agreement as to what transpired. Everyone agrees that Jungingen made mistakes in bringing his army onto the field of battle; everyone agrees that Jungingen and Vytautas were brave warriors who risked their lives in desperate combat; almost everyone agrees that Jagiełło, for one reason or another, chose to remain where everyone could see him, by his tent on the hill, and that the decisive moment of battle was when the crusaders’ attack on that position failed. All but the Lithuanians are practically unanimous in agreeing that a feigned retreat by an entire army was difficult and risky, although it was a common tactic for small units everywhere in Europe; also, if the retreat was a ruse, why was there no ambush of the pursuing forces? Or was there? More likely, the flight of the Lithuanian wing of the army was not planned. Jagiełło was, if anything, a cautious commander, and he would have understood that the retreat of an entire wing of his army would have been a disaster if the victorious crusaders had maintained discipline and charged with their full force into the gap left by the fleeing horsemen, then smashed into the flank of the royal forces. On the other hand, the forest at the rear of the Polish line, which would have hindered a retreat, may have shielded the central Polish battle formation from view or from an effective attack from the flank or rear. Because everyone agrees that the Teutonic Knights’ defeat resulted from the ill-disciplined pursuit of the Lithuanian forces, the dispute about the motivation of the Lithuanian units cannot be resolved to universal satisfaction: either there was a strategic retreat on the part of a significant fraction of Vytautas’ forces or those Lithuanians, Rus’ians, and Tatars had been driven from the field in defeat.

From the standpoint of observers at a distance of almost six centuries, the important fact is that the grand master’s lines were left in disarray, a situation that the Polish and Lithuanian units led by Vytautas exploited. Those scholars who put faith in the possibility of a ruse tend to inquire how many Tatars were in Vytautas’ levy, as if only steppe warriors could perform such a manoeuvre. Unfortunately, no contemporary source gives us more information about numbers than did Długosz, and not all scholars agree even upon the composition of the Polish and Lithuanian armies. But no matter. The Tatar contingent was not large, and it does not seem to have done any harm to its pursuers. Nor does it matter – the result was the same: the disruption of the German lines on the left wing led to a subsequent victory in the centre by the Polish forces. The Lithuanians had hitherto borne the brunt of the fighting, as the casualty figures substantiate, and they were still contributing significant pressure on the foe’s disintegrating lines.

The grand master must have considered ordering a retreat and rejected it; Jungingen’s decision to gamble everything on a massive charge at the royal tent might have been the best choice available. A chaotic retreat through the forest might have led to as complete a defeat as the army in fact suffered; and surely there would have been criticism that the grand master had missed his best chance to obtain a total victory over an enemy who was equally exhausted, certainly somewhat disorganised, and perhaps ready to collapse. Already thousands of Poles and Lithuanians had fallen in combat; some units had broken, and others were wavering. Had, by chance or skill, an arrow, spear, or sword brought down the king or great prince, the day would have belonged to Jungingen.

The total losses were almost beyond contemporary calculation: the oldest and also the lowest estimate was that 8,000 men died on each side. For the Teutonic Knights that meant that at least half the armed men perished. Thousands more became prisoners. Most of the order’s troops taken captive were put to the sword; only secular knights and officers were held for ransom. The dazed survivors gathered later, exhausted, wounded, and often without equipment, in the nearest cities and castles.

Jagiełło and Vytautas, for their part, were in no position to hurry with their armies into Prussia. Even though victorious, their losses had been heavy. The troops were fatigued; the horses were exhausted. The Lithuanians had fought for many hours, and the Poles had suffered, too, from the lack of sleep and drink, the tension of waiting, and the draining excitement of pitched battle. When the Germans fled, the Poles and Lithuanians had followed them for ten miles, cutting down those they overtook, and driving others into the swamps and forests to perish. When the victorious horsemen returned to camp they needed rest. Those with the most stamina went in search of booty, returning much later as exhausted as those who had been unable to move a foot from the battlefield. Meanwhile, the foot soldiers had been busy on the battlefield, gathering weapons, money, jewellery, and clothing, finishing off the wounded, slaughtering the lower-class prisoners, and burying the dead in mass graves. The Poles and Lithuanians needed a short pause to rest and to celebrate, possibly to pray, and to care for wounded and fallen comrades. Tatars and irregular troops rushed ahead to rob, rape, kill, and burn, starting panics that would hinder the organisation of regional defence.

There was no further effective resistance. The Teutonic Knights had lost so many castellans and advocates, so many knights, and so many militia units, that defences could not be manned. Those who survived had taken refuge wherever they could, often far from their assigned posts. The highest-ranking leaders had fallen almost to a man: the grand master, the marshal, the grand commander, the treasurer, and 200 knights. Marquard von Salzbach, the order’s expert on Lithuanian affairs and a former friend of Vytautas, was apparently taken prisoner by Jagiełło’s men, then beheaded by the grand prince. He had refused to be properly humble and submissive. Arrogant and proud to the end, unrepentant about having taunted Vytautas about his mother’s virtue, he and his companions had anticipated being treated in a manner befitting their status; nevertheless, when their fate was clear there is no indication that their courage flagged. They had understood from the beginning that there was no good in being Jagiełło’s and Vytautas’ former friends.

Some contemporaries believed that Tannenberg was a disaster to the crusading cause comparable to Nicopolis, but most simply marvelled at the huge losses in men, horses, and equipment. As the continuation of Posilge’s chronicle said: ‘The army, both cavalry and infantry, was routed completely, losing lives, goods, and honour, and the number slain was beyond numbering. May God have pity on them.’

That the defeat was so total and so final was hard for contemporaries to grasp. The news spread to courts where old men remembered the exploits of their youth in Lithuania – in Germany and France the disaster could hardly be believed; to bishops and burghers in Livonia, who were not sure whether to rejoice or mourn; to wives and families in Poland and Lithuania, who both exulted in their rulers’ exploits and gave thanks for the safety of husbands, brothers, and friends; to neighbouring rulers who may have hoped for another outcome of the war, one in which perhaps all the armies would have gone down in defeat together. Everyone demanded more information, and especially an explanation of how the Teutonic Knights could have suffered such an unexpected disaster. The responses were varied. The Teutonic Knights talked about treason, the numbers of the enemy host, and unfortunate tactics; the Poles were satisfied with courage, skill at arms, good generalship, and God’s favour.

The propagandists of the order worked hard to persuade contemporaries that the disaster was not as bad as it appeared, that it was the work of the devil through his agents, the pagans and schismatics – and most of all, that it was the fault of the Saracens. Moreover, they argued that now more than ever crusaders were needed in Prussia to continue God’s work. The Polish propagandists laboured, too, to present their interpretation of events, but they did not have the long-term contacts which had been developed in many crusading Reisen. Their praise of Jagiełło and his knights tended to awaken more sympathy for the hard-pressed order than was good for Polish interests. After the first impact of the news was absorbed by the European courts, after the first months of difficulty had passed, interpretations favoured by the order tended to prevail.

The modern reader, looking back on almost six centuries of events that dwarf the battle of Tannenberg without driving it from the public mind, hardly knows how to understand the negative attitudes toward the Teutonic Knights. Comparisons to Wilhelmine Germany of 1914 and to Hitler are unworthy of comment, though Germans of those generations thought of their acts as deeds of national revenge for the battle in 1410. In the context of twentieth-century events one is tempted to say that contemporaries of Tannenberg were right, that there is a divine justice operating in the world. In concluding that the Teutonic Knights had paid the price for having lived by the sword and swaggered in a world of pride, contemporaries found that Biblical admonitions came easily to mind: Tannenberg was God’s punishment for the Teutonic Order’s outrageous conduct. Pride had risen too high – Jungingen personified his order’s universally acknowledged tendency to arrogance and anger – and a fall had to follow.

The deficiencies of this method of justifying past events (Weltgeschichte als Weltgericht) should be obvious: if victory in battle reflects God’s will, then the Tatar domination of the steppe and the harassment of Polish and Lithuanian borderlands is also a reflection of divine justice; God punishes kings by sacrificing many thousands of innocent lives. Good Old Testament theology, but hard to fit into a New Testament framework. It is best that we do not tarry long in either the shadowy realm of pop psychology or dark religious nationalism, but move back into the somewhat better-lit world of chronicles and correspondence.

Conflicting views of modern historians about the battle of Tannenberg and its aftermath make for interesting if confused reading. One could summarise them roughly by saying that until the 1960s each interpretation reflected national interests more than fact. Since then, historians have become both more polite and less certain of their inability to err. Archaeology is beginning to shed light on the battlefield, giving promise that problems left by the literary sources may be more fully resolved. Political issues in Germany and Poland that seemed to depend on every imaginable historical justification have disappeared with the political parties that sponsored them, so that at last a quiet discussion about the past is possible. Most importantly, since the fall of Communism German and Polish historians have come to respect each other sufficiently to give real attention to one another’s ideas. There is, indeed, reason to hope that some day we may come to a better and more general agreement as to what really happened at Tannenberg and what it really signified.

Special Forces Post-WWII


On the other side of the world, France and then the United States were fighting a war of attrition in Indochina. The French wanted to restore their pre-war colonial rule. The U.S. was persuaded by George Kennan and John Foster Dulles to adopt a policy of containment to rein in international communism. The locals wanted self-determination and were willing to take help from any quarter, as they had done during the Second World War. Step by reluctant step, the U.S. entered the Vietnam quagmire, unsupported, for once, by the U.K. Like Afghanistan today, it was a conflict fought against a guerrilla army, one in which the occupation of minds counted for more than the control of territory. It saw the emergence of strategic hamlets and free-fire zones (based on British experience in Malaya); civic action teams; recruitment of aboriginal tribes; and a steady buildup of Special Forces such as the Mobile Guerrilla Force and including, from 1962, the creation of Navy SEALs (described by their Vietcong adversary as “devils with green faces”) on the orders of President Kennedy. The same themes resonated in Afghanistan, but as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pointed out: “Apart from Special Forces and a few dissident colonels there has been no strong, deeply rooted constituency inside the Pentagon or elsewhere for institutionalizing the capabilities necessary to wage asymmetric or irregular conflict.” By 1970, as U.S. planes began bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail and American combat troops invaded Cambodia, the British SAS focused on another Communist threat: the potential loss of Oman, gateway to the Gulf, as a result of the despotic, medieval regime of the Ruler, Sheik bin Taimur, a British client. A coup d’etat was engineered by SIS in which the Ruler was replaced by his son, Qaboos, then under house arrest. The first problem was to open a line of contact with Britain’s chosen Ruler-in-waiting, Qaboos. His father grudgingly allowed him to receive cassette tapes of music. Qaboos, as a result of his service with the British army in Germany, liked Scottish marches, with bagpipe accompaniment. The tapes, purchased at Harrods store in London, were doctored so as to interrupt the music and relay voice messages from a friend who had shared his room at Sandhurst military college.

After a brief exchange of fire during which Bin Taimur shot himself through the foot, the deposed leader was spirited away by the Royal Air Force to live out his final years in London. The SAS then moved stealthily into Oman with a strategy that placed as much emphasis on winning hearts and minds as war-fighting. It included the extraordinary gamble of persuading the untamed hill tribes of Dhofar to change sides by arming them with the latest British rifles, and paying them. A similar strategy saved Western policy in Iraq in 2006 with the difference that in Oman, SAS officers and sergeants worked in isolation with these “turned” enemy, at great personal risk. The Oman Cocktail—a blend of bribes, development, and firepower—became a signature tactic of the SAS, out of sight of the British public in a six-year war without limits that ended in 1976. This SAS victory had momentous implications. It ensured Allied control of the gateway to the Hormuz Strait, the Gulf, and its oilfields for decades.

The SAS phenomenon spread to postwar U.S. Special Forces thanks to Charlie Beckwith, a young American officer attached to 22 SAS from 1961 to 1963, during which time he took part in jungle operations in Malaya. The informal structure and idiosyncratic discipline of the SAS that paid little heed to rank, only quality, puzzled and fascinated him. He wrote later: “I couldn’t make heads or tails of this situation. The officers were so professional, so well read, so articulate, so experienced. Why were they serving within this organization of non-regimental and apparently poorly disciplined troops? The troops resembled no military organization I had ever known…. Everything I’d been taught about soldiering, been trained to believe, was turned upside down.”

In 1977, having survived an apparently fatal gunshot wound in the abdomen in Vietnam, “Chargin’ Charlie” set up an elite Special Forces known as Delta, carefully modeled on the SAS. Its first major test, Operation Eagle Claw—an attempt to rescue U.S. diplomat-hostages in Iran in 1980—was a fiasco caused by poor air support and a top-heavy command structure. Beckwith’s ironic verdict, in a message to his British buddies, was: “You can’t make chicken chowmein out of chickenshit.” Delta survived that disaster to become the cutting edge of U.S. unconventional warfare in Iraq from 2003 and Afghanistan after campaigns in Mogadishu, 1993, Central and South America. When the going got tough in Congress, ingenious spirits in Washington such as Marine Colonel Oliver North recruited plausibly deniable ex-SAS British mercenaries and others to operate in Nicaragua. They included Major David Walker, formerly of the SAS and later head of the enigmatic private military company KMS.

The creation of Delta Force was followed in 1979 during the Iran crisis by the Foreign Operating Group (later redesignated the Intelligence Support Activity, aka “The Activity”). In 1981 the ISA ran signals intelligence that led to the rescue of U.S. General James Lee Dozier, a prisoner of Italian Red Brigade terrorists for forty-two days, as well as the 1984 attempted liberation of Bill Buckley, the CIA station chief held captive, then murdered, in Beirut; and operations in Panama, Colombia, Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Like Britain’s Special Reconnaissance Regiment, a unit with roots in the Irish conflict, the ISA also acts as the eyes and ears of an SF strike force such as Delta.

By the time the Soviet empire collapsed in 1989, Special Forces had emerged as the means to resolve political conflict without the penalties that would accompany the use of conventional armies. It was even, as M. R. D. Foot argued, a political safety-valve, a useful alternative to the mutually assured destruction of nuclear war. This history examines the validity of that novel proposition, and much else, including the extent to which the SF phenomenon licenses its operators, notably deniable warriors in the private sector, to enter a legal gray area where others dare not go, boldly or otherwise. In practice it uniquely inhabits an ambiguous zone between the politically acceptable and the officially deniable. Success comes at a cost, usually in civil liberties. Population control methods employed in the conflicts of Malaya, Vietnam, Kenya, Afghanistan, and Pakistan and internment without trial in Northern Ireland were all case studies in misapplied social engineering.

But in an age of asymmetric warfare, the techniques developed by Special Forces represent the future. The economic crash of 2008 forced the Obama regime to take a long, hard look at the Pentagon’s spending. Hillary Clinton, Obama’s Secretary of State, espoused instead Professor Joseph Nye’s concept of “smart power,” acknowledging that “most of the conflicts we are facing and will face rarely have a military solution.” It was probably no coincidence that in the final months of the Bush presidency, after prolonged campaigns that ended in stalemate, at best, a blueprint for a new military strategy emerged from the Pentagon. Dated September 2008, the 280-page document is Field Manual 3-05.130, entitled Army Special Operations Forces—Unconventional Warfare. It defines the Bush administration’s foreign policy aims as “furthering capitalism to foster economic growth…and promote the sale and mobility of U.S. products to international consumers” accompanied by such strategic tools as “global freedom of action” and “full spectrum dominance.”

To create a new world order, after the American model, the authors concede, will be the work of generations. While orthodox military dominance, worldwide, is a given, the main thrust of policy is the use of Unconventional Warfare, “working by, with or through irregular surrogates in a clandestine and/or covert manner against opposing actors.” It is also “a fundamentally indirect application of power that leverages human groups to act in concert with U.S. national objectives.” That means training and supporting surrogates in “the full range of human motivation beyond narrowly defined actual or threatened physical coercion.”

It is, essentially, war on the mind, manipulating public opinion. “The objective of Unconventional Warfare (UW) is always inherently political…. Some of the best weapons do not shoot.” Furthermore, “A fundamental military objective in Unconventional Warfare (UW) is the deliberate involvement and leveraging of civilian interference in the unconventional warfare operational area…. Actors engaged in supporting elements in the Unconventional Warfare Operational Area may rely on criminal activities, such as smuggling, narcotics or human trafficking…. The methods and networks of real or perceived criminal entities can be useful as supporting elements of a U.S.-sponsored UW effort.”

The foot soldiers in the new model army of irregulars will be “unconstrained by sovereign nation legalities and boundaries. These forces may include, but are not limited to, specific paramilitary forces, contractors, individuals, businesses…black marketers and other social or political ‘undesirables’.” The new doctrine also proposes a license to kill opponents pre-emptively, “against non-state actors operating within or behind the laws of nonbelligerent states with which the United States is not at war…or within a hostile state that harbors, either wittingly or unwittingly, these nonstate actors within its borders.”

There is more of the same. The new doctrine also synthesizes the darker history of Special Forces: the ruthless use of surrogates including civilians, involvement in the international drug trade, compulsory relocation of civilian populations, the redirection of aid programs for political purposes, and the subversion of unfriendly governments lubricated by the dollar (as in Iran in 1951). It is a pragmatic handbook for illegal military activity to “ignite a new era of global economic growth through free markets and free trade.” Its attraction to increasingly hard-up military planners facing an open-ended Global War On Terror, could be irresistible unless the Obama administration puts its foot on the ethical brake. Whatever the outcome, we cannot understand the complexities of modern, asymmetric warfare without an awareness of the sophisticated, multi-layered organism that we loosely describe as “Special Forces.”

What began as Irish and American resistance to British rule, mutating into organized guerrilla warfare, terrorism, and propaganda-by-deed along the way, has now become a military discipline in its own right. It does not discard the old skills such as, for example, the British commando raid on the Bruneval radar station in 1942 to snatch enemy secrets. But it has matured into a matrix of intelligenceled military and non-military techniques requiring skills beyond the reach of the most talented conventional soldier including public relations, deception operations, undetectable burglary, and esoteric foreign languages—alongside, of course, high-altitude freefall parachuting, scuba diving, and a voluminous knowledge of exotic weapons. There is much more. SF medical specialists learn field surgery by practicing on anaesthetized, live animals freshly wounded by gunshot to ensure realistic blood pressure levels as the medics try to revive them.

The SF military agenda is now expected to include unconventional military operations as part of a conventional campaign (see Britain’s amphibious South Atlantic War, 1982); counterinsurgency (Iraq, Afghanistan); combat rescue (Entebbe 1976); peacekeeping including weapons verification (Balkans); snatch operations to arrest wanted war criminals; rescuing allied pilots from enemy territory; and surrogate warfare using deniable paramilitaries. As an IRA joke about the SAS ran: “An SAS man is one who can speak half a dozen different languages while disguised as a bottle of Guinness.”

Yet during the decades since 1945, Special Forces have won acceptance among governments at the pace of a funeral march and are sometimes—as in Yemen in the sixties—dependent on private funding. Official caution is understandable. Elements of the British Army in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, operating as armed men in civilian clothes, came chillingly close to resembling the death squads of South America. If democratic governments have a nightmare about their armed forces, it is that some adventurous spirits will act as a law unto themselves.

As we have seen, the SAS was officially reinvented with the inauguration of a reserve unit, 21 SAS (the Artists’ Rifles) in 1947 and its merger with an ad hoc formation, the Malayan Scouts (SAS) in 1951. With the end of the Malayan Emergency, two of the regiment’s four squadrons were axed. They were restored in the 1960s, following the regiment’s successful cross-border secret war in Indonesia. Yet it was not until the regiment’s unique skills were demonstrated during the Iranian Embassy siege in London in 1980—when what started as a terrorist “spectacular” became a British government “spectacular”—that it was accepted as a national institution. What little was published about the SAS until then, in postwar years, was almost universally hostile, the work of left-wing journalists.

American Special Forces, in spite of their many successes in defending a political lost cause in Vietnam, were also slow to win permanent status in America’s order of battle. This time the leading opponents of Special Forces were the military top brass. “These [Special Forces] units,” writes Colonel John T. Carney, one of their pioneers, “had been virtual pariahs within their own armed services…in the late 1970s” after Vietnam. “In the aftermath of post-Vietnam down-sizing, funding for special operations forces had been cut by 95 per cent. Reaching a low point in 1975, special operations forces constituted only one-tenth of one per cent of the entire defense budget.” No official U.S. document even dared mention Special Operations Forces as such until 1981, when a Defense Guidance from the Pentagon directed all the armed services to develop an SOF capability.

Five years later, Senators Sam Nunn and William S. Cohen persuaded Congress to legislate for an independent U.S. Special Operations Command, to ensure that never again would “ad hoc rescue forces have to be cobbled together to meet the kind of time-urgent crisis that the Son Tay and Iranian rescue missions represented.” Another year passed before Special Operations Command could begin work as the lead agency against terrorism, just in time for Afghanistan, America’s first major Special Forces conflict since Vietnam. SF soldiers do not give up easily. As Colonel Bill Cowan USMC, one of the pioneers of the reborn Special Forces, told the author: “Following my retirement I went to serve as an aide on Capitol Hill. I got the last laugh with the bureaucracy. I was one of five key staffers who wrote the legislation which created the Special Operations Command in Tampa. The Pentagon and the White House fought the legislation tenaciously. But they lost and the command was formed, leading to Spec Ops being at the forefront as they are today.”

The story of the CIA’s paramilitary Special Operations Group followed a similar pattern. Following many misadventures involving coups and assassinations in the 1980s, the Agency retreated to intelligence analysis allied to satellite surveillance. The SOG “knuckle-draggers” were moribund. George Tenet, CIA Director, started the SOG renaissance in 1998. The process accelerated rapidly after 9/11. The budget grew by millions of dollars, equipment including jet aircraft, cargo planes reminiscent of Air America and Vietnam, speedboats, and Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles.

Their remit, handed down by President George W. Bush, was to use “all necessary means” to track down and kill Osama bin Laden and his cohorts. Not everyone—notably Defense Secretary Rumsfeld—was happy about the duplication of effort that SOG—though tiny compared with SOCOM—represented. In 2005 he unveiled yet another weapon to be added to SOCOM’s armory. The Marines had landed, in the form of 2,500 Leathernecks and sailors, to form an entity known as MarSOC (U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command). The Corps was not happy, for it creamed off some of its best reconnaissance talent. It was also to lead to one of the most disputed firefights of the Afghanistan campaign, and an equally controversial court of inquiry that exonerated two officers.

The CIA, meanwhile, continued to recruit experienced Special Forces officers, training some of them for a year in spycraft, before sending them back to the Agency’s preferred form of low-profile warfare, working through proxies. For a time after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, a symbiosis of CIA and SOCOM functioned well enough. But the two have continued to work in parallel, rather than together, with mixed results. Should President Barack Obama conclude some time in the future that U.S. strategy requires a change of emphasis, away from hearts-and-minds toward Howard Hart’s nostrum (“Cut a deal with the Taliban”) and Senator Biden’s wish to concentrate America’s fire on al Qaeda, it suggests a bigger role for the CIA’s Special Operations Group. The McChrystal formula, publicly endorsed by the president at West Point on 2 December 2009 to safeguard civilians in the most populous areas of Afghanistan (and, by extension, Pakistan), will be a task that emphasizes the role of SOCOM, as well as the poor bloody infantry.

But we should note that Obama, a cautious cat, hedged his bets. He said: “The struggle against violent extremism will not be finished quickly and it extends well beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan…. Unlike the great power conflicts and clear lines of division that defined the 20th century, our effort will involve disorderly regions and diffuse enemies. So as a result…we will have to be nimble and precise in our use of military power. Where al Qaeda and its allies attempt to establish a foothold—whether in Somalia or Yemen or elsewhere—they must be confronted by growing pressure and strong partnerships.” Note the language. For “nimble and precise,” read “Special Operations Forces.” At the military level, the symbiosis of CIA paramilitary and intelligence combined with Special Operations Forces was the future war-fighting model beyond the time-limited commitment to Karzai’s Afghanistan.