After Yorktown


The siege of Yorktown ended with the surrender of a second British army, marking effective British defeat.

During the uncertain period immediately after Yorktown, Washington was doing his best to keep up America’s guard. He did not have the luxury of assuming that Britain had had enough of the war. He had to prepare for the worst. He worried that the euphoria generated everywhere by the Yorktown victory would cause patriots to forget a war was still on. As far as he was concerned, Yorktown was only one battle. King George had not given up. The British army and navy were still on American soil.

He told Governor Trumbull that thinking the victory ended the war was “a delusive hope.” To General Greene he confided, “I am apprehensive that the states, elated by the late success, and taking it for granted that Great Britain will no longer support so losing a contest, will relax in their preparations for the next campaign.”

Washington was taking nothing for granted. Before leaving camp at Williamsburg, he divided his army, sending part of it south, under Major General St. Clair, to reinforce Greene, and the remainder north. New Jersey men went to Morristown, while two regiments from New York, under General James Clinton, went to Pompton, and the rest marched back to the Hudson and settled at New Windsor, close to Newburgh.

On November 5 Washington finally left Williamsburg. He planned to remain for a time in Virginia, tending to personal business—consoling Martha for the loss of her son Jacky Custis; dealing with his difficult mother, Mary; and getting brought up to date on affairs at Mount Vernon, where he arrived on November 13 for a few days’ rest.

Of course, official business was always on his mind. He was very unhappy—even though he knew it was coming—when de Grasse stood out from Chesapeake Bay on November 4 and sailed for the Caribbean. Washington tried his best to get him to stay a little longer and attack Charleston or Wilmington, but de Grasse had commitments to the Spanish he could not put aside. At least Washington had the satisfaction of knowing that a little over a week after de Grasse left, Hood sailed back to the Caribbean with eighteen sail of the line, dramatically lessening the probability of any major British move in North America before spring. Washington asked de Grasse if he would return in 1782 for a possible attack on New York or Charleston, and de Grasse promised that he would ask his government.

On November 15 Washington wrote to Lafayette about the absolute necessity of naval superiority for the spring campaign. He lamented the inability of the allies to make a joint attack on Charleston after Yorktown, which he was convinced would have ended the war. He hoped Lafayette’s growing influence in Paris would result in orders to de Grasse to bring a huge fleet to America the following year.

After a few days at home, Washington left Mount Vernon with Martha on November 20 and traveled to Philadelphia, arriving six days later. He spent the next four months in the capital, trying to harden the country for the tough road ahead. It wasn’t easy, nor did he expect it would be. Probably the most difficult problem he faced was finding money. He worked closely with finance superintendent Robert Morris to find a revenue stream. While searching, they needed to create the appearance of solvency so that they could carry on the war.

The basic problem they faced was whether the states were going to support a central government with the power to tax—in other words, whether or not there was going to be a United States of America. The states had not yet decided. At the moment, they were jealously guarding their right to raise money and refusing Congress any power to do so, while at the same time failing to send badly needed funds to Philadelphia. Governor Clinton, in particular, acted at times as if New York were an independent country.

If the states refused to grant Congress the power to raise any revenue, even on imports, the central government could not function. Rhode Island vetoed an impost duty that was proposed and put to a vote. The state assembly in Providence, led by John Brown, a prominent trader who made a fortune during the war, voted unanimously to reject a duty on imports. Virginia later did the same for ideological reasons, under the influence of Arthur Lee and Richard Henry Lee, who did not want a strong central government.

Neither Washington nor Morris let the matter rest. As Washington always had in the past, he carried on and tried, now with Morris’s indispensable help, to find a way to keep the army together. If Congress had no way to raise money, it would have to be borrowed from France or Holland. Both countries ultimately came through, although obviously this method of funding—with the Americans refusing to tax themselves—was not going to continue. Morris employed a number of other expedients, but without the ability to tax they were bound to be short-lived.

During his time in Philadelphia, Washington approved a plan to capture Prince William Henry, George III’s son and third in line to the British throne. The seventeen-year-old was serving in New York as a midshipman aboard Admiral Digby’s flagship, Prince George, and staying in the city with Digby. Washington planned to take them both.

The arrival of the prince on September 24 had been a complete surprise to everyone. Loyalists were quick to believe that his presence meant the British intended to stay, no matter what happened at Yorktown. A feeling of euphoria spread among them, something they hadn’t felt for some time. They had been afraid of what was happening to Cornwallis, afraid that Britain might desert them if things went badly. De Grasse had already beaten Graves, and Cornwallis was in grave danger. Clinton, Graves, Digby, and Hood were frantically trying to cobble together a task force to rescue him.

In spite of the tense atmosphere, Loyalists celebrated the only royal to ever have visited New York or, indeed, America. Many felt that had the king himself come much earlier—even before the Tea Party—his presence would have made a significant difference in people’s attitudes, and perhaps his own. The young prince’s visit became more important to Loyalists than anything else.

Colonel Matthias Ogden of New Jersey proposed the plan to capture His Royal Highness, and Washington approved it on March 28, 1782. Attempting to capture high-ranking people was a common practice, which is why Generals Washington and Clinton always had a substantial guard around them. Seizing the king’s son, however, was very different. It had the potential to create an enormous backlash in London and throughout England. Whether Washington realized the complications that might develop if he were successful isn’t known. He was enthusiastic about the enterprise. He told Ogden, “In case of success, you will, as soon as you get … [the prisoners] to a place of safety [in New Jersey], treat them with all possible respect; but you are to delay no time in conveying them to Congress, and reporting your proceedings with a copy of these orders.”

As things turned out, Ogden was forced to cancel the plot. General Clinton had gotten wind that something was up, although he did not know quite what. He probably thought that an attempt was going to be made on him. Guards were dramatically increased around him, Digby, and the prince. What would have happened had the mission succeeded can only be guessed at, but certainly it would have caused an uproar in England that might have given the king enough renewed political support to prolong the war, bringing about a result just the opposite of what Washington intended. Approving Colonel Ogden’s daring proposal was not one of the commander in chief’s better decisions.

Washington left Philadelphia on March 23 with Martha and arrived seven days later at Newburgh, New York, the army’s winter quarters on the Hudson, fourteen miles above West Point. After dealing with politicians in Philadelphia, they must have felt some relief to be rejoining the army for the spring campaign. To be sure, the problems Washington faced in Newburgh were great, but not as infuriating and frustrating as those in the capital. Yet the state of the army was certainly troubling. The long winter was almost over; the men had suffered through cold, deprivation, and lack of pay once more. Last winter their legitimate grievances had produced heartrending mutinies. Washington was apprehensive about the mood of the troops now, knowing that he did not even have back pay to offer them.

He did have hope, however. By now it was clear—even to Washington—that Yorktown had had a much bigger impact on the British than he had originally thought. The king had been unable to brush off the defeat as a temporary setback. Fundamental changes were taking place in London. Washington wrote to General Greene on March 18 about the encouraging signs. “By late advices from Europe, and from the declaration of the British ministers themselves,” he told him, “it appears that they have done with all thoughts of an excursive war, and that they mean to send but small, if any further reinforcements to America.” Washington began thinking that the British would relinquish all their posts except New York and concentrate their forces there. To what end was unclear.

His optimism soon faded, however, when he heard of Admiral Rodney’s stunning victory over de Grasse on April 12 at the Battle of the Saintes. Britain was now celebrating another classic victory by a great naval hero. Rodney was the man of the hour again. He had never been blamed for what had happened in America. People generally accepted poor health as a perfectly good excuse for his not having been at Chesapeake Bay. His failure to stop de Grasse in the Caribbean before the French fleet ever got to America was never mentioned.

Lord Sandwich was receiving plaudits for his appointment of Rodney. In the late fall of 1781, when Sandwich realized that the French were planning a major campaign in the Caribbean after hurricane season, he had plucked Rodney from retirement and sent him into action once more.

Jamaica was obviously a target of the French, and the other sugar islands were as well. Losing both America and Jamaica would be intolerable. Another major defeat would have certainly cost Sandwich his job as first lord of the Admiralty, which, at the time, he had been trying hard to keep. It was in desperation that he had sent for Rodney—who was at Bath tending to his gout and a stone, the same ailments that had plagued him for years, and that plagued most old sailors. The first lord had urged—begged would be a better word—him to take command of the Leeward Islands station once more and counter de Grasse. The king helped by having a personal interview with Rodney.

Sandwich had been indifferent the previous year when Rodney had made his request to come home for health reasons, even if it meant he would not be going to America. It did not seem to matter to Sandwich in 1781 which admiral led the fleet in America. Now, regardless of Rodney’s health concerns, Sandwich pressured him to undertake an assignment that would have taxed any admiral at any age.

Rodney responded immediately, his ailments seeming to be of no concern, and on January 8, 1782, he stood out from Plymouth with a powerful squadron, reaching St. Lucia in the middle of February. He quickly discovered that the enterprising de Grasse had already taken St. Eustatius, St. Kitts, Nevis, Montserrat, and Demerara. Rodney had arrived just in time.

Hood was already at St. Lucia, and his fleet, combined with Rodney’s, gave them thirty-six sail of the line. De Grasse had thirty-five. After refurbishing his ships, Rodney was ready, and when de Grasse departed Fort Royal Bay on April 8 Rodney was right after him, standing out from St. Lucia, thirty miles away. De Grasse, who had a large convoy to look after, would have preferred avoiding combat at the moment, but Rodney was determined to fight.

He did not get the full-scale battle he wanted until the twelfth, off Les Saintes, a tiny group of islands between the southern end of Guadeloupe and the northern end of Dominica. At the end of that unforgettable day, Rodney had defeated the French decisively. De Grasse and his Ville de Paris surrendered, along with four other sail of the line. The rest of the French fleet, some twenty-five battleships, got away. Hood, who was Rodney’s second throughout, wanted to chase them, but Rodney, who had been maneuvering and fighting for four days, had had enough. Hood, not unexpectedly, was highly critical of standing down at this point. He insisted that twenty more enemy battleships could have been captured. “I am very confident,” he wrote later, “we should have had twenty sail of the enemy’s ships before dark…. Why he [Rodney] should bring the fleet to because the Ville de Paris was taken, I cannot reconcile.”

In spite of Hood’s criticism, Rodney’s victory was a great triumph that had far-reaching effects, one of them being the end of any French naval support for Washington in 1782. To what degree the victory would change Britain’s approach to the American war and peace negotiations remained to be seen. At a minimum, it would stiffen London’s attitude and soften Vergennes’.

Rodney’s stunning success inevitably led to conjecture about what would have happened had he been in command of the British fleet at the decisive battle off Cape Henry, Virginia, on September 5, 1781. It was widely believed that even with a numerically smaller fleet, Rodney would have won, and that that would have changed everything. Even Hood believed that Rodney would have been victorious. Of course, at the Saintes, Rodney had a numerical advantage, which he would not have had at the Chesapeake, although he would have had at least one more ship than Graves did.

Actually, during the decisive part of the battle off the Saintes—between noon and seven o’clock on the evening of the twelfth—Rodney had a six-ship advantage, thirty-six to thirty. It was not his six-ship advantage that brought victory, however, but rather a fortunate shift in wind direction and Rodney’s using it to break the French line, which was moving in the opposite direction from his, into three disorganized groupings that made the French center especially vulnerable. A numerical advantage, a fortunate shift of wind, and unorthodox tactics won the day.

Rodney would certainly have had to improvise in order to beat de Grasse off Virginia, and there’s no doubt that he would have done so. He probably would have begun with Barras, dealing with him before tackling de Grasse. It’s hard to imagine Rodney not doing whatever he had to, regardless of tradition or outmoded rules of engagement, to win.

Rodney’s behavior before, during, and after the Battle of the Saintes was more evidence that his anger at Clinton’s inexplicable conduct in New York during September of 1780 was actually what made him decide to go home the following year and let Admirals Graves and Hood handle de Grasse and the French fleet. It’s hard not to conclude that when Sandwich called him to go back to the Caribbean to deal with de Grasse in the late fall of 1781, he jumped at the chance, regardless of his ailments, because he had a guilty conscience about having avoided de Grasse and the Chesapeake earlier in the year.

Before Washington received news of the Saintes, he was aware of Parliament’s momentous decision not to pursue offensive war in America, but he did not know if he could trust the hopeful trend after Rodney’s victory. The British could change their minds. He was receiving newspapers from London and had an idea of parliamentary sentiment; still, he could not be sure. On June 24, 1782, he wrote to Rochambeau, who had kept his army in Virginia after Yorktown, proposing a meeting to discuss the implications of de Grasse’s defeat. Obviously there would be no joint campaign in 1782. Both sides were in a defensive mode, waiting on events, especially the results of impending peace negotiations in Paris.


Siege of Pleven


The artillery battle at Pleven. The battery of siege guns on the Grand Duke Mount, by Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky.


The Capture of the Grivitsa redoubt at Pleven, by Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky.


Date: July 19-December 10, 1877

Location: Pleven (Plevna) in northern Bulgaria

Opponents (* winner)

*Russians, Romanians, Bulgarians



Russians, Romanians, Bulgarians: Grand Duke Nicholas; Prince Charles of Romania

Ottomans: Ghazi Osman Pasha

Approx. # Troops 150,000, including 120,000 Russians plus Romanians and Bulgarian volunteers

Ottomans: Probably more than 50,000


Regarded as the birthright of modern Bulgaria, the battle opens the way for the Russians to move south against Constantinople (Istanbul), but their stand here wins considerable sympathy in Western Europe for the Ottomans

In the early 1870s Ottoman power was in decline, but the empire still controlled most of the Balkan Peninsula. In the south Greece was independent, while to the north Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro enjoyed the status of autonomous principalities. In 1875 and 1876 uprisings occurred in Herzegovina, Bosnia, and Macedonia. Then in mid-1876 the Bulgarians also rose, only to be slaughtered by the Ottomans. Serbia and Montenegro then declared war on the Ottoman Empire. Russia, defeated in the Crimean War of 1854-1856 by a coalition that included the Ottomans, sought to recoup its prestige in the Balkans and secure a warm-water port on the Mediterranean. As a result, concerns mounted that fighting in the Balkans might lead to a general European war.

While the major European powers discussed intervention, the Ottomans, led by Ghazi Osman Pasha, were winning the war. By the autumn of 1876 it was clear that they would soon capture Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. That October Russia demanded an armistice, which the Ottomans accepted. A conference at Constantinople in December soon disbanded without tangible result, and in March 1877 Serbia made peace with the Ottoman Empire. Sentiment in Russia was then so strong for intervention that despite warnings of bankruptcy from his minister of finance, Czar Alexander II declared war on the Ottomans in April 1877, beginning the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878.

Because the Ottomans controlled the Black Sea with ironclad warships, a Russian land invasion proved necessary. In the last week of April 1877 two Russian armies invaded: one in Caucasia, advancing on Kars, Ardahan, and Erzurum, and the other in the Balkans. Romania was essential to a Russian drive down the eastern part of the Balkan Peninsula, and following agreement between Prince Charles of Romania and Alexander II, Russian troops crossed the Prut (Pruth) River into Moldavia. The Ottomans responded by shelling Romanian forts at the mouth of the Danube, whereupon on May 21 Romania declared both war on the Ottoman Empire and its independence. Serbia reentered the war in December. Bulgarian irregular forces fought with Russia, and Montenegro remained at war, as it had been since June 1876. Romanian support was vital to the Russian effort in terms of both geographical position and manpower in the ensuing campaign.

Russian forces under nominal command of Grand Duke Nicholas, brother of the czar, crossed the Danube River on June 26 and took Svistov (Stistova) and Nikopol (Nicopolis) on the river before advancing to Pleven (Plevna, Plevne), about 25 miles south of Nikopol. The Bulgarians acclaimed the Russians as liberators. Russian general Nikolai P. de Krudener, who had actual command, established his headquarters at Tirnovo and sent forces across the Balkan Mountains into Thrace, then back toward Shipka Pass through the mountains to defeat the Ottomans. Russian troops, assisted by Bulgarian partisans, also raided in the Maritza Valley, seemingly threatening Adrianopole.

The military situation changed when Sultan Abdul Aziz appointed two competent generals: Mehemed Ali, named Ottoman commander in Europe, and GhazI Osman Pasha. Mehemed Ali defeated the Russians in the south, driving them back to the Balkan Mountains with heavy losses. To the north the main Russian armies encountered a formidable obstacle in Ottoman forces sent to the Danube under Osman Pasha. Soon he had entrenched his men at Pleven. Ottoman engineers created in the rocky valley there a formidable fortress of earthworks with redoubts, trenches, and gun emplacements. The 10-mile Ottoman defensive perimeter was lightly held, with reserves in a secure central location from which they could rush to any threatened point.

Superior numbers led the Russians to underestimate their adversary. Failing to adequately reconnoiter the Ottoman positions, on July 19, 1877, the Russians assaulted the strongest portion of the line and, to their surprise, were repulsed with

3,000 casualties. The battle demonstrated the superiority of machine weapons in the defense, as the Ottomans were equipped with modern breech-loading rifles imported from the United States. They also had light mobile artillery. On July 30 Russian forces again attacked and again were repulsed.

Over the next six weeks Osman Pasha worked to improve his defenses, while the Russians demanded that Prince Charles of Romania furnish additional manpower. Charles agreed on the condition that he receive command of the joint Romanian-Russian force. Confident of victory, the allies then planned an attack from three sides with 110,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry. On September 6, 150 Russian guns began a preparatory bombardment. The Ottoman earthworks suffered little damage, and there were relatively few personnel casualties. Wet weather also worked to the advantage of the defenders.

The infantry attack began on schedule on September 11. With Alexander II in attendance, at 1:00 p.m. the artillery fire ceased, and the infantry began their assault. The attackers took a number of Ottoman redoubts, and for several days it appeared that the allies would be victorious. But on the third day the Ottomans successfully counterattacked. The allies suffered 21,000 casualties for their efforts.

Russian war minister Dimitri Aleksevich Miliutin now recalled brilliant engineer General Franz Eduard Ivanovich Todleben, who had directed the defense of Sevastopol during the Crimean War. Todleben advised that Pleven be encircled and its garrison starved into submission. Osman Pasha, having twice defeated a force double his own in size, would have preferred a withdrawal while it was still possible, but the battle had captured the attention of Europe and created a positive image of Ottomans as heroic and tenacious fighters. Sultan Abdul Hamid therefore ordered him to hold out and promised to send a relief force.

The Russians committed 120,000 men and 5,000 guns to the siege. They also placed Todleben in charge of siege operations. Other Russian forces under General Ossip Gourko ravaged the countryside, preventing Ottoman supply columns from reaching Pleven from the south. The Russians also easily defeated and turned back the sultan’s poorly trained relief force.

Winter closed in, and the Ottoman defenders at Pleven, short of ammunition, were soon reduced to starvation. Osman Pasha knew that his only hope was a surprise breakout. On the night of December 9-10 the Ottomans threw bridges across the Vid River to the west and then advanced on the Russian outposts. The Ottomans carried the first Russian trenches, and the fighting was hand to hand. At this point, Osman Pasha was wounded and his horse shot from beneath him.

Rumors of Osman Pasha’s death led to panic among the Ottoman troops, who broke and fled. Osman Pasha surrendered Pleven and its 43,338 defenders on December 10. Although the Russians treated Osman Pasha well, thousands of Ottoman prisoners perished in the snows on their trek to captivity, and Bulgarians butchered many seriously wounded Ottoman prisoners left behind in military hospitals. Some 34,000 allied troops perished in the siege. With the Russians threatening Constantinople itself, in February 1878 the Ottomans sued for peace.

Russia imposed harsh terms in the Treaty of San Stefano on March 3, 1878, leaving the Ottoman Empire only a small strip of territory on the European side of the straits. Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro were enlarged, but the major territorial change was the creation of a new large autonomous Bulgaria, including most of Macedonia from the Aegean Sea to Albania. This would make Bulgaria the largest of the Balkan states, although the assumption was that it would be dominated by Russia. The Battle of Pleven is therefore regarded by Bulgarians as marking the birth of their nation. The treaty did not last, however. Britain and Austria-Hungary threatened war if the treaty was not revised, and Russia agreed to an international conference that met in Berlin in June and July 1878.

Under the terms of the Treaty of Berlin, Bulgaria was divided into three parts. Bulgaria proper (the northern section) became an autonomous principality subject to tribute to the sultan; eastern Rumelia, the southeastern part, received a measure of autonomy; and the rest of Bulgaria was restored to the sultan. Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro all became independent, and Greece received Thessaly. Russia received from Romania the small strip of Bessarabia lost in 1856 and territory around Batum, Ardahan, and Kars that it had conquered in the Caucasus, while Romania had to be content with part of the Dobrudja. Austria-Hungary secured the right to occupy and administer, though not annex, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The region continued to smolder, however. During 1912-1913 there were two Balkan wars, both of which threatened to become wider conflicts. Then in June 1914 the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand led to a third Balkan war that this time became World War I. The military lesson of the siege of Pleven—that modern machine weapons gave superiority to the defense—was soon to be relearned.


Herbert, Frederick William von. The Defense of Plevna, 1877. Ankara, Turkey: Ministry of Culture, 1990.

Kinross, Lord [John Patrick]. The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire. New York: William Morrow, 1977.

Sumner, B. H. Russia and the Balkans, 1870-1880. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1937.

Edward III captures Calais



Calais, with a population of about 8,000, was not then a town of any great commercial significance. Its harbour was small and liable to silt up, and most travel between England and Europe was through Wissant or Boulogne, both of which had much better and more easily navigable approaches. For all that, it was the nearest French port to England and might be developed, and it had for years been a scourge of English trade as a nest of piracy. From the French point of view, although it was only a minor trading post, the town was close to the border with Flanders and important as a military base to guard against Flemish incursions, and it had been well garrisoned and stocked with enough provisions to withstand a long siege. Moving through Neufchâtel and Wissant, the English army reached the heights of Sangatte on 3 September, 1346 from where they could see their objective.

It is unlikely that Edward ever thought that he could take Calais by a coup de main, for it was well sited for defence. To the north was the harbour and the open sea, to the west was a river with only one bridge, the Neuillet bridge, and to the east and south was marshland criss-crossed by streams and rivulets that constantly changed their course. Within those natural defences was a series of well-constructed walls, themselves protected by moats, and at the western end was the castle, with its own separate system of walls, towers and ditches. The English did not even attempt to assault the walls, but instead prepared for a long siege. This was standard practice since, before the development of effective cannon, it was very unusual for a medieval castle or fortified town to be taken by assault. Far more often it was starvation, disease or treachery that forced capitulation, and it was common for a besieged commander to agree with the besieger that, if not relieved by a certain date, he would surrender the fortress. If, however, a castle or fortress had to be assaulted, there were three ways in: over the walls, through the walls or under the walls.

Assault over the walls could be achieved by the use of belfries or scaling ladders, or both. The belfry was a three- or four-storey wooden tower on wheels or runners. Packed with archers and men-at-arms, it would be pushed up close to the wall until the attackers could leap from the top storey onto the wall. It was a very old stratagem – the Romans had made frequent use of belfries – and it took much time and labour to place them in position. Once packed with men, a belfry was very heavy and the ground had to be levelled and a road built to allow it to be pushed along. All this preparation would be obvious to the defenders, who would try to set the belfry on fire with fire arrows or by throwing burning balls of straw soaked in pitch at it, and mass their own men on the walls as it approached. While the belfry was still theoretically on the equipment tables of a medieval siege train, it was hardly ever actually built or used. Scaling ladders were easier to make and to conceal until the last minute, but, unless there were sufficient archers or crossbowmen to keep the defenders away from the walls, this too was a dubious way of earning a living, particularly for the first man up the ladder.

Attacking through the walls meant creating a breach, and this could only be done with a battering ram or a bore, both of which were very slow and vulnerable to boulders and, once again, fireballs hurled onto them from above. Going under the walls involved the use of miners. Rather than attempt to tunnel beneath the walls and then emerge inside the castle, like the demon king popping up through a trapdoor in a pantomime, miners would try to collapse the walls. The mining team would tunnel under the wall, supporting the roof of the tunnel by wooden pit props. The tunnel would then be packed with combustible materials (dead pigs, having lots of body fat, were a favourite) and ignited. Once the pit props had burned through, the tunnel would collapse and the walls above with it.

There was a variety of machinery which could be used to hurl projectiles at the walls or into the besieged town. The mangonel relied on the energy of twisted ropes – human hair was regarded as the best material for mangonel ropes – to hurl a stone or fireball from the end of a beam. The springal, little different from the Roman ballista, was a giant crossbow, but, like its hand-held baby brother, it was slow to load and only effective if used in massed batteries. The trebuchet relied on a counterweight on a beam with a huge sling on its end and could deliver seriously large stones against or over a wall, while the petrary was an enormous catapult. It was claimed that the mangonel could be used to propel dead horses into towns in an early version of biological warfare, and the chronicler Froissart avers that, when the French were besieging Auberoche in Aquitaine in 1345, they captured an English messenger sent out to contact relieving forces, killed him and returned his body over the walls with a petrary – a somewhat unlikely tale. Edward may have had some early cannon in his siege train, and there is some evidence that three may have been on the field at Crécy. Descriptions are vague: they may have fired stone balls or large darts, but, as the secret of casting gun barrels was as yet unknown and the manufacture of gunpowder imprecise, they will have done little but frighten the horses and were probably more dangerous to the gunners who served them than to the enemy. If they did exist, they seem to have played little part in the siege of Calais.

At Calais, going over or through the walls was not an option as the moats and ditches protected the approaches; mining was ruled out because the soil was waterlogged and siege engines were too heavy to be moved over the marshy ground. Starvation was the only answer and the English were quite prepared to wait. At long last the requested reinforcements arrived from England and the fleet under Sir John de Montgomery, Admiral of the South, hove to off Calais at around the same time as the army got there on land. The soldiers began to block off all roads and tracks running to and from the town, and a vast camp was set up on the dry ground around the church of St Peter where the roads from Boulogne and Ardres crossed. The camp was intended to be in position for the long term, and soon shops, armourers’ tents, quarters for the nobility, butts for the archers, paddocks for the horses, and all the facilities of a large town were in place or being constructed. While the army was on the move, it could feed itself from the French countryside, but, now that it was static, the available food in the immediate area would soon be exhausted and provisions would have to be brought in.

It is sad but perhaps inevitable that interest in military history is centred on the battles and those who fought them, and that most soldiers would rather be out killing people than in barracks counting blankets. But the fact is that you can have the best soldiers in the world, superbly trained, highly motivated, brilliantly led and equipped with the best weapons that money can buy, but, if you cannot feed them, house them, resupply them,move them and tend them when they are sick or wounded, then you can do nothing. Administering an army is far more difficult than commanding it in battle. The real heroes of most of England’s and Britain’s successful wars are the logisticians, and they get precious little recognition for it. For the siege of Calais, government agents went out all over southern England to purchase foodstuffs and other supplies for the army. They had to be found, collected, paid for, moved to the ports, loaded on ships – which themselves had to be impressed – and delivered to the army. The French scored a minor success when a fleet of galleys from the Seine intercepted one of the first supply convoys and sank or burned most of the ships, killing the crews and dumping the cargoes. Future convoys would have men-at-arms or archers on board and the supply line was never broken again, but the need to put soldiers on the ships did increase the expense of the logistic effort.

At Calais, a brief attempt to bring down the walls by hurling rocks at them failed when the ground was too soft to allow a firm foundation for the trebuchets and petraries; an ingenious plan to assail the walls from boats fitted with scaling ladders was finally abandoned despite considerable expenditure in preparing the boats. And so the blockade went on. Although the town was well provisioned, its stores would not last forever, so the commander of the garrison, Jean de Vienne, an experienced and competent officer, decided to evict his useless mouths, expelling around 2,000 civilians – women, children, the old, the sick and the weak – into no-man’s-land between the walls and the investing army. At first Edward would not allow them to pass through his lines and, as there was nothing for them to eat save what little they had managed to carry away with them, they soon began to die. Edward relented and the dispossessed were allowed passage through the siege lines. While no food could reach the garrison overland and attempts to run supplies in by sea were usually prevented by the English navy, the occasional blockade-runner did manage to reach the harbour, but the quantities that could be delivered by this means were small.

During the latter part of summer and autumn, life within the English camp was reasonably comfortable, but with the onset of winter conditions began to deteriorate. An army on the move could keep reasonably healthy, but, once it became static, disease inevitably followed. Edward’s army of 1346 was no exception. Little attention was paid to the cleanliness of water sources, latrine arrangements were primitive, flies and rats abounded, and soon dysentery – ‘the bloody flux’ – began to take its toll. Dysentery is an infection of the gut and is passed on by contact with an infected person or by touching or eating something that has been handled by an infected person. Symptoms include watery diarrhoea, often with blood in the faeces, nausea and vomiting, stomach pains and fever. While medieval man was probably more resistant to it than we are today, it could still be fatal, and, even if it was not, a man’s ability to do his duty was severely affected. Many of the spearmen and archers would have been infested with worms, and colds and influenza would have been common. Malaria was then endemic throughout Europe but was more of a summer affliction, there being a lot fewer mosquitoes around in the winter.

On top of the health hazards, manning siege lines was boring and gave few opportunities for acquiring glory or loot. Hence there was a steady trickle of desertion by archers and spearmen, while many of the knights found excuses to return to England to sort out a land dispute or see to a son’s marriage. There was also a problem with the horses, which started to die off from the cold. Or so the chroniclers tell us, but, as horses grow a substantial winter coat and are very capable of surviving all but the most severe weather, it may have been an epidemic of strangles, or perhaps starvation: hay would have been running out and barley and rye intended for the horses may have been eaten by the men.

The French had still not faced up to the implications of what they termed la déconfiture de Crécy (the collapse of Crécy), but Philip could not ignore the English army camped around Calais, where determined attempts to lift the siege by sea had proved futile. In early 1347, the French vassals were ordered to muster their troops at Amiens by Whitsuntide (28 May in 1347). The troops did arrive, eventually, but it was not until July that the army was ready to move, and, when they did, Edward was understandably concerned. Although the summer weather had improved the health of his army, there was still a large number on the sick list; long months in the siege lines had induced boredom and low morale; many soldiers had lost their physical fitness and fighting edge; and in June a reinforcement of the healthiest 100 men-at-arms and 400 archers had been sent off to Dagworth in Brittany. Although this detachment weakened the Calais army, it was a highly cost-effective investment. Charles of Blois had reinstituted the siege of La Roche-Derrien, hoping that by so doing he could lure the English army into trying to lift the siege, which might allow him to fight and win a battle on his own terms. Instead, it was the French who suffered a crushing defeat, for on 20 June 1347 Sir Thomas Dagworth led a night attack on the French army dispersed around its siege lines and defeated it piecemeal. Sir Thomas himself was wounded and captured, escaped, then captured and escaped again. When dawn broke on 21 June, nearly half the French men-at-arms had been killed, and those nobles not killed had been captured, including Charles of Blois himself, whom Sir Thomas sold to the king for £3,500. At a stroke the whole balance of power in Brittany had been reversed and the foundations laid for the eventual success of the Montfort faction in the Breton war of succession.

Meanwhile, within Calais the siege was biting ever more sharply. The garrison had eaten all the horses and was starting on the cats and dogs, so Jean de Vienne expelled another 400 citizens who were not contributing to the defence. This time Edward did not permit them to pass through his lines; he refused them food and water, and let them die. Not everyone in the English camp agreed with this, but most did. By allowing the previous expellees to pass without hindrance, the English had given de Vienne a pain-free way of extending the siege by reducing his ration strength, and there was also the question of spies and messengers being sent out in the guise of refugees. It was a harsh decision, but the right one in the circumstances.

With the approach of the French army from Amiens, summonses were sent to England to recall knights on furlough and those who had gone back to buy horses to replace those that had died during the winter. In any siege the investing army had not only to worry about sallies from the defenders, but also to guard against the risk of being attacked from behind by a relieving force. The French army got as far as Sangatte, saw that the English were apparently soundly entrenched and well able to withstand an attack (which they probably were, but not as well able as it appeared), issued a half-hearted challenge to come out and fight, and then withdrew. The news of La Roche-Derrien had reached the army, the men were not enthusiastic after Crécy the previous year, and many saw no point in continuing the war. As they scuttled back to Amiens, they were followed up by a mounted party led by the earls of Lancaster and Northampton, who gave them no chance to rest or recover their appetite for a fight. Philip now ordered his divisions to disband.

Inside Calais, Jean de Vienne had hung on in the hope of relief, and with the withdrawal of Philip’s army that last chance was gone. A messenger was sent out offering to negotiate and Edward sent Sir Walter Manny in to parley. De Vienne said that he would surrender the town if the lives of the garrison and the property of the inhabitants were spared. Manny relayed the king’s orders that, in accordance with the customs of war at the time, the lives of a garrison that held out during a siege were forfeit. Only unconditional surrender was acceptable and Edward would do with soldiers and civilians as he wished. This policy was not popular with Edward’s own knights, who pointed out that to kill men for doing their duty could rebound on them in the future. The whole point of adhering to modern laws of armed conflict that protect prisoners of war is to ensure that the other side does the same, and Manny and the others were arguing that very same point. Eventually, the king gave way. It was relayed to de Vienne that the majority of the garrison and the civilians would be spared, but not their property, and six of the leading men of the town were to come to King Edward dressed only in their shirts and with nooses around their necks bearing the keys of the city.

On the morning of 3 August 1347, Calais surrendered, and what happened next became the stuff of the French legend-makers, desperate to produce some tale of heroism from the disastrous years of 1346 and 1347. The story goes that the six burgesses, led by Eustache de Saint-Pierre, who had supposedly volunteered for the task, came out of the city gates to find the whole English army drawn up on parade, with the king and his queen and senior officers seated on a platform. The emaciated party approached the platform and fell on their knees, and Saint-Pierre asked for mercy. Edward refused and ordered them to be beheaded. At once there began a murmuring among the senior officers – to execute the men at once was bad enough, to execute them unshriven would be disgraceful. Edward was unmoved, and only when the pregnant queen, Philippa of Hainault, pleaded piteously with him was he moved to spare their lives. The truth, though, is surely that this was a carefully prepared and rehearsed charade to show the world that Edward was capable of great mercy: a queen might well argue with her husband in private, but not in public; similarly, whatever advice the king’s senior commanders might proffer in the council chamber, they would not cross him in the presence of a beaten enemy. As it was, Saint-Pierre and his companions were indeed spared.

Jean de Vienne and the more prominent of the French knights were sent off to join the growing band of notables in the Tower, and all the buildings of Calais and their contents were now to be the property of King Edward. Despite the insignificance of Calais as a trading port, it turned out to be stuffed with riches of all descriptions, largely as a result of many years of piracy, and, once the majority of the inhabitants had been expelled with little more than what they stood up in, the spoils of victory were collected and doled out. It was said that there was not a woman in England who did not wear something taken from Calais. It was Edward’s intention to keep Calais, but rather than rule it as part of English France, it would become a colony, with English merchants and tradesmen encouraged to settle there permanently with the promise of free housing and land. Calais remained English for another 211 years, until it was lost through Tudor neglect and French guile in the reign of Mary Tudor.

Edward’s initial intention was to follow up the victories of Crécy and Calais by another great chevauchée, which might end the war once and for all. However, the army was tired after over a year of constant campaigning and money was once again in short supply, so, when the inevitable approach for negotiations was made through the offices of the French cardinals, Edward was prepared to listen. For the French, a truce was imperative: they had suffered serious reverses in Normandy, Aquitaine, Flanders and Brittany, and, wealthy though their nation was, they were short of cash to pay the army. Messengers sped between Calais and Amiens to try to get agreement – almost any agreement – that would end the fighting. The English were, of course, in much the stronger position, and, when a nine-month truce was signed at the end of September 1347, it left them in possession of all that they had gained and held.

The return home of Edward and most of his army was greeted with acclaim. Parliament agreed that the money had been well spent and the king’s personal position was enormously strengthened by his obvious prowess in battle. At the same time, the taking of Calais and its plantation by settlers were seen as providing England with an opportunity for trade and an entrance to Europe that did not depend upon Flemish support, which might not always be provided. On St George’s Day, 23 April 1348, the king founded the Order of the Garter, a chivalric order which would comprise but twenty-six members and be a close companionship of those who had proved themselves in battle; it was also intended to promote King Edward’s court as one just as glorious as any in Europe. The order was to be headed by the king and his successors, who would choose the membership, and there were only two stipulations: knights were not to fight each other and they could not leave the kingdom without the king’s permission. Of the twenty-six original members, eighteen were definitely present at the Battle of Crécy and the others had distinguished themselves in various ways. The order would have its chapel in Windsor Castle and would support a chantry of twelve priests and twenty-six ‘poor knights’ – originally men who had been captured by the French and who had had to sell their estates to purchase their freedom.

Norman Invasion of Illyria


Norman cavalry.


Over a quarter century three popes, reluctantly, had come to the same conclusion: that it would be better to recognize, and try to guide, the growing Norman power in the south of Italy than to see it directed against their interests. Leo in 1053, Nicholas in 1059, and now Gregory in 1080, had each been obliged by the force of circumstances to confirm the Normans as vassals in the territories they had conquered. Each time, the extent of those territories had increased, as had the need of the papacy for Norman military help.

Pope Gregory, at Ceprano, had agreed to an alliance with the Normans, whom he had so long distrusted, only because he needed them, desperately, to counterbalance the military force that King Henry, finally victorious over the Saxons, was threatening to bring against the papacy. The pope’s only other major supporter in Italy, Duchess Matilda of Tuscany, could not spare enough troops to do more than guarantee the pontiff’s safety in still friendly Rome. But Henry was threatening to invade with a considerable force, aiming finally to obtain his coronation and an end to the papacy’s interference, as he saw it, in the affairs of the German church. Only the Normans- Jordan of Capua but particularly Robert Guiscard – could defend the pope and the reform movement (however tenuous Norman support for the reforms may in fact have been). It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that rumors began to circulate that summer that Gregory was planning to reward Guiscard by crowning him, rather than Henry, as emperor if he drove off the German threat.

Whatever the truth of those rumors may have been, Guiscard was not interested in such a farfetched scheme. He saw little advantage in getting involved in the complications of north European politics, much less as the pope’s creature. Ever ambitious and alert to opportunity, he wanted to keep his freedom of action. He was helped toward that objective by Henry himself, who suddenly handed him an excellent card to play. The king had renewed his courtship of Robert, urging him to desert the pope’s cause in return for investiture as imperial vassal in the March of Fermo, in the Abruzzi, plus offering a marriage alliance with the royal house – one of the available Hauteville daughters to King Henry’s son Conrad. However Guiscard, once again preferring to be a vassal of the militarily weak pope rather than giving the powerful emperor-designate cause to meddle in his activities, declined the new offer. He was, at the same time, careful to inform Pope Gregory of Henry’s offer (as well, of course, as his refusal), thereby gaining not only credit for loyalty, but also additional leverage over the increasingly anxious pontiff.

Even more importantly, Guiscard had more immediate plans, closer to hand. Although the pope had refused to confirm him as lord of Amalfi, Salerno, or in the March of Fermo, the ambiguous formula reached at Ceprano meant in reality that his possession of those lands had been recognized, as no one’s vassal. Robert intended to push forward, to reinforce and expand his domain by controlling more of the Abruzzi, and he considered that he needed neither the pope’s acquiescence nor the emperor’s license to continue his piecemeal advance. But even that would wait. For the present, he had still grander aspirations, well beyond Italy, and had even gotten Pope Gregory to bless them at Ceprano. Guiscard was planning to attack Byzantium itself.

Strategy as well as his always restless ambition had propelled Guiscard toward this new venture. His ambition was fueled by a mixture of admiration, envy and greed. Over the years, he and his fellow Normans had been powerfully affected by the rich culture, the administrative capabilities, the luxury, and the wealth of the empire from which they had stolen their lands. Almost twenty years of rule in heavily Hellenized Calabria had subtly affected Robert, to the degree that his initial interest in and appetite for Byzantium’s riches had grown into emulation of Byzantine ways. Such emulation, indeed, was politically useful, since adopting elements of eastern panoply and ritual was helping the Normans appear as the inheritors of Byzantium; it increased their legitimacy among their new subjects. Robert had even gone so far as to copy imperial motives into his own seals and otherwise present himself as the successor to the emperor; he used the title “dux imperator” and on major occasions wore copies of the imperial robes of state.

Almost as if to justify this presumption of his, Robert had, since1071, received a series of tentative approaches from successive emperors in Constantinople. Seeking because of their military weakness to bring their powerful neighbor into their diplomatic circle of influence, the emperors had suggested marriage alliances between the upstart Hautevilles and the imperial family. This was indeed heady stuff for a son of Tancred, the simple knight from Hauteville. By the terms of the marriage agreement that had finally been concluded with Basileus Michael in 1074, Robert had been promised the title of “nobelissimus,” only a step below that of Caesar, and would be entitled to wear the imperial purple. Even more enticingly, he could envisage that a descendant of his might some day sit on the throne in Constantinople.

However seductive the ideas of marriage ties with the rulers of Byzantium might be, they promised future benefit at best. For the present, the two states were still enemies. Byzantine agents and diplomacy were constantly at work to challenge Norman occupation of the lost Italian provinces. From Illyria, across the narrow Adriatic Sea, Byzantine governors were only too happy to offer asylum to Robert’s opponents, such as his troublesome nephews Abelard and Herman, or to finance and encourage any potentially seditious barons in Apulia.

Duke Robert’s proposed strategy was typically bold. The current weakness of Byzantium made it opportune to secure his hold in Italy by carrying the war into the empire and destabilizing his old enemies. Robert had been fighting the Byzantines since his arrival in Italy, and had defeated their armies often enough to be scornful of their military qualities. He had attacked the empire once before and been unsuccessful, but that had been merely a tactic to put them on the defensive. This time, he saw a chance to defeat his enemies, gain plunder, perhaps new lands, maybe even a throne. His newly developed naval power enabled him to take a major force across the sea, and to fight his old enemies in their own lands. The prospects were good, because the empire was in crisis; it had lost almost all of Anatolia to the Seljuks, and a new Basileus was faced with a chain of insurrections in his own military. Robert, sensing a moment of opportunity, began preparations for an invasion.

Guiscard also had a politically correct pretext to attack. Basileus Michael had recently been deposed, and the wedding alliance he had negotiated with the Hautevilles had been dishonored. The new emperor had packed off Robert’s daughter Helen to a convent, where she was being held as a pawn for a future move on the diplomatic chessboard. Robert must have been disappointed at the failure of the proposed marriage alliance; it had promised much. But he knew, all the same, that Constantinople’s politics were an uncertain thing: that Helen might never have sat on the throne, or given birth to a claimant to the throne even in the best of circumstances. Her status as virtual hostage, in fact, could even replace her intended marriage as a means to his ends. So he demanded that her rights, and his, under the old agreement be honored – even though the intended groom, Constantine, was as out of favor as his deposed father. When these demands were ignored or rejected, as the wily Guiscard had no doubt expected they would be, he demanded the release of his daughter, and began his preparations to invade if his demands were not met.

Guiscard embellished his pretext for intervention, in addition, by a somewhat transparent but useful fiction: he claimed that the deposed Michael had somehow escaped to Italy from his exile to a monastery. The purported Michael, by most accounts a wandering monk who had been drafted for the occasion, became a permanent attachment to Guiscard’s court, where he was treated with the deference due to a former emperor and advanced as the living justification for the coming expedition. Guiscard had even gotten poor Pope Gregory, at Ceprano, to support the claims of the counterfeit Basileus.

Preparations for the invasion of Illyria had, by the early spring of 1081, reached a climax. Robert had been able to raise a very substantial force because, for the first time in years, he had neither internal nor external threats to arm against. Roger, at the same time, was slowly but successfully subduing the remaining Muslim opposition in Sicily, and neither needed nor wanted Robert’s help on the island. Jordan of Capua, for the moment joined with Robert as an ally of the pope, was potentially trouble, but nowhere near the man his father had been; Robert doubtless felt he could readily take care of the young man if the need arose. The possibility that King Henry would invade, and his own duty to defend the pope in that event, was an unfortunate cloud on the duke’s horizon, but it could be treated as a distant threat. For the moment, Guiscard had the pope’s concurrence for the expedition, indeed his assistance, in the form of a letter of support addressed to the bishops of southern Italy.

He raised an exceptionally large force, consonant with his new power and wealth. It included contingents from his vassals but also many mercenaries: Muslims from Sicily, Greeks, Lombards, and adventurers from all over. In truth, the hired hands would be needed, because Robert’s vassals had shown themselves to be grudging supporters of an expedition that would, most likely, benefit Guiscard more than themselves. Nor did the taxes that the duke raised to pay for the expedition, or the hostages he took to assure the good behavior of his troublesome barons, increase the popularity of his effort. The mustering of the invasion force had consequently been almost a two-year affair. Ships had been mustered from his coastal cities, and still more hired from the Adriatic state of Ragusa; the naval contingent numbered a full 150 boats. Figures for the army, as usual, vary, but it was a force of over 1,000 knights, Normans and others who formed the nucleus, supported by as many as 20,000 soldiers and auxiliaries, siege engines, horses and supplies.

Duke Robert, still strong and magnificent at 64, was optimistic and an inspiration as usual to the gathering troops. His first son, the even more physically imposing Bohemund, was to be the second in command, and to lead the advance guard of the army into Illyria. Sichelgaita, often clad in armor like her husband, was with the army and a constant presence by Robert’s side, presumably as liaison to their son Roger, who was to be left in charge in Italy.’ All was ready, or almost so. And then, before the expedition could set sail, the political ground began to shift.

Suddenly, the situation in Constantinople had changed. The latest emperor had been overthrown in his turn, by the talented and energetic general Alexius Comnenus. Alexius had been friendly with the deposed Emperor Michael, and was, it was rumored, inclined to negotiate with Robert over his demands. In fact, an envoy whom Guiscard had sent to Constantinople over the winter had returned to Italy with a recommendation that Robert postpone his invasion in light of the changing situation, and the fact that Helen’s intended, Constantine, was likely to be restored to the purple as Alexius’ co-ruler. This was not news, however, that Robert wanted to listen to. His rage at hearing the advice of the envoy, an unfortunate Count Radulf, was reportedly monumental. He would not be deterred. He had invested too much in the expedition at that point to pull back, and to delay might allow Alexius to remove his pretext for invasion by returning Helen to her family, or exposing the false Michael. As Princess Anna Comnena wrote succinctly and dismissively a half century later,

That man Robert, who from a most inconspicuous beginning had grown most conspicuous and amassed great power, now desired to become Roman Emperor, and with this object sought plausible pretexts for ill-will and war against the Romans.’

In Italy, the situation was also changing. King Henry had finally begun his invasion, causing the pope to send messages of alarm, requesting that Robert come immediately to his aid. Robert could not ignore the pope’s pleas for help, but he had no intention of calling off his expedition so readily. He made a short trip to Tivoli, where he offered the pope a contingent of troops under his son and regent Roger Borsa, and reassured the pontiff that he would not fail him in the event of real need. But he refused to call off his expedition. As it happened, Robert’s judgment proved correct; Henry had come south with too few troops to do more than occupy the suburbs of Rome, as he did several months later. When the city proved loyal to the pope, Henry withdrew and no relief army was needed.

The Illyrian expedition indeed had already begun. The advance guard under Bohemund had left in April, rapidly capturing the port of Valona across the sea from Otranto, a situation that would provide an excellent bridgehead for the main army. The main force set sail in late May, joining with Bohemund’s contingent, and the combined force soon captured the island of Corfu, to the south of Valona. With the sea thus secured against a relief fleet coming from Constantinople, the invasion force was able to consolidate – the entire army did not cross until mid June because of storms- and then proceed northward up the coast to Guiscard’s initial goal, the capital city of Durazzo. It would take a serious siege to capture the town, which enjoyed a strong position on a high peninsula guarded by marshes on the land side. But Robert’s intelligence services were, as usual, aware of the enemy’s weaknesses, which in this case turned out to be the will of the city’s military commander, one George Monomachus. An appointee of the deposed emperor, Monomachus did not know how he stood with the new order in Constantinople, and had begun to negotiate with Robert’s envoys in an effort to save his own neck. It looked for a moment as if the city might fall to the Norman army without a fight.

Any optimism on this score was soon shown to be misplaced. The new Basileus, the Normans rapidly found out, was an adversary of a quality they had not seen for over a generation. Small, dark and unpreposessing, Alexius was the nephew of a previous emperor, one of the country’s best generals from a family of distinguished military leaders, and a man of shrewd and tenacious purpose. He, too, could act fast. In the present danger, he had taken two immediate steps to defend Durazzo. The first was to send a talented soldier, George Paleologus, to replace the wavering commander, Monomachus, and to harden the city’s defenses. The second was to appeal to the Venetians, the preeminent Adriatic naval power, for help in countering the Norman naval advantage. The Venetians knew they held a strong hand in those negotiations and drove a hard bargain, gaining unprecedented trade concessions in Constantinople in return for sending their battle-trained fleet to sea.

The Venetian navy appeared off Durazzo just in time, only days after the Norman army had arrived to invest the town. A fiercely fought naval engagement several days later demonstrated how great was the Venetian tactical superiority at sea. The Norman fleet was badly mauled, and from then on was obliged to limit its operations. The encirclement of Durazzo was incomplete. With the Venetian navy reinforcing the city’s defenses as well as hindering the Normans’ resupply efforts, and Paleologus energiz ing the Greek army, whatever advantage the Normans had had by their well-timed arrival had been lost. The city’s morale was maintained by the promise of a relief army, and the siege settled into a sort of stalemate, punctuated by fierce but indecisive engagements. The Normans could neither cut off the city nor breach the walls, since their siege engines, transported at such great effort from Italy, repeatedly proved ineffective against Paleologus’ determination and ingenuity in devising counter mechanisms.

The stalemate was broken in mid October, when Emperor Alexius arrived at the head of the long-promised relief army. Paleologus was able to join him at his camp outside the city, where a hasty war council was held. In the council, Paleologus argued for reinforcing the city and driving the Normans off through attrition. Disease in their camp, their supply problems, and the coming winter, he argued, would break the Norman siege in time, and more surely than a battle. He may have been right. Morale in the Norman camp was not high, and Robert had had little success to show his army, camped as it was on a hostile and unhealthy shore and trying to maintain a costly siege against a tenacious and now heavily reinforced enemy. But Alexius, too, had his problems; he could not count on the loyalty of his hastily recruited army over a long siege, and there was clamor in the capital for an immediate and decisive victory from the new emperor. Like Robert Guiscard, he was a man used to victory in battle, confident in his abilities, and capable of inspiring his troops to great effort. He chose to fight.

Robert drew up his army north of the city, its right wing with its motley assortment of mercenary detachments anchored against the sea where it could not be outflanked, and Bohemund on his left, inland of his own central detachment. In an effort to inspire a determined stand, moreover, he had burned the army’s boats and deployed it with a river to its back. The Byzantine army that formed ranks on the plain to attack the Normans encompassed a disparate collection of allied and mercenary troops cobbled together from a military still reeling from the disaster at Manzikert and repeated military insurrections. But it also contained elements of the empire’s elite units, the Bucellarion Guard and the imperial bodyguard of Varangians. The Varangians, in particular, were highly motivated. Now heavily manned by Anglo-Saxons driven from their native England by the Norman invaders there, they sought revenge in the coming fight for their fifteen years of exile.

As it was, in their eagerness to engage, the Varangians determined the course of the battle. Their initial attack, on the Norman right, was devastating. Against the onslaught of the Anglo-Saxons wielding their huge two handed axes, the Norman right wing, foot, and for once even the cavalry, collapsed.

A rout was narrowly avoided, partly because the river blocked the retreat of the Norman auxiliaries, but due also to the valiant efforts of heroic Sichelgaita. Fully armed and brandishing a spear, if Anna Comnena is to be believed, the warrior Duchess left her position by her husband’s side and rode toward the action, urging the fleeing soldiers to stand firm and shaming them, by word and example, to rally. Her efforts were rewarded, as the line stiffened once again and the Varangians, their charge finally exhausted, now found themselves in an exposed position well in advance of the Byzantine center. Meanwhile Bohemund, on the left, had seen relatively light action because an effort by the Bucellarion Guard to outflank him had been blocked by the river. He was able to send cavalry to the Norman right wing, where they fell on the now exposed Varangians and cut them down wholesale.

The battle was turned. A sortie from the city by Paleologus was beaten off, and now some of Alexius’ allies, notably the Serbians and Turks, began to desert the field. As the imperial army slowly, and then rapidly, dissolved, only the Varangians continued to hold their ground. The brave remnant of the proud but reckless detachment finally retreated to a small chapel, where they were burned to death by the now victorious Norman army. Alexius and George Paleologus, who had been cut off from his command when his sortie failed, were forced to flee among the remnants of the army, the emperor, according to his daughter Anna, barely escaping capture.

For the Byzantines, the defeat was humiliating, but not fatal. The Norman army, admittedly, was able to follow up its victory with relative ease. Marching along the great Roman Via Egnatia, the invaders had occupied most of Illyria by spring, even securing the surrender of the important fortress town of Kastoria in Macedonia. But Durazzo had succeeded in holding out until late February, falling in the end through the treachery of its foreign inhabitants rather than by assault. The Venetians continued to control the sea, harassing Norman communications and resupply efforts. After the fall of Kastoria, moreover, the Norman army had begun to lose its momentum and suffer from supply problems, disease, and attrition from the long field campaign.

The tenacious Alexius was determined to hold on and to confound his Norman opponent. Guiscard, for the first time, had met his match.

The Sieges of Albazin, 1685–1689




The Qing siege of Albazin, 1686–1687.

This image depicts the siege of the Russian artillery fortress Albazin by Qing forces in 1686–1687. The Russian fortress is in the center, with four bastions protruding from the walls—the three to landward are of the angled type characteristic of the artillery fortress. On the island below the Russian fortress stands a temporary Chinese fort, with the square barbicans that are typical of Chinese fortifications. From Nicolaas Witsen, Noord en Oost Tartarye, p. 662.

The Russian settlement of Albazin was located on a bank of the Amur River, within lands that the Manchu Qing considered under their sovereignty. At first the walls were constructed of wood, which is why in 1672, when Moscow formally incorporated Albazin into its empire, the settlement was categorized as a fort and not a city. It grew quickly. Whereas other parts of the Russian Far East were too frozen to produce crops, Albazin’s lands were fertile. Buildings multiplied below the walls and farms spread through the valley. A monastery was founded, and tribute in furs was exacted from nearby peoples.

These tributes, however, were meant to go to the Qing, or at least that’s how the young Kangxi Emperor (r. 1661–1722) interpreted the situation. He was determined to counter the Russians’ growing power. In 1682, having won the great War of the Three Feudatories (1673–1681), he began preparing carefully, sending a reconnaissance mission to map out routes, acquire informants, assess Russian strength, and study the fortifications.

The reports noted that the Russians were tough and that Albazin’s walls, although wooden, were stout. “Without red-barbarian cannon,” they concluded, “it is not possible [to capture the fort].” Albazin stood a thousand miles from Beijing as the crow flies, but of course men and cannons can’t fly. To get there required a tortuous journey through forbidding lands. Still, the reconnaissance report was optimistic: one could transport huge cannons by moving across land in the winter, when the routes were solid, and over water in spring and summer, when the ice had melted.

The emperor planned assiduously, composing detailed instructions about the sizes of transport boats, the construction of granaries, the staffing of post stations. He studied reports and proposals, sending them back with annotations and demanding rewrites. The preparations took years, but eventually all was ready, testimony to the genius for logistics that was making the Qing such a great power.

It was June 1685 when three thousand Qing troops arrived before Albazin. The emperor had ordered them to try to avoid bloodshed: “We rule … by the principle of benevolence and never by bloodthirstiness.… Because our army is excellent and our equipment strong, in the long run the Russians cannot resist us, and they must offer up our territories and return our cities.” A Manchu general named Langtan (d. 1695) was the main commander, and his orders called for restraint: “Whether the Russians surrender right away or fight first and surrender later, you must under no circumstances slaughter or massacre them. With benevolence instruct them to withdraw and return home.”

Langtan did as he was told. Arriving at Albazin, he and the other commanders first sent envoys to solicit a surrender. Russian sources suggest that the garrison had only three cannons and three hundred muskets, and that powder supplies were low. Moreover, Albazin was not at this stage a Renaissance fortress. Its wooden walls might be useful against arrows and small guns, but they were not constructed to resist advanced artillery. Nonetheless, the Russians resolved to fight. Or, as the official Qing account put it, “the Russian demons, relying on the stoutness of their lair, refused to surrender.”

The Qing advanced troops to the south of the fort, setting up barricades and earthworks and placing bow and crossbow positions on top, “making as though preparing to attack,” but this was a feint. They were also secretly moving red-barbarian cannons to the north of the fort, while even more powerful “miraculous-power general cannons” were positioned to the sides, “to carry out a pincer attack.” Cannon boats were positioned on the river, to the southeast. How many cannons did the Qing have in total? Chinese sources aren’t clear, but European sources suggest an alarming amount, a “great might of guns,” with a generally reliable source saying that there were a hundred or a hundred fifty pieces of light field artillery and forty to fifty large siege guns. The Qing also seem to have had a hundred-man musketeer corps.

The firepower was overwhelming. “In the first days,” European sources say, “more than a hundred men [on the Russian side] were lost, struck by enemy shots, and the wooden walls and towers of the fort were badly damaged.” Qing sources suggest that the guns themselves didn’t work fast enough, and so they tried another method: “The attack went until the next day and it became clear that the fortress had still not quickly fallen, so it was ordered that below the walls on the three [landward] sides firewood and kindling be piled up and the walls burnt, at which the [Russian] chieftain was compelled to dispatch envoys to offer his surrender.” The Russian commander later explained that he was compelled by more than burning walls: a petition from the superior of the monastery and the town’s inhabitants begged him to surrender, so he reluctantly complied.

Is it true that, as official Qing sources suggest, the Russian officials, grateful for Qing benevolence, “all had tears running down their cheeks as they kowtowed in the direction of the imperial residence [in Beijing]?” European sources mention no tears or kowtowing, but they do agree that the Qing showed mercy. They also say the Qing showed a propensity for long-winded monologues about the emperor’s benevolence and the good life that could be had in his service. Many Russians decided to defect, and their descendants still live in China. The rest were allowed to leave, although some complained that their clothes were stolen and they were given barely enough food to survive the trek to Russian headquarters at Nerchinsk.

The Qing soldiers burned Albazin and the nearby villages and monastery, but for some reason they didn’t burn the crops as the emperor had instructed. After the soldiers had withdrawn, the Russians returned to reap the harvest.

This time, the Russian commander was explicitly ordered to build more powerful walls.51 In charge of construction was a Prussian military expert named Afanasii Ivanovich Beiton, who had been captured by the Russians in 1667 and sent as a prisoner to Siberia, where he joined the side of his captors. Some historians suggest that Beiton was a “trained and experienced military engineer,” but really we know little about his life before his Russian service. As second in command at Albazin, he was responsible for fortifications. Building the walls wasn’t easy. The workers had to forge new tools “because the Chinese had in their thievery taken all of such utensils with them.” But according to European sources, the walls eventually reached a height of five and a half meters and a thickness of seven and a half meters (three fathoms high and four fathoms thick). Qing sources suggest that they were perhaps a bit lower and thinner but acknowledged that they were uncommonly strong.

They were also unusual. One of Beiton’s subordinates “had learned a way to make walls with clay-earth and tree-roots that were woven and cinched together, worked in such a way that it became as hard as stone, and unbreakable.” A Qing reconnaissance mission similarly reported that the thick, sturdy walls “were made from interspersing trees, with a core of earth as the filling … and the outside filled in with clay.” Another European authority writes that the grass, mortar, and tree roots were “set so well together that it was stronger than a normal wall.”

With its new walls, Albazin was given a new status. No longer was it a mere fortress, or ostrog. Now it was a walled city, receiving from Moscow a coat of arms: a stern eagle with a crown, who held a bow in one talon and arrows in the other.

Was Albazin a renaissance fortress? Scholars have suggested that the Russians “never adopted the trace italienne to any large degree, but rather used the ‘reinforced castle’ style of fortification … considered … in the west to be less modern than the Italian style.” They say that Russians built few artillery fortresses and that most of them date from well into the reign of Peter the Great (1682–1725). Yet evidence suggests strongly that Albazin was an artillery fortress. Nicolaas Witsen, a Dutch cartographer (and eventual mayor of Amsterdam), published a geographical treatise about Siberia, based on conversations and correspondence with Russians, Mongols, and Siberians, and in it he includes a detailed plate to illustrate the second Siege of Albazin. Probably based on a sketch by a participant, the plate shows clearly that Albazin had angled bastions. In contrast, it shows the Qing counterfortifications as having the square barbicans characteristic of Chinese walls. Another piece of visual evidence—an image drawn by Beiton himself, the man who oversaw the building of the walls—also depicts Albazin as an artillery fortress. So it seems safe to conclude that Albazin was an artillery fortress, or that it at least employed principles of geometric defense, as did many Russian fortresses built at this time.

The defenses of Albazin certainly were strong enough this time to hold back a long Qing siege. In July 1686, Commander Langtan came back with three thousand troops and dozens of boats filled with supplies and guns, including thirty or forty “newly cast” cannons. Six of his vessels carried nothing but gunpowder and ammunition. In contrast the Russians had just eight hundred men, and only eleven large cannons, although they did have bombs and grenades.

Langtan informed the Russians that the imperial patience was not inexhaustible. If they surrendered immediately, they would be treated well, but if they decided to fight, they would be punished. Once again, the Russians were defiant. They resolved “to hold the fortress as long as there was food, and that then they would melt down all the cannons, destroy any remaining weapons, and then, armed with just hand and side weapons, see if they could [fight their way out] and get through to safety.”

The battle began on 18 July 1686. Jeremy Black, who has argued that artillery fortresses were not as effective vis-à-vis non-Europeans as some might suggest, has asserted that the Qing won by blockade: “in capturing Albazin, the Manchu allowed hunger, backed up by superior numbers, to do their work.” But in fact, European and Chinese sources show clearly that the Qing actually tried many different times to penetrate the walls but failed. Moreover, the Russians, with few guns and a small and sickly garrison, inflicted serious losses.

Sources from both sides agree that over the first weeks of the battle, the Qing attacked vehemently a number of times, trying various tacks, but were driven back repeatedly. For example, Qing sources state that on 23 July 1686, Langtan ordered a two-pronged nocturnal assault. From the north he supervised bombardment with red-hair cannons, but the real attempt was made on the south, where his subordinates led troops to try to storm the walls. As Russian sources report, “the Celestials [Bogadaiskii—i.e., the Chinese Emperor’s People] fired on the town repeatedly with cannon and then these Celestials suddenly advanced on Albazin. A large-scale barrage of cannons from the town occurred and in the smoke neither the people nor the town could be seen, and the enemy, unable to do anything, retreated and stood in small groups below the town behind their gabions.” The famous historian and ethnologist G. F. Müller (1705–1783) wrote, basing his account on Russian sources, that the Chinese “attempted a storm but were driven back with great losses [mit grossem Verluste].” Afterward, the Russians conducted a series of sally attacks, during which they sometimes took prisoners. “During all of this,” writes Müller, “the losses on the Russian side were very slight. Some Russian participants gave numbers: one sortie, for example, killed a hundred fifty enemy troops, including two commanders. In contrast, the Russians claimed, their own side lost no more than twenty-one men.

This pattern—an initial attempt to bombard and storm the walls, followed by deadly sorties by the defenders—is precisely what happened in the Siege of Zeelandia. In both cases, the forces of China under-estimated the offensive ability of the artillery fortress. Even a minor prefectural capital of China looked far more imposing. But Chinese walls, with their square barbicans, couldn’t lay out the same deadly crossfire.

Unable to take Albazin by storm, the Qing tried other tactics but each time were stymied. For example, after the failed storm they bombarded the town all night, but according to Qing sources “the walls stood strong and could not be reduced.” A few days later (27 July 1686) Langtan launched another nocturnal assault, in an attempt to capture defenses to the south of Albazin. This attack, too, failed.

After this, he tried building siegeworks on the shore of the river close to the walls. The Russians shot fiercely to prevent this, and the Qing fired back: “Our troops,” Qing sources say, “used cannons and arrows and, shooting upwards, attacked all night.” The Qing managed to finish their works and left before dawn. Expecting that the Russians would emerge and try to dismantle the siegeworks, Langtan hid troops within them. The following day the Russians indeed emerged, under cover of a thick fog, and according to Qing sources the ambush worked. The Russians withdrew, although two days later, another foggy day, they attacked again.

Such attacks—and there were many—are described in Chinese sources as Qing victories because in each case Russian troops were driven back into the fortress. But Russian sorties were not intended to hold positions outside the walls. The aim was to destroy Qing siegeworks, and European sources suggest that they were successful: “Since the cannons [being fired] from the town damaged the enemy in no small degree, the enemy sought at first to build a wall out of spruce trees and then [a network of] extended structures made out of nassem wood, to protect themselves behind them, but the first was shot into flames and the second was blown up by mining.” As some Russian fugitives later reported, “the town had been constantly shot by cannons, but the enemy could not gain an advantage, because the besieged defended themselves so bravely.”

These are telling details. They suggest that the Qing had trouble determining where to place their batteries and siegeworks. An artillery fortress, of course, is designed to strike with flanking fire, to hit the enemy from various angles, and also to cover forces that sally forth. For those accustomed to traditional fortifications, this capacity for crossfire comes as a surprise. Each time the Qing constructed batteries or siegeworks the Russians worked to destroy them with cannon fire or sorties. The Qing were forced to move their positions, and the new positions also proved vulnerable. The parallels with the Dutch case are clear. Zheng Chenggong and his officers also kept trying new placements for their batteries and bulwarks and they too were consistently outmaneuvered by the Europeans.

Eventually, the Qing established walls that stayed up. In early August, Langtan “advanced troops directly against the enemy’s walls, digging a long moat and setting up ramparts to surround them [the Russians].” These new structures weren’t designed to capture the fort, however. They were intended to close off the Russians’ access to the river. The Russians tried to prevent this. Qing sources record that “the enemy was anxious and feared losing their water route, so they fought fiercely for four days and four nights.” Langtan had switched strategies. Instead of trying to take the city by storm, he was surrounding it to starve the Russians out.

His network of blockading walls and moats grew and grew. Russian reports note that “the Chinese fortified themselves and put up bulwarks, setting up gabions that were eleven meters [six fathoms] high, and on each bulwark were three cannons, in addition to another fifteen guns, which stood on the batteries. Around the city they had also dug trenches, as well as various places to live, behind, under, and within their works or fortifications.” The Qing counterdefenses were more extensive and massive than the walls of Albazin themselves. By the end of August the siege had transformed into a full-scale blockade.

Here again the parallels with Zeelandia are clear. After Zheng Chenggong failed to take Zeelandia by force, he set up a blockade. It didn’t work, because the Dutch fortress remained accessible by sea and because in subtropical Taiwan the besieged could harvest melons and vegetables through the fall and shoot seabirds and gather mussels in the winter.

There were no such opportunities in subarctic Albazin. By early October, the river had ice in it, and soon it was frozen across. But there was in any case nowhere to go. The Qing had built a fortress on the opposite bank. The other three sides of Albazin were also tightly invested, walls and moats stretching all the way around. Moscow had sent elite musketeers to relieve the fort, but the Qing controlled all approaches. No sleigh or dogsled could slip past.

The Russians began dying. When the siege had begun in July 1686, Albazin’s walls held more than eight hundred men and an unknown number of women and children. By the beginning of November, no more than a hundred fifty men were alive, a mortality rate of more than 80 percent. They had enough grain. What they lacked was fresh food. Many were killed by scurvy, caused by a deficit of vitamin C, and which Müller described as “an evil that in such situations is more feared than the enemy himself.” The Dutch in their fort had also suffered from scurvy, although for them the more significant nutritional disease was beriberi, associated with eating only rice and caused by a lack of vitamin B1. But the Dutch had much more access to fresh food, thanks to the climate and access to the sea.

The Dutch also had another advantage. Fort Zeelandia contained brick houses with windows and tile roofs—a slice of Amsterdam. In Albazin, only ten or so buildings had been completed when the Qing arrived, so its residents had dug themselves holes in the ground. It was believed that these poor dwellings caused illness: “The people of Albazin, because they had to live underground in the dankness … became very sick or died.” The most deadly killers were probably diseases of poor sanitation such as typhus and cholera. The Dutch had outhouses on piers that stuck out over the ocean, although sometimes Chinese took potshots at poopers. What did the Russians do with their excrement? It was difficult to bury in the frozen ground, and people at the end of their lives couldn’t be expected to leave their dugouts and defecate outside. Roommates had to deal with full night pans and soiled blankets. Dutch sources discuss at length the stench of urine and feces and vomit that pervaded the air around the church that served as a hospital. The Russian fortress must have been worse, although frozen feces is better than warm feces. In any case, it’s no wonder that in Albazin “many brave people were continually lost, because in the fall and winter bad illnesses occurred in those dank, unhealthy houses.” By the end of November, “there were no more than a hundred and fifteen healthy men, and fifty-five children and women.”

The Qing, too, suffered. A Qing defector revealed to the Russians that “toward the end of the siege many men in the Chinese camp were dying of hunger, and that they even ate each other.” European sources say that Albazin’s commander even sent taunting gifts of meat, which were refused, “but which they really wanted to accept.” It seems that by the end of November “the toll of dead besiegers exceeded fifteen hundred,” or around 50 percent.

Somehow, the Russians, their garrison depleted, many too sick to work, remained on alert. “Thirty held the watch,” writes Witsen, “and fifteen worked on the works.” He attributed the miraculous defense to the Prussian officer Beiton: “With just twelve healthy men left, Beiton managed miracles. He was able with these few people to keep the cannons firing, making it seem as though there were still many people within the fortress.”

Indeed, the siege was ultimately decided not by storm or starvation but by decree. In October 1686, Russian envoys arrived in Beijing with news that Moscow wanted peace. The Kangxi Emperor sent a messenger to Albazin, who arrived in December, just as Langtan was preparing a major assault. People on both sides of the walls watched as the imperial scroll was read out, an ostentatious occasion. As a Russian source noted, “whenever a letter arrived in the Chinese camp before Albazin, from the Emperor of China, all of the commanders and soldiers stood bareheaded as the letter was read, from which we can see what kind of great reverence these people have for the orders of their king.”

The letter said that the siege would be paused, and to build goodwill Kangxi even ordered his troops to offer food and medicine aid to the besieged. European sources say the Russians flamboyantly refused. “To signal the superfluity of food, Beiton had a pie baked, which weighed one pud [sixteen kilograms], and sent it as a present to the commander of the Chinese. It was received with thanks.” Qing sources, however, say that Beiton himself asked for provisions, and the man who delivered them returned with a dismal report: only two dozen Russians were still alive, and they were very hungry; even Beiton was sick. (He got better and, thanks partly to his defense of Albazin, went on to enjoy a brilliant career.)

Albazin itself was relinquished to the Qing in the famous Treaty of Nerchinsk of 1689. In exchange, Russia received trading privileges in Beijing and the right to keep the city of Nerchinsk. Since Albazin never surrendered, the siege cannot, strictly speaking, be counted as a victory for the Qing, but it’s likely that the Qing would have prevailed if hostilities had continued.

Even so, the fact remains that a few sick Russians held Albazin for months against a much larger, better supplied, and better armed force.

Siege of Rochester Castle I


Rochester Castle

On 11 October 1215, a crack troop of a hundred knights arrived at the gates of Rochester Castle and demanded to be admitted. The constable of the castle, Sir Reginald de Cornhill, did not hesitate, for he had been expecting them. The drawbridge was lowered, the doors swung open, and the horsemen swept inside.

These men were rebels, come into Kent on a highly dangerous mission. Earlier in the year, along with scores of other noblemen, they had seized control of London in defiance of their king. In recent days, however, they had started to sense that the tide was turning against them, and had therefore decided to take action. Selected by their fellows as the bravest and most skilled in arms, they had ridden south-east to open up a second front. If London was to hold out, they knew they had to distract the king, and draw his fire away from the capital.

Their plan, in this respect, was brilliantly successful. Two days later, a royal army drew up outside the walls of Rochester. King John had arrived.

John was the youngest son of Henry II, and the runt of his father’s litter. He is familiar to all of us as the bad guy from the Robin Hood stories – the snivelling villain who betrayed his elder brother, ‘Good’ King Richard the Lionheart, and made a grab for the English throne. It will hardly surprise most people to learn that this picture of John is a caricature – the Robin Hood legends originated long after the king was dead. Nevertheless, even if we scrape off all the mud that has been flung at John over the centuries, he still emerges as a highly unpleasant individual, and a man unsuited to the business of ruling. Contemporaries might not have recognized the hideous, depraved monster of legend, but they would have acknowledged the basic truth of the matter – John was a Bad King.

To find out what people really thought about King John, we have to leave the stories of Robin Hood, and turn instead to another piece of writing, very different but no less famous. In 1215, shortly before they set off to seize Rochester Castle, John’s enemies compiled a list of complaints about him, and presented it to the king in the hope of persuading him to behave better in the future. The list was drawn up in the form of a charter and, because it was so long, the charter itself was very big. People soon started referring to it simply as the Big Charter; or, in Latin, Magna Carta.

So, by looking at Magna Carta, we can work out why people were annoyed with King John. What aggravated them most, it seems, was the way in which he constantly helped himself to their cash; the first clauses of the Charter are all concerned with limiting the king’s ability to extort money. In 1204, five years into his reign, John had suffered a major military and political disaster when he lost Normandy, Anjou and Poitou to the king of France. These provinces had formed the heart of John’s empire, and trying to get them back had kept him busy for the past ten years. Ultimately, however, by plotting his recovery, John was paving the way to his own downfall. The cost of building an alliance to strike back against the French king was enormous, especially because it was John’s misfortune to rule at a time when inflation was causing prices (of mercenaries, for example) to soar. With increasing frequency, John passed the costs on to his English subjects, imposing ever greater and more frequent taxes, fining them large sums of money for trivial offences, and demanding huge amounts of cash in return for nothing more than his grace and favour. Very quickly, John managed to create a situation where the people who didn’t want him in charge outnumbered those who did – a dangerous scenario for any political leader.

In some respects, however, the rebellion that the king faced in 1215 was not entirely his own fault. Both his father and his brother had governed England in much the same fashion, expanding their power at the expense of the power of their barons. One very visible way of measuring their success is by looking at their castles. At the start of Henry II’s reign in 1154, only around 20 per cent of all castles in the country were royal. The two decades before Henry’s accession had seen a proliferation of private castles (mostly motte and baileys) built without the king’s consent. One of Henry’s first actions as king was to order (and, where necessary, to compel) the destruction of such fortifications. Moreover, Henry and his sons, as we have seen, built new castles – big, impressive stone towers like Newcastle, Scarborough, Orford, and Odiham. By the time of John’s death, the ratio of royal castles to baronial ones had altered drastically; almost half the castles in England were in royal hands. Castles, therefore, provide a good index of the king’s power against the power of his barons.

It is evident that the rebels brought long-term grievances such as this to the negotiating table in 1215, because John tried to address them in Magna Carta.

‘If anyone has been dispossessed without legal judgement from his lands or his castles by us,’ the king said, ‘we will immediately restore them to him.’

But John went on to add that his subjects should make allowances for anyone who had been similarly dispossessed ‘by King Henry our father, or King Richard our brother’. Such hair-splitting, however, ignored the basic truth of the matter, which was that Henry and Richard were simply better kings than John. They were skilled warriors, while he was condemned for his cowardice. Although he proved a capable administrator (John could be dynamic and efficient when it came to collecting taxes), he was a bad manager, unfit to command the loyalties of his leading subjects, unable to check or channel their ambitions, and uneven in his distribution of rewards. Most of all, John was just an unpleasant guy. He sniggered when people talked to him. He didn’t keep his word. He was tight-fisted and untrusting. He even seduced the wives and daughters of some of his barons. Henry and Richard might have acted unfairly from time to time, but overall people liked them; almost nobody liked John.

It was John’s personality, in the end, that doomed Magna Carta to failure. There was little point in persuading John to make such an elaborate promise, because he was bound to try and wriggle out of it. Sure enough, no sooner had negotiations ended than the king was writing to the Pope, explaining how the Charter had been forced out of him, and asking for it to be condemned. By the time the Pope wrote back, however, John’s opponents had already worked out for themselves that Magna Carta was not worth the parchment it was written on. The king would never keep his promises, and they had no way of compelling him to do so. They too abandoned the Charter as a solution, in favour of the much simpler plan of offering John’s crown to someone else. By the autumn of that year, both the king and the rebels were openly preparing for war.

This war was eventually fought right across the country. The South-East of England, however, and especially Kent, was the most important arena of conflict, because both parties were seeking assistance from the Continent. The rebels, for their part, had decided to offer the crown of England to Prince Louis, eldest son of the king of France. They had already made overtures to him in the course of the summer, and were hoping he would soon arrive and stake his claim in person, bringing with him much-needed reinforcements. John, meanwhile, was also looking across the Channel for help, but in his case from Flemish mercenaries. The king had recently despatched his recruiting agents overseas, and was hovering anxiously on the south coast, trying to secure the loyalty of the Channel ports, and waiting for his soldiers of fortune to arrive.

In such circumstances, control of Rochester Castle, which stood at the point where the main road to London crossed the River Medway, became all-important. John understood this as well as anyone, and for this reason had been trying to get his hands on the castle since the start of May, when the rebellion against him had first raised its head. The king had already written to the Archbishop of Cantebury twice, asking, in the nicest possible way, if he would mind instructing his constable to surrender the great tower into the hands of royal representatives. Both times, however, the request fell on deaf ears. The archbishop was one of John’s leading critics and, realizing only too well what the king’s intentions were, had promptly done nothing. Likewise, there was no love lost between the king and Rochester’s constable, Sir Reginald de Cornhill. He was one of the hundreds who were heavily in debt to the Crown, and John had recently deprived him of his job as Sheriff of Kent. Cornhill’s response was probably more decisive; the likelihood is that he got a message through to the rebels in London, pledging his support, and expressing his willingness to help them.

When they realized that Rochester was theirs for the taking, the rebels in London formulated their plan. A detachment of knights would be sent to occupy the castle and hold it against John, and the man to lead it would be Sir William de Albini. Sir William is quite a dark horse: we don’t have a great deal of information about him. Of course, the fact that he was chosen (or volunteered) to lead the mission indicates that he must have been a skilled and respected warrior. One contemporary writer calls him ‘a man with strong spirit, and an expert in matters of war’. More puzzling is the fact that he does not seem to have had any of the personal grudges harboured by John’s other opponents. On the one hand, he was clearly one of the leaders of the rebellion: back in the summer he had been named as one of the twenty-five men who were to enforce Magna Carta. On the other hand, Albini only joined the other rebels a week before the Charter was drafted. Whatever his own motivation for taking up arms against his king, in the weeks that followed there was no doubt about the strength of his commitment to the rebel cause.

Albini and his companions arrived at Rochester on a Sunday. On entering the castle, they found to their alarm that the storerooms were badly provisioned. Not only were they short on weapons and ammunition; there was, more worryingly, an almost total lack of food. They quickly set about remedying the situation, plundering the city of Rochester for supplies. In the event, however, their foraging operation only lasted forty-eight hours. By Tuesday, John and his army were outside the castle gates.

In such circumstances, we might not necessarily expect there to have been much of a fight. Just because one side in a dispute occupies a castle, and the other side turns up outside with an army, it does not automatically follow that a siege must take place. The defenders inside a castle might peer over their battlements at a colossal army, rapidly calculate the odds, and conclude that surrender is in their own best interests. Likewise, in many cases the prospective besieger will roll up with his army, assess the defences to be far too strong to break, and move on to take easier, softer targets. In this dispute, however, with each side playing for the highest stakes, and Rochester being so crucial to their respective plans, the king and his enemies exhibited an uncommon degree of determination. The rebels in the castle, in spite of their poor provisions, decided they were going to tighten their belts and stick it out. King John, pitching his camp outside the castle, looked up at the mighty walls of Rochester, and vowed he was going to break them. The scene was set for a monumental siege.

Ralph of Coggeshall, provides us with an account of the preliminary encounter between John and the rebels. The king’s aim on arriving in Rochester was to destroy the bridge over the Medway, in order to cut off his enemies from their confederates in London. On the first attempt he failed; his men moved up the river in boats, setting fire to the bridge from underneath, but a force of sixty rebels beat them back and extinguished the flames. On their second attempt, however, the king’s men had the best of the struggle. The bridge was destroyed, and the rebels fell back to the castle.

This kind of reporting is invaluable, and some of the additional details that Ralph provides are no less compelling (he tells us, for instance, in the shocked tones that only an outraged monk can muster, how John’s men stabled their horses in Rochester Cathedral).

For the first time in English history, however, we do not have to rely entirely on writers like Ralph. From the start of John’s reign, we have another (and in some respects even better) source of information. When John came to the throne in 1199, the kings of England had long been in the habit of sending out dozens of written orders to their deputies on a daily basis. But John made an important innovation: he instructed his clerks to keep copies. Every letter the king composed was dutifully transcribed by his chancery staff on to large parchment rolls, and these rolls are still with us today, preserved in the National Archives. The beauty of this is that every letter is dated and located. Even if John’s orders were humdrum, we can still use them to track the king wherever and whenever he travelled. We know, for example, that on 11 October the king was at Ospringe, and that by 12 October he had reached Gillingham. His first order at Rochester was given on 13 October, and on the following day, he wrote to the men of Canterbury.

‘We order you,’ he said, ‘just as you love us, and as soon as you see this letter, to make by day and night all the pickaxes that you can. Every blacksmith in your city should stop all other work in order to make [them]… and you should send them to us at Rochester with all speed.’

From the outset, it seems, John was planning on breaking into Rochester Castle by force.

In the early thirteenth century, siege warfare was a fine art with a long history, and a wide range of options were available to an attacker. Certain avenues, however, were closed to John, because the tower at Rochester had been deliberately designed to foil them. The fact that the entrance was situated on the first floor, and protected by its forebuilding, ruled out the possibility of using a battering ram. Equally, the tower’s enormous height precluded any thoughts of scaling the walls with ladders, or the wheeled wooden towers known as belfries. Built of stone and roofed in lead, the building was going to be all but impervious to fire. Faced with such an obstacle, many commanders would have settled down and waited for the defenders to run out of food. John, however, had neither the time nor the temperament for such a leisurely approach, and embarked on the more dangerous option of trying to smash his way in. But simply getting close enough to land a blow on the castle was going to be enormously risky. We know for a fact that the men inside had crossbows.

Crossbows had been around since at least the middle of the eleventh century, and were probably introduced to England (along with cavalry and castles) at the time of the Norman Conquest. In some respects, they were less efficient killing machines than conventional longbows, in that their rate of ‘fire’ was considerably slower. To use a longbow (the simplest kind of bow imaginable), an archer had only to draw back the bowstring to his ear with one hand before releasing it; with a crossbow, the same procedure was more complicated. The weapon was primed by pointing it nose to the ground, placing a foot in the stirrup and drawing back the bow with both hands – a practice known as ‘spanning’. When the bowstring was fully drawn, it engaged with a nut which held it in position. The weapon was then loaded by dropping a bolt or ‘quarrel’ into the groove on top, and perhaps securing it in place with a dab of beeswax.

Siege of Rochester Castle II


Rochester 1215, illustration by John Cann.

Such an involved readying routine meant that crossbows were not suited to every type of warfare – in the thick of battle, for example, they were of limited use. For men under siege, however, with ample time to span, load, aim and release, the crossbow was the weapon of choice. What the crossbow lost in speed, it more than made up for in range and penetrative power. Spanning created far greater tension in the bar across the top of the bow (the prod) than the equivalent action with a longbow. By John’s day, moreover, the crossbow had become even more deadly, because prods were being constructed using a new technique. Earlier versions were made from a simple strip of wood – typically yew or ash. From the end of the twelfth century, however, crossbow-makers were producing laminated or ‘composite’ prods, made not only from wood but also from strips of whalebone and animal sinew, glued together and wrapped in parchment (dried sheepskin). These new composite prods created a weapon with an enormous range – anything up to 900 feet was attainable. In terms of penetrative power, they were lethal. A knight dressed in a mail shirt and carrying a wooden shield might have stood some chance against conventional archery (unless, like poor old King Harold, he got hit in the eye). Against a well-aimed crossbow bolt, however, he had no hope: the bolt would shatter his shield and pierce right through his mail. All of a sudden, survival in warfare was much more of a lottery, even for those rich enough to afford the most expensive armour. Small wonder that the Pope condemned crossbows, and that people claimed they were invented by the Devil.

According to Matthew Paris (a monk of St Albans, and one of the more tabloid chroniclers of the thirteenth century), King John came closer than he knew to being killed by a crossbow during the siege of Rochester. From inside the tower, the king was spotted by a rebel crossbowman, who promptly drew a bead on his royal target, and made ready to shoot. Before he pulled the trigger, however, he asked William de Albini for permission, and the rebel leader refused. As mere men, said Albini, it was not for them to end the life of kings – only God could decide how to deal with John. The story shows every sign of being made up; the monk wrote it down almost twenty years after the siege, and immediately followed it up by pointing out a biblical parallel. But even if we can’t take the tale at face value, it shows at least that contemporaries were aware of the huge potential of the crossbow – even a lowly foot soldier, armed with such a weapon, could contemplate killing a king. John of all people would have been well aware of this. In 1199, the seemingly invincible Richard the Lionheart had been felled by a single crossbow bolt to the shoulder, and the festering wound had later ended his life. As well as his own legendary cowardice, the memory of his big brother’s untimely death probably persuaded John to stay well out of crossbow range in 1215.

But if John was kept on his guard by his opponents, he was not content merely to cower behind his own defences. On the contrary, the king had also come equipped with the latest in siege technology, and his new toys were far bigger. Another very reliable and well-informed chronicler, the anonymous Barnwell Annalist, tells us that the king came to Rochester with ‘five throwing machines’. Without doubt, these machines were the heaviest artillery of the age: trebuchets.

Trebuchets were giant slingshots or catapults, deliberately designed and built to smash down castle walls. The idea of creating such a weapon was not new; machines that hurled missiles at masonry had been around for hundreds of years. Trebuchets, however, were a new twist on this old idea, a product of a revolutionary piece of thinking in the late twelfth century.

The men inside Rochester Castle were now asking themselves much the same thing: would the walls of the tower, twelve feet thick, hold out against King John’s trebuchets? The Barnwell Annalist says that the bombardment of the keep did not cease by day or night. There is no suggestion, either from Barnwell or from any of the chroniclers, that the defenders were subjected to the kind of psychological and biological horrors we often hear about in other sieges. Sometimes rotting animal carcasses or the heads of fallen comrades were hurled over the walls of a besieged city or castle, in an attempt to spread plague and terror. John may not have resorted to such tactics (though one would hardly put it past him), but he knew, in any case, that the relentless barrage was piling psychological pressure on his enemies. As the stones rained down on them, as their food ran short, and as the winter cold began to set in, surely they could not hold out much longer?

And yet they did. Part of the reason for the rebels’ dogged determination was an earnest belief that the cavalry would arrive – either in the shape of Prince Louis, or in the more likely form of their London associates. According to one chronicler, the knights who remained in the capital had sworn to Albini and his colleagues that, should Rochester be besieged, they would ride to their aid. Up to a point, they kept their promise. Two weeks into the siege, a force of seven hundred horsemen left London and headed towards Rochester. Halfway there, however, their nerve failed; at Dartford, they turned and headed back. Why they did this is unclear, but it is possible that their scouts had returned with news of the size of the John’s army. We don’t know how large the king’s force was, but we can get some idea from the fact that seven hundred fully armed knights turned in fear and fled.

John would have learned soon enough that his other enemies had retreated back into their hole, and the news must have gladdened him somewhat. It was only a small consolation, however, because the fact remained that Rochester Castle and its defenders were still holding out, despite everything his expensive siege engines could throw at them. With every day that passed, it was becoming increasingly, maddeningly clear that the trebuchets were not going to work. The king, therefore, placed all his faith in his last remaining option: to drive a mine under the great tower, in the hope of bringing it crashing to the ground.

The technique of undermining was not a new one; the Romans and the Vikings are known to have used mines when laying siege to cities. The aim was to drive one or more tunnels under the foundations of the walls, supporting the ground above with timber props, which were then burnt away to create a collapse. But this wasn’t always possible. If the defences were built on solid rock, tunnelling underneath them was virtually impossible. Water defences, or even just soft or waterlogged ground, also meant that mining was out of the question. And even if the conditions for mining were ideal, conditions for miners themselves were anything but. The environment in which such men worked was dark, damp and dangerous: the process could easily end in disaster if the soil above them suddenly subsided.

Digging a mine in peaceful circumstances was difficult enough, but doing so during a siege was doubly dangerous, since the besieged would do everything in their power to frustrate the miners’ progress. Just getting close enough to begin digging would involve dodging a shower of arrows and crossbow bolts, so miners took care to approach under the cover of a ‘tortoise’ or ‘cat’ – a wooden canopy, moved on wheels, and covered in damp animal hides to prevent it being set on fire. Even once they were underground, the miners were still in danger of attack. Roman writers speak of defenders flooding enemy mines and drowning their assailants. A more common approach was for the defenders to dig a counter-mine, either in the hope of causing a collapse, or simply with the intention of meeting their opponents head on, and engaging them in subterranean hand-to-hand combat.

Luckily for John, his engineers reported that the ground around Rochester was suitable for mining. Even so, it was far from being an easy task. Despite having at their disposal all the picks that the men of Canterbury could manufacture, the operation was set to take weeks. At one point, progress ground to a halt when the miners came up against solid stone foundations – not those of the keep or the bailey walls, but the old Roman walls of Rochester. Only by making a detour could they continue with their tunnelling.

For the defenders trapped inside the keep, it was an agonizing waiting game. There is no indication that they tried any of the advanced techniques of counter-attack above, beyond of course trying to pick off miners with crossbows when they emerged from tunnelling. As with the trebuchets, they could only pin their hopes on the solidity of the tower and its foundations. These, we know, were profound; excavations in the late nineteenth century failed to find the bottom of the walls. Getting right underneath the keep must have been a hellish task.

Finally, however, John’s miners managed it. By 25 November, the mine was ready. Hundreds of tons of masonry were now supported only by wooden pit props. On the same day, John sent a letter to his trusted servant, Sir Hubert de Burgh. ‘We order you,’ he said, ‘to send us forty bacon pigs.’ This was not, however, the makings of a thank-you dinner for the hardworking miners – even a glutton like John would have struggled to finish that many ham sandwiches. The kind of pigs the king wanted, he went on to specify, were ‘the fattest and least good for eating’. It was not food that John was after, but fuel. The unfortunate animals were needed ‘to set fire to the stuff which we have put under the tower at Rochester’.

Once the mine was finished, it would have been stuffed with brushwood, straw and kindling to feed a great fire. How the pig fat was introduced is a matter of debate. An older generation of more imaginative historians envisaged the forty-strong herd being driven into the tunnels while still alive, burning torches tied to their tails. Sadly, modern military experts now think this unlikely; the idea of live pigs running around with firebrands attached is just too farcical, even for King John. It is now believed that the pigs were slaughtered and rendered down for their fat, which was subsequently poured into barrels and rolled into the mine.

With or without an accompaniment of squealing pigs, the scene that followed must have been both horrifying and spectacular. Torches were introduced to the tunnels. Deep underground, the kindling caught and the pig fat crackled. Flames started to lick the fatty wooden props and, as the fire grew to a roar, the props started to snap. Suddenly, the ground above the mine fell away. The great keep shuddered and split. With a final deafening roar, a quarter of the building came crashing to the ground.

The dust had hardly settled before John’s men were pouring into the keep through the gaping hole. Amazingly, in spite of the terror and confusion that the collapse must have caused, the men inside fought on. The south-east corner of the keep had been reduced to rubble, but its great cross-wall remained standing; using this, the rebels mounted a last, desperate line of defence. It was successful: try as they might, the king’s men were still unable to force their way in.

At the start of the siege, John had openly derided his opponents’ stamina.

‘I know them too well,’ he allegedly spat. ‘They are nothing to be accounted of, or feared.’

Having now spent seven weeks besieging them, the king must have felt like eating his words.

In the end, despite all John’s military ingenuity, it was starvation that finally forced the rebels to surrender. By this stage the men in the keep were totally out of supplies, and had been reduced to living on the flesh of their own expensive war-horses. This, says the Barnwell Annalist, ‘was a hard diet for those who were normally used to fine food’. At first the defenders tried to cut their losses by sending out ‘those who seemed the least warlike’: perhaps those too exhausted to fight, or possibly non-military personnel, such as clerics or blacksmiths. John, however, was in no mood for such half-measures. When these men emerged he had them mutilated, lobbing off their hands and feet in an effort to persuade those still inside to surrender. Eventually, lacking the strength to fight on any longer, the remaining rebels gave themselves up. By curious coincidence, it was 30 November – the feast of St Andrew, Rochester’s patron saint. The struggle for the city’s castle had lasted for the best part of two months.

‘Living memory does not recall,’ concluded the Barnwell Annalist, ‘a siege so fiercely pressed, and so staunchly resisted.’

After such a long, costly and bitter struggle, John was apparently in no mind to be merciful. According to one of the chroniclers, the king intended to celebrate his victory by having every member of the rebel garrison hanged. This would not have been entirely out of character – the king was famous for gloating when he had the upper hand. However, according to the same writer, one of John’s foreign captains persuaded him to show clemency in the name of self-interest. The war, he argued, was not yet over. What if John or his allies were themselves captured at some later stage? Better the king should imprison his enemies, rather than start a round of tit-for-tat killing that might end up with his own neck in a noose.

It is doubtful that John really needed to have the logic of this argument explained to him by one of his own men. Showing mercy towards a defeated opponent was perfectly normal behaviour in the early thirteenth century. Ever since 1066, warfare in England had been regulated by the code of chivalry. In John’s day, this had nothing to do with later perversions like laying your cloak over a puddle, or letting your enemy strike the first blow. It meant, in essence, that political killing was taboo. Naturally, this did not apply to the non-noble members of society. John had already demonstrated as much when he ordered the mutilation of the ‘less-than-warlike’ members of Rochester’s garrison during the final stages of the siege. After the surrender, he proved the point a second time by hanging one of the rebel crossbowmen (apparently punished for his treachery – the lowborn bowman had been raised in John’s household). Chivalry was not about a high regard for human life in general; it was a code that condemned killing among the upper classes, based on exactly the kind of enlightened self-interest advocated by John’s foreign captain.

Chivalric self-interest, moreover, extended beyond insuring against future reprisals. The man who spared his noble opponents stood to make a significant profit in the form of ransoms. Prisoners were valuable assets, as John fully appreciated. When the rebels were being clapped into chains, the king personally confiscated the most important ones for himself. For example, William de Albini was despatched to the king’s castle at Corfe, and ended up with a price on his head of £4,000. Having appropriated the choicest prisoners in this manner, John generously distributed the less important individuals among his cronies as gifts.

For the rebels themselves, the defeat at Rochester was a massive blow to their cause, and it left the remaining barons in London feeling totally discouraged. The Barnwell Annalist, concluding his section on the siege of Rochester, commented that ‘there were few who would put their trust in castles’, and he was absolutely right. When John moved into East Anglia at the start of 1216, the castles of Colchester, Framlingham and Hedingham fell in quick succession. All three were mighty stone castles, and before Rochester, men might have hoped to defend them. After the great siege of that autumn, there was no longer the will to do so.