The Great Viking Army in Wessex

The warrior bishop was an idea that interested creator Michael Hirst a great deal, and he saw Heahmund as a great foil for Ivar, the two being such wild cards. His role in the show is largely enhanced from the accounts in the history books. Because Jonathan Rhys Meyers has such an explosive performance in this role, it is likely that he has been given more opportunity to shine than the real Heahmund would have had in the history books.

In 871 the Viking army crossed the frontier of Wessex and occupied Reading. This was a royal residence and so was a collecting point for taxes and the royal feorm (food rents). As such it offered an attractive proposition to the raiders. The Viking army was led by two kings: Bagsecg and Ivar the Boneless’ brother, Halfdan. While two Viking jarls (high-ranking nobles) took a force further into Wessex to forage, the remaining invaders stayed at Reading and, according to Asser, fortified their camp by building an earth rampart between the rivers Thames and Kennet.

The West Saxons reacted swiftly to the occupation of Reading. Æthelwulf, ealdorman of Berkshire mustered the fyrd and attacked the foragers at Englefield (Berkshire), west of Reading and defeated them, killing a jarl named Sidroc. Four days later the ealdorman was joined by the West Saxon king, Æthelred, and his brother, Alfred. With their combined force they attacked the main Viking camp at Reading. In a ferocious battle the Vikings eventually gained the upper hand and the West Saxons retreated, carrying with them the body of Ealdorman Æthelwulf. It was a sharp reversal of the previous West Saxon success.

Within four days they were fighting yet another major battle. This time it was further west at Ashdown, on the Berkshire Downs. The exact location is difficult to ascertain but was probably overlooking the Vale of White Horse and on the line of the Icknield Way, a major routeway into central Wessex from the north-east. It seems that the Vikings reached the battlefield first, since Asser records that they held the high ground. The Chronicle explains that they assembled in two formations: one commanded by their two kings, Bagsecg and Halfdan; the other led by the jarls. Without giving much detail of the battle it goes on to say that King Æthelred fought against the Viking kings’ troops, killing Bagsecg, while Alfred’s troops faced the jarls and killed five of them. Both Viking armies fled before the victorious West Saxons. Asser – probably working from material provided by Alfred himself – adds the detail that Alfred began the battle first, since Æthelred had not yet finished attending Mass. The battle raged around a solitary thorn tree which Asser claimed to have seen. In a memorable phrase, Asser describes Alfred as charging the enemy `like a wild boar’.

Despite this resounding victory, and within two weeks of it, Æthelred and Alfred again faced the Viking army at Basing (Hampshire), but this time the Vikings won and the West Saxons were forced to withdraw. After this the pressure eased a little, but only two months later another major battle was fought at Meretun (the site is unidentified but was probably in Hampshire). There were a huge number of casualties and, once again, the Vikings emerged victorious. Amongst the West Saxon dead was Bishop Heahmund of Sherborne, [1] with Æthelweard’s Chronicle adding that he was buried at Keynsham; situated on the north Somerset border the location may have been chosen as a spiritual marker on the frontier of Wessex. As if these were not troubles enough, the Chronicle informs us that a new Viking force, the `micel sumorlida’ (great summer fleet) came up the River Thames to Reading, where they reinforced Halfdan. This may well have been the first appearance of the three Viking `kings’ Guthrum, Oscetel and Anwend, who are named in the Chronicle in its later entry for 875. Given reductions in the size of the micel hæden here due to casualties and the necessary forces required to hold down York and East Anglia, these additional forces must have been very welcome for the Vikings; and the last thing the West Saxons wished to see arriving. King Æthelred may have been seriously wounded at the battle of Meretun since, soon after Easter, he died and was buried at Wimborne (Dorset). By an arrangement that had been made between the royal brothers of the House of Wessex the throne did not pass to one of Æthelred’s young sons. Instead, it passed to Alfred. Wessex was in too great a danger for entering into minority rule and the potential instability that would have accompanied this. This shrewd piece of practical politics may well have been the major factor which saved the kingdom.

Within a month of his succession, Alfred faced a large Viking army at Wilton (Wiltshire) and lost. Asser says that an initial West Saxon advance at the expense of the Vikings was eventually reversed when the Vikings regrouped and turned on their pursuers. While the sources vary as to the exact number, it seems that perhaps nine major battles took place in 871. However, this does not take account of the many skirmishes against smaller groups of Vikings, foraging away from the main army, fought by groups led at various times by Alfred, his ealdormen and king’s thegns. By the end of the year the Vikings made peace with the West Saxons and withdrew.

[1] Anglo-Saxon bishops and abbots led royal armies in 825 and 848, and bishop Heahmund was killed at Meretun in 871. Warrior-clerics were not unheard of in Anglo-Saxon England, a fact that is confirmed by the celebrated military actions of notable clerics in both 1016 and 1066.

While the relatively peaceful nature of English society (or, at least, avoidance of internecine warfare) probably lessened the importance of personal military ability for English clerics, they were still expected to contribute to the defense of the realm, both through their landholding and their personal stature in the kingdom. While some contemporary observers, such as Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims, claimed that English bishops did not have the same military responsibilities as their continental counterparts, due to a lack of landed endowments, a glance through the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle demonstrates this to be false. The contents, including military hardware, of surviving wills of prelates demonstrate this, as do the attempts by reformers to prevent clerics from engaging in warfare. The simple possession of such items does not, of course, represent evidence of direct military action, nor even an endorsement of such violence by clerics, but it arguably represents a familiarity with warfare and a recognition of the role played by clerics in support of royal campaigns. The earliest of the wills comes from Bishop Theodred of London, and dates from between 942 and 951. He granted to his lord, among other things, `four horses, the best that I have, and two swords, the best that I have, and four shields and four spears.’ The inclusion of the phrase `the best that I have’ indicates that Bishop Theodred not only possessed more swords, horses, etc., than he was leaving to his lord, but that he was also cognizant of their relative value and qualities. Tis theme is reinforced by the terms of Bishop Arfwold of Crediton’s will. Bishop Arfwold left an immense amount of military gear and equipment to a variety of people, including to fellow clerics. His will read, in part, `And he grants to his lord four horses, two saddled and two unsaddled, and four shields and four spears and two helmets and two coats of mail .’ The bishop also left horses and tents to several people, including Alfwold the monk. He left his kinsman Wulfgar three coats of mail, among other valuables. He also left a man named Cenwold `a helmet and coat of mail.’

The amount, variety, and value of the military equipment even elicited a comment from Dorothy Whitelock, the editor of this section of the document. She writes,

Alfwold’s will is remarkable for the amount of military equipment and the number of horses he bequeathes [sic], in addition to his heriot and a large ship. One wonders whether he was a fighting bishop. Homilists would not have needed to preach as they do against the clergy taking part in military affairs if this did not sometimes take place, and two ecclesiastics, Bishop Eadnoth of Dorchester and Abbot Wulfsige of Ramsey, were killed at Ashingdon in 1016.


Homer: Weaponry and Command

The most distinctive and unusual item of military equipment mentioned in the Iliad is the Mycenaeans’ boar’s tusk helmet. Nothing like it had ever been seen by anyone living when the Iliad was written down in the eighth century; it was a genuine bronze age artefact, described in the Iliad just as it would have looked in the bronze age, yet no longer available for the poet to see for himself. The description of the helmet must therefore have been handed down by oral tradition from the bronze age. It was made principally between 1570 and 1430 BC, but was still in use two hundred years later.

Boars’ tusks were not easily come by, and many were needed to make just one helmet; it was only the aristocrats who could afford the leisure to go boar-hunting often enough to collect the number of tusks needed to make a helmet. A boar’s tusk helmet was a very expensive item and, once made, it became a family treasure. Homer confirms this; the boar’s tusk helmet belonging to Meriones was stolen from Boeotia by Autolycus, given by Autolycus to Amphidamas of Kythera, and then by him to Molos, the father of Meriones. By the time Meriones gave it to Odysseus it was a priceless heirloom. Only a few aristocratic warriors would have been able to afford these helmets; they were not exported, and must have been made to commission for specific princes, who were probably expected to supply the trophy tusks themselves. The helmet became a visual boast of the wearer’s prowess as a huntsman.

The vogue for making boar’s tusk helmets was over long before the Trojan War, yet remarkably there were some still in circulation then, two hundred years later. By then they must have been priceless heirlooms, whose origins were lost in the mythic past – and these are exactly the terms in which Homer describes them.

The ordinary Mycenaean foot soldier would have had nothing so elaborate as the boar’s tusk helmet, nor even the cone-shaped bronze helmet that other élite warriors wore. Most common soldiers at the time of the Trojan War probably wore simple leather helmets. These had a prominent ridge crest; they were made out of two pieces of leather sewn together to make the keel running over the top of the head. Some leather helmets may have had bronze disks or plates sewn onto them: that, is what we are being shown on the Warrior Vase.

The cone- or bullet-shaped bronze helmets were sometimes decorated with horse-hair plumes sprouting from the crown. An ivory depiction of a boar’s tusk helmet shows that it too had a socket for a plume. Schliemann found the remains of two bronze helmets at Troy. Although their lower parts had disintegrated, the corroded crests had survived well enough for him to be able to reconstruct them. They were made in two pieces, one permanently fixed to the crown of the helmet, the other, holding the horse-hair plume, attached to it with a pin; the plume was detachable.

In the Iliad we read of heroes duelling with spears, and though swords were definitely in use – every lancer would have had a short sword at his side for hand-to-hand fighting – the thrusting spear was still the weapon of choice. Some of these bronze-headed spears were very long and must have required a great deal of training and practice to handle effectively. Hector is described as wielding a spear ‘eleven forearms long’.

Homer gives us relatively little about tactics or the nature of command. The generals conferred at various points during the war. We are told that early on the Trojan leaders gathered outside Priam’s house to discuss strategy. We hear that when the Trojans were in disarray, having reached the Greek ships, the Trojan Polydamas persuaded a headstrong Hector to draw back:

Call the best of our captains here, this safe ground.

Then we can all fall in and plan our tactics well.

Hector saw the sense in this, told Polydamas to muster the captains:

I’m on my way over there to meet this new assault –

I’ll soon be back, once I’ve given them clear commands.

Even so, what followed seems little more co-ordinated than what went before, as Hector ranged among the ships looking for his captains, and stopped to rage at his brother Paris. Paris’s riposte in effect restates the prevailing spirit of command. He emphasized that all the Trojans were ‘right behind’ Hector and that he would not find them ‘short on courage’. There is no strategy here at all, just an injection of adrenaline. This runs parallel to accounts of Ramesses’ behaviour at the Battle of Kadesh. Instead of giving specific, rational orders, he inspired valour by example and shouting inspirational encouragement: ‘Take heart, my soldiers! You see my victory! Amon is my protector and his hand is with me.’

There is nevertheless a hint that though the commanders-in-chief shouted only inspirational generalities the generals gave more specific directions. At one point Agamemnon toured his generals, giving them and their troops a pep talk, first the two Ajaxes, then Nestor, and so on. After Agamemnon had passed, Nestor gave more specific commands to his combat units, each under captains (Pelagon, Alastor, Chromius, Haemon and Bias), who were responsible for carrying out Nestor’s tactical orders.

The Trojan attack on the ships caused Agamemnon to lose his nerve; several leaders were wounded and the defensive wall was breached. It was Nestor who gathered the Greek generals together to discuss tactics. Agamemnon advocated retreat. Odysseus questioned the quality of leadership, telling Agamemnon bluntly, ‘You are the disaster. Would to god you commanded another army.’

We also hear through the Trojan scout Dolon that Hector, the Trojan commander-in-chief, discussed plans for the next day’s battle during evening meetings. The Greeks held similar meetings; in some of them, Agamemnon, the Greek commander-in-chief, put forward ideas that the other Greek leaders disapproved of, and he was ready to back down. These ‘evening councils’ are very credible.

Homer nevertheless supplies little information about tactics during the battles. We hear of the two armies colliding and clashing; we hear of the Greeks sometimes advancing to the walls of Troy, and being beaten back to their camp at others. A great deal is left to brute force, courage and chance. There is little information about command, apart from the occasional shout of encouragement. The warrior élites are portrayed as taking all the initiative in hand-to-hand fighting, but there is no description of generals or other officers giving orders for the rest of the warriors to move forward or back, or adopt a specific formation. The general soldiery is described as moving forward or back, but moving as if in a tide rather than on instructions or commands from officers. If this is the way the battles were fought, with no commands given once battle was joined, the commanders were using their armies as blunt instruments, and, if so, it could explain why it took the Greeks a long time to achieve their goal. It seems that it was only in lulls in the fighting that the commanders could confer and decided on changes of tactic.

There is just one occasion, when things were going very badly for the Greeks, when a decision was made – evidently a revolutionary one – that the commanders should tour the battlefield and encourage and inspirit the warriors rather than losing themselves in hand-to-hand fighting. This is a look forward to a later style of command; eventually generals would watch battles from vantage points to get an overview and send officers onto the battlefield with instructions.

What Homer describes – the exploits of a handful of heroes – would be more appropriate to a small-scale raid in which perhaps a hundred men could act entirely individually. But the huge numbers involved, the 130,000 Mycenaean warriors implied in the Iliad, means that the commanders would have been far more usefully employed guiding and directing their troops. If, in fact, once battle commenced, there was an incoherent mêlée of hand-to-hand fighting, the style of fighting would have been similar to the one the Romans encountered when they invaded Britain; indeed it may be that the use of chariots and shouted insults during the Boudiccan revolt was a backward look to this earlier, bronze age way of fighting. I suspect that the warrior-heroes did in fact lead, encourage and direct those of their countrymen who were within earshot, so that there would have been patches of co-ordinated action, oases of purposeful (or foolhardy) action within the general mêlée.

What is missing from the Epic Cycle is any credit for the efforts, exploits and achievements of the huge numbers of ordinary soldiers involved. The official Egyptian accounts of the Battle of Kadesh praised the heroic exploits of Ramesses, who overcame enormous odds single-handed. It was Ramesses who commissioned the history and was in a position to inflate his own personal contribution to the battle, frequently at the expense of that of his own armies. After Troy, it was, of course, the Mycenaean officers who commissioned the poets and bards, and this socio-political fact is enough to explain the very high profile the princely heroes acquired in the Epic Cycle record of the war. The bards were merely boasting on their patrons’ behalf, and inevitably inflating the parts they played in individual actions and the outcome of the battle.


The origins of ninjutsu, placed approximately between 500 and 300 B.C., are commonly linked (as are most Oriental arts of combat) to Chinese sources. Mention is often made of the interesting section on methods of espionage which is embodied in the ancient treatise The Art of War, written by the legendary Chinese general Sun Tzu. There is no single English term that can be used to define with precision this art or science, nor to accurately describe its practitioners, the notorious ninja. One translation of ninjutsu might be “the art of stealth,” which is a term commonly employed in the doctrine of bujutsu. This definition, however, identifies only one of the many characteristics and functions of ninjutsu—concealment, or the creating and perpetuating of an aura of mystery. The functions of the ninja may be represented in general as having been those of infiltration into hostile environments, performance of various acts of sabotage or assassination, and management of a successful escape once a mission had been accomplished. Infiltration of enemy centers and castles, in fact, gave rise to a particular subspecialization of ninjutsu which was known as toiri-no-jutsu, while slipping through enemy lines in time of open warfare or military alert became a specialty referred to as chikairi-no-jutsu. The various deeds to be performed once infiltration had been successfully accomplished were as varied as the military or strategic circumstances themselves. We can divide these deeds or acts into three main categories: first, the gathering of intelligence by espionage, and all of its correlated activities; second, assassination, subversion, destruction of enemy defenses; and third, action on the battlefield, including combat operations in almost every form, ranging from an open encounter to an ambush (whether against a defenseless victim or a heavily-protected lord).

Ninja, then, were often raiders who hired themselves out as spies, assassins, arsonists, terrorists, to the great and small lords of the Japanese feudal age. When certain “disreputable” tasks had to be undertaken, the honor-bound warrior (who was expected to fight openly against his foe in accordance with the rules of his profession) was not usually the one asked to perform them. Large organizations of ninja families, specializing in such tasks, were generally available to the highest bidder.

As spies, the ninja reportedly made their first notable appearance in the sixth century, with an employer of royal blood, Prince Regent Shotoku (A.D. 574–622). They were frequently hired by the fighting monks of the mountains, the redoubtable yama-bushi, who battled against both the imperial forces at the end of the Heian period and those of the rising military class (buke). Strong ninja guilds became firmly entrenched in Kyoto (which was virtually ruled by them at night), and their schools proliferated until there were at least twenty-five major centers during the Kamakura period. Most of these centers were located in the Iga and Koga provinces, and the concentration of these dangerous fighters had to be smashed time and time again by various leaders seeking to gain control of the central government. Oda Nobunaga is reported to have employed forty-six thousand troops against Sandayu at Ueno, destroying four thousand ninja in the process. The last impressive employment of these fighters on the battlefield seems to have been in the Shimabara war (1637), against forty thousand rebellious Christians on the island of Kyushu.

With the ascendancy of the Tokugawa and their heavily policed state, smaller groups of ninja were employed by practically every class against members of other classes, and even within a class by certain individuals against any clansmen who opposed them. Ninja were also used in the espionage network constructed by the shogun to control the imperial court and the powerful provincial lords. The ninja of Koga province, for example, were notorious throughout Japan as secret agents of the Tokugawa; and roaming bands of ninja are said to have engaged groups of warriors in local battles, either to suppress attempted sedition or to enlarge the ninja’s own territorial control. Individual lords and powerful members of other classes such as the merchants, for example, also employed the ninja, who left behind them an unbroken record of more than five hundred years of intrigues, disruptions, assassinations, and other assorted forms of disorder.

The ninja families were tightly-knit microcosms well integrated into larger groups (in accordance with the ancient clan pattern). There were leaders (jonin) who formulated plans, negotiated alliances, stipulated contracts, and so forth, which subleaders (chunin) and agents (genin) then carried out faithfully. These groups formed larger guilds with individual territories and specialized duties—all jealously guarded. A man seldom joined a group in order to become a ninja; he usually had to be born into the profession. The arts, techniques, and weapons of each family, of each group, were kept strictly secret, being transmitted usually only from father to son and even then with the utmost circumspection. Disclosure of ninjutsu secrets to unauthorized persons meant death at the hands of other ninja of the same group. Death usually also followed capture, either at one’s own hand or that of another ninja, who would leave behind only a corpse for the captor to question.

Books and documents (torimaki) related to the heritage, arts, and techniques of ninjutsu, therefore, were considered secret family treasures which it was the responsibility of each generation to preserve and transmit to the next. They contained instructions concerning those techniques of combat with which the ninja had to familiarize himself and which he had to master (including the traditional martial arts of the country: archery, spearmanship, and swordsmanship). In turn, the ninja cleverly adapted the use of these arts to suit his own devious purposes. He used an easily assembled short bow, for example, instead of the warrior’s long bow, and he also devised methods of telescopically reducing a spear—with astonishing results when it suddenly sprang into full extension. Members of the Kyushin ryu, a school of ninjutsu, became noted for their unorthodox methods of using a spear (bisento). Swords and other assorted blades, finally, were also used on the ends of various collapsible poles to which chains were attached for quick retrieval; often blades were projected by hidden springs, or they were simply thrown by hand according to the techniques of shurikenjutsu. The ninja were also masters of the techniques of iaijutsu, which enabled them to draw swords or daggers with blinding speed. The Fudo ryu, another school of ninjutsu in feudal Japan, was considered vastly superior in the development of this particular kind of dexterity with blades.

The ninja, however, also had a full array of specialized weapons for his exclusive use, each with its particular and fully developed method of employment. Blow-guns, roped knives and hooks, garrotes, various spikes (toniki), brass knuckles (shuko), an extensive assortment of small blades (shuriken), including dirks, darts, star-shaped discs, and so forth, were all included in his arsenal. The shuriken or “needles” were usually kept in a band containing up to five deadly missiles, and they could be thrown in rapid succession from any position, in any light, and from varying distances. The ways of throwing the shuriken seem to have been grouped together, attaining the status of a full-fledged art (shurikenjutsu). Even members of the warrior class reportedly studied its techniques in order to be able to use their short swords (wakizashi), daggers (tanto), and knives (such as the ko-gatana and kozuka) with greater accuracy and effectiveness at long distances. Shuriken could also be forged into a star-shaped disc with many sharp points radiating from a solid center. Sometimes called shaken, these sharp stars were usually thrown with a whipping movement of the wrist which sent them spinning toward their target—often unnoticed until it was too late. Especially famous were the chains or cords with a whirling weight on one end and a double-edged blade on the other (kyotetsu-shoge), which the ninja knew how to use with merciless precision; there was also the innocent-looking bamboo staff carried by an apparently unarmed pilgrim—the staff concealing, however, a chain with a weight at one end and a lead block at the other.

The ninja’s skill in penetrating enemy strongholds (houses, castles, military camps, individual rooms, etc.) was based upon his knowledge of practical psychology, as well as upon his mastery of a most impressive array of climbing devices (roped hooks, flexible ladders, special shoes, hand spikes, etc.), which he could also use as weapons. In addition, he usually carried breathing tubes and inflatable skins so that he could stay underwater for long periods of time or cross castle moats, lakes, or swamps with comparative ease. A skilled chemist (yogen) in his own right, the ninja often used poisoned darts, acid-spurting tubes, flash-powder grenades, smoke bombs, and so forth, cleverly adapting ancient Chinese discoveries in chemistry and inventions in explosives to his particular requirements. After the arrival of the Portuguese, he even used firearms. These weapons, in addition to the spiky caltrops which he dropped behind him as he made his escape, all contributed to his skill in evading capture by slowing down, blinding, killing, crippling, or merely surprising his pursuers.

Among the unarmed methods of combat which he mastered, jujutsu, in its most utilitarian and practical form, predominated. Schools of ninjutsu, however, also specialized in particular systems of violence seldom found elsewhere. The ninja of the Gyokku ryu, for example, were expert in the deadly use of the thumb and ringers against vital centers in the human body. This method became known as yubijutsu. The students of the Koto ryu were particularly proficient in breaking bones (koppo).

From the above, it appears obvious that a ninja was a truly dangerous foe, skilled and prepared to cope efficiently and ruthlessly with almost all the possible dimensions of armed and unarmed combat. His overall bodily control and range of muscular possibilities was often astounding. In addition to training in the various arts mentioned above, he is said to have been able to climb sheer walls and cliffs (with the help of certain equipment), control his breathing under water and his heartbeat under enemy scrutiny, leap from great heights (walls, etc.), disengage himself from knots and chains, walk or run for long distances, remain still for hours (even days, some authors claim), blend with shadows, trees, statues, and so forth, as well as impersonate people of every class, thus being able to move about freely even in areas which were under strict surveillance. In this context, his knowledge and command of practical psychology, as indicated earlier, appears to have been highly developed and is said to have included sleight of hand and hypnosis (saiminjutsu)—skills which may have formed the basis for a number of the ninja’s more startling exploits.

The Samurai Woman

Indomitable: Hangaku Gozen rides into battle swinging her bloodstained naginata and wearing yoroi armor symbolic of leadership during the siege of Torisaka Castle (in present-day Ehime Prefecture, Shikoku) in 1201, after her clan rose up against the powerful Minamoto Shogunate in a (losing) medieval power struggle.

A salient and thought-provoking characteristic of most ancient cultures is the predominant role played by women in the history and management of clan affairs. Historiography often seems to minimize the early, strongly matriarchal aspects of man’s social units; the frequently myopic views of chroniclers of later ages and periods, bent upon reinforcing the preconceived notions of their patrons, tend largely to either denigrate woman’s role in the military history of early civilizations or ignore it entirely. Ancient sagas, archaeological discoveries, and the painstaking work of anthropologists, however, indicate widespread participation by women in clan or tribal life in pre- and proto-historical times, from the icy lands of Nothern Europe to the tropical cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia, in both ancient Sparta and the Celtic clans of Western Europe, as well as in nomad tribes roaming the steppes of Mongolia and, of course, in the many clan cultures of Southeast Asia and China.

In Japan, woman’s originally predominant role finds its first expression in the mythological records of that land, which traditionally emphasize the supremacy of Amaterasu, the solar goddess, among all the deities in the Japanese pantheon, as well as equating the position of Izanagi, the female, with that of Izanami, the male, on the fighting level. The long shadow cast by ancient matriarchal influence is also apparent in the predominance of the solar cult, which was female in its original Japanese conception.

Even the first chronicles of Japanese history are filled with the exploits of warrior queens leading their troops against enemy strongholds in the land of Yamato or across the straits to Korea. In time, the growing influence of Confucian doctrine began to reduce her position of preeminence, hedging her about with restrictions of every sort, which, however, were not always accepted as meekly as later historians would have us believe. In the Heian period we find her not on the battlefield perhaps, but occupying a position of prominence in the cultural hierarchy of the age. Certain aristocratic ladies of kuge status emerged as literary figures of astounding insight and sophistication. Their literary production, although not expressed in the rigid and pedantic forms of classical Chinese writing generally preferred by the scholars of the time, provides one of the first manifestations of a truly indigenous form of expression, whose depth of perception, as well as complex content, help to explain why the various empresses and aristocratic dames of Nara and Kyoto wielded such power, whether governing directly or guiding more subtly (if just as effectively) the affairs of state from places of retirement or seclusion.

From the provinces, a new breed of women, the female members of the buke, joined their menfolk in the struggle for political and military predominance. These women did not lead troops as in archaic times, but, steeped in the same martial tradition and clinging to those warlike customs which characterized their men as a class, they were a stern reflection of their male counterparts. As such, they acted to consolidate and reinforce those qualities considered of fundamental importance to the emerging class of the buke. The product of a particular system, the samurai woman became its soundest basis and transmitter.

One such woman was Lady Masa (Masako), wife of the first Kamakura shogun, Minamoto Yoritomo. Mere quoted Brinkley in describing her as “astute, crafty, resourceful and heroic,” adding:

During her husband’s lifetime she wielded immense influence and after his death she virtually ruled the empire. This seems to be the only recorded instance in the history of Japan when the supreme power was wielded by a woman who was neither Empress nor Empress-dowager. Nominally, of course, Lady Masa did not rule, but her power and influence were very real. (Mere, 16)

The samurai woman was trained to be as loyal and totally committed as her father, brothers, and husband to their immediate superior in the clan hierarchy and, like her male relatives, was expected to carry out every authorized assignment, including those which might involve force of arms. Thus it is not surprising to find in the literature of bujutsu the annotation that women of the buke were trained in the use of traditional weapons, which they were expected to use against a foe or, if necessary, to end their own lives. Moreover, many episodes concerning the rise of the warrior class mention women who played militarily determinant roles—even joining their menfolk on the battlefield upon occasion. Certain chronicles, for example, mention Tomoe, the wife of one of Yoshitomo’s nephews, Yoshinaka. Authors who have discussed her exploits are almost unanimous “in praising her great strength and skill with weapons, her superb horsemanship and her fearless courage” (Mere, 15). She used to ride into battle with her husband, leading and encouraging his troops with her initiative and bearing. She even displayed that peculiar anger typical of the professional fighter when an opponent handles him cavalierly. It is related, in fact, that she killed several enemy retainers in single combat at the battle of Azazu-no-Hara: “when their leader, Uchida Iyeyoshi, attempted to capture her, she struck her horse and her sleeve, which he had seized, was rent and a part of it was left in his hand. Angered at this, she wheeled her charger and attacking him in her turn, cut off his head, which she forthwith presented to her husband” (Mere, 14-15).

Among the weapons the samurai woman handled with skill was the spear, both the straight (yari) and the curved (naginata), which customarily hung over the doors of every military household and which she could use against charging foes or any unauthorized intruder found within the precincts of the clan’s establishment. She was also equally well versed in handling the short dagger (kaiken), which, like the male warrior’s wakizashi, was always carried on her person (usually in her sleeve or sash) and which she could deftly employ against armed foes in close combat or throw with deadly accuracy. This same dagger was the one a samurai woman would use if she undertook to commit ceremonial suicide, not by piercing her lower abdomen as would her male counterpart, but rather by cutting her throat in accordance with the exact rules of ritual suicide, which also instructed her in the correct manner of tying her ankles together, in order to insure that her body would be found properly composed, whatever her death agonies. Under the name jigai, in fact, suicide was as familiar to her as it was to her menfolk.

She not only accepted death resignedly at the hands of her male relatives or superiors if capture by enemy forces was imminent, but even dispatched the men herself if, for any reason, they were unable or unwilling to perform the ritual act, sparing neither herself nor her children in such a situation. One of the most ancient episodes concerning the making and executing of this decision in accordance with martial tradition is to be found in the ancient sagas which describe the destruction of the Taira clan during the great sea battle at Dan-no-Ura, in the straits of Shimonoseki. Nii-no-Ama, grandmother of the infant Emperor Antoku (son of Kiyomori’s daughter Tokuko or Kenrei-mon-in), when confronted with the alternative of surrendering to the warriors of the Minamoto clans, clasped the child tightly in her arms and plunged with him into the waves of the straits, followed by other court ladies and Tokuko as well. The emperor’s mother was rescued by force, but the others succeeded in drowning themselves and the infant heir.

The samurai woman also used suicide as a form of protest against an injustice she felt had been perpetrated against her by a superior. One of the most striking examples of this is related by François Caron (1600-73). The powerful lord of Higo had engineered the murder of one of his most loyal vassals so that he might include the beautiful wife of the deceased among his concubines. The woman requested a certain period of time within which to mourn and bury her husband and then asked the lord to assemble the highest dignitaries of the clan and her husband’s friends on the tower of his castle, ostensibly to celebrate the end of her mourning period. Since she might very well have stabbed herself with her kaiken if anyone had tried to force her to violate her mourning period, her requests were granted. On the appointed day, as the ceremony in honor of her slain husband drew to a close, she suddenly threw herself from the tower “and broke her neck” (Cooper, 83) before the very eyes of the lord of Higo, his vassals, and the dignitaries of the clan. This type of suicide, although not performed strictly in accordance with the rules of ritual suicide, was recognized as one of valid protest (kan-shi) against a master’s injustice. It created a dilemma in military minds, however, since it was also a breach of the code of absolute loyalty which dictated that the lady’s life was not hers to dispose of, especially not in such an independent manner.

Equally famous in Japanese literature and theater is the story of Kesa-gozen, the wife of an imperial guard in Kyoto during the twelfth century, when the buke was being drawn toward the imploding and collapsing center of the empire. This lady was the object of another warrior’s passion and he was determined to have her. When her pursuer planned to murder her husband in his sleep, she substituted herself in her husband’s bed and allowed herself to be decapitated in his stead, thus saving her honor and her husband’s life at one and the same time.

As ferocious and determined as male members of the buke, the samurai woman also took upon herself, when necessary, the duty of revenge which the particularly Japanese interpretation of Confucian doctrine had rendered both an absolute and virtually automatic response to the death or dishonor of one’s lord. “Not only did man consider it his duty to avenge his family or lord,” wrote Dautremer, “but woman herself did not fail before the task. Of this, Japanese history gives us many instances” (Dautremer, 83). Even throughout the long and debilitating Tokugawa period, she remained generally attached (often even more strongly than her male counterpart) to the clan’s rule of loyalty, that is, to the uji-no-osa and, by delegation, to her husband. In an era characterized by the degeneration of martial virtues, by effeminate behavior, profligacy, and dissipation within the “floating world” (ukiyo) of a new culture, she was noted for her chastity, fidelity, and self-control. For centuries, she remained a forbidding figure, clearly traditionalist and conservative in outlook and action, who clung tenaciously to the martial ethos of her clan not only in essence (which the Tokugawa period was diluting substantially), but also in form and paraphernalia.

As the nucleus of those households which even today maintain the ties linking them to the feudal past, many of these women continue to resist change and bring up their children beneath the aristocratic shadow of the family’s kami—an ancient suit of armor before which sticks of incense burn night and day. Many of their sons enter the military academies of Japan, while their daughters face one another across the spacious dojo where the ancient art of naginatajutsu is taught to them, as well as to other girls of lesser military lineage but of equally intense attachment to the tradition which produced the samurai woman.


The Flagstaff War, 1845–6 Part I

‘Opening the doors of a monster furnace’

The Maori was arguably the Victorian soldier’s most formidable foe, and one he never properly beat. Yet the story of campaigns in the stinking mud and dense jungles of New Zealand, as fierce as any, is now an almost forgotten chapter in the forging of an Empire.

The first Maori War on North Island erupted four years after New Zealand became a colony. It was, absurdly, sparked by the destruction of a flagpole but there was nothing comical about the way the natives fought. The British forces expected to subdue a band of naked, undisciplined savages. Instead they faced a sophisticated warrior class, as disciplined as any Empire troops and often better equipped with more modern firearms. Instead of hit and run skirmishes and mopping up operations against defenceless villages the British repeatedly found themselves laying siege to strong, intricate fortresses complete with gun emplacements, rifle pits and bomb shelters. It was in part a throwback to medieval siege warfare, in part a foretaste of the trenches in a later, bigger war.

The British fighting men quickly recognized an equal adversary and their journals lack the sneering contempt for natives found in other colonial wars. Despite instances of cruel torture and possible cannibalism the historian Sir John Fortescue could later write: ‘The British soldier held him in the deepest respect, not resenting his own little defeats, but recognising the noble side of the Maori and forgetting his savagery.’


It was 800 years since the Maoris, a Polynesian people, had discovered Aotearoa, the land of the long, white cloud. In that time they had developed, through tribal disputes over land and honour, a fast and furious form of warfare. Fleet-footed warriors, armed with spears or clubs edged with razor coral, would charge straight through the enemy, striking only one blow and running on to another. The crippled enemy would be finished off by those coming behind. In a rout one man, if he were fast enough, could stab or club ten or more. To counter such raiding tactics the tribes built complex fortifications on hilltops, surrounded by ditches, palisades and banks. Over 4,000 such sites have been found in modern times, each providing evidence of communal defence and organized labour among forty tribes whose total population was somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000. The French explorer Marian du Fresne who sailed into the Bay of Islands in 1772 wrote: ‘At the extremity of every village and on the point which jutted furthest into the sea, there was a public place of accommodation for all the inhabitants.’

Captain James Cook’s 1777 journals described a fertile land of spectacular beauty inhabited by natives who, while aggressive, were intelligent and willing to trade. By the turn of the century European and American traders and whalers were using the Bay of Islands on the northern peninsula as a base. The settlement of Kororareka became a rowdy frontier town, a place of grog-shops, gambling dens and at least one brothel where pretty native girls exchanged their charms for liquor. It was known as the hell-hole of the Pacific. The Maori tribes traded extensively with the incomers and grew rich in the twin benefits of civilization – alcohol and modern firearms. The Colonial Office in London finally shook itself out of torpor and in 1840 the Union Flag was hoisted above the town, shortly before the rest of New Zealand came under the Crown.

The Maoris were – and remain – a tribal people with a strong sense of honour, of respect for the family, of a mystical sense of one-ness with their land. Children were taught that the land was sacred and that an insult must always be avenged. One proverb ran: ‘The blood of man is land.’ They were happy to trade with the white man but trouble flared when the Europeans began, slowly at first, to buy up, settle and fence off the ancient Maori homelands. More settlers flooded in. Land sharks from Sydney persuaded some chiefs to sell at rock bottom prices, creating a norm. It is a sickeningly familiar story of avaricious newcomers playing on the naive greed of individual chiefs at the expense of all.

The Colony’s new Lieutenant-Governor Captain William Hobson set out in 1840 to defuse an explosive situation. He decreed that no land could be bought from the Maoris except through the Crown. He called a meeting of the chiefs at Waitangi and proposed a treaty in which they would cede their sovereignty to the British Queen in return for guarantees that they would retain undisputed possession of their remaining lands. Among the chiefs to speak in favour was Hone Heke Pokai of the Ngaphui. He argued that the only alternative was to see their strength sapped by ‘rum sellers’. Five hundred chiefs signed the treaty.

A band of adventurers calling themselves the New Zealand Company had meanwhile established themselves near Wellington and declared that the treaty was not binding on them. After disputes over who owned what Hobson set up a land commission to investigate competing claims between the Company and the tribes. In July 1843 the Company clashed with two major chiefs, Te Rauparaha and his nephew Te Rangihaeata, over a slab of land just across the Cook Strait on South Island. Warriors harassed a survey team led by Captain Arthur Wakefield. The officer foolishly tried to arrest the two chiefs but in a confused mêlée succeeded only in shooting dead Te Rangihaeata’s wife. The enraged warriors took a terrible revenge and when the skirmish was over nineteen Englishmen and four Maoris were dead.

In the Colony’s new capital of Auckland the Governor believed that the massacre had been provoked. The settlers, however, demanded military protection and Hobson sent 150 men from the North and further reinforcements from New South Wales. The tension quickly faded and there was no more bloodshed around Wellington. The reinforcements were sent back to Australia after missionaries complained about their drunkenness and fornication.

In the Bay of Islands the slaughter of the Englishmen had a profound impact on the mind of Hone Heke. He was a renowned warrior by birth and experience, in his mid-thirties, described by one officer as ‘a fine looking man with a commanding countenance and a haughty manner’. He was not as heavily tattooed as other chiefs and had a prominent nose and a long chin. Like many of his people he was a Christian convert, having renounced youthful slaughter to train at Henry Williamson’s mission station. Although he had backed British rule at Waitangi he had since become disillusioned. The new government encouraged the whalers to find new ports and trade with the Maoris subsequently declined. Customs duties on those ships calling into port replaced the native tolls. The living standards of his people suffered. American and French traders, jealous of British annexation, told Heke that the Union Flag represented slavery for natives and he began to see the flagstaff above Kororakeke township as a sign that the British intended stealing all tribal lands. It became an obsession with him. When Heke heard of the massacre in the south he asked: ‘Is Te Rauparaha to have the honour of killing all the pakehas (white men)?’

In July 1844 he raided Kororareka to take home a Maori maiden living shamefully with a white butcher. The woman had previously been one of Heke’s servants and at a bathing party on the beach she referred to him as a ‘pig’s head’. Almost as an afterthought a sub-chief cut down the flagstaff. His bloodless action triggered a bizarre charade. A new pole was erected by the garrison, now reinforced by 170 men of the 99th Lanarkshire Regiment sent from Australia. Heke cut it down. Another replaced it, only to be chopped down a third time. The matter became a test of wills when Governor Hobson died and he was replaced by Captain Robert Fitzroy, better known now as the captain of the Beagle during the voyage of Charles Darwin. He ordered a taller and stronger pole to be erected – an old ship’s mizzen mast – defended by a stout blockhouse.

Fitzroy was particularly angered when Heke called on the United States Consul for support and later flew an American ensign from the stern of his war canoe. Between the toppling of the various poles the dangerous idiocy on both sides was almost ended several times. Heke guaranteed to replace the poles and protect British settlers. Fitzroy agreed to abolish the unpopular Customs charges which had hit Maori trade. But on the other side of the globe a House of Commons select committee chaired by Lord Howick, the future Earl Grey, decided to reinterpret the Treaty of Waitangi. They argued that the Maoris had no rights at all to the vast hinterland of unoccupied lands and urged that they should automatically fall to the Crown. The committee’s report also criticized the ‘want of vigour and decisions in the proceedings adopted towards the natives’. The implicit threat of a breached treaty was passed to the Maoris by helpful missionaries.

At dawn on 11 March 1845 Heke struck with unprecedented savagery. An officer and five men digging trenches around the blockhouse were swallowed by a flood of slashing, stabbing natives. As the troopers died the flagstaff was toppled. At the same time two columns of Maoris attacked the township below to create a diversion. Sailors and Marines guarding a naval gun on the outskirts fought hand to hand with cutlass and bayonet, pushing the attackers back into a gully before themselves being forced back with their officer severely wounded and their NCO and four men dead. Troops in another blockhouse overlooking the main road exchanged fire with the attackers, as did civilians and old soldiers manning three ship’s guns. Around 100 soldiers held the Maoris back as women and children were ferried out to the sloop Hazard and other ships anchored in the bay, including the US warship St Louis, an English whaler and Bishop Selwyn’s schooner. Heke remained on Flagstaff Hill, satisfied with his day’s work and not too anxious to press home the attack on the settlement if it meant too many casualties among his own men. Uncoordinated and half-hearted fighting continued throughout the morning, periods of eerie silence being shattered by bursts of gunfire and screams and the crackle of wooden buildings put to the torch. At 1 p.m. the garrison’s reserve magazine exploded and fire spread from house to house. The cause of the conflagration was later attributed to a spark from a workman’s pipe. Although Heke had shown no sign of attacking the township, save as diversionary tactics, the senior officer present, Naval Lieutenant Philpotts, and the local magistrate decided on a full evacuation of all able-bodied men. The remaining defenders scuttled for the ships and the safety offered by Hazard’s 100 guns.

The Maoris rampaged through the burning buildings, sparing two churches and the house of the Catholic Bishop Pompallier. When looters carried off some of the Bishop’s household goods Heke threatened to have the thieves executed. Only a 3-mile hike by the Bishop to Heke’s camp, after which he urged a pardon as enough blood had been shed, saved them. The Anglican Bishop Selwyn protested when Maoris calmly and soberly began to roll away casks of captured spirits. He said: ‘They listened patiently to my remonstances and in one instance they allowed me to turn the cock and allow the liquor to run upon the ground.’ Other clergymen who later went ashore were well treated. Six settlers who returned to rescue valued possessions were not. They were butchered on the spot. In all 19 Europeans were killed and 29 wounded. The ships took the survivors to Auckland. To the Maoris, despite the reported loss of thirty-four of their own men, the white men had been humbled and the flagstaff, symbol of their pride and greed, lay in the mud.


Lieutenant-Colonel William Hulme, a sensible, no-nonsense veteran of the Pindari campaigns in India, was ordered to put down Heke’s rebellion and avenge the deaths. He had under his command a small force of the 96th Regiment reinforced by a detachment of the 58th Rutlandshires, newly arrived from New South Wales: 8 officers and 204 men under Major Cyprian Bridge. Bridge was thirty-six, a literate and able commander whose journals contain a straightforward account of the frustrations and setbacks of the ensuing campaign. When they anchored in the Bay of Islands the regimental band played ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘The King of the Cannibal Islands’.

They were met by 400 friendly Maoris under Tamati Waaka Nene, a devoted ally of the British who saw Heke’s revolt as a shameful breach of the oaths sworn at Waitangi. Hulme took great pains to ensure his troops knew the difference between hostile and friendly natives and promised severe punishment for any soldier who harmed a Maori ally. Many of the soldiers were uneducated country lads who were astonished at the natives’ appearance: tall, fine-looking men, their bodies heavily tattooed, their cloaks richly decorated with feathers and pelts, their ears pierced with bone, ivory and brass. They were even more astonished to be joined by a few pakeha Maoris, white men who had ‘gone native’. These included the colourful ex-convict Jackey Marmon from Sydney who boasted about the tribal enemies he had slaughtered in battle and eaten at cannibal feasts.

The flagstaff was quickly re-erected over the smoking and deserted settlement and Hulme’s main force set off for the mouth of the Kawakawa river to deal first with Pomare, a local chieftain who had sided with Heke. The ships anchored off Pomare’s pa, or fortress, which stood on an imposing headland. Pomare was arrested under a white flag. The chief was taken aboard the White Star and persuaded to order his men to surrender their arms. The soldiers looted the empty pa, found a few rifles, and burnt it to the foundations. It was an inglorious start to the campaign but those thirsty for blood soon found it.

Hulme’s next target was Heke’s own pa at Puketutu near Lake Omapere 15 miles inland and close to the friendly Waaka’s stronghold. The infantry were augmented by seamen, Royal Marines and a three-pounder battery under Lieutenant Egerton RN. They were ferried up the Kerikeri river and then marched in good order through increasingly foul weather. Fierce and sudden downpours added to the misery.

Hulme sent some men ahead with local guides to report on Heke’s position. They found a strong fortress with three rings of palisades made musket-proof with flax leaves. The outer barricades were angled to pour crossfire on any assailant. Between each line of defence were ditches and low stone walls which offered shelter from bombardments. Maori riflemen manned ditches behind the outer palisade, their guns pointing through loopholes level with the ground.

Despite a lack of adequate artillery Hulme decided to attack the next morning and his force advanced to within 200 yards of the pa. Three storming parties were prepared. Hulme’s plan depended on a terrifying bombardment by Lieutenant Egerton’s rocket battery. The Maoris believed the rockets would chase a man until he was killed. The truth soon proved rather more laughable. Egerton’s first two rockets sailed hopelessly over the pa, carving crazy patterns in the still air. The third hit the palisades with a thunderous noise but when the smoke cleared there was virtually no damage. The remaining nine proved to be just as useless.

British troops and Waaka’s Maoris were closing with the enemy when 300 hostile natives, led by Heke’s ally Kawiti, dashed from concealment behind them, brandishing axes and double-barrelled guns. The men of the 58th turned around, fired and counter-charged with fixed bayonets. Kawiti’s men later complained bitterly that the soldiers came at them with teeth gritted and yelling unseemly and unnecessary curses. The counter-charge shattered the enemy but the rest of the British force was then hit by a sally from the pa itself. Vicious hand-to-hand fighting around the Maori breastworks eventually drove the defenders back behind their palisades.

It was stalemate. British musket fire was ineffective against the strong defences, the rockets were used up, and Hulme realized that without heavier artillery he had no hope of a breakthrough. There was more inconclusive fighting amid nearby swamps but the first real battle of the war was over, a low-score draw. The British pulled back with 14 killed and 38 wounded. Their enemy, by British accounts later disputed, lost 47 killed and 80 wounded, including Kawiti’s two sons. The Maori’s own flagstaff, carrying the Union Jack as an act of ironic derision, remained aloft above Heke’s pa. The British returned, in low spirits, to their ships.

Hulme returned to Auckland leaving Major Bridge in command. Bridge decided to attack a pa up the Waikare river rather than allow his men’s morale to sink even lower, kicking their heels in the Bay of Islands. His men barely rested, he set off with three companies of the 58th. At the river’s mouth they switched to small boats, manned by sailors, with Auckland Volunteers and friendly Maoris as guides. Bridge intended to make a surprise attack and the raid was well planned at the start. The outcome was a messy if largely bloodless shambles.

Several miles upstream the boats stuck fast on mudflats. Small bands of soldiers were disembarked among scenes of noisy confusion. Some became bogged down in the mire, while Maori allies engaged in a running fight with natives who sallied from the forewarned pa. Waaka’s men got the best of the skirmish but the enemy simply disappeared into the thick brush. The soldiers entered an empty pa and found only ‘pigs, potatoes and onions.’

The pa was destroyed and, with the river’s tidal waters high enough to float the boats off the mud, Bridge withdrew his tired and grimy force. There had been no British casualties but two of Waaka’s men were dead and seven wounded. In less careful hands Bridge’s expedition could have been a disaster. Misled by dubious guides and faulty intelligence Bridge had nevertheless behaved with calmness and common sense. Such qualities were not noticeable in the new commander of the British forces.


The forging of the British Empire saw its share of bone-headed bunglers. Colonel Henry Despard of the 99th is widely regarded as a prime example of that species. Despard received his first commission in 1799. His military thinking was stuck fast in the conventions of the Napoleonic era. He saw considerable action in India before taking up peacetime duties as Inspecting Officer of the Bristol recruiting district. In 1842 he took command of the 99th Lancashires, which had recently arrived in Australia. In New South Wales he outraged local civilians by snubbing a ball held in his honour, by blocking public roads around the barracks, and by having his buglers practise close to their homes. Despard insisted that his new command abandon its modern drill manuals and return to those of his younger days. The result was parade ground chaos which did not augur well for an active campaign. He was prone to apoplectic rages and rarely, if ever, listened to either advice or complaints. He had no doubts about his own abilities. Now aged sixty, it was thirty years since he had seen active service. He arrived in Auckland aboard the British Sovereign on 2 June with two companies of his regiment. Major Bridge’s journal describes his mounting frustration at the arrogance and short-sighted stubbornness of his new CO.

Despard gathered his disparate force to move on the Bay of Islands. It was the biggest display of Western armed might yet seen by fledgling New Zealand: 270 men of the 58th under Bridge, 100 of the 99th under Major E. Macpherson, 70 of Hulme’s 96th, a naval contingent of seamen and marines, 80 Auckland Volunteers led by Lieutenant Figg, to be used as pioneers and guides, all supported by four cannon – two ancient six-pounders and two twelve-pound carronades.

At Kororareka Despard was told Heke had attacked Waaka’s pa with 600 men but Waaka had beaten them off with his 150 followers. Heke had suffered a severe thigh wound. Despard decided to launch an immediate assault on Heke’s new pa at Ohaeawai, a few miles from Puketutu, despite foul winter weather which was turning tracks into quagmires.

During a miserable 12-mile march the cannon became stuck fast in the mud and the little army took shelter at the Waimate mission station. Despard was reduced to ranting fury. Waaka arrived with 250 warriors but Despard said sourly that when he wanted the help of savages he would ask for it. Luckily for him his Maori allies did not hear of the insult, and Despard must have changed his mind and the Maoris joined the British.

Most of the force stayed at the station for several days until fresh supplies were brought up. On 23 June, at 6 p.m., an advance detachment came within sight of Heke’s pa. Alert Maoris swiftly opened fire but the scrub was up to 10 feet high and the skirmish line escaped slaughter, carrying back eight wounded comrades. The enemy marksmen retired to the safety of their stockade. The main British force caught up and encamped in a native village 400 yards from the pa. Waaka and his men occupied a conical hill nearby to protect the British from a flanking attack. A breastwork and battery for the guns was swiftly erected.

Heke’s new pa was twice as strong as that at Puketutu. It was built on rising ground with ravines and dense forest on three sides, giving the defenders an easy route for supplies, reinforcements or withdrawal. There were three rows of palisades with 5-foot ditches between them. The outer stockade was 90 yards wide with projecting corners to allow concentric fire. The defenders, standing in the first inner ditch, aimed through loopholes level with the ground. The ditch was connected by tunnels to bomb shelters and the innermost defences. It was a sophisticated citadel and was well stocked. The Maoris had a plentiful supply of firearms and ammunition, some of it looted, the rest bought or bartered before the uprising. Four ship’s guns were built into the stockade.

Officers, pakeha Maoris and native allies warned Despard of the fort’s great strength. So too did Waaka. All such doubts were rebuffed. After one angry exchange Waaka was heard to mutter in his own language. Despard insisted on a translation. He was told: ‘The chief says you are a very stupid person.’

The British battery opened fire at 10 a.m. on the 24th but ‘did no execution’. The Maoris returned fire and until nightfall there was no let-up in the fusillades of shell, ball and grape. Bridge wrote that much shot burst within the pa and ‘I fancy they must have lost many men.’ The following day the bombardment continued but the flax-woven palisades made it impossible to see how much damage was done to the defences. The shot was simply absorbed by the flexible material.

Despard decided that only a night attack would breach the stockade. He prepared storming parties with ladders ready for 2 a.m. He ordered the construction of flax shields, each 12 feet by 6, to be carried by advanced parties. That night Sergeant-Major William Moir said: ‘The chances are against us coming out of this action. I look upon it as downright madness.’ Luckily for everyone concerned a storm in the early hours prevented the night attack. The following morning the flax shields were tested and to the surprise of few the shot passed clean through. After that demonstration few soldiers trusted Despard’s ability and some doubted his sanity. Another of his bright ideas involved firing ‘stench balls’ at the enemy. That also flopped.

The physical condition of the British deteriorated as rain poured incessantly on their crude shelters. Their clothing was reduced to rags, in some cases barely recognizable as uniforms. There was no meat and little flour but a gill of rum was given to each man every morning and evening. Taken on an empty stomach and supplemented by local native liquor the result could be devastating. Drunkenness, a problem throughout the New Zealand campaign, increased. There were fights over the firm-limbed and cheerful native women.

A new battery was built closer to the pa’s right flank and quickly came under hot fire which wounded several soldiers and killed a sailor. An enemy raid was beaten off but the guns were withdrawn. Despard demanded that HMS Hazard’s 32-pounder be dragged from the mouth of the Kerikeri. After a brutal and agonizing haul it was manhandled into position halfway up the conical hill by twenty-five sailors. Despard planned to attack as soon as the big gun had softened up the outer defences. He told Bridge: ‘God grant we may be successful but it is a very hazardous step and must be attended with great loss of life.’

On the morning of 1 July the enemy launched a surprise attack on Waaka’s camp on the conical hill, aimed at killing Waaka himself. A number of Heke’s men moved undetected through the forest and emerged behind the camp. Caught off guard, the native allies streamed down the hill with their women and children. Despard, who had been inspecting the cannon, was engulfed in the panic-stricken human tide. He ran into the British camp and ordered a bayonet charge up the hill. The soldiers came under crossfire from hill and pa but by then only a few of the enemy were left on the summit and it was quickly retaken. The attackers withdrew when they realized that Waaka had escaped.

Despard was driven to characteristic fury by his ignominious sprint into his own camp. His temper must have deepened with ill-concealed sniggers from the ranks of his tattered army. He decided to attack that same afternoon. The bombardment had clearly failed to leave gaping holes in the outer stockade and the enemy appeared unscathed. His troops and their Maori allies regarded a frontal assault as suicidal. But no appeals to caution would persuade him otherwise. The scene was set for tragedy.

His plan, such as it was, was to focus the attack on a narrow front at the pa’s north-west corner, which Despard believed had been damaged by the cannonfire. Twenty Volunteers under Lieutenant Jack Beatty were to creep silently to the outer stockade to test the defenders’ alertness. They were to be quickly followed by 80 grenadiers, some seamen and pioneers under Major Macpherson, equipped with axes, ropes and ladders to pull down sections of the wood and flax perimeter. Behind these were to be 100 men under Major Bridge who were expected to storm through the gaps into the pa. They in turn were to be backed by another wave of 100 men under Colonel Hulme. Despard planned to lead the remainder of his force into the stockade to mop up and accept the enemy surrender.

The Maori plan of defence was less elaborate. One unknown chief called out: ‘Stand every man firm and you will see the soldiers walk into the ovens.’

At 3 p.m. precisely on a bright and sunny afternoon the storming parties fell in. There was no surprise. They charged in four closely packed ranks, according to regulations, with just twenty-three inches between each rank. Fifty yards from the pa the men cheered. Corporal William Free later wrote: ‘The whole front of the pa flashed fire and in a moment we were in a one-sided fight – gun flashes from the foot of the stockade and from loopholes higher up, smoke half hiding the pa from us, yells and cheers and men falling all around. A man was shot in front of me and another was hit behind me. Not a single Maori could we see. They were all safely hidden in their trenches and pits, poking the muzzles of their guns under the fronts of the outer palisades. What could we do? We tore at the fence, firing through it, thrusting our bayonets in, or trying to pull a part of it down, but it was a hopeless business.’

The Maoris allowed Macpherson’s men to come within yards of the stockade before opening up with every gun they had. Their blistering fire was later described as like ‘the opening of the doors of a monster furnace’. Only a handful of men with axes and ladders reached the barrier. Despard, supported by Bridge, later claimed that the Auckland Volunteers had dropped flat at the first fusillade and would not budge thereafter. The surviving men at the foot of the stockade scrabbled hopelessly at the interwoven flax, firing at the occasional glimpse of a tattooed face within.

Bridge was no slacker and he and his men were soon caught in the same murderous fire. He wrote: ‘When I got up close to the fence and saw the way it resisted the united efforts of our brave fellows to pull it down and saw them falling thickly all around, my heart sank within me lest we should be defeated. Militia and Volunteers who carried the hatchets and ladders would not advance but laid down on their faces in the fern. Only one ladder was placed against the fence and this by an old man of the Militia.’

Despard watched the bloody shambles from the rear earthworks. Even he realized that such slaughter was worthless. A bugle call to withdraw was ignored in the heat of battle. A second call finally penetrated the brains of men conditioned to believe that retreat in the face of half-naked savages was unthinkable. The survivors dragged as many of their wounded comrades back with them as was feasible. Some soldiers returned two or three times through a hell of musket smoke and shot to rescue their mates. One wounded man was shot dead as he was carried on the back of Corporal Free, who dropped the corpse and carried another soldier to safety. Hulme’s supporting party covered the retreat well with substantial fire which kept enemy heads down. But the casualties suffered in just seven minutes of fighting were fearful. At least one-third of the British attackers had been killed or wounded. Three officers, including Beatty, were dead and three injured. Some 33 NCOs and privates were killed and 62 wounded, four of whom later died. The Maoris lost ten at most. Bridge wrote: ‘It was a heartrending sight to see the number of gallant fellows left dead on the field and to hear the groans and cries of the wounded for us not to leave them behind.’

The jubilant Maori defenders rejected a missionary’s flag of truce and during that long night held a noisy war dance. The dispirited troops huddled in their camp and mourned their dead and tended their casualties and wondered who would be next. They were tormented by the ‘most frightful screams’ from within the pa, screams which haunted all who heard them.

Two more days passed before Heke allowed the British to collect their dead from the charnel field in front of his stockade. Several corpses had been scalped, beheaded and otherwise horribly mutilated. One, that of a soldier of the 99th, bore the marks of being bound, alive, by flax. His thighs had been burnt and hacked about. A hot iron had been thrust up his anus. The soldiers knew then the source of those terrible nocturnal screams.

Despard prepared to break camp and return, beaten, to Waimate. Waaka and his chiefs, hungry for loot, persuaded him to stay a few more days at least. More shot and shell for the cannon were brought up and the bombardment of the pa resumed. It continued ceaselessly for another day. That night dogs began howling within the pa. It was a sign, according to Maori allies, that the enemy were withdrawing. The following morning, while the British slept, Waaka’s warriors slipped into the fort and found it empty. They looted everything, including weapons taken off the dead. They condescended to sell the outraged British the odd sack of potatoes. Everything else they kept for future trade. One officer missing in action, Captain Grant, was found in a shallow grave near the palisade. Flesh had been cut off his thighs, apparently for eating.

After inspecting the pa’s defences from the inside Bridge wrote: ‘This will be a lesson to us not to make too light of our enemies, and show us the folly of attempting to carry such a fortification by assault, without first making a practicable breach.’ The pa was burnt but there was no sense of victory. Heke had simply moved to build a new stronghold elsewhere, no great inconvenience. Too many lives had ended for no good reason.

The Flagstaff War, 1845–6 Part II

Thomas Hutton, Owhaiawai [sic]. Pa of Hone Heke [sic], copied from a drawing taken by Mr Symonds of the 99th Regt [1845].

With the superior firepower at his disposal, British commander Henry Despard was confident his assault party would carry the day.

Whereas a steady stream of intelligence had been received before the battle of Puketutu, Despard knew little about the nature and extent of the defences at Ōhaeawai. The decisions he made that day were based on what he could observe – and the flax matting hung over the outer fence (pekerangi) blocked his view.

The Māori defenders could fire and reload in relative safety. The design also allowed them to fire from a variety of angles to inflict maximum damage. Ōhaeawai’s 3-m-high inner palisade was built of strong puriri logs which didn’t splinter easily. The smaller cannon made little impact on it, and insufficient 32-pounder balls were fired to cause significant damage.

Despard reported back to Auckland, anxious to pin blame for the carnage on anyone but himself, and taking with him the men of the 99th and 96th. Major Bridge was left in command of the 58th at Waimate. Back pay for all ranks was sent up to the mission station. Much of it was spent immediately on drinking and gambling by men anxious to blot out the horror and shame of Ohaeawai. Inevitably discipline grew lax. One private, a veteran who had been wounded at Puketutu, was accidentally shot dead on guard duty. The dead man, 22-year-old Private Ingate had been a Norfolk farm labourer before enlisting. His comrade Sergeant Robert Hattaway wrote: ‘He allways told us he would never Be shot by a Maorie. It was true for him. . . .’ One man was caught in the act of stealing rum from a barrel. But he was a family man and Hattaway, a newly promoted NCO, spared him a court martial. Another offender was not so lucky: an American Volunteer with a record for insubordination, he was found guilty at a drumhead court martial of cursing the British flag and immediately suffered fifty lashes.

Bridge tried to keep his men occupied by building stout earthworks and other defences around the camp as protection against an enemy elated by victory. These were almost complete when Despard returned, bubbling with his now familiar petulance. He said it was demeaning to build ramparts to defend a well-armed European force against a ‘barbarian enemy’. He ordered the earthworks flattened. Bridge held his tongue but clearly believed that the slaughter in front of Heke’s pa had taught his commander nothing.

Governor Fitzroy, anxious to get Heke to make peace, ordered the 58th withdrawn to camp among the ruins of the Kororareka settlement. His willingness to talk, and his careful conduct in the run-up to the Flagstaff War, were severely criticized in Auckland and London. He was accused of being over-protective of the interests of the aborigines and ‘losing sight of the fundamental principles, that indulgence may be abused and forebearance misconstrued’. In his own defence he later wrote: ‘Had I not treated them with consideration, and had not the public authorities been very forebearing, the destruction of Auckland and Wellington would have been matters of history before this period. An overpowering multitude have been restrained hitherto by moral influence.’ He added: ‘My object always was to avoid bringing on a trial of physical strength with those who, in that respect, were overwhelmingly our superiors; but gradually to gain the necessary influence and authority by a course of scrupulous justice, truth and benevolence.’ Such sentiments did not match the thirst for revenge and Fitzroy was recalled.

His replacement was 34-year-old Captain George Grey whose early service in Ireland had convinced him that the frontiers of the civilized world must be widened to provide fresh opportunities for the poor, landless and hungry. He had served in Australia, and on the Beagle, and had impressed his superiors with his efficiency, diligence and courage. His remit was to punish the natives, end an increasingly costly conflict and bring ‘financial and commercial prosperity’ to the settlements. He told the Legislative Council: ‘You may rely that my sole aim and object shall be to settle upon a sure and lasting basis the interests of yourselves and of your children, and to give effect to her Majesty’s wise and benevolent desire for the peace and happiness of all her Majesty’s subjects in this interesting portion of her empire, and upon which the regards of so large a portion of the civilized world are now anxiously fixed.’ He also warned the settlers that he would, if necessary, use his full powers under martial law and aim to secure in any peace the ‘freedom and safety’ to which the aborigines were also entitled.

Grey decided he must see the troubles in the North at first hand. On reaching the Bay of Islands he made some attempts to parley with Heke and Kawiti. But becoming impatient, he demanded an immediate reply to Fitzroy’s earlier peace moves. Further delays gave him the excuse to mobilize his forces. Those forces were now impressive as Grey had brought with him considerable reinforcements from Auckland. They included 563 officers and men of the 58th, 157 of the 99th, 42 Volunteers, 84 Royal Marines, a 313-strong Naval Brigade, 450 friendly Maoris – a total of just over 1,600 men plus six cannon including two 32-pounders, four mortars and two rocket tubes.

Between 7 and 11 December the British decamped and moved up the Kawakawa river to attack the ‘Bat’s Nest’ – Kawiti’s pa at Ruapekapeka, strongly built on a densely wooded hillside. Again drunkenness impeded the expedition. A few ‘old troopers’ were over-ready to blast away at anything that moved in the woods . . . wild pigs, birds and shadows. The advance faltered as bullocks, heavy carts and cannon stuck fast in the liquid mud. Christmas was celebrated by the men in teeming misery relieved only by rum. Officers noted in the diaries that the Christian natives showed great devotion in observing the day and attending mass.

By the 27th several cannon were in position overlooking the Bat’s Nest and opened fire. Despard heard worrying reports that Heke had left his own refuge and was marching with 200 men to join Kawiti at Ruapekapeka. After exasperating delays which drove Despard into deeper rages, the big 32-pounders were dragged up to join the first cannon in a formidable battery 1,200 yards from the enemy pa. The Maoris, however, were well entrenched and their defences included solid underground bunkers which resisted every shot. After each bombardment they simply emerged to repair the little damage done to the stockades. Despard later wrote: ‘The extraordinary strength of this place, particularly in its interior defences, far exceeded any idea I could have formed of it. Every hut was a complete fortress in itself, being strongly stockaded all round with heavy timbers sunk deep in the ground . . . besides having a strong embankment thrown up behind them. Each hut had also a deep excavation close to it, making it completely bomb-proof, and sufficiently large to contain several people where at night they were sheltered from both shot and shell.’

Most of the British column, including several cannon and mortars, were still on the trail. Bridge complained that the bombardment was pointless until all men and guns were in place and deployed to concentrate intensive fire on the pa’s weakest points. Instead Despard, bizarrely and to conserve ammunition, would not allow more than one cannon to be fired at any one time. Bridge wrote: ‘How deplorable it is to see such ignorance, indecision and obstinacy in a Commander who will consult no one . . . and has neither the respect nor the confidence of the troops under his command.’ He added: ‘Our shot and shell are being frittered away in this absurd manner instead of keeping up constant fire.’

The lacklustre bombardment continued until another battery was built closer to the pa, protected by 200 men. This was swiftly attacked in a sortie from the stockade and the enemy were beaten back with only light casualties on either side. The fiercest fighting was between Kawiti’s men and friendly Maoris on 2 January. In a confused and fragmented fight in thick brushland the enemy were driven back into the pa. From its barricades they taunted the white men, daring them to charge as they had done at Ohaeawai.

The siege dragged on through wet days and nights. Conditions in the British lines grew appalling. Disease and exposure put many men out of action. Reinforcements and fresh supplies were lost or abandoned on forest trails. Drunkenness continued and could not be curbed. Ammunition was wasted not just by Despard’s tactics but by jittery soldiers who saw a foe behind every bush. Men and officers who had proved themselves ready to be heroes if given the chance sank into despair at their shabby leadership.

On 8 January eighty of the enemy were spotted leaving the safety of the pa and disappearing into the forest. Governor Grey urged Kawiti by message to send away the Maori women and children as he did not want them hurt in the bombardment. The British received more reports of small bands of warriors melting away with their families. The determination of those who stayed within the pa was stiffened, however, by the arrival of Heke, although he had with him only sixty men and not the reported 200.

At last, on 10 January, the entire British arsenal was in position – the 32-pounders, smaller cannon, mortars, rockets and small arms. They opened up a ferocious crossfire on the pa’s outer defences. Despard wrote: ‘The fire was kept up with little intermission during the greater part of the day; and towards evening it was evident that the outer works . . . were nearly all giving way.’ The stockade was breached in three places. Despard was almost delirious with excitement and prepared for a frontal assault. A Maori ally, guessing his intent, shouted at him: ‘How many soldiers do you want to kill?’ Other chiefs told Grey that an attack now would result in the same waste of life as at Ohaeawai, but if they waited until the following day the enemy would have fled. Grey listened, agreed and overruled Despard, much to the colonel’s irritation.

On the following morning Waaka’s brother William and a European interpreter crept up to the stockade. They heard nothing from inside except for dogs barking. The pa seemed deserted and a signal was given to the nearest battery. A hundred men under Captain Denny advanced cautiously with native allies. Some men pushed over a section of fencing and entered the pa.

It had not been deserted. The explanation for the eerie silence was rather more strange, and rich with irony. It was a Sunday and the Christian Maoris, the majority of the defenders including Heke, had assumed that Christian soldiers would never attack on the Sabbath. Heke and the other believers had retired to a clearing just outside the far stockade to hold a prayer meeting. Only Kawiti and a handful of non-Christian warriors were left inside when the British stepped through the breach.

Too late Kawiti realized what was happening. He alerted the Maoris outside and threw up hasty barricades within the pa. He and his men managed spasmodic fire against the incoming troops. Heke and the rest of the garrison made a determined effort to re-enter the pa, firing through holes in its walls created earlier by the British cannon. Several British troops were killed and wounded but more troopers and native allies swarmed into the pa. In a topsy-turvy engagement the defenders became the attackers and vice versa within moments. Heke and the rest were pressed back to the tree-line of the surrounding forest and sheltered behind a natural barrier of fallen tree trunks.

A party of sailors, seeing action for the first time, charged this position and were shot down one by one. Three sergeants – Speight, Stevenson and Munro – and a motley band of soldiers, seamen and natives emerged from the pa and threw themselves at the makeshift barricade with such fury that the enemy withdrew deeper into the forest. The sergeants were each commended in orders and when, in 1856, the Victoria Cross was instituted Speight’s name was put forward for a retrospective citation. The award was vetoed on the grounds that no VCs could be awarded for action prior to the Crimean War.

Kawiti and his stragglers fought their way clear of the pa and joined Heke and the other fleeing warriors in the forest. The battle was over. The British had succeeded because the Christian Maoris were more scrupulous in observing the faith than the Christian Europeans. It may have been farcical but it was not a bloodless victory. Friendly Maori casualties were not recorded but the British lost 12 men killed, including 7 sailors from HMS Castor, and 30 wounded, two of whom later died. Despard claimed that the enemy’s losses were severe, including the deaths of several chiefs, but he was keen to add to the scale of the victory. He explained that a body count was not possible as the Maoris ‘invariably carry off both killed and wounded when possible’. Ruapekapeka was burnt. The First Maori War, an unconventional campaign, had ended in a suitably offbeat way.


Despard did not enjoy popular acclaim for the victory. He exaggerated the scale and ferocity of the final battle in his despatches, although his reference to ‘the capture of a fortress of extraordinary strength by assault, and nobly defended by a brave and determined enemy’ contains some truths. His bravado cut no ice with the colonial press who lambasted him mercilessly. An editorial in The New Zealander condemned his ‘lengthened, pompous, commendatory despatch’. Puzzled, angered and saddened by such barbs Despard left for Sydney on 21 January. Bridge noted caustically that his departure was ‘much to the satisfaction of the troops’. Despard retained command of the 99th until he was seventy but, happily for the men under him, never saw active service again. He died, a major-general, in 1858. He never, according to contemporaries, understood the ill gratitude he received. Many of his men, grieving for fallen comrades, would quite happily have hanged him.

Heke and Kawiti first tried to join up with their former ally Pomare but that wily old brigand knew which way the wind was now blowing and refused them aid. The rebel chiefs knew that the time to talk peace had now come. They opened negotiations with Governor Grey using their enemy Waaka as a go-between. Kawiti was prepared to agree peace for ever more. Heke, however, insisted that a Maori flagstaff should be erected alongside the Union Jack. Grey for his part rescinded all threats to seize Maori lands and granted free pardons to both chiefs and their men. He promised that all concerned in the rebellion ‘may now return in peace and safety to their houses; where, so long as they conduct themselves properly, they shall remain unmolested in their persons and properties’. Her Majesty, he said, had an ‘earnest desire for the happiness and welfare of her native subjects in New Zealand’.

The clemency shown by the Governor was not due to humanitarian feelings. Grey needed to bring the Northern troubles to a swift conclusion because his troops were desperately required in the South to deal with violence which had flared up around Wellington. The causes were familiar: a new clash between the land-hungry New Zealand Company and the chief Te Rangihaeata, whose earlier massacre of white men had so encouraged Heke.

The murders, sieges and inconclusive campaigning that followed in the South cannot properly be regarded as part of the Flagstaff War. Rather it was a foretaste of the bloodshed that was to follow with little let-up for another two decades. But in the North, around Auckland, the peace treaties were honoured by both sides and the occasional violent clash was small in scale.

Most of the 58th, which had done the lion’s share of the fighting, left for Australia after a riotous ball organized by the grateful ladies of Auckland. Bridge and almost every other officer in the regiment were mentioned in despatches for their bravery, although these were the days before medals for courage were awarded. Bridge, after a long wait, took command of the regiment, at the age of fifty-one. His military career after New Zealand was uneventful. He retired in 1860, broken-hearted by the death of his second wife and of all but one of his many children. He died in Cheltenham in 1885, aged seventy-eight.

Corporal Free, who had written such a vivid account of the attack and tragedy at Ohaeawai, stayed in New Zealand and served with the Rifle Volunteers. He died, aged ninety-three, in 1919. Sergeant William Speight, the hero of Ruapekapeka, may not have been awarded a Victoria Cross but years later he was granted a Meritorious Service Medal and a £10 annuity for that action; he was the only veteran of the first Maori War to receive the medal. He stayed with the 58th and retired, a staff sergeant-major, in 1858 to settle permanently in New Zealand.

In 1848 Heke, who never fully accepted British rule, caught consumption which left him defenceless against other illnesses. He died two years later at Kaikohe, aged only forty. His one consolation was that the hated British flagstaff was not re-erected in his lifetime. Kawiti was converted to Christianity. He too died young, in 1853. It is likely, although impossible to prove, that had they lived longer both chiefs would have been leaders in the uprisings that devastated New Zealand through the 1850s and 1860s. The pattern set in their initial war was repeated with rising casualties and greater atrocity on either side.

The Maoris were never truly beaten but neither could they win against the tide of colonists who flooded to their green land. By 1858 there were 60,000 incomers, a decade later 220,000. The British Government decided they now sufficiently outnumbered the natives to be able to take care of themselves and the last troops were withdrawn in 1870. The wars were over but random butchery continued in isolated glades. Overwhelming numbers and disease crippled and contained the daring Maori. But the spark of resistance did not die out. In 1928 an anonymous Maori wrote: ‘We have been beaten because the pakeha outnumber us in men. But we are not conquered or rubbed out, and not one of these pakeha can name the day we sued for peace. The most that can be said is that on such and such a date we left off fighting.’


Negoro-no Komizucha. Komizucha was a sohei, a warrior-monk, shown here in battle armed not with the samurai’s weapons, but instead with just a massive club—even so he seems to be holding his own against a fusillade of spears, swords, and arrows.


Sohei warrior monks, Japan c. 900 Some Buddhist monks in Japan chose to follow both a martial and religious lifestyle, with many devoted to the practice of Zen Buddhism. Warrior monks had a role in some of the most turbulent periods in Japanese military history, including the Gempei War in the 12th century. Some Sohei orders grew very powerful, and were able to field armies, especially during the Japanese civil wars of the 16th century.

The monks of the various Japanese Buddhist temple communities, including Nara and Mount Hiei. The term warrior monk comes from the translation of Sohei, so meaning a Buddhist priest or monk and hei meaning soldier or warrior. The monks tended to be belligerent to the point of foolhardiness and the Nara and Miidera monks were heavily suppressed after allying with the “wrong” side during the Gempei War (1180-85).

Monastic forces consisted of a hard core of trained warriors but the bulk of armies were made up of less well-trained and/or motivated members of the temple communities. Their overall effectiveness has probably been overrated under other rules systems. One well known tactic was to place their portable shrine, containing the kami (or spirit) of the temple, in front of the battle line and dare all comers to try and take it!

Armed forces known as sohei (warrior-monks) mounted a potent challenge to aristocrats and warriors throughout the feudal era. The term akuso, meaning evil monks, found in diaries of Heian period courtiers, summarizes the general view of these soldiers that represented powerful temples. While warriors and aristocrats struggled for control of feudal Japan, from the sidelines the sohei fought to unseat both of these forces and instead obtain both land and wealth for the benefit of powerful religious institutions.

The origins of the bands of warrior-monks and the language used to identify these figures can be confusing. For example, the title warrior-monk (the more common English translation of the term sohei) carries varied connotations in different periods, and sohei were not always part of the monastic order at the temples they served. Further, sohei were well armed and skilled in the use of weapons, despite Buddhist precepts prohibiting monks from engaging in such pursuits. In addition, civil codes that limited weapons possession among priests, acolytes, and other clerics had little effect on the many sohei who functioned in institutions not subject to such restrictions. Another common misconception about warrior-monks also relates to terminology. Some scholars have conflated the roles of sohei and yamabushi (mountain ascetics), since both of these religious figures dwelt in mountains and are sometimes identified in medieval sources as similar figures. Despite the apparent similarity to the word bushi, which is also used to designate samurai, the “bushi” in yamabushi is written with a different character than the “bushi” for warrior. The term yamabushi distinguishes ascetics who engaged in mountain pilgrimages and sustained meditation as part of their spiritual practice. However, many powerful temples were located on mountains, and while yamabushi also occupied such territory, they were usually benign figures devoted to solitary religious practice. At the same time, the legions of warrior-monks enlisted by religious institutions were only occasionally referred to as yamabushi in contemporary sources, simply because the temples they served were in mountainous locations.

Temples and other religious institutions were motivated to deploy units of warrior-monks to defend land acquired during the redistributions and lapses in administration practices on provincial estates that occurred in the 10th and 11th centuries. Young warriors employed by private estates as militiamen confused matters by shaving their heads and were often mistaken for sohei in practice and in historical accounts. In some cases, the warrior-monks (including those private soldiers who appeared to be monks, but often were not) became so powerful that they posed a threat to the imperial court and the shogunate. Warrior monks serving Enryakuji, Kofukuji, and Miidera, all temples located near Kyoto or the old capital, Nara, were particularly notorious.

With the burning of Enryakuji by Oda Nobunaga in 1571, the power of the sohei diminished significantly. Efforts mounted by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the weapons prohibitions instituted in the late Momoyama and early Edo periods finalized the suppression of these warriors.