Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Legacy of Rameses II

For 50 years after the death of Rameses II, Egypt remained a peaceful and powerful empire, ruling many nearby states. In around 1200bc, however, a vast migration of peoples from the north swept down on to the Mediterranean. The Hittite Empire was destroyed, Syria was overrun and the invaders attacked Egypt. By 1000bc Egypt was divided between the invaders and a series of petty local rulers. The empire built by Rameses had been destroyed. However, the massive structures he built have made Rameses famous in the modern world as thousands of tourists flock to visit them.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Alexander the Great at the Granicus - the Video

In this, the third book of Spellmounts Campaign in Context series, Rupert Matthews looks to the first major campaign of Alexander the Great. One of the most famous generals all time, Alexander was just 20 when he led his army into battle at Granicus. Despite his youth and his army being heavily outnumbered, he was victorious, and it was this victory that allowed him to conquer Asia Minor. The course of this key battle remains controversial, owing to conflicting accounts in contemporary sources. As with his previous titles in the series, Rupert Matthews carefully balances the evidence from textual sources with knowledge of the battlefield and reconstructed weaponry in order to explain the events of the battle to the general reader, and the context in which it took place.


The Siege of Norham Castle 1513, a Walk

Distance:        3.2  miles
Terrain:        This gentle riverside walk is a pleasant one over paths with good surfaces and village lanes. There is only a short stretch of difficult terrain, whcih can be avoided, and one flight of steps to negotiate.
Public Transport:    Norham is served by Munros of Jedburgh bus 67 from Berwick. 
Parking:        There is on street parking in Norham.
Refreshments:    There is a pub in Norham village that serves meals and a bakers selling tasty snacks and soft drinks.


In the spring of 1513 all Europe trembled on the edge of war. Aragon, Venice, England and the Holy Roman Empire had formed a league with the Pope against France, which had invaded northern Italy and was becoming perhaps the most powerful state in Europe.

The war began when King Henry VIII of England landed a large army at Calais, then owned by England, and invaded France. He crushed the French force sent to stop him, then captured the cities of Terouenne and Tournay. King Louis XII of France had for some months been urging King James IV of Scotland to distract Henry by invading England. France and Scotland were, after all, bound by the “Auld Alliance”, an anti-English understanding that dated back generations but had no precise form.

James had been reluctant to act for several reasons. First was that the early years of his reign had been taken up with repairing the damage to the Scots economy and society caused by years of civil war. He had only just managed to get things sorted out and had no wish to risk it all by a war with England. He was, moreover, married to Henry’s sister. James had been happy enough to accept French military advisors to help him raise, equip and train a royal army that would be loyal to himself and permanently on call to help him deal with troublesome nobles. He even had some 5,000 French soldiers in Scotland led by Count d’Aussi. Although he promised repeatedly to attack England, he did nothing.

Driven to desperation by the English attack, Louis sent a ship to Scotland on board were 14,000 French crowns, a considerable sum of cash, plus a letter from Queen Anne of France. The letter was politely phrased, but its message was clear. “I give you this money,” Queen Anne concluded, “to pay for an army. I beseech you to come just three feet into England for my sake”. Such a blatant prod to his military reputation – and from a woman at that – was designed to goad James in to action. James, duly goaded, acted.

On 11 August James declared war on England. He demanded an apology and cash payment to compensate him for the death of a Scottish government official who had been killed during a border clash some years earlier and about whom most people had long forgotten. Eleven days later James marched over the border at Coldstream.

The army which James IV led into England was enormous by the standards of the time, about 40,000 fighting men in all. The royal summons had gone out some weeks earlier to all of Scotland. The borderers sent large numbers of reivers armed as lightly armoured cavalry. The Highlands and the Western Isles sent clansmen clad in plaid and carrying their traditional weapons of sword and shield. The Lowlands supplied men equipped with spear, sword and shield. James himself led his royal army. He also brought with him d’Aussi and the 5,000 Frenchmen.

Significantly for what was to follow, James dragged over the Tweed at Coldstream his artillery train. The Scottish Master Gunner, Robert Borthwick, had spent the previous two years buying guns, gunpowder and balls from the finest gunsmiths in Europe. In 1513 his pride and joy were the Seven Sisters, seven guns bought in Flanders that were mounted on carriages able to traverse open fields and which could, therefore, be used in battle. He also had the formidable siege gun Mons Meg, which was clumsily unwieldy but was able to smash stone walls to fragments.

James was well aware that previous attacks into England had foundered when the English ambushed the Scots as they returned. He was therefore determined to fight whatever army the English sent against him before advancing south to plunder and loot. He also decided to keep more than one route back to Scotland open behind him.

The first route was to be back via Coldstream, the second was to be across the Tweed at Norham. The ford here was the only crossing point that could be used by an army supply train between Berwick and where the River Till ran into the Tweed from the south. It was a strategic crossing point of the first order.

James arrived in front of Norham Castle on 25 August.

Monday, 21 March 2011

The History Man in Battle

This morning I went down to Battle in Sussex to talk to the well attended Probus Meeting on the subject of "On the Trail of the Real St George". The talk included several quick changes of costume, a suit of armour and a (blunt) sword. All good fun.

I offer a range of historic talks to suit all occasions. To book me for your event, see my WEBSITE.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

1554 The start of the Siege of Cooling Castle, Kent

After the Battle of Wrotham the rebel forces of Sir John Wyatt, gathered in Rochester, were free to advance on London, the only royalist force in the county having partly broken up and retreated. There was much support for Wyatt’s stated aims of banning the marriage of Queen Mary to King Philip of Spain and ousting some of Mary’s more unpopular ministers. If Wyatt had moved quickly he may have carried the day. Unfortunately for him and his men, he chose to attack Cooling Castle before marching on London.

Although with hindsight the attack on Cooling was an error, at the time it did make sense. The castle then stood on the banks of the Thames, guarding the southern flank of the estuary, and only a short distance north of the Rochester-London road. Any force there could threaten Wyatt’s lines of communication back to his base of support in Kent. Wyatt may also have been counting on support from King Philip’s rebellious Protestant subjects in the Spanish Netherlands. Their route to London would have been up the Thames, so the capture of Cooling Castle would have guaranteed their safe access.

Moreover Cooling Castle was owned by Lord Cobham, who was related to Wyatt by marriage and was a famously staunch Protestant. Perhaps Wyatt hoped to recruit him to the rebellion.

The Walk

1) In Cooling find the ruined castle. The main gatehouse is difficult to miss as it dominates the road just west of the parish church. Most of the rest of the castle is now in ruins, though the moat and the East Tower remain. Modern houses have been built within the ruins as has a venue for weddings and conferences.

It was from the gatehouse towers that Lord Cobham watched as Wyatt’s force advanced along the road from Rochester on the morning of 30th January 1554. The rebel army was about 4,000 men strong by this date, including about 1,000 militia men who had brought with them their modern weapons and, significantly for Cooling Castle, a cannon.

The rebel army trailed up to  the church, then turned left off the road to make camp in the fields to the south. As the rebels pitched their tents in the miserable January weather, Wyatt ordered the gunners to manhandle the cannon into a position from which it could batter the walls of Cooling Castle.

2) From the castle take the lane that runs almost due south across open fields. The cannon was set up about 200 yards along this road, facing north.

Sir Thomas Wyatt took up position beside the gun. He sent a messenger to Lord Cobham demanding his surrender. From the battlements Cobham refused out of hand. It took five hours to build an emplacement, unload the ammunition and get the cannon ready to fire. Then Wyatt gave the order to fire. The gun belched forth smoke and flame – and a ball that smacked into the walls of the castle just to the right of the gatehouse.

Lord Cobham’s flag immediately came down over the gatehouse towers and a servant slipped out from the gate. He was brought to Wyatt and asked what terms the rebels would grant for surrender. Wyatt replied that Cobham’s men had to vacate the castle immediately, but were free to join the rebels or leave as they chose. Cobham himself would be kept a prisoner, but his life would be spared. When he heard the terms, Cobham agreed at once.

Wyatt gave orders for his own men to move into the castle. There was to be no looting, but the place was ransacked for food, ammunition and anything else of use.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

1136 The Siege of Exeter Castle begins

The Roman walls around the city of Exeter were built in around 275 to defend the city as barbarian attacks on the Empire began to become more frequent and increasingly dangerous. They were improved in the final years of imperial control and maintained with enthusiasm by the citizens of Exeter through the troubled years that followed.

So effective were the walls that they were never taken by force. Only starvation or treachery ever opened the gates of the city. It was perhaps for this reason that William the Conqueror decided to build a castle inside the city walls. When he reached Exeter in 1068 he found the city gates closed against him. The citizens were concerned not only for their own safety, but also that of Gytha, mother of the King Harold who was killed at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and his children who lived in the city. Only after they had got away to Ireland in a fishing boat did the city surrender. William wanted a bastion within the city walls on which he could depend. He therefore tore down several houses on a knoll of red rock in the northern angle of the old Roman walls and built in their place a mighty castle that was named Rougemont, or Red Mount from the knoll on which it stood.

In the decades that followed the original castle was improved and strengthened several times. The gate acquired a barbican, an outwork designed to block any attempt at a surprise attack, while the curtain walls were strengthened and the mighty Athelstan’s Tower added to cover a blind spot where the castle walls met the old Roman city walls. It was by 1136 the epitome of modern military engineering. The importance of the fortress was emphasised by the fact that successive kings of England had kept it in royal ownership, never granting it to a feudal vassal.

It was therefore with some concern that King Stephen received a visit from a dusty and dishevelled burgher of Exeter in the spring of 1136. The man carried an urgent message from the city council complaining of the behaviour of the castle’s commander Sir Baldwin Redvers. This Sir Baldwin was holding the castle on behalf of the king, but unusually for a man holding such a castle was also a wealthy landowner and leading baron in his own right.

The citizens complained that Sir Baldwin was disturbing the king’s peace by commandeering food and supplies in excess of the customary amounts and not making proper payment. To all appearances he was preparing for a war.

King Stephen had good reason to be disturbed. He had not been on the throne for a year and his grip on power was shaky to say the least. The previous king, Henry I, had left the crown to his daughter, Matilda. But she had been in France when Henry died, and Stephen moved quickly. He was the dead king’s nearest male relative, he was tall, handsome and charming and he was a good soldier. First one nobleman then another declared for Stephen, claiming as a pretext for ignoring Matilda an arcane feudal duty that she had overlooked. On 22 December 1135, Stephen was crowned King of England.

Almost at once the trouble began. Henry I had spent years stripping the barons of powers and privileges that made them too powerful. Now they began demanding them back as the price for supporting Stephen. Stephen delayed giving a straight answer. Among those making the most noise was Sir Baldwin Redvers.

So when Stephen received the messenger from Exeter he moved fast. At the time he was in Oxfordshire with a small army dealing with Sir Robert of Bampton, a knight who had raided some land of his neighbours to get money to pay off his debts. Although he was in the midst of a siege, the king detached 200 of his finest soldiers and sent them riding hard for Exeter with orders to dismiss Sir Baldwin from his command of the castle.

The armoured horsemen travelled swiftly, arriving at Exeter before anyone expected them. They rode through the gates, ignoring the challenges of Sir Baldwin’s guards, and headed for the castle. Sir Baldwin was not there, but his wife Adelise was. Seeing armed horsemen galloping through the city streets she immediately guessed who had sent them and on what mission. She ordered the castle gates to be slammed shut.

Lady Adelise then appeared on the parapet of the gatehouse. In reply to the challenge to surrender to the king’s authority, she replied that her husband had charged her to hold the castle until his return and that she would open the gates to nobody else. The royal troops retired to watch the castle and sent a rider off to inform Stephen of events. Perhaps the most interesting feature of this exchange is not simply that a woman could take command of a castle and its military garrison, but that nobody seemed to think this at all unusual or worthy of comment.

As soon as Bampton had been dealt with, Stephen marched to Exeter. He sent a small force off to Sir Baldwin’s castle at Plympton to see if he was there. He wasn’t, so the soldiers took the garrison prisoner and burned the castle to the ground before continuing on to rejoin Stephen at Exeter.

The king, meanwhile, had arrived at Exeter with his army. He personally demanded that Lady Adelise surrender the royal castle to him, but was rebuffed. The siege began in earnest.


Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Battleaxe Blenheims

I don’t recall exactly how old I was, but I was at my secondary school so I suppose I was in my teens. I was up in London with my father for some reason and we had a bit of time to spare. My father said he had something to show me, then led me down Fleet Street to a church.

That church was St Clement Danes, home church to the RAF. Father opened the doors and walked in. I trotted along beside him, glancing around at the flags, silver memorials and magnificent woodwork of the church, but father had no time for such things. He strode past them all and headed toward the pulpit. Just before reaching the pulpit he knelt down, scanning the floor. He seemed to find something. Then he beckoned me over.

“Here it is,” he whispered. “See that.” He was pointing at a small grey slate set into the floor. Only then did I look at the floor. It was a mosaic of similar slates, each carved with a motif or crest.

“Battleaxe Blenheims”, said my father. “That’s what they used to call us.” He was pointing at a slate on which was carved an axe inside a circle with the numbers 105. He stood up. “That’s my old squadron crest. 105 Squadron, the Battleaxe Blenheims”. He glanced around the church. “All those men, all those men. Thank goodness they have something to remind people of their passing.” He looked at me. “Come on, son. Let’s go. I’ll buy you lunch”.

Then he took me to a restaurant off Fleet Street and for the first time he began to tell me about his time with RAF Bomber Command at War.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

The Water Games of Domitian

The Emperor Titus died of fever at the age of 42, and his younger brother Domitian came to power. Although an able administrator, Domitian had a volatile temper and could be quite arbitrary. In AD84 Domitian held a naumachia on the reservoir built by Augustus for his naval games. As the battle raged a sudden storm swept down on Rome. Two of the ships capsized, drowning their crews, while bitterly cold winds and heavy rain lashed the audience. Domitian pulled a thick woollen cloak over his shoulders and ordered the battle to continue. The audience was forbidden to leave and forced to keep their seats. Finally the storm passed, but the audience were drenched to the skin. It was said that for some weeks afterward all Rome was ill, and many people died from the fevers they had caught. Suddenly remorseful, Domitian laid on a free banquet.

Despite the huge popularity of the naumachiae, they do not seem to have been a regular feature after the games of Domitian. There are scattered references to naval gladiators, but the large scale recreation of naval battles was abandoned by about AD100. It may have been that the cost of the events in terms of money and life was simply too great. The crowds could apparently be satisfied with cheaper events and spectacles. There was no point in an emperor spending money if he did not need to.

Only once again was a naumachia to be held in Rome. In AD248 the emperor Philip the Arab presided over the events celebrating the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of Rome. Among the magnificent games held to mark this momentous event was a naumachia staged on an artificial lake dug upstream from that built by Augustus. Dubbed the Naumachia Vaticana, the site has given its name to the modern home of the Popes.

The mob had, meanwhile, found a new favourite game in their orgies of blood. Pitting man against man was no longer enough to keep the crowd entertained. Now it was the turn of the wild animals.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Some Unusual Gladiators

Cataphractus cavalryman
Women Fighters
Women fought as all types of gladiator. They usually fought without helmets, though the other equipment was the same as that used by male gladiators. The emperor Septimius Severus banned women from fighting in ad200.

The earliest type of gladiator, after the early combats between unarmoured slaves, was the samnite. They wore the equipment of a typical soldier from Samnia, though often with added plumes and other colourful decorations.

The Gauls who fought in the arena were so popular that some Roman gladiators dressed as Gauls and used their weapons. By about ad50 these men began to wear leg armour and helmets, but they retained the long sword and large shield. The last Gaul gladiators appeared around ad100.

The velite gladiators were not popular for very long. Men equipped as velites appeared in massed battles between teams of gladiators in around 50bc, but were not used after around ad30.

The Parthians inflicted a series of defeats on the Roman army around 50bc. The Romans were impressed by the heavily armoured cataphractus cavalry. They began dressing some gladiators as cataphractus to appear in the arena.

The key feature of the dimachaerus gladiators is that they were armed with two swords. The name means two-handed. Most dimachaerus fought without a helmet or any armour, though some wore thick padding around their arms and legs.

The only type of gladiator to be armed with bows and arrows was the sagittarius. These men usually fought against wild animals, such as lions or panthers, but sometimes fought each other.

The blind gladiators had to rely on their hearing to try to locate an opponent. Sometimes two andabatae were made to fight each other. In at least one fight the pair of blind gladiators were mounted on horses and armed with lances.

Riding in chariots and manoeuvring at high speed, the essedarii produced some of the most exciting combats in the arena. They were introduced to Rome by Julius Caesar after his British campaign of55bc, but were not seen in the arena after Britain was conquered by Rome in ad47.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Video for the book Heroes of RAF Fighter Command in Surrey


A tribute to the pilots and crews who flew from airbases in Surrey during the last war and whose actions displayed some of the finest examples of courage and devotion to duty. With photographs.
This volume covers the heroic exploits and careers of the brave men of RAF Fighter Command who flew from the airfields of Surrey during World War II. The text follows the course of the war as it affected the RAF Fighter Command in the county, but concentrates on the careers and individual acts of great courage by airmen. The course of several individual battles is followed and highlighted - a few are given a chapter to themselves, others flow within the text of chronological chapters. The book places the events in context, looking briefly at the changing strategic imperatives that determined the sorties on which these men flew. The book also describes the aircraft, their abilities and drawbacks, to help the reader understand the conditions under with the Heroes of Fighter Command fought, lived and - tragically - so often died. 

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Some Egyptian Gods

The great sun god of Egypt was worshiped by the royal family. The pharaohs believed that they were descended from Ra. Ra was born each day at sunrise to travel across the sky in a flaming chariot. He is sometimes shown with the head of a falcon, his sacred animal.

Anubis is shown as a jackal, or a man with a jackal’s head. He was a son of Osiris. Anubis was the god of funerals and of mummies. He was thought to show dead people the way to the next world. Any offerings made to the dead were taken by Anubis to the next world.

Sobek was very popular in the area around Fayum. He was thought to have pushed the land up from the waters that originally covered everything. Sobek was he son of Neith and an enemy of Osiris.

The cat-headed goddess was sister of Ra and wife of Ptah. Bastet symbolised the warmth of the sun that made plants grow. A great festival which involved huge feasts and enormous parties was held in her honour at the city of Bubastis.

Thoth was a moon god who was worshiped as the god of learning, science and inventions. Thoth was the scribe of Osiris, and later of Ra. Thoth wrote down the decisions of the gods and saw that they were enforced.

Isis was the leading magician of the gods. She married Osiris and was the mother of Horus. She was the goddess of cooking, spinning and other domestic chores. The worship of Isis spread outside Egypt and she was later popular in Rome and Greece.

Osiris was the god of the dead. He had once been king of Egypt, but was killed by his brother Set. His wife Isis embalmed his body as a mummy and ensured his eternal life in the next world. Osiris then ruled the world of the dead as a perfect king.

Horus is shown with the head of a falcon. He was a sky god, the son of Osiris and Isis. He had many forms and powers. In some places he was worshiped as the god of revenge, in other places as a sun god and elsewhere as a moon god.

Anhur was a god of violence. He is thought to have been a son of Ra. He protected people against snakes, scorpions and other poisonous animals. Anhur was not very popular in early Egypt, but after about 1200bc became worshiped throughout the kingdom.

Set was the god of evil. Set murdered his elder brother Osiris because he was jealous of his powers and popularity. Horus banished Set to the desert, but he was thought to return to stalk among humans spreading arguments and starting fights.

As the goddess of love, joy, music and dance, Hathor presided over parties and festivals. Hathor was usually shown as a woman with the head or horns of a cow, often holding a musical instrument. She was married to Horus.

Menthu, the god of war, was thought to come to earth from time to time to possess a sacred bull kept in his temple at Hermonthis. When the bull died it was made into a mummy and buried, then a new bull was chosen.

As the supreme mother goddess, Mut cared for mothers and young children. Mut had a large temple at Hermopolis, but is rarely shown elsewhere. She was the wife of Ra and the mother of Khons.

Khons was the god of healing and so was worshiped by doctors. Sick people prayed to Khons in the hope of being healed. He was the son of Ra and Mut and had a temple dedicated to him at Karnak.

Ptah was the god of artists and skilled workmen. He was incredibly rich, owning vast stores of gold that he used to reward those who pleased him. It was Ptah who was believed to have created the world.

The hunter goddess was one of the most ancient deities of Egypt, but she was never very important. She was thought to live in the desert west of the Nile. She sometimes went to join Osiris in the land of the dead where she gave food to the dead.

Monday, 7 March 2011

A Play is to be produced based on a History Man Book

An amateur dramatics group in Devon is to produce a play later this year based on the Battle of Fenny Bridges chapter of my book "Battlefield Walks in Devon". Apparently the play will recount the story of a local family caught up in the savage events surrounding the battle. Sounds promising stuff.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Brave Little Belgium 1914

By noon on 4 August 1914 the main German armies were marching into Belgium. The Belgians had fortified Liege with six forts containing heavy guns and a network of gun positions. The forts were held by General GĂ©rard Leman with 22,000 men.

The Liege forts held out until 15 August German general von Emmich brought up heavy siege mortars. The new guns fired shells weighing almost a tonne and smashed the Belgian forts.

When German soldiers entered the Liege forts, they found General Leman senseless and badly wounded, and took him prisoner. When Leman came to, he asked von Emmich “Please put in your despatch that I was unconscious and did not surrender.” Von Emmich did as requested.

The German advance into Belgium was swift. Many Belgian reservists did not have time to reach a depot to get their uniforms. They began cutting telephone wires and ambushing German supply wagons while still wearing civilian clothes.

The Germans declared that it was against the rules of war for civilians to attack soldiers. In reprisal they executed dozens of hostages and burned the city of Louvain.

The Belgian army continued to fight as it retreated before the German invasion. Soon Belgium became known as “Brave Little Belgium” for standing up to the mighty German army.

Meanwhile, the French had invaded Germany  at Sarrebourg and Morhange. The French 2nd Army pushed back the army of Prince Rupert of Bavaria. The French soon occupied most of the territory they had lost to Germany in 1871.

Britain began sending troops to France on the way to help Belgium. One of the first to arrive was Lieutenant R.N. Vaughan of the Royal Flying Corps who landed his aircraft at Boulogne on 13 August. He was immediately arrested by the French who thought he was an Austrian spy.

Fascinating Fact
British and French newspapers exaggerated the stories of German reprisals in Belgium. They were called “German atrocities”. The newspapers printed drawings of German soldiers bayonetting women and babies. 


Friday, 4 March 2011

The History Man in Dartford

I went over to Dartford in Kent last night to speak to a North Downs Rotary Dinner. There was a good turn out and the questions flowed thick and fast. I was speaking on the subject of "Hitler's Forgotten Secret Weapon", which seemed to go down well - as did the rather tasty pork chop that they kindly fed me.

If you would like the History Man as a speaker at your event CLICK HERE FOR DETAILS.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Roman Family Gods

Each Roman family had a number of deities that were sacred to that family, and to nobody else. These were seen rather like guardian angels that took care of the members of the family.

The most important family god was the Lar. The lar may have been a deified ancestor of the family. Each family had a small wooden statue of their lar placed in a small shrine somewhere in the house.

Whenever a person joined or left the family a sacrifice had to be made to the lar. If a woman joined the family by marriage or a man was adopted, incense and wine had to be offered to the lar.

After a funeral another sacrifice had to be made to the lar. Richer families offered two sheep to the lar, but poorer families probably offered just some bones and fat from a sheep.

Viriplaca was a goddess who had the task of soothing quarrels within a family. A small statuette of Viriplaca might be placed alongside that of the lar if the head of the family wanted to see a dispute ended.

Each household had two Penates. Small figures of these two gods were placed near the entrance to a house. Their main task was to care for the food of the family, making sure that stored food did not go bad.

When a meal was served, a small sample of the food was put before the statuettes of the Penates. This was so that the gods could bless the food and make sure it was nutritious.

When a person was born the gods were believed to send a genius to care for the baby. This genius stayed with the person all through life, returning to the gods only when that person died.

The genius was thought to summon other spirits to help it. Vaticanus helped the baby to speak, Educa taught it to eat and Ossipago made sure that its bones grew properly. Adeona helped the child learn to walk while Sentinus helped it become intelligent.

Each person was expected to honour his or her genius on their birthday. A small amount of wine or some flowers were offered at a shrine to the genius and there was a short ritual dance that was supposed to be performed.