Monday, 31 October 2011

Choosing a new King of England in 1066

In January 1066 King Edward the Confessor of England lay dying. He had no children, a fact that would plunge his kingdom into war and change the face of England, and of Britain, forever.

It was not that there was a shortage of potential heirs – the difficulty was that there were too many and none had a claim to the throne that was any better than the others. It was up to the Witan, the council of nobles, to decide who should be the next king. Tradition demanded that they should choose a member of the royal family, but beyond that they were free to choose who they liked. In terms of strict legitimacy the crown should have passed to Edgar the Atheling, great nephew of Edward the Confessor. However Edgar was a mere child who had been brought up in Hungary and few people supported his cause.

Next to be considered was Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and head of the powerful Godwinson family. Harold had only a tenuous link to the crown. He was a member of the royal family by marriage, his sister being Edward’s queen. Unlike Edgar, Harold was a grown man of 44 with a proven track record of military success against the Welsh and of administrative skill in his earldom. He had, moreover, travelled on pilgrimage to Rome and had contacts abroad.

Also related to the royal family by marriage, though more distantly, was Duke William of Normandy. His great aunt Emma had married Ethelred the Unready and so was mother to Edward the Confessor. What William did have, or so he claimed, was a promise from Edward to nominate him as successor should he die without a son. The promise  appears to have been made in 1051 during some complex diplomatic moves between England and Normandy. If any of the nobles in England were aware of the promise they showed no signs of taking it very seriously.

A fourth contender lurked across the North Sea in the shape of King Harald Hardrada of Norway. Hardrada had no real claim to the throne at all, but he had friends and supporters in England. Moreover he was a big, tough and confident ruler who could command a mighty army of Vikings.

For the English noblemen meeting at Westminster as Edward lay dying the decision seemed an easy one. Harold Godwinson was English and he was capable. If any of them had any doubts, these were quelled when Edward indicated that Harold should be the next king. Edward died on 5 January and was buried next day. As soon as Edward was laid in his grave the nobles proclaimed Harold king and he was crowned later the same day.

from "Battlefield Walks in Kent and Sussex" by Rupert Matthews

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Battle of Posbury 661

Distance:        1.5 miles
Terrain:        Most of the walk is over surfaced lanes with one steepish slope.
Public Transport:    There are no public transport links to this battlefield.
Parking:        There is some limited roadside parking, but care should be taken not to block the road to other motorists.
Refreshments:    There are no refreshment facilities on the walk, although plenty are available in Crediton three miles to the northeast.


After the crushing defeat of the Dumnonian invasion of Wessex at Bindon the two kingdoms were at comparative peace for a generation. No doubt there was a degree of border squabbling and there may have been battles the records of which have not  survived, but there were no major wars.

Then in 658 warfare erupted once again. King Cenwalh of the English kingdom of Wessex faced an invasion of the Welsh Dumnonians. He met the invaders at Penselwood, south of Frome. The Dumnonians received a crushing defeat and fled “like a man flees fire” according to a contemporary account. The victory for Cenwalh was impressive and he was able to occupy most of Somerset as a result. Three years later he decided to continue the English advance into Dumnonia with a daring strike west past Exeter to surround and capture that city.

At the time Exeter was one of the largest and most prosperous cities in Britain, though given the basically agricultural nature of the economy that is not saying much. There were probably about 700 households in the city giving a population of around 2,000. The city was still surrounded by its impressive Roman walls, sections of which still stand today, but defence depended on the Dumnonians mustering enough men into the city to man the defences. It was probably to stop this that Cenwalh found himself marching to Posbury, southwest of Crediton.

from Battlefield Walks in Devon by Rupert Matthews

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Problems for RAF Bomber Command, July 1940

As the French campaign came to its end, Bomber Command had to face a host of serious problems. Its squadrons had been badly mauled in combat, the morale of its men was sinking, the purposes for which it had been created were now in doubt – and worst of all time was rapidly running out before the armed might of the Third Reich would be hurled against Britain. Air Marshal Charles Portal, head of Bomber Command, had been in his job less than three months when faced with the herculean task of getting Bomber Command back into fighting trim.

Lurking behind all the other problems facing Portal was the very obvious fact that almost all the prewar assumptions about how the air war was to be fought had turned out to be hopelessly inaccurate. The grand strategy had been based on the fact that when war came it would involve Britain and France, plus one or more eastern European states, fighting against Germany. Poland went to war with close to a million men under arms, 500 tanks and 350 aircraft. The Polish landscape with its poor roads, few railways and vast tracts of swamp and forest. was not thought to be suitable for modern warfare. It was confidently expected that Poland would fend off the Germans for some months giving Britain and France plenty of time to mobilise and intervene. In fact Poland was crushed in less than a month.

When it came to war in the West the planners were proved wrong again. They expected Britain and France to halt the German drive, just as they had done in 1914. After that the war would settle down to a slogging match somewhere in northern and eastern France. Bomber Command had been designed both to launch long distance raids from Britain in to Germany and also to undertake short range missions from bases in France against the German military. The fall of France meant that the RAF now had to operate exclusively from Britain. Moreover the situation was complicated by the fact that the Luftwaffe now had the use of all the airbases in France, Belgium, Holland and Scandinavia that the planners had thought would be denied them. And, of course, the French air force had ceased to exist.

The combats of May and June 1940 had proved beyond doubt that the aircraft of Bomber Command were not suited to their purpose. They had been designed to fly during the day, allowing the navigator to find the target and the bombaimer to hit it with reasonable accuracy. But the heavily armed German fighters had proved too effective. Bomber formations that were to spend any time in enemy airspace would have to fly at night if they were to survive. As the ”nickel” raids had shown navigation at night was a difficult skill to master, and events would soon prove that bombaiming was no less tricky.

from the book "RAF Bomber Command at War" by Rupert Matthews

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Training Early Gladiators

The ways in which gladiators were recruited, trained and maintained was, for the Romans, a distinctly dishonourable business. Few citizens of any consequence got involved except as a mask for hiring a gang of street toughs, and so accounts of these matters emerge only slowly into the written record.

We know that in the earliest days of the gladiatorial munera, the gladiators were largely recruited from amongst the personal slaves of the man whose funeral rites were being celebrated. Those slaves who would previously have been earmarked for sacrifice were put to fighting each other to the death instead. Often the dying man would specify in his will which slaves were to be used as gladiators and how much money his heirs should spend on entertaining the crowd of citizens which was bound to turn up to watch. One patrician stipulated that the gladiators who fought and died at his munus should be the teenage slaves he had bought to be his homosexual lovers. The youth of the proposed victims and the manifest unfairness of the man’s will led the magistrates to overturn it. Older men were chosen to fight instead.

During Rome’s long wars of expansion through the Republic and early Imperial periods there was a ready supply of prisoners of war. These were trained soldiers who could be pushed into the arena with little need for preparation. Nor were they particularly expensive, so those who died meant little in the way of financial loss to those staging the games. The survivors could be sold to citizens wanting gladiators or put to work on farms and in workshops.

By the middle of the 1st century AD, however, the situation had changed markedly. The demand for gladiators and arena games was as great as ever, but the ready supplies of prisoners of war were no longer available. To remedy this difficulty an entire business grew up to recruit, train and maintain the gladiators.

From "The Age of Gladiators" by Rupert Matthews

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Treaty of Brest Litovsk

In November 1917 the Russian Communists, led by Vladimir Lenin, established control over the vast Russian Empire by carrying out a daring coup in the capital Petrograd.

In December 1917, Lenin agreed a ceasefire with Germany, and sent his deputy Leon Trotsky to the city of Brest Litovsk in Poland to negotiate a treaty with Germany and Austria. Trotsky was told to get peace at almost any price.

The Germans were keen to annex large sections of the Russian Empire, or to see them set up as German dominated independent nations.

The Austrian Empire was on the point of economic collapse. They might have wanted land from the Russians, but were even more desperate for peace so that they could move all their forces to Italy.

Once in Brest-Litovsk, however, Trotsky came to believe that Germany and Austria were ripe for a Communist revolution. If he could delay a peace treaty, he thought, revolutions would break out.

In February 1918 the Germans became exasperated with Trotsky’s delays. They told him that unless he signed a treaty at once, the war would begin again. Trotsky refused. The Germans invaded Russia.

The Russian forces did nothing to halt the German advance. They simply surrendered, or threw down their weapons and began to walk home.

By 24 February the German armies were approaching Petrograd in the north and were on the Don River in the south. The only delays were caused by problems getting supplies to the troops.

On 3 March the Russians signed the Treaty of Brest Litovsk. Poland, Latvia and Lithuania were annexed from Russia to Germany, though with vague promises that they would become independent after the war. Ukraine was set up as an independent country, but was occupied by German forces.

The Turks wanted to gain the Caucasus Mountains and nearby areas, but Germany said they should become independent of both Russia or Turkey.
From "1000 Facts on World War I" by Rupert Matthews

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The Roman Legion on the March

When a legion was on the march it took up a standard formation and routine that was followed as rigidly as the circumstances allowed no matter where the legion was. A legion on the march filled about 2 km of road.

At dawn the trumpets sounded to instruct the men to fold their tents and pack away their belongings. A group of eight men shared a tent, cooking pot and campfire. These were loaded on to a mule and one man had the task of caring for it.

A second trumpet call gave the order to start marching. First to leave camp were small groups of cavalry who rode ahead of the column to look for ambushes, broken bridges or other other obstructions.

One cohort of infantry was chosen to lead the way each day by throwing dice. These men marched fully prepared for battle and ready to deal with any emergency that might arise.

Next came a group of engineers and carpenters. They were expected to clear aside any rocks or fallen trees and to repair bridges. The road had to be clear for the rest of the legion.

Behind the engineers came the men with the mules. They had the task of pitching tents and starting camp fires when the legion stopped for the night.

The legatus and his staff rode behind the mules accompanied by a small troop of riders ready to take messages along the column or to other legions or towns as the commander thought necessary.

Mules and carts carrying supplies, dismantled catapaults and other material came next. Inside the empire carts were used as they could travel easily along the roads (see page 158), but in enemy territory mules were preferred.

The main body of the legion marched next. These men had all their armour and weapons with them, but were allowed to sling their helmets and shields from comfortable straps.

The rearguard was made up of a final cohort marching fully prepared for battle and accompanied by a few horsemen.

From "1000 Facts on Ancient Rome" by Rupert Matthews

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Mercenaries in Ancient Greece

Mercenaries are men who fight for a country other than their own in return for payment. They are usually hired for a particular job or for a specified period of time.

In ancient Greece most states fielded armies made up of their own citizens. However, mercenaries would be hired if they offered specialist skills that could not be found elsewhere.

The Thracians from lands to the north of Greece produced troops who fought as peltasts (see page 84). Thracians were hired by many Greek states and sometimes even fought on both sides of a war at once.

The men of Crete were famous as archers. Cretans were hired as mercenary archers by many states, but only if the Cretan government gave permission first.

The island of Rhodes produced men who practised with the sling every day. These men worked as mercenaries throughout the Greek world and charged high prices for their services.

Mercenaries were famous for the greed and violence with which they looted enemy territory. Some commanders actually promised mercenaries that they would be allowed to loot the enemy.

In 402bc Prince Cyrus the Younger began a civil war against his brother Artaxerxes, Emperor of Persia. He hired 10,000 Greek hoplite mercenaries to face the light Persian infantry.

After Cyrus was killed at the Battle of Cunaxa, the 10,000 Greek mercenaries had to fight their way through 1,000 km of Persian territory to get home. The march took 215 days.

At the Battle of Granicus in 334bc about 10,000 Greek mercenaries fought on the Persian side against Alexander the Great (see page 36). Alexander saw this as treachery and had the mercenaries killed.

King Cleomenes III of Sparta hired a large force of mercenaries to fight against Achaea in 222bc. When Cleomenes failed to pay their wages on time, the mercenaries left. Sparta lost the following battle at Sellasia.

From the book

1000 Facts on Ancient Greece by Rupert Matthews

Thursday, 6 October 2011

What were the origins of the Eisteddfod?

Billed as a traditional celebration of Welsh poetry, song and culture which dates back to pre-Roman times, the Eisteddfod is in reality a fairly modern invention. But that does not make it any the less impressive.

It was in 1792 that a group of Welsh Bards paraded through London to Primrose Hill where they erected a circle of stones, unsheathed a sword and placed it on a Maen Gorsedd stone, performed some ceremonies and then sheathed the sword again. It was this event which brought the existence of the Welsh bards to the notice of Society and launched the modern Eisteddfod.

In fact, the Welsh Bards had been performing since time immemorial and there is every reason to believe the claim that the institution dates back, one way or another, to before the coming of the Romans. In ancient Celtic society the Bards held a distinguished and much-honoured place. It was they who kept alive the memory of dynastic history through their  songs and epic poems. Kings and chieftains always gave an honoured place to any passing bard, and often had their own resident bard to compose songs and poems in praise of their families.

The coming of Christianity broke the previously close link between the bards and the druids. It also somewhat reduced their social standing.  However their calling was still considered  important and by the 1150s the bards had formed themselves into a type of loosely organised guild known as the Court. This Court met occasionally to settle disputes between members, accredit hopeful Bards and to hold competitions and give awards for poetry and music. The large national meetings went by the name of Eisteddfod.

In the 16th century the Welsh Tudors sat on the throne of England and made great efforts to tie the two nations together. Among the Tudor innovations was to make the Court responsible for the behaviour of the travelling bards. England and Wales were plagued by unemployment and the problem of  ‘sturdy beggars’, those who gained alms by intimidation, was growing. In Wales beggars often tried to evade the rules by claiming to be in gainful employment as travelling bards, and it was felt the Court was the best placed to judge their claims.

The Court continued to hold their Eisteddfods for generations, but gradually the size of the gatherings and quality of the work declined. Traditional Celtic poetry was highly complex. Not only did it have a complicated metre and rely upon difficult rhythms and rhymes, but it also had a complex system of metaphors and allusions which a bard was expected to understand. There was also a large body of oral material which a fully qualified bard should know by heart and be prepared to recite at short notice.


Everything You Need to Know About the British: 200 Insights into Our Way of Life by Rupert Matthews