Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The Build-up to the Battle of Brunanburh, 937

Of all the battles fought between the English and the Scots, the one fought at Brunanburh had arguably the most important long term results of all. It was at this battle that the English established themselves as the masters of what is now England – and that control has never been seriously in doubt since.

In the century before this climactic battle the map of Britain had been altered dramatically by the repeated hammer blows of the Viking invasions. The Battle of Brunanburh was to set the scene for further changes which led to the formation of the kingdoms of England and Scotland much as they exist today.

The Scots and the Picts had become united under the Scots royal family through dynastic marriage and by the 930s, King Constantine of Scotland ruled a kingdom which stretched form the Moray Firth south to the Forth and west to Mull and Kintyre. The Pictish lands north of the Great Glen had been lost to Viking Earls, who ruled a largely Pictish population. Allied to the Scots, more often than not, was the Kingdom of Strathclyde. This kingdom was based on the old Romano-British Kingdom of Clyde which had held off the barbarians in the collapse of the Roman Empire and now stretched from the Clyde south to include what is now Cumbria.

The English kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia had been overrun by the Vikings, as had much of Mercia. Most of northern and eastern England had thus been conquered and most areas heavily settled by the Scandinavian invaders. Even the Kingdom of Wessex had been threatened in the 890s, but southern England had been saved by King Alfred the Great and his successors.

Wales, too, had suffered Viking invasion and settlement. The Welsh princes had, however, managed to avoid being conquered and Wales was in the 930s divided among a number of local princes. Ireland had seen widespread Viking settlement, especially around Dublin, but most of that island remained in the hands of its native Celtic dynasties.

All these lands, kingdoms and dynasties were to be dragged into the destructive battle at Brunanburh, a conflict which all contemporaries recognised as being not only the greatest battle fought in Britain, but also one with truly historic consequences.


Monday, 21 November 2011

The Goddess Athena takes a hand

In the summer of 480bc a vast Persian army was invading Greece. An attempt by the Greeks to block the advance in the narrow pass at Thermopylae had failed, and Persian Emperor Xerxes led his army south into the lands of Boeotia.

While Xerxes was moving his army forward, gathering supplies from Boeotia and no doubt bringing his supply fleet forward, the Greek League was meeting at Corinth to discuss what to do in the light of the defeat at Thermopylae. The fleet, at the insistence of Themistocles of Athens had sought shelter in the narrow channel between the island of Salamis and the mainland, just southwest of Athens. The army, meanwhile, was somewhere a little north of the Isthmus of Corinth.

The delegates at the League meeting were divided. The Athenians and others from north of the Isthmus wanted to fight the Persians in or near Boeotia. But now that Thermopylae was fallen they could not offer a battlefield that had convincing merits. The Peloponnesians, as before, wanted to hold the line on the narrow Isthmus, but were as before unable to suggest a way of stopping the Persian fleet simply landing troops behind the defensive line.

The result was that a vote was dominated by the Peloponessians. The army would fall back on the Isthmus and begin building a defensive wall or earthwork, while the fleet would move south to try to guard the coast.

The commander of the Peloponnesian army that had been marching north to join Leonidas was none other than Cleombrotus, the younger brother of Leonidas. Receiving his orders, Cleombrotus set about the task of preparing a defensive position with all the thoroughness shown by his elder brother. With some 30,000 men to hand, he had not only enough labour to build a formidable barrier across the Isthmus but also to destroy the roads in front of the Isthmus. Everything was to be done to make the Persian approach as difficult as possible.

In the fleet, the decision of the League meeting caused fresh outbursts of argument. Eurybiades wanted to abandon the secluded waters of Salamis in favour of ports in the Peloponnese. Presumably he thought that if the fleet were stationed there it stood a better chance of driving off a landing by Persian troops. Themistocles, presumably supported by the men of Aegina, wanted the fleet to stay where it was. He knew that neither Athens nor Attica were yet properly evacuated and that the fleet would be needed to guard the refugees as they fled overseas. Although commander, Eurybiades had to bow to the will of his most powerful junior commanders if the fleet were to remain intact. It stayed at Salamis.

In Athens and across Attica the entire population was getting ready to flee. Those who lived too far from the capital to make it to the evacuation ships in time fled to the mountains and hoped the Persians did not stay long. Most however, flooded down to the port to be taken to Aegina or to Salamis, in accordance with the decree agreed some weeks earlier. The merchant ships of the League states were kept constantly busy shipping the mass of terrified humanity to safety.

The process was hurried along by what seemed to be a direct intervention by the goddess Athene herself. A great snake was said to live beneath the temples of the Acropolis, presumably in caverns or crevices, and to come out at night to patrol the sacred precincts of Athene to make sure the place was safe for the goddess. To ensure that the serpent did no harm to humans, such as the priests and priestesses, a piece of honeycake was left out every evening. By dawn it had always gone, consumed it was said by the snake. But now the honeycake was found uneaten at dawn. The High Priestess of Athene made this public, and many took it to mean that the goddess herself had left Athens. The rush to the ships increased dramatically.

from The Battle of Thermopylae by Rupert Matthews

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

English boats attack the Spanish Galleon San Lorenzo

During the battles against the Spanish Armada in 1588 the galleass San Lorenzo ran aground. The first of the boats to get within musket shot of the galleass was the longboat from the Margaret and John packed with 40 men under the command of Richard Tomson. The boats from the Ark Royal came up next with about 60 men in her. Tomson takes up the story:

“These two boats came hard under the galleass sides, being aground; where we continued a pretty skirmish with our small shot against theirs, they being ensconced within their ship and very high over us, we in our open boats and far under them, having nothing to shroud and cover us; they being 300 soldiers, besides 450 slaves and we not, at the instant, 100 persons, Within one half hour it pleased God, by killing the captain with a musket shot, to give us victory above all hope or expectation; for the soldiers leaped overboard by heaps on the other side and fled with the shore, swimming and wading. Some escaped with being wet; some, and that very many, were drowned. The captain of her was called Don Hugo de Moncada, son to the Viceroy of Valencia. He being slain, and the seeing our English boats under her sides and more of ours coming rowing towards her some with ten and some with eight men in them, for all the smallest shipping were the nearest the shore, put up two handkerchers upon two rapiers, signifying that they desired truce. Hereupon we entered her, with much difficulty, by reason of her height over us, and possessed us of her. For the space of an hour and a half, as I judge, each man seeking his benefit of pillage until the flood came that we might haul her off the ground and bring her away.”

It is only fair to point out that not all the witnesses go along with one aspect of Tomson’s version. Tomson states that only his boat and that from the Ark Royal were engaged in the fight with the galleass, and implies that they were still the only boats engaged when the Spaniards surrendered. The other boats were, he says, “coming rowing towards her”. Others stated that they were alongside the San Lorenzo when her crew surrendered. It is likely that the reasons for this was that the men were vying for a share of the loot. At this date only those who took part in the actual capture were entitled to a share of any prize money on offer - it would be some decades before the navy adopted the rule that anyone engaged in the battle would get a share.

An account by a Spanish prisoner has survived, though it is scanty. He say that “The Italian sailors and artillerymen, with some others, were the first to escape and fly to shore. And so many went that not more than 50 men stood by the captain to defend the ship.”  He also gives the detail that Moncado was killed by a musket ball that penetrated his brain through his eye.

Such minor discrepancies apart, the general picture is clear. The capture of the San Lorenzo took over an hour to accomplish, and the subsequent events on board up to two more hours. About 50 Englishmen had been killed or badly wounded, and some 30 Spaniards were casualties as well.

from the book THE SPANISH ARMADA - A CAMPAIGN IN CONTEXT by Rupert Matthews

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Cavalry horses of Alexander the Great

The type of horses used by the Macedonian army has been a subject of much debate over the years. Some sculptures and reliefs show horses that look rather like those of the modern day, though they appear rather more robust. Others show smaller horses that are not much bigger than ponies. Recent archaeological finds have gone some way to solving the riddle. Horse bones that have been recovered show that horses of this period were not much different in size from modern riding horses. They were, however, unmistakably heavier than is usual today. This may, in part, be due to the introduction of Arab bloodlines to nearly every breed of modern horse, or may reflect some centuries of selective breeding. Perhaps the reliefs that show pony-sized horses reflect an artistic convention that shows the humans larger than in reality.


Monday, 7 November 2011

1346 - The Black Prince advances on Caen

Cheux Church
Just before noon on 25 July the English advance guard under Edward, the Black Prince, arrived at the village of Cheux. The few houses were quickly plundered, while the Prince’s men secured the stocks of grain and other food in the great barns belonging to the local abbey. The village stood on a ridge, from which the Black Prince could look east down into the wide plain of the River Orne to the city of Caen, some 12 kilometres away. The soldiers dispersed to forage for food and cook their lunch.

Meanwhile a monk dressed in the habit of the Augustinian canons was riding down from the ridge and heading for Caen. This was Geoffrey of Maldon, an eminent professor of theology who had been brought on campaign by Edward to provide him with advice on matters of theology and ecclesiastical law that might crop up. His mission this day was to carry Edward’s offer of surrender terms to the defenders of Caen.

Given that the English were now embarked on a grand chevauchée, the terms were fairly generous. If Caen surrendered immediately the main English army would not enter the city, no looting would be allowed and the entire population could keep their personal possessions and lives intact. Of course, if the city did not surrender it would be looted and burned.

The monk was barely halfway through reading out the message to Bertrand and d’Eu when it was snatched from his hands by the Bishop of Bayeux. The Bishop, a relative of Bertrand’s who had been involved in the old feud with Harcourt, tore up the message and ordered Geoffrey to be thrown into prison. This was a serious breach of military etiquette and against all the customs of chivalry. The Acta Bellicosa records Edward’s reaction when his messenger failed to return “This wicked action of the French meant that their own punishment was all the more severe.”

It was not until late in the evening that Edward finally realised that Geoffrey of Maldon was not coming back, and by then it was too late to take any action. So it was at dawn on 26 July that the English marched down the ridge from Cheux towards Caen. Scouts were sent out ahead to discover the lay of the land and the French dispositions.

from "The Battle of Crecy,  A Campaign in Context" by Rupert Matthews

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Build-up to the Battle of Halidon Hill, 1333

At the Battle of Bannockburn, fought near Stirling in 1314, Robert Bruce had defeated the army of English king Edward II and won for himself the crown of Scotland. However Bruce’s death in 1329 reopened the long-running disputes between the Bruce and Balliol families over which had the better claim to the Scottish throne. While the victor of Bannockburn lived the Balliols accepted him as king, but Bruce died leaving only the five year old David as his heir. Edward Balliol stepped forward to claim the throne, sparking a Scottish civil war.

Events in Scotland were being watched carefully by King Edward III of England, who was keen to avenge his father’s defeat. In 1332 Edward Balliol lost the civil war and fled to England. He asked Edward for military help, promising in return to honour the agreement made by William of Scotland after the Second Battle of Alnwick and acknowledge the King of the England as his feudal superior. Edward insisted on one more concession, the return of Berwick upon Tweed to England, and then mustered an army to march north against Scotland.

Edward laid siege to Berwick, held for David Bruce by Sir Alexander Seton, on 12 April 1333. Realising that the defences were too strong to storm, Edward decided to starve the garrison out. A small watching force was left to blockade Berwick while Edward marched north to capture and burn Edinburgh. Much to Balliol’s disappointment this did not cause the Scottish nobles to make peace. Edward, having no wish to be sucked into a long campaign inside Scotland, returned to Berwick, which he reached in June.

A large Scottish army led by Lord Archibald Douglas followed the English south from devastated Edinburgh. Rather than join battle, Douglas led his force around Berwick to lay siege to Bamburgh. The English queen was in residence at Bamburgh and Douglas hoped that the threat to his beloved wife would cause Edward to abandon the siege of Berwick, allowing the Scots to move in enough supplies and reinforcements to enable the town to hold out. The rather ungallant ruse failed. Edward stayed at Berwick.

Food in Berwick had now finally run out, so on 15 July Seton agreed to surrender Berwick on 20 July if he was not relieved by that date. Douglas now had no choice but to attack the main English army in open battle. He abandoned the siege of Bamburgh, crossed the Tweed and marched towards Berwick.

from "Battlefield Walks in Northumberland" by Rupert Matthews