Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Visiting the Battlefield of Hexham, 1464

1.8  miles

There is a hill to be negotiated on this walk, but it is neither steep nor high. The majority of the walk is over surfaced lanes, with one stretch through woodland where the footpath has a firm surface.

Public Transport:   
Hexham is well served by buses and rail, but no public transport link runs to the battlefield itself. 

There is very limited parking space beside the bridge at Linnels where the walk begins and ends.

There are no refreshment facilities on this walk, though both pubs serving meals and shops selling snacks and soft drinks can be found in Hexham, two miles to the northwest up the B6306.

There is much to see in the town, including the Abbey and Moot Hall which stood here in 1464 – and the fatal Market Place, now a busy shopping area.


Monday, 27 February 2012

The Battle of Rottingdean 1377 - The French lay their ambush

1) In Rottingdean find the short section of High Street south of the A259 that runs down to the sea. Walk to the end of this road where a slipway leads down to where the sea laps the shore.

It was the fact that there was a narrow gap in the towering chalk cliffs here that had attracted  Jean de Vienne. It meant that he would be able to land his men and march inland. The leading French troops landed and started to move north. They were at once met by a volley of archery. The men of Rottingdean were competent bowmen and were determined to slow the French advance so that their women and children could get away.

2) At the busy junction of the High Street with the A259, cross the main road with care and continue northwest up the High Street. Just beyond the crossroads with Steyning Road and Nevill Road, bear right into The Green to reach the parish church.

It was up this road that the French advanced as the Englishmen fell back. As soon as the last of the families were seen to have got away up what is now the B2123, the local men fled. Their job was done. One man, mounted on a local horse, was sent at high speed to Lewes.

The French, meanwhile, were getting ashore in numbers. The houses of the village were ransacked, then set on fire. The Church of St Margaret was also set on fire. It was at this date about 500 years old, with some recent additions such as a modern tower. The flames were intensely fierce, destroying the roof completely. Three of the pillars at the west end of the nave still show scorch marks caused by this fire. The church as it stands today is the Victorian restoration of the structure built in the 1390s, with only the tower remaining of what was here in 1377.

By late afternoon the main French force was ashore and Jean de Vienne was preparing to march inland on a raid intended to last all the following day. At this point one of his scouts came racing back down the road to announced that a force of 500 armed Englishmen was approaching.

This relief force was the local militia under the command of John de Caroloco, Prior of Lewes, supported by two local knights Sir John Falvesley and Sir Thomas Cheyne. The English were unaware of the true size of the French raiding force, thinking that they outnumbered the invaders when, in fact, they were outnumbered by around eight to one.

Vienne wasted little time making his arrangements to meet the English. He sent a small force of men north of the village to play the part of the small body of men the English were expecting to meet. Then he led his main force into position to spring an ambush.

3) From the church return to the Steyning Road crossroads and turn right into Nevill Road.

4) After about 100 yards Nevill Road meets Sheep Walk. Turn right. This road comes to a dead end, but a footpath continues straight on up the hill and past a windmill. A short distance beyond the windmill the path meets another near the top of Beacon Hill.

It was probably here that Vienne drew up the bulk of his army. In 1377 the slopes of this hill were more wooded than they are today, so the Frenchmen would have been out of sight of the advancing English.


Friday, 24 February 2012

The Battle of Lydford 997 - The build up

The monument to the battle
In the year 997 that most unfortunate of kings, Ethelred the Unready, had been on the throne of England for 19 miserable years. He had come to the throne in murky circumstances following the murder of his popular half-brother Edward. Ethelred had been only a child at the time, a puppet of powerful nobles, but he never really recovered from the way he gained the throne. Combined with a talent for choosing incompetent officials and a knack for annoying people, the distrust engendered by Edward’s death meant that Ethelred was rarely in a position to achieve much.

The Vikings sensed the weakness of Ethelred’s regime and descended on England. Ethelred tried fighting, then he tried bribery and diplomacy. Nothing worked for there was simply too much plunder to be had for little effort. Finally, in 997 the Vikings came to Devon.

We do not know who led the force of raiders who came to Devon late that summer. It may have been Swein Harroldson, a leading Danish prince whom we know to have been an active Viking at about this time. Whoever led them, the Vikings followed a strategy of swift, lightning moves. They landed to raid and plunder as much territory as possible within a few days before dashing back to their ships to get away before the local armed militia, or fyrd, could be summoned. They began in Cornwall in the spring, then moved north to attack the coasts of southern Wales before moving east to Watchet in Somerset, where they stayed for longer than was usual. Some time around August they put out to sea again and disappeared over the horizon.

Moving out of sight of land the Danes headed around Land’s End and then made a strike at the Tamar Valley. The landing achieved surprise and success. The villages were entirely unprepared and the Vikings captured huge amounts of livestock, newly harvested crops and cash. They then moved up the Tamar, pillaging as they went.

Despite the incompetence of its royal government at this time, England was not entirely defenceless. A century earlier Alfred the Great had defeated an earlier and much more powerful Viking threat by efficient use of the existing military systems of England and the introduction of dramatic reforms. These were still in place and, as the Danes moved up the Tamar Valley, the men of Devon put them into effect.

The key to the defence system was the burgh, a fortified town or village. The walls of these strongholds were maintained by the men of the surrounding villages whose taxes paid for materials and whose forced labour kept the fortifications in good repair. As soon as danger threatened the villagers had to move themselves, their families and everything they owned to the nearest burgh. In theory no village should be further than a day’s walk from a burgh, though such was not always the case.

For fighting men the English relied upon the fyrd, a militia of partly trained local men. Each village was expected to provide a certain number of men to the fyrd. The families clubbing together to afford the weaponry and armour demanded by the king, and a young man being chosen to go off to war as occasion demanded. These men were equipped in similar fashion to those who had fought at Bindon and Posbury, though the greater wealth of 10th century England meant that more men could afford mail coats and quality arms than before.

The traditional system had been caught unawares by the sudden attack of the Vikings, but it was now swinging into action. The burgh which protected the upper Tamar Valley was Lydford. In 997 this was a small town, more important for the fact that the king’s courts of justice and local government were based here than for any mercantile wealth or great population. The town was positioned on the north bank of the River Lyd where a small tributary enters the river. The angle between the two water courses formed a steep-sided hill which dropped sheer on two sides, with a mighty earth and timber fortification on the third side.

As the Danes advanced, the locals poured into Lydford driving their livestock before them and bringing in lumbering wagons loaded with the harvest. By the time the Vikings arrived the town was packed with refugees and their wealth, while the walls bristled with armed men.

from Battlefield Walks in Devon by Rupert Matthews

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

RAF Bomber Command Evaders

While Bomber Command was developing its tactics and weapons, the Germans had not been idle. In February 1941 Bomber Command had lost about 2% of aircraft sent to attack Germany, a year later the figure was 4.8%. This was perilously close to the 5% figure that was conventionally held to be the maximum loss rate that an air campaign could sustain for any period of time.

Not all of those aircrew in bombers marked down as being lost were killed. Most aircrew perished with their aircraft, but many others managed either to bale out or to effect a landing. In turn, most of these aircrew who managed to get down safely in occupied countries were captured by the Germans - almost all of these who came down in Germany itself were apprehended. Nevertheless, a considerable number managed to escape capture. The organisation tasked with trying to get these “evaders”, as they were known, back home was MI9.

The importance to Britain of getting evaders back was not restricted to having valuable aircrew returned to operational duties. These evaders often spent weeks, even months, in occupied Europe and were dependable sources of information on conditions under German control and how the civilian populations were coping. As with so much to do with the war, the work of MI9 did not really get going until after the fall of France in 1940. Up to that date it had been thought that relatively few downed airmen would fall behind enemy lines and those that did would probably be captured. Only when it became clear that many hundreds of aircraft would be operating over enemy territory and that a good number of men would be shot down was the organisation stepped up.

By the summer of 1942 the training of aircrew included a section on evasion that had been devised by MI9.

from RAF BOMBER COMMAND AT WAR by Rupert Matthews

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Early Days of Spartacus

In 73BC the gladiatorial system was developing rapidly. The earlier regime under which the gladiators were untrained slaves pushed into mortal combat were passed. Nor was it any longer obligatory for the defeated fighter to be put to death so that his blood could satisfy the honour of a departed hero. On the other hand the sophisticated and formalised programmes of combat and spectacle were not yet developed.

An emerging feature of the system at this time was the gladiatorial school where slaves were trained to fight using specialised gladiator weapons. The lives of such men would be short and hard. A few might survive long enough to become trainers of gladiators, or suffer crippling wounds that would send them to work in the kitchens, but these would be a minority. The rest had only death to look forward to.

Among the most poorly treated were the captured prisoners of war condemned to fight in the arena for the benefit of the Roman people. These men were not only slaves, but also enemies of Rome and could expect little mercy. One such man was a Thracian named Spartacus. According to one account he had spent some years as a mercenary in the Roman army. He had certainly gained some experience of military command before being captured and sent to a gladiatorial training school at Capua in Campania.

Later accounts alleged that one night soon after his capture a snake coiled itself around Spartacus’s head while he lay sleeping. This, his wife foretold, meant that he would one day have great power, but that it would bring him misfortune and disaster.

from The Age of Gladiators by Rupert Matthews

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Some types of Gladiator

Murmillo (left) and Thracian
The armoured murmillo gladiators first became popular in around ad50. The name murmillo refers to a type of fish found in the Mediterranean. Later murmillos had armour on their left leg only, the right leg being left bare.

The gladiators using equipment similar to that used by warriors from the Kingdom of Thrace in what is now Bulgaria first appeared in 78bc. They carried a small, square shield called a parma. The leg armour was taller and stronger than that used by other gladiators.

The provocator was the most heavily armoured of the standard types of gladiator. This was the only type of gladiator to have armour over the chest. The name means challenger.

The only type of standard gladiator not to wear a helmet was the retiarius. The only armour these men wore was an arm guard. Some men wore no armour at all to enable them to move and dodge faster.

from ACTION FILES GLADIATORS by Rupert Matthews

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Egypt - the Old Kingdom

Kingdom of the Nile
The civilisation of ancient Egypt was one of the richest and most powerful of the ancient world. Farmers began living along the banks of the river Nile around 8,000bc. They used the river water to irrigate their fields. Goods and people travelled in boats along the river. If it had not been for the Nile, Egypt would not have existed.

The Land of Egypt
In ancient times Egypt itself was thought to have stretched along the banks of the Nile from the sea at Tanis south to Aswan. This area included the most fertile farming land. The lands south of Aswan were called Nubia, but this area was often ruled by Egypt.

First Pharaoh
By around 3,500bc rulers had united the Delta into a single kingdom: Lower Egypt. Other kings had united the valley to the south into Upper Egypt. In about 3100bc King Narmer of Upper Egypt conquered Lower Egypt. Narmer was followed by Menes who ruled all Egypt as the first pharaoh.

Dynasties and Kingdoms
The Pharaohs ruled Egypt for more than three thousand years until Egypt was conquered by Rome in 30bc. Historians have divided the pharaohs into 31 dynasties, or families. These are grouped into three kingdoms. The Old Kingdom lasted from 3100bc to 2750bc; the Middle Kingdom from 2025bc to 1627bc; the New Kingdom from 1539bc to 1070bc and the Late Period from 664bc to 30bc. In between were intermediate periods of civil war and chaos.

The First Pyramid
In 2650bc the first pyramid was built at Saqqara as the tomb of Pharaoh Djoser of the 3rd Dynasty. The pyramid was built of stone blocks arranged in a series of steps. The architect was the scribe Imhotep. Later Pharaohs of the Old Kingdom also built pyramids to be their tombs.

The Fall of the Old Kingdom
In about 2246bc Pepi II became pharaoh at the age of 6. He ruled for 94 years, longer than any other pharaoh. During his time the local governors, called nomarchs, began to grow in wealth and power until the pharaoh could not control them. A few years after the death of Pepi II the nomarchs rebelled and civil war engulfed Egypt.

Quiz Question
Which was the first pharaoh to be buried in a pyramid?

That’s Amazing
All pharaohs had three names: a personal name, a religious name and a royal name. Historians are not always certain if different names in the early histories refer to different pharaohs or the same one.

from ACTION FILES - EGYPT by Rupert Matthews

Friday, 10 February 2012

The Russian Revolution begins

After the failed peace moves of December 1916, the Russian government trembled. The mystic Rasputin had been murdered by a group of noblemen, but the Tsarina continued to control the government and to appoint her favourites in place of men of ability.

The Grand Duke Alexander begged Tsar Nicholas to come back to the capital city Petrograd (now St Petersburg) to dismiss the incompetents in government and take control.

The Chairman of the Duma, or Parliament, Rodzyanko, wrote to the Tsar warning that if nothing was done to ease the conditions of workers in the industrial cities there would be serious trouble.

Tsar Nicholas refused to leave the command of his armies. However he sent General Khabalov with a force of 100,000 soldiers to impose martial law on the capital city.

On 7 March the workers in a few factories went on strike. Many of the striking men went to the large Nevsky Prospect open square carrying banners demanding more food at cheaper prices. Next day more factories went on strike.

On Sunday 11 March vast crowds, up to half a million strong, seethed through St Petersburg. Demonstrations took place in most other cities at the same time.

When Khabalov ordered his army to take to the streets, most refused. Some men shot their officers and went over to the side of the demonstrators. Even the most loyal cossacks refused to leave barracks, being too frightened of the vast crowds.

On 15 March, Tsar Nicholas at last came to Petrograd. His train was surrounded by crowds of workers before it reached the city. Nicholas abdicated the throne in favour of his popular brother Michael. Michael refused.

For the first time in its history, Russia did not have a monarch. The Duma elected a provisional government and gave it the task of drawing up a new constitution.

The first decision of the provisional government, led by Alexander Kerensky, was to continue the war.

from 100 FACTS ABOUT WORLD WAR I by rupert Matthews

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Cavalry in the Roman Army

The area around the city of Rome has little in the way of good pasture land on which large numbers of horses could be grazed. The Roman army during the time of the kings and early republic had very few mounted men.

Even in 200bc the Roman army had only a few cavalry. These men were used to scout ahead of the legion on the march or to carry messages about the battlefield, they were not used as cavalry in battle.

Each legion (see page 86) had 120 horsemen as part of its strength. As in earlier times, these men were used for non-combat duties. They were, however, armed with spears and were used to fight enemy scouts.

From about 150bc the Roman began to employ auxiliary cavalry units. Most of these were Celts fighting for Roman pay but commanded by their own chiefs and leaders.

By around 50bc each auxiliary cavalry unit had a Roman officer attached to it. This man was probably expected to serve as an interpreter, but was also there to keep an eye on the auxiliaries and make sure that they remained loyal.

The auxiliary cavalry were reformed at the same time as the infantry (see page 90). The cavalry were now organised in units called alae, meaning wings, which were 500 men strong and commanded by a Roman officer.

Most cavalry was lightly equipped with a shield and lance, or sometimes a sword as well. From about 50bc some cavalry was equipped with mail shirts and helmets.

In ad100 the Romans met a new barbarian tribe called the Sarmatians. Some of these men wore mail that covered them from head to toe, and even the horses were armoured. The Romans began equipping some of their cavalry in identical fashion and called them cataphracts.

The stirrup had not been invented at the time of the Roman Empire. Instead cavalrymen used a saddle which had four leather-covered knobs which could be gripped by the thighs and knees.

Cavalry armour was often highly decorated with gold leaf, silver plate and semi-precious stones. It is thought that most of this armour was used only for parades.

from 1000 FACTS ON ANCIENT ROME by Rupert Matthews