Post-classical history



‘War,’ as defined by Clausewitz, ‘is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.’ This will is usually a political objective, hence Clausewitz’s more famous, but also more controversial, dictum that ‘War is nothing but the continuation of politics, with a mixture of other means.’ He amplifies this verdict in the clarification: ‘War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.’1 This is better known to us rendered as ‘War is the continuation of politics by other means.’ Although not all conflicts can – or should – be explained in such terms (some arising from emotional and irrational origins), this interpretation is basically sound and judicious; it is particularly apposite to the Middle Ages. Beyond the political objectives, we must also unearth the financial ones: these are rarely buried deeply but are frequently obscured by the noble ideals and moral justifications proclaimed by the warring protagonists. Politics means power means money. It is only rarely dangerous that too much cynicism is harmful to the process of historical interpretation; it is usually the case that the more cynical one is the closer one arrives at the historical truth. As I am forever telling my students, to really understand History you have to pick up the stone and see what is crawling underneath. As this book deals with warriors and not saints, it will adopt such an approach; but if these pages contain very few altruists, they do contain many brave men performing heroic acts in pursuit of their masters’ objectives, however questionable their causes or motivations.

What Clausewitz applies to the modern world is equally germane to the medieval one. Medieval warfare was about land: its political and military control, the economic exploitation of its resources, the geographical implications it possessed for both security and offence, and the power and prestige it afforded its lord. Where these matters could not be satisfactorily resolved through marriages and inheritance, the resort to war was always a ready option. However, going to war was not always undertaken with the primary goal of subjugating an opponent to the belligerent’s will: often – as before and since – its intent was to unite a people against a common enemy, to direct attention away from domestic problems and to reinforce a leader’s authority among his own subjects. To confuse issues, these objectives could be combined with, and disguised by, genuine attempts at achieving grand designs at an enemy’s expense. History is replete with examples of this, the medieval period offering no shortage of illustrations: King Henry V of England made spectacular military inroads against the French during the early fifteenth-century phase of the Hundred Years War, bringing political success both abroad and at home, thereby underpinning support for his shaky Lancastrian regime following Richard II’s usurpation.2In John’s reign, however, foreign wars abroad had the opposite effect, not least because they were so unsuccessful; where a leader’s aim did not coincide with those of his more powerful subjects trouble at home was inevitable. The military intentions of medieval commanders were thus the same as generals from any historical period, but it would be wrong to deem them as the only ones that mattered: the aspirations of the medieval individual also demand consideration, even if, unlike today’s electorates, they were unable to influence war-planning through the ballot-box.

Then, as now, military objectives were determined by the political environment; the purpose of this book is to demonstrate how military events determined, and were determined by, the political environment in England and France in the early thirteenth-century. Magna Carta, for example, a political and historical achievement of John’s reign, was a low point for John and a manifestation of his military under-achievement. Special emphasis will be placed on how political failure for King John meant both political and military success for his Capetian enemies. The course of human history is sign-posted by military events. What would have been the history of Britain and Europe in the second half of the twentieth century had the British lost the Battle of Britain and the Russians lost on the Eastern Front? What of English history and the future British Empire had the Spanish Armada succeeded in 1588?3 What if, in 1066, King Harold had not had to fight his great victory against the Norsemen at Stamford Bridge, just three weeks before his defeat in an extremely close-run battle at Hastings? And what if, during this battle, the formidable Anglo-Saxon shield wall had not chosen to break formation at a critical moment to pursue the Normans?4 The French invasion of 1216 came extremely close to being a repeat of the conquest in 1066. Thus wars, and how they were fought, are crucial to our understanding of history.

This book explores and analyses the military activity during the French invasion of England in 1216 and the military events that led to this invasion (events for which a different outcome may easily have meant no invasion at all) and the profound consequences these had for the belligerents – and non-belligerents – involved. Such a study perforce concentrates on how engagements were fought, on explaining and detailing the methods of medieval warfare. The period under scrutiny here, and especially the invasion itself, provides an accurate and revealing portrayal of warfare between two Christian powers in western Europe during the Middle Ages; that is to say, a clearly political power struggle between enemies who shared religious, chivalric and social values.5 The Angevin-Capetian conflict from 1202 to 1217 encapsulates nearly all the elements of medieval warfare in western Europe at this time, from the strategies and tactics of princes and commanders to the roles of individuals, whether soldiers or non-combatants, who fought and died both heroically and wretchedly. That these events have previously not received either a systematic military analysis or a monograph will hopefully afford this study some value.

Beyond the grand political and military schemes there are at least two other important reasons why wars took on such significance in the Middle Ages. One is the role of the monarch. Kingship was expected to be feudal and judicial, theocratic and religious, chivalric and martial: rex as judex, sacerdos and miles (the king as judge, priest and knight).6 Medieval society was, after all, violent; the feudal agreement expected a lord to protect his people, which necessarily demanded ability in the military sphere and the employment of violence to bring about peaceful ends. A king poor in the profession of arms was prone to popular mockery, lack of respect and, crucially, loss of confidence by his subjects. In England the reigns of John, Henry III, Edward II and Henry VI are testimony to this. Such kings had to hope (in vain) for peace on the domestic and international scenes and, more realistically, for competent leaders of their armies. A mediocre king might get by on the latter; a poor one would not. We shall see how loss of military credibility could lead to loss of political credibility, initiating a vicious circle that could be broken only by a string of successes. When armies were evenly matched, political leadership could make all the difference.

The other main reason why war was so important to medieval history is too large to be addressed here in any detail: as Philippe Contamine explains, war in medieval history is ‘an explanatory factor and is the product of a whole cultural, technical and economic environment’. In other words, medieval society was organised for war and can be understood only in the context of war. ‘Medieval warfare,’ therefore, ‘is a massive and hence impossible subject.’7 Its impact on the political environment will be considered, especially the effects of the Angevin-Capetian conflict on nascent nationalism in England and, to a lesser extent, France, arguing that, contrary to most modern opinion on this issue, a form of nationalism did exist at this time.8 Some attention will be given to the military organisation of England and France in the early thirteenth century, but the focus will remain on military activity in the field: what happened, how and why. Even a narrative of such events should suffice to impress upon the reader the sheer enormity of time, energy and resources in blood and treasure that medieval monarchs poured into war. Contemporaries recognised this, as the chronicles of the age reveal, dominated as they are by war. It is from these chronicles that this book takes its lead.

Problems of Historiographical Interpretations

All sources, whether primary or secondary, require handling with care. Although this is especially true of contemporary authorities, historians of this period are blessed with some extremely well-informed chroniclers. In the vernacular we have the writings of the Anonymous of Béthune and The History of William Marshal; in Latin we have the monastic records of, among others, Guillaume le Breton (hereafter William the Breton), Ralph of Coggeshall and Roger of Wendover. The last of these has been disparaged by modern commentators; one contention of this study is that Wendover is generally an accurate and trustworthy source, and of particular value to the study of medieval warfare.9 For the most part, the sources used in this book are strictly contemporary, the authors having lived through these events and in many cases witnessing them first-hand. An immediate problem with medieval sources, both Latin and vernacular, is the hyperbole of the writers when depicting incredible feats of arms against impossible odds: monastic chroniclers often imbued their numbers for armies (frequently an inflated 60,000) with biblical significance;10 lay writers sometimes emulated the chanson de geste with exaggerated tales of derring-do. William the Breton’s epic poem, the Philippidos, is especially culpable in these respects, yet it remains an invaluable literary work (his chronicle is far more sober in relating the events of his day). That said, the chief sources for this period are notable for their restraint and veracity (if not always their historical objectivity).

Although the sources are rightly approached with some caution, historians have sometimes been over-cautious in heeding contemporaries’ accounts of suffering, dismissing tales of horror as the excited embellishments of clerics bemoaning attacks on church property and men of the cloth and the wickedness of soldiers sinning against God and his people. One extreme example of this form of writing comes from Symeon of Durham’s description of Malcolm Canmore’s Scottish invasion of northern England in 1070:

Gazing upon the church of St Peter, blazing with the flames kindled by his men … he ordered his troops no longer to spare any of the English nation … It was pitiable to witness what they did to the English: some old men and women were beheaded by swords; others were run through with spears, like pigs meant for food; babies were snatched from their mother’s breast and thrown high into the air and fell on the points of spears placed close together on the ground.11

That many such episodes could indeed be contrived and inaccurate does not obviate all such incidents; this study will argue that the descriptions of atrocities in the sources, especially in Wendover and William the Breton, deserve to be taken with the utmost seriousness. For all their vivid images of Hell, monastic writers seldom display the depraved imagination necessary to conjure up fabricated acts the equal of those the twentieth century has displayed in horrific abundance and reality. The power struggle following the break-up of Yugoslavia is, in many ways, reminiscent of medieval warfare with its sieges, massacres, burning of villages, the plight of the refugees and the appalling acts of cruelty perpetrated against soldier and civilian alike; but the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol-Pot are on an altogether different scale. If a ‘civilised’ world can debase itself by such barbarity, why not the medieval one? Tragically, then as now, seemingly mindless brutality in warfare can serve a callous but calculating military rationale.

History is open to many interpretations; military history even more so. When thousands of men are engaged in conflict, it is impossible to gain a full and clear picture of the struggle. Wellington’s choreographical allusion – that one may as well write the history of a ball as of a battle – is suitably apt and reinforces Clausewitz’s fog of war, from which ‘most reports are false’.12 In the age of gunpowder the battlefield was obscured by smoke; in the Middle Ages natural elements were to the fore: in summer, dust clouds affected visibility and in winter, as ever, fog, rain and sleet caused problems.13 Nevertheless, agreement among sources and participants allow for fairly detailed reconstructions and overviews of medieval military actions that are frequently enlivened further by striking individual episodes amidst the clash of armies. Many contemporary accounts capture much of the drama of medieval combat.

Historians of warfare in the Middle Ages have understandably displayed a preference for original sources written by men directly involved in the combat they describe: ‘the vernacular brings us closer than Latin to the thoughts and actions of soldiers.’14 Proper as this is, it has led to an unfortunate side-lining of clerical sources, which have been condemned as possessing ‘little comprehension of military matters and even less interest in the complexities of strategy and tactics’.15 This can be true up to a point, but such a judgement can be far from universally applied. From Bishop Odo at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, depicted wielding a club on the Bayeux Tapestry, down to the lowly ‘bald’ priest leading an assault on the Castle of Le Puiset in 1111, the clergy had always been active in warfare, so much so that special laws were formulated to cater for them when their status of immunity was compromised.16 As will be seen later, Brother Guérin, Bishop Elect of Senlis, played a pivotal role in at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214.17 An intellectual interest in warfare was also expressed by men of the cloth: Hugues de Noyes, Bishop of Auxerre (1183–1206), ‘rejoiced in gathering a crowd of knights about him with whom he most gladly discussed military matters and also often re-read Vegetius [whose De re militari was the standard text on warfare in the Middle Ages] … and he explained to the knights many of the lessons to be drawn from this author’.18

This interest extended to monastic writers who were no less affected by war and its outcomes. Monasteries were as likely to be in towns as in the remote countryside, and this meant that they frequently witnessed conflict at firsthand. Towns were politically and militarily important for several reasons: ‘They produced a considerable revenue; they contained the largest clusters of population; they were often located at significant road junctions or river crossings … They had mints, law courts and markets.’19 They also had walls and castles. Not only were towns therefore obvious military targets, but often so were the monasteries within them: the great house at St Albans (with which Wendover was associated) was sorely troubled by both sides in the wars in England of 1215–17.

The social class from which most monks were drawn meant that there were strong ties between the oratores, those who prayed, and the bellatores, those who fought: monks had fathers, brothers, cousins, friends and patrons as knights. Monastic writers were only too pleased to honour these in their accounts of military actions that are described in monastic chronicles. Monastic communities could also be politically motivated: Wendover, in accord with most of his fraternity, was anti King John. Nor was conflict alien to the cloister: monks were engaged in their own spiritual battle against the forces of evil. Many monks, including Wendover, commonly describe a company of troops as turma, a term used at the monastery of St Maurice, for example, to denote the groups of monks in their shifts of round-the-clock worship in the choir of their church, which one commentator has called a ‘powerful ritual weapon’.20 H. E. J. Cowdrey, when discussing the militia sancti Petri, ponders whether militia should be translated as ‘army’ or ‘knighthood’ on one hand, or ‘service’ or ‘obedience’ on the other.21 The practical need of the recourse to war was recognised by Abbot Marcward of Fulda: ‘Not that it is proper that monks should inhabit anything but monasteries or fight battles other than spiritual ones; but the evil in the world cannot be defeated except by resistance.’22 Monk and knight are most famously conflated in the Military Orders of the Hospitallers and Templars, the latter’s formation being aided by St Bernard of Clairvaux.23 Thus, among the various sources utilised in this study, the chief vernacular ones – The History of William Marshal and the Anonymous of Béthune – are fully complemented by the chief Latin ones – Roger of Wendover and William the Breton. All make an important contribution to our understanding of warfare in the Middle Ages.

Historians of medieval warfare have experienced many obstacles in pursuit of their subject. For a long time the unfashionable study of this subject has been dominated by retired generals and other ex-soldiers. However, the subject has spawned an academic history of its own, progressing from a limited understanding by generalists to exhaustive study by specialists. In the English-speaking world, Charles Oman’s The Art of War in the Middle Ages held sway for much of the twentieth century;24 fortunately, the truly appalling first edition of 1885 was rewritten for a greatly expanded and improved third edition in 1924 which, although now dated and misleading in places, remains in print as a serviceable and useful detailed study. From Oman stems the still readily accepted view that infantry declined as a battlefield force after Hastings until its revival in the early fourteenth century, when longbows, it is argued, ushered in the age of English victories epitomised by Crécy in 1346. Hans Delbrück, writing contemporaneously with Oman (and like him a non-medievalist), is more error-ridden. Although he was right to draw attention to the size of medieval armies, arguing that they were much smaller than was originally thought, he helped to perpetuate the myths of medieval warfare that became entrenched in the thinking of military historians: battles were all-important; they were fought almost exclusively by knights; battles usually occurred when one force inadvertently stumbled upon an opposing one; the ensuing mêlée was a confused series of individual combats fought by gung-ho knights seeking glory and renown; there were no tactical units; infantry was peripheral and became effective only with archery in the 1340s; knights felt that their honour would be sullied to fight on foot; they charged headlong into the enemy at first sight; leadership was poor; there was no discipline; tactics were rudimentary and strategy non-existent.25 This caricature has been resoundingly disproven on all fronts by two decades of revisionism at the end of the twentieth century.

The publication of R. C. Smail’s masterly study Crusading Warfare 1097–1193 in 1956 should have instantly eradicated accepted thinking.26 Unfortunately, perhaps due to its being specialist and scholarly in nature, its findings were picked up by only a few medievalists, and at a time when medieval warfare did not constitute a major area of academic research.27 Its limited impact was also partly due to the failure to apply Smail’s conclusions for the Middle East to Europe. He demonstrates how strategy, tactics, discipline, infantry and leadership all played major roles in the warfare of the period and that battle-avoidance was generally preferred to battle-seeking. In diminishing the role of battle he accentuated the role of the castle, placing logistics, ravaging and the taking and keeping of strongpoints at the centre of medieval warfare. Many of Smails’s views are echoed in J. F. Verbruggen’s The Art of Warfare in Western Europe During the Middle Ages (originally published in Dutch in 1954; translated into English in 1997).28However, despite his recognition of the castle’s importance, Verbruggen’s focus remains on armies on the field of battle. His important work depicts clearly the professionalism of the medieval knight and dispels the myth of battle comprising large numbers of individual duels to show that knights fought in tactical units, a misuse of the sources having led to misunderstanding. He writes:

In many instances we can show that historians … have simply not read certain passages in their source carefully. They have kept the name of the prominent nobleman who fought at the head of his unit, but in their account of the engagement they forget the words cum suis, avec sa gent, cum sua acie, with the result that the fighting of entire formations is represented as a duel … 29

What knights learned from long years of training in small tactical units (conrois) they later employed in combat. Verbruggen also gives due attention to foot-soldiers, but again the emphasis is on the early fourteenth century.

With these antecedents, full-blown revisionism began in earnest in the 1980s, launched in 1984 by Philip Contamine’s classic work, War in the Middle Ages (translated from the 1980 French edition) and by John Gillingham’s seminal article, deliberately and provocatively titled ‘Richard I and the Science of War in the Middle Ages’.30 Contamine, in a passage already quoted, stressed the importance of warfare to medieval society and history as a whole. Gillingham gives prominence to the reality of warfare as experienced throughout the Middle Ages: ravaging, discipline, sieges, infantry, battle avoidance, etc. The flood of revisionist research that followed is incorporated into this work and referred to in the notes.31 With the revisionist school of thought now prevailing (except in the area of military revolutions), inevitably there will be trends to counter-revisionism (a manifestation of the eternal cycle of historical debate). This has already been seen with the questioning of numbers, one highly respected historian taking Delbrück to task for the one thing on which he was probably right (relatively small army numbers);32 another, more convincingly, believes that the necessary accommodation of new thinking on infantry should not leave the knight now on the periphery and also that discipline was, in fact, more of a problem than is sometimes considered.33 By the twenty-first century, the study of medieval warfare has emerged into a major area of recognised research that has moved beyond the regular appearance of books on the subject: the annualJournal of Medieval Military History has produced eight volumes of leading-edge scholarship since its inception in 2002 and there is now a dedicated website from the De Re Militari group ( that offers an abundance of invaluable information and resources to academic and layperson alike. In 2010, Oxford University Press published its massive three-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology, to present an authoritative account of our current understanding of warfare in the Middle Ages from scholars around the world (this author included). Medieval warfare remains, as Contamine noted, a ‘massive subject’.

With all this in mind, the military events leading to the invasion of England in 1216, and the actual invasion itself, will be studied with the intention of revealing the true nature of warfare in western Europe in the early thirteenth century (and, by extension, the medieval period as a whole). Where similarities exist between the nature of warfare in this period and earlier and later medieval periods, these will be highlighted to press home the essential point that the Middle Ages saw relatively little real change in the art of war. Considerable attention will be devoted to styles of military leadership, especially in regards to the commanders-in-chief: King John, King Philip Augustus and Louis the Lion. Throughout this study, the main aim will be to show how war affected the history of this time and how it affected the people it caught in its terrible grasp. For just as war had its effect on society, so it took its toll on the individuals within that society. It is thus fitting to remember the words of the poet William Blake, who was moved to write the following lines on Albion by the historical events covered in this book:

The stars of heaven tremble: the roaring voice of war, the trumpet, calls to battle! Brother in brother’s blood must bathe, rivers of death! O land, most hapless! O island, how forsaken! Weep from thy silver fountains; weep from thy gentle rivers! The angel of the island weeps! Thy widowed virgins weep beneath thy shades! Thy aged fathers gird themselves for war! The sucking infant lives to die in battle; the weeping mother feeds him to the slaughter! The husbandman doth leave his bending harvest! Blood cries afar!

William Blake, Prologue to King John34

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