III

BEFORE THE LONGBOW

The Marshal’s career spanned the peak of knightly warfare. Born amidst the chivalric free-for-all of the 1140s, he witnessed the revival of royal government that began the knightly caste’s slow transformation from sinister freebooters, like Robert fitz Hubert, into Jane Austen’s county gentlemen. More than once the History laments the passing of chivalry, its opportunities for mayhem and plunder supplanted by the anodyne pursuit of hawk and hounds. Long before William’s translation from bachelier to earl, knights had lost the monopoly of mounted service, as non-noble sergeants and crossbowmen elbowed their way onto the battlefield. Nevertheless, knights would continue to dominate European warfare for another 300 years. Natural leaders, they provided an elite multi-purpose cavalry: complete warriors, inured to wounds and hardship, as useful for reconnaissance and dismounted action as for the charge. Fortified by their armoured protection and class solidarity, knights constituted the most potent military force of their day. Securing Christendom’s borders from Outremer to the Baltic, they stood guard over the economic and cultural developments of the twelfth century.

Historians and public have not always taken so positive a view. Just as ‘medieval’ is a cliché for social backwardness, ‘feudal’ is synonymous with military incompetence. Early students of the medieval art of war, such as Sir Charles Oman, depicted chivalric armies as an inchoate mass of individual warriors, their ill-formed lines of battle dissolving into a maelstrom of unrelated duels. Knightly commanders are dismissed as possessing neither strategic vision nor tactical insight, medieval warfare seen as a lamentable hiatus between the professionalism of antiquity and today, from which the soldier’s art was only rescued by a happy succession of military revolutions. English writers in particular focus on the invincible bowmen of Creçy and Agincourt, whose arrow storms stopped dim-witted knightly armies in their tracks, adding the myth of the yeoman archer to that of the effete chevalier.

Such views are doubly misleading. They discount the peculiar difficulties confronting medieval commanders: their limited resources in men and money; the disproportionate power of the strategic defensive; the absence of formal command structures; the fluidity of mounted warfare. Secondly, they ignore the contemporary evidence of sound practice provided by vernacular sources such as the History. Mined for its chivalric and social insights, the latter’s military content has been neglected, although nearly half its lines describe knightly warfare, nearly three times the number dealing with tournaments. Written for an expert audience, its revelations of what knights thought about war are as important as what it says actually happened. This chapter will consider the History’s account of William’s military career from three points of view: the modalities of knightly conflict, the means available to early medieval commanders, and how they used those means.

MODES OF CONFLICT

A commander can pursue military victory in one of three ways. He may seek a decision by either combat or manoeuvre, or by a combination of both. Alternatively, he may use non-military means to achieve his aim. The table below is intended to underline the argument that battles, sieges and raids are complementary ways of fighting, something many discussions fail to make clear. Modern academics tend to deny that battles mattered at all. More traditional historians tended to neglect everything else. The table puts all three on a level footing.

MODES OF WAR

Combat?

Manoeuvre?

Yes

No

Yes

Battle

Raid

No

Siege

Other means

Battles entail both movement and combat; sieges are violent but static; raids exploit mobility to inflict harm while avoiding battle. Other means cover various non-military activities, such as bribery, diplomacy, or subversion. These four basic options exist across all periods, although their popularity and utility vary. It is unfortunate for the reputation of medieval commanders that serious study of their activities began in the nineteenth century, when historians attributed an inflated significance to battles. Understandable in the Napoleonic afterglow, a battle-centred perspective is unhelpful when applied to the Middle Ages, a period notable for its dearth of such events. The History refers to twelve actions, of which half might be described as battles.

BATTLES

Action

Year

Description

Context

Wherwell Abbey

1141

Skirmish

Siege

Test Valley

c.1141

Ambush

 

Drincourt*

1166

Battle/skirmish

Urban+

Lusignan*

1168

Ambush

 

Gisors*

1188

Skirmish

Urban

Le Mans*

1189

Battle

Urban

Frétéval*

1194

Running fight

 

Gisors

1198

Running fight

 

Dam

1213

Sea battle

Siege

Bouvines

1214

Battle

 

Lincoln*

1217

Battle

Siege/urban

Sandwich*

1217

Sea battle

 

* Battles at which William was present

William witnessed just four battles in over five decades of active service, if one overstates the significance of Drincourt, and distinguishes the opening defence of Le Mans from the subsequent siege of its castle. Richard I fought only three battles: Barbezieux (1176), Arsuf (1191), and Jaffa (1192). No King of France risked a battle between Brémule (1119) and Bouvines (1214).

The low number of battles fought by such committed warriors as Richard I and the Marshal is suggestive. It compares with the History’s twenty-nine sieges, including a fictional siege of Kilkenny that King John invented to tease the Marshal in the winter of 1207– 08. William assisted at twelve of these. He also attended Drincourt and Rouen with the Young King in 1173–74, stormed Cilgerran in Cardiganshire in 1204, and presided at Newark in 1218. William opened and closed his career, not with battles, but with two obscure sieges.

SIEGES

Location

Year

Winchester

1141

Newbury

1152

Drincourt*†

1173

Rouen*†

1174

Limoges

1183

Montmirail

1188

La Ferté

1189

Le Mans Castle

1189

Windsor

1194

Marlborough

1194

Nottingham

1194

Vaudreuil

1194

Verneuil

1194

Vierzon

1196

Arras (?)

1197

Milli

1197

Chalus-Chabrol

1199

Arques

1202

Mirebeau

1202

Cilgerran*†

1204

Kilkenny (fictional)

1207/8

Carrickfergus

1210

Rochester

1215

Hertford

1216

Berkhamstead

1216

Winchelsea

1217

Farnham

1217

Winchester

1217

Southampton

1217

Marlborough

1217

Mountsorrel

1217

Lincoln

1217

Newark*†

1218

* Additional to the History
Sieges at which William was present. At Newbury, he was aged only five.

There were good reasons for the infrequency of battles. Knightly commanders could easily reckon the odds, and small mounted armies readily avoided fighting superior numbers. The Norman baronage failed to support Henry II at Le Mans, fearing the great numbers of the French. They were no bolder in 1194, when Richard I was campaigning on the Loire and Philip Augustus besieged Fontaine, just outside Rouen. Philip Augustus commonly avoided battle, despite the negative consequences of running away at Frétéval and Gisors. He only fought at Bouvines because his enemies overtook him. Rational calculation was not confined to cowardly foreigners. King Stephen’s siege of Oxford (1142) collapsed when his men refused to await an Angevin relief column gathering at Cirencester.

Caution was entirely rational. Battles were uncertain, often ending with the leading protagonists’ death or capture. Harold’s demise at Hastings is the most celebrated example, but Henry I’s brother Robert Curthose spent twenty-eight years in captivity after Tinchebrai. King Stephen might have done the same after the first battle of Lincoln. Renaud of Boulogne, who fought beside William at Le Mans, died in a French dungeon thirteen years after his capture at Bouvines. William’s leading opponents at Second Lincoln and Sandwich, the Count de la Perche and Eustace the Monk, were both killed. Devoted followers might assume their lord’s coat of arms, but anonymity was no guarantee of safety. Peter II of Aragon was cut down at Muret in 1213 posing as a simplebachelier, a shocking waste of a king’s ransom. Richard I’s £100,000 ransom set a twelfth-century record, but less distinguished captives faced equally ruinous demands. King John paid 5,000 marks to recover Vaudreuil’s treacherous commanders in 1203. TheHistory does not say how much Queen Eleanor paid the Lusignans for William in 1167, but he was lucky to have so generous a patron. One of the History’s recurrent themes is the role of Fortune in life and war, foreshadowing Clausewitz’s belief that the latter resembled nothing so much as a game of chance. More than once the History describes a military outcome as a lucky die roll. William once recovered a disputed horse by rolling eleven with two dice to beat a nine.

Battles involved moral hazard, besides material risks. Like trial by combat in legal cases, they represented the pursuit of justice by other means. Participants had to feel sure they were in the right. Robert of Gloucester expected divine assistance at First Lincoln, the king having attacked his son-in-law without provocation, besieged his daughter, and fortified Lincoln Cathedral. Winners and losers were viewed as righteous or impious respectively. Jordan of Fantôme had no doubt that the Scots’ defeat at Alnwick reflected divine anger at their atrocities. Spiritual preparation for battle naturally included hearing Mass, but some combatants went further. The winners at Thielt (1128) cut their long hair and dressed as penitents. Sometimes the Church prevented battles altogether. The Truce of God or Trux Dei banned fighting from Advent until a week after Epiphany, from Lent through Easter Week, and from sunset Thursday to sunrise Tuesday. Such restrictions gave pause for thought. Before Bouvines, the Imperialists debated fighting on a Sunday, and only did so upon the urging of the godless routier Hugh of Boves.

The infrequency of medieval battles did not make them unimportant. Drincourt was not one of the world’s decisive battles, but it spared the town a nasty ravaging, the grateful inhabitants treating the victors to costly wines and fruit. As in other periods, a battle might change the course of a war, or terminate a conflict already decided. Henry II’s defeat at Le Mans persuaded him to abandon a losing struggle. The seneschal of an earlier Count of Anjou summarised the advantages of battle as follows: ‘Battles are short, but the victor’s prize is enormous. Sieges waste time, and the town is rarely taken. Battles overcome nations and fortified towns, and an enemy beaten in battle vanishes like smoke.’ (Gesta consulum Andagavensium, quoted in Verbruggen p.280)

He might have been speaking of Saladin’s dismantling of the Kingdom of Jerusalem after the Muslim victory at Hattin in 1187. Second Lincoln was one of a cluster of nearly contemporary battles that altered the course of European history: Las Navas de Toledo in 1212, which cleared the way for the Christian reconquest of Spain; Muret in 1213, which confirmed French domination of Languedoc; and the battle of Bouvines in 1214, which sealed the Angevin loss of Normandy.

Three of these four were victories for the attacker, a proportion reflected across the History’s land actions. The exceptions were Drincourt (1166), Gisors (1188), and Bouvines. Knightly armies were more than capable of effective offensive action, but they needed a good reason and a complaisant enemy. Three circumstances favoured acceptance of an offer of battle. Civil war, the usual form in England, inclined commanders to fight rather than watch their property being destroyed. Robert of Gloucester brought matters to a head at First Lincoln because ‘he preferred risking extremities to prolonging the sufferings of the country’ (William of Malmesbury).

Sieges frequently led to battles. A besieging army was fixed, its over-extended siege-lines vulnerable to surprise. The battles of Lincoln and Muret were both fought to raise a siege, as was the naval action at Dam. Henry II’s sortie from Rouen in August 1174 almost provoked a battle, had not Louis VII and his men (probably including William) cowered in their tents. Investing armies caught by a relieving column left smartly to avoid being cut to pieces like the Angevins during the Rout of Winchester. John abandoned his tents and siege engines at La Roche-au-Moine and ran for La Rochelle. Three of the History’s actions arose from sieges. Four took place in an urban setting that sits uneasily with the stereotype of knightly warfare as a country pursuit. Jousting down Lincoln’s streets was by no means the abnormality Sir Charles Oman suggests. William performed similar exploits on at least three other occasions: Drincourt, Le Mans, and Montmirail. King John’s knights did the same at Mirebeau. The nobility of Cologne crushed a citizens’ revolt in the 1260s by spurring on their destriers to break through chains blocking the streets. Charging down streets on horseback was the natural result of mounted troops’ monopoly of the tactical offensive. The best way to assert control of a town was to ride through it, just as the Red Army drove tanks through Berlin in 1945, or the British did through Basra in 2003.

Another circumstance favouring battle was the ambush, surprise pre-empting escape. John Marshal got his revenge for Wherwell Abbey somewhere in the Test Valley, between Winchester and Ludgershall. Challenged by a royalist force under his future brother-in-law Patrick, John intimated that he would not await their coming. Instead of retiring, he got up at midnight and ambushed the road. Catching his disarmed prey at dawn, still in their padded linen armour, he took numerous prisoners and much booty. This anonymous skirmish, known only from the History, illustrates the devious nature of the chivalric warfare of which William became an exemplar. Such tales, reinforced by bitter experience, underlay his caution at Le Mans and Frétéval. Only Bouvines, of all theHistory’s land actions, resembles the conventional knightly battle, honestly fought in the open.

The four-fold predominance of sieges in William’s career reflects the density of fortified sites across Western Europe. Archaeological surveys reveal a castle for every 40 square miles (104 square km) of Hertfordshire countryside, implying 1,250 across England, an estimate similar to Robert of Torigny’s contemporary figure. Every lay and ecclesiastical baron expected to have a castle, as did most county towns. Twelfth-century improvements in construction favoured the rich, as stone replaced earth, and square towers shed their corners to baffle miners. William’s castles at Chepstow and Goodrich still sport their bluff Norman keeps, but at Pembroke he built a great round tower in the latest style. Smaller round towers were distributed along the outer curtain, allowing archers to cover the base of the walls from defiladed slits invulnerable to the attacker’s missiles. Such improvements might have increased the defence’s existing advantage, but new siege techniques ensured they did not.

Castles were capital-intensive devices that substituted money for manpower. Unlike linear defensive systems they required small garrisons. Roger of Howden’s semi-official numbers seldom reach three figures: Henry II left thirty knights and sixty sergeants in Le Mans castle. Sixteen knights and twenty-five sergeants held Pembroke Castle. Investing armies needed far more, such as the 500 Welsh and 500 Marshal retainers who besieged Windsor in 1194. Like personal armour, protective walls reduced the owners’ casualties and boosted morale. Only one of Wark’s defenders was killed during a three-week siege in 1138. When the Scots stormed Brough in 1173, a single knight defied them all, hanging his shield over the battlements and throwing down sharpened stakes, until he was smoked out. High walls maximised the effect of kinetic weapons, such as the wooden blocks thrown down at Milli, or the millstone with which William was menaced at Newbury. In a well appointed castle, projectiles would be pre-positioned, like the piles of stones Count Richard found on the parapets of Taillebourg’s triple-moated castle in 1179.

Fortified towns and castles might hold out for months, if not stormed by a coup-de-main like Milli or Taillebourg. A sample of nearly fifty notable sieges from Norwich in 1075 to La Rochelle in 1224 suggests a thirty-eight-day average. Antioch and Château Gaillard held out longest at 226 and 187 days each. Average duration falls to a month if these freaks are omitted. Three-quarters of investments succeeded, more by negotiation or starvation than by assault. Besieged a second time, Wark’s English garrison surrendered after eating all their horses, the King of Scotland giving them more so they could ride out with dignity. An honourable defence did not have to be successful. The gallant commander of La Ferté in 1189 won great esteem for his unavailing resistance.

The French historian Philippe Contamine diagnosed a medieval siege mentality, a form of military agoraphobia which impelled combatants to shut themselves up in their most defensible strongholds. Barring the gates was the pragmatic response to porous battle-fronts. Medieval armies were too small and ill-informed to secure their home base by presenting a continuous front, or intercepting a fast-moving enemy as modern armies might do. Point defence was, therefore, the most effective way to protect key assets, whether personal, material, or topographical. Castles bought time to react to an enemy incursion, while invaders who bypassed unreduced garrisons faced losing their communications. A mounted garrison could cause trouble up to 10 miles (15km) away. Castles also provided bases for offensive raiding. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes this in Normandy in 1090, when William Rufus’s ‘riders’ at St Valéry and Aumale ‘did harm in the land by raiding and by burning’. Sieges had disadvantages, however. They were time-consuming and expensive, and rarely succeeded against a dynamic commander like Henry II at Rouen in 1174 or Count Baldwin at Arras in 1197. The Young King’s Revolt saw many sieges, but the battles at Fornham and Alnwick were decisive. Philip Augustus’ Norman siege strategy only succeeded because John ran away.

The aggressive use of castles by William Rufus is a reminder that formal battles or sieges were a minor part of a knight’s career. They provided the beans in the stew, titbits for knights like William and his biographer to pull out. The daily reality of war was raiding. When fighting started between Henry II and Philip Augustus in July 1188, the History comments that the land was ravaged and cruelly harmed. Wasting an enemy’s land was more than an unfortunate side-effect of a medieval army’s need to forage for the tons of fodder it required for its horses. The mounted raid or chevauchée was policy, sanctioned by the highest echelons of chivalric society with the avowed intention of harming their enemies. Medieval wars were mainly fought over economic issues – feudal property rights – not abstract national interests, and their conduct reflected this. Ignored or misunderstood by battle-oriented historians, raiding targeted civilians in order to destroy an enemy’s economic resources and undermine his authority, a concept familiar to Second World War bomber barons.

William may have learned this fundamental principle of medieval warfare from the master strategist who inspired his tournament tactics: Philip of Alsace, the worthy Count of Flanders, ‘who surpassed everyone then living through his wisdom’. Jordan of Fantôme quotes Philip’s advice to William the Lion’s Scots emissaries during the Young King’s Revolt. The Marshal may well have been at the French court to hear it:

Destroy your enemies and waste their country,
That by fire and conflagration all may be kindled;
That he
[the Scottish king] may leave them [the English] nothing,
either in forest or in meadow,
Of which they may in the morning have a dinner.

The Marshal adopted a similar line in Henry II’s councils when advising the raid that avenged the Gisors Elm. So much were such affairs an accepted part of knightly warfare that Henry could style William’s advice as molt corteis, most courtly. The inseparability of warfare and raiding in Henry’s mind is shown by the safe conduct he granted William in 1183, permitting the Marshal to fight the king and burn royal property.

The Montmirail chevauchée of 1188 exposes the true nature of such destructive expeditions. Henry II himself gave the orders to burn and destroy the whole region, sparing none, ‘for sparing the wicked achieves nothing’. The town’s destruction would be a feat of great chivalry. William rode directly to Montmirail without stopping for sleep, burning and taking everything within reach, leaving nothing behind. The Milli chevauchée of 1197 was similarly undertaken on royal orders, marching by night to achieve total surprise, inflicting damage out of all proportion to the forces engaged. Mercadier took so many prisoners that there was no room in Milli to stand. Raids did not always go to plan. When the French withdrew after demolishing Fontaine castle in June 1194, Robert Earl of Leicester, William’s diplomatic companion in April 1204, set off after them. Leaving Rouen by night in the approved manner, Robert strayed too far, was captured, and was forced to surrender his castle at Paçi-sur-Eure as ransom.

It may be argued that the rapid passage of small medieval armies did little permanent damage. Ralph of Coggeshall’s claims of Norman depopulation in 1197 may be a chronicler’s exaggeration, but he is supported by other evidence outside his period: Domesday Book’s sparse population figures for counties bordering Wales, or the brambles that infested northern France during the Hundred Years War. The History describes raiding’s effect in 1140s England as follows:

… cruel war, by which the land was ruined,
The people dead or downcast, and all joy melted away,
All gain turned to loss, and riches to poverty;
When the poor folk cannot harvest, and have nothing to pay their rents,
They must leave the land and seek their bread elsewhere.
Whence the lord is impoverished …

Jordan of Fantôme witnessed similar distress in Northumberland:

The land which was full of such prosperity
Is now destitute of all riches.
There is no drink but spring water,
Where they used to have beer in the week.

Economic warfare was indecisive with a high collateral cost, like William’s slaughtered retainers at New Ross. The Church tried to protect non-combatants under the Peace of God or Pax Dei, but Jordan of Fantôme thought such restrictions not worth ‘a single clove of garlic’.

Atrocities were usually blamed on Scots rabble or King John’s alien mercenaries, but the knightly class profited from their misdeeds. Guilt by association sapped the chivalric ideal. When William, in his knight errant days, encountered a runaway monk eloping with the sister of a distant acquaintance, he had no qualms about confiscating the money on which they intended to live by usury, then forbidden by the Church. The History treats the affair as a joke; now it looks more like highway robbery. Matthew of Boulogne, who sought to plunder Drincourt in 1166, had gained his county by kidnapping its heiress from a Hampshire nunnery. Pillage was politically and morally corrosive.

Medieval commanders did not limit themselves to military means, but wove sanctions, subversion, and shady deals into a very modern pattern. Sanctions could be material or spiritual. Richard I blackmailed Baldwin of Flanders, by denying Flemish weavers access to English wool, hanging the sailors he caught running the blockade. Philip Augustus was adept in black propaganda, claiming to be the target of Assassins hired by Richard from the Old Man of the Mountain. Treachery was the best way to end a siege, from Antioch in 1098 to Wiston Castle, on William’s Pembrokeshire doorstep, captured bloodlessly by the Welsh in 1194.

On the diplomatic front, the Church played a mediation role similar to the United Nations today, with similarly mixed success. Philip Augustus habitually rejected papal mediation in his domestic quarrels with the Angevins, except when it suited him. Mediation was most effective when neither side had realistic hopes of success, as before the Treaty of Westminster that ended the Anarchy in 1153. If the Church was on side, the enemy might be excommunicated before a battle to undermine their morale. Both sides at Thielt were excommunicate, but God’s position was clear; it was the losers’ commander who fell sick. As the Church’s temporal ambitions grew, it extended Crusading privileges to its supporters in conflicts between Christians, saving them the inconvenience of overseas travel. The Albigensian Crusade of 1208 against Languedoc is the most notorious example, but the idea was widely adopted and abused.

Earthly inducements remained significant. Henry of Huntingdon recalled William Rufus intriguing against Philip Augustus’s great-grandfather, whose army vanished, ‘obscured by dark clouds of money’. England’s financial resources enabled Henry I to buy Robert Curthose’s Norman supporters in the same way that Henry II isolated the Young King, by oiling the palms of French magnates. Richard I was similarly generous, paying the Count of Flanders 5,000 marks, even while the History mocked the Papal Curia’s reverence for Saints Ruffin and Albinus, red gold and white silver respectively. Peace deals and truces involved payments running into thousands of marks. The deniers generated by the twelfth-century economic recovery had more direct strategic uses than hiring mercenaries.

ARMS AND MEN

Medieval authorities took a binary view of armed forces. Socially they distinguished Le grand peuple et le commoune gent, the great and the common folk. Tactically they differentiated equites from pedites, mounted men from foot. The command hierarchy reflected this division. William’s grandfather had once marshalled the horsemen, leaving the Constable in charge of the foot. Terms like ‘cavalry’ and ‘infantry’ are modern coinages, inappropriate in a medieval context. Knights were skilled warriors, not professionals in any modern sense.

There were two further distinctions: between armoured foot-men, usually known as sergeants but including town militia, and the inermes or naked irregulars, such as the Welsh who swam the Seine in August 1174 to raid Louis VII’s camp outside Rouen. Equally significant was the distinction between troops with weapons designed for close quarters shock action, and sharpshooters equipped with longer-ranging missile weapons. This was another binary split, the types not being interchangeable, unlike modern infantry who may fight at a distance with mortars and machine guns, or close up with bayonets and grenades. Individual combatants rarely combined missile and shock action, although the History mentions sergeants armed with bows and spears at a tournament, and Richard I once stalked Nottingham Castle’s defenders with a crossbow. It was difficult to provide missile support for mounted troops, as sharpshooters could not approach hostile shock troops, without being overrun. This would remain a problem even after the so-called infantry revolution of the fourteenth century. William was one of the few medieval commanders to use missile troops offensively in battle.

Medieval armies in Europe comprised three main troop categories in the field: mounted shock troops, dismounted shock troops, and dismounted missile troops. Each individual category included several sub-categories, as shown below:

MEDIEVAL TROOP TYPES

 

Weapon System

Mounted?

Shock

Missile

Yes

Knights
Sergeants

n/a

No

Sergeants
Welsh Irregulars
Miners

Archers
Crossbowmen
Engineers

The History mentions representatives of all three main troop types – as the poetic meter required: ‘knights, and sergeants’, ‘good sergeants and good archers’, or ‘knights, and sergeants, and crossbowmen’. William would have seen mounted archers in Outremer, but these never featured at home. Engineers were international specialists who built and operated siege engines, like Master Urric ingeniator who served Richard I at Nottingham in 1194, alongside a Saracen and a Greek. Miners were humbler exponents of pick and shovel who undermined castle walls, the most certain way of making a breach. Philip Augustus was never without them.

The mounted arm shaped medieval warfare to such an extent that knights came to monopolise the term miles, the Latin for any soldier, implying an unbridgeable gulf between themselves and lesser warriors. Mounted troops enjoyed a tradition of victory dating from Roman defeats by German and Persian horsemen. Their technical superiority over the cavalry of antiquity had been consolidated by the adoption of stirrups, a wrap-around saddle, anchored by harness round the horse’s breast, and horse-shoes. Unlike foot-sloggers, mounted warriors reached the battlefield fresh, an advantage they increased by monopolising the available horseflesh. William’s contemporaries rode to battle on a palfrey and carried their armour on a pack horse, saving their destriers for more serious work. The 1106 Treaty of Dover, when Henry I hired 1,000 Flemish knights with three horses each, may reflect this arrangement. Hard working knights needed more than one destrier, however. William had three after his first tournament success at Ste Jamme in 1166.

The best horses came from Europe’s southern fringes, exposed to Arab bloodstock. Lombard horses were particularly prized. William remembered capturing one during the St Brice tournament in 1166. Richard I rode another at Gisors in 1198. An Angevin knight repeatedly passed the French siege-lines at Verneuil in 1194 on a Lombard, and was never caught. A temperamental Italian destrier would kill Gilbert Marshal. The History quotes prices of £30–40, presumably Angevin money, equivalent to £7–10 sterling. It valued the two that William left with Henry II in 1184 at £100 each (£25 sterling). Good horses brought social prestige, as well as military advantage. Philip Augustus was mocked for riding a ten-year-old chestnut during the retreat from Vernon. Not the least of William’s embarrassments as a Poitevin prisoner was having to ride a donkey.

A destrier was not the cart-horse of popular misconception. The dimensions of maritime horse transports suggest an animal of 15–16 hands like a modern hunter or Welsh cob, combining a good turn of speed with the strength to carry a knight in armour. War horses needed to be stout hearted and biddable. William’s mount at the Épernon tournament of 1179 was struck repeatedly without budging, until his master applied the spurs. In battle, war horses were sacrificed ruthlessly. William I lost three at Hastings. Even the peaceable Henry III had two killed under him at the battle of Lewes in 1264. The Marshal recalled losing two horses killed in action, one at Drincourt and one outside Lusignan. Two more were wounded at Le Mans and Montmirail respectively. John of Earley counted seven wounds to the latter’s shoulders, neck, and breast.

The other professional trademark of the knight was his armour. For William this meant the lorica or hauberk, a long mail shirt made of up to 200,000 interlinked iron rings, worn over a padded undergarment or pourpoint that absorbed the energy of blows deflected by the hauberk. Weighing 25–30lb (12–14kg), far less than a modern soldier’s combat gear, mail was flexible and well distributed, especially when worn with a belt, allowing easy movement. Inured to arms from youth, knights can have experienced little difficulty wearing armour. The History twice admits to William becoming out of breath, once after climbing a motte during a tournament in 1179, and again after scaling the walls of Milli Castle, aged fifty.

Proof against sword blows, mail was less effective against pointed weapons. The Syrian memoirist Ousama al Munquidh recalled thrusting his lance through a Christian knight’s haunches in 1119, tearing through two layers of mail to protrude a cubit beyond, similar to William’s wound in 1168. The decisive advantage conferred by wearing mail in combat is evident from the short-lived resistance offered by disarmed knights, from Earl Patrick’s mesnie in the Test Valley to Henry II’s escort at Le Mans. The History’s account of Mirebeau suggests the punishment mail had to absorb: ‘blows given, returned and repaid with interest, many hauberk links cut through, helmets beaten down, mail hoods sliced through to the head’. Nevertheless, hauberks might be removed for speed in reconnaissance or pursuit, as William did before and after Le Mans, and again at Arques.

Twelfth-century improvements to personal protection included closer fitting hauberks with longer sleeves and mittens, and leg guards or cuisses. Preparations for the Ste Jamme tournament included polishing the latter. Exports embargoed at Southampton by the regent’s government in 1217 included armoured shoes. Helmets underwent dramatic improvements. William’s effigy shows a simple mail coif or hood, exposing his face, but he wore something more substantial in action. Helmets were a natural target, hostile knights seeking to pull them off or twist them back to front to blind the owner, as happened to William during the St Brice tournament. The conical Norman helmet worn over a coif at Hastings acquired a domed or flat top and facial protection, evolving towards the cylindrical great helm shown on Richard I’s second great seal. William had one at Le Mans, where a burning mattress flooded his helmet with smoke, nearly choking him. His son Gilbert fatally lost control of his destrier, partly because he was blinded with dust and sweat, oppressed by the weight of his helmet. The inconvenience of the enclosed helmet explains Richard I’s preference for an open iron cap, and William remaining bare-headed to the last moment at Le Mans and Lincoln.

The rising cost of protection encouraged the appearance of a new class of mounted warrior: mounted sergeants, from the Latin sirvientes or serving men. Sergeants were socially inferior to knights, but functionally identical. At Muret sergeants formed up with the French knights as supplementary heavy cavalry. Jordan de Fantôme credited a sergeant with bringing down William the Lion’s horse at Alnwick. When the Abbot of Bury St Edmunds could not persuade knightly tenants to serve Richard I in Normandy, he hired sergeants. Known as servientes loricati, i.e. wearing hauberks, they were by no means light cavalry. Their equipment resembled that of the eleventh-century miles, as shown on the Bayeux Tapestry. Paid half the wages of a stipendiary knight, sergeants made up half to two-thirds of the mounted arm. A prestigious force like a French royal army might have less. A fifth of the French mounted troops at Bouvines were sergeants, a higher proportion serving on the Dauphin’s secondary front on the Loire.

A major difference between knights and sergeants was the horse armour that the former adopted during the late twelfth century. At Bouvines, Flemish knights received a charge by French sergeants at a stand, stabbing the latter’s unprotected horses with their lances. Horse armour’s evolution is unclear, concealed by silk trappings, and consisting of perishable chain mail. Romans and Persians had both used horse armour, suggesting an Eastern origin. An eyewitness of the First Crusade describes Muslims with horses covered with dazzling iron plates. Turkish horse archers may have encouraged Western knights to protect their horses, but they took their time. The first European reference to horse armour is in 1187, when the Count of Hainault in modern Belgium fielded 190 knights, 109 of them on barded horses. William’s horse at Montmirail clearly had no armour beneath its trappings, although a fast moving raid was not the occasion for such an encumbrance. Richard’s account of Gisors in 1198 says that 140 of the 200 French prisoners had covered horses, a similar proportion to the Lombard League’s order of battle in the 1250s. Horse armour was perhaps the mounted arm’s most significant advance in William’s life-time, reinforcing its predominance by protecting the source of its mobility.

Footmen were socially and militarily inferior, sometimes able to resist knights, but having little offensive capability. The secret of drill was lost with the Romans, leaving bodies of foot easily disorganised and vulnerable to faster, better armed horsemen. Three hundred foot sergeants failed to block a street against William and the Young King at Anet in 1176. Nevertheless, William’s career provides numerous references to well-armed foot. Apart from killing his horse at Drincourt, sergeants chased knights into therecetduring the tournament at Eu, halted a French charge at Gisors (1188), stormed up ladders at Milli, and captured the French flagship at Sandwich. Sometimes styled pedites loricati, they wore the shorter mail shirt known as a haubergeon or loricella.

The best foot were Flemish. Never conquered like the English at Hastings, the Flemings maintained a Germanic infantry tradition against the knightly warfare imported from France. Many hired themselves out to Henry II and his enemies as Brabançon mercenaries. They made cheap garrisons, but fought too few battles to prove their value in the open. Surprised on the march at Fornham they were broken by a mounted charge, and massacred by angry peasants. More perished at Alnwick next year. Otto of Brunswick’s Brabançons held out to the bitter end at Bouvines. Typical weapons included pikes longer than a knight’s lance, and gisarmes with curved blades resembling halberds. William was well acquainted with Flemish foot. The History praises the Count of Flanders’s proud and haughty commons at Arras, eager to fight. As Earl of Pembroke, William had Flemish tenants. Welsh Annals for 1193 describe their defeating a Welsh force at Llanwhaden, killing sixty in a wolf-like pursuit.

The other source of Angevin foot soldiers was Wales: spearmen from the north, archers from the south. Unlike sergeants they were lightly armed, capable of swimming the Seine to raid the French camp outside Rouen. Discipline was poor. Richard I interrupted his hunting to stop his Welsh and Brabançons fighting at Portsmouth. The spearmen had an undistinguished combat record. The Earl of Chester’s Welsh spearmen were scattered at First Lincoln. Henry II lost all of his retreating from Le Mans. The princes of Gwynedd usually avoided direct confrontation with English armies, retreating into their barren mountains.

Their bow-armed compatriots from South Wales would one day revolutionise English warfare. Archery during William’s lifetime, however, resembles the dog that failed to bark in the night. A cheap, simple, rugged weapon up to 6 feet (1.8m) long and made from elm, the longbow had a range of 200 yards (180m) and a theoretical rate of 20 shots a minute. Its power is attested by Gerald of Wales’s often quoted accounts of arrows left sticking through Abergavenny Castle’s oak door, or penetrating a luckless knight’scuisses and saddle to pin him to his horse. Few bowmen feature in William’s career, although his father introduced archers of unspecified origin into Newbury Castle. A Welsh archer precipitated the skirmish at Gisors in 1188 by shooting an insolent French knight in the head, though not fatally. King John hired some for his last campaigns in Normandy. His father, however, had not thought them worth regulating in the 1181 Assize of Arms.

The neglect of archery, following its prominence at Hastings, demands explanation. Social prejudice may have inhibited celebration of low-status troops. The Bayeux Tapestry’s depiction of short bows drawn to the chest is often interpreted as evidence of poor material and defective technique. Thirteenth-century sketches of Welsh archers, however, look much the same, while Iron Age bows found in peat bogs are no shorter than Tudor ones from the Mary Rose. Longbows are sometimes represented as a regional speciality limited to Wales, but they were not. Archers were an essential component of Crusading armies recruited across Europe, and featured in the communal disturbances before Thielt. Yorkshire archers formed the English second rank at the battle of the Standard. Wealden archers from Kent, sometimes misconstrued as Welsh, picked off intruders in 1216 and 1264.

A combination of factors explains their neglect. A high rate of fire is useless without an adequate ammunition supply. Wark’s commandant told his garrison in 1173 to shoot sparingly, and save arrows for important targets. Later medieval kings supplied thousands of arrows for their campaigns. If used to screen advancing knights, bowmen had little time to shoot, reducing their advantage over the slower shooting but more powerful crossbow. Fatalities caused by arrows hitting combatants’ unprotected faces imply that arrows usually failed to penetrate chain mail. Henry I survived a direct hit over the heart during an ambush in Powys, ‘from the goodness of his armour, for he was mailed, and the arrow turned and rebounded back’ (Chronicle of the Princes). Longbows required large numbers to be effective. Twelfth-century Welsh princes could not mobilise enough to stop a knightly charge, as Gwenwynwyn of Powys found at Painscastle in 1198, when an army drawn from all over Wales fled a mounted charge at the first onset. The English, on the other hand, had yet to invent the Commissions of Array that Edward I would use to field thousands of archers. Longbows in William’s time were most successful against unarmoured targets, like the Galwegians riddled like hedgehogs at the Standard, or in a guerrilla context as in Kent.

The twelfth century’s missile weapon of choice was the crossbow or arbalest. Banned by popes, and popularised by Richard I, crossbows could break a limb or pierce a hauberk at 100 yards. The Byzantine princess Anna Comnena considered them diabolical weapons, a Crusader’s bolt having pierced both the shield and scale armour of a Greek admiral. The History may reflect their rise in popularity with its shift from archers at Newbury to crossbowmen at Limoges, Nottingham, and Verneuil. The change may reflect the appearance of horse armour, which reduced longbows’ effectiveness against mounted targets, or it may reflect an increased financial ability to hire specialist crossbowmen. Gervase of Canterbury records a royal escort of numerous armed men and crossbowmen during John’s visit to Kent on 1209. John’s reliance on foreign crossbowmen earned them a place in Magna Carta, among the other aliens to be expelled. A complex weapon, crossbows or arbalests were for professionals who rode to battle. Some of John’s arbalestriers had three horses, as many as a knight. Like poorer foot sergeants, crossbowmen wore padded jackets known as gambesons or pourpoints. During the Fourth Crusade’s assault on Constantinople in 1203, the crossbowmen were with the archers in the van, as they would be at Lincoln. Like longbows, crossbows were best in a static siege context, where they were less likely to be suddenly overrun.

The final element in a medieval array was the machines that played an increasing part in sieges, inhibiting a recurrence of the Anarchy when Stephen’s enemies had built castles faster than he could capture them. There were three types: devices for approaching walls, stone throwers powered by counter-weights, and torsion-driven catapults which play no part in our narrative. The first category attracted evocative names: belfries that overlooked enemy walls; sows, cats, and tortoises which provided a covered approach for miners or a battering ram. The cleier to which William was attached at Newbury was one of the latter, a moveable gallery made of wickerwork ‘claies’ or hurdles.

Counter-weight machines had a long arm or ‘flail’ pivoting over a vertical frame, the fulcrum nearer the weight than the sling to magnify the force imparted to the projectile. They fell into the following types, as recently recreated by Renaud Beffeyte:

SIEGE ENGINES

Designation

Range (m)

Projectile Wt (kg)

Rate

Crew

Perrière

40–60

3–12

1/minute

8–16

Bricole

80

10–30

1/minute

16

Mangonel

150

100 (max)

2/hour

12 plus

Trébuchet

220

125

1–2/hour

60 plus

Mangonels and trébuchets were large pieces of equipment, fitted with boxes of earth to provide the mass for the counter-weight. Perrières had no counter-weight, but depended on several people all pulling at once. They were less accurate than trébuchets, which could be adjusted to hit the same spot repeatedly by altering the amount of earth in the counter-weight box. The bricole combined teamwork with a small counter-weight to improve range and throw weight, while preserving a high rate of fire. None of these machines resemble the torsion-driven machines of the Romans which often appear in surveys of medieval warfare. They were a brand new type of weapon.

The History refers to perrières and mangonels, describing the weapon into which William was loaded at Newbury as the former. This appears small for a five-year-old weighing several stone (20–25kg), suggesting that Stephen had a bricole or mangonel. Trébuchets were copied from Muslim examples, reaching Western Europe in the 1190s. The first English use of the word trebuca occurs in the Dunstable annalist’s account of Dover’s second siege in 1217. Smaller machines could smash crenellations and wooden hoardings along parapets to stop defenders picking off miners or storming parties. Larger machines might breach town walls, as Bulgarian stone-throwers did when besieging Latin Crusaders at Demotika and Adrianople in 1206 and 1207. Siege engines could also start fires within the perimeter, as may have happened at Marlborough in 1194 when machines were sent from Reading in the abbey’s carts with sulphur and pitch for incendiaries.

Complex weapons based on abstruse mathematical principles, trébuchets were imported into England rather than built locally. Lesser weapons were constructed as required, often in large numbers. Philip Augustus abandoned twenty-three perrières outside Rouen in 1193. The Bulgarians employed thirty at Adrianople. Either weapon was deadly against soft targets like people. Ousama remembered Christian mangonels at Shaizar in 1138 indiscriminately shattering heads, walls, and buildings.

PRACTICE OF WAR

Knightly armies were raised in various ways. At the heart of every military undertaking were members of a lord’s household, acting as staff officers, junior leaders, and bodyguards. William was a household knight for over twenty years. In Henry II’s last campaign he played all three roles: advising on the Mantes chevauchée, leading the Montmirail raid, and covering Henry’s retreat at Le Mans. Households were small bodies of dedicated professionals, roughly 100 strong like the ninety-four who followed William of Tancarville’s banner. They were instantly available, but too few for major enterprises. For these a great lord summoned a feudal host consisting of all those owing him military service with their own retinues. On the outbreak of the Angevin-Capetian war in 1188, Henry II summoned William with all the knights he could get. Richard spent the night after he broke with his father at Bonmoulins dictating over 200 letters to his adherents.

A feudal host provided useful numbers of competent warriors, and was cost-effective within a limited geographical range, but it lacked flexibility and staying power. The History claimed that Henry II fielded 20,000 men at Gisors in 1188. An unlikely figure, it suggests significant numbers, like those attributed to Richard in 1194. Feudal hosts had a mind of their own, however. French magnates disliked fighting Henry II, a fellow Crusader. English magnates objected to crossing the Channel. Service was in principle limited to forty or sixty days from joining the host. Angevin kings preferred smaller, more durable forces. John dismissed the host he summoned to Portsmouth in 1201, and spent their travelling money hiring three troops of 100 knights each for overseas service, one commanded by William.

The largest and least flexible part of the feudal array was the popular levy of all free men. The History called it the criz de la terre, proclamation of the land. This was not the ill-armed mob of peasants derided by anti-feudal historians, but a useful tool for local defence, as at the Standard. The 1181 Assize of Arms specified the same equipment for free laymen worth over 16 marks as for a knight. Anyone worth 10 marks or more needed a haubergeon, iron cap, and lance; poorer freemen a gambeson. Dunstable Priory purchased one hauberk, nine haubergeons, and nine gambesons for John’s counter-invasion forces in 1213. His threats to declare defaulters serfs, nithing as William Rufus put it, persuaded so many to turn up that food ran short, and the least experienced were sent home. Roger of Wendover claimed that John had 60,000 men at Barham Down outside Dover, a logistically unsustainable figure symbolising unmanageable numbers. Such mass levies, of doubtful value, remained a feature of thirteenth-century invasion scares.

Alongside feudal arrangements based on personal obligation was a thriving trade in paid troops driven by the twelfth-century economic recovery. Never subject to the brutal demonetisation experienced in Europe, England led the way. William Rufus was known as militum mercator et solidator – a dealer and hirer of knights. Henry I so depended on his paid knights that at Christmas 1124 he castrated every moneyer in England for not making pennies of sufficiently good quality to satisfy his troops. Henry II boosted the market with the 1159 scutage, used to hire paid knights. We might call such troops mercenaries, a name they would have resented, mercennarius being then a term of abuse. Consistent classification is not straightforward. Household knights like William were rewarded in cash as well as in kind. His credit was always good, though he possessed not a furrow of land. Members of a feudal host might overstay their forty days if paid to do so. Remote or protracted campaigns were in effect conducted by paid troops.

The whole feudal structure was thus drawn into the cash nexus, long before Edward III invented bastard feudalism in the fourteenth century. Any fighting man of any social level from knight to archer might be in receipt of wages. King John hired Brabançon knights and sergeants to put down a Scottish rebellion in 1211. Mercadier employed sergeants and crossbowmen. Rates of pay varied. Henry II paid his knights 8d (3.3p) a day and his foot sergeants 1d (0.4p), an agricultural labourer’s wage. Inflation pushed these rates up to 12d a day for knights and 4d or 2d for mounted or foot sergeants respectively. The 2-mark scutage (320 old pence) which had once hired a substitute knight for forty days was no longer adequate in the 1200s.

There remained an essential distinction between those serving from feudal obligation while being paid their keep, and true mercenaries like Mercadier’s men who fought to eat. True mercenaries were deracinated cut-throats named after their supposed origin: Basques, Navarrese, Aragonese, and always Brabançons. The lowest were the cotereaux, named after the knives they thrust through gaps in ill-fitting armour. Routier, a useful umbrella term, comes from ruta, the mercenary band. Sometimes the Historylistsroutiers beside functional troop types, knights, sergeants, and crossbows, suggesting a spurious tactical distinction. A task force, like John’s Irish expedition of 1210, consisted of three components: the royal household, the feudal host, and mercenary bands. William must have rubbed along with Mercadier, but the History minimises the routier’s contribution to Richard’s victory at Gisors, and condemns John’s use of mercenaries outright. They were essential, but politically and financially ruinous.

The armies raised by whatever combination of these methods were very small. Population was limited, political units modest, warriors expensive, and logistics undeveloped. Simon de Montfort won Muret with under a thousand men. The French army at Bouvines, the supreme confrontation of the age, consisted of 1,600 horse and 4,000–6,000 foot. Lack of numbers prevented armies establishing a continuous front line, and contributed to operational fluidity. Fighting was diffuse, spread out in time and space. Combined with the unceasing struggle for a myriad of strongholds this creates an impression of strategic chaos. The image is unfair. Like their modern counterparts, the best medieval commanders met the challenges of their day with ingenuity and skill.

It would have been strange if they did not. Warfare was the main activity of medieval Europe’s secular elite, the most prestigious end of a spectrum of violence running from hunting through jousting and tournaments to war, domestic and foreign. Skills were transmitted verbally, a vanished oral discourse of which the History formed part. William would have absorbed this traditional expertise while daydreaming at Tancarville, or attending the courts of Philip of Alsace and Henry II. While in Palestine he formed a close attachment to the Templars, whose Rule represented the best of twelfth-century chivalric practice. After 1194 William was the constant companion of Richard Coeur de Lion, the foremost exponent of knightly warfare. Such a curriculum vitae demanded more than instinctual physicality. William’s argument at Arras that ‘Foresight, common sense and right, often accompany prowess’ stuck in John of Earley’s mind to reappear twenty-five years later in the History.

Comparison with twentieth-century military doctrine demonstrates the maturity of twelfth-century military expertise. The British Army’s Field Service Regulations of 1924 reflected the experience of the greatest land war the nation has ever fought. They identified eight underlying principles of war. Medieval commanders would never have expressed themselves so succinctly, but their actions showed their instinctive understanding of the key ideas:

Maintenance of the Objective: Philip Augustus devoted his adult life to overthrowing the Angevin Empire. When Richard turned back from Jerusalem, he sacrificed a minor objective, the problematic recovery of the Holy City, to preserve a viable Christian enclave on the Palestinian coast. Medieval circumstances made it hard for commanders to pursue the destruction of enemy forces, the ideal aim of military operations today, but leaders like Saladin and Richard persistently sought to do so. As regent, William would show similar focus.

Offensive Action: It became a cliché in the later Middle Ages, when knights fought dismounted, that to attack was to court defeat. That was not so in William’s day. Twelfth-century knights fought mounted, making the offensive the most effective route to tactical success. Henry II ended the Young King’s Revolt not by sitting behind Rouen’s defences, but by sallying forth to offer battle. Simon de Montfort twice reversed a dire strategic situation in Languedoc by resolute offensive action, first at Castelnaudary (1211) and then at Muret. William’s insistence on the bold move at Arras won the day without a fight.

A knightly charge was not the pell-mell rush suggested by Anna Comnena’s claim that ‘a Frank on horseback would drive a hole in the walls of Babylon’. Started on the word of command, it began gently, as if carrying a bride in the saddle, then built up speed on a trumpet call to burst through the opposing ranks, as Team Angevin did at Joigny in 1178/79. When several bodies of knights were in line, they charged in successive echelons, usually starting from the right, to deliver a series of shocks and provide a rallying point for preceding waves. Philip of Alsace characteristically added his own twist, charging à la traverse, to roll up the Young King’s disordered ranks from the flank.

Surprise: The first thought of every twelfth-century commander was to outwit his adversary. Almost every action mentioned in the History features surprise, which was always the best way to pre-empt a siege before it started. The History’s account of Newbury uses three ‘surprise’ related words in twelve lines, the garrison’s first warning being the appearance of Stephen’s advance guard. William’s capture of Cilgerran in Advent 1204 was equally sudden, catching its Welsh guards inermis – naked or unarmed – at a time when the Trux Dei outlawed military activity. Movement by night was common, from John Marshal’s Test Valley ambush, via the Montmirail and Milli raids, to King John’s secret flight in December 1203. Twice the victims were caught eating breakfast.

Concentration: The History’s comment that the Imperialists lost at Bouvines because they attacked prematurely with a quarter of their numbers is statistically incorrect, but tactically astute. Otto’s army arrived piecemeal, some of the leaders having ridden on ahead, among them the Earl of Salisbury from whom the History’s account may derive.

Medieval tactical organisation sought to prevent such dissipation of effort. Knights formed up for action in troops or conrois of twelve to twenty-four men each, like William’s fifteen-strong banner at Lagny-sur-Marne. Several conrois formed an eschieleorbataille, commonly translated as a ‘battle’, fifty to sixty men in front and two or three ranks deep. These tactical units formed line or column depending on their numbers and situation. When they advanced, they did so in the tightest formation consistent with movement. Close order maximises the fighting power of short-range weapons, concentrating the maximum number of blows on the shortest frontage. The eyewitness Itinerary of the Pilgrims says the Crusaders at Arsuf were so packed that ‘an apple, if thrown, would not have fallen to the ground without touching a man or horse’.

This compact formation appears repeatedly in the History’s accounts of tournaments, starting at Ste Jamme, where the chamberlain’s conroi rode out seréement & sanz desrei, tightly and without disorder. The chamberlain pushed William back into line at Drincourt lest his enthusiasm disrupted the formation. When the chamberlain’s men withdrew under pressure, they did so in serried ranks not dispersed like Cossacks. Tournaments were instrumental in developing this instinctive ability to maintain formation, the exact antithesis of modern caricatures of medieval battle as a disjointed series of duels.

Economy of Force: Medieval strategists were adept at preserving their own strength, while dissipating the enemy’s. Raids weakened the enemy economically, and might compel his scattered forces to fight at a disadvantage. Richard captured the Marshal’s great rival, William des Barres, near Mantes attended by just a few knights. Castles represented economy of force. Substituting money and labour for blood, they forced the enemy to waste time besieging them individually, or risk dispersing to attack several at once. Blockading a besieging army wore them out faster than fighting them, as Philip Augustus learned at Vaudreuil in 1194.

Security: The first responsibility of any commander is to guard against surprise. As early as the First Crusade, we hear of advance and rear guards protecting an army on the march. Archers and scouts preceded Stephen’s host at Newbury. Reconnaissance was so painstaking that in 1173 Louis VII captured a town while Henry II’s scouts were still feeling their way. The English commander at Alnwick ‘prudently’ sent a spy to reckon the Scottish forces. Richard I in Outremer dressed his scouts as Bedouin. His victory at Gisors followed careful reconnaissance, first by a veteran knight, who knew the country, then by the king. William’s patrols at Le Mans and Arques place him in the same tradition of personal observation.

Mobility: Vegetius, one of the few classical authorities owned by medieval commanders, rated speed more highly than numbers. Small well-horsed medieval armies, not tied by the leg to an artillery train, could move at an astonishing rate. The Montmirail raid rode 70 miles (114km) from Chinon, stormed the town, and then marched another 26 miles (42km) to Châteaudun, apparently in two days and the intervening night. King John was almost as quick at Mirebeau, making 40 miles (60km) a day. Even infantry could cover the ground. Henry II’s Brabançons marched 132 miles (210km) from Rouen to Dol to crush the Young King’s Breton supporters, 19 miles a day (30km). High march rates help explain the frequency of surprise attacks, armies arriving before news of their coming, as at Drincourt. Socio-economic factors speeded operations: the survival of Roman roads, not yet plundered for building material, and the aristocracy’s acquaintance with the countryside, ingrained by years of incessant hunting and perambulation between estates.

Co-operation: If the duelling model of knightly combat were correct, there would have been no mutual support on medieval battlefields. The History provides plentiful evidence to the contrary. Groups of knights continually join forces against single opponents, like the five who assailed William at St Brice, tearing at his helmet and pulling him back over his horse’s crupper. Even as their conrois disintegrate under the shock of battle, individual knights cling together to protect their comrades. When forty knights set upon the Young King at Lagny, the Marshal rides to the rescue, laying about him with his sword, while a freelance prisoner on parole hauls at the royal reins, the helmetless prince covering them both with his shield.

Maintaining a reserve allows one part of an army to support the rest. It was common twelfth-century practice, which William learnt from Philip of Alsace and applied at Frétéval. Simon de Montfort withheld one of his three eschieles at Muret to turn the Aragonese flank. The ‘feigned flights’ that feature in so many medieval battles are no more than the use of a reserve to restore the fight, in accordance with nineteenth-century cavalry practice, where up to half a mounted force might be kept as a support.

Inter-arm co-operation was problematic and probably under-reported, given the mounted arm’s social dominance. Nevertheless it happened. Dismounted knights and archers together formed the front ranks at the Standard; sergeants and crossbows at Jaffa in 1192. Horse and foot in Outremer were so accustomed to working together that the latter opened their ranks at Arsuf for the knights to charge out through the gaps. Before Muret, Count Raymond of Toulouse proposed drawing the Crusaders onto a line of crossbowmen behind a palisade, but was laughed at by Peter of Aragon. William would not be such a fool at Lincoln.

The conflict that followed John’s ignominious return from Poitou late in 1214 conformed to customary patterns. Both sides used blackmail and devastation to intimidate their opponents, and sustain their own troops. Much effort was expended in sieges. Battles remained a last resort. Dirty tricks featured prominently. A profoundly conservative society utilised its traditional weapons and military organisation. Hostilities were conducted by heavily armed cavalry and professional crossbowmen drawn from magnate retinues and mercenary bands. Commanders followed principles absorbed over twenty-five years of Angevin-Capetian conflict. It is not surprising that the royalists, with their routier captains and the Marshal’s unequalled experience, came out on top.

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