Monday, July 28, 2008

Military History and Warfare: Medieval: English rebellions after the Norman Conquest 1067-1075

Victory over King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 should be considered as the beginning of a lengthy process of Norman conquest rather than viewed as an isolated event, followed by a complete takeover of England.

Initially, the surviving English nobles hesitated to submit to William. It was only after reinforcements arrived from overseas that William was able to advance to London. The surviving nobles either submitted to William or went into exile. For the next few years, the Normans found themselves in the position of an occupying army in the south of England. In the north they faced uneasy co-operation with powerful English earls who retained a strong sense of identity and Englishness. The western borders were vulnerable to attack from Welsh princes. In addition, the coastlines were vulnerable to raiding from Danes and renegade English.

As a first step, the newly crowed King William consolidated the land around the south-east of England. This was particularly important as it was the easiest route for reinforcements to arrive from Normandy. Edwin, Morcar and Waltheof retained their positions as earls of Mercia, Northumbria and the southern-midland shires respectively.

However, it was not long before the first rebellion broke out. In 1067, a major uprising occurred in Kent, largely in response to the harshness of William’s brother Odo’s oppressive rule. The revolt was supported by a noble from France called Eustace of Boulogne who had grown dissatisfied with William. Eustace sent troops to assist the rebels in attempting to seize Dover Castle. However, the rebellion failed and Eustace’s lands were forfeited by William.

Much more serious was a revolt in Exeter in 1068 led by the former King Harold’s mother, Gytha. This rebellion was co-ordinated with a raid on the south-west launched by three of Harold’s sons from their base in Ireland. Harold’s sons were then defeated by the local Norman forces in the area. Exeter continued to resist through an 18 day siege. Gytha eventually fled to Flanders with a large store of wealth. In 1069, the sons of Harold returned with sixty ships and attacked Devonshire. However, their forces were only sufficient for raiding rather than invasion purposes.

The rebellions/invasions of 1068/69 were all led by members of Harold’s own family. They attempted to co-ordinate resistance across the region but failed to gain universal support. William consolidated his victories by building and garrisoning castles in vulnerable places. This enabled him to retain a core base in each region for command and control of an area.

In 1068, Norman rule over England faced its most serious challenge yet. Realising that in the long-term their positions were threatened by the increasingly aggressive acquisitions of the Normans, earls Edwin and Morcar rose in revolt. They formed an alliance with Bleddyn of Gwynedd and Malcolm, King of the Scots (of ‘Macbeth’ fame). William struck quickly and advanced northwards building castles at Warwick and Nottingham intimidating the Mercians into submission. Both Edwin and Morcar surrendered and Malcolm was forced to sign a peace treaty and return to Scotland.

However, the revolt of 1068 was merely a prequel to a much larger northern rebellion the following year. In 1069, the new commander at Durham, Robert of Comines and the Castellan of York were massacred alongside a large force of Norman knights. This time the rebels included the native Northumbrian aristocracy, King Malcolm of Scotland and King Swegn of Denmark. The coalition focused around Edgar Aetheling, the last male member of the West Saxon house of Cerdic. Edgar had a legitimacy over the throne of England which William had only been able gain through force. The arrival of a Danish fleet in support of the revolt allowed the northern rebels to besiege and devastate the city of York. Unfortunately for the rebels, the Danes were more interested in plundering the countryside. Their army dispersed, allowing William to reoccupy York and destroy the English rebels. Edgar went into exile abroad and another treaty was agreed between Malcolm and William.

The Danes were allowed to plunder the coastal regions in exchange for peace and eventual withdrawal from England. The plunder and devastation wrought by the Normans afterwards became known as the ‘Harrying of the North’. The economic infrastructure of the north of England was shattered for generations. The extent of the damage can be shown through the low geld yields of the area as recorded by the Doomsday Book, twenty years later.

By 1070 William had seen off the most serious threats to his rule. The Danes had been bought off, Edwin had been betrayed by his own men and killed in an ambush and Morcar was imprisoned. However, the final rebellion of 1075 involved some of William’s own most trusted men. Ralph of de Gael, Earl of Norfolk, Roger de Breteuil, earl of Hereford and Waltheof, earl of Northumbria (Norman, Breton and English malcontents) made a secret alliance against William. Yet they too found that they were unable to achieve much more than limited local support and as a result the rebellion failed. William then had Waltheof executed for his role in the revolt.

Waltheof was the last of the significant English leaders who was potentially strong enough to lead a rebellion against the Normans. By 1076, William no longer faced any major potential rivals. The past decade of resistance had been unable to dislodge William. The revolts had been ill-co-ordinated and failed to unify the majority of the population. Throughout the period of rebellions, there were minor English nobles who were prepared to stay loyal to the new regime. The foreign powers that intervened often had a completely different agenda than merely restoring the House of Wessex to the throne. For these reasons, William was able to recover even when the situation had initially turned against him.

William’s rapid responses to rebellions over 1067-1075 resembled a fire fighting exercise followed by a period of consolidation through castle-building. Over the years that followed until his death in 1087, William continued the process of pacifying the Scots and Welsh. By the time his son William Rufus took over, the Norman conquest of England was complete.

If you are interested in finding out more about the Norman Conquest of England, have a look at these books;

Majorie Chibnall, Anglo-Saxon England 1066-1166 (Oxford, 1986)

Brian Golding, Conquest and Colonization: The Normans in Britain, 1066-1100 (London, 1994)

H.R. Loyn, Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest (London, 1962)

David Bates, William the Conqueror (London, 1989)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Military History and Warfare: The Thirty Years War: The Warship 'Vasa'

A recent trip to Sweden gave me the opportunity to revisit one of my favourite museums, 'Vasamuseet'. The museum is unique in that it contains the world's only completely intact surviving seventeenth century warship. Designed for the Swedish navy by the Dutch ship builder Henrik Hybertsson, ships like the 'Vasa' were essential in Sweden's attempts to dominate the Baltic area prior to its involvement in the Thirty Years War in Germany. The Vasa museum in the picture was purpose built in the twentieth century.

The 'Vasa' was launched in 1628 and designed to be one of the most powerful warships afloat. Equipped with 64 guns and carrying a complement of 300 sailors and marines, the Vasa represents a link between ships designed for traditional naval tactics of boarding and capturing enemy warships and those designed for tactics employed later in the seventeenth century and throughout the age of sail. Improvements in cannon design allowed later ships to fight in line formation and exchange shots with the enemy at a distance rather than engage in close combat. The Vasa's large crew complement and array of heavy twenty-four pounder guns seems to suggest a vessel designed to both fight at close quarters and at a distance.

Unlike many other vessels launched by Sweden, the Vasa's career as a fighting ship lasted barely a few hours. On Sunday August 10th, 1628 the ship had its official launch ceremony. The launch of such a powerful vessel was a major propaganda opportunity for King Gustavus Adolphus. Therefore foreign diplomats were brought to watch (along with hundreds of other spectators) as the ship began its maiden voyage from Stockholm. The 'Vasa' drew anchor, set sail and fired a salute. A few minutes later a gust of wind blew across the harbour causing the ship to begin to keel over. The 'Vasa' corrected itself for a moment and then began to keel over again towards its sides. The crew had failed to close the gunports, thus water began to pour in and fill the ship. A few minutes later the ship had toppled over and sunk. 30-50 people were trapped and drowned in the vessel. Gustavus Adolphus, away campaigning in Poland, had been awaiting the arrival of his new ship. Instead he received a message reporting the disaster. An immediate inquiry was begun into the cause of the sinking.

In the seventeenth century, application of mathematics to ship building still remained somewhat haphazard. Ship builders worked on the basis of recorded ship measurements that had been tried and tested on previous ships. Unlike merchant ships, warships had a large amount of weight placed higher up on their decks (the guns). This made them much more vulnerable to tipping over and sinking. Previous ship designs worked on the assumption of having the heavy guns on the lower decks and the lighter guns on top. Gustavus Adolphus had insisted that his new ship have both decks filled with heavy guns. The design of the 'Vasa' did not take into account this extra weight. As a result the ballast at the bottom of the ship counter balancing the weight of the guns was not sufficient for the new design.

These beautiful carvings on the back of the 'Vasa' would have been exquisitely painted.

For three hundred years, the ship lay at the bottom of the harbour in Stockholm. In 1956 a determined ship-wreck specialist, Anders Franzén found the ship and began lobbying for an expedition to recover it. In 1961 the 'Vasa' was pulled off the sea bed and brought to the surface. Unlike the Tudor warship, 'Mary Rose' in England, the 'Vasa' was discovered almost completely intact. Thanks to a lucky combination of fresh and salt water found in the area, the ship had not suffered the kind of disintegration that normally occurs in the wood of sunken ships.

As the ship began to dry, a substance called polyethylenglycol was used to replace the water in the wood and preserve it from destruction. Thus, a tragic accident three-hundred years ago has brought us this fine example of seventeenth century ship design. Anyone visiting Stockholm would be well-advised to visit this museum.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Military History and Warfare: The American War of Independence: Saratoga 1777

The American victory at Saratoga was arguably the most important battle of the American Revolution. It simultaneously reduced the British presence to the north of the thirteen colonies and gave the American rebels a much needed victory in a set piece battle. Most importantly, it triggered the French government to recognize the United States as an independent country. This would have important political ramifications in later ensuring French military support.

During the early days of the war, the British hoped for a climatic battle that would dishearten the revolutionaries and crush the rebellion. General John Burgoyne (popularly known as ‘Gentleman Johnny’) led an army of six thousand regulars from the British base in Montreal. He planned to march south and join up with the New York garrison and disrupt rebel communications between New England and Pennsylvania – the very heart of the Revolution. Success would depend upon a high level of co-ordination between Burgoyne’s forces striking from Canada and the main British army attacking from New York under General Sir William Howe and Henry Clinton. Burgoyne was a popular general and had several notable sub-ordinates commanders in his army. These included Major-General Phillips of the Royal Artillery, Brigadier-General Simon Fraser and Major-General Riedesel, commanding the German contingent. The army itself was a mixed force of 8000 men consisting of British regulars, Canadian militia and German mercenaries.

Little did Burgoyne realise that whilst he had been preparing his campaign to attack southwards, events were being decided in London by the Secretary of State for America, Lord George Germain. Howe had requested permission to move his forces towards Philadelphia. Incredibly, Germain approved Howe’s plan within a week of giving precise orders to Burgoyne to carry out a separate plan to attack in the opposite direction. Although Burgoyne was not to realise this until later, the decision to divert troops to Philadelphia allowed Washington to redeploy thousands of troops to stop him.

The start of the campaign went well, with Burgoyne’s troops capturing Fort Ticonderoga on the 6th July. However, this also meant that he had to leave troops behind to hold the newly captured fort. Hoping to reach Albany and link up with Henry Clinton’s troops from New York, the British found themselves under constant fire from American snipers. Using the terrain to their advantage, American troops blocked roads with fallen trees and flooded the trails upon which the British advance depended. It did not help that the British were also carrying a large baggage train. Burgoyne’s alone filled thirty carts, including his library, wardrobe and liquor. The Americans also adopted scorched earth tactics leaving little in the way of supplies for the lumbering British.

By July, Burgoyne’s force found itself at Saratoga short on supplies. Hearing of an American depot of horses and cattle twenty miles away at Bennington, Burgoyne dispatched a force of four-hundred men to seize it. Learning of Americans forces operating in the area, he dispatched another five-hundred men in support. Both forces were surrounded and destroyed by American militia reinforced by Colonel Seth Warner’s ‘Green Mountain Boys’. More bad news followed in August as a separate British divisionary force also (striking from Canada) was soundly beaten by Benedict Arnold and forced to retreat.

By the 13th September, Burgoyne marched his army out of Saratoga with the aim of linking up with General’s Howe’s forces. Burgoyne’s own force was by now reduced to only 5000 men. Against him, the American rebels had assembled 14,000 Continentals under Horatio Gates. Gates drew up his force at a position called Bemis Heights, overlooking the Hudson River. This enabled him to control the road upon which the British would have to pass. Burgoyne was quick to note the terrain. On the 19th September he divided his army into three columns in an attempt to turn the American position by its left. On the American side, Benedict Arnold saw the danger of the flanking movement and sent forward the light infantry along with Colonel Daniel Morgan’s corps of rifleman. Arnold’s troops then proceeded to fight the British to a standstill in the centre.

By nightfall the British had lost 600 men. The Americans had lost 300, but still had 9,000 in reserve. That night Burgoyne’s men camped on the field, whilst the Americans prepared themselves for more British attacks. However, Burgoyne had found out that Clinton had at last set out to support him. He therefore ordered his men to dig in and await the arrival of reinforcements. Although Clinton’s army made some progress working its way on the lower Hudson, his forces were not sufficient to fight their way to Burgoyne. Burgoyne therefore waited for weeks unable to advance. Supplies of flour and salt pork began to run out. Forage for the horses was all but gone and the General began to suspect he and his men had been deliberately sacrificed.

On the 7th October, Burgoyne attempted to advance again. However, this time he was only able to put some 1,500 men into the field. With the odds so heavily stacked against the British, the battle was a foregone conclusion. American troops led by Arnold drove the British back to their camp with heavy losses. A week later, with nowhere left to go, Burgoyne decided to abandon his guns and attempt an escape. It was already too late. On the 17th October, Burgoyne surrendered 5,721 troops, seven generals and twenty-seven guns. However, such was the repute of the British force and its commander that they were allowed to surrender on the understanding that they would be given parole and passage back to Great Britain. Later the U.S. Congress repudiated the Saratoga Convention. Burgoyne’s men were not repatriated and many died in captivity in miserable conditions.

The Battle of Saratoga was a crucial turning point for the American rebellion. Their victory over one of Britain’s top commanders encouraged France to recognise the infant ‘United States’ as an independent country. France, Spain and Holland all joined the war on the side of the Americans, turning what had been a rebellion in the American colonies, into a world war. By 1780, almost 12,000 French soldiers and sailors had arrived in America to support the Revolution. Therefore arguably, Saratoga was not only the most significant battle of the War of Independence, but probably in the history of the United States.

If you are interested in reading more about the Battle of Saratoga, have a look at these books;

Philip J. Haythornwaite, ‘Invincible Generals’ (Poole, 1991)

Holger Herwig, Christian Archer, Timothy Travers, John Ferris, ‘Cassell’s World History of Warfare’ (London, 2003)

Richard Worth, ‘Saratoga (Battles that changed the world)’ (2002)

Rupert Furneaux, ‘Saratoga: the Decisive Battle’ (1971)