A Great and Glorious Adventure (2 page)

BOOK: A Great and Glorious Adventure
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In this book I have tried to stick to what I know best and to look at the war from the military perspective. But no subclass of history can stand alone – social, political, economic and
military history all impinge upon each other – and it is impossible to comprehend why things happened, as opposed to what happened, without understanding the way people lived at the time:
their ambitions, their lifestyles and their beliefs, and the motivating factors of religion on the one hand and acquisitive greed on the other. While some medieval kings might have planned for the
long term, the vast bulk of their subjects could think only of the immediate future, at least in this world: for the farmer was but one visitation of murrain from ruination, the magnate or pauper
one flea jump from the Black Death.

Historians must, of course, present both sides of the argument, but they do not have to be neutral. I hope that I have treated the facts, as far as they can be determined with accuracy, as
sacred, but I cannot hide my conviction that England’s demands on France were lawful and justified, and, even where they were not, I feel pride in the achievements of Edward III, the Black
Prince and Henry V. For all the cruelty and bloodthirstiness exhibited by many English soldiers of the time, I would far rather have marched with Henry V, Calveley, Knollys, Dagworth et al than
with Bertrand du Guesclin, the best-known French commander, or Joan of Arc.

Sources for the period exist in great number, but not all are reliable, often being after-the-event propaganda, an exercise in
post hoc ergo propter hoc
logic (or lack of it) or,
particularly in tapestry and painting, fanciful flights of the imagination. Battle paintings are many, some painted not long after the event, but they are sanitized and stylized, not the trampled
and horse manure-covered fields of blood, gore, agony, sweat and death of unwashed, unhealthy men that a medieval battlefield
must have been. Instead, we see nice neat lines
of opposing soldiers, armour all brightly polished, everyone shaved, horses beautifully groomed, and always the sun shining against an impossibly blue sky. It cannot have been like that.

Whatever their limitations, original sources have to be considered, partly because their authors were there or talked to people who were there, so at least some of what they describe will have a
grain, or more, of truth in it, and partly because, even if not historically accurate, they at least reflect what some people thought at the time. Jean Froissart is generally accepted as being one
of the best contemporary sources for the early part of the war. A contemporary of Chaucer, Froissart was born in Valenciennes and was a minor official in the court of Edward III’s queen and
also in that of Richard II. He was born around 1337, so his account of the preparations for and conduct of the Crécy campaign can only have been hearsay, but for all that he did approach the
happenings of his time in a manner that would stand up to at least a cursory assessment of his methodology today. He had an inside seat for much of what he describes, he interviewed people who were
present where he was absent, he contrasted differing reports, and he gives due credit to other chroniclers from whose work he has borrowed. That said, there is a discernible French bias in his
later writings which has to be balanced against the equally biased work of some English authors. There are numerous other reporters whose works have survived – the Paston letters are
particularly valuable as a social comment on the time, albeit written rather later. The chronicles of Le Bel, Lanercost, Le Baker, Brut, Meaux, Knighton, Walsingham, Chandos and the anonymous
author of the
Gesta Henrici Quinti
have also all been helpful, albeit that they are often very broad-brush indeed.

My own modern French is passable, and Norman French, the language of the English court for much of the period, is not that different. As my school Latin lessons were spent in the surreptitious
study of racing form books and doodling on the corners of
Kennedy’s Latin Primer
, my understanding of that tongue, the diplomatic and ecclesiastical language of the time, is
rudimentary, but I had assured myself that, armed with a decent dictionary, I could cope. That pious hope was shattered when I discovered that Medieval Latin uses many abbreviations not taught to
English schoolboys, but fortunately modern translations exist.

Indeed, one of the major changes that took place in England over the period was linguistic: the shift from Norman French for the rulers and Old (moving to Middle) English
for the ruled, to the use of English by all. Edward III learned English as part of his education, and it was in his reign, in 1362, that the official language of the courts became English rather
than Norman French. The generation of his grandsons, Richard II and Henry IV, was probably the first to use English equally with French, and, by the time Henry V came to the throne, he wrote and
spoke in English by preference, as did the English nobility – a change prompted by nationalism as much as by convenience.

English itself evolved over time. The English of the middle or late 1200s would be difficult to the modern ear, as one can see from these lines, written around 1250 by Saint Godric:

Sainte Marye Virgine

Moder Jesu Christes Nazarene

Onfo, schild, help thin Godric,

Onfang, bring heyilich with thee in Godes Riche.

The reference to St Mary the Virgin, mother of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, is straightforward enough, after which we would be stumped. ‘Onfo’ means ‘receive’,
‘schild’ is ‘defend’ (modern ‘shield’), ‘thin’ is ‘your’ (‘thine’), hence the second line reads, ‘Receive, defend and
help your Godric’. In the last line, ‘onfang’ is the past participle of ‘onfo’, thus ‘having received’; ‘heyilich’ means ‘on high’;
and ‘Riche’ means ‘kingdom’ (as in the German
Reich
), so the line reads: ‘Having received, bring (him) on high with you in God’s kingdom’.

Compare this with a similar verse written a hundred years later by Richard Rolle, concerning the holy sacrament:

Jesu, Lord, welcome thou be

In form of bred as I thee see

Jesu for thine holy name

Shild me today from sinne and shame.

Apart from the spelling, we would have little difficulty, and by the end of the war, around 1450, John Lydgate in a prayer to Mary says:

Blessed Mary moder virginal

Integrate maiden, sterre of the see

Have remembraunce at the day final

On thy poore servaunt now praying to thee.
1

By this time, Chaucer’s English was spoken by all Englishmen, and, while the accent would seem strange and we in the twenty-first century would have to listen carefully, we would
understand most of what was said, even if the emphases, the intonation, the stresses, the slang and the nuances would be quite different. The spelling is of course quaint and not consistent, even
in the same document, but I have found that if Middle English is read quickly, without reference to the spelling, it is relatively easily understood. The original sources for the war are therefore
a mix of Norman French, French French, Latin and Middle English. Most have, of course, been translated into modern English by eminent scholars, to whom I am grateful.

If the primary sources cannot be relied upon in their entirety, particularly when it comes to the minutiae of a particular battle, then other methods must be employed. The great Colonel Alfred
Burne’s Theory of Inherent Military Probability may seem a little simplistic, stating as it does that, when the student of warfare has no idea what actually happened, he should put himself in
the shoes of the commander at the time and decide what he would have done. In fact, an understanding of the assets available (equipment, weapon ranges, accepted tactics, methods of supply), allied
to a thorough examination of the ground, can very often provide a good insight into how a particular engagement probably developed. Vital ground – that is, ground that must be taken by the
attacker to achieve his aim, and ground that must be held by the defender to achieve his – is vital ground in any era, and, while marshes are drained, rivers change their courses and roads
get built, the contours of the land generally do not change very much. Medieval man’s brain was the same size as ours. He was just as intelligent, or unintelligent, as we are, and just as
capable of producing a sound military appreciation. The Black Prince would not have
been out of place in Wellington’s army; John of Gaunt would have been just as capable
(or incapable) of dealing with the wily Pathan (or Taliban) as he was with the obdurate Spaniard; Henry V could size up a situation just as well and probably as quickly as Bill Slim,
Britain’s best general of the Second World War; and Sir John Hawkwood would doubtless have made as short work of the Irish as he did of squabbling Italians. There are no new military
problems: only the means to tackle them have changed.

I have used New Style dating throughout, the conversion to which can be confusing. Until 1582, England and most of Europe used the Julian calendar – the Old Style – until Pope
Gregory XIII introduced the far more accurate Gregorian version – the New Style – which was Julian plus eleven days. This was duly adopted in Europe, but, as Elizabeth I’s England
had no intention of kow-towing to some foreigner in the Vatican, she stayed on the Julian calendar until 1752. It gets more complicated. Under both Old and New Styles the year started on Lady Day,
25 March, and did not switch to 1 January until 1752 – except in Scotland, which also retained the Julian calendar until 1752 but had switched New Year’s Day to January in 1600, just to
be awkward. A difference of eleven days might not matter very much, but the date on which the year begins does, and, whereas we might describe an event as happening on 20 March 1377, people who
recorded it at the time or before 1752 would date the same event as happening on 9 March 1376.

It is almost impossible to translate medieval prices into their modern-day equivalent, if only because things that were expensive then are not necessarily so now, and vice versa, and occupations
that today would attract a living wage (like commander of an army) might then only receive an allowance towards expenses. Even comparing like with as near as possible like does not help very much.
The medieval English pound sterling was divided into twenty shillings, each shilling into twelve pennies, a system expressed in writing as £sd; this lasted until decimalization in 1971, when
the same pound became 100 (new) pence, so the old shilling equated to five new pence and the penny to 0.416 new pence. We know that in the year 1400 an ounce of gold was equivalent to £0.75,
while if we take the average price of gold for the five years between 2000 and 2004 inclusive, before recession began to skew the market, the same amount of gold would cost £212, giving an
inflation factor of 283 (for the five years between 2006
and 2010 the factor is 722). The same exercise for silver (£0.04 an ounce then, £3.30 now) gives a factor
of 82.5. If we take wages, then a foot archer under Edward III, paid three pence (3d or 1.23p) a day, earned £4.48 per year, whereas today’s equivalent, the infantry private, is paid
£17,500 per year, an inflation factor of 3,906. Admittedly, today’s soldier has to pay for his food and accommodation, but even so the two factors are not in the least comparable. One
more example: a knight banneret of Edward III’s, who acted as a junior officer, was paid four shillings (£0.20) per day, £73.00 per year. A modern lieutenant earns £30,000,
giving an inflation factor of 329. However, this is further complicated by a banneret’s pay being twelve times that of a foot archer, whereas today’s lieutenant gets but 1.7 times that
of a private.

A possibly more helpful comparison could be taken from the tax rolls of 1436, where the tax was levied on all with an income of more than £20 per annum. These show that the average income
of a nobleman (duke, earl or baron) was £865, that of a knight £208, of a lesser knight (possibly one risen by military service) £60, and of an esquire £24.
2
If we translate that into chief executive of a FTSE 100 company, senior fund manager, upper-middle-class professional and white-collar worker, then we might
arrive at an inflation factor of 1,000. Farther down the scale, a ploughman, say, might earn £4 per year in 1436, but this figure is skewed by the effects of the Black Death, which enabled
those skilled labourers who survived to put a much higher price on their services (before 1348, he might only have earned an eighth of that). In conclusion, where I have translated prices into
modern values, I have used the silver standard, as that appears to have been less volatile than any other comparator. But I would accept that it is probably impossible to arrive at any overall
comparison of wages and prices that is more than a very rough approximation.

In the army, any army, it is the commander who gets the acclaim when things go well, although he could not have achieved anything at all without the willing cooperation of his soldiers, the
often unnamed and usually unsung heroes of any war. So it is with writing a book. The author’s task is a relatively easy one, and once he has committed his scribbling to paper or disk, the
real work begins: by the editor, copy-editor, graphics design team, indexer, cartographer and a whole myriad of humpers and dumpers, pushers and pullers, publicists and sales people all working
towards the
common goal of getting the book on the shelf. It is the author who will attend the book-signing, but he could not do it without all those people behind the
scenes, and I am, as always, eternally grateful to them. My wife is also an historian, of the Anglo-Saxon and medieval persuasion, and so far our paths have not crossed: I steeped in blood and
slaughter from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries, she in dynasties, art, society and culture from before the Conquest to Bosworth Field. In this book I have strayed into her territory,
and I am grateful for her constructive comments, which have prevented me from going down divers blind alleys that would have led me to completely irrelevant conclusions. Any remaining errors are of
course entirely mine.

BOOK: A Great and Glorious Adventure
8.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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