Welsh Soldiers in the Later Middle Ages
Suffolk, Boydell and Brewer, 2015, ISBN: 9781783270316; 270pp.; Price: £60.00
Date accessed: 7 June, 2023
Who was the Welsh soldier of the late Middle Ages? What was the world from which he emerged, and for whom, and against whom, did he fight? Can it be claimed that he made a significant contribution to the way wars were fought during this period? Questions such as these are raised, discussed and answered in Adam Chapman’s new study, the latest in Boydell’s ‘Warfare in History’ monographs, which deals with the contribution of Welshmen to the armies of English kings from the conquest of Gwynedd by the forces of Edward I to the death of Henry V, almost a century and a half later.
Following an important and useful introduction, the study, which comprises eight chapters and an extended conclusion, is divided into two parts. Chapters one to five allow the reader to follow the varied fortunes of the Welsh soldier, from the reign of Edward I, through that of his son (referred to here as Edward of Caernarfon), to that of his grandson, the third Edward, as far as 1360. Major changes in organisation, tactics and personnel which occurred at about that time show how Welsh military society began to react to these changes which, it is convincingly argued, were to have an influence on both the outbreak and the outcome of Owain Glyndwr’s revolt against English rule in the early years of the 15th century. The second section (chapters six to eight) may, broadly speaking, be described as a study of the genre ‘war and society’. The chronological approach is largely abandoned in favour of a broader analytical consideration of how the military ambitions of England’s kings affected Welsh society. An important theme is the recognition and pinpointing of survivals from the past, in contrast to innovations introduced by the English. That certain old (feudal) obligations, such as castle guard, survived longer in Wales than in England is evident. At the same time a new military infrastructure was gradually introduced into the March, so that it can be claimed that English practices existed alongside, or in conjunction with, native institutions. The rate of change was not uniform throughout Wales. The case is argued that developments in the basis of military obligation are best understood if related to changes in military practice being introduced in England at the time, these constituting a powerful influence upon those occurring in Wales. Equally important is the author’s argument that they were part of the process of militarisation which preceded the Glyndwr revolt and, indeed, may have made it possible. That Henry V benefited from his ability to employ Welshmen familiar with English military organisation in his conflict with France can scarcely be doubted.
The century and a half or so which separated the settlement imposed by Edward I upon Wales in 1284 and the end of the reign of Henry V in 1422 witnessed the rise and then, from about the mid-14th century onwards, the all too evident decline in the number of Welshmen ready to fight in the armies of a succession of English kings. Most of those who served in this way were foot soldiers drawn from the pool of manpower made available to the English as a result of the conquest of Gwynedd, an area of limited arable production and dependent largely upon a low-employment pastoral economy, whose inhabitants will have been glad of the opportunity to serve in royal armies. Without his Welsh resources, the size of the armies which the king could assemble would have been greatly reduced. Under Edward II Welsh soldiers increased in numbers, in spite of their reputation as 'wild men from the woodlands ... always ready for plunder', as the author of the Vita Edwardi Secundi chose to describe them. Yet this king's reliance upon them is underlined by the fact that Welshmen numbered almost one third of the foot soldiers in the army led by Edward II against the Scots in 1322, taking almost half the money paid out in wages! The Welsh were the best – and best-led – soldiers in the large royal army of the day. Loyal to the crown, from that time on they provided strong support for the king as he strove to maintain his increasingly precarious hold upon the throne. It is useful to recall that it was to Wales that the king fled in the last days of his reign.
Yet, by the middle years of the 14th century, the hitherto 'indispensable' service rendered by Welsh foot soldiers to English armies was in decline. Several significant changes were leading to this development. English armies engaged in warfare in France were becoming smaller; causing fewer Welsh soldiers to be employed by the crown. Furthermore, with the fall in demand for soldiers, Welsh forces were now increasingly recruited by individual leaders rather than through the all-embracing system of commissions of array involving whole communities, a system which had encouraged the recruitment of large forces without assurance that individuals possessed adequate military skills. The ‘new’ system meant that soldiers could be hand-picked for their individual skills and experience of war. This change in the method of recruitment happened at the moment when the importance of the mounted archer was becoming apparent. While Welsh spearmen ('Galoys ove lour lances') were used to protect the flanks of the army's archers, men-at-arms and archers now came to be recruited in broadly comparable numbers. The cause for such a change lay in the greatly increased use of the raid (chevauchée) carried out by mounted soldiers, a tactic which required a highly mobile force and, consequently, the increased employment of such forces. The demand for the services of the slow-moving foot soldier was in inevitable decline. From now on, he would be part of the 'mixed retinue', combining archers and men-at-arms, which was becoming the norm. Wales had to struggle to keep up with these developments: mounted men-at-arms were more expensive to recruit, train and equip, so large-scale Welsh participation in English armies gradually declined. The force led by Lionel of Antwerp into Ireland in 1361 included two kinds of archers: the English (mostly mounted) and the Welsh from Marcher lands (mainly on foot).
A further outcome of these developments was that the influence of the uchelwyr, the ‘high men’ who were Wales’ traditional leaders, began to grow as they took on more responsibilities in England's continental wars. As this squirearchy came increasingly into contact with the English military community, so the manner of raising troops by indenture was extended, in keeping with the decline in the size of the king’s army. This might give men a certain choice under whom they would serve, a choice denied to those recruited under the traditional system of commissions of array. Once again, Lionel of Antwerp's expedition into Ireland provides the evidence: most of his army was raised by indenture, although commissions of array were used as a back-up system, to recruit extra archers. English influence over the manner in which forces were raised, to the advantage of the squirearchy was beginning to tell.
What was learnt from the English would soon be turned against them. For example, the practical backing given to Owain Lawgoch in support of his claim to the title of Prince of Wales reflected the development of military society in Wales in the second half of the 14th century. This was further seen in the involvement of Welshmen in Owain Glyndwr’s rebellion in its early stages some three decades later. This, however, was not to be the rising of a nation against a foreign oppressor, and before too long self-interest came to dictate the way that most Welshmen were to react by joining the force which would finally cause the rebellion to peter out. None the less, the author insists that the period of rebellion led to a marked remilitarisation of the shires and the March of Wales.
Welshmen and Welsh money supported English expeditions into France in the late years of Henry IV’s reign. Under the rule of Henry V, a policy of conciliation towards Welshmen who had rebelled not long before enabled the king to offer the opportunity of military service in the English army as the symbol of a rebel’s restoration to royal favour. Many Welshmen chose to accept this way forward, but it is unlikely that more than about 400 or so, made up of men who had only recently fought both for and against the English crown, contributed to the French defeat at Agincourt in 1415, the event leaving no mark on Welsh tradition.
How willing were Welshmen to serve under English (-speaking) leaders? Did they prefer to be led by men of their own land and language? There is evidence of Welshmen commanding levies fighting in Flanders early in the reign of Edward III. However, in 1345 the deputy justiciar of North Wales alleged that if it were decided that Welsh should be led by Welsh, then those leaders should be men ‘who hold by franchise of barony … and not by people of lesser estate’. However, it is likely that patronage and experience, rather than social standing, lay behind demands made by the soldiery that certain men should exercise command over them. Provided that these had the approval of the king, then their authority would be accepted. Yet the day-to-day problems caused by the existence of two languages in common usage must have sometimes created practical difficulties. References to the provision of interpreters suggest that the integration of Welshmen into a predominantly English-speaking army could present its own problems. How were orders conveyed, or messages transmitted? At Agincourt the Welsh contingent had its own chaplain, William Waldebesse, from Breconshire, who may have acted as interpreter within the group. The task of unifying a disparate body of men could be eased through the successful efforts of interpreters, paid at twice the rate of the ordinary soldier, whose task was, in a real sense, to facilitate communication, maintain unity and, ultimately, help towards the creation of order and discipline within the army.
The author his cast his net wide in search of sources. Gone are the days when the story might be told from a consideration of the records of central government alone. Following the lead of others, notably A. D. Carr, Chapman has made excellent use of contemporary ‘praise poetry’, work specifically composed to underline the military achievements of the uchelwyr. The verses of such as Dafydd ap Gwilym adopted and encouraged a positive attitude towards military activity, and thus served to underpin the development of the social importance of the uchelwyr. In addition, the book’s importance is increased by the fact that many of its findings can be placed in the ever-extending field of study of late medieval war in both England and in Europe. So the researches of English-speaking scholars such as Michael Prestwich, Clifford Rogers, James Sherborne and Anne Curry are taken into account, and the book’s main themes are considered within the constantly developing study of war, of armies and of those who fought in them in the late Middle Ages.
A single regret remains, namely that the story was not extended to 1450 (or 1453). This would have allowed consideration of the Welsh presence in Lancastrian armies which fought to conquer, and then defend, English rule in Normandy and beyond during the reign of Henry VI, thus rounding off Welsh involvement in France which had begun under Edward III. Several Welshmen were to hold captaincies in key French towns and castles during these years, attracting fellow-Welshmen into their service. In May 1429, for example, the captain of Falaise, Thomas Gower, commanded a garrison which included a high proportion of Welsh names, while some years later Gruffydd Dwnn, captain of Tancarville, had charge of a large garrison, more than half of whose members bore Welsh names. Others bearing the name of Dwnn appear in other French records at this time. Settlers may be a better way of describing their status in that country.
This study, which has benefited from the exercise of a number of its author’s different but complementary skills, began life as a PhD thesis. In one important respect this has worked in the author’s favour; the book is well presented and clearly written and argued, while its ‘conclusions’ serve to remind the reader where s/he is (or ought to be!) as the evidence is revealed and the conclusions are drawn. The author argues that some of the claims made over a century ago by J. E. Morris (1) notably on the matter of Welsh influence on tactics, go too far. Was the longbow of Welsh origin as popular tradition would have it? The evidence is scanty and unreliable, which supports a negative verdict. Yet for Englishmen to have Welshmen fighting on the English side (against the Scots or the French, for example) was more than simply ‘useful’ or ‘welcome’. Their absence could be the cause of regret on the part of those who wished they had been there to fight alongside them.
Although specifically a contribution to both the social and the military history of late medieval Wales (and much to be welcomed as that), the importance of this study transcends the geographical limits implied in its title, a point which a more ‘inclusive’ index, with more space given to ‘subjects’, would have underlined. None the less readers with a wide interest in what the history of war can mean will find much of value and interest in these pages.
- J. E. Morris, The Welsh Wars of Edward I (1901).Back to (1)
I am pleased that the reviewer (Dr Allmand) found much of use and interest in my book and has expressed that in a welcome and complementary review and I thank him for it.
The reviewer is right to express some regret that the book was not able to explore the careers of Welshmen in Lancastrian Normandy between c.1420 and up until 1453. There is a degree to which I share it. There are several reasons for this omission, however, primarily the scale of the task. This reflects the variety and quality of the available sources. Resources – both archival and, especially, literary – are especially rich and deserve a full length study in their own right. The ongoing work of the University of Wales’s project examining the career and works of the 15th-century soldier and poet, Guto’r Glyn, an extension of the Beirdd yr Uchelwyr/Poets of the Nobility project goes some way towards addressing the cultural context of those who fought in these wars.(1) There is much more that could be done, however, but a fuller account of the historical and political context in which this poetry was produced would have doubled the length of the book!
Secondly, the wars in France that followed the death of Henry V had a rather different character so far as the Welsh were concerned. What is evident in these sources is the extent to which the wars in France were both a military training ground and financial foundation for the decades of the Wars of the Roses that followed. Most notable of these, of course, were William ap Thomas of Raglan and his son, William, lord Herbert (cr. Earl of Pembroke 1468, d. 1469). They were, however, the most prominent tip of the wave and the role of the Welsh squireachy is an important area of enquiry that I have written about elsewhere.(1) The wars in France were, I believe, essential to understanding the way in which Wales experienced the second half of the 15th century. This period and beyond, of course, was described by H. T. Evans in his Wales and the Wars of the Roses.(3) Such are the continuities between the wars in France and the Wars of the Roses that this is a theme that I would like to pursue in the future.
- Guto’r Glyn project <http://www.gutorglyn.net/gutorglyn/index/> [accessed 1 February 2016]; Poets of the nobility <http://www.wales.ac.uk/en/CentreforAdvancedWelshCelticStudies/Publications/Project3/SeriesProject3.aspx> [accessed 1 February 2016].Back to (1)
- A. Chapman, '”He took me to the duke of York” : Henry Griffith, a “Man of War” in Gwalch Cywyddau Gwŷr' : Ysgrifau ar Guto'r Glyn a Chymru'r Bymthegfed Ganrif = Essays on Guto'r Glyn and Fifteenth-Century Wales, golygwyd gan = edited by Dylan Foster Evans, Barry J. Lewis, Ann Parry Owen (Aberystwyth, 2013).Back to (2)
- H. T. Evans, Wales and the Wars of the Roses (1915, repub. 1992).Back to (3)