London, Boydell Press, 2000, ISBN: 851158048X
University of Durham
Date accessed: 3 October, 2023
It has been fashionable to downplay the importance of battles in medieval military history. 'Most campaigns did not end in battle largely because both commanders were reluctant to risk battle', was John Gillingham's verdict. He pointed out that Henry II never fought a battle, yet had a great military reputation. Richard I fought only one battle in the West, as did his rival Philip Augustus. Wars, in this interpretation, were fought with the intention of devastating territory, and capturing towns and castles, not of risking all in the field of battle. It would be possible to write a history of the many battles that did not happen, when armies faced each other but decided that prudence was the best course of action.
If battles are unpopular, so also is strategy when the concept is applied to the middle ages. In the new Oxford Companion to Military History (ed. R. Holmes, Oxford, 2001), it is suggested that because medieval armies were not permanent in character, and were capable of engaging in sustained combat for no more than a few hours, 'the strategic pursuit or "exploitation" necessary to capitalize on tactical success did not exist.' It would therefore 'be wrong to imagine that anything like "strategic planning" existed before the nineteenth century.'
Clifford Rogers in this study will have none of this. His is a very different approach. The aim of his book is simple. It is 'to re-establish Edward III's military reputation' and to demonstrate that his military strategy was intended to force his enemies to fight him in battle. As befits the subject, this is a combative book. He adopts is a chronological approach, starting with the unsuccessful Weardale campaign of 1327, and concluding with the expedition of 1359-60 to Reims and beyond. Although the historical method is essentially that of narrative, he does not follow Jonathan Sumption's example and provide a full blow-by-blow account of the wars. The Brittany war of the early 1340s, for example, is dismissed in a sentence as 'opportunistic sniping'; attention is primarily given to the Scottish wars of the early part of Edward III's reign, to the strategy of the early years of the Hundred Years War, 1337-40, to the Crécy-Calais campaign of 1346-7, and to the campaigns of 1355-6 and 1359-60. While questions about recruitment and supply are of course fully brought into the discussion, the book does not aim to analyse the logistics of fourteenth-century warfare.
One of the many strengths of the book is the use made of a wide range of chronicle material, and notably of several unprinted works. An unprinted Anglo-Norman Brut, for example, provides a fascinating speech allegedly made at the battle of Dupplin Moor. Throughout, the book is very solidly based on the sources, as the ample footnoting makes very clear. Unfortunately, there is all too little discussion of strategy in the surviving documents. There is nothing from this period similar to the advice on how to conduct a crusade addressed to Edward I, or like that of Pierre Dubois to Philip IV of France. Edward III had no Sir John Fastolf to write a memorandum like that of 1435 on the war. Contemporary letters about the war are of some help, but to a considerable extent it is necessary to deduce the strategy from the events. Did Edward intend from the first to invade Normandy in 1346, rather than relieve the siege of Aiguillon in Gascony? Rogers argues that he did, but while the case is a good one, it cannot be proven beyond doubt. It remains possible that he went to Normandy simply because many delays, in part caused by contrary winds, delayed the expedition so long that the Gascon plan had to be abandoned.
Of course royal propaganda made much of the king's desire for battle. There is a sense in which the challenges exchanged between Edward III and his rival Philip VI amounted to a game of chicken - which king would back down, and fail to engage? Rogers' view, and he is surely right, is that it was the French who were reluctant to fight. That was certainly the case in 1339 near Buironfosse. Philip VI of France had far more to lose than Edward, and it was a big risk to attack an army drawn up in a well-prepared position. Again, outside Calais in 1347, it made little sense for Philip to attack the English. The technique of besieging a town so as to compel opponents to risk battle in order to relieve it had worked at Berwick in 1333, but did not serve Edward III well subsequently.
Rogers' case is easier to make for some campaigns than for others. Not all of Edward's campaigns were battle-seeking. The infamous 'Burnt Candlemas', with the savage destruction of Lothian early in 1356, was intended to punish the Scots, rather than to bring them to battle. In Normandy in the same year, Henry of Lancaster avoided battle with the French, when he was at a severe disadvantage of numbers. Crucial to the argument, however, is the Black Prince's campaign that culminated in his victory at Poitiers. The traditional view is that the Prince was outmanoeuvred by the French as he was retreating towards Gascony, and forced to turn and fight. Rogers has to admit that the sources for this campaign are 'mutually contradictory'. His view is that the Black Prince was prepared to fight if he had to, and that the conventional analysis is not justified. In the negotiations before the battle the Prince was apparently prepared to accept humiliating terms: a massive indemnity to be paid, return of all prisoners, and a promise not to campaign against the French king for seven years. Rogers emphasises, however, the qualification that the agreement was to be subject to the English king's agreement, and further points out that it was not through fear of battle that the English offered terms. What they did not want was to be starved out by the French. The case is well argued. The Chandos herald is the one source to suggest that the Prince would have avoided battle if he could; the majority of chronicles are clear that he was eager to fight.
The diplomatic background to the campaign of 1359-60 is carefully analysed. French rejection of the second treaty of London gave Edward III no option other than to fight. The expedition itself had the siege and capture of the city of Reims as its immediate aim, but when the English army approached Paris in the spring of 1360, it is again clear that Edward III intended to draw the French into battle, forming up his army and sending heralds to invite them to fight. The ploy, however, failed on this occasion, for the French had too much to lose. For them, a battle-avoiding strategy was what made sense, particularly at this stage of the war.
One possible difficulty with the thesis that the English strategy was battle-seeking is, of course, that their tactics did not articulate well with this. Their well-proven and effective method of fighting relied on the strength of dismounted troops formed up in a well-established defensive position. Any enemy, Scots or French, would have to be goaded into attack, or deluded into thinking that they had an advantage. Edward III and his commanders could not fight whenever they chose. This does not contradict the central argument of the book; it helps, however, to explain why there were not more battles, when battle was what the English sought.
There are, of course, detailed points on which it is possible to disagree with Professor Rogers. To take one minor one, he asserts that on the Stanhope campaign the Scots position when the English attempted to engage them in battle was on the north bank of the river Wear. That seems unlikely. If Jean le Bel, who was an eyewitness, was correct in saying that the English marched towards the south from Blanchland to engage the Scots, and found a river between them and their enemy, the Scots were surely on the south bank. The evidence of John Barbour, who wrote his book on Robert Bruce very much later, is surely far less reliable than that of Le Bel.
Professor Rogers has written an impressive and lively study, properly based on a close reading of the sources. The footnotes alone are full of riches. It remains to be seen how far his analysis will affect interpretations of other periods, but it should certainly help to make historians rethink some of the established assumptions about the nature of medieval warfare. Strategic planning was not a nineteenth-century invention.
I thank Professor Prestwich for his generous remarks on my book, which are all the more appreciated because of the stature of the reviewer. Readers of his review who have not also read my book, however, might infer that there is more disagreement between him and myself than is actually the case. Professor Prestwich is correct that my basic thesis is that Edward III never pursued a battle-avoiding strategy (with the possible exception of 1343 in Brittany, which I do not cover), but rather almost invariably sought battle, provided he could fight it on his own terms. It is also true that that a case for this thesis "is easier to make for some campaigns than others," but it should be understood that I have not tried to argue that Edward III during the Burnt Candlemas campaign was actively aiming for a battle with the enemy, in the way that he was in 1333, 1339, 1340, 1346, 1347, 1355, and 1359-60. As I say on p. 338, "his strategy in 1356 was to use the opportunity presented by the aggression against Berwick to take a great army into Scotland, so that he could 'apply pressure directly to the Scottish commons and magnates', who otherwise had little motive to support the peace arrangements agreed between the two kings [Edward III and David II]." (Emphasis added.) On the other hand, I'm sure Professor Prestwich would agree that King Edward was certainly not avoiding battle with the Scots that year, and indeed would have been overjoyed had his elusive foes chosen to make an open stand against him. Likewise, I am essentially in agreement with Professor Prestwich - in substance if perhaps not in nuance - concerning Lancaster's Normandy chevauchée of 1356: I write that the duke was "prepared to fight, even outnumbered, 'if necessary', but for him a major battle was rather an 'impediment' to his task than an overriding goal in itself." (p. 342, emphasis added).
Since there is little or nothing of importance with which I disagree in Professor Prestwich's review, let me turn to the one minor point on which we are in dispute. The issue of the position of the Scottish army during the Weardale episode is an interesting one. As with very many other points of military detail from this period, there is a wide divergence of scholarly opinion the subject. Everyone agrees that when the English host first encountered the raiders' army near Stanhope, the two forces were separated by the river Wear. It is also agreed that after a few days in those positions, the Scots shifted to a new position within Stanhope Park, and the English followed them and again encamped on the far side of the river from their enemies. There the disagreements begin. C. McNamee and R. A. Nicholson locate the Scots on the south bank. Professor G. W. S. Barrow has the first Scottish position on the south bank, but recognises that their second position was on the north bank. Barbour's various editors (most recently A. A. M. Duncan) support or lean towards the view that the Scots were on the north side of the river the whole time.
The main argument for the first-mentioned conclusion is the one that Professor Prestwich gives: it is clear from Jean le Bel and other sources that the English were marching generally southwards from Haltwhistle on the three days before meeting the Scots. Since they were marching south, and no mention is made of crossing the Wear before they found the Scots on its opposite bank, le Bel's narrative has been taken to imply that the Scots initially occupied the south side of the river. This implication is further strengthened by the statement of the Chronicon de Lanercost that in order to reach Scotland after sneaking out of the park, the Scots had to go around the English army.
There are, however, three problems with this argument. First, John Barbour's Bruce is explicit that the initial Scottish position lay "on north halff Wer towart Scotland." Second, Thomas Gray's Scalacronica describes the same position as "nearby alongside" ('prestes iouste') Stanhope, not "across from" the hamlet, which is on the north side of the Wear. Third, it is agreed that the second Scottish position was within the confines of Stanhope Park. Stanhope Park was located along the northern bank of the Wear, with its entrances at Westgate and Eastgate (which take their names from that fact). If the initial Scottish position was on the south bank, then in their shift of position to the park they would have had to have crossed the river (as Barrow concludes they did), and the English would have to have done the same: yet there is no hint in the sources that either army did so.
Thus, even if we leave aside the perhaps overly precise reading of the Scalacronica, we are left with a disagreement between two explicit sources (Barbour and Lanercost), and two conflicting hypotheses concerning a difference of omission: either the sources neglected to mention that the English crossed the Wear before encountering the Scots, or they neglected to mention the English and Scots crossing the Wear during the repositioning of 2-3 August.
Although the Chronicon de Lanercost was written well before Barbour's Bruce, or even Jean le Bel's chronicle, that does not mean it should automatically be preferred. Barbour's account is far more detailed, clearly having been based on the (probably written) narrative of a participant. Insofar as it can be checked it is very accurate, containing no errors comparable to le Bel's conflation of the Eden and the Tyne, or his confusion between "William" and James Douglas. If we did not know that Stanhope Park was on the north bank of the Wear, it would be difficult to decide which source to accept, though I would lean towards Barbour. But that brings us back to the issue of the "silent" crossing of the Wear. Surely it is very unlikely that the Scots or the English would make a night crossing of the Wear while within striking distance of the enemy, and equally unlikely that the sources on both sides would fail to mention such a dramatic episode if it had taken place. It is much easier to believe that le Bel simply neglected to report that, on their journey from the Tyne, the English crossed the Wear before turning east towards Stanhope. Hence, I conclude that the Scots were on the "north halff Wer" next to Stanhope when they first encountered the English, as well as later when they occupied Stanhope Park.
I deal with this point so elaborately in this reply because it so well illustrates the difficulty of the sources which have to be reconciled to create a good narrative of fourteenth-century campaigns-- but also the possibility of doing so. That is why my footnotes (which some historians may perhaps find excessive) are so extensive: apparently in this case they were, even so, not sufficient to head off dispute over the facts.