Category Archives: Medieval Warfare

Left Hand of God and Agincourt – not sure about this one?

SPOILER ALERT:

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You’ll need to have read Paul Hoffman’s Left Hand of God to appreciate this, so that’s why I’ve flagged this up as potentially a spoiler.

If you’ve read the book you’ll know that nest the end of the book there is a big battle between the Materazzi and the Redeemers. What I found unusual about this is that the battle pretty much exactly mirrors the historical battle of Agincourt of 1415. So the redeemers are the English, lots of archers, smaller numbers, and the Materazzi are the heavily armoured and over confident French. The battlefield is a narrow muddy field flanked by woods, the Redeemers use stakes to protect themselves from the Materazzi, etc etc. The only detail I think that is different is that there’s no equivalent of the French attack on the English camp that prompted the English execution of prisoners.

20110909-132439.jpgAs a description of Agincourt it’s all very good. But for me it doesn’t feel quite right in a fantasy novel. I enjoy the way that Hoffman plays with historical events in this book, so we have a pseudo Christian religion, we have a sort of WW2 eastern front allusions, we have place names such as York, Memphis, and Norway used, but not in their historical and geographical contexts. All well and good and nicely thought provoking, but somehow the dumping of Agincourt into the book didn’t work for me.

What do you think?

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Medieval Military Disasters: Frederick II’s Great Defeat at the Siege and Battle of Parma, 1247-1248

Siege and Battle of Parma, 1247-1248

Frederick II Hohenstaufen is famous for defying the Papacy and trying to create a unified Holy Roman Empire based on his Kingdom of Sicily. However, the infighting between the different factions in Italy and the antipathy and opposition of the papacy made this aim all but impossible. The Siege of Palma, which together with Milan was one of the most hostile cities opposing Frederick II, marked a turning point in the war, from which the Emperor would never recover.

The source for this information is Medieval Warfare by Hans Delbruck.Federico_II_Parma

According to the Annals of Parma Frederick II had an army of 10,000 men at this battle.

Frederick set up his fortified camp opposite the smaller part of the city of Parma on the left bank of the Torrente Parma. The camp was famously called Vittoria. From here Frederick’s forces could lay waste to the area around Parma and seek to prevent reinforcements. Frederick’s likely strategy would have been to starve Parma into submission.

The city not surrounded. To cut off the city completely would have required forts of circumference of five miles with approx 40,000 men needed to guard them. Even if forts had been placed at points around the city it is likely that a force larger than the one Frederick had available would have been required. The English chronicler Matthew Paris states, however, that there were a number of castles around the city, bearing the name Vittoria, so maybe Frederick did engage in this strategy.

Unfortunately I have been unable to find any historical or archaeological sources that describe the possible location of Frederick’s camp. Looking at modern maps of Parma it would appear that the terrain around Parma apart from the river that cuts through it was fairly level undulating hills, so it is unlikely that any particular geographical features played a large party in the position of his camp or the battle.

It seems that the siege was not being particularly successful as Parma had significant forces available. For instance the Mantuans brought assistance via the river Po to the north. However, Matthew Paris in his chronicle does related that the Parmese were suffering and that they even asked Frederick for peace, an offer that he rejected, warning them that they must use there corn sparingly as he would not give them any more while he lived.

In the winter of 1247-1248 Frederick released the contingents from Bergamo, Pavia, Tortona and Allesandria and detached some of his troops to Treviso and Allesandria.

The forces Remaining were 1,100 horse and 2000 foot from Cremona, and Saracen archers. With a total of maybe 5000.

When the Parmese sallied out on 18 February 1248 Frederick was hunting with probably around 500 horsemen. The Parmese intended to move up the Po against Frederick’s son Enzo. Half of their forces did so and the other half became embroiled in an unintended battle with the Imperial forces. Again Matthew Paris is at odds with this version of events, he claims that the Parmese knew Frederick was absent, and that they planned the attack at this time to move against his camp. One expects that this could be true as surely they would be able to see Frederick leave with his large hunting party.

The Imperial forces lost and the Parmese entered the camp of Vittoria. Parmese claimed 1500 Imperials killed and 3000 captured. The Placentine annals say only 100 knights and 1500 foot soldiers were killed or captured however. One of the dead was Frederick’s minister Thaddeus de Suessa. Frederick also lost his treasury and other items of his baggage.

Could Frederick have succeeded in starving Parma if he had not suffered the ill-luck of being absent when the Parmese sallied? The Parmese did not know of his absence and Frederick’s forces engaged without any real orders apparently. If Frederick was there it is quite probable that defeat would not have occurred and that the siege would have been maintained.

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A Song of Ice and Fire and Medieval Warfare

Depiction of a late 13th century joust in the ...
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Although George R. R. Martin‘s A Song of Ice and Fire series are fantasy fiction, and therefore anything goes, there is no denying that it is set within a fairly strong medieval setting. The Knights, titled Ser rather Sir, ride warhorses, joust with lances, feast in castle halls etc. I think one of the strengths of the series is the setting which gets close to the feel of medieval warfare and chivalry but introduces some interesting fantasy elements as well.

However, there are a couple of things that have niggled me while reading A Clash of Kings this week. Both are two do with the practicalities of warfare:

  1. Cloaks! The city watch of King’s Landing are called the gold cloaks and the queen’s guard are the red cloaks, king’s guard are the white cloaks and then there’s the black cloaks of the Night’s Watch. This doesn’t work for me. When have you ever seen medieval knights (in pictures from the Middle Ages, not modern day films) running and riding around with cloaks on. Think about it for a second if you were fight with shield, lance, sword, warhammer or whatever, the last thing you need is a cloak getting in the way. Maybe on the march these would be worn, but they would hardly be the main motif. More probable would be a badge, like the livery badges worn by soldiers to denote their affinity in the middle ages. Famously Richard II’s men had a white hart badge for example, while John of Gaunt’s men wore a double SS badge which could be on their sleeve, chest or collar even. A surcoat over an armoured coat would also be quite common and might give a more prominent single-colour effect.
  2. Siege Engines! Renly Baratheon has a massive army that he is taking north to besiege King’s Landing (probably impossibly large by the way at about 100,000 men, but that’s another matter). And along with his army he bringing a whole load of siege engines including a huge siege tower. If you were marching anywhere along roads that probably weren’t going to be the best would you build your siege engines first and then take them with you? What would probably happen is that siege engines would be built when the siege happened. Either from locally sourced materials (very eco-friendly) or very possibly from pieces the army transported in wagons. Imagine getting a large siege tower to fit down a tree lined lane somewhere in the countryside or through a town with buildings leaning over into the road. There is evidence that favoured siege engines like the trebuchet that Prince Louis brought from France to besiege Dover Castle, were transported. But I think it is very likely that it would be brought in pieces and then put together at its destination. I know Renly’s supposed to be a bit dim, but that dim?

To me these are partly historical errors (which could be excused because it’s not historical fiction), but also logical errors. Cloaks in combat don’t work so why call your elite fighting unit by that epithet, and massive siege engines are just going to be very difficult to transport fully constructed.

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The Longbow – A Classic Medieval Myth

Battle of Crécy between the English and French...
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If you have read any of my previous posts about Agincourt you’ll know that I’m slightly cynical about the overwhelming effect of the longbow commonly attributed by historians and novelists.

The famous longbow, at 6 foot in length required great strength and skill to draw and use properly and is usually seen as the weapon of choice for English archers throughout the hundred years war from 1337 to 1453. According to historical myth it was responsible for the destruction of French armies at Crecy, Poitiers, Agincourt and a host of smaller battles.

Because of the bow’s fast rate of fire and stopping power it could prove hazardous to even armoured knights and in certain battles no doubt it did some damage. But it really was the case that the reason for the English victories was down to:

a) Bad French leadership and disorganization on each occasion.

b) Well drilled combined arms strategy from the English – although outnumbered there is evidence that the English wanted the French to fight them as they knew they could defeat them.

c) The professional and battle-hardened troops of the English army – troops in the early years had gained experience from wars in Scotland, and retinues were raised on the basis of pay rather than as a feudal array.

The archers were an important factor and together with well armed infantry men-at-arms they could defeat the French.

But wasn’t the longbow an amazingly powerful weapon. Yes, but…

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Mary Rose