Saturday, 8 September 2012

What Really Happened in Ancient and Medieval Battles?

Will Whyler commented on this in the Guardroom pages of Slingshot in March 2012. Even the best documented battles have gaping holes in our understanding. For example the classic book, the Battles of St Albans by Burley, Elliott and Watson is a marvellous detailed account of the first battle of the Wars of the Roses in 1455. Taking just the first battle of St Albans, they have a wonderfully detailed account of what happened and where. By some fine battlefield detective work they have documented where each of the three assaults were launched against the gates/ walls of the town, where the last stand was etc. However, the why is less certain.

In summary, Salisbury and York attacked at the wall at two points against Clifford and Somerset/ Northumberland and while this was happening Warwick broke through at a less well defended part of the wall. What is the subject of conjecture is was this by chance or was it the plan. Did the attackers cunningly attack at two points to draw the less numerous defenders to face them, or was it just improvisation by Warwick. He saw a gap in the defences and went for it?

Having got across the wall Warwick did not turn left or right to take the defenders in the flank (which would have been the most obvious tactical move), but made straight for the defenders reserve around the king. Seizing the king effectively ended the battle. How did Warwick know the king was in the marketplace, as the pre-battle negotiations took place at the nearby abbey?

Even using the pioneering methodology of SLA Marshall, we do not understand more recent battles. Marshall, while controversial, attempted to understand battles by interviewing combatants as soon as possible after WWII, Korean and Vietnam battles. Other pioneering work by Paddy Griffith has opened a new window on 19th century battles; his method was analysing similarities in large numbers of personal accounts of battles.

Despite the best efforts of many wargamers who have spent years as amateur historians examining battles from the distant past, to me, the why in battles of the ancient and medieval world is nearly always conjecture.


  1. My guess would be that Warwick thought where would be the King be,if I were the King I'd be, and acted accordingly.

    1. Interesting point. The king was in the market square, a good place to form up as it has space to get organised. It would also have been easy to find for the runners (messengers) from Clifford and Somerset. I also wonder if the top of the church tower next to square could have allowed someone to see the enemy forces camped outside of the town.