Saturday 25 January 2014

Wheedling And Pathetic

Longbow arrows - the Kalashnikov of mediaeval Europe

I've just finished reading Dan Jones' The Plantagenets in an effort to consolidate my knowledge of mediaeval history.

Much is familiar but it is enjoyable to trip through this series of kings (oh, and the Empress Matilda of course) most of them a bit thick frankly but alternately brutishly effective or wheedling and pathetic.

It is however painful to re-rehearse the Welsh campaigns of the all too brutishly effective Edward I. By chance I was in N Wales as I read about the English army's push west down the A55 and Llywelyn ap Gruffydd's escape down the A470 - only to be spotted and killed at Builth (perhaps he was fatally held up by farmers crawling along the road as I always seem to be? Though I only lose the will to live rather than life itself).

Familiar stuff but still moving considering they had held out against Saxon and then Norman invasion for nearly a thousand years since the Romans left believing the cause of protecting Romano-British (ie Welsh) civilisation was lost!

For the record the main other "hold-outs" against the barbarian hordes were the Hen Ogledd (in the north of what is now England) until about 730 AD and Dumnonia (now S West England) until about 930 AD though the Cornish tip survived after a fashion until the Norman Conquest.

The surprising survival of Welsh sovereignty almost to the 14th century has always been put down to geography but the history of the Plantagenet kings of England, both before and after 1282, suggests to me something else possibly more significant...

It is clear that throughout this long period the survival and success of England - I mean the English state - relied on two things.

First (and this is well known) wool: the huge economic benefit of trade in wool (everything else was just subsistence) bankrolled everything the English did - fighting the French to hold onto their territories down the west of France, fighting the Scots, fighting the Welsh, fighting Muslims while on Crusade, and fighting each other in routine civil war (when the kings fell into the wheedling and pathetic category and the barons got fed up).

The other thing the English relied on was... Welsh mercenaries.

On almost every page of this book you see the evidence that whenever the English contemplated fighting anybody their first instinct was to use the wool money to hire Welsh mercenaries (at very high cost - the Welsh bowmen at Agincourt earned the equivalent of £1,000 a day). Evidently it was understood that you weren't going to get far without these specialist, crack troops.

So the Welsh mercenaries crop up over and over again fighting for the English against the French, Scots, and on behalf of the English king against the barons (and vice versa and at the same time). Incidentally "English" armies marching against the Scots had to proceed carefully as they found that the Welsh would start fighting their English allies and employers at the drop of a hat.

Like many self-employed, highly-skilled specialists the Welsh could not always be relied on for punctuality - both Edward II and Richard II (both of them in the wheedling and pathetic category) lost their crowns and their lives because their Welsh "contractors" failed to turn up on time.

So no wonder the Welsh held out so long, and no wonder the last Princes of Gwynedd did not come to terms (or pretended to and then broke their word contemptuously) - they knew that no English army could hope to conquer them.

But, I hear you say, that is exactly what happened? But in fact there were more Welshmen fighting on the English side than on Llywelyn's. As I say, if you wanted an effective army, you had to hire the Welsh - Edward had learnt the hard way but he did learn).

The modern equivalent would be Chechnya, a tiny country which thought nothing of fighting the entire Russian military machine in 1996 - and won. But the Russians swallowed their pride, recruited Chechen mercenaries, and came back and overwhelmed them.

Lightly-armed Chechen rebels who destroyed 2,000 Russian tanks while successfully freeing their country in 1996. They have been deserted by the West since 9/11 after which these heroic freedom-fighters were unjustly "reclassified" as terrorists