Welsh Soldiers in the Later Middle Ages 1282-1422
(Boydell, 2015) 264pp. $95
From the time of William Shakespeare onwards, the English armies of the Hundred Years War have generated many legends and half-truths (particularly relating to the periods when the English were winning). One tenacious example concerns the role of Welshmen in these armies. In this telling, the Welsh were very early adopters of the classic longbow and exercised a deep influence on the development of the archery- focused armies of Edward III and the Black Prince. In the battles against the French the stout yeomen of old England stood shoulder to shoulder with their Welsh peers, culminating in Henry V’s triumph at Agincourt. Shakespeare’s vainglorious Captain Fluellen served as a reminder of this substantial Welsh role in the battle.
Adam Chapman undertakes a long overdue deconstruction of this particular set of myths. Examining the years between the final English conquest of Wales and the death of Henry V, he finds a distinctly different pattern of Welsh military activity. While Wales was undoubtedly a major- indeed disproportionately large- contributor to the Scottish campaigns of Edward I and II, this contribution came as much in the form of large numbers of infantry spearmen as in foot archers. Edward III in turn tended to look to Wales for infantry and there was little sense that Welshmen were in any way pre-eminent for archery skills; if anything the scanty chronicle references to Welsh soldiers suggest a swarm of ill-armed auxiliaries more useful as pillagers than on the battlefield. The move towards contract armies after 1360 appears to coincide with (and, Chapman suggests, triggered) a steep decline in Welsh military participation. With a few conspicuous exceptions, the native Welsh aristocracy were downwardly socially mobile and lacked the resources to raise companies to serve on their own account. Whether due to limited resources or a cultural preference for infantry service, relatively few Welshmen took to the role of mounted archer central to the fast-moving English forces engaged in devastating raids across France. While Richard II did exploit his Welsh lands for military resources, there was no Welsh equivalent of his notorious corps of Cheshire archers.
On Chapman’s showing, it took the rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr (himself a soldier with considerable experience in English armies) to “remilitarise” Welsh society. To a large degree the process of containing and defeating the rebellion was left in the hands of local elites and officeholders with only limited support from the resources of the English crown. In the long run those who had fought on the losing side were often able to work their passage back into royal favour by undertaking military service; many of the Welsh on the field at Agincourt (a smaller group than legend suggested) or engaged in Henry V’s subsequent French campaigns were probably former Glyndŵr supporters.
Chapman puts a striking new perspective on an apparently familiar landscape. His Welsh focus underlines the degree to which the fraught politics of the reigns of both Edward II and Richard II were driven by tensions over landholding in Wales and the Marches and fought to a finish there. Edward II in particular appears to have inspired genuine local support in his role as Prince of Wales and been able to raise substantial forces in Wales for his domestic struggles as well as his Scottish wars- though Chapman is perhaps a shade generous in his estimation of military qualities of the units levied there. His suggestion that Welsh military participation declined sharply in the last third of the fourteenth century is intriguing (and goes somewhat against the trend of developments in England at the same time). On one level this sounds plausible, especially as Chapman shows that by the 1340’s large numbers of Welshmen were being levied and marched all the way across England only for most of them to be sent home without taking ship for France. A more selective approach to recruitment in the context of armies based on indentured professional service would clearly have left the majority of these men at home (and the process of being repeatedly called up and then overlooked for service can hardly have inspired much enthusiasm for the military life). Some niggling doubts remain, however. One does not envy Chapman having to play the game of “spot the Welshman” when looking at indentures and it is possible that some Welsh may have seen service in units assembled by men without close links to the Principality. His conclusion also seems to rather run against one of his own sources, Welsh bardic praise poetry, which glorifies military service by local elites- however hard to date many poems are. There was also the Welsh company operating in French service in the 1370’s under Owain Lawgoch, conventionally assumed to have drawn heavily on deserters from the English ranks. Chapman manages to trace some individual careers which confirm this cliche, suggesting that the Welsh cannot have been quite as thin on the ground in France as the bare documentary record may suggest.
The accidents of source survival mean that there are some surprising gaps in Chapman’s coverage; neither the civil war in Brittany nor the Black Prince’s Castilian adventure figure, while the account of the Glyndŵr rebellion does not include the 1403 battle of Shrewsbury even though it is clear that Welshmen fought on both sides there. The terminal date of 1422 also seems somewhat arbitrary. In addition, Chapman’s account is rather short of the human touch, stronger on institutional structures and administrative documentation than on the lived experience of warfare- vignettes such as the substantial compensation paid for damage done by Welsh soldiers to the town of Castets-en-Dourthe near Bordeaux in 1355 after they had got through four pipes of wine are rare (perhaps an early example of a phenomenon familiar from later Welsh rugby tours to that region of underestimating the power of the local drink..). One wishes that he had deployed bardic poetry even more frequently; bombastic praise of warlike exploits in far countries sits alongside Daffyd ap Gwilym’s account of the brutalising impact of war on the returning soldier and Llywelyn ap y Moel’s mock-heroic account of irregular warfare in the Glyndŵr rising during which his main contribution was to run away. His fictional contemporary Sir John Falstaff would no doubt have understood the sentiment.
It would however be wrong to end on a carping note. Chapman’s work throws valuable new light on both the history of Wales and of warfare in late medieval Britain, replacing some hoary myths with a much more complex view of the Welsh soldier in English royal service.