Military Communities in Late Medieval England: Essays in Honour of Andrew Ayton, eds. Gary P. Baker, Craig L. Lambert, and David Simpkin (Brian Ditcham)

Gary P. Baker, Craig L. Lambert, and David Simpkin

Military Communities in Late Medieval England: Essays in Honour of Andrew Ayton

(The Boydell Press, 2018) 324 pp. $99.00

The present volume recognises the contribution of Andrew Ayton to the study of medieval military history, in particular the English experience of warfare from the late thirteenth to the early fifteenth centuries. A pioneer of what would now be called the use of “big data” drawing upon the extensive documentary trail left by English military administrators in this period, his work has demonstrated the impact on England of decades of more or less sustained warfare, not least the creation of “military communities” made up of men for whom warfare had become a primary source of income.

Ayton’s earliest work drew upon the lists of horses created by royal clerks in the years when royal compensation payments for lost animals was the norm. Michael Prestwich picks up this equine theme by reconsidering the question of just how large the destriers ridden by elite combatants in the reign of Edward I really were. His conclusion is that they were indeed large and impressive beasts- but also costly to feed and highly vulnerable in combat. At the other end of the social (and equine) scale, Robert Jones examines the origins and role of the hobelars who appear in English royal armies during the Scottish wars. Although the first units came from Ireland, he argues that the origins of this category of soldier lie in the Welsh Marches, whence it was exported to Ireland, acquiring a new name in the process. His wish to debunk what he sees as misleading interpretations of the role hobelars played within English armies brings him very close to suggesting that they were a category of combatant created by royal administrators and defined by their wage rate rather than anything special about their armament, though in the end he backs away somewhat from this conclusion.

Peter Coss reviews the contribution of military service to defining the English nobility and gentry, gently challenging and nuancing the more radical conclusions which could be drawn from Ayton’s work. Military service might give a social leg up to those who already had some claims to gentility and facilitated dramatic upward social mobility for a few individuals but (particularly at the lowest fringes of gentle society) it was far from being the only route into acceptance. Coss notes the failure of knights banneret to become established as a specific stratum within the nobility. David Simpkin picks up this group in an examination of its role within Edward I’s armies. He successfully demonstrates the key role bannerets played in providing the “building blocks” out of which larger units could be assembled on campaign. Indeed their role was so useful that (as Simpkin concedes) the ultimate failure of this group to establish itself as a core element in English military society requires further consideration. Moving from the general to the particular, Andy King considers the evolution of the retinue of Sir Henry de Beaumont over some twenty years. He appears to have drawn on a mix of men from areas where he held land (Lincolnshire) and from the north east of England (as a result of his frequent presence in that region on campaign). A Frenchman who acquired claims on Scottish lands through marriage, his engagement with English landed and military society may not have been typical- and his apparently violent temper and quarrelsome nature can hardly have encouraged stability in his following. Nevertheless he managed to remain an important contributor to English military efforts in Scotland across the reigns of the first three Edwards.

Matthew Raven looks at how Edward III ensured that his earls were paid for their military service. His relative success owed much to ruthless pressure on local administrators, frantic improvisation and the use of windfall profits. While Raven sees this as a qualified success, it hardly disguised the fundamental problem that English revenues could barely sustain the scale of military activity involved in Edward’s wars. This point emerges forcefully in Gary Baker’s account of the disastrous expedition of Sir Robert Knolles in 1370. Led by an experienced but low status soldier, this emerges as an attempt to wage war on the cheap with Knolles’ army eventually fragmenting in pursuit of plunder when royal wages ran out. In addition to discrediting the practice of pardoning criminals to serve in the ranks of royal armies, Baker argues that its failure prompted a major rethink of English strategy with a shift to cheaper naval operations. Also on the subject of the financial underpinnings of warfare, Adrian Bell and Tony Moore examine English participation in the Baltic crusades. Unsurprisingly they find that expeditions were assembled in ways reminiscent of how contingents were put together for royal service. Funding was more complex but English crusaders (and presumably those of other nationalities) were able to make use of established mercantile networks trading with the Baltic to facilitate the necessary transfers of funds. Put in somewhat anachronistic terms, the expenditure associated with crusade expeditions provided a form of “tourist” revenue enabling the region to balance a deficit in visible trade- no wonder the Teutonic Knights were reluctant to concede that Lithuania had become a Christian principality by the 1390’s.

Clifford Rogers’ contribution on the symbolism of the Garter Badge is something of a culturally-inflected outlier in the collection. Briskly dismissive of interpretations owing much to modish literary or gender based analysis (mid fourteenth century garters, he argues, were unequivocally masculine items) he argues that the purpose of the Order was create a visible band of knights specifically bound to uphold Edward III’s claims on the French crown. He suggests a conceptual link to the Castilian Order of the Band- and points out that Edward’s French claims did not inspire unanimous enthusiasm in 1340’s England.

Craig Lambert seeks to rehabilitate the military importance of the Cinque Ports during the Hundred Years War in the face of recent tendencies to play down their role. In a piece which perhaps tries to cram too many insights on English naval policy into a limited compass, he argues that the Ports were a specialist military community of the kind Ayton has identified in land-based contexts. Whether this specialism was altogether beneficial for the Ports in the long run is another question.

Finally, moving into the fifteenth century, Anne Curry examines a couple of documents which list English garrisons in Normandy in 1436. These show the Lancastrian regime succeeding in stabilising the situation after the loss of Paris through the deployment of large numbers of troops- though also suggest that the level of commitment involved was financially unsustainable in the long run.

This is a much more coherent Festschrift than most with considerable cross-linkages between contributions (e.g. the issue of funding warfare lies in the background of several pieces) and close links to Ayton’s own work past and to come (for instance Lambert’s piece links to work in progress on the war at sea). The standard of contributions is uniformly high. Perhaps the most interesting and challenging questions for future consideration, however, come from Coss’ item. Ayton’s work demonstrated the creation of military communities in fourteenth century England. Is it possible to identify positively “un-military”, even perhaps “anti-military”, ones- and how might such communities have found public expression in English society?

Brian Ditcham
Independent Scholar

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