Killing or Clemency? Part 2.

Killing or Clemency? Part 2. Ransom, Chivalry and Changing Attitudes to Defeated Opponents in Britain and Northern France, 7th-12th century.

by Matthew J. Strickland

It would, of course, be misleading to suggest that all warfare fought either within the Anglo-Norman regnum, or in external conflicts against its neighbours was so restrained as battles such as Tinchebrai, Brémule and Lincoln; some conflicts were waged in a spirit of bitter hostility, not that of a brotherhood in arms, and knights might still be bent on slaying individual opponents.[121] Nevertheless, the battle of Bouvines in 1214, which claimed the lives of over 160 knights, must be regarded as exceptional in its ferocity. Indeed, it had been precisely to avoid this sort of bloodshed that Angevin and Capetian armies had on several occasions drawn back from the verge of pitched battle, as occurred, for example, at Chateauroux in 1187 and at Issoudun in 1195. Even at Bouvines, we are still at a considerable remove from the Anglo-French warfare of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Not only did the mass use of archers in English armies contribute to enormous casualties amongst the French nobility at battles such as Crecy, 1346, Poitiers, 1356, and Agincourt, 1415, but these were conflicts in which a conscious decision could be taken not to take prisoners for ransom (as did the English before Crecy) or to execute prisoners at a moment of crisis (as did Henry V at Agincourt). Equally, the battles of the Anglo-Norman civil wars contrast strikingly with those of the ‘Wars of the Roses’ in fifteenth-century England, where rivals for the throne attempted to spare the lives of the common man, but ruthlessly executed noble opponents following capture.


Already substantially developed in France by 1066, a chivalric ethos marked by a sense of professional solidarity between members of the warrior elite, an emphasis on clemency and on the taking of noble opponents prisoner for ransom, was imported into England with the Norman invasion and became established with the ascendancy of a new Franco-Norman aristocracy. The impact of the Norman Conquest on behaviour in war within the British isles is a subject which cannot be explored in detail here, thought we may note that the clash and partial fusion of Anglo-Norman and Celtic military cultures created a complex pattern of conduct. With most warriors lacking the expensive defensive armour enjoyed by their Anglo-Norman opponents, the Welsh, Irish and native Scots waged war preponderantly by fasting moving guerrilla tactics from mountains and woods, generally avoiding open battle and protracted siege, with raids marked by the massacre or enslavement of the local populace and the slaying of captives. Writing in the late 1180s, the great litterateur Gerald of Wales, who was of mixed Anglo-Norman and Welsh blood, summed up the disparity between such conduct and that of the Normans. Speaking here as a Welshman, he noted;

In their own countries, the Flemings, Normans, French routiers and Brabancon mercenaries
are bonny fighters and make well-disciplined soldiers, but the tactics of French troops are no
good at all in Ireland or Wales. They are used to fighting on the level, whereas here the
terrain is rough; their battles take place in open fields, but here the country is heavily
wooded; with them, the army is an honourable profession but with us it is a matter of dire
necessity; their victories are won by stubborn resistance, ours by constant movement; they
take prisoners, we cut off their heads; they ransom their captives, we massacre them.[122]

As a result, the Normans quickly came to view their new neighbours as poorly armed savages, barbarians with an alien language and customs, against whom there could be no honourable combat between equals, no sense of a brotherhood in arms. Moreover, a comparative absence of castles and of a developed monetary economy hindered the effective operation of ransom.[123] Thus while significant chivalric constraints operated in warfare among the Anglo-Normans themselves, they might often behave towards their Celtic opponents with utter ruthlessness, which might include the mutilation, execution or even enslaving of prisoners.[124] Gradually, Welsh princes and their retinues became influenced by the chivalric culture of the Anglo-Normans, and as castle-based warfare increased, so too the conventions of siege, such as allowing an enemy freedom to leave with horses and arms, become visible in warfare between Welsh leaders themselves by the end of the twelfth century. Nevertheless, such assimilation was slow; perceived linguistic and cultural differences, combined with the Anglo-Normans’ tactical inability either to prevent Welsh raiding or successfully to bring the enemy to battle ensured that Anglo-Welsh warfare was fought with a particular bitterness and savagery . As late as the mid thirteenth century, both sides were still indulging in the mutilation of living or dead captives and the taking of enemy heads, until the final conquest of north Wales by Edward I in the closing decades of the thirteenth century.[125] Nevertheless, Anglo-Norman commanders, quickly recognizing the great value of Welsh archers and spearmen as light infantry, did not scruple to employ these troops in Ireland, Scotland or on their continental campaigns, where contemporaries commented on their wild appearance and reputation for not taking prisoners.

In Scotland, the settlement of Franco-Norman knights and the adoption of chivalric mores by the Scottish kings of the twelfth century led to a still more striking divergence of conduct within Scottish armies themselves. In war against their southern neighbour, the native Scots and Galwegian troops indulged in the time honoured methods of Celtic warfare, slaying indiscriminately and enslaving, and giving rise to allegations of ‘atrocities’ by anguished English chroniclers.[126] By contrast, Scottish kings like David I (1124-1153) and William the Lion (1165-1214) with their retinues of knights, ostentatiously adhered to the chivalric conventions of Anglo-Norman warfare in their attempt to cut the pose of a roi-chevalier. Significantly, however, their success in so doing was often severely compromised in the eyes of southern observers by their real or supposed complicity in and responsibility for the excesses of their native troops.[127] Such a disparity in conduct was to survive well into the sixteenth century. In 1513, as the Scottish king James IV, renowned as a great renaissance patron and flower of chivalry, led his army into battle against the English at Flodden, a Gaelic poet could utter the following chilling exhortation to Archibald, earl of Argyll, and his highlanders:

Let us make harsh and mighty warfare against the English…The roots from which they
grow, destroy them, their increase is too great, and leave no Englishman alive after you nor
Englishwoman there to tell the tale. Burn their bad coarse women, burn their uncouth
offspring, and burn their sooty houses, and rid us of the reproach of them. Let their ashes
float down-stream after burning their remains, show no mercy to a living Englishmen,
O chief, deadly slayer of the wounded.[128]

Let us conclude this overview of the changing nature of conduct towards opponents in war where we began, in 1066, and with a final question. Would Anglo-Saxon England have assimilated concepts of ransom and chivalric clemency without the enforced catalyst of the Norman Conquest? Certainly there is evidence before 1066 of what we may term ‘chivalric’ interchange at the highest political levels between England and northern France. The Godwine family had close ties to Flanders, and sought refuge there in exile.[129] Edward the Confessor, who took the throne in 1042, was half Norman and in his youth had been brought up in the ducal household where he may well have received knightly training.[130] In turn, Orderic believed that after 1052, Edward had knighted the future marcher lord Robert of Rhuddlan, who was then serving as his squire.[131] Had it not been for the political crisis of 1051-2, which resulted in the Godwines revanche and the expulsion of several of Edward’s Norman followers, it is possible that the court would have been more heavily influenced by the martial milieu of the continent, just as the court of David I of Scotland was to adopt Anglo-Norman chivalric mores following that king’s accession in 1124 after an upbringing in the English court. As it was, Harold himself received arms from Duke William during his visit in 1064, and after Hastings was buried by his half-English, half-Norman compater, William Malet.[132]

Yet though important, such contacts with the ‘heartlands’ of Europe were still far outweighed by the legacy of repeated Scandinavian incursions. How far a continuation of the power and political stability achieved under Edgar (954-975) would have affected assimilation of European influences on conduct in war is uncertain, for instead influences from the ‘periphery’ were powerfully re-enforced by repeated raids and invasion, which from the 990s brought the kingdom of Aethelred the unready to its knees. Some of the attackers were still pagan, and we have already noted the ruthless nature of the conduct to which these wars gave rise. Hence at the very time when the Norman duchy was turning away from its Scandinavian links and assimilating the methods of Frankish warfare, England became an Anglo-Scandinavian realm under the sway of Cnut (1016-1035) and his successors, while the possibility of renewed invasion from Denmark or Norway was to remain a serious threat well beyond 1066. Moreover, whereas in France, chivalric conventions could develop in warfare within and between the aristocratic military elites of the territorial principalities, with extremes of conduct reserved for external and often pagan opponents (as witnessed, for example, by the First Crusade), there was for the Anglo-Saxons no such catalyst, no shift in the nature of the enemy. They had continued to fight either Scandinavians or Celtic neighbours, whose conduct in war had changed little since the days of Bede, with raids continuing to be marked by massacre and enslavement. It was small wonder then that on the eve of the Conquest, there was little to distinguish the behaviour of the Northumbrians from their Scottish neighbours, and on the Welsh marches the picture appears similar.[133]

Unlike its Celtic neighbours, however, the late Anglo-Saxon kingdom had a sophisticated monetary economy which could have facilitated the development of ransom in warfare between the Anglo-Saxon nobility, just as it had made possible the massive payments of geld to viking raiders. Yet how Anglo-Saxon earls and thegns would have treated each other in open battle and as prisoners in the eleventh century is uncertain; the known instances of open warfare between rival aristocratic families are few, and generally restricted to the turbulent north of England. Equally, in 1051, when the English nobility had come to the brink of civil war, they had shown a marked reluctance to engage in battle with their fellows, and bloodshed was avoided. [134] For while in France the development of ransom and of chivalric conventions may well have been accelerated by political fragmentation and the rise of castle-based warfare, Anglo-Saxon England had remained a powerful centralised monarchy, whose rulers appear to have largely succeeded in suppressing localised ‘private’ warfare between nobles. The fortresses or burghs were communal, not seigneurial defences, and while there is evidence for the existence of fortified dwellings of Anglo-Saxon nobles, it is clear they played little or no role in either warfare or in aristocratic rebellion.[135] The military institutions of late Anglo-Saxon England were designed for defence against external invaders, not for near continual localised warfare. The factors were equally reflected in the uncompromising treatment afforded the enemy, as the fate of Harald Hardraada’s army at Stamford Bridge so graphically revealed. The Normans were probably justified in their belief that little mercy would have been shown to them at Hastings if Harold had been victorious. William of Poitiers has Duke William say to his men before the battle that ‘if they fought like men they would have victory, honour and wealth. If not, they would let themselves either be slaughtered, or captured to be mocked by the most cruel enemies’.[136]

Nevertheless, essential similarities between the warrior aristocracies of late Anglo-Saxon England and Normandy meant that those of the ruling elite who survived the Conquest seem to have been integrated into the chivalric world of France without undue difficulty. While some chose exile to fight in the varangian guard of the byzantine Emperors, others fought for William the Conqueror in France, and it was with great pride that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded the death of Toki, son of Wigod of Wallingford, a major Anglo-Saxon landowner, slain at William the Conqueror’s side at Gerberoi in 1079.[137] But nowhere is this fusion – and of the radical transformation in the conduct of war – more marked than in the career of Edgar Aetheling, last of the royal line of Wessex. Edgar distinguished himself on the First Crusade and, as a close companion of Duke Robert Curthose, fought along side him at Tinchebrai in 1106.[138] He survived to tell of this defeat and to fight another day. Had he been fighting such a battle in the Anglo-Scandinavian world into which he was born, he may well not have lived to do so.

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