Sunday, May 9, 2010

Discourse: Collapse of the Londoners (Rebel Left Ward)

Perhaps the pivotal event of the entire battle was the collapse of the Londoner's under Prince Edward's massed cavalry attack. Formed up on the high ground atop Lewes Downs nearest the chalk pits were the foot soldiers of London under the command of Nicholas de Segrave. Advancing toward them was the cream of the Royalist Army, the overwhelming ranks of knights, sergeants and squires; an entire cavalry ward of some 2,600 horse (see posting Discourse: How Big was Lewes). Two things are recounted in every treatment of this battle - the Royalist cavalry attached first and the Londoner's were routed convincingly. Thus far; however, I have seen no analysis of the events surrounding this aspect of the battle or any attempt to understand what occurred occurred during this fatal engagement.


[Map pictures is section taken from that produced by The Battlefields Trust copyright 2004. It is plotted across a 1km grid and the rear dispositions in unshaded blocks represent the dispositions according to the Trust and the forward dispositions those according to Dr David Carpenter - in both cased blue indicating Royalists and red the Rebels. In either representation, the left most block in red is that of the Londoners' ward and opposite them, the right ward Royalist cavalry.] 

The Montfortian Dispositions

In the absence of any contrary evidence I have approached the division of de Montfort's army evenly into four wards. I believe that Simon de Montfort demonstrated superior tactical abilities through his night march to Lewes and in his choosing to take and hold the high ground. The Downs plateaus from the top running back to Offam for some distance allowing a sizeable army to form up and present as much of itself as de Montfort chose to - the Royalists not being able to determine the size, depth of dispositions of the Rebels. De Montfort had good lines of communication and the entire front of the army would have been readily ascertained by de Montfort from almost anywhere along the line. Furthermore, this high ground allowed the Rebel general to read every movement of the Royalists as they emerged from Lewes and he would have been able to anticipate every move, matching his own dispositions accordingly. It cannot be known for certain when de Montfort determined upon a fourth ward and effective reserve. A reserve demonstrates experience and military prudence but at Lewes and upon the ground de Montfort deployed, he would have been able to position his reserve entirely unseen by the enemy and commit them to battle when and where he chose for the greatest effect. For these reasons I incline toward the above Battlefield Trust dispositions for the battle.

London Dilemma: Infantry vs Horse

Given then that the overwhelming cavalry thrust against the Rebel left flank must have been seen well in advance, why then were the Londoners left to their own? For me, this episode poses a number of questions:
  1. Why did the Londoner's receive the charge at all?
  2. Did de Montfort have a plan for the Londoners?
  3. Who were the Londoners?
  4. Why did these events make such an impact on the battle?
The first two questions are very much linked but I suggest that one reason for the Londoner's preparedness to take the brunt of Prince Edward's charge is that they believed they may have stood a chance of holding. I have found next to no treatment of west European infantry tactics of the mid 13th century but I fail to see that previous shield wall defensive doctrine so well entrenched by the time of Hastings should have given way to anything else over the following 200 years. Packed tightly together, armed with a large shield, a stout spear and a gambeson, infantry en masse might absorb the initial impact and shock of a cavalry onslaught even in the era of the couched lance.

Such a stand requires confidence in one another and in the strength of arms which a city levy may not have had without the additional support of improvised field defenses. We are told by the chroniclers that de Montfort arrives at Lewes by first light and that his arrival caught the Royalist unprepared. Simon de Montfort did not press any attack into the town; however, indicating his 'sieze and hold' policy in relation to the heights above the Downs. On the left flank, the slope is gentler than the centre and right of the line making the ground vulnerable to mounted assault. Given that this is precisely where the Royalists formed up and attacked and given that de Montfort had all the time in the world to watch the Royalist horse assembling to do so, one questions what he had in mind for the left flank.

A Limited Field of Battle

As I have mentioned in an earlier posting (Battlefield:Royal Left Flank) the thin topsoil over chalk made for good heavy cavalry ground and impossible for defenders to dig. If de Montfort knew the lay of the land he may not have been familiar with its composition and wrongly relied on an ability to prepare pits and stakes. It seems likely that any opportunity de Montfort's march had given him, the Lewes chalk took away. I am speculating about infantry tactics when it comes to field defenses and admit the primary sources are silent on the subject. In the face of the superior cavalry of the period; however, and mindful that 1264 is not so far removed from the later wars against the Scots or French where the use of schiltrons, stakes and pits are recorded, might we not suppose that they were usually employed by infantry in the absence of an equivalent cavalry force? We should not limit our attempts at understanding tactics of the day from the limitations and scarcity of primary sources specific to the mid-thirteenth century.

Men of London

The Londoner's, likely to have been largely made up of city militia men may well have a good number of experienced soldiers and ex-mercenaries from foreign wars and Welsh conflicts; London being an international port of trade and human transit. As a centre of wealth, trade and industry, I also suspect that most men would have a higher than average access to and likelihood of wearing body armour such as a padded gambeson or even mail in comparison to rural levies. The Londoner's were spirited and motivated if their stoning of the Queen on the Thames during her attempted exit from the city is any indication. Their morale and self-confidence may have been high. One thing we do not know about the collapse of the Londoners is how long it took.

We do know that Prince Edward's horse formed up ahead of the rest of the Royal army and that he initiated the attack before the King was ready to co-ordinate the general advance. We do not know; however, how long before the general advance his attack was put in. It is a habit of the age to describe the effect of chivalric arms in exaggerated terms, given the sponsors for these chronicles and their intended readership. Whilst we accept the routing of the Londoners in the final analysis, it may have taken several attempts or at least taken some time before cohesion was lost and men began to give ground in the face of mounting casualties. The formed Londoners may also have given considerable ground before the rout took hold, men finally giving up hope, seized with panic and running pell mell for their lives.

The Flight

The rout may not have occurred quickly either. One can imagine groups of seasoned veterans and life long comrades sticking together, forming dispersed attempts at organised defense. Running with your back to blood-thirsty knights was tantamount to suicide. A knight riding down a broken foe might prefer to hack at the panic stricken and defenseless but a series of less co-ordinated grouping and re-groupings by the Royalist horsemen may have been required to ensure the irrevocable destruction of these dangerous Londoners. History has damned Prince Edward for allowing his hatred for the London mob to affect his control of the horse and we are given the image if an easy and crushing initial collapse of the London flank followed by an emotional, unthinking pursuit.

We are only provided with a simplistic account of the battle from monastic scribes but we have little real knowledge of precisely what occurred on that flank other than the Londoners were routed and the horse returned too late. Behind these two simple facts are a number of possibilities. It is possible that some of de Montofrt's reserve was committed to keeping the royalist cavalry from the rest of the army. Simon de Montfort may not have had the strength to beat Edwards cavalry: given their commitment against the Londoners, de Montfort needed only to delay them, separating them long enough for his unimpeded downhill rush on the King's confused, uphill advance.


[This map is a detail taken from deployments according to English Heritage (1995) over a modern 1:25 000 topographical  map by permission of Ordnance Survey registered trade mark Crown copyright 1999 - the Rebel army in red and Royalists in blue.]

Mind of the General

In marching upon Lewes, Simon de Montfort may not have appreciated the size of cavalry force the Royalists could put into the field. Whilst he no doubt had an effective network of agents, spies and sympathises throughout the countryside, he may still have failed to grasp the situation until seeing two and a half thousand mounted men for himself. In this situation, what might he have been thinking? Does he trust to luck and put his confidence in the men of London, hoping that they hold long enough to arrest the momentum of the charge and then commit his reserve against the cavalry once they are stationary and at their most vulnerable to the spearmen?

Alternatively, does he see the hopelessness of the situation from the time Prince Edward forms up and proceeds to thin the Londoner's ranks from the rear in an attempt to salvage what he can from his doomed flank? If a breakthrough was to occur, his line may be rolled up from the left but in maneuvering his reserve, de Montfort may have been able to shore up the line and compel the enemy cavalry to withdraw and re-group to renew the charge. In any event, Simon de Montfort was an experienced war leader and knew that any plans adopted required flexibility - hence his reserve.

A third possibility is that understanding the lack of discipline of a mounted feudal host, de Montfort gambled with the lives of the Londoners, trusting that they would rout and that the cavalry would not fail to pursue them. Could he have predicted events, calculating a left flank trade off to bring the total forces of his army and the Kings into balance with de Montfort holding the high ground and the upper hand? If such was in the mind of the Rebel leader, one might still muse whether this was his plan or understanding from before his night march or if it occurred to him as the battle began to unfold. It is also possible that if de Montfort was as good a general as I believe he was, a combination of all of these thoughts were likely to have occurred to him throughout the day, taking opportunities as they presented and making the best of every eventuality.

Perhaps a final comment on the military mind of de Montfort is that like all politicians and generals, he took risks, albeit calculated ones and at Lewes, they paid off.

So, the Londoner's under Nicholas de Segrave gave way to the mounted might of Royalist arms, routing from the field and being pursued for miles. In doing so, the chronicles tell us that the horse failed to rally in time to participate in the rest of the battle for which fortunes were reversed with the Rebels sweeping down off the heights and seizing the day. The impact of this effective removal of the Royal horse was that aside from personal bodyguards to Richard of Cornwall and the King, there were few cavalry remaining on the field for the Royalists to match what was by that point the superior numbers of Rebel horse. This disparity can be confidently surmised as it was usual practice to divide the horse equally amongst an army's wards or divisions which, in the absence of contrary evidence, was a practice we can assume de Montfort followed.

Wargaming Considerations

To represent the above considerations I have elected to rate my Londoners Militia and arm them with Thrusting Spear (Warhammer Ancient Battles) shield and light armour which is a change from my original Rebel Army List Version 1. I am not reintroducing shield wall capabilities for them though this may be an option for others. I am reckoning on their saving throw of 5+ and their numbers (70) may give them a fighting chance.

I have applied Hatred psychology for Prince Edward in keeping with the chroniclers' accounts of his attitude toward the Londoner's following their assaults against his Mother. I also introduced a new psychology of 'Glory Seeking' for the Royalist sergeants and squires being a compulsion to pursue all retreating, routing or Fall Back In Good Order (Warhammer rule) as a result of melee with them as well as a Leadership test to prevent pursuit/charge against any retreating or routing unit within 24". These features are clearly designed to bring about the likelihood of a pursuit by the right flank cavalry for the re-fight of this battle.

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