In a previous post (Book Review: E.L. Mann’s ‘The Battle of Lewes’) I referred to Mann’s analysis of the motivation for engagement at Lewes. Mann believed that the forces were near to equal and that the battle fell in favour of de Montfort when King Henry gave up his advantage of a strong defensive position from within Lewes. Furthermore, the drive for coming out to battle is explained in terms of the knightly class pursuit of glory in a chivalric tradition.
From my discourse on the subject of the size of the armies present at Lewes in 1264 (Discourse: How Big was Lewes?) my position on the armies remains that there existed a Royal superiority in the vicinity of 3:2 or greater. If so, Mann’s estimation of numbers is at odds with mine. This in turn undermines any sympathy I can have with criticism of Henry in giving up a necessary defensive advantage. On the contrary, his superiority was more than quantitative inasmuch as his overwhelming advantage in heavy cavalry would have given the King a dominant hand on almost any battle field in southern England.
Rather than relying on chivalric compulsions to combat, I rather suspect that assembling ones forces in this political and family feud was as much to do with brinkmanship in securing a negotiation of terms for the chief protagonists as it was for direct tactical application on the field of battle. Let us not forget that Simon de Montfort with his sons Henry, Simon and Guy were family to King Henry, Richard of Cornwall and the Prince Edward. Extending beyond this, whilst open conflict had broken out over the months previous to Lewes, terms appear to have been generous for the defeated in theatres such as at Northhampton and, as in all civil wars, relatives and friends found themselves on opposing sides.
The chroniclers tell us and historians recount that letters were exchanged up to the night before battle in attempts at reconciliation. I also think that seeing being believing, a negotiation was possible and in the minds of both Henry, Simon and their chief adherents even as late as the morning of battle. One can find much in the so called Second Barons War which is seen played out two hundred years later in the earlier episodes of the Wars of the Roses – after all, the issue was not who would be King, but who shared access to the monarch at court. I suggest that this might have been the attitude of de Montfort and is reflected in his seizing but holding position at the top of the Lewes Downs.
Supporting the notion of de Montfort as a reluctant combatant is his failure to capitalise on the night march and his surprise of the royalists. If we accept that the Kings army was unprepared (and there is no suggestion it was otherwise) de Montfort threw away an opportunity to defeat an unformed army or hold them to the town precincts. Such an assualt would have negated Henry’s overwhelming advantage in cavalry. Given the numbers of horse arrayed against him, de Montfort could have avoided the risk of the subsequent rout of his London flank later that morning and the threat it posed for his whole army. In this light, de Montfort’s deployments could be deemed dangerously timid and in tactical error unless he persisted in the hope of reconciliation.
In spite of open hostility having been in play for months, there remained a vast difference in the risks associated with raiding and sieging compared with open battle: the former was the raison d’être of medieval militarism and the latter, the recourse of the gambler/adventurer. Both sides had much to gain from victory at Lewes but as much, if not more to lose.
So, if one does not follow with the contact theory from a common chivalric mindset, when did battle become inevitable?
Obviously the first clash occurred on the rebel left flank as Royal knights rode against Rebel Londoners and I suspect that this may also have been the catalyst for a general advance. Much has been made of an impassioned Prince Edward, supposedly incensed at the previous mistreatment of his Mother by the London mob, seeing red and unleashing the full force of an uncontrollable feudal horde. If we follow this popular criticism of a the young, head-strong Prince, we must presume that his charge was precipitous in order for us to utilise the full power of hindsight in blaming Edward for the loss of Lewes. We need to agree that he stepped-off too early and his attack was unplanned and resulted in an uncoordinated Royalist attack. The subsequent failure to rally the horse from pursuit of the broken rebel flank is viewed as another symptom of amateurish command stemming from intemperate youth. It also compels us to believe that the rest of the command group for the Royal horse were either blindly obedient, wretchedly inexperienced or just plain rash.
Monkish blame-storming aside, what if we consider that the cavalry attack was planned or even prudent? We know that de Montfort appeared on the high ground in command of the field and caught the King by surprise with his night march to Lewes. If the King assumed the failure of the previous night’s conciliators engendered a commitment to battle in his brother-in-law, Prince Edward charge might check a potential rebel advance. Such a move would enable the other two thirds of the army time to prepare for battle and form up. Bearing in mind that the subsequent departure of the horse from the field could not have been anticipated, this does not seem improbable.
Accepting a 3:2 numerical and additional qualitative advantage for the King, and given his inability to discern de Montfort’s dispositions from his positioning on the heights, it would not have been unreasonable of Henry to suppose that his commitment of the horse to crush the London flank would have routed the opposition. If Henry had supposed that Simon has arrayed his army in similar fashion to himself, he would not have appreciated the potential of de Montfort’s reserve or guessed at the rebels remaining steady in the face of their left flank breaking.
If we follow with tradition, negotiation may indeed have gone out the window following an unmeditated cavalry assault by the Prince. As alleged by the chroniclers, the launch of the cavalry may have triggered an ill prepared advance by Henry and Richard as they attempted to co-ordinate momentum across the entire front. If the centre and left Royal wards were playing catch-up, this helps to explain how the vanguards became confused and lost cohesion through their impetus in advance. As the rise narrows, the foot ascended the slopes and the King found his army vulnerable to a down-hill rush by the rebels.
Let us also speculate how the cavalry took off. If we agree that they acted impetuously, was it in the mind of the Prince or could he have lost control of his impetuous host? Consider where the Lusignans were in the order of battle. How many other 'foreign' knights and those opposed to reform had vested interests in crushing de Montfort: more of an enemy to them than to his nephew, Prince Edward.
Moving forward to rout and pursuit, I have previously discussed the nature of the Londoner’s flight and how the pursuit might have broken down. Giving ground, retreating at first and then routing; I have surmised that the collapse of the London rebels may not have been as immediate or swift as historians assume. We do not no how long Prince Edward’s breakthrough took. Similarly, we do not know how long King Henry and his brother Richard took to join battle either. We also cannot say with certainty at what point de Montfort rushed to meet them. Whilst battlefield topography might dictate the optimum space into which de Montfort most probably counter-attacked, we do not know where the fleeing Londoners and the Prince’s horse were relative to the remaining armies at that time.
So, does this speculation get us any closer to a precise understanding of the battle and why it was fought? Not really. What I hope it does do is challenge habits of unjustified criticism; in this case criticism of the King and Prince Edward. We cannot know for sure what was in the mind of the generals as they didn’t recount them personally and the habits of great men had not at that time turned to providing history with written memoirs. If we do not know their plan, or even if there was a plan, we are in no position to ridicule it. What does seem likely was de Montfort’s tactical flexibility partially gained through his adoption of a reserve. The King, in not doing so, did not provide himself with options in the case of a failed assault.
I am inclined to see de Montfort as a flexible general and politician, providing himself with as many options as circumstances would allow. His seize-and-hold tactics on the heights and his adoption of a reserve all indicate that he was prepared to negotiate rather than fight. After all, strategically, de Montfort has been outmanoeuvred and outnumbered so naturally he should have preferred to talk than fight. The King, on the other hand, wanted to settle control of his court and, whilst taken by surprise by the appearance of the rebels at Lewes, appears to me to have committed to battle. Confident in the size and composition of his army, Henry does seem to have committed to an all out assault.
The King’s lack of reserve indicates over-confidence and failure to anticipate the need for tactical flexibility in the face of the unthinkable. The disposition of the Kings’ army, though reacting to de Montfort’s stealing the high ground advantage, nevertheless supports the notion that he had committed to battle even if his brother-in-law had not. Regardless of how the assault unfolded, the battle of Lewes became inevitable once de Montfort arrayed his army above the town. I submit that chivalry in any form had no part in the causes for battle. Whilst we are right to theorise over the relative loss of advantage from an uphill assault with no reserve, the loss of Lewes by the King was as much to do with the chaotic fortunes of war as any fundamental failure in planning or martial ability in Henry or Prince Edward.