Don’t believe the medieval battles you see on-screen….

Well, I for one always like a damned—um, darned—good medieval battle…at least, I do from the comfort of my nice modern sofa. No nasty blood and gore for me, and certainly no dreadful screams and horrible deaths with all sorts of innards spilling everywhere. Oh, no, not for my delicate modern self.

So we delicate blossoms of today rely upon what we see on TV and cinema screens…and in books, of course, but it’s the visual aspect with which  this amply-illustrated article concerns itself.

Let me say here and now that silver screens do NOT depict the truth. If they did, the audience would soon pass out on the spot. And when it recovered, it would never watch such carnage again. I’m afraid that medieval men would watch in fascinated bemusement to see some dazzling sword-fighting antics on the field. Wonderful to watch and thrilling for audiences, but all Class A1 hogwash.

To begin with it seems you’d never see swords on a battlefield. You’d more likely see bl–dy great battle axes, “maces, morning stars, war hammers, and other bludgeoning weapons”! Good grief. And they didn’t waste precious arrows on the dramatic “rains” of arrows we see so often, flying high and then coming down to wreak havoc on the enemy. Well, you’d see them, but used very judiciously indeed—certainly not over and over. The arrows would have been depleted in double quick time.

Nor did armies hurl themselves together in a frenzy of fighting and killing—commanders were there to direct it all, just as commanders direct battles today. Oh, and the object wasn’t to kill foreign nobles. Good grief, no! You wanted them alive so you could ransom them for huge sums. That’s where a lot of the rewards came. Kill them and you’ve blown it. But it’s OK to kill the common oiks, aka lowly soldiers. But usually the bulk of the two armies concerned just went their separate ways, back home to  resume tending the turnip field.

Sometimes, of course, no matter how high-ranking the man you had at your mercy, he was better off dead. Just think of Richard III. Henry Tudor certainly didn’t want him on the loose. Richard was too sharp and experienced a military commander to lose a rematch. And after Bosworth he’d know exactly who could be trusted and who could not. Beating him under those circumstances would be very tricky indeed, so the Tudor Weasel wanted Richard to be history, in every meaning of the phrase. And unfortunately for us, he got what he wanted.

Anyway, the above article is very interesting indeed, and includes far more than I’ve mentioned above. Believe me, you’ll never watch an on-screen medieval battle in the same light again!



  1. Well this article certainly hit home haha, I spent most of the summer researching the Hundred Years’ War (I tried reading through Sumptions’ narrative on the HYW’s and thought I was reading Greek, not good!) Before I went crawling back to Sumption I did find several books that made my life easier: Kenneth Fowler’s “Medieval Mercenaries (Vol.1 The Great Companies”; sadly, he never completed the second volume) and very pertinent to your comments and the article, a truly outstanding work, “Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years War: Ransom Culture in the Later Middle Ages” by Remy Ambuhl. By the time I got back to Sumption hehe I was able note material (military) that he simply did not have room to do so. But the Ambuhl is also helpful for Ricardian research, anyone still pulling their hair out trying to figure out the Hungerford estates (and finances) will get a better sense of what ransoms did to English fortunes (in a word, devastation.) The French may have been brutalized in the early Edwardian phase of the Wars with ransoms but the two successive Henrican phases it was mostly if not all damage to the English.

    You might also like to take a look at an old series (Two Men in a Trench: Battle of Barnet with Tony Pollard and Neil Oliver, and not THAT odious Tony Pollard but a nice Dr Pollard, school boy chum of Oliver’s). They made a series on archaeology+ history covering I believe 6 fairly well known battles. The one on Barnet, which never gets any love, is fascinating for what the techie brings to the tow men who decide that they um fight in harness against each other – Barnet is today a golf course. So these two very young men (at the time) are totally unsuited to wearing gear, swinging swords; laughable actually – but their associate had numerous details that fits right in with your article Viscountessw – ex. the medieval belt was not some hefty, rugged, heavy leather belt we see in film, no, it was quite “delicate” as the man described it, Neil Oliver holds it and it does look scarcely capable of holding even a dagger! (Just pop in the title, Two Men in a Trench… on YouTube, it should come up for you)

    As to your point about Richard, I hadn’t considered that Tudor or his more experienced soldiers, as Tudor had none of his own, could not fight to a stalemate or worse, limp off the field to fight another day, or Richard fight another day – whatever happened Tudor needed insurance that Richard would not leave the field alive. How else to explain two glaring details- Richard described as manfully fighting against all comers – implying those in front of the king – and yet struck down from behind, by William Stanley’s men or those with Rhys ap Thomas. The two tales have co-existed for 500+ years, with only the image of Tudor likely the most palpable, standing a few feet away from Richard, and surely seeing his life passing before his eyes, then watching Richard cut down, from behind. Like your article mentioned, chivalry had nothing to do with knighthood.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “Oh, and the object wasn’t to kill foreign nobles. Good grief, no! You wanted them alive so you could ransom them for huge sums. That’s where a lot of the rewards came. Kill them and you’ve blown it.”

    I have always wondered about the death of Thomas, Duke of Clarence at Bauge’ for this reason. What were the Scots thinking? A royal duke, heir to the throne of England, would make any Scotsman rich beyond belief, and you unhorse him and strike him down dead? What were they thinking?


  3. Great article as usual Vicountess, as we’ve come to expect from you. Very well done indeed.


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