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British Lion Polish Eagle
Endgame in Flanders

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British Lion, Polish Eagle: European Royals in battle
British Lion, Polish Eagle: European Royals in battle
by Ronan Thomas

LONDON – During 2008, 23-year-old Prince Harry – third in line to the British throne – served a ten week tour of duty in Afghanistan as a British Army troop commander and forward air controller. The story featured prominently in the British and international press for weeks. Television pictures showed the Prince firing a 50-calibre machine gun against Taliban forces and describing his brief service as 'the best time of my life'. Then, after his cover was blown by the media, Harry was obliged to fly back to Britain. 'I've become a 'bullet magnet', joked the prince.

But Prince Harry's front line service for Britain is hardly novel or unique in military history. Consider Europe. The continent has been the battleground for dynastic military conflict for thousands of years; royal battle standards have been drenched in blood since before the formation of the Roman Empire. Then, in the centuries which followed the fall of Rome, in 476 AD, rival barbarian military leaders sought to establish enduring royal familial bloodlines by the sword, subdue troublesome internal noble pretenders to power and finally forge powerful nation states.

The royal European dynasties of Britain and Poland are cases in point. These two countries – in many respects at opposite points of the geographical and historical compass - nevertheless provide fascinating military case studies of royal leadership, personal valour and ruthlessness in battle. It's a story of monarchs and princes at war with much in common.

Because, if Britain has Henry V, 15th century victor of the Battle of Agincourt, then Poland has Jan Sobieski III, successful 17th century defender of Christendom against Islamic conquest. Historically, British and Polish royals have both shown an unerring enthusiasm for the battlefield.

For his country, Prince Harry in 2008 was simply following an aggressive royal tradition of leading soldiers into battle stretching back over almost two millennia. In Ancient Britain, successive invasions had prompted royal resistance to the Roman legions. Legendary Celtic royal leaders such as Caratacus and Queen Boadicea were the first to rise in revolt against Rome only to go down to defeat. Later, as the nation of England prevailed over Welsh and Scottish adversaries in the Middle Ages to eventually become a global British power by the 18th century, British royals fought in, or were present at, some of the most famous battles in world history.

Likewise, Poland has a dramatic history of warrior royals steeped in inspirational military leadership. Royalty forms a key part of her tumultuous past.

The shared royal experience starts early – as Europe navigated the fall of Rome and entered the chaos of the Dark Ages

Dark Ages to the Crusades

Several early English monarchs personally fought hand to hand with rapacious invaders: the Vikings. The Wessex King, Alfred the Great (871-899) and several of his 10th century successors readily wielded axe and sword against the Norsemen.

At exactly the same moment, in Poland, the formidable royal Piast dynasty was fighting desperately against invaders from the 8th century to 1025 (when she first became a kingdom) and on to 1569 (when she became the Polish Lithuanian-Commonwealth or First Republic).

In 1066 – whilst Boleslaus II the Bold reigned in Poland - 45-year-old King Harold Godwinson famously died leading his Anglo-Saxons against the Norman Duke William (the Conqueror) at the Battle of Hastings.

On 14 October 1066, three days after defeating a Viking force at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, King Harold's 7,000-strong army massed on Senlac Hill, near Hastings, Sussex. Confronting him were 7,500 Norman invaders led by 38-year-old William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy. Harold assembled his men in a formidable 800-yard shield wall, twelve ranks deep. The Saxon formation - 400 yards in breadth - clung limpet-like to the ridge of the hill. In the midst of his 1,000-strong Housecarl bodyguard, King Harold stood next to his fluttering royal banner and waited for the Norman assault. At around 9am, Norman archers loosed flights of arrows onto the close-packed Saxon army. Next, Norman infantry and waves of cavalry led by Duke William himself charged up the hill. All day, King Harold stayed rooted to Senlac Hill, under the fall of arrows, the protective, flailing axes of his Housecarls and jabbing Norman spears. Several successful Saxon sallies threatened to drive the Normans off the upward slope. At one point, Duke William was obliged to ride along the front ranks of his cavalry after a rumour of his death spread among the Normans. Such was William's pursuit of victory that contemporary chroniclers relate that he had three horses killed under him during the battle. At a critical moment, with his right flank buckling after at least four determined Norman cavalry charges, King Harold was wounded by a Norman arrow just above his right eye. Some twenty Norman knights then punched through the shield wall and decimated what was left of his bodyguard. These cut down the Saxon royal battle flag and hacked King Harold to pieces. The Battle of Hastings was over and with it England's Saxon hegemony. 4,000 men had died; William's martial reputation was immortalised on the Bayeux Tapestry. The 'Norman Yoke' descended on England; with newly crowned King William I a new royal dynasty had begun. King William's new royal coat of arms featured a golden lion rampant on a red field for the first time. Even so, of William the Conqueror's immediate 11th and 12th century (Plantagenet) successors, William Rufus (1087-1100), Henry I (1100-1135), Stephen (1135-1154) and Henry II (1154-1189) only King Stephen actually fought in a major battle himself - at Lincoln (1141).

During this period, in Poland, Boleslaw III (Wrymouth) (1085-1138) defeated both the Pomeranians and forces of the Holy Roman Empire, although this led to two centuries of Polish feudal fragmentation. In Boleslaw's footsteps during this period came the fighting Polish royals Leszek I the White and Konrad I of Masovia.

But in England it took a truly exceptional English monarch – the Plantagenet King Richard I (1189-99) – to revive flagging English royal military participation. King Richard became the greatest English hero of the Third Crusade. Son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, French-speaking Richard took the Cross in 1190 and landed in Palestine in 1191 in the aftermath of the Second Crusade. In a series of stunning victories in the Holy Land during 1191-92, Richard rapidly gained a formidable fighting reputation - the 'Lionheart' of chivalric legend - taking on his Muslim Saracen enemies in personal combat. His bravery and competence ensured that his Crusader army - comprised of Templar and Hospitaller knights and foot soldiers – achieved victory at the Siege of Acre in April 1191 and later that year at the Battle of Arsuf. At Arsuf, Richard and 20,000 Crusaders smashed Saladin's army, inflicting some 7,000 Saracen fatalities out of 30,000. At Jaffa (1192), King Richard led an amphibious landing to secure the port city, leaping into the breaking surf at the head of his knights. According to contemporary chroniclers, Richard used his double handed sword to dispatch dozens of Saracens at Jaffa. He gained the deep respect of his erstwhile opponent, Saladin, for his courage and martial valour.

Crown, Sceptre and Mailed Fist

During the last century of the Polish Piast dynasty (1270-1370) this English royal tradition of personal participation in battle persisted. With Poland enduring conflict with Tartars and Teutons up until the death of King Casimir III, England was in turn facing a period of prolonged feudal infighting and conflict against the Scots. Following defeat at the Battle of Lewes (1264), Henry III (1216-1272) and his son Prince Edward – later Edward I – confronted pretender for power, Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. At Evesham (1265), Worcestershire, Prince Edward defeated de Montfort after beating his brother Simon at the Battle of Kenilworth. De Montfort was surrounded after Edward marched overnight and occupied the high ground near the town. De Montfort's subsequent attack uphill against Prince Edward was utterly crushed. Before he died, de Montfort reputedly shouted 'May God have mercy on our souls, for our bodies are theirs'.

The late 13th century was also the period of gruelling English-Scottish cross border fighting. Edward I (1272-1307) faced the formidable fighting spirit of the Scottish throne whose royal motto 'Nemo me impune lacessit' ('No one provokes me with impunity') spoke for itself. Unfortunately for the Scots, the English King was a master of medieval battle tactics. Edward I first defeated one Scottish army at Dunbar in 1296 and then a second under William Wallace at Falkirk in 1298. Acquiring a reputation for ruthlessness as the 'Hammer of the Scots', Edward also became the first English monarch to contract volunteer soldiers rather than forcing them to enlist by levy.

Plantagenet royal lineage was never an absolute guide to military fortune. Edward II (1307-1327) was beaten spectacularly by Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn (1314) and suffered further losses against the Scots at Myton (1319) with 4,000 killed on both sides. Nevertheless, royal fortunes were again to lift dramatically with Edward III (1327-1377). In 1333, King Edward rode with his men-at arms and esquires to triumph against the Scots at the Battle of Halidon Hill, near Berwick and again at Neville Cross.

British and Polish royal military leadership was hardly a spent force by the outbreak of the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453).

In France, King Edward II defeated the 20,000-strong French army of Philip VI at Crecy on 26 August 1346. King Edward divided his forces into three fighting formations, one led by his 16-year-old son, Prince Edward of Woodstock. The King had invested his son with the full panoply of royal responsibility. In 1345 he had declared: 'Let the boy win his spurs'. Known as the Black Prince - the colour of his amour- the young Prince Edward promptly did so, emerging as one of the foremost fighting royals in English history. Perhaps 11,500 French knights and soldiers died in the arrow storm at Crecy versus some 200 Englishmen. The Black Prince had fought in the thickest of the action. Prince Edward went on to win stunning victories at Calais (1346-47), Poitiers (1356), Najera (1367) and Limoges (1370). He died before his father Edward III in 1376 but his reputation for valour and ruthlessness echoes down the centuries. He took as his royal motto 'Ich Dien' ('I serve'), a title carried by all subsequent Princes of Wales. Back in England, Edward III's grandson, crowned Henry IV of the House of Lancaster (1399-1413) defeated an army led by Sir Henry Percy (known as 'Hotspur'). The battle was characterized by a mass archery duel in which Henry's son - the future Henry V – was wounded in the face by an arrow. Hotspur was killed, also by an arrow to the face. This was royal defence against noble upstart exemplified. In the 14th century, English monarchs defended their privileges with sword, mace and mailed fist.

Roaring Lion, Soaring Eagle

In Poland, the Jagiellon dynasty (Kings of Poland from 1386-1572) were similarly noted for their military achievements. Consider the strong military records of Władysław II Jagiełło, Ladislaus III and Casimir IV leading knights under the Polish Eagle banner and the political leadership of Sigismund I and II in battle against the Teutonic Order up until 1525.

Just as the early Jagiellons were locked in battle with the Teutons, perhaps the most inspirational of all English sovereigns, Henry V (1413-22) was about to enter the pages of history as his country's fighting monarch par excellence. Henry V led an army of around 11,000 men into Normandy in August 1415 against a divided France led by the weak King Charles VI - as a means of finally achieving English legal claims to the French throne. The risks were huge and the operation courted disaster from the outset. His depleted army suffered badly from dysentery as they marched toward Calais. Thousands of French knights rushed from all parts of France in anticipation of easy pickings. But on St Crispin's Day, 25th October 1415, Henry's army of 6,000 men defeated a 20,000-30,000-strong French army at Agincourt. His skilled Welsh and English archers unleashed a devastating rain of arrows against the French mounted knights in a waterlogged valley where woods prevented flanking manoeuvres. 10,000 Frenchmen were killed at the cost of only 400 Englishmen. Henry came close to death himself; a French knight sliced off one of the jewels on the king's crown during the battle. Agincourt immediately entered English military and literary legend. The battle remains deeply rooted in the British national psyche to this day. Henry V was immortalised by playwright William Shakespeare who gave Henry the battle cry: “Cry 'God for Harry, England and St George!'”. Following his victory at Agincourt, Henry V also instituted the royal motto used by British monarchs ever since: 'Dieu et mon droit' or 'God and my right' (to rule). Henry went on to win a series of further battles against the French during 1417-19, capturing the cities of Caen and Rouen before concluding the Treaty of Troyes (1420).

This practice of royal military noblesse oblige in the British Isles continued unabated throughout the 15th century as in Britain the Plantagenet dynasty (1152-1485) was replaced by the Tudor dynasty (1485-1558). At Bosworth, Leicestershire, on 22 August 1485, the Yorkist king Richard III (formerly Richard, Duke of Gloucester) led an 8,000-strong army against an invading Lancastrian force a quarter its size led by rival Henry Tudor. Richard personally attacked Henry's bodyguard, killing several knights, but was betrayed by the forces of Sir William Stanley at the critical moment. Surrounded by his enemies and fighting on foot after the loss of his horse, Richard was heard to cry 'God forbid I yield one step. This day I will die as a king or win'. It was to be the former: Richard was butchered in a nearby swamp. He was the last English king to die in battle. Henry Tudor was crowned Henry VII on the battlefield.

English royal participation at the head of competing armies similarly showed little sign of redundancy during the Tudor era (1485-1558) and on until the twentieth century. King Henry VII (1485-1509) and Henry VIII (1509-1547) both led royal armies into battle. And Henry's daughter, Elizabeth I (1558-1603) proved a formidable Queen. Her political leadership ensured the huge Spanish Armada of Philip II was defeated in its attempt to invade England in 1588. 54 years later, as the Thirty Years War was reaching its climax in Europe, the Stuart King Charles I (1625-49) was also to command his army in person – unsuccessfully - at the Battle of Edgehill (1642). In turn, King William III (William of Orange 1689-1702) defeated the army of pro-Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne (1690) in Northern Ireland. Then, in the 18th century, the Hanoverian monarch George II (1727-1760) became the last British king to lead troops in battle in 1743. At the Battle of Dettingen – 70 miles east of Frankfurt - he defeated a 70,000-strong French army under the Duc de Noailles.

Polish royal reputation reached its apogee in the 17th century - with the reign of Jan III Sobieski. Sobieski was the military hero of the battles of Warsaw (1656) and most famously as the defender of Christendom itself. At the crucial Battle of Vienna (1683) he defeated the invading Ottoman Turks decisively. Repelling the Muslim forces just outside the city, his military prowess ensured that Ottoman ambitions toward Western Europe reached their high watermark, never to recover. Like Henry V for Britain, he emerges as perhaps Poland's most successful and competent royal military commander and was feted across the capitals of Europe for his heroism.

But Poland's fortunes were about to change for the worse. Her status as a leading European monarchy was shattered after a three-stage partition was forced upon her by Russia (under Catherine the Great) and neighbours Prussia and Austria in 1772, 1793 and 1795. In 1795, King Stanislaw II August Poniatowski, last monarch of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was forced to abdicate. Poland then endured humiliating partition until 1918. Poland's royal history was over.

Recent royals on the font line

The same was not true for Britain. The saga of British royal military leadership persisted throughout the 20th century and continues today.

In 1914, during the First World War (1914-18), Prince Maurice of Battenberg – a grandson of Queen Victoria- was killed by German shellfire in Flanders. The future Edward VIII – of 1936 Abdication Crisis fame - also served during 1914-18, visiting the front frequently in his role as Edward, Prince of Wales. In September 1915, the prince's staff car was shelled just after he had got out. His driver was killed. Prince Edward's brother Bertie – later George VI – also served during the Great War as a junior naval officer aboard HMS Collingwood during the Battle of Jutland in 1916. In the Second World War, 39-year-old Prince George, Duke of Kent (uncle to HM Queen Elizabeth II) died on active service in a military air crash in northern Scotland in August 1942. The Duke had previously worked closely with British military intelligence over the Rudolf Hess affair and was flying to Iceland aboard a Sunderland flying boat to confirm an expected liaison role with US forces.

In 2009, the current British Royal family has two other members with direct experience of warfare. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh- Harry's grandfather – participated in several naval battles during 1939-45. Prince Andrew, Duke of York (Harry's uncle) was a naval officer for 22 years and during the Falklands War (1982) served as a naval helicopter co-pilot. With Prince Harry and also his brother Prince William - the latter currently training as a RAF helicopter pilot- this royal record of service has found a new generation.

For Poland – whose forces served alongside their British allies against Nazi Germany with the utmost valour during the Second World War- the 21st century has brought further shared Anglo-Polish experience against external enemies. As members of NATO, military cooperation has continued with troops from both nations serving in coalition operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Poland contributed soldiers from 2003-2008; Britain will withdraw the vast majority of her own forces by May 2009.

The military fortunes of both countries were thus forged both by royal dynasties and outstanding senior military commanders. From the Dark Ages onwards, inspirational kings and princes- imbued with deep Christian faith- made the vital difference between defeat and victory. It is also true that individual monarchs in both countries left tyranny and military incompetence in their wakes. But the greatest of them –including Henry V for Britain and Jan Sobieski III for Poland- shared essentially the same qualities. Both evinced classic martial virtues in abundance – above all personal courage and advanced political/strategic appreciation. Both adhered to the concept of service to a greater ideal and a willingness to share physical and mental hardship with the soldiers who followed them.

The next chapter of royal leadership in battle is yet to be written. But the British Lion and Polish Eagle know the battlefield well.

* * *

Copyright © 2009 Ronan Thomas 

Written by Ronan Thomas. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Ronan Thomas at:

About the author:
Ronan Thomas is a British journalist published in over 40 leading newspapers and magazines. His great uncle served in the Ypres Salient during 1917-18.

Published online: 03/29/2009.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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