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The English Way of War in the Conquest of the British Isles: 1066 – 1745
The English Way of War in the Conquest of the British Isles: 1066 – 1745 
by Chris Dewart

Establishing English rule over the islands of Britain was a long and complex process whose origin can be traced to the Battle of Degsastan in 603, and culminated in the Act of Union of 1707. The Act of Union was last challenged in battle, during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, by a Scottish army under the banner of Charles Stuart. The issue of unification was settled for final with the crushing defeat of the Scottish Jacobites at Culloden Moor in the spring of 1746. Between these events, the one thousand year process of unification featured plenty of intrigue, double dealing and intense rivalry, as well as some foreign involvement, (particularly French). It also featured plenty of military action between England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Victor Hanson and Geoffrey Parker have both identified a version of the Western Way of War, within which England and its successor state Britain, played a significant role. In this review of the conflict we will study the specific English military approach to the ultimate conquest of the British Isles, and establish the existence of a uniquely English Way of War. The story requires us to include some study of English activities outside of the British Isles, in particular at sea and on the European continent, however the focus of the study is on the battles that decided the future of the Welsh, Scots and to a lesser extent the Irish. We will examine the aspects of English society and culture that guided the war making activities of the nation in the method of Hanson, the battles where the adoption of technology enabled England to be a world power along the lines of Parker’s methodology of technological advancement, and the application of battle strategy that led to the domination of the British Isles by the English. In the analysis we will also discuss in less detail the specific methodologies that faced English forces and how they adapted to achieve overall domination of their enemies on the field of battle. Not every battle will be analyzed, but those that were in some way decisive or continued specific English characteristics will be looked at to establish the existence of a consistent approach to warfare.

English society can be divided in one measure by pre 1066 and post 1066. The line divides England from Saxon to Norman/Saxon and represents the only successful invasion of the island that resulted in complete domination. Previous invasions by Jutes, Angles, Danes and Saxons had met with more limited success and established a nation of many nationalities. By the late ninth century the predominant culture and leadership of the majority of England was Saxon in nature. The English society that arose after the Battle of Hastings and ascension of William I to the English throne was a mix of Norman and Saxon cultures, distinctive yet similar. For many years the Normans were most concerned with establishing themselves as the new masters of feudal England. Specifically, there was internal fighting with remnants of the Saxon hierarchy to entrench the new aristocracy. As late as the reign of Henry II, the language of the court of nobility continued to be French. However, the Normans did adopt much of the Saxon culture (traditional laws, festivals etc.), and as a result a unique English society developed. It was distinct from the Gaelic and Celt societies that had settled in Scotland Wales and Ireland. The social order and culture arising in England is a major component of the development of a unique English approach to war, particularly on the islands themselves. The English, apart from other inhabitants of the islands of Britain, developed a manner of warfare that proved particularly effective. The methods were a result of the combination of technological innovation, the cultural proclivity to use innovation, a strong sense of self reliance due to their isolation from the continental powers, a willingness to alter or change strategies as conditions demanded and a society that was the first major western power to adopt early forms of consensus democracy. While participatory democracy would wait for the establishment of Britain, subsequent to the union, we will see the establishment of the unique citizen to monarch relationships that shaped English society.

England’s medieval era kings expended significant time and resources on defense and acquisition of properties, particularly in France during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and these experiences must be considered in the development of the English Way of War. The English combined their seamanship, their infantry tactics, use of cavalry and artillery to establish dominance in the field of battle outstripping the size of their land or their resources. They generally fought against numerically superior forces while in France and the duchies. Even in defense of the nation from the Spanish Armada of 1588, the English navy was vastly outnumbered in ships and men. However, as we will see, in many of these conflicts the English held the upper hand in technology, an asset that contributed to consistent English victories. At home, the English more often fielded the numerically superior force and were able to combine size and technological might in their military pursuits. We will examine if the nature of English society, (in some ways more hierarchical than many others yet also more open to individual rights and democratic principles) contributed to the adoption of, and adaptation to, successful wartime technologies.

The ascension of the Norman aristocracy and consolidation of its power, generally occupied the attentions of the English throne from William I through to Henry II. Ecclesiastically the nation was Catholic; there was no encouragement of “rational” thought specific to the English until Henry II brought a different approach to the throne that would have an impact on English society in general. His attitude is described, as follows in his biography “… his irreverence and contempt of the Church’s sacraments shocked his contemporaries…”[1] It was this lack of religious zeal that freed the English king to establish common law and to encourage more rational thought and behavior within England than other states. Louis VII, a contemporary, was a papal envoy and the Spaniards were in the throes of the religious “reconquista” that would drive the Moslems out of the Iberian Peninsula. Meanwhile, England was developing a legal infrastructure that would promote freedom and protection under the law for all citizens (not as we practice it today but an early antecedent). Henry was particularly critical of the feudal system, he had seen in his own experiences the economic deprivation caused by the self serving interests of the wealthy and powerful barons. The country had been in a state of virtual civil war throughout the previous king’s reign of almost twenty years. Upon his ascension to the throne in 1154 Henry sought to limit the power of the nobles who had emasculated the power of his predecessor (even to Henry’s own advantage at one stage), and had so contributed to the chaos throughout the countryside. “Throughout his reign he acted on these anti feudal principles. Although Henry had a distinct appreciation of justice, it may be doubted if the legal reforms, which were in many ways the most important features of his reign, would ever have seen the light of day had they not tended towards the elevation of the smaller men and the consequent depression of the greater.”[2] The reduction of feudal influence and the promotion of the lesser people were not common to France or other monarchies in Europe. The impact of increasing a citizen’s participation in the economy was liberating to the society in general. Henry’s influence was to remain strong long after his passing and replacement by lesser men. His son, Richard I was an absentee king, and ruled most of his ten years through appointees. His warrior activities created a situation where he “had been compelled by his need for money to allow the people a voice in the assessment of taxes…Taxation and representation became thus linked indissolubly in the national, and the people began to take their first steps to actual self-government.”[3] The English social contract evolution continued and in 1215, King John I signed into law the Magna Carta which further enshrined common rights. The significance of this document cannot be overstated “it was a list of rights and liberties forced upon the king by his subjects…it virtually asserted the principle that the king was subject to the laws of the land as well as his meanest vassal.”[4] Although England could, from time to time, be engulfed by bouts of religious fervor, even as early as the reign of Henry and John we see a unique separation of church and state. “In 1209 John himself was excommunicated. Neither John nor lay society in general seems to have been very worried by this state of affairs; indeed since John’s response to the interdict was to confiscate the estates of the Church it even helped to ease his financial problem.”[5] This reaction is a stark contrast to the more religious states on the continent where such an act would result in significant upheaval. The English, even the top echelon of society, were less blinded by dogma and more practical as evidenced by John’s application of the interdict to relieve his financial issues. This reflects, early in English society, the rational approach referred to by Victor Hanson when he writes that the west in general “placed far fewer religious, cultural, and political impediments to natural inquiry, capital formation, and individual expression than did other societies…”[6] England was particularly ahead of the game in this sense leading to an ability to absorb new ideas and adapt to innovation unfettered by anything more than the risk and rewards of success and failure. In 1265 Simon de Montfort organized The Great Parliament, “At that historic gathering, common men for the first time sat down with the nobility and the bishops... Simon had summoned from two to four “good and loyal men” from each city and borough to attend and take part in the deliberations.”[7] Although de Montfort was ultimately killed at the Battle of Avesham, and his ideas were not universally popular particularly among the nobles, they were ideas that filtered into and became part of English society. Edward I while still a prince led the royalist force at Avesham but he deeply respected de Montfort (who was his uncle). Later as king, Edward promoted parliamentary activities. “Edward had also learned much from Simon which guided him when he became king.”[8] This early development of a more consensual style of monarchism was in contrast to the continental monarchies and can be seen in the style of society and armies that England possessed in the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries. The English monarchy had developed taxation and customs excise in accordance with the European model of the time. However, in England there was a requirement for Parliamentary assent dating back to the twelfth century reign of Henry I. These early signs of democracy characterized the English way of life as well as the organization of the military. Although all landowners were subject to up to 40 days military service to the king, the English developed a market alternative to service called scutage. English landowners would pay scutage to avoid service but covered the cost of a soldier in their place. “In practice most English farmers preferred to pay a tax called scutage, or shield money, instead. Those young men who did go to war could therefore be assured of good wages and would campaign for much longer than the forty days expected of the militia.”[9] This system of willing warriors and convenient avoidance of service created an environment that encouraged the settlement of disputes by armed conflict. “From Edward I’s reign onwards there was no decade when Englishmen were not at war, whether overseas or in the British Isles. Every generation of Englishmen in the later Middle Ages knew the demands, strains, and consequences of war…”[10] The costs of war shaped the development of the tax and customs codes of the times as well. High taxes and success were not particularly popular, but high taxes and defeat were disastrous. The English form of central government was committed to supporting the military activities of a semi professional army, constantly put to use in the interests of the state. The raising of taxes intended to support royal wars began to affect social relationships as early as the reign of Henry I and boiled into open rebellion by the time of John in the early thirteenth century. Parker places centralized state financing as key tenet his Western Way of War, and we see that three hundred years before his military revolution the English were significantly increasing the power of central government, to support their war efforts. Over time the English treasury was hard pressed to meet the needs of the state war machine. By the age of Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada the English navy was cobbled together from both state and private frigates. Oman explains, “For Elizabeth had a very small permanent navy, and had to rely on the defense of her realm mainly on privateers and merchant men hastily equipped for war service. Moreover her parsimony had depleted the royal arsenals...”[11] The English monarch was always under pressure, as a result of parliamentary independence and basic tenets like the Magna Carta, to act in a manner that reflected the dependence on popular support. Taxation or rather refusal to recognize taxes was a major source of landowner power in English society. This social contract, which often led to open rebellion and ultimately a major civil war and regus interruptus in 1650, defined England. As a result the machinery of war depended on the good will of the people to an extent that suggests civic militarism despite the wages paid. Certainly soldiers in England seldom, if ever elected officers as the Scots (and perhaps Greeks before them) did. England did employ large numbers of semi professional paid soldiers throughout the battles that we study herein, while officers were defined by heredity and social station within the nobility. Soldiers were raised throughout English history first by feudal levy, and then by royal levees right up to the Civil War. Parliament in most cases had a say or a veto in these affairs of state. As feudalism wound down in the thirteenth to fourteenth century the English army was typically made up of freemen volunteers fighting for wage and plunder.

The earliest recorded battle between the Scots and the English occurred before either kingdom was fully established on its own. In 603 an alliance of Scots, then being recently derived from Ireland, a contingent of Northern Irish and a force from Clyde met an English army under command of King Athelferth. “Being made up entirely of Englishmen, Athelferth’s army was more uniform in terms of equipment and appearance. The English of this period fought exclusively on foot, though some of their professional soldiers rode horses to reach the battlefield.”[12] As would be somewhat true over the thousand year history of this conflict, the Scots were more prone to raid and retreat tactics. “They preferred ambush or flight to fighting in open battle.”[13] The English formation is described as more immobile. “They formed up in a single mass of infantry….the better armed warriors formed the front rank. They would lock their shields together to create a solid obstacle known as the shieldwall.”[14] Warriors were equipped with wooden spears, and when they were broken or rendered useless the soldiers would revert to their short swords and knives. The tactics of the English reflect their knowledge of Roman tactics which had been used in Britannia for centuries. Descriptions of the confrontation at Degsastan are found in the works of Bede and in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, although little detail is available for modern study. The author Rupert Matthews has placed the scene of the conflict at the hamlet of Dawston in the Tyne valley in what is today southern Scotland. The front line of the English, under command of Athelferth’s brother Theobald, were annihilated in the initial onslaught of the Scots and their allies. “It was at this point, with Aedan’s army disordered after the victory over Theobald that Athelferth and the main English army arrived. The disciplined English surged forward, cutting down the enemy and allowing them no time to reform.”[15] The description is reminiscent of Poitiers and the Roman legions. However this is not a surprise, given the Roman influence in Britain that had lasted almost 500 years from the arrival of Julius Caesar to the fall of the empire in the fifth century. The make up of the armies at Degsastan was similar in theory to those of the Greek hoplites. Matthews wrote, “Most men were not professional soldiers and could afford only minimal time away from the farm for military training.”[16] Thus in the first known battle of the long conquest of the British Isles by the English, they employed citizen soldiers, and heavy disciplined infantry to destroy an enemy who preferred not to utilize these tactics. Although VD Hanson would undoubtedly submit this little known battle as proof of his continuum from Classical Greece, it is more likely that the English force was prepared to fight as they had learned from centuries of Roman imperial influence. In later centuries the English would continue to rely on heavy infantry and discipline to wage war, and the Scots and Irish in many cases would prefer to rely on the hit and run tactics of the barbarians.

It took another three hundred years before the modern delineation of Scotland and England was defined. “Of all the battles fought between the English and the Scots, the one fought at Brunanburth had arguably the most important long term results of all.”[17] During the preceding century the attacks of the Vikings had continuously changed the map of Britain. The result was a patchwork of various principalities, kingdoms and conquered Scandinavian vassal states. Beginning in 926 Athelstan of Wessex and Mercia began a campaign to unite the areas under English and Viking control. This activity created a threat to the northern kingdoms of the Picts and Strathclyde. King Constantine had united the Scots and Picts in the early part of the decade by dynastic marriage. He now took the leadership in attempting to reign in the aspirations of the English king; in this manner he recruited the Vikings as his allies... For its time the force size of this battle would stand out. Archeological evidence has determined that the Viking long ships could carry about 40 men. According to Matthews “One eyewitness states that Olaf Sihtricson brought 615 ships full of fighting men to the Humber.”[18] In combination with the Scots and the army of Strathclyde there would have been about thirty thousand men under arms in support of the Scottish king. The size of the English army can only be speculated; however there were two main forces within the group. There were full time warriors, known as the “Hird”, who represented a king’s guard. And “…a semi trained militia called the Fyrd. A group of families would join together to buy the equipment for one of their number to go to war.”[19] The tactics used at the time were similar and included the shieldwall referred to at the seventh century Battle of Degsastan. Cavalry was not involved in the main battle plan of either side, “…the hearth men (Hird) and richer warriors rode horses on campaign, they invariably fought on foot…..Mounted men were used extensively in pursuit, when they used their extra speed to hunt down fugitives and secure loot or supplies”[20] Athelstan won the battle and by this victory was able to establish dominion over what is today northern England. More importantly, “After the defeat at Brunanburth the non English peoples of Britain never again united to fight the English. It was the last chance they had had to ensure the English remained a small, divided people.”[21] At Brunanburth, unlike the preceding Battle of Degsastan there was no evidence of a significant difference in the battle tactics or equipment of the Scots and English. We can assume that the Vikings wielding the famous battle axe and broad shields were a significant force and that only a disciplined formation could stand their charge and deliver a murderous counter to achieve victory. Since both sides had Vikings either in their employ (English) or as their allies (Scots), and the English came out winners, we can only assume that their shieldwall held together and allowed them victory. By assumption only, we can apply disciplined heavy infantry success to the English in this conflict.

English interest in conquest of their neighbors was interrupted temporarily by the invasion of the Normans in 1066. King Harold II faced two almost simultaneous invasions in the succession quarrel following Edward Confessor’s death. He marched his army to the north to defend Norfolk from King Harald of Norway and won a decisive battle at Stamford Bridge, but after fast marching four days to meet this threat, his army was forced to turn south and race to Hastings. Here, the English drew up on the high ground facing the Channel and awaited the attack of the Normans. We will see this tactic again in many of the English battles. Withstand attack and then break the enemy line with counterattack or superior firepower. The English continued to utilize the shield wall as their basic formation, the tactic was to allow the Normans to repeatedly attack until they exhausted their side. The shield wall was placed at the high ground, so that the Normans had to attack uphill. However the Normans also employed more advanced weaponry that the English at Hastings, and although many historians blame exhaustion and numerical superiority of the Normans, Bevin Alexander sees Hastings as a model for change. “William of Normandy used weapons unfamiliar to the Anglo-Saxons to conquer the English king Harold and seize all of England…Harold lost because his forces were armed with pikes, axes and swords whereas William’s army possessed two superior weapons: the bow and armored cavalry.”[22] The English manner of warfare had changed little form the time of Degsastan either in strategy or weaponry. While the battle raged as a set piece of earlier times Harold’s forces stood strong. However when the ultimate error occurred, the speed at which cavalry could strike versus foot men, became the decisive element of the battle’s outcome. When the Bretons on the left flank turned away from the English to flee, the jubilant victors broke the shield wall to give chase. William was able to take full advantage of the breakdown in discipline. “Seeing this crowd flying into the stream bed, William wheeled the horsemen in his center and threw the knights on the English flank. The rash peasants were ridden down and slaughtered in a matter of moments.”[23] The Normans were able to regroup the routed infantry and pressed again to the attack, now equipped with the knowledge that a trap could be sprung. A second retreat, in this case feigned, brought the English out of their shield wall again. A second time William used the speed of his heavy cavalry to smash the now exposed flank of the English resulting in significantly more casualties. The shield wall continued to hold, but, “Between assaults, William directed his archers to pour high angle volleys into the English wall.”[24] The tactic wounded many of the English and ultimately killed Harold on the field. By the end of the day the English abandoned their positions and fled to the countryside. “The stationary tactics of men wielding axes, spears and swords had failed before William’s combination of archers and cavalry.”[25] This was one of the last times that the English would lose a decisive conflict for failure to adopt and adapt to newer technology. Although it would not end the English use of infantry, it did introduce the importance of the archer and the horseman to the English Way of War.

Within 150 years of the conquest of England by the Normans, the association of the two states came to a conclusion. In 1204, King John became a truly English king when he was forced to give up his claim to the duchy as well as many other of the inherited French lands. “The loss of Normandy (1204) meant that the Channel became a front line of defence.”[26] By the Treaty of Paris in 1259 “Peace with France meant that for the first time a king of England could, if he wanted to, concentrate his attention on his British neighbours.”[27]

The internal strife of John and Henry III reigns distracted English interest from expansion on their northern and western borders. The ascension to the throne of Edward I initiated a change in that situation. Late in his reign Henry III had reasserted royal domination and Edward, a recently returned Crusader was a decisively motivated autocrat with strong military interests. Wales, which had long been somewhat dominated by the English crown was the focus of his interest from 1276 to 1284. Although the campaigns against the Welsh during this period is more a story of perfidy of the Welsh princes, the most significant advancement of the English Way of War was the construction of significant stone castles, arrayed to establish and maintain strict English control of the Welsh countryside. The chain of fortifications proved their value in crushing the rebellions of 1287 and 1294-95, and it was an early example of Parker’s thesis that with the development of more advanced fortifications, “military leaders were compelled to increase the size of their armies, to improve the discipline and lengthen the service of their men, and pursue a strategy of carefully calculated attrition.”[28] The Welsh neither possessed the men nor the armor to challenge these virtually impregnable fortresses and in effect the English were able to wage the strategy of attrition against the rebels.

The English were now able to turn their full attentions northward to Scotland and between 1297 and 1314, the English and Scots fought three major engagements which led to the confirmation of an independent Scottish throne for another 300 years. These battles featured the incorporation of new technology and tactics in the English Way of War, adopted from the Norman and Crusader influence. The most significant change from earlier battles was the addition of the heavily armored knights. Although small in terms of the total number of men, the cavalry’s role was to smash and break the opposing shield wall and allow the accompanying infantry to take advantage of the holes created in the enemy line. Second was the addition of the longbow archers, able to accurately fire up to 3 to 4 bolts per minute and capable of piercing armor at up to 100 yards. Finally the English army at this stage was moving away from the feudal structure and included more professional paid soldiers, “Probably half the English infantry was made up of freemen serving for pay.”[29]

At the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, the English are estimated to have had about three hundred mounted knights amongst the estimated ten thousand infantry. “Although most of the men in any English army were raised on the basis of feudal levy, they would serve much longer than the standard forty days in return for cash payments”[30] The knights were landholders who held estates from either the king or from other noble families. In this case the Scottish army led by William Wallace represented a version of Hanson’s civic militarism. The estimated seven thousand (Matthews) to forty thousand men (Costain) (“great exaggeration in numbers disfigures all the chronicles of the time”)[31] were from what was referred to as the Common army. “The Common Army was the Scots nation in arms, made up of one man from every ploughteam, or carucate. Effectively this meant that each group of five or six families, which joined together to afford a plough and the oxen to pull it, was also expected to produce one man for the army.”[32] The English tactics by this time revolved around timing an effective heavy cavalry charge at the enemy infantry. The archers and infantry were used to soften resistance and this allowed the English commanders at the time to launch the cavalry at a specific instance in which they felt the opposition might collapse under the pressure of the full mounted charge. The old shield wall had been replaced by constabulary blocks which could be formed to fight independently or en mass together depending on the situation. If required the constabulary blocks could act exactly like a shield wall, other times they would break to allow the cavalry to charge through them and into enemy lines. While this tactic was effective on the normal open plain of battle, the topography of the selected battle ground limited the effectiveness of the English tactics. They were forced to cross a bridge in columns meaning that at any given time they would have some percentage of their force on the wrong side of the river. The English were never able to bring the full effect of their superior weaponry or training into the battle zone in part due to the collapse of the old bridge under the weight of the crossing cavalry. The Scots employed a version of the shield wall called the shiltron. This formation was a square of men bearing 12 foot spears and broad shields. The spears were anchored in the ground on an angle that prevented horsemen from breaking through the ranks, the shields were linked together to protect the body of the men. At the center of the shiltron stood the Scottish archers, who were less accurate and deadly with their smaller bows, but could deliver results from short paces. The choice of the battlefield reflected the English disdain for Scottish fighting ability, and at no point could the English utilize the ground to bring the skill and strength of their whole force to bear upon the Scots. “What followed was a supreme test of the generalship of Wallace. He had to choose unerringly the right moment to strike.”[33] After an initial unsuccessful undermanned cavalry charge the Scots broke from the shiltrons and engaged the outnumbered English infantry in hand to hand combat. Now was the time for the effective English heavy cavalry charge, the Scots would be broken and unable to reform the shiltrons. The remainder of the heavily armed English knights pounded across the bridge to inflict the final damage. However engineering acumen may have been the Achilles heel of the English, Stirling Bridge collapsed under the weight of the horsemen before a third of them could make the battlefield. The small number of horsemen who had made it simply brushed through the infantry fighting to no effect perhaps seeing that their cause was lost and the Scots inflicted a complete rout on the remaining stranded English infantrymen. While Hanson’s approach to the Western Way of War might be to credit the free yeomen of Scotland with this victory, the real reason is the technological advantages of the English, the longbow and the mounted knights were completely negated by the site of the battle. The defeat rested at the feet of the English commander the Earl of Surrey John de Warenne and his lieutenants and their arrogant disregard for the fighting prowess of Wallace and his army. Still, the Battle of Stirling Bridge may be a better example of the Scottish Way of War, from free men infantry to the appearance of the shiltron and the dynamic leadership of William Wallace.

The defeat at Stirling simply prompted the direct attention of the English king Edward I to the conflict and in 1298 he personally led a large English army into Scotland to challenge Wallace and to exact fealty from the Scottish nobility. The English would now be enabled, with quality leadership, to unleash their technological superiority and test the mettle of Scotland’s yeoman warriors. At Falkirk, the English utilized horse and bow to deliver a decisive victory that would shatter organized resistance to England for the next decade. The engagement at Falkirk, came only a year after Stirling Bridge, so the technology and the make up of the two armies had changed little. The English did however have a much larger contingent of mounted knights for this battle. “Most knights with Edward were paid fighters, but they were distinctly less professional than infantry. Knights were more inclined to ignore orders and make their own minds up about what needed doing.”[34] The knights were typically from more aristocratic families and fought for glory and honor, in the new tradition of chivalry. The unreliability of the horsemen challenged the disciplined English tactics. Falkirk featured the problems with the knights as well as the adaptation of archery techniques to break up the previously impregnable shiltrons.

The initial mounted charge of the English knights was not part of Edward’s battle plan, and it failed to break the shiltrons and cost many English knights their lives. The shiltrons were only vulnerable if they could be weakened, and the English king determined that the only way to weaken them was to employ an entirely new aerial bombardment tactic. Instead of utilizing the accuracy of the longbow, the English now relied on its volume. Grouping his archers into massed formations the English rained arrows down on the relatively lightly armed Scots. “About 30,000 arrows a minute rained down on the closely packed and unarmoured men in the shiltrons. The powerful longbow arrows tore through flesh and bone, even cutting through the small shields of the Scots…”[35] Heretofore the archers job had been one of accuracy, now the bows were turned into an aerial weapon and by sheer volume created a completely new killing force.. The shiltrons began to fall apart and a renewed cavalry charge smashed through the remnants and began the rout. The English had adapted to the shiltron defense, and utilized their superior technology to achieve a decisive victory. In contrast the Scots had not adopted new technology, the archers at Falkirk continued to use the short hunting bow and were therefore less accurate and less deadly at any range over 50 yards. They had added the mounted knight, but in either an act of treachery or self interest the Scot knights had turned away from Falkirk early in the battle. The defining piece of Scot infantry tactic, the shiltron had worked against the mounted charge as designed, but had fallen victim to adaptation of the longbow. Falkirk is a significant example of the English Way of War and the willingness to engage new tactics and optimize the impact of the available technology. The technique used at Falkirk against the shiltron defenses, would later be used in France against the mounted knights of the French with similar and even more deadly result.

The period after Falkirk was a time of continued guerilla warfare on the part of the Scots. The loss at Falkirk had essentially destroyed the set piece infantry fighting power of the Scots. Robert Bruce and the remaining Scottish leadership fought a war of hit and run tactics. These were small bands of men, with a high level of determination to throw off the English presence. The English were unable to engage in a major decisive battle, and were therefore constantly pursuing the Scots in small forays and revenge burning of local towns. The large fortresses were the only safe havens for Englishmen north of the border in these times. Slowly, the Scots had forced the surrender of some of the castles, not with heavy siege but by withholding sustenance from the surrounding area to the garrisons. The Scots did not choose open battle lightly, William Mackenzie points out that, “It was no part of his strategy to allow himself to be brought face to face with the armed forces of England in the field, where the chances would all run in favour of the enemy, so greatly superior in numbers and equipment.”[36] Tactics and methods of both sides in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 were essentially identical to Falkirk, with one major exception. Robert Bruce realized that the longbow archers gave the English a major advantage in open field battle at distance. The armies were made up differently as usual; Mackenzie describes the Scots versus the English as “It was a simple democratic army against a twin but unjointed feudal assemblage”[37] In the classic terms of Victor Hanson this can be seen as the yeoman volunteer against the professional soldier. Although the Scots continued to use the shiltron formation, Bruce, learning from disaster at Falkirk, drew his line of battle within a forested area. The result was that English arrow barrages were broken by the cover and the shiltrons stood their ground. On the morning of the second day the Scots moved to the attack, catching the English by surprise and allowing the Scot infantry to close in for hand to hand combat and neutralize the formidable archery advantage... “Crammed between the river and the burn, the English could not deploy to make their numbers count.”[38] In a similar situation to the field disadvantage experienced by the English at Stirling Bridge, the Scottish infantry force destroyed the English. Again as at Stirling Bridge, command decisions concerning encampment and choice of the field of battle overcame the advantage of the superior English war machine. Mackenzie described the position of the English army at the conclusion of the first day of battle. “It faced the enemy nearly parallel to its own line of advance, so that retrial was possible only by one flank and then over a serious obstacle; to the other flank and the rear was a dangerous river, with hostile country beyond. The ground was too restricted to allow any freedom of movement, and round the lines it was soft and treacherous.”[39] The Scots used this natural disadvantage to win a decisive victory. We can describe it as decisive because the English King Edward II fled the battlefield, a third of his army was killed and the Scots retained their independence for almost three hundred years. In the aftermath of the debacle at Bannockburn the Scots captured the English baggage train “…its rich clothes, its gilt and silver vessels, and all the luxurious equipment of the noble campaigners estimated in money value at 200,000 pounds, or in modern proportion between two and three million pounds.”[40] Although large baggage trains were common to armies of the era this one would have been particularly attractive given the large number of nobles attendant to the English cause.

It was a little known battle that again showed the ability of the English army to adapt technology to application. Initially the long bow was used as a single to single target projectile. Edward I “was the first ruler to recognize the importance of the weapon, and he began pushing English yeoman farmers to wield it.”[41] The direct aim method advanced to the aerial bombardment, thousands of arrows released to fall amongst massed formations of men. Now in 1332 a significant alteration in formation of the archers created another tactical advantage for the English that would lead to victory in conflict in both Britain and on the continent. At Dupplin Muir the English spread their bowmen out to the flanks of their infantry center, moving them ahead of the center so that the battle line resembled a half moon. The tightly packed Scottish shiltrons attacked directly into the center of the English line. “As the opposing forces stood pressed together, their spears locked, the English archers closed in on side, pouring deadly shafts into the Scots and driving them in toward the middle.”[42] The tactic was a total success and “…the battle of Dupplin Muir was the turning point of English arms.”[43] Edward III used the formation again in a victory over the Scots at Halidon Hill in 1333 and then exported the tactic to the continent where his numerical disadvantage demanded superior skills. “Edward realized he could never match the numbers of men-at-arms the French could place in the field, and had to stand on the defensive. A defense could seldom bring victory, but a defensive system like that at Dupplin Muir might transform his prospects…”[44] The dominance of the heavy cavalry charge as a way of war on the continent, combined with the uniquely undisciplined behavior of the knights turned this tactic into a deadly slaughterhouse. At Crecy, in 1347, using three half moon formations on a battlefield of his own choosing Edward awaited the advance of the French cavalry. The French rode directly at the men at arms in an effort to break the line, again as at Dupplin but in greater numbers the flanking bowmen fired into the middle at random and with as many repetitions as possible. “By far the greatest loss to the French came from the English longbow men, who maintained their positions on the flanks all through the engagement. Yet the assaults of the French were always directed at the dismounted men at arms.”[45] The English had introduced two innovations to the continent. Edward “had dismounted his armored knights, and lined them up like an ancient Greek phalanx…He followed exactly the principle to defend then attack, for he not only ushered in a new tactical formation- dismounted men at arms – but he also combined it with a superior weapon: missile power…”[46] The tactic was repeatedly successful against the French at Poitiers in 1356 and again in 1415 at Agincourt. Although the French tried to copy the dismounted formations they did not possess the longbow men that raked the field with deadly missiles, resulting in even worse carnage and defeat in the subsequent fights.

By 1405 the English had incorporated the grandfather of artillery, the bombard, in their arsenal. “Berwick-upon-Tweed’s Scottish soldiers surrendered in 1405 after the single English bombard had fired a single round.”[47] The use of siege guns began in England in the mid fourteenth century and like the longbow experience the English immediately set about to increase their advantage with the guns. The first major confrontation in the British Isles to feature both artillery and drilled infantry forces were Flodden in 1513. At Flodden there was traditional infantry and some heavy cavalry and of course long bow men in the English ranks. In addition however “both armies had artillery on the filed of battle”[48] . Although slow and fairly inaccurate and many historians discount it, cannon could have devastating impact on morale. Matthews points out, “Finally, there was the effect a cannon ball had on the human body. Soldiers were accustomed to the effects of swords or axes on their colleagues….a man hit by a cannonball simply ceased to exist. Arms, legs and bones were flung about as the body disintegrated…These early guns were terrifying.”[49] Both sides opened the artillery initially in an attempt to demoralize the other. The Battle of Flodden accomplished little strategically but stands out for its implementation of artillery in battle between England and the Scots.

The implementation of artillery pieces was not restricted to land based activities. The English equipped their ships with cannon as well. Naval warfare of the fifteenth century dramatically changed with the introduction of sailing against the wind. This new technique made ships able to bring more power to bear further than ever before from the home country. It also made navies far more important in setting up land encounters. In 1588 the Spaniards launched an armada north to potentially seize the English throne. The smashing English victory was further testimony to English technological adaptation and creativity. In this contest the English unveiled a device for cannons called the four wheel truck. “This innovation, which marked perhaps the greatest step forward for the ship-of-the-line, enabled the English fleet to deliver their fire more consistently, and therefore more effectively into the more numerous Spanish vessels.”[50] The plan of battle for the Spanish was ramming, short distance cannonades and boarding. This tactic proved ineffective against the longer range easily (at least more easily) loaded English cannons. The English ships were more heavily armed than the Spaniards, “But they were much more seaworthy, and were armed so heavily with artillery that it was found that an English ship could throw a broadside of the same weight of metal as a Spaniard of almost double its size.”[51] Thus, utilizing fire ships, a very old tactic, their superior artillery technology and superior ships the English defeated the Spaniards and set new precedents for war at sea. More importantly for our study the English proclivity for advancement led to another victory, in this case insuring their hold on Britain.

The final major battle that we will consider is Culloden Moor in 1745. Although technically it was a British army versus Scottish rebels, it deserves consideration as the ultimate example of the English Way of War and the establishment of the British or fully Western Way of War by the British military. The dispute that led to Culloden was related to the hereditary claim on the English throne by the Stuart family. James II was overthrown in 1688 by his daughter Mary and her consort William of Orange and exiled to France. Mary and her sister died childless, leading the English throne to be given to a very distant relative of the royal family. Meanwhile James hereditary heirs laid a claim on the throne themselves. A minor rebellion fizzled in 1715, but a more significant and final challenge was launched from Scotland in 1745 by Charles Stuart, a grandson of James. Surrounding himself with a loyal cadre of Scotsmen, Charles took the entire country and eventually invaded England itself. Finding far less support than he had been relying upon, Charles retreated back into Scotland. In April the final Scottish army, exclusively men raised by loyalty to their clan chiefs faced a professional eighteenth century army of English and some Scottish regiments. The English combined heavy artillery, light artillery with grapeshot, cavalry armed with musket, pistol and saber and professional well drilled and experienced heavy infantry equipped with musket and bayonets. The Scots, against the advice of the most seasoned Jacobite general, Lord George Murray selected an open plain upon which they hoped to break the English with an infantry charge. The British commanders had devised a new formation, learned from earlier successful Highland charges. “The regiments were to fight standing still, bayonets fixed, forcing the Highlanders to attack. The front rank was to kneel, while the rear two ranks kept up a rolling fire over their heads…”[52] In a perfectly executed combination of force and tactic, the English army first decimated the Scot ranks with long artillery, then broke the resultant charge with light artillery and precision musket volleys. Finally, English dragoons fell upon the broken infantry ranks and slaughtered the isolated units at will. In its precision, discipline and the amoral slaughter in the aftermath of victory, Culloden was the apex of the English Way of War practiced within the British Isles themselves.

Although I cannot accept that England’s might arose as a result of continuity from Classic Greece, I do believe that Hanson’s general comment that, “The effective use of guns requires the marriage of rationalism and capitalism to ensure steady improvement in design, fabrication and production, but in addition an egalitarian tradition that welcomes rather than fears the entrance of lethal newcomers on the battlefield.”[53] can be used, to loosely describe the English advantage. A society that marries rationalism and capitalism, welcomes innovation and pursues steady improvement in arms and tactics and is willing to forge the results in constant battle will become a powerful enemy. The English undoubtedly proved this from Degsastan to Culloden in the creation of the United Kingdom.

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Show Footnotes and Sources

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Copyright © 2008 Chris Dewart.

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

About the author:
Chris Dewart is currently studying for a Master's in Military History from Norwich University and will graduate in June of 2009. He has an undergraduate degree from the University of Windsor and an MBA from the University of New Haven. He has spent many hours touring the battlefields of medieval England as well as the WWI cemeteries and battlefields of northern France.

Published online: 10/30/2008.

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