on 1 February 2012
After reading Sean's McGlynn's acclaimed "By Sword and Fire: Cruelty and Atrocity in Medieval Warfare" (2008) and thoroughly enjoying it, I eagerly ordered his next book "Blood Cries Afar: The Forgotten Invasion of England 1216". To be honest I knew very little about these times. In fact I didn't even know, or was even taught at school, that England had even been invaded by France. I knew, of course, that England had been visited forcibly by the Romans, Anglo Saxons, Vikings etc in our glorious past, but nothing about France's attempted conquest in 1216.
Before we get to 1216 McGlynn gives us some background to the lead up to France's invasion. The Book's first chapter "Enemies: The Angevin-Capetain Struggle" starts off with Henry II; "When, at the age of 21, the young Henry Plantagenet ascended the throne of England in December 1154, he established a new royal dynasty, the fame of which ensured its name would echo through the ages." Henry II, whose reign ends in defeat and humiliation, is followed by Richard I and then John. This chapter is followed by "The Conquest of Normandy 1200-1204," War, Politics and the First Invasion Attempt, 1205-1213," "The Battle of Bouvines, 1214," "Magna Carta, Civil War and the Countdown to Invasion, 1215" until finally being followed by "The Invasion of England, 1216" the crux of the book. All the while the focus is on the exciting events of the time - sieges, campaigns and battles - and the colourful characters that played their part in events.
English barons rebelled in 1215 in the First Barons War against the King of England John, who was detested by his subjects. In an attempt to overthrow King John talks were opened by John's dissenters with Prince Louis. "The Invasion of England of 1216" was a fascinating time, or should I say defining times, for England? Defining times that could have changed us - England - for all eternity. France's Prince Louis and his blood thirsty army of vagabonds, mercenaries and regular French soldiers marched into England, with the support of English insurgents. Within months of Louis' arrival they had seized control of a massive chunk of the country, which included England's capital: London. On 14 June 1216, Louis captured Winchester after a siege and with a huge campaign he soon controlled over one-third of England. Louis was declared King of England by the rebel barons. Celebration and pomp followed as all London looked on. Not long after, in October, the unpopular King John died. Fate stepped in and the war lasted another bloody 10 months.
These poorly chronicled times in English history were crucial times for our Island and Sean McGlynn gives us a bird's eye view and writes in an easy flowing style and not stuffy, as you occasionally find when academic historians try to cover such events in our history. If you want to know more then you can't go wrong in reading "Bloody Cries Afar" by Sean McGlynn. An excellent and educational read. Full marks to a superb medieval historian.
I am not quite sure how to qualify and categorize this book, as the title I have given to this review tends to indicate. It is probably both at the same time, to a large extent, and this is also one of the elements that might make this book so valuable. It may also be the reason why previous reviewers on Amazon.co.uk have qualified it as "Well articulated history that reads like a novel" or as an "An extended thesis". It does read rather well, despite some repetitions at times, and mostly because the author has a rather superb and exciting story to tell that almost anyone - whether you are British or even French - might be interested in. On the other hand, it also has many of the attributes that you generally find (and expect to find) in a scholarly thesis: in-depth research, discussions of the various issues and interpretations of previous and contemporary historians, over 600 notes and references (which are mercifully pushed to the back of the book) and an extensive biliography. That Sean McGlynn has managed to combine the two without becoming either boring or superficial is perhaps his first achievement.
Then there is the subject he has chosen. It is both original and little know, hence the book's title. It is nevertheless of considerable importance, as the book sets out to demonstrate. What is less obvious perhaps, is that the "forgotten invasion of England" in 1216 is little known on both sides of the Channel, and possibly as important to both British and French. This partly because it is simply not among the bits and pieces of national history taught in school on each side of the Channel. Instead, these tend to focus, respectively:
- on the Norman Kings of England and the Angevin Plantagenets who ruled a larger portion of France than the King of France himself until Philippe II "Augustus", a grand nickname that he received from his own chronicler (a nice piece of propaganda, by the way), on the cruel and incompetent King John, who lost it all, and on Magna Carta, often depicted as the first successful curtailing of royal arbitrary power
- on the French side, school children learn mostly about the "reconquest" of Normandy (which, by the way, had never belonged to the Capetians Kings since it was a King of the previous Carolingian dynasty that ceded the County of Rouen to the Normans of Rolf), the siege and fall of the key fortress Les Andelys, known in France as "Château-Gaillard" and, of course, about the great victory of Bouvines in 1214 over a coalition of French rebel barons, Flemish, the German Emperor and a relatively small contingent of "English" (for lack of a better word)
One of the author's aims is to fill in the numerous gaps in both of these truncated narratives and this he achieves in a rather superb way.
A third element that "made my day" (well, several days, in fact) when reading "Blood Cries Afar" is that it is one of those rather rare cases where a book's title promises much less than what the book's content really deliver. This book is not only about the story of the little known invasion of England by the heir of the King of France, allied to the Anglo-Norman barons which had rebelled against King John. Instead, it is a - mostly military - history of the whole reign of King John, an assessment of his elder brother Richard Lionheart's reign and one of the reign and controversial character of John. It is also a detailed story of the final phases of the first struggle between the Dukes of Normanday who had become by conquest Kings of England and of the Kings of France (with the second phase being the period between 1216 and 1328 and the third being the so-called "Hundred Years War). It is, and finally, according to the author, also the story of the early emergence of the English - and perhaps also of the French - identity, although the book's focus is rather on the former than the latter.
In addition to all of this, you also get, throughout the narrative of the various events, a rather excellent presentation of Medieval Warfare in Western Europe during the second half of the twelth and the earlier part of the thirteenth centuries. All the salient points are presented and explained as the opportinuty to address them comes up when telling the story: the general avoidance of large-scale pitched battles as much as possible, the relatively small numbers on each side in most cases, the emphasis on destroying the economic and human resources of the ennemy (with, of course, all of the associated killing, rapinf, pillaging and burning that this implied), the key importance of castles and fortresses and of siege warfare, and a few other associated elements.
Then, and as if all of this was not already enough, you also get an in-depth analysis of feudal relationships between the King of England and his barons on both sides of the Channel, and of the Kings of England and of France and the latter's vassals and barons. Added to this, and to complete the picture, there is a comprehensive and detailed presentation of the complex diplomatic, religious, financial, political and social relationships between the main players, the opposed Kings, of course (John and Philippe) but also the pope, the Emperor, the King of Scotland and the main feudal lords across both realms. One particularly valuable insight (among quite a few others) is the author's insistence on the importance of building up and keeping "political momentum" throughout the rather long period that this book really covers and which stretches from 1154, when Henry the Second became King of England, to 1217, when Prince Louis finally accepted defeat and returned to France. This is largely because many of the feudal lords involved, and most of those who were vassals of the King of England, were holding lands in the Kingdom of France. It was also because, on both sides, the knights at the very least, and the other categories of population (the clergy and the burghers at least) were also looking out for their own.
This brings up what is a very delicate (and perhaps even a rather controversial) issue which is also a bit of a minefield for a historian of the Middle Ages - that of national identity, patriotism and "pre-nationalism". This is where the book could have somewhat fallen short and it is perhaps the area where the author's case, which is generally carefully layed out, may be sometimes a bit weaker and suffer perhaps from some contradictions. In most cases (although not always), however, the author rather skillfully avoids the numerous and rather sensitive pitfalls that could have made this book somewhat less valuable. One of his strongest points, when making his case for a sense of national identity at an early date in English history, as opposed to the more traditional view that this appeared much latter on, is to state that "the matter of national identity and nationalism encompasses a certain degree of obfuscating semantics on the subject." It is difficult to disagree that in the end, this does boil down to definitions and to the answers to questions such as what is a nation, whay is national identity etc...
Where the author may, however, be on less firmer ground is when he states that 13th century England meets the conditions for patriotism (set by another historian who only sees patriotism emerging in the Early Modern period). To back up this claim, he makes the case that such feelings are nurtured by wars against foreigners. Difficult to disagree here, except for two elements, which somewhat undermine the case: there certainly was a "foreign" invasion of England in 1216 by the heir to the throne of France, but this also took place as part of a civil war opposing barons, knights and mercenaries who largely (with some notable exceptions, such as Welsh archers) or even mostly originated from the other side of the Channel (whether they were of Norman, Angevin, Breton or Gascon descent, in particular) between themselves, whether for King John or against him. For instance, is it possible to state that William Marshall, one of the main characters of this period was "English" (or even French, for that matter)? I am much less sure that the author seems to be. He also makes a case about the common people taking revenge on the retreating ennemy troops (the French) after the defeat of the forces of Prince Louis at Lincoln, the same troops who had ravaged the region on their way to this city and sees this as an example of national feelings. The interpretation here is somewhat questionable on several levels. First, these ennemy troops were not all "French" (meaning having recently sailed into England, to the extent that the term "French" itself is somewhat difficult to define here). Among them, there was also all the followers of the various "English" barons that had rebelled and which were still holding out even after the death of King John. Second, when, as the author describes so well, towns and villages had been pillaged and torched and people had been murdered or raped, regardless of age or sex, and when the survivors see their tormentors coming back weakened and in a very poor conditions, isn't there a much more obvious explanation that calls on human nature - call it retaliation, vengeance or retribution - to put forward rather than concepts of "patriotism" in the early thirteenth century?
A similar point can be made when the author seeks to explain the crucial and crushing naval victory of Sandwitch where Prince Louis' reinforcements, and his last hope of winning were shatered by the fllet of the "Cinque Ports" (which, by that time, were about 20 rather than the 5 original ones). Rather than only taking at face value the statement of one of the sources which credit the English for being "skilled at naval warfare" whereas the French (here again the stereotypes of "English and "French" tend to be a bit overused) "were not used to it", a much simpler explanation (which, to his credit, the author also provides but does not discuss) is that the "English fleet caught the French one of the coast while it was overburdened with all the troops, supplies, materials, war engines and horses that it was carrying. Throughout both Antiquity and the Middle Ages, when one fleet managed to catch another one at such a disadvantage and force a naval battle, the outcome was rather one sided regardless of the respective qualities of the two fleets.
These little reservations (and a couple of other similar points) are not intended to undermine or criticize in any way the author's remarkable work, however. Their only purpose is to show that the case that the author is making is a very difficult one and it may not be as clear-cut as Sean McGlynn would want it to be. Having said this, two very similar cases - and perhaps even more difficult ones to make - would be about whether there was a "Norman Identity" in the late 11th and 12th centuries (which was then subsumed by the English and French ones) and whether it is possible to demonstrate the emergence of a "French Identity" at about the same time as Sean McGlynn sees the "English Identidy" starting to be formed. Each of these topics is a fascinating one and it has exercized a few generations of historians on both sides of the Channel. It obviously continues to do so, and to the extent that it allows us to read books as good as this one, I can only hope that these kind of debates continue.
Highly recommended, regardless of whether your "native" language happens to be English or French.
Regarding further reading on the period, there are numerous books that can be recommended, including at least 2 or 3 excellent biographies of Richard Lionheart and King John. I would perhaps want to include two other titles as possible "companion books" to this one. Both are also mentioned by the author altough they might be less well known. One is J. France's excellent "Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades, 1000-1300", which is the best I have come across so far in an easily accessible and readable format. Another is J. Baldwin's superb "The Government of Philip Augustus (Berkeley, 1986), which is very valuable but much harder to read because written much more in an "academic format". There are, of course, many other biographies of Philip Augustus by numerous French historians, including some that are more recent than this one and also some that may have been translated. Although I have not read all of them (by far), the "safest bet" may however still be Baldwin, if only because some of the others, even when good, can also be a bit biased, and therefore perhaps a bit annoying at times.