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The Best volume so far in the Outlaw series ?
on 19 July 2012
This is volume 4 of the Outlaw series (after Outlaw, Holly Warrior and King's Man). It is focused on the five last years of the reign of Richard Lion Heart (from 1194 to 1199), after his release from captivity, and his constant struggle against Phillip II, the King of France. Again, we find Robin Earl of Locksley, and his men (including Little John and his fearsome battle axe) and Alan Dalle, the warrior trouvère whom Angus Donald has equated with Blondel. As another reviewer mentioned, it might be preferable to read the books one after the other, although this is not absolutely necessary to enjoy this one.
The first thing I particularly liked about this volume was the topic. As Angus Donald mentions in his historical note, there are many books on King Richard but few that concentrate on his last years. This one does, and, as usual, the author manages to tell a superb, exciting and very historically accurate story. Although on paper King Richard I was much more powerful than his liege lord King Philip, the latter was a cunning diplomat who kept detaching Richard's vassals from him and encouraging them to rebel against the King of England throughout Aquitaine, Touraine, Anjou and Normandy, just like his father (King Louis VII) and grand-father (King Louis VI) had done in their time against previous Kings of England and Dukes of Normand. The author, who acknowledges drawing heavily from John Guillingham's magisterial Richard I, clearly shows how Richard put up a spirited defense and struggled for 5 years to reconquer, one by one, almost all of the castles and fortresses that had been lost during his captivity. It also shows him as the charismatic, energetic and skillful warlord that he was. Even what appear at first glance to be his acts of reckless bravery seem to have been mostly calculated risks, including those taken to win his victorious battle at Gisors.
There is much more to the book than this. The second excellent point is that it shows what medieval warfare was really like, with all its horrors, pillaging and massacres. It also shows war generally opposing relatively small armies - a few hundred or a few thousand on each side - with each trying to subdue and conquer the others castles and fortified towns through sieges and doing their best to avoid pitched battles where everything could be lost all of a sudden. These were wars of sieges, skirmishes and ambushes and rapid movement. The importance of siege warfare, and of capturing enemy castles quickly before they could be rescued, is very well illustrated in the book and the descriptions related to Château Gaillard are accurate. I particularly liked the two assaults on Verneuil and Milly and the hand-to-hand fighting on the walls. They were also wars that could only be sustained for a short periods so that they were many temporary truces. All of this is very well shown in the book, including the effects of war on the men (with one of our heroes being subject to what is now called post traumatic disorder) and the kind of behaviors that professional warriors such as the routiers (mercenaries) of Mercadier (who really existed and really served faithfully Richard until his death).
However, this volume is not only about warfare. More generally, it paints the picture of daily life and of the feudal world at the end of the 12th century whether in Alan Dale's manor or in Paris which was under major construction at the time, as indicated in the book (but I will not mention anything more to avoid spoilers). We also learn much more about Alan Dale's father, and why he was murdered, so there is a bit of a detective story's flavor added to it at times and even the Holy Grail comes into it.
Readers should also be aware that the portrays of the two Angevin brothers are largely (although not entirely) the traditional ones: Richard Lion heart "the hero" and John "Lackland" "the villain". Despite this, Richard, at least, was not caricatured: some of his less savoury sides are also shown. As for John, he has been so reviled that it has always been very difficult to come up with a case in his favor, although some have tried. I have two final little quibbles, perhaps, but certainly not enough for this book to be anything else than five stars.
- First, a "slip of the pen": contrary to what is mentioned, neither of Richard's grand-fathers (Geoffroy, Count of Anjou and William, Duke of Aquitaine) ) was Duke of Normandy, although his father (King Henry II and his great grand-father (Henry I Beauclerc, the last of William the Conqueror's sons) were
- Second, Aliénor of Aquitaine was not present when Richard, her favorite son, died of his wound at Châlus.
Also, for those interested in further reading in some of the topics covered in this book, I can recommend the following titles, in addition to the John Guillingham's book mentioned above:
- John France's Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades (1000-1300)
- Blood Cries Afar: 1216 by Sean McGlynn, which, despite its title, covers the last years of Richard's reign and the whole of John's reign.