Book Corner: South of Burnt Rocks

Over on The Review blog!

Read my review of G.J. Berger‘s wonderful South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon.

 “After three great wars, Rome has crushed Carthage. Now the undefended riches of Iberia beckon–gold, tin, olives, wine, and healthy young bodies to enslave. Burnt Rocks tells the story of Lavena, last child of the strongest remaining Iberian tribal leader at a time when Rome plunders and loots her land. At times helped only by her father’s favorite dog, a special horse, or guided by spirits of the earth and sky, she strives to unite her people and oust the Roman menace. Based on real characters, places, and events, Burnt Rocks recreates that shadowy history–and eternal human nature rubbed raw.”

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South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon was a wonderful surprise.  It is one of those thought-provoking books that you don’t come across very often; transporting you back in time to the Roman occupation of the Iberian Peninsular. The heroine is a young girl, Lavena, not yet out of her teens, who is trying to fulfill her promise to her parents and save her people, whilst at the same time coming to terms with her father’s past.

Having peacefully co-existed with the Iberian natives, the Roman army has a new leader, and new agenda. They are searching for their lost scouts, for native gold, and eager for slaves. The Romans are relentless but Lavena must find a way to fight them with her small band of devoted warriors.
Among the Roman legions is one man, Martius, who searches for the truth about his missing brother but is also drawn to the ‘barbari’ girl, who appears to him in only glimpses through the trees.
The wonderful prose of the book draws you in,  the language paints its own picture of Roman occupied Spain, respecting the spirits and ancestors of the native tribes and weaving a spell that keeps you enthralled in the book to the very end.
When Lavena has to face a council of elders to give them the news of Rome’s aggression and  to plea for help, the picture is vividly described, the words magically entrancing:
“We humbly come to you, to this village, without any men, because the Roman overseer, Piso, left this land, and Rome sent a monster army in his place.”
The nobles quieted and leaned in further.
“That new army has more fighters and weapons and its killing madness is greater than I know how to tell you – and it comes this way.”…
“They come for all the gold in this land, for the young ones to take back as slaves – and the young women and girls to ruin in a manner none should ever know.”
… She told them what she could of the battle for her village, but not about how her mother and those with her died, not about the real end of the she-warriors. She told them how she fled.
 

 

G.J. Berger recreates the land of the Iberian Peninsular wonderfully; describing the landscape and its people in such amazing language that you can’t help but feel transported there. The contrast with the vast fighting force of the Roman army, the inexorable, unbeatable military machine that moves over the land relentlessly.
The characters are vivid and have a realism to be marvelled at. They are human, suffering through their fears and doubts, making mistakes and sometimes surviving in spite of themselves. You find yourself urging Lavena on, while feeling suitably disgusted at the mean, lascivious, grasping Roman leaders.
Throughout the book, you can feel the author has a strong sense of direction; he knows where he wants to take you, but knows that the journey is what matters. We follow Lavena from her training as a warrior, through the loss of everything she holds dear, to her final confrontation with the Roman army, knowing everything she has been through, everything that has led her to that moment…
I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed reading this novel. It was a surprise from the first words, drawing you in, leading you on Lavena’s journey and seeing the country of Spain in its early days; the landscape itself becoming part of the story. The sights, sounds and smells of Roman Spain invade your mind as you read.
It is hard to believe this is a debut novel. The storyline is impressive, the language polished; everything about it comes from a storyteller of immense skill and vision.
It is a book not to be missed.
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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

Be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

 

The Fascinating Marital Exploits of Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent

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Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent

Joan of Kent was the daughter of Edmund of Woodstock, Earl of Kent and brother of Edward II. Edmund was a younger son of Edward I by his 2nd wife, Margaret of France; he married Margaret Wake in 1325.

Joan was the 3rd of 4 children, and was born on 28/9th September 1328 at Woodstock. When she was just 18 months old, Joan’s father was beheaded for treason on the orders of the Regent, Roger Mortimer and his lover, Queen Isabella; after becoming convinced that his brother, Edward II, was still alive Edmund had become involved in a plot to free the erstwhile king.

Joan’s mother, Margaret Wake, was held under house arrest at Arundel Castle, along with all 4 of her children; Joan’s baby brother, John, was born a month after their father’s execution. Just a few months later, Edward III escaped Mortimer’s control and assumed power; he took over responsibility for the family and Joan, a favourite of Edward’s queen, Philippa of Hainault, was raised at court.

The leading beauty of her day, Joan had little to offer a potential suitor, beyond her looks and keen intelligence. She had grown up in the same household as Edward III’s oldest children; his son and heir, Edward and his daughters Isabella and Joan.

Sometime around the age of 11 it seems Joan secretly married, or promised to marry, Thomas Holland. However, shortly afterwards Holland left on Crusade to Prussia and during  his absence, Joan was married to William Montague, the Earl of Salisbury in 1340/41.

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William Montague, Earl of Salisbury

When he returned Thomas Holland became the steward to the Earl of Salisbury and found himself in the dubious position of working for the man who was married to his ‘wife’. In May 1348 Holland petitioned the pope, stating that Joan had been forced into her marriage with Salisbury. He went on to say that Joan had previously agreed to marry him and that their relationship had been consummated. He claimed her as his own wife, and Joan backed up his story.

It took 18 months for Joan’s marital status to be resolved, and for some of that time Salisbury kept Joan a prisoner; he was ordered to release her in order that she could give evidence at the inquisition looking into her marriage status.

In the mean time, England itself was in the grips of the Black Death, the bubonic plague. In order to lift the country’s spirits the king, Edward III, had arranged a grand tournament at Windsor, on St George’s Day, 23rd April 1349. The knights in contention were founder members of the Order of the Garter; England’s greatest chivalric order, consisting of the king and 25 founder knights, probably founded in 1348, though the date is uncertain.

Joan herself is a part of the legend of the foundation of the Order of the Garter. She is said to be the lady who lost her garter during a ball celebrating the fall of Calais. Edward III is said to have returned the item to the 20-year-old damsel with the words “honi soit qui mal y pense” (evil to him who evil thinks).

Although the story is probably apocryphal, Joan’s connection with the inaugural  tournament is all too true; she brought an added bit of spice to the St George’s Day tournament of 1349. Her current husband, the Earl of Salisbury, fought on the king’s team, while Sir Thomas Holland was on the side of Prince Edward. Joan’s 2 husbands faced each other across the tournament field, with the object of their affection watching from the stands.

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Sir Thomas Holland

Although I couldn’t find the results of the tournament, Joan’s marital status was decided by Papal Bull on 13th November 1349, when the pope ordered her to divorce Salisbury and return to Holland. Which she did.

Joan succeeded her brother, John, as Baroness Wake of Liddell and Countess of Kent in December 1352 and was confirmed in her new titles in February 1353. Sir Thomas Holland, therefore, became Earl of Kent by right of his wife.

Joan and Sir Thomas Holland had 5 children together; 3 sons and 2 daughters. Edmund was born in 1352 and died young. Thomas, Earl of Kent, married Alice, the daughter of Richard FitzAlan, 10th Earl of Arundel; he died in 1397.  Their 3rd son, John, was created Duke of Exeter in 1397 by his younger brother, King Richard II. He married Elizabeth of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster, but was executed in 1400 for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Henry IV and return his brother to the throne.

Of their daughters, Joan married John V, Duke of Brittany (who would marry Joanna of Navarre as his 2nd wife, the future queen-consort of Henry IV), but died in 1384. Their youngest child, Matilda, was born in 1359 and married twice; Sir Hugh de Courtenay, who died in 1377, and then Waleran of Luxembourg, Count of St Pol and Ligny. Matilda died in 1391.

At the end of 1360 Sir Thomas Holland, a veteran soldier who had fought in the Crecy campaign, died and Joan was left a widow.

Edward Prince of Wales – the Black Prince – may have offered comfort to the Lady Joan, his friend from childhood. Although a widow with 5 children, and bringing no beneficial foreign alliance to the marriage table, Joan and Edward appear to have fallen in love. It was not the political match his father had wanted for the heir to the throne, but all attempts at a marriage alliance with a princess from the Low Countries had come to nought; and it seems the king was quite happy to accept his son’s choice of wife.

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Edward, the Black Prince

It must have caused quite a scandal at the time. Although a reputed beauty, Joan’s bigamous marriage to William Montague was well-known – and he was still alive. She had 5 children by her 1st husband, Thomas Holland. Moreover, she was 33 years of age, 2 years older than her prince. She hardly appeared ‘queen’ material.

However, according to the Chandos Herald Joan was “a lady of great worth…. very beautiful, pleasing and wise”. Edward III sent one of his own people to the pope to ask permission for the marriage, which was swiftly granted.

With great ceremony Edward and Joan were married at Windsor on 10th October 1361, by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Shortly after the wedding, the couple moved to Berkhamsted, where the king visited them after Christmas.

In 1363 they moved their entire household to Bordeaux, after the prince was given the Duchy of Aquitaine by his father. Their court there was lavish, exceeding the king’s own in brilliance.

In 1365 their first child was born; a son, Edward of Angoulême. His brother, Richard of Bordeaux, followed on 6th January 1367.

The chronicler, Froissart, tells the story:

In due course Joan, the princess, went into labour and by God’s grace was delivered of her child. It was a fine son, Richard of Bordeaux, born at Epiphany, 6 January , which that year fell on a Wednesday.

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Edward of Angouleme, from the Wilton Diptych

The child came into the world early in the morning to the great joy of the prince and the whole household, and was baptised the following Friday in the early afternoon on the holy font of St Andrew’s Church in the city of Bordeaux. The child was named Richard and he afterwards became King of England.”

Richard’s baptism was attended by 3 kings; Pedro of Castile, James IV of Majorca and Richard of Armenia. William Thorne, the Canterbury Chronicler, described them as the 3 ‘magi’ (or wise men), as Richard had been born on Epiphany, Twelfth Night; an auspicious sign for a bright future.

The Black Prince wrote fondly to his wife whilst campaigning in Spain: “Be assured, dearest companion, that we, our brother of Lancaster and all the great men of our army are, thank God, in good form.”

Froissart wrote of the Black Prince’s return from Spain, and his arrival in Bordeaux; “Where he was received with great celebrations. Princess Joan came to meet him and had Edward, her eldest son, carried with her; he was then about three years old.”

The Spanish campaign was aimed at supporting Pedro of Castile’s claim to the throne against that of his illegitimate half-brother, Henry of Trastamara. Although the Black Prince managed to re-establish Pedro’s rule, the Castilian king could not pay the English army and Edward, already with a reputation for heavy-handedness in Aquitaine, taxed the duchy in order to raise funds.

However, several of the lords appealed to France for aid. In 1370 Limoges rebelled against him; the Black Prince destroyed it completely, not a building was left undamaged, almost the entire population killed.

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Richard II

Sometime in late 1370 or early 1371 the young family suffered a heartbreaking tragedy. Little Edward of Angoulême died of bubonic plague. He was buried in Bordeaux, his funeral arranged by John of Gaunt and attended by all the great lords of Gascony.

The chronicler Walsingham describes the Black Prince’s actions following the sack of Limoges:

“When he had done this, Prince Edward hurried to return to England, as much because of the infirmities which troubled him, as because of lack of money. Therefore, at the beginning of January [1371], with his wife and small son Richard, and with  his household following behind, he reached Plymouth.”

The Black Prince’s health had been destroyed by a lifetime of campaigning. He returned to England a virtual invalid and died in 1376. Left a widow for a 2nd time, Joan still had custody of her young son and was in charge of Richard’s education until his accession to the throne in 1377.

Edward III died in 1377, leaving the throne to 10-year-old Richard of Bordeaux. In his will he gave to Joan, Princess of Wales, a thousand marks and the free restitution of jewels she had pledged too him.

Despite her marital history, and a reputation for extravagance – she was said to have spent £200 on a set of jewelled buttons – Joan was loved by the English people. It was with her that John of Gaunt sought refuge following the sacking of his Savoy Palace in 1376, when the people were discontented with his rule.

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The Wilton Diptych

Joan was seen as a calming influence of her son, Richard II, and was by his side during the dangerous days of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381; she sheltered in the Tower of London and rode in a whirligig to accompany her 13-year-old son to meet with the rebels at Mile End.

In 1385 Joan’s son, John Holland, while campaigning in Scotland, killed Ralph Stafford, son of the 2nd Earl of Stafford, in a quarrel. He fled to sanctuary at the shrine of St John of Beverley, but was condemned to death. Joan pleaded with her Richard for days, begging him to pardon his brother. She died at Wallingford Castle, sometime in August 1385. The King pardoned his half-brother the following day.

Although the Black Prince had built a chantry chapel for his wife, at Canterbury Cathedral, with ceiling bosses of her face, Joan was not buried at Canterbury with the Black Prince, but at the Greyfriars at Stamford in Lincolnshire, beside her 1st husband, Sir Thomas Holland.

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Pictures taken from Wikipedia.

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Sources: The Perfect King, the Life of Edward III by Ian Mortimer; The Life and Time of Edward III by Paul Johnson; The Reign of Edward III  by WM Ormrod; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; Britain’s’ Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; The Plantagenets, the Kings Who Made Britain by Dan Jones; englishmonarchs.co.uk; The Oxford Companion to British History edited by John Cannon; Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry Edited by Elizabeth Hallam.

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Heroines of the Medieval World

My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

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©Sharon Bennett Connolly 2015

The Complicated Love Life of John of Gaunt

200px-JohnofgauntThe third surviving son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault John of Gaunt was born in 1340 at the Abbey of St Bavon, in Ghent in modern-day Belgium. At the height of his career he was the most powerful man in the kingdom after the king. He was virtually regent for his father, Edward III, in his old age, thus getting the blame for military failures and government corruption. His reputation was further damaged when he blocked the reforms of the Good Parliament of 1376, which had tried to curb the corruption of Edward III’s and limit the influence of the king’s grasping mistress, Alice Perrers.

John of Gaunt’s wealth meant he could form the largest baronial retinue of knights and esquires in the country. He alone provided a quarter of the army raised for Richard II’s Scottish campaign in 1385. A stalwart supporter of his nephew, Richard II, he was the target for the rebels during the Peasants’ Revolt; his London residence, the Savoy Palace, was burned to the ground in 1381.

He was a soldier and statesman whose career spanned 6 decades and several countries, including England, Belgium, France, Scotland and Castile. However, by far the most fascinating part of his life is his love life. John married three times; his wives being two great heiresses and a long-time mistress.

John of Gaunt’s first marriage, at the age of 19, was aimed to give him prestige, property and income and was arranged as part of his father’s plans to provide for the futures of several of his children. John and 14-year-old Blanche of Lancaster, youngest daughter of Henry of Grosmont, Duke of Lancaster, were married on 19th May 1359 in the Queen’s Chapel at Reading.

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Wedding of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster

It is quite likely that John had already fathered one child, a daughter, Blanche, by Marie de St Hilaire before his marriage. Blanche was born sometime before 1360 and would go on to marry Sir Thomas Morieux before her death in 1388 or 1389.

Blanche of Lancaster was described as “jone et jolie” – young and pretty – by the chronicler Froisssart, and also “bothe fair and bright” and Nature’s “cheef patron of beautee” by Geoffrey Chaucer. She brought John of Gaunt the earldom of Lancaster following her father’s death from plague in 1361, and those of Leicester and Lincoln when her older sister, Matilda, died of the same disease in 1362, making him the largest landowner in the country, after the king.

The marriage proved very successful, with 7 children being born in just 8 years, 3 of whom survived infancy; daughters Philippa and Elizabeth and a son, Henry of Bolingbroke.

It has always been believed that Blanche died in 1369, when John of Gaunt was away in France, having moved her young family to Bolingbroke Castle in Lincolnshire, to escape a fresh outbreak of the Black Death, but that she succumbed to the plague while there. However, recent research has discovered that Blanche died at Tutbury on 12th September, 1368, more likely from the complications of childbirth than from the plague, following the birth of her daughter, Isabella, who died young. Her husband was by her side when she died and arranged to have prayers said for the soul of his lost duchess.

She was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral in London. John of Gaunt arranged for a splendid alabaster tomb and annual commemorations for the rest of his life. John also commissioned Geoffrey Chaucer to write The Book of the Duchess, also known as The Deth of Blaunche; a poem that is said to depict Gaunt’s mourning for his wife, in the tale of a Knight grieving for his lost love. In it Chaucer describes Blanche as “whyt, smothe, streght and flat. Naming the heroine “White”, he goes on to say she is “rody, fresh and lyvely hewed”.

Before 1365 Blanche had taken into her household a lady called Katherine Swynford, wife of one of her husband’s Lincolnshire knights. John was godfather to the Swynfords’ daughter, Blanche. Katherine later became governess to Blanche’s two daughters, Philippa and Elizabeth and young Blanche Swynford was lodged in the same chambers as the Duchess’s daughters, and accorded the same luxuries as the princesses.

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Surrender of Santiago de Compostela to John of Gaunt. Constance is the lady on horseback (Froissart)

Katherine was the daughter of a Hainault knight, Sir Paon de Roet of Guyenne, who came to England in the retinue of Queen Philippa. She had grown up at court with her sister, Philippa, who would later marry Geoffrey Chaucer. Whilst serving in Blanche’s household, she had married one of John of Gaunt’s retainers, a Lincolnshire knight, Sir Hugh Swynford of Coleby and Kettlethorpe, at St Clement Danes Church on the Strand, London.

Following Blanche’s death Katherine stayed on in the Duke’s household, taking charge of the Duke’s daughters. However, it was only shortly after her husband’s death in 1371 that rumours began of a liaison between Katherine and the Duke; although it is possible the affair started before Sir Hugh’s death, this is far from certain.

John and Katherine would have four children – 3 sons and a daughter – in the years between 1371 and 1379. They were supposedly born in John’s castle in Champagne, in France, and were given the name of the castle as their surname; Beaufort. However it seems just as likely that they were named after the lordship of Beaufort, which had formerly belonged to Gaunt and to which he still laid claim.

Meanwhile, John had not yet done with his dynastic ambitions and, despite his relationship with Katherine, married Constance of Castile in September 1371. Constance was the daughter of Peter I “the Cruel” and his ‘hand-fast’ wife, Maria de Padilla. Born in 1354 at Castro Kerez, Castile, she succeeded her father as ‘de jure’ Queen of Castile on 13th March 1369, but John was never able to wrest control of the kingdom from the rival claimant Henry of Tastamara, reigning as Henry III, and would eventually come to an agreement in 1388 where Henry married John and Constance’s daughter, Katherine.

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Tombs of Katherine Swynford and her daughter, Joan Beaufort, Lincoln Cathedral

Katherine was born in 1372/3 at Hertford Castle and was the couple’s only surviving child.

John and Constance’s relationship appears to be purely dynastic. There is some suggestion John formally renounced his relationship with Katherine and reconciled with Constance in June 1381, possibly as a way to recover some popularity during the Peasant’s Revolt, following the destruction of his palace on the Thames.

Katherine left court and settled at her late husband’s manor at Kettlethorpe, before moving to a rented townhouse in Lincoln. John of Gaunt visited her regularly throughout the 1380s, and Katherine was frequently at court. With 4 children by John of Gaunt but still only, officially, governess to his daughters, Katherine was made a Lady of the Garter in 1388.

Constance, however, died on 24th March, 1394, at Leicester Castle and was buried at Newark Abbey in Leicester.

John then went to Guienne to look after his interests as Duke of Aquitaine and remained in France from September 1394 until December 1395. When he returned to England, John wasted no time in reuniting with Katherine and they were married in Lincoln Cathedral in January 1396.

John then made an appeal to the Pope and his children by Katherine were legitimated on 1st September 1396, and then by Charter of Richard II on 9th February 1397. However, a later clause excluded the Beaufort children from the succession.

John was a man of renown, of culture and refinement. An amateur poet and friend of Chaucer, who had married Katherine’s sister, Philippa, he was also a patron of Wycliffe and encouraged the translation of the Bible into English.

His complicated love life would cause problems for future generations, with his son by Blanche of Lancaster, Henry, forcing the abdication of Richard II and usurping the throne on 30th September 1399. His Beaufort descendants would be prominent players on both sides of the Wars of the Roses. While his son John, Earl of Somerset was the grandfather of Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, his daughter, Joan, was grandmother of the Yorkist kings Edward IV and Richard III.

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Drawing of the tomb of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster, etching by Wenceslas Hollar, 1658

Katherine would outlive John and died at Lincoln on 10th May 1403. She was buried, close to the High Altar, in the cathedral in which she had married her prince just 7 years earlier. Her daughter Joan, Countess of Westmoreland, was laid to rest beside her, following her death in 1440. Their tombs, however, are empty and they are buried beneath the floor of the cathedral.

John himself died in February 1399, probably at Leicester Castle. He was buried in Old St Paul’s Cathedral, beside his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster. This has often been seen as his final act of love for his first wife, despite the problems John went through in order to finally be able to marry his mistress, Katherine Swynford.

Personally, I think the two ladies, Blanche and Katherine, were his true love at different parts of John’s life. And I hope he had some feelings for poor Constance, who frequently appears as only a means to his dynastic ambitions.

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Article originally published on English Historical Fiction Authors in September 2015.

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Sources: Williamson, David Brewer’s British Royalty; Juliet Gardiner & Neil Wenborn History Today Companion to British History; Mike Ashley The Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens; Alison Weir Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy; Paul Johnson The Life and Times of Edward III; Ian Mortimer The Perfect King, the Life of Edward III; WM Ormrod The Reign of Edward III; Edited by Elizabeth Hallam Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry; Amy Licence Red Roses: From Blanche of Gaunt to Margaret Beaufort; womenshistory.about.com/od/medrenqueens/a/Katherine-Swynford; katherineswynfordsociety.org.uk.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia, except the tomb of Katherine Swynford, © Sharon Bennett Connolly, 2015.

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

Be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly

For King, Country and Glory – Wellington’s Officers in the Peninsular War

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Wellington at the Battle of Salamanca

Sir Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of  Wellington is attributed with saying that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton (although he didn’t actually say it); however, the training ground for many of the officers who commanded at Waterloo was a much more hazardous school – and certainly had nothing to do with cricket.

2015 marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. The final battle in the Napoleonic Wars, Waterloo was the culmination of over 20 years of fighting. Wellington’s officers had earned their experience and reputation in Portugal and Spain, in the Peninsular War of 1807-1814, Napoleon Bonaparte’s ‘Spanish ulcer’.

Having risen through the ranks via the army system of purchase – where rank went to those who could buy it, rather than on merit – he was a colonel by the age of 27 and a major-general at 34. Many officers in the British army advanced this way and, although the system was flawed, it did give us the greatest British general of all time.

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Sir Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington

Practical and meticulous to detail in the day-to-day army administration, Wellington was determined his officers would train their men so they could beat any force they opposed.

He was a master of the battlefield.

Generally, the officers of the Peninsular War were the ‘stiff upper lip’ types. Their letters home spoke of action and adventure, but few officers spoke of their feelings in battle.  These officers were gentlemen who desired glory and lived within a code of honour. Life in war, to them, was a grand experience and the battlefield was where glory could be achieved, if you survived it.

An officer’s life was generally better than that of the men. The officer’s had packs – or haversacks – containing rations (including a charge of rum) and spare equipment, but these were conveniently transported on carts, rather than their backs, like the common soldier.

Retreat, however, showed a less than honourable attitude of some of the officers. Some rode in carts while their men struggled to march – often barefoot. During the retreat to Corunna, in January 1809, there was an incidence of one officer climbing on the back of one of his men, so as not to get his feet wet while crossing a river. This proved a great morale booster for the men, when an even more senior officer ordered the soldier to drop his charge into the river.

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Death of Sir John Moore, Corunna 1809

It was during retreat discipline was most likely to break down. The retreat to Corunna was harrowing for the men and officers; the Spanish winter was harsh and the French were constantly nipping at the army’s heels. Officers used a mixture of encouragement and punishment to cajole the men along. Punishment was harsh; floggings and hangings were inflicted for various crimes.

The army’s discipline depended on the diligence of the regimental officers; men convicted of robber with violence or desertion were hanged, while looters and stragglers risked the lash. The chance of reprieve from punishment was dangled over regiments as a way of getting the men to fight harder when the enemy was close by.

Generals were loved, feared and admired in equal measure. ‘Black Bob’ Craufurd of the Light Brigade was seen as a harsh disciplinarian, but he looked after his men; he led them and suffered with them, marching in their midst and sharing in their miseries. General Roland Hill earned the nickname of ‘Daddy’ due to his care for his troops; his men adored him. And Sir John Moore, killed at the Battle of Corunna having brought the army safely through a harrowing retreat, was mourned deeply, his memory often invoked to encourage the men in the thick of battle.

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Battle of Talavera, 1809

Officers were expected to be brave, to lead their men from the front, wherever possible. An officer was proud to fall injured in front of the regimental colours – leading their men, rather than following. They often waxed philosophical about the “beautifully romantic and heroically sublime”¹ battlefield, while describing the piteous moans of the wounded – men and horses – and the fury of the combatants. The chivalrous sense of honour was a code; one rode straight, spoke the truth and never showed fear.

Many officers considered themselves content and happy in the military life, thinking little about the enemy, except on the few occasions when they were brought to battle. Campaign life for an officer was a combination of adventure, enjoyment and discomfort; although they were expected to lead their men, they rarely kept company with them when not on the march. Officer and soldier were billeted separately wherever possible; the coarse behaviour of the men grated on the refined officer.

If they looked after their men, however, their men would look after them. There are numerous anecdotes of soldiers trying to protect their officers from the enemy, providing their officers with food and souvenirs taken from the enemy. According to Rifleman Harris, an act of kindness from an officer had often been the cause of his life being saved in the midst of battle.

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The Siege of Badajoz, 1812

There were exceptions, of course. An area of Lisbon, known as Belem, was full of officers avoiding the fighting, who fell ill even when only within earshot of a battle. Wellington was happy for unsuitable officers to return home, or at least stay away from the army.

Of those who remained, every officer was a volunteer; they saw the military life as a way of advancement in later civilian life – or as a way to be useful to their king and country. The majority were gentlemen; although their were rare instances of officers having risen from the ranks, these failed to gain the full respect of the common soldier and were not, as a rule, successful.

To many the army was a home.  The military life was a profession, officers lived and died to “promote its honour and glory”².

220px-Wellington_at_Waterloo_Hillingford
Wellington at Waterloo, 1815

And Wellington was the heart of the army, his presence inspired confidence. Even with all his ambivalence of character, he exerted an extraordinary sense of loyalty among both officers and men. Sir John Kincaid said there was “not a bosom in the army that didn’t beat more lightly, when it heard the joyful news of his arrival.”³

And it was with the confidence and experience gained from 7 years of war in the Iberian Peninsular that Wellington led his army against the French for one last time. It would be the 1st time that Sir Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, would face Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French; at Waterloo on 18th June 1815, 200 years ago.

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Footnotes: ¹& ² A Boy in the Peninsular War, Robert Blakeney ; ³ Beggars in Red: The British Army 1789-1889, Sir John Kincaid, quoted by John Strawson.

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Article adapted from my own dissertation of 1992, entitled For King, Country and Glory? The British Soldier in the Peninsular War, 1808-1814.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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Sources: A Boy in the Peninsular War, Robert Blakeney; Beggars in Red: The British Army 1789-1889, John Strawson; The Recollections of Rifleman Harris, edited by Christopher Hibbert; On the Road with Wellington: The Diary of a War Commissary in the Peninsular Campaigns, August Schaumann; A British Rifleman: Journals & Correspondence during the Peninsular War and Campaign of Wellington, Major George Simmons; Memoirs of Sir Harry Smith, Sir Harry Smith; The Letters of Private Wheeler, William Wheeler; The Sword and the Pen, edited by Michael Brander; The British Soldier, JM Brereton; The Face of Battle and The Mask of Command, John Keegan; Wellington: the years of the Sword, Lady Elizabeth Longford; Soldiers. A History of Men in Battle, John Keegan and Richard Holmes.

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

 

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly