A friend dropped me off a copy a week or so ago. He'd been unimpressed with what he'd read. I went and checked the Amazon reviews page. There was one review at the time. It concluded:
"In short, this is a very silly book, based on some fundamentally ahistorical readings of the fifteenth century, and it doesn’t really add much of value to our understanding of the Wars of the Roses."*
Well. That's fairly damning. The review was written by David Grummitt, who is a professional historian with publications on a range of subjects, both military and medieval. Since then there's another review, which suggests that even before you get to David's criticisms there are fundamental issues with the book.
Still, I thought I'd better give it a go, seeing as I now had a copy. I have to say that my reaction is very mixed. This book is a massive own goal; an opportunity thrown away. It is marred by several things. It has large numbers of errors. It is plagued by false assumptions. The writer's lack of familiarity with pre-industrial period combat makes his use of analogy across different periods patchy and inappropriate. And much as I respect anyone who puts on a uniform and fights for his country, I don't need to be reminded every other page or so, in a style which borders on arrogance and hubris, that you've done your bit.
As for the book itself, lets start with the bad, and work our way up to the bits that are worth looking at.
Firstly, I have to say this is a book from Casemate, who are stable mates to Helion. It exhibits similar signs of a complete lack of independent proof reading, or the services of a commissioning editor or a sub editor**. This does not do it any favours. There are more typos than you'd expect in a book of 240 pages, priced at over £20.
Let's start with the commissioning of the book. It is patently obvious that the author knows a lot about modern warfare, and not a lot about medieval warfare. All of his examples come from later periods. In a section on loyalty and of leadership he talks about how men in combat bond, and how they are led. The section, which runs to ten pages, contains examples exclusively from WW2 and after. They may be appropriate. I'd have liked some from earlier sources. How about how Caesar grabbed a shield and fought in the front line at the Sambre? How about Alexander? How about Richard CdL in the Crusades? As L.P. Hartley wrote "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there". The way medieval armies were formed and trained was different to now. The length of campaigns in the Wars of the Roses are short, and the armies often ad hoc. Does that make a difference?
So, the first thing the commissioning editor, or even a friend should have told him was "Tim, great idea for a book. Can we cut out the modern stuff and get in more from the period the book's about? One or two anachronistic items is fine. Half a book of it looks like you don't know anything about the period".
Secondly, let's talk about the style. This is an "Aunt Sally" book. The structure is set up to show that all you know is wrong, and then dazzle the reader with the writer's insights. Not a problem - it's a commonly used style, although it can be insulting to the intelligence of an informed reader (and note, this is a really specialist book, from a specialist publisher, aimed at a specialist reader). Even so, it can work, unless it shows that the writer was the one who was deluded. The main Aunt Sally chapter, entitled "Misunderstanding Medieval Tactics, Armour and Weapons Through Modern Books and Movies", which is a mercifully short 8 pages, tells the reader that everything they know is wrong, because film makers make mistakes. Really? And I thought "Excalibur" was a documentary (seriously, no one watches Excalibur then thinks you can have sex whilst wearing a full suit of plate armour). The list of films not only includes Excalibur, but Henry V, and the well known historical epics "Lord of the Rings" and "Prince Caspian". Sorry, in a specialist work trying to re-write what we know you need to be having a go at what other historians have written, not what John Boorman or Kenneth Branagh stuck up on celluloid.
Thirdly, lets looks at factual errors in the text. Firstly, Anne Curry is a historian, not an archaeologist. The film Excalibur was made in 1981, not 1991***. Edward IV is described (twice) as leading an invasion of France in 1453, when he would have been 11. Which is 7-8 years before he becomes king after the battle of Towton in 1461, where he is 18, not 19 as the text states. The Battle of Bosworth opens with a cavalry charge (really???). His out of period stuff isn't always spot on either, as he claims that Marlborough's Dragoons his "Heaviest cavalry of all" had become...well, here's a photo of the paragraph, as it is so mind boggling muddle headed you need to see the original;
No you *7!*%^$ idiot. Dragoons were mounted infantry that became heavy cavalry, not the other way round.
There's more, have a look at this:
1) The "Yorkists" were not on top in the early stages of the battle. The Yorkists at the battle are actually Royalists (see note below). There were no "early stages", the day before, just a brush between pickets.
2) Sir Henry Neville was not beheaded. We do not know how he died, but it was in the heat of combat, after he'd asked for quarter.
3) Even if he was, it wasn't on the orders of the Earl of Pembroke. Pembroke was in Banbury when these skirmishes occurred (which the author knows, having referred to it as a "village" previously - it isn't; it's a major market town at the time).
4) There were no Lancastrians at the battle as such. As it came about through a split between Edward IV and Warwick, they are at best both Yorkists, but now you'd refer to them as Royalists and Rebels. Until Warwick flees, the Wars of the Roses is over.
5) Pembroke and Herbert were not executed on the day of the battle. They weren't even executed on the same day.
6) They were executed by the Earl of Warwick, and not by anyone associated with the House of Lancaster.
Oh, and generally he seems to think the WotR consisted of continuous fighting from 1st St Albans to Bosworth. And 2nd St Albans was fought inside a walled town.
I'll stop there, but the list is not definitive. I gave up taking notes.
Next up is the re-enactment rabbit hole, and Tom Lewis has gone down it hook, line and sinker, based on talking to 10 re-enactors at Tewkesbury in 2016. Right. I've done ECW re-enactment. It can teach you a lot about things like how equipment works, how you drill and form up, and what it feels like to port a pike or fire a matchlock musket or fire a cannon. What it doesn't teach you is how to kill people with your weapons. Honestly, it doesn't. When I left we were still debating how a pike push worked, and the only way to resolve the debate properly is to give people pikes with points on and let them try to kill each other. Anything else is just theory. I am willing to bet this for WotR or "HEMA"**** re-enactors too. You can run about and hit each other with blunt weapons as much as you like, but if you aren't trying to kill each other your findings are purely theory. To be fair he does make this point. But then he gets quite orgiastic about the poleaxe and how you fight with it. It might be right that you stand wide apart, in your armour, and swing the thing sideways. It may work for the modern day in broadly 1-on-1 fighting when no one is getting killed. However the Holbein drawings of landsknecht fighting with pole weapons don't show that. They're mostly used over head in close formation, or level, like a spear, poking with the point. I was also astonished by the claim that re-enactors like fighting in the cold, as if temperatures drop to freezing a man in armour can easily suffer from hypothermia, due to metal conducting heat from the nice warm body inside it. That's not military history. That's physics.
And asking a re-enactor how many people he could kill in an hour is just plain silly. Even Conan-Doyle had Sherlock Holmes go and ram harpoons into a dead pig before he made a statement about how easy it is to stick a sharp object into flesh.
Having said all that, we now get to the worth while bits. The last chapter or two of the book are worth reading, as they do offer some provocative thoughts. A man in armour (any man) is unable to fight continuously for long periods of time. Tim reckons 14 minutes before you need a break, which he thinks means that there's a need for a passage of ranks technique if fighting is to be prolonged. Or maybe the combat it a lot more tentative, and it's mostly pushing with the pointy end, with the occasional very strong man wielding his poleaxe downwards to kill and break up formations, so his followers can break in. Like maybe the very tall Edward IV could do.***** Or maybe, battles are actually, when they come to crisis point, quite short, and we have hours of hanging about with some jousting with spears before 20 minutes of mayhem followed by rout. I'm not sure, but it is an interesting discussion, and you'll have to decide if Tom's right. For me, the jury is out, and if in Scotland considering "not proven" as a verdict.
Where I am more convinced is his discussion of the effectiveness of archery before the battle line clash, which is hardly surprising as he lifts a lot of it from Robert Hardy's "Longbow" book. His discussion of bowmen as light infantry is taken straight from Toby Capwell's ideas. Still, thisi s a good summary of the ideas if you aren't aware of them.
He is on even firmer ground when he discusses the sizes of battles. That's partly because he is using a lot of the points I made in the Edgcote book (perhaps he has read it, and his Edgcote errors are intended to throw you off the scent), about ease of raising armies, areas of population and so on. On the downside, he does call Edgcote "Edgecote Moor" in his summary. He takes as his example battle Towton, and does a pretty good job of compiling the reasons why nearly 5% of the population weren't there.
The same goes for his section on casualties, which is likewise sceptical of the massive numbers, and he marshals the evidence, or lack of it, competently. He makes the point, quite reasonably, that killing a high proportion of one side of a battle in the absence of automatic weapons when there's an escape route is a really hard thing to do.
Conclusion? It's an interesting article for a journal expanded into a book. When it is bad, it is laugh out loud bad. When it is good, it is mildly interesting. For in truth, despite his claims, there isn't a lot original in the bit of the book that is good, except for his "re-enactors two-step" that swaps battle lines round. The rest of the ideas have been common for quite a few years, and are beginning to gain traction with anyone who has read anything with their brain switched on.
My advice? Buy a copy when it is remaindered in the Works, or Dave Lanchester has got it as an offer at a show, or in the end, if you can get it for £5 all in second hand from Abe.
Otherwise, pass by on the other side of the road. You're missing nothing.
* At the time of writing there were 4 x 1* ratings, all with detailed comments, and one 5* rating with no explanation.
** I say this as a self published author, who had to ask friends and colleagues to provide some of these services to ensure I wasn't completely bonkers in what I was thinking and writing.
*** To be fair, that could be the date on the back of his DVD, but IMDB would have put him straight.
**** Historic European Martial Arts.
***** Tom ignores one of the most distinct descriptions of a man in plate fighting with a polearm, which comes from Sir Richard Herbert at Edgcote. Perhaps he was just unaware of it.