DEFENCE AND SECURITY Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval war urban fortifications burh murage administration national defence naval service military organization militia weapons armour archery artillery ships siege warfare London

 Musters, murage, merchantmen, and mayhem 

Early students of the military history of medieval England focused on land battles and the role of feudal chivalry therein, to the detriment of sieges, which were actually the more common expression of military conflict. Popular discussion and representation of English medieval warfare still has a tendency to focus on knights, with perhaps an afterthought for the longbowmen made famous by Crecy and Agincourt. Just as the heavily armoured, mounted knight is the stereotype of medieval offense, so the stereotype of defence is the castle. Since neither of these were highly characteristic of English towns (that is, although far from absent, they were not the product of urbanized society), urban contributions to national defence are usually addressed only in passing, and then often with towns merely as the victims of assault and pillage. As the title of this introductory section hints, when we look at towns and military affairs, our focus must lie elsewhere than on the predominant symbols.

Medieval England was a highly militarized society, with social relations and public obligations designed, to no small degree, to ensure the availability of qualified military support for the king in his primary duty of policing and defending the realm (which could sometimes mean defence of the monarchy itself); the king was, first and foremost, a war-leader. During the period preceding and culminating in the Norman Conquest, England was faced with a number of foreign invasions, and following the Conquest there were intermittent civil wars, before the country itself went on the offensive outside English borders, until the fifteenth century saw the professional military class turn upon itself in one final paroxysm of power struggles. This introductory paper will try to outline the extent of urban involvement in warfare and the military system. The complex aspects of military organization will be addressed only insofar as they throw light on the urban situation; for more general studies of military organization, there are a number of books that deal well with the subject (e.g. Michael Powicke, Military Obligations in Medieval England, 1962, James Hewitt, The Organization of War under Edward III, 1966, Michael Prestwich, Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages, 1996.). Here we will focus on the contributions of towns to military and naval service, and their provisions for self-defence, before considering the impact of war on urban society.

The involvement of towns in military affairs has not been a subject to which urban historians have paid much attention. The tendency to think of towns primarily as elements of the social and economic fabric risks losing sight of other dimensions of urban activity which seem less significant in the socio-economic context. Some have suggested that townspeople felt an antipathy towards militarism – royal charters granting burgesses exemption from trial by battle, for example, were once cited in support of that view – while others, in brief discussions of town walls, have played up their non-military purposes.

We must beware of thinking of townspeople as outside the mainstream of medieval society. True, military organization or service are barely touched upon in town charters and custumals, which were major sources for early urban historians, nor do they loom large in most borough assembly records and financial accounts, mined for information in more recent decades. But we must keep in mind that such matters were less privileges, powers or jurisdictions than they were obligations governed by long tradition, national legislation, and royal commands. Many of the records produced by boroughs in regard to militia organization, self-defence, and national service were for purposes of accountability to the king or for obtaining reimbursement or resourcing from the king, and must be sought (often in vain) elsewhere than in local archives. When we look at the whole range of medieval sources of information – including chronicles and the material evidence of urban fortifications themselves – we can see that local defence and national military service must have absorbed a good deal of the attention, energy, and resources of townsmen and their governing authorities.

 Military organization in Anglo-Saxon and Norman England 

Having the organizational means to defend centres of population and to counter hostile forces has throughout recorded history been a shared concern of both local and national governments. When the Roman legions withdrew from Britain, they left a legacy of defensive fortifications scattered across the country – some of which continued to give good service to a handful of towns for centuries – but a population facing foreign incursions from all sides and thrown back on its own resources to try to maintain defences and organize militarily on a regional basis. After the Anglo-Saxons had established their kingdoms, they came to face a similar challenge from Scandinavian raiders and invaders. Naturally there was an expectation – long-standing, though to what extent tradition and to what extent formal obligation we are hard-pressed to say – that every able-bodied man should stand up in defence of his own locality, defined as stretching to the borders of the shire; some of the names of smaller administrative units – hundred, riding, and wapentake – may relate in part to military organization. But in practice most military expeditions relied on the more skilled and better-trained warriors, bound to the king or his chief nobles by ties of personal loyalty that involved the provision of military service in return for support and largesse of various kinds. This was the vital core of the "fyrd". While the "folk" of the shire might be called out on occasion for regional defence under their ealdormen, general levies were rare, in part because too slow to assemble in the face of some emergency; smaller, more mobile, and better trained military forces were what was needed to challenge a foreign raid or a domestic rival.

From the perspective of urban history, the most significant development in the Early Middle Ages was the carefully planned programme of the Mercian and (particularly) the Wessex monarchies to establish a series of military bases and population refuges, or burhs, as an emergency defence against the Danes, who had set the example with that practice; Alfred focused on fortifying the northern and coastal frontiers of southern England, and his successor vigorously continued the initiative in eastern and northern England. Burhs were established at fairly regular intervals and apparently furnished with beacons and perhaps bell-towers to spread warning of incursions. Many were existing settlements that were fortified or (where Roman defences still remained, if in disrepair) re-fortified. It is likely enough that the inhabitants (where there were some) would naturally rally to the defence of their burh and keep its fortifications in repair; these burdens they shared, however, with others of the region who would have benefited from the presence of a fortress, and this local manpower was evidently sufficient to throw up burh defences within a few weeks. By the mid-eleventh century the trinoda necessitas obliged county land-holders to provide manpower not only for military service but also for construction and maintenance of bridges and burhs; there had been an earlier formulation of this in Mercia, and it may have become general throughout the English kingdoms by the close of the eighth century. The grave threat from the Danish invaders called for better measures, however. Around the late ninth or early tenth century, was formulated a system known to historians as the Burghal Hidage, recorded in a document that listed 31 burhs in Wessex and 2 in Mercia and assigned to each a number of hides in its vicinity, the owner of each hide having to furnish one man for burh duties; it estimated that one defender was required for about every four feet of wall. Winchester, Warwick, and Wallingford topped the list, with 2400 hides/defenders each, Worcester and Bath were each assigned about half that number, while towards the bottom lay Southampton, with 150. Whether the ambitious goal of this initiative was practicable for all the burhs is uncertain, and there were some subsequent adjustments; but it seems to have contributed to the successful defence of Wessex and subsequent reconquest of the Danelaw.

The overall Wessex strategy had been to turn the fyrd into a standing army, so that there was a certain number of soldiers ready for action at any given time, and to supplement this with a force assigned to defend the burhs, which served as bases for the army to counter Danish incursions or to make their own raids into the Danelaw. Once the Danish threat had been overcome, however, the military system appears to have reverted towards the earlier situation. The fyrd was levied only at need, although military service (for a limited period, typically several weeks) remained an obligation associated with land-holding, with its forfeiture or heavy fine the punishments for failure to show up when the fyrd was summoned. Similarly, the garrisoning of burhs may have been relaxed, with local defence being left more to burh residents, although there are a few later indications that holders of property within burhs included either members of the upper class responsible for military service (thegns) and/or some of their followers who were given tenancies in the burhs in order to fulfill the obligations of the shire's leading land-holders. Anglo-Saxon provisions for policing, likewise a public duty, also had ramifications for military organization; for maintaining internal security and defending against external threat were not then as distinct, conceptually or administratively, as they are today. Both would typically involve assembling a local posse (individuals empowered to use armed force) to assist officials to suppress those infringing the king's peace. The tithing and the hundred were organizational units for such purposes. The local militia thus raised could be combined into larger forces for regional or even national defence, as an auxiliary to the professional warriors: the thegns and the elite troops maintained in noble households (known in the eleventh century as the huscarls, the king's huscarls being paid wages raised through a national land tax). Towns, as population centres, probably furnished a certain percentage of the forces brought by ealdormen and thegns to the fyrd; their obligations seem also to have been assessed according to hidage, although special arrangements might be made to substitute some other kind of service or payment.

By the time of the Norman Conquest there was an established connection between towns and national defence, although one arising more out of natural circumstances than formal obligation associated with status. Burgesses could be expected to provide military service if called upon; but this was because they were freemen who were part of the frankpledge system and was not an obligation of burgage tenure. On the other hand, Domesday records military obligations for a number of boroughs that ranged from keeping local defences repaired and manned to the provision of military contingents or transportation; Leicester, for instance, had a commitment to supply 12 burgesses to any land campaign or, in the event of a naval expedition, to send 4 horses to London to help carry military supplies. For some time after the Conquest, however, the Norman overlords preferred to trust in their own followers and tenants, rather than summon to arms an Anglo-Saxon populace that resented its conquerors. Their approach to raising a well-equipped and loyal force of warriors was to grant their followers lands (and the revenues from the same) in return for service. We know that the larger towns were capable of raising sizable forces – to defend, for example, Exeter and York from sieges in 1068 and 1069 respectively; but it is not certain at that period to what extent urban forces may have been called on to help the Normans suppress rebellions; William I called out the fyrd, but probably used it just as an auxiliary to the Norman cavalry, and his immediate successors relied mostly on the feudal host and mercenaries.

After the civil war between Stephen and Matilda, in which a number of towns had to defend themselves, Henry II revived the monarchy's interest in the local militia and called on borough levies during the rebellions of his sons, backed by the French king, in the 1170s. As so often the case, the Londoners were involved. Contemporary chronicler Jordan Fantosme noted that all who were of age (12, but raised in the next century) turned out well-equipped to support the king, and he also relates, in a colourful and not entirely trustworthy account, that at the port of Dunwich, when (1173) the Earl of Leicester, who already had some support in the east from Hugh Bigod, arrived by sea with a force of Fleming mercenaries and tried to intimidate the town into joining his cause, the townspeople offered defiance:

That day you would have seen burgesses, right valiant knights
Sally forth to the ramparts; each man knows his task;
Some to draw bows, others to hurl spears.
The strong help the weak to rest frequently.
Within the town there was not wife or girl
Who did not carry a stone to the palisade for throwing.
Thus did the people of Dunwich defend themselves.
[quoted in Rowland Parker, Men of Dunwich, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978, p.41]

The resistance was successful: the earl withdrew to try his luck at Bury St. Edmunds instead. The following year a number of Northampton men were killed or captured opposing the same earl. The town of Leicester itself supported the rebels, and had its defences demolished by the king in punishment.

Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry
Just as Saxon and Norman were, genetically, virtually indistinguishable, so they had similar military traditions and equipment. Those differences that had developed were pitted against each other at the battle of Hastings (illustrated in the above extract from the Bayeux Tapestry): Saxon shield-wall against Norman cavalry. The weary Saxons' hilltop position gave them defensive advantage, but the drawn-out conflict, its outcome long in doubt, was ultimately decided by the Normans weakening their opponents' line with a strategy that continued to serve English forces well over the medieval centuries that followed.
(click on the image for more information)

 Military organization under the Plantagenets 

The Assize of Arms (generally attributed to 1181, although the date has been questioned) is considered to mark a turning-point in the history of military obligation, by seeking to make the militia a more effective force by prescribing the kind of military equipment each man should have on hand, according to level of wealth. Burgesses, along with the rank-and-file of freemen, were expected to have at the minimum a padded jacket, an iron helmet, and a lance; those who were most prosperous may have fallen into the higher category of freemen required to have a mail-shirt instead of the jacket and to possess in addition a shield. These arms and armour were to be passed down to heirs, and not sold or given to others. Boroughs and hundreds were to assemble and inspect their local militia periodically and ensure that the statutory provisions were being upheld. Later legislation fine-tuned these regulations (e.g. expanded recruitment further into the lower classes by including a category of those armed only with an axe or spear) and addressed other organizational aspects, such as instituting constables to work with other local officials to administer this system (although at London the aldermen appear to have taken on that role, and there may have been local variations elsewhere), and requiring towns to have an armed night-watch. The thirteenth century legislation may have been given impetus both by renewed outbreaks of civil war and by the crystallization of borough self-government, a mechanism that could be used to oversee local military organization and that would likely have preferred to take responsibility rather than face intervention by external officials. We have no records of precisely how militia musters (or arrays) were carried out at that period, but it was probably not much different from the method used in the Late Middle Ages, for which some records survive; it seems likely that the development of a ward-based system within towns was related to military/security organization, as well as taxation and the apportionment of communal labour projects.

Following the Conquest, the emergence of and reliance on the order of knights widened any previously existing gap between professional warriors and those who might be considered reservists. This trend must have been furthered as the cost of better arms, armour and mounts increased. The differentiation was enshrined, to an extent, by the Assize of Arms and successor legislation, such as the Statute of Winchester (1285), which distinguished which men (according to wealth) were to serve as men-at-arms, mounted spearmen, archers, or plain foot-soldiers. While the entire local militia may have contributed to policing duties and have been expected to serve en masse if a town faced a 'clear and present danger', when the king called for troops for service elsewhere, not every militiaman was normally despatched; a selection was made, perhaps based age and physical attributes (at times the king insisted that the most capable fighters be chosen). The community was expected to ensure its troops were properly equipped and to cover the costs of its contingent while en route to join up with the general muster – at least as far as the county border – after which they were supposed to come into the king's pay. Those members of a community unable, for one reason or another, to bear arms were expected to contribute towards the costs of those who served. Contingents were often multiples of 20 or 100, as these were the units into which troops were organized; the modest contingents provided by most towns were, upon joining up with the main army amalgamated with other units to form groupings large enough for battle purposes. The numbers actually sent of course varied from town to town, according to each's human and fiscal resources as well as the nature of the emergency and proximity to the arena of hostilities (e.g. northern towns contributed the largest contingents for the war with Scotland), but with no evident fixed formula applied.

We do not know to what extent urban militia of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were composed of the traders and craftsmen who are perhaps too often considered typical of urban society, or to what extent of men who made a living from land-owning yet resided within towns. It is dangerous to try to differentiate the various types too closely. Certainly there were members of what might be considered the 'military class' who owned urban real estate and perhaps lived in towns at least part of the time. FitzStephen had noted the existence of such a group at London, although London's population was of course large and variegated. Both before and after the Conquest there were occasions when it looked to members of the aristocratic warrior class to give it military leadership. Furthermore, the city's first mayor, who held property in Kent, had a personal seal bearing a knight's mount; his descendants left the city to join the feudal class. Similarly, Cambridge's first-known mayor (ca.1200) had a seal bearing the figure of a knight with sword drawn, and as early as 1086 the lawmen of Cambridge were assumed to be capable of knight service. The ruling class of a number of East Anglian towns, from that period up to the early fourteenth century, included men whose wealth seems to have come more from agricultural exploitation than from trade (although one naturally leads to the other), and who have the appearance of a kind of local aristocracy that seems often to have taken a lead role in the development of local self-government. At a later period a number of townsmen, including merchants, were called to knighthood simply because they met the land-owning qualifications, and others for service to the king (although tenure did not necessarily imply knighthood, it was in the king's interest to pressure those qualified to become knights). Not all were thrilled at the prospect of having to provide themselves with expensive equipment or of being on call to fight, without the lengthy and intensive training that warrior knights required; some preferred to pay fines to be excused, or to argue – as several Londoners did, and as was the blanket response of the London sheriffs in 1344, when the king ordered all citizens who owned property worth #163;40 or more to take up the order – that their property was held in burgage tenure, which the Statutum de Militibus of 1278 had exempted from the qualifications for knighthood.

In the fourteenth century, from which records of local military arrays start to survive, we see no evidence of militiamen equipped at the level of knights; such men would have received summonses to war in other ways than the militia musters. Muster records for Suffolk in 1346 show most men armed with no more than an axe or sword, and other records for places like Reading, Bridport, and Norwich, similarly show the great majority armed with staves or daggers, and occasionally with axe or sword, and with little armour beyond that required by legislation. Platoon and contingent commanders would be better equipped and better paid. There is a noticeable absence of members the urban elite from the militia, except sometimes to command a company.

Another important development under the Plantagenets was that England was increasingly drawn into continental politics and rivalries, and into the imperial ambitions of its own rulers; these led to wars with (notably), Wales, Scotland, and France. It was by now a given that the king could call Englishmen to arms in defence of their own; only in royal charters to some towns in Wales, where urban foundations were instruments of colonialism, was the obligation of burgesses to provide military service explicitly stated, and even then this was on condition that such service not strip a town of all defenders. But the situation in regard to foreign wars was not so clear-cut. Kings from Edward I to Edward III attempted to expand the traditional obligation of service, as well as of communal payment of costs, to foreign wars, often arguing that these were necessary for the defence of the realm. But towns resisted such demands.

Edward II's efforts in that regard contributed to dissatisfaction with his rule and an unwillingness to support him against those who would overthrow him. It is hard to tell how much the resistance of towns (particularly London) to his demands – for larger contingents, provided for longer periods of service at community expenses, and sometimes with specified arms and armour that exceeded legislative requirements – was due to urban desire to limit obligations and how much to lack of enthusiasm for Edward. In this crisis following the king's defeat at Bannockburn, for example, York, Lincoln, Northampton and London were ordered to raise forces of crossbowmen equipped with soft body armour, coats of mail, and plate-armour helmets; although Edward had agreed to pay their costs, he subsequently disallowed part of the expense claim submitted by York. Again in 1318 he made the unconventional request to a number of towns, at their own expense, to furnish him for a 40-day period with infantry fitted out with aketons, hauberks, bascinets, and gauntlets; some towns balked, others complied. On this and other occasions London felt itself strong enough to try to negotiate down the royal demands, with mixed results, or to offer money instead of troops. We start to hear of towns having to levy extraordinary local taxes to cover military expenses they had not bargained for, or to ask the wealthier citizens each to fund one fighting man, which many were doubtless content to do in lieu of serving personally. Such situations could be tolerated when exceptional and productive, but Edward II continued to make special demands for his military undertakings, which included an expedition to Gascony that ended in defeat (1324). With the revival of the war with Scotland in 1322 Edward asked several dozen towns to send him infantry (funded for 40 days) or cash; in return for which, they would be exempted from contributing to the normal county musters; numbers ranged from London's 151 soldiers to Rochester's 9. In the case of the Gascony campaign, Edward had obtained a total of 556 soldiers from urban levies, on the assurance that he would reimburse towns for their costs. Such assurances were often not followed through: in 1334, for instance, Yarmouth was still trying to obtain reimbursement for the wages of 80 soldiers it had sent to Berwick in 1309.

Under Edward III the demands of the war in France were even greater and mobilizations more frequent, but he had learned from the mistakes of his father and aimed at a more co-operative relationship with his subjects in order to meet his needs. It had become evident that the traditional recruitment methods and periods of service were inefficient, although there was little choice than to continue relying on them. But he was also open to trying alternate methods for resourcing war needs. One of these was to use parliament as a mechanism for addressing matters related to military levies and wages, which provided an opening for the Commons to try to limit demands for service to what was covered by tradition, legislation, or precedent, although the king was always careful to keep discussion of military strategy off the agenda. Edward III accepted that municipal responsibility for paying their levies did not extend beyond the journey to join up with the main army; on the other hand, he continued to ask that the levies be equipped with the fuller body armour that was at that period needed to face foreign foes. Increasingly the traditional musters were used only for defensive purposes, although this continued to include the war with Scotland, while for the Hundred Years War there was growing reliance on calls for volunteers and on raising money – from sources that included parliamentary grants of taxes and loans from individuals, business partnerships, or communities, and sometimes (in the case of those of the knightly or yeomanry classes) fines for commutation of service – with which to pay English volunteers or foreign mercenaries. Nonetheless, money was usually short and long delays in paying wages could lead to widespread desertion.

Renewed civil wars in the fifteenth century brought the militia of towns and counties back into the picture; although recruiting arrangements were largely left up to individual towns, the overall size of urban contingents did not alter greatly. Civic authorities seem to have become by that time more accustomed to the task of raising, equipping and despatching troops, as well as in information-gathering to help them make judicious decisions about which side to support and when to temporize. As a consequence of changing military strategy in the previous century, there was now a greater demand for archers. Although many of these continued to come from rural areas, a greater proportion of urban militiamen owned bow and arrows (with some evidently specializing in archery) than they had been the case through most of the fourteenth century. In 1453 parliament took the exceptional step of agreeing to the raising of 20,000 archers, to serve the king for six months at the expense of the communities from which levied – mayors and bailiffs were authorized to impose a local taxation for the purpose. The king subsequently reduced this demand to 13,000 (and later put it completely in abeyance in return for a financial grant); London was to have supplied 1,137 archers – far more than not only any other town, but also any of the counties – while York was to send 152, Norwich 121, Bristol 91, Coventry 76, Newcastle-upon-Tyne 53, Kingston-upon-Hull 50, Lincoln and Southampton 46 each, and Nottingham 30.

Militia; photo © S. Alsford Medieval weapons; photo © S. Alsford
Although in popular imagination the massed charge of a line of heavily armoured knights represents medieval the apex of military activity and the main source of offensive damage, the role of infantry and archers was often more important. Archers are closer to a "weapon of mass destruction" in the Late Middle Ages, they and developments in artillery were making knights and castles redundant.
(click on the images for enlarged versions and more information)
Archers Artillery; photo © S. Alsford

 Defensive fortifications of the Anglo-Saxons and Normans 

There were of course fortified settlements in England long before the Middle Ages, enclosed wholly or in part by some kind of man-made earthwork and/or palisade. The locations of a number of places that later became towns were chosen probably because some element of the topography such as a hilltop, ridge, escarpment, or river bend – offered a measure of protection that could be augmented by a constructed fortification. The strategic programme of burh-building, mentioned above, capitalized where possible on older, Roman and pre-Roman, defended sites, while also creating new fortifications, using earthen ramparts sometimes topped by a palisade.

The sites of some burhs were never really suitable, nor planned, to develop beyond their primary military purpose (e.g. ancient hill-forts), but others were already centres of authority and/or economic activity or may have been envisaged as having the potential to become so. Many of the latter category were natural magnets for settlers seeking security, and we could consider them proto-urban; whether urbanization was a goal from the outset remains a matter for debate among historians. All, however, must have been intended to act as occasional refuges for the surrounding population and/or bases for regional defence; some may have been garrisoned, while others served as temporary camps for armed forces on campaign. The Danes similarly fortified a few key population centres in the territories they had taken over and, after the Danelaw was re-conquered by the Wessex monarchy, its kings expanded the burh programme there. Thus from early times a relationship was established between the monarchy and local communities, cooperating in the interest of local and national defence.

The unification of England under the Wessex dynasty made for relatively peaceable conditions that could stimulate national administration, agriculture, industry, trade and consequently urbanization at some of the burhs, as well as at other types of settlement such as the wiks (some of which had also received burh treatment). Since the preservation of law and order was particularly important in communities that played a key role in protecting the kingdom, the king extended over burhs the same 'peace' applicable to his own household, which dealt sternly with crimes of violence in particular. And provisions were made for manning and maintaining the burh defences (see above). Their type of fortification remained the basis for urban defence for over a century following the Norman Conquest; Fantosme's account (above) of the threat to Dunwich shows that the ditch/rampart/palisade could be an effective deterrent to a force that lacked either the resources or the patience for an extended siege.

The Conquest was followed by a new programme of fortification focusing on towns, or proto-towns, but with the intention of controlling rather than protecting them. The Conqueror recognized the potential threat from towns as "reservoirs of military force" [J. Campbell, "Power and authority 600-1300", The Cambridge Urban History of Britain, vol.1, (2000) 64] and suspect loyalty. And indeed, the early uprisings against his rule were focused around towns such as Exeter, Chester, and York. Even before defeating Harold he had moved to erect makeshift forts at Pevensey and Hastings, and in the weeks immediately following his victory he further solidified his hold on the south-east by raising fortifications at Dover and Canterbury. In the years that followed, many more castles were erected at William's command, 74% of them inside or on the edge of the more important centres in the shires; by the close of his reign around 500 to 600 castles had been erected by William or his supporters. The clearing of land at Norwich, York, and Lincoln to make room for castles had a devastating short-term effect – perhaps intentionally so – on the communities; but they enabled the Conqueror to place garrisons of his own followers in key risk areas and provide them with a refuge and base in the event of a local uprising. In the longer term the castles provided an enlarged clientele for local goods and services, but also bases for rebellious noblemen, attracting unwanted trouble, and rivals for jurisdiction. Still later, after Norman and Saxon had integrated, the castles, expensive to maintain, were often allowed to fall into disrepair and became important more for their administrative uses than for military purposes.

At first, William's hold over England was too precarious for him to tie up too many of his followers in construction projects, so his castles took a simple form, using the traditional ditch/bank, topped by wooden palisade; where possible he capitalized on existing burh or older fortifications, using a site where they met in a corner and then constructing just what extra was needed to complete a protective circuit. This must have impeded access of the inhabitants to parts of their own defences – again, possibly intentional. Once William felt more secure, his early forts were rebuilt, and new ones built, more elaborately, moving towards the motte-and-bailey type of castle, and with stone increasingly used instead of wood. The king's chief supporters followed suit by erecting castles in the territories with which they were rewarded. Particularly under William I's successors, these nobles became interested in developing the economic potential of their lands (military service was, after all, an expensive obligation), and tried founding new towns. Although these investments did not generally include the provision of defensive fortifications (except in areas of expansionism, such as Wales), some were associated with castles and sometimes additional defences were provided for the town, tied in with those of the castle; historians refer to these as "castle-boroughs".

As for the defences of long-established towns, William's preoccupation with his own security means that little is said about how urban fortifications were maintained, and we assume it continued much as before the Conquest. In Domesday we can see that some of the older towns were growing, their population spreading beyond the bounds of an earlier enclosure, and houses might even be put up atop the bank/ditch – at Oxford some occupants of such houses had to maintain the defences in lieu of paying rent. At some towns there is evidence of efforts to keep defences in repair, while at others indications of neglect and use of the town ditch for dumping refuse.

Palisaded settlement with Norman keep erected within
The Norman Conquest brought a new imperative to fortifying English towns, but the initial thrust was to establish strongholds through which the new regime could control and administer its new subjects. Except where Roman walls survived in part, defences protecting urban communities themselves remained of the older type: earthen bank/ditch topped by wooden palisade, as in the modern artist's impression above.
(click on the image for more information)

 Defensive fortifications: the 'stone age' 

The thirteenth to fifteenth centuries (and particularly the first half of that period) saw heavy, if sporadic, investment in the construction of urban fortifications, some entirely new and some replacing older defences. Town walls, their lengths punctuated with gateways and towers, were built or rebuilt in sturdier and more durable materials – notably stone quarried and cut for that purpose, although other available materials, such as brick, flint, or ship's ballast, might be used at some locations. Enclosing with stone walls was not a universal preoccupation, the iconic image of a stone-circled town being more representative of continental European settlements than those in England. Whether for reasons of cost or preference, some towns continued to rely partly or wholly on topographical features and/or bank/ditch defences, occasionally supplemented with strategic stretches of stone wall; some focused their attentions on gateways alone, while others had no substantial defences at all. Those towns with a quayside as part of their boundary rarely included that area in a walled circuit, the infrequent need for defence being outweighed it seems by the daily need of merchants for access to and from the urban interior. In disturbed times, a ditch must have been the quickest and cheapest defence to throw up in a pinch. In March 1264 Chester's citizenry were nervous about their vulnerability to a siege from either the Welsh (who had recently attacked Stafford) or the baronial rebels led by de Montfort, and they considered how to improve the existing defences (part Roman, part Saxon, part Norman, but perhaps all in need of repair, since murage had been sought in 1249, and a series of grants would be obtained in the 1290s). The city's sheriff proposed adding a ditch on the north and east side of the walls, and the city justiciar proceeded on that basis, in the process demolishing houses and destroying gardens belonging to the abbey of St. Werburgh that were along the route (with promise of compensation from the king). Notwithstanding which, the city was soon after surrendered to de Montfort. Nor was fortification a constant preoccupation, for periods of sustained and occasionally almost feverish activity alternated with periods of antipathy, when defences fell into disrepair, might be built upon, or were even illegally scavenged for other construction projects or for profit: in 1292, for example, Leicester's court heard a case in which "Ric. of Thorpe, Canon of the Abbey, pledged mercy... because he confessed that he bought the stone from the town-wall from Robert of the Dovecote, foreknowing that it was from the town-wall." [Mary Bateson, ed. Records of the Borough of Leicester. Vol.1 (1899) 218] Nonetheless, the number of towns trying to provide themselves with better defensive fortifications is sufficiently high that we can identify it as a trend. And it is an important trend in urban history, considering the following:

There is no simple explanation of why so many towns invested in stone walls, while others did not. We must keep in mind that the decisions to initiate and pursue – often across the span of multiple generations – such projects involved various decision-makers, all with their own agendas and motivations: the king, for instance, was concerned with the security of the nation and his hold on the crown, as well as using local governments as agents for exerting the monarchy's centralized rule; those of his lords who founded towns were interested in protecting their investments; the inhabitants of towns wished to avoid destruction of their persons and property, while those who made their living from commerce wished to create an environment that attracted business; and borough governments – dominated by those who prospered most from local trade and who were the largest holders of urban property – were interested in expanding their scope of jurisdiction and in enhancing the revenue sources they used to fund administrative duties. The availability of affordable resources (labour, construction materials, funding, land that was open or could be cleared, and even a foundation on which to build, such as Roman walls or Saxon rampart) for such large-scale and long-term projects, the degree of danger (there had to be a threat, but not too imminent), political will and leadership, were among the interplaying factors that must have helped determine whether a particular town at a particular time decided to take action. Some towns, or rather the town rulers at given points in time, were perhaps daunted by what were huge costs to a modest corporate budget, while others were prepared to press ahead regardless.

In terms of factors that were relatively common (even though there was some variation from place to place), we may note that from early in the thirteenth century England once more came under a very real threat of foreign invasion; as the century wore on, the danger was from more than one external enemy as well as from internecine fighting. Whereas civil wars tended to pit the military nobility against each other, focusing more on seizing the castles and destroying the supporters of the opposing side, it was feared that foreign forces were more inclined to attack prosperous population centres, and with greater brutality. The thirteenth century also saw the initial flowering of urban self-government, with mechanisms of local administration starting to take shape. Thus, on the one hand, the king could capitalize on developments to shift to the towns greater responsibility for construction and maintenance of defences; while, on the other, towns could capitalize on the king's nervousness about the state of national defence, which made him willing to subsidize defensive initiatives with grants of building materials, authorizations to raise money through local taxation, and especially the grant of new revenue streams specifically (and exclusively) to fund wall construction: murage.

Historians have argued about what may have been the primary motivation for towns to enclose themselves with walled circuits (for such we shall call them, regardless of whether the circuit was complete or incorporated topographical features); the two principal contestants being protection from attack and control of access to the intramural area (notably by traders from whom tolls could be collected). This is probably a fruitless exercise, for there is no need to think that in most cases a single, isolated reason was sufficient both to initiate wall-building and to sustain it over the long haul. Particular motivations may have been more at the forefront in particular towns at particular times; but it is likely that varying combinations of factors influenced decision-makers over the often lengthy course of construction and upgrades. At the risk of over-simplifying, we can group the perceived value of town walls into four overlapping categories: protection, administration, prestige, and revenue generation. In considering each of these, we must always keep in the back of our minds that, although we tend to talk about town walls and town gates as components of a unitary defensive fortification, the purpose of walls was essentially to prevent access, while the primary purpose of gates was to provide access.


The tremendous effort and expenditure involved in constructing and maintaining walls and their towers could hardly have been palatable if no protective value could be anticipated. Many spurts of activity in building, improving, or repairing defensive fortifications seem to have taken place when a particular threat loomed, or in the aftermath of some disastrous attack, while periods of calm seem to have led to a certain ambivalence towards proper maintenance or towards completing circuits. In addition we should note that the king seems to have taken particular interest in encouraging towns on the frontiers (.e.g. the northern Marches and the coastal ports) to provide themselves with adequate defences. Thus we see sustained efforts in obtaining murage renewals, along with other kinds of royal support for wall-building, from towns like Bridgnorth, Hereford, Ludlow, Shrewsbury, Dover, Bristol, Southampton, Sandwich, Yarmouth, Hartlepool, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and York, for example. The heavier users of murage also included provincial centres that might expect to be targeted in the event of a civil war serious invasion, such as Canterbury, Exeter, Gloucester, Oxford, Winchester, and Worcester. It must be allowed, however, that all these towns tended to be foci for commercial activity too. That the erection, or renovation, of defensive fortifications had some success could be argued from the fact that the Wars of the Roses were largely extra-urban conflicts not suited for long sieges.

The arguments against a military rationale include that most town walls were not strong enough to resist a determined and well-equipped hostile force able to devote sufficient time to a siege. But a siege lasting weeks or, worse, months, would not have been in the interests of townspeople, and it would have been an inefficient use of resources by an attacking army that doubtless had wider aims. In the face of such overwhelming force, the wise course for defenders would have been to negotiate surrender under favourable terms (e.g. no pillage), and the presence of a defensive obstacle would have encouraged the attacker to such an end. In a number of known cases, besiegers made only a token effort and then moved off in search of easier prey, or were able to capture the town only by finding some gap in its defences. To have built town walls to level of defensibility of castles would only have encouraged protracted sieges. Furthermore we should not discount the imagined utility of walls in holding off more casual attackers, such as raiding parties or rural rebels not equipped for a siege. Stone walls, which were usually supported by the second obstacle of a deep ditch (often water-filled) around the exterior, at least had an advantage over the older wooden palisades: they were not vulnerable to being set on fire and could better resist the rocks thrown by siege engines. Attackers relying on manpower alone often seem to have tried to effect entry at gateways, perhaps hoping to catch defenders before the gates could be closed, or possibly intending to force an entrance by breaking or burning down the gates. If towns could afford it, they reinforced wooden gates with metal or backed them up with portcullises.

Changes in military technology necessitated improvements in defences. Gunpowder artillery was appearing from the second quarter of the fourteenth century. The early guns, smaller and more mobile, were used as anti-personnel weapons and only when larger guns started to be brought into the field were they used in siege warfare. So the initial response of towns was to modify their fortifications to accommodate guns of their own; some at least already possessed older forms of artillery that might be positioned on gates and towers when danger threatened. Only towards the close of the Middle Ages were they recognizing the need to strengthen, or redesign, their fortifications to withstand cannon balls; but they were rarely financially able to do much more than build up earthen banks against the wall interior, to buttress it and absorb some of the shock of a strike.

At the same time, civic authorities had to balance sometimes conflicting needs, and, particularly as the defensive value of walls lessened in the fifteenth century, the integrity of the defences could be compromised. Additional gates might be inserted in the walls to provide egress from a particular part of town – for example from a religious precinct, or onto a quayside. Building close to or up against the walls came to be increasingly tolerated or even licensed, while towers and gateways were given over to non-military uses (see below).


One of the principal preoccupations of urban administrators was the collection of revenues. These included tolls due from traders bringing livestock, produce, or other goods into the town to sell. Controlling access points into the town was clearly desirable; gateways channeled access to a limited number of points where collectors could be on duty, while walls blocked entry elsewhere. In addition to toll collection, it would have been easier to police traffic regulations such as prohibitions against vehicles with iron-shod wheels traversing the streets. The so-called Leges Henrici Primi assumed that collection of tolls would take place at a town's main gates, and that those gates would lead onto the main streets through the town.

It has been noted that more effort was directed towards the design and upkeep of gateways; some towns invested in stone gateways but not in masonry walls to run between them. This does not preclude a defensive role for isolated structures, but it does suggest that local authorities were particularly conscious of the non-military utility of gateways. Even towns that lacked them sometimes had "bars" – less imposing obstacles whose character is not entirely certain (perhaps some kind of simple gate or boom) – at the entrance to some of the streets; these would have helped restrict traffic and may have also been used to slow down rioting mobs.

Access control could also entail keeping out undesirables, such as lepers, prostitutes, vagrants of suspect purpose, or outsiders of suspect character. The possession of gates that could be securely closed must have facilitated the enforcement of security provisions such as curfew and night-watch, while towers and ramparts must also have made it easier to keep watch for any approaching the town with evil intent. Since gateways and towers were not needed for military purposes most of the time, an additional administrative value 2 likely an afterthought in early wall-building projects, but perhaps consciously provided for in some later construction initiatives – was the use of interior spaces for non-military purposes. We hear of them being used for chapels (e.g. <>Norwich), gaols (e.g. London and York), for storage of civic valuables, archives, or armaments, or as housing for some city officials – even, occasionally, for council meetings. At Norwich towers along the southernmost stretch of wall were used to segregate the infected during the Black Death.

Walled circuits may also have been intended as a conspicuous indication of the geographical scope of jurisdiction of urban administration. Norwich is a well-known case of the walled circuit being too extensive to be efficient defensively, but part of its route appears to have been chosen to assert territorial claims. In many cases, however, the line of such circuits was chosen for a variety of reasons – such as the availability of land that could be crossed, the nature of the terrain, the existence of earlier defences that could be built up, and the location of certain structures, facilities or residential concentrations that needed to be protected – and did not designate an official boundary line.

Nonetheless there are indications that town walls may have been thought of as features that provided a measure of spatial definition. Depictions of towns, whether actual or idealized, including those on civic seals (e.g. Bristol) tend to highlight the walls. Not only the seals but also ceremonial reception of visiting dignitaries outside a town gate reflect the role of walls as differentiator between the outside world and the borough, Another indication is the cherished privilege of excluding most external authorities from intervention in local affairs (even to the point of denying entrance to royal forces). Henry I's charter grant to London included an exemption to citizens from having to answer to any court whose jurisdiction lay outside of the city walls, a privilege frequently claimed and stoutly defended. The reference to walls is found in similar exemptions to Bristol, Colchester, Ilchester, Canterbury, and Northampton, although restricted to tenurial pleas related to properties situated within the walls, and probably to cases involving other local customs or charter-granted jurisdictions; the same restriction was likely the intent with London (for a clarification in its charter of 1268 excepted criminal and piepowder pleas). Other boroughs' charters are less explicit, talking only of not having to answer outside the town (this was the case with small towns, unwalled, but also some larger ones, and further study is required to see if the difference in terminology was deliberate and significant); but even this assumes an understanding of what was inside and what outside, and walls were doubtless felt to have been some guide to this.

It is probably not coincidence that borough courts were invariably housed in buildings inside defensive perimeters, where they existed. Those enclosures did not so much define a boundary as indicate that a boundary existed within which a quasi-independent authority, administering a distinctive set of customs and by-laws, held sway (albeit, in practice, often not exclusively). In some cases the walls may have marked the actual geographical limits of that authority (or sometimes of the lord of the town).

More often, however, they did not encompass the entire borough community, but seem rather to have reflected a psychological distinction between inner and outer city, the latter comprising the most heavily built-up area (including residences of the wealthier townsmen, the local movers and shakers), along with principal marketplaces, civic buildings, and parish churches. Leper-houses were almost always located outside the walls, segregating the contaminated from the mainstream populace; Jewish cemeteries were also required to be extramural. Removal of undesirables from the community usually meant expelling them from the walled enclosure. This conceptual differentiation continues today: areas of settlement outside the walls tend to be viewed by historians as suburban. The pace of urban growth could outrun that of wall-building, so that the line of a town wall, not easy to change once established (only a few towns undertook extensions), could not accurately delineate the geographical extent of local authority. But the walls defended the institutions and that segment of society which best encapsulated the values and identity of the urban community. Even those towns lacking walls often had a surrounding ditch or barriers across major roads which helped identify the portal line.


In considering the role of walls as pseudo-boundary markers, we have crossed over into the next category, in which they were of value as status symbols. We should not overstate this factor, but neither should we dismiss it. It was noted above that walls were often chosen to depict urban identity on civic seals, although not exclusively so, for religious iconography and images of ships (symbolizing in part the commercial foundation of the urban economy) are also found. The principal gateways, particularly their outward-facing sides, were sometimes – perhaps commonly – decorated with symbols such as coats of arms of the king or other lord by whose grant the town had acquired a measure of autonomy and jurisdiction (and later with the coats of arms of the town itself), or with statues of, for example, religious figures (in some cases perhaps with a view to invoking divine protection through the intermediation of saints), figures supposedly associated with city history (e.g. York's legendary founder Ebrauk was represented on the city's Bootham Bar), or even former mayors or benefactors.

A less salutary form of display was of the heads or body parts of traitors, distributed for mounting on spikes atop gates in leading cities, as a warning to others. These gateways were the first point of contact that outsiders – whether peasants carting grain to the marketplace, or royalty on official visits had with a town – and could make a statement about the dignity, antiquity, and authority of a town, just as the height and solidity of the walls themselves might have made a statement about the power (political and economic) and durability of the town. Even when visiting kings were met by a local delegation at some location outside the walls (such as the official boundary of the borough), the royal entrance into the intramural area might be marked by ceremonies at the gateway.

It may be that a desire to emulate cities of the ancient world and its successors in other parts of the world – such as Jerusalem and Constantinople – which were understood to be ringed by mighty walls – gave added incentive to some English wall-building projects. National legislation on the matter of night-watch seems to have distinguished cities from lesser towns by the possession of fortified enclosures. One aspect of civic pride was the attempt to trace local heritage (or imagined heritage) as far back in time as might be. In a more abstract sense, walls may have been perceived as imposing a certain symmetry and order on the urban landscape.

But there was too a pragmatic side to the image the walls and gateways were intended to present. It was in the interest of the community to give outsiders the impression of a respectable, well-governed, and well-protected town, as this might encourage some to settle and make others feel more comfortable doing business in, or bringing their merchandize to, the town.

Revenue generation

As hinted at above, good fortifications could attract money to the town by fostering a sense of security for traders interested in using market, port, warehouses, and hostelries there. It gradually became apparent, however, that there was a more direct earning potential. This was retarded at first by concerns for defensive integrity. For instance, in 1363 the Canterbury authorities complained to the king that, as the aging city walls collapsed, residents would carry off the stones for other uses, that the defensive ditches had become blocked (being a common dumping ground for offal, dead animals, and rubbish of all kinds), and that repair efforts were impeded by houses and enclosed gardens that had been established close to the walls; although they were evidently looking for the king's authorization to demolish the impediments, he more prudently commissioned an investigation into the problems. But as defensive concerns were alleviated, local authorities started to rent out or lease spaces in gateways or towers for residential or business uses, of stretches of land beside city ditches and walls for construction of private buildings or for industrial uses. These provided a modest but fairly steady revenue stream in the fifteenth century, when many towns were finding it hard to balance budgets, while at the same time giving an opportunity to offload some of the structural maintenance responsibilities onto lessees. A less common (as far as we know) form of commercial exploitation is found at Kingston-upon- Hull where, in the late fifteenth century, prostitutes were allowed to tout for business along the defences so long as they paid an annual licence fee.

A more obvious generator of periodic employment was the construction and maintenance of defences; it provided work for craftsmen and labourers and sales for suppliers of hardware and construction materials. Much of this was made possible by royal grants of murage, whose modest tolls on imports (see examples at Northampton and Oxford) do not appear to have been a disincentive to commerce, it perhaps being evident that visiting merchants benefited somewhat from the existence of strong defences. The value of walls as an incentive to commerce was occasionally cited by towns seeking to persuade the king to grant murage.

The king does not seem to have needed much persuading, for his interests, as protector of the realm, were served by the construction of local fortifications and he was repeatedly ordering town authorities to erect defences or to put them into better repair when danger seemed imminent or when deficiencies had become apparent. A few towns received some royal financial support when shoring up existing defences during the civil wars of Stephen's reign, but there is little evidence of unprotected towns embarking on wall-building initiatives. The embattled King John, faced with the prospect of invasion from both France and Wales provided grants of timber or money to help a dozen or so towns build or improve their fortifications. Henry III continued this policy of subsidization and introduced murage grants in the 1220s; some three dozen English towns received such grants over the course of the century (along with a smaller number of Welsh ones), most lacking adequate, if any, defences previously. This was not a revolutionary approach, since a variety of local tolls had long been collected, and some were authorized by the king for other infrastructure projects (.e.g pontage, pavage, quayage), but it capitalized on the growth of commerce in that period and recognized that the traders who paid were beneficiaries of better defended towns.

As constructing walled enclosures was a long-term undertaking, murage grants were mostly made for a multi-year term, and renewals to continue the work could often be obtained; these aspects were even more pronounced in the fourteenth century, if for a smaller number of towns. Frontier towns – those close to the Welsh and Scottish borders or on the coasts – were particularly favoured, although towns in central England also showed strong interest during and after the civil war that disrupted Henry's reign. There was a whiff of money in the air, and town rulers were interested in getting a share, even as royal grants of exemption from murage, or agreements between towns to similar effect, made it a less lucrative source as time wore on. Wall-building did not always result from the collection of murage; perhaps the early income was insufficient to accomplish goals, while in some cases the money may have been diverted to other pressing needs or have been embezzled. The king, however, was insistent that proceeds be applied to the intended purpose and was prepared to institute audits upon complaints of fiscal maladministration or inaction. As murage revenues dwindled, towns relied increasingly – again initially with royal licence – on local taxation to fund continued efforts to complete, maintain, or upgrade their defences.

Carcassonne fortifications; photo © S. Alsford A stretch of Canterbury wall; photo © S. Alsford
In many countries of medieval Europe it was common for towns and even villages to fortify their perimeters, with defences that ranged from basic to elaborate. The impulse to self-protection by encircling walls, punctuated with strong gateways and towers, was less consistently felt across England, although foreign invasion, civil wars, regional unrest, and concerns not related to security matters or military obligations resulted in the majority of large and medium-sized English towns investing to some degree in fortifications, while similar motivations prompted ecclesiastical communities within towns to take like action to protect their own precincts.
(click on the images for more enlarged versions and more information)
North Gate, Salisbury; photo © S. Alsford Abbey precinct wall, York; photo © S. Alsford

 The urban military experience 

A comprehensive account of the involvement of towns in military conflict cannot be attempted here. Instead, illustrative examples will be given of the roles of some as victims, contributors to offensives, or aggressors in their own right at various times during the Middle Ages; some have already been given above, and others may be found in the discussion of the primary documents. Towns have sometimes been portrayed not only as islands in a feudal sea but as anti-war communities in a highly militarized society; such characterizations are misleading. Before the thirteenth century, during and after which towns became increasingly commercialized and self-governing, there does not appear to have been a strong differentiation between urban and rural society. Since Anglo-Saxon times the English had a reputation as a warlike people, and there is no reason to suppose this did not include those who lived in towns. Froissart (a direct and relatively unbiased observer of English armies of the Hundred Years War, during which English soldiery in France gave fairly free rein to brutality) described the English as quick to anger, difficult to pacify, delighting in battles and slaughter. That this description would not be grossly unfair if applied to townsmen is suggested by ample evidence of the ready resort to violence by both individuals and groups in towns.

Before the Conquest the burhs clearly played an important role in national defence, and we know that they and other towns fielded military forces, but it is hard to get a clear overall picture from the brief chronicle references.

The influential part played by London, as the emerging chief city and future capital, in military and political affairs, is a little better documented, but we rarely can consider London's example typical in anything. The city had been able to repulse several Viking assaults, had sent its militia to stand with Harold at Hastings, and the Conqueror, recognizing it as a source of power, tried to win its loyalty with grants of privileges. FitzStephen, in his description of London of the 1170s. was very conscious of its military aspects: in his opening paragraph he boasted of the strength of its fortifications and the physical prowess of its men, and later describes in some detail their love of sports with a military bent and their practice of martial arts. We know from other sources that wrestling and sword-fencing were popular pastimes, as were hunting and other aggressive recreations; in a society where the warrior class was at the apex, others lower down the hierarchy were naturally drawn to martial arts.

Although FitzStephen's estimation of the size of the forces London could raise is a typical medieval order-of-magnitude exaggeration, he is not wrong in pointing to the involvement of London's militia during the civil war earlier in the century, for the city played a decisive part on several occasions. The city's fortifications, its resources, and its command of lines of interior communication offered whoever held it a strategic advantage. It was the arrival of city forces that persuaded Matilda to abandon her siege of the Bishop of Winchester's castle, and a large London contingent helped Stephen capture the earl of Gloucester's castle at Farringdon. The city felt strong enough to negotiate with both sides, to see which would offer it the most concessions in return for support.

London was again able to capitalize during the needy monarchies of Henry II's sons: when Richard I was in captivity, a citizen was bold enough to declare that London would have no king other than its mayor, and Prince John, in his struggle with the chancellor, bought London's support by recognizing its status as a commune (a concept that inspired fear in other European monarchies). When John was in trouble again, in 1216, it was with his baronial opponents that London sided, again in the hope of wringing more concessions from the king. Although Henry III, during his time of troubles, tried to use London as a base to resist the rebels, when the latter's cause revived he had to take refuge in the Tower, as the populace rose in armed insurrection and hunted royalists down. Henry withdrew to try to counter de Montfort's hold on London by taking control of the Channel ports, but was rejected by Dover. When the Montfortians moved out gainst the royalist army, Londoners were among their forces and helped in the capture of Rochester; at the battle of Lewes the London militia formed a large part of de Montfort's infantry.

The fourteenth century saw London more cautious, as royal demands for troops started to weigh heavily, but still prepared to intervene in national politics, as in its support for Isabella and Mortimer against Edward II, again in return for additional privileges. Yet by 1387, when Richard II wanted a London force to help him against the Appellants, the city authorities were prepared to state the position that the citizens were mainly merchants and craftsmen, not experienced warriors, and needed to reserve what little military capacity they had for defending the city. This position was partly to avoid getting involved in a conflict on behalf of a king for whom they had little sympathy and who they suspected was going to lose. A few years earlier, when London had been threatened (and parts attacked) by Wat Tyler's peasants, the mayor had been able to raise at short notice a force sufficiently large and well-armed to surround and overawe the peasants (who, however, lacked the power of an army of professional soldiers). But the statement of 1387 reflects a gradual change in urban society.

London was of course not the only town to play a role in military affairs. As already mentioned, the Norman Conquest had, as one of its key goals, the pacification of key towns, in the recognition that these were centres of Saxon resistance. A number of towns were drawn into the wars between rival claimants for the throne, Matilda and Stephen. Stamford had a particularly hard time, undergoing sieges on three occasions; that the first two were unsuccessful suggests the adequacy of the town's defences, but it fell to the third. Its first grant of murage came in 1261, during another major round of civil war. Bristol and Worcester, both loyal to Matilda, underwent sieges in 1138 and 1139 respectively. In 1141 the citizens of Lincoln were arrayed in support of a royal army, but this was partly because the battle was in their locality; we do not hear that their forces played any notable role in the fighting, although many Lincoln men were said to have been killed fleeing back into the city to seek protection, or down to the river to escape in boats which, overloaded, capsized. The victors then entered the city, fired houses and slaughtered residents – an act which the chroniclers describe matter-of-factly, and one explicitly stated to be par for the course; while we cannot take all that chroniclers wrote at face value, evidently they saw nothing astonishing in the sack of a captured city. In 1147 the men of Lincoln repelled an assault by the earl of Chester.

The thirteenth century was much the same. Lincoln saw another battle before its gates in 1217, followed by wholesale plundering from the victors; according to Roger of Wendover, on the latter occasion some of the townswomen, to avoid being robbed or raped, tried to escape on the river, taking children and valuables with them, but once more drownings were the result. During this same bout of conflict, John's baronial opponents invaded East Anglia (1216) and forced Ipswich, Dunwich, and Yarmouth to pay ransoms to avoid being assaulted. Gloucester, which had been one of the main strongholds of the empress, and her refuge after she was expelled from London, and which continued to serve as a supply base for operations against Wales and Ireland, once more found itself strategically placed during the baronial revolt against Henry III; in 1264 it was captured by Montfortian forces, but its castle held out until Prince Edward arrived with a relief force; Edward then fined the burgesses for having failed to prevent the town being taken. In 1265 the it was the Prince's turn to besiege it, after de Montfort had garrisoned it with his supporters; town and castle would again be captured, in late 1321 or early 1322, by regional opponents of the Despensers, and some leading burgesses fined, after the king had retaken the city, for being considered sympathizers with the rebels. By the close of the thirteenth century the war against Scotland was dominating the military landscape. Between 1298 and 1304 royal administration relocated to York, to make it easier to pursue the war. Although York itself did not come under direct threat, Durham was sacked by Robert the Bruce (1312), prompting an extension of the city wall (strong enough only to deflect raiders) to protect the marketplace, and the north in general – towns and countryside – suffered heavily, with Berwick, situated right in the zone of greatest contention, being repeatedly captured and recaptured.

During the Hundred Years War it was the turn of port towns, particularly those of the south coast, to come under attack. Dover had suffered a French assault in 1295, but this was an isolated incident; the extent of damage is unknown, but recent archaeological investigation, taken in combination with other evidence, has suggested it contributed to a significant and long-term decline in the mariners' quarter of the town. The French and their allies, many of them privateers, were the dominant sea-power for much of the fifteenth century, despite the English naval victory at Sluys (1340). They commanded larger numbers of fast-moving vessels suitable for conveying armed men in fast hit-and-run raids against the English coast. Portsmouth was raided and houses set afire there in June 1338, and an even more devastating attack on Southampton took place in October. The following year Harwich became the first target (March 1339), and Sandwich, Dover, Folkestone, Rye, Hastings, Portsmouth and Plymouth incurred some damage from raids that summer. These naval campaigns created widespread alarm in England, it being feared they were a prelude to invasion. Men living within a few miles of the Channel coast were ordered to remain in their shires, in case needed for defence, and were exempted from other military service. Although Sluys brought about a breathing-space, fortifications were improved, or at least surveyed, not only at some of the towns that had suffered (Dover, Southampton, Portsmouth, and Hastings), but further afield (Winchester, Exeter, Old Sarum), and as far away as Lynn and Gloucester, the latter incurring, in 1360, the king's anger for having neglected to keep its walls in repair during a truce with France. In due course, the raids resumed. Winchelsea was attacked in 1359, and again in 1360 when it briefly fell into enemy hands, creating an amount of national panic disproportionate to the seriousness of the attack (although 35 townsmen were reported killed, and 9 women raped). Portsmouth was targeted in 1369, while a series of raids in 1377 (Hastings, Rye, Plymouth, Dartmouth) inspired renewed fears of invasion.

The dominant military event of the fifteenth century, the Wars of the Roses, on the whole had less serious impact across most of England than had the wars with Scotland and France. They appear to have inspired increased lawlessness and disorder generally, and greater readiness at all levels of society to resort to violence to express dissatisfaction with government. To give just one illustration: in 1426 a parliament was convened at Leicester during the political factionalism preceding the civil war, and the fear of violence breaking out while parliament was in session was so great that proclamation was made throughout the town that all visitors should leave their weapons – swords and bucklers, bows and arrows – in their lodgings. This edict was circumvented by carrying concealed weapons such as clubs, which were in turn banned, and then people started carrying concealed stones. But relatively few towns were the focus for any of the fighting during the Lancaster-York struggle, although the conflict once more prompted some to invest in repair or strengthening of their defences. A few towns, or factions within towns, were prepared to take sides in the national political conflict – Newbury, to take a single example, showed clear support for the House of York and, during a period of Lancastrian ascendancy, a number of its residents were consequently hanged, drawn and quartered, and others fined. But the authorities in most towns seem to have preferred to hedge their bets, concede modest support (with occasional misjudgments) to whichever side looked to be winning, while trying to avoid undue offence to the other side, and let the rival forces of nobility and gentry battle it out amongst themselves. Far from espousing the Yorkist cause, York's stance is better reflected in its despatch of the city recorder, in 1471, to try to persuade Edward IV, returning after his flight overseas, not to pass through the city during his advance on London. Only with the rise of Richard of Gloucester did the city find a lord to whom it could give its loyalty with few reservations.

Townsmen did not require national wars to take up arms. Occasionally, they could mount acts of aggression on their own initiative, often just a form of mob violence against the property of local landlords they considered rivals for jurisdiction (e.g. Norwich), but sometimes against competitor towns. During the struggle for the crown following Henry I's death, Bristol men were accused of various acts of aggression in the region, including an attempt to capture Bath. Gloucester, supporting the empress, is said to have fielded a large military force for an attack on Hereford, and its residents were blamed for an attack on Worcester: having been repulsed in their assault of the castle there, they effected entry into the city on a side lacking fortifications, set fire to some houses, plundered others, and carried off some of the townsmen for ransom, before withdrawing. In 1216, Dunwich, similarly taking advantage of the state of national disorder, sent out an armed force to the nearby manor of Blythburgh and Walberswick (rivals for control of local fishing and commerce) where they set several houses afire, along with the manor house's chapel, from which they dragged off a statue of St. John; the resulting lawsuit dragged on in the courts for many years.

In the 1250s Dunwich was siding with Yarmouth in a private war with Sandwich and Winchelsea. The intermittent conflict between Yarmouth and the Cinque Ports, occasioned by competition over control of the herring fishery, was notorious. Edward I's expedition to Flanders in 1297 was disrupted by a battle between Yarmouth and Ports contingents of his fleet, over 17 ships being lost as a result. In July 1316 Edward II, having already mediated in disputes between Great Yarmouth and the Cinque Ports and commanded them not to take matters into their own hands, had heard that Yarmouth had sent to sea a fleet carrying armed men to attack the Cinque Ports, and that the latter were readying their own ships to intercept the attackers; he appointed commissioners to proclaim a cease and desist order and to exert pressure by taking hostages from the families of those whose ships were already under sail. The ships of Lyme Regis and Dartmouth had done battle in 1264, and in 1321 Winchelsea launched a raid on Southampton that resulted in the destruction of a number of ships there. However, the relatively strong centralized monarchy in England prevented inter-urban warfare at the level found among medieval Italian city-states.

Following the Conquest at least, townsmen were not such doughty warriors that wars could be won with their help. As the demands of warfare, in terms of equipment and skill levels, grew, urban militia must have increasingly played an auxiliary role, with the possible exception of their contributions to companies of archers, which came more to the strategic forefront. And as time went on, even the auxiliary role may have diminished as the size of urban contingents became relatively fixed at modest levels (infrequently more than a hundred, and often much fewer). Large numbers of townsmen only saw combat when their towns were threatened with attack, and then they relied in part on the strength of their fortifications. In battle, they were not a great military advantage either quantitatively or qualitatively. Chroniclers rarely paid much attention to battle participants, other than the flower of chivalry, and in the case of most battles we cannot even be certain if urban contingents arrived in time to take part. Sometimes we know it only because we hear of their slaughter, as of the Londoners at the battle of Lewes, and the men of Newcastle-upon-Tyne at Halidon Hill.

But nor should we think of townsmen as pacifists who found military activity alien or repugnant, even though the more pragmatic businessmen probably preferred to operate under peaceable, safer conditions. The general English attitude towards the war with France, for example, was not unfavourable; despite the frequent taxations to cover war costs, prejudice against the French and fears of invasion fostered support for the war effort, and the occasional victory gave cause for sometimes exuberant celebration. Large numbers of townsmen may have had a nominal military participation through arrays of arms; and communal watch and ward duties, along with recreational preferences, must have encouraged many to practice the martial arts. But in selecting smaller numbers to be sent as contingents to a real conflict, urban authorities may have been influenced, in their selection of members, by the physical prowess, aggressive proclivities, and taste for adventure or plunder of those known to them (perhaps men better sent out of town for a while, although those who returned might prove a bigger liability). Many foot-soldiers, whether conscripts or volunteers, were men hoping to profit from war, or criminals aiming to win pardons in return for service. The kinds of problem that ordinances of war sought to prevent suggest that English soldiers could be unruly, argumentative, and untrustworthy, prone to murdering enemy prisoners from whom there was no prospect of profit, to raping women, and to robbing the local populace, as well as churches.

Warwick the Kingmaker rallies his troops; photo © S. Alsford
The course of the military history of medieval England was shaped by the ambitions of members of the nobility, whose authority derived largely from martial superiority. Townsmen were mostly followers in such affairs, although in that role, as well as in other supporting roles, they could influence the outcome of the wars of their masters.
(click on the images for more information)
Melee from the 2008 re-enactment of the Battle of Tewkesbury; photo © S. Alsford

 Naval contributions 

It can be argued that, when it came to national defence against foreign foes, the contribution of towns lay more on the naval than the military side of service, and so that topic has been left for separate discussion here. While the administration of military matters in medieval England was fairly sophisticated, naval administration was comparatively neglected. Before (and for some time after) cannon began to be mounted aboard ships, naval battles were essentially just variants of land battles: the aim was to come to close quarters so that the foe could be attacked from the fore and aft castles with arrows, crossbow bolts, spears, darts, or stones, before soldiers boarded for hand-to-hand fighting, with the goal of killing the enemy crew and capturing their vessel; defensive tactics included trying to blind soldiers as they were boarding and making the decks slippery so that armoured men fell over and could not easily get up. If boarding was not feasible, an attempt might be made to destroy the enemy vessel by casting flaming projectiles onto it.

English kings had a few ships of their own, but nothing that could really be called a navy. Yet English expeditions to foreign countries needed large amounts of shipping to transport armies and their supplies, and to continue supplying them afterwards. Those expeditions also needed escorts to see them safely to their destination ports. In fact the seas around England were constantly in need of protection, for piracy against merchantmen, the lifeline of commerce and thereby the economic prosperity that fuelled war finances, was rife in peacetime and a state of war gave it even more scope. Indeed it became hard – particularly since the sea was generally felt to be outside the law or international treaties (including truces) – to distinguish acts of privateering against ships of enemy powers from acts of piracy for private gain, and sometimes the difference hinged on diplomatic shifts in the landscape of political/military alliance; piracy against ships of allied or neutral powers could prove an embarrassment to the king, place alliances in jeopardy, and oblige the king to pay compensation.

Invasion from abroad was a periodic danger, and a concern particularly weighing on English minds during the Hundred Years War; while beefing up coastal defences was essential, it was preferable to try to stop invasion fleets before they reached the coast, or even before they set out, if possible. It may be that, as the war with France progressed, the English increasingly looked to naval defence, rather than investing more heavily in fortifications against invading forces. Not infrequently, Parliament, or special assemblies of merchants, had to give attention to the keeping of the sea; in 1454 it granted the king loans from 16 towns, most of them on or close to the coast (ranging from £300 from London to $#163;50 to be divided between Salisbury, Poole, and Weymouth, to cover the wages of a naval force to patrol English waters. The mercantile lobby was the loudest voice in complaining about the lack of naval defence; on the one hand it wanted protection for its ships venturing out on trading voyages, on the other it resented that often, when Englishmen captured ships of enemy subjects , they were prosecuted or forced to make restitution because the king had sold safe-conducts to the victims – English ship-owners saw this as a disincentive to maintaining vessels they could use for privateering (and that would be called on for naval service).

These various needs indicated above had to be met to a large extent by requisitioning for naval service ships built and owned by urban merchants for non-military uses. East coast ports such as Kingston-upon-Hull, Lynn, Yarmouth, and Dunwich, were among frequent sources of such ships; in 1359 Yarmouth and Lynn were exempted from other military obligations that year in consideration of their naval service. Even Maldon, a small and not highly prosperous town, could be asked to provide one ship for 40 days of duty, at local expense. Taking Dunwich, however, as our example: it sent 20 ships to Sandwich in 1173 to join up with a fleet gathered to keep the seas safe, at the time when Henry II's rebellious sons were allied with the king of France and Count of Flanders. In 1229 Henry III asked Dunwich to provide him with 40 ships, crewed and armed, to help convey an army from Portsmouth to Poitou; the town responded that it could only supply 30, which satisfied the king. In 1252 the demand was for 5 ships manned by crossbowmen, and in 1295 11 ships sailed from Dunwich to join Lynn and Yarmouth contingents heading for Plymouth and an invasion of France, serving for 13 weeks; some thirty years later, the town was still seeking reimbursement of £42.10s to cover the sailors' wages and the loss of four of the ships during the expedition. The near-destruction of Dunwich by a severe winter storm, in early 1328, so significantly reduced the town's capacity that it precluded any future demands. Yarmouth's merchant fleet was also severely diminished during the fourteenth century by losses to war and other causes. Some ports were less well-endowed with merchant vessels, or less willing to expose them to the dangers of wartime service. 1301, for example, Sleaford advised the king that its only suitable ships were both in Gascony. The following year only two ships could be obtained from Bristol and the constable of the castle had to use force to recruit crews. And in 1310 Exeter officials agreed to provide one ship for the Scottish war, but it took a month to identify a suitable vessel and make all the necessary arrangements before it could be put to sea.

Discussion of this subject has tended to focus on the contribution of the Cinque Ports, believed to have been granted (even before the Conquest) special privileges in return for naval service, and that such service furnished the core of the English navy. In 1278, for instance, their combined obligation was to supply 57 ships and 1,254 sailors for 15 days at their own expense; Dover alone had to provide 20 ships, each with a crew of 21 – the total number of sailors (if all were townsmen) must have consumed a large portion of the male population. The importance of the south coast confederation, and indeed of the urban role in naval warfare as a whole, has recently been challenged by Nicholas Rodger ["The Naval Service of the Cinque Ports," English Historical Review, vol.111 (1996), 636-51], as exaggerated. His paper provides a useful corrective, even if it perhaps veers too far in the opposite direction from the more widely accepted perspective.

Differentiating three types of ships used for naval service in wartime:

Professor Rodger observes that it was predominantly the last type supplied by coastal towns, and that these cannot really be considered warships. He doubts that the Ports' obligatory contribution could have had any real military value, since the term of service was too short for any meaningful naval operation (which might require months just to assemble ships and hold them until other arrangements were in place), and the crews too small to row anything but smaller vessels. Furthermore, the Ports, unlike Southampton and Portsmouth, were not well positioned (taking into account the winds) for crossings between England and Normandy. He suspects that the origin of the Ports' service obligation may have lain in controlling the crossing between England and Flanders, perhaps to guard against the return of earl Godwin from exile in Flanders.

It may well be that the Ports' service had become antiquated by the time England was at war with France, although we must keep in mind that their service for a few weeks was service provided at no cost to the Crown and does not preclude longer service at the king's expense. By the fourteenth century there are indications the Ports had much the same status as other coastal towns in being places where ships could be commandeered for royal service, and some of those ships were larger vessels with larger crews or for longer periods than the traditional service requirement; but then this was at the king's cost. That service may have been primarily of transport rather than offence, but urban vessels were used from time to time in contexts which suggest combat could have been expected, not least in coastal patrol, looking for pirates; the independent piratic acts of English merchantmen indicate they were capable, and not afraid, of some measure of ship-to-ship fighting. As the principal source of ships, towns were inevitably important to overseas military operations, and there are indications that not a few merchantmen were large enough to be, at some time in their lifetimes, fitted out with castles in anticipation of the need to fight, or at least to defend themselves. Nor can we, as Professor Rodger allows, discount the value of town-based sailors, pilots, and ship's captains to the navy; the experience and/or capability of a few was sufficient to elevate them to the status of admirals or vice-admirals; there is some indication the king considered the ports more important as a source of sailors than ships.

Ports were important not only for supplying existing ships, but for building new ones for the king. King John invested in naval facilities as Portsmouth and Southampton after the loss of Normandy turned the English Channel from a highway to a frontier. In the 1290s, in response to the French king's use of Rouen as base for a fleet of warships, Edward I ordered galleys built for his use by a number of towns (mostly coastal) including London (2 ships), Newcastle, Southampton, York, Ipswich, Dunwich, and Lyme Regis. The French squadrons of balinger-type vessels that carried out south coast raids during the fourteenth century similarly prompted English kings to try to build up their own fleet: a number of towns were commissioned to construct balingers and/or barges. The Exchequer paid out £666.1s.4d for one royal ship constructed at Lynn in the 1360s; the work employed 50 men for 15 weeks.

Reconstructed Viking ship draws in to the bank of 
the Ottawa River; photo © S. Alsford
Many of England's most prosperous towns were located on the coast or on a navigable river accessible from the coast. They were at risk from raids from hostile forces, such as the Vikings, Scots, or French; it was therefore natural that they would be the source of some of the ships used in coastal defence.
(click on the images for enlarged versions and more information)
Artist's reconstruction of a medieval warship Ship depicted on town seal

 The winds of war 

The point with which the last section ended leads us nicely into a consideration of the pros and cons of war for towns. It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good. War amplifies needs, and needs present opportunities. The effort required by various aspects of waging war meant employment for a number of townsmen, such as in military or naval service, in creating or strengthening local defences, ship-building, manufacturing arms and armour, provisioning armies, and so on. Armies were voracious beasts and military success depended to no small extent on keeping forces victualled. In 1416 a proclamation was made in London inviting merchants to supply the army at Harfleur, with "corn, bread, meal or flour, wine, ale or beer, fish, meat, or any other victuals, linen or woollen cloth, or any merchandise [such as] sheets, britches, doublets, hose, shoes, or any goods by way of armour, artillery, or other stuff." [H.T. Riley, ed. Memorials of London Life, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1868, 628; my modernization]; suppliers were to advise the mayor of what they had, and he would assign them transportation. Two years later, when Henry V sent an urgent request to the London authorities for supplies to be sent to his army besieging Rouen, arrangements were made to ship 200 tuns of ale and 300 tuns of beer, together with 2,500 wooden mugs; business was thereby given to city brewers, the turners who manufactured the mugs, the porters and carters who carried the casks down to the ships, and the crews who took the ships across the Channel and rowed them up the Seine to Rouen.

For a handful of the more entrepreneurial merchants, war could be extremely profitable – assuming debts could be collected from the king, which was a risky undertaking in its own right. Those formally commissioned to purvey on behalf of the king were the most fortunate, particularly when they had the right connections in a region and could easily tap into local produce at short notice; a few others tried to cash in by pretending to have been so licensed. Armies might even be accompanied on expeditions by a few merchants, to rustle up supplies in the field.

The wealth was not necessarily spread widely within the urban population (except through trickle-down); for instance, in1340 when Yarmouth had to provide 30 ships for 40 days service in the Channel, the accounts of the town bailiffs, responsible for stocking the ships, show that they went to only two men to supply 377 quarters of flour and three others for 60,400 gallons of ale. Those merchants already heavily involved in victualling, ale production, or the import of wine must have been better able to supply armies when they passed through. We should not assume that all those engaged to work on urban fortifications were necessarily townsmen. Nor was the war expenditure distributed evenly among a large number of towns, some being in a more advantageous position. When York became the base for war administration for a few years (see above) and was later used by Edward II (trying to avoid his baronial opponents), the Chancery, Exchequer, and royal courts of justice relocated there; bureaucrats needed accommodation and spent money there. York's craftsmen and merchants must also have benefited from the city's use as a point of assembly for armies and from the need of northern strongholds, such as Berwick and Carlisle, to be provisioned. Southampton, Portsmouth, Plymouth, and Sandwich were frequently designated as embarkation ports for armies, (the assembly of armies to await shipping meant a large, if temporary, market for consumables and clothing and for the repair of footwear, harness, or amour; the same towns were also more often commissioned to build ships for the king. Dover had a leg up in supplying Calais with men, munitions, and victuals, while it and some of the east coast ports were the natural points for shipping to Flanders. The coastal ports as a whole probably profited more from war than did interior towns, while London too, as a major focus of commerce and industry, must have had a good share of war business.

Nor should we forget that fighting itself could be a profitable business. The prospect of booty and even prisoner ransoms (although those mostly benefited professional soldiers) attracted some to enter military service for foreign wars; foot-soldiers, acting individually or in groups, could hope to return home – if they survived – with greater wealth than they could make in any domestic line of work. A greater effort seems to have been made during civil wars to prevent pillaging of towns, whether by townsmen negotiating terms of surrender or through-passage for armies, or by commanders attempting to restrain their troops (as was the case during the Wars of the Roses, although not universally); but chroniclers' accounts, if sometimes dramatized, suggest that victorious soldiers were not always easy to control.

Where there are winners, there are losers. Supplying armies might bring a profit for some, but was burdensome to others. It could create local shortages of necessaries or lead to price-gouging (as could forageing by armies passing through the neighbourhood). Purveyance became very unpopular, for it was susceptible to abuses, corruption, and slow or no payment for goods purveyed. Royal efforts to guarantee payment to those from whom supplies were requisitioned and to set prices to avoid profiteering were not always effective, for profiteering was the name of the game. In 1417 a Barnet man was arrested for pretending to be one of the king's purveyors, with the intent of fraudulently requisitioning wheat displayed for sale in a London market; the record of his arrest stated that "poor persons who bring wheat and other victuals to the City aforesaid, do not dare to come, by land or by water, through fear of the multitude of pretended purveyors and takers, who resort thither from every side." [H.T. Riley, ed. op. cit., 645]. The offender was sentenced to public humiliation (the pillory) before being returned to prison until he paid a 40s. fine for release. The public image of purveyors so deteriorated that Edward III's reforms of the system included changing the title of officials who purveyed for him. London's town clerk devoted several pages in one of the city Letter-Books to a compilation of statutes and royal ordinances pertinent to purveyance, at the time when Henry VI reconfirmed that at the beginning of his reign. In 1442 a new statute permitted resistance to purveyors who tried to take goods without paying for them.

The interests of rank-and-file craftsmen and merchants, and townspeople as a whole, were better served by conditions of peace than of war. Trade, commerce, and agriculture flourished best in settled conditions, when the roads and maritime routes were relatively safe, armed forces were not marching through the land, and there were no fears of foreign invasion. War might provide opportunities, but it also created hindrances, uncertainties, and higher risks. For instance, gathered quantities of purveyed supplies en route to the front needed short-term storage before being shipped; the small amounts of rent payment this brought to the pockets of warehouse owners would sometimes have been offset by preventing the owners' use for their own merchandize. More grave, merchants visiting a foreign port or market were at increased risk of being cheated or of having their merchandize seized when the winds of international relations shifted direction; strategic business intelligence must have involved keeping tabs on who was allied, or at war, with whom. Embargoes – whether by the king prohibiting trade with the enemy, or by hostile powers banning English imports – further hurt English mercantile interests, and were particularly resented at a time when foreign merchants might be permitted to continue to take English wool, cloth, or other goods abroad. Merchant vessels came under increased danger of attack, and to obtain restoration, or compensation for, lost ships or cargoes was difficult and time-consuming. Possibly even more damaging to commerce were the sometimes lengthy periods during which ships and sailors underwent impressment for naval service and were unavailable for their intended use. Naval service exposed them to a higher likelihood of damage or loss. The parliaments held in 1416, for example, heard several complaints along these lines, although all they could do was authorize investigations:

Merchants of the fifteenth century, compared to those of the fourteenth, seem to have been more reluctant to invest in ship-building – at least we see fewer merchants who owned multiple vessels. Some of the ships built by towns for the king's use were later turned back to commercial service; on the other hand we have cases such as the barge built by York and, after some delay, put into active service in 1379, only to be attacked and sunk with all hands when it reached the coastal waters of Brittany.

War was costly, and it may be that urban communities paid a relatively large share of those costs. In addition to direct taxation to support war efforts, they might also be obliged to make large loans of money to the king, and had to find a good part of the money for building and maintaining fortifications, as well as of organizing and equipping guards and defenders. To erect a fortified circuit sometimes necessitated taking over private properties, including fields and gardens that furnished food for household consumption or produce for retail. Towns that were in war frontier regions could have a hard time keeping their tax-paying residents, some of whom preferred to cut and run. Local administrators had an added burden of responsibility: organizing local defence, putting together equipped contingents for military service, arranging for the provision and transport of supplies for the army, arresting ships for the navy, supervising the construction of royal ships, helping billet troops on stopover, enforcing economic sanctions against the enemy, keeping a lookout for spies, and gathering intelligence about military movements (e.g. by sending out messengers).

More generally, wars placed communities at risk of physical damage. As fortified centres of population, administration, and wealth, and potential strongholds, they presented strategic targets to be captured and opportunities for pillage. Townspeople could be killed or taken captive, property destroyed, livestock killed or taken, livelihoods ruined. Towns might hope to be ignored during a civil war, but there was no concept of neutrality; from time to time it became necessary to deal with having armed forces on the doorstep.

War also had indirect consequences for English society, in regard to fostering an atmosphere of violence. Ex-soldiers returned from foreign wars with a habit for intimidation and violence, although some may have already been that way inclined before leaving – in 1380 the southern and eastern counties complained to Parliament that soldiers en route to embarkation for France did not remain within their encampments but roamed about committing robberies and destructive acts. Ex-soldiers may have been at least partly responsible for the lawless behaviour of armed groups ranging about in the late 1340s and '50s; such bands attacked ships at Bristol and Newcastle, for example, rescued a criminal arrested by the bailiff of Kingston-upon=Hull, and overawed the people of Bridgnorth. The blood-letting within the nobility during the Wars of the Roses (including executions without due process) may have reduced respect for authority and increased the inclination of those lower down the social scale to express forcefully their adverse opinions of government or members of the ruling class. Foreign wars, as well as fears of foreign invasion, fuelled existing English xenophobic tendencies. Frenchmen of all loyalties were distrusted. Flemings were resented because restrictions on English cloth exports enabled Flemish cloth producers to recapture some of the trade. And Italians were suspected of secretly shipping English wool and cloth to Flanders.

Reading old history textbooks it can sometimes seem as though the history of England during the Middle Ages is a narrative of constant invasions, uprisings, civil wars, and conflicts with neighbours. We must avoid both exaggerating and under-estimating the impact of war on medieval English society. On the one hand, "For the great majority of English people the war was a frequently recurring theme, but not a constant and inescapable preoccupation." [H.J. Hewitt. The Organization of War under Edward III, 1966, 179.] Fighting on English soil occurred only sporadically, for short periods, and touched directly only small parts of the country at any given time. On the other hand, more time was spent campaigning, with armed forces marching to and fro across the land in search of foes or allies. Towns only infrequently found attackers at their gates, but must have been conscious more often of potential trouble heading in their direction, whether from enemy raiders or from English companies likely to demand billets, supplies, or recruits, with either kind of soldiery prone to ravaging the local countryside or to acts of casual violence that could make it risky to venture beyond the safety of the town walls. Most of the more important English towns – which were, after all, more important because strategically located – experienced an assault, or siege, or even a battle in the vicinity, at some time between the Conquest and the close of the fifteenth century, and such dramatic events are likely to have lingered in memory and local tradition. For at least those towns in frontier regions, the threat of war may have engendered "a sort of inbuilt impermanence afflicting the whole of society" [Henry Summerson, "Responses to War: Carlisle and the West March in the later fourteenth century." in War and Border Societies in the Middle Ages, ed. A. Goodman and A. Tuck. London: Routledge, 1992, 161.]

But life went on under these conditions. Military activity and concerns for security were part and parcel of medieval normality. The highly hierarchic structure of society, with the warrior class in control and to be emulated, had service – whether to one's lord or one's community – as one of its most deeply ingrained social ethics; the commitment to service made people willing to shoulder burdens of various kinds, for to have one's service needed was a form of empowerment and defined relationships within society. Nor should we forget that war was in its own fashion a stimulus to urbanization. The fortification of settlements during the struggle between Danes and Anglo-Saxons; the post-Conquest foundation of new towns by the new overlords, looking to generate cash (rather than services in kind) from their new estates, in part to pay the costs of their military service obligations, as well as of castles which provided some local economic stimulus; the Crown's financial support in the thirteenth century for urban fortification, which in turn attracted immigration and trade; and the Crown's willingness to win the military support of its towns by them granting economic and administrative privileges. These all played a role in the development of an urban network in medieval England.

Tomb of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick; photo © S. Alsford
For some the winds of war could bring rewards for good service or profits from supplying armies, but for many it could lead to the loss of livelihood or an early grave.
(click on the image for more information)

In the final resort human history is not about winners and losers, any more than it is about the sweeping, faceless tides of change. It is about people trying to find their way, individually and collectively, through the labyrinthine corridors of time, their options and directions contextualized, conditioned, constrained by the particular characteristics of whatever environment, culture, and society into which they are thrust by the circumstances of their birth.

 Further reading 

BARLEY, M.W. "Town Defences in England and Wales after 1066," pp.57-71 in The Plans and Topography of Medieval Towns in England and Wales. Council for British Archaeology Research Report No.14 (1975).

BOND, C.J. "Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Defences." Pp.92-116 in Urban Archaeology in Britain. ed. John Schofield and Roger Leech. CBA Research Report No. 61 (1987).

CREIGHTON, Oliver and Robert HIGHAM. Medieval Town Walls: An Archaeology and Social History of Urban Defence. Stroud: Tempus, 2005.

DAVIS, Philip. The Gatehouse: List of medieval Urban Defences in England. 2006.

DRAGE, C. "Urban Castles." Pp.117-132 in Urban Archaeology in Britain. ed. John Schofield and Roger Leech. CBA Research Report No. 61 (1987).

ENGLISH, Barbara. "Towns, Mottes and Ring-works of the Conquest." Pp. 45-61 in The Medieval Military Revolution: State, society and military change in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. A Layton and J. Price. London: Tauris, 1995.

GOODER, Eileen. Coventry's Town Wall, rev. ed. Coventry and North Warwickshire History Pamphlet No.4 (1971).

GOODMAN, Anthony. The Wars of the Roses: Military Activity and English Society, 1452-97. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981.

HAMES, Carol and Derrick PRATT. Oswestry Town Wall. Border Counties Archaeological Group, 1980.

JONES, Sian.Walk the Southampton Walls. Southampton City Council, n.d. (ca.1999)

NORWICH CITY COUNCIL. Norwich City Walls Survey 1999-2002.

ORLAND, Rob. Coventry's City Wall and Gates. 2002.

PALLISER, D.M. "Town Defences in Medieval England and Wales." Pp. 105-120 in The Medieval Military Revolution: State, society and military change in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. A Layton and J. Price. London: Tauris, 1995.

ROYAL COMMISSION ON HISTORICAL MONUMENTS, ENGLAND. An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the City of York. Volume II: The Defences. London: HMSO, 1972.

STOYLE, Mark. Circled With Stone: Exeter's City Walls 1486-1660. Exeter: University Press, 2003.

TURNER, Hilary. Town Defences in England and Wales: An architectural and documentary study AD 900-1500. London: John Baker, 1970.

WILSON, Barbara and Frances MEE. The City Walls and Castles of York: The Pictorial Evidence. York Archaeological Trust, 2005.

main menu

Created: December 31, 2007. Last update: December 16, 2016
© Stephen Alsford, 2007-2016