Friday, 6 October 2017

The Marches and I

The Wrekin (left distance) and its hinterland at Dawn. Even some miles away, you can just about make out the rise of the ramparts of the hill fort on the crest, just to the right of the radio mast. Photo By Ian Andrew.
Like many wargamers I always tend to think big when considering a new project. Often this pretty much dooms that project to failure and it never gets realised in the lead (or plastic). As I am far more inclined towards 'skirmish gaming' than I ever will be to gaming in the 'grand manner', the relative ease in which you can get a few figures together for a game also encourages this mind set. Somewhat harder is amassing a suitable pool of terrain and scenery if you cast your net too wide.

I have always gone for 'period' over any other consideration, which generally means that to get the best out of those peripheral items, you tend to increase the size of your forces, or collect new ones similar to what you have. This usually results in buying duplicate figures to fill out the ranks, using cash and time that could have perhaps gone to entering a completely new period.

When researching a project, I also often get distracted by events and personalities that fall outside of the period concerned too. Quite often I make a mental note to revisit them at some unspecified future point, should the current project ever be completed. I also like to fully immerse myself into a period and so I usually have grandiose ideas of campaigns and linked games to tie it all together.

As life and work have intruded at various times, I have now left and returned to the hobby a couple of times, pretty much having to start over each time. Whether it was a case of G.K. Chesterton's thoughts that "travel narrows the mind" or not, I have decided that I would like cover some aspects of domestic history on this blog too, alongside my other interests. I am not talking about British or even just English history as such here, but something that is far more personal to me; the Welsh Marches, specifically that part of them which borders Cheshire and Shropshire.

Haunted By History

The Battle of Shrewsbury 1403, from the Beauchamp Pageant. The style of armour is anachronistic and reflects the look of the 1470s, when the illustrations were produced.
"a zone which is neither Welsh nor English yet is haunted by the two countries’ warring past".
- Jane Aaron
Apart from a short interlude in Spain, I have never lived more than fifty miles from the Welsh Border. For the most part I have lived far closer to it and I routinely cross the border as part of my day to day life. The first screen on most older cash-points still offers you the option of English or Welsh for your transaction and hearing Welsh spoken in town is a pretty common occurrence. I have had both friends and lovers over the border too. Place-names also betray the past flexibility of what was Wales and what was England in the past too. I am as English as they come, yet I have more in common with our near neighbours in Wales than I do with my fellow Englanders in the Home Counties for example.

Ignoring those names that were derived from their English ones, there are enough historical Welsh names for places and English ones derived from their original Brythonic origins, to underline that even what we now firmly consider to be England, was once in fact Wales. To the Welsh England is Lloegr - the lost land; although the actual perception of this has changed over time. Today it is all of England, but originally it was only an area to the east of a line stretching between the estuaries of the rivers Severn and Humber, a borderline roughly marked by the run of the Fosse Way. This is perhaps a folk memory of land that had originally been 'Romanised' rather than 'Anglicised'.

Even after the rough outline of the modern border was established by King Offa of Mercia, builder of the famous dyke, Welsh raiding and its involvement in English affairs was to continue for a few centuries. Two Welsh princes were to support Edric the Wild against the Normans at the Battle of Stafford in 1069 and sporadic Welsh raiding was to continue to be a feature of the region as late as the 13th Century. Things went the other way too of course and Shrewsbury, Hereford, Ludlow and Chester, were often the jump-off points for the many English expeditions into Wales. Glyndŵr's revolt is perhaps the most widely known border conflict of course, but was pretty much the end of Anglo-Welsh warfare as such.

The English Civil War saw a return of war to the Marches and the area turned into a Royalist-held stronghold in the main. The Parliamentarian forces from Lancashire and the Midlands fought to reduce the Royalist hold on the region throughout the war. The area was also to witness the end of Charles II's attempt to regain his father's throne at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, along with the many adventures of the King as he fled the country. Booth's Rising of 1659 and the abortive attempts to rally support for James II in the region between 1685 and 1688, ended military activity in the area; more with a whimper than a bang.

Cynddylan, Black Vaughan & Captain Fantom

Mortimer's Cross in 1461 joins Shrewsbury in 1403, Brunanburh in 937 and Chester in 616, as the most prominent battles fought in the region. There are a number of smaller encounters to draw upon too.
"The relationship between the Welsh and the English is based on trust and understanding. They don't trust us and we don't understand them".
- Dudley Wood
The scope of this project is can potentially run from the end of Roman rule in 410 CE to the end of the English Civil War in 1651 CE. I have no plans to follow any kind of chronological sequence, but instead I intend to be driven by what I decide to buy and paint up. My initial thoughts threw up the Northumbrians against Mercians and Welsh in the 7th Century, Owain Glyndŵr's Revolt in the 15th, as well as some English Civil War actions in the 17th.

Then I saw the very nice Norman crossbowmen from Footsore Miniatures, despite never really having much interest in the Late Dark Ages. Looking at their 'Arthurians' also reminded me of the crackpot theories that placed King Arthur and Vortigern in Shropshire. A more reasoned article about the development of Early British kingdoms and another on Irish and subsequently Viking settlement on the Wirral, increased the conflict count further.

In all there was a lot of military activity at the level I want to game at and I am very much spoiled for choice; granted that much of it lacks firm history if it lies before the Normans. On top of this wealth of history surrounding me, there is the added attraction that many of the locations of the iconic events are typically only an hour or so away by car. Perhaps not what people usually mean when they say I need to get out more, but there you are.