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Soldier, soldier: forebears & forbearance

25/07/2009

Medieval-Soldiers-Full
New research overseen by Dr Adrian Bell of the ICMA Centre, Henley Business School, the University of Reading and Professor Ann Curry of the University of Southampton and carried out with much assistance from genealogical research volunteers, has just been published. The results are extraordinary: now online are 250,000 records of mediaeval soldiers who saw active duty in the latter phase (1369-1453) of the ‘Hundred Years’ War (1337 -1453).
How? Pipe rolls of the Exchequer of the day have proved revealing, as have surviving contemporary records unearthed from such sites as the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. There was, it seems, a bureaucratic obsession with detail in those days which, combined with an overwhelming ambition to account for every penny (or would that be ‘groat’?), means that some of these soldiers’ lives spring to life again on the Internet. Thomas of Gloucestre, for example, fought at Agincourt (1415) under the ultimate leadership of Henry V (the first King of England & Wales to speak English as a matter of course since Guillaume le Conquerant – cocorico! – trounced Harold & Co at the Battle of Hastings). Thomas subsequently left a trail of his 43-year career. Thomas was then in Prussia, where campaigns against the Baltic pagans were led by the Order of Teutonic Knights (Henry Bolingbroke – later Henry IV – participated in the siege of Vilnius in 1390). And Thomas’s extraordinary trajectory finally led him to Jerusalem.
Ah, Western interference in the Middle East: some things never change …
Social mobility is a theme, with some rising from the ranks due to personality and prowess, proving happily that ‘the right stuff’ does often make its mark – even in the most apparently strictly-stratified societies. A certain Despencer appears in the late 14th century, and was obviously marked for greater things (not least planting the roots of a complex family tree, on a more recent branch of which perched the late Princess Diana).
It all sounds fascinating. Perhaps those of you with English ancestry – or Welsh (many of the justly famed and feared mediaeval longbowmen were from Wales) – might like to have a look at the pilot project database at: http://www.medievalsoldier.org/.
As for me – well, no point: with one side in Ireland, I doubt there’d have been many volunteers among them for what they would have seen as foreign wars – too busy keeping on the right side of the local Anglo-Norman boss, I’d guess. Although an essentially military lay social structure might have engaged some of them in military service. A relly has traced them back to an ancestor’s gravestone dated 1499, proving the family name had been anglicised by then (the year of the failure of the Perkin Warbeck rebellion against Henry VII organised in Leinster. This ancestor might even have been involved – who knows?). It is certainly true that many years later one of ’em rode in the notorious charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War. Still, lost causes and/or charging ahead and asking questions later (if at all) may be a feature of that side of the ancestral strain. Hm. Passing swiftly on, now.
The other side of the family? Ah – ‘fraid you’d ask. Not especially pro-English, them too. And not douce and decent wee Scottish folk, either. One branch composed of Vikings who went native – and then on the make. The other mob – aside from the reassuring thought that at least two of them were ‘hanged by the neck until deid’ – had only one socially-acceptable factor going for them. They were 100 percent committed to equal opportunities. In theft, pillage and protection racketeering … Scots or English; men, women, children, all forms of livestock – all grist to the familial mill, as it were. These were the people who brought us ‘blackmail’ and ‘bereaved’. At least they, er, enriched our great language, eh? Although, in fairness, one later scion – a failed painter and much-overlooked member of the PRB – made some amends. He was the first director of a new institution which later became the V&A. And another was a founding father of Newcastle University.

Come now, then, gentle readers: any stories about your own family tree? And you are expressly forbidden from applying the term ‘dull’ or ‘uninteresting’ to any of these. From this optic ‘dull’ and ‘uninteresting’ translates into ‘decent, quiet lives’ thankyouverymuch!

But, heavens, how extraordinary to have this collection of tracking devices for so many men, so long ago. It’s almost as if all those meticulous researchers have sifted through acres of dead data, revealing layers of life, real live flesh and blood, beneath. And what stories some of them have to tell!
Who says history’s boring?
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