(This originally appeared in Wargames Illustrated 149 (Feb. 2000), pp.21-24)
In this part we turn from establishing the evidence for a military history of post-Roman Britain and for the appearance and fighting styles of the post-Roman British warrior, to take a critical look at the basic wargames resources available for the ‘gamer interested in this period. I hope that the point of including all the ‘useless information’ of parts 1-7 will now begin to emerge more clearly.
We are certainly not short of figures for this period, and I apologise in advance for not being able to discuss all available ranges. In 25mm, pride of place must surely go to Gripping Beast and Foundry, who produce beautiful figures. In terms of figure design there isn’t much to chose between them; the Patten brothers might sometimes be slightly ahead of the Perry siblings and their fellows in terms of the liveliness of animation, but the Foundry range shades it for historical accuracy. Apart from the mythical Saxon war-dogs (grrrr…), some of the barbarian figures in the Gripping Beast range are rather too wild and woolly. The half-naked fur-clad barbarian is a Roman stereotype with, by this period, little or no relationship to reality. Of course if you want your warriors to represent the Roman idea of the barbarian, as opposed to what warbands whose leaders originated north of the Rhine frontier really looked like, then that’s all perfectly valid, and an interesting option. It is a shame that Foundry now sell their shields separately in packs, as I have bought some of their Arthurians for diorama purposes and don’t really want 30 shields. Still, as long as they produce such lovely figures, wargamers will go on buying them, and as long as wargamers go on buying them, they can’t really complain about these marketing strategies. Gripping Beast deserve credit for producing mounted Saxon warriors in their ‘Middle Saxon’ range.
In 15 mm. there are many other ranges, and this is the scale which I use. Minifigs and Essex produce nicely-made and reliable ranges. Essex have the advantage of producing a mixture of poses, and in more animated poses, but the proportions of the Minifigs figures are more consistent and dependable. The Minifigs range is based rather narrowly on the WRG ‘Armies and Enemies’ volumes, but their Romano-British spearman is one of my favourites. Donnington deserve mention for a commendably wide range of models for this period (reflecting the interests of Roy Boss). Their figures for this period seem at first sight rather crude and chunky, somewhat lagging behind current standards of design, but they paint up very well. In particular, they produce warriors in a number of different styles of costume and hairstyles, which has important advantages. They also, by the way, produce an armoured Frankish infantryman (alas only one pose) ~ all too rare in this scale.
A newer company well worth checking out is Outpost Wargames, which produces a fairly substantial range for this period, as well as Dan Mersey’s Glutter of Ravens rule set, to which we’ll return. Outpost produce ‘Saxons’, ‘Romano-Britons’ and ‘Franks’, in packs of mixed poses. Some poses are rather better than others, but the range includes some very nice models indeed. Again, alas, the influence of Cornwell’s novels is apparent, with bull’s skull banners (no contemporary ~ or for that matter non-contemporary ~ evidence for these), naked wizards and druids (another bug-bear of mine ~ there’s absolutely no evidence for druids in this period at all) and again, the accursed Saxon war-dogs (in this case, the dog’s handler appears to be ‘handling’ the dog in a less martial, or indeed legal, way than was doubtless intended). Again, credit is due for the presence of mounted Saxons, and for two armoured Frankish foot-warriors (one in a very nice rendition of the Niederstotzingen lamellar suit[i]) in their command pack.
As I have been at pains to stress, there was probably little difference in fighting styles between ‘Britons’ and ‘Saxons’, but there probably WAS a significant difference in appearance between the differing factions. This may plausibly have been expressed partly through the sorts of thing described in Cornwell’s books: shield-designs, plumes of particular types (wolf-tails, for instance) and banners. It probably also took the form of particular styles of clothing and decoration, and above all hair-styles. In this period there was probably little else which could enable one to distinguish a ‘Saxon’ from a ‘Briton’ or a ‘Frank’. Contemporary writings from the continent make it clear that costume and hair-styles could differentiate different ‘peoples’. How you may do this in wargames terms is up to you, as the evidence, in detail (above the level of such things as the decoration on metalwork, which is not really portrayable even on 25 mm figures ~ unless transferred to shield designs) is not very forthcoming. Striped (vertically or horizontally) tunics, particular styles of embroidered border (either single or double stripes, straight lines or wavy ones, etc), or embroidered tablets on tunics or cloaks make good ways of distinguishing contingents. Such embroidery is more likely amongst post-Roman aristocratic and other ‘career’ warriors than amongst the impoverished rank and file of the late Roman frontier units.
Other points to bear in mind are that the francisca should be limited to warriors from the region south of the Thames in the later fifth century (my hypothetical sub-Roman kingdom of ‘the Quoit Brooch People’). The ‘Quoit Brooch People’, or Ambrosians, as I have decided to call them for the sake of argument,[iii] should also, given their metalwork, be dressed in more ‘Late Roman-like’ costume than warriors from further north and west (see the photos of the League of Augsburg club’s beautiful figures which accompanied Part 5 ~ these spearmen look just the part). Fifth-century warriors from north of the Thames, south of the Humber or thereabouts, and east of the (later) Welsh marches might be depicted as more ‘Germanic’, with more ‘Anglo-Saxon’ figures. Warriors from the highland zones in this period might be modelled using a mixture of ‘British’ or ‘Welsh’ types, perhaps with some suitably ‘sub-’ late Roman figures amongst their command groups.
In the sixth century, in the lowlands, ‘Romanesque’ figures should not be used. Warriors should be depicted with ‘Anglo-Saxon’ figures, and regional differences depicted as above. The different hairstyles and coat-fashions depicted in the Donnington range are one way into this. Furthermore, the differences in shield-boss design and other weaponry (such as the introduction of the seax, which should not be depicted on figures used in a fifth-/early sixth-century army) which were illustrated in Part 5, should allow you (with basic use of a file and milliput, especially in 25 mm.) accurately to model an early Anglo-Saxon or lowland British army of the fifth or the sixth or the seventh centuries. In the final part of this series (when time permits me to produce the necessary artwork!) I shall present information on the decorative art-styles of the period, which will allow you to depict banners and shield-designs, adding further accuracy to the depiction of a specifically fifth-, sixth- or seventh-century army. Don’t forget, either, that shields got bigger toward the very end of our period; earlier on they were often quite small. Am I alone in thinking that this information, which enables the accurate representation of chronologically and geographically specific armies within the period 400-600, makes for more interesting post-Roman wargaming than a desperate recourse to war-dogs and other features from modern fiction? It is a long time since Napoleonic wargamers modelled unspecific, ‘general’ French Napoleonic armies, with uniforms and troops types randomly taken from the period 1804-15 (or were happy with the use of post-1812 French uniforms in pre-1812 campaigns). Now, at last, the historical wargamer can do something similar for the post-Roman era, rather than fielding a lumpen, vaguely ‘Anglo-Saxon’ army (400-1066). Surely this is a good thing, and not nit-picking based on ‘useless information’? It’s time for early medieval historical wargaming to start catching up with the more modern periods, because, contrary to the old myth, the information IS there. It’s not always very easy to come by, though, so this series has aimed to present some of it.
For figures to represent the Merovingian Franks, who, as noted in Part 5, were probably involved in the politics of post-Roman Britain, see my article in W.I. 109.
Available Army Lists
Here, again, the ‘useless information’ of parts 2-3 comes in handy, because it allows us to examine the historical basis (if any) of available ‘army lists’ for this period. Let us begin with the WRG DBM lists.[iv] We may commence with List 73 (Book 2, p.63), ‘Old Saxon, Frisian, Bavarian, Thuringian or Early Anglo-Saxon, 250 AD – 804 AD’ (the ‘Anglo-Saxons from Hengist’s arrival in Britain circa 428 AD until the completion of their change to the defensive circa 640 AD after the disappearance of the lowland British states’). Generally, the classifications are about right, with the infantry as ‘Warband’, rather than ‘Spear’ for most of the period. There is a case for classifying some of the warriors as ‘Auxilia’ (see below), and certainly as ‘Warband (Superior)’. I am particularly gratified to see the statement that noble warriors ‘used a proportion of heavy throwing spears’, a notion which Phil Barker once criticised (in response to one of my early articles) as ‘inherently unlikely’ (Miniature Wargames 22, p.47)… That apart, as has been mentioned in early parts of this series, the Anglo-Saxons should be allowed to field their aristocrats as cavalry, in DBM terms probably as a mixture mostly of Light Horse (O) and Cavalry (O) with some Irregular Knights (Fast). As should also have become clear in part 5, the shift towards more shield-wall based, close-fighting techniques appears to have taken place in the decades around 600 AD, so the terminal date of the list should probably be, c.600 (I for one am nonplussed by what Barker means by ‘the completion of their [the Anglo-Saxons’ ~ as if they were all one] change to the defensive circa 640 AD’ ~ would that one could try telling the East Angles that Penda’s Mercians had ‘changed to the defensive’!). The idea that post-Roman British armies ever included ‘Hordes’ of ‘peasants’ is unlikely in the extreme; there is certainly no evidence for it. Fine in a ‘fun’ game; not fine in a ‘historical’ one.
List 81, also in Book 2 (p.71), deals with the armies of the ‘Sub-Roman British, 407 AD-945 AD’. There’s little or no contemporary evidence for the existence of infantry fighting in dense shieldwalls with long spears, in the way characteristic of DBM’s ‘Spear’ category, and the archaeological data suggests that this was only really introduced around 600 AD. To represent faster-moving troops in looser order, armed with a mix of light throwing spears (and perhaps other throwing weapons; remember that it has been suggested that the ‘corrugated’ throwing spearheads are of British origin), smaller shields and some stouter thrusting spears, it would seem to me that the category of ‘Auxilia’ (Ax) is more suitable (or ‘Warband’ (Superior)). This would be valid for the lowland ‘Saxons’ too. There is no evidence of any kind that the infantry of the ‘British’ leaders could be classed as ‘Regular’, after the middle or third quarter of the fifth century at the very latest. The francisca armed-foot-warriors of the ‘Ambrosians’ should probably be ‘Warband (Superior)’, if not Regular ‘Auxilia’. The classification of the cavalry is about correct. As I have been at pains to stress, there was probably little difference in fighting style between ‘Britons’ and ‘Saxons’ in this period, so it is a bit pointless distinguishing ‘mercenary Saxons’ in this way (as opposed to by costume, shield design and so on). The idea that ‘Saxon’ mercenaries were only used in 429 is without any foundation, as is the spuriously precise statement that Saxon Allies might only be used from 430 to 441 (as Parts 2 and 3 of this series made clear, we have no reliable basis whatsoever for an absolute political historical narrative in the fifth century). Even more so is the Visigothic fleet, a complete invention by John Morris, absolutely without any evidential basis. That apart, the ‘blurb’ accompanying the list is pretty much entirely fiction, drawn uncritically from Morris’ Age of Arthur (for which, see Part 1 of this series).
On the other hand, at the later end of our period, the list for the armies of the ‘Welsh, 580 AD – 1420 AD’ (Book 3, List 19, p.19) is pretty unobjectionable, and would work well for most post-Roman forces in Britain. Whether it holds together as well for the whole of the near-millennium which it aims to cover is another issue… I dealt with DBM lists coverage of the Franks in an earlier article (W.I. 110).
The Newbury Fast Play Lists[v] include two ‘Anglo-Saxon’ lists (nos. 2 & 3, pp.3-4) and one ‘Romano-British’ (no.41, p.24). On the whole they seem fine, although, as made clear in Part 5, the early Anglo-Saxon infantry should be allowed to operate, at least part of the time, in ‘Loose’ order, and a large number of fifth-/sixth-century infantry should be armed with ‘bucklers’ rather than ‘shields’. I would also allow most fifth-/sixth-century ‘warriors’ to be upgraded to ‘medium infantry’ and a reasonable proportion to be ‘heavy infantry’ too. As with the WRG lists, these armies ought to include troops fighting mounted. Again, the ‘peasants’ should be removed from the list. As for the fifth-/sixth-century Romano-British army, first of all, as with the WRG list, the fictional Visigoths should go, immediately. Most infantry should probably have their spears reduced from ‘Long Spear’ to ‘Spear’ at this date; there should probably be an option for slingers (see Part 6); and some infantry at least should have ‘bucklers’ rather than ‘shields’.
A series of twelve army lists is included in Dan Mersey’s Glutter of Ravens rules.[vi] Within the context of the set, they work pretty well. I am not sure why the ‘Saxons’ aren’t allowed javelin-armed light infantry, and why all their ‘LI’ have to be slingers. Once again, I also think that the ‘Saxon’ comitatus (at least) ought to be mounted. In fact if I have one major criticism of Glutter…, it would be the too rigid belief in a hard-and-fast ‘racial’ division between ‘Celtic’ Britons and ‘Germanic’ Anglo-Saxons. One of the major points of this series has been to argue that, in terms of styles of warfare, armies in Britain between 400 and 600 were all pretty much the same, regardless of the ethnicity claimed by their leaders.
An Army List for Post-Roman Britain, c.400-c.600.
This is a hypothetical list for all armies active in Britain south of Hadrian’s Wall. The evidence upon which it is based has been set out in previous parts of this series. For weaponry and so on, this is fairly specific, but as far as the in general composition and structure is concerned, it is a hypothesis based upon my understanding of the mechanics of post-Roman warfare in the West, supplemented by the sketchy data outlined in Parts 1-7. The percentages in brackets are the rough proportion of a force which the type in question should compose. The armour and so on, should be seen as an ‘average’ for the unit in question. I’ve described the troops in as much detail as possible to allow them to be used with available rule-sets, and included equivalents for Newbury, DBM and ‘Formation’ and ‘Aggression’ factors for ‘Glutter’; in the latter case, the strength of the units can be determined by the player according to the percentages below.
Frankish Army Lists were provided in WI 110; Lists 1-5 are relevant.
‘King’ and Bodyguard (5%; 5-10% if no warriors from outside the ‘nucleus’ are employed)
These represent the leader of the political unit in question, whether styled a king, a ‘leader of battles’ or some sub-Roman title like ‘Protector’, ‘Tribune’ or ‘Consul’ ~ perhaps even ‘Emperor’ ~ and his personal bodyguard. The Welsh word Teulu (pron. ‘taily’) was later used for this military household. The Old English word for the military household would be hired (pron. ‘hee-red’; hird is a rather later Old English word); the word for the warriors themselves would have been gesiþ (pron. ‘yesith’); the Latin word was comitatus, with the warriors described as comites (‘companions’, whence the modern Cymru), or bucellarii (‘hard-tack eaters’: the Old English word for a dependent follower, hlafeata ~ ‘Loaf Eater’ ~ may be descended from this).
Mounted warriors, in helmets and pretty full metallic armour, armed with swords, thrusting spears, heavy throwing spears and perhaps lighter javelins, and shields.
Veteran, ‘Heavy’, tribal (Newbury);
Irr. Kn. (F) or Irr. Cav (O), dismounting as Wb(S) (DBM).
(4) (5): ‘Glutter’
Aristocrats and their hangers on (5-20%)
These aristocrats are the leaders of warbands who have hitched themselves to the star of the ‘king’, the king’s sons or other relatives, and/or local magnates given control over the administration of particular regions. On the continent their followers were called pueri; in Old English, the word was probably geoguþ (pron. ‘yogooth’ = ‘youth’): both translate as ‘lads’ or ‘boys’ (very much in the sense of ‘sending the boys round’!)
Mounted warriors, in helmets and good body armour, metallic and leather, armed as above.
Veteran, ‘Heavy’, tribal (Newbury);
Irr. Cav (O) or Irr. LH(O) dismounting as Wb(S) (DBM).
(4) (4): ‘Glutter’
‘Career Warriors’ (20-80%)
These represent other warriors, either members of the political unit in question whose social status and identity is based upon their performance of military service, including older warriors who have served their time in the retinues of other leaders, received land and settled down (the Old English word for these was duguþ [‘dugooth’]) or other warriors who have joined themselves to the forces of the ‘king’, and thus ‘joined’ the political unit, adopting its ethnic identity. They also include smaller warbands of lesser warlords ‘on the way up’.
Warriors in good protection, with some form of helmets and at least good leather body armour, armed with Spears, Shields, and sidearms (including a good sprinkling of swords). Most, if not all, should also have throwing spears of some sort.
Perhaps up to a quarter of these warriors should be mounted.
A significant number (one in four or five) of ‘Ambrosians’ should be armed with franciscae or axes as well; these should not be mounted.
No seventh-century warriors should have franciscae or axes.
Late Sixth-century warriors may have scramaseaxes.
Seasoned, ‘medium’, tribal (Newbury);
Up to ¼ Irr. Cav(O) or Irr. LH(O) dismounting as Irr. Wb(F) or (O); the rest a roughly equal mix of Irr. Ax(I); Irr. Wb(O) and Irr. Wb (F). From c.575, perhaps up to a half of these warriors should be classed as Irr. Sp.(I); in the seventh century all lowland warriors of this sort should be so classified.
(3) (3 or 4): ‘Glutter’.
‘Ambrosian’ infantry: seasoned, ‘medium’, tribal (Newbury); Irr. Ax(I) or (O) (DBM) ~ up to half may be Reg. Ax(I).
(3) (2-4): ‘Glutter’
These represent the most junior of the pueri or geoguþ used to skirmish and scout.
Warriors with, at best a few non-metallic helmets and perhaps a few leather jerkins, armed, half with shields and javelins; half with bows or slings.
Raw, ‘Light’ (Newbury); Irr. Ps.(O) (DBM).
(2) (2): ‘Glutter’
‘The Rest’ (0-70%)
Levied Spearmen (0-70%)
These are warriors from classes of free, land-holding society which do not usually, or at least regularly, perform military service. They might include people recently incorporated into the political unit. As such they are less well equipped and motivated.
Warriors with spear and shield. Perhaps up to two thirds should have some form of non-metallic body armour, and of these perhaps a quarter might have a metallic helmet as well. Perhaps up to a quarter could be mounted.
Raw, ‘Medium’ to ‘Light’; tribal (Newbury); Irr. Wb (O) (DBM).
From c.575, up to about a half of these might be classed as Irr. Sp.(I), and in the seventh century all lowland warriors of this type should be so classified.
(2) (3): ‘Glutter’
Mercenary warriors (0-30%)
Warriors from outside the ‘political unit’, hired for the campaign in question. They might stay on, come to the notice of the ‘king’ and in time become part of the ‘nucleus’. For now they are handy fighters, but not entirely reliable.
Classed as ‘Career Warriors’ but slightly less reliable.
In DBM they should be classed as an allied contingent.
(3) (3): ‘Glutter’
As for skirmishers in the ‘nucleus’ but of poorer quality.
Unarmoured. Archers and, especially, slingers should predominate.
Raw, ‘Light’ (Newbury); Irr. Ps (I) (DBM)
(2) (2): ‘Glutter’
Dismounted warriors from the ‘nucleus’ may support mounted warriors from the ‘nucleus’ in the second or later rounds of a mêlée.
Troop-types from outside the ‘nucleus’ should only be used in major levels of ‘warfare of conquest’ (see Part 7).
Troop types from the ‘nucleus’ may not number more than 100 figures (or approx. 2000 men) in total.
No army should contain more than about 250 figures (or approx. 5,000 men) at most.
Following on from my discussion of the nature of warfare, last time, I’d like to offer a few more thoughts on what rules for this period should aim to reflect. The major problem of writing a rule set for this period concerns the paradox of, on the one hand, the fluidity of troop types, and of fast-moving mounted skirmishing, and, on the other, the blunt, horrific simplicity of dismounted combat. Dismounted units in this period (and throughout the early medieval period) would not really be capable of battlefield manoeuvre ~ even less once we enter the period of the true shield-wall. Battlefield manoeuvre is probably a rather overestimated feature of tactical wargames of any period; wasn’t it Clausewitz who said that any troops trying to manoeuvre in the face of the enemy were disordered? In this sense, rule-sets of the DBA/DBM generation have been a major step forward. Even so, there was probably even less battlefield manoeuvre in this period. Troops would draw up and advance straight forward. This makes for an extremely dull wargame, however accurately thought out the rules and lists might be, and no matter how plausible the recreation of the battle’s general course and features are, if the rule-set’s concept of generalship is based upon tactics of deployment and manoeuvre. So, we have to take the plunge, forget those features of generalship and build in those aspects upon which the early medieval art of battlefield command did hinge. Forget manoeuvre and formation-changes (except in slow and deliberate fashion, during non-combat phases); concentrate instead upon the problems of holding a battle-line together, of ‘psyching-out’ the enemy before a charge is possible, of inspiring your troops, of gaining individual reputation and heroism.
Because of this, the ‘millennium’ rules-sets do not work well for this period. Whilst, in no way minimising the importance, in the development of our hobby, of DBA and DBM, the fact remains that they just aren’t geared to making a particularly interesting or plausible re-enactment of warfare of this period. I have argued for a long time now that ‘Ancient’ warfare can’t be reduced to static millennia of military constants. At the very least, the fluidity of post-Roman warfare makes it difficult to encompass within categories set up, primarily, to recreate warfare in the classical Mediterranean. More to the point, a game between dozens (many dozens) of ‘Warband’, ‘Auxilia’ or ‘Spear’ elements drawn up base to base in two or three large blocks at most, and then simply driving straight forward, hardly makes either for an enjoyable game, or one which goes far towards recreating the particularities of post-Roman generalship. The more specifically ‘medieval’ rules (such as the Newbury set) work better, perhaps because of their greater detail, but still suffer from trying to cover too great a time-span and geographical area, and (unlike DBM) allow too much ‘wheeling and dealing’.
Fortunately, however, there are more specific rule sets available. Above all, I strongly recommend that you try out Dan Mersey’s Glutter of Ravens rule set, which includes ideas for lists and figure-painting as well as the rules themselves. This set contains a number of very nice, original rules ideas, about building up (and losing!) the confidence of your warriors, and for choosing between small forces of skilled and seasoned warriors, and larger, less well trained and equipped forces. Another benefit is the way in which mounted troops may dismount and remount during the game. The only gripe I really have with the set is that there is a little too much battlefield manoeuvring (wheeling of individual units, etc.) possible for dismounted units. All in all, though, they are very well worth a try, and the inclusion of lists and other information makes them a very good investment.
Finally, an excellent set specifically designed for this period, entitled ‘Comitatus’, may be found in Simon MacDowall’s Goths, Huns and Romans,[vii] perhaps the best wargames book on this period. MacDowall seems to have been the originator of the ‘stand’ in this period of wargaming. In my view these rules are perhaps the best available for recreating warfare in this period. Manoeuvre, marching and counter-marching, and formation change are more or less removed in favour of the factors of cohesion and reputation.
[i] See ‘The Merovingian Franks, Part 3’, Wargames Illustrated 62, pp.29-34.
[ii] This, obviously, is hypothetical. My reasoning is based upon the fact that Ambrosius is described by Gildas as descended from a family ‘which had worn the purple’, which is ~ as ever ~ obscure but implies some formal connection with the Empire, and the clear (as stated in Part 6) official Roman military antecedents of the Quoit Brooch metalwork, alongside the use of axes, which, as also stated in Part 6, implies a descent from the late Roman army. If (if) King Aurelius Candidus criticized by Gildas was descended from Ambrosius Aurelianus (on the basis of his name) ~ and Gildas says elsewhere that Ambrosius’ living descendants had degenerated from his example ~ he seems to have been located somewhere in the west of the ‘Quoit Brooch’ region. … But, above all, Ambrosians has a nicer ring than the technically accurate, but dull, ‘Quoit Brooch People’!
[iii] P. Barker & R. Bodley Scott, D.B.M. Army Lists. For Use with the De Bellis Multitudinis Wargames Rules. Book 2, 500 BC to 476 AD (Devizes 1993); P. Barker & R. Bodley Scott, D.B.M. Army Lists. For Use with the De Bellis Multitudinis Wargames Rules. Book 3, 476 AD to 1071 AD (Devizes 1994).
[iv] R.A. Seller, T.J. Halsall & R.G. Boss, Army Lists for Dark Age & Early Medieval Warfare (500-1100 AD) (Newbury, 1992).
[v] D.S. Mersey, Glutter of Ravens. Warfare in the Age of Arthur. Rules and Resources for Wargames in the Period AD 400- AD 700 (Cramlington, Outpost Wargames, 1998).
[vi] S. MacDowall, Goths, Huns and Romans (Wargaming in History Series) (Hemel Hempstead, Argus Books, 1990). This is still occasionally to be found remaindered in bookshops and if you see a copy I’d very strongly advise you to snap it up.