Battle of Sluys, at which John Crabbe fought, from Froissart’s Chronicles
The world of John Crabbe, 1310–40.
John Crabbe was one of a very few medieval pirates who stood out
as extraordinary, independent opportunists. Unlike the majority of
these men, he operated without a lifelong base. On the contrary, he
sought adventure by serving several different leaders, one after
another. To each of them in turn, he could be relied on for very
efficient and effective service, while it lasted, but not for
consistent allegiance. There was nothing which tied him down.
During the period of thirty-five years when he was active at sea,
he served the heads of three states, Flanders, Scotland and England,
changing sides twice, as well as living through a period when he
fluctuated between Flanders and Scotland. As a result he became one
of the most celebrated, the most feared and, in several quarters, one
of the most hated seamen of his day. However, in contrast to Eustace
the Monk, a similarly independent character, Crabbe managed to live
to an advanced age and die of natural causes.
Crabbe was probably born around 1290. His family circumstances
went unrecorded, but he came from Muiden (alternatively known as
Mude, now Sint Anna ter Muiden), near the mouth of the Zwin, on the
left bank of the channel leading from the North Sea towards Damme and
Bruges. He therefore grew up surrounded by the busy commercial life
of the sea. As a small boy he is most likely to have witnessed with
excitement the chaos which attended the arrival of Edward I’s fleet
in 1297: if not actually present, he would have heard about that soon
His name first appears in 1305 or ’06 in connection with the
violent seizure off La Rochelle of the Waardebourc, a ship belonging
to John de le Waarde, a merchant of Dordrecht. This was just one
event which reflected a long-running dispute between the counts of
Holland and Zeeland on the one hand and the counts of Flanders on the
other. The bone of contention was ownership of Walcheren, Noord
Beveland and Zuid Beveland, then three separate islands (now united
as one) lying between the two mouths of the Scheldt. On this occasion
Crabbe and his companions seized 160 tuns of wine and all the other
goods on board with a total value of 2,000lt, and kidnapped the crew.
Despite determined requests for justice and compensation, de le
Waarde received no satisfaction until seven years later, when a
treaty was signed between the two opposing sides.
Shortly before 28 May 1310 Crabbe struck again, this time far up
the Channel, much nearer his home base. By then he was master of the
ship de la Mue (Muiden) and accompanied by a second Flemish ship, he
seized a vessel carrying the possessions of Alice, Countess Marshall,
the widow of Roger Bigod, hereditary Earl of Norfolk. She was
planning to leave London shortly to go ‘overseas’ – which may
have meant she was going to Hainault to her father, John de Avennes,
one-time count of that province. She had sent her clothes, jewels,
gold and silver valued at 2,000l on ahead (into a pirate-infested
sea!), only to lose them to Crabbe as her ship approached Wissant.
Repeated calls to Robert, Count of Flanders, for return of the goods
met with no response for five years, that was until 1315, when the
count replied that a number of culprits had been punished. Whether
that was true or not, Crabbe himself had evidently escaped some time
previously, for by then he was living in a Flemish colony in
Crabbe’s first phase of living at least part-time in Scotland
had begun around 1311, when the Flemings were uniting with the Scots
to exploit the continuing enmity between England and Scotland. On 3
September 1311 Crabbe and a collection of men from both Aberdeen and
Flanders stole eighty-nine sacks of English wool from two ships
sailing together from Newcastle to Flanders. Crabbe then sent the
Scots on to sell the wool in Flanders, which may imply that he
himself was already outlawed from Flanders. Then, in May 1313, Edward
II asked Robert, Count of Flanders, to do justice to English
merchants for the robberies committed by John Crabbe and other
Flemings, on the understanding that the king would reciprocate by
compensating Flemings who had suffered at the hands of English
pirates at Crasden and elsewhere since the time of the king’s
The Great Famine of 1315–17 hit all the northern countries, but
Flanders probably suffered especially badly on account of its large,
concentrated, urban population. The count reacted to the situation by
assembling a fleet to send to sea at public expense ‘to acquire
victuals for the sustenance of the men … where there is great need
and famine’. In other words, this was state-sponsored piracy, and
such was Crabbe’s reputation as a fearless and successful pirate
that in this state of emergency he was recalled and, having been
swiftly pardoned of all his previous wrongdoings, he was made leader
of this Flemish fleet. He set sail on Ash Wednesday, 24 February
1316. Five days later they captured two Yarmouth ships on their way
home from Rouen laden with provisions. It seems highly probable that
other victims followed.
Crabbe was still in the southern area just before Christmas 1316,
because then he captured a wine ship in the Downs off Sandwich. The
Bona Navis de la Strode (Strood, on the Medway in Kent), with John
Springer as master, had probably reached the end of her voyage when
Crabbe and his associates attacked and made off with both the ship
and the cargo – 86 tuns, 25 pipes of wine belonging equally to two
merchants, Aymer de Insula, a merchant of Bordeaux and Arnold
Dosyngham, described as a citizen of Bazas, 50km south-east of
Bordeaux. The value of the wine was quickly established by the
Sheriff of Kent at 788l sterling. Other goods and merchandise
belonging to various merchants together with the ship’s tackle and
beds and chests and other small belongings of the master were valued
at 210 marks. The king immediately ordered the sheriffs of London,
Lincoln, Norfolk and Suffolk to arrest various proportions of goods
belonging to the Flemings up to this value, allowing 8l per tun and
4l per pipe of wine, and to keep them safely. Three demands met with
no response from Robert, Count of Flanders before he eventually
replied in April 1318. He was, he said, ignorant of the whole affair.
This was greeted with astonishment in England, since it was well
known that at that time Crabbe stayed in Flanders whenever he chose,
that the count had appropriated the wine for his own use and had
already passed the ship on to someone else. It was not until July
1332, sixteen years after the seizure of the ship, that Edward III
finally instructed the sheriffs of Kent, Suffolk and Norfolk to
produce the sums from Flemish cargoes which they had impounded, so
that he could indemnify the merchants and owner in full.
Soon after his capture of the Bona Navis, and apparently banished
from Flanders for murder, Crabbe began his second Scottish phase.
Ever since the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, bitter fighting had
been taking place on the Border, and on 1 April 1318
Berwick-upon-Tweed was captured from the English and became a vital
Scottish outpost. Crabbe was certainly living there by August 1319
when the English tried to recapture it. His help in strengthening the
town fortifications was invaluable, and he carried on serving the
Scots, harrying the English on land and at sea.
A change in his fortunes, however, happened in 1332, coinciding
interestingly enough, with the effective beginning of the reign of
Edward III. The English destroyed all the ten Flemish ships Crabbe
had taken north to the Firth of Tay in response to a request for
support by the Scots, and later that autumn he himself fell into
their hands during a skirmish near Kelso. Being extremely unpopular
with the English, his life was in jeopardy. The parliament which was
convened at York in January 1333 was in angry mood, demanding
recompense and retribution from this man who had robbed their
merchants and hanged their seamen from their own masts for many years
past. They demanded that he pay the full penalty, and meanwhile he
was to be kept in chains. It was an ignominious beginning to the
final, English, phase of his life.
The English were then besieging Berwick, and Crabbe played the
only card available to him. Against strong odds, he persuaded Edward
III that his knowledge of the defences of that town would be useful.
In the event, his inside knowledge and practical help proved so
valuable that the king saw fit to pardon him of ‘all homicides,
felonies and other offences of which he might possibly be accused,
whether on land or sea’. He was also created constable, for life,
of Somerton Castle, Lincolnshire. Seen in retrospect, his survival
and recovery was remarkable. But his former friends, the Scots in
Berwick, were furious at his treachery and apparently vented their
wrath by killing his son.
Crabbe continued to provide advice and materials for the English
war against Scotland. In March 1335 he assembled a fleet of ten
ships, complete with 1,000 mariners and archers, to go to sea to try
to prevent French support reaching the Scots. In December 1337 he was
to be paid 100s for his expenses incurred while staying in Berwick,
and all the engines there were to be repaired according to his
In February 1339 he was to be paid a further 24l for surveying the
construction of certain engines and ‘hurdis’, which were either
siege towers or wooden galleries to attach to the castle, at Dunbar.
This payment seems to have been for clearing up matters prior to his
departure, since he was about to set out on the king’s service
overseas. That June he was paid for going north with another hundred
archers ‘for the defence of the realm’ and, described as the
king’s yeoman, he was also allowed 100l to repair his houses at
In the meantime, in 1337 war with France had begun. As Edward III
was hoping to use the Low Countries as a base for invading France, it
was highly important to keep the sea lanes in the North Sea open and
free of French marauders. To that intent Crabbe, the former pirate
who probably understood more than anybody else about the geography of
the Zwin and about navigation in the North Sea, was brought south in
the summer of 1339 to work with Robert Morley, a Norfolk knight who
had recently been recruited as admiral of the fleet north of the
Thames and was to become one of the most able and energetic of naval
commanders. It was this somewhat improbable combination of two men
who, that year, took a convoy of ships carrying supplies of money,
wool and military reinforcements over to Sluys. There they did raid
an enemy merchant convoy and took numerous prizes, but they also
attacked without discrimination neutral Flemish and Spanish escort
vessels which they had been expressly told not to tamper with. To
make matters worse, when they returned to the Orwell, they quarrelled
over the division of the spoils of their plunder, and the fleet which
had only been assembled with difficulty scattered and some of the
vessels sailed off, beyond recall.
Edward III was still hoping to take an army across from the Orwell
to Flanders, but he suffered repeated frustrations when his hoped-for
force of men, supplies and ships failed to materialise. While he was
delayed, Philip VI of France was also frustrated, because the Genoese
who had added their important support to the French for nearly two
years had mutinied and taken their ships back to the Mediterranean.
Thus weakened, Philip fell back on the only policy open to him –
using those ships which remained at his disposal to block the mouths
of the Scheldt. At least the English would not be able to enter and
Edward too had only a limited force, and in view of the great
risks to the king himself, the Archbishop of Canterbury intervened
and strongly advised him to be cautious about going. The king turned
to Morley and Crabbe looking for more encouraging support, but he
found that their advice confirmed that of the archbishop. In spite of
this unanimous advice to the contrary, Edward pressed ahead and on 22
June 1340 sailed out of the Orwell estuary accompanied eventually,
but possibly still reluctantly, by Morley and Crabbe. On the
afternoon of the next day he reached the coast of Flanders, off
Blankenberg. They were within 10 miles of the Zwin, probably within
sight of the French galleys, which had been chained together across
The most experienced of the French seamen, Barbavera, had pointed
out the dangers of a large fleet being shut inside that inlet without
room to manoeuvre, but this was a piece of good advice which the
French admirals Quiéret and Béhuchet chose to ignore. Having held
back until conditions were right, on the afternoon of 24 June, Edward
seized the combined advantages of having wind, tide and sun all
strategically behind him and went into the attack. The French were
indeed trapped inside the estuary, unable to manoeuvre, and by
nightfall they had been nearly annihilated by the hail of arrows from
English longbows. Both French admirals lost their lives and 190 of
the 213 French vessels were captured. Towards the end of the
engagement, Crabbe was given forty ships with which to chase a few
French ships which had escaped led by a notorious pirate called
This victory, which came to be named after the port of Sluys,
seems to have marked the end of Crabbe’s maritime career, although
subsequently he continued to work on land for the king. He collected
taxes, a highly important duty since the Crown was once again
bankrupt, and he took into custody at Somerton Castle one of the many
important Scottish prisoners taken at the Battle of Neville’s Cross
near Durham. His last years seem to have been spent peacefully at his
castle, and he died in 1352.
Crabbe was a remarkably gifted man, who combined a high level of
skill in seamanship and navigation with equal qualifications as a
military engineer. In other words, he was particularly unusual and
useful, being an expert in warfare both at sea and on land. He was
also an adventurous, independent spirit and a political strategist.
In him we see an excellent example of a symbiotic relationship, in
which a medieval pirate was able to exploit various rulers to achieve
his own ends, while simultaneously those same rulers were using his
expertise to further their own objectives.
Wednesday, October 26, 2016
Friday, August 5, 2016
Sunday, March 13, 2016
The Viking Naval Battle of Hafrsfjord 872 AD
Map 2.5. The Battle of Nisa, 1062.
(a) Phase I: From his 70-oar drekkar, King Harald III Hardrada leads a 300-ship Norwegian fleet to an appointed location to battle King Sveinn Estridson’s Danish fleet.
(b) Phase II: The Danes fail to arrive at the rendezvous at the appointed time, leading Hardrada to believe they have refused the challenge. He orders half of his fleet, containing his militia troops, to return home (1). The Norwegian fleet, reduced in number but crewed by Hardrada’s finest warriors, continues on (2).
(c) Phase III: As half of Hardrada’s fleet sails out of sight, the Danes suddenly appear, 300 strong (1). Hardrada prepares to fight, ordering most of his remaining longships to be lashed together side by side (2). Two groups of vessels remain untethered to protect the Norwegians’ flanks (3).
(d) Phase IV: Estridson follows the Norwegian lead and orders the Danish fleet to close up and rope together (1). The Danish king seizes the initiative and orders his fleet to row towards the enemy (2). Hardrada orders his force to follow suit (3), and the two sides slowly close with each other as daylight begins to fade.
(e) Phase V: The opposing lines clash, and the air is filled with arrows as Danish and Norwegian archers ply their deadly trade. The fight continues through the night, and neither side is able to gain a decisive advantage.
(f) Phase VI: The deadlock is broken when one of the Norwegian flank elements under the command of Earl Hakon Ivarsson sails around the main battle and drives off the smaller Danish vessels (1). Several hours later, Hakon reinforces a failing flank (2) and drives back the Danes. The Norwegians offer no quarter and begin to clear the Danish vessels (3), boarding Sveinn Estridson’s flagship last (4). By dawn, seventy of the tethered Danish longships are cleared of opponents and the Norwegians are victorious, though Sveinn Estridson is able to escape.
The primary instrument of Scandinavian overseas aggression was the longship. Long, narrow-keeled and flat-bottomed vessels with beautifully carved arched prows, the first longships carried around thirty-five warriors. They were made of oak using clinker construction (overlapping planks held together with clinch bolts) with a mast amidships and one bank of oars on each side. Controlled with two steering oars, these vessels had shallow draughts making it possible for them to navigate up rivers and along coastlines, giving the Vikings unprecedented strategic mobility. The Gokstad ship, built in the second half of the ninth century, was over 76 feet long and 12 feet wide, and drew less than 34 inches of water, giving it the ability to sail up rivers and estuaries into shallow waters only 3 feet deep. Longships were also easy to beach and portage over short distances using rollers and manpower.
After 1000, the Scandinavians built larger warships, known as drekkars or ‘dragon ships’, capable of carrying perhaps as many as eighty warriors on raiding expeditions, invasions and, curiously, large naval engagements against rival Viking fleets. These larger, taller vessels were particularly suited for the last purpose because, unlike longships, drekkars had high, planked decks fore and aft, from which arrows and spears could be rained down on their opponents’ decks. Apparently difficult to manoeuvre in battle, these medieval dreadnoughts were sometimes lashed together ‘stem to stem and stern to stern’ to create large, floating battlefields of oak, canvas and rope. Often dozens of Viking ships were tied together, with the larger drekkars placed in the middle of the line as a command post for kings and commanders, while unfettered longships protected the flanks of the tethered vessels. A contemporary historian, Saxo Grammaticus, explains the benefits of lashing ships together for combat:
Having ordered the ships in a line, they joined them together with grapples, so that being bound together the fleet might easily ride down any enemy in its path. And when they were brought together for this purpose, they were joined together solidly, for flight or victory, as it would not be possible for anyone to break free from his colleagues. Thus they planned to make their weakness strong by this tactic.
Not built for ramming, Viking ships could not duplicate the tactics of the ancient triremes, and so medieval sea battles usually consisted of closing on an opposing vessel, grappling the two ships together and then fighting in close quarters until one side was defeated, the enemy ship captured or, if damaged, scuttled. In the case of large engagements, one side chose to take the defensive by lashing their ships together, while the attacking navy either moved in on the tethered flotilla as individual ships, grappling, clearing and cutting away ships one by one, or attacked as a tethered armada itself. In these ship-to-ship battles, the Vikings attempted to match larger ships to smaller and favoured missile fire from bows and spears over hand-to-hand shock combat. Because of the nature of this attrition warfare, Viking sea battles tended to drag on far longer than engagements fought on land, often taking hours to conclude.
One such long sea battle took place at Nisa on 9 August 1062 between the fleets of King Harald III Hardrada of Norway and King Sveinn Estridson of Denmark. This was the second battle between the two rival monarchs and seems to have been joined by mutual consent. Hardrada, unhappy about being unable to conquer Denmark despite successful annual raids, hoped for a large decisive victory over Estridson. Having raised a large army from the whole of Norway, Hardrada placed the men on 300 ships, leading the armada from his own seventy-oar drekkar (Map 2.5(a)). He sailed to the appointed spot at the prearranged time and waited for his Danish foe to arrive, but Estridson’s fleet was not there. Believing the Danes had refused battle, Hardrada dismissed the half of his ships containing the militia to return to their farms and prepared for another year of raiding (Map 2.5(b)). Those warriors who remained were the veterans of numerous raids, and some may have fought at Hardrada’s side during his days in Russia and Byzantium. One of the Varangian Guard’s more distinguished soldiers, Hardrada spent most of his twenties in the Byzantine emperor’s employment, rising to become the ‘leader of all of the Varangians’ and then returning to Norway to become king in 1047.
But as half of the Norwegian navy sailed out of sight, the Danish fleet appeared, 300 ships strong (Map 2.5(c)). Refusing to flee from his numerically superior enemy, Hardrada ordered his remaining ships lashed together, placing his own ‘dragon ship’ in the centre of the line. Unfettered longships protected the flanks, including the warships of Earl Hakon Ivarsson. Mirroring the Norwegians, Estridson ordered his warships roped together in a line, his own ship in the centre, and seizing the initiative, rowed against the enemy (Map 2.5(d)). As the tethered Danish line slowly rowed forward, Hardrada ordered his own Norwegian fleet to meet the advancing Danes. The two bound Viking armadas clashed as the sun began to set.
According to both Danish and Norwegian sources, the battle lasted into and throughout the night, with both sides evenly matched (Map 2.5(e)). The prominent role of missile warfare in ship-to-ship combat is evident from a poem written about Hardrada’s prowess as an archer:
Norway’s king was bending
His bow throughout that night,
Raining a shower of arrows
On the white shields of Denmark,
Bloody spear-points opened
Holes in iron armour;
Shields were pierced by arrows
From Harald’s deadly dragon.
Hardrada’s prowess with a bow was not unusual, and Viking sources tell us that numerous Viking heroes died by missile fire, including Harold Bluetooth, King Hakon and, ironically, perhaps Harald Hardrada himself.
The turning point came hours into the battle when Earl Hakon Ivarsson ordered his warships from their flanking position to sail around the main battle group and prey on smaller and weaker Danish vessels (2.5(f)). Hours later, Hakon’s warships buttressed a failing flank, forcing the Danes back. Sveinn Estridson’s warship was the last boarded. No quarter was given and those Danes not killed jumped overboard. By dawn Estridson’s fleet was defeated and no fewer than seventy of the Danish king’s tethered ships had been cleared.
Estridson escaped the slaughter by jumping into the water and swimming for Hakon Ivarsson’s ship. Donning a disguise, the Danish king was brought on board and inexplicably led to shore on Hakon’s order, eventually escaping back to Denmark. Though initially recognized as the hero of the battle, the earl was quickly condemned by the Norwegian king and exiled. Ultimately, the battle of Nisa proved indecisive. Two years later, in 1064, the two kings signed a peace treaty ending years of Norwegian raiding, and King Harald Hardrada looked to the west for new lands to conquer. In 1066 a massive Norwegian fleet set sail for England in the last great invasion of the Viking age.
Before reading this book, I was expecting a survey of the navy's role in Byzantine history along with discussions of administration and perhaps a few words on the ships and sailors themselves, in other words, something along the lines of Helene Ahrweiler's classic, Byzance et la mer: la marine de guerre, la politique et les institutions maritimes de Byzance aux VIIe-XVe siècles (Paris, 1966).
While The Age of the dromon is indeed this, it is quite a lot more. As the title indicates, center stage is occupied not by the navy itself, but by the dromon, the Byzantine war galley. As the authors write, "Our primary objective has become an attempt to elucidate the meanings of terminology as used by contemporaries and how such meanings may have varied from time to time or from author to author" (4). The focus is on terminology and on reconstructing the actual warship: "what did contemporaries intend their terminology to signify and what can we know of the physical objects to which they referred?" (4).
The two authors bring different skills to the work. John Pryor has contributed a quarter century of research on medieval seafaring in the Mediterranean and demonstrates a practical knowledge of sailing. Elizabeth Jeffreys is best known as a Byzantine philologist who has edited (and translated) a wide array of Byzantine texts. As stated in the preface, Pryor was responsible for researching and writing the text (parts of which have appeared over the years in other publications), while Jeffreys edited and translated the Greek texts in the appendices, assisted with philological matters, and provided context for the literary sources. The collaboration was quite successful.
The book begins with an array of introductory material including a gazetteer of historical toponyms, thirteen maps, a glossary of Greek, Latin, and Arabic terms, and a glossary of English nautical terms (the latter absolutely essential for us landlubbers). The book is then divided into six chapters, the first (7-122) being a detailed survey of naval affairs from late antiquity through 1204, the primary virtue of which is that it interweaves Byzantine, Arab, and Latin naval history. Chapter 2 (123-61) deals with the origins of the dromon, tracing naval technology from the Roman period through the age of Justinian. After a brief chapter (163-73) dealing with the relative lack of information about the Byzantine navy from the later sixth through the later ninth centuries (the Byzantine dark age), we reach the heart of the work, a long chapter (175-406) on the dromon during the Macedonian period (886-1025). Chapter 5 deals with the demise of the dromon (407-21) and Chapter 6 with the triumph of the western European galea (423-44). After a brief conclusion, there are a number of appendices which make up a quarter of the book: texts and translations of the ninth-century(?) Naumachiai of Syrianos Magistros; the Naumachika of Emperor Leo VI (as extracted from his larger Taktika), along with a brief text on naval strategies by this same emperor (who had in fact never been to sea); an anonymous treatise on naval warfare commissioned by the parakoimomenos Basil; the naval inventories from Constantine VII's De ceremoniis for the 911 and 949 expeditions to Crete; and Nikephoros Ouranos' paraphrase of Leo VI's Naumachika. There is also an appendix on Greek fire (607-31), an analysis of the galley illustrations in the Madrid manuscript of Skylitzes' history, and the text and translation (by Ahmad Shboul) of the portions of two Arabic treatises by Ibn Mankali that paraphrase Leo VI's Naumachika. The volume concludes with a bibliography and useful indices.
Pryor explains that he began his study of the Byzantine galley in the traditional manner: gathering references to the navy from literary and pictorial sources, and attempting to reconstruct the nature of the warships based on these references and aided by previous scholarship. Yet, after long study, he concluded that it was difficult to reconcile contradictory evidence and that the major sources for dealing with naval matters could not be taken at face value: e.g., the anonymous treatise on naval warfare commissioned by the parakoimomenos Basil (958-59) is dismissed as "little more than an exercise in classicizing philology" (4), and much of the Naumachika of Leo VI (dated to 905-06), Pryor concludes, reads as though "conceived by an arm-chair sailor" (181). The paraphrases of Leo VI's work by Nikephoros Ouranos (composed 1000-1011) and Ibn Mankali (fourteenth- century), while correcting or clarifying many of Leo's observations, present their own difficulties. Even the inventories of men, equipment, and finances supposedly for the Cretan expeditions of 910- 12 and 949 and to Italy in 934 and 935, inserted in De cerimoniis and completed in final form under Nikephoros Phokas, are infected by bureaucratese and do not necessarily reflect reality (446). Pryor carefully explains how, in his view, previous scholars were misled by these sources and arrived at incorrect conclusions.
After Pryor is through questioning the reliability of most of the sources dealing with naval warfare, what is one left with? Interestingly enough, Pryor's reconstruction of the standard dromon of the tenth century is based less on textual, pictorial, and scant archeological evidence, than on calculations and deductions based on logic and parallels with ancient, other medieval, and more recent data. For example, for his estimate of the length of the dromon, he estimates the minimum longitudinal space occupied by each oarsman (1 meter) and multiplies this by 25.5 (adding a half meter to account for the staggering of the oarbanks). Then he estimates the length of the poop and prow by comparison with thirteenth-century Sicilian galleys, and concludes the standard Byzantine bireme was about 31 or 32 meters long (287-92). Similarly, the calculations for the amount of fresh water the dromon needed to carry are based not on any Byzantine evidence but on later medieval and early modern parallels, as well as the 1988 sea trials of the Olympias, the reconstructed ancient Athenian trireme (356- 58). Some readers might find Pryor's dismissal of most of the Byzantine textual evidence as cavalier, but his arguments, clear and quite detailed, generally seem persuasive. Nevertheless, the reader who simply jumps into the middle of the book to learn something about rowing techniques, or horse transports, or the speed of warships needs to be aware of Pryor's methodology.
The word dromon itself probably derives from dromos "race" and the verb dromao "to run," emphasizing the speed of the ships (125) which surpassed that of the standard late Roman liburnae war galleys. The earliest securely-dated references to the word dromon appear in the sixth century, at the same time references to liburnae wane. Pryor suggests that there were three areas which distinguished the dromon from the liburna: the dromon was originally a smaller, fully- decked galley of fifty oarsmen (vs. the half-decked bireme and trireme liburnae); square sails were replaced by triangular lateen sails; and the classical waterline ram was replaced with an above water wooden spur (127). Pryor argues that the purpose of the spur was not to fracture the hull of an enemy ship (like the ram) but to disable the enemy ship by riding up and over its oars (144). The earliest conclusive evidence of the spur is from a late fifth-century manuscript illustration (135). The introduction of the spur, Pryor writes, was probably connected to the evolution of hull construction in late antiquity as shell-first construction with hull planks connected by tight mortise and tenon joints was superceded by frame- first construction with caulking between planks and a coating of pitch which rendered the traditional ram less effective.
While the term dromon originally was applied to a monoreme of fifty oars, by the tenth century it referred generally to any war galley (monoreme, bireme, and possibly trireme). However, the standard tenth-century Byzantine dromon was the bireme galley of one hundred or more oars (120-160 crew members in all) with one bank of oarsmen above deck and the other below (173, 192, 260), though it is possible some larger dromons may have had much larger crews. The bireme galley is the subject of Chapter 4, the heart of the book. Pryor discusses hulls and the shift from shell to skeletal construction; the prow with its flame thrower(s), fortified forecastle, and spur; anchors; rigging; officers, helmsmen, and other personnel; and the poop with housing for the captain and rudders on each side of the stern. He writes that dromons must have had more than one mast, a foremost and another amidship, with the largest toward the bow (238). The masts with their lateen sails were lowered for battle, necessitating the castle (located toward the bow) to be split in half. He discusses the oarage system; horse transports which were modified dromons originally called chelandia (holding no more than twelve horses each), though this term could later be used to denote other ships as well; logistics including water needs; and a host of other topics such as ventilation, speed, armaments aside from Greek fire and the spur, and tactics and strategy. Naval encounters, we read, began with an exchange of various types of missiles followed by the use of Greek fire at closer range. At this point Byzantine tactics called for coupling the enemy ship to theirs so that it could be boarded. In the absence of any ship-killing weapons, naval battles were won by degrading the enemy's ability to resist boarding.
During the eleventh and twelfth centuries the dromon was evidently replaced by the bireme Latin galea. Like the dromon the galea was fully-decked and tended to have two banks of oars, stern ornaments, and a pronounced bow spur. But unlike the dromon, the two banks of rowers sat side-by-side above deck (the alla sensile system) and utilized a stand-and-sit rowing technique in which the oarsman, from a standing position, fell back on his bench, evidently producing greater thrust than the fully-seated oarsman of the dromon.
Pryor concludes that there never was a single dromon; rather, the term was applied to galleys as they evolved over the centuries from the late fifth through their heyday in the tenth century. During this time the primary reference of the term changed from a monoreme of fifty oars to a bireme of 100 to 108. As the new galea of the west was adopted by the Byzantine fleet in the twelfth century, the use of the terms dromon and chelandion became anachronistic and were replaced respectively by katergon and taretes. Yet, "the terminology of Byzantine texts is a maritime historian's minefield," filled with classical anachronisms and impractical advice based, he repeats, on "arm-chair sailoring," and "what is actually known about the galleys called dromones remains frustratingly little" (445-46).
The Age of the dromon is a long and detailed book. Perhaps the eyes of some readers will glaze over as they read nineteen pages on rams and spurs (134-52) or twenty-nine pages on the oarage system of the dromon (276-304), but these sections, like the book overall, read remarkably well and certainly kept my interest. Thoughtfully, at their first appearance Greek terms are printed in both the original and transliterated. There are sixty-one figures, mostly manuscript illustrations of ships, plus many drawings by Pryor, though the numerous schematic drawings of ship plans are not always understandable even after reading the text. And, alas, Brill continues to exhibit some of the worst proofreading of any major publisher. Some errors are inexcusable: "gazetteer" is misspelled throughout, "accommodate" is usually misspelled, and words are occasionally omitted or repeated. In a gaffe where political correctness trumps accurate chronology, the very first line of the first chapter assigns the battle of Actium to "43 B.C.E." (7).
Even though experts in medieval maritime and military affairs will find much to argue with in this volume, The Age of the dromon will remain the standard reference on the Byzantine navy for a long time to come. No one interested in medieval seafaring can afford to ignore it.
- The Medieval Review 07.03.14
- Pryor, John H. and Elizabeth M. Jeffries. The Age of dromon: The Byzantine Navy, ca. 500-1024. The Medieval Mediterranean: Peoples, Economies and Cultures, 400-1500. vol. 62. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2006. Pp. lxxvii, 754. $213.00 (hb). ISBN: 90-04-15197-4.
- Reviewed by:
- Mark Bartusis
- Northern State University
Tuesday, January 12, 2016
Longbowmen and crossbowmen take aim at one another in this depiction of a fifteenth-century naval battle. (Cotton Jul. E VI Art. 6 f. 18, British Library)
Henry Tudor landing in Wales. After defeating Warwick and regaining the throne Edward began rebuilding the royal fleet by constructing ships and gathering a new cadre of experienced ship's masters. In the 1460s, he had built the first English royal caravel, the Edward, and, after 1471, he constructed fleets to support his invasions of France (1475) and SCOTLAND (early 1480s).
Although still meant to carry land troops to fight battles at sea, caravels were smaller, faster vessels than Henry V's high, bulky carracks, and they foreshadowed the quick, agile vessels with which Elizabethan England later defied the might of Spain. Despite these achievements, Edward still desired a small, inexpensive navy, and he maintained his fleet largely to protect trade and intercept invaders, a task that RICHARD III's flotilla of watching vessels failed to accomplish in August 1485 when Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, set sail for WALES.
After defeating and killing Richard at the Battle of BOSWORTH FIELD, Richmond, now HENRY VII, continued the naval policy of Edward IV, building new ships and establishing a naval base at Southampton. However, he still indented for vessels when he took an army to defend BRITTANY in 1492, and he, like his predecessor, lacked the naval strength to intercept the invasion forces of such Yorkist pretenders as Lambert SIMNEL and Perkin WARBECK, who both had to be defeated in land battles after their arrival in England.
The small navy that Henry VIII inherited from his father had only two sizeable ships, the carracks Regent and Sovereign.
Naval matters were able to open the royal purse. Henry VII began the build up at sea that would characterise the Tudor time. At a cost of £14.000 he let build the Great Harry, England's first warship in the sense that it was the first ship to be built solely for the purpose of fighting at sea. Great Harry was followed by more ships and Henry VII had soon created a respectable navy, earning him the name "the Grandfather of the Royal Navy". Henry's days also saw the first English explorers. Henry turned down an offer from Christopher Columbus's brother Bartholomeus to finance a journey westwards. Later John Cabot won the Kings ear and explored Newfoundland, thus becoming the first European to set his foot on the American mainland.
By late summer 1483, Richard III's usurpation of the English Crown and the growing belief that he had murdered his nephews made Richmond a more attractive candidate for the throne (see USURPATION OF 1483). While Richmond's mother plotted with Queen Elizabeth WOODVILLE to put the earl on the throne and marry him to ELIZABETH OF YORK, daughter of Edward IV, Henry STAFFORD, duke of Buckingham, deserted Richard and hatched his own plot. In the autumn, the two conspiracies merged into BUCKINGHAM'S REBELLION, an unsuccessful uprising that Richmond himself supported with an abortive descent on the English coast. Although Richard's soldiers tried to draw the earl ashore by posing as friends, Richmond learned of Buckingham's failure and returned safely to Brittany. In 1484, as a growing body of English exiles collected around him, Richmond fled into France, foiling a plot by Pierre Landais to turn him over to Richard's agents.
With French assistance, Richmond and his uncle landed in Wales in August 1485. Leading a force of over 2,000 French and Scottish mercenaries and some 600 English supporters, Richmond crossed Wales and entered England, collecting support along the way from both old Lancastrians and disaffected Yorkists. However, his army was still smaller than the king's when he met Richard in battle near the village of Market Bosworth on 22 August. Defeated by disloyalty in his ranks and by the intervention on Richmond's side of Sir William STANLEY, brother of Thomas STANLEY, Lord Stanley (Richmond's stepfather), Richard was killed on the field, and Richmond was proclaimed king as Henry VII.
As heir of Lancaster, Henry sought to symbolically end the WARS OF THE ROSES by marrying Elizabeth, the heiress of York, in January 1486. Nonetheless, Henry spent much of his reign combating Yorkist attempts to regain the throne. In June 1487, he defeated the partisans of Lambert SIMNEL at the Battle of STOKE. Simnel claimed to be Edward PLANTAGENET, earl of Warwick, the nephew of Edward IV and the last Yorkist claimant in the direct male line. A prisoner in the TOWER OF LONDON since 1485, Warwick was executed in 1499 after being implicated in an escape plot with Perkin WARBECK, another Yorkist pretender who had troubled Henry throughout the 1490s by claiming to be Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York, the younger son of Edward IV, who had probably died in the Tower with his brother EDWARD V in 1483. Despite these and other Yorkist threats to his dynasty, Henry VII, at his death on 21 April 1509, peacefully passed a stable and strengthened Crown to his son Henry VIII.