Episode 1 The sword – The sword is a deadly weapon that was used throughout the Middle Ages and was, in fact, standard army issue until the late 19th century. In the 1471 Battle of Barnet (during the War of the Roses), fighting eventually came down to the sword despite the availability of gunpowder by that time. Think of a sword and people think of popular Hollywood images of duels and swashbuckling soldiers, and yet this masks its viciousness in battle and the amount of skill and practice needed to use it effectively. With reference to authentic medieval training manuals, Mike teaches 10 students how to weald a sword using the same techniques that would have been employed in medieval sword schools. We learn how the whole sword would have been used, and Mike demonstrates the challenge of sword fighting on horseback whilst wearing plate armour. Mike visits the site of the Battle of Barnet to retrace the battle step-by-step and to explore the crucial role of the sword in deciding the outcome. Watch a modern-day swordsmith at work and hearing how technological advances led to improvements in strength. To get an idea of the sort of sword that might have been used at Barnet, have a rare glimpse of an amazingly well-preserved Italian sword from the 14th century. During the medieval period, the sword went from an elite weapon for the wealthy few to being the universal weapon of all soldiers, used in the last resort when battles came down to hand-to-hand combat.
Episode 2 The longbow – The incredible English victory at the Battle of Crecy (part of the Hundred Years War with France) would never have happened without the might of the longbow. Just a simple piece of wood, and yet it could be made into a deadly weapon. At the time of the Hundred Years War the English were superb longbow men, spending long hours practising and possessing great discipline. It is hard to image now the effect of over 7,000 archers shooting all at once! Mike Loades, series presenter, undertakes a number of experiments to establish how effective longbows would have been – how far could they shoot and what damage they could do-particularly against a French knight on horseback in full plate armour. Learn about the “reflexed bow”, a construction style that gave longbows great velocity, and that the Port of London was the centre of the bow-making industry. Working with a group of inexperienced volunteers, Mike demonstrates that it was possible to train a group of longbow men very quickly and so raise an army at short notice. Some longbow men were part of the cavalry, which gave them a high status. Working a horse and a longbow required great skill and Mike demonstrates some of the manoeuvres used. The French had 12,000 mounted knights in armour at the Battle of Crecy. The English had 2,500 mounted archers and 5,000 archers on foot, and this highly mobile force was key to the English victory. When the French charged at the English, the arrow storms would have been terrifying. Although protected by armour, many of the horses would have fallen, and without a horse, the French knights were an easy target for the English foot soldiers. Indeed, there were over 10,000 French casualties at Cressy and the French nobility was annihilated.
Episode 3 The lance – Originally probably nothing more complex than a sharpened stick, and yet incredibly versatile as a weapon, the spear in time evolved into the lance, a much more prestigious and powerful weapon favoured by knights. For centuries, the spear was the main weapon of the Saxons and Vikings. The lance was introduced by the Normans, and their mounted knights remain a potent image of medieval warfare. In medieval times men learnt how to use the lance through many years of intensive training at the “quintain”, a rotating wooden target. They would learn how to hold and charge with a lance, firstly mounted on a wooden horse on wheels pulled by two men. In a joust, men would strike at each other, whilst in battle the horse was the target, both with the aim of dismounting the opponent. Man, horse and lance had to become a single projectile unit in order to produce enough impact during combat, and knights held the lance under their arms (in the couch position) for maximum effect. Lances developed over time to further improve the impact they could deliver. The Battle of Lewes in 1264 was the first ever full-scale cavalry fight with lances on British soil. Simon De Montford was a rebel baron who wanted to depose King Henry III after the King had refused to form a council of nobles from different areas (like a parliament). Henry was determined to keep his power and stood firm at Lewes Castle. De Montford and his troops approached Lewes and provoked an attack. Hugely outnumbered, De Montford’s infantry were thrashed but he launched a daring downhill cavalry charge that decimated Henry’s troops and forced him to surrender. The Battle of Bannockburn illustrates how brilliant military tactics can be a greater force than weapons. Robert the Bruce defeated Edward II against all the odds due to the ingenious use of “shiltrons”, impenetrable circles of up to 1,000 spearmen working as tight mobile units, which even cavalry could not breach.
Episode 4 The shield – There is evidence that the shield, in various forms, has been used for over 4,000 years. Although mainly a defensive weapon, the shield can also be used to strike an opponent and was used entirely for this purpose in certain judicial courts in Germany during the late Middle Ages. Some shields are very large, almost as big as a warrior, and were specifically designed to form an interlocking shield wall. At the Battle of Edington in 878, Alfred, King of Wessex, used this tactic successfully against the Vikings, who were unable to penetrate the rows of shields. In fact, the tactics used by Alfred are very similar to those employed by modern-day police forces when using riot shields today. In this programme meet a modern-day shield maker to learn how Anglo-Saxon shields would have been constructed using lindenwood (wood from the lime tree) and rawhide (cow skin). Steve Etheridge makes a shield using authentic techniques that include making glue from cheese. At the Royal Military College of Science, Mike Loades tests the effectiveness of three different shields against arrows and axes. The Normans, by contrast, used kite shields – teardrop-shaped shields used on horseback – the shape of which gave protection against arrows on turning away from an attack. These shields are seen clearly on the Bayeux Tapestry. The very smallest were called buckler shields, which were made from steel and used from the 13th century onwards. They were held in the same hand as the sword, to disguise the intended movement, and were also used for hitting an opponent. In Tudor times it was fashionable for young men to wear a “sword and buckler” as part of their everyday dress, as a status symbol. A number of modern-day experts test out ideas about shields, and a musicologist explains the military commands that were blown on a horn. Using 100 inexperienced volunteers, Mike has the challenge of creating an effective shield wall as a cohesive and responsive unit.
Episode 5 Armour – One of the most popular images of the medieval period is the knight in shining armour, looking splendid and invulnerable. Developments in steel plate armour went hand in hand with advances in offensive weapons, as each tried to get the upper hand in what became a medieval arms race. Earlier body armour included “maille” (popularly known as chain mail), which was not like a chain at all, but made up from an interlocking web of metal rings. From the Bayeux Tapestry it is obvious that maille was standard issue to Norman soldiers and was favoured for its relative lightness and ease of mobility. It gave good protection from long range attack and from a “glancing blow” but not from heavy close-range attack such as from an axe or a lance. As weapons of attack became more lethal so armour had to improve too. The next stage in armour developments may have been the “coat of plates” as shown in a carving from 1230 at Pershore Abbey in Worcestershire. This was used across the chest in addition to maille, and experiments show that although the wearer would have suffered a blow from an full-speed lance attack, it would not have been life threatening. In the 14th century, developments in the production of steel meant that craftsmen could make bigger and bigger plates of armour, and the race was on to cover the whole body in steel like a steel exoskeleton. The main production centres were in Milan in Italy and in Germany, each of which developed a distinctive style. At the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow see a rare example of full plate armour from Italy and learn how each set would have been made especially for the wearer – a bespoke service, each bearing the hallmark of the maker. Medieval manuscripts show how soldiers would have put on armour. Although the armour increases safety it also reduces visibility and hearing, so armour was in fact a trade-off between protection and the ability to fight effectively. Helmet visors would have been kept down during long-range attack, such as an arrow storm, but opened up for hand-to-hand combat. Some weapons were specifically designed to get through plate armour and see a rare example from the time of the Hundred Years War – a pole axe. At the Battle of Verneuil in Northern France the French knights wore amazing full body armour and decimated the English archers. Although the English won the battle, they had been under huge threat due to the sophistication of the French armour.