49. Engines of war

This week’s chapter of my serialised book  A Prize of Sovereigns  has the story reaching a turning point in the war between two rival medieval princes. And that turning point is technological. Technology has always played a major role in war.

The Hollow Crown
Programme Name: The Hollow Crown – TX: n/a – Episode: Henry V (No. Henry V) – Embargoed for publication until: n/a – Picture Shows: Archers – (C) Neal Street Productions – Photographer: Nick Briggs

When medieval England perfected the longbow, it transformed the nature of war. Armed with one of these long-range armour-piercing weapons, an archer could kill an armoured knight. The invention not only changed forever the military balance of forces between England and its adversary, France, it changed the code of war. A commoner could now kill a nobleman, a deep shock to the psyche of French chivalry. Until then, the most fearsome weapon of war had been mounted shock combat, the province of the aristocratic knights on their heavy horse.

Incidentally, mounted shock combat depended on another technological change: the invention of the stirrup. Until the stirrup, which braces the rider, any attempt to charge the enemy at speed with lances resulted in the mounted warrior falling off backwards at the moment of collision. Before stirrups, horses were only a means of delivering the warrior fast to the battlefield.

One of the rival princes in A Prize of Sovereigns, Aurthur, reasons that his army is at a disadvantage because it does not have longbows of comparable range and power to his enemy, King Byrom of Ceweth. He decides that he must again change the balance of forces, and warfare itself, with a weapon of even greater capacity. This passage shows the reaction of his chancellor, Gustaff:

“A new weapon? What is it?”

“Bombards.”

“Bombards, Majesty? The cannon makes a loud bang and frightens the horses, to be sure. But it is an unreliable thing, as likely to explode and kill our own men as the enemy. And it has not the accuracy of a bow.”

“And a bow once had not the range it does today, until Ceweth’s archers perfected it. I have engaged an artificer from the east who assures me he has a way of smelting iron of greater purity, and of more precisely casting and boring cannon. His demonstrations show me that we can make a cannon less prone to destroy itself; and one that will hurl a ball further and more predictably. All I need is time for him to perfect the cannon, and build enough of them. Cannonade will be to war in the future what massed longbows were to Byrom’s father. We will be able to destroy the Ceweth army before they can engage us.”

The role of technology in military and political change is a subtext of A Prize of Sovereigns. The chapter also illustrates another subtext – how power works. To succeed as a ruler, the scholarly Authur has had to learn to become as cunning and ruthless as his rival, Byrom. He shares with Gustaff his intention to betray Marta, the Joan of Arc figure in the story. Gustaff is astounded at the way the young prince has become a king. Aurthur responds:

“It may be as you say, Gods willing. But, just between us, I mourn the boy who has gone. He was gentle, and loved the creations of art and philosophy. He was innocent of the wiles of strategy, and the vicious compromises of statecraft.”

Kingship exacts a terrible price on Aurthur. Perhaps that is a choice faced by everyone who wields power – to gain it at the cost of their humanity.

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