Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Welsh way of Warfare in the Dark Ages....

This is something of a book review of a volume I purchased & recently read.

The book is “War and Society in Medieval Wales 633 – 1283 Welsh Military Institutions” written by Sean Davies, published by the University of Wales Press as part of their “Studies in Welsh History” series.

I picked up my copy online from Books etc in the UK – it was on sale at the time too.

The synopsis, as taken from their website:

“This text offers an examination of Welsh military organization, strategy, tactics and conduct in war which goes beyond the military sphere and touches on all aspects of Welsh society in this period. It helps to explain the transformation of the country from a part of post-Roman medieval Europe to the series of independent principalities eventually conquered by Edward I. The author questions many of the traditional assumptions, notably the tendency to see the Welsh (and the Irish and the Scottish) as "barbaric" and provides a corrective to these current views. It demonstrates that, whilst allowing for differences given the nature, economy, geography and topography of the country, Welsh military developments from the end of Roman rule to the Edwardian conquest generally correspond to those seen in the rest of Western Europe.”

I purchased this volume in the hopes of getting a better insight into the Welsh way of warfare during the Early Medieval period (otherwise known as the Dark Ages). I have a 28mm Welsh force for my collection, which I eventually hope to get around to painting & gaming with, and thought that this might give some inspiration. 

It is to be noted that Dr Davies writes as an academic, so the volume is definitely not a “pop history”, full of lots of pictures with captions and unsubstantiated claims. The author makes use of primary source material, as well as secondary, taking care to examine the potential motivations of early writers. There is an excellent bibliography and copious footnotes for further reading.

As may be gathered from the synopsis, Dr Davies addresses some misconceptions about the Welsh which can sometimes portray them as hairy barbarians that only knew how to skirmish, ambush, and run away. You may have even seen them depicted in this way in some army lists and rule-sets. The reality, according to Dr Davies, is that they were as capable of open battle, siege warfare & ravaging, as any of their contemporaries – Anglo-Saxon, Irish, Viking or Norman.  Their military organisation was on par with other Northern European cultures, and could take the battle to their enemies, not just lurk in mountains & forests.

My personal interests are strictly in the Dark Ages, so I must admit that once the Normans showed up in the Welsh narrative, I tended to scan over those parts rather quickly. There is much of interest in the book for anyone who takes an interest in medieval or Dark Age warfare. Dr Davies gives a detailed discussion of the Teulu – the military household surrounding a Welsh lord; and the Llu – a larger force mustered for major campaigns. He also discusses use of mercenaries, and occasional co-operation with other peoples – such as temporary alliances with Anglo-Saxons against the threat of Vikings. Chapters three & four I found particularly interesting as the author deals with “Campaign Strategy & Tactics” and “Equipment & Tactical Dispositions”. This was great stuff for wargaming ideas, as he gives frequent citations from primary sources about battles and the different troop types being utilised. It appears the Welsh were skilled cavalrymen and noted for the breeding of fine horses. Further chapters discuss fortifications and conduct in warfare.

If you don’t mind reading a book that is more academic, but not inaccessibly so, then I can recommend this volume. For the wargamer or medieval history buff it is well worth a look.

In case you missed it, the competition is still open until the end of the month:

All the best,



  1. nice review, i am waiting on my welsh to turn up at the moment for SAGA. Be an interesting read, especially as i re-enact the period as the west welsh (cornish). Do they have much on clothing ets, or is it more on tactics and such?

    1. G'day, great to hear from you! Glad you found the review useful.
      Unfortunately there's not an awful lot the author can say about clothing, due to lack of archaeological finds and limited pictorial evidence.His discussion on armour have to draw from written sources. He suggests the use of mail, laminar, padded leather - the sort of stuff used by most Dark Age warriors - and comments that war gear was probably both handed down as well as plundered from enemies.

  2. Having grown up on the coast of Wales, you'd think I would've chosen the Welsh as one of my factions to paint and play in Saga right? After reading your piece above, it's rather tempting to venture into that 3rd faction, of course picking up this interesting book as inspiration to the project. There was precious little to read on Dark Ages Welsh when I was a teen, so it's nice to see publications out there popping up since.

    1. Yes, I was pleased to find this book after I had got hold of a bunch of Welsh. Hope more books like this get produced - pictures & maps would be cool too :-D


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