John Sadler. Border Fury: England and Scotland at War, 1296-1568. England: Pearson Longman, 2005. xiv + 617 pp. $26.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-582-77293-9.
Reviewed by Peter Konieczny (Oxford College (Toronto))
Published on H-War (December, 2005)
The Long, Very Long, War
Ever more rarely do we find a history book that will exceed 600 pages in length, as such books take too long to write, and too long to read. But here we have an author willing to take on a huge era of history and to cover it in detail. Covering the intermittent warfare between England and Scotland, which continued from the late thirteenth century up to the middle of the sixteenth, Sadler comes up with a mixed bag--well written in places, but often succumbing under the weight of too many dates and names. While meant for general readers (as opposed to an academic audience), I am not sure that they will have the endurance to finish it.
John Sadler has already had experience in writing about medieval military history, penning both The Battle for Northumbria (1988) and Scottish Battles (1997). The current offering covers some of the events and subjects found in the previous two books, which were also written for the general reader. Sadler is now working on his Ph.D. dissertation relating to the Wars of the Roses in the North. In an interview found on the publisher's website, the author explains that his goal was to give an account that covers "the whole sweep of the turbulent centuries from 1296 to 1603." The book covers events through the mid-sixteenth century, with a few pages at the end that take the narrative up to death of Queen Elizabeth I. Sadler does pack quite a lot of information into his story. There are over 580 pages of text here, with about a dozen battlefield maps interspersed throughout (the illustrations are found in two parts, neither of which are part of the pagination). The maps are clear and good, but typical of what can be found in most similar offerings. The illustrations are just black and white photographs--the first series shows various pieces of armor and weapons, while the second batch reproduces portraits of several Scottish kings and two photographs of castles. These images are not relevant to the text at all, and seem to have been included just so that the publisher could note it as part of its advertising.
The first two chapters provide the reader with all the necessary details about the history and geography of the Scottish-English borderlands, and the basic military systems found in the two countries. There is also information about the kinds of weapons and tactics used by knights, archers and other soldiers. Most of the comments are generally correct, although none of these topics are discussed in great detail. The third chapter starts off the narrative of wars and battles. It begins with the invasion of Scotland by the English King Edward I, and goes on to describe the resistance of William Wallace and the battles of Stirling (1297) and Falkirk (1298). The style of storytelling becomes clear after reading this chapter--this book is going to tell the story of kings and rulers leading their armies into big and important battles. A more academically inclined writer might spend more time dealing with strategies, logistics and analysis of the more meticulous aspects of war. This book discusses the schemes and plots of leaders, the movement of armies, and the climax of the two sides clashing. The battles are given extensive treatment, but it becomes a bit repetitive and sometimes tedious: the fighting is depicted as a big scrum, the combatants either courageous or cowardly, and ending with the field strewn with heaps of dead.
The story continues in a chronological fashion, with more campaigns and conflicts--Bannockburn, Neville's Cross, Otterburn, Flodden, Pinkie and several other battles are thoroughly described. Sadler often writes in a way that makes the story compelling and lively, and just as importantly, is generally accurate in retelling the events. But he sometimes leaves out pieces of information. For example, when discussing the battle of Halidon Hill, which was fought in 1333, Sadler accurately describes how English archers were basically responsible for defeating the Scots. But he omits mentioning that some Scottish units were able to get past the English arrows and engage in hand-to-hand fighting. His account of the battle leaves the reader under the impression that no such melee combat occurred.
This kind of minor omission is just one sign of the main defect of this book. Although as a Ph.D. student Sadler would be acquainted with primary sources and the latest academic research in this subject, he has made little use of them. Instead, he relies too heavily on a few secondary sources; mostly books aimed at a general audience and a handful of older articles. At times, he only uses one or two sources to cover a chapter (for example, in one chapter thirty-three of his forty-two referenced footnotes come from two books; in another chapter he quotes from the same article sixteen times in a row). The first half of his book makes heavy use of Freedom's Sword: Scotland's Wars of Independence, by Peter Traquair (1998), a work that has rarely, if ever, been cited in an academic book or article. Meanwhile, references to works of recent important historians, such as Kelly DeVries and Clifford Rogers, are noticeably missing. Overall, the book has been inadequately researched, which undermines my confidence that Sadler is getting his facts right.
While Border Fury may not stand up to academic rigor, the author was probably more interested in producing a book that would captivate readers. This is done quite well in parts, but the story can also be boring too, as it gets mired in discussing an endless series of political maneuverings, rebellions and descriptions of events that have little relevance to the English-Scottish conflict. For example, in chapter 15, "This Sunne of York" (pp.380-405), we get a narrative of what happens in the years between 1464 and 1490. It deals mostly with the internal intrigues going on in both countries, none of which had bearing on the main subject. Less than three pages deal with cross-border fighting between the Scots and English, and this warfare was mostly small-scale raids. There is little reason to have included this chapter--perhaps Sadler did not want to leave out any time period from his account. It would have served this work well if its editors decided to cut away some of this unnecessary material.
A of couple chapters do include descriptions of daily life in a war zone, such as how Scottish attacks would leave farms destroyed and civilians impoverished. Sadler also describes the day-to-day fighting and brigandage that took place along the border--events that were rarely mentioned in chronicles, but had a profound impact on the area. This is a refreshing change, and this reader would have liked to see more of this.
Most of H-Net's readers would not be well served by Border Fury. Readers who already know something about the English-Scottish conflicts will not learn much new information, or get a fresh analysis of their wars. Meanwhile, those who want to start reading about this episode of history should probably look for a less bulky and more focused book.
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Peter Konieczny. Review of Sadler, John, Border Fury: England and Scotland at War, 1296-1568.
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