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Pretend to run away… then attack

William, Duke of Normandy, is best known for his dispute with Harold Godwinson, a disagreement that would lead to his victory over his Anglo-Saxon rival at Hastings in 1066. Yet this was not the first time that the future William the Conqueror had fallen out with a fellow ruler. In 1052, King Henry I of France formed an alliance with Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, to make war upon him; even William’s uncle, the Count of Arques, joined the alliance.

Upon hearing this, William swiftly laid siege to his uncle’s castle just outside Dieppe. That August, Henry advanced with an army to relieve Arques, but the Normans learned that the king was close and decided to lay a trap. While most of the knights hid themselves in ambush, a small group went out and, when the French spotted them, pretended to run away. The French soldiers pursued them right into an ambush.

A Norman chronicle describes what happened next: “And suddenly, when they had turned back, those who had been seen to flee began to strike fiercely at them to such a degree that, in that fight, Enguerrand, Count of Abbeville, was killed, run through, together with many men, and Hugh, known as Bardulf, was captured with many others.”

This appears to have been a popular ploy since it was reported in many different medieval sources. Famously, 14 years after his victory at Arques, William would use the tactic at the battle of Hastings to lure the English off their defensive position on Senlac Hill. Accounts of the battle disagree as to whether this was, at first, a real flight caused by a rumour that William had been killed, or if the whole thing was just a series of ruses, but the highly trained Norman knights were certainly capable of performing such a manoeuvre.

Play dead (and keep a rotting chicken handy)

Military leaders pulled off some outrageous stunts to outfox their enemies in the Middle Ages, but the one that Norman leader Bohemond of Taranto deployed at the beginning of the 12th century takes some beating. When crusading armies from western Europe conquered the city of Antioch (modern-day Antakya, Turkey) in 1098, Bohemond decided to settle there and declared himself prince of Antioch.

By September 1104, however, this new “crusader state” was in trouble. Not only was it surrounded by hostile Muslim city states, but it was threatened by the Byzantine emperor, Alexios Komnenos, who believed the city to be rightfully his. Bohemond decided that he must return to his lands in Italy to raise reinforcements.

According to Alexios’s daughter, Anna Komnene (who also happened to be a historian), in order to avoid being captured by the Greeks, Bohemond spread rumours that he had died. His men carried him onto a ship inside a coffin, and, to add to the illusion, he kept a dead cockerel with him to simulate the smell of rotting flesh. Whenever the ship was in sight of land, the crew would wail and lament as if mourning for their prince; otherwise Bohemond would get out of the coffin and walk about.

Using this ruse, he successfully evaded the Greeks. Anna seems to have admired his courage and ingenuity, calling this trick “not very dignified, but amazingly crafty”. While she is our only source for this incident, so the whole thing may be an invention, there are striking parallels to similar stories found in other texts. Bohemond’s father, Robert Guiscard, was alleged to have captured a town in Calabria, in southern Italy by pretending that he was bringing one of his men to be buried in the local monastery. Another chronicler says the same tactic was used by Bohemond’s brother to capture Monte Cassino to the north.

Illustration by Laurie Avon

Don a disguise before storming the battlefield

One of the most distinctive aspects of medieval warfare was heraldry: a system of specific colours and symbols, displayed on the shield and other equipment. These coats of arms, or simply “arms”, each one unique to a particular family, helped to distinguish one armoured nobleman from another at tournaments or on the battlefield. It was a display of pride and status, but it came at a cost.

Enemies could identify an individual as a potential to be captured and ransomed after the fighting, or they could simply be killed. To avoid this, some commanders dressed their bodyguards in copies of their coat of arms. At the battle of Shrewsbury (21 July 1403), Henry IV of England had at least two such doubles, who ended up being killed by Archibald, Earl of Douglas. William Shakespeare famously portrayed this ruse in Henry IV, Part 1. On being informed that “the king hath many marching in his coats”, Douglas exclaims: “Now, by my sword, I will kill all his coats; I’ll murder all his wardrobe, piece by piece, until I meet the king.”

Another, much riskier, trick was to enter the battle without a coat of arms at all. While this effectively rendered the individual anonymous, it could lead to them being killed out of hand, rather than spared for ransom. The French knight Anthony, Duke of Brabant, arriving late to the battle of Agincourt in 1415, entered the fighting wearing another man’s armour and a makeshift coat.

His secretary, Edmund of Dynter, who wrote an account of the battle, reported that the duke’s body was later found away from the fighting, wounded in the head and neck, as if someone had removed his helmet. Edmund claimed that the English did not recognise him without his proper coat, or else they would have kept him alive as a valuable captive.

Strike when the enemy’s sleeping

In January 1300, Philip IV of France invaded Flanders, imprisoned its ruler, Count Guy of Dampierre, and annexed the county to the crown. But by May 1302, disputes over taxation and the oppressive behaviour of the royal governor, James of Châtillon, had provoked rioting in Bruges. On 17 May, Châtillon entered the city with an army to receive the submission of the government, but at dawn the next day, supporters of Count Guy entered Bruges themselves and massacred the French in their beds.

The Flemings went from house to house, identifying their targets by making everybody say the word “scilt” (shield), which the French could not pronounce properly. Hundreds were killed as a result and Châtillon was forced to flee leaving all of his possessions behind. A Flemish chronicler of this period reported that “the French said their men were treacherously defeated and killed” in this attack, but insisted that the French themselves were to blame, for they had “entered a poorly fortified town with little caution or prudence, with so many of their deadly enemies at hand”.

Here, it is possible to see how two different sides could regard the same incident in totally different ways. From the French perspective, the Flemings were subjects of the French king and by attacking his representative, they were rebelling against the crown and so committing an act of treachery. From the Flemish perspective, they were patriots in support of their true lord, Count Guy of Dampierre, and were justified in attacking their enemies, even while they slept, and it was up to the French to defend themselves.

Illustration by Laurie Avon

Make agreements with your fingers crossed

Medieval society placed great significance on oaths and sacred promises, which were often made in the presence of holy objects such as the Bible or a saint’s relic. Furthermore, noble culture placed a high value on honour and keeping one’s word. Yet this backdrop did not prevent desperate or unscrupulous commanders breaking their promises in order to gain a military advantage.

In July 1174, Henry II of England faced an alliance of his three greatest enemies: Louis VII of France, Philip I of Flanders and his own eldest son, Henry, the so-called “Young King”. The three had joined together to attack Rouen, capital of Normandy and one of Henry’s strongholds on the continent. After 19 days of continuous fighting, Louis offered the defenders a day’s truce in honour of the Feast of St Lawrence (10 August), and they agreed. According to the English chronicler William of Newburgh, however, the other nobles persuaded Louis to break the truce and launch a sneak attack.

An assault party was organised in whispers and approached the city walls with ladders, only to be spotted by a priest who happened to look out of the window of a church tower. The alarm was raised, and the defenders were able to repel the assault. William of Newburgh claimed that Louis subsequently tried to blame Philip for breaking the truce: “The king poured the blame back onto the Count of Flanders, but nevertheless the stain of such a disgraceful transgression stuck more to the king’s character.”

William is our only source for this event and, as an Englishman, was inclined to believe the worst of the French king, so it may be that he was reporting unflattering gossip or invented the story for dramatic effect. Nevertheless, it tells us about the kind of deception that was considered abhorrent in medieval warfare. Ambushes, disguises and night attacks might all be understood as acceptable, if not admirable displays of cunning. But to break one’s word, even to an enemy, was a step too far.

Illustrations by Laurie Avon

This article was first published in the Christmas 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine


Dr James TittertonHistorian and author

Dr James Titterton is an is a researcher at the University of Leeds, currently lecturing in medieval European history at the University of Manchester. His books include is Deception in Medieval Warfare: Trickery and Cunning in the Central Middle Ages