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Stephen Curtin




PostPosted: Fri 05 Feb, 2016 3:09 am    Post subject: Gallowglass and Axes???         Reply with quote

Hey guys. In other threads we have discussed the reasons why the Gaelic peoples of the late middle ages / early renaissance used seemingly old fashioned equipment. What I would now like to ask is why do you think that the sparth axe was the preferred weapon of the gallowglass?

The sparth axe is clearly a descendant of the Dane axe, but the Dane axe was never used by large formations of men. It was used by specialist troops in a formation of spears and shields. So even though the Gaels adopted the axe from the Norse, they do not seem to have used it in the same manner.

Starting in the 14th century more versatile polearms such as halberds, bills etc begin to appear. Why did the Gaels continue to use a more simple form of axe, when these more developed polearms were available?

Éirinn go Brách


Last edited by Stephen Curtin on Sat 06 Feb, 2016 9:02 am; edited 1 time in total
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Philip Dyer




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PostPosted: Fri 05 Feb, 2016 12:07 pm    Post subject: Re: Gallowglass and Axes???         Reply with quote

Stephen Curtin wrote:
Hey guys. In other threads we have discussed the reasons why the Gaelic peoples of the late middle ages / early renaissance used seemingly old fashioned equipment. What I would now like to ask is why do you think that the sparth axe was the preferred weapon of the gallowglass?

The sparth axe is clearly a descendant of the Dane axe, but the Dane axe was never used by large formations of men. It was used by specialist troops in a formation of spears and shields. So even though the Gaels adopted the axe from the Norse, they do not seem to have used it in the same manner.

Starting in the 13th century more versatile polearms such as halberds, bills etc begin to appear. Why did the Gaels continue to use a more simple form of axe, when these more developed polearms were available?

Well, if the terrain of Ireland didn't permit the warfare developments which spurred the development of armor everywhere else, and which the weapons you mentioned developed to counter said armor, why would you try to "fix" something that isn't broke? The incentives in Ireland simply wasn't there, compared to other nations. Honestly love a thread detailing how Gallowglass and Daneaxemen used there axes.
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Mike Ruhala




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PostPosted: Fri 05 Feb, 2016 12:41 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

From a Germanic perspective all polearms are used in essentially the same manner and the simple staff is the training weapon they have in common, beyond that the weapon configuration is adjusted according to the desired wounding effects. A sparth or Dane axe isn't really less developed, it's just a configuration that strongly emphasizes slicing and chopping while still retaining some capacity for delivering a thrust, blunt impact or even hooking.
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J. Nicolaysen




PostPosted: Fri 05 Feb, 2016 12:57 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I thought it had to do with the Hiberno-Norse heritage of the Gallowglass. Many of the outer islands and parts of Scotland were still heavily influenced by the Norse.
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Paul Ballantyne




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PostPosted: Fri 05 Feb, 2016 3:08 pm    Post subject: Wet and lots of trees         Reply with quote

Ireland and especially Northern Ireland tends to be very very wet, summer as well as the rest of the year. Here we have a saying "If you can see the hills its about to rain, If you cant see the hills it is raining". Further more right up to the end of the 16-17th century a lot of the country was still heavily forested.

In such conditions plate armour would be very impractical, especially as we Irish have a history of hit and run tactics. It is one thing to be prepared and wearing full plate armour about to enter a battle, its quite another to be crossing forests, bogs, streams, hills trying to hunt down an elusive enemy you rarely see untill you are attacked when you least expect it.

Polearms, halberds etc are specifically designed to penetrate plate armour, but I would suggest that such armour was not practical for this environment. If very few of the enemy are using plate or heavy armour, is there really a need for a weapon designed for this specialist role ?

A two handed axe is more than adequate against enemies with shields, mounted or unarmoured. The traditional armour of the Gallowglass is a maille hauberk, the two handed axe is effective against this armour.

Clans, mini kingdoms and chieftens constantly had localised warfare against each other especially in relation to cattle raids, blood feuds etc. even up to the end of the 16th century. Warfare was almost a hobby and a means to increase your wealth. Highly unlikey you would bump into a plate clad enemy in this type of warfare.

As a previous post stated, if its not broke why fix it.
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Stephen Curtin




PostPosted: Fri 05 Feb, 2016 3:41 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

J. Yes as I said the the Gaels adopted the Dane axe from the Norse.

Mike. I would argue that a sparth or Dane axe is less developed than other polearms such as halberds or bills. Yes a Dane axe can hook and thrust with its horns, but not as effectively as these other polearms.

Philip and Paul. I have made the argument many times that the Irish terrain played a big role in why the development of Gaelic military equipment seems to lag behind the rest of Europe. But what I'd like to know is why were Gallowglass almost exclusively axemen? Why weren't a variety of polearms used as in other countries? Even though the Gaels never adopt plate armour, my assumption is that a halberd would be even more effective than an axe against mail and textile armours.

Éirinn go Brách
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Stephen Curtin




PostPosted: Fri 05 Feb, 2016 4:14 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Now that I think of it were halberds and bills really developed to combat plate armour? Weren't they developed as an anti cavalry weapon, with a spear like point to keep the cavalry at bay, and a back spike to pull them out of the saddle, should they get close enough. Of course halberds were also very effective for fighting against other infantry, as was often there role in the pike and shot era.
Éirinn go Brách
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J. Nicolaysen




PostPosted: Fri 05 Feb, 2016 5:06 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Quote:
J. Yes as I said the the Gaels adopted the Dane axe from the Norse.


Right, I saw that you brought it up, I guess I was implying that the cultural ties might have made a strong part of the preference. But it would still be secondary at best to its effectiveness, which isn't really addressed by that.

I'd like to expand this just to bring up the Lochaber and Jeddart axe styles, which seem more glaive or bardiche-like with a backhook than the Sparth axe. Do you consider these polearms to be too late, too Scottish or too outside the scope to discuss as well?

Also, I haven't heard of the Brogit staff before by name but I've seen pictures of similar sounding weapons. Any thoughts? Any of these commonly used in Ireland by Gallowglass or shall we leave them out of the discussion?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_polearms
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Stephen Curtin




PostPosted: Fri 05 Feb, 2016 5:47 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

J. I was going bring up the Lochaber axe, which is a more versatile polearm used by the Gaels of Scotland. AFAIK this weapon doesn't really show up until after the gallowglass had all but ceased to exist. It makes me wonder though. Why wasn't the Lochaber axe developed earlier?
Éirinn go Brách
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Stephen Curtin




PostPosted: Sat 06 Feb, 2016 8:59 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

As both Philip and Paul have stated. The most likely answer to these questions is "if it ain't broke then don't fix it". I agree with this. Gaelic military equipment underwent no major changes between about the 11th and 16th centuries, so it must have been working for them. So I suppose what I've been getting at, in a round about sort of way is, how did gallowglass use their axes in formation on the battlefield? And why was the axe the best suited weapon for this role, as opposed to other, more versatile, polearms?

Edited to add.

I forgot to mention that, although the sparth and Dane axe are very similar weapons. The main difference is their length. A Dane axe typically had a haft of about 4 feet, whereas a sparths haft was about 6 feet. I suspect that this increase in length was because of the shift from fighting in a shieldwall, to fighting with two handed weapons.

Éirinn go Brách
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Pieter B.




PostPosted: Sun 07 Feb, 2016 8:52 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Stephen Curtin wrote:
As both Philip and Paul have stated. The most likely answer to these questions is "if it ain't broke then don't fix it". I agree with this. Gaelic military equipment underwent no major changes between about the 11th and 16th centuries, so it must have been working for them. So I suppose what I've been getting at, in a round about sort of way is, how did gallowglass use their axes in formation on the battlefield? And why was the axe the best suited weapon for this role, as opposed to other, more versatile, polearms?

Edited to add.

I forgot to mention that, although the sparth and Dane axe are very similar weapons. The main difference is their length. A Dane axe typically had a haft of about 4 feet, whereas a sparths haft was about 6 feet. I suspect that this increase in length was because of the shift from fighting in a shieldwall, to fighting with two handed weapons.


I don't want to fall in the trap of stereotyping Irish warfare but wasn't it mostly cattle raiding to begin with? Kerns driving away the cattle with the cavalry patrolling while axe wielding gallowglass infantry formed a rallying point?

I am not sure how much of a formation was used during these types of encounter. If we do find them in a formation in battle than I believe they would have been used like any other medium length polearm, sword and buckler, poleaxes and spears frequently found themselves facing longer polearms and lances used dismounted. I don't think the lines or formations would resemble the really neat Napoleonic lines firing nor a completely disorganized mob like hollywood tends to portray it. I'd say the usage of weapons that aren't spears or pikes is still one of the bigger mysteries we have to deal with.
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Stephen Curtin




PostPosted: Sun 07 Feb, 2016 10:49 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Pieter B. wrote:
I don't want to fall in the trap of stereotyping Irish warfare but wasn't it mostly cattle raiding to begin with? Kerns driving away the cattle with the cavalry patrolling while axe wielding gallowglass infantry formed a rallying point?


Yes this is all true, but pitched battles (though less common than cattle raids) is where the gallowglass really earned his keep.


Pieter B. wrote:

I'd say the usage of weapons that aren't spears or pikes is still one of the bigger mysteries we have to deal with.


True again. Unfortunately.

Éirinn go Brách
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Pieter B.




PostPosted: Sun 07 Feb, 2016 1:08 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Stephen Curtin wrote:
Pieter B. wrote:
I don't want to fall in the trap of stereotyping Irish warfare but wasn't it mostly cattle raiding to begin with? Kerns driving away the cattle with the cavalry patrolling while axe wielding gallowglass infantry formed a rallying point?


Yes this is all true, but pitched battles (though less common than cattle raids) is where the gallowglass really earned his keep.


Pieter B. wrote:

I'd say the usage of weapons that aren't spears or pikes is still one of the bigger mysteries we have to deal with.


True again. Unfortunately.


I believe Christine de Pizan has given us some advice on this matter, bodies of men should neither be arrayed so loose that the enemy can pass through nor so close men cannot use their weapon to defend themselves. I suppose the Romans at Cannae and the French at Agincourt should have heeded the second part of that advice better.


George Silver also covers some weapons used in battle and says shorter bills are to be preferred above longer ones because the English fight in close order. I am not sure if he went close to the enemy or having little space between men in a formation though. He also suggests that in battle there is no room to 'draw a bird spit' with which he means a rapier.

Quote:
In any of these weapons there needs no just length, but commonly they are, or ought to be five or six foot long, & may not well be used much longer, because of their weights, and being weapons for the wars and battle, when men are joined close together, may thrust, & strike sound blows, with great force both strong and quick. And finally for the just lengths of all other shorter or longer weapons to be governed with both hands, there is none. Neither is their any certain lengths in any manner of weapons to be used with one hand, over or under the just length of the single sword. Thus ends the length of weapons.
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Stephen Curtin




PostPosted: Mon 08 Feb, 2016 2:08 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

In all of the accounts of Irish battles that I've read, none go into any great detail on battle tactics. However from English writers we know that each gallowglass had two attendants to carry his equipment and provisions. Some of these attendants also fought alongside their masters using spears, javelins, or bows. This three man unit was called a sparr, and a battle of gallowglasses was made up of about 80 sparrs. What we are not told is, when a Gaelic chieftain had multiple battles of gallowglasses, did they join together to form larger units, perhaps in a line or block formation, or did each battle of gallowglass fight separately, as smaller more mobile units? Of course this probably varied depending on the situation and the competence of the chieftain. Perhaps someone with a better understanding medieval battle tactics could chime in and explain how they think these units would have been deployed.
Éirinn go Brách
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J. Nicolaysen




PostPosted: Wed 10 Feb, 2016 7:36 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I'm just beginning a book on Henry V, but it goes into a brief section where he accompanies Richard II to Ireland, as a young hostage, where they fought and lost several battles with the forces of Art MacMurrogh around 1398. There's mention of a French writer, Jean Creton, who wrote a poem about the expedition. Some mention by the author of Gallowglass, though it seems quite early. Still, I wonder if this might be an original source or time to look into, if you haven't already.

The book is The Warrior King and the Invasion of France, by Desmond Seward. The relevant text in part is "While an important chief might employ as many as a hundred gallowglass mercenaries, who dismounted to fight on foot with huge axes (like the Lochaber axes of the Scots Highlanders), most of his men would be kern who carried only dirks and bundles of javelins. If no match for conventional troops, they were dreaded for more than their war whoops as they were skilled at ambushes and sudden attacks....We know something of this inglorious campaign from a poem by a Frenchman in the royal service, Jean Creton." page 28

That's pretty much it, and I don't know that the author is exactly an expert of Irish fighting tactics of the 14th century. Still, it might be a place to look for a primary account. As an American who reads general history texts for basic knowledge and insomnia-fighting, I must admit I did not know anything about Richard's Irish campaigns...
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Stephen Curtin




PostPosted: Wed 10 Feb, 2016 9:00 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

J. Thanks for the reference. Richard II led two expeditions into Ireland. Both times he marched a very large army through the Leinster countryside in hopes of provoking Art MacMurragh into giving him battle. Art knowing that he wouldn't have stood a chance against such a large force in the open, simply evaded the English and harassed them as they marched.
Éirinn go Brách
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Stephen Curtin




PostPosted: Wed 10 Feb, 2016 3:32 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

It seems impossible to find accounts where details are given concerning Gaelic battle tactics. Given that an Irish Lord who was able to afford to hire two battles of gallowglasses might have as many as ten times as many kern. I wonder if an Irish Lord ever deployed his gallowglass and kern a line formation, with gallowglass as the front rank and kern the second, third, forth etc ranks? I've no evidence for this, but it makes sense to me.
Éirinn go Brách
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Stephen Curtin




PostPosted: Sun 26 Feb, 2017 7:23 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

As I said in earlier posts, Irish sources tend not to be very detailed when it comes to describing battle tactics and such. Take this passage, describing the battle of Knockdoe from the Annals of the Four Masters:

"A fierce battle was fought between them, such as had not been known of in latter times. Far away from the combating troops were heard the violent onset of the martial chiefs, the vehement efforts of the champions, the charge of the royal heroes, the noise of the lords, the clamour of the troops when endangered, the shouts and exultations of the youths, the sound made by the falling of the brave men, and the triumphing of the nobles over the plebeians. The battle was at length gained against Mac William, O'Brien, and the chiefs of Leath-Mhogha; and a great slaughter was made of them; and among the slain was Murrough Mac-I-Brien-Ara, together with many others of the nobles. And of the nine battalions which were in solid battle array, there survived only one broken battalion. A countless number of the Lord Justice's forces were also slain, though they routed the others before them. It would be impossible to enumerate or specify all the slain, both horse and foot, in that battle, for the plain on which they were was impassable, from the vast and prodigious numbers of mangled bodies stretched in gory litters; of broken spears, cloven shields, shattered battle-swords, mangled and disfigured bodies stretched dead, and beardless youths lying hideous, after expiring."

Compare this to an account from captain of the English billmen, recorded in the Book of Howth:

http://erenow.com/ww/warsoftheirishkings/28.html

Éirinn go Brách
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Gabriele Becattini




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PostPosted: Sun 26 Feb, 2017 9:56 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

are we sure that the sparth axe can be considered a close formation weapon?

it is a purely slashing weapon tall as a man and so it would logically require a lot of space to be wielded...

what we know is that gallowglass were organized in formal combat units but i can hardly imagine them fighting like a phalanx given the room that each man would have required to wield the axe
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Stephen Curtin




PostPosted: Sun 26 Feb, 2017 11:38 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Modern historians estimate that Ulick Burke had about 4,000 men at Knockdoe, whereas his opponent, Gerald FitzGerald Earl of Kildare had about 6,000 men. Here's the description of Burke's army taken from the Book of Howth:

"they prepared to battle in such order as their custom was. They set forward their galoglasse and footmen in one main battle, and all their horsemen on their left side, and so came on."

If you interpret "footmen" as kern, then it seems that multiple battles of gallowglass and kern were all in a single formation. Based on my observations of numbers from other large Irish armies, Burke's army probably consisted of roughly; 20% horse, 20% gallowglass, and 60% kern. So If the estimate of 4,000 men is accurate, then this would be roughly 800 horse, 800 gallowglass, and 2,400 kern. As the gallowglass were the only infantry with arms and armour suitable to close quarters combat, I imagine they would have formed the front ranks. Behind them would be three ranks of kern mostly armed with darts, spears, and scians.

Éirinn go Brách


Last edited by Stephen Curtin on Sun 26 Feb, 2017 1:34 pm; edited 1 time in total
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