Neil Wiffen is a historian with special interest in local history. Since 2000 he has worked at the Essex Records Office and is a former Honorary Editor of the Essex Journal.
Neil began by explaining the background to the Hundred Years War, 1337-1453. (the term “Hundred Years War”, which actually lasted 116 years, was invented during the 19th century). When William the Conqueror claimed the English throne in 1066, thereby becoming King of England, he was still known in France as the Duke of Normandy and was obliged to pay homage to The King of France, which he was unwilling to do. Subsequent English Kings found themselves in a similar dilemma, resulting in deteriorating relationships between France and England with lots of posturing and power struggles. England's other traditional enemy, Scotland, formed a loose alliance with France which meant that English Kings had two enemies to grapple with. Many skirmishes took place, including raids by the French on southern ports, the defence against which was proving costly. Further intrigue was festering through the growing power of the Low Countries, particularly with the wool trade. The King of France was particularly resentful that Edward III (1327-77) was harbouring Robert de Artois, whom the French regarded as a traitor. Matters came to a head in 1337 when King Philip VI confiscated the province of Aquitaine which Edward had inherited through the marriage of Henry II to Eleanor of Aquitaine. The historian Jonathan Sumption regards this as the spark which ignited the Hundred Years War.
Neil quoted the famous remark of Napoleon - “An army marches on its stomach”. This was no less true for Edward III who made extensive preparations for his invading army and navy. The National Archives Office at Kew has parchment documents relating to this preparation and we were shown small excerpts from their records. Neil was able to translate the Latin texts as well as explaining the - now obsolete - measures used at the time. The most common of these was the “Quarter”, equivalent to 217.7 kg, and also the “Stone” which was then made up of 13 lbs instead of the modern 14 lbs. The mechanics of the supply began with the County Sheriffs, which in the case of Essex was John de Coggeshale, and the “Receiver of Victuals”, a man called Willian Dunstaple. They in turn had an army of representatives, mainly from local merchants. The monasteries provided another source of supplies. The goods were usually paid for but at rates often below their market price. Their acquisition was therefore “neither romantic nor fair”. Neil showed slides detailing the items that were purchased, with their quantities and sources, such as wheat, barley, beans, malt, fish (usually dried and salted), ham and cheese. Eastern Essex, which was nearer the coast, was particularly renowned for its sheeps’ cheese. Hardware included spades, shovels, axes, kettles and tripods. Separate negotiations had to be made for the “hardware” of war, such as horses, carts, catapults and longbows. The last-named had actually been successfully used for the first time against the Scottish army at the Battle of Halidon Hill near Berwick-on-Tweed in July 1333. The archers themselves came mainly from Ireland.
Once collected, the supplies were sent first to Colchester for storage and then forwarded to Ipswich, where they were recorded by William Dunstaple. Ipswich at the head of the Orwell estuary provided shelter for the town which enhanced its importance. Harwich had also increased in size and status as a result of the war preparations. Supplies from these ports could then be shipped to Calais but this had to cease in 1347 when the French re-captured the town. Nevertheless, the English army continued to be supplied throughout the entire war in spite of problems and unpredictability, particularly with food being affected by bad harvests and crop failures.
Essex was heavily involved in the war effort, as was the case in the two World Wars. Various factors contributed to its success:
- a sophisticated infrastructure through an efficient network of local officials and links
- networks of supplies were well administered, even leading on occasions to a surplus
- well-developed methods of food production, particularly of malt and cheese
- a well-informed local population through news announcements from the churches.
The populace genuinely feared an enemy invasion and even established equivalents of a Home Guard and “Dig for Victory” movements.