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Booty in Border Warfare

Booty in Border Warfare

By Denys Hay

Transactions of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society, Third Series, Vol. 31 (1952-3)

Battle of Neville's Cross from a 15th-century Froissart manuscript

Introduction: The subject of my paper sounds modest enough. In reality it is, I believe, very large in scope, touching on a wide range of problems not only of Scottish and English history, but of European history at large. Until almost our own day the spoils of war have been a not inconsiderable inducement to martial ardour. Doubtless the national armies of the French Revolutionary wars and the latter-day development of conscription have reduced the importance of the winnings of war to negligible proportions; but many of us must have met, soldiers in the last ten years, who brought home with them from Italy or Germany articles which (in what the dictionary calls “euphemistic” army slang) had been “won”. Prior to the eighteenth century, when an army literally lived on the land, this element played a correspondingly greater part. And the further we go back towards the Dark Ages the bigger we find to have been the influence of booty in warfare. The impulse to make war profitable was, indeed, entirely responsible for the wars of the little kings of Christendom at the outset: among the German tribes settled in the Western Empire each spring saw the warriors assembled for aggressive war; how else could a non-commercial economy sustain itself? In our own island there is evidence of such an attitude in the Celtic peoples, in the Germans who displaced them, and in the Norsemen – Danes and Normans – who followed after. Of the activities of the Norsemen we are particularly well-informed in the Sagas where we read the tale of brutal assault and ruthless acquisitiveness year by year, reign by reign, until something like monotony obscures for us the ugly incentive behind the barbaric virtues of the heroes.

Nothing is more revealing in this universal itch to ravage and to spoil than the traces we find in the sources of rules for the sharing of the plunder. Clearly such rules must have played a big part in preventing disputes about the booty which would otherwise have arisen when a war band was victorious and marched or sailed home with the gold vessels, the arms and armour, the maidens, the young warriors and the chieftains, of the vanquished and despoiled enemy. Our knowledge of these rules is tantalisingly meagre in the early days. Compounded of traditions stretching back into the remotest periods, modified by contact with Rome, with Christianity, with Islam, for long no one felt it necessary to set down precisely how for any people at, any time the spoils were divided. In Britain it is not until we come to the Ancient Laws of Wales that we find a systematic codification of practice. In this remarkable collection of laws (some of which date back to the tenth century) the sharing of the prisoners and the plunder is accounted for meticulously. We meet, for instance, this sort of regulation: “The captain of the royal war-band is entitled to two men’s portions of the spoils acquired out of the country; and of the king’s third he is to have a third. He is the third person who is to have a third with the king: the other two are the queen and the chief falconer.” The mention of the chief falconer is significant. The division of the winnings of war, not only in Wales, but in all other areas, seems to have been closely related to the division of the spoils of the chase. Nimrod has always had a somewhat ambiguous character.

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