Introduction: George R.R. Martin’s Westeros seems to have an unreasonably large number of battles compared to the real Middle Ages. In A Clash of Kings there are no less than five field actions during the course of Robb Stark’s one-year campaign in the South (the Green Fork, the Whispering Woods, the Battle of the Camps, Oxcross, and the Crag). In our world, though, these sorts of encounters were quite rare: Robb’s annus mirabilis was quite intense compared to the mere three battles in the entire real-life career of Edward the Black Prince, who was arguably the greatest English commander of the fourteenth century.
Of course, all this fighting makes for more dramatic storytelling—no one wants to read thrilling tales about adventurous drinking and dicing in an army camped out for months around a castle wall, or the epic quest of the heroic protagonist to find new and exciting ways to keep his soldiers from dying of dysentery and/or knifing one another. Martin is nothing if not a skilled writer, and so those sieges that do take place in Ice and Fire either tend be recounted in the past tense or quickly resolved once a viewpoint character shows up. Witness Jaime wrapping up the badly mismanaged siege of Riverrun and the interminable Bracken/Blackwood war in A Feast for Crows, or how Dany is described as cleverly capturing Meereen in A Storm of Swords. But how realistic is this?
At first, it seems as if Martin has sacrificed authenticity for action. Let’s use the Black Prince’s career, which spanned the first part of the Hundred Years’ War, as a counterpoint to that of Robb Stark. During the Hundred Years’ War — which was, to simplify a very complicated story, a multi-generational struggle to decide whether the king of England would also be the king of France — the first battle Edward participated in, Crécy, was fought in 1346 when Edward was only sixteen (Robb Stark’s age at the Red Wedding); the second, Poitiers, was not fought until ten years later in 1356; the last, Nájera, eleven years after that in 1367.
This does not mean that Edward spent the rest of his time playing croquet and eating tiny watercress sandwiches. Rather, like most of his peers, the majority of this consummate fourteenth-century military man’s career was spent besieging cities (in one case, the 1346–47 siege of Calais, for nearly a year) and wreaking havoc through the countryside. Rather than battle, siege and armed raid (the chevauchée) were the default modes of medieval warfare. It was not the clash of knights in plate and mail and striving of equal against equal that decided the fate of kingdoms in the Middle Ages, but rather the ignoble digging of latrine pits, burning of crops, and raping and murdering of peasants.