If you will forgive the vagueness of this anecdote, there were two women on television, one a BBC presenter, the other a historian who should have known better (it may have been Bettany Hughes, who I rather like, so my apologies if I calumnise her). They are discussing a third woman, a historical figure of 35.
“Of course, at 35 she would have been virtually an old woman”, says the presenter.
To the historian’s credit, she pauses considering a proper answer before, bound by TV convention, agrees.
Then there was Melvyn Bragg, who although not a professional academic is also in the ranks of those who “should know better”. In his (otherwise rather good) “In Our Time” on Caxton and the Printing Press Bragg expresses surprise that Caxton, began his printing career at 40 “which was about the life expectancy of the time”.
As you may have read in my last article, age is a bit of a sensitive subject at the moment, but this popular misconception of age in the past is a bugbear of mine. Part of the reason, I think, is that most abused of statistics, life expectancy at birth. It is a gross over simplification, but put brutally, in a period of high infant mortality, for every infant death, someone has to survive into old age to maintain even a moderate mean. I’ve been repeatedly struck when reading about medieval and Early modern topics that interest me how frequently elderly people were not only surviving, but playing very active roles and in lieu of a systematic study of mortality rates, I’d like to share some examples.
My first two spring from my fascination with the Scottish borders. Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Surrey (as he was at the time of his finest hour) was a remarkable in serving four English monarchs, Edward IV, Richard III and the two Tudor Henrys. He was born in 1443 and was a soldier from his youth, badly wounded at the Battle of Barnet in 1471, knighted in 1478 and fought for Richard III at Bosworth in 1485. After this he was disenfranchised and imprisoned in the Tower, before talking his way back into Henry VII’s favour.
By 1513 he was a 70 year old man, and Earl Marshall of England to Henry VIII. Henry took the flower of English chivalry to invade France, leaving Howard in England as Lieutenant General in the North. James IV Scotland, unwisely, decided to honour the “auld alliance” with France and invaded England in support of his ally. Howard gathered what had to be considered a “B-Team” of England’s military might. All the heavy cavalry was campaigning with Henry in France and Howard raised a force of billmen and longbowmen along with some of the light cavalry the border were famed for and a few pieces of artillery and marched his force against a force of Scots which far outnumbered them.
Although this is not the place to dissect the resulting Battle of Flodden, famously Howard maneuvered his force behind the strong Scots defensive position and destroyed the Scottish army in a viscious hand to hand fight, killing James himself and much of the Scottish nobility of military age.
This was probably the last major battle on English soil where gunpowder, at least in hand-held guns, did not play a significant role. It is not clear whether the aging Surrey would have actually struck any blows, but some accounts say that James’ desperate final attack cut to within “spear’s length” of Howard. After some weeks of the discomfort of campaigning, he put on his armour took part in a forced march and a fierce fight. Remarkable for a man of his age.
He was not done, either. In 1517 (now styled Duke of Norfolk) he went on to lead a troop of cavalry to help put down the Evil May Day Riot in London . He was active politically until his 80th year and finally died in 1523 at 81.
Another man who made his name fighting Scots in the Borders through a long life was Sir John Forster. He was Warden of the Middle March through much of the second half of the Sixteenth Century, near the end of the period of the border reivers.
He almost exemplified the border conflict. He fought in the two biggest post-Flodden border battles of Solway Moss and Pinkie Clough and served in various minor commands before his 35 years as Warden. During this time few were more courageous and active in enforcing border law, but also he was corrupt, vicious and dishonest. Application of arbitrary justice was part of life in the borders, even part of his job as Warden, but there are tales of his not only quasi-judicially murdering the innocent but also of his leniency with the guilty amongst the Scottish Reivers when it suited his personal needs. He was present, and maybe partly responsible for at least two outbreaks of violence at the nominally sacrosanct Days of Truce where cross border conflicts were meant to be resolved. He helped put down two rebellions by advocates of Mary Queen of Scots. He lived well into old age and only yielded the Wardenship unwillingly when this finally made him susceptible to “imbicillity and weakness”. Even then, living in retirement at Bamburgh in 1597 thirty Scots crossed the border, broke into Bamburgh Castle and tried to murder him.
The problem is, how old was he? Forster was one of the inspirations for this article after reading about him in George MacDonald Fraser’s “The Steel Bonnets“. Fraser pronounces with complete confidence that he was born in 1501 and, neatly encapsulating the Sixteenth Century, died in 1602. This made him over a hundred at his death, 94 when he was stripped of the Middle March Wardenship for the final time and 96 at the time of the assassination attempt. This age is not unprecedented, but quite exceptional. Unfortunately, as I started reading around a little before writing this piece, some conflicting birth dates appear. Some writers also mention Fraser’s 1601-02, but several others say 1620. This would still have him living to past 80, serving actively as Warden into his late 70s and thirty Scots thinking his life was worth shortening at about 77. These comparatively youthful ages would, in themselves, earn a place here and do not in any way detract from my point, however I will have to beg your indulgence in not pronouncing one way or the other until I have had time to do some more rigorous research.
The lives of these two men overlapped, indeed if Fraser is correct it is not impossible that the old Howard knew the young Forster. Their lives spanned an astonishing period of English History. Howard was born with Henry VI on the throne and the Hundred Years War about to reach its dénouement; Forster died just before James Stuart came down from Scotland to take the English crown.
They show that men living tough, active, violent lives in the late Middle Ages and Early modern period could and did, (albeit rarely) live long and serve well into old age. Although Howard and Forster are exceptional, finding examples of fighting men in middle age is far easier, indeed in both England and Scotland military age had long been established at 16-60.
In part two I’ll introduce a few more example from home and abroad and talk more about the reality of age and mortality for our pre-industrial forebears.