The Essex Dogs are a small company of men whom we meet in France during the huge English invasion of 1346. They arrive on the beaches of Normandy at dawn in high summer – storming out of the sea with 15,000 knights, men-at-arms, and archers. They are then swept along through the French countryside on what was known as a chevauchée – an exotic word for a campaign of terror designed to cow the local people into submission and reduce them to obedience to the English king instead of the French.
 
The story of this campaign – and much of the rest of the Hundred Years’ War – has come down to historians through the writings of contemporary chroniclers like Jean Froissart, who saw war as a stage for knights to undertake heroic deeds. But for a long time, I wondered what the reality of the war must have been. Not for the victims – it seems plain enough that being robbed, raped, or murdered is by definition horrible. But for the ordinary ‘rank and file’ of a medieval army. The men who weren’t knights. Who were charged with carrying out the chevauchée. Were they all self-selecting bloodthirsty killers? Or might some have been ambivalent – even unhappy – about what they had to do?
 
That, more or less, is what I explore through the adventures of the Essex Dogs. There are ten of them at the outset. They have existed as a gang for years, but team members have come and gone. So some are veterans, and others have only just joined. They are also haunted by the ghosts of men they have lost – and one in particular, known as The Captain: their leader who has disappeared.
 
The character we sit alongside for much of the book is ‘Loveday’ FitzTalbot. Loveday has been with the Dogs a long time, and his work is their work: fighting in armies, freebooting, or taking on private contracts robbing ships and warehouses around London and southern England. Since The Captain vanished, Loveday has been the Dogs’ leader. In many ways this suits him: in his early 40s, he’s the oldest and most experienced of the men; he’s thoughtful and principled; his men respect him and he cares about their survival more than anything else. But he’s also starting to doubt himself and wonder what he’s doing with his life. He can still fight – and we see him get into some pretty tasty battles. So he’s not exactly past it, but he worries that he might be. Is that basically the same thing?
 
Fortunately for Loveday, he has some trusted lieutenants with him. There’s Scotsman – a giant, physically imposing warhorse of a man who’s been with the Dogs almost as long as Loveday. Pismire – tiny and vicious, a ball of energy, but a stickler for detail, who is counting down the exact number of days before the Dogs can claim their wages and walk away from the war. Millstone – a stonemason who joined the gang because he had little choice, but is quiet, dependable, and unshakeable.
 
Besides these men, a couple of dead-eye English archers, Tebbe and Thorp, are veterans of the gang. A couple of equally brilliant Welshmen, Lyntyn and Darys, have been assigned to the Dogs just before they hit the beach. Then there are two rather ambiguous members, one old and one new. Father is a disgraced and fallen priest, far handier with a dagger than a crucifix. And Romford is a young runaway with a shady past and an even shadier future.

These men will try to keep themselves and one another alive until the campaign is over. In doing so, they’ll show us a side of medieval war that history seldom sees, and a side of male friendship and dependency that is both hopeful and terribly destructive.

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By Dan Jones
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