Tagged: EarlyMiddleAges

The Raid on Lindisfarne

Roman settlements in Britain were sparse near Hadrian’s Wall as the area was subject to continuous raids from Scots and Picts. When the Romans departed, the invading Germanic Angles and Saxons conquered the Celtic kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia, and established the Kingdom of Northumbria. In the early 7th century CE, King Oswald of Northumbria invited Irish monks from Iona to Christianize his people and the troublesome Scots and Picts. Saint Aiden established a priory off the coast on a small windswept tidal island in the North Sea named Lindisfarne.

The Priory of Lindisfarne quickly became the center of Christian evangelism in the north of England and present day Scotland. After a long and fulfilling life spreading Chrisianity, Lindisfarne’s greatest bishop, Saint Cuthbert, became the patron saint of Northumbria. Linidisfarne soon was known as the “Holy Island of Lindisfarne” and its greatest treasure was the “Gospels of Linidisfarne”, an immaculate illuminated manuscript of the four canonical gospels of the Christian New Testament. The Christian settlements of the north of England lived in peace and prosperity for decades. The isolated farmsteads and river communities lived far from the cutthroat politics of the Anglo, Saxon, and Jute rulers further south in the much more populated southern portion of Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex. That all changed at the end of the 8th century, when the first invaders from Scandinavia appeared on English soil: the Norse.

The Norse, known colloquially as Northmen or “Vikings” (from the Old English word “wicing” or “pirate”) had first appeared on English shores in 789 CE in Wessex where they killed a sheriff who was sent to bring the newcomers to the local magistrate. The Wessex killing wasn’t officially a raid, as the Norse ships from Norway were a trade expedition blown off course. The first raid occurred four years later in Northumbria.

Three Viking longboats appeared in the spring of 793 in the river valleys of the northern Northumbria where they found wealthy, prosperous, and most importantly, unarmed inhabitants. The surprised Angle farmers and townsmen quickly informed the equally surprised raiders that the most lucrative and undefended settlement was an island inhabited mostly by peaceful monks, Lindisfarne.

On 8 June 793 CE, the three Viking longships descended upon the island. The “ravaging of wretched heathen men destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne”. They “came to the church at Lindisfarne, laid everything to waste with grievous plundering, trampled the holy places with polluted steps, dug up the altars and seized all the treasure of the holy church. They killed some of the brothers, took some away with them in fetters, many they drove out, naked and loaded with insults, some they drowned in the sea…” A contemporary Northumbrian scholar wrote, “Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race … The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.” The Viking raiders had destroyed “a place more sacred than any in Britain”.

The Christian world was shocked; the Viking Age had begun.

The Fall of Constantinople

The Eastern Roman Empire, named so since its capital, Constantinople, sat on the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, had survived for a thousand years after the fall of Rome to the Goths in the 5th century CE. Beset on all sides, the Byzantine Empire’s resilience was rooted in its flexible and efficient multi-layered defense system. The system began with a superior intelligence and diplomatic organization managed from the “Office of Barbarians”. Should an invader actually attack, they first met the buffer states, Georgia, Armenia etc which provided time for a series of well stocked and provisioned border fortresses to be manned. These strongpoints fixed invaders so they could be defeated by the free peasants of the “themes” or provinces, and the semi-autonomous regional professional armies or tagmata. All of which if necessary could be reinforced by the Emperor’s personal guard and the nobles levy from Constantinople.

This system ended with the catastrophic defeat of the cream of the Empire’s troops at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. The Byzantine system was amazingly effective on the defense but cumbersome on the offense. In an attempt to expand and recover land lost to the spread of Islam, the emperors during the prosperous 11th century undermined their own defense by making the system so efficient it was no longer effective . Moreover they imposed crushing taxes on the thematic troops, and tried directly controlling the buffer states, namely Armenia, the bulwark of the eastern approaches. In the confusion of the Armenian War, the Seljuk Turks broke into Anatolia and crushed the Byzantine Army sent to expel them. The Byzantines would never recover. No longer would Asia Minor be solely Byzantine: a patchwork of Turkic tribes occupied central and eastern Anatolia.

Over the next 400 years, one tribe would reign supreme and unite the others – the Ottomans. Under a historically uncommon string of energetic, confident and piousleaders, the Ottomans developed their own effective system of offensive jihad. They expanded over Asia Minor and into the Balkans, leaving the Byzantine Empire with just the Peloponnese, Thrace, and the capital, Constantinople.

Constantinople was the Byzantine trump card. If all else failed, the walls of Constantinople had held. They had never been forcibly breached (They had been penetrated by the knights of the Fourth Crusade, but only because a guard left a sally port open). The first ring of the city’s defensive walls was built by Emperor Constantine when he moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the city. The second and third rings were built in the 5th century by Emperor Theodosius II. Over a thousand years, the Theodosian Walls had withstood twelve separate major sieges by the Rus, Arabs, Sassanids, Avars, Bulgars, Byzantine usurpers, and even the Ottomans.

The Theodosian Walls protected the landside approaches to the city and were 6.5 km long from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara. To breach the walls attackers first had to cross a 20m wide and 7m deep moat that could be flooded on command by a series of dams controlled inside the city. The first wall oversaw the moat and the second wall had firing platforms to cover both the moat and first wall. Behind that was the massive third wall which covered the first and second walls. The third wall was 5m thick and 12m high, with 96 towers, one every 70m, providing interlocking fields of fire. The walls and food stores were maintained by the cities’ various factions in an ingenious imperial competition that saw complete obliteration of the faction if the quotas and required work weren’t met. The seaward side of Constantinople was defended by the Imperial fleet which had a secure anchorage behind a massive chain that blocked the Golden Horn. Any assault from the sea was met by the fleet which was equipped with the infamous “Greek Fire”, a flammable concoction that produced a fire that couldn’t be put out with water, and only burned hotter the more you tried to smother it. Modern chemists have not been able to reproduce Greek fire.

However, unlike prior assailants, the Ottoman host in 1453 had several previously unknown advantages. First, Ottoman possessions in both the Balkans and Anatolia isolated Constantinople from assistance by land. The final Crusade called by the Pope ended in disaster in 1444 when Polish, Hungarian and Wallachian crusaders were defeated by Ottoman Sultan Murad II at the Battle of Varna in eastern Bulgaria. The only way to relive a besieged Constantinople was by sea, and by 1452, two massive fortresses closed the Bosporus to Christian ships. Moreover, despite Pope Nicholas V’s pleas, Christendom was not prepared to send assistance: France and England were war weary from the Hundred Years War, which would finally end that autumn. The Germans were busy fighting among themselves. The Eastern Europeans were still trying to hold back the Muslim tide in the Balkans in the wake of Varna. And Spain was in the final stages of the Reconquista. Only the Italian city states could send aid, and those that ran the blockade were woefully inadequate. Finally, Sultan Mehmed II had something that no previous besieger possessed: cannon.

In 1452, a German iron founder and engineer from Transylvania (then part of Hungary) named Orban was showered with funds by Mehmed to build the new German bombards that were revolutionizing siege warfare across Europe. Orban’s largest bombard was nearly 9m long and could hurl a 275kg cannon ball nearly a kilometer and a half (Almost a mile). It was crewed by 400 men and had to be dragged by 60 oxen. Orban’s great bombard was just one of 70 cannon at Mehmed’s disposal for the siege.

On Easter Sunday, 1453, Sultan Mehmed II arrived outside the walls of Constantinople with nearly 100,000 troops, 10,000 of whom were elite Janisaaries, 70 cannon, and 125 ships. Emperor Constantine XI and his commander Giovanni Giustiniani from Genoa had just 11,000 men of which 2000 were Venetian and Genoese and 600 renegade Turks, and 26 ships safely locked behind the great chain in Golden Horn. It wasn’t nearly enough.

Mehemd II immediately, but arrogantly, launched a series of frontal assaults with predictable results. The Byzantine defenders stood firm along the Theodosian Walls just as they had for a thousand years. Constantine XI tried to buy off Mehmed II, but the Sultan wanted the city for his new capital and he knew there would be no better chance to seize it than at that moment. The sultan unleashed Orban’s bombards which over the next six weeks systematically reduced the Theodosian Walls to rubble. To further spread out the Byzantine troops, Mehmed ordered his fleet painstakingly dragged overland and launched into the Golden Horn, bypassing the great chain. On 22 April, the Byzantines attempted to destroy the Ottoman fleet with fire ships, but a deserter warned of the impending assault and the Venetian ships were sunk before they could do damage. The surviving Venetian sailors were impaled on the north shore. In response, Constantine XI ordered the execution of all Ottoman captives, one at a time and in full view of the Ottoman army. The Ottoman fleet built massive floating firing platforms in the Golden Horn which forced the Byzantines to man the sea walls, spreading their few troops dangerously thin.

At night the Byzantines repaired the damage to the walls as best as they could and during the day they countermined. As the Ottomans pounded the walls from above, German and Serbians mercenary sappers undermined the walls from below. Throughout May 1453, dozens of small vicious battles occurred below ground as mines and countermines intersected. In the flickering torchlight, groups of nearly naked men fought with picks, shovels, knives, and fists against foes identified only by the language they screamed in the darkness. After capturing two Turkish officers, the Byzantines knew the locations of all the mines and successfully shut down the Ottoman mining operations. But it was just delaying the inevitable: the Theodosian Walls were breached in more than few places, and Constantine and Giustiniani simply didn’t have enough men to plug the gaps effectively. And no relief force was enroute. The Byzantines were doomed.

On 28 May, as the Ottomans were openly preparing for their final assault, the Byzantines and Italians held religious parades culminating with a co-denominational mass in the Hagia Sophia with both the Italian and Byzantine nobility in attendance. That mass was the first time Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox Christians celebrated mass together since the Great Schism of the 11th century and was the last Christian mass in the Hagia Sophia to this day.

On the morning of Tuesday, 29 May, 1453, as the moon waned in the sky, three great Turkish waves crashed against the Theodosian Walls and the sea walls along the Golden Horn. The first two were comprised of irregulars, Serbians, and Anatolian troops and were driven off with great loss by the Byzantines. They did however serve their purpose, they sufficiently weakened and disorganized the defense which was promptly exploited by the Janissaries. In short order, Giustiniani was mortally wounded, and his evacuation from the walls caused the Italians to collapse. Doffing his imperial regalia, Constantine was last seen leading a final futile charge against the Janissaries occupying the Kerkaporta gate. His body was never recovered. The remaining Byzantine soldiers fled home to protect their families while the Venetians and remaining Genoese fled to the harbor to escape.

That evening, Mehmed II rewarded his army with three days of loot, arson, murder, and rape in the city. Battles among the Turks erupted over the slaves and spoils. At the end of the three days, 20,000 of the 50,000 inhabitants of Constantinople were massacred, and the rest were sold into slavery. The Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque. The Byzantine Empire was destroyed and the Greek world would never recover. Ancient Rome’s legacy would live on for another thirty years in the Byzantine rump states of Trebizond and Morea. And with rare exceptions, the Ottoman Empire would go on to nearly unchecked expansion for another 220 years.

In the Greek world, Tuesday is known as a day of bad luck. And Turkey is the only Islamic state whose national flag features not a crescent, but a waning moon.

The Battle of Tours

By the beginning of the 8th century CE, Islam had overrun nearly 2/3 of Christendom. In 711, Berbers loyal to the Umayyad Dynasty in Damascus crossed the Straits of Gibraltar onto the Iberian Peninsula and smashed the Visigothic Kingdom of King Roderic. Over the next 15 years, the Berbers and Arabs overran the remaining small Christian kingdoms and consolidated their control of al-Andalus. In 720, they crossed the Pyrenees Mountains in force, and began raiding into Gaul, which was nominally under control of the defunct Frankish Merovingian kings. In 721, they were defeated by Duke Odo, the nearly independent ruler of the Duchy of Aquitaine, outside Toulouse. But the writing was on the wall, and it was obvious the expansionist Emirate of Cordoba, the ruler of al-Andalus, would be back.
 
Meanwhile, Charles Martel, aka Charles the Hammer an Austrasian warlord, was the power behind the Merovingian throne as their “Mayor of the Palace”. Throughout the 720s, he consolidated his power in Frankia and brought the wayward Merovingian dukes of Burgundy, Austrasia and Neustria under his control, at the expense of his own king.
 
In 730, Odo tried playing both sides, and allied himself with some rebellious Berber chieftains who were eventually subdued. Two years later, at the head of a large army of Berber and Arab horsemen, Abu Said Abdul Rahaman ibn Abdullah ibn Bishr ibn Al Sarem Al ‘Aki Al Ghafiqi, the Wali of al-Andulus and Emir of Cordoba crossed the Pyrenees to chastise Odo for his support of his unruly subordinates. Once there, Abdul Rahaman was determined to conquer Aquitaine and raid the other rich Frankish lands to the north. Odo again marshalled his army, but this time he was defeated outside Bordeaux. However, Odo escaped and fled north. He appealed to Charles for assistance in regaining his duchy. Charles did so, but only after Odo recognized his suzerainty over Aquitaine.
 
In early October 732, the 60,000 light cavalrymen of the Umayyad army raided and sacked the Frankish city of Poitier near the border of Frankia and Aquitaine. Further up the road towards Tours, the Frankish army of Charles Martel quickly assembled on a high wooded plain anchored between the rivers Clain and Vienne, blocking the road.
 
The Muslims had no issues with defeating even large numbers of Vandal and Visigothic infantry in North Africa and Hispania with their fast moving horsemen. Also, Abdul Rahaman had had little problem overrunning small bands of Frankish infantry. He had done so easily in the streets of Poitier the day before. But the sight of a solid wall of 30,000 Frankish heavy infantry which could not be outflanked, gave him pause.
 
Unlike the Vandals and Visigoths which were more tribal warriors in nature, the Franks of the seventh and eighth centuries continued the Greek and Roman tradition of the heavy infantryman. In northern Europe, cavalry was expensive, and not nearly as cost effective as an infantryman. For the cost of a single mounted horsemen, ten heavy infantrymen could be trained and equipped. Furthermore, raising horses was a luxury, and in Charles’ time a single horse was worth fifteen cows. Moreover, widespread use of the stirrup was still a hundred years in the future. Only the most important lords were mounted, and still fought on foot most of the time.
 
In the heavily wooded valleys and hills of northwestern Europe, the Merovingians relied on the small landowning farmers to provide the bulk of their armies. Under Charles, each family was required to provide one fully armed and armoured foot soldier for the Frankish army, the Landwehr. The relative prosperity of the Frankish farms allowed for the purchase of well-made armour and weapons. Additionally, the Landwehr served every fighting season until they died or were too old to fight, and was then replaced by their families. This wasn’t a feudal obligation but more of a holdover from Roman times, and similar to the Byzantine thematic system. In any case, this created a degree of discipline and professionalization in Charles’ army. On the road to Tours, Abdul Rahaman looked up at a solid shieldwall of chainmail and steel cap clad Frankish spearmen.
 
For a week there was an impasse. Charles couldn’t attack because that would break his formation as he descended down the valley and leave his men vulnerable to slashing counterattacks that were the tactics of choice for Muslim cavalry. Abdul Rahaman couldn’t attack because there was simply no weak points in Charles’ line. No matter how well trained, a warhorse will not impale itself on a wall of spears. The horse will inevitably halt and rear up, throwing its rider before an unwavering spearpoint. But Charles was patient. He knew Abdul Rahaman had to attack lest the proud Arab lose face. Moreover, the first nips of frost were in the air. The Umayyads had to attack soon or withdraw. On a Saturday in mid-October (the 10th, 11th, or 12th, or 23rd, 24th, or 25th, no one knows for sure) 732, Abdul Rahaman could wait no longer, and attacked.
 
The Muslim cavalry charged up the slope, but the Franks “stood like a wall of ice”. The horses were unwilling to skewer themselves on the Frankish spears. So the light cavalrymen rode up to the shieldwall, shot arrows, jabbed with their lances, and slashed wildly at the steadfast Frankish infantry, and tried to create an opening. They were met by spear thrusts and throwing axes, both of which were especially effective against the mostly unarmored horses of the Muslims. A fallen cavalryman was as good as dead. Soon, the dead horses formed an impromptu rampart, further impeding the Muslim attacks. All day, Abdul Rahaman’s horsemen charged uphill and fell back, then reformed and charged again. With great courage, bordering on fanaticism, the Muslims repeatedly threw themselves at the unwavering Frankish wall. They broke though just once, but Charles’ own guard sealed the breach.
 
That evening, a rumor began to circulate that Frankish scouts were looting the Muslim camp which was filled with slaves and the consolidated looted treasures of the towns and churches from Bordeaux to Poitier. The Umayyad warriors began to withdraw to protect their plunder. Abdul Rahaman himself attempted to rally his men to prevent a full retreat, but in the process was surrounded and killed. His men withdrew to secure the camp.
 
The next morning, Charles reformed his shieldwall, and prepared for another day’s fight. But the Umayyad army was gone, the camp abandoned. With no leader, the Muslim warriors took what they could carry on their horses, and abandoned everything else, including hundreds of pack camels loaded with valuables.
 
The Battle of Tours, sometimes known as the Battle of Poitier (Not to be confused with the battle of the same name in 1356 during the Hundred Years War), was the high water mark of Muslim expansion in Western Europe. In the contemporary chronicles of the battle, we see the first uses of the word “European” to describe the multinational Frankish/Gallic/Burgundian/Lombard nature of Charles’ army. Charles Martel would go on to form the Carolingian Dynasty, and his grandson Charlemagne would extend Frankish Empire across Europe. In al-Andalus, first the Franks, and then the Spanish Reconquista would slowly roll back the Muslim conquests. In 1491, almost 760 years after the Battle of Tours, Granada, the last Muslim outpost on the Iberian Peninsula, fell to the forces of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic king and queen of Castile, Leon, Aragon and Sicily.