Around 850 CE, the Vikings stopped looking at England and Ireland as places to raid or seek mercenary work, but as places to colonize and settle. In 865, the Vikings banded together and formed what the Saxons called “The Great Heathen Army”. Under the leadership of Ivar the Boneless, Halfdan,Ubba, Sigurd Snake-Eye, and Bjorn Ironside i.e. the sons of semi-legendary Viking warlord Ragnar Lothbrok, the Great Heathen Army conquered the Anglo Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia, and formed the Danelaw, where Saxon law held no sway.
In 871, only the kingdom of Wessex still stood against the Danelaw, and in early January the Vikings invaded. On 4 January, the Saxon ealdorman Aethelwulf defeated a large raiding party at the Battle of Englefield which forced the Viking army to establish a camp at Reading to reorganize. On 6 January Aethelwulf was joined by the main West Saxon army led by King Aethelred and his younger brother Alfred. Aethelred immediately attacked the camp at Reading, where Halfdan Lothbrok’s men ambushed and defeated the Saxons, and forced their retreat.
Aethelred retreated to the Ashdown fields closely pursued by the entire Viking host. On the morning of 9 January 871, the West Saxon army was arrayed on a ridge while the Vikings approached in a much disorganized manner. Not waiting for his brother Aethelred to finish prayers, young Alfred seized the moment and ordered the Saxon army to attack. The hasty Viking shield wall held for a time but the disciplined and well led Saxon shield wall eventually broke them. Ashdown was a stunning and much needed West Saxon tactical victory but it was hardly decisive and the war would continue for many years. (Neither side had cavalry, the Combat Arm of Decision, and could not pursue and destroy a retreating army after a victory)
However, the Battle of Ashdown would cement Alfred’s leadership of the West Saxon army. In April, King Aethelred died and Alfred would be crowned King of Wessex despite Aethelred’s two sons. Over the next ten years Alfred would lose all of Wessex to the Great Heathen Army… but then subsequently regain it, reconquer the Danelaw, and unify the disparate Anglo Saxon kingdoms into greater England. For this he would forever be known as King Alfred the Great.
Our history is filled with death but in its annals there have only been a handful of singular deaths that set forward momentous events that changed the natural course of history. Off the top of my head, these include the deaths of Jesus of Nazareth, Cao Cao, Charlemagne, Ogedei Khan, and England’s Edward the Confessor.
In the tenth and early eleventh century, England was at a crossroads: would it be subject to the influences (and influencing) of continental Europe? Or would it be culturally isolated as part of Scandinavia? This question may seem ludicrous to us today, but there’s a reason the ninth century’s Alfred the Great is the only English monarch in history with the epithet “the Great” – it is because he fought off and eventually absorbed the great Viking invasions of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, uniting them and preventing them from becoming mere Viking colonies, like Iceland or Greenland.
In 1065 all of Alfred’s work hung in balance: his great great grandson Edward the Confessor (known so for his piety) was without heir. Upon his death on 5 January 1066, there were four claimants to his thrown: his nephew Edgar, a sickly boy of fourteen, Harold Godwinson, a Saxon earl with ties to the Kingdom of Denmark, Harold Hardrada, the Viking King of Norway, and his cousin William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy. On 6 January 1066, Harold Godwinson was crowned by the King’s Council, but the issue was far from decided.
Edward’s death set in motion one of the great dramas in history and would eventually decide the fate of a continent: Would England permanently entrench itself inside Europe and become the incubator for reforms and ideas that Western Civilization so desperately needed? Or would England continue to be a Viking playground? The matter would only be resolved ten months later on a hill just outside of a small town in south east England:
The early middle ages, and in particular the late 11th Century, was a difficult time for Europe and Christianity in general. In 1055, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy split politically, physically, linguistically, and theologically in the Great Schism, fracturing Christendom in its most trying era.
Islam had been on the march for the last 350 years and nearly 2/3 of Christendom had fallen to the sword of jihad. Most of the bishoprics of the great early Christian thinkers, such as St Ignatius of Antioch, St Clement of Alexandria, St Gregory of Nyssa, and St Augustine of Hippo, were under Muslim occupation, not to mention the birthplace of Christ and the Holy City Jerusalem. Even the books of the Bible were a testament (Ha!) of how far Christianity had fallen to Islam: Galatea was recently conquered by the Seljuk Turks, and the travels in the old Roman Empire by John the Evangelist was a contemporary target list for Muslim corsairs, against whom the new(er) Byzantine Empire was powerless. In several instances, the Muslim tide lapped against the walls of their capital, Constantinople. But most disconcertingly, in 1071, the Byzantine Army, including the entire Varangian Guard, was smashed at the Battle of Manzikert, which left all of Anatolia open to conversion.
Furthermore, the remainder of Christendom was going through its own violent spasms, but internally. Feudalism was a decentralized system of power, protection, and production formed to adapt to the trials experienced by Europe during the Barbarian invasions after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and it had reached its natural limits. After Charlemagne divided the Carolingian Empire between his sons (the seminal event in European history), feudalism gave rise to a warrior class, the knights, that had little to do but fight amongst themselves. French, Italian, German, Polish, Hungarian, and Scandinavian lands were a patchwork of robber baronies and petty kingdoms that raided and warred upon each other. Among many other examples, Norman adventuring had conquered England in 1066, Southern Italy in the 1070s and were raiding Byzantine ports in the 1080s, all fellow Christians. A unifying force was needed before Western Civilization tore itself apart.
By the 1090s, Pope Urban II was the most powerful man in Europe. He instituted hard fought, if limited, reforms to Catholicism and the Papacy, and emerged from the struggle determined save Christendom from itself. An astute politician, he first put the Italian house in order and then turned to the rest of Europe. Taking note of the Norman conquest of the Emirate of Sicily and the campaigns of a Spanish warlord, El Cid, he began laying the groundwork for the unification of Christendom. In March 1095, he received a request from the Byzantine Emperor, Alexius I Komenos, for help against Seljuk Turks. It was exactly the impetus he needed (and might even bring Eastern Orthodoxy back into the Roman Catholic fold). He called for a Holy Synod in the city of Clermont, and requested that each bishop bring along the strongest lord in his diocese. More than 600 of the most influential men in Europe showed up.
On 27 November, 1095, Pope Urban II gave an emotional speech that appealed to the men’s sense of chivalry, piety, and most especially, greed. He called for a crusade to reconquer the Holy Lands in exchange for forgiveness of their sins. The response was much more than he dared hope for. To the cheering cries of “Deus Vult!”, “God’s Will!” the lords of the land departed Clermont to make ready for an immediate journey east.
What we would know as the First Crusade had begun.
In 632 CE the Prophet Mohammad died, and his succession became disputed. His first successor was his father in law, Abu Bakr, even though Mohammad’s son in law, Ali ibn Abi Talib claimed Mohammed passed leadership of the caliphate (Islamic State) directly to him. In any case, in a show of solidarity for the small Muslim community, Ali accepted Abu Bakr’s leadership.
Over the next decades, Abu Bakr and his two successors were assassinated during early infighting among the Arabic tribes and Ali became the fourth caliph. Ali’s followers claimed that this was divine will in action because Ali was the only caliph directly chosen by Mohammad. Ali spread the Caliphate from the Arabian Peninsula north to the Caucus Mountains, east across Persia, and west across the north African coast. Ali was assassinated in Kufa (modern Najaf, Iraq) in 661.
Ali’s followers declared his son Hussein Ali the caliph. Hussein Ali was Mohammad’s grandson by blood through his mother, Mohammed’s daughter. But his followers were suppressed by Muawiyah, the son of the assassinated third caliph, who had a larger army and power base in the Levant and Syria. Muawiyah became the first caliph of the Umayyad Caliphate. But Ali’s supporters did not recognize him because he lacked a blood tie to Mohammad, and fought a low level insurgency in support of Hussein Ali for caliph. Twenty years later in 680, Muawiyah died, and his son Yazid was nominated caliph. In response, Kufa and most of Mesopotamia openly declared for Ali and in rebellion against Umayyad Caliphate. Unfortunately for Ali, he was in Mecca at the time, and this put him in a precarious position, so he raced back to his power base in Kufa with a thousand followers.
On 10 October 680 CE Ali got as far as the Karbala Pass, which was blocked by a vastly superior army led by Yazid. In the ensuing battle, Ali, his family, and all of his followers were massacred. Ali’s followers never forgave Yazid. This led directly to the schism of Islam into the Sunni and Shia branches. Hussein Ali was/is considered a martyr by his followers and they would accept only his descendants as leaders of the caliphate. They would go on to form the Shia branch of Islam when Ali’s followers subsumed Persia, and Islam was influenced by the early Persian Zoroastrianism. Shia’s leadership by bloodline formed a more centralized and hierarchical Islam as seen in Iran with the rule by the Ayatollahs today (all of whom claim to be descendants of Ali, and hence Mohammad). Yazid and his successors went on to form the Sunni, and without a direct blood tie to Mohammad, a much more decentralized branch of Islam. The Shia consider Yazid, all of his successors, and the Sunni in general as usurpers, and this is the basis of the Sunni/Shia divide in Islam today.
In the late 9th century CE, Alfred the Great, King of the Anglo-Saxons, threw the Viking invaders out of the Wessex and Mercia. However, the other five of the seven kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy East Anglia, Mercia, Kent, Essex, Sussex, and most of Northumbria remained in the hands of the Vikings. Known as the “Danelaw”, the Viking’s ruled over their own petty kingdoms inside the Danelaw.
In 909 CE, Alfred’s son and daughter, King Edward the Elder of Wessex and Aethelflaed, the Lady of Mercia, launched their own raid into the Danelaw to recapture the relics of Saint Oswald. Saint Oswald was a powerful former founder of Northumbria, and saint who converted Northumbria to Christianity. His relics were held in the Kingdom of Jórvík (York), the southern Viking ruled portion of Northumbria. Edward and Aethelflaed’s successful recovery of Saint Oswald’s relics established their legitimacy among the Northumbrian population, who for decades languished under the pagan Danelaw.
In reprisal for the raid, three “kings” of the Danelaw, the brothers Ivarr, Eowils and Halfdan Ragnarsson sought revenge. In 910, they learned Edward was in the south of Wessex and planned to raid his sister Aethelflaed’s weaker lands in his absence. They gathered a large army, and in their longboats struck up the River Severn into the heart Mercia. Scuttling their longboats, they ravaged Mercia with impunity, gathering a great amount of slaves and loot, with Aethelflaed and the Mercian army just out of reach.
Unfortunately for the Vikings, Edward learned of the raid in advance. He marched his West Saxon army to Mercia’s aid and merged with Aethelflaed’s army. Edward maneuvered his army of Mercians and West Saxons between the booty laden Viking army and forced the three brothers to battle outside the village of Tettenhall.
Not much is known of the specifics of the Battle of Tettenhall. What is known is that Edward and Aethelflaed “trapped” the Viking army. “Many thousands” of Vikings died, including Ivarr, Eowils and Halfdan, and potentially the entire army was wiped out. The massacre was “so terrible… no language can describe.” The devastating Viking loss at Tettenhall broke the Danelaw, and laid it open for invasion and re-conquest by the Anglo-Saxons.
The Viking host of Ivarr, Eowils and Halfdan was the last great Viking raiding army to ravage Anglo-Saxon lands. With the northern Danes defeated, Edward and Aethelflaed reconquered the southern kingdoms of the Heptarchy. Edward’s son Aethelstan continued his father’s and aunt’s reconquest by invading and conquering the Kingdom of York. Shortly thereafter, Aethelstan accepted the fealty of the notoriously proud northern Northumbrians. In 927 CE, Aethelstan was crowned the first King of England.
In 793, the raid on the island of Lindisfarne on Northumbria’s east coast began the Viking Age. For the next 70 years, Viking raids terrorized the Angle, Jute, Saxon, and Celtic settlements and petty kingdoms of the British Isles. Seasonal raids by Danish and Norwegian Vikings arrived off the coast in the longships and plundered any settlement within riding distance of the coast. Most settlements paid them the “danegeld” or ransom for their lives which the Vikings accepted enthusiastically. It was safer, and destruction of a settlement was counterproductive. Raiding was more lucrative if the inhabitants were able to pay again next raiding season. You do not kill sheep, you shear them. In any case, by the time the local eorl or military leader assembled a force large enough to defeat the raiders, the Vikings loaded back on their ships and disappeared. With rare exceptions (King Aethelwulf of Wessex defeated a large Viking raid in 851), this pattern remained unchanged until 865.
In 865, the Vikings no longer came to the British Isles to raid but to conquer and settle. The land was so much richer than their own in Scandinavia. They stole vast wealth from there every year; it seemed more efficient to just work and lord over the land themselves for the riches. That year, the sons of the semi-mythical Ragnar Lothbrok gathered a massive force to invade the British Isles. With hundreds of ships and 3000 warriors, Ivar the Boneless (he was either crippled or impotent, historians have evidence for both) Halfdan Ragnarrson, Bjorn Ironside, and famed warrior Ubba, gathered a coalition of Viking warbands from all lands bordering the North and Irish Seas to defeat the inhabitants of the petty kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy.
Since the Germanic invasions of the British Isles in the 500s, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes established seven Germanic kingdoms among the Celtic remains and rump states formed after the departure of the Romans. In the north was Northumbria. In the east, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, and Sussex, whom took the brunt of the Viking raids. In the west was Wessex. And the most powerful was in the center, Mercia. The kingdoms were fierce rivals and abhorred the Viking raids, but nevertheless used Viking mercenaries in the wars against each other. The divided nature of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy left them vulnerable to the Viking army, which they deemed “The Great Heathen Army”.
The Great Heathen Army landed in Kent on 26 March 865. They ravaged the small kingdom and spent the winter enjoying the spoils encamped on an island off the coast. In 866, they invaded East Anglia and establishing a permanent danegeld, known as the Danelaw, in Kent, effectively turning it into a puppet kingdom. King Edmund of East Anglia bought off the Viking horde by stripping his kingdom of horses and bribed the Vikings to ride north, against Northumbria. According to legend, King Aella of Northumbria killed Ragnar Lothbrok (or worse, converted him to Christianity) and the sons exacted revenge. They captured York in 867 and again established the Danegeld. The Great Heathen Army turned south and invaded Mercia later that year. They captured Nottingham, but were in turn besieged by a combined army from Mercia and Wessex under the King of Wessex and Lord of Eastern Mercia, King Aethelred. At Nottingham, both sides were fought out, and Aethelred bought off the Vikings, who returned to Northumbria. In 868, the Great Heathen Army returned to East Anglia to establish the Danegeld, and were met by King Edmund again. But this time he wasn’t there to bribe them but to fight them. The East Anglian army was defeated and Edmund was captured. He was tied to a tree and told to renounce his faith. Edmund refused to the Vikings used him for archery practice. King Edmund was later canonized St. Edmund the Martyr and became the first patron saint of England, until St. George was chosen a hundred or so years later.
In 869, the Great Heathen Army was weakened by casualties, so consolidated the Danelaw for the rest of the year to gather their strength. In 870, the Great Heathen Army was joined by Viking warlord Bagsecg and the Great Summer Army. The Great Summer Army was comprised of the usual seasonal Vikings, but when Bagsecg heard of the Great Heathen Army’s massive success, he convinced them to band together and join the sons of Ragnar. The reinvigorated Great Heathen Army invaded Wessex and set up a joint camp at Reading with Bagseg and Halfdan sharing command. A local force under Ealdorman Aehelwulf defeated a Viking foraging party at the Battle of Eanglefield, which gave the Aethelred the confidence to attack the Vikings’ main camp at Reading. With the main West Saxon Army, Aethelwulf, King Aethelred and his little brother Alfred initially defeated the Vikings outside the main camp at Reading. But once they reached the camp gates, they were struck by Vikings who rushed out. Defeated, but not decisively so, the West Saxon army withdrew. Under Alfred, the West Saxon army turned and defeated the pursuing Great Heathen Army at the Battle of Ashdown four days later on 7 January 871, while his brother the king heard mass, killing Bacsecg and a number Viking chieftains. Aethelred died three months later, and newly crowned King Alfred of Wessex bought off the Vikings. The Great Heathen Army rushed north to put down a rebellion in Northumbria.
Alfred could only play for time. The Vikings wouldn’t settle until they were crushed or took all of the British Isles. Over the next eight years, the Ivar the Boneless, Halfdan Ragnarsson, Ubba, Bjorn Ironside and the Great Heathen Army conquered six of the seven kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy, with only King Alfred and Wessex resisting by 878. Nonetheless, the Great Heathen Army reduced the Kingdom of Wessex to a single hut in the Sommerset swamps, where Alfred and his retinue fled after the Vikings defeated him at Chippenham. For a brief period in 878, almost the entirety of the British Isles were effectively part of Scandinavia. That they are not so today is the reason that there is only one monarch in England’s history with the epithet “the Great” – King Alfred the Great.
But that’s a story for another time.
In late 1114, Henry V (not that one, the Frankish version) the Holy Roman Emperor, invaded the Duchy of Saxony to assert his authority on Duke Lothair of Supplinsburg. Lothair was the Pope’s ally in the Investiture Controversy and supported the Pope’s demands to appoint local church officials. More practically, Lothair despised Henry’s heavy handed ways. Henry was a direct descendant of Charlemagne and believed he was a Roman Emperor no different than Nero, Augustus, or Marcus Aurelius.
On 11 February 1115, Lothair’s Saxon army met Henry’s Imperial army just outside the town of Welfesholz (in modern day Saxon-Anhalt, Germany). The Imperial Army was led by Henry’s field marshal, Count Hoyer of Mansfeld. The Imperial Army was defeated when a young knight slew Mansfeld in single combat during the battle. The Imperial Army army routed after witnessing Mansfeld’s death.
The battle effectively broke Imperial power and ended the destructive 50 year long “civil war” between medieval Germans that had stalled Central Europe politically and culturally. More importantly, the Battle of Welfesholz forced Henry, at the Concordant of Worms in 1122, to accept the Papal investiture of bishops in the Holy Roman Empire, and soon, all of Christendom.
Up to this point in the Middle Ages, Imperial dukes, counts, and princes relied on the bishops and clergy for the administration of their territories. Since the clergy had to be literate (to read the Bible) and Imperial nobility could appoint them, it made sense to have the loyal clergy administer the Empie. But after the Battle of Welfesholz and Concordant of Worms, the Empire’s administration was no longer solely loyal to the Emperor and his princes. The new Papal influence on bishops forced the Imperial nobility to create their own administrations separate from the clergy. A loyal secular administration demanded an increase in literacy among the population to fill the vacuum left by the potentially divided loyalties of the clerical (religious) staff.
The ability to appoint bishops greatly increased Papal and monastic influence across Europe and elevated members of the lower classes to unheard of power and glory in the process as Papal appointed clergy. And the nobility’s inability to appoint clergy in their realms meant a vast increase in noble military aged males with nothing to do. Where once they’d be chosen as priests and bishops, they now became barons, knights, or mercenaries. This massive influx of fighting men pushed feudalism to its natural limits and the Imperial lands became a patchwork of robber baronies and petty kingdoms that raided and warred upon each other.
On 15 August 778, one of Charlemagne’s ablest lieutenants, Roland, Prefect of the Breton March and commander of the Frankish rearguard, was killed at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees Mountains against Basque and Gascon guerillas. Charlemagne’s army was returning from a very successful campaign against the Umayyad Muslims on the Iberian Peninsula when his rear guard was overrun and baggage train sacked by the Christian Basques. Charlemagne lost much of his court whom were traveling with the baggage and most of the plunder of the campaign to the small force. The Basques were just interested in the booty and not affiliated with Charlemagne’s adversaries at all. Roland’s death would be immortalized and heavily romanticized in Medieval and Renaissance literature, most famously in the French epic poem, “The Song of Roland”.
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 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.