In the 16th century, former peasant Toyotomi Hideyoshi united the warring factions of Japan, and invaded Korea and China, which kept the warrior nobility, the samurai, occupied. But upon his death, his heir, Hideyori, was too young to rule. To appease the noble families, five separate regents were appointed to rule in his stead.
By 1600, these disparate regents and the families had divided themselves into two factions vying for the shogunate, a position Hideyori could not hold due to his father’s low birth. The first faction, which had a power base in Western Japan was led by Ishida Mitsunari, a renowned politician but one with little military skill. He based his claim for the shogunate on his support for Hideyori. The second was led by Tokogawa Ieyasu, a general of great renown who was a warlord in the service of Hideyoshi’s chief rival, so had no great love for his son Hideyori.
In the heavy mist on the morning of 21 October, 1600, Ishida’s Army of the West met Tokgawa’s Army of the East at the pass at Sekigahara for control of the shogunate. Tokogawa immediately attacked hoping to catch his opponent unaware but the confusion of the fog and the smoke from the matchlock muskets devolved the battle into one of attrition. This suited Ishida because he outnumbered Tokagawa, and eventually the battle swung into his favor. As the sun burned away the mist he signaled Kobayakawa Hideyoki, whose forces were still uncommitted, to fall upon Tokogawa for a coup de grace.
But he didn’t. Kobayakawa’s forces charged not into the Army of the East, but into the flank of a completely surprised Army of the West. Tokogawa was more the politician than Ishida gave him credit for, and Kobayakawa betrayed Ishida. Ishida’s army attempted to fight on, particularly the Otani clan, whose valour was praised by all participants, but soon three more clans turned sides. Ishida’s army broke, and Ishida himself was captured and executed.
Tokogawa Ieyasu became shogun and the Tokogawa Shogunate ruled Japan for nearly three centuries until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
In 1599, Charles IX Vasa of Sweden replaced his uncle the elected Polish-Lithuanian King Sigismund III on the Swedish throne in a civil war among the House of Vasa thus ending the short lived Polish-Lithuanian-Swedish Personal Union. Though the Polish and Lithuanian nobility had no desire to make good Sigismund claim to the Swedish throne, they did covet Swedish lands in Livonia and Estonia if only for increased access to ports on the Baltic Sea. To keep the Commonwealth occupied so it did not interfere with Imperial Russia consolidating power at the height of the Russian Time of Troubles, Tsar Boris Godunov financed the Swedes fighting against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Russian gold allowed the much smaller, but highly centralized Swedish monarchy to field larger armies than the massive Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Commonwealth’s wartime finances relied on the generosity of the nobles unless the Polish Sejm (parliament), voted unanimously (the infamous Liberum Veto) for a new tax, which almost never happened. After initial success in the Polish-Swedish War of 1600, funds ran out and the Polish commander Jan Zamoyski fell ill, leading to his second, the Grand Hetman of Lithuania, Jan Karol Chodkiewicz, to take command. But Zamoyski’s departure meant that the war in the eyes of the Sejm became a local matter. Chodkiewicz fought on paying for his army out of his own personal fortune.
Flush with Russian gold, Charles IX of Sweden invaded Estonia and Livonia in 1605 and erased the previous half-decade of Zamyski’s gains. That summer, Charles laid siege to Riga, the southernmost and largest port in Swedish Livonia on the Baltic Sea. Chodkiewicz gathered his army, including a contingent from the Duchy of Courland, and advanced to relieve Riga. Charles turned to meet the threat and the two armies met outside the village of Kircholm on the Dvina River (in Latvia today) on 27 September 1605.
Charles’ 11,000 strong army greatly outnumbered Chodkiewicz’ 3,600 men, and had nearly double the cannon, 11 to 6. The Swedish army deployed on the slopes of a steep hill in a checkerboard formation of alternating lines of offset infantry squares and cavalry blocks. This formation allowed the pistol and carbine armed Swedish reiters the space for a caracole, where one line of reiters gallops forward, fires, withdraws, then is replaced by the next line and so on, while allowing support from the infantry to the flanks. The formation also allowed the space for the cavalry lines to move to cover the army’s flanks from light cavalry attack, an almost inevitable Lithuanian tactic. Chodkiewicz cavalry heavy army deployed in the “Old Polish Order” with a significantly reinforced left flank. Most of Chodkiewicz’ cavalry were the famed Polish Winged Husaria, whose charges decided battles.
Chodkiewicz could not attack such a strong position so he feigned a retreat and the impetuous Charles advanced to give chase. Moving downhill, the first line of infantry and the second line of cavalry moved out of support from their brethren behind them. Moreover, the unwieldy infantry blocks and squares became disorganized in the march to the bottom of the slope. Seizing the advantage, Chodkiewicz small army turned and attacked.
The Courland arquebusiers and reiters, and the Polish haiduks, tough land owning infantry armed however they came, usually with poleaxes and arquibuses, in the center fixed the first line of Swedish infantry. The husaria of the center and right charged the Swedish reiters in the second line whose caracole formations simply didn’t provide the mass necessary to stop the densely packed, lance tipped mailed fist of a Husaria charge. The defeated second line of cavalry retreated through the Swedish third line of infantry causing chaos, which was exploited by Chodkiewicz’ main assault: the charge of nearly 1000 Polish and Lithuanian Husaria massed on the Polish left.
The charge of the Polish left under the command of Tomasz Dąbrowa galloped through the right flank of the fixed or defeated first two Swedish lines. Their charge struck through the confusion of the Swedish infantry in the third line, and crashed into the reiters of the fourth line, overrunning the Swedish cannon in the process. The devastating charge left the destruction of the Swedish army in its wake. If the routing infantry and their cavalry brothers passing through them weren’t enough to convince the fourth line to take flight, the fluttering pennants, soaring wings, and phalanx of lowered lance tips charging forward at full tilt certainly did. The fourth line broke immediately. Charles attempted to salvage the situation with his cavalry reserve, but they were met head on by Chodkiewicz’ husaria reserve, and routed. The isolated infantry of the fixed Swedish first line were subsequently surrounded and massacred.
The greatest damage to the Swedish army was done in the pursuit, and Chodkiewicz’ Husaria, and the Duke of Courlands reiters savaged the Swedish army all the way back to Riga. The Poles and Lithuanians spared few Swedes or their mercenaries that day. At the cost of one hundred Polish killed and two hundred wounded, Charles lost nearly 8000. The siege of Riga was lifted, and Charles IX Vasa took ship back to Sweden.
The Battle of Kircholm was a triumph of the Husaria and one of the most lop sided victories of the Early Modern Era. Unfortunately the battle wasn’t decisive. Chodkiewicz was nearly bankrupt and could barely afford to maintain his estates, much less his army. The Commonwealth’s curiously libertarian nobility in the Sejm refused to allocate funds for Chodkiewicz to continue the reconquest of Livonia and Estonia. Without assistance from the rest of the Commonwealth, Chodkiewicz could not capitalize on his stunning victory at Kircholm. Nonetheless, Chodkiewicz fought subsequent Swedish incursions to a standstill until a truce was signed in 1610, ending the Polish-Swedish War of 1600.
In the summer of 1515 during the Revolution in Military Affairs known as the Italian Wars, France’s Francis I crossed the Alps at the head of 30,000 troops in a feat comparable to Hannibal’s crossing 1600 years before. Francis’ bold movement over an inadequate, treacherous, and unguarded pass completely unhinged the Papal/Swiss/Imperial/Spanish defenses and they fell back to Milan.
Like his grandfather Charles VIII, who seized the Kingdom of Naples, and every French King since the fall of the Roman Empire, Francis saw the Italian peninsula as his political playground. He desired Milan for some overly complicated scheme, and his French gendarmes (knights), cannon, and German Landsknechts (pike and halberd armed mercenaries) lined up outside the city to begin a siege. On 13 September 1515, just outside of the ruins of the village of Marignano, Duke Sforza of Milan attacked the French with three massive columns of Swiss pikemen.
The battle was fought for 28 hours over the 13th and 14th. The Swiss routed the landsknechts on Francis’ left but they rallied, and held the baggage train with the camp followers in an impromptu wagon fort. On the French right the Swiss and Germans were locked in bloody stalemate between pike phalanxes that would not have been out of place in the Diadochi Wars after the death of Alexander the Great. The center was destined to be decisive.
In the center, a Swiss “Forlorn Hope” (there’s a docturnal term we need to bring back, it’s essentially an initial attack by a body of troops that expects to either die or gain great glory in the initial charge) quickly seized the French siege guns. But before they could destroy them, the forlorn hope was massacred by a charge of the Gendarme led by Francis himself, and The Black Band, a group of halberd and arquebus armed German mercenaries intensely loyal to Francis. As the Swiss main body approached, Francis ordered the cannon, which he brought to fire on the walls of Milan, to fire on the Swiss phalanxes. The halberdiers and arquebusiers fixed the Swiss, the cannon broke up the Swiss formations, then the gendarmes charged into the chaos. However, the charge was not decisive. Inevitably, the Swiss would reform and attack again. This cycle continued for the rest of the battle. Francis himself took part in 30 charges over 24 hours. On the afternoon of the 14th, the Swiss finally broke when a Venetian army of condottieri (mercenaries), allies of the French, appeared on their flank.
At the time, the Battle of Marignano was considered a triumph of the armored knight. But in actuality it was the knight’s last hurrah, and signaled the coming of age of cannon. Marignano was the first large scale use of cannon against troop formations, and the battle was the first example of cannons’ use in combined arms warfare in a modern sense. Finally, after the battle, the Swiss signed an agreement of “Eternal Peace” with the French, which began the Swiss tradition of neutrality in all world affairs, which holds to this day.
After the fall of Fort Saint Elmo at the end of June 1565, the Turks maintained a constant bombardment and launched a series of joint landward and seaward attacks against the Maltese Knights’ main defenses of the town of Birgu, Fort St. Michel, and Fort St. Angelo.
The attacks were devastating but uncoordinated due to the death of the most competent leader, the Ottoman corsair admiral Dragut Reis who was killed by an errant cannonball during the final assault on Fort St. Elmo. The other two Ottoman commanders, Mustapha Pasha and Piali Pasha, despised each other, and their various schemes undermined the efficient and effective use of the Ottomans’ remaining resources, after losing 1/4th their force at St. Elmo. Nonetheless, they still had 30,000 troops and complete command of the harbor.
The Knights held through these attacks, but only by the slimmest of margins. Many of La Vallette’s subordinates wanted to trade fortifications for time, but La Vallette disagreed. He knew the only wany to defeat the Turks will to fight was to fight for every inch of the defense. Every Turkish assault that was thrown back degraded the Turkish will to continue, and more importantly, delayed the next Turkish assault, as they reorganized.
In the beginning of July, the Turks launched a surprise amphibious attack against the seaward side of the Senglea Peninsula, combined with a landward attack on Fort St. Michel. St Michel was exposed on its harbor side due to the fall of St Elmo, but an enterprising older French knight, Chevalier de Gurial, on his own volition, ordered a battery from the wall of St. Angelo to the shore. The battery waited until the Turks were within 200m before firing and their grapeshot and chainshot killed almost a thousand elite Janissaries. Fort St. Michel would have almost certainly fallen without the actions of de Gurial’s battery, and it allowed the Knights the time to build a palisade along the shore to protect against future attacks.
At the beginning of August, Fort St. Michel was again the focal point of a massive Turkish assault after a mine was exploded underneath one of the bastions creating a breach. The Turks stormed the fort and through sheer numbers forced the remaining defenders back to the chapel. As they were about to be overwhelmed, the Turks inexplicably (to the chapel defenders) fell back in disarray. A raid from the small outpost of Maltese Knights at Mdina, in the center of the island, which was never captured by the Turks, attacked the undefended Turkish camp and gave the impression that the relief army from Sicily had arrived, prompting the Turkish retreat. The Knights and Maltese engineers and citizens immediately repaired the breach and filled the mine. In mid-August, another mine detonated opening a breach in the Birgu wall and the Turks flooded into the town. La Vallette ordered the guns of St Angelo to fire on the town while the 70 year old commander personally led the counterattack to the breach. Despite fierce fighting and many irreplaceable defenders lost to both the Turks and “friendly” cannon, La Vallette and his body guard fought their way to and held the breach as the citizens of Birgu filled it in. An Italian mercenary wrote of La Vallette,
“de Valette was told the Turks were within the walls; the Grand Master ran to the threatened post where his presence worked wonders. Sword in hand, he remained at the most dangerous place until the Turks retired”.
After the failure of the mines, Mustapha placed his faith in two giant siege towers. On 18 August, he attacked the wall of Birgu again but this time with a great siege tower filled snipers which cleared the top of the wall. But as the tower slowly lumbered forward, La Vallette ordered the base of the wall hollowed out. As the tower neared, laborers removed the few remaining stone blocks, and two cannon were pushed forward. They fired chain shot point blank into the base of the tower, toppling it. The second tower’s base was hastily reinforced against the repeat of the same tactic but as it approached the Maltese removed the blocks and instead of cannon, Knights streamed out and stormed the tower, eventually capturing it.
The tower attacks were Mustapha’s last serious attempts to seize the forts. La Vallette maintained that the Turks were losing will after the repeated failed even though the cost to the defenders was dear. La Vallette was right. On 28 August he moved his army to the small outpost of Mdina, where there was a water source so they could winter there. But as they approached, the few knights and Maltese citizens fired all of their cannon recklessly, using up all of their powder. Mustapha thought this meant they had powder to spare, and having none of his own, fell back to his camp near the harbor. Out of gunpowder, and nowhere to winter on the island, the Turks launched one final assault on 1 September, which was beaten back with heavy losses.
On 7 September Don Garcia of Sicliy landed in St Paul’s Bay on the north side of the island with a relief army. Mustapha took the Turkish army to the southern shore and boarded his galleys the next day. The Siege of Malta was over and the fragmented and petty kingdoms of the “soft underbelly of Europe” were safe from Islamic conquest. The Maltese would rebuild the capital of their island and name it Valletta, after the indomitable Jean Pairsot de Vallette, Grand Master of the Order of St John and Defender of Malta.
The late 16th and early 17th centuries were the Golden Age of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. During this time, the Commonwealth was a “republic of nobles” with the gentry, known as the “Szlachta”, able to vote for their king. The nobility and gentry of the Commonwealth differed from many other nations in Europe with the Szlachta making up about 10% of the population, the upper and most of the middle classes, compared to 2%, or just the upper classes, across the rest of Europe. In the first decade of the seventeenth century, the elected king of the Commonwealth was Sigismund III Waza, from the Swedish royal house of Vasa. The Commonwealth throne was just a step to attaining his true objective, regaining the Swedish throne. In 1605, Sigismund III saw his chance to increase the Commonwealth’s power at the expense of his troubled neighbor, Muscovy. Sigismund planned to incorporate it into the Commonwealth with Poland and Lithuania, or at least place his son on Muscovy’s throne. The might of the three most powerful nations in Eastern Europe would be enough to seize the Swedish crown, turning the Baltic into a Commonwealth lake under Wasa rule.
With the death of Ivan the Terrible in 1589, Muscovy entered the Time of Troubles, specifically the “Dmitriad” or the time of the three false Dimitris who vied against Boris Godunov and Vasili IV Shuysky for the title of Tsar of all Russians. The Time of Troubles greatly weakened Muscovy. In 1609, Sigismund just finished putting down a nobles’ rebellion, and with his power consolidated, he made no attempt to hide his next target – Moscow. Sigismund III invaded Muscovy after the weakened Vasili IV made an alliance with Sweden to oppose the inevitable Commonwealth invasion.
In September, 1609, Sigismund III invested the Muscovite fortress at Smolensk with the help of Russian boyars supporting Dmitry II. But Smolensk, the gateway to Moscow, was well defended, well-armed, and well supplied. The siege continued all winter. In the spring of 1610, Vasili IV dispatched an army under his younger brother Dmitry Shuysky and Swedish general Jacob De la Gardie.
Shuysky commanded about 48,000 Russian troops and 11 cannon, supported by De la Gardie’s 5,000 Flemish, French, German, Spanish, Scottish, and Swedish mercenaries. Sigismund sent 12,000 Commonwealth troops, including 5500 of the famed Polish winged Husaria, under Hetman (warlord) Stanisław Żółkiewski to intercept them. Żółkiewski’s scouts found Shuysky’s 8,000 strong advanced guard at the villages of Tsaryovo and Zaymishche. The Muscovites fortified the town to secure their lines of communication against raids by the Commonwealth’s cavalry heavy army. Żółkiewski attacked and trapped the Muscovites in the fort. Żółkiewski left 6,000 men, which included most of his infantry and some cavalry, to isolate the Muscovites. On the evening of 2 July under the cover of a heavy rain, Żółkiewski slipped away with the bulk of his cavalry, his cannon, and some supporting infantry. Confident in the power of the Husaria, he silently galloped off to strike the overwhelming numbers of the Muscovite main body while they were strung out on the march.
The next night, Polish scouts spotted their adversaries in two fortified camps about five miles from the town of Kłuszyn, one for Shuysky’s Russian troops and a separate for De la Gardie’s mercenaries. Żółkiewski sent a spy with a letter to the mercenary camp offering them better pay to switch sides. Taking advantage of the bad weather, Żółkiewski attempted to sneak his army around the Russian camp to strike at them the next morning from behind when they resumed the march.
De la Gardie got wind of the letter and ended any conspiracy to switch sides en masse, but the letter’s damage was already done. The mercenaries’ military efficacy was greatly diminished by the prospect of greater pay in the service of what was thought to be a superior Commonwealth force. They fragmented on national lines: some switched sides, some refused to fight, some fought half heartedly, while others honored their contracts fully.
Żółkiewski’s hussars were spotted strung out on a narrow and muddy trail attempting to infiltrate behind the Russian camps. With his movement uncovered and unable to immediately attack, Żółkiewski consolidated his army opposite Shuysky’s camps. He rested his men who had been on the march for almost 48 hours straight, and cleared some obstacles from the future battlefield.
Formed in the dark, both armies faced each other as the sun rose on 4 July 1610. 30,000 of Shuysky’s Russians occupied their center and left, with De la Gardi’s foreign mercenaries on the right. They frantically reinforced fence lines and dug redoubts as Żółkiewski’s 5,500 Husaria supported by 1000 Cossacks on their left cantered forward. The masses of Russians in the redoubts and behind the fence lines were enough to prevent an outright charge by the Husaria, who resorted to the caracole tactic to break the lines, albeit one specifically suited to the Husaria.
In a traditional caracole, the dense mass of riders moved forward slowly. At pistol range the front rank discharged their firearms, and then made way for the next rank to do the same while they went to the rear and reloaded. Thus the cavalry formation either moved forward or backwards slowly by rank while maintaining continuous fire. A Husaria caracole differed and was more akin to the ancient Cantabrian Circle. The Husaria would leave their lances behind and charge forward. At pistol range they’d quickly turn and fire their brace, and then continue to move out of the way. They moved to the rear as the next unit followed up. The movement never stopped and the circle flowed seamlessly. Once at the back end of the circle, they’d pull their carbines and repeat the process. Once the carbine circle was completed, the Husaria charged with their lances, with the hope that the firearms broke up the dense formations, leaving them vulnerable to their terrible charge. As their lances shattered on the Russians, if no break out immediately occurred they’d then turn, and pull their sabers. The momentum of the charge carried them back out of the enemy formation. The Husaria would then retire to reload their pistols and carbines, and begin the maneuver again. The Husaria caracole required immense discipline and exquisite horsemanship just to maintain the timing. At any given moment there were at least four groups of Husaria in the caracole: one moving forward, one charging, firing, or fighting, one retiring, and one reloading. Some Husaria completed this maneuver 8-10 times over the course of the day.
The reinforced hedges and fence lines blunted the worst of the Husaria charges, but the continuous Polish caracoles gave the impression that the Commonwealth’s numbers were much greater than they were. For next five hours, the Husaria caracoles smashed against the Russian defenses of the center and left, while the Cossacks fixed the reluctant mercenaries on Shuysky’s right. The Husaria’s discipline, armor, and firepower were offset by the greater Russian numbers.
The turning point of the battle was a counterattack by Russian reiters (Muscovite boyars equipped as German or Swedish riders) in the center. Sensing the Husaria’s charges diminishing, Shuysky ordered his still fresh reiters forward against the exhausted Poles. The reiters began their own traditional caracole with their pistols, in front of the beleaguered, but still solid, Russian defensive lines. The Poles rushed at the chance to fight the Russian riders. The Husaria abandoned their caracole and charged the exposed Russian reiters with their lances and sabers. The Russians quickly broke in the melee. The routing Muscovite reiters did what the Husaria could not, break the Russian lines. As the defeated reiters pushed their way back through the Russian defenses, the Husaria victoriously followed, and Shuysky’s center collapsed.
Seeing the Russian center break, De la Gardi withdrew back to his fortified camp with men guarding his flank in the woods at the edge of the battlefield. Shuysky and his shattered center withdrew to the Russian camp, while the left held strong. However the timely arrival of the Commonwealth cannon and infantry, which had marched all night after being left behind by the cavalry, were deployed against the remaining Russian lines. (In the haste to form the battle lines in the predawn darkness, Shuysky left his 11 cannon in his camp.) The Commonwealth infantry and cannon broke the Russian left, and the Husaria followed them back to the Russian camp. The Russians routed through the camp and prevented Shuysky from rallying his troops. They abandoned their fortified camp. The exhausted Cossacks and Husaria could not pursue far though, and many looted Shuysky’s extravagant camp and its wagon loads of valuables.
Żółkiewski’s army could not take the remaining mercenary camp with force. De la Gardi’s mercenaries had a much higher ratio of harquebusiers and much better training than the Stuysky’s Russians. Żółkiewski’s men were exhausted and disorganized. So under a flag of truce, he offered the mercenaries the same deal as before, and many switched sides. The remainder were given free passage out of the country on their word never to take up arms against the Commonwealth again.
Żółkiewski took the captured banners and prisoners back to the fort at Tsaryovo and Zaymishche which prompted its defenders to surrender. The Commonwealth victory at Kłuszyn did not however convince Smolensk to surrender. While Sigismund III maintained the siege at Smolensk, his son Wladyslaw IV Wasa advanced on Moscow with the Żółkiewski’s reinforced army. On 3 August they arrived at the gates of Moscow to find that the Russian boyars overthrew Tsar Vasili IV Shuysky. For the next three weeks, the boyars negotiated with Prince Wladyslaw IV and Hetman Żółkiewski.
In return for electing Wladyslaw the new Tsar, the boyars demanded that Muscovite territory remain intact and the Commonwealth would respect Russian social and political institutions, e.g. the rights of the boyars and the Orthodox faith. And finally, as Tsar of “The Third Rome”, Wladyslaw would have to accept the Orthodox faith.
Wladyslaw IV agreed. On 27 August 1610, he was elected Tsar of all Russians. On 3 September, Tsar and Grand Prince Vladislav Zigimontovych of all Russia triumphantly entered Moscow at the head of Hetman Stanislaw Żółkiewski’s Husaria and occupied the Kremlin.
Unfortunately, the Wasa dynasty in Muscovy was short lived. Wladyslaw sent his father the agreement, and Sigismund rejected it outright, despite it securing Muscovy’s support for the Commonwealth. Sigismund wanted to Catholicize Muscovy, which the Russian boyars would never agree to. Furthermore, he refused to abandon the siege of Smolensk. Smolensk had been part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which had only been lost to Muscovy in the last century. It was the key to any advance on Moscow. With Smolensk in Commonwealth hands under Lithuanian control, the heartland of Muscovy would be open to invasion at any time, and Muscovite politics easy to influence. Moscow would be at the Poles’ and Lithuanians’ mercy. The permanent loss of Smolensk would keep the notoriously finicky Russians in line, and secure Muscovy for the upcoming campaign for the Swedish throne. However, Sigismund didn’t understand that the boyars understood this also. They would never stop fighting while Smolensk was in foreign hands.
Sigismund’s rejection of Wladyslaw’s agreement infuriated the Russian boyars, and turned them against the Commonwealth. Smolensk fell in 1611, but the boyars refused to sign a peace treaty. Tsar Wladyslaw IV and his army were unwelcome foreigners whose control extended little beyond Moscow and the Kremlin. In late 1611 Tsar Wladyslaw departed Moscow never to return, and the Commonwealth troops were trapped in the Kremlin. After a brutal siege in which there were reports of cannibalism among the Commonwealth’s troops, the Russians retook the Kremlin in November of 1612. In 1613, the boyars chose Shuysky’s 16 year old cousin, Mikhail Romanov, as the new Tsar. Tsar Mikhail Romanov ended the Time of Troubles and the Romanov Dynasty ruled Imperial Russia for the next 300 years, until the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.
Wladyslaw IV would eventually be elected, as had his father, king of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He would reign for the next 38 years through what remained of the Commonwealth’s Golden Age, until The Deluge began in 1648. He was one of Europe’s most beloved and successful rulers, though as King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, and not as Tsar of all Russians.
In early 1520, Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez’ conquest of the Aztec Empire fared poorly. The Aztecs no longer thought he was a god and lost their fear of the Spanish guns, steel, and horses. Increasing Spanish demands of gold, food, and women grated on the Aztecs. Especially chafing was the ban on human sacrifice, which was central to Aztec religion and society. Just prior to initial Spanish contact, the Aztecs held a ceremony during which 80,000 captive men, women, and children had their hearts torn out and eaten. These ceremonies were held regularly, though those so large were reserved for special occasions. To the Aztecs, all of the ills that had befallen their empire and people since European contact were due to the Spanish prohibition on human sacrifice. The Aztecs felt the gods were punishing them since they couldn’t be appeased with human blood.
Exacerbating the volatile situation with the Aztecs was Cotrez’ problems with the Spanish governor of Cuba. Their relationship had deteriorated to the point where the governor sent an expedition to arrest Cortez. Cortez was forced to leave the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, to confront the interlopers.
Tenochtitlan was one of the largest cities in the world with a population of over a million. Tenochtitlan by all accounts was absolutely massive, easily larger than the largest European cities at the time, London and Constantinople, both of which topped out at 200,000. Tenochtitlan was even larger before the mumps epidemic (which one of Cortez’ men brought in 1519) that killed about 100,000. Cortez’ kept a tenuous hold on the city with just a few thousand conquistadors and non-Aztec Indian allies.
Cortez left a subordinate to maintain the delicate relations with the Aztecs, while he left the city to deal with the governor’s expedition. Cortez managed to coopt his would-be captors, but he lost Tenochtitlan while he was away. In his absence, the lieutenant whom he left in the capital had arbitrarily slaughtered some Aztec nobles. Their deaths were the final humiliations. The entire city rose against the Spanish. The Aztecs swarmed the conquistadors, despite their technological advantage. The Spanish had harquebuses, crossbows, pikes, halberds, steel breastplates, small cannon, dogs of war, and armored knights on horseback – the very best of early 16th century military technology to fight the Stone Age equipped Aztecs. Dismissing the odds, the 1000 conquistadors in Tenochtitlan killed 30 for every loss. Nonetheless, the Aztecs still came on. The remaining 200 conquistadors were besieged in the emperor’s palace with the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, held captive.
Cortez heard of the news as he returned to Tenochtitlan. He had 1200 conquistadors and 3000 Tlaxalan allies recruited from one of the many Aztec enemies in the region. Cortez felt it was enough to chastise the Aztecs. He entered the city and the Aztecs allowed him to make it to the palace. They then closed the causeways behind him. Montezuma attempted to parley with the besiegers but the Aztecs had had enough. The Aztecs disavowed their emperor, denounced him a traitor, and killed him.
The next day Cortez sent 400 conquistadors to break out. Although the Aztecs took 20,000 casualties, all 400 Spaniards were killed or captured. Cortez was trapped.
On the night of 30 June/1 July 1520, the Spaniards attempted to sneak out, but they were spotted by an old woman fetching water. Soon the city descended upon the expedition and a running battle was fought through the streets. The Aztecs destroyed the causeways to trap the conquistadors but the Spanish filled the gaps with dead Aztecs and crossed over the bodies. The Aztecs disregarded the losses and continued to attack, especially targeting the stragglers. Cortez gave permission for each man to take as much gold as he could carry and the greedy ones were the first to die when they couldn’t keep up. The more gold the individual conquistadors took, the less likely they were to loie to spend it.
Cortez’ entire expedition would have been wiped out but the Aztec way of war centered on capturing not killing. They kept trying to take the Spaniards captive in order to sacrifice and eat them later, particularly Cortez. The Aztecs knew that without his leadership the expedition would have certainly broke up. But each time he was swarmed and hauled off, his men charged and rescued him. Despite grievous losses, the Spanish reached the mainland where the conquistadors could finally unleash the full power of their armored knights. The final charge by the last 20 knights routed the blocking Aztec force of 40,000. The thundering horsemen cut down every warrior with many colorful plumes, a symbol of Aztec status, eventually killing their commander. Only about 250 conquistadors and 1000 Tlaxalans managed to escape what the Spanish would call “La Noche Triste” or “The Sad Night”.
The next morning, the Aztecs resumed their practice of human sacrifice, and many a Spanish and Tlaxalan heart was consumed by the jubilant Aztecs.
The Aztecs would not enjoy their victory for long though. One of the conquistadors who arrived to arrest Cortez eventually joined with him. This particular conquistador was killed on a causeway during La Noche Triste. He fell behind, not because he carried too much gold, but because he was sick and weakened. He had smallpox.
The resulting smallpox epidemic caused by this initial vector killed 250,000 Aztecs in the coming months. When Cortez returned, he found the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan much easier to reconquer.
For more than a month, the 1500 Knights of St John, Spanish and Italian knights, and Maltese militia held the exposed Fort St. Elmo across the harbor from the Maltese Knights’ main defenses at Fort St. Michael, Fort St Angelo, and the towns of Birgu and Senglea. Ft St Elmo was an anchor point for the great chain that blocked the harbor’s entrance and the Turks had to take it.
Forty great siege guns pounded the fort but the Knights were able to repair and reinforce St Elmo by boat at night from across the harbor. On 3 June 1565, Dragut Reis, the greatest of the Turkish commanders, managed to get trenches and guns to cover the water approach. Furthermore, he lashed galleys together and built a platform on the great chain over which he could pass small galliots packed with archers. This completely cut off the fort and made any resupply a major operation using resources the Knights could no longer afford. On 9 June, its commander said it would fall within days and asked that the position be evacuated. Jean Parisot La Vallette, the indomitable commander of the Order, knew that every day Fort St Elmo held was another day closer to the Spanish relief, wrote back, “If you cannot find it in yourself to die for Jesus Christ and St John, then I will send men who will.” The Fort of St. Elmo held strong for another two weeks.
The constant bombardment reduced Fort St Elmo to rubble, and repeated Turkish assaults captured its entirety except for buildings of the inner courtyard and church. On 23 June 1565, Pasha Mustapha, who replaced Dragut Reis when he was mortally wounded by a cannonball, ordered the final assault. The Janissaries assembled within yards of the Knights, just out of pike range, because the Knights had long been out of powder for their harquebuses. The Knights sold themselves dearly as La Vallette watched from St Angelo. The last thing La Vallette saw through his telescope, was the Italian knight Francesco Lanfreducci laying about with a massive two handed sword underneath the banner of St. John. Lanfreducci managed to light the fire signaling the imminent fall of the fort before being swarmed by Turks, and the banner was quickly replaced by the Ottoman standard.
That night, the Turks mutilated and killed any survivors, less several knights for interrogation, and only a few Maltese militiamen escaped by swimming across the harbor. Mustapha ordered 1000 bodies nailed to makeshift crosses in a grim parody of the Crucifixion, and floated them across the harbor to demoralize the remaining defenders. On the morning of 24 June, the feast day of the Order’s patron, St John the Baptist, the bodies came ashore near St Angelo. But it did not have the promised effect. The infuriated La Vallette ordered all Turkish prisoners marched to the walls and beheaded in full view of the Turkish siege lines. And then their heads were fired out of cannons into the Turkish trenches.
The Great Siege of Malta would not be a repeat of the relatively chivalrous and “civilized” Siege of Rhodes. Both sides knew the stakes involved and there would be no quarter.
After the capture of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Turks took up the banner of Sunni Islam and their jihad exploded across Europe, Asia, and Africa for the next 100 years. By 1565, Ottoman expansion by land had slowed considerably. After conquering the Balkans, the Ottomans ran into the powerful Hapsburg Empire and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to the north. To the south lay the Sahara Desert and jungles of Central Africa. And to the east were the powerful Shia Safavid Persians. These obstacles required more deliberate preparations. Only to the West, via the Mediterranean Sea, would an advance prove relatively easier. In 1564, the greatest of the Ottoman sultans, Suleiman the Magnificent, authorized the seaborne invasion of Italy.
The Eastern Mediterranean was already an Ottoman lake, but to cut off Italy from Hapsburg Spain (flush with gold from the New World) required the domination of the Western Mediterranean. Once done, the isolated warring city states and petty kingdoms of the Italian peninsula would be easy prey. There was only one problem: the tiny island of Malta. Malta was situated in the narrowest part of the Sea between Sicily and Tunisia, which blocked any real access for large fleets to the West. Malta was like a fishbone stuck in the throat of the Mediterranean, doubly so because it was the possession of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, or the Knights Hospitaller, the last of the crusading orders.
The Knights of Malta, as they were known, were Christianity’s rear guard in the disastrous crusades of the last 500 years. Created to protect Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land during the First Crusade, they were at the forefront of every major battle and present at every major retreat. They were thrown out of the Holy Land, off the island of Rhodes, and found their new home on the island of Malta, from which they continued the fight against Muslim expansion.
In the sixteenth century, the Knights of Malta no longer went to war on horses, but in galleys. The white cross on blood red background was a feared sight to Ottomans, whose warships were given no quarter, and merchant ships were turned over to their newly freed galley slaves (which invariably meant the slaughter of the Muslim crew). Moreover, they were on the forefront of sixteenth century military efficacy. The Maltese Knights blended a unique mix of Western land technology and Eastern naval technology. Though few in number, they were the Pope’s and Christianity’s first and only reliable defense against the Ottomans in the Mediterranean.
In May 1565, the Knights of Malta were on their own. Their leader, the indomitable 71 year old Jean de La Valette amassed 700 Maltese Knights, 600 Spanish and Italian knights, 2700 men at arms, and 3000 armed Maltese civilians to defend island. They occupied the three forts, Fort St. Michael, Fort St. Angelo, and the exposed Fort St. Elmo, that guarded the all-important harbor on the north side of the island (Valetta Harbor today). On 18 May 1565, La Valette’s archrival, the Ottoman corsair admiral Dragut-Reis, arrived off Malta with Grand Vizier Mustapha Pasha and 213 ships and 48,000 warriors, including 8000 of the Sultan’s own Janissaries.
The last land battle of the Crusades had begun.
In 1704, Louis XIV reigned over France’s Golden Age. France was at its most influential, and he was easily the most absolutely powerful man on the planet. With the death of Spain’s Carlos V, Louis was poised to place his grandson, Charles, on the vacant thrown. This paved the way for a Franco-Spanish Union which would marry French military strength with Spanish New World gold and create the world’s first hyperpower. The rest of Europe could not allow this, and they declared war in what was called The War of Spanish Succession, or Queen Anne’s War (after the British monarch) in North America.
In the Spring of 1704, Louis ordered an invasion of Austria, one of the key members of the opposing Grand Alliance. Prince Eugene of Savoy, knowing his army could not face the Franco-Bavarian horde alone, asked for aid from his life long friend: John Churchill, the First Duke of Marlborough.
Through a simple deception operation, Marlborough disengaged from the French in the Low Countries and marched his Anglo-Dutch army 500 miles into Bavaria, picking up troops from allied German principalities of the Holy Roman Empire along the way. On 13 August 1704, Marlborough and Savoy’s Anglo-Austro-Dutch-German-Prussian-Imperial Army met Marshal Tallard’s Franco-Bavarian Army at the village of Blenheim on the Danube.
In the linear tactics of the day, the fight on the flanks was usually decisive, and Tallard reinforced his to the detriment of his center. Marlborough recognized the flaw and tied down most of the French with Savoy on the right and the rest pinned in the village on the left. By the afternoon, Tallard was sufficiently committed, and Marlborough struck at the center much as Napoleon would do 100 years later at Austerlitz. The French broke, Tallard was killed, and his army was destroyed.
The Battle of Blenheim was the turning point of the War of Austrian Succession. The war would be carried into France the next year. Louis would eventually fight the war to a draw and still place his grandson on the Spanish throne, but France’s power would be broken and Spain’s decline as a world power accelerated rapidly, giving rise to a global British empire. Finally, and most importantly, the Battle of Blenheim was the high watermark for Divine Absolutism as a viable form of government, at least until the rise of Socialist dictatorships in the 20th Century.
On 7 June, 1654, Louis the XIV was crowned King of France. Louis the Great would go on to rule France for 70 years, the longest of any European monarch. More importantly, he would have an assemblage of advisors and subordinates of such remarkable economic, military, and political ability and talent that it is only seen so very rarely in history. (Only the Diadochi, Genghis Khan’s generals, the Founding Fathers, and Napoleon’s Marshals come to mind.) His advisors included Cardinal Richelieu’s protégé Cardinal Jules Mazarin, the engineering mastermind Vauban, two of the best commanders of the 17th century the Great Conde and Marshal Turenne, the Queen-Mother Anne of Austria, and the diplomatic and financial geniuses of the Colbert brothers, Jean-Baptist and Charles. Led by Louis, they ruled France through her Golden Age. “French” would become the first “lingua franca” of Europe.
In the first half of the 17th Century, great changes were happening in Europe and the people wanted more say in how they were governed. In both England and France horrible civil wars occurred between those who supported royal power and those who supported parliamentarian power. In the English Civil War the Parliamentarians won and left a legacy of self-rule. But in France, the Fronde, as their civil war was called, the parliamentarians and their noble allies were crushed in 1653. A young Louis did not forget its lessons. He would be crowned king the next year.
Louis and his inordinately talented advisors spent the entirety of his reign expanding the power of the monarch. He blamed the Parliament of Paris for the Fronde and limited its power every chance he could, until he could abolish it permanently. He couldn’t do the same with the nobility so he neutralized them. He built the magnificent palace of Versailles, and then forced all of the heads of the noble families to live there. This effectively separated them from their lands and power, and prevented them from expanding any further. The competent ones he used to form Europe’s first bureaucracy, and the others he gave titles and duties, such as “The Royal Glovebearer” or “the Royal Cupbearer”. Louis kept the historically troublesome nobles close by, out of trouble, and carefully watched.
Louis the Great’s transition to absolute monarchy only succeeded because of his and his advisors complete dedication to France. He “gleamed like the Sun” through France’s Golden Age, but also sowed the seeds of its destruction. The Sun King slowed the development of parliamentary rule in Great Britain, and Louis’ dedication to France was not shared by his successors. The inevitable corruption and incompetence that results from absolute rule eventually brought about the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, and the Napoleonic Wars.