In the mid 14th century, the Black Death ravaged Europe and killed one third of the population. By 1353 it burned itself out but in many areas severely degraded the power of the absolute monarchs. This vacuum empowered the Hanseatic League, a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant cities that dominated trade on the Baltic Sea (“hansa” is Old German for “convoy”).
For decades, in order to maintain power in Denmark, the Danish kings mortgaged Danish land, and in 1356, King Waldemar IV reconquered and reoccupied that Danish land after being depopulated by the Black Death. On the island of Gotland, the merchants of the Free City of Wisby, a member of the Hanseatic League, mocked Waldemar for being dishonest and unable to manage his finances.
So Waldemar invaded.
In July 1361, King Waldemar landed on the west coast of the island of Gotland with 2800 Danish infantry and German mercenaries. Outside the city walls on 27 July, they were met by the 2000 Gutnish yeomen, burghers, and dismounted knights. Both sides were armed and armoured roughly the same: the knights had plates covering the vitals and joints over mail hauberks, and the yeomen and burghers had “Wisby Plate Armor”, which consisted of metal plates sewn into a leather of fabric hauberk. Both sides were armed with swords, hammers and axes with round or long shields, and an eclectic variety of polearms. Neither side had cavalry. And both sides considered bowmen a waste of precious bodies on the long shield line. As expected, there were no real tactics, and Waldemar’s greater numbers carried the day. Once the line broke, individual Gutnish bands fell in upon themselves, and were isolated and overrun. 1800 Gutnish were killed. The Battle of Wisby was the largest longbowless, pre-swiss pike, purely infantry field battle of the Middle Ages.
Despite the objections of his men, Waldemar decided not to sack the town, but extort it. He decreed that the citizens of Wisby had three days to fill three giant beer barrels with gold and silver (or booze and rattan), or he would massacre them and raze the city. The rich citizens paid Ransom of Wisby within a day, and Waldemar went home.
Waldemar won the first round against the Hanseatic League, but none of the subsequent ones, as the Battle, and more importantly the Ransom, united the loosely organized Baltic merchants against him.
One spring in the Late Middle Ages, the town of Hamelin in Lower Saxony had a rat problem: the town was overrun with them. The mayor and the town council were perplexed. “What shall we do!” they cried. Then the town blacksmith had an epiphany, and said, “Let’s hire a Rat Catcher!” (a common occupation in the Middle Ages.) The mayor, not to be outdone, said, “Not just any rat-catcher, but The Bestest Rat Catcher! And I know of him!” So the mayor sent a messenger to find the Bestest Rat Catcher. The town council offered to pay the princely sum of 1000 guilders for his services.
Sometime in early summer, the messenger returned with the Bestest Rat Catcher. He was clothed from head to toe in colorful patched (or “pied”) garments. The townsfolk were again perplexed, he looked nothing like what they expected. To catch a rat, you must get dirty. But the Bestest Rat Catcher assured them he just had to play his Magic Pipe and the rats would follow him away.
On Sunday, 22 July 1376, while the entire town was at church, the Pied Piper of Hamelin did just that. He danced through the town merrily playing his pipes and, just as he said, the rats poured out of the houses and buildings. He led them away to the Weser River, where he boarded a flat boat, and pushed himself off. When the rats tried to follow, they all drowned.
The Bestest Rat Catcher returned to town and when the townsfolk emerged from the church, they were astonished and grateful that the rats were gone. But the greedy mayor was not. He didn’t think the Rat Catcher did enough work, “How could he clear the town so quickly? He did not do a thousand guilders worth of work! It must be the work of the Devil!” The Blacksmith, ever the wise one, managed a compromise: The Bestest Rat Catcher would not be burned at the stake, but would receive only 50 guilders, still a great sum for a day’s work. The Mayor kept the rest of the money.
The Bestest Rat Catcher felt cheated and vowed revenge.
The next Sunday, the Pied Piper returned. But this time he was not in his clothing of bright patches, but garments of deep dark ominous colors. The Pied Piper again played his pipes and danced merrily through the streets. But this time he was not trying to catch rats, but the town’s children. While the adults were again at Mass, the children gleefully followed the Pied Piper as he led them over a hill and far away.
When the adults returned home from Mass, they were horrified to find that only three children were left in Hamelin: one was deaf, and couldn’t hear the Piper. One was blind, and danced into a tree. And finally one was lame, and couldn’t keep up.
The rest of the children, and the Pied Piper of Hamelin, were never seen again.
(There’s two dates for Pied Piper story: one was in 1376 and the other in 1284, but both are on 22 July. The reigning theory is that the “Pied Piper” was actually an emigration recruiter that was getting paid to help Germans settle in recently devastated lands. The first area was along the Baltic, where the Teutonic Knights just wiped out the original Ugric Prussians , and the other was in Transylvania, which the Mongols completely depopulated in the 1230s .)
The Second Crusade from 1147 to 1149 wasn’t just a disaster for the Outremer, it was also a catastrophe for the Seljuk Turkish Zengid Sultanate, the Abbasid Sultanate of Baghdad, and the Fatimid Sultanate of Egypt. Out of the Islamic victory a young and hungry Sunni Kurdish general, An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, better known to history as Saladin, first became vizier to the Fatimid Sultan, then quickly Sultan himself. In the 20 years after the Second Crusade, Saladin united Egypt, Syria, Arabia, and Mesopotamia under the new Ayyubid Sultanate. With no Sunni Muslim lands left to conquer, he turned on the remaining three states of the Christian Outremer: the Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Despite some setbacks from the leprous King of Jerusalem, Baldwin III, he destroyed the main Crusader army at Hattin in 1187, and promptly seized Jerusalem. Saladin then went on to reduce the three Outremer states to ports and small slivers of land along the Mediterranean coast.
In 1189, Saladin paroled Guy de Lusignan, King of Jerusalem, and commander of the Crusader army at Hattin. Guy, still king by marriage to Sybella went to Tyre, the new capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but Conrad of Montserrat felt that someone so incompetent and arrogant didn’t have the divine right to anything, and told him to move on. Fortunately for Guy, the loss of Jerusalem shocked Europe and launched the Third Crusade, with Tyre being one of the only ports of arrival left for the crusaders. While Conrad was busy with affairs of state and holding back Saladin, Guy was down at the docks politicking and formed his own army from newly arrived French, Sicilian, and Italian crusaders.
To Guy’s credit (but probably because Sybella convinced him not to), he didn’t turn on Conrad but marched his small army to Acre to acquire his own power base, and recapture his own kingdom. The Muslim defenders of Acre outnumbered Guy 2 to 1 but the same reason Acre was so hard to capture, the narrow approaches to the city, also meant that defenders couldn’t sortie in force, and were bottled up by the much smaller crusader army. Guy, reinforced by a Sicilian fleet, settled in for a siege. Eventually Saladin moved to besiege the besiegers. For the next 18 months, a bloody stalemate ensued between Saladin and the besiegers whom were reinforced by a steady trickle of newly arrived crusaders from Europe.
The loss of Jerusalem shocked Europe, and united Europe in a way that really hasn’t been seen since. Anybody who was anybody packed up their stuff and went to the Holy Land, where Guy at Acre was seen as the only one doing anything (even though Sybella died of dysentery during the siege, which revoked his claim to the throne). In 1191, the crusading armies of the Big Four of Europe: Duke Leopold of Austria, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, King Phillip II of France, and King Richard the Lionheart of England, all descended on Acre (though the elderly Barbarossa died crossing a river on the way, but part of his army arrived).
After eighteen brutal, bloody months of horrible disease and privation in unheard of conditions, the city of Acre was finally on the brink of capitulation. In early July 1191, Saladin received news from the starving garrison that if he didn’t relieve the city, it would surrender. On 11 July 1191, Saladin attacked the combined crusader armies. The Battle of Acre was a grinding, attritional affair that belied the Muslim stereotype of the lightly armed warrior unwilling to come to close combat. Furthermore, both sides knew the final outcome of the siege would be decided at the end of the day. Saladin came close, but failed to relieve the city. Acre surrendered the next day, and Saladin “grieved like a mother who had lost her child”.
Richard and Philip accepted the surrender of the city, and Saladin offered to pay the ransom for the defenders. Richard demanded a hefty sum, plus 2000 Christian nobles, and the True Cross, which Saladin captured in Jerusalem four years before. Saladin agreed to pay in three installments.
The first installment arrived on 12 August, 1191. However, by this time, the crusader army was breaking down. Barbarossa was dead, Phillip had to leave to deal with a succession issue in Flanders, and Richard was a right bastard with Leopold and Conrad, both of whom he felt were his inferiors, so they took their footballs and went home. The ever impatient Richard also felt that Saladin was using the time to reinforce his army (he was, but why wouldn’t he?), and Richard didn’t want to be besieged himself at Acre.
When the second payment arrived on 20 August, it was short many of the promised nobles and the True Cross. The infuriated Richard rejected the payment and was unwilling to wait any longer. That night Richard had the 2700 prisoners taken to a small hill at Ayyadieh, where he had them all beheaded. The decapitated bodies were in full view of Saladin’s army when the sun rose the next morning.
The eighteen month Siege of Acre was Satan’s Vortex that sucked both Muslim and Christian alike into a hellish battle of attrition in which there was no winner. It cost nearly 100,000 dead on both sides, which as a percentage of the population of Europe and the Near East, was worse than the Battle of Verdun nearly 700 years later. The profits of the Medieval Warm Period were spent at Acre. The Siege of Acre and the Massacre at Ayyadieh gutted the Third Crusade, both physically and spiritually. Richard would go on defeat Saladin at the Battle of Jaffa, but due to the losses during the Siege, would not have the strength to seize Jerusalem. A generation of the finest fighting men that Christian Europe could produce were buried around the city. Never again would the crusaders have the strength to retake the Holy Land.
The Siege also eviscerated the Ayyubid Sultanate and fatally weakened it. All of Saladin’s hard work would be undone in a few decades as small minded men took advantage of the weakness. On the surface, the glittering jewel of the Sultanate was as bright as ever, but the warriors needed to defend it lay dead on the hills of the Levant.
The devastation could not have come at a worse time: A new and terrible threat was emerging from the Steppe; one that would prove the greatest challenge to both Christian and Muslim alike.
When Charlemagne, the “Heir to the Roman Empire”, died in 814 CE he divided the Frankish Empire among his three sons. The eastern third went to Louis the German. Louis and his descendants formed the Holy Roman Empire from parts of modern day Germany, Austria, Poland, Czech, and Northern Italy (which was probably not “Holy”, “Roman”, nor an “Empire”… all are debatable though). 350 years later, in 1176, at the height of the Investiture Controversy, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa invaded Italy to force the Italians to respect his authoritay and force the Pope to stick to spiritual and moral matters, and get out of his secular business. He did this by first sacking Rome.
On his way back, he needed to deal with the Pope’s staunchest allies, the Lombard League of Northern Italian city-states, which supported the Pope because they wanted to appoint their own city magistrates (madness!) something Barbarossa vehemently opposed. After burning down a few towns, his 3000 strong Imperial army of German knights and men at arms approached Milan. Marching to meet them was a mixed force of 3500 Milanese knights, pike armed militia, crossbowmen, professional companies of armsmen, and the Carrocio. The Carrocio was the sacred war wagon of Milan. It was a giant cross and alter draped in the red and white for Milan’s patron St. George, filled with trumpeters, and drawn by three sets of oxen. The Carrocio was guarded by the elite Company of Death, charged by the city to die protecting it.
On 29 May 1176, the knights of the Imperial army scattered the Milanese knights at the first clash outside of the town of Legnano. They then impetuously charged the Carrocio, and were stopped cold by the large shields and long spears of the Company of Death. They attempted to shift their attack to the pike militia but the example set by the Company and the presence of the Carrocio inspired them to hold fast. Fixed by the Company, the phalanx of pikes and the crossbowmen methodically murdered the knights. The arrival of the reformed Milanese knights broke the Imperial Army.
Frederick Barbarossa was presumed dead (he was seen falling from his horse), but surprisingly, he appeared alone at one of his Italian vassal’s castles three days later bloody and bruised. In the end, the Lombard League got their magistrates, the Pope agreed to stay out of temporal affairs and got the Papal States so he could still build his shining city on a hill, and Barbarossa would shift his energies to the Holy Land and the Third Crusade. Finally, pike formations would slowly grow in popularity until they dominated the battlefields of the Renaissance.
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.
For thirty years in the late 15th century, the War of the Roses raged across England and Wales (The War of the Roses was the real Game of Thrones). By 1483, the House of York, whose symbol was a white rose, had forced the remaining members declared for the House of Lancaster, the red rose, to flee to France. But internal politics had forced the regency council to declare the 12 year old Yorkist King Edward V illegitimate, and Henry, of the small House of Tudor and the last remaining Lancastrian lord, took the opportunity to invade.
Henry Tudor landed in Wales in early August 1485. Henry gathered troops from former Lancastrian allies, and met the forces of the House of York under King Richard III outside of the village of Bosworth. (Richard took the throne after Edward V and is the guy whose remains they discovered underneath a parking lot in Leicester in 2015) Richard III vastly outnumbered Henry Tudor and he divided his army into three “battles”: one commanded by himself, one under the Duke of Norfolk, one under Earl of Northumbria. A fourth force was on the field under Lord Thomas Stanley, Earl of Derby, ostensibly fighting for Richard. Henry kept his small army together under the Earl of Oxford.
Richard III ordered all of the battles to attack, but only his and Norfolk’s actually did. The Earl of Oxford held off the attacks and even forced some of Richard’s forces to retreat. Richard asked Northumbria for assistance but the Earl’s battle did not move. Henry, seeing the two immobile battles of Stanley and Northumbria, correctly surmised that they were waiting to see who won in the center before throwing in their support.
Henry saw an opportunity to win the battle and moved off to directly appeal to Stanley. Richard III saw Henry move toward Stanley and realized that the only way to win the battle was to kill Henry. So he personally charged. The bodyguards of the two commanders fought and Henry was almost killed. But when Sir William Stanley (the Earl of Derby’s nephew?) saw that Richard was isolated from the rest of his army, he and his men charged. Richard III slighted William Stanley years before and chose this moment for revenge. The combined weight of Henry’s bodyguard and Stanley’s knights overwhelmed Richard and his retinue, whom were slaughtered to a man. Unhorsed, Richard III fought to the death.
Henry Tudor was crowned on the field and the War of the Roses was over. The House of Tudor claimed prominence in England and King Henry VII would reign for 25 years. He was succeeded by his son Henry VIII (I am I am; the one with the wives), and his granddaughters Queen “Bloody” Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I.
During the Second Baronial War in 13th Century England, Simon De Montfort, the Earl of Leicster, and several prominent barons rose in revolt against King Henry III and his son, Prince Edward (the future King Edward I “Longshanks”, the bad guy from Braveheart). Henry III had violated the letter and spirit of the Magna Carta signed fifty years before by demanding more money to purchase the title of King of Sicily (long story). In 1263, England had a famine and they couldn’t pay the extra money, so the barons revolted just as they had against Henry’s father, King John (the Sheriff of Nottingham’s boss from Robin Hood). Simon De Montfort won the Battle of Lewes in 1264 and captured Henry and imprisoned Edward.
In 1265, the 26 year old Edward escaped, rallied the King’s supporters, and convinced several of Montfort’s allies to defect. On 4 August, Edward outmaneuvered Montfort and trapped his small army in a bend of the Avon River (not far from Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown) near the village of Evesham. Edward’s troops outnumbered the Barons’ nearly 2-1 and despite a gallant charge by the Baronial knights, it was not enough to keep them from being surrounded. Bad blood existed between barons’ men and the king’s, and eventually the battle turned into a massacre. Instead of capture and ransom which was the custom for knights and lords, the King’s men outright killed them all, thus breaking the power of the barons for the foreseeable future. King Henry, present at the battle as Montfort’s captive, was only saved from the massacre when one of Montfort’s knights identified him in exchange for his life.
Despite the loss, the barons eventually got what they demanded though it took decades. King Henry III died ten years later and the talent, raw competence, and foresight Prince Edward displayed during the war showed when he became King Edward I. Although despised in Scotland, (Longshanks was nicknamed “Hammer of the Scots”) and Wales (which he conquered and colonized in the 1280s), King Edward I maintained the spirit of the Magna Carta, if not the letter, and reformed England’s administration and Common Law. He was not particularly loved by his subjects but they respected him and he was thought of as the ideal medieval king. He recognized the need for his subjects’ input into the governance of state, if only so they would pay more taxes. i.e. taxation WITH representation. King Edward I formed England’s first permanent Parliament, essentially giving in to the demands of the barons that he slaughtered at Evesham ten years before his reign.
In early 15th century Eastern Europe, the Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem, better known as the Teutonic Knights, relentlessly expanded under the guise of “crusade” along the Baltic coast into the Christian Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The effort reached a high water mark on the field between the towns of Grunwald and Tannenburg on 15 July 1410. 39,000 Poles, Lithuanians, Czechs, Russians, Ruthenians, Bohemians, Tatars, and Wallachians faced 27,000 Teutonic Knights, their retainers, mercenaries, and crusading knights from across Europe, including England, France, and the German and Italian states. Although the Polish-Lithuanian troops were more numerous, only the knights of Poland and a few other small contingents were of the same standard of discipline, training, and armor as the Teutonic Knights.
The Knights formed for battle in the morning, but were forced to stand in the hot sun all day because King Wladyslaw Jagiello, the commander of the Allied army, had his men wait in the trees as he heard three masses in spiritual preparation for the battle. The battle finally began in the afternoon when both sides were on the field. The weary and parched Teutonic Knights under Grand Commissar Kuno Von Lichtenstein, on the Knights’ left, charged the fresh Lithuanian and Tatar light cavalry under Lithuanian Grand Duke Witold on the Polish right… and promptly routed them. The Knights assumed they won the battle and began pursuit. The heavy warhorses of the Knights, however, couldn’t catch the lighter but faster horses. Most of the pursuing knights never returned and thus missed the real fighting. They couldn’t help defeat the much more heavily armed Poles. Despite the collapse of the Polish and Lithuanian right, no breakthrough was had: three companies from Smolensk fought to the death and heroically prevented the remaining Knights from getting behind the Polish lines.
The main battle was between the Teutonic right under Grand Master Ulrich Von Junginenen (pictured above in Jan Matejko’s painting, in the large white cape) and the Polish left wing under King Wladyslaw Jagiello (in the painting, the king is in the silver armor on the hill on the right) and his tactical commander Zyndram of Maszkowice (the bearded knight next to Ulrich in the picture who lead from the front in the Western tradition).
Unlike the Grand Master, who charged with his knights, the King directed the battle from a hilltop in the eastern tradition. After the initial thundering clash by both sides in which they crashed into each other at full speed, the battle stalemated into a churning meat grinding mass, which favored the more heavily armored and trained Teutonic Knights. The melee included one of the most famous knights of the age: Jan Zizka, a Czech mercenary who would become famous as a battle lord during the Hussite rebellion of 1414 (in the scale armor above the Royal Banner about to kill a German knight).
The Battle of Grunwald was not only one of the largest of the Middle Ages, it was also the last of the true knightly battles. It was the last battle where might made right. Strength of arm, whether wielding sword, axe, spear, hammer, or mailed fist, won the day — Not technology, but intestinal fortitude. Archers? Mere splotches on the ground where they were trampled underfoot. Cannon? Noisemakers abandoned after the merest hint of a mounted warrior. Amazingly brilliant tactics? Defeat is more crushing if you look your foe in the eye and rip out his soul. For hours, the battle was a swirling melee. As the shadows became long in the early evening, the Teutonic Knights managed to bring down the Royal Banner of Poland by knocking over Marcin of Wrocimowice (holding the banner in the picture above) which was the traditional medieval sign of victory. But for the Allies, this was a fight for national survival, and chivalric ritual would not interfere with military efficacy, so they fought on.
Sensing the Knights were finally committed, King Wladyslaw launched his coup de d’eclat: a three pronged attack that decided the battle. First, he sent most of personal bodyguard charging into the mass to fix the Knights. This charge was made by the crème of Polish knighthood, fresh and eager for battle after watching their comrades fight for hours. This august host included the greatest knight of the early 15th century – the folk hero Zawisza Czarny — Zawisza the Black Zawisza was a knight so renowned for his honor, loyalty, and reliability, 600 years later the Polish Boy Scouts’ motto is still “Rely on him as on Zawisza”. (He is pictured just above Jan Zizka with black hair and black armor couching a lance).
Once the Knights were fixed by the new attack, the King unleashed a hammer blow into the flank of the Teutonic host: 3000 unarmored Polish peasants armed with scythes, axes, and clubs, whom hid in the woods for most of the battle. They were fiercely anti-German and had suffered the worst under the decades of Teutonic raids and “conversion”. The peasants gave no quarter, and although a single knight could fight off six or seven peasants, they couldn’t do the same for ten or twelve.
As devastating as the charges by Wladyslaw’s personal guard and the mass of furious peasants were, the real killing blow came most decisively from Duke Witold who returned to the battle in spectacular fashion after rallying most of the Lithuanians from the routed right wing (Witold is featured prominently above clad in red holding the sword aloft).
The painting “The Battle of Grunwald” by Jan Matejko depicts the moment of the three charges that broke the Teutonic Knights. It more specifically depicts the death of Grand Master Ulrich to a Polish peasant’s spear (pictured next to Ulrich). According to legend, Ulrich’s last words were, “Damn these flies!” The 10,000 manacles the Teutonic Knights brought to use on the Allies that night were used on themselves instead. The Teutonic Knights never recovered from the defeat and the Union of Poland and Lithuania became the super power of Eastern Europe for the next 300 years.
In the late 15th century, French monarch Charles VIII standardized and increased the mobility of his siege cannon and ushered in a true revolution in military affairs. No medieval castle could withstand his guns. He seized castles “in the time it took to seize a villa.” In 1494, at the behest of Milan and Venice, Charles blitzed down the Italian peninsula to press his claim to the Kingdom of Naples, which he successfully took in February 1495. The Middle Ages came to a close.
Charles VIII’s 1494 campaign horrified the Italians. No one had traversed the length of the Italian peninsula as quickly since Hannibal crossed the Alps. During the Renaissance, the Italian boot consisted of dozens of super rich merchant republics, prosperous petty kingdoms, independent city-states, Papal States, and ultra-wealthy families, who vied with each other for political power. If an outside force intervened, such as Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, or France, the invader was usually fixed at fortress cities in northern Italy. While they sat outside the walls of Milan, Florence, or Mantua, the Italian petty rulers had time to buy them off, hire mercenaries known as condottieri (literally: “contractors”) to discourage any advance, or work political angles to turn back the invaders. Or they could just wait for the cold, muddy, and miserable Italian winters to break the will of even the most resilient invader. Charles VIII changed all that, and the Italians concluded they had to defeat him, lest he conquer them all with his cannon.
Charles’ erstwhile allies were the first to recognize the danger. The Sforza’s of Milan saw no reason for Charles not to seize their city on his way back to France. The Merchants of Venice knew they were next if Milan fell to the French. Pope Alexander VI, born Rodrigo de Borja, had already been defeated by Charles and forced to flee Rome. He put his considerable diplomatic and political skills to work. Not that much incentive was needed, everyone saw what Charles’ troops, particularly his Swiss mercenaries, were capable of. Any town that offered resistance was massacred, looted, and put to the torch. In March 1495, Alexander VI formed the Holy League with Venice, Milan, Ferdinand of Aragon and Sicily, most of the northern Italian city-states, and Emperor Maximillian I of the Holy Roman Empire to oppose the French.
Naples wasn’t worth being trapped there, so Charles gathered his army and immediately departed for France. His army was wracked with syphilis (brought back by Neapolitan sailors of Columbus’ expedition to the New World and subsequently passed onto the city’s prostitutes, and then to the French), heavily laden with booty, and although his cannon were effective against walls, they were not as effective in a field battle. Furthermore the longer Charles delayed, the stronger the Italian army grew. And, even worse, it looked as if the Italians meant to fight.
The Holy League chose famed condottiero Francesco II Gonzaga, the Marquis of Mantua, then in Venetian employ, to lead the League’s army against Charles, at least in theory. In reality, the League’s army was actually controlled by Francesco’s uncle Rodolpho, the commander of the army’s reserve, and led by committee, with the Venetian Senate the most influential.
The squabbling among the League’s members continued until Charles’ army reached Florence, and even then Francesco wouldn’t move until he had nearly a 3 to 1 superiority over the French. Charles had no idea how large the League’s army was or even where it was: his spies were forced into hiding, and his efforts at reconnaissance thwarted by the League’s stradioti, fearsome light cavalry recruited from the Balkans. When Parma threatened to side with the approaching Charles, the League’s army finally advanced. Just south of Parma, the League’s army encamped around the village of Fornovo on the right bank of the Taro River to wait for Charles.
As Charles approached Parma from the south on the road paralleling the right bank of the Taro River, he stopped as soon as he came into contact with the League’s army. He waited for a few days for news of a French army in the vicinity of Milan, and Francesco obliged him. On 5 July, 1495, Charles learned no reinforcements were coming, and decided to bypass his adversaries.
On the morning of 6 July 1495, Charles nonchalantly continued negotiations with the condottieri heavy Italian army, while his own crossed over the shallow Taro River to the left bank and proceeded north. The maneuver took the Italians by surprise, as normally no further movement was permitted until pre-battle negotiations were concluded. By the time the Italians reacted, they were forced to attack across the river to reach the French. The river was swollen, and the fords limited which effectively neutralized the League’s greater numbers. Charles didn’t want to fight a battle in any case: he planned for his vanguard to fix the Italians in their camp, while the rest continued to Parma following the left bank north.
Charles’ vanguard consisted of the best troops in the army: his cannon, Swiss halberdiers, and the Gendarme, the heavily armed and armored noble French knights. His cannon shrugged off the obsolete Italian cannons’ volleys from across the river and pummeled the League’s camp. The Italians hastily form battlelines at the river’s edge, and searched for fords. Unfortunately for the French, the stradioti and other Italian light cavalry raced upstream, and more importantly, downstream to cross were the French crossed that morning. They fell upon the heavily laden but lightly guarded baggage train, ponderously attempting to keep up with the fighting troops. The League’s light cavalry slaughtered the guards and spent the day looting, taking them out of the battle.
Charles could not react because the Italian right wing found a ford and attacked the vanguard, while he watched the League’s massive center battle attempt to find a suitable place to cross. The League’s right wing however could only cross piecemeal, and they were defeated in detail: the Italian knights were torn apart by Swiss halberds, and then the Italian infantry was run down by the Gendarme.
The center force, which was supposed to attack simultaneously with the north, finally crossed, and the battle engaged in earnest. However, they took too long to find a ford, and the French were prepared for them. Though the fighting was fierce, the issue wasn’t really in doubt: the superior cohesion of the French units overcame the disorganized Italians, many of whom deserted to go loot the French baggage train. The League’s only real chance at victory was when Charles was briefly vulnerable and exposed on the battlefield. However, the opportunity was missed by Francesco and passed quickly. His failure to capture the enemy commander was just another example of Francesco acting less the army commander and more of a unit commander. Despite the losses in the north, center, and baggage train, he still had numerical superiority, but he didn’t know it since he was so consumed with the fighting. A strong reserve, nearly half of the army, was still on the right bank uncommitted. Francesco was only entrusted with half the army; the other half belonged to Rodolpho, the commander of the “reserve”.
Disaster struck when Rodolpho was killed. As commander of the reserve, no one else had authority to order the reserve into battle, even Francesco. Thus nearly half of Francesco’s army never saw fighting that day.
The French pushed the Italians back to the river and gave no quarter. With no support from the reserve, a river behind them, and certain death in a losing battle, the Italian condottieri called it a day. They withdrew to the fords, then across the river and back to camp.
The French recovered what was left of the baggage train and continued on their trek, leaving the Holy League in possession of the field.
Despite the French successes, Francesco declared the Battle of Fornovo a great victory for the Holy League, and initially there was much jubilation in Venice and Rome. Not only had the French “fled” the field, but 300,000 ducats worth of booty was looted from Charles’ baggage train. After a few days though, Francesco Gonzaga’s condottieri competition began evaluating the battle with professional, calculating, and sober eyes.
The Holy League outnumbered the French nearly three to one, but took nearly three times the casualties as the French. The loot was good, but the purpose of the army was to prevent Charles from escaping to France, where he can raise an even bigger army to return. Gonzaga utterly failed in that objective. Moreover, his personal battle command was found wanting since he acted as a field officer instead of the commander of a great army. He was blamed for the looting of the baggage train which siphoned much needed troops away from the battle. He was blamed for the death of his uncle, and not committing the reserve. In the eyes of his peers, Francesco Gonzaga’s personal conduct had allowed the French to defeat the Holy League and escape.
Charles VIII of France did not return with a larger army, French debts prevented him from rebuilding the army he almost lost. Spain retook Naples shortly thereafter. He wouldn’t get another chance to return to Italy, Charles VIII died 2 ½ years after his retreat. He accidentally knocked his head on a door frame, fell into a coma, and never woke up.
Charles’ death was not the end of the troubles for the Italians. In fact, they had just started. Thousands of French, Swiss, and German soldiers and mercenaries returned home with stories of a weak, prosperous, and divided Italy, ripe for plunder and conquest. The myth of the fighting ability of the Italian condottieri died on the banks of the Taro. It seemed as if the condottieri would rather negotiate than fight, retreat at the first sign of difficulty, withdraw at the slightest disadvantage, and would not attack unless they had overwhelming odds. The command of any condottieri army would always be fragmented. The condottieri’s northern adversaries no longer respected them. Their Roman legacy was lost and the condottieri’s professional reputation was forever tarnished.
After the Battle of Fornovo, France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, even the Ottoman Empire salivated over potential Italian conquests and loot. They ended the Italian Renaissance and ravaged the Italian boot for the next 75 years, a time known collectively as the Italian Wars
England’s loss of Normandy after their defeat at the Battle of Formigny against France in April 1450 during the Hundred Years War crushed the morale of the English people. England’s impending loss in the war unleashed French and Norman raiders on English coasts. However to the people of Kent and Sussex, their enemies across the English Channel were the least of their worries.
Corruption in Lancastrian King Henry VI’s court was already legendary, but the loss at Formigny exposed the corruption and incompetence for all to see. There was no longer a war to hide behind. Nobles long used to abusing their Norman and French charges, returned to England and thought they could do the same with their own countrymen. The actions of the soldiers sent by the King to protect the coastal communities from the Norman raiders greatly exacerbated the situation. The cure was worse than the disease. The soldiers looted, raped, and devastated the towns and farms they were sent to defend. Sheriffs and magistrates, King’s men who held their offices through fraudulent elections, sided with the soldiers against the people. The final straw was the death of the Duke of Suffolk.
The Duke of Suffolk was the King’s best friend and closest advisor. Some say he ruled England while the mentally infirm Henry was just a puppet. The Duke was the most corrupt of king’s privy council, all of whom were the most corrupt men in England. His murder was part of the vicious, bitter, and petty internecine squabbles that wracked Henry VI’s court. The Duke of Suffolk’s body washed up on the shore of Kent and the people immediately assumed the King would blame them. Rumors abounded that the Royal Army would march across the countryside with fire and sword expelling the people and turning the entirety of Kent into the King’s personal hunting preserve.
On 8 May 1450, a man named Jack Cade proclaimed himself “Captain of Kent” and vowed to make the people’s demands heard by the king. He declared himself a “Mortimer”, which was the name of Henry VI’s Yorkist rivals. He wrote up a list of complaints and demands, “The Complaint of the Poor Commons of Kent”, outlining the King’s transgressions against the people of Kent. The first point was a declaration of innocence for the Duke of Suffolk’s murder. The remainder of the Complaint detailed the rampant corruption of the King’s men, including unfair taxation, extortion, “perversion of justice”, ruination of the economy, and election fraud. Cade called for an army to give the demands the force of arms. 5000 beggars, shopkeepers, artisans, peasants, destitute soldiers, and outlawed knights and nobles responded.
Initially, the King didn’t take the uprising seriously. He dispatched a small force of knights and men at arms to put it down, but they were ambushed and destroyed in June. Shortly thereafter, the King’s attitude changed when his personal confessor, the Bishop of Salisbury, was tortured and killed by a Kentish mob, as Jack Cade and his army marched on London. The Bishop of Salisbury was the second most powerful man in England, since he knew all of the King’s dirty secrets, and there was no telling what he told rebels. King Henry VI and his court fled London.
Jack Cade struck the London Stone, declared himself the mayor, and set about finding King’s men to try and punish. Cade’s rebels and the people of London existed harmoniously for but a few days. Cade couldn’t keep control of his men. Despite assurances that the rebel army would respect the people of London and their property, Cade’s men began to get drunk and loot. The Londoners understood the behavior of the king’s men better than most, but lost their sympathy for the rebels quickly. On 8 July 1450, the Londoners marched across the London Bridge determined to storm the White Hart Inn where Cade lived and oversaw his tribunals. Cade’s men met them half way. The bloody Battle of London Bridge saw the defeat of Cade’s rebels, and they retreated from London.
Despite the rebel loss, the next day the Lord Chancellor convinced the King to issue pardons and accede to the rebel’s demands in The Complaint of the Poor Commons of Kent. The King did so and the remainder of Cade’s army dispersed. King Henry VI revoked the pardons almost immediately. His men hunted down Cade and the rebels now that they were no longer an army. The King’s men were largely successful. On 12 July, Cade was wounded fighting his pursuers, and died before he could be brought to trial. Henry didn’t care though: he gave the body a mock trial in which Cade was found guilty. Cade’s body was then hung, drawn, quartered, and beheaded, with the parts displayed publically all over Kent until they fully decomposed.
Cade’s Rebellion was unsuccessful but the king’s duplicitous behavior inspired numerous smaller uprisings across England. Worse, the king’s double cross confirmed to his rivals that there was no negotiating with him. If there was any justice in England, it was not going to come from king and his lackeys. Support for the king evaporated in the countryside. The wronged people of England began looking for a new monarch to support, and they found one in the Lancaster’s bitterest rival, the banished House of York. A few weeks after Cade’s Rebellion, Richard of York returned from his exile in Ireland. In 1455, Richard’s White Rose of York was in open rebellion against the Red Rose of Henry VI’s House of Lancaster, in what later became known as The War of the Roses.