Tagged: MiddleAges

Miyamoto Musashi Defeats Sasaki Kojiro

Miyamoto Musashi, considered by many to be the finest swordsman ever, and the author of “The Book of Five Rings” fought his most famous duel on an island in the straits between Honshu and Kyushu, Japan on 13 April, 1612.
He defeated his rival by arriving “late” which gave him three advantages over the hot tempered Sasaki Kojiro. First, his tardiness angered and unnerved his opponent (though he himself didn’t feel tardy). Next, when Kojiro inevitably executed his famous move, the “Swallow Cut”, the sun would be in his eyes, and Musashi could then fatally strike. And finally, Musashi would be able to use the tide to help escape Kojiro’s many students who would undoubtedly attempt to kill him when he won.
The duel unfolded exactly as planned. After escaping, Musashi felt a deep sadness that one of the world’s greatest swordsmen was gone, and his instruction lost forever. He vowed to never fight to the death again. It was Miyamoto Musashi’s last duel in which there was a fatality.

The Battle on the Ice

In the late 12th century, the Hanseatic League colonized the upper Baltic around Livonia (modern day Estonia and Latvia), and began converting the pagan Finnic and Ugric peoples there to Christianity. They formed the crusading order The Swordbrothers of Livonia to forcibly convert the pagans. But after a serious defeat in 1236, the Livonian Order merged with another order, the Teutonic Knights.

The Teutonic Knights, who were the most dedicated to the Baltic Crusades (or Northern Crusades, as opposed to the earlier crusades in the Middle East) were themselves defeated by the Mongols along with their uneasy Polish allies at the Battle of Liegnitz in 1241. Checked in the south by the Mongols and the already Catholic Poles, the Teutonic Knights turned north to lands adjacent to their Livonian brothers, and sought to expand their conquests at the expense of the only Russian entity that did not fall to the Mongols, the merchant republic of Novgorod.

Novgorod was not Roman Catholic, but Eastern Orthodox and a legitimate, even preferred target for the Baltic Crusades. The mid-13th Century was the high point of the schism between Orthodoxy and Catholicism; the Fourth Crusade captured Constantinople in 1204 from the Byzantines and in 1242 the city and a large portion of the Byzantine Empire was still part of a Roman Catholic state ruled by a transplanted French born nobility. A Teutonic conquest of rich Novgorod would be a serious blow to the primacy of Orthodoxy in Eastern Europe.

However, Novgorod was led by the young and energetic Prince Alexander Nevsky, who even at the age of 21, was a proven battle leader and adept politician. As the last remaining unconquered Kievan Rus holding, he knew the Teutonic Knights would take advantage of its weakness and attack the city. With the main Mongols army temporarily stymied by the vast marshlands to the east, he gathered his militia, some Mongol mercenaries who were left behind and bored, and the households of his boyars, or nobles, and attacked Livonia in the west, before they could do the same to him.

The raiding into Livonia in the cold March of 1242 brought the Teutonic Knights out of their castles before many of the “summer soldiers” (the crusaders, adventurers, and mercenaries that arrived every spring to loot and rape their away across the Baltic until it got cold.) could arrive. Nonetheless, the Teutonic Knights could muster 100 heavily armored brothers (easily the best trained and best equipped knights in Eastern Europe at the time), 800 superior German and Danish knights, and about 1800 Estonian, German, and Danish infantry.

Nevsky greatly outnumbered the Teutonic Knights but most of his army was of much lower quality. His best troops were the druzhina, the body guards and household companions of the boyars. That thousand was (very) roughly equivalent to the German and Danish knights if a bit more eclectic and not nearly as disciplined. His most numerous troops were the city militia of Novgorod and Finnic-Ugric tribesmen who knew the Teutonic Knights all too well. Though unarmored for the most part, combined they were a formidable mass at nearly 3500 men. Finally, Nevsky had 600 Mongol horse archers.

When the Teutonic Knights attempted to put an end to the embarrassing raids, Nevsky withdrew. The Teutonic Knights assumed that although Nevsky greatly outnumbered them, the poor quality of his troops wouldn’t be able to withstand a charge by the heavily armored knights. But Nevsky was just executing the time honored Russian tactic of withdrawing until turning and facing their attacker on the ground of their own choosing (See every invasion of Russia ever). On 5 April, 1242, Nevsky stopped marching and formed on the east bank of the frozen Lake Peipus.

By withdrawing to the east bank of the frozen lake, the Teutonic Knights were forced to charge across the ice to reach the Russian army. Nevsky drew up his men in three ranks with the tribesmen in front, the city militia behind, and the cavalry in the third, screened by the first two. The knights thundered across the lake and charged directly at the Russian infantry. Their target was Nevsky, as the army would disintegrate without him. However, their slipping and sliding on the ice lessened the blow significantly. The tribesmen and militia held despite horrendous casualties. In many places the ice broke under the immense weight of the charging knights. Fortunately for them Lake Peipus was shallow at the point where the battle was fought, so they didn’t drown. But many knights found it difficult to maneuver in the freezing water up to their stirrups or even knees, whether while engaging the spear and polearm wielding infantry dancing about the unbroken ice, or attempting to force their way through the unbroken ice to engage the infantry on shore. The surviving accounts of the battle describe the knights growing exhausted just from killing infantry, but they never broke. Moreover, the Knights never got close to Nevsky: he commanded from a position behind where he could effectively direct the battle in the Eastern tradition, unlike the Teutonic commander who was in the thick of the melee.

Once the Knights were committed, Nevsky then released some of his cavalry to flank the Knights to the south, while the horse archers did the same to the north. He kept the cream of the druzhina to await a suitable moment for a devastating counterattack. The Teutonic Knights saw the maneuvers, but the ice and the numerous infantry kept them from responding effectively. The horse archers in the north were particularly effective as the lighter horses were much more nimble on the ice, and the heavily laden knights could not effectively come to grips with the Mongols, who picked off the Danish knights at their leisure. The northern flank of the Teutonic line broke.

Nevsky ordered the remaining druzhina to charge into the gap. The Teutonic Knights were surrounded, and it was clear to everyone on the “field” of battle that the Knights’ cause was lost. Individually, then in groups, they began to cut their way out. The infantry routed and “countless Estonians were killed”. In their haste many perished when they traversed patches of thinner ice to avoid the pursuers and plunged into the icy water, which was much deeper the further they were away from the eastern shore.

Alexander Nevsky’s victory at the Battle on the Ice ended the Teutonic Knights’ ambitions on Russian territory. Once the Mongol threat subsided, they would eventually turn on Lithuania and Poland. Ten years after the battle, Nevsky was crowned Grand Prince of Vladimir, the supreme ruler of all Russians, and in 1547, he was canonized by the Eastern Orthodox Church. In 1938, the campaign and battle was immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s Soviet propaganda film, “Alexander Nevsky” which became very popular during the Second World War, even though it was taken out of circulation when Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union were allies between August 1939 and June 1941.

The Combat of the Thirty

With the death John III, Duke of Brittany (in today’s northeast France), the Houses of Blois and Montford fought for control of the Duchy in the Breton War of Succession, a “subwar” of the Hundred Years War between England and France. On 26 March 1351, thirty Breton knights and squires from French aligned House of Blois, and thirty English, Breton, and German knights, with squires and men at arms from English aligned House of Montford met at the “Place of the Midway Oak”.

The field was located between the castles of Plomeril and Josselin in Brittany. The arranged chivalric melee was to end the bitter raiding that plagued the lands of both Houses. After hearing Mass together, the two groups exchanged pleasantries and small talk for several hours before lining up to fight on trodden ground. The first clash was an inconclusive brawl in which many were wounded. Both sides broke off combat to tend the injuries, mingle, and share wine with their foes.

The second melee was much bloodier than the first and the wounded included the Blois leader, Jean de Beaumenoir. When he asked for water and a stop to the combat, his second replied “Drink thy blood, Beaumanoir; thy thirst will pass”. The combatants of Blois eventually broke the Montfords after killing their leader, the Englishman Robert Bramborough, and riding down the unhorsed Germans who attempted to form a shield wall on the open ground. Seven were killed on the Montford side, three on the Blois side (including the leaders of both) and everyone else was wounded, most seriously.

Everyone captured recovered from their wounds and were released after a small ransom. House Blois would eventually control Brittany, or “Little Britain”: one of the Six Celtic Nations. Up to that point, Brittany was much more culturally aligned with their liegemen across the channel, the Cornish of the southwest Kingdom of England. However the House Blois renounced any ties to England and became part of France, where it remains today.

The Battle of Castagnaro

By the Late Middle Ages, the increased trade with the Near East and Levant during and after the Crusades brought great riches to the small Italian city states. This patchwork of small ultra-rich petty kingdoms and merchant republics formed intense but ever changing rivalries with each other, whose political and military needs far exceeded what the mostly feudal societies could traditionally provide for, especially against the large armies of their neighbors. To fill their ranks, the ruling Italian families turned to contracts or “condotto” with professional mercenaries, or “condottieri”, literally contractors.
In 1360, the first phase of the Hundred Years War ended with the Treaty of Bretigny. Thousands of semiprofessional knights and their retinues were out of work. They had lived on the “chevauchée”, the looting and pillaging raids through the French countryside that forced the great feudal armies of France to attack the smaller but more professional English armies of knights and longbowmen to disastrous consequences. The less disciplined became brigands *spit*, but the more organized formed mercenary companies. Seeking richer lands, many made their way (while continuing to pillage across France) south to Spain to fight the Moors, or to Italy to seek employment as condottieri. One such company was the White Company, led by Sir John Hawkwood.
Sir John Hawkwood was the third son of a tanner and former English longbowman. He participated in all of the campaigns and battles of the first phase of the Hundred Years War including those at Crecy and Portiers. Sometime during that time he was knighted, and came to lead the White Company. In 1361, he made his way to Italy and for the next twenty years rose to be known as the greatest condottiero (mercenary warlord) through employment with the Papacy, Florence, Milan, and a host of others on a peninsula wracked by wars ostensibly caused by the Western Schism of the Papacy.
In 1387, Hawkwood was employed by the small city state of Padua which found itself invaded by the much more powerful Verona. The Veronese army was over 20,000 and included rival condottieri, the Veronese nobility, and thousands of peasants. The Paduan army stayed to prepare the city for defense, but sent Hawkwood with 8000 condottieri to slow the Veronese. True to form, Hawkwood launched his own chevauchée into the Veronese countryside, and forced his adversaries to chase him down. This allowed him to turn and face them at a place of his choosing. He chose to defend along the small canal at Castagnaro and anchored his right in a small wooded patch along the river.
On 11 March 1387, Hawkwood drew up his 6000 dismounted condottieri and archers along the canal and stuck his standard in the center of his line. The Veronese approached and filled the canal with fascines (bundles of branches), and charged across the canal directly at the White Company’s banner. With the death or capture of their war lord, the Veronese were sure the Paduan condottieri would stop fighting, as they wouldn’t get paid. The outnumbered Paduan army began to give way, and the banner was overrun. But Hawkwood could not be found, and the Paduans unexpectedly continued to resist.
Once the bulk of the Veronese were committed, Hawkwood’s second launched a flaming arrow above the woods. Hawkwood then sprung the trap.
2000 knights and mounted sergeants emerged from the woods with the 64 year old condottiero in the van with the real White Company banner fluttering triumphantly in the breeze. Screaming their war cry “Carne!” (or “The Flesh!”, a play on the ruling Paduan family’s motto “Carte!” or “The Cart”) Hawkwood and his heavily armored knights crashed into the flank of the Veronese line, and scattered the peasants and much of the lesser infantry. When the charging mass approached the much better armed Florentine and Veronese knights and nobility, they began to falter (mercenaries don’t get paid if they’re dead). However, Hawkwood threw his commander’s baton into the Veronese ranks and offered triple pay to any man who retrieved it. The charge for the baton broke the remainder of the Veronese army.
The Battle of Castagnaro was Sir John Hawkwood’s greatest victory, one of the greatest battles of the Golden Age of the Condottieri, and Padua was saved… at least for a few years.