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.
After the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Duke William of Normandy gained the English Crown and became King William of England, aka William the Conqueror. This technically made the King of England a vassal of the King of France. However, England under the House of Plantagenet was considerably more powerful than France under the House of Capet. This was particularly true when England added Gascony, Anjou, Aquitaine (basically all of western France) and parts of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, (and allied to Burgundy) to become the Angevin Empire in the 12th century. (Angevin because it was ruled by the royal line of Anjou of whom King Richard the Lionheart was its most famous member). The Capetian Kings of France wouldn’t stand for it and made it their mission over the next 250 years to enlarge the Kingdom of France at the expense of the Angevin Empire and the Kingdom of England. This led to the Hundred Years’ War in the 14th and 15th Centuries.
The first 91 years of the Hundred Years’ War: The naval battle of Sluys, chevauchee, knights, longbows, the Black Prince, the Dauphin, Battle of Crecy, the Black Death, Battle of Portiers, the Black Death, King Henry V, St Crispin’s Day, Battle of Agincourt, and the English declare victory.
The next 21 years: Joan of Arc, Siege of Orleans, The Sudden but Inevitable Betrayal by Burgundy, and the English lose everything except Normandy and a toehold in Gascony.
Toward the end of the war in 1449, King Charles VII of France violated the Treaty of Tours and invaded the last significant English possession on continental Europe, Normandy. The English gathered a small army and in March 1450 crossed the channel. The English army was mostly yeoman archers, which is how they won most of their battles in the last 100 years.
However, this time the French maneuvered them into a position where they could be attacked on three sides, so the English and Welsh bowmen could not concentrate their fire. The low number of heavily armed and armored knights and men-at-arms couldn’t adequately protect the the lightly armored archers. On 15 April 1450, the French knights, professional men at arms, and mercenary companies handily overran the English outside of the town of Formigny, on the road between Caen and Bayeux. As a result of the battle, all of Normandy except Calais would be ceded to the Kingdom of France, and effectively ended the Hundred Years’ War.
The formal peace treaty was not signed for another 20 years, but after the Battle of Formigny, the English no longer sought territorial possessions on the continent and turned their attention to the sea.
On Holy Thursday in the Year of Our Lord, 1300, the disgraced soldier, pharmacist, politician, and poet, Dante Alighieri – a Renaissance Man before there was a Renaissance – took a stroll through the woods outside his beloved Italian city of Florence. He soon became lost and was fell upon by a lion, a leopard, and a she-wolf. Dante was frightened and fled. In trying to escape, he ran deeper and deeper in the dark wood and became more and more lost. As the sun was setting, Dante met the spirit of the Roman poet Virgil. Virgil took him down the original “rabbit hole” to the underworld.
So began Dante’s journey into Hell. Over the next three days, he would need to explore its Nine Circles before finding the path to redemption through Purgatory and into Heaven…
Dante’s epic poem “Divine Comedy” was written from 1308 to 1320 and is the greatest Italian literary work. The Divine Comedy is a drama in modern terms, but in medieval Italy there were only two types of stories: Tragedies and Comedies. Their designation was based not on the form of the story like today but the ending. If the story ended poorly for the protagonist it was a tragedy; if it ended well it was a comedy.
The Divine Comedy consists of three books, Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Heaven). The entire work is an allegory for sin and redemption, and forms accurate depiction of the medieval world view. Dante’s fictional journey began on Holy Thursday, which in 1300 was the 25th of March.
Many people and medieval recreation organizations assume that the Middle Ages and the Medieval Era ended with the accession of Queen Elizabeth I to the throne of England in 1558, but that’s only because we speak English and English speaking historians like to place themselves at the center of the universe. Most medieval historians place the end of the Middle Ages 64 years earlier with France’s Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy in 1494 and the beginning of The Italian Wars.
During the Middle Ages, warfare was dominated by sieges of castles and fortified towns. Contrary to popular belief, medieval open field battles were rare: they were just too risky. Knights were expensive, soldiers were needed for the harvest, the fighting season was short, castles and walls were relatively cheap, it was difficult to corner an adversary, and most importantly, both commanders in an open field battle had to believe they could win or they wouldn’t risk it. Defenders almost always had the option of just waiting behind their walls until disease, lack of supplies, reinforcements, or the winter defeated the attackers. The list of sieges during Middle Ages dwarfs the relatively few, albeit dramatic, open field battles. This all changed in 1494.
For a thousand years since the end of the Roman Empire, the French considered the Italian peninsula their political playground. Italy at the end of the 1400s was in the midst of the Renaissance but was made up of a myriad of ultra-rich merchant families, Papal States, petty kingdoms, tiny principalities and small dukedoms. Playing politics with these small states was a French pastime. One of the largest and richest was the Kingdom of Naples, far down the Italian boot, which was reaping the benefits of Spain’s discovery of the New World. Charles the VIII of France wanted a piece of this new action. So he crossed the Alps in November of 1494 and invaded Italy.
The Pope and the Italians weren’t too worried. The French had done this before and always got caught up in sieges of the northern Italian city states, such as Milan, Florence, Bologna, and Venice. As they had dozens of times before, the French were sure to eventually go home when they ran out of money and couldn’t pay their Swiss pikemen, German landsknechts, or Italian condottieros (mercenaries). Even if they had the money, the wet and freezing Italian winters usually sent all but the most resilient home. But this time the French had a new weapon: siege cannon.
Cannon and gunpowder had been around for a few hundred years, but Charles VIII was the first to standardize it and make it mobile enough to accompany a marching army. Charles inherited the fruits of France’s victory in the Hundred Years War in the form of expanded Crown lands to the point that France was a proto-national state. He amassed the best metallurgists, artillerists, iron workers, bell makers, and wagon makers in the realm to improve the effectiveness and mobility of the massive medieval bombard. What they came up with was an 8 foot long bronze cannon on an integral carriage that fired fitted solid iron shot which was a great improvement over the ill fitting and time consuming to produce stone shot of the bombard.
Medieval castle walls were no match for his new guns. The speed in which Chalres’ gunners had the cannon in position amazed the Italians. Whereas medieval bombards requires days to position, Charles bronze cannon were in place and firing within hours. Moreover, the fitted solid iron shotwere more accurate, flew further on less gunpowder, and did more damage than the stone balls the Italians were used to. Even the thickest castle walls crumbled after a few volleys. Cities that normally took months to reduce through siege were taken in an afternoon. The Neapolitan fortress of Monte San Giovanni fell in eight hours; it had once withstood a siege for seven years. The French blitzed through northern and central Italy, and seized every major city in less time “than it would take to seize a villa”. It was truly a Revolution in Military Affairs.
The massive and beautiful castles of Europe, around which all medieval power was based, were instantly obsolete.
On 22 February 1495, Charles VIII triumphantly entered Naples, and his army celebrated their tremendous and historic success. But the Neapolitans got the last laugh: many of their sailors had just returned from Columbus’ expeditions to the New World. Along with their discoveries, they also brought back syphilis, common among the native Americans but unknown in Europe. They immediately gave it to the prostitutes of the city, whom then passed it on to the French soldiers. Charles’ Army took it back to France where “the French Disease” spread throughout Europe.
Along with syphilis, Charles’ invasion of Italy sparked fifty years of warfare on the Italian peninsula. Because of Charles’ cannon, it was much easier to take a city than it was to defend it, resulting in the resurgence of open field battle. Exactly thirty years after his capture of Naples, Charles’ son, Francis I, lost the Battle of Pavia on 24 February 1425. Pavia saw cannon used to great effect not only on walls, but also on troop formations. Unwilling to wait for his cannon to reduce the attacking Austrians, Francis unleashed his knights. The gallant charge of his gendarmes was the stuff of legend but it was of limited effectiveness. Much more importantly, the riders masked Francis’ cannon and cost him the victory. The Battle of Pavia was the last time that the heavily armored knight would play a major role on the field of battle.
In late 1114, Henry V (not that one, the Frankish version) the Holy Roman Emperor, invaded the Duchy of Saxony to assert his authority on Duke Lothair of Supplinsburg. Lothair was the Pope’s ally in the Investiture Controversy and supported the Pope’s demands to appoint local church officials. More practically, Lothair despised Henry’s heavy handed ways. Henry was a direct descendant of Charlemagne and believed he was a Roman Emperor no different than Nero, Augustus, or Marcus Aurelius.
On 11 February 1115, Lothair’s Saxon army met Henry’s Imperial army just outside the town of Welfesholz (in modern day Saxon-Anhalt, Germany). The Imperial Army was led by Henry’s field marshal, Count Hoyer of Mansfeld. The Imperial Army was defeated when a young knight slew Mansfeld in single combat during the battle. The Imperial Army army routed after witnessing Mansfeld’s death.
The battle effectively broke Imperial power and ended the destructive 50 year long “civil war” between medieval Germans that had stalled Central Europe politically and culturally. More importantly, the Battle of Welfesholz forced Henry, at the Concordant of Worms in 1122, to accept the Papal investiture of bishops in the Holy Roman Empire, and soon, all of Christendom.
Up to this point in the Middle Ages, Imperial dukes, counts, and princes relied on the bishops and clergy for the administration of their territories. Since the clergy had to be literate (to read the Bible) and Imperial nobility could appoint them, it made sense to have the loyal clergy administer the Empie. But after the Battle of Welfesholz and Concordant of Worms, the Empire’s administration was no longer solely loyal to the Emperor and his princes. The new Papal influence on bishops forced the Imperial nobility to create their own administrations separate from the clergy. A loyal secular administration demanded an increase in literacy among the population to fill the vacuum left by the potentially divided loyalties of the clerical (religious) staff.
The ability to appoint bishops greatly increased Papal and monastic influence across Europe and elevated members of the lower classes to unheard of power and glory in the process as Papal appointed clergy. And the nobility’s inability to appoint clergy in their realms meant a vast increase in noble military aged males with nothing to do. Where once they’d be chosen as priests and bishops, they now became barons, knights, or mercenaries. This massive influx of fighting men pushed feudalism to its natural limits and the Imperial lands became a patchwork of robber baronies and petty kingdoms that raided and warred upon each other.
In 1215, King John of England (the Sheriff of Nottingham’s evil boss in Robin Hood) was forced to sign the Magna Carta after his defeat in the First Baron’s War. The Barons revolted due to King John’s autocratic and tyrannical ways, and judicial favoritism for his supporters. The Magna Carta was a historically critical step towards rule by constitutionally bound parliamentary governments. However, the Magna Carta was just the most famous of a series edicts and documents in medieval England meant to limit the power of the king, and establish the rule of law, instead of rule at the king’s whim.
In 1264, King Henry III was the latest Anglo-Norman king to spread his chicken wings and ignore his agreements. In 1258, he and his barons signed the Provisions of Oxford. The Provisions established a permanent Privy Council of baronial and royal advisors for administration of the kingdom, and more importantly, a thrice yearly baronial council to parley with the king (a “parliament” in French) regarding all financial matters. True to form of most tyrants, King Henry III reneged on the agreement at the first opportunity. In 1263, King Henry III unilaterally raised taxes because he wanted to purchase the Kingdom of Sicily (long story). And again, his barons had to force him to comply by force of arms. The Second Baron’s War began when Simon de Montfort, the 6th Earl of Leicester, rallied the barons to force the king’s compliance with the Provisions of Oxford.
On 14 May 1264, Henry III and his son Prince Edward (the future King Edward “Longshanks”) met the barons outside of Lewes castle in Sussex, England. Henry III outnumbered the barons three to one, and Prince Edward was initially very successful leading the first charge which scattered the baronial cavalry from London on the far left of the line. However, Edward’s pursuit of the broken knights left his father uncovered. Forced to assault the baronial line unsupported, Henry’s army broke when Montford’s reserve smashed into Henry’s flank. Upon seeing the assault, the baronial yeomen and levy charged off the hill they were defending, routed the remainder of the King’s army, and seized the king. When Prince Edward’s victorious, but exhausted, forces returned to the battlefield, they were promptly defeated.
King Henry III was forced to sign the Edict of Lewes reaffirming the Magna Carta and the Provisions of Oxford. Prince Edward was held as a hostage to assure compliance and the battle led to the first session of the newly established parliament. However, Edward escaped later in the year and Henry III immediately tore up the Edict of Lewes, and vowed never to call a parliament again. Through Edward’s prowess, Henry III eventually fought the Barons to a negotiated settlement after a costly three years of war. But the barons fought on far longer than Henry assumed possible. This wasn’t lost on the young Edward.
Though successful, the Second Baron’s War taught Edward the hard lesson that he needed his subjects’ input in governing the kingdom. This was especially true if he was going to expand into Wales and Scotland, and retain Plantagenet lands in France. When he was crowned in 1272, King Edward I permanently established the English Parliament, in effect giving more than what the barons demanded, and fought for, during the war.