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.
The Eastern Roman Empire, named so since its capital, Constantinople, sat on the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, had survived for a thousand years after the fall of Rome to the Goths in the 5th century CE. Beset on all sides, the Byzantine Empire’s resilience was rooted in its flexible and efficient multi-layered defense system. The system began with a superior intelligence and diplomatic organization managed from the “Office of Barbarians”. Should an invader actually attack, they first met the buffer states, Georgia, Armenia etc which provided time for a series of well stocked and provisioned border fortresses to be manned. These strongpoints fixed invaders so they could be defeated by the free peasants of the “themes” or provinces, and the semi-autonomous regional professional armies or tagmata. All of which if necessary could be reinforced by the Emperor’s personal guard and the nobles levy from Constantinople.
This system ended with the catastrophic defeat of the cream of the Empire’s troops at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. The Byzantine system was amazingly effective on the defense but cumbersome on the offense. In an attempt to expand and recover land lost to the spread of Islam, the emperors during the prosperous 11th century undermined their own defense by making the system so efficient it was no longer effective . Moreover they imposed crushing taxes on the thematic troops, and tried directly controlling the buffer states, namely Armenia, the bulwark of the eastern approaches. In the confusion of the Armenian War, the Seljuk Turks broke into Anatolia and crushed the Byzantine Army sent to expel them. The Byzantines would never recover. No longer would Asia Minor be solely Byzantine: a patchwork of Turkic tribes occupied central and eastern Anatolia.
Over the next 400 years, one tribe would reign supreme and unite the others – the Ottomans. Under a historically uncommon string of energetic, confident and piousleaders, the Ottomans developed their own effective system of offensive jihad. They expanded over Asia Minor and into the Balkans, leaving the Byzantine Empire with just the Peloponnese, Thrace, and the capital, Constantinople.
Constantinople was the Byzantine trump card. If all else failed, the walls of Constantinople had held. They had never been forcibly breached (They had been penetrated by the knights of the Fourth Crusade, but only because a guard left a sally port open). The first ring of the city’s defensive walls was built by Emperor Constantine when he moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the city. The second and third rings were built in the 5th century by Emperor Theodosius II. Over a thousand years, the Theodosian Walls had withstood twelve separate major sieges by the Rus, Arabs, Sassanids, Avars, Bulgars, Byzantine usurpers, and even the Ottomans.
The Theodosian Walls protected the landside approaches to the city and were 6.5 km long from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara. To breach the walls attackers first had to cross a 20m wide and 7m deep moat that could be flooded on command by a series of dams controlled inside the city. The first wall oversaw the moat and the second wall had firing platforms to cover both the moat and first wall. Behind that was the massive third wall which covered the first and second walls. The third wall was 5m thick and 12m high, with 96 towers, one every 70m, providing interlocking fields of fire. The walls and food stores were maintained by the cities’ various factions in an ingenious imperial competition that saw complete obliteration of the faction if the quotas and required work weren’t met. The seaward side of Constantinople was defended by the Imperial fleet which had a secure anchorage behind a massive chain that blocked the Golden Horn. Any assault from the sea was met by the fleet which was equipped with the infamous “Greek Fire”, a flammable concoction that produced a fire that couldn’t be put out with water, and only burned hotter the more you tried to smother it. Modern chemists have not been able to reproduce Greek fire.
However, unlike prior assailants, the Ottoman host in 1453 had several previously unknown advantages. First, Ottoman possessions in both the Balkans and Anatolia isolated Constantinople from assistance by land. The final Crusade called by the Pope ended in disaster in 1444 when Polish, Hungarian and Wallachian crusaders were defeated by Ottoman Sultan Murad II at the Battle of Varna in eastern Bulgaria. The only way to relive a besieged Constantinople was by sea, and by 1452, two massive fortresses closed the Bosporus to Christian ships. Moreover, despite Pope Nicholas V’s pleas, Christendom was not prepared to send assistance: France and England were war weary from the Hundred Years War, which would finally end that autumn. The Germans were busy fighting among themselves. The Eastern Europeans were still trying to hold back the Muslim tide in the Balkans in the wake of Varna. And Spain was in the final stages of the Reconquista. Only the Italian city states could send aid, and those that ran the blockade were woefully inadequate. Finally, Sultan Mehmed II had something that no previous besieger possessed: cannon.
In 1452, a German iron founder and engineer from Transylvania (then part of Hungary) named Orban was showered with funds by Mehmed to build the new German bombards that were revolutionizing siege warfare across Europe. Orban’s largest bombard was nearly 9m long and could hurl a 275kg cannon ball nearly a kilometer and a half (Almost a mile). It was crewed by 400 men and had to be dragged by 60 oxen. Orban’s great bombard was just one of 70 cannon at Mehmed’s disposal for the siege.
On Easter Sunday, 1453, Sultan Mehmed II arrived outside the walls of Constantinople with nearly 100,000 troops, 10,000 of whom were elite Janisaaries, 70 cannon, and 125 ships. Emperor Constantine XI and his commander Giovanni Giustiniani from Genoa had just 11,000 men of which 2000 were Venetian and Genoese and 600 renegade Turks, and 26 ships safely locked behind the great chain in Golden Horn. It wasn’t nearly enough.
Mehemd II immediately, but arrogantly, launched a series of frontal assaults with predictable results. The Byzantine defenders stood firm along the Theodosian Walls just as they had for a thousand years. Constantine XI tried to buy off Mehmed II, but the Sultan wanted the city for his new capital and he knew there would be no better chance to seize it than at that moment. The sultan unleashed Orban’s bombards which over the next six weeks systematically reduced the Theodosian Walls to rubble. To further spread out the Byzantine troops, Mehmed ordered his fleet painstakingly dragged overland and launched into the Golden Horn, bypassing the great chain. On 22 April, the Byzantines attempted to destroy the Ottoman fleet with fire ships, but a deserter warned of the impending assault and the Venetian ships were sunk before they could do damage. The surviving Venetian sailors were impaled on the north shore. In response, Constantine XI ordered the execution of all Ottoman captives, one at a time and in full view of the Ottoman army. The Ottoman fleet built massive floating firing platforms in the Golden Horn which forced the Byzantines to man the sea walls, spreading their few troops dangerously thin.
At night the Byzantines repaired the damage to the walls as best as they could and during the day they countermined. As the Ottomans pounded the walls from above, German and Serbians mercenary sappers undermined the walls from below. Throughout May 1453, dozens of small vicious battles occurred below ground as mines and countermines intersected. In the flickering torchlight, groups of nearly naked men fought with picks, shovels, knives, and fists against foes identified only by the language they screamed in the darkness. After capturing two Turkish officers, the Byzantines knew the locations of all the mines and successfully shut down the Ottoman mining operations. But it was just delaying the inevitable: the Theodosian Walls were breached in more than few places, and Constantine and Giustiniani simply didn’t have enough men to plug the gaps effectively. And no relief force was enroute. The Byzantines were doomed.
On 28 May, as the Ottomans were openly preparing for their final assault, the Byzantines and Italians held religious parades culminating with a co-denominational mass in the Hagia Sophia with both the Italian and Byzantine nobility in attendance. That mass was the first time Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox Christians celebrated mass together since the Great Schism of the 11th century and was the last Christian mass in the Hagia Sophia to this day.
On the morning of Tuesday, 29 May, 1453, as the moon waned in the sky, three great Turkish waves crashed against the Theodosian Walls and the sea walls along the Golden Horn. The first two were comprised of irregulars, Serbians, and Anatolian troops and were driven off with great loss by the Byzantines. They did however serve their purpose, they sufficiently weakened and disorganized the defense which was promptly exploited by the Janissaries. In short order, Giustiniani was mortally wounded, and his evacuation from the walls caused the Italians to collapse. Doffing his imperial regalia, Constantine was last seen leading a final futile charge against the Janissaries occupying the Kerkaporta gate. His body was never recovered. The remaining Byzantine soldiers fled home to protect their families while the Venetians and remaining Genoese fled to the harbor to escape.
That evening, Mehmed II rewarded his army with three days of loot, arson, murder, and rape in the city. Battles among the Turks erupted over the slaves and spoils. At the end of the three days, 20,000 of the 50,000 inhabitants of Constantinople were massacred, and the rest were sold into slavery. The Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque. The Byzantine Empire was destroyed and the Greek world would never recover. Ancient Rome’s legacy would live on for another thirty years in the Byzantine rump states of Trebizond and Morea. And with rare exceptions, the Ottoman Empire would go on to nearly unchecked expansion for another 220 years.
In the Greek world, Tuesday is known as a day of bad luck. And Turkey is the only Islamic state whose national flag features not a crescent, but a waning moon.
The town of Bellinzona was the chokepoint between the Swiss cantons above the St Bernard Pass in the north and the Po Valley via the Ticino river valley to the south. In 1419, during the confusion after Duke Gian Galeazzo Visconti died, several cantons of the Swiss Confederation bought the town from the Duchy of Milan, ostensibly to protect trade. Instead, Bellinzona became a staging area for the aggressive Swiss to raid vulnerable Milanese possessions. In early 1422, an exasperated Milan forcibly took the town back. The Swiss invaded.
The rise of the Duchy of Milan in the early Renaissance was due to the wealth and efforts of the powerful and ambitious Visconti family, and the military prowess of their chosen commander, the condottiero (a contracted mercenary warlord) Francesco Bussone of Carmagnola. Over the years, Bussone made short work of Visconti and Milanese rivals in northern Italy, but he’d be put to the test by the Swiss.
The defense of the fertile but isolated alpine valleys and plateaus forged a tough and independent Swiss people protected by formations of soldiers that differed in composition from their traditional enemies whom surrounded them on all sides. The relative lack of horses in the central Alps saw the prominence of infantry among its minor nobles. Moreover, the defense of the narrow passes against armies that relied upon the heavily armored mounted knight, gave rise to the extensive use of the halberd among the Swiss. A halberd is essentially an axe head attached to the top of a six to nine foot pole, with a spear head, a hook opposite the axe head, and a butt spike. Against horsemen it was a fearsome weapon: one could receive the charge with the spear point, chop the horse with the axe head, or pull the rider off the saddle with the hook, and finally quickly finish the vulnerable knight on the ground with the spike. In the 14th century the halberd was for all intents and purposes the Swiss national weapon, and they fielded forests of them.
In early April 1422, Bussone attacked the invading Swiss army with his mounted knights. The Swiss handily defeated them and continued on toward Bellinzona. But Bussone was a professional and wasn’t going to let the Swiss besmirch his so far untarnished reputation. He reorganized his army around defeating the halberd. He dismounted most of his knights and equipped them with pikes. Whether or not Bussone was influenced by the rediscovery of Ancient Greek and Roman texts that characterized the Renaissance in Italy by doing so is a subject for scholarly debate; the fact remains that Bussone’s new pikemen would not have been out of place among Alexander the Great’s sarrissa equipped phalanxes 1600 years before.
On 30 June 1422, Bussone met the Swiss outside the town of Arbedo. It would not be a repeat of the previous battle. The Milanese pikemen had an asymmetric four to six foot reach advantage over the Swiss halberdiers. The Swiss attempted to use their crossbowmen, the traditional counter to polearm wielding formations that were vulnerable to missiles, but they were chased back into the mass of halberds by the remaining Milanese knights. Bussone brought up his own crossbowmen, who poured fire into the flanks of the Swiss halberdiers.
Unable to mass their own crossbowmen, and slowly but surely ground down by the pikemen, the Swiss took massive casualties, and could do nothing except retreat or be annihilated. They were saved from total destruction only because a group of foragers appeared on the Milanese flank and Bussone mistook them for another Swiss formation. The Milanese reformed against the new “threat”, and the defeated Swiss escaped.
The battle of Arbedo checked Swiss ambitions in Italy for decades. Also, they took notice of the reasons for their defeat. Thereafter the Swiss almost universally adopted the pike as the new weapon for their infantry, and the halberd as a weapon wielded by the officers and file leaders.
For the next hundred years, phalanxes of mercenary Swiss pikemen would dominate warfare in Italy and Western Europe.
In the confused French dynastic struggles after the Hundred Years War, Charles the Bold, who was the Duke of Burgundy and brother in law to both the King of England and King of France, was more powerful than his liege lord, Louis XI of France. The Duchy of Burgundy at the time consisted of most of modern Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, and significant parts of France. At the conclusion of the truce made with Louis at Peronne in 1468, Charles seized some towns on the Somme, and in 1471 Louis declared him treasonous. The hot tempered Charles, who at this point saw no reason why Burgundy shouldn’t be an independent kingdom like France, England, or Austria, invaded. His intent was to unite with another rebellious vassal of Louis’, the Duke of Britanny. Their combined might could easily defeat the French king’s army.
The Burgundian army of Charles the Bold was the most modern fighting force of its time. Charles’ father Philip the Good learned the hard lessons of the Hundred Years War, when armies with small cores of disciplined full time professionals consistently out maneuvered and outfought much larger feudal levies. The Burgundian system was still based on feudal levies, but Charles demanded a large measure of discipline, training, and equipment from the men mobilized by his vassals. They were more recruited than conscripted. Those nobles whose men didn’t meet the standard faced fines, censure, and even confiscation of territory. Furthermore, he also reorganized his army into a combined arms formation of traditional, if updated and codified, medieval lances (a knight, squire, a sergeant at arms, all mounted, and three mounted archers, supported by a page and three foot soldiers: a handgunner, a crossbowman, and pikeman), professional mercenary halberdiers and pikemen (mostly Germans), and professional bowmen and crossbowmen (usually Welsh, or English, with Italian crossbowmen). Most importantly though, his army was integrally supported by cannon, which were relatively mobile for the time. Battles in the Middle Ages were rare; sieges were not. Charles’ inclusion of gunpowder units separated him from Louis XI’s similar reforms. The Burgundian army therefore looked more like a large and well drilled condottieri company that specialized in seizing fortified towns, than a traditional feudal army.
After crossing the frontier, Charles captured several French towns, and those that resisted paid the price. On 27 June 1472, Charles’ vanguard reached the town Beauvais and expected it to promptly surrender, based on his reputation alone. But the town resolve was stiffened by a tiny force sent by Louis, and by the remaining defenders of Roye, the town Charles sacked just two weeks before. Beauvais was heavily fortified, but the garrison was small and lacked cannon.
The competent and able commander of Charles’ vanguard immediately recognized that he had to storm the town quickly or Louis would be able to mass on the area and the Burgundian advance would be halted. He unleashed his cannon, created several breaches, and smashed one of the town’s gates, before he ran out of ammunition. That the Burgundian vanguard even had cannon surprised the defenders. The professional Burgundians rushed into the gaps.
The small French garrison could not hope to repel the attackers, but they received help from an unexpected quarter, the townspeople of Beauvais. They had heard what had happened to Roye and the other towns, and they were determined not to share the same fate. The men joined the French soldiers in the breaches and at the gate, though not on the walls because the Burgundian ladders were just a bit too short, a grievous oversight.
With the hand to hand fighting concentrated in the breaches and gate, the French archers and crossbowmen had free reign on the walls. They were supplied with a steady stream of arrows and bolts by the town’s women and children, who quickly joined in, throwing whatever was at hand: stones, boiling water, logs, and especially torches. They threw so many torches at the Burgundians that they caught the suburbs of the town and the remains of the gate on fire. This created an inferno through which Charles’ army had to pass. Nevertheless, the Burgundians continued the assault.
In the afternoon, it seemed Beauvais was lost, despite the efforts of the courageous townsfolk. The Burgundians seized a breach and began spilling onto the walls and into the town. However, the women and children threw themselves at the invaders with whatever they had: axes, knives, sticks, and torches. They kept the line from breaking, but the French were slowly pushed back. Just when it seemed the people of Beauvais would break, they looked up and saw an amazing sight: a young woman hacking her way across the wall.
A soldier was attempting to place the Burgundian flag on the wall above the breach to signify a breakthrough, and Jeanne Laisné, the daughter of a local peasant, attacked him with her father’s hatchet. She wounded the flag bearer and fought with such ferocity that he fell off the wall into the moat below. The sight of the French woman flinging a heavily armored man at arms into the moat and capturing the ducal banner of Burgundy electrified the resistance. The French defenders held on just long enough for two hundred lances sent by Louis to arrive in time push the Burgundians back out of the town. That night and the next day Louis’ army converged on Beauvais and the townpeople began the laborious process of repairing the breaches. They couldn’t repair the gate, so they tore houses down and turned the gatehouse into a bonfire. The Fires of Beuvais burned so hot that the gate was impenetrable to the Burgundians for nearly a week.
More French troops arrived and managed to enter the Beauvais before Charles could properly invest the town. The furious duke attempted to bombard the town into submission, but the French continued to valiantly fight on. The charred suburbs turned into a no man’s land where Burgundians were ambushed, assaults were disrupted, and skirmishes killed and wounded Burgundian troops that Charles’ could ill afford to lose. Every man he lost at Beauvais was one more that couldn’t fight against Louis’ main army then in Brittany.
By the end of July, Charles had 120 dead, including 20 lords killed leading charges, and more than three thousand wounded, many of whom eventually died. Heavy rains flooded his camp, and the moves to dryer ground made the encampment susceptible to raids by the people of Beauvais, killing and wounding even more. On 20 July 1472, Charles decamped and moved into Normandy.
Charles the Bold would never link with the Duke of Brittany and eventually returned to Burgundy after looting and pillaging his way across Normandy. His bid to establish the Kingdom of Burgundy at France’s expense came to nothing.
In contrast, Louis XI consolidated his power. In gratitude, he rewarded the town of Beauvais for its heroic stand. He exempted the town from many of his taxes, and relaxed many of the rules his nobles had placed. Louis inaugurated an annual parade through the town to honor the defenders, one in which the women and children march ahead of the men in honor of their ingenuity and sacrifices; a tradition that continues to this day. In particular, he rewarded Jeanne Laisné whom he christened Jeanne Hachette for her bravery, and exempted her family and her descendants from taxes for eternity.
In 1559, the Ottoman Sultan Mehemd II sent envoys to the Principality of Wallachia to inquire why the jizya (The Islamic tax on non-believers) had not been paid. Wallachia’s voivode, or prince, Vlad III Dracula (“Dracula” because he was the son of Vlad II Dracul) felt that his rule over Wallachia was sufficiently consolidated, and that he no longer needed the Turks. He knew war would come with the Ottoman Empire if he didn’t pay so in his customarily bloodthirsty manner, Vlad provoked one. He asked the envoys why they didn’t remove their turbans in his presence, and when they replied it was not their custom, he had his guards nail the turbans to their heads.
After ambushing and defeating the army the sultan sent for revenge, Vlad III Dracula invaded Bulgaria. He slaughtered, by his own words, over 25,000 Turks and Bulgars, “…without counting those whom we burned in [their] homes or the Turks whose heads were cut [off] by our soldiers…” In retaliation, Mehmed II sent a massive army of over 130,000 against Vlad to annex Wallachia outright.
Vlad could muster only about 30,000 men against this force, so he needed to reduce the Turkish numbers if he planned to defeat them in battle, or more likely, force them into a siege where the Turks could be weakened then annihilated. Vlad conducted a guerrilla campaign against the Turks with his cavalry, killing and capturing thousands of foragers and stragglers. He also sent diseased people into the Turkish camps in a crude form of biological warfare, and managed to infect part of the sultan’s army with the Bubonic plague and leprosy. Worse still, he conducted a scorched earth policy back across Bulgaria and into Wallachia. He killed or removed the people, poisoned the wells, salted the fields, burned the villages, rerouted rivers to make swamps, and rendered the castles indefensible, even in his own country. The Turks advanced into a wasteland. In mid-June 1462, Mehmed approached Vlad’s capital, the fortress city of Targoviste, where he knew Vlad planned to make a stand. A few days before the Turks invested the city, they paused and made camp to prepare. Vlad, who grew up among the Turks as a hostage but didn’t convert, snuck into the camp to assess his adversaries. He found them weak and disorganized.
On the night of 16-17 June 1462, Vlad III Dracula attacked the Turkish camp in daring torch lit raid for the specific purpose of assassinating the sultan. The charge of about 10,000 horsemen caused great confusion amongst the Ottomans. Vlad himself led the attack directly at the sultan’s tent. However, in the confusion of the assault, Vlad mistook the grand vizier’s opulent tent for the sultan’s. By the time he realized his mistake, the sultan’s Janissaries (elite warriors comprised of Christian boys forcibly converted to Islam then trained as soldiers) led by Vlad’s brother Radu, whom shared his time as a hostage, rallied and protected the sultan. The Wallachians withdrew back into Targoviste, unsuccessful in their mission.
It took the Ottomans several days to reorganize. Once ready, Mehmed advanced again on Targoviste intent on ending the Wallachian resistance once and for all time. He was not prepared for what he found in the fields just outside the city.
Vlad III Dracula was one of the most bloodthirsty men in history, for good reason. Even by the brutal standards of the day, Vlad set himself apart. His favorite form of torture and execution was “impalement”. During impalement, a long thick sharpened pole was inserted into the victim’s anus and the pole was then placed upright into the ground with the victim perched above. Over hours and sometimes days, the victim would slowly slide down the pole until sharpened end pierced out of the torso, or even the throat or mouth if the angle was correct. In an age of gruesome executions, impalement was probably the worst way to die.
On 23 June 1462, Mehmed approached Targoviste and found tens of thousands of his warriors and people impaled. All of the stragglers and any Turkish people Vlad captured, including prisoners from the recent raid, Vlad had impaled in front of Targoviste. An observer noted, “Twenty thousand men, women, and children had been spitted” and “There were infants too affixed to their mothers on the stakes, and birds had made their nests in their entrails…” The sultan called the grisly sight, “The Forest of the Impaled”. It had its intended effect on the Ottoman Army; Mehmed withdrew from Wallachia.
Thereafter Vlad III Dracula would be known as “Vlad Tepes” – Vlad the Impaler.
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.