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 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.
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.