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
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.
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.
On All Hallow’s Eve, 1517, local teacher, professor of theology, and Augustinian monk, Martin Luther posted a proposal for a public debate on the door of Wittenberg castle’s church regarding the sale of indulgences by traveling Dominican friars. In 1517, indulgences were certificates guaranteed by the Pope that the bearer would not have to spend time in Purgatory for their earthly sins. Luther had drawn up a list of 95 theses which were his concerns, not specifically against indulgences themselves, but with their sale without any true contrition. He wanted to provoke debate, something he was very good at, and reform the Church, not break with it.
There is no evidence of Luther actually “nailing his theses to the door”. However, that day Luther did send copies of his 95 theses to Albrecht the archbishop of Mainz and Jerome the Bishop of Brandenburg, who forwarded them to the Pope. The bishops then let the matter drop. Stymied by his chain of command’s inaction, Luther sent his 95 theses to several friends throughout Germany. These friends promptly had many more copies made on one of the newest inventions of the Renaissance, the printing press. Luther gained a following and the Dominicans’ revenue from indulgences dropped. At the powerful Dominican order’s request, Pope Leo X issued a decree demanding the following of the Dominican practice of indulgences, which Luther and his adherents ignored. He wouldn’t give in without his debate.
Prominent German theologian John Eck took up Luther’s gauntlet. In July 1519, the two debated in Leipzig. Eck got the best of Luther, but only because Eck slandered him by pointing out that a century before, Jan Hus also thought indulgences were sacrilegious. This bit of sophistry horrified Luther, who had accepted Jan Hus and his failed Hussite rebellion in Bohemia in 1414, as the height of heresy. There were quicker ways to get burnt at the stake than by being called a “Hussite”, but not many.
Luther dug into Hus’ teachings to refute Eck. However, he found that he was actually fully in agreement with Hus, and speaking to his followers, said, “We are all Hussites without realizing it.” Luther began a proper campaign of book and pamphlet writing espousing and clarifying his thoughts on the Church, which due to the printing press, spread rapidly throughout Europe. It was at this point that Luther began calling for a break with the Church of Rome.
At several points in those formative years of the Protestant churches, Luther could have easily been declared heretical and burned at the stake. However, Luther had a powerful benefactor, the Elector Frederick of Saxony, who did not want his star orator and teacher, and Saxony’s most famous subject, harmed. When Luther was summoned to Rome to explain his views (where he would have almost certainly been killed), Frederick convinced the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximillian, to allow Luther to debate the Dominicans in Augsburg. The ailing Maximillian, who needed Frederick’s vote to get his grandson Charles elected as the next Emperor, was only too glad to accommodate Luther.
After Charles was elected Emperor, the politics of the Holy Roman Empire continued to be more important than the “Monk’s Quarrel”. Under Frederick’s protection, “Lutheranism” spread throughout Europe. In 1521, Luther was at the height of his popularity, and Charles requested that he explain himself at the Diet of Worms, fully expecting Luther to recant. But Luther did no such thing, and many of the members of the Diet called for his immediate execution. However, Charles honored his promise of Luther’s safe conduct. The Diet was called because Charles needed funds to fight the Turks, who had just recently captured Belgrade, which opened up the Hungarian Plain to Turkish raids and incursions. Frederick was by far the richest elector in the Empire, and Charles needed his support.
After securing Frederick’s support, Charles did outlaw Lutheranism, but by then it was too late. Luther translated the New Testament from Latin to German, so that “every man can be his own priest”, which broke the power of the clergy and “democratized salvation”. Due to Luther’s superior rhetorical skills, prolific book writing and pamphleteering, which was compounded by the printing press, Lutheranism could no longer be contained. It had spread throughout Germany, France, the Low Countries, and even England.
The Protestant Reformation would eventually set Europe on fire. It would take over a hundred years of bitter and bloody internecine warfare before most Catholics and Protestants realized religion wasn’t worth killing each other over.
1587 was a critical year in the Counter Reformation. Protestant Queen Elizabeth I of England was funding and supporting the Dutch revolt against the Catholic Spanish in Eighty Years War in Flanders and the Spanish Netherlands. When Elizabeth beheaded Mary Stuart in February, it deprived English Catholics of a leader to rally around, and Phillip II of Spain decided that the only way England could be brought back into the Catholic fold was to invade. Phillip authorized “the Enterprise”, the Spanish Armada, to invade England that summer. The plan was for the Armada to defeat the English at sea, then convoy the Duke of Parma’s army, then in Flanders, to seize London, with the support of England’s beleaguered Catholics. Upon the news, Elizabeth’s most devoted champion, Francis Drake, immediately put to sea, and raided the Spanish anchorage of Cadiz. He destroyed thirty Spanish ships destined for the Armada, including the Marquis of Santa Cruz’ flagship. As devastating as this was, it paled to Drake’s subsequent raids off of Portuagal’s Cape St Vincent where Drake destroyed nearly a year’s production of barrel staves, without which the Armada was delayed a year. But before these consequences were realized, the Duke of Parma masterfully seized the port of Sluys on the North Sea for an embarkation point. But Sluys was suboptimal, what would be even better was a French port on the English Channel.
France was caught in the middle of the Anglo-Spanish War and the Counter Reformation in general. France’s Catholics were fighting the Protestant Huguenots in France’s “Wars of Religion” but in reality the conflict was a complicated three sided civil war known as the “War of the Three Henrys”. The first Henry was Henry De Guise, an influential French noble and an ardent Catholic. He was France’s most vocal member of the Holy League who took his instructions more from Spain and the Pope than the French monarch. The next was the last of the House of Valois and current French King, Henry III. Henry III was Catholic, and former King of Poland-Lithuania (long story), and a French nationalist. However, he was opposed to Habsburg hegemony through Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, and secretly thought that an alliance with England was the best way to prevent this. However, as a Catholic he had to officially oppose the third Henry, Henry of Navarre, the leader of Huguenot resistance in France. Henry, the King of Navarre, was next in line for the throne, but was a Protestant. In 1587, on behalf of France’s semi-independent Protestant nobles, he fought both Henry III’s ideas of a centralized monarchy and De Guise’s militant Catholicism. On the morning of 20 October 1587, the normally very competent and professional Henry of Navarre found himself surprised by a Catholic army under one of Henry III’s dandies, Anne de Joyeuse.
But Joyeuse wasn’t any ordinary courtier of the French king. Though an amateur, Joyeuse threw himself into warfare with as much enthusiasm as he did court politics. Joyeeuse’s superior force stole a night march on Henry and cornered him at the village of Coutras. The village was in a cul de sac between two rivers and Henry planned only to stay long enough to water his horses and rest for the night. However, he misjudged how far Joyneuse’s army was away, and was surprised to hear his pickets firing on the morning of 20 October 1587. Henry’s first thought was escape as a pitched battle would risk the entirety of the Huguenot leadership. And the village was a decidedly bad place to defend. However, he could possibly get away with the leadership and the cavalry, but the bulk of the army would have to be sacrificed. All he had was his reputation as a leader of men, and if he abandoned his army, that would never survive.
Henry began organizing his men in the field outside the town when Joyeuse’s army broke through the woods into the clearing opposite him. Fortunately both sides were equally disorganized, as the night march wreaked havoc on Joyeuse’s formation. By what seemed mutual agreement, both sides spent the next two hours forming battle lines. Joyeuses’ army was larger and better equipped. She had the crème of Catholic French nobility, the Gendarme, and the best troops De Guise’s money could buy. But Henry’s men were solid professionals and veterans of a hundred skirmishes and battles.
On the left, Henry’s cannon, masked by a marsh, were in place first and savaged the Catholic formation, forcing Joyeuse into a premature attack. Though on Henry’s right the tired light cavalry fell back, any Catholic advance was stopped amidst bitter fighting in the town. On the far right, Henry’s arquebusiers held strong along a shallow ravine. But these didn’t matter, the battle was decided in the center.
A thousand Catholic armoured knights in full plate and mail began at a walk, then a trot, then about a third of the way across the field, at a charge. It was too soon. The timing of a charge is a delicate matter: too late, and the knights were not at full speed, too soon, and the formation was ragged as the lesser horses couldn’t keep up. There was no such problem among Henry’s veteran heavy cavalry. They smashed the Catholic charge with a well-timed counter charge of their own. A massacre ensued. Joyeuse surrendered and offered a hundred thousand gold pieces in ransom, but was summarily shot though the head seconds later.
In 1587, there was no love lost between Catholic and Protestant in France. The Catholic French nobility was slaughtered, and the power of De Guise was diminished. More important, there would be no French Catholic support for a Spanish invasion of England. But Henry was also a nationalist, and didn’t want to see a weak French monarchy at the mercy of powerful French dukes. The slaughter of the radical French Catholics at Coutras directly led to the rise of nationalism at the expense of religion in France during the Thirty Years War (See Cardinal Richelieu). The Battle of Coutras kept France out of the Anglo-Spanish War, and two years later Henry III was assassinated by a Dominican monk who thought Henry III was not doing enough against the Huguenots. By Salic law, Henry of Navarre was crowned King of France, the first of the Bourbon line.
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.