IN THIS ISSUE: Basil II’s lightning campaigns in the East
VOL ll, ISSUE 6
Frustrating the Fatimids: Basil ll and the conquest of Syria With:
• Cataphracts, Varangian Guard and Mamluks • Shock and awe: forced march to Aleppo Also:
• Harlech: the longest siege in British history • Eustace the Monk: a medieval pirate And much more!
GBP £ 5.99
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CONTENTS 4 Publisher: Rolof van Hövell tot Westerflier Editor in chief: Jasper Oorthuys Editorial staff: Dirk van Gorp (editor Medieval Warfare), Duncan Campbell (copy-editor) Marketing & media manager: Christianne C. Beall Contributors: Carl Pyrdum, Peter Konieczny, Andrei Pogăciaş, Jacopo Franceschini, Murray Dahm, Sidney Dean, Raffaele D’Amato, Vassilis Pergalias, Brian Burfield, Gareth Williams, Sander Govaerts, Sean McGlynn, David Balfour, Marc De Santis, Steve Pollington, Nils Visser. Illustrators: Giorgio Albertini, Carlos Garcia, Graham Sumner, Pablo Outeiral, Johnny Shumate, Jason Juta, Jan Pospisil, Rocio Espin, Jose Antonio Gutierrez Lopez.
NEWS AND LETTERS
A medieval Christmas tale from
Frustrating the Fatimids: Basil II and the conquest of Syria
the Siege of Rouen
The rule of Basil II The warrior emperor
The Fatimids From Ifriqiya to the walls of Aleppo
Editorial office PO Box 4082, 7200 BB Zutphen, the Netherlands Phone: +31-575-776076 (Nl), +44-20-8816281 (Europe), +1-740-994-0091 (US) E-mail: email@example.com Customer service: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: www.medieval-warfare.com Contributions in the form of articles, letters, reviews, news and queries are welcomed. Please send to the above address or use the contact form on www.medievalwarfare.com. Subscriptions Subscription price is €33,50 plus postage surcharge where applicable. Subscriptions can be purchased at shop.karwansaraypublishers.com, via phone or by email. For the address, see above. Distribution Medieval Warfare is sold through retailers, the internet and by subscription. If you wish to become a sales outlet, please contact us at service@karwansaraypublishers. com. Copyright Karwansaray B.V. All rights reserved. Nothing in this publication may be reproduced in any form without prior written consent of the publishers. Any individual providing material for publication must ensure that the correct permissions have been obtained before submission to us. Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders, but in few cases this proves impossible. the editor and publishers apologize for any unwitting cases of copyright transgressions and would like to hear from any copyright holders not acknowledged. Articles and the opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of the editor and/or publishers. Advertising in Medieval Warfare does not necessarily imply endorsement. Medieval Warfare is published every two months by Karwansaray B.V., rotterdam, the Netherlands. PO Box 1110, 3000 BC rotterdam, the Netherlands.
‘Men of Harlech’ Surviving the longest siege in
Special thanks goes to Carlos Garcia, Sidney Dean, Jacopo Franceschini and Vassilis Pergalias for their help with the map. Design & layout: MeSa Design (www.mesadesign.nl) Print: PublisherPartners (www.publisherpartners.com)
They should have meat and drink
The Companions of the Green Tents The use of firearms in a rural revolt
The last in a long line The Taktika of Nikephoros Ouranos
Varangian Guard and Mamluks Elite foreign soldiers of Byzantium
48 Scourge of the seas Eustace the Monk
and the Fatimids
The Roman tank of the eleventh century The amour and equipment of the
28 Forced march through Anatolia
Shock and awe against the
Reviews Books and games
58 On the cover
ISSN: 2211-5129 Printed in the European Union.
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NEWS & lEttErS
Erratum left figure in the article (shown on the right in this news section) represents a light Magyar cavalryman, while the right (below on the left) portrays the transylvanian warrior. the author is in no way responsible for this error.
© Graham Sumner
Dirk van Gorp Editor, Medieval Warfare magazine
© Graham Sumner
the article of Andrei Pogăciaş, entitled ‘the growth of Magyar power in the west – From Pannonia to the west’, in Medieval Warfare issue II-4 (‘the steppe warrior defeated: Otto I versus the Magyars’) contains an error caused by a sudden change in lay out. According to the caption of the illustration (made by Graham Sumner) on page 11, the left figure is a transylvanian warrior, while the right is a light Magyar cavalryman. this is incorrect. the
Vikings were “first to begin criminal profiling” The Saga of Egil Skallagrimsson tells the story of a tenth-century Viking warrior who took part in raids in Europe and often fought with his own neighbours in Iceland. When his life’s story was written in the thirteenth century, was the author using him as an example of the type of man that society had to worry about? Tarrin Wills, a researcher in the University of Aberdeen’s Centre for Scandanavian Studies, believes that Viking societies themselves were deeply concerned about these violent and unpredictable individuals – so much so that they took on the role of early criminal profilers, drafting descriptions of the most likely trouble-makers. Wills presented his research at the British Science Festival, one of Europe’s largest science festivals, when it was held this year in Aberdeen. After examining the Icelandic sagas, Wills believes that its authors pinpointed physical characteristics of high testosterone levels – known to cause violent behaviour – creating some of the earliest ‘criminal mugshots’ (police photographs). “I followed this lead by reviewing the scientific literature on physiological and behaviour traits linked to testosterone”, said Wills. “the profiles seemed to describe patterns I was familiar 4
with in early thirteenth-century Icelandic literature so I began to look deeper. Most of what we currently know about Vikings was written down by early Icelanders, and I found clear indications that the authors of these sagas were acutely aware of the markers of high testosterone. “they describe legendary warriors such as Egill – who committed his first homicide aged just six – in terms of physical appearance, such as the width of their foreheads, heavy eyebrows or beards, and receding hairlines. All these things are known to be indicators of high levels of testosterone, but it is highly unusual for men to be depicted in this way in literature from this period. Normally, you find descriptions of people to be restricted to things relevant to the plot, or which indicate a person’s wealth and status within society, such as how they are dressed or their complexion.” Dr. Wills said that further research indicates that the Vikings developed their own understanding of how physiology and behaviour interact, and that they used this knowledge to identify potential trouble-makers. “Iceland in the time of the Vikings was akin to the Wild West
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NEWS & lEttErS
– an open territory with lots of young men, where each person was trying to acquire enough land for himself, a wife and family. As a result it was extremely competitive and often violent. the Vikings did have a sophisticated legal system, but in Iceland they did not have a state to enforce it”, said Wills. literature from the time indicates that there was great concern about how to control antisocial behaviour in such a society. It is this concern, says Dr. Wills, that resulted in a sophisticated literary tradition which documents the problems of Viking society. Many of the sagas relate to the tenth century but were not written down until the thirteenth century, when violence had escalated further. the authors of many sagas are unknown, but it is thought that they were written by or on behalf of wealthy farmers. these were people with particular reason to be concerned by violent behaviour and who would have been eager to protect their own territory. Dr. Wills added: “What can be seen by examining the literature is that those who recorded the sagas realized that physical features were significant when it came to those most likely to behave in violent ways. It seems they were sensitive not only to antisocial behaviour – everything from insults to homicide – but
found ways of understanding the biological relationship to that behaviour. “In this sense they were perhaps the first to begin criminal profiling. These early Viking authors pinpointed the physical markers of testosterone, including them in descriptions of great warriors, but this text was not created so much as a record of achievement in battle, but to address what was seen as the problem at home. As a result they served as ‘mugshots’ of likely offenders and as a warning to wider Viking society.” From Egil’s Saga: “Egil was large-featured, broad of forehead, with large eyebrows, a nose not long but very thick, lips wide and long, chin exceeding broad, as was all about the jaws; thick-necked was he, and big-shouldered beyond other men, hard-featured, and grim when angry. He was well-made, more than commonly tall, had hair wolf-gray and thick, but became early bald. He was blackeyed and brown-skinned.”
This news item has been provided by Peter Konieczny, one of the editors of Medievalists.net.
The eyes have it If the Fatimids hadn’t been so impatient, this issue of Medieval Warfare might have needed to be put off at least until winter 2015, as, when hostilities flared between them and the Byzantines in 991, there were still three years left in the sevenyear truce they’d agreed to in 987. The breaking of a truce is, of course, not so rare a thing in the Middle Ages as to warrant comment (these things just happen), but the peace that never got to qualify for the name of the Seven Year truce was noteworthy in at least one regard: accounts of the negotiations that produced the truce survive, written from each side’s point of view, both Muslim and Byzantine. You’d be forgiven if your eyes glazed over on reading those accounts, however, as they devote a great part of their wordcount to the lineages of each monarch’s advisors and the minutiae of land-tax swaps and new border lines. there is one detail, though, in the Muslim version of events that is interesting enough to devote this column’s word-count to. While discussing the fate of Bardas, at the time held prisoner by the Fatimids, the Muslim envoy gets in a little dig at his Byzantine counterpart by pointing out that, really, being a Muslim prisoner isn’t half bad. “While he is with us, at least he won’t have to worry about having his eyes gouged out”, the envoy observes. It might be tempting to see the echo of the mobster’s shakedown here (“You’ve got a lovely pair of eyes there, Bardas. It’d be a shame if anything were to happen to them”), were it not for the unsettling frequency with which Byzantine nobles tended to lose their eyes in the tenth century. The mutilation of one’s political enemies was a well-established custom in the eastern Empire, so well-established that lists of emperors and the rebellions they faced can read like an organ donor facility’s
transplant list (Heraklonas, nose slit; Martina, tongue cut out; John Athalarichos, nose and hands amputated; theodorus, nose, hands, and one leg amputated; and row upon row of blinded, blinded, blinded). Byzantine historians routinely specify, when describing the fates of the subjects of their histories, whether a given blinding had been “humanely” or “violently” carried out. Indeed, modern historians have to carefully footnote the Muslim envoy’s text to make it clear that the blind noble Leo Phokas he describes as an advisor to Basil II is Leo Phokas the Younger, who was blinded for plotting a revolt against Emperor John I Tzimiskes, and not the blind noble Leo Phokas the Elder, his father, who was also blinded for rebelling against an emperor (in his case, Romanos Lekapenos). And, for the record, the former was violent, the latter humane. thus, the envoy’s little dig was entirely appropriate. Of course, he couldn’t have imagined just how appropriate his words would turn out to be. After this business with the Fatimids had been brought to a satisfactory close some years later, Basil II would turn his attention to Bulgaria, there earning the name ‘Bulgar-Slayer’ for, as the story goes, taking 15,000 captives after the Battle of Kleidion and sending them home in groups of 100, with 99 blinded in both eyes and the hundredth lucky captive left with a single eye with which to guide the others home. that makes 29,850 eyes put out in one go. Clearly, Basil II was going for some sort of All-Time Byzantine Eye-Gouging record.
Carl Pyrdum’s column On the margins appears every two months in each issue of Medieval Warfare magazine. He also maintains a blog, Got Medieval, at www. gotmedieval.com. Medieval Warfare II-6
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The warrior emperor
The rule of Basil II Basil II was the son of the Emperor Romanos II, of the Macedonian dynasty, and was one of several emperors to hold the title Porphyrogenitus – ‘Born in the Purple’. Born in 958, he occupied the throne in Constantinople from 10 January 976 until his death on 15 December 1025. By Andrei Pogăciaş
His personality and deeds were described in many contemporary chronicles, and in later centuries. the works of N. Bryennios, Attaliates, Anna Comnena, Zonaras, Manasses, Yahya of Antioch, and especially Michael Psellos give the image of a strong man, who evolved from a shy and merry prince to become a rough, battlehardened emperor.
Warrior and administratror When Emperor Romanos II died in 963, Basil and his brother Constantine VIII were minors, so their mother, the Empress theophano, became regent. However, with the help of parakoimomenos Basil lekapenos, who held “general supervision of the government” (Michael Psellos, Chronographia, paragraph 19), was chief eunuch in charge of the Palace, and also uncle of the boys, general Nikephoros Phokas took power in Constantinople, married Basil’s mother, and occupied the throne. Nikephoros and the two boys became co-emperors, as they are also figured together on contemporary coins. In 969, Nikephoros was assassinated by another general, John Tzimiskes. The Patriarch did not allow John to marry Theophano, so he sent the Empress into exile and kept the two boys in the capital, close to him. Only in January 976, after the death of Tzimikes, could Basil and his brother finally occupy the throne. Although their situation during all these years seems to have been favourable, without imprisonment or physical and mental abuse, the memory of the troubles in the imperial palace and the risks they brought must have left a permanent mark in Basil’s mind. He kept a “relentless hatred” (Chronographia, paragraph 6
19) against Lekapenos, removed him from office as soon as he had the chance, and exiled him. Although co-emperor with his brother, Basil held the real power during their reign. Constantine VIII simply didn’t interfere with affairs of state in this period, and only ruled from 1025 until his death in 1028. From the beginning, Basil’s reign was challenged, between 976 and 989, by two generals, Bardas Skleros and Bardas Phokas, whom he eventually defeated. the first was the domestikos (general) of the armies in the East, who rebelled against the rule of Basil. Using the generalship of Bardas Phokas, Constantinople defeated Skleros. Bolstered by this victory, Phokas rebelled in his turn, starting a bitter struggle with Basil, who would only be able to defeat the rebel in 989 with the substantial aid of 6000 rus’ warriors. these civil wars had a major impact on the young ruler, as they seemed to have taught Basil to be ruthless in war. Allegedly, when he managed to defeat and capture the rebel general Bardas Skleros, he received the latter’s advice – “Cut down […] the governors who become overproud. let no generals on campaign have too many resources. Exhaust them with unjust exactions, to keep them busied with their own affairs. Admit no woman to the imperial councils. Be accessible to no one. Share with few your most intimate plans” (Chronographia, paragraph 28) – a lesson taken to heart by the ruler who would become a legend among the emperors of Constantinople. Beside his qualities as internal administrator, the emperor lives on in history as one of the warrior rulers of the Byzantine Empire, campaigning on all the borders and mastering an efficient diplomacy to ensure the peace in his state. Psellos leaves a very detailed description of the emperor, and clearly noticed
his deeds, as well as the changes in his personality, evolving from when he was a young, joyful prince, until he became a powerful ruler. the description of both physical and moral characteristics is made in a very objective way, qualities alternating with nicely concealed defects. According to the chronicler, the emperor had always been alert, intelligent and thoughtful. While young, prince Basil used to lead a voluptuous, carefree life, indulging in lavish feasts and enjoying the company of many women. His activities consisted mainly in having fun and enjoying the indolent atmosphere of the court. He took full advantage of his youth and unlimited power, caring for nothing but his own pleasures. The complete change in his character occurred after the initial events in his rule, when faced with internal rebellions and external threats. Psellos clearly states that the wars against the notorious Skleros and Phokas turned the young prince into a serious man. Against the two, the emperor himself took part in the battles, and “had just begun to grow a beard and was learning the art of war from experience in actual combat” (Chronographia, paragraph 14). Psellos notes that, after the defeat of the rebels, the emperor became suspicious of everyone, secretive, ill-tempered, and ruthless against those who didn’t carry out his orders and wishes. He became energetic and fixed on clear purposes. to others, he always seemed rough, austere, and stubborn, sober in his daily activities and “averse to all effeminacy” (Chronographia, paragraph 4), as he refused to wear any kind of bodily ornaments, such as coloured clothes, rings, necklaces, or diadems. He quickly gained control over all domains, foreign and domestic, and treated everybody, even his brother, with
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arrogance. As he grew older, he governed alone, without taking any kind of advice, both in military and civilian matters. He even avoided governing in accordance to the written laws, and preferred following his intuition, which, according to Psellos, “was most excellently equipped by nature for the purpose” (Chronographia, paragraph 29). As for his personal appearance, Psellos excels in a rather poetic description of Basil. His eyes were light blue, fiery, and shining with intelligence; the eyebrows were well arched and proud; his face was round, his neck firm, and a broad chest matched a harmoniously proportioned body. the Emperor was not tall, even according to the standards of the day, but always held an upright and proud stance. According to Psellos, he was an excellent horse rider, and was majestic on horseback, reminding all of the great statues of the classical era. He used to roll his beard between his fingers, especially when angry, when giving an audience, or when engaged in deep thought. “Another [habit] was to put his fingers on his hips, arms akimbo. He was not a fluent speaker. the phrases were not rounded off, nor were they lengthened out into periods. In fact, he clipped his words, with little pauses between them, more like a peasant than a man of good education. He had a loud laugh, which convulsed the whole of his body.”(Chronographia, paragraph 36). He was never married, and had no known children. He didn’t rely much on the aristocracy, whom he didn’t trust, and favoured the lower classes. However, at his death, the treasury of the state was full, because of his careful financial management.
A military life Besides the civil war against the usurpers, Basil had to deal with external threats. A dynamic soldier, he watched the borders closely and visited the garrisons there, because, as Psellos writes, “his ambition, in fact, was to purge the Empire completely of all the barbarians who encircle us and lay siege to our borders, both in the east and in the west.” (Chronographia, paragraph 22). An initial conflict with Prince Vladimir of Kiev for Crimea was turned into a military alliance, backed by marrying the emperor’s sister Anna to Vladimir. In addition, the alliance was strengthened by the
© Picture by Raffaele d’Amato; courtesy of the Saint Sophia Museum
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Vladimir I of Kiev (980-1015) was interested in the Christian religion, and was willing to baptize himself and his people. After analyzing both options, he eventually chose Orthodoxy, as it also allowed him to form a military and matrimonial alliance with Byzantium. It was one of the greatest non-military victories of Emperor Basil II. The Cathedral of Saint Sophia (Holy Wisdom) was built in Kiev, Vladimir’s capital, soon after the mass baptism of the Kievan Rus’. On one of its frescoes, visible above, Basil II is depicted in full imperial ceremonial clothing, surrounded by his guard of Protospathárioi (‘bearers of swords’) eunuchs. Besides being loyal guardsmen, eunuchs in the Byzantine Empire could also be appointed as generals or admirals. Basil II did not hesitate to put them to military use during his reign.
Christianization of the Rus Prince and his people in 989, an event with major longlasting effects in history. the wars against the Bulgars occurred towards the end of Basil’s reign, and ended in the utter defeat of the First Bulgarian Empire in 1014 at Kleidion, and its occupation by the Byzantines in 1018. After 400 years, the Empire’s borders reached the Danube again, securing Byzantine control over the Balkans. Because of the alleged cruelty towards the 15,000 Bulgar prisoners taken at Kleidion, Basil received in later centuries the nickname Bulgarochtonos, ‘the Bulgar-Slayer’. He divided the prisoners into groups of a hundred and had them all completely blinded, except for one in each group, who had only one eyed removed, so that he could lead the others back to Bulgaria. At seeing his soldiers crippled, tsar Samuel had a stroke and died two days later. Victory was thus complete for Basil. Other victorious campaigns occurred in the Crimea, the southern part of which was conquered from the Khazar successor state – with the help of the rus’ – in
1016, as well as in the Caucasus, Georgia and Armenia. A part of southern Italy was restored to the Empire, and plans were being made for the recapture of Sicily. the death of Basil prevented such an expedition.
Wars against the Fatimids The longest conflict in the reign of Basil was that against the Fatimids, the Muslim power stretching from the Atlantic to Palestine and the western part of the Arabic Peninsula, and also including Sicily. With a large land army made up of Berbers, Turks and other populations of the Empire, and a powerful fleet, the Fatimids were a serious rival to the Byzantines in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. the Byzantine-Fatimid conflict and other events from the period are presented in the chronicle of the Christian historian Yahya of Antioch in much detail. the wars between the two states initially occurred around and for Sicily. Early encounters in the area brought victory to the Muslim side, on land and on sea, from the 950s to the 970s. The Byzantines could Medieval Warfare II-6
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not match the armies of the Fatimids, nor their war fleets, and had to abandon the island. From the 950s, up to the 990s, several campaigns of both states occurred in the conflict area of Syria and Aleppo, with alternating successes. In 969, the Byzantines captured Antioch and made Aleppo, ruled by the Hamdanid dynasty, a client state. raids and sieges followed on both sides of the border throughout the 970s, with the Fatimids threatening Antioch and the city ports of Lebanon and Syria more and more. Although Basil concluded a peace with the Fatimids in 987 or 988, so that he could concentrate on other important matters (i.e. civil war and the threat in the Balkans), the conflict grew to a full-scale war in 991, when the Fatimids mounted a powerful offensive towards Aleppo, believing perhaps that the Byzantines would not interfere on the side of their client state, since they were busy with the conflict against the Bulgars. Aleppo could not defend itself alone. Starting from Damascus, the Fatimid army led by the ghulam general Manjutakin took Emesa (Homs). In June 992, the Hamdanid attempt to defend against the Fatimids ended in disaster at the Battle of Apamea, where many of their army were massacred or captured. After the battle, the Fatimids surrounded Aleppo and besieged it for a month. the town managed to resist the attack, so the Fatimids lifted the siege and entered Byzantine territory. A few fortifications were conquered, massacres and pillages went on, and Antioch itself was put under siege, though unsuccessfully. The fighting continued, and in the autumn, Apamea surrendered to the Fatimids. With good morale, and trustful of the victory, the Fatimids once again besieged Aleppo, who had to ask for help from the Byzantines. The Byzantines responded promptly by sending a relief army, which also included a Hamdanid contingent. On 15 September 994, they engaged Majutakin’s Fatimid troops at the ill-fated Battle of the Orontes river, where they were soundly beaten. Manjutakin had almost defeated his enemy, and so he started to consolidate the region, besieging Aleppo for the third time, imposing taxes, building fortifications, and installing a governor. After the defeat at Orontes River, the Emperor decided it was time he inter8
vened in person for the relief of Aleppo, so he led his army in a lightning march. Without giving battle, the Fatimids hastily burned their fortifications, tents and other belongings, and withdrew. Basil continued the campaign to the south, attacked tripoli (in lebanon) and other towns, took many captives, and withdrew. Over the next few years, the fighting continued between the two sides. In 995, the Fatimids besieged Aleppo again and also attempted to get close to Antioch, but the maritime campaign was disastrous, and they had to retreat. the final chapter of the wars came in 999, when Basil again took the command in person and stormed Syria and lebanon. In the autumn of 999, the Byzantines, in a lightning campaign, took several important cities and various other fortifications and towns, besieged tripoli, and marched towards Baalbek. Faced with a determined invader, Damascus asked for help from Cairo. Armistice and peace soon followed in 1000, and the situation remained calm in the region for the rest of Basil’s reign. the two parties didn’t engage in large-scale conflicts in the following period, as the Fatimids were facing internal struggles and the Byzantines were engaged in various other campaigns. Basil went on to conquer Bulgaria and re-establish Byzantine authority in part of Crimea, the Caucasus, and southern Italy. At his death, the Empire was considerably larger and the borders were secure.
A glorious memory Basil died in 1025, aged 67. He was buried at the Hebdomon Palace outside Constantinople. The tomb of the emperor was desecrated by the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade, and his body was thrown in the streets. The only thing that survives from his tomb is an epitaph, allegedly carved on the sarcophagus, but preserved only in the texts of the chronicles. The epitaph reminded the readers of Basil II’s military life, and said:
“Other past emperors previously designated for themselves other burial places. But I, Basil, born in the purple chamber, place my tomb on the site of the Hebdomon and take sabbath’s rest from the
endless toils which I fulfilled in wars and which I endured. For nobody saw my spear at rest, from when the Emperor of Heaven called me to the rulership of this great empire on earth, but I kept vigilant through the whole span of my life, guarding the children of New Rome, marching bravely to the West, and as far as the very frontiers of the East. The Persians and Scythians bear witness to this and along with them Abasgos, Ismael, Araps, Iber. And now, good man, looking upon this tomb, reward it with prayers in return for my campaigns.” Stephenson, The Legend of Basil the Bulgar-Slayer, p. 49 • Andrei Pogăciaş has studied History and International Relations at the Babeş-Bolyai University in ClujNapoca, Romania. He has a PhD in Military History of the AustrianRussian-Turkish Wars of the eighteenth century and Romanian armies of the era. Passionate about the military history of eastern and central Europe, he is also involved in ancient and medieval re-enactment. Further reading - C. Holmes, Basil II and the governance of Empire (976-1025). Oxford 2005. - P. Stephenson, The Legend of Basil the Bulgar-Slayer. Cambridge 2003. - Michael Psellos, Chronographia, Book I. Accessible at: http://www. fordham.edu/halsall/basis/pselluschrono01.asp (all his quotes from the description of Basil are taken from this source). - For our French-speaking readers: the Chronicle of Yahya of Antioch can be found in Patrologia Orientalis, vols. 18 (1924) and 23 (1932).
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From Ifriqiya to the walls of Aleppo
The primary threat on the Eastern frontier of the Byzantine empire during the second half of the tenth century were the Fatimids, the Islamic dynasty which, by the end of that century, was at its peak of military expansion, dominating the area from the Maghreb (North Africa) to Damascus. The symbol and (often) object of the dispute between the Byzantine empire and the Fatimid caliphate was the city of Aleppo, called the ‘Gate of Iraq’ because of its strategic position, vital for both the Byzantines and the Fatimids. By Jacopo Franceschini
the founder of the Fatimids was Abdallah the Elder, a preacher related to the Aliqids, a clan belonging to the family of the Prophet Muhammad. Being a descendant of the Prophet, though a distant one, allowed Abdallah to support his religious belief, Ismailism, a branch of Shia Islam that prescribes the worship of seven Imams, heirs of the Prophet, and the fourth caliph Ali as guides of Islam. Ismaili were waiting for the return of the seventh Imam, Muhammad ibn Ismail, also known as the Mahdi, ‘the truly guided one’, who would destroy the false Abbasid caliph and conquer Constantinople. At the centre of Abdallah’s preaching mission was the Syrian town of Salamya, where his movement grew under the aegis of his heirs. Ismailism spread through various areas of the Islamic world, especially in Ifriqiya (around modern tunisia), where, thanks to the mission of the da’ì (missionary) Abu Abdullah al Sh’ì, the Berber tribe of the Kutama converted to it. At the beginning of the tenth century, Sa’id, heir of Abdallah the Elder and master of the Ismaili, proclaimed himself as Mahdi, provoking a violent schism with the Carmathians (Qarmati), who persecuted him and his followers, forcing them to leave Salamya. After a perilous journey, hiding from the Abbasids, the Mahdi reached the Maghreb, where Abu Abdallah al Sh’ì was establishing a new homeland for the Fatimids, follow-
ers of the Mahdi named after Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. With this move, the da’ì and his Kutama troops were out of control of the Aghlabid rulers of Ifriqiya. In 906, a big Aghlabid army was sent to the territory controlled by the Kutama. The da’ì summoned all of his Berber troops and scattered the Aghlabid army by surprise, thanks to the superiority of his horsemen, who broke the enemy formation, pursued the fugitives and captured a considerable booty. Within a few years, the most important fortified Aghlabid cities near Qayrawan, like tubna and Kusthantia, were conquered by the Kutama led by Abu Abdallah, and, in March 909, Qayrawan, the Aghlabid capital, was taken as well. On 5 January, the Mahdi arrived in his new capital and was saluted by his Berber troops as the heir of the Prophet and his daughter Fatima, of the caliph Ali, and of the Imams among their progeny: the Fatimid Caliphate had been founded. Not long after his glorious entrance into Qayrawan, the Mahdi had to face the rebellion of a group of Kutama who had started to doubt his holiness and showed their loyalty only to Abu Abdallah, the real conqueror of Ifriqiya. the reaction of the Mahdi was strong: he ordered the murder of his faithful servant da’ì Abu Abdallah in the palace of raqqada, near Qayrawan. The rebellion continued and, as a reaction to the murder, the rebels proclaimed a ‘counter-Mahdi’. the revolt was crushed swiftly through the intervention of the
army led by Al Qaim, the nineteen-yearold son of the Mahdi, supported by two experienced Kutama chieftains. However, the goal of the Fatimids was not to subdue the rebel tribes in their newly founded caliphate. To complete their holy mission, they had to conquer Baghdad and Constantinople, which could be reached only through the fertile land of Egypt. the conquest of Egypt was attempted twice – in 915 and in 920 – under the leadership of Al Qaim. The first time, the Fatimid army marched on Fustat, the capital of Egypt, after conquering Alexandria, but they were blocked on the left bank of the Nile by the turkish general tekin, sent by the Abbassids to defend the province. the Fatimids were heavily defeated at Giza and had to withdraw to the west, partly because of the incompetence of Al Qaim and his entourage and partly because of the severe losses caused by the Turkish archers. The failure of the second invasion was caused by the destruction of the Fatimid fleet and by the loss of Alexandria, thanks to the action of the Abbasid general Mu’nis, who led the fleet of tarsus. As a result, Al Qaim was cut off in the depression of Al Fayyun, in lower Egypt, between the enemy’s fleet and tekin’s army. the Mahdi’s heir was forced to accept that they could not defeat the enemy from that position, and so he and his army left the field without a serious fight. It was only in 969, under the Fatimid Caliph Al Muizz, that Egypt, ruled by the weak Ikshidid dynasty, was conquered by the general Jawhar al Siqilli, who led an army of 100,000 men, mostly composed of Berber horsemen. the conquest was made possible thanks to the negotiations of General Jawhar, a Greek or Slav of Sicilian origin, with the governing class of Egypt, rather than because of any significant victory on the field. In June 969, Jawhar entered Fustat. One of his first acts was to build a new city symbolizing the Fatimid power in Egypt, which was called Al Qahira, ‘the victorious’, the modern Cairo.
Syria: a disputed land After the brilliant conquest of Egypt, the Fatimids had to face an old enemy, with whom no negotiations were possible: the Carmathians, who had forced the Fatimids to leave Syria at the beginning of the tenth century. Both Fatimids and Medieval Warfare II-6
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© Carlos Garcia
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Please note that not all the military Themes are incorporated, only those relevant for the theme of this issue.
Carmathians belonged to Shia Islam, but the Carmathians had never acknowledged the self-proclamation of the Imam Sa’id as Mahdi and, for this reason, the friction was bitter. The first battle took place in 971 at Ayn Shams, a city that had been fortified by Jawhar, where the Carmathians were heavily beaten. They invaded Egypt again two years later, but, after they sacked Upper Egypt and marched on Al Qahira, the whole Fatimid army was summoned 10
by the caliph Al Muizz to defend his capital, and the invaders were defeated. At this point, the Fatimids understood the importance of dominating Syria to properly defend their capital and the valley of the Nile. Southern Syria and Damascus had already been occupied by the Fatimids between 969 and 970, before the first defensive campaign against the Carmathians. In 975 the renewed presence of the Fatimid government and of their ‘wild’ Berbers troops in Damascus was so unpopular that the population called in the Turkish ghulam (freed turkish mercenary; plural: ghilman) Alptakin with 300 followers from Baghdad. Alptakin expelled the
Berber garrison from Damascus and, with a relatively small but well equipped and drilled army, took the Fatimid strongholds of Sidon, Acre and tyre. Jawhar, the conqueror of Egypt, was sent to reconquer Damascus, but Alptakin drove him back to Ascalon with the help of the Carmathians, who, in the meantime, had formed an alliance with him against the common foe. Fatimid prestige was seriously damaged by this defeat; combined with the successful campaign of the Byzantine warrior emperor John tzimiskes along the Syrian and Palestinian coast, this made sure that the Fatimid presence in the region was confined to Gaza. Because of the severity
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of the situation, the new caliph, Al Aziz, whose father Al Muizz had died in 974, led a large army into Syria and, in 978, despite the fierce resistance of the Turks, defeated the Carmathians; Alptakin was captured and brought to Al Qahira. For the caliph and his wazir (chief minister) Yakub ibn Killis, a Jew converted to Islam, it became clear that the domination of Palestine, Damascus and Syria was impossible without the collaboration and the recruitment of the turkish military elite, who dominated the region and who, unlike the Fatimid Berber governors and garrisons, were well accepted by the population. After one last disastrous campaign to restore
their control in Palestine and Damascus under the command of the Berber general Jafar ibn Fallah, the policy of the Fatimid armies changed: they had to accept the full integration of the turks. Symptomatic was that a new expedition, sent to retake Damascus, was successfully led by a turk, Baltakin, who occupied the city in 983. The Caliph and his wazir Yakub spent the following years consolidating Fatimid power in Syria. the Fatimid supremacy was reinforced also through the weakening of the Hamdanid dynasty in northern Syria, object of internal intrigues and of the expansive policy of Byzantium. The Hamdanid capital was Aleppo. Under the guidance of its most famous ruler, Sayf al Dawla – who was also known in medieval Arabic poetry as a fierce and proud warrior who fought the Greek infidels – the city was able to maintain its independence. After the death of Sayf al Dawla in 967, Aleppo was taken by one of al Dawla’s ghilman, keeping the city out of the control of Sa’d al Dawla, who, as son of Sayf, was the rightful ruler. In 969, after having taken Antioch, the Byzantines turned to Aleppo, which was occupied until the ruler of the city, the ghulam Qarquya, came to terms and made Aleppo a tributary state of Byzantium. Sa’d al Dawla was finally able to take the city in 977. At that time, Aleppo was ruled by the ghulam Bakjur who, despite his defeat and thanks to his power and influence, was made governor of Homs by Sa’d. In 983, while in charge of Homs, he attempted to retake Aleppo, but was stopped by the intervention of the domestikos (general) Bardas Phokas, who saved Sa’d al Dawla’s dominion. Unable to gain Aleppo back on his own, Bakjur decided to offer his service to the Fatimid caliph, who nominated the rebel Hamdanid ghulam governor of Damascus to capture the cities of raqqa and Rahba on the Euphrates, and provided him with supplies for the campaign. through these expeditions, Aleppo was surrounded and the Fatimids could threaten the city directly. However, Bakjur’s governorate over Damascus was so brutal that the population of the city revolted; to bring the city back under control, the caliph had to nominate a new governor and expel Bakjur. In 991, Sa’d al Dawla died. Caliph Al Aziz considered this the most propitious moment to attack and take control over Aleppo once and for all. He sent his loyal and militarily skilled
Turkish ghulam Manjutakin to Damascus to launch an attack against Aleppo. Before besieging the city, Manjutakin sent a messenger to Michael Bourtzes, the Byzantine governor of Antioch, announcing that he would never attack or sack the territories of the Rumi (as the Byzantines were called by the Arabs). However, since Aleppo was a Byzantine protectorate, Bourtzes jailed the messenger and prepared to move against the Fatimids. Given the insulting treatment of his messenger, Manjutakin abandoned the siege of Aleppo, sacked the territory of Antioch, and tried to take Antioch itself, but his troops were forced back by the Greek garrison under the walls of the city. Although resembling a skirmish more than a real battle, Antioch was the first direct clash between the Byzantines and the Fatimids. One year later, in 994, Manjutakin besieged Aleppo again. The magistros (commander) of Antioch moved against him and the two armies met at the River Orontes, on 15 september 994. Despite the reinforcements received from Anatolia and the Hamdanid allies, the historiographer Yahya Al Antaki reports that the Byzantine army was smaller than the Fatimid army. Manjutakin understood that the Achilles’ heel of the enemy formation was the contingent from Aleppo, which was defending one of the two fords in the hands of the Byzantines. Al Antaki reports that the Fatimid troops marched through the fords and attacked the Hamdanids, who immediately escaped and left the Byzantines with an unprotected flank. The Byzantines, pressed on two flanks by the Fatimids, were forced to retreat to Antioch. The victory over the Rumi, who left 5000 men and tons of supplies on the field, allowed Manjutakin to besiege Aleppo for the third time, fully undisturbed. the conquest of the city seemed very close. Unfortunately, in spring 995, bad news came from the west: the Emperor Basil II himself was marching against the army encamped outside Aleppo. On 5 May 995, after a siege of almost eight months, Manjutakin withdrew his army to Damascus. the Fatimids had lost their best chance to conquer Aleppo.
The Fatimid armies the early Fatimid army was composed mostly of Berber infantry, who belonged to the Kutama tribes. the equipment Medieval Warfare II-6
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the soldiers. By contrast, the ghulam cavalryman on the left is heavily armoured, wearing an iron helmet, greaves, a long mail hauberk and additional lamellar armour. Also, the horse wears some armour to protect it during frontal charges. Notice the feather over the top of the helmet, typical for the Abbasid military fashion, showing that this ghulam was maybe serving the Caliph of Baghdad before joining the Fatimid army, like the Turkish general Alptakin.
ÂŠ Pablo Outeiral
In the tenth century, the Berber infantrymen of northern Africa and the ghilman mercenaries who started to be recruited by the Fatimid army after the conquest of Egypt (969), formed the backbone of the Fatimid armies. On the right, a Berber Kutama is armed with spear, dagger and Lamt, the typical shield made of leather used by the Kutama. Almost all the Berber infantrymen fought without armour, but in some cases, as the illustration shows, light quilted armour was adopted by
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of these troops consisted of a large, tall shield made of leather (Lamt), typical of the Berbers, and a javelin or pike (Sabarbahah), which was 2.5m long. the Berbers also provided the Fatimids with a light but mobile cavalry, armed with spears, rounded shields and swords. These units proved very effective against the Arab regional militia (Jund) of the Aghlabids. The Berber light cavalry served successfully also as raiders or scouts when relegated to a secondary role by the heavy cavalry. Before the conquest of Egypt, there was already a body of ghilman of Black Sea or Slav (Saqaliba) origin, known as ‘Abid, or unemancipated slaves. They were better equipped than the standard Berber infantry, wearing quilted armour or mail hauberks (Dir’) and bearing kiteshaped leather shields, swords and bows. Unlike their colleagues of eastern origin, they were used more like foot guards and garrison troops than cavalry. All of the troops mentioned above were called the Maghriba, the ‘men of the West’, unlike the Mashariqa, the ‘men of the east’, who were integrated into the Fatimid armies after the conquest of Egypt and the advance into Syria. Freed black African soldiers were heavily present, too, and it is recorded that, by the year 1000, they represented half of the Fatimid army. Most of them were natives of Nubia and Sudan and were used as archers, javelin throwers or slingers, with no shield or armour. they served as heavy infantry or guardsmen, too, marching with decorated javelins and shields with silver bosses during the parades of Egypt’s New Year. Advancing to the East, the Fatimids became gradually influenced by the military model of the Mashariqas and more often adopted weapons of Middle Eastern or Persian extraction, like maces, axes and qalchurs (curved sabres of Iranian origin). the Arab or arabized cavalry from Ifriqiya and Egypt emulated the ghilman cavalry, wearing mail hauberks and iron helmets, and using quilted or, more rarely, iron armour for their mounts. the siege weapons were those derived from the Romano-Byzantine technology. Onagers (Arradahs) and mangonels (Manjaniq) were common weapons in almost every Fatimid campaign; they were used not only in sieges but also against troop formations, as reported in the accounts of the invasions of Egypt by Al Qaim.
From the eleventh century, other ethnic groups, like the Armenians and the Daylamies with their characteristic double-ended spears (zhupìn), entered the Fatimid army, making it a multi-ethnic force, divided into regiments commanded by the Amir, who had different names according to their rank and role. ‘Amir of the necklace’ and ‘Amir of the silver cane’ were the highest ranks. Furthermore, there was the Amir al Juyush, who was in charge of the garrisons of Syria, a region of vital importance. Despite the wellorganized army, after 995, the Fatimids were never strong or interested enough to extend their dominion over Aleppo again, mostly because of the rise of the new caliph, Al Hakim, and of the increasing clashes between the two ethnic elites of the army, the Berbers and the Turks.
Struggles inside the Caliphate After the humiliating withdrawal from Aleppo, Al Aziz was preparing the Jihad against Byzantium. However, in 996, at the age of 42, he suddenly died. His successor was his 11-year-old son Al Hakim, who, young and inexperienced, was completely subdued to the authority of the Kutama, whose aim was to control the government without any interference. the Berbers took advantage of the weakness of the caliph and started to deprive the Turks of their privileged status in the army, provoking the reactions of Manjutakin, the most important Turkish general and governor at the time. Manjutakin abandoned the military operations he was conducting against the Byzantines in northern Syria – Aleppo being still his main target – and marched towards Egypt to restore the status quo. the Kutama assembled their own army to face Manjutakin, who was defeated and imprisoned until his death in 1007. The Berbers tried to subjugate the region of Syria by nominating Berber governors in the cities and by sending Berber troops as garrisons. the Kutama were only eager for gaining absolute control over the entire caliphate. By blindly adopting a policy which had proven to be counterproductive in the past, they compromised the balance the Fatimids had laboriously reached in governing Syria – by mediating and integrating the turkish elites with the local ones – which only led to open rebellion. The rebels of Tyre appealed to Basil II. The emperor responded positively to their requests, also because the Fatimids were
menacing the remnants of the Hamdanids’ territories again. Basil launched a massive campaign. Northern Syria was brought under Byzantine control and Homs, Hama and Beirut were sacked. Given the devastation inflicted by the Greek infidels and the lacerating domestic struggles, the caliph Al Hakim was forced to propose a ten-year truce. The emperor accepted immediately, being himself compelled by concerns elsewhere. the truce brought Syria an age of peace: the expenditure on the army was reduced, while naval warfare was developed. As a result of the military’s loss of power, the caliph Al Hakim was no longer a hostage of the struggles between the ethnic elites inside his army. Byzantium and the Fatimid caliphate were never openly at war in the following years: when Al Hakim, famous for his eccentricity, persecuted the Christians and destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Byzantium reacted only by applying trade sanctions. The times of conflict over Aleppo was over, at least for the time being. •
Jacopo Franceschini studies Law at the Catholic University of Milan. He has a passion for history. Byzantium and the medieval and modern Islamic world are his main interests. He would like to thank Silvia Vincenza D’Orazio and Filippo Donvito for the encouragement to write.
Further reading - H. Kennedy, The Prophet and the age of caliphates. Edinburgh 2004. - H. Halm, The empire of the Mahdi. The rise of the Fatimids. Leiden 1996. - M. Brett, The rise of the Fatimids. The World of the Mediterranean and the Middle East in the Fourth Century of the Hijra, Tenth Century CE. Leiden 2001. - D. Nicolle, The Armies of Islam 7th11th Centuries. London 1982. - D. Nicolle, Armies of the Caliphates 862-1098. Oxford 1998. - D. Nicolle, Medieval Siege Weapons (2). Byzantium, the Islamic World & India AD 476-1526. Oxford 2003. - Yahya Al Antaki, Chronache dell’Egitto Fatimide e dell’impero Byzantino (937-1033). Milan 1986.
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The Taktika of Nikephoros Ouranos
The last in a long line The tradition of writing didactic military handbooks stretched back to the fourth century BC; some even considered that it began with Homer. This heritage of military handbooks was a constant source of ‘new’ works; often a reshaping of earlier material that, none the less, was considered relevant to contemporary warfare over a vast period of time. The Taktika of Nikephoros Ouranos, written in the early eleventh century, stands as the last work in this unbroken tradition. More than that, Nikephoros’ possible importance to this period of warfare is often neglected or overlooked.
By Murray Dahm
Nikephoros’ text is 178 chapters long, compiled from classical and previous Byzantine authors, as well as adding some original contributions; it has not been edited or translated in full. In large part, this is the fault of the great French scholar Alphonse Dain, who, besides announcing a full edition in 1937 (which he never completed), judged that Nikephoros had no original military historical worth. As such, Nikephoros was seen as a mere compiler, who, like other authors of the genre, collected previous material but added nothing original of his own. Such a view of Nikephoros and the authors of other military handbooks is flawed and false. Several authors, including Nikephoros, did indeed add their own material, or at least their own take on previous material, and, what is more, their compilations were regarded as militarily relevant to the age they were writing in. Of the surviving works of didactic military literature, Nikephoros also belongs to the minority of authors whom we know had personal experience of command; most others seem to have been philosophers and are often dismissed as such. Nikephoros’ Taktika is, however, to a large degree, a compilation. Chapters 1-55 paraphrase the Taktika of Leo the Wise, chapters 56-62 paraphrase the Praecepta Militaria of Nikephoros II Phokas (written in the 960s), chapters 66-74 are from the first century AD writer Onasander (on whom see Ancient Warfare II-2), and chapters 75-175 and 176-178 are from collec14
tions of classical military writings. Various theories have been suggested as to the sources of chapters 63-65. Dain considered that chapters 63-74 were from a continuation of the Praecepta, since he could find no other source. Since 66-74 can be shown to be from Onasander, most scholars assume that 63-65 must be from a lost or untraceable source. However, Eric McGeer convincingly argued that these chapters were derived from Nikephoros’ own military experiences. Elsewhere too, Nikephoros does not simply compile material but makes changes in the tactics he describes – this surely reveals that he was keeping his treatise up to date rather than simply ‘cutting and pasting’ earlier material. Where he makes no changes to earlier material, it is reasonable to conclude that such material was still relevant to contemporary warfare in its original state. Such a methodology is clear in Nikephoros’ own statement:
“Many and varied are the means which the men of old contrived for conducting siege warfare, but I have set down only the methods that our generation currently employs. The more extraordinary devices of the ancients I have passed over, and let those eager to learn them study the taktika and find out all about them.” Nikephoros 65.25.
The career of Nikephoros Nikephoros emerges into history during the reign of Basil II in the 980s, although very little is known of his family or origins. We first hear of him during the negotiations between Basil II and Adud al-Dawla, the emir of Baghdad, to extradite the rebel Bardas Skleros. Nikephoros led an embassy to Baghdad but was imprisoned there until 987. He returned to Constantinople and continued in the emperor’s favour – he was made a lay guardian of the Monastery of the Great Lavra on Mount Athos. His moment of greatest military fame came in the Battle of the Spercheios river in 997. In the previous year, the Bulgar tsar, Samuel, had defeated and killed the doux of Thessaloniki, and then ravaged central Greece. Basil appointed Nikephoros as pases duseos archon (‘Domestic of the Schools of the West’) and sent him against Samuel. Nikephoros caught him at the Spercheios, crossed the river unexpectedly, and made a surprise assault on the Bulgar camp. Both Samuel and his son were wounded and the slaughter was so great that the Bulgar threat to Greece was all but eliminated. Basil was still in awe of the achievement 20 years later. We have no record of Nikephoros having any previous military experience, although his skill and efficiency suggest he did. At the time, however, military ability was not a prerequisite for command, whereas loyalty was. the culmination of Nikephoros’ career was his appointment as governor of Antioch in December 999. Basil intended to restore and secure the Byzantine position in northern Syria, freeing him to concentrate on his campaigns
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in Bulgaria. Sources refer to Nikephoros as magistros or archon, but on a lead seal (Fogg 1576) he is referred to as o kraton tes Anatoles (‘Master of the East’), suggesting that he was fully empowered to act in Basil’s name. As governor, he suppressed a Bedouin revolt in 1000-1 and conducted a campaign into Armenia in 1001-2. In 1005-7 he fought against the rebel alAsfar, but after that we hear no more of him. His replacement as governor of Antioch was appointed in 1011, which provides us with a likely date of Nikephoros’ death. However, his fame persisted: in 1056, the emperor Michael VI Stratiotikos appointed his nephew governor of Antioch and gave him the name Ouranos, “as though he traced his lineage back to the Ouranos of old” (John Skylitzes, Synopsis of Histories 483.5-7). Michael Psellos also links Nikephoros explicitly with Antioch (Historia Syntomos 98.94) with the phrase e ouranopolis Antiocheia. Nikephoros was an educated man of letters who has also left poetry, biographies of St. Symeon Stylites and St. Theodore, and a corpus of 50 letters. It is also possible that Nikephoros Ouranos was the author of another tactical treatise, the De Re Militari, or Anonymous Book on Tactics, probably written for the emperor Basil II when he was campaigning against the Bulgars between 991 and 995. We know that Nikephoros used the De Re Militari in his Taktika, for chapter 64.5-8 copies the material found in chapter 20 of the De Re Militari:
exits and these roads are not far apart, the chiliarchs behind in the rear should come to a halt.” Taktika 64.5. If Nikephoros was the author of the earlier De Re Militari, then he probably did have previous military experience, and experience Basil respected. Even if Nikephoros was not the author of the De Re Militari, his adaptation of the text for the Taktika is noteworthy and suggests his sources are more complex than usually thought. He also modified the content to reflect
the current military situation as he saw it. If Nikephoros was the author of the De Re Militari, then his adaptation of his own material for a different situation is also noteworthy. Previous experience would provide a more convincing context of Nikephoros’ success as a general in 996/997. We also know that Basil received and made use of military handbooks. Michael Psellos records that he had “an accurate knowledge of the details of military life” and that he “knew the various formations suited to his men. Some he had read of in books, but others he devised himself during the operations of war.” (Chronographia 1.33).
© Raffaele D’Amato
“But if the road on which we intend having the army march out on is constricted and difficult, and if the enemy are close by in such narrow spots, then if there are three roads leading out of the narrow place, and they are not really too distant from one another, station the three rear chiliarchs behind.” De Re Militari 20.86-90. “Take note that if the road on which the army will be travelling is constricted and the enemy approaches these narrow passes, if the pass has three roads and three
Religious imagery from the Byzantine period is often useful for details of contemporary military panoply, such as here, where (although damaged) the style of helmet and hauberk are clear: ‘Soldiers at the Crucifixion of Our Lord’, fresco from the Church of Pürenli Kilise (Cappadocia), in situ, tenth-mid-eleventh century. Medieval Warfare II-6
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All of this places Nikephoros and his work(s) in a far more important and central place in the military history of the late tenth and early eleventh centuries than many historians claim. Earlier, the great scholar r. Vari considered that Nikephoros had also written the treatise entitled Skirmishing, but the two are very different and Skirmishing was probably written in the 960s under the emperor Nikephoros II Phokas, the same period as the Praecepta Militaria.
“Whenever you are in hostile territory and about to set out from camp, and the enemy is in the vicinity and appears close to the encampment, if the enemy are a large host and they make their advance towards our army and seek battle, it is not good for our army to break camp and begin to march. (...) If the enemy remains stationary and does not move against our army and there is no reason to suspect that the enemy is a large host (...) the whole
© Raffaele D’Amato
We have already seen that much of Nikephoros’ text is made up of a careful compilation of earlier material. Where that material corresponds to the treatises as we have them (such as in Onasander’s The General and Nikephoros Phokas’ Praecepta Militaria) then the main point of interest is in the selection and editing of such passages and the fact that such material was still considered relevant. Onasander is an interesting case, since he is generally abused today as trite and irrelevant; yet here, an author was excerpting him almost 1000 years after he wrote, and still considered him relevant to contemporary warfare. In terms of translations, however, the work of Nikephoros is not widely available; the best version is found in McGeer’s Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth, which translates chap-
ters 56 to 65. The ‘compilation’ chapters remain unavailable outside of editions of the Greek text. McGeer argues that the Taktika should be dated to the years during which Nikephoros was governor of Antioch, because the tactics described in chapters 63-65 are those prevailing in the Near East during the opening years of the eleventh century: raids into enemy territory, how to break camp with the enemy close by, and how to fight through a defile occupied by the enemy. The passage on breaking camp is not found in any other source and seems certain to represent Nikephoros’ own observations:
Archer’s gloves made of leather, like the fingerless specimen visible in this picture, were often used by warriors in service of the Byzantines as well as Turkish mercenaries who served under the Fatimids. Turkish ghilman were not only excellent cavalrymen but, according to the Turkish military tradition, were also good as missile cavalry, drilled to shoot against the enemy formation before charging it. This particular specimen comes from either the Caucasus or Byzantium, which means that it was probably used by a warrior in the service of the Byzantine Empire. The glove was found in the Balkans, and is currently being held in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.
army should move out from the camp along with the baggage train and advance towards the enemy in good order. (...) If the enemy appears at a distance and is few in number, the army should not be kept from its journey.” Taktika 64.1-4. For any reader who examines Nikephoros’ text and considers it common sense and simplistic, it is good to keep in mind approaches to an author like Sun tzu who advises that: “When capable, feign incapacity; when active, inactivity. When near, make it appear that you are far away; when far away, that you are near.” (Art of War, Estimates 18-19). If we accept that chapters 63-65 were from Nikephoros’ own experiences, then the De Re Militari passage in the middle of the original material suggests that it, too, is from the author’s own experiences. Chapter 65 of the Taktika is concerned with siege tactics in Syria and examines the steps necessary from the beginning to the end of the siege. Nikephoros advises destroying all the harvests in the surrounding area, and recommends extreme vigilance to ensure that no supplies can make it into the lands of the enemy. He suggests offering rewards to the officers of the troops guarding the roads into enemy territory, so that they will maintain their vigilance and “those who do the opposite of these tasks, out of sympathy for the enemy or out of negligence, will be liable to severe penalties and punishments.” (Taktika 65.10). Nikephoros does not suggest a full circumvallation if an enemy attack is expected; rather, a camp on the side where there is access to water, with a trench outside it defended with caltrops and tripods with barbs (the enigmatic triskelia with tzipata, which occur only in the Taktika and one other treatise). The camp should be square, with the infantry on the outside to protect the cavalry and baggage train. Nikephoros suggests offering clemency to those of the defenders willing to surrender but also to cause dissention and disagreement among the various factions of the enemy. He is also observant that the besieged will call to their fel-
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“These must be woven together in great number. In their design they must be in the shape of a house. The upper part – in other words, its roof – must be quite sharply peaked. They should have two doorways and each laisa must have room enough for fifteen to twenty men (...) The laisai must not be heavy, so that they are impossible to lift, but rather light, to the extent that they can be carried up to the walls, and then easily carried away again.” Taktika 65.14-18. The laisai should be placed far enough away from the walls, so as to not be vulnerable to stones or missiles. Nikephoros suggests that the men should fight until the fifth hour of the day and then be replaced; the men should be divided into three teams – two who can rest in the laisai and the third to carry on the fight; in that way, the troops can relieve each other and continue the fight without interruption. It is also recommended that, while the fighting is going on, the tunnelling crews must begin their work (presumably from the laisai). He offers advice to avoid collapses of the tunnel, followed by the burning of wood around the undermined foundations to collapse the wall; this, he maintains, is the best siege technique, rather than rams, towers or ladders. Nikephoros’ account of the laisai and the triskelia with tzipata suggest personal experiences with them; the latter do not occur in any of his known sources. During the revolt of al-Asfar, we know that Nikephoros conducted at least one major siege in the region as governor of Antioch, which, taken with the material in chapter 65, suggests that he knew what he was talking about. His last piece
of advice is that, if there is no hope of relief coming to the besieged and if they are worn out, then:
“the commander of the army must make every effort to take it by force of arms. He must then offer terms to them, that they may keep only their lives, while the Byzantine army will bear both them and their families off as prisoners and divide their possessions. If events unfold in this fashion, the tidings will circulate everywhere, and other fortresses in Syria which you intend to attack will fall into the hands of the Byzantines without a struggle.”
© Raffaele D’Amato
low faithful for aid (Taktika 65.5). Here, the author uses matabadas for faithful, which seems to suggest an Arabic term he learned in Antioch. Another technical term he uses concerns the laisa, employed in the assault on the besieged fortress and made from vine stalks or mulberry or willow branches:
Taktika 65.24. There is much more fascinating material in the Taktika of Nikephoros Ouranos than there is space here to deal with, even in the relatively small amount of the whole work readily available. If we accept that Nikephoros also wrote the De Re Militari, then we are dealing with an immensely important (and unjustifiably neglected) figure in the history of warfare in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries and an author who stands as the last in a tradition that stretches back uninterrupted into the world of antiquity. •
Murray Dahm is an ancient and medieval military historian from New Zealand. His research focuses on didactic military literature. He is a regular contributor to Ancient Warfare and Medieval Warfare, and he has also lectured and published on aspects of ancient military history, as well as Anglo-Saxon and Viking warfare and culture
On this detail of the biblical leader Joshua, from a tenth–century fresco in Hosios Loukas Church, Phokis, we can again see details of contemporary military kit, such as armour, scabbard, hilt and harness. Even viewed with caution (since they are artistic rather than historical), such details are invaluable to the military historian and archaeologist.
Further reading - George T. Dennis, Three Byzantine Military Treatises. Washington 1985. - Eric McGeer ,‘Tradition and Reality in the Taktika of Nikephoros Ouranos’, in: Dumbarton Oaks Papers 45 (1991), 129-140. - Eric McGeer, Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth: Byzantine Warfare in the Tenth Century. Washington 1995.
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Elite foreign soldiers of Byzantium and the Fatimids
Varangian Guard and Mamluks One factor shared by the Byzantine
various Islamic regimes of the Middle East was their penchant for foreign soldiers. Among the most elite – and famous – of these foreign forces during the time of Basil II were Byzantium’s Varangian Guard and the Fatimids’ Mamluks.
Byzantium had employed Nordic mercenaries recruited via Novgorod and Kiev on an ad hoc basis since the late ninth century, but the Varangian Guard as a standing body was formally established by Basil II. In 987, Basil petitioned his soon-to-be brother-in-law, Vladimir I of the Kievan Rus’, to send him reinforcements for his campaign against the Byzantine rebel Vardhas Phokas. Vladimir dispatched a 6000-man force, most likely consisting of the Swedish mercenaries who had helped him secure the Kievan throne. These mercenaries played a major role in Basil’s defeat of Phokas by April 889. Impressed by their courage, discipline and prowess, Basil incorporated the Swedish regiment into the imperial lifeguard, awarding them increasing stature and responsibility over time. It is unclear precisely when, during his reign, he elevated the regiment from a field force to the status of bodyguard.
Basil’s Norse guard the Scandinavian soldiers in Byzantine service ultimately became known as Varangoi or Varangians. This holds true for the guardsmen who were assigned to secure the Emperor and the capital, as 18
© Courtesy photo of Professor Valery Yotov and Boyan Totev
By Sidney E. Dean
Medieval artists often placed contemporary soldiers into scenes depicting ancient, mythological or biblical events. The creator of this eleventh-century fresco in Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev modelled the biblical Joshua and his bodyguards on Varangian guards. The officer (archon) in the foreground appears to wear Byzantine leather armour. His helmet is of late Roman design, but enhanced with a neck guard. Varangians did, in fact, draw part of their arms and armour from Byzantine stocks, augmenting these with their personal Scandinavian equipment. Notice the clearly shown device on the boot shaft. It appears to have only been used by the Varangian Guard. It is thought to be a stylized version of the emblem of Kiev, commemorating the original guardsmen’s heritage.
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well as for other Nordic mercenaries who served in the field army and in various garrisons. the former were also known as ‘Varangians of the City’ while the latter were called ‘Varangians outside the City’. The etymology of the term Varangian is disputed. A widely accepted theory is that it comes from the Proto-Norse Väringr, ‘Oath-takers’, meaning men who band together or swear fealty to a leader. But the first known use of the term Varangoi in Byzantine sources dates from 1034, a decade after Basil’s death. Until then, Byzantine records use the terms Rhos and Tauro-Scythians for all soldiers recruited from the area of present-day Russia and the Ukraine, without specifying whether the soldiers in question were Slavs or ethnic Norsemen. Unlike their name, the Varangians’ service to Basil is beyond dispute. They joined his anti-Fatimid campaigns in Syria in 994 and 999, fought in his expeditions to Georgia and Armenia, warred against Bulgars, and battled Lombard rebels and Norman knights in southern Italy. ‘Varangians outside the City’ could be found in most Byzantine expedition forces, while the Varangian Guard accompanied Basil when he personally took the field. Varangian Guardsmen formed a defensive ring around the Emperor’s tent while on campaign, controlled the keys to the gates of any town the Emperor visited, and fought at his side in battle. In Constantinople, the Varangians’ quarters were located in the upper palace, where they controlled the direct access to the Emperor’s chambers. This trust is especially significant because several divisions of Byzantine soldiers – frequently recruited from the sons of the aristocracy – already served as lifeguards. But Basil had grown up at a court defined by intrigue and betrayal. He became convinced that foreign soldiers, with no political attachments or family roots in the empire, would be less likely to – figuratively or literally – stab him in the back. While the Varangian Guard is frequently referred to as the emperor’s bodyguard, they actually had diverse responsibilities. They guarded royal properties outside the capital as well as in the city. they served as an internal security force, suppressing dissent and guarding political prisoners. In addition, Basil (and later emperors) employed the Varangian Guard to commit
atrocities ranging from ethnic cleansing of conquered territories to blinding and castrating political rivals. Detachments also seem to have been assigned as shock troops to armies on campaign without the emperor, or to independently suppress minor uprisings, although it is sometimes difficult to differentiate, case by case, whether the ‘Varangians’ referred to were really Guardsmen or merely mainstream Scandinavian mercenaries. Organizationally, the Varangian Guard fell within the Hetairia, the military corps that controlled the various foreign mercenary forces (elite or not). Commanderin-chief of foreign troops was the Megas Hetairarchos, a senior Byzantine official who held the rank of stratarchos. The Varangian Guard’s commander held the title Akolouthos (‘Follower’), underscoring his close physical proximity to the emperor during processions. As the stature of the Varangian Guard increased, so did that of the Akolouthos, who controlled the keys to the city in the emperor’s absence. This senior position was held by a Byzantine, sometimes related to the royal family. Intermediate officers in the Guard were called Primikerioi; for the most part they, too, were Byzantines. Interpreters facilitated communication between these officers and the mercenaries. Foreigners rarely rose to senior command positions. Scandinavian officers led the individual Guard subunits, but were only rarely promoted to higher office. The full complement of the Varangian Guard is normally said to have numbered 6000 soldiers – consistent with the size of the original contingent – although the actual manning seems to have varied between 3000 and 6000. this does not mean that the 6000 were always stationed or deployed together. Detachments were posted at various royal facilities outside Byzantium, and it seems likely that some Varangians remained behind to secure the palace when the emperor went campaigning. The Varangians are most likely to have been deployed as a complete force early in their service; for example, when accompanying Basil on his campaigns in Syria, against the Bulgars, and in the Caucasus. The precise internal organization of this early Varangian force has not been documented. In later years, the Guard was organized into battalion-sized allaghia of 500 men each. While the original Varangian Guard
© Public domain
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Dozens of runestones throughout Scandinavia bear inscriptions by Varangian veterans who returned home, or commemorating those who died in foreign service. But Varangians left their mark wherever they went. At least two runic inscriptions can be found inside the church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. They are widely thought to be graffiti by Varangian soldiers. On this inscription only the name “(H) alfdan” remains legible.
arrived in Byzantium as an existing mercenary army, continuous recruitment became necessary to maintain the unit at strength. Frequently, mainstream Nordic mercenaries – ‘Varangians outside the City’ – petitioned to be admitted to the Guard. Sometimes, groups of adventurers travelled from russia or Scandinavia to enlist en masse, although these groups often were required to prove themselves in the regular army or in the navy before being admitted to the Guard. In 1195, Emperor Isaac Komnenos petitioned the three Scandinavian kings to send him 1000 Varangians each. As was common practice throughout the Byzantine army, individual applicants had to buy their way into the Varangian Guard. It was a good investment. Service in the elite unit had numerous advantages, beginning with better pay and more comfortable quarters. On campaign, the Varangians also received preferable treatment when looting. they had the right to plunder captured towns first. Basil II occasionally allocated one third of campaign booty to the Varangians – as much as he distributed to the rest of the army combined. In addition to guaranteeing the emperor’s safety while on campaign, the elite Varangian Guard also served as a tactical reserve force deployed to tip the scales at decisive moments during battles. Their reputation for ferocity – as well as brutality – was legendary. Some contemporary descriptions indicate that Varangians – either individually or as a group – may have even practised berserkergang: “The Varangians fight like madmen, as if ablaze with wrath ... they do not care about their wounds”, wrote Michael Psellos (Gli Imperatori di Bisanzio, Cronografia Vol. 2, pp. 89ff; cited in: r. D’Amato, The Varangian Guard, 988-1453, p. 16). In combat, the Varangian Guard was normally Medieval Warfare II-6
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deployed as infantry. Occasionally, they deployed as mounted infantry (such as at Dyrrachium in 1081) or as cavalry (e.g. Petroe in 1057). the Varangian Guard’s battle kit was a mixture of privately-owned Scandinavian arms and Byzantine issued equipment. the primary weapon was an axe closely resembling the Danish battle-axe, which could be wielded with one hand or both. The haft usually measured 47-55” or more. The single axe-head had a curved edge approximately 7” long. (Thirteenthand fourteenth-century Varangian axes are described as two-headed.) this iconic weapon was so equated with the Varangians that they were nicknamed the ‘axe-bearers’. Other regularly-used weapons included double-edged swords of Scandinavian design, javelins and thrusting spears of both Nordic and Byzantine design, and Byzantine spathovaklia, two-handed polearms with a long, curved or sickle-shaped blade. the Varangians’ original Spangenhelm-type head armour was supplemented over time by conical ridge helmets of Byzantine design. Both types frequently included a nose guard, and could be worn over a mail coif. Some depictions show Varangians wearing helmets with attached scale armour shielding the neck and shoulders. Guardsmen are usually also depicted wearing heavy body armour consisting of mail or ring hauberks (sometimes reaching below the knee) as well as lamellar corselets, vambraces and greaves. A series of leather straps worn over the shoulders and crossing to the waist in front and at the back prevented the hauberks from shifting; this style has been referred to as the ‘Varangian bra’, although it is actually a Roman adoption of a Persian practice. round shields, often adorned with jewels or depicting Odin’s sacred raven, were carried; during the course of the eleventh century, the Varangians also began carrying kite-shaped shields.
Slave-soldiers of the Fatimids While Byzantium’s Varangians were free men who volunteered their service, the Fatimids’ elite consisted of Mamluk slavesoldiers. This practice had deep roots in the region. As the early Islamic empire expanded into the Turkish lands across the Oxus River in the eighth century, its rulers began importing slave-soldiers from 20
Transoxania and the Caucasus. Bagdhad’s Abbasid Caliph al-Mutasim organized the first fully-fledged army composed of Turkic slave soldiers in 833. These soldiers were called ghulams or ghilman, named after the servants promised to the faithful in paradise. they later became known by the more generic Arab term Mamluk, meaning ‘owned’. the Fatimid rulers had originally formed their army out of free warriors, mostly Berber tribesmen, later augmented by Egyptian levies. When the Fatimid Empire began to expand from north Africa into the Levant in the late tenth century they clashed with Abbasid Mamluk forces. the Cairo-based Fatimid rulers quickly discerned that the Mamluk heavy cavalry was superior to their Berber light cavalry and infantry. Fatimid Caliph al-Aziz – the same ruler who precipitated the Fatimid conflict with Byzantium by his efforts to invade northern Syria – introduced Mamluks into his own army. His first recruits may have been the regiment of Alptegin, a former high-ranking Abbasid ghulam officer who had attempted to set himself up as an independent ruler over Damascus in the 970s and 980s. While the early Mamluks were recruited from among trained soldiers, defectors and prisoners of war, the Fatimids soon began to systematically ‘grow’ their Mamluk force by purchasing young teenage slaves. Like the Abbasids, the Fatimids primarily took Kipchak turks for Mamluk service. (Later, Circassians and Georgians also became a major source of manpower.) the Kipchaks were a nomadic tribal confederation living in a large region north of the Black, Caspian and Aral seas. Medieval chroniclers describe these tribes as a prime source for slaves. Sons were expelled from their families at puberty, becoming easy picking for slave raiders. “There are also among these people some who will sell their sons and daughters”, wrote the twelfth-thirteenth-century Arab geographer Yaqut (cited in: J. Waterson, The Knights of Islam, p. 38). Arab rulers bought the teenaged Kipchaks wholesale from slaver dealers and put them through a seven-year training regime. By the time the boys reached maturity, two results had been achieved: the young men were highly disciplined masters of the martial arts, and they were thoroughly indoctrinated to be loyal followers of their master. In light of the frequent dynastic struggles
and murders within the Islamic communities, this latter aspect was an important consideration for the Fatimid caliphs (but not necessarily a logical conclusion, given the fact that ghilman slave-soldiers had murdered several Abbasid caliphs in ninthcentury Baghdad). In some respects the term ‘slave-soldiers’ is misleading. Future Mamluks were purchased as slaves, but were ordinarily set free upon becoming fully-fledged Mamluk warriors. Even then, they were bound by strict loyalty to their overlord. Despite their origins, they enjoyed high prestige, good pay and many privileges; in some respects, they ranked higher than many free-born but poor Egyptians and Levantines. In contrast to the Byzantine policy regarding Varangian officers, Mamluks frequently advanced to high command and also to senior administrative posts, becoming generals (emirs) and even viziers (wazirs). Medieval Islamic society was structured in a similar fashion to feudal Europe, with several layers of ‘lords’ below the Caliph or Sultan. Each of these lords had his own personal military force, and many included their own Mamluk guard. the largest Mamluk formation was the Sultan’s or Caliph’s, known as the royal Mamluks. Fatimid royal Mamluks were garrisoned outside Cairo, to minimize interaction with the general populace. Even their leisure activities were usually confined to within the Mamluk community. Warlike exercises and sports such as polo were favoured. Marriages were arranged, and were only permitted with slave women – again to prevent Mamluks from developing ties and loyalties to the general populace. The elite warriors remained a distinct caste. In addition to Cairo, Mamluks were also assigned to augment garrison troops, especially in Syria, where the greatest enemy threats lurked. Mamluks always represented only a small, elite portion of the armed forces, both under the Fatimids and later. For example, when the Mamluk leader Baybars defeated the Mongols at Ayn Jalut in 1260, he controlled some 12,000 fighters including 1400 Mamluks. He later built up the Royal Mamluks to some 5000 men, partly by importing more trainees and partly by taking over Mamluks who had served other lords. Mamluks did provide security for their respective lord, but their main function was as combat troops. their train-
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ing was based on the military code of Furusyya, which encompassed everything from combat skills to strategy and even included training in the care of ill horses. Mamluks were all-round soldiers, trained to fight as infantry or cavalry, in urban environments or in the field, as the situation dictated. They are most famous for their mounted combat skills. Their tactics frequently included repeated hit-and-run attack waves to soften up the enemy with arrow fire, followed by a final charge with lances and other close-combat weapons. This combination of skills made them superior to both Mongol forces (who could not stand up to the Mamluks’ charge) and to Crusader armies (which suffered under the mounted archery attacks). they were also considered the best-drilled force of their day, able to hold formation more precisely than Byzantine and Crusader cavalry. Mamluks rode Arab horses of comparable size to standard European cavalry mounts. Even in the tenth century, Mamluk horses were armoured. For example, Alptegin’s horse was said to be “covered in mirrors” (cited in: D. Nicolle, Armies of the Caliphate, 862-1098, p. 15), suggesting a lamellar armour. Both mail and felt or quilted-cloth horse-armour are also documented. Mamluk soldiers wore a mail-lined leather or cloth hauberk known as a Khazagand, offering good protection while being less oppressive than western armour in extreme heat. the head was protected by a mail coif, often attached to the Khazagand. Alternatively, a lamellar cuirass and a mail coif could be worn over a thick coat. Rounded helmets forged from two pieces of iron and ringed with bronze bands were worn over the coif; the helmet could be reinforced by wearing a cloth hood over it. Arms and legs were usually not provided with additional armour; leather riding boots or spats covered the shins to the knee. A small round shield completed the defensive kit. The Mamluk offensive arsenal included strong composite bows called Qaws, which fired arrows with sufficient power to penetrate armour. Close-combat weapons included a lance, javelins, one or two swords plus a large dagger, and a mace or axe. Sword shapes varied widely from straight to curved. Cavalry axes either had a half-moon-shaped blade (Nachach) or a smaller head with a spike or hammer on
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This sword pommel decorated with gilt bronze dates to the tenth or early eleventh century and belonged to a Varangian guardsman. It was recovered from the Danube island of Pacuiul Lui Soare in Romania, the site of a major Byzantine (and before that Bulgarian) military base. Similar pommels have been recovered in Denmark and the Danelaw region of England, establishing the Scandinavian provenance of the weapon. While Varangians frequently were furnished weapons from Byzantine armouries, contemporary sources and archaeological finds both confirm that they normally retained their personal, Scandinavian-produced double-edged swords. This sword may have been lost during one of Basil II’s Balkan expeditions against the Bulgars. Varangians formed the core of the Byzantine offensive force during these campaigns, conducted between 1001 and 1018.
the reverse side (Tabarzin). At one point, the Mamluks formed a regiment of axemen called the Tabardariyya. There is, however, no indication whether this was inspired by encounters with Varangians. Finally, some specialized weapons must be mentioned. Tubes could be mounted onto bows, enabling mounted archers to fire three arrows at one time. While accuracy and velocity suffered, the psychological impact of denser arrow swarms must have been intense. Other weapons designed to terrorize include socalled ‘chinese arrows’ or rockets, which may have been referred to as fire-darts by some Crusaders. Fire-darts may, however, also refer to spears or javelins tipped with Naft (‘Greek fire’), which are documented by Mamluk military manuals from the thirteenth century. Naft was also deployed via glass hand-grenades that burst on impact. Finally, Greek fire was deployed via sophisticated flame-throwing machines mounted on town and fortress walls and aboard ships.
Centuries of service Both Varangians and Mamluks endured long past the reign of Basil II or the Fatimid dynasty. The Varangians continued their multifaceted service as imperial bodyguards, defenders of Constantinople, and combat troops for nearly four centuries after Basil’s death. Their valour is recorded both in victory and in defeat. Highlights include the defence of Byzantium against
the European armies during the Fourth Crusade. While the Varangian Guard long remained a ‘Nordic’ force, their precise composition changed over time. AngloSaxon and Danish refugees joined in large numbers following the Norman conquest of England, leading some Byzantines to distinguish between Varangoi and Englinovarangoi. Franks and Normans (from France and Italy) also joined the Guard in later years. Not all mercenaries went home after retirement. Many married locally, and, with time, their sons enlisted in the Varangian Guard. These mixed-blood soldiers became known as Varangopouloi. Within a generation of Basil’s death, the Varangians also began to deviate from their political neutrality and unswerving loyalty to the emperor du jour. In 1042, a large percentage of the Varangian Guard deserted Emperor Michael V to side with the Byzantine mob storming the palace. to be precise, this revolt was actually part of a dynastic struggle pitting Michael against the dowager Empress Zoe. the Varangians who deserted Michael later denied treason, claiming they acted out of loyalty to the Empress. Another major factor to consider was that Harald Hardrada – the future King of Norway, who served as a Varangian officer – had been imprisoned by Michael on embezzlement charges, alienating many mercenaries. The Varangian Guard also participated Medieval Warfare II-6
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© Public domain
conquered by the Ottomans in 1517. Even then, Mamluks continued to serve the Ottomans and remained influential in some regions – especially Iraq and India – into the nineteenth century. Napoleon was so impressed that he raised his own Mamluk Corps after invading Egypt. The Mamluks’ most important achievements took place during the late twelfthearly thirteenth centuries. Beginning in 1260, they systematically pushed back the Christian kingdoms of the Levant, taking the last Crusader stronghold in 1291. Even more importantly, beginning in 1260 (Battle of Ayn Jalut), the Mamluks stopped and rolled back the Mongol conquest of the Middle East, preserving the region for Islam. Despite their valour over four centuries of service, the Varangian Guard might ultimately be viewed as a footnote in history. The Mamluks, as the political and military backbone of Islam between the eleventh and early sixteenth centuries, shaped the Middle East, truly making history that still reverberates today. •
Mamluks remained a significant military and even political force throughout the Middle East long after the fall of the Fatimid dynasty. Napoleon was so impressed by the Mamluks whom he encountered during his Egyptian campaign that he created his own Mamluk corps. Of course, Mamluk dress and armament evolved over the centuries. This early nineteenth-century officer still carries a sword and lance, and rides into battle as his ancestors did. But he augments the traditional weapons with a brace of pistols in his belt, and has shed the heavy armour that once rivalled that of Crusader knights.
in revolts in 1071 and 1078. these few examples aside, however, they remained aloof from imperial politics and intrigue. this went so far that they would fiercely defend an emperor being assailed by domestic rivals, but immediately serve the usurper once the old monarch fell. In later years, the Varangian Guard declined in prestige and was reduced in size. One Byzantine source (PseudoKodinos, Traite des Offices; cited in: r. D’Amato, The Varangian Guard, 988-1453, p. 16) indicates 3000 Varangians in the Guard in the third quarter of the thirteenth century. The exact date the Varangian Guard was disbanded is in dispute, but 22
some evidence points to remnants of the Guard – consisting of Varangopouloi – defending the Byzantine capital against the final Ottoman assault in 1453. As the Varangians’ position declined, the Mamluks’ importance and power continued to increase over the centuries. They formed the elite core of the Muslim armies during the Crusades, including that led by Saladin (who founded the Ayyubid dynasty). In 1250, after the death of Sultan al-Silah Ayyub in Cairo, Mamluk Emir Eybeg assumed power, later marrying al-Silah’s widow. the Cairo-based Mamluk dynasty became the dominant power in the Islamic world, until being
Sidney E. Dean writes regularly on military, political and historical topics for various publications, including Ancient Warfare and Medieval Warfare. Sidney studied History for his BA and MA, but his true expertise in medieval studies comes from many years living in Germany, a great portion of which he spent visiting castles, battle sites, and archives. Further reading - R. D’Amato, The Varangian Guard, 988-1453. Oxford 2010. - D. Nicolle, The Armies of Islam, 7th through 11th Centuries. Oxford 1982. - D. Nicolle, Armies of the Caliphate, 862-1098. Oxford 1998. - S. Blöndal & B. Benedikz, The Varangians of Byzantium. Cambridge 1978. - B.T. Carey, The Road to Manzikert: Byzantine and Islamic Warfare, 5271071. Havertown (Pennsylvania) 2012. - J. Waterson, The Knights of Islam: The Wars of the Mamluks. Yorkshire 2007. - J. Haldon, Byzantium at War. London and Oxford 2003.
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The armour and equipment of the Kataphraktoi
The Roman tank of the eleventh century © Photo courtesy of Prof. Vane Sekulov
Our knowledge of the weapons and military equipment used in the Eastern Roman Empire, previously based mainly on depictions on frescoes and in textual and pictorial sources, is now corroborated by new artefacts discovered in the former Empire’s lands. New finds from Bulgaria and Macedonia in particular now shed light on the equipment of the heavy cavalrymen – the Kataphraktoi of the imperial army. By Raffaele d’Amato
The period of the Macedonian dynasty, one of the most glorious for the Byzantine Empire, saw the strengthening of the specialism of the heavy cavalryman, which had already existed in the roman army for centuries – the Kataphraktos, the true ‘tank’ of the Byzantine Emperor, especially in the imperial field army (the Tághmata). The enemies of the Romans, especially the Muslims, were astonished by the sight of these super-heavy cavalrymen, who, according to a Muslim poem of the tenth century, “advanced on horses which seemed not have legs” and “whose helmets and garments were of iron like their swords” (Al-Mutanabbi, Byz. Arabes II 2,333). General Nikêphóros Ouranós (9501011) was distinguished by his loyalty and competence in the service of the Emperor Basil II (976-1025). His Taktika, written during the years of his stewardship over the easternmost boundaries of the Roman Empire, and in which the Praecepta Militaria of the Emperor Nikêphóros Phokás (963-969) was often paraphrased, is therefore a high valuable document for the armament and tactics of Basil II’army. The East Roman kataphraktoi of the tenth century were the best equipped warriors in the army of the Empire, a shock elite impact force difficult to withstand.
the description of the equipment of the Kataphraktos in Nikêphóros Ouranós’ Taktika is very clear (60.4 ff.; see also Praecepta Militaria IV.6-7): lamellar or scale armour with sleeves down to the elbows, arm-guards, an overgarment covering the armour, a strong and compact helmet covering the face with doubleor triple-thickness protection (made of leather faced with mail rings or scales), a lance, leg-guards, a shield, a mace, and a sword. Nikêphóros adds that “there are to be archers in the middle of the Kataphraktoi, shielded by them”. Other sources of the same period remember the use of long thrusting spears by the roman heavy cavalryman. But Ouranós, like Phokás before him, clarifies that not all of the Kataphraktoi were armed in the same way, even within the same unit of cavalrymen. there was a great difference and specificity of roles, with the lancers clearly positioned in a different way from the mace- and sword-armed Kataphraktoi and the archers. the equipment described in his manual is well illustrated in the iconography of the tenth and eleventh centuries, and is now corroborated by recent (and less recent, but rarely published) finds in the Balkans.
Offensive weapons Some Kataphraktoi carried double-edged swords (spathia), hanging on the left side
Thumb ring of an archer found near Strugostjata, in the Republic of Macedonia, from the eleventh century. Now in the Strumica Museum, Republic of Macedonia.
from a baldric. In addition, they also had a single-edged sword or sabre, or sometimes simply a short sword, usually attached to the waist belt and for this reason called a paramerion, usually employed in combination with a mace: “(...) they will smash the heads and the bodies of the enemy and their horses with their iron maces and sabres (...)” (Ouranós, Taktika 61.212). A beautiful specimen of a Kataphraktos sword of the late tenth or early eleventh century from Kotel (Bulgaria) is preserved in the local museum; it presents, especially in its guard, a striking analogy with the tenth-century sword from tekjia (Serbia), and with the rhomboidal guard of the Kataphraktoi sword represented in the Hermitage Diptykon of 40 martyrs. the sword, 94cm long, matches the sources’ description (Sylloge Tacticorum 39.2), where an average length of 93.6cm is reported. Very nice specimens of sabres or straight single-edged swords have also Medieval Warfare II-6
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Arrow points from Cappadocia, from the tenth-eleventh century.
been found in the Balkans: a sword from Čierni Brod (Vízkelet, Slovakia) can be classified as one of the early straight sabre types (end of the ninth century) of East roman origin with characteristic guards. Over a hundred such swords found in Bulgaria can be attributed to the type classified by Prof. Varleri Yotov, archaeologist in the Varna Museum (Bulgaria), as the ‘Bulgarian / Byzantine’ type of sabre. One similar sabre – found in the Hungarian cemetery of Olomouc (Nemilanech; Czech republic), and dated to the middle the tenth century – attests to the close contact of the steppe nomads with Byzantium’s workshops. these swords are of the same length as the ones mentioned earlier, again confirming the dimensions given by the sources (Sylloge Tacticorum, 38.5). Precious specimens of belt-fittings decorated the baldric of the spathion and the waist-belt of the paramerion; baldrics are often represented in the sources in red lacquered leather, as are the scabbards, like those represented on the eleventh-century Kataphraktoi of the Pala d’Oro preserved in the Cathedral of Saint Mark in Venice. the Cynegetica of Oppianus, an eleventh-century miniature book created in the imperial workshops of Constantinople, probably for the Emperor 24
Constantine VIII (1025-1028), shows that some scabbards were covered in natural leather and had chapes of silver and bronze. two scabbard fittings were furnished with small rings, which were used to attach the straps that, when the man was on horseback, kept the scabbard in a half-horizontal position. According to Ouranós, maces (ravdia) were also part of the main armament of the cavalry vandon (a cavalry unit of about 50 men), aside from lamellar or scale armour and swords. (Taktika 60.8385). “Kataphraktoi must have swords and all must have iron maces either on their belts or their saddles (…) Kataphraktoi on the flanks should line up as follows from the fifth line back – one lancer and the other armed with a mace, or one of the men carrying sabres. The men in the back should also line up in this way.” (Taktika 60.70ff.). Ouranós also describes the material and shape of these weapons: “maces made completely of iron with sharp corners on the heads, so that they are three-cornered, four-cornered, or six-cornered – or other iron maces” (Taktika 60.66ff). He specifically uses the word olosidira to indicate maces made completely of iron. The finds from a Balkan battlefield confirm this: a
mace-head of polygonal cubic shape, dating from the ninth to the eleventh century, shows four pointed knobs (γωνίαι) on the squared body. this is probably the type described by Ouranós as tetragonos (fourcornered). Similar specimens have been found throughout the Balkans, especially in Bulgaria (Pliska, Varna). Archaeology reveals, however, that the Kataphraktoi, especially during the time of Basil II, used other ferocious weapons from horseback, such as war-hammers and the terrible akouphion, described by Leo the Deacon: “this is a long iron weapon that very much resembles a heron’s beak. But it differs from the beak in its shape, inasmuch as nature bestowed a straight beak on the bird, whereas the akouphion gradually extends in a moderate curve ending in a rather sharp point” (V.8). A very nice example of this weapon has been found at Varna, in Bulgaria, with a blade measuring 20 x 24.5cm. The Taktika mention kataphraktoi called Kontaratoi, who are armed with spears as their main weapon. In the Greek medieval sources, the word kontos (contus in latin) was used alongside the ancient Greek words dory, lonchi and Kontarion. On horseback, this long spear could be used by brandishing it with two hands, as demonstrated, for instance, by the Stratopedarches Peter against a Russian warrior: “Peter, filled with inconceivable valour and spirit, impetuously urged his horse on with his spurs, and, after brandishing his spear mightily, thrust it with both hands at the Scythian‘s chest. the force of it was so great that it bore right through and pierced all the way to the broad of his back, his chainmail breastplate failing to stop it. That enormous man was dashed to the earth without a sound, and the Scythians turned to flight (...).” (Leo the Deacon VI.11). the spears were mainly made of ash (melia) or cornel (krania) wood. they were about 3.75-4.70m long, although the longest reached 6.25m. The spear-heads (echmì, xiphos-xipharion tou kontariou, sidhirion) were mainly of iron. It is interesting to note that two specimens recently found in Bulgaria, at Kaskovo and Drastar, had under the head – 24.4cm long – a small iron sphere, identical to those visible in many miniatures; for example, on the spear of the Emperor Basil II in the Marciana Psalter. the cavalry spears were fitted also
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© Photo courtesy of Prof. Vane Sekulov
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with small flags, attached by means of rings. These, already in use for centuries, were shaped like pennants (flamoula) or had small square bodies with streamers (vánda). Different units could have been divided according to the colour and shape of such flags.
Body protection The kataphraktoi should have, according to Nikêphóros, “strong iron helmets to cover their faces with double- or triple-thickness zavai, and only their eyes must show through” (Taktika 60,4, 44ff.). Various shapes of helmets are visible in the iconography, but most often they are rounded with a low bowl and furnished with neck protection of chain mail, scales and leather, or felt. Other helmets resemble the Phrygian shape, i.e. with forwardtilted crowns, like those represented on a fresco in Pürenli Kilise (Ilhara, Cappadocia; from the mid-tenth century), showing that these helmets came to western Europe from Byzantium. Actual specimens are rare, but they confirm the description. the iron helmets of Ozana and Yasenovo (Bulgaria) are compact and strong, with attachments for hanging the face and neck protection; this zava was made of ring mail faced with leather or scales. the helmet of Yasenovo, continuing the late Roman tradition, has reinforcing bands across the crown; its typology is present in the iconography from the eleventh to the thirteenth century, thus disproving the interpretation of many scholars who attributed to it a Mongol origin at a later date. The main armour, the klivanion mentioned by Nikêphóros Ouranós, was already in use in the imperial army for at least two centuries. In fact, lamellar armour had been used in the Roman army at least from the third century AD. This armour, made usually of rows of interlocked iron, bronze or boiled leather plates, was often waist-length, entirely enclosing the upper body, and furnished with elbow-length sleeves. Ordinarily, the plates of lamellar armour overlap horizontally. The lamellar rows could consist of laced plates without riveting, overlapping from right to left; the rows were linked with numerous thongs and overlap upwards. this was typical of the early klivanion. this specimen was still used in the eleventh century. The fourteen iron scales found in Strugostjata, 9.5cm
Set of east Roman lamellae found near Strugostjata, from the eleventh century. These early type of lamellae were most probably attached to a lining by leather cords. Currently in the Strumica Museum, Republic of Macedonia.
long and fitted with six holes each, show the presence of a leather backing. rows of these plates cannot be held together only by cords (the standard lamellar scheme) and, at first sight, plates with such holes should be attached to a lining. No remnants of connecting cords or lining have been found in the Balkans, but it is very likely that they were once there. According to recent studies, a new type of lamellar armour emerged in Byzantium during the tenth century, and became established in the eleventh century. In this armour, the plates did not overlap but were riveted to the leather side by side. In representations, we find lamellar armour whose rows are separated by narrow bands. According to Dr. Dawson, this was a leather band placed between the rows, separating the plates and neutralizing the scissors-effect caused by their movement, which could cut the thongs. the making of lamellar armour was simplified further by riveting the plates onto the leather (instead of fixing them by means of thongs). This disposition of the lamellae, visible in the iconography, distinguishes between the so-called ‘banded’ and ‘linear’ suits of armour. Banded lamellar armour appears only at the turn of the tenth-eleventh centuries, while many linear ones date back to the ninth–tenth century. According to Dr. tsurtsumia, who has studied the Georgian and Anatolian frescoes of the age of Basil
II, it is possible to see one line between the plates of the armour, meaning that the various rows of lamellar plates have a leather lining only at the rear (linear). In banded lamellar armour, the leather lining is behind the plates and the lower part of the plate is also lined. The sleeves of this armour protected the upper arms and forearms with three rows of overlapping bands, made of metal or organic material. Polished iron shoulder-guards of circular shape were attached to the leather lining and formed a hemispherical protection lined with leather and furnished, at its edges, with small round tongues of coarse silk. From it, and from the waist, hung sleeves and skirts of coarse silk and cotton. These kremasmata were often made like the pteryges of ancient times. Such kremasmata are, however, represented in many frescoes as having been riveted. This means that the upper arm protection could also be made of lamellar-splint construction using long metallic (iron or other material) scales, furnished in the middle with holes for the fastening of rivets or laces. Over the klivanion was worn the main visible garment, the epilorikion, in the colour of the regiment, made of heavily padded coarse silk. Its sleeves were left hanging behind the warrior’s shoulders. the garment was quilted or padded, and its surface was often of diamond pattern and divided into spaces sewn in a very Medieval Warfare II-6
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© Graham Sumner
An imperial Kataphraktos Kavallarios Klibanophoros from the early eleventh century, riding an armoured horse. The cataphracts were an elite unit, the ‘tank’ of the Byzantine army. Often clad in full armour and armed with lance, sword or mace, and sometimes a bow as well, they were able to drive wedges in the enemy formations, flank the enemy, and pursue them when the battle turned into a rout. Aside from such obvious benefits of having these armoured mounted units in the Byzantine army, the cataphracts also acted as a muchneeded counter to the often cavalrybased enemy armies, especially in the Middle-East, where versatile and mobile Turkish horsemen could wreak havoc in Byzantine infantry formations.
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thick way. Decoration of the armour was provided by attaching tufts (toufia) to the shoulder guards of the epilorikion with rings. the archers, according to Ouranós, had kavadia (strips or pieces of padded material or felt) hanging from their waist to protect their lower bodies and even the horses. The kavadia were probably part of the padded garment worn under the armour, and were again shaped like pteryges, or sometimes attached and stitched together to form a compact protective dress. legs and arms were protected by arm-guards and greaves, made of splintarmour of iron, wood, leather and bronze, formed by metallic strips riveted over a leather background. The splint-armour covering the legs was slightly arched to allow for easier movement of leg and knee. they were fastened at the lower part with bronze buckles. tubular greaves in forged iron were also in use. The shields used by Kataphraktoi were kite-shaped, round, oval or square, but the kite or three-cornered shields seem to have been the most used. The Sylloge Tacticorum prescribes a long shield of 105.3cm high. Nikêphóros Ouranós states that the Kataphraktoi should have shields (skoutaria) to block arrows (Taktika 60.5.58), and that shields should be provided for the lancers and all cavalrymen of the formation except for the archers (Taktika 60.9.85). In a further passage, he states that the archers and the lancers should have “not large shields like those of heavy infantymen, but smaller, of either four or five spans (spithamai; 93.6cm and 117cm respectively)” (61,3,44ff.). the shields were made of wood and sheathed in leather, linen or precious skin like parchemin. Archaeology reveals only the central bosses of the shield, called boukola or kumbala in the sources. An iron specimen from Balink (Bulgaria), measuring 8.5cm in diameter and dating from the ninth-eleventh centuries, is similar to the iconographic examples of the Menologion of Basil II.
Equipping the horse The heavily armour-plated cavalrymen were mounted, though not, as a rule, on full or half-armour-plated horses: “They must have powerful, bold horses. these horses should also be covered in armour, either of pieces of felt and boiled leather glued or stitched together, down to the
© Photo courtesy of Prof. Valeri Yotov
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Eastern Roman iron heavy stirrup for the Cataphract. This eleventh-century specimen was found in Bulgaria.
knees, so as to cover the whole body of the horse with nothing but his eyes and nostrils showing through, while from the knees down the horse’s legs are uncovered; or else the horse also should have klivania made from bison hides. This type of klivanion should go over the horse’s chest and be split at the legs of the horse and down below so as not to impede its feet (…)” (Taktika 60.5.47ff.). The horse of the Kataphraktos, therefore, was not always covered with armour, but usually only those of the warriors employed in the so-called triangle formation. This explains the very rare representation, in the artistic sources of the middle period, of armour-covering for the horses, and also explains why cavalrymen are usually represented in the iconography sitting upon unarmoured horses. The best representations of horse-armour come, in any case, from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but they shouldn’t have been so different during the middle period. The horse fittings consisted of good quality bridles (klinkai), breast-straps (antilìna) and back-straps (postilìna, opisthelina), both fixed to the padded structure of the saddle (sella, sellochalinon), stirrups (skalai), and a head-piece (kefalarea). The harness was often decorated with disks (phalerae) or other metal applications. From an examination of original phalerae, like those found in the Church of Aghios Achilleos of lake Prespas, we can see that the single straps were at least 3.5cm wide.
Breast- and back-straps passed over the saddle and went through two holes in the saddle cover, and were attached to the small leather saddle by means of buckles or buttons (komposia). the saddle was composed of a raised leather piece, sometimes furnished with a wooden archon and back-archon and covered with padded material (epìsellion). the main saddle body was composed of this padded saddle, fastened by a belly belt on either side. Under it, there was a second leather layer and a third on top of that, covered by a thick cloth of various colours (kapoulion). Stirrups and spurs have been found in various excavations in Bulgaria. Especially a great number of heavy stirrups for Kataphraktoi have been found on the Bulgarian battlefield sites, showing the presence of strong support for the cavalryman’s feet. •
Raffaele D’Amato has a PhD in Romano-Byzantine law and has a passion for military history and archaeology. He has published various books and articles on the weaponry of the Classical world, Byzantium, and the Dark Ages, with a particular emphasis on the weapons and clothing of Greeks and Romans.
Further reading - R. D’Amato, Byzantine Imperial Guardsmen, 913-1025. Oxford 2012. - t. Dawson, Byzantine cavalryman, 900-1204. Oxford 2009. - T. Kolias, Byzantinische Waffen. Vienna 1988. - ‘taktika of Nikêphóros Ouranós’, in: E. McGeer, Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth: Byzantine Warfare in the 10th century (Washington 1995), pp. 79-167. - M. Tsurtsumia, ‘The Evolution of Splint Armour in Georgia and Byzantium: lamellar and Scale Armour in the 10th-12th Centuries’, in: Byzantina Symmeikta 21, (2011), 65-99. - V. Yotov, Arms and armours in the Bulgarian Middle Age, VII-XI cent. Varna 2004. (Written in Bulgarian).
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Shock and awe against the Fatimids
Forced march through Anatolia The Fatimid light scouting cavalry detachment that had camped two miles west of the besieged city of Aleppo woke up in a perplexed state. The arid plain stretching in front of them had flooded with a myriad of mounted soldiers and an astonishing number of mules. To their unsettled dismay, the most keen-sighted of the scouts could vaguely distinguish the feared banners of the Roman army fluttering throughout this massed array of men and beasts. To his horror, one of the scouts even noticed the imperial banner signifying the presence of the Roman Basileus himself. How could this be? Their superiors had warned them to probably expect an insignificant relief force, if any, but surely not the whole of the Roman army led by the Emperor. To the frustration of the Fatimids, Basil II had achieved a magnificent if not unique feat in Byzantine military history, by appearing unexpectedly with an army of 40,000 men at the walls of besieged Aleppo. By Vassilis Pergalias
© Courtesy photo Prof. Valery Yotov
the whirlwind spread of Muslim warriors across the Eastern frontier and provinces of the Byzantine Empire during the middle of the seventh century altered the geo-
This sword guard found in Pliska, Bulgaria, was probably owned by one of the Byzantine soldiers under the command of Nikephoros Ouranos, Basil’s general, who had managed to conquer the city during the long, bitter wars against the Bulgars.
political status quo of the region once and for all, with the once underestimated Arab Bedouins of the backwater region of Arabia defeating the armies of the two great empires, namely the Eastern Roman Empire and that of Persia. Although the latter was overrun by the enthusiasm and fanaticism of the newly converted Islamic warriors, Byzantium held its ground, halting the seemingly unstoppable Islamic tide at the walls of Constantinople itself, first in AD 678 and finally in 718. By the end of the eighth century, the inevitable civil strife within the Islamic world, caused by family and religious feuds, put an abrupt end to the expansionist policies of the Caliphate (first under the Umayyads, and later under the Abbasid dynasty). the frontier between Byzantium and the Muslim world became entrenched almost at the eastern geographical limits of Asia Minor, with the important provinces of lebanon, Syria and Palestine forfeited by Constantinople. the relationship between Constantinople and the Caliphate for the next 150 years or so gradually became one of condescending coexistence, fraught nonetheless with the occasional skirmish and raid into each other’s territories. The Caliphate was weakened by the perpetual cycle of war between dynasties, and
Byzantium had to face a wave of attacks across its northern borders, with Slavs, rus’ and Bulgars carving their own presence within Imperial territory. In addition to this, the Iconoclast period brought nothing but misery and disorganization within the elite of Constantinople. By the late ninth century, though, the political dynamics in Constantinople stabilized with the establishment of the Macedonian dynasty, following the coronation of Basil I in 867. This stability heralded the advent of a period where development in literature and ideas would flourish, the economy would rise, and the army would yet again be proud of its new glorious victories against the surrounding enemies. this period would be considered by historians as a Byzantine renaissance that would eventually lead to the expansion of the Empire in all directions during the tenth century, up to the end of the reign of Basil II in 1025. The most prominent of the expansions was the drive to the east, where a series of emperors from the mid-tenth century would be in constant struggle with the Arab emirates and the Caliphate of Egypt, by then ruled by the Fatimid dynasty. the scourge of the Arabs, Nikephorus Phokas, had taken the initiative, recapturing Crete and Cyprus
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both Emirate and Byzantine territory, triggering the hasty military response of the Doux of Antioch, Michael Bourtzes, who summoned the local, thematic troops and led them twice into defeat (the battles of Apamea in 992 and Orontes in 994), allowing the Fatimid army to freely conduct operations against the Empire’s protectorate. Without wasting time, the Fatimids ravaged the lands of Aleppo, eventually besieging the city itself. © Raffaele D’Amato
from the Arabs and campaigning beyond the Byzantine borders, regaining the longlost territories of northern Syria and parts of lebanon, with the seizure of Antioch in 969 being the highlight of the campaign. Nikephorus’ successor (after violently murdering him in his own quarters), John Tzimiskes, continued the Byzantine offensive when, in 974, he campaigned victoriously against the Arabs, laying waste to all territory extending from the frontier into Mesopotamia, opening up the way to Baghdad, capital of the Abbasid Caliphate. tzimiskes’ unwillingness to push on to Baghdad still remains a mystery. By the time Basil II came to power in 976, Byzantine rule in the east extended into Syria, lebanon and Palestine, with a series of dependent emirates clinging on to the Imperial bandwagon at every chance. Parallel to Byzantine renewed assertiveness in the region, there was a new Caliphate rising in north Africa, with all the energy characteristic of a newcomer to the scene. the Fatimid Caliphate originated in Tunisia at the beginning of the tenth century; then in Egypt, where it founded the city of Cairo. this upstart Shia Caliphate was named after Muhammad’s daughter Fatimid, from whom the founder of the dynasty claimed descent. Their spread from Tunisia into Egypt and their subjugation of the various local people would allow them to establish a formidable multinational military, and the Fatimids would eventually rule north Africa, Egypt and parts of the Levant, extending into the northern regions of Syria, sharing a common, fragile frontier with the Byzantine Empire. Fatimid efforts of expansion into northern Syria and beyond coincided with the aforementioned Byzantine renaissance of the tenth century, which inevitably led to an increased assertiveness and expansion of the latter’s political borders. To its east, the Emirate of Aleppo would remain in Muslim hands, albeit as an imperial protectorate and vassal, ruled by Sa’id but effectively governed by Abu Muhammad Lu’lu, surnamed al-Kabir (‘the Elder’). By this time, the Fatimid Caliph, al-Aziz, had decided to pursue an aggressive policy in Syria by targeting the weak Emirate of Aleppo, and this was clearly illustrated by the appointment of the former turkish slave-warrior Manjutakin as governor of Damascus. Manjutakin’s offensive idiosyncrasy allowed him to raid
Basil II Although porphyrogenitos, ‘born in the purple’, Basil assumed power along with his younger brother Constantine upon the death of John Tzimiskes in 976. Due to his young age and inexperience, governance would be held for the following nine years by the parakoimomenos, a eunuch also (confusingly) named Basil. By 985, Basil II assumed exclusive rule of the Empire. two different events formed and developed Basil’s idiosyncratic and resolute decision-making that would be most evident in his rapid campaign against the Fatimids. the first was his thirteenyear struggle against the rebels Bardas Skleros and Bardas Phokas. this longdrawn period of war against members of the Byzantine elite would develop Basil’s understanding that preparation for war should be perpetual. The second important event that altered Basil’s perception of military affairs once and for all, was his early defeat at the hands of the Bulgars at the Gates of Trojan, a mountain passage in the Balkans, in 987. The inexperienced Basil led an army through the passage in order to undertake a punitive campaign against the marauding Bulgars, who had been persistently raiding Greece throughout previous years. the Byzantines were ambushed and Basil himself narrowly escaped with his life, attributing this catastrophic defeat to the lack of preparation and training of his men. From then onwards, the Emperor would embark on a systematic training of his army, with success depending on faultless organization. the army would act as a single, perfectly coordinated body. When battle began, Basil would forbid any soldier to break ranks, with heroics being punished with instant dismissal. His soldiers might complain about their master’s endless inspections, but they gave him their trust. The defeat at the hands of
Two details of paintings of the Monastery of the Archangel Gabriel in Fayyum (Egypt), showing Fatimids warriors. On the detail on the right one can see a Fatimid Black African soldier, possibly of Sudanese origin. Despite the antiquity of the painting, the javelin beside the warrior and the absence of armour, which was typical for freed Black African infantry and skirmishers, are still noteworthy. By the eleventh century, the Fatimids made an increasing use of Nubian and Sudanese soldiers, because of the progressive lack of troops and mercenaries due to the loss of Ifriqiya (1048) caused by the Zirid Berber dynasty and the advance of the Seljuks from the East.
the Bulgars would alter Basil’s perception of what an efficient military organization should be.
The march the Fatimid army reached the walls of Aleppo in June 994 and duly began the siege of the city. By autumn, their army had defeated the governor of Antioch in battle near the Orontes river. News of the unfortunate developments rapidly reached Constantinople, where an energetic Basil was contemplating his continuous campaign and struggle against the Bulgars in the Balkans. Throughout his reign, his strategy in the east focused on using force to compel his neighbours to accept treaties and alliances. Although Basil’s main focus would be the west and the struggle against the Bulgars in particular, he could not allow the client Emirate of Aleppo to fall into the marauding hands of the Fatimid Caliphate. After all, this would open the region for the subsequent capture of Antioch, which was a significant Medieval Warfare II-6
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Reaching the walls of Tripoli, Basil attempted a brief siege. The campaign of 995 was a rapid reaction against Fatimid aggression in the region, hence the lack of great siege engines, such as siege-towers. The siege-ram and small trebuchet, illustrated above, could be built on the spot and easily manned by the infantry. These, however, were not enough to create a breakthrough. The siege only lasted for a month, and Basil departed leaving Tripoli intact.
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ÂŠ Johnny Shumate
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An example of the head of a mace with spiral flanges. The mace was introduced in Islamic warfare after the conquest of the Sasanian Persian Empire by the Caliph Umar (644). This weapon was particularly appreciated by the Fatimid ghilman and by Arab and Byzantine cavalry because of its devastating effect against armour, and was subsequently often preferred to swords in battle. This mace head, most probably used by a Byzantine warrior, is currently in the World Museum of Man, Florida.
Byzantine stronghold in the region; but more importantly, the capture of Antioch would make the most important provinces of Asia Minor susceptible to Muslim raids and destruction. Thus, the Bulgar campaigns had to be put on hold. With his characteristic resolution and aggressive idiosyncrasy, the Emperor contemplated a feat that had never been as yet witnessed in Byzantine history, namely the forced march through Asia Minor. The terrain of the peninsula can be divided into three clearly separate zones: coastal plains, central plateau, and the mountain ranges which separate them. The climate of the plateau is characterized by very hot, dry summers and extremely cold winters. therefore, although Basil would have probably desired to initiate the march as soon as he had been informed of the defeat of Bourtzes at the Battle of Orontes, he would have to consider two factors: the recruitment and training of enough men to create a suitable reaction 32
force, and the deteriorating weather of the Anatolian plateau, which would have to be the main direction of his route if he desired to meet the Fatimid forces outside the walls of Aleppo as soon as possible. Concerning the first factor, although Basil had already recruited and trained enough men to fight his wars against the Bulgars, he would need to leave a significant portion of this force behind, to monitor his enemies there while he was campaigning in the east. this would require more men to be recruited and trained adequately. Since training the men was an important factor in the establishment of an efficient and disciplined army, this would require time. Hence, the campaign would have to wait until the early days of spring. An added advantage of this delay was that, in spring, the severe winter weather over the Anatolian plain would have abated, allowing the rapid advance of an army. The main difficulty faced by armies while crossing Asia Minor was the presence of long stretches of road through relatively waterless and exposed countryside and the rough mountainous terrain separating coastal regions from the central plateau. The Roman and Hellenistic road network was complex, with most of it still being used locally, but there evolved a series of major military routes in the Byzantine period. In order to move towards Syria, Basil would probably have led his army from Chrysoupolis (opposite Constantinople) to Nikomedeia, Nikaia (Nicaea) and Malagina (an important imperial military base). From there, he would have marched to Dorylaion (Dorylaeum), Kotyaion, moving into the Anatolian plain towards Akroinon, and from there towards Ikonion leading up to the eastern city of Podandos, which was situated not far from the ‘Cilician Gates’, a pass through the Taurus Mountains that connected the Anatolian plateau with the Cilician low plains. From there, an army could march through a low hill region into Syria. Such a route would be dotted with a series of major depots or bases with livestock supplies to facilitate campaigning in the region. Such depots were set
up at Malagina, Dorylaion, Kaborkin near Koloneia, Caesarea (in Asia Minor) and Dazimon. It should be noted that many of these routes do not follow the major paved Roman roads, preferring instead lesser and often much more ancient routes that provided better opportunities for watering and pasturing animals and provisioning armies. Setting the most adequate route for a march is just the initial phase of the march itself, although probably the most important, since this would determine how the men would reach their objectives. Although not much more detail is provided by sources, Basil probably started from Constantinople with 40,000 men, each of them provided with two mules, one for himself and one for his weapons and supplies. Therefore, the massive number of 80,000 mules would have to be requisitioned and collected. the army certainly owned a significant number of mules and other pack-animals, already possibly increased due to Basil’s continual campaigns in the Balkans. The campaign in the east, though, would require a vastly greater number, and these would probably have been bought from the estates surrounding Constantinople and from the rest of the nearby eastern provinces. One would imagine that the western provinces, already affected by the war against the Bulgars, would not have been able to sufficiently support a campaign in the east. those mules and pack-animals that were not bought from private farms could also have been raised in imperial stables such as that found at Malagina, which were the prime contributors for the cavalry. Supplying a marching army was an achievement in itself. Basil would have to depend on a system that had existed for the past three hundred years, based on the thematic division of Imperial territory. In this case, the protonotarios (head of an administrative department) of each thema through which the army passed would provide certain supplies in kind from the land-tax and the aerikon (cash resources of the province). The protonotarios was informed in advance as to the army’s requirements, which was to be stored at appropriate points along the route of march. Hence, the protonotarios was the link between the provincial thematic fiscal administration and the central government, who would ensure that a large force would be efficiently supplied while pass-
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mules, in this case) are regularly rested and well nourished and watered (Haldon, Warfare, State and Society in the Byzantine World 565-1204, p.164). The plains of Anatolia during early spring would have provided rich grazing for the horses and mules, so that carrying fodder would not have been necessary. Horses need regular rest and regular breaks for grazing, at least one day in six, to prevent damage to their feet and backs, rendering them useless. Of the 40,000 men that began the march in Constantinople, 17,000 men reached Aleppo, with the rest probably arriving at a later stage. This relatively large drop-out rate can probably also be attributed to the fact that most mules were rendered useless from sores and injuries. During night time, the soldiers and mules would have to get as much rest as possible, so one cannot infer that immense marching camps were assembled each evening and disassembled each morning. Since the march was undertaken within Byzantine territory, either Basil would have been far-sighted enough to have pre-arranged the setting up of camps before the march itself, or the army would have rested in the base camps situated at key points along the route itself. The possibility of the soldiers taking lodging in civilian houses would seem improbable, since this would require more time for the assembly of all units at the starting point of each day’s march.
reaching the walls of tripoli, Basil’s engineers swiftly constructed some of the characteristic siege weapons widely used throughout the East during this period. the easiest to build would be the stonehurling onagers and the turtle siege-ram. Taking into consideration the fact that Basil’s expedition was carried out in a rapid fashion, he could not have prepared for lengthy sieges that would have culminated in the occupation of Fatimid lands. tripoli’s walls were extensive and heavily defended by a Fatimid garrison. to complicate matters, tripoli was a port city. Any attempt to capture it would require the attacker either to storm its main walls with the use of heavy siege weapons (such as towers) or to starve it into submission by surrounding it and blockading its port. Both eventualities were impossible since Basil was neither prepared for a lengthy expedition nor did he have the support of a navy, which was essential to cut off any seaborne supplies. Above all, Basil did not have the will to extend his operations further south or even spend any more time in the region. the east was not the focal point of Basil’s foreign policy; at least, not at this point, since the continued threatening presence of the Bulgar kingdom closer to home would keep Basil’s mind preoccupied with the Balkans. Probably not wishing to besiege Tripoli in any case, Basil had stabilized his south-eastern frontier and now
Reaching Aleppo Upon reaching its destination, the sudden appearance of 17,000 heavily armed men led by the Emperor himself, with more possibly following along, struck fear into the hearts of the Fatimid soldiers and advisers of Manjutakin. the Fatimid army besieging Aleppo duly lifted the siege that had lasted for almost one gruelling year, and retreated into Fatimid territory, avoiding contact with Basil. to the immense satisfaction of the Emperor, Aleppo had been relieved, removing the danger to Antioch. The doux of this city, Bourtzes, was rapidly replaced by Damian Dalassenos and, after a rest of some days, probably waiting to replenish his forces with the arrival of the rest of his army, Basil moved south, eager to exact punishment from the Fatimid Caliphate by raiding its province of Damascus, sacking Emesa, and even reaching the walls of Tripoli in north Lebanon.
© Picture by Nicholas Johnson; licenced by Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 generic
ing through. A forced march inevitably implied that all depots and bases along the routes would have been effectively prepared to support the passing troops well in advance of the march. In order to ensure an efficient march, Basil also needed to reduce the instances of soldiers wasting time foraging or wandering into villages to buy food. Every minor detail would have been planned and, judging by Basil’s character, one can understand how such an achievement was possible. What kind of supplies was each soldier provided with on the forced march? We should remind ourselves that the burden of marching on foot was relieved by the presence of the mules. Instead of having to walk the entire route, Basil’s infantry rode on mules, without even having to carry their own baggage, which followed on a second mule. The type of supplies that each infantryman carried with him depended upon the type of soldier that he was. the 40,000 soldiers mentioned in the sources were all recruited and trained in Constantinople, under the vigilant eyes and presumably the direct orders of the Emperor, something that might not even be an exaggeration, judging by Basil’s pedantic attitudes. Of course, some of the troops must have belonged to the tagmata that had been fighting the Bulgars during previous years, providing the backbone of the new army. the assumption here is that thematic troops were not added to the army along its march, though this is not certain. In order to increase the speed of march, we can presume that there was no baggage train. the absence of ox-drawn carriages would definitely increase the speed by a significant factor and remove the need to include carpenters for the maintenance of the carts. Also, if the marching column encountered muddy roads due to the last rainfall of winter, there was no risk of the odd carriage getting stuck on a narrow pass and hindering the advance. It has been recorded that Basil’s forced march took just sixteen days, when the normal march of a Byzantine army would have taken 60 days. A rough estimate of the distance from Constantinople to Aleppo is 1200km. this would suggest that Basil’s men travelled approximately 75km/ day. This estimate is not far from Haldon’s assertion that unaccompanied cavalry can achieve distances of up to 40 or 50 miles (64–80km), provided that the horses (or
The walls of Aleppo had been built during the early Byzantine era, only to be reinforced by the Arab successors. The Gate of Bab Qinnasrin, although completely rebuilt in 1256, was present when the city was besieged by the Fatimid army. It was eventually relieved by the unexpected arrival of Basil’s army. Medieval Warfare II-6
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© Photo by Raffaele D’Amato; courtesy of the Cathedral museum
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could head back home. His mission was accomplished. He had averted Fatimid expansion towards the Empire’s lands and had, in one blow, extended his frontiers into lebanon. Fighting a few skirmishes outside the city walls and ending a halfhearted attack on the gates with the ’turtle’, Basil lifted the siege and departed for his capital. It is interesting that his journey back home, which was surely more leisurely than his forced march, allowed him to develop an acute suspicion and distaste regarding the power of the wealthy landowners of Asia Minor. He was horrified by the splendour of the estates built by the ‘powerful’ on what was legally either imperial property or that of the local village communes. By January 996, he had issued an imperial edict that decreed that any territorial claim, to be valid, must go back at least 61 years. All property acquired during that time was to be returned to its previous owner without any compensation. This obviously devastated traditional landowning families, such as the Phokases. Basil had thus exacted his revenge and had secured his reign by significantly reducing, with one blow, the power of the previously wealthy families of Asia Minor.
This iron spear-head was recovered at Drastar, Bulgaria, site of the Varangian Guard’s 1087 defeat at the hands of the Pechenegs. The Scandinavian style ‘winged spear’ crossbar between the blade and the socket has been adapted to produce a circled-cross symbol. On the other hand, the spear blades are decorated with raven symbols, identifying the bearer as a worshipper of Odin. The Varangians recruited from Kiev were already nominal Christians, while those recruited directly from Scandinavia included both Christians and adherents of the traditional Nordic gods.
His governor of Antioch, Dalassenos, continued Basil’s work of raiding into Fatimid territories over the following two years until 998, when he attempted an attack on Apamea but was repulsed by the Fatimids in battle on 19 July 998, during which Dalassenos himself was killed. Upon being informed of this defeat, Basil prepared for a second campaign in the east. By October 999, he had reached Syria, where he spent three months raiding the area, capturing the cities Shaizar (Sezer), Emesa and Arqa, and sacking Rafaniya. He even attempted another failed siege of Tripoli that lasted only for a month when his attention was drawn to Armenia. He left the new governor of Antioch, Nikephorus Ouranos, to negotiate a peace, which was actually established with a ten-year truce concluded in 1000.
Basil’s infantry Sources that discuss the forced march on Aleppo mention that Basil raised 40,000 men, providing each with two mules. this implies that the 40,000 men were infantry, since cavalry units would be in no need of mules. Even if the entirety of Basil’s army was not infantry, it is very probable that its majority was. As discussed previously, the men recruited were probably part of tagmatic units and not thematic ones. Hence, they would have been young men who had no other option of employment and foreigners, who were incorporated within the Byzantine military structure, not as mercenaries, but as part of Byzantine units. lastly, there would have been light infantry such as archers, javelineers and slingers, recruited when needed from any pool of marginal manpower. the equipment used by the heavy infantryman of the age was either mail (lorikion alusidoton) or scale (lorikion folidoton) body armour. In certain cases, lamellar (klivanion) armour was also used, although the complexity and expense of making it would have been prohibitive for many infantrymen. Their shields (skoutarion) were either round or teardrop-shaped. the weapons used by the heavy infantry were various, such as the peltast (or small) spear (kontarion micron), which reached 2.5m in length, the hoplite (or large) spear, which was between 4 and 5m, and the menavlion, which was also a short spear, but very heavy. Swords were of two kinds: the straight, double-edged
spathion and the slightly curved, singleedged paramerion. Axes were also used. Such infantrymen fought in formations consisting of kontoubernia of 10 men, making a kentarchia of 100 men, a vandon of 200 men, a droungos of 400 men, and a tourma of 2400 men. Each file or kontouvernion lined up, one behind the other, with the promakhos or file-leader at the front, followed by his second, and the ouragos or file-closer preceded by his second. these were the most heavily-armed of the formation, with lightly-armoured skoutatoi (‘shield-bearers’) and projectile troops in between. Spears were the primary weapon. If the attacking force was cavalry, the front formation would be reinforced by a rank of menavliatoi with their heavy spears. Once the enemy started to break into the spear wall, the promakhoi would abandon their spears and use their swords or axes. Such formations of infantry, along with the necessary cover by cavalry units, would encounter Arab forces throughout Basil’s campaigns. The Emperor’s thorough training and resolute leadership, though, would amplify its effectiveness on the battlefield, allowing for the important victories that would provide the stability of the Empire’s eastern frontier. •
Vassilis Pergalias is from Athens, Greece, and has obtained a BA in War Studies and an MA in Conflict, Security and Development, both from King’s College, London. Although working as a property manager his love for military history enables him to research and write on ancient and medieval aspects of warfare, with a special interest in the Byzantine military presence in Italy.
Further reading - t. Dawson, Byzantine Infantryman: Eastern Roman Empire c.900-1204. Oxford 2007. - J. Haldon, Warfare, State and Society in the Byzantine World 565-1204. London 1999. - J. Haldon, The Byzantine Wars. Stroud 2008. - J.J. Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium. London 1997.
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A medieval Christmas tale from the Siege of Rouen
They should have meat and drink Christmas can have a strange effect on warfare. Unofficial truces, the exchange of gifts between those who, just the day before, were exchanging artillery shells, plus the joint singing of carols are just some examples of the things that have occurred in past wars. The Christmas cease-fire of 1914 during the First World War is perhaps the most famous of these unofficial truces. There have been others, such as during the American Civil War, when the two sides stopped fighting in some places to peacefully trade coffee and newspapers. These passive Christmases are not only limited to recent history. They have happened during medieval warfare, as well. The Siege of Rouen in the fifteenth century provides us with one of these odd instances when Christmas inspired calm and charity at a time when starvation, death and destruction had ruled for many months. By Brian Burfield
By the time Henry V of England and his men arrived outside the fortified walls of rouen in 1418, war between the French and English had been raging for more than 80 years. Despite the horror and the large loss of life that battles like Crecy, Poitier and Agincourt had brought with them over the past eight decades, the cruelty, carnage and butchery continued. the Siege of rouen had actually begun in the previous year, when the Duke of Exeter, acting as Henry’s emissary and following the rules of engagement, sent his heralds to rouen. they went with banners unfurled to caution the citizens, on pain of death, to surrender peacefully to Henry. However, rather than opening the gates to allow the Duke’s party into the city, they responded with cannon fire, followed by a cavalry sortie. So, a siege of rouen it was to be, in July 1418. rouen was the capital of Normandy and one of Europe’s larger cities at the
time. It was a beautiful place that boasted a cathedral and nearly 75 abbeys, convents and parish churches. It was also a very wealthy city, thanks to its weaving and luxury goods industries. Henry V himself expressed that rouen was “the most notable place in France save Paris” (cited in: Desmond Seward, The Hundred Years War, p. 174). Prior to the siege, it had a population in excess of 60,000. Those from the neighbouring suburbs and countryside who were seeking the refuge of the city’s walls helped to swell the size of Rouen’s citizenry, in anticipation of the siege. the fortified walls of rouen supported 60 towers and six barbicans, creating an imposing defensive structure. A large, deep, dry moat sat in front of the walls. In addition, the surrounding neighbourhoods were razed to the ground by the French to eliminate any cover for the besiegers. According to the chroniclers, “Neither stick nor stone was left standing.” the area was left as flat “as the palm of a man’s hand.” (cited in: Geoffrey
Hindley, Medieval Sieges and Siegecraft, p. 151). The garrison of about 4000 soldiers inside the walls employed a combination of gunpowder weapons and older, catapult-style engines. In the month leading up to the siege, Henry first took the town of louviers. the affair nearly ended in disaster when a French cannon struck the royal English tent during the fighting. This raised Henry’s ire and resulted in the hanging of eight French gunners. In fact, he may even have crucified a few of them in his rage, according to a contemporary source. Next, the English pushed on to the small but extremely important Normandy town of Pont de l’Arche, just nine days before they reached Rouen. Pont de l’Arche represented the last piece of the puzzle for the English, in order to effectively besiege rouen. Its bridge was situated on the Seine river between Paris and rouen. Securing Pont de l’Arche now left rouen completely isolated and vulnerable. Now the English controlled the Seine all the way west of rouen to its mouth and, by gaining control of Pont de l’Arche, it meant that rouen was also cut-off from Paris to the south-east. Once at Rouen, the English army set themselves up in four very strong encampments around its strongly-fortified walls. these camps were connected by a series of trenches. As a direct attack on Rouen would have been very dangerous, Henry – as he had done in past successes – relied heavily upon his artillery to do a lot of the difficult work. His army was bolstered by other forces, such as the 1500 Irish soldiers known as Kern, who were especially skilled with their knives and spears. these were fierce and ruthless fighters, characterized by their bare feet, long hair and bright saffron-coloured cloaks, and are worth mentioning for the terror they caused. They are said to have ridden back Medieval Warfare II-6
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© Picture by ByB; Licenced by Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0
The day after Rouen’s surrender, Henry V, along with his generals and bishops, made a slow and grand procession through the city, so that those citizens who remained alive could see him. Their journey ended at Rouen’s beautiful cathedral so that Henry could hear mass. This epilogue to the siege is set out in great detail at the end of John Page’s descriptive poem.
from their sorties carrying the severed heads and dead babies of the French. While both armies practised less direct tactics, such as intimidation, which included the hanging of prisoners in plain sight of each other, it was Henry who employed the most effective and certainly the most brutal weapon of the siege – starvation. French supply lines into rouen were completely cut off and, after just a couple of months, the large stores of food and drink that had been brought in from the countryside in expectation of the siege began running very short for those inside the walls. this resulted in both hyperinflation and the consumption of things not normally on the menu. Horseflesh was first, followed then by dogs and cats. When these became hard to come by, rats and mice were next, at, respectively, 30 and 6 pence apiece. A soldier in Henry’s army called John Page, who was in the contingent led by the Lord of Redesdale, Gilbert de Umfraville, wrote rather compassionately about the citizens of Rouen, as he described the shocking situation of those within the city walls and later those without, in his poem The Siege of Rouen. Just a few of Page’s words (translated into modern English) help to bring the situation to life:
They died so fast on every day That man could not all of them in earth lay. Even if a child should otherwise be dead, The mother would give it bread. Nor would a child to its mother give. Everyone tried himself to live As long as he could last. Love and kindness both were past. John Page, The Siege of Rouen, lines 506-507, 512-513, 516-519 that wasn’t all, nor was it even the worst of the terror. Young girls were forced to sell themselves for mere scraps of rotten food, and there was real talk of cannibalism amongst the people. Inevitably, and very quickly, disease broke out as the bodies began to pile up within the walls of rouen, bringing a swifter end to those already weakened by a serious lack of sustenance. The constable of Rouen, Guy le Bouteiller, remained obstinate throughout and, at a time when he probably should have surrendered, he took the decision to force 12,000 of Rouen’s citizens outside the walls. those who were expelled were
referred to as the bouches inutiles or the ‘useless mouths’. these were the very old, the very young, women who were pregnant, plus the sick and the ‘pathetic’. The excuse for this was to try and save what was left of the food and supplies for the fighters and for the wealthy. It’s difficult to imagine 12,000 poor souls, barely clinging to life, all stumbling out of Rouen. By then, the rags they wore must have covered their bones more effectively than their thin grey skin. One after another, with distended bellies and sunken, lifeless eyes, they poured out, some with babies trying to suckle milk that had long since dried up, too weak to even whimper. As wretched as they were, Henry refused to allow them past the English lines. literally caught between a rock and a hard place, there was no place for them to go but the city’s dry moat. to make matters worse, the days of late autumn and early winter brought with them relentless rain that year. there were rumours that French reinforcements would reach rouen in November, but they never came. There the so-called bouches inutiles remained for the balance of the siege, barely living and many dying. John Page provides details of them as they lay helplessly in the ditch outside Rouen.
And some were crooked in their knees, And were now as lean as trees. You saw a woman hold in her arm Her own dead child, with nothing warm, And babies suckling on the pap Within a dead woman’s lap. John Page, The Siege of Rouen, lines 1005-1010 Winter was already a very difficult season in the Middle Ages. the cold, the snow and rain, and the shortened days could make lives much more miserable. However, one of the few things that folk had to look forward to would have been the 12 days of feasting, which was a part of the Festival of Christmas. there would have been little in the way of the usual celebrations for those living inside Rouen. The lavishly decorated halls, people dressed in their finest robes, and the endless dining and drinking that the rich normally enjoyed
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would be missing that year. rouen’s poor, who could usually look forward to some extra food along with merrymaking and a break from work, would see nothing of that in 1418. the English were in a better position, but no siege was without its deprivation, discomfort and disease. they were able to keep themselves supplied, in large part at least, directly from London. Henry had written to the Mayor and Aldermen of that city, requesting food, drink and supplies. these were brought across the channel in small boats to Harfleur, which was in English hands at the time. From Harfleur, they were sent up the Seine to Rouen. Armed escorts protected these ‘Victuallers’, as they were called, during their travels. Robbing or simply helping oneself to the supplies were crimes punishable by death. Henry’s headquarters were set up in a local charterhouse that hadn’t been flattened by the French prior to the siege. While it wasn’t Westminster Hall, Henry and those close to him enjoyed at least some of things normal to those of their position at Christmas. It’s known that Henry dined on roasted porpoise as part of his Christmas celebrations. A boar’s head, brought into the dining area with a great deal of ceremony, plus swan and peacock were just some of the delicacies enjoyed by the wealthy. On Christmas day, the fighting at rouen was suspended between the two sides. Henry wanted an opportunity to feed those who were still lying alive in the ditch outside the walls. We can again look to John Page’s poem for a first-hand account.
That season of Christmas I shall tell you of fair grace, And the makings of our king Of his goodness a great tokening, He did send upon that Christmas day His heroes dressed in rich array, And said because of that high feast, Both to most and to least, Within the city and without, They that lacked food and had gone without, They should have meat and drink.
John Page, The Siege of Rouen, lines 560 - 571 Rouen’s constable is said to have agreed to the truce rather reluctantly. He refused to allow any of Henry’s soldiers to bring the food and drink to the poor, presumably because they lay so close to the city walls. In the end, it was two priests and three men with them who were given clearance to bring the sustenance forward. However, even they were required to bring it to a specific spot “underneath the wall”, as John Page notes (The Siege of Rouen, line 574). The five men apparently did their job with some fanfare and the singing of hymns. It’s difficult to know just how many of the original 12,000 who had been expelled from rouen were still alive. Most of the dead would have died of starvation or disease, but there also must have been some who were the unintended victims of the weapons of warfare. John Page provides a reasonable estimate of those still living, when he notes that about one in twelve remained alive. this would mean that there were about 1000 still able to take the food on offer. This is corroborated by the fact that it only took five men to feed those who were still alive. Having said that, John Page and others have pointed to the fact that it wasn’t just those outside the walls who were fed, but any inside the city’s gates were also welcome to come and take nourishment at this spot, as well. this would have increased that number, but by how many is unclear. History tends to be written by the victors, which may give rise to a question or two regarding John Page’s poem. He devotes several lines to the praises sung by those poor souls of Rouen after being fed by the English. It’s difficult to imagine that many of them had the strength to do so, despite their Christmas meal, but perhaps there were some muted praises and thanksgivings. Interestingly, had Henry shown mercy to those citizens of Rouen at any time other than a Holy Day, he would have appeared weak. It would have looked as if he had fed them because of the circumstances created by the French. However, because Christmas is one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar, it was a time for Christians to practise charity. So, by feeding those starving French citizens, Henry was seen as fulfilling his responsi-
bilities to God, rather than to the French. It appears that this act of charity helped to turn the French against their leaders, as, just six days later, those inside the walls of Rouen began talking about peace. French diplomats were received at Henry’s headquarters on 2 January 1419. After many days and a lot of discussion, an agreement was reached between the two sides. All the while, those lying in the ditch outside Rouen continued to starve and to die. On 19 January 1419, Rouen finally made its formal surrender to Henry. In the end, the capitulation of that great city turned out to be a real turning point in Henry’s take-over of Normandy. Indeed, fourteen of Rouen’s neighbouring castles and towns submitted to the English under the terms of the surrender. Henry’s usurpation of rouen owed so much to the tactics that he employed against that city and especially to his calculated feeding at Christmas of those poor souls who should have meat and drink. •
Brian Burfield is a writer and collector. He read Celtic Studies at the University of Edinburgh, and he has been a collector of medieval artifacts for more than a decade, with a focus on Viking and AngloSaxon objects, as well as weapons of the Middle Ages. He would like to acknowledge Catarina Costa Burfield for her kind assistance. Further reading - Desmond Seward, A Brief History of the Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337 – 1453. London 2003. - Geoffrey Hindley, Medieval Sieges and Siegecraft. New York 2009. - Sean McGlynn, By Sword and Fire, Cruelty and Atrocity in Medieval Warfare: The Savage Reality of Medieval Warfare. London 2009. - John Norris, Medieval Siege Warfare. Stroud (7th Edition) 2006. - John Page, The Siege of Rouen; see British History Online: The Historical Collections of a Citizen of London in the fifteenth century, www.british-history.ac.uk/source. aspx?pubid=326.
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Surviving the longest siege in British history
‘Men of Harlech’
The Welsh song Men of Harlech is thought to commemorate and extol the defending garrison who took part in what has been declared as the longest siege in British history: the Siege of Harlech Castle (1461-68). What made the castle so formidable? Was it the defending soldiers who deserve the praise, or was it a matter of architecture and geography? An examination of the castle’s design and history may assist us in determining the answer.
Some have speculated that there was an early fortress on this site, due to the discovery of numerous Roman coins in the vicinity and a four-foot-long golden torque unearthed in a nearby garden. the site also appears in a collection of Welsh folk tales, where we are informed that, one afternoon, Bendigeidfran, son of llŷr, was “in Harlech in Ardudwy, at one of his courts; he was sitting on the rock of Harlech above the sea” (Y Mabinogion, The Second Branch). It was here that arrangements for the marriage between his sister, Bronwen, and the King of Ireland were made. the place came to be called tŵr Bronwen, or ‘Bronwen’s tower’. However, archaeological evidence has revealed traces of an early square tower dating from around the ninth century and attributed to the Welsh chieftain Collwyn ap Tango, creating a further designation for the rock: Caer Collwyn (the Welsh caer means ‘fort’) – which certainly suggests a fortification of some kind.
Harlech: the castle The present concentric castle – safely attributed to Edward I (c.1283-89) – is positioned on a rocky promontory 200 feet above the sea. Building stone was acquired both from the levelling of the crag and from the rock-cut dry moat, which protected the southern and eastern sides where the defences were most vulnerable to attack. This moat prevented siege towers and scaling ladders being easily brought up against the curtain walls. An extra deterrent to sappers was that the curtain also featured a slight bat38
© Gareth Williams
By Gareth Williams
The formidable Gatehouse of Harlech on the vulnerable eastern side of the castle. The lower part of the picture shows the two solid corbelled turrets protecting the outer gate. The outer curtain wall to which they are attached betrays the damage sustained during the siege of Henry of Monmouth. Access to the outer gate was through two stone arches supporting drawbridges. Behind the outer curtain wall stood the gatehouse. On the left hand flanking tower – just above the lower, formerly grilled window – runs an ascending series of six putlog holes which were used to support the helicoidal or spiral wooden scaffolding during its construction. Running along the top of the gatehouse at the base of the battlements is an architectural device called a ‘stringcourse’, a decorative band, which served to compositionally bind the buildings together. Similar mouldings in the centre façade outline the floor of each storey and can be seen below the lancet window of the chapel and upper storey window. The gatehouse passageway contained a number of obstacles consisting of 3 doors, 3 portcullises, arrow loops and several murder holes, all designed to either slow down, or preferably halt, any attacker.
ter and rose straight from the rock. Protecting the outer gate were two flanking apsidal turrets forming a salient. Although the outer curtain wall has been
severely damaged, it originally included battlements and arrow loops from which the defenders could incessantly assault any besiegers attempting to cross the
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tHE CAStlE THEME
wall possessing a stone facing – forming a glacis – suggesting the presence of a dock, from which ships could provision the castle. A fortified stairway cut into the rock led up from the Water Gate to another gated tower protected by a drawbridge. From here, provisions could be carried through the outer ward and the western postern gate into the castle. Protecting this passage are two ‘artillery platforms’ situated atop the crag below the outer ward curtain walls. With such formidable defences, we can understand why, concerning the siege of 1461-8, Gregory’s Chronicle states: “Also that year, Lord Herbert of Wales laid siege to the Castle of Harlech in Wales; this castle was so strong that men said it was impossible to gain, but eventually it fell.” (Entry for 1461-69). A permanent garrison established in 1284 consisted of a constable and 30 men, of whom ten were armed with crossbows. However, although the vulnerable east and south sides were heavily fortified, it was the Water Gate which constantly proved the saviour of the castle. Surviving a siege hinged on who controlled the Irish Sea around the area of tremadog Bay. As we examine three sieges, we will observe this key element.
Harlech and Edward I llywelyn ap Madog revolted against the imposition of further taxation upon the Welsh by Edward I. From October 1294 to the early spring of 1295, he blockaded
Harlech Castle. Although he had proved successful against Caernarfon Castle by breaching the town walls, he met his match at Harlech. Without siege engines, Madog began a blockade to prevent any overland provisioning of the fortress. Perhaps the greatest threat to the castle was fire, as wood was the cheapest and most abundant building material available for inner structures. Incendiary arrows were sometimes fired over the walls. We know that Madog’s men had set most of Caernarfon aflame once the town walls were breached. Nevertheless, whoever controlled the sea could decide the fate of Harlech. On 25-27 October 1294, Edward ordered ships from Bristol and Ireland to supply the northern castles of Wales; some, like the Blithe from Tenby, had to be refitted to carry corn. By 1 November, the Camarthen ship, the Bonadventure, was already experiencing success in this campaign. Madog was unable to prevent John de Havering from landing seven extra men into Harlech, thus boosting the garrison to 36. By early April 1295, Harlech was being regularly resupplied. Although not possessing a navy, Madog sought to exploit certain perceived weaknesses of the northern aspect of the castle, where the land is extremely steep and rocky. Having examined this area, I can confirm its exhaustive and dangerous precipitousness. That he may have successfully threatened from this region can be discerned from the fact that further
© Gareth Williams
drawbridge. Some scholars assign the curtain’s defacement to the cannonading during the fifteenth-century siege by the English under Henry of Monmouth, the later Henry V. After forcing the outer gate, an attacking army would find themselves corralled into a narrow outer ward, forming – in this area – a constricting courtyard. Immediately facing the besiegers was the main gate passage, protected by two large apsidal flanking towers. these were formidable bastions; the walls were 3.7m and 2.7m thick respectively. As you observe the top of the gatehouse, above the chamfered string-course, you can clearly note a solitary remnant of the battlemented parapet, which was interspersed with arrow loops. From here, any besiegers could be constantly attacked. Having passed through the first wooden doors of the gatehouse, a formidable array of portcullises and doorways awaited. Each of these obstructions would isolate anyone attempting to enter the castle, as each barrier was lowered or shut before the next was raised or opened. Between the first and second portcullis are arrow loops, from which guards – armed with either a bow or crossbow – could unleash a barrage of arrows upon an unwelcome foe. Situated at intervals along the ceiling of the passageway were a series of seven murder holes. the gatehouse was a dangerous option for any attacker. Edward had taken into account the military strategy adopted by the Welsh. Writing in the twelfth century, Gerald of Wales described the Welsh warrior: “they use light weapons which do not impede their quick movements, small leather corselets, handfuls of arrows, long spears and round shields” (The Description of Wales 1.8.5). The lightly-armed Welsh often resorted to guerrilla tactics; they could not be encumbered by siege engines. Their likely siege method was to adopt a blockade. As resupplying the garrison could prove difficult in such circumstances, Edward’s castles were constructed near rivers or coasts. One of the most important features of Harlech Castle is the Water Gate (termed the ‘Way from the Sea’) which enabled the castle to withstand long sieges. the Water Gate is positioned at the foot of the promontory, on its sheer western rock face. Here, at its base, is an indent in the
Harlech Castle seen from the north. The gatehouse can be clearly seen on the eastern (left) side of the fortress. Below the inner curtain wall are the remains of two towers connected to the outer curtain wall and protecting the northern postern gate. It was from this northern face of the crag that Llywelyn ap Madog threatened the castle in 1295, engendering the construction of another wall to surround the base of the crag after the siege was abandoned. Medieval Warfare II-6
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building work took place in 1295, after the siege was abandoned: “By order of the King, a wall of stone and lime around the [northern area of the] rock adjoining the castle and constructed a new gate tower towards the sea [probably fortifying an earlier and simpler entry]” (Exch. LTR Memoranda Roll 76, m.8d). later, around 1323, two towers – whose foundation piers still exist – were built in the moat to strengthen the drawbridge.
Owain Glyndŵr and Henry of Monmouth By 1400, Harlech had become an isolated English outpost. According to medieval inventories, the weapons available to the garrison at Harlech in June 1403 were: three shields, eight helmets, six lances (with four lacking heads), ten pairs of gloves, four guns, and various pieces of iron and lead. the castle was totally unprepared for action. Owain Glyndŵr had made the effort to form an alliance with Charles VI of France, eventually formalizing a peace treaty in July 1404. Through this alignment, he secured continued access to the fleet of ships that had already supported his cause in October 1403, when French and Breton ships under the command of Jean d’Espagne were sent to Cydweli and Caernarfon, assailing their respective castles. After beating off an English attack at Caernarfon, the French began attacking the castle with siege engines.
this was a new experience for the Welsh who now came into contact with French siege expertise. their engines would consist of belfries (mobile siege towers), rams and penthouses. A penthouse protected the foot soldiers who powered the battering ram; because of constant attack from a desperate enemy, a timber shed or roof – the penthouse – was developed to shelter them. these mobile shelters were usually covered with wet hides as protection against fire and braced with iron plates to defend against arrows and other missiles. French ships also supplied Glyndŵr’s men surrounding Harlech as they blockaded the castle. Having no access to cannon, Owain chose to forgo a frontal assault by deciding to starve out the Anglo-Welsh garrison. French ships were assigned to patrol Tremadog Bay to preclude English support. Although provisioning ships were kept at bay, it proved difficult to prevent small boats from acquiring entrance to the Water Gate. The Englishman William Hunt, a replacement constable, managed to gain access to the castle and found the garrison in sore straits due to lack of provisions. An impatient Glyndŵr even considered bribery. One letter states: “Owain has been to Harlech Castle (...) for to have deliverance of the castle at a certain day for a certain sum of gold if it be right ordained it is lost and so is all the country thereabout.” (letter sent to William Venables; William was the Deputy Warden
of the Marches) Whether through bribery or starvation, Harlech eventually fell into Welsh hands in January 1404. Originally, the garrison consisted of twelve men–at-arms and 45 archers. Only 21 men survived to surrender. However, as the Welsh rebellion started to falter, Henry of Monmouth began an eighteen-month siege in August 1407. Although we have no record of the different siege techniques used against Harlech, we know that Henry moved on to Aberystwyth Castle, where he applied “Mining and all manner of engines that were thought necessary for the destruction of them and their castle” (quoted in: Taylor, Harlech Castle, p. 9). Persistent cannonading at Harlech – one massive cannon termed ‘The King’s Daughter’ actually burst – helped destroy the outer curtain wall. Cannon-balls on display in the gatehouse are thought to be from this assault. the winter of 1408-9 was exceptionally harsh, with heavy snowfall from December to March. It was so cold, in fact, that birds fell dead from the trees. The English soldiers taunted the starving and freezing defenders with the smell of meats cooking over English camp-fires. Because of divisions in France, Glyndŵr had lost his vital seaborne support. Starvation, sickness, and hails of arrows created many victims; one such was Sir Edmund Mortimer, who, although having a strong claim to the English throne, had joined Glyndŵr’s rebellion: “At last, being by the English host beleaguered in the Castle of Harlech, he brought his days of sorrow to an end” (Chronicle of Adam of Usk, entry for 1402). The castle fell in February 1409.
© Rocio Espin
During the Wars of the Roses, Harlech became associated with the lancastrian cause. In the summer of 1460, it offered asylum to Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, as well as other refugees. From 1461 until 1468, the castle constable was a Welshman with lancastrian sympathies, Dafydd ap Ieuan ap Einion. the Battle of towton in 1461 saw the Yorkist Edward IV replace the lancastrian Henry VI as king: “And so King Edward was possessed of all England, except a castle in North Wales called Harlech which Sir richard tunstall guarded, but which was
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tHE CAStlE THEME
Men drawing from men waves of wine, Loud the shouting – loud the blasts of clarions; Scattering of men, thundering of guns; Arrows flying in every quarter from seven thousand men, Using bows made of yew. Bravo! Bravo! They bring out
large trees and faggots; They pile them up, and, behind the pile, Armed men are placed to continue there ‘til night. Hywel Dafydd ap Ieuan ap Rhys, lines 8-15 Lines 8-12 discuss the advance of the blockading force – their moving through Wales had released “waves of wine”, the spilled blood of rebel Lancastrians. The clear, shrill tones of the medieval ‘clarion’ (or trumpet), regularly signalling the blockading army to take up positions or to begin certain activities, would surely unnerve the castle’s small garrison. These sounds, along with the continuous battering from cannons and persistent hails of arrows, would prove psychologically and physically damaging to the defenders, as the castle’s food supplies slowly dwindled. the pressure would seem relentless, with the enemy firing upon them from behind wooden protective hoardings, constructed by felling nearby trees (Lines 13-15). this brings us to the question of ships. Edward IV had laid the foundations of the Navy royal in 1461, with the appointment of the Earl of Warwick as naval commander. Although one ship had been purchased to commence a state fleet, most warships of the period were merchant vessels pressed into service by each militant faction. the Yorkist fleet was serving in the English Channel and North Sea in 1461-62, but there is no mention of either it or its Lancastrian counterpart being in the vicinity of north Wales. As we have already noted, lord Herbert was in possession of a number of ships in 1464 in the neighbourhood of Pembroke. We can only presume that Harlech remained supplied by Lancastrian ships for a time until the final assault on the castle, which surrendered in August 1468. the much-praised garrison were eventually starved into submission. For the besiegers, the fall of Harlech always depended on both their tenacity and control of the sea. However, although brave men were needed to garrison the castle until relief came, without the provisioning by sea, all the stone defences could not save them. It seems that geography dictated the rise or fall of Harlech. •
© Gareth Williams
got afterwards by the lord Herbert” (The Warkworth Chronicle, Part 2.4). In the autumn of 1464, Edward appointed Lord Herbert of Raglan as constable of Harlech Castle with funds of £2000 to subdue Wales. Herbert, supported by ships from Bristol, moved against the coastal Pembroke Castle in south Wales which, once they realized their hopeless position, quickly surrendered. Without control of the sea, provisioning the castle would have proved impossible. Harlech, though under siege, remained defiant. In 1465, Sir richard tunstall arrived at Harlech to support the garrison and to engineer attacks across the region. Later, Jasper tudor landed with French reinforcements near the Dyfi Estuary, south of Harlech, in July 1468; using the castle as a base, he marched eastwards into Wales, inciting rebellion. Harlech was proving a thorn in the Yorkists’ side. Although it had survived several sporadic attacks, Herbert of raglan now intensified his activities by committing the campaign to Sir richard Herbert, who delivered a summons of surrender. The castle constable, Dafydd ap Ieuan, resolutely replied that, during his youth, he had kept a castle in France for so long that he made all the old women in Wales talk of him; he would now keep Harlech Castle so long that all the old women in France would speak of him. Historical records concerning this siege are woefully lacking, but we can, through our examination of the castle and previous military engagements, determine the operations that both defenders and attackers would mount in order to fulfil their aims. We also possess a medieval poem describing the processes of the blockade at Harlech, revealing the brutality and savagery waged against the small garrison. The poem states:
The Water Gate. Originally, the sea washed against the crag at the base of the tower, covering the glacis or rocky slope to the left of it. Today, the sea has retreated some 2km. To the right of the tower, you can just make out the wall protecting the ‘Way to the Sea’ – a series of 108 shallow steps up to the rock’s summit. From this angle, the north-west tower of the castle can be observed at the summit of the crag, along with a section of the outer ward wall.
Gareth Williams is a regular contributor to Medieval Warfare. He has a BA (Hons) in Art and Art History and has also written articles on Greek and Roman history. Further reading - A.J. Taylor, Harlech Castle. Cardiff 1997. - C. O. Jones, The Revolt of Madog ap Llywelyn. llanrwst 2008. - D. Santiuste, Edward IV and the Wars of the Roses. Barnsley 2011. - J. E. & H.W. Kaufmann, The Medieval Fortress. Cambridge (MA) 2004. - T. Breverton, Owain Glyndwr: The Story of the Last Prince of Wales. Stroud 1988.
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THE REVOLT THEME
The use of firearms in a rural revolt
The Companions of the Green Tents Death strikes from the hedges. Cursing soldiers and dismounted men-at-arms desperately try to organize themselves under a rain of missiles. They were attacked by fast-moving peasants dressed in green and moving like the wind between the woods and hedges around the road. This is not a scene from a Robin Hood story, but belongs to some rather obscure events that unfolded in the principality of Liège in the 1460s. In the eyes of their opponents, these men were mere peasants, but they didn’t quite fit the image of a mob armed with pitchforks, as they carried handgonnes and were capable of defeating their so-called ‘professional’ heavily-armoured opponents. They called themselves De Gezellen van de Groenen
Tenten (‘Companions of the Green Tents’) and their struggle provides an excellent example of an alternative way to use medieval firearms, as well as focusing our attention on the numerous, but scarcely known, rural revolts of the Middle Ages. By Sander Govaerts
By 1460, the Netherlands and Belgium were almost completely dominated by the House of Burgundy, through skillful diplomacy and marriage alliances. Even the principality of liège, which divided the Burgundian territory in two by its geographical location along the River Meuse, seemed to be no more than a vassal state of Duke Philip of Burgundy. Its princebishop, louis de Bourbon, owed his position to his uncle, who was none other than the Duke himself. Duke Philip actually forced his candidate for the bishop’s seat on the inhabitants of the principality with the approval of the Pope. The reign of the unwanted louis de Bourbon proved to be very unpopular indeed. In 1461, country-wide protests erupted against greedy tax officials and, as a result, the bishop had to flee from the capital. The conflict reached a crisis point in 1465. The
rebels chose their own candidate for the throne of the principality and concluded an alliance with King louis XI of France, the arch-enemy of the House of Burgundy. However, their efforts proved to be futile when the Duke arranged a separate peace with the King of France. With their greatest threat neutralized, the Burgundians were free to invade the principality. the pike-armed urban militia of the rebel cities proved to be no match for their professional opponents and were defeated at the Battle of Montenaken on 20 October 1465. these were the events that gave rise to the emergence of a group of rebels who called themselves De Gezellen van de Groenen Tenten. With the rebel cities occupied by Burgundian soldiers, a counterattack could only come from the so often despised countryside.
De Gezellen van de Groenen Tenten the name which the rebels used to define themselves originated in the Flemish city
of Ghent in the 1450s, where it was used by the opponents of the same Philip of Burgundy. As a result, the use of the name in itself denoted that these men were fighting against the House of Burgundy. the colour green was, at least in the principality, their trademark. Jean de Looz, a contemporary chronicler, mentions their use of tunics, which were divided into two halves: one half was dyed green and the other half was the colour of their village. It seems that the name originally applied to rebels from the county of Loos (today, more or less the Belgian province of Limbourg). This mostly Dutch-speaking area had been absorbed by the principality of Liège in 1366, but kept its distinctive characteristics until 1795. The prince-bishop of Liège ruled this area as the Count of Loos, not as prince-bishop. The name Verte Tente (‘Green Tents’), which is often used by modern authors, is nothing more than a French translation of the original Dutch expression. To make matters even more complex, there were several rebel groups in the principality in the 1460s and the name Verte Tente was used indiscriminately. the fact that these men were peasants is mentioned by the chroniclers themselves, and it was Jean de Haynin who called them “rudes bonshommes, paysans du paix” (Jean de Haynin, Mémoires (Liège 1905), p. 137). As a result, descriptions of their actions are rather scarce, because members of the elite considered writing about mere peasants beneath their dignity. That’s also the reason why the central points of resistance, the villages of Wellen and Vliermaal in the south of the county of loos, weren’t attacked at once. It was only after the revolt spread and was defeated again that these villages were attacked with full vigour. Even more interesting is the fact that the urban militias of nearby cities are mentioned as their opponents. these peasants were not only fighting the Medieval Warfare II-6
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© Jose Antonio Gutierrez Lopez
A Companion is surprised by a Burgundian cavalry charge, before he is able to flee into the cover of the hedges, where the mixture of bushes and trees would stop any cavalry charge. Note that only half of his tunic is dyed green. It’s not clear exactly what style of firearm the Companions used. On the one hand, as peasants, they probably used the older socketed version; on the other hand, the city of Liège was already an important arms producing centre in the fifteenth century. In all likelihood, a mixture of several handgonne types were in use, alongside crossbows and mêlée weapons.
prince-bishop and the Burgundians, but also their traditional enemies: the cities. After the rebel cities were defeated at the Battle of Montenaken in October 1465, the Burgundians immediately occupied all the cities and strongholds of the principality. Given their victory over the enemy field army, the Burgundian soldiers expected only mopping-up operations. Their surprise is therefore understandable when a group of Picardian soldiers in Burgundian service were defeated by armed peasants. these men went out foraging near the village of Wellen and were suddenly confronted by rebels who tried to prevent them from pillaging the countryside. A few soldiers were slain and the others had to flee. The same evening, the Picardians embarked on a punitive expedition: they would show these peasants what it meant to mess with professional soldiers. they met their opponents near Wellen, near a forest named Kriekelerenbosch. At first, the rebels, who seemed to be inferior in number, were defeated and retreated into the forest. This seemed an easy victory for the Picardians; they would have expected nothing less. However, what actually happened was the tide of battle turning in favour of the peasants. With 44
their retreat into the forest, they could fire their missiles (some from handgonnes) at their armoured opponents, while the woods protected them from charging cavalry. Some Picardians dismounted to enter the woods on foot, but were beaten back. Undoubtedly, the peasants used their superior mobility to keep their distance from their slower opponents and rain a hail of missiles on them. The sources are silent about the presence of missile troops with the Picardians. their few archers and handgonners were probably outgunned and, even if the forces were evenly matched, the peasants still enjoyed the protection of the woods. In the meantime, it was getting darker and the Picardians realized that they would have to retreat without taking revenge. Out of frustration, they set fire to nearby buildings, including a chapel. By doing so, they gave the peasants an enormous advantage: they could now see their enemies as clearly as by daylight in the light of the fires, while they were protected by the cover of darkness. After midnight, the peasants crept out of the forest and went back to their villages. It’s unclear how many men died near that forest – losses for the Picardians range from one noble-
man and ten soldiers to several hundreds – but the rebels were clearly the victors of the day.
Weapons and tactics the Battle of Kriekelerenbosch was, in all probability, the first encounter of Burgundian soldiers with these highly motivated peasants. At first sight, it seems that their use of the forest was merely an accident, the result of their initial defeat, but the sources indicate the contrary. Jean de Haynin clearly mentions the use of hedges and ditches as their typical way of defending their villages. In fact, the rebels used their natural environment consciously to break up an enemy advance. The sources often referred to Wellen as a ‘fortified’ village, which even led one author to suggest that the moats of nearby castles were somehow combined to protect the village. the village itself would, indeed, have had some kind of protection. In this area, churches were often fortified as the last line of defence. It’s important to realize, on the other hand, that the core of the defences were not walls or moats but simply hedges and ditches, which were – and would be for centuries – a normal feature of the local landscape.
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these hedges were nothing like the hedges people tend to have in their garden nowadays. these hedges were the remains of forests, left alone by the peasants to provide a natural fence for their cattle and to supply them with wood. As a result, the countryside, especially the immediate surroundings of each village, was covered with these impregnable hedges, which made an organized attack difficult. they were composed of a mixture of trees and very thick and large bushes, some of them with thorns, and could easily reach a height of 2m or more. It was almost impossible for a grown man to get through or over them, so one could imagine the difficulties experienced by armoured men on horses. On the other hand, the lack of armour combined with their knowledge of the terrain and the passageways between the hedges gave the Companions a crucial advantage over their professional opponents. They could shoot their armour-piercing handgonnes without the danger of facing an enemy charge, protected as they were by these thick hedges. Enemies could also be isolated and killed. Handgonnes were, in fact, the weapon that made the rebels famous: the name Coulivrineurs (‘handgonners’) was used as a general term for the rebels in the principality, although only a small minority were actually armed with handgonnes. During the rebel attack on Tongres in 1468, one chronicler mentions the presence of 30-40 handgonners. As the attacking force probably numbered around 400 men, fewer than one in ten rebels carried a handgonne. the crossbow was certainly used alongside the handgonne, as it was widely used by peasants in this area. Almost nothing is known about their weapons for hand-to-hand combat or their armour. Knives, axes and shafted weapons were probably used, but the available armour would be limited. Medieval handgonnes had certain drawbacks that must be taken into account when evaluating their use by these rural rebels. they were slow to reload, noisy, misfired often, and, in general, their range couldn’t rival that of crossbows or longbows. On the other hand, they were relatively cheap, did not require a lot of training, and had more armour-penetrating power at close range than bows. In theory, it was the ideal peasant weapon, especially because, by that time, handgonnes could be used for hunting and for war,
just like crossbows or longbows (Bert S. Hall, Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe, pp. 97-99). the fact that liège was already a major arms-producing centre in late medieval times can only have made access to handgonnes easier. Of course, there are those serious drawbacks that made the lightly-armoured peasants easy targets when attacked by enemy cavalry. the same problem was faced by handgonners across medieval Europe, but their answers were diverse. One classic solution was using walls to protect the gunners; not only the stone walls of castles and cities, but also the wagons of the Hussites. the use of pikes, on the other hand, would become the dominant way of protecting gunners in the following centuries. In the early phases of their co-operation, however, the gunners supported the pikemen rather than the other way around. These peasants did not have stone walls or urban militia to support them with units of pikemen, and, as a result, they had to find another way to neutralize the threat of enemy cavalry. Using wagons in imitation of the Hussites could be a solution, but it seems that the peasants of this area had no tradition of using wagons in battle. they were, however, in possession of a landscape that provided natural defences against cavalry.
The revolt spreads After the Battle of Montenaken, several cities and strongholds of the principality were occupied by the Burgundian army, to force the rebel leaders to accept a series of humiliating demands. In the eyes of contemporaries, the fight at Wellen was nothing more than a skirmish and they very likely expected to hear nothing more of it. However, the sequence of events following the conclusion of a humiliating peace treaty proved them wrong. the Burgundian forces had barely marched out of the principality than a general revolt spread over most of the country. Once again, the neighbouring villages of Wellen and Vliermaal proved to be the centres of the revolt; but this time, in almost every village in the county of Loos, a society of Companions was founded; 20, 30, or 40 men in every village put on the green clothes of the Companions. Aside from exaggerations on the part of the chroniclers, it’s unlikely that large forces could be mustered, because of the peasant origins of these men. Their greatest
© Public domain
Two surviving tumuli (mounds of earth and stones raised over graves) near Montenaken. The Liège army at Montenaken (1465) deployed between two tumuli. These provided some protection against charging Burgundian cavalry, but their main importance was to provide a clear marker for the deploying Liège infantry. The rebel troops were composed of pike-armed urban militia and some artillery. The first two charges of the Burgundian cavalry failed. After the second charge, however, the Liège troops broke formation and pursued the Burgundians. Their disorganized army was defeated and the rebel cities had to admit defeat at the Treaty of Saint-Trond.
strength lay in the defence of their home region; they had to cultivate the fields and provide for their families. On the other hand, the statement makes it abundantly clear that the strength of the Companions was based on a strong organization at village-level, on village structures which originated from the struggles of peasants against their lords. Bishop louis de Bourbon tried to quell the fires of rebellion, but the soldiers he sent were defeated and “made to flee through the whole county of loos” (Adrian D’Oudenbosch, Chronique (Liège 1902), p. 136). Even worse, the cities – at this point still loyal to him – were unable to communicate with their overlord, because the entire countryside had fallen into the hands of the rebels. The star of the rebel forces was rising. No partisan of the Bishop was safe; they had to flee and their homes were pillaged. the urban militias of Saint-trond and loos itself managed to beat the rebels back temporarily. Some young men from Saint-trond called themselves ‘Companions of the Yellow tents’ to distinguish them from their enemies. the Companions were not the only rebel forces in the principality and, with the spread of the revolt, they started to Medieval Warfare II-6
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© Jason Juta
The political-strategic situation during the so-called Liège Wars and the most important military encounters. The logical invasion route from the Burgundian Netherlands into the principality of Liège is through SaintTrond (Battles of Montenaken and Brustem). Huy was the only city that openly supported Louis de Bourbon and the Burgundians. Another rebel movement, the Locum, tried to take over the city. Wellen seems to be the heart of the movement of the Companions of the Groene Tenten.
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merge with other groups, like the locum of the region around Huy. From this moment on, the name Coulivrineurs and to a lesser extent Verte Tente were increasingly used to refer to rebel groups in general. Even the Dutch-speaking cities of the principality joined the rebellion. On 16 September 1467, the Bishop had to flee his principality and seek sanctuary in Brussels. The obvious response of Duke Charles the Bold was to invade the principality with 20,00030,000 men and to besiege Saint-trond. A relief army assembled at Brustem, a few kilometres outside the walls of the city. Part of the army was composed of men from the county of Loos, but it’s not clear how many of them were Companions. the terrain, however, clearly favoured their tactics. It is mentioned that the battlefield was filled with hedges, ditches and stockades, all of which were a normal part of the landscape, not field fortifications erected before the battle. As a result, the entire battle was fought on foot. the artillery duel, which started the battle, was, in fact, hindered by the hedges, because they shielded the rebels and Burgundians alike from enemy artillery fire. The hedges didn’t protect the Burgundians from handgonnes, however, and several noblemen were hit, including Jean de Haynin, who left his account of the battle. The Burgundian vanguard, consisting of men-at-arms, archers and infantry, attacked the rebel forces, who took up a defensive position around the village of Brustem. At first, the rebel vanguard, which was largely composed of urban militia, retreated as the result of the arrows of enemy longbows. When the enemy ran out of ammunition, they advanced again, driving their enemies back with their pikes. At this point, the Duke ordered his reserves to counter-attack. The rebel line broke under the renewed pressure. Their rout caused panic in the entire army and the rebels fled the field. Three to four thousand rebels never returned from the battle, while estimates for the Burgundian losses range from a few dozen to a few hundred. the garrison of Saint-trond, which had made several sorties, all of which had been beaten back by a detachment of English archers, surrendered shortly after the battle. Rebel resistance was shattered, and towns and villages opened their gates for the victorious army. there was, however, a score that still needed to be settled. On 4 November,
an expedition was sent to the village of Wellen. Burgundian scouts were greeted with handgonne fire. the lord of Ravenstein, commander of the forces, ordered the village to be attacked from three sides. Once again, the hedges and ditches defending the village obliged the attackers to dismount, but part of the Burgundian force remained mounted, to deny the rebels any chance to escape. Trumpets sounded the advance and the force, composed of archers and men-atarms, attacked. They tried to get through or over the hedges, but these were so huge and thick that every man needed help from his comrades. The villagers did not wait for the inevitable hand-tohand-combat, but fled. About 60 of them, undoubtedly including women and children, were killed by the mounted detachment. Part of the village was burned to the ground. Even their second defeat in 1467 didn’t discourage the last of the rebels. The year 1468 saw a brief resurgence of the rebel movement. this time the Duke was merciless: the city of liège was sacked and many rebels massacred. It’s unclear how many Companions still fought in those uncertain days. They are mentioned again in 1469 and even 1475. It is obvious, however, that the movement largely ceased to exist with the defeats of 1467. these men were more than an ephemeral rebel movement in some obscure principality. They provide an example of an alternative way to use medieval firearms. As peasants, they needed a weapon that was cheap, but also able to defeat their more heavily-armoured opponents. the handgonne became that weapon. Lacking the conventional means to protect the gunners (walls, pikes, etc.), these men chose to use the environment to make an enemy cavalry charge impossible. Hedges, ditches and even brooks and forests provided cover that suited these lightly armed warriors well. Initially, they gained some astonishing (if relatively minor) success, defeating their professional opponents. It is revealing that the name was used again in 1477 in the county of Flanders and Hainaut by peasants who fought in defence of their homes and in support of the Burgundian dynasty. In the end, the rebels were defeated by a combination of superior numbers, organization and missile power. the advantage in missile power could be due to numbers
rather than quality, given the fact that the urban militia of the principality still heavily relied on pikes. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the rebel army had two different components: a rural and an urban one. Co-operation between these traditional enemies could not have been easy. The hedges impeded the use of artillery, but also the co-ordination between the Companions and their allied local militia. The lack of allies among nearby cities (as opposed to the Companions of 1477) was certainly a serious disadvantage for these peasants. They could defeat relatively small enemy forces, but lacked the organization and manpower to defend themselves against a determined attack from an enemy army. After all, these hedges could be overcome by a strong force of dismounted men-at-arms and archers, as illustrated by the capture of Wellen. The peasants, maybe due to their defeat at Brustem, lacked the (missile) power to prevent the enemy from passing the obstacles. In conclusion, these rural rebellions provide surprising insights into both the use of medieval handgonnes and the tactics of rural rebels in northern Europe. It is revealing that the famous Battle of Pavia, half a century later, saw infantry wielding an improved version of the handgonne and using similar tactics to bring down the flower of the French nobility. •
Sander Govaerts is from Belgium, and is a first-time contributor to Medieval Warfare magazine. Further reading - Kelly DeVries & robert D. Smith, The artillery of the Dukes of Burgundy, 1363-1477. Woodbridge 2005. - Claude Gaier, Armes et combats dans l’univers médiéval, vol. 2. Brussels 2004. - Bert S. Hall, Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe. Baltimore & London 1997. - J.F. Verbruggen, ‘Flemish Urban Militias against French Cavalry Armies in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries’, in: Journal of Medieval Military History 1 (2002). - F. Vrancken, ‘Qui étaient les compagnons de la Verte tente?’, in: Revue Belge de philologie et d’histoire 59 (1981).
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Eustace the Monk
Scourge of the seas Famous medieval military leaders, whether royalty or not, are dominated by generals who earned their reputation on land – men like Charlemagne, William the Conqueror, Richard the Lionheart, Saladin, John Hawkwood, Bertrand de Guesclin, and Henry V. In the maritime sphere, the relatively few famous medieval admirals tend to be based in the Mediterranean (like Roger de Lauria) and they are certainly nowhere near as well known as their army counterparts. Eustace’s neglect by historians is a case in point. By Sean McGlynn
© Map by Aotearoa; Licenced by Creative Commens Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Eustace the Monk, one of the most colourful and remarkable naval commanders of the Middle Ages, operated in the chilly waters of the English Channel. He is rarely discussed in any detail in naval history, but in his time he was the most feared sailor in southern England and northern France. Parents in England would warn their children that, if they did not behave, Eustace
would come and grab them (rather in the same way they did during the Napoleonic period, when Old Boney was the notorious bogeyman). Maurice Keen writes that Eustace’s “name was enough at one time to strike terror into the hearts of Channel seamen” (Keen, The Outlaws of Medieval England, p. 54). Such was his contemporary reputation that an anonymous writer composed The Romance of Eustace the Monk after his death – quite an accolade for a non-royal.
A map showing Sark, one of the Channel Islands, just off the coast of Normandy. Eustace set up a family stronghold and pirate base here, from where he terrorized shipping. Between 1212 and 1216, Eustace lost the island, with many of his family ending up in gaol in Portchester Castle, on the south coast of England, only to regain it after allying with the French.
Eustace – knight, monk, outlaw, pirate, mercenary, admiral – led a truly adventurous and exceptional life, even by the standards of the medieval warrior. He is even considered by some historians (incorrectly, I would argue) as the inspiration behind Robin Hood, and has been called ‘the robin Hood of the Seas’. Keen describes him as a “renegade monk”, “an outlawed knight”, a “distinguished magician”, and “probably the greatest sea captain of his age” (The Outlaws of Medieval England, pp. 53-54). From The Romance, and also from contemporary records and chronicles – of which the most important are Roger of Wendover’s Flowers of History in latin, the anonymous French verse of The History of William Marshal, and the anonymous Old French prose of The History of the Dukes of Normandy and the Kings of England – we can build up a reasonable picture of Eustace’s life and a detailed account of his last two years, when, at the height of his career, he played a vital central role in the war between England and France. His early life, before fame and notoriety came, is understandably less clear. He was born c. 1170 in the Boulonnais (the region around Boulogne) of northern France to a minor noble family. He followed the conventional course of training for knighthood, and thus started out with a military background. A legend arose that he travelled to toledo in Spain, a notorious centre of black magic, where he schooled himself in the dark arts of necromancy. More importantly and tangibly, no doubt influenced by the coastal region in which he lived, he also became schooled in the craft of seamanship. After his travels, which seem to have
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encompassed the Mediterranean, Eustace made a completely unexpected and inexplicable career change: he became a monk. He must have been one of the worst monks ever to have taken the habit. He joined the Benedictine monastery of Samer in France, where his unruly behaviour caused mayhem in the cloister: he encouraged disobedience, gambling, swearing, and black magic, and stole from the monastery. His abbot exclaimed: “This man is a demon!” (The Romance of Eustace the Monk, p. 54). Unsurprisingly, Eustace did not last long in the spiritual world; he renounced his holy orders and pursued a legal vendetta against Renaud de Dammartin, the Count of Boulogne, before, oddly, entering his service. His military ability was recognized and rewarded by the post of Comital Seneschal in 1203. Charged with financial misconduct, Eustace fled the count’s court and took to outlawry, hiding in the forests of the Boulonnais, swearing vengeance against the count. The Romance revels in Eustace’s colourful exploits and escapades during this period, revealing much about his cunning, vulgar character, as when he dressed as a woman to deceive a knight, or his habit of farting and blaming this on his horse’s saddle. The author of The Romance lays many crimes at the foul-mouthed Eustace’s door, but ‘mitigates’ these with the fact that “he was not an arse-f–r or a sodomite” (The Romance of Eustace the Monk, p. 65). But, for all the entertaining tales of Eustace, we should not ignore his vicious side, as when he hanged a young boy for spying on him. Eustace, “who knew so much about evil and guile” (The Romance of Eustace the Monk, p. 72), became an even greater thorn in the side of the Count of Boulogne and the French King Philip Augustus when he entered the service of King John of England, sometime during 1204 and 1205. It is here that Eustace’s career as naval commander, pirate and terror of the seas begins in earnest.
Eustace, John and Philip When Eustace offered his services to John, his maritime reputation had preceded him, as the English King gave him the command of thirty galleys to retake the Channel Islands. Eustace led an amphibious landing against considerable resistance and went on to clear the islands of the French. Not one to miss the lucrative
© Karwansaray Publishers
THE WARRIOR THEME
The formidable defences of Dover Castle, which one chronicler called ‘the key to England’. Louis and his troops besieged the castle for the best part of a year, from May 1216. One of Eustace’s roles was to supply the French with materials and weapons for the siege. The inability of the French to take Dover was instrumental in their final failure.
business opportunities afforded by war, he seems to have set up an independent pirate base on the newly captured Sark, from where he attacked merchant vessels of all nationalities. Such was Eustace’s notoriety in the southern ports of England that he required safe-conduct warrants to visit England. John indulged Eustace because he served him well, harassing the French and winning victories over their famous mercenary leader Cadoc, following a daring raid up the river Seine; John rewarded Eustace with a huge palace in london and lands in Norfolk. Eustace’s military career had claimed for him a leading position in the English King’s war machine. But the alliance between the restless and contumacious Eustace and the perpetually untrustworthy John soon saw a breakdown in their relations. there are a number of reasons why Eustace fell out with John, leading him onto a path that was to secure his fate. John was pursuing Eustace for a debt of 20 marks and, not content with having his daughter already in his custody, he also took Eustace’s wife hostage; the Romance says that John had Eustace’s daughter burned, disfigured and killed. Eustace’s land was also seized. On top of all this, Eustace had to swallow the fact that his old enemy, Count Renaud of Boulougne had, in 1212, transferred his allegiance away from the King of France to the King of England. the powerful count and his strategic lands were a more valuable military asset to John than Eustace was, and we can assume that renaud was not reluctant to push Eustace out of John’s favour. John, ever jealous of over-powerful men in
his kingdom, may have come to be wary of Eustace’s growing independence in the Channel Islands anyway, and he ordered his admiral of the southern fleet, Philip d’Albini, to attack Eustace on Sark. this proved successful and many of the pirates, including members of Eustace’s own family, were captured. Eustace went over to the increasingly powerful King of France. Philip II, having won Normandy from John in 1204 and having kicked out the English from much of France, had already, in 1213, planned a full-scale invasion of England. (The invasion fleet was destroyed at Damme that year, in a pre-emptive naval strike by the English.) He was keen to have Eustace on board, with his knowledge of the Channel and of English military organization and capability. The Romance reports their initial meeting, with Philip saying to Eustace: “You are not big, but small, yet you are so brave and bold. You know a great deal about guile and cunning and do not need a cat’s grease to help you [which presumably means that he was slippery and crafty]. thereafter the Monk was a good warrior.” (The Romance of Eustace the Monk, p. 77). At this point, when Eustace becomes the French King’s admiral in the Channel, the Romance loses interest in the most intense military phase of Eustace’s career and wraps up his tale in just one page. However, the fact that Eustace was now projected to the forefront of the AngloFrench war means that he features in the other sources mentioned above. He is best known by naval military historians for his pivotal role in the engagement at sea at the Battle of Sandwich in 1217, but Medieval Warfare II-6
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© Jan Pospisil
Eustace’s flagship was targeted from the outset of the Battle of Sandwich. When it was boarded, Eustace defended himself with an oar before hiding in the ship’s hold. He was dragged onto the deck, where he pleaded for his life. The only favour granted to him was a choice of where on the ship he would be beheaded. His head was stuck on a spear and paraded around the coastal towns of southern England, to reassure the local populace that this scourge of the seas was truly dead.
his important activities and military operations prior to this are neglected. In May 1215, a large proportion of the baronage in England rebelled against King John and invited Price Louis, heir to the throne of France, to sail to England with a large force and become the next King of England. Small contingents were sent in advance; in May 1216, louis landed in England with his main force unopposed at Thanet. Eustace, in his role as the Channel admiral, was responsible for the massive enterprise of organizing and transporting Louis’ huge invasion force. This amounted to some 1200 knights, plus infantry and crossbowmen, as well as horses, supplies, money and siege machinery. The invasion fleet comprised around 680 ships and was so large that it had to be assembled in four ports, including Calais. If, as one source 50
indicates, Eustace had been responsible for the French fleet at Damme, then he was responsible for two of the biggest fleets in northern Europe since the Third Crusade (1189-92). the invasion saw a series of actions and sieges that quickly led to louis’ Franco-baronial force taking control of up to one half of England. Throughout the year-and-a-half-long conflict, the capital, london, was in French hands and was their operational headquarters. John’s death in October 1216 denied Louis his greatest military asset: the Angevin monarch’s incompetence. With John’s nineyear-old heir crowned as King Henry III, a more rigorous counter-attack under the command of the regent William Marshal began and the French began to suffer some serious setbacks. In February 1217,
Louis found himself trapped by royalist forces in the southern port of Rye. He had made his way there through guerrilladominated territory in order to disembark for France, to organize reinforcements to his flagging cause. On the landward side, his escape was blocked by the guerrillas; seaward, his path to France faced a naval blockade under the command of Eustace’s great sparring partner, Philip d’Albini, governor of the contested Channel Islands. Food was soon scarce and, as the History of William Marshal comments, Louis “did not know which way to turn (...). He was so harried that he felt himself in desperate straits” (A. J. Holden (ed.), The History of William Marshal, vol. II (2004), pp. 290-2). the dramatic events which followed have rarely been commented on, and Eustace’s role even less so. In this article there is room for a brief summary. A French fleet was organized to shift the English blockade, but only one ship broke through straight away: that captained by Eustace. He immediately joined in a council of war with louis to find a way out of their tight situation. Eustace
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used his naval know-how to devise a plan for adapting one of the larger galleys into a castellated fighting platform. When completed, the vessel was so huge that it amazed all who looked upon it. this new vessel served to protect another ship behind it, from which a petraria hurled large stones at the English. The effectiveness of Eustace’s ship prompted the English into a successful daring night attack upon it; in the morning, they destroyed it “before the eyes of the French” (Anonymous of Béthune, Recueil des Historiens des Gaules et de France, vol. xiv, p. 774). A fortnight after Eustace’s arrival, the rest of his French relief fleet arrived and dispersed the English ships, inflicting heavy casualties; the biographer of William Marshal admitted that Eustace’s ships “destroyed our navy” (The History of William Marshal, vol II., p. 294).
The Battle of Sandwich louis returned from France and swiftly regained his losses. But, in May 1217, defeat at the Battle of Lincoln, one of the most important fought on English soil, left the French in a more precarious position than ever, with most of them holed up in london. louis wrote to France for help, and his redoubtable wife Blanche of Castile oversaw the financing of another expeditionary fleet. Once again, the experienced Eustace took charge of the logistical operation. The fleet that set sail for England in August 1217 carried invaluable military matériel, including horses, treasure and a huge trebuchet. William Marshal’s biographer’s claim that the force was “large enough to conquer the realm” (The History of William Marshal, vol II., p. 358) may exaggerate its size, but, with its load of nearly 300 cavalry and nearly 900 foot, it was more than sufficient to allow Louis to go on the offensive again and prosecute the war with effect. the English had prepared their own attacking fleet and, on 24 August, a beautiful clear summer’s day, it set out to meet the French off Sandwich for (as I have argued elsewhere) the most important naval battle in England’s pre-twentieth-century history; more was at stake here than even trafalgar or the Spanish Armada. The English fleet, at around forty ships, was half the size of the French one. However, all their ships were attacking ones, and, as they were not burdened down with supplies, they were lighter –
and hence taller – in the water. the galleys were fitted with iron prows for ramming the enemy. The fleet’s admiral, on board the largest ship with substantial fighting platforms, was Hubert de Burgh; Philip d’Albini and richard Fitzjohn (King John’s illegitimate son) were his leading captains, on other vessels. On the French side, ten large ships were fighting escorts; the others were presumably all merchant vessels. the French flagship, described as “the great ship of Bayonne” (William the Breton, Gesta Philippi Augusti; cited in: Ouevres de Rigord et et de Guillaume le Breton, trans. and ed. by H.F. Delaborde (1882), p. 314), was under the command of Eustace. It was so laden with supplies – knights, horses, treasure and the trebuchet – that it sat low in the water, with the waves almost washing over it. With Eustace was the commander of the French troops and forty leading knights. the French had the advantage of the weight of numbers and a following wind; the English had manoeuvrability and, according to one English source, “a superior navy than the French” (roger of Wendover, Flores Historiarum, trans. and ed. by H.G. Hewlett, vol II (1886), p.223). they were also fighting for their homeland. The English had a clear battle plan: engage and destroy the enemy. For the French, the priority was to avoid battle and instead focus on their mission to supply Louis. With their greater manoeuvrability, twenty English ships deftly got behind the French and immediately targeted Eustace’s ship, the one that would cause most harm if it got through. this was a decapitation strategy: strike the head off the enemy so that the body collapses. Fitzjohn engaged with Eustace first, before being supported by De Burgh and two others. Elsewhere, galleys were ramming the French, and crossbowmen and archers exchanged a deadly barrage. According to Roger of Wendover, d’Albini’s men were especially effective here. Pots of quicklime were projected at the French; when they broke on the decks, the wind blew the dust into the men’s eyes, “which blinded them totally” (Anonymous of Béthune, Histoire des Ducs de Normandie et des Rois d’Angleterre, trans. and ed. by F. Michel (1840), pp. 201-2); all the sources agreed that this proved one of the most effective and damaging tactics of the battle. Back on the great ship of Bayonne,
grappling hooks were thrown and a boarding party landed to engage in fierce handto-hand combat. The Romance paints a vivid and dramatic picture of “the brave and courageous” Eustace, violently swinging an oar to knock down his opponents (The Romance of Eustace the Monk, p. 77). As his ship was being overrun, Eustace rushed below decks to hide in the ship’s hold. Facing imminent defeat, many French sailors threw themselves into the sea rather than be slaughtered by the English. Only knights were spared. Ralph of Coggeshall estimates that 4000 Frenchmen were slaughtered, not counting those who jumped into the sea and “sunk like lead” (Chronicon Anglicanum, trans. and ed. by J. Stevenson (1875), p. 186). Eustace was found and dragged onto deck. He pleaded for his life, promising to serve John loyally. there are two versions of what happened next, but the final result in both was that Eustace had his head cut off. It was stuck on a pole and paraded through Canterbury and across the land to prove to the people that this notorious black legend was truly dead. the last line of The Romance of Eustace the Monk reads: “No one who is always intent on evil can live for a long time” (The Romance of Eustace the Monk, p.78). •
Sean McGlynn is author of Blood Cries Afar (see Further reading) and By Sword and Fire: Cruelty and Atrocity in Medieval Warfare (Weidenfeld and Nicolson 2008). His next books will appear in 2013: Medieval Generals (Pen and Sword) and Kill Them All! The Warfare of the Albigensian Crusade (The History Press). He is Lecturer in History at the University of Plymouth at Strode College and The Open University.
Further reading - Glynn S. Burgess (trans. and ed.), Two Medieval Outlaws: Eustace the Monk and Fouke Fitz Waryn. Cambridge 1997. - Sean McGlynn, “England’s Medieval Trafalgar”, in: BBC History Magazine, 13 June 2012. - Sean McGlynn, Blood Cries Afar: The Forgotten Invasion of England 1216. Stroud 2012.
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The Fortress of Rhodes 1309-1522 this book is number 96 of the Osprey Fortress series. Author Konstantin Nossov and illustrator Brian Delf are well known Osprey contributors with rich experience in the field. the book is divided into the usual chapters for Fortress books – Introduction, Chronology, Design and Development, the Principles of Defence, tour of the Fortress, the living Sites, the Fortress at War, Aftermath, Glossary, Bibliography and Further reading, and Index. The Introduction briefly takes the reader through the long history of the island of Rhodes, from the Minoans to the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and finally the arrival of the Knights of the Order of St. John. the island, famous in ancient times for its Colossus (one of the Seven Wonders of the World), once again enjoyed a period of glory during the Hospitaller period, between 1309 and 1522. After taking the island in 1309, the Knights started organizing it and building the fortress and other forts. A brief explanation about the military organization and duties on the island concludes this part. The Chronology presents both the history of the island and that of the Order, spanning the period from the founding of the ancient city of Rhodes in 408 BC, to the defeat of the Hospitallers in 1522 and the fall of the island into Ottoman hands. A short but comprehensive tour through 2000 years on two pages. Design and Development describes the beginnings of the rhodian fortification. First, the Knights restored the Byzantine walls, but had to expand the city to include the civilian area and to defend the port. The first Grand Masters, although not pressed by any external threats, began the works, and their coats of arms can be seen on many defensive structures. The first serious works began in the first years of the fifteenth century under Grand Masters Philibert de Naillac (1396-1421) and especially Antonio Fluvian (1421-1437). Walls, simple or double, and towers appeared, following the latest developments in the art of fortifications, and also taking into consideration the use of artillery. Subsequent Grand Masters added other constructions and strengthened towers and walls. Innovations from the continent were continuously adapted. One of the most important stages of construction occurred after the great siege of 1480, when Grand Master Pierre d’Aubusson (1476-1503), convinced that the Ottomans would soon return in full force to capture the island, began fortifying the city even more. the walls were thickened, ditches widened, bulwarks built, and artillery brought in. the following two Grand Masters, and the last ones on Rhodes, added other defensive elements, while waiting for the next great turkish siege, which eventually defeated the Order. Very useful are the explanations regarding the evolution of artillery and fortifications from the beginning of the fifteenth century through to the sixteenth century, as both went hand in hand. The methods of building the fortifications on Rhodes are also presented, from the engineers to the labourers and the principles of defence in that era, while all elements of the fortress are described in detail: theory combined with illustrations. the tour of the Fortress takes the reader through the city, the explanations again being supported by excellent illustrations of the walls and towers, with details of the Grand Masters’
ISBN-13: 978-1846039300 Pages: 64 Author: Konstantin Nossov Publisher: Osprey Publishing Address of publisher: www.ospreypublishing.com Reviewer: Andrei Pogăciaş Palace and the hospital, inns and other buildings in the Living Sites section. the longest chapter in the book – the Fortress at War – presents the two great Ottoman sieges (1480 and 1522), events which are very well described in Rhodes Besieged, by robert Douglas Smith and Kelly DeVries, and which undoubtedly each deserve their own book in Osprey’s Campaign series. The emphasis is put on the sheer use of artillery against the walls of the city, and the bitter fighting that occurred on both occasions. the Ottomans were very passionate about artillery, and were also masters of digging tunnels and exploding mines under the walls. they would also bring a large army in their campaigns, thus making the odds favourable for them. Although the first attempt to conquer the island ended in utter defeat for the turks, the second attempt was a hard-gained victory. The Hospitallers had modernized their defences, and had gathered food and ammunition to last for a year inside their walls, yet they couldn’t resist the strength and determination of Sultan Suleiman himself, who commanded the operations on the spot. Mining, bombardments, various earthworks, and frontal assaults brought the Ottomans their victory, although the Knights fought hard. the result was decided by the sheer difference in numbers, perhaps more than 5 to 1, the best proof that the fortifications of rhodes were formidable. richly illustrated with photos, graphic reconstructions (the colour illustrations are exceptionally well done), and drawings with technical explanations, the book is a feast for the eyes of any reader, and a source of important information. The author writes in a simple but convincing manner, with enough details to make the reader understand the art of building fortifications and laying a siege. the book is very useful on its own, but can be combined with Rhodes Besieged, which completely lacks maps and plans of the fortress and its sieges; the stages of the sieges can be very easily followed on the plans provided. A must-read for those passionate about military orders, Ottoman siege warfare, and fortresses, for specialists and amateurs alike, and also very useful for the tourists to Rhodes, as maybe the best guide ever to the great Hospitaller city. Medieval Warfare II-6
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Blood Cries Afar: The Forgotten Invasion of England 1216 In this colourful narrative history, Sean McGlynn argues persuasively that the French invasion of England in 1216 “came extremely close to being a repeat of the conquest in 1066.” In his thoroughgoing examination of this invasion and the events leading up to it, he also succeeds in his intention “to demonstrate how military events determined, and were determined by, the political environment in England and France in the early thirteenth century.” More specifically, the author shows “how political failure for King John meant both political and military success for his Capetian enemies.” McGlynn, who lectures at Plymouth University and has published extensively on medieval military history, notes that this is the first monograph devoted to this significant event. Although the invasion led by the future King louis VIII of France is the focal point, the author provides context through an in-depth review of the Anglo-Capetian conflict, from the origins of the Angevin Empire under Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Along the way, he is repeatedly able to make his case regarding the critical impact of military outcomes on the larger course of history. One especially striking example that brings his point home is, of course, the Battle of Bouvines, which McGlynn calls “one of the most decisive battles of not only the entire Middle Ages, but of Western European history as a whole.” the author is best known for his 2010 work, By Sword and Fire: Cruelty and Atrocity in Medieval Warfare, wherein he exposed the vicious brutality that belied the Age of Chivalry. Here, as in that previous work, he posits that “the descriptions of atrocities in the sources (…) deserve to be taken with the utmost seriousness.” In defence of this assertion, he points out that the monks who produced the chronicles of the time were not far separated from their martial brethren, and therefore understood more of the nature of warfare than they are usually given credit for by modern scholars. He also cites numerous examples of modern atrocities and asks, “If a ‘civilized’ world can debase itself by such barbarity, why not the medieval one?” leaving aside the fact that, by any definition, twelfth and thirteenth century France and England were “civilized”, the author’s point is well taken. As in By Sword and Fire, McGlynn devotes considerable attention to the more gruesome aspects of medieval warfare, and this account is replete with severed limbs, gouged eyes, decapitations, spilled intestines, shattered kneecaps, crushed skulls, immersions in boiling tar, roastings on gridirons, and other graphic details of violent excess. Much space is devoted to incidents such as the fate of the unfortunate townspeople of Petit-Andely, expelled from Château-Gaillard during the siege of 1203/4, who, among other sufferings, faced slow starvation and were eventually reduced to cannibalism. The author states that, “I am forever telling my students, to understand the truth of the situation we have to pick up the stone and see what is underneath. there we will always find self-interest scurrying or wriggling busily about in pursuit of its ends.” this jaundiced view is manifest throughout. For instance, in assessing the notion that the loss of John’s treasure in the 54
ISBN: 978-0752454627 Pages: 287 Author: Sean McGlynn Publisher: Spellmount Address of Publisher: www.thehistorypress.co.uk Reviewer: David Balfour Wash was a ruse perpetrated by the king, McGlynn succinctly concludes: “This is a very cynical observation and therefore a convincing one.” McGlynn sees personality as perhaps the most vital of the various contingencies that shape history. Consequently, he places great emphasis upon character and provides vivid portraits of major figures such as Philip Augustus and his son louis, as well as of memorable secondary players including the “notorious mercenary commander” Falkes de Bréauté and the wonderfully unscrupulous Eustace the Monk. But John’s questionable personality is the primary hinge upon which the events of this history swing, and the author focuses particularly upon the king’s marked ineptitude and numerous character flaws. He concludes that, “the momentary imbalance that sowed disaster for England was the political and military inadequacy of John’s reign.” the king’s death in 1216 was “ultimately a game changer.” With John’s demise, the defence of the realm fell into more capable hands, which, more than anything else, saved England from conquest by the French. McGlynn interlaces his narrative with sound analysis that demonstrates his great familiarity with the primary and secondary sources. the author’s own views generally conform
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to current opinion, as in his emphasis on the significance of infantry and the central role of castles in medieval warfare. He challenges some modern scholarship in arguing that, by the early thirteenth century, a form of “nascent nationalism” had emerged in England and France, particularly the former. He offers several intriguing bits of evidence to support his claim, citing, for example, the unpopularity of the foreigners in John’s court, the slighting references to the French in The History of William Marshal, and Roger of Wendover’s characterization of the French invaders as “scum.” the book is clearly written and well organized. McGlynn ably guides the reader through the complex interplay of events, characters, locales, fortifications, battles, skirmishes, political machinations, changing fortunes, and shifting loyalties. The author’s meticulous research is evidenced by 621 endnotes, many of them discursive, and a very extensive bibliography.
there are 32 pages of black and white plates, including useful images of fortifications, illustrations from contemporary sources, maps, and the like. There is a serviceable though not very detailed index. Only a few minor errors or inconsistencies were detected. the castellan of lincoln is identified variously as Nicola, Nichola de Haye, and Nichola de Hay. there is an anachronistic reference to the “signing” of Magna Carta. And, while technically it is not incorrect to say that the union of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine produced “no less than four sons,” it might be less misleading to state simply that they had five male children, though the firstborn, William, died at the age of two years. this is a solid and significant work of scholarship as well as a compelling read. It will be of value to anyone with an interest in the Anglo-Capetian conflict or in medieval military history in general, professionals and non-professionals alike.
Byzantine Imperial Guardsman 925-1025: The Taghmata and Imperial Guard there were two basic divisions in the medieval Byzantine army. In the provinces, the themes (or military districts) contributed troops to the defence of the frontiers and added to the strength of the field armies in time of war. Constituted from part-time soldiers who received farmland in return for their service, the thematic troops safeguarded the borders of Byzantium for centuries, providing on the spot security against marauding Rus, Bulgars, and Arabs. the backbone of Byzantium’s armed might, however, was the Taghmata, the central field army composed of professional soldiers, that formed the hard core of any Byzantine force in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Raffaele D’Amato examines these regiments as they existed during the empire’s century of revived greatness, as well as Byzantium’s elite guard forces, in Osprey’s latest Elite series title, Byzantine Imperial Guardsman 925-1025. The Taghmata forces were stationed in Constantinople, the capital of the empire. that city’s central location allowed the emperors to respond quickly to attacks on the Balkan and Anatolian frontiers. As they deployed, they would be supplemented by thematic troops drawn from the threatened sector. this allowed Byzantium to maintain a relatively small and economical force with which to defend an empire of impressive size. It must be remembered that the Byzantines, at all times, considered themselves to be romans. this heritage was evident in their army. Certain units of the Taghmata, such as the Skholai, were descended from the elite Scholae Palatinae of the Late Roman army of the fourth century. The Eskoubitores formed a Taghmata regiment with its origins in the fifth century. the Noumeroi, the standing garrison of the capital, derived from the old Constantinopolitan Circus factions of the later imperial period. Others were more recent foundings. the Athanatoi, or ‘Immortals’, was a force of soldiers raised in the 970s in preparation for the Emperor John Tzimiskes’ campaign against an invading army of Kievan Rus. The Vighla guarded the palace itself, as well as the hippodrome. An elite naval force of war gal-
ISBN-13: 978-1849088503 Pages: 64 Author: Raffaele d’Amato Publisher: Osprey Publishing Address of publisher: www.ospreypublishing.com Reviewer: Marc De Santis leys, the Vasilikoploimon, was the seaborne counterpart of the Taghmata. The Taghmata should not be confused with the Imperial Guardsmen proper. Both took the field in the presence of the emperor, the Vasilefs, but the Guards, again comprised of various units, were directly tasked with ensuring the safety of the emperor’s holy personage. The Varangian Guards, in existence after 988, were the most famous regiment of this type, but not the only one. Another, primarily cavalry, guard force, the Vasilike Etaireia, was composed of both Christian subjects as well as foreigners from beyond the imperial borders. This, too, carried on a longstanding tradition of the old empire, in which foreign soldiers without factional ties were employed to protect the ruler. Also contributing to the volume is the commendable artist Giuseppe rava, who provides eight stunning plates to illustrate the weaponry and attire of Byzantium’s elite forces during this golden century. the book is very well done. D’Amato and rava have again combined to produce a fine study of a neglected topic, and it is a worthy companion to their earlier effort, Osprey’s Men-at-Arms title The Varangian Guard 988-1453, which covered that legendary guard unit in great detail. Medieval Warfare II-6
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Ceawlin: The Man Who Created England The inspiration for this book, according to the preface, is the author’s realization of the fact that, throughout most of the western roman Empire, latin-based languages continued in use after the empire’s fall, while in Britain latin and Brithonic (a Celtic language) were replaced by languages of the Germanic group: apparently, post-Roman history in Britain took a different trajectory from elsewhere in western Europe. the author sets out to explain this divergence by attributing a great deal of influence to a man named Ceawlin, who appears in the West Saxon king-lists and a few entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 556 fighting alongside Cynric against the Brettas (Britons) and in 560 when he came to power. In 577 he was fighting the Brettas again, this time in conjunction with Cuþwine (they slew three Welsh kings in this encounter and gained much territory in the Severn region); in 584, he and Cuþa (who may or may not be the same man as Cuþwine) fought again, Cuþa fell and Ceawlin seized a good deal of territory. Despite these successes, in 592, Ceawlin was ‘driven out’ and, in the next year, he, Cwichelm and Crida (or Creoda) died. that is the sum of the Anglo-Saxon evidence regarding the man about whom this book is written. The author points out in the Introduction that the book is speculative and the evidence upon which it is based is scant. It is surprising, then, that he proceeds to build a huge edifice of assumptions on so little evidence. the first assertion Matthews makes (on p. 2) is that the transition from late Antiquity took place in the late sixth century. this is not a view that any historian of the period would accept – the transition happened at different times in different places, but must have been underway by the end of the fourth century in the east of the country (roman troops withdrew in about AD 410), and was largely complete by the late fifth century, as far as the lowland areas of Britain are concerned. the transition involves a break with the roman past and the establishment of a new social order – mostly Germanic-speaking in the east, but with British-speaking pockets, which probably persisted into the seventh century. Matthews wisely refuses to be drawn very far into the morass of wishful speculation surrounding the figure of Arthur, whose historicity is, at best, implausible and unsupported by any contemporary evidence. He nonetheless lionizes Ælle of the South Saxons, mainly because he follows Bede in ascribing to that king the status of the first Bretwalda, and assuming that this eighth-century notion had a sixth-century political reality, based on an extension of the Roman office of Vicarius; but this title had no military dimension, which makes it an unlikely source for the Anglo-Saxon ‘Wide-ruler’ epithet. Much is made of the Excidio of Gildas, but the interpretations offered are rather simplistic, given that Matthews seems to be aware of the multi-layered nuances of that text. Archaeological evidence is largely ignored throughout the book, with just an occasional nod to distributions of artefact types and the range of military hardware available in the postroman period. the simplistic interpretations of DNA distribution in the modern population are rightly dismissed as evidence for the population mix of 1500 years ago in one paragraph (p.204), but then Matthews does appear to be favourably disposed to studies that show an east-west cline as evidence for 56
ISBN-13: 978-1848846760 Pages: 233 Author: rupert Matthews Publisher: Pen and Sword Books Address of publisher: www.pen-and-sword.co.uk Reviewer: Steve Pollington weakening Germanic input into the gene pool towards the west. So, evidence can be both dismissed in one breath and partly or wholly accepted in the next. the life story of Ceawlin is recreated – or, better, invented – from a supposed connection to a Welsh royal line. The name Ceawlin has Brithonic roots, to be sure, but the precise nature of its transmission to the royal line of one of the many strands of the West Saxon royal line is nowhere made clear. Matthews’s suggestion is therefore just one of many competing ideas and not especially well supported in contemporary documentation. returning to the original premise (that what happened in post-roman Britain was unique), Matthews must surely be aware that this is not quite true. the languages of the eastern Adriatic were largely replaced by Slavonic; Belgica and its neighbours became Germanic-speaking. Every region has its unique history. Matthews asserts that the “first English scorned to learn the language of the peoples that they conquered, instead forcing the more numerous Britons to speak English” (p.223), yet no evidence is offered to show that the Britons were more numerous than the English in those areas occupied by the English in the sixth century, or how a minority might impose its language on a majority without a state-sponsored school system. this kind of confused logic permeates the book. Matthews writes clearly and in an engaging style, the ‘fireside chat’ approach to historical writing, which is very appealing for readers who want a good story clearly told. Of course, history is never as simple as this approach pretends, and here we come to the nub of criticism: the author presents no framework of references against which his assertions can be checked. there are no footnotes, no internal citations, and tellingly the bibliography is pathetically thin. This sets alarm bells ringing, even in a straightforward presentation of events. When the thesis is as far from mainstream as the one presented here, the suspicion must be that there are no sources cited because they do not say what the author would like them to say, and that later students of the subject have reached conclusions very different from the author’s. This summary is no doubt unfair in respect of some parts of the book, but it is a weakness of the text that it cannot be defended against the charge of ‘unwarranted speculation’, even where it is probably correct. Overall, the book disappoints because it fails to convince or even to argue a case that can be taken seriously. It offers speculation and treats it as probability.
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With a Bended Bow It was with slight apprehension that I agreed to review Eric Roth’s With a Bended Bow, a new book on the subject of archery. One of the medieval manuals on archery, Arab Archery (c. 1500), makes frequent mention of the disagreements – sometimes violent – that existed back then regarding just about any topic related to the ‘two sticks and the string’. Well, little seems to have changed in the world of traditional archery. I’ve yet to see the supporters of competing theories come to physical blows, but the debates are fierce enough, and ignite frequent figurative bush-fires in the traditional archery community. More often than not (or so it seems to me), books on historical archery form the logs that fuel these flames, as positions taken and theories put forward can easily counter or undermine earlier theories. the unfortunate consequence is that an admission that a book is appreciated can be seen as the opening of renewed hostilities, often related to just a very small part of said book. Besides the delightful results when stirring up a hornet’s nest, there was also the question: How much new material can really be added to our collective knowledge of English archery during the Hundred Years War? true, the earlier Middle Ages and the renaissance are mentioned every now and then, and there are even a few tantalizing hints with regard to other nations engaging in the art of archery; but, once again, it is the almost absolute success of English archery during this period that forms the dominant focus of the book. All in all, I was pleasantly surprised. roth frequently acknowledges that issues may be subject to different opinions. rather than presenting his own vision as the Holy truth, he presents both sides of the argument. When a theory doesn’t have a great deal of solid foundation, he doesn’t hesitate to point this out. the idea that the English war-bow originated in Wales, for example, is given short shrift, due to the very slender evidence and the fact that a great deal of primary evidence needs to be ignored vis-à-vis the Anglo-Saxon archery tradition. When matters aren’t so clear, roth will either leave judgement to the reader, or explain his own preferences quite clearly without necessarily passing judgement. In his argumentation, I trace echoes of opinions put forward by the grand names of traditional archery, indicating that roth has done his homework thoroughly (and possibly even consulted a number of them). A note of criticism that could be sounded with regard to this approach is that some commonly held ideas seem to be easily adopted, such as the contention that composite bows were a rarity in medieval Europe, a statement which the author contradicts on the very next page, where he admits they were used to some extent. A bit of further research into evidence such as that presented by the Maciejowski Bible, for example, might have added to the otherwise comprehensive picture, for which the author deserves praise. those last few points answer my question with regard to how much new material could possibly be added to the quite considerable research already carried out with regard to Hundred Years War archery. the answer is that roth’s With a Bended Bow doesn’t really contain any spectacular new insights, nor does this appear to have been the author’s intention. Instead, he seems to be seeking to present a total picture
ISBN-13: 978-0752463551 Pages: 256 Author: Erik Roth Publisher: The History Press Address of publisher: www.thehistorypress.co.uk Reviewer: Nils Visser of our knowledge of medieval archery. In this roth deserves our praise, for With a Bended Bow does indeed provide a very wide vista of all that has been discovered and discussed in the past, adding together facts and figures from different earlier sources for our convenience, and doing so in a writing style that is easily accessible and pleasant to read. One of the reasons that With a Bended Bow is a smooth read is that roth abstains from throwing in a multitude of footnotes. His attitude seems to be ‘take it or leave it’, rather than attempting to lend his work academic credentials by providing sources for just about everything he claims or accepts as fact. As such, any traditional archer with a reasonable historical knowledge, specifically researchers and writers, might be disappointed, as roth, at times, presents interesting titbits for which the likes of us would like to know the sources in order to verify them. However, once we accept that roth didn’t write this book to impress a handful of know-it-alls, we are left with a book that is a very pleasant and informative read for both a traditional archer – armed with some working knowledge of ‘sticks and string’ – as well as those who know very little or nothing about archery, but have a keen interest in medieval warfare. As already mentioned, the primary selling point is the thorough approach. With a Bended Bow is comprehensive, covering a wide range of topics, from the exact origins and possible measurements of the cloth-yard to the tales concerning Robin Hood and William tell. the book is divided into two parts: the first, the Guilds, deals with the materials used for the production of archery gear, as well as the various tradesmen who were involved in the building processes; the second, the Archers, deals with the men who shot the bows, including chapters on the techniques they would have employed, the training exercises they would have participated in, and, of course, the exploitation of their skills in battle. I thought the chapter on hunting was a bit disappointing, as a great deal of it consists of long citations from Roi Modus, indicative perhaps of the quality of that writing, but I would have preferred to read more of roth’s own vision. All in all, a very pleasant read, and I can recommend this book both to laymen searching for a good and clear introduction to medieval archery, and to bowyers, fletchers and archers wishing to refresh their memory. Medieval Warfare II-6
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ON THEME tHE COVEr
Standard-bearer of the Athanatoi near Aleppo The Athanatoi (“Immortals”) were one of the elite cavalry regiments of the Imperial field army, the Tághmata. The name echoed that of the Persians, or perhaps Alexander’s Immortals. Leo the Deacon (VIII:4) records that these 4000 cavalrymen were created by John Tzimiskes (969-976) in 970 as a new Tághma (107.12), part of the imperial bodyguards (149.4-5), and describes them as “sheathed in armour” (132.18) and holding “their spears before them” (133.23— 134.1) in battle. He describes them like “armed horsemen adorned
By Raffaele D’Amato
When Basil II moved towards Syria in 995, troopers from all the elite cavalry regiments were with him, the Athanatoi being amongst them, according to the Arab historians Yahia and Kemal ed-Din. Their patron Saint was theodoros Stratilates, represented sometimes on their shields and on their main standard together with the Imperial image, here reconstructed like a lavaron made of purple and golden thread, adorned with gold rivets and precious stones. The top of the standard is a copy of the item found in the Serçe limani shipwreck. On their shields, they proudly exhibited the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, meaning the eternity of the Living God. The decoration of the man’s skoutarion (shield) shows a gold rim with white dots imitating pearls. This member of the Athanatoi is cop58
ied from folio 383 of the Menologion of Basil II. His helmet is of spangenhelm construction (like the tenth-century example, visible in the lower right corner, from Gnyezdovo in Russia). The iron klivanion is constructed in the typical banded lamellar style of the period, with gilded scales – of which eleventh-century specimens from Strugostjata, in the region of Ochrid, Macedonia (now in the Strumica Museum), can be seen below – laced among them or attached to the leather background by central rivets. the warrior has gold splint armoured manikelia protecting his upper arms. His spathion is held in a black scab-
© Photo courtesy of Prof. Valeri Yotov
bard with light blue fittings. this doubleedged sword is 85cm long and 4cm wide, with a bronze pommel and a hilt about 12cm long. Although the original piece was decorated with writings from the Qur’ān, the shape of the sword pommel and quillons, with the short sleeve extending below them to enclose the top of the scabbard, has been shown by recent studies to be typical of east roman swords of the ninth-eleventh centuries. The richness of the Imperial bodyguards was reflected in their clothing. the silk sash (loros) is a symbol of command and the light blue chlamys is embroidered with the splendid tablion in gold thread. Our man wears a sleeved purple divitision tunic, decorated with embroidery made of small gold circlets and quadrates and gold thread on its cuffs and borders. An eleventh-century fragment of a similar purple silk and wool tunic, found in the Crimea and currently on display in the Cherson Archaeological Museum, is shown on the left. Richly adorned dark red trousers (anaxyanaxyrida)) are decorated with gold circlets between gold vertical stripes, tucked inside white-cerulean kampotouvia. •
© Photo courtesy of Igor Dzys
© Raffaele D’Amato
with gold” (156.17-18).
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Frustrating the Fatimids: Basil II and the conquest of Syria