Once again, Deadliest Blogger presents its list of Greatest Commanders of history. This time, we tackle the difficult period of the Renaissance; defined here as the period from the second-half of the 15th century through the 17th century.

While some scholars would quibble with this broader time scope, it works very well militarily. During this 250 year period of history, the advent and integration of gunpowder weapons (“firepower”) on the battlefield reaches its fruition; replacing shock-and-melee weapons and tactics as the dominant force on the field. This is a period of increasing military professionalism, with many of the pioneers and great innovators of modern war taking the stage. The possible candidates for this list are so great and varied that many great commanders had to be overlooked, rated lower than those here. Some will of course take issue with the order in which I rate these, in itself an obviously subjective selection. But that is the fun of lists: to stimulate thought and conversation!

So let us begin:

25. Edward IV


Edward was born in 1442, the second son of Richard Duke of York. A branch of the Plantagenet royal family, the House of York found itself in a power struggle over the Protectorate of England during the reign of King Henry VI; when that king experience a period of madness. Henry was the third king of the Lancastrian-branch of the royal family; and their claim to the throne was technically weaker than that of the House of York. The result was the War of the Roses, a civil war that raged intermittently between the nobility for 32 years. Despite having most of the great nobles against them, York triumphed under the leadership of Edward. Becoming leader of his faction upon the execution of his father after the Yorkist defeat at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460; he reversed his family’s fortunes by defeating the Lancastrians at the Battles of at Northampton on 7 July 1460, at Mortimer’s Cross on 2–3 February 1461 and at Towton the following month. Edward was declared King in March 1461 after capturing London. Though the Lancastrians would defeat Edward’s chief supporter, Richard Earl of Warwick (the Kingmaker) at the Second Battle of at St. Albans on17 February 1461, their fortunes were in sharp decline. Edward found himself driven from the throne when his great vassal and right-hand-man, Warwick, turned against him; joining the Lancastrians and restoring Henry VI briefly to the throne in 1470. Edward fled to Flanders, accompanied by his younger brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester (the future Richard III). With the aid of his brother-in-law, the Duke of Burgundy, he raised a force and returned to England to reclaim his throne. At the Battle of Barnet on 14 April 1471 Edward defeated Warwick, and the Earl was killed in the subsequent rout. Edward secured his throne and brought the War of the Roses to a close for the remainder of his 12 years on the throne by victory over the Lancastrians at the subsequent Battle of Tewkesbury, on 4 May 1471. Edward was an accomplished amateur commander, who provided determined and aggressive leadership. While not in the same category of other great Plantagenet kings such as Richard the Lionheart or Edward Longshanks, he won nearly every battle he commanded in, often against superior enemy forces. He also had the gift of resiliency: he took misfortune in stride as readily as success; and always found a way to turn-the-tables on his enemies. He was among the handsomest of a line of kings noted for its good-looks. His impressive physique and height (approximately six feet four inches) along with his noted courage also made him a formidable fighting man in an age where a commander was often expected to trade blows with the enemy.

24. Pierre Terrail, Chevalier de Bayard


Often regarded as “the Last Knight”, an anachronism in his own time, it is often overlooked that Pierre Terrail, the Chevalier Bayard was a superb cavalry leader; and understood the military arts of his day as much or more than any other captain of the age. Born to a minor branch of the French nobility, his family enjoyed the dubious distinction of having a Terrail killed in battle in every generation for two centuries. Bayard was very early in his life involved in France’s Italian Wars, beginning as a teenager in Charles VIII invasion of Italy. Bayard distinguished himself at the Battle of Fornovo in 1495, capturing an enemy standard; and was knighted after the battle. In 1503, Bayard was the hero of a celebrated combat of thirteen French knights against an equal number of Spanish. At the Battle of Garigliano he single-handedly defended the bridge of the Garigliano against 200 Spaniards, gaining French forces much needed time. He played a key role as commander of the French vanguard in Louis XII’s 1508 Genoese campaign. In 1509 he was commissioned to raise and command a mixed company of infantry and cavalry; which became a model for discipline and professionalism. At the Battle of Agnadello his company played a key role in saving the French vanguard from destruction. Throughout the minor skirmishes and sieges that marked the next decade of the French Italian Wars, Bayard’s company and leadership were ever evident and effective. In 1513, he was in northern France to repel Henry VIII of England’s invasion. Though the French were routed at the Battle of the Spurs (Guinegate), Bayard won distinction and when captured, so impressed King Henry by his good humor and gallant bearing that he was released without ransom. At the Battle of Marignano in 1515, one of the great battles of the age, Bayard led repeated and effective charges by the French gendarmes (armored lancers) against the Swiss pike phalanx; the combination of French artillery and Bayard’s armored cavalry bringing the French victory that day. After the battle, Bayard had the honour of conferring knighthood on his youthful sovereign, King Francis I. He was given command of the retreat of the French army at the River Sesia. Bayard succeeded in extricating the army from a trap, but while directing the rearguard was shot in the back by an arquebuse, and died that afternoon in the care of his Spanish enemies. As a soldier, Bayard was considered the epitome of chivalry and one of the most skillful commanders of the age. He was particularly adept and keen in the arts of mounted reconnaissance; and was noted for the completeness of the information he gathered on enemy’s movements. Unusual in his age, he created a well-arranged system of espionage in the districts in which he campaigned, and was never caught unawares. In the long history of mounted warfare, he rates highly as one of the greatest cavalry leaders of all time. In an age of mercenary armies, Bayard remained absolutely disinterested but remained ever loyal to his king and country. To his contemporaries he was known and remembered for his romantic heroism, piety, and magnanimity: the fearless and faultless knight (le chevalier sans peur et sans reproche). His gaiety and kindness won him, even more frequently, another name bestowed by his contemporaries, le bon chevalier.

23. Gustav Horn


Born to a Finnish noble family in 1592, Horn studied military sciences under Maurice of Nassau (above). Promoted to colonel, he took part in siege of Riga in 1621 and was seriously wounded. He acted with distinction in Livonia, his troops conquering Tartu. With count Jakob De la Gardie, he led defense of Livonia against Poland in late 1620s. At the age of 35, he was elevated to the rank of field marshal, by king Gustav II Adolphus (See below). He was Gustavus’ second-in-command and among his best commanders. He commanded the Swedish left at the Battle of Breitenfeld in 1631; saving the day when the Saxon allies fled, leaving exposed the Swedish center-left. On his own initiative (King Gustavus was away with the cavalry on the far-right of the battle) he wheeled the Swedish line back at a right angle; preventing their envelopment by the right of Tilly’s (see above) Imperialist forces. Following the death of Gustavus at Lützen in November 1632, Horn and General John Banér were appointed to the overall command of the Swedish forces in Germany. He supported Bernard of Saxe-Weimar at the latter’s disastrous defeat battle of Nördlingen in 1634; and was taken prisoner. He was held till 1642, when he was exchanged for three Imperial generals. Following his exchange, Horn was appointed Minister of War. During the war against Denmark in 1644, Horn led the attack on Skåne and conquering the province, and laying siege ot Malmö. The Treaty of Brömsebro brought the war to an end before the siege ended. The conquest of Skåne became known as “the Horn War.” Horn later served as Governor-General in Livonia and Lord High Constable of the empire. When war broke out again against Poland in 1655, Horn directed the defense of Sweden against possible Polish invasion. He died in 1657, and is remembered as one of the most capable of the Swedish commanders of his age. His particular skills were in arranging defenses for every sort of situation. In an age when armies of mercenaries were often maintained by pillaging the local population, Horn was noted for maintaining strict discipline, not allowing his troops plunder the population. (In this he was in stark contrast to either Wallenstein (below) or his fellow Swede, Torstensson (see below).

22. Sir Thomas Fairfax


Fairfax was the creator of the New Model Army, and second only to Cromwell in reputation at the end of the English Civil War. He was born in 1612, a member of the English-Scottish nobility in the north of England. Because his father’s title was in Scotland, he was able to take a seat in the English House of Commons. He learned the arts and sciences of command under Sir Horace Vere in the Netherlands, fighting for Prince Maurice of Nassau in the 80 Years War. In 1639 he commanded a troop of the King’s Dragoons in the short-lived First Bishops’ War; and in the Second Bishops’ War the following year he commanded his troop as part of the English army which was routed at the Battle of Newburn. Fairfax nevertheless distinguished himself, and was knighted for his services in January 1641. In the lead-up to the Civil War, he was among those who urged King Charles I to find accommodation with Parliament. When the civil war broke out in 1642, his father, Lord Fairfax, was appointed general of the Parliamentary forces in the north, and Sir Thomas was made lieutenant-general of the horse (second-in-command) under him. Both distinguished themselves in the early campaigns in Yorkshire. Though defeated at the Battle of Adwalton Moor, they survived as a viable force; Lord Fairfax retreating into the port of Hull, where he was resupplied by the Parliament navy; while Sir Thomas raided with a force of cavalry around York, a Royalist stronghold. The Parliamentary alliance with the Scottish Covenanters led to a Scottish army under the Earl of Levan (a veteran of Swedish service in the 30 Years War) marching south to join with Fairfax and the newly arrived army of the Earl of Manchester (and Manchester’s Lieutenant General of Horse, Oliver Cromwell); resulting in the Siege of York. Fearing the loss of their northern bastion, King Charles dispatched his chief andn most talented lieutenant, his nephew Prince Rupert of the Rhine to rally Royalists forces and break the siege. This led to the Battle of Marston Moor (2 July 1644) which proved the decisive battle for control of the north. Sir Thomas Fairfax commanded the rightwing, with John Lambert as his second in command with several of the regiments of foot in support. During the bloody fight that followed, Fairfax’s wing collapsed, and he rode to Cromwell on the opposite side of the field. There, Cromwell had routed Prince Rupert and the Royalist left. Fairfax rode beside Cromwell in his decisive counter-attack that crossed the field and shattered the hitherto successful Royalist left under Goring. Marston Moor ended the Royalist cause in the north, and made Cromwell’s reputation as a leader of horse. Fairfax was severely wounded, but acquitted himself gallantly. The following year Parliament passed the New Model Ordinance, which replaced the locally raised Parliamentary regiments with a unified, “New Model Army”. Sir Thomas Fairfax was selected as the new commander-in-chief with Cromwell as his lieutenant-general and cavalry commander. This new organization and command quickly proved its worth in the decisive Battle of Naseby (14 June 1645). The Royalist cause was lost, and the First Civil War soon came to an end. When the Second Civil War broke out two years later, Fairfax effectively led the New Model Army against the revived Royalists in England; while Cromwell defeated the King’s Scottish allies at Preston. At the trial of King Charles, Fairfax was originally the chief among the judges; but he left the court, refusing to take part in a trial that would ultimately condemn the king to death. Fairfax’s last service as commander-in-chief was the suppression of the Leveller mutiny at Burford in May 1649. After this he resigned his commission, and Cromwell replaced him as Lord General of the Kingdom (and eventually Lord Protector of the Kingdom). His break with his more radical associates and refusal to condemn the king led to his exemption from punishment a decade later when The Restoration returned Charles II to England and the throne. He took up arms for the last time to aid the restoration, when George Monck invited him to assist in the operations undertaken against John Lambert‘s army. In December 1659 his appearance at the head of Royalists forces was enough to cause 1,200 cavalry to quit Lambert’s cause and joined him. This was speedily followed by the breaking up of all Lambert’s army, end resistance to the restoration of the monarchy. Along with Monck, he was the head of the delegation sent to Holland to escort the new king home, and Charles II rode into London on a horse provided by Fairfax, at the king’s side. He died eleven years later in retirement in his native Yorkshire. His legacy is that of an organizer and a leader of horse. Though eclipsed by Cromwell both as a commander and a politician, his reputation remained intact with both the supporters of Parliament and his erstwhile enemies, the Royalists. He was an honorable gentleman to the end, who remained moderate in politics, gracious in victory and stoic in defeat.

21. Henry of Navarre


Military leader of the Huguenots in the latter half of the Wars of Religion in France, Henry of Navarre was baptized as a Catholic as an infant; but raised as a Protestant. As a teenager, he joined the Huguenot forces in the French Wars of Religion. He inherited the throne of Navarre in 1572 upon his mother’s death. Narrowly escaping murder two months later in Paris (for his wedding) during the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, he was a virtual prisoner at court till 1576. Escaping to Tours, he abjured the Catholic cause and rejoined the Huguenots. In 1584 he became the presumptive heir to the throne, something unpalatable to the majority Catholics in the country. This triggered the War of the Three Henries; a three-way struggle for the crown between Henri III and the Royalists, the Catholic League led by Henri of Guise, and Navarre leading the Huguenots. In his first battle as commander, at Courtras in 1587 Navarre defeated the Royalist general (and intimate favorite of the king), Anne Duke of Joyeuse. His tactic of interspersing his three columns of pistol-and-sword armed cavalry with supporting groups of musket or arquebuse-armed infantry (the first rank of which were ordered to kneel, allowing greater concentration of fire in the first volley), broke-up the charge of the heavily armored lancers; followed by a counter-charge that shattered and routed the now disordered Royalists. This tactical innovation presaged Gustavus Adolphus’ later use of “commanded muskets” to support his squadrons of Swedish horse. Two years later, both Henri III and Guise were dead; and Navarre fighting to confirm his kingship. His forces, now mixed Huguenot and Catholic, represented the “Royalist” faction. His opposition was the still powerful Catholic League, now led by Guise’s brother, the Duke of Mayenne; supported financially and materially by Catholic Spain. At Arques in Normandy, Navarre caught Mayenne’s much larger League army in a field too narrow for their numbers to be brought to bear. Several days of skirmishing took place, until a well placed battery and repeated charges of cavalry (Navarre always at their head) routed the enemy. At Ivry in 1589, near Paris, the opponents met again in the decisive battle of the struggle. Tactically, the battle became one of the most instructive of the century; a harbinger for what was to come. While the League infantry were equal portions of pike-to-shot (many of which were Swiss and German mercenaries), and the best of their cavalry were lance-armed; not a single trooper of Navarre’s Royalist cavalry carried anything but sword and pistol. While among the infantry, the proportion of shot-to-pike in the Royalist force was 3-1 in favor of fire-units over melee (clearly influencing the later tactical innovations of Maurice of Nassau and Gustavus Adolphus, below). The League cavalry, mixed German reiters and Guise-faction lancers were unable to coordinate their actions; harassed and disorganized as they advanced by Royalist arquebusiers. Navarre timed his charge perfectly (ordering his men to “follow his white plume”), catching the retreating reiters passing through the oncoming lancers and neither prepared to meet his charge. Galloping thigh-to-thigh, his lighter horse discharged their pistols in the face of their enemies; following up with sword. The Royalist squadrons broke through, and routed the League forces. It was a defeat from which the League never fully recovered. Thereafter, Navarre had to contend with Spanish forces, intervening directly to prevent a Huguenot king from ascending the throne of France. Now facing the foremost soldier of his day, the Duke of Parma, Navarre was baffled at every turn. Only that great soldier’s premature death turned the tide in his favor. Through statecraft rather than force of arms, he brought the war to a conclusion and secured the throne: he agreed to become a Catholic, in return for the surrender of Paris and the acceptance of his rule (“Paris is worth a Mass”). He ruled France well and wisely for another 17 years, before assassinated in 1610. As a leader of horse he was gallant and brave to a fault; with the great leader’s gift for timing. But it was as a tactician that he truly shone; his innovations and battle practice inspiring the most influential tacticians of the next century.

20. Hernán Cortés


Cortés was perhaps the ultimate military adventurer. Born of the minor gentry in Medellin, Spain, he immigrated at a young age to Hispaniola. It was 15 years before he was given the opportunity to show his native military talents; when, in 1519, he was appointed to lead a small expedition to explore Mexico. Upon landing on the eastern coast with a force of 500 men (13 of which were mounted), he burned the 11 ships that had conveyed them; by this gesture announcing to all his conviction to advance and conquer or die in the process. Marching deep into the heart of the Aztec Empire, a nation of several million and capable of fielding over 100,000 warriors, he displayed a brilliant combination of audacity with caution; statesmanship and diplomacy combined with calculated terror. He benefited greatly from and played upon the native superstitions, which suspected him of being the god Quetzalcoatl, returned. He first defeated and then formed an alliance with those tribes independent of and hostile to the Aztecs, particularly the fierce Tlaxcalteca. Through diplomacy, he gained for himself and his army peaceful admittance into the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, “The Heart of the One World“. Once there, he took prisoner the Aztec ruler, Moctezuma; using him as a puppet till that king was killed by his own outraged subjects during an explosion of outrage directed against the Spanish interlopers. Besieged in the heart of Tenochtitlan, his tiny force fought bravely, benefitting from superior weapons technology and European tactics. As the situation grew increasingly desperate, Cortez attempted to escape the city under the cover of night. In the process, his army was ambushed while crossing along the narrow causeway’s leading out of the city, in what came to be called La Noche Triste (“The Night of Sorrows”). Much of his force was destroyed, yet despite this nearly fatale reverse, a week later he defeated a large Aztec army at the Battle of Otumba. Buoyed by this success, Cortez retreated into the territory of his native allies, to rebuild his army. He returned the following spring and laid siege to Tenochtitlan; whose defenders were greatly weakened by a smallpox epidemic brought by the Spanish. After a two-and-a-half month siege, in which Cortez cut off all supplies to the island city by blockading the causeways into the city and interdicting canoe-born resupply by building and launching armed caravels upon Lake Texcoco; the Aztecs surrendered to Cortez. Cortez was the first and greatest of the “Conquistadors”, an amateur military genius who achieved more with fewer resources from his home-country than perhaps any conqueror in history. He was an accomplished diplomat as well as soldier, skilled in the ways of a Renaissance courtier; and his conquest would have been impossible had he not augmented his meager European forces with native allies. In battle he was courageous and aggressive. Both militarily and politically, he was an opportunist with an instinct for finding his opponent’s jugular. He would rate much more highly on this list, had he not faced an opponent armed only with weapons of flint and obsidian; or whose style of warfare emphasized capturing rather than killing their enemies.

19. Selim the Grim


Sultan Selim I, nicknamed Yavuz, “the Stern” (but often rendered in English as “the Grim”) was born around 1470, the youngest son of Sultan Bayezid II. He successfully rebelled against his father when his brother was named heir to the throne in 1512; exiling his father and killing his brother and nephews, in order to eliminate potential pretenders to the throne. His first challenges as Sultan was the growing power of Shah Ismail and the Shia Safavids. In 1511, Ismail had supported an pro Shia/Safavid uprising in Anatolia, the Sahkulu Rebellion. In 1514, Selim attacked the Safavid kingdom to stop the spread of Shiism into Sunni Ottoman lands. The two armies met at the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514. The Ottoman army, using modern tactical methods borrowed from the Hungarians and Hussites, triumphed over the largely cavalry Safavid forces. Selim next turned his attention to the Mamelukes of Egypt; defeating the Mamluksfirst at the Battle of Marj Dabiq, and then at the Battle of Ridanieh. This led to the Ottoman annexation of the entire sultanate: from Syria and Palestine to Hejaz and Tihamah in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as Egypt itself. Ottoman power extended south to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, hitherto under Egyptian rule. After this, Selim took the additional title of Caliph; along with its emblems, the sword and the mantle of Muhammad, which had been in Cairo since the 13th century. He died in 1520, preparing to invade Hungary; a campaign his son Suleiman would take up five years later. Selim led the Ottoman Turks from a regional power to world power. His conquests of Syria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt broke the back of his rival Muslim powers, the Mamelukes and the Safavids, annexing the former’s empire into his own. While strategically he was aggressive, his tactical methods, adopted by the Ottomans from the Hungarian and Hussite model, were based upon tactical defensive and emphasized the use of cannon and solid infantry (provided by the Janissaries). His victory at Battle of Chaldiran presaged and was the model for Babur the Mughal’s victory at Panipat in 1526.

18. Matthias Corvinus


Son of the famous Hungarian warlord and national hero, Janos Hunyadi (see Greatest Commander of the Middle Ages), Matthias Corvinus (or Hunyadi Mátyás in Hungarian) had been groomed by his father, whom he accompanied on campaign from the age of 12, as both a soldier and a scholar. In the disorders that followed his father’s death, he was at first a pawn of powerful factions. In January1458, however, he was elected to the throne of Hungary by the will of the townsfolk, who were loyal to his father’s memory; and by the efforts of his uncle and his father’s veterans. The young king (he was just 15) and his throne found themselves beset by enemies on all compass points: Germans from the west, Poles from the north, and Turks from the south, and by the Magnates of Transylvannia to the east, who considered him an upstart (he was the first king of Hungary not of royal blood). Dispite his youth, he delt swifly with and surely with these threats as he could. He struck first to eliminate the threat from the disgruntled Tryansylvannians, deposing those noble disloyal to his crown. That same, first year he recaptured a key fortress in the south from the Ottomans; and successfully campaigned in Serbia and Bosnia, receiving their submissions. For the next few years, Corvinus began the creation of the Black Legion (which grew to become Hungary’s Black Army, Fekete sereg); a full-time, professional fighitng force whose loyaly to the Hungarian crown. This project was inspired by his childhood reading of the campaigins of Julius Caesar. Initially, this force was comprised chiefly of Hussite renegades from Bohemia; but grew within a decade to 6,000 soldiers, and by their peak in the 1480s to a force of 28,000. It was a mixed force of heavy and light, infantry and cavalry. At time when all over Europe gunpowder weapons were only about 10% of any army, the number in the Black Army was 25%. Tactically, Matthias’ based their training and tactics on the Hussite model; though the proportions of cavalry were far higher. With this force he bolstered his authority over the nobility, and defeated enemies at all points. During the 1460s he campaigned repeatedly and ultimatley successfully against the Empire and the Bohemians (becoming King of Bohemia in 1469). He was wounded and defeated at the Battle of Baia by Stephan the Great of Moldavia. At Breslau, in 1474, he put his army into a fortified camp, where he was beleaguered by a Polish army. Corvinus so harried the besiegers that the Poles agreed to an advantageous (to Matthias) treaty the following year. In 1479, a force of the Black Army led by Pál Kinizs (one of Matthias’ officers, a commonor promoted by merit to high rank) helped defeat the Turks in Transyllvania at the Battle of Breadfield. In 1480, when the Ottomans seized Otranto at the heal of Italy, Matthias responded to a Papal appeal for help by sending a Hungarian force to recover the fortress, which surrendered to him on May 1481. In 1481, war broke out again against the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III. Matthias and the Black Army defeated the Germans repeatedly, taking every important castle and fortress in Austria. In 1485, he captured Vienna, marching into the city in triumph, followed by 8,000 men of the Black Legion. Till his death five years later, Vienna remained as the capital of his growing Hungarian empire. In 1488, Matthias took Ancona in Italy under his protection, and the County was occupied with a Hungarian garrison for a time. The king died just before Easter, 1490. He left Hungary the strongest Kingdom in Europe, having extended its borders to their greatest extent. His military legacy was the continuation and evolution of the Hussite tactical system begun by Jan Ziska; and of a professional, standing army. His tactical methods and organization influenced the neighboring Turks; and Selim the Grim’s tactics at Chaldiran in 1514 clearly reflect this.

17. John III Sobieski


John Sobieski was born in 1629, son of the Voivode (Governor-General) of Ruthenia and Castellan of Kraków. His mother was a granddaughter of Hetman Stanislaw Zólkiewski (see below). After graduating from the Nowodworski College in Kraków in 1643, he toured western Europe with his brother; where he met many influential military figures, including “The Great Condé”. He returned to Poland in time to fight in the first stages of the Khmelnytsky Cossack Uprising in the Ukraine. They founded and commanded their own banners (cavalry companies), (one light “cossack” banner, and one of heavy Polish hussars). Sobieski was promoted to the rank of pulkownik (Colonel); and fought with distinction in the titanic Battle of Berestechko in 1651. After this he was sent as a royal emmisary to the court of the Turkish Sultan in Constantinople; where he studied Turkish military traditions and tactics. It is likely he participated in the Battle of Okhmativ in 1655, with the Polish-Tartar allied force; thwarting a major Cossacks-Muscovite offensive. That year, Poland was overrun and devastated by a Swedish invasion (which, along with the current war against Russia and the Cossack rebels, came to be known as as “The Deluge“). Sobieski rose to prominence during the struggle; and in 1665 was promoted to the rank of Grand Marshal of the Crown and, the following year, to the rank of Field Hetman of the Crown. After defeating a combined Cossack/Tatar army in the Battle of Podhajce in 1667, Sobieski was promoted to Grand Crown Hetman, the highest rank in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth after the king. In November 1673 he achieved another major victory, defeating the Turks in the Battle of Chocim. The victory coincided with the death of the Polish king. Sobieski, the most celebrated leader in the Commonwealth, was crowned King of Poland on February 2,1676. Over the next couple of years he worked to establish a strong southeastern border in the Ukraine, fighting successfully against the Turks. In 1677, a Tartar invasion was expelled; and a peace treaty arrived at. This gave Sobieski time to rebuild the shattered Polish state, and to reorganize the army. To further strengthen Poland’s southern border and to prevent another attack from all sides, similar to the Deluge, he made alliance with Leopold I, of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1683, he won Poland’s greatest victory (and possibly saved Europe) at the Siege of Vienna. Besieged by the Turks, Sobieski led a Polish army to join his ally. On September 11, 1683 the Allies launched an assault upon the Turkish lines, to relieve the city. Sobieski charged the Turks at the head of the fabled “Winged Hussars”; one the most famous cavalry charges in history. The Turks were broken, and the city saved. (In commemoration of which the croissant, a pastry shaped like the Turkish crescent symbol, was created.) The Pope called Sobieski the “Savior of Vienna and Western European civilization” for this action. The following month the allies defeated the Turks again at the Battle of Parkany. He returned to Poland a hero, reigning 13 years. Sobieski was the greatest warrior king of Poland, in an age when Poland was second only to Sweden as the premiere military state in Europe. He fought in 20 major battles, commanding in all but eight of these; and was successful in all of these. To his Turkish enemies he was the “Lion of Lechistan“. As a king, he found Poland a hollow state, devastated by invasion; and left it strong and united, respected by all Europe.

16. Maurice of Nassau


Maurice was the son of the Dutch leader William the Silent. He became leader of the Dutch struggle for independence from Spain upon of his older brother in 1618. Maurice showed a genius for organization and tactical theory. He organized the Dutch rebels into a coherent, successful force and won fame as a military strategist; conducting an almost Fabian strategy against the superior Spanish forces. Maurice was inspired by and revived the tactical concepts of the ancient Romans (though much of this had been explored earlier by Machiavelli), updated for a pike-and-shot army. He pioneered new European forms of armament and drill, inspiring later leaders, including Gustavus Adolphus (see # One, below). Even before becoming the Dutch leader, he won a series of victories during the period known as the Ten Glory Years, beginning in 1590. Though he defeated the Spanish in open battle at Nieuwpoort (1600), the inconclusive nature of the victory convinced him that sieges of isolated Spanish garrisons was the wiser course. He is credited with the introduction of volley fire, at Nieuwpoort; a tactical method which enabled soldiers to compensate for the inaccuracy of their smoothbore weapons by firing as a group. This tactic would become the normal method used by all European infantry into the next two-and-a-half centuries. He instituted intensive and regularized drill in firearms and other weapons-handling; another feature that became standard throughout Europe, and allowed European armies to dominate the globe in the centuries that followed. Many of the captains on this list either learned their trade at his feet, or from those who did.

15. Montecúccoli


Raimondo, Count of Montecúccoli was the chief Imperial general of the late 17th century. Like his oft times opponent, Turenne, he was a general of the maneuver school of warfare; and was known for his brilliant strategic marches that bewildered his opponents. An Italian by birth, he served in the armies of the Austrian Imperial monarchs; beginning his apprenticeship in arms during the 30 Years War. He was captured by the Swedes at Breitenfield; and wounded at Lutzen. He made a name for himself as a cavalry commander in the later years, and rose in rank. The victory of Triebel in Silesia won him the rank of General of Cavalry, and at the Battle of Zusmarshausen (the last major battle of the 30 Years War, in which the enemy commanders were Turenne and Condé) only his stubborn rearguard action saved the Imperial army from destruction. He campaigned in Poland (where he may have been influenced by the methods of some of the great Polish hetmen of the day). In the campaign of 1673 he completely outmaneuvered the master, Turenne. His defeat of the Turks in the Balkans earned him the title of “Savior of Europe”. With Turenne and Condé he occupied in his day the first place among European soldiers. As a military writer and theorist, he influenced future commanders till the Age of Napoleon.

14. Oliver Cromwell


The leading Parliamentary general in the English Civil War, Cromwell was both a brilliant and indomitable captain of horse, as well as an insightful and unpredictable strategist. When the English Civil War broke out, Cromwell, a member of the minor gentry with little military experience recruited a cavalry troop in Cambridgeshire to serve in the Parliamentary cause against the Royalists. His troop joined the army too late to take part in the debacle that was the Battle of Edgehill; and spent the next 6 months recruiting-up to a full regiment of horse. Cromwell imposed a singular discipline and infused a religious and patriotic zealotry in his “Ironsides”; his regiment becoming the model for the Parliamentary “New Model Army” that he helped to create. At Marston Moor his cavalry were instrumental in the Parliamentary victory; which secured the north of England for their cause. At Nasby his cavalry dealt the decisive blow to the Royalist forces, breaking the opposing horse on the Royalist left. Unlike his counterpart, Prince Rupert, on the opposite flank who also routed his opponents Cromwell kept half of his squadrons in reserve; and with these turned upon the flank and rear of the Royalist foot, winning the day. After the Civil War, Cromwell showed even more political skill in manipulating events; and after orchestrating the trial and execution of King Charles I, was declared “Lord Protector” of England. During this time, the New Model Army was drilled to a perfection; England’s first professional, standing army. (For the first time, English soldiers were issued red coats.) In subsequent campaigns, in Scotland and in Ireland, Cromwell and the army he perfected showed their worth. At Preston in 1648 Cromwell inflicted a crushing defeat a Scottish Covenanteer army (many veterans of the 30 Years War) more than twice the size of his own. In 1650, Cromwell invaded Scotland. Though outmaneuvered by the redoubtable David Leslie (a veteran of Gustavus’ army in Germany), he saved his army and his fortunes at Dunbar; with a brilliant dawn attack which pinned Leslie’s center and left while enveloping his right. 3,000 Scots were slain and another 5,000 marched off to England (and subsequent deportation to America) in chains; while Cromwell occupied Edinburgh. However, another Scottish army led by the young King Charles II had landed in England, deep in his rear. In the subsequent campaign, Cromwell showed a strategic brilliance in a campaign reminiscent of Edward I’s that led to victory at Evesham. At the Battle of Worcester Cromwell destroyed the Royalist army, killing 3,000 again and taking 10,000 prisoners; at the cost of a mere 200 casualties. Cromwell ruled England till 1658, defeating every foe, military or political. He left a reputation as a dour and brilliant soldier and statesman. Hated in Ireland, a land he ruthlessly pacified as no English would-be conqueror had ever been able to do before, his methods were (as always) both harsh and effective. Upon his passing, he left England stronger, in a more secure position, and with a more effective army and navy than it had enjoyed since the days of Edward III.

13. Jan Karol Chodkiewicz


Chodkiewicz was a Polish-Lithuanian commander of renown, in an age of great Polish military leaders. Born in 1560, his father was the Grand Marshal of Lithuania in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. He studied at Vilnius Jesuit College and the Vilnius University, and continued his studies abroad at the University of Ingolstadt in Bavaria. (Education was a hallmark of the Polish nobility of this era, and along with the Sarmatis-Polish culture contributed to the glut of great military leaders Poland experienced in this era.) He returned to Poland in 1590, and soon formed his own rota (company); serving against rebellious Cossacks in the Ukraine under Stanislaw Zólkiewski (see below). He fought in the battle of Kaniów in 1596, and in the siege of the Cossack tabor near Lubney. He won such distinction during this conflict that in 1599 he was appointed the starost (Elder) of the Duchy of Samogitia in northern Lithuania. He served under Jan Zamoyski in his victorious Wallachian campaign, fighting in the battle of Ploie?ti in 1600. That year he was promoted to Field Lithuanian Hetman, the second commander-in-chief of the Lithuanian detachment of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth army. When the Polish–Swedish War (1600–1611) broke out over the question of control of Livonia, Chodkiewicz accompanied Zamoyski north. He commanded the Lithuanian units on the right wing of the Commonwealth army in its victory in the battle of Kokenhausen in July 1601. The following year, he took command in this theater when Zamoyski returned to Poland. He captured Dorpat (modern Tartu), and defeated the Swedes at the Battle of Weissenstein on 23 September 1604. He won his greatest victory, though, the following year at the Battle of Kircholm in September 1605. With barely 4,000 troops, mostly the heavy cavalry of Hussars, he annihilated a combined-arms Swedish army three times the size of his force. It was a masterpiece of cavalry warfare (and perhaps the only time in the history of the period that lancers defeated pike squares). For these services he was rewarded with the rank of Grand Lithuanian Hetman. When the the Sandomierz rebellion broke out in 1606 between king Sigismund III and the Commonwealth nobility (the szlachta), Chodkiewicz was one of the few magnates who remained loyal. He commanded the right wing of the royal army during the Battle of Guzów in 1607, in which the insurgents were defeated; and then quelled the unrest in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, fighting against another rebellious magnate, Janusz Radziwill, until Radziwill negotiated a settlement with the king in 1608. The following year, he was operating once again against the Swedes, who had once again invaded Livonia. Marching towards Riga, which was blockaded by the Swedes under Mansfeld, Chodkiewicz saw a chance to destroy the Swedish naval squadron based in the Port of Salis. Gathering an improvised fleet, he dealt a surprise blow to the Swedish Navy at the Battle of Salis. The Port of Salis, together with stocks of weapons, ammunition and food, fell into his hands. Relieving Riga, he then recapture of Pärnu, and defeated Mansfeld’s army in battle near the river Gauja. This brought a halt to the Swedish offensive in Livonia; and a truce was signed in 1611. The Commonwealth was meanwhile also engaged in the Dimitriad wars with Muscovy. Chodkiewicz was sent against the Muscovites, operating near Smolensk and Pskov. Despite many Polish victories (including the capture of Moscow: see Zólkiewski below), the war was underfunded by the Polish parliament (the Sejm). Over the next few years, in the period of 1613-1615, Chodkiewicz defended the Commonwealth gains in the Smolensk area, and dealt with unrest in Lithuania as well. The Polish-Muscovite War had no sooner ended with the treaty of Deulino than a crises developed on the southern frontier; where the Turks, in the opening phase of the Polish–Ottoman War, defeated the defending Polish forces at Cecora, killing Hetman Zólkiewski. Chodkiewicz was hastily dispatched southwards, crossing the Dnieper in September 1621, with an army of 60,000; half of them Cossacks under their Hetman, Petro Konashevych-Sahaidachny. He was opposed by an immense Turkish army of 120,000–150,000 Ottoman and Tatar forces, and another 13,000 Moldavian and Wallachian troops; led by Sultan Osman II in person. Chodkiewicz entrenched his army around the fortress of Khotyn/ Chocim, blocking the path of the Ottoman advance. The earthworks were designed to break the Ottoman assault and to allow counter-attacks by Polish and Cossack cavalry. During the Battle of Chocim the Turks assaulted the defenses repeatedly for over a month; frustrated in every case. A few days before the siege was raised and the Ottomans decided to open negotiations, the aged Chodkiewicz, already suffering from illness since the very start of this campaign, died in the fortress on 24 September 1621. His stubborn, last battle had saved Poland’s southern frontier. Polish historian Wanda Dobrowolska wrote that he was renowned for his talent as a strategist and organizer; possessed an iron will, which he was able to impose on the troops under his command. More respected and feared than beloved by his troops, he was an energetic and explosive antithesis of the composed Zólkiewski, another great hetman of this era, whom Chodkiewicz disliked and competed with throughout his life.

12. Wallenstein


One of the foremost Imperial commanders in the early phase of the 30 Years War, Albrecht von Wallenstein was born of a minor branch of a Bohemian noble family. However, by advantageous marriage he gained some measure of wealth. At the start of the 30 Years War, he raised a regiment of cuirassiers at his own expense, and joined the on the Catholic side in the service of the Emperor Ferdinand II. During the early phase of the war, he won distinction fighting in the Imperial cause in Moravia and Bohemia; and was promoted rapidly. He served at the Battle of White Mountain, in which the Bohemian forces were decisively defeated by the Imperials. For his services in the Emperor’s cause, he was allowed to confiscated and consolidate Protestant lands in northern Bohemia; which became the Duchy of Friedland, with Wallenstein becoming its Duke and made a Count Palatine of the Empire. In 1625 he was granted an Imperial commission to raise an army. He succeeded beyond expectation, forming and equipping at his own expense an Imperial army of 30,000 (which grew to 50,000); which with Tilly’s Catholic League forces campaigned in Germany. That year Denmark entered the war on the Protestant side; and along with Tilly, Wallenstein campaigned against Christian IV and the Protestant princes. He was rewarded for his successes by being made Duke of Mecklenburg; after reducing that Duchy to submission. After capturing Danish Jutland, he was stymied at the Siege of Stralsund in 1628. This reverse, along with jealousies at Court, led to his dismissal; though he partially regained Imperial favor by a last-minute victory over Christian at the Battle of Wolgast (September 1628); which knocked Denmark out of the war. Wallenstein retired to his Czech estates (where he lived in an atmosphere of “mysterious magnificence”) for the next few years. During this time the Swedes entered the war, and the genius of Gustavus Adolphus unraveled all Imperial gains of the previous years (see below). After Tilly death at the Battle of the Lech, Gustavus occupied Munich and invaded Bohemia. Alarmed, the Emperor was forced to swallow his pride and beg Wallenstein’s to raise a new army. Within his private domains in Friedland, Wallenstein had built what was essentially a modern fascist state; where all the national energy was devoted to the preparation for war. The entire population had been put to work at weaving, preserving food, and building and stockpiling armaments. Wallenstein accepted, but only upon the Emperor granting him extraordinary terms: he was to be made a Palatine-Elector of the Empire, ruling absolutely such Hapsburg lands as Bohemia and Brandenburg (once regained); a Prince of the Empire. He would have absolute authority over the army, and the right to conduct diplomacy with a free hand. In mere weeks, he raised a fresh force of 40,000, mercenaries and scattered Catholic supporters eager to serve under so generous an employer. With characteristic alacrity, he drove Gustavus’ Saxon allies from Bohemia; then advanced against the Swedes in Bavaria. His strategy was Fabian, avoiding meeting the King of Sweden in battle, accept on his terms; which was to occupy by skilled maneuver advantageous positions, and stand on the defensive. He thwarted Gustavus at Nuremberg, defeating him at the Battle of the Alte Veste, while holding just such a strong defensive position. Marching into Saxony, he was surprised at Gustavus’ lightning march in response, catching Wallenstein unprepared at Lutzen. In a dense fog the Battle of Lützen (1632) followed, and after a bloody and confused struggle the Imperials were bested and forced to withdraw; but not before Gustavus Adolphus was killed. After this, Wallenstein then withdrew to winter quarters in Bohemia. Here, the Emperor grew alarmed that Wallenstein was plotting treachery; and the general was assassinated in his bedroom. Wallenstein was perhaps the foremost condottiere of all time. As much a military entrepreneur as general, he was a master of raising and training what amounted to private armies. As a general, he was cautious and never fought at a disadvantage. Strategically he took the offensive, a master of maneuver; tactically, he preferred the defensive, placing his troops strong positions. His vision seems to have been to unite Germany under the banner of the Holy Roman Empire centuries before Bismarck, and his chief disagreement with Ferdinand in the end was one over the primacy of religious matters. Ferdinand and his ally, the king of Bavaria were Catholics first and Germans second. Not so the Czech generalissimo, who would work as well with Catholics as Protestants; so long as it achieved his ends. In Freiberg he created a “modern” totalitarian state, well-ordered and devoted to war. Had he succeeded in uniting Germany, he might have created a militarized Prussian Empire three-and-a-half centuries before Kaiser Wilhelm.

11. Stanislaw Zólkiewski


Born in 1547, he started his career as a secretary and aide to Jan Zamoyski, future Grand Hetman and Chancellor, a notable commander in his own right. Zólkiewski gained his first military experience under King Stefan Batory during the Danzig rebellion in which he commanded a rota (squad) of Polish hussars. He subsequently participated in Batory’s Livonian campaign. In 1587–1588 the War of the Polish Succession erupted, between two rival candidates for the Polish throne: one Sigismund III Vasa, the Swedish candidate; and the other Austrian Archduke Maximilian III. At Byczyna (also called the Battle of Pitschen), the decisive battle of that struggle, Zólkiewski commanded the left wing of the Polish-Vasa army. The hussars under his command dominated the battle; and his skillful and heroic actions broke the enemy right, leading to the general rout of the Polish-Austrian army. In the final charge, Zólkiewski captured an enemy standard, but in the process received a knee wound, laming him for life. He was rewarded with the rank of Field Crown Hetman. In the next two years he was successful in repelling a Tartar invasion; and took command of the key border fortress of Lvov. However, his requests for reinforcements to strengthen Polish positions against the Tatars went unheeded. In 1595 he campaigned with Zamoyski against the Turks and Tatars in Moldavia; taking part in the successful Battle of Cecora. In the following year, he campaigned against rebellious Cossacks. In 1600 he returned to Moldavia, once more a subordinate to Zamoyski. He took part in the Battle of Bukowo, where the Poles handlily defeated the invading Wallachian forces commanded by Michael the Brave. In the following years Zólkiewski campaigned in the north and south, against Swedes and Russians, as well as Turks, Cossacks and Tatars. In 1610 he led Polish forces in the the Polish–Muscovite War. At the Battle of Klushino he won a striking victory against the Muscovites; and subsequently captured Moscow and Czar Vasiliy Shuyskiy. However, his plan to unite Moscow with the Polish Commonwealth failed when Polish King Wladyslaw IV Vasa refused to convert to Orthodoxy, a condition for his acceptance by the Russian Boyars. Returning to Poland, in 1612 Zólkiewski became a teacher and tutor of Stanislaw Koniecpolski (number 4 below). That year he returned to Ukraine to deal with continuing Tatar and Moldovan incursions, and to quell Cossack unrest. In 1618 became the most powerful man in Poland after the King, by becoming both the Grand Crown Hetman (Chief-of-Staff of the Polish Commonwealth forces), and Grand Crown Chancellor. He died at age 73 fighting the Turks at the disastrous Battle of Cecora, in the company of his student, Koniecpolski. His legacy is that of a supremely capable soldier who rose by merit to the highest place in Polish military and civil society. He was a masterful cavalry commander, a doughty warrior, and a skilled diplomat. His victory at Klushino was as seminal as it was surprising. Faced with a similar tactical situation as the Takeda samurai faced against Oda Nobunaga at Nagashino, that of a cavalry army having to dislodge a pike-and-musket armed infantry force firing from behind a fence and hedge, he succeeded where Takeda Katsuyori failed. He was a wise statesman, whose policies towards the Ukrainian Cossacks were moderate and fair; and had they been adheared to by the Polish government might have staved-off future Cossack rebellions. His negotiations with the Russian Boyars after capturing Moscow very nearly achieved a historical unification between the two countries, one that would have significantly changed both nation’s history.

10. Tilly


Johann Tserclaes was a Walloon, born in February 1559 in Castle Tilly, in what is now Belgium, but was then part of the Spanish Netherlands. He joined the Spanish army at age fifteen and learned his trade under the estimable Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma (see below) against the Dutch rebels in the Eighty Years’ War. He took service in the Holy Roman Empire’s campaign against the Ottoman Turks in the Balkans as a mercenary in 1600. He saw rapid promotion, and became a field marshal in only five years. When the Turkish Wars ended in 1606, he remained in the service of Rudolf II in Prague until he was appointed commander of the Catholic League forces under Maximilian I, the Elector of Bavaria in 1610. He trained the League soldiers in the Spanish Tercio system, thought to be the most effective system at the time. At the outbreak of the 30 Years War, he led an army of both the Catholic League and Imperial forces against the Bohemian rebels following the Second Defenestration of Prague. He decisively crushed the slightly larger Protestant Bohemian forces at the Battle of White Mountain on 8 November 1620. This victory ended resistance in Bohemia for the remainder of the war. Tilly then advanced through Germany, and after three victories against German protestants in 1622 captured the city of Heidelberg. His defeat of Duke Christian of Brunswick a second time at the Battle of Stadtlohn; losing a mere 1,000 men for the loss of 13,000 of the enemy; broke Protestant resistance in Germany, ending the ‘Palatine Phase’ of the Thirty Years’ War. When Christian IV of Denmark entered the Thirty Years’ War in 1625 on the Protestant side, Tilly marched against the Danes. At the Battle of Lutter on 26–27 August 1626 his disciplined, veteran infantry broke the inexperience Danish forces; with more than half the fleeing Danes cut down by Imperialist cavalry in the pursuit. Tilly was joined by Wallenstein (above), and their two armies subsequently gained central and northern Germany, and their joined forces invaded Danish Holstein in September 1627 and advanced through the Jutland peninsula. Only their lack of sea power saved the Danish islands from being invaded. Denmark was forced to sue for peace, and the Treaty of Lübeck, signed in June 1629 ended the brief “Danish Phase” of the war. At this time Tilly and Wallenstein stood supreme in Germany, and 100,000 Catholic troops under their command stood along the Baltic. This threat triggered the involvement of Swedish in 1630, under their brilliant and warlike king, Gustavus Adolphus (see below). Before the Swedes could intervene, Tilly laid siege to Magdeburg, which had promised the Swedish king support. After two months and Gustavus’ capture of Frankfurt an der Oder, the Imperial commanders decided to storm the city. On 20 May 1631 the walls were breached, and Imperial troops swarmed into the city. Tilly either lost control of his men or deliberately allowed them to work their will; in any case, the soldiers massacred of the populace: 25,000 of the 30,000 inhabitants of the city perished. Along with the fire which destroyed much of the pillaged city, this was a disaster from which Magdeburg has never recovered. The Protestants of Europe were inflamed by this atrocity, and the Elector of Saxony joined Gustavus; giving his army permission to pass through his territory. Tilly marched against the Swedes, his army laying waste to Saxony as they passed. The armies met near Leipzig, at the Battle of Breitenfeld on 17 September 1631. In this battle Tilly found himself up against a master of war; and a tactical system much more flexible and able to deliver more effective firepower than any he had every faced. His army was broken and fled; only the second (and the greatest) defeat of his career as a commander. He retreated and regrouped his forces; but was killed trying to prevent Gustavus’ from crossing the River Lech and entering Bavaria. A devout Catholic, Tilly was called “The Monk in Armor”. Though he began his career as a mercenary, once he entered Imperial service he was a loyal to the Empire. He was a capable and highly competent soldier, who had learned the arts of war from the consummate master of his age (the Duke of Parma). He created in the Catholic League army a highly disciplined and effective fighting force. After the defeat of the Danes, he briefly achieved the unity of Germany under a single master. However, against Gustavus he was up against a true genius, and an army pioneering a new (and more advanced) tactical doctrine. Had he died before Breitenfield he would be remembered as the greatest German general of the 30 Years War, and perhaps one of the best of the Age?

9. Lennart Torstensson


The last great commander of Swedish forces in the 30 Years War, Torstensson began his military career as a page of his King, Gustavus Adolphus. He rose rapidly during Gustavus’ war in Poland; demonstrating initiative and showing a natural talent as a military engineer and artillery officer. In 1629 he became Gustavus’ commander of artillery; and contributed to the victory at the Battle of Breitenfeld. Captured at the Battle of the Alte Veste in August 1632, he was held for a year; and thus was absent at Leutzen, where Gustavus fell. He served well under Johan Banér till ill-health returned him to Sweden. Upon Banér’s sudden death, and though he was racked by gout (to the point where he could barely ride or even sign his name), the prematurely-aged Torstensson was sent back to Germany with 7,000 raw recruits; as Field Marshal and Generalissimo of Protestant forces. The Swedish and allied main army had become a collection of hardened rogues, and was in a murderous state of mutiny upon his arrival in camp. Last of the great names of the old days, the dour and ferocious old warrior succeeded in restoring order and imposing his fierce will upon this army of brigands. After a period of reorganization and recruiting, in which he gathered to his banner as hardened a collection of villains the world has ever seen, he invaded Imperial-held Saxony in 1642, crushing the Imperial army at the Second Battle of Breitenfield. For the next 5 years, he led his army in as brilliant a series of campaigns as the war had seen since Gustavus’ arrival in 1631. From Bohemia to Denmark, his army marched and counter-marched throughout Germany; bringing death and destruction to the Imperial cause wherever they passed. By this time both Torstensson and his army were past any notion of moderation; and rather than pay his forces with money that was in any case unavailable from a bankrupt government, he legalized rapine and pillage in lieu of pay. Amidst a war already famous for its depredations, Torstensson gained for the Swedish/Protestant forces (and himself) a truly demonic reputation. (Much of the modern German loathing for the memory of Gustavus and the Swedes fairly belongs not to Gustavus, but to Torstennson and this phase of the war.) At Jankau in Bohemia he won a victory as disastrous for the veteran Imperial forces as Rocroi was for the Spanish; destroying the Bavarian horse that along with the Spanish tercios had been a mainstay of the Hapsburg forces. At the gates of Vienna, Torstennson and his army finally ran out of steam and ground to a halt. His health finally broken, the Swedish Marshal laid down his command and returned home; leaving Germany (and the Imperial cause) a burning wasteland. Though the French under Turenne (below) would win the final victory at Zusmarshausen; like Sherman’s march through the South it was Torstennson’s brilliant chevauchée through Germany that broke the Imperialist will to continue the war. Torstennson’s achievement is all the more remarkable in that his lighting marches, which took his army from Denmark to the Danube was conducted by a general that often had to be carried in a litter!

8. Gonzalo de Córdoba


The foremost Spanish soldier at the dawn of the 16th century, he began his career in 1468 in the service of Isabella of Castile, sister of the feckless King Henry IV. In the subsequent civil wars that followed that monarch’s death, and which brought Isabella and her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon to the throne of Castile; de Córdoba gave good and faithful service. With the Reconquista coming to a close, he served in the final war against the Muslims of Granada; where he mastered the arts of “small war”: skirmishes, outposts, and vedettes. When Granada surrendered in 1492, he was one of the officers chosen on the Castillian side to arranged the terms. Three years later, when the Spanish decided to intervene against the French in Naples (the beginning of the Italian Wars between the Hapsburg and the Valois), de Córdoba (then in his mid-forties) was chosen by the Queen to command the tiny Spanish vanguard of 5,000 men (3,500 of which were sailors); dispatched while a larger force was gathered. Joining forces with the Neapolitan army under King Ferdinand II (kinsman of his namesake, the King of Spain). At Seminara, in Calabria, de Córdoba was overruled in suggesting caution and battle was joined against the qualitatively superior French army of occupation. The result was a defeat for the Neapolitan forces, the French Gendarmes and Swiss mercenaries proving a dangerous combination. De Córdoba won distinction, however, saving the retreating army through a spirited rearguard action. This would be the last time de Córdoba lost a battle. Profiting from the experience, he used the lighter Spanish infantry and cavalry in a guerilla campaign to drive the French from Calabria. The mountainous terrain, so much like Granada, favored the Spanish sword-and-bucker men (“Rodeleros”) and arquebusiers and the tactics of small war he was familiar with. However, he realized that to defeat the French in open battle the Spanish would need new tactics. To this purpose he created the colunella, a combined-arms battalion of pikemen, rodeleros, and arquebusiers; with which Spanish armies could face heavy cavalry or Swiss pikes in open battle. This was the nucleus of the later Spanish tercios, which would dominate European battlefields for the next century-and-a-half. After driving the Turks out of Cephalonia, de Córdoba was back in Italy in 1501 to face the French again. At Cerignola in 1503 he defeated the French, using field works to protect his arquebusiers from being overrun. This was the first victory in history attributable to gunpowder small arms. Later that year he inflicted a second, decisive defeat at the Garigliano; only the heroic actions of the Chevalier Bayard (see above) in holding a bridge securing the safe retreat of the French army. Thereafter, the war in southern Italy came to an end; and he ended his career as Viceroy of Naples. His legacy is that of the first “modern” general; called the “Father of Trench Warfare”. He changed Spanish military practice from an army geared to conduct skirmishes to one that would dominate Europe. He earned the title, “El Gran Capitane”: The Great Captain!

7. The Duke of Parma


Alexander Farnese was a nephew of both Philip II of Spain and Don John of Austria, victor of Lepanto. At 26 he fought in that titanic naval battle. Subsequently, in 1577, Farnese was sent at the head of reinforcements to join Don John; who was battling the Dutch rebels under William the Silent in the Netherlands. He became his uncle’s top subordinate, showing great ability as strategist. He won distinction at the Battle of Gembloux in 1578. Shortly afterwards he succeeded to command of all Spanish Forces in the Netherlands; upon the death of Don John. His strategy against the rebels was to divide the intractable Protestants in the north from the Catholics in the south; and in this he was successful. His veteran army campaigned tirelessly, recovering many of the cities and districts previously lost. Using bold and innovative methods, he succeeded in capturing Antwerp in 1584. By 1589, the situation was sufficiently restored in the Netherlands for the Spanish government to order him to intervene in the French Wars of Religion; where the Huguenots under Henry of Navarre (see above) were in the ascendency. Parma marched south, breaking the Navarre’s siege of Paris; and outmaneuvering that great soldier and confounding him time-and-again. Only his wounding at Rouen, which subsequently led to his death, saved Navarre’s cause and allowed the Huguenot leader to fight on to a negotiated settlement. Parma died at 47, in 1592. During his life, he was considered the foremost captain in Europe. His legacy is one of a soldier of excellence: methodical and determined, a professional’s professional. Like Caesar, he excelled in military engineering and siege craft; capturing Antwerp by throwing a fortified bridge across the Scheldt and closing off the city’s supplies. In Normandy, he saved his trapped army by throwing a bridge across the Seine, departing silently in the night, leaving his enemies an empty camp for prize. His greatest legacy, however, lies in what might have been: In 1586 he was poised to lead his veterans to the invasion of England. Only the defeat of the Armada prevented Parma from perhaps being remembered as the first and only man to conquer England since William the Bastard in 1066.

6. Stanislaw Koniecpolski


One of the most important and successful commanders in Polish history, Koniecpolski defeated Poland’s enemies from the Baltic to the Black Sea. His career began in 1610, during the Polish war against Moscow; and he fought at the Battle of Klushino, Zólkiewski’s masterful victory over the Russians and the Swedes. Under the command of Grand Lithuanian Hetman Jan Karol Chodkiewicz, he took part in the effort to relieve and supply the besieged Polish forces in the Moscow Kremlin. He fought under Zólkiewski again in the Ukraine two years later; and benefited from that great Hetman’s patronage and instruction, becoming his son-in-law in 1615. He was entrusted with many independent commands against rebel Cossacks, and against the Crimean Tartars. In 1619 he and Zólkiewski led a small Polish army into Moldavia to oppose the Turks and their Tatar allies. At the disastrous Battle of Cecora the Polish force was destroyed. Zólkiewski was slain, and Koniecpolski spent several years in captivity. When he returned, he was soon engaged in defending the southern frontier against Tatar raids. In June 1623, Koniecpolski was given command of local Commonwealth forces and ordered to stop these incursions. After multiple minor engagement, in February the following year Koniecpolski intercepted one of the Tartar armies and destroyed it at Szmankowice and Oryszkowce. Later that year, Koniecpolski defeated Khan Temir of the Budzhak Horde at the Battle of Martynów; thus partially avenging Cecora. His tactics against the light Tatar horsemen was to use the equally light Cossack cavalrymen to drive the Tatars toward fortified camps where Polish artillery and small arms could decimate them; followed by a charge of Hussars to finish the job. In 1625 he put down a Cossack rebellion; negotiating a settlement. The following year was spent again repelling Tartar raids deep into Polish territory. During these operations against the Tartars, Koniecpolski was aided by a highly capable Cossack officer, Bohdan Khmelnytsky; future leader of the great Cossack Rebellion (1648–1657). In 1626 a prolonged war broke out against the Swedes, when Gustavus Adolphus (see below) invaded with an army of 14,000; defeating the army of King Sigismund III in battle near the village of Gniew. The king retreated and called upon Koniecpolski to come and take command in this theater of operations. In the resulting campaigns, Koniecpolski succeeded in besting the greatest general of the age, Gustavus Adolphus, in several engagements. At every turn, he thwarted the technologically superior Swedish forces; choosing to engage in “small war”, attacking isolated outposts and detachments and making the Swedish situation in Poland untenable. However, he was defeated and personally wounded by Gustavus near Danzig. He returned the favor at Trzcianka in 1629, inflicting a sharp defeat on a Swedish cavalry force, wounding and nearly capturing Gustavus in the process; in what was the last battle of this war. (It was bullet embedded in his shoulder, received during this struggle and incapable of being removed, that in later years prevented Gustavus from wearing a steel cuirass in battle.) Throughout this campaign, Koniecpolski was hampered by lack of funds. Nevertheless, he fought on tirelessly till victory was achieved. For this he was promoted to Crown Grand Hetman, senior military officer in the Commonwealth. A believe in modernization, as Grand Hetman he worked tirelessly to improve Polish artillery and musket tactics. While the superb Hussaria remained the striking force of every Polish Commonwealth army well into the next century, Koniecpolski improved the quality of the supporting infantry and artillery. He spent much of the latter half of his life in the Ukraine, battling Cossacks, Tatars, and the Turks. In 1644, he won another great victory over the Tartars at the Battle of Ochmatów; which won him universal praise throughout Europe. He died peacefully two years later, basking in the glory of his triumphs. As a general, he was a believer in combined arms. His legacy is perhaps reflected in his performance against his nation’s greatest foe: of all the generals of the age, only Koniecpolski repeatedly bested Gustavus Adolphus.

5. Stephan the Great (of Moldavia)


Stephen was born in 1433, and was a member of the ruling House of Mu?at. At age 18 he was forced to flee his native land when his father, Bogdan II, was murdered at a wedding by his half-brother, Petru Aron in 1451. Stephan sought refuge first with Janos Hunyadi, the great Hungarian hero (see Greatest Commanders of the Middle Ages); then with his first cousin, Vlad III Dracula (Vlad Tepes). In 1457 Dracula gave him 6,000 horsemen to regain the throne of Moldavia. Stephan defeated his uncle first at Dolje?ti, near Roman, and again at Orbic. Petru Aron fled to Poland, and Stephen was crowned Prince of Moldavia. Two years later, after a failed incursion into Poland to put an end to Petru Aron, he signed a treaty with King Kazimierz IV Jagiellon; whereby he became the Polish king’s vassal, and Aron was contrained from entering Moldavia. His reign as Prince of Moldavia was marked by wars against powerful neighbors; and efforts to strengthen and expand Moldavia. King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary (see above) invaded in 1467 in an attempt to subdue independent Moldavia after Stephan seized the powerful Black Sea harbor-fortress of Chilia. (The fortress had also been claimed by the Turks, and to buy time Stephan agreed to pay an annual subsidy to the Sultan.) Though outnumbered three-to-one, Stephan mounted a night attack against the Hungarian army encamped in the town of Baia. In the resulting street battle, the Hungarians were defeated in the Battle of Baia and Corvinus wounded three times. The Hungarian army was driven from the land, and Hungary gave up any attempt to dominate Moldavia. In the summer of 1470 (other sources give 1469), Mamak/Ahmed Khan, the Great Khan of the Great Horde, invaded Moldavia. Stephan’s forces defeated two of the three Tartar spearheads; but a third was in the process of carrying off a great number of captive women and children as well as cattle, horses, and flocks of sheep when Stephan intercepted them at Lipnic on August 20th. There is no clear description of the battle, but it seems that Stephan may have prepared an ambush ahead of the Tartars in a lime tree forest; then used his main army to force the Tartar column to divert towards the ambush. The Tartars were defeated, loosing their booty and a number of prisoners, including the Khan’s son. To protect his eastern frontier, Stephan strengthened the Orhei and Tighina fortresses and built the Soroca fortress, along the river Nistru. Feeling at last strong enough to confront the Turks, and in order to secure his southern frontier from Ottoman threats, Stephen attempted to liberate Wallachia in 1470. There his cousin and former patron, Vlad Tepes had been replaced by his brother, Radu the Handsome, an Ottoman puppet; and Ottoman troops garrisoned the land. Stephan invaded the country and burned down the town of Braila. Desultory warfare continued for several years, during which time Stephan was diverted by a brief war against the Crimean Tartars. In 1474, Sultan Mehmed, tired of what transpired in Wallachia, gave Stephen an ultimatum to forfeit Chilia, to abolish his aggressive policy in Wallachia, and to come to Constantinople and do homage. Stephan refused, and in 1475 the Turks mounted a retaliatory attack into Moldavia with a huge army. Stephen’s army (with a Polish and Hungarian contingent) defeated the invaders at the Battle of Vaslui; the same location where his father, Bogdan II, had defeated the Poles in 1450. Contemporary (though not necessarily accurate) accounts place Ottoman casualties at 45,000, including four Pashas killed and a hundred standards taken. In the following year, Mehmed invaded the country with an army of 150,000, which was joined by 10,000 Wallachians. At the same time, 30,000 Tatars under Meñli I Giray, attacked with their cavalry from the north; pillage the countryside. Stephan took chase after them, and utterly routed the Tartars, knocking them out of the war. In July 1476, Stephen was defeated at the bloody Battle of Valea Alba. Though he was forced to flee to the north (possibly even into Poland) to rebuild his army), the Turks were unable to capture his well-fortified strong-places. Guerrilla actions by Moldavian nobles and a counter-attack by Stefan Báthory, Voivode of Transylvania into Wallachia forced the Turks to withdraw with no gain. The result was Vlad Tepes was returned (briefly) to the Wallachian throne; and Stephan returned to Moldavia. In the 1490s, relations with Poland soured when the Polish king John I Albert attempted to replace Stephan with his brother, prince Sigismund (later king, as Sigismund I the Old). Stephan made peace with the Turks to secure his southern border, agreeing to pay an annual tribute to Constantinople. He defeated the invading Poles at the Battle of the Cosmin Forest in 1497; ambushing the Poles while they were marching on a narrow road through a thickly wooded forest. The Poles were unable to deploy their forces, and the forested terrain rendering the excellent Polish hussars nearly useless. Poland gave-up all further designs on Stephan’s throne. Stephan died in 1504, following a failed surgery to correct an old leg wound. He was subsequently canonized by the Romanian Orthodox Church as a defender of the faith, the only commander on this list to also be a “saint”. During his reign, he strengthened Moldavia and maintained its independence against the ambitions of Hungary, Poland, and the Ottoman Empire. During his life he achieved fame thoughout Europe for his long resistance against the Ottomans; Pope Sixtus IV calling him a verus christianae fidei athleta (true Champion of Christian Faith). He was victorious in 46 of his 48 battles, a remarkable record.

4. The Great Condé


Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Condé (called by contemporaries and later historians, “The Great Condé”) was the foremost French commander in the first decades of the reign of Louis XIV. A “Prince of the Blood” (his father was a first cousin-once-removed of Henry of Navarre, above), he started his career at a very young age, as the Duc d’Enghien. At 22 years old he was appointed commander of the French army facing the Spanish in the northeast of France. That year, 1643, he engaged a veteran Spanish army at the Battle of Rocroi. In this, his first battle, he led a brilliant and dashing cavalry attack that stripped the Spanish tercios of their flank protection; encircling and isolating them in a maneuver reminiscent of Hannibal at Cannae. The battle resulted in the decimation and near destruction of the Spanish forces; destroying forever the legend of Spanish invincibility established by de Córdoba and Parma. Forever after, Condé (so styled after his father’s death when he inherited the title, Prince de Condé) was noted for the boldness and aggressiveness of his actions. During the civil wars that came to be known as The Fronde, he was the leader of the anti-monarchists. At the Battle of the Dunes, he led the Spanish left, at the head of a contingent of French Frondist cavalry. His force was one of the few that fought successfully and with distinction in that defeat for Spain. Unlike his contemporary Turenne (below), he preferred great battles to campaigns of maneuver. Like Alexander and Napoleon, his particular genius lay in the coup d’oeil; the ability to size up the enemy at a glance and seize upon the proper course of action to overthrow them. He was as capable in his first battle as in his last; and his prowess never decayed with age. Also unlike Turenne, he was not sparing of his men’s lives; like Napoleon at times engaged in bloody frontal assaults. Upon the Condé’s death, Louis XIV pronounced that he had lost “the greatest man in my kingdom.” His legacy is more of military dash and glory than any lasting tactical or strategic method. He was cut from the ancient model, and unlike Turenne or Montecúccoli had little influence on future generals or the conduct of war.

3. Montrose


James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, was first a Covenanter and later Royalist commander during the English Civil War. He became Earl of Montrose upon his father’s death in 1626, at the age of 24. Though he had no formal military education or experience (he was a dilettante in politics, poetry, and war), in1638 he became a leading commander of the Covenanter forces during the Bishop’s War; opposing the King’s attempt to impose Episcopalian doctrine upon the mostly Presbyterian country. He won an early victory at the Bridge of Dee against the Royalists; which victory helped bring the King to grant major concessions to the Covenanters. Between 1644 and 1651 Scotland was involved in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, as the Civil War raged to the south in England. Graham, now elevated to the title of Marquis Montrose, became the leading Royalist commander. King Charles, however, had no material aid to grant; against a foe that held every strong place north of the Tweed. He crossed the border into Scotland disguised as a groom, with but two followers and four “lean nags”. He knew that Scotland bristled with discontented men, just awaiting a leader. To the western Highlands he traveled, followed by three Covenanter armies, hunting him. Highlanders (particularly the Macdonalds) rallied to his standard, as well as 1,500 experienced Irish troops; who became the core of his tiny force. Though ill-equipped (in his first battle, at least some of the Highlanders were told to use rocks to “brain” their opponents and then take their arms) his fierce western Highlanders proved a terror on the battlefield, and the Irish were brave and steady. His subsequent Scottish campaign proved masterful, and showed that he was the only Royalist commander of the time who equaled the best of the Parliamentary commanders, such as Fairfax and Cromwell. Montrose’ highly mobile army outmaneuvered every opponent. At Tippermuir near Perth, on September 1, 1644 he faced a Covenanter army three times the size of his own. This was perhaps the last major European victory won by an army that relied upon battle axes and archery. Lord Elcho’s infantry were brought to a halt by a barrage of arrows and stones. Montrose then ordered his Highlanders to charge the Covenanter center; banking that the Lowland town’s militia would not stand before a Highland charge. He was not disappointed, as the wild Highlanders swinging claymore and Lochebar axe soon routed enemy; with a loss of some 2,000 to Montrose’s few dozen. Twelve days later he engaged a second Covenanter army at Aberdeen. Though most of his Highlanders had gone home with the loot taken from Perth, leaving him a mere 1,500 to face the Covenanter’s 2,500; he again won a tactical victory. After the sack of Aberdeen, many more of his Highlanders departed with their loot (a perennial problem with these effective but ill-disciplined irregulars). His diminished force of a mere 800 was confronted by the Marquis of Argyll and 4,000 Campbells at Fyvie. Taking a strong position on a hill surrounded by bogs on two sides, he concealed a portion of his small army off a flank. Indiscipline led to the trap being sprung too early, and the Argyll forces were able to back-out with scant casualties. However, Montrose now embarked upon his most ambitious maneuver. Leaving Argyll’s superior forces unaware, he vanished into the mountains; and by rapid marches debouched into the undefended Campbell lands on the other side of the Island. Its defenders away with Argyll, one Campbell stronghold after another were devastated. His clan’s lands being laid waste, Argyll marched rapidly to catch his nimble opponent. Montrose again outmaneuvered his enemy, disappearing again into the wildest mountains on the British Isles. Debouching at Inverlochy, he surprised Argyll’s forces in a dawn attack; leading to a decisive victory which gutted the Campbell power for a generation and brought much-needed support from Clan Gordon; who now joined the Royalist cause. The following years, he was confronted by veterans of the English Civil War, returned to Scotland to bolster the Covenanter cause. Again, against superior forces, he defeated all comers. His victory at Auldearn in May 1645 was a masterpiece of deception and tactical innovation. Soon after, at Alford, he again concealed forces behind either flank; nearly annihilating the Covenanter army. His crowning victory at Kilsyth was won again against Argyll; who despite outnumbering him more that two-to-one, were utterly destroyed for a cost of a few hundred. This victory left him master of Scotland, as Edinburg and Glasgow both capitulated soon after. Only the complete defeat of the Royalist cause at Nasby in the south and King Charles subsequent surrender ended Montrose’s string of victories on his behalf. Montrose would struggle on in later years with no support or success, in the cause of King Charles II. He would eventually be betrayed into his enemy, Argyll’s hands; and was executed as a traitor (despite being the King’s most loyal general). His reputation in Scotland was justly restored after the Restoration. He was the only general in the Royalist cause that could, perhaps, have turned the tables on Cromwell and the New Model Army; had he been used correctly or come to prominence earlier in the struggle (he was not commissioned as Charles’ commander in Scotland till after Marston Moor). Fortescue, in his “History of the British Army” ranks him: “…as perhaps the most brilliant natural genius of the Civil War.” No commander of the Age (and few in history) made better use of maneuver, surprise, or tactical deception. A natural and untutored genius, his generalship embodied the principles outlined in Sun Tzu. His victories are all the more remarkable considering the paucity and indiscipline of his forces, particularly his weakness in the cavalry arm; always against much larger forces. He is remembered in Scotland as “the Great Montrose”.

2. Turenne


Henri de la Tour d’Auvergne, Vicomte de Turenne was (along with The Great Condé) the foremost French commander during the French-phase of the 30 Years War; and was widely acclaimed as the premiere soldier of his day. At the age of fourteen he went to learn war in the camp of his uncle, Maurice of Nassau, and began his military career (as a private soldier in that prince’s bodyguard) in the Eighty Years’ War. The rest of his life was devoted to soldiering, as he rose through the ranks; and few commanders of his day were so singularly dedicated to arms alone. He was a master and primogenitor of the maneuver school of warfare, which became common in the following (18th) century. Though often constrained by political considerations and a paucity of manpower and funds, he achieved much to elevate France and the French military to primacy in Europe; a position it would enjoy for over a century. He was shrewd and at times cautious, and seldom wasted his men needlessly. He was a soldier’s-soldier, and both knew his men and was admired by them. In his campaigns he ever found ways to maneuver his opponents to their disadvantage. When he gave battle, it was always after gaining some advantage, and his battlefield conduct was rapid and audacious. He was the first of his age to use true turning movements, and at the Battle of the Dunes (which Napoleon called his masterpiece) he timed his cavalry flanking maneuver with the ebbing of the tide; which exposed the Spanish flank (previously anchored on the surf-line) to attack. In his memoirs, as with his dispatches to the Court, he was unusually candid. In these he always confessed his mistakes, and took full responsibility for any reverses. His friend, rival, and sometimes opponent Condé (his polar opposite in many ways) came to rely upon his sound military judgment. After Turenne’s death, when faced with a tactical conundrum, Condé turned to an aid-de-camp, and remarked, “What now would I give for a quarter hour’s worth of conversation with the ghost of Turenne!” After his death, King Louis XIV promoted several men to replace him as Marshal of France. Of these, Madam de Cornuel, famous for her witty aphorisms, remarked “They are but small change (compared) to Turenne.” Napoleon observed that while most generals decline with age, only Turenne improved with every campaign till his death; and instructed all of his subordinates to read the life and campaigns of Turenne to learn the art of war.

1. Gustavus Adolphus


No name stands higher in this era than that of Gustavus Adolphus (“The Lion of the North”). The greatest of the Vasa line of warrior-kings, Gustavus was tall and powerfully built. He took command of the Swedish nation and its army at the age of 17 in 1611; and campaigned nearly every year till his death in 1632, on the field of Lutzen. He is often called “The Father of Modern Warfare”; understanding better than any contemporary the power of combined arms in battle, the importance of a well supplied and secure base, and the value of well planned and audacious strategic movement. His greatest contribution to the art of war was the development of professional field artillery corps; which he made both mobile and accessible at the regimental level. In battle he was fearless, like Alexander leading at the point of the decisive charge. No commander was more eager in battle, and like Condé believed in the decisive effect of the well-timed cavalry attack. Not since the great ancients do we find a commander who exhibited such effortless mastery of war. In outpost and garrison, he worked tirelessly, never trusting to others duties he could best do himself. He was noble and aloof, yet approachable to all; and only Marlborough surpassed him in the patient and tactful handling of fickle and unreliable allies. By his efforts he took Sweden from a second-rate, regional power to a dominant power in Europe; larger than any other state but Russia and Spain. The Baltic became a Swedish lake, and the empire he created lasted for 80 years after his demise. His reforms of the Swedish army focused on integrating light field guns at the regimental-level; and he increased the firepower of his brigades by greatly increasing the proportion of musketeers-to-pikemen. By lightening both the musket and the regimental field guns, he made both more mobile; thus improving their utility on the battlefield. He improved the performance of his poorly-mounted cavalry by supporting them with small detachments of musketeers; who by adding firepower increased their shock effect. In Poland, he was “schooled” by the great Polish hetman, Koniecpolski; and profited from these lessons in maneuver and the handling of cavalry, to good effect in his German campaigns. His bold thrust deep into Germany, where the Imperialist cause was everywhere triumphant, was as daring as Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. His tactical masterpiece was at Breitenfield, where he broke the redoubtable Pappenheim and routed Tilly’s veterans, even as his Saxon allies deserted the field; leaving his center now the exposed left flank of his army. Despite this reverse, his well trained army merely wheeled in good order 90 degrees, and fended off the Imperialist’s flanking maneuver while their king won the battle on the opposite flank. At Lutzen, he was slain when isolated from his bodyguards in a fog; and surrounded and shot down by Imperialist cuirassiers. His legacy was of a humane and brilliant captain of war; who in a brutal age and in the most brutal war of that age conducted himself in a civilized and “Christian” manner. He allowed no pillaging of the populace, and conducted no massacres of hostile populations. Though he mastered both north and (for a time) south Germany, the Swedish forces never resorted to the kind of terror common to armies of the time. He inspired other commanders by his example, as a man and a commander, till Napoleon; and the armies that followed Turenne, Condé, and Cromwell were based heavily upon the edifice he erected.



This was a difficult list to compose, considering the wealth of military talent in this age. The Renaissance brought an explosion of scholarship into the military theories of the ancients. Machiavelli and others wrote widely admired treatises on ancient methods, and how they could be applied to the armies of the day. Maurice of Nassau, likely the most influential innovator of the day, was heavily influenced by the ancient Romans; and the New Caesars of the Age led professional armies that, for the first time since the fall of Rome in the west would have been a match for those that followed Caesar or Alexander.

This was the great age of the Polish Commonwealth, when Poland produced the greatest cavalry and some of the greatest commanders in European history. It was also the Spanish century, when the Hapsburg-Spanish Empire was the greatest power in the world, and the Spanish infantry were the most feared in Europe. Spain’s place at the tope of the military food chain was challenged by France and Sweden. The Age began with Spain establishing dominance, and ended with Sweden and France the most powerful states in Europe.

Eastern Europe also produced several great commanders, beginning in the previous Age (and list) with Zizka and Hunyadi; continuing with his son Corvinus, Stephan the Great, and the great Polish commanders on this list. The Turks were also a great power in Eastern Europe; but their victories were more a product of a divided enemy (who all too often acted with suicidal stupidity on the battlefield) and an early adoption of combined arms tactics and gunpowder weapons (including history’s first heavy artillery siege train); than of great generalship. Only Selim can be credited as a great general; even his son Suleiman the Magnificent, who won many victories, relied on “underlings” to command his forces.

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Unique among the territories of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Britain succeeded in holding back and even reversing the tide of Germanic conquest for nearly two centuries. This was an age of heroes… It was the Age of Arthur! 

This is the first part in a multi-part examination of Britain, in the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical Age of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”. The heroes of this struggle, and the “barbarian” warlords who opposed them, are the subject of this discussion.

If he indeed existed (and it is the opinion of this author that he did) Arthur was a warlord who successfully led the British resistance to the Saxon threat. He lived in the late 5th century, and ruled Britain into the early 6th century. Using historical analysis of the disparate chronicles, poems, legends, archeological evidence, and applying deductive logic backed by a lifetime of military study and practice I will attempt to develop a working theory of who Arthur was and the events of his life.

This was in the sunset of Roman culture in Britain; itself once the jewel in the crown of the Roman Empire. Arthur was the champion who kept the flame of civilization alive as the rest of Western Europe sunk into the Dark Ages.

But before we can discuss Arthur, it is important to understand the world in which he lived.


In the first decade of the 5th century, Roman Britain (Britannia) was abandoned by the empire. While some among the Romans and the Britons may have considered the island to be a part of the Empire until the Germanic generalissimo Odoacer forced the last Western Emperor, Romulus Augustus, to abdicate in 476; for all practical purposes Britannia became an independent Romano-British state after 410 A.D.

1365401.jpgBritish Canterbury (Durovernum Cantiacorum) in the Roman EraBritain was prosperous, mostly Christian, and (outside of the tribal hill country) a thoroughly Romanized province. The Romano-Celtic inhabitants of the cities and towns spoke Latin as a first language. Throughout the province they were governed by elected magistrates, drawn (as elsewhere in the Roman world) from the aristocratic curiales class. In the southern part of the island the countryside was dotted with prosperous villas, inhabited by this same Romano-British aristocracy and their retainers. Britannia was financially net contributor to the Empire,  not a drain upon its resources, except in one respect: the military.

The Late Roman Empire experienced a drastic military manpower shortage, due to a variety of causes. Trained troops capable of relocation to trouble spots (as opposed to the numerous garrison troops of the frontier fortresses) were relatively few and worn down (to use a modern term) by a very high “mission tempo”.

In the first decade of the 5th century the mobile forces (the comitatensis) stationed in Britain were needed elsewhere, to save the “motherland” province of the empire, Italy, from foreign invasion.


The Western Roman Empire found itself caught in a death-spiral of cause-and-effect that began in 401 AD, and would continue for the next 75 years; slowly strangling the life out it.

This destructive loop of events began with the Visigoths, under their leader Alaricinvading Italy for the first time in 401. Indirectly, one could trace this even further back to the victory of the Goths over the Romans at Adrianople; which victory had guaranteed a large, independent, and potentially threatening Gothic force in the Balkans for a generation.

The Visigoths rampaged through the Balkans periodically in the decades after Adrianople; plaguing the Eastern Roman government. A temporary accommodation with the Visigoths was reached in 397, whereby they were settled in Illyria, and their new leader, Alaric, given the title Magister Militum (“Master of the Soldiers”). This was a common Roman practice: to co-opt potential or former foes as foederati, giving their leaders titles, honors, and commands in the Roman military structure.

Alaric’s sudden and rapid incursion into Italy in 401 caught the Western Roman authorities surprisingly unprepared,the Goths very nearly capturing the young Emperor Honorius in Milan.


In response, Stilicho, the Magister Militum of the Western Empire (and the real power behind the imperial Western throne), who was away at the time campaigning along the Danube, hastened back to Italy to deal with the threat. To raise sufficient forces Stilicho was forced to strip troops from the local garrisons, weakening the forces defending the Pannonian frontier. Alaric was defeated at the battles of Pollentia and Verona, and driven back into Illyria.

But stripping troops from Pannonia to rescue Italy was not without its own risks: another, hitherto undetected barbarian army appeared from beyond the frontier. This was led by a warlord named Radagaisus. These pillaged their way through southeastern Noricum and western Pannonia; the very places Stilicho had denuded of troops to deal with Alaric. Crossing the Alps, they entered Italy early in 406. Their numbers were too strong for Stilicho to face in battle with the forces at his disposal.

To repel the invasion, Stilicho was forced to spend the next six months gathering troops from Gaul and the Rhine frontier. A legion (likely the remnants of the old Legio II Augusta) and some number of auxilia regiments were even pulled from far off Britain. By August 406, Radagaisus was blockaded and defeated at Florence with these reinforcements. His force was largely captured or dispersed, with 12,000 of the best taking service in Stilicho’s army. Other survivors escaped to join Alaric’s army in the nearby Balkans.

Radagaisus’ sudden and unexpected appearance was not a lone event. His invasion was but the gust front of a coming storm. The Germanic nations were on the move: this was the beginning of the Völkerwanderung period, the “wandering of the peoples”. It was the harbinger of the coming Dark Ages.


Just over four months after Radagaisus’ defeat, the storm reached the Rhine frontier.

On New Year’s Eve, 406 AD, just over four months after Radagaisus’ defeat, three Germanic nations : the Vandals, Suebi, and the Alans, crossed over the frozen Rhine River into Roman Gaul.

The border garrisons were too weakened to stop the penetration; the comitatensis of Gaul that normally backed up the Rhine frontier was away with Stilicho in Italy. Gaul was nearly defenseless. For the next two years, the province was mercilessly ravaged by this barbarian horde.

The Roman system of defense was a single garment, of whole cloth. As one thread after another was pulled out, the whole became unraveled.

The policies of Honorius (really Stilicho) had resulted in disaster. As so often happened in Roman history when the central authority appeared too weak or foolish to deal with a crises, ambitious generals took advantage of the situation to declare themselves candidate for “the purple”. Revolts soon broke out in Gaul; and in Britannia the mobile field army mutinied against its commander (whose title was Comes Britanniarum, the “Count of Britain”) and chose a soldier named Constantine as their leader. He proclaimed himself Western Roman Emperor, Constantine III. Taking the bulk of the field army of Britain with him, he crossed the Channel in 407 AD.

Stilicho was neither weak nor foolish. The military establishment he inherited and served in was merely stretched too thin. The real problem was that there were just not enough troops in any one province’s comitatensis to deal with the massive invasions that, like hammer blows, now fell one after-the-other upon the West. Only by stripping away from their home provinces all of the available comitatensis troops in the West, and concentrating then into one “super-army”; could Stilicho create a mobile “fire brigade” of sufficient size to be capable of putting out each crises in turn. In essence, he was forced to “rob Peter to pay Paul”.

1365428.jpgStilicho, the Roman-Vandal general who ruled the Western Roman Empire at the turn of the 5th century, was a commander of great ability. But his denuding of the provincial field armies in order to strengthen the defense of Italy led to the total collapse of the Gallic and Pannonian frontiers; and the subsequent loss of much of the Western Empire after his murder.

Stilicho wagered that he could put out the fire in Italy before another broke out elsewhere. It was a gamble, and like all good generals, he was willing to play the odds. But moving this fire brigade from one theater to another took time. And time was in very short supply.

Before he could deal with the unraveling situation in Gaul, Stilicho needed to ensure that Italy’s eastern flank would be secure in his absence. That meant negotiating with Alaric, who watched events unfolding from neighboring Illyria. After some wrangling, Stilicho agreed to acknowledge the Visigoth king as Magister Militum in Illyricum; and to pay over to the Goth a large stipend. This negotiation caused outrage in Rome, and Stilicho (himself of Vandal birth) was accused of plotting treachery. In August of 408 Stilicho was executed by the Emperor he had served so well.

Stilicho’s death triggered a general slaughter of the defenseless families of German soldiers in the Roman army (presumably while their men were away in distant army camps). Romanized Germans made up a sizable portion of all Roman field armies (unlike the limitanei, the border garrisons, which tended to be “Romans” serving generationally in their forefather’s regiments). This outrage against their families led to a general mutiny among the troops Stilicho had brought to defend Italy, the main strike force of the Western Empire.

Alaric lost little time in taking advantage of the chaos, and invaded Italy a second time. In August of 410, two years after the execution of Stilicho, Alaric and the Visigoths sacked the city of Rome.

The Germanic nations that had crossed the Rhine in 406 were never expelled; and were soon followed by Franks, Burgundians, and Alamanni. These settled in the Gallic territories west of the Rhine. The original invaders moved on into Spain, and in the case of the Vandals eventually into North Africa. The Visigoths, after sacking Rome, transited first to southern Gaul and then into Spain as well.

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For the next 70 years, German settlements and zones of authority laid in a patchwork quilt across the Western Empire. Weak and often corrupt Roman administration remained in the areas between these barbarian occupation zones; sometimes serving the ends of the government in Ravenna (now the capital of the Western Empire), sometimes their own ends. In other places, the provincial nobles set up their own pseudo-governments; carrying on the fight against the barbarians or rebelling against the central government as they saw fit.

The Western Empire was slowly disintegrating.

Deprived of tax revenue, not to mention the recruiting grounds for native soldiers these lost territories had provided (and in the case of North Africa, its main grain source), the Western Empire died a slow death.


Constantine III departed Britain in 407, at the start of the crises; taking with him all or most of the comitatensis troops that had been the core of Britannia’s defense. His bid for “the purple” ultimately failed and in a few years he was dead. His main achievement was to leave Britain vulnerable.

With the shepherds gone, the sheep seemed ripe for the shearing. The wolves very quickly closed in.

That is not to say that Britain was without its defenders. The fortress garrisons along the coasts and in the north remained: these troops were settled on plots of land around their garrisons, in lieu of pay from the central government. But these were distinctly second-rate troops, capable of holding the walls of their own forts but little else.



Hadrian’s Wall had deteriorated badly during the 4th century, and was no longer a continuous defensive line warding the Roman south from a “barbarian” north.

By the late 4th and early 5th centuries Hadrian’s Wall had ceased to be a clearly defined frontier. It was now a ramshackle structure between forts which were more like armed and densely populated villages. The Wall itself, its turrets and mile-castles have been abandoned, and the forts were inhabited by the families of second-grade, and probably hereditary, frontier auxiliaries. (David Nicolle, Ph.D., “Arthur and the Anglo-Saxon Wars”)


Romano-British garrison manning fort on Hadrian’s Wall (artwork by Popius)

Even had the Imperial government in Ravenna ordered their withdrawal across the Channel, the garrisons would likely have mutinied rather than obeyed. Something like this happened 50 years earlier, in Gaul, when the Augustus Constantius II ordered the mobile field army of the province to the east to fight the Persians. The soldiers responded by throwing off their allegiance to Constantius and proclaiming his cousin, Julian, Emperor!

While the field army and a few of the willing garrisons had withdrawn across the channel, never to return, the remaining forces stayed in place; accepting the authority of the new British leadership.

In the first two decades after the Roman withdrawal, the political situation is murky. The question that looms is who or what was the new British authority?

Perhaps some of the senior Roman officers remaining in Britain converted their position to noble status in the post-Roman hierarchy. In the north, where many of the later Celtic tribal kings traced their lineage to one Coel Hen (the “Old King Cole” of rhyme), it hasbeen suggested that he was the last official Dux Britanniarum (commander of the Wall and other northern garrisons). As such, he had command of a wide swath of territory, and influence on both sides of the Wall; and was well placed to dominate affairs in northern Britain in the years immediately after the Roman departure. He may have been the main leader in Britain during the first decade post-Rome; though how much (if any) influence he had south of his headquarters at Eburacum (York) is unknown.

The sources indicate that a “Council of Britain”, likely composed of representatives of the various tribes, the cities (civitates), and military commanders (like Coel) attempted to organize a common defense. In this they had their work cut out for them, as Britain reeled under ceaseless and destructive raids from all sides.

From the north, the Pictish tribes took to the sea in curraghs: small, light-weight hide covered boats; circumventing the buffer zone of Roman-friendly tribes north of Hadrian’s Wall and the Wall garrisons themselves; and raided rich British lands to the south.

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In the West, Irish pirates and raiders pillaged and took slaves back to Hibernia. Some intrepid chieftains even seized portions of south and north Wales, founding temporary Irish settlements. And in the far north, Irishmen from Ulster landed in Dal Riada and founded an Irish kingdom there. These Irish raiders had been known by the Romans (and presumably by their successors, the Romano-Britons) as “Scotti”; and it was these Irish tribes of Ulster who eventually spread throughout Pictish Alba, giving the land a new name: Scotland.

In the southeast, where Britain came closest to the continent, pirates from north Germany and Scandinavia had been raiding Britain since the 3rd century. These were collectively called “Saxons” by the Romans and Romano-British. Of all the dangerous foes who threatened Britain, the Saxons were the fiercest and the most dangerous.

The Councilors of Britain begged Rome to return and take up the defense of the island. But the best that they could get was authority from the Emperor Honorius to see to their own defense. While no military aid could be lent, spiritual aid from the Catholic authorities in Gaul was available. In 429 the Church dispatched Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, to Britain to battle heresy. This was the Pelagian heresy, and its doctrine of self-reliance was gathering strength in a land left to its own devices in a time of troubles. Germanus successfully reasserted Catholic authority. He stayed long enough to also lead the Britains to victory over a Pictish (and Scotti?) raiders in north Wales.

Germanus’ arrival in Britain coincided with the early years of a British leader who was to dominate the narrative for the first half of 5th century Britain; and who would unleash forces that changed the history of the Island forever.

He was called Vortigern.

Vortigern came to power in the 420s, as the recognized war leader of the Britons. His origins are unknown, his very name is in doubt, with some historians theorizing that the name “Vortigern” was in fact a title, meaning “High King”. (One theory is that his real name might have been Vitalinus.) Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his largely fanciful Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), states that Vortigern was the successor to Constans, the son of the late usurping emperor Constantine III; who he used and later treacherously caused to be killed during his rise to power.

Vortigern is associated with Powys, where later generations account him the founder of the first dynasty, the Gwerthrynion (Gwerthigern/Guorthigern being an alternative Brythonic version of his name). The Kingdom of Powys was founded around this time, a union of the Cornovii and the Ordovices tribes of the west. Now in east-central Wales, in pre-Saxon days it straddled the Severn and stretched into the Midlands. The Cornovii tribal capital at Viroconium (Wroxeter), on the Severn River, was also the fourth largest city in Britannia. During this time, Viroconium prospered and underwent a rebuilding period. It was clearly the seat of a prosperous and powerful prince.

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We don’t know where Vortigern fit in the Cornovii tribal hierarchy. But as the progenitor of the future kings of Powys, it is not unlikely that he was either the tribal king or a prince of the ancient Cornovii ruling family. As with other tribal chiefs in Roman Britain, this meant Vortigern and likely his ancestors for three centuries had been Roman citizens and members of the curiale class. It is in this role that he likely rose to power as a member of the Council of Britain that took over the province’s administration in the post-Roman era.

Gildas the Monk, the only near-contemporary chronicler of the period (his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, “On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain” was written sometime between 530 and 560 AD) addresses Vortigern as the “proud usurper” (superbo tyranno); though later sources call him “king”. It is therefore likely that at least some in Britain considered Vortigern’s assumption of authority as illegitimate, that he perhaps seized power unlawfully from the Council; perhaps even assuming the name of king; a distinctly “un-Roman” title.

Tradition puts him at odds with Germanus, one author suggesting he was a heretical Pelagian. Perhaps he rode the rising wave of Pelagian heresy to power. But if Germanus’ victory over barbarian raiders took place in North Wales, it would have served Vortigern and Powys well; removing a threat so close to its borders. This would argue for an alliance between the two, and it may have been Vortigern, not Germanus, who was the actual military leader of the operation.

Interestingly, sometime in approximately this period the Votadini hero, Cunedda, led a migration of a part of the Votadini people of the Pictish border region to north Wales, founding the Kingdom of Gwynedd. Could this move be somehow related to the events of 429?


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Today, when a person goes upon a crazy, violent rampage he can be said to have “run amok”. The origin of the term “amok” is actually Malay, and entered the English language as an idiom when horrified English traders encountered the strange practice of “running amok” among the Muslim peoples of Malaysia, Indonesia, and the southern Philippine Islands.

There, men would for a variety reasons work themselves into an uncontrollable rage; and go on a murderous killing spree. A man “running amok” would cut down any who came across his path; continuing until his neighbors, bystanders, or the authorities killed him.

Some scholars consider the origin of this strange and deadly practice to lie in the Islamic prohibition against suicide. When humiliated or “dishonored” a Muslim man could regain his honor (manhood) by going “amok”, and dying with sword in hand, forcing others to kill him and thus accomplish his suicide.

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This unique practice took a new and unique turn in the Philippines at the beginning of the 20th Century. Moro insurgents, fighting against American rule of their islands, would send lone suicide assassins called juramentado to “ran amok”; attacking and killing American Army officers and civilian administrators.

The juramentado would prepare for his mission in a most unique and painful way: by having his TESTICLES TIED OFF WITH COPPER WIRE! [1] In a state of intense agony, the would-be assassin spent the night working himself into a killing frenzy. By the next day, the juramentado would be in a virtual altered state of consciousness, so filled with agony that his mind would no longer register additional pain. The  assassin would then be led by his comrades to a place his target was expected to appear (usually a public place, to increase the propaganda and “terror” value of the act). Just before being unleashed against his victim, the juramentado’s arms and legs were tied with occluding ligatures, to reduce expected blood loss from possible wounds to these extremities.


The juramentado would then charge forward (often out of a crowd) and assault the victim with the distinctive Moro sword, the kris; or the equally nasty-looking hacking knife, the barong. Despite being shot multiple times by the victim and his escort or comrades-in-arms, the juramentado would not stop till the target lay dead, hacked into bloody pieces. After which, the juramentado would collapse and die, his last mission accomplished.


A Moro assassin running amok seemed impossible to stop. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that sidearm of the American Army in the Philippines was only a .38 caliber revolver. This small caliber proved utterly incapable of stopping the juramentado.

For this reason the US Army adapted the .45 caliber colt pistol: the heavier bullet of the .45 could knock the charging juramentado onto his back, stopping dead his frenzied “amok”!

The Colt .45 revolver firing the “long Colt” cartridge (not the later Model 1911 .45 automatic pistol, firing the smaller ACP cartridge) was issued to the Philippine Constabulary [2] in 1903. It proved much superior to the standard .38 caliber pistols then used by the American Army.

Comparison of the Long Colt revolver cartridge to the smaller  cartridge used in the Model 1911 .45 caliber automatic pistol

Additional help came from adoption of the Winchester pump-action shotgun; then coming into service in both the Marines and Army. These were weapons with the “stopping power” to stop a rampaging Moro.


There has been much discussion about the veracity of this bit of history; whether or not the .45 caliber could have made a difference. But in his Annual Report of June, 1904, General Leonard Wood (commanding American forces engaged against the Moros in the Philippines, stated his opinion on the subject:

“It is thought that the .45 caliber revolver (Constabulary Model 1902) is the one which should be issued to troops throughout the Army… Instances have repeatedly been reported during the past year where native have been shot through-and-through several time with a .38 caliber revolver, and have come on, cutting up the unfortunate individual armed with it… The .45 caliber revolver stops a man in his tracks, usually knocking him down… It is also recommended that each company be furnished with 12-guage Winchester repeating shotguns… There is no weapon in our possession equal to the shotgun loaded with buckshot.”


American Army officers and NCOs of the Philippine Constabulary, circa 1905

While the campaign to subjugate the Moros of the southern Philippines continued, the problem of the lone Juramentado was solved.

Today, when you hear in the news of a person “running amok”, remember the origin of the word, and the viciously effective Juramentado of the Philippines!

1351633Photo taken of Moros during the Insurrection.


  1. This factoid was conveyed to the author first-hand while serving in the Philippines with Moro soldiers in the Filipino Constabulary, who had taken amnesty from the central government.
  2. The American-led Filipino force created to fight the Moros and keep the peace throughout the archipelago.
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Faced by a numerically superior opponent, the Eastern Roman general Belisarius countered with field works, maneuver and a masterful use of interior lines!

In 530 A.D. the Eastern Roman Empire‘s province of Mesopotamia was invaded by a large and well equipped Sassanid Persian Army. The target of the Persian incursion was the frontier fortress of Daras (or Dara).

Though large in size, the Persian expedition was but another border skirmish in the centuries old struggle between the Roman Empire and that of the Persians. Beginning with Parthian dynasty and continuing with the Sassanid, the Persian Šâhanšâh (King of Kings) had been the counter to Roman ambitions in Western Asia. The war between these powerful monarchies waxed and waned. Roman Emperors and Persian Shah’s died and were replaced by men more or less capable or bellicose than their predecessor; and borders changed by small increments. This age-old conflict would be a zero sum game until the coming of the Islam, when the Arabs replaced the Sassanids in this role vis-à-vis the Byzantines.

1341376 Coins bearing the likeness of a Sassanid Shah and Roman Emperor, respectively. Shapur I was the first great Sassanid ruler; while Julian was the last Roman to invade deep into the Persian empire with the intent of emulating Alexander and conquering the Persian realm. The struggle between these two powers stretched back to the 3rd century AD, and would continue till the Arab Muslims destroyed the Sassanids and replaced them as Rome’s rival along the eastern frontier. 

The invasion of 530 promised to be nothing unique. The Persians came with overwhelming force to achieve the very limited aim of forcing the Romans to dismantle the newly fortified border post of Daras; enforcing the terms of a ceasefire negotiated between the adversaries some years prior. But the battle that ensued proved anything but ordinary. On this occasion the Romans were commanded by a young and dynamic commander, who was determined to give the Persians a bloody nose for their efforts. The Battle of Daras would announce the arrival, center stage in the military affairs of the day, of a new star: Flavius Belisarius.

In 530 Belisarius was the recently-appointed commander of Roman forces in Mesopotamia (modern Kurdish Iraq). Not yet 30 years old, Belisarius was that rarest of men: a bonafide military genius. His long life and campaigns across the Mediterranean world would earn him the epitaph “The last of the Romans”. However, at Daras he was a young and untested general on the eve of this first great battle.

At the outset of the campaign he resolved neither to abandon Daras as some of his officers suggested; nor to laager within and force the enemy to besiege him. Instead, he announced to his officers and his outnumbered and poorly-trained army his intention of offering battle in front of the fortress.

At first blush this appeared a foolhardy course of action.


The Persians outnumber the Romans by nearly two-to-one: the force advancing on Daras numbered some 40,000, and by the advent of battle were reinforced by another 10,000. By contrast, Belisarius could muster a mere 25,000 men; and the infantry in particular were of very poor quality and neglected training. Numbers aside, the Persians had every reason to be confident of victory over the Romans, having won every major battle and conflict in the last several generations.

The Sassanid army was a formidable fighting force. Nearly half of the Persians were heavy armored cavalry; and by the 6th century A.D. cavalry had replaced infantry as the decisive arm on the battlefield. The striking power of any Sassanid force lay in the well-mounted and heavily armored Persian Savaran (knights) and their feudal retainers. This type of super-heavy cavalry were known to the Romans as “clibanarii” (the name translates loosely as “baking oven”, referring no doubt to how hot their armor was to wear in the Middle Eastern sun). These Iranian cavalry troopers were big men mounted upon very large horses, bred to carry a rider covered from head to toe in mail and lamellar armor!


Sassanid Persian “Savaran” clibanarii and standard bearer

Even the horses of the Savaran were armored; typically at least the front portion of the charger being protected with lamellar or scale:

“All the companies were clad in iron, and all parts of their bodies were covered with thick plates, so fitted that the stiff-joints conformed with those of their limbs; and the forms of human faces were so skilfully fitted to their heads, that since their entire body was covered with metal, arrows that fell upon them could lodge only where they could see a little through tiny openings opposite the pupil of the eye, or where through the tip of their nose they were able to get a little breath…The Persians opposed us serried bands of mail-clad horsemen in such close order that the gleam of moving bodies covered with closely fitting plates of iron dazzled the eyes of those who looked upon them, while the whole throng of horses was protected by coverings of leather.” [1]

Each heavy horseman carried a long lance, and sometimes a light composite bow as well. Each Savaran was accompanied by several retainers equipped as lighter versions of the these super-heavy cavalry, or alternately as javelin-armed light horsemen. Unlike the Parthian armies that proceeded them in history, the Sassanids put the greatest confidence in these heavy lancers, at the expense of greater number of nimble light horse archers that had been the mainstay of the Parthian armies. Whereas the proportion of armored lancers (cataphracts) to horse archers in the Parthian forces could be as little as one-in-ten; in Sassanid armies those proportions shifted radically in favor of the Savaran lancers, with horse archery declining in Sassanid armies.


Accompanying the superb Sassanid cavalry was a host of poorly motivated infantry, levied from amongst the peasantry or subject hill tribes. These had changed little since the days of Darius the Great. They carried a rectangular shield made of wicker, and a short spear. But, as Belisarius was to describe these Sassanid infantry dismissively, giving them a spear no more made them spearmen then giving them a flute would have made them snake charmers! They were useless in battle; and were brought along only to do the drudge-work necessary in the expected siege, and to hold down space in the line should a battle occur. In the former role they were indispensable; in the latter, worthless.


Sassanid infantry and cataphract super-heavy cavalry: the worst and the best of the Persian forces

The Eastern Roman army of the 6th century was a far cry from that of Augustus Caesar, or even of Constantine. This was a time of transition; and no one would be more influential in the evolutionary changes from the old infantry-based army of the late Roman Empire to what we think of as the cavalry armies of the “Byzantine Empire” (as the Eastern Roman Empire of the Dark Ages is referred to) then Belisarius. But at Daras, he had to use the tools at hand,  and these were flawed at best.

The old legions of sword-and-javelin armed infantry were long gone; or remained in name only as poorly trained garrison troops along the frontiers. Now Roman fortunes depended upon regiments of heavy cavalry; armed either with bow, javelin, or spear.

Most Roman cavalry tended to wear at least a helmet; and the regiments of heavy cavalry, which predominated, wore a scale or mail cuirass called a “klibanon“. They were not as heavily armored as the Persian Savaran, and horse-armor was not used by the Eastern Roman cavalry in this period; the cataphract regiments of the late Roman Empire having mostly disappeared.

The state of the once-proud Roman infantry had deteriorated greatly in the 5th and early 6th century; the soldiers degenerating into demoralized, undisciplined, and largely unarmored garrison troops. While some regiments were armed with spear and sword and had some body armor, most were light archers or javelineers. Unlike their Persian counterparts, they were still professional soldiers. And though they were happiest when shooting from behind a fortress or city wall, they could be of some use on a battlefield.


At Daras, Belisarius had approximately 15,000 cavalry, and perhaps another 10,000 infantry. His troops were mostly scrapped together from various frontier garrisons and from the dispirited regiments of the comitatensis (mobile field army) of the East that (theoretically) backed-up the border units. Because of past defeats by the Persians, their fear of the Savaran was great, and none of these troops could be relied upon to stand up to the Persian cavalry in pitched battle.

However, Belisarius had two bodies of troops upon which he could completely rely.

The first were several bands of mercenary “Huns“. These superb light horse archers were from the steppes of Eurasia. Like the later Cossacks of the Ukrainian steppe, the Huns were brave to a fault and could out-ride any horsemen in the world. They were expert with the powerful Hunnic composite bow, and  while they characteristically used this deadly weapon at distance to decimate their enemies, they had no hesitation at charging home to break a shaken foe at close quarters with sword or spear. They were also adept at using lassos to pull their enemies from the saddle, and drag them off to death or captivity.


Top: Hunnic warrior. Bottom: Hunnic composite bow unstrung, strung, and at full draw

Belisarius had at Daras between 1,500 and 2,000 “Huns”. These appear to have been not true Huns, but raised from two separate groups of nomadic peoples formerly part of the Hunnic Empire and who lived and fought in similar fashion. One band was called “Heruli” by the sources, a Germanic people who during the time following the dissolution of Attila’s empire migrated into the Danube region. The rest were Massagetae, an Iranian or Scythian nomadic people absorbed into the Hunnic nation in previous centuries. While both groups were mercenaries with no national loyalty to the Romans, they delighted in war and were always reliable if paid and allowed to loot their enemies (their favorite activity).

Secondly, Belisarius had the elite Bucellarii of his own “Household Regiment” upon which he could rely.


Generals of the later Roman empire were allowed to raise private regiments of cavalry to serve as their bodyguards. These often provided the solid core of a late Roman army on campaign. Such troopers were called bucellarii, meaning “Biscuit –Eaters” (though perhaps a better translation might be, “hard-tack eaters”, referring to the soldier’s campaign rations of hard-baked biscuits). Because they were paid and equipped by the generals themselves (who tended to be wealthy landed gentry in this period) they were often better paid and provisioned than “regular” army regiments. Belisarius himself had started as a bucellarius in the household guard of Justinian, before he rose to the throne.

Once promoted to general and given permission to raise his own household troops, Belisarius’ bucellarii became a test-bed for the unconventional tactical notions he harbored. Unlike most Roman cavalry of the day, who were either lancers or archers, Belisarius trained his bucellarii to perform both roles. Every trooper was armored as to the standard for a heavy cavalryman of the day, with helmet, lamellar cuirass, greaves on their shins and vambraces protecting their lower arms. All carried a lance and sword; and were adept at the use of both in close-quarter combat. But they also carried and were trained in the use of the Hunnish composite bow; and could use this deadly weapon from the saddle almost as well as the Huns themselves. Finally, they had a brace of lead-weighted throwing darts, called plumbatae, attached to the front of their saddle. These were deadly when thrown at close range, further augmenting the fire-power these elite horsemen could bring to bear.


A late Roman/Byzantine bucellarius, such as Belisarius’ elite household troops, would have looked much like this figure

Though they were only 1,500 strong [2] at the time of Daras, Belisarius could rely on his Bucellarii to accomplish whatever mission he set before them. He had trained them himself, and led them on several cross-border raids on the Danube frontier and into Persian Armenia, where they had performed well. His optimism in choosing to give battle before Daras must have been based, at least in part, upon his confidence in this elite force in the coming engagement.


As the Persian army marched on Daras, Belisarius prepared the ground before the fortress for the battle he envisioned.

He set his infantry to work, digging a trench across the narrow battlefield, between two ranges of hill on either flank. This trench was wider than a horseman could leap; and could be crossed easily only at wide bridges placed on either flank. In its center, the trench cut back toward Daras; so that the flanks were advanced while the center refused.


Knowing his foot archers would never stand-up to a charge by Persian lancers, he placed them across his center, refused back, and protected by the trench. Forward on either wing he placed the bulk of his regular Roman cavalry; also protected by the trench. The bridges, placed at key points, would serve to both funnel the enemy’s attacks into narrow choke points; and allow his own troops to cross the trench to counter attack when necessary.

At the angles of the trench, he placed most of his Huns; in two 600-man bodies. These would skirmish the front of the Persian army with arrows. They would also be in a position to attack in flank any Persian force that succeeded in crossing the trench and attacking his flanking cavalry forces. The Herulian Huns were hidden in the hills to the left of his line. There they would wait in concealment until the moment was right to fall upon the rear of the Persian flank.

Behind his infantry center, Belisarius placed himself at the head of his Bucellarii. These would be his final reserve, and success or failure would ultimately depend upon these elite troopers.

This unique deployment had several subtle benefits. First, it kept his less reliable infantry largely out of harms way, while allowing them to contribute to the battle with long-range archery fire. Second, the refused center would appear to the Persians as an obvious trap into which they would be reluctant to fall. So instead of attacking his unreliable infantry, they would divide their attacks to either wing, against his better-quality cavalry posted there. This would also allow Belisarius the chance to defeat each attacking wing separately, in detail, with a superior concentration of force at the point of attack. Because his central reserve had the advantage of interior lines , they could assault each threat in turn, more rapidly than either could achieve a breakthrough and concentrate against him.

The 40,000 strong Persian army arrived in early June, and for several days, there was inconclusive skirmishing and duels by champions fought before the two armies. The Persian general, Perozes, was waiting for the arrival of still another 10,000 troops, while attempting to make “heads-or-tails” of Belisarius’ puzzling deployment.



Late Roman bow-armed heavy cavalryman. Unlike this “regular” trooper, Belisarius armed his Bucellarii (personal household regiment) with both bow and lance: unusual to Roman cavalry of the day. This allowed them to perform both the heavy and light cavalry function, acting as both shock and skirmish troops. Note the absence of stirrups: these were not introduced to the west for nearly another century, by the central Asian Avars.

On the third day their reinforcements arrived, and the Persians began their assault on the Roman lines.

The first thrust began against the Roman left, where after a fierce battle at the lip of the trench, the heavily armored Savaran cavalry succeeded in pushing back the defending Roman horsemen. As these fell back, the Persians followed close, pressing across the trench in mass.

When the moment was ripe, Belisarius launched his first counter attack.

From their side of the trench, the nearest band of Huns at first showered the interior flank of the advancing Persians with arrows; then counterattacked across one of the bridges. Simultaneously the Heruls, hiding in the hills to the left of the Roman line, sprang from ambush and attacked the other flank of the now disordered Persian lancers. From his center, Belisarius delivered the final blow, charging at the head of his Household Bucellarii. Faced with these multiple attacks, the Persian Savaran were driven back across the trench in panicked flight, and continued to gallop off the field.

Dispatching the Roman cavalry of the left to pursue and prevent their rallying, Belisarius now gathered the Huns and Heruls to the center; where, with his own Bucellarii they prepared for the next phase of the battle.


On the Roman right, the Persians had succeeded in breaking through and pushing back the defenders of the trench. Here, their assault was spearheaded by one of the elite divisions of the Persian Empire, the Zhayedan (“Immortals”) . This corps-de-elite was based upon the ancient Achaemenid Persian force of the same name. Their numbers were always maintained at 10,000 (though it is unlikely that anything approaching this number were present at Daras). Each was outfitted as fully-armored cataphracts, even more heavily armored, man-and-horse, than the average Savaran. Each man rode the superb Nisean charger, a breed of horses from northeastern Iran larger than any in world at the time, developed over centuries to carry the very-heavy Iranian cavalry. The lances of these horsemen were so long and sturdy that the Romans called them kontos: Latin for “barge pole”!


Sassanid commander giving orders to heavily armored Immortal cataphract

The Immortals drove the Roman right-wing back to the walls of Daras, and were close to routing them when Belisarius launched his second counter-attack.


Using his central position, Belisarius now led his reserve of his Bucellarii and the Huns in a furious attack into the exposed flank of the Persian attack. His assault succeeded in cutting the advancing Persian force in two. The standard bearer of the Persian army was cut down by the chieftain of the Heruls. The fleeing Roman left rallied and aided in defeating the Immortals; and the entire Persian wing broke and were soon streaming in flight back across the trench.


The final phase of the battle saw Belisarius’ riders pursuing the once proud Persian horsemen off the field; while a portion “put the skeer” into the useless Persian spearmen; who took to flight without striking a blow!



Daras was the fist Roman victory in generations over the Persians. Some 5,000 of the enemy were slain, and an equal number taken prisoner. Belisarius’ had made his name as a general to be reckoned with. His long career was just starting, and there would be many more such victories before he hung up his spurs.

There are lessons in generalship of a very high order to be learned here.

Outnumbered two-to-one, Belisarius wisely fought the Battle of Daras with the arm in which he was most confident, his cavalry; which was also the one in which he was least outnumbered. By giving ground when pressed, his cavalry wings purchased time with space; and drew the attacking Persians further away from their own center and from each other. This allowed Belisarius to isolate the Persian assaults and defeat each in detail with his central reserve, comprised of his finest troops.

The use of field works (the trench) to both protect his least reliable troops and to encourage and channel the Persian attacks against his better-trained and prepared cavalry was both novel and highly intelligent. There is no record in Roman history of such a unique solution to a problem of this kind; though the refusal of his inferior-quality infantry in the center is reminiscent of Scipio Africanus at the Battle of Ilipa.

Most importantly, the victory of Daras is an example of what can be achieved though the use of interior lines, and an active and effective reserve. Using his elite Bucellarii as a mobile “fire-brigade”, they were able from their central position to intervene effectively anywhere on the battlefield. Wherever the Persians struck, on the left or the right, Belisarius was able to rapidly interdict them from his interior position and meet them with his best troops; thus gaining a local advantage over an enemy who, overall, greatly outnumbered him. Nowhere on the battlefield were the Persians able to bring their numeric advantage to bear. The result was the first defeat suffered by a Persian army in centuries.

As the Persian wings advanced across the Roman trench, each exposed their interior flanks to assault from the Roman center. Both the Huns positioned within the retrenchment and Belisarius’ own bucellarii stationed in central reserve were able to exploit this vulnerability, attacking the Persian’s interior flanks to good effect. While most commanders and units are acutely aware of and protect their outer flanks, interior flanks are inherently more vulnerable as an enemy breaks his own line during an advance. Belisarius understood and used interior lines to exploit this to advantage.

Belisarius would go on to a long and illustrious career, and earn a reputation as the greatest general in Byzantine history. In all of his campaigns, his elite Bucellarii were the heart of his strike forces. From the Euphrates to the Atlas Mountains to the Alps; against Persians, Vandals, Goths and Huns: Belisarius and his Household Bucellarii defeated every enemy of the Roman Empire of his day. His tactical methods were carried on by later Byzantine commanders and codified in the writings of the Emperor Maurice. At Daras, he showed early in his career those methods to good effect; and left generals who followed a blueprint for how to defeat a qualitative and quantitatively superior enemy.

(For more, see Dark Ages Elite: The Bucellarii of Belisarius)

Belisarius 3

Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

  1. Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae. 
  2. These would have been organized into bandon of between 200 and 400 men each. The term comes from the Germanic word for banner.


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Palm Sunday, 1461: On a bleak, windswept Yorkshire plateau two Medieval armies clashed amidst a snowstorm; brutally hacking and slashing with sword, halberd and bill in what was to be the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. It would prove to be the decisive battle in the dynastic struggle known to history as the War of the Roses.

The War of the Roses was a 30 year-long conflict between adherents of two branches of the ruling Plantagenet dynasty: the House of York, whose symbol was a white rose; and the House of Lancaster, whose device was a red one.

The roots of the conflict lay partially in the competing claims of these royal cousins and can be traced back to the overthrow of King Richard II by his Lancastrian cousin, Henry of Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby and Duke of Hereford; who took the throne as King Henry IV. While Henry was able to hold onto his usurped crown and pass it to his son, the heroic warrior king Henry V, the legitimacy of Lancastrian rule came into question in the reign of his grandson, Henry VI.


 The white rose of the Yorkists, the red of the Lancastrians.

Henry VI suffered from bouts of “madness” during which he was largely unaware of circumstances around him. He likely inherited this malady from his maternal grandfather, the French king Charles VI; whose reign (1380-1422) was marred by frequent periods of just such madness. Control of the kingdom during King Henry’s periods of mental infirmity was granted by Parliament to his cousin Richard, the powerful Duke of York.

Under English succession laws, York’s claim to the throne was superior to that of his Lancastrian cousin’s. As Protector of the Realm, Richard of York was too close to the throne for the liking of the adherents of the House of Lancaster, particularly the king’s wife, Queen Margaret of Anjou. When Henry temporarily regained his senses in 1454, the Lancastrians used the opportunity to call a new Parliament to which the Duke of York and his supporters were not invited. (In Medieval England, Parliament was called and dissolved by the King; and its members there at his invitation.) Not surprisingly, this Lancastrian Parliament stripped the Yorkists of their privileges. Armed conflict soon broke out, and in 1455 the War of the Roses began with the First Battle of St. Albans.

The battlefields of the War of the Roses

The fortunes of war shifted back and forth, the Yorkists gaining the advantage; until at Wakefield, in December of 1460, the Lancastrians ambushed Richard of York’s forces and killed both the Duke and his second son, Edmund of Rutland, who was only 17 year old.

The Duke’s eldest son, Edward of March, succeeded Richard as both Duke and leader of the Yorkist cause. Just over a month after his father and brother’s defeat and death, he routed a Welsh force led by Owen Tudor at Mortimer’s Cross. It was before this battle that Edward’s army beheld a meteorological phenomenon known as parhelion; in which the rising sun appeared to be flanked by two lesser suns and a bright halo. Taking this as a good omen, he adopted this symbol as his personal standard, the Sunne in Splendour.

Edward IV’s banner, the Sunne in Splendour

Despite the defeat of Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, by Lancastrian forces at the Second Battle of St. Albans , Edward was able to join up with Warwick in London. There, on March 4, 1461, Warwick proclaimed Edward king. (Warwick would ten years later break with Edward and once again proclaim Henry VI king. From these acts he came to be known as “The Kingmaker“.)

The Lancastrian army, under Queen Margaret and her favorite, the Duke of Somerset, retreated to York, where their cause was strong. Curiously, despite so many Lancastrian lords holding titles in the south, they were detested south of the Midlands. Lancastrian loyalty was strongest in the north. Edward, then, led the Yorkist army north bringing the battle to the Lancastrians.

The Yorkists moved along three parallel routes: with Edward marching directly north; Warwick leading a group several miles west, covering the left flank of the main force; whileJohn Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk marched to the east with orders to raise forces and rejoin Edward before the battle. Warwick’s group moved to the west of the main body, through the English Midlands, gathering men as they went. Warwick’s uncle, the very capable Lord Fauconberg, led Edward’s vanguard; clearing the direct route to York for the main body, led by Edward himself.

Bloody skirmishes occurred at Ferrybridge and at Dinting Dale in which the Lancastrians led by Lord Clifford attempted to harass the Yorkist’s advance. Clifford, who was thought to have personally killed Edward’s younger brother, Edmund of Rutland, after Wakefield and was called “the Butcher”, was killed during the skirmish at Dinting Dale by an arrow. In him the Lancastrians lost a dedicated adherent and ferocious enemy of York.

On March 29, Palm Sunday, under a glowering sky and amidst a snowfall, the armies of York and Lancaster met between the villages of Towton and Saxton, about 12 miles southwest of York and 2 miles south of Tadcaster.

The stage was set for what would become the largest and bloodiest battle in English history.

The numbers involved were impressive for any Medieval battle: the Yorkists alone numbered 48,660 according to muster rolls; though the number that actually deployed upon the field that morning was somewhat less, with as much as a third of the Yorkists under Norfolk not yet arrived. Thus the Yorkists began the battle outnumbered; their 25,000 to 30,000 facing Somerset’s estimated between 40,000 and 60,000 Lancastrians (the latter figure almost certainly an exaggeration). Total number of combatants likely numbered 80,000. Approximately three-quarters of the Peerage of England fought in the battle, with twenty eight Lords of the Realm present (the majority on the Lancastrian side, only eight fighting for the Yorkist cause). Skeletal remains found in a mass grave in 1996 near the battlefield showed evidence that the soldiers came from all walks of life, were on average 30 years old, and averaged 5’7″ tall, and very strongly built. Bone scaring shows that many were veterans of previous engagements.

Exactly what one would expect in a Medieval army!

Equipment and armor of a Man-at-Arms of the period.

Both armies were deployed largely on foot, even the knights (men-at-arms) sending their horses to the rear. The primary tactics of the War of the Roses had armies deploy in three “battles” (divisions), each composed of archers and melee-troops. Most men wore some armor, the knights being encased in fine plate armor from head to foot. Because of the ubiquity of good armor, the primary weapon tended to be the pole axe (halberd) or heavy bill. War hammers were also popular with the chivalry. The long sword was common to all soldiers, high-born and low.

Battles were usually preceeded by exchanges of arrows, followed by a fierce melee at close quarters. Sometimes a reserve of cavalry would attempt flanking maneuvers; though how seldom even such elementary tactics were employed throughout the war is striking.

The snowy battle ground, as it might have looked on the day of battle

The Lancastrians were the first to deploy. Somerset started the day in a strong position, on rising ground with his flanks protected where the plateau dropped off; most steeply on the western flank, where Cock Beck creek flowed in an S-shaped course around the west side of the plateau. This flank also had thick stands of woods growing up to the edge of the battlefield. Somerset took advantage of this feature to conceal a body of troops, ready to fall upon the Yorkist left once they were engaged.

The Lancastrian position was sound, and blocked the road to York. The only drawback was that the narrowness of the plateau didn’t allow the larger Lancastrian forces the opportunity to bring their numbers to bear against their enemy’s flanks. Nevertheless, Somerset (or his chief adviser, the turn-coat former Yorkist mercenary captain, Sir Andrew Trollope) was content to stand on the defensive, and force Edward to attack them in a brutal, frontal engagement.

View from Yorkist starting position. Across the low ground in the center is the high ground upon which Somerset’s  Lancastrian forces were deployed.

Edward’s forces took the field after noon; deploying as the snowstorm grew in bitterness. They took up position opposite the Lancastrians, just out of bow range; low ground separating the opposing forces. Their deployment took several hours, as stragglers continued to arrive. Norfolk was nowhere in sight, and would in fact arrive many hours after the battle began. Despite his troop’s fatigue after their long march to the battlefield, and his inferiority in numbers, Edward ordered his vanguard to begin the battle.

The Yorkist cause was well served in Edward’s vanguard commander, William Neville, Lord Fauconberg. With a change of wind now blowing the snow heavily into the faces of the Lancastrians, he ordered his archers (armed with the famed English longbow) to advance to range and loose a single volley. He then ordered them to retire.

Finding themselves under fire, the Lancastrian archers returned fire. However, as the wily Fauconberg foresaw, with the snow in their eyes and the wind in their face they blindly fired volley after volley; all falling 40 yards short of the Yorkist line! They loosed until their quivers were exhausted, leaving the ground in front of the Yorkist line a porcupine quilt of spent arrows.

Fauconberg now once again ordered his archers forward.

Drawing their heavy yew bows, they now loosed volley after volley of clothyard shafts. The wind in their favor, these fell in a deadly hail amongst the packed ranks of the Lancastrian forces. When their quivers were emptied, the archers gleaned the spent Lancastrian arrows littering the slope, and returned them to their sender!

As casualties mounted from this one-sided exchange, Somerset was goaded into leaving his strong position and advancing to the attack.

Fauconberg then recalled his archers, and though there is no clear record, it is safe to assume they continued firing over the heads of their comrades, into the melee that would soon develop.

Now came the main event, as the opposing lines clashed together in fierce and bloody close quarter combat. Edward and Warwick were everywhere, encouraging their outnumbered soldiers. The eighteen year old Edward was particularly conspicuous, 6’3″ tall and imposing in his splendid armor; the quartered leopards-and-lilies of the Plantagenet kings on his surcoat, the Sunne-in-Splendour banner waving above him. This striking young warrior-prince stood in stark contrast to his Lancastrian rival, King Henry, who was too sickly to even be on the battlefield!

As the two lines came together, a crises developed on the Yorkist left. There, the Lancastrian forces hiding in the woods above Cock Beck now sprang out and fell upon the Yorkist flank. That flank gave ground, and some began to flee in panic. Edward rushed to the threatened sector, rallying his soldiers and setting a personal example of valor in stopping the enemy’s progress.

The battle raged at close quarters for an exhausting three hours. Bodies piled so high that breaks had to be taken in order to remove the dead separating the combatants. The Lancastrians continuously threw fresh men into the fray and gradually the Yorkists were forced to give ground and retreat up the southern ridge. On their left they gave the most ground, so that the western end of the line was pushed furthest back, and the Lancastrian position now had its back to the steep slopes above the Cocks Beck creek.

At last, Norfolk arrived from the southeast, marching up the Old London Road, with the remaining Yorkist forces. These now joined the battle, pushing back the Lancastrian left. The Lancastrians fought on for a time, but momentum had clearly shifted to their opponents. Then, as happened in ancient and Medieval battles, the line suddenly gave way as men began to flee in panic.

Now the bloodbath began in earnest.

Fleeing Lancastrians were closely pursued closely by their vengeful Yorkists foes. Today, a low meadow on the western edge of the battlefield is known as Bloody Meadow in remembrance of the slaughter there. The fleeing Lancastrians tumbled down the steep slope of the Cock Beck, into the icy creek. Here and further north at the River Wharfe at Tadcaster, panicked and exhausted men still wearing their armor, plunged forward, and falling into the water, drowned. This continued until there were enough dead to form a bridge of human corpses, across which their comrades could cross. At Tadcaster a wooden bridge broke under the weight of the armed men, plunging many into the freezing water. At these crossing points, choked with refugees, the slaughter was greatest, as the congestion allowed the pursuers to catch those attempting to cross. At Tadcaster, 2 miles to the south, other Lancastrians, trying to hide in buildings and cellars, were hunted down and killed.

Cock Beck creek, where many Lancastrians drowned or were cut down attempting to cross.

Many apparently had thrown off their helmets as they ran, and the ghastly damage seen on the skulls recovered in mass graves show just what happens when poleaxe, war hammer or longsword strike naked heads. The number of wounds (one victim’s skull displays eight separate wounds) speak to the frenzy of killing that overcame the pursuing Yorkists.

Towton Rout

From Bloody Meadow to Tadcaster the snow-covered fields were littered with bodies. The total dead were estimated by heralds to be 28,000; of which all but 8,000 were Lancastrian. The disparity in number of dead can be explained easily: in all pre-modern battles the worst casualties were inflicted during the pursuit of a defeated enemy.


Many of the great lords of the realm were either slain here or executed shortly thereafter. These included the Earls of Northumberland and Devon, Lord Dacre, and Sir Anthony Trollope. Another prominent Lancastrian, Lord Clifford, had been killed just prior to the battle, at the skirmish at Dinting Dale. The Lancastrian cause was decimated, and would never recover. Margaret, Henry and Somerset fled north to Scotland, while those Lancastrian lords who were not killed or dispossessed of their titles were forced to make peace and acknowledge their enemy’s leader as King Edward IV.

The War of the Roses was all but over. Though it would continue to flare up over the next 20 years, these were small brush fires, not major conflagrations. Edward’s reign (“the Sun of York”) would last 21 years. He would prove an able if not always wise king; his crown assured by Bloody Towton: a most sanguinary affair.

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On Good Friday, April 23, 1014 just north of Dublin a momentous and bloody battle was fought. At stake was the nascent unification of Ireland under its first true king, Brian Boru; and the future influence of the Vikings, who had settled and meddled in Ireland for nearly two centuries. The battle that resulted changed the course of Irish history, forever!

(This is the second of two parts. It is highly recommended to read Part One first.)

Following his stay with Jarl Sigurd in Orkney over the Yuletide celebration, Sitric Silkbeard returned to Dublin. There he informed his mother, Gormlaith, of his success in securing Sigurd’s aid in their coming showdown with Brian; and of his promise to the Jarl of her hand in marriage once they were victorious. Gormlaith was well-pleased with this arrangement, and congratulated her son on his mission. However, she was still not satisfied that her son had sufficient allies to challenge Brian Boru in battle. She told him he should voyage to the nearby Isle of Man; where the Manx Viking leaders, Brodir and his brother Ospak,  had a fleet of 30 longships. There, he should seek the alliance of these two fierce Viking warlords, and offer them whatever it took to gain their aid.

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Little is known of the political situation on the Isle of Man in the early 11th century. It had been part of the Viking world since the 8th century; sometimes ruled from Dublin, other times from the Orkneys. Was it as some point in this era governed as an independent fief? We just don’t know. But at the end of 1013 the two brothers, Brodir and Ospak, were at Man with a fleet of 30 ships. Were they the rulers of Man at this time, using the island as their stronghold? Or were they merely a passing fleet of Vikings who had taken up temporary anchorage for the winter?

On this the sources are unclear.

The brothers are only mentioned in the 12th century Irish Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib and in the 13th century Icelandic Njal’s Saga, which describes them as “lying off the west of Man”. This would seem to infer that they were merely lying at anchor; the second of the two options above.The saga says they had a fleet of 30 longships and perhaps as many as 2,000 followers: “men of such hardihood that nothing can withstand them”[1]. For the reasons elucidated below, a more likely number for their host is about 1,500 [2]. These Manx Vikings are described as  “Danmarkians” (Danes); “the chiefs of ships and outlaws and Danars of all the west of Europe, having no reverence for God or for man, for church or for sanctuary.”[3] This sounds like a mixed band of Viking freebooters, come to serve under these two chiefs. Certainly throughout the reign of the feckless Æthelred bands of Danish Vikings had raided England continuously. With Svein Forkbeard seeming to have brought England under his sword in 1013, the “worst-of-the-worst” may have taken ship to Man to find new service and new prey under Brodir (or perhaps led there by him). [4]

This was a time of great ferment in the Viking world, with Danes and Jomsvikings assailing England over the last decade, and Norway long the scene of civil war between the royal house of Harald Fairhair and the powerful Jarls of Lade. From these campaigns many bands of hardened warriors likely spun off the mainstream and ventured on their own, taking advantage of opportunities such chaos affords the bold and ruthless.

Such was likely this band of Manx Vikings under Brodir and Ospak.

The origin of Brodir and his brother is equally mysterious and even more intriguing. One modern scholar working from other sources describes the brothers as  Danes living on the west coast of the Isle of Man [5]. Another, working from the Irish chronicle The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill, describes them as “Broder and Amlaff “(Olaf), “son of the king of Lochlann” and “two earls of all the north of the Saxon-land (England)” [6]. The Irish chronicle names him “Brodar”, and calls him the “son of Osli, the earl of Caer Ebroc” (York) [7].  York (Viking Jorvik) had been added to the English kingdom in the 10th century by the descendants of Alfred the Great. However, in the chaos surrounding the Danish invasion and the last days of Æthelred the Unready, it is conceivable that a Danish warlord (Brodir), perhaps a follower of Svein Forkbeard,  could have been styled however briefly as Jarl/Earl of Jorvik; and had either fallen-out with his liege and fled to Man; or was merely on an extended Viking expedition, and wintering at Man before returning to Jorvik. It’s an intriguing set of possibilities.

Interestingly, Brodir is not a proper Danish or Norse name; but instead means “brother”. The sources call him a former mass-deacon, before he renounced Christianity and reverted to paganism. Could “brother” have been not his name, but a sobriquet? An alternate theory is that it is derived from the Irish name variously written as Bruattar, Bruadar or Brodur; the root of the name “Broadrick “. Could Brodir have been a gallóglaigh; a member of the warrior-class of mixed Norse-Gaelic ancestry, which the Irish called Gall Gaeil (foreign Gaels)? It is conceivable that the brothers had even been displaced from their Irish homes during Brian’s war against the Vikings of Munster. It is not impossible that Brodir had a very personal grudge against Brian; though if so it was one his brother, Ospak, didn’t share.

Brodir himself is described as tall and strong, his black hair so long that he braided it and tucked it under his belt!  It was also said that “he had a coat of mail on which no steel would bite.”[8] Of Ospak we know even less, except that he was a pagan as well, and had at least two grown sons with him among the Manx Vikings warriors.

The moody coast of Man, where Brodir and Ospak lay at anchor in the winter of 1013

On arriving at Man, King Sitric approached the brothers and sought to enlist them to his cause. Brodir at first refused; ’til Sitric offered him the same rewards that he’d proffered to Jarl Sigurd: namely, the kingdom and his mother, Gormlaith, to wife. The men agreed, with the understanding that their arrangement would be kept secret from Jarl Sigurd. We have no way of knowing how Sitric would have eventually reconciled these duplicate offers made to his new allies; but presumably he felt that was business for tomorrow, while defeating Brian was the matter at hand. He left with Brodir’s pledge to come to Dublin by Palm Sunday, 1014.

However, Brodir’s brother Ospak was not as enthusiastic. Ospak declared that he for one had no desire to fight against “so good a king”[9] (or one so powerful) as Brian Boru. The brothers quarreled, with Brodir threatening violence against his brother and all who stood with him. The saga is filled with tales of supernatural portents and events at Man following their quarrel, all of which were omens of disaster for Brodir if he persisted in making war against Brian Boru. Whatever actually occurred, the next day Ospak fled from his brother’s army, taking with him a following of 10 ships and their crews (500 men?). He sailed to the western coast of Ireland, and up the Shannon River; where he found King Brian at his capital of Kincora. There Ospak and his band were taken into Brian’s service; and Ospak was baptized a Christian.

Meanwhile on Man, Brodir prepared to take those of his warriors remaining and sail for Ireland; where his destiny awaited.


In the first months of 1014, “the war arrow” passed throughout the lands adjoining the North Sea. Not just Sigurd of Orkney and Brodir of Man answered Sitric and Gormlaith’s request for allies. Men came from the Scottish Isles, from England, from Iceland and from Scandinavia. Nor were Brian and his ally, Malachi of Meath idle. From all over Ireland chiefs pledged their aid; and even Scottish lairds with ties to Ireland prepared to cross the Irish Sea and join Brian Boru. What began as a family squabble had grown into the greatest contest between the Gael and the Gall since Arthur faced the Saxons at Badon!

On March 17, Brian Boru set out with all the forces who owed him allegiance. His own Dál gCais aside, the chief of these were the princes of Connacht, Mael Ruanaidh Ua hEidhin (O’Hyne) of Hy Fiachrach (south Galloway), and Tadhg Ua Cellaigh  (O’Kelly) of Hy-Many. Meathla O’Faelan, Lord of the Deisi-Mumhan, led the men of South Munster. The southern  Uí Néill, led by Brian’s ally (not vassal), Malachi of Meath, completed the army: between 7-12,000 men.

The Ard-Rí’s host camped again at Kilmainham,  2.5 miles west of Dublin. From there he sent raiding parties to ravage the rich Danish farmland north of the Liffy River. From Fingall to Howth the farms and villages that fed Dublin were set ablaze. Brian detached a second raiding force of his own Dalcassians under his young son Donnchadh mac Briain (Donogh O’Brian), his son by Gormlaith, south to devastate his uncle Máel Mórda’s lands of Leinster. The lad (who couldn’t have been much older than 13) would be spared the brutal encounter to come; one in which he might find himself matching blades against his own uncle or half-brother.

Map of Clontarf alt

Watching the smoke rise from the walls of Dublin was Sitric and his mother, as well as Brian’s own daughter, Sláine, who as wife of Sitric viewed the coming events with deep trepidation. With them too was Sitric’s uncle, Máel Mórda, whose Leinstermen were camped around the city in three divisions, guarding the approaches. They fumed at the destruction of their lands, but waited till their allies from across the sea arrived to give battle.

The Viking fleets began arriving on Holy Week, leading up to Good Friday. Though the sources make it seem that fleets of Sigurd and Brodir arrived together on Good Friday, and joined Máel Mórda on the field of Clontarf that same day (one account even suggesting they came, left, then returned again in order to surprise Brian), this is on its face absurd. It would take extraordinary timing and coordination for two separate fleets, one setting out from the Orkney Islands and the other from the Isle of Man, to arrive at Dublin on the same morning. There is no suggestion that the two leaders were in contact, nor working in coordination, prior to arriving at Dublin the week before the battle, where they held a “war council”. But even had Sigurd’s fleet stopped first in Man to link-up with Brodir’s 20 ships (and their is no mention of this in either the saga or the Irish chronicles), their combined forces would be unlikely to have arrived just in time to take part in the battle. They would, instead, have arrived in the Bay of Dublin at the mouth of the Liffey separately, not together, in the days before Good Friday. Sigurd and Brodir would have rested their men, and conferred with their allies in Dublin, making their plans.


The saga talks about  Brodir consulting “the gods”concerning the battle to come. He received scant comfort from these auguries: if the allies fought before Good Friday, they would fail and all be destroyed. But if they fought him on that day, Brian would fall, though still triumph.  Neither prophecy was good for the allies, but with Brian slain the future was at least more promising. The decision was made: the host would give battle on Good Friday, April 23, 1014.


Where was the battle of Clontarf actually fought?

The obvious answer would seem to be at Clontarf, today a suburb 3 miles to the northeast of Dublin. While many accept this at face value, others put the battle further west and south. The question deserves discussion.

The traditional location at Clontarf proper claims the allies left Dublin and marched across the Liffey, then crossed the Tolka, and deployed on the plain between that river and modern Clontarf (then only a weir where fisherman moored their boats, and where the Viking ship were now said to be beached).  The battle fought here would have centered on Marino, with the allied left on the Tolka guarding the crossing point (approximately where the Luke Kelly Bridge and Windsor Avenue cross the river today), and their right out as far as where Clontarf Golf Club is today; a frontage of just over a mile.


Traditional view of campaign and deployment of the armies

This theory has only one advantage: it puts the battle close to modern Clontarf.

But it has several logical drawbacks.

First, consider where Brian’s army was located: he was camped at Kilmainham, 2.5  miles west of Danish Dublin. His army would be approaching Dublin from the west. What sense did it make for the allies to march out of Dublin, cross the plain between the Liffey and the Tolka, then cross the Tolka to deploy; all the while exposing their left flank to harassment or outright attack as they marched?[10] Worse, once deployed, what was to keep Brian marching eastward from simply cutting their line of retreat across the Tolka, and attacking their left wing? Why would the allied commanders march their army 3 miles away from their base, needlessly tiring their troops and (more importantly) exposing their line of retreat? To what purpose?

One response that is usually proffered is that Brian approached Dublin from the north; and that the allies left Dublin to meet him north of the Tolka at Clontarf. But though he sent raiding parties north of the Tolka at Fine Gall and Howth in the days before the battle, all the sources agree he marched that morning from his camp, still at Kilmainham.

Another answer to this  question that is usually given is that the Viking’s ships were drawn up on the strand at Clontarf; and they fought to protect these. But this explanation is absurd on its face. Those ships could just have easily been moored on the south bank of the Liffey, east of Dublin, were they in danger.

This rationale also ignores where these ships were likely moored. The coastline near Dublin has changed considerably in the intervening millennium; with centuries of silt deposited by the Liffey and Tolka moving the harbor further east. In the 10th century, the sea reached up the modern course of the Liffey as far as Amiens Street, about where the Famine Memorial stands today. In Brian’s time, the coastline near Clontarf  and the Tolka likely ran roughly along the modern Fairview Strand.  Fairview Park was tidal flats in Brian’s day. That might put the “weir of Clontarf” (the name given the battle in some of the oldest sources) between Richmond Road at Fairview to (perhaps) Marino College. This would have been a logical place for the Viking ships to have beached, a protected anchorage with a place ashore at the western edge of modern Clontarf for their forces to make camp.

Finally, and most persuasively, we know from the accounts that Sitric, Gormlaith, and Sitric’s wife Sláine (Brian’s daughter) watched the battle avidly from the walls of Dublin. Then the city was wholly on the south side of the Liffey; approximately occupying the area between where now stands Dublin Castle and Trinity College. The Danish fortress, where Sitric’s party watched the battle,  would have been on the northwest side, likely near or at the site of the castle [11]. It would be impossible to view the battle clearly, as they apparently could, if the battle were fought on the traditional site north of the Tolka, 3 miles away.


View of Dublin harbor from the shore at Clontarf. The distant lights of Dublin can be seen in the distance beyond the harbor towers. It is unlikely that a battle fought here could be viewed from Dublin; as would have to be the case if the battle site were where usually placed at Clontarf.

All of this suggests an alternative location, similar to what was proposed by Joyce: between the Liffey and the Tolka. This would make far more sense, both protecting the ships moored at Clontarf Weir and staying close to their base (and place of refuge in case of defeat), Dublin. They would not have to make a pointless 3 mile march away from Dublin, exposing their flank in the process. It would also allow Sitric and his party to watch the battle clearly, as the sources agree they did.

The allied line would have been drawn up facing west, with their back to the sea. Dublin would have been on their left, and their flank would have rested on the Liffey near modern Strand Street, guarding the sole crossing point at Dubhghall’s Bridge (tentatively identified as the Father Mathew Bridge at Church Street). Their line would have loosely followed modern Dorsett Street, extending perhaps as far as Drumcondra (as Joyce suggests), though unlikely as far as the Tolka, which would mean a dangerously thin line indeed. I would suggest that the Viking right rested near modern Fitzroy Ave. In the 11th century, a broad forest, Tomar Wood, covered parts of Drumcondra in the north and extended west toward Phibsborough. This would have provided a natural resting place for both armies’ northern flanks. The Irish, coming from Kilmainham, would have deployed facing east, parallel to their enemy; with Tomar Wood on their left and the Liffey on their right. Interestingly, there is an obvious burial mound near where the Irish left flank would have rested, called (intriguingly enough) Brian Boru’s Mound, by Dalcassian Downs. This would accord well with this theory: that after the battle, the Dalcassian dead were buried in a mass grave very near to where they fought and died.

Here was a plain with boundaries upon which the armies could rest their flanks (something every general looks for), with room to deploy two armies of perhaps some 20,000 men [12].

The flaw to this tentative placement of the battle is exactly the opposite of what commends the traditional location: the battle site is not at all at Clontarf!

But if one moves the weir of Clontarf further west with the shifting coastline, and remember that earlier descriptions of the battle called it the “fight at the weir of Clontarf”, this objection can be overcome. The battle was fought on the old road from Dublin to Clontarf; with the Viking ships and the weir behind the allied right flank.

Though we are placing the battlefield between Dublin and Clontarf, and could more accurately call it the “Battle of Drumcondra”, we will of course continue to call the battlefield “Clontarf”.


As dawn broke on Good Friday 1014, the Gaels came to Clontarf.

Brian’s host marched from their camp at Kilmainham in three divisions, the old king riding at their head. First came the fierce Dalcassians, commanded by Brian’s heir Prince Murrogh , numbering perhaps 1,500. With them was Ospak’ force of Manx Vikings, likely another 500 men. These would form the left of the Irish line, opposing the foreign Vikings; though Ospak and his Danes were sent to the opposite flank so they would not have to fight their former comrades. Behind these came the second division, the 2,000 men of South Munster led by Meathla O’Faelan, Lord of the Deisi-Mumhan. With them were brigaded two companies of several hundred Scots commanded by the Great Stewards of Mar and Lennox; related to the south Irish and now come in Brian’s hour of need. 1,500  wild clansmen of Connacht, led by O’Kelly and O’Hyne, formed the third division. Malachi’s Meathmen, perhaps another 3,000 men, marched apart. As Brian’s forces began to deploy, the Meathmen formed up far in the rear, on the hill of Cabra; Malachi intent on holding his kerns in reserve.

There had been dissension among the Irish leaders during the war council the previous day. Brian was loath to fight on Good Friday, especially with part of his forces still raiding in the south under his youngest son, Donnchadh. But hearing that the Gall were intent on battle that day, he decided to accept their challenge and settle the war with a single cast of the die. Perhaps he was worried about a repetition of the previous year’s campaign, when Sitric and Máel Mórda had remained within the walls of Dublin till Brian’s supplies were exhausted. Here was the opportunity to settle the matter. However, for reasons now unknown, Malachi of Meath did not agree with Brian’s plans. Whether the proud Uí Néill disdained the role assigned his Meathmen; or was likewise reluctant to fight on Good Friday; or still nourished a jealous (and all too understandable) grudge against his former rival Brian is unknown, and from the distance of a millennium unknowable. [13]

So as the Irish army deployed, the men of Meath stood apart. Like Lord Stanley at Bosworth, they would remain on the heights of Cabra observing the battle until both sides were near exhaustion.

King Brian, at 73 years too old to fight in this, his last battle, turned command over to his son Murrogh. Brian would spend the battle in the rear, praying in his tent erected at the edge of Tomar’s Wood. Before he departed, though, he addressed his warriors. His white locks blowing in the wind, high above them astride his horse, Brian called on the kerns and nobles to remember centuries of wrongs visited upon Ireland by the Lochlannach. He reminded them that this was Good Friday, the day their Lord had given his life for them. He exhorted them to fight for their faith and for Ireland.

Waiting for Brian’s host was the allied forces of Leinster, Dublin, the foreign Vikings and contingents from abroad. The Irish chronicle says that these latter came from as far afield as Normandy and France; even stating that a son of the king of France (and also of Lochlann) served in the ranks of the foreign Vikings. This is of course nonsense; but “adventurers” throughout northern Europe, and particularly from the lands of the Vikings, likely came like wolves to share in the despoliation of Brian’s kingdom. We know from Njal’s Saga that several Icelanders came in the service of Jarl Sigurd, having been caught up in the domestic strife that racked their homeland at this time. A prince of Norway, Olaf Haraldson, later to become King Olaf the Stout, was at this very time raiding in the British Isles. It is not impossible that he is the prince the Irish chroniclers have in mind.

Clontarf deployment

The allies deployed with Máel Mórda and his Leinstermen anchoring the left end of the battle line, and protecting the vital crossing point at Dubgall’s Bridge; the only way across the Liffey and their line of retreat back to Dublin. They would oppose the Munster clans, Scots, and Ospak’s Manx Vikings.  The center was held by the Hiberno-Scandinavians (Danes and Norse) of Dublin. Sitric would remain in the fortress, with a thousand men to ensure their stronghold’s security. His warriors would be commanded by his half-brother, Dubghall Olafson. He would face the wild men of the west, the clans of Connacht. Finally, on the right flank, the place of honor, stood the “grey men”, the iron-clad shieldwall of foreign Vikings, commanded by Sigurd and Brodir. Leading them were an assortment of lesser chieftains; among them sixteen champions, “captains of fleets” [14], “every one of them a man to combat a hundred, on land or on sea”. These foreign “gall”  would face Brian’s fiercest troops, the Dalcassians led by Prince Murrogh.

In all, the allies number some 7,000 (with perhaps another 1,000 with Sitric defending their stronghold of Dublin. The numbers on the field were roughly equal, with Malachi and the Meathmen standing apart.

The Northmen presented a strong contrast to their Irish foe. They wore conical helmets and were clad in shirts of mail, each ring riveted closed around its neighbor, proof against arrow or slashing blow from sword or dirk. An iron-rimmed round or kite-shaped shield of  sturdy leather-covered linden completed each carl’s defensive panoply. They were armed with spear and broadsword, belt ax and saex; and most fearfully of all, the famous five foot long  Danish long-ax, capable cleaving a man in twain or beheading a horse with a single stout blow. These legions of lochlann stood in the compact ranks of the shieldwall, each man’s shield touching or overlapping that of the sword-brother to his right. Few warriors anywhere could stand before them, and from Iceland to Constantinople they were accounted the worlds most feared fighting men.


Waving above their iron ranks was Jarl Sigurd’s legendary raven banner. Woven by his witch mother, it was infused with eldritch spells and arcane protections. It was said to ever bring victory in its wake, even while ensuring the doom of the man who bore it.

Unlike their foe the Irish disdained armor, save for a steel casque to protect their heads. Their ranks were as tightly packed as the Vikings’. The chronicle says a “four-horse chariot could run from one end to the other of the lines on either side, on their heads”, meaning traveling on the heads of the warriors without ever touching the ground! The kerns fought with nothing but a tunic (saffron being a favorite color, particularly among the Dalcassians), a leather-covered targe their chief defense. For armament they carried a bundle of darts, short-shafted javelins, and dirks. Many of the warriors had, after years of warfare, adopted the axes so favored by their foreign enemies.

Feudal-51-53-Irish_Warriors (1)a

The Dalcassians in particular had obtained a mastery of the single-handed battle ax. Though it had not the reach of the Danish long-ax, it could shatter Viking mail and cleave the bone beneath.

… and they (the Irish) also carry, heavy battle-axes of iron, exceedingly well wrought and tempered.  These they borrowed from the Norwegians and Ostmen, of whom we shall speak hereafter.  But in striking with the battle-axe they use only one hand, instead of both, clasping the haft firmly, and raising it above the head, so as to direct the blow with such force that neither the helmets which protect our heads, nor the platting of the coat of mail which defends the rest of our bodies, can resist the stroke….Thus it has happened, in my own time, that one blow of the axe has cut off a knight’s thigh, although it was encased in iron, the thigh and leg falling on one side of his horse, and the body of the dying horseman on the other.” – Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales)

With just such deadly axes the Dalcassians had made themselves the masters of Ireland, and their lord its High King.


The two armies faced each other at extreme bow range as the chiefs prepared their men for the combat to come. As was common in this age, a Danish champion stepped out of the Viking ranks. He was Platt, who the chronicle calls “the bravest knight of the foreigners”. The night before he had challenged any warrior among the Irish to face him the next day. This call was answered by Donald the Great Steward of Mar, a leader of Brian’s Scottish allies and an ancient enemy of the Dane.

Where is Donald of Mar”, called Platt three times. “Here I am, rogue”, came the answer from his foe, as he stepped from the Irish ranks. The two faced-off between the  armies, who watched the duel as cheering spectators. The champions laid on each other with sword and shield, battling with such ferocity that both soon fell down dead; their swords in each other’s hearts and their other hands gripping their opponent’s beard. They were the first, though far from the last, casualties on the field of Clontarf. [15]

The battle began now in earnest.

First to make contact were the Dalcassians and the foreign Vikings, laying on with a fierce vengeance. Then the centers engaged, the men of Connacht and the Dublin Danes falling on each other. Last Máel Mórda’s Leinstermen, anchoring the left of the allied line, were assailed by the Deisi of south Munster, supported by Brian’s Scottish and Manx Viking allies. All day long the lines would be locked together, swaying this way and that with the fortunes of battle shifting. There was little in the way of tactics, nor were there cavalry or massed archery. This was one of the last European battles to be fought strictly by infantry, using spear, javelin, sword, and ax to stab and hack each other at close quarters till one side broke.

Early in the battle, the Vikings on the allied right had the better of it, as did the Leinstermen led by Máel Mórda on the left. The Dalcassians gave ground foot-by-stubborn-foot, as the mail-clad Viking shieldwall advanced beneath Sigurd’s grim raven banner. On the allied left the charge of the Munster clans had been checked. Máel Mórda had cut down Prince Maethla O’Faelan with his own hand. Ospak leading his Manx Vikings was wounded during the fierce fighting, in the course of which he would lose both of the sons fighting beneath his banner.

Selection of Viking weapons: 11th century

Spear, javelin, and ax heads from the period. Mounted on a 5′ shaft, the “Lochlann” ax was a fearsome weapon, capable of shattering both shields and mail, and the bones beneath!

From the walls of Dublin, Sitric and Gormlaith were elated, watching as Viking axes cut men down like ripe corn. Turning to his wife, Sláine, he said “well do the foreigners reap the field: see how they fling the sheathes to the ground!” Her heart with her countrymen, she quietly replied, “The result will be seen at the close of day.” [16]

In the center, the Connachta and Dubliners battled with near-suicidal courage. By the end of the day, both  were nearly wiped out. The leader of the Dubliners, Sitric’s half-brother Dubgall son of Olaf, was among the dead. As were both  O’Kelly (nephew of Malachi) and O’Hyne, chief among the princes of Connacht.  The chronicle says that of the men of Connacht only one hundred survived the contest; and of the Dubliners a mere twenty escaped with their lives!


Murrogh raged about the battle, with an elite retinue of seven score sons of kings [17]. Beside him fought his fifteen year old son, Turlogh. Murrogh seems to have acted as something of a fire brigade, charging in where the Irish were hardest pressed, and stemming the enemy’s momentum. He fought with a broadsword in either hand, dealing death wherever he stood.

From the heights behind the battle, Brian Boru sat in his tent, praying, surrounded by a bodyguard and attended by a squire, Laiten. Throughout the day, he would ask Laiten to report what he could see of the battle. At one point (likely in the early afternoon) Laiten reported that “the battalions are locked in deadly struggle, and there blows sound as if a vast multitude were hewing at Tomar’s Wood with heavy axes.” He observed that Prince Murrogh’s banner waived above the Dalcais.

At some point Máel Mórda, on the allied left, found himself facing Conaing Mac Donncuan, a nephew of Brian’s, fighting in the ranks of the men of south Munster (the Irish chronicle calls him king of Desmond). Sixteen men of their respective guards fell around the two leaders, before they slew each other in combat. Thus fell Gormlaith’s brother and Sitric’s uncle; the man’s whose jealous spite started the war that now claimed his life.

On the Viking right,  Brodir fought all day at the head of his Manx Vikings, hewing through the Irish shields with his great axe. The saga states that “Brodir went through the host of the foe, and felled all the foremost that stood there, but no steel would bite on his mail.”[18] But then he was met by an Irish warrior called Wolf the Quarrelsome; who may have been a commander of the Dalcassians and even related to Brian. The saga goes on to say Wolf “thrust at him thrice so hard that Brodir fell before him at each thrust, and was well-nigh not getting on his feet again; but as soon as ever he found his feet, he fled away into the wood at once.”[19]

This account of Brodir deserting his men and fleeing would be hard to credit, had it come from the Irish chronicle of the battle. But it is recounted in the Icelandic Saga, which one would expect to be more sympathetic with the Viking side. The Irish chronicle only says that Brodir fled when his fabled mail failed him under the blows of the Dalcassian axes. The desertion of their warlord must have demoralized his followers, locked in brutal combat with the Dalcassians.

Clontarf-Battle detail 2

Prince Murrogh, enraged at seeing his Dalcais mowed down by the advancing Norsemen,  now charged forward where Sigurd’s raven banner stood waving above the Jarl. Cutting his way through the Orkneymen’s shieldburg, he hacked his way to the banner, cutting down its bearer. The fight around the standard was ferocious, as another Norsemen took up the standard, only to also meet his wyrd at the hands of the enraged prince soon after.

Robert E. Howard, writer of fantasy and occassional historical fiction, working from Njal’s Saga captures brilliantly what followed:

Sigurd, seeing his banner fallen once more, struck Murrogh with such desperate fury that his sword bit through the prince’s helmet and gashed his scalp. Blood jetted down Murrogh’s face, and he reeled back…Then a rush of warriors swept the raging chiefs apart. 

Sigurd now turned to an Icelander, Thorstein Hallson.

“Thorstein”, shouted Sigurd! Take up the banner!”                                                          “Touch it not”, cried (his friend and fellow Icelander) Asmund the White. “For all that bear it die!”                                                                                                                     (Sigurd turned to a third Icelander) “Hrafn the Red”, called Sigurd desperately, “Bear the banner!”                                                                                                                 “Bear your own curse”, answered Hrafn! “This is the end of us all.”                       “Cowards”, roared the Jarl, snatching up the banner himself and striving to gather it under his cloak as Murrogh, his face bloodied and eyes blazing, broke through to him. Sigurd flung up his sword – too late. The weapon in Murrogh’s right hand splintered on his helmet, bursting the straps that held it and ripping it from his head, and Murrogh’s left-hand sword, whistling in behind the first blow, shattered the Jarl’s skull and felled him dead in the bloody folds of the great banner that wrapped about him as he went down. [20]


With the fall of Sigurd, and evening coming on, the Irish made a concerted push against their now demoralized enemies. The much-thinned allied lines began to give ground. With victory clearly turning toward the Irish, Malachi, watching all this while from the Cabra heights, decided to throw his lot in with Brian. Like hunting hounds whose leash is slipped, the fresh Meathmen rushed down from the heights and threw their weight into the battle. Under this fresh tide, the allies at last broke.

What remained of the foreign Vikings fled towards their ships, left moored at Clontarf Weir. The rest fled back toward Dubgall’s Bridge and the safety of Dublin across the Liffey. But the Irish were fast on their heels, cutting down those who stood and chasing those who fled. The Meathmen succeeded in swarming between the bulk of the fugitives and Dubgall’s Bridge, and a great slaughter of the Gall took place there. As for the Vikings, an unpleasant surprise awaited them.

In one of those strange quirks of irony that history occasionally serves up, the long day’s battle had gone from dawn till dusk. The tide was now at flood, and the Viking’s ships now floated far out beyond the shore – far beyond their reach.

Some tried to swim for the safety of their ships, most drowning in the process. Others were caught by the vengeful Irish at the beach and slaughtered after a brief struggle.


From the walls of Dublin, Sitric’s party watched with mounting horror as their hopes of victory evaporated. Sláine, Brian’s daughter and Sitric’s wife, could not restrain her glee. Watching the Vikings attempting to flee to the shore and being driven into the sea, she mocked them saying, “the foreigners are making fast for their natural inheritance: the sea! They run like a herd of frightened cows!” [21] Her infuriated husband answered with a blow to her mouth with the back of his hand.

A humorous incident occurred in the midst of the slaughter. Prince Murrogh, leading the pursuit, came upon the Icelander, Thorstein Hallson, who had served Jarl Sigurd. Instead of fleeing or fighting, Thorstein had stopped to tie his shoe; and was now merely looking wistfully at the ships in the distance, out of reach. “Why aren’t you running”, the prince asked him? The Viking shrugged laconically, and replied, “I can’t run back to Iceland”. The Irish found this answer so funny that Murrogh let the Icelander live to return home. [22]

Tragedy soon followed comedy. Murrogh’s valiant son, fifteen year old Turlough, had fought well in his father’s retinue throughout the day. When the ranks broke up, he joined the chase, losing touch with his father in the process. Pursuing the enemy to the water’s edge, he plunged-in after a fleeing Norseman. His drowned body was later found by the weir, his hands clutched in the hair of his dead Viking prey.

Worst was in store for the Irish, and for the future of the Dalcais. Unaware of his son’s fate, Murrogh continued the pursuit in the fading sunlight, and encountered one of those scattered groups of Northmen still fighting on with despairing courage. This one included a Viking leader named Anrad [23], described as “head of valor and bravery of the army of Lochlann, and of all the Gall.”  He rushed upon Murrogh, who at this point was too exhausted to wield a sword. The prince grappled the Viking, and grasping the hem of his mail byrnie, lifted the shirt over head. The Dalcassian prince wrestled his enemy to the ground, where he drove the Viking’s own sword through his breast. But at the same moment, before he perished, Anrad slashed the prince across the belly with his knife, mortally wounding him. Murrogh would die, shriven, the following day.

Murrogh and Anrad

From the heights to the rear, Brian Boru still prayed in his tent. Late in the day, he asked his attendant Laiten how went the battle. “The ranks are so mingled and covered with blood and dust that no one could tell friend from foe. Prince Murrogh’s banner still flies above the ranks.” [24] Later, as the sun was setting, Brian again asked Laiten to tell him what he could see. “The ranks are thinned, and only a few brave heroes continue to fight. The Gall now flee, but Prince Murrogh’s standard has fallen.”

“These are evil tidings”, replied the aged king in despair. “If Murrogh has fallen, the valor of the men of Erin is fled, and they will never again see a champion of his like.” [25]

As the rout of the allies became complete, Brian’s guards, eager to join the pursuit, abandoned their charge and left the king alone with but his one attendant. Laiten begged Brian to mount his horse and return to the camp at Killmanham, where he would be safe from marauding Vikings fleeing the stricken field. But Brian replied, “What avails me, now in my old age, to survive Murrogh and the other champions of the Dalcais?”

Laiten’s concerns proved prescient.

Watching from the tent’s entrance, Laiten grew alarmed when he saw men emerging from Tomar’s wood. Brian asked him what they looked like. “Blue and naked men”, came the response. “They are Danes in their armor”, exclaimed the king! [26]

After fleeing the field and into Tomar’s Wood, Brodir had skirted the edge of the battlefield, working his way behind the Irish flank. Picking up a handful other fugitives along the way, he now approached Brian’s undefended tent.


As Brodir entered the king’s pavilion, the aged Brian rose with his sword in hand. Both men struck simultaneously, Brian’s sword hacking through the Viking leader’s leg, while Brodir’s ax “cleft” the king’s hoary head. By the time the guards returned, the final tragedy of Clontarf was played out: Brian lay dead, his killer dying beside him. [27]


The battle left the winners exhausted, and the losers nearly annihilated. When he returned to the Orkneys, Hrafn the Red was asked how many were left of his band: “all fell there”, came the reply [28]. The following day Brian’s younger son Donogh returned with the forces that had been raiding in the south, to find his father and older brother dead. The day was spent burying the thousands of dead.

Clontarf has been called “the reaping of kings”, where chiefs were garnered like sheaves of wheat at a harvest.  Over a dozen kings (or heirs to kings) fell on the Irish side; and with them some 1,600 tribal and clan nobles [29]. Of the allies who challenged Brian that morning on the field of Clontarf, no leader who took the field survived. The Irish chronicle names many leaders of the Gall who likewise fell; most of which are unknown to any other history. Included in the list are two grandsons of Ivar the Boneless.

The death toll is likely 4,000 for the Irish, perhaps more than 50% of their total forces. The allies lost some 7,000 of their fighting men, virtually the entire army. On a percentage basis, this makes Clontarf one of the bloodiest battles of the Middle Ages; a higher proportional loss than the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Clontarf has been portrayed as many things, most of them only partially true: the end of Viking domination in Ireland, the triumph of Christianity over Norse paganism, or even Brian Boru’s last great victory. But the Hiberno-Scandinavians would continue to rule Dublin for another century. Viking raids and invasions would continue as well (though none even threatened to conquer the island in the way Turgeis did in the 9th century). As for paganism, most of the Scandinavian countries had converted (or were in the process of conversion) anyway. Though Brodir and his band were pagans (and likely renegades for that reason), Jarl Sigurd and his Orkneymen were likely Christians (Olaf Trygvasson had converted the islands during his brief reign). Finally, if this was a “victory” for Brian, it was a “Pyrrhic” one indeed.

Though the Irish “won” the battle, perhaps the greatest loser were Brian’s Dalcassians. They marched to Clontarf the premiere clan of Ireland, their chieftain the High King of all Ireland. The day after the battle, they were so depleted that rival Munster clans demanded a return of the hostages given Brian in the previous years, and demanded Donagh turn over Dalcassian hostages as a sign of submission. Donagh would fight to hold his father’s patrimony, with limited success, for the rest of his days. The Dalcais’ day in the sun was over.

Malachi, who had stayed aloof through most of the battle, garnered the immediate laurels of victory. With Brian dead, he resumed the High Kingship of Ireland. But he never had the authority and stature of Brian Boru, and Ireland degenerated into the same internecine fighting that had divided the island before Brian.

Never would Ireland be closer to unity – to becoming one strong united kingdom – than it was under Brian, and could have been had his strong son, Murrogh, lived to succeed him. No leader of vision and ability came after him, capable of completing his work. While throughout Europe strong monarchs were creating the kingdoms of the Middle Ages, Ireland remained weak and divided.

Little more than a century after Clontarf, a king of Leinster would invite the Anglo-Norman marcher lord, Strongbow, into Ireland. The island would subsequently be dominated by the English till the 20th century.

Clontarf was the disaster that made English dominance a dark reality.



1. Njals Saga, Ch 154

2. After his brother detached a third of their fleet and sailed off to join Brian, the remaining two-thirds still under Brodir’s command, and which he brought to Clontarf, numbered 1,000. So one can infer from this that the combined host at Man numbered 1,500; with an average of 50 men per longship.

3. P. W. Joyce, A Concise History of Ireland; Ch. IX

4. That these men and their two leaders are described as Danish pagans is curious. The Danes adopted Christianity sooner than any other Viking race; under King Harald Bluetooth (970 – 975/986) around 960. While pagans were not persecuted, and men were free to practice the old religion in Denmark (unlike in Norway, where a few years later the first Christian king, Olaf Tryggvason , attempted forced-conversion of his pagan subjects), there was certainly every advantage in converting. That Brodir and his band were pagans may be significant: these may have been men who left Denmark as religious dissenters. That these men might have been outlaws from both the secular and religious authorities in their homelands would also explain this band of pagan Vikings at a time when paganism was fading in Scandinavia.

5. MacManus, Seumas (1921). The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland.

6. Joyce, Ch. IX. Lochlann is alternately given to mean either Norway or the Norse realms in Scotland and the western Isles. Could this mean that the brothers were actually Norse, not Danes at all? The royal house of Norway (the Yngling dynasty of Harald Fairhair) was at this time in exile; its heir, Olaf Haraldsson living the life of a Viking warlord and thought to be raiding in England. However, could the Irish source be confusing

7. McCullough, David Willis (2002). Wars of the Irish Kings: A Thousand Years of Struggle, from the Age of Myth Through the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Random House. P. 118

8. Njal’s Saga, Ch. XLIV

9. ibid.

10. Armies are always most vulnerable to harassment and attack when strung-out on the march. This is even more acute with tribal or clan armies such as the Irish at Clontarf; where small bands have a great deal of autonomy and little discipline. When engaged by enemy skirmishers, these can be more easily induced to break ranks and engage or pursue such enemies than disciplined, professional troops; and in so doing fall into misfortune.

11. Dublin castle was erected by the Normans in the 12 century, on the high ground were the kings of Dublin likely had their inner fortress and “hall” in the Viking times.

12. The numbers are speculative. Joyce, working mostly from the Irish sources, put the number at an improbable 20,000 on each side (40,000). While a united Ireland could have fielded such a force, the combined armies did not include all of Ireland (the northern O’Neil took no part), and there were only a few thousand foreign fighters present. A more likely number is between 7,000 and 10,000 per side.

13. Malachi’s behavior certainly appears, at best, opportunistic. A passage from a poem about the battle, written in the immediate aftermath by Brian’s court poet, Mac Liag, certainly suggests that the King of Meath contemplated treacherously abandoning Brian, and even advocated that his maternal nephew, the Connacht cheif O’Kelly of Hy Many. Malachi approached his nephew, and offered him riches and honors if he would stay out of the battle. O’Kelly refused, saying he loved Brian and the Dal Cais above all men.

14. Codadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh, edited by James Hethorn Todd, p. 173

15. Ibid, p. 175

16. Ibid, p.191

17. Idid, p. 169

18. Njal’s Saga, Ch. CLIV

19. Ibid. “Wolf the Quarrelsome” (or Ulf Hroda), as he is called in Njal’s Saga, does not appear in the Irish chronicles. Some have suggested he is synonymous with Cuiduligh mac Cennétig, a brother (or more likely half-brother) of Brian. At least one author has suggested he may be none other than Murrogh himself. The name “Ulf” is a Norse or Danish one, and seems unlikely to have been given to a brother of Brian Boru. It is possible, of course, that “Wolf” was an adopted or foster brother, of Hiberno-Norse heritage. It is of course impossible to say with any certainty, and this question remains a mystery.

20. This version of how Jarl Sigurd met his death, struck down by Murrogh bearing two swords, comes from the Irish chronicle. This event is recorded as happening late in the day, after the allies broke. I have chosen to place it late in the day; and a trigger event for the breaking of the allied host, as I think it would have likely been. Njals Saga merely says Sigurd was killed after taking up the banner with a spear.

21. Codadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh, edited by James Hethorn Todd, p. 193

22. Njal’s Saga, Ch. CLIV. This is a paraphrase, the true quote being: “I can’t get home to-night, since I am at home out in Iceland.”

23. The Irish chronicle is confusing, calling him first Anrad son of Ebric, king of all Lochlann; and later the son of Elbric. It has been pointed out that this passage might be translation instead as “a warrior, the son of Ebric” (Codadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh, edited by James Hethorn Todd, p. 194, fn 3). It is also suggested in the same source that this name could be a garbled version of “Eric”. While there is no known king in Norway, Denmark, or in the Isles by that name in this period; there was a king of Sweden, Eric the Victorious, who could have conceivably had an unknown son who fought and died at Clontarf.

24. Codadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh, edited by James Hethorn Todd, p. 199

25. Ibid, p. 201

26. Ibid, p. 206

27. In Njal’s Saga, the death of Brodir is portrayed differently. Found soon after by Brian’s returning guards, he is executed in hideous fashion by Wolf the Quarrelsome. In that account, Brian is not completely left undefended; but the “shieldwall” left to defend him was too undermanned to stop Brodir breaking through and cutting down the king. In both accounts, no mention is made of what became of the other warriors accompanying Brodir that Laiten spotted coming from the woods. The Irish Chronicle states that Brian cut both of Brodir’s legs from under him, cutting through the thigh of one and the ankle of the other, in a downward diagonal cut. For any warrior to do this with a broadsword would be a notable feat of arms; but for an aged man of Brian’s years to do so begs credulity, especially when one considers the amount of muscle a large and powerful warrior like Brodir would have had in his legs (not to mention the mail shirt that would have hung to mid-thigh). For this reason I omit this description from the narrative.

28. Njal’s Saga, Ch. CLVI

29. Codadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh, edited by James Hethorn Todd, p.211. Most of these “kings” or heirs were clan or tribal leaders, not kings of one of the major kingdoms of Ireland at the time.

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There are times when a defeat can become a triumph. Just as the heroic death of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae gave courage to the rest of Greece; so the last stand of a handful of brave Texians in a fortified Mission became a rallying cry for Texas’ independence: Remember the Alamo!


IN the predawn hours of March 6, 1836, the Mexican army of President and GeneralissimoAntonio López de Santa Anna stormed the battlements of the Alamo; slaying the defending Texan garrison to a man.

This battle, though neither final or decisive, was the seminal moment in the Texas War of Independence. It bloodied the Mexican army and lent the Texans both a band of martyred heroes and an immortal rallying cry: “Remember the Alamo”!


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