“For the Spartans, it wasn’t walls or magnificent public buildings that made a city; it was their own ideals. In essence, Sparta was a city of the head and the heart. And it existed in its purest form in the disciplined march of a hoplite phalanx on their way to war!” – Bettany Hughes, Writer/Historian

(For Part One, go here)


Sparta’s finest hour came in the early 5th century B.C. when Persia, the greatest empire that the Ancient World had yet produced, launched two separate invasions of Greece and Europe.

1412178.jpgThe Persian Empire had been founded by Cyrus the Great in the 6th Century B.C. Under Cyrus and his successors this empire had devoured all the other states of the Middle East. By the dawn of the 5th century the Persian Empire covered an expanse of land that stretched from Libya in the west to India in the east. Its northern borders rested on the edge of the vast Eurasian steppes, its southern on the Indian Ocean. In the west the Persian Empire bordered on the Aegean Sea, across which it eyed the turbulent, independent city-states of Greece with suspicion and disdain.

1412181In 546 B.C., the Cyrus the Great had incorporated the Greek cities along the Aegean coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) into his empire. But in 500-499 B.C., these Greek cities of Ionia had rebelled against Persian rule. In this revolt the rebels were aided by the Ionian “mother city”, Athens; as well as the small city of Eretria on the island of Euboea. The revolt was short lived; but Persian memory was long.

In 490 B.C. Darius I (called “the Great”) dispatched an expeditionary task force under two commanders, Datis and Artaphernes, to punish Athens and Eretria. The size of the force has at times been exaggerated, but was likely around 50,000 men. It was transported across the Aegean by a substantial fleet of warships.

The Persians quickly overcame and destroyed Eretria. The force was then landed on the Greek mainland at the beach of Marathon, only 25 miles from Athens. Athens sent to Sparta for aid.

But at that moment the Spartans were in the midst of a religious festival, and would be delayed till its completion, many days later.

So with only the 10,000 hoplites of their own city (plus a minor contingent from the nearby town of Plataea), the Athenians engaged the Persians on their own at Marathon.

The Battle of Marathon showed the world for the first time the inherent superiority at close-quarters fighting of Greek hoplites over the lighter armed archers of Asia. The Persian Army, despite its numerical advantage, was routed and thrown (literally!) back into the sea.

1412321.jpgTen years later Darius’ son and successor, Xerxes, launched a second invasion. This one was far, far larger in size and scope than his father’s. Darius had sent a punitive expedition. Xerxes led an invasion, the purposes of which was to bring the free city-states of Greece into “the fold” of the Persian Empire.

1412185.jpgTo this end Xerxes massed an army of immense size, drawn from the farthest regions of his vast empire. It included not only Persians, Medes, and Elamites, the “first races” of the Perisan Empire; but contingents levied from the far-flung corners of the empire and from beyond its fringes. Scythians from the steppes of what is now the Ukraine marched in line with warriors from far southern Ethiopia. Contingents from distant Bactria (Afghanistan) served with Ionian Greeks from the Asian coast. The Greek historian Herodotus, who lived through and wrote shortly after the Persian Wars (as the Greeks came to call them), claimed that the Persian host numbered at over one-million fighting men. However, most modern scholars believe the number to be between a quarter to a half as much as Herodotus assumed. Even so, it was an army so large (including camp followers and animals) that it is reputed to have drunk whole rivers dry as it passed!

Across the approximately one mile wide Hellespont (the modern Dardanelles) a pontoon bridge was erected. Made of several hundred biremes and triremes lashed together and supported by several hundred tons of flax and papyrus cable, it supported a packed-earth road over which the Persian horde marched, dry-footed, from Asia into Europe. This was a major engineering accomplishment, the likes of which would not be seen till modern times.

1412203.jpgThe Thracians and Macedonians submitted to the Persians without a fight, giving tokens of “earth and water”: symbols of obeisance to the Great King’s authority. The way was clear for Xerxes to march south into Greece unmolested.

The Greeks took council at Corinth, to decide how best to meet this deadly threat. After much debate, it was decided to dispatch an expeditionary force to Thermopylae (the “Hot Gates”), a spot along the coast where the mountains come down to the sea, creating a narrow passage.

1412159.jpgThe battlefield of Thermopylae looking from in front of the Phocian Wall toward the narrow West Gate. The ancient shoreline, which paralleled the current highway, is here restored. 

Though Thermopylae was not the only way the Persians could enter central Greece, it was the only practical way. The vast Persian host was far too large to feed itself on what it could carry, drag along, or steal from the surrounding country as it passed. It relied on the fleet to carry or transport from Asia enough stores to supply it as it marched south into Greece. Therefore, this vast horde had no recourse but to hug the coast, maintaining close contact with the equally vast armada Xerxes had levied from his maritime subject-states throughout the eastern Mediterranean.

And the coast road into southern Greece ran through Thermopylae!


It was decided at Corinth that the Spartans would lead in this war to save Greece from Persian domination. Therefore, the leader of the expedition to Thermopylae would be one of the two Spartan Kings.

The ephors and kings took council, and consulted with the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. ThePythiareturned a disturbing prophecy: either Sparta, or a Spartan king, must perish. For Athens, the Oracle’s prophecy was even more terrifying: “Flee, doomed men, to the ends of the earth!” However, upon “further review”, the Oracle modified the prophecy, adding that Athens would find salvation in her “wooden walls”. The meaning of the latter was taken by some leading Athenians, particularly her statesman, Themistocles, as meaning that Athens’ fleet, made of wood, would provide the wall of salvation between her and the Persians.

1412207.jpg Idyllic Delphi, site of the ancient Oracle. It was here that the Greeks came to learn their future from the “Pythia”, a priestess of Apollo. 

At last it was decided that King Leonidas, of the senior branch of the monarchy, the Agiadae, would lead a picked band of 300 Spartans to the pass of Thermopylae to spearhead and command a relatively small Greek advance guard of some 7,000 hoplites. Each of Leonidas’ 300 was chosen for two attributes: first, that they were men of proven valor; and second, that they all had living sons to take their place, should they fall. These were not the lean, muscled young men portrayed on-screen. Considering that a Spartan was not allowed to marry till he was 30 years old, and that “living sons” would likely mean grown or nearly grown young men, then the picked 300 Spartans were men in their 40s and 50s. Leonidas, born in the 540s, was himself a vigorous man in his 60s at the time of Thermopylae!

Late in the summer of 490 B.C., Leonidas and the 300 marched north to the pass, taking their station at the head of the allied force.

1412211.jpgStatue of Leonidas at Thermopylae. While no contemporary statue of the brave Spartan king exists, this modern piece conveys an impression true to what we know of this, Sparta’s most famous ruler!

Religious festivals and the coming Olympic Games kept the Greek states from immediately mobilizing their strength. It can also be speculated that in every Greek polis there were men in positions of influence who were pessimistic regarding resistance; and were simply hedging their bets, unwilling to commit too much of their manpower resources to trying to stop the seemingly unstoppable. Therefore few troops from other cities came to join the Spartans at Thermopylae. In all, some 7,000 Greek hoplites and skirmishers would comprise the defenders at the Hot Gates.

Though they brought only 300 out of the total force of 7,000, the Spartans and their king took command over the whole. One of the allied commanders, a Phocian, questioned the Spartan’s right to leadership when their contribution to the coalition was so small. Leonidas asked, “How many soldiers did you bring, friend?”

The Phocian replied, “We came with 1,000”.

Leonidas then asked him what he did for a living under normal circumstances. The Phocian answered, “I am a potter”.

Leonidas turned to another Phocian standing beside his commander. “What do you do, friend”? “I am a farmer”, this one replied.

Leonidas asked each of the Phocians standing nearby, and each gave a similar answer to the first: they each had a “civilian” occupation.

The Spartan king finally gestured towards his men, busy oiling their armor and sharpening their weapons.

“Well”, Leonidas pointed out, “I bring 300 soldiers”.[1]

Every Spartan was a soldier, a professional, every day of the year, in war or peace.


When the Persian hordes arrived and camped on the plain of the Spercheios River, at the northern end of the Thermopylae pass, Xerxes had his tent set up on a hilltop above the so-called West Gate of the pass, with a view of the Thermopylae. From there he could sit his high throne and observe his warriors when they advanced into the narrow neck of the pass. Looking down, the Great King saw what he thought, in the distance, were women sitting on stones, combing their hair. The king thought these some kind of Amazon warrior women. Standing beside Xerxes was a Spartan traitor: their exiled former king, Demaratus.


“Those are no Amazons”, warned Demaratus; “they are the Lacedaemonians (Spartans), your majesty: My own people, the bravest warriors in the world. They wear their hair long by law; for in Sparta long hair is considered to make a handsome man look even handsomer and an ugly one look fierce!

“They comb their hair before going into battle. For the Spartans go into battle as joyfully as other men go to a feast.”

Xerxes sent a herald forth to demand that the Spartans surrender. He warned the Greeks that resistance was futile, that the Great King’s army was so vast “their arrows would blot out the sun”.[2]

Dienekes, a Spartan officer who would later be esteemed by the Spartans as the most valiant man to fight in the battle to come, quipped back to the Persian herald, “All the better. Then we shall fight in the shade!”

The herald, astonished at this insolence, demanded one last time that the Spartans lay down their arms.

Now Leonidas responded: “Molon Labe!”

This, in Greek, meant: “Come and take them!”


The pass of Thermopylae was divided by three so-called “gates”. The narrowest section of the pass, where Mount Kallidromos pressed closest to the sea was the “West Gate”. This was the entrance through which the Persians must pass to get at the Spartans.

1412315.jpgBeyond the “West Gate” the pass opened up to a plain wide enough for fifty men to stand shoulder-to-shoulder. It was here, in front of a ruined wall built in the past by the local Phocian people, that Leonidas planned to fight his battle.

East of the Phocian Wall was the Middle Gate, and a mound which would later play a part in the battles final chapter. Past these was the East Gate, terminus of the pass of the Thermopylae.

That afternoon, the Great King watched from his high throne as his first division, the Medes, funneled through the narrow West Gate.

1412316.jpgThe second people of the Empire, this division of the army gave pride-of-place only to Xerxes own Imperial Guard, the Immortals. The Medes entered in their battle splendor, stepping proudly in their long flowing embroidered robes and trousers. Cuirasses of bronze scale girding their bodies, shields of wicker and short spears competing their panoply. Supporting the Medes in this initial assault were the Cissians, another proud people of the empire, differing from the Medes only in that they wore turbans instead of the bullet shaped, Assyrian-style helmets of the Medes.

These two divisions together numbers 20,000 troops. But Xerxes was to discover that though he had untold number of troops, he had few men!

On the plain in front of the Phocian Wall, the Spartan phalanx stood waiting. Though the usual depth of a spartan phalanx in battle was 12 ranks deep, there was room in the narrow pass for 300 men to form-up 50 shields across, and 6 ranks deep. Other Greek allies likely formed behind the Spartans, lending weight of depth to their phalanx.

Leonidas allowed the Medes to enter through the narrows, between cliff and sea. But once their vanguard began deploying in front of the phalanx, the Greeks advanced with locked-shields, closing rapidly with the Medes before their arrows could have much effect.

1412317.jpgHowever brave, the Medes’ lighter shields and shorter spears were no match for the great bronze-covered aspis and long thrusting spears of the Spartans. While the armor and shields of the Spartans would turn or blunt their enemy’s blows, Greek spears pierced both wicker shields and scale cuirass of the easterners. Never before had these men of the Empire faced a foe so heavily armed, nor so trained in close-quarter combat. All of their experience was against foes who fought like themselves: at a distance with barrage of arrow or javelin, only using the spear as a last resort, or to close and finish an enemy weakened by their arrow storm.

But the Greek style of war proved its superiority that day, again confirming the verdict of Marathon: that the Greek method of war was by far the deadlier. It was one which distilled warfare down to its essence: to close with the enemy and butcher him where he stood!

1412318.jpgThe Spartans also showed on that day what a life-time’s training in arms could do for a warrior. Though the battle raged all throughout that morning and into the afternoon, the Spartans never fatigued; nor did their courage flag. Several times Leonidas gave the command to fall back, and the Spartans would feign flight, as though finally panicked into fleeing. The Medes and Cissians would break ranks and give chase, falling for the ruse; only to have the Spartans turn about upon them, reforming instantly their bristling phalanx of spears and locked-shields. The carnage would then be especially terrible for the surprised and disordered Medes.

Seeing his first efforts come to naught, Xerxes recalled the bloodied Medes late in the day. To Hydarnes, commander of his elite Immortals, he now gave the command to clear the pass of these pesky Spartans; bringing back only a few survivors to be displayed in cages throughout Asia, as one does captured lions.

Instead, to the Great King’s shock and horror, the Immortals received the same rough handling the Medes had been dealt!

Three times Xerxes leapt up from his throne in terror for the fate of his soldiers as they fell in droves beneath the Spartan’s spears. Others were driven back upon the ranks behind, bumping these in turn back towards the narrowest section of the pass, where the sheer press caused many to fall into the sea and perish.

1412320.jpgThe sun set that first day at Thermopylae with the Spartans still in possession of the pass; and the Persian host shaken and demoralized.

The second day went much like the first, with division-after-division of the Persian host entering the pass. All met the same fate as those who’d come before.

1412327.jpgThe Spartans were “spelled” from time-to-time by the other Greek contingents. Many had by this time succumbed to wounds or fatigue, and not a Spartan still alive was free of wounds. But they held the pass, and for every one that fell twenty of their foeman fell first.

That evening, Xerxes despaired of ever budging the Greeks from the Hot Gates. There was fear among his officers that if he continued to order them to what seemed sure suicide he risked mutiny, especially among soldiers of the disaffected subject nations.

At that darkest moment, a Greek entered the Persian camp with information to sell. This traitor, named Ephialtes of Trachis, was a “local” who knew the surrounding hills. He offered (for a price) to show the Great King’s troops a way around Thermopylae, by a hidden trail through the hills which would bring the Persians behind the Spartan position.

1412326That evening Hydarnes and the remaining Immortals followed the traitor along this narrow goat path. Up and over the girding mountains beside the Hot Gates, till dawn found them descending again toward the sea. But now they were to the east of the pass, behind the defenders and threatening to cut off their retreat.

Unlike Xerxes, Leonidas was aware of the threat this path posed to his position in the pass. He had posted Phocians contingent in the hills along this track, to guard against such an eventuality. However, seeing the mass of Immortals descending toward their position, the Phocians loss heart and withdrew into the hills, allowing Hydarnes’ force to continue on.


From 1962’s “”300 Spartans”: Hydarnes and the traitor, Ephialtes, lead the Immortals through the mountains behind the Spartan position. 

Word of Hydarnes’ movement reached Leonidas at his station in the pass. The Immortals were still in the hills, winding their way down, and the road south not yet blocked. Realizing that the defense of Thermopylae was no longer tenable, Leonidas dismissed the other Greek contingents, sending them home. Greece would need them alive to fight another day.

For the Spartans, there could be no retreat.

Their pride and reputation would not allow it. Further, they had been ordered to hold the pass at all costs, till reinforce or dead. As no reinforcements had arrived, Leonidas and the survivors of the original 300 were prepared to obey their orders, and die defending the Hot Gates.[3]

Every Spartan spent his life in search of one thing more than any other: Kalos Thenatos, the “Beautiful Death” in battle. Here was the perfect time, the perfect place to leave an immortal name!

In any case, a rearguard must delay the Persians, allowing the rest of the Greek forces to withdraw un-pursued by the Persian cavalry.

With the Spartans remained two other Greek contingents: those of the city of Thebes, and that of another Boeotian town, the Thespians. The Thebans were suspected of harboring pro-Persian sentiments (joining the Persians was referred to as “Medizing”), and were being forced to stand as token of good faith.  For their part, the brave Thespians begged to be allowed to stand with the Spartans to the end. All would subsequently give their lives that day to buy time for their comrades to escape.

Leonidas bid all remaining to eat a good breakfast that morning; for by evening, they would all be dining in Hades.

At mid-morning, Xerxes ordered a frontal attack on the pass. Leonidas, knowing that Hydarnes and the Immortals would soon be coming up from behind them, ordered the Greeks forward to meet them and find death bravely.

1412332Herodotus says that here, during these final hours, the carnage was at its worst and the dead beyond counting. The dispirited Persian soldiers were driven forward with whips by their officers; while the Spartans fought with the reckless courage of men who know death awaits and have resigned themselves to taking as many of their foemen with them as possible.

Spears were sundered, swords broken, shields shattered, till the Spartans had nothing left to fight with but rocks picked-up from the ground. Or like wild beasts, their teeth and nails!

Yet still they fought on.

At some point, fighting in the foremost rank, Leonidas fell. A great struggle began over his body. Four times it switched hands, like a scene out of “The Iliad”, as the Greeks and Persians battled for the body of the Spartan king. The Spartans finally recovered their king’s corpse, just as Hydarnes’ detachment of the Immortals appeared in their rear.

1412168.jpg Two views of the hill where the Spartans made their final stand. Above, the hillock viewed from near the ancient shoreline. Below, looking from “last stand hill” toward the battle plain and the West Gate in the distance. The road seen at the lower right is approximately where the ancient shoreline ran. 1412171.jpgDrawing off to a small hillock (known unofficially today as “last stand hill”) the Spartans and the other surviving Greeks formed a circle, around the body of Leonidas. There they stood their ground, as the Persians pelted them from all sides with missiles, till not a man remained alive.

1412335.jpgThe Persians had forced the pass, and Greece lay before them. But at the Hot Gates they had paid a ghastly price for the real estate they had captured.

No source lists the number of Persian dead; but it is not likely that less than 25,000 Persian troops fell there (and the number may have been considerably higher). Among the dead were two sons and two brothers of Xerxes himself. Worst, the entire Persian army was demoralized. They had met the Greeks in a place where numbers counted for little, where only courage and skill at arms meant victory. In this they had clearly been bested. There was little doubt in the minds of every man in the Great King’s host that had not the traitor shown them a way around the pass, retreat or death would have been their only options.

In Sparta, the news from Thermopylae was greeted with no outward sadness. Mourning robes were nowhere in evidence; nor was their wailing and lamentations. The Spartans who had died were martyrs to Greek freedom, and were honored above all men as heroes of Sparta.

Thermopylae was, in many respects, the Spartan Alamo. It became a source of intense pride, and a rallying cry for every Greek. Free men had stood their ground, and proven superior fighters to mere “slaves” of the Great King. By giving Greece the pride and will to resist what had seemed an unstoppable enemy, Thermopylae saved Greece. By extension, it saved Western Civilization.

At Thermopylae, atop the hill where the 300 had made their last stand, the Spartans erected a memorial tablet. They commissioned the lyric poet, Simonides of Ceos, to inscribe these words:

“Go tell the Spartans, passerby, that here obedient to their laws we lie”


The Persian invasion would end the following year. The Persian fleet was first destroyed in the naval victory off Salamis against the combined fleets of the Greek states. His supply line now compromised, Xerxes was forced to withdraw with more than half of his army. The remaining portion of the Persian army, under Xerxes’ brother-in-law, Mardonius, would be destroyed at Plataea by a Spartan-led coalition force. There the Spartan phalanx would withstand a devastating arrow storm, followed by a charge of Persia’s finest armored cavalry led by Mardonius himself. The Persians were utterly routed, with Mardonius slain in the fighting!

1412338.jpgThermopylae and Plataea demonstrated the superiority of the Spartan warriors over all others. A reputation for invincibility was created, which would last for two generations. Only against other Greeks would the Spartans meet opponents worthy of their arms and which would challenge their hard-won status as the greatest fighting men in the world.

A word about Leonidas.

He was not the greatest Spartan king. Before Thermopylae, he wouldn’t have rated amongst the top five. He is the only one that most people today, some 2,500 years later, can name. Like William Barret Travis, who commanded the Texan defenders at the Alamo, the manner of his death reversed a life spent in relative obscurity, and made his name immortal.



  1. A suspiciously similar story is attributed to the Spartan king Agesiilaus, some 36 years later. See Bradford, E. Thermopylae: the Battle for the West, De Capo Press, 1980, P.66
  2. An alternative version of this story is told by Herodotus (7.226): “(…) the Spartan Dienekes is said to have proved himself the best man of all, the same who, as they report, uttered this saying before they engaged battle with the Medes:— being informed by one of the men of Trachis that when the Barbarians discharged their arrows they obscured the light of the sun by the multitude of the arrows, so great was the number of their host, he was not dismayed by this, but making small account of the number of the Medes, he said that their guest from Trachis brought them very good news, for if the Medes obscured the light of the sun, the battle against them would be in the shade and not in the sun.”
  3. Though it is nowhere attested in the sources, it is fair to speculate that the Spartans had come prepared for a suicide mission, understanding that they would not be returning. For this reason the 300 refused the annual issue of a new red cloak, understanding they had only weeks to live. This is why Leonidas only took older me with living heirs to take their place in the phalanx: these were expendables, and Sparta would live on even if they perished. Finally, the Oracle had warned that a Spartan king must die, or Sparta would perish. Surely, Leonidas knew he would not be returning. To save Sparta, he was prepared to sacrifice himself as had kings of old, to propitiate the gods with his own royal blood.


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.



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This is the sixth part of Deadliest Blogger’s politically incorrect look at the Crusades. Considering the sheer volume of material and scope of history involved, this can only be a cursory examination of the Crusades*; with the politically correct blinders removed. In this part we will look at the First Crusade, and the establishment of the Christian Crusader States in Syria and Palestine.

(For Part Five, go here; or, to start from the beginning, go here!)


In 1204 a singular event occurred which shook the western world: Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) Empire, long the impregnable bastion of Eastern Christendom and bulwark against Islamic expansion, was captured and sacked. Not by its Muslim enemies, but by an army of Christian “Crusaders”.

Thus the 13th century began with one of the greatest blights on the history of the Crusader movement. For the rest of the century one crusade after another was misdirected, seemingly attacking everywhere except to recover Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

From 1204 until 1272 Christian Europe launched eight Crusades (only six of which are counted as “official” Crusades). Of these, only two actually arrived in the Holy Land.

The Crusader movement had indeed “gone wild”!

It should be remembered that the original purpose of the Crusades, motivated by Pope Urban II’s sermon at Clermont in 1095, was to succor the beleaguered Christian empire of Byzantium from the Seljuk Turks; and to recover Jerusalem and the Holy Land, captured by the Muslims in the 7th century. Yet in 1204, just 109 years later, Constantinople was captured and sacked by a Crusader army.

How had this movement become so misdirected?

1387326.jpg Constantinople, “Miklagaard” the Golden City to the Vikings, was the greatest city in Europe till 1204. Within its walls were priceless works of art and literature from the Classic Age of Greece and Rome. The 4th Crusade arrive here in 1203 to return an exiled prince to power. Known today as Istanbul (below), the “Golden City” still echoes the glories of its imperial past. 1387463

The answer is that like all things created by man, the Crusades were able to be turned to the uses of the venial and corrupt; to be twisted for their own purposes by powerful and ambitious men.


The Third Crusade had failed to liberate Jerusalem; ending instead with a negotiated settlement between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin (See Part Five here). The dust had barely settled when the new Pope, Innocent III, was preaching another Crusade (1198). After some time and effort, the Fourth Crusade was launched.

The target of the Crusade was not Jerusalem or the Holy Land at all. But instead Egypt, the heart of the late Saladin’s Ayyubid empire, was where the Crusade would be directed. Defeating the Ayyubid forces there would cripple Muslim power in the region and allow for a relatively easy restoration of Jerusalem.

In 1202, a 13,000 strong Crusader army, composed chiefly of French and Flemish forces and led by Boniface, Marquess of Montferrat (younger brother to the late Conrad of Montferrat, Crusader King Jerusalem and cousin to Frederick I Barbarossa); contracted with the blind Doge (ruler) of Venice, Enrico (Henry) Dandolo, for transport to Egypt. From there, it was planned to deliver a crippling blow to the Ayyubids; the successors of Saladin who ruled both Egypt and Syria. From here, it was thought Jerusalem could subsequently be liberated.


Enrico (Henry) Dandolo, the “Blind Doge” of Venice

However, the cost of transportation was more than the Crusaders could pay. They reached a compromise with the Venetians: to stop in route and capture the Adriatic coastal city of Zara; a former Venetian dependency now aligned with Hungry. As the Crusader army invested the city, the terrified citizens hung banners marked with crosses from the battlements and windows of the city to show that they were fellow Catholics. This did not save them, and the Crusader forces nevertheless stormed the city, followed by the usual sack-and-pillage.

The unscrupulous Enrico Dandolo had thus used the zealous but impoverished Franks to achieve Venetian political ends, however irrelevant to the goals of the Crusade.

When word reached Pope Innocent III, he was immediately outraged at this attack upon fellow Christians. In a letter to the army’s leadership, the Holy Father threatened the Crusaders with excommunication. However, the Crusader leaders did not disclose the Pope’s letters to the rank-and-file, who continued to believe they had Papal absolution for any acts committed while on Crusade.

At this junction, an exiled Byzantine prince arrived in the Crusader camp, and history reached one of its turning points.

Alexios IV Angelos was the son of the deposed Emperor Isaac II Angelos. He now joined the Crusader camp as a guest of Boniface of Montferrat. Alexios Angelos offered the cash-strapped Crusaders a seemingly splendid offer: restore him to the Byzantine throne, overthrowing in the process the reigning “usurper”, his uncle Alexios III. In return, the exiled prince offered to pay the entire debt still owed to the Venetians, along with a further donation of 200,000 silver marks from the imperial treasury. He promised 10,000 Byzantine professional soldiers for the Crusade, and to undertake the maintenance of 500 Frankish knights to be stationed in the recaptured Holy Land. He further pledged the service of the Byzantine navy to aid in the transport the Crusader forces to Egypt. Finally (and perhaps most tantalizing) he offered to place the Orthodox Church under the authority of the Pope in Rome!

This was a staggering offer! Though the wily Dandolo, who had extensive knowledge of the situation in Byzantium, must have known that these were pipe dreams well beyond the ability of any Byzantine Emperor to deliver (the Empire’s treasury was near empty, her once proud fleet mostly scrapped, and neither the Orthodox clergy nor the people of Constantinople would ever submit to the Pope’s authority) the less informed Frankish leaders were eager to accept Alexios’ offer. Doge Dandolo had his own reason for encouraging the redirection of the Crusade to Constantinople.

1387227.jpgByzantium had once been the master of Venice, then its ally, and in the last century a commercial rival. Like many other states, the Venetians had long maintained a merchant community resident in Constantinople. The Venetians had proven to be bad guests in the city, brawling with their rivals the Genoese in the streets and demonstrating scorn for the city’s Greek citizens. In 1171, the Emperor Manuel I Comnenus had expelled the Venetians from the Empire, confiscating all of their property. A brief war had followed, and a state of tension had existed ever since.

Some historians have speculated that Enrico Dandolo had a more personal grudge against the Byzantines. It has been suggested that he lost his eye site as a younger man, as a result of a blow to the head received from the Greeks during a riot in Constantinople. However tantalizing it is to add a personal motivation to Dandolo’s actions and what was to come, there is no proof that the Doge lost his sight in Constantinople. The historian of the Crusade, Geoffrey de Villehardouin (who fought in the Crusade and knew Dandolo personally) states only that he lost his sight after a head wound.

The Doge needed no more motivation than that here, with the Crusaders willing to divert their efforts against Constantinople, he had found the perfect means of striking a blow against his city’s enemy, and to greatly expand Venetian power.

1387324 (1)The Crusader armada arrived at the great city at the beginning of July, 1203. Landing outside the suburb of Galatia, across the Golden Horn (the main harbor-inlet of the city) from Constantinople, they found themselves opposed by the Byzantine army drawn up for battle. The Frankish knights disembarked and charged immediately. The fury of their attack routed the Byzantine forces, some of whom fled into Galatia. The Franks, hot on their heals, captured the gates of this vital suburb, and with it the Tower of Galatia (not to be confused with the later Genoese construct). This fortress warded the entrance to the Golden Horn. A chain normally stretched across the harbor, from the Galatia Tower to a similar bastion on the Constantinople side. With the Galatia Tower captured, this “boom” was lowered, and the Venetian armada sailed into the Golden Horn.

1387471The sun setting over modern Istanbul, seen from the waters of the city’s splendid natural harbor, the Golden Horn. It was from here that the Venetian fleet attacked the city’s weaker sea wall.

The Crusader army set up camp to the northwest of the city, opposite the Blachernae Palace, the residence of the Imperial family. On July 17 the siege began in earnest with the Franks attacking the land walls, while the Venetians assaulted the weaker seawall guarding the harbor-side of the city.

1387404.jpgConstantinople boasted the strongest defenses of any city in the Western World.

Positioned on a broad peninsula, the landward side was guarded by the “Theodosian Walls”, a defensive system of triple walls. The outer-most and lowest wall was a mere breastwork, defended by a water-filled moat (though by 1204 the moat had long been left in disrepair and was but a weed-choked dry ditch). The middle wall was some 27 feet high, and was in turn overlooked by an even higher inner wall, whose towers reached up to 70 feet. Each wall could provide covering fire over the one before it.

1387406.jpgConstantinople had been besieged before: By Sassanid Persians, Avars, and Slavs, the Muslim Arabs (twice: in 674–678 and again in 717–718), by the Bulgars, by the Rus (three times, in 860907, and in 941), and by native Byzantine forces during time of civil war.

Never before had it fallen.

However, this was the first time the Golden Horn had fallen to an attacker, and while the Franks tied down the best Byzantine troops (the elite Varangian Guard) near the Blachernae, Venetian galleys sporting siege ladders assaulted the much weaker harbor wall. When the Varangians rushed to repulse the Venetians swarming over the battlements and into the harbor district, the Venetians set fire to that quarter before retreating. The fire greatly damaged the city, destroying some 120 acres of houses and shops, leaving some 20,000 residents homeless.

1387410.jpg The sea walls of Constantinople were strong, but not as strong as those on the land side. It was here that the Venetians were able to assault into the city from the harbor (below).
1387411.jpgAlexios III now led a large part of the garrison outside the city, against the Franks opposite the Blachernae district. Despite outnumbering the Crusaders, the Emperor lost his nerve and retreated back into the city without striking a blow! This disgrace turned the army against him, and Alexios fled the city, taking with him much of what remained of the treasury. The Byzantine officers deposed the Emperor, and releasing the deposed  Isaac II returned him to the imperial throne.

This put an end to the fighting. The Franks had achieved the deposition of the “usurper”, and placed the “rightful” ruler on the throne. But eight years of imprisonment (and blinding) had left Isaac II enfeebled and his wits addled. So, it was agreed by both sides that his son would be made co-Emperor, as Alexios IV.

But in Alexios they were very soon disappointed, as it became apparent that his promises were hollow. In an attempt to pay the Crusaders the promised silver, he ordered bejeweled and gilded religious icons to be stripped and melted down; as well as handing over whatever of value remained to the church or in the Imperial Palace. This shocked and estranged the Byzantine populace, who quickly turned against the Angelos Emperors. Fighting in the streets broke out between angry mobs and the Crusader forces, supporting their puppet-Emperor. Fire was again used as a weapon, as large portions of the city were burned down by the Venetians as a way of driving back the mobs.

The situation reached a boiling point in January of 1204. A nobleman of the Imperial Court, Alexios Doukas (nicknamed “Mourtzouphlos” because of his thick eyebrows), staged a coup; overthrowing Alexious IV and subsequently having him strangled. His father, Isaac II, apparently died of shock at this turn of events.

The Crusaders camped outside the walls,  incensed at the overthrow and death of their ally, demanded that Mourtzouphlos honor the agreements made to them by Alexios IV. Mourtzouphlos refused, and the Crusaders renewed their attacks on the city.

However, the new Emperor was a soldier of some ability, and with the support of the army and citizens was able to repulse all attacks for two days. But on the third day of assaults, the new emperor lost his nerve, and fled the city. Despite this, the army fought on; the Varangians in particular inflicting bloody casualties upon the Venetians along the sea wall. On April 12, 1204, the Crusaders used fire to push back the defenders and to expand foot holds gained within the walls. Much of the city was damaged, and its residents turned into refugees. Finally, on April 13, the city fell to the Crusaders.

1387431What followed was the most shameful chapter in the history of the Crusades; as Constantinople, capital of the ancient Eastern Roman Empire, was subjected to three days of vicious sack-and-pillage. Nothing and no one was spared: not churches or monasteries, nor palaces or the lowest hovels. Rape and murder were the order of the day. One author described the scene thus:

The Latin soldiery subjected the greatest city in Europe to an indescribable sack. For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed on a scale which even the ancient Vandals and Goths would have found unbelievable. Constantinople had become a veritable museum of ancient and Byzantine art, an emporium of such incredible wealth that the Latins were astounded at the riches they found. Though the Venetians had an appreciation for the art which they discovered (they were themselves semi-Byzantines) and saved much of it, the French and others destroyed indiscriminately, halting to refresh themselves with wine, violation of nuns, and murder of Orthodox clerics. The Crusaders vented their hatred for the Greeks most spectacularly in the desecration of the greatest Church in Christendom. They smashed the silver iconostasis, the icons and the holy books of Hagia Sophia, and seated upon the patriarchal throne a whore who sang coarse songs as they drank wine from the Church’s holy vessels. The estrangement of East and West, which had proceeded over the centuries, culminated in the horrible massacre that accompanied the conquest of Constantinople.

1387437The Crusading movement had reached a moment of supreme irony: partially started in response to an appeal by their Byzantine co-religionists for aid against the Turks; the Fourth Crusade saw Byzantium sacked as savagely by the Christian Franks as it would have been had it fallen to its Seljuk enemies.


Following the fall of the city, the Crusader lords would divide up the remnants of the Byzantine Empire between themselves. Baldwin of Flanders would be named “Emperor” of a Latin Empire, set up to replace Byzantium. Boniface of Montferrat would be named King of Thessalonica. Geoffrey of Villehardouin and William I of Champlitte would conquer Athens and the Peloponnese, setting up the Principality of Morea, which would endure for a century. All the Crusader states established upon the ruins of Byzantium would eventually be recovered by the Byzantines in the following century.

Byzantium, however, would never recover. Its last centuries would be spent recovering its territories from the “Latins”, under the Palaeologus dynasty; and in defending itself from the growing power of its Ottoman Turkish neighbors. Constantinople, once the largest city in Europe, would become a virtual ghost town. Even after it was recaptured by the Byzantines in 1261, it never recovered either its population or its power. Large swaths of the city were never rebuilt after the fires of 1204. When the Ottoman Turks finally captured the city in 1453, it was but a hollow shell within its still-great walls.

1387448.jpgThe melancholy ruins of the Blachernae Palace, once residence of the Medieval Byzantine Emperors and seat of power of one Europe’s most powerful and prosperous realms. It was in this section of the walls that the Franks broke into the city in April, 1204



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Nazi Germany’s mightiest battleship: the Bismarck!

As Hitler prepared for World War II, he planned to interdict British shipping with both submarines (U-Boats) and surface raiders. Of these, the greatest and most celebrated was the Bismarck-class of battleships. Larger than any built by Europe during the war (though smaller than the largest Japanese and American Battleships) the Bismarck and its sister-ship, the Tirpitz caused great concern among Allied naval planners in the early years of the war in Europe.

Launched in February 1939, the Bismarck spent only eight months and one offensive operation at sea before being hunted-down by the British and so wounded its crew scuttled the great ship on May 27, 1941. But that single attempt by the Germans to slip past the Royal Navy in the North Sea and enter the North Atlantic caused near panic in Britain and led to one of the great naval chases in history; becoming the source of books, song and film.

1484014.jpgOn May 18, 1941 the Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen sortied from the port of Gotenhafen (now Gdynia, Poland); sailing out of the Baltic and into the North Sea. The two ships took brief refuge in a fjord near Bergen, Norway on 21 May, before steaming for the Atlantic shipping lanes on the 22nd.

The British Admiralty, alerted by the Swedish government that the two German ships had sailed through the Kattegat, began to hunt the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen. The searching ships included the Battleships King George V and Prince of Wales, with escorting destroyers; the battlecruiser Hood and the newly commissioned aircraft carrier Victorious. The cruisers Manchester and Birmingham were tasked to guard the waters south-east of Iceland; a likely route into the shipping lanes for the two German raiders. Other ships soon joined the search. Ultimately an armada of six battleships, three battlecruisers, two aircraft carriers, 16 cruisers, 33 destroyers and eight submarines, along with patrol aircraft would be assigned to what became the largest naval operation of the war to date.

1484662.jpg Frontal view: note the broad beam, which helped make the great ship a more stable firing platform.1484684.jpgIn the early morning of May 24th, Bismarck and Prinz Eugen made contact with the Hood and Prince of Wales in the Denmark Strait, between Greenland and Iceland.

The battle quickly went very badly for the two British ships. Opening fire at 25,000 yards, Bismarck quickly scored a hit on Hood; and fires quickly spread amidships. At 6 am, another shell from Bismarck’s 15″ guns struck one of Hood’s magazines, causing an explosion which broke the battlecruiser’s back. Hood sank within minutes, with all but three of her 1,417-man crew.

1484709.jpgPrince of Wales also received multiple hits, including one to the bridge which wounded her captain. Prince of Wales broke off the action, retreating under cover of a smokescreen.

Bismarck did not survive the Battle of the Denmark Strait unscathed: she suffered a hit near the bow; which pierced a fuel tank and caused her to leak oil continuously and trailing an oil slick in her wake. This allowed the Allies to track the ships progress, making a break into the North Atlantic impractical. For this reason Bismarck instead set a course for the port of Brest; where repairs could be made. Prinz Eugen detached from Bismarck, continuing into the Atlantic to carry out the mission.


The British continued to pursue Bismarck. At 10pm that night (the 24th) the Victorious launched an air attack by nine torpedo bombers from 120 miles away. The attack was unsuccessful, partially due to bad weather and to Bismarck’s anti-aircraft fire; with only a single torpedo striking Bismarck under her bridge, but failing to pierce the ship’s armor.


The following day, Bismarck succeeded in evading her pursuers, and escape to Brest seemed attainable. However, at 10:30 am on May 26 a Catalina flying-boat scout plane found Bismarck; still 700 miles from Brest and beyond range of Luftwaffe air cover. The carrier Ark Royal launched an attack, in bad weather, from a distance of less than 40 miles. Bismarck took two or three torpedo hits, one of which inflicted critical damage on her steering. A rudder jammed, and she could now only sail away from Brest. Her fait sealed, Task Force commander Admiral Günther Lütjens aboard Bismarck signalled: “Ship unmanoeuvrable. We shall fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer.”

Bismarck’s end came on the morning of the 27th of May; as her pursuers caught up with her. The battleships Rodney and King George V began pounding Bismarck at 8:47 am. They scored in all 4 hits; one of these (at 09:02)striking the bridge, and likely killing both the ships captain, Ernst Lindemann and Admiral Lütjens. The two British ship broke off the engagement soon after, due to fear of U-boat attack.

Bismarck was fatally wounded, with much of her crew killed or wounded. at 10:40 am, scuttling charges were laid by the crew; and Bismarck capsized and sank. Only 115 survivors were picked-up; while some 2,000 died onboard or in the water.

1484755.jpg The Bismarck today, resting in its watery grave.1484756.jpg1484760.jpg An excellent recreation of the Battle of the Denmark Strait. Johnny Horton’s “Sink the Bismarck”


For more on the Great Warships of History, see also:

The Super-Battleship Yamato

Ship of the Line, King of Naval Battle in the Age of Sail

Korean Turtle Ship

Greek Trireme

Byzantine Fire Dromon

Revenge, Race-Built Galleon

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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 the island 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!

The Vikings first began raiding Ireland in the late 8th century.  As throughout western Europe, longships crammed with veteran warriors bent on rapine and plunder descended on the coastal settlements and raided deep into the countryside, bringing death and destruction to the unwary inhabitants.

These Vikings were perhaps the first iron-clad, mailed warriors the Irish had ever encountered: the defending Gaelic warriors “had nothing to defend their bodies… save only elegant tunics, shields, and finely wrought collars”; who fought as light infantry in loose-formation.  By contrast, the Vikings were often veteran warriors, who fought in close order, “a solid, skillful, and firm rampart of strong coats of mail like a thick, dark stronghold of black iron with a battle-wall of gleaming shields around their chiefs.” [1]

1520416 (1).jpgIreland was a divided land, made up of warring clans and kingdoms, ruled by some 150 different petty kings. Though there was a High King who, in theory, exercised a position as primus inter pares (first among equals) over the other petty kings; his authority depended solely on the strength of his personality and the number of swords whose loyalty he could command. In a land so divided a relatively small numbers of aggressive Vikings were able to work great mischief, taking advantage of the lack of central authority and playing one Irish ruler against another. Norse settlements and fortified bases (longphorts) soon dotted the coasts and major river-ways. Limerick, Cork, Waterford, Wexford, and Dublin all began as Norse (or Danish) settlements. 

1520424.jpgThe Scandinavians came to Ireland not only as merciless Viking raiders, but as settlers; founding towns and trade centers along the coast and inland waterways. The greatest of these settlements, Dublin, is today Ireland’s national capital and greatest city.

Most of those who first raided Ireland were Norsemen (from Norway), who the Irish called the fionngaill (“fair strangers”), to distinguish them from the other nation of Vikings, the Danes or dubhgaill (“dark strangers”)*. The first great Viking lord in Ireland was Turgeis (Thorgis?). He arrived in 839, leading “a great sea-cast flood of foreigners into Eire, so that there was not a point (along the coast) thereof without a (Viking) fleet”. Turgeis raided deep into Ireland, attacking the chief religious center of the land, Armagh; where he drove out the Bishop, who fled with relics of St. Patrick. Turgeis established himself as lord of Dublin (the “Dark Pool”), previously a Christian ecclesiastical settlement but which now became a Norse military settlement. Dublin was perfectly situated at a ford of the River Liffey, and possessed of a fine harbor for trade and the anchorage of Viking longships.

Raging through the heart of Ireland, Turgeis took the monastery of Clonmacnoise; and placed his wife, Ota, in control. There she sat as a pagan priestess (völva or spækona), holding court and giving oracles from the high alter. Turgeis’ colorful career as Viking conquistador was short-lived, however. According to the Annals of Ulster he was captured in 845 by the Irish, and executed by drowning in Lough Owel.

However, his place as leader of the fionngaill in Ireland and king of Dublin was taken eight years later, in 853, by Olaf the White. Olaf shared the rule of Dublin and leadership of the Hiberno-Norse community with another Viking leader who arrived in Ireland around 870, Ímar (also rendered as Imhar in Irish sources).

This latter’s identity is a source of controversy, but some think him identical with the famed Ivar the Boneless, son of the legendary Viking leader Ragnar Lothbrok and sometime commander (along with his brothers) of the Great Heathen Army that invaded and overran much of England between 865 and 878. Mention of Ivar in England disappears from the record in 870, so it is theorized that he came to Ireland to take over leadership of Dublin.[2]

The connection between the Irish-Viking Ímar and Ivar the Boneless is not certain, but whoever he was Ímar/Ivar founded a royal line in Ireland: the Uí Ímair, or House of Ivar. This house ruled (at various times) much of the Irish Sea region, the Kingdom of Dublin, Munster, the western coast of Scotland, the Hebrides and some part of northern England (including York) from the mid 9th century till the 11th. 


In the shifting landscape of Irish politics these Hiberno-Norse soon became part of the regular fabric of intrigues and alliances; siding with one or another of the native petty kings in the island’s ceaseless internecine conflicts. So long as the Irish were divided, the presence of the “Lochlannach” would have to be tolerated till the arrival of a king strong enough to drive them out.

In the latter half of the 10th century, just such a warlord arose.


In 868 an obscure western Irish tribe, the Dál Cais, rose up under two brothers, Mahon and Brian mac Cennétig (sons of Kennedy) to oppose the Lochlannach in the western Irish kingdom of Munster. Fighting guerrilla war, the brothers defeated the powerful Viking lord of Limerick, Ivar (a descendant of the founder of the Uí Ímair) at the Battle of Selcoit. The brothers followed up their victory by sacking Limerick, wealthy stronghold of the Vikings on the River Shannon.

1520430.jpgIrish warriors traditionally wore little armor, in contrast to the Viking invaders.

Following this victory these two Dalcassian brothers spent the next eight years fighting rivals for the lordship of Munster. In 976 Mahon was captured and executed by a Gaelic rival.  Brian, who had been his brother’s commander, now took over the lordship of the Dal Cais. In two years, he avenged his brother’s murder at the Battle of Belach Lechta, in which his rival was slain and he assumed the title of King of Munster.


Thus began the career of Brian Boru (Bóruma), and his march along the path to greatness. For the next few years he extended his influence into the neighboring kingdoms of Leinster to the east and Connacht to the north. This brought him into conflict with Ireland’s most powerful lord,  Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill (anglicized and referred to henceforth as Malachi), Ard Rí (High King) of Ireland and ruler of Meath.

From 982 to 997 these two powerful kings engaged in a war for primacy. During these campaigns, Brian proved a highly able strategist; utilizing both land and naval forces to achieve his ends. By 996 he had all-but conquered Leinster. The following year in 997, at a royal meeting near Clonfert, Malachi and  Brian made a truce.  The terms granted Brian rule over the southern half of Ireland, while Malachi retained the northern half and the title of High King.

The Leinstermen chaffed at being under the dominance of Munster, and within two years were in open revolt. Máel Mórda, king of the Uí Fáeláin of northern Leinster, joined forces with his  maternal uncle, Sitric Silkbeard, king of Dublin. First they turned upon and defeated Brian’s vassal,  Donnchad mac Domhnaill, the King of Leinster,  and imprisoned him in Dublin. Máel Mórda claimed his title. Dublin and Leinster now defied both Brian and Malachi of Meath. Brian and Malachi marched against the rebels, defeating them decisively at the bloody Battle of Glenmama on December 30, 999. As the rebel army fled the field many were slaughtered as Brian’s forces closely pursued. Máel Mórda allegedly survived the rout by hiding in a yew tree. To his enduring shame, he was dragged from its branches by Brian’s eldest son, the redoubtable Prince Murrogh (often rendered as Murchad), and taken captive. Sitric survived the battle and temporarily fled from Ireland. His brother, Harald Olafsson, was not so lucky, being one of some 7,000 to fall in the battle or the pursuit.

The following day, New Years Eve, 999, Brian’s army reached Dublin. They entered the undefended town, and on New Year’s Day, 1000 AD, Viking Dublin was sacked by Brian’s army. A great trading port, the plunder was rich indeed.

Brian stayed in Dublin for several months, settling affairs. Donnchad mac Domhnaill was freed and returned to the throne of Leinster (though he would be found an unsatisfactory client and would be deposed a few years later; and the ambitious Máel Mórda, swearing loyalty, was placed on the Leinster throne in his place). Sitric returned, after raiding in Wales, and was reinstated as king of Dublin. To seal the peace between he and his new overlord, Sitric was given Brian’s daughter Sláine to wife. King Brian, in turn, was wed to Sitric’s still-lovely and passionate mother, Gormlaith (called Kormlada in Icelandic sources). Sister to Máel Mórda, she had been married twice before: as a girl to Sitric’s father, the powerful Viking king of Dublin and YorkOlaf Cuaran; and, more recently, Brian’s erstwhile rival-turned-ally, Malachi of Meath. Divorced from the latter, she was now the bride of the most powerful warlord in Ireland.

The victory of Glenmama and capture of Dublin put Brian in an unprecedented seat. Never before had an Irish king been in the position of direct overlord of that city’s Viking king. In bestowing it upon Sitric (scion of the Uí Ímair, oft times rulers of Dublin since Ivar the Boneless) Brian had now set a precedent: that “the city’s Hiberno-Scandinavian ruler would hold his kingship from his Munster overlord” [3], a vassal and no longer independent. As for Brian Boru he was indisputably the strongest warlord in Ireland, eclipsing the power of his ally, Malachi of Meath, the High King.


In the following year, the arrangement between these two paramount kings and rivals broke down. His ambitions perhaps now goaded on by his new bride (Malachi’s ex-wife) Gormlaith, Brian marched against Malachi in the north. Despite setbacks, Brian was eventually successful. In 1002, Malachi surrendered his title of “Ard Rí“, High King,  to Brian. Unlike those who had held this title before him, Brian was unwilling to be merely “first among equals”; but instead to rule in fact as well as name. Continuing his military activities in the far north of the island, over the next nine years Brian systematically brought the proud  Uí Néill of Ulster to heal. By 1011, he was acknowledged by all the rulers of Ireland as their overlord.

Brian Boru was Ireland’s first true “king”. More, he was acknowledged by the highest religious authority in Ireland, the monastery of Armagh, as not just king, but Imperator Scottorum: “Emperor of the Irish”.[4]

But his position, so unique in Irish history, did not long go unchallenged.


Though he owed his throne to Brian, Máel Mórda of Leinster resented his brother-in-law’s dominance. His loyalty, tissue-thin to begin with, must have been further strained when Brian put off his sister Gormlaith as his wife. When his divorce from Gormlaith occurred is unknown; nor is the reason. But by 1011 she was back with her brother in Dublin, bitter towards her (ex?) husband. Her spite would play a key role in the events that led to the Battle of Clontarf.

While visiting Brian’s court at Kincora, Máel Mórda was observing a chess game between  Brian’s eldest son, Murrogh, and his cousin Conaing. The Leinster King advised the latter on a move. Prince Murrogh, tactlessly, reminded Máel Mórda that his advice before Glenmama had not been so sound; and further teased him about having been pulled from a tree after the battle. This insult was a goad no warrior would bear.

1520438.jpgA furious Máel Mórda stormed off, leaving the palace and riding for home without a word of leave to King Brian. Hearing of this, Brian sent a messenger to follow and bring Máel Mórda back. The Leinster king killed Brian’s messenger and rode on.

Retribution was now inevitable.

Back in own palace at Cill Chuilinn (modern Kilcullen) in Leinster, Máel Mórda might have reconsidered, given time to cool off, were it not for Gormlaith. Handing his sister the tunic he had worn at Kincora, he asked her to sew on a button that had fallen off.

Gormlaith took the tunic, and threw it into the fire. She then scornfully upbraided him, that he should take his kingship in vassalage of another (Brian); something their father and ancestors had never done! She reminded him that one day, perhaps soon, he would have to bend the knee to Brian’s son-and-heir, Murrogh: the very man who had so insulted him.

Máel Mórda now resolved to rebel. He went with Gormlaith to Dublin, where they incited her son Sitric Silkybeard to join them. The two joined forces for a second time, and spent 1013 raiding into Brian and Malachi’s territory. Brian responded by marching on Leinster and Dublin; Brian and Murrogh approaching by two different routes, ravaging their enemies territory as they advanced. In September, 1013, Brian’s army encamped at Kilmainham (now a suburb of Dublin), a mile from city; intending to blockade the land approaches to Dublin and starve the town into submission. But the attempt was unsuccessful, for the town could re-provision by sea. Brian’s army ran short of supplies first, and the High King was forced to withdraw before Christmas.

The rebels knew Brian would return again in the spring, and so undertook measures to strengthen their position. They sent to other disaffected princes, several of whom promised aid. But Dublin had been badly weakened by the defeat of Glenmama. To strengthen their numbers and aid their cause, they needed help from outside Ireland. Gormlaith convinced her son to take ship, and travel to the north of Scotland, where such help could be found.

1520451.jpgIn Orkney, Sitric met with the mightiest Viking warlord in the Western Islands, Sigurd the Stout, Jarl of the Orkneys. It was Yule, and Sitric joined the Orkney Jarl in feasting and celebration (recounted in Njals Saga). After which,  the two made a pact: For his aid, Sitric promised Sigurd lordship of Ireland, once they defeated Brian. More: his mother Gormlaith (despite her age, still a great beauty) would be given Sigurd for wife.

1521588 (2).jpgIt was in a Viking mead hall like this that Jarl Sigurd feasted king Sitric over Yule, 1013-1014

It should be remembered that events in Ireland did not exist in a vacuum. In neighboring England, Sveinn Forkbeard, King of Denmark,  had invaded with a large army and driven King Æthelred the Unready, descendant of Alfred the Great, from his throne. On Christmas Day 1013, while Sitric and Sigurd feasted in Orkney, Sveinn Forkbeard was crowned King of England as well as Denmark.

Across the north, Viking leaders like Sigurd took note: What such great Viking chieftains as Turgeis, Ivar the Boneless, and Olaf Cuaran had dreamed of seemed now, at last, within reach to any strong and bold enough to grasp it. Their star was in the ascendant: the day of the Northmen had come. What Sveinn Forkbeard had achieved in mighty England, could not Sigurd the Stout do in Ireland? Brian was an old man (chroniclers put his age at between 72 and 88 at Clontarf). Perhaps it was time to topple the “Emperor of the Irish” from this throne, and a Northman take his place.

Sigurd promised to be at Dublin with all his strength by Palm Sunday, 1014.

1520456.jpg Standing Stones at Orkney, stronghold of Jarl Sigurd the Stout.

With the Orkney Jarl’s pledge in hand, Sitric returned to Dublin. But when he conferred with his mother, Gormlaith, she was still not satisfied that he had sufficient allies to challenge Brian in battle. She told him that a fleet of 30 longships lay off the Island of Man. There he should seek the alliance of the two fierce Viking warlords who commanded this force, and offer them whatever it took to gain their aid.



* The Scandinavian element within Ireland in this period is sometimes referred to as Hiberno-Norse; or Hiberno-Scandinavian. Those of Dublin are referred to, alternately as Dublin-Norse, or Dublin-Danes. All of these are, to an extent, correct. There were both Danish and Norse settlers in Ireland; and the population of Dublin was very mixed. Though kingship changed hands from time-to-time in Dublin between various Viking leaders, the House of Ivar (Uí Ímair), which ruled Dublin for most of the Viking Age, may have descended from Ivar the Boneless; who was certainly a Dane. So Dublin-Dane is perhaps the most correct for the Vikings of Dublin. When referring to the  Scandinavian element in Ireland as a whole, whether Hiberno-Scandinavian settlers or “foreign” contingents, I shall herein use the catch-term “Viking”. Though not strictly correct (“Viking” means pirate or raider; and not all Scandinavian’s in Ireland at this time engaged in such activities), it will serve, for clarity’s sake.

  1.   Cogadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh: The War of the Gaedhil with The Gaill
  2. Ivar perhaps took a portion of the Great Heathen Army to Ireland, strengthening the Scandinavian presence on that Ireland but weakening the Viking forces left to finish the conquest of England. That Wessex was able to withstand the GHA when Ivar’s brother Halfdan led it into that “last kingdom” of free English left in Britain may be a result of Ivar’s departure.
  3. Ailbhe Mac Shamhráin,  The Battle of Glenn Mama, Dublin and the High Kingship of Ireland: a Millennial Commemoration;  (Medieval Dublin, edited by Sean Duffy, 2001 pp53-64).
  4. “Scottorum” was the Latin term for the Irish.  Ireland was usually referred to in Latin as “Scotia Major”; while Scotland was referred to as “Scotia Minor”.


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.

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1595988.jpgIn 1525 a descendant of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane crossed the Khyber Pass with a tiny army in a desperate gamble: an attack on the powerful Sultanate of Delhi. On the dusty plain of Panipat, he would lay the foundation of India’s mightiest empire: the Mughal!

Few would-be warlords were born with a more illustrious pedigree than Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, commonly known as simply Babur (“Tiger”). Born in 1483 the eldest son of the Timurid king of Ferghana, he was descended from Turko-Mongol conqueror Timur the Lame (known to the English-speaking world as “Tamerlane“) on his father’s side. On his mother’s side he enjoyed an even more celebrated ancestor: no less than Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire and perhaps history’s greatest conqueror.


But the empires of his two great ancestors had long-since fragmented into petty kingdoms and khanates by the time of Babur’s birth. The young prince’s prospects for future greatness seemed unlikely, and his place in the dangerous world around him was uncertain.

As his father’s son, Babur was heir to nothing more than the mountain-girt valley of Ferghana; bordered on the east by Kashgar, and in the west by Samarkand, former capital of the Timurid Empire. The kingdom’s only significance  was that it lay along the northern portion of the Silk Road. That, and the historic excellence of its horses, which breed the ancient Chinese called the “Heavenly Horse”. When Babur’s father, Umar Sheikh Mirza, died in 1494 (two years after Columbus discovered the Americas) the twelve-year-old Babur [1] inherited the throne. The boy’s right to rule was immediately challenged by powerful  uncles who ruled neighboring kingdoms (most of the rulers of this region were relatives of the boy, descendants of Timur).

1595990.jpgThe arid Fergana Valley today, which straddles eastern Uzbekistan, southern Kyrgyzstan and northern Tajikistan. Straddling the northern Silk Road, herein lay the petty kingdom to which young Babur was heir.

Despite his extreme youth, Babur held onto his throne, thanks to the skill of his maternal grandmother and the kingdom’s regent, Aisan Daulat Begum. This Mongol princess was descended from Chaghatai Khan, the second son of Genghis Khan; and possessed all the courage and political skills of those great men. Throughout his minority, she guided Babur and taught him the arts of king-craft. She also raised him on tales of the military exploits of Genghis Khan and of  Timur, and became his earliest lessons in the art of warfare. Ever prepared to give praise and thanks where it was due, Babur later wrote of her: “Few among women will have been my grandmother’s equal for judgement and counsel; she was very wise and farsighted and most affairs of mine were carried through under her advise.”

In 1497 the ambitious and capable fifteen year old Babur decided upon nothing less than the capture of the imperial Timurid city of Samarkand. The city was at that time one of the wealthiest and most populous in the world, and a center of great learning. In alliance with his cousin Sultan Ali of Bukhara, Babur marched upon the city. This was a bold move for the young warlord.

The siege lasted seven months. Throughout this operation the young Babur showed a grasp of strategy and far-sighted judgement well beyond his years. As winter came, the young king’s officers wanted to disperse back to their homes. But not wishing to lift the blockade on Samarkand, Babur instead dispersed his Army into winter quarters in towns and fortresses around the city.


The haunting ruins of the once-great city of Samarkand

While dispersed about the city, a relief army approached from the north. These were fierce Uzbek Turks, nomads from north of the Aral Sea. “Untainted” by the softening influences of civilization and wealth, these Uzbeks were possessed of all the savage ferocity and hardiness that characterized the first generation of Mongol warriors who followed Genghis Khan off the steppes, to lay the world beneath their horses hoofs.  This Uzbek horde was led by another descendant of Genghis Khan (through his eldest son, Jochi): their formidable Khan Muhammad Shaybani.  The last great Mongol conqueror to come out of the central Asian steppe, Shaybani would prove to be the nemesis of Babur’s early life.

Arriving at Samarkand Shaybani had expected to find the young Babur unprepared, his army scattered back to their homes for the winter. But Babur had learned of the Uzbek’s imminent arrival. Mustering his nearby forces, he was prepared for battle when Shaybani arrived. Like wolves finding another strong pack already devouring the prey, Shaybani withdrew after a reconnaissance of Babur’s forces, the region around Samarkand, and the city’s defenses.

When the city fell at last, Babur showed clemeny to the population, which had suffered greatly during the long blockade; and refused to allow his army to plunder the city of Timur.  This led many of his Turko-Mongol (Mughal) soldiers to desert in disgust: these wolves of the steppe fought for plunder, joining whatever strong warlord could best satisfy their hunger. The land was exhausted after so long a siege, and the passage of armies had damaged the surrounding fields. Unable to properly provision even his own personal vassals, many of these too returned home to Fergana. There, the disaffected chieftains rebelled against Babur.

Battle_between_two_Timurid warriors_on_horseback (1)

Learning of the loss of his home-base, Babur marched from Samarkand with those forces still loyal. While enroute he fell ill; and rumors soon spread that the young lord was dying. This led to the desertion of many who still followed him. The governor he’d left in Samarkand also now rebelled; and Babur found himself a warlord without a realm, having lost both Samarkand and his native Fergana.

For a brief 100 days he’d ruled Transoxiana from Samarkand, and had seemed poised to reunite the Timurid realm under a strong young leader. These dreams were now dashed, and failure dogged Babur. Repeated attempts to recapture Fergana came to naught. When he tried to recapture Samarkand in 1501, Shaybani and the Uzbek horde returned, this time to stay. Babur and his tiny force of loyal followers was forced to flee. He took refuge among the hill tribes of Tashkent, where relatives sheltered the fugitive.


This was the most bitter period of Babur’s turbulent life. Though he raised fighting men among the hill tribes, the realm of the Timurids he had planned on reuniting were instead overrun by Shaybani’s Uzbeks.  During this time Shaybani took advantage of the weakness and division of the Timurid kingdoms to gobble them up one-by-one. After capturing Samarkand, he went on to take Bukhara in 1506 (which would become the seat of his new Khanate), and Herat in 1507, driving out the last independent Timurid ruler. The Uzbek Khanate he thus founded would last till the coming of the Russians in the 19th century.


All this Babur watched from a new refuge: Kabul.

In need of a new power-base and place of refuge, Babur crossed the the snowy Hindu Kush mountains and seized Kabul. The ruling dynasty had collapsed with infighting among various contenders and Babur seized the opportunity to oust them and take over this small but wealthy kingdom. Kabul was a center of trade, and the valley around was famed for its melons. From here he consolidated his power. As Shaybani crushed one Timurid kingdom after another, refugees fled to him in Kabul, swelling his numbers and military strength. By 1507, he was the last ruling Timurid prince; and proclaimed himself Padishah (Great King, or Emperor) of the Timurids.


However, even in Kabul he faced internal dissensions. In 1510 he was ousted from power by rebel generals while away from Kabul. However, acting quickly, he returned and the rebellion collapsed. In this, as in all his dealings, Babur showed great clemency and an unusual mildness of temper for a descendant of two of history’s most brutal conquerors. When the rebel leaders were captured and brought to him, he treated them with kindness, sitting them beside him at his table and allaying their fears (the usual treatment of rebels in this age was extreme, including elaborate torture and death). Instead of execution, they were allowed to leave the country. In his memoirs, Babur decided to leave their punishment to “fate”; which rewards and punishes a man according to his deserts, and in the case of traitors and ill-doers is “an avenging servitor”.  Throughout his campaigns, Babur always showed justice to the peasants and to foreign merchants who fell into his hands in time of war; refusing to allow his men to plunder or mistreat either. He was a just and enlightened ruler in an age of ruthless tyrants.

That year, 1510, news reached Babur that his nemesis, Shaybani, was dead. The Uzbek conqueror, expanding toward Iran, had come up against another rising power: the Safavids of Iran. This new Shia state was centered on Azerbaijan. Its expanding power relied on the fighting abilities and fanaticism of its Turkomen followers; who, because of their distinctive high-peaked red turban were called Qizilbash (“Red Heads”). The Safavid Dynasty was founded about 1501 by Shah Ismail I, a brave and charismatic religious/political leader. Under his leadership the Safavids united Iran and made Shia Islam the dominant sect in the land.


At Merv, Shaybani’s career as a conqueror came to an end. Lured into a premature battle with the Shah Ismail’s smaller forces before the mass of his Uzbek horde could be assembled, he was defeated and killed. The Shah had his corpse divided into parts and sent to various places of his kingdom as proof of his defeat and death. Shaybani’s skull was coated in gold and made into a jeweled drinking goblet. This grisly trophy was sent to Babur by the Shah as a goodwill gift.

This led to the two rulers meeting the following year.  Shah Ismail returned to Babur his sister, who had been taken by Shaybani when the Uzbeks captured Samarkand in 1501. This detente led to three years of campaigning in Transoxiana by Babur as a subordinate of the Shah’s general in the region. For a third time he briefly regained Samarkand, as well as Bokhara; only to again lose both to the Uzbeks under their new leader, Ubaydullah. Due largely to the brutality of the Safavid  Qizilbash and the arrogance of their general, Emir Najm-e Sani, the allies alienated the countryside, and the Uzbeks were able to regain their hold. Babur then advised the Safavid force to retreat and await reinforcements. Najm, however, ignored this advice;  which resulted in the mutiny of several Qizilbash chieftains, who deserted his army. On November, at the Battle of Ghazdewan, Najm was defeated and captured by the Uzbeks, who put him to death.

Frustrated again in his attempt to regain his ancestral lands, Babur returned in 1514 to Kabul. He brought with him a force of Qizilbash whose fighting prowess he had come to admire in the Transoxiana campaign. These provided him an elite guard of loyal men, independent of any other local affiliation or allegiances; a shield against the betrayals by family-members and subjects he had experienced in the past.


Meanwhile, events in western Iran would have a direct impact on Babur’s future success.

There, his ally  Shah Ismail had gone to war with the first and foremost of the so-called “Gunpowder Empires” that rose in Western Asia: the Ottoman Empire. Selim I, called “the Grim”, perhaps the most accomplished military leader the Ottoman Turks ever produced, marched into eastern Anatolia at the head of a well trained army of between sixty and two-hundred thousand warriors. He met Ismail’s smaller force of Qizilbash-Turkomen horse archers on the plain of Chaldiran. On August 23, 1514 the two armies clashed. The battle was a prelude of what was to come when Babur invaded India twelve years later.


At Chaldiran, the Sultan’s army was the most “modern” in the world: a  well-balanced force of matchlock-armed Janissary  infantry, field artillery, and light and heavy cavalry (Akinjis and Sipahis). The Sultan deployed his forces in the Hungarian fashion [2] with his center protected by carts, chained together to form a barricade. The carts would break the charge of enemy horsemen, allowing his Janissary matchlock men and his field artillery positioned behind and between the carts to devastate the enemy with firepower. Shah Ismail’s Qizilbash horsemen attempted to avoid the Ottoman center, sweeping around both flanks instead. However, there they were met and thrown back by the Sultan’s cavalry and raked by the Turkish guns, which were the most mobile field pieces in the world.

The result was a catastrophic defeat for the Safavid army. It was the first and most dramatic reversal of fortune for Shah Ismail. His aura of invincibility was shattered and his faith in his destiny never fully recovered (he took to drink and gave over the affairs of his kingdom to others).

Sultan Selim’s “modern” tactics, based on cannon and arquebus-armed infantry defending mobile field works, had triumphed over the Middle East’s best horse-archer based army. Since the Parthians had arrived from Central Asia in the 2nd century BC, light cavalry horse archers, supported by armored lancers, had been (arguably) the most effective fighting force in the region (and perhaps the world). The Mongols had created the world’s greatest empire based on this tactical system (augmented by a sophisticated, mobile siege engines).

Now something new had at last arisen in the world to challenge the old tactical math.

In the first quarter of the 16th century the Ottoman Turks used this new tactical system to spread their power throughout the Middle East. Following Chaldiran, Selim would conquer eastern Anatolia from the Safavids, as well as Mesopotamia. The Grand Turk would next turn his guns against the Mameluks of Egypt, another horse archer-based Turkoman empire that had grown in the 13th century in the wake of the Mongol invasion of Central Asia. The resulting Ottoman–Mamluk War (1516–1517) would validate the lessons of Chaldiran; resulting in the fall of the Mamluk Sultanate and the incorporation of the Levant, Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula into the Ottoman Empire.


Babur was at first concerned over his ally’s defeat, not least because the weakening of Safavid power in Iran took pressure off of his deadliest enemy, the Uzbeks in Transoxiana. However, unexpectedly, Selim the Grim extended the hand of friendship. A detente between the Ottomans and the King of Kabul developed, resulting in Selim sending a team of military advisors to help Babur: Ustad Ali Quli, an artillery expert, and Mustafa Rumi, a master matchlock marksman. With the aid of these two experts Babur would begin to fashion a fighting force modeled on that of the Ottoman Turks. One capable of defeating traditional Asian cavalry armies; and which would allow the relatively small army at his disposal to hold its own against numerically superior foes trained in the “old school”.


Despairing of ever regaining his ancestral home, and with Kabul too small a place to satisfy his ambitions, Babur began looking elsewhere. He also wanted to get further from the reach of his Uzbek enemies laying beyond the Hindu Kush. Over the next few years, he set his sights upon the Punjab (modern Pakistan and northwest India). This land of well-watered plains provided both a place for profitable raids, where he could gather booty to pay his followers; and a possible area into which to expand his power. These were also lands once subjugated by his ancestor, Timur; and Babur let it be known that he considered himself, as the chief of the remaining Timurids, the rightful lord of these lands.

However, Punjab was then part of the Empire of Lodi, the Afghan dynasty that half-a-century before had conquered Delhi and northern India. Any attempt at subjugation would bring him into conflict with this powerful (though declining) state.

Babur began raiding into the Punjab in 1519. These raids brought back plunder and weakened the hold of the Lodi Sultan. It caused the local governors to begin to consider accommodation with the King of Kabul, even acknowledging him their suzerain should he press the issue. He made five such incursions between 1519 and 1524, which led to the installation of several pro-Babur amirs in the various cities;  most of whom were relatives of and rebels against the Dehli Sultan, Ibrahim Lodi.

In 1524 Babur sent an ambassador to Ibrahim, laying claim to the Punjab. However the ambassador was detained at Lahore and only released months later. In retaliation, Babur marched again into the Punjab, and sacked Lahore. Then, in alliance with a rebel uncle of Ibrahim, he raided toward Dehli.


Though of a later period, this image of a Mughal army on the march shows the mounting for the cannon that Babur brought to the Battle of Panipat

In November 1525, Babur marched towards Dehli with an army of 12,000. This time, he came not to raid but to conquer. Crossing the Indus River, he overran the Punjab in three weeks, the Lodi forces melting away in the face of his advance. Marching on Dehli, he reached the plain of Panipat on 20 April 1526, where he took up position and awaited the imminent arrival of Sultan Ibrahim.

Panipat, 5o miles from Dehli, is the site of three battles by that name (1526, 1556, 1761). Its level plain is eminently suitable for the deployment of large forces, and for the maneuver of large bodies of cavalry. It lies along the natural path leading from the northwest (Punjab and Afghanistan) to Dehli and the Ganges plain. Having boldly invaded Ibrahim’s land and marched upon his capital, Babur now halted and prepared to fight on the defensive.

The Lodi army numbered between 50,000 and  100,000 fighting men and 100 elephants. Ibrahim’s forces were a mix of horse archers and cavalry lancers, supported by bow and javelin-armed foot. The elephants were used as shock troops, to fix and break their enemy’s line, while the foot archers supported this attack with massed archery, and the cavalry attacked the enemy’s flanks.


To prevent his much smaller force from being enveloped, Babur drew-up his army with his right wing resting on and protected by the village of Panipat. His left was partially protected by the Yamuna River. But as this was further from the end of the line than was convenient to prevent envelopment, he set his men to cutting branches and thorn bush; which were laid in a trench perpendicular to his line, forming a barrier covering his exposed left. He also used his baggage carts, along with additional carts gathered for this purpose from the surrounding countryside, across his front in Ottoman/Hungarian fashion. Gaps were left through which cavalry could pass; these gaps guarded by infantry armed with matchlocks, and protected from arrows by movable mantlets. Cannons were positioned to fire between gaps in the carts (the exact number of guns is unknown). Behind this front line were substantial reserves of cavalry, commanded by Babur in person; while off to the flanks were bodies of Mughal horse archers. Across the front a screen of light horse archers covered and partially concealed his deployment from the enemy.

Panipat - diagram

The Lodi army arrived in the pre-dawn hours of April 21st. With scant time to fully reconnoiter the Mughal position, Sultan Ibrahim deployed his vanguard (much of his army was still marching up the road, and in fact would fail to join the battle before it ended).

Ibrahim deployed his cavalry in the first line, in four divisions. His infantry formed the second line, with the Sultan himself commanding a picked force of armored lancers between the two lines. A mixed force of cavalry and infantry were deployed to the left, to assault the Mughal line where it rested on Panipat village, with the purpose of driving this wing back from the village and rolling up that end of Babur’s line. Across the entire front, Ibrahim deployed his elephants as a screen and vanguard.

The battle began at 6 am, with the Delhi forces advancing. At 400 yards Babur’s cannon commenced fire. The noise, smoke, and deadly shot cause panic among the elephants, which halted or rampaged in terror back through their own ranks. Meanwhile, the picked force attacking Babur’s right encountered the barrier of the carts, and defensive fire from  arquebus and cannon. This caused the Lodi attack on Babur’s right to stall, and reinforcements arrived at the threatened sector to push the attackers back.


As the Lodi attack stalled, Mughal horse archers positioned far out on the flanks now swept inward, in the envelopment maneuver the Mongols called the  tulughma, or ‘standard sweep’.  From the flanks these poured fire upon the now disorganized masses of Ibrahim’s army.

Cannon and matchlock fire from their front, and arrows fired from powerful composite bows on their flanks, combined to inflict horrid destruction upon the Lodi force. Attempting to cut his way through the barrier of carts, Sultan Ibrahim charged forward with his guard of armored lancers. In this assault he was cut down, and his death demoralized the Delhi forces.


His enemy dead and their forces halted in disarray, Babur now led his reserves of cavalry through the gaps between the carts. At this the Lodi forces broke, routing from the field with Babur’s horsemen in hot pursuit.

The fate of the Lodi Sultanate was sealed in a matter of a few hours. In his memoirs, Babur wrote: “The mighty army of Delhi was laid in the dust in the course of half-a-day.” Sultan Ibrahim’s body was recovered from beneath a pile of dead, and his head was brought to Babur. The last Lodi Sultan of Delhi was buried in a tomb on the field where he fell.

Three days later, Babur entered Delhi in triumph. The Mughal Era in India had begun.


Cannon at Panipat had proved the counter to massed elephants; while, as at Chaldiran, infantry armed with firearms defending a line of carts (mobile field works) stopped the attack of cavalry. Combining Ottoman with his own people’s Mongol tactics proved a winning combination for Babur. He would successfully repeat these tactics in two more battles against Indian foes in the coming years, as he consolidated his conquest of northern India: first against the Rajputs at Khana a year later, in 1527; then a final time at Ghaghra against the remaining Lodi forces in Bengal.

The Mughal Empire Babur established was the third of the “Gunpowder Empires” of Western Asia to be founded in this period (the second, after the Ottoman, being the Safavid, who after falling victim at Chaldiran to the new tactics and technology, adopted it in the reign of Shah Ismail’s successor, his son Shah Tahmasp I). It can be said that in Europe, Spain became the greatest of the “Gunpowder Empires” to spring-up in the first quarter of the 16th century; and using sea power spread across the globe.

Babur died at the age of 47 on January 5, 1531. He established the foundation of the Mughal state, carving out an empire that stretched from Kandahar to Calcutta. He left the work of consolidation to  his eldest son, Humayun; and the Mughal realm would finally be consolidated by his grandson, Akbar. After his death Babur’s body was moved to Kabul, Afghanistan, his home for most of his adult life; where it lies in Bagh-e Babur (Babur Gardens), a park he designed.


Ironically, Babur is today celebrated as a hero in Uzbekistan by the ancestors of the Uzbek foes who were, during his life, his greatest enemies.

His legacy is that of a military adventurer of some genius, a gambler who never feared to risk all, but who never let defeat dampen his boundless optimism. He was  a humane conqueror, who acted in a civilized and gracious manner to all who came beneath his sword, ever showing clemency to the defeated. He was also a gifted poet and writer; and his autobiography is a historian’s treasure trove of information.

The Mughal Empire would spread under his son and grandson to encompass all of India. In its days of glory, India became a center of culture and learning. Under the Mughals Indian architecture reached its fullest expression, exemplified in the magnificent Taj Mahal. The empire would wax through the early 17th century, then begin to wane in the 18th. Its remnants would be absorbed, along with all India, into the British Empire in the 19th century.


If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy: Clash of Titans: Tamerlane and “the Thunderbolt” at Angora, 1402



  1. Though it is sometimes stated that Babur was eleven at this time, in his own autobiography he states otherwise: “In the month of Ramzan of the year 899 (June 1494) and Haidara- in the twelfth year of my age, I became ruler in the country of Farghana.”
  2. The Hungarians in the late 15th century, during the reign of the soldier-king Matthias Corvinus, developed a tactical system partially based on the Hussite model; in which infantry with firearms fought behind a mobile barricade of carts, supported on the flanks by reserves of cavalry. The Turks, long enemies of the Hungarians, were no-doubt inspired by frequent contact to emulate this tactical system.


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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 eighth part of our discussion of Britain in the so-called Age of Arthur: the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical civilization of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”. It was the sunset of Celtic-Roman culture in Britain; it was the Age of Arthur!

But who was Arthur?

Before we answer that question, it is necessary we understand the world in which he lived.

(Read Part Seven here or start from the beginning here!


The last quarter of the 5th century was a grim time for those who looked to Rome, and the model of classical civilization it represented.

In 476 Romulus Augustulus, the teenage Western Roman Emperor, was forced to abdicate his throne by Odoacer,leader of barbarian foederati in Italy. The Western Emperor had long been a figurehead, with true power residing with the Magister Militum (“Master of Soldiers”); a position held in the 5th century largely by one Romanized-Barbarian officer after another (Flavius Aëtius being the chief exception).  Romulus had himself been placed on the throne by his father Orestes, one of these Romanized German commanders. Odoacer killed Orestes, and seized the Emperor in Ravenna.


The boy-Emperor’s life was mercifully spared: Odoacer granted him an estate in Campania and a life-time pension. But Romulus was the last to hold the title of “Western Roman Emperor” (Belisarius, the great Byzantine commander in the next century, would be offered this diadem and title by the Ostrogoths, which he refused). Odoacer went on to rule Italy thereafter as “King” and autonomous vassal of the Eastern Empire.

Few in the West likely noticed, much less cared. By this time, the provinces that once comprised the western half of the Roman Empire had been for some time under the control of various “barbarian” powers. Gaul was divided between an ever-shrinking Roman successor state (ruled by Syagrius, a noble Romano-Gaul who still bore the title of Magister Militum per Gallias) in the north-central portion of the province, the Franks in the northeast, the Burgundians in the southeast, and the Visigoths in the southwest.[1] Spain was divided between this same Visigoth kingdom (still centered in Aquitaine), and the German Suevi. North Africa, once the breadbasket of the Western Empire, was now a militant and piratical Vandal Kingdom centered on the former provincial capital of Carthage.

1418531.jpgOf the former provinces of the Western Empire only Britain fought on, resisting Germanic occupation. There are cogent reasons why Britain alone maintained its independence and identity.

The first is geography: as an island, Britain was not swamped by the wholesale invasion and migration of Germanic nations seen in the rest of the Western Empire. Only the Picts in the north were in a position to overrun the island and submerge its Roman civilization. That this did not occur is testament to the second factor: leadership.

From the first decade of the 5th century, when Rome abandoned the Britons to their own devices, strong leaders had emerged to maintain a loose unity among the Celtic Romano-Britons. These had been mostly successful and beaten back a host of raiders and invaders.

The first may have been Coel Hen (“Old King Cole”), perhaps the last official Dux Britanniarum (commander of the Roman forces stationed in the north of Britain) [2] ; and then Vortigern, prince of Powys and “High King” of Britain (See earlier installments in this series). These and lesser figures whose names and achievements are largely lost to history, managed to rally the island’s forces and coordinate a common defense for most of the first half of the 5th century. Vortigern’s long hold on power, however, saw the British position erode in the east of the island. The Germanic “Saxons” settled first as mercenary foederati and later as invaders (though the settlement of Anglo-Saxon foederati along the eastern coasts of Britain may date back to the late Roman occupation). Vortigern was followed by Ambrosius Aurelianus, who may have bore the title of Riothamus, or “Supreme King” among the Celtic petty-kings of Britain (see Part Six). Ambrosius struggled with mixed success to contain the Saxons in the eastern portion of the island.


A third and perhaps the most critical factor in the success of Britain’s defense against the tide of Germanic barbarism was cavalry.

Most Germanic tribes had their own cavalry traditions. While the majority of warriors tended to fight on foot, Germanic nobles and their retainers tended to serve as horsemen. Some nations, such as the Ostrogoths and Vandals, became primarily cavalry warriors as soon as circumstances and a ready supply of mounts allowed.

Not so the Anglo-Saxons.

These northern German/Scandinavian people were seafarers and pirates, who preferred to fight on foot. In battle they formed up in a tight, compact mass of infantry; as either a “shieldwall” or, when on the attack, the “swine array” or “boar’s head” (wedge) formation. Even though their nobles and their armed retainers might ride horses to the battlefield, these dismounted to fight.

Against true cavalry the Saxons were at a disadvantage. With no traditions of cavalry warfare of their own, they had developed no tactics to deal with horsemen, either light cavalry skirmishers or heavy cavalry shock troops, when confronting them.

It has been suggested by many historians that the Saxons were fearful of cavalry. While this may have been true to some extent (especially after stinging defeats at the hands of the British warlords), it is not likely from a cultural standpoint. Scandinavian chieftains and their household warriors rode horses to battle, as stated. The very symbol of the House of Kent, established by Hengist (or his successor), was a horse. But the horses of Scandinavia and the north German plains are small, sturdy animals, unsuitable for cavalry warfare. It was primarily for this reason rather than some kind of unreasoning terror of horsemen that the Saxons had no cavalry tradition of their own and were vulnerable to British cavalry.

Conversely, since the 3rd century, the importance of cavalry within the Roman Army had steadily increased. The emperor Gallienus, in the 260s, created a mobile cavalry corps stationed at Milan in northern Italy; which acted as a rapid-reaction force capable of responding to barbarian invasions anywhere along the broad frontiers of the Rhine or Danube. This was the prototype for the future “mobile field armies” (the comitatensis) of the later Empire. During the Roman occupation the Count of Britain (Comes Britanniae) commanded such a mobile field army, which included 1,800 cavalry[3].

While this force was likely withdrawn to support the imperial pretensions of Constantine III in 407[4], other cavalry resources were left at the disposal of Britain’s leaders for the island’s defense, and Britain may have owed its salvation to them.

In the 1st century AD, the nomadic Sarmatian people established dominance on the Ukrainian steppe. By the 2nd century these excellent horsemen had migrated into the mid-Danube region, coming into conflict with the Roman Empire. After defeating them in war, the Emperor Hadrian (or Marcus Aurelius) is thought to have settled 5,000 Sarmatian horsemen in Britain at Ribchester (Bremetennacum), as a reserve backing-up the garrisons along Hadrian’s Wall. It is not known if they brought their families with them,  or married local women. In either case, they continued to exist as part of the British population for the next two centuries. Sarmatian units are named as part of the Wall garrison till the very end of the Roman period in Britain. Though this is not in-and-of-itself proof of a continuing Sarmatian presence: units often retained ethnic names long after a particular ethnic groups ceased to comprise its members. But it is still likely that descendants of these Sarmatian settlers maintained their cultural traditions into the late empire.

1418542.jpgSarmatians depicted on Hadrian’s Column

Sarmatians aside, there were other heavy cavalry units stationed on the Wall and left there after Rome abandoned the province to its own devices. Many of these were “heavy” cavalry, and if names are to be trusted, at least one was a unit of catafractarii (very heavily armored lancers): the Equites Cataphractariorum at Morbio.

Further, the incipient northern British kingdoms of Strathclyde in the west and Gododdin in the east both maintained a tradition of cavalry warfare that may speak directly to their intermingling with and influence by the Sarmatian settlers under discussion (though the Celts in general have always had strong cavalry traditions of their own). The Roman authorities had established these friendly client peoples as a buffer(primarily the Votadini tribe, who later formed the Kingdom of Gododdin; and the Damnonii and Selgovae who together comprised the later Kingdom of Strathclyde). One factor preventing the Picts from overrunning the whole of Britain during the turbulent days following the Roman withdrawal, or later when the Saxons were ravaging the southern portion of the island during the 450s, was that between their highland kingdom, Alba, and Roman Britain stood the formidable mounted warriors of Strathclyde and Gododdin.

Sometime in the late 4th century or the first half of the 5th century, a large band of warriors from the Gododdin Votadini tribe, and their families, were settled in northern Wales. Led by the famous Cunedda, these founded the Kingdom of Gwynedd. It is likely that at least the nobles of Gwynedd maintained the cavalry traditions of their homeland in the north; providing the British leaders with still another potential source for cavalry.

The northern British horsemen were not the only source of good quality cavalry available to the defenders of Britain. Across the Channel, in Armorica, a group of Alans had been settled by Flavius Aetius when he was Magister Militum of the West during the reign of Valentinian III. Like the Sarmatians (to whom they were a close cousin) these were a nomadic people of the Eurasian steppe. Though originally a branch of the Central Asian Massagetae, they are often described as a Sarmatian people; and the distinctions between them might well have been slight. As discussed in previous installments of this series, it is likely the Alans merged with the British settlers who migrated to Armorica in mass in the mid-5th century.

Armorica was very likely allied with or even under the nominal authority of the British “Supreme King”; who in the later half of the 5th century was effectively Ambrosius Aurelianus. Geoffrey of Monmouth links Armorica with Ambrosius, as the place of his exile when hiding from Vortigern in the 440s. As discussed earlier, Alan horsemen may well have served in his Comitatus/Bucellarii (bodyguard regiment); and the Armorican Alani would have been available to the British military leadership (See Part Six).


Ambrosius Aurelianus took over the leadership of the Britons in the late 450s. For the next several decades he carried on a long struggle against Saxon, Pict and Scotti (Irish). While the bulk of British military garrisons and levied contingents would have been infantry, the military elite were cavalry. Only horsemen had the strategic mobility to respond rapidly to the midnight beacon on the hilltop, signaling “raiders from the sea”, or of a Saxon incursion across the “debatable lands”!

1418539.jpg Romano-British soldiers, mid-5th-6th century AD

Did Ambrosius personally respond to every alarm? As Riothamus of Britain only he had the authority to command the contingents of the various petty-kings of Celtic Britain. But the duties of “Supreme King” included more than leading armies; and not every incursion required the full response of Britain’s military resources.

Using the model left them by the Romans, the Britons would have layered their defenses. Fortress garrisons along the Saxon or Pictish frontier would deal with small-scale raids, and give advance warning of larger threats as they materialized. Local “petty kings” would then respond to such threats to their own territory; leading their household warriors, augmented when necessary by town militias and tribal levies.

When a threat too dangerous for the local ruler to safely deal with materialized, but not one so large as to require a general mobilization of the British kingdoms, then Ambrosius’ mobile cavalry force could be dispatched. Galloping up one of the numerous Roman roads or connecting byways to the endangered area, Ambrosius’ horsemen could be at any threatened part of the island in a week’s time. Like Gallienus’ 3rd century mobile cavalry corps, the arrival of a strong cavalry reinforcement under able leadership could shift the balance of any small engagement in favor of the British.

But galloping across the British landscape was young man’s work, the work of a capable subordinate.

Ambrosius Aurelianus’ birth date is unknown. If, as previously theorized, he was a youth fleeing Vortigern’s persecution in the 430s then he must have been in his middle years when he came to power in the late 450s. If we are correct in our assertion that Ambrosius is synonymous with “Riothamus”  then his wounding in Gaul by the Visigoths might have left him debilitated. While it is certainly possible for a vigorous older man to lead his warriors on hard campaigns, it is unlikely that Ambrosius was in any condition to gallop off at the head of his cavalry in response to every midnight alarm.

So who took over this role? Here, again, the late Roman practice suggests an answer.

In the late Roman Army, the supreme commander of Roman forces bore the title of Magister Militum (“Master of Soldiers”). He was assisted by a second-in-command, titled Magister Equitum: “Master of Horse”.

Ambrosius, “Last of the Romans”, must surely have been assisted by a trusted lieutenant, his “Master of Horse”. To this individual would be entrusted the command of the mobile cavalry force that kept the barbarians at bay.

Could this man, Ambrosius’ strong right-hand, have been Arthur?

1 arthur by scollins.jpg

If Arthur indeed existed at all, then it is probable that he led the Britons in the generation after Ambrosius. Ambrosius may have been alive until sometime around 500AD; though by this date he would certainly have been an aged, revered ruler. He must have groomed someone to take his place much earlier, perhaps as his Master of Horse.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “History of the Kings of Britain” has Arthur as Ambrosius’ nephew. Such a familial connection would certainly make a great deal of sense. Perhaps Ambrosius’ young nephew began his career within Ambrosius’ comitatus. Interestingly, the later British term for such bodyguard units of great leaders was Teulu: “Family”.


  1. The exact status of Armorica/Brittany is unknown, but might have been either an independent Romano-British successor state or a dependency of Britannia itself.
  2. Morris, John. The Age of Arthur, P54. Weidenfeld & Nicolson (1973)
  3. Jones, AHM. The Late Roman Empire. Johns Hopkins University Press (1986). The force under the command of the Comes Britanniae was composed of 6 units of cavalry, 2 legio comitatensis, and 1 regiment of auxilia. This mobile reserve numbered (on paper) 4,800 men: 300 troopers per cavalry vexillatio (1,800 total); 1,200 soldiers per legio (2,400 total); and 600 soldiers for the auxilia regiment. However, there is debate as to the size of the cavalry vexillations, and these may have numbered 600 instead; in which case the number of cavalry attached to the comitatensis of Britain would be, on paper, 3,600.
  4. Some of the comitatensis (mobile field army) of Britain may have been withdrawn a generation earlier still by another Imperial pretender, Magnus Maximus)


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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 a 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 “Sunne in Splendour” banner

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“.)

Yorkist soldiers, the “Sunne in Splendour” banner behind

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; while John 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 was a bitter enemy of the House of York. He was thought to have personally killed Edward’s 17 year old younger brother Edmund of Rutland after Wakefield; and was called “the Butcher”.  Clifford killed during the skirmish at Dinting Dale by an arrow; a blow to the Lancastrians, who lost a dedicated adherent and ferocious enemy of York.

The fight at Ferrybridge was a bloody prelude to what was to come at Towton

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.


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.


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.
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