Once again, Deadliest Blogger presents its list of Greatest Commanders of history. This time, we take a stab at the Middle Ages, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary: The period of European history from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West (5th century) to the fall of Constantinople (1453). This is a VERY broad swath of history, and can be divided itself into the “Dark Ages” (from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the Battle of Hastings in 1066); and the “High Middle Ages”, continuing to the 1453 (or, alternately, 1500). As one can infer, these dates and categorizations are somewhat arbitrary. But the fall of Constantinople, where previously impregnable ancient fortifications were brought down by cannons (and a postern gate left conveniently open) marks a turning point at least in the art of siege warfare; and is a harbinger of the a new age of gunpowder weapons. So here, for better or worse, is my list of the 25 Greatest Commanders of the Middle Ages:
25. Alfred the Great
Though often portrayed as a man of peace, more an administrator than a warrior, Alfred fought perhaps more battles with greater success than any other King in English history. For his entire reign, he battled intermittently against the Danish invaders for the survival of his native Wessex (the only one of the original four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to survive the Danish onslaught); and ultimately for the survival of Anglo-Saxon culture. He was the youngest of four royal brothers, and unlikely to come to the throne. For this reason, perhaps, he was given the education of a cleric. But by the time he was 16, his two eldest brothers had each (briefly) ascended the throne of Wessex and died of natural causes. He became chief aid and counselor to his surviving brother, King Æthelred I in 865; the same year the Great Heathen Army, led by the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, invaded England. Over the next two years, Northumbria and East Anglia were conquered by the Danes. In 868, Alfred was with King Æthelred in a fruitless campaign to drive Ivar the Boneless and the Danes from neighboring Mercia. In 870, the Great Heathen Army invaded Wessex. The Saxons were first defeated by the Army at Reading; but recovered and bested the Danes soon after at Ashdown, with Alfred leading his brother’s army to victory. The winter that followed became known as the Battle Winter; with Alfred and his increasingly ill brother fighting 6 more engagements. Æthelred died that winter, leaving an infant son. Alfred was crowned by the Witan (the counsel of nobles and clergy); and negotiated a temporary peace with the Danes, bribing them to leave Wessex. For the rest of Alfred’s 28 year reign, he fought the Danes; who held the rest of England north of the Thames. At times his cause seemed hopeless, and he was very nearly overthrown in the winter of 878 when the Danes (now under a king named Guthrum) made a sudden attack into Wessex. Alfred hid in the swamps, on the island of Athelney, till Spring. Then, rallying the Saxon fyrd (levy), he defeated the Danes at the Battle of Edington, and drove them from Wessex. From then till his death, he was successful in all of his campaigns; repelling periodic incursions by the Danes and strengthening his kingdom. His greatest contributions were the brief creation of a small but effective English fleet along the southern shores of Wessex; and the fortification of most of the Saxon villages and towns (burhs), making the land much less vulnerable to sudden Viking raids. He showed that the Danes were not invincible, and that with experience and good leadership the English could face them in battle. His efforts created a power-base from which his son and grandson would launch the eventual Saxon reconquista of England. He died in 899, the only king in English history to be called “Great”.
A Circassian slave soldier, he was purchased in Syria by a Mamluk officer and sent to Egypt, where he became a member of the bodyguard regiment of the Ayyubid ruler, As-Salih. He rose rapidly, based upon his skills, both political and military. Baibars was a commander of the Mamluks in 1250, when they defeated the Seventh Crusade of Louis IX of France. He led the vanguard of the Egyptian army at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260, turning back the Mongol advance from Egypt. Upon returning to Egypt, he assassinated the Sultan and took the throne. From 1263 till his death in 1277 he campaigned relentlessly against the Crusader states of Syria; and against the Mongols. He proved particularly adept at siege craft; and took fortresses previously thought to be impregnable (such as the fabled Krak des Chevaliers, in 1271). In 1265 he captured Caesarea and Arsuf, the latter after a 40 day siege. He raised the town to the ground, a destruction from which it never recovered. In 1266 Baibars invaded the Christian lands of Cilician Armenia, an ally of the Mongols. Devastating the country, he then turned upon Christian Antioch and Tripoli. Antioch surrendered on 18 May, 1268. Though the populace were promised their lives, Baibars slaughtered or enslaved the inhabitants and razed much of the city. The fall of Antioch led to the brief Ninth Crusade, which brought Prince Edward of England, the future Edward I Longshanks (see below). After making some progress, Baibars attempted to have him murdered by the Assassins. The attempt failed to kill the prince, but took him out of the fighting while a truce was concluded with the remaining Crusader state of Tripoli. In 1277 Baibars invaded the Seljuq Sultanate of Rûm, then dominated by the Mongols. He defeated a Mongol-led army at the Battle of Elbistan, and captured the city of Caesarea. However, he was forced to withdraw back into Syria; and died either of a wound or from poison in Damascus later that year. He is remembered as ruthless and determined enemy of the Crusader States and of the Mongols; helping to stop their advance westward. He was a great champion of Islam, second only to Saladin (see below) as the most successful Muslim leader of the Crusader Period.
The eldest son of Edward III (#16 on our list), he was in his day considered the foremost warrior in Europe. At age sixteen he commanded the right wing of the English forces at the Battle of Crecy. His wing bore the brunt of the French assault. When asked if reinforcements should be sent to his son’s aid, King Edward famously replied, “Let the boy earn his spurs!” Ten years later, in command of his own army, Edward decisively defeated a greatly superior French army under King Jean the Fearless at the Battle of Poiters; capturing the King in the process. He continued to campaign throughout France; and in 1367 intervened in a Castilian civil war, leading an army into Spain. At the Battle of Nájera he inflicted a crushing defeat on a numerically much superior Spanish army. His reputation benefited from dying fairly young, while still in his prime. While he lived, no warrior had a greater name or commander a more fearsome reputation.
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