Greatest Commanders Renaissance

Once again, Deadliest Blogger presents its list of Greatest Commanders of history. This time, we tackle the difficult period of the Renaissance; defined as the period from the second half of the 15th century through the 17th century. While some scholars would quibble with this broader time scope, it works very well militarily. During this 250 year period of history, the advent and integration of gunpowder weapons (“firepower”) on the battlefield reaches its fruition; replacing shock-and-melee weapons and tactics as the dominant force on the field. This is a period of increasing military professionalism, with many of the pioneers and great innovators of modern war taking the stage. The possible candidates for this list are so great and varied that many great commanders had to be overlooked, rated lower than those here. Some will of course take issue with the order in which I rate these, in itself an obviously subjective selection. But that is the fun of lists: to stimulate thought and conversation! So let us begin:

25. Edward IV


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

24.  Pierre Terrail, Chevalier de Bayard

Chevalier_Bayard_(1473_-1524)Often regarded as “the Last Knight”, an anachronism in his own time, it is often overlooked that Pierre Terrail, the Chevalier Bayard was a superb cavalry leader; and understood the military arts of his day as much or more than any other captain of the age. Born to a minor branch of the French nobility, his family enjoyed the dubious distinction of having a Terrail killed in battle in every generation for two centuries. Bayard was very early in his life involved in France’s Italian Wars, beginning as a teenager in Charles VIII invasion of Italy. Bayard distinguished himself at the Battle of Fornovo in 1495, capturing an enemy standard; and was knighted after the battle. In 1503, Bayard was the hero of a celebrated combat of thirteen French knights against an equal number of Spanish. At the Battle of Garigliano he single-handedly defended the bridge of the Garigliano against 200 Spaniards, gaining French forces much needed time. He played a key role as commander of the French vanguard in Louis XII’s 1508 Genoese campaign. In 1509 he was commissioned to raise and command a mixed company of infantry and cavalry; which became a model for discipline and professionalism. At the Battle of Agnadello his company played a key role in saving the French vanguard from destruction. Throughout the minor skirmishes and sieges that marked the next decade of the French Italian Wars, Bayard’s company and leadership were ever evident and effective. In 1513, he was in northern France to repel Henry VIII of England’s invasion. Though the French were routed at the Battle of the Spurs (Guinegate), Bayard won distinction and when captured, so impressed King Henry by his good humor and gallant bearing that he was released without ransom. At the Battle of Marignano in 1515, one of the great battles of the age, Bayard led repeated and effective charges by the French gendarmes (armored lancers) against the Swiss pike phalanx; the combination of French artillery and Bayard’s armored cavalry bringing the French victory that day. After the battle, Bayard had the honour of conferring knighthood on his youthful sovereign, King Francis I. He was given command of the retreat of the French army at the River Sesia. Bayard succeeded in extricating the army from a trap, but while directing the rearguard was shot in the back by an arquebuse, and died that afternoon in the care of his Spanish enemies. As a soldier, Bayard was considered the epitome of chivalry and one of the most skillful commanders of the age. He was particularly adept and keen in the arts of mounted reconnaissance; and was noted for the completeness of the information he gathered on enemy’s movements. Unusual in his age, he created a well-arranged system of espionage in the districts in which he campaigned, and was never caught unawares. In the long history of mounted warfare, he rates highly as one of the greatest cavalry leaders of all time. In an age of mercenary armies, Bayard remained absolutely disinterested but remained ever loyal to his king and country. To his contemporaries he was known and remembered for his romantic heroism, piety, and magnanimity: the fearless and faultless knight (le chevalier sans peur et sans reproche). His gaiety and kindness won him, even more frequently, another name bestowed by his contemporaries, le bon chevalier.

23. Gustav Horn

23 horn

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

22. Sir Thomas Fairfax

 4bc654f46df33cfd4e115b52dfd636f9Fairfax was the creator of the New Model Army, and second only to Cromwell in reputation at the end of the English Civil War. He was born in 1612, a member of the English-Scottish nobility in the north of England. Because his father’s title was in Scotland, he was able to take a seat in the English House of Commons. He learned the arts and sciences of command under Sir Horace Vere in the Netherlands, fighting for Prince Maurice of Nassau in the 80 Years War. In 1639 he commanded a troop of the King’s Dragoons in the short-lived First Bishops’ War; and in the Second Bishops’ War the following year he commanded his troop as part of the English army which was routed at the Battle of Newburn. Fairfax nevertheless distinguished himself, and was knighted for his services in January 1641. In the lead-up to the Civil War, he was among those who urged King Charles I to find accommodation with Parliament. When the civil war broke out in 1642, his father, Lord Fairfax, was appointed general of the Parliamentary forces in the north, and Sir Thomas was made lieutenant-general of the horse (second-in-command) under him. Both distinguished themselves in the early campaigns in Yorkshire. Though defeated at the Battle of Adwalton Moor, they survived as a viable force; Lord Fairfax retreating into the port of Hull, where he was resupplied by the Parliament navy; while Sir Thomas raided with a force of cavalry around York, a Royalist stronghold. The Parliamentary alliance with the Scottish Covenanters led to a Scottish army under the Earl of Levan (a veteran of Swedish service in the 30 Years War) marching south to join with Fairfax and the newly arrived army of the Earl of Manchester (and Manchester’s Lieutenant General of Horse, Oliver Cromwell); resulting in the Siege of York. Fearing the loss of their northern bastion, King Charles dispatched his chief andn most talented lieutenant, his nephew Prince Rupert of the Rhine to rally Royalists forces and break the siege. This led to the Battle of Marston Moor (2 July 1644) which proved the decisive battle for control of the north. Sir Thomas Fairfax commanded the rightwing, with John Lambert as his second in command with several of the regiments of foot in support. During the bloody fight that followed, Fairfax’s wing collapsed, and he rode to Cromwell on the opposite side of the field. There, Cromwell had routed Prince Rupert and the Royalist left. Fairfax rode beside Cromwell in his decisive counter-attack that crossed the field and shattered the hitherto successful Royalist left under Goring. Marston Moor ended the Royalist cause in the north, and made Cromwell’s reputation as a leader of horse. Fairfax was severely wounded, but acquitted himself gallantly. The following year Parliament passed the New Model Ordinance, which replaced the locally raised Parliamentary regiments with a unified, “New Model Army”. Sir Thomas Fairfax was selected as the new commander-in-chief with Cromwell as his lieutenant-general and cavalry commander. This new organization and command quickly proved its worth in the decisive Battle of Naseby (14 June 1645). The Royalist cause was lost, and the First Civil War soon came to an end. When the Second Civil War broke out two years later, Fairfax effectively led the New Model Army against the revived Royalists in England; while Cromwell defeated the King’s Scottish allies at Preston. At the trial of King Charles, Fairfax was originally the chief among the judges; but he left the court, refusing to take part in a trial that would ultimately condemn the king to death. Fairfax’s last service as commander-in-chief was the suppression of the Leveller mutiny at Burford in May 1649. After this he resigned his commission, and Cromwell replaced him as Lord General of the Kingdom (and eventually Lord Protector of the Kingdom). His break with his more radical associates and refusal to condemn the king led to his exemption from punishment a decade later when The Restoration returned Charles II to England and the throne. He took up arms for the last time to aid the restoration, when George Monck invited him to assist in the operations undertaken against John Lambert‘s army. In December 1659 his appearance at the head of Royalists forces was enough to cause 1,200 cavalry to quit Lambert’s cause and joined him. This was speedily followed by the breaking up of all Lambert’s army, end resistance to the restoration of the monarchy. Along with Monck, he was the head of the delegation sent to Holland to escort the new king home, and Charles II rode into London on a horse provided by Fairfax, at the king’s side. He died eleven years later in retirement in his native Yorkshire. His legacy is that of an organizer and a leader of horse. Though eclipsed by Cromwell both as a commander and a politician, his reputation remained intact with both the supporters of Parliament and his erstwhile enemies, the Royalists. He was an honorable gentleman to the end, who remained moderate in politics, gracious in victory and stoic in defeat.

21. Henry of Navarre


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

20. Hernán Cortés

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

19. Selim the Grim

 Yavuz_Selim 2Sultan Selim I, nicknamed Yavuz, “the Stern” (but often rendered in English as “the Grim”) was born around 1470, the youngest son of Sultan Bayezid II. He successfully rebelled against his father when his brother was named heir to the throne in 1512; exiling his father and killing his brother and nephews, in order to eliminate potential pretenders to the throne. His first challenges as Sultan was the growing power of  Shah Ismail and the Shia  Safavids. In 1511, Ismail had supported an pro Shia/Safavid uprising in Anatolia, the Şahkulu Rebellion. In 1514, Selim attacked the Safavid kingdom to stop the spread of Shiism into Sunni Ottoman lands. The two armies met at the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514. The Ottoman army, using modern tactical…..

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