1416526.jpgHenry V leads the original “Band of Brothers” to a bloody triumph against all odds on Saint Crispin’s Day, 1415

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not  here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

The St. Crispin’s Day speech, which the Immortal Bard places in the mouth of his hero, King Henry V of England, is one of the great battle speeches in literature. Though likely Shakespeare’s own invention, it brilliantly portrays a young, inspiring commander attempting to hearten his starving and dispirited soldiers in desperate straits, as they face battle against (seemingly) hopeless odds. Whatever Henry may have actually said that fateful morning in October is lost to history. But what is not lost is how he and his tiny force of desperate men stood firmly on the muddy field of Agincourt and defeated five-times their number, which included the flower of French chivalry.


Henry V (center) and as portrayed by Lawrence Olivier (L) and Kenneth Branaugh

Soon after coming to the throne in 1413 the 26-year-old Henry proclaimed his intention to renew the century-old Plantagenet claim to the crown of France. This claim was the original casus belli for the Hundred Years War, which had lain dormant for a generation. It was a particularly audacious move on Henry’s part, in that France had defeated the English and largely driven them from France in the previous century, and were widely considered a much stronger kingdom. However, the King of France at this time, Charles VI, suffered from bouts of madness (a trait he would perhaps pass on to his grandson, Henry VI of England). As often when the monarch is weak or infirm powerful nobles had maneuvered to fill the power vacuum the king’s incapacity created. Factions had come to blows, and France was a nation whose nobility were divided against each other.

Henry, whose own claim to the English throne was questionable (his father had usurped the crown from his weak cousin, King Richard II) understood that nothing so unites a nation like a foreign war and a common enemy. The glorious victories of Edward III and the Black Prince sixty-and-more years earlier were hardly forgotten. Many an Englishman of all classes in society had benefited from the pillage brought home from frequent campaigns across the Channel during their campaigns in France. What Henry needed to cement the loyalty of his subjects was success in battle against the hated French, and to gain a reputation as a warrior king.

1416562.jpg Map depicting area of Henry’s 1415 campaign; from the estimable Bernard Cornwell’s “Agincourt”

On 11 August, 1415 Henry crossed the Channel into Normandy to begin a grand raid across northern France, following the same strategy Edward III and others had used before. However, a short and successful raid was not in the cards. Henry’s first target, the port town of Harfleur, at the mouth of the River Seine, held out for much longer than expected. By the time the town was successfully stormed on September 22 it was too late in the campaigning season to exploit this minimal gain. The delay had also allowed the outraged nobles of France to assemble a large army near Rouen, under the command of the greatest magnates in the realm. These were marching north to punish Henry for his effrontery.

1416568.jpg Henry’s army lost precious time besieging Harfleur. (Image by Graham Turner, thanks to Osprey Publishing.)

Merely embarking his army and returning to England would do little to improve his reputation, and might well be seen as cowardly; potentially fatal to a young king seated insecurely on an ill-gotten throne. So, instead, Henry decided to extend the campaign with a raid through Picardy, perhaps consciously following in the footsteps of Edward III and his Crecy campaign of 1346. Defiantly marching through northern France he could end this chevauchée at the sanctuary of English-held Calais; the only lasting fruit of Edward III’s great victory of Crecy.

As with any Medieval armies which sat down in one place too long, Henry’s army at Harfleur was racked by dysentery. So it was a sick and slow English force that set out, marching through a largely bare and (with winter approaching) an increasingly wet countryside. The English soon discovered that a dauntingly-large army, led by the greatest lords of France followed close on their heels, looking to bring them to battle. Worse, arriving at the River Somme, Henry found his way across blocked by a second French force of several thousand on the opposite bank attempting to block his crossing and trap him on the western bank.

This was exactly the same situation his great-grandfather had faced almost 70 years earlier. At risk of being hammered against the river by the pursuing French main army, Henry marched upriver, seeking an unopposed crossing point. All the while the French blocking force across the river shadowed his march, prepared to stop any attempt to cross. However, at a bend in the river, one that bulged northeast for many miles, Henry was able to cut across the base while the French on the opposite bank had to travel around the outside circumference. This allowed the English to find a crossing place unopposed.

However, the delay in getting across the Somme allowed Henry’s pursuers to cross down river and join the blocking force. The French, now north of Henry, moved to cut him off from Calais and force him to battle. The English halted near the castle of Agincourt, not far from where the French sat across their line of march. Here the terrain narrowed between two woods, offering Henry a place where his smaller army could fight with both their flanks secure. The English camped and prepared for battle.

The size of the English and French forces has traditionally been stated as being 6,000 and 36,000 respectively. Recent revisionist historians have attempted to place the French number at a mere 12,000, and the English (conversely) as high as 9,000 strong; and thus diminishing the wonder of Henry’s victory in the battle that followed. However, this is contrary to all contemporary sources, including French, which put the French forces as not less than 20,000; and most agree to the higher number of 36,000. It has been accepted by most historians since the battle that the French outnumbered the English by as many as five-to-one.[1]

1588024.jpgThe French at Agincourt were commanded by Count Charles d’Albret, the Constable of France, the highest ranking military officer under the King. He was assisted by the renowned old knight Jean II Le Maingre, called Boucicaut, the Marshal of France. Boucicaut was a veteran of the ill-fated Nicopolis Crusade, being one of the very few to have been ransomed back by the Turks. Though both d’Albret and Boucicaut were experienced and capable medieval commanders they lacked the necessary social rank to rein-in the headstrong nobility of France. These included 5 Dukes (Orleans, Bourbon, Alençon, Brabant, and Bar) and at least 8 Counts; as well as dozens of lesser nobles and knights. The presence of these high-ranking lords worked to the detriment of the army’s command-and-control: quarrelsome and proud, even the Constable could not order about these princes of the realm; and throughout the battle no one man truly commanded the French forces.[2]

The English knew the odds against them, and had little illusions regarding the likely outcome of the battle before them. In the case of defeat, mutilation or death awaited the archers [3], and death or capture the men-at-arms. But with the desperate courage of men with no other option the English prepared to stand and triumph, or to die in place.


From “Henry V” (1944), directed by and starring Sir Lawrence Olivier. The film did and excellent job of recreating the armor of the day. Here Henry treats with a French emissary. His uncle, the Duke of York, stands behind and to the right of Henry, bearing the Plantagenet arms, cadet branch

Terrain was the key factor in the coming battle. By placing themselves across Henry’s line of march at Agincourt, the French had gifted the English with a narrow field; perfect for an army so badly outnumbered. This narrowness allowed Henry’s much smaller army to anchor its flanks upon the woods to either side,  preventing them being outflanked.

A second (and even more critical) factor was the state of the ground itself: steady rain the previous days had turned the newly plowed field into a muddy morass. Worse, deep furrows had been plowed into the clay soil for the planting of winter wheat. With the previous night’s rain, these had become flooded man traps, with the clay beneath turned to sucking mud.

Terrain aside, Henry had another great advantage: the five thousand English archers were all armed with the longbow, a highly effective weapon capable of delivering 15 arrows a minute in the hands of the expert English archers. With an astonishing draw rate of 120 – 150 pounds, it could reach out to 350 yards, penetrating mail at 100 yards and light plate armor at 25 yards. At a rate of fire of 12 arrows a minute Henry’s five thousand archers could loose 60,000 arrows each minute; or 1,000 arrows every second! When the archers launched their attack the white goose-feather fletching’s on the falling arrows gave the appearance of a snow storm.

The Longbow had proven a battle-winner during the battles of the previous century. But the French knights in 1415 were heavily armored in the newest plate armor over their mail, much improved since the days of Crecy and Poitiers. For this reason (as well as class chauvinism) they disrespected and dismissed the potential effectiveness of the English archers in the coming battle.


By 1415 the noble warriors of Europe were very well protected in suits of plate armor with mail beneath. However, the weight of such armor proved detrimental in the muddy field of Agincourt.

The French cheerfully prepared for the coming battle, confident in their numbers and prowess. So sure were they of victory the French lords diced the night before, wagering for the ransoms they could expect to gain in the capture of the English nobility in Henry’s army!

In the morning, the French deployed in three “battles” (divisions), on in front of the other. The vanguard, or first division, consisted of 5-8,000 dismounted men-at-arms[4]; and was commanded by Constable D’Albret and Marshal Boucicault. This first division was crowded with nobles eager to be the first to fall upon and come to blows with the English “Goddames”, and included the Dukes of Orléans and Bourbon. Their horses were sent to the rear, it being understood that the English arrows were particularly dangerous to the only partially armored horses. However, the vanguard would be supported in the initial attack by two wings of mounted cavalry under the Count of Vendôme and Sir Clignet de Brebant (a famous knight, one of seven French champions in a renown deed-of-arms against a like-number of English champions in 1402). Their role would be to charge and break through the archers on the English wings, and then to swing inwards and attack the English men-at-arms from behind, this while the first French “battle” pinned the English in place. This tactic had worked well at the Battle of Roosebeke in 1382, where Boucicaut had earned his spurs; and it is likely that at the old soldier’s suggestion that this plan of attack was adopted.

The French second line was commanded by the Dukes of Bar and Alençon, and the Count of Nevers. Alençon had bragged the night before that he would personally kill or capture King Henry, so that he could be displayed in Paris (“in an iron cage”). This division contained 3,000 men-at-arms (also dismounted), and perhaps several thousand crossbows. The third line, or “rear”, was commanded by the Counts of Dammartin and Marle, and may have numbered as many as 10,000 and included most of the foot.

1416705.jpgKing Henry deployed his much smaller army across a 750 yard section of the field in the typical English fashion of the 100 Years War. His approximately 1,000 dismounted men-at-arms were also divided into three “battles”, side by side instead of one in front of the other (as with the French): the right-wing, led by the King’s uncle the Duke of York, a grandson of Edward III; the center (or “main”) led by King Henry himself, assisted by his younger brother, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester; and the left-wing, commanded by Thomas Lord Camoys.

1588025.jpgBetween each of the divisions were supporting wedges of archers, called “harrows”; with more archers thrown forward on both wings. The front of the archer’s position was protected from cavalry charge by sharpened wooden stakes, slanting forward to impale a charging horse.

The night’s rain had stopped by dawn. In the early hours after dawn both armies moved into position, though neither made a move against the other. The English planned to stand on the defensive, while the French were awaiting the arrival of even more troops. Henry pushed the issue by ordering his line to advance to within 300 yards (bow range) of the enemy. This entailed having the archers pull up their stakes and replanting them in front of their new position. During this maneuver, the complacent French made no move to interfere. Here we have another sign that no one was truly in over-all command of the French army. Certainly the veteran Boucicaut must have seen that this was their best opportunity to fall upon the English before they could rearrange their line; and, most critically, before the archers could replant their hedge of stakes. But no such order came for an attack.

1416707.jpgThe battle began in earnest with the English, now in bow range of the French first division, unleashing a hail of arrows into the ranks of their Gallic opponents. Some 60,000 bodkin-tipped shafts fell in that first minute; the smacking of iron arrow heads into steel plate armor sounding like hail clattering on a sheet metal roof. This deadly hail stung the French into action, and the first two divisions began to plod forward towards the English line. As planned, the mounted cavalry on the flanks charged forward, attempting to scatter the English archers on Henry’s wings. However, the plunging fire from the English archery took a toll of their horses as they charged: though armored in front, the rear-quarters of the knight’s destriers were unprotected. Falling horses caused those behind to trip or swerve out-of-the-way, disordering the massed French cavalry. Wounded or riderless horses swerved away from the stakes protecting the English archers, some plunging through the dismounted French van as it advanced in the center, disrupting its ranks in the process.

1416812.jpgSome of the French cavalry reached the archers, despite the arrow storm. However, they seem to have taken no thought as to how to penetrate the hedge of stakes. Brought to a halt before this chevaux de frise, they were decimated by point-blank fire. Man and horse could only take so much, and the remaining cavalry broke and fled, some at least disordering the oncoming French lines as they did and further churning up the muddy ground.

1416793.jpgAs the dismounted French vanguard drew closer to the English position they found themselves brought under ever more intense and effective archery fire from the flanking wings and wedges of longbowmen positioned between the English men-at-arms. Arrows found creases in armor, or at closer ranges pierced mail and the lighter armor on arm or leg. Lowering their heads so to protect their vulnerable eye-slots from the chance arrow, the French chivalry edged away from the archers; bunching ever tighter till their line instead began to resemble three deep columns approaching the English men-at-arms like the forks of a trident.

Now the very heavy armor that the French counted upon to provide some measure of protection against the galling English archery undermined their attack. In the soft clay-based mud, the heavily armored knights sank up to their calves; advancing only at a slow and exhausting pace. When they finally reached the English line, the French men-at-arms were already winded from this exertion. The deep mud and the plodding pace it forced upon them also served to deprive the French columns the “weight” their numbers should have lent their impact upon the thinner English line.

1584914.jpgEven so, coming at last to close-quarters the French mass pushed into Henry’s line, their sheer mass pushing the English back several yards. But the furious melee quickly bogged down into a close-quarter slogging match. The English archers, running out of arrows, took up the heavy sledge hammers they had used to pound in their stakes, or pole axes they carried as a secondary weapon; and swarmed forward into the already-engaged French men-at-arms. Such heavy mallets and pole arms crushed armor or concussed the man beneath.[5] Unencumbered by armor, the lightly-armed archers were much less effected by the mud, and now swarmed over and slaughtered the flower of French chivalry.

1416825.jpgAs the second French line under d’Alençon and Bar came up, it threw its weight behind those already embattled. This worked further to the detriment of the embattled French  van, already heavily engaged. Unable to budge Henry’s men-at-arms from their position, they now found themselves pressed closely from behind by comrades eager to join the battle, hampering their movement. The dead piled up in front of the English position in heaps, further encumbering the stalled French advance. By this point the field was churned into a bloody red morass, the deep-plowed furrows filling with blood.

At some point during this furious melee d’Alençon wounded the King’s brother, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester. Seeing his brother fall, Henry rushed forward, warding the lad while Humphrey was pulled to safety. Nearly making good his boast to kill or capture the English king, d’Alençon struck Henry in the helm with his battle-axe; shearing off part of the golden crown on the English king’s helmet. Stunned by the blow, Henry staggered back; but was saved when d’Alençon was cut down by the King’s bodyguards.

1588020.jpgMany on both sides died in the close press, though the casualties were overwhelmingly French. Packed in too tightly to fight effectively, the French were cut down in droves. On the English right the King’s uncle, the Duke of York, died still on his feet (likely of heart failure), unable to fall for the press of dead all around him!

After the first two divisions were slaughtered in turn, a lull in the battle allowed the English to take French prisoners to the rear. The ransom of noble prisoners could make a poor knight rich overnight; and the capture of such high-ranking nobles as were falling into the English hands promised great wealth indeed. However, as the French third division (itself larger than the English army) prepared itself to renew the attack, Henry could not spare a single man to guard the several hundred prisoners. The king ordered the prisoners killed, rather than have so many unguarded Frenchmen in his rear. Only those of the highest rank were spared.

This was not the only atrocity that day: during the battle a small force of French cavalry  rode around the woods and into the English rear. Here they had raided the English baggage, and in the process killed the young boys who acted as grooms and pages that had been left there.

As it turned out, the attack by the French reserve division never materialized. Perhaps seeing the wholesale destruction of the flower of the French army before them, the largely lower-status foot soldiers of the final division were loath to continue the obviously lost struggle. In any case, this reserve withdrew without striking a blow. (Lack of leadership may have played a part: the Count of Marle, who was one of the commanders of the French third line, was among the dead; apparently having deserted his place of command to join the melee.)



Agincourt was an utter and unexpected disaster for France. The casualties were staggering, numbering perhaps as many as 10,000 (according to French sources!), and was particularly high amongst the elite of French society. Three Dukes (Alençon, Brabant, and Bar), at least eight Counts (including the Constable, d’Albret), a Viscount and an Archbishop were slain in the battle, along with numerous other nobles. Along with the Constable, France lost her Marshal, Boucicault (captured); and Lord Dampierre, the Admiral of France. Estimates of the number of prisoners vary between 700 and 2,200, including the Duke of Orléans. As the less valuable prisoners had been slaughtered during the crises of the battle, these were all ranking nobles.

For the English the battle was an astonishing change of fortune. A sick, tired, badly outnumbered army had triumphed against all odds. Though losing some 1,500 (or as little as 100 in some contemporary English sources) in the bloody fighting, they had gained a legendary victory, perhaps the greatest in English history. In the long-span of conflict between Englishmen and their Gallic neighbors, only Hastings, Crecy, Blenheim, and Waterloo compare in significance.

1416827.jpgAt a stroke, England had regained the upper hand in her long war with France. Henry would use the victory at Agincourt to conquer all of northern France; and through subsequent negotiation and a royal marriage to the French King’s daughter place himself in line as heir to the throne of Charlemagne. Only Henry’s untimely death seven years later perhaps prevented a union of England and France under a Plantagenet dynasty.

In the days and years that followed, men back in England, hearing the tales of Agincourt told in tavern, church, and in hall by the veterans who fought there, would indeed “hold their manhoods cheap” that they were not there, on Saint Crispin’s Day!

(Above) An episode from the excellent series, “The Weapons that Made Britain”; starring the estimable Mike Loades

(above) From Sir Kenneth Branagh’s masterpiece version of “Henry V”


  1. For a detailed debate on the disputed numbers, go here.
  2. One of the fundamental principals of war is unity of command, distinctly lacking in the French forces at the battle; much to their ultimate detriment.
  3. The French promised to cut the thumb and two forefingers from every archer they captured; making the drawing of a bow in the future impossible.
  4. The terms knight and man-at-arms are often used interchangeably, but while all knights equipped for war certainly were men-at-arms, not all men-at-arms were knights. A man-at-arms could be a knight or nobleman, or a member of his retinue. What was required was the proper armor of a “gentleman” and a war horse.
  5. The lesson here learned was not lost on the English. For the rest of the century, English footmen increasingly adopted the bill or glaive as their primary weapon, eventually superseding the longbow as the ubiquitous infantry weapon of English infantry in the late 15th and early 16th century.

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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Roman expansion into Germany is halted forever by Varus’ defeat in  one of history’s most decisive battles. 

At the beginning of the first century of the Common Era Germany seemed on the verge of conquest by the Roman Empire. As with every independent power and people on the periphery of the Mediterranean and its hinterlands, Germany seemed the next nation to fall before the unstoppable power of Rome; and to become the newest jewel in the crown of the Caesars. It was the concerted policy of  Augustus Caesar, the first of Rome’s emperors, to expand the empire’s borders beyond the Rhine to the Elbe; both to protect Rome’s Gallic provinces from Germanic raiders and to establish her frontier along a shorter and more defensible border. Following 22 years of steady campaigning, Roman generals had planted the eagles on the western banks of the Elbe, and by AD 6 the western German tribes between the Rhine and the Elbe were considered largely pacified, if not yet completely conquered.

This land the Romans called Germania is described by the historian Tacitus as  “covered either by bristling forests or by foul swamps”, inhabited by independent tribes whose men were marked by “fierce-looking blue eyes, reddish hair, and big frames”[1]. The Romans had suffered the worst military defeat in their history at the hands of a Celto-Germanic coalition, the Cimbri and the Teutons, at Arausio (Orange) in 105 BCE. Caesar had fought German hosts on several occasions during his Gallic Wars, and had famously bridged the Rhine and conducted a show-of-force on the German side to cow the tribesmen. Eventually Caesar had recruited German cavalry to support his legions.

Under his successor Augustus (and later rulers of the Julio-Claudian dynasty) a cohort of Germans, the Numerus Batavorum, was recruited to serve as a personal bodyguard. The Caesars valued the fighting quality of the Germans, and as a bodyguard had the advantage of not being Roman, and thus largely immune from local politics and intrigues (unlike the Praetorians). A conquered Germania would over time become, like Gaul, a place to recruit these ferocious warriors.

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Early German warriors

Augustus Caesar resolved to bring Germania into the Roman fold. This would end the threat of German raids into the empire, and place the northeastern border on the Elbe, a shorter and more defensible line than the Rhine.


The Roman conquest of northwestern Germany began in 12 BC with the campaigns of Drusus, stepson of Augustus, who as governor of Roman Gaul responded to German incursions into his province by crossing the Rhine and devastating the territories of the tribes involved. The following year he again crossed into Germania (as the Romans called the lands of the German tribes). Marching east towards the Weser River, he passed through the lands of the Cherusci tribe, whose territory stretched from the Ems to the Elbe.

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Among the Cherusci who saw Drusus’ passing through their territory was a boy of 5 or 6 years old, the son of the chieftain[2] Segimer. His name is unknown, though history remembers him as Arminius[3]. As surety for his father’s loyalty, young Arminius and his younger brother Flavus[4] were taken as hostages to Rome.

There the two German princes were raised to be loyal Romans. When they grew to manhood, both Arminius and Flavus became officers in the army,  commanding auxilia cavalry for six years (between 1-6 AD). Both were granted the honor of Roman citizenship, and Arminius at least (and perhaps Flavus as well) obtained the dignity of equestrian rank.

Sometime after 6 AD Arminius returned to his native land and tribe; whether as Praefectus of a Cherusci cavalry ala or as a civilian is unclear. By this time the Roman occupied territories in northwestern Germany were designated as the province of Germania Magna. That he was released from his status of hostage demonstrates Rome’s confidence in his and his father’s loyalty. While Arminius and his brother were away, all had not been well. Between 2 BC and 6 AD many of the tribes, including a faction of the Cherusci, rose up in what was called a “vast war”. No detailed record of this war remains, but the tribes were pacified by first Vinicius and then (from 4 AD) Tiberius, stepson of Augustus and brother of Drusus (who’d died in 9 BC).

Roman auxilia cavalrymen. Young Arminius was an officer of such horsemen in Roman service. 

Returning at the end of this conflict, the 23-year-old Arminius found he and his clan granted special favor my Tiberius, who in his efforts to pacify the Cherusci granted the ruling clan (of which Arminius belonged) the status of “free people” among the Germans. But the Cherusci, like all Germans under Roman occupation, were rife with undercurrents of resentment. For reasons unknown, Arminius began intriguing within his own tribe and those neighboring against his Roman patrons.

Arminius’ return to Germany and subsequent turn against the Romans coincided with and may have been caused by a change in circumstances and the arrival of a new governor of Germania Magna.

In 6 AD, Tiberius was about to launch a second campaign against the Marcomanni in southern Germany. A massive force of 11 legions in Germania Magna were preparing to attack from the north, while from the south legions stationed in Illyricum/Pannonia were to march north; destroying Marcomanni opposition in a pincer movement. But before the Romans could launch this campaign a dangerous revolt broke out in Illyricum that threatened both Italy and Roman Macedonia. A hasty peace was concluded with the Marcomanni, and Tiberius was given command of the Roman troops sent to crush this revolt. Eight of the eleven legions in Germania Magna left with Tiberius for Pannonia. In his place, a new governor was appointed: Publius Quinctilius Varus.

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Coin bearing the likeness of Q. Varus

Varus was lawyer and experienced administrator known for the harshness of his methods. As governor of Syria from 7/6 BC until 4 BC he caused widespread resentment by his high-handed rule and the crushing taxes he exacted from the provincials. In 4 BC civil disorder in Judea following the death of Herod the Great caused him to march on Jerusalem, where he crucified some 2,000 Jews.

He brought to the new Roman Germania province the same arrogance and high taxation. The long-conquered Syrians, a highly civilized people who were accustomed to despotic governance dating back at least as far as Ashurbanipal and Darius, may have meekly accepted this treatment. But the Germans, a fiercely free people who labored for none but themselves and acknowledged no lord but their tribal chieftains, hotly resented Varus’ treating them like conquered minions.

It may well have been an antipathy to Varus, personally, and of his methods and policies that led Arminius to consider himself once again, first-and-foremost, a prince of the Cherusci rather than an Equestrian and loyal client of Rome. This, combined with Rome’s distraction with the revolt in Pannonia may have convinced Arminius that the time was ripe for action.

All the while gaining Varus’ trust and insinuating himself into the governor’s councils as a trusted adviser, Arminius secretly forged an alliance of the neighboring tribes. These included the Marsi, the Chatti, BructeriChauciSicambri, and elements of the Suebi. Over the next couple of years Arminius laid his plans, and waited for the opportunity to throw-off the Roman yoke.


Arminius’ opportunity came in 9 AD.

In September Varus marched the three legions he had in Germany (Legio XVIILegio XVIII, and Legio XIX), accompanied by six auxilia infantry cohorts and three squadrons  (alae) of cavalry; toward Moguntiacum (modern-day Mainz), where he planned to winter. His total forces was somewhere between 20,000 – 36,000 men.

On the march Arminius brought Varus word that a revolt had broken out to his north, perhaps among the Chauci. The Cheruscian prince advised that by prompt action Varus could quash this rebellion before it got out of hand. Another Cherusci chief,  Segestes, who was an enemy of Arminius and friend of Rome, warned Varus not to trust Arminius; and instead advised him to arrest both Arminius and several other tribal leaders. But Varus disbelieved Segestes, and disregarded the warning as motivated by the men’s mutual animosity. With Arminius directing his route, Varus and his legions began marching toward their doom.

Varus’ army followed a narrow path through the forest, hardly a road at all; which Arminius promised was the quickest way to the trouble spot. The terrain grew increasingly difficult: heavily forested hills cut by overgrown, swampy ravines and gullies. According to the historian Cassius Dio, the “mountains had an uneven surface broken by ravines, and the trees grew close together and very high. Hence the Romans, even before the enemy assailed them, were having a hard time of it felling trees, building roads, and bridging places that required it.”[5] The army’s progress was further slowed by the large baggage train attending the soldiers, who had been marching to winter quarters:

They had with them many wagons and many beasts of burden as in time of peace; moreover, not a few women and children and a large retinue of servants were following them – one more reason for their advancing in scattered groups.[6]

Even the elements turned against Varus, as a violent rainstorm assailed the marching legions. A “violent rain and wind came up that separated them still further, while the ground, that had become slippery around the roots and logs, made walking very treacherous for them, and the tops of the trees kept breaking off and falling down, causing much confusion”.[7]


As they approached modern Osnabrück, Arminius and other German officers begged Varus’ permission to leave the column, telling Varus they were off to assemble tribal auxiliaries to aid the Romans against the rebels. However, they instead joined their tribal forces, assembled in the forests all around in prepared ambush.

By this point the column had become perilously spread out along the narrow path, some 9 to 12 miles from van to rear; the towering trees dark and foreboding, the driving rain reducing visibility even further. Suddenly, echoing from the dark forest though the mists and rain, came the eerie chanting battle cry of the German tribes, the “barritus“; which Tacitus describes as a “harsh, intermittent roar”, “amplified into a deeper crescendo by the reverberation” of the warriors holding their shields to their mouths.

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Then the air was alive with a shower of javelins thrown from all quarters. These rained down on the Romans, inflicting death and disorder on an already chaotic scene. These missiles were the framaeubiquitous light spears of the German warrior. Each carried a brace behind his shield, used as javelin at range or spear in close quarters. Confusion reigned, and as the Germans saw the Romans were in no good position to offer concerted resistance, they came down from the high ground or from within the bogs to assail the soldiers at close quarters.

…the barbarians suddenly surrounded them on all sides at once, coming through the densest thickets, as they were acquainted with the paths. At first they hurled their volleys from a distance; then, as no one defended himself and many were wounded, they approached closer to them.

For the Romans were not proceeding in any regular order, but were mixed in helter-skelter with the wagons and the unarmed, and so, being unable to form readily anywhere in a body, and being fewer at every point than their assailants, they suffered greatly and could offer no resistance at all.[8]

It was a command-and-control nightmare for any leader, even a modern one with all the advantages of radio, maps, and GPS. For Varus it was an impossible situation. Troops could not form a battle line or fight in any depth, along the narrow path or in the dense surrounding woods. It is a testament to their discipline and training that they were able to close up and, defending themselves all the while from every side, and to build a fortified camp “so far as that was possible on a wooded mountain”[9] in which to spend the night.

No record exists of a command meeting held that night in Varus’ tent (assuming a tent could be erected in the chaos). But whatever plan for the following day was formulated, it involved breaking camp at dawn and marching as best they could out of the confined space of the forest and onto more open terrain. This was available to them north of the Wiehen Hills, near the modern town of Ostercappeln. Dispensing with the baggage wagons, the Romans marched forward that second day under a constant harassment by the tribesmen, towards the open area where they were here able to form up in some sort of order. The attack did not abate, though here they took fewer casualties and could better defend themselves. In the open ground Varus made his second camp.

On the third day the Romans marched on, once again entering the forest (no other path of escape being open to them). If anything the enemy’s ranks were growing thicker, as tribesmen, hearing of the Romans plight, joined Arminius’ forces to take part in the victory (and plundering) that appeared imminent. The rain now beat down ever more ferociously, perhaps as great an enemy as the Germans who darted in-and-out of the trees to attack the Roman column. Dio paints a picture of chaos, with cavalry and infantry blundering into each other and into trees in the blinding rain. The muddy, boggy terrain The Romans suffered their greatest casualties here, on the third day.

Modern reconstruction of the palisade prepared by Arminius near Kalkriese

During the night the column attempted to break out, but in the morning found themselves on a sandy strip of ground between the foot of Kalkriese Hill and swampland at the edge of a bog. Arminius had here neatly blocked the road with a trench, and a wooden palisade had been erected on the higher, wooded slope to its flank; from which the defending tribesmen pelted the column with missiles. His years with the Roman army had taught Arminius well the advantages of field fortifications.

There was no alternative but to storm the palisade. The legions closed ranks and climbed the hill. The alternating mud and rain-slicked rock and gravel made the footing treacherous. Four days of driving rain had left their scutums waterlogged, their clothing sodden. They faced a driving wind blowing the rain into their faces. After several attempts, the Romans gave up the assault and retreated. The Germans followed them closely, storming down the hill into the Roman ranks.

Image result for Teutoburg Forest - Great Bog

Like wolves sniffing blood, the emboldened Germans now closed for the kill from all sides on the greatly thinned-out Roman ranks.

Seeing that all was lost, and fearing capture, Varus and some of his senior officers committed suicide. Varus’ senior Legatus, Numonius Vala, attempted to escape with some of the remaining cavalry. The Germans pursued and slaughtered them before they could reach the Rhine. Most of what remained of Varus’ army was cut down, many too weak to lift their weapons and shields, but nevertheless fighting to the last. The historian Paterculus wrote: “Hemmed in by forests and marshes and ambuscades, it was exterminated almost to a man by the very enemy whom it had always slaughtered like cattle, whose life or death had depended solely upon the wrath or the pity of the Romans.”[10]

Some small detachments, led by their centurions, attempted to escape. Many of these lost their way and were trapped in the low ground around the Great Bog, where they were killed. Only a relative handful of survivors managed to make their way to Roman forts along the Rhine. Some 20,000 Romans perished.

Some of the senior prisoners taken were tortured to death, or sacrificed in hideous ways to the Germanic gods. Others, lower-ranking soldiers, were enslaved. Arminius found Varus’ corpse, and after beheading the dead Roman commander, sent this grizzly trophy south to the king of the Marcomanni in effort to win him, too, to the anti-Roman coalition. This effort failed, but that day in September, 9 AD, Arminius stood victorious on a muddy, bloody field; having achieved what would prove not just a decisive victory, but one that would change the very course of history.


In the immediate aftermath of the battle Arminius’s tribesmen attempted to exploit their victory by attacking along the Rhine frontier; but the garrisons of the various forts held them at bay. Still, there was widespread panic in Rome and in the Gallic province, as only two legions remained to hold the river.

But the tribal alliance could not hold together, and Arminius was soon dealing with rivals at home instead of the Romans abroad. Six years later Germanicus, son of the late German conqueror Drusus and nephew of Tiberius, would lead punitive expeditions into Germany to punish Arminius and the tribes responsible for the massacre at Teutoburg Forest. Coming to the site of the massacre, he would find the remains of the disaster littering the area. Tacitus describes well the grim scene Germanicus found:

Varus’ first camp with its wide circumference and the measurements of its central space clearly indicated the handiwork of three legions. Further on, the partially fallen rampart and the shallow fosse suggested the inference that it was a shattered remnant of the army which had there taken up a position. In the center of the field were the whitening bones of men, as they had fled, or stood their ground, strewn everywhere or piled in heaps. Near lay fragments of weapons and limbs of horses, and also human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions.

Some survivors of the disaster who had escaped from the battle or from captivity, described how this was the spot where the officers fell, how yonder the eagles were captured, where Varus was pierced by his first wound, where too by the stroke of his own ill-starred hand he found for himself death. They pointed out too the raised ground from which Arminius had harangued his army, the number of gibbets for the captives, the pits for the living, and how in his exultation he insulted the standards and eagles. 

And so the Roman army now on the spot, six years after the disaster, in grief and anger, began to bury the bones of the three legions, not a soldier knowing whether he was interring the relics of a relative or a stranger, but looking on all as kinsfolk and of their own blood, while their wrath rose higher than ever against the foe. In raising the barrow Caesar laid the first sod, rendering thus a most welcome honor to the dead, and sharing also in the sorrow of those present.[11]

Honors done to the lost army’s remains, Germanicus would continue against the Germans, ultimately recovering two of the three lost eagles. The third legionary eagle  was recovered in 41 AD from the Chauci during the reign of Claudius, brother of Germanicus. Some 40 years after Arminius’ victory Roman forces liberated Roman slaves held by the Chatti, including some survivors of Varus’ army.

But when Germanicus was done, Tiberius, now emperor and successor to Augustus, pulled out of Germany and returned the Roman border to the Rhine. No further attempt was made to add Germany to the empire.

Teutoburg Forest had stopped Roman expansion, and reversed the tide of Roman conquest that had been unchecked for 4 centuries. The borders of the empire would expand and contract over the next few centuries; but never again into Germania.


That Germany remained outside the empire had wide-reaching consequences.

The first was that the empire would not have a shorter, more defensible frontier in the west. It is arguable that a fortified border that ran along the west bank of the Elbe to the Carpathian Mountains would have taken fewer troops to defend, and thus placed a lighter burden upon the Roman treasury. The virile western German tribes that continued to harass the Rhine frontier into the 4th century; and which would eventually, in the early 5th century, overrun Gaul and Spain entirely; would have become defenders of, and not enemies of the empire. Thus the lifespan of at least the Western Roman Empire might have been greatly extended.

That is the negative effect of Arminius’ victory. The positive one is perhaps even greater: that Germany remained independent and outside of Roman law and culture.

The Germans had a unique culture of their own. It was one that embraced individual freedoms and a liberty to a much greater degree than was the case of the Celts (particularly the Gauls) or the various civilized people of the empire. Though the Greeks early in their history and the Romans of the Republic gave the world its first experiences with democracy and republican form of governance; the Roman Empire was increasingly authoritarian and despotic in its later centuries. Whereas Diocletian turned most of Rome’s farmers into little better than surfs, oppressed by an oppressive tax system; in the German lands and kingdoms that replaced the empire in the west there was still a healthy free-man class of yeomen farmers/warriors. This spirit would infuse the west, particularly in England (conquered in the 6th century by Anglo-Saxons) and Germany itself, where free farmers would jealously maintain the freedoms that Arminius, in opposing Rome’s iron hand upon his native land, bequeathed to them.

Arminius’ monument


At end of the civil war which brought him into power, Augustus Caesar had economized by downsizing the Roman army from 78 legions to a mere 25 legions. In Augustan Rome’s downsized, shrunken military structure the loss of Varus’ three legions represented nearly 17% of the entire legionary force of the empire, almost one-in-five of its soldiers. On hearing news of the disaster, Augustus was thunderstruck; so distraught that months later he is said to have banged his head against the wall, crying out:

“Quintili Vare, legiones redde!“ (‘Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!’)


  1. Tacitus, Germania
  2. The tribal politics of the Cherusci at this time are unclear. Segimer seems to have been at the least the paramount chief of the tribe, if not its king. Just prior to Varus’ disaster, the tribe became divided between the pro-Roman and anti-Roman factions, each with their own leaders. Segimer and his son Arminius came to lead the anti-Roman faction; while another chief (or powerful nobleman), Segestes, led the pro-Roman. According to Tacitus, following Arminius’ war against Roman occupation and Germanicus‘ subsequent punitive campaigns, the devastated Cherusci requested of Rome that Hermann’s nephew, Italicus, raised within the empire and thoroughly Romanized, be allowed to return and take up the kingship; as he was the last living member of their “royal house”. This would seem to indicate that Segestes, Italicus grandfather, was king of the tribe and not just one of its chieftains. But the question is open to speculation.
  3. Though it has been convention since the 18th century to Germanize his name as Hermann we do not actually know what Arminius’ true name was. The Roman histories call him Arminius, and this is likely a Latinisation of his original German name. This could have been Erminameraz or Erminaz. It certainly was not”Hermann”, a German name that did not come into usage before the Middle Ages, and means “man of war”.
  4. Flavus’ real Germanic name is, like his brother’s, unknown. Flavus in Latin means “the blonde”; and was likely given to him by his Roman hosts/captors when he came to Rome, doubtlessly  referring to his hair color.
  5. Dio Cassius, Historia Romana; Book 56.20.1
  6. Ibid, 56.20.2
  7. Ibid, 56.20.3
  8. Ibid, 56.20.4-5
  9. Ibid, 56.21.1
  10. Vellius Paterculus, Historia Romana II 119, 1-2
  11. Tacitus, 1.61-62
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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“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 Three, go here)


The Bay of Pylos (now Navarino Bay) is a well sheltered anchorage on the southwest coast of the Peloponnese; in the region known as Messenia. It is enclosed from the Ionian Sea to the west by a long, narrow island: Sphacteria. The bay can be entered through channels both north and south of Sphacteria. The narrow northern channel is bounded on the northern side by the rocky Pylos promontory. Here, in the Bronze Age, had been the citadel of the Trojan War leader, Nestor. In 1827 it was the site of the Battle of Navarino, where a British, French, and Russian coalition fleet defeated the Ottoman Turks.



It was here in 425 B.C., in the 6th year of the Peloponnesian War that the innovative Athenian general, Demosthenes, with a fleet of 40 triremes bound for Corcyra was forced by bad weather to land.

Ever one to recognize a strategic opportunity, Demosthenes used the crews at his disposal to fortify Pylos; and when the fleet continued on to Corcyra, he remained behind with 5 triremes and their crews (about 1,000 men; less than 100 of which were likely hoplites). He was soon reinforced by another 40 Messenian-exile hoplites from Naupactos, an Athenian base on the Gulf of Corinth. None hated the Spartans more than these Messenians.

Demosthenes planned to use Pylos as a base of operations in Messenia. This land, comprising the southwestern quarter of the Peloponnese, had long been subjugated by the Spartans; and its native population reduced to helotry. From Pylos, the Athenians could raid into Spartan Messenia with impunity; and provide a refuge for runaway helots.

This potential thorn in the Spartan side was intolerable to the Spartan government. Immediately, the Spartan Army ravaging Attica under King Agis was recalled to the Peloponnese. A force of 43 ships and men was dispatched under Sparta’s most promising officer, the intrepid Brasidas son of Tellis, to expel the Athenians.

This is the first we hear of this enigmatic Spartan officer; destined to have such an impact on the direction of the war.


For such an important figure, we know surprisingly little of Brasidas’ early life. Considering his later rank, he was almost certainly a “star” cadet during his days in the Agoge (see Part One). He likely served time in the Kryptea; for no one who had not served in that elite “Special Branch” ever rose to the highest ranks in Sparta, as Brasidas did. He became renown for his personal valor and fighting prowess (Plato, towards the end of theSymposium”, has Alcibiades compare Brasidas to Achilles); as well as for his strategic acumen, his ability to quickly arrive at a tactical solution to any problem, his considerable diplomatic skills, and his very un-Spartan ability to think “outside the box. He was a remarkably capable man.

By the outbreak of hostilities in 431, Brasidas was already of sufficient rank to be entrusted as a commander of forces patrolling and garrisoning helot Messenia. When the Athenians raided Messenia and laid siege to Methone, Brasidas gathered those forces available and rushed to the city’s relief. Thucydides, the Athenian general and chief historian of the Peloponnesian War, notes that “because of this, Brasidas was the first man in this war to receive official honors at Sparta”. He is not specific about these honors, but the historian Xenophon states that in the next year, Brasidas was the eponymous Ephor, meaning he was the senior of the five magistrates that year; and that in Spartan reckoning and annuals the year was called after him. In 429 he was a naval commissioner helping to supervise an early attempt to create a Spartan Navy; and was sent to the Gulf of Corinth to review naval strategy.

He was soon commanding his own trireme, and was part of the Spartan expedition sent to aid the Corinthians against Corcyra. During this period, he proposed dragging the Peloponnesian ships from the Corinthian gulf across the Isthmus of Corinth and launching a surprise attack on Piraeus, the port of Athens. Although this plan was not accepted, it shows the characteristic boldness Brasidas would later display with such success.

Brasidas now led the Spartan squadron to Pylos, to expel Demosthenes and the Athenians.


Realizing the Spartans forces arrived at Pylos, forcing Demosthenes to beach his ships (but not before sending two northward to retrieve the fleet) and to man his stockades. Brasidas now attempted to land at Pylos, storming the rocky shore. The Athenians resisted fiercely, terrain and their makeshift defense-works in their favor. The Spartans were repelled, and Brasidas sustained a nearly mortal wound, as well as having his shield ripped from his prostrate body.


The Spartans withdrew, and decided to blockade the Athenians, cutting them off from supply. To this end, a Spartan force of 420 men (including 120 Spartiates) was landed on Sphacteria, a rocky, scrub-covered island that closed the bay’s western side, from which it could (theoretically) help close the northern channel into Pylos Bay.

However, the Athenian fleet returned from Corcyra and, entering the bay, defeated and drove off the Peloponnesian ships. At a stroke, “the worm had turned”, and the Spartans on Sphacteria were cut off and isolated.


Realizing the untenable position her garrison on Sphacteria were now in, Sparta immediately began negotiations with Athens for a truce that would allow their withdrawal. Their demagogic leader, Cleon the Tanner, convinced the Athenian assembly to make unreasonable demands, and the negotiations broke down.

Cleon and reinforcements were dispatched to Demosthenes, with orders to storm Sphacteria before winter weather made sailing impossible.

At this point, a chance fire on the island broke out, burning away the trees and scrub foliage that had given the tiny Spartan garrison cover and concealment. Now the Athenians off shore could clearly see how few were the Spartan garrison; and exactly where to land their troops unobstructed.

Stripping their ships to skeleton crews in order to field an overwhelming force, Demosthenes landed with several thousand heavy and light-armed troops. Taking the Spartans by surprise, they seized the island’s one well and drove the Spartan defenders to the far north end of the island; where the Spartans had built makeshift fortification on the highest ground.

Now the Athenian light troops, archers and javelin-armed “peltasts”, advanced up the hill to with missile range. They began a relentless harassment of the Spartans; who, formed up in phalanx, sheltered behind their shields. Several times the Spartans attempted to drive off their tormentors with charges. But the more nimble light troops easily eluded the Spartan hoplites; retreating to the shelter of their own hoplite’s phalanx. This was far more numerous than the Spartans, and occupied good defensive terrain that made direct attack suicidal.


Over and over, the Athenian light troops returned to continue the bombardment. In the blazing heat of the day, the sun and lack of water took as much of a toil of the Spartan defenders as enemy darts. Even so, the Spartans closed weary ranks around their dead, and held their ground.

Presaging Alexander the Great at the Sogdian Rock, a century later, Demosthenes now sent a force of Messenian light infantry up the sea cliffs on the northern end of the island, behind the Spartan position. Deemed impassable, the Spartans had placed no look-outs on the heights. Like the American Rangers at Pointe du Hoc in Normandy, the peltasts climbed the cliffs unobserved; then moved up to seize the islands highest ground, behind the embattled Spartans!


Attacked now from all sides the Spartan garrison, reminiscent of their grandfathers at Thermopylae two generations before, seemed doomed to another glorious “last stand”.

But Demosthenes now did something even more cunning: he pulled back. His troops backed off and held their fire, giving the sun and lack of food and water work their malicious magic.

Several hours went by. Then an Athenian herald approached the bloody and weary Spartans.

Would they care to surrender, he politely asked them?

In other circumstances, on another day, the question would have been met with contempt. Every Spartan knew what was expected of him. This was their chance to find that which every Spartan warrior spent his life preparing for: kalos thenatos, a “beautiful death” in battle; a chance to pass the final test of a true Spartan.

But this was not “another day”.

Inexplicably, the Spartans on Sphacteria island surrendered.

292 prisoners were taken in chains back to Athens, 120 of them full Spartiates. Cleon put them on display for the populace to behold, like some strange and exotic wild animals! The sophisticated, effete Athenians viewed them with scorn and ridicule.

“So, did all the real Spartans die on the island”, they sneered?

To celebrate their victory, the Athenians built the Temple of Tempe of Athena Nike, upon a bastion to the right of the entry gate, the Propylaea. Here they hung the Spartan shields captured at Sphacteria, as trophies.



Temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis, wherein hung the Spartan shields taken at Sphacteria; circled at the top image and on the upper right in the bottom, today

(Though Demosthenes’ strategy had won the victory, Cleon the Tanner stole the credit. Soon after, the comic playwright Aristophanes was lampooning the demagogue for this stolen glory in the comedy, The Knights (Hippeis).)

Morale back in Sparta sunk to the lowest it had ever been. The entire state seemed to have gone into a state of shock. In a fit of despair, Sparta agreed not to invade and devastate Attica; in return for Athens not killing its prisoners. Never had Spartans been known to surrender. The legend of Spartan courage and the myth of Spartan invincibility was shaken to their foundations.

When the prisoners were finally returned, the treatment they received was almost as unheard of as their surrender. They were not stripped of their status as Homoioi,“Equals”; they were not taunted in the streets by the Spartan maidens as cowards. They were quietly accepted back into Spartan society. It was as if all Sparta accepted, with a sense of shame and shared guilt, that Spartans were just not made of the same “stern stuff” as their forefathers.

The other Greeks took notice, and drew much the same conclusion.

The war continued.


Now it was Sparta’s turn to do the unexpected and strike the enemy where they least expected. It was Brasidas, recovered from the wounds sustained at Pylos, who conceived a plan to revenge Sphacteria and strike at the roots of the Athenian Empire.

The northern Aegean shore was a source of wealth for the Athenians; both timber for ship building and mines from which gold and silver were extracted. That it remain in Athenian hands was particularly important as the Athenian grain shipments from the Black Sea passed below it on their way to the Queen City. Amphipolis, an Athenian colony in western Thrace, was the principal Athenian base in the northern Aegean.


Athenian control of the coastal cities of Macedonia and Thrace was resented by the peoples of these regions. Now Perdiccas II, king of Macedonia, requested Spartan aid against these Athenian bases; the expectation being that the Spartans would turn them over to his control.

Brasidas argued to the Spartan authorities that here was an opportunity not to be missed. That once the Athenian subject-cities of Chalcidike and Macedonia were “liberated”, he (Brasidas) could march east along the Thracian coast, expelling the Athenians from all of their outposts. At the end of such a march lay the ultimate prize: Byzantium, at the exit of the Black Sea. With this in Spartan hands, the Athenian corn supply could be throttled!

Here was strategy on a high level.

But, however sound the plans, Sparta could not spare much of its army; already engaged in protecting the Peloponnese from the increasingly aggressive Athenians (who were now raiding from bases like Pylos all around the peninsula). In the end, Brasidas was given this command and allocated an army of 700 liberated and trained helots (called neodamodeis, “new men”); given their freedom in return for service and loyalty.

Brasidas moved to Corinth, where he recruited another 1,000 troops from the area. He also thwarted an attempt by the ever-active Demosthenes to seize the Spartan allied city Megara by coup d’main.

Brasidas marched north, through the plains of allied Boeotia; north, past the burial mound of the 300 at Thermopylae (where, no doubt, he paused to pay homage); on into Athenian-allied Thessaly, where so dreaded was his and the Spartan name that none dared to opposed his passing. Through the narrow gorge known as the Vale of Tempe, and into Macedonia.


The “Vale of Tempe”, the narrow gorge through which the main way from Greece to Macedonia passed. Brasidas came through Tempe enroute to Macedonia

Here Brasidas was joined by Perdiccas, the Macedonian king. Immediately, conflicting interests began to strain this alliance of convenience.



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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 tenth-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 Nine here; or  start from the beginning here!)


Heretofore we have been on fairly firm ground, presenting the history as currently understood, and well-considered theories as to the situation in Britain during the turbulent 5th century. With Voritgern and his antagonists, the Saxon leader Hengist and Horsa, early in the century we are for the most part dealing with written (if sketchy) history. This is also true, to an extent, with the figure of Ambrosius Aurelianus. The myriad of Arthur skeptics are much more accepting of these figures and events surrounding them than they are of a historical basis for Arthur.

With good reason: Gildas , the primary near-contemporaneous source for events in the 5th century fails completely to mention Arthur. We have suggested in earlier installments of this series why this might be the case. But his omission of Arthur in his history is problematic, to be sure. Going forward, we are forced to refer to later sources, the earliest at least two centuries after the event. That, and the scant archaeological record that supports activities that may relate to Arthur. Thin tissue, indeed.

But our purpose here is not merely to shrug and admit that we can no nothing definitively, and thus any speculation is fruitless. Instead I am attempting to build a working theory that fits what little we do know, and makes logical sense. Someone led the British resurgence in the late 5th and early 6th century, that halted and reversed the westward advance of the Anglo-Saxons and led to the victory at Mount Badon. Victory in war is not achieved without dynamic leadership. It is our theory that Arthur was that leader.

Sometime in the last decades of the 5th century a new leader emerges among the Britons. He is Arthur (or Artos), perhaps Romanized as Artorius. His name might have been either a nickname (“the Bear”) or his given name. In either case, his exploits as a war leader soon catapulted him into a position of primacy among the Celtic warlords.

Arthur is perhaps a kinsman (nephew?) of Ambrosius Aurelianus, the leader of the British in the latter half of the 5th century (see Ch. 6). If a nephew, it is likely to have been by marriage: Gildas states that Ambrosius “alone” of his family survived slaughter during the terrible years of the “Saxon Terror”. We have no information regarding Ambrosius’ wife, only that he had grandchildren living in Gildas’ time (the third of fourth decade of the 6th century). Though Ambrosius was almost certainly a southern Briton, whose power-base was possibly in the Belgae territory around Amesbury; it is not contradictory to suggest that Arthur could have been raised in the north, from whence may have come Ambrosius’ spouse. It was here that a strong cavalry tradition existed, both among the north British nobility, and perhaps among the descendants of Roman cavalry units stationed on or behind Hadrian’s Wall (including Sarmatian horsemen, as discussed in earlier installments of this series, at Ribchester in Lancashire). It is possible, though admittedly a stretch, that Arthur was even related to descendants of the Roman officer Lucius Artorius Castor; who may have sired a family while Britain in the late 2nd century. Alternatively, Ambrosius’ exile in Armorica (Brittany) as a young man could have resulted in marriage to a daughter of the Alani people, some of which were settled in Armorica by Flavius Aëtius when Magister Militum (“Master of the Soldiers”) of the West. Arthur could then have been of Armorican-Alan blood. Either origin would give Arthur familiarity in his childhood to the Sarmatians or the Alans, and perhaps even kinship. Though such contact or kinship is ultimately unnecessary to explain Arthur’s success as a cavalry leader (the British nobility prided themselves upon their excellence as horsemen), it is a tantalizing theory nevertheless.

It should not be ignored that Arthur is linked by Geoffrey of Monmouth with the royal house of Dumnonia. During the dark days following the Saxon Terror, many of the Britons who fled to Armorica were from Dumnonia. They founded there a “Lesser Dumnonia” (Domnonée) . Arthur could have been related to the royal house as a son of an exiled Dumnonian royal. This would not contradict a familial connection with Ambrosius, himself perhaps connected to the Dumnonian royal house (though neither men were ever kings there).


With all this in mind, let us paint a speculative narrative, attempting to bring to life Arthur and describe his rise to prominence:

He first serves in his uncle Ambrosius’ mounted Comitatus, perhaps among Alani kinsmen or childhood companions; or (if north British) neighbors and boyhood friends of Sarmatian extraction. Like them, he is a horseman born-and-bred. He handles lance, sword and javelin from horseback with equal skill. In early Welsh sources, he is described as a large and powerful warrior.

In battle he and his comrades are covered in armor of scale or mail, wearing conical helmets sporting horsetail crests. Arthur’s comrades (the Welsh word is Cymbrogi, meaning “Compatriots”, “Sword Brothers”, or “Comrades-in-arms”) spend many a day-and-night in the saddle, forging unbreakable bonds of fellowship and camaraderie. These are the archetypes of the “Knights of the Round Table”, perfecting their warrior skills in countless minor skirmish and foray into enemy lands.


In the later Welsh poems and annals, two names appear most often as Arthur’s closest companions: Cei or Cai the Tall (Arthur’s foster-brother in some versions, including Mallory) and Bedwyr Bedrydant (“Bedwyr of the Perfect Sinews”), one-handed champion. These are heroes in their own right, and are celebrated in Welsh poems of later ages.

In the tenth century poem Pa Gur, Cei is described thus:

“Prince of the plunder,

The unrelenting warrior to his enemy;

Heavy was he in his vengeance;

Terrible was his fighting.”

The same poem describes Bedwyr:

“They fell by the hundred

Before Bedwyr of the Perfect-Sinew…

Furious was his nature

With sword and shield.”

This is a period of “small war”, in which creeping Saxon settlements and incursions into the “debatable lands” separating the two races must be constantly beaten back. These are not great battles but raid and skirmish by relative handfuls. Here Arthur and the sworn brothers of his Teulu (the Welsh word for military household) built up around themselves a legend that would endure in much embellished form to the present day.


Not all the fighting was against the “Sassanach(Saxons). Celtic culture celebrated cattle reaving, maiden stealing, vendetta and vengeance; most often against neighboring districts and clans. The earliest tales of Arthur include stories of personal feuds; quests far-and-wide for magical or sacred items; and women kidnapped and rescued (most notably Arthur’s own wife, Gwenhwyfar who, according to Caradoc of Llancarfan, was kidnapped by Melwas, king of the “Summer Country” and held prisoner at his stronghold at Glastonbury).

A showdown, however, is brewing between the two races, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon, each vying for dominance of the island. During the last decades of the 5th century the Saxon menace has grown. Saxon settlements dot the whole of eastern Britain, now called by the Britons the “lost lands of Logress/ Lloegyr”. In the south the “Saxons” have founded enduring kingdoms: the Jutes in Kent, under the son (or, more likely, the grandson) of Hengist, Osic/Æsc; and to the west of this, the kingdom of the South Saxe (Sussex). This last is ruled by the ruthless and successful Saxon leader, Ælle, who in the last decade of the century has loosely united the Anglo-Saxons under his over-lordship, being proclaimed “Bretwalda”. (This title, the equivalent of “High King”, may actually be a bastardization of the Welsh Brit Gweldig, “High King/Emperor of Britain”.)

As Ambrosius grows old, and the eastern horizon grows ever darker, the aged leader comes to rely ever more on Arthur to lead his Comitatus against the encroaching enemy. The very Romanized Ambrosius perhaps names Arthur his Magister Equitum (“Master of Horse”), commander of his mobile cavalry force and second-in-command. Or perhaps he uses the same title once held by the Roman commander of the island’s mobile comitatensis, the Count of the Britons. It is Arthur who leads Ambrosius’ armored band of lancers on large, swift horses, responding to hilltop beacons warning of dark sails on the horizon or war-parties raiding along the frontier.


The late, great Angus McBride’s magnificent image of a party of north British cavalrymen give us a strong impression of what Arthur and his Combrogi (companions) may have looked like, patrolling the “debatable lands” between Briton and Saxon.

Arthur steadily builds a reputation as an effective war-leader, as well as an extraordinary warrior. In possibly the earliest literary reference to Arthur, by the Welsh poet, Aneirin (c. 6th century) and recorded in the Y Gododdin, a warrior is praised for his valor, “but he was no Arthur“.


Roman Britain in the late 5th century was becoming increasingly tribal. Three generations after the Roman withdrawal, Rome’s legacy of civil rule was in decline. The eastern and southern parts of the island, where the roots of Roman civilization had sunk the deepest, had been lost or turned into an embattled frontier zone. In the west and north, where the tribal system had never disappeared, and particularly in the north, which had always been heavily militarized, new tribal confederations and the descendants of military commands have evolved and established a patchwork of petty-kingdoms.


Southern and central Britain in the time of Arthur, late 5th/early 6th century.

In the southwest, as already mentioned, the Dumnonii, the Cornovii of Cornwall and the Durotriges have formed the kingdom of Dumnonia.

In Wales, Votadini immigrants from beyond the Wall migrated into and founded the Kingdom of Gwynedd; a strong buffer against Irish raids and settlement in north Wales. To the south and east of Gwynedd, the Ordovices in the west and the Cornovii of the Midlands joined to form Powys (one of whose founders may have been Vortigern, High King of Britain from the mid-420s till the 450s). The original boundaries of Powys extended from the Cambrian Mountains in the west to the modern West Midlands region of England in the east. The fertile river valleys of the Severn and Tern are found here, and this region is referred to in later Welsh literature as “the Paradise of Powys“. South Wales was home to the truly petty-kingdoms of Dyfed, Gwent (tribally the Silures), and Glywysing. In the Midlands two kingdoms emerged on either side of the Pennines. To the east, around the old Roman fortress city of Eboracum (York), rose the kingdom of Elmet. On the western side of the Pennines lay Rheged.

North of the these lay the kingdoms of Hen Ogledd (the “Old North”): Gododdin in the east (comprised primarily of the warlike Votadini tribe) and Strathclyde in the west. These were amalgamations of tribal groups (such as the Votadini and Brigantes) with military garrisons and districts around the Wall. Legend has that the sons of Coel Hen (“Old King Coel”), perhaps the last Dux Britanniarum commanding the Roman garrisons in the north, founded these kingdoms.

All of these realms had some military capability of their own; usually centered around the court of the king and composed of his Teulu. These household troops were synonymous with the comitatus of Germanic warlords and the bucellarii of late Roman/early Byzantine generals. Their numbers must have varied wildly, depending upon the wealth and holding of the individual lord they served; with as many as 900 recorded in the service of a north British prince in the 430s. This military structure continued into Medieval Wales. In the 11th century, the normal size of a prince’s Teulu was 120 men. Llywelyn ap Gryffydd had a Teulu of 160 men in 1282.

In war, these small bodies of professional fighting men (usually cavalry, though possibly mixed infantry and horsemen) could be augmented with civic militias from the local towns; garrisons from the decaying Wall forts (now no more than local militia forces themselves); or (in the far north or the mountains of Wales) tribal warriors. Rome had long disarmed the peasantry, Diocletian’s reforms making the bearing of arms or military service illegal to all but the families of soldiers already in the Army. Thus it is unlikely that the bulk of British farmers in the more civilized (Romanized) areas had any involvement in war, other than as victims. But in the “uncivilized” regions of Wales and the north, the warrior ethos lived on, particularly among the Votadini and those descendants of the various military garrisons (such as those descendants of the 2nd century Sarmatian settlers in Lancashire).

Ambrosius’ role as war leader (possibly “Supreme King”, or even “Imperator”; see below) of the Britons was to aid these petty-kingdoms when they were threatened beyond their ability to defend; or to lead them in coalition against Island-wide, existential threats to all. These petty-kings were suspicious of any interference in the internal affairs of their kingdoms, and jealous of any other’s fame or increased power. When not faced with foreign enemies, they were as likely to fight each other. To be first-among-equals of this temperamental lot was the best that Ambrosius or any other warlord could hope for.

As the fame and success of Ælle united the Saxons under his leadership at the end of the 5th century (see Part 7), the Saxon threat caused these petty-kings to cede more than usual amounts of authority to Ambrosius, and later to his chosen successor, Arthur. But not altogether willingly, and never without reservation and resentment. The struggle for supremacy between Arthur and the petty kings of Celtic Britain, ending ultimately in civil war and betrayal are all themes that run throughout the Arthurian legends. These reflect perhaps the real historical tensions that developed as Arthur strove to both take his place as Ambrosius’ successor, and to unite his (reluctant) fellow Celtic leaders against the common enemy.

While the revered Ambrosius (called by the later Welsh chroniclers, Emrys Wledig, or Ambrosius Imperator) still ruled, Arthur could not succeed to his uncle’s title. For the young warrior who was in fact if not name the leader of the coalition forces, a new title was found: Dux Bellorum.

Nennius gives Arthur this title, meaning “Leader of Battles”, or “warlord”. The petty-kings were loath to acknowledge him more. He is the Warlord of Britain, not yet High King or Imperator.

War is coming, and Arthur, Dux Bellorum, stands on the verge of legend!




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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Never has human will and courage made a bolder bid for national glory than at Marignano, where the Swiss, the most dreaded infantry in Europe, matched pike and halberd against the canon and cavalry of the greatest power on the continent: France, led by a gallant young king and the greatest (and last) knight of the Middle Ages, the Chevalier Bayard. 

In the long Renaissance struggle known as the Italian Wars (1494 to 1559) waged between France and an ever-shifting array of enemy alliances, no battle was more savage or more decisive to the future of one of the antagonists than Marignano (Sept. 13–14, 1515). Yet few but scholars of those wars have any deep knowledge of just what a “near-run” thing it was, and what a deep impression it left on contemporaries in general and especially the combatants who fought there.

“There clings to its memory a titanic echo, a heaven-storming impression; for never have human will and courage made a bolder bid for national glory than here, where the pikemen of Switzerland, without artillery, without cavalry, with nothing but bare steel, engaged well-nigh successfully the superior forces of the greatest European power.”[1]

To fully understand the conflict and forces involved, we must take a step back and examine the origin of the Italian Wars.


In 1494 the king of France, Charles VIII, encouraged by Ludovico Sforza Duke of Milan, invaded Italy to make good his family’s claim to the Kingdom of Naples.  Charles led an army of 25,000 men, composed of French Men-at-Arms, the best heavy cavalry in Europe, and the first mobile siege train comprised of gunpowder artillery[2], and was stiffened by a force of 8,000 Swiss mercenaries. This was the most “modern” army of its day, a true combined-arms force.

Despite leading such a “modern” army Charles ambitions were rooted in the Middle Ages. While laying claim to Naples, once ruled by the Angevin branch of his family, Charles saw the entire enterprise as a stepping-stone toward his true goal: a march to the Holy Land and recovery of Jerusalem. Though the spirit that motivated the early Crusades had long dissipated, campaigns launched against Islamic foes were often dignified and given an air of sanctity by being termed a “Crusade”. Fifty years earlier a kinsman of his, Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy, had joined the Crusade against the Ottoman Turks that ended disastrously at the Battle of Varna. The quixotic Charles saw in his very modern and now blooded army an instrument with which to achieve the age-old quest of restoring the Holy Land to Christendom.

The French swept away all resistance, marching down the Italian boot and capturing Naples in February 1495; the city opening its gates without resistance. During the march the Swiss distinguished themselves in the storming of several towns and fortresses by their singular ferocity and refusal to take prisoners. The  furor Helveticus was unleashed on Italy for the first time.

However, Charles rapid successes and the brutality of his Swiss troops frightened the Italian states and the Papacy into an alliance against the French presence, called the Holy League (of 1495, or as the League of Venice). As Italy rose around him, and with his line of communications to France threatened, Charles left a garrison in Naples and turned his army toward home. At Fornovo his way was barred by a strong League army, and the French had to fight their way through. Here Charles’ cannon, his ferocious Swiss, and the valor of the French men-at-arms won the day; but not without a loss of some 1,200 men (the League casualties were higher, at some 2,000 dead) and his baggage, which was captured by the enemy.

Footsore and tattered, the French returned home. Though he had failed (miserably) in conquering Italy (much less the Holy Land), Charles had established a French presence in Naples. But the vainglorious young king’s strange adventure in Italy, where like Don Quixote he had tilted at romantic windmills, opened doors and unleashed forces no one could have foreseen. The ease with which the French had overrun the Italian peninsula; their mastery, however brief, of many of its cities; and the triumph in the field of French arms and tactical methods impressed themselves on the minds of a generation of French soldiers that came of age at this time and convinced them that nothing was impossible to the gallant French, and that none could stand against them in war. This would go far to explaining the superb courage displayed again-and-again by French soldiery in the years to come. It would take a long and bloody series of future Italian “adventures” to disillusion them of this vain sense of their own invincibility.


Among the French heavy cavalry at Fornovo was a young gendarme named Pierre Terrail, seigneur de Bayard. The Italian adventure was his first campaign, and Fornovo his first pitched battle. He was but 22 years old, and served in the company of Louis de Luxembourg, the seigneur de Ligny. In the battle young Bayard, already noted amongst the army for his good look, off-handed charm, and skill with horse and arms in the tilting yard and tournament, distinguished himself by spurring into the midst of the Italian men-at-arms and coming away with not one but two captured standards. These he presented to his king, and may have been knighted on this occasion.[3]

In  the years that followed, Bayard earned fame as the beau sabreur of the French forces fighting in Italy; as the French found themselves facing a host of foes, the most dangerous being the Spanish, who entered the contest in 1495. Always at the forefront of any engagement, Bayard was wounded at Canossa in 1502. In January the following year Bayard fought a famous duel with the Spanish champion, Don Alonso de Soto-Mayor; each representing the honor of their kingdoms. Even though weakened with a fever, Bayard prevailed, slaying the Spaniard and winning great renown among both armies. That same year, 1503, he was the hero of a celebrated combat of thirteen French knights against an equal number of Spaniards. In December 1503 the French were defeated at the Battle of Garigliano. Bayard, leading a rearguard of 14 other men-at-arms, delayed the pursuit of the fleeing army long enough for the French to find succor behind the walls of distant Gaeta; for a while single-handedly holding a bridge over the river against some 200 Spaniards.

For the next 12 years Bayard fought in battles and sieges from Naples to the fields of Flanders. From a gallant young blade in the army of Charles VIII, Bayard grew into a highly skilled captain of horse[4].  He became particularly adept at what today would be called “special operations”: daring raids behind enemy lines[5] or sudden escalade against fortified places. First into any breach, ever in the vanguard of battle, he became the most famous and gallant soldier in Europe and the pride of his nation. He loyally served three kings: Charles VIII, Louis XII, and in 1515 his final sovereign, young François I. He was known as le bon chevalier, or “the good knight”; and le chevalier sans peur et sans reproche (“the knight without fear and beyond reproach”). 

A final note on his appellation as the knight sans reproche. Two examples from his life illustrate the man’s exemplary character.

The first occurred during the storming of Brescia in 1512. Bayard led a wedge of dismounted men-at-arms though the breach in the defenses. The fight was ferocious, and the French were thrown back several times before forcing their way into the town. Bayard was severely wounded in the thigh, and as the French forces raged through the streets his soldiers carried the chevalier to a nearby mansion; the residence of a nobleman, his wife and two daughters. Though near death, Bayard protected the house and its ladies from the usual grim fate meted out to women in a captured fortress. Nursed to health by the nobleman’s wife and daughters, he endowed the two daughters with a thousand gold ducats each towards their future dowries; the money paid originally to him by the lady of the house as ransom for their lives and property. Thus, while his comrades-in-arms got rich on plunder and ransom of rich captive, Bayard paid back the one ransom he received (that for the safety of the nobleman, his family and property) in thanks for the nursing care he received. 

A second and even more telling example of the gallantry of the man comes from one of those rare times of peace when he was traveling home to Grenoble. Staying at the palace of the bishop, a kinsman, upon departing for a banquet the chevalier bid his squire find him a girl to share his bed, and to have her ready in his room upon his return[6]. His attendant knew of a gentlewomen, who fate had left impoverished, possessed of a lovely young daughter. Arrangements were made, and a sum paid to the mother. The girl accompanied the squire back to Bayard’s apartments to await his return. When the chevalier entered the room, he saw that the demoiselle was “fair as an angel”, but while waiting his coming had “wept till her eyes were swollen”[7]. Bayard looked at her in surprise, and asking what the matter was, she explained that her family’s extreme poverty had compelled her mother to agree to the evening’s arrangement. Reflecting perhaps on the sad vicissitudes of fate that had placed the girl in this position, Bayard raised the girl up and escorted her to back to her mother. There he first upbraided the women for selling her daughter; then emptied his purse, providing the girl with a two hundred crowns for her future dowry, and another hundred for her maintenance and still another hundred for her mother’s. The extent of this generosity will be realized when we reflect that the sum of four hundred crowns then meant a relative value of $6,000 today, with a buying power ten times that amount. This at a time in his life when the great soldier was relatively poor. 

Bayard was a man of his time, to be sure; and certainly no plaster saint or aesthetic. But he was possessed of a generous spirit and adhered to an ideal of chivalry more often observed in the absence than in the practice. He was truly a “noble knight” in an age where such ideals were rapidly fading away; and at the same time an effective Renaissance captain of war.


At the beginning of the 16th century the Swiss had a well-earned reputation as the most fearsome infantry in Europe, and as mercenaries were much sought after by European potentates. From the Battle of Morgarten in 1315 to Marignano in 1515 the Swiss had enjoyed two centuries of nearly uninterrupted success on the battlefield.

The formation of an independent Swiss Confederation resulted from the Swiss victory over Duke Leopold of Austria at the Battle of Sempach. There the Swiss halberd in the hands of sturdy mountain yeomen triumphed over lance and sword wielded by aristocratic Austrian men-at-arms. Duke Leopold died, the stroke of a halberd splitting his skull. Swiss victory in the Swabian War in 1499 ensured their de facto independence from the Holy Roman Empire.

The Swiss had become the premiere infantry in Europe by in essence reviving the ancient tactical system of the Macedonians, the pike-armed phalanx[8]; giving it a highly aggressive character uniquely their own. Whereas the Macedonian phalanx in the days of Alexander and his Hellenistic Successors advanced at a steady, measured pace into contact with its opponents, the Swiss charged forward, pikes lowered, at a run. Unlike the Macedonians, the Swiss phalanx included halberdiers. The halberd was a suitable weapon for these mountain dwellers surrounded by foes who relied on mailed horsemen. The eight foot shaft had a heavy steel head that was an ax blade with a hook to pull horsemen from the saddle on the back side, as well as a point with which to stab.  Wielded by stout alpine yeomen, the halberd was a murderous weapon that could defeat even the best plate armor of a man-at-arms. Tactically, the halberdiers were placed deep within the body of the pike block, and would advance against the enemy through their own ranks once contact was made and the two sides were locked in melee. So, while the pikemen stopped an enemy’s charge, or threw an enemy formation back onto its haunches, the halberdiers would then wade-in and create massive carnage.

In battle the Swiss invariably advanced rapidly, their pike blocks screened by a swarm of light infantry crossbowmen and/or (once introduced to warfare) handgonners. In an age when generals spent hours marshaling and deploying their forces, the Swiss arrived on the field already deployed in their characteristic three echelons. Without pause they would drive forward straight at their enemy, often attacking with such suddenness that they caught their opponent off-guard and unprepared. The moral impact of the Swiss tactics played a great part in routing enemies unprepared for their assault. The site of three great formations bearing down upon an enemy, each a veritable forest of pikes surmounted by flags and pennons of the various burgs and cantons, including the great red flag with white cross of the Confederacy; this accompanied by the clamor of Alpine horns and drums, and the knowledge that these were foes who gave no quarter, unnerved many an opponent and is not to be underestimated as part of the secret of Swiss military success. By the dawn of the 16th century the Swiss had a reputation for ferocity and had created a legend of invincibility.

Charles VIII and his successor, Louis XII had made great use of Swiss infantry in their various military campaigns. In fact  1499 Louis signed an agreement with the Swiss that promised an annual subsidy in return for allowing the French to recruit Swiss infantry within the Confederation. That same year Swiss mercenaries had comprised a part of the French forces that conquered the Duchy of Milan, annexing it (temporarily, as it turned out) to the crown of France.

However, in the last years of Louis’s reign the Swiss Confederation turned away from their French ally in favor of an aggressive foreign policy of their own, and, at the urging of Cardinal Matthäus Schiner, Bishop of Sion, allied themselves with the Pope. Swiss expansionism had in fact been ongoing since the previous century. After defending their independence against first the Austrians in the 14th century, and then against the imperial ambitions of Burgundy in the 15th, the Swiss began expanding their territory at the expense of their neighbors to the south in Italy. By the first decade of the 16th Century, the Swiss had annexed the  Ticino region of northern Italy and contested possession of Milan with the French.


The young king Frances I inherited the Italian Wars from his successor at time when French fortunes in Italy were in the decline. The War of the League of Cambrai, the newest Image result for King Francois Ichapter in the long struggle, pitted France against a coalition of the Papacy, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, England, the Duchy of Milan and the Swiss: the so-called “Holy League”, formed in 1511 by the Pope to drive France from Italy. Though victorious against the Spanish and Papal forces at the Battle of Ravenna in 1512, the death of their intrepid 23-year-old commander, Gaston de Foix, duc de Nemours (a friend and comrade of Bayard, who also fought at Ravenna) denied the French the fruits of their victory. A month after this sanguine, Pyrrhic victory the Duchy of Milan was lost to France; and the Swiss installed a puppet ruler, Maximilian Sforza on the ducal throne[9].

The French attempted to restore their position in Milan the following year. In June 1513 a  French army of more than 20,000 under Louis de la Trémoille overran the western part of the Duchy, and besieged the city of Novara, held by a Swiss garrison. However, La Trémoille’s army was routed by a Swiss relief force at the Battle of Novara with great loss, including all of their artillery and baggage train. The German  Landsknechtin French service captured in the battle were subsequently executed (there was no more bitter a rivalry than that between Swiss and Landsknechts); and a detachment of Swiss pursued the fleeing La Trémoille and the survivors all the way to Dijon, before being paid off. Louis XII was forced to give up any hope of reclaiming Milan.

That dream fell to his successor, Francis.

Not yet 22 years old (he would celebrate his birthday on the eve of the coming battle) the ambitious new king made the recovery of Milan his first priority. Forces gathered at Grenoble for the enterprise, and “Spur” (as Bayard was known among his comrades-in-arms) was dispatched to prepare the vanguard. All that spring of 1515 he spent recruiting and preparing, and was soon ready with a force of 400 lances and five hundred foot. The immediate problem for the French was where to cross? The two main passes into Lombardy considered practicable for artillery and supply wagons, namely the Mount Cenis and Mount Genèvre, were both blocked by Swiss contingents.

With help from the Duke of Savoy, Francis was shown a possible alternative route: a mule path over what came to be the Col de l’Argentière, known today as the Maddalena  Pass. Deceiving the Swiss as to his intent with the leak of a false plan to cross the Alps via the Col de Genèvre, Francis and the French army began the passage on August 10, 1515. In its day it was regarded as one of the greatest military achievements of the era; equal to Hannibal’s famous passage 17 hundred years earlier. Thirty thousand foot, three thousand lances, seventy-two large field guns and some 200 lighter pieces, with all the accompanying baggage, the whole preceded by eleven hundred road-makers and engineers; the engineering enterprise supervised by Pedro Navarro, perhaps the foremost military engineer of the day.[10] Using explosives, tunneling, and  improvised bridge-work they succeeded in forging a new route and emerging after five harrowing days onto the plains of Lombardy, south of the defending Swiss forces.

Image result for Francis I crosses the Alps

Well-begun is half-done, goes the saying. Francis’ campaign against Milan started off spectacularly. However, a formidable coalition of enemies were gathering against the French advent.


Armies were marching towards Milan from all points of the compass, in response to Francis’ invasion.

Directly awaiting the French in Lombardy were some 20,000 Swiss troops, with another 15,000 or more descending into the plains from the Cantons. By the end of August the Swiss in Lombardy numbered more than 30,000. Their Papal allies had another 1,500 horse under Prospero Colonna, in the marquisate of Saluzzo; in good position to threaten the French rear should they march on Milan.

Additional League allies were coming from the south and east. Lorenzo de’ Medici was marching from Florence with 3,000 troops; while the Spanish Viceroy of Naples was coming from Verona with a force of 700 men-at-arms supported by 600 lighter cavalry, and 6,000 foot.

Of the Italian powers only Venice stood on the side of France. The Venetians dispatched 900 men-at-arms, 1,400 light horse, 9,000 infantry and a few cannon under the condottiero Bartolomeo d’Alviano. This would be a valuable addition to the French forces, if a junction could be effected. But the land swarmed with hostile forces, and every gate was turned against France and her lone ally.

As the French army drew close to the plains, Bayard and his vanguard swept ahead. By careful intelligence, he knew of the Colonna’s presence at Carmagnola. He was intent on a daring coup-de-main that would eliminate this threat to the French flank and throw the allied plans into disarray. With permission from the king and his direct superior, Charles of Bourbon, and reinforced by three able captains (La Palice, d’Aubigny, and Imbercourt with their own companies).

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A successful condottiero of his age, Colonna underestimated the boldness of Bayard and the French

Colonna, for his part, was alerted to the presence of Bayard’s force in the neighborhood, which he took to be but the Chevalier’s own lances scouting the district. Underestimating the size of the French raiding party, he felt entirely secure in his position, and boasted he would take the Chevalier “like a caged pigeon”[11].

From Savigliano Bayard and his companions set out at 2am on the 15th of August with 5oo picked horsemen. Imbrecourt led the way with a hundred mounted archers. En-route to Carmagnola, they learned that Colonna had departed the place, but planned to dine at Villafranca. Making their way through hidden paths in the forests, they grew steadily closer. Scouts reported to the Papal general that a large force of French cavalry had been spotted in the vicinity, but in his arrogance Colonna refused to believe it could be anything but Bayard and a small force engaged in a reconnaissance. To the very last, when a report verified their numbers and close proximity, Colonna dallied over dinner. By the time he was ready to flee, it was too late.

The armor and horse barding of a gendarme of the period. Such suits allowed the men-at-arms of the day to take on even pike-armed infantry and survive. Only a shot from arquebus or cannon was sure to pierce such a panoply; or the mighty blow of a Swiss halberd, which would break bones beneath

Forcing the gates before they could be secured, Bayard and company burst into the place and a rough-and-tumble melee ensued. All resistance was cut down, and Colonna’s lodgings surrounded. The Papal general surrendered, and was taken with all his baggage. This included a rich harvest of horses: six hundred, including four hundred superb Spanish chargers. The ransoms for Colonna and his staff would also be magnificent. In all, it was a rich haul, and the raiders escaped out of one gate of Villefranca just as a relief force of Swiss from a nearby camp, alerted to the attempt upon Colonna’s headquarters, entered from the opposite.

It was as daring and successful a raid as history has ever conceived. The capture of Colonna along with the unexpected appearance of the French army onto the plain of Piedmont, stunned and shocked the League allies. Pope Leo X immediately checked his contribution of troops to the coming campaign, and opened negotiations with King Francis. The Spanish Viceroy halted his advance to await developments from a safe distance. The Swiss pulled back all advanced contingents to Milan; and a portion of their leaders began pressing for accommodation with France.

Image result for Map of Renaissance Milan

The following weeks were spent in negotiation. Delegates met at the northern Lombard town of Gallarate, and on September 8 the Treaty of Gallarate was signed. It granted France sovereignty over Milan and most of the border regions which the Swiss and annexed in the past decade. In return, Francis agree to pay the enormous sum of one million crowns (écu). The first installment of which was gathered by stripping the gentlemen of the army of both their money and tableware, retaining for themselves only enough to sustain their needs for a week. This was conveyed to the Swiss, and the king moved his army to Marignano, ten miles southeast of Milan; to await the turning over of the city.

However, as reinforcement from the Cantons arrived in Milan, the Swiss began to argue over the newly signed agreement. While those who had been in Italy for some years were eager to return home laden with their booty, the newcomers wanted a chance for the glory and riches that came with victory. Most of the Bernese contingent held to the treaty, and some 10,000 marched home. Others remained in Milan, “turbulent and undecided”[12].

At this juncture, the iron will and hatred of France drove the Swiss to action, and precipitated what would prove a most calamitous and unnecessary battle. Cardinal Schiner, Bishop of Sion and papal legate for Italy and Germany was a powerful man in the church and in affairs of state. An archenemy of France, he had worked prodigiously over the last decade to separate his native land from its traditional alliances with France. A fighting prelate (like his master,  Pope Julius II) he had been a leader among (and perhaps outright commander of) the Swiss forces at the Battle of Novara. Now, on September 13, in opposition to the treaty, he harangued the gathered Swiss forces in the main square of Milan. He denounced peace settlement as cowardice and folly. He recalled the triumph of Novara, which had gained them the riches of Milan, and which had been gained with fewer numbers than they had at hand here, and against no less powerful a French army. He appealed to their greed and to their national pride, assuring them of victory and all the spoils that attended upon it.

The effects of his speech was immediate and prodigious. Carried away in a rash of wild enthusiasm, at 3 pm the Swiss poured forth from Milan, and marched for Marignano.

The French, for their part, were camped on a near-featureless plain, athwart the main highway between Milan and Lodi, where camped their Venetian allies. The treaty signed, they were in no way expecting a battle.

That afternoon Francis was in his tent, being fitted in a new suit of armor; perhaps a birthday present. In attendance was Alviano, the Venetian commander, while other captains supped at the king’s table. When suddenly scouts on heaving horses arrived to report a cloud of dust coming from Milan, heralding the coming of the Swiss. There followed a clamor of trumpets, the call to arm and fall into formation. Gendarmes donned armor, and mounted chargers, infantry massed around their standards, gunners took station beside their cannon, and the French rushed into formation.

At 5 pm the Swiss arrived before the hastily formed French positions. The Battle of Marignano was about to begin.


The French arrayed themselves in three divisions, each composed of cavalry, foot, and artillery; a “combined arms” approach to war that was a harbinger of the methods that would come to dominate warfare in the decades ahead.

Slightly ahead of the other three and to the right was the vanguard, under the Constable, the Duke of Boubon. With the Constable was old Marshal Trivulzio, nearly sixty-five now and a veteran of countless campaigns, including the disaster for France that was Novara. Bourbon’s division occupied a slight rise in the ground, and included landsknecht pikemen and a force of 10,000 Gascons and Basques trained in the Spanish fashion by their commander, Pedro Navarro. Though what exactly is meant by the “Spanish fashion”[13] is unknown, many of these would have been arquebusiers, the Swiss accounts stating that the French had some 6-8,000 matchlocks opposed to them.

The center division, or “main”, was commanded by the king himself, and was posted back and to the left of the van. With Francis was Bayard and his lancers, perhaps the foremost in Europe, along with the horsemen of many great nobles of France, as well as La Trémoille; the latter likely still smarting from his humiliating defeat at Novara and eager for revenge. Across the front of the king’s front was massed a “Grande Batterie” of some 72 pieces, under the command of Galiot de Genouillac, set to confound direct assault. This some 300 years prior to Napoleon! Defending the battery was a force of German landsknechts mercenaries. Another body of foot were kept in reserve, the infamous Black Band (or Black Legion), a rogue unit of landsknechts who denied the authority of the emperor and fought for France. This was a mixed unit 17,000 strong (on paper), comprised of 12,000 pikemen, 2,000 arquebusiers, 2,000 two-handed swordsmen, and 1,000 halberdiers.

Black Band (or Legion) landsknecht with halberd

The left-most division, the reserve, was commanded by the king’s brother-in-law, Charles Duke of  Alençon. With him were the lances of d’Aubigny and contingents of pike and crossbowmen.

The exact size of each of Francis’ three divisions is unclear, but the total number for the French army at Marignano must have been approximately 40,000 men.

Hurriedly drawn-up for battle, the French watched as an ominous cloud of dust approached. Growing nearer, an enormous forest of eighteen foot pikes could be discerned within. Accompanied by a throbbing cadence of drums and the unsettling base timber of Alpine horns, the Swiss marched on Marignano in their own customary three massive phalanxes, the banners of the various Cantons and towns waving above them all. Many among the waiting French could not but have felt a trepidation verging on cold fear, as these were the same men who had wrecked their ranks at Novara under very similar conditions. The number of infantry on both sides was nearly equal: between 25-30,000 on either side. The French enjoyed a great advantage both in the number and quality of cavalry, their some 1,700 – 3,000  to a mere 200 (mostly scouts) for the Swiss. That, and the number of guns.

The battle would come down to a simple equation: could the Swiss close with and overrun the French guns, as they had those of other armies since the days of Charles the Bold, before they could create great swathes of bloody havoc within the Swiss ranks? Then, once this was accomplished, throw back and maul their arch-enemies, the defending landsknechts? Coming at the French here in the traditional way, they counted on defeating him in the same old way they had all others before him. For the French, the stakes could not have been higher. If they were defeated now, as at Novara, the their king in personal command, their national pride would be humbled and their place as a great power would be threatened. Worse, should Francis suffer the same fate as Duke Leopold and Charles the Bold before him, hacked down in a bloody defeat, France’s enemies might fall upon them and rend the kingdom apart as they had Burgundy in the previous century.

Everything was on the line in what would be a “battle of giants”


With hardly a pause, the Swiss advanced against the French positions. Their passage was slowed by the many agricultural drainage ditches that crossed their path from east to west, preventing them from rushing to close with their customary speed. Despite having the setting sun in their eyes, the French cannon and arquebusiers took a deadly toll, the dense ranks making a target impossible to miss. Whole files and ranks were shot to pieces as they advanced. A Swiss soldier, Werner Schrodoler, later wrote, “So the enemy (the French) began firing all his artillery and handguns and it was as if the heavens had opened and were on fire, as heaven and earth were about to break apart from the enemy’s shooting…”[14] More than 1,000 Swiss fell before making contact with their enemy.

A “forlorn hope” of 2,000 men, commanded by Captain Werner Steiner, swept forward to overrun and silence the French grand battery in the center. Their’s was a suicide mission, and before advancing Captain Steiner had thrown a handful of dirt over his men, intoning, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This (battlefield) will by our churchyard”[15]. His men knew their graves would be dug on this field. Still, it was vital they clear the way for the three massive echelons that followed.

In the growing dust, smoke and darkness of the approaching night the forlorn hope reached the French guns. The defending landsknechts rushed forward to repel them, and a vicious melee ensued between these most bitter rivals. But the Swiss attack succeeded in driving back the Germans and temporarily silencing Francis’ grand battery, capturing a dozen of its guns.

Image result for Battle of Marignano - moonlight

But in advancing against the French battery in the center, Steiner’s men exposed their left flank to Bourbon’s division. Fire poured into them from guns and arquebus, followed by a charge of the Duke’s armored horsemen. The forlorn hope fell back to join the oncoming Swiss main division, and these in turn halted Bourbon’s pursuing gendarmes. These were thrown back, and many gallant men-at-arms were cut down, including  the Duke of Chastellerault, the Count of Sancerre, and Bayard’s companion in the capture of Colonna, the brave Imbercourt. La Trémoille’s son, the Prince of Tallemont, was dragged from the press with some sixty-two wounds, to die in his father’s arms.

Darkness did not halt the fighting, which went on till midnight. A pale moon shone over the battlefield for several hours, and the combatants fought on in the gloom. To halt the relentless advance, the king now threw in the Black Band,  supported by charges from Bayard and the lances attached to the king’s division. Bourbon’s horsemen returned to the attack as well, and in all some thirty charges were driven home, before the Swiss attack was stopped.

In the darkness men were separated from their units, and found themselves alone amongst their enemies. Bayard was forced to hack his way through the Swiss to rescue the Duke of Lorraine, unhorsed and surrounded. Later, his bridle hacked off, the Chevalier was carried by his panicked steed careening through the ranks of one division and toward another. Managing to halt his horse among the tangle of a vineyard, he crept back to his own lines, guiding by the sound of shouting in his native tongue. It is testament to the  quality of the armor of a gendarme of the age, and of the barding of his horse, that both survived this mad-cap death ride!

The armor of an early 15th century man-at-arms was complete in its coverage and protection

In the darkness it was impossible at times to tell friend from foe, especially as both sides wore white crosses on their armor and tunics. At one point King Francis and his household retainers mistook a company of Swiss for their own landsknechts, and found themselves suddenly confronting 600 hostile pikes. Again the quality of arms, armor, and a lifetime of practice told, as the king and his gendarmes were able to charge and break their opponents.

At last, after midnight, with the setting moon bringing an inky darkness, mutual exhaustion brought fighting to a temporary halt. The booming of the guns at last went silent. Combatants pulled back from each other, and rested as best they could where they lay. Here-and-there lost companies groped their way back to friendly lines, the night’s peace broken intermittently with the sounds of a sudden brawl as such wanderings brought them into contact with foe rather than friend. Witnesses recalled the weird, long-drawn call of Alpine horns in the darkness, summoning Swiss stragglers back to their own ranks. These were answered by the staccato of French bugles and the clear notes of the royal clarion, blown incessantly by the king’s chief trumpeter, Christophe; summoning men back to their standards.

King Francis slept what little he could on a cannon’s carriage, his splendid blue and gold armor dented and pierced. When he called for water, all that could be found was nasty draft from a ditch, filthy with mud and blood. So close were the Swiss that no light could be shown, and drinking it sickened the king.

During the night, many of the Swiss, tired, hungry and tormented by thirst (they had swept out of Milan late in the day before supper, and had made no provisions for bringing supplies to the battlefield) drifted back to Milan; often under the guise of carrying back wounded comrades. Several contingents had had enough, and resolved in the night to quit the field entirely and return home to Switzerland. But those who greeted the dawn were the most committed to victory.

With dawn’s grey the formations sorted themselves out on both sides, and prepared to renew the struggle. The Swiss once again drew up in three great squares, in echelon, the right-most leading. The French had taken time before sunrise to improve their positions with hastily erected earthworks. The battle reopened with the booming of French guns.

Bayard, standing beside the king’s artillery commander, De Genouillac, turned to him and is reported to have said, “Monsieur, you should aim at that quarter there on the right, where you see that ensign. It is the thickest crowd of Swiss, and I beg you to fire seven pieces at once, the better to awaken them – they have slept too long!”[16]

De Genouillac followed the Chevalier’s advise to deadly effect. Deep, bloody furrows tore through the Swiss ranks. On came the pike squares, determined to close with and destroy their tormentors. They could only rely on what had always worked, all too well: advance, shoulder to shoulder, as rapidly as could be while maintaining their formation. But they had never met such a torrent of fire, as iron balls spewed forth by 72 heavy guns (and a great number of smaller but equally deadly pieces) fired as fast as their crews could work them. Arquebusiers, firing in two ranks (the first kneeling) added their cast of lead to the barrage that shredded rank-and-file.

The Swiss pushed forward toward the grand battery, but were stopped by landsknechts and counter-charged by Bayard and the chivalry of France dashing against their flanks. While the Swiss pike squares could hold off cavalry, each charge required them to halt and form “hedgehog”. There advance slowed, they were easier prey to the weight of lead and iron pouring into their ranks. One witness speaks of a single Swiss combatant who fought his way through pike and gun shot, to fall at last, his hand upon one of the “king’s guns”[17].

Bayard is seen rescuing fallen comrades, and riding at the king’s side in charge-after-charge. Again, many a famous man-at-arms is slain. The carnage on both sides is terrible.

Baffled in their attempt to storm the battery, the Swiss right-most phalanx bore down upon d’Alençon’s division, the left-reserve of the army. But here, as elsewhere, they were checked by attack to front and fire and charge to flank.

At mid-morning Alviano, who at the start of the battle had ridden from the king to his own camp at Lodi, appeared behind the French left with the Venetian forces, marching up the road. This was the end for the Swiss. Still holding their ranks, unbroken, they retreated off the field the way they had come. At the Spazzola canal their retreat was slowed enough for the pursuit to catch them. The carnage was great as light guns and horsemen tore at the fringes of their ranks. Men turned at bay and died allowing their comrades to cross the canal to safety. Many more drowned in the canal, some wrapped in their standards, protecting these from capture.

Francis, his forces exhausted, called off further pursuit. He had won the day, and avenged French humiliation at Navaro. Marshal Triulzio, veteran of sixty years of war, called this a “battle of giants”, and maintained that compared to Marignano all previous battles he had witnessed were but the sport of children[18].

Casualties were great on both sides, but the Swiss far greater: estimates range from 3-8,000 for the French, and 8-14,000 for the Swiss. This may represent as much as 25% casualties to the combatants engaged.

For Francis this was his most cherished victory, won against a reputedly invincible opponent at the dawn of his reign. “I have conquered those whom only Caesar conquered”, reads the device on the medal he had struck to commemorate his victory. He crowned it all by having himself knighted on the field by Bayard. “It shall be by the hand of Chevalier Bayard that I am made a chevalier. None should grudge it him, for none has had his fortune sharing in so many battles, assaults, and encounters, mounted and on foot, and of giving such proofs of valor, experience, and skill.” The king chose to be made a knight by he who most exemplified the knightly virtues.


Marignano was the last hurrah of armored chivalric cavalry in European warfare. Never again would noble cavalry, armed with the traditional weapons of lance and sword take pride of place. Even here cannon and arquebus had lent its weight to the charge of Bayard and his companions, allowing them to achieve a victory which might well have gone otherwise. Hereafter gunpowder weapons would dominate the battlefield. This was likewise true of the pike tactics of the Swiss. In the future, pikes would act as the supporting arm for the arquebusiers and gunners, defending them against sudden cavalry attack.

The immediate result of the battle was an acceptance of the previous peace agreement, though with a far lower payment by France to the Swiss. But a long-term result was the end of Swiss imperial ambitions. The defused nature of power within the Confederacy was not conducive to empire. But the sanguine defeat at Marignano convinced enough of the Swiss that competing with the likes of France and the Spain over dominance in Italy was a losing strategy.

After lengthy negotiations a peace treaty was signed in Fribourg the following year. Known as “Perpetual Peace”, the Swiss Confederacy renounced all claims to the protectorate of Milan. In return, France paid 700,000 crowns in compensation. The Swiss were also granted trade privileges in France, and the French gained a loyal friend for the next three centuries. In 1521, a service pact (Soldbündnis) was signed between the Swiss and French, which made Swiss mercenary regiments a regular part of the French armed forces, ultimately leading to the Gardes Suisses, which served the French monarchs until the Revolution.

France would not long hold onto Milan. The tides of war would shift in favor of her enemies. In 1525 Francis was captured at the Battle of Pavia, and both La Tremoille and La Palice were killed.

But Marignano was the Swiss Waterloo. It shattered their two century long legend of invincibility. Ironically, it was not the victorious French who would take their place as the premiere fighting men in Europe, but the Spanish; who in their tercios would combine pike-and-shot armed infantry into a system that would dominate European battlefields for the next century.


If Marignano was the last hurrah of armored chivalry, than Bayard was its last and finest flowering. Le Bon Chevalier was born into an age in which the romantic ideals of the past were fading. He was a glorious anachronism, hearkening back to an age that only ever existed in the realm of legend. He was a living embodiment of the virtues ascribed to paladins in the chanson de geste and Le Morte d’ArthurYet despite living in the cynical age of Machiavelli he was never seen by contemporaries as a Don Quixote-like figure of amusement and mockery to the jaded sophisticates of the age. Instead he was considered a hero for the ages, an ideal to be aspired to, not ridiculed. He is proof that courage and honor are always in fashion. 

Perhaps this is because in Bayard we have both the romantic knight and the practical soldier. His exploits read like a dime-store adventure, a figment of heroic fantasy. At the same time he was more than just a paladin; he was a highly capable commander of men. His record of military achievement as a leader of cavalry bears comparison with that of the finest of his kind: Seydlitz, MuratLasalle  or Forrest.

Unlike William Marshal, another candidate for the title of greatest knight to have ever lived, Bayard was not merely a creature of sport, a champion of the tournament list. He was a soldier, and spent his life staring down the face of death. While the Marshal spent most of his life traveling from tournament-to-tournament, or at best in the small war of baronial skirmishes, Bayard’s life was spent fighting the great battles and sieges of an age of war. Even his private duels were not merely affairs of honor: the honor of his countrymen rode on the tip of his lance. Though the Marshal braved death on the tourney field, he did not spend his life immersed in war as did Bayard. 

It is ironic that this last champion of a fading age was at last brought down by an agent of the coming age: in 1524 Bayard was shot in the back by an arquebusier, as he commanded the rearguard for his retreating army. He died surrounded by admiring foe, and was buried in state by a sad and grateful nation. It is perhaps a blessing that he didn’t live long enough to see the ruin of all he had fought to achieve at Pavia, the following year.



  1. Shellabarger, Samuel, Ph.D., The Chevalier Bayard: A Study in Fading Chivalry; Biblo and Tannen, NY 1971. Ch. XII, p. 282
  2. Though the Turks had used cannons in sieges before this date, these were cast on site and not a mobile arm capable of accompanying the army on the march or used as field guns in battle; as were Charles’.
  3. When exactly Bayard was formally knighted is a matter of speculation; but may scholars have suggested it was likely at Fornovo.
  4. Bayard was the only non-royal captain of his age to be given command of his own lance of 100 gendarmes; an honor normally reserved in the French army of the day for princes of the blood.
  5. In 1511, in one such daring raid, Bayard nearly succeeded in capturing the warrior Pope Julius II.
  6. The casualness with which this incident is told by “The Loyal Servant” in his biography of his master speaks to the normality of such arrangements at this period of history: it was expected that a debonair gentleman would make casual use of a local girl. Further, that she would be honored to be so chosen.
  7. Le Loyal Serviteur, Histoire du Gentil Seigneur de Bayart;  p. 339
  8. See Phalanx vs Legion for details on the tactics and organization of the Macedonian phalanx.
  9. Though ostensibly Duke of Milan, Massimiliano Sforza was a hostage to his Swiss masters. All policy was determined by the Swiss ambassador to his court, and his compliance was guaranteed and enforced by the presence of a Swiss Guard of some six thousand. As payment for their services, the young Duke was required to hand over several border territories; to pay a one-time sum of 200,000 ducats; and an annual tribute of 40,000.
  10. The exact size and composition of the French forces at Francis disposal is the subject of debate. It can be estimated to have numbered between 40,000 and 50,000. The number of cavalry is stated in the sources as between 2500 and 3000 “lances“. However, a lance could refer to either a single armored lancer (the premiere fighting man of the French army, the man-at-arms or gendarmewere armed with and fought as lancers) or the unit known as a “lance”; which was comprised of 6 mounted men: one gendarme, his squire (also armed as a man-at-arms), two crossbowmen, and two light cavalrymen/mounted infantrymen. That Frances could have brought as many as 3000 such “lances”, some 18,000 cavalry, sounds improbably high.
  11. Le Loyal Serviteur, Histoire du Gentil Seigneur de Bayart; p. 379
  12. Shellabarger, p. 281
  13. The Spanish contribution to the warfare of the day was in the mass use of arquebusiers, arrayed behind natural or man-made obstacles or entrenchments. That, and close-combat infantry rodeleros, soldiers armed with sword and a round shield called a rodela. These “sword-and-buckler” men were meant to counter pike-armed infantry. But within two decades the Spanish abandoned these in favor of a combination of pike and “shot” armed formation, the tercio. Whether or not Navarro’s troops at Marignano included rodeleros is unknown.
  14. Schaufelberger, Walter, Marignano; p. 116
  15.  idid, p. 115
  16. Champier, S., La Vie du Preulx Chevalier Bayard; p. 173
  17. Du Bellay, Memoirs; Vol. I, p. 265
  18. Guicciardini, F., Storia d’Italia; Paris, 1832; Book XII, Ch. 5.
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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On the sixth anniversary of the attacks that took the lives of four Americans, I am re-publishing my review of the terrific film recounting that dark day in our recent history. Not since 2001’s “Black Hawk Down” has there been a film that captures modern combat so well as the new film by Director Michael Bay, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”.

Much like that earlier film by Ridley Scott, depicting a similar incident in recent history, “13 Hours” is the tale of Americans isolated in a North African city, desperately fighting for their lives without the support and reinforcement from home they require.

As a former Special Forces Operator, I both love such films and tend to judge them critically. With any film in which the viewer has a deep familiarity of the subject matter, one can’t help but notice flaws in the narrative or details. It’s both a blessing and a curse to know too much about the subject; and I go to every war movie prepared to be disappointed, and to make allowances for minor mistakes.

But with “13 Hours“, there were no moments that made me mentally “wince”. Instead, from the opening to the end I was riveted to the screen; and at no time did my finely-tuned “bullshit meter” go off.


Benghazi survivor John “Tig” Tiegen shows actor Dominc Fumusa how to handle his weapon. The film gained great realism from the presence of these veterans on set, providing the actors and crew with training and insight.

Since “Black Hawk Down“, there have been a handful of movies similar in style and subject: “We Were Soldiers” (2002), “Act of Valor” (2012), and “Lone Survivor” (2013). All shared the same theme: American fighting men put into deadly peril without proper support. All were based on true events. Despite having the world’s most powerful military, with global reach (and responsibilities), our “imperial grunts” too often find themselves at the tip of a very long, overextended spear. Since the Clinton Administration, military budgets and force structure have been steadily squeezed; demanding more be done with less. Today, our military is half the size it was when Ronald Reagan left office. But our commitments have, if anything, grown.

Sometimes this works out; and we accomplish much with very little. Our technological advantages and the qualitative superiority of our troops allow a relative few to do what in the past took many more men and much more munitions. A Navy SEAL platoon or an Army Special Forces detachment can be tasked today to accomplish the mission that 40 years ago would have been given, in heavy-handed fashion, to a battalion of the 82 Airborne infantry or a Marine Expeditionary Unit battalion. Instead of “sending in the Marines” with drums and bugles, today we send the “Silent Professionals” of Spec Ops, who quietly get the job done and get out.

But since war (and foreign policy) have always demanded holding ground and leaving personnel in place, there are times when these small detachments find themselves stationed in isolated locations in the heart of hostile territory; suddenly beset by overwhelming numbers of adversaries bent on killing them. There is an old adage, that “quantity has a quality all its own”. Our fighting men are good; but they aren’t immortal. When you have killed all you can but ammo is running low and the “bad guys” are still coming, our heroes can only hunker down and wait till the “cavalry” arrives. Such race-against-time incidents make for breathless movies.

Which brings us back to “13 Hours“. It is just such a tale.

The story, based on Mitchell Zuckoff’s 2014 book, 13 Hours, is well known to many of us who follow the news. On September 11, 2012 (the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon) the American consulate and a nearby CIA Annex in Benghazi, Libya, were attacked by Islamic militiamen. In the 13 hours of off-and-on combat that followed, the consulate was all but destroyed, and the Annex sustained severe damage. Four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed.

The film focuses on the handful of elite CIA Global Response Staff (GRS) operators; tasked with providing security at the Annex in Benghazi. These are all highly trained and experienced military veterans, hired by the CIA to provide “shooters” when necessary. At the Benghazi Annex, they are led by the capable and charismatic Tyrone “Rone” Woods (portrayed by actor James Badge Dale). The film opens with him picking-up another GRS operator, his old friend from their Navy SEAL days, Jack Da Silva (John Krasinski); at the Benghazi airport just days before the September 11 attack. Their journey through Benghazi, from the airport across town to the CIA Annex, gives the viewer an up-close look at the chaos that was post-Gaddafi Libya; particularly bad in Benghazi. Like Mogadishu in Somalia, the setting for “Black Hawk Down“, the ancient city is a sweltering, decaying ant-heap of activity. Heavily armed militias rule the streets, with graduating degrees of hostility to the American presence.

Rone and Da Silva’s jeep is stopped by armed gunmen in a narrow, traffic congested street. Guns are focused on the Americans, and armed men approach their car. Rone calls into the Annex to report what is happening, and ask for immediate help. The CIA personnel at the Annex ask first which militia this is (some are more friendly to Americans than others); and Rone’s response highlights for the audience one of the chief problems that will vex the Americans throughout the film: “I don’t know! They don’t wear fucking uniforms!” The “good guys” are indistinguishable from the “bad guys”; so the Americans, constantly interacting at close quarters with armed Libyans, are beset by the paranoia-producing knowledge that the mob of guys with AKs surrounding you can at any moment reveal themselves to be the “bad guys” by shooting you in the back!

The second problem the Americans are beset by is revealed in the response to Rone’s request for immediate reinforcement and extraction: there is none available. The only help to be had when the scheisse hits the fan is either from the handful of their fellow GRS operators at the Annex; or from unreliable Libyan militiamen, paid to provide security. With the situation about to go south at the road block, Rone and Da Silva are told that they are on their own; that the militia cannot get there anytime soon, and their comrades at the Annex are told to “stand down” and not risk an “incident”.

This is a message of the film: that in an effort maintain a low profile in Benghazi and to avoid conflict, security personnel were kept to a minimum and fettered with very strict rules of engagement that put their lives in danger.

1602459.jpgThe resourceful Rone bluffs their way out of this predicament (fear of non-existent drones overhead cause the militia leader to let them pass); and he and Da Silva make it to the Annex. Introduced to the Station Chief, “Bob” (David Costabile), the audience learns that there is simmering tension between the CIA operatives at the GRS personnel tasked with protecting them. Neither respects the other’s mission; and Bob makes it clear to Da Silva during his “in-briefing” that he considers the GRS operators an unnecessary nuisance. Throughout the early portion of the film, the contempt with which the Harvard and Yale educated CIA agents view their security contractors, whom they consider mere “hired help”, is evident.

However, the GRS team  (who we meet at the Annex) are a collection of long-serving professionals who return the CIA agent’s contempt in spades; ignoring their complaints while going about the difficult job of keeping them safe in one of the world’s most dangerous cities. A mostly happy-go-lucky collection of alpha dogs, they are vividly brought to life by actors Pablo Schreiber (brother of Liev Schreiber) as Kris “Tanto” Paronto, a former U.S. Army Ranger; Max Martini (who previously played a Delta Operator in TV’s “The Unit“) as former Marine anti-terrorism trainer and SWAT instructor Mark “Oz” Geist; David Denman as Dave “Boon” Benton, former Marine Corps sniper; and  Dominic Fumusa as John “Tig” Tiegen, another  former Marine and Blackwater security contractor.

As someone who knows both the actors (from other projects) and some of the real-life people they portray (from the many interviews they have given since Benghazi), I had little trouble keeping the characters straight. But if there is one criticism that could be leveled at the film, it is that the audience might have trouble distinguishing some of the characters. This was the problem with some earlier, similar war films. In uniform combat dress, wearing helmets, and all white males of approximately the same age (in this case mid-30s) it is difficult to identify one from another unless the film takes plenty of time to allow the audience to get to know them (or the Director casts name actors). However, that said, in “13 Hours” I felt a strong connection to each character and personally had no such problem.

The story heats up and the tension builds (and boy, does it!) as the Annex personnel learn that American Ambassador Christopher Stevens is coming to Benghazi; and will be staying at the nearby Consulate through September 11; a significant date for obvious reasons, and especially so because they have been warned that terrorists are planning an attack somewhere.

The GRS team is asked by the Diplomatic Security (DS) detachment at the Consulate to review their security measures; and Rone and his guys pay a visit. They find the compound lightly defended by a low wall, with tall buildings over-looking the compound that are accurately described as “sniper nests”. The  Consulate security consists of five DS  “shooters”, two of which we meet: Scott Wickland (David Giuntoli) and Dave Ubben (Demetrius Grosse). Also at the compound is an information management officer, Sean Smith (Christopher Dingli). Augmenting security at the compound are a detachment of armed and uniformed Libyans; stationed at the two gates. Absent is the usual Marine Corps guard detachment found at such Consulates; and anti-vehicle barriers to prevent car bombers from forcing the the gates. The DS agents have no heavy weapons, only sidearms and their M4 assault rifles. 

Dismayed by what they see, the team’s misgivings are expressed most clearly by the brash, humorous ex-Ranger,  “Tanto”: “If you guys get attacked by any big element, you’re going to die.”

The affable Ambassador Stevens (Matt Letscher) arrives at Benghazi. A true believer in America’s mission to help the Libyan people, his enthusiasm and sincerity are infectious. But as September 11 arrives, and he is resting at the Consulate, even he is alarmed when the local police tasked with aiding security at the Consulate are seen with shady characters, taking pictures of the interior of the compound.

As the attack draws near, the tension builds to an unbearable level. The audience knows what is coming, and Director Michael Bay does a splendid job of using this knowledge to torque-up the suspense and build a sense of coming dread in the audience. I certainly found myself (figuratively) on the edge of my seat.

Then the shooting starts.

The attack begins with the Islamic militiamen massing in the streets near the Consulate, waving their AKs and chanting “Allahu Akbar”. Then they march to the gates of the Consulate, where the Libyan guards immediately desert their posts, fleeing the scene without firing a shot at the attackers.

With the gate left open the attackers flood into the compound.

Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith take refuge in a “safe room”, a “refuge” within the residence defended by hardened, bullet proof iron gates. As the attackers shoot up the compound, the DS security team (far too small to engage with any hope of success) takes cover and waits for help.

At the CIA Annex, Rone and the GRS team arms up and is quickly ready to roll to the rescue. But Bob repeatedly refuses to allow them to deploy; angrily insisting they “are not the first responders”, but instead a “last resort”. Bob expects the friendly Libyan February 17th Martyrs Brigade militia to repel the attack, with no direct American involvement. However, as the desperate calls from the Consulate continue to come in, Rone (who knows the Libyans will never respond on time to save the Ambassador and the other Americans at the Consulate) rounds up his team and gives them the choice of staying put, or disobeying Bob’s orders by going to the relief of the Consulate. Of course, they choose to march (or drive) to the sound of the guns.

At the beleaguered Consulate, the Libyan attackers try to force the gate of the “safe room”; where the Ambassador, Sean Smith, and a DS agent have taken refuge. Frustrated, the attackers resort to dosing the residence with diesel fuel and setting the building on fire. Smoke quickly fills the “refuge”, and the Ambassador is heard crying out, “I can’t breathe”! His escort try to find a way out, and in the smoke and confusion lose contact with Ambassador Chris Stevens.

The movement by Rone and his team to the Consulate, at night, involves chaotic street fighting. Again we see a dangerous situation made far more so by the inability to tell friend-from-foe. Every street corner has gangs of gunmen hanging around; and sometime shooting at each other. But the Americans have no way of identifying which are friendly till they open fire upon them (or not).

Arriving at the Consulate, the GRS team finds that they are too late. The attackers have come and gone; after using diesel fuel to set the Ambassador’s home on fire. The Consulate is ablaze, and though they repeatedly enter with some of the DS guys to find him, Ambassador Chris Stevens is lost in the smoke and fire. (We learn later in the film, as in real life, that his dead body was pulled from the building by Libyans, and taken to a hospital; where he was pronounced dead of smoke inhalation.) Also killed at this stage is tech guy Sean Smith, who perished trying to rescue the Ambassador.

The DS agents and the GRS team fight their way back to the Annex, another harrowing series of scenes reminiscent of “Black Hawk Down“. Arriving back, they find Bob preparing to evacuate to the airport, on the other side of the city. All too aware that such a drive through the violent and chaotic streets would be tantamount to suicide, Rone takes command; overruling Bob. “You’re in my world now”, he tells the gathered CIA staffers.

The harrowing night-long siege of the Annex follows.

Assigning his thin assets to various strong points overlooking the Annex’s outer wall, Rone and the other “shooters” prepare to “unleash hate” on those who murdered the Ambassador. Throughout the long battle, the CIA staffers come to respect and depend upon their defenders in a way they never appreciated before. Particularly moving is the change in attitude of one female agent, Sona (portrayed by Alexia Barlier, below); a French-American national whose disdain for and frustration with the GRS operator’s

strict adherence to security protocols were all too evident earlier in the film. But once the shooting starts, her icy reserve and Gallic hauteur melt away; as she sees clearly how much at that moment she needs these rough men who stand ready to do violence on her behalf.

As a former Spec Operator myself, I can say with some authority that the combat scenes that follow are very well done, and as realistically as one could ask for. The film benefits from the technical expertise afforded the filmmakers and cast members by the living survivors of the battle. The tension never lets up, and though the Americans coolly “service their targets”, indeed unleashing “hate” upon the attacking Fedayeen, the numbers are severely one-sided against them.

Repeatedly, we see calls for help. We see Special Forces in Croatia in the plane, ready to fly to their rescue. We learn that F-16s are 20 minutes away in Sicily. We see the decision makers back at the Pentagon debating what to do.

But, for reasons the film doesn’t go into, the help is never dispatched. For 13 hours the battle raged, and no aid was sent by assets that were readily available. Not wishing to be perceived as “political”, the film deliberately leaves questions of blame for the audience to figure out on their own.

Help does come before dawn, from the Libyan capital of Tripoli; in the form of GRS operator  Glen “Bub” Doherty (Black Sails’ Toby Stephens) and a couple of other operators. He is an old friend of Rone’s and Da Silva’s from their SEAL days. He arrives with a convoy of Libyan military and milita personnel; and all think the “cavalry” has come at last. But no sooner have the Americans entered the Annex compound then the convoy and Libyan personnel rapidly depart the scene; leaving the Americans to bear the next wave of attacks alone. 

“Dawn is when the French and Indians come”: ex-Ranger “Tanto” recalls that bit of archaic wisdom from the Army Ranger Handbook; as dawn breaks and all brace for what is coming. Were it not “old news”, I would not post this “spoiler” (no “alert” necessary). But we see the final tragedy unfold, as heavy mortars now rain down shells on the Annex. In this final indignity, “Oz” is badly wounded, nearly losing his arm; and both Tyrone “Rone” Woods and the just arrived Glen Doherty become the final of the four Americans to be killed in Benghazi that day.



The film ends with the Americans leaving Benghazi, with their four dead comrades.

Questions of “why” are left for the audience to ponder.

I found it ironic that in 1993, during the Presidency of Bill Clinton, American fighting men died in another North African city (Mogadishu) because they couldn’t get an AC-130 gunship and other weapons they had requested, for political reasons. Now, 19 years later, in another North African city Americans’ repeated requests for the support of a AC-130 gunship again go unheeded for what must be perceived as political reasons; and that once again a Clinton was involved (though, in fairness, the lion’s share of the blame must rest with the President and his National Security team). Where Hillary is culpable is in refusing requests before that fatal attack for increased security at the Consulate; security denied by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for political reasons. That, and in joining with the Administration in lying to the families of the slain (and the American people) regarding the reason for the attacks. While we know now (and the Administration knew then) that this was a carefully orchestrated terrorist attack; Hillary and the Administration spokespersons tried to sell the lie that it was some obscure film on the internet that triggered “spontaneous demonstrations” that became an attack on the Consulate.

But Michael Bay and company do not delve into these issues. Instead, they have made a serious and exciting war film; in the tradition of the others listed above. At 2 hours, 24 minutes it is a bit longish. But the pacing is perfect, and the time flies by.

Arguably, this is the best of its kind to come out of Hollywood since Black Hawk Down. I strongly recommend this film, which deserves to find an audience. It is time well spent, and I assure you a very rousing and intense experience.

The real-life victims of the Benghazi attacks: (from left) Ambassador Chris Stevens and Sean Smith (both killed at the Consulate); and Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods (both killed by mortar rounds at the Annex)


For more on this, read this piece by the beautiful and estimable reporter, Sharyl Attkisson: 

Fact Check: Negative Reviews of “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”

At Legal Insurrection, the film is reviewed from a political context:

Movie Review: 13 Hours is red meat for conservative base




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We all love lists; and Deadliest Blogger is no different! Here is still another page of thought-provoking quotes on my favorite subject; from minds greater than my own (in most cases)!

A general is not easily overcome who can form a true judgement of his own and the enemy’s forces. – Flavius Vegetius

When the sword is once drawn, the passions of men observe no bounds of moderation. – Alexander Hamilton

War is nothing but a duel on a larger scale. – Clausewitz


The most persistent sound which reverberates through man’s history is the beating of war drums. – Arthur Koestler, Hungarian Jewish author

To a people warlike and indigent, an incursion into a rich country is never hurtful. – Dr Samuel Johnson

Great empires are not maintained by timidity. – Tacitus

Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men. It is the spirit of the men who follow and of the man who leads that gains the victory. – Gen. George S. Patton Jr.

1592034.jpgA great captain can only be formed by long experience and intense study. – Charles, Archduke of Austria

The enemy invariably attacks on two occasions: when they’re ready; and when you’re not. – Murphy’s Laws of War

The greatest joy in life is to crush your enemies in battle, and see them driven before you; to scatter their flocks; to take their horses and goods; to see them fall at your feet; and to hear the wailing of their women as you hold them to your bosom! – Genghis Khan (commonly attributed erroneously to Conan the Barbarian!)

There is no substitute for victory. – Gen. Douglas MacArthur

“Rapidity is the essence of war.” – Sun Tzu

Artillery adds dignity to what would otherwise be an ugly brawl. – Frederick the Great

1445228.jpgNoble and manly music invigorates the spirit, strengthens the wavering man, and incites him to great and worthy deeds. – Homer

As long as mankind shall continue to bestow more liberal applause on their destroyers than on their benefactors, the thirst of military glory will ever be the vice of the most exalted characters. – Edward Gibbon, English historian

Who dares, wins. – Motto of the British Special Air Service Regiment (SAS)


(Also in this series: Greatest Quotes on War 1; Greatest Quotes on War 2; Greatest Quotes on War 3; and Greatest Quotes on War 4)

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