WORDS OF WAR: DEADLIEST BLOGGER’S FAVORITE MILITARY QUOTES!

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We all love lists: here is Deadliest Bloggers list of favorite military quotes:

Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” (“Who would have peace, prepare for war”)
– Flavius Vegetius Renatus

“A good battle plan that you act on today can be better than a perfect one tomorrow.” – Gen. George S. Patton Jr.

1517607Naipierw pobijemy, a potem policzemy!” (First we kill them, then, we count them) – Attributed to an anonymous commander of the Polish Winged Hussars

“We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would harm us.” – George Orwell

“The most complete and happy victory is this: to compel one’s enemy to give up his purpose, while suffering no harm oneself.” – Belisarius

de l’audace, encore de l’audace, et toujours de l’audace!” (audacity, more audacity, and ever more audacity!) – George Danton (misattributed to Frederick the Great)

“Gustavus Adolphus, Turenne, and Frederick, as well as Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar have all acted upon the same principles. These have been: to keep their forces united; to leave no weak part unguarded; to seize with rapidity on important points…. study again and again (their campaigns). Model yourself upon them. This is the only means of becoming a great captain, and of acquiring the secret of the art of war.” – Napoleon

1380155.jpg“Battles are won by slaughter and maneuver. The greater the general, the more he contributes in maneuver, the less he demands in slaughter.” – Winston Churchill

“No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.” – Adm. Horatio Nelson

“Let us recollect that peace or war will not always be left to our option; that however moderate or unambitious we may be, we cannot count upon the moderation, or hope to extinguish the ambition of others.” – Alexander Hamilton

“An Army of sheep, led by a lion, is better than an army of lions led by a sheep.” – Attributed to various authors, including Napoleon and Alexander the Great

1380144.jpg“The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on.” – Gen. U.S. Grant

“First gain the victory and then make the best use of it you can.” – Adm. Horatio Nelson

Nicht kleckern sondern klotzen!” (“Stomp them, don’t slap them!”) – German Panzer General Heinz Guderian

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LEGNICA: THE MONGOL TERROR REACHES POLAND

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The Middle Ages’ greatest war machine rolls westward out of Asia, as the knights of Europe face the onslaught of the Mongol horde!

Genghis (or “Chinghis”) Khan was undoubtedly one of history’s greatest conquerors. After uniting the nomadic tribes north of the Great Wall and forging the “Mongol” nation, he created the most mobile army the world has ever seen. To this day no comparable force has traveled further and faster (on average) than the Mongols. While the conquests of other nations are measured in miles those of Genghis Khan and his successors must be calculated by lines of longitude and latitude, spanning the whole of Eurasia.

Though Genghis Khan died in 1227, the juggernaut he created rolled on under his sons and grandsons. In 1230, the Mongol general Chormaqan Noyan invaded Persia. Within a couple of short years, he had smashed all opposition. Operating out of Tabriz in Azerbaijan, he reduced Georgia and Armenia to client-status.

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Mongol horde on the march

Control of the Caucuses region opened communications with another Mongol army, 130,000 strong, under the Mongol generalissimo, Subutai “the Invincible” and Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan. This force of swift-moving horsemen was tasked with conquering Russia; a prelude to the conquest of eastern Europe. Eighteen years earlier, Subutai had conducted a “reconnaissance in force” into southern Russia, culminating in the defeat of the Russian princes at the Battle of the Kalka River.

In 1236 this Mongol army crossed the Volga River, and within a year had crushed the Volga Bulgars and subdued (and incorporated) the Kipchak and Alani tribes north of the Caucasus, absorbing their horsemen into the Mongol army. Between 1237 and 1238 the Mongol tumans (divisions of 10,000 men) conquered the principalities of southern Russia. Of the great towns and cities only Smolensk,  Novgorod and Pskov survived sack and slaughter; the former because it submitted to the Mongols and agreed to pay tribute, the latter two because they were too far north, protected by forest and swamp. The nomadic Cumans of the Ukraine (part of the now-destroyed Kipchak Confederation) fled before the Mongol terror, and found temporary refuge across the Carpathian Alps in the Kingdom of Hungary.

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Mongols storm Russian city

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The Mongols made great use of siege engines such as the trebuchet pictured here. These could be assembled and disassembled as needed, and carried on pack animals while on march. As depicted below, they were powered by a team of men pulling ropes.

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Russia subdued, the Mongols prepared in 1240-41 for their next thrust westward; this time following the Cumans into Hungary. Subutai planned a winter campaign: the Mongols preferred to invade in the dead of winter, when militia armies had disbanded back to their farms and villages and the great rivers were frozen hard, presenting no barrier. The plains of Hungary were the main target, a place where, once subdued, the Mongols could pasture their vast pony herds.

To cover their northern flank during the Hungarian operation, and prevent the Poles from coming to Hungary’s aid, Subutai and Batu sent a force of two tumans through Poland. This force was led by the imperial Mongol princes Kadan, Baidar, and Orda, all grandsons of Genghis Khan. (Because of the participation of so many young Mongol princes, the “new generation” of Mongol leadership, this European campaign came to be known in Mongol history as “the elder boys campaign”.)

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The Mongol invasion of eastern Europe, 1237- 1242

Poland at this time was a land divided into territorial duchies. The most powerful of these Dukes was Henry “the Pious” of Silesia. His family, the Piast, would found a royal dynasty in the next century. But at the time of the Mongol invasion, each ducal army defended its own interests, and were always slow to unite against outside attackers. This division gave the relatively small Mongol force invading Poland the opportunity to defeat each ducal army “in detail“, destroying them one at a time before they could unite.

In February 1241, the Mongols launched the Polish campaign; advancing from recently-conquered Volodymyr-Volynskyi in northwestern Ukraine. By mid-February, they had sacked Lublin and Sandomierz. Splitting their forces, Orda’s forces devastated central Poland, before turning south towards Wroclaw. Baidar and Kadan ravaged the southern part of Poland, moving toward Chmielnik and Kraków.

On February 13 Kadan and Baidar’s force defeated a Polish army under Wlodzimierz, voivode of Kraków, in the Battle of Tursko. On 18 March they defeated another Polish army at Chmielnik. These defeats spread panic through the Polish lands, and the Mongols were able to seize Kraków when its defenders fled. The city was sacked and burned on March 24th.

Meanwhile, Duke Henry the Pious gathered his forces around Legnica (Liegnitz in German). Henry was also awaiting the arrival of a powerful ally, his brother-in-law King Wenceslaus I of Bohemia, who was marching to join him with a large army.

The Mongols detachments united at Wroclaw (Breslau), which they put under siege. The town was taken and burned, though the castle, defended by Duke Henry’s garrison, held out against Mongol assault.

However, when the Mongols learned of Henry’s build-up at Legnica, and the imminent arrival of the Bohemian reinforcements (the Mongols took great care to gather intelligence and establish effective spy nets within target countries), they decided to break off the siege and ride on Legnica and bring Henry to battle before his brother-in-law could join him. On April 9, 1241 the Mongols met Duke Henry’s forces at Legnica. It would be the climatic engagement of their Polish campaign.

THE BATTLE OF LEGNICA

Henry’s forces are estimated as high as 25,000 and as low as 2,000. Along with his own Polish forces Henry’s army included small contingents of French Knights Templars (500?) and Hospitallers as well as a force of the German crusading order, the Teutonic Knights, who held lands in northern Poland.

The Mongols created confusion and covered their movements during the battle with a smoke screen, produced by burning reeds. Their light cavalry horse archers (armed withthe powerful Mongol  composite bow) poured arrows into the Polish ranks, goading their never-patient knights into charging them. Feigning flight, the nimble Mongol horsemen drew the Polish cavalry far from its supporting infantry. The Mongols then turned, surrounded the pursuing knights as their heavy destriers tired. Raining arrows down on the knights and their retainers, they killed many of their horse, which, unlike the riders were not protected by armor. The now dismounted Poles were  charged, in turn, by Mongol heavy cavalry, and most were slain.

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Duke Henry, severely wounded in the armpit by an arrow, with just four retainers left to defend his person, was surrounded. His guards were cut down, and the Duke was pulled from his horse and decapitated.

The Mongols next advanced against the Polish infantry; which, comprised of feudal levies (and perhaps a detachment of sergeants of the Holy Orders), quickly broke after a brief resistance.

Duke Henry’s head was displayed on Mongol lance as the invaders advanced, ravaging the countryside. Hearing of his brother-in-laws death and defeat, the Bohemian king withdrew back into his own lands. Within days of Duke Henry’s defeat at Legnica, Subutai and Batu Khan engaged and defeated the main Hungarian army at Mohi.

CONCLUSION

The Mongols spent the summer subduing Hungary; and wintered there, planning the invasion of Italy in the spring. Fortunately for Europe and the future of Western Civilization, the unexpected death of the Great Khan Ögedei (third son of Genghis Khan) in December of 1241 stopped the Mongol advance; as the royal princes and their army had to return to Mongolia to attend the election of his predecessor. Though the Mongols withdrew from Poland and Hungary, Batu would establish a new Khanate in Russia, centered north of the Caspian and Black Seas: the Golden Horde . It would be many centuries before Russia would free itself from the “Mongol yoke”.

What made the Mongols so devastatingly effective?

Several factors.

First, they were a professional, “modern” army; a highly organized structure. They were divided into tumans (or toumans) of 10,000 riders, then further subdivided utilizing the decimal system all the way down to squads of 10 men. These combat formations were supported by a corps of engineers and a medical corps,  recruited from the more educated and urbane subjects of the empire (particularly the Chinese and Persians). The whole was commanded by a general staff provided by the royal family of the Khans, and their trusted lieutenants. Under Genghis Khan and his immediate successors the veteran Mongol army and its officers were as accomplished at making war as any army in history. Genghis Khan himself and his chief subordinate, Subutai, must be ranked among history’s greatest captains of war. They trained their successors well, and the Mongol armies continued the traditions of professionalism and excellence into the next century.

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Modern Mongol reenactors

As already mentioned, the second factor contributing to Mongol success was their unparalleled mobility. An all-cavalry army, they were not slowed by infantry or a cumbersome train of baggage carts. Even their siege equipment was broken-down and carried on pack animals, as earlier mentioned. Every Mongol rider led a string of ponies, so that he could switch mounts frequently, thus keeping the animals from fatiguing. (This multitude of mounts helped create the myth of monstrous-sized Mongol armies; the very “hordes of Magog”. Their numbers on the battlefield were often obscured by dust, or a deliberate smoke-screen. So enemies attempting to count their numbers were fooled by the prints of so many horses into greatly inflating their numbers.) Practically born in the saddle, a Mongol warrior could remain in the saddle for weeks on end if necessary; dismounting briefly only to relieve themselves.

The third factor was the tactics and weapons of the Mongol soldiers. The mix of light cavalry horse-archers (armed with a powerful composite bow) with heavy cavalry lancers was not unique to the Mongols: every Eurasian steppe nomad army from the ancient Scythians onward were much the same. But as historian John Keegan has noted, it was perhaps the most effective tactical system till the perfection of European musketry and field artillery in the 18th century. Against a heavier foe, the horse archers could maintain their range and weaken the enemy with long-distance archery. Only when a foe was sufficiently “softened-up” by casualties and thoroughly demoralized by the archery were the lance-armed heavy horse (which comprised as much as 40% of the Mongol army) unleashed to finish them at close-quarters. As seen at Legnica, they were also adept at the tactic of feigning flight, only to draw an impetuous foe into a prepared ambush.

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Fourth, the Mongols (unlike similar armies of steppe nomads who periodically menaced the settled peoples of Europe and Asia) were skilled at besieging walled places. They could quickly assemble their artillery, dismantled and carried on pack animals, and begin battering walls. When necessary, the Mongols would erect a ramp leading up to the top of the enemy’s battlements. When ready, they would unleash the terrible “endless storm“: day-and-night, working in relays without let, Mongol warriors would assault the enemy position with sword and spear. Often prisoners captured from the local countryside were herded in front of the Mongol attackers, these human shields dampening the defender’s fire, forcing them to kill their own countrymen or give way.

Finally, it was the nature of the Mongols themselves that gave them an advantage. They were an incredibly tough, hardy people; raised in a harsh environment (the Siberian steppes) and inured to hardship. They were also disciplined soldiers: the Yasa (the Mongol code of laws established by Genghis Khan) made fleeing in the face of the enemy, or disobeying the orders of a superior officer a capital offense. Even the squad members of a coward could be executed for that single man’s dereliction of duty.

For all their virtues as soldiers, the Mongols were also utterly savage and without remorse. They took brutality and callous disregard for life to a level not seen since the Roman Republic. Resistance or rebellion was met with wholesale slaughter. Terror was a weapon employed to great effect, and such was their reputation that strong places surrendered rather than face the inevitable destruction met out to those who resisted. Once in power, they tolerated not the slightest disobedience, and rebellion was punished with extermination.

In the end, they created a vast empire stretching from the Dnieper River to the Pacific Ocean. However, in their wake they left nothing more lasting or of value than (literally) pyramids of the skulls of their victims.

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For further reading:
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The Devil’s Horsemen: The Mongol Invasion of Europe//

 

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THE AGE OF ARTHUR, PART SIX: AMBROSIUS AURELIANUS AND RIOTHAMUS

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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 Sixth-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 Five here; or start from the beginning here!)

AMBROSIUS AURELIANUS

As the Saxon terror spread throughout the south of Britain, the first victims were the farmers and villa-owning Romanized gentry of the open country. Unlike town and city dwellers these had no high, strong walls to shelter behind; nor military garrisons to defend those walls. Farms and villas were pillaged and the inhabitants driven off or killed. Archaeological finds show hoards of Roman coins from this period hastily buried by the owners before fleeing, perhaps in anticipation of one day returning. As previously stated many of these fled to Armorica (Brittany), founding a British colony that in time gave the area a new name.

1399750.jpgMany fled across the Channel, but not all. Some stayed and fought back. These were led by a Romano-British gentlemen said to have been descended from Roman aristocracy, and to have been a staunch opponent of Vortigern’s Saxon policy.

That man was Ambrosius Aurelianus.

Gildas mentions Ambrosius by name, as leader of the British resistance to the Saxons after the fall of Vortigern from power. Like most of the principles of this age, little of his origin or antecedents are certain. Gildas says his parents (who perished in the Saxon Terror) “wore the purple”.

This has been interpreted as meaning that Ambrosius’ father (or, more likely, grandfather) had been a previous Roman Emperor; perhaps Constantine III, who before being hailed by his troops as Imperator had held the office of Comes Britanniae. Another theory is that Gildas meant to say that Ambrosius’ family was of Senatorial rank: Roman Senators wore purple-bordered toga or tunic. However, the term “wore the purple” is used repeatedly throughout Roman and Byzantine history exclusively as a descriptor for the Augustus or his heir, the Caesar. I believe Gildas is certainly stating that Ambrosius was descended from a former Emperor or (more likely) imperial pretender.

It has also been suggested that Ambrosius’ family were true Romans, having only recently immigrated to Britain in the late 4th century. An Aurelius Ambrosius (perhaps the father of St. Ambrose) was Praetorian Prefect of Gaul in the early 4th century. It is possible that he was a near ancestor or kinsman of the leader active in Britain in the 5th century.

Whatever his origins Ambrosius Aurelianus’ power-base was in the south-central or southwest of Britain; with one very credible theory[1] placing his estates at Amesbury, near Stonehenge, on the edge of the Salisbury Plain (Stonehenge is associated with both Ambrosius and Arthur in the various legends). An early spelling of Amesbury is Ambrebyrig (Ambrose’s burh, or fortified town); and an ancient Iron Age hill-fort, Vespasian’s Camp, lies just 2 km to the east. Historian R. Castleden suggests this would have made an excellent stronghold and rallying point for resistance, capable of containing a garrison of up to a thousand soldiers.

1399753.jpgAs marauding Saxon warbands followed the Thames Valley and the Roman roads westward, burning and murdering as they passed, they would have come into lands owned by Ambrosius’ family. Tradition has it that his family was slain, and he alone escaped harm (perhaps being in exile in Armorica at the time). But while many fled, Ambrosius (returned?) to organize and lead the resistance.

These same traditions have Ambrosius Aurelianus earlier leading the anti-Vortigern opposition in Britain. He may have been a member of the Romanized aristocracy that resented Vortigern, a tribal strong-man from the west, and his usurpation of authority in Britain. This opposition may have been religious, as well. It should be remembered that religious conflict between Catholic and Pelagian Christians wracked Britain in this period.  As previously discussed Vortigern may have been the leader of the Pelagian “heretics” in Britain, while the Romanized aristocracy of southern Britain led by Ambrosius may have been staunchly Catholic/Orthodox.

One theory has Ambrosius rebelling against Vortigern in the 430s. Nennius even mentions a battle between Ambrosius and a “Guitolinus” (Vitalinus) at Wallop, near Ambrosius’ estates at Amesbury. Was this “Vitalinus” an officer of Vortigern’s? Or is Vitalinus  Vortigern’s real name? Some scholars believe that “Vortigern”is not a proper name, but in fact a Brythonic title, meaning “High King”. Interestingly, Geoffrey of Monmouth, perhaps working from now-lost sources, names Guitolinus as an archbishop. That adhering to the Pelasgian creed, he left the church and became both the leader of Britain as Vortigern (High King) and champion of the Pelagians against the orthodox church. Again, we see here a suggestion that perhaps Vortigern was his title, and that he was this same Guitolinus/Vitalinus who fought Ambrosius at Wallop.

The possibility of battle between Vortigern and Ambrosius in the late 430s is intriguing, and raises questions in the chronology. Clearly, an Ambrosius active against Vortigern at this early date cannot be the same man who led the resistance to the Saxons after 460; if in fact the traditional dating for the Saxon mutiny is accepted[2]. Either an earlier Saxon Advent in Britain and mutiny by the Saxon foederati must be considered (and is by some scholars), or there must be two different characters involved: Ambrosius “the Elder”, a wealthy magnate and member of the Council of Britain who opposed Vortigern in the 430s; and his son, Ambrosius Aurelianus “the Younger”, the later British leader.

Was Ambrosius the Elder secular leader of the Catholic faithful?

Both Nennius (Historia Brittonum, written in the first-half of the 9th century) and Geoffrey of Monmouth (Historia Regum Britanniae, circa 12th century) have Ambrosius Aurelianus fleeing his home as a boy[3] from Vortigern’s persecution following the defeat of his father (at the Battle of Wallop?) and murder of his family. Some recent speculation has suggested that these events were linked to Vortigern’s Saxon policy. However, as the Saxon Advent is unlikely to have occurred sooner than 447 and more likely in 449, this cannot be the case. The strife in the 430s that (theoretically) led to the death of Ambrosius the Elder must have been caused by something else; the most likely explanation being the underlying religious strife throughout the land and political rivalry.

1399756.jpg Château de la Roche Goyon, a famous fortress on the spectacular coast of Brittany. Such naturally strong places were fortified as early as the Iron Age; and afforded refuge for large numbers of aristocratic Britons and their dependents fleeing the disorders in Britain during the 5th century. One of these refugees may have been Ambrosius Aurelianus “the Younger”.

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Whatever the case Ambrosius Aurelianus (the Younger?) spent the last decade of Vortigern’s rule in exile. Nennius elaborates, making fear of the exile’s return one of the reasons for Vortigern’s reliance on Saxon mercenaries. Ambrosius was more than an enemy of his regime: he was Vortigern’s personal nemesis, agent of the righteous retribution Vortigern knew was coming!

Now, following the Saxon Terror and the death of Vortimer (see Ch 5), Ambrosius returned (sometime between 456 and 458) to reclaim his ancestral estates and to organize a national resistance to both Vortigern and the Saxons. According to Gildas, Ambrosius returned to Britain and took command of the Britons, “after a time, when the cruel plunderers had gone home”. This occurred, likely, following the retreat of the Saxon’s in the face of Vortimer’s offensive in Kent and Hengist’s temporary retreat from Britain (or onto Thanet) after the fight at Wippedesfleot/Ebbsfleet (456?), discussed in the last chapter.

He likely did not return alone, but came with a force of Briton exiles, particularly those who were loyal to his father. It is tempting to speculate that with him returned what the Britons (and later Welsh) called a Teulu (“Family”): a household bodyguard unit, known to the late Romans and Byzantines as bucellarii.

Gildas the Monk, writing in the mid-6th century, says of Ambrosius that though “brave on foot, he was braver still on horseback”. If, as Nennius suggests, he returned from exile in Armorica, it is not unlikely that he recruited this bodyguard unit, at least in part, from the best horseman there available: Celtic-British noble sons and from the Sarmatian Alani.

As noted in previous parts of this series, Alan horsemen had been settled in Armorica during this period by Flavius Aetius. The long history of the Alani is one of joining forces with neighboring people: first the Goths in the Ukraine; then the Huns when they appeared; then the Vandals in Gaul and Spain. Apparently these amicable warriors had the knack of befriending strangers, unusual in the ancient world, where in many languages the word for “stranger” and “enemy” are one and the same! In Armorica, the Alani and the émigré Britons eventually became one people, the Medieval Bretons; and there is no record of discord between them.

Considering the events to come, in which Ambrosius’ men were to play the key part; and the critical role cavalry was to play (in my opinion) in British warfare from this point forward it does not seem a stretch to suggest that Ambrosius used his exile in Armorica to recruit from these excellent horsemen.

1399770.jpgWe don’t know if there was a battle between the returned Ambrosius and the elderly Vortigern. It is entirely possible that our chronology for this poorly documented age is off, and that the Battle of Wallop occurred now, in the late 450s, and not earlier against his father; and that this was the final reckoning. Or, as seems just as likely, Vortigern, a beaten man beset by failure, simply retreated to his own ancestral homeland in Wales.

By 460 (if not sooner) Ambrosius was the power in Britain and Vortigern an exile, dying in Wales soon after. Nennius claims Vortigern was burned alive by “heavenly fire” in the fortress of Craig Gwrtheyrn (“Vortigern’s Rock”) in north Wales. This may hint at the true story: accidental or deliberate fire was a real risk in halls made of timber and roofed in thatch. (One tradition has Ambrosius pursuing and killing the deposed ruler in his Welsh fortress. This, however, seems unlikely in the face of Ambrosius subsequent good relations with the old ruler’s family, the rulers of Powys.)

Of Vortigern’s young wife Rowena, “the Saxon women”, daughter of Hengist: Nennius’ narrative has her die in the same fire that consumed Vortigern and his family. Alternatively, she may have returned to her father and people, in Kent. We just don’t know.

Gildas describes Ambrosius as a mild man, a modest man, a Christian man. It was perhaps this trait that allowed him to make peace with the old man he deposed, and to make alliances with his family. Certainly, with the Anglo-Saxon menace growing in the east the Britons needed a strong leader to unite, not divide them.

Ambrosius proved to be just such a man.

It is likely Ambrosius took some time consolidating power in Britain. Considering his reputation it is unlikely he did so in the heavy-handed fashion employed by Vortigern a generation earlier. Instead, he would likely have revived and reorganized the decaying Roman civil administration, fallen into disrepair during the latter years of Vortigern’s despotism. Elected Magistrates once again administered the towns (civitates), and power was again shifted back to the Council of Britain. Through consensus and persuasion Ambrosius gained the goodwill and cooperation of the confederation of Celtic tribal leaders and Romano-British officials that comprised the leadership of Britain.

Ambrosius was the war leader, however. Through contributions from the tribes and towns, he likely maintained a force of garrisons and a standing body of troops available to respond to crises. This force would have been supported by the levy of the annona militaris, a tax on the local towns and churches of grain and beverage to maintain the army. The organizational model he likely attempted to reintroduce was that of the late Roman office of the Comes Britanniae (“Count of Britain”).

We don’t know if Ambrosius revive that title. But the “Count of Britain” once commanded the Roman mobile field army charged with defending Britain. Considering his epitaph as the “Last of the Romans”, the modest Ambrosius may have felt most comfortable using this non-royal title. However, two generations of Britons had grown up since the Romans had departed, and the current generation had come of age during the 25 years of Vortigern’s reign. They were used to being ruled by one who bore the title of “High King” (which, as mentioned above, “Vortigern” may in fact mean). Had he consented to adopt this most un-Roman of formal titles, however uncomfortably, Ambrosius would not have revived the hated title of “Vortigern”. So what kingly title might he have adopted?

1399782.jpgPerhaps the answer can be found in the sources.

RIOTHAMUS

In or about 460, soon after Ambrosius had replaced Vortigern as de-facto ruler of Britain, a Roman official in Gaul, Count Sidonius Apollinaris (later bishop and Catholic Saint), sent a letter to the ruler of the Britons. He addressed the letter to “Riothamus”.

Riothamus will appear again later in the narrative, and has an important role to play. He is a well documented if somewhat mysterious historical character. Many scholars believe that his name, like “Vortigern”, is a title: a Latinization of a Brythonic name meaning “supreme” or “highest” king.

In essence, another title for “High King”.

Could this have been the title Ambrosius used in place of “Vortigern”?

Geoffrey Ashe, the renowned King Arthur scholar, has identified Riothamus as the true source of the King Arthur legend. He is partially correct.

As will be seen below, elements of Riothamus’ life may well have been the basis for a portion of the Arthur legend. More will be discussed about this later.

But it is impossible that Riothamus can be “Arthur”. Or at least not the only or even chief source of the Arthur legend. Why? Because we know that in/about 460, the date of Sidonius’ letter, Ambrosius Aurelianus was leading the Britons. Unless we are willing to accept that Ambrosius was himself the “real” King Arthur (and I am not), Riothamus cannot be synonymous with “Arthur”. This was the age of Ambrosius, not yet that of Arthur.

Ambrosius (and Riothamus) are on the scene too early to be Arthur. Forty years remain before the average dating by scholars of Arthur’s greatest victory, the defeat of the Saxons at Mount Badon. Arthur cannot be Riothamus; and Riothamus must be Ambrosius (and not Arthur), or else some otherwise unknown ruler of Brittany, not Britain.

Sidonius’ letter to Riothamus asks the “High King’s” help in a routine, administrative matter concerning escaped Roman slaves from Gaul being given refuge in Armorica/Brittany. Some scholars have suggested that Riothamus is the ruler of the Bretons, the British émigré colonists living in Armorica. But this nascent colony was too new and unsettled as of yet to have been likely ruled independent of Britain; and too small to have a “High King”, a title given to one who is “first among equals”, paramount king in a land with many kings, such as Ireland or Celtic Britain.

In the late 5th century, the Britons of Armorica still looked across the channel for their identity, and it was there that their allegiance was given. Sidonius’ letter was sent to the acknowledged ruler of all Roman-Briton’s, Ambrosius Aurelianus, “Riothamus” of Britain.

Next Part 7: NEXT: SHADOW IN THE EAST-

Even as Aella was christening the South Saxon Kingdom in a Eucharist of slaughter, a child was growing to manhood who would be Briton’s long sought-after savior, and the Saxon’s deadliest foe!

 

NOTES:

  1. Castelden, Rodney, King Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend, P.82 ; Routledge, 2000
  2.  The exact date of the Saxon mutiny is uncertain. It is unlikely to have occurred earlier than 449, and certainly no later than 455.
  3. Nennius puts his place of refuge in Wales, while Geoffrey of Monmouth has him fleeing to Brittany.

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.
www.ospreypublishing.com

 

For a terrific read on these events, try David Pillings novel:

LEADER OF BATTLES (1): AMBROSIUS 

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DIADOCHI – MACEDONIAN GAME OF THRONES (PART 5): THE PLOT THICKENS

Long before George R.R. Martin penned his tale of war, intrigue and treachery the ancient world was scene to its own version of The Game of Thrones.

(This is the fifth in a series concerning the Wars of the Diadochi. Part 1 can be read here, and includes comprehensive biographies of the players in this drama. It is strongly advised that you start there before reading on here. Or you can read the previous installment here. Stay tuned to this blog for future installments! Special thanks to Michael Park for his indispensable help in filling in the gaps in the sources and putting-up with my incessant questions!)

THE SITUATION AT THE END OF THE LAMIAN WAR

With both the Lamian War concluded and the revolt of the Greek settlers in Bactria crushed, the Greeks were once more reduced to submission. Any external threat to the Macedonian Empire was gone; and no existential threat to Macedon and Macedonian supremacy would arise till the coming of the Celts, 41 years later.

The Macedonian leaders could now turn their attention to the important matter of who would rule the Empire bequeathed to them by Alexander the Great.

The year 322 ended in Greece with Antipater and Craterus busily pacifying the Greek city-states; establishing client oligarchies and, as in Munychia overlooking the port of Athens, garrisons. Key Macedonian garrisons seem to have been at Athens; Chalcis (across a narrow strait, on the island of Euboea); the lofty mountain-top acropolis of the Acrocorinth (perhaps the strongest fortress in Greece and the key to passage in-and-out of the Peloponnese); and the Cadmeia of Thebes.

1537757.jpg1537764.jpg Two views of the impregnable Acrocorinth: Looming above the ruins of Corinth (top), and approaching the northwestern battlements. Nature and man combined to make this the strongest fortress in Greece. It was held by Macedonian garrisons for nearly a century.

This latter needs explanation, as Thebes was destroyed by Alexander in 335. However, the citadel, known as the Cadmeia, appears to have been restored and garrisoned as a Macedonian fortress, to keep Boeotia and central Greece under the Macedonian’s thumb.

Only isolated and isolationist Sparta in the south and wild Aetolia in the mountainous west remained free of Macedonian dominance. Antipater and Craterus (now acting as first-and-second in command of Macedonian forces in Europe) planned a campaign in the west to reduce Aetolia in the coming year (321).

At this stage in the game, both men had relatively good relations with the Regent, Perdiccas, in Asia; and there was as yet no hint of the trouble to come. As a sign of both good faith and acceptance of the Regent as spokesman for the Kings, Antipater had deferred to Perdiccas’ judgment the settlement of the Samian issue; important to Athens, now governed by Antipater’s men. Antipater would soon make moves to tie his house  closer to the Regent, as well as the other great men of the empire. Perdiccas, perhaps as early as autumn of 323, insecure in his position and looking to shore it up with a marriage alliance, had negotiated with Antipater for his daughter Nicaea’s hand. While still pending, it was likely the two houses would be united in marriage, making strife between them unlikely.

Craterus’ position vis-à-vis the Regent was more ambiguous. At Babylon he had been named Guardian (“prostates”) of Philip Arrhidaeus kingship. This would seem to imply regency for the king, and in the past this term had been nearly synonymous with “regent”. The ambiguity in their respective roles and duties was perhaps deliberate: at the time of the Babylonian Settlement (see Part 2) Perdiccas was not yet secure enough in his authority to alienate Craterus, who some argued was the man Alexander had actually named on his deathbed as his regent (see Part 1). With Craterus waiting in Cilicia with an Army of his own, it behooved Perdiccas to placate him with a position seemingly on a par with his own. In theory, they were joint-regents for the kings.

But now, eighteen months later, Craterus was in Europe, and accepting a role as Antipater’s subordinate, while Perdiccas was solidifying his power and position with a successful campaign to pacify Cappadocia.[1]

With the kings in Perdiccas’ custody, Craterus had to assert himself if he wished to gain a measure of the authority that should have been his. He needed Antipater’s help.

Returning to Macedon for the winter of 322-321, the two men cemented their relationship with a marriage alliance, Craterus taking for bride Phila, Antipater’s second daughter. Phila was the widow of Balacrus, one of Alexander’s earlier Somatophylakes (“Bodyguards”, the inner-circle of top staff-officers who assisted the king). No beauty, Phila was however a wise and level-headed woman who became a trusted adviser of the her more famous future husband, Demetius the Besieger. But that was in the future, and in 322-21 she was the peace-bond between her father, Antipater, and Craterus. For her this was a great marriage, to the handsome and famous general who had been Alexander’s strong right arm.

Antipater and Craterus now sought a peaceful accommodation with Perdiccas through yet another marriage alliance.

1537771.jpg15377721537773.jpg Views of the ruins of Pella, capital of the Macedonian kingdom. Located on the central plain of Macedon, Pella was a thriving city and seaport into the 2nd century BC; after which it declined as Thessalonike, capital of the new Roman province, grew in importance. It was here that Craterus married Antipater’s daughter, Phila, in the winter of 322-321 BC; cementing their alliance.

That winter Antipater agreed to Perdiccas earlier request for the hand of another of his daughters, Nicaea; uniting himself and (indirectly) Craterus to the Regent. Antipater hoped in this way that peace would be kept, that he would remain the power in Europe, and that Perdiccas would come to accommodation with Craterus over the rule of Asia and custody of the kings. In case this failed, however, the wily old player also made overtures towards Ptolemy, holed-up in Egypt, offering him his youngest daughter, Eurydice.

But if push-came-to-shove (as it ultimately would), Antipater and Craterus were in no weak position. They had a strong and victorious army at their disposal, as well as the Macedonian fleet (some 200-250 keels) that now controlled the Aegean, under the command of their admiral, Cleitus the White, victor of Amorgos.[2]

They had the Macedonian homeland and Thessaly at their disposal, from which they could recruit first-class infantry and horse (though Macedon was beginning to show signs of the coming exhaustion of manpower that was to be acutely felt in the next century). Perhaps most importantly in the internal struggle to come, both men were highly esteemed by the rank-and-file Macedonian solders, the ultimate arbiters of all power in the empire. No leader, in fact, was more respected than Antipater, and none more beloved among the Macedonians than Craterus.

But war was the last resort in order to secure their rightful place in the empire. First Antipater hoped his web of marriage alliances would guarantee the balance of power. However, two arch-schemers were at work to upset this arrangement: Olympias, the late King’s mother;  and Eumenes of Cardia, Alexander’s former secretary. Both had a vested interest in thwarting Antipater’s plan, and a move of their own to make upon the game board.

PERDICCAS COMES NORTH

While the Lamian War raged in Greece, events played out in the rest of the empire. As we have already discussed, in the “upper satrapies”[3]  a rising by the Greek settlers left there by Alexander had been crushed on Perdiccas’ order by Peithon, satrap of Media. Peithon then returned to Babylon, where he would serve as the Regent’s ambitious and not all-together happy subordinate.

In Egypt, another leader beloved by the Macedonians had consolidating his position.

Ptolemy son of Lagos had secured Egypt as his province at the Babylonian Settlement. Upon arriving he took charge from Cleomenes of Naucratis, the former satrap appointed by Alexander and tasked with building the city of Alexandria-in-Egypt at the mouth of the Nile. Perdiccas left Cleomenes in place as Ptolemy’s subordinate, in charge of finances and likely instructed by Perdiccas to keep an eye on Ptolemy. By fair dealing with the natives and subordinates, Ptolemy made himself well-liked in his province; and was beginning to attract to himself a force of Macedonians and Greek mercenaries.

In Asia Minor (Anatolia) Antigonas Monophthalmus (“One-Eyed”) ruled Phrygia, the satrapy he’d held since Alexander had conquered the land in 333. One of the oldest of the senior Macedonian leaders, he had watched as the tide of events passed him by. While Alexander and a younger generation had conquered the east, his province had been a crossroads. At his satrapal palace at Celaenae, the old soldier (and the handsome lad that was his eldest son, Demetrius) had entertained officers and detachments marching from Macedon to join the King’s far-off army; or disabled veterans returning home, bearing fantastic tales of mighty deeds, strange lands and even stranger animals. Now the great king was dead, the adventure over, and Antigonas watched as first Leonnatus and then Craterus had passed through on their way to Greece, taking leading parts in the great events of the day.

Antigonas watched, and contemplated his own place in this new world of opportunities opening before them all. We can only guess but that he looked upon the “great men” taking center stage; and thought himself no less capable than the best of them.

1537778.jpg Western Anatolian plain near Dinar, Turkey; site of ancient Celaenae, capital of Antigonas’ satrapy 1537780.jpg Dinar, Turkey, site of ancient Celaenae. Once a crossroads town for travel from the Aegean coast to the Anatolian highlands, Alexander made  Celaenae  the capital of his province of Phrygia. Here his chosen satrap, Antigonas “One Eyed”, sat out Alexander’s wars while  keeping this vital communications hub open. Here too his charismatic son, Demetrius, grew to manhood.

At this point Antigonas was a minor player, at best a mere knight on the chess board. But like the knight, he was tricky and capable of sudden and unexpected attack. Antigonas waited, utilizing that great gift that comes to some men over time and with age: patience.

But now, at the end of 322, Antigonas at Celaenae grew nervous. He had disobeyed the Regent in the matter of helping Eumenes to capture Cappadocia; an order likely impossible with the slender means available to him at the time (his satrapal army, if army it could be called, numbered no more than a few thousand mercenary horse and foot) and considering that the Cappadocian king, Ariarathes, had an army numbering perhaps 30,000 men. But the haughty Perdiccas was not one to take disobedience lightly, and Antigonas had reason to be nervous.

For the Regent had come north from Babylon, and was now on his doorstep.

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In the summer of 322, while Craterus was crossing into Europe to come to Antipater’s aid, Perdiccas with the two kings, the court and the royal army marched north against Cappadocia. Here the 82 year old Ariarathes had maintained independence for some years, building up an army of some 30,000. With Perdiccas was Eumenes, the designated satrap of the province (yet to be conquered). Eumenes had returned to the court bearing news of Leonnatus’ plans to seize the Macedonian throne in the spring of 322 (riding some 2,300 kilometers to do so, a notable feat). Of course, by the time the royal army arrived in Cappadocia, Leonnatus had perished in battle in southern Thessaly. But by this act of loyalty Eumenes had earned a place in Perdiccas’ inner circle of advisers (synhedrion philoi). Perdiccas was rewarding him by conquering his satrapy for him (as well as removing a strong and independent Iranian threat in the heart of Anatolia).

Few details of the Cappadocian campaign remain. We know only that Perdiccas defeated Ariarathes in two battles. Numbers on both sides would have been largely comparable. The Cappadocians had excellent and numerous heavily armored cavalry, provided by the Cappadocian nobility and their retainers. They would provide Eumenes some 6,000 of these a year later. Likely the imperial war elephants Perdiccas brought with him were able to counter these, and along with the incomparable Macedonian phalanx gave victory to the Macedonians.

1537783.jpg The Cappadocian nobility and their retainers fought as very heavily armored cavalry

This campaign saw out the summer of 322. Ariarathes was defeated and captured, and subsequently executed by Perdiccas. (Accounts of his death differ, stating that the old Cappadocian ruler was put to death alternately by crucifixion or by being burned at the stake. Neither of these methods were traditional Macedonian means of execution. Judged along with the use of elephants to execute by crushing the rabble-rousers among the infantry at Babylon in 323, we see a creeping of eastern cruelty into even this earliest of Macedonian Successors.)

In the autumn 322, Perdiccas and the court moved to Cilicia, where he ousted the governor, a partisan of Craterus; while Eumenes remained in Cappadocia, arranging his province. There they sat out the winter of 322-321.

ROYAL SCHEMERS AND ROYAL WOMEN

321 BC began with Perdiccas firmly in control of events, the reins of power tightly in his grip. He had proved himself in the Cappadocian campaign as a capable commander, always the first requisite for one wishing to establish himself as more than merely primus inter pares in Alexander’s Empire, where skilled and ambitious generals abounded. In Macedon, his chief rival Craterus was reduced to a mere client of the House of Antipater, with no clear place of his own in the current political landscape.

Perdiccas spent the spring and summer of 321 sorting out the recalcitrant hill tribes of Pisidia; a hard-fought campaign consumed with storming hill-forts and chasing brigands through the mountains. These hillmen, like their kind across the world, were expert light infantry. Adept with javelin and sling, they were past-master at ambuscade and hit-and-run tactics. Every hilltop had its own tribal fortress; and some were quite large towns, protected by nature in their inaccessibility. Alexander’s former Bodyguard and governor of Cilicia, Balacrus (first husband of Antipater’s daughter and Craterus’ new wife, Phila) had been slain trying to subdue them just a few years prior. Now they fought Perdiccas with desperate courage. At one of their strongholds, Isaura, the Isaurians fired their own town rather than surrender to the Macedonians; choosing immolation in the flames to submission.

1537785.jpg The tough hill tribesmen of Cilicia, Lycia and Pisidia defied conquerors and provided light infantry mercenaries (and acted as pirates) in the eastern Mediterranean for centuries. (Image by Christos Giannopoulos)

In both these campaigns we see Perdiccas securing the lines of communication between the Macedonian homeland and the Imperial capital at Babylon. This could be seen by some as opening his way to Macedonia, should he decide to march on Antipater and demand his submission.

While so engaged during the summer of 321, a delegation arrived at the royal court from Europe. It was led by Iollus, Antipater’s son and Alexander’s former royal Cup-Bearer. He came escorting his sister Nicaea, and presented her to her betrothed, Perdiccas.

At this point the pieces were lined up, much to Antipater’s liking.

It was now that his old enemy, Queen Olympias, made her move.

The previous year she had seemed on the verge of “queening” her pawn (though Leonnatus would never have acknowledged or likely even understood that he was Olympias pawn in her old game against Antipater). But Leonnatus expedition into Thessaly had backfired on the aged Basilissa. He’d thrown his life away in battle, with (from Olympias’ view-point) the unfortunate side-effect of freeing Antipater from his confinement in Lamia. It had been a bitter series of events for Olympias; her play thwarted and the “Old Rope”[4] once again on top.

Never one to concede the game, Olympias sat in Epirus like a spider, spinning her webs and plotted her next move. Now she made it, and once again it involved her daughter Cleopatra.

This most-eligible of royal widows arrived in Sardis. With Eumenes, long friend and now confederate of Olympias acting as intermediary, Cleopatra was offered to Perdiccas as an alternative to Antipater’s daughter as bride.

1537786.jpgMacedonian beauty, thought to be Olympias. Cleopatra in 321 could well have looked like this.

An embarrassment of riches for Perdiccas, it would seem. In truth, it posed a dangerous and tempting choice. Go through with his marriage to Antipater’s daughter, and there would likely be peace in the empire. His European flank would be secure with Antipater as his father-in-law (and Craterus, his greatest potential, as brother-in-law by marriage). Yet Cleopatra offered something perhaps more valuable: royal legitimacy. The same promise she’d held out to the late Leonnatus was offered Perdiccas: that as her husband he would have a strong claim on the Argead throne of Macedon.

Being Regent and Protector of the Kings gave Perdiccas royal power in all but name. But such power was inherently temporary. Even if the mentally disabled Philip Arrhidaeus would ever need someone guiding him, soon enough Alexander’s son by Roxane would grow to manhood. As his parent’s son he was sure to be both strong-minded and (likely) hot-tempered, and would demand his royal prerogatives. Perdiccas would be lucky to be allowed to retire to a quiet obscurity. In Macedon’ bloody history few had given up power without losing their lives.

So his choices were clear: marry Nicaea and maintain the peace, though at best only a temporary hold on power. Or instead marry Cleopatra and claim the kingship himself. This latter option, however attractive to the ambitious Regent, did not come without great risk. It would certainly lead to war against Antipater, who would be mortally insulted at the rejection of his daughter; and against many other Macedonian leaders across the empire, who would turn against him either out of loyalty to the current “kings” or simple jealousy and fear of Perdiccas power.

The Regent’s advisers were divided. His younger brother, Alcetus, argued for Nicaea and keeping the peace. Eumenes, who was friend to both Olympias and Cleopatra made the case for a royal bride. Why Eumenes pushed for a course that would lead to civil war is understandable on personal terms.

As a partisan of Olympias, he inherited her grudge against the House of Antipater. He also had his own, more personal reasons to stand against the Antipatrids: one of the many tyrants and oligarchs maintained in power among the Greek cities by Antipater’s patronage was Hecataeus, the ruler of Eumenes own home city, Cardia. A personal enemy of Eumenes, and likely the reason for his exile among the Macedonians, Hecataeus was safe so long as Antipater ran affairs in Europe. To bring his enemy down and restore liberty to Cardia, Eumenes must bring Antipater down as well. We will never know how strongly such personal motives played into Eumenes counseling Perdiccas to marry Cleopatra. But it is possible that in aiding Olympias in her schemes he secretly harbored his own, very personal agenda.

Perdiccas was sorely tempted by Cleopatra’s offer. But he was not yet prepared for so bold a move. Instead of deciding one-way-or-another and announcing his intentions honestly, he chose the low-road, in an attempt to have his cake and eat it as well. To maintain the peace he married Nicaea, Antipater’s daughter. However, rather than lose the opportunity a match with Cleopatra presented, he sent Eumenes to reassure the princess (and through her Olympias) that this was only a temporary expedient, and that he would soon repudiate Nicaea in favor of the Cleopatra.

At about this same time, an unexpected threat to Perdiccas’ authority appeared from Macedon. A new player entered the game, as a second royal princess, another daughter of old king Philip, arrived in Asia. This was Kynane, Alexander’s elder half-sister. Accompanying her was her teenage daughter, Adea, whose grandfather on both her maternal and paternal sides had been kings of Macedon.

Kynane came demanding a royal match for her twice-royal daughter!

Antipater

NEXT: THE POT BOILS OVER

 

 

 

  1. Errington argues that Craterus’ move from Cilicia into Macedon in summer 322 was in part due to his deteriorating political power in Asia, vis-à-vis the Regent. That Craterus waited deliberately in Cilicia with his veterans, through 323, an implied threat to Perdiccas and the leaders in Babylon, watching how the settlement fell out. That it was Perdiccas’ leading the royal army north towards Cappadocia (and Cilicia) that impelled Craterus to throw in his lot with Antipater in Europe, putting distance between himself and Perdiccas and tacitly accepting the protection and alliance of the old regent against the new.  (R. M. Errington, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 90 (1970), pp. 49-77)
  2.  Cleitus had been an officer under Craterus’ command since the return from India. His assignment to command the fleet and its dispatch to the Aegean in the summer of 322 may be attributed to Craterus; and Cleitus’ defeat of the Athenian fleet and clearing of the Hellespont at Abydos opened the way to Craterus to cross into Europe. In this we can perhaps see Craterus’ clear strategic vision and grasp of the operational art. He had been Alexander’s chief subordinate for a reason, and was a general to be reckoned with.
  3. The provinces of Aria, Parthia, Arachosia, Bactria, and Sogdiana: roughly northern Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and north-eastern Iran.
  4. The derogatory term used by Olympias and her partisans for Antipater. The meaning  likely being that he (Antipater) had long kept Olympia from doing  as she saw fit, binding her actions like an (old) rope. But this is just speculative.
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GREAT CAPTAINS: GEORGE S. PATTON, JR

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This is the fifth in a series of posts in which the “Great Captains” of military history will be examined. Unusually, this will be in video format, posting compelling biographical material.

The title of Great Captain is awarded to those military commanders who display not just excellence, but a true genius for war. Authors from time-to-time have produced their lists; most notably Theodore Ayrault Dodge, and Basil Liddell Hart. Here, in this series, I will highlight my own pics.

This installment is on one of America’s greatest generals: “Old Blood and Guts”, George Smith Patton, Jr. From the polished black helmet on his head, to the ivory-handled six-shooter on his hip, to the tall riding boots on his feet Patton was the iconic image of the American combat general. Tall and commanding (though never swaggering), Patton was more than mere imaging: he was a consummate tactical and strategic master.

Patton was America’s primary exponent of combined arms mobile warfare before the war; arguing against the prevailing theories that suggested that tanks should be scattered among and used to screen infantry, advancing at the pace of the foot soldiers. Once America entered the war, he quickly became our foremost “tank man”, displaying a boldness and aggressiveness that are the hallmark of great commanders throughout history.

The only American commander admired and feared by the German high command, Patton was the ultimate progenitor of mobile warfare. He used every vehicle in his Third Army, from artillery caissons to supply trucks to the backs of his tanks to transport his infantry; allowing them to keep up with the relentless pace he set for his armor. Not since the Mongols has any army moved faster and further than Patton’s Third.

1456866.jpg Young Patton commanded America’s only tank brigade in WWI.

The ultimate warrior, he was the US Army’s Master of the Sword and an Olympic competitor (in 1912, in the Military Pentathlon). In 1913 he invented a new sword pattern for the US Cavalry, after careful examination of various fencing techniques; the last combat sword ever designed for American cavalry. As a young cavalry officer, he chased Pancho Villa into Mexico. During this campaign he got into an Old West style gunfight with two of Villa’s lieutenants in a Mexican cantina, killing them both!

As both warrior and commander, Patton is the general against which every American general since has measured himself and sought to emulate.

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A video bio narrated by Ronald Reagan!

The iconic “Patton Speech” scene from the award-winning 1970 film.

 

HERE IS MORE ON THE GREAT CAPTAINS OF HISTORY:

Great Captains: Frederick the Great

Great Captains: Alexander the Great

Great Captains: Julius Caesar

Great Captains: Hannibal Barca

 

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1066: A BLOODY AND MOMENTOUS YEAR (PART TWO)

Harold Godwinson had won a great victory at Stamford Bridge, defeating a Norse army and killing its storied leader, Harald Hardrada, the mightiest warrior in the north. But for the English king there was no time to celebrate: his erstwhile friend, William “the Bastard”, Duke of Normandy, had crossed the Channel with an army and landed in Kent!

(To read Part One, go here)

William of Normandy had but to await good sailing weather and his rival’s distraction in the north to pounce upon England like a leopard upon his prey. In the absence of the English naval levies (the sea fyrd) who’d patrolled the Channel till dismissed back to their home ports with the coming of autumn, he was able to take advantage of the Norwegian invasion and cross the channel on the 28th of September, 1066;  just two days after Stamford Bridge (see Part One).

Images of the Norman invasion preparations: Armor, weapons, and supplies being carried to the waiting ships. Note the distinctive Norman “helm-cut” hairstyle. Above: the Bayeux Tapestry depicts the scene.

THE NORMANS

The Norman invasion Army of 1066 was a true combined arms force, comprised of heavy cavalry, close order infantry, and supporting archers. The mounted knights and their retainers, the elite strike force of the army, came from all across northern France: Normandy, Brittany, and Flanders. The “Age of Chivalry”, during which the armored knight on horseback was king of battle, was just dawning. The coming struggle would pit the new against the old, as mounted knights (supported by archers and heavy foot) would face an army trained in the Viking Age tactics of the “shield-wall”.

The Norman knights who followed Duke William wore a long shirt of mail, which covered from shoulder to knee, called a “hauberk”. Though the richest lords wore strong, well-riveted mail hauberks that included long sleeves and perhaps even leggings (chausses) of mail, the average knight’s hauberk ended at the knee, and had short sleeves and no protection below the knee. Some protection from bladed weapons was afforded by leather strips which cross-gartered the shins from ankle to knee.

1408176.jpg1408192.jpgThe helmet worn by both the Norman knights and the elite among there English opponents were conical shaped capes of steel, sporting a nasal that protected the wearer’s nose from glancing sword strokes. Under this the knight wore a hood of mail or leather. Sometimes this mail “coif” covered the knight’s chin and jaw as well.

The Norman invasion force has variously been estimated as high as 60,000[1] and as low as 7,500 strong. Though Oman suggests a figure of 12,000 cavalry and 20,000 infantry [2]; Christopher Gravett of the Royal Armories more plausibly places their numbers at the lowest end of speculation: 2,000 chivalric horse, 4,000 heavy foot, and 1,500 bowmen. Transportation and supply of an army much larger than this would have been problematic for William in the extreme.

William knew his rival was in the north. He also knew that time was against him: if the full English levy could be reconstituted, the numbers against him would preclude a successful battle. His invasion force could be bottled-up in Kent, where it would wither away from starvation. This is in fact what became of the French invasion of England in 1216. With winter coming on the Channel crossing would be closed and his supply line from Normandy compromised.  These strategic factors considered, William needed to bring his foe to battle, and soon.

To lure Harold south, William employed a strategy of devastation. Spreading out from a fortified base established at Hastings, mounted Norman detachments pillaged deep into Sussex, lands that were once part of Harold’s demesne as the Earl of Wessex. This was more than just a raid to replenish supplies: it was a personal insult and challenge to King Harold, to come defend his people if he dare!

SENLAC HILL

Harold was not sluggish in responding to the Norman invasion. Five days after receiving news of Williams landing he was back in London. After several days of rest, allowing some of his levies to arrive back from their fields and stragglers from his northern campaign to catch-up, his army moved south toward the Normans at Hastings.

On the early evening of 13th of October, 1066, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England led his army to the muster place at Santlache (“Sandy-Stream”) Hill. Directly to the south of this position the road from London to Hastings passed over this ridge to descend into a marshy valley; before rising up and over Telham Hill. Here, on the morrow, Harold would array his army across the London road, facing south upon the crest of Santlache.

After the battle to come the Normans would make a pun of the name, calling the hill upon which Harold’s army stood Senlac (“Blood Lake”) Hill.

1408178.jpgWhile the Normans at Hastings spent the night of the 13th and early morning of the 14th in prayer and confession, the English camped in the woods behind Senlac likely spent the night before the battle in the deep sleep of exhaustion. Since late September they had marched from London to York, fought a bloody battle against a hardy foe, then marched back to London, and with scant respite had now marched here to Senlac. Even for men as hardened to labor as these 11th century warriors this must have taken a toll upon their stamina.

At daybreak, Duke William led his army out of camp toward Telham hill, arriving there an hour later. Just 800 yards to the north, Harold was arraying the English on Senlac Hill. From Telham’s elevated height, William surveyed his enemy’s position.

He saw the Saxon army, some 8,000 strong, deploying along the ridge. Their array covered the top of the hill from end to end, some 800 yards long. The English were forming-up in the traditional “shieldwall”. To William it would have appeared as a densely packed, brightly-painted rampart of shields crowning the top of Senlac. The new-day’s autumn sun no doubt glinted brightly off the mail shirts and polished helmets, the spear-heads and ax blades of the warriors arrayed behind it. Flying above the center of their array were Harold’s twin standards: the Dragon of Wessex and his personal standard, the Fighting Man (bearing the image of an armored warrior). Ten ranks deep, the English host presented a brilliant and terrible spectacle.

1408205.jpg The Anglo-Saxon shieldwall as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. Below, modern reenactors depict the English warriors who struggled at Hastings in 1066

The front ranks of the shieldwall comprised the best armed and equipped men in the English host: the leading thegns and their retainers, supporting Harold’s own professional Huscarls. Behind these would be the more numerous and lightly armored men of the fyrd. All would have been similarly armed with spear or long-ax, sword and dagger, and often a tomahawk-like belt ax for throwing at the enemy prior to contact.

The shields of the Saxon infantry would have been one of three types, as depicted by the Bayeux Tapestry. Most often shown is the so-called kite shield, no different than that carried by their Norman enemy. The second most commonly depicted shield carried by the Saxons was a lenticular shield: a concave round shield, held by a central grip behind a large center boss of iron. This shield type differs from the more familiar “Viking” round shield, which was flat and not concave. Experiments in recent years with these types of shields have shown them to be amazingly strong and resistant to impact. The third type, shown on only a few panels, is a rectangular or oval shield with rounded corners, not dissimilar to a later Roman scutum, or the rectangular shields of the Rus. (Considering that some of Harold’s Huscarls may have served with the Byzantine Varangian Guard, and may have passed through and even served a time in Russia on route to Constantinople, it is not impossible that the Rus rectangular shield found favor with some.)

 

Whatever their design, the English shields that formed the shieldwall at Senlac were drawn-up tightly, likely overlapping and covering the ridge-line from end-to-end.

The Anglo-Saxon military elite who formed the front ranks of the shieldwall were armored in nearly identical fashion as the Norman knights they would soon be trading sword strokes with: a mail shirt and conical helmet. But while the Normans were all accomplished horsemen, the Huscarls and thegns were instead expert infantry fighters; who, like their Saxon and Viking forebears, were superb at standing firmly in the shieldwall and delivering deadly blows with spear, sword, and long-hafted Danish battle-ax. This latter was a fearsome weapon, capable of splitting a man down the middle or severing a horse’s head with a single mighty blow!

Surveying the English position William would also have noted that in the shallow valley separating his army on Telham from Harold’s on Senlac the ground directly between them was firm, a saddle between the two hills. But immediately to either flank, to the east and west, the ground became marshy; as two separate steams passed on either side of the saddle. Behind and to the flanks of Senlac the ground fell off more steeply, and was heavily wooded to the rear. Thus the coming battle  would be straight forward, with little opportunity for the Normans to flank, or the Saxons to withdraw in order.

At 8:00 am the Norman columns filed down from Telham and deployed in the valley below Senlac. William sent his men forth with these stirring words:

“Now is the time to show your strength and the courage that is yours! There is no road for retreat!”

Every man in the Norman host must have known that this day they had to conquer or perish.

1408217 Senlac Hill, viewed from the Norman center-right. Where the Battle Abbey now stands, Harold drew-up his shieldwall.

Taking station on the western flank of William’s army and forming the left flank was the Breton contingent. To the right, forming on the eastern flank, was the brave Flemings. In the center were Duke William and his indomitable Normans, the Papal banner flying beside the twin leopards of Normandy.

The arms of Normandy: De gueules aux deux léopards d’or (twin leopards, gold, on a field or red)

Each of these three divisions of William’s army was arrayed identically, in three echelons. The first rank were of archers, the second composed of the heavy-armed foot, and the third and final comprised the “men-at-arms”: the mounted knights and their squires.

One can imagine long minutes of relative quite before the coming storm, as the Normans shuffled into their ranks, then quietly waited the order to attack. Like their Duke earlier, they would have surveyed the English line awaiting them on the heights above, brilliantly lit by the new autumn sun. It is likely these men experienced a range of emotions that covered the gamut from eager excitement to bowel-loosening terror. For the knightly class, raised from childhood on tales of heroism and seeking above all else in life a reputation for courage and valor, likely a fierce “battle joy” and keen anticipation was the predominant emotion. Every knight must have known that this was to be the greatest battle of their lives, and perhaps of the Age. That here on this field they would not just live or die; but by their deeds either make or ruin their reputation in the eyes of their peers and of their liege-lord. The courage and indomitable resolve of these Norman knights would be tried sorely in the coming hours, but would ultimately prove worthy of the task William had set for them.

THE BATTLE BEGINS

The battle commenced at the start of the third watch, or 9 am. A brazen peal of trumpets signaled the beginning of the Norman attack.

The archers of William’s first line advanced up the gentle slopes of Senlac Hill into bow range, and at 100 yards began the battle by raising their bows in unison, and loosing a massed barrage of arrows. Up they flew, towards the hedge of overlapping shields. The feathered shafts beat against the interlocked shields like wind-driven hail. Due to the angle of fire and the protection afforded the English by their unbroken wall of shields the arrow storm did little damage; mostly bouncing from the shields or sticking harmlessly in their wood and leather faces.

1408262.jpgAs the archers passed back through the ranks to replenish their quivers from supplies in the rear, William next sent in the second line of armored foot-sergeants, who now advanced up Senlac’s slope.

As the Norman foot approached the waiting English responded with a clamor meant to intimidate their enemy: weapons beating in unison upon shields, and cries of “Holy Cross!” and “Godemite!” (God Almighty), and a deep grunting of “Ut! Ut!”, (Out! Out!). As the Normans neared the top of the ridge, the English shieldwall opened. Out came a shower of thrown weapons: axes and javelins, rocks thrown by hand or sling, and even maces and hammers designed to be slung at the foe! Under this fusillade the Norman ranks recoiled a step, and many went down never to rise again.

1408269.jpg Modern reenactors express the ferocious determination of the English defenders to keep the Normans “Out!”

Pushing forward, the Norman foot charged the last few yards into the shieldwall, and then followed a brief but terrible exchange of blows. Bloodied and over-matched the Norman foot soldiers staggered back, recoiling from the spears and deadly axes. Though competent soldiers, the Norman foot were second-class troops, no match for these fearsome victors of Stamford Bridge! A retreat began all along the line, and the Norman foot was soon falling back down the hill in mass.

Now the trumpets sounded again, and as the Norman infantry licked their wounds and reformed in the valley below, the banners and lances of the Norman chivalry fluttered and dipped all along the valley floor. Forward surged the mailed cavalry of northern France, the proudest warriors in Christendom! First at a trot, then a canter, stretching into a gallop as they pounded up the gentle slopes of Senlac.

1408294.jpgIn the center of this mass of charging horsemen Taillefer (“Hewer of Iron”), the Duke’s own minstrel, led the way. It had been granted to this gallant troubadour-knight the privilege of striking the first blow. As his horse ascended the slope of Senlac, far outdistancing those behind him, Taillefer tossed his sword into the air and caught it repeatedly, all the while singing verses from “The Song of Roland”!

At the top of the ridge a brave Saxon champion stepped forward to meet him. Sweeping past, Taillefer cut him down with a stroke of his gleaming blade. Reaching the shieldwall he tried to force his horse through the rampart of shields. A Huscarl long-ax struck the troubadour a ferocious blow on his unwarded right side, toppling him from his horse and cleaving the gallant knight from shoulder to belly.

Behind the fallen Taillefer the charging ranks of mailed knights came over the top of the ridge; only to be brought to an abrupt halt before the stolid shieldburg. Even the best trained destrier will not willingly collide with a solid object. And so long as the shieldwall remained steady, no Norman could force his horse through that barrier of shields.

Instead, as their charge was brought to a halt, the Norman knights and men-at-arms hurled their lances like javelins at the massed Saxon ranks; or used lance or sword to stab and slash from high atop their rearing chargers, aiming at the heads and shoulders of the English warriors behind their shields.

1408293.jpgLittle damage did this initial charge do to the English shieldwall. But oh! The carnage caused by those terrible axes, as giving measure for measure, the English cleaved and hacked at man or horse. In one recorded incident that was likely repeated up-and-down the Norman line, a stout Huscarl, swinging his long-ax from his left shoulder, hacked off a head of a Norman knight’s horse with a single blow of his terrible weapon! As the Norman’s horse collapsed in place, his second swing cleaved the rider in twain as well.

1408390.jpgMan and beast could not long stand such carnage. Beginning on the Norman left, where battled the riders of Brittany and cascading down the whole Norman line, William’s horsemen began to give way. On the left retreat became rout as the Bretons spurred their horses in panic away from those terrible cleaving axes. The Normans in the center and Flemings on the right likewise retreated, albeit grudgingly, down the hill, toward the shelter of their reformed infantry ranks.

As sometimes happens at desperate moments, a wild rumor spread like a summer blaze in dry grass: “The Duke is slain, the day is lost! Save yourselves!”

At that moment of crisis, the fate of England hung in the balance. The entire Norman army might soon be following the Bretons in panic, off the field and stampeding back toward the false security of their camp.

But men of destiny make their own fate. William, still alive though slightly wounded in the previous skirmishing atop the hill, rode forward through his wavering warriors. Pushing back helmet so his face was clearly discernible to all, he roared:

“What is this madness that makes you fly?? Look at me well! I am alive, and by the grace of God I shall yet prove the victor!”

With Count Eustace of Boulogne at his side, carrying the Papal banner of Holy Cross, and his half-brother Bishop Odo of Bayeux pointing him out to his uncertain vassals, William rallied his wavering knights to his side.

1408361.jpg Duke William (1) raises his helmet, showing his followers he is still alive, averting a crises. His brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, mace in hand, points the Duke out to his momentarily shaken followers.

(The Bayeux Tapestry ambiguously shows King Harold’s brother, Gyrth, dying in this initial clash. Some scholars have suggested that Duke William singled out Gyrth, who was perhaps commanding his brother’s Huscarls in the center of the English ranks; thinking Gyrth to be King Harold himself. William personally engaged and slew Gyrth in combat, and was perhaps wounded in the exchange, leading to the rumor of his death.)

1408364Meanwhile, on the Norman left, the truly panicking Breton contingent had fled down the slopes and into the boggy ground beyond the western flank of the battle (where later monks would construct a fish pond). There many milled about in the marshy ground. Seeing their discomfort, the undisciplined English rustics of the fyrd, who fleshed out the right wing of the Saxon line, sensed victory; and charged after them down the hill, pursuing and in places catching the fleeing Bretons.

William spied the debacle developing on his left flank. With the eye for opportunity that has always been the hallmark of the great battle leader, William gathered what knights he had at hand and galloped across the field, into the rear of the pursuing fyrdmen. In an instant the pursuers were cut off from their own lines, turned instead into desperate fugitives!

A small hillock rose out of the boggy ground here, and some of the isolated fyrdmen rallied upon it and attempted a stand. But William and his knights set upon them, as did the now returning Bretons. Massacre ensued, as Harold, refusing to leave his strong position atop Senlac, could do nothing to save his brave if foolish subjects who had disobeyed his order to hold the line.

1408366.jpgThough in the balance the morning had gone well for Harold and the English, it had not been without cost. In the tightly-packed shieldwall, the wounded could hardly withdraw to the rear for first-aid, and the dead could only fall in place. Both of the king’s own brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, have been cut down fighting and commanding from the front ranks. (One theory regarding this portion of the battle has one (Leofwine?) or both of Harold’s brothers leading the charge of the right-wing down the hill after the fleeing Bretons. Perhaps it is here that either or both are cut down during William’s counter-attack, causing the English attack to falter and ultimately fail.)

As the noon hour came and passed, both armies took a break to rest and reorganize themselves. They had taken serious casualties, and both horse and man needed food and water before continuing the struggle.

William must have had some concern, for as early afternoon wore on the English shieldburg still stood firm (though somewhat thinner) atop Senlac. He had to dislodge them: come nightfall, if the English army remained in place he must return to his camp in defeat. Morale would plummet. Supplies would run low, as foraging far from the camp would be impossible with an English army intact on Senlac. No, defeat was not an option. By nightfall, he had to find a way to dislodge the Saxons from Senlac Hill!

By mid-afternoon the battle began anew. This time, Norman foot and horse advanced up the hill by individual conroi, small household groups of knights and their retainers fighting beneath the banners of a liege-lord. Such units gave the Normans great small unit flexibility, and allowed one group to rest while another assaulted the Saxon line.

1408402.jpg William’s brother, Bishop Odo, battles the shieldwall with cudgel in hand: A churchman, he was forbidden to spill blood, so could not use a sword. But the blunt trauma inflicted by club or mace created a “grey area” this warrior-prelate could exploit!

Noticing the effect the Breton’s panicked retreat had on the integrity of the shieldwall, William ordered his Conrois to, alternately, feign such flight as the Breton’s had displayed earlier. This tactic succeeded brilliantly all through that afternoon, as small groups of knights would suddenly wheel their horses about and gallop down the hill in mock panic. Groups of overexcited Englishmen would give chase, leaving the safety of the shieldwall and pursuing the fleeing Frenchmen down the slope. Before they reached their quarry, however, other bands of knights would wheel around their flanks, cutting off retreat. In moments the pursing English were savaged and hacked down from all sides by their mounted French enemies.

Many acts of bravery and boldness were recorded during that long afternoon’s skirmishing.

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At one point a Norman knight, Robert fitz Ernie, cut his way clear through to Harold’s Fighting Man standard, only to be hewed to the ground by the axes of the Huscarls about the King. In another incident, a Saxon warrior ducked under the Duke’s lance-point, and dented William’s helmet with a mighty ax blow, before dodging back into the shelter of the shieldwall! The fighting was so fierce, in fact, that William is said to have had three horses killed beneath him in the course of the day.

Despite these minor tactical successes, by early evening, with the sun setting over the western forests, William’s situation was growing desperate. The English still held the hill. Though greatly thinned out, they showed no sign of breaking.

The Duke had time for one last throw of the dice.

Reorganizing his ranks, he brought up his archers in mass for the first time since the morning. Ordered this time to aim high, they rained arrows down upon the now not-so-tightly-packed and well-ordered shieldwall.

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At this junction disaster struck the English: apparently looking up at the wrong moment, King Harold was struck in the eye by an arrow. Though not immediately mortal, the wound effectively took him out of the fight, as he writhed in pain in the rear of his host.

With a final flourish of trumpets, the Norman knights now charged a final time. Formed into a wedge, a band of knights, all of whom had swore an oath not to return alive if they failed to reach and slay Harold, galloped to the top of the ridge. There is some evidence that among their numbers (perhaps even leading them) was the same Count Guy who had take Harold prisoner on the beaches of Normandy in 1064.

Unable to hold the whole of the hilltop with their diminished number, the Saxon shieldwall had contracted around its center, leaving the ends of the hilltop undefended. Here the wedge of Norman knights gained a foothold for the first time that day. On flat ground now, they spurred into the fyrdmen and few remaining Huscarls gathered around the royal standards. Too exhausted to keep them out, the horseman used the weight of their steeds to push into the shieldwall, hacking and slashing their way to where Harold stood beneath his banner.

1408389The Bayeux Tapestry here shows a Norman knight reaching a figure thought to be the King, and with a downward cut the knight hews deep into the thigh of the armored warrior. The caption above this portion of the tapestry reads “Here King Harold was Killed”. It is therefore believed that the Normans pushed through and slew the wounded Harold beneath the Wessex Dragon and the Fighting Man.

With the sun setting upon their fallen king the English army now broke and fled back into the woods to their rear. In the gathering gloom, pursing Normans skirmished with fighting bands of fugitive Huscarls. But with the coming of darkness the battle of Senlac was over.

(In the gathering gloom some of the pursuing Normans got trapped in a wooded ravine behind Senlac Hill, a place whose location is uncertain but was called by the chroniclers the “Malfosse”. Here a force of retreating Englishman, perhaps reinforced by late-arriving contingents of the western fyrd, turned on their pursers and inflicted great slaughter. However, this small success was unable to change the decision of Senlac Hill.)

1408396.jpgThe heaps of English dead lay unburied for days after. King Harold’s body was so disfigured that it could only be identified by his long-time mistress, Edith Swan-Neck, brought to the field by William’s orders. She was able to identify her lover by “marks known only to her”. Harold was said to have been buried near the sea, from where he could watch-over England’s coast, which he had so zealously guarded, throughout eternity.

William went on to capture London, where he was crowned King of England. The Norman Conquest was achieved, and England would never be the same again.

Senlac Hill, or the Battle of Hastings as its more popularly known, was one of the most decisive battles of European history, and a turning point for England. Had the Saxons prevailed, England would have remained as it had been since Alfred the Great: a strong nation, but one outside the tides of European mainstream; more Scandinavian in outlook then continental.

By falling under Norman rule, England was pulled firmly into European affairs. Within a few generations of the Conquest, England was at the center of a vast western European empire that controlled more of the lands of France than did that land’s king: the Plantagenet Empire of Henry II. Though French became the language of the English aristocracy for the next three centuries, in time the Anglo-Norman lords came to think of themselves not as Frenchmen, but as Englishman.

Both the Normans and the conquered Saxons learned and benefited from each other. The Norman barons gained the Englishman’s love of liberty, personal freedom, inalienable rights, and the Scandinavian-derived concept of parliamentary governance. These in time would lead to Magna Carta and the fight for constitutional monarchy led by Simon de Montfort. Unlike their cousins who remained on the continent, the French who settled in England inherited from their English subjects a proud unwillingness to accept absolutism at face value, and to fight even their sovereign king, when necessary, to protect their rights.

The Saxon would gain the boldness and vitality of the Norman, and no longer be the insular, inward looking people they had been. The melding of the two former enemies forged an English race that would one day create both the British Empire, the greatest empire since Rome; and the United States of America, the greatest power the world has ever known.


NOTES

  1. William of Poitiers
  2. Oman, Charles: Art of War in the Middle Ages, Chapter II

To read more about the redoubtable Norman knights, or the stalwart Anglo-Saxon Huscarls, see:

Norman Knight and Anglo-Saxon Huscarls: Dark Ages Warrior Elite

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.
www.ospreypublishing.com

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GREAT WARSHIPS: REVENGE, RACE-BUILT GALLEON

Deadliest Blogger continues our series on famous warships or types of ships in history.

Beginning in 1570, English ship designers began building a sleeker, faster, more seaworthy type of galleon known as “race-built”. This name derived from their “raced” or razed (removed) fore-and aft-castles; relics of the Middle Ages when boarding was the primary tactic in naval warfare. While the galleons of their rivals, the Spanish and Portuguese, still had tall fore-and-aft-castles; these race-built galleons gave English captains tremendous advantage in maneuverability and handling.

Designed under the direction of Sir John Hawkins, these were a revolutionary design. Lower in the water, with greater length in relation to their beam (broadest right at the waterline, unlike earlier Galleons), it was more stable and “weatherly” (capable of sailing faster and closer to the wind) than any previous ship of the same size. It was armed with a larger and more homogenous compliment of guns than other contemporary Men-of-War; giving it superior firepower and a longer range capability than any ship it faced. (English naval gun carriages and recoil systems were superior to that of their contemporaries, as well.) This combination of speed with firepower would become a hallmark of English ships for centuries to come.

Perhaps the most famous of these race-built galleons was the Revenge. Built in 1577 by the renown Matthew Baker, it was the first of 13 Royal Navy ships to bear that name. It had a relatively short but illustrious history, and in its day was considered perhaps the most dangerous warship afloat.

Its most famous captain was Sir Francis Drake, the renown English “seahawk”. In 1587 the Revenge was Drake’s flagship when he led a small fleet of privateers in “singed the beard of the King of Spain”. Sailing boldly into the main Spanish port of Cadiz, the English engaged and bested six times their number in Spanish Galleons; presaging the Armada battles to come. Drake destroyed 37 naval and merchant ships here and at Corunna; delaying the Spanish invasion by a year.

The Revenge was Drake’s flagship during the Armada battles of 1588. Here Drake and the Revenge led the pursuit of the Spanish fleet. The Revenge’s superior speed, handling and gunnery allowed Drake to cut out and capture the Spanish galleon Rosario, along with Admiral Pedro de Valdés and all his crew. This Spanish ship carried a substantial treasury to pay the Duke of Parma’s Army in the Low Countries; and its loss was a double blow to the Spanish.

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During these battles with the Armada leading to the Battle of Gravelines, the speed and superior handling of the Revenge and the other race-built English galleons thwarted the Spanish in their desire to close with and grapple the English ships; turning the fight into a boarding action that would favor their superior infantry and larger crews. Instead, the English kept their distance, and used their superior gunnery to good effect.

In 1590, Revenge was under the command of another notable English seaman of the period, Sir Martin Frobisher; coasting along the Spanish Main, seeking to intercept Spanish treasure fleets from the New World. The following year, under the command of Sir Richard Grenville (whose father died as captain on the ill-fated Mary Rose) the Revenge met its glorious end when surrounded by Spanish ships off the Azore Islands. Thought out-numbered 53 to 1, the more nimble Revenge outmaneuvered and out-fought the Spanish for fifteen hours; driving off repeated attempts to grapple and board her with withering and accurate gunnery. Finally, the Spanish Galleon San Cristóbal rammed and became entangled with the Revenge; bringing her dead in the water and allowing the Spanish to close and batter her with massed gunnery. After a night of fighting on at close quarters, morning found her masts shot away, six feet of water on the hold and only sixteen men left uninjured out of a crew of two hundred and fifty.

Her mortally wounded captain ordered the ship to be sunk rather than fall into Spanish hands: “Master Gunner: sink her, split her in twain! Fall into the hands of God, not into the hands of Spain!” His remaining officers refused, and instead surrendered the ship on guarantee of the crew’s safety.

The Revenge would never live to serve the Spanish. While under tow days later, it was wrecked in storm along with a large number of escorting Spanish ships.

The race-built design revolutionized naval warfare, ushering an age of naval gunnery and maneuver. It also heralded the beginning of English naval superiority. Over the next two centuries, the Royal Navy would surpass Spanish, Dutch, and French rivals; till Britannia would truly “rule the waves”. That dominance began with ships like the Revenge.

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