On Good Friday, April 23, 1014 just north of Dublin a momentous and bloody battle was fought. At stake was the nascent unification of the island under its first true king, Brian Boru; and the future influence of the Vikings, who had settled and meddled in Ireland for nearly two centuries. The battle that resulted changed the course of Irish history forever!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Retribution was now inevitable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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


Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


The haunting ruins of the once-great city of Samarkand

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

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

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

Battle_between_two_Timurid warriors_on_horseback (1)

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

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


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


All this Babur watched from a new refuge: Kabul.

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Panipat - diagram

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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



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


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Unique among the territories of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Britain succeeded in holding back and even reversing the tide of Germanic conquest for nearly two centuries. This was an age of heroes… It was the Age of Arthur!

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

But who was Arthur?

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Not so the Anglo-Saxons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

1418542.jpgSarmatians depicted on Hadrian’s Column

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 arthur by scollins.jpg

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

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


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


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Palm Sunday, 1461: On a bleak, windswept Yorkshire plateau two Medieval armies clashed amidst a snowstorm; brutally hacking and slashing with sword, halberd and bill in what was to be the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. It would prove to be a decisive battle in the dynastic struggle known to history as the War of the Roses.

The War of the Roses was a 30 year-long conflict between adherents of two branches of the ruling Plantagenet dynasty: the House of York, whose symbol was a white rose; and the House of Lancaster, whose device was a red one.

The roots of the conflict lay partially in the competing claims of these royal cousins and can be traced back to the overthrow of King Richard II by his Lancastrian cousin, Henry of Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby and Duke of Hereford; who took the throne as King Henry IV. While Henry was able to hold onto his usurped crown and pass it to his son, the heroic warrior king Henry V, the legitimacy of Lancastrian rule came into question in the reign of his grandson, Henry VI.

 The white rose of the Yorkists, the red of the Lancastrians.

Henry VI suffered from bouts of “madness” during which he was largely unaware of circumstances around him. He likely inherited this malady from his maternal grandfather, the French king Charles VI; whose reign (1380-1422) was marred by frequent periods of just such madness. Control of the kingdom during King Henry’s periods of mental infirmity was granted by Parliament to his cousin Richard, the powerful Duke of York.

Under English succession laws, York’s claim to the throne was superior to that of his Lancastrian cousin’s. As Protector of the Realm, Richard of York was too close to the throne for the liking of the adherents of the House of Lancaster, particularly the king’s wife, Queen Margaret of Anjou. When Henry temporarily regained his senses in 1454, the Lancastrians used the opportunity to call a new Parliament to which the Duke of York and his supporters were not invited. (In Medieval England, Parliament was called and dissolved by the King; and its members there at his invitation.) Not surprisingly, this Lancastrian Parliament stripped the Yorkists of their privileges. Armed conflict soon broke out, and in 1455 the War of the Roses began with the First Battle of St. Albans.

The battlefields of the War of the Roses

The fortunes of war shifted back and forth, the Yorkists gaining the advantage; until at Wakefield, in December of 1460, the Lancastrians ambushed Richard of York’s forces and killed both the Duke and his second son, Edmund of Rutland, who was only 17 year old.

The Duke’s eldest son, Edward of March, succeeded Richard as both Duke and leader of the Yorkist cause. Just over a month after his father and brother’s defeat and death, he routed a Welsh force led by Owen Tudor at Mortimer’s Cross. It was before this battle that Edward’s army beheld a meteorological phenomenon known as parhelion; in which the rising sun appeared to be flanked by two lesser suns and a bright halo. Taking this as a good omen, he adopted this symbol as his personal standard, the Sunne in Splendour.

Edward IV’s “Sunne in Splendour” banner

Despite the defeat of Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, by Lancastrian forces at the Second Battle of St. Albans , Edward was able to join up with Warwick in London. There, on March 4, 1461, Warwick proclaimed Edward king. (Warwick would ten years later break with Edward and once again proclaim Henry VI king. From these acts he came to be known as “The Kingmaker“.)

Yorkist soldiers, the “Sunne in Splendour” banner behind

The Lancastrian army, under Queen Margaret and her favorite, the Duke of Somerset, retreated to York, where their cause was strong. Curiously, despite so many Lancastrian lords holding titles in the south, they were detested south of the Midlands. Lancastrian loyalty was strongest in the north. Edward, then, led the Yorkist army north bringing the battle to the Lancastrians.

The Yorkists moved along three parallel routes: with Edward marching directly north; Warwick leading a group several miles west, covering the left flank of the main force; while John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk marched to the east with orders to raise forces and rejoin Edward before the battle. Warwick’s group moved to the west of the main body, through the English Midlands, gathering men as they went. Warwick’s uncle, the very capable Lord Fauconberg, led Edward’s vanguard; clearing the direct route to York for the main body, led by Edward himself.

Bloody skirmishes occurred at Ferrybridge and at Dinting Dale in which the Lancastrians led by Lord Clifford attempted to harass the Yorkist’s advance. Clifford was a bitter enemy of the House of York. He was thought to have personally killed Edward’s 17 year old younger brother Edmund of Rutland after Wakefield; and was called “the Butcher”.  Clifford killed during the skirmish at Dinting Dale by an arrow; a blow to the Lancastrians, who lost a dedicated adherent and ferocious enemy of York.

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

On March 29, Palm Sunday, under a glowering sky and amidst a snowfall, the armies of York and Lancaster met between the villages of Towton and Saxton, about 12 miles southwest of York and 2 miles south of Tadcaster.

The stage was set for what would become the largest and bloodiest battle in English history.

The numbers involved were impressive for any Medieval battle: the Yorkists alone numbered 48,660 according to muster rolls; though the number that actually deployed upon the field that morning was somewhat less, with as much as a third of the Yorkists under Norfolk not yet arrived. Thus the Yorkists began the battle outnumbered; their 25,000 to 30,000 facing Somerset’s estimated between 40,000 and 60,000 Lancastrians (the latter figure almost certainly an exaggeration). Total number of combatants likely numbered 80,000. Approximately three-quarters of the Peerage of England fought in the battle, with twenty eight Lords of the Realm present (the majority on the Lancastrian side, only eight fighting for the Yorkist cause). Skeletal remains found in a mass grave in 1996 near the battlefield showed evidence that the soldiers came from all walks of life, were on average 30 years old, and averaged 5’7″ tall, and very strongly built. Bone scaring shows that many were veterans of previous engagements.

Exactly what one would expect in a Medieval army!

Equipment and armor of a Man-at-Arms of the period.

Both armies were deployed largely on foot, even the knights (men-at-arms) sending their horses to the rear. The primary tactics of the War of the Roses had armies deploy in three “battles” (divisions), each composed of archers and melee-troops. Most men wore some armor, the knights being encased in fine plate armor from head to foot. Because of the ubiquity of good armor, the primary weapon tended to be the pole axe (halberd) or heavy bill. War hammers were also popular with the chivalry. The long sword was common to all soldiers, high-born and low.

Battles were usually preceeded by exchanges of arrows, followed by a fierce melee at close quarters. Sometimes a reserve of cavalry would attempt flanking maneuvers; though how seldom even such elementary tactics were employed throughout the war is striking.

The snowy battle ground, as it might have looked on the day of battle

The Lancastrians were the first to deploy. Somerset started the day in a strong position, on rising ground with his flanks protected where the plateau dropped off; most steeply on the western flank, where Cock Beck creek flowed in an S-shaped course around the west side of the plateau. This flank also had thick stands of woods growing up to the edge of the battlefield. Somerset took advantage of this feature to conceal a body of troops, ready to fall upon the Yorkist left once they were engaged.

The Lancastrian position was sound, and blocked the road to York. The only drawback was that the narrowness of the plateau didn’t allow the larger Lancastrian forces the opportunity to bring their numbers to bear against their enemy’s flanks. Nevertheless, Somerset (or his chief adviser, the turn-coat former Yorkist mercenary captain, Sir Andrew Trollope) was content to stand on the defensive, and force Edward to attack them in a brutal, frontal engagement.

View from Yorkist starting position. Across the low ground in the center is the high ground upon which Somerset’s  Lancastrian forces were deployed.

Edward’s forces took the field after noon; deploying as the snowstorm grew in bitterness. They took up position opposite the Lancastrians, just out of bow range; low ground separating the opposing forces. Their deployment took several hours, as stragglers continued to arrive. Norfolk was nowhere in sight, and would in fact arrive many hours after the battle began. Despite his troop’s fatigue after their long march to the battlefield, and his inferiority in numbers, Edward ordered his vanguard to begin the battle.

The Yorkist cause was well served in Edward’s vanguard commander, William Neville, Lord Fauconberg. With a change of wind now blowing the snow heavily into the faces of the Lancastrians, he ordered his archers (armed with the famed English longbow) to advance to range and loose a single volley. He then ordered them to retire.

Finding themselves under fire, the Lancastrian archers returned fire. However, as the wily Fauconberg foresaw, with the snow in their eyes and the wind in their face they blindly fired volley after volley; all falling 40 yards short of the Yorkist line! They loosed until their quivers were exhausted, leaving the ground in front of the Yorkist line a porcupine quilt of spent arrows.

Fauconberg now once again ordered his archers forward.

Drawing their heavy yew bows, they now loosed volley after volley of clothyard shafts. The wind in their favor, these fell in a deadly hail amongst the packed ranks of the Lancastrian forces. When their quivers were emptied, the archers gleaned the spent Lancastrian arrows littering the slope, and returned them to their sender!

As casualties mounted from this one-sided exchange, Somerset was goaded into leaving his strong position and advancing to the attack.

Fauconberg then recalled his archers, and though there is no clear record, it is safe to assume they continued firing over the heads of their comrades, into the melee that would soon develop.

Now came the main event, as the opposing lines clashed together in fierce and bloody close quarter combat. Edward and Warwick were everywhere, encouraging their outnumbered soldiers. The eighteen year old Edward was particularly conspicuous, 6’3″ tall and imposing in his splendid armor; the quartered leopards-and-lilies of the Plantagenet kings on his surcoat, the Sunne-in-Splendour banner waving above him. This striking young warrior-prince stood in stark contrast to his Lancastrian rival, King Henry, who was too sickly to even be on the battlefield!

As the two lines came together, a crises developed on the Yorkist left. There, the Lancastrian forces hiding in the woods above Cock Beck now sprang out and fell upon the Yorkist flank. That flank gave ground, and some began to flee in panic. Edward rushed to the threatened sector, rallying his soldiers and setting a personal example of valor in stopping the enemy’s progress.

The battle raged at close quarters for an exhausting three hours. Bodies piled so high that breaks had to be taken in order to remove the dead separating the combatants. The Lancastrians continuously threw fresh men into the fray and gradually the Yorkists were forced to give ground and retreat up the southern ridge. On their left they gave the most ground, so that the western end of the line was pushed furthest back, and the Lancastrian position now had its back to the steep slopes above the Cocks Beck creek.

At last, Norfolk arrived from the southeast, marching up the Old London Road, with the remaining Yorkist forces. These now joined the battle, pushing back the Lancastrian left. The Lancastrians fought on for a time, but momentum had clearly shifted to their opponents. Then, as happened in ancient and Medieval battles, the line suddenly gave way as men began to flee in panic.

Now the bloodbath began in earnest.

Fleeing Lancastrians were closely pursued closely by their vengeful Yorkists foes. Today, a low meadow on the western edge of the battlefield is known as Bloody Meadow in remembrance of the slaughter there. The fleeing Lancastrians tumbled down the steep slope of the Cock Beck, into the icy creek. Here and further north at the River Wharfe at Tadcaster, panicked and exhausted men still wearing their armor, plunged forward, and falling into the water, drowned. This continued until there were enough dead to form a bridge of human corpses, across which their comrades could cross. At Tadcaster a wooden bridge broke under the weight of the armed men, plunging many into the freezing water. At these crossing points, choked with refugees, the slaughter was greatest, as the congestion allowed the pursuers to catch those attempting to cross. At Tadcaster, 2 miles to the south, other Lancastrians, trying to hide in buildings and cellars, were hunted down and killed.

Cock Beck creek, where many Lancastrians drowned or were cut down attempting to cross.

Many apparently had thrown off their helmets as they ran, and the ghastly damage seen on the skulls recovered in mass graves show just what happens when poleaxe, war hammer or longsword strike naked heads. The number of wounds (one victim’s skull displays eight separate wounds) speak to the frenzy of killing that overcame the pursuing Yorkists.


From Bloody Meadow to Tadcaster the snow-covered fields were littered with bodies. The total dead were estimated by heralds to be 28,000; of which all but 8,000 were Lancastrian. The disparity in number of dead can be explained easily: in all pre-modern battles the worst casualties were inflicted during the pursuit of a defeated enemy.

Many of the great lords of the realm were either slain here or executed shortly thereafter. These included the Earls of Northumberland and Devon, Lord Dacre, and Sir Anthony Trollope. Another prominent Lancastrian, Lord Clifford, had been killed just prior to the battle, at the skirmish at Dinting Dale. The Lancastrian cause was decimated, and would never recover. Margaret, Henry and Somerset fled north to Scotland, while those Lancastrian lords who were not killed or dispossessed of their titles were forced to make peace and acknowledge their enemy’s leader as King Edward IV.

The War of the Roses was all but over. Though it would continue to flare up over the next 20 years, these were small brush fires, not major conflagrations. Edward’s reign (“the Sun of York”) would last 21 years. He would prove an able if not always wise king; his crown assured by Bloody Towton: a most sanguinary affair.


Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
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“For the Spartans, it wasn’t walls or magnificent public buildings that made a city; it was their own ideals. In essence, Sparta was a city of the head and the heart. And it existed in its purest form in the disciplined march of a hoplite phalanx on their way to war!” – Bettany Hughes, Writer/Historian

(This is the first, introductory installment in a multi-part series on history’s greatest soldiers, the Spartans of ancient Greece!)

Around 1000 B.C. a handful of Dorian-Greek villages in the valley of the Eurotas River in the southern region of the Peloponnese called Laconia (or Lacedaemon); joined to form a single city-state (“polis”), called Sparta. In time Sparta became the leading Dorian city in Greece. By the 7th century BC Sparta had developed into a unique political entity, one entirely devoted to the arts of war.

1400515 (1).jpg

The changes that turned Sparta into such a uniquely warlike society are attributed to its  legendary Spartan lawgiver, Lycourgos; who created their constitution.


Under the Spartan constitution, called the “Great Rhetra”, all  males were trained to one purpose: to become the finest soldiers in the world. While others worked their land, every Spartan male had but one profession, the practice of arms. The Great Rhetra, was more than a set of laws or penal codes. It encompassed all aspects of the Spartan life. It not only established the various branches of the Spartan government and enumerated the powers of each, it told the Spartans how to conduct their lives.

These laws dictated the education of boys and girls; they told the Spartans the proper way to speak (in short, pithy, sarcastic sentences, which style of speech came to be called “Laconic”); even how they must wear their beards (without mustaches) and their hair (long, it being said that long hair made a handsome man handsomer, and made an ugly man look fierce).

1400580.jpgStature of Lycourgos the Lawgiver in modern Sparta

The Rhetra was designed to produce by age 20 a Spartan citizen ready to take his place in this unique warrior society, to look and act as “similar” as all other Spartans. The history of Sparta is an experiment in utopia; a perfect society composed of supermen and women.


Sparta was the world’s first constitutional government composed of separate branches, each placing checks-and-balances upon the other.

At the top of the Spartan government were two royal families. The senior was the Agiad, the junior the Eurypontid.  Both the Spartan royal houses traced their lineage back to the semi-mythical hero, Heracles.[1] One or the other of these two kings was expected to lead the army in time of war while the other remained back in Sparta, maintaining stability.

1400524.jpgThe two kings of Sparta, armed for war. Behind them is the Dokana, the standard of the city and symbolic of the Immortal Twins (Dioscuri), Castor and Polydeuces, patron-heroes of Sparta. To the right is a member of the 300-man Royal Guard, the Hippias

While commanders of the army in battle, within Spartan society the king’s played a role  both religious and symbolic. They were figure-heads politically, treated with great respect but with no direct power. Though they could propose laws, the kings had no executive authority: that was reserved to the Ephors.

The Ephors were five annually elected magistrates. They could only stand for one term, and were forbidden to stand for reelection. They provided a balance against the potential power of the two kings, who they rarely cooperated with. They could, and on occasion did, bring the kings up on charges of malfeasance.

1400535.jpgLegislatively, the Spartan “parliament” was broken into an upper and lower house. The senior law-making branch was the council of elders, a “senate” called the Gerousia. It consisted of 30 members in total: the two kings plus 28 respected elders, 60 years of age or older. It could propose laws or lay aside those laws passed by the people it deemed ill-conceived (or “crooked”).

1400582.jpg“If the people speak crookedly, the kings and the elders shall be setters-aside” – the Great Rhetra

The junior “house” of the Spartan legislature was theApella“. This was a popular assembly of all Spartan males 30 years of age or older. They could not propose new laws on their own, but were required to pass or deny all laws proposed in the Gerousia.

So each had a role in leading the state: the Kings led Sparta in war; the Ephors ran the day-to-day affairs of Sparta, and acted as a check the power of the kings; the Gerousia proposed laws and acted as a check on the ephors; and the Apella represented the will of the Spartan people, and checked the power of the Gerousia.

This system proved incredibly durable and stable. Unlike nearly all other Greek city-states the Spartan system endured in largely this fashion, with little civil strife, throughout the Classical Age.


Throughout his life, a Spartan was tested to see if he had “the right stuff” to be considered one of these elite supermen. The first test of a Spartan citizen started at the child’s birth; when the newborn was inspected by the Ephors.

When a Spartan mother gave birth, the father called the Ephors to examine the child. If it were found to have any deformities the child would not be permitted to live: only perfect specimens were fit to become Spartans. A baby found wanting was taken to a spur of Mount Taygetos, and cast into a gorge. (In recent years scholars debated the fate of these infants and the practice of infanticide. Instead, it has been proposed that such infants were merely left on the mountainside, with the possibility of adoption by passing shepherds or peasant families. )

At the age of seven years, Spartan boys were taken from their mothers, and enrolled in the Spartan military education system, called the Agoge (“the rearing“). For the next thirteen years, the boys were systematically trained to be Spartans. Only royal princes in direct line to inherit one of the two Spartan throne were exempt from the Agoge.[2]

During “the rearing” the boys were under the direction of an official called the Paidonomos (literally, the “Boy-Herder”) whose job it was to oversee the Agoge. This education focused on discipline, endurance, and on inuring the boys to all forms of privation and suffering. They were taught wrestling and weapons-handling, to throw javelin and discus, racing and leaping. Trained from boyhood the Spartans won more laurels in the ancient Olympic games than did the citizens of any other Greek city-state.

1400537.jpgBoys enrolled in the Agoge slept all year out-doors, by the banks of the Eurotas. Cut-reeds were their only bed. Each boy was allowed a single woolen cloak, issued at the start of the year, to keep them warm in all weather; both garment and bedding. For food they were expected to forage in the countryside, stealing what they couldn’t hunt, a valuable skill for soldiers on campaign in foreign lands. However, while successfully stealing food was rewarded, a boy who was caught in the act was whipped: only failure was unforgivable in Sparta.

The boys also learned music and dance, which had military applications. It was said that the Spartans were the most musical people in Greece. Spartans perfected the so-called “Pyrrhic Dance“, the armed dance of the Greek warrior. Performed in tight formation, this dance taught the Spartans foot work and to operate in close-order with other warriors, as a single unit; invaluable in phalanx warfare.


The Pyrrhic Dance, the war dance used by the Spartans and other Greeks to teach footwork

Along with the girls, Spartan boys performed complicated corral dances during the frequent religious festivals (the Spartans were a pious people), and for these even the maidens danced nude. Like all ancient Hellenes the Spartans had no nudity taboo, and these dances gave boys and girls both the means to perfect their physical forms, and the forum in which to show them off.

By the time a boy graduated from this unbelievably harsh training, at 20 years old, he was ready to take his place amongst the toughest and most disciplined fighting force the world has ever known. However, before he could call himself a Spartan, he had to overcome one more hurdle: acceptance into a military mess (“sussition”).

These military messes were more than a dining facility. They were both barracks and mess-hall, in the modern military sense. In many ways they were actually more a combination of the modern college fraternity with the Victorian Age’s “Gentleman’s Clubs”. In fact, it is thought that they developed from the more ancient Greek institution of the phratra, or “Brotherhood”, which in Latin is translated as “fraternity”.

A Spartan youth who failed to gain acceptance into a sussition could never become a full-fledged Spartan.


Once graduated from the Agoge, and accepted into a military mess, a young Spartan took his place in the ranks of the Spartan army. However, he would have to wait another decade before gaining the full rights of a Spartan citizen.

At age 30 a Spartan male was finally counted among the ranks of theSpartiates”, the fully enfranchised Spartan warriors.

These Spartiates were an elite few (never more than 5,000 at Sparta’s greatest period of prosperity), and once he’d attained this rank a Spartan took his place in the assembly of the people, theApella”. There he met with his fellow “Similars” (Homoioi ), other full-fledged Spartiates, to vote “yay” or “nay” to all measures proposed by the Gerousia.

Every Spartan male was allotted a portion of land upon which to support himself and his mess. These plots, called kleroi, were actually granted to the Spartan whilst still a child by the elders of his phratry (this from Plutarch, implying that the phratrys, or Brotherhoods, inducted members at a very young age; likely upon a hereditary basis). The Spartans did not actually work their own kleroi, however, as their time was devoted to learning and practicing the arts of war. Instead, the land was worked by a slave/serf class called helots (see below).


The Spartan Army (Stratos) was the finest fighting force in the Greek world for three hundred years. It was composed of all adult Spartan males, organized into companies (Enomotia), battalions (Lochoi), and regiments (Mora). At the peak of their power, the Spartan army was composed of six such regiments/mora.

1400583.jpgIn their companies and battalions, the Spartan hoplites formed a dense, compact battle formation called a phalanx. The phalanx was drawn up in files of 6 to 12 men deep. Each man stood close enough to his neighbors to overlap their shields, presenting their enemies with an unassailable front of brazen shields and thrusting spears.

One of Sparta’s two kings always commanded the Spartan army on campaign, though on occasion smaller expeditions could be commanded by one of the senior officers commanding the moras, the polemarchs.

Such was the reputation of the Spartans when it came to war, that other cities would petition Sparta to send them a single Spartan, to lead their own forces as their general!

During the Peloponnesian War, in response to appeals from the Sicilian city of Syracuse for help against the besieging Athenians, Sparta sent but one Spartiate: Gylippus. He quickly took charge of the Syracusan defenses, and in short order turned the tide of war against the hitherto successful Athenians. The siege of Syracuse ended in utter disaster for Athens and triumph for the Syracusans; in no small part because of the leadership provided by a single Spartan!



Every Spartan was trained to fight as a heavily armored infantryman, called a hoplite (“man-at-arms”).

The heavy equipment of the hoplite weighed between 40 and 60 pounds. Shield, armor, and weapons were collectively known as a panoply.

The first piece of a Spartan hoplite’s panoply was his large, deeply dished round shield, called an aspis. This shield was made of wood and covered with a thin sheet of bronze. It covered the hoplite from chin to thigh. The young Spartan, upon entering service in the Spartan phalanx, was given his first shield by his mother, with these words:

“With this, or upon it!”

By this his mother meant for him to come back with his shield, victorious; or carried home upon it, dead (Spartans used their shields as stretchers, to transport the wounded or dead). The Spartans put maximum importance on team work and maintaining their phalanx formation in battle. Therefore, the shield was considered the premiere piece of hoplite equipment; as a shield protected both the bearer and those around him. To abandon his shield in battle was the most shameful thing a Spartan could do!

1400561.jpgSpartan hoplite and panoply, circa 650 BC

The hoplites defensive equipment was augmented with a bronze helmet, a set of bronze greaves (shin and knee protection), and a cuirass (torso protection) made either of glued layers of linen (or leather-covered in linen) or of bronze. The hoplite’s large aspis covered his arms and thighs so well that armor for these areas was considered unnecessary.

The Greek offensive weapon par excellence was the spear (“dory”). This spear was made from a hardwood shaft, varying in length between seven and nine feet. Its iron head and sturdy shaft made it an excellent weapon for inflicting a deep and mortal wounds. The favorite targets were the exposed throat and thighs of enemy hoplites, and the dory could even penetrate the cuirass and helmet’s face-plate on occasion. Against the lighter shields and armor of foreign, non-Greek foes the hoplite spear proved even deadlier; easily penetrating the wicker shields of the Persian infantry Immortals during the Persian Wars.

As a backup weapon, the hoplite also carried a sword. In the Greek world, this varied in type, some shorter or longer, for cutting or thrusting. The two chief types were the Xiphos, the double-edged strait sword, and the kopis, the forward-curving hacking sword. The Spartans used a very short version of the xiphos, not much more than a broad dagger. In the very close-in combat of phalanx warfare, where hoplites stood toe-to-toe, pushing with shield against shield, a shorter sword was both handier and deadlier. (When a Spartan youth complained to his mother about the shortness of his sword, she replied, “Add a step to it!”)

1400562.jpgBy the late 5th century B.C. the Spartans had largely abandoned both greaves and cuirass: the exigencies of long campaigns far-a-field from Lacedaemon emphasized the need for lighter gear. Pitched battles were few, and for these the shield provided most of the hoplite’s protection in any case.


Some time around the 8th century B.C., Sparta began to expand, conquering many of its neighbors. Within a century, much of Southern Greece, the Peloponnese, had become either Spartan territory or allies of the Spartans. Those people who were subjugated outright by the Spartans during this period were reduced in status to that of a serf; or, in the Doric dialect, helots (from “Hel”, implying seizure or capture). These helots lived in their own agrarian villages, working the land for their Spartan masters, giving half of whatever was produced to the Spartans.

The population of Spartan helots was quite large, encompassing many villages in Laconia (the greater Eurotas river valley) and the whole of the southwestern region of the Peloponnese, called Messenia. In a series of long and bitter wars, the Spartans subjugated the Messenians, reducing the bulk of them to helotry (a small portion fled Greece entirely and established the city of Messenia in Sicily where they could live in freedom).


View of “Hollow Lacedaemon” from the north near Sellasia. Modern Sparta can be seen in the distant middle-left, with snow-capped Mount Taygetos  on the upper-right 

Not all towns and villages around Sparta were reduced to servitude. Another class of sub-citizen existed in Lacedaemon (the “Land of the Spartans”), with a high degree of local autonomy. These were called perioikoi, or “dwellers around” (meaning “around” Sparta). These villages had thrown their lot in with Sparta as friends and allies early in the city’s history; guaranteeing in the process their safety from Spartan aggression.

Perioikoi lived in relative freedom from day-to-day interference by the Spartan government. They were allowed, however, no independent foreign policy. When Sparta went to war, the perioikoi were expected to contribute their own hoplites to the Spartan army. In fact, as Sparta’s population dwindled dangerously in the 4th century B.C., perioikoi hoplites were included into the Spartan phalanx proper, serving under and beside the elite Spartiates.


At age 18, Spartan youths underwent a selection process. Those who during their years within the Agoge had shown the greatest promise were chosen for membership in an elite group: the Krypteia.

Though the name means something akin to Secret Service, this instrument of the Spartan government is best thought of as a Special Operations Command.

The overt mission of the Krypteia was to spy out and eliminate covert threats to the Spartan state. Particularly, the young men were to identify and then eliminate any threat of helot revolt.

Even the possibility of revolution among their serfs had to be squelched before it could become reality. To this end, the Spartan government would each year ritually “declare war” against its own helots, thus sanctioning the Krypteia to kill any helot it thought necessary without incurring the guilt of murder.

Young Spartans of the Krypteia would routinely spy on the helots in their towns and villages. Troublemakers were marked down for later liquidation. Even helots who showed enough leadership qualities to constitute a future threat were likewise assassinated. Only a docile helot was acceptable to the power-that-be in Sparta.

But murder was not in-and-of-itself the main purpose of the Krypteia as an institution. For that, any group of Spartan hoplites would have been sufficient. No, the real purpose for the Krypteia was to prepare the best of Sparta’s youths for the cold-blooded realities of Spartan leadership; to ready them for command and the highest offices in a state devoted to war and, in the final analysis, oppression. Only Spartans who had been selected for service in the Krypteia could expect to rise, later in life, to the highest ranks and offices in the Spartan Army and state. Only those who at a young age had spilled the blood of Sparta’s enemies were deemed fit to eventually lead her.


Spartan Army


  1. Such descendants of Heracles were referred to in ancient Greek as Heraclidae.
  2. Leonidas, who as a younger brother was not in the line of succession, went through the Agoge and so shared the same training as every other Spartan. As such he was a rarity among Spartan kings.
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Deadliest Blogger continues our series on famous warships or types of ships in history.

In 1940 the Imperial Japanese Navy launched the heaviest and (arguably) the most powerfully armed battleship in history *. Heavily armored and armed, the Yamato and its sister ship, Musashi, sported 16″ of steel armor at the “beltline” (sides above and at the waterline), and massive 18″ guns (the largest-caliber guns ever mounted on any warship).

Though ideally designed to engage in a surface engagement against other battleships, by the outbreak of WW-II the aircraft carrier had replaced the battleship as the main surface warship. Throughout the war, the Yamato never engaged in a major surface engagement against other battleships; and only took part in one major surface battle, the Battle off Samar. It was finally sunk near Okinawa on April 7, 1945, by American Naval aircraft.



*The refitted Iowa Class Battleships of the 1980s and ’90s were armed with Tomahawk Cruise Missiles, capable of delivering a nuclear payload; which, along with their 16″ main guns, arguably made those the most powerful battleships ever.

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The Battle of Brunanburh in 937 is mostly forgotten today, but it is a battle that deserves to be remembered. For it was the largest and bloodiest battle fought in Anglo-Saxon England prior to Hastings (and likely surpassing that later battle in the numbers of combatants involved). It left its victor, King Athelstan of Wessex the first Anglo-Saxon ruler to be called “King of England”.

Athelstan was the son and heir of Edward the Elder, and grandson of Alfred the Great. Upon his father’s death in 924, Athelstan was acclaimed first King of Mercia (central England), and then on the following year King of Wessex (the dominant Anglo-Saxon kingdom, encompassing all the area south of the Thames). In 927, continuing the ambitious anti-Danish policies of his father and grandfather, Athelstan conquered York; which had been in Danish hands for 60 years, since captured by Ivar the Boneless and the “Great Heathen Army” in 867.

After this  Constantine II of Alba (Scotland) and Owen I, ruler of British Strathclyde (Cumberland), submitted to Athelstan’s over-lordship. This effectively placed all of “England”  under Saxon rule for the first time in history. (Prior to the Danish invasion of 866, England had been composed of four rival kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, and Wessex. The first three of these were Anglish; with Wessex the only Saxon kingdom.)

After seven years of peace Athelstan invaded Scottish territory. It has been suggested this was on account of Constantine’s attempt to renounce his submission to Athelstan’s over-lordship. A coalition was formed to oppose Wessex/English domination, which included the Hiberno-Scandinavian[1]  ruler of Dublin, Olaf Guthfrithsson (called Anlaf in the Old-English poem “The Battle of Brunanburh“, possibly a great-grandson of Ivar the Boneless); as well as Owen of Strathclyde, and several “petty kings” and jarls joining Constantine of Alba in opposition to Athelstan.

1393024.jpgOlaf crossed the Irish Sea with a Hiberno-Scandinavian army and marched through Cumberland, joined along the way by a force of Strathclyde British. In Northumberland they united their forces with that of Constantine’s Scots, along with various Danish jarls of northern England eagerly taking the opportunity to rise against their new Saxon overlord. This allied army met the Northumbrian Fyrd (freeman-levy) in battle, commanded by Athelstan’s ealdorman, Gudrek and Alfgeir. The English were routed, with Gudrek slain. Alfgeir fled south to Athelstan, leaving Olaf and the allies in possession of Northumbria.

Athelstan realized the enormity of the danger he faced, which threatened to undo all he had thus far achieved. He acted quickly, raising an equally large army from his lands in the south and hired Scandinavian mercenaries to strengthen his forces.

Athelstan’s army was comprised of the united fyrds of Wessex, East Anglia, and Mercia. These farmers and townsmen came armed with spear or axe and shield. They had little armor, but two generations of wars against the Danes had infused the English with a wealth of battle experience, and many were older veterans of earlier campaigns. Strengthening the fyrdmen were the professional warriors of Athelstan’s hearth-weru (“Hearth-troops”, or household guards) and the armed retainers of the leading ealdormen of the shires. Since the days of Alfred, such Saxon armies had stood toe-to-toe and bested one Viking army-after-another; and would have come to Brunanburh filled with confidence.

The numbers involved at Brunanburh are unknown, only that the armies were approximately the same size. Considering that this battle involved major forces from throughout the British Isles, with levies on either side drawn from as far afield as Ireland and Scotland, and all of England from the Cheviots to the Channel (and even a strong force of Viking mercenaries, primarily from Norway and Iceland) a figure of 15,000 per side seems reasonable.

The only complete account of this campaign and the climatic battle is found in the Icelandic Egils Saga.  The Icelandic sagas, penned centuries after the fact in most cases have to be taken with a grain of salt. But where we are capable of cross-checking the details with other independent sources they hold-up fairly well. For instance, the account in Clontarf found in Njals Saga matches fairly closely with the Irish account of the battle; and Stamford Bridge in King Haralds Saga, while confusing the use of cavalry by the English Huscarls with the Normans at Hastings a few months later, is otherwise a credible account of that battle.

According to Egils Saga a force of 300 veteran Norse/Icelander Vikings joined Athelstan’s guardsmen. These were led by two recently arrived Icelander brothers, the sons of Skallagrim (also referred to in the Saga as Skalla-Grímr, or “bald Grim”): Thorolf and Egil. It has been suggested that Athelstan hired several thousand such mercenaries, putting them all under the command of the experienced Skallagrimsson brothers.

1393079.jpgThe opposing forces met at a place called Brunanburh; or, according to Egils Saga, on a moor called Vin-heath. The location of the battle is not known for certain. But there are three leading contenders.

The first, popular today, is Bromborough in western England district known as the Wirral, southwest of modern Liverpool. Apparently the name of Bromborough may be derived from Old English Brunanburh (meaning ‘Brun’s fort’). There are also locations nearby that some have attempted to identify with the Dingesmere, a place mentioned in both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Old English poem, The Battle of Brunanburh, in connection with the battle. But this location in the Wirral seems too far southwest for a Scot and Strathclyde army to be operating, so far from their respective home bases (particularly as there were no good north-south roads connecting this area through Cumberland to Strathclyde and Scotland in the north). It also seems too far in the west to be the location for the decisive battle of a war fought over the control of Northumbria and Yorkshire, on the other (eastern) side of the Pennines.

1609955.jpgThe second contender is Burnley, a market town in Lancashire; where local folklore tells of a great battle on the moors. Local tradition holds that five kings were buried under tumuli on these same moors. Perhaps after the defeat of the Northumbrian ealdormen Olaf and the allies regrouped nearer their power centers in the north. But this makes little strategic sense. Having driven Athelstan’s forces out of Northumbria, why would the coalition army then pull out, marching back north? For the same reason, I dismiss another contender, Burnswark, situated near Lockerbie in Scotland.

A final, strong, choice for the battle site is in Lincolnshire, east of the Pennines, along the Great North Road between Derby and Rotherham. Historian Michael Wood suggests Tinsley Wood near Brinsworth as a plausible location. Wood notes that there is a hill nearby, White Hill, observing that the surrounding landscape fits the description of the battlefield contained in Egil’s Saga. Geographically this location makes the most sense. It is in the southern part of Northumbria, where one would expect the allies (who had recently overrun Northumbria) to contest with the English for control of that region.

Wherever the battle may have been fought, it seems that the opposing armies agreed to meet at Brunanburh, the winner to take all “England”. Egils Saga portrays this arrangement of a fixed battle as the result of a ruse posed by Athelstan’s Norse captain, Egil Skallagrimsson, to stop the allies from looting English territory while the King gathered his forces.

A challenge was issued to meet on a field “enhazelled”.

This was a version (writ large) of the Scandinavian dueling custom called a holmgang; in which combatants met to fight on an appointed field, the boundaries of which were marked out with hazel rods or branches. There is no other example I know of where this custom was expanded to encompass a battle between armies.

According to Egils Saga, a messenger was sent to Olaf challenging him to bring his army to meet Athelstan in battle:

(they sent) messengers to King Olaf, giving out this as their errand, that king Athelstan would fain enhazel him a field and offer battle on Vin-heath by Vin-wood; meanwhile he would have them forbear to harry his land; but of the twain he should rule England who should conquer in the battle. He appointed a week hence for the conflict, and whichever first came on the ground should wait a week for the other. Now this was then the custom, that so soon as a king had enhazelled a field, it was a shameful act to harry before the battle was ended. Accordingly king Olaf halted and harried not, but waited till the appointed day, when he moved his army to Vin-heath.

King Olaf, commanding the allies, accepted the challenge. Accordingly, he halted his army at Brunanburh (which Egils Saga say was at Vin-heath by Vin-woods) and ceased ravaging the countryside about,  waiting for Athelstan to arrive by the appointed day.

To the north of the heath, there was a village where Olaf made his headquarters. He sent a force of Scots and Strathclyde British commanded by two brothers, jarls Hring and Athils, up to the heath to camp on the prospective battleground and stake out the allied position. They found the hazel rods already in place along the edges of the field; and an English force camped in place to the south, commanded by the Skallagrimsson brothers.

As the appointed day for the battle approached King Athelstan was still gathering his forces and needed more time. He had sent Egil and his brother Thorolf, commanding the English vanguard composed of their own 300 Norse Vikings along with the remnants of the Northumbrian forces defeated earlier, under ealdorman Alfgeir, to Brunanburh. This was the force Hring and Athils found camped on the south end of the heath.

To make their numbers appear larger, the English disguised their small numbers by pitching more tents than they had need of, and arranged for a large portion of their men to occupy themselves outside the camp in view of the enemy as though the camp were over-flowing. When these were approached by Olaf’s men (there being a truce in place till the battle day), Athelstan’s men claimed that these tents were all full, so full that their people had to sleep out on the open heath!

When the appointed day of battle came Olaf marshaled his army and prepared to march onto the heath. Athelstan had yet to appear. Thorolf and Egil found yet another clever way of delaying the enemy and of buying the English more time: they sent an envoy to Olaf, feigning a message from King Athelstan; offering to avoid battle and pay “Danegeld” to Olaf and his allies.

Instead of attacking that day, Olaf called a conference of his allies to discuss the offer. Athelstan’s (supposed) offer was rejected as insufficient, and the allies countered with a demand for more. The English envoys begged for time to bring this offer to King Athelstan, who they claimed was a day’s journey to the south with a “mighty host”, and for their king to consider and respond. Olaf agreed to a further three days truce.

1393078.jpgAt the end of this period, the Skallagrimsson’s sent another envoy across the heath to Olaf’s camp, again claiming to be from King Athelstan. They offered the original amount; plus an additional “shilling to every freeborn man, a silver mark to every officer of a company of twelve men or more, a gold mark to every captain of a king’s guard, and five gold marks to every jarl[2]. Again Olaf took this offer to a council of his allies, who after deliberation agreed that if Athelstan would also cede to Olaf the overlordship of Northumbria, the allies would withdraw to their homes. Another three days were granted for Olaf’s emissaries to accompany the English envoys back to Athelstan and await his answer.

Thus the clever Skallagrimsson brothers, wily Viking freebooters, stretched out negotiations and gained the English monarch an additional week to marshal his forces. Athelstan arrived with his army south of the heath at the end of the period of truce. They took Olaf’s offer to the King, explaining their ruse and their offers on his behalf as well.

Athelstan took no time in rejecting Olaf’s terms, instead demanding that the coalition withdraw from Northumbria and return to their own lands, after returning the booty they had thus far taken on the campaign. Adding insult to injury, Athelstan further demanded that the cost of peace would be that Olaf (and perhaps the other coalition rulers) become his vassals, ruling their lands as “under-kings”.

“Go now back”, he told Olaf’s emissaries, “and tell him this.”

According to Egils Saga:

At once that same evening the messengers turned back on their way, and came to king Olaf about midnight; they then waked the king, and told him straightway the words of king Athelstan. The king instantly summoned his earls and other captains; he then caused the messengers to come and declare the issue of their errand and the words of Athelstan. But when this was made known before the soldiers, all with one mouth said that this was now before them, to prepare for battle.

Realizing he had been hoodwinked all along and now enraged, Olaf sent his jarls, Hring and Athils, back to their troops encamped on the heath with orders to attack the English advance guard under the wily Skallagrim brothers at first light. He promised to marshal the army and move to support them as soon as his forces were ready.

1393081.jpgThe battlefield at Brunanburh was set on a broad heath, or moor. It was bounded on the north and south by villages, which were the headquarters for each army. Which of these, if either, was called Brunanburh is unknown. The heath itself was level ground, bounded by a river on the west and the Vin-Wood to the east.

At first light, Hring and Athils led their men against the English vanguard of Norse and Northumbrians under the Skallagrimssons and Ealdorman Alfgeir, respectively. Egils Saga tells the tale thus:

As day dawned, Thorolf’s sentries saw the (enemy) army approaching. Then was a war-blast blown, and men donned their arms…they began to draw up the force, and they had two divisions. Earl Alfgeir commanded one division, and the standard was borne before him. In that division were his own followers, and also what force had been gathered from the countryside. It was a much larger force than that which followed Thorolf and Egil…. All their (the Skallagrimssons) men had Norwegian shields and Norwegian armor in every point; and in their division were all the Norsemen who were present.

The larger force of Northumbrians under Alfgeir took up a position on the left, their flank resting on the river. The Norsemen were on the higher ground beside the woods; and though the Saga is unclear on this, it seems likely that their was a gap between their two forces. The jarls Athils and Hring also drew up their force of Scots and Strathclyde Britons in two divisions, with Athils opposed to ealdorman Alfgeir on the lower ground, by the river, with Hring arrayed against the Norse Vikings on the high ground by the forest.

The opening act of the Battle of Brunanburh now began.

Both sides charged forward with spirit. Jarl Athils pressed the Northumbrians hard, forcing Alfgeir and his men to give ground. Before long the Northumbrians broke and Alfgeir fled, abandoning the Norse Vikings fighting beside them.

1393150.jpg(This was the second time Alfgeir had abandoned a field in defeat. So sure he was of censure and punishment by Athelstan that he and his surviving followers avoided the king’s army and fled in disgrace south, into Wessex. From here, Alfgeir took ship to Frankia, where he had kin, never to return to England again.)

On the high-ground on the English right flank the Norse were holding their own against jarl Hring’s Strathclyde Britons. After pursuing Alfgeir’s Northumbrians for a distance, jarl Athils returned with his men to the field, coming up behind the Norse. Thorolf Skallagrimsson detached his brother Egil with half their troops and the standard, to turn about and fall upon Athils. Meanwhile he, Thorolf, pulled his remaining men back to the wood’s edge, forming a half circle with their wings resting on the woodline, where his men stood firm with their backs so protected.

Meanwhile Egil’s force charged against Adils’, and “they had a hard fight of it”, says the saga. “The odds of numbers were great (against them), yet more of Adils’ men fell than of Egil’s”. Still, the situation looked dire for the Athelstan’s Norse vanguard.

Egils Saga says that at this point Thorolf “became furious”. What is meant by this is unclear, but judging by what followed it seems to mean that Thorolf was overcome by what the Scandinavian sagas call “Berserkergang”: a furious battle-madness that lent the “berserk” a terrible strength and rendered him insensate to pain or fatigue. According to the sagas, berserks were “strong as bears or wild oxen, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon them”. Its seems that Thorolf Skallagrimsson went “berserker”.

Throwing his shield onto his back, his “halberd” grasped with both hands, he raged forward against Hring’s troops, dealing cut and thrust on either side.

Thorolf’s weapon, as described in Egils Saga, is something of a mystery; matching no weapon described elsewhere in the sagas or in any account of Viking warfare: “(its) blade was two ells long (25”), ending in a four-edged spike; the blade was broad above, the socket both long and thick. The shaft stood just high enough for the hand to grasp the socket, and was remarkably thick. The socket fitted with iron prong on the shaft, which was also wound round with iron. Such weapons were called mail-piercers”. This could be simply describing a 5’-6’ great axe with a long spike at the end; but much of the description is open to interpretation.

Men sprang away from him both ways, but he slew many. Thus he cleared the way forward to earl Hring’s standard, and then nothing could stop him. He slew the man who bore the earl’s standard, and cut down the standard-pole. After that he lunged with his halberd at the earl’s breast, driving it right through mail-coat and body, so that it came out at the shoulders; and he lifted him up on the halberd over his head, and planted the butt-end in the ground. There on the weapon the earl breathed out his life in sight of all, both friends and foes. Then Thorolf drew his sword and dealt blows on either side, his men also charging. Many Britons and Scots fell, but some turned and fled.

1609956.jpgWith his brother Hring dead and his forces routed, the tide now turned against Athils. With his men falling around him or beginning to run away, he fled with those still fighting into the woods, where they were pursued for a short time by the Norse, who killed many before the rest escaped deep into the forest.

Now both of the main armies came up onto the heath. But the day being late, they camped on the site where their mutual vanguards had been for the last week. Thorolf and Egil returned to camp, where Athelstan praised the Skallagrimsson’s for their victory in this first round of the conflict. They stayed the night together, pledging friendship.

King Olaf was apprised of the events on the heath that day, and that his jarls Hring and Athils were defeated, their men dead or scattered, and the former dead on the field. He must have spent the night with some trepidation, but prepared for battle the next day.

At dawn both armies deployed, their forces arrayed as on the first day in two wings.

Athelstan placed the bulk of his army around himself and his banner in the low ground beside the river, where rested his left flank; in the same place Alfgeir had occupied the day before.  The saga says he placed the “smartest” companies in the van. This likely means that the better armed and armored household troops of the various ealdormen were in the front ranks; and the less experienced and poorly equipped fyrdmen behind them. There is no mention of where his own elite “Hearthmen” were stationed, but the Saga claims he asked Egil Skallagrimsson to command this mainbody, and the author of the Saga likely means that Egil was commanding the king’s Hearthmen. It is probable they formed the center of this division of the army, around the royal banner bearing the dragon of Wessex.

Athelstan placed the Norsemen, supported by other unspecified troops, again on the higher ground on the right, by the woods. These were commanded by Thorolf Skallagrimsson. They were to face the Scots, who fought as spearmen supported by a swarm of javelin-armed light skirmishers. Athelstan appreciated that the light-armed Scots were only dangerous to a foe that allowed his formation to break-up; and the king told Thorolf that he trusted the veteran Norse Vikings to maintain their tightly ordered shield wall.

When the king commanded these dispositions, Egil objected to being separated from his brother. But Thorolf quieted him, saying it should be as the king ordered. Filled with foreboding, Egil said, “Brother, you will have your way; but this separation I shall often rue.”

Olaf’s dispositions matched those of the English, with his own standard opposite that of Athelstan’s, his right flank on the river. His Hiberno-Scandinavian warriors, as well as the household troops of the various Northumbrian Danish Jarls would face Athelstan’s Saxon and English troops. As mentioned, Olaf’s Scottish allies faced Thorolf’s Vikings on the higher ground beside the Vin-wood.

Both armies (with the exception of the Scots) fought in much the same way: a dense line, many ranks deep, fighting close together with shields overlapping. This formation was called the “shieldburg”, or “shieldwall”. Warriors would strike at each other from over (or under) the rim of their shields, with spear, sword, and long-axe. Men in the second rank would support the first, holding their shields over their comrade’s heads; or, if armed with the long-hafted Danish battle-ax, strike from above at unprotected heads. Such a battle between two evenly matched and well-ordered shieldwalls was a bloody slug-fest; as men battled over or stepped upon a carpet of their own or enemy dead. One way of breaking such a formation quickly was the “swine-array”, a wedge-shaped formation meant to penetrate and shatter a shieldwall.

Drawing up armies of this size was an affair of hours, and it is unlikely the battle commenced before noon. The opposing armies closed with each other, hurling throwing axes and spears at their foes as they did. Then the walls of brightly-painted shields clashed together, and as the Saga says “the battle waxed fierce”.

On the right, Thorolf pressed eagerly forward along the edge of the woods, attempting to rapidly bend back and turn the flank of the Scots. Holding their linden wood shields before them, they brushed aside the barrage of light javelins the Scots hurled as they came on. Apparently, in his eagerness to get around the enemy’s flank, Thorolf ran far ahead of his followers. This was to prove his undoing.

At just this moment, out from the woods to Thorolf’s right, suddenly leapt jarl Athils and his surviving followers. It is not stated if they merely returned from deep in the wood, where they had taken refuge the day before, at an opportune time for the allies; or if this was an ambuscade planned in advance. But their sudden appearance caught Thorolf and his Norsemen by complete surprise.

1393120Out ahead of his men, Thorolf found himself momentarily isolated, swarmed about and struck at from all sides. He was slain, and his men drew back. “The Scots shouted a shout of victory, as having slain the enemy’s chieftain.” With Athils’ followers they fell upon the leaderless Norse, and the struggle here grew desperate for Athelstan’s Vikings.

From his position by the King’s banner Egil Skallagrimsson saw his brother’s banner pushed backward; and hearing the Scots triumphant shouting surmised his brother’s plight. He left his place and rushed to the right-wing, where he took command of his flagging Norse comrades.

With Egil in the van ferociously laying about him, the Norse (likely now formed in “swine-array”) hacked their way to Athils’ standard. The Saga says “few blows did they exchange” before Egil cut the northern jarl down, avenging his brother. Their leader slain, Athils’ men now broke and ran, the Norse close on their heals hacking at their backs. Nor did the Scots long stand, but seeing their Strathclyde allies flee likewise took to their heals.

To the west, the battle raged on the lower ground by the river, both shieldwalls locked in fierce struggle. Neither had the advantage, and many fell on both sides. Then, returning from pursuing the Scots, Egil and the Norse fell upon the rear of King Olaf’s division. The carnage was terrible, as Olaf’s warriors were struck down from behind. Seeing his enemy beginning to crumble, Athelstan ordered his standard forward, and the English line advanced with renewed fury.

1393083.jpgThe Hiberno-Scandinavian line disintegrated, and the Saga claims there was “great slaughter”. The casualty figures for either combatants are unknown, but many thousands died on both sides, and the coalition army was utterly routed. Here the Saga’s account of the battle ends, stating:

King Olaf fell there, and the greater part of the force which he had had, for of those who turned to fly all who were overtaken were slain. Thus king Athelstan gained a signal victory.

But on the fate of Olaf Guthfrithsson Egils Saga is mistaken: Olaf escaped with at least a portion of his men, returning in defeat to Dublin.

However, the Saga is correct that Athelstan’s victory was indeed decisive. He had destroyed the coalition against him, and reasserted English control over Northumbria. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the deaths of five kings and seven jarls among his enemies. Among the slain was the Scottish king’s own son, cut down by Egil’s vengeful Norse. The Annals of Ulster agree:

Many thousands of Norsemen beyond number died although King Anlaf (Olaf) escaped with a few men. While a great number of the Saxons also fell on the other side, Æthelstan, king of the Saxons, was enriched by the great victory.



Athelstan had completed the work begun by his grandfather, Alfred: he had united all the former Anglo-Saxon kingdoms under the Dragon of Wessex; forced the Strathclyde British and the Scots into vassalage; and in the process turned back yet another attempt by Scandinavian forces to assert control of Northumbria.

After Athelstan’s death two years later, Olaf would return in 939 and force Athelstan’s successor, his brother Edmund, to cede Northumbria and part of Mercia. Thereafter, Hiberno-Scandinavian kings ruled Northumbria from York for decades (with the exiled Norwegian King, Eric Bloodaxe seizing and holding Northumbria twice during this period). Control of Northumbria would pass back-and-forth between English and Scandinavian rulers till after 1066, when England’s new Norman masters would finally bring the region under their control.

But in the years following his crowning victory at bloody Brunanburh Athelstan son of Edward had earned the right to style himself “Æthelstan, King over all Britain and Scotland” (totius rex Brittanniae et Albionis): the first “King of England”.

Tomb of Athelstan at Malmesbury 



1. Many authors refer to Olaf’s forces as Hiberno-Norse; or simple Norsemen. But as many, including Olaf himself, were of Danish extraction it is inaccurate to call them such. To avoid confusion with the Norsemen who followed Thorolf and Egil Skallagrimsson and fought with Athelstan, I refer to Olaf’s warriors as Hiberno-Scandinavian.

2. Egils Saga, Ch 52



David Pilling is an excellent historical author, whose books I enjoy immensely. His series on the Arthurian Age in Britain is quite good, and I share most of his historical conclusions. Here is the first in that series:

Leader of Battles (I): Ambrosius (Historical Action Adventure)

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