December 6, 1240 Golden Horde

Imagine an army of circus riders, equipped with composite bows and a minimum of 60 arrows apiece, each capable of hitting a bird in flight. Each rider has have no fewer than 3-4 small, fast horses, and is able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop in order to keep his horses fresh.  In this way, riders could cover 100 miles and more in a day.  Stirrups allowed them to fire in any direction, including to the rear.

The Eurasian Steppe is a vast region of grasslands and savannas, extending thousands of miles east from the mouth of the Danube, nearly to the Pacific Ocean. There’s no clearly defined southern boundary, as the land becomes increasingly dry as you move south. To the north are the impenetrable forests of Russia and Siberia.

The 12th century steppe was a land of inter-tribal rivalry, immersed in a poverty so profound that many of its inhabitants went about clad in the skins of field mice. Ongoing acts of warfare and revenge were carried out between a kaleidoscope of ever-changing tribal confederations, compounded and egged on by the interference of foreign powers such as the Chinese dynasties of the Song and the Jurchen, to the south.

Mongol Golden Horde

Into this land was born the son of the Mongol chieftain Yesügei, born with a blood clot grasped in his fist. It was a sign, they said, that this child was destined to become a great leader. By 1197, the boy would unite the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia into the largest contiguous empire in history, extending from Korea in the east, through Baghdad and Syria all the way into eastern Europe.  One-fifth of the inhabited land area, of the entire planet.

His name was Temujin. He is known to history as the Great Leader of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan.

NatGeo Cover, Afghan girlThe Steppes have long been a genetic crossroad, the physical features of its inhabitants as diverse as any in the world. The word “Rus”, from which we get Russia, was the name given to Viking invaders from earlier centuries. History does not record what Genghis himself looked like, though he’s often depicted with Asian features.  There is evidence suggesting he had red hair and green eyes. Think of that beautiful young Afghan girl, the one with those killer eyes on that National Geographic cover, a few years back.

The Mongols called themselves “Tata”, while others called them after the people of Tartarus, the Hell of Roman mythology. They were the “Tatars” to the people they terrorized: “Demons from Hell”.

The two most prominent weapons in the Mongol arsenal can be found in the words “Horse Archer”.  Imagine an army of circus riders, equipped with composite bows and a minimum of 60 arrows apiece, each capable of hitting a bird in flight. Each rider has have no fewer than 3-4 small, fast horses, and is able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop in order to keep his horses fresh.  In this way, riders could cover 100 miles and more in a day.  Stirrups allowed them to fire in any direction, including to the rear.

Horse Archer

The bow, a laminated composite of wood, horn and sinew, combined the compression of the interior horn lamina with the stretching of animal sinews, glued to the exterior.  The weapon was capable of aimed shots at five times the length of a football field.  Ballistic shots into large groups were common as far as 2½ times that distance. The average draw weight of a first-class English longbow is 70-80 lbs.  The Mongol composite bow ranged from 100 to 160 lbs, depending upon the physical strength of its user.

After the death of Genghis’ eldest son Jochi, who pre-deceased his father, the Great Khan installed his grandson Batu as Khan (Chief of State) of the Kipchak Khanate to the north. In 1235, the Great Khan Ögedei, who had succeeded his father on Genghis’ death in 1229, ordered his nephew Batu and an army of 130,000 of these circus riders to conquer Europe, beginning with the Rus.

Mongol Invasion of the Rus

13th century Russia was more a collection of principalities than it was a single nation. One by one these city-states fell to the army of Batu, known as the “Golden Horde”. Ryazan, Kolomna and Moscow. Vladimir, Rostov, Uglich, Yaroslavl, and a dozen others. Some of the names are familiar today, others were extinguished for all time. All fell to the Golden Horde.  Smolensk alone escaped, having agreed to submit and pay tribute. The city of Kitezh, as the story goes, submerged itself into a lake along with its inhabitants, at the approach of the Horde.  On this day, December 6, 1240, Mongols under Batu Khan occupied & destroyed Kiev, following several days’ struggle.

By the end of 1241, Mongol armies had crushed opposing forces from the Plains of Hungary, to Eastern Persia, to the outskirts of Austria. That December, plans were being laid for the invasion of Germany, Austria and Italy, when news arrived informing the Mongol host of the death of the Great Khan, Ögödei.  Batu wanted to continue, but the Law of Yassa required that all Princes of the Blood return to Karakorum and the Kurultai, the meeting of Mongol Chieftains.

The Abbasid Caliphate of Islam, descended from the uncle of Muhammad Al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib and established in 750, was the third Islamic Caliphate since the time of Muhammad. Centered in Baghdad, the Abbasid Caliphate became a center of science, culture, philosophy and invention, during what has come to be known as the Golden Age of Islam.

Since 1241, the Abbassids paid tribute to the Khanate in the form of gold, military support, and, according to rumors, Christian captives of the Crusades. That came to a halt in 1258, when Caliph Al-Musta’sim refused to continue the practice. The Abbassid Caliphate ceased to exist on February 10, following a twelve-day siege by the Mongol army of Hulagu Khan, brother of the Khagan (great kahn) Möngke.

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The Mongols first looted and then destroyed mosques, palaces and hospitals.  The “House of Wisdom”, the grand library of Baghdad, compiled over generations and  comparable in size and scope to the modern-day Library of Congress, the British Library in London or the Nationale Bibliotheque in Paris, was utterly destroyed.  Survivors said that the muddy waters of the Tigris ran black with the ink of the books hurled into its waters, and red from the blood of the slain.

Estimates of the number killed in the fall of Baghdad, range from 90,000 to one million.  Hulagu needed to move his camp to get upwind, so overwhelming was the stench of the dead.

Believing the earth to be offended by the spilling of royal blood, Mongols rolled Caliph Al-Musta’sim himself up in a carpet and trampled him to death, with their horses.

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In 1281, a massive Mongol fleet of some 4,000 ships and 140,000 men set out under Kublai Khan, to invade Japan. This was the second such attempt, the largest naval invasion in history and not to be eclipsed until the 20th century D-Day invasion, of Normandy. As with the previous attempt, a great typhoon came up and destroyed the Mongol fleet. As many as 70,000 men were captured.  The Golden Horde never again attempted the invasion of Japan. To this day, we know this “Divine Wind”, as “Kamikaze”.

Tamerlane
Tamerlane

Berke, grandson of Ghenghis and brother of Batu, converted to Islam, creating a permanent division among the descendants of the Great Khan.

Timur-i-leng, “Timur the Lame”, or “Tamerlane”, professed to be a good Muslim, but had no qualms about destroying the capitals of Islamic learning of his day.  Damascus, Khiva, Baghdad and more he destroyed.  Many, have never entirely recovered.  Best known for the pyramids of skulls he left behind, as many as 19 million fell to the murderous regime, of Tamerlane.

The violence of the age was so vast and horrific that it’s hard to get your head around. WWII, the deadliest conflict in human history, was a time of industrialized mass slaughter.  From the battlefields to the death camps, WWII ended the lives of 40 to 72 million souls, killed in a few short years.  Roughly 3% of the inhabitants of earth.  By comparison, the Mongol conquests killed 30 million over 162 years, mostly one-by-one with edged or pointed weapons. When it was over, 17% of the entire world’s population, had vanished.

The Celtic warrior Calgacus once said of the Roman conquests that “They make a desert, and they call it peace”. It was likewise for the Mongol Empire; a time of peace for those who would submit and pay tribute.  A time when “A maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.”

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The Catalan Atlas depicts Marco Polo traveling to the East during the ‘Pax Mongolica’.

This “Pax Mongolica” lasted through the reign of the Great Khan and his several successors, making way for the travels of Marco Polo. The 4,000-mile long “Spice Roads”, the overland trade routes between Europe and China, flourished throughout the 14th and 15th centuries under Mongol control.

In the 14th century, the “Black Death” began to change the balance of power on the Eurasian steppe. 100 years later, the fall of Byzantium and marauding bands of Muslim brigands were making the east-west overland trade routes increasingly dangerous. In 1492, the Spanish Crown hired an Italian explorer to find a water route to the east.

Black DeathThe Mongols would never regain the lost high ground of December 1241, as chieftains fell to squabbling over bloodlines.

The Golden Horde ruled over parts of Russia until the time of Ivan IV “Grozny” (The Terrible), in the 1550s.

The Mongol hordes never went away, not entirely. Modern DNA testing reveals that up to 8% of certain populations across the Asian subcontinent, about one-half of one per cent of the world’s population, descends directly from that baby with the blood clot, grasped in his fist.  Genghis Khan.

 

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October 31, 1897 The Real Dracula

In the end, we are left with the tale of a warlord.  A prince.  A sadist.  An impaler.  A psychotic madman who, 400 years after his death, would inspire the name of Count Dracula.

In modern Romanian, “Dracul” means “The Devil”.  In the old language, it meant “the Dragon”, the word “Dracula” (Drăculea) translating as “Son of the Dragon”. Count Dracula, favorite of Halloween costume shoppers from time immemorial, has been with us since the 1897 publication of Bram Stoker’s novel, of the same name.

Stoker’s working titles for the manuscript were “The Un-dead”, and “Count Wampyr”.  He nearly kept one of them too, until reading about Vlad Țepeș (TSE·pesh), a Wallachian Prince and 15th century warrior, who fought on the front lines of the Jihad of his day.  

Stoker wrote in his notes, “in Wallachian language means DEVIL“.  In a time and place remembered for its brutality, Vlad Țepeș stands out as extraordinarily cruel.  There are stories that Țepeș disemboweled his own pregnant mistress.  That he collected the noses of vanquished adversaries, some 24,000 of them.  That he dined among forests of victims, impaled on spikes.  That he even impaled the donkeys they rode in on.   

Founded in 1330, the Principality of Wallachia is a region in modern-day Romania, situated between the Lower Danube river and the Carpathian Mountains.  A crossroads between East and West, the region was scene to frequent bloodshed, as Ottoman forces pushed westward into Europe, and Christian forces pushed back.

Order of the DragonIn 1436, Vlad II became voivode, (prince), of Wallachia.  The sobriquet “Dracul” came from membership in the “Order of the Dragon” (literally “Society of the Dragonists”), a monarchical chivalric order founded by Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund in 1408, dedicated to stopping the Ottoman advance into Europe.

Shifting loyalties put the Wallachian prince in a weakened position, forcing him to pay homage to Ottoman Sultan Murad II, including participation in the Ottoman invasion of the nearby Romanian principality of Transylvania.

Transylvanian voivode John Hunyadi persuaded Vlad to fight with him against the Ottomans.  Vlad was summoned to a diplomatic meeting in 1442 with Sultan Murad II, and brought his two younger sons, Vlad III and Radu, along.  The meeting was a trap.  Vlad was thrown in prison but later released in exchange for a pledge to pay annual tribute, and the promise of 500 Wallachian boys to serve as janissaries in the Ottoman army.  Vlad III, age 12, and his younger brother were left behind as hostages, to ensure the loyalty of their father.

The timeline is unclear, but Vlad Dracul appears to have been convinced that his sons were “butchered for the sake of Christian peace”, sometime around 1444.   Byzantine historian Michael Critobulus writes that Vlad and Radu fled to the Ottoman Empire in 1447 following the murder of their father and older brother Mircea, suggesting that the two were released, most likely following Vlad’s pledge of homage to the Sultan.

The terms of the boys’ captivity were relatively mild by the standards of the time, and Vlad became a skilled horseman and warrior.  Radu went over to the Turkish side, but Vlad hated captivity, developing a deep enmity for his captors that would last all his life.

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Vlad III Țepeș

With the death of his father and older brother, Vlad III became a potential claimant for the throne in Wallachia.  Vlad won back his father’s seat in 1448 with Ottoman support, only to be deposed after only two months.  Sometime later, he switched sides in the Ottoman-Hungarian conflict.

Following the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire stood ready to invade all of Europe.  

Vlad III regained the Wallachian throne in 1456 with military support from King Ladislaus V of Hungary.  The new prince made it his first order of business to cut ties with the Ottoman Empire, terminating the annual tribute which had formerly ensured peace between Wallachia and the Caliphate. 

A group of visiting Ottoman envoys declined to remove their turbans in Vlad’s court, citing religious custom.  The prince commended them for their religious devotion and ordered the turbans nailed to their skulls, assuring them that now, they would never be removed.

According to stories circulated after his death, Vlad III needed to consolidate power, against his fractious nobles (boyars).  Hundreds of them were invited to a banquet, only to be stabbed, their still twitching bodies then impaled on spikes.

Vlad Dracul statue5Ethnic Germans had long since emigrated to these parts, forming a distinct merchant class in Wallachian society.  These Saxon merchants were allied with the boyars.  It was not long before they too, found themselves impaled on spikes.

Vlad invaded the Ottoman Empire in 1461, by his own count killing “23,884 Turks and Bulgarians”.

Sultan Mehmet II, conqueror of Constantinople, invaded Wallachia at the head of an army 150,000 strong in 1462, only to find the roads lined with a “forest of the impaled”, and the capital city of Târgoviște, deserted.

The Byzantine Greek historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles writes: “The sultan’s army entered into the area of the impalements, which was seventeen stades long and seven stades wide. There were large stakes there on which, as it was said, about twenty thousand men, women, and children had been spitted, quite a sight for the Turks and the sultan himself. The sultan was seized with amazement and said that it was not possible to deprive of his country a man who had done such great deeds, who had such a diabolical understanding of how to govern his realm and its people. And he said that a man who had done such things was worth much. The rest of the Turks were dumbfounded when they saw the multitude of men on the stakes. There were infants too affixed to their mothers on the stakes, and birds had made their nests in their entrails”.

To give a sense of scale to this horror, a “stade” derives from the Greek “stadeon” – the dimensions of an ancient sports arena. 

In the end, the Romanian principalities had little with which to oppose the overwhelming force of the Ottoman Empire.  Vlad III Țepeș would be twice deposed only to regain power.  Unable to defeat his more powerful adversary, Vlad was exiled for several years in Hungary, spending much of that time in prison.  Heaven help the poor rodent who fell into his hands, in that wretched cell.

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Bran Castle

Vlad successfully stole back the throne following the death of his brother Radu at the head of an Ottoman column in 1475, but this last reign would be brief.  The prince of Wallachia was marching to yet another battle with the Ottomans in 1477, when he and his small vanguard of soldiers were ambushed, and Vlad was killed.

Today, the mountaintop Castle in Bran, Romania is celebrated as the “home” of Count Dracula.  Ironically, neither Bram Stoker nor Vlad Țepeș ever set foot in the place.  There is some debate as to the veracity of these tales, and whether they were significantly embellished. Johannes Gutenberg invented the modern movable type printing press in 1439 when Vlad III was about 8, so his contemporaries had ample opportunity to tell their stories. Many were written by his detractors, of which a guy like Vlad “the Impaler”, had many.  Yet the details of these stories are virtually identical, suggesting they contain significantly more than a grain of truth. 

Statues of Vlad Țepeș dot the Romanian countryside, though his burial place is unknown.  In the end, we are left only with the tale of a warlord.  A prince.  A sadist.  An impaler.  A psychotic madman who, 400 years after his death, would inspire the name of Count Dracula.

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Territories held by Wallachian prince Mircea the Elder, father of Vlad II “Dracul”, c. 1390

October 10, 732 The Hammer

For seven days, the two armies faced one another with little but skirmishes between them. Finally, the Emir could wait no longer. It was late in the year and his men were not equipped for a northern European winter. On the seventh day, estimated to be the 10th of October in the year 732, al Ghafiqi ordered his cavalry to charge.

In 688, Pepin of Herstal was Mayor of the Palace of Austrasia; the Frankish Kingdom occupying what is now northern France, Belgium and parts of Germany. Pepin was the power behind the throne, King in all but name, controlling the royal treasury, dispensing patronage, and granting land and privileges in the name of a figurehead King.

Pepin kept a mistress, the noblewoman Alpaida, with whom he had two sons, Childebrand and Charles. The former went on to become a minor Duke. The latter, the founding father of the European Middle Ages.

The Hammer in Full Armor
Charles Martel, in full armor

Pepin’s only legitimate male heir predeceased him in 714, touching off a succession crisis with the naming of his 8-year-old grandson Theudoald his True Successor. The child’s grandmother, Pepin’s wife Plectrude, threw Charles in prison, but he escaped and rose to power in the Civil War which followed.

Charles showed himself to be a brilliant Military tactician, crushing a far superior army at the Battle of Ambleve.  Returning victorious in 718, he did something unusual for the time. He showed kindness to the boy Theudoald and his grandmother.

Charles consolidated his power in a series of wars between 718 and 732, subjugating Bavarians, Allemanii, and pagan Saxons, and combining the formerly separate Kingdoms of Nuestria in the northwest of modern-day France with that of Austrasia in the east.

At this time a storm was building to the west, in the form of the Umayyad conquest of Hispania. The Caliphate gained control of most of the Iberian peninsula beginning in 711, before invading eastward into Gaul.

The Umayyad conquest suffered a setback in 721, when forces under Odo the Great, Duke of Acquitaine, broke the siege of Toulouse.  The Emir then built a strong force out of Yemen, Syria and Morocco and, in 732, invaded again. This time Odo was destroyed in a crushing defeat at the Battle of the River Garonne. So great was the slaughter of Christians that the Mozarabic Chronicle of 754, a contemporary Latin source, said “God alone knows the number of the slain”.

Carolingian Empire Map

Odo fled to Charles asking for help, and the scene was set for one of the most decisive battles in world history.

The Umayyad Caliphate had recently defeated two of the most powerful militaries of its time. The Sassanid empire in modern day Iran had been destroyed altogether, as had the greater part of the Byzantine Empire, including Armenia, North Africa and Syria.

Other than the Frankish Kingdom, there was no force sufficient to stop the advance of the Umayyad Caliphate. Many historians believe that, if not for the Battle of Tours, the Islamic Conquest would have overrun Gaul and the rest of Western Europe, resulting in a single Caliphate stretching from the Sea of Japan to the English Channel.

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Abd al-Rahman I of Damascus landed at Almuñécar, 23 years after the battle of Tours, to found the Emirate of Cordoba.

Estimates vary regarding the size of the two armies. The forces of Abd Ar-Rahman al Ghafiqi are estimated to have been 80,000 horse and foot soldiers on the day of battle. There were about 30,000 on the Frankish side.

Outnumbered more than two to one and having no cavalry of his own, Charles took his advantages where he could find them.  Charles’ tough, battle hardened infantry had been with him for years, and he was able to choose the ground on which to give battle.  Each man in the Frankish army wore up to 75lbs of armor, and every one of them believed in Charles’ leadership.  Taking to high ground between the villages of Tours and Poitiers, the Frankish host drew itself into a great, bristling square formation to withstand the shock of the cavalry charge.  And there, it waited.

Having nothing but contempt for what they saw as backward, irreligious heathens, the Saracen host was stunned to discover the army awaiting them.  For seven days, the two armies stood facing one another, with little but skirmishes between them. Finally, the Emir could wait no longer. It was late in the year and his men were not equipped for a European winter. On the seventh day, estimated to be the 10th of October in the year 732, al Ghafiqi ordered his cavalry to charge.

The Hammer, 732

History offers few instances of medieval armies withstanding the charge of cavalry, but Charles had anticipated this moment. He had trained his men, and they were prepared.

The Mozarabic Chronicle describes the scene in greater detail than any source, Latin or Arab: “[I]n the shock of the battle the men of the North seemed like a sea that cannot be moved. Firmly they stood, one close to another, forming as it were a bulwark of ice; and with great blows of their swords they hewed down the Arabs. Drawn up in a band around their chief, the people of the Austrasians carried all before them. Their tireless hands drove their swords down to the breasts [of the foe].”

A few Umayyad troops succeeded in breaking into the square and went directly for Charles, but his liege men surrounded him and would not be broken. The battle was still in flux when rumors went through the Muslim host that Charles’ men had broken into the Umayyad base camp. Afraid of having the loot they had plundered at Bordeaux taken from them, many of them broke off the battle to return to camp. Abdul Rahman was trying to stop the retreat, when he was surrounded and killed.

Wary of a “feigned flight” attack, the Franks resumed their phalanx. There they stood all night and into the next day, until it was discovered that the Islamic host had fled in the night.

Following the Battle of Tours, (Poitiers), the bastard son of Pepin and father of Charlemagne would, henceforward and forever, be known as Charles “the Hammer” Martel.0227 - 1.20

The threat was far from over in 732.  New Umayyad assaults would threaten northern Europe in 736 and 739, until internal conflicts divided the Caliphate against itself, the feudal Arab Empire of the Umayyads falling to the multi-ethnic Empire of the Abbassid Caliphate of Baghdad in 750, the third Caliphate in the early history of Islam.

The reconquest of “al-Andalus” would be another 760 years, in the making.   The “Golden age” of Islam ended with the sack of Baghdad in 1268 by the Mongols of Hulagu Khan, making way for the rise of the Ottoman Empire of the Seljuq Turk.  Forces of this “Ottoman Caliphate” conquered the last vestige of the eastern Roman empire in 1453.

Ottoman forces attempted the conquest of Europe from the east, taking Vienna under siege in 1529 and again in 1683, as well as Malta, in 1565.  Famagusta, the last Christian possession in the eastern Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus, held out for eleven months, in 1570-1.  8,500 Venetian defenders, against the 200,000-strong Ottoman forces under General Lala Mustafa Pasha.

Commander Marcantonio Bragadin would be flayed alive and stuffed with straw as a grisly trophy of war, together with the heads of the Venetian commanders, Astorre Baglioni, Alvise Martinengo and Gianantonio Querini.  Yet this desperate and doomed defense of the last stronghold on Cyprus bought Pope Pius V time to cobble together an anti-Ottoman “Holy League” coalition among the Catholic states of Europe.  Ottoman naval power was destroyed for all time in 1571 near a place called Lepanto.  The largest naval battle in Western history, since classical antiquity.

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Battle of Lepanto, October 7, 1571, Artist unknown

Conflict between Cross and Crescent would continue far into the future of Charles Martel, but, Christian Europe would never again, be so grievously challenged.

September 25, 1066 Stamford Bridge

Of 300 ships which had arrived on the 20th, the battered remnants of the Viking army needed only 24 to sail away.

Edward the Confessor, King of England, went into a coma in late 1065, having expressed no clear preference for a successor.  Edward died on January 5, 1066, after briefly regaining consciousness and commending his wife and kingdom to the “protection” of Harold, son of Godwin, the powerful Earl of Essex.

Anglo-Saxon Kings didn’t ordinarily pick their own successors, but their wishes carried import.  Nobles of the Witenagemot, the early Anglo-Saxon predecessor to the modern parliament, appear to have been in Westminster to observe the Feast of the Epiphany.  Convening the following day, the council elected Harold Godwinson, crowning him King Harold II.

For some, Harold’s quick ascension was a matter of administrative convenience and happenstance.  Others saw it as evidence of conspiracy.  A usurpation of the throne.  Edward’s death touched off a succession crisis that would change world history.

Harold’s younger brother Tostig, Earl of Northumbria, believed he had his own claim to the throne. His animosity for his brother would prove fatal for them both.  After conducting inconclusive raids that spring, Tostig went to a Norman Duke called William “the Bastard”, looking for support. William had his own claim to the English throne, and had openly declared his intention to take it.  The Norman Duke had no use for King Harold’s little brother, so Tostig sought the assistance of the King of Norway, King Harald “Hardraada”, the name translating, literally, as “hard ruler”.

Battles of 1066Tostig sailed for England with King Harald and a mighty army of 10,000 Viking warriors, meeting the northern Earls Edwin and Morcar in battle at Fulford Gate, on September 20.

The encounter was a comprehensive defeat for the English side.  When Harald came to Stamford Bridge five days later, he expected only formal capitulation and tribute.

Meanwhile, King Harold was at the head of an army in the south, anticipating William’s invasion from Normandy. My military friends will appreciate what happened next; Harold marched his army north, traveling day and night, covering 185 miles in four days, on foot, completely surprising the Viking army waiting at Stamford Bridge.

The Vikings must have looked at the horizon and wondered how a peace party could raise that much dust, only to learn that they faced a new army.

Believing they were there to accept submission, Harald’s army had left half its number behind to watch the ships, along with their armor.

Stamford Bridge

During the height of the following battle, one giant Viking warrior, a Berserker, stood alone at the top of Stamford Bridge. Swinging the great two-handed Dane Axe, this giant of a man had slain something like 40 English warriors, lying dead in heaps around him, when one of Harold’s soldiers floated himself under the bridge, spearing the Viking warrior from below.

The savagery of the battle can only be imagined. Before the age of industrialized warfare, every injury was personally administered with a bladed or crushing weapon of some kind. 5,000 of King Harold’s soldiers would be dead before it was over, about a third of his force. Two thirds of King Harald’s Vikings died that day, about 6,000, including Harald himself and his ally Tostig. So many died in that small area that 50 years later, the site was said to have turned white with the sun bleached bones of the slain.

Of some 300 ships arriving on the 20th, the battered remnants of Harald’s Viking army needed only 24, to sail away.

Stamford Bridge is often described as the end of the Viking invasions of England, but that isn’t quite so. There would be others, but none so powerful as this.

The Norman landing King Harold had been waiting for took place three days later at Pevensey Harbor, just as his battered army was disbanding and heading home for the Fall harvest.  The Anglo Saxon army would march south again, meeting the Norman invader on October 14 at a place called “Hastings”. King Harold II took an arrow in the eye that day, thus becoming the last of the Anglo Saxon Kings.

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Battle of Hastings, by Tom Lovell

Thenceforward and forever, William the Bastard would be known as William “The Conqueror”.

September 20, 451 Attila the Hun

Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, described Rome’s Hun problem, succinctly.  “They have become both masters and slaves of the Romans”.

In the 5th century, the migration of warlike Germanic tribes across northern Europe culminated in the destruction of the Roman Empire in the west.  That much is relatively well known, but the “why”, is not.  What would a people so fearsome that they brought down an empire, have been trying to get away from?

The Roman Empire was split in two in the 5th century and ruled by two separate governments.  Ravenna, in northern Italy, became capital to the Western Roman Empire in 402, and would remain so until the final collapse in 476.  Constantinople, seat of the Byzantine empire and destined to become modern day Istanbul, ruled in the East.

Attila BronzeVast populations moved westward from Germania during the early fifth century, and into Roman territories in the west and south. They were Alans and Vandals, Suebi, Goths, and Burgundians. There were others as well, crossing the Rhine and the Danube and entering Roman Gaul. They came not in conquest:  that would come later. These tribes were fleeing the Huns:  a people so terrifying that whole tribes agreed to be disarmed, in exchange for the protection of Rome.

Rome itself had mostly friendly relations with the Hunnic Empire, which stretched from modern day Germany in the west, to Turkey and most of Ukraine in the east. The Huns were nomads, mounted warriors whose main weapons were the bow and javelin. Huns frequently acted as mercenary soldiers, paid to fight on behalf of Rome.

Rome looked at such payments as just compensation for services rendered.  The Huns looked at them as tribute, tokens of Roman submission to the Hunnic Empire.Atilla_fléau_de_dieu

Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, described Rome’s Hun problem, succinctly.  “They have become both masters and slaves of the Romans”.

Relations were strained between the two powers in the time of the Hunnic King Rugila, as his nephew the future King Attila, came of age.

Rugila’s death in 434 left the sons of his brother Mundzuk, Attila and Bleda, in control of the united Hunnic tribes. The brothers negotiated a treaty with Emperor Theodosius of Constantinople the following year, giving him time to strengthen the city’s defenses. This included building the first sea wall, a structure the city would be forced to defend a thousand years later in the Islamic conquest of 1453, but that is a story for another day.Attila

The priest of the Greek church Callinicus wrote what happened next, in his “Life of Saint Hypatius”. “The barbarian nation of the Huns, which was in Thrace, became so great that more than a hundred cities were captured and Constantinople almost came into danger and most men fled from it. … And there were so many murders and blood-lettings that the dead could not be numbered. Ay, for they took captive the churches and monasteries and slew the monks and maidens in great numbers“.

Bleda died sometime in 445, leaving Attila the sole King of the Huns.  Relations with the Western Roman Empire had been relatively friendly, for a time.  That changed in 450 when Justa Grata Honoria, sister of Emperor Valentinian, wanted to escape a forced marriage to the former consul Herculanus.  Honoria sent the eunuch Hyacinthus with a note to King Attila, asking him to intervene on her behalf.  She enclosed her ring in token of the message’s authenticity, which Attila took to be an offer of marriage.

Attila_in_Gaul_451Valentinian was furious with his sister.  Only the influence of their mother Galla Placidia convinced him to exile rather than have her put to death, while he frantically wrote to Attila saying it was all a misunderstanding.

The King of the Huns wasn’t buying it, and sent an emissary to Ravenna, to claim what was his.  Attila demanded delivery of his “bride”, along with half the empire, as dowry.

In 451, Attila gathered his vassals and began a march to the west. The Hunnic force was estimated to be half a million strong, though the number is probably exaggerated. The Romans hurriedly gathered an army to oppose them, while the Huns sacked the cities of Mainz, Worms and Strasbourg. Trier and Metz fell in quick succession, as did Cologne, Cambrai, and Orleans.

The Roman army, allied with the Visigothic King Theodoric I, finally stopped the army of Attila at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, near Chalons.   Some sources date the Battle of Chalons at June 20, 451, others at September 20.  Even the outcome of the battle is open to interpretation.  Sources may be found to support the conclusion that it was a Roman, a Gothic or a Hunnic victory.

Apparently a Pyrrhic victory, Chalons was one of the last major military operations of the Roman Empire in the west. The Roman alliance had stopped the Hunnic invasion in Gaul, but the military capacity of Roman and Visigoth, both, was destroyed. The Hunnic Empire was dismantled by a coalition of Germanic vassals at the Battle of Nedau, in 454.

800px-De_Neuville_-_The_Huns_at_the_Battle_of_Chalons
“The Huns at the Battle of Chalons” from page 135 of A Popular History of France From The Earliest Times Volume I of VI (en:Project Gutenberg e-text). Illustration by A. De Neuville (1836-1885). img url: http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/1/1/9/5/11951/11951-h/images/135.jpg

Attila would return to sack much of Italy in 452, this time razing Aquileia so completely that no trace of it was left behind. Legend has it that Venice was founded at this time, when local residents fled the Huns, taking refuge in the marshes and islands of the Venetian Lagoon.

Attila died the following year at a wedding feast, celebrating his marriage to the young Ostrogoth, Ildico.  The King of the Huns died in a drunken stupor, suffering a massive nosebleed or possibly esophageal bleeding.  The Hunnic Empire died along with Attila the Hun, as he choked to death on his own blood.

September 13, 1501 David

If you look at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, you would never know that the artist who produced such a work didn’t care for painting. Michelangelo was a sculptor. “Along with the milk of my nurse,” he said, “I received the knack of handling chisel and hammer, with which I make my figures”.

The Renaissance has been variously described as an advance beyond the dark ages, andMasters of Italian Art a nostalgic period looking back to the Classical age. Whatever it was, the 15th and 16th centuries produced some of the most spectacularly gifted artists, in history.

None more so, than the Italian Masters.

There was Leonardo and Donatello, Raphael, Brunelleschi and Botticelli, but only one of them would have his biography written while he was still alive. Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, had two. Only one of these men would have his home town renamed after himself.  Today, the Tuscan village of Caprese is known as Caprese Michelangelo.

If you look at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, you would never know that the artist who produced such a work didn’t care for painting. Michelangelo was a sculptor. “Along with the milk of my nurse,” he would say, “I received the knack of handling chisel and hammer, with which I make my figures”.

Sistine Chapel
Sistine Chapel

He was “Il Divino”, “The Divine One”, literally growing up with the hammer and chisel. He had a “Terribilità”, a sense of awe-inspiring grandeur about him that made him difficult to work with, but he was widely admired and imitated. Michelangelo was that insufferably cocky kid who wasn’t bragging, because he could deliver.

Michelangelo-David-rearThe massive block of Carrara marble was quarried in 1466, nine years before Michelangelo was born. The “David” commission was given to artist Agostino di Duccio that same year. So difficult was this particular marble block that he never got beyond roughing out the legs and draperies. Antonio Rossellino took a shot at it 10 years later, but he didn’t get much farther.

25 years later, the Guild of Wool Merchants wanted to revive the abandoned project, and went looking for an artist. The now infamously difficult marble slab had deteriorated for years in the elements, when Michelangelo stepped forward at the age of 26.  The prevailing attitude seems to have been yeah, give it to him.  That will take him down a few pegs.

Michelangelo began work on September 13th, 1501. His master work would take him three years to complete.

The 17′, six-ton David was originally intended for the roof of the FlorenceDavid, Michelangelo Cathedral, but it wasn’t feasible to raise such an object that high. A committee including Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli was formed to decide on an appropriate site for the statue. The commitee chose the Piazza della Signoria outside the Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall of Florence.

It took four days on a specially constructed cart to move the David statue into position, the unveiling taking place on September 8, 1504. Among the dignitaries gathered for the occasion was the Mayor of Florence, Vasari Pier Soderini, who complained that David’s nose was “too thick”.

Michelangelo climbed the statue with a handful of marble dust, sending down a shower of the stuff as he pretended to work on the nose. After several minutes, he stepped back and asked Soderini if it was improved. “Yes”, replied the Mayor, now satisfied. “I like it better. You have given it life”.Michelangelo at Work

September 2, 1192 Sultan and Crusader

In time, the Crusader and the Sultan came to hold a degree of respect for one another.   Legend has it that, at one point in the fighting around Jaffa, Saladin even sent Richard a fresh horse, after one was killed beneath him.

The Islamic Conquests began in the 7th century on the Arabian Peninsula.  In the first 100 years of its existence, Islam established the largest pre-modern empire up to that time, stretching from the borders of China in the east, through India and Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, Egypt, Sicily to the Iberian Peninsula (Spain), in the west.

The Sasanid Empire in what is now Iran ceased to exist under the Muslim conquest, as did much of Byzantium, seat of the Roman Empire in the east. Europe itself narrowly escaped subjugation when Charles “The Hammer” Martel defeated the army of Abdul Rahman al Qafiqi at Poitiers (Tours) in October, 732.

Estimates suggest that the Caliphate was over 5 million square miles, larger than any modern-day state with the sole exception of the Russian Federation.

Muslim Conquests, 632-750
Muslim Conquests, 632-750

The First of the Christian Crusades was launched by Pope Urban II on November 27, 1095, in response to an appeal from Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, who was requesting help in Constantinople against the invading Seljuq Turks.

Such a request wasn’t new, the Reconquista in Spain had not yet reached the mid-point of its 781-year effort to overthrow Muslim rule, and European knights traveled to Spain on a regular basis to assist in the effort.

Once in Anatolia (modern day Turkey), the ancillary goal of freeing Jerusalem itself and the Holy Land soon became the principal objective, as Jerusalem had by then been under Islamic rule for 461 years.  Jerusalem was recaptured on July 15, 1099, following a siege of six weeks.

first_crusade_route_map
Route Map of the First Crusade

The County of Edessa was the first Crusader state to be created, and the first to go, falling in 1144 and leading to the second crusade. Mostly notable for its failures, the one major success of the second crusade was when it stopped on the way to the Holy Land, helping a much smaller Portuguese army overthrow Muslim rule in Lisbon. Two kings then marched two separate armies across Europe into Anatolia, only to be soundly defeated by the Turks.

Saladin
Saladin

A Kurdish leader arose to become Sultan at this time, founding a dynasty which would last for eighty-nine years. His name was Salāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb, better known as Saladin, a Sunni Muslim who rose to greatness in a Shi’ite world.

No less a figure than Dante Alighieri counted Saladin a “virtuous pagan,” in the ranks of Hector, Aeneas, and Caesar.

While Christian leaders in the Middle East fell to squabbling among themselves, Saladin united Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Yemen and parts of North Africa. Saladin’s annihilation of a crusader army at Hattin on July 4, 1187 opened the way to the recapture of every Crusader state but one.  Jerusalem itself fell on October 2.

Pope Urban III is said to have collapsed and died, on hearing the news.

King Henry II of England and King Philip II of France were at war at the time, but ended that and began preparations for a third crusade with the exhortations of Pope Henry VIII. An extremely unpopular tax of 10% on all revenues and movable goods was imposed by the Church, and enforced under pains of imprisonment or excommunication. This “Saladin Tithe” raised 100,000 marks of silver, about 800,000 ounces.

third_crusade_route_map
Route Map of the Third Crusade

The aging Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I “Barbarossa” (Red Beard), was the first to go, taking up the cross at Mainz Cathedral in March, 1188.  Emperor Frederick drowned crossing the Saleph River in Asia Minor in June 1190, after which most of his army of 100,000 returned to Germany.

Henry II of England died in the meantime, leaving his son Richard I “Coeur de Lion”(Lion-heart) to lead the crusade with Philip in the summer of 1190.

Loewenherz_LondonPortraet
Richard I, “Lion-heart”

Richard took time to conquer Sicily on the way to the Holy Lands, where King Tancred I was holding Richard’s sister Queen Joan, prisoner.  He reached Cyprus that May, there pausing long enough to marry Berengaria of Navarre, thus alienating his alliance with the French King, who considered Richard to be betrothed to his own half-sister, Alys.

Richard landed near Acre in June 1191 to find the city under Muslim occupation, and under siege by the forces of Guy de Lusignan, himself held under siege by the armies of Saladin.

Richard became ill at one point during the battle for Acre, it’s said that he picked off guards on the city walls with a crossbow, as he was being carried off on a stretcher.

The fall of Acre led to a number of meetings between Richard and Saladin’s brother Al-Adil, from which nothing resulted.  The Crusaders lost all patience by August, believing Saladin to be dragging his feet, and decapitated 2,700 Muslim prisoners in view of Saladin’s army.  This number included women and children.  Saladin responded by murdering every Christian captive, under his control.

Dominique-Louis-FeÌ-reÌ-ol Papety - The Siege of Acre ca_ 1840
The Siege of Acre, by Dominique-Louis-FeÌ-reÌ-ol Papety – ca 1840

Richard took the strategically important city of Jaffa, control over which was necessary if the Crusaders were to hold the coast and retake Jerusalem. The Crusader victory at Arsuf would prove Richard’s personal courage and skill as a commander, at the same time putting a dent in Saladin’s reputation as the invincible warrior King.

Two times Crusader armies came within sight of Jerusalem, never suspecting that, within the city, “Saracen” morale was so low that the city may have been theirs for the taking.  Meanwhile, the Crusader side fell to bickering, with half wanting to push on to Jerusalem, the other wanting to attack Saladin’s base of power, in Egypt.

In time, the Crusader and the Sultan came to hold a degree of respect for one another.   Legend has it that, at one point in the fighting around Jaffa, Saladin even sent Richard a fresh horse, after one was killed beneath him. The pair even discussed marrying Joan off to Saladin’s brother, Al-Adil, with themselves becoming co-rulers in Jerusalem. The plan might’ve worked, too, until the Roman Church got wind and threatened excommunication if Richard carried it out.

I have not been able to learn what Joan herself thought of the match.

crusade, 3

Time finally ran out for Richard and Saladin, both. The Christian army was decimated by disease.  Fierce quarrels between German, English and French contingents threatened to break up the Crusader army.   Richard himself was gravely ill, near despair of ever regaining his health.  On top of that, his own little brother John was plotting against him, with the connivance of the French King Philip. Richard Lion-heart no longer had the strength to challenge Saladin for Jerusalem.

Saladin, for his part, had serious morale problems, after repeated defeats at the hands of the Crusaders.

With Saladin’s brother Saif adDin acting as intermediary, the King and the Sultan concluded the Treaty of Jaffa on this day in 1192.  The fortifications at Ascalon were to be dismantled, in exchange for which Christians would continue to hold the coast from Jaffa to Tyre. Jerusalem would remain in Muslim hands, while unarmed Christian pilgrims and traders would be guaranteed free passage to visit the Holy Sepulcher of the Lord in peace, without the exaction of any tribute or tax.  Further, Christian traders were permitted the possession objects for sale throughout the land, thus permitting such traders right of free commerce.

Crusades

Sultan Salāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb died of a fever the following March, and was buried in the garden outside the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria.  Saladin’s kingdom and the Crusader states would remain at peace, for a period of three years.

Seven centuries later, German Emperor Wilhelm II donated a new marble sarcophagus, to the tomb of the Sultan who had reclaimed Jerusalem from the Crusaders.

Foul weather drove King Richard I ashore near Venice, where he was captured by Duke Leopold of Austria and handed over to German Emperor Henry VI and held for ransom. This time, the tithe would be 25%, raising about 1.2 million ounces of silver, and forever answering any questions as to what might constitute a “King’s Ransom”.

Magna Carta
King John signing the Magna Carta, June 15, 1215

A bolt from a crossbow left Richard Coeur de Lion mortally wounded on April 6, 1199, while besieging the castle of Châlus, in central France. He was 41.

Richard was destined to be succeeded by his brother John, after all.  John became such an unpopular King that his Nobles and their French and Scots allies forced him to sign the “Great Charter of the Liberties”, the Magna Carta, at a place called Runnymede.

Nearly 600 years later, the document would influence early government in the thirteen American colonies, and the formation of our own Constitutional Republic.  But that must be a story for another day.

 

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