Sea Landings in History


The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the 1066 Norman amphibious invasion of England.
+
+
Normandy Landings-1944.
 +

The history of amphibious warfare goes back well before the modern term itself. The massive landing by the Persians at Marathon, the ill-fated Athenian expedition to Sicily in 415 BCE, Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55 BCE, and some of the Crusades are invoked as examples of assault upon the land from the sea.

Looking back to those earlier ventures can help to clarify the enduring, historic features of this special form of warfare. It is not about raids upon an enemy’s shore, such as Sir Francis Drake’s attack on Cadiz and other Spanish ports in the 1580s. Those were strikes from the sea, but a permanent lodgement on the beachhead followed by an advance upon the rest of the mainland was not intended. Operations such as the assault upon Cadiz usually had a smaller, more specific purpose, such as throwing the enemy’s intentions into disarray (Drake’s assault was a preemptive disruption of the Armada) or hurting his offensive capacities (like the Zeebrugge Raid of April 1918, where the British planned to block egress by U-boats from the German-occupied port), or were simply persistent, small-scale attacks to stretch out and, it was hoped, wear down the defenders. Royal Marine commando units carried out many of that sort of raid throughout much of the Second World War, compelling Hitler to order the stationing of vast numbers of Wehrmacht troops along Europe’s western shores, from northern Norway to France’s border with Spain. In late December 1941, for example, a commando raid successfully destroyed the German power station, factories, and other installations at Vaagso, halfway up the Norwegian coast, and in February 1942 another famous raid attacked and seized vital radar equipment from the Bruneval station, near Le Havre.

But these were not invasions; at Bruneval, the commandos actually parachuted in, seized the machinery, and left by the sea. Some of them had specific utility, such as the acquisition of the radar equipment, or the later midget submarine raids on enemy merchant ships in the Gironde (the “Cockleshell Heroes”). Sometimes, perhaps, the merits were psychological; they certainly were to Churchill, who almost immediately after the fall of France—and well before the Battle of Britain—ordered the Chiefs of Staff to propose “measures for a vigorous, enterprising and ceaseless offensive against the whole German-occupied coastline.” Finally, even the smallest raid, whether a success like Vaagso or a failure like Guernsey (July 1940), produced lessons: about training, command and control, land-sea communications, weapons used, vessels used, accuracy of prior intelligence collection, and so on.

It is the lessons of larger and more purposeful amphibious operations that claim attention here. The first was that specialized troops and specialized equipment were needed to carry out a successful invasion against a determined land-based enemy. Sometimes, perhaps, a hastily flung-together unit, if it possessed the element of surprise, could pull off an operational miracle, but when launched against a foe who had prepared its defenses well, such attacks were usually a recipe for disaster. It is therefore not surprising that historians call our attention to two innovations by the army of Philip II, since that service was one of the driving forces behind the “military revolution” of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The first was the creation by Madrid of specially trained troops assigned to their various armadas and experienced in moving from ship to land; the Royal Spanish Marines were born in 1560s operations to recover Malta, and other powers followed by establishing their own such units. The second was the establishment of specific weapons platforms and the implementation of suitable tactics for their success in battle. Thus, in the May 1583 Spanish operation to recover the Azores from an Anglo-French-Portuguese garrison, “special barges were arranged to unload horses and 700 artillery pieces on the beach; special row boats were equipped with small cannons to support the landing boats; special supplies were readied to be unloaded and support the 11,000 men landing force strength.” The attackers also practiced deception, a partial force landing on a distant beach and distracting the garrison while two waves of marines got onshore at the main point.

The third, equally important general lesson was that those who ordered an amphibious operation, whether it be the king of Spain in the 1580s or Churchill, Roosevelt, and the Combined Chiefs of Staff in 1942–43, had to eliminate interservice rivalry and create some form of integrated command. Rivalry among allies is one thing (Wellington often claimed that having enemies was nothing like as bad as having allies), but rivalry between the armed services of one’s own nation is altogether more serious. In many cases, operational failure was due to a lack of appreciation of what the other service could or could not do, or even how the other service thought. The doggerel about the Earl of Chatham and Sir Richard Strachan was not chosen merely as an example of puckish Regency satire. The Walcheren invasion of 1809 was a disaster. The place was badly chosen, being a low-lying island ridden with malaria; there were no serious preparations (tools, barges, intelligence) for an advance from the island into the Netherlands; Chatham did little with his 44,000 troops, and Strachan and his ships stood offshore. There was no planning staff and no integrated command structure. It was a total mess, neither the first nor the last of its kind.

The final lesson was the oldest of all: that no matter how sophisticated and integrated the armed forces involved in a landing were, they were always going to be subjected to the constraints of distance, topography, accessibility, and the weather conditions of the moment. The internal combustion engine conquered much of time and space. Against the blunt force of a gale, it was greatly hindered and reduced in its power (as we saw from the physical difficulties that Churchill had in simply getting to Casablanca). Given that the tides changed daily—in the Atlantic, there were very large vertical rises and drops—and that a storm could come up swiftly, there was always great unease at the idea that forces would be landing upon an open shore, even a lee shore.

Wherever possible, then, invasion planners, thinking also of the follow-on troops and supplies, desired a safe, functioning harbor in which their ships could rest securely and through which reinforcements could flow. The problem, of course, was that any good harbor worth its name was going to be heavily defended by cannon, bastions, outerworks, innerworks, and possibly mines and hidden obstacles, while the invading troops and their transports would be offshore, churning away in collective seasickness and the ebb and flow of the tides before the bloody assault was made. The history of amphibious warfare is thus also replete with examples of attacks that were repulsed—in 1741 the British put 24,000 men, 2,000 guns, and 186 ships against Cartagena de Indias (Colombia), yet still were driven off by a much smaller Spanish garrison holding a massive fortress. Trying to seize an enemy harbor naturally provoked an enormous defensive reaction and most probably would be fatal; landing on beaches, whether nearby or farther away, exposed the troops to the watery elements and also forced them to bring their own communications systems (bridging equipment, repair units, spares) until they reached the enemy’s roads. But deciding against any amphibious attack and staying with a land campaign (as the Allies did in Italy between 1943 and 1945, apart from Anzio) meant that one could not take advantage of the opportunities of maritime flexibility and would instead be forced to grind on. One of these operational options might be a winner, but it was impossible to say in advance which one it was.

In sum, assaults from the sea were a gambler’s throw; perhaps only airborne attacks could be riskier. It was not just about ships dropping off soldiers and equipment and then sailing away; it was about integrated combined warfare in the face of hostile fire and often in extremely difficult physical circumstances. It called for an almost impossible construct: a smoothly functioning joint staff under a single commander, with everyone knowing his place and role due to systematic preinvasion training. It relied upon superb communications in the face of enemy efforts to disrupt them, and it required the right weaponry. After that, it might just be feasible.

With all these lessons of history available (and some earlier campaigns were studied at nineteenth-century staff colleges), one might have thought that pre-1914 armed services would have been better prepared than they were for flexible, carefully prepared strikes from the sea when the Great War finally came. This should have been particularly true of policy makers and senior strategists in London, reared as they were in the “British way in warfare.” But much less attention was given by those strategists to the lessons arising from the Crimean campaign (clumsy, but actually successful in forcing Russia to ask for terms) than to the rapier-like strikes of the Prussian army against Denmark, then Austria, then France, in the 1860s. If future European wars were to be decided so swiftly, in the first summer and autumn of campaigning on the main battlefields, what was the point of peripheral raids? It was a question that advocates of amphibious warfare found hard to answer. There was another reason so little amphibious warfare was practiced during the First World War: the larger strategic situation. This war was overwhelmingly a European land war and thus a generals’ war. The mass armies of the Central Powers were contesting for terrain against the mass armies of France, Britain, and (later) the United States in the west, that of Russia in the east, and Italy’s in the south. Since the Anglo-American armies were already deeply inside France by 1917–18, there was no need for a massive amphibious landing on French shores. Mines, torpedoes, and coastal artillery prevented any Allied thrusts into the Baltic; seaborne operations that did occur there were German-Russian strikes in a secondary theater. All significant nations of the Mediterranean were either Allied (France, Italy, and their colonies, plus Egypt) or neutral (Spain, Greece), which only left Turkey and the Levant as possible target areas. Britain’s Japanese ally controlled the Far East and easily gobbled up the exposed German colonies there.

Thus, for all the pre-1914 talk by Admiral Jacky Fisher and others about the army being a “projectile” fired onshore by the navy, it wasn’t clear where that missile could be fired, even if the British generals agreed to be so dispatched (which, once settled in France, they didn’t). Taking over Germany’s colonies in Africa and the Southwest Pacific was relatively uncontested, except for a disastrous amphibious operation in November 1914 by British-Indian forces against the Tanganyikan port of Tanga, which should have been a salutary lesson in how poor training, communications, equipment, and leadership can turn an imaginative strike into a fiasco. But lessons are salutary only if they are learned.

Alas, the lessons of Tanga were not, as was most readily demonstrated in the greatest example of a failed amphibious invasion of the twentieth century: the 1915–16 Gallipoli campaign, as notable a conflict as the Athenian assault upon Sicily, and just as disastrous. Even today, Gallipoli receives much attention, not just on account of its historical resonances (as witnessed at every ANZAC Day commemoration in Australia and New Zealand, or in the Turks’ celebration of Mustapha Kemal, later known as Ataturk) but also because of our fascination at the spectacular gap between its grand strategic purpose and its disastrous execution. Perhaps no operation other than this one better illustrates the feedback loop—in this case, a wholly unfavorable one—between what happens on the ground and at sea, and how the general course of the war can be affected by tactical mishap. By the single stroke of pushing a force through the Dardanelles, its principal advocate (Churchill) maintained, a tottering Russia would have its sea-lanes to the West restored and thus be kept in the war; on the other side, the supposedly fragile Turkish power (it had joined Germany in November 1914) might be pushed into collapse, and the Balkan states of Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania might be tempted out of their neutrality.

While the strategic reasoning was attractive, the operation itself was a catastrophe. It began with a purely naval attempt in March 1915 to rush the Straits; by the time the Allied fleet escaped from the Turkish-laid minefield, it had lost four capital ships (three British and one French), with a further three badly damaged—an outcome worse than the Royal Navy’s losses at Jutland a year later. After that, infantry units were assembled from various sources—French regiments in the Mediterranean, British units from Egypt, India, and the home country, brand-new Australian and New Zealand divisions en route to the Western Front. In late April 1915, having given the Turks plenty of time to bring up reinforcements, they began to land on the craggy, ravined, thorn-covered hills of the Dardanelles Peninsula. Try as they might, the Allied forces could never get control of the higher ground and suffered appalling losses. Each side threw in more and more divisions, but the situation did not change. In December and January, in swift nighttime moves that surprised the Turks, the Allies pulled away from the beaches, admitting defeat, and sailed for home. They had lost 44,000 men and had another 97,000 wounded (more than all U.S. losses in the Korean War). Turkey’s casualties were even higher, but they had won.

The Western nations had proved to be much better at getting off a Dardanelles beach than landing on one, let alone moving on from their early lodgement to their chief inland destination. In retrospect, the reasons for this defeat became clear. The weather in the Straits was always extremely fickle, ranging from the intense heat of the summer months (without adequate water supplies, an army withers like a bush, and the sickness rate soars) to the intense storms and blizzards that poured out of the Bosphorus as winter advanced. The topography is intimidating, with steep slopes, sudden crevasses, and thornbushes everywhere. The landing areas, especially where the Australian and New Zealand units came ashore, were inhospitable and virtually impossible to move out from. Allied intelligence about what to expect was weak, the forces had not been trained for this kind of operation, and fire support from the offshore vessels was incomplete, in part because it was hard to see where the Turks were, in part because the bombarding squadrons were steadily forced away by enemy mines and submarines (three further capital ships were sunk within the next month). The landing craft that brought the men to the shore were, apart from a few prototypes, not landing craft at all. Finally, both the weaponry and the tactics of the raw units ordered to advance up this craggy terrain were simply inadequate for the job. Supervising this unfolding fiasco was a command structure that brought back memories of Sir Richard Strachan and the Earl of Chatham—except that this time the casualties and the immensity of the failure were far, far greater. In consequence, the line to Russia could not be opened, Turkey stayed in the war and fought to the end, Bulgaria joined the Central Powers, and the other Balkan states stayed neutral. Slightly over a year later, imperial Russia began its collapse.

After Gallipoli, British interest in amphibious operations waned, not surprisingly. More and more resources were needed for the colossal struggles along the Western Front, and in consequence exotic and difficult landings from the sea were now frowned upon. At French urging, an Allied army did establish a beachhead in Salonika later in 1915, but it never really got very far from the shore for the next three years—the battalions there were aptly named the “Gardeners of Salonika.” By the next spring the French were fighting for survival in Champagne and Flanders, and therefore opposed all eastern adventures. If the British were much more tempted to campaign for the territories of the Ottoman Empire after 1915–16, it was by large-scale land assaults, eastward from Egypt, northward from Basra. The army leadership simply wasn’t interested in its divisions being dropped off on hostile shores; the navy was concentrating upon bottling up the High Seas Fleet in the North Sea and trying to avoid losing the Atlantic convoys’ battle against the U-boats. The Zeebrugge Raid of 1918, however well executed, was just a raid, nothing more. Nor did the American entry into the war change attitudes; millions of doughboys sailed safely into Le Havre and were marched overland to the front. During 1917–18 the U.S. Marine Corps was located far inland, fighting along the Aisne and the Meuse rivers.

In sum, the First World War discredited the notion of amphibious warfare. And when the dust of war had settled and the new global strategic landscape revealed its contours—roughly by 1923—there were obvious reasons this type of operation had few followers. To be sure, in a badly defeated and much-reduced Germany, in a badly damaged and scarcely victorious France and Italy, and in an infant Soviet Union, there were many thoughts of war, but none of them involved the projection of force across the oceans. Japan was in a liberal phase, and the military had not yet exerted its muscle—even when it moved to take Manchuria in 1931, that was a land operation that had nothing to do with attacking beaches or seizing ports. By the late 1930s things would be different, with large Japanese merchant ships carrying landing craft and vehicles during their attack upon the lower Yangtze. During this post-1919 period, then, only two of the seven great powers gave any thought to amphibious warfare.

One of those two powers was Britain, although economic stringency and the embarrassment of Gallipoli (refought in many a wartime memoir) pushed combined operations into a dark and dusty corner; the result was the occasional small-scale training exercise, a theoretical training manual, and three prototype motor landing craft. Only the 1937 Japanese invasion of mainland China and then the 1938 crisis over Czechoslovakia would force a resumption of planning and organization. On paper, things began to improve. The Inter-Service Training and Development Centre (ISTCD) was set up, specialized landing craft and their larger carrier ships were designed, and the manual for amphibious assaults was updated. But this was all theory. The midlevel officers worked well together and had fine, advanced ideas, but they still lacked the tools. A large-scale exercise off Slapton Sands, Devon, in July 1938 was badly affected by near-gale conditions and ended in chaos. This galvanized the ISTCD into further serious planning, and it is to their credit that they anticipated virtually all of the practical difficulties that amphibious operations would throw up during the Second World War itself.

Yet at the outbreak of that conflict, remarkably, this truly interservice unit was disbanded. The army was off to France, the air force was bombing Germany, and the navy was awaiting high-seas battle with the Kriegsmarine—so where on earth would one carry out combined operations? And who was interested? All but one of the ISTCD officers returned to their fighting units in September 1939.

The other country interested in amphibious warfare was the United States, because of its lengthy shores, multiple harbors, and flat beaches; because of its cherished memories of the War of 1812; and because it had possessed, since the founding of the Republic, its own Marine Corps with special campaign memories (“From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli”).

Advertisements

The Last Crusaders

The crenellated towers and walls of the Castle of St Peter brood defiantly over the southern end of the Aegean Sea; the mighty fortress is one of the most spectacular and best-preserved crusading castles of the fifteenth century.

The Hospitallers started building it soon after 1406, and from its battlements the Knights kept watch on the sea approaches to their island of Rhodes, less than a day’s sail away to the east along the coast. St Peter’s Castle at Bodrum was part of a network of fortresses throughout the Hospitaller-controlled Dodecanese islands, but this was the Knights’ only foothold on the mainland of Asia Minor. The French Tower, at the highest point in the castle, was the first to be built; more towers were added and a system of walls and bastions gradually covered the promontory that forms one side of the picturesque fishing harbour at Bodrum. Other ‘tongues’, including the English, also had formidable towers and as cannon began to play a part in siege warfare, massive gun emplacements were added to the fortifications later in the fifteenth century.

The Knights acquired this mainland enclave as a result of the ferment of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century when the Mongol ruler, Tamurlane, invaded Syria and Asia Minor. Smyrna (the modern Izmir), along with the other mainland cities, fell to the Mongols in 1402, but the Hospitallers having lost that important city quickly re-established themselves at Bodrum. Ottoman power had suddenly been eclipsed by the Tartar ruler, and Turkish expansion was halted momentarily. The sultan’s plan to take Constantinople had to be shelved, giving Byzantium a reprieve, but when Tamurlane died in 1405 his empire began to disintegrate and with it went any chance of constraining the resurgence of Ottoman power. As soon as the Knights had acquired the site at Bodrum for their new fortress, Master Philibert of Naillac went off on an extensive tour of Europe to raise funds for the building. He was well received by the Pope who issued an indulgence to anyone willing to put up money, and we know that in England indulgences could be obtained for the castle fund throughout the fifteenth century.

Money came in from all over Europe but there is a strong hint that the English nobility must have dug deeply into their pockets, because emblazoned on one wall of the English Tower that was built in about 1414 there is a line of fifteenth-century coats of arms. The centrepiece of this display is a great shield, four times the size of the others, with the carved arms of Henry IV – that enthusiastic crusader who had reysed at least twice with the Teutonic Knights in Prussia. He had clearly made a substantial contribution to the building of St Peter’s Castle along with more than a score of lesser nobles and members of the Royal Family. The well-preserved interior of the English tower is today popular with visitors who are sometimes surprised by the appearance of a monkish-looking figure, his cloak emblazoned with the white starred cross of the Order, who takes charge of crumhorn and tabor recorded mood music. More authentic knights, who were not grand enough to have their arms carved into the battlements – about two hundred survive in various parts of the castle – just scratched their names in the stone while they were on duty. These medieval graffiti are clear evidence of the many different nations represented in the garrison.

Parts of the castle were constructed from the masonry that once adorned the ancient mausoleum of Halikarnassos, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, which the Knights found in a ruined state on the mainland overlooking Bodrum harbour. The ancient site was a convenient quarry and supplied about forty per cent of the stone they needed to build the great medieval fortress. That estimate has been made by archaeologists who, in recent years, have crawled all over the castle spotting and measuring the building material taken from the mausoleum, and, with the aid of a computer, have put together a plan of one of the world’s missing wonders.

During the short time that Tamurlane held sway in Asia Minor and Syria crusading activity was revived and, while plans for the castle of Bodrum were going ahead, the Hospitallers took part in raids along the Muslim-held coastline of Asia Minor. The fleet of galleys, commanded by Marshal Boucicault, attacked the Turkish port of Alanya, and would have sailed south to Alexandria if contrary winds had not changed the Marshal’s mind.

Instead, this Frenchman, who was Governor of Genoa, attacked Tripoli and Beirut. Boucicault may have been planning another attack in 1407, but as the Turks re-established their position in the East there were fewer opportunities for crusaders to overrun mainland strongholds. The end of the great schism in the West – the general recognition of one Pope instead of two or three – released much more papal energy into crusading. Pope Martin V tried to organize crusades to help the Latin settlements under pressure in the Aegean and, when the Turks laid siege to Constantinople in 1422, he worked for a naval league in which the Hospitallers, Venetians, Genoese and Milanese would take part.

But these efforts were to meet with little success because Christendom was preoccupied with a new heresy in Bohemia’s church. The new heretical threat came from the Hussites, followers of the Czech reformer, John Hus, who had been burned at the stake in 1415. The Hussites wanted both bread and wine at communion for the laity, clerical misdemeanours to be publicly condemned, the freedom to preach, and a review of the church’s material wealth. They were vocal about what they regarded as the iniquitous practice of giving indulgences to Christians to fight other Christians and in 1418 Pope Martin agreed that they would have to be suppressed by force.

King Sigismund of Hungary, who had featured in the crusading defeat at Nicopolis, and was now Western emperor-elect, organized a series of crusades between 1420 and 1431 against the Hussites, whose sense of Czech nationalism and disaffection with the established church resulted in a spirited defence of their lands in Bohemia. As in the Albigensian Crusade and the political wars in Italy, crusaders came from many parts of Europe, and Sigismund’s armies included English, Dutch, Swiss, French and Spanish knights. Much Christian blood was spilled in ten years of fighting and eventually the Hussites were overcome, not by the crusaders, but by the Bohemian nobility itself, although tension and outbreaks of trouble continued well into the second half of the fifteenth century. It was another example of how internal threats were always regarded more seriously than external ones. Sigismund, who had, after all, called for the Crusade of Nicopolis, must have been very conscious of the growing danger to both Eastern and Western Christianity posed by the Turkish sultan, Murad II.

In 1443 Pope Eugenius IV, having won the submission of the Eastern Orthodox Church to Rome, preached a new crusade designed to defend the Christian East against the Turks. There was little response, except from the ‘front line’ countries along the Danube. John Hunyadi, the ruler of Transylvania, led an army that routed the Turks at Nish, and in the following year, 1444, he marched to the Black Sea port of Varna leading an army of 20,000 across the Balkans. Hunyadi and King Ladislas of Hungary planned to continue their advance down the coast towards Constantinople but the sultan moved up reinforcements – some say in chartered Genoese transports – and the crusading forces were almost wiped out. Ladislas was killed but Hunyadi survived and, as long as he lived, kept the Turks from crossing the Danube. He did not, however, put in an appearance during the next major crisis for the Christian world.

The Last Crusaders I

The crenellated towers and walls of the Castle of St Peter brood defiantly over the southern end of the Aegean Sea; the mighty fortress is one of the most spectacular and best-preserved crusading castles of the fifteenth century.

The Hospitallers started building it soon after 1406, and from its battlements the Knights kept watch on the sea approaches to their island of Rhodes, less than a day’s sail away to the east along the coast. St Peter’s Castle at Bodrum was part of a network of fortresses throughout the Hospitaller-controlled Dodecanese islands, but this was the Knights’ only foothold on the mainland of Asia Minor. The French Tower, at the highest point in the castle, was the first to be built; more towers were added and a system of walls and bastions gradually covered the promontory that forms one side of the picturesque fishing harbour at Bodrum. Other ‘tongues’, including the English, also had formidable towers and as cannon began to play a part in siege warfare, massive gun emplacements were added to the fortifications later in the fifteenth century.

The Knights acquired this mainland enclave as a result of the ferment of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century when the Mongol ruler, Tamurlane, invaded Syria and Asia Minor. Smyrna (the modern Izmir), along with the other mainland cities, fell to the Mongols in 1402, but the Hospitallers having lost that important city quickly re-established themselves at Bodrum. Ottoman power had suddenly been eclipsed by the Tartar ruler, and Turkish expansion was halted momentarily. The sultan’s plan to take Constantinople had to be shelved, giving Byzantium a reprieve, but when Tamurlane died in 1405 his empire began to disintegrate and with it went any chance of constraining the resurgence of Ottoman power. As soon as the Knights had acquired the site at Bodrum for their new fortress, Master Philibert of Naillac went off on an extensive tour of Europe to raise funds for the building. He was well received by the Pope who issued an indulgence to anyone willing to put up money, and we know that in England indulgences could be obtained for the castle fund throughout the fifteenth century.

Money came in from all over Europe but there is a strong hint that the English nobility must have dug deeply into their pockets, because emblazoned on one wall of the English Tower that was built in about 1414 there is a line of fifteenth-century coats of arms. The centrepiece of this display is a great shield, four times the size of the others, with the carved arms of Henry IV – that enthusiastic crusader who had reysed at least twice with the Teutonic Knights in Prussia. He had clearly made a substantial contribution to the building of St Peter’s Castle along with more than a score of lesser nobles and members of the Royal Family. The well-preserved interior of the English tower is today popular with visitors who are sometimes surprised by the appearance of a monkish-looking figure, his cloak emblazoned with the white starred cross of the Order, who takes charge of crumhorn and tabor recorded mood music. More authentic knights, who were not grand enough to have their arms carved into the battlements – about two hundred survive in various parts of the castle – just scratched their names in the stone while they were on duty. These medieval graffiti are clear evidence of the many different nations represented in the garrison.

Parts of the castle were constructed from the masonry that once adorned the ancient mausoleum of Halikarnassos, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, which the Knights found in a ruined state on the mainland overlooking Bodrum harbour. The ancient site was a convenient quarry and supplied about forty per cent of the stone they needed to build the great medieval fortress. That estimate has been made by archaeologists who, in recent years, have crawled all over the castle spotting and measuring the building material taken from the mausoleum, and, with the aid of a computer, have put together a plan of one of the world’s missing wonders.

During the short time that Tamurlane held sway in Asia Minor and Syria crusading activity was revived and, while plans for the castle of Bodrum were going ahead, the Hospitallers took part in raids along the Muslim-held coastline of Asia Minor. The fleet of galleys, commanded by Marshal Boucicault, attacked the Turkish port of Alanya, and would have sailed south to Alexandria if contrary winds had not changed the Marshal’s mind.

Instead, this Frenchman, who was Governor of Genoa, attacked Tripoli and Beirut. Boucicault may have been planning another attack in 1407, but as the Turks re-established their position in the East there were fewer opportunities for crusaders to overrun mainland strongholds. The end of the great schism in the West – the general recognition of one Pope instead of two or three – released much more papal energy into crusading. Pope Martin V tried to organize crusades to help the Latin settlements under pressure in the Aegean and, when the Turks laid siege to Constantinople in 1422, he worked for a naval league in which the Hospitallers, Venetians, Genoese and Milanese would take part.

But these efforts were to meet with little success because Christendom was preoccupied with a new heresy in Bohemia’s church. The new heretical threat came from the Hussites, followers of the Czech reformer, John Hus, who had been burned at the stake in 1415. The Hussites wanted both bread and wine at communion for the laity, clerical misdemeanours to be publicly condemned, the freedom to preach, and a review of the church’s material wealth. They were vocal about what they regarded as the iniquitous practice of giving indulgences to Christians to fight other Christians and in 1418 Pope Martin agreed that they would have to be suppressed by force.

King Sigismund of Hungary, who had featured in the crusading defeat at Nicopolis, and was now Western emperor-elect, organized a series of crusades between 1420 and 1431 against the Hussites, whose sense of Czech nationalism and disaffection with the established church resulted in a spirited defence of their lands in Bohemia. As in the Albigensian Crusade and the political wars in Italy, crusaders came from many parts of Europe, and Sigismund’s armies included English, Dutch, Swiss, French and Spanish knights. Much Christian blood was spilled in ten years of fighting and eventually the Hussites were overcome, not by the crusaders, but by the Bohemian nobility itself, although tension and outbreaks of trouble continued well into the second half of the fifteenth century. It was another example of how internal threats were always regarded more seriously than external ones. Sigismund, who had, after all, called for the Crusade of Nicopolis, must have been very conscious of the growing danger to both Eastern and Western Christianity posed by the Turkish sultan, Murad II.

In 1443 Pope Eugenius IV, having won the submission of the Eastern Orthodox Church to Rome, preached a new crusade designed to defend the Christian East against the Turks. There was little response, except from the ‘front line’ countries along the Danube. John Hunyadi, the ruler of Transylvania, led an army that routed the Turks at Nish, and in the following year, 1444, he marched to the Black Sea port of Varna leading an army of 20,000 across the Balkans. Hunyadi and King Ladislas of Hungary planned to continue their advance down the coast towards Constantinople but the sultan moved up reinforcements – some say in chartered Genoese transports – and the crusading forces were almost wiped out. Ladislas was killed but Hunyadi survived and, as long as he lived, kept the Turks from crossing the Danube. He did not, however, put in an appearance during the next major crisis for the Christian world.

The arrival of about 1,000 stonemasons at the narrowest point of the Bosphorus in 1452 was a bad augury for the citizens of Constantinople. The sultan, Mehmet II, had brought them, and an equal number of labourers, to construct a castle on the Bosphorus, about 6 miles from Constantinople, that was part of a strategy to bring down the encircled centre of eastern Christendom. For their part the Byzantines had been under threat for a century. Under Mehmet’s father, Sultan Murad II, perhaps the status quo would have been maintained, but his nineteen-year-old son was driven by a desire to take Constantinople at all costs. The towers and walls of Mehmet’s siege castle on the Bosphorus – Boghaz-Kezen or ‘Cutter of the Throat’ – are still a spectacular sight on the hillside overlooking the busy waterway. The castle is now called Rumeli Hisar and from its ramparts cannon could control any traffic passing to or from the Black Sea; indeed, the castle’s efficacy was soon tested when a Venetian galley ignored signals to heave to and was rudely stopped by an iron ball crashing through her timbers. During the construction of the castle the Byzantine emperor, Constantine, sent an envoy to the sultan seeking an assurance that his new fortress was not for offensive purposes. The envoy’s decapitation was a clear answer to the query.

Constantine’s capital in the mid-fifteenth century was a weak and tatty reflection of its splendid past. The population of 100,000 was not nearly enough to fill the vast area enclosed by 14 miles of walls. Much of the city, which may once have boasted a million inhabitants, had reverted to pasture and villages; and centres of population had developed their own identities behind stout walls and locked gates. During the first half of the fifteenth century, travellers reported that the city was full of ruins and that people were suffering from poverty. The great imperial palace had been left ruinous by the last Latin emperor after he had taken all the lead off the roofs and sold it; the once splendid Hippodrome was crumbling, but the University functioned and there was an active intellectual life in a city that still contained pockets of wealth and luxury. Predictably, the Venetian quarter was prosperous and the great Basilica of St Sophia was in good repair, still lavishly decorated with wonderful mosaics and frescoes. The Genoese had their own colony of Pera opposite the city across the Golden Horn, but the suburbs on the Asian side of the Bosphorus had long been incorporated into the Muslim world. Mehmet’s castle on the Bosphorus was finished in August 1452, not long before Emperor Constantine sent out an urgent appeal to the major centres of Christian influence. In view of the recent union of the Greek Orthodox and Catholic Churches, the Byzantines expected military support, but no significant help was forthcoming, only expressions of concern and vague promises. The Genoese and Venetians were loath to do anything that would disturb their profitable trade with the Muslims, and any sense of urgency was dispelled by a widely held view that Constantinople could withstand any siege indefinitely. The walls were in good condition all the way round and were still famous throughout the medieval world for their strength and sophistication. The triple defensive system of the 4-mile-long land walls comprised a 60ft moat, a low, crenellated retaining wall, a wide access space, a 25ft-high outer wall with towers, and finally the massive 40ft-high main wall with square and octagonal towers every 50 or 60 yards.

The emperor, however, decided that there were not enough troops to man the inner wall and the Turks would have to be stopped at the outer line of defence. Only about 5,000 Greeks and 2,000 foreigners were available to defend the city – a number that included 700 Genoese led by Giovanni Giustiniani Longo. With Emperor Constantine, this aristocratic warrior organized the defence of the city that would soon face a Muslim army of about 80,000. The Christian troops were well equipped with the best armour of the day and would defend the city with mangonels, culverines, javelins and arrows. The army the sultan was directing from his red and gold pavilion in front of the land walls had many regiments that were less well-equipped – especially the first-wave shock troops – but he had invested in some new and devastating artillery. The biggest piece had a bronze barrel nearly 27ft long which fired 12cwt balls at targets over a mile away. To move this monster of a gun from the foundry in Adrianople needed sixty oxen and 200 men, and the bridges all the way down the road had to be specially strengthened. The sultan had also assembled a huge fleet of about 150 ships to blockade the sea approaches to Constantinople, but before that became effective seven Venetian ships slipped quietly out of the harbour with hundreds of Italians on board whom the city could ill afford to lose at that time.

On 6 April 1453, the bombardment began. The sultan’s artillery pounded the land walls where the river Lycus ran under the defences and across the city to the Sea of Marmara. As masonry cracked and splintered it crashed down with a deafening roar, leaving rubble-strewn gaps which the defenders would try to patch with timber and earth stockades. Whenever there was a pause in the artillery fire, Muslim soldiers would move forward with materials to fill in the moat and, as the wall crumbled, the sultan moved his crack regiment, the Janissaries, into position. These troops were not unlike the Mamluks of Egypt in the way they were recruited – young Christian slaves who were schooled in Turkish and steeped in the Muslim faith. To a raucous accompaniment of oboes, cymbals and drums, the janissaries charged, but the earthen and timber stockade held and they were forced to withdraw.

In the meantime, ten Christian galleys protecting the iron boom across the Golden Horn had successfully beaten off attacks by Muslim ships and, in mid-April, three galleys sent by the Pope forced their way through the blockade and reached the Golden Horn with holds full of food and armaments. While the sultan’s artillery was slowly grinding down sections of the land wall, his navy made no progress at all in breaking through the great chain that closed off the Golden Horn, so an ingenious plan was conceived.

Huge wooden cradles with wheels were built and taken to the edge of the Bosphorus to rendezvous with a section of the Muslim blockading fleet. After the ships were floated into these cradles, teams of oxen hauled them along a newly constructed road up the hillside and then overland to the middle reaches of the Golden Horn. The chain had been bypassed by a procession of galleys with pennants flying and rowers in position beating the air with their oars in rhythm to the galley officer’s beat.

The fleet of seventy Muslim vessels now deployed behind the chain could not only harrass Christian shipping but also threaten the less well-defended harbour walls. The Genoese colony of Pera continued its policy of neutrality, but contact with the beleaguered city across the water was now more difficult. The Greeks anxiously watched the sea approaches for the Western rescue fleet, but the only sails on the Sea of Marmara were Muslim ones, and towards the end of May the Byzantines realized that they were on their own. The city had withstood seven weeks of almost continuous bombardment and had repulsed several full-scale attempts to storm the walls. Then suddenly, at midnight on 27 May, all Turkish military activity stopped. The sultan had ordered a day of rest and prayer before his next major offensive. Commanders on both sides inspected their troops and in the unaccustomed silence the bells of Constantinople’s churches rang out, and religious processions wound through the streets while prayers were said for the salvation of the city.

The assault came in a roar of gunfire soon after midnight on 29 May when, with trumpets blaring and drums beating, thousands of Turks hurled themselves against the walls; throughout the city church bells pealed again to call the people to the walls and, after several hours, the attackers fell back.

The sultan launched another wave of troops at the walls after the giant cannon had brought down a section of the stockade. Again the defenders pushed the Turks back with fierce hand-to-hand fighting, but by then, with attacks aimed at many different points around the city, the thinly spread defenders were wearying. The end came quickly after a party of Turkish troops at the northern end of the land walls noticed that a sally port had been left open and unguarded. The Turks poured in and made their way up on to the battlements. At about the same time the Genoese commander, Giustiniani, was wounded and pleaded to be taken away from the battle.

The emperor gave permission, and as the wounded soldier was conveyed through the streets a rumour spread that the city was already lost. Giustiniani’s Genoese troops abandoned the walls as the sultan led his Janissaries in another attack on the weakened defences. The Turks came over the wall and nothing could hold them back. Emperor Constantine, whose namesake centuries before had founded the city, was last seen in the thick of the battle, but his body was never positively identified.

The Last Crusaders II

Extrait de l’article “le grand siège de Malte” (février 2011): Galère de l’Ordre de Malte (1560), typique des années contemporaines de Lépante. Le rostre ne servait guère que de “passerelle” en cas d’abordage… Elle possédait des avirons maniés par cinq hommes, “a scaloccio” les galères amirales jusqu’à huit. Les galères Maltaises avaient entre 26 à 30 bancs (donc jusqu’à 60 avirons), 260-300 rameurs et presque autant de troupes, servants de couleuvrines et balistes qui complétaient les 6 pièces lourdes (de 6 à 48 livres) de front. L’essentiel des arquebusiers prenaient d’ailleurs place sur le gaillard d’avant. (Source : Maquette du musée de la Valette)

Une galère amirale Ottomane ou “Bâtarde du Sultan” (1560) : Ce type de navire à deux voire à trois mâts pouvait atteindre 65 mètres de long pour dix de large avec près de 7 hommes par banc et 36 avirons, un espace vide servant de cuisine (le “fougon”) soit un total de 491 rameurs, 300 fantassins et un trentaine de matelots et d’officiers. La majorité des galères Ottomanes était plus raisonnables, typiquement 42-43 mètres pour 25 avirons par bord maniées par des vogues de 5 rameurs. (Source : Miniature de Kadirga). Il y avait également de légères galères de course, la Kalyata de 34 mètres, et la Firkate à faible tirant d’eau, (51 rameurs) capable de remonter les fleuves.

The Turks followed up their triumph on the Bosphorus by conquests in all directions: in 1456 the Latin rulers of Athens had to stand aside; most of the Morea and Serbia fell to the Turks in 1459-60; Trebizond, the Greek-ruled former fragment of the old Byzantine empire on the Black Sea, and the islands of Lesbos and Euboea, followed a year or so later. Almost immediately after Constantinople fell, Pope Nicholas V issued a crusade encyclical which was received with enthusiasm at the court of Philip ‘the Good’, Duke of Burgundy. His contribution to the defence of the Christian East was to stage a great banquet for his Knights of the Golden Fleece at which a live pheasant bedecked in jewellery was brought to the table. Among the evening’s various chivalric side-shows, including the representation of an elephant carrying the Holy Church’s appeal for aid, the Knights took their crusading vows. On the whole, this period after 1453 has been portrayed by historians as one of despair at the frayed end of the crusading story. Pope Pius II’s crusade in 1464 is often quoted as the very last one but, far from presaging an era of despair and disillusionment, the fall of Constantinople had precisely the opposite effect. As in the case of other crusading disasters – Edessa, the Horns of Hattin and Acre – the final collapse of Byzantium put some steel back into crusading rhetoric, and a period of intense activity followed that lasted throughout the rest of the century.

This revised view of fifteenth-century crusading has come from a massive amount of previously unread documents stored among medieval documents in the Vatican and Venetian archives. Professor Kenneth Setton, of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton University, has been largely responsible for drawing attention to the documents, which show that the recovery of Constantinople became an ideal similar to the liberation of Jerusalem in the earlier crusading period.

There is still a great deal more to be culled from documents, but already many new crusades that were previously only hinted at, or totally unsuspected, have emerged to fill out a remarkable picture of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century crusading. They highlight, for example, the activities of naval leagues, when several of the Christian maritime states, in conjunction with the papacy, pooled their naval resources. One, which the newly-elected Pope Sixtus IV put together in 1471, numbered eighty-seven galleys and fifteen transports drawn from Venice, Naples and the Holy See. The ships assembled off Rhodes in the summer of 1472 and set off to attack the Turkish towns of Smyrna and Antalya. Smyrna was burned to the ground and pieces of the chain that the papal fleet smashed through as it entered the harbour of Antalya were brought back in triumph to St Peter’s in Rome, where they still hang above one of the doors to the archives of the church. But Ottoman expansion continued. The papacy responded to every advance with a flurry of crusade propaganda, but most crusades failed to go into action due to the complex and violent nature of internal European politics.

In Spain, however, crusading enthusiasm had reached fever pitch. The Spaniards completed their reconquest in 1492 when Granada surrendered to King Ferdinand and his queen, Isabella, and, almost immediately, a new Spanish campaign was launched towards North Africa. Having established Christian beachheads all the way along the Mediterranean coast as far east as Tripoli, there was even talk about the reconquest of the Holy Land, via the North African overland route to Egypt. The new documentary evidence from Italian archives shows that the Spanish reconquest was not just an isolated burst of crusading activity, but only one theatre of holy war in the context of a much broader crusading movement that was still a potent force.

In 1500 the Pope issued another crusade encyclical; substantial amounts in tax were collected and, in 1502, thirteen galleys were sent by the Pope to strengthen the Venetian fleet. The archives reveal that subsequent Popes were just as enthusiastic, that King Henry VII of England, King Manuel of Portugal and King James of Scotland were equally keen to see new crusades launched against the Turks, and in 1514 the crusade they sought was being prepared. But each time the Pope was thwarted, as rivalry among the European powers erupted into war or, at the least, a period of non-cooperation. After Ottoman victories in Syria and Egypt the Pope declared a five-year truce for the whole of Europe, and in London a treaty was signed between England and France; indeed, the famous meeting near Calais between Henry VIII and Francis I of France in June 1520, known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold, was a demonstration of a new alliance of European powers for the crusade to the East. However, the death of the Ottoman sultan, Selim I, reduced the level of anxiety, and preparations for the much-heralded crusade faded away.

Eventually, the West chose to go on the offensive in 1535 to deal with the famous pirate captain Khair ad-Din Barbarossa, who had established a damaging presence on the Rock of Algiers and, in alliance with the Turks, had also occupied Tunis. Emperor Charles V therefore decided to confront the growing Muslim maritime threat and a crusade was set in train. Pope Paul III offered the usual indulgences to crusaders and contributed a fleet of six galleys; the Hospitallers added four more and by the time the Portugese and others had joined the invasion fleet, a huge flotilla of seventy-four galleys and 330 transports of various kinds arrived off the North African coast not far from the landing place chosen by St Louis in 1270. What followed was a crusading victory the like of which had not been seen since the fall of Granada. Charles not only vanquished the Barbary fleet and captured the fortress of La Goulette, but claimed to have set free the astonishingly large number of 20,000 Christian captives. The crusaders then moved on to Tunis which they sacked on 21 July, and in a triumphant gesture sent the lock and bolts of the city’s gate back to St Peter’s in Rome.

Charles’s success in Tunis, having done much for Christian confidence, set off another bout of papal planning for more crusades centred on Constantinople. Pope Paul III wrote to King Sigismund I of Poland in that vein, and in 1537 a special commission of cardinals was charged with the responsibility to plan the campaign. Charles formed a new naval league with the Pope and Venice but, in an engagement with the Turks at the entrance to the Gulf of Arta, the Christian fleet was defeated. After the Venetians signed a peace treaty with the Turks in 1540 the naval league was disbanded, but Charles returned to the western Mediterranean the following year for an assault on Algiers. It failed, but one tantalizing strand of evidence to survive suggests that Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conqueror of Mexico, encouraged Charles to continue his efforts in North Africa. Perhaps the well-oiled machinery of crusading played a greater part than is generally realized in the Iberian conquests of the New World.

Emperor Charles was active again in 1550 when he sent a fleet to besiege the North African town of Mahdia, but the next big crusade on that coast was led by King Philip II of Spain. His target was Tripoli which the Hospitallers had held on the North African mainland from 1530 until 1551. Spain, Genoa, Florence, Naples, Sicily, the papacy and the Hospitallers contributed forty-seven galleys to the fleet. There were forty-three other ships, and in all 11,000-12,000 fighting men were waiting to storm ashore on the island of Jerba at the southern entrance to the Gulf of Gabes.

They took the island and began to strengthen its defences, but within a matter of weeks typhus spread through the army and the troops began to re-board the ship, leaving a garrison behind. In the middle of the operation a Turkish armada arrived and sank twenty-seven Christian galleys. The crusaders still ashore were then besieged by the Turks and, with the water in the castle cisterns virtually exhausted, were forced to distil sea water in an attempt to keep themselves alive in the hot North African summer; after two and a half months there was no more fuel for the stills and men were dying of thirst, and at the end of 1 July 1560 the siege ended in a massacre.

Such disasters, however, did not reign in the ambitions of Cosimo I de Medici, Duke of Tuscany, to emulate the Hospitallers. In 1562 he declared himself Grand Master and formed his own military order dedicated to Santo Stefano (St Stephen). Its convent and church were set up in Pisa and so much enthusiasm was generated that between 1563 and 1737 the Order of St Stephen had founded almost 700 commanderies and attracted a large number of supporters. The Knights did not have to bother about celibacy and the blue blood entry requirements were less exacting than the Hospitallers. But the Order could put as many as ten galleys to sea with well-trained crews from the Order’s own naval academy. In the Order’s records Dr Anthony Luttrell found that its version of Christian piracy did well in the Levant in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: ‘In the eight years from 1610 Santo Stefano took twenty-four Babary vessels and 1,409 slaves in the West, and it pillaged several towns and took forty-nine Turkish and Greek vessels, and 1,114 slaves in the Levant. Like the Hospital, and very briefly the Teutonic Order, Santo Stefano fought with the Venetians during their Cretan war from 1645 to 1669, but thereafter it saw increasingly little action.’

The 1560s were no different from the previous decades of the sixteenth century. There were wars and truces between the Western powers and the Ottomans, until in 1570 the Turks demanded the surrender of Cyprus, which was held by the Venetians. A Christian fleet of Sicilian and papal vessels, together with galleys of the Italian city states, sailed in an attempt to pre-empt a Turkish invasion, but on reaching Rhodes the fleet heard that Nicosia had already been taken so the rescue mission was abandoned.

Famagusta was taken by the Turks in early August and the Cypriot capital fell on 9 September 1570. In the same year, the papacy, Venice and Spain announced that they had formed a permanent alliance to fight the infidel, and in August 1571 the largest Christian fleet to come together in the sixteenth century assembled in the bay of Naples. Don John of Austria, Charles V’s bastard son, was commander-in-chief of an armada that was made up of 242 vessels drawn from the navies of the Hospitallers, Savoy, Genoa, Venice, the papacy and Spain. There were 30,000 men on board when they sailed to engage a Turkish armada of about the same size in the Gulf of Lepanto off western Greece. Don John of Austria’s heavy cannon gave the Christians their famous victory in which the Turks are said to have lost 30,000 men dead or captured, with 117 galleys taken as prizes of war, and eighty vessels completely destroyed. Such a resounding victory might have presaged a Christian advance towards the East! In March 1572, Pope Pius V circulated the faithful with words straight out of the anthology of crusading rhetoric: ‘We admonish, require and exhort every individual to decide to aid this most holy war either in person or with material support… We grant most full and complete pardon, remission and absolution of all their sins of which they have made oral confessions with contrite hearts, the same indulgence which the Roman pontiffs, our predecessors, were accustomed to concede to crusaders going to the Holy Land.’ Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith, in assessing the new material to come out of the Italian archives, believes that the Reformation – the religious revolution inspired by Martin Luther in the early years of the sixteenth century – only slowed down the pace of crusading activity: ‘It is clear that the crusading ideal was alive in the sixteenth century. It is easy to find examples of the traditional language of holy war and grants of indulgences and crusade tenths which, for instance, were regularly given to Venice, although some elements were now solidifying into forms in which their original functions were obscured. Parts of the Spanish cruzada – privileges in return for a tax which originated in the sale of crusade indulgences – were diverted in the sixteenth century to defray the costs of the rebuilding of St Peter’s in Rome; the cruzada became so divorced from its original purpose that it was issued regularly until this century and its privileges were only abrogated in the diocese of Pueblo, Colorado, in 1945.’ In the late sixteenth century, however, the evidence currently available thins out and a clear picture of crusading adventures is difficult to assemble; we know that from 1645 the Turks were fighting to wrest Crete from Venetian control, and that they finally took the island in 1669. There were Christian armies on the banks of the Danube defending Vienna, and there was a resurgence of Venetian power in the Aegean, but almost nothing can be said about the crusading element in the campaigns, if indeed any crusaders took part at all. But there was one surviving centre of crusading spirit – the island state of the Order of the Knights of Malta, the Hospitallers: ‘It saddens me to be compelled to cast this brave old man out of his home’, are the words attributed to Sultan Suleiman ‘the Law Giver’ or ‘the Magnificent’, after he accepted the surrender of Rhodes from the Order’s Grand Master, Philip Villiers of L’Isle Adam. The date was December 1522; a mournful time for the Knights of the Hospital who had heroically withstood a siege that had lasted almost five months. The Knights had been luckier in 1480 during the first siege of Rhodes staged by the conqueror of Constantinople, Mehmet II. That Turkish invasion force had become exhausted and, having failed repeatedly to storm the walls, packed up and left the island in ruined peace. Forty-two years later, in 1522, Suleiman ‘The Magnificent’ had no intention of letting the Knights stay on Rhodes.

With an enormous fleet of 400 ships and a large army, it was just a matter of time before such a degree of ‘overkill’ produced its inevitable result. Suleiman was, however, munificent and, in spite of months of spirited resistance from the defenders, and great losses on the Turkish side, agreed to let the survivors leave Rhodes with dignity and with their possessions.

There were not only cartloads of documents dating back to the Hospitallers’ days in Palestine, but also the Orders’ precious relics, including the jewel-encrusted, mummified hand of John the Baptist which the Hospitallers had obtained during their time on Rhodes. The Knights’ possessions trundled down to the port in a convoy of wagons and were loaded aboard the Order’s carrack and galleys. The great castle of St Peter on the mainland and the Hospitaller territories in the archipelago were forfeit under the surrender terms which left the Order, after two centuries on Rhodes, without a headquarters or even a raison d’être. Among the survivors of the siege in the small flotilla heading west through the sleet of a dark January night was a young knight from Provence called Jean Parisot de la Valette.

Cut adrift from their long association with the East, the Knights, led by their Grand Master, found temporary havens around the Mediterranean; they hankered after Rhodes and toyed with plans to reconquer their island state, but after eight years, in 1530, they accepted an offer of a new island home on Malta and Gozo from Emperor Charles V. The Grand Master and his men, however, were less than enthusiastic. Malta itself was a barren rock-strewn island 10 miles long and 9 miles wide; its only attractions were the two superb harbours on the north coast, Marsamxett and the Grand Harbour. There was the ancient walled capital of Mdina astride the only high ground at the centre of the island, and about 12,000 inhabitants scratched a living from the sparse top soil. Gozo, the other main island in the tiny group, was greener but had no harbour at all. A greater contrast with the peaks and verdant valleys of Rhodes would have been hard to find, although the beleaguered outpost of Tripoli on the North African coast, part of the emperor’s territorial package on offer, was perhaps an even more dubious proposition. But with an annual tribute of a falcon to the emperor’s Viceroy in Messina, and a promise not to use Malta as an offensive base against Sicily, the Hospitallers set out for their new home in autumn of 1530.

The Way to Palestine

Richard and Philip initially set off with the goal of reaching Lyon. However, their traveling partnership did not fare well for long. Upon reaching Lyon, the kings and their party had to cross the Rhone River, and disaster struck. The flimsy wooden bridge they were using to cross the river collapsed as some of their retinues, with heavy wagons full of supplies, marched over. A few people were killed, some were injured, and others were stuck, unable to cross until they located enough boats to create a temporary bridge. After this misfortune, Richard and Philip decided to journey separately. Philip would travel by sea, departing from Genoa. Richard continued the overland trek, heading toward Marseille. The two kings agreed to meet again in Sicily, at the city of Messina.

Richard’s journey to Marseille was not in itself problematic, but he ran into unexpected difficulties once he arrived there on July 31. He had intended to meet his fleet there, but they had not yet appeared. Richard had no way of knowing that his men had been delayed, sidetracked by helping the king of Portugal fight against the Moors. King Richard waited, but soon a week had gone by with no sign of the fleet. He decided he could wait no longer. The king found ships to lease in Marseille and once again set out on his way. He traveled along the coast of Italy, stopping in Genoa, Portofino, Pisa, and Piombino. At last, in Rome, after making several complaints to the pope, Richard left his ships for horses and rode toward Naples. He arrived there on August 28, after almost two months of travel. From Naples, it was not far to Salerno, where Richard finally heard word of his missing fleet, which was on its way to Messina. The king, pleased with the news, continued his slow journey to rejoin his men.

Richard arrived in Messina at last on September 22. The following day, he made a grand and impressive entrance into the city, complete with blaring trumpets and clanging swords. Richard found Philip already waiting for him in the city. Soon after Richard’s arrival, everyone was impressed by the show of affection between the two kings. The ruler of Sicily, King Tancred, also treated the kings with exceptional deference and courtesy. Richard’s sister Joan had been the wife of William, the previous ruler of Sicily, and King Tancred offered to allow Joan to join Richard on the crusade. Richard, however, wanted a bit more—he asked Tancred to turn over Joan’s dowry as well. Tancred refused. Though Richard let the matter rest for the time being, three kings and their armies could not lodge in the same city for long without the slow increase of tense undercurrents.

The tension broke into violence just a few days later, on October 3. Richard had commandeered a small monastery in which he stored his supplies, and the people of Messina were outraged. He had also left troops at the castle of Bagnara, just across the straight on the mainland of Italy, where his sister Joan was staying. Between these two actions, however, it looked possible to some that Richard intended to conquer Sicily. Fighting broke out in the city between Richard’s men and the Sicilian citizens. Though at first the clashes were small, the violence quickly spread through Messina. Richard, not expecting the sudden turn of events, tried to put an end to the fighting by riding out and commanding his men to move back, away from the walls. His attempts were unsuccessful. He immediately changed tactics, meeting with King Philip and King Tancred to re-establish peace. This peace lasted less than a day before the fighting started once more.

Richard was enraged at the townsmen who dared to attack his army, and he quickly came up with a new and surprising plan. He would hold Messina itself for ransom until King Tancred met Richard’s demands. Here Richard showed his tactical strength. His men, drawn up in position to attack the city, held their fire until the defenders’ arrows were spent. They then returned a volley of arrows on the city walls, causing the defenders to dive for cover. Under the hail of arrows, Richard’s men beat down the gates with a battering ram. Richard and his knights charged inside, speedily seizing key locations and taking hostages from prominent families; at the same time, others of Richard’s men were busy setting fire to all of Tancred’s ships. Using the hostages as bargaining chips, Richard maneuvered his way into control of the city, and from there worked out a deal with Tancred. The Sicilian king agreed to give Richard the additional money he wanted for Joan’s dowry, Richard returned the city to the townspeople, and the two kings finally came to an agreement for peace.

Through the winter the armies camped in tents around the city while Richard and other noblemen stayed inside. Despite a brawl between different camps of sailors around Christmas, the established peace held. For Richard, the most significant event around this time was his decision to make a confession to the Church. In private, to important church leaders, Richard presented himself in a position of humility, barefoot and carrying thorns tied as scourges. What exactly he confessed is uncertain. Some historians have speculated that Richard could have been a homosexual—a serious offense in the eyes of the Church and medieval law—and at this time he may have renounced and asked to do penance for these sexual preferences. Whatever Richard revealed, he was declared absolved.

As the new year began, fresh news arrived in Richard’s world. From England came word that John, whom Richard had allowed to return to the country, was causing trouble with the justiciars Richard had left in control. In Richard’s more immediate proximity, his mother was attempting to come by land to meet him. With Eleanor came a young woman named Berengaria, the daughter of the king of Navarre, a province in the north of Spain. King Tancred, however, would not let Eleanor and Berengaria set sail from Naples to Messina. Tancred and Philip were aligned at this point, and Philip’s sister Alice had long been betrothed to Richard as a part of political maneuvering. Philip suspected, correctly, that Richard had no intention of marrying Alice and planned to marry Berengaria instead. The three kings traveled to Taormina to negotiate. Along the way, Tancred, who still wanted Richard’s support in other serious mattered involving his own claim to the Sicilian throne, produced letters to show that Philip was hatching plans against Richard. Whether the evidence was real or not, Richard was convinced. Tensions rose between the three kings, and Richard turned around and headed back to Messina.

At last, at the end of March, Count Philip of Flanders mediated a deal between the kings. Territory and money changed hands. Richard was released from his obligation to marry Alice. The Treaty of Messina also dictated that the French and English kings would share the spoils of the crusade, and it became the document that defined the relationship between their kingdoms during the remainder of Richard’s reign.

On April 10, with conflict and negotiation behind them, the kings were ready for their armies and ships to depart. After stops in Crete and Rhodes, Richard’s fleet approached Cyprus. The island had been taken by an unpopular ruler, Isaac Comnenus. When a few of Richard’s ships were wrecked in a storm, Isaac imprisoned the surviving men from the ships. Richard arrived on the island on May 6, and negotiations soon escalated into conflict. Richard was victorious and demanded Isaac’s support for the crusade.

While in Cyprus, Richard also paused his journey for his wedding to Berengaria and her coronation, a lengthy celebration. Despite this event, Richard’s dealing with Isaac was not quite over. The Cypriot ruler stole out of town shortly before signing his agreement with Richard. Richard took time to hunt him down, despite the arrival of urgent messages encouraging the English king to hurry to the Holy Land. After an unsuccessful battle from which Isaac escaped, Richard captured two of Isaac’s key castles. He then made a discovery: in one of the castles, he had unknowingly trapped Isaac’s daughter. Because of this, finally, at the end of May, the Cypriot ruler surrendered. Richard received abundant funding from the Cypriots and had gained a valuable harbor. At last, he was ready to sail on toward the Holy Land.

Imad-ed-din Zangi

The council at Jerusalem decides to attack Damascus. After the First Crusade in 1096 AD set up Christian kingdoms all along the coast of Israel and Lebanon, of course the Fatimid caliphs who had ruled that area before were very upset. By 1144, a Mamluk general, Imad-ed-din Zangi, had managed to unite enough Turks and Arabs in his army to attack the Christian kingdoms. Zangi did not take Jerusalem, but he did take the Syrian city of Edessa nearby.

In Europe, people were very upset to learn that the Turks had taken Edessa. The Pope ordered Bernard of Clairvaux (in France) to preach a second crusade to take it back and defeat Zangi. The young king of France, Louis VII, agreed to go, along with the queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. So did Conrad III of Germany, the Holy Roman Emperor. At this time Louis was 23 years old and Eleanor was 22. Conrad was 51 years old.

From beginning to end, though, this crusade was not successful. Most of Conrad’s soldiers were killed as they marched through Turkey. When Louis and Conrad reached Jerusalem, they decided to attack Damascus, which would have made up for the loss of Edessa. But their attack on Damascus failed, and the kings and queens went home in disgust.

The Turkish atabeg (Prince Father) Imad al-Din Zangi became ruler of Aleppo and Mosul in 1128 following the murder of his predecessor by the Assassin sect. Zangi was in all respects a remarkable leader. He was a gifted soldier, not unusual for Turkish princes of the day, but also a gifted politician. He kept his troops and their commanders under a severe discipline, and in the field, lived under the same conditions. Zangi led his troops from the front, in the tradition of the Turkish warrior caste. He was among the first Turkish rulers in Syria to attempt real government—his predecessors had been mere warlords who treated their Syrian lands to looting and rapine.

Zangi ruled in the midst of internecine Muslim warfare. His early years saw a series of confusing and vicious struggles as he sought to consolidate power in Syria. He dared not challenge the Christians at this time, but so remarkable was his character, that in 1130, Alix, the daughter of Bohemund II, king of Jerusalem, offered him an alliance against her own father! This he declined, as it would have made an impossible alliance for him, and he had too many concerns in his own lands.

During a Seljuq quarrel for the succession of the throne in 1133, Zangi marched on Baghdad. Ambushed en route, he was assisted by an enemy— a Kurdish officer named Ayyub. In years to come, Zangi would remember this noble gesture and help Ayyub’s son to his first position of authority. This man would become the scourge of the crusader kingdoms—Saladin. In 1135, Zangi was nearly made ruler of Damascus, the principal city of Syria, but intrigues continued to hold him back. In 1137, he marched on Homs in central Syria, intending to take it as a steppingstone to Damascus. Caliph Unar, who ruled the city, craftily called upon the Knights Templar to aid him in his defense and then, as the Christian army approached, offered to assist Zangi in the destruction of the infidels. This Zangi did. In June 1137, the Templar army was trapped in the fortress of Barin by Zangi’s forces and forced to surrender. After the battle, however, Unar renounced his allegiance and Zangi besieged Homs, which he could not take because a combined crusader-Byzantine army was besieging his city of Shayzar. Fearing the loss of this vital city, he withdrew his army and broke the siege.

This Byzantine-crusader alliance could have been serious to the Muslim-dominated Middle East. It was, in fact, the only time that the crusaders acted as the pawns of the old empire, and had the Frankish vitality been combined with the empire’s organization, the results for Syria could have been fatal. Zangi responded with propaganda to tear the two allies apart—warning the Byzantines of the huge army that he was gathering and warning the Franks of Byzantine designs against their own newly conquered lands. He swept the enemy away, more with guile than arms, but this victory made him the preeminent man of Syria. In May 1138, he was offered a wedding alliance to princess Zumurrud of Damascus and received Homs as her dowry. It was supposed that her son Mahmud would then turn Damascus over to his new father-in-law. However, despite the agreement, Mahmud refused to turn the city over to Zangi. In July 1139 Mahmud was murdered, but before Zangi could take control of the city, the old Caliph Unar—Zangi’s ally and enemy at Homs—seized control and began plotting a new alliance with the crusaders. Thus Zangi was stalled again, more by the clever old Caliph Unar, a master of the political game, than by the crusaders.

Unable to cement his control of Syria, Zangi turned his attention north and in 1144 retook the kingdom of Edessa, the first of the crusader states to be captured and the first to fall. It was also Zangi’s last great achievement, for a servant murdered him in 1146. His kingdom fell apart, and his son Nur-al-Din was left with only Aleppo.

Zangi’s life was not dedicated to the destruction of the crusaders, but to the acquisition of personal power. At his death, his realms dissolved into the hands of various strongmen, and his son was left with a sliver of his father’s power. But Nur-al-Din, a man very different from his father, would decisively change the balance of power in the Middle East. An austere man, more at home in the library than on the battlefield, the new ruler of Aleppo would fight the Franks with his own wisdom, and others’ swords.

Malta and the Order

Aleccio, Matteo Perez d’; The Siege of Malta: Siege and Bombardment of Saint Elmo, 27 May 1565; National Maritime Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-siege-of-malta-siege-and-bombardment-of-saint-elmo-27-may-1565-172495

This island state is strategically located in the middle of the Mediterranean. As such, it was successively part of several ancient Mediterranean empires, including the Phoenician, Greek (ancient and Byzantine), Carthaginian, Roman, and Arab. The Normans conquered Malta in the late 11th century. It was a base for Christian armies and pilgrims heading for the ‘‘Holy Land’’ during the Crusades. When the Crusaders lost Jerusalem, and then Acre, the defeated Hospitallers retreated to Cyprus, then Rhodes. Eight years after Rhodes fell to the Ottomans (1522), Charles V resettled the Hospitallers on Malta, where they were known as the ‘‘Knights of Malta.’’ From 1564 to 1565, some 9,000 knights and retainers resisted a siege by 20,000 of Suleiman I’s assault troops, later doubled to 40,000. The fortress of St. Elmo fell but Valletta held out until disease and hunger wore down the Ottomans. Most of the defenders were also killed, with just 500 or so knights surviving. In later decades the Maltese Knights lived as pirates operating slave galleys. Styling themselves ‘‘Armies of the Religion on the Sea’’ they preyed on Muslim trade and cut Muslim throats under banners of the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, and the famous red cross of their Order. They even acquired three island colonies in the Caribbean (Tortuga, St. Barthélemy, and St. Croix). The Grand Master was made a prince of the Empire in 1607 and in 1630 he gained rank in Rome equivalent to a Cardinal Deacon. The Knights remained in Malta until expelled by Napoleon in 1798 as he stopped off on the way to Alexandria.

Treaty of Osnabrück, (October 24, 1648).

The second of the major treaties of the Peace of Westphalia which, together with the Treaty of Münster signed on the same day, brought peace to Germany and most of Europe and ended the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). Osnabrück was a heavily detailed agreement which resolved hundreds of long-standing religious and territorial disputes within Germany. For instance, it clarified the legal standing of the Protestant branch—Johannitterorden—of the Knights of St. John, as distinct from the still-Catholic Order of Malta, and returned five commanderies to the Maltese. More generally, it clarified the titles and claims of various German princes and bishops, reformed the election provisions of the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire, and confirmed as sovereign some 300 political entities in greater Germany. In that it carried forward recognition of the German Estates agreed in the Imperial Diet at Regensburg in 1641. It also granted Sweden an indemnity of five million Taler that was crucial to Sweden agreeing to withdraw its unpaid army from Germany.

Map of the monastic state of the Teutonic Knights 1466

‘‘Domus hospitalis sanctae Mariae Teutonicorum’’ (‘‘Order of the Knights of the Hospital of St. Mary of the Teutons’’). An order of hospitaller knights set up in 1127 in Jerusalem. In 1198 they were transformed into a Military Order (‘‘Ritter des Deutschordens’’) after the failed Third Crusade. They had three classes of brethren: knights, priests, and sergeants. All were required to be of German birth and noble blood. Some of their hospitals admitted nursing women. On their shields and chests the Teutonic Knights bore the Crusader symbol of the order: the black and silver ‘‘Iron Cross’’ that ordained, in both senses, German warriors and military equipment into the 21st century. Their fighting doctrine was, ‘‘Who fights the Order, fights Jesus Christ!’’ Their rallying cry was, ‘‘Gott mit Uns!’’ (‘‘God is with us!’’). They slept with their swords, initially their only permitted possession, practiced self-flagellation and extreme fasting and monkish devotions, and kept silent in camp and on the march. Many wore mail directly against their flesh to mortify it. They were at their worst Christian Taliban: gruesome holy warriors who welcomed martyrdom, willing killers for ‘‘The Christ.’’

Out of the Ashes

Unable to compete with other Military Orders in Syria, the Teutonic Knights fought in Armenia instead. In 1210 nearly the whole order was killed, leaving just 20 knights. Hermann von Salza essentially refounded the order in 1226, aided by Emperor Friedrich II (‘‘Barbarossa’’). They were given lands in Sicily and eastern Europe, a transaction approved by the pope in the Golden Bull of Rimini (1223). They now wore white tunics, an honor granted over the strong objection of the rival Knights Templar. They fought in behalf of the Hungarian king in Transylvania before moving into Prussia, which the Knights in the Service of God in Prussia had failed to conquer. The first two Knights of the order settled in Prussia in 1229; the next year 20 more arrived, along with 200 sergeants. The Brethren thereafter acted as commanders and officers in larger armies of converted Prussians who served them as auxiliaries. In battle the Knights were the panzer tip of a crusading invasion of the pagan lands of the Baltic. They ravaged and conquered Courland and Prussia and parts of Poland and western Russia, waging ruthless campaigns against ‘‘the northern Saracens.’’ They settled in conquered lands as the new aristocracy, enserfing native populations. Their own vassalage shifted among the Empire, the king of Poland, and distant but powerless popes. The legacy of the ‘‘Drang nach Osten’’ (‘‘Drive to the East’’) of the ‘‘Sword Brethren’’ was the Christianization and enfeoffment of Prussia by force of arms and merciless war with Lithuania, Poland, Sweden, and Muscovy. The northern crusades, especially the long forest-ambush campaigns of the 14th century against animist Lithuanians, were among the most ferocious of the entire Middle Ages.

The military tools of the Brethren were advanced and powerful crossbows, mailed heavy cavalry, stone watchtowers and fortress fastnesses, huge torsion artillery (catapults and counterpoise trebuchets), and cogs that could carry 500 troops, which gave them mobile striking power along the Baltic coast. Their early opponents had almost none of these weapons. When Knights charged native infantry (‘‘Pruzzes’’) armed only with bows and axes, the panic and slaughter was terrible. The Brethren united with the Livonian Order, also comprised of German knights, from 1237 to 1525. To their new Ordensstaat (1238), the Sword Brothers brought German and Dutch colonists and peasants to secure the land, completing the most successful and brutal military colonization of the Middle Ages. Baltic cities within the Ordensstaat were permitted to join the Hanse, as did the Hochmeister.

The Brethren also fought constant border wars with Poland-Lithuania, a large condominium that dominated most of eastern Europe and western Russia. They were defeated by a Mongol horde at Liegnitz (April 1241), but thereafter held and expanded their territory. By 1250 the Lithuanians had adapted to new weapons and mounted tactics and under a new leader, Mindaugus, invaded the Ordensstaat. In 1254 some 60,000 Germans and Bohemians mobilized to rescue the Knights. Over the next two decades they faced war with Lithuania and a 13-year peasant revolt in Prussia, the ‘‘Great Apostasy.’’ By the late 1270s they were triumphant in the Baltic.

In 1291 the last resistance to the Muslim assault on Outremer collapsed and the German Hospital in Acre was lost. In 1309 the Order’s Grand Commandery was moved to Marienburg (Malbork) on the Vistula and its ties to the Holy Land faded into legend and dim memory. Marriage to natives was still forbidden because so many remained pagan and hostile: in 1343 peasants in Estonia rebelled and slaughtered 1,800 Germans in Reval. The Brethren hence had a narrow recruitment base: they boasted fewer than 500 full knights supported by 3,200 retainers, just under 6,000 sergeants, fewer than 2,000 garrison militia from six large towns, and 1,500 poor-quality conscripts who were peasant-tenants of various abbeys under control of the Brethren. The Order was reinforced by knights from across Europe when successive popes preached a new Baltic crusade against pagan Lithuania; many came for the blood sport. This was key, as Prussia’s population was savaged by the Black Death and Crusaders from Germany grew scarce after Lithuanians converted to Christianity. Still, between 1345 and 1377, over 100 expeditions were launched by the Brethren into Lithuania. To make up the shortfall in German recruits, baptized Prussians and Slavs were recruited from 1400, and large numbers of Czech mercenaries were hired whenever the Brethren fought.

The reforms did not help: the Teutonic Knights were beaten decisively and with huge losses by a Polish-Lithuanian army at Tannenberg ( July 15, 1410). That ended their Baltic crusade and accelerated a terminal military decline. Lands lay fallow, commanderies remained empty, castles were deserted. The Poles then raided into Prussia, but after the losses suffered at Tannenberg the Knights were loathe to offer battle. A full-scale Polish invasion occurred in 1422 and forced the Knights to cede territory. In 1440 the Preussische Bund was founded in opposition to the extant privileges of the Order. The end of political and military dominance by the Brethren came with the War of the Cities (1454–1466). The Knights fought well against the Poles at Chojnice (September 18, 1454), but the size of armies deployed by Poland and the Bund told against the Teutons and their mercenaries. Nor could the Brethren rely on their traditional Czech allies: Hussite armies, too, raided deep into the Ordensstaat. In 1455 virtually all Livonian knights were wiped out. When the purse of the remaining Brethren turned over empty, unpaid mercenaries handed over the capital and fortress of Marienburg to the Poles without even a token fight. The Teutonic Knights were reduced, humiliated, and split by the Second Treaty of Torun (1466). In 1498 they regained a measure of independence when they elected as Hochmeister the brother of Friedrich of Saxony, who renounced homage to Poland and demanded the return of ‘‘Royal Prussia.’’ From 1498 to 1503 the Order fought with Muscovy, surprisingly holding its own against a more numerous foe. In 1519 the Knights attacked Poland, burning and raiding along the frontier but avoiding set-piece battles.

What finally defeated the Order was the same thing that had led to its founding: an argument about God. In 1523 Martin Luther wrote to Hochmeister Albrecht of Brandenburg. They met at the Imperial Diet in 1524 and Albrecht converted to Luther’s views, as had the bishop of Straslund and many Brethren. The original Livonian Order broke away as a result of Albrecht’s conversion. (Catholic remnants survived in Germany until 1809, but only as a landless and powerless ceremonial shell.) On April 8, 1525, Albrecht signed the Treaty of Cracow converting Prussia into a hereditary duchy under the Polish monarchy. The last significant military action of the Brethren was to support Charles V during his war with the Schmalkaldic League (1546–1547). The Order lost its rich Venetian commandery in 1595, the same year 100 knights made a last crusade against the Ottomans in Hungary. In 1618 the Duchy of Prussia passed to the Hohenzollerns and the last knights became Prussian officers. In 1618 the Duchy of Prussia passed to the Hohenzollerns and the last knights became Prussian officers. In 1695 the Order itself was remade into a regiment, the ‘‘Hoch und Deutschmeister’’ of the Austrian Army. A key result of the slippage of the hold of the Teutonic Knights on the eastern Baltic was a rise in commercial and military competition for the succession to the Ordensstaat among Poland and Sweden, and later, also Russia.

Suggested Reading: E. Christiansen, The Northern Crusades: The Baltic and the Catholic Frontier, 1100–1525 (1980); Desmond Seward, Monks of War: The Military Religious Orders (1972; 1995).