The Anglo-Saxons: Hostages, Oaths, Treaties and Treachery I

Bargains made and broken involving the exchange of hostages and the swearing of oaths were such an important part of Anglo-Saxon warfare that scarcely an event was recorded without such an accompaniment. It is the glue that held the model of the political world together. By looking at the nature of such agreements it can be shown that the familiar tools used to cement agreements varied wildly in their effectiveness. The study of this one phenomenon alone can explain so much about Anglo-Saxon history.

There were a number of ways in which the leaders of early Medieval England could seek to cement an agreement or alliance. For Christian parties there was the baptismal sponsorship or god-parenting arrangement. Also, there was the marriage alliance, particularly effective if the leader in question had several available beautiful sisters at his disposal, as did King Athelstan at the beginning of his reign (924–39). Athelstan was also a master of the fostering ploy as well. He fostered Haakon of Norway as part of a peace agreement made by his father. But not everyone was blessed with the power and political tools of the mighty King Athelstan. For most leaders, the keeping of an enemy to an agreement was done with the sometimes gritty and risky method of the hostage exchange.

The Anglo-Saxon era is littered with a macabre history of the fate of hostages. It is a history that makes for unpalatable reading for modern minds. The making of a binding agreement with an enemy by exchanging hostages and swearing oaths might seem fairly watertight, but all too often one side or the other (frequently the pagan Danes) treated those who they had exchanged with little regard. And so it was with the swearing of oaths. Such oaths were only worth something if they were sworn on relics or holy items that actually meant something to the oath taker.

Hostage exchanges had long been used throughout Early Medieval Europe. The Old English word for a hostage was ‘gisl’. This word is similar to the Irish ‘giall’ and to the Welsh ‘gwystl’. A hostage could be of a noble background, kept at the court of his captors to ensure the good behaviour of his own master, the captors’ enemy. They could also be members of a fighting force whose leader had been coerced to come to terms with his enemy.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle first mentions a major use of hostages in the period covered here in an entry for 874 after the Danes had driven out King Burgred of Mercia (852–74). Here, the scribe says:

they [the Danes] granted the kingdom of Mercia to be held by Ceolwulf, a foolish king’s thegn, and he swore them oaths and granted them hostages, that it should be ready for them whichever day they might want it, and he himself should be ready with all who would follow him, at the service of the raiding army.

Exactly who Ceolwulf’s hostages were is unknown, but it is likely they were valuable to him. These men may even have been chosen by the Danes themselves, who were holding all the cards at this time. Contemporary observers such as Asser saw this whole thing as a ‘wretched’ agreement, a comment that reveals the likely effectiveness of the arrangement.

The next mention of hostages is in 876. This time, with Alfred cornering his enemy at Wareham, the impetus was apparently with him. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that the king made peace with the Danes, possibly implying a cash payment (as the chronicler Æthelweard also implies), but that the Danes ‘granted him as hostages the most distinguished men who were next to the king in the raiding army, and they swore him oaths on the sacred ring, which earlier they would not do to any nation, that they would quickly go from his kingdom . . .’. Alfred had learned from his own dealings with the Danes and from what he had heard about similar arrangements in Francia. The Danes did not care much about keeping an oath sworn on Christian relics. This time they had sworn an oath on their own holy ring, possibly an arm ring of the type associated with Thor. But if Alfred thought this was enough to bind his enemies to their agreement, he was to be mistaken. The king had given his own hostages to the Danes in what was an exchange as opposed to a one-sided agreement. Asser tells us that during one night the Danes left Wareham and killed all their hostages, breaking the treaty and headed for Exeter. We can only guess what Alfred did with the men he had received as hostages on hearing this news.

Guthrum, the Danish leader in all these negotiations, made it to Exeter with his mounted army and sat there confident that he had played a master stroke and had got himself out of a tight corner at Wareham. Alfred’s men had not spotted his night exodus, and had played catch-up to no avail arriving at the gates of Exeter when the Danes were already safely ensconced. Guthrum was also expecting a fleet of 120 ships to arrive and aid his bid, but when these vessels left Poole Harbour, rounding the headland off Swanage, they all succumbed to a storm and were lost. Consequently, Guthrum was once again on the back foot with an English army at his door. And with this development we see yet another turn in the story of the hostage exchange.

The hostage ploy seems now to have favoured Alfred. It may seem surprising that there was an exchange as opposed to a one-sided Anglo-Saxon arrangement given what had happened to the English hostages at the hands of the Danes at Wareham, but conditions were not yet perfect for Alfred, he was just in the ascendancy. This time, the Danes granted him ‘as many hostages as he wished to have’, implying that the king was able to pick them. What followed this Exeter agreement, again sworn on oath, was the departure of the Danes from Wessex and their subsequent settlement of parts of Mercia which the puppet English King Ceolwulf had held open for them.

Clearly, hostage negotiations in the ninth century were a bloody and dangerous game. Each phase in a campaign seems to have involved an upping of the stakes for both sides. Alfred’s subsequent misfortunes in the wilderness of the Somerset marshes are well documented for the year 878. However, his famous victory against the Danes at Edington was so decisive that it led to a further development in the art of the hostage negotiation. A fortnight passed with the English camped outside of the Danish camp to which their army had fled after its defeat. Starving, cold and fearful, the Danes came to the English seeking surrender on terms more onerous than ever before. They would give hostages again, just as many as the king wanted, and this time they would demand none in return. No such arrangement had ever been made before. This was as close as a Viking army of the ninth century could get to abject defeat in a campaign. It was followed by the baptism of Guthrum (now to be given the English name Athelstan) at Aller and an additional ceremony at Wedmore some weeks later. Guthrum would rise from the baptismal waters as a Christian leader in a Christian land. The Danes would indeed leave Wessex, providing Alfred with breathing space to rebuild an expanded kingdom.

It happened again in 884–5 at Rochester, but this time the mention of hostages is different. A Viking force, which had been terrorising Francia for the opening years of the 880s, came from Boulogne to try its luck in Alfred’s new kingdom. It came expecting to wreck the place. They had brought many horses with them, fine mounts from Francia. But they had brought something else, too. Their army consisted of an unknown number of Frankish hostages. Alfred cut a dashing figure by 885. His army and fortification system were organised to cope with such an event as this new invasion. The garrison at Rochester proudly withstood. Alfred came to relieve the men of the town. The Vikings, as a result, fled back to Francia without either their horses or their hostages, two vital accessories of warfare. The fate of these hostages is unknown, but they are most likely to have been truly rescued by the king of the Anglo-Saxons. For those Danes who had chosen to stay in England after their defeat at the hands of Alfred, hostages were once again exchanged, perhaps in the old style. But also in the old style, these Vikings twice broke their agreement and sent raids into the wooded heartlands of southern England. Some things, it seemed, could not change.

The agreement between Alfred and Guthrum, who was now ruler of East Anglia, was bound by a treaty referred to as the Treaty of Wedmore. It effectively divided England into a Danish and an English-controlled half. From now, to the north of Watling Street which stretched from London to Chester, there would be a land that would be under Danish-inspired law, a land that ultimately became known as the Danelaw. Alfred and his family were left with the rump of English Mercia and Wessex from which to provide the platform for a re-conquest. The surviving copy of the document that outlines the treaty probably refers to the settlement arrived at between the two sides after a period between around 880–6 when the countryside to the north of London was very much up for grabs. Here again, after much bloodshed and double dealing, we have mention of hostages:

And we all agreed on the day when the oaths were sworn that no slaves or freemen might go over to the army without permission, any more than any of theirs to us. If, however, it happens that from necessity any one of them wishes to have traffic with us–or we with them–for cattle and for goods, it is to be permitted on this condition, that hostages shall be given as a pledge of peace and as evidence whereby it is known that no fraud is intended.

So, in this new Anglo-Danish world, hostages could be given as surety against fraudulent trading activity. We can only imagine how many people were dragged across Watling Street from one side to the other to provide confidence in a trading deal.

As Alfred progressed with his grand military and ecclesiastical reforms, the years went by with no recorded deals involving hostages. It was not until the return of the Vikings in 892 that the campaigns began again in earnest. A Viking army with its 250 ships came to Appledore, and new leader Hæsten’s 80 ships came to Milton Regis threatening to cut off a giant corner of the country from the English king. Moreover, although Guthrum was now dead, the Danish-led armies of East Anglia and Northumbria were full of confidence and prepared to help their cousins assault the king of the Anglo-Saxons once again. This is why Alfred needed yet another hostage arrangement.

Alfred managed to secure oaths from the Northumbrians and the East Anglian Danes not to attack him. He procured six ‘prime’ hostages from the East Anglian Danes, although we are not told how. We are informed, however, that the deal was not kept to, as it seems the English-based Danes kept helping their cousins in the south east of the country by aiding their raiding and foraging activities during this uneasy stand-off. The fate of the ‘prime’ six is not recorded.

The Appledore Danes, laden with booty from their periodic raids, soon attempted to push north to find a ford across the Thames with the intention of making it to Essex to join with other Viking ships there. It ended in disaster for them, with Alfred’s son the ætheling Edward (soon to be king himself) intercepting and defeating them at Farnham. Edward drove them across the Thames at a place where there was no ford. Soon they found refuge of sorts on a river island near Iver in Buckinghamshire known as Thorney. Edward began a protracted siege which came to an end when the English system of military rotation meant that that besieger’s supplies had run out and their time in the field was up. Unfortunately, this all happened before King Alfred was able to relieve his son. We are told, however, by the chronicler Æthelweard that the Danes who had been surrounded and starved at Thorney Island and whose leader was wounded did exchange hostages and agree to leave the kingdom. To Essex they went, to join up with Hæsten’s force which had now relocated to Benfleet.

Alfred, at some stage during this campaign decided to attempt to bring Hæsten to heel through the offer of baptism, with the king himself standing sponsor to one of the Viking’s sons and Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians to the other. We know less about it than we do of the arrangements made with Guthrum. Hæsten’s base at Benfleet was eventually captured by the English in a siege that saw women and children, ships and money seized and brought to London. Also seized by the besieging Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, were Hæsten’s sons. The Dane had been out on a raid when all this happened. The young men were sent to Alfred’s court, probably in the hope they would prove to be very valuable bargaining chips. But Alfred sent them straight back to Hæsten delivering a message of extraordinary mercy for these times. Perhaps it is fair to say that Alfred knew he had his enemy defeated, but he seems not to have been able to hold his own godson as a hostage.

The Vikings’ subsequent movements to Buttington and Chester both ended in sieges which saw great suffering for the enemies of Alfred. At Buttington, Æthelweard tells us that ‘they [the Danes] did not refuse hostages, they promised to leave that region’. In 894 Æthelnoth, Alfred’s trusted ealdorman from Somerset, visited York in an ambassadorial capacity with a view to persuading the Northumbrian Danes to cease their pillaging of parts of Rutland held by the English under the Alfred and Guthrum treaty, but again we do not know how this deal was cemented. What we do know is that by the time the Danes had been outwitted by Alfred’s clever fortifications surrounding their ships at Hertford in 895, the Danes, under a new leader following Hæsten’s death, moved out to Bridgnorth from where they dispersed never to reform again.

The historic record falls quiet in respect of hostages towards the end of Alfred’s reign. When Edward took the throne after the death of his father in 899, there was a revolt against him from Æthelwold, the son of Alfred’s brother Æthelred I. This revolt, which is documented below, involved the pretender to power taking a nun against the king’s leave before stealing away from the watchful eyes of Edward’s army in a dash to Northumbria. It is not known if the nun was a hostage, had been kidnapped or was a willing participant. However, to take a nun from a nunnery without the bishop or king’s permission was a ‘criminal’ offence and clearly Æthelwold was using this as a way of defying Edward.

The next reference to hostages is only by inference. In 906 Edward is said to have ‘confirmed the peace’ at Tiddingford with the Northumbrian and East Anglian Danes. No mention is made of an exchange, but from what we have observed already it is an agreement likely to have involved them. We can be more certain of the next mention, however. Edward, by 915 had succeeded in defeating the Danes and had embarked on his great re-conquest of the midlands. But in this year, a Viking force had come from Brittany led by Jarls Ohtor and Hroald (sic) and it headed up the Severn raiding as it went. The force went into Wales and took a bishop named Cameleac, Bishop in Archenfield, as hostage. Edward then paid 40 pounds to ransom him back, one of the few recorded arrangements of this kind. As the Vikings headed to Archenfield for richer pickings, they were met by the men of Hereford and Gloucester and nearby forts. The resulting battle saw Ohtor and Hroald defeated with Hroald perishing and Ohtor’s brother also being killed. The Vikings were subsequently driven to an ‘enclosure’ where they were besieged until they gave hostages in return for leaving the kingdom. It sounds as one sided as some of the later Alfredian agreements, but the reality was that the force hung around for some time on the Severn Estuary embarking on sporadic raids before eventually leaving for Ireland.

Edward’s sister, the famous Æthelflæd, sometimes called ‘the Lady of the Mercians’, had her part to play in the history of the hostage. It was she who in 916 sent a force to Brecon Mere in Wales to break down the fortification there and in doing so took the wife of the Welsh king of Brycheiniog ‘as one of thirty-four’, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. There would be many more organised strategic conquests of such citadels as Danish Derby and Leicester, the key boroughs of the Danelaw. Just before her death in 918, the chronicler tells us, Æthelflæd after taking Leicester had even got the leaders of Viking York to swear oaths that they would be at her disposal. They did not keep to this, of course, but the fact that the agreement happened at all is testimony to the increasing power being displayed by Æthelflæd and her brother Edward south of the Humber. As more Scandinavians poured into the northern parts of Britain, the Danish forces of yesteryear, now settled in England, began to see the sense in aligning themselves with the resurgent Anglo-Saxon monarchy in the south. In fact, before he died in 924 Edward the Elder had secured the allegiance of the Scots, a new Norse leader at York, the lords of Bamburgh, the king of the Strathclyde Britons and the Northumbrians of all cultures.

At Æthelflæd’s death an event took place that has received a number of interpretations. The Mercian Register of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in an entry for 919 records it thus: ‘Here also, the daughter of Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, was deprived of all control in Mercia, and was led into Wessex three weeks before Christmas; she was called Ælfwynn.’ The most likely interpretation of this is that it was no simple hostage taking, but a political abduction. Edward the Elder, who had achieved so much in alliance with Ælfwynn’s mother (his own sister), could not afford for the spectre of Mercian independence to raise its head just when it looked like the Kingdom of the English was finally taking shape under his own leadership. In Ælfwynn many traditional-minded Mercian noblemen may have seen a standard bearer for that independence. So, the king spirited away his own niece to avoid this happening. The Kingdom of the English was growing in confidence.

King Athelstan’s (924–39) use of human resources was a far cry from the desperate hostage exchanges of the Alfredian campaigns. A kingdom of England was very much in the making now, and Athelstan’s negotiations were on an international level, binding his kingdom into the fortunes of, among others, the great Holy Roman Empire controlled by the Ottonian dynasty. In the sparse entries for Athelstan’s reign in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle there are hints at hostages, however. In 934 for example, Athelstan’s combined campaigns by land and sea in Scotland resulted in the Scottish King Constantine having to give his own son as a hostage.

There is no mention of hostages in the years preceding Athelstan’s great Battle of Brunanburh of 937. During these years, an imperious Athelstan, able to draw an army from the length and breadth of his new kingdom did indeed hold imperial-style councils at places like Cirencester, calling in tribute from the Welsh kings which amounted to huge quantities of gold, silver, oxen, hounds and hawks. But the Scots and the Norse-Irish led a confederacy against Athelstan at Brunanburh, at a battle site that is still to be identified with certainty. Once again, even in their crushing defeat there is no mention of hostages from the lords of the north, just a mention of them fleeing the field for home.

It would seem that Athelstan’s victories might have paved the way for a Golden Age in Anglo-Saxon kingship, but this was yet to come. Olaf Guthfrithson, the enemy who had caused the great king so much trouble, swept back into the picture after Athelstan’s death on 939. A complex marriage alliance in the midlands with the daughter of a Danish jarl, and some military campaigning in the north, saw the Dane in the ascendancy again. It was Athelstan’s younger brother, King Edmund (939–46) who had to re-capture the five Danish boroughs of the midlands for the southern English crown. In 943 a new enemy, Olaf Sihtricson, had taken Tamworth from the English and had fled to Leicester. In time-honoured style, we are told this was the same year in which this Olaf received baptism with Edmund as his sponsor. But the records of the tenth century are more complicated than those of other eras. There are allusions to further submissions in York, for example, but we are not told how these arrangements were cemented.

The Anglo-Saxons: Hostages, Oaths, Treaties and Treachery II

Battle of Stamford Bridge, 1066. The English army under King Harold Godwinson fights off an invading Norwegian force led by King Harald Hardrada.

On Edmund’s death in 946, he was succeeded by another brother Eadred (946–56), who in the first year of his reign conquered Northumbria and was granted oaths by the Scots ‘that they would do all that he wanted’. More oaths then, but no details. At Tanshelf, in 947 Archbishop Wulfstan of York and the councillors of the Northumbrians are said to have pledged themselves to the king, but ‘within a short while they belied both pledge and oaths also’. The reason for this recalcitrance lay in the arrival of a famous Viking leader, one Eric Bloodaxe whose control of the Viking kingdom of York quickly became legendary. Eric, who held Northumbria from an apparent promise made by Athelstan, was eventually defeated, murdered by one of his own men after the grim campaigning of Eadred in the area.

The brief reign of Edwy, king in Wessex (955–9) records no hostage exchanges, but plenty of domestic politicking. Edwy’s grip on power subsided as his brother the young Edgar (959–75) gained acceptance in both Mercia and Northumbria and eventually Wessex itself. Edgar’s reign over England was one of peace bought by the threat to any enemy of overwhelming military force. A huge and energetic navy and a vast land army were enough for Edgar to concentrate on matters such as monastic reform and other political issues. In an act of overwhelming symbolism the king took an army to Chester. Here, at the edge of the old Roman world, King Edgar symbolically took the helm of a rowing vessel and was rowed by up to eight subservient leaders on a boat along the River Dee to the monastery of St John the Baptist. Oaths were sworn, and the promise from all these rulers was that they would be faithful to the king of the English and support him both on land and at sea. These men were Malcolm, king of the Cumbrians; Kenneth, king of the Scots; Maccus, king of ‘Many Islands’; Dunfal (Dunmail), king of Strathclyde; Siferth; Jacob (Iago of Gwynedd); Huwal (Jacob’s nephew and enemy); and one Juchil. Edgar’s passing remark after this event would ring in the ears of regional kings for centuries. Any of his successors, he said, could pride himself on being king of the English having such subservience beneath him.

On Edgar’s death in 975, Anglo-Saxon England was at its peak of power and influence. He was succeeded by his son Edward (975–9) whose reign leaves no record of hostage giving or oath taking. However, after Edward’s infamous murder at Corfe Castle and the rise to power of his half brother Æthelred II (979–1016) we enter a period of history whereby the role of the hostage once again leaps out from the pages of the chronicles and histories.

Æthelred’s reign was a little over eighteen months old when the Scandinavian raiders returned to England. Southampton was targeted first and we are told that many of the inhabitants were killed or taken prisoner. We are not told of the fate of these hostages, however. Nor are we told what happened to the people of Thanet in Kent and the region of Cheshire who also suffered similar fates. Soon, in 991, the Battle of Maldon would be played out in Essex between the local ealdorman Byrhtnoth and an invading Viking force. Here again, there is a mention of a hostage, but he is this time a Northumbrian hostage in the East Saxon Army. Pointedly, he is mentioned as having a bow, not a sword as one might expect. It is possibly an interesting glimpse into the equipment allowed for hostages when asked to participate in their captors’ campaigns.

Hostages were once again exchanged in 994 when the legendary Olaf Tryggvason and Swein of Denmark unsuccessfully attacked London. The chronicler Æthelweard, who, as we have observed, was a nobleman himself, played his own part in this negotiation as he and the Bishop of Winchester arranged for hostages to be sent to the Danish ships and for Olaf to be brought to King Æthelred for a baptism perhaps in the style of that which had happened to Guthrum all those years ago. Olaf’s interests would soon turn to Norwegian matters, but it remains the case that after this agreement with Æthelred, he never returned to England.

The later part of Æthelred’s reign saw the usage of hostages become widespread. Nothing, however, would quite match the drama of the fate of one man in particular whose fame throughout the northern Medieval world was eclipsed only by that of Thomas à Becket 150 years later. The Danish assault on Canterbury in September 1011 marked a notorious episode in the king’s reign. The Danes, when they entered the city, are supposed to have gone wild. Their rampage resulted in the capture of Ælfhere, the Archbishop of Canterbury and one Ælfweard, a king’s reeve, among others. Christchurch was plundered and countless people murdered in a long-remembered orgy of destruction.

The Danes stayed the winter in Canterbury. They suffered from illnesses brought about by the apparent unsanitary water supplies, but this much divine intervention was not enough to rid the English of their tormentors. It was, however, their key hostage whose fate attracted the attention of chroniclers. Not content with the silver offered to them to leave, they asked also for a ransom for the return of the archbishop. Ælfhere would have none of it. For his intransigence the pious archbishop was murdered at the hands of his captors in Greenwich. In a drunken frenzy, here at the termination of the Rouen to London wine trade route, one Dane pulverised the head of the archbishop with the butt end of his axe while the others hurled cattle skulls and bones at him on the hustings. The hideous event was carried out against the wishes of an observing Dane called Thorkell the Tall and it was an event that marked the beginning of a significant switch in Thorkell’s allegiance from the side of the Dane to that of the English king himself.

From the story of one famous hostage, we go to the handing over of countless people to the Danish King Swein in 1013. Swein, who had long harboured a bitter resentment against Æthelred, had sailed down the Humber and Trent to Gainsborough and called to him the men of Lindsey, those of the Danish Five Boroughs of the Danelaw (Nottingham, Stamford, Leicester, Lincoln and Derby) and Earl Uhtred of Northumbria. Their allegiance was cemented by supplies of hostages from ‘every shire’–a figure that must have been considerable. Some time after the hostages were given, Swein entrusted them to his son Cnut. It was a move that would have profound ramifications. Swein poured his forces south across Watling Street and fell upon Oxford, the townsfolk of which provided further hostages to him. Next, it was Winchester’s turn and in an embarrassing exchange for the English king, the Oxford story repeated itself. The beleaguered Æthelred and his new ally Thorkell remained in London, contemplating. It would not be long before the king would sail to Normandy, to the home of his wife Emma and into exile.

In February 1014 Swein unexpectedly died. He was succeeded as nominal king in England by his son Cnut. However, many Englishmen appealed to the exiled Æthelred to return to England and rule once again as their natural lord, although there would be conditions in the bargain. Æthelred did indeed return and not long after this he conducted a punitive campaign of destruction in Lindsey against the land of Cnut’s supporters. Cnut then decided to sail down the east coast of England to Sandwich where he dropped off those English hostages his father had passed to him, each with their hands, ears and noses cut off before they were put to shore. Then, after this grisly act, the would-be Danish king of England set sail for Denmark.

Cnut did, of course, return to England. Through the political machinations of one famously seditious Eadric Streona, a turncoat English earl, he secured a hold on power. But in an unlikely turnaround Edmund Ironside, the son of Æthelred, found himself with the support of the Danelaw (through marriage) ranged against Cnut and Eadric based in the south of England, the traditional strong areas for the family of Edmund. With a reluctant King Æthelred lying ill in London, there began a giant circle of campaigning across the country which also involved Uhtred of Northumbria, whose grisly end we have already observed. Soon Æthelred would die in London and there began a siege and subsequent campaigns in Wessex between Cnut and Edmund which eventually ended in a pyrrhic victory for the Dane.

The situation in London, if the chronicler Thietmar of Merseburg is to be believed, was full of dramatic bargaining. Emma of Normandy, Æthelred’s widow, was to hand over her sons ‘Ethmund’ (Edward) and ‘Athelstan’ (Alfred). These were her sons and heirs to the English throne, but they are both said to have escaped in a boat. A tangled tale then ensued involving the mutilation of a great many English hostages. We shall never know the truth about the fate of the hostages or their exact numbers. Thietmar has his critics when it comes to his accounts of these important events in London.

Further sieges at London and pitched battles in the countryside around Wessex between Edmund and Cnut followed this episode. Eadric Streona subsequently changed sides and when supporting Edmund bitterly betrayed him on the battlefield at Ashingdon. The agreement finally reached between Edmund and Cnut, at an island in the River Severn after they had fought each other to a standstill up to this point, saw the English king hold Wessex and the Dane hold the rest of the country including London. Once again, the agreement was sealed with hostages. There is also a hint in the sources that Edmund offered single combat to Cnut, but nothing is really known of it.

On 30 November 1016 Edmund Ironside died. The finger of suspicion surrounding his death was historically pointed at Eadric Streona, but no absolute proof has ever been offered. Cnut in an instant took the throne of the whole of England. Throughout his reign he ruthlessly dispatched his political enemies and always seemed to be aware of the potential of the popular appeal of the line of Cerdic, Æthelred’s ancient royal family. Political assassinations meant that his grip on power became stronger and there is no evidence of any significant hostage exchanges for many years. But in 1036, after Cnut died, there was one hostage whose fate was every bit as significant as that of Archbishop Ælfhere a quarter of a century earlier. Earl Godwin, a favourite English magnate of Cnut’s, whose new allegiance was very much in the camp of the new King Harold Harefoot (1036–40), was the main player in the drama of the murder of Alfred, son of Æthelred.

For the Normans, the death of Alfred would pretty much justify the entire Norman Conquest. Alfred, half Norman himself, was on his way to meet his mother Emma. Having landed at Dover and tracked his way towards Winchester, Alfred and his followers arrived at Guildford where they were met by Godwin and his men. Alfred was carried away and taken hostage to Ely where he was brutally blinded. The others were either killed or sold into slavery. It was a horrible affair. Although the Norman chroniclers never forgave Godwin for his role in the taking of Alfred, Godwin would later atone for it when Harthacnut (1040–2)–Alfred’s kinsman–came to power. As king of England, Harthacnut made Godwin stand trial for the crime and received from the powerful earl a magnificent ship complete with its warrior complement for his compensation.

The early years of Edward the Confessor’s reign (1042–66) saw no significant usage of hostages as such until 1046, when Earl Swein, the eldest son of Earl Godwin and whose new earldom bordered southern Wales, went into that country in force. He allied himself with Gruffydd ap Llewelyn, king of Gwynedd and Powys, and was granted hostages by his southern Welsh enemies. Their fate is unrecorded. The Godwin family would, however, continue to dominate the politics of King Edward’s reign, but it was with the old man Godwin that things would come to a head between king and earl and once again hostages would play their part.

There followed royal appointments of Normans, the building of castles in Herefordshire and Dover and one infamous visit to England by Eustace of Boulogne, whose men ran amok in the streets of Dover. These were just some of the reasons for the tensions between Godwin and King Edward. By 1051 Godwin had had enough of it all. He had raised a huge army from his own Wessex combined with Earl Swein’s men from Oxfordshire, Herefordshire, Somerset and Berkshire and Earl Harold’s men (the future king) from East Anglia, Essex, Huntingdon and Cambridgeshire. At Tetbury, just 15 miles away from a concerned King Edward, this force came together. A demand was sent to the king by the earl. There will be war unless the king gave him Eustace of Boulogne and the men ‘who were in the castle’, a reference possibly alluding to either the castellans of Dover or the notorious Herefordshire Normans. But against Godwin would be ranged the forces of Earl Siward of Northumbria and Earl Leofric of Mercia, plus a contingent of knights from Earl Ralph the local Norman. Once these forces had been gathered after urgent messages were sent to the north there was something of a stand-off. It seemed to those present that a battle between the finest men of England in a time of foreign interest in the English throne would be of such grave consequence that it should not be allowed to go ahead. The situation was therefore resolved with the exchange of hostages and the arrangement that there would be another meeting on 24 September between the protagonists in London.

Godwin fell back to Wessex in the meantime and the worried king took the time he had bought to raise a huge army from Earls Leofric and Siward’s lands and bring them to London for the meeting. This took around two weeks. At London the net was closing in on Godwin and his family. Godwin asked for safe passage when he was at Southwark, but this time the hostages were refused him. The upshot of the meeting was that he was outlawed along with Swein and Harold. They had to leave England. Before they did this however, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that the thegns of Harold were ‘bound over’ to the king, indicating that a shift in lordship bonds of Harold’s followers was part of the punishment. So, as a ship was prepared at Chichester Harbour the Godwin family sailed off to the court of Baldwin of Flanders, all except Harold who sailed via Bristol to Ireland. At this time it is thought that Wulfnoth, Harold’s brother, and Hakon, Earl Swein’s son, were given to the king as hostages. The way was clear for a young man from Normandy–Duke William–who had been promised the throne of England to pay a visit to Edward’s kingdom.

Godwin was no fool. On 22 June 1052 he left the Yser Estuary with a small fleet and evading Edward’s forty ships at Sandwich, he landed on the Kentish coast. His former men in Kent came to him as did the ship men of Hastings and the men of Sussex and Surrey who declared they would ‘live and die with him’. The earl’s son Harold joined forces with him and between them they gathered a force large enough to intimidate the king on his own doorstep in London. Godwin had made the most triumphant of returns. In the subsequent scramble for safety, the Norman Archbishop of Canterbury Robert of Jumièges may well have taken Wulfnoth and Hakon to Normandy as he and others fled the vengeful Godwin family, handing the hostages over to Duke William.

Godwin’s subsequent death in 1053 and the rise of his son Earl Harold set the scene for the years preceding the Conquest. Harold’s hostage-taking successes on his remarkable Welsh campaigns. Harold Godwinson’s contribution to the story of oath making, however, is legendary–if a little controversial. His journey to France in 1064 saw him unexpectedly fetch-up on the shores of Count Guy’s Ponthieu. The count could not believe his luck. It seems that Harold was on his way to William of Normandy presumably with King Edward’s promise of the English throne. However, Guy’s subsequent imprisonment of Harold before he reluctantly handed him over to William amounts to a very high-profile hostage taking. Guy almost certainly was holding out for a ransom as he presumably believed that as master of these dangerous lee shores he had such a right. But William would have none of it and took the English earl on a Breton campaign with him, holding him at court and making him his man. During this period the famous oath was extracted at Bonneville from Harold on ancient relics–a scene depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry–that Harold would support Duke William’s claim to the English throne. However, we should not forget that the kinsmen of Harold were hostages in the Norman court and the riches that Harold had taken with him on his ship may well have been to entice Wulfnoth and Hakon’s captor into releasing them, another possible motive behind the journey. Nor should we miss the contemporary historian William of Poitiers’ account that the oath swearing was not in fact as one sided as history has subsequently portrayed it. Harold had asked William that he recognise all of Harold’s land holdings in the event of the death of King Edward. We will never know what was really said or done in Bonneville that year, but the sources speak of a proposed marriage of Harold’s sister to a Norman noble and of Harold taking Agatha, William’s daughter for a bride. It is suggested by the Medieval historian Eadmer that William would allow Harold to return to England with Hakon and would release Wulfnoth once Harold had masterminded the succession of William to the throne. In the event, Harold did indeed return with Hakon, leaving Wulfnoth behind.

Harold’s subsequent elevation to the throne, his brother Tostig’s banishment and alliance with Harald Sigurdsson of Norway are the stuff of history. It all led to the invasion of Northumbria by Harald and Tostig and the opening battles of the tumultuous year of 1066. After Harald and Tostig’s victory over Earls Edwin and Morcar at Fulford Gate outside York on 20 September 1066, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that York gave hostages to the two victors, with the chronicler John of Worcester noting that 150 were exchanged on either side. If this is the case, it would seem Harald Sigurdsson, despite his victory, was in a mood to do business with Northumbria in his quest for the English throne. The need for further hostages was to be satisfied by a rendezvous at the junction of roads to the east of York. History would show that here at Stamford Bridge on the crossing of the Derwent the English King Harold and his men would be ahead of the allies and achieve a famous victory, but once again the issue of the hostage exchange plays centrally in the story. After the crushing and total defeat of the Norwegians at the hands of the English, the remnants who were allowed to sail away by King Harold included Earl Paul of Orkney, who dutifully left hostages behind promising, along with the son of the Norwegian king, never to return.

William the Conqueror’s usage of the hostage was no less effective. After the victory at Hastings, he extracted hostages from the remaining English nobility at Berkhamstead during a punitive campaign conducted around southern England. The submission of Edgar the Ætheling (with whom William would have a curiously long and troubled relationship) and the notable Londoners with him did not stop the countryside from being pillaged and burnt. A new era was dawning as England began to feel the effects of the Norman style of strategic warfare.

It can be seen that the history of Anglo-Saxon warfare is very well evidenced by an account of one of its chief mechanics–that of the hostage negotiation. Deals were broken, oaths sometimes meant nothing, treaties ignored. On other occasions, the method worked very well indeed. But always somewhere in the thick of it stood a hostage. Blinded, mutilated, incarcerated or sometimes just kept at court and treated well enough, the story of the hostage is the story of Anglo-Saxon warfare. We have observed many examples of the grim fate of hostages throughout the period. One is drawn to sympathise finally with a certain Æthelwine, nephew of Earl Leofric, whose mention in Hemming’s Cartulary (a list of charters and documents compiled around the time of the Norman Conquest) includes the fact that he had lost both hands while a hostage of the Danes. If our Æthelwine could ever have dictated his story, it would not have made pleasant reading for anyone.

Dark Age Warfare


655 Battle of Winwaed: Penda of Mercia was defeated by Oswiu of Northumbria. Although the battle was said to be the most important between the early northern and southern divisions of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, few details are available. Significantly, the battle marked the effective demise of Anglo-Saxon paganism.

Battle was a high-risk strategy. It brought matters to a decision and could save the country from the horrors of rampaging armies. On the other hand, if one lost a battle one risked losing everything, including, of course, one’s life. No quarter was given to high-status prisoners in the Dark Ages. Even kings were summarily knocked on the head. A sensible commander therefore did everything possible to avoid battle unless he was confident of winning. Battles tended to happen when two forces were more or less equally matched, or thought they were, or when the commander had run out of other options. The Dark Ages have plenty of examples of desperate measures taken to avoid battle with a superior force. King Oswy of Northumbria offered to buy off his enemy King Penda in 655. A few years before, his rival King Oswin of Deira had disbanded his army and sent them home rather than face Oswy in battle.

Once battle had become inevitable, Dark Age commanders would choose their ground carefully. When Penda refused to be bought off in 655, Oswy reduced the odds by deploying in a strong position on high ground, forcing Penda’s forces to advance through a flooded river valley. A striking number of Dark Age battles were fought by fords in rivers. Perhaps the river not only secured at least one flank but enabled the army to be supplied by boats. At Brunanburh one flank of Athelstan’s army was secured by a stream and the other by a wood. Finding a short line with secure flanks enabled a smaller army to negate the enemy’s superior numbers and create several lines of defence. Another consideration was to have somewhere to retreat if things went badly. For example, at Dyrham in 577 the British commanders probably fought in front of their hillfort, retreating behind its stout walls as they were pressed back. Not that, in this case, it did them much good.

Dark Age battle tactics are difficult to reconstruct for want of evidence. The only detailed account of a real battle is Maldon, where tactical considerations went no further than standing firm. The commander ‘bade his men make a war-hedge (wihagen) with their shields and hold it fast against the foe’. Like a hedge, the line would be long, straight and thin, and bristling with thorns – a thicket of spears. The more usual name for Maldon’s war-hedge was the shield-wall (bordweall). The line would stand to receive a charge behind overlapping shields with spearpoints projecting. The advancing enemy would see a line of wood and metal, eyes glinting between helmet and shield, and the only flesh on display being the lower legs. Breaking through this human wall would be akin to breaching the walls of a fort, and one source did indeed compare the Battle of Hastings with a siege.

Since everyone, whether Saxon, Briton or Viking, adopted shield-wall tactics in battle, the challenge was how to break through. If the commander had chosen his ground well, it would be impossible to outflank him. Sometimes, perhaps, the opposing shield-walls simply advanced towards one another and fought it out. However there is evidence that Roman tactics were familiar to Dark Age commanders through tracts such as that of Vegetius, written down in the early fifth century. As a means of breaking through, Vegetius recommended the wedge, a tactic particularly favoured by the Vikings who compared it with a charging boar and called it svinfylking or ‘swine-array’. Well-trained troops would mass in front of the shield-wall in wedge formation some ten lines deep. The wedge would then charge forward, keeping formation in order to penetrate the line with great force at a narrow point. Once the wall was broken more men would flood in and the enemy would be outflanked or even attacked from behind.

The correct way to prevent this, according to Vegetius, was to ‘swallow the charge’ by receiving it in a curved formation known as the forceps. It was easier to do this in a dense formation, but of course required training and a cool commander. Both the wedge and its countermeasures depended on firmness under fire and on fighting together as a well-drilled unit. How well drilled, in fact, were Dark Age armies? No drill manuals have come down to us. On the other hand, re-enactment experience suggests that formations can be taught basic proficiency in spear-and-shield warfare very quickly. Mastery of the basic moves – open order, forming ranks, advancing from column to line and turning about (in which the shield is passed over your head) – can be learnt in a day. In terms of basic drill, levied men could be turned into soldiers in a short time. To create a soldier who would stand firm in battle was another matter. There are many instances of a Dark Age army disintegrating under pressure. Morale depended on strong leadership and a sense of comradeship. Other requirements were personal fitness, which was probably high among the yeoman class, and courage. Re-enactments have confirmed another contemporary aspect of fighting – that, as the shield-walls lock together, it helps to shout! As anyone who attends football matches or has marched in large, noisy demonstrations will know, you lose your individuality in a pack, especially when you yell with the rest.

How did Dark Age armies find one another? Although hard evidence is scarce, it seems that armies of the period were highly mobile. King Harold famously marched from London to York in twelve days at some seventeen miles per day. This implies two things: that at least the flying columns of the force were mounted and that the roads and bridges were kept in good repair. From the striking correlation of Dark Age battle sites with Roman roads and major ancient tracks like the Ridgeway, it is evident that Dark Age armies made good use of roads. Perhaps this explains how kings like Oswald and Ecgfrith could campaign far from home without maps or a compass. They simply followed the roads. They also used scouts and presumably enlisted local people as guides, though recorded instances are hard to find from this period.

Shire armies seem to have been mustered at traditional outdoor assemblies or moots, such as Swanborough Tump in Wiltshire during Alfred’s Ashdown campaign or at Egbert’s Stone somewhere on or near the border of Gloucestershire and Wiltshire at the start of Alfred’s victorious campaign of 878. The shire reeves were responsible for ensuring that the men arrived on time and properly equipped. National service lasted for sixty days and, as the levies showed time and again, not a day longer. On more than one occasion, Alfred’s commanders had to let the Danes escape because the shire levies insisted on their rights and went home. This alone might explain why Dark Age commanders often seemed anxious to get the fighting over and done with.

To maintain speed the army marched as light as possible. Heavy war gear was carried in the rear in carts or by packhorses. Towns were expected to supply the army with food and other necessities as it marched. Bede confirms this with his story of the man who escaped death at the Battle of the Trent by pretending to be a civilian ferrying food supplies to the army. We are in the dark about living conditions on the march, but it seems that armies did bring tents with them. In Egiil’s Saga, Athelstan used his city of tents to confuse the enemy about his battle deployment. The saga might be fiction, but it would make no sense to its listeners had not tents been a normal part of army life.

We know little about battle formations in the Dark Ages. Large armies were evidently divided into sub-units, serving under different lords. From the ninth century, the shire levies were led in battle by their respective reeves, as at Ringmere in 1010 when the men of Cambridgeshire and East Anglia fought in separate divisions. Men of the top social class, royalty or ealdormen, fought among their hearth-troops who were expected to defend their lord to the death. Ealdorman Byrhtnoth at Maldon probably acted in the way expected of Dark Age commanders by putting himself in a prominent position in the centre of the line where his banner would be visible to the rest of his force.

Victory or defeat in a Dark Age battle depended on moral as well as physical strength. The professional Dark Age warrior, hearth trooper or mercenary, married late, if at all. The prime of his manhood was spent in the service of his lord, and he spent his leisure in the company of men, hunting, hawking and drinking. He lived on the cusp between the fiction of the sagas and praise poetry and the hard facts of military life: the former informed him of the way he was expected to behave, the latter of how heroic ideals worked out in practice. He repaid the mead he drank and the gifts he received by absolute loyalty and devoted service. One is bound to wonder: did the Dark Age warrior fear death in battle? It has been suggested that he was a fatalist: what will be, will be, and better to die gloriously than to live dishonourably. To fall in battle was considered an honourable death. Some warriors, especially the Welsh, thought that to die in bed was a disgrace. The trouble is that we do not know these people very well except through the doubtlessly idealized form of poetry. Although they might have been expected to conform to a heroic stereotype, the Battle of Maldon shows us that there were good and bad apples in every barrel. Some did indeed live and die according to their oaths. Others, it is clear, did not.




Visigoths and Ostrogoths fight each other on the Catalaunian fields.


Ostrogoths Siege of Rome AD 537

A barbarian people whose name means “Goths of the rising sun,” or “Goths glorified by the rising sun,” or simply “East Goths,” the Ostrogoths played an important role in the history of the later Roman Empire. Identified as early as the first century by Roman writers, the Ostrogoths were at first part of a larger population of Goths that included the Visigoths. During the third century, the larger Gothic population came into contact, often violent, with the Roman Empire. Defeated by the empire, with which they then cultivated better relations, the Goths divided into eastern and western groups, the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths, and their subsequent histories diverged. For the Ostrogoths, as well as the Visigoths, history in the fourth and fifth centuries was shaped by the movements of the Huns and the rise and fall of the great Hunnish empire of Attila. In the fifth century, a reconstituted Ostrogothic tribe formed into a powerful group led by kings. The most famous and important of these kings, Theodoric the Great, participated in political life in the Eastern Roman Empire and created a successor kingdom in Italy in the late fifth and early sixth century. Despite the qualities of Theodoric and the strength of his kingdom, the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy did not long survive the death of Theodoric. In the 530s, the great emperor Justinian sought to conquer the Western Empire, which had fallen under barbarian control in 476. For some twenty years, Justinian’s soldiers and generals fought Ostrogothic armies before finally defeating them, destroying Theodoric’s creation, and essentially eliminating the Ostrogoths as a people and a force in history.

Ancient accounts record that Gothic history began in 1490 b.c., when a Gothic king led his people in three boats from Scandinavia to the mouth of the Vistula River. Eventually the Goths moved to the area between the Don and Danube Rivers, before being forced out in the mid-third century a.d. by the Huns. The traditional accounts of the origins of the Goths by ancient historians like Jordanes, however, are not generally accepted. The origins of the Goths are no longer traced to Scandinavia but rather to Poland, where archeological discoveries place a sophisticated, but nonliterate, culture. It was from there that the Goths moved, after which move they made contact with the Roman Empire. In the third century the Goths had repeated clashes with the empire, winning some and putting the empire, already in serious straits, into even greater jeopardy. Roman emperors gradually turned the tide and nearly destroyed the Goths. In the wake of these defeats, however, tradition holds that a great king emerged, Ostrogotha, in circa 290, who founded the kingdom of the Ostrogoths. Although it is unlikely that Ostrogotha existed, it is at that point that the division of the Goths into two groups occurred.

In the fourth century the two groups, the Tervingi, or Visigoths, and Greuthingi, or Ostrogoths, had more or less come to terms with the empire. By the 370s, however, the relationship between the various Gothic groups and the empire changed as they faced the threat of the Huns. Prior to the arrival of the Huns, King Ermanaric, a member of the Amal clan, had created a substantial kingdom in eastern Europe. He led the struggle against the Huns but was defeated by them, and in 375 he sacrificed himself to the gods in the hopes of saving his people from the Huns. His successor and some of the Goths continued the struggle against the Huns for another year before they were conquered and absorbed by them. From the end of the fourth to the middle of the fifth century, the Greuthingi/Ostrogoths remained part of the Hunnish empire and fought in the armies of the greatest Hun, Attila.

After the death of Attila, however, the fortune and composition of the Ostrogoths underwent a change. Most scholars believe that the Ostrogoths of this period are unrelated to earlier groups identified as Ostrogoths. Whatever the relationship is, in the mid-fifth century under the king Valamir, an Amal, the Ostrogoths emerged from domination by the Huns. Valamir exploited the confused situation in the empire of the Huns after Attila’s death in 453 and the defeat of Attila’s successor at the Battle of Nedao in 454. Although Valamir and his Goths most likely fought with the Huns against other subject peoples, the Ostrogoths emerged as an independent people because of the collapse of the Huns not long after the battle. Valamir then faced other rivals and endured further attacks by the Huns before their ultimate demise; he died in battle against the Gepids in 468/469.

Valamir was succeeded by his brother Thiudimer, who moved his followers into Roman territory, where they became foederati (federated allies) of the empire and came into contact with another group led by the Ostrogothic king Theodoric Strabo, or the Squinter. The two groups struggled against each other for preeminence and for preference before the emperor. The empire itself, however, underwent important changes during this period. In the 470s a new emperor, Zeno, came to power in Constantinople, and the emperor in Italy was deposed and the imperial line ended by the barbarian Odovacar in 476. These changes among the Ostrogoths and within the empire had an important bearing on the future of the Ostrogothic people.

In 473 Thiudimer died and was succeeded by his son Theodoric the Amal, or later known as the Great, who had been named successor in 471. Prior to his nomination, Theodoric had spent ten years in Constantinople as a hostage of the emperor. During that period Theodoric learned a great deal about the empire and its customs and culture, even though it appears that he did not learn to write. Upon assuming power, he found himself in competition with the other Theodoric, whose followers had revolted against the emperor in 471 and again in 474. The later revolt was part of a palace coup against the new emperor, Zeno, who turned to the Amal for support. In order to ensure that neither group of Ostrogoths or their leaders became too powerful, Zeno also began to negotiate with Theodoric settled a treaty with Theodoric Strabo in 479. The hostilities between the two Theodorics were settled for a time, too, as the two closed ranks against the emperor. In 481, Strabo attacked Constantinople but failed to take it or depose the emperor. Shortly thereafter he was killed when his horse reared and threw him onto a rack of spears. Theodoric the Amal was the beneficiary of his occasional ally and rival’s death. Although Strabo was succeeded by Rechitach, his followers gradually joined with Theodoric the Amal, who had Rechitach murdered in 484.

Theodoric the Amal, or the Great, to give him his more familiar name, was able to create a great Ostrogothic power that quickly threatened the power of Emperor Zeno. The Ostrogothic king continued the struggle with Zeno, which was resolved for a time in 483, with the emperor making great concessions to the king. Indeed, Theodoric was made a Roman citizen, given the title of patrician, and awarded a consulship for the next year. The Ostrogoths were given a grant of land within the empire. But it occurred to Zeno that he could not trust the rising power of Theodoric, and he replaced him as consul, an event followed by renewed hostilities between the Ostrogoths and the empire. Theodoric’s revolt in 485 put further pressure on Zeno, who responded by offering Theodoric the opportunity to lead the assault on Odovacar, the barbarian king in Italy since 476. This assignment, which Theodoric himself had first suggested in 479, was beneficial to both king and emperor and one that Theodoric quickly accepted.

In 488–489 Theodoric led his Ostrogoths, probably numbering some 100,000 people, against Odovacar in Italy. The struggle between the two leaders lasted until 493; it was a hard fought war, with Theodoric winning the battles but unable to take his rival’s capital of Ravenna. Indeed, after losing two battles Odovacar established himself in the capital, from which he ventured out to meet Theodoric on the field of battle. Odovacar’s hand was strengthened by one of his generals, who joined Theodoric but then rejoined Odovacar, slaying the Gothic warriors who were with him. As a result Odovacar was able to take the offensive, but only for a short while, until Theodoric was reinforced by a Visigothic army. In the early 490s Theodoric gradually took control of Italy and forced Odovacar to come to terms. On February 25, 493, the two leaders agreed to terms that were to be celebrated at a great banquet. Theodoric apparently agreed to share power with his rival, but at the banquet he killed Odovacar, and Theodoric’s followers killed the followers of Odovacar in a bloody massacre that ended the war and brought control of Italy to Theodoric.

After his victory, Theodoric was hailed king of Italy, but at first he had to refuse the title in favor of patrician of Italy. The new emperor Anastasius I (r. 491–518) refused to recognize the title of king, with its implications of Theodoric’s independence, reminding him that he held power at the discretion of the emperor. Ultimately, however, Theodoric was recognized as king in Constantinople and ruled Italy until his death in 526. His reign was highly beneficial for Italy, and his relationship with the native Roman population was generally good, despite his Arianism and the Romans’ Catholicism. He preserved much of the traditional Roman administration, as had Odovacar, and cooperated with the Senate. He ensured the food supply to Italy and patronized Boethius and Cassiodorus as part of a cultural revival. He was also an active builder throughout Italy, erecting public monuments and churches as well as his famous palace and mausoleum in Ravenna. His activities were not limited to Italy, however, but included an ambitious foreign policy that saw him establish hegemony over the Vandals in Africa and the Visigoths in Spain. In competition with Clovis in northern Europe, Theodosius was able to limit the Merovingian king’s expansion into southern Gaul. Although in name only a king, Theodoric, as contemporaries admitted, ruled as effectively as any emperor.

Theodoric’s later years and the years following his death were marked by increasing turmoil, leading to the eventual fall of the Ostrogothic kingdom. This situation was due in part to changes in the Eastern Empire, as well as to mistakes on his own part. In 518 a new emperor, Justin, assumed the throne and brought an end to a period of doctrinal uncertainty in the empire. He was a Catholic Christian who promoted traditional orthodox teaching, and in 523 he prohibited Arianism in the empire. The support for orthodox teaching and stability in doctrine restored the Italian population’s faith in imperial leadership. Moreover, Theodoric was further challenged in matters of religion by the success of the Catholic Clovis against the Visigoths. His concerns were heightened by an alleged plot involving a number of senators, including his advisor Boethius. He ordered Boethius executed and at the same time imprisoned the pope, who had just returned from an embassy to Constantinople. These actions strained relations with his Roman subjects and darkened an otherwise enlightened reign.

Theodoric’s situation was worsened by his lack of a male heir, and just prior to his death he encouraged his followers to accept his widowed daughter, Amalswintha, as regent for his grandson Athalaric. At first Theodoric’s wishes were accepted, but gradually the Ostrogothic nobility turned against Amalswintha. Although she was praised for her intelligence and courage, the nobility were divided over her guidance of Athalaric and her pro-Roman foreign policy. When Athalaric reached his majority in 533, a number of nobles sought to persuade him to turn on his mother. The rebellion was nearly successful. Amalswintha requested a ship from Emperor Justinian to take her to Constantinople, but ultimately stayed and triumphed over her rivals. She married a cousin, Theodohad, in 534 to stabilize the throne, but her husband failed to remain loyal to her, and Athalaric died that same year. Her arrest and murder, which was inspired, according to the fifth-century Byzantine historian Procopius, by Justinian’s wife Theodora out of jealousy, provided the emperor with the pretext for his invasion of Italy.

Justinian’s invasion of Italy, led at first by Belisarius and later Narses, opened the final chapter of the history of the Ostrogoths. The Gothic Wars, which lasted from 534 to 552, were devastating for both Italy and the Ostrogoths. The opening phase of the war saw rapid victories and much success for the invading armies, in part because of the weakness of Theodohad. Belisarius reached Rome in 536, and Theodohad was deposed in favor of Witigis. The rise of Witigis and the arrival of a second Byzantine general, Narses, slowed imperial progress. When Narses was recalled, Belisarius went on the offensive again and may have forced Witigis to take desperate measures, which possibly included Belisarius’s acceptance of the imperial title. Although this remains uncertain, Belisarius was recalled in 540 and took the Ostrogothic king with him. In 541, Witigis was replaced as king by Totila.

Under Totila’s leadership, the Ostrogoths fought back successfully and prolonged the war for another eleven years. Totila was able to win back territory in Italy from Byzantine armies and forced the return of Belisarius in 544. In 545 Totila began a siege of Rome; he occupied it in 546, laying waste to the city in the process. Control of the city swung back and forth between the two sides for the rest of the war, which Belisarius was unable to conclude, despite putting great pressure on his rival, because of inadequate supplies and soldiers. Belisarius was recalled in 548, at his own request, and replaced by Narses two years later. Narses demanded sufficient resources to bring the war to a swift conclusion and got them. In 552 Narses won the Battle of Busta Gallorum, at which Totila was killed and organized Gothic resistance was ended. Although Totila had a successor as king and pockets of Ostrogoths resisted until 562, the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy was crushed by the Byzantine invasion. The Ostrogoths ceased to be an independent people, and the last of the Ostrogoths were probably absorbed by the Lombards during their invasion of Italy in 568.


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Wood, Ian. The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450-751. London: Longman, 1994.


With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the latter fifth century A.D. the rule of empire vanished in northern Europe, and with it for a time an integrated market economy in the Mediterranean, North Africa, and Asia. The absence of the legions to provide security in the countryside against brigands and invaders at first led to ever greater disruption of farmland, while massive fortifications, not the courage of soldiers in open battle, were seen as the more reliable defense of the cities. The lack of central taxation meant that aqueducts, terraces, bridges, and irrigation canals were not properly maintained and often abandoned, leading not merely to the loss of potable water in the cities but also to a decline in agricultural productivity as valleys silted up and terraced land eroded.

The erosion of central imperial government and the collapse of urban culture also meant an end to large standing armies. Italy, Spain, Gaul, and Britain, in the absence of authority from Rome, were convulsed by a series of invasions and migrations by Vandals, Goths, Lombards, Huns, Franks, and Germans. Yet the victorious newcomers by the sixth and seventh centuries were no longer nomadic, but often had settled permanently in Roman territory, gradually converted to Christianity, learned some Latin, and carved out petty kingdoms guided loosely by the old Roman bureaucratic and legal tradition. If the new armies of western Europe were tiny and fragmented in comparison to Rome and often ensconced in fortified castles and towns, they nonetheless continued to rely on levies of heavy infantrymen fighting in columns, not tribal swarming, when it became necessary to engage in decisive battles.

The final collapse of Rome also brought a population decline in western Europe; and economic activity was lethargic for much of the so-called Dark Ages between 500 and 800. Christianity began to encroach on public and private lands, requiring enormous acreages to support monasteries, churches, and nunneries, whose clergy in the strict economic sense were not especially productive. If the estates of the old Roman patricians were sometimes unwisely expropriated for horse raising by the aristocracy of Franks and Lombards, then similarly the church also used the harvests from scarce and precious farmland to support a vast bureaucracy and an ambitious building program. By the end of the fifth century A.D., no single kingdom from Lombard Italy to Visigoth Spain could muster an army the size of the Roman force that had been annihilated at Cannae seven hundred years earlier.

Yet the fall of Rome often spread, rather than destroyed outright, classical civilization, as the fragments of empire slowly recovered and kept alive the cultural core of the old West. Writing continued. Even literature and scientific investigation were never completely lost. Latin remained the universal script of government, religion, and law from Italy to the North Sea. The Dark Ages (the term originally referred to the dearth of written knowledge that survived about the era) were characterized not so much by the chaos of an empire fallen as by the new diffusion of much of classical culture—language, architecture, military practices, religion, and economic expertise—into northern Europe, especially Germany, France, England, Ireland, and Scandinavia.

Islam had spread in the south and east by the creation of an entirely new theocratic state; in contrast, the remnants of classical culture, fused with Christianity, advanced throughout western and northern Europe due to the collapse of the Roman Empire. “Despite the resulting turmoil and destruction,” Henry Pirenne pointed out in regard to the supposed end of Roman civilization in northern Europe during the fifth century A.D., “no new principles made their appearance either in the economic or social order, nor in the linguistic situation, nor in the existing institutions. What civilization survived was Mediterranean” (Mohammed and Charlemagne, 284).

The sixth and seventh centuries actually saw improvements. Throughout the latter decades of the Roman Empire, there had been a gradual displacement of agrarians, concentrations of huge amounts of wealth, and constant class strife in the cities. The continuance of classical culture in ancient Gaul in the sixth through eight centuries, even under radically different and troubled material conditions, often meant that local government was more responsive to rural problems than had been Rome in its last two centuries. Under the Merovingians and Carolingians there nowhere reappeared the vast numbers of slaves that had characterized Roman civilization (by the fourth century A.D. in certain parts of the empire nearly a quarter of the population had been servile). Though Roman wealth and nationhood were gone for a time from the West, the deadly military tradition of classical antiquity was nevertheless kept alive. Most of the great military discoveries in both weaponry and tactics to come in the next millennium would originate in Europe—the continuing dividends of the Western approach to the dissemination of empirical data, the scientific method, and free inquiry.

“Greek fire” emerged at Byzantium somewhere around 675. Although the exact ingredients and their ratios of mixture remain unknown to this day, the torrent of flame that was shot out of Byzantine galleys was apparently a potent fusion of naphtha, sulfur, petroleum, and quicklime that could not be extinguished by water—a nearly unquenchable toxic spume that could incinerate enemy ships in seconds. Equally ingenious as the chemistry of Greek fire was its method of delivery, which involved a keen knowledge of pumps, pressurization, and mechanical engineering. A sealed container was heated from below with fuel and bellows and injected with forced air from a pump. Then the compressed mixture was forced out another outlet into a long bronze tube. The jellied mass was ignited at the end of the barrel, resulting in a sea of continuous flame spurting out from this ancient flamethrower. Ships with such fiery contraptions allowed the small Byzantine navy mastery of the eastern Mediterranean and saved Constantinople itself on occasion—none more dramatic than Leo III’s incineration of the Islamic armada of the caliph Sulaymān in 717 in waters surrounding the capital.

Controversy surrounds the exact origins of the stirrup—it may have been originally of Asian design—but by A.D. 1000 most Western cavalrymen were employing new saddles equipped with stirrups, even if they learned of their use via the Arabs, who had copied the original designs either from the Byzantines or by trading with the Orient in the early seventh century. Under the western European kingdoms, the stirrup was envisioned not merely as an aid to horse mastery but as integral to the emergence of a new lance-bearing knight, who could for the first time absorb the shock of spearing a fixed target on the gallop without being thrown from his mount. While such lancers could never break true infantry, small corps could easily ride down isolated groups of foot soldiers during both attack and retreat. The stirrup meant not that western European militaries were dominated by heavy lancers, but that their mostly infantry armies, at key moments in the battle—when gaps appeared in enemy lines or during the rout—could send out small corps of deadly horsemen to slaughter with impunity light infantrymen and poorly organized foot soldiers.

The crossbow—in use throughout Europe by 850—was a smaller-sized derivative of the classical “belly-bow,” through substitution of a handheld crank for large torsion cables and sprockets. Scholars cite the crossbow’s deficiencies in comparison with either the later English long-bow or the Eastern composite bow, both of which had greater range and rates of fire. The crossbow, however, required far less training to use than either, did not tire the archer to the same degree as hand-pulled bows, and its smaller all-metal bolts had greater penetrating power at short ranges. Crossbow bolts alone were able to slice through the heavy chain mail of the knight, and meant that a relatively poor man without much training could kill both an aristocratic horseman and his armored mount in seconds for the cost of a tiny metal projectile. Consequently, the church often issued edicts against its use—a doomed prospect of technological repression with no heritage in the West—and finally retreated to the position that crossbows should be outlawed in all intramural wars between Christians.

Siege engines underwent constant improvement. After 1180, vast catapults were powered by counterbalances rather than torsion alone. Such trebuchets often had ten-ton counterweights and could throw stones of three hundred pounds well over one hundred yards, exceeding the delivery weight of the old Roman traction catapults fivefold, while maintaining nearly the same range. In turn, fortifications were built entirely of stone and to heights unimagined by classical engineers, replete with intricate towers, crenellations, and interior keeps. It was not merely that European castles and walls were larger and stouter than those in Africa and the Near East, they were more numerous as well, due to improvements in the cutting, transportation, and lifting of stone. Plate armor, common by 1250, was also a European specialty, ensuring that most European knights and infantrymen were far better protected than their Islamic opponents. When gunpowder was introduced from the Chinese in the fourteenth century, Europe alone was able to craft dependable and heavy cannon—Constantinople fell in 1453 through the efforts of Western-fabricated artillery—and handheld matchlock weapons in any great number. So, too, fully rigged, multisailed ships were common in European waters by 1430, and were superior to any vessels in either the Ottoman or the Chinese navies.

Key to this continuing Western ability to craft good weapons, along with fluid and innovative tactical doctrine, was the embrace of published military research, which married theory with field experience to offer pragmatic advice to commanders in the field. The late Roman handbooks of Frontinus, and to a greater extent Vegetius, were copied even throughout the Dark Ages and became a bible of sorts to many western European warlords. Rabanus Maurus, the ninth-century archbishop of Mainz, published an annotated De re militari specifically to improve Frankish warfare. For the next four hundred years, adaptations and translations of Vegetius appeared throughout Europe by Alfonso X (1252–84), Bono Gimaboni (1250), and Jean de Meung (1284).

European siegecraft itself was unmatched, precisely because it followed in the past tradition of classical poliorkētika (the arts of “polis enclosing”). Manuals such as the Mappae Clavicula instructed besiegers in the use of engines and incendiary devices. The emperors Maurice (Ars militaris) and Leo VI (Tactica) outlined Byzantine infantry and naval tactics in preparing manuals for their generals and admirals to keep the Mediterranean Sea and its harbors free from Arab fleets. In contrast, Islamic writing on war was rarely abstract or theoretical—or even practical—but more holistic and philosophical, and largely concerned itself with the proper rules and conduct of the jihad.

Among the early Franks this need to write about war and to publish manuals about its practice were in direct emulation of Roman and Greek thinkers. Military practice did not operate in a vacuum, but was closely connected to the presence of an educated elite familiar with classical ideas of military organization and weaponry. Under the Carolingians, a systematic approach was undertaken to the preservation of classical manuscripts, along with efforts to assure education in the Greco-Roman tradition:

Though defined by religion, Europe was also a community of scholars who read and wrote the same Latin language and who rescued a great part of the legacy of antiquity from irretrievable loss. In the ninth and tenth centuries, schoolmasters devised a new curriculum of studies based in part on the classics that they had rediscovered. In doing so they laid the foundations of educational practices for centuries. (P. Riché, The Carolingians, 361)

In addition, the historiographic tradition of Greece and Rome continued in the Christian East and West, especially the Hellenic and Roman propensities of Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, and Tacitus to see history largely as the story of war and politics. Thus, Gregory of Tours (534–94, History of the Franks), Procopius (born ca. 500, History of the Wars of Justinian), Isidore of Seville (History of the Goths, written 624), and Venerable Bede (672–735, Ecclesiastical History of England ) all provided anthropological detail about various tribes as part of larger exegeses of intercultural conquests and defeats. The works of hundreds of other lesser-known chroniclers and compilers circulated throughout Europe, the sheer number of titles unmatched by anything published elsewhere.

There were numerous early Islamic historians, many of whom were candid and remarkably critical, but few saw history as really existing before the era of the Prophet (thus the maxim “Islam cancels all that was before it”). And the parameters of inquiry were limited by the Koran, whose literary and historical primacy tolerated no competition from mere mortals. Contrary to classical historiography—there seems to be little evidence of any early Arabic translation of the major Greek historians— lapses in morality, not tactical blunders or structural flaws, were cited as reasons for Islamic defeats. After Poitiers, Arab chroniclers, as would be true of Ottoman observers in the aftermath of Lepanto, attributed the Muslim slaughter to their own wickedness and impiety that had brought on the wrath of Allah.

The horse-drawn, iron-tipped plow first emerged in Europe, allowing farmland to be broken up more quickly and deeply than with the old wooden blades drawn by oxen. The ability to farm more efficiently gave Westerners greater food and opportunity than their counterparts to the south and east. By the end of the twelfth century, windmills, which were unlike anything in the Near East or Asia, appeared in England and northern Europe. With a rotating horizontal axis and a system of gears, such machines could mill wheat at rates unimagined either in classical antiquity or the contemporary non-West. Improved water wheels—more than 5,000 in eleventh-century England alone—were used not only to grind grain but to manufacture paper, cloth, and metal. The result was that Western armies were able to campaign farther from home—both because they could take greater amounts of supplies with them and because farmers could go on campaigns for longer periods. Historians often remark on the unruliness of Crusader armies, constant bickering in command, horrendous camp conditions, and the occasional imbecility of their tactics, forgetting that the transportation and supply of thousands of soldiers to the other side of the Mediterranean was a feat of logistical genius unmatched by Islamic armies of the day.

Science and technology alone did not save the smaller and more fragmented western European armies from their adversaries. The classical traditions of infantry organization and landed musters were kept alive as well. Military command and discipline followed Roman tradition, and so naturally nomenclature remained Greek and Latin. Byzantine emperors, in the manner of Macedonian lords, addressed their soldiers as systratiōtai— “comrades-in-arms.” Generals, as in classical Greece, remained stratēgoiand soldiers stratiōtai, while in the West free soldiers were milites, both pedites (foot soldiers) and equites (knights). Citizens continued to be recruited under legal and published codes of conduct—the so-called “capitularies”—with explicit rights and responsibilities.

Charles Martel’s army was not as disciplined or as large as a Roman consular army, but the manner in which its heavily armed spearmen and swordsmen were mustered, attacked on foot, and kept in rank was consistent with the classical tradition. Campaigns required the approval of assemblies, and rulers were subject to audit after battle.

By the end of the eighth century two seemingly insurmountable obstacles that had once weakened the old Roman imperial levies of the fifth and sixth centuries A.D.—the failure of Roman citizens to serve in their own armies, and the religious strictures against civic militarism and wars of conquest by the early Christian church—were beginning to erode. Augustine had composed his City of God after the sack of Rome in A.D. 410 to associate divine punishment with the sins of Romans. Even earlier, a few Christian emperors, like Gratian, had dismantled public statues and commemoration of military victory as somehow antithetical to Christ’s message of peace and forgiveness. Yet by early medieval times the earlier pacifism of the Roman church fathers like Tertullian (Ad martyres, De corona militis), Origen (Exhortatio ad martyrium, De Principiis), and Lactantius (De mortibus persecutorum) was often ignored, as the creed of the Old Testament and its idea of wars against the unbelievers regained primacy over the message of the Gospels. Thomas Aquinas, for example, could outline the conditions of “just” Christian wars, in which the cause of the conflict could make war a moral Christian enterprise. Christianity would never exhibit the martial fervor of Islam, but during the Dark Ages it more or less curbed its early pacifist pretenses and its distance from the affairs of worldly politicians. The military of Joshua and Samson, not the loving remonstrations of Jesus, was invoked to keep Islam at bay.

Franks, Lombards, Goths, and Vandals may have been tribal, and their armies were poorly organized; yet such “barbarians” nevertheless shared a general idea that as freemen of their community they were obligated to fight—and free to profit from the booty of their enemies. In that sense of civic militarism, they were more reminiscent of the old classical armies of a republican past than had been the hired imperial legionaries on Rome’s defensive frontier:

The massive reliance on citizen-soldiers in the West lowered the demands on the central government for expenditures to support the military. . . . Indeed, the flexibility of the West in building on developments that took place during the later Roman Empire resulted in immense military strengths, which, for example, proved their worth in the success for two centuries of the crusader states against overwhelming odds. (B. Bachrach, “Early Medieval Europe,” in K. Raaflaub and N. Rosenstein, eds., War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds, 294)

The legions had crumbled not because of organizational weaknesses, technological backwardness, or even problems of command and discipline, but because of the dearth of free citizens who were willing to fight for their own freedom and the values of their civilization. Such spirited warriors the barbarians had, and when they absorbed the blueprint of Roman militarism, a number of effective local Western armies arose—as the Muslims learned at Poitiers.

Second Arab Siege of Constantinople in 717–718


umayyads 750ad



Date: August 717–15 August 718.

Location: on the Sea of Marmara, modern Istanbul.

Forces Engaged:

Byzantine: unknown. Commander: Emperor Leo the Isaurian.

Muslim: 210,000. Commander: Maslama.


Defeat of Muslim forces in their first serious attempt to overpower the Byzantine Empire led to another seven centuries of Christian power in southeastern Europe.

Historical Setting

Constantine the Great established the city of Constantinople as his capital in 323. In doing so, he occupied the former city of Byzantium, which for centuries had controlled the straits separating Asia and Europe. The Sea of Marmara is flanked northeast and southwest by the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, two narrow straits linking the Mediterranean and the Black seas. Unless one goes completely around the Black Sea, the passage from Europe into Asia Minor is across one of those straits. Therefore, Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul has been an extremely strategic possession for both land and naval warfare, as well as overland and maritime trade. As Rome faded and Constantinople rose in power, it became the seat of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire.

Muhammad the Prophet founded Islam in Arabia in the seventh century. Claiming his divinely inspired teachings, the Koran, to be the successor to the Bible and the fulfillment of God’s plan for humanity, he spread his faith by both proselytization and warfare. By coincidence (or divine intervention) Muhammad arrived on the scene just as the two Middle Eastern powers, Persia and the Byzantine Empire, had fought each other to an exhausted standstill. He was therefore able to acquire massive territorial gains hand in hand with the spread of his faith. Both Persians and Byzantines suffered major losses of real estate as well as major losses of converts to Islam, who found it less oppressive than the ultraconservative Orthodox Church.

Muhammad the Prophet had a public career of ten years (622–632), then died without publicly naming a successor. His close associate Abu Bakr was elected to succeed him but ruled only two years; upon his death Omar reigned as caliph (“deputy”), the religious and political head of Islam. For ten years Omar oversaw Islam’s expansion into Byzantine territory, Persia, Syria, modern Iraq, and Egypt. It spread further still under the caliphate of Othman (644–656), ultimately stretching west to the Atlantic shore of North Africa as well as east to Armenia and Afghanistan. After he was assassinated Islam split into two major factions: the followers of Muhammad’s nephew Ali became the Shi’ites, while the supporters of the Syrian governor Muawiya started the Sunni faction. Muawiya established the Umayyad dynasty, which ruled from Damascus between 661 and 750.

Muawiya’s goal was the downfall of the Christian Byzantine Empire, for reportedly whoever was involved in capture of the capital city of Constantinople would have all his sins forgiven. Intermittently between 674 and 678 Muslim forces attempted to capture the city, by both land and sea, but the double walls protecting it proved too formidable. Muawiya settled for a peace treaty with the Byzantine emperor, which provided for an annual tribute from Damascus to Constantinople. For the next thirty years Muslim armies carried the faith as far as Spain and India, but the lure of Constantinople, the key to Europe, always beckoned. Caliph Walid (705–715) organized the forces necessary to seize the city, but died before the project began. Thus, his successor Suleiman sent men and ships to the Byzantine capital in 717.

The Byzantine Empire had suffered through a series of mediocre emperors since the last assault. Anastasius was now emperor. He came to the throne in 713 and was in the market for able soldiers to defend his realm. In his army served a general named Conon, better known as Leo the Isaurian. (He was probably from Syria rather than the Anatolian province of Isauria [modern Konia], however.) He had been a soldier since 705 and in 716 took command of the theme (district) of Anatolia. He harried the approaching Muslim army as it marched out of Syria toward Constantinople, then took the throne from Anastasius in March 717. Crowned Leo III, he immediately set about laying in as many provisions as he could for the siege he knew was coming, a daunting task for a city of perhaps half a million people. He also oversaw the repair and strengthening of the city’s two walls and the placement of weaponry to repel attacks from land or sea.

The Siege

Caliph Suleiman named Muslama as commander of his army, reportedly 80,000 men marching through Anatolia toward Constantinople. His plan was to invest the city from the western, landward side while a huge fleet blocked any supplies from reaching the city. That fleet numbered some 1,800 ships carrying a further 80,000 men under the command of a general named Suleiman, not to be confused with the caliph. The Muslim fleet was divided into two divisions: one to blockade the Dardanelles (or Hellespont) and keep any relief from coming to Constantinople from the Mediterranean, and one to hold the Bosphorus to the north, keeping out any relief from Black Sea ports. Muslama crossed the Hellespont in July 717, then divided his forces. He took command of the main body that began the siege, while sending a detachment to Adrianople to keep an eye on the Bulgars, who had been pillaging through southeastern Europe and had attacked Constantinople in 712.

Immediately upon his arrival Muslama threw an attack against the walls, but it was easily beaten back. That convinced him against undertaking a frontal assault, so he began digging trenches to prevent any breakout from the city. Most of the fighting, therefore, took place on the water. Admiral Suleiman left part of his navy at the Dardanelles, as ordered, but led the remainder northward to take up station on the Hellespont. As they approached Constantinople, however, the leading ships were caught in a swift and unfamiliar current that began to tangle them. Seizing his opportunity, Leo quickly lowered the chain that protected the Golden Horn (the upper harbor of the city) and dashed out into the Muslim fleet before they could form into line of battle. Using Greek fire, his ships quickly destroyed or captured a large number of vessels while the rest retreated. Suleiman feared sailing past the city now, for another such battle could destroy the rest of his fleet. Thus, the northern avenue for aid for a time was kept open.

The Muslim effort was off to a poor start, and soon bad news came from Damascus. Caliph Suleiman had died of a stomach ailment (probably from overeating) and Omar II, not known for his military acumen, had replaced him. For the next several months little happened except for bad luck. The winter of 717–718 was much colder than usual and snow lay on the ground for more than three months. For an army born and raised in Arabia and Egypt this was disconcerting at best, deadly at worst. Delays in the delivery of supplies from Egypt, coupled with the bad weather, meant the deaths of thousands of besieging soldiers.

The Muslims hoped to take the initiative in the spring of 718 with the arrival of a new fleet from Egypt bringing 50,000 reinforcements. The 400 ships of the fleet from Egypt slipped past the Byzantine fleet in the Golden Horn at night, thus avoiding a naval battle, and anchored at the Hellespont. That cut off the flow of supplies and would eventually have spelled the city’s doom, but Leo’s navy again saved the day. He was aided by the desertion of large numbers of crew members from the new Egyptian fleet, sailors who were Coptic Christians and had been pressed into Muslim service. Learning of the enemy fleet’s disposition, Leo launched a surprise attack in June that caught them completely unawares. The Greek fire (an unknown mixture of materials with many of the characteristics of napalm) once again caused both destruction and terror; the Christian crews deserted wholesale to the welcoming Byzantine forces. The northern blockading fleet was destroyed and Leo followed up his victory with an attack on Muslim forces on the Asian side of the Sea of Marmara, opposite the capital. That attack was so unexpected that Muslim soldiers and sailors were slaughtered by the thousands.

Leo at this point proved himself to be a diplomat as well as a general. He sent envoys to the Bulgars, who persuaded their King Tervel to attack the Muslim army from the west. In July Tervel’s soldiers drove back the Muslim holding force at Adrianople and attacked Muslama’s forces in the rear, defeating them and inflicting some 22,000 casualties. This new threat was reinforced by the rumor that a Frankish army was marching across Europe to assist their fellow Christians. The Muslims had not yet fought the Franks, but had heard tales of formidable military power. Caliph Omar decided it was time to bring the siege to a close. On 15 August 718 Muslama led the army away from Constantinople.


The defeat at Constantinople was the first disastrous loss the armies of Islam had suffered. There had been occasional defeats, but never a catastrophe such as this. Of the 210,000 Muslim soldiers and sailors who took part, it is reported that only 30,000 actually saw their homeland again. Of the more than 2,000 ships reported to have been involved, only five supposedly made it home.

Had Muslama’s armies captured the city, the route into eastern Europe would have been virtually unguarded. Little organized resistance could have been mounted against hordes of Muslim troops until they reached central Europe. Constantinople, the seat of political, religious, and economic power in the Christian East, probably would have become Islam’s capital as it did in the wake of the Muslim capture of the city in 1453. The Eastern Orthodox Church may have disappeared, with untold consequences in eastern Europe and Russia, although such did not happen in 1453. Sea power would have been completely in Muslim hands, for no European population at the time owned a significant navy. None would until the Vikings a century later. Even with the Frankish victory at Tours in France fifteen years afterward, Islam could well have become the dominant European, and therefore world, religion.

The Byzantine victory insulated Europe from Islam, but also from other outside influences. Hellenistic knowledge and culture survived and in many ways flourished in the Middle East and Africa, while Europe entered the Dark Ages. Militarily Europe was strong, but cultural progress was at a crawl. Not until the Crusades and the resulting revival of trade with the East was the old knowledge rediscovered, and the Renaissance was the result. It is interesting to speculate what Europe may have been like had Constantinople fallen seven centuries before it did.

References: J. F. C. Fuller, Military History of the Western World, vol. 1 (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1954); Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 6 (London: Methuen, 1898); Warren T. Treadgold, Byzantium and its Army, 284–1081 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991).




Danelaw encompassed the areas of northeast England where Danish customs had a strong political and cultural influence throughout much of the early Middle Ages. The area included Yorkshire (southern Northumbria), East Anglia, and the Five Boroughs, named for its main centers of settlement: Lincoln, Stamford, Nottingham, Leicester, and Derby. All these territories bore influence of Scandinavian culture from Viking invaders in the late-ninth century, who then became settlers and who drove the political leadership of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms into retreat to the south and west.

In c. 865 an army of between 500 and 1,000 Vikings arrived in England and began a systematic attack on the island. Their leaders were three brothers, Ivar the Boneless, Ubbi, and Halfdan, who had allegedly come to avenge the death of their father, Ragnar. They secured horses in East Anglia and proceeded to York, finding that infighting among local Anglo-Saxon leaders made conquest easy in Northumbria. The invaders next attacked west into Mercia and by 869 defeated East Anglia. The following year Halfdan attacked the kingdom of Wessex, seizing Reading and fighting nine pitched battles against Wessex. The Anglo-Saxons won only one battle, and the onslaught devastated the ranks of their nobility. Despite their unequivocal success, when Wessex offered a treaty the Vikings readily agreed and refocused their efforts north toward the kingdom of Mercia.

Throughout the 870s the Danish army continued to conquer territory in England, dividing and redividing the lands they acquired. They split Mercia with a puppet Anglo-Saxon king, Ceowulf, who held the territory on their behalf from 874 to 877 while they completed their conquests. However by 876 Halfdan and his men had occupied and divided Northumbria, settled into farming, and started a permanent settlement. In effect, the Danes had politically removed Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Derby, and Leicestershire from the rest of England. Historians believe that the Danish settlement proceeded in two waves and probably did not displace the English people living in the area. The first wave of Danish settlers came as invaders, increasing in number over time. The second wave came as emigrants from Denmark, who settled in the areas protected by the military forces of the first wave, and who subsequently pushed colonization into new areas.

Early in the winter of 878 a Viking leader named Guthrum launched an attack on the kingdom of Wessex, catching it almost completely off guard and forcing its king, Alfred the Great (r. 871–899), to retreat to the island of Athelney. The Vikings proceeded to conquer the lands of Wessex, while Alfred gathered support and built reinforcements in the southwest, preparing for a counterattack. Later in the year Alfred defeated the Danes at Eddington and drove them back to Chippenham. Eventually Alfred and Guthrum settled their differences and established a treaty for what would become the Danelaw, the main boundary for the division between English England and Anglo-Danish England. The area became a kind of “Denmark overseas,” which Danes organized and administered and which was different from the rest of England in ethnicity, culture, law, language, and social custom. Although the formal division lasted only about fi ve years, through the 11th century Danish law and customs prevailed in this area and the rulers continued to recognize the special and separate nature of Danish England.

The term Danelaw first appears in the time of Canute (1016–35) to distinguish the area’s different legal system, but it is incorrect to categorize Danelaw as a homogeneous territory. The differences in custom, law, and political allegiance varied with the density of the Norse population, but the area’s internal divisions never trumped its separateness from English England. The Scandinavian language permeated the area, as is most commonly observed in the frequent place names ending in by or thorp. Cultural differences also appear in land tenure. Rather than dividing their land into units known as hundreds used to administer the English shires, Yorkshire and the Five Boroughs settlers divided their land into units known as wapantakes. The term, never used in Scandinavia, is related to “weapon taking,” the Viking custom of brandishing one’s weapon to show approval of council decisions and is unique to the Danelaw. Likewise, they divided agricultural land into ploughlands, rather than using the Anglo- Saxon unit known as hide.

The Danelaw’s legal codes also showed a great deal of Scandinavian influence, not only in terminology but in concepts that differed from those of Anglo-Saxon England. For example, in the Danelaw, wergild fines related to a man’s rank, rather the rank of his lord, and the laws punished violations against the king’s peace more severely than in English territories. Courts and legal assemblies reflected Scandinavian roots as well. To investigate crimes, 12 thegns in each wapentake formed a jury of presentment, and the opinion of the majority prevailed in making its decision. They ultimately settled the fate of the accused by ordeal, as in Anglo-Saxon areas, but the notion of a jury of locals charged with investigating a crime was not an Anglo-Saxon concept.

Historians note the positive influence of the Scandinavian culture on the island, from the intensification of agriculture that made Lincolnshire, Norfolk, and Suffolk among the most prosperous shires of the period and the political success of King Canute to the regular commerce that emerged in the North Sea. Although the formal boundary of the Danelaw lasted only a few years, the impact of the Danes on England’s culture, economy, and political system remained strong throughout the Middle Ages.

Further reading: Hart, Cyril. The Danelaw. London: Hambledon Press, 1992; Hollister, C. Warren. The Making of England, 55 b.c. to 1399. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1983; Jones, Gwyn. A History of the Vikings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984; Loyn, H. R. The Governance of Anglo-Saxon England, 500–1087. London: Edward Arnold, 1984; Stenton, F. M. Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1947.

Theodoric the Great (c. 451 or 453/454–526)

Theodoric entering Rome.

Theoderic’s empire at the height of its power in 523, with territory marked in pink ruled directly by Theoderic and stippled areas under his hegemony.

One of the greatest of the barbarian kings and the greatest of the Gothic kings, Theodoric the Great, or the Amal as he was originally known, reigned over the Ostrogoths from 471 to 526 and ruled an independent Gothic kingdom in Italy from 493 to 526. He assumed power in Italy by defeating a rival barbarian king, Odovacar, and Theodoric’s reign was generally recognized for its effectiveness and tolerance. He skillfully managed the relations between his people and the native Roman population and also maintained good relations with the emperors in Constantinople. Theodoric was able to keep the peace in Italy between Ostrogoths and Romans despite important differences in religion—Theodoric and his people were Arian Christians and the native Italians were Catholic Christians. He preserved the best aspects of the administrations of Odovacar and the Romans and worked well with the Senate and Roman nobles. He was an active builder, promoted culture, and patronized the great scholars Boethius and Cassiodorus. His reign, however, was marred in its later years by increasing tension between Goths and Romans, as Catholic Christianity found important new leaders. The situation was worsened by Theodoric’s execution of Boethius and his father-in-law, Symmachus, leading Roman senators. Despite the difficulties of his later years, complicated further by the lack of a male heir, Theodoric was one of the greatest kings to rule in the years after the fall of the Western Empire.

The early life of Theodoric is important for his later years, though modern knowledge of it is marked with confusion. One particularly vexing problem about his early years is the date of his birth, which is traditionally given as 456. According to the tradition, Theodoric was born on the day that his family learned the news that his uncle Valamir had been attacked by and had defeated a large band of Huns. But this date is unlikely because it would make Theodoric quite young—indeed, perhaps too young—when he was sent to Constantinople as a hostage and still quite young when he later took control of the kingdom. More recent scholarship has suggested dates of birth as early as 451, which would correspond to the victory of the Ostrogoths and their Roman allies over the Huns at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, a date that would make Theodoric a more mature, and politically useful, boy when he was sent to Constantinople. Whatever his exact date of birth, he was born to the royal Amal family and was sent as a hostage in 459/460 as surety for a treaty between the Ostrogoths and Eastern Empire. While at the imperial court, Theodoric learned a great deal and had experiences that shaped his later life. He became aware of rivalries among the Gothic people, and most likely came to fear and hate rival Ostrogothic families who gained preferment at the imperial court. He also witnessed the sophisticated governmental practices of the empire, which he used when he became king of the Ostrogoths and then later ruler in Italy. He also gained a solid, if unspectacular, education, most likely learning to do arithmetic and to read and write.

Theodoric was released from his service as a hostage in the late 460s, after which, in about 469, he returned to his homeland, received control of a subkingdom, and began his ascent to power among the Ostrogoths. Already in 470 he launched campaigns, sometimes in the name of the empire, against his political rivals or to expand his territory. His success in 470 revealed his ambition; the campaign probably took place without his father’s permission, and marked, for Theodoric, the start of his independent authority. In the 470s he became an increasingly powerful and important figure in the military and political life of the Eastern Empire. His main Gothic rival, Theodoric Strabo, or the Squinter, rose in the imperial ranks in the 470s and took a prominent part in a revolt against Emperor Zeno. Having fled from the capital in 475, Zeno was able to return thanks to the support from Theodoric of the Amal clan and strike against Strabo, who quickly fell from grace, though he remained a powerful rival to both Theodoric and Zeno. Theodoric the Amal received numerous honors from Zeno and was made commander of East Roman troops. Theodoric’s people were made foederati (federated allies) of the empire and were given an annual subsidy from the emperor. Despite these achievements, Theodoric still faced a challenge from Strabo, who sometimes was supported by Zeno for fear of an over mighty Theodoric the Amal. Strabo’s sudden death in 481 freed his rival’s hand. Theodoric was now sole king of the Ostrogoths and a dangerous friend of the empire.

The 470s and early 480s saw important changes in the life of Theodoric and the Roman Empire. Theodoric had become one of the most powerful figures in the Eastern Empire. In 482–483 Theodoric waged a terrible offensive in the empire to force Zeno to come to terms, which the emperor did. Theodoric was rewarded with a consulship for 484, but his term in office was cut short by Zeno’s fears that the Ostrogoth had turned against him. Despite his own strength, Theodoric knew that he was no match for the full power of the empire, and events in the Western Empire offered both Theodoric and Zeno a solution to their problematic relationship. In 476 the last of the Western Roman emperors, Romulus Augustulus, and his general, Orestes, were defeated by the German general Odovacar. After defeating his rivals, Odovacar executed Orestes and deposed Romulus and sent him into internal exile. Odovacar also declared the end of the imperial line in Italy and, although recognizing the sovereignty of the emperor in Constantinople, ruled as an independent king in Italy. In 488, following another revolt by Theodoric, Zeno requested that the Ostrogoth invade Italy and restore it to imperial control.

Theodoric’s march to Italy was not unimpeded, as other barbarian peoples struggled against him, but he reached Italy by the summer of 489. His rival Odovacar was waiting for him with his army. Theodoric won two victories against Odovacar in August and September of 489. He also welcomed Tufa, one of Odovacar’s leading generals, and it seemed that Theodoric would quickly triumph over his enemy. But Odovacar was able to secure himself behind the walls and swamps of Ravenna, and Tufa rejoined Odovacar shortly after leaving, taking with him the Ostrogothic soldiers he commanded on the way to Ravenna. Odovacar then took the offensive and forced Theodoric to withdraw to the city of Pavia. Theodoric, however, managed to break the siege and defeat Odovacar once again, on August 11, 490, with the aid of a large number of Visigoths. Odovacar returned to Ravenna, where Theodoric besieged him. But Ravenna could not be taken, and Theodoric was forced to negotiate with Odovacar. Agreement was reached on February, 493, and Theodoric entered Ravenna on March 5. Apparently he had agreed to share power with Odovacar. On March 15, he welcomed Odovacar at a great banquet, at which Theodoric himself killed Odovacar. The murder of Odovacar was followed by the massacre of his family and supporters. Theodoric had eliminated his rival and then proceeded to take control of Italy.

Theodoric’s position remained uncertain for some time, in part because of his desire to be recognized as the ruler in Italy by the emperor in Constantinople. He was anxious to be recognized in the capital of the empire because he portrayed his kingdom as the legitimate successor of the Roman Empire in Italy. He did this for a number of reasons. He certainly had some sentimental attachment to all things Roman as a result of his time as a hostage in Constantinople. He also recognized the importance of being “Roman.” That identity meant civilization and defined relations with the nobility in Italy, as well as with the church, a very powerful force. It was also a means to secure support for his kingdom from the population of Italy, the birthplace of the Roman Empire. He could also use it in his relations with Constantinople, as an instrument to remind the emperor that any violation of the peace between them was a violation of the empire and an offense against God.

Theodoric’s status was resolved gradually over the first two decades of his rule in Italy, and in two stages, in 497/498 and in 508, the Ostrogoth gained recognition from the emperor for his independent status as king in Italy. His rule in Italy, from 497 until his death in 526, was a time of peace and prosperity for the peninsula. Moreover, his kingdom became the center of the greatest power in western Europe, as Theodoric established his authority not only over Italy but also over other parts of the old Western Empire. His closest rival, the Merovingian king Clovis, managed some success against Theodoric in southwestern France, but he never really attempted to unseat Theodoric, to whom he was related by marriage. (His sister, Audofleda, married Theodoric and bore the daughter Amalaswintha.) Indeed, marriage alliances constituted one of the tools Theodoric used to enhance his power in the old Western Empire. Another instrument in the extension of his power, of course, was his great ability as a general. His defense of the Visigothic kingdom in Spain and subsequent acquisition of the kingdom in 511 revealed his talents as a military leader, as did his campaigns for and against the emperor and against Odovacar.

Although king of Visigothic Spain, Theodoric is best known for his rule of Italy. As the independent ruler of Italy, Theodoric presided over a cultural and economic revival in the peninsula. He worked effectively with the Roman nobility, who enjoyed the peace brought by Theodoric and managed to revive the productivity of their estates. Theodoric’s equitable distribution of land, which did not overly burden the Roman population of Italy, also stimulated an economic revival. He not only worked well with the nobles but respected and honored the Senate, and in many ways preserved Roman imperial governmental practices. Despite his Arianism, Theodoric remained on good terms with the pope and Catholic church in Italy. Indeed, at one point he was invited to resolve a disputed papal election, and his good relations with the church were critical to his acceptance as the ruler in Italy. He also supported the traditions of Roman law and education in his kingdom. He helped maintain the infrastructure in Italy, restoring many roads and public buildings. He was also a great builder in his own right, most notably of the magnificent mausoleum that still stands in Ravenna today. Finally, Theodoric was a patron of arts and letters. His personal secretary was the prominent Christian writer Cassiodorus, and Theodoric also had close relations with the great intellectual and author, Boethius.

Despite his long and prosperous reign, Theodoric’s end was not a happy one, and his great kingdom did not long survive his death. Several events conspired to bring Theodoric’s reign to an unfortunate end. His failure to have a male heir made the establishment of a dynasty difficult and caused tensions among the Ostrogoths, which worsened other internal problems. It also undermined his foreign policy and the extension of his power over Spain. Furthermore, his good relations with the church came to an end for two reasons. The election of a new pope, John I (523–526), ended Theodoric’s good relations with the papacy, in part because of John’s hostility toward Arianism. His relations with the church also worsened because the tensions that existed within the church, between its eastern and western halves, were eased, as the new emperor, Justin (518–527), outlawed Arianism and supported Catholic orthodoxy. Theodoric’s Arianism was made to appear even more at odds with the Catholic population by the conversion of Clovis and the Merovingian dynasty to Catholic Christianity. Finally, his good relations with the Senate and Roman nobility were poisoned by an alleged conspiracy of senators in 522. Boethius’s defense of his fellow senators implicated him in the plot in the eyes of Theodoric, and as a result, Boethius fell from favor and was executed in 524.

Theodoric died in August of 526. According to the fifth-century Byzantine historian Procopius, Theodoric died of typhoid brought on by remorse for the deaths of Boethius and his father-in-law, Symmachus, who was also implicated in the plot against Theodoric. Procopius notes that Theodoric was served fish for dinner one evening and saw in it the face of Symmachus. Theodoric fled to his room frightened by the vision, and then called for a doctor, to whom he disclosed his great dismay over the execution of Symmachus and Boethius.

Theodoric was succeeded by his grandson, Athalaric, whose mother, Amalaswintha, served as a regent during the first part of her son’s reign. The problems of Theodoric’s last years continued to plague his successor and Amalaswintha. Dissension among the Goths led to her death and the eventual invasion and destruction of the Gothic kingdom by Justinian. A brilliant, tolerant, and effective ruler in many ways, Theodoric could not provide for a lasting settlement in the kingdom he created.


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