Russia and Invasion

The “Battle on the Ice”

Winters in northern Russia are long, and the surface of Lake Chudskoe was still frozen when the Russian force marched out to meet the Germans, along with their Finnish allies, on April 5, 1242. In a scene made famous for modern filmgoers by the director Sergei Eisenstein, the invaders rushed at the defending Russians, who suddenly surprised them by closing ranks around the enemy and attacking them from the rear. The Russians scored a huge victory in the “Battle on the Ice,” which became a legendary event in Russian history.

Two years later, Alexander drove off a Lithuanian invading force, and though he soon left Novgorod, the people there had become so dependent on his defense that they asked him to come back as their prince. With Novgorod now in the lead among Russian states, Alexander was the effective ruler of Russia.

Prospects for a strong, well-defended Russian state had died with the collapse of Kiev. Andrei Bogolyubsky, a grandson of Vladimir Monomakh and architect of this latest defeat, transferred the center of power to his own principality of Vladimir-Suzdal in central Russia. About this time, a small settlement with the Finnish name of “Moskva” was established along the southern border of the principality. Prince Andrei then attempted to put down the last remaining challenge, Novgorod, the northern merchant city that had been autonomous since 1136.

According to the Novgorodian Chronicle, miraculous intercession saved the city: “There were only 400 men of Novgorod against 7,000 soldiers from Suzdal, but God helped the Novgorodians, and the Suzdalians suffered 1,300 casualties, while Novgorod lost only fifteen men. . . .” After several months had passed, Andrei Bogolyubsky’s troops returned, this time strengthened by soldiers from a number of other principalities. The Chronicle continues:

But the people of Novgorod were firmly behind their leader, Prince Roman, and their posadnik [mayor] Yakun. And so they built fortifications about the city. On Sunday [Prince Andrei’s emissaries] came to Novgorod to negotiate, and these negotiations lasted three days. On the fourth day, Wednesday, February 25th . . . the Suzdalians attacked the city and fought the entire day. Only toward evening did Prince Roman, who was still very young, and the troops of Novgorod manage to defeat the army of Suzdal with the help of the holy cross, the Holy Virgin, and the prayers of . . . Bishop Elias. Many Suzdalians were massacred, many were taken prisoner, while the remainder escaped only with great difficulty. And the price of Suzdalian prisoners fell to two nogatas [a coin of small value].

The political situation among Russia’s princes gradually evolved into a balance of minor powers. Kiev’s last claim to dominance – its special relationship with the seat of Orthodoxy – dissolved with Constantinople’s fall to the crusaders of the Latin Church in 1204.

This decline of the Kievan state and the fragmentation of Russian land into numerous warring principalities, none capable of leading a united defense, coincided with the climactic last westward drive of Asiatic hordes, led by the Mongols. Through military and economic vassalage, they were able to halt Russia’s struggle toward nationhood for nearly 200 years.

Early in the thirteenth century, the scattered tribes of the Mongolian desert – a mixture of Mongol, Alan, and Turkic peoples – were united into a single fighting army that drove across the Eurasian plain, following the paths of so many other Asian incursions, and threatened to change the course of Christendom.

The leader who organized and led the nomads in their great conquest of Asia was Temujin. He had been a minor chieftain whose success in a series of intertribal wars on the vast steppe region of northern Mongolia had united first his clan, then his tribe, and finally the majority of tribes – including the Mongols. A kuriltai, or great assembly of chieftains, in 1206 had proclaimed him not just the “Supreme Khan” but the “Genghis Khan,” meaning the “all-encompassing lord.” Thenceforth his authority was understood to derive from “the Eternal Blue Sky,” as the Mongols called their god.

Genghis Khan ruled over a people of extraordinary hardihood and ferocity. The Mongols were tent-dwelling nomads whose horses were their constant companions. Mongol boys learned to ride almost from birth, and at the age of three, they began handling the bow and arrow, which was the main weapon in hunting and in war. Their small sturdy horses were, like their riders, capable of feats of great endurance. Unlike Western horses, Mongol ponies were highly self-sufficient, requiring no special hay or fodder and able to find enough food even under the snow cover. The Mongols took care of their horses, which were readily rounded up in herds of 10,000 or more, allowing them regular periods of rest; and on campaigns, each warrior was followed by as many as twenty remounts. Their horses gave them the mobility to strike suddenly and unexpectedly against their enemies. Furthermore, the Mongols were more skilled in war than earlier nomad hordes, and they were undeterred by forest lands.

The Mongol nation numbered only 1 million people at the time of the empire’s greatest extent. Within the empire, Turks and other nomadic tribes were far more numerous, serving mainly in the lower ranks of the armies. (The hordes that swept across Russia, under the minority rule of Mongols, were predominantly Turkic and were generally known as Tatars, derived from the European name for all the peoples east of the Dnieper.) The authority of Genghis and of his law commanded unquestioning obedience. The Great Yasa, compiled principally by Genghis, was the written code of Mongol custom and law, laying down strict rules of conduct in all areas of public life – international law, internal administration, the military, criminal law, civil and commercial law. With few exceptions, offenses were punishable by death. This was the sentence for serious breaches of military efficiency and discipline, for possessing a stolen horse without being able to pay the fine, for gluttony, for hiding a runaway slave or prisoner and preventing his or her recapture, for urinating into water or inside a tent. Persons of royal rank enjoyed no exemption from the law, except to the extent that they received a “bloodless” execution by being put inside a carpet or rug and then clubbed to death, for to spill a man’s blood was to drain away his soul.

The functioning of the military state was set forth mainly in the Yasa’s Statute of Bound Service, which imposed the duty of life service on all subjects, women as well as men. Every man was bound to the position or task to which he was appointed. Desertion carried the summary punishment of death. The Army Statute, which organized the Mongol armies in units of ten, was explicit:

The fighting men are to be conscripted from men who are twenty years old and upwards. There shall be a captain to every ten, and a captain to every hundred, and a captain to every thousand, and a captain to every ten thousand. . . . No man of any thousand, or hundred, or ten in which he hath been counted shall depart to another place; if he doth he shall be killed and also the captain who received him.

Even in the far-off khanates, which the Mongols eventually established, the Great Yasa was known and revered much as the Magna Charta, of about the same time, was regarded in England. It provided the legal foundation of the Great Khan’s power and the means to administer the immense Mongol-Tatar Empire from the remote capital, which he established at Karakorum.

In 1215, Genghis Khan captured Yenching (modern Peking) and northern China; he went on to subdue Korea and Turkistan, and to raid Persia and northern India. The famous tuq, or standard, of Genghis – a pole surmounted by nine white yak’s tails that was always carried into battle when the Great Khan was present – had become an object of divine significance to the Mongols and of dread to their prey.

After taking Turkistan, gateway to Europe, Genghis Khan sent a detachment of horsemen to reconnoiter the lands farther to the west. In 1223, this force advanced south to the Caspian Sea and north into the Caucasus, finally invading the territory of the Cumans, a Turkic people settled in the region of the lower Volga. The khans of the Cumans called on the Russian princes to help them. “Today the Tatars have seized our land,” they declared. “Tomorrow they will take yours.” Heeding their call for aid, Prince Mstislav of Galicia and a few lesser princes marched with their troops to rescue their neighbor. In the battle on the banks of the Kalka River, at the northeastern end of the Sea of Azov, the Cumans and their allies suffered disastrous defeat. Few escaped with their lives, though Mstislav and two other captured princes were saved for special treatment.

Chivalry required that enemies of high rank be executed “bloodlessly” – according to the same rules as Mongol chieftains – so another expedient was devised. The vanquished were laid on the ground and covered with boards, upon which the Mongol officers sat for their victory banquet. The Russians were crushed to death.

Apparently satisfied with their foray, the conquerors vanished from southern Russia as suddenly and as mysteriously as they had appeared. “We do not know whence these evil Tatars came upon us, nor whither they have betaken themselves again; only God knows,” wrote a chronicler. Most historians attribute their departure to political changes in Mongolia.

Genghis Khan died in 1227 while on a military campaign against a Tibetan tribe. Since his eldest son and heir, Juji, had died earlier, Genghis Khan’s son Ogadai was chosen to rule in Karakorum as Chief Khan. However, Genghis directed that the administration of the empire was to be divided among all his sons, each receiving a vast ulus, or regional khanate, a portion of the empire’s troops, and the income of that area over which they ruled.

Juji’s original share was to have been the khanate of Kip-chak – the region west of the Irtysh River and the Aral Sea – most of which was still unconquered. It was left to his son, Batu, to complete the mission. In 1236, Batu, with the blessing of Ogadai, led a strong army westward. The Mongols advanced by way of the Caspian Gate and then northwestward. They took Bulgary, the capital of the Volga Bulgars, and making their way through the forests around Penza and Tambov, they reached the principality of Ryazan. The northern winter had already closed in, but Batu’s forces, some 50,000 strong, were accustomed to harsh conditions. The snow-covered frozen lakes and riverbeds served as highways for their mounts.

The Russians were in no position to defend themselves. Kievan Rus was in decline, and the newer principalities, like Vladimir-Suzdal, had not yet developed the strength to withstand such foes as the Mongols. Under siege for five days, the town of Ryazan fell on December 21, 1237. A chronicler described the ferocity of the Mongols:

The prince with his mother, wife, sons, the boyars and inhabitants, without regard to age or sex, were slaughtered with the savage cruelty of Mongol revenge; some were impaled or had nails or splinters of wood driven under their finger nails. Priests were roasted alive and nuns and maidens were ravished in the churches before their relatives. No eye remained open to weep for the dead.

Similar stories were repeated wherever the Mongols ranged. The invaders believed that their Great Khan was directed by God to conquer and rule the world. Resistance to his will was resistance to the will of God and must be punished by death. It was a simple principle, and the Mongols applied it ruthlessly.

By February 1238, fourteen towns had fallen to their fury. The whole principality of Vladimir-Suzdal had been devastated. They then advanced into the territory of Novgorod. They were some sixty miles from the city itself when suddenly they turned south and Novgorod was spared. The dense forests and extensive morasses had become almost impassable in the early thaw, and Batu decided to return with his warriors to the steppes, occupied then by the Pechenegs. On their way south, they laid siege to the town of Kozelsk, which resisted bravely for seven weeks. The Mongols were so infuriated by this delay that on taking the town, they butchered all that they found alive, citizens and animals alike. The blood was so deep in the streets, according to the chronicler, that children drowned before they could be slain.

During 1239, Batu allowed his men to rest in the Azov region, but in the following year, he resumed his westward advance. His horsemen devastated the cities of Pereyaslavl and Chernigov. They then sent envoys to Kiev, demanding the submission of the city. Unwisely, the governor had the envoys put to death. Kiev was now doomed. At the beginning of December 1240, Batu’s troops surrounded the city and after a few days of siege, took it by storm. The carnage that followed was fearful. Six years later, John of Plano Carpini, sent by Pope Innocent IV as his envoy to the Great Khan of Karakorum, passed through Kiev. He wrote that “we found an innumerable multitude of men’s skulls and bones, lying upon the Earth,” and he could count only 200 houses standing in what had been a vast and magnificent city, larger than any city in Western Europe.

The Mongols pressed farther westward and then divided into three armies. One advanced into Poland; the central army, commanded by Batu, invaded Hungary; the third army moved along the Carpathian Mountains into southern Hungary. The Mongols were intent on punishing King Bela of Hungary because he had granted asylum to the khan of the Cumans and 200,000 of his men, women, and children who had fled westward in 1238. Batu had sent warnings, which Béla had ignored. Now the Mongols overran the whole of Hungary, while the northern army laid waste Poland, Lithuania, and East Prussia. They were poised to conquer the rest of Europe, when suddenly, in the spring of 1242, couriers brought news that the Great Khan Ogadai was dead. Batu withdrew his armies, wishing to devote all of his energies to gathering support as Ogadai’s successor. Western Europe was thus spared the Mongol devastation, which, had it spread to the Atlantic, would have had an incalculable impact on the history of Europe and of the world.

Ogadai had ruined his health, as he frankly admitted, by continued indulgence in wine and women. Sensing death approaching, the khan appointed his favorite grandson as successor. But Ogadai’s widow, acting as regent until the boy was old enough to rule, plotted secretly to procure the election of her own son, Kuyuk, although this was strongly opposed by Batu and many other Mongol leaders.

Batu had established his headquarters at Sarai, some sixty-five miles north of Astrakhan on the lower Volga. It was little more than a city of tents, for the khan of the Kipchaks remained a nomad at heart, but the splendor of his court became legendary among the princes of his realm. Batu’s Golden Horde (from the Tatar altūn ordū) also impressed John of Plano Carpini, who wrote:

Batu lives with considerable magnificence, having door-keepers and all officials just like their Emperor. He even sits raised up as if on a throne with one of his wives. . . . He has large and very beautiful tents of linen which used to belong to the King of Hungary. . . . drinks are placed in gold and silver vessels. Neither Batu nor any other Tatar prince ever drinks, especially in public, without there being singing and guitar-playing for them.

Though Batu owed allegiance to the Great Khan, he now refused to visit Karakorum and to pay homage to Kuyuk. The Golden Horde remained a province of the Mongol-Tatar Empire, but Batu and his successors thenceforth administered the khanate with a large measure of independence, particularly in its relations with Russia.

The Russian princes paid their tributes directly to Sarai. The terror and destruction wrought by the Tatar invasion had left the Russians stupefied and brought their national life to a standstill. Decades passed before they began to recover, for the Mongol yoke lay heavy on them. In certain regions, mainly in western Ukraine, the Mongols took over the administration from the Russian princes and ruled directly; in other regions they set up their own officials alongside the Russians and exercised direct supervision. In most parts of Russia, however, the khan allowed the local Russian princes to administer as before.

Before the Mongol invasions, a distinctly Russian system of landholding and agricultural production had emerged. Feudalism, as it was known in Western Europe, had not yet taken hold; with vast areas of Russia still open to settlement, only the slaves were legally held to the acreage on which they were born. Land was organized rather loosely in the hands of four principal classes. First came the grand princes and lesser nobility, Russia’s proliferating royal family. Beginning sometime in the tenth or eleventh century, the princes turned from plunder and the collection of tributes to the land as the primary producer of wealth. Yaroslav’s decision to divide Kievan Rus into five portions, one for each of his sons, can be taken as the formal beginning of the appanage system, by which titles and estates passed from generation to generation.

Ranking below the appanage princes, and coming somewhat later to land ownership, was the class of boyars, who were roughly equivalent to the barons and knights of Europe. The boyars were an outgrowth of the Varangian druzhina, the prince’s retinue, made up of a mixture of Scandinavian and native Slavic leaders whose lands were secured by conquest, colonization, or outright princely gift. In the tradition of adventurers, the boyars were free to shift allegiance from one prince to another as it suited their own interests. Initially, no contract, either formal or by custom, held the boyar in vassalage to the prince, nor did a change of loyalty affect his title to his land. Service was not a condition of ownership, and land passed from father to son.

The Church formed the third and still later developing class of landlords, its right to tenure and administration independent of the princes established by Byzantine precedent. Church lands were acquired either by colonization in unclaimed lands or by donations from princes, often in exchange for the prayers of the Church.

The fourth and most elusive of definition was the peasant majority. Conditions varied from one principality to another, depending on local custom and the power of the prince. Prior to the development of boyars’ estates, a peasant held the land by virtue of having wrested it from the wilderness. This he usually accomplished as a member of a commune – a gathering of a few family units, itself an outgrowth of the more primitive Slavic tribal family. The peasant was technically a free man and remained so until the reign of Alexei, in the middle of the seventeenth century, though the intervening centuries brought an accumulation of legislation that would progressively limit his right to exercise this freedom. With the growing power of the various landlord classes, however, peasants living in the more settled areas of Russia were put under obligations, the most common being obrok, quitrent or payment in kind for land use, and barshchina, payment in contracted days of labor on the owner’s estate. Only the kholopy, or “slaves,” a motley assortment of prisoners and indebted poor, were entirely excluded from landholding during the period of Mongol domination.

The khans of the Golden Horde were interested in the conquered lands only as a source of revenue and troops, and so were content to allow the continuation of this political structure. The appanage princes had to acknowledge that they were the khan’s vassals and that they recognized the overall suzerainty of the Great Khan of Karakorum. They could hold their positions only upon receiving the khan’s yarlyk, or patent to rule; often, they first had to journey to Sarai to prostrate themselves before him. On occasion, they even went to Mongolia to make their obeisances. Moreover, they had to refer to the khan for resolution of major disputes with other princes and to justify themselves against any serious charges, competing with each another for the khan’s recognition with gifts, promises to increase their payments of tribute, and mutual denunciations.

Prompt action was taken in each newly conquered country to promote a census of the population, for the purpose of assessing the amount of tax to be levied and the number of recruits owed to the army. Mongol officials were appointed to collect and to enroll recruits. Delays in making payments to the tax collector, or producing men, or rebellion of any kind were punished with extreme ferocity.

Nevertheless, driven beyond endurance by Mongol demands, the Russians sometimes rebelled. No fewer than forty-eight Mongol-Tatar raids took place during the period of the domination of the Golden Horde, and some of these expeditions had the purpose of suppressing the Russian uprisings. Gradually, however, the khan’s grip on his vassal states relaxed. Early in the fourteenth century, Russian princes were allowed to collect taxes on behalf of the Horde, and the tax collectors and other officials were withdrawn. The Russian lands once again became autonomous, though they continued to acknowledge the suzerainty of the khan. However, internal rivalries, much like those that had fractured the Russian principalities, were weakening the Golden Horde, which was ceasing to display the bold confidence of conquerors. In the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, the khan’s direct rule came to be limited to the middle and lower Volga, the Don, and the steppelands as far west as the Dnieper.

The impact of the Mongol invasion and occupation on Russia’s social and cultural fortunes was largely negative, halting progress and introducing a number of harsh customs. The Mongols probably left their mark in such evil practices as flogging, torture, and mutilation, the seclusion of women of the upper classes in the terem, or the women’s quarters, the cringing servility of inferiors, and the arrogant superiority and often brutality of seniors toward them. But evidence that the invaders made any enduring, positive impression is slight. Historians S. M. Solovyev and V. O. Klyuchevsky argued that Russia had embraced Orthodox Christianity and the political ideas of Byzantium two centuries before the coming of the Mongols, and its development was too deeply rooted in Byzantine soil to be greatly changed. Further, the Mongol conception of the Great Khan’s absolute power was, in practice, close to the Byzantine theory of the divine authority of the emperor, and, indeed, the Mongol and Byzantine concepts might well have merged in the minds of the Russian princes.

Only the Orthodox Church flourished. The religion of the Mongols was a primitive Shamanism in which the seer and medicine man, the shaman, acted as the intermediary with the spirit world. He made known the will of Tengri, the great god who ruled over all the spirits in heaven. This form of worship could readily accommodate many faiths, and the Mongols showed a tolerance toward other religions, which Christian churches would have done well to emulate. The Mongols were familiar with Nestorian Christianity, a heretical sect for which Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, was deposed in the fifth century, and certain clans had embraced Nestorianism. Though the Great Khan, after considering Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism, had finally in the fourteenth century decided to adopt Islam as the faith of the Mongols, they continued to show a generous tolerance toward the Christians.

The Russian Orthodox Church, in fact, enjoyed a privileged position throughout the period of the Mongol yoke. All Christians were guaranteed freedom of worship. The extensive lands owned by the Church were protected and exempt from all taxes, and the labor on Church estates was not liable to recruitment into the khan’s armies. Metropolitans, bishops, and other senior clerical appointments were confirmed by the yarlyk, but this assertion of the khan’s authority apparently involved no interference by the Mongols in Church affairs.

Under this protection, the Church grew in strength. Its influence among the people deepened, for it fostered a sense of unity during these dark times. Both the black, or monastic, clergy and the white clergy, which ministered to the secular world and was permitted to marry, shared in this proselytizing role. Moreover, the Church preserved the Byzantine political heritage, especially the theory of the divine nature of the secular power. In accordance with this tradition, the support that the Church gave to the emerging grand princes of Moscow was to be of importance in bringing the country under Moscow’s rule.

The Orthodox Church was also strengthened, by virtue of being unchallenged by other ideas and influences. Kievan Rus had maintained regular contact with the countries to the south and west. By the great trade routes, Russian merchants had brought news of the arts and cultures, as well as the merchandise, of these foreign lands. But the Mongol occupation had isolated the Russians almost completely. The great ferment of ideas in the West, leading to the Renaissance, the Reformation, the explorations, and the scientific discoveries, did not touch them. The Orthodox Church encouraged their natural conservatism and inculcated the idea of spiritual and cultural self-sufficiency among them. Indeed, this isolation, which was to contribute notably to Russia’s backwardness in the coming centuries, was to be one of the most disastrous results of Mongol domination.

Only the remote, northern republic of Novgorod had managed to escape the devastation of Batu’s westward advance in 1238. The city, standing on the banks of the Volkhov River, three miles to the north of Lake Ilmen, in a region of lakes, rivers, and marshes, had built up a commercial empire “from the Varangians to the Greeks,” as they described it. “Lord Novgorod the Great,” the Novgorodtsi’s title for their republic, had been one of the first centers of Russian civilization. Beginning with Prince Oleg’s rule in the last years of the ninth century, it had acknowledged the primacy of Kiev; but as the power and prestige of “the mother of Russian cities” declined, Novgorod had asserted anew its independence. In 1136, its citizens had rallied and promptly expelled the Kiev-appointed prince who, they complained, had shown no care for the common people, had tried to use the city as a means to his own advancement, and had been both indecisive and cowardly in battle. The city concentrated its efforts on commerce, especially its connections with the Hanseatic trading ports of the Baltic, avoiding most of the internecine strife that had wracked the other principalities. “Lord Novgorod” showed the same pragmatism in dealings with the khan.

The Novgorodian Chronicle relates that their prince, Alexander Nevsky, son of Yaroslav I of Vladimir, had recognized the futility of opposition and had directed his people to render tribute. In the year 1259, “the Prince rode down from the [palace] and the accursed Tatars with him. . . . And the accursed ones began to ride through the streets, writing down the Christian houses; because for our sins God has brought wild beasts out of the desert to eat the flesh of the strong, and to drink the blood of the Boyars.”

Nevsky also made frequent journeys of homage to the khan of the Golden Horde, at least once to distant Karakorum, and had won the trust of the Mongols. But a further reason, which was perhaps of overriding importance in gaining the khan’s favor, was that Mongol policy stimulated Baltic trade, for international commerce was the source of the Golden Horde’s prosperity. While Kiev lay in ruins, Novgorod’s trade in the Baltic, and south by the river road to the Caspian Sea, continued to flourish, and the people – 100,000 in its heyday – to prosper. Confident in their wealth and power, the citizens asked arrogantly: “Who can stand against God and Great Novgorod?”

Novgorod was unique in claiming the right to choose its own prince; it allowed him only limited authority, in effect keeping him as titular head of state with certain judicial and military functions. The real power emanated from the veche – an unwieldy but relatively democratic assembly of male citizens – and its more select, more operative council of notables, which such day-to-day business as taxation, legislation, and commercial controls. Participation in the veche was by class – groups of boyars, merchants, artisans, and the poorer people – with the aristocratic element generally dominant by virtue of its close ties with the council. Conflicts within the assembly were often violent – a unanimous vote was required to pass any decision – and meetings broke up in disorder. Nevertheless, they managed to elect their posadnik, or mayor, and tysyatsky, or commander of the troops. The veche also nominated the archbishop, who played an influential part in the secular affairs of the republic. Both council and veche had existed in Kievan Rus as advisory institutions, but in Novgorod, they represented an impressive, if short-lived, experiment in genuine democratic government.

Prince Alexander was one who seems to have enjoyed the good will of his electors. He had an equally successful record in dealing with the armed threat from the West. While the Russian lands were falling under Mongol-Tatar occupation, powerful forces were putting pressure upon the Western principalities. In 1240, Alexander routed the Swedes on the banks of the Neva River, thereby gaining for himself the name “Nevsky” and for the Novgorodtsi an outlet to the Baltic. Two German military religious orders, whose conquests were directed at the extension of Roman Catholicism among the pagan Letts and Livonians of the Baltic, were also major threats. First to be organized were the Teutonic Knights, an army of noblemen that had come into existence as a hospital order during the third crusade. Beginning in the thirteenth century, they took over lands roughly equivalent to later-day Prussia. At this time, a second order, the Livonian Knights, was founded by the bishop of the Baltic city of Riga. The two united in 1237, and five years later, they marched on Novgorod. They were met on the frozen Lake Peipus, near Pskov, and defeated in the Battle on Ice, thus halting for a time the German drive eastward.

The Knights continued, however, to harass the pagan Letts and Lithuanians, who were forced to reach out in the only direction left them: eastward toward their weakened neighbor Russia. The Mongols had ravaged Lithuania in 1258, but had then withdrawn and not returned. The Lithuanians had recovered quickly, and not long afterward, under their great military leader Gedimin the Conqueror (1316-41), they succeeded in occupying most of west and southwest Russia, including Kiev. Though technically it now lay outside the sphere of Russia proper, this new “grand princedom of Lithuania and Russia” would rival the strongest all-Russian principality for decades to come. Olgierd, the son and successor of Gedimin, eventually defeated Novgorod in 1346, thereafter subduing the sister city of Pskov, expelling the Tatars from southwest Russia, and taking the Crimea.

Meanwhile, Moscow was growing from an insignificant settlement into the matrix and capital of the nation. Of this dramatic and unexpected development in Russia’s history, a Muscovite would write in the seventeenth century: “What man could have divined that Moscow would become a great realm?” The chronicle relates that, in 1147, Prince Yury Dolgoruky of Vladimir-Suzdal sent a message to his ally, Prince Svyatoslav of Novgorod-Seversk: “Come to me, brother, in Moscow! Be my guest in Moscow!” It is not certain that the town was then on its present site. Prince Yury founded the town of Moscow nine years later by building wooden walls around the high ground between the Moskva River and its tributary, the Neglinnaya, and thus created the first kremlin, or fortress. It soon became the seat of a family of minor princes under the hegemony of Vladimir-Suzdal. In 1238, the Mongols destroyed Moscow and the surrounding territory. About 1283, Daniel, son of Alexander Nevsky, acquired the principality and became the first of a regular line of Muscovite rulers. The rise of Moscow had begun.

Among Moscow’s neighbors, Tver, Vladimir-Suzdal, Ryazan, and Novgorod were more powerful and seemed stronger contenders for leadership of the nation, but Moscow had important advantages. It stood in the region of the upper Volga and Oka rivers, at the center of the system of waterways extending over the whole of European Russia. Tver shared this advantage to some extent, but Moscow was at the hub. This was a position of tremendous importance for trade and even more for defense. Moscow enjoyed greater security from attacks by Mongols and other enemies. As a refuge and a center of trade, the new city attracted boyars, merchants, and peasants from every principality, all of whom added to its wealth and power.

Another important factor in Moscow’s development was the ability of its rulers. They do not emerge as individuals from the shadowed distance of history, but all were careful stewards of their principality – enterprising, ruthless, and tenacious. They acquired new lands and power by treaty, trickery, purchase, and as a last resort, by force. In a century and a half, their principality would grow from some 500 to more than 15,000 square miles.

Ivan I, called Kalita, or Moneybag, who ruled from 1328 to 1342, was the first of the great “collectors of the Russian land.” Like his grandfather Alexander Nevsky, he was scrupulously subservient to the Golden Horde. His reward was to obtain the khan’s assent to his assuming the title of grand prince and also to the removal of the seat of the metropolitan of all Russia from Vladimir to Moscow, an event of paramount importance to Moscow’s later claims of supreme authority.

Ivan I strengthened his city by erecting new walls around it, He built the Cathedral of the Assumption and other churches in stone. The merchant quarter, the kitai gorod, expanded rapidly as trade revived. Terrible fires destroyed large areas of the city, but houses were quickly replaced, and Moscow continued to grow.

Ivan I was succeeded by Simeon the Proud, who died twelve years later in a plague that devastated Moscow. He was, in turn, succeeded by his brother, Ivan II, a man whose principal contribution to Russian history seems to have been fathering Dmitry Donskoy, who became grand prince of Moscow in 1363. Under Prince Dmitry’s reign, Moscow took advantage of the waning power of the Golden Horde to extend its influence over less powerful principalities. Generous gifts to Mamai, the khan of the Golden Horde, put an end to Dmitry’s most serious competitor, Prince Mikhail of Tver; Dmitry’s patent was confirmed and Mikhail’s claims to the throne ignored for several years. Then, with Moscow’s power growing at an alarming rate, Mamai reversed his earlier grant and sent an army against Moscow in 1380.

Dmitry was well prepared. He had rebuilt the Kremlin walls in stone, adding battlements, towers, and iron gates. He had secured by treaty the promise of support troops from other principalities. He had introduced firearms on a limited scale. Dmitry won enduring fame by launching the first counterattack against the dreaded Mongol enemy. The heroic battle of Kulikovo, fought on the banks of the river Don (hence Dmitry’s surname “Donskoy”) ended with the Russians inflicting a major defeat on the Golden Horde. The news was greeted with great rejoicing in Moscow, though the Russians had lost nearly half of their men in the struggle. It inspired all Russians with a new spirit of independence. The battle was not decisive, however, and it brought retribution. In 1382, the Mongols, this time led by the Khan Tokhtamysh, laid siege to Moscow. For three days and nights, they made furious attacks on the city, but they could not breach the stone walls. The khan then gained entry by offering to discuss peace terms. Once inside the city, his warriors began to slaughter the people – “until their arms wearied and their swords became blunt.” Recording these events, the chronicler lamented that “until then the city of Moscow had been large and wonderful to look at, crowded as she was with people, filled with wealth and glory . . . and now all at once all of her beauty perished and her glory disappeared. Nothing could be seen but smoking ruins and bare earth and heaps of corpses.” More than 20,000 victims were buried. With extraordinary vitality, however, Moscow soon was revived, and within a few years had been restored to its former power.

In the reign of Dmitry’s son, Vasily I, Moscow was threatened with an attack by Tamerlane, the Turkic conqueror who had, by a feat of historical revisionism, claimed to be a descendant of Genghis Khan. In 1395, following his successful campaign against his rivals, the doubting Tokhtamysh and the Golden Horde, Tamerlane advanced from the south to within 200 miles of Moscow, but then turned aside, apparently convinced that another siege would be too costly to his own troops. The city was saved, the people said, because of the miraculous intervention of the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir.

Though the Tatars would continue to be a major factor in Muscovite history for another half century, the balance of power was shifting to the Lithuanian front. Ladislas Jagello, son of the Lithuanian grand duke who had brought parts of western Russia under his suzerainty, ascended the Lithuanian throne in 1377. During the Jagello era, which his reign inaugurated, the prince conceived a dynastic union with his former enemy, Poland, through marriage to Jadwiga, heiress to that throne. Jagello thus became sovereign of the federated states of Poland and Lithuania, the latter under the vassal rule of his cousin. Husband and wife shared an ambition to control a still larger portion of Russia. Jagello’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, which was part of the marriage treaty, made this imperial plan all the more dangerous to Muscovite security. With Smolensk’s fall to the Lithuanians in 1404, almost all of the lands on the right bank of the Dnieper were brought under dynastically-united Polish and Lithuanian rule.

Only a matter as crucial to all Slavic peoples as the defeat of the Teutonic Knights held them in a brief state of peace. In 1410, the combined Polish and Lithuanian forces met the German forces at Tannenberg. Their grand master, many of their officers, and a devastating number of knights fell in the bloody clash. The eastward drive of the German Knights was effectively halted for all time, but the Polish and Lithuanian drives received new impetus.

The reign of Vasily I ended in 1425. His son and successor, Vasily II, ascended the Muscovite throne against strong opposition from a powerful boyar faction; the first twenty-five years of his long reign were largely devoted to suppressing these rivals, a feat achieved only after he had himself been blinded. Events outside of Muscovy would be of more lasting significance: The Golden Horde was losing large parts of its territory to the breakaway khanates of Crimea and Kazan, and the Ottoman Turks were threatening the very existence of the Greek Orthodox Church. In a desperate move to defend itself from total destruction, the Eastern clergy had sought help in Rome, at the price of recognizing the supremacy of the pope. Moscow was represented at the Council of Florence, which met in 1439, by the Russian Metropolitan Isadore. Acting on his own initiative, Isadore committed Russian Orthodoxy to the bargain. Upon his return, he was deposed and arrested, and Moscow formally severed its ties with Byzantium. When Constantinople, the capital of Eastern Orthodoxy, fell to the Turks in 1453, no Russian was surprised. It was God’s retribution to the duplicitous Greeks. Holy Russia would find its own way.


THE TANG, 618-907

The Early Tang: Challenges and Successes

Seizing on the Sui disasters, Li Yüan, a high-ranking Sui general, rose against the emperor and went on to establish the Tang dynasty. The men under his command on the day of his revolt totaled roughly 30,000, both infantry and cavalry. Like many of the generals who hoped to replace the Sui, he was able to enlist the aid of several thousand Turkish cavalrymen. By the time Li Yüan had captured the city of Changan, which was proclaimed the Tang capital, he had picked up an additional 200,000 men. Many of these were men who had deserted the Sui army during and after the disastrous Korean campaigns. Li Yüan divided this force into twelve divisions, each led by a trusted general, for there was still much fighting to come before China was securely in Tang hands.

These were true divisions, expected to be able to operate on their own with a full complement of various types of weapons and soldiers, both infantry and cavalry. In addition, the soldiers were allotted lands on which their families were to be settled. The production of these lands was to make the divisions self-sufficient in supplies, an institutional continuation of the Northern Wei and Sui military systems. Like the Sui founder, Li Yüan and his son and successor, Li Shimin, understood the importance of pacifying both China and the lands to the north. This was why Li Yüan took such care to settle large numbers of his soldiers on lands near to the steppes. Li Shimin, better known by his reign title of Tang Taizong, was particularly successful at this, using both military and diplomatic strategies to become not only emperor of the Chinese but Qaghan (essentially, “Emperor”) of the Turks as well.

Unlike members of the traditional ruling classes of southern China, but like Tang Taizong, many of the leading figures of the early decades of the Tang were very comfortable with steppe traditions such as hunting and the relative freedom of women-a result of the intermingling of Chinese and nomadic peoples during the period of disunion. Applying this knowledge, Taizong took advantage of disunion among the various steppe tribes to insinuate himself into their politics and feuds. The result was that many of the nomadic tribes became an arm of the Tang military system. Taizong thus solved-at least for a time-the main problem plaguing Chinese armies since the Zhou period: the lack of horses, needed to create a credible cavalry arm. The nomads made up the bulk of the Tang cavalry during the reign of Taizong, and they were called on at times to assist in his campaigns for the consolidation of Tang rule within China proper. Those few times steppe tribes refused to heed his orders, he sent Tang armies, aided by other steppe cavalry, to bring them to heel.

Taizong was accepted due to his adaptation to steppe traditions, especially his knowledge of steppe politics and military tactics. Frequently, he led his soldiers in person, often when outnumbered by enemy forces, reportedly having four horses shot out from under him during the course of his campaigns. He was also acquainted with the steppe military tactic of the feigned retreat, adapting this tactic successfully from its use with cavalry forces to use with primarily infantry forces.

Later Tang emperors were unable to maintain the sort of personal authority that was necessary to control the steppe nomads. But nomadic internal rivalries allowed the Tang dynasty to keep its northern frontier fairly secure for a few decades after Taizong’s death. Even after Tang control on the frontiers weakened later in the eighth century, the dynasty could often call on nomadic armies for assistance. But Tibetan invasions and the An Lushan Rebellion in the mid-eighth century, coupled with ongoing transformations of the Chinese economy and society, would finally destroy the almost symbiotic system of nomadic cavalry alongside settled Chinese infantry.

The Tang Army

The Fubing System The Tang dynasty, especially from the time of Tang Taizong, consciously worked to create a system whereby the dynasty was primarily defended by citizen-soldiers. Like the Han dynasty, the Tang was suspicious of large professional armies, believing that skilled professionals were much harder to control or to keep loyal than an army composed of free citizens. The Tang also believed that some skilled professionals were necessary, especially for the expeditions the dynasty planned in both the north and south and as a mobile strike force. As we have seen, the cavalry arm was primarily made up of nomadic horsemen who could be both used as a buffer and called on to assist in military expeditions. In the next section, we will discuss the skilled professional force that was kept near the capital. In this section, we will focus on the large forces of citizen-soldiers called the Fubing Army.

The term Fubing has been translated in various ways, the most common being “militia.” This is not satisfactory. Militia usually refers to men who are soldiers only part-time or part of the year; the rest of the time, they engage in their primary occupation. The members of the Fubing, however, were primarily professional soldiers, members of a standing army who spent all or nearly all of the year in military units, training or engaging in security duties.

The confusion in meaning comes from how the Fubing were recruited, and, sometimes, the Chinese sources from the Tang period are themselves unclear as to what the functions of the Fubing were. Nonetheless, in tracing the evolution of the Fubing, we learn that in the early Tang, at least up until the end of the eighth century, it was the most effective part of the Tang military, maintaining the security of the Tang frontier and assisting in several of the early Tang military expeditions. The Fubing commanders were some of the best in the whole Tang military.

Li Yüan established the capital of Tang China at Changan, located in the Guanzhong Province. As we saw earlier, by this time, he had over 200,000 men in his command. Although more fi ghting would be necessary to establish control over the rest of China, Li Yüan needed to ensure that the northern frontier was secure. To that end, many of these soldiers and their families were settled in agricultural communities. When additional soldiers were needed for his armies, Li Yüan had these families furnish them, along with their equipment and weapons. As these communities were expected to be self-supporting, the Tang court was spared a large expense. When this system-obviously extensively copied from the Sui military system-was expanded to include all ten of the provinces under Tang Taizong, the Tang had seemingly solved all three of the main Chinese military concerns. That is, there were military forces on the northern frontier to protect against nomadic threats; scattered military units were available for internal uses; and, because all these forces were self-supporting, there was little drain on imperial finances.

When the Fubing system was established, there were 623 communities, each with 800-1200 soldiers plus their families, making a total military force of well over 600,000. While the soldiers trained, their families were required to work their assigned lands, much as in the Sui and the Northern Wei earlier. But a key difference was that during the Tang dynasty, little private landownership was allowed in China, and all land was divided up according to a very complicated formula. This Equitable-Field system was implemented throughout the early Tang and was the basis for the Fubing military system. Those communities classifi ed as military were allotted a certain amount of land, which in the early decades of the Fubing system was quite large. In return for providing soldiers and supplying military needs, these communities were exempted from many taxes. Officers from the Imperial Guards in the capital were dispatched to the Fubing communities to oversee the administration of the lands and to lead the soldiers when necessary. This was to prevent local commanders from bonding too tightly with their men and gaining too much independent power, though lower-ranking officers usually came from within the ranks.

Recruitment was not by universal conscription, nor was it a strictly hereditary duty as under previous systems such as the Sui. Instead, roughly once every three years, officers of the Imperial Guards would circuit the Fubing communities and recruit, choosing on the basis of wealth, physical fitness, and number of adult males in a military household. Though the age of recruitment varied over time, generally a man was enlisted from age 20, and he would serve until age 60, when he could retire. Membership in the early decades was considered an honor, and those families with wealth and influence were able to get a higher proportion of their sons accepted. It is not clear how rigidly the physical requirements were enforced, but recruits were supposed to be in good health and were tested on physical strength. Those from frontier communities were also tested on their horsemanship.

After being accepted as a Fubing soldier, the new recruit and his family were expected to provide all of his rations, armor, and weapons. Groups of families were required to provide horses, mules, or oxen for use by the Fubing. This was a relatively cost-free way for the Tang to maintain a standing army, its only expense being the allocated land.

The three main duties of the Fubing were, in order of importance, garrison troops on the frontier, guardsmen in the capital area of Changan, and combat troops on expeditions. Local commanders of the Fubing were expressly forbidden to move their troops out of their camps without authorization from the court. There were exceptions in emergencies, but a commander who did move his men without prior approval had to notify the court immediately. Punishment for failing to follow these rules was exile or even death for the offending commander. Throughout the seventh century, the Fubing acquitted itself well along the frontiers and also maintained the Tang hold over the newly unified southern territories.

Guard duty in the capital area was considered a particularly important function of the Fubing by the Tang court. A complicated rotation system was devised to determine which Fubing units had guard duty and when. At any given time, there were tens of thousands of Fubing soldiers in various defensive positions in Changan and the immediate area. They were not the only military forces in the capital, but they were considered a check on the Palace Army that was supposedly the personal military force of the emperor.

Taking part in Tang military campaigns was the third duty of the Fubing. Rarely did the Fubing campaign on their own. Most often, they went into combat with large numbers of other Tang military units. The Korean campaigns, for example, were manned primarily by troops recruited from regions near Korea, but the Fubing were often the backbone of the expeditionary force. Also, an expeditionary force sent to subdue the kingdom of Nanchao (the present-day Chinese province of Yunnan) contained a large number of Fubing soldiers.

There is general agreement that through the 600s the Fubing were a competent, efficient military force that remained loyal to the Tang court. However, changes in Tang China’s economy and society in the early- to mid-eighth century led to the decline of the Fubing. The Equitable-Field system was without doubt the foundation of the Fubing military system, but in the early 700s, aristocratic families, government officials, religious orders, and others with influence were gaining effective private ownership of land. Many of the Fubing lands passed into private hands, and many military households saw their share of land reduced drastically. Service in the Fubing became less prestigious, and families increasingly saw classification as a military household as a burden and attempted various means to have their status changed to civilian. Many families attached themselves to Buddhist temples or religious orders as a quick way to relieve themselves of the burden of supplying the Fubing. Many others fled to newly reclaimed lands, becoming tenant-farmers or laborers on the lands of the wealthy in preference to service as a Fubing household, testament to how burdensome that service had become. Reports in the 740s told of massive desertions from the Fubing armies, at the same time that fierce Tibetan armies were raiding the northern and northwestern frontiers. The Fubing system was formally abolished in favor of a system of voluntary, recruited soldiers in 749.

The Palace Army In addition to the Fubing units that were expected to be composed of citizensoldiers, the Tang maintained a professional force at the capital of Changan, designed as the personal army of the emperor. This was the Palace Army, composed originally of those units used by Li Yüan in his revolt against the Sui dynasty. Often, this army is called the “Northern Army” because it was originally posted in a defensive position just north of Changan, as well as in the northern sector of the city. By Tang Taizong’s time, nearly all of the soldiers in this army were from noble or wealthy families located in the capital region.

At its height of effectiveness in the late seventh century, there were probably no more than 60,000 men in the Palace Army. In this early period, it was the core of Tang military strength and even included a cavalry element. Members of this army trained constantly together, and those who were tall and strong and showed ability at horse-archery were admitted to the cavalry, commanded mostly by specially recruited Turkish officers.

Other than some of the cavalry officers, most officers in the Palace Army came from the Imperial Guards. Indeed, most of the top Fubing officers were also Imperial Guardsmen. The Imperial Guards were recruited exclusively from the families of nobles and former high-ranking officials, and some have seen this as a modified version of the “hostage system” that had been used by the Han dynasty to maintain some measure of control over powerful families. As long as membership in the Imperial Guards was esteemed, there was a constant flow of competent, energetic officers for both the Palace Army and the Fubing. But by the late seventh century, the Imperial Guards- and therefore the Palace Army-had become involved in imperial succession struggles, and their effectiveness had diminished considerably.

The empress Wu (690-705) greatly expanded the Palace Army, enlisting men from outside the traditional recruiting grounds. This could have been an invigorating move that revitalized the military efficiency of the Palace Army; but, instead, a major unit of the Palace Army was used in 705 to depose the empress, and various other units later were frequently called on to assist in court intrigues. During the outbreak of the An Lushan Rebellion in 755, the Palace Army simply melted away as the rebel forces approached. Only 1000 of the supposedly elite force were left to accompany the emperor as he fled the capital.

The Decline of Tang Military Efficiency

New Frontier Armies Constant and growing threats from a newly unified Tibetan kingdom in the late seventh century demonstrated the increasing feebleness of the Fubing military system. The Tang relied to a large degree on their Uighur and Turkish nomadic allies, who by this time could no longer be considered even remotely under the control of Tang China. The Uighurs had been especially effective in assisting the Tang, but they did not come cheap. By the 670s, vast amounts of silk and other goods were necessary to buy Uighur assistance. When the payments slacked, the Uighurs would strike within China to exact payment and, since the Fubing garrisons were significantly weakened, their raids were often successful. To lessen reliance on the hired Uighur cavalry and protect the frontier, the Tang replaced the Fubing system with one of long-serving volunteer frontier armies, led by imperially appointed military governors possessing a good deal of civil as well as military authority.

For military encampments for these new troops, the Tang constructed massive fortresses across the three provinces that bordered the steppe frontier. The frontier fortresses were connected to and communicated with each other and the capital by post roads and beacon towers. In some cases, the fortresses were constructed on former Turkish territory. While the Turks were away in battle with tribes further west, the Tang army moved in swiftly to secure the area, constructing fortresses and denying the Turks some of their prime pasturelands. By the 720s, there were well over 65,000 soldiers with 15,000 horses stationed in Guanzhong alone, with comparable numbers in the adjoining two provinces.

This entailed an enormous expense, and, though the Tang was a fairly prosperous time in China’s history, this level of outlay proved difficult to maintain. Unlike the Fubing forces, these frontier armies were not self-supporting, nor could they be, with many of the soldiers posted relatively far north in lands less suited to settled agriculture. The difficulty of paying these forces prompted dangerous political arrangements. Taxing authority was given over to the military governors, who increasingly ruled independently of the court.

Until 750, the system appeared to be working. Tang China faced a series of ups and downs in terms of security along their frontiers, but none of the problems they encountered was very serious. Trade through the Tang possessions in Central Asia continued fairly smoothly, and the nomadic peoples on all fronts were, if not fully pacifi ed, at least not of serious concern. But the year 751 saw three major military disasters for the Tang. The first occurred at the Talas River on the western frontier, where a major Chinese force under the veteran Korean general Gao Xianzhi was decisively defeated by a combined Arab-Turkish force. Another Chinese army, on the northeastern frontier, led by the Turkish-Soghdian general An Lushan, was decisively defeated by a predominantly Khitan nomadic force. Then, a major Chinese army was defeated and wiped out in an invasion of the Nanchao kingdom in the southwest, leaving the Sichuan area of China vulnerable to renewed Tibetan attacks. The combination of defeats seriously destabilized the dynasty.

Transformation and Decline The Tang dynasty faced two big problems in trying to rebuild its military forces after the disasters of the mid-700s. First, although the large frontier armies did not fare well in combat against foreign forces, internally, their commanders continued to accrue tremendous independent power. The threat to central authority posed by military commanders and the great warrior aristocracy became acute in the 800s as commanders gained control of the civil government in their provinces and won the right to hereditary succession to their commands. In the end, independent warlords brought down the dynasty-a development that would significantly influence the military policy of the succeeding Song dynasty.

Second, the increasing demographic and economic influence of southern China in the empire as a whole had significant ramifications for the social and military structure. The south was even more unsuitable terrain for raising horses and maintaining cavalry traditions than the north of China. As a result, Chinese reliance on nomadic tribes for cavalry became even greater at the same time as the rulers of China became even more distanced from the culturally syncretic milieu that had produced the leaders of the early Tang. Thus, Chinese control over their nomadic allies waned, and cavalry warfare became more and more divergent from native Chinese military traditions. This, too, would fuel the Song reaction against great warrior aristocratic families, who most strongly embraced those traditions.

Events reached crisis proportions because of the independent power of military commanders. An Lushan, the most powerful Tang general and a court favorite, rebelled in 755. After seven years of chaotic fighting, the various rebel forces were finally defeated, but only with significant aid from nomadic Uighur horsemen, who became a problem in turn. A succession of emperors rebuilt a central army around the core of a loyal frontier army; this Shence Army was led by eunuchs, reflecting an effort to solve the problem of commander loyalty. Though temporarily successful-the Shence Army was instrumental in putting down another rebellion by military governors in 781-the institution had little success controlling the nomadic frontier because of its central location in the capital. Further, its power was steadily diluted by aristocratic infl uence, money shortages caused by the independence of the military governors, and involvement in court politics. Increasingly enfeebled, the Tang dynasty finally fell in 907, ushering in several decades of warfare that would accelerate the underlying changes in China’s political, social, and military structure.

A Wave of Danes I

Death of Harthacnut in 1042

Emma fleeing England with Edward and Alfred, following the invasion of Sweyn Forkbeard

Whatever Cnut died of, it wasn’t old age. Contemporaries were agreed that he had been very young at the time of his conquest of England in 1016, which has led modern historians to place his date of birth at some point in the last decade of the first millennium. Thus when the king died in the autumn of 1035, he was probably around forty years old (a thirteenth-century Scandinavian source says he was thirty-seven). According to William of Jumièges, he had been seriously ill for some time, and this statement finds some support in a charter that Cnut gave to the monks of Sherborne Abbey in Dorset in 1035, asking for their daily prayers to help him gain the heavenly kingdom. It was at Shaftesbury, just fifteen miles from Sherborne, that the king had died on 12 November.

Given his Viking ancestry, and the bloodshed that had accompanied his conquest, Cnut’s anxiety to enter heaven rather than Valhalla may strike some as surprising. But in fact the Danish royal house had been converted two generations earlier, and Cnut himself had been baptized as a child (his baptismal name was Lambert). Indeed, the point of the famous story about the king and the waves, as originally told, was not to illustrate his stupidity, but rather to prove what a good Christian he had been. ‘Let all the world know’, says a damp Cnut, having conspicuously failed to stop the tide from rising, ‘that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and sea obey eternal laws.’

Cnut had in fact been famous for such acts of ostentatious piety. Having conquered England and dispatched his opponents in the traditional Viking manner, the king had sought to convince his remaining subjects that his rule was legitimate, and this meant, above all, demonstrating that it was approved by God. In 1027, for example, Cnut had gone on pilgrimage to Rome. He had also attempted to salve the wounds inflicted in the course of the Danish takeover – for example, by having the bones of Ælfheah, the murdered archbishop of Canterbury, moved from St Paul’s Cathedral in London to a new shrine at Canterbury; by causing a church to be built on the site of the battlefield where his opponent, Edmund Ironside, had been defeated; and by visiting Edmund’s tomb at Glastonbury, where he honoured the late king’s memory by presenting a cloak embroidered with pictures of peacocks. The giving of such valuable objects was also typical, and helped Cnut secure a good reputation at home and abroad. ‘When we saw the present you sent us,’ wrote the bishop of Chartres, responding to the king’s gift of some beautifully decorated books, ‘we were amazed at your knowledge as well as your faith … you, whom we had heard to be a pagan prince, we now know to be not only a Christian, but also a most generous donor to God’s servants.’

There was nothing incongruous, therefore, when Cnut was eventually laid to rest in Winchester, in the cathedral known as the Old Minster, alongside the bones of St Swithin and several earlier kings of England and Wessex. His reign – almost twenty years long, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle noted at the time – had been a success, largely because he had striven to observe and maintain English traditions. Even the few novelties that were once ascribed to Cnut are now reckoned not to have been novel at all. Once, for example, he was thought to have introduced a new breed of warriors from Scandinavia, his ‘housecarls’, to serve as a separate standing army. But closer examination suggests that the housecarls were no different from the household warriors maintained by his English predecessors. Cnut did have a standing army of sorts, since he maintained a permanent fleet of ships with paid Danish crews. But here he was simply following the example of Æthelred the Unready, who had maintained just such a fleet from 1012, and had introduced a new national tax to pay for it. The only difference was that Æthelred’s fleet had been bigger.

Nevertheless, for all Cnut’s determination to portray himself as a traditional Old English king, his reign had altered English society dramatically. Or rather, that society had been altered in the tumultuous period up to and including his conquest.

English society in the eleventh century was highly stratified. We know that there were approximately two million people living in England at the end of the century, and that the population was rising all the time, so there must have been rather fewer than that number at the century’s start. At a fundamental level, these people were divided into two categories: the free and the unfree.

Although many books on the Anglo-Saxons do not say much about it, more than ten per cent of England’s population were slaves. Slavery was a widespread institution in early medieval Europe, and the sale and export of slaves was one of the main motors of the economy. Since the ninth century the trade’s most outstanding exponents had been the Vikings, whose warfare was predicated for the most part on seizing young men and women as merchandise, to be sold either at home in Scandinavia or – very commonly – to Arab merchants in the Middle East. England was one of their principal hunting grounds, so individuals abducted from the coasts of Devon, Wales or Northumbria might eventually find themselves labouring under a desert sun to construct a caliph’s palace, or members of a sultan’s harem.

Slaves were similarly used in England for hard labour and sexual gratification, to judge from contemporary comments. Male slaves were generally used as agricultural workers, and something of the nature of their condition is captured in a celebrated passage written by Ælfric, a late tenth-century abbot of Eynsham, which imagines the speech of an unfree ploughman:

I go out at daybreak, goading the oxen to the field, and I join them to the plough; there is not a winter so harsh that I dare lurk at home for fear of my master. But after yoking the oxen and securing the ploughshare and coulter to the plough, throughout the whole day I must plough a full acre or more … I must fill the stall of the oxen with hay and supply them with water and carry their dung outside. Oh! Oh! The work is hard. Yes, the work is hard, because I am not free.

The ploughman had good reason to fear his master. Slaves were regarded not as people but as chattels, and as such could be punished like animals, by branding or castration. They could even be killed – stoned to death by other slaves if they were male, burnt to death if they were female.9 The purposes for which female slaves were kept are not entirely certain. Many of them were no doubt used as domestics or dairymaids, but several sources suggest that women were also purchased for sexual purposes. In the early eleventh century, shortly before Cnut’s conquest, Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester delivered a famous sermon to the English people, lambasting them for their manifold sins. Certain Englishmen, he said,

club together to buy a woman between them as a joint purchase, and practise foul sin with that one woman, one after another, just like dogs, who do not care about filth; and then sell God’s creature for a price out of the country into the power of strangers.

Above the slaves were the remaining ninety or so per cent of the population who were free. The vast majority of the people in this category were classed as ceorls (or churls), a term we might translate as peasants. They too in most instances worked the land, and most of the time the land they worked was their own. In some areas of England they were less free than in others, because lords had started to insist that they were tenants who ought to perform labour services. But ceorls, unlike slaves, were no one’s property.

Above the ceorls were the nobility, a class that included approximately 4,000 to 5,000 people, or just 0.25 per cent of the total population. The nobility were distinguished from the people below them chiefly by virtue of owning a lot more land. An anonymous tract on status, written in the first quarter of the eleventh century, explains that it was possible for a ceorl to prosper and become a thegn (or thane). But he needed to have a suitably noble residence, with a gatehouse and bell-tower, and at least five hides of land – a hide being roughly 120 acres. This was crucial – it was insufficient simply to strut about in fancy armour. ‘Even if he prospers so that he possesses a helmet and a coat of mail and gold-plated sword,’ the tract continues, ‘if he has not the land, he is still a ceorl.’

To be a noble it was also deemed necessary to have a connection of some kind with the king. For the great majority of thegns this may simply have entailed fulfilling some minor role in royal government – administering a local court or assisting in the collection of national taxes. But for a select few it meant serving the king personally – riding in his household, as the tract explains, or going on special missions. According to a twelfth-century source, the minimum property requirement for entry into this charmed circle of ‘king’s thegns’ was forty hides of land, and based on this figure it has been calculated that there were only around ninety such men in England.

Lastly, at the very apex of aristocratic society, there were the ealdormen. These were the individuals who ran entire regions in the name of the king – East Anglia, for example, or Northumbria. As the king’s immediate deputies in these regions, they presided, twice a year, over the shire courts, handing down judgements of life and death, while in times of war they led royal armies. Because their commands had been created by the kings of Wessex as they had extended their power across England in the course of the tenth century, most ealdormen were themselves descended from the ancient royal line, and related to each other by ties of kinship and marriage.

This society – slaves, ceorls, thegns and ealdormen – had been severely shaken by the Danish invasions in the decades prior to Cnut’s conquest. Naturally the population as a whole had suffered as Viking armies hacked their way across the landscape. ‘There has been devastation and famine, burning and bloodshed in every district again and again’, lamented Bishop Wulfstan in his sermon of 1014. Some slaves, he complained, had run away, abandoning Christianity to become Vikings (and who, wonders the modern reader, can blame them?). Some thegns, who had once fancied themselves brave and strong, had been forced to watch while Vikings had gang-raped their wives and daughters. And all the while the invaders had been doing as they had always done and seizing people to sell overseas. ‘Often two or three seamen drive the droves of Christian men from sea to sea, out through this people, huddled together, as a public shame to us all …We pay them continually and they rob us daily; they ravage and they burn, plunder and rob and carry on board.’

But while everyone suffered from the invasions, no section of society suffered more than the upper ranks of the English aristocracy. Consider, in the first instance, the fate of the ealdormen. The elderly Birhtnoth had been the first of them to fall, dying during the Battle of Maldon in 991; four of his fellow ealdormen had perished during the struggle against Cnut in 1016, and almost all the remainder had been killed the following year as part of the new king’s notorious purge. Then there were the high-ranking thegns, many of whom appear to have met similarly bloody ends: the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains frequent references to the large numbers of nobles slain, and this testimony is confirmed by the lack of continuity between the thegns who witness Cnut’s charters and those who attest the acts of his predecessors. Two and a half decades of fighting, in other words, had all but wiped out the highest echelons of the English nobility.

Unsurprisingly, Cnut chose in the first instance to fill England’s depleted aristocratic ranks with Scandinavians. The rank and file of his army had gone home soon after the conquest, satisfied with their share of the great tribute that the new king had exacted at the start of his reign (and, in some cases, raising runestones back home in Scandinavia to celebrate their winnings). But at the highest level, in place of the fallen ealdormen, Cnut appointed a new set of Nordic provincial governors. The greatest of all his supporters, Thorkell the Tall, he placed in charge of East Anglia, while his brother-in-law, Erik, was given the responsibility of ruling Northumbria. Smaller commands were created elsewhere in England for the king’s other captains and kinsmen: a trio of shires in the west Midlands, for example, went to Hakon, Hrani and Eilífr. In their own Norse tongue men of such exalted rank were known as jarls, and the new term was swiftly adopted in the conquered country. England, latterly governed by ealdormen, was henceforth governed by earls.

There was, however, a striking exception to Cnut’s general policy of promoting his Scandinavian friends and family. From the very start of his reign, one of the king’s foremost advisers was Godwine, an Englishman of obscure origins. Probably he was the son of a Sussex thegn named Wulfnoth, an opponent of King Æthelred’s regime who had commandeered part of the royal fleet and terrorized England’s south coast. Was there, perhaps, a connection between this piracy on his father’s part and Godwine’s subsequent rise under Cnut? All we know is what we are told by a tract written in Godwine’s praise half a century later: he ‘was judged by the king himself the most cautious in counsel and the most active in war’. Soon into his reign, having succeeded to the Danish throne after the death of his brother, Harold, Cnut took his new favourite to Denmark, and there too the Englishman apparently demonstrated his indispensable wisdom and courage. The king responded by showering Godwine with honours: as early as 1018 he had been raised to the rank of earl, and not long afterwards he was drawn into the royal family by his marriage to Cnut’s sister-in-law, Gytha.

Such, indeed, was the king’s reliance on Godwine that the Englishman was soon pre-eminent even among England’s new Danish ruling class. By the early 1020s his command had been extended across the whole of southern England, and included the entirety of the ancient kingdom of Wessex. At the same time, the number of Danish earls was steadily declining. Thorkell the Tall was exiled in 1021, Erik of Northumbria died in 1023, and the following year Eilífr disappears from the record. As the decade wore on, other Scandinavians in England were redeployed to fill positions in Cnut’s expanding northern empire. Earl Ulf, for example, was sent at some point to serve as the king’s deputy in Denmark, while Earl Hakon was dispatched to govern Norway after the latter kingdom was conquered in 1028.

During this period, however, Godwine’s supremacy did not pass entirely unchallenged, for into the vacuum created by the disappearing Danes stepped another favoured Englishman. Leofric, son of Leofwine, came from an existing aristocratic family: his father had been the only ealdorman to survive Cnut’s house-clearing, albeit in reduced circumstances, his authority in the Midlands being subordinated to the region’s new Danish earls. But after his father’s death in 1023, and the eclipse of his Danish rivals, Leofric’s own star began steadily to rise. By the late 1020s he too had acquired the rank of earl, and thereafter seems to have become the principal power in the Midlands – what had once been the kingdom of Mercia. The witness-lists to royal charters show that, in the final years of Cnut’s reign, Leofric was second only to Godwine in the king’s counsels.

Thus, by the time of his death in 1035, Cnut had transformed the English aristocracy. The old guard of ealdormen – descended from royalty, close-knit and long-established – were gone, killed off in the course of the bloody Danish takeover. But gone too, for the most part, were the Danes who had initially replaced them. By the end of the reign, most of England was back under the command of Englishmen, with Earl Godwine governing Wessex and Earl Leofric in charge of Mercia; only in distant Northumbria, where Earl Siward had succeeded Earl Erik, did a Dane control an earldom of any consequence. These three earls, however, shared the common quality of being new men. Godwine’s family can be traced back only a single generation, Leofric’s no more than two, while nothing certain at all can be said about the parentage of Siward. Their rapid rise under Cnut had made them immensely powerful – probably more powerful than any English noblemen up to this point. But they lacked the ancient roots of the aristocracy that they had replaced. England’s three new earls were not linked by ties of blood or marriage. As subsequent events would show, they were not partners, but rivals.

The death of Cnut triggered a protracted and extremely bitter struggle. On the most fundamental level, the late king had provided for the succession by fathering no fewer than three healthy sons. The problem was he had fathered them by two different women.

As we’ve already seen, in the year after his conquest Cnut had married Emma – sister of Duke Richard II of Normandy, widow of King Æthelred, and mother of the future Edward the Confessor. Emma was Cnut’s official partner – his anointed queen – and she figures frequently as such in royal documents and devotional artwork. Together they had two children: a son called Harthacnut, said to have been born soon after their wedding, and a daughter, Gunhilda, who had latterly been married to the German emperor.

But some time earlier, perhaps in the course of his father’s short-lived conquest of 1013, Cnut had married another woman called Ælfgifu of Northampton. As her surname suggests, Ælfgifu came from an English family based in the Midlands. An important family: her father had for a time been the ealdorman of southern Northumbria, until he was murdered on the orders of King Æthelred. This raises the strong possibility that Cnut’s marriage to Ælfgifu had been arranged to cement an alliance with a disgruntled faction of Englishmen who had wanted to see Æthelred replaced.

Whether it was to preserve such an alliance, or simply because he enjoyed having his cake and eating it, Cnut apparently took no steps to dissolve his marriage to Ælfgifu before or after his subsequent marriage to Emma. He may have felt there was no need, for it is clear that the first match, unlike the second, had not been blessed by the Church. Whether or not this distinction mattered much to society as a whole, however, is debatable. At this date the laity regarded the Church’s involvement in marriage as an option, not a requirement. The unconsecrated match between Cnut and Ælfgifu was clearly considered as sufficiently legitimate by both parties at the time it was arranged. This in turn meant that the children it produced could be regarded as legitimate as well.

Ælfgifu had given Cnut two children, both boys, called Swein and Harold. They were probably born before the king’s second marriage in 1017 (that, at least, was Emma’s later assertion) and so were probably in their late teens or early twenties at the time of his death in 1035. We hear next to nothing about them or their mother before this date, but one fact alone indicates the high esteem in which they continued to be held. In 1030, after the death of Earl Hakon, Cnut sent Ælfgifu and Swein to Norway in order to rule there as his regents.

Did this indicate some plan for the succession? At some point before 1035 the king had similarly dispatched Harthacnut, his son by Emma, to rule on his behalf in Denmark; indeed, surviving coins show that Harthacnut had begun styling himself as king of Denmark even before his father’s death. Some later chroniclers imagined that Cnut’s intention had been to divide his empire in just such a way, with Norway going to Swein, Denmark going to Harthacnut and England passing to Ælfgifu’s other son, Harold. This, however, is probably no more than historical hindsight, for at the time of Cnut’s death there was no agreement at all.

Soon after Cnut’s death, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, there was a meeting of all his counsellors in Oxford. England already had a long tradition of such assemblies: it is a mark of the kingdom’s political maturity that in times of crisis its leading men would generally come together to debate their differences rather than immediately reaching for their swords. But the decision to meet in Oxford that autumn shows how serious the situation had already become, for the town lay on the River Thames, which in turn marked the boundary between Wessex and Mercia. And, sure enough, when the meeting took place, the two earldoms were divided over the succession. ‘Earl Leofric and almost all the thegns north of the Thames’, to quote the Chronicle, wanted their next king to be Harold. But ‘Earl Godwine and all the most prominent men in Wessex’ declared in favour of Harthacnut.

Godwine was almost certainly the single most powerful man in England, but on this occasion he found the odds stacked against him. We are not told anything about the sympathies or whereabouts of Earl Siward at this crucial moment, though it is hard to imagine he was not present; possibly the Chronicle’s comment about ‘all the thegns north of the Thames’ implies that he also supported Harold. But the Chronicle does tell us that Harold’s candidacy was backed by Cnut’s mercenary fleet in London, a formidable force of several thousand men, and more than a match for the late king’s housecarls, who had apparently declared for Harthacnut. The greatest problem for Harthacnut’s supporters, however, was that their candidate was still in Denmark; Harold, by contrast, was resident in England, probably present at the Oxford meeting, and therefore in a much better position to push his claim.

At length a compromise was reached which recognized the regional split. Wessex, it was agreed, would be held in trust for Harthacnut by his mother, Emma, who was to reside at Winchester with the housecarls. The rest of England, by implication, would be held by Harold, who would also act as regent of the whole kingdom on behalf of himself and his brother. Godwine and his supporters evidently opposed this arrangement but, as the Chronicle says, ‘they could put no obstacle in the way’. Their only consolation was that no firm decision had been taken on who should be the next king: as the Chronicle’s talk of trust and regents implies, the succession was to hang fire until Harthacnut’s return.

But Harthacnut, who had his hands full in Denmark, failed to appear, and the competition between the two rival camps intensified. Each side worked to undermine the support of the other, and no one worked harder than Queen Emma. A few years later, she commissioned a highly tendentious political tract, known today as the Encomium Emmae Reginae (‘In Praise of Queen Emma’), which above all else sought to justify her behaviour during this period. It is the source of the notion, noted in the previous chapter, that her marriage to Cnut had been a consensual affair rather than a fait accompli. The Encomium also claimed, conveniently, that there had been a prenuptial agreement: Cnut had apparently sworn an oath to Emma ‘that he would never set up the son of any wife other than herself to rule after him’. Harthacnut, in other words, was the only true heir; Harold, son of Ælfgifu of Northampton, could have no legitimate claim. Emma also set out to discredit her rivals in less subtle ways. The author of the Encomium assures us that Harold was not actually a son of Cnut at all, but a changeling, taken by Ælfgifu from the bed of a servant. It was crude propaganda, but clearly believed in some quarters: the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports the same slur.

Not that Ælfgifu was above playing the same game. It is not entirely certain at what point she returned to England, but her regency in Norway had ended in disaster around 1034 – she and her other son, Swein, had been driven out of the country, and Swein had died not long afterwards. Ælfgifu may therefore have already been in England at the time of Cnut’s death; she was certainly back before June 1036, for at that point we catch wind of her struggle against Emma in a letter written at the imperial court in Germany. Emma had sent messengers to her daughter, Gunhilda, complaining about Ælfgifu’s activities. ‘Your wretched and wicked stepmother, wishing to deprive your brother Harthacnut of the kingdom by fraud, organized a great party for all our leading men, and, eager to corrupt them at times with entreaty and at times with money, tried to bind them with oaths to herself and her son.’ According to Emma’s messengers, Ælfgifu’s wining and dining was unsuccessful. ‘Not only did the men not give their consent to her in any such way; but of one accord they dispatched messengers to your aforesaid brother, so that he might soon return to them.’

But this seems to have been wishful thinking on Emma’s part. There was still no sign of Harthacnut, and meanwhile Harold’s power was clearly growing. We can see as much by looking at the coinage that was in circulation. The English coinage system at this time was highly sophisticated; each coin, as well as bearing the name of the king, also carried the name of the place it had been minted. This means we can not only see at a glance which coins were struck for Harold and which for Harthacnut; we can also, with more considered analysis, see how much of the country each had under his control. What we see at first is power split along the line of the Thames, as had been agreed in the meeting at Oxford. But, as time goes on, the geographical spread of Harthacnut’s coinage contracts, while that of his rival expands. Throughout 1036, it seems, support for Harold was growing stronger. At some point, he sent men to Winchester, and deprived Emma of what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle calls ‘all King Cnut’s best valuables’ – including, perhaps, the regalia necessary for a coronation. It looked as if the queen’s grip on power, assiduously maintained through her marriage to two English kings, was about to end because of her son’s continued absence. It must have been around this point that she recalled that she had two other sons living in exile across the Channel.

A Wave of Danes II

Exile of Earl Godwine, 1051

Edward summoned the other great earls of the land to support him against Godwine’s family; ultimately the King commanded Godwine and Harold to appear and answer charges.  Godwine only agreed to do so if the King issued a safe-conduct.  Edward refused.

Godwine knew there was no hope for his cause, at least for the moment.  He had apparently been preparing for such an eventuality, because much of his treasure had already been loaded on a ship, and he quickly left the country along with most of his family.  Their destination was Flanders, a common refuge for English exiles and home of Count Baldwin, brother of Tostig’s new bride.  On a different ship, Harold and his younger brother Leofwine took sail for Ireland, where they were well-received by Dermot, King of Dublin and Leinster.

The future Edward the Confessor and his brother, Alfred, of course, remained in Normandy. As far as we can tell, nobody in England – least of all their mother – had considered either of them as potential candidates for the throne in the immediate wake of Cnut’s death. The Norman chronicler William of Jumièges tells us that, upon hearing the news of that ‘long-desired death’, Edward had set out for England ‘immediately’, but Jumièges was writing about twenty years later, and in any case careful chronology was never his major concern. It is more likely that his story belongs to the autumn of 1036, when Emma appears to have turned to the sons of her first marriage in a desperate attempt to improve her diminishing political fortunes.

Edward, said William of Jumièges, set sail for England with a fleet of forty ships, full of soldiers. This suggests that he intended to make a forceful bid for the throne, and, despite Jumièges’ best efforts to pretend otherwise, it clearly ended in failure. Edward landed safely at Southampton, but was immediately confronted by a large army of Englishmen. Battle was joined and Edward, we are assured, was the victor, but he concluded that the prospect of further success was slight. ‘Seeing that he could not possibly obtain the kingdom of the English without a larger army, he turned the fleet about and, richly laden with booty, sailed back to Normandy.’

There are two reasons for supposing that Edward’s botched bid for power had taken place at his mother’s behest. First, William of Jumièges has his English hero landing at Southampton, which would be the most obvious port of entry for a rendezvous with Emma at nearby Winchester. Secondly, and more compellingly, Emma herself, in the pages of her Encomium, goes to elaborate lengths to deny having ever encouraged her sons in Normandy to return to England. A letter was sent to them in her name, says the anonymous author, but it was a forgery, devised by her enemy Harold. As ever, the Encomium’s very insistence on this point suggests that what it is attempting to deny is the truth. Emma clearly had a hand in persuading her sons to come back, however much she may have subsequently wished to pretend otherwise.

For at some point in the same autumn of 1036, Alfred also decided to cross the Channel to England. Precisely how, why and when he went is unclear. The Encomium, for instance, says that he went with only a few men, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle insists that his aim was simply to visit his mother. William of Jumièges, by contrast, says that Alfred crossed with a considerable force, which would seem to imply a more ambitious objective. Later English chroniclers believed that Alfred, who sailed from Wissant to Dover, set out at the same time that Edward sailed for Southampton; most modern historians think it more likely that Alfred set out later, after his brother’s expedition had failed. Accounts of Alfred’s adventure differ in their detail largely because no one writing in England wished to be associated with its outcome. All versions of the story, however, agree that soon after arriving in England, Alfred and his men were met by Earl Godwine.

Godwine, as we have seen, had been the principal ally of Queen Emma in the aftermath of Cnut’s death – ‘her most devoted supporter’, in the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. But that had been when he, like she, had been confident of Harthacnut’s imminent return. Once that return started to look increasingly unlikely, Godwine’s support must have begun to waver. At some stage he decided to switch his allegiance to Harold, and the trigger for his desertion may well have been Emma’s attempt to promote Edward and Alfred. Godwine had been the principal beneficiary of the Danish conquest; the last person he wanted to see on the throne was one of that conquest’s principal victims, seeking to settle old scores. A creature of Cnut, he could only hope to prosper under one of Cnut’s sons; if not Harthacnut, then Harold. His only problem was how to make up for his late conversion to Harold’s cause; the arrival of Alfred in the autumn of 1036 presented him with the perfect opportunity.

Despite the equivocation of some modern commentators, there is considerable agreement in our sources about what happened next. Both the Encomium and William of Jumièges agree that when Godwine met Alfred he took him under his protection; according to the Encomium this entailed diverting him from his intended destination of London and leading him instead to Guildford, where he and his followers were feasted with plenty of food and drink, and shown to beds in separate lodgings. Then, during the night they were seized and attacked. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which breaks into mournful verse, ‘some of them were sold for money, some cruelly murdered; some of them were put in chains, some of them were blinded; some were mutilated, and some were scalped’. It was, the Chronicle laments, the single worst atrocity in England since the Danish conquest. Alfred himself was spared, but cast in chains and taken to Ely in Cambridgeshire, where he was blinded and left in the care of the local monks. A short while later, in February 1037, he died from his wounds and was buried in the town’s abbey.

There can be little doubt that Godwine was responsible for this massacre. One version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle discreetly excises his name from its account, but another accuses him directly (‘Godwine prevented him [Alfred], and placed him in captivity / Dispersing his followers besides, slaying some in various ways’).fn1 William of Jumièges, who offers what is arguably the most neutral version of events, says that Godwine imprisoned and slew some of his guests, but sent Alfred and certain others to Harold in London; it was Harold who was responsible for ordering his rival’s subsequent blinding. Emma, in her Encomium, endeavoured to shift all the blame on to Harold, claiming it was his men, not Godwine’s, who appeared in the night at Guildford and carried out the atrocities – a suggestion so implausible that even her hired author seems to have found it difficult to swallow.

All these accounts, however, were written with the benefit of hindsight. At the time the killing of Alfred achieved its objective for those involved. Godwine had successfully ingratiated himself with Harold by removing a potential rival for the throne; Harold, with Godwine by his side, enjoyed universal political support. ‘In this year’, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in its entry for 1037, ‘Harold was everywhere chosen as king, and Harthacnut repudiated because he remained too long in Denmark.’

‘His mother’, the Chronicle adds, ‘was driven from the country without any mercy to face the raging winter.’

It might be supposed that Emma, on being forced into exile, would cross to Normandy. But the queen had long ago severed any vestigial links, political or emotional, which might have pulled her towards the land of her birth. She chose instead to settle in Flanders, an independent county to the north of France. It is possible that she had been there once before, for Cnut had passed through the same region during his celebrated visit to Rome (the author of Emma’s Encomium, a Fleming himself, recalled how the king had characteristically showered the churches of St Omer with valuable gifts). Whatever the case, Emma, as Cnut’s widow, was well received by the count of Flanders, Baldwin V, and furnished with a suitably luxurious residence in the town of Bruges.

As soon as she and her supporters were comfortably ensconced, the exiled queen began to plot her next move. If the Encomium is to be believed, her first thought was to send messengers to Edward in Normandy, asking him to visit her without delay. He, we are told, duly rode to Flanders, but explained that he could offer no help. It is easy enough to believe that Edward, having already made two unsuccessful bids for the English throne, and having seen his brother brutally murdered in an apparently similar attempt, would want no further part in any of his mother’s schemes. According to the Encomium, however, he declined to assist her on more technical grounds, explaining that ‘the English nobles had sworn no oaths to him’. This sounds altogether more suspicious: Edward is being wheeled on only to renounce his claim, thereby legitimizing Emma’s next move, which, as the Encomium makes clear, was to send messengers to Harthacnut. As the queen must have appreciated, Edward, a long-term exile, was in no real position to offer her any serious help. Only Harthacnut, in his capacity as king of Denmark, could command the resources necessary for a new invasion of England.

He kept everyone waiting for a further two years, but at length the young Danish king showed his hand. According to the Encomium, he assembled a great fleet in anticipation of an armed struggle, but in the first instance set out with only ten ships to meet his mother in Bruges. This, says the Encomium, was nearly a disaster, because they sailed into a storm and were forced to drop anchor while at sea. During the night that followed, however, Harthacnut received divine encouragement, dreaming that Harold, ‘the unjust usurper of his kingdom’, would die in just a few days’ time. And so it came to pass. The storm subsided, Harthacnut completed his voyage to Bruges, and was at last reunited with his mother. A short while later, messengers arrived from England, informing them that Harold was dead, and begging Harthacnut to take the crown.

As the dream sequence makes clear, the Encomium’s account is informed by its knowledge of future events. Unfortunately, we have few other sources against which to check its version of events. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, having dealt with the murder of Alfred, thereafter maintains a studious silence on political matters for the rest of Harold’s reign, commenting only on ecclesiastical affairs and the state of the weather. Had Harold lived longer, we might know more about these missing years; as it is, he remains one of the most anonymous kings ever to have sat on England’s throne. Even his colourful cognomen, Harefoot, tells us nothing, for it was not recorded until the twelfth century (as Harefah) and probably arose from confusion with the Norwegian king Harold Fairhair. Nor do we know anything about the circumstances of his death. The Chronicle notes only that he died at Oxford on 17 March 1040 and was buried at Westminster.

In lieu of other evidence, the most reasonable assumption must be that Harold’s death was unsuspicious and unexpected; it certainly seems to have caught the great men of England unprepared. The substance of the Encomium’s story, that Harthacnut received a peaceful offer of the crown after Harold’s death, is confirmed by the Chronicle. ‘They sent to Bruges for Harthacnut’, it says in one version, ‘with the best intentions.’ The Danish king duly arrived a week later and was accepted as England’s new ruler. But, as the comment about best intentions suggests, the various versions of the Chronicle for these years were also written retrospectively, and the brief rule of Harthacnut was a disaster from the first. In the words of the Chronicle, ‘he never did anything worthy of a king while he reigned’.

To be fair to Harthacnut, the political situation he inherited was ghastly. The great men of England – in particular, its three principal earls – had previously rejected him in favour of his half-brother. But with Harold now dead the tables had been unexpectedly turned; everyone must have felt acutely anxious about the recent past and how it might affect their future prospects. Harthacnut himself did nothing to calm matters when he ordered his predecessor’s body to be dug up from Westminster Abbey and, in the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘flung into a fen’. Clearly the new king was not about to let bygones be bygones; one imagines that he received plenty of encouragement from his mother. According to a later chronicler called John of Worcester, Harold’s corpse was subsequently thrown into the Thames, before being recovered by a sympathetic fisherman and taken for reburial in London’s Danish cemetery.

John of Worcester (until recently known to historians as Florence of Worcester) is, in fact, our best source for the reign of Harthacnut (and also one of our best informants for the Norman Conquest); although he lived and wrote in the early twelfth century, he used the earlier Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a model, and added many credible details. As his account makes clear, it proved impossible to blame all the mistakes of Harold’s reign on the dead king himself. The murder of Alfred, about which men had remained silent for so long, now became the subject of recrimination, and the archbishop of York openly blamed Earl Godwine and the bishop of Worcester (which would explain John of Worcester’s inside knowledge). The bishop was for a while deprived of his office, while the earl was obliged to make public amends for his crime, albeit using the oldest excuse in the book. ‘He swore to the king’, explains John of Worcester, ‘that it had not been by his advice or at his wish that his brother was blinded, but that his lord, King Harold, had ordered him to do what he did.’

What ultimately seems to have compromised Harthacnut’s kingship, however, was his attempt to raise extortionate sums of money. Although in the event his accession had occurred by peaceful invitation, he had come to England accompanied by his pre-prepared invasion fleet, manned by mercenaries who still expected to be paid. Thanks to the initiative of King Æthelred, the country had a tax system specifically designed for such purposes, but Harthacnut seems to have pushed it much harder than any of his predecessors. As one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle explains (in astonishing detail), the new king paid his troops at the customary rate, established in the days of Cnut and continued during the reign of Harold. But whereas these earlier rulers had each maintained a permanent fleet of sixteen ships, Harthacnut had arrived in England with sixty-two. Thus the sum he raised in taxation during his first year – a credible-sounding but nevertheless gargantuan £21,000 – represented something like a fourfold hike; another version of the Chronicle described it as ‘a severe tax which was borne with difficulty’. Perhaps worse still, the punishment looked set to continue indefinitely. The following year the new king dismissed thirty of his ships, but exacted a tax of £11,000 to pay the thirty-two that remained. Even his reduced fleet meant a tax demand double the size of the old days.

Such a rapacious level of taxation seems to have had disastrous effects on the kingdom’s economy. ‘Wheat rose in price to fifty-five pence a sester, and even higher’, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, expecting us to share its outrage, and unwittingly giving us the first recorded instance of price inflation in English history. In order to compel payment Harthacnut sent his housecarls out into the provinces to act as collectors. The two that went to Worcester were chased into the cathedral and killed by an angry mob, leading to royal retribution that was still vividly recalled some eighty years later. So enraged was the king, says John of Worcester, that he dispatched a great army of earls and housecarls, ‘ordering them to slay all the men if they could, to plunder and burn the city, and to lay waste the entire region’. Luckily, the people of Worcester received advanced warning of the army’s coming, allowing most of them to withdraw to Bevere, an island in the middle of the River Severn, which they fortified and successfully defended. Nevertheless, the king’s forces spent four days looting and burning the city before his anger was slaked.

Needless to say, none of this did much good for what we might call Harthacnut’s public relations. ‘All who had been zealous on his behalf’, says the Chronicle, ‘now became disloyal to him.’ And that was merely in response to his initial demand of tax in 1040; the following year the Chronicle also complained that the new king had betrayed one of his earls, Eadwulf, having guaranteed his safety, ‘and thereby became a breaker of his pledge’. Tax-raiser, pledge-breaker, harrier of his own people: small wonder some powerful people started to look at Harthacnut and wonder if they might have made a mistake.

The king’s rapidly diminishing popularity is that background against which we have to try to make sense of the extraordinary events that followed. At some point in the year 1041, Harthacnut apparently invited his half-brother Edward to come over from Normandy, in the words of the Encomium, ‘to hold the kingdom with him’. Something like this certainly happened: Edward in due course crossed the Channel and was, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘sworn in as king’.

There is no wholly satisfying explanation as to why Harthacnut should have wished to act in this way. The Encomium says it was because he was ‘gripped by brotherly love’. It also calls Harthacnut, Edward and Emma herself ‘sharers of rule’, comparing them to the Holy Trinity that rules in heaven, and seeks to reassure its readers that there is ‘no disagreement between them’. As usual, this is almost as good as having a statement from an independent witness that there was disagreement of some sort between Emma and her two sons, and this in turn raises the possibility that Harthacnut may have had little choice but to recall Edward, the half-brother he had almost certainly never met before.

This impression is reinforced by a short description of Edward’s return to England in 1041 that occurs in a twelfth-century legal text known as the Quadripartitus. When Edward arrived, says the anonymous author, ‘the thegns of all England gathered together at Hursteshevet, and there it was heard that he would be received as king only if he guarantee to them upon oath the laws of Cnut and his sons’. ‘Hursteshevet’, it has been persuasively argued, should be read as ‘Hurst Head’, and identified with the spit of land near Southampton, at the western end of the Solent, where Hurst Castle now stands. Edward, in other words, seems to have been met at a point of disembarkation, almost before he had set foot in England itself, and obliged to make a promise of good governance. Moreover, it was a promise made to what sounds like a large, representative body – ‘the thegns of all England’ – which raises intriguing possibilities. Edward’s return and Harthacnut’s increasing unpopularity are usually seen as connected, but it is generally assumed that it was the king’s own decision to share power. Yet we only have the Encomium’s word for this. The author of the Quadripartitus attributes no initiative at all in the business of Edward’s return to Harthacnut; rather, the matter is said to be the work of Earl Godwine and the bishop of Winchester. Plausibly, therefore, this may have been a decision that was forced upon Harthacnut by his disgruntled subjects, with Godwine figuring as a key player.

There is a third and arguably simpler explanation, which is that Harthacnut may have been mortally ill in 1041. A later Norman writer, William of Poitiers, implies as much in his account of affairs leading up to the Norman Conquest. If this was indeed the case, it is conceivable that Harthacnut may have needed Edward to act as a regent in the first instance and to succeed him in the event of his death. There are, however, difficulties in accepting this tidy solution. The first is that William of Poitiers, as well as being late, is far from being an entirely reliable witness; it seems quite likely, though by no means absolutely certain, that he imagined that Harthacnut suffered from ‘frequent diseases’ simply because he knew how the king’s story ended. The second difficulty is that William’s picture of an ailing Harthacnut is contradicted by that of John of Worcester, who says that the king was ‘merry, in good health and great heart’ up to the very end. This turned out to be a wedding feast held at Lambeth near London in the summer of 1042. Harthacnut, says John, was standing with the bride and a group of other men when ‘he suddenly crashed to the ground in a wretched fall while drinking’. ‘Those who were nearby took hold of him’, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘but he never spoke again, and passed away on 8 June.’ A good Viking way to go, to be sure, but also one with more than a hint of suspicion about it, given his massive unpopularity, and the cup that had been in his hand. Sinister or not, Harthacnut’s death resolved the anomaly of the recent experiment in joint rulership. In due course the dead Dane was lowered into the ground in Winchester’s Old Minster, alongside the bones of his father. ‘Before he was buried’, says the Chronicle, ‘the whole nation chose Edward to be king.’ As a hurriedly revised version of the Encomium observed, the wheel had turned full circle. Against all odds, England’s ancient royal house had been miraculously restored.

Czech Resistance 1942-45

Corpses of two of Reinhard Heydrich’s assassins in Prague, May 1942

On the anniversary of Czech independence on 28 October 1939, the Czech underground organized a massive anti-German demonstration. It resulted in a confrontation with the police and the death of a student, Jan Opletal. That student’s funeral the following month became the occasion for more rallies in Prague. Hitler decided he had had enough of demonstrations. He closed all Czech universities, and nine student leaders, picked at random, were shot without trial. During the temporary absence of Neurath from the country, Frank ordered the arrest of all students living in dormitories; 1,200 were deported to concentration camps. Having concluded that Neurath was protecting the Czechs too much, Hitler removed him. But instead of replacing him with Frank, Hitler appointed as Acting Reich Protector the feared chief of Germany’s Security Police, Reinhard Heydrich.

With Heydrich’s arrival in Prague on 27 September 1941, the occupation moved into a new, ruthless phase. Heydrich declared martial law and placed the entire country under a curfew that was to last four months. Summary courts were the main instruments of the terror he now imposed. A trial in a summary court had only three possible outcomes: the defendant was either acquitted, sentenced to death or sent to a concentration camp. Between the summer of 1941 and the end of the year, 10,000 people were arrested including thousands of Czech Communists. Every resister in prison, subject to interrogation, meant much greater danger for those still free. People who found out they were wanted for questioning immediately went into hiding.

Over 100 crimes now qualified as capital offences – listening to foreign broadcasts, consorting with Jews, possessing guns of any type, failing to turn in an unregistered person, speaking against the occupation. Under such tight restrictions, anyone could be found guilty of so-called resistance. Every day in the yards of dormitories that were being used as jails, Czechs with bloody faces were shot and hanged. Boxes appeared on the front pages of the newspapers giving the names of people who had been sentenced to death, some twenty a day – peasants, journalists, captains and colonels. Among them – one of the first announced by Heydrich the day after his arrival – was Prime Minister Aloys Eliáš, charged with high treason, though his death sentence was not carried out immediately.

One of the most effective controls the Germans employed was requiring everyone to register his address. To live anywhere in the Protectorate without registering at a district office or gendarmerie station was to be an enemy of the Reich. Anyone who was not wanted by the police thus had an identity card, though sometimes a way was found to get a false one for a resister. A district office distributed the identity cards. A worker might manage to smuggle out a blank one, though the officials counted the cards as they were printed and counted them again as they were handed out to the applicants. Discovering that a resister had a false card meant exposing the worker in the office who had provided it.

Living without an identity card meant being without a ration card as well, so that the family sheltering the resister had to share their meagre rations or engage in illicit black-market trading. People who harboured a fugitive were shot, together with their families. Moreover, anyone who failed to turn in an unregistered person might also be executed. It was impossible simply to live outdoors: villagers were assigned to patrol the woods. In the towns and villages, the cottages were thin-walled and close together, so that it was not easy to keep someone hidden in a bedroom or attic. Anyone who gave the smallest help to a resister became a resister, too. He would be just as dead after his captivity as if he had plotted to kill Hitler. Once someone aided a resister – allowing him to sleep for one night in his barn, for example – he could never again feel safe. If the resister were caught, he might be tortured to reveal every link in his underground survival, every bit of assistance no matter how trivial, going back months and months. One arrest generally meant death for dozens of people.

Nevertheless, after the war it turned out that some well–known individuals had helped the underground, such as Cyril Musil, a famous Czech ski racer, who hid several unregistered fugitives. Funds had been donated to the resistance by several quite prominent men. Families that considered themselves somewhat above the general community around them were sometimes the most willing to give shelter – men such as Jaroslav Kobylka, mayor of the town of Kadolec. They considered it fitting that they should do what average people would not.

Whenever the Germans encountered reverses in the war, instead of concentrating solely on the main battle, they reacted by tightening the occupation. This seemed ironic to many observers. The military front was the theatre where the German system would either live or die; the resistance could only harass the German government. Yet at crucial moments during the war, the Germans squandered their men and resources in keeping stricter control of the subject populations. Czechs could be arrested for not covering their windows sufficiently during a blackout; concealing a few scraps of leather or cloth; holding back a little something that was requisitioned. Because of Heydrich’s controls, life was fraught with terror, not only for genuine resisters, but also for average Czechs who were simply trying to get along. In order to eat, many people traded on the black market – exchanging a dress for a little meat, swapping a child’s toy for a few eggs. Since everybody was doing it, it seemed that one could get by with it; but it was impossible to be sure. There were continual executions of so-called black marketeers. Country people had to register their livestock and were required to deliver a certain quantity of meat, eggs and dairy products at certain times. Every farmer and villager kept some animals illegally, despite knowing that the authorities would show up now and then with the official goose or pig list and compare it to the tails they counted in the yard. If a family ate something at home that was severely rationed, they had to worry about the children making a comment at school that would arouse suspicion. Every life was scored with constant small lies, compromises and anxiety.

Martial law was lifted in January 1942. From the German perspective, Heydrich’s policy of controlled severity – harsh punishment for resistance, but not pushing the Czech population to the point of rebellion – was working; the country appeared to be pacified. Heydrich reorganized the administration so that German agents transferred a great deal of routine business to their Czech counterparts. The Germans acted merely as inspectors and supervisors of the Czechs. By the end of 1942, over 350,000 Czech administrators worked under the control of a mere 738 Germans in the Office of the Protector and another 1,146 who sat in various Czech agencies. Heydrich’s mission was complete; he apparently was ready to move on to another occupied country, possibly France. However, on 27 May 1942, exactly eight months after his arrival in Prague, a bomb was thrown into his car and Reich Protector SS–Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich was killed.

Heydrich’s assassination was Czechoslovakia’s most sensational act of rebellion, but it was not carried out by the home resistance. The murder was planned and implemented by Czechs abroad, an assassination ordered by Beneš because the President wanted some dramatic demonstration of the strength of the Czech resistance. The British, acting on the advice of František Moravec, trained, equipped and transported two Czech agents who were dropped into the Protectorate in December 1941. The assassins delayed their mission for five months, during which time their supporters in the Czech underground figured out what they were up to. The home resisters then urgently cabled Beneš, pleading and demanding that the assassination plan be cancelled because of the ‘immeasurable’ German retaliation it would provoke – but they were ignored.

Beneš sometimes made controversial decisions; this one, to kill Heydrich, aroused criticism as well because of the violent retribution that was bound to follow. Just as the home resisters predicted, the Germans went into a frenzy of revenge, placing the whole country again under martial law. Before Heydrich had quite expired, Hitler ordered that 10,000 Czechs, primarily intellectuals, be taken hostage and 100 shot immediately. One by one, in 5,000 villages and towns, German police went from house to house searching for suspects. Though the bomb had been the work of only a handful, thousands of Czechs were arrested during the next 6 weeks, and over 1,000 executed, including the imprisoned General Eliáš. The searches flushed out hundreds of men in hiding, but the slaughter was particularly directed against intellectuals and former army officers who were still free. All of the security apparatus was brought to bear, both the Czech gendarmes stationed in the countryside, and the regular police in the cities – all under strict Nazi supervision.

At the height of the terror, the Germans burned down two villages, Lidice, not far from Prague, and Ležáky. By that time seven paratroopers, including the two Czechs who were ordered by the London government to kill Heydrich, had died in a Prague church where they were cornered. In the face of the brutal retaliation, the British tardily renounced their participation in the Munich Pact – a classic example of ‘too little and too late.’

After Heydrich’s assassination, all hope – what there was of it – for rising up against the German occupiers lay with Slovakia. Its fascist government was closely monitored by the Germans; however, because Slovakia was not occupied, the resistance had more freedom to operate there than in the Czech lands. As in the Protectorate, one centre of the resistance was the army. It had not been disbanded in Slovakia, and still contained possible confederates who could smuggle heavy weapons to the Czechs. With these, the Czechs hoped to harass the rear of the German army as the Russians approached the Protectorate from the east. A former legionnaire and artillery major in the defunct Czechoslovak army, Jan Moravanský, was by then head of ON, living legally near Prague. His group was at first called Slezák, then later the Tau. It was eventually subsumed into the Council of Three. In 1942, Moravanský had a list of 1,400 former soldiers still living legally, 600 of whom he thought, optimistically, would respond if called to an uprising.

But who was there to lead such a revolt? By 1943 the underground was almost barren. Nothing remained of the large resistance organizations except a few scattered and frightened followers without leaders. Josef Grňa, a former professor of finance, was surviving underground and made contact with some of the military resisters also in hiding. These connections – between Grňa and a general, for example – were arduous undertakings involving a dangerous 15- or 20-mile walk, each man following a map so that the two could intersect at some ditch or tree in the middle of nowhere. People in hiding were totally dependent on those living legally to bring them news, communications and reading material, and to make contact with others in the underground. Grňa was no politician and hardly a leader of revolutionaries, but he was almost the last man standing after the retaliation against Heydrich’s assassination. Another who survived the 1941–2 devastation of the resistance was Ambassador Arnošt Heidrich. He had been a frequent Czechoslovak representative at the Geneva disarmament conferences in the 1920s and a confidant of President Beneš. He avoided arrest until 1944. Leopold Chmela was a chief member of the Heidrich group. He survived the war to write a book about Czech losses during the occupation. But none of these Czechs could lead an uprising.

The Germans had meanwhile destroyed all the transmitters used by the resistance. Karel Staller, a technical whiz, was the director of the Brno Small Arms Factory in 1943, and one of the few Czechs still allowed to travel to Slovakia.29 Hiding microfilm in his shaving kit and in coins, he set up a courier route from Bratislava to Switzerland to London.30 For over a year, the courier network organized by Staller was practically the only means of contact between the home resistance and President Beneš or between the Czech and Slovak resisters. Some of the information so perilously communicated was essential; some of it not, such as the intelligence that a new resistance group was forming around Grňa and Vojtech Luža, a former army division general. The London government would acknowledge the arrival of microfilm by giving a particular password or phrase in one of the BBC broadcasts. At the start of each Czech broadcast there was a string of such coded announcements: ‘Erica watch. Spring is coming. Memory is watchful. The corn is growing.’ The Germans, of course, heard the communications, too, but it was hoped that they could not decode them.

Radio Moscow, apparently oblivious to geography, was exhorting the home resistance to help the Russians by starting guerrilla warfare. Of all the occupied countries, Czechoslovakia was farthest from any front, too distant for either the Western Allies or the Russians to assist any partisan fighting. Broadcasts from Moscow even urged the home resistance to establish national committees, local bodies of a few cities which would represent the larger population – this at a time when any sort of meeting was a certain way to become a target for arrest. Moreover, the Czechs had no weapons with which to confront the German tanks. General Luza, for one, wanted to make contact with Colonel Theodor Lang of the Protectorate troops. Though these troops carried only light weapons, they were 10,000 strong. He had to argue down the communists in his group who scorned such ‘bourgeois collaborators’.

By autumn 1943, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had met in Tehran to plan the next offensives of the war. From Sicily, the Allies were progressing northward, while the Red Army had pushed the Germans back to the Dneister River, about 600 miles from the Protectorate. One would suppose that Hitler would be too busy preventing the collapse of his armies to continue the zealous tracking of unregistered Czechs, but in fact his reverses at the front were followed as usual by increased severity in the occupied land. The terror in the Protectorate was never as barbaric as in Poland, but it remained far worse than in Holland, Belgium or France. In 1944, the Germans were executing over 100 people a month in the Protectorate. Hitler continued to eliminate intellectuals and internal enemies just as if he were winning the war, even when Allied troops were at the border of the Reich and German cities were being bombed to rubble. Close observers of those years marvelled at the Nazis’ security apparatus. In the stark face of annihilation, the Germans might have thrown every effort into the critical military struggle. Instead, they continued rooting out Jews, resisters and communists all over occupied Europe, probing into every classroom where contraband words might be lying about and every cellar where shortwave radio signals might penetrate.

By this time, there were finally too few Nazis to police whole populations. The Germans were turning their captured Czech victims into informers, people who purchased the lives of their loved ones with information they provided, however unwillingly. Though they might have had no heart for it, these informers were productive detectives for the Gestapo, and established entire bogus resistance organizations to attract good-faith resisters. The informant system was especially effective against the communists.

Communists had been distinguished resisters in 1940 and 1941, either cooperating with the democratic resistance or vilifying it, according to their directions from Moscow. But they were largely wiped out in the two periods of martial law connected with Heydrich. The Germans were fierce toward anyone associated with communism. Their special attention to Communists thinned out the leftist population, so that it was not until late in 1944 that communist groups emerged. The attitude of the Czechs toward communism was not necessarily friendly, but it was not overwhelmingly hostile. The Communist Party had long been a part of the country’s political life, just like other parties. For Czechs, there was no question that the fascists were the enemy and the Russians the probable deliverers. At the same time, the Czech attitude toward the West was deeply ambivalent, even during the war. After Munich, it was the French and British whom Czechs mistrusted, not the Russians – that is, until the communists imposed monopolistic control in 1948.

At the other end of the resistance’s political spectrum was the right-of-centre PRNC, the Preparatory Revolutionary Nation Committee, preparing for the revolution that would burst forth as the Germans were retreating and the Russians were coming in. PRNC claimed to be the successor to the great resistance networks destroyed by the Gestapo in 1941. It was not a body of active resisters but rather a ramulose organization that served to put several groups in loose association. People around General Novák were among its leaders: Jaroslav Kvapil, a famous playwright; František Richter, the director of a printing enterprise and a former member of the Czech Legion, a volunteer army that fought in Russia against Austria-Hungary in the First World War – the Legion formed a kind of old-boy network that would later assist the resisters who had been part of it; Judge Emil Lány, former president for the land court for Bohemia; the poet Josef Palivec; literary critic Václav Čzerny; and the writer Jaroslav Kratochvil, who was also a member of the communist underground and used his influence to get the Party to cooperate more closely with the democratic resistance. Some of PRNC’s other members were Jaromír Dvoařk and Josef Mainer from Pilsen and Kamil Krofta, a former minister of foreign affairs. One component of PRNC was a group led by Professors Josef Drachovký, Josef Hutter and Růžena Vacek. Another component included representatives of the Czech Protectorate police, such as Bohdan Sefčik. Rudolf Fraštacký served, like Staller, as a courier. Jaroslav Krátký (Zdena), a major of the former Czechoslovak army, was sent by Beneš and Ingr to Slovakia to run secret transmitters connecting London with the main resistance groups there, and also to get information about resistance in the Protectorate. His contact in Bratislava was Rudolf Fraštacký. Zdena was eventually caught by the Gestapo and murdered in prison by the SS.

The Russian parachutists who began coming into the Protectorate in 1944 taught the Czechs about zemljankas, a camouflaged hiding place that helped countless resisters survive that last terrible year of the war. First a hole was dug deep enough for a man to stand in and wide enough to hold a bench that could serve as a bed. Then it was walled inside with wooden planks, and a covering of earth and grass was placed over the top. The entrance was concealed in a nearby bush, some feet away.

It was in the dark of zemljankas and attics that many resisters learned of the Normandy invasion. Clearly, the Germans seemed to be losing the war. The resisters had only to hold out and the nightmare would be over. Even then, the Germans squandered their resources hunting down internal resisters. While the Czechs were rejoicing over D-Day, they learned that almost the entire PRNC organization had been wiped out by the Gestapo. General Novák, who had been living legally, decided to await capture rather than flee and abandon his family to the Gestapo’s revenge. Arrested during the night of 22 June 1944, he was tortured but not executed, and managed to stay alive in the Gestapo prison until the end of the war. Along with Novak, Moravansky, Colonel Lang and many others were taken. Leopold Chmela was arrested on 6 June, followed soon afterward by the capture of Heidrich himself. General Novák’s successor as head of PRNC was General František Bláha, who was then arrested in the autumn of 1944. Bláha’s successor was General Fraštisek Slunečko, who had been living underground since 1940 in Bohemia. As the Allies were closing in on the Germans, the Germans were closing in on the resistance, or so it seemed to the isolated souls trying desperately to hang on until the end. This was an illusion because resistance was actually resurging. Networks were popping up toward the end of the war almost faster than the Nazis could smother them.

The resistance could claim no authority without contact with the exiled government, and the London government could not claim to be the voice of Czechoslovakia unless it could maintain a minimum of contact. Secret transmitters were essential so that the home resistance and the exiles could communicate. The Germans, realizing this, dedicated great effort to locating and smashing transmitters. First there had been the Sparta network with eleven transmitters, which provided the Allies with some 20,000 intelligence messages until it was destroyed in 1941. Then the Czechoslovak army abroad trained special volunteers whom the British dropped into the Protectorate. These paratroopers restored communication, along with assassinating Heydrich; but by the beginning of 1943 they, too, had been hunted down. Throughout that year, the Czechs used only couriers, people smuggling messages in their clothing. However, the slow courier system was more and more impractical as the tempo of the war intensified. In April 1944, therefore, Beneš, Ingr and František Moravec, the head of military intelligence abroad, began dispatching new teams of paratroopers, fourteen in all, charged with gathering intelligence on their own and communicating information from the home resistance. Each team included at least one wireless operator with a transmitter. It was difficult enough for paratroopers to land in the Protectorate and find groups to help them – the resisters were, after all, in hiding – but the transmitting itself was dangerous. The bulky transmitters had to be moved frequently lest the Germans follow the radio waves and track them down; yet the only vehicles the Czechs possessed were bicycles. Despite every precaution, the Gestapo usually located the transmitters within a few months.

With the transmitters, several important resistance groups learned of each other’s existence and were able to discuss plans for an uprising. A former lieutenant colonel, Josef Svatoň, headed an organization that spread from western Bohemia into Moravia and included the remnants of ON. Another man, Josef Císař, led a very important group called Avala. Císař was living legally in Prague and had a regular job. His secret organization included the association of Czech volunteer firemen, men who could mobilize at a moment’s notice and who were connected to all the other fire departments across the country. They were the only people in the Protectorate who had at their disposal both gasoline and vehicles – fire engines. The Gestapo could not quash their resistance group because firemen were too badly needed. Císař had also organized the Czech hunting societies. Hunters were spread over the whole country and, moreover, they possessed guns, which they had been allowed to keep. These two groups now joined with General Luža in what was called the Council of Three, or R3, Rada tří in Czech. Another supporter was Josef Ouředník, the leader of an organization south of Prague called Sázava. Luža, having been accepted by both London and the home resistance as supreme leader of the projected uprising, did his best to subsume all the diffuse groups, including a Prague association called Revolutionary Trade Unions. Luža’s group was no longer a Moravian organization of a few hundred but a federation of scattered thousands.

The London government expected to direct the proposed insurrection from abroad, by use of transmitters, a method that would have been awkward and unreliable considering the tenuous position of all the various underground groups. Luža insisted that the home resistance must control the uprising, get credit for its success and organize the provisional government that would follow.36 An insurrection was necessary even if the home resistance was not needed to defeat the Germans militarily. Without a revolt, the post-war political field would be dominated by party hacks returning from abroad. What changes were going to be made in the political system had to be made during the brief revolutionary beginning, he warned, or not at all. All the resisters except the communists assumed that at the end of the war these revolutionaries, that is, the resistance leaders who carried out the projected uprising, would take over from the defeated Germans and run the country until President Beneš returned and elections were held. It was expected that the major resistance figures would be offered ministerial positions in any post-war government. The arms for this revolution were to be seized from a storage repository and from an ammunition factory – enough weapons to arm 10,000 men. The British were expected to drop weapons, and a shipment from the Red Army was also expected.

It appeared, however, that the British looked to the Russians to supply anti-German insurgencies. Perhaps the British feared that any weapons they dropped might fall into the hands of the communist allies with whom they were increasingly disillusioned. As for the Russians, having marched over 1,000 miles, they did not want to set things up so as to congratulate the Czechs on liberating themselves. Nor were they eager to take over a country with an independent army that looked to its own leaders for direction. They chose to ignore whatever expectations the resisters had in the way of arms.

In August 1944, Slovakia erupted in a protracted revolution, led by former military men and supported by both democrats and local communists. It was directed by Lieutenant Colonel Ján Golian, the head of a Slovak underground organization; he had been chosen by Beneš and the government-in-exile, in disregard of Luža’s recommendation. The Czech resistance was then bombarded with broadcasts from Moscow exhorting it to follow the Slovak example and take up arms. But in September, before the Czechs could react to the Slovak situation, the Gestapo killed Ouředník and captured Luža’s closest aides, shattering the entire Prague section of the organization. In October, Luža, making his difficult way toward Prague with an assistant and false identity cards, was killed by officious Czech gendarmes who, in an excess of punctiliousness, decided to double-check the identities of the two strangers passing through.

That last autumn of the war marked the time when, by heart–sinking degrees, the resistance leaders realized that they could not carry out a national insurrection. Impulsive, disjointed revolts might break out – suicidal rebellions of poorly equipped and scattered groups. But the organized, massive death blow to a weakened German occupation army was a chimera. Not only did it seem to the resisters that the Allies were withholding heavy weapons, but by November the resistance had lost the only military leaders who could have used them effectively – Svatoň, Moravanský, Novák, Luža, the other generals. The Czechs watched the Warsaw Revolt that began on 1 August, just as the Red Army approached the Polish capital, and followed it to its frightful conclusion two months later – an insurrection waged in much the same way as the one various Czech underground groups were planning. They were not encouraged.

They watched the Slovakian insurrection right next to the Protectorate with the same sense of despair. The Slovak revolt had begun three weeks ahead of Golian’s schedule, when the Germans ended the Slovaks’ puppet rule and moved to occupy the country directly. Because the uprising did not take place within their zone of operation, the British and Americans refused to provide arms to the insurgents except, towards the end, in sporadic and sparing quantities. It was believed that the Russians were indifferent to the fate of resisters who owed obedience not to the Red Army, but to independent leaders. After two months the insurrection collapsed and Golian was captured and executed by the Germans. Czechs in the Protectorate knew nothing of the policies of the Allies that doomed the uprising, nor did they even know that 10,000 Slovaks had been sacrificed in that blood–drenched struggle. But they did see that the uprising had not destroyed the Germans’ power over the country, and that such revolts dwindled in the end into guerrilla skirmishes that had little military effect.

That autumn four main Soviet parachute groups floated down to the Protectorate – some sixty people in all – in advance of the Red Army. Though the parachute groups took the names of Czech heroes, such as Jan Hus or Miroslave Tyrš, they took their orders from the Red Army. Their task was to harass the retreating Nazis who, followed by veritable brigades of civilian German sympathizers, were trying to get to some part of the Protectorate still occupied by Germans. German sympathizers would be ejected from Czechoslovakia after the war, in one of the transfers of populations that took place in several countries.

Partisan attacks, gnawing at the enemy at the margins of the front, became the main form of the Czech resistance from November 1944 until the war’s end the following May. In the area around Brno, these attacks were carried out by various bands; there were no groups that were distinctly communist. After the war, the communists claimed to have been the backbone of the resistance; however, in the central Protectorate, it was non-communist resisters who were active. This scattered partisan activity was no substitute for an armed insurrection, a fact that was proved by the failed insurrections of the Poles, Slovaks, Tito’s Partisans in Yugoslavia in 1941, and even the maquis in France, who were fighting under more favourable conditions than the Czechs. One thing the paratroopers did accomplish was to organize escaped prisoners of war. At first these ex-prisoners were armed only with their hatred of the Germans. Some 50,000 Germans were in the Protectorate in 1944, retreating from the Allies. The partisans, now including the ex-prisoners, attacked their transports on the highways and stole their weapons; they also raided gendarme stations for their guns. The partisans would lay steel nails or a stolen steel cable across the highways (practically the only motor vehicles on the roads were German – everybody else rode bicycles). A truck would have to stop, whereupon the attackers would kill the occupants and take their weapons. They also raided gendarme stations where they typically took the small arms but did not hurt the Czech gendarmes. The Germans finally had to take away all the carbines from the gendarme stations so that they would not lose them to the resistance.

Having no consistent communication, a resistance group was never sure what other groups were doing. The partisans learned only after the war how many disparate and largely independent resistance clusters there were: 7,500 active resistance fighters, distributed in 120 groups, engaged in military or quasi-military activities, each one using or having at his or her disposal a personal weapon. In addition to these fighters, there were thousands of supporters who were outside of any structure and were not referred to as ‘resisters’. The General Luža group (R3), made up of the son and followers of the murdered leader, had 856 active members centred near Brno, not counting the people who assisted them with supplies, shelter and silence. It was the most important organization within R3, which was in turn the largest organization in the Czech resistance by 1945, consisting of ten groups.

By late spring 1945, the guerrillas in the central Protectorate controlled the countryside, but not the towns, so that the Germans could not travel except in large groups. Still, villagers sheltering resisters and bringing them food in their zemljankas were putting themselves in danger. The latest Gestapo tactic was not to arrest those sheltering a resister, but to lock the whole family in the house and then set fire to it, a task they attended to conscientiously even while retreating.

The German response to the increased guerrilla activity was two-fold and effective. Karl Hermann Frank reorganized the German police force, detaching special units and placing them in every district to keep the roads safe for the German retreat. The Jagdkommandos, as they were called, shot and hanged partisans on the spot, including people who had only been marginally helpful to the resisters. An even greater nuisance to the partisans were the Vlasov troops – anti-Bolsheviks released from German prisoner-of-war camps. By 1944 these formed an army of some 100,000, fighting at the side of Germans for the liberation of Russia from Stalin. They combed the villages looking for partisans, or helped the Jagdkommandos by posing as escaped Soviet prisoners and infiltrating the partisans.

The Americans were by now regularly dropping Czech parachute groups into the Protectorate, exiles who were returning to join in the final fight and bringing weapons with them. These were not the massive arms infusions the resisters wanted, but rather arms to aid the guerrilla activity – Sten guns, one or two machine guns, revolvers, plastic explosives and so on. The quantity of arms contained in the twelve drops was negligible. The deliveries were carried out, after a long bureaucratic process, by a US Army Air Force Special Group stationed in Livorno. Several delivery planes to the Protectorate were shot down, despite precise planning. The timing of a drop was signalled by code over a BBC broadcast. The weapons were packed in 300lb containers which were attached to parachutes. When they floated down, they had to be opened and divided among the partisans then and there. The partisans had to plan some means of taking the weapons away, as they still did not have cars or trucks. Though in headlong retreat, the Germans did not stand aside deferentially during these operations. Two of the paratrooper teams were struck by the Gestapo in May 1944, even as the home resisters were scrambling from one shelter to another, having to move constantly.

The Germans were being harried by free-for-all outbursts against them as they withdrew. It was not always clear whether Germans or Czechs were in control of a particular town. Once the Germans left and Czechs took over, the Germans might briefly come back to secure their line of communications, execute the new local officials who had begun setting up a post-war administration of the town and then retreat again. The front was not an obvious line with opposing armies on one side and the other, but a ragged no-man’s-land where any soldiers one encountered might belong to either the Allied armies or the German army.

Throughout the war, the Czechs had heard from both London and Moscow that the home resistance, the people who were sacrificing and suffering, would form the post-war government. Long before the liberation, Beneš had decided that the survival of Czechoslovakia depended on the country’s accommodation with both the Western powers and the Soviet Union. But by the winter of 1944/5, as the Red Army covered more and more of Czechoslovakia, the balance between the Czech democratic parties represented by Beneš in London and the communists led by Klement Gottwald in Moscow had shifted in favour of the communists. According to the communists, they had been the predominant element in the resistance; they rewrote wartime history to exclude the activity of non-communists. By the end of the war, it was a foregone conclusion that the communists would predominate in any post-war government; but the majority of Czechs believed, along with the London government-in-exile, that the communists would follow a democratic system in Czechoslovakia.

As often happens in the last spasms of war, the country suddenly exploded in revolt – not the organized national rebellion that the resistance had planned at the beginning of the occupation, but a spate of uprisings that erupted unpredictably in towns where the Germans were still on the way out. The uprisings were random, unconnected and ferocious. They started on 1 May in central Moravia just as the Russians were about to move in. Without waiting for the Germans to leave, people began seizing the government offices and appointing themselves the local representatives of the Czechoslovak Republic. These revolts swept the country. In some places, the rebels tried to disarm the Germans; in others, they let the Germans continue with the business of leaving. Sometimes the German commander in the region, not wanting to delay his withdrawal, ignored what was happening so long as his own forces were not molested. In others, each uprising was answered with a furious reprisal. In the middle of it all, on 30 April 1945, every radio in Europe broadcast the news that Hitler had committed suicide.

Several factors contributed to these revolts. As the Germans retreated westward, they emptied their concentration camps and transported the inmates, especially Jews, ahead of the front. Until then, the Czechs were still largely unaware of what became known as the Holocaust. Suddenly, one community after another in the Protectorate saw tens of thousands of naked, starving people packed into cattle trucks or stumbling over the hills in forced marches. They saw Germans mistreating these dying victims, who had once been Jewish teachers, housewives and schoolchildren, saw the Germans brutalizing them or shooting them without remorse. It shocked people who were past shocking, Czechs whose own relatives had suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

The Moravian uprisings of late April and early May 1945 were futile – crushed in every place where the Germans responded to the provocations. Nevertheless, the fever of revolt spread to Prague on 5 May 1945. The Czech National Council, a colourless organization, had for several weeks been preparing an insurrection in the capital with the remnants of ON and other former military people. However, the mass uprising took the Council by surprise and prematurely forced the leaders into the open. Before the Council could mobilize, ordinary citizens and Protectorate policemen seized the Prague radio station and were broadcasting frantic calls to the Allies for help. The former generals František Slunečko and Karel Kutlvašr – the men who had put ON back together after General Novák’s arrest – were at first the de facto military leaders calling for arms. The citizenry threw up 1,600 street barricades to paralyse German movement, barriers manned by 30,000 Czech civilians with no effective weapons. As the Germans got out of their vehicles to remove the obstacles, they were picked off by snipers. They soon learned to use Czech women and children as shields while they grappled with the barricades. The Vlasov troops that had been German collaborators now changed sides and fought alongside the Czechs. It was not manpower, however, that the Czechs lacked, but weapons. Men and women with rakes and pistols faced 30,000 to 40,000 trained fighters armed with tanks and artillery. Their battle raged for three days, broadcast all over Europe hour by desperate hour as they pleaded with the Allies to send arms.

All their appeals were ignored by the Americans, though General Patton and the Third Army were less than 50 miles from Prague. General Eisenhower steadfastly refused to allow American troops to move because Prague fell within the Soviet zone of proposed occupation. Even Beneš and the government in exile that had returned to the country and were waiting in Košice – even they were silent. As many as 2,000 Czechs were slaughtered by the Germans. The Germans, fearful of the approaching Red Army, were then induced to abandon the struggle. Anxious to evade the Russians and surrender instead to the Americans, they capitulated to the Czech National Council on 8 May and marched off to the American lines, carrying only their small arms. When the Red Army entered Prague on 9 May, they found it in the hands of the Czech National Council, a situation not at all to Stalin’s liking, judging from his reaction. He refused to recognize the Council or have any dealings with it and, following Beneš’ orders, the Council resigned.

The war did not end sharply on 9 May in Czechoslovakia, but rather died by imperceptible degrees. The Germans moved out in orderly columns, sometimes accompanied by a tank; the Russians moved in, met by clumsy welcoming speeches and a party atmosphere in every community. The next wave of the Red Army swept over the country, and the next and the next – young, child-like peasant draftees, goodhearted but uncontrollable. Their worst transgressions seemed minor compared with the brutality of the Nazis they had chased out.

The war was over. The cities were full of demolished buildings and damaged psyches. Behind each face were experiences that could never be erased. This girl had been raped. That man had been tortured. Another had lost a child in a bomb attack. It was a country of victims, one in which nobody looked forward to a new beginning. The Red Army, not local communists, had liberated the country. Except in a few places, Czech communists had not been leaders in the resistance, yet after the war they emerged as the prominent element in every administrative and political unit. The resisters allowed themselves to be outshouted by others clamouring for recognition. Soon everyone was hearing that the democratic resistance had not been important in the war, only the communists in the underground – propaganda generated from Moscow and repeated so incessantly that perhaps most people started to believe it.


It is clear that in Crete a civilized and at one time powerful nation existed from at least 3000 (possibly from much earlier) down to about 1350, when some great calamity befell it, from which it never recovered.

Now both Thucydides and Herodotus speak of the ancient naval supremacy of Crete under a king Minos. Old myths tell of two Cretan kings of this name. One was the son of Zeus, a great lawgiver, who after his earthly life was made a judge (as Homer describes him) in the nether world.

The other Minos was said to be his grandson. He was the husband of Pasiphaë, and in his reign Daedalus built the Labyrinth for the Minotaur, whom the Athenian hero Theseus slew. Homer also speaks of this later Minos. He calls him the father of Ariadne and Deucalion and the grandfather of the Cretan hero Idomeneus, who fought at Troy, and says that he conversed as a familiar friend with Zeus, and reigned ‘for a space of nine years.’

Now it is almost certain that ‘Minos’ was, like ‘Pharaoh,’ a royal title, and that these kings of Crete or Cnossus were believed to be descended from the great Cretan god, the Dictaean Zeus, and it is thought that the king, as High-priest of Zeus, went up once every nine years to ‘converse’ with the deity in the Dictaean cave and to receive his laws (like Moses on Sinai). Moreover, research and excavation have made it clear that the old Cretan religion was closely associated with the bull, as is intimated by the myths of Europa and Pasiphaë. Bulls were doubtless sacrificed to Zeus, and the king-priest seems to have performed ceremonies in the disguise of a bullheaded monster – a fact that is probably the real explanation of the Minotaur and Pasiphaë myths. By some it is believed that the priest-king, when he entered the Dictaean cave at the end of his nine-years reign, was walled up there, or slain, and it is evident that at the bull-grappling spectacles given in honour of the Bull-god many human victims were done to death, mostly youths and maidens (as in the case of the sacrifices of first-born children to Moloch). It seems, therefore, that behind these old myths of the ‘Bull of Minos’ and Theseus and the Athenian youths and maidens sent every nine years (as Plutarch tells us) to be given over as victims to this Minotaur, there is a good deal of fact, and when Thucydides (who strongly condemns ‘careless investigation of truth’) tells us that Minos of Crete was the first monarch to acquire a navy and that he ‘made himself master of the greater part’ of the Aegean and ‘swept piracy from the sea,’ we need no longer doubt his accuracy nor the possibility of trustworthy traditions of the great Minoan Empire having reached the age of Pericles. That it was an empire founded on naval supremacy is remarkably confirmed by the fact that Cnossus possessed no fortifications. Moreover, the existence of numerous settlements named Minoa on the Mediterranean shores seems to prove it. One of these was on the island off Megara. In the Theseus myth Minos lays even Athens under tribute.

But before we draw conclusions in regard to this Minoan race and its connection with the early history of the Hellenic nation there is another group of evidence to be considered, namely, that which Egypt supplies.

Egypt and Crete

The earliest evidences of what is called Minoan civilization in Crete are perhaps a little later than the age (c. 3500) in which King Mena is said to have founded the first of the Egyptian dynasties, and the final fall of the Minoan Empire, about 1350, corresponds with the end of the XVIIIth Dynasty. In the age of the first two dynasties there was doubtless some intercourse between Egypt and Crete, but the only possible evidence of it consists in fragments of bucchero (black pottery) which have been found in very ancient Egyptian tombs. This pottery is believed to have come from Crete. On the other hand, very ancient vessels of syenite, some of which have been found at Cnossus, are believed to have come from Egypt. From the era of Cheops and other Pyramid-builders (IIIrd to XIth Dynasties) there is considerably more evidence of a similar nature; but it was not till about 2000, during the XIIth Dynasty, that the Cretan ware, especially the beautiful ‘Kamáres’ porcelain, seems to have been largely imported into Egypt. Indubitable specimens of this polychrome Minoan ware have been discovered in Egyptian tombs of this period, together with cylinders inscribed with the name of Amenemhat III, the last of the dynasty. It was this great king who built the Labyrinth near Lake Moeris in Egypt which very possibly was imitated at Cnossus by King Minos – unless indeed the Egyptian Labyrinth was suggested by the Cretan.

Then follows the Dark Age of Egyptian history (XIIIth to XVIIth Dynasties), during which for some five centuries the Hyksos (a Canaanite or African nomad race) were the lords of Egypt. Of these so-called ‘Shepherd Kings’ the only one at all known is Khyan (‘Embracer of Lands’). His cartouche, carved on a lion, has been found even at Bagdad, and at Cnossus the lid of an alabaster box has been discovered bearing his name. After the Dark Age and the domination of the Hyksos (broken by the Wars of Independence) we have the famous XVIIIth Dynasty, founded by Aahmes in 1580. To this dynasty belonged the great monarchs Queen Hatshepsut, King Tutmes, and Amenhotep III, who extended Egyptian trade and influence into distant countries. In the numerous inscribed and painted Egyptian records of this era there figure many foreign races, and among these is one, that of the Kephtiu, which formerly used to be regarded as Phoenician, but which is evidently Cretan. In feature, in dress, and in the high coiffure with long down-hanging tresses, these painted Kephtiu bear a most striking resemblance to the type that we have in the ‘Cup-bearer’, and the name Kephtiu, which is said to mean ‘the men from beyond’ (i.e. from beyond the sea), is one that well suits the Cretans. Also the fact that these Kephtiu are depicted carrying, as tribute or gifts, gold and silver vessels very similar to the Vaphio cups confirms one’s belief that they are Cretans, all the more when one remembers that the era of this XVIIIth Dynasty corresponds to that of the great Palace at Cnossus, with its wonderful frescoes and other signs of an advanced civilization. Moreover, the evidence from pottery is here very strong, great quantities of Cretan ware of this period and of the succeeding centuries having been found in Egypt.

It is very striking that about 1400, the era of the sack of Cnossus and the fall of the Minoan Empire, the Kephtiu suddenly disappear from Egyptian records, and that some 100 years later, about the time of the Biblical Exodus, the names of a number of strange northern tribes are found, among whom are the ‘Aqayuasha’ – very possibly the Achaeans.

Not much later, again (c. 1200 – just about the time of the Trojan War), a great host of ‘people of the sea,’ leagued with the Hittites, threatened Egypt from the north-east, but they were defeated and dispersed by Ramses III. Among these invaders are mentioned Danauna (possibly Danai, i.e.Argives) and Pulosathu, who were probably Cretan refugees and identical with the Kephtiu – perhaps the Biblical Philistines of Kaphtor.

Egypt and Mycenae

During the later period of Minoan civilization (say 1700–1400) the Mycenaean civilization was probably at its highest, and to this period may belong the shaft-tombs on the acropolis of Mycenae. Amongst the relics there discovered we have already noted an evident Nile scene on an inlaid dagger-blade. But besides this the cartouche of the Egyptian Amenhotep III, the great king of the XVIIIth Dynasty, was found in one of the later vaulted tombs, as well as several pieces of porcelain inscribed with his name. Amenhotep reigned from 1414 to 1380, so it seems likely that these later Mycenaean tombs were built about 1400. The old Aegean (Pelopid?) kings of the earlier tombs were probably supreme at Mycenae, and in the rest of the Peloponnese, until about this date, when Mycenae seems to have been conquered by some foreign enemy. Shortly afterwards the same enemy seems to have sacked Cnossus.

General Conclusions

The question now naturally arises, who were these invaders? And this question leads us to a still larger one, namely, what conclusions can we from all this evidence reasonably draw in regard to the early inhabitants of Greece, and those migrations and invasions and heroes and dynasties of which Greek myths tell so much, but which used to be generally regarded as quite worthless fables?

Firstly, then, who were these invaders who seem to have conquered Mycenae and some years later to have sacked Cnossus?

The old tradition, handed down to us by Herodotus, says that when Daedalus made himself wings and thus escaped to Southern Italy and Sicily he was pursued by Minos, and that, Minos having come to a tragic end in Sicily, a great host of Cretans set forth in ships to avenge his death; but they failed in their object and lost their fleet in a tempest and founded Hyria in Southern Italy, where they changed their name to Messapian Iapygians. Herodotus also learnt from the inhabitants of Praesos, in Crete, that after this national disaster ‘men of various nations flocked to Crete, destitute as it now was of inhabitants; but none came in such numbers as the Greeks.’ He places the death of this King Minos three generations before the Trojan War, say in 1330.

What truth there may be in this tale of a Cretan-Sicilian expedition one cannot say. Possibly it represents the general exodus of Cretans after the advent of ‘men of various nations’ from over the sea. Of these invaders, according to Herodotus, the Greeks (Hellenes) were the most numerous, and among the various nations which inhabited Crete in a somewhat later, post-Dorian, age the first that Homer mentions are the Achaeans, which looks as if then they were still the paramount race.

All our evidence, I think, points to the Achaeans as the conquerors of the Mycenaeans and other Aegean peoples, and as the sackers of Cnossus, and points to the period 1400–1200 as that during which these northern invaders (of whom we have already heard much in connection with the Homeric age and the sixth city of Troy) extended their conquests over Greece and as far as Crete. That these Achaeans (perhaps the ‘Aqayuasha’ of Egyptian records, of whom we have heard) made themselves lords not only of mainland Greece but also of the Aegean, and perhaps Crete, seems probable also from Homer’s statement (quoted by Thucydides) that Agamemnon, the great Achaean king, ruled not only over all Argos but over ‘many islands.’

The second and larger question which we must endeavour to answer is, what conclusions we may reasonably accept in regard to the races which inhabited Greece before the advent of the Achaeans. We have already seen that they were probably a dark-haired, lithe-limbed people, such as we find the ancient Cretans to be depicted, and we have spoken of them as the ‘Aegean’ race. Let us now hear what old Greek tradition says about these early inhabitants of Greece, and their conquerors, the Achaeans.

At the beginning of his history Thucydides, after speaking of the continual migrations of the tribes of ancient Greece, mentions the ‘Pelasgian’ name as that which was most widely applied to these tribes. Long before the time of Thucydides these Pelasgians had been frequently mentioned by Homer, who speaks of them in Thessaly, Boeotia, Attica, and even in the Peloponnese, and also in Asia Minor (possibly aboriginal Phrygians, fighting on the side of the Trojans) and in Crete. He gives the epithet ‘divine’ (heaven-descended? aboriginal?) to these Pelasgians. Moreover, he applies the epithet ‘Pelasgian’ to the northern (Thessalian) Argos, and to the Zeus whose oracle was at Dodona, in Epirus.

Herodotus also tells us of Pelasgians who built the old walls of the Athenian Acropolis, and it seems certain that the original lords of what was later the Athenian Acropolis were those Pelasgi or Cecropes whom later ‘autochthonous’ families of Athens claimed as their ancestors.

It seems not impossible that these ancient Pelasgians were of the same race as the Etruscans or Tyrrhenians, called Tyrseni (perhaps ‘Tower Men’) by the Greeks.30 It is also not impossible that the Pulosathu of Crete (the Philistines?), of whom we have already heard, were Pelasgians; and, lastly, it is quite possible that the Turusha, one of the oversea tribes mentioned as having invaded Egypt about 1300 together with the Aqayuasha (Achaeans?), were these Tyrseni or Etruscans.

However this may be, it is not surprising that formerly all writers on Greece accepted the word ‘Pelasgian’ as the most satisfactory name to cover the unknown tribes inhabiting Greece at the time of the Achaean invasions. But of late years this name has met with disfavour, for it is evident that the newly discovered ‘Aegean’ race was not identical with the Pelasgic, and it is our knowledge of this so-called Aegean race that now allows us to reconstruct and repeople to some extent that obscure ‘mythical’ age formerly regarded as unworthy of the attention of the historian.

The only satisfactory answer, therefore, that we can give in regard to the pre-Achaean inhabitants of Greece is this: there were doubtless also other peoples (such as these Pelasgians), but in the southern parts of Greece the main race, and the only race that we really know anything about for certain, was this Mycenaean, or Aegean, race, to which probably the Cretans were closely related. They were a dark-haired, long-headed people, not of Semitic origin, but possibly with some affinity to the Egyptians. They lived in Greece in what is called the Bronze Age – that is, before iron came into general use – and perhaps before bronze was invented, which could not have been until tin was brought from western lands (from Spain, and perhaps even from Britain). Before tin was procurable to mix with their copper, which they obtained in abundance from Cyprus and also from Chalcis, in Euboea, they were obliged to make their weapons and tools of copper, or of stone or obsidian. In early times possibly some of these Aegean folk (e.g. at Orchomenus, Tiryns, and other marshy places) dwelt in lake-villages, like the Stone Age inhabitants of other parts of Europe. The northern invaders, the Achaeans, seem to have introduced the more general use of bronze for weapons and armour. Then, about 1250, iron, which hitherto had been among Aegean peoples a rare material for rings and small ornaments, began to be used for sharp-edged tools (as we find it in Homer), and gradually won its way into general use. Possibly the arts of smelting and of forging iron (graphically described in the Odyssey, ix. 391) may have been introduced by the Achaeans; but the metal may have been found less commonly by them in Greece, which may account for its comparatively rare mention by Homer.

During this Bronze Age (that is, before the advent of the northern invaders) there were in Greece doubtless other important cities, besides Mycenae and Tiryns and Amyclae and Orchomenus, inhabited by Aegeans or Pelasgians or whatever else we may call these early races, but, except in a few cases, their memorials have utterly perished.

Partisan Warfare in Russia

The legendary First World War and Russian Civil War partisan cavalry unit known as ‘Shkuro’s Wolves’, pictured in 1919 during a lull in anti-Bolshevik operations. Recruited from Kuban Cossacks, the Wolves were named after their wolf-skin standard and papakhas (hat).

Locally recruited Basmachi guerrillas pose with their Soviet commissar and advisor. During the 1920s elements of the native populations of the Soviet Union’s central Asian provinces waged an unsuccessful war against their Russian masters.

The German military had experience of partisan/guerrilla warfare from its days as the colonial power in German East Africa (present-day Tanzania) when local uprisings were put down with ruthless brutality. These bandsmen are members of the German colonial forces. Indeed, a nephew of the German commander in this region when they suffered their greatest defeat rose to become head of Germany’s anti-bandit (partisan) warfare on the Eastern Front.

Partisan and guerrilla warfare can be loosely defined and differentiated in the following manner. Partisan troops are those members or affiliated members of the armed forces that are operating behind enemy lines, whereas guerrillas are generally civilians fighting against an occupying force. However, both terms are often used indiscriminately. In addition, the situation is not helped by the Axis use of the umbrella term partisans only to replace it with bandits to highlight the illegal and outlaw nature of the fighters.

In fact, partisans/guerrillas have a long and honourable lineage in Russian and Soviet military history stretching back to the Napoleonic Wars, when partisan units of Cossack and other mounted troops waged war on the Grand Army’s supply lines and rear before and during the retreat from Moscow. During the First World War partisan operations were undertaken by Cossacks and regular cavalry, groups of which infiltrated behind German and Austrian lines to carry out disruptive missions such as blowing up railway lines, intelligence gathering and kidnapping. Specialist units were established in the Cossack formations by order of the Grand Duke Boris Vladimirovitch, the Ataman of Cossack forces at the front during 1915, but reports on their achievements were such that the majority were disbanded. Nevertheless, some units, such as Shkuro’s Wolves, acquitted themselves well. Following the revolution of March 1917, Russia’s armed forces began to go into gradual decline and as that fateful year drew to a close the Bolshevik coup of November led to open civil war that spread across the empire now turned republic. Over the next four years partisan and guerrilla formations of all shapes, sizes and levels of effectiveness flashed across the vastness of Russia from the mountains of the Caucasus, across the steppes of Ukraine, the tundra and forests of Siberia to the coastlines of the Pacific Ocean. As the Soviet government emerged from the civil war victorious and extended its somewhat tenuous grip across the provinces, names such as that of Chapayev became known to the public of the USSR as one of the partisan leaders who had contributed to the destruction of ‘interventionists and counter revolutionaries’. Indeed, the lauding of partisan leaders and groups formed almost a staple of Soviet popular culture into the mid-1930s. Furthermore, the value of partisan warfare was seriously studied by the higher echelons of the Soviet military.

In parallel, Soviet military theory during the 1920s and into the 1930s included the use of partisan formations to disrupt invaders’ lines of supply, communications and reinforcement.

Plans were laid for the establishment of secret bases along anticipated invasion routes to supply partisan groups who would train in the use of ‘captured weapons and equipment’. Local forces would be supported by specialists, such as radio operators and demolition experts, who would be parachuted in. Some work and training was under taken by the Ukrainian Military District in the years leading up to 1936. However, Stalin, increasingly suspicious of the armed forces, was, like Hitler, a military theorist and a firm believer in the offensive as the ultimate strategy. Furthermore, any thoughts that a war would be fought on Soviet territory were anathema to him. Equally unappealing was the prospect of encouraging and arming elements of the populace in the very areas where famine, disease and starvation stalked the land in the wake of his disastrous agricultural policy of forced collectivisation. Training such victims in the ways of partisan and guerilla warfare was not to be encouraged. Consequently, as the infamous purges of the armed forces decimated the officer corps, thoughts of any war waged on Soviet land was replaced by offensive operations beyond the frontiers and the partisan bases already built were allowed to revert to their natural condition whilst the plans mouldered on shelves in the archives. Another major aspect of partisan warfare that Stalin wished actively to eliminate was the very set of characteristics that made for effective leadership in partisan groups: the ability to think and plan independently beyond the control of Moscow; the capacity to adapt to local circumstances as required; and the charisma to hold together such a group in times of danger and low morale. Lumped together, these characteristics were known disparagingly as Partisanshchina–a trait not to be encouraged in a totalitarian regime.

It was the shock of the Axis invasion that would regenerate the need for partisan warfare on a scale unimaginable only a few years before as the people, not only the armed forces, would be called upon to fight a ruthless invader.

Minsk race course witnessed the partisans’ grand parade on 17 July 1944. As one participant recalled, ‘They were met with enthusiasm, they marched proudly with medals on (their) chests! They were the winners!’ Dozens of units were represented and hundreds of fighters marched past the podium where Ponomarenko took the salute alongside other Party luminaries. The final order to the partisans was to, ‘start preparations for (their) disbandment.

Often overlooked, due to the scale of partisan operations behind AGC, the partisan formations to the rear of AGN were to take centre stage as 1944 dawned. During 1942 there had been little activity in the north but the Leningrad Partisan HQ had worked hard to increase the number and efficiency of the units it oversaw. Consolidation of small bands into larger ones and a ruthless review of the qualities of the leaders resulted, by the summer of 1943, in a considerably more effective force. As the area under the control of the LPHQ was smaller than that of, for example, Belarus communications, control and co-ordination were simpler. By the end of 1943 10 partisan brigades, numbering ‘35,000 active fighters and thousands of auxiliaries’ were in place. During October 1943 Fifth Partisan Brigade captured the town of Plijusa on the Luga–Pskov rail line to prevent the deportation of the civilian population. This action was replicated by other formations across the rear of AGN. Indeed, it was the groundswell of popular disaffection that was to lead to Hitler’s decision to withdraw to the Panther Line when the Red Army offensive was gaining momentum four months later.

The Soviets intended to drive AGN away from the Leningrad district into the Baltic States and began their attack on 14 January 1944. Partisan attacks did not begin until virtually all the security troops had been committed to the front line. It was on the evening of 16 January that the partisans began to interfere with the railways by destroying Tolmachevo station. The following night a more general series of attacks on security posts and the track itself were carried out. By 20 January the railway situation was described as ‘tense’ and in some areas as ‘completely paralysed’. Supply and troop transports ground to a halt as partisan attacks increased ‘tremendously’. The 8th Jaeger Division took four days to move and then only partially into position, three days later than anticipated due to the mining of both road and railway. As the Germans withdrew, NKVD personnel were parachuted into Estonia and Latvia to organise partisan groups. By mid-February the Eighth Leningrad Partisan Brigade was identified heading for Latvia. Active measures by the HSSPF Ostland had drafted thousands of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian Schuma troops to deal with this threat–they succeeded, intercepting the partisans in a series of running fights. The majority of the partisans from the Leningrad region had been enrolled in the Red Army but the surviving infiltrators behind AGN confined their activities to propaganda and intelligence work due to the general antipathy of the locals to the prospect of Soviet liberation.

Far to the south in Ukraine Medvedev and Kovpak’s units still continued their combat and propaganda missions. The Chief of Staff of the Ukrainian Partisan Movement, Colonel General Strokach, was, by late 1943, closely connected with the regular army and expanding his role to look beyond the borders of the USSR. Rather than just sending partisan units behind Axis lines, where the fighting with nationalists was increasing and with much of Ukraine back under Soviet control, Strokach’s staff began to train pro-Soviet partisans for operations in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Whatever motives were announced for these activities during the winter of 1943–1944, the long-term aim was to lay the foundations for future Communist regimes in those countries. Czechoslovakia, of which only Slovakia nominally existed, and Poland both had governments in exile in Britain, of which Stalin fundamentally disapproved. However, both had partisan movements and those of Poland were mainly anti-Soviet. The Polish Home Army (the AK) was a large, active and well-organised force that operated in both German and Soviet-claimed Poland. The AK wanted a return to Poland’s pre-1939 frontiers which effectively put it at odds with the USSR’s claims to western Ukraine and Belarus. The Ukrainian Partisan Staff was, therefore, to bend its efforts to create a pro-Soviet, Communist partisan force to match the AK in those areas. By January 1944 the Red Army had crossed into pre-war Polish territory into land Moscow coveted. The Polish government in exile had ordered the AK to support Soviet operations, but Polish partisans could not be mobilised into the Soviet-sponsored Polish Army. In western Ukraine and Galicia NKVD partisan units, such as those of Medvedev, and those organised by Strokach operated regardless of international boundaries. When a frontier was crossed the unit commander would open his sealed orders that generally read that he should ‘act according to the existing conditions’. Fighting promptly broke out with the AK when the Soviets began to bring the tiny GL (Guardija Ludowa) into play. The GL was a Polish Communist Party partisan group. Members of the GL were flown to a Ukrainian Partisan Staff’s training camp where they had prepared for operations in Poland. In April 1944 the Polish Staff for the Partisan Movement was set up in Rovno, overseen by Strokach, to control the GL units that were now operating against the Germans, the AK and the Ukrainian nationalists. At the same time the Czechoslovak Communist Party appealed to Moscow for help in waging a partisan war. Once again a training cadre was taken in by Strokach’s staff. During the spring and summer of 1944 bases were established, particularly in Slovakia, and covert recruitment of local partisans began. Their situation was helped by the Red Air Force that flew in supplies almost at will due to the Luftwaffe’s weakness over Eastern Europe.

Finally, on 28 August 1944 the Slovaks rose up against their pro-Nazi government, but the country was, during the course of the next week, overrun by a motley collection of German troops. A Soviet attempt to alleviate the situation, by elements of First Ukrainian Front battling its way through the Carpathian Mountains, failed. By the end of October the Slovakian Uprising was over, but, nevertheless, some stragglers fought on in the mountains. The Soviet effort in Slovakia was certainly greater than that made to support the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944. When that tragic event ended in the defeat of the AK there were many stragglers who made their way east. With the AK apparently a broken force, Stalin directed the NKVD to round-up any units found in Soviet territory. Interestingly, such partisans were referred to in NKVD reports as, ‘illegal formations, rebels or bandits’. Indeed, round-ups of AK fighters had been going on for months prior to the Warsaw Uprising. One unit, answering the call to go to Warsaw in July to reinforce the forthcoming uprising, had arrived east of the city at the same time as the Red Army. Having liberated several villages in the wake of the retreating Germans, they suddenly radioed a message, un-coded, that was intercepted in Britain, ‘they [Red Army] are approaching us . . . they are disarming us’. The foundations were being laid for the Soviet liberation of Poland.

For the Soviet partisans the stage for its most impressive operation had been set several months before. During the winter of 1943–1944 the Soviet fronts facing AGC had been relatively quiet. Hitler, convinced that the next series of Soviet offensives would continue to push against AGS, had split that front into two, Army Group South Ukraine (AGSU) and Army Group North Ukraine (AGNU). The latter was expected to be the target and, therefore, was the strongest in terms of armour. The southern flank of AGC ran south-west from Bobruisk just below the Pripet Marshes to a point west of Lutsk and the AGNU and AGSU took over with fronts that sloped eastwards to the Black Sea west of Odessa.

From the spring of 1944 onwards Moscow had received a stream of intelligence reports that detailed AGC’s order of battle and defensive preparations. More and more partisan and NKVD intelligence-gathering operations were carried out. Before this the NKVD had tended to act alone due to a lack of trust in partisans other than their own units. The reason for this was simple: the NKVD was afraid of its agents falling into the hands of German-run ‘mock partisan’ bands who operated in the hope of flushing out the real thing and bandit sympathisers. However, the orders under which the partisans now operated did not come from the CHQPM, as that body had been wound up on 13 January 1944.

The responsibility for the partisans now rested with the Communist Party of the appropriate republic and its local regional hierarchy. The partisans were directed, by the Belorussian Communist Party’s Central Committee, to cease operations behind AGC to encourage the Germans to reinforce their belief that the offensive was aimed at AGNU. Then, on 20 June, they unleashed another Operation Rail War. This time the targets were the one heavy capacity, double-tracked line and the five lower capacity lines on which AGC depended. The few-surviving German records are slim but indicate almost two-thirds of the 4,000 demolition attempts succeeded, ‘the lines Minsk–Orsha and Mogilev–Vitebsk were especially hard hit and almost completely paralysed for several days’. The Soviets calculated that ‘the partisan bands blew up 40,000 rails and derailed 147 trains’. Roads were mined and convoys attacked.

Operation Bagration burst across the lines of AGC in a series of waves from 22 June 1944, three years to the day after Operation Barbarossa had provoked the Great Patriotic War, as the Soviets termed it. However, as the Red Army advanced up to 50km per day, AGC began to collapse, the partisans came out into the open. Several units had been ordered to ambush and mount delaying attacks on retreating German forces and to try and secure river crossings. The latter efforts were generally unsuccessful but the former were not. As German units, escaping from cities such as Vitebsk, disintegrated under air and artillery fire, the partisans, eager for revenge, struck. With no facilities for and probably less inclination to take prisoners, the partisans, their numbers augmented by any civilians inclined to pick up a gun, wreaked a fearful toll. No figures are available but it is estimated that up to 20,000 German troops died trying to escape from the Vitebsk encirclement. Similar episodes occurred throughout Belarus during the last week of June and into July. Within a week the Red Army had reached and crossed the Berezina River and on 3 July entered Minsk, capital of Belarus. AGC had dissolved in less than a month.

Across Belarus thousands of partisans were drafted into the regular army, whilst others took the opportunity to go ‘Fritz hunting’ alongside special army units tasked with flushing out German stragglers, of which there were thousands wandering amidst the marshes and forests.

The partisan parade in Minsk effectively signalled the end of the ‘amateur’ partisan.

Now it was the time for the NKVD, the ‘professionals’, such as Vershigora’s 1st Ukrainian Partisan Division, to head west to continue with their old and new tasks. A partisan medal, in two classes, was struck and issued liberally. In the Baltic States and Ukraine nationalist partisans fought on against Soviet rule for over a decade. Simultaneously, the Soviet partisan movement rapidly became enshrined in many, somewhat embellished, official histories, films and other media forms.

Whilst there is no doubting the vileness of German rule in the occupied territories, there are grounds for doubting some of the tales of the partisans’ achievements, but such histories are always written by the victors. Nevertheless, for the ordinary men and women who lived and fought against the invader it was a time in their lives of which they have every right to be justly proud. There is no doubt that they made a definite contribution to the victory over the Third Reich by their very defiance.