Battle of Saulė in 1236

The most serious threat to the early Balts came from the west. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, Catholic orders of knights seeking to Christianize the Baltic region began a series of crusades. The first of these crusading orders, the Order of the Brothers of the Sword, was defeated by the Lithuanians at the Battle of Saulė in 1236. Following that defeat, the Roman Catholic pope called for a renewed campaign to conquer and Christianize the pagan Lithuanians. The call was answered by a succession of crusading knights, the most formidable of which were the members of the Teutonic Order.

Lithuanians had yet to form a unified nation-state. The political organization consisted of a nobility composed of feudal dukes and princes ruling over fiefdoms and tribes. Had they chosen to fight the Teutonic Order separately, they would have been easily defeated. Therefore, the nobility formed an alliance, led by a noble called Mindaugas, to engage in the struggle. Despite the alliance, however, the united Lithuanian duchies were not able to stem the continued advances of the Teutonic Order. Recognizing the inevitability of defeat, Mindaugas submitted to the pope in 1251 and accepted Christianity. As a consequence he was crowned the king of Lithuania in 1253 by the pope, an act establishing the first Lithuanian state.

Mindaugas’s decision was not popular among the Lithuanian nobility, many of whom refused to be baptized. The population as well remained overwhelmingly pagan. Hence, the new state was a pagan one with a Christian king. The opposition of the population to Christianity led to the murder of King Mindaugas in 1263 and the renewal of the struggle against the Christian crusaders. Following the murder of Mindaugas, rule of Lithuania reverted to the various dukes and princes. However, in order to fight the Teutonic Order, they submitted to a grand duke, who ruled as first among equals. Thanks to their unity, this time they were able to establish Lithuanian dominance in the Baltic Sea region by the end of the thirteenth century. Nonetheless, the struggle against the Teutonic Order continued throughout most of the fourteenth century, forcing the country to allocate virtually all of its resources to defense; consequently, the country’s political system of the time is referred to by some as a military monarchy.

The concentration of resources permitted the Lithuanian state to become one of the greatest empires in Europe over the course of the next 150 years-the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Grand Duke Gediminas (1316-1341) began the long-term eastward expansion of the Lithuanians, assimilating Slavic territories, many of which willingly submitted to the Grand Duchy in order to escape having to pay tribute to the Mongols, who ruled most of the Russian lands in that era (having destroyed the Kievan state in the thirteenth century). Gediminas also sought to break out of the international isolation thrust upon the country by the continued struggle against the Catholic Church and the Teutonic Order. He established formal contacts between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the countries of Western Europe, engaged in regular correspondence with their rulers, and began a dynasty that intermarried with many of the ruling families of Europe. Much of this was done in an effort to create rifts within the Catholic Church and between the ruling houses of Europe. To further this strategy, Gediminas also invited Western merchants, artisans, and academics to the new capital that he founded at Vilnius. Among those responding were many Jews, who took advantage of the remarkable degree of religious tolerance that marked the Grand Duchy and established one of the great centers of Judaism in Vilnius.

During the mid-fourteenth century, Grand Duke Algirdas (1345-1377) continued the eastern expansion begun by Gediminas. Under his rule, the Grand Duchy’s Lithuanian subjects were gradually outnumbered by newly assimilated peoples. Algirdas was followed by Grand Duke Jogaila, who is much maligned in Lithuanian history for his decision in 1386 to marry the queen of Poland, thereby entering into an alliance with that state. Jogaila’s decision was motivated by a desire to ensure Lithuanian preeminence in an emerging contest with Moscow for the loyalties of eastern Slavic princes. While still under the Mongol yoke, Moscow was laying claim to the Russian lands, many of which had been assimilated into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In addition, Moscow had been recognized by Byzantium as the seat of religious authority for Orthodox Christianity in the Slavic lands. The recognition brought with it significant legitimacy for the Russian claims over these lands. Given Lithuania’s status as the last pagan nation in Europe, it found itself isolated between a Catholic West and an Orthodox East, both of which claimed the divine right to rule over the territories of the Grand Duchy. A marriage with Poland thus offered the means to both reduce the threat from the West and lay claim to a religious title (that of representing Catholic Slavs, a title that Poland had acquired) competing for the loyalties of Slavic princes. Hence, Lithuania was baptized in 1387, and the last pagan state in Europe became Christian.

As a consequence of the marriage, the Grand Duchy entered a long period of decline, even though this would not be readily apparent for several centuries. By entering into marriage with the queen of Poland, Jogaila became the king of Poland, retaining his title as the Grand Duke of Lithuania. While in the short term this appeared highly beneficial to Lithuania, it meant that the Lithuanians faced the disadvantage of being far fewer in number than the Poles. In the long term, as Lithuania’s territorial holdings were reduced (in the face of continuing Russian expansion), it became the lesser of the two states in the union. However, the advantages of the marriage uniting the two countries appeared to outweigh any disadvantages at the time. Therefore, unlike the first christening, this one was not reversed.

The subsequent grand duke, Vytautas the Great, who ruled at the beginning of the fifteenth century, not only retained Lithuania’s commitment to Christianity, he took full advantage of the union with Poland to further the prosperity of the country. In fact, the reign of Vytautas the Great marks the zenith of Lithuania’s military and political fortunes. In one of the most significant battles of the Middle Ages, Vytautas, leading a joint Lithuanian-Polish army, decisively defeated the Teutonic Order at the Battle of Grünwald (1410; the battle is known as the Battle of Žalgiris in Lithuania), bringing the final defeat of the order and ending the centuries-long threat from the west. In the east, Vytautas pursued a successful policy, annexing further territories in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, expanding the borders of the Grand Duchy from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, and blocking Moscow’s further expansion westward into Europe.

Vytautas also took advantage of the union with Poland to lay the foundations for Lithuania’s full integration into Central Europe, something that its pagan identity had prevented it from achieving. In the 150 years after his death, Lithuania assimilated the political and cultural heritage of Western civilization. The country adopted the crop rotation system, adapted its social system to monarchism, experienced the rise of craft guilds, adopted a written language, and built a university system. Reflecting these changes, Lithuania’s first publishing house was founded in Vilnius in 1522; in addition, a legal code was written in 1529 and subsequently redrafted in 1566 and 1588. The 1588 code remained in force until the middle of the nineteenth century.

The Battle of Žalgiris

The Battle of forces of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland defeated the Teutonic Order, was one of the greatest battles of the Middle Ages, let alone in East Central Europe. The defeat of the Teutonic Order, Žalgiris (also known as the Battle of Grünwald, or Tannenberg), in which the joint military an order of crusaders of the Catholic Church, on 15 July 1410, marked the end of the order’s expansion along the southeastern coast of the Baltic Sea eastward and the beginning of the decline of the order’s power.

The first German crusading orders came to Poland and the Baltic region in the thirteenth century. Two hundred years later, they had conquered most of the Baltic coastal region, including Latvia and Estonia. It is doubtless the case that they were intent on controlling Lithuania, Poland, and Russia as well. Had they succeeded, the Roman Catholic Church would have dominated the whole of Central and Eastern Europe.

Hoping to forcibly spread Christianity and acquire more territory, the focus of the Teutonic Order’s military activities in the fourteenth century was the pagan Lithuanian state. Even after Lithuania accepted Christianity in 1387, the Knights of the Teutonic Order did not cease their aggression against the country. It was obvious that diplomatic efforts would not be able to avert war with the Knights. Therefore, the only hope of defeating the order was if Lithuania and Poland united their military forces.

Hence, on 15 July 1410, a joint Lithuanian-Polish army, joined by Tatar, Bohemian, Russian, Moravian, and Moldavian soldiers, met the Teutonic Knights on the field of Žalgiris (located in the northeast of present-day Poland). The allied army was led by the grand duke of Lithuania, Vytautas the Great, and the king of Poland, Jogaila. Although outnumbered (the Knights numbered 32,000, compared to more than 50,000 Poles, Lithuanians, and allies), the order enjoyed superiority in weaponry, experience, and battlefield leadership. Nonetheless, at the end of an entire day of fighting, the Teutonic Knights were defeated, a defeat from which they never recovered. On 1 February 1411, both sides signed a peace treaty, after which the Teutonic Order never again threatened Lithuania.

The Battle of Grünwald is the most important battle in the history of both Lithuania and Poland. As a consequence of the defeat of the Teutonic Order, Eastern Europe was not Germanized, and the emerging nations of Lithuania and Poland were able to develop their own cultures. For that reason, Vytautas the Great is honored in Lithuanian history as the savior of not only the nation of Lithuania, but all of Eastern Europe. Jogaila is awarded that position in Polish history.




Timurid Cavalry Lancers


Timurid Cavalry Archers


Persian City Guard


Timurid Spearmen


Having revolted together against the Jagatai, Timur and Mir Hussain quarrelled, leading to the latter’s defeat and murder. During his career Timur-i Lenk (Timur the Lame or Tamburlaine) defeated the Jagatai, Karts, Jalayarids, Georgians, Black Sheep Turkomans, Golden Horde, Mazandarians, Muzaffarids, Ottomans, Mamluks and the Delhi Sultanate, though he was less good at holding territory and had often to make return visits. After his death in 1405 on his way to attack Ming China, his empire split into several hostile principalites, of which the largest was Herat, initially ruled by his youngest son Shah Rukh. Although Timurid armies retained Mongol organisation, both battle accounts and evidence of the increasing use of armour suggest that they emphasised close quarters fighting rather than traditional nomad tactics. This is borne out by the controversial “Political and Military Institutes” of Timur, which prescribes a series of controlled charges. Lances and horse armour, however, were not universal. Non-Timurid troops may be commanded either by a Timurid sub-general or by an ally-general of their own nationality. Illustrations show infantry with bow, axe, sabre and shield; their exact origin is unknown, so they have been described here as “Timurid”. One possibility is that these were Sabadars, Shi-ite urban militia from Transoxiana and Khurasan whose unusual competence was balanced by their turbulence. Timurid cavalry can always dismount to fight on foot.

After about 1300 (notably under the ruler Ghazan Khan) the Mongol Il-Khans, becoming Islamized and Persianized, reversed their extractive, destructive, slash-and-burn style of rule. They began trying to reconstruct cities they had destroyed, trying to resurrect systems of irrigation and agriculture that had been abandoned. They had some success, and the new capital Tabriz certainly prospered. Azerbaijan, with its wetter climate, was favored generally by the conquering horsemen for the better pasture it offered. The great historian Rashid al-Din (a converted Jew) enjoyed the patronage of the Il-Khans and, building on the earlier works of Juvaini and others, wrote a huge and definitive history. The cultural flow was not all one way—Persian miniature painting was permanently influenced by an imported Chinese aesthetic, and there were other examples. But Iran under the Il-Khans, for all the signs of regeneration, was a poorer, harsher place than before. The empire of the Il-Khans began to fragment with an almost deterministic inevitability. Local vassal rulers slowly made themselves independent of the center, as had happened before under the Seljuks and the Abbasids.

In the mid-fourteenth century in Khorasan, around Sabzavar, a rebel movement called the sarbedari (heads-in-noose) arose. It displayed egalitarian tendencies and co-opted Shi‘a and Sufi elements.58 Like some later and earlier movements, the sarbedari show the eclectic nature of popular, provincial religion in Iran at this time. Elsewhere, the Shi‘a and the Sufis tended to be in opposition, but the sarbedari seem to have had little difficulty fusing the apparently contradictory tenets of the different beliefs involved, and this creative ferment of popular religion was to prove important later, too. The sarbedari are also significant in another way—they represent again a spirit of popular resistance to the invaders, independent of contingent dynastic leadership. This same spirit was there after the Arab invasion, at the beginning of the Mongol period,59 and it appears again later in Iranian history. This might prompt questions about nationalism that could easily absorb the rest of this book.60 What we call nationalism today is in my view too specifically a constructed phenomenon of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to be considered without anachronism in the fourteenth century or other earlier periods. But we have seen that there was a sense of Iranianness, beyond local or dynastic loyalty, in the time of the Sassanids and before; it was part of what later inspired the shu‘ubiyya, the Samanids, and Ferdowsi. Nationalism is the wrong word, but to deny any Iranian identity in this era requires some serious contortions of evidence and logic.

From 1380, the hopeful vassal dynasty builders, the resurgent cities and peasants, and the bold sarbedari were all alike submerged by the next invading surge of steppe nomads under Timur (Timur-e lang—Timur the Lame—Tamerlane or, in Marlowe, Tamburlaine). Timur was the son of a minor Turkic vassal in Transoxiana, who set up a following of warriors and built a tightly disciplined army explicitly on the model of the great Mongol, Genghis Khan. He married a princess from the great Khan family and called himself Güregen (which means son-in-law) to draw on the prestige of his predecessor. He also took Mongol precedent as a precedent for terror.

Timur established himself first in the cities of Transoxiana, with a base at Samarkand, and then invaded Persia. Cities were razed, their citizens massacred, and the plunder sent with any valuable survivors back to Samarkand, to adorn a new paradise of gardens and grand buildings. To intimidate his enemies, Timur raised up pillars of human heads as he marched through the Persian provinces—outside Isfahan alone (where the people had been foolish enough to attack the Timurid garrison) he lopped off seventy thousand heads, which were then set in 120 pillars. In his bloody wake the desert again encroached on abandoned farmlands and irrigation works. Unlike the Mongols, Timur conquered in the name of orthodox Sunni Islam, but this in no way moderated his conduct of war. After taking Persia and defeating the Mongols of the Golden Horde in the steppe lands around Moscow, he moved into India and took Delhi. Then he turned west again, where he conquered Baghdad (another ninety thousand heads), defeated the Ottoman sultan, captured him, and returned to Samarkand. He died in 1405 in the midst of preparations for an attack on China.

There is a story that Timur met Hafez, but it is probably apocryphal. But Timur did meet the Arab historian and thinker Ibn Khaldun. No historian looking at the history of the Islamic world in the period covered by this chapter could avoid noticing the cyclical pattern of dynastic rise, decline, and nomad invasion. But Ibn Khaldun came up with a theory to explain it.61 His theory began with the asabiyya, the strong solidarity or group feeling of nomad warriors, fostered by the interdependence that was necessary in mobile tribal life in the harsh conditions of desert, mountains, and the margins of the steppes. This was the cohesive spirit that made the nomads such formidable warriors, that enabled them to invade and dominate areas of sedentary settlement, and conquer cities. But having done so, their leaders had to consolidate their support. They had to protect themselves against being supplanted by other members of the tribe, and therefore gave patronage to other groups—city dwellers, bureaucratic officials, and the ulema. They also used building projects and a magnificent court to impress their subjects with their prestige, and employed mercenaries as soldiers, because they were more reliable. So the original asabiyya of the conquerors was diluted and lost. Eventually the ruling dynasty came to believe its own myth and spent increasingly on vain display, weakening its strength outside the capital city and within it. The ulema and ordinary citizens, disillusioned with the dynasty’s decadence, became ready to welcome another wave of conquering nomads, who would start up a new dynasty and set the cycle off all over again.

The theory—of which the above is a greatly simplified version—does not address all the elements of the cycle of invasions as they affected Iran. We have seen how the prosperity of the Silk Route encouraged plundering invasions as well as trade, and how the vulnerability of Iran (and particularly Khorasan) flowed from its central geographical position, just as geography gave it great economic and cultural advantages. The Abbasids and their successors were weakened repeatedly by the measures they used to try to overcome the difficulty of gathering taxes. Officials tended to become corrupt and siphon off tax revenue, so the rulers gave the responsibility to tax farmers instead; they then tended to plunder the peasant farmers, quickly running down the productivity of agriculture. The rulers could grant land holdings (iqta, soyurgal) to soldiers in return for military service, but this tended to mean in time that the soldiers came to think of themselves as farmers or landowners rather than soldiers. Or they could do a similar thing on a grander scale and grant whole provinces to trusted families in return for fiscal tribute and military support. But as we have seen, the likelihood then was that the provincial governors would grow powerful enough to become independent and even take over the state themselves.

Ibn Khaldun’s theory does not fully explain the history of this period on its own, and it may apply better to the Islamic states of North Africa, where the historian lived for most of his life. But it is a useful model nonetheless, and it also accounts for some deep attitudes among the people themselves. Ibn Khaldun did not invent those attitudes, he observed them. The nomads often were regarded (especially by themselves, of course) as having a primitive martial virtue. The court was regarded as a decadent place that tended to corrupt its members. The ulema might often be regarded as authoritative arbitrators in a crisis. These were mental, social, and cultural structures that in themselves helped to influence events.

For our purposes, the most important thing to emphasize is the resilience and intellectual power of the small class of Persian scholar-bureaucrats. Nostalgic for their heroic Sassanid ancestors, escaping from official duplicity and courtiership into either dreams of love and gardens, religious mysticism, the design of splendid palaces and mosques, or the complexities of mathematics, astronomy, and medicine, they bounced back from crisis after crisis, accommodated to their conquerors, made themselves indispensable again, and eventually reasserted something like control over them. In the process, they ensured (whether based in Baghdad, Balkh, Tabriz, or Herat) the survival of their language, their culture, and an unrivaled intellectual heritage. It is one of the most remarkable phenomena in world history. Behind the history described in this chapter, the Arab conquest and the succession of empires—Abbasid, Ghaznavid, Seljuk, Mongol, Timurid—lies the story of what ultimately proved to be a more important empire: the Iranian Empire of the Mind.

After Timur, the process followed its usual pattern. The conquerors took on the characteristics of the conquered. Timur’s son Shahrokh ruled from Herat and patronized the beginnings of another Persianate cultural flowering that continued under his successors and produced great architecture, manuscript illustrations, and painted miniatures, prefiguring later cultural developments in the Moghul and Safavid empires. As others before, the Timurid Empire gradually fragmented into a patchwork of dynastic successor-states. In the latter part of the fifteenth century, two of them—two great confederations of Mongolized Turkic tribes, the Aq-Qoyunlu and the Qara-Qoyunlu (White Sheep and Black Sheep Turks, respectively)—slugged it out for hegemony over the war-ravaged Iranian plateau. The White Sheep came out on top, but were then overwhelmed by a new dynasty from Turkic Anatolia, the Safavids. But to understand the Safavids it is necessary first to go right back to the seventh century again for a deeper understanding of the history and development of Shi‘ism.

[1] TAMERLANE (1336–1405). Turkic chieftain and conqueror. He was not Mongol, but sought to trace Mongol connections through his wife’s ancestors. His English name is a corruption of the Persian Timür-i Leng, “lame Timür.” Tamerlane is important not only for his conquests, but for his role in definitively ending the Mongol era in Turkistanian history, and for his attack on the Golden Horde in 1395–1396, which began with the Battle of the Terek River, in which the army of Toqtamysh was decisively defeated, and ended with the destruction of much of the sedentary base of the Golden Horde along the lower Volga, including Sarai.

Revolution, 1646–9




One might think that, with the war won by Parliament, the issues which had provoked it could now be settled. But how? After all, the consequences of Naseby were unprecedented in early modern England: a rightful and undisputed king had been defeated militarily by a rebellious army which sought not to depose him but to limit his power. Previously, during the Wars of the Roses, the struggle had been between rival claimants to royal power – one king versus another. But in 1646 there was only one king and everyone agreed who he was. The question was now, what to do with him? Would he agree to a compromise with Parliament limiting his prerogative? And, if not, what then? Recall Manchester’s fear that if he “beat us once we shall all be hanged.” Even if Charles was disposed to be conciliatory, there was a deeper constitutional problem to be addressed. How could the king accept limitations to make him behave as his subjects wanted and still be king? There were few precedents or models in the early modern world for a compromise: that is, a constitutional monarchy. In their absence, few people wanted to confront the real question left over from the First Civil War: “king or no king?” Because they were unable to confront this larger question, the interested parties began to negotiate over smaller ones.

Before turning to the negotiations themselves, it must be understood that the interested parties were not confined to king and Parliament. They included the Scots Covenanters, Irish Confederates, and the European powers who considered sending aid to both sides at various points. Parliament itself continued to be divided between the Presbyterian “peace party,” who feared disorder and so wanted an agreement with Charles at any price, and the Independent “war party,” who had sought his abject defeat in order to pursue religious reform and preserve the new constitutional framework erected in 1641. And finally, there was the instrument of victory itself, the chief consumer of the government’s revenue and the greatest concentration of ordinary people on either side, the army. No wonder that Sir Jacob Astley (recently created Baron Astley; 1579–1652), one of the last important Royalist officers to surrender, supposedly said to the victorious parliamentary forces, “you have now done your work, boys, and may go to play, unless you will fall out amongst yourselves.” The various stakeholders in these negotiations meant, on the one hand, that the king could play each side off against the others. Having lost the war, he might still win the peace. On the other hand, he might become the prize, like the king in a colossal game of chess.

For the next two years Charles negotiated with each interest group, sometimes simultaneously, often repeatedly. But he never did so sincerely. As in his dealings with the Long Parliament in 1640–2, he played for time and, perhaps, a continental, Scottish, or Irish army. He never had any intention of giving up one iota of his prerogative. Rather, he felt that he had already given up too much in signing Strafford’s death warrant and that his recent military defeats were a punishment from God for his earlier compromises. So, once again, he prevaricated, dissembled, and, when push came to shove, refused to budge. He knew full well that this course might be personally fatal; his goal was to preserve the monarchy for his children and successors. As he told Prince Rupert just prior to surrendering in 1646:

I confess that, speaking as a mere soldier or statesman, there is no probability but of my ruin; yet, as a Christian, I must tell you that God will not suffer rebels and traitors to prosper, nor this cause to be overthrown; and whatever personal punishment it shall please him to inflict on me, must not make me repine, much less give over this quarrel. … Indeed I cannot flatter myself with expectation of good success more than this, to end my days with honour and a good conscience.

For the king, honor and a good conscience had meant sneaking out of besieged Oxford in disguise and riding to surrender himself to the Scots outside Newark, Nottinghamshire, in May 1646 because he thought they might offer him the best deal. He was correct, but when he balked at giving up episcopacy the Scots gave him up to Parliament in January 1647 for £400,000. For a few months Holles’s Presbyterians controlled both Parliament and the king. Their most pressing problem was the army and the swingeing taxes it consumed. Despite the soldiers’ obvious service to the parliamentary cause, the conservative Presbyterian majority in Parliament did not know what to do with them now that the war was over. The soldiers were demanding their back pay (about £600,000) and an Act of Indemnity, that is, a law absolving them of responsibility for acts committed in wartime. In fact, many Presbyterian MPs were more worried about what former soldiers might do in peacetime. They feared the disorder that such a large, experienced force of relatively common warriors, trained in violence, could bring to the countryside if they got hungry, or greedy. Since the army was said to be full of religious zealots, they also feared that the soldiers wanted to turn their victory into revolution by breaking down the existing religious, social, and political order.

In 1647 Parliament decided to deal with the issue by disbanding as much of the army as it could without pay, and sending the rest to pacify Ireland. But the soldiers took a dim view of being sent off to die in the bogs of Ireland before their pay and indemnity were resolved. The resulting crisis politicized them. Unpaid and unloved by their parliamentary masters, the soldiers began to listen to radical notions of independence in religion, equality in society, and even a degree of democracy in government. Their leaders came to see the only hope of getting justice for their men in having a say in the negotiations to settle the State. Regiments each selected an “agitator,” a sort of union shop steward, to represent them – an example of democracy in action. In June the army declared that it was no “mere mercenary army” fighting for pay but was, rather, dedicated “to the defence of our own and the people’s just rights and liberties,” and that they would not disband until their grievances were settled. In other words, the army and the army alone (not Parliament) truly represented the national interest – and would now decide where the revolution stopped. To emphasize the point, a group of subordinate officers seized the king and deposited him at army headquarters at Newmarket, Suffolk. In August, the army entered London, forced out Holles and other Presbyterians, and began to negotiate with the king on the basis of a document entitled the Heads of the Proposals. It proposed that a bicameral Parliament be elected every two years; that Parliament control the army and navy and nominate all royal ministers; and that all Protestant churches be tolerated in England under a non-coercive episcopacy. This document, if enacted, would have been the first written constitution in English history. Instead, as usual, the king prevaricated, then refused it outright.

At this point the army itself divided. The generals and most officers, known as the Grandees, wanted to maintain military discipline and gentry control of the localities. The rank-and-file, led by their agitators and a small group of political activists known as the Levellers, wanted a fundamental change in how England was ruled. For starters, they demanded near universal manhood suffrage, liberty of conscience and, at most, a constitutional monarchy. They also advocated legal reform, urging that court ducuments be written in simple English, that punishments fit crimes, speedy trials by juries, and equality under the law. Finally, they sought a welfare state for widows and orphans of soldiers. The Levellers put their case to the Grandees in a series of debates at Putney Church, just outside London, at the end of October 1647. The Putney Debates focused on a proposed Leveller constitution, The Agreement of the People (1647), and, specifically, its suggestion that the franchise be enlarged. Though many spoke, Ireton best advanced the Grandee position, arguing that they had fought the king to restore the Ancient Constitution, not to change it. He therefore defended the time-honored requirement of 40 shillings (£2) of land for would-be voters and maintained that the franchise should always reside in those with “a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom,” that is, in “the persons in whom all land lies, and in those corporations in whom all trading lies.” We have seen this argument before, though Ireton’s admission of those “in whom all trading lies” was a progressive concession to the growing wealth and ambitions of the mercantile community. In response, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough (d. 1648) set forth the Leveller position that “the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he.” His corollary was “that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.” Here, with eloquent simplicity, the common man demands to be part of the political process irrespective of birth or wealth. Rainsborough’s rationale, based not on civil law (statute), common law (Ancient Constitution), nor God’s law (the Bible), but on natural law (Reason), was a new and dangerous concept that seemed to undermine the hierarchical principle heretofore at the heart of English life. Later in the century it would receive an even clearer and more decisive exposition by John Locke and others. In the end, though the army left Putney with nothing really decided, the Debates remain a monument to the political consciousness of ordinary people, and, more immediately, reveal the army discussing the future with little or no thought about the king.

Soon after Putney, the king fled once again, this time to the Isle of Wight. This put him no closer to safety: though he might look across the English Channel to France, Cromwell’s cousin, who governed the island, held him in Carisbrooke Castle. After more negotiation, Parliament gave up in despair and, in January 1648, voted to make no more addresses to the king. The Scots, however, had continued to parley and, in December 1647, a group of conservative Covenanters signed an “Engagement” with Charles. In return for an army, he promised to establish Presbyterianism in England for three years. This led to a Second Civil War, comprising a series of Royalist revolts in the South, in Wales, and in Scotland. Unfortunately for the rebels, these revolts were not simultaneous, and Fairfax and Cromwell were largely able to mop up the English and Welsh outbreaks before marching north to subdue the Engagers. Any moderation shown toward the enemy during the First Civil War evaporated as Cromwell and his men now saw the Royalists as resisting the evident “Providences of God” revealed in the outcome of the earlier conflict. Some prisoners were summarily executed, and, ominously, both officers and soldiers began to refer to “Charles Stuart, that man of blood.” It was becoming clear that there would be no peace in England while the king lived.

The Presbyterian MPs, however, reached a quite different conclusion from the Second Civil War. Surely, now, chastened by a second defeat, Charles would be ready to negotiate? On the morning of December 5, 1648, Parliament voted 129–83 to resume discussions with the king. For the army, which had been forced to fight this king a second time, the vote was the last straw. The next morning, December 6, Colonel Thomas Pride (d. 1658) positioned his men outside the House of Commons, refused entrance to those who had voted for treating with the king, arrested some 45 of the Presbyterian leaders, and secluded another 186. A further 86 members protested this coup, which became known as Pride’s Purge, by withdrawing. Although many MPs later drifted back, this still left only about 200 MPs, less than half the original, to make up a reduced House of Commons; in fact, over the next few weeks, the fate of the Crown and nation would be decided by an average attendance of only about 70. Soon, the few remaining Lords ceased to attend their house. The resulting rump of a Parliament no longer represented even the original supporters of the parliamentary cause, let alone the entire kingdom.

But the Rump Parliament, as it soon came to be called, knew what it had to do. In January, it set up a High Court of Justice to try the king on a charge of high treason. This statement is, on the face of it, a logical absurdity. Allegiance in a monarchy is always paid to the person of the king. How could Charles have been guilty of treason against himself? They got around this problem by alleging that the king had violated not statute law or even common law but a more fundamental principle, part of the Ancient Constitution, as expressed in his coronation oath. The legislation establishing the court read as follows:

Whereas it is notorious that Charles Stuart, the now King of England …, hath had a wicked design totally to subvert the ancient and fundamental laws and liberties of this nation, and in their place to introduce an arbitrary and tyrannical government, and that … he hath prosecuted it with fire and sword, levied and maintained a cruel war in the land against the Parliament and kingdom, whereby the country hath been miserably wasted, the public treasure exhausted, trade decayed, thousands of people murdered, and infinite other mischiefs committed.

Put simply, the king was charged with committing treason against the Ancient Constitution and, by levying cruel war against them, the English people. This was, of course, a revolutionary idea. At its heart was a notion relatively new to early modern Europe: that the king had a responsibility not only to God but to the people over whom he ruled; that should he fail in that responsibility, he could be tried by the representatives of the people and, if found wanting, removed from office. These principles and their implications would have earth-shattering effects not only in England but abroad over the next century and a half.

In the meantime, King Charles could not, of course, agree. When the trial convened in Westminster Hall on January 20, 1649, he immediately went to the heart of the matter by questioning the court’s jurisdiction and refusing to plead. After all, the law, in a monarchy, is always the king’s law; the courts are his courts. How, therefore, could any court put the king on trial?

I would know by what authority – I mean lawful – there are many unlawful authorities in the world – thieves and robbers by the highways – but I would know by what authority I was brought from thence and carried from place to place, and I know not what. And when I know what lawful authority, I shall answer. Remember, I am your King – your lawful King.

In fact, Parliament had already answered this: on 4 January they had resolved that “the people are, under God, the original of all just power; that the Commons of England, in parliament assembled, being chosen by and representing the people, have the supreme power in the nation.” This was parliamentary sovereignty, a flat denial of the divine right of kings. But it was every bit as fictional, as the king noted on the 22nd, in language oddly reminiscent of Colonel Rainsborough’s:

Certainly you never asked the question of the tenth man in the kingdom, and in this way you manifestly wrong even the poorest ploughman if you demand not his free consent; nor can you pretend any colour for this your pretended commission without the consent of the major part of every man in England of whatsoever quality or condition.

Refusing to recognize the court’s authority, Charles stood or sat impassively and disdainfully, but with great dignity, as the prosecution sought to make its case. The spectacle must have been impressive: the largest medieval hall in England packed to the rafters with spectators. At its south end, on several tiers of red velvet benches sat the commissioners: assorted army officers, MPs, and gentlemen, presided over by a heretofore obscure judge, John Bradshaw (1602–59). Before them sat an array of lawyers and clerks, all in black. At the north end and in the upper galleries, crowds of spectators, held back by wooden rails and soldiers in their red coats. On the other side of a hastily constructed wooden partition, in a makeshift dock in the middle of the hall, the magnetic object of all eyes, a solitary figure in black, but for the brilliant blue and silver of the Star and Garter – the king. Given his refusal to plead or make a case, the verdict was a foregone conclusion. King Charles was found guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors against the people of England. On January 27 he was condemned to death by beheading. At this point he demanded to speak, but Parliament was not about to let him do so now. Instead, 59 commissioners signed the most notorious death warrant in English history.

Years earlier, upon losing the first English Civil War, Charles I had stated “that if I cannot live as a king, I shall die like a gentleman.” He now set about to do precisely that. The night before his execution, the king burned his papers and saw his youngest children for the last time. The next morning, January 30, 1649, he rose and, after asking about the weather outside, put on an extra shirt for the walk across St. James’s Park to the scaffold: ever concerned with the dignity of his appearance, Charles did not want to create an impression of fear by shivering. He was escorted by armed guard through the park to the Banqueting House at Whitehall – one of those expensive building projects of his father’s which had so alienated the English taxpayer. One wonders what he thought as he walked through the hall under its magnificent ceiling – a depiction of his father’s apotheosis in heaven by Peter Paul Rubens – and thus the sort of expensive art project which had proved controversial in his own ill-fated reign. At the end of his walk was an open window facing west; outside it a scaffold draped in black, at the center of which was the block. Beyond and below stood a crowd of ordinary Londoners, held back by soldiers. The king emerged into the gray light of the January day and asked to speak, but, dogged by his weak voice and bad luck to the last, he was inaudible. He then turned to his archbishop of Canterbury, William Juxon (1582–1663), and remarked that the executioner sent him “from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown.” Turning back to the block, he knelt down, said a brief prayer, and, in a signal worked out with the henchman beforehand, stretched out his hands. The axe fell and, as was customary, the executioner raised the late king’s dismembered head for all to see. It is said that at this sight, which normally elicited cheers, the crowd uttered a deep groan.

And well they might, for the events of that January day would have grave consequences for all members of the English polity. For the first time in their history, the English people – or at least some English people – had judicially and publicly murdered their king. Such an act violated the Great Chain, Divine Right, and a thousand years of sermons and royal propaganda. And this was only the beginning of the demolition of the old world. On March 17, Parliament abolished the kingly office; two days later they abolished the House of Lords. And so, on May 19, 1649, England was declared a commonwealth, that is, a republic.

Han Dynasty Frontier Armies



One of the key transformations of Chinese society during the Han was the abolition of universal military service, an institution that had underpinned the Warring States and the Qin.22 With the Han’s defeat of the feudatory kingdoms in 154 B.C., the possibility of large-scale warfare in the interior of China vanished, leaving only the threat of the Xiongnu on the northern border. The inability of peasants serving one-year terms to master horsemanship and the crossbow left them ill-equipped for expeditionary forces. Their relatively short terms also made them unsuitable for long-term garrison duty. Emperor Wu allowed some peasants to pay a tax in lieu of military service and used this money to recruit professionals. Nomadic enemies of the Xiongnu and dissident elements of the Xiongnu themselves were also recruited to provide skilled cavalry. In some cases convicts were sent to the frontiers to man garrisons. Thus, during the last century B.C. the Chinese army began to shift away from peasant levies to an army based on professionals, nomads, and criminals.

The rebellion against Wang Mang turned this gradual and informal process into official policy. The rebellion had demonstrated that peasant conscripts could be turned against the state, especially during the autumn training session, when adult males of a commandery gathered for inspection. It also showed that peasants would follow locally powerful families to whom they were bound rather than officials. Training peasants to fight thus simply provided potential rebels with a superior quality of soldier. Furthermore, in the course of the rebellions, much of the population had been displaced, and loss of registered population meant a drastic decrease in tax income for the court. Motivated by the need to decrease expenditures and reduce internal threats, and by the uselessness of conscripts on the frontier, the newly established Eastern Han regime abolished both the annual training sessions and the local military officials. This did away with a formal peasant army, and left only a small, professional army stationed around the capital.

Following the split of the Xiongnu into southern and northern confederacies in 48 A.D., nomads were internally resettled on a large scale. To supervise these new inhabitants, the Eastern Han government set up standing army commands in camps at the frontier, one command for each major nomadic group resettled in China. These standing armies were manned by professional Han soldiers. The total number of troops in the camps is not recorded, but scattered citations indicate that they were in the tens of thousands. These camps remained a permanent feature of the Han army, and their troops took part in most of the major campaigns of the second century A.D.

Expeditionary armies were distinct from the standing armies, and drew their forces primarily from resettled barbarians. Most of the cavalry in the campaigns of the first century A.D. that destroyed the Xiongnu confederacy consisted of nomad soldiers. The Han founder had already employed tribal soldiers during the civil war. After the reign of Emperor Wu, these tribes were usually classified as “dependent states” and allowed to keep their own leaders and customs, under the supervision of a commandant. But the Eastern Han went beyond the policy of “using barbarians to control barbarians.” Non-Han soldiers also quelled internal rebellions, much as foreign mercenaries did for monarchs in early modern Europe. The histories record more than fifty cases of the participation of non-Han soldiers in Chinese armies. Twenty-seven of these list no Han troops in the forces involved, and six were under the command of tribal chieftains.

From this evidence it is clear that after the middle of the first century A.D. the primary source of mounted warriors was non-Han soldiers. State-controlled grasslands and stables for rearing military horses, which the Western Han had maintained since the reign of Emperor Jing in the second century B.C., were largely abandoned. The warlords of the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 A.D.) continued to rely on non-Han peoples to provide their cavalry.

In addition to using non-Han troops in their army, the Han also paid bounties for the heads of slain enemies. Xianbei chieftains, before submitting to the Han, received payments for the heads of Xiongnu. In 58 A.D. they again received payments for crushing a force of invading Wuhuan, and at that time they formally submitted. They received annual payments of 270,000,000 cash, and in return they controlled the Wuhuan and killed Xiongnu. Thus the most common military man in the Eastern Han was the nomad warrior serving the empire under the command of his tribal chieftain.


In contrast with the Warring States period, when regional cultures constituted the primary divisions in the Chinese sphere, the imagining of a world divided between nomads and Chinese marked a major step. It posited the fundamental unity of a single Chinese civilization defined by what was not nomadic, and it reduced regional divisions to secondary status. China first emerged as a unity through the invention of a Chinese/ nomad dichotomy, and this bipolar concept remained central to Chinese civilization in later periods.

It is ironic, then, that the political partition of the world into two spheres lasted only a few decades. In spite of increasing payments, Xiongnu incursions did not cease. Each agreement lasted a few years, only to be broken by a new invasion, which was followed in turn by demands for a resumption of peaceful relations based on an increase in payments. The Chinese attributed this to barbarian perfidy, but it reflected the nature of the Xiongnu state. While the Chinese emperor was unchallenged as chief lawgiver, judge, and administrator, power within the Xiongnu state was constrained and divided by kin bonds, customary practice, and horizontal segmentation between clans or tribes. The chanyu maintained control over his subordinate chiefs only by constant negotiations in which he was first among equals rather than an absolute authority. Consensus on his power hinged on his success in battle and distribution of booty.

In such a system, the chanyu could not refrain from military action indefinitely. Nor could he stop his subordinates from attacking on their own, for the power and prestige of chiefs likewise depended on their success in battle and distribution of booty. Sometimes they invaded because of tensions with local Chinese officials, sometimes because of resentment of the chanyu. The he qin policy failed because it relied on a structure of authority that did not exist among the Xiongnu.19

As treaty after treaty was violated, debates at the Chinese court were increasingly dominated by calls for war. Decades of peace had given the Chinese time to develop a new style of army based on cavalry and crossbows that could successfully engage the Xiongnu in the field. In 134 B.C. Emperor Wu finally undertook to destroy the Xiongnu through military action. Although his attempted ambush of the chanyu failed, in the decades that followed, Chinese armies pushed deep into Central Asia and inflicted substantial losses of both men and flocks on the Xiongnu.

However, Han losses were also considerable, and repeated campaigns drained the treasury without achieving any decisive result. Difficulties in transporting supplies and harsh weather meant that no army could spend even as much as one hundred days in the field, so victories could not be translated into an enduring occupation. Emperor Wu’s successors consequently abandoned his policy of launching expeditions and instead retired behind a defensive line, while refusing to pay tribute. This policy was successful, for it deprived the chanyu of Han tribute and also reduced his role as defender against Han invasions. The position of the chanyu deteriorated, and in 120 B.C. a dissident Xiongnu king surrendered to the Han with 40,000 men. In subsequent decades other chiefs refused to attend the chanyu’s court.20 Between 115 and 60 B.C. the Han also secured control of the former Xiongnu sphere of influence in eastern Central Asia (modern Xinjiang).

A battle over succession split the Xiongnu empire in 57 B.C., with no fewer than five kings claiming the title of chanyu. After several years one king acknowledged Han suzerainty, visited the Han court, and resettled inside China. This proved to be highly advantageous, for in exchange for obeisance he received generous gifts from the Han. He repeated his visit to the court in 49 and 33 B.C. and sent a son there as a hostage, whose well-being depended on his father’s good conduct and who learned Han culture. The wealth that the vassal chieftain gained allowed him to build up his following and defeat his rivals. Eventually, he grew powerful enough to return to the north and resume the old pattern of demanding tribute, until a second succession struggle renewed the civil war in 48 A.D. This led to a permanent split between the southern Xiongnu, who dwelt in China and submitted to the emperor, and the northern Xiongnu, who resided beyond the boundaries of the Han empire.

The southern Xiongnu became dependent on Han assistance, as indicated in 88 A.D. in a memorial from the southern chanyu: “Your servant humbly thinks back on how since his ancestor submitted to the Han we have been blessed with your support, keeping a sharp watch on the passes and providing strong armies for more than forty years. Your subjects have been born and reared in Han territory and have depended entirely on the Han for food. Each year we received gifts counted in the hundreds of millions [of cash].”21 This policy of resettling nomads still grouped in their tribes inside the Chinese empire would have disastrous long-term consequences, as we will see, leading to a breakdown in civil order in the northwest and the southward flight of large numbers of Han Chinese.

Although the northern Xiongnu continued to defy the Han, they were defeated on several occasions by allied armies of the Han and the southern Xiongnu. Moreover, other tribal peoples such as the Wuhuan and Xianbei broke away from the Xiongnu and received large bounties from the Han for killing Xiongnu. In 87 A.D. a Xianbei army defeated the Xiongnu, killed the northern chanyu, and flayed his body. More than 200,000 Xiongnu tribesmen surrendered after this defeat, and a great Han victory in 89 A.D. completed the destruction of the Xiongnu state.

Wars of the Roses – Pretenders – Simnel

A Pageant of Kings: Henry VII -- He hanged his dogs as traitors!

Henry pardoned young Simnel, acknowledging that he had been a mere puppet in the hands of adults, and gave him a job in the royal kitchen as a spit-turner. When he grew older, he became a falconer. He died around 1525.

The Wars of the Roses were fought sporadically between 1455 and 1486 between the two rival Plantagenet houses of Lancaster and York. Virtually all the leading participants were related and they are also known as the ‘cousins’ wars’ in which, over less than 25 years, the crown of England changed hands no less than five times. As in all civil wars, no quarter was given or expected, and the battle of Towtown on Palm Sunday in March 1461 has claim to be the bloodiest on English soil. Fought in a raging snowstorm it, and many other ferocious battles, wiped out entire dynasties. Unusually for the medieval era, the viciousness displayed swept away aristocrats as well as the common soldiery. After the battle of Mortimer’s Cross, Henry VI’s stepfather, Owen Tudor, was beheaded in Hereford and a mad woman combed his hair and placed his severed head at the market cross, surrounded by 100 candles. The final victory went to a relatively remote Lancastrian claimant, Henry Tudor, who defeated the last Yorkist king, Richard III, at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. He married Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth of York to unite the two houses.

Henry’s claim was to the throne was shaky: he was half Welsh and half French and was most closely related to the French royal family as great-grandson of Charles VI. In England he was merely the great-great-great grandson of Edward III. But he was backed by French and Breton silver, his army boosted by mercenaries – and most importantly – he had won a clear victory at Bosworth.

That bloodbath had ended the Wars of the Roses and put Henry VII on the throne, but his troubles were far from over. He was beset by enemies at home and at the court of Burgundy, and in the spring of 1487 a serious insurrection was launched from Ireland.

In the spring of the previous year a priest took to Ireland a 10- or 11-year-old boy, Lambert Simnel. The lad had been born around 1477 and his real name is not known – contemporary records call him John. According to subsequent legends he was the son of a baker, or an organ builder, or a tradesman. He was certainly of humble origin. He was taken as a pupil by an Oxford-trained priest, Richard Simon (or Symonds or Simons or Symonds) with ambitions to be a king-maker in such turbulent but opportunistic times. He tutored the handsome boy in courtly manners and gave him an excellent education. Simon noticed a striking resemblance between Lambert and the supposedly murdered sons of Edward IV, so he initially intended to present Simnel as Richard, Duke of York, son of Edward IV, the younger of the vanished princes in the Tower. However, when he heard rumours that the Earl of Warwick, a boy of the same age and of similar appearance to his pupil, had died during imprisonment, he changed his mind and put forward Simnel as the Earl. Warwick was the son of the Duke of Clarence, King Edward IV’s brother, and as such had been the nephew of two Yorkist kings. The real Edward had not died and was safely locked in the Tower, but Yorkist propaganda now claimed that the prisoner was an imposter. That claim was widely promoted by Margaret, Dowager Duchess of Burgundy, who was sister of both Edward IV and Richard III. She was supported by several nobles, including John De la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, who was himself the son of Elizabeth, another of the sisters of the two Yorkist kings. However, Lincoln’s claim was too tenuous and an attempt to raise a rebellion in north and west England in 1486 came to nothing. Lincoln had fled the English court in March and although he doubted Simnel’s claim, he saw in him an opportunity for revenge and personal advancement. Lincoln was joined by a number of rebel English Lords at Mechelen, including Richard III’s loyal supporter, Francis Lord Lovell, Sir Richard Harleston, the former governor of Jersey and Thomas David, a captain of the English garrison at Calais.

The indomitable Margaret provided between 1,500 and 2,000 German, Swiss and Flemish mercenaries under Captain Martin Swartz. They were mostly foot soldiers carrying bill and pike, with some crossbowmen and a few who carried the relatively new firearm, the arquibusier. The rebel army was put together in Ireland, where opposition to Henry Tudor was strong. Simon took the boy to Ireland, now claiming that Warwick had escaped the Tower and taken refuge under his care. He presented him to the Irish governmental head, the Earl of Kildare, who was willing to swallow the story as it gave him a pretext to invade England and overthrow Henry. The frightened and bemused Simnel was crowned King Edward VI of England in Dublin 24 May 1487. By then the Yorkist fleet had arrived in Dublin. Kildare and his brother Thomas Fitzgerald of Laccagh, the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, recruited 4,500 Irish mercenaries, lightly armoured infantry, for the cause.

On 5 June, accompanied by Lincoln and Lovell, Simnel was landed on Piel Island near Furness, Lancashire, and were joined by some English supporters. Most local nobles, apart from Sir Thomas Broughton, stayed away. The pretender’s army advanced through Yorkshire, picking up recruits as they went, and swelled to between 7,000 and 8,000, including some English knights and their retinues. By forced marches they covered over 200 miles in five days. On the night of 10 June, at Bramham Moor outside Tadcaster, Lovell led 2,000 men on a night attack against 400 Lancastrians under Lord Clifford, and easily overwhelmed them. Lincoln then outmanoeuvred Henry’s northern army, under the Earl of Northumberland, by ordering a force under John, Lord Scrope, to mount a diversionary attack on Bootham Bar, York, on 12 June. Scrope then withdrew northwards, drawing Northumberland’s army after him.

From Doncaster a Royalist force of some 6,000 men under Sir Edward Woodville challenged the main rebel force but retreated when they saw they were outnumbered. For three days the rebels advanced through Sherwood, skirmishing all the way. Nottingham was evacuated as they approached. But the fighting had delayed the Yorkists, allowing time for reinforcements under Lord Strange to bolster the city’s defences and deter the rebel advance. Near Farnsfield the rebels turned off the Nottingham road and headed towards Newark into the security of the Earl of Lincoln’s lands.

Henry was at Kenilworth but swiftly set off for Nottingham. He arrived there on 14 June and found that the rebels were at Southwell, 12 miles to the north-east. Henry moved to Radcliffe, between Nottingham and Bingham, the following day, while the rebel army crossed the Trent by the ford below Fiskerton and took up a position on an open escarpment some 1,500yds south of East Stoke. Here the king met them on the morning of the 16th as he was marching towards Newark. The rebels had an advantage in numbers, perhaps 9,000 to 6,000, but apart from the German mercenaries their soldiers were not well armed or trained. The English army was split into three parts of fairly equal size. The van, with heavy cavalry, was under the Earl of Oxford. Their two great advantages were their better armour and their large number of longbowmen.

Battle of Stoke - 1487

Battle of Stoke – 1487

Lincoln and the rebels had camped overnight on the high ground south and west of the village of East Stoke above the Fosse Way. The two sides were facing each other by 9 a.m. and rather than wait for the rest of the royal army, Oxford began a withering bow fire upon the rebels on the higher ground in front of him. The unarmoured Irish suffered gravely under the hail of arrows and Lincoln was forced to charge down the hill rather than stand his ground.

For three hours the battle was fiercely contested. The rebels were well served by the German mercenaries and the English shuddered under the shock of the initial charge. But after a while their poor equipment and armour, and the lack of training amongst the Irish levies, saw the fight swing to the English. A counter-attack by Oxford was enough to break the resistance of much of the rebel army. Unable to retreat, the German and Swiss mercenaries fought on, mainly to the death. Their commander, Martin Swartz, and Lincoln were killed, as were Broughton and Fitzgerald. Of the Yorkist commanders, only Lord Lovell escaped, by swimming the Trent and, according to legend, died hidden in a secret room at his house. He was never seen publicly again. The terrified Simnel was captured.

The rebels were slaughtered in a gully at the foot of the ridge and in the marshy fields. Between 4,000 and 5,000 died either in the battle or in the aftermath as the fugitives were hunted down. All captured Irish or English rebel soldiers were immediately hanged. The Irish nobles who had supported Simnel were spared, as Henry needed their support to govern Ireland effectively. The German mercenaries who survived the grim slaughter were allowed to go free but without their pay. Most of those who died on the field were buried in mass graves on the same day.

Simon avoided execution due to his priestly status, but was imprisoned for life. Henry pardoned young Simnel, acknowledging that he had been a mere puppet in the hands of adults, and gave him a job in the royal kitchen as a spit-turner. When he grew older, he became a falconer. He died around 1525.

The rebels had inflicted heavy casualties on Henry’s army, possibly as many as 2,000 men. But his victory at Stoke secured the safety of the Tudor dynasty. The threat was not over, however. Another pretender emerged.

Wars of the Roses – Pretenders – Warbeck


Perkin Warbeck

Perkin Warbeck was born around 1474 and his youth is clouded in mystery. According to his later confession, procured under duress, his father was John Osbeck, the Flemish comptroller to the city of Tournai. At 10 he was taken by his mother to Antwerp to learn Dutch. He served several masters before being employed by a local English master, John Strewe, for some months before being hired by a Breton merchant, who took him to Cork when he was about 17. There he learnt to speak English. Dressed in silk clothes, he was approached by Yorkists who saw a resemblance to the younger son of Edward IV, Richard, who had died in the Tower.

He returned to the Continent and first claimed the English throne at the court of Burgundy in 1490. He went back to Ireland in that guise hoping to raise support as Lambert Simnel had done four years earlier. He impressed few and was forced home. He was received by Charles VIII of France in 1492, but expelled by the French king under the terms of a treaty in which he agreed not to shelter English rebels. It was back at the Burgundian court, a hotbed of Yorkists, that his fortunes changed. He was officially recognised as Richard of Shrewsbury by Margaret of York, now the widow of Charles the Bold, who cynically tutored him in the ways of the Yorkist court. Simnel’s mentor, Margaret of Burgundy, also opportunistically hailed the young man. Warbeck’s claims echoed around the European courts and Henry imposed a trade embargo on Burgundy. At the invitation of Duke Philip’s father, King Maximilian I, he attended the funeral of Emperor Frederick III in 1493 and was recognised as King Richard IV of England. Warbeck in turn promised that if he died before becoming king, his claim would fall to Maximilian. The determined and vengeful Margaret of Burgundy funded another invasion attempt.

In July 1495 Warbeck landed at Deal in Kent, hoping to spark an uprising behind his bogus banner. Instead, his small army was routed and 150 of his troops killed before Warbeck even managed to step ashore. He retreated immediately to Ireland where he was supported by the Earl of Desmond. He laid siege to Waterford but strong resistance forced him to flee again, this time to Scotland.

Warbeck was well received by James IV of Scotland, who knew the political leverage to be had from having an English pretender at his court. Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in particular were inclined to help him in his struggles with England, in order to prevent the situation escalating into war with France. Warbeck was permitted to marry James’s distant cousin, Lady Catherine Gordon, a daughter of the Earl of Huntly. The marriage was celebrated in Edinburgh with a tournament. James gave Warbeck clothes for the wedding and armour covered with purple silk. So clothed, he may have fought in a team with the king and four knights.

In September 1496 James IV prepared to invade England with Warbeck. A red, gold and silver banner was made for Warbeck as the Duke of York; Roderic de Lalanne, a Flemish knight arrived with two little ships and 60 German soldiers. Two great French guns, 10 smaller cannon and 30 iron breech loading ‘cart guns’ were rolled out with 16 wagons for the munitions. An English spy in Edinburgh estimated that the invading army would last just five days in England before it ran out of provisions. His assessment was to be proved correct.

The Scottish army assembled near Edinburgh and James IV and Warbeck offered prayers at Holyrood Abbey on 14 September. Seven days later the army crossed the River Tweed at Coldstream. Miners set to work to demolish the tower of Castle Heaton on 24 September, but the army quickly retreated when resources were used up, and hoped-for support for Perkin Warbeck in Northumberland failed to materialise. In all, the invading army marched just four miles into England, destroyed four small defensive towers and burnt a few of Henry’s royal banners. They retreated to Scotland on 25 September when an English army commanded by Lord Neville approached from Newcastle. James’s allies, including Spain, pressed him to make peace with England.

Warbeck was now an embarrassment rather than an asset and James provided a ship, the Cuckoo, and a hired crew under a Breton captain, which returned him to Waterford in shame in July 1497. James IV did indeed make peace with England. Once again, Warbeck laid siege to Waterford, but this time his effort lasted only eleven days before he was forced to flee Ireland, chased by four English ships. He was left with only 120 men on two ships.

In September 1497, Warbeck landed at Whitesand Bay in Cornwall hoping to take advantage of Cornish resentment at the defeat of their own rising three months earlier. Warbeck proclaimed that he would put a stop to extortionate taxes levied to help fight a war against Scotland and was warmly welcomed. The Cornish fell for his rhetoric because they wanted to believe it. He was declared Richard IV on Bodmin Moor and his Cornish army of around 6,000 entered Exeter before advancing on Taunton. Henry sent his top general, Giles, Lord Daubeney, to attack the Cornish and when Warbeck heard that the king’s scouts were at Glastonbury, he panicked and deserted his army. Warbeck surrendered himself at Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire.

Henry reached Taunton on 4 October 1497, where he received the surrender of the remaining Cornish army. The ringleaders were executed and others fined. Warbeck was imprisoned, first at Taunton, then at the Tower of London, where he was, according to an eyewitness, ‘paraded through the streets on horseback amid much hooting and derision of the citizens’.

Warbeck was held in the Tower alongside Edward, Earl of Warwick. Both tried to escape but were quickly re-captured. Unlike the boy Simnel, the 25-year-old Warbeck could not claim that he had been the pawn of unscrupulous adults. It is estimated that Henry spent £13,000 on countering Warbeck’s adventures, putting a strain on the royal finances and making him disinclined to mercy. On 23 November 1499, Warbeck was drawn on a hurdle from the Tower to Tyburn. On the scaffold he read out his confession before being hanged.

Many historians credit Henry’s victory at Bosworth as marking the beginning of the modern nation. Others qualify that judgement. Nicholas Vincent wrote:

by the time that Henry Tudor placed a crown upon his head, England had acquired both a history and a national identity. Wealth and the bounty of nature were England’s birthrights, a consequence of geography, of the constant presence of the sea, and of the toil of those who first cleared the land, dug the mines and tilled the soil. From at least the age of Bede, as far back as the eighth century, came an idea of Englishness and of united destiny united under Christian kingship. For all the shattering uncertainties and usurpations of the fifteenth century, the kingdom of England, unlike the kingdom of France or the empire of Germany, remained a united and indivisible whole.

Attempted invasions, hopeless though they were, helped to cement that birthright, that national identity.

White Failure

The amazing true story of the Czechoslovak Legion’s adventure in World War One – under the leadership of Professor Thomas G. Masaryk, 70,000 Czech and Slovak POW’s switch sides – fight for the Allies, capture the Trans-Siberian RR – and win a new nation. NOTE: Most of these photos haven’t been seen for 75 years – and the Russians destroyed the negatives.

Because of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk a large force of Czech and Slovak soldiers – prisoners of war and deserters from the Austro-Hungarian army – became stranded on Soviet soil. As nationalists determined to fight for their country’s independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they had sided with the Russians in the war. But now they wanted to continue their struggle as part of the Czech army fighting in France. Rather than run the risk of crossing enemy lines, they decided to travel eastwards, right around the world, intending to reach Europe via Vladivostok and the United States. On 26 March an agreement was reached with the Soviet authorities at Penza, whereby the 35,000 soldiers of the Czech Legion were allowed to travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway as ‘free citizens’ with a specified number of weapons for self-defence.

By mid-May, they had got as far as Cheliabinsk in the Urals when they became involved in fighting with the local Soviets and their Red Guards, who had tried to confiscate their guns. Deciding to fight their way through the free-for-all of Soviet Siberia, the Legion broke up into groups and captured one town after another from the poorly armed and disciplined Red Guards, who ran away in panic at the first sight of the well-organized Czechs. On 8 June, a force of 8,000 Czechs took the Volga town of Samara, a stronghold of the Right SRs, whose leaders had fled there after the closure of the Constituent Assembly and formed a government, the Komuch (Committee of Members of the Constituent Assembly), which the Czechs now installed in power. The Right SRs had promised that they would secure French and British help to overthrow the Bolsheviks and get Russia to rejoin the war against Germany and Austria. Thus began a new phase of the Civil War – organized on military lines by Red and White armies – in which fourteen Allied powers would ultimately become involved.

Fighting had already started on the Don River, in south Russia, where Kornilov and his White Guards, having fled the Bykhov Monastery, had formed a Volunteer Army of 4,000 men, mostly officers, who briefly captured Rostov from the Reds before retreating south across the ice-bound steppe to the Kuban in February. Kornilov was killed in an attack on Ekaterinodar on 13 April. Taking over the command, General Denikin led the Whites back to the Don, where they found the Cossack farmers in revolt against the Bolsheviks, who were seizing food at gunpoint and wreaking havoc in the Cossack settlements. By June, 40,000 Cossacks had joined General Krasnov’s Don Army. With the Whites they were in a strong position to strike north towards the Volga and link up with the Czechs to attack Moscow.

The ease of the Czech victories made it clear to Trotsky, now Commissar of War, that the Red Army had to be reformed on the model of the tsarist conscript army, with regular units replacing the Red Guards, professional officers and a centralized hierarchy of command. There was a lot of opposition to these policies among the Party’s rank and file. Whereas the Red Guards were seen as an army of the working class, mass conscription was bound to build an army dominated by the peasantry, a hostile social force in the view of the Bolsheviks. The rank and file were particularly opposed to Trotsky’s conscription of ex-tsarist officers (75,000 would be recruited by the Bolsheviks in the Civil War). They saw it as a return to the old military order and as a hindrance to their own promotion as ‘Red officers’. The so-called Military Opposition crystallized around this lower-class mistrust and resentment of the professional officers and other ‘bourgeois specialists’. But Trotsky ridiculed his critics’ arguments: revolutionary zeal was no substitute for military expertise.

Mass conscription was introduced in June. Factory workers and Party activists were the first to be called up. Without a military infrastructure in the countryside, mobilizing peasants turned out to be far more difficult than expected. Of the 275,000 peasant recruits anticipated from the first call-up, only 40,000 actually appeared. Peasants did not want to leave their villages at harvest time. There were peasant uprisings against conscriptions and mass desertions from the Red Army.

The Czech Legion fell apart after the capture of Samara. It had no reason to continue fighting after the ending of the First World War in November 1918. Without an effective force to resist the Red Army, it was only a matter of time before the Komuch lost its hold on the Volga region. The SRs fled to Omsk, where their brief Directory government was overthrown by the Rightist officers of the Siberian army who invited Admiral Kolchak to become the Supreme Leader of the anti-Bolshevik movement. Kolchak received the backing of the British, the French and the Americans, who remained committed to removing the Bolsheviks from power on political grounds, even though, with the world war now over, there were no longer any military reasons for the Allied intervention in Russia.

Kolchak’s White army of 100,000 men advanced to the Volga, where the Bolsheviks were struggling to cope with a large peasant uprising behind their lines in the spring of 1919. In a desperate counter-offensive the Reds pushed Kolchak’s forces back to Ufa by mid-June, after which the cities of the Urals and beyond were taken by the Reds in quick succession as the Whites lost cohesion and retreated through Siberia. Finally captured in Irkutsk, Kolchak was executed by the Bolsheviks in February 1920.

Meanwhile, at the height of the Kolchak offensive, Denikin’s forces struck into the Donbas coal region and south-east Ukraine, where the Cossacks were in rebellion against a Red campaign of mass terror to clear them off the land (‘decossackization’). With military support from the British and the French, now committed to the anti-Bolshevik campaign on explicitly political grounds, the Whites advanced easily into Ukraine. The Reds were suffering from a crisis of supplies and lost more than 1 million deserters on the Southern Front between March and October. The rear was engulfed in peasant uprisings, as the Reds resorted to the requisitioning of horses and supplies, the conscription of reinforcements and the repression of villages suspected of hiding deserters. In the south-east corner of Ukraine the Reds were heavily reliant on Nestor Makhno’s peasant partisans, who fought under the black flag of the Anarchists but were no match for the better-supplied and better-disciplined White troops.

On 3 July, Denikin issued his Moscow Directive, the order for a general attack on the Soviet capital. It was an all-or-nothing gamble, counting on the speed of the White cavalry to exploit the temporary weakness of the Reds, but at the risk of leaving the White rear unprotected in the form of trained reserves, sound administration and lines of supply.

The Whites pushed north and took Orel, only 250 miles from Moscow, on 14 October. But Denikin’s forces had overstretched themselves. In the rear they had left themselves without enough troops to defend their bases against Makhno’s Anarchist partisans and Ukrainian nationalists, and at the height of the Moscow offensive they were forced to withdraw troops to deal with them. Without regular supplies, the troops broke down into looting peasant farms. But the Whites’ main problem was the peasants’ fear of them as an avenging army of the landowners. The peasants were afraid that a White victory would reverse the revolution on the land. Denikin’s officers were mostly squires’ sons. On the land question the Whites had made it clear that they would not go beyond the Kadet programme, under which the gentry’s surplus land would be sold off to the peasants at a future date. Under these proposals the peasants would have to give back three quarters of the land they had taken from the gentry during the revolution.

As the Whites advanced towards Moscow, the peasants rallied behind the Red Flag. Between June and September a quarter of a million deserters returned to the Red Army from the two military districts of Orel and Moscow alone. These were regions where the local peasantry had gained substantial amounts of land during 1917. However much the peasants might have detested the Bolshevik regime, with its violent requisitionings and commissars, they would side with the Reds against the Whites to defend their revolution on the land.

With 200,000 troops the Reds launched a counter-offensive, forcing the Whites, who had half as many men, to retreat south, losing discipline as they did so. The remnants of Denikin’s army ended up in Novorossisk, the main Allied port on the Black Sea, from which 50,000 troops were hurriedly evacuated to the Crimea in March 1920. There were desperate scenes as soldiers and civilians struggled to get on board the Allied ships. Priority was given to the troops, but not all of these could be rescued and 60,000 soldiers were left at the mercy of the Bolsheviks (most of them were later shot or sent to labour camps). For Denikin’s critics, the botched evacuation was the final straw. A generals’ revolt forced his resignation in favour of Baron Wrangel, a critic of the Moscow Directive, who led one last stand against the Bolsheviks in the Crimea during 1920. But this was only to delay for a few months the inevitable defeat of the Whites.

What were the reasons for their failure? The White émigré communities in Constantinople, Paris and Berlin would agonize for years over this question.

Historians sympathetic to their cause have often stressed the ‘objective factors’ that stacked the odds against them. The Reds had an overwhelming superiority of numbers. They controlled the vast terrain of central Russia with its prestigious capitals, most of the country’s industry, if not fuel, and the core of its railway network, which enabled them to shift their forces from one front to another. The Whites, by contrast, were divided between several different fronts, which made it difficult to coordinate their operations, and they had to rely on the Allies for much of their supplies. All these factors played a part. But at the root of their defeat was a failure of politics. The Whites proved unable and unwilling to frame policies capable of winning mass support. They had no propaganda to compare with the Bolsheviks’, no political symbols of their own to challenge the Red Flag or the Red Star. They were divided politically. Any movement that included right-wing monarchists and socialist republicans would have problems reaching political agreement. But it was practically impossible for the Whites to agree on policies. They did not even try. Their sole idea was to put the clock back to before October 1917. They failed to adapt to the new revolutionary situation. Their refusal to accept the national independence movements was disastrous. It lost them the potentially invaluable support of the Poles and Ukrainians and complicated their relations with the Cossacks, who wanted more autonomy from Russia than the White leaders were prepared to give. But the main cause of their undoing was their failure to accept the peasant revolution on the land.