The origin of the term Schiltron, also variously spelled schiltrum or schiltrone, is obscure. A strong body of opinion holds that it translates as a shield-round or shield-ring, but whilst at first sight attractive this interpretation is not supported by the evidence.

Shield-rings as used by Saxon and Norse warriors were a defensive formation protected by an interlocking ‘wall’ of large round shields. Scots pikemen on the other hand sometimes carried a small round shield or target, but this was very much a secondary weapon to be used with a sword when pikes were broken or discarded. Moreover with the notable exception of Wallace’s debacle at Falkirk, the schiltron was not a ‘round’ defensive formation at all, but rather a dense line or column. Contemporary writers in fact use the term indiscriminately to describe any formation of infantry drawn up in close order.

A far likelier interpretation of the term therefore is that it is a composite of the old Scots word schilt or sclut which means to tread slowly and deliberately as men in formation must, and rone, which is an old term for a thicket.The moving forest or thicket of pikes is a frequently encountered similie, used to describe such formations in English sources, and may indeed also echo the famous advance of Birnam Wood on Dunsinane.

From the very beginning the Scots were spearmen. The nobles, knights, bonnet lairds and burgesses who led them might have had more and better armour, and swords as well, but that merely fitted them to stand in the front ranks of the schiltrons; this evocative term which has been variously interpreted but which best translates as moving thickets – a veritable forests of pikes.

Scots law required every man between the traditional ages of sixteen and sixty to turn out in time of war, but most of them probably got no further than the local wapinschaw – weapon showing – where only those adjudged fit to bear ‘arms defencible’ were entered on the rolls – hence the term fencibles. Then, depending on the scale of the levy, one man in four or even one man in eight would actually be picked, thereby ensuring minimal disruption to the local economy and leaving a substantial reserve which could still be called upon in an emergency. In theory those men who were actually levied out were only bound to forty days’ service. There was no question of course of their simply turning around again and heading for home at the expiry of those forty days. But if the campaign continued beyond that time the responsibility for feeding and maintaining them passed from the sherriffdom or royal burgh which had levied them out, to the Crown.

It is important to draw a distinction between what might be termed local and Royal levies, for only the latter were maintained in service long enough to receive proper training at unit level. The normal size for a body of infantry throughout military history has always been about 5-600 men whether it be called a schiltron, a regiment or a battalion, and, until the advent of the musket, they were normally formed up in six ranks, which was the optimum depth for both stability and manoeuvrability. Three or four of these self-contained units could be brigaded together under a single commander, but if they were then to move, let alone manoeuvre effectively without dissolving into a rabble, it was necessary to drill them – intensively.

Scots infantrymen were primarily armed with 3.6 metre (12 foot) spears which eventually evolved into long pikes. Their English counterparts on the other hand were generally armed with bills. These were relatively short weapons with large blades, whose resemblance to tin-openers was far from co-incidental, and which were extremely effective in hand-to-hand fighting. The Scots also used to them to a degree, but the evidence suggests that for so long as the momentum of the attack could be maintained the ordinary Scottish spear was more than effective enough to quite literally push back the opposing formation.

It is worth emphasising this pushing business, for while it might be expected that the pikes or spears might transfix those getting in their way it seems to have been a rare occurrence. Indeed if it were otherwise it would have been very hard to find anyone willing to stand in the forefront. Instead, a contemporary account of the Battle of Langside in 1568 provides an interesting description of what really happened when two bodies of pikemen met head on:

‘…He and Grange, at the joining, cried to let their adversaries foot lay down their spears, to bear up theirs, which spears were so thick fixed in the others jacks, that some of the pistols and great staves, that were thrown by them which were behind, might be seen lying upon the spears… Grange reinforced that wing which was beginning to fly; which fresh men with their loose weapons struck the enemy in their flanks and faces, which forced them incontinent to give place and turn back and long fighting and pushing others to and fro with their spears… the only slaughter was at the first rencounter, by the shot of the soldiers which Grange had planted at the lane-head behind some dykes…’

It is also worth noting the emphasis placed on the fact that there were few casualties in the encounter, first because instead of transfixing the opposing soldiers, the pikes were lodged in their jacks – padded coats or jerkins – and secondly because Grange allowed the defeated side to get away. Ordinarily, if the scrum collapsed the victorious side would mercilessly set about the losers as they struggled to rise and flee. The fact of the matter was that despite its dramatic potential relatively few men were ever slain in hand-to-hand combat, but a great many were killed running away from it.

Should the momentum of the attack be lost however, as described at Langside, the handier bill then came into its own and from the English point of view therefore it was vital to bring the schiltrons to a halt as quickly as possible. At first it appeared that the natural solution was to ride them down with cavalry, of which English armies were always well provided, but it soon proved to be a chasteningly one-sided encounter and unless the schiltron was already in disorder the English cavalry invariably came off worse.

Indeed in looking at the relative effectiveness of pikemen and cavalrymen, the conclusion has to be that it was no contest. In theory a heavily armed knight should have no trouble whatever in riding down any number of infantrymen, but a formation of pikemen six ranks deep will quite literally present a veritable hedge of about a dozen spear-points, which a horse will invariably ‘refuse’. A good rider might be still able to force a well schooled mount forward, but not with sufficient momentum to seriously disrupt the formation – as a surprising number of English knights time and again discovered the hard way.

A far more effective way of stopping the schiltrons soon proved to be the English longbow. Although the Scots also employed longbowmen they were never as effective as their southern counterparts, but it is important to note the near uniqueness of the English article. It is all too easy to see him as a humble peasant bringing down the mighty chivalry of France at Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt, but in reality he was a well trained and equipped professional soldier. He had to be, for archery was certainly not a part-time occupation. Mastering a yew bow with a draw-weight of some 100lb required long training from boyhood and constant practice thereafter. He had to be in superb physical condition, well fed and possessed of sufficient time to dedicate to developing and maintaining his skill. For that reason archers were drawn from amongst the sons of yeoman farmers and they expected, and received, high wages commensurate with their services.

Those services at their most basic level boiled down not to displaying individual feats of marksmanship, but upon laying down a heavy indirect fire upon the target; shooting rapidly into the air in order to create an arrow storm which dropped with considerable velocity on to the schiltrons from above, sowing death and dismay on the unarmoured men in the rear ranks rather than the better protected men in the front.

For the Scots then, winning battles meant attacking, marching forward and then maintaining the momentum of the assault long enough to break the enemy formations in front, while conversely for the English it was all too often a matter of simply standing their ground and shooting down enough Scots to stop them.


The Mongol Invasion of Hungary

Andrew II died on 21 September 1235. Two years earlier he had lost his second wife, Yolande de Courtenay, sister of Robert and Baldwin II, Latin emperors of Constantinople. Although nearing sixty, he contracted a third marriage with Beatrice, the young daughter of the marquis of Este. Upon Andrew’s death, the widow, who was already pregnant, considered it advisable to flee the country, and it was abroad that she gave birth to a son, Stephen, father of Andrew III, the last king of the dynasty.

Béla IV (1235–1270) had already become known for his conservative views. Between 1228 and 1231, as a younger king, he had taken serious measures to reverse his father’s ‘useless and superfluous perpetual grants’; but at that time his father had often prevented his decisions from being put into effect. Now, as king, he began his reign by expelling or imprisoning his father’s principal counsellors and confiscating their estates. Palatine Denis, who was held to be more responsible than anyone else for what had happened during Andrew II’s reign, was blinded. Béla also made efforts to restore the kingdom to the state it had been during the time of his revered grandfather. As a first step he ordered that the barons should henceforth stand during meetings of the royal council, having their seats burnt as a symbolic act. He also ordered that all those with grievances should submit these, by written petition, to the office of the judge royal in order that their cases might be examined. Only the most important cases would be placed before the council. However, Béla’s foremost aim was to put an end to the dissolution of the kingdom’s castle organisation, so he ordered a careful census of what remained of it and, in order to swell the dangerously diminished stock of royal estates, he resorted once again to the rescinding of his father’s land grants. All these measures bore witness to the king’s determination to interpret royal power as being almost absolute; and, indeed, they seemed to reinforce royal authority for a short time. The Italian Rogerius, canon of Oradea and later archbishop of Split, an astute contemporary who described in his Carmen miserabile the story of the Mongol invasion, was of another opinion. He thought that Béla’s actions had provoked ‘hatred’ between the king and his subjects, leading to a level of tension that he saw as the main reason for the catastrophe that was to follow.

It was at this time that the mysterious ‘eastern’ Hungarians became involved for a moment in the history of their western relatives. In the tenth century it was still recalled that the Hungarians had been cut into two by the attack of the Pechenegs in about 895 and that one part of them had remained in the East. This episode seems later to have been forgotten, and the existence of these distant relatives only became known again via the conversion of Cumania. Prompted by hints provided by a missionary, a Friar Julian and three other Dominicans left for the East in 1235 in order to find the lost Hungarians. Following the instruction of the chronicles, the Dominicans looked for them first in ‘Scythia’, that is, around the sea of Azov, but the eastern Hungarians were finally found in Bashkiria, along the River Volga, in a land called Magna Hungaria by Friar Julian. By the time he encountered them, all his companions had died. It was there that Julian realised the danger posed by the Mongol expansion, and as soon as he had arrived home he informed his king of it. In 1237 a new mission was dispatched, this time with the aim of converting the pagan Hungarians, but it had to stop at Suzdal, for in the meantime Khan Batu’s troops had begun their westward movement and had swept away the Hungarians’ eastern relatives for ever.

Mongol pressure led to the first migration of the Cumans into Hungary. In 1237 Prince Kuthen asked for his people’s admission, promising that they would become good Hungarian subjects and adopt the Roman Catholic faith. Regarding the Cumans as potentially useful allies against the Mongols, as well as against his own subjects, Béla settled them on the Great Plain, but their arrival only deepened the crisis in Hungary. The king was overwhelmed with complaints that the Cumans had violated women and disregarded property rights. There was little he could do to prevent these transgressions, but was nevertheless accused of bias in favour of ‘his Cumans’.

In the meantime the Mongols arrived on the scene. Kiev fell in December 1240 and in the spring of 1241 the Mongol armies set out for Hungary. The right wing crossed Poland and, having defeated Henry, duke of Silesia at Legnica on 9 April, invaded the kingdom of Hungary from the north. The left wing pushed through the passes of the Carpathians from the south. The main army, led by Batu in person, aimed the very heart of the kingdom. On 12 March they broke through the defensive works of the pass of Vorota and defeated Palatine Denis Tomaj. Five days later Vác was plundered by their vanguard.

Few realised the seriousness of the danger. While the royal army was gathering near Pest and the Mongols were advancing with a speed that only nomadic horsemen could attain, a riot broke out against the Cumans who were accused of complicity with the enemy. The crowd slaughtered Kuthen and his retinue, while his enraged people left the royal camp and marched away, doing as much damage as they could. Nevertheless, even without the Cumans, the Mongols still thought that the Hungarian army outnumbered them. Béla confidently marched eastwards and met Batu near Muhi on the River Sajó. It was there that took place the battle which was to be greatest military catastrophe experienced by medieval Hungary prior to 1526.

The Hungarian troops took position on the plain, surrounded by their carts. According to Batu, they ‘closed themselves in a narrow pen in the manner of sheep’, which made effective defence impossible. By dawn the Mongols had crossed the river above and below the Hungarian camp, encircled it and killed by archery all those who could not escape. The very best of the Hungarian army perished, including the palatine, the judge royal and both archbishops along with other bishops and barons. Béla’s brother, Coloman, was severely wounded and died soon after in Slavonia. Although the Mongols did their best to catch him, Béla managed to escape, and a number of nobles were later rewarded for helping him with fresh horses. He asked Frederick of Austria for help, but the duke preferred to take advantage of the situation and forced Béla to cede three counties. From Austria the king fled to Slavonia, and continued to send letters to the West asking for help. But all was in vain, for Gregory IX and Frederick II, whose support he might have hoped for, were heavily engaged in fighting each other.

In fact the help could not have arrived in time, for the Mongol storm subsided as quickly as it had arrived. In the beginning of 1242 the invaders crossed the frozen Danube and took Esztergom with the exception of the castle. They chased Béla as far as Trogir in Dalmatia, but did not have time to lay siege to the city. The news came that the Great Khan, Ögödey, had died at the end of 1241, and Batu wanted to be present at the election of his successor. In March the Mongol army withdrew from the country, killing and taking thousands of captives en route. ‘In this year’, noted an Austrian annalist under the year 1241, ‘the kingdom of Hungary, which had existed for 350 years, was destroyed by the army of the Tatars.


The destruction caused by the Mongols during the course of a single year is hardly imaginable. They carried off thousands of captives, and what they left behind was vividly described by Rogerius, who had been a captive of theirs but managed to escape with some of his companions. For a week they wandered in Transylvania from village to village ‘without meeting anyone’, guided by church towers and living on roots. When they finally arrived in Alba Iulia ‘they found nothing but the corpses and skulls of those slaughtered by the invaders’. The spectacle must have been the same wherever the enemy had passed, and even many decades later villages throughout the kingdom were found to have been uninhabited ‘since the time of the Mongols’. The fields could not be tilled while the enemy was there and the unburied corpses caused the spread of epidemics. Consequently, there followed in 1243 a horrible famine, which ‘took more victims than the pagans before’, according to an Austrian contemporary.

The number of casualties has been disputed, but there is no doubt that the invasion led to something of a demographic catastrophe. Some scholars put the loss, probably with exaggeration, at about 50 per cent of the population (Gy. Györffy), but even the most prudent estimates do not go below 15 or 20 per cent (J. Szücs). The disaster can certainly be compared to the Black Death, which was to strike the West a century later, and its consequences were of the same importance. The trauma caused by the Mongol attack itself prompted a series of comprehensive political reforms, but its indirect social effects were even more significant. Strange as it may seem, the cataclysm speeded up the process of transformation that had begun in the reign of Andrew II. The next few decades saw spectacular changes that transformed the general outlook and social structure of the kingdom profoundly and enduringly.

The Transdanubian region where the invaders spent only a couple of months was relatively spared, but the Great Plain, which had borne the Mongol presence for a whole year, was devastated. Archaeological excavations have shown that in the region of Orosháza, east of Szeged, 31 out of 43 villages disappeared for ever. In the immediate outskirts of Cegléd, eight ruined churches were in later centuries to serve as reminders of the villages that must once have stood around them. In the late Middle Ages many deserted places still bore the name of a patron saint, showing that they had been inhabited in earlier times. It has been demonstrated that medieval place names ending with the word egyház (‘church’, as in the names of the modern towns Nyíregyháza and Kiskunfélegyháza) also referred to an abandoned church. Obviously not all the deserted localities should be attributed to the Mongol destruction. The abandonment of settlements must have been as common in Hungary as elsewhere in Europe, and the apparent disappearance of many villages that had been mentioned before 1241 was probably due to a change of name. Nevertheless, it is clear that the consequences of the Mongol invasion were grave indeed. It is a significant fact that all of the 40 Hungarian monasteries that are known to have disappeared at this time lay in the area that was affected by the invaders, 35 being on the Great Plain and the remainder in the adjacent part of Fejér county.

The profound transformation in the network of settlements on the Great Plain should be seen, on the whole, as a consequence of the Mongol invasion. Even today this part of Hungary is characterised by towns and large villages, with each having an extensive area belonging to it, while a dense network of much smaller settlements is more typical elsewhere. The lands belonging to the abandoned settlements on the Great Plain were taken over by the survivors and used as pastures. In this way, the general destruction in the thirteenth century can be seen as a prerequisite for the spectacular boom in horse and cattle breeding in the following period.

No less fatal for the whole of eastern Hungary was the simultaneous collapse of eastern European commerce. An initial blow had been dealt by the sack of Constantinople in 1204, for as a consequence the main commercial route that led through the Balkans lost its importance. Flourishing towns like Bač and Kovin, which had hitherto lived off the trade along this route, soon declined to the status of insignificant villages. However, the final blow was brought about by the Mongol destruction of Kiev in 1240.

It seems that, until that date, eastern Hungary had been a flourishing region. It was not, of course, more civilised than the western half of the kingdom, but it had certainly developed dynamically. Among the evidence for this are thousands of pennies of Friesach dating from Andrew II’s reign that have been found along the route leading to Kiev, but not elsewhere. They were probably buried at the time of the Mongol attack. The earliest known royal privilege that contained liberties for a community of peasant settlers was granted in 1201 by King Emeric to Walloons who came to the royal forest of Sárospatak. The village they founded, later to be called Olaszi (now Bodrogolaszi), lay along the route towards Kiev. The earliest urban privilege we know of was accorded by Andrew II in 1230 to the German ‘guests’ (hospites) of Satu Mare. The fact that Galicia remained a target of Hungarian foreign policy until about the same time was probably not unrelated to its economic importance. The route to Galicia led through the passes of the north-eastern Carpathians, so the king and his court must have been frequent visitors to the region. After the destruction of Kiev, commerce with the East virtually ceased to exist and the region quickly became marginalised, from the economic as well as the political point of view. Užhorod, a ‘great and flourishing town’ in the time of Idrisi, was not to recover from the blow until modern times. The same could be said of many other centres in the region, which henceforth would experience a royal visit no more than once a century.


The military defeat brought about a radical change in Béla IV’s political outlook. In the first place, it clearly indicated the necessity of constructing strong fortresses. Many of the early earth and timber castles had probably been abandoned by the time of the invasion, while those still in use were destroyed by the invaders. Apart from the walled cities of Esztergom and Székesfehérvár, there were only a few fortified monasteries and stone castles that were able to resist the Mongols. The most spectacular change of the years following the invasion was, therefore, the rapid spread of stone-built castles.

Béla completely abandoned the old principle according to which the erection and administration of fortresses was a royal prerogative. Immediately after the Mongols had left the country he initiated a large-scale programme with the aim of adopting the type of stone castle that had already become common in the West. The policy of lavish land-grants was renewed. Béla, as he himself put it, was prompted by his royal office ‘not to reduce but to enlarge’ his grants. Both the castle-building programme and the creation of a knightly army were dependent on the lords receiving huge parcels of land, from the revenues of which they could construct and maintain castles. The king himself began such construction on the royal demesne, and simultaneously permitted others to do the same on their own estates. The first known authorisation for a private person to build a castle was issued in 1247, and by the time of Béla’s death about a hundred new fortifications stood throughout the kingdom, ready to face a new invasion. They were held by bishops, lay lords, as well as the king and the queen.

The most important new castles lay mainly in the royal forests and were erected by the king himself. Good examples are Spišský hrad and Šarišský hrad. The castle of Visegrád, perched on a hill above the great bend of the Danube north of Budapest, was built by Queen Mary to be the centre of the forest of Pilis. The fortifications erected by nobles, often called ‘towers’, were more modest constructions. They normally consisted of a massive tower, sometimes supplemented by a palace and a chapel, and surrounded by a stone wall, the whole site occupying no more than an acre. During the first decades they were usually built on inaccessible peaks, often in a remote mountain region, clearly indicating that they were intended to serve not as residences but as refuges for the owner and his family in case of danger. The outcome of the programme set in motion by Béla and continued by his immediate successors can still be seen. All over the Carpathian basin there are hundreds of castles great and small, often rebuilt or enlarged later and now lying mostly in ruins, that have nuclei dating back to the second half of the thirteenth century.

Another military implication of the invasion was that there was a pressing need to modernise the army. The bulk of the king’s army continued to consist of the castle warriors serving as light cavalry. Although they were unable to afford more than the traditional leather armour, the king tried to increase their number and modernise their equipment. From the 1240s onwards he began to grant small parcels of land in the uninhabited royal forests upon the condition that the grantees equipped a certain number of heavily armoured cavalrymen for the royal army. It was the descendants of these settlers who, by the end of the Middle Ages, had come to form the lesser nobility of the basin of Turc and of the district of the ‘ten-lanced’ (decemlanceatus) nobles of Spis. The king also wanted to increase the number of heavily armoured Western-style knights, and proved to be as generous as his father had been in distributing enormous landed estates among his barons and followers.

In view of the Mongol menace, mounted archers skilled in nomadic warfare were also needed. This military element had hitherto been furnished by the Székely and the Pechenegs, but after the invasion the role of the latter was taken over by the Cumans, whom Béla managed to lure back into his kingdom in 1246. In order to bind them closely to his dynasty, he made his eldest son marry Elisabeth, the daughter of the Cuman prince. He assigned them a territory of their own in those regions of the Great Plain that had recently become uninhabited. One of their groups, later called ‘Major Cumans’, settled east of Szolnok, while the ‘Minor Cumans’ occupied the sandy area between the Danube and the Tisza. It might have been about the same time that a group of nomadic Alans, called jász in Hungarian and, for an unknown reason, Philistines in some Latin sources, also appeared in Hungary. In the early fourteenth century they were allotted a district of their own in Heves county, in the region now called Jászság.

The extensive pastures that the Cumans and Alans found on the Great Plain enabled them to pursue their traditional nomadic life for some time, but within two or three centuries they had become assimilated into the surrounding population. By then their temporary nomadic ‘dwellings’ (descensus) had been transformed into villages, and they had also abandoned their original languages. That of the Cumans, a Turkic language, left no written traces, while that of the Alans is represented by a list of 38 Iranian words scrawled on the back of a legal document from 1422. Both the Cumans and the Alans were directly subjected to the king and, like the Székely or the castle warriors, were expected to perform unlimited military service. Their constant presence in the Hungarian army in all of its wars gave it a peculiarly exotic flavour.


Battle of Tagliacozzo, 23 August 1268


Defeat for Conradin, son of Conrad IV (HRE), the last Hohenstaufen in Sicily. He invaded the kingdom of Sicily with German and Spanish allies in 1267, seeking to make good his claim against Charles of Anjou. Suppporters revolted against Charles in Sicily. The battle was fought in central Italy as Conradin advanced south. Charles took position behind the River Salto. Conradin’s men failed to take the bridge but others crossed further up and attacked the Angevins on the flank. Then the bridge was crossed. Charles recovered by leading a charge with a hidden reserve when many of the enemy, thinking victory theirs, pursued Angevins off the field. He then defeated the returning enemy. It was largely a cavalry battle, a costly victory: `never was victory so bloody, for nearly his whole army had fallen’. Conradin fled but was captured and executed in Naples in October. It ended German Hohenstaufen rule in Sicily, leaving the Angevins in control.

Conradin, the last of the Hohenstaufens, together with Frederick of Baden, was in command of 5-6,000 cavalry, mainly Germans and Italians but also including Castilians as well as Sicilians. He found his road blocked by an opposing force of some 3-5,000 French horse under Charles of Anjou, King of Sicily. The French drew up behind the River Salto in three divisions; two formed into column by a bridge while the third, including Charles himself, was secreted behind a fold in the ground about a mile from the flank. Henry of Cousances, commanding the second column, wore the royal surcoat and bore Charles’s standard in order to trick the enemy in to believing the entire French family was in view. Conradin’s army also drew up in three battles.

The Van, led by Henry of Castile, stormed the bridge, while the second and third, under Calvano Lancia and Conradin respectively, managed to ford the river downstream and then wheeled to attack the flank of the enemy battle. Henry of Cousances was finally slain and the French, badly mauled, broke in flight. The royal standard was seized in the confusion. Conradin held some of his men, but most chased after the French and set about looting their camp. It was now that Charles, having impotently observed the rout of his main force, charged up with his division and scattered the few troops who surrounded Conradin. When the imperial looters saw their commander in flight, they also took to their heels. Henry of Castile managed to rally a number of horsemen and advanced against the Angevins. However, 40 French knights feigned flight to draw out the enemy. As they broke ranks they were attacked by Charles’ battle, while the 40 knights wheeled to strike their flank. Despite a rally, they could not hold off the Angevins, and fled. Conradin, Frederick and Galvano were caught a few weeks later and, like those taken in the battle, were executed. Henry of Castile was imprisoned for 23 years.

Brother of St Louis. He conquered the Norman kingdom of Sicily and ruled it as Charles I from 1266. In 1246 he married Beatrice heiress to Provence. The papacy offered Sicily to Charles against the descendants of Frederick II. He invaded and was crowned in 1266. He defeated Manfred at Benevento and Conradin at Tagliacozzo. He suppressed revolts in Sicily. He developed Mediterranean interests. He took Corfu in 1267 but failed to recover the Byzantine Empire for the Franks. He was involved in St Louis’ crusade to Tunis in 1270. He was crowned King of Jerusalem in 1278 and became Prince of Achaea. He developed interests in northern Italy, becoming Imperial Vicar in Tuscany and Senator of Rome in 1268. He was defeated by the Genoese in 1273, and in 1275 at Roccavione. His greatest setback followed the Sicilian Vespers in 1282 with the French loss of Sicily. His fleet was defeated off Naples by the Genoese in 1284. He died on 7 January and was succeeded by his son Charles II. His descendants ruled in Naples and Hungary.

Son of the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad IV who died in 1254 and descendant of Frederick II, He was named Duke of Swabia, King of the Romans, and King of Sicily from 1254 though his position was challenged by his uncle Manfred. He was named as King of Jerusalem but never ruled there. After the invasion of Sicily by Charles of Anjou, Conradin tried to recover his kingdom in 1268. He was defeated at Tagliacozzo, captured and executed on 29 October.

Battle of Fontenoy June 25, 841



The largest, bloodiest, and most destructive battle of the ninth century began at 6 in the morning on Saturday, June 25, 841, at Fontenoy-en-Puisaye, now a tiny village 22 miles (35 kilometers) south of Auxerre in France. Exactly how many men took part is uncertain. We know that probably between 25,000 and 30,000 were killed and many more injured, which indicates large armies and extreme violence. This battle was fought as part of what German historians call the Brüderkrieg, “brother war.” Emperor Lothar fought on one side against his brother Louis the German and their half-brother Charles the Bald on the other. All were sons of Louis the Pious, and this was just one incident in the long civil war fought between them. The battle signaled the end of any possibility of restoring the unified empire stretching across France, Germany, the Benelux countries, Italy, and northern Spain that the three combatants’ father, Louis the Pious, had inherited from his father, Charlemagne. After the Battle of Fontenoy, the possibility of an ordered state and good government vanished in Western Europe.

The battle didn’t have to end in such bloodshed. According to Nithardus’s reliable Four Books of Histories, Charles and Louis had spent the previous three days negotiating with Lothar, begging him “to remember that they were brothers  . . . [and] asking him ‘to leave the Church of God and the whole Christian people in peace.’” They offered him generous terms. Nithardus, a well-educated public official and soldier in the service of Charles the Bald, says that Lothar equivocated. Pretending to consider Charles and Louis’s pleas, he was actually playing for time, awaiting the arrival of troops under Pippin II of Aquitaine. Once Pippin arrived, Lothar broke off negotiations. So “Louis and Charles rose at dawn, occupied the peak of a mountain [it was actually a low hill] near Lothar’s camp . . . and waited for Lothar’s arrival and the striking of the second hour [6 a.m.]. . . . When both had come they fought a violent battle.”

The actual battlefield was a flat expanse surrounded by low hills. There seem to have been two interrelated fronts, as Charles and Louis attacked Lothar from separate low hills. Leading any of the armies at Fontenoy would have been difficult because tenth-century armies were not the highly organized and disciplined forces with clear lines of authority that we know today. The emperor or king would have been the overall leader, but his armies were made up of diverse units led by local warlords. Unused to cooperation with others, some of whom would have previously been their enemies, warlords would have found it difficult to submit to the king’s instructions. The desire to achieve glory by exhibiting heroics would have been far stronger than any sense of discipline and obedience to the commander. Even though well trained and in good physical condition, the foot soldiers as well as the warlords would have been psyched up to enhance their reputation as warriors.

Tactics in this era were generally consistent from battle to battle. Action would begin with the terrifying war cries of foot soldiers. The core of the infantry was the Heerbann, a kind of trained militia. They usually opened the battle by moving forward in close formation protected by a strong shield wall. Their basic weapon was a long-handled throwing ax. Some wore light armor and used a stabbing sword. When the commander decided the time was right, he would order a mass charge of mounted knights, or any man who could afford a horse. Wearing body armor and carrying a spear as their primary offensive weapon and a shield for defense, the mounted troops usually rode sturdy Barb horses, a strong, wiry breed with a fiery temperament and good turn of speed, ideal for cavalry charges. Large massed cavalry charges would be followed by the kind of mounted hand-to-hand conflict between horsemen with swords that led to many of the injuries and deaths.

The Battle of Fontenoy proceeded indecisively for hours. It wasn’t until about noon that finally a cavalry charge broke through Lothar’s lines. This was followed by the bulk of the slaughter, in which many of the elite of the Frankish nobility were killed. According to the Annals of Saint-Bertin (which was sympathetic to Louis and Charles), “Many were slain on both sides; still more were wounded. Lothar suffered a shameful defeat and fled. The slaughter of fugitives continued . . . until Louis and Charles, aflame with generous feelings, ordered an end to the carnage.”

Nithardus, who fought in the battle, says, “The booty and slaughter were immense and truly astonishing.” According to his telling, Charles and Louis “ceased fighting and plundering and returned to camp . . . to talk over what they ought to do next.” Next day they celebrated Mass, and the bishops who accompanied the armies asked for prayers and a three-day fast for the remission of the sins of both sides. While violent in combat, Frankish foot soldiers were otherwise generally well disciplined, sober, and religious, believing that God was on their side. They were supported by a well-organized commissariat. Accompanying this was a bevy of camp followers, including merchants who supported the army with supplies and brought women who prepared food and did other tasks and who acted as prostitutes when needed. The merchants always defended their supplies, and they were notorious for being drunken, lecherous, and foul-mouthed.

Fontenoy was unlike modern battles. It was not the impersonal, industrial-style modern warfare of World Wars I and II. It was man-to-man, one-on-one combat with long (5-foot, or 1.5-meter) and short (3-foot, or 1-meter) swords, spears, and lances (6 feet, or 2 meters), daggers (6 inches to 1 foot long), and crossbows and hand axes, all weapons that inflicted terrible wounds. Alain Mounier Kuhn has examined many medieval sources describing wounds and has found that more than half were to head, face, and neck. The most effective weapons were lances, swords, and bows and arrows. Body armor seems to have protected the torso, so most injuries were to the upper body, and Kuhn says that many injuries seem to have been sustained when soldiers were unable to defend themselves. It was personal and brutal, kill or be killed. Part of the explanation for this kind of fighting was that people then were much more easily stirred up emotionally, violence was more generally accepted, and, as noted earlier, personal self-control was in short supply. Also, a warrior satisfied his lust for glory by killing, while at the same time believing that God was on his side. And given the nature of the weapons used (with the exception of longbows or crossbows), the only way the warrior could kill someone was up close and personal. Many also died soon afterward of the terrible slashing wounds inflicted, especially in light of ninth-century medicine. For many it would have been better to have been killed outright.

The Italian Wars–Fornovo in July 1495


Charles VIII is attacked, Battle of Fornovo, 6 July 1495.


The first full scale battle of the wars was fought at Fornovo in July 1495. Charles’ triumph in conquering Naples was short-lived. Those internal elements which had contributed to the overthrow of the Aragonese dynasty soon realised that French rule was not a satisfactory alternative, and increasing unrest made the position of Charles’ army a difficult one. The Italian states, with the exception of Florence, which was now permanently committed to the French cause, came together in an alliance to evict the French, and began to receive increasing encouragement from Spain and the Empire. At the end of May, Charles decided to return to France with the core of his army, leaving a skeleton force under Montpensier to defend Naples. The armies of the Italian League began to gather to oppose this return march, but there was still little real political unity, as some thought it best to let the French pass on their way out of Italy rather than risk a confrontation with them. However, the opportunity, as Charles marched northwards with a relatively small army, was too good a one to be missed and Francesco Gonzaga, the Marquis of Mantua, Venetian captain general and commander of the combined army, elected to bring the French to open battle rather than simply hold the Apennine passes against them. The latter course would have involved little risk and could well have led either to the eventual surrender of the army as it was cut off from its base, or at least to a hazardous transhipment by sea. It would have been a strategy very much in the Italian tradition, but Gonzaga felt both sufficiently confident and sufficiently determined to achieve the personal glory of defeating the French, to go for a crushing victory.

The French retreated along the route they had come in the previous year. This meant crossing the Apennines between Sarzana and Parma by the Cisa Pass, and coming down into the valley of the Taro at Fornovo. Here, below the town where the valley widened out, the huge Italian army was waiting for them in a camp fortified with a ditch and a palisade. Gonzaga described his army as ‘the finest and most powerful that has been seen in Italy for many years’. It numbered about 25,000 men of whom about 5,000 were in Milanese service and the remainder in that of Venice. Two thousand two hundred heavy cavalry lances of five men each formed the core of the army, but there were also about 2,000 light cavalry, mostly stradiots, and 8,000 professional infantry. Four thousand Venetian militia had also arrived, although the bulk of the militia forces were still on the march, as was most of the Venetian heavy artillery. The French numbered about 900 lances of heavy cavalry, 3,000 Swiss infantry, 600 archers of the royal bodyguard and 1,000 artillerymen, a total of about 10,000 men.

When it reached Fornovo, the French army crossed the Taro and began to move down the left bank of the river in front of the Italian camp. Its left flank was thus protected by the hills and its right by the river. In the circumstances the French not surprisingly expected the main assault on them to come from straight up the valley, and to counter this the Swiss marched in a tight square close behind the cavalry advance guard. Two further large columns of cavalry completed the order of the march with the King commanding the centre himself and the rear led by Gaston de Foix. The baggage train laden down with loot from the campaign was placed towards the rear and close to the line of the hills; the artillery moved on the right flank along the river bank.

The Italian battle plan was drawn up by Ridolfo Gonzaga, uncle of the Marquis and himself a veteran of the Burgundian wars, with just these dispositions of the enemy in mind. The tactical conception was masterly, although the details for its execution were over-elaborate. Basically the plan was to block the French advance with a holding force and launch the main attack across the Taro on the flanks of the centre and rear columns. This would have the effect of pinning the enemy against the hills, splitting his extended line of march, and destroying the columns in detail. To carry out this operation the Italian army was divided into nine divisions. The Count of Caiazzo, with the main body of the Milanese cavalry and supported by a mixed infantry force and a large cavalry reserve, was to cross the Taro in front of the French and engage the vanguard. Gonzaga himself with his personal troops was to cross in the centre, engage the French centre, and split it off from the vanguard. Bernardino Fortebraccio had command of the third prong of the attack, made up of the leading Venetian cavalry squadrons, and was to attack the rearguard. In close support to Gonzaga and Fortebraccio came the cream of the Venetian infantry, and then in reserve two further columns of cavalry. The first of these comprised the lanze spezzate known as the Colleoneschi and commanded by the son-in-law of the legendary Colleoni, who had died nearly twenty years earlier. The second reserve column was led by Antonio da Montefeltro, the illegitimate son of that other leading figure of the preceding generation, Federigo. While all these divisions were attacking directly from across the Taro, the stradiots were to pass right around the rear of the enemy and attack the vanguard downhill, thus causing further confusion and preventing stragglers from escaping into the hills. Finally a strong guard of cavalry and militia was left in the camp.

The intelligent use of reserves has sometimes been described as one of the distinguishing features of modern military tactics, and the concept was certainly one that had been widely explored by the condottieri. But in this case there was too much emphasis on reserves. Whether this was because Gonzaga had more men than he knew what to do with or whether it was a sort of natural caution is hard to say. However, part of the intention was clearly to prevent the reserves being committed too early or all at once, and the leaders of the various reserve divisions had strict orders not to enter the fray until called forward by Ridolfo Gonzaga and no one else.

The battle opened in mid-afternoon with a brief artillery duel across the Taro. But heavy rain had dampened the powder and the guns on both sides were more than usually ineffective. The rain had also swollen the river suddenly, and this was seriously to affect the Italian plan. When the signal to advance was given the three spearhead columns began to cross the river. The Count of Caiazzo attacked the van with indifferent success; his infantry were badly cut up by the Swiss who outnumbered them, and elements of his troops were soon fleeing towards Parma. However, he achieved his task of keeping the French vanguard occupied. The stradiots also reached their first objective and harried the French left flank. But when two of their leaders were killed, they drew off and began to plunder the baggage train, which their encircling movement had placed at their mercy. In the centre Gonzaga found it impossible to cross the river where he had intended and moved further upstream to cross close to Fortebraccio’s troops. This led to delay and some confusion; but above all it meant that instead of striking the gap between the French centre and the already committed vanguard, he crossed between the centre and the rearguard, thus exposing his flank to the full weight of the French centre. Here in the space of less than an hour the battle was decided. The element of surprise was lost by the delays, and Gonzaga and Fortebraccio found their squadrons depleted by the difficulties of crossing the river. They bore the full brunt of the counter-attacks of the French and no reserves came forward, as Ridolfo Gonzaga was mortally wounded at the height of the battle. Thus more than half the Italian army never got into action at all. The heavily mauled divisions of Gonzaga and Fortebraccio gave almost as good as they got; the two leaders particularly fighting with exceptional gallantry. At one point they came close to capturing Charles, but so furious a battle could not last for long. Both armies drew back to regroup, and then approaching darkness prevented a resumption of fighting.

The outcome of the battle appeared uncertain, and both sides claimed a victory. The French had achieved their aim of opening a road northwards, as they were able to resume their march stealthily the next night. They had inflicted the heavier casualties on Gonzaga’s army which lost over 2,000 men, including a number of captains. The Italians could claim to be the masters of the field as the French drew off, and they captured the French baggage, including Charles’ personal illustrated record of his many amorous conquests. They also took more prisoners. These perhaps, in terms of Italian warfare, were indications of victory; but Fornovo was fought for specific objectives, and Gonzaga failed to achieve his objective; so he can be said in real terms to have lost the battle. But he lost it not because the Swiss infantry and French artillery were invincible; neither of these elements played much part. Nor did he lose it because the French fought better or with more determination. He did not even lose it because a part of his army got out of hand, notably the stradiots, and another part, the Milanese, did not press their attack (perhaps on instructions from Milan), although these were the excuses given for the lack of success. Three factors really contributed to the Italian failure. First there was the sudden rising of the Taro which badly disrupted the Italian plan and caused last minute confusion. Secondly both Francesco Gonzaga and his uncle elected to lead the army, and thus no one was really in a position to direct the whole battle. Gonzaga, although he showed great personal bravery and many of the ideal qualities of a subordinate commander, had not appreciated that so large and complex an army needed to be directed from behind.

This was by no means a typical Italian mistake; neither Braccio nor Sforza would ever have allowed themselves to make it. Finally the sheer size of the army and complexity of the battle plan frustrated success. This sudden attempt to translate tactics which could work well with a small army used to cooperation to a large composite army which had come together for the first time, was bound to run into difficulties. More traditional tactics would probably have won the day by sheer weight of numbers, which is a curious reflection on the theory that Italian methods were outdated and superseded.

Fornovo was one of the two major battles in the whole period between 1494 and 1530 when a largely Italian army met the invaders in the open field. It is therefore one of the few occasions when one can seek to assess the relative merits of Italian and ultramontane military methods. For the rest of the time the political disunity of Italy and political weakness of most of the states made combination against the invaders and a real trial of strength impossible. Italians fought, sometimes distinguished themselves, and occasionally disgraced themselves, on both sides in the wars, but the warfare was increasingly becoming international rather than Italian. It only remains therefore to analyse briefly the Italian contributions to the changes which were taking place during these protracted wars.

Durazzo 1081

Varangian guard

Varangian Guard


Norman Infantry

Battle of Dyrrhachium (1081)

Battle of Dyrrhachium (October 18, 1081): 1,300 Norman cavalry under the Duke of Apulia Robert Guiscard, were initially repulsed by the Varangian Guards. The Varangian Guard were in turn routed by a counterattack to their flanks by Norman infantry, fled to the sanctuary of a nearby church which the Norman forces burnt down. The Norman knights then charged the Byzantine line again, and caused a widespread rout. First recorded instance of a successful and decisive ‘shock’ cavalry charge.


Dyrrhachium (Durazzo to Italians, Epidamnos to Greeks) was the capital of Illyria, and is modern Durres in Albania. Robert Guiscard and his son Bohemond besieged it in 1081 in the Norman attempt at Mediterranean expansion against Byzantium. Guiscard left Otranto with a fleet and army in May 1081. A Venetian fleet allied to the Byzantines to defeat the Normans in June, after the Normans suffered damage in a storm. Guiscard could not blockade from the sea as intended. The siege was an attempt by the Normans to gain safety within. The defence was led by George Palaeologus. The Normans built a belfry, countered by a wooden tower and later destroyed by fire. The defenders used catapults, pitch and Greek Fire. The Normans suffered illness and starvation. Alexius I Comnenus came to the relief. The battle was fought on 18 October. Against the odds the Normans won through using archers and cavalry against the Varangian Guard (including Anglo-Saxon exiles). Guiscard’s wife Sigelgaita participated in the ensuing battle, brandishing a spear and helping to rally the troops. Alexius was wounded in the forehead but escaped to Ochrid. The Byzantines retreated and Dyrrhachium surrendered on 21 February 1082. Guiscard returned to Italy. Bohemond continued to Larissa where he was defeated by the Byzantines.

Oman, p. 164, reports in detail on this battle because he sees in it the last engagement for 300 years in which actual foot troops like those of Harold at Hastings, and not dismounted knights or simple militia or marksmen, played a role, the last battle between the Anglo-Saxon battle-axe and the Norman lance supported by the bow.

Robert Guiscard had crossed the Adriatic and was besieging Dyrrhachium (Durazzo). Emperor Alexius moved up with a relief army that also included the Varangians who were in the service of Byzantium. Anna Komnena, 6: 6, describes these men who carried double-edged swords or battle-axes on their shoulders, as well as shields. She recounts that they dismounted from their horses and attacked the Normans in a closed formation. Initially, she reports, they had also thrown the Normans back, even though they did not wait until the mounted archers had worked the enemy over. But in this action they had become separated from the rest of the Byzantine army and were overcome by the Norman horsemen.

This description does not correspond as closely to the conduct of the thanes at Hastings as it does to the ancient German wedge. For the thanes at Hastings sought to win in a purely defensive action, while the Varangians at Dyrrhachium attacked like the ancient Germans.

But why did they dismount from their horses? The result shows that they were too bold in their attack. Perhaps it was only a question of insufficient cooperation with the other units of the Byzantine army. But since we are not clearly informed on this point and Anna Komnena is not such a reliable source, this battle can hardly be evaluated from the viewpoint of military history.

The other sources, too, which report on this battle, particularly the Gesta Roberti Wis-cardi (Deeds of Robert Guiscard), Mon. Germ. SS., 9. 369 ff-, do not provide the answers to those questions.


Prince from 1098 through the First Crusade, the son of Robert Guiscard and Alberada. Anna Comnena described the impact on the Byzantine court (and herself) of the tall, muscular, stooping, blond Norman. He fought for his father against the Byzantines in the unsuccessful attack on Albania in 1081. His younger brother Roger received the Apulian lands, and Bohemond inherited little. On the First Crusade, leading the Normans from Sicily, he fought at Dorylaeum and Antioch. The author of the Gesta Francorum was probably in his retinue. Bohemond founded the principality of Antioch despite Byzantine claims, but by the Treaty of Devol in 1108 recognised Byzantine overlordship. He was captured by the Turks near Aleppo in 1100 and imprisoned in Anatolia until ransomed in 1103. He was defeated by the Turks at Harran in 1104. He returned to the west in 1106, seeking reinforcements, and married Constance daughter of Philip I of France. With a new force Bohemond besieged Durazzo from 1107 but failed to take it. He returned to Italy and died in Apulia. His nephew Tancred and then his own son Bohemond II succeeded to Antioch.


Emperor from 1081, restoring much imperial territory. He was emperor during the First Crusade and the hero of his daughter Anna Comnena’s Alexiad. His wife was Irene. He commanded armies before becoming emperor and was an able diplomat. He succeeded through a coup against Nikephorus III. He faced attacks on Byzantine territory by the Italian Normans under Robert Guiscard, including an attempt on Durazzo that was held off. He defeated the Pechengs at Levunium. He employed Turkish mercenaries and allied with Venice, to whom he granted privileges. Alexius recovered territory in Europe. He rebuilt the navy, regaining Crete and Cyprus. He manoeuvred the Franks on the First Crusade through his territory and into Asia Minor. As a result of the Crusade’s success he recovered much of Anatolia from the Turks. He received some recognition from the new crusading states. His son John II succeeded.




Irish Galloglass

“galloglasses” (gallóglaigh, troops of heavy-armored Scots from the Western Isles). The first galloglasses arrived in the mid-thirteenth century, but their numbers were reinforced by political exiles from Scotland after the Bruce wars. They too were billeted on peasant farmers in the Gaelic lordships, an exaction known as “coyne and livery.”



Conor O’Dea of Thomond and a small contingent of Munstermen held the ford of the Fergus river against an advancing Anglo-Irish force under Richard de Clare. De Clare heedlessly rushed across the river with some of his knights, only to be surrounded and killed. De Clare’s main force then crossed over and surrounded the O’Deas in turn, but were thrown into disarray by the arrival of Irish reinforcements and routed.

The armies of the Irish chieftains over the same period became increasingly professional. Instead of relying on musters of their own subjects, chiefs employed bands of “kernes” (ceithirne, ceatharnaigh; light-armed native Irish mercenaries) and “galloglasses” (gallóglaigh, troops of heavy-armored Scots from the Western Isles). The first galloglasses arrived in the mid-thirteenth century, but their numbers were reinforced by political exiles from Scotland after the Bruce wars. They too were billeted on peasant farmers in the Gaelic lordships, an exaction known as “coyne and livery.” The chieftains themselves, with their families and household guards, formed the cavalry, wearing suits of mail and helmets, and armed with long spears. A series of major Irish victories in the fourteenth century demonstrated their effectiveness: in 1318, at Dysert O’Dea, where the death of Lord Richard de Clare and the subsequent failure of his heirs ensured lasting independence for the Ua Briain lordship of Thomond; in 1346, when Brian Mór Mac Mathgamna (MacMahon) of Monaghan defeated the Anglo-Irish of Louth, killing four hundred of them; or in 1374, when Niall Mór Ua Néill defeated and killed the Seneschal of Ulster at Downpatrick. However, real territorial gains for the Irish chiefs came from a gradual war of attrition on the borders of the colony, resulting in considerable expansion for Ua Conchobair Failge (O’Conor Faly) along the southern borders of Meath and Kildare, for Ua Broin and Ua Tuathail (O’Byrne and O’Toole) in Wicklow, for Mac Murchada Caemánach (MacMurrough Kavanagh) in Wexford and Carlow, and for Ua Cerbaill (O’Carroll) in Tipperary. In Ulster, the murder of Earl William de Burgh in 1333, and the absenteeism of his heirs, led to virtual independence for the chiefs there, but in Connacht and Desmond, or south Munster, the Anglo-Irish Burkes and Fitzgeralds respectively dominated the local chiefs, although the English government itself had little control in those areas.