“Battle of Sluys – 24 June, 1340. Naval battle between an English fleet, under King Edward lll and a French fleet under Hugues Quieret, Admiral of France” – Medieval naval battle – ship to ship conflict was acted upon by boarding the enemy vessel and going into melee by Peter Dennis

The first stages of the Hundred Years’ War were marked by an ongoing battle at sea between French and English privateers, pirates and merchants, each side hoping to profit and deny valuable supplies to the enemy. But already in 1338 Philip VI made use of a larger royal navy, mostly composed of galleys hired from Genoa. He launched several devastating raids against southern English ports, partly destroying several towns including Portsmouth, Southampton and Hastings. These raids effectively cut King Edward III’s lines of communication, including supplies, between his continental possessions and England, and also destroying and capturing a number of ships, including Edward III’s own great ships Cog Edward and Christopher: Philip and his advisors went on from there to organize a major invasion of England in 1339, only to have a storm scatter his fleet and spoil their plans.

From that point, France’s naval position rapidly went downhill. The Genoese mercenaries enjoyed a series of impressive successes, but started fighting among themselves after their own admiral, Ayton Doria, tried to cheat them out of their pay. The oarsmen mutinied, seized several of the galleys and headed for home, losing Philip VI two thirds of his battle fleet at one blow. By the end of 1339 the rest of the Italian oarsmen had been sent home. That left France with 22 royal galleys of its own, but an English raid on Boulogne early in 1340 burned 18 of these where they had been laid up for the winter.

Without this elite fighting force, the French seem to have lost confidence and in early 1340 decided on a defensive policy, blocking the English invasion fleet’s access to the Flemish coast where they intended to land safely, since Flanders was England’s ally. The French task could be accomplished with armed merchantmen, the ‘Great Army of the Sea’, as it was grandiosely named. It consisted of up to 200 ships, the largest grouping that could be found and therefore probably mostly cogs. The cost to equip them and hire crews was paid for with a heavy tax on Normandy.

In the meantime, an English invasion fleet was gathered. Made up of about 160 ships, most of them were privately owned and pressed into service to the crown. This fleet, commanded by Edward III in person, sailed for Flanders on 22 June 1340. They apparently did not expect to encounter the French fleet at the mouth of the River Zwyn two days later, the French determined to keep the English from landing upriver. At this stage, Edward had no choice but to go forwards. A retreat could easily have turned into a massacre, French ships able to cut off the English one by one as they spread out on the open sea, not to mention what a crushing blow a retreat would have been to King Edward’s honour.

Battle of Sluys, 1340

The Battle of Sluys began on 24 June 1340. The French decided on a battle strategy that suggests the French admirals, Hugh Quieret and Nicholas Behuchat, did not trust their ships’ fighting capabilities and above all feared the English slipping by and landing their army. So the French blocked the mouth of the river completely, chaining the ships together in three long lines across the shallow estuary, about 5km (3 miles) wide at its entrance.

Apparently the most experienced of the French ship commanders advised against remaining in such a confined space, without room to manoeuvre and with the wind blowing into the mouth of the river, but the admirals did not listen. The chronicler Froissart tells that the ships, fortified with wooden fighting platforms, looked like a row of castles. The French strategy suggests either extremely poor seamanship, lack of information about the English fleet coming against them or reckless over-confidence. Some historians have questioned whether the French could really have chained their ships together; this practice of ‘bridling’ was described by the historian Livy and maybe medieval chroniclers were again borrowing from the past instead of observing the present. For sailing ships in a confined space affected by the tide, such a tactic was insane. Indeed, the French ships soon found themselves in difficulty, drifting east and fouling each other. The ships appear to have been cast loose at this point, but the French found themselves in serious disorder just as the English began to attack, taking advantage of wind and tide and not starting their final approach until early afternoon when the sun would no longer be in their eyes. The French were trying to edge west again when the battle began, adding to the confusion.

The English approached in three lines, with the largest ships to the front, including Edward III’s own flagship, the cog Thomas. Height was once again an advantage, and the English had the manpower to exploit it to its fullest – a large army of men-at-arms and archers intended for the land army. Although often forgotten by chivalry enthusiasts, it was this Battle at Sluys, rather than the more famous Crecy and Poitiers, that showed for the first time the devastating effectiveness of the English longbow. The French marines were for the most part crossbowmen. They were much slower than their English equivalents in those crucial moments as the ships closed, and besides were probably under strength, since the French had lost most of their Italian mercenary crossbowmen. The French did what they could to compensate, including lashing boats full of stones to their masts and posting men at the masthead to hurl the rocks on enemy heads. By that time, however, many crews would have been too thinned to fight effectively.

The fighting was hot. Edward III himself was shot through the thigh with a crossbow bolt, and fighting raged from about 3.00 PM until nearly 10.00 PM (with two ships continuing to fight until the next dawn). But the English seem to have massacred the first French line in fairly quick order, gradually working to the second line, which was so tightly clustered together that the ships could not manoeuvre. A large force of Flemings, mustered on the west bank, then fell on the third line from behind, besides killing any Frenchmen who managed to struggle to the shore. The result was a great English victory. No quarter was given, the English slaughtering the crews of captured ships. Between 16,000 and 18,000 French fighting men died that day. Among the dead were both admirals. Behuchat was killed in the fighting; Quieret was captured to be ransomed, but when it was discovered that he had commanded the French attacks against the southern English ports, Edward III ordered him hanged from the mast of his own ship. Not long after the victory, King Edward had his gold coinage redesigned to show himself enthroned on a ship.


Twenty-one years after King Edward I’s accession, there arose a naval war between France and England. In 1286, Edward was the first who appointed a person to the office of Admiral of the English Seas, as we find William de Leybourne styled “Admiral de le Mer du dit Roy d’Angleterre,” at an ordinance made at Bruges concerning the conduct of the ships of England and Flanders in that year; and about the same time first mention is made of an admiral of France, named Florent de varenne, whose successor, Enguerrand, was “Admiral de la Flotte du Roi Philippe le Hardi,” yet never was the sea more infested by piracy than in 1293, the period referred to. The feeble execution of the laws had given licence to all kinds of men; and a general appetite for rapine, followed by revenge for it, seemed to infect the mariners and fighting merchant-traders of the time, and tempted them on the smallest provocation to seek redress by immediate and merciless retaliation on the aggressors.

It chanced that a Norman and an English vessel met near the coast of Bayonne (De Mezeray has it Guienne), and both having occasion for water, sent their boats ashore at the same time, and, as misfortune would have it, to the same spring, upon which there immediately ensued a quarrel for precedence. In the squabble a Norman drew his dagger and attempted to stab an English seaman, who grappling with him, hurled him to the ground. The Norman was said to have fallen on his own dagger; be that as it may, the man was slain, and from this petty scuffle between two obscure seamen about a cask of water, there grew a bloody war between two great nations, involving half of Europe in the quarrel. The mariners of the Norman ship laid their complaints before the King of France, who, without caring to inquire into the matter, bade them “take revenge, and trouble him no more about it.” Though more legal than usual in applying to the crown, they required but this hint to proceed to immediate outrage.

Meeting an English ship in the Channel, they boarded her, and hanging some of the crew, together with some dogs, from the yard-arms, in presence of their shipmates, bade them inform their countrymen that “vengeance was now taken for the blood of the Norman killed at Bayonne.”

This injury, accompanied by circumstances so insulting, was speedily resented by all the mariners of the Cinque Ports, who, without the empty formality of appealing to King Edward, retaliated by committing precisely the same barbarities on all French vessels without distinction; and the French in return preyed upon the ships of Edward’s subjects, Gascon as well as English: and soon armed piratical craft of all kinds swarmed in the Channel and Bay of Biscay in pursuit of each other, the sovereigns of both countries remaining perfectly indifferent the while. The English formed private associations with the Irish and Dutch seamen, the French with the Genoese and Flemings; and the animosities of these lawless spirits became more and more violent.

A fleet of 260 Norman vessels set sail to the south for wine, and in their passage seized all the English ships they met, and hanging or drowning the crews, made spoil of the cargoes, and arrived in triumph at St. Mahé, a port in Bretagne. Filled with fresh fury by this incident, the English ports fitted out a fleet of eighty sail, stronger and better manned, to take revenge. Depredations had now been carried to such a length, that at last the nations agreed on a certain day to decide the dispute with their whole naval strength, and a large empty ship was placed in the Channel midway between the coasts of England and France to mark the spot of the engagement.

On the 14th April, 1293, they met in close battle. Long and obstinate was the engagement, and no quarter was either asked for or given; in the end the French were totally routed, and the -greater part of their ships taken, sunk, or destroyed, and “the majority of their crews perished in the ocean.” It has been alleged that the loss of the French was 15,000 men. If so, it can only be accounted for by the circumstance that the returning Norman fleet was transporting a considerable body of troops from the south.

Matters were now looking serious; and French King Philip IV, enraged by a defeat so murderous and disgraceful, dispatched an envoy to London demanding reparation. He did more, for he cited Edward to appear in his Court of Parliament, as his liege man and vassal, being Duke of Guienne, and having done homage on his knees as such before Philip, at Paris, in 1274. The English king sent his brother; but Philip, dissatisfied with this equivocation, declared him contumacious, and seized his French possessions. On finding himself in something like the same absurd feudal snare he had prepared for the Scots, Edward was exasperated; the more so when he found France making preparations to invade England at a time when his hands were full with his northern neighbours: so, to anticipate any descents on the coast, besides three formidable fleets which were to protect it, he equipped a fourth consisting of above 330 ships, with a body of 7,000 men-at-arms and archers on board, under the command of the Earl of Lancaster, to recover his forfeited duchy of Guienne. He sailed to the mouth of the Garonne, took a town or two, and thence went to Bourdeaux and Bayonne, after the capture of which he died; but all this did not prevent a French fleet of 300 sail, under the command of Matthew de Montmorenci and John de Harcourt, assisted by Thomas de Tuberville, an English traitor, from landing at Dover, and reducing that town to ashes, ere the men of the country rose, and compelled the invaders fly to their ships with considerable loss.

The Royal Navy, a History from the Earliest Times to the Present/Volume 1/Chapter 8 by W. Laird Clowes

In 1294, large English fleets were assembled in the Narrow Seas, one in the North Sea, being under Sir John de Botetort, one in the Channel, being under Sir William de Leybourne, and one, in the Irish Sea, being under a knight named Ormond. [206] On June 26th, the barons of England were ordered to be at Portsmouth by September 1st, to accompany the king to Gascony; and in July Edward himself was at Portsmouth. Meanwhile, wood was hewn for the equipment of above two hundred ships to carry horses; the keepers of all the ports were directed to suffer no man, ship, boat or vessel to quit the kingdom; and John Baliol, King of Scots, who had done homage to Edward in 1292, was enjoined not to allow any ships or men to leave his country for abroad.

The army destined for Gascony consisted of twenty thousand foot soldiers, with five hundred men-at-arms. It sailed from Portmouth on August 1st, but, off the Cornish coast, was dispersed by bad weather and driven into Plymouth, whence it did not sail again until the beginning of October. Entering the Gironde, the fleet appeared about the 28th of the month in the Dordogne before Castilion, which place surrendered at once. Thence the expedition proceeded up the Garonne to St. Macaire, which submitted on the 31st. On the following day the ships anchored off Bourg. On November 8th they were off Blaye, whence they sailed to Bordeaux, where they remained for two days. Failing to reduce it, they again mounted the Garonne to Lieux, where the horses were landed after having been seventeen weeks and some days embarked.

The main expedition was followed by the Earls of Lancaster and Lincoln with reinforcements, probably conveyed in vessels which the Cinque Ports had been ordered to send to Portsmouth by September 8th; but this division did not sail until the spring of 1295. In the interval, in October, 1294, certain goods belonging to

French subjects were directed to be seized and sold and the proceeds paid into the Exchequer.

Sir Henry de Turberville has been mentioned as having played a gallant part in the defeat of the French at the Battle of the South Foreland in 1217. A relative of his took less honourable share in the naval history of the reign of Edward I. This knight, Sir Thomas de Turberville, had been made prisoner by Philip IV.; and, eager to advance himself, no matter at what cost, turned traitor. He suggested in 1295 that Philip should fit out a large fleet and crowd the vessels with troops; and that, in the meantime, he himself should go to England, report that he had made his escape, and endeavour to obtain from his sovereign a command at sea, or the custody of the ports, or both. He would then, on seeing the approach of the French, deliver up his trust, the agreed signal that his plot had been successful being his own banner hoisted above that of the king. Philip accepted the offer, promised Turberville large rewards, and kept two of the traitor’s sons as hostages.

Turberville reached England, but, though kindly received, failed to obtain the wished-for command. Philip, on his part, collected more than three hundred ships from Marseilles, Genoa and other places, and sent them to cruise off the English coasts, in waiting for the expected signal. Not seeing it the commanders grew impatient, and dispatched five of their best galleys to reconnoitre more closely. One of these landed at Hythe. To induce the intruders to advance inland, the king’s forces retired before them, and then, suddenly turning, fell upon them and killed them all to the number of two hundred and forty, afterwards taking and burning the galley. The other four galleys rejoined their main body, which was far too formidable to be attacked by such ships as were at the disposal of the English commanders on the spot. Turberville’s treachery was still unsuspected in England; but the assemblage of Philip’s large fleet could not but be known; and, with a view to resisting invasion, letters were dispatched on August 28th and 30th to the Bishop of London and other prelates and priors instructing them to take the necessary measures in case the enemy landed; and on September 28th the sheriffs were informed that danger was apprehended from the machinations of certain foreign ecclesiastics residing near the sea-board, and recommending their immediate removal inland.

But, before this, a descent had actually been made. On August 1st the French fleet had appeared off Dover, and had suddenly landed about fifteen thousand men, who had seized the town and burnt great part of it. The people had fled, but recovering their courage, and being reinforced, had attacked the invaders so vigorously as to kill five thousand of them and to put the rest to flight. Some had escaped to the ships, others had taken refuge in the fields, where they had been afterwards found and massacred. Thirty seamen had maintained themselves in the cloisters of the abbey until night, when they had got away in two boats, only. however, to be followed in the morning by two large craft and sunk. In the whole affray but fourteen Englishmen had lost their lives.

The repulse at Dover and the non-appearance of Turberville’s signal disheartened the French, who returned to their ports and dispersed; yet Turberville’s treason was still undiscovered and might have gone unpunished but for the suspicions of a clerk, who delivered to Edward a letter which led to the conspiracy being laid bare, and to the culprit’s execution.

The retirement of the French opened the Channel to the operations of English cruisers. The ships of the Cinque Ports captured fifteen Spanish vessels full of merchandise, bound for Damme, and brought them into Sandwich; and some Yarmouth ships landed a force at Cherbourg, fired the town, robbed an abbey, and carried off an old priest.

LINCOLN, 20 May 1217

William Marshal’s victory prevented a foreign prince from ruling England, but Lincoln’s citizens had little cause for celebration.

Perviously the French were unable to capture Lincoln Castle, governed by the formidable Nichola de la Haye.

The rebels invited the king of France to take the throne of England; instead Philip II’s son, Louis (the future Louis VIII), accepted the offer and was hailed as King of England in London in June of 1216. In the same year Nichola prevented another siege by paying off a rebel army, led by Gilbert de Gant, who had occupied the city of Lincoln.

As Louis consolidated his position in the south, John made an inspection of Lincoln castle in September 1216. During the visit Nichola de la Haye, who held the castle for John, even though the city supported the rebels, was appointed Sheriff of Lincolnshire in her own right.

Moving south, just 2 weeks later, the king’s baggage train was lost as he crossed the Wash estuary and within a few more days John was desperately ill.

King John died at Newark on 19th October 1216.

BATTLE MAP: 1. Position of the former West Gate, where William Marshal entered the city 2. Lincoln’s North Gate, which was assaulted by the Earl of Chester 3. The Cathedral, which was looted by Henry III’s forces 4. Castle Square, where the French were held up by Marshal’s crossbowmen and where the main battle action took place 5. The lower town, where the French and the rebels were chased south. The town was ransacked by Marshal’s troops, giving the battle the name `the Battle of Lincoln Fair.

While most people have heard of Hastings, Crécy, Agincourt and Bosworth, few have heard of the Battle of Lincoln, and even fewer know that had it not been for that battle, England might well have been ruled by a King Louis the First.

Towards the end of King John’s reign, the barons of England rebelled at what they saw as his arbitrary and vindictive rule. In June 1215, John temporarily appeased them by agreeing to what would later be called Magna Carta, a document addressing the perceived abuses of his reign. But when Magna Carta was withdrawn less than three months later, many English barons concluded that there was no doing business with John and invited Louis, the son of Philip Augustus of France, to replace him as the king of England.

Louis duly invaded, and with the support of the rebel barons, he overran much of southeast England and East Anglia, although the castles at Windsor and Dover stubbornly held out against him. Then, in October 1216, John did what has been described as the best thing he ever did for his country. He died. Much of the baronial support for Louis had been motivated by a hatred of John, and now that he was no longer on the scene, many barons switched sides in favour of his successor, the nine-year-old Henry III, especially when his advisors re-issued Magna Carta. Even so, Louis didn’t abandon his attempts to conquer England, and while half his army continued to besiege Dover Castle, he sent the rest north to capture Lincoln.

At the time, Lincoln was one of the largest and most important cities in the country. Perched on the top of a steep hill, it was surrounded by stone walls and defended by a powerful castle. The castle had two fortified mounds and two main gates, one leading into the city and the square opposite Lincoln’s cathedral, and the other westward into the countryside. In 1217, the castle’s constable was a woman in her 60s, Nichola de la Haye.

Although the castle would prove a tough nut to crack, the city itself wasn’t prepared to resist a full-scale attack and quickly surrendered to the forces of Louis, who arrived in March under the command of the young Comte du Perche and Saer de Quincy, the Earl of Winchester and a leader of the baronial rebellion. But, with the redoubtable Nichola in command, the castle held out even though the French brought up siege engines – probably trebuchets – to bombard its walls.

William Marshal, the regent of England and commander of the forces loyal to Henry III, was determined not to let such an important stronghold fall into the hands of Louis. He gathered together a relief force, which assembled at Newark before heading for Lincoln. They realised that although the main road entered the city from the south, an approach from that direction was highly undesirable. Before they could get to the castle, they would have to fight their way through the town and up a precipitous road that even today is known as `Steep Hill’. So they marched on Lincoln via Torksey, approaching the city from the north-west on Saturday 20 May.

Perche and his men saw them coming and, according to one chronicler, a small reconnaissance force of English rebels went out to check out the approaching threat. They reported back that William Marshal’s army was not a particularly large one, and argued that the best course of action was to leave the city and take them on in the open fields, where their own superior numbers could prove decisive. The chronicler says that Perche was unconvinced and sent out a second reconnaissance force, this time made up of French knights. At the time, a quick way of estimating the strength of an enemy army was to count the banners of its knights, but this account claims that the French were unaware of the fact that each English knight carried two banners and therefore concluded that Marshal’s army was twice as strong as it actually was. Whether this actually happened isn’t known Perche’s English troops would have put them right – but in any event, the French decided to remain behind the safety of the city walls, thus handing the initiative over to Marshal.

Meanwhile, Marshal’s men were arguing about who should have the honour of leading the assault, with the powerful Earl of Chester threatening to go home if it wasn’t him. In fact, it didn’t really matter – for Marshal’s plan was to mount a series of simultaneous attacks from a variety of directions. While the Earl of Chester led the assault on the city’s North Gate, drawing the French in that direction, Marshal himself attacked the West Gate. It was said that he was so keen to join the battle that as he was beginning to move his column, a page had to remind him that he had forgotten to put his helmet on. Meanwhile, 300 crossbowmen under Falkes de Breauté, one of Henry III’s most loyal and ruthless commanders, slipped into the castle through a postern gate that opened outside the city walls. They took up position on the castle walls and poured down a deadly shower of crossbow bolts onto the French below them. Marshal and the Earl of Chester both broke into the city and soon Lincoln’s cramped streets were filled with a mass of struggling men. One contemporary described the scene:

“Had you been there you would have seen great blows dealt, heard helmets clanging. seen lances fly in splinters in the air, saddles vacated by riders. great blows delivered by swords and maces on helmets and on arms, and seen knives and daggers drawn for stabbing horses.”

The turning point came when Breauté led the castle’s garrison out of its East Gate and joined in the fray. Initially, they were driven back and Breauté was temporarily taken prisoner before being rescued, but their intervention probably tipped the scales in favour of Marshal, and when the Comte du Perche was killed by a lance thrust through the eye-slit of his helmet, the French lost heart. They were steadily driven back down Lincoln’s steep main street until they reached the gate at the south end of the city, which was so narrow that few could escape. While we have no idea of what happened to their ordinary soldiers – the chroniclers at the time simply weren’t interested in them – many of the knights in the French and rebel army were taken prisoner.

The battle was won but the destruction and bloodshed wasn’t yet over. The victorious English considered that the city had surrendered rather too quickly to the French and, suspecting it of collaboration, meted out a savage punishment. The entire city was thoroughly sacked. Even the cathedral (whose clergy had been excommunicated by the Papal Legate accompanying the English army) was pillaged. As the panic-stricken residents tried to save themselves and their property from Marshal’s marauding soldiers, tragedy struck. According to the chronicler Roger of Wendover:

“Many of the women of the city were drowned in the river for, to avoid shameful offence (ie rape), they took to small boats with their children, their female servants, and household property. the boats were overloaded, and the women not knowing how to manage the boats, all perished.”

As Marshal’s victorious troops left Lincoln, they were so laden with booty and plunder that it looked to onlookers as though they had been on some enormous shopping expedition, with the result that the battle gained its unlikely nickname – Lincoln Fair.


Prince Louis was the son of Philip Augustus, King of France and Richard the Lionheart’s partner (and rival) during the Third Crusade. He was born in 1187 and in 1200 he married Blanche of Castile, a granddaughter of Henry II. At a time when you didn’t necessarily have to be next in line in order to take the throne, Louis, who did have royal blood after all, seemed an ideal replacement for the tyrannical John. To the English barons who asked him to be their king Louis was all the things John wasn’t – brave, pious, trustworthy and a man who kept his word. After landing in England he was proclaimed king in London, and within months about two thirds of the barons and more than half of the country were under his control. After the failure of his bid to rule England, Louis returned to France where he succeeded to the throne as Louis VIII in 1223 and promptly conquered large amounts of the remaining English territory in the country.

Tamerlane and the Golden Horde

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.

In 1401 the great Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) was in the city of Damascus, then under siege by the mighty Tamerlane. Eager to meet the famous conqueror of the day, he was lowered from the walls in a basket and received in Tamerlane’s camp. There he had a series of conversations with a ruler he described (in his autobiography) as ‘one of the greatest and mightiest of kings . . . addicted to debate and argument about what he knows and does not know’. Ibn Khaldun may have seen in Tamerlane the saviour of the Arab–Muslim civilization for whose survival he feared. But four years later Tamerlane died on the road to China, whose conquest he had planned.

Tamerlane (sometimes Timur, or Timurlenk, ‘Timur the Lame’ – hence his European name) was a phenomenon who became a legend. He was born, probably in the 1330s, into a lesser clan of the Turkic-Mongol tribal confederation the Chagatai, one of the four great divisions into which the Mongol empire of Genghis (Chinggis) Khan had been split up at his death, in 1227. By 1370 he had made himself master of the Chagatai. Between 1380 and 1390 he embarked upon the conquest of Iran, Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), Armenia and Georgia. In 1390 he invaded the Russian lands, returning a few years later to wreck the capital of the Golden Horde, the Mongol regime in modern South Russia. In 1398 he led a vast plundering raid into North India, crushing its Muslim rulers and demolishing Delhi. Then in 1400 he returned to the Middle East to capture Aleppo and Damascus (Ibn Khaldun escaped its massacre), before defeating and capturing the Ottoman sultan Bayazet at the Battle of Ankara in 1402. It was only after that that he turned east on his final and abortive campaign.

The Army

Tamerlane’s original army was a hodgepodge of leftover Chaghatayid units: clans (Barulas, Jalayir, etc.), local soldiery created a century earlier under the Mongol census (called qa’uchin, old units), independent KESHIG (guards) tümens (nominally 10,000) that had outlived their khan, and the Qara’unas, an old TAMMACHI garrison. Tamerlane did not disperse these traditional units but controlled them by changing their leadership, removing major cities such as Bukhara from their control, and eventually recruiting new armies outside the Chaghatay Khanate, especially local units from the defunct Mongol IL-KHANATE. Foreign troops and craftsmen-Indians, Persians, Arabs both settled and bedouin, and Turks- were deported and settled around Samarqand and Bukhara. By 1400 his own companions commanded about 13 tümens, while his sons commanded at least nine. Tamerlane ‘s sons’ tümens were assembled from troops of all origins. The core of Tamerlane ‘s army was its Inner Asian cavalry, but he also valued Tajik (Iranian) infantry units. In an inscription he claims to have attacked Toqtamish in 1391 with 20 tümens, a statement that at the usual 40 percent nominal strength is plausible.

Attack on the Golden Horde

The subjugation of Khorasan and Mazandaran, completed by 1384, led to the first of his expeditionary campaigns against western Iran and the Caucasus in 1386-87.

Toqtamish’s father was a descendants of Toqa-Temür, one of the “princes of the left hand,” or the BLUE HORDE, in modern Kazakhstan, and his mother was of the QONGGIRAD clan from near KHORAZM. At the time the Blue Horde was ruled by Urus Khan (d. 1377) and his sons, whose seat was at Sighnaq (near modern Chiili). By allying with the Chaghatayid conqueror Tamerlane, Toqtamish succeeded after many reverses in taking control of the Blue Horde (spring 1377). Later, local chronicles speak of Toqtamish as defending four tribes (el)-Shirin, Baarin, Arghun, and Qipchaq-from the tyranny of Urus Khan. Once enthroned in Sighnaq, Toqtamish led his four tribes west to defeat Emir Mamaq (Mamay) of the Qiyat clan (1380) and reestablish GOLDEN HORDE rule over Russia by sacking Moscow (1382).

Eventually, Toqtamish turned against his old patron, Tamerlane, to pursue the Golden Horde’s old territorial claims in Azerbaijan (1385 and 1387), Khorazm, and the Syr Dar’ya region down to Bukhara (1388). Tamerlane responded with a massive punitive expedition into Kazakhstan, which finally cornered and defeated Toqtamish’s army near Orenburg (June 1391). Tamerlane also wooed away Emir Edigü, leader of the Manghit (MANGGHUD) clan, from Toqtamish’s camp. After rebuilding his power in the west, Toqtamish again invaded Azerbaijan (1394); Tamerlane crushed his army again on the Terek (March 15, 1395) and sacked Saray and Astrakhan.

By now Tamerlane’s chief rival was a one-time protegé, TOQTAMISH, ruler first of the BLUE HORDE and then of the reunified GOLDEN HORDE in the northern steppe. First sacking Urganch (1287), the capital of Toqtamish’s allied country, Khorazm, Timur launched a “five-year campaign” (1392-96) against Baghdad’s Jalayir dynasty as well as against western Iranian, Turkmen, and Georgian powers, culminating in the sack of Toqtamish’s capital, New Saray, on the Volga and crippling Toqtamish’s power.

Timur marched through the Darband Gates, a narrow pass between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus mountains. On 15th April 1395 the armies of Timur and Toqtamish met near the river Terek, a strategic point where so many battles had been fought. Timur himself took part until, as the Zafarnama put it, ‘his arrows were all spent, his spear broken, but his sword he still brandished’. This time Timur’s victory was complete.

Terek River, 22 April 1395

Abandoning his fortified camp on the banks of the Terek on bearing of Tamerlane’s approach during a second campaign against him, Tokhtamysh Khan shadowed the Timurid army until, on 14 April, they finally encamped facing one another. On the 22nd Tamerlane arranged his forces for battle in 7 divisions, himself commanding the reserve of 27 binliks, and commenced his attack under the cover of showers of arrows. Then, bearing of an advance against his left wing, he led the reserve to its support and repelled the attack but pursued the enemy too far so that, thus disorganised, be in turn was repulsed and driven back. Disaster was averted by a mere 50 of his men who dismounted, knelt on one knee and laid down a withering barrage of arrows to bold back their pursuers while 3 Timurid officers and their men seized 3 of Tokhtamysh’s wagons and drew them up as a barricade behind which Tamerlane managed to rally his reserve. The advance guard of his left wing bad meanwhile broken through between the attacking enemy divisions, while his son Mohammed Sultan brought up strong reinforcements, positioning them on Tamerlane’s left so that Tokhtamysb’s advancing right wing was finally forced to take flight.

The Timurid right wing having meanwhile been surrounded, its commander ordered Ibis men to dismount and crouch behind their shields, under the cover of which they were repeatedly attacked with lance and sword by Tokhtamysb’s troops. They were finally rescued from these dire straits by the division under Jibansha Behadur which, attacking from both flanks, obliged the enemy left flank to fall back and then drove it from the field. Finally the centres of both armies joined battle, Tokhtamysb’s giving way after a hard fight, upon which the khan and his noyons quit the field. The Timurid pursuit was close and bloody, most of those they captured being hanged.


The shattered remnants of Toqtamish’s army and of his Russian vassals were pursued as far as Yelets, not far from the Principality of Moscow. There Timur turned back not, as the terrified Muscovites believed, because of the miraculous intervention of the Virgin Mary and still less through fear of Moscow’s military might, but because he had no interest in conquering the poor and backward Russian principalities.

Despite his reputation as a bloodthirsty tyrant, and the undoubted savagery of his predatory conquests, Tamerlane was a transitional figure in Eurasian history. His conquests were an echo of the great Mongol empire forged by Genghis Khan and his sons. That empire had extended from modern Iran to China, and as far north as Moscow. It had encouraged a remarkable movement of people, trade and ideas around the waist of Eurasia, along the great grassy corridor of steppe, and Mongol rule may have served as the catalyst for commercial and intellectual change in an age of general economic expansion. The Mongols even permitted the visits of West European emissaries hoping to build an anti-Muslim alliance and win Christian converts. But by the early fourteenth century the effort to preserve a grand imperial confederation had all but collapsed. The internecine wars between the ‘Ilkhanate’ rulers in Iran, the Golden Horde and the Chagatai, and the fall of the Yuan in China (by 1368), marked the end of the Mongol experiment in Eurasian empire.

Tamerlane’s conquests were partly an effort to retrieve this lost empire. But his methods were different. Much of his warfare seemed mainly designed to wreck any rivals for control of the great trunk road of Eurasian commerce, on whose profits his empire was built. Also, his power was pivoted more on command of the ‘sown’ than on mastery of the steppe: his armies were made up not just of mounted bowmen (the classic Mongol formula), but of infantry, artillery, heavy cavalry and even an elephant corps. His system of rule was a form of absolutism, in which the loyalty of his tribal followers was balanced against the devotion of his urban and agrarian subjects. Tamerlane claimed also to be the ‘Shadow of God’ (among his many titles), wreaking vengeance upon the betrayers and backsliders of the Islamic faith. Into his chosen imperial capital at Samarkand, close to his birthplace, he poured the booty of his conquests, and there he fashioned the architectural monuments that proclaimed the splendour of his reign. The ‘Timurid’ model was to have a lasting influence upon the idea of empire across the whole breadth of Middle Eurasia.

But, despite his ferocity, his military genius and his shrewd adaptation of tribal politics to his imperial purpose, Tamerlane’s system fell apart at his death. As he himself may have grasped intuitively, it was no longer possible to rule the sown from the steppe and build a Eurasian empire on the old foundations of Mongol military power. The Ottomans, the Mamluk state in Egypt and Syria, the Muslim sultanate in northern India, and above all China were too resilient to be swept away by his lightning campaigns. Indeed Tamerlane’s death marked in several ways the end of a long phase in global history. His empire was the last real attempt to challenge the partition of Eurasia between the states of the Far West, Islamic Middle Eurasia and Confucian East Asia. Secondly, his political experiments and ultimate failure revealed that power had begun to shift back decisively from the nomad empires to the settled states. Thirdly, the collateral damage that Tamerlane inflicted on Middle Eurasia, and the disproportionate influence that tribal societies continued to wield there, helped (if only gradually) to tilt the Old World’s balance in favour of the Far East and Far West, at the expense of the centre. Lastly, his passing coincided with the first signs of a change in the existing pattern of long-distance trade, the East–West route that he had fought to control. Within a few decades of his death, the idea of a world empire ruled from Samarkand had become fantastic. The discovery of the sea as a global commons offering maritime access to every part of the world transformed the economics and geopolitics of empire. It was to take three centuries before that new world order became plainly visible. But after Tamerlane no world-conqueror arose to dominate Eurasia, and Tamerlane’s Eurasia no longer encompassed almost all the known world.

Waging Gentlemanly War

The Battle of Kawanakajima was an annual event fought between Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen. Both daimyo would ensure the battle ended in a draw.

Depiction of the legendary personal conflict between Kenshin and Shingen at the fourth battle of Kawanakajima.

Two of the early Sengoku Jidai’s most colourful daimyo were Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin. They represented the last of the gentlemen warriors, who conducted their warfare according to the honourable traditions of old. Every year for five years in a row the armies of Kenshin and Shingen met in the same place on the plain of Kawanakajima to do battle. Sometimes, when one army had gained the upper hand it would withdraw as a sign of respect for the opposition. When Shingen’s salt supply was cut off by Kenshin’s ally, the Hojo clan, Kenshin sent Shingen a supply of salt from his own stock, commenting that he `fought with swords, not salt.’

The first half of the fifteenth century in Japan saw sporadic rebellions taking place, all of which were quelled successfully until 1467, when a quarrel between two samurai houses developed into a military and political disaster. The resulting Onin War was fought largely around the capital and even in the streets of Kyoto itself, which was soon reduced to a smoking wasteland. The shogun at the time was Ashikaga Yoshimasa, Yoshimitsu’s grandson, who was totally unable to prevent a slide into anarchy. Instead Yoshimasa contented himself with artistic pursuits, and was one of the early devotees of the tea ceremony. He also built the Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) in an attempt to emulate his illustrious ancestor. His cultural achievements were many, but the power of the shogunate declined as never before.

With such a vacuum at the heart of Japanese politics, many samurai took the opportunity to develop their own local autonomy in a way that had not been seen for centuries. It was as if the powerful landowners of the Nara period had been reborn, and throughout Japan there was a scramble for territory. Some ancient families disappeared altogether to be replaced by men who had once fought for them and achieved local power through war, intrigue, marriage, or murder. Other ancient lines prospered, and found themselves having to share Japan with upstarts who may have started their careers as ashigaru (foot soldiers) but who now owned a considerable amount of territory, which they defended using wooden castles and loyal followers. These lords called themselves daimyo (great names), and led lives that were constantly being challenged by neighbors. Literally scores of battles took place, leading to the century and a half between 1467 and 1600 being dubbed the Sengoku Jidai (the period of Warring States), by analogy with a similar turbulent period in ancient China.

A good example of the trend was to be found in north-central Japan where the territories of the Takeda and Uesugi families were located. They were at war for half a century. Their most famous members, Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin, were princes in their own provinces, and led thousands of fanatically loyal samurai. Takeda Shingen is customarily credited with being the finest leader of mounted samurai in Sengoku Japan. At Uedahara in 1548 and at Mikata ga Hara in 1572, the Takeda cavalry rode down disorganized infantry missile units. But for cavalry charges to succeed, the old samurai tradition of singling out a worthy opponent for a challenge to single combat had to wait until the enemy line was broken, so group operations became the norm.

The Takeda and Uesugi fought each other five times at a place called Kawanakajima (“the island within the river”), a battlefield that marked the border between their territories. Not only were the armies the same, the same two commanders led them at each battle. In addition to this intriguing notion of five battles on one battlefield, Kawanakajima has also become the epitome of Japanese chivalry and romance: the archetypal clash of samurai arms.

In its more extreme form, this view even denies the possibility that anyone actually got hurt at the Kawanakajima battles, which are seen only as a series of “friendly fixtures” characterized by posturing and pomp. In this scenario the Kawanakajima conflicts may be dismissed as mock warfare. During some of the encounters, admittedly, the two armies disengaged before committing themselves fully to a fight to the death, but the wounds and the dead bodies were real enough, and the fourth battle of Kawanakajima in 1561 produced many casualties on both sides.

The Battle of Kawanakajima

Bishop Guglielmino degli Ubertini of Arezzo

The military commander of the Ghibellines in this battle was the city’s powerful bishop, Guglielmino degli Ubertini. Note two features distinctive of ecclesiastical leaders who went to war in person: the crest on his helm fashioned as a bishop’s mitre, and his use of a mace (mazza ferrata) rather than a sword. The latter was a cynical ploy adopted to get around the religious prohibition on churchmen `shedding blood’: they could kill enemies, but only `sine effusione sanguinis’. The second half of the 13th century saw the development of plate armour elements worn in combination with the mail hauberk. Initially plate armour was mostly made of cuir bouilli (boiled, moulded and hardened leather); here, this material is used for the domed defences mounted on quilted cuisses at the knees, at the shoulders above leather strips, and for the gauntlet cuffs, but the greaves on the lower legs are already in metal. The mail hood worn under the helm was now a separate camail. Over the hauberk the bishop wears a `coat-of-plates’, called in Italian a lameria; buckled on at the back, this is a tabard-shaped garment made of small iron plates riveted between two layers of thick fabric in such a way as to allow some flexibility of the torso. Apparently, these lamerie were first introduced in Italy on a large scale by the German mercenary knights employed by Manfred of Swabia.

At a first glance, Guglielmino degli Ubertini would appear to fit the stereotypical worldly clergyman of literature. While there is no doubt that he often practised power mongering to a high degree in his more than 40 years as bishop of Arezzo (1248-89), switching his allegiance at will from Guelph to Ghibelline, he always had in mind the interests of his city and his diocese – at least when he saw them coinciding with his own and those of his family. A man of the sword as much as of the pen, at the battle of Montaperti in 1260 Ubertini led the exiled Aretine Ghibellines against the Guelph coalition besieging Siena `capturing and killing many’. On a number of occasions he did not hesitate to use the weapon of ecclesiastical censure against his fellow citizens to obtain his political goals. As a military leader he would show his limits during the 1289 campaign, when concerns over his own possessions in the Casentino area led him to seek battle at all costs, despite being advised otherwise. At Campaldino he demonstrated his attachment to his native city, not hesitating to join the fray even when given the chance to escape from the slaughter.

Guglielmo Ubertini who had served for forty years as the bishop of Arezzo by the time of the battle. “A man of the sword as much as of the pen”, Ubertini had proven to be capable, ruthless and brave military commander during several conflicts before 1289, though his strategic acumen was impeded by his interest in defending the possessions of his family at any cost. This greatly influenced his decision to seek battle at Campaldino, despite having been advised against it.


A Tuscan Guelf League army, mainly composed of Florentines, faced a Ghibelline League force from Arezzo in the Amo valley. The Florentine army appeared to be on the march for Arezzo along the well-worn road of the Upper Valdarno, when all at once they swung to the left and crossed the Consuma Pass without encountering any opposition, and entered the Casentino-the highest valley of the river Arno. From there they descended towards Arezzo.

At first the local forces fell back before them, but they eventually called a halt in the wide valley immediately north of Poppi after being reinforced by the Ghibellines of the Romagna and the Marche.

The Tuscans, consisting of 1,600 cavalry and 10,000 infantry (including a large number of crossbowmen), drew up with cavalry in the centre and the bulk of their infantry formed up on both flanks slightly in advance of the cavalry, thus constituting the horns of a crescent formation. The centre was covered by a detached screen of light cavalry. Behind the whole array a line of wagons was drawn up, behind which was positioned a reserve of 200 cavalry plus some infantry. (The poet Dante fought in the front rank of the Florentine cavalry.)

The Ghibellines formed up in 4 lines with their 800 cavalry divided between the first, second and last lines while their 8,000infantry, with a few crossbows among them, made up the third. They opened the battle with a charge which, although it routed the Florentine light cavalry and drove the Tuscans back to their baggage wagons, committed their first three lines, the flanks of which were then subjected to a devastating crossfire from the crossbowmen on the Tuscan wings while the rest of the infantry, armed with long spears, closed in around them. The Ghibelline reserve line of just 50 horsemen was never committed and eventually fled, at which the Tuscan reserve came in on the rear of their disorganised first lines, which were thus trapped. Ghibelline casualties totalled 1,700 killed and 2,000 captured.

Throughout most of this period archers were present on the battlefield in relatively small numbers. They and crossbowmen were usually positioned on the flanks of the army in separate units with spearmen in the centre, though they are also to be found skirmishing ahead of the main body, or else interspersed with other infantry. Archers on the left of the line, firing into the enemy’s unshielded flank, would have been particularly effective, and with archers on both flanks it was possible to achieve a crossfire, as did the Tuscan crossbowmen at Campaldino in 1289.

Suggested reading: General Works: Villaripi, I primi due secoli della storia di Firenze, Florence, 1910, Davidsohn: Geschichte ion Florenz, Vol. IL Firenze. On the Campaign: Koehler, G., Die Entwickelung des Kriegswesens und der Kriegfuhrung in der Ritterzeit, Book III, Breslau, 1889. On the Battle: Fieri, P., ‘Alcune quistioni sepra la fanteria in Italia nel periodo comunale’, in Rivista Storica Italiana, 1934.

Battle of Płowce

Battle of Płowce, fought between Kingdom of Poland and Teutonic Order. Despite the Polish victory on the field, the battle is traditionally regarded as inconclusive given that the Teutonic Order was not destroyed . Nevertheless, it was an important battle for Poland, which was just regaining its stature as a country on the international scene, and held its own against a powerful military force.

The Battle of Płowce took place on 27 September 1331 between the Kingdom of Poland and the Teutonic Order.

The period of Polish history is known as the Division in the Provinces, and lasted from 1138 to 1320. This long era of fragmentation was characterized by a decline of part-time militias in favour of professional – or at least, better-trained – household and local troops. It was upon these that the rulers of Poland now relied. It was also during this period, from the mid-12th to early 14th century, that a true Polish knightly class emerged as part of a gradually developing feudal system of government and social organization. Furthermore, in 1154-55 the crusading military orders – the Hospitallers and Templars – gained their first footholds on Polish soil. Later in this notably turbulent period the Teutonic Knights joined the older established military orders, arriving on the scene in 1226, almost simultaneously with the foundation of the specifically Polish Brethren of Dobrzyn (Knights of Christ). Then came the Mongol invasions, with raids deep into Europe that culminated in the battle of Liegnitz/Legnica in 1241.

The 14th century saw the reunification of Poland under the rule of King Wladyslaw I Lokietek, who came to the throne in 1320. He was faced with numerous opponents and experienced the ups and downs typical of all medieval power struggles; but the main challenge to the Polish monarchy remained that posed by the Teutonic Order in Prussia and Livonia. This religio-military order, though defeated at the battle of Plowce in 1331, continued to be a significant military power that the Polish kings could not ignore. Consequently, the main aim of Wladyslaw I Lokietek’s son and successor Casimir III ‘the Great’ was to further consolidate the military and economic strength of the kingdom that Wladyslaw had effectively rebuilt. It is worth noting that, despite Casimir the Great’s brilliant campaigns – including the conquest of Galich Vladimir in 1340-66 – he is primarily remembered in Polish history as one of the country’s greatest administrators and fortifiers, and a remarkable number of castles and other strongpoints were constructed during his reign.

As a consequence of his relatively peaceful reign. King Casimir III went down in Polish history as one of the country’s greatest administrators and castle-builders; about 80 strongholds were constructed during his time.

The Battle

The Teutonic Order attempted to take Brześć Kujawski after standing all day in the sun. The German army from the Teutonic Order had 7,000 men, and was opposed by a Polish army of 5,000 men. On 27 September 1331, one-third of the Teutonic Order’s force of knights under Dietrich von Altenburg left the blockaded peasant town of Płowce. The Poles, under Władyslaw Łokietek (Władysław I the Elbow-high) and his son Casimir, immediately attacked in a frontal assault. They were immediately joined by Polish detachments hiding in a forest to the left of the town. Reportedly, during the first phase of the battle Prince Casimir was ordered to depart so as not to deprive the Polish Kingdom of the presumptive heir. Despite this, in three hours the Teutonic knights had been defeated and their leader captured. The Polish forces were victorious in this phase of the battle, took prisoner 56 knights, and freed many Polish captives.

However, upon hearing the sounds of battle from Płowce, rear elements of the German formations rushed to aid their fellow knights, and soon another third of the Teutonic Order’s forces arrived. The long and bloody battle resumed and continued until dark, with high casualties on both sides. Poland scored a clear victory, with Reuss von Plauen, commander of the German army, and another 40 knights taken prisoner by the Poles. After fleeing Płowce, the knights withdrew to Toruń (Thorn).

Despite the Polish victory on the field, the battle is traditionally regarded as inconclusive given that the Teutonic Order was not destroyed . Nevertheless, it was an important battle for Poland, which was just regaining its stature as a country on the international scene, and held its own against a powerful military force.


An estimated over 4,000 men (combined) were said to have fallen on the field of the battle. Of these, 73 were Knight Brothers of the Teutonic Order (the highest-ranking members of the Order). Over one half of the dead were Germans, who had to retreat back to Toruń, their death toll climbing to one third of all their knights taking part in the war. The Polish armies, also suffering heavy casualties, did not follow the retreating Germans.

Teutonic Knights’ War with Poland of 1309-43

Gdansk, 1308; Plowce, 1331; Reval, 1343

Poland called on the Order of the Teutonic Knights to assist in resisting the attack of Brandenburg against the Polish territory of Pomerelia (eastern Pomerania). The knights, who had acquired control of Prussia in the five decade-long TEUTONIC KNIGHTS’ CONQUEST OF PRUSSIA, eagerly entered the conflict, driving the Brandenburgers out of Pomerelia; in 1309, the order seized the territory for itself, including the key port city of Danzig (Gdansk, Poland). In taking Danzig, the knights attacked not only Brandenburgers but also Polish troops and Danzig civilians. To consolidate the claim on Danzig and the order’s control over it, the Teutonic grand master established his principal home and headquarters in a castle, Marienburg, adjacent to the city.

Having warded off Brandenburger occupation of Pomerelia, Ladislas I (1260-1333) of Poland lost the region-the only direct Polish access to the sea-to the Order of the Teutonic Knights. He attempted to persuade the pope-Clement V (1264-1314, reigned from 1305) and John XXII (1249-1334, reigned from 1316)-in whose service the knights had pledged themselves, to intervene. In the meantime, Ladislas concluded an alliance with Lithuania, longtime enemy of the knights. However, in 1331, Bohemian forces threatened Poland, and Ladislas focused his attention there. Taking advantage of the situation, the Teutonic Knights marched into Poland in 1331 and again in 1332. The Poles prevailed against the invaders at the Battle of Plowce on September 27, 1331, but this did not block the knights’ advance. The order continued to raid and ravage territory throughout northwestern Poland. In some areas, the knights seized and occupied territory.

In 1333, Casimier III (the Great; 1309-70) succeeded to the Polish throne on the death of Ladislas I and, 10 years later, concluded the Treaty of Kalisz, by which Poland regained the territory it had lost in exchange for giving the Teutonic Knights control of Pomerelia.

Further reading: Helen J. Nicholson, Templars, Hospitallers, and Teutonic Knights: Images of Military Orders, 1128-1291 (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993); Adam Zamoyski, The Polish Way: A Thousand-Year History of the Poles and Their Culture (New York: F. Watts, 1988).


October 732

Forces Engaged

Franks: Unknown. Commander: Charles Martel.

Moslems: Approximately 20,000-80,000. Commander: Abd er-Rahman.


Moslem defeat ended the Moslem’s threat to western Europe, and Frankish victory established the Franks as the dominant population in western Europe, establishing the dynasty that led to Charlemagne.

Historical Setting

During 717–718, Moslem forces tried and failed to capture Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. That was a major setback for the Moslems, whose forces (intent on spreading their faith) had been virtually unstoppable in conquests that spread Islam from India to Spain. Although that defeat kept the followers of Mohammed out of eastern Europe for another seven centuries, it must have motivated other Moslems to attempt to spread the faith into Europe via another route: North Africa into Spain into western Europe.

Moslem forces had spread across the southern Mediterranean coast through the later decades of the seventh century and in the process of converting their conquered enemies absorbed them into the armies of the faithful. In North Africa, some of the most ardent converts were Moors (called Numidians by the Carthaginians of Hannibal’s time), the Berbers of modern Morocco. In 710, Musa ibn Nusair, Moslem governor of the region, decided to attack across the Straits of Gibraltar and raid Spain. Without ships, however, he turned to Julian, a Byzantine official, who loaned him four ships. Julian did this because of a grudge he bore against Roderic, the Visigoth king that ruled in Spain. With four ships able to carry 400 men, Musa launched a raid that netted him sufficient plunder to whet his appetite for more.

In 711, he ferried 7,000 men across the straits under Tarik ibn Ziyad. Although this was originally intended to be simply a larger raid, Tarik’s victory over Roderic opened the Iberian peninsula to Moslem troops. Within a year, Musa was back in command and master of Spain. Recalled to the Middle East by the caliph, Musa’s successor, Hurr, pushed deeper into Spain and through the Pyrenees into the province of Acquitaine during 717–718. Over the next several years, Moslem power ebbed and flowed through southern, central, and even northern Gaul (France).

The arrival of the Moslems was fortuitously timed, as internal feuds divided the population of Gaul. The dominant population, the Franks, were in a slump. Upon the death of Pepin II in 714, the Frankish throne was disputed between Pepin’s legitimate grandson and illegitimate son. Eudo of Acquitaine saw an opportunity to escape Frankish domination, so he declared his independence and received in return the wrath of Charles Martel, Pepin’s illegitimate son who finally succeeded to the throne in 719. After defeating Eudo, Charles then turned toward the Rhine River to secure his northeastern flank. He made war against the Saxons, Germans, and Swabians until 725, when Moslem successes in southern Gaul diverted his attention.

While Charles was off fighting in Germany, Eudo feared for his future because he was located between aggressive Moslems to the south and a hostile Charles to the north and east. Eudo entered into an alliance with a renegade Moslem named Othman ben abi Neza, who controlled an area of the northern Pyrenees. That alliance provoked Abd er-Rahman, Moslem governor of Spain, who marched against Othman in 731. After defeating him, Abd er-Rahman decided to drive deeper into Gaul, spreading Moslem influence and, more importantly, looting the wealthy Gallic countryside. He defeated Eudo at Bordeaux and proceeded north toward Tours, whose abbey was reputed to hold immense wealth. To spread as much terror and accumulate as much loot as possible, Abd er-Rahman divided his army, probably some 80,000 strong, into several columns and sent them pillaging.

Eudo fled to Paris, where he met with Charles and begged his aid. Charles agreed on the condition that Eudo would swear loyalty and never again try to remove himself from Frankish dominion. With that promise, Charles gathered together as many men as he could and marched toward Tours.

The Battle

The army that Charles amassed was probably some 30,000 men, a mixture of professional soldiers whom he had commanded in campaigns across Gaul and Germany and a mixed lot of militia with little weaponry or military skills. The Franks were hardy soldiers that armed themselves as heavy infantry, wearing some armor and fighting mainly with swords and axes. How much the Franks depended on cavalry has been disputed, for infantry had long dominated the European battlefield, and cavalry was only at this time becoming common. The strength of both infantry and cavalry was their determination in battle, but their weakness was their almost complete lack of discipline. Further, Charles lacked the wherewithal to maintain any sort of supply train, so his army lived off the land.

The army he marched to face was made up primarily of Moors who fought from horseback, depending on bravery and religious fervor to make up for their lack of armor or archery. Instead, the Moors fought with scimitars and lances. Their standard method of fighting was to engage in mass cavalry charges, depending on numbers and courage to overwhelm any enemy; it was a tactic that had carried them thousands of miles and defeated dozens of opponents. Their weakness was that all they could do was attack; they had no training or even concept of defense. They, like the Franks, lived off the land.

The two armies approached each other in the early autumn of 732. Abd er-Rahman’s army had succeeded in plundering many towns and churches, and they were overwhelmed with their loot. They met in an unknown location somewhere south of Tours, between that city and Poitiers. Abd er-Rahman was surprised by the arrival of the Franks. Exactly how large the opposing forces were is the point of much disagreement. The Moslem army is numbered by modern writers as anywhere from 20,000 to 80,000, whereas the Frankish army has been described as both larger and smaller than those numbers. Abd er-Rahman faced a dilemma: to fight, he would have to abandon his loot, and he knew that his men would balk at that order. Luckily for him, Charles did not attack, but merely kept his distance and observed the Moslems for about a week. Abd er-Rahman used that break to send men south with the loot, where they could recover it after they beat the Franks. In the meantime, Charles was awaiting the arrival of his militia, whom he used primarily as foragers for his fighting men and less as fighters themselves.

After 7 days of waiting, watching, and certainly a bit of probing by both sides, Abd er-Rahman felt his loot sufficiently safe to focus on the battle. The exact date of the battle is unknown, although some sources (Perrett, The Battle Book) name 10 October. Charles knew the nature of the Moslem fighting style, and he had just the troops to counter it. As the Moslems massed to launch their charge, Charles formed his men into a defensive square made up primarily of his Frankish followers, but supplemented with troops from a variety of tribes subject to the Franks. No detailed account of the battle exists, but later reports relate that the Moslem cavalry beat unsuccessfully against the Frankish square, and the javelins and throwing axes of the Franks inflicted severe damage on the men and horses as they closed. The Moslems, knowing no other tactic, continued to attack and continued to fail to break the defense. Isidorus Pacensis wrote staunch Frankish square: “The men of the North stood motionless as a wall; they were like a belt of ice frozen together, and not to be dissolved, as they slew the Arab with the sword. The Austrasians [Franks from the German frontier], vast of limb, and iron of hand, hewed on bravely in the thick of the fight.” It was this display of strength that earned for Charles his nickname Martel, or “the Hammer.” Eudo, fighting with Charles, led an attack that turned the Moslem flank; they either panicked or feared for their loot. Creasy (Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, p. 166) quotes a Moslem source: “But many of the Moslems were fearful for the safety of the spoil which they had stored in their tents, and a false cry arose in their ranks that some of the enemy were plundering the camp; whereupon several squadrons of the Moslem horsemen rode off to protect their tents.” The departure of some of the cavalry apparently had a bad effect on the rest, and the Moslem effort collapsed.

At day’s end, the Moslems withdrew toward Poitiers. Charles kept his men together and did not pursue, thinking that the battle would resume the following day. In the night, however, the Moslems learned that Abd er-Rahman had been killed in the fighting, so they fled. When the Franks found the Moslem camp empty of men the next morning, they contented themselves with recovering the abandoned loot. No accurate casualty count for either side was recorded.


Survivors of Abd er-Rahman’s army retreated back toward Spain, but they were not the last Moslems that ventured across the Pyrenees in search of easy wealth. They were, however, the last major invasion. Pockets of Moslem power remained along the southern frontier and Mediterranean coast until 759, but, for the most part, Islam settled into Spain and went no farther. Although the effectiveness of Charles Martel’s tactics was certainly a factor, it was internal struggles within Islam that limited continued expansion. When factional fighting broke out in Arabia, the effects spread throughout the Moslem empire. This not only divided the fighting forces, it also isolated the Moslem occupants in Spain from any religious leadership from the Middle East. Thus, consolidation seemed preferable to expansion.

Had the Moslems been victorious in the battle near Tours, it is difficult to suppose what population in western Europe could have organized to resist them. On the other hand, Abd er-Rahman’s force was rather limited, and the religious schism that flared soon after the battle could well have stopped his campaigning as effectively as did the Franks. Thus, whether Charles Martel saved Europe for Christianity is a matter of some debate. What is sure, however, is that his victory ensured that the Franks would dominate Gaul for more than a century. For a couple of centuries, the ruling Merovingian dynasty had produced young, weak kings that ceded much of their ruling power to men who held the position of majordomo, or mayor of the palace. As the representative from the king to the aristocracy, the majordomos were able to coordinate public activity more than order it. By the time of Pepin II, however, the role of the majordomo was virtually indistinguishable from that of the king, and the monarch ruled in name only. Indeed, Charles was majordomo without a king, and upon his death in 741 his sons claimed kingship and divided the realm between them. During this same period, the aristocrats began exercising hereditary rights to their lands, rather than receiving their positions at the king’s pleasure. This was the start of the feudal era, which dominated European society for centuries. To exercise control over these aristocrats, Charles Martel also granted land in payment for military service rendered, but to acquire that land he had to take it from the greatest landowner, the Catholic Church. That earned him the displeasure of Rome, but similar actions on the part of Charles’s grandson actually brought the military power of the Franks and the religious authority of the church closer together. His grandson was also called Charles, later termed “the Great,” or Charlemagne. Under his rule, the Franks rose to their greatest power both politically and militarily.

The nature of the European military changed after this battle. The concept of heavy cavalry was forming in the eighth century. The introduction of the stirrup made stability on horseback possible, and stability was vital for both carrying an armored rider and using heavy lances. The age of the armored knight, a fighting machine that was both the result and the foundation of feudalism, was being born. Although infantry remained key to winning European battles, it was paired with or subordinated to cavalry from this point until the fifteenth century.

Thus, the establishment of Frankish power in western Europe shaped that continent’s society and destiny, and the battle of Tours confirmed that power.


Creasy, Edward S. Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World. New York: Harper, 1851; Dupuy, R. Ernest, and Trevor Dupuy. Encyclopedia of Military History. New York: Harper & Row, 1970; Fuller, J. F. C. A Military History of the Western World, vol. 1. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1954; Gregory of Tours. History of the Franks. Translated by Ernest Brehaut. New York: Columbia University Press, 1916; Oman, Charles. The Art of War in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1953 [1885].