A Year of Disasters


RED Territories controlled by Henry VI of England   

PURPLE Territories controlled by the Duke of Burgundy   

BLUE Territories controlled by Charles   

YELLOW Main battles   

RED Dots English raid of 1415   

BLUE DOTS Joan of Arc’s route to Reims in 1429

The coronation of Henry VI should have been a triumphant moment in the history of the English kingdom of France. Never before had the two crowns been united in one person, nor would they ever be again. Yet the whole episode was somehow shabby, rushed and unsatisfactory. Only six months earlier the English council had still anticipated that the ceremony would take place, as tradition demanded, in Reims. Instead, because Reims was still in Armagnac hands, Henry was crowned in Paris – not even at Saint-Denis, where Pepin the Short had been crowned by Pope Stephen II in 754 in the presence of the future Charlemagne, but in the cathedral of Notre Dame.

At almost every stage of the proceedings the English managed to cause offence to their French subjects. The bishop of Paris was aggrieved that Cardinal Beaufort usurped what he felt was rightfully his role within his own church by crowning the king and singing the mass. The canons were annoyed because the royal officials failed to give them their customary offering of the gilded cup used in the service. Officials from the municipality, university and parlement were offended because they were not treated with the dignity they expected at the coronation feast: worse still for Frenchmen, the English had cooked the food four days earlier and it was ‘shocking’. The traditional celebratory jousts were a small-scale affair and did not give rise to the usual distribution of largesse. The new king also failed to grant the customary release of prisoners and abolition of certain taxes. These were all petty quibbles, but they were symptomatic of a wider discontent. As the chronicler Monstrelet noted, everything concerning the coronation was carried out ‘more in accordance with the customs of England than of France’. The citizen of Paris concluded that it was ‘probably because we don’t understand what they say and they don’t understand us’ but there must have been many who felt that this lack of sensitivity to French concerns was simply the arrogance of an English conqueror.

The ‘Englishness’ of the coronation was underlined by the absence of most of the peers of France, in particular Philippe of Burgundy. In the preceding weeks the Parisian authorities had daily announced that his arrival was imminent ‘but all this was only to keep the people quiet’. His failure to put in an appearance was a major disappointment to the Parisians but more especially to the English. His alliance had made the English kingdom of France possible: his absence at what was literally its crowning moment was therefore a significant and very public political statement. Burgundy had always liked to keep his options open. Throughout the entire period of Henry’s residence in France he had never once met the young king in person, thereby avoiding the otherwise inevitable requirement that he should give his oath of allegiance with his hands between those of the king himself. It was one thing to make a king, but quite another to give his sacred vow of obedience to him.

But there was also a more worrying reason for Burgundy’s absence. Just three days before the coronation he had agreed a six-year general truce with Charles VII. Writing to inform Henry the day before he signed the treaty, so that, ‘because of this, you do not conceive any suspicion or imagine anything sinister against me’, he claimed that he had been forced into accepting the truce. And once again he laid the blame squarely at the feet of the English, who had failed to give him the money and assistance he needed to maintain the war and protect his lands. The future burden of defending the English kingdom would now rest entirely on the English themselves.

At this juncture a gesture of commitment from the English would have been politic and welcome to Henry’s French subjects, but no sooner had the new king arrived in Paris than he was whisked back to Rouen. He had spent just three weeks in the city, leaving the citizens with nothing to show for his visit but a bill for 2297l.t. (£133,992) for staging the formal entry. The unseemly haste with which he left Paris was matched only by the speed with which he then left Rouen. Pausing only to mark his coronation by confirming the foundation of a new university at Caen (thereby offending that of Paris), he departed from Rouen on 12 January 1432, arrived in Calais fourteen days later and by 9 February was back in England. He had spent only twenty-one months in his kingdom of France and he would never set foot on French soil again.

The coronation of the ten-year-old king was a natural and probably necessary reaction to that of Charles VII. As Bedford had argued, doing homage and taking the oath of loyalty to a consecrated king would bind Henry’s French subjects more closely to the English regime. The problem neither he nor anyone else had foreseen was that it also committed the English more fully to supporting what was now Henry’s divinely sanctioned right to the French crown. An uncrowned and unconsecrated king might, at some future date, have been able to renounce his claim in order to secure peace on advantageous terms but an anointed king had a sacred duty to uphold the crown God had bestowed upon him. The possibility of a diplomatic rather than a military solution to the future security and survival of the English kingdom of France had just become more difficult to achieve.5 The coronation, combined with the king’s first visit to his French capital, had offered a unique opportunity to whip up enthusiasm for the English regime which was completely thrown away. It is difficult to believe that Bedford would have acted so high-handedly or insensitively, but throughout the period of the king’s residence in France he had been sidelined. All real power had been in the hands of the great council and its president, Cardinal Beaufort, who not only ran the government but also bank-rolled it with his loans. And mistakes had been made.

One of the reasons military wages were so badly in arrears was that the treasury had been ordered to pay soldiers individually instead of through their captains, a policy which had to be reversed when Bedford resumed the regency because it was so impractical. Beaufort was also responsible for a huge increase in gifts of lands and captaincies to Englishmen, many of them his supporters who had come over on the coronation expedition: this caused resentment among long-serving English and Norman captains and, more seriously, created a problem for the future by putting the military infrastructure in the hands of those who would not reside permanently in France.

Beaufort had also quarrelled personally with Bedford, who on 12 October 1431 had been forced to accept, under protest, that in future he would hold the office of regent as a commission from the king and council, rather than as his birthright, a change which introduced the possibility that he could be dismissed from office. Beaufort was undoubtedly behind this restriction on the regent’s office, which was in line with the assertion of conciliar supremacy over Gloucester’s role as protector of England. His reasoning for doing so at this juncture was probably because he was thinking of remaining behind once Henry VI returned to England. Since his arrival in France in 1429 he had worked hard to create a new power base for himself there. As president of the council in France he had effectively controlled administrative and diplomatic affairs there, confining Bedford’s role to the military sphere. He therefore had little incentive to return to a marginalised position in England. If he wanted to retain his own powers in France he needed to limit those of Bedford once the latter resumed the regency on the king’s departure, hence the issuing of a formal commission for the office. Though Bedford was forced to accept this, because he needed his uncle’s money to shore up the war effort, he was not prepared to concede what was effectively a sharing of the regency. When the king left France Bedford made a small but significant change to his title: henceforth he would be ‘Governor and Regent’, emphasising the all-embracing nature of his appointment.

Beaufort had dominated the coronation, which perhaps explains why it was so badly handled as far as the Parisians were concerned. He may also have been responsible for the abrupt ending of the king’s residence in France because his own position in England was once again under serious attack. In November 1431 Gloucester, who was determined to prevent his uncle resuming public office in England, had brought a prosecution against him for becoming a cardinal without resigning his see of Winchester: if Beaufort did not appear in person to defend himself within two months, he was liable to forfeiture under the statute of praemunire. Returning with the king would obviously offer him some protection, which is why they set out for England together so soon after the coronation.

When they reached Calais, however, Beaufort’s courage deserted him. Pleading a summons from the new pope, he obtained permission to go to Rome but instead stayed in Calais to await the arrival of his gold and jewels, which he had ordered to be shipped over to him. He had done this in secret and in contravention of laws controlling the export of precious metal, so when Gloucester found out, he had the perfect excuse to confiscate it all. And as his treasury was the security for his loans, Beaufort was now not only penniless but powerless too.

Unable to resist going for the kill, Gloucester dismissed all Beaufort’s supporters in the English government and prepared to indict his uncle for treason. This proved to be a step too far for those who feared Gloucester’s despotic tendencies and parliament intervened once again to impose a settlement. Beaufort was fined £6000 (£3.15m), refundable within six years if he proved his innocence, and required to make a loan of a further £6000: in return all the charges against him were dropped and his treasury was restored. Nevertheless, his influence over the king and the council, which he had been rebuilding since 1429, was at an end. Excluded from political power in both England and France, he was forced to fall back on his diocesan duties, which must have been a novel and frustrating experience for him.

While Henry was being welcomed back to London with lavish pageantry and by cheering crowds, Rouen was in the grip of the most serious attempt ever made to take the city during English rule. Marshal Boussac had assembled a force of six hundred men-at-arms at Beauvais and hidden them in the woods near Rouen. On the night of 3 February 1432, 120 of them, under the command of Guillaume de Ricarville, were sent on foot to the castle, where they were secretly admitted by Pierre Audebeuf, a Swiss traitor in the garrison. The sleeping English were completely taken by surprise and fled as best they could: the captain of Rouen, the earl of Arundel, who was trapped inside the great tower, made a dramatic escape by having himself lowered over the walls in a basket. With most of the castle in his hands, Ricarville went back to Boussac to bring the rest of the men, as agreed, only to find that they refused to help him and set off back to Beauvais.

Abandoned and unable to defend the entire castle without reinforcements, Ricarville’s men retreated into the great tower with as many supplies as they could find. The English hastily called in reinforcements and weaponry, including one hundred gun-stones sent from Vernon; surrounding the tower, they began a bombardment that would last thirteen days and inflict such damage that it became indefensible, forcing Ricarville’s men to surrender. Geoffroi Thérage was said to have executed 105 of them in a single day, including Audebeuf, who, as a traitor, was beheaded and quartered: his limbs were then displayed on the town gates and his head on a lance.

That such a bold attempt was possible, and so nearly succeeded, in the heart of the English administration just weeks after the coronation was a remarkable indictment of the missed opportunity to encourage unity and loyalty presented by that occasion. It was also an indication that the Armagnacs regarded their general truce with Burgundy as an opportunity to exploit the weaknesses in the Anglo-Burgundian alliance. With the duke’s troops removed from the field, the military burden fell entirely on the English, though some Burgundians, including l’Isle-Adam and Jehan de Luxembourg, continued to serve in English pay. English garrison forces being stretched to the limit increased the potential for Armagnacs to take strongholds by surprise. And in this they were aided by the fact that the Armagnac-Burgundian truce had hugely raised the hopes of the civilian population that a full peace settlement would follow. In the circumstances it is not surprising that the attempted betrayal of Rouen was only the first of nearly a dozen recorded conspiracies in 1432.

The most spectacular and successful occurred early in the morning of 12 April 1432. Two merchants from Chartres, who had been captured by the Armagnacs and persuaded to change sides, brought a dozen carts laden with barrels from Orléans into their home town. The gates were opened for them because they were well known, had safe-conducts and allegedly brought salt, which was in short supply. Yet once most of the wagons were safely through the gates the ‘carters’ blocked the drawbridge by killing the horse in the shafts of the next wagon and a number of soldiers leapt out of the barrels in which they were hiding. They killed the guards at the gate and secured the gatehouse. The Bastard of Orléans, Raoul de Gaucourt and La Hire (who was back in the field having just escaped from his prison at Dourdon) were waiting a short way off with an army and, at the agreed signal, charged into the town. They met with little resistance because their collaborator (and, if Monstrelet is to be believed, the man who conceived the plan), a Dominican friar, had arranged to preach an important sermon at the farthest end of the town, so that all the citizens would be gathered there. The town was taken before most of the startled citizens were even aware that the enemy was inside their gates. The Burgundian bishop of Chartres was killed in the street trying to fight his way out and all those who had ‘governed for the English’ were beheaded the following day.

Another Dominican friar was the ringleader in a conspiracy to deliver Argentan to the neighbouring enemy garrison of Bonsmoulins. An unfortunate merchant, Guillaume du Val, was also arrested because he had made regular trips to Bonsmoulins to negotiate the ransom and release of a trading partner held prisoner there. His visits were entirely legitimate because he had obtained permission to make them from Henry VI’s lieutenant in Normandy. Nevertheless, under torture so severe that he lost the use of an arm and a leg, du Val revealed that the French had failed to persuade him to assist them in taking Argentan. He also confessed that he had recognised a man from the garrison at Bonsmoulins dining in disguise at the house of the Dominican. Implicated by his association with the traitors, as well as for not informing the authorities of his suspicious encounters, du Val was fortunate to escape with his life. It was only the fact that he had taken his place as a defender on the town walls when the alarm was eventually raised that secured him his pardon.

Friars were particularly active as spies and enemy agents because their itinerant life and religious habit allowed them to travel from place to place and across political boundaries without raising suspicion. Charles VII regularly employed them as messengers and spies. One, known by the code-name Samedi passé, was sent ‘many times’ to Calais and other places ‘to discover the enterprises of the English’; captured and tortured seven times, he spent twelve years in an English prison before he managed to escape, but was ultimately rewarded for his services by becoming a pensioner of the French crown. In Paris in September 1432, however, the unlikely traitors were the abbess of Saint-Anthoinedes-Champs and some of her nuns, who were arrested and taken into custody for plotting with the abbess’s nephew to kill the gatekeepers at the Porte Saint-Anthoine and betray the city to the enemy.

Not even Englishmen could always be trusted. At the beginning of June 1432 several Englishmen were executed at Pontoise for plotting with the citizens of the town to betray it to the Armagnacs. Later in the year Thomas Gernes and his companion were captured by the garrison at Domfront. For reasons which were not explained, but perhaps because they had settled on the land or had been captured and were unable to pay their ransoms, they had joined the enemy garrison at the castle of Gontier-sur-Orne. Before they were executed as ‘Englishmen, traitors, thieves, brigands, enemies and adversaries’ the two confessed that they had also committed a ‘certain treason . . . which, quite simply, without having had this confession, could not have been discovered’.

The surest method of preventing such betrayals was to offer peace, security and a plentiful supply of the necessities of life. None of these things was in Bedford’s gift. Even the elements conspired against him. The winter of 1431–2 had been exceptionally long and hard. In January the Seine froze to a depth of two feet all the way upriver from Paris to Corbeil, stopping all the watermills in the city; ships on their way from Rouen to the capital were unable to pass beyond Mantes, so their much-needed cargoes of perishable food rotted. Constant frost, hail and bitter cold throughout the spring destroyed the buds and flowers of fruit and nut trees, ruining the prospects for the autumn harvest. Heavy rains and floods in July were followed by scorching heat in August which burned the vines and made the corn crop fail, creating a shortage of bread but also prolonging the scarcity by ensuring that there would be no stocks of seed corn to plant the following year. Famine and disease always went hand in hand but it was young people and small children who fell victim to the epidemic sweeping through Paris.1

Bedford did what he could to alleviate the situation, concentrating his efforts on trying to prevent Armagnac raids, which disrupted trade and destroyed the countryside, by recapturing their bases. After retaking Louviers he had, at the request of the estates-general of Normandy, kept three hundred men-at-arms and nine hundred archers in the field under the command of lord Willoughby. His specific remit was to recover several fortresses on the Norman frontier within a twenty-mile radius of Sées, including Bonsmoulins and Saint-Cénéry, and substantial sums had been granted to support his campaign.

The reason for targeting these strongholds as a priority was that their captain was Ambroise de Loré, marshal of the duke of Alençon, and on 29 September 1431 he had led seven hundred men in a daring raid from Saint-Cénéry. They had managed to travel undetected for fifty-five miles through the heart of Normandy, the last ten of them with the aid of guides who led them through valleys and covert ways to the outskirts of Caen. Their objective was the annual Michaelmas fair which was always held in the open fields between the town and the abbey of Saint-Étienne.

Their attack came out of the blue. The terrified merchants and citizens abandoned their stalls and goods and fled back towards the town in such numbers that the gatekeepers were unable to open or close the gates for the press of the crowd. Soldiers from the garrison tried to make a sortie to rescue them, but were beaten back so decisively that the Armagnacs were almost within the walls themselves. Loré knew, however, that he did not have enough men to take the town and had the presence of mind to draw his troops back. He had achieved what he wanted, striking terror into the heart of Normandy and gaining a rich haul of merchandise, horses and prisoners. Many of those taken captive were wealthy merchants and citizens of Caen, who were brought back to Bonsmoulins to be held until ransomed: the demand for Guillaume du Val’s business partner alone was 2000 saluts (£160,417) in cash, two lengths of silver cloth and other, more minor items.

When news reached Loré that Willoughby had laid siege to Saint-Cénéry with a huge artillery train, he obtained permission from the duke of Alençon to attempt a relief operation, and set up camp fifteen miles away in two villages either side of the river Sarthe connected only by a single bridge. Getting wind of this, Matthew Gough led a detachment out from the besieging army under cover of night: at dawn he fell upon those in Vivoin, catching them by surprise and overwhelming them.

The cries of those being attacked attracted the attention of those lodged at Beaumont-le-Vicomte, who saw the English standards already flying around Vivoin. Despite being heavily outnumbered, Loré launched a counter-attack with the small force of bowmen available to him, to buy time for the soldiers on the other side of the river to cross over to join him. After several hours of indecisive fighting, during which the Armagnacs were constantly reinforced by those from Beaumont-le-Vicomte filing steadily over the bridge, they eventually carried the day.

The English fled, leaving Matthew Gough a prisoner in enemy hands. It was all the more frustrating that they had actually captured Loré himself, who had been badly wounded, only for him to be rescued before the day was out. Worse still, his men were so infuriated when they mistakenly thought he had been killed that they massacred all their English prisoners in an act of revenge which breached the laws of war. The next day Willoughby abandoned his siege of Saint-Cénéry, leaving behind several of the great guns and siege engines in his haste to withdraw without further losses.

Bedford, meanwhile, was equally unsuccessful. At the beginning of May he had begun his second attempt in two years to relieve Paris by taking Lagny-sur-Marne. Despite throwing several temporary bridges across the Marne and building a fortified encampment surrounded by ditches which was larger than Lagny itself, his troops made no headway. They had to endure floods and a heatwave so powerful that some of the men-at-arms died from heatstroke because they were encased in armour: Bedford himself was said to have collapsed with exhaustion. And long-promised reinforcements from England failed to arrive.

Early in August the Bastard of Orléans, Raoul de Gaucourt, Gilles de Rais and Roderigo de Villandrando brought a large army to the relief of Lagny garrison. While the rest drew up in battle formation and kept the English busy with diversionary skirmishes and attacks on their encampment, Gaucourt slipped into Lagny from the other side with reinforcements and desperately needed supplies. The rest of the Armagnac army then withdrew towards Paris, still in battle formation, forcing Bedford to choose between continuing his siege and pursuing them to prevent an attack on the capital. When Bedford sent a message offering to fight them in a pitched battle, he was told in no uncertain terms that ‘they had done what they came to do’ and there was therefore no need for battle. Without the twelve hundred reinforcements, who were only just embarking from England, Bedford did not have enough men both to maintain the siege and protect Paris. On 20 August 1432 he therefore reluctantly raised his siege and returned to the capital, much to the disgust of its citizens, who were too afraid of the resurgent Armagnacs to venture into the countryside for the grape harvest, so that a shortage of wine was added to the lengthening list of their miseries.

With the Lagny garrison free to continue raiding several times a week up to the gates of Paris and disrupting essential supplies of food and firewood into the capital, the Parisians would continue to suffer the consequences of Bedford’s failure for years to come. Their problems were compounded by the epidemic which continued to rage in the city and, on 13 November, claimed its most important victim. Anne, duchess of Bedford, was twenty-eight years old. Her marriage was childless but her quiet and unobtrusive diplomacy had done much to bolster relations between the two dukes personally and in the wider context of their supporters. ‘She was good and beautiful,’ the citizen of Paris lamented. ‘The Parisians loved her . . . and with her died most of the hope that Paris had, but this had to be endured.’ Her funeral exemplified the union of French and English customs which she and Bedford had promoted. Parisian priests led the processions wearing black stoles and carrying candles. Then, as her body was lowered into the grave, the English took over, singing most movingly, ‘in the fashion of their own country’, the polyphonic music for unaccompanied voices which had been pioneered in the royal chapel and become famous throughout northern Europe.

The severing of this link opened another small but significant crack in the Anglo-Burgundian alliance. The strains were beginning to tell. Burgundy’s announcement of his six-year truce with Charles VII in 1431 had raised popular hopes and expectations that a general peace might follow, especially as it was widely known that the new pope, Eugenius IV, was determined to broker an end to the conflict and had sent his envoy, Cardinal Albergati, to France to mediate a settlement. None of the parties involved had requested or even wanted this intervention but neither could they afford to offend the head of the universal church by refusing to cooperate with his initiative. Their unwillingness to engage in any meaningful way with the peace process doomed the talks to failure.

In November 1432 Albergati chaired a three-way conference at Auxerre between the English, Burgundians and Armagnacs. It soon became clear that nothing concrete could be achieved. All the arguments that would be rehearsed so many times over the coming years were trotted out on this occasion. The English had already decided as long ago as May 1431 that they could not commit Henry VI to a peace treaty while he was still legally a minor, but they were willing to accept a truce. The Armagnacs insisted that the French prisoners held in England since Agincourt should be a party to the proceedings: this was not unreasonable as the dukes of Orléans and Bourbon and the count of Eu were all Armagnac and no lasting peace could be made unless they were reconciled with the Burgundians. They refused, however, even to consider a peace unless Henry first surrendered his claim to the French throne, which was unacceptable to the English.

Philippe of Burgundy, who was in the happy position of being able to play the two sides off against each other, sought only the best possible deal for himself. What he wanted from the Armagnacs, apart from an apology and compensation for the murder of his father, was the cession to him of the county of Champagne. In the end all that could be agreed was that they should meet again in March 1433 and the Agincourt prisoners should be involved. When the commissioners returned to Paris the citizen noted in his journal that they had ‘done nothing except spend a great deal of money and waste their time’, a bitter but accurate description of the intransigence on all sides.

A miserable year for Bedford and the English kingdom of France ended with the unexpected rebellion of a Norman who had been an important supporter of the regime from the beginning of the conquest. Raoul Tesson, sire du Grippon, had submitted early to Henry V and in April 1422 had been rewarded with the gift of all the land and property confiscated from his brother, Jean, who had left Normandy for Armagnac territory and never returned. On 21 August 1429, in the crisis caused by the Pucelle’s victories, Tesson had been appointed captain of Saint-Lô, replacing the earl of Suffolk, who had been captured at Jargeau. It was a significant display of trust in him, for the town was strategically important and had recently been subjected to a number of raids by the garrison of Mont-Saint-Michel During Henry VI’s sojourn in Rouen Tesson had come to swear his oath of loyalty in person to the young king, and in June 1432 he had personally served at the siege of Lagny with a large contingent of twenty-one men-at-arms and sixty-three archers, almost half of whom he had had to find himself.

Six months later, however, Tesson was a ‘traitor and disobedient’. The earl of Arundel was forced to take most of his garrison from Rouen and race to Saint-Lô to resist and repel ‘by battle or otherwise’ the duke of Alençon’s army, which had entered Normandy to take the town by means of Tesson’s treachery. Perhaps as a result of Arundel’s diligence, the attempt to take Saint-Lô failed. Tesson withdrew with his family and household to Mont-Saint-Michel, where in 1433 they participated in a sea raid on Granville, the rocky peninsula at the northernmost point of the bay, capturing several English ships and bringing them back to the island. Tesson’s extensive possessions were confiscated and lands, worth an annual 875l.t. (£51,042), were granted in March 1433 to Richard Merbury, the English captain of Gisors.

Another long, hard winter, with frosts nearly every day until Easter and long periods when the Seine was again frozen, preventing the shipment of supplies into Paris, did nothing to raise spirits. ‘There was no bread eaten in Paris except such as used to be made for dogs’, the citizen complained, ‘and even that was so small that a man’s hand would cover a fourpenny loaf.’ In Calais the garrison became so desperate when the English government failed yet again to pay their wages that they mutinied: they seized the wool belonging to the merchants of the Staple, the company which held the monopoly on the export of English wool, and forcibly ejected Sir William Oldhall, Bedford’s deputy in the town.

For Bedford these setbacks were made worse by the knowledge that he could expect little or no aid from England, where Gloucester’s government was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. The previous year had seen only one English expedition sent to France: led by lords Camoys and Hungerford, it had consisted of only twelve hundred men and its departure had been delayed until August because no money was available to pay its wages until Gloucester and Cardinal Beaufort had settled their quarrel, reopening the stream of loans from Beaufort. Once again it had been too little too late, and as a consequence Lagnysur-Marne had been lost.

The situation had not improved over the winter and Bedford faced the prospect of beginning a new campaigning season without substantial support from either England or Burgundy. It was perhaps for this reason that he decided to align himself more closely with one family which had remained steadfastly loyal and supportive. Louis de Luxembourg, bishop of Thérouanne, was a former president of the chambre-des-comptes in Paris, a member of the Norman council and, since 1424, chancellor of France; his brother, Jehan de Luxembourg, count of Guise and Ligny, had consistently provided military support in the field and served in person regularly with the Anglo-Burgundian army. Their brother, Pierre, was count of Saint-Pol, in Artois, and it was his daughter, Jacquetta, that Louis de Luxembourg suggested Bedford should marry.

The marriage meant that Bedford could continue to rely on the military support of the house of Luxembourg but it also had political advantages. It strengthened ties with the Low Countries, where England had substantial trading and economic interests, and with the Emperor Sigismund, who was Jacquetta’s cousin. It also rejuvenated Bedford’s own territorial ambitions in Artois, which had been thwarted by the death of Anne of Burgundy and the birth of a legitimate son and heir to her brother. His new bride, who was just seventeen, ‘frisky, beautiful and gracious’, might provide the forty-three-year-old Bedford with a legitimate heir. (He already had two bastards from liaisons before he married Anne.) After all, Philippe of Burgundy had had two childless marriages yet his third wife, Isabella, was now expecting his second son. (Philippe allegedly managed the prodigious feat of fathering twenty-six bastards, though only one of his three legitimate sons survived infancy.)

The marriage was celebrated in Artois on 20 April 1433 at Louis de Luxembourg’s episcopal seat of Thérouanne. Whatever political advantages Bedford may have hoped to gain by it were nullified by the reaction of the duke of Burgundy. Philippe was offended by both the haste of the remarriage and the fact that the count of Saint-Pol had not sought his permission for it, as he was bound to do because the duke was his feudal overlord. It was a further affront to Burgundy’s dignity that the wedding had taken place within his own county of Artois, albeit in a royal enclave that was not subject to his jurisdiction.

Cardinal Beaufort, who had always enjoyed a good personal relationship with Burgundy, was so concerned about the situation and its potential to split the Anglo-Burgundian alliance that he organised a special meeting between the two dukes at Saint-Omer at the end of May. His object was to effect a reconciliation but he had not counted on the depth of personal pride and pique involved. Both dukes arrived in the town but neither would make the first move to accept the subservient role of visiting the other: Bedford claimed precedence as regent; Burgundy refused to cede it because Saint-Omer was in his territory. Nothing Beaufort could do or say would persuade them to put aside their differences and they left Saint-Omer without having met. It was, like the coronation, another opportunity lost, for they would never meet again.

ALARCOS, 19 July 1195

Lying between Christian Toledo and Muslim Cordoba, the plains around Calatrava were strategically crucial during the decades on either side of 1200. That is why the Knights of Calatrava had fortified the site and constructed other castles in the region. In 1195, caliph al-Mansur won a victory at Alarcos, and seized the fortresses; but in 121 2 the combined forces of Christian Spain turned the tables at Las Navas de Tolosa. This was to prove a decisive point in the progress of the Reconquista. From now on the Muslim states were militarily outmatched.


The arrival of the Almohads in the 1140s had thrown the Christians back on the defensive. In these circumstances, their kings were quite happy to sponsor Muslim buffer states. Sayf ad Dawla, the independent king of Saragossa, took Murcia and Valencia in 1146, but died soon afterwards. His successor in the region was Ibn Mardanish – ‘king Wolf – who although a Muslim spoke Spanish and used Christian troops and equipment. He survived until 1172 at Murcia, dying deserted by his Christian allies. The Military Orders now played the greatest role in frontier warfare, as the Knights of Calatrava illustrate.

They had been established in 1156 to protect Toledo and guard the route south. Alfonso VIII of Castile (1158-1214) recognized the strategic importance of the ‘Campo de Calatrava’ and was an enthusiastic patron. By 1174, he had granted them rights to every castle captured from the enemy, one-fifth of his future conquests, and one-tenth of royal revenues. The king of Aragon also rewarded them for the capture of Cuenca in 1177, with Alcañiz castle, to help advance his borders further south of the Ebro. In 1182, the Order was further strengthened by a pact with the rival Knights of Santiago, reinforced in 1188.

In 1190, the Almohad caliph, al-Mansur, responded to truce-breaking Castilian raids by bringing a large invasion force from Africa to Cordoba. In June, Alfonso VIII mustered at Toledo and then advanced to Alarcos, where he was constructing a town. In early July, his reconnaissance force was annihilated at Salvatierra. Al-Mansur then outmaneuvered the Christians and inflicted a heavy defeat upon them at Alarcos. As a result, the Knights lost Calatrava and many other castles. When the Almohads followed up by attacking in the Tagus valley, the Order’s Master made the daring decision to occupy Salvatierra, now deep in Muslim territory (1196). While Alfonso VIII made a truce with the Ahmohads, Peter II of Aragon (1196-1213) went on the offensive, and gave the Knights strong support in the Ebro valley area.

The battle

A large force of Almohades under Abu Yusuf Ya’qub al-Mansur defeated a much smaller Castilian army under Alfonso Vlll. The Moslems drew up with their first line made up of Andalusian cavalry on the right and Almohades . on the left and centre (the latter comprising the army’s veterans), with a second line of African troops arrayed in close order, mostly bow-and javelin-armed. ln addition there was a reserve division several thousand-strong which included Negro guardsmen.

Alfonso’s 8,000 cavalry broke through the centre of the Moslem front line at their third charge, but the gap thus created was dosed behind them and, disorganised and unsupported by infantry, they were surrounded by the Almohade archers and cavalry of the second line and decimated by volleys of arrows and javelins. Even Alfonso’s rearguard, which he led into the fray in a last desperate effort, was unable to retrieve the situation. After this the Moslems’ front line rallied and made a general advance against the Castilian infantry who, without the support of their cavalry, were rapidly routed with heavy losses. Some made a stand in a pass between La Zarzuela and Darazutan but were killed or taken captive. Others, including Alfonso himself and the Master of Calatrava, escaped to the castle of Guadalherza, while yet others took refuge in Alarcos, which the Almohades subsequently captured.

20-25,000 Castilians were reputedly killed or taken captive in the battle, the Master of Santiago being amongst the dead, while legend has it that the Moslems lost only 500 men.


The major victory in a pitched battle against the army of Alfonso VIII of Castile at Alarcos was followed by a series of highly profitable raids on Christian territory, as at Trujillo and even before the walls of Toledo and, less successfully, at Madrid and Guadalaljara. Muslim allies were also present when a Christian coalition invaded Castile. Taken together, these sorties, in their effect and in geographical scope, were the high-water mark of Almohad power.

By 1198 al-Mansur clearly felt it was time to return to Marrakesh and see to the less exciting aspects of running his empire. Upon returning, however, he suddenly took ill and, in 1199, died. Al-Mansur had been a more serious military man than his father, and his successes against his foes in al-Andalus (and elsewhere) reflect that. But for him as for all the Almohads, it is worth putting all this military activity in context. As with the Saljuqs and Ayyubids in the east, jihad was just one aspect of a broader attempt on the part of the Almohads to reform society and legitimize their state. Al-Mansur’s campaigns thus went hand in hand with the administrative reforms he enacted from Marrakesh and pious gestures such as building programs, fortification of cities, and, most notably, putting on trial in Cordoba the famous (or perhaps infamous) philosopher Averroes (Ibn Rushd), whose teachings had led to accusations of heterodoxy on the part of some of the Andalusi religious classes. Who could reject a caliph who policed orthodoxy, buttressed justice in his kingdom, and kept the predations of the infidels at bay?

Al-Mansur was succeeded by his son al-Nasir, who, aside from successfully capturing Majorca from its Muslim lords, was not the warrior his father was. Although he came to power in 1199, al-Nasir engaged in no activity against the Franks of al-Andalus until 1211. That at least was a small success at Calatrava in retaliation for Christian raids over the previous years in the Levante. But this triumph was overshadowed by a defeat-perhaps the most significant of all-in 1212. It was in that year that King Alfonso VIII of Castile, assisted by a coalition of Christians from Spain and beyond, marched south to revenge himself against al-Nasir and to reclaim lands and strongholds that had been lost to the Almohads in previous years. Al-Nasir preferred to wait and see, perhaps hoping that scarce supplies would force the Christians to withdraw, as had happened so often in the past. While the Almohad army encamped in waiting at a place called al-‘Iqab, Alfonso marched on them by an unexpected route and, on July 16, caught them unawares. Confounded, it seems, by divisions within the Muslim forces, the caliph fled almost as soon as Alfonso arrived, and the Almohad army was routed. As the chronicler al-Marrakushi (d. 1270) put it, “The main reason for this defeat was the divisions in the hearts of the Almohads. In the time of [the caliph al-Mansur] they drew their pay every four months without fail. But in the time of this [caliph, al-Nasir], and especially during this particular campaign, their payment was in arrears. They attributed this to the viziers, and marched to battle bearing this grudge. I have heard from several of them that they did not draw their swords nor train their spears, nor did they take any part in the preparations for battle. They fled at the first assault of the Franks, having intended to do so from the start.” As it happened, supply problems did vex Alfonso, and he was not able to build upon this victory; the major Muslim cities of the area, Cordoba, Granada, and Jaen, remained safe. But the damage was done. Al-Nasir shipped back to Marrakesh, where, in 1213, he was killed by one of his own men. The Battle of al-‘Iqab, or, as it is known in the West, of Las Navas de Tolosa, would emerge as one of the most decisive engagements ever fought on the Iberian Peninsula and marked the end of Almohad power.

After al-‘Iqab, Almohad collapse came swiftly.

Almohades’ Christian mercenaries

The Murabits’ briefera ofsupremacy ended with the fall of Marrakesh in 1145 and the death of their last amir, Tashulin ibn Ali (1143-45), at the hands of a new Berber religious sect, the Almohades (ai-Muwahhidun, ‘unitarians’). This movement bad been founded by a chieftain’s son named Ibn Tuman who, claiming in 1121 to be the Mahdi prophesied by Mohammed, succeeded in uniting the Masmuda Berbers of the Atlas Mountains against the puritanical and (he argued) heretical Murabits, who were anyway the traditional enemies of the Masmudis. They commenced guerilla actions against the Murabits in 1121 and, although these initially met with only limited success, they were nevertheless able to undermine the structure of the Murabit state and increase the disaffection felt by the over-taxed and poorly governed Moroccan populace. Under Ibn Tuman’s successor Abd al-Mu’min (1130-63, proclaimed Caliph in 1133), Almohade control was established throughout North Africa by 1147 and extended to Moslem Spain in 1149, most of which was soon subdued by an army of just 30,000 men.

The composition of the Almohade army fundamentally differed little from that of the Murabits, consisting of Masmudis and other Berbers (the Zanata and Marinids being specifically mentioned on many occasions) plus Arabs, Ghuzz, Sudanese and the inevitable corps of Christian mercenaries, the so-called ‘Militia Christiana’.

The Almohades’ first Christian mercenaries were probably inherited from the Murabits, appearing in Abd al -Mu’min’s army by 1147 (in fact, it may even have been Christian mercenaries who actually admitted the Almohades into Marrakesh in 1145). Referred to as the Banu Farkhan or Ifarkhan, they were soon regarded with the same respect as they had enjoyed under the Murabits, ironically being held in higher regard and paid at considerably higher rates than were the mercenaries in Christian Spanish armies. Under Abu Yusuf Ya’qub al-Mansur (1184-99) a Castilian knight, Pedro Fernwdez de Castro, commander of 100 mercenary cavalry, even became ‘Captain-General’ of the Almobade forces in Spain and was in the army that defeated the Christians at Alarcos. After 1169, however, Christian mercenaries are not recorded in the Maghreb itself until 1228, when Caliph Abu’l Ula al-Ma’mun, in exchange for the surrender of territory in Spain, was allowed to hire allegedly 12,000 Castilian cavalry (or, more credibly, 500 according to a Moslem source) from King Ferdinand Ill for use against the pretender Yahya. These provided the core of the Almobade army until at least 1236, and the Christian mercenary who killed the Marinid amir Mohammed Abu Marraf in battle in 1244 was perhaps one of their number. The last mention of Christian mercenaries in Almobade employ, by now predominantly Castilians and Catalans, dates to 1248 when, following the death of Abu Sa’id during his attack on Zayanid-held Tlemcen, some defected to the Zayanids while others went over to the up-and-coming Marinids. The Zayanids of Tlemcen, in fact, had been hiring Christian troops since c. 1236, when they reputedly numbered 2,000 men. Others probably switched their allegiance to the Zayanids’ overlords, the Hafsids of Tunis, who are known to have been employing Christian mercenaries by c. 1249. In Hafsid employ they were chiefly Catalans, part of their salary being paid directly to the Aragonese royal treasury while the King of Aragon actually had the right to appoint and dismiss their commander (called the alcayt, from Arabic al-qa’id). In both Zayanid and Hafsid employ it was these Christian mercenary cavalry, along with Negro infantry, who provided the royal bodyguard.

Varna 1444 Part I

Pinned against the Black Sea coast, the crusaders had little recourse other than to fight their way out of their predicament. King Ladislas’s charge against Mehmed’s heavily defended position was suicidal.

Hungarian and Polish crusaders marched into Bulgaria in 1444 determined to defeat the Ottoman army. The opponents met at Varna in a tight contest of arms.

During the mid-14th century, a new theater of the crusades erupted, this time on the doorstep of Christian Europe. The Ottoman Turks, once just one of many pastoral Turkic tribes wandering the Anatolian steppe, had united into a powerful and sophisticated military state. Under the leadership of a series of brilliant sultans, they had expanded steadily westward, mostly at the expense of the aging and decaying Byzantine Empire. After conquering most of Anatolia, they crossed the Hellespont and established themselves in the Balkans, even moving their capital to the city of Adrianople, which they renamed Edirne.

The Ottomans were fortuitous to have arrived in Europe at a time when the entire continent seemed to be coming apart at the seams: the Byzantine Empire was barely clinging to life; England and France were locked in a ruinous Hundred Years’ War; the Italian city states were consumed by greed and mutual hatred; the Papacy was divided by schism and rival popes; and even the once powerful Balkan kingdoms of Serbia and Bulgaria were beset by dynastic problems. Worse still, Genoese galleys in 1347 had unwittingly carried the Black Plague to every harbor on the Continent, devastating the population and economy.

Not surprisingly, Christian Europe’s response to the new Ottoman threat was slow, half-hearted, and uncoordinated. In 1396, after subjugating Bulgaria and reducing Serbia to a vassal, Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I began to threaten Hungary. The Hungarian king and Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund of Luxembourg, appealed to Pope Boniface XI for help and a crusade was called. Nobles from Western Europe travelled to Hungary to help repel the Ottomans.

The Nicopolis Crusade, as the campaign is remembered, was a disaster. The Catholic nobles behaved like a drunken mob on the march south through the Danube corridor, massacring Turkish prisoners, abusing the local Orthodox peasantry, and refusing to follow orders. When they met Bayezid in battle, they repeated the mistakes of Crecy and Poitiers and launched foolhardy cavalry charges that succeeded only in wearing out their own horses. After a fierce fight, Sigismund and what was left of his army were forced to flee back to Hungary, leaving thousands of prisoners behind to be executed in revenge for their earlier atrocities.

Much to the relief of Christian Europe, just six years later Bayezid was himself defeated and captured by the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane at the Battle of Ankara. The loss of the sultan plunged the Ottoman Empire into a decade-long civil war from which, for a period of time, it looked as if it would never recover. Bayezid’s youngest son emerged the victor as Sultan Mehmed I. He restored order and rebuilt the military. By the time he died in 1421, his son Murad II was in good position to once again resume hostilities against Christian Europe.

Stern, aggressive, and clear in his sense of duty and purpose, Murad was exactly the type of ruler the empire needed after years of disorder. He was deeply religious and styled himself the Ghazi Sultan, a champion of Islam sworn to spread the faith and protect the faithful. He had no patience for dispute or dissent, even from his own household. When his headstrong son, the future Mehmed II, refused to listen to his tutors, he ordered the boy beaten into submission. On another occasion, when a renowned and respected imam scolded him for drinking alcohol, ironically his one major indulgence, he had him thrown into prison.

Murad began his reign by laying siege to Constantinople. He failed to take the city but forced Byzantine Emperor John VIII to agree to a humiliating peace that basically ceded away all the territory outside the city walls. Murad then began a series of campaigns to reassert the empire’s control over the Balkans. First, he subdued the Venetians, the dominant power in the eastern Mediterranean, by ravaging their possessions in Greece and Albania and taking the rich city of Thessaloniki. Next, he marched north, reclaiming lost territory and forcing the rebellious Serbian Despot George Brankovic to seek sanctuary in Hungary.

It was on the Hungarian frontier that Murad’s forces encountered one of the most brilliant soldiers of the age. John Hunyadi’s origins are mysterious and widely contested. He was of relatively lowborn stock and was believed to have fabricated his own family crest and noble lineage. As a young man, he entered the service of King Sigismund, with whom he travelled across Central Europe and Italy. There he mastered the prevailing tactics and strategies of the time and soon became one of Sigismund’s most valuable commanders.

Hunyadi was posted to Hungary’s restless southern border at just about the same time that hostilities were once again arising with the advancing Ottomans. There he cleverly adapted the tactics he had learned abroad to the narrow valleys and rugged foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. In 1441 he was made voivode of Transylvania, and in the following few years he won a series of stunning victories that made him famous throughout Europe as the “White Knight of Transylvania.” The nickname spoke to both his celebrated reputation as a defender of Christendom and the shining suit of Milanese plate armor he wore into battle.

In 1443 Hunyadi achieved one of his greatest successes in a whirlwind offensive known as the Long Campaign. While Murad was distracted with revolts in Greece and Albania, Hunyadi invaded Serbia, then crossed the Balkan Mountains in the dead of winter and overran most of Bulgaria. In the process he defeated three Ottoman armies sent to stop him. He might have pressed even farther had he not been hampered by the weather and a lack of supplies. Regardless, that spring he returned to Buda in triumph, and a shocked Murad sent peace envoys to offer very generous terms.

Hunyadi’s forces were exhausted and he was equally as eager to come to terms; however, he had a powerful patron with ambitions of his own. In his capacity as Hungarian voivode, Hunyadi served 19-year-old King Ladislas who held the dual crowns of Poland and Hungary. As king of Hungary, Ladislas was responsible for securing Hungary’s southern frontier against the Ottomans. As far as Hunyadi was concerned, this objective had been achieved. But Ladislas, being young, glory hungry, and imbued from birth with the ideals of Christian chivalry, believed the Ottomans were on the verge of being expelled from Europe altogether.

Ladislas was himself also under pressure from Pope Eugene IV-more specifically, his papal envoy Cardinal Giuliano Cesarini. The cardinal had supported Ladislas’s election to the Hungarian throne. In so doing, he became a close confidant of the young monarch. He shared Ladislas’s belief that the Ottomans were on their last legs. Cesarini believed that freeing the Orthodox peoples of the Balkans would bring the two churches closer together and lay the groundwork for a reunification of the two branches of Christianity. While peace negotiations with the Ottomans were under way in April 1444, Ladislas took a solemn oath to lead a crusade by year’s end.

Murad and Ladislas agreed to a 10-year truce in June that Ladislas clearly had no intention of keeping. A strange series of events then followed. The sultan, fully planning to honor the agreement, withdrew from Europe with his army to lead a punitive campaign against one of his rebellious Anatolian vassals. Having secured both his Asian and European frontiers, he then shocked the world by announcing that he was exhausted by the strain of constant campaigning and was abdicating the throne in favor of 12-year-old Mehmed.

In Christian Europe, news of Murad’s abdication caused a flurry of excitement, particularly in Hungary where both Cesarini and Ladislas believed that with the Ottoman Army far away in Anatolia, and an inexperienced child on the throne, a golden opportunity had presented itself. Cesarini immediately declared the truce to be void on the basis that an agreement with an infidel was not worth the paper it was printed on. At a diet in Buda, Ladislas boldly declared that he would drive the Ottomans out of Europe.

An audacious plan was drawn up by which Ladislas, with Hunyadi as his commander in chief, would lead a crusader army south along the route of the Danube River into Ottoman-controlled Bulgaria, proceeding as far as the Black Sea coast. When the crusader army arrived at the coast it would rendezvous with a Venetian fleet that would resupply it for the final leg of its march to Edirne. All the while, the Venetians would blockade the straits between Europe and Asia, trapping Murad and his army in Anatolia and ensuring that the crusaders would be relatively unopposed as they rampaged across the Balkans. It was also hoped that the various peoples of the Balkans would take the opportunity to rise up against their Ottoman overlords, further clearing the way for the crusaders.

To accomplish this ambitious undertaking, Ladislas had at his disposal an army of 16,000 men. It was a multinational force made up of Hungarians, Poles, and Papal troops. Within each group were smaller ethnic contingents from across the diverse peoples of Central and Eastern Europe. For example, the Polish contingent included Lithuanians and Ruthenians. The Hungarian and Transylvanian troops included Croatians, Szeklers, and Saxons. Prince Vlad II of Wallachia, the father of the future Vlad the Impaler, contributed 4,000 horsemen led by his son Mircea II. These wild riders of the Carpathian frontier were among the most exotic of the crusader forces, easily distinguished by their short round beards, tall fur caps, and a lack of armor, which they considered unmanly.

Despite his generous contribution, Vlad voiced grave concerns over the coming campaign. He warned Ladislas that the sultan’s hunting party alone would outnumber the crusaders. He was not the only one to have doubts. Hunyadi also desperately wanted to abide by the hard-won peace treaty and did everything he could to convince Ladislas to change his plans. Brankovic, who Hunyadi had recently restored to power, believed that diplomacy was the best way to secure his kingdom’s survival and not only refused to participate, but actively sought to dissuade other Balkan rulers from doing so.

These protestations had no influence on Ladislas, who refused to break his crusader vow. On September 18, 1444, he led his army across the Danube River into Ottoman territory. At first things went well. The crusaders made slow but steady progress, taking Ottoman strongholds along the way and winning the support of the local Christians. The news of the invasion caused a wave of panic in Edirne that led to riots and the flight of much of the population.

It was not until the crusaders reached Nicopolis that they encountered their first real resistance. The town fell easily enough, but the Ottoman garrison in the nearby fortress refused to surrender and fought doggedly. The crusaders decided to bypass the fortress, but much to their vexation, the farther they advanced, the fiercer the resistance seemed to become. Ladislas also grew frustrated by how his troops seemed to show more interest in booty and plunder than in fulfilling their crusader vows. He and the other commanders consoled themselves with the knowledge that at least Murad and his army were far away in Anatolia, safely contained by the Venetian fleet.

It soon became apparent that the crusaders had not banked on two crucial factors. The first was the surprising wisdom and self-awareness of the young Sultan Mehmed. Upon receiving news of the crusade, he immediately sent his father a stern letter demanding that he return to the throne. “If you are the Sultan, come and lead the armies,” he wrote. “If I am the Sultan, I order you to come and lead the armies.” Murad did as his son asked and returned to power, bringing with him his years of experience and the loyal respect of the Ottoman army and people.

The other factor was the greed of the Venetians’ hated rivals, the Genoese. For the exorbitant price of a ducat a head they agreed to transport Murad and his army across the straits. In mid-October, while the crusaders were still busy battling their way along the Danube, Murad crossed into Europe right under the nose of the Venetians. He immediately began marching north to confront the invaders, rallying together as many more men as he could along the way. By the end of the month, his force had grown to 60,000 men. By November 8, less than three weeks since crossing the straits, he was only a day’s march from the exhausted crusaders who had only just reached the city of Varna on the Black Sea.

On November 9, 1444, scouts under the command of Michael Szilagyi, Hunyadi’s brother-in-law and one of his most trusted captains, spotted the Ottoman army advancing in full battle array to a plain five miles west of Varna where they set up camp. Ladislas called his commanders to council and they all agreed the time had come to fight. In truth, they had no real other option. The ground to the north of Varna was hilly and rugged and impossible for an army to traverse. The Black Sea and Lake Devno to the south formed a narrow, marshy isthmus that was just as uninviting. Furthermore, there was still no sign of the Venetian fleet, meaning no evacuation or resupply would be available to the army.

After months of endless marches and gruelling sieges, the crusaders were also eager to finally come to grips with the enemy. Ladislas brimmed with the confidence and exuberance of youth, and he surrounded himself with a retinue of young Hungarian and Polish noblemen, all just as headstrong and idealistic. Hunyadi was also confident. The conditions in which he had to fight were far from ideal, but he had been in tough spots before and he was yet to lose a battle to the Ottomans. “To escape is impossible, to surrender is unthinkable,” Hunyadi declared at the council of war. “Let us fight with bravery and honor our arms!”

The order to prepare for battle in the morning rang out through the crusader camp. Cesarini gave a final mass in which he promised those who fell in battle a place in heaven. That evening Ladislas sent 5,000 horsemen to keep watch on Murad’s forces camped to the west and report on any movement. As the scouts peered into the darkening night, they could see the huge Ottoman bonfires licking the sky and hear the ominous rumbling of their war drums. Both armies slept that night in their armor and with their horses saddled.

One hour after sunrise Murad broke camp and began deploying his forces in a wide concave arc that stretched for five and half miles across the plain approaching Varna. His strategy was to use his numerical superiority to envelop the crusaders. On his left he deployed the army of Rumelia under Beylerbey Sehabeddin, while on his right he placed the army of Anatolia led by his son-in-law Beylerbey Karaca. The Anatolian and Rumelian troops were composed mainly of sipahi cavalry, although both were also screened by a line of azab light infantry. The sipahi were in many ways the Ottoman equivalent of the Christian knights in that they were a feudal levy that was granted fiefs in exchange for military service. They carried swords, lances, bows, and shields and wore a combination of plate and mail armor. When called to war, they brought with them their own retainers who they themselves armed. The azabs were armed with halberds, maces, sabers, and bows.

Murad positioned himself on a low hill in the center of the Ottoman line. Below he placed a line of azabs, as well as his janissaries. The janissaries were the elite of the Ottoman military, easily distinguished from other units by their tall felt caps. They were slave soldiers who had been snatched from their Christians families in the Balkans and raised to be devoted warriors of the sultan and of Islam. They were extremely skilled hand-to-hand fighters and carried a range of weapons, including bows, swords, shields, spears, and knives. Some carried arquebuses, the early gunpowder weapon that was inaccurate from a distance but deadly at close range.

Varna 1444 Part II

Despite this clear numerical advantage, the sultan was not taking any chances. He knew Hunyadi to be an extremely talented commander, and he also knew from experience how wary his troops could be particularly when facing heavily armored Christian knights. At the base of the hill, Murad ordered a trench dug and lined with iron stakes. As a further precaution, he also placed at the top of the hill 500 camels laden with sacks of gold and rich silks. Should his position be comprised, these sacks were to be cut open, creating a distraction that would give him time to escape.

Hunyadi was indeed an exceptionally talented commander. He immediately recognized Murad’s envelopment strategy and planned accordingly. He deployed his forces in a convex formation two miles outside of Varna at a point where the plain narrowed between the marshlands to the south and rough high ground to the north. His strategy was to pin down the Ottoman flanks and funnel their troops onto the plain where their superiority in numbers would be negated and the heavily armored crusader cavalry had the advantage.

On his left by the marshlands he placed his Transylvanian troops under the command of Szilagyi. These were the hardiest and most experienced of his forces, veterans of the Long Campaign and innumerable other battles and skirmishes with the Ottomans. Most were light or medium cavalry units, highly mobile and used to fighting in the difficult terrain of the Carpathian frontier. The infantrymen were armed with swords and long halberds for cutting down cavalry and well-protected by mail hauberks and iron helmets and gauntlets. The heaviest of the Transylvanian troops were the Saxons knights, who fought encased in armor from head to toe.

On the crusader right, below the high ground to the north, Hunyadi placed the Papal contingent under Cesarini, the Wallachian horsemen under the command of Mircea II, and most of his Hungarian heavy infantry. Hunyadi knew that the Ottomans would try to outflank him from the high ground and he gave the commanders on his right flank orders to prevent this at all costs. It was for this reason that he assigned some of his most heavily armed and armored troops to this crucial position. As the Ottoman horsemen struggled to maneuver down the high ground, they were to be pinned down by a wall of steel.

In the center of the crusader army were 4,000 troops under the command of Stephen Bathory, the Palatine of Hungary. Above them flew the crusader banner of St. George. These men included the king’s 500-man bodyguard, which was composed of heavily armored knights drawn from the cream of the Polish and Hungarian nobility. Their shields, banners, surcoats, and livery were emblazoned with a colorful assortment of heraldic patterns and imagery, representing some of the foremost families in Eastern Europe. Mounted astride massive, well-trained destriers and boasting the best arms and armor of the age, this small but elite force was the mailed fist of the crusader army. It was Hunyadi’s intention to use it to tip the scales at decisive moments during the battle.

Behind the main crusader force, Hunyadi placed a defensive line of war wagons, crewed by experienced Czech mercenaries. These vehicles had come into popularity in Eastern European warfare following their use in the Hussite Wars that ended a decade earlier. Each wagon was a sturdy mini-fort in which three to four crossbowmen or hand gunners could fire in relative safety through portholes in the reinforced wooden sides. When strapped together in a square or long line, the war wagons proved a surprisingly difficult defensive fortification to overcome and could do much to strengthen a weak or outnumbered battle line. They also provided his outnumbered troops with the psychological assurance that there was a defensive line to fall back to should the battle not go their way.

For three hours the two sides watched each other deploy. During this time the weather remained calm and tranquil. Just as the two sides appeared ready to come to blows, a fierce wind suddenly blew across the plain from the sea, snapping the poles of the majority of the crusader standards. Among the few poles that remained unbroken was that bearing the standard of St. George. Many crusaders saw this as an evil portend of what was to come, despite immediate reassurances from Cesarini and various priests that it was indeed a good sign. Murad must have also seen this as a bad auspice for the crusaders because he immediately gave the order to attack.

The first into battle were the azab irregulars who raced ahead of the main Ottoman forces to harry the crusaders and goad them into breaking formation. As they advanced, the entire Ottoman line erupted in a deafening din of blaring horns, crashing symbols, thundering kettle drums, and resounding cries of “Allah Akbar.” The crusaders responded by crossing themselves and sounding their own trumpets and battle cries.

The Saxon knights on Hunaydi’s left were the first to respond to the enemy’s provocations. Ignoring Szilagyi’s orders to keep formation, they burst from the battle line and easily smashed through the lightly armed azabs. Following the irregulars were the well-trained and disciplined sipahis. When they saw the heavily armored Saxons coming right at them, they expertly parted their ranks to let them pass through, then surrounded them and attacked from all sides. They hacked and slashed furiously at the encircled knights only to discover that their light cavalry sabers could not penetrate the Saxons’ heavy plate armor. The Saxons in turn took a fearful toll on the Ottoman horsemen, skewering many with their long lances and hewing down many more with their double-edged swords.

Szilagyi led the rest of the Crusader left in an attack to save the Saxons. Unfortunately, such was the Ottomans’ superiority in numbers that soon he too was on the verge of being enveloped. Hunyadi saw this and he ordered Mircea to break from the crusader right and rescue the erstwhile rescuers. The wily Wallachians had a seething hatred for the Ottomans with whom they had been in almost constant conflict for over a century, and they took to their task with enthusiasm. What they lacked in armor they made up for in reckless bravery and remarkable horse archery. Astride their nimble mountain ponies, they weaved through the Ottoman ranks, unleashing rapid but lethally accurate volleys of arrows from their powerful bows.

Mircea’s fierce attack successfully restored the situation on the crusader left; however, it also weakened the right wing where the Ottomans had managed to maneuver up the high ground and were now pouring down the slopes, azabs in the lead and sipahis close behind. The crusaders dug in their spears and halberds and received the attack as best as they could but were quickly overwhelmed by the size and speed of the enemy force bearing down on them. More and more men began fleeing toward the safety of the war wagons. As they fled, they crashed into advancing comrades, creating panic and confusion.

For a time it looked as if the whole right flank was in danger of collapsing. In some places, the sipahis even managed to break through the line entirely and reach the war wagons where luckily they were temporarily halted by fire from the Czech mercenaries. The Ottoman left was composed of the sultan’s Rumelian troops who were more seasoned in fighting Christian armies. They knew from bitter experience that their swords and spears were useless against the heavy crusader armor and instead turned to the concussive force of their maces and war hammers. Some of these bone-shattering weapons also had flanged edges or sharp spikes that could bite through an iron helmet and a man’s skull along with it.

The Turks captured four crusader banners before Cesarini managed to rally 200 men for a desperate stand beneath the banner of St. Ladislas. They formed a hedgehog with knights and infantry in front and archers and crossbowmen behind. While units all around them fled in disorder, they stood like a breakwater, deflecting wave after wave of enemy attacks. At one point, 3,000 Ottomans bore down on them, but still they held their position and the banner of St. Ladislas continued to billow defiantly overhead. Hunyadi eventually noticed the desperate situation and reacted accordingly. He led a portion of the king’s bodyguard in a counterattack that temporarily thwarted the Ottomans.

While Hunyadi was desperately trying to restore order on the crusader right, the situation on the left was actually beginning to swing in his favor. His Transylvanian veterans, used to the Ottomans’ fighting methods, had parried every attempt at encirclement and refused to give chase to any of the enemy’s feigned retreats. Frustrated and having suffered heavy losses, Beylerbey Karaca’s men began to lose heart and leave the field. Karaca refused to join them. He let out a bellowing battle cry, spurred his horse forward, and charged straight into the enemy line, no doubt hoping to inspire his fleeing men to do the same.

It was an incredibly courageous act but ultimately counterproductive. After a brief struggle, a crusader knight killed Karaca. The sight of their commander being felled took the fight out of the remaining Anatolian troops and they began to flee. Hunyadi noticed this and took advantage of the situation to transfer troops from his left wing to his right where the battle was once again raging fiercely. Ladislas also committed his full bodyguard, and together with Hunyadi they made a thundering charge that smashed through the attacking Ottomans and drove them back up into the high ground. The crusaders pursued them for a few miles then returned to the plain.

A lull occurred in the fighting at that point. It was late afternoon and both sides were utterly exhausted. The battlefield was a charnel ground. Bodies lay everywhere, many hideously mutilated by the intense close-quarter hand-to-hand fighting. The ground itself had been completely torn up by the thousands of men and horses crisscrossing in all directions, and it was littered with discarded weapons and armor. As the tumult of battle subsided, the wails and groans of the wounded filled the air, which reeked of the acrid combination of blood, sweat, filth, and gunpowder. Hunyadi himself had been slightly wounded in the head by an arrow that had managed to partially pierce his helmet.

Ladislas, Hunyadi, and the other crusader commanders met behind the wagon line to discuss their next moves. At first glance, it appeared that they had won a spectacular victory. Both Murad’s right and left wings were in retreat and he had suffered ghastly casualties; however, the crusaders had also suffered mightily. Given that they had been significantly outnumbered to begin with, they felt their losses even more acutely than the Ottomans did. Moreover, the crusaders’ mounts were either dead or spent. A great many had been killed or wounded and those that remained were worn out from the terrible strain of rushing around the battlefield for hours with heavily armored riders on their backs.

Hunyadi urged the king to rest his men then reform his lines and wait for Murad to make the next move. He had been in similar situations before and knew that so long as the crusaders held firm, the stilted Ottoman attacks would eventually peter out, forcing the sultan to either sue for peace or retreat back to Edirne. It was prudent advice, and though the crusaders had no way of knowing it for certain, it was actually completely accurate. Across the battlefield, a despondent Murad was indeed preparing to rally what was left of his scattered forces and withdraw.

Unfortunately, young Ladislas had fallen victim to his own vanity and the misguided advice of his bodyguard. They had not incurred as many casualties as the other crusader units and were emboldened by the seeming ease with which they had put the Ottoman left wing to flight. They were also jealous of Hunyadi’s influence over Ladislas and his position as commander in chief of the crusader army. They convinced the king to seize the initiative and launch one more glorious attack directly on Murad’s position. Otherwise, it would be Hunyadi who would receive the credit for the victory and perhaps even the entire crusade.

When Hunyadi heard what Ladislas was planning, he was aghast and pleaded with him to reconsider. The king would not hear it. Instead he rode out with his bodyguard to a point in the plain looking directly out on Murad’s position and arrayed his men for a charge. Though they were relatively few in number, they must have looked resplendent on the open plain with their armor glistening in the sun, banners and livery blowing in the breeze, and lances and swords cutting the air. When he was satisfied with the formation, Ladislas drew his sword and spurred his horse forward.

With king in the lead, the crusaders advanced at first at a trot, then a canter, then finally broke into a full gallop. The pounding of their horses’ hooves was like a rolling thunder on the plain, which had fallen surprisingly quiet since the battle subsided. All eyes, Christian and Muslim, were fixated on this incredible display of martial prowess and chivalric tradition. Ottoman scribes would later describe how the dust cloud thrown up by the crusaders’ mounts was so great that it blotted out the sun.

Watching from his fortified hill, Murad could hardly believe his eyes at what he was witnessing. He was at the same time terrified of this deadly new threat bearing down on him and shocked that Ladislas would so recklessly gamble his own life. As the crusaders charged up the plain, they easily scythed through the few fleeing Ottoman troops in their way. The closer they got the more nervous the sultan became. Finally, his nerves gave out and he pulled on his horse’s reins to turn and flee. To his horror, the horse would not move. He looked down to find one of his veteran janissaries tightly holding the reins. The sultan and members of his staff screamed at the man to let go, but he stoically refused.

Ashamed and emboldened by this astonishingly courageous act of indiscipline, Murad regained his nerve and ordered his men to stand firm. No sooner had he done so than the crusaders plunged into the first line of azabs at the base of the hill. The irregulars stood no chance against the heavily armored knights. Many were simply trampled like grass by the crusaders’ massive mounts. But behind them was the stake-lined trench, which forced them to slow down and maneuver awkwardly. At the same time, from higher up the hill, the janissaries opened fire with their arquebuses. The four-ounce lead balls tore through the attackers’ armor causing ghastly wounds and knocking many from their horses.

Ladislas was unscathed by the arquebus fire. He led the way through the trench, up the hill and into the tightly packed ranks of janissaries. The sultan’s elite lived up to their hard-earned reputation. They did not retreat or even buckle in the face of the crusader’s relentless attack, but instead fell upon the outnumbered enemy in a savage frenzy of violence. They hacked, hammered, slashed, and stabbed at the knights from all sides, even pulling many from their saddles with their bare hands and pummeling them to death on the ground. The crusaders fought just as ferociously and showed no signs of abatement despite their dwindling numbers. In the cramped fighting, their sword strokes cleaved the enemy apart two at a time, showering their bright livery with blood and gore.

Amid the dust and smoke, Ladislas spotted Murad sitting atop his richly caparisoned horse in his own glittering battle armor, and he charged right at him. The sultan’s heart surely must have skipped a beat at the sight of Ladislas coming for him, bloody sword in the air ready to cut him down. But when the two were mere yards apart, another of Murad’s veteran janissaries stepped between them with a battle axe in hand. He waited until the final moment then, with a skill and focus only the most battle-hardened of warriors possess, hamstrung the king’s horse mid-stride, sending him crashing to the ground. Ladislas tried to rise, but the weight of his armor, and probably numerous broken bones, rendered him helpless. With a single stroke of his axe, the janissary cut off his head then presented the gruesome trophy to Murad.

Even before Ladislas was killed, Hunyadi could see he was in trouble and rode out to save him. He was prevented from doing so by some Ottoman troops who had heard the cries of triumph from the sultan’s position and had returned to the field with renewed fury. Hunyadi fought them off until sunset then fled north into the hills, rallying isolated groups of crusaders along the way. The victorious Ottomans pursued him for a number of days, leaving a grisly trail of dead crusader stragglers in their wake. Back at Murad’s position, the king’s bodyguard was butchered to a man and Ladislas’s head was fixed on a pike and displayed for all to see.

After watching Ladislas and his bodyguard gallop off to face the sultan, much of the crusader army assumed that the battle was won and set up camp behind the wagon line. It was only the next day when the entire Ottoman army appeared before them, Ladislas’s head waving in the air, that they realized the battle had been lost. In one great rush, the Ottomans overwhelmed the defenders, bringing the crusade to a close at last. Of the crusader commanders, both Cesarini and Bathory were slain. Mircea and Szilagyi fought their way out and rejoined Hunyadi in the flight back to Hungary. Meanwhile, Murad strode triumphantly into Ladislas’ tent, plunged his sword into the king’s throne, and fell to the ground to offer a prayer of thanks.

The Varna Crusade was the last major effort by the Christian powers to expel the Ottoman Turks from Europe, and their defeat had enormous consequences for the peoples of the Balkans. Nine years after the battle, Constantinople fell to Murad’s son Mehmed, who also overran Serbia and Wallachia. Mehmed probably would have driven into Hungary as well were it not for his defeat at the hands of Hunyadi at the Battle of Belgrade in July 1456. Hunyadi died of plague the following month, but the resulting peace finally stabilized the frontier and ensured peace between Hungary and the Ottoman Empire for the next 70 years.

Kingdom of Hungary – Clerical Retinues

The erosion of the royal fisc during the course of the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries made it Increasingly hard for the king to distribute honores to his principal lords. Accordingly, their retention of banderia had to be rewarded not through the gift of offices and lordships but, instead , through payments made from the royal treasury. The banderia belonging to the realms leading lords were thus sustained through disbursements similar to those which supported the foreign mercenaries serving in the royal host and the garrisons along the frontier. Money raised from taxation was either paid directly from the treasury to lords or else was retained at source by the lord’s own tax-collectors and diverted to support his personal retinue. Whereas, therefore , during the fourteenth century the banderia of the great lords had been sustained out of office-holding and honores, over the next century salaries and remittances from the treasury provided an increasingly important underpinning of the banderial system. At the same time, the right to command banderia became increasingly circumscribed. During Sigismund’s reign, lords with as few as 50 familiares and attendant peasants had attended the royal summons with their own banderia.  During the second half of the fifteenth century however, the size of banderia was fixed at a minimum of 400 troops and the right to deploy military units of this type was restricted. In 1498 Wladislas II laid down that banderia might be raised only by the leading bishops, abbots and chapter-houses, the voevode of Transylvania, the ispan of the Szekels, the ban of Croatia, the ispan of Temes county and a further 40 individually-named lords or barones, as they were now called. Nobles who were not the familiares of those listed in the decree were instructed to serve in the banderia established by the counties . Nevertheless , beside the 40 or so banderia of the arons , the county contingents retained only a minor significance . At most, the counties provided just one-third of the total number of troops in the kingdom, and the majority of these were ill-equipped Although of a higher quality, the military manpower of the prelates and ecclesiastical corporations amounted to only ten banderia and less than 3000 additional horsemen. The decree of 1498 thus effectively put the kingdom’s defence in the hands of the great lords. The monopolization of the right to field banderia contributed to the consolidation of the Hungarian baronage. Barones were first referred to in the early thirteenth century. At this time, however, the term lacked precision and could mean either a large landowner (being thus the equivalent of the original Hungarian meaning of nobilis) or else the holder of one of the principal royal offices and honores (quicumque et qualescunque comitatus, dignitates et honores regni tenentes 1270 ) ). The number of barons might also include the descendants of previously prominent royal officers. Like the prelates of the kingdom, the barons of the kingdom were commonly described as magnifici. Nevertheless until the last years of the fifteenth century, there was little real distinction between barons and nobles. Barons remained members of the nobility while common nobles might advance through the royal favour and offices, eventually acquiring baronial status for themselves.

Following the demise of the ‘Black Army’ the nobility forced the Diet to exert pressure on Vladislav so that their personal banderia [1] thenceforward received regular pay in much the same way as the mercenary army had. Indeed, the tax that had previously maintained the ‘Black Army’ was collected again in 1491 and then from 1493 on for this very purpose, the nobility usually collecting and retaining it for themselves. In 1498 the banderial armies were recorded as follows:

Royal banderium 1,000 cavalry

Despot of Serbia’s banderium 1,000 hussars

Banderia of prelates and the Church 6,750 cavalry

Banderia of bani and voivodes of vassal territories, paid by the king 1,600 cavalry

Banderia of 40 barons and 2 Croatian counts (?6,700-12,500) cavalry

By this time the militia portalis may have itself been comprised of mercenaries, emp[oyed on the basis of one per 20, 24 or 36 portae, and had anyway become hard to distinguish from banderial troops.

The primary importance of the civil and the Turkish wars in the history of religion in Hungary is that they were a catastrophe for the Hungarian hierarchy. Of the sixteen prelates of the kingdom, seven were killed at Mohacs: the two archbishops, Laszlo Szalkai of Esztergom and Pal Tomori of Kalocsa, and the bishops of Gyor (Raab), Pecs (Fiinfkirchen), Csanad, Nagyvarad (Grosswardein) and the titular bishop of Bosnia. The church in Hungary never recovered throughout the sixteenth century. There were long vacancies in many of the sees, partly because the popes were unwilling to alienate the rival kings by confirming the nominations of either of them. There was no archbishop of Esztergom at all from 1573 to 1596, and even before that the primate usually had to reside at Trnava (Nagyszombat) in western Slovakia, because Esztergom was for long periods in the hands of the Turks. The other archbishopric, that of Kalocsa, was almost perpetually in Turkish hands and there was no archbishop confirmed to it between 1528 and 1572. The sees of Csanad, Gyulafehervar (Karlsburg), and Szerem (Sirmium) were left pastorless for long periods while they suffered occupation by the Infidels. No Catholic bishops resided in the pashalik of Buda, where Protestant preachers, tolerated by the Turks as fellow iconoclasts, met with little Catholic opposition. If sees were not left vacant they often suffered from the almost equally debilitating evil of having two rival claimants appointed by the rival kings, each seeking to attract the revenues while they absented themselves at one or other of the rival courts. Some bishops apostatised to Lutheranism, like Ferenc Thurzo, bishop of Nitra, who in 1534 became a Lutheran and twice married, and Andras Sbardellati, bishop of Pecs, who in 1568 married a wife and was deprived of his see; Marton Kecseti, nephew of the primate and bishop of Veszprem, and Simon of Erdod, titular bishop of Zagreb, also became Protestants. Other bishoprics were sometimes made impotent by the conversion of their revenues to help pay for the expense of the holy war, or even completely secularised. In 1528 Ferdinand I pawned the revenues of the see of Gyor for 15,000 florins to his treasurer, Johann Hoffmann, from whom they passed into the hands of the lay lord, Pal Bakics, a great sequestrator of church lands though he was totally indifferent in matters of religion. In 1534 King John Zapolyai sought to retain the support of the rich (Lutheran) magnate, Peter Perenyi, by giving him the episcopal revenues of Eger (Erlau). This did not prevent him from going over to Ferdinand five years later.

[1] [Italian bandiera, ‘banner, flag’] Private armies of the rulers, lords, and prelates in medieval Hungary. The noble levy was increasingly replaced or augmented (from the late 13th century) with troops …

The Army of King Matthias 1458-1526 by Győző Somogyi (Author)

The Hungarian state, founded in 896 A.D. and becoming the Christian Kingdom of Hungary from 1000 A.D. covered the entire area of the Carpathian basin until 1920, including Croatia being united with it in personal union under the holy crown. The series “A millennium in the military” presents the military culture, weaponry and the peculiar warfare made famous by the hussars spanning various historical periods. The books include reconstructive colour illustrations with captions in Hungarian and English.

Warriors of the Hungarian Frontier 1526 – 1686 – Végvári vitézek 1526 – 1686

About The Author:
Historian and graphic artist Győző Somogyi (1942) has spent decades researching Hungarian military history and painting accurate illustrations. He is an experimental archaeologist and an active hussar re-enactor so he has personally tested many of the clothing and equipment presented in the series. More than a dozen of his full color albums have already been published in Hungarian and German.

English Summary:
In 1526 the Hungarian armies were defeated in the battle of Mohács by the Ottomans. King Louis II drowned fleeing the battlefield and the country got linked to the Holy Roman Empire through the Habsburg monarchs. In 1541, Emperor Suleiman I. seized Buda and annexed the central part of Hungary to the Ottoman Empire while in the eastern part of the country he established the Principality of Transylvania, which was dependent on him. Along the frontier between the constantly expanding Ottoman-held lands and the Kingdom of Hungary the next 150 years saw continuous warfare, consisting of sieges and devastating raids, interrupted with several Ottoman attempts to seize Vienna and with Hungarian retaliation. The fight on the frontier was over when in 1686 a pan-European Christian counteroffensive started resulting in the liberation of Hungary by the end of the 17th century.

The Battle of Tannenberg 1410 Part I


Two conflicts formed the bookends, so to say, of the fourteenth century in Prussia. The first, which began in the first decade of the century, was the order’s acquisition of West Prussia, originally known as Pomerellia. This was a vital territory in several senses: its eastern border was the Vistula River, so that any hostile power possessing Pomerellia could interrupt the vital traffic up and down stream; its people and warriors were an important resource for the Prussian economy (especially the city of Danzig) and the order’s war machine; and French, Burgundian, and German crusaders were able to travel to Prussia safely via Brandenburg, Neumark, and Pomerellia whenever the preferred route across Great Poland was closed. The Polish kings and the Polish Church, however, viewed the acquisition of Pomerellia by war and purchase as nothing less than theft. As far as they were concerned, no matter what Pomerellia’s past or ethnic composition was, it was a Polish land, as the payment of Peter’s Pence to the pope proved – no German state paid this tax, but the Polish lands did; and the patriots missed no opportunity to bemoan the loss of this province.

The second conflict, which concluded at the very end of the century, was over Samogitia. The Teutonic Knights saw this territory partly as a land bridge to Livonia that would permit year-round communication with their northern possessions, and partly as the heart of pagan resistance to conversion. Lithuanian grand princes, whose authority was seldom recognised by the Samogitians, fought hard to retain it as a part of their national patrimony.

Surprisingly, the Teutonic Knights had managed to make peace both with Poland (the Peace of Kalish, 1343) and Lithuania (the Peace of Sallinwerder, 1398). Two Lithuanians, Jagiełło of Poland and Vytautas of Lithuania, even assisted in ending Samogitian resistance to the order in return for its aid in expeditions against Moscow and the Tatars.

This era of co-operation came to an end in 1409, after an insurrection in Samogitia. The Teutonic Knights had reasons to believe that Vytautas had encouraged the rebels, and that behind Vytautas was the sly hand of Jagiełło. Their usually cautious diplomacy, however, was now in the hands of a brash new grand master, Ulrich von Jungingen, who was not only relatively young but seemed to believe that his military order had lost sight of its original purpose – to fight pagans. By that he understood Samogitians and their allies, not distant Rus’ians, Tatars, pirates, or Turks. He saw the immediate enemies right at hand: Poland and Lithuania.

The grand master’s haughty demands that the Poles and Lithuanians cease providing aid to the Samogitian rebels provoked cries for war in both nations. But it was not yet clear that hotheads in Poland would move to action the more cautious mass of nobles and clergy who remained in awe of the Teutonic Knights’ military reputation.

The Changing Balance of Power

The membership of the Teutonic Knights, and especially the grand master’s council, were confident of their ability to intimidate Polish nobles, Lithuanian boyars, and the prelates of both nations, no matter that the patriotic ire of powerful groups had been raised by Grand Master Ulrich’s actions in 1409. They believed that the Polish and Lithuanian rulers had too many distractions to make common cause against them; moreover, they believed too that Vytautas and Jagiełło mistrusted one another too much to cooperate militarily – everyone knew the story of their feud’s origin and their many subsequent reconciliations and falling-outs – and their nobles and churchmen were, like their counterparts in the West, difficult to lead. Also, since Jagiełło and Vytautas had never yet tried to bring their armies into the heart of Prussia, it seemed unlikely that they would do more than launch attacks at widely separated points, probably in Samogitia and West Prussia, perhaps Culm. The grand master could meet these attacks by using local resources defensively against the less dangerous threats and concentrating his mobile forces against the main army, which would probably invade West Prussia.

In addition, everyone was aware that Jagiełło and Vytautas had a permanent problem to their east, where Tatars were always a danger, and to the south, where Sigismund could raise levies in his Hungarian, Bohemian, and Silesian lands and invade Poland at short notice. Lastly, almost every German knight believed that Polish nobles might be willing to fight in defence of their homeland but would be reluctant to approve raising troops for offensive warfare; it was axiomatic that the Polish prelates and knights would talk bravely but nevertheless refuse to approve funds for war or to authorise calling out the feudal levy. That miscalculation was founded on a well-proven rule, that the Poles had long mistrusted Jagiełło almost as much as did Vytautas and the Teutonic Order. However, time changes all things, and Jagiełło’s relationship with his subjects had changed over the decade he had been king; they had learned to trust him more; they had become accustomed to him. He may not have produced a son yet, but there was a daughter, significantly named Jadwiga for her mother, who would inherit the throne some day. The Poles were more confident now that Jagiełło was their king, not simply a Lithuanian prince out for the main chance.

This changed attitude displayed itself in December 1409, when Nicholas Traba, a future archbishop of Gniezno, took part in the secret meeting of Jagiełło and Vytautas at Brest to make plans for war. Their subsequent diplomatic offensive won Duke Johan of Masovia as an ally, though not Duke Ziemowit IV, who remained neutral, nor the dukes of Pomerania, who became allies of the Teutonic Order. Most importantly, the people of Poland and Lithuania were prepared psychologically for the great conflict to come.

Even those few Germans who thought that Jagiełło might fight did not expect a great battle to come about as a result of the bluster, the embargo, or the grand master’s raid into Masovia and Great Poland. First of all, large battles were a rare phenomenon – the risks were too great and the financial rewards too few, especially when compared to the security of raiding lands defended only by half-armed peasants or demanding ransom from burghers. Secondly, except for sporadic conflicts such as that in 1409 there had been peace between Poland and Prussia for seven decades now, and since the Samogitian issue had been resolved in the Treaties of Sallinwerder (1398) and Racianz (1404), why should there be war with Lithuania? Few living Germans or Prussians could remember the last significant Polish or Lithuanian invasion. A border raid from Great Poland or on some less well-protected frontier area of East Prussia was likely, after which another truce would be signed. On the principal issue, Samogitia, surely the Lithuanians in 1410, like the Poles in 1409, would back down?

Similarly, it was unlikely that the grand master would invade Poland again. Once the Poles had reinforced their border fortresses the grand master could not expect another series of easy victories without considerable help from crusaders; and it was unlikely that large numbers of volunteers would come to Prussia to participate in the invasion of a Christian kingdom, though a good number of German and Bohemian mercenaries would travel east if financial incentives were added to the usual chivalric attractions. An invasion of Lithuania was completely out of the question; no grand master had ever sent a major force east unless he was certain that the Poles would refrain from raiding Prussia as soon as the garrisons rode into the wilderness – and such co-operation was very doubtful now. Lastly, the issues at stake did not seem to be of sufficient importance for any ruler to justify the risk of hazarding a pitched battle. That was the reason that, although the rival popes in Rome and Avignon and the rival emperors, Wenceslas of Bohemia and Ruprecht of the Palatinate, took some notice of the escalating tension throughout 1409 and 1410, their efforts at reconciliation were minimal; extraordinary measures did not seem merited for a distant conflict over inconsequential lands and personal vanities.

Western Europeans took little notice of Prussia because they had much more important concerns of their own to deal with – the Council of Pisa, which was supposed to end the Great Schism in the Church,31 but which seemed to be doing little more than complicate an already difficult situation; the continuing northward advance of the Turks, who were marching out of the Balkans into the Steiermark and Croatia to threaten the lands of the Cilly family (who were related by marriage to both King Jagiełło and King Sigismund of Hungary) and thus open the way across the Alpine mountain barriers into Austria and Italy; and the war between Burgundy and France, which occupied so many families that had once sent crusaders to Prussia. Yet a great battle did occur on 15 July 1410, on a field between the villages of Tannenberg and Grunwald (Grünfelde).

This battle at Tannenberg/Grunwald/Żalgris – as Germans, Poles, and Lithuanians respectively call it – has assumed a prominence that exaggerates its real significance. The history of north central Europe was not suddenly transformed by this one battle. Changes in the balance of power were well under way before the battle was fought, and those changes were so fundamental that one can hardly imagine a greatly different world today if the battle had not taken place. The kingdom of Poland was already on the rise, and the day of the military orders had passed. It is not likely that the Teutonic Knights could have maintained political or military equality with a nation as populous, creative, wealthy, and energetic as Poland; moreover, since Poland was a multi-ethnic state and this was the fifteenth century, not the twenty-first, there would have been few, if any, changes in the ethnic composition of Prussia had those lands come into the immediate possession of the Polish crown. Within a year of the great battle the Teutonic Knights were able to defend themselves again and expel the Poles and Lithuanians from their territories. Nevertheless, the battle was so costly to the order in men and material that subsequent grand masters were never again able to regain the power or prestige their predecessors had enjoyed. For the Teutonic Knights the road led downhill from that day on, until the Thirteen Years’ War (1453 – 66) brought complete disaster. Therefore, although the battle of Tannenberg may not be the decisive moment in the history of medieval Prussia, it was the start of a rapid and progressively steeper decline.

In the final analysis, Tannenberg was important because it was a highly dramatic event that lent itself to endless retelling, and, rightly or wrongly, the fortunes of entire peoples could be easily related to it.

Political Manoeuvring

Not even the participants had anticipated anything like the battle that did occur. Although there had been bad feelings between the grand masters and the Lithuanian cousins for decades, the military conflict that began in August 1409 was not beyond a compromise settlement. There was international pressure applied by the popes individually to arrange just such a compromise peace, so that Christendom could stand united in its efforts to restore unity in the Church and drive back the Turks from the borders of Austria and Hungary, or at least stem their raids to collect slaves and booty.

Foremost of the secular rulers seeking to forestall the conflict was Wenceslas of Bohemia. Though widely repudiated as Holy Roman emperor by his German subjects, he sent representatives in 1409 to mediate the quarrel. They brought Ulrich von Jungingen and King Jagiełło together on 4 October for five days of talks that resulted in a truce until St John’s Day (24 June) the following year. This sign of reconciliation made many hope that further compromises could be reached. The most important article in the truce agreement authorised Wenceslas to propose fair terms for a permanent peace settlement. His proposal was to be presented before Lent, a date that allowed additional negotiations to take place before the truce expired. The critical months, however, were those before Lent, when Ulrich von Jungingen and Jagiełło each sought to sway the notoriously fickle monarch in his own favour.

The grand master had a short history of the Samogitian crusade prepared, a document that depicted the Lithuanians as undependable turncoats who had violated their promises to the Poles in 1386 and to the Germans in 1398; moreover, it claimed that those Lithuanians who were indeed Christians were, in fact, members of the heretic Russian Orthodox faith, and that the Samogitians were complete pagans who had not allowed a single baptism in the past five years. Not relying on letters alone, the grand master sent an imposing delegation to Hungary. Those representatives signed an alliance with King Sigismund in December and agreed to pay him 40,000 Gulden for his assistance. Sigismund, in turn, honoured his guests by asking them to be godfathers to his newly born daughter, Elisabeth. From Hungary the delegates went to Bohemia to present final arguments before Wenceslas rendered his decision on 8 February 1410.

The core of the Bohemian peace proposal was to return to the status quo ante bellum. Those were hardly terms likely to please Vytautas and Jagiełło, especially since the Lithuanian complaints were ignored and the Poles were admonished to abstain from any and all aid to the Samogitian ‘non-Christians’. Wenceslas warned that he would attack whichever party refused to honour the treaty he proposed – a conventional threat without much substance to it. The Teutonic Knights had won a total victory, right down to confirmation of their right to possess West Prussia and the Neumark. In fact it was too thorough a victory, too one-sided. There was never any possibility of persuading the king of Poland to accept the mediator’s terms.

The time for the order’s celebration was short. Polish diplomats remained in Prague for a month, arguing vainly that the terms of the peace treaty were unfair, until Wenceslas finally lost his temper and threatened to make war on Poland himself. The Poles departed, certain that war with the Teutonic Knights, at least, would follow; perhaps there would be a gigantic conflict with all their western neighbours as well. Jagiełło, who read Wenceslas’ personality more accurately, was less intimidated: he rejected all proposals for further negotiations, and when Wenceslas summoned him to a conference in Breslau in May, he left the emperor and the Teutonic Knights waiting in vain for Polish representatives, who had already announced that they would not come

The Raising of Armies

The armies began to gather. When ready, Jagiełło summoned Vytautas to join him in Masovia. Until recently that had required a journey through a dense, swampy wilderness. However, thanks to the opening of the trade route along the Narew River it was now possible for Vytautas to bring his men to the desired location near Płock without undue difficulties. The bulk of the royal forces remained on the western bank of the Vistula, but Jagiełło sent Polish knights to the other bank to hold the fords for Vytautas, and more troops were coming in daily. By mid-June the king had at his disposal a force of more than 30,000 cavalry and infantry (18,000 Polish knights and squires, with a few thousand foot soldiers; some Bohemian and Moravian mercenaries; 11,000 Lithuanian, Rus’ian, and Tatar cavalry, a formidable contingent from Moldavia led by its prince, Alexander the Good, and some Samogitians).

Grand Master Ulrich had raised a huge force too, perhaps 20,000 strong. Since Jungingen had allowed the Livonian master to conclude a truce with Vytautas, however, none of those excellent knights were able to join him; in any case, the northern knights were not enthusiastic about the war, and although the Livonian master sent word to Vytautas immediately that the truce would expire at the end of the grace period, he would not send troops to Prussia or attack Lithuania’s vulnerable northern lands until that time had passed. Moreover, since Jungingen could raise only about 10,000 cavalry in Prussia the rest of his warriors were ‘pilgrims’ and mercenaries. Sigismund had sent two prominent nobles with 200 knights, and Wenceslas had allowed the grand master to hire a large number of his famed Bohemian warriors.

The numbers for both armies are very inexact, with estimates varying from half the totals given above to almost astronomical figures. In all cases, however, the proportion of troops in the armies remained about the same: three to two in favour of the Polish king and the Lithuanian grand prince. But the grand master had a compensating advantage in equipment and organisation, and especially in having nearby fortresses for supplies and refuge; and since, as far as he knew, the enemy forces had not yet joined, he believed that he could fight them one at a time. A few of Jagiełło’s and Vytautas’ commanders had served together in earlier campaigns, some against the Tatars, some against the crusaders; nevertheless, their army was composed of troops so diverse that maintaining cohesion would be difficult. Jungingen had a larger number of disciplined knights who were accustomed to fighting as units, but he also had levies of secular knights and crusaders who were prey to fits of enthusiasm and panic; he was also fighting on the defensive, better able to fall back on prepared positions and more informed about roads, tracks, and what obstacles were passable. The odds were fairly nearly equal.

An order chronicler, an anonymous contemporary continuing the earlier work by Johann von Posilge, described the preliminaries of the battle in vivid detail, thereby giving useful insights into the attitude the crusaders held toward their opponents:

[King Jagiełło] gathered the Tatars, Russians, Lithuanians, and Samogitians against Christendom . . . So the king met with the non-Christians and with Vytautas, who came through Masovia to aid him, and with the duchess . . . [T]here was so large an army that it is impossible to describe, and it crossed from Płock toward the land of Prussia. At Thorn were the important counts of Gora and Stiborzie, whom the king of Hungary had sent especially to Prussia to negotiate the issues and controversies between the order and Poland; but they could do nothing about the matter and finally departed from the king, who followed his evil and divisive will to injure Christendom. He was not satisfied with the evil men of the pagans and Poles, but he had hired many mercenaries from Bohemia, Moravia, and all kinds of knights and men-at-arms, who against all honour and goodness and honesty went with heathendom against the Christians to ravage the lands of Prussia.

One hardly expects a balanced judgement from chroniclers, but the accusations of hiring mercenaries certainly strikes the modern reader as odd, since the Teutonic Knights were doing the same thing. Men of the Middle Ages, like many today, hated passionately, often acted impulsively, and reasoned irrationally. Yet they were capable of behaving very logically too. The leaders of the armies soon gave proof that they were men of their era, acting as they did alternately with cool reason and hot temper. Reason predominated at the outset of the campaign.

The Hungarian count palatine and the voivode of Transylvania mentioned in the passage above returned south hurriedly to collect troops on the southern border of Poland. Their threat was unconvincing, however; consequently they had no effect on the campaign at all. Sigismund, as was his wont, had promised more than he was willing to deliver; he did nothing beyond allowing the grand master to hire mercenaries, though he was in northern Hungary at the time and could have raised a large force quickly.

The Battle of Tannenberg 1410 Part II

The Invasion of Prussia

The strategies of the two commanders contrasted greatly. The grand master divided his forces in the traditional manner between East and West Prussia, awaiting invasions at widely scattered points and relying on his scouts to determine the greatest threats, his intention being to concentrate his forces quickly wherever necessary to drive back the invaders. Jagiełło, however, planned to concentrate the Lithuanian and Polish armies into one huge body, an unusual tactic. Although adopted from time to time in the Hundred Years’ War, it was more common among the Mongols and Turks – enemies the Poles and Lithuanians had fought often. The Teutonic Knights did the same during their Reisen into Samogitia, but those had been much smaller armies.

In this phase of the campaign Jagiełło’s generalship was exemplary. As soon as he heard that Vytautas had crossed the Narew River he ordered his men to build a 450-metre pontoon bridge over the Vistula River. Within three days he had brought the main royal host to the east bank, then dismantled the bridge for future use. By 30 June his men had joined Vytautas. On 2 July the entire force began to move north. The king had thus far cleverly avoided the grand master’s efforts to block his way north and even kept his crossing of the Vistula a secret until the imperial peace envoys informed Jungingen. Even then the grand master failed to credit the report, so sure was he that the main attack would come on the west bank of the Vistula and be conducted by only the Polish forces.

When Jungingen obtained confirmation of the envoys’ story he hurriedly crossed the great river with his army and sought a place where he could intercept the enemy in the southern forest and lake region, before Lithuanian and Polish foragers could fan out among the rich villages of the settled areas in the river valleys. His plan was still purely defensive – to use his enemies’ numbers against them, anticipating that they would exhaust their food and fodder more swiftly than his own well-supplied forces. The foe had not yet trod Prussian ground.

The grand master had left 3,000 men under Heinrich von Plauen at Schwetz (Swiecie) on the Vistula, to protect West Prussia from a surprise invasion in case the Poles managed to elude him again and then strike downriver into the richest parts of Prussia before he could cross the river again. Plauen was a respected but minor officer, suitable for a responsible defensive post but not seen as a battlefield leader. Jungingen wanted to have his most valuable officers with him, to offer sound advice and provide examples of wisdom, courage, and chivalry. Jungingen was relatively young, and a bit hot-headed, but all his training advised him to err on the side of caution until battle was joined. Daring was a virtue in the face of the enemy, but not before.

Jagiełło, too, was a careful general. Throughout his entire career he had avoided risks. No story exists of his ever having put his life in danger or led horsemen in a wild charge against a formidable enemy. Yet neither was there the slightest hint of cowardice. Societal norms were changing. Everyone acknowledged the responsibility of the commander to remain alive; everyone accepted the fact that the commander should guide the fortunes of his army rather than seek fame in personal combat.

Consequently it was no surprise that the king’s advance toward enemy territory was slow. His caution was understandable. After all, he could not be certain that his ruse had worked; and he had great respect for Jungingen’s military skills. Without doubt, he worried that he would stumble into an ambush and give the crossbearers their greatest victory ever. He must have been half-relieved when his scouts reported that the crusaders had taken up a defensive position at a crossing of the Dzewa (Drewenz, Drweça) River. At least he knew where Jungingen was, waiting at the Masovian border. On the other hand, the news that the grand master’s position was very strong could not have been welcome.

So far each commander had moved cautiously toward the other. Jagiełło and Jungingen alike feared simple tactical errors, such as being caught by nightfall far from a suitable camping place, or having to pass through areas suitable for ambush or blockade; in addition, they had to provide protection for their transport, reserve horses, and herds of cattle. Although each commander was experienced in directing men in war, these armies were larger than either had brought into battle previously, and the larger the forces, the more danger there was of error, of misunderstanding orders, and of panic.

Judged by those criteria, both commanders deserve high marks for bringing their armies into striking distance of each other without having made serious blunders. Both armies were well-supplied, ready to fight, and confident of a good chance for victory; the officers all knew their opponents well, were familiar with the countryside and the weather, and in full command of the available technology. The resemblance of some formations to armed mobs was offset by martial traditions, individual unit drill, and widespread experience in local wars. Neither army was handicapped by dissensions in command, quarrels among units, unusual prevalence of illness, or excessive anxiety about the impending combat – these problems existed, but they were probably shared equally and were not serious enough to merit mention in contemporary accounts. In short, there were no excuses for failure.

For the Teutonic Knights, each commander, each officer, each knight was as ready for combat as could reasonably be expected. All that remained uncertain was how the battle would begin, how individuals would react, and how the affair would unfold – for those are unknowns always present in warfare. Though many individuals had participated in raids and sieges, few had personal experience in a pitched battle between large armies. Some crusaders may have gained sad experience at Nicopolis in 1396, and some of their opponents may have survived Vytautas’ 1399 disaster on the Vorskla in the Ukraine against the Tatars, but those would be the only ones who knew what to expect when tens of thousands of combatants came together for a few minutes of intense struggle. Only they knew first-hand that warfare on this scale was chaos beyond imagination, with commanders unable to contact more than a few units, with movement limited by the sheer numbers of men and animals on the field, with the senses overwhelmed by noise, smoke from fires and cannon, and dust stirred up by the horses, the body’s natural dehydration worsened by excitement-induced thirst, and exhaustion from stress and exertion. This led to an irrational eagerness for any escape from the tension – either flight or immersion in combat. Aside from that small number of experienced knights there was only the practice field and small-scale warfare in Samogitia, the campaign in Gotland, and the 1409 invasion of Poland. Those provided good military experience, but there had not been a set-piece combat between the Teutonic Knights and the Lithuanians for forty years, or between the Teutonic Knights and the Poles for almost eighty. Throughout all of Europe, in fact, there had been many campaigns, but few battles. For both veterans and neophytes there was consolation in storytelling, boasting, prayer, and drinking.

The Lithuanians were more experienced, but only in the more open warfare on the steppes and in the forests of Rus’. Riding small horses and wearing light Rus’ian armour, they were not well equipped for close combat with Western knights on large chargers, but they were equal to their enemy in pride and their confidence in their commander. Memory of Vytautas’ disaster on the Vorskla had been dimmed by subsequent victorious campaigns against Smolensk, Pskov, Novgorod, and Moscow. Between 1406 and 1408 Vytautas had led armies against his son-in-law, Basil of Moscow, three times, once reaching the Kremlin and at last forcing him to accept a peace treaty that restored the 1399 frontiers. Vytautas’ strength was in his cavalry’s ability to go across country that defensive forces might consider impassable; his weakness was that lightly-equipped horsemen could not survive a charge by heavy warhorses bearing well-armoured knights – he counted on his Tatar scouts to prevent such an event happening by surprise.

The mounted Polish forces were more numerous and better equipped for a pitched battle with the Germans, but they lacked confidence in their ability to stand up to the Teutonic Knights. The contemporary Polish historian Długosz complained about their unreliability, their lust for booty, and their tendency to panic. Most Polish knights – at least 75% – sacrificed armour for speed and endurance, but they were not as ‘oriental’ as the Lithuanians. In this they hardly differed from the majority of the order’s forces, light cavalry suitable to local conditions. Of the rest, many Polish knights wore plate armour and preferred the crossbow to the spear, just as did many of the Teutonic Knights’ heavy cavalry. The weakness lay in training and experience: many Polish knights were weekend warriors, landlords and young men; they were non-professionals who knew that they were up against the best trained and equipped troops in Christendom. Although some of them had served under the king previously, he seems to have drawn more troops from the north for this campaign than from the south; and it was the southern knights who had served with him in Galicia and Sandomir. Jagiełło could have called up more knights, but he could not have found room for them at the campsites, much less fed them. The masses of almost untrained peasant militia were much easier to manage; their noble lords could assume they would feed themselves and they could sleep outside no matter what the weather was. While the peasants’ usefulness in battle was small – at best they could divert the enemy for a short while, allowing the cavalry time to regroup or to retreat – they were good at pillaging the countryside, thereby helping feed the army, and the smoke of villages they set afire might confuse the enemy as to where the main strength of the royal host lay.

The size of Jagiełło’s and Vytautas’ armies must have created serious problems for the rear columns. By the time thousands of horses had ridden along the roads, the mud in low-lying places must have been positively liquid, making marching difficult and pulling carts almost impossible; moreover, the larger any body of men and the more exhausted they became the more likely they were to give in to inexplicable panic. Scouting reports were unreliable; there were too many woods, streams, and enemy patrols. Nevertheless, the king, no matter how exhausted, nervous, or unsure he and his military advisors might be, had to avoid giving any impression of indecisiveness or fear; he had to appear calm at all times. Jagiełło’s dour personality lent itself to this role. A non-drinker, he was sober at all times, and his demeanour was that of total self-control. His love of hunting had prepared him well for the hours on horseback and feeling at home in the deepest woods; he would have regarded the lightly inhabited forests of Dobrin and Płock as tame stuff indeed. Vytautas was the perfect foil; he was the energetic and inspirational leader who was everywhere at once, at home among warriors and disdainful of supposed hardships. No common soldier could complain that their commanders did not understand the warrior’s life or the dangers of the forest, or that they did not share the tribulations of life on the march.

This need to appear to be in command was itself a danger – any army on the march can be held up at a ford or a narrow place between lakes and swamps, even if no enemy is present. The commander has to give some order, any order, even if it’s only ‘sit down’, rather than seem to be unable to make a decision. Such circumstances, compounded by exhaustion, thirst, or anxiety, often resulted in hurriedly issued orders to attack or retreat that the men are unable to carry out effectively. In short, circumstances might limit the royal options to bad ones, and the perceived need for haste might cause the king to select the worst of those available. Jagiełło was certainly aware of all this, for he was an experienced campaigner. However, for many years his strength had lain in persuading his foes to retreat ahead of overwhelming numbers, or in besieging strongholds; his goal had always been to prepare the way for diplomacy. Now he was leading a gigantic army to a confrontation with a hitherto invincible foe, to fight, if the enemy commander so chose, a pitched battle in hostile territory.

Jagiełło seemed to have been checked at the Dzewa River before he could cross into Prussia. He was unwilling to attempt to force a crossing at the only nearby ford in the face of a strongly-entrenched enemy; he would not find it easy to move eastward and upstream – while the headwaters of the Dzewa presented no significant obstacle to his advance, the countryside there had once been thickly forested, and important remnants of the ancient wilderness still remained. Most importantly, although the Teutonic Knights had used the century of peace to establish many settlements in the rolling countryside, the roads connecting the villages were narrow and winding. There were too many hills and swamps for roads to proceed from point to point, and strangers could easily lose their sense of direction in the dense woods. The villagers were fleeing into fortified refuges or the forest. Although many of the inhabitants spoke Polish (immigrants not being subject to linguistic tests in those days), they were loyal to the Teutonic Order, and none wanted to fall into the hands of Vytautas’ flying squadrons – especially not the terrifying Tatars – which were trying to locate the defensive forces and find a way around them. Making peasants give information or serve as guides was part of warfare. Burning villages marked the progress of the scouting units. Though this could hardly have been seen easily by the two armies confronting one another at the ford, they might well have been aware of the rising columns of smoke.

However, terrorising the countryside, burning, and pillaging was a far cry from the battle tactics that the Poles had become accustomed to; the long era of peace had softened the sensibilities of these amateur warriors. Polish knights were soon complaining to Jagiełło about their allies’ behaviour – Tatars hauling women into their tents and then raping them repeatedly, killing peasants who spoke Polish, treating captives inhumanely – until the king finally ordered the prisoners released and admonished the steppe horsemen to avoid such cruel practices in the future. This restraint was not in his best interests – the king’s best hope for making Jungingen weaken his position was to wreak such destruction on nearby rural communities that the grand master would feel compelled to send troops to protect them. However, within a short time Jagiełło and Vytautas saw that Jungingen was too good a commander to disperse his forces at such a critical moment.

The king must have been frustrated, yet he was unwilling either to allow his campaign to end from empty bellies or send his men to be slaughtered on some obscure river bank. While it was not clear that he could move eastward through the woods and swamps and around the incredibly complicated system of lakes without being easily blocked by the grand master, then forced to fight at a disadvantage, that seemed his only hope. This was, after all, the grand master’s home ground, and surely the Teutonic Knights would have seen to the building of some roads. If so, however, why were they not using them now to harass the Polish rear?

Jungingen, for his part, does not seem to have worried about a Polish flanking manoeuvre. Teutonic Knights from nearby convents had hunted for recreation in these woods; hence they were familiar with every village, field, and forest; they knew well how the many long, narrow, twisting lakes would limit the options available to invading armies. Polish and Lithuanian scouts had been active for days, looking for paths through the surrounding woods, and they had yet to find one. The assurance of such local residents as had undoubtedly agreed to act as guides and scouts for the Teutonic Knights, that the roads were not suitable for the use of any large army, may have given Jungingen more confidence in his superior strategic position than was warranted.

This confidence was misplaced, however. When the Lithuanian scouts reported that they had found some roads leading toward Osterode that could be used – if the army moved before the Germans learned what was planned – the king and grand prince acted on the information quickly.

Jagiełło consulted with his inner council, then gave orders to prepare for a secret, swift march eastward and north around Jungingen’s fortified position. He assigned each unit its place in the order of march and instructed everyone to obey the two guides who knew the country. The royal trumpeter would give the signals in the morning; until then no one was to make any movement or noise that might betray his plans prematurely. Unless his army could get a start of many hours, the stratagem was hopeless. Meanwhile, he sent a herald to make another effort at a peaceful settlement of the matter. Quite likely this was a deceptive manoeuvre to persuade the grand master that the king was in a desperate situation, but it might also have been a pro forma means of persuading the peace commissioners that he was truly desirous of ending the war without further bloodshed. It is hard to imagine what terms Jungingen might have considered acceptable in this situation, but the grand master nevertheless called a meeting of his officers; with one exception, they preferred war to further negotiations.

Jagiełło’s actions may well have increased the grand master’s overconfidence in the superiority of his situation. Certainly, when Jungingen’s scouts saw the Polish camp empty, they assumed that the king was withdrawing. The Germans crossed the river on swiftly erected pontoon bridges and set out in pursuit, knowing that there is nothing easier to destroy than an army on the retreat. However, when the scouts saw that the Poles and Lithuanians were moving north-east in two columns, working their way in a wide arc around their flank, Jungingen had to reconsider his plans. If his men continued following the enemy units, they would not be able to stop Vytautas’ Tatars from torching countless villages; worse, they might find themselves trailing the enemy through deep forests or fall into an ambush at some ford with nothing but desolated lands and wilderness at their rear. Therefore the grand master changed the direction of his advance in order to get ahead of the enemy columns. In fact the speed at which Jungingen’s army moved almost caused it to overshoot the Polish and Lithuanian line of march. Meanwhile, the Polish scouts had completely lost contact with the Germans and were surprised when they found Jungingen once again blocking the roads north.

Jagiełło, in luring the German forces east, away from their strong fortresses in Culm, was moving his own army far from safe refuges, too; moreover, he had divided his forces, sending the Lithuanians east and north of the road used by the Poles. Should the grand master somehow attack his forces by surprise, especially before they could reunite, Jagiełło might suffer an irreversible disaster. Because many Poles still considered him a Lithuanian under the skin, Jagiełło was placing his crown at risk in seeking battle under such conditions. This was something that Ulrich von Jungingen surely understood – a victory over the Polish and Lithuanian armies could ruin his order’s ancient enemies now and forever.

The Battle of Tannenberg 1410 Part III

What the grand master did not understand was the need to remain calm and rational. When scouts reported to him that the invaders had gone as far as Gilgenberg and had burned the city, inflicting indescribable outrages on the citizens, Jungingen’s temper flared. No more positional warfare – he would march on the foe by night and attack by surprise at dawn. When the grand master set his army in motion he was taking a risk that he could have avoided. The best-informed German chronicler, Posilge, described the recent movements of the two armies thus:

The grand master with his forces and the guests and mercenaries rode against the king to the border near Drewenz, near Kauernik, and the two armies camped opposite one another. Because the king of Poland did not dare cross the Drewenz, he went toward Gilgenberg and took that city and burned it, and they struck dead young and old and with the heathens committed so many murders as was unholy, dishonouring maidens, women, and churches, cutting off their breasts and torturing them, and driving them off to serfdom. Also the heathens committed great blasphemies on the sacraments; whenever they came into the churches they ground the host in their hands and threw it under their feet, and in that way committed their insults. Their great blasphemies and insults went to the hearts of the grand master, the whole order, and to all the knights and men-at-arms among the guests; and they rode with righteous indignation against the king from Lubov to Tannenberg, to the village in the district of Osterode, and came upon the king without warning, having come in great haste fifteen miles by daybreak on the 15th of July. And when they could see the enemy, they formed their ranks and held the enemy in sight for more than three hours. The king meanwhile sent the heathens out to skirmish, but the Poles were altogether unready. If they had attacked the king immediately they would have won honour and booty, but that, unfortunately, did not happen; they wanted to call him out to fight chivalrously with them. The marshal sent the king two unsheathed swords with the heralds.

Such were the movements of the two armies. Jungingen had managed to bring his forces against the Poles and Lithuanians without warning, a considerable feat for any era. Then he wasted his advantage, letting the sleepless soldiers stand in battle order without food or drink until the enemy was ready. After that, he had his men dig camouflaged pits to trap the charging Polish cavalry, then ordered a withdrawal from that line so that the royal forces in the woods could have room to deploy in two lines in the open field against him. As a result, not only were his pits now part of the Polish defensive line, but his powerful artillery was now stationed at a place where it was ineffective; moreover, his infantry was standing where it was difficult to provide proper support for the massed bodies of knights. Even considering that the grand master could hardly expect the Polish knights to charge unless they had room to line up their units, this was poor generalship. Jungingen’s troops were tired, wet from a morning shower, hungry, and undoubtedly becoming nervous. Moreover, the day was unusually warm, and the men were not accustomed to heat. Nevertheless, Jungingen had a good chance of prevailing if only he could persuade the king to commit his troops to battle first, allowing the experienced knights the opportunity for one of their long-practised counter-strokes. The grand master’s pride, arrogance, and rashness were partly balanced by his courage and skill in battle – and he had a large force behind him. The masses of knights in the huge formations masked the poor placement of his supporting troops and gave him confidence in a total victory.

The sight of the armies forming their lines of battle was something that no participant ever forgot: the grand master’s elite corps of white-clad knights around his large white banner with the black cross, the colourful flags of the castellans and bishops; Jagiełło’s crowned white eagle on a red field; the archbishop of Gniezno’s white cross on a red field; the castellan of Cracow’s crowned bear; the Polish marshal’s lion-head breathing fire against a blue background; the Lithuanians’ white knight (Vytis) on a white horse; and the geometric symbol for Vilnius. The serried ranks of the infantry and bowmen paraded into place, accompanied by music; the artillery was dragged to whatever slight rise might give the cannon a better field of fire. Messengers rode back and forth, ordering units to make small changes in their stations, and officers encouraged their men to stand valiantly and fight bravely.

One cannot ignore the role contemporary values played in this contest. The grand master wasted his advantages by not attacking promptly, then delaying longer in order to send the chivalric challenge for battle – two swords. The king was meanwhile purportedly hearing masses, ignoring the requests by his commanders for instructions. Jagiełło had displayed excellent generalship in bringing his forces into the field, even considering the slowness of his advance after slipping away from the ford so cleverly; now he, too, seemed to let events run their course without his direction. Perhaps the king was using the religious services to delay the beginning of the battle, knowing that the German knights and horses would tire from wearing heavy armour; perhaps he was waiting for reinforcements; and perhaps he was paralysed by exhaustion and indecision. Historians’ arguments about this point will never be fully resolved. Perhaps genuine piety persuaded him that time spent in prayer was the most important activity he could undertake at that moment. Conventional religious practices were generally considered more important than cool-headed strategic or tactical decisions. ‘God’s will be done.’ His opponent, Jungingen, took time for prayer too. The German troops began singing their anthem, Christ ist erstanden (Christ is Risen). Meanwhile, the Polish and Lithuanian troops chanted their battle-song, Bogu rodzica dzewica (Virgin Mother of God).

The Combat

The knights with the two swords arrogantly presented them for the king’s use and Vytautas’, challenging them to come and fight. The king responded calmly, dismissed the heralds, then gave the signal for the battle to begin. While the Poles advanced in reasonably disciplined order, singing their anthem, the Lithuanians charged wildly and scattered the lightly armed units opposite them. Then the contending forces hammered away at one another for about an hour. Beyond this, there is little agreement in the various accounts. Apparently the Poles did not commit their major units, because the Germans remained on the defensive, awaiting an opportunity to charge ruthlessly into the rear of some retreating formation or gap in the lines.

The battle of Tannenberg is still being refought by historians today. Although the outline of the combat is very clear, German, Polish, and Lithuanian historians are not in agreement about the various actions which occurred during the battle, or even where the fighting took place on the broad field. The memorial chapel and mass graves have been located by archaeologists, but since some of those might indicate the slaughtered prisoners and wounded who perished over the following few days, there is no agreement even as to where the armies lined up. This much is agreed upon: the visiting crusaders were stationed on the left opposite the Lithuanians, presumably because they would be more motivated to fight against Tatar pagans than Polish Christians, but perhaps just because that was the most convenient posting; the Teutonic Knights held the centre and right of the line, opposite the Poles and their mercenaries.

The most important description of the battle is that of Jan Długosz, the Polish court historian. It is brief and tends to glorify the Polish contribution to the victory at the expense of the Lithuanian. In sum, he wrote that one wing of the ‘crossbearers’ defeated the horsemen under Vytautas after fierce fighting. Although Vytautas and the Smolensk regiments remained on the field, the Tatars fled, followed by many Lithuanians and Rus’ians. The German crusaders, seeing the wild flight of the enemy, assumed they had won a victory and left their positions to pursue them. This left a gap in the order’s lines. The Poles, meanwhile, had been holding their own against the Teutonic Knights. Now, seeing their opportunity, they pressed harder, and came in through the gap created on the left when the crusaders broke ranks to pursue the Tatars; soon the Polish knights had put the main battle force of the Teutonic Knights in great difficulty.

This generally accepted understanding of the battle has been modified significantly by a recently discovered letter written in 1413 by a well-informed noble or mercenary captain. Its finger-wagging admonition to keep the ranks of the knights firmly in hand supports an alternate version of the combat given by less well-known chroniclers, that a small number of crusaders attached to the Teutonic Knights had fallen for a tactical ruse by the Lithuanians, a feigned retreat that led pursuers into a trap sprung by Polish knights waiting on the flank. The Lithuanians and Poles then drove into the disordered lines and rolled up the crusader formation.

Jungingen, seeing the disaster unfolding, should probably have sounded the retreat. Nothing of the kind entered his mind, however. His hot blood raging, he gathered together all the knights he could into a wedge formation and charged directly for a slight height where he supposed the king would be found; certainly, he could see the royal banner flying there and a large number of heavily-armed knights. Jungingen did not lack the courage to stake everything on this one charge – he knew that the warhorses would be too exhausted to bear his men from the field if the attack failed. Perhaps he hoped that his charge, coming at a somewhat unexpected angle, would find the Polish forces insufficiently disciplined to change their formation quickly enough to meet him. He was wrong. Vytautas, seen at the centre of Matjeko’s painting, had seemingly been everywhere at once on his wing of the battlefield, performing fantastic and courageous feats; he now hurried over to the royal position with his men, perhaps to urge the king to reinforce the main battle lines with his reserves. In any case, Jungingen’s advance fell just short of the royal bodyguard. In vain, he yelled ‘Retreat!’ Surrounded and exhausted, Jungingen perished with a multitude of his best men. The rest of the cavalry, seeing him fall, fled in disorder. Panic quickly spread through the German ranks. The light cavalry from Culm seem to have led the flight. The Polish knights, once they had destroyed the main battle force, turned on the disordered surviving units as they tried to escape down the narrow roads and chewed them up one after another. The rearmost German knights were hindered in their terrified flight by the tangled units ahead of them. Unable to get past the masses of men, horses, and wagons, unable to fight effectively against an enemy coming up from behind, all they could do was to try to surrender or die fighting against hopeless odds. The crusaders on the victorious left wing came back booty-laden only to fall into the hands of those who held the battlefield. This was Długosz’s account of the battle; it quickly became the accepted story. Even the Germans agreed with Długosz, perhaps because he credited the Teutonic Knights with at least a partial victory, a rout of the pagan wing of the great army.

Polish historians emphasise royal generalship. They describe Jagiełło’s determination to participate in the combat personally, how the royal banner was brought to earth at one point, and how the king was saved from injury only by the last-moment intervention of Zbigniew Oleśnicki, the royal secretary, when a knight from Meissen, Luppold von Köckritz, charged directly for him. Mythology did not hesitate to turn this incident into a personal combat between Jagiełło and Jungingen. In short, according to Polish patriotic scholarship, Polish intelligence, courage, gallantry, and self-sacrifice had won the day.

Lithuanian historians disagree sharply with this interpretation of events. They insist that Vytautas’ men had made a tactical retreat, one common to warfare on the steppe, a ruse that tricked the crusaders from Germany into breaking ranks and dashing into an ambush. They regard the presence of Vytautas and the units from Smolensk fighting in the ranks of the victors during the decisive period of combat as proof that the main Lithuanian forces did not run away, but only lured the Germans into disordering their forces so badly that the way was open for the Polish attack. Credit for the victory should go to the grand prince, who inspired the tactics, who exhausted horse after horse in his relentless direction of the cavalry units, first on the right wing, then at the height of the fighting in the centre, when he brought the reinforcements that repelled Jungingen’s charge; not to his rival, Jagiełło, who was practically useless during the entire combat, unable to give commands or to inspire by personal example.

Modern scholars, despite new archaeological information and newly discovered archival material, have not come to complete agreement as to what transpired. Everyone agrees that Jungingen made mistakes in bringing his army onto the field of battle; everyone agrees that Jungingen and Vytautas were brave warriors who risked their lives in desperate combat; almost everyone agrees that Jagiełło, for one reason or another, chose to remain where everyone could see him, by his tent on the hill, and that the decisive moment of battle was when the crusaders’ attack on that position failed. All but the Lithuanians are practically unanimous in agreeing that a feigned retreat by an entire army was difficult and risky, although it was a common tactic for small units everywhere in Europe; also, if the retreat was a ruse, why was there no ambush of the pursuing forces? Or was there? More likely, the flight of the Lithuanian wing of the army was not planned. Jagiełło was, if anything, a cautious commander, and he would have understood that the retreat of an entire wing of his army would have been a disaster if the victorious crusaders had maintained discipline and charged with their full force into the gap left by the fleeing horsemen, then smashed into the flank of the royal forces. On the other hand, the forest at the rear of the Polish line, which would have hindered a retreat, may have shielded the central Polish battle formation from view or from an effective attack from the flank or rear. Because everyone agrees that the Teutonic Knights’ defeat resulted from the ill-disciplined pursuit of the Lithuanian forces, the dispute about the motivation of the Lithuanian units cannot be resolved to universal satisfaction: either there was a strategic retreat on the part of a significant fraction of Vytautas’ forces or those Lithuanians, Rus’ians, and Tatars had been driven from the field in defeat.

From the standpoint of observers at a distance of almost six centuries, the important fact is that the grand master’s lines were left in disarray, a situation that the Polish and Lithuanian units led by Vytautas exploited. Those scholars who put faith in the possibility of a ruse tend to inquire how many Tatars were in Vytautas’ levy, as if only steppe warriors could perform such a manoeuvre. Unfortunately, no contemporary source gives us more information about numbers than did Długosz, and not all scholars agree even upon the composition of the Polish and Lithuanian armies. But no matter. The Tatar contingent was not large, and it does not seem to have done any harm to its pursuers. Nor does it matter – the result was the same: the disruption of the German lines on the left wing led to a subsequent victory in the centre by the Polish forces. The Lithuanians had hitherto borne the brunt of the fighting, as the casualty figures substantiate, and they were still contributing significant pressure on the foe’s disintegrating lines.

The grand master must have considered ordering a retreat and rejected it; Jungingen’s decision to gamble everything on a massive charge at the royal tent might have been the best choice available. A chaotic retreat through the forest might have led to as complete a defeat as the army in fact suffered; and surely there would have been criticism that the grand master had missed his best chance to obtain a total victory over an enemy who was equally exhausted, certainly somewhat disorganised, and perhaps ready to collapse. Already thousands of Poles and Lithuanians had fallen in combat; some units had broken, and others were wavering. Had, by chance or skill, an arrow, spear, or sword brought down the king or great prince, the day would have belonged to Jungingen.

The total losses were almost beyond contemporary calculation: the oldest and also the lowest estimate was that 8,000 men died on each side. For the Teutonic Knights that meant that at least half the armed men perished. Thousands more became prisoners. Most of the order’s troops taken captive were put to the sword; only secular knights and officers were held for ransom. The dazed survivors gathered later, exhausted, wounded, and often without equipment, in the nearest cities and castles.

Jagiełło and Vytautas, for their part, were in no position to hurry with their armies into Prussia. Even though victorious, their losses had been heavy. The troops were fatigued; the horses were exhausted. The Lithuanians had fought for many hours, and the Poles had suffered, too, from the lack of sleep and drink, the tension of waiting, and the draining excitement of pitched battle. When the Germans fled, the Poles and Lithuanians had followed them for ten miles, cutting down those they overtook, and driving others into the swamps and forests to perish. When the victorious horsemen returned to camp they needed rest. Those with the most stamina went in search of booty, returning much later as exhausted as those who had been unable to move a foot from the battlefield. Meanwhile, the foot soldiers had been busy on the battlefield, gathering weapons, money, jewellery, and clothing, finishing off the wounded, slaughtering the lower-class prisoners, and burying the dead in mass graves. The Poles and Lithuanians needed a short pause to rest and to celebrate, possibly to pray, and to care for wounded and fallen comrades. Tatars and irregular troops rushed ahead to rob, rape, kill, and burn, starting panics that would hinder the organisation of regional defence.

There was no further effective resistance. The Teutonic Knights had lost so many castellans and advocates, so many knights, and so many militia units, that defences could not be manned. Those who survived had taken refuge wherever they could, often far from their assigned posts. The highest-ranking leaders had fallen almost to a man: the grand master, the marshal, the grand commander, the treasurer, and 200 knights. Marquard von Salzbach, the order’s expert on Lithuanian affairs and a former friend of Vytautas, was apparently taken prisoner by Jagiełło’s men, then beheaded by the grand prince. He had refused to be properly humble and submissive. Arrogant and proud to the end, unrepentant about having taunted Vytautas about his mother’s virtue, he and his companions had anticipated being treated in a manner befitting their status; nevertheless, when their fate was clear there is no indication that their courage flagged. They had understood from the beginning that there was no good in being Jagiełło’s and Vytautas’ former friends.

Some contemporaries believed that Tannenberg was a disaster to the crusading cause comparable to Nicopolis, but most simply marvelled at the huge losses in men, horses, and equipment. As the continuation of Posilge’s chronicle said: ‘The army, both cavalry and infantry, was routed completely, losing lives, goods, and honour, and the number slain was beyond numbering. May God have pity on them.’

That the defeat was so total and so final was hard for contemporaries to grasp. The news spread to courts where old men remembered the exploits of their youth in Lithuania – in Germany and France the disaster could hardly be believed; to bishops and burghers in Livonia, who were not sure whether to rejoice or mourn; to wives and families in Poland and Lithuania, who both exulted in their rulers’ exploits and gave thanks for the safety of husbands, brothers, and friends; to neighbouring rulers who may have hoped for another outcome of the war, one in which perhaps all the armies would have gone down in defeat together. Everyone demanded more information, and especially an explanation of how the Teutonic Knights could have suffered such an unexpected disaster. The responses were varied. The Teutonic Knights talked about treason, the numbers of the enemy host, and unfortunate tactics; the Poles were satisfied with courage, skill at arms, good generalship, and God’s favour.

The propagandists of the order worked hard to persuade contemporaries that the disaster was not as bad as it appeared, that it was the work of the devil through his agents, the pagans and schismatics – and most of all, that it was the fault of the Saracens. Moreover, they argued that now more than ever crusaders were needed in Prussia to continue God’s work. The Polish propagandists laboured, too, to present their interpretation of events, but they did not have the long-term contacts which had been developed in many crusading Reisen. Their praise of Jagiełło and his knights tended to awaken more sympathy for the hard-pressed order than was good for Polish interests. After the first impact of the news was absorbed by the European courts, after the first months of difficulty had passed, interpretations favoured by the order tended to prevail.

The modern reader, looking back on almost six centuries of events that dwarf the battle of Tannenberg without driving it from the public mind, hardly knows how to understand the negative attitudes toward the Teutonic Knights. Comparisons to Wilhelmine Germany of 1914 and to Hitler are unworthy of comment, though Germans of those generations thought of their acts as deeds of national revenge for the battle in 1410. In the context of twentieth-century events one is tempted to say that contemporaries of Tannenberg were right, that there is a divine justice operating in the world. In concluding that the Teutonic Knights had paid the price for having lived by the sword and swaggered in a world of pride, contemporaries found that Biblical admonitions came easily to mind: Tannenberg was God’s punishment for the Teutonic Order’s outrageous conduct. Pride had risen too high – Jungingen personified his order’s universally acknowledged tendency to arrogance and anger – and a fall had to follow.

The deficiencies of this method of justifying past events (Weltgeschichte als Weltgericht) should be obvious: if victory in battle reflects God’s will, then the Tatar domination of the steppe and the harassment of Polish and Lithuanian borderlands is also a reflection of divine justice; God punishes kings by sacrificing many thousands of innocent lives. Good Old Testament theology, but hard to fit into a New Testament framework. It is best that we do not tarry long in either the shadowy realm of pop psychology or dark religious nationalism, but move back into the somewhat better-lit world of chronicles and correspondence.

Conflicting views of modern historians about the battle of Tannenberg and its aftermath make for interesting if confused reading. One could summarise them roughly by saying that until the 1960s each interpretation reflected national interests more than fact. Since then, historians have become both more polite and less certain of their inability to err. Archaeology is beginning to shed light on the battlefield, giving promise that problems left by the literary sources may be more fully resolved. Political issues in Germany and Poland that seemed to depend on every imaginable historical justification have disappeared with the political parties that sponsored them, so that at last a quiet discussion about the past is possible. Most importantly, since the fall of Communism German and Polish historians have come to respect each other sufficiently to give real attention to one another’s ideas. There is, indeed, reason to hope that some day we may come to a better and more general agreement as to what really happened at Tannenberg and what it really signified.