Bishop Guglielmino degli Ubertini of Arezzo

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Battle of Płowce

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

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

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

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

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

The Battle

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

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

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


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

Teutonic Knights’ War with Poland of 1309-43

Gdansk, 1308; Plowce, 1331; Reval, 1343

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

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

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

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


October 732

Forces Engaged

Franks: Unknown. Commander: Charles Martel.

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


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

Historical Setting

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Battle

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


It is a recognized rule in this game that he who loses most and is most frequently unhorsed, is judged the most valiant and the stronger.


Tournaments and jousts are the great celebrations of chivalry, and as a knight you will be an enthusiastic participant. These events will offer you opportunities to demonstrate your skill in the use of arms. Geoffroi de Charny may explain that the greatest honour is to be won on the battlefield, but battles are, in fact, quite rare, and your deeds may well go unnoticed in the chaos and confusion. You will find it much more satisfactory to prove yourself in tournaments and jousts. Even if you don’t win, you can gain a reputation for courage and gallantry as you are thrown from your horse.

To be successful on the tournament circuit involves considerable expenditure, as de Charny acknowledges, for you will require good equipment. You need to be tough, strong and skilful, and if you do well, you will win great renown. It is impossible to imagine that it will ever be possible to win such fame in any other sport, such as, say, football (a game for peasants).


Tournaments are not what they used to be. In the 12th century, in many cases they amounted to arranged battles. There would be a massed charge at the start, followed by a mêlée. Large numbers, perhaps even up to 3,000, were involved; knights could be captured and ransomed for profit, horses could be taken as booty. Fighting was serious, and took place over large swathes of countryside. Tournaments still take place with fighting between groups of knights rather than individuals, but the numbers are not as large as in the past, and the contests are normally held within a confined area. There are various ways in which the fighting at a tournament can be organized. You might, for example, find that a wooden castle is constructed, which one group has to defend.

It may seem when you are in the thick of things that there is very little difference between a tournament and a battle, but because there should be no involvement of infantry troops you will not have those dreadful arrows to fear. You are less likely to be killed in a tournament than in battle, and you should not have to pay a ransom if you are on the losing side. Tournaments can be valuable practice for war, even if you use rather different equipment.

There is much formality surrounding tournaments. Before the fighting begins several things must happen:

  • The event needs to be proclaimed and advertised, and judges have to be chosen.
  • The banners, helmets and crests of the participants should be displayed.
  • The two sides who are to fight need to be selected, to make sure that they are equal.

There are festivities, with much dancing and drinking, and a parade of the participants, over the two days before the actual contest begins.

Eventually, on the third day, the fighting takes place. The two sides are held back in roped enclosures; when the word is given, the ropes are cut, and the engagement starts. There will be much shouting as the spectators cheer on their favourites, and trumpets will blare. As the mêlée continues, pages will rush in to pick up the fallen and help them remount. Here Chaucer describes the fighting in a tournament:

There see men who can joust and who can ride,

There shafts are shattered on thick shields,

They feel the blows though the breast-bone.

Up spring the spears, twenty feet high,

Out come the swords, bright as silver,

They hew at the helmets to shatter them.

Out bursts the blood in stern streams red.

Eventually the judges will decide to call time. Trumpets will sound the retreat. In the evening there will be yet more festivities, as the prizes are awarded. They may be for:

  • The best blow of all (the ‘man of the match’ award).
  • Breaking the most lances.
  • Keeping a helmet on the longest.

There are different forms of mock battle such as the béhourd, in which lighter, blunted weapons are used, and relatively flimsy armour, usually made of leather, is worn. These are less serious occasions than tournaments proper, but they give you a good chance to practise your skills.


The joust is an individual conflict between two knights; it is distinct and different from the tournament. It will often be agreed that there should be three rounds; the two men ride at each other, aiming to pass each other on the left-hand side, and to strike each other with their lances. This began to be popular in the 13th century; jousting frequently takes place before the tournament proper begins, often on the previous day.

A particularly famous jouster of the past was the German knight Ulrich von Liechtenstein, who wrote up his experiences in verse. Ulrich, rather unusually, enjoyed cross-dressing, and described a journey he made dressed as the goddess Venus, during which he took part in innumerable jousts and tournaments, all for the unrequited love of his lady.

Thus like a woman I was dressed

And all I had was of the best.

The peacock feathers on my hat

Were rather dear, I’ll tell you that.

Ulrich was eccentric in other ways. On one occasion he even ordered a bath, during which two pages poured rose petals all over him, an experience which, curiously, he seems to have enjoyed. If you are considering taking part in tournamets under a pseudonym, then that of Ulrich would be a good one to choose, but it might be better to claim to come from Gelderland rather than his real homeland of Styria.


Scoring systems are complex, and will vary from event to event. In jousting, the top score normally comes for unhorsing your opponent; breaking your lance is the next best action; striking your opponent on the helmet comes third. The tournament’s overall prize, the ‘man of the match’ award, will be given to the knight who has most distinguished himself, and there may well be differing views on that. It could be that someone who has been unhorsed several times has shown conspicuous bravery, and deserves to be well rewarded.

There is a lot of technique to learn if you want to be a skilled jouster. Controlling your horse properly is important, but it is not easy with so many things to think about at the same time. You have to make sure that your horse takes a straight line, and does not veer off course, or even worse, cross in front of the other jouster. In Spain they have taken to erecting a barrier between the two jousters, so as to avert this, but no one has yet thought of introducing it in France or England.

Do not be tempted to impress by using an oversized lance: if you strike a low blow with a heavy lance, and your opponent strikes you a high blow with a lighter lance, he will unseat you. A medium-sized manageable lance will be much better than a great big one that will unbalance you and pull you out of your saddle. Your horse will go much better if you have a lighter lance. Think about what your opponent is doing, and adjust your own tactics accordingly. It is tempting to close your eyes just before the moment of impact. Don’t do this. Be careful not to turn your shoulder away; Edward Beauchamp made this mistake in a joust in 1381, and was knocked off his horse as a result.

Ulrich von Liechtenstein was expert in jousting techniques. He wrote a boastful account of one of his bouts:

I turned a little from the man

(to knock him sprawling was my plan)

I struck him in the collar then.

I turned and jousted with such skill

Sir Otte almost took a spill.

Here are a few key points to remember:

  • Ride upright, with long stirrups, holding the reins in your left hand.
  • Use a lance of manageable weight.
  • Make sure your helmet is on straight, and that you have a good line of sight.
  • Hold your lance in the palm of your hand, not just with your fingers.
  • Do not let the tip of your lance tilt up or down.
  • Do not twist, or turn your shoulder.
  • If your opponent always aims for the same place, vary your own tactics.
  • Keep your eyes fixed on the target, not on the tip of your lance.

The jousts of St Inglevert

A good example of jousting is the notable set of encounters that took place outside Calais, then as now in English hands, over a month in 1390. Do not get involved in something of this sort unless you are really expert.

Three Frenchmen, Boucicaut, Renaud de Roye and the lord of Sempy, set up camp at St Inglevert, and announced that they were ready to combat anyone who accepted their challenge. Two shields were set up, one to symbolize jousts of war, and the other jousts of peace (which would take place with blunted weapons). Challengers had to ride up and strike one of the shields. This was during a period of truce; the occasion was part sporting event, part incident of war. About a hundred English challengers appeared, all selecting to fight jousts of war. There were doubts that the three Frenchmen were strong enough; it would need great stamina to fight so often. In the event, both Boucicaut and Roye were so badly bruised in the course of the jousts that they had to rest for over a week.

A particularly dramatic encounter was that between John Clifton and Renaud de Roye:

  • Round One. Each man struck the other on the helmet.
  • Round Two. Each man hit the other’s shield; both dropped their lances.
  • Round Three. Each man hit the other high on the helmet, striking sparks.
  • Round Four. The horses failed to go straight.
  • Round Five. Both men broke their lances.
  • Round Six. Each man hit the other on the helmet; both helmets came off.

There was no provision for a tie-break; honour was equal, and the two knights were greatly praised for their achievements.

The jousting at St Inglevert was accompanied by grand dinners and much festivity; this was a great social occasion, as well as a supreme test of skill and endurance.

Combat with a range of weapons

By the end of the last century, challenges to fight were being issued involving not just jousting on horseback, but a range of military activities, notably fighting with swords, axes and daggers. Nowadays, a combat often takes the form of four rounds, each using a different weapon. In 1377 a tournament took place on three sites, St Omer, Ardres and Calais, between 12 knights from England and Hainault, and 14 from France. There were to be separate rounds on horseback, and on foot with lance, sword and dagger. You may be tempted to take part in an event that offers a supreme test of your skills in the use of weapons, but be careful. This sort of fighting can be dangerous, and perhaps because of this, challenges often end in lengthy arguments rather than actual combat.

In 1400 an Aragonese squire, Michael d’Orris, issued a challenge to the knights of England. He had vowed to wear an uncomfortable piece of leg armour until he had fought an English knight. He set out the terms of the fight in detail.

Ten strokes with the battle-axe, without intermission, and when these strokes have been given, and the judge shall cry out ‘Ho!’, ten cuts with the sword to be given without intermission or change of armour. When the judge shall cry out ‘Ho!’, we will resort to our daggers and give ten stabs with them. Should either party lose or drop his weapon, the other may continue until the judge shall cry out ‘Ho!’.

After the fight on foot, the two opponents were to joust until one fell, or was so wounded he could continue no further. John Prendergast accepted the challenge, but, there being no postal service, letters were delayed, and arguments ensued. Insults began to be traded. ‘I hold your conduct as very discourteous and ungentlemanly’, wrote d’Orris. Prendergast finally demanded £333 expenses from the Aragonese, and, some four years after the initial challenge was made, the matter was dropped. No fight ever took place. It is better not to get into such arguments to begin with.

Spectacle and propaganda

Tournaments are sometimes disapproved of by governments and the Papacy; they can be seen as a dangerous distraction. That is the English king Henry V’s view today. Even Edward I, a keen participant in tournaments in his youth, prohibited them when he considered that they were drawing knights away from his war against the Scots. It was impossible, however, to prevent such popular events from taking place, and in 1316 the Papacy gave up trying and withdrew its objections. In 1338 Philip IV of France banned tournaments during the war with the English, but Edward III, in contrast, gave them his full encouragement. He considered them a way of encouraging knights and nobles to join in his royal enterprises. Alfonso XI of Castile was another enthusiast for tournaments, regarding them as useful practice for war; one was to take place at every meeting of his knightly order of the Band.

There is a strong dramatic element to many tournaments:

  • In 1331 a tournament was held in Cheapside in London which began with a procession in which maidens led knights dressed as Tatars through the streets.
  • In 1359 Edward III and his sons, together with a group of nobles, dressed up as the mayor and aldermen of London for a tournament.
  • In 1362 a Cheapside tournament saw seven knights dressed as the Seven Deadly Sins jousting against all comers.

The fashion for staging tournaments with historical or mythological themes probably started in the Low Countries, where they developed as civic festivals. If you attend an event billed as a ‘Round Table’, however, you will probably find that scenes echoing the Arthurian past are played out. At these in particular, drinking and dancing are much more important than fighting. Increasingly, the show and the spectacle seems to be taking over from the sport, and you may find that you are spending more on fancy dress than on proper equipment.

Tournaments are used to celebrate great royal occasions. The entry of Queen Isabeau to Paris in 1389 was marked by much pageantry, and by a tournament involving 60 knights. Unfortunately the horses’ hooves kicked up so much dust that it was hard to see what was happening, even when the ground was watered for the second day’s events. The conclusion, however, was more satisfactory, for it took place indoors, in a great hall built for the purpose. There Boucicaut and other knights entertained the ladies by jousting for two hours.


You should not expect to win much in a tournament, save glory and, if you are really fortunate, the hand of a fair maiden. You might get a title. Giles of Argentein became the knight of the Greenwood as a result of one of his many tournament successes; he was later rated the third-best knight in all of Christendom. Examples of prizes include:

  • London, 1390. A horn with gold mounts; a greyhound with a gold collar; a gold circlet; a gold belt.
  • Florence, 1406. A silver-gilt lion and a velvet cap; a helmet with a silver dragon’s head; a jousting helm with two wings decorated with coloured feathers.

You can also win horses, though not as the main prizes. If you manage to strike your opponent so that he comes completely off his horse, the animal is yours. Equally, if you are struck with a foul blow, you can claim your opponent’s horse. What happens if both you and your opponent come off is a moot point and so open to debate; this was a problem set by Geoffroi de Charny, but his answer is not recorded.

Be careful

Even though many tournaments are dominated more by the ceremonies than the fighting, you still need to take care. Lances are dangerous, and tragedies can occur. Take heed of these cautionary events:

  • John Mortimer was killed in a tournament in 1318.
  • In 1344 Raoul, count of Eu and constable of France, died after being struck by a lance in the jousts held to celebrate Philip VI’s marriage.
  • William Montague, earl of Salisbury, killed his own son in a tournament in 1382.

It is not just lances you must watch out for, however – there are dangers in the festivities that accompany tournaments too. Even fancy dress can be hazardous. In 1393 the king of France and several of his courtiers dressed up as wild men. One of them was accidentally set on fire by a torch, and several perished in the conflagration. Health and safety is not what it should be in the French court.

From Knight: The Medieval Warrior’s (Unofficial) Manual by Michael Prestwich


Battle of Cajamarca and the capture of Atahualpa


Francisco Pizarro’s route of exploration during the conquest of Peru (1531–1533)


The Famous Thirteen by Juan Lepiani


Spanish Conquest of Peru, 1532

Francisco Pizarro conquered the largest amount of territory ever taken in a single battle when he defeated the Incan Empire at Cajamarca in 1532. Pizarro’s victory opened the way for Spain to claim most of South America and its tremendous riches, as well as imprint the continent with its language, culture, and religion.

Christopher Columbus’s voyages to the New World offered a preview of the vast wealth and resources to be found in the Americas, and Hernan Cortés’s victory over the Aztecs had proven that great riches were there for the taking. It is not surprising that other Spanish explorers flocked to the area-some to advance the cause of their country, most to gain their own personal fortunes.

Francisco Pizarro was one of the latter. The illegitimate son of a professional soldier, Pizarro joined the Spanish army as a teenager and then sailed for Hispaniola, from where he participated in Vasco de Balboa’s expedition that crossed Panama and “discovered” the Pacific Ocean in 1513. Along the way, he heard stories of the great wealth belonging to native tribes to the south.

After learning of Cortés’s success in Mexico, Pizarro received permission to lead expeditions down the Pacific Coast of what is now Colombia, first in 1524-25 and then again in 1526-28. The second expedition experienced such hardships that his men wanted to return home. According to legend, Pizarro drew a line in the sand with his sword and invited anyone who desired “wealth and glory” to step across and continue with him in his quest.

Thirteen men crossed the line and endured a difficult journey into what is now Peru, where they made contact with the Incas. After peaceful negotiations with the Incan leaders, the Spaniards returned to Panama and sailed to Spain with a small amount of gold and even a few llamas. Emperor Charles V was so impressed that he promoted Pizarro to captain general, appointed him the governor of all lands six hundred miles south of Panama, and financed an expedition to return to the land of the Incas.

Pizarro set sail for South America in January 1531 with 265 soldiers and 65 horses. Most of the soldiers carried spears or swords. At least three had primitive muskets called arquebuses, and twenty more carried crossbows. Among the members of the expedition were four of Pizarro’s brothers and all of the original thirteen adventurers who had crossed their commander’s sword line to pursue “wealth and glory.”

Between wealth and glory stood an army of 30,000 Incas representing a century old empire that extended 2,700 miles from modern Ecuador to Santiago, Chile. The Incas had assembled their Empire by expanding outward from their home territory in the Cuzco Valley. They had forced defeated tribes to assimilate Incan traditions, speak their language, and provide soldiers for their army. By the time the Spaniards arrived, the Incas had built more than 10,000 miles of roads, complete with suspension bridges, to develop trade throughout the empire. They also had become master stonemasons with finely crafted temples and homes.

About the time Pizarro landed on the Pacific Coast, the Incan leader, considered a deity, died, leaving his sons to fight over leadership. One of these sons, Atahualpa, killed most of his siblings and assumed the throne shortly before he learned that the white men had returned to his Incan lands.

Pizarro and his “army” reached the southern edge of the Andes in present-day Peru in June 1532. Undaunted by the report that the Incan army numbered 30,000, Pizarro pushed inland and crossed the mountains, no small feat itself. Upon arrival at the village of Cajamarca on a plateau on the eastern slope of the Andes, the Spanish officer invited the Incan king to a meeting. Atahualpa, believing himself a deity and unimpressed with the small Spanish force, arrived with a defensive force of only three or four thousand.

Despite the odds, Pizarro decided to act rather than talk. With his arquebuses and cavalry in the lead, he attacked on November 16, 1532. Surprised by the assault and awed by the firearms and horses, the Incan army disintegrated, leaving Atahualpa a prisoner. The only Spanish casualty was Pizarro, who sustained a slight wound while personally capturing the Incan leader.

Pizarro demanded a ransom of gold from the Incas for their king, the amount of which legend says would fill a room to as high as a man could reach-more than 2,500 cubic feet. Another two rooms were to be filled with silver. Pizarro and his men had their wealth assured but not their safety, as they remained an extremely small group of men surrounded by a huge army. To enhance his odds, the Spanish leader pitted Inca against Inca until most of the viable leaders had killed each other. Pizarro then marched into the former Incan capital at Cuzco and placed his handpicked king on the throne. Atahualpa, no longer needed, was sentenced to be burned at the stake as a heathen, but was strangled instead after he professed to accept Spanish Christianity.

Pizarro returned to the coast and established the port city of Lima, where additional Spanish soldiers and civilian leaders arrived to govern and exploit the region’s riches. Some minor Incan uprisings occurred in 1536, but native warriors were no match for the Spaniards. Pizarro lived in splendor until he was assassinated in 1541 by a follower who believed he was not receiving his fair share of the booty.

In a single battle, with only himself wounded, Pizarro conquered more than half of South America and its population of more than six million people. The jungle reclaimed the Inca palaces and roads as their wealth departed in Spanish ships. The Inca culture and religion ceased to exist. For the next three centuries, Spain ruled most of the north and Pacific coast of South America. Its language, culture, and religion still dominate there today.

Francisco Pizarro (c. 1475-1541)

Francisco Pizarro was born in Trujillo, Estremadura, Spain. He entered the Spanish army at an early age. Shaped by leaders such as Gonzalo Fernanadez de Cordoba, the Spanish military was the most advanced in Europe.

Pizarro went to Santo Domingo in the Caribbean in 1502 and served on the unsuccessful colonizing adventure of Alonso de Ojeda in 1509. He made the first crossing of Panama with the great explorer Balboa (1513) and settled there. Hearing of an Indian empire of enormous wealth, he formed a partnership with Diego de Almagro, a soldier, and Hernando de Luque, a priest. Pizarro and Almagro explored along the Pacific coast of present-day Colombia (1524-1525 and 1526-1528). On their second voyage, they reached a prosperous Indian town in present-day Ecuador and returned with gold, llamas, and Indians who spoke of the wealth of the Inca Empire.

Pizarro went to Spain in 1528, where the Council of the Indies made him captain-general and governor of any lands he might conquer. The Council provided no funds, however, and Almagro resented the lesser titles he received from Spain. Pizarro returned to Panama, and in January 1531, set out with 180 men, 27 horses, and two small cannons. Traveling both by land and water, he reached the town of San Miguel de Piura, which he used as a base. In September 1532, he entered the Andes mountain range with no more than two hundred men, a tiny force with which to confront the Incas.

In the Inca Empire, a civil war had just ended between two brothers: Atahualpa (at-ah-WHALP-ah) and Huascar. Atahualpa prevailed, only to learn of a new threat: Pizarro and his band of intrepid followers. Atahualpa allowed the Spaniards to come inland to the town of Cajamarca. There, the Spaniards lured the Inca leader into an ambush. The two hundred Spaniards, with their swords, guns, horses, and dogs, terrified and defeated several thousand Incas. The Battle of Cajamarca (November 16, 1532) gave Pizarro custody of Atahualpa and leadership of the Inca Empire. Although Atahualpa raised an enormous ransom-some records say it was a huge room filled to the ceiling with gold-Pizarro had the Inca leader executed on August 19, 1533.

Pizarro founded Lima as the capital of his new domain. Almagro became his bitter rival. Almagro, after failing to capture Chile, returned to Peru and seized the city of Cuzco. Pizarro’s brother captured and killed Almagro, whose followers were deprived of their land and estates. Bitter over their losses, Almagro’s followers and friends formed a conspiracy, and they killed Pizarro at his palace in Lima on June 26, 1541.

Armies of the Battle on the Ice 1242

Imposing: This form the helmet of this knight comes from illustrations of the the so-called Crusader Bible, probably originated in France around in 1245. The elaborate helmet ornament was probably not worn in combat.

Well-Equipped: Only a small part of the Teutonic infantry is so well-armed like this spearman. In addition to the heavy chain mail, he wears a helmet with a mask visor, which is increasingly replaced by the pot helmet at this time. This foot soldier has a falchion, a single-edged sword that (presumably) was used by the infantry.

Top: Hermann von Dorpat’s army consists to a large extent of warriors that were not subject to the Teutonic Order, like this rider from Dorpat (Derpt). He has a Pot helmet, and his horse is protected by a quilted blanket.

Bottom: The Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, Gerhard von Malberg, resided in 1242 in the Holy Land. At this time the Brothers are arguing about whether the Order itself to focus on their own state or Outremer. Gerhard wears here another plate skirt of metal plates over his chain mail, which added to it his protection. The horse protective blanket was made of chain mesh which was a novelty in the middle of the 13th century.

Top right: The “Brothers of the Knighthood of Christ of Livonia” under the name “Sword Brothers”. The name refers to his white tunic with the red sword cross.

Middle left: In 1228 to protect the Bishopric of Culm from pagans, at the initiative of the Polish Duke Konrad of Masovia, the knight-monks became the Order of the “Brothers of the Knights Service of Christ in Prussia”, in short, “Brothers of Dobrin”. Konrad created the order especially because that Teutonic knights did not want to help him in the fight against the Prussians. But only a handful of knights from the Reich put on his white coat with the red sword and star. The brothers could never bring more than 35 knights and about 165 armed men into the field. In 1235, most Dobrins joined the Teutonic Order, the rest fell a little later battle.

Bottom right: This Crusader has strapped his boots with metal cleats to help moving over ice.

Top left: Scandinavian Legacy: The Heavy Druzhina cavalry evolved descendants of Viking immigrants who had settled in the Novgorod area. Therefore their equipment shows a strong Nordic influence.

Top right: The sword still expensive weapons in the Middle Ages, the infantry of both sides mostly armed with spears and axes, like this well-equipped warrior of the Novgorod militia. Instead of wearing expensive chain mail He has a so-called Gambeson, a textile armor of several layers of fabric (or sometimes leather).

Bottom: Few soldiers of the Novgorod militia are heavily armed like this warrior, his armor shows Asian, Western and Nordic influences.

Top: Alexander Nevskii’s army had only a small part which was cavalry. This Druzhina bodyguard clearly has oriental influences in his armour and weapons. The horses have a kind of “spikes” on their hoofs to easier negotiate ice.

Bottom right: Alexander Nevskii wears a magnificent ceremonial armor on this picture. Masked helmets are not unknown during the Middle Ages in Russia. They go back to both Nordic and, as in this case, to Asian influences. The scale armor is even more widespread than in Western Europe among the rich classes of the population.

Bottom left: Little is known about the equipment of the Novgorod militias. However, since sources always report that the onslaught of Teutonic Crusaders was stopped by a hail of arrows is assumed that bow and crossbowmen were in the Russian center.

Unable to compete with other Military Orders in Syria, the Teutonic Knights fought in Armenia instead. In 1210 nearly the whole order was killed, leaving just 20 knights. Hermann von Salza essentially refounded the order in 1226, aided by Emperor Friedrich II. They were given lands in Sicily and eastern Europe, a transaction approved by the pope in the Golden Bull of Rimini (1223). They now wore white tunics, an honor granted over the strong objection of the rival Knights Templar. They fought in behalf of the Hungarian king in Transylvania before moving into Prussia, which the Knights in the Service of God in Prussia had failed to conquer. The first two Knights of the order settled in Prussia in 1229; the next year 20 more arrived, along with 200 sergeants. The Brethren thereafter acted as commanders and officers in larger armies of converted Prussians who served them as auxiliaries. In battle the Knights were the Panzer tip of a crusading invasion of the pagan lands of the Baltic. They ravaged and conquered Courland and Prussia and parts of Poland and western Russia, waging ruthless campaigns against ‘‘the northern Saracens.’’ They settled in conquered lands as the new aristocracy, enserfing native populations. Their own vassalage shifted among the Empire, the king of Poland, and distant but powerless popes. The legacy of the ‘‘Drang nach Osten’’ (‘‘Drive to the East’’) of the ‘‘Sword Brethren’’ was the Christianization and enfeoffment of Prussia by force of arms and merciless war with Lithuania, Poland, Sweden, and Muscovy. The northern crusades, especially the long forest-ambush campaigns of the 14th century against animist Lithuanians, were among the most ferocious of the entire Middle Ages.

The military tools of the Brethren were advanced and powerful crossbows, mailed heavy cavalry, stone watchtowers and fortress fastnesses, huge torsion artillery (catapults and counterpoise trebuchets), and cogs that could carry 500 troops, which gave them mobile striking power along the Baltic coast. Their early opponents had almost none of these weapons. When Knights charged native infantry (‘‘Pruzzes’’) armed only with bows and axes, the panic and slaughter was terrible. The Brethren united with the Livonian Order, also comprised of German knights, from 1237 to 1525. To their new Ordensstaat (1238), the Sword Brothers brought German and Dutch colonists and peasants to secure the land, completing the most successful and brutal military colonization of the Middle Ages. Baltic cities within the Ordensstaat were permitted to join the Hanse, as did the Hochmeister.


On April 5, 1242. Alexander, intending to fight in a place of his own choosing, retreated in an attempt to draw the often over-confident Crusaders onto the frozen lake. Estimates on the number of troops in the opposing armies vary widely among scholars. A more conservative estimation has it that the crusader forces likely numbered around 2,600, including 800 Danish and German knights, 100 Teutonic knights, 300 Danes, 400 Germans and 1,000 Estonian infantry. The Russians fielded around 5,000 men: Alexander and his brother Andrei’s bodyguards (druzhina), totalling around 1,000, plus 2000 militia of Novgorod, 1400 Finno-Ugrian tribesman and 600 horse archers.

The Druzhina

The druzhina was the personal warrior retinue of a prince, similar in concept to the old Scandinavian hird; it has been calculated by modem Russian historians that by the late-12th century there were probably about 100 princes maintaining worthwhile retinues of this sort. As early as the 10th century some of the most powerful druzhina members also bad such retinues of their own, which they led in wartime under their prince’s banner, and by the close of the Kievan era, with so many minor ‘principalities’ in existence- some comprising no more than a village and a few acres of land- the retinues of many of the greater nobles (called boyars by the 11th century) were probably larger than those of some petty princes. Church dignitaries too often maintained their own substantial retinues. In exchange for their service members of the druzhinas were granted estates called pomestiia free of all obligations. This meant that if such a warrior should wish to leave the service of his prince or boyar he did not lose his land as a consequence, it becoming instead pan of the territory of whichever new prince or lord to whom he transferred his allegiance. These estates were therefore allodial rather than feudal.

The druzhina was divided into senior and junior retainers, the senior echelon comprising the boyars and state officers (usually one and the same).The juniors, comprising the grid, could be promoted to senior grade either when they had established their own retinues with which to serve the prince, or upon coming of age. However, by the second half of the 12th century the boyars, their power steadily growing, made personal appearances in the druzhina less and less often so that the princes instead came to rely more and more on those retainers who had in the past constituted the grid.

The Polk

The polk was a city militia supplied by a levy of every able-bodied freeman. It could only be called out by the Veche or city council, over which the prince had little or no authority, so that sometimes it failed to muster when needed or else disbanded before a campaign was complete. Politically as well as militarily each city constituted a risiach or 1,000-strong regiment under the command of an elected officer called a tysiatskyor ‘commander of 1,000’. This was divided into sotnias (‘hundreds’) under a sotsky for each ward of the city, which were in tum subdivided into ulitzi or ‘streets’ each under an ulitsky, probably the same as the desiatniky, ‘commander of 10’. However, since by the 12th century the largest of the cities could each raise militias of 3-5,000 men (including the contingents of surrounding districts and probably smaller dependent towns), the tisiach must be assumed to be an elite unit, but the balance of the levy was organised on the same decimal basis. In addition the smerdy, ie, land-holding upper-class peasants of the surrounding rural districts, were also called up to supplement the limited manpower of the cities, particularly in Novgorod, though they were poorly equipped, inexperienced and generally of low quality (‘simple villagers, unaccustomed to battle’ is how one prince described them in 1216); often, however, the rural districts supplied only horses and provisions, the towns and cities supplying the men. Militia service was performed principally on foot. However, most cities also financed very small detachments of cavalry under bagaturs (freelance professional soldiers of noble descent), usually comprising upper-class peasants and some impoverished boyars. They were employed mainly in the role of scouts.

The militias of the principality of Vladimir and its successors were the greatest in Russia during this period, with more towns and larger populations. The republican city of Novgorod, on the other hand, probably had the smallest pro-rata militia potential, and it was probably to help offset this that the Veche there appears to have maintained its own druzhina, the gridba.


Throughout this era considerable use was made of Turkic auxiliaries, often referred to by the Russians as svoi poganye, ‘our own pagans’, so as to differentiate them from the ‘Wild’ Turks of the steppes (though these too could be, and often were, employed during Russia’s endemic civil wars). These nomad mercenaries are also often referred to as Kazzaks or Kazaks, plausibly the same name as was applied to the later Cossacks; it loosely translates as nomad vagabond’ or ‘freebooter’. It has also been suggested that the term derives ultimately from ‘Khazar’.

Vladimir Monomakh, Prince of Kiev 1113-25, was to be first to hire large numbers of Turks since his grandfather St Vladimir’s day (973-1015), employing them extensively against the Cumans (who were called Polovtsy by the Russians) in the late-11th century when he was prince of Pereyaslavl. These seem to have been mainly Turks, Pechenegs and Berendei (Brodniki), many of whom were permanently settled in South Russia, particularly in Pereyaslavl and Cherginov. Following Vladimir’s victories over the Cumans in the first quarter of the 12th century most of the remaining Turk and Pecheneg tribes acknowledged the suzerainty of Kiev. (The Pechenegs are sometimes referred to in 12th and 13th century Russian sources as Kibitki, literally ‘heavy chariots’, a reference to their characteristic wagons). We also hear of Kaypichi, Kovuye and Turpeye tribesmen, who collectively became the Chernyeklobuki (in Turkish Karakalpaks, or ‘Black Caps’, first recorded in 1146), settled as frontier guards along the greater part of Kiev’s eastern frontier. The character of such Turkic allies inevitably underwent gradual change as they became more settled, inter-married and were supplemented by Russians, until eventually many became absorbed into the indigenous Russian population. Such, at least, appears to have been the fate of the ‘Irregulars’ introduced into Suzdal in the mid-12th century by Yuri Dolgoruki.

Some Cumans, though at first probably not many, were also allied to and settled in Russia, and it was the Cumans who supplied the bulk of Kiev’s Turkic mercenaries at the time of the first Mongol attack in 1223, though these were ‘Wild’ Turks rather than settled allies. The Cumans and Karakalpaks alike were smashed along with the Russians in the Mongol invasions (though interestingly as Late as 1325 there is record of a Cuman tribe called by the name Black Caps. The Pechenegs similarly make their final appearance in history in the 13th century as a minor Cuman horde.) The Cumans, in fact, were so heavily defeated in the invasion of 1223 that their control of the South Russian steppes was brought to an abrupt and bloody end; their demise as a major Central Asian power was underlined by a further- and final- defeat at the hands of the Mongols in 1239.

In addition to Turks we also read of Hungarian, Polish and German troops employed by or allied to various principalities. From the mid-12th century some cities also began to employ Lithuanian tribesmen under their own boyars, usually in bands of some 3-800 men at a time, though sometimes two or three boyars would join together and hire themselves out as a larger force of up to 2,000 men.

Grand Prince and Khan Part I

Despite the long-standing influence of Byzantium on Russia, Andrei Bogoliubskii was the first Russian ruler to assume the authority of a Byzantine autocrat. Here at last, it seems, was a potential grand prince who could make Kievan Rus work as a state. He would not pander to the people; nor did he respect the conventions of family inheritance — indeed, he recognized its inefficiency. He lavished gifts on the Church, but insisted on the last word even on some clerical issues (and dismissed a bishop who disagreed with him). Yet the Church inspired his autocratic impulses and justified them. It sang his praises, compared him to King Solomon, said that he interceded with heaven in the interests of the Russian land. A cabal of disgruntled retainers led by a princely relative assassinated him in 1175. His enemies rejoiced at the deed, but the Church pictured him as a martyr.

Andrei’s brother Vsevolod III – known as ‘Big Nest’ because he had so many children – succeeded him and eventually challenged Roman of Volhynia for the throne of the grand prince. He gained possession of it in 1205, but his rivals would not concede and he proved unable to establish his authority over all Russia. For the remaining seven years of his life Vsevolod concentrated his attentions on his vast northern patrimony, which stretched from the Neva to the Volga. But he shared his brother’s political philosophy and practised it insofar as he was able. When investing his son Constantine with a cross and a sword symbolizing his right to rule in Novgorod, Vsevolod told him, ‘God has given thee the seniority over all thy brothers, and Novgorod the Great [now] possesses the seniority [and right] to rule over all the Russian lands.’

After Vsevolod died in 1212, however, even his own sons fell out with one another. Prince Vsevolod Rostislavich took over in Novgorod. In 1221 the people there rejected him and asked Prince Iurii of Vladimir to send them a Suzdalian prince instead. Fifteen years later, just such a prince was sent there. He bore the famous name of Alexander, and tried to emulate his namesake.

Fourteen years later civil war erupted yet again in the south, and over the next five years Kiev changed hands seven times. Well might the Novgorod chronicler bewail ‘the accursed, ever-destructive devil who wishes no good to the human race [who] raised up sedition among the princes of Rus’ so that men might not live in peace … The evil one rejoices in the shedding of Christian blood.’

Kievan Russia was at the point of collapse. The descendants of Riurik had become so numerous that serious genealogical skills would have been needed to establish where sovereignty and precedence should lie, but by the early thirteenth century it hardly seemed to matter. The state was collapsing amid the almost constant war for the possession of Kiev, when a series of hammer blows shattered it beyond hope of recovery This coup de grâce was delivered by a new enemy: the Mongols.

In 1222 Mongols had routed a poorly co-ordinated force of Russians and Pechenegs on the river Kalka. But they were only a reconnaissance party, which soon turned back. Ten years later, however, they returned, this time in full force, commanded by Baty, grandson of the dreaded Chingiz Khan. Ironically, they came at a time when Prince Alexander of Novgorod was demonstrating that there was still fight left in the Russians. He defeated a Swedish army on the river Neva in 1240 (which is why he is known as Alexander Nevskii), and then destroyed a force of Teutonic Knights in a battle on the ice of Lake Peipus near the Baltic. These victories were to be trumpeted by Russian propagandists in many a dark day over the following centuries, but even Alexander had no answer to the Mongols. And when they returned this time they came intent on subduing all Russia.

They were terrifyingly efficient, and killing aroused few qualms in them. Indeed, they used terror deliberately to weaken their enemies’ will to resist. Their original purpose in moving west had been to claim large tracts of grassland on which to feed their herds. A spell of global warming had struck their grazing grounds, which had suffered from a succession of droughts. This had spurred them to go out in search of fresh pastures for their horses, which represented food and drink as well as mobility to them. But they killed and terrorized for booty too, and for regular income in the form of tribute. The Russians were no match for them.

From this point on, however, we should refer to the Mongols as Tatars, for, although the Tatars were not Mongols but Turkic-speaking tribes who followed Chingiz Khan and his successors, they came to represent Mongol power to the Russians. The Tatars sacked Riazan in 1237, Vladimir and Suzdal in 1238, and Pereiaslav and Chernigov in 1239. In 1240 they took Kiev itself. Then they put Russia’s princes to the rack, demanding their submission.

In 1243 Iaroslav of Vladimir submitted; in 1245 Prince Daniil Romanovich of Volhynia followed suit. Baty Khan confirmed both in office. When Grand Prince Mikhail Vsevolodovich of Kiev demurred, in 1246, they executed him. From then on the Khan was in control. The internecine fighting between the princes continued, but the Tatars learned to manage and manipulate it. They also enforced the taking of a census and the regular payment of considerable taxes. Beyond that they were content to govern at a distance, allowing the princes to administer their new subjects on their behalf. They only demanded that the princes visit their capital, Sarai on the Volga, to obtain confirmation of their appointments from the Khan, that they leave hostages as sureties for their good behaviour, and that they obey orders. Any infraction met with swift retribution, any protest with harsh reprisal. Otherwise the Russians were left alone.

Kievan Rus was destroyed; no Russian principality — not even Novgorod, which the Tatars had not reached — remained sovereign, and the Tatars were to make vicious punitive raids thereafter on various parts of the Russian land. The destruction and the loss of life was considerable; the sense of shame deep. Yet the impression nourished by Cold War historians that the Mongols ‘orientalized’ Russia is exaggerated. Apart from lending Russia a few institutions like the yam, or postal service (which is not peculiar to the Orient), and words for money, treasury and customs duties, their influence was chiefly psychological. Russia recovered demo-graphically, the economy eventually revived; the Church was virtually unaffected; and relations with Byzantium were not interrupted. And the seeds of the next, more successful, imperial Russia had already been sown.

The political system of Kievan Rus had crumbled, never to be revived. The ultimate authority for the Russian lands was now the Tatar khan and his court at Sarai on the Volga. Yet over the course of the next two and a half centuries a new centre of authority was to emerge, more viable than the last — and in Moscow, a fortified settlement hardly heard of in the year 1200. It was the consequence of many causes, of both long-term trends and actions by individuals. To the extent that some recognizable elements of the old Russia were involved in creating the new entity it can be termed a reincarnation, but new factors also came into play, and the Tatars themselves unwittingly contributed towards it.

Some important trends noticeable in the late Kievan period continued. The drift of population northward, which had already given Vladimir preeminence among the principalities, resumed after an interval. So did the extension of agriculture, especially towards the east. This increased food production and hence human fertility. A rising birth rate evidently compensated for the increase of mortality due to war, and, although outbreaks of bubonic plague were to cause setbacks, the population soon resumed its healthy tendency to expansion. The territorial extent of the hunting-and-gathering economy also spread steadily eastwards and towards the northeast, bringing in more wealth in furs to sell. By the later 1300s it was also bringing more people of different ethnicity into the Russian orbit, including Maris and Mordvs, strengthening a colonial tendency which had begun long before when Russians and Riurik’s Viking band had first encountered Finnic fisher-folk in the neighbourhood of Novgorod. But it was Moscow, rather than Vladimir or Novgorod, that proved best able to capitalize on these changes. This was chiefly because of its advantageous location commanding the portages, and hence the commerce, that passed between rivers in the basin of the mid and upper Volga, between the smaller rivers Kostroma and Sokhma, the Sukhna and the Vaga.

The Russian princes, particularly of the north-central regions, benefited from these accretions of wealth, but so did the Tatars, who used the princes to collect taxes for them. Immediately following the conquest the Khan had sent in officials, called baskaks, to control each prince and each domain. The baskak ensured the payment of taxes and supervised a census, begun in 1257, to establish a systematic basis for revenue collection. The baskak also supervised the maintenance of order and ensured that the prince toed the correct political line. Quite soon, however, the Khan began to delegate some of these functions to co-operative Russians. So it was that Alexander Nevskii, hero of wars against the Teutonic Knights and Sweden, and grand prince of Vladimir from 1252 to 1263, came to impose the Tatars’ census on Novgorod, where he had begun his career. After a time all the baskak’s functions were transferred to the Grand Prince, and, as the Khan’s chief tax agent, the Grand Prince came to exercise a substantial advantage over rival rulers of the Russian lands. In this way a servile practice was transformed into a means of accreting power.

The imposition of Tatar power eventually contributed to a more effective Russian unity. It also stimulated institutional development, both directly (insofar as the princes’ courts borrowed some Tatar practices) and indirectly. The role of the Church in particular was much enhanced — not only as a source of spiritual solace and welfare, of literacy and political wisdom, but as an economic organizer. The Church became steadily wealthier as pious notables, merchants and landowners showered it with assets to ensure forgiveness for their sins and places in the world to come, and the assets were put to profitable use; and it developed a new dimension, helping to organize the territorial expansion into the interior which was already under way, and promoting further colonization. Its principal agency for this was the monastic movement, which was to make a considerable contribution to the territorial and economic development of the new Russia. So, by salvaging something from the ruins of Kievan Russia, and developing new agencies, Russians were eventually able to exploit more favourable ecological and demographic trends and to start rebuilding.

There were obstacles, of course. For a century and a half the Tatars continued to exploit Russia, creaming off its assets, and they regularly meddled in its affairs thereafter, diverting its energies. There were new outbreaks of fraternal strife among the Russian princes, most seriously between Tver and Moscow, and a new power, pagan Lithuania, emerged to the west and began to expand vigorously not only to the south but also eastward, threatening central Russia. Faced with these circumstances, Russians reacted in various ways: by migrating to avoid the challenges (though often confronting new ones in so doing), by exploiting the situations to their best advantage, but on occasion by confronting them. The chief actors in this bleak period were the princes.

They negotiated the best terms they could for themselves and their people with the Khan. They met him, his officials and each other at the periodic conferences he convened at Sarai, so that even their intrigues against each other were supervised. In personality the princes, though always represented as God-fearing, were mostly unattractive. They were arrogant and servile by turns according to the context in which they acted out their schizophrenic roles; cruel, and perforce sly. They could hardly have been much different, for theirs was a hard age and they faced cruel circumstances. Ivan I emerges as something of a hero among them, devious and grasping though he was, because his modest achievements proved to be a foundation stone of a new and successful political structure.

Prelates also played significant political roles. When the princes met at Sarai, metropolitans went with them to safeguard the Church’s interest, and at least one bishop was entrusted by the Khan with a mission to Constantinople. 3 Churchmen helped to guide the long-term destiny of Russia by their decisions. Metropolitan Petr of Kiev, for example, noticing that the location of power in Russia was moving northward, decided to move his seat of operations from Kiev to Moscow at the invitation of its prince. It was an interesting decision, for at the time Moscow was subordinate to the Grand Principality of Vladimir, even though it had potential to become the strategic centre of the Russian lands. Petr was to develop the see of Moscow into the premier seat of the Orthodox Church in Russia. Buried in the Kremlin’s Cathedral of the Assumption, which became the traditional resting place for Russian primates, he was to be venerated as one of Russia’s more significant political saints. For Russians, faith and politics were never to be far apart.

Another saint of the age, though more obviously spiritual, was hardly less important for Russia’s development. This was the charismatic hermit Sergius, who blessed Russia’s champion Dmitrii of the Don before he led his warriors to Russia’s first famous victory over the Tatars, at Kulikovo in 1380. But Sergius accomplished something much more significant for Russia in the long run: he inspired the boom in monastic development. The age also produced Russia’s finest painter, Andrei Rublev, and Stephen of Novgorod, who wrote a cheerful account of a pilgrimage to Constantinople.

Such people contributed in their different ways towards Russia’s revival. But so did the collectivity of souls who for their own individual reasons moved in directions that turned out to be historically significant. And, ironically, the same rapacious Tatars who plundered, disrupted and lorded it over Russia also contributed unwittingly to Russia’s reincarnation by introducing more effective methods of exercising economic and fiscal authority. The Tatars never interfered in the religion of their tributaries. Soon after the conquest they had confirmed the status of the Orthodox Church and confirmed its rights. This policy was not to change when, in the early 1300s, the Tatars abandoned Buddhism for Islam. Indeed, becoming part of the Muslim world expanded the range of Russians’ commercial connections — to the Arabian peninsula and through central Asia to India and China. Yet the old links with western Europe were not severed. The markets for the gleaming glutton pelts, Russian sable and fox furs grew, and prices rose. So, although the conquest disrupted the Russian economy, in the longer term it afforded some compensation.

The old connection with Christian Constantinople, on the other hand, lost some of its former commercial importance. The imperial city had become a pale image of its former glory after the crusaders sacked it in 1204. Exchanges still took place, but for the most part they involved churchmen rather than merchants, and, instead of Russians shopping in Constantinople for superior art and technology, Greeks came to Russia holding begging bowls in outstretched hands. When the great dome of St Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople, collapsed in 1346, it was the Russian grand prince Simeon the Proud, the son of Ivan I, who contributed most for the repairs. And this was only one of the grand princes’ many charitable disbursements. The mentors had become the supplicants.

Three princes Mstislav (before the battle at Kalka-river).


The Battle of Kalka River on May 31, 1223, was the disastrous first encounter of Russian armies with the Mongols. When the Mongol generals JEBE and SÜBE’ETEI BA’ATUR rode north through the Der bend Pass, they crushed the QIPCHAQS (Polovtsi) under Gyurgi (George), son of Könchek. The defeated Qipchaqs, led by Köten (Kotian), appealed to Köten’s Russian son-in-law Mstislav the Daring (d. 1228) of Halych (Galich). The princes of southern Russia (modern Ukraine) met at Kiev, where they assented to the Qipchaq request.

Commanded by Mstislav the Old of Kiev (d. 1223) and Mstislav of Chernihiv (Chernigov, d. 1223), the Russians advanced down the west bank of the Dniepr to rendezvous with the Qipchaqs and other Russian contingents. Mongol envoys arrived to dissuade the Russians from hostilities, but they were killed. On Tuesday, May 23, 1223, the Russian vanguard crossed the Dniepr in boats and clashed with Mongol scouts, who fled leaving their livestock behind. Not realizing this was a ruse, the Russians and Qipchaqs seized the livestock and pursued the Mongols for eight days to the river Kalka (north of Mariupol’), where the Mongols were camped on the other side of the river.

Mstislav the Daring, without telling his commanders, ordered young Daniel of Halych (d. 1264) and the Russian-Qipchaq vanguard over the Kalka, and the Mongols again fell back in a feigned retreat. When the Mongols suddenly turned and showered the enemy with arrows, the vanguard broke and streamed back over the river, where the Qipchaqs, riding in headlong flight, disorganized the main force’s unready lines. The other princes fled back to the Dniepr, but Mstislav the Old had set a stockade on a stony hill above the Kalka, where he and his two sons-in-law fought for three days, until they came out under a safe conduct offer from the Mongols. The three, however, were crushed to death under boards as the Mongols feasted on top of them. In their pursuit to the Dniepr, the Mongols caught and killed Mstislav of Chernihiv and six other princes. Mstislav the Daring, however, crossed the Dniepr and cut loose the boats to end the pursuit. The Mongols sacked Novhorod-Sivers’kyy (Novgorod-Severskii) before riding back to Mongolia.

Further reading: George A. Perfecky, trans., The Galician-Volynian Chronicle (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1973).

Grand Prince and Khan Part II

The Tatars had jolted Russians out of their old mould, and by denying them access to the steppe they forced their energies into other directions. What happened as a result is not a question specifically addressed in the chronicles of the time. Yet an enterprising historian at the Academy of Sciences in Moscow, A. A. Gorskii, devised an ingenious method for tracing changes in the relative importance of Russia’s cities which throws light on the problem. He counted the number of times each one is mentioned in the chronicles of each region of Russia over a lengthy period. He found that some place names cease to be referred to, others are mentioned with increasing frequency, and that new place names appear. If frequency of reference reflects importance, then these records indicate the rise and decline of cities and regions over time. In the chronicles of north-eastern Russia, for example, the city of Pereiaslav-Zalesskii is the most mentioned in the first half of the thirteenth century, but in the second half Moscow eclipses it, as does its parent city, Vladimir. Gorskii also found that Kiev is mentioned 44 times in the period 1200 to 1250 in the chronicles of the north-east, and that Halych is the second most frequently mentioned southern city. However, by 1300 Novgorod leads, and it holds its lead into the 1300s. A count of fortified settlements in the century after 1250 has shown that the principality of Chernigov had most, followed by Smolensk in the west, and then Kiev. However, the walls of Volyn and of Suzdal enclosed the largest areas, suggesting a greater concentration of population. Some of the detail may be confusing, but the general trend is clear: whereas the most populous and important cities had been in the south, they were now in the north. The political configuration confirms this finding. The four strongest principalities in the early thirteenth century had been Chernigov, Halych-Volynia, Smolensk and Vladimir-Suzdal. By the early 1300s the first three had ceased to exist, but a new state was being formed on the territory of the fourth.

The rising star was the Principality of Vladimir-Moscow. Yet by no means all parts of the first Russia were to cohere around it. One result of the Tatar impact was to send several old Russian centres in the south and west into a different orbit. They were to become part of the rising power of Lithuania. In time the influence of western neighbours on their language and culture caused them to diverge from the remaining Russians. Ultimately their peoples were to become those we know today as Ukrainians and Belorussians. However, despite these substantial losses of territory and population, and the attrition of Tatar rule, Russians were to make a good recovery demographically and go on to settle an area quite out of proportion to their numbers. How this came about is a question that fascinated one of Russia’s most interesting, and neglected, historians, Matvei Liubavskii, and it is related to the problem of why first Vladimir and then Moscow became the political centre of Russia.

Liubavskii noticed that the migration was confined to the forest zone. The colonizers avoided the Tatars’ stomping ground, the steppe. He also noticed that settlements were unevenly distributed, scattered, bounded by marshes and impenetrable tracts of forests, Russia’s natural frontiers. The great spread and dispersed character of Russian settlement helps to explain the lack of political cohesion in the old Russia and the failure to create an integrated state. Thanks to the Tatars and the northward movement of population, a new concentration of population allowed a more integrated state to be constructed. However, this did not explain why the principalities of the north-east should have become the fastest-growing sector in all Russia, or why Moscow, a neophyte among Russian cities, in a region that was relatively poor in natural resources and with little transit trade, should become the country’s capital, rather than Novgorod, Russia’s oldest city.

Liubavskii explained this in terms of Novgorod’s lack of an agricultural hinterland. This made it difficult for the city to secure food supplies for a large army, and this precluded its attaining pre-eminence in Russia. Moscow, on the other hand, had come to command a strategic central sector of Russia’s great network of rivers and portages, and developed an adequate agriculture and food supply. It was part of the Grand Principality of Vladimir, ‘a complex of … valuable territories, which were the source of great military and financial resources’. This strength derived in large measure from population growth, and from the extension of colonization, organized by the princes, boyars (their elite retainers) and clergy. But it also owed something to the aggression of its princes, who had to fight for a share of the commercial resources which more prosperous cities like Tver, Novgorod and Pskov already enjoyed, and to a new form of monastic development, which, as we shall see, was a reaction to the invasion.

The political coherence of Russia depended on the princes, especially on the grand prince of Vladimir-Moscow. By the fourteenth century the Tatars had relaxed their grip sufficiently to allow the princes to pursue policies that were rather less subservient. The first hint of change came when Ivan I was the leading Russian prince.

Historians customarily picture Ivan as cruel, sly and hypocritical, even though the chronicles yield virtually nothing about his character or personality except that his nickname (coined by an unappreciative brother) was Kalita — ‘Money-Bag’. This suggests that he was a good money manager, ungenerous, perhaps, and greedy. Inferences from actions, difficult though these sometimes are to reconstruct, suggest that he was also a canny strategist and a tough negotiator. His chief concern was unheroic: to maintain and, if possible, enlarge his heritage. He seized his opportunities, but only when it seemed safe to do so. Otherwise he prudently observed convention, kept the Church on his side, and never offended the Khan. The complexity and dangers of his predicament hardly allowed him to play the hero. Ivan is remembered as a significant historical figure in Russian history because he stumbled on opportunities. He happened to live at a juncture when he could exploit the Tatar khan’s dependence on his services and establish Moscow as the pre-eminent centre for the Russians.

A grandson of Alexander Nevskii, Ivan was born around 1288 and came to prominence in his forties, when he was enthroned as grand prince of Vladimir as well as prince of Moscow. Vladimir, to the east of Moscow, had been founded in 1108 on the river Kliazma, a tributary to the Volga. He reigned for only nine years. Yet one of his more significant achievements belonged to the period before he became grand prince. In 1325 he persuaded the Metropolitan of Kiev, Petr, to move permanently to Moscow. As an extra inducement he built the Cathedral of the Dormition, one of the four famous cathedral churches enclosed along with the palace within the walls of Moscow’s castle, the Kremlin. The expense was justified as well as affordable, for the new church added religious lustre to the place, and by extension to the Grand Prince. To have the head of the Russian Church based in his own city rather than Kiev was a great coup. It gave Moscow spiritual preeminence in Russia, and lent its prince particular prestige and clout.

Though their titles suggested authority, every Russian ruler of the time was a Tatar underling and had to accept regular humiliation. On the death of his predecessor a prince had to apply to the Khan at Sarai for permission to rule his inheritance. If his appointment was approved by the grant of a yarlyk, the Khan’s men would take the prince to his capital, enthrone him, and monitor his activities thereafter. Ivan took good care to please the Khan. When, therefore, Prince Dmitrii of Tver murdered his brother, Grand Duke Iurii, in a revenge killing in 1326, Ivan no doubt expected to be made grand prince. He was to be disappointed.

The Khan eventually executed Dmitrii for the murder, but then made Dmitrii’s brother, Aleksandr, grand prince. Aleksandr was evidently in the Khan’s good graces too. 10 Ivan had no alternative but to acquiesce, and wait. Then, in 1327, an anti-Tatar uprising erupted in Tver. Many Tatars were lynched, and Ivan rushed off to Sarai with the news. Uzbek Khan responded by entrusting him with a Tatar army 50,000 strong, telling him to punish Tver. He also authorized him to rule the western districts of the grand principality. But he did not appoint him grand prince. Instead he chose Aleksandr of Suzdal, who ruled the eastern districts, including Vladimir. Aleksandr is said to have carried off the cathedral bell from Vladimir and reinstalled it in the cathedral of his own city, Suzdal, but, according to one (presumably pro-Muscovite) chronicler, it refused to ring there. This was a way of suggesting that Aleksandr’s appointment lacked divine sanction. However, after Aleksandr’s death, in 1331, Ivan was finally confirmed as grand prince of Vladimir ‘and All Russia’.

The Khan’s reluctance to appoint him earlier had not been based on favouritism or whim. Nor was his preference for the princes of Tver and Suzdal. The decision reflected a sober appreciation of the fact that the Principality of Moscow had come to command more resources than any other principality. It had become altogether too mighty. That was why the policy-makers at Sarai had promoted Tver, Moscow’s rival. But then Tver had rebelled. So another counter-weight to Moscow had to be found. This explains the division of Tver’s territories between Ivan and Aleksandr. By 1331, however, the Khan’s priorities had changed. A grand prince of Vladimir ‘and all Russia’ was needed now to guard the Khan’s western territories, which were threatened not only by Sweden, but also by the fast-rising Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Its ruler, Olgerd, had been expanding vigorously towards the south and west, vying with Moscow for control of Novgorod, and threatening Smolensk and Pskov. Suddenly Sarai saw a strong Moscow as an asset rather than a danger.

Ivan recognized his chance and seized it. Some years previously his brother the grand prince lurii had taken responsibility for the collection of tribute for the Tatars from all north-eastern Russia. Now the indispensable Ivan turned the Khan’s rising dependence on him to good account by having the baskaks removed and charging all the princes with collection under his supervision. In practice this made the Grand Prince governor of all the princes. Nevertheless, Ivan was far from confident that his patrimony would remain intact or that his descendants would inherit it. This much is evident from his several wills.

In one of them, made within a year of his death and witnessed by three priests, he declares himself to be ‘the sinful, poor slave of God’ and bequeaths his patrimony, Moscow, to his three sons. He proceeds to specify every property precisely, and in stating which towns and villages each son should have, he mentions that he has already given the eldest, Semen, ‘four golden chains, three golden belts … a golden plate set with a pearl and precious stones … my red fur coat with pearls and my gold cap’. Yet he is by no means certain that his wishes will be honoured, that the Tatars will not intervene. ‘If for my sins the Tatars should covet any of these … [properties] then you, my sons and my princess, should divide … [those that remain] among yourselves.’ Nor, anxious though he is that memory of him and of his ancestors should not be extinguished, is he confident that his work, his patrimony, will be perpetuated. Yet his tomb and those of his descendants in the Kremlin’s Cathedral of the Archangel still witness to the fact that it was.

The reign of Ivan ‘Money-Bag’ marks a watershed not only for Tatar rule in Russia, which was never again to be as firm and assured as it had been in the first quarter of the century, but for Moscow as the centre of Russian political life. By the end of the century the Grand Principality had come to be regarded as the patrimony of the princes of Moscow. This was the foundation on which the new Russia was to rise.

The metropolitans had played a vital role in developing Moscow’s political role, and none more so than Metropolitan Petr. The future saint’s hagiog-rapher assures us that Petr ‘foresaw the future glory of Moscow’ even ‘while it was yet poor’. Yet when Ivan pressed him to move there he seems to have implicitly insisted on a condition: ‘If thou wilt build a temple here worthy of the Mother of God,’ he told Ivan, ‘then thou shalt be more glorious than all the other princes, and thy posterity shall become great.’ The Cathedral of the Dormition was started, Petr duly arrived, and the continuing close co-operation between the grand princes and metropolitans of Moscow did much to ensure the fulfilment of Petr’s prophecy.

Circumstances encouraged metropolitan and grand prince to cooperate. Olgerd of Lithuania was fast absorbing western and southern Russia into his domains, and was pressing for a separate Lithuanian Church hierarchy, headed by its own metropolitan. The Lithuanian advance posed many churchmen with a choice of allegiance. Those who distrusted the Lithuanians, who had so recently been pagans and who were open to Catholic influences from the German and Polish Churches, opted for Russia. So did the Patriarch of Constantinople, who was becoming dependent on Muscovite subsidies. These factors and the steadfastness of Petr’s successors as metropolitan of Moscow – particularly Aleksei who was subsequently canonized – were to help Moscow beat off several challenges to its ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and to steady society when it was ravaged by the Black Death.

Aleksei’s family had served the father of Ivan I, so he had connections at the Grand Prince’s court and was familiar with affairs of state. Even so, his responsibilities as metropolitan were daunting. He had to start by going to Constantinople to negotiate with the Patriarch to secure his see; he had to guard it against inroads by the Lithuanians; and then he had to make his mark with the Khan (he earned a reputation as a healer in the process). Finally installed in Moscow, with an ecclesiastical jurisdiction more extensive than the Grand Prince’s political jurisdiction, he had to rescue the incapable Ivan II – the weakest of ‘Money-Bag’s’ sons, but the only one to survive the plague — from the consequences of his ineptitude. Things might very easily have descended into civil war. It was thanks largely to the adroit Aleksei that they did not. He made peace between fractious princely families; calmed anti-Muscovite Tver; advised on policy towards the Tatars; and acted as mentor to Ivan’s son and successor, Dmitrii, and as regent during the boy’s minority. In short, Metropolitan Aleksei held the Russian centre together and guided it through a period of crisis. He also prepared the way for a dramatic change in relations between the Russians and the Tatars, for in 1378 young Dmitrii – now of age – led a Russian army to victory over the Tatars on the river Vozha; two years later he trounced them again at the famous battle of Kulikovo.

These victories did not end Russia’s subjection, but they showed that the Tatars could be defeated, and hence that the subjection need not last. They also showed that Russian princes could sink their differences in a common front against the enemy, for warriors had come from all over northern Russia like eagles’ to Dmitrii’s aid. By the time of his death, in 1389, Dmitrii had also doubled the territory of the Grand Principality. The new circumstances also made it more probable that his descendants would succeed him. Yet a venerable monk named Sergius, who attended his funeral, was to do as much as Dmitrii to enlarge the Russian land.


On September 8, 1380, Rus forces led by Grand Prince Dmitry Ivanovich fought and defeated a mixed (including Tatar, Alan, Circassian, Genoese, and Rus) army led by the Emir Mamai on Kulikovo Pole (Snipe’s Field) at the Nepryadva River, a tributary of the Don. As a result of the victory, Dmitry received the sobriquet “Donskoy.” Estimates of numbers who fought in the battle vary widely. According to Rus chronicles, between 150,000 and 400,000 fought on Dmitry’s side. One late chronicle places the number fighting on Mamai’s side at 900,030. Historians have tended to downgrade these numbers, with estimates ranging from 30,000 to 240,000 for Dmitry and 200,000 to 300,000 for Mamai.

The circumstances of the battle involved politics within the Qipchaq Khanate. Mamai attempted to oust Khan Tokhtamish, who had established himself in Sarai in 1378. In order to raise revenue, Mamai intended to require tribute payments from the Rus princes. Dmitry organized the Rus princes to resist Mamai and, in effect, to support Tokhtamish. As part of his strategy, Mamai had attempted to coordinate his forces with those of Jagailo, the grand duke of Lithuania, but the battle occurred before the Lithuanian forces arrived. After fighting most of the day, Mamai’s forces left the field, presumably because he was defeated, although some historians think he intended to conserve his army to confront Tokhtamish. Dmitry’s forces remained at the scene of the battle for several days, and on the way back to Rus were set upon by the Lithuania forces under Jagailo, which, too late to join up with Mamai’s army, nonetheless managed to wreak havoc on the Rus troops.

Although the numbers involved in the battle were immense, and although the battle led to the weakening of Mamai’s army and its eventual defeat by Tokhtamish, the battle did not change the vassal status of the Rus princes toward the Qipchaq khan. A cycle of literary works, including Zadonshchinai (Battle beyond the Don) and Skazanie o Mamaevom poboishche (Tale of the Rout of Mamai), devoted to ever-more elaborate embroidering of the bravery of the Rus forces, has created a legendary aura about the battle.