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.

Mongol Otrar Campaign 1219-20

Khwarezmid Empire (1190–1220), on the eve of the Mongol conquests

It is sometimes said that Genghis’s reponse to the Otrar atrocity was tardy and that two years went by before he made his move. In fact his riposte was remarkably rapid. While making elaborate plans for a grand rendezvous of the majority of his forces on the upper Irtysh, he ordered Jochi and Jebe, already in Qara Khitai, to take their 30,000 troops and begin the march west immediately. The idea was that when these two reached the Ferghana valley, ‘arrow messengers’ or fast-travelling couriers from the main force converging on Otrar would be in touch with the khan’s latest orders. The orders to set out at once committed Jebe and Jochi to a gruelling trek in winter over high mountain passes, but there was no gainsaying the khan’s commands. The barrier of the Altyn-Tagh range forced travellers to take a route either north of the T’ien Shan or south of the River Tarim through the fearsome Taklamakan Desert. The rule of thumb was that trade caravans took the southerly route to avoid the worst mountain passes, but large groups of migrants, needing more water than the desert could provide, went north. With 30,000 men Jebe and Jochi had no choice but to go north, yet they do not seem to have followed the conventional route through Dzungaria; instead they veered slightly south-west and found a pass between the Pamirs and the T’ien Shan, most likely through the Altai range (the sources are anything but pellucid). It was probably the Terek-Dawan defile, an all-year pass at 13,000 feet, which later became the principal route from Qara Khitai and was used by Marco Polo.3 On the way to this pass the Mongols rode through snowstorms and snow 5–6 feet deep, their horses wrapped in yak-hides and the riders wearing double sheepskin coats. Shortage of food meant they often had to open the veins of their mounts, drink the blood then close the veins up again. Not surprisingly, many horses dropped dead from the snow, ice and blood letting; any that did were devoured instantly.

Finally the Mongols reached the fertile valley of Ferghana in spring 1219 after an exploit that easily rivals Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. Turkestan was then the name given to the entire area stretching from modern China to the Caspian, so it is a high commendation to say that the Ferghana valley was the commercial jewel of the entire region. It produced gold, silver, turquoise, quicksilver, iron, copper, naphtha, bitumen, millstones, perfume, cloth, weapons, needles, scissors, pots, bows, quivers, dyed hides, cloaks, flax, cotton, had a vast acreage of rice fields, extensive orchards and vineyards and a thriving pastoral sector concentrating on goats, horses and mules. The Mongols could raid and seize all they needed in such a milk-and-honey land.

The news of a Mongol army in Ferghana seriously disconcerted the shah Muhammad II, who had thought that any army coming from the east would have to take a more northerly route, through the Dzungaria Gate. Here was confirmation of Jalal al-Din’s opinion that the Mongols should be opposed on the eastern frontier. But already defeatism was evident at Muhammad’s court. The majority wanted to abandon Transoxiana and retreat to Khorasan or the Ghazni area of Afghanistan and build an invincible stronghold against which the Mongol hordes would fling themselves in vain until fatally weakened. The shah provided no proper leadership but instead declared that Allah had told him to attack the Mongols; he ranted against Genghis as an idolater and complained to his entourage that the Mongols had ‘unfairly’ beaten him to the punch by invading China.6 Yet the provocation of learning that the Mongols were laying waste Ferghana was too much to bear. Muhammad assembled a large army and marched against them.

Jochi’s orders from his father were not to allow himself to be sucked into pitched battles with the shah; his role was as a diversion, to keep the Khwarezmians occupied while Genghis came through the Dzungaria Gate. The headstrong Jochi never liked obeying his father’s orders, and this occasion was no different. Jebe strongly urged that the Mongols should retreat, if necessary up into the foothills of the mountains, so as to lure the shah further away from Otrar, where Genghis intended to strike. Jochi took a perverse pleasure in overruling a superior general (Jebe), exercising his prerogative as a prince of the blood, saying that such a course of action would be arrant cowardice.

The sources differ in their accounts of the battle. One version is that the Mongols were in a poor state to receive the enemy after their exertions on the long trek and, instead of their usual guileful manoeuvres, simply charged the shah head on. Another is that the Mongols gave a textbook demonstration of their tactics – the light cavalry appearing to discharge their usual arrow cloud, with the heavy cavalry waiting to deliver the killer blow. It is even suggested that Muhammad came within an ace of being captured. At all events, night came down on a battle that was still indecisive, but with the heavily outnumbered Mongols (perhaps 25,000 to twice that number) having outpointed the enemy in every area: speed, mobility, imagination.

This was the second time Muhammad had taken a mauling, and it reinforced what was becoming an idée fixe with him – that it was always folly to engage the Mongols in open battle. Jebe and Jochi meanwhile followed the time-honoured tactic of withdrawing under cover of darkness, managing to take most of their cattle and horses with them. Muhammad’s failure to pursue has puzzled some analysts, but at least three major factors were responsible. He was unsure of the true strength of the Mongols and could not know for certain that the army he had fought was not just a vanguard, with the main army lying in ambush, waiting for him to pursue. Then, in order to campaign effectively, the shah had to raise taxes and this in turn led to open rebellion among some already disaffected towns; to deal with these insurrections Muhammad had to divert his army from pursuit of the Mongols. Thirdly, by late summer he learned that the vanguard of another Mongol army was already pouring through the Dzungaria Gate in the north. He now had his answer. The Jebe–Jochi force had been a classic diversion.

Genghis set off with the main army in May 1219, following the Orkhon and Tula Rivers. Angling south-west, he crossed the Khangai Mountains through passes ranging from 8,000 to 10,000 feet and reached the Altai Mountains by mid-July. There is much scholarly wrangling about the exact route he took thereafter (geography was not the medieval chroniclers’ strong point); he may have used the Dabistan-Daban Pass, though at least two other defiles in this area are open from May to September. He made camp on the upper Irtysh in summer 1219, to give his men and horses rest and recreation and await the advent of his allies to this rendezvous. While encamped there, the Mongols experienced a freak summer snowstorm.

To confuse the shah still further Genghis sent a small detachment (maybe 5,000 strong) on a circuitous route south to enter Turkestan by the famous Dzungaria Gate. This (on the modern China–Kazakhstan border) was already known in ancient times to Herodotus and Ptolemy and thought to be the home of Boreas, the North Wind, on account of the fierce and constant winds encountered there. Basically a small rift valley, the Dzungaria Gate is a six-mile-wide, 46-mile-long gap between the lakes Alakol and Ebi Nur, the most important mountain pass between China and Central Asia and the one gateway in a mountain wall that otherwise stretches 3,000 miles from Afghanistan to Manchuria. This is the route Muhammad would have expected Genghis to take, on the expectation that he would be marching west from a base in Qara Khitai.

Meanwhile on the upper Irtysh Genghis took stock of his position and reviewed his strategy. In his retinue were Qulan, his favourite wife, his sons Tolui, Chagatai and Ogodei, and all his important generals and advisers except for Jebe and Jochi, already engaged on the western front, and Muqali in China; the most important personality of all may have been Subedei, who acted as Genghis’s chief of staff and is usually credited with the brilliant strategy used against the shah. (The government of Mongolia had been left to Genghis’s brother Temuge.)

Quite how many troops Genghis led is a vexed question, as are all issues relating to numbers in Mongol history. Estimates range from the grotesquely impossible 800,000 to the absurdly low 80,000. The lunatic figure of 800,000 mentioned by some popular writers is implausible on a number of grounds, chiefly that this would imply also herds of 800,000 horses and 24 million sheep and goats all on the march. Much depends on what figure we assign to the total population of Mongolia, and here again estimates range from 700,000 to two million. Given that the pastoral economy of Mongolia is inelastic and therefore can support only a constant population, and given also that the population of Mongolia in 1967 was three million, there is every justification for accepting the higher figure of two million in the thirteenth century. This might give us a total military strength of 200,000 and take us close to some of the higher estimates. Yet we must remember that large numbers of troops were still waging war in China, and that some of the newly conquered regions in Genghis’s rear could not be totally counted on and needed garrisons to keep them loyal. All in all, counting allied contingents, Chinese sappers, engineers and siege experts, we might settle for a total force of 120,000 effectives, including the 30,000 under Jochi and Jebe.

The most alarming news that reached Genghis at his summer camp on the upper Irtysh was that the expected Tangut contingent would not be coming. At first the campaign of 1209–10 seemed to have borne ripe fruit, for to start with Hsi-Hsia stayed loyal. There was an open usurpation of the crown in 1211 when a new ruler, Shen-Tsung, a man in his late forties, secured the throne by a coup, but he confirmed the Mongol alliance and remained steadfast until 1217. But then he repudiated all his commitments, under the influence of the virulently anti-Mongol general Asa Gambu. Together ruler and general offered the Jin an anti-Mongol alliance to take advantage of Genghis’s absence in the west; Asa Gambu, moreover, was convinced the Mongols would lose the war against Khwarezmia.

The Jin refused, on the basis that both the Mongols and the Tangut were their sworn enemies. The Tangut had better luck with the Song, but the latter told Shenzong they could not formally commit to an alliance until 1220 at the earliest. When the Mongols officially protested at Hsi-Hsia’s perfidy, Asa Gambu replied with heavy irony that since Genghis Khan styled himself the Khan of Khans (though actually he never took this title), he scarcely needed the help of the Tangut, as Heaven was already on his side. When this reply was conveyed to Genghis, he is said by some sources to have become apoplectic with rage. He asked one of his secretaries to remind him at noon and dusk every day thenceforth that the treacherous Tangut realm still existed.

Siege of Otrar

Soon it was time to move on, to the first target, Otrar. Genghis ordered his commissariat to make the most careful and meticulous preparations for the march ahead, factoring in all known wells, waterholes and oases. Every ten horsemen had to carry three dried sheep, with the mutton salted and dried in the sun, and an iron cauldron in which to cook the meat; similar ‘slide-rule’ projections were formulated for all other food. Genghis’s itinerary next took him across the Irtysh, past Lake Zaysan, then, by way of the River Emil and the Tarbaghatai Mountains, and passing the eastern shore of Lake Balkhash, one of the world’s great inland seas, he came to an autumn rendezvous on the plain of Qayaliq south of the lake; here he was joined by Arslan of of the Qarluqs, Suqnaq-tigin the new ruler of Almaliq, and his great friend the idiqut Barchuq.

Ten thousand Uighurs, 6,000 Qarluqs and a contingent from Almaliq made a hefty reinforcement; Ongud, Khitans, Solons, Kirghiz and Kem Kemjiut are also mentioned among the recruits. The allies were all much impressed with the Chinese engineers and the heavy equipment they brought for siegecraft. At Qayaliq Genghis sent Chagatai ahead with the vanguard to build bridges to take them across the remaining rivers, making sure they could bear the weight of heavy transport wagons. Chagatai had many faults but he completed this task with supreme efficiency, building forty-eight timber bridges wide enough for two heavy carts to drive across side by side.

The army proceeded south-west, reached the Ili River and followed it down to Almaliq, the final significant stop before their destination. Passing to the north of the Lake Issyk Kul, they reached the River Chu (in today’s northern Kyrgyzstan and southern Kazakhstan), the last significant obstacle before Otrar itself. Genghis gave strict orders that from now on there should be no hunting, so as not to tire the horses; he made sure food supplies were adequate, then struck due west for Otrar. Once across the Chu they were in the realms of the shah.

In October 1219 the Mongols finally arrived outside Otrar on the banks of the Syr Darya, the mighty river known to the ancients as the Jaxartes. (Alexander the Great fought a famous battle on the Jaxartes in 329 bc and proclaimed it the northern limit of his empire.) Genghis had spent three months on the march, excluding stopovers on the Irtysh and elsewhere, and had covered over 2,500 miles. Now he decided to leave the siege of Otrar to Ogodei and Chagatai while he waited with a large reserve force in a pass at the top of the Arys valley, in the foothills of a nearby mountain range.

As always, his strategy was masterly. Knowing that the shah was based at Samarkand, he sent 5,000 men upstream along the Syr Darya to seize Banakat (near Tashkent), where the road from Samarkand reached the river and where any army coming from that direction would have to approach. He hoped to lure Muhammad into an expedition to relieve Otrar. If that happened, the 5,000 Mongols at Banakat were to leave and link up with Ogodei and Chagatai outside Otrar. Genghis’s plan was to tempt the shah to imagine that the besieging army at Otrar could be caught between two fires, between his army advancing from Samarkand and the powerful garrison in Otrar, which would then sortie and assail the Mongols in the rear as they turned round to face the new army. If that happened, Genghis hoped to destroy the Khwarezmian military power in one go, using his expertise in uniting far-flung detachments of his army with lightning speed. The shah was unaware that there was a second army in the north, lurking in the foothills, and had lost sight of Jochi. With Genghis appearing unexpectedly on the flank of the sallying garrison and Jochi in the rear of Muhammad’s army, the stage would be set for a victory that would echo down the centuries. It would be more complete than Gaugamela, Cannae, Zama or any of the great battles of history.

But the shah would not take the bait. He was confident that the huge force of defenders at Otrar could hold out, and he wanted to be able to locate Jochi and Jebe accurately before committing himself to a clear course of action. He dithered and procrastinated, a true martial Hamlet, while his son Jalal tore his hair out that his earlier advice – to oppose the Mongols at the Syr Darya – had been rejected. In fact merely by abandoning the Syr Darya to Genghis, Muhammad had lost the first round of the struggle.

There was some rationality in his decision not to endorse Jalal’s plan. Since all the cities on that river (including Otrar) were on the north bank, any army defending them would have the river at its back and nowhere to escape to if defeated. On the other hand, if he used the river as a defence, defying the Mongols to cross it in the face of strong forces on the south bank, he would have to abandon all his northern cities. Moreover, even if he was victorious on the north bank, the Mongols would retreat into the mountains, and it was too dangerous to follow such a foe into that kind of terrain. Muhammad’s strategy therefore was to place such an enormous garrison in Otrar that the Mongols, already weary after a long march, would tire themselves out trying to take it. When he deemed that the besiegers were sufficiently exhausted, Muhammad told his advisers that he would indeed order the march from Samarkand to Banakat. This, too, was not entirely irrational. The garrison at Otrar contained no fewer than 60,000 fighting men, with the cavalry and infantry stationed all round the walls.

Genghis waited patiently for two months while the siege of Otrar dragged on, but finally concluded that the shah would never be tempted into battle. He therefore left express instructions with Ogodei and Chagatai to press the siege with all their might, assisted by Barchuq and the Uighurs, and sent orders to Jochi to advance from Ferghana and conquer all cities along the north bank of the Syr Darya. Sadly for his own ambitions, Muhammad had imbibed the myth that the Mongols were hopeless at siegecraft, which his agents based on the lacklustre performance in the campaign against Hsi-Hsia in 1209–11. He had no idea that as a result of their war with the Jin the Mongols’ expertise had proceeded almost exponentially, and the well-defended fortress of Otrar held no terrors for them. Inalchuq, the governor responsible for the original atrocity, and general Qaracha, sent by the shah with 50,000 men to bolster the governor’s original 10,000 garrison, are said to have been caught completely off guard by the Mongol host appearing outside the walls, with the neighing of armoured horses and the braying of chain-armoured mules.35 Naturally, the Mongols used all kinds of tricks to exaggerate their numbers. Gradually they pounded the walls and cut off all supplies of food and water. By their fierce discipline the numerically inferior nomad army triumphed over an enemy who should have been able to resist.

Nonetheless, it took five bitter months of fighting before Otrar finally cracked, in February 1220. In January, Qaracha, foreseeing the inevitable end, tried to make his escape with a bodyguard but was captured and executed; Ogodei fully shared his father’s belief that a general should never abandon his master.37 After this debacle large numbers of the shah’s dreaded mercenaries deserted. Some civilians, tired of the privations of a five-month siege, opened a side gate and let the attackers in, but Inalchuq, after abandoning the city to the Mongols, withdrew into the citadel with 20,000 of his crack troops; many of them soon deserted and in the end he was left with just 6,000.38 It took another month for the Mongols to winkle them out. When the citadel fell Inalchuq and his diehard loyalists retreated into a central tower. The defenders fought bitterly and in the end, desperately short of firearms, were reduced to showering the attackers with tiles. The Mongols mined the tower and, when it collapsed, dug a still living Inalchuq out of the ruins. All the Turkish deserters and any other soldiers left alive were instantly slaughtered. Ogodei and Chagatai ordered the city razed to the ground; it was never rebuilt, and its ghostly ruins attested to the folly of opposing the greatest power on earth. Inalchuq was taken and held for Genghis’s pleasure whenever he should appear. He was of course executed, but the story that Genghis first tortured him by having molten silver poured into his eyes is apocryphal.

With the fall of Otrar there was now no obstacle to the systematic reduction of all the cities and towns along the Syr Darya. Jochi and Jebe decided they should split up, with Jebe striking south, intending to cross the River Zerafshan and bar any southern escape route from Samarkand whenever Genghis decided to assault it. Jebe had with him somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 men, scarcely enough to engage a large army; nevertheless when he encountered a larger Khwarezmian force, he attacked it and put it to flight. It was a great exploit but Genghis was none too happy when he heard of it. He always tried to avoid heavy casualties and to win by mobility and other indirect means.


The wedge formation consisted of battle lines ‘made up of a number of deep wedges of cavalry, followed by infantry. The more heavily armed knights would lead the wedge, while the more lightly armed men-at-arms would form the centres. The idea was to slice into the ranks of the enemy and disrupt their formation, after which the infantry could follow up to provide the final blow.

The Milanese carroccio was a ceremonial wagon built to reflect the town’s pride and wealth. Taken with the town’s militia to the Battle of Legnano, it was meant to encourage the more inexperienced soldiers when they faced Frederick Barbarossa’s veteran forces, and did so successfully to judge by the result of the battle.

Frederick Barbarossa’s military career has been celebrated since his death. His career included several marches through the Alps to put down northern Italian rebellions. Most of these were victories. Yet it is perhaps his defeat by the Milanese and other northern Italian militias at the Battle of Legnano that is most remembered.

On one of his numerous campaigns through the alps into northern Italy, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa’s army was defeated by non-professional soldiers drawn mostly from the town militias. The Battle of Legnano was a victory of inexperienced over professional troops.

Throughout history, the Alps have stood as a geographical hindrance to any military force trying to cross over or through them. From Hannibal to Hitler, armies have been tormented by man and nature as they tried to travel through narrow and precipitous passes, making the journey long, gruelling and dangerous. Above all, this mountain range protected Italy. More than any strategy, army or weapon, the Aps saved Italy from numerous conquests. During the Middle Ages, the Italian people were politically and legally part of the Holy Roman Empire, but they almost always sought their own sovereignty, especially after the towns of northern and central Italy increased in population and wealth during the High and Late Middle Ages. This meant that medieval Italians generally opposed being ruled from north of the Aps.

However, the Holy Roman Emperor often had other considerations that kept him from Italy. The difficulty of the Alpine passage, as well as the distance between there and his powerbase in Germany, allowed only an emperor who was completely secure at home to campaign in Italy. Such security was rare in medieval Germany, due to its custom of imperial election, which frequently fomented jealousy among imperial candidates and their adherents. When such security did reign, though, and the emperor came south, the Italian towns were often unwilling to surrender their political independence without a fight. When these wars were fought, the Italians usually were defeated by the more professional, more experienced, more skilled, better-led, and better-armed and better-armoured German troops. But sometimes the Italians were victorious. One of the battles won by the Italians against the Germans was fought at Legnano on 29 May 1176 between the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and the soldiers and militia of Milan and other allied Italian towns.


Frederick Barbarossa was already an experienced military commander when he was designated the successor to Emperor Conrad III (1138-52) in 1152. In fact, it may well have been the generalship he exhibited when fighting Duke Conrad of Zahringen’s rebellion on behalf of Emperor Conrad that led to his being recognized as his successor, despite having no familial ties to him. This same military leadership no doubt won him a unanimous election, a rarity in medieval German politics.

It had been a while since the Italians had seen a German army south of the Alps. Neither of the two emperors who preceded Frederick, Lothair II and Conrad III, were strong enough to pursue any more than a diplomatic connection with the inhabitants of Italy; in essence, the Italian towns were virtually independent for more than 50 years. Among other things, the Holy Roman Empire had been unable to collect taxes and other duties, while the Alpine passes were so filled with bands of thieves, that few traders, pilgrims, churchmen or other travellers could pass through them safely without paying for protection.

Two years after ascending to the throne, Frederick undertook his first campaign through the Alps, ostensibly to be crowned as emperor by the pope and to clear up the lawlessness of the roads and passes, but also, certainly, to bring Italy back into a political and economic union with the rest of the Holy Roman Empire. The latter aim brought an immediate response from the stronger northern and central Italian towns and their neighbours. But Frederick Barbarossa realized little from this campaign, except for his coronation, necessitating his return again (and again).

That the townspeople of Milan led this first rebellion against Frederick is easy to understand since their wealth derived largely from being in control of many of the passes through the Alps. Any traveller who wished to journey along the shortest paths into Italy had to pass through Milan. This meant that the town was continually filled with pilgrims and traders, who spent large amounts on housing, transportation, guides, protection and victuals from the townspeople. As so often in medieval Europe, wealth translated into a longing for independence. Of course, this meant that the Milanese frequently opposed any control from the Holy Roman Empire or its lords. Perhaps also due their wealth, they were able to inspire the citizens of neighbouring towns to join their rebellions against the empire, even if neutrality might have served them better.


When Frederick Barbarossa returned to Germany in 1155 without securing Italy’s subjugation, his barons saw this as weakness, and the recently crowned Holy Roman Emperor had to quell dissent among them. Eventually, Frederick was able to placate or defeat all of his adversaries, through diplomacy as well as military power. His second campaign to Italy took place in 1158, and this one turned out to be quite a bit more successful than his first. His greatest victory was without a doubt the capture of Milan, which fell on 7 September 1158 to Frederick’s forces after a short siege. Other rebellious Italian towns quickly surrendered.

But there was still no peace south of the Alps. Once Frederick returned to Germany, Milan and most of the rest of Italy again declared their independence, forcing the emperor’s third expedition south of the Alp; in 1163. On this occasion, his army faced a new alliance of earlier enemies, the Lombard League. The Lombard League had been formed initially by the smaller towns of Verona, Vicenza and Padua, hut soon more substantial allies joined in: Venice, Byzantine Constantinople and the Kingdom of Sicily. In the beginning, Milan stayed out of the league, although probably more out of fatigue than disagreement with its purpose. Facing the unity and military strength of the Lombard League, Frederick’s 1163 campaign failed, as did another campaign, his fourth, in 1166. In this latter expedition, it was not only the Italians who defeated the invading Germans, but also disease, in particular fever, which almost annihilated them. Seeing their success, the Milanese joined the league.

Frederick Barbarossa did not campaign in Italy again until 1174, when he went there to prevent an alliance between the Lombard League and Pope Alexander III. Since being made pope in 1159, Alexander had remained neutral in more northerly Italian affairs, although never a friend or supporter of Frederick. Now he had begun to entertain the Lombard League’s petitions for alliance, and with it, obviously, papal approval for their rebellion. Such an arrangement was not in Frederick’s interest, and he was determined to stop it. When he was unable to do so diplomatically, he launched a new campaign. It was during this campaign, in 1176, that Frederick fought and lost the Battle of Legnano.


The original sources for the Battle of Legnano do not provide adequate detail for all of the action on the battlefield. Surprisingly, despite its importance to his military career, the chroniclers and biographers of Frederick Barbarossa, generally quite descriptive about all facets of his life, are silent on the battle, while the few local Italian histories are quite short.

From 1174 to 1176 Frederick travelled around Italy, trying to bring the Lombard League to battle. By 1176 he had become frustrated at the lack of progress he had made: the Italians had not been pacified, nor had the pope backed down in his support of them. Early in the year, the emperor had called for reinforcements from Germany, and in April, 2000 additional troops arrived from Swabia and the Rhineland. This force was led by Philip, the Archbishop of Cologne, Conrad, the Bishop-elector of Worms, and Berthold, Duke of Zahringen, a nephew of the empress. From the sources it appears that these soldiers were mounted men-at-arms – knights and sergeants – seemingly without any attendant infantry. Traditionally, the infantry should have been there, and why they were missing is not explained in the original sources.

There are several possibilities; perhaps it was because of the speed Frederick required of them; perhaps the Germans normally had their infantry supplied by local allied Italians or mercenaries; or perhaps Frederick Barbarossa felt that cavalry reinforcements were what his army needed at the time. Too little is known about Fredericks military organization or his needs on this campaign to determine the reason why there were no infantry among these reinforcements. But had they been present, the Battle of Legnano would probably have turned out differently.


The emperor was at the head of his own 500 cavalry, and these joined the German reinforcements at Como early in May. This was certainly not the entire German army at Frederick’s disposal in Italy at the time, and it may be that the 500 cavalry were only his bodyguard, who accompanied the Holy Roman Emperor to protect him on the journey to meet up with the Swabian and Rhenish reinforcements.

If this was the case, then Frederick likely wanted to add these to his army so that he might campaign more effectively against the Lombard League. He may even have felt that such a large cavalry army, all equipped in heavy armour on powerful, expensive horses, might intimidate the Italians into surrender without the need for military action – the most successful campaign is the one that brings its desired result without actual fighting.

But Frederick’s main army was at Pavia at the time, putting the town of Milan between this force and those with him. Frederick hoped that he might be able to travel around Milan without meeting opposition from the Lombard League.

However, the Milanese knew exactly where the two German armies were, and they also recognized that Frederick’s division of his forces offered them an extraordinary opportunity. The Milanese governors mustered the town’s forces – probably any man who could bear arms – and also called in numerous neighbouring allies to join them. German narrative sources place these troops at 12,000 cavalry, with an even larger number of infantry, but these tallies are surely exaggerated. Modern historians have suggested the number to be closer to 2000 Milanese cavalry, with no more than 500 infantry, the latter drawn from Milan, Verona, and Brescia. Present also was Milan’s carroccio, a large ceremonial wagon that symbolized the wealth and independence of the city.


Not wanting the two German armies to unite, the Milanese moved to intercept them. This occurred outside Legnano on 29 May. From the original sources, it appears that the Italian army-which had effectively concealed their movement behind a forest – actually surprised Frederick Barbarossa. Before the emperor could organize his battlefield formation, the vanguard cavalry of the Milanese, numbering around 700, charged into the German vanguard cavalry, which numbered considerably fewer, probably no more than 300. The Germans were quickly routed. But they had bought some time for their army to form up, which quickly took in those retreating and chased off their pursuers.

During this action, the Milanese had also moved onto the battlefield and formed their lines opposite the Germans. The cavalry was ordered in four divisions, with the infantry and carroccio behind these. How the German army was arrayed is not revealed in the contemporary sources. Frederick decided that it was to his benefit to go on the offensive, as he was in `foreign’ territory and could not count on his forces being relieved, while he feared that his opponents’ numbers would only increase if he delayed for too long. He also refused to retreat, although this may have been the wisest strategy at the time; the Annals of Cologne claims that the emperor counted `it unworthy of his Imperial majesty to show his back to his enemies’. So, instead of taking a defensive Stance, the German cavalry charged `strongly’, and their attack quite easily broke through the Milanese cavalry.


However, pushing through the cavalry, the Germans ran into the Italian infantry, who had held their positions despite the flight of the cavalry – an important and incredibly courageous stand. The German cavalry charge was halted. The Italian infantry – `with shields .set close and pikes held firm’, states Archbishop Romuald of Salerno – caused the German horses to stop, unable to penetrate the massed infantry, and unwilling to run onto their long spears. This was not surprising, because such a result had happened before: if horses could not penetrate or go around an infantry line, they simply stopped. But it was a result that could only come about when the infantry was motivated to stand solidly and not flee, even when they faced soldiers whose armour and warhorses displayed a wealth and power attainable by very few’, if any, foot soldiers. In the twelfth century, such a stand was rare.

The stubborn courage of the Milanese infantry allowed their fleeing cavalry to regroup and return to the battlefield, where they attacked the halted German cavalry in the flank. Frederick’s horsemen, seeing that the charge that hail so recently brought success against their cavalry counterparts had been stopped by lowly infantry, began to waver. They quickly turned from their fight with the infantry and attempted to return to their former positions. But this retreat was very disordered and, lacking their own infantry to regroup behind, it quickly turned into a rout. Some time during this part of the battle, Frederick’s banner was lost to the Milanese, and his horse was killed under him.

Frederick barely escaped – although how is not recorded in the original sources – and for several days, while he made his way secretly back to Pavia, it was feared that he had been killed at Legnano. Many Germans were captured, but the total number of either army slain on the battlefield seems not to have been large, undoubtedly a testimony to the protection given by the mail armour worn by the German and Milanese men-at-arms.

Few battles show the necessity of medieval armies to have both cavalry and infantry on the battlefield better that the Battle of Legnano. The Milanese had both infantry and cavalry in their army, and it was their infantry who were able to hold against the charge of the German cavalry. This gave them victory at Legnano. Frederick Barbarossa had not fielded a similarly organized army, leaving no relief for his cavalry when they began to flee, and this more than anything else decided his defeat.


Their victory at the Battle of Legnano brought immediate results for the Italians. By October, Frederick was forced to sign the Treaty of Anagni with Alexander III, recognizing him as pope and giving him numerous concessions. And the following May, Frederick signed the Treaty of Venice, making a truce with the Lombard League and the Kingdom of Sicily.

Furthermore, over the following few years, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa was forced to become more involved in affairs in Germany. Another campaign across the Alps was, at least for the time being, unthinkable, and in June 1183 the emperor again made peace with the Lombard League, under the Treaty of Constance, which granted nearly complete sovereignty to its members.

Although Frederick and his successors returned to Italy, they were never able to break the desire for independence among those towns in the north which had experienced this self-government. One might conclude then that at Legnano the Renaissance was horn.

Guerre Folle (“Mad War”) (1488–1491)

During the minority of King Charles VIII (1470-98) of France, a dispute broke out among rival claimants to the regency. The young king’s sister Anne of France (1460- 1522) was opposed to the insurgent claims of Duke Louis (1462-1515) of Orléans, who had gained the support of Brittany’s duke Francis II (1435-88). Anne of France dis- patched troops, who defeated the forces of Louis and Fran- cis II at the Battle of Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier in 1488. A settlement, the Treaty of Sablé, was drawn up, stipulating the evacuation of all foreign troops from Brittany and obliging Anne of Brittany (1477-1514), Duke Francis’s heir, to secure royal permission before marrying.

After Francis died later in 1488, Anne-without the required permission-married Austria’s King Maximilian (1459-1519) by proxy, thereby menacing Charles with Austrian encirclement. Accordingly, Charles petitioned Anne of Brittany to renounce the marriage in favor of mar- riage to himself. The petition touched off a conflict in which King Ferdinand II (1452-1516) of Aragon and King Henry VII (1457-1509) of England backed the Austrian monarch. France sent a large force to Rennes, prompting Maximilian and his allies to back down and agree to the Treaty of Laval, whereby Anne of Brittany agreed to marry Charles in exchange for a pledge of Breton autonomy.


Anne of Beaujeu (also known as Anne of France) (c. 1461-1522) was duchess of Bourbon and a steady- ing influence in French royal affairs. Louis XI of France (r. 1461-1483) and his second wife, Charlotte of Savoy, had three children who lived to adulthood: Anne, Jeanne, and Charles. Anne was married young to Pierre de Beaujeu, son of the duke of Bourbon. When Louis died in 1483, Anne-not her mother- was named guardian of her brother, Charles VIII (r. 1483-1498). Louis had curtailed the power of the nobles, and they tried to recoup their losses upon Charles’ succession. The leader of the opposition was Louis of Orleans, husband of Anne’s sister Jeanne and heir presumptive to the throne. The Beaujeus decreased resistance to their guardianship of the king by sacrificing some of Louis XI’s more unpopular servants and reducing taxes. This allowed them to dominate the Estates General of 1484 and to defeat Orleans in the so-called Mad War of 1485. The Beaujeus increased French power in Brittany by marrying King Charles to Anne, the duke’s heiress, kept peace with the papacy, and permitted Henry of Richmond (Henry VII) to challenge Richard III for the throne of England.

When Charles VIII took control of the government in 1491, the Beaujeus, who had become duke and duchess of Bourbon, retired to Pierre’s estates, where “Madame la Grande” educated ladies of good birth. One factor in their withdrawal from government was disapproval of Charles’ desire to claim the throne of Naples by force. Nonetheless, Anne governed during her brother’s Italian campaign and later did the same for Louis XII (Orleans) during his wars. Anne left behind a book of lessons for her daughter Suzanne, balancing conventional values with sound political advice. Anne died in 1522, during the reign of Francis I, having outlived her siblings, husband, and daughter.

References and Further Reading Anne of France. Lessons for My Daughter, translated by Sharon L. Jansen. Woodbridge, Suffolk, England: D. S. Brewer, 2004. Jansen, Sharon L. The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Pradel, Pierre. Anne de France, 1461-1522. Paris: Editions Publisud, 1986.

Battle of Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier (1488)

The Tale of Sir Edward

Edward Woodville is not recorded as being at the coronation, but he was certainly not in royal disfavour. The following year, on 27 April 1488, he was invested with the highest chivalric honour in England – the Order of the Garter. Described by S.B. Chrimes as ‘the ultimate mark of honour favoured by Henry VII’, the Garter was an honour Edward’s father and his brother Anthony had also achieved. The queen and the king’s mother, along with other ladies including Countess Rivers, were among the company assembled at Windsor for the feast of St George. The ceremonies, which included a requiem mass at which Edward offered the helm and crest of a deceased knight, John, Lord Dudley, inspired a burst of poetry:

O knightly order, clothed in robes with garter:

The queen’s grace, thy mother in the same;

The nobles of thy realm, rich in array, after;

Lords, knights and ladies unto thy great fame.

Now shall all ambassates know thy noble name.

By they feast royal. Now joyous may thou be,

To see thy king so flowering in dignity!

Edward had other concerns than the new garter adorning his calf, however. Francis, Duke of Brittany, who had offered succour and support to Edward as well as the king during their exile, was threatened with a French invasion. As Henry VII owed his very crown to the aid of France, he was in a difficult position.

Edward longed to help his old friend. As Vergil tells it:

    Edward Woodville, a stout and courageous man […], either to avoid the tedium of peace or moved by his love of the duke, earnestly beseeched King Henry that by his permission he might go to Britanny with some band of soldiers to aid his friends. And, lest the King of France could reproach Henry for this, he said he would go secretly with no supplies, which would give a show of unfeigned flight. The king, who hoped that a peace would be arranged by his ambassadors, was so far from indulging Edward’s ardor that he strictly forbade him to undertake any scheme of the kind, thinking it foreign to his dignity to offend Charles, to whom he hoped to ingratiate himself in a matter of little importance which he thought would do nothing to aid the Duke of Britanny. But Edward, when the king had forbidden him to do as he wished, decided to act without his knowledge, and quickly and secretly went to the Isle of Wight, of which he was lieutenant. And from there, having gathered a band of soldiers to the number of approximately four hundred, he crossed over to Britanny and joined with them against the French.

Edward crossed the seas with his 400 men in ships provided by the Breton ambassadors. Meanwhile, his preparations had inspired others to follow suit. Writing to his brother, John Paston III, William Paston III reported:

    [W]hereas it was said that the Lord Woodville and others should have gone over into Brittany to have aided the Duke of Brittany. I cannot tell you of nonesuch aid. But upon that saying there came many men to Southampton, where it was said that he should have taken shipping to have waited upon him over, and so when he was countermanded those that resorted there to have gone over with him tarried there still, in hope that they should have been licenced to go over, and when they saw no likelihood that they should have licence there was two hundred of them that got them into a Breton ship the which was come over with salt, and bade the master set them a land in Brittany. And they had not sailed past six leagues but they espied a Frenchman, and the Frenchman made over to them, and they feared as though they would not have meddled with them, and all the Englishmen went under the hatches so that they showed no more but those that came to Southampton with the ship, to cause the Frenchmen to be the more gladder to meddle with them. And so the Frenchmen boarded them, and then they were under the hatches came up and so took the Frenchmen and carried the men, ship, and all into Brittany.

Edward had sparked an international incident. Vergil tells us that the French suspected a trick on King Henry’s part and that the English ambassadors in France feared for their own safety, although ‘international law prevailed’. To mollify King Charles, Henry wrote a letter declaring that Edward had been expressly forbidden to make the trip to Brittany and that he had arrested the Earl of Arundel’s younger brother when he tried to follow Edward’s example. For good measure, Henry added, most of the men had gone without armour and were in any case low-lives who had taken asylum for their crimes and misdemeanours. It would soon be apparent, Henry concluded smugly, that Edward had been ‘badly counselled’ in making such a foolish attempt. King Charles, Vergil tells us, did not put much credence in the king’s letter, but put a good face on things. Meanwhile, Edward was enjoying the hospitality of Rennes, which welcomed him on 5 June by breaking open two barrels of claret and two barrels of white wine.

King Charles instructed his commander, General de la Trémoille, on 5 July to ‘make war as vigorously as you can’, an order which the general followed with enthusiasm. On 14 July, King Henry signed a peace treaty with France. The next day, Ferdinand and Isabella, whose ambassadors were discussing the possibility of a marital alliance with England, put in a good word for Edward, describing him as their faithful servant and asking Henry to forgive him.

By this time troops had streamed into Rennes, including contingents contributed by Emperor Maximilian and King Ferdinand. On 25 July, Duke Francis, after meeting with a council of war that included Edward, determined to go to the relief of Fougères and St Aubin, both under siege. Although it turned out to be too late to save the fortresses, which had surrendered, the Bretons determined, as reported by Molinet, ‘to engage the French […] as best they could’.

The Marshal de Rieux was in overall command of the Breton forces, Trémoille in charge of the French. To fool the French into believing that there were a large number of English troops, the Breton army dressed 1,700 Bretons in surcoats bearing the red cross of St George, like the men of Edward’s forces.

As reported by Hall:

    When both the armies were approaching to the other, the ordinance shot so terribly and with such a violence, that it sore damaged and encumbered both the parties. When the shot was finished, both the vanguards joined together with such a force that it was marvell[ous] to behold. The Englishmen shot so fast, that the Frenchmen in the forward, were fain to recule to the battle where their horsemen were. The rearward of the Frenchmen, seeing this first discomfiture began to flee, but the captains retired their men together again, & the horsemen set fiercely on the Bretons, and slew the most part of the footmen. When the forward of the Bretons perceived that their horsemen nor the Almaines carne not forward they provided for themselves & fled, some here, and some there, where they thought to have refuge or succour. So that in conclusion the Frenchmen obtained the victory, & slew all such as wore red crosses, supposing them all to be Englishmen. In this conflict were slain almost all the Englishmen, & six thousand Bretons, Amongst whom were found dead the lord Woodville […].

Molinet reports that Edward fell ‘near a wood called Selp’.

On 20 August, the Duke of Brittany signed a treaty with France in which he acknowledged himself as its vassal. Three weeks later, he died, leaving his 12-year-old daughter, Anne, as his heir. Anne would ultimately marry Charles VIII of France.

Legend has it that only one of the numbers who had left with Edward returned to the Isle of Wight: a page named Diccon Cheke. A ballad tells his story:

Fight on, fight on, my Island men

Still gallant Wideville cried.

Ah, how he fought till stricken sore

Our Captain fell to rise no more

Within these arms he died.

Of all that sturdy Island band

Who stern refused to flee,

Knights and squires thirty and ten,

Twenty score of stout yeomen,

There is returned but me.55

When the Knights of the Garter met again in 1489, they would hold a requiem mass and offer the swords, helms, and crests of two fallen knights, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland (murdered during a tax revolt) and Edward Woodville. It was left for the same heralds who had recorded Edward’s presence at his one and only Garter feast to write his epitaph: ‘a noble and a courageous knight’.

Castle of Saint- Aubin- du- Cormier

Demolitions proved as significant as new construction under Louis XI. Lisieux, for example, saw its fortifications dismantled as a result of the Seigneur de Parthenay’s plotting against Louis XI during the Guerre Folle (1485-1487), though Charles VIII soon thereafter authorized their reconstruction, which began in 1492 and lasted until 1523. A number of Burgundian towns also witnessed systematic dismantlement of just enough of their enceintes to render them easily vulnerable to royal action. Charles VIII’s order in July 1488 to destroy the castle of Saint- Aubin- du- Cormier, located in the Breton marches, was doubly symbolic. First, it created a physical reminder of ducal independence following the recent Breton defeat by severing the castle keep in two, leaving only the side facing France intact. In the seventeenth century, the grounds even became part of a garden complex for the royal provincial governor who maintained it as an archaic attraction. But not all demolitions were punitive in nature.


French raid on Brighton, 1514 Anglo-French naval conflict in the early sixteenth century was a period of transition from medieval naval warfare, which had been dominated by coming alongside and boarding, to stand-off tactics in which warships put more of an emphasis on firepower and did not come into direct contact. In the war of 1512–14, the English and French fleets fought in the Channel in the traditional fashion, whereas off Portsmouth in 1545 they engaged in a gunnery duel. This shift had important implications for naval tactics (although truly effective ways of deploying naval firepower were not found until the next century), and it further encouraged the development of warships primarily as artillery platforms. Carvel building (the edge joining of hull planks over frames) replaced the clinker system of shipbuilding using overlapping planks, contributing to the development of stronger hulls better able to carry heavy guns. The Anglo-French War of 1512–14 saw Henry VIII support Spain, Venice and the Pope, and naval operations were a part of this wider struggle, one ultimately determined by developments in Italy. The Channel was in practice a sideshow.

The precise date of the attack is uncertain, but it is believed to have taken place in the first few days of June. In his book Life in Brighton, Clifford Musgrave, a former director of the Royal Pavilion and Museums, notes that ‘State Papers dated from Calais 5 June 1514… speaks of arrangements for a raid to be carried out in France “in revenge for the burning of Brighthelmstone”‘

The attack was led by a feared foe of the English, a French naval commander known by various forms of ‘Prior John’. An account of the raid was published in Holinshed’s Chronicles, a popular Tudor history book that was used as a reference by Shakespeare and others.

According to Holinshed, Prior John and his men succeeded in burning and looting most of the village before English reinforcements arrived. The invaders were attacked by a hail of arrows, and Prior John was struck in the eye. Miraculously, Prior John survived the wound, and as a gesture of thanks, presented a wax image of his face, also depicting the arrow in his eye, to a church in Boulougne.

In spite of this moment of piety, Prior John and his men seem to have had little respect for religious buildings: the Priory of Bartholomew, which has given its name to a street next to Brighton Town Hall, was mostly destroyed by the raiders. St Nicholas’ Church was one of the few buildings to survive the raid, and this may be because it stood at the top of the hill overlooking the old town. If Holinshed’s account is correct (it was first published in 1577, over sixty years after the original attack), the invaders may have been unable to reach it before English reinforcements arrived.

Although the town was almost completely destroyed, it was rebuilt along the lines of the original streets, and the layout of the Lanes still reflects the shape of the town prior to the invasion.

War of the League of Cambrai