Anglo-Saxon Military Organisation Part II


Many of the warriors of Anglo-Saxon England came to the battlefield armed and armoured, but how did they come to possess such equipment? The inclusion of heriots, or ‘war-gear’, in some surviving Anglo-Saxon wills of the later period provide us with a glimpse into an ancient custom and an insight into the importance of the bond of lordship throughout the period. A heriot (‘heregeatu’) was basically a death due liable for payment from people of thegnly rank or higher. It was in essence the returning to one’s lord of the military equipment that the warrior had obtained for taking service with his lord in the first place. The broad notion behind it was that by returning the arms and armour given to you by your lord on your death, your lord would be able to attract the service of another warrior to his household. The poem Beowulf is full of the giving of such arms by a lord to his man. For the modern historian, the heriots reflect the nature of military service in terms of numbers of men and equipment that was expected of different ranks of society. Although only broad conclusions can be drawn, they are useful nevertheless.

The giving of arms was deeply rooted in Germanic custom. In Anglo-Saxon England it continued over a period of centuries whereby it is possible to see a trend developing over time. According to surviving documentation it would seem that in the Danelaw heriots were often paid in hard cash instead of arms and armour, although the one surviving will of a man called Ketel, an eleventh-century thegn of Archbishop Stigand, shows that arms and armour could still be the method of payment even in the Danish areas. For such a thegn the material in question centres around his horse and his weapons and armour, enough to equip one man. Generally, the higher up the social rankings you were, the more arms and armour you were required to provide. There are sixteen heriots mentioned in the wills stretching from 946 to the period immediately preceding the Norman Conquest. Some of them include material additional to the basic weapon and armour set such as one with a handseax, and one with a javelin. There is also mention of hawks, deerhounds, cups and dishes in some of them.

In short, as the heriot of Ketel shows (1052–1066), it is possible to determine that the war gear for one well-armed aristocratic warrior amounted to one horse with tack, one helmet, one byrnie (mailcoat), one sword, one spear and one shield. But it had not always been this straightforward. The earliest surviving heriots of Ealdorman Æthelwold (946–947) and Bishop Theodred (942–951) would seem to have been based on the rating of an ealdorman at the time of King Edmund I (939–46). Here, the provision is for four men with horses, swords, shields and spears. There is no mention in these heriots of helmets or byrnies or of additional unsaddled horses, spears and shields for retainers as there is in later heriots. It seems the early requirements were fairly straightforward and centred round multiples of two. Noticeably absent from all heriots, of course, is the bow, not a weapon to be associated with Anglo-Saxon nobility.

During the reigns of Eadred (946–56) and Edgar (959–975) the requirement seems to escalate with multiples based now on a factor of three. For example, the heriot of Ealdorman Ælfheah (968–971) is rated at six horses, six shields, six spears and six swords. The tendency to increase the heriot of the highest ranking member of society reflects a royal concern with the defence of the realm. By the time of Æthelred II (979–1016), there is a further evolution, which although complex, is possible to interpret. The ealdorman rank or its equivalent goes up from six of everything to four fully armed and armoured men and four lesser armed men with the appearance of the helmet and byrnie for the first time. In fact, all heriots appearing after 1008 contain helmets and byrnies, probably reflecting Æthelred’s decrees about the increased production of such armour throughout his kingdom. It is this evolution that is represented in the law code II Cnut 71 (1020–3), which sets out specifically the heriots owed by different ranks. Here, we can see the discrepancy between the expectations of the men of the Danelaw and those of other parts of the kingdom.

It is clear that an earl’s heriot represented the equipping of four fully armed men and four attendants to them equipped with just spear and shield. Each of them rode to battle. It is not clear how the unsaddled horses were used. They may have been used as pack horses to carry baggage or may have been ridden without saddles by the four lesser armed retainers.

The king’s thegn of the English list seems to have been expected to provide one fully armoured man (presumably the king’s thegn himself) and one lesser armoured man who has a saddled horse, sword, spear and shield, but no helmet or byrnie, plus two attendants with spear and shield looking after two unsaddled horses. The lesser thegn is listed as one might expect. He has to bring to the battle just himself, fully armed and prepared.

The Danelaw evidence is more problematic. There seems to be a cash payment expectation for a ‘king’s thegn with soke’ and for a lesser thegn, but quite why the ‘king’s thegn closer to the king’ is rated at two horses (one saddled), one sword, two spears and two shields with no helmet or byrnie listed is a mystery. It seems unlikely that the late Anglo-Saxon kings were not able to impose such a burden on the Danelaw given that Æthelred had demanded many coats of mail to be made across his kingdom.

Heriots later became less militarised and more associated with the concept of tenurial succession. The difficulty is in trying to apply them to the given military situation at the time of their writing. If they provide nothing else, heriots give us a general idea of the type of equipment an Anglo-Saxon warrior was expected to possess in order to do his duty. When he performed that duty, the warrior became part of a well-organised machine and not, as some have contended, an ad hoc reaction to the latest crisis.

Logistics and Communication

King Harold lost the campaign of 1066. This fact has tended to deflect our enquiries into the effectiveness of logistics in this era. Often we assume there was inadequate provision in Harold’s army or that what existed was somehow archaic. But we do not give sufficient credit to the Old English military system. Here, we must concern ourselves with the evidence for the wider apparatus of how forces were supplied and informed on their long campaigns. That the earlier Anglo-Saxon kingdoms possessed the capability of large-scale feats of organisation is surely evidenced by the building of Offa’s Dyke.

King Alfred’s three-way split of fyrd service into garrison service, army service and land service is our first clue that logistics were to be a central part of military planning. The forces were rotated so there were always fresh men to hand, but we are not told how they were provisioned in the field. Later sources indicate the fyrdsmen were supposed to supply themselves, but as we have seen they were to bring money with them indicating that there must have been an arrangement for them to spend it at certain markets or on certain things. The Frankish Annals of St Bertin record that shield-selling merchants were present in the baggage train of Charles the Bald at the Battle of Andernach in 876. It is difficult to dismiss the notion that such arrangements must have been made in England.

The idea that a campaigning army sent out its own foragers is supported by some early evidence. It would also appear that such men acted as scouts for the army too. The Venerable Bede indicates that the men in the baggage train of early Northumbrian armies were married poor peasants whose job it was not to fight as such, but to bring provisions to the troops. This is a specific reference to the thegn Imma, who after the Battle of the Trent in 679 disguised himself as such an individual to escape capture and recognition by his captor’s kinsmen. He declared that he had come on campaign with others of his kind to bring provisions to the troops. His enemies in the Mercian army clearly bought his story. It is likely that Bede’s thegn Imma was among those responsible for managing the baggage train. It is tempting to see this sort of arrangement running right through the period as a whole.

Evidence from France suggests that men summoned to the Carolingian host were to bring with them enough provisions for three months in carts. Meat and other such provisions, it is argued for the Carolingians, was brought on the hoof or in carts. Supply dumps were arranged in advance and other foraging was undertaken while on campaign. Again, the likelihood of similar arrangements in Anglo-Saxon England is very high, but as always, much harder to find. Those responsible for overseeing supply dumps of hay for horses, grain and ale etc. may well have been the royal horse-thegns who were thought to have performed a role similar to their Frankish counterparts, the Marshalls (Marescales), whose association with mounted logistics is inherent in their title.

Despite the extreme likelihood that the level of organisation in terms of supplying an army in the field was very high, there is evidence that it could all go horribly wrong during a campaign. The sheer volume of produce required for supporting an army meant that it might have to engage wholesale in foraging. After Alfred’s death, during the campaign of Edward the Elder against the renegade Æthelwold, which is described below (see p. 101), the king’s Kentish contingent (traditionally in the van of a combined Anglo-Saxon army) ignored the royal pleas brought to them by no less than seven messengers to come out from East Anglia after playing their part in a punitive campaign. It is argued that the Kentish refusal to obey the king was due to the fact that they had dispersed in order to forage for supplies.

The scouts and foragers in the army, particularly those of the border areas will have had great knowledge of route ways and track ways in their area. The route ways and roads of Anglo-Saxon England were both a result of thousands of years of evolution and, in some cases, brand new innovation. For example, the Icknield Way, which is generally regarded as the oldest road in England, running from Knettishall Heath in East Anglia in a diagonal line across the heart of England to the West Country for 105 miles, probably had its origin in the Neolithic period some 3 millennia prior to the Anglo-Saxon era. The Danish Great Heathen Army is even thought to have boldly marched down this ancient track to attack Wessex in 871.

On the other hand, parts of the surviving Roman road network were still very much in use with the old roads given English names, such as Watling Street. That the Roman network was still widespread is undoubted. Its state of repair may have varied, however, and there is one reference to a Roman road in the bounds of a Chiseldon charter, dated to 955, which names the road as ‘brokenstret’. However, the building of a grand fortification scheme in southern England by Alfred the Great certainly took advantage of the Roman network. From Exeter you could travel along Roman roads north to Bath, Cricklade, Malmesbury and Axbridge and east towards Winchester via Bridport and Wilton and, of course, on to London.

There are, however, fascinating and repeated references to track ways that appear to be dedicated to military usage. In many charters from the Anglo-Saxon period the word ‘herepath’ appears in the bounds. In fact, there are 41 ‘herepaths’, 3 ‘fyrdstreats’ and 4 ‘herestreats’. Today, where these paths survive, they are often referred to confusingly as ‘people’s paths’. But in Anglo-Saxon times it is probable that these paths represented a specific network of minor roads dedicated to the assembling and quick transportation of forces between towns, fortifications, monastic centres and estates. Some examples seem to run parallel to Roman roads indicating their exclusivity, such as the A350 in northern Dorset and the A30 in Wiltshire. Where a Roman network may not have existed or where it was inadequate for the new military needs of a region, we find herepaths being used to link outlying estates to royal vills or monastic centres. Such is the case with the herepaths mentioned in the boundaries of Corston, Priston and Stanton, which were three estates belonging to the monastery at Bath.

Another example of a herepath is one that seems to have run from Wroughton in Wiltshire to the burh of Marlborough, travelling through Yatesbury and the ancient monument at Avebury. Archaeologists contend that of the four entrances to the great prehistoric monument at Avebury, the eastern one is likely to have been either made or substantially altered by the Anglo-Saxons to accommodate the herepath that ran through it. This herepath is thought to be early tenth century in date and would have represented an era when Edward the Elder (900–24) was working to consolidate his hold on Wessex while actively seeking to expand his kingdom to the north. The Yatesbury Lane herepath linked the minster church at Avebury to the burh and along its route around the Marlborough Downs was a small defended enclosure at Yatesbury, the ditches of which are dated to the Anglo-Saxon period. This represents an effort on the part of the Anglo-Saxon military planners to make defensible even the smaller enclosures along the route ways of the kingdom. The Yatesbury Lane herepath, like many others, also commanded good views of the surrounding landscape along its route. Many herepaths are associated with ridge ways probably for this very reason. A picture emerges then of a surprisingly sophisticated level of military planning by the Anglo-Saxon kings of England.

What a herepath actually looked like is another question. They do not seem to have been metalled roads in the Roman sense, but the one at Yatesbury Lane had a ditch on one side only and was about 5m wide, with some tantalising geophysical evidence for wheel ruts. Elsewhere in the Somerset Quantocks these track ways are described as 20m or 64ft wide. Quite how often an English warrior’s boots trod down these pathways and intricate networks is unknown. Nor is it understood how often herepaths were used for logistical provision between towns and forts throughout the kingdom. What little evidence we have once again points to a level of sophistication that perhaps should not surprise us.

If the herepaths of the kingdom could aid transportation and supply of troops and goods, then what do we know of any early warning systems? There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the Anglo-Saxons had an elaborate system of beacons dotted around the countryside. The very word ‘beacon’ is Old English in origin and comes from the word ‘becun’. But it is suggested that there are other words in Old English that imply a place name of a similar function to a beacon site. Such words are ‘weardsetl’ and ‘tot’. Weardsetl, which means ‘watch point’, appears in a number of charters from the Anglo-Saxon period and tot was another name for a look-out point. The key to these systems was in their inter-visibility. One fire lit on the Isle of Wight could by a series of relayed fires get a message to the Thames Valley in a very short space of time.

The systems seem to have been related to the office of the coastal watch. This duty seems to have been divided across the ranks of later Anglo-Saxon society. Æthelweard, our much quoted chronicler, held land granted by Edward the Martyr (in 977) at St Keverne, Cornwall ‘free from all royal dues except military service and the fortification of fortresses and maritime guard’. Here the expected bridge work is replaced by the coastal watch and it seems Æthelweard’s responsibilities were great indeed. However, an ealdorman could clearly not watch the sea all by himself, which might be why an eleventh-century document known as the Rectitudines Singularum Personarum (the ‘Rights and Ranks of the People’) describes some of the duties of a thegn as arising out of the king’s command to include equipping a guard ship and guarding the coast. Nor did it stop with the thegn. The same document also mentions the cottar’s right. The cottar, a peasant freeman, is referred to as having to perform the duty of keeping a coastal watch.

The mechanics of the coastal watch may have worked by the cottar keeping watch on the coast under the instruction of the thegn whose duty it was to organise it. Any sighting of an enemy fleet would cause the cottar to light the first in a chain of beacons leading inland along sight lines carefully prepared. The result would be the early warning to the population who could flee their homesteads and get to the burhs and other fortifications in plenty of time. A picture emerges, then, of a landscape dominated by signalling and communications networks no less effective than the beacon systems of the days of the threat from the Spanish Armada, the very organisation of which seems to have been largely based upon its Anglo-Saxon predecessor.

The evidence for Anglo-Saxon beacon systems is overwhelming, even though their study is still in its infancy. For example, evidence of London’s defence is provided by a tot site at none other than Tothill Street in Westminster, near to which archaeologists believe was an artificially created mound set up for the purpose of such communication. There is also evidence that the herepath system was inextricably linked in with the beacon system, with roads identified as far away as Beaford in North Devon leading directly into Oxford Street in London, where a charter records a ‘here-strete’, possibly identifiable with the Lunden herpathe of a charter of 909. At Nettlecomb Tout in Dorset a beacon seems to have been placed directly on the course of a herepath. A further postulated system exists along the line of the old Roman road Stane Street, running from Chichester to London, where out of fifteen identified sites six contain the place-name element tot. At the seaward end of the system would have been the seawatch beacon at Chichester. There are hints in the sources that these grand civil-defence systems were much vaunted by the Anglo-Saxons and that their Viking enemies took some pride in out-manoeuvring the English in such deeply defended landscapes as the campaigns of 1006 may demonstrate.

Logistics seem to have played a part in joint land and sea operations. Whether ships supplied campaigning forces with victuals alone, or strategically landed fresh troops or reduced areas of coastline is unknown. One suspects a mixture of all these. Athelstan’s grand campaign of 934 in Scotland can only have been sustained with support from the sea. Also, King Edmund I’s (940–6) extraction of support from Malcolm of Scotland was to include a promise of support on both land at sea. Other examples include Earl Siward’s Scottish expedition of 1054 against Macbeth and Earl Harold’s combined operation alongside his brother Tostig in Wales in 1063. In the analysis below, of the mounted provision, mercenary provision and naval provision in Anglo-Saxon England, the administrative and logistical capability of the Anglo-Saxons is a central theme. Despite the huge expense of maintaining such a system and despite changes and a subsequent decline in the later tenth century, the king of England in the early eleventh century had at his disposal a capability the envy of any ruler of Christendom. Perhaps this explains why, in 1066, so many people wanted it for themselves.


The Longbow in the Wars of the Roses

At the time of the expulsion of the English from their Continental possessions, no blame was laid at the door of the longbow, nor did there seem to be any permanent discrediting of its power. Nevertheless, as future events proved, in spite of the triple victories of Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt, to say nothing of many lesser successes, archery as a weapon of war was on the downgrade in the mid-fifteenth century. The bow still retained its supremacy as a missile weapon over the clumsy arbalest, with its complicated array of wheels and levers. In fact, the testimony of all Europe was given in favour of the longbow – Charles of Burgundy considered a corps of 3,000 English bowmen to be the flower of his infantry; thirty years before, Charles of France had made the archer the basis of his new militia in a vain attempt to naturalise the weapon of his enemies beyond the Channel. After a similar endeavour, James of Scotland had resigned himself to ill success and so turned the archery of his subjects to ridicule. Before that, however, he had ordered a law to be passed by the Scottish Parliament in 1424:

‘That all men might busk thame to be archares, fra they be 12 years of age; and that at ilk ten pounds worth of land, thair be made bow makres, and specialle near paroche kirks, quhairn upon hailie days men may cum, and at the leist schute thrusye ab out, and have usye of archarie; and whassa usis not archarie, the laird of the land sail rais of him a wedder, and giff the laird raisis not the same pane, the kings shiref or his ministers sail rais it to the King.’

In England Edward IV proclaimed that every Englishman and Irishman living in England must have of his own a bow of his own height ‘to be made of yew, wych, or hazel, ash or auborne or any other reasonable tree, according to their power’. The same law provided that buttes or mounds of earth for use as marks must be erected in every town and village, and listed a series of penalties for those who did not practise with the longbow.

Richard III was one of the kings who recognised the value of the archer; Shakespeare makes him say, just prior to the Battle of Bosworth: ‘Draw archers, draw your arrows to the head!’ There are also records telling that Richard sent a body of 1,000 archers to France to aid the Duke of Brittany. Henry VII also provided anti-crossbow legislation and sent large levies of English archers to fight for the Duke of Brittany. During this entire period English longbowmen served in many parts of the then-known world.

The introduction of gunpowder was the beginning of the end for the archer; although over 400 years were to pass before the bow and arrow were finally overcome by gun-fire, the seeds were sown in the fourteenth century at Crécy and Sluys. The making of a skilful archer was a matter of years, but an adequate gunner could be produced in a few months – it was far too easy to attain a certain amount of proficiency with the new weapons for the bow to remain highly popular. At first the longbow was vastly superior to the newly invented handguns and arquebuses, which did not attain any great degree of efficiency before the end of the fifteenth century. When they did, the bow – the weapon par excellence of England – fell into disuse, although the archer could discharge twelve or fifteen arrows while the musketeer was going through the lengthy operation of loading his piece. The longbow could be aimed more accurately and its effective range of 200 – 240 yards was greater; the hitting-power of a war-arrow, weighing about two ounces, was far greater than that of a musket-ball, weighing from one-third to half an ounce. Archers could be lined up as many as ten deep and shoot together over each other’s heads to put down an almost impassable barrage; and it was a terrifying barrage that could be seen descending. It is not outside the bounds of possibility to claim that the musket used at Waterloo in 1815 was inferior to the longbow used at Agin-court in 1415, both in range and accuracy.

Early firearms were reasonably good weapons of defence when they could be rested upon ramparts and their powder kept dry, otherwise they were far less deadly than the longbow in competent hands. In 1590 Sir John Smyth, a formidable military writer of the time, in his work The Discourse presented a wholesale condemnation of the new weapons, the mosquet, the caliver and the harquebus. The book was hastily suppressed by English military authorities; the stern, lone voice, crying for a return to the older and more effective ways of the longbow did not coincide with current military thinking. One also had to consider that the merit of early firearms lay in the prestige which they brought to the princes who armed their men with them.

In many of the battles of the Wars of the Roses, artillery was combined with archers, so that the enemy was put in a position where he had either to fall back or to charge in order to escape missile fire – just as similar tactics had won the field of Hastings for William in 1066. Edgecott Field was notable as a renewed attempt of spearmen to stand against a mixed force of archers and cavalry. Here the Yorkists were entirely destitute of light troops, their bowmen having been drawn off by their commander, Lord Stafford, in a fit of pique. This meant that Pembroke and his North Welsh troops were left unsupported. The natural result followed; in spite of the strong position of the King’s son, the rebels, by force of archery fire, quickly caused them to descend from the hill into the valley, where they were ridden down by the Northern horse as they retreated in disorder.

During the period of this war, armour had possibly reached its elaborate peak, as an old description of a knight arming for the Battle of Tewkesbury indicated: ‘… and arming was an elaborate process then, as the knight began with his feet, and clothed himself upwards. He put on first, his sabatynes or steel clogs; secondly, the greaves or shin-pieces; thirdly, the cuisses, or thigh-pieces; fourthly, the breech of mail; fifthly, the tuillettes; sixthly, the breastplate; seventhly, the vambraces or arm-covers; eighthly, the rerebraces, for covering the remaining part of the arm to the shoulder; ninthly, the gauntlets; tenthly, the dagger was hung; eleventhly, the short sword; twelfthly, the surcoat was put on; thirteenthly, the helmet; fourteenthly, the long sword was assumed; and, fifteenthly, the pennoncel, which he carried in his left hand.’

Notwithstanding the undoubted strength of this array, the archer still appeared to achieve sufficient penetration with his shafts to be considered a worthwhile part of the forces.

At Towton, on Palm Sunday, March 29th, 1461, Lord Falconbridge, commanding part of the army of Edward IV, used his archers in an interesting tactical expedient which sufficed to decide the day when both armies were employing the same weapon. The snow, which was falling very heavily, was being blown by a strong wind from behind the Yorkists and into the faces of the Lancastrians; it rendered the opposing lines only partially visible to each other. Falconbridge ordered his archers to the front, to act more or less as skirmishers. It must be explained that two types of arrows were then in use – the flight arrow and the sheaf arrow; the former was lightly feathered, with a small head; the latter was high-feathered and shortly shafted with a large head. Flight arrows were shot at a great distance and, at proper elevation, could kill at 240 yards. Sheaf arrows were for closer fighting, requiring but a slight elevation, and were often shot at point-blank range.

The advancing archers had been carefully instructed to let fly a shower of sheaf arrows, with a greater elevation than usual, and then to fall back some paces and stand. Aided by the gale, the Yorkist arrows fell among the Lancastrian archers, who, perceiving that they were sheaf arrows and being misled by the blinding snow as to their opponents’ exact distance from them, assumed that the enemy were within easy range. They commenced firing volley after volley into the snowstorm, all of which fell sixty yards short of the Yorkists until the snow bristled with the uselessly expended shafts like porcupine quills. When the Lancastrians had emptied their belts, the Yorkists moved forward and began firing in return, using not only their own shafts but also those so conveniently sticking out of the snow at their feet. Their shooting had great effect and men fell on all sides as the wind-assisted shafts came hissing into them; in a short time it was possible for the billmen and men-at-arms of Warwick and King Edward to advance comfortably forward without receiving any harassing fire from the Lancastrian archers. Needless to say, the Yorkist archers then laid aside their bows and went in with the more heavily armed infantry. It was a strategem that won the battle, and was one that could only be used when the adversaries were perfectly conversant with each other’s armaments and methods of war.

Even in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries the longbow still retained its supremacy over the arquebus and had yet some famous fields to win, notably that of Flodden in 1513, where, as will be seen from the next chapter, the old manoeuvres of Falkirk were repeated by both parties, the pikemen of the lowlands once again being shot to pieces by the archers of Cheshire and Lancashire. As late as the reign of Edward VI we find Kett’s Insurgents beating, by the rapidity of their archery fire, a corps of German hackbuteers whom the government had sent against them. Nor was the bow entirely extinct as a national weapon even in the days of Queen Elizabeth. It was in the reign of the Virgin Queen that the first really great archery writer appeared on the English scene. Roger Ascham, tutor to Elizabeth when she was a princess, was the author of the book Toxophilus, which remains the classic in the field. Allowing for certain minor differences, the phraseology and certain advances which have been made in equipment, Ascham’s book is as valuable to the archer today as it was when it was written four centuries ago. His ‘instructions’ can be, and are, used today in teaching novice archers. Ascham’s relation to the bow corresponds to that of Izaak Walton to the rod and reel.

Holy Roman Empire and Feudalism

Italy around 1000, short after Otto II’s death in 983.

The distinctions between domains, benefices and allodial property remained fluid into the thirteenth century, because it was often not clear how individuals had acquired particular manors and other assets. The greater use of written documentation to record possession inevitably encouraged sharper distinctions and more coherent and exclusive concepts of personal property. Crucially, this occurred during the change from transpersonal kingship to enduring Empire. The exact nature of this process remains hotly debated.

The root problem is semantics: a wide variety of terms were used well before they were defined in legal treatises in the twelfth century. The process of definition undoubtedly changed their meaning and use, complicating the interpretation of earlier evidence. The situation for the Empire was exacerbated by the excessive romanticization of the Germanic past, which reached new heights under the Nazis. Writing in the 1930s, Theodor Mayer presented the Empire as a Personenverbandstaat, or a state formed by ties of personal allegiance. This term proved very influential, yet it rested on imposing quite narrow and often anachronistic definitions on earlier medieval terms. Mayer’s model suggested the early Empire was organized with the king as leader of free warriors bound in personal allegiance. Finally, anglophone historiography brings its own problems, because the term ‘feudalism’ has been overloaded with other anachronistic interpretations implying a conscious system. Variations were part of the reality, not aberrant discrepancies within an otherwise coherent system. Local arrangements were negotiated according to immediate needs. Renegotiation could involve exemptions and changes to the level of burdens associated with fief-holding.

Some viable generalizations can be made. Relations between monarch and fief-holders were always asymmetrical, based on reciprocity and constituting a form of vassalage that became more clearly defined as ‘feudal’ during the twelfth century. Both parties were free men until the emergence of the ministeriales as a new group of unfree vassals in the eleventh century. Throughout, relations involved questions of loyalty and trust, because they were mediated primarily through oral rather than written agreements. General rules were not fully codified until early modernity. The Carolingians and Ottonians used the term honores for both benefice and the function associated with it.

Vassalage could emerge from below as ‘commendation’ whereby a free man placed himself subordinate to a superior lord in return for ‘protection and guardianship’ (Schütz und Schirm). It could also come from being entrusted with a benefice to carry out a specific task. A sharper articulation of rights and responsibilities around the mid-twelfth century clarified this act as ‘enfeoffment’. The term ‘benefice’ was simultaneously displaced by ‘fief’ (feodum).

Vassalage always included rights for the subordinate, especially excluding ‘servile duties’ (opera servilia) like manual labour, which remained a characteristic of the unfree population. Instead, vassals were expected to serve in ‘word and deed’ (consilium et auxilium). The former encompassed constructive advice, while the latter was understood primarily as military service and was driven by the introduction of the armoured cavalryman as a distinguishing feature of Carolingian warfare. The necessary equipment exceeded the resources of most free men, requiring assets to be grouped as benefices to sustain an elite of armoured knights. Although Carolingian and Ottonian lords expected royal campaigns to secure plunder, all accepted that benefice-holding would cover most of the costs of service. This freed the king from having to pay his army. Service was not fixed, but a period of six weeks became customary. Longer campaigns, like Roman expeditions, were restricted to exceptional circumstances agreed in advance at an assembly. The distribution of rich benefices to the imperial church resulted in this providing a substantial part of most emperors’ forces: 15 bishops accompanied Otto II’s ill-fated Italian campaign in 981–2, while twelfth-century archbishops could bring up to 1,700 troops, with 200 to 400 being the average size of an episcopal contingent. Other duties could be expected, especially if these were tied to a particular benefice; for example, garrisoning castles or guarding frontier marches. Senior lords were also expected to attend the royal court, assist in passing judgements, uphold the law and provide advice. Failure to perform duties opened the culprit to charges of ‘felony’ (felonia), providing grounds for the king to escheat the fief.

Vassalage already extended to chains of three of more lords and vassals by 800. A Carolingian capitulary of 799 allowed the church to assign its property as benefices to lay subvassals to circumvent the canon law restriction on clergy serving as warriors. Longer hierarchies benefited the king by creating denser networks capable of mobilizing more men. The trend to hereditary possession was already obvious and could be deliberately granted as an inducement. For example, Charles II ‘the Bald’ allowed those accompanying his Roman expedition of 877 to bequeath their benefices to their heirs. Hereditary possession could aid the king by stabilizing arrangements and giving benefice-holders greater incentive to promote economic development.

The rituals of vassalage changed in line with the shift from benefice to fief, but always remained personal even after written codification. Homage (Latin homagium, German Huld) was the more solemn ceremony in which the vassal became the ‘man’ of his lord; hence the derivation of ‘homage’ from the Latin homo for man. Homage had to be performed in person and was often tied to land or services. Fealty (fidelitas) was an expression of personal allegiance, which could be sworn in person or by proxy. Both types involved personal oaths, which played a prominent part in medieval political culture. The vassal ‘commended’ himself by placing his hands inside those of his lord. The solemn oath accompanying this ‘joining hands’ was sworn on a holy object, such as the portable imperial cross accompanying the king on his royal progress. ‘Defiance’ meant literally renouncing fidelity. Those doing so lost entitlement to their lord’s protection and opened themselves to his punishment, including being deprived of their lands and offices.

Initially, the oath preceded investiture, which involved the lord handing the vassal an object symbolizing both the benefice and the vassal’s status in a wider hierarchy. The Ottonians introduced the practice of handing over a flag to senior lords, which ritual came to characterize duchies, margraviates, counties palatine and landgraviates collectively as ‘flag fiefs’ (Fahnenlehen). Other objects included sceptres, swords, lances, gloves and even twigs. The Salians’ problems with the papacy led investiture to precede the oath under the Staufers, while the whole process came to be considered enfeoffment.

In line with its personal character, vassalage ended in the event of Herren- und Mannfall. At the death of a lord (Herr), all vassals were required to seek renewal of service from his successor, while the death of a vassal (Mann) obliged his heirs to request a fresh enfeoffment. These requirements persisted after the Staufers formally accepted secular fiefs as hereditary. Hereditary fiefs meant that the king could not refuse to enfeoff a legitimate, able-bodied heir, but renewal was still required for the successor to exercise any rights or functions associated with the fief. Lordly families could choose one of their members as legitimate heir. This still required royal endorsement in the case of immediate imperial fiefs, creating additional opportunities for the king to intervene as arbiter of inheritance disputes.

Crown and Imperial Lands

Virtually any kind of property or right could be held as royal domains, fiefs or allodial possessions. Royal domains originally consisted of fairly extensive farmland worked largely by slave labour, as well as mills, fishponds and vast tracts of thinly populated forest reserved for hunting, notably the Dreieich Forest by Frankfurt and the Ardennes near Aachen. These possessions were not managed through centrally planned extraction. Most of the produce was perishable, bulky or both. It was difficult to transport across a kingdom that even an unencumbered rider required a month to cross. Much was consumed locally, just maintaining the producers and those who administered individual assets like palaces. Some produce might be concentrated regionally, for example to support a military campaign. However, the main purpose was to feed the royal entourage on its endless tours of the realm.

It seems likely that the Merovingian monarchy was already partially itinerant and while the Carolingians had favoured sites, they never stayed at them for long. Royal progresses were common in medieval Europe, but itinerant monarchy became a distinguishing feature of the Empire, persisting long after other European kings had largely settled down, and in stark contrast to the self-exclusion of the Chinese emperor in his Forbidden City. The ability to travel extensively distinguished the king from his lords, since he alone could freely move throughout the entire realm. Others would have to pay their way, unless they had strategically placed relations, and could find that prolonged absence weakened their local authority. The practice of royal progress continued well beyond the mid-thirteenth century, but gradually lost its significance as the formalization of elective monarchy by 1356 lessened each new king’s need to show himself to lords absent at his accession. The institutionalization of assemblies in the form of the Reichstag by the late fifteenth century also provided a convenient way to meet everyone at once, while the parallel move to territorially based imperial governance established a new focus in the capital of the imperial family’s hereditary lands.

The needs of itinerant monarchy dictated the extent and location of royal domains, which needed to be scattered to provide sustenance and accommodation along major routes and in areas of political and strategic significance. The Carolingians and Ottonians preferred travelling by river or lakes, given the lack of all-weather roads north of the Alps. Charlemagne had 25 major and 125 minor palaces sustained by 700 different royal estates. Most of these were on or close to the Rhine, Main, Danube, Saale and Elbe.

Aachen was the most important palace (palatium, Pfalz), used since the 760s as a winter residence because of its thermal springs. Other important sites included Cologne, Trier, Mainz, Worms, Strasbourg, Ingelheim and Frankfurt. Paderborn provided a base in Saxony, while Regensburg served the same purpose in Bavaria. Konstanz and Reichenau on an island in the same lake were key staging posts between Italy and Germany. These locations remained significant into the later Middle Ages. Subsequent royal lines added further sites around their own family properties. The Ottonians developed Magdeburg, Quedlinburg and Merseburg in the Elbe–Saale region. The Salians added Speyer near their own base on the Middle Rhine, but also Goslar in the rich mining region of the Harz in northern Germany. Chapels were already present in Carolingian palaces, but the Ottonians developed closer connections between royal residences and religious sites, favouring royal abbeys and major cathedrals.

Most palaces were unfortified, except those near frontiers. There was no standard design, but the royal apartments were in an imposing building containing a great hall and chapel, while stables, servants’ accommodation and storehouses completed the complex. Aachen became the model for Magdeburg and Goslar as the Ottonians and Salians stressed continuity with the Carolingians. The later Carolingians began fortifying palaces, and already allowed other lords to protect their own residences from the 870s, especially if these were in frontier areas or along rivers vulnerable to Viking raids. Fortifications generally consisted of wooded palisades, sometimes atop a hill (Motte). Henry IV broke tradition by embarking on extensive castle-building to assert tighter control over royal domains in the former Ottonian heartland of Saxony, which risked becoming a ‘distant’ region with the transition to Salian rule in 1024. Using new wealth and manpower from economic and demographic growth, Henry IV constructed at least eight stone castles perched on rocky crags. The most powerful was the Harzburg, built after 1067 on a high hill south-east of Goslar, only approachable along a narrow path. Unlike earlier fortifications that had been intended as refuges for the surrounding population, Henrician castles were only large enough to accommodate a royal garrison intended to dominate the surrounding area.

The Carolingians had already created a special jurisdiction called a Burgwerk surrounding fortifications, which allowed the commandant to draw the resources and labour required to construct and maintain defences. Similar rights were attached to palaces, but were also granted to bishops and abbots so they had the means to develop their churches. Henrician castles were held by the unfree vassals known as ministeriales. By the thirteenth century, castle commanders were called ‘castellans’ (Burgmänner) and were usually endowed with a fief sustaining themselves and their garrison of between 30 and 50 men. These developments promoted the emergence of knights as a distinct group of vassals who were considered the lower echelon of the nobles.

The transfer of fiefs to support castellans was just part of a wider redistribution of resources under revised relationships throughout the Middle Ages. The Carolingians had already endowed monasteries and abbeys with additional royal assets, and the Ottonians extended this to enhance the ability of crown vassals to meet demands for royal service (servitium regis). The practice peaked under the Salians, who added few palaces, preferring instead to stay with abbots and bishops. The difficulties created by repeated clashes with the papacy prompted the Staufers to promote imperial cities as alternative accommodation on crown domains.

Resources were earmarked as Tafelgüter, literally ‘table properties’, supplying food and other consumables to sustain the royal court when it stayed in the associated palace, abbey or city. A rare surviving list from 968 records just one day’s requirements: 1,000 pigs and sheep, 8 oxen, 10 barrels of wine, 1,000 bushels of grain, plus chickens, fish, eggs and vegetables. Information from the better-documented Staufer era indicates that an army of 4,800 troops needed 8,400 baggage attendants, 19,000 horses, mules and oxen pulling 500 wagons, together consuming 2.4 tons of food and 57 tons of fodder daily.

The royal prerogatives included the right to fodrum regis, obliging communities to supply fodder, and to Gistum (hospitality). Various other rights existed, though their terms are not always clear. Fodrum regis retained its original meaning north of the Alps, but by the late Middle Ages meant accommodating the king in Italy where a separate term (albergaria) emerged by the eleventh century to denote obligations to house royal servants and troops. Non-material services could also be required, as indicated by Henry V’s charter removing legal and fiscal obligations from Speyer’s inhabitants in 1111 in return for their performance of an annual mass to commemorate his father buried in the cathedral. Royal service was commuted into cash in Italy during the eleventh century in a process that had become general across the Empire by the thirteenth century. As we shall see, however, indirect control of the Empire through vassalage remained the most important means of governance into early modernity, while the role of royal domains was taken by more extensive hereditary possessions directly held by the ruling dynasty.

Csókakő Castle

Csókakő Castle – an artistic rendering as it looked during the late Middle Ages (Credit: Ferenc Tamas)

Towering above its surroundings, a fortress perched high above a village has a timeless appeal. It is a magnet to the eyes, allowing the imagination to wander back in time to the Middle Ages when chivalry and honor were seemingly all that mattered. It is as though warriors are still perched on the heights above, behind formidable walls, ready to defend to the death their lonely outpost. For the enemy, these same walls would have looked impregnable. They offered an almost insurmountable obstacle, but that was nothing compared to the topography. Sloping, precipitate hillsides were as much a part of an elevated castle as were its stone walls. By the time a besieging army attempted to scale nature’s heights, they would have despaired at the near impossible task of confronting the thick, stone walls ahead and above them.

Located in the Transdanubian region of western Hungary, high above an 1,100 person strong village bearing the same name, the medieval castle of Csókakő has stood the test of time. Its location bears as much responsibility for its security as the stone walls. The castle was constructed several hundred meters above the surrounding landscape on a rocky plateau that is part of the Vertes Mountains. The hillsides were nearly vertical on three sides of the castle’s strategic location. The lone approach was from the western side, but a defensive ditch guarded that direction. Natural geological processes that unfolded over millennia created this piece of highly defensible terrain. It is little wonder that the Hungarian nobility of the Middle Ages chose such a strategic setting to safe guard their existence.

The Ottoman victory at the battle of Mohacs, 1526, not only decided the fate of Hungary but also drastically transformed the battle environment and face of the combat in the western theater. After Mohacs, the Habsburgs, who had replaced the Hungarians as the Ottoman’s principal adversary, launched a large construction campaign of renovating old fortresses and building new ones based on the latest Italian designs. This was congruent with contemporary Western European experiences and pitched battles, and short decisive wars became very rare, whereas long wars of sieges and reliefs became the norm. Süleyman conducted seven large campaigns against Hungary between 1529 and 1566. Although the borders of the empire moved further west, none of the campaigns achieved the decisive victory that would have led to the stability and security the Ottomans required. This inconclusive state of events-in which fortresses changed hands, new ones were built, and the personnel strength of fortress garrisons ever increased – continued to dominate the Ottoman northwestern frontier until the end of the seventeenth century.

Because of the formidable terrain, Csókakő castle was a mighty symbol. Constructed in the late 13th century, it became one of the main political centers for Fejér County, second only to the royal coronation site at nearby Szekesfehervar. The castle was a critical part of a series of fortifications built to guard the road between the cities of Gyor and Komarom. Despite Csókakő castle’s supposedly impregnable location it fell to the Ottoman Turks during the 16th century. This was just the beginning of a chaotic period in the castle’s history. It was the scene of numerous battles over the next 140 odd years as it changed hands multiple times. For instance, in a battle that took place in the autumn of 1601, Hungarian forces under the command of Archduke Matthias emerged victorious. Less than a year later they had lost the castle. It was not until 1687 that the fortress was cleared of all Turkish forces. At this point the region was devoid of population and the castle began an afterlife as a ruin. After resettlement of the area the Austrian Habsburg’s had little interest in rebuilding the castle. They did not want to give any possibly rebellious Hungarian subjects a fortification that one day might be captured and used against them.

The County of Fejér – coat of arms

The coat of arms is a standing, triangular shield with a blue background.

An irregular green hill can be seen at the bottom of the shield and a castle stands on it. It is built of silver bricks. A spired bastion rises on either side of the castle. A drawn-up portcullis opens in the middle of the castle wall. In the middle a red topped tower rises above the castle wall. Two smaller triangular shields are put on the upper part of the shield. A gold bunch of grapes can be seen on the left shield. A gold vine leaf is joined to the bunch of grapes from the right. A gold handled, silver bladed knife can be seen to the left of the bunch of grapes. A silver stylized bird (a daw) can be seen on a gold twig on the left shield.

A stylized castle can be seen on the coat of arms which symbolizes the castle of Csókakő. The castle is divided into an older, upper castle and a later built lower castle in reality. Heraldry prohibits the representation of the space that is why only a civil-living quarters’ tower – which rises above the castle wall – symbolizes the upper castle.

On the right-hand side of the coat of arms the so-called – floating coat of arms – represents a stylized, silver daw. The castle and the village got its name after that daw.

On the right-hand side there is also the another coat of arms agrees with the original seal mark of the village or the rubber-soled seal mark from 1903. All in all it can be said that the coat of arms of Csókakő is a so-called information coat of arms since it tells us the name, the history and the geographical position of Csókakő.

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 (‘‘Barbarossa’’). 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.


Knights of Christ by Jan van Eyck

So much for the ideals of chivalry. It is now time to come to the difficult question of their influence on the conduct of the war. Exponents of chivalric theory saw warfare as a series of equal engagements conducted in such a manner as to test and show the prowess of the individual knightly participants. As late as the sixteenth century it was normal to propose the settlement of wars by individual combat. Such schemes were never effective, although the elaborate plan to resolve the Sicilian dispute by a personal combat at Bordeaux between Charles of Anjou and Peter III of Aragon (1283) was not entirely insincere and came somewhere near to fruition. Similar proposals were sometimes made for contests between small teams representative of the two sides; thus marshal Boucicaut suggested during the siege of al-Mahdiya (1390) a combat of one, or 10, or 20, or 40 representatives of the king of Tunis and of the crusaders, who were to advance on each other from the two sides of a closed field. This view of warfare also entailed the elimination of any form of unjust advantage which might vitiate the verdict of battle as a test of military prowess. It was by some considered unfair to set ambushes or even to make use of side-roads in campaigning. A head-on clash was the most impartial trial, and during the English siege of Calais (1346–7) William of Hainault suggested that a truce should take effect for three days while a bridge was built which would conveniently enable the English and French armies to meet in battle.

The chivalric virtue of ‘courtesy’ implied kind treatment of knightly prisoners of war, and the well-known passage in which Froissart describes the Black Prince’s generosity towards the French nobles after Poitiers shows that this could be effective in practice:

That evening the prince of Wales gave a supper in his lodging to the French king, his son Philip, and the most part of the counts and barons that were prisoners. The prince seated king John, the lord James of Bourbon, the lord John d’Artois, the count of Tancarville, the count of Étampes, the count of Dammartin, the count of Joinville and the lord of Parthenay, at one high table … and other lords, knights, and squires, at other tables; and the prince always served the king … very humbly, and would not sit at the king’s table, although he requested him: he said he was not qualified to sit at the table with so great a prince as the king was. Then he said to the king: ‘Sir, for God’s sake, make no bad cheer, though your will was not accomplished this day; for, Sir, the king my father will certainly bestow on you as much honour and friendship as he can, and will agree with you so reasonably, that you shall ever after be friends. And, Sir, I think you ought to rejoice, though the battle be not as you wish, for you have this day gained the high renown of prowess, and have surpassed all others on your side, in valour. Sir, I say this not to mock you, for all our party, who saw every man’s deeds, agree in this, and give you the palm and chaplet.’

Therewith the Frenchmen whispered among themselves, that the prince had spoken nobly, and that most probably he would prove a noble man, if God preserved his life, to persevere in such good fortune.

The Black Prince’s courtesy was of course assisted by his fluency in French, which remained the first language of the English court, and was in a sense the international language of chivalry. Moreover, this generous treatment of fellow aristocrats in the hour of victory should not be taken as a typical occasion. The Black Prince and the English nobles would naturally have felt generous after gaining a decisive victory which put the French kingdom at their mercy and promised to win fortunes for many of them in ransom money; yet the very fact that many went to war to seek financial gain rather than glory was incompatible with chivalric ideals. Treatment of the non-noble classes was quite another matter. The Black Prince himself was responsible for the sack of Limoges in 1370, when the city was burnt and more than 3,000 of its people put to death. Infantry taken in battle were entitled to none of the consideration granted to the nobility and no ransom could be expected for them; they were often slaughtered rather than being suffered to become a burden on the victor’s food resources.

In so far as it affected warfare, then, the chivalrous outlook detracted from the efficient conduct of war; its emphasis was on the manner of accomplishment rather than the thing accomplished, on glory rather than ‘results’. To be chivalrous was to be unbusiness-like in the matter of achieving victory, and thus to be handicapped. We have seen that the French met defeat in the three great actions of Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt at least in part because they employed the conventional chivalric mode of attack, the cavalry charge, against armies whose strength lay in a non-noble weapon, the longbow. Does it follow from this that the English won their victories because they were more sceptical of the noble mirage of chivalry and, specifically, were less inhibited by chivalric notions of warfare?

Certainly the English were unashamed to proclaim the unaristocratic longbow as their characteristic weapon. By Edward I’s Statute of Winchester (1285) it became an obligatory weapon for English foot-soldiers and Edward III made compulsory the holding of archery contests on holidays. The great folk hero of later medieval England, Robin Hood, was a renowned archer with the longbow, a man who could ‘slice the wand’ again and again from a range of many hundred yards:

I was com[p]ted the best archere

That was in mery Englonde.

If the English archery and tactical combination of archers with other arms suggest a professional approach to war which contrasts with French dilettantism, the explanation of this must be sought in the constant wars of the English with their Celtic neighbours, from whom, indeed, the use of the longbow had been learnt. Frequent campaigning in difficult terrain against the Welsh and Scots compelled the English to give much thought to strategy, tactics, weapons and the other problems of war; the consequences of military conservatism for them would have been expensive and humiliating and there was constant need for inventiveness. Throughout the 80 years of war the English had their eyes on the serious proposition of gaining the French kingdom rather than the pageantry of chivalric pomp: it is symbolic of this that Henry V, when he married Princess Catherine in June 1420, refused to hold any tournament but instead hurried off his knights to besiege Sens.

The French had indeed had opportunities to learn the dangers involved in launching knights against well-disciplined infantry—as witness their defeat by the Flemish in 1302 at Courtrai—but the lesson had not been learnt. In all the three major engagements the French cavalry was unleashed in a courageous but rash charge, and such tactics were not confined to their wars with the English. It was the French and Burgundian element which insisted on a headlong assault against the Turks at Nicopolis in 1396, despite the warnings of the king of Hungary who was accustomed to warfare against the Ottomans and refused to commit his own troops to mass suicide. Du Guesclin was able to show that successes could be won if only battle was not made the occasion of an undisciplined display of valour, but in opposition to him was a strong and respected tradition which reasserted itself at Agincourt. Such a tradition is exemplified by the reported refusal of the French to accept the services at Agincourt of 6,000 archers offered by the city of Paris: ‘what need have we of these shop-keepers?’ they proudly enquired, and it was suggested that the principles of knightly honour would be contravened if the French army thus came to outnumber the English. It is not altogether just to adopt Froissart, who was a native of Valenciennes in Hainault and spent several years at the English court, as the characteristic representative of the French chivalric attitude to war, yet nowhere outside his pages are these campaigns depicted in such chivalrous colours as a series of knightly deeds in which the nobles of the contending sides were joined by a common devotion to valorous and ‘courteous’ enterprise. For Froissart, who set out to describe feats of arms and wondrous deeds as an encouragement to valour, the bowmen who actually won the decisive battles were an insignificant rabble of boors. Yet Froissart’s stupid snobbery must not blind one to the nobler side of chivalry, the side that is seen in king Jean’s decision to return voluntarily to imprisonment in England when his hostage absconded.

A difficult question remains to be answered. Should the French reliance on cavalry and preference for bravery over tactics be ascribed to mere military conservatism, or is this anachronistic emphasis on the aristocratic arm symptomatic of a more profound difference between the two countries? Did the French suffer merely from bad generalship or was their exaggerated respect for the horse-soldier and contempt for the infantryman indicative of a more hierarchical society? Certainly the English governing class was more content to recruit assistance in war from the lower ranks, and co-operation in war would in turn tend to foster a stronger feeling of community. It may well be that for England, like Switzerland, an unusual reliance on infantry had consequences for social and political structure (more developed representative institutions, greater potential for revolt) that were not present in France. But if the question of differences in social structure is answerable, it is certainly not through sources such as those that have been under discussion. Froissart, and others mentioned here, give the chivalric, aristocratic viewpoint, mostly in literary form. The social realities cannot be measured in this way. Even military realities are more complex. The persistent myth that the three famous English victories demonstrated the superiority of longbow infantry over cavalry may be congenial to a particular brand of English national sentiment, but it is an oversimplification. For one thing, as has been seen, position and timing played even more determinant roles in the battles than weaponry. For another, the English archers, too, ‘remained firmly grounded in a military context that was dominated by horseback-riding aristocrats’. Chivalric accounts, with their natural interest in glamourising the role of cavalry, do not tell us much about the close co-operation between mounted and foot soldiery that is in evidence on both sides and over a long period. Finally the subsequent history of warfare should make us wary of exaggerating the significance of these battles. The appearance of the longbow was quickly met by better protective armour and more flexible tactics, and the role of the cavalry as shock troops capable of breaking formations persisted long into the era of gunpowder. The French military revival of the mid-fifteenth century, is a reminder of how rapidly the balance of fortunes could change.

A case could be made for the statement that the war was embarked on in a spirit of chivalry on both sides and that this view of warfare prevailed for a whole generation—until the Peace of Brétigny or perhaps the death of Edward III (1377) —to perish thereafter except in its disastrous revival by the French at Agincourt. King Edward, the founder of the Order of the Garter, was the very soul of chivalry and would have been puzzled at the argument that the English waged war less chivalrously because they relied to a greater extent on archery. For Froissart the great days of knightly feats of arms ended with this phase of the war, and when he returned to England in 1395 he found that there were Englishmen who shared his point of view and asked:

What has become of the great ventures [entreprises], the valiant men, the fine battles and the fine conquests? Where are the knights of England now, to accomplish such things? In those days the English were feared, and spoken of everywhere. Since good King Edward’s death things have gone from bad to worse … and now King Richard of Bordeaux only seeks rest and pleasures.

It must be remembered, of course, that the sentimental Froissart was then an elderly man who would easily fall prey to nostalgia.

By the time that Richard II ruled England (1377–99) the French had begun to reflect on the causes of their defeats. Honoré Bouvet’s Arbre des Batailles (issued in 1387) is a practical handbook on war, not a treatise on chivalry and honour; it advocates defensive tactics in battle and suggests that the French should make more use of their peasantry, who are accustomed to a rigorous life. By the middle of the following century such views were commonplace, and similar warnings against indisciplined impetuosity and advice in favour of reliance on infantry and defensive warfare are to be found in Jean Juvénal des Ursins’ ‘Remonstrances’ (1453) and Jean de Buell’s Le Juvencel. The latter work (c.1466) went directly against chivalric doctrine by forbidding any form of fraternisation with the enemy: the author makes his hero reject a suggestion from the enemy commander that 12 knights from each side should pick out a convenient and impartial site for battle, on the ground that ‘there is a common saying, and it is thought to be a very old one, that one should never do anything on the enemy’s initiative’.

In the 1370s an anonymous author presented to Charles V of France a weighty book of advice in the form of a dialogue entitled Somnium Viridarii or Dream in the Pleasuregarden (better known under its French title as Le songe du vergier, quiparle de la disputacion du clerc et du chevalier). The cleric who is a participant in this dialogue remarks sarcastically that ‘The knights of our day have foot-battles and cavalry engagements painted on the walls of their rooms, so that through their eyes they may take delight in imaginary battles, which they would not dare to witness as members of an army, or even to be present at in person’. This suggestion that there was now a strong vicarious element in chivalry, that its reality was a thing of the past, contains much truth. Every such ideal must look back to a golden past that can never have existed in reality, but it is particularly true of chivalry that the less of it there was the more it was talked about and the more strenuous were the attempts to revive it. Characteristic of this late, formalised, self-conscious chivalry is the highly organised and pedantic pageantry of heraldry, with its learned glorification of noble descent, and such chivalric foundations as Edward III’s Order of the Garter (c.1348) and Philip the Good of Burgundy’s Order of the Golden Fleece (1430). The Golden Fleece was inaugurated by Duke Philip

from the great love we bear to the noble order of chivalry, whose honour and prosperity are our only concern, to the end that the true Catholic Faith, the Faith of Holy Church, our Mother, as well as the peace and welfare of the realm may be defended, preserved and maintained to the glory and praise of Almighty God our Creator and Saviour, in honour of His glorious Mother, the Virgin Mary, and of our Lord, St Andrew, Apostle and Martyr, and for the furtherance of virtue and good manners.

Membership of this order was restricted to 24 (later 30) noble knights. Four officers and a chancellor, secretary and treasurer served under the master and sovereign, who was always the reigning duke. Naturally France was most prolific of these orders. Among the French foundations may be mentioned King Jean’s Order of the Star (1352), whose 300 members took an oath never to flee in battie (and which ceased to exist after only one year when more than a quarter of the knights were killed in a single engagement), and Boucicaut’s Order of the White Lady, founded in 1398 for the defence of ladies and maidens in distress.

William Caxton, in the epilogue to his translation of Lull’s Order of Chivalry, expressed his conviction that chivalry was decadent in his day:

O ye Knights of England, where is the custom and usage of noble chivalry that was used in those days? What do ye now but go to the baths and play at dice? And some not well advised, use not honest and good rule, against all order of knighthood. Leave this, leave it! and read the noble volumes of Saint Graal, of Launcelot, of Galahad, of Tristram, of Perseforest, of Perceval, of Gawain, and many more. There shall ye see manhood, courtesy, and gendeness. And look in latter days at the noble acts since the Conquest, as in King Richard’s days Coeur de Lion, Edward the First and Third and his noble sons, Sir Robert Knolles, Sir John Hawkwood, Sir John Chandos and Sir Walter Manny; read Froissart, and also behold that victorious and noble King Harry the Fifth and the captains under him, his noble brethren, the Earls of Salisbury, Montagu, and many others whose names shine gloriously by their virtuous noblesse and acts that they did in the honour of the order of chivalry. Alas! What do ye but sleep and take ease, and are all disordered from chivalry?

Not all Caxton’s heroes, it will be noted, came from the distant past. It has already been suggested that attempts were made in their own lifetime to raise on to a chivalric pedestal such figures as marshal Boucicaut (1366–1421) and Jacques de Lalaing (1421–53), the latter of whom was denied a knightly end in that he was killed by a cannon ball. In the following century the same treatment was accorded to Bayard, the chevalier sans peur et sans reproche who met his death from arquebus fire in Lombardy in 1524. In Bayard’s day the emperor Maximilian strove hard to revive chivalry, writing a verse autobiography (1517) in which his adventures in the tourney and chase were recounted in the tradition of chivalrous literature, and assisting in the preparation of Der Weiszönig, a similar work on his father Frederick III and himself. Throughout the sixteenth century, jousting, though it had lost much of its utility as a form of military training, remained the aristocradc sportpar excellence. King Henry II of France was killed jousting in 1559 and in the half century after this the English court fêted its queen in the annual accession-day tilts.

The brief account given here of the splendours and miseries of chivalric warfare has no claim to constitute a description of the phenomenon ‘Chivalry’. Almost nothing has been said of chivalry and ‘courtoisie’ as literary genres—or one should perhaps say as a literary Zeitgeist witnessing to a Zeitgeist general among the classes of society who read or were read to. Th e Adventures of Don Quixote, that ‘light and mir ror of all knightly chivalry’ (1604–14), bears witness to the fact that the valour of knights and their ‘courtesy’ to ladies remained the favourite topic of Europe’s fiction readers long after the armoured knight had ceased to be the characteristic figure of the battlefield. Don Quixote, it will be remembered, ‘filled his mind with all that he read in his books, with enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, wooings, loves, torments and other impossible nonsense; and so deeply did he steep his imagination in the belief that all the fanciful stuff he read was true, that to his mind no history in the world was more authentic’. And so it came about that Don Quixote repaired his ancestor’s rusty armour and fitted it with a pasteboard visor because ‘he thought it fit and proper, both in order to increase his renown and to serve the state, to turn knight errant and travel through the world with horse and armour in search of adventures, following in every way the practice of the knights errant he had read of, redressing all manner of wrongs and exposing himself to changes and dangers, by the overcoming of which he might win eternal honour and renown’.

Don Quixate is not merely a satire on chivalry but also the great prose poem of the sunset of chivalry. In Elizabeth I’s England, Cervantes’ contemporary Edmund Spenser was writing in his Faerie Queen of another ‘gentle knight’, ‘for knightly giusts and fierce encounters fitt’. As in architecture there was no clear break between the last of ‘true’ Gothic and the beginning of the Gothic revival, so in literature there was no interruption between this prolongation of medieval romance and the Romantic revival of medieval taste as witnessed in the ballad collections of Bishop Percy and J. G. Herder and the European popularity of Macpherson’s Ossian and Scott’s Ivanhoe.

Even today international law enshrines the chivalric notion of warfare in the clauses of the Geneva Convention which govern the treatment of prisoners of war. The terms of these provide that ‘other ranks’ who are captured may be forced to work for the imprisoning power, but it is illegal to compel officers to work; they are the heirs of the nobles who dined with the Black Prince after Poitiers.

Merovingian Gaul and Germany, 500-751

Merovingian nobleman, V – VII century

6th or 7th century Merovingian

In 589 a group of the leading aristocrats of the kingdom of the Frankish king Childebert II (575-96), led by Duke Rauching, plotted Childebert’s assassination. They had long been opposed to Childebert’s mother Queen Brunhild (d. 613) and her supporters, and, even though Childebert was now an adult (he was probably nineteen), Brunhild was gaining in authority. But they were found out. Rauching, who may have had royal ambitions, was killed at once on Childebert’s orders at the king’s palace (probably at Reims), and his huge wealth was confiscated. His closest supporters, Ursio and Berthefried, had already mobilized an army, and they fled to a hill-top church in the wooded Woëvre region above Verdun, which overlooked Ursio’s estate-centre, and which had been a fortification in pre-Roman times. The king’s army besieged the church and Ursio was killed; Berthefried fled to Verdun cathedral, where he sought sanctuary, but he was killed there anyway, to the great distress of the local bishop.

This narrative, like almost all our evidence from sixth-century Gaul, is known to us because of the extensive writings of Gregory, bishop of Tours. Gregory, an active political bishop of Roman senatorial background, had been appointed in 573 by Brunhild and her husband Sigibert I (561-75), and there is no doubt of his support for the queen’s party. He detested Rauching for his sadism, and he retells the deaths of the conspirators with verve: Rauching tripped at the door of the king’s private room and cut about the head with swords, his naked body then thrown out of the window, Ursio overwhelmed by his enemies outside the church, Berthefried hit by tiles from the partly dismantled cathedral roof. Gregory’s partisanship goes with his narrative gifts to make him one of the most interesting and illuminating authors in this book, but we cannot avoid seeing sixth-century Gaul pretty much exclusively through his eyes. It is over-optimistic to take him on trust, and, in the last decade or so, the careful literary structuring of Gregory’s work has become widely accepted. But as we saw in Chapter 1, even if we do not believe everything he says, the density of his descriptions allows us to learn from the assumptions he makes. Whatever the accuracy of his account of this conspiracy, we can at least conclude that it was plausible to picture certain things: that a royal court could be riven by factions; that queen-mothers could have considerable political power (note that Gregory ascribes no political protagonism to Childebert’s wife Faileuba); that major aristocrats could be very rich, and could have what amounted to private armies, but that their political ambition was concentrated on royal courts; that such men did not base themselves on private fortifications, unlike in the world of castles of the central Middle Ages – for Ursio’s last stand was notably makeshift in Gregory’s account; and that people might expect sanctuary to be respected, even if this did not always happen. All these conclusions are amply borne out slightly later, by sources from seventh-century Francia; they made up some of the basic parameters of Merovingian political practice. This conspiracy was traditionally read by historians as a deliberate attempt to limit royal power; there is no evidence for that. But the image of the Merovingian political world as one in which kings consistently faced over-mighty subjects who had both character and resources would not be a false one. These points will be developed in this chapter. I shall give a political narrative first, and then set out some of the basic structures and patterns of political action of the Merovingian period as a whole.

The Merovingian dynasty ruled the Franks for two hundred and fifty years until 751; its hegemony was the work of Clovis (481-511). Clovis, son of a late Roman warlord and Frankish king based at Tournai, Childeric I, conquered the rival Frankish kings who had occupied separate sections of northern Gaul, and the surviving non-Frankish warlords of the north; he also established hegemony over the Alemans in the upper Rhine valley, and, as we saw in Chapter 4, in 507 conquered Visigothic Aquitaine as well. Clovis thus reunited three-quarters of Gaul after the confusions of the fifth century. He also converted to Catholicism, the first major ‘barbarian’ king to do so (perhaps after a brief period as an Arian), and his example, given his military success, would mark future choices in the other Romano-Germanic kingdoms too. By 550 or so, Frankish rule was fully established in the Burgundian kingdom and over the south German tribes who were crystallizing as the Bavarians; a looser Frankish hegemony was recognized in northern Italy, in central Germany, east to Thuringia, in Brittany (the only part of Gaul never fully conquered by the Franks), and maybe even in Kent. The core Frankish lands were always in the north of Gaul, and the major royal centres stretched from Paris and Orléans, through Reims and Metz, to Cologne: these were not exactly capitals in an administrative sense, but they were places where kings could frequently be found, and around which they moved their courts and administrators, from palace to palace, along the Oise valley near Paris or the Moselle near Metz. The kings seldom went to the south of Gaul; from these northern ‘royal landscapes’, the richer and more Roman south was ruled through networks of dukes, counts and bishops. Frankish hegemony east of the Rhine is less well documented, and was certainly less tight: the dukes of Bavaria and Thuringia usually had considerable freedom of action. But it existed nonetheless, and for a century the kings saw their eastern border as roughly that between modern Germany and the Czech Republic. The Merovingian Franks were thus both the people who created the political centrality of the Paris to Cologne region for the first time, a centrality it has never lost since, and the first people to rule on both sides of the Rhine frontier of the Roman empire. East of the Rhine was a simpler society, and it lacked the basic Roman infrastructure of roads and cities, or Latin as a language, but slowly, between 500 and 800, some of the contrasts between Gaul and Germany receded, and briefly, in the Carolingian period, they would have similar histories.

Clovis put his own family, called by 640 at the latest the Merovingians after his shadowy grandfather Merovech, firmly into the centre of politics: after 530 or so no one is documented claiming the Frankish kingship who did not also claim Merovingian parentage, until the Carolingian coup in 751. It is worth stressing how unusual this was: the Gothic and Lombard kingdoms never had dynasties that lasted more than three or four generations (usually less); only the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and, outside the Germanic world, those of the Welsh and Irish, were as committed to the legitimacy of single ruling families, and these were all tiny polities. Early on, the Merovingians associated kingship with wearing uncut hair; this became a family privilege, and hair-cutting was an at least temporary ritual of deposition. The Merovingians also saw ruling as a sufficiently family affair for the Frankish lands at the king’s death to be regularly divided between his sons; they did this first at Clovis’s death in 511, again at the death of his last surviving son Chlotar I in 561, and again at the death of Dagobert I in 639, whose father Chlotar II had reunited the kingdoms by force in 613. All in all, there were only twenty-two years of Frankish unity between 511 and 679, when the by now weakened family was reduced to a single line. The political history of the period can easily be reduced to rivalries, and perennial wars, between competing Merovingians. This would make for dull reading; what follows focuses on some of the major figures.

The half-century after Clovis was marked by fighting between his sons, but also by external conquests; this was the period in which the Franks gained serious international recognition, particularly from the eastern Roman empire, for the first time, and it must have been the period in which people in Gaul and Germany realized that Merovingian rule was there to stay. The king who best encapsulates that is Theudebert I (533-48), king of the north-eastern Frankish kingdom based on the Rhineland, which held hegemony over central and southern Germany from there. It was probably Theudebert who set up the powerful Franco-Burgundian Agilolfing family as dukes of Bavaria, to act both as the core of a developing Bavarian identity, and as a long-standing sign of Frankish overlordship; and it was certainly Theudebert who took advantage of the Gothic war in Italy and intervened there systematically, for the first time but not the last. The Constantinopolitan historian Agathias in the 560s claimed he was even planning to attack the eastern capital, that is, that he was part of a line of ‘barbarian’ invaders going back to Alaric and Attila. Theudebert’s international pretensions were also expressed by minting gold coins with his name and portrait on: these are the first ‘barbarian’ coins to claim this imperial prerogative, and the east Romans were greatly offended. It is interesting that, although Theudebert ruled the sector of the Frankish lands where civilian Roman traditions were weakest, the idiom of his rule was so often expressed in Roman terms; the stories Gregory tells about him are frequently expressed in terms of his fiscal policies – a tax remission for Clermont, an unpopular decision to tax the Franks themselves, a large loan to Verdun to kick-start the city’s commerce after a time of trouble. But the openness of the Franks to Roman traditions and imagery was there from the start; bishops wrote admonitory letters to kings from the beginning of Clovis’s reign onwards, councils of bishops were regularly held in the north of Gaul after 511, and the kings in 566 welcomed the Italian poet Venantius Fortunatus to their courts to write them all impeccably Roman praise-poems, which he did for kings, queens, aristocrats and bishops (including Gregory of Tours) for three decades.

The next generation of Merovingian kings is the best documented, for their rule forms the core of Gregory’s work. Chilperic (561-84) and his infant son Chlotar II (584-629) in the north-west, Sigibert I and his son Childebert II in the north-east (Theudebert’s former kingdom), and Guntram (561-93) in Burgundy make up an agonistic set, with Chilperic portrayed as the worst of these kings and Guntram as the best (Sigibert and Childebert, even though they were Gregory’s most direct patrons, are less clearly characterized). Gregory disliked Chilperic because he saw him as tyrannous, hostile to the church, and the fomenter of civil war; Chilperic had the smallest kingdom with the fewest external boundaries, which partly explains the fact that he fought his brothers, and he also conquered Tours and backed Gregory’s local rivals. Guntram’s virtues are, conversely, particularly stressed by Gregory after 584; he was then the only adult Merovingian king left alive, and he acted as patron to his two young nephews (the wars between them notably quietened down after a treaty in 587), alongside their queen-regent mothers, Brunhild for Childebert and Fredegund, Gregory’s other main enemy, for Chlotar. Gregory knew both kings well; his accounts of his meetings with Guntram are affectionate, but he was very formal and wary with Chilperic, who threatened him (Gregory threatened back). But what is really most striking about the kings is their similarity: they were all prone to violent anger (leading to injustice and cruelty) and equally violent repentance; they constantly sparred, taking city-territories from each other like chess pieces. And they cooperated when they had to, including against a claimant to the throne, Gundovald, who said he was Guntram’s brother and who gained quite a lot of support from aristocrats who were on the losing sides in court faction-fighting, in 583-5.

The swirl of war and faction is encapsulated in the Rauching conspiracy of 589 which we started with, and this shows us the importance of the detail of court politics. By now it is clear that the royal courts, and their ruling kings and queens, were the foci for the rivalry of powerful aristocrats, who constantly sought office, at court or as the dukes (army leaders with a regional remit) of each kingdom. Kings when adult could dominate these factions, and had no scruples about killing losers, often in unpleasant ways. Queens-regent for younger kings often had a more difficult time of it, and both Brunhild and Fredegund had periods of considerable marginality when their sons were small. They were not respected as much as kings, and when they resorted to violence to make their point they were often met not so much by fear as by resentment; every powerful queen had at least one hostile chronicler. Royal wives during their husbands’ lifetimes had less power; for one thing, Merovingian kings frequently had several wives and concubines at once, who manoeuvred for the succession of their own sons. But the importance of Merovingian legitimacy was by now so great that royal mothers were allowed a substantial political space, even when their children were grown; nor did their social origins matter (Brunhild was a princess, but a Visigoth; Fredegund was of non-aristocratic birth). Brunhild built on this after Gregory’s Histories end in 591, for she remained influential throughout Childebert’s life, and then was regent for his two young sons after his death in 596, particularly Theuderic II in Burgundy, and even, briefly, for her great-grandson in 613. If Guntram dominated politics in 584-93, Brunhild did in 593-613: on and off, perhaps, but sometimes in effective control of virtually the whole Frankish world.

By 613, the seventy-year-old Brunhild had made too many enemies, particularly in the north-eastern kingdom, now known as Austrasia, which she had just taken back by force. Chlotar II, who had hitherto been confined to relatively few city-territories in Neustria, the north-west, got an aristocratic coalition together and overthrew Brunhild. He had her torn to pieces by a horse in public, in an act clearly designed to mark a new beginning, and he and his son Dagobert I (623-39) ruled a more or less unitary kingdom for a generation. Chlotar maintained the three courts of the previous period, however, as the foci for aristocratic politics, particularly Neustria and Austrasia (Burgundy tended to go with Neustria). These courts sometimes had sub-kings (as Dagobert was in Austrasia in 623-9, before his father’s death), but they also now each had a single aristocratic leader, a maior domus, ‘leader of the household’ (‘mayor of the palace’ is the traditional English translation). Aristocratic rivalries began to concentrate on obtaining the position of maior, or else on using that position to overthrow rivals, as with the confrontation between the maior Flaochad of Burgundy and the patricius Willibad in 643, a small war in which they both died; the events were written up dramatically in Gregory’s continuator, called by modern historians Fredegar, around 660. These rivalries became sharper after 639, when Dagobert was succeeded by children, Sigibert III (632-56) in Austrasia and Clovis II (639-57) in Neustria; both of the latter were succeeded by children too. It became ever more important to be a maior under these circumstances, and there was also often a clash between the maior and the queen-regent, who remained a powerful force in this period. The classic example of this is the stand-off between Balthild, regent for her and Clovis II’s sons in 657-65, and the Neustrian maior Ebroin (659-80, with interruptions); this is well documented above all because Balthild was forced into a monastery at Chelles near Paris in 664-5, and a saint’s life was written about her. By now, in fact, saints’ lives are our major sources for high politics, for many saints were aristocratic (see below, Chapter 8); this also means that the continuing violence of politics, already stressed by Gregory, was even more emphasized by writers for moralistic purposes.

The seventh century was a turning point for Merovingian royal power: by the early eighth, real authority was in the hands of maiores, who were after 687 almost all from a single Austrasian family, the Arnulfings-Pippinids, descended from two of the major Austrasian supporters of Chlotar II, Arnulf bishop of Metz and Pippin (I) of Landen. Historians have therefore devoted considerable attention to determining when it was that the Merovingians began to lose control: was it in 639, with the death of Dagobert? Or was it earlier, or later? An older generation of historians thought that Chlotar II marked the moment of change, arguing that he gave away too much to gain aristocratic support; he does seem, indeed, to have restricted his own taxation powers substantially, as we shall see, even if it is no longer thought that he also conceded local judicial power to the aristocracy. But Chlotar and Dagobert’s centrality is by now rarely doubted, and more recent historians have gone the other way, arguing that even late seventh-century kings like Childeric II (662-75) and Childebert III (694-711) had a good deal of power, at least once they gained adulthood, and that the royal courts never lost the importance for aristocratic politics that they had unarguably had a century earlier. This may indeed have been the case, in particular for Childeric II. But royal hegemony was not as automatic as it had been. Fredegar tells us with some gusto of Chlotar II’s killing of Godin, son of the Burgundian maior Warnachar, around 626, even after Godin had been persuaded to do a pilgrimage around the holy places of Gaul to swear loyalty, and the Liber Historiae Francorum is keen to recount the death by torture of the maior Grimoald, son of Pippin of Landen, on Clovis II’s orders in 657. But when Childeric had an aristocrat called Bodilo bound and beaten in 674, small beer for an earlier king, this was regarded as illegal behaviour, and Bodilo himself apparently had the king and queen killed in 675, precipitating a major crisis.

It seems to me that the late seventh century does indeed mark a considerable diminution of a specifically royal centrality. Perhaps the turning point was less Dagobert’s death than those of his sons, for the dominance of maiores over the courts became routinized once it was clearly going to last for another generation, and renewed royal protagonism under Childeric II would be more resented. It was, anyway, after the death of Dagobert’s sons that maiores began for the first time not only to control kings but to choose them. Grimoald, as maior of Austrasia (641-57), exiled Sigibert III’s son Dagobert to Ireland, and had his own son Childebert made king instead (656-62?); Childebert was Sigibert’s adopted son, so Merovingian paternity was theoretically maintained. This odd and ill-documented affair ended badly for Grimoald, who was killed as a direct result, although Childebert somehow seems to have lasted a few years more. Later, at Childeric II’s death, Ebroin did the same, temporarily inventing a king in Austrasia to keep his hand in during that political crisis, before switching his support to the new Neustrian king Theuderic III (so says, at least, the saint’s life of his bitter enemy and victim, Leudegar bishop of Autun). Seen from this standpoint, Childeric II’s politics seem even more atypical by now. Kings still had a role as a rallying point for aristocratic factions, and their courts remained central to aristocratic political aspirations, but maiores and political bishops had become the major protagonists. Ebroin dominated his time, but he was always a controversial figure, and he did not establish a stable regime for himself. Pippin II in Austrasia was cannier; he was Grimoald’s nephew, and his family was eclipsed for two decades, but it remained very rich and influential around Liege on the Meuse, and by the late 670s he was maior in Austrasia again. In 687 the Austrasians defeated the Neustrians at the battle of Tertry, and Pippin became maior for all the Frankish lands. Pippin II lived to 714, and the civil disturbances of the thirty years after 656 ended at Tertry, although Neustria and Austrasia remained separate. That did not change until a briefer civil war, in 715-19, which pitched Pippin’s probably illegitimate son Charles (Martel) against his widow Plectrude, with Neustrian anti-Pippinids as a third force contending with them both. Charles defeated them all, and established himself as sole maior (717-41), with a firmly Austrasian base. The Neustrian court was abolished; Charles Martel became the only focus of rule, and his heirs, the Carolingians, would remain so for a long time. Charles’s victory in 719 thus changed the political scene much more completely than Pippin II did in 687, perhaps even more completely than Chlotar II had done in 613.

Another respect in which the later seventh century saw a real involution of Merovingian authority was its geographical scale. The wide hegemony of the sixth-century kings was still there under Dagobert I, who fought a war in 631-4 against Samo, a king who for a time united the Wends, Sclavenian tribes (see Chapter 20), in or around what is now the Czech Republic. Dagobert called Thuringians, Bavarians and even Lombards from Italy to fight for him there; he also legislated for the peoples east of the Rhine, and appointed bishops there too. But at his death Radulf duke of Thuringia revolted and established autonomy; and across the next generation both Bavaria and Alemannia slipped out of effective Frankish control. More striking still was Aquitaine: this was part of the core Frankish lands, and had in the sixth century been divided between the northern kings, but Dagobert in 629 briefly made his half-brother Charibert II (629-32) king of part of Aquitaine, and by the 650s it had a separate duke. In the political crisis of 675, Duke Lupus seems to have claimed royal status, and in the eighth century Duke Eudo (d. 735) was clearly an autonomous ally of Charles Martel; full-scale war was needed in the 760s to bring this large and rich region fully back into the Frankish fold. War was in fact in general needed to establish Carolingian control over the whole area of traditional Frankish hegemony in the eighth century; the peripheral principalities were keener on Merovingian legitimism than on Charles’s new political structure, and Charles found several quasi-autonomous princes even in his core lands whom he had to subdue by force, as well as, further south in Provence, the patricius Antenor and then the dux Maurontus, whom Charles fought in the 730s. Charles had a large central territory in Neustria, Austrasia and northern Burgundy which still looked to the court, and which he could draw on for the continuous border wars that marked his rule and that of his successors, but it was not until his sons took over Alemannia in 746 and then Aquitaine, and until his grandson Charlemagne took over Bavaria in 788-94, that Dagobert’s hegemony was re-established, in rather more solid form by now. This geographical retreat is a marker of the fact that the instability of the post-Dagobert generations did indeed do harm to Frankish authority.