Salian Monarchy, 1024–1137



Graham Turner


Henry II’s lack of children raised concern during his reign over the succession. The response was similar to that at the end of the Carolingian line: a meeting was organized at Kamba on the Rhine opposite Oppenheim in the summer of 1024 by the inner circle comprising Henry’s widow, Kunigunde, her brothers the duke of Bavaria and counts of Luxembourg and Mainz, and key bishops. The Salians were the only viable candidates. They were favoured by Kunigunde and her relations, and were backed by the Lorraine aristocracy, perhaps because of their shared roots in the Rhineland. There was currently no duke of Franconia since this post had been retained directly by the king since 939, while Swabia was held by a minor at that point. The Saxons, Italians and Slavs appear to have stayed away. Consequently, the proceedings became a discreet test of how much support the two Salian branches could muster. Conrad (II) the Elder, heading the junior Salian branch based at Speyer, emerged as the favourite allegedly because he already had a son. Conrad the Younger of the senior (older) Worms branch left Kamba with his supporters before the result was announced publicly, thereby preserving the appearance of unanimity. The Saxons continued to maintain their distance as in 1002, requiring Conrad II to secure their acceptance separately at Minden in December. Conrad encountered difficulties broadly similar to Henry I a century previously, but on a far wider scale because he succeeded to Italy as well as Germany, and inherited Henry II’s claims to Burgundy. Opposition in Swabia only ended when its duke, Ernst, was killed in 1030, and it took a further two years for Conrad to secure both Italy and Burgundy.


Conrad’s success confirmed the Empire as a hierarchy of three principal kingdoms headed by Germany, Italy and Burgundy. The challenge of governance was now even greater than under the Ottonians. The expanded size of the realm added to the difficulties of governing through personal presence. Meanwhile, the lordly hierarchy had lengthened and its members had become more numerous. There were now several pushy new families who had the power though not yet the status of dukes, achieved by acquiring several counties and placing relations in the imperial church. In addition to the Salians themselves, these included the Ekkehardiner at Meissen, the Luxembourgs, Ezzonids, Babenbergs and Welfs. There were also more numerous and distinct lesser nobles, plus the class of servile ministeriales emerging about 1020. These were not, as once thought, a royal creation to free the king from dependency on the great lords, but instead ministeriales were promoted by the imperial clergy. Bishops and abbots selected able men of unfree status and enfeoffed them with resources to enable them to serve as knights or administrators. The Salians also began employing ministeriales to administer royal domains and garrison the new castles built in the 1060s. The ministeriales gradually acquired other privileges, embraced an aristocratic ethos, and eventually converted their relationship based on servitude into one of more conventional vassalage to fuse with other lesser nobles as knights and barons by about 1300.

It would be wrong to interpret the ministeriales as the potential staff required to create a centralized monarchy. They were indeed used to oversee more intensive management of royal domains, notably in Saxony. However, the Salians were themselves a product of the same political culture as their lords. There was no blueprint for a centralized state to follow, nor evidence that anyone thought such a structure was superior. Instead, Conrad and his successors tried to improve established methods by making it harder for lords to refuse royal commands. Conrad’s well-known articulation of the Empire as ‘an enduring crown’ was one element in this, as was the increasing emphasis on royal authority, underpinned by a more elevated, sacral monarchical image.

Conrad remained in the late Ottonian mould of an emperor touring the Empire to meet lordly expectations of good kingship. One-fifth of his trips were to Saxony, where the local lords clearly resented the Salian accession and their displacement to the outer circle. This paid off, and Henry III’s accession in 1039 resembled a triumphal progress. Conrad also returned to the earlier policy of concentrating duchies in royal hands as they became vacant: Bavaria in 1027, Swabia in 1038 and Carinthia in 1039. All three passed along with Franconia to Henry III on his accession, but he broke past practice by giving them away, keeping only Bavaria.

Bavaria was held by a king or his son for 46 years between 1002 and 1125, with the other six individuals chosen from close allies, though four had to be deposed after brief periods by the king. Meanwhile, the Salians continued Henry II’s practice of promoting Bamberg, Eichstätt and other Bavarian bishops as counterweights. This seems to have worked well and Henry IV had little difficulty retaining their loyalty after 1075, unlike Saxony, where the policy of backing the archbishop of Bremen simply antagonized local lords further and contributed to the Saxon revolt in 1073.

This policy represented a fundamental shift from using ducal jurisdictions directly to a more indirect management of the ducal elite. It reduced friction by accepting the trend to hereditary possession, which was already clearly established in Lorraine and soon also Swabia. The king retained powers of confirmation, but local ‘elections’ were now far more like homage ceremonies where the new duke sought acceptance from the lesser lords. Ducal power rested on possession of significant allodial property, much of it often former royal domains, as well as clearer political jurisdiction over the lesser nobles.

However, the ducal elite faced harsher punishments if they abused their new autonomy. The Ottonians had operated what was, essentially, a ‘two strikes’ policy with only repeat offenders facing serious consequences, though even here exceptions were made, as in the case of Heinrich the Quarrelsome. This was no longer possible under the more elevated concept of monarchy cultivated by the Salians. Rebellion ceased to be a personal dispute over status and became an affront to divine order. It was harder to forgive wrongdoers who were now considered sinners. Using the Roman law concept of crimen laesae maiestatis, revived by Henry III, Salians no longer simply removed offenders from office, but also confiscated their allodial property.

The difficulties of the new course were already exposed in 1035 when Conrad II deposed Adalbero Eppensteiner as duke of Carinthia for pursuing a policy towards the Hungarians contrary to royal wishes. Conrad clearly intended an assembly of lords as a pliant court to endorse his verdict, but many of those present expressed disquiet, including the king’s son, Henry (III), who, as duke of Bavaria, had sworn friendship with Adalbero. Conrad secured consent by falling to the floor crying, a move that could easily have backfired and damaged his prestige. Although Henry III appears to have curried favour by reversing many of his father’s decisions, he continued the same methods, encountering even greater difficulties when he tried to enforce a new partition in Lorraine after 1044. He eventually achieved his goal, but alienated the duke’s relations in Tuscany.

Long the beneficiary of Ottonian patronage, the Tuscans had proved crucial in Conrad II’s victory over Italian opposition to his succession from 1024 to 1027. Tuscany’s defection to Pope Gregory VII after 1077 was a serious blow to the imperial position in Italy. The absence of other large jurisdictions necessitated a different approach to governing south of the Alps. The Salians spent only 22 of their 101 years of rule in Italy, and half of that was Henry IV’s largely unwilling presence during the Investiture wars. Their preferred method was to rely on the Italian bishops, both by appointing loyalists trained in the royal chapel, and by strengthening the episcopate by extending their control over their cathedral towns and surrounding area. This made some sense, given that demographic and economic growth began earlier in Italy than in Germany, eroding the old county structure and fuelling popular demands for greater civic autonomy. The Salians were not necessarily hostile to these developments, for instance extending their patronage by giving the post of royal judge to wealthy townsmen, some of whom subsequently rose to become counts or bishops. Conrad II also intervened to settle what became known as the Valvassores’ Revolt between 1035 and 1037. The valvassores were the subvassals of the ‘captains’ (capitanei) who held both urban property and church fiefs in the surrounding countryside. Conrad’s Constitutio de feudis of 28 May 1037 extended the benefits of hereditary possession of fiefs to the lesser lords, whilst continuing to assert the king as final judge of all disputes.

These policies were unintentionally conflictual, because they weakened episcopal authority over the valvassores and captains, notably in Milan, where a complex dispute developed over popular demands for autonomy and conflicting claims from the emperor and pope to intervene. When aligned with the difficulties encountered over Lorraine, this suggests the Salians were already encountering serious structural problems ahead of Henry IV’s minority following his father’s death in 1056.

The Saxon and Investiture Wars, 1073–1122

Discontent amongst east Saxon lords coincided with the first stages of what would become the Investiture Dispute around 1073. Neither of these problems was immediately life-threatening for the Salian monarchy. Henry IV continued to enjoy considerable support amongst the German and Italian episcopates, as well as many lay lords. However, his inability to find quick solutions to these problems fuelled underlying discontent at Salian methods and gave credence to charges of misrule. A more exalted style of monarchy inhibited the cultivation of ‘friends’ and made it difficult to compromise without losing face, and Henry rebuffed several attempts by lay and secular lords to broker settlements. Royal prestige was now defined by power and victory, not consensus and clemency. Unfortunately, open defiance, as in Saxony, left the king no choice but to employ force. The Salians were thus in the same bind in Germany as the Ottonians had been in earlier disputes with the papacy: violent methods conflicted with most people’s ideal of good kingship. The German lords provided Henry with an opportunity to restore politics to the earlier consensual course by summoning him to their assembly at Trebur in October 1076. Yet acceptance would have entailed an unacceptable humiliation, and so Henry undertook his extraordinary journey to Canossa in an attempt to outflank his opponents by reaching a deal with Pope Gregory.

The move failed to stop the malcontents electing Rudolf of Rheinfelden as the first real anti-king in March 1077. Rudolf was backed by the leading Saxons, the dukes of Bavaria and Carinthia, and around eight middling secular lords, plus the archbishops of Mainz, Salzburg, Magdeburg and their suffragan bishops. The majority of lay and ecclesiastical lords were still loyal to the emperor or at least neutral. However, the combination of civil war in Germany and the open struggle with the Gregorian papacy intensified the divisions. Both Henry and the Gregorians deposed each other’s supporters from the episcopate, while the king replaced the rebellious southern dukes with loyalists in 1079, including the Staufers, who received Swabia. There were now rival kings, popes, dukes and bishops, entrenching the conflict in the localities and widening the numbers of those involved with vested interests. The relatively even balance prevented either side from achieving sufficient preponderance to force their opponents to accept peace.

Although obstinate, Henry was sufficiently astute to seize the collapse of the Welf-Tuscan alliance in 1095 not merely to escape from northern Italy but to offer significant concessions across the next three years. This confirmed one of the two main political outcomes of this turbulent period: the demise of the old ducal elite and its replacement by a more numerous group controlling more modest jurisdictions. This group was recruited from the middling families who had amassed allodial property and county jurisdictions and were now accommodated by the creation of new jurisdictions associated with ducal rank. Henry reconciled the Zähringer, whom he had deposed from Carinthia in 1078, by raising their allodial property in the Black Forest to a new duchy 20 years later. This was rounded out by transferring Zürich, the richest royal domain in the region, as well as other jurisdictions formerly associated with Swabia. Meanwhile, the counts Palatine emerged as equivalent to dukes on the Middle Rhine by 1156. Henry V continued this policy after his accession in 1106, which coincided with the extinction of the Saxon Billungs. Although Saxony was not partitioned, Henry gave the Billung allodial property to the rising Askanier and Welf families. Other jurisdictions in Saxony were consolidated as a distinct landgraviate of Thuringia by 1131, while the remnants of what had been the Saxon North March (Nordmark) were detached in 1134, becoming the margraviate of Brandenburg after 1157.

The tentative return to consensual politics unravelled as Henry V sought to supplant his father after 1105, leading to renewed war until the latter’s death the following year. Henry V’s heavy handling of his former favourite, Lothar von Supplinburg, triggered another revolt in 1112–15 during which the king lost control of northern Germany and only survived thanks to continued Staufer support. Antagonism resurfaced at Henry V’s death in 1125. The leading Welf, Heinrich ‘the Black’ of Bavaria, defected from his former Staufer allies and backed the election of Lothar von Supplinburg. Conrad Staufer of Franconia was proclaimed king by his own supporters, including his elder brother in Swabia, splitting Germany north–south. He only accepted defeat in 1135 in return for a pardon, finally allowing Lothar III to tour the south.

The outcome confirmed the second lasting consequence from the troubles since 1073: command monarchy was discredited and defeated. The Trebur meeting of 1076 was the first of what historians have called ‘kingless assemblies’ (königlose Tage), as senior lords convened on their own initiative. Other meetings followed in 1105, 1121 and 1122, the latter compelling Henry V to settle the Investiture Dispute with the Worms Concordat. Although further collective action failed to avert violence in 1125, Lothar III nonetheless returned to a more consensual style. However, this did not restore Ottonian conditions. Instead, the restructured elite now saw themselves as sharing responsibility for the Empire’s welfare. This was expressed as ‘emperor and Empire’ (imperator et regnum), first voiced at the 1122 assembly and signifying that lords expected to participate in important decisions rather than merely offer advice. It remained for the Staufers to adapt governance to meet these expectations.

Edward III captures Calais



Calais, with a population of about 8,000, was not then a town of any great commercial significance. Its harbour was small and liable to silt up, and most travel between England and Europe was through Wissant or Boulogne, both of which had much better and more easily navigable approaches. For all that, it was the nearest French port to England and might be developed, and it had for years been a scourge of English trade as a nest of piracy. From the French point of view, although it was only a minor trading post, the town was close to the border with Flanders and important as a military base to guard against Flemish incursions, and it had been well garrisoned and stocked with enough provisions to withstand a long siege. Moving through Neufchâtel and Wissant, the English army reached the heights of Sangatte on 3 September, 1346 from where they could see their objective.

It is unlikely that Edward ever thought that he could take Calais by a coup de main, for it was well sited for defence. To the north was the harbour and the open sea, to the west was a river with only one bridge, the Neuillet bridge, and to the east and south was marshland criss-crossed by streams and rivulets that constantly changed their course. Within those natural defences was a series of well-constructed walls, themselves protected by moats, and at the western end was the castle, with its own separate system of walls, towers and ditches. The English did not even attempt to assault the walls, but instead prepared for a long siege. This was standard practice since, before the development of effective cannon, it was very unusual for a medieval castle or fortified town to be taken by assault. Far more often it was starvation, disease or treachery that forced capitulation, and it was common for a besieged commander to agree with the besieger that, if not relieved by a certain date, he would surrender the fortress. If, however, a castle or fortress had to be assaulted, there were three ways in: over the walls, through the walls or under the walls.

Assault over the walls could be achieved by the use of belfries or scaling ladders, or both. The belfry was a three- or four-storey wooden tower on wheels or runners. Packed with archers and men-at-arms, it would be pushed up close to the wall until the attackers could leap from the top storey onto the wall. It was a very old stratagem – the Romans had made frequent use of belfries – and it took much time and labour to place them in position. Once packed with men, a belfry was very heavy and the ground had to be levelled and a road built to allow it to be pushed along. All this preparation would be obvious to the defenders, who would try to set the belfry on fire with fire arrows or by throwing burning balls of straw soaked in pitch at it, and mass their own men on the walls as it approached. While the belfry was still theoretically on the equipment tables of a medieval siege train, it was hardly ever actually built or used. Scaling ladders were easier to make and to conceal until the last minute, but, unless there were sufficient archers or crossbowmen to keep the defenders away from the walls, this too was a dubious way of earning a living, particularly for the first man up the ladder.

Attacking through the walls meant creating a breach, and this could only be done with a battering ram or a bore, both of which were very slow and vulnerable to boulders and, once again, fireballs hurled onto them from above. Going under the walls involved the use of miners. Rather than attempt to tunnel beneath the walls and then emerge inside the castle, like the demon king popping up through a trapdoor in a pantomime, miners would try to collapse the walls. The mining team would tunnel under the wall, supporting the roof of the tunnel by wooden pit props. The tunnel would then be packed with combustible materials (dead pigs, having lots of body fat, were a favourite) and ignited. Once the pit props had burned through, the tunnel would collapse and the walls above with it.

There was a variety of machinery which could be used to hurl projectiles at the walls or into the besieged town. The mangonel relied on the energy of twisted ropes – human hair was regarded as the best material for mangonel ropes – to hurl a stone or fireball from the end of a beam. The springal, little different from the Roman ballista, was a giant crossbow, but, like its hand-held baby brother, it was slow to load and only effective if used in massed batteries. The trebuchet relied on a counterweight on a beam with a huge sling on its end and could deliver seriously large stones against or over a wall, while the petrary was an enormous catapult. It was claimed that the mangonel could be used to propel dead horses into towns in an early version of biological warfare, and the chronicler Froissart avers that, when the French were besieging Auberoche in Aquitaine in 1345, they captured an English messenger sent out to contact relieving forces, killed him and returned his body over the walls with a petrary – a somewhat unlikely tale. Edward may have had some early cannon in his siege train, and there is some evidence that three may have been on the field at Crécy. Descriptions are vague: they may have fired stone balls or large darts, but, as the secret of casting gun barrels was as yet unknown and the manufacture of gunpowder imprecise, they will have done little but frighten the horses and were probably more dangerous to the gunners who served them than to the enemy. If they did exist, they seem to have played little part in the siege of Calais.

At Calais, going over or through the walls was not an option as the moats and ditches protected the approaches; mining was ruled out because the soil was waterlogged and siege engines were too heavy to be moved over the marshy ground. Starvation was the only answer and the English were quite prepared to wait. At long last the requested reinforcements arrived from England and the fleet under Sir John de Montgomery, Admiral of the South, hove to off Calais at around the same time as the army got there on land. The soldiers began to block off all roads and tracks running to and from the town, and a vast camp was set up on the dry ground around the church of St Peter where the roads from Boulogne and Ardres crossed. The camp was intended to be in position for the long term, and soon shops, armourers’ tents, quarters for the nobility, butts for the archers, paddocks for the horses, and all the facilities of a large town were in place or being constructed. While the army was on the move, it could feed itself from the French countryside, but, now that it was static, the available food in the immediate area would soon be exhausted and provisions would have to be brought in.

It is sad but perhaps inevitable that interest in military history is centred on the battles and those who fought them, and that most soldiers would rather be out killing people than in barracks counting blankets. But the fact is that you can have the best soldiers in the world, superbly trained, highly motivated, brilliantly led and equipped with the best weapons that money can buy, but, if you cannot feed them, house them, resupply them,move them and tend them when they are sick or wounded, then you can do nothing. Administering an army is far more difficult than commanding it in battle. The real heroes of most of England’s and Britain’s successful wars are the logisticians, and they get precious little recognition for it. For the siege of Calais, government agents went out all over southern England to purchase foodstuffs and other supplies for the army. They had to be found, collected, paid for, moved to the ports, loaded on ships – which themselves had to be impressed – and delivered to the army. The French scored a minor success when a fleet of galleys from the Seine intercepted one of the first supply convoys and sank or burned most of the ships, killing the crews and dumping the cargoes. Future convoys would have men-at-arms or archers on board and the supply line was never broken again, but the need to put soldiers on the ships did increase the expense of the logistic effort.

At Calais, a brief attempt to bring down the walls by hurling rocks at them failed when the ground was too soft to allow a firm foundation for the trebuchets and petraries; an ingenious plan to assail the walls from boats fitted with scaling ladders was finally abandoned despite considerable expenditure in preparing the boats. And so the blockade went on. Although the town was well provisioned, its stores would not last forever, so the commander of the garrison, Jean de Vienne, an experienced and competent officer, decided to evict his useless mouths, expelling around 2,000 civilians – women, children, the old, the sick and the weak – into no-man’s-land between the walls and the investing army. At first Edward would not allow them to pass through his lines and, as there was nothing for them to eat save what little they had managed to carry away with them, they soon began to die. Edward relented and the dispossessed were allowed passage through the siege lines. While no food could reach the garrison overland and attempts to run supplies in by sea were usually prevented by the English navy, the occasional blockade-runner did manage to reach the harbour, but the quantities that could be delivered by this means were small.

During the latter part of summer and autumn, life within the English camp was reasonably comfortable, but with the onset of winter conditions began to deteriorate. An army on the move could keep reasonably healthy, but, once it became static, disease inevitably followed. Edward’s army of 1346 was no exception. Little attention was paid to the cleanliness of water sources, latrine arrangements were primitive, flies and rats abounded, and soon dysentery – ‘the bloody flux’ – began to take its toll. Dysentery is an infection of the gut and is passed on by contact with an infected person or by touching or eating something that has been handled by an infected person. Symptoms include watery diarrhoea, often with blood in the faeces, nausea and vomiting, stomach pains and fever. While medieval man was probably more resistant to it than we are today, it could still be fatal, and, even if it was not, a man’s ability to do his duty was severely affected. Many of the spearmen and archers would have been infested with worms, and colds and influenza would have been common. Malaria was then endemic throughout Europe but was more of a summer affliction, there being a lot fewer mosquitoes around in the winter.

On top of the health hazards, manning siege lines was boring and gave few opportunities for acquiring glory or loot. Hence there was a steady trickle of desertion by archers and spearmen, while many of the knights found excuses to return to England to sort out a land dispute or see to a son’s marriage. There was also a problem with the horses, which started to die off from the cold. Or so the chroniclers tell us, but, as horses grow a substantial winter coat and are very capable of surviving all but the most severe weather, it may have been an epidemic of strangles, or perhaps starvation: hay would have been running out and barley and rye intended for the horses may have been eaten by the men.

The French had still not faced up to the implications of what they termed la déconfiture de Crécy (the collapse of Crécy), but Philip could not ignore the English army camped around Calais, where determined attempts to lift the siege by sea had proved futile. In early 1347, the French vassals were ordered to muster their troops at Amiens by Whitsuntide (28 May in 1347). The troops did arrive, eventually, but it was not until July that the army was ready to move, and, when they did, Edward was understandably concerned. Although the summer weather had improved the health of his army, there was still a large number on the sick list; long months in the siege lines had induced boredom and low morale; many soldiers had lost their physical fitness and fighting edge; and in June a reinforcement of the healthiest 100 men-at-arms and 400 archers had been sent off to Dagworth in Brittany. Although this detachment weakened the Calais army, it was a highly cost-effective investment. Charles of Blois had reinstituted the siege of La Roche-Derrien, hoping that by so doing he could lure the English army into trying to lift the siege, which might allow him to fight and win a battle on his own terms. Instead, it was the French who suffered a crushing defeat, for on 20 June 1347 Sir Thomas Dagworth led a night attack on the French army dispersed around its siege lines and defeated it piecemeal. Sir Thomas himself was wounded and captured, escaped, then captured and escaped again. When dawn broke on 21 June, nearly half the French men-at-arms had been killed, and those nobles not killed had been captured, including Charles of Blois himself, whom Sir Thomas sold to the king for £3,500. At a stroke the whole balance of power in Brittany had been reversed and the foundations laid for the eventual success of the Montfort faction in the Breton war of succession.

Meanwhile, within Calais the siege was biting ever more sharply. The garrison had eaten all the horses and was starting on the cats and dogs, so Jean de Vienne expelled another 400 citizens who were not contributing to the defence. This time Edward did not permit them to pass through his lines; he refused them food and water, and let them die. Not everyone in the English camp agreed with this, but most did. By allowing the previous expellees to pass without hindrance, the English had given de Vienne a pain-free way of extending the siege by reducing his ration strength, and there was also the question of spies and messengers being sent out in the guise of refugees. It was a harsh decision, but the right one in the circumstances.

With the approach of the French army from Amiens, summonses were sent to England to recall knights on furlough and those who had gone back to buy horses to replace those that had died during the winter. In any siege the investing army had not only to worry about sallies from the defenders, but also to guard against the risk of being attacked from behind by a relieving force. The French army got as far as Sangatte, saw that the English were apparently soundly entrenched and well able to withstand an attack (which they probably were, but not as well able as it appeared), issued a half-hearted challenge to come out and fight, and then withdrew. The news of La Roche-Derrien had reached the army, the men were not enthusiastic after Crécy the previous year, and many saw no point in continuing the war. As they scuttled back to Amiens, they were followed up by a mounted party led by the earls of Lancaster and Northampton, who gave them no chance to rest or recover their appetite for a fight. Philip now ordered his divisions to disband.

Inside Calais, Jean de Vienne had hung on in the hope of relief, and with the withdrawal of Philip’s army that last chance was gone. A messenger was sent out offering to negotiate and Edward sent Sir Walter Manny in to parley. De Vienne said that he would surrender the town if the lives of the garrison and the property of the inhabitants were spared. Manny relayed the king’s orders that, in accordance with the customs of war at the time, the lives of a garrison that held out during a siege were forfeit. Only unconditional surrender was acceptable and Edward would do with soldiers and civilians as he wished. This policy was not popular with Edward’s own knights, who pointed out that to kill men for doing their duty could rebound on them in the future. The whole point of adhering to modern laws of armed conflict that protect prisoners of war is to ensure that the other side does the same, and Manny and the others were arguing that very same point. Eventually, the king gave way. It was relayed to de Vienne that the majority of the garrison and the civilians would be spared, but not their property, and six of the leading men of the town were to come to King Edward dressed only in their shirts and with nooses around their necks bearing the keys of the city.

On the morning of 3 August 1347, Calais surrendered, and what happened next became the stuff of the French legend-makers, desperate to produce some tale of heroism from the disastrous years of 1346 and 1347. The story goes that the six burgesses, led by Eustache de Saint-Pierre, who had supposedly volunteered for the task, came out of the city gates to find the whole English army drawn up on parade, with the king and his queen and senior officers seated on a platform. The emaciated party approached the platform and fell on their knees, and Saint-Pierre asked for mercy. Edward refused and ordered them to be beheaded. At once there began a murmuring among the senior officers – to execute the men at once was bad enough, to execute them unshriven would be disgraceful. Edward was unmoved, and only when the pregnant queen, Philippa of Hainault, pleaded piteously with him was he moved to spare their lives. The truth, though, is surely that this was a carefully prepared and rehearsed charade to show the world that Edward was capable of great mercy: a queen might well argue with her husband in private, but not in public; similarly, whatever advice the king’s senior commanders might proffer in the council chamber, they would not cross him in the presence of a beaten enemy. As it was, Saint-Pierre and his companions were indeed spared.

Jean de Vienne and the more prominent of the French knights were sent off to join the growing band of notables in the Tower, and all the buildings of Calais and their contents were now to be the property of King Edward. Despite the insignificance of Calais as a trading port, it turned out to be stuffed with riches of all descriptions, largely as a result of many years of piracy, and, once the majority of the inhabitants had been expelled with little more than what they stood up in, the spoils of victory were collected and doled out. It was said that there was not a woman in England who did not wear something taken from Calais. It was Edward’s intention to keep Calais, but rather than rule it as part of English France, it would become a colony, with English merchants and tradesmen encouraged to settle there permanently with the promise of free housing and land. Calais remained English for another 211 years, until it was lost through Tudor neglect and French guile in the reign of Mary Tudor.

Edward’s initial intention was to follow up the victories of Crécy and Calais by another great chevauchée, which might end the war once and for all. However, the army was tired after over a year of constant campaigning and money was once again in short supply, so, when the inevitable approach for negotiations was made through the offices of the French cardinals, Edward was prepared to listen. For the French, a truce was imperative: they had suffered serious reverses in Normandy, Aquitaine, Flanders and Brittany, and, wealthy though their nation was, they were short of cash to pay the army. Messengers sped between Calais and Amiens to try to get agreement – almost any agreement – that would end the fighting. The English were, of course, in much the stronger position, and, when a nine-month truce was signed at the end of September 1347, it left them in possession of all that they had gained and held.

The return home of Edward and most of his army was greeted with acclaim. Parliament agreed that the money had been well spent and the king’s personal position was enormously strengthened by his obvious prowess in battle. At the same time, the taking of Calais and its plantation by settlers were seen as providing England with an opportunity for trade and an entrance to Europe that did not depend upon Flemish support, which might not always be provided. On St George’s Day, 23 April 1348, the king founded the Order of the Garter, a chivalric order which would comprise but twenty-six members and be a close companionship of those who had proved themselves in battle; it was also intended to promote King Edward’s court as one just as glorious as any in Europe. The order was to be headed by the king and his successors, who would choose the membership, and there were only two stipulations: knights were not to fight each other and they could not leave the kingdom without the king’s permission. Of the twenty-six original members, eighteen were definitely present at the Battle of Crécy and the others had distinguished themselves in various ways. The order would have its chapel in Windsor Castle and would support a chantry of twelve priests and twenty-six ‘poor knights’ – originally men who had been captured by the French and who had had to sell their estates to purchase their freedom.

Eustace the Monk


From Sorcerer to Clergyman to Pirate to Admiral, the Remarkable Life of Eustace The Monk.

The loss of Normandy, which made the Channel into a new political frontier, combined with general political instability and uncertainty to produce just the conditions which favoured adventurous, entrepreneurial sailors in their enterprising activities. These men were useful to the various authorities because they were able to react spontaneously and exploit political situations immediately, as they unfolded. The other side of the coin was that they lost no opportunities to make profits on their own behalf. The earliest of these to be recorded was Eustace the Monk, a nobleman from Boulogne, who first appears in 1205. He is a somewhat legendary figure who filled the roles of both pirate and mercenary. His story is derived from a combination of some ten of the medieval chronicles, which included a ‘romance’, or biography, which was written in the Picardy dialect, but even that not until 1284, some seventy years after his death. The chronicles are notorious for dramatisation and exaggeration, and no doubt the stories became embellished in the telling as they were handed down from one generation to another. They contain many contradictions. As with other colourful, larger-than-life historical characters, including the medieval outlaw Robin Hood, in the story of Eustace fiction became well embedded in fact. The following account, based on three secondary sources which were themselves based on the chronicles, is what seems most plausible.

Eustace was born into a noble family near Boulogne, probably around 1170. It is said by the Romance (and only, it seems, by that one source) that in his youth he visited Toledo in central Spain, which had been under Moorish domination for some three centuries until 1085. There, he studied the Black Art so successfully that he was without equal in the whole of France. Be that as it may, he is said to have appeared in a variety of disguises and terrified his opponents who knew of his reputation for his ‘power to become invisible’ as well as for his violence. Early in his life he also spent some time as a monk in the abbey of Samer, near Boulogne, in spite of the fact that one record describes him as ‘demoniac’. But, however unsuited to that occupation he may have been, it must have been that which was used later on by chroniclers as a title by which to identify him. He escaped from that life, apparently leaving in 1190 when he heard that his father had been murdered, in order to pursue the murderer.

He is next heard of in the employment of the Count of Boulogne but he fell out with him and left, swearing vengeance. Outlawed from there, in 1205 he crossed the Channel to England and offered his services to King John. The king is said to have equipped Eustace with a number of galleys, who then established himself on the island of Sark, from where he could raid the coast of Normandy, encouraged by John, who was hoping for retribution, having so recently lost that duchy. During that time Eustace carried out at least one major and daring raid, in which he penetrated some distance inland up the Seine, and then escaped from his pursuers by retreating west to Barfleur. One account says that as a reward for that raid he was given a rich ‘palais’ in London, although another suggests that this ‘palais’ may in fact have been in Winchelsea, since that was his home port when in England. He was evidently receiving royal favours, and it seems that, one way or another, Eustace had also amassed a personal fortune, presumably on the proceeds of piracy.

Then, sometime between May 1212 and November 1214, he changed his allegiance for the second time. He crossed the Channel again, in order to support France. The reasons given for that move are contradictory. One source suggests that by 1212, having apparently overstepped the mark, he was expelled from the Channel Islands by the English keeper, Philip d’Aubigny, and escaped in disguise to France, taking five galleys with him. An alternative account of his defection says he went voluntarily. This seems not unlikely, as he would have been disenchanted with John’s vacillation and weakness as a leader, and simultaneously attracted by the more positive approach of Philip Augustus.

From 1211 onwards both kings were jockeying for positions in Flanders. John still hoped to reconquer Normandy, while Philip Augustus had designs on England. Both of them needed a stepping-off base in Flanders, especially access to the harbour of the Zwin, and to Flemish mercenaries. Early in 1213 the Pope, after a long altercation with John, excused his English subjects from their allegiance to him and strongly encouraged all Christian leaders to unite in efforts to depose him. This, as described by the chroniclers, gave Philip Augustus the justification he was seeking for planning an invasion of England.

Events then led up to the episode known as the Battle of Damme, perhaps better described as an important raid. In the spring of 1213, Philip Augustus moved his land forces north and invaded Flanders. He devastated Bruges and attacked Ghent, at the same time ordering a ‘large’ fleet to move north up the coast. How large this force really was is not known, but it probably consisted mainly of sailors from Poitou, who were far from home and by no means entirely dependable.

John, having decided the best form of defence was attack, sent his half-brother William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury, over at the head of a considerably smaller fleet to reconnoitre and, if possible, to intercept the French. They probably sailed in mid-April, and would have reached the mouth of the Meuse (the Zwin) in a couple of days, where Longsword was surprised to find the port full of vessels. Having established that the ships were indeed French, he took the opportunity to capture or burn the larger ones anchored out in the middle of the channel leading up to Damme while the sailors had apparently gone ashore to plunder what remained of the wealth of Bruges.

Hearing the news of this disaster and concerned particularly about the fate of his pay-chests which were on board one of the ships, Philip Augustus broke his siege of Ghent and hurried to Damme, where he found the remainder of his fleet, the smaller ships, still pulled up on the mud. However, confronted with the difficulty of getting those ships away from Damme in the face of the English fleet lying in wait outside, and mistrusting the mercenaries from Poitou, who might turn traitor and change sides at any moment, he burnt the rest of his own boats rather than let them fall into English hands. As a result, he was without a fleet and had to abandon any thoughts he may have had of invading England that year.

Although Philip Augustus could not prevent John landing in Flanders the following year, he defeated him and the armies of his allies, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Counts of Flanders and Boulogne, in a decisive battle (on land) at Bouvines, between Lille and Tournai. This was the first great encounter between alliances of medieval European powers, and has been described as one of the most important in the history of medieval Europe. From the point of view of operations in the Channel, not only was John repulsed and thrown back on the defensive, but the way was laid open for the French (who were now led, for diplomatic reasons to satisfy the Pope, not by Philip Augustus, but by Louis, his son) to pursue their plans to invade England. They were further encouraged by the political situation in England, where John’s tyranny was so intensely unpopular that a large faction of the English barons invited Louis to cross the Channel and claim the crown of England.

This was where Eustace, whose experience of dealing with ships and shipping, tides and currents in the Channel was evidently second to none, was indispensable. He was employed by Louis to assemble another substantial fleet, suitable for carrying a large force over to England. That was the official side of his activities. On the other side of the coin he played on his well-known personal reputation for inspiring uncontrolled terror, which was well illustrated by the caveat Philip Augustus gave to the papal legate, as reported by Matthew Paris, one of the more reliable of chroniclers: ‘Through our land I will willingly furnish you with a safe conduct, but if by chance you should fall into the hands of Eustace the Monk or of the other men of Louis who guard the sea-routes, do not impute it to me if any harm comes to you.’

In 1215, the year better known for the signing of Magna Carta, the international balance of power in the Channel was becoming critical and Eustace had begun preparations for their campaign. He took certain ‘machines of war’, possibly trébuchets, counter-weighted catapults to be mounted either on land or on the ships for throwing heavy stones at castles or onto the decks of enemy vessels, over to Folkestone to support the English barons. His fleet was then used to ferry Louis and his army over to Sandwich, of which they secured control in the summer of 1216. On 10 July Louis began to lay siege to Dover Castle but as that was skilfully defended by Hubert de Burgh, he failed to take it, and had to concede a truce on 14 October. Meanwhile, his forces went on to join up with the rebellious barons and together they gained control of a large area of north-east England.

At the same time, John’s fleet of galleys (incidentally one of the largest maintained by any of the medieval English kings) was feinting in the Channel with the French fleet. Considerable raiding and counter-raiding took place, but neither side seized an opportunity to confront the opposing fleet when they saw it emerging from port. It was easier to inflict damage on enemy shipping by raiding them while in port, with less likelihood of damage being sustained by the attacker.

In January 1217, in response to the critical situation, Philip d’Aubigny, described by then as a veteran seaman, was appointed to defend the coast of south-east England. According to one account, it seems that with the help of an irregular band commanded by one Willikin of the Weald, some of the Cinque Ports men managed to shut Louis up in Winchelsea. But at the end of February Eustace and the French broke out through that blockade. The town was apparently burnt, and one chronicler describes a dramatic rescue of Louis by Eustace.

Whatever the truth of those stories, Louis then spent some two months in France, during which time he lost some support in England. He returned to Sandwich at the end of April, and by 12 May he was besieging Dover once more, control of which was highly important to him. But while there, on 25 May, news came through that his land forces had been disastrously defeated in a battle at Lincoln. To compound his difficulties, most of his ships were driven back to Calais by a storm. Louis could do little without reinforcements. He proceeded to London while Eustace retired to Calais and gathered together a new fleet which had been rapidly reinforced with more ships by the energetic wife of Louis, Blanche of Castile. On 24 August, St Bartholomew’s Day, 1217, Eustace was sailing north up the coast of Kent at the head of this fleet, apparently bound for London in order to join up with Louis and the remaining land forces.

Having realised the very serious implications if the French reinforcements were to reach London, once the French had passed, Hubert de Burgh put to sea from Dover with a small fleet consisting mainly of royal galleys, reinforced by ships of the Cinque Ports. They started out on an eastern course, which gave the impression that they were making for Calais. But Hubert had a different object in mind. He made sure he had given himself the critical tactical advantage of having the wind and the sun behind him, and then turned north. The story goes that Eustace’s ship was the largest and was weighed down by a trébuchet, with the result that it was lagging behind the rest of the French fleet. Be that as it may, somewhere in the narrow space between Sandwich and the Goodwin Sands the English caught up with the French fleet and English crossbowmen began the action. They followed this by hurling pots of finely pulverised lime which blinded and paralysed the French, enabling the English sailors to board the French ships and slash down their rigging. As described by one of the chroniclers, this trapped everyone on deck ‘like a net [falling] upon ensnared small birds’. Eustace was found hiding in the ship’s bilges. Described by Mathew Paris as a ‘master-pirate’, he was a confidence trickster who in changing sides had inevitably made many enemies. He could expect no reasoned justice. He was brought out and summarily beheaded on his own ship, possibly by Richard, a bastard son of King John, possibly by Stephen Crabbe, a one-time friend whom Eustace himself had trained, who was now a rival pirate based at Sandwich To sum up, Eustace made the most of the opportunities offered by rapidly changing political circumstances. Very little is known of his life before 1204 but, in the light of what followed, he must have made very good use of that early period, becoming exceptionally proficient in everything concerned with sailing ships and with navigation in the eastern half of the Channel. This can only have been the result of extensive experience at sea. Courageous and fearless, he established a fearsome reputation among other mariners and also, it seems, respect among the national leaders. He was flexible and adaptable and, unhampered by any sense of long-term allegiance, he offered his services wherever and whenever adventure and commercial opportunity arose.

Was it a coincidence that he appeared in England almost as soon as John had lost Normandy? Probably not. He lacked one thing, and that was ships of his own. It is probable that he saw England as a good source of ships with which to follow his piratical inclinations. Then, when Philip Augustus began to plan to invade first Flanders and then England, and John was on the defensive, Eustace went over to the French side in search of an alternative source of ships, more profitable adventure, and probably greater rewards. In both instances his maritime experience proved indispensable, so much so that he seems to have had a hand in planning, and certainly in executing, the French invasion plans.

It was perhaps unfortunate for Eustace that he was eventually defeated by a chance combination of circumstances, by the determination and the political and strategic acumen of Hubert de Burgh, and by a direction of wind which, although it favoured his final voyage, also proved conclusively helpful to Hubert. If the French plan had succeeded, and had Eustace arrived in London to be greeted by rebellious English barons as well as Louis with the remnants of the French troops who had survived the Battle of Lincoln, France would have had a strong foothold in the contemporary turmoil of English politics, and the succession to the English throne might well have been different. As it was, John died in 1216, and his 9-year-old son, Henry III, succeeded to a throne which was independent of France, with William the Marshall as his first regent. After this period of acute uncertainty, the Channel was firmly established as a political frontier – and a good hunting ground for pirates.

Norman Invasion of Illyria


Norman cavalry.


Over a quarter century three popes, reluctantly, had come to the same conclusion: that it would be better to recognize, and try to guide, the growing Norman power in the south of Italy than to see it directed against their interests. Leo in 1053, Nicholas in 1059, and now Gregory in 1080, had each been obliged by the force of circumstances to confirm the Normans as vassals in the territories they had conquered. Each time, the extent of those territories had increased, as had the need of the papacy for Norman military help.

Pope Gregory, at Ceprano, had agreed to an alliance with the Normans, whom he had so long distrusted, only because he needed them, desperately, to counterbalance the military force that King Henry, finally victorious over the Saxons, was threatening to bring against the papacy. The pope’s only other major supporter in Italy, Duchess Matilda of Tuscany, could not spare enough troops to do more than guarantee the pontiff’s safety in still friendly Rome. But Henry was threatening to invade with a considerable force, aiming finally to obtain his coronation and an end to the papacy’s interference, as he saw it, in the affairs of the German church. Only the Normans- Jordan of Capua but particularly Robert Guiscard – could defend the pope and the reform movement (however tenuous Norman support for the reforms may in fact have been). It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that rumors began to circulate that summer that Gregory was planning to reward Guiscard by crowning him, rather than Henry, as emperor if he drove off the German threat.

Whatever the truth of those rumors may have been, Guiscard was not interested in such a farfetched scheme. He saw little advantage in getting involved in the complications of north European politics, much less as the pope’s creature. Ever ambitious and alert to opportunity, he wanted to keep his freedom of action. He was helped toward that objective by Henry himself, who suddenly handed him an excellent card to play. The king had renewed his courtship of Robert, urging him to desert the pope’s cause in return for investiture as imperial vassal in the March of Fermo, in the Abruzzi, plus offering a marriage alliance with the royal house – one of the available Hauteville daughters to King Henry’s son Conrad. However Guiscard, once again preferring to be a vassal of the militarily weak pope rather than giving the powerful emperor-designate cause to meddle in his activities, declined the new offer. He was, at the same time, careful to inform Pope Gregory of Henry’s offer (as well, of course, as his refusal), thereby gaining not only credit for loyalty, but also additional leverage over the increasingly anxious pontiff.

Even more importantly, Guiscard had more immediate plans, closer to hand. Although the pope had refused to confirm him as lord of Amalfi, Salerno, or in the March of Fermo, the ambiguous formula reached at Ceprano meant in reality that his possession of those lands had been recognized, as no one’s vassal. Robert intended to push forward, to reinforce and expand his domain by controlling more of the Abruzzi, and he considered that he needed neither the pope’s acquiescence nor the emperor’s license to continue his piecemeal advance. But even that would wait. For the present, he had still grander aspirations, well beyond Italy, and had even gotten Pope Gregory to bless them at Ceprano. Guiscard was planning to attack Byzantium itself.

Strategy as well as his always restless ambition had propelled Guiscard toward this new venture. His ambition was fueled by a mixture of admiration, envy and greed. Over the years, he and his fellow Normans had been powerfully affected by the rich culture, the administrative capabilities, the luxury, and the wealth of the empire from which they had stolen their lands. Almost twenty years of rule in heavily Hellenized Calabria had subtly affected Robert, to the degree that his initial interest in and appetite for Byzantium’s riches had grown into emulation of Byzantine ways. Such emulation, indeed, was politically useful, since adopting elements of eastern panoply and ritual was helping the Normans appear as the inheritors of Byzantium; it increased their legitimacy among their new subjects. Robert had even gone so far as to copy imperial motives into his own seals and otherwise present himself as the successor to the emperor; he used the title “dux imperator” and on major occasions wore copies of the imperial robes of state.

Almost as if to justify this presumption of his, Robert had, since1071, received a series of tentative approaches from successive emperors in Constantinople. Seeking because of their military weakness to bring their powerful neighbor into their diplomatic circle of influence, the emperors had suggested marriage alliances between the upstart Hautevilles and the imperial family. This was indeed heady stuff for a son of Tancred, the simple knight from Hauteville. By the terms of the marriage agreement that had finally been concluded with Basileus Michael in 1074, Robert had been promised the title of “nobelissimus,” only a step below that of Caesar, and would be entitled to wear the imperial purple. Even more enticingly, he could envisage that a descendant of his might some day sit on the throne in Constantinople.

However seductive the ideas of marriage ties with the rulers of Byzantium might be, they promised future benefit at best. For the present, the two states were still enemies. Byzantine agents and diplomacy were constantly at work to challenge Norman occupation of the lost Italian provinces. From Illyria, across the narrow Adriatic Sea, Byzantine governors were only too happy to offer asylum to Robert’s opponents, such as his troublesome nephews Abelard and Herman, or to finance and encourage any potentially seditious barons in Apulia.

Duke Robert’s proposed strategy was typically bold. The current weakness of Byzantium made it opportune to secure his hold in Italy by carrying the war into the empire and destabilizing his old enemies. Robert had been fighting the Byzantines since his arrival in Italy, and had defeated their armies often enough to be scornful of their military qualities. He had attacked the empire once before and been unsuccessful, but that had been merely a tactic to put them on the defensive. This time, he saw a chance to defeat his enemies, gain plunder, perhaps new lands, maybe even a throne. His newly developed naval power enabled him to take a major force across the sea, and to fight his old enemies in their own lands. The prospects were good, because the empire was in crisis; it had lost almost all of Anatolia to the Seljuks, and a new Basileus was faced with a chain of insurrections in his own military. Robert, sensing a moment of opportunity, began preparations for an invasion.

Guiscard also had a politically correct pretext to attack. Basileus Michael had recently been deposed, and the wedding alliance he had negotiated with the Hautevilles had been dishonored. The new emperor had packed off Robert’s daughter Helen to a convent, where she was being held as a pawn for a future move on the diplomatic chessboard. Robert must have been disappointed at the failure of the proposed marriage alliance; it had promised much. But he knew, all the same, that Constantinople’s politics were an uncertain thing: that Helen might never have sat on the throne, or given birth to a claimant to the throne even in the best of circumstances. Her status as virtual hostage, in fact, could even replace her intended marriage as a means to his ends. So he demanded that her rights, and his, under the old agreement be honored – even though the intended groom, Constantine, was as out of favor as his deposed father. When these demands were ignored or rejected, as the wily Guiscard had no doubt expected they would be, he demanded the release of his daughter, and began his preparations to invade if his demands were not met.

Guiscard embellished his pretext for intervention, in addition, by a somewhat transparent but useful fiction: he claimed that the deposed Michael had somehow escaped to Italy from his exile to a monastery. The purported Michael, by most accounts a wandering monk who had been drafted for the occasion, became a permanent attachment to Guiscard’s court, where he was treated with the deference due to a former emperor and advanced as the living justification for the coming expedition. Guiscard had even gotten poor Pope Gregory, at Ceprano, to support the claims of the counterfeit Basileus.

Preparations for the invasion of Illyria had, by the early spring of 1081, reached a climax. Robert had been able to raise a very substantial force because, for the first time in years, he had neither internal nor external threats to arm against. Roger, at the same time, was slowly but successfully subduing the remaining Muslim opposition in Sicily, and neither needed nor wanted Robert’s help on the island. Jordan of Capua, for the moment joined with Robert as an ally of the pope, was potentially trouble, but nowhere near the man his father had been; Robert doubtless felt he could readily take care of the young man if the need arose. The possibility that King Henry would invade, and his own duty to defend the pope in that event, was an unfortunate cloud on the duke’s horizon, but it could be treated as a distant threat. For the moment, Guiscard had the pope’s concurrence for the expedition, indeed his assistance, in the form of a letter of support addressed to the bishops of southern Italy.

He raised an exceptionally large force, consonant with his new power and wealth. It included contingents from his vassals but also many mercenaries: Muslims from Sicily, Greeks, Lombards, and adventurers from all over. In truth, the hired hands would be needed, because Robert’s vassals had shown themselves to be grudging supporters of an expedition that would, most likely, benefit Guiscard more than themselves. Nor did the taxes that the duke raised to pay for the expedition, or the hostages he took to assure the good behavior of his troublesome barons, increase the popularity of his effort. The mustering of the invasion force had consequently been almost a two-year affair. Ships had been mustered from his coastal cities, and still more hired from the Adriatic state of Ragusa; the naval contingent numbered a full 150 boats. Figures for the army, as usual, vary, but it was a force of over 1,000 knights, Normans and others who formed the nucleus, supported by as many as 20,000 soldiers and auxiliaries, siege engines, horses and supplies.

Duke Robert, still strong and magnificent at 64, was optimistic and an inspiration as usual to the gathering troops. His first son, the even more physically imposing Bohemund, was to be the second in command, and to lead the advance guard of the army into Illyria. Sichelgaita, often clad in armor like her husband, was with the army and a constant presence by Robert’s side, presumably as liaison to their son Roger, who was to be left in charge in Italy.’ All was ready, or almost so. And then, before the expedition could set sail, the political ground began to shift.

Suddenly, the situation in Constantinople had changed. The latest emperor had been overthrown in his turn, by the talented and energetic general Alexius Comnenus. Alexius had been friendly with the deposed Emperor Michael, and was, it was rumored, inclined to negotiate with Robert over his demands. In fact, an envoy whom Guiscard had sent to Constantinople over the winter had returned to Italy with a recommendation that Robert postpone his invasion in light of the changing situation, and the fact that Helen’s intended, Constantine, was likely to be restored to the purple as Alexius’ co-ruler. This was not news, however, that Robert wanted to listen to. His rage at hearing the advice of the envoy, an unfortunate Count Radulf, was reportedly monumental. He would not be deterred. He had invested too much in the expedition at that point to pull back, and to delay might allow Alexius to remove his pretext for invasion by returning Helen to her family, or exposing the false Michael. As Princess Anna Comnena wrote succinctly and dismissively a half century later,

That man Robert, who from a most inconspicuous beginning had grown most conspicuous and amassed great power, now desired to become Roman Emperor, and with this object sought plausible pretexts for ill-will and war against the Romans.’

In Italy, the situation was also changing. King Henry had finally begun his invasion, causing the pope to send messages of alarm, requesting that Robert come immediately to his aid. Robert could not ignore the pope’s pleas for help, but he had no intention of calling off his expedition so readily. He made a short trip to Tivoli, where he offered the pope a contingent of troops under his son and regent Roger Borsa, and reassured the pontiff that he would not fail him in the event of real need. But he refused to call off his expedition. As it happened, Robert’s judgment proved correct; Henry had come south with too few troops to do more than occupy the suburbs of Rome, as he did several months later. When the city proved loyal to the pope, Henry withdrew and no relief army was needed.

The Illyrian expedition indeed had already begun. The advance guard under Bohemund had left in April, rapidly capturing the port of Valona across the sea from Otranto, a situation that would provide an excellent bridgehead for the main army. The main force set sail in late May, joining with Bohemund’s contingent, and the combined force soon captured the island of Corfu, to the south of Valona. With the sea thus secured against a relief fleet coming from Constantinople, the invasion force was able to consolidate – the entire army did not cross until mid June because of storms- and then proceed northward up the coast to Guiscard’s initial goal, the capital city of Durazzo. It would take a serious siege to capture the town, which enjoyed a strong position on a high peninsula guarded by marshes on the land side. But Robert’s intelligence services were, as usual, aware of the enemy’s weaknesses, which in this case turned out to be the will of the city’s military commander, one George Monomachus. An appointee of the deposed emperor, Monomachus did not know how he stood with the new order in Constantinople, and had begun to negotiate with Robert’s envoys in an effort to save his own neck. It looked for a moment as if the city might fall to the Norman army without a fight.

Any optimism on this score was soon shown to be misplaced. The new Basileus, the Normans rapidly found out, was an adversary of a quality they had not seen for over a generation. Small, dark and unpreposessing, Alexius was the nephew of a previous emperor, one of the country’s best generals from a family of distinguished military leaders, and a man of shrewd and tenacious purpose. He, too, could act fast. In the present danger, he had taken two immediate steps to defend Durazzo. The first was to send a talented soldier, George Paleologus, to replace the wavering commander, Monomachus, and to harden the city’s defenses. The second was to appeal to the Venetians, the preeminent Adriatic naval power, for help in countering the Norman naval advantage. The Venetians knew they held a strong hand in those negotiations and drove a hard bargain, gaining unprecedented trade concessions in Constantinople in return for sending their battle-trained fleet to sea.

The Venetian navy appeared off Durazzo just in time, only days after the Norman army had arrived to invest the town. A fiercely fought naval engagement several days later demonstrated how great was the Venetian tactical superiority at sea. The Norman fleet was badly mauled, and from then on was obliged to limit its operations. The encirclement of Durazzo was incomplete. With the Venetian navy reinforcing the city’s defenses as well as hindering the Normans’ resupply efforts, and Paleologus energiz ing the Greek army, whatever advantage the Normans had had by their well-timed arrival had been lost. The city’s morale was maintained by the promise of a relief army, and the siege settled into a sort of stalemate, punctuated by fierce but indecisive engagements. The Normans could neither cut off the city nor breach the walls, since their siege engines, transported at such great effort from Italy, repeatedly proved ineffective against Paleologus’ determination and ingenuity in devising counter mechanisms.

The stalemate was broken in mid October, when Emperor Alexius arrived at the head of the long-promised relief army. Paleologus was able to join him at his camp outside the city, where a hasty war council was held. In the council, Paleologus argued for reinforcing the city and driving the Normans off through attrition. Disease in their camp, their supply problems, and the coming winter, he argued, would break the Norman siege in time, and more surely than a battle. He may have been right. Morale in the Norman camp was not high, and Robert had had little success to show his army, camped as it was on a hostile and unhealthy shore and trying to maintain a costly siege against a tenacious and now heavily reinforced enemy. But Alexius, too, had his problems; he could not count on the loyalty of his hastily recruited army over a long siege, and there was clamor in the capital for an immediate and decisive victory from the new emperor. Like Robert Guiscard, he was a man used to victory in battle, confident in his abilities, and capable of inspiring his troops to great effort. He chose to fight.

Robert drew up his army north of the city, its right wing with its motley assortment of mercenary detachments anchored against the sea where it could not be outflanked, and Bohemund on his left, inland of his own central detachment. In an effort to inspire a determined stand, moreover, he had burned the army’s boats and deployed it with a river to its back. The Byzantine army that formed ranks on the plain to attack the Normans encompassed a disparate collection of allied and mercenary troops cobbled together from a military still reeling from the disaster at Manzikert and repeated military insurrections. But it also contained elements of the empire’s elite units, the Bucellarion Guard and the imperial bodyguard of Varangians. The Varangians, in particular, were highly motivated. Now heavily manned by Anglo-Saxons driven from their native England by the Norman invaders there, they sought revenge in the coming fight for their fifteen years of exile.

As it was, in their eagerness to engage, the Varangians determined the course of the battle. Their initial attack, on the Norman right, was devastating. Against the onslaught of the Anglo-Saxons wielding their huge two handed axes, the Norman right wing, foot, and for once even the cavalry, collapsed.

A rout was narrowly avoided, partly because the river blocked the retreat of the Norman auxiliaries, but due also to the valiant efforts of heroic Sichelgaita. Fully armed and brandishing a spear, if Anna Comnena is to be believed, the warrior Duchess left her position by her husband’s side and rode toward the action, urging the fleeing soldiers to stand firm and shaming them, by word and example, to rally. Her efforts were rewarded, as the line stiffened once again and the Varangians, their charge finally exhausted, now found themselves in an exposed position well in advance of the Byzantine center. Meanwhile Bohemund, on the left, had seen relatively light action because an effort by the Bucellarion Guard to outflank him had been blocked by the river. He was able to send cavalry to the Norman right wing, where they fell on the now exposed Varangians and cut them down wholesale.

The battle was turned. A sortie from the city by Paleologus was beaten off, and now some of Alexius’ allies, notably the Serbians and Turks, began to desert the field. As the imperial army slowly, and then rapidly, dissolved, only the Varangians continued to hold their ground. The brave remnant of the proud but reckless detachment finally retreated to a small chapel, where they were burned to death by the now victorious Norman army. Alexius and George Paleologus, who had been cut off from his command when his sortie failed, were forced to flee among the remnants of the army, the emperor, according to his daughter Anna, barely escaping capture.

For the Byzantines, the defeat was humiliating, but not fatal. The Norman army, admittedly, was able to follow up its victory with relative ease. Marching along the great Roman Via Egnatia, the invaders had occupied most of Illyria by spring, even securing the surrender of the important fortress town of Kastoria in Macedonia. But Durazzo had succeeded in holding out until late February, falling in the end through the treachery of its foreign inhabitants rather than by assault. The Venetians continued to control the sea, harassing Norman communications and resupply efforts. After the fall of Kastoria, moreover, the Norman army had begun to lose its momentum and suffer from supply problems, disease, and attrition from the long field campaign.

The tenacious Alexius was determined to hold on and to confound his Norman opponent. Guiscard, for the first time, had met his match.

Ottonian Imperial Rule


Depiction of the Ottonian family tree in a 13th-century manuscript of the Chronica sancti Pantaleonis

The lack of a crowned emperor from 925 to 961 was largely due to the reluctance of the Theophylact popes to play their last card in their game against increasingly powerful kings of Italy. Hugo of Arles had been succeeded by Berengar II, margrave of Ivrea, who, by 959, had conquered Spoleto and was threatening Rome as the Lombards had done two centuries before. The best chance of relief appeared to be the Ottonians, who followed the Carolingians in eastern Francia from 919. Otto I had already made two botched attempts to assert authority in northern Italy between 951 and 952. He spent the next decade consolidating his hold over Germany, whilst carefully cultivating contact with bishops fleeing the troubles in Italy. Otto was determined to present himself as liberator, not conqueror, and thus worthy to be crowned emperor. His great victory over the heathen Magyars at Lechfeld in 955 convinced many contemporaries, including Pope John XII, that Otto was divinely favoured. Despite being unable to capture Berengar, Otto’s invasion of northern Italy succeeded in 961 and he was crowned emperor on 2 February 962.

Otto’s coronation did not ‘refound’ the Empire, nor create a new empire, since a sense of the original Carolingian realm had persisted and there had been plenty of individual emperors after Charlemagne. Nonetheless, his coronation was a significant event and clearly intended to put papal-imperial relations on a new, improved footing. To this end, Otto issued his own charter (the Ottonianum), confirming the ‘donations’ of Pippin and Charlemagne of extensive lands in central Italy to sustain the pope. As with his predecessors, Otto envisaged these lands remaining under his suzerainty. He likewise bound himself to protect the pope, to whom he transferred large amounts of gold and silver, receiving numerous holy relics in return for his programme of Christianization north of the Alps.

Otto’s ‘Roman expedition’ (Romzug) lasted three years and already displayed all the features shaping subsequent imperial interventions in medieval Italy. The convergence of interests facilitating Otto’s coronation was insufficiently stable for prolonged papal-imperial collaboration. Emperors wanted popes to possess sufficient personal integrity not to demean the imperial honour they conferred, but otherwise to be pliant executors of the emperor’s will. In Otto’s case, this included the controversial elevation of Magdeburg to an archbishopric. Like his successors, Pope John XII wanted a protector, not a master, and he rebelled against the ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ of Ottonian emperorship by conspiring with Berengar and the Magyars in 963. The next moves established the template for subsequent emperors towards disobedient pontiffs. Otto returned to Rome, while John fled to Tivoli. After a brief exchange of letters failed to restore harmony, Otto convened a synod in St Peter’s, which deposed John on the grounds of murder, incest and apostasy – a charge sheet sufficiently grievous to justify the first ever deposition of a pope, and one that became standard for such actions in the future. Otto confirmed Lothar I’s papal constitution of 824, allowing the Roman clergy a fairly free choice in electing Leo VIII as replacement in December 963.

Deposition was the easy part. As Otto and his successors soon discovered, it was extremely hard to maintain their own pope without firm local support, which, for the next century or so, meant the backing of the Roman clans, Italian lords and bishops. John was still at large, creating a papal schism that threatened the integrity and legitimacy of the church. The Romans rebelled as soon as Otto left their city in January 964, allowing John to return and hold his own synod to depose his rival. Leo was restored by force later that month, expelling John, who died in May – allegedly in the arms of a married woman, another story typical of the mudslinging during later papal schisms. What followed merely underscored the intractability of the problem. The Romans elected Benedict V as their own anti-pope. Enforcement of Leo VIII was now a matter of imperial prestige. Otto besieged Rome until the starving inhabitants handed over the unfortunate Benedict, who was demoted and packed off as a missionary to Hamburg. Otto sent two bishops to oversee a new election following Leo’s death in March 965, but the successful candidate was in turn expelled by another Roman revolt nine months later. The emperor was obliged to return personally, crushing Roman opposition in December 966. The socially inferior were executed, while the rich were exiled. Those who had died in the meantime were disinterred and their bones scattered in what was clearly intended as exemplary punishment.

Subsequent opposition drew an equally harsh response. The leader of the Crescenti clan was beheaded and hung by his feet along with 12 supporters in 998. Simultaneously, anti-pope John XVI was blinded, mutilated and forced to ride through Rome seated backwards on a donkey. A riot after Henry II’s coronation in Pavia as king of Italy in 1002 ended in a massacre by imperial troops in which the city burned down. Further rioting after the imperial coronation of 1027 prompted Conrad II to force the Romans to walk barefoot, though this time they were spared execution. This ‘German fury’ (furor teutonicus) reflected general attitudes to justice in the Empire, which permitted harsh punishment of those who ignored opportunities to negotiate, or who rebelled having been previously pardoned. It also betrayed the basic strategic weakness of the imperial presence in Italy throughout the Middle Ages. Rome was not a pleasant billet for an imperial army. The nearby pestilent marshes made their presence felt each summer through malaria epidemics. That of 964 killed the archbishop of Trier, the duke of Lorraine and a sizeable part of Otto’s army. Campaigns in southern Italy often encountered the same problem: malaria killed both Otto II (983) and Otto III (1002), while Conrad II lost his wife and most of his troops to disease in 1038. Losses were hard to take, because Ottonian and Salian armies were quite small. While they did have some capacity for laying sieges, Italy was a land of numerous, well-fortified cities. Violent shock and awe appeared a quick fix to these problems, but as later regimes have discovered, it generally alienated local support and discredited those who used it.

The Ottonians could usually muster armies of 2,000–8,000 . Practical difficulties of movement and supply inhibited large troop concentrations for long periods. A royal army would be composed from the king’s own retinue and those of his lords who were close allies or who had answered his summons. The king’s force would be supplemented by contingents provided by the lesser lords and communities of the immediate area where it was operating. Larger numbers of less-experienced and poorly trained men could be summoned locally for specific tasks, especially if major sieges were undertaken. These numbers grew largely thanks to the rise in population and production across the eleventh century. Frederick I’s army on the Third Crusade in 1190 was considered huge by contemporaries; it probably numbered 15,000 including 3,000 knights – still far short of the hundreds of thousands some chroniclers claimed.

It is unlikely that Ottonian commanders needed to read transcriptions of late Roman military manuals in order to know how to fight; their Slavic and Magyar opponents certainly did not, yet were frequently successful. It is highly speculative to blame Ottonian defeats on supposed failure to follow such advice, while attributing successes to allegedly having done so. Later graduates of European military academies could make elementary mistakes, despite their formal training. In addition to oral tradition and actual experience, tasks like economic management and the self-confidence that generally comes with elevated social status would all have prepared Ottonian nobles for command. In short, change across the period from 800 to 1100 was by degrees rather than absolute. Written culture may have contracted around 900, but had never been widespread, while the level of contraction itself has been exaggerated.

Few written documents were intended as universal laws. General laws were already considered fixed by moral and religious absolutes that could not be altered by mortals. Most documents issued in the name of German kings before early modernity were charters (Urkunden) regulating local, specific circumstances, and are better understood as ‘privileges’ rather than ‘laws’. They illustrate how much royal activity was reactive, rather than planned: charters were usually issued at the request of their recipient. Written documentation had yet to assume precedence over other forms of legitimation like custom. Except for intellectual exchanges between scholars, during the Middle Ages most letters were destroyed after they had been read, in contrast to early modernity, when even mundane items such as bills and receipts were often preserved. When Frederick I wanted to know how to greet Pope Hadrian IV in 1155, he asked the oldest princes in his camp who had been present at the last imperial-papal meeting 22 years earlier. Their recollections carried equal weight with formal recorded protocols. The relatively low volume of paperwork reduced the potential for conflict by making inconsistencies between claims and practice less obvious.

Battle of Fontenoy June 25, 841



The largest, bloodiest, and most destructive battle of the ninth century began at 6 in the morning on Saturday, June 25, 841, at Fontenoy-en-Puisaye, now a tiny village 22 miles (35 kilometers) south of Auxerre in France. Exactly how many men took part is uncertain. We know that probably between 25,000 and 30,000 were killed and many more injured, which indicates large armies and extreme violence. This battle was fought as part of what German historians call the Brüderkrieg, “brother war.” Emperor Lothar fought on one side against his brother Louis the German and their half-brother Charles the Bald on the other. All were sons of Louis the Pious, and this was just one incident in the long civil war fought between them. The battle signaled the end of any possibility of restoring the unified empire stretching across France, Germany, the Benelux countries, Italy, and northern Spain that the three combatants’ father, Louis the Pious, had inherited from his father, Charlemagne. After the Battle of Fontenoy, the possibility of an ordered state and good government vanished in Western Europe.

The battle didn’t have to end in such bloodshed. According to Nithardus’s reliable Four Books of Histories, Charles and Louis had spent the previous three days negotiating with Lothar, begging him “to remember that they were brothers  . . . [and] asking him ‘to leave the Church of God and the whole Christian people in peace.’” They offered him generous terms. Nithardus, a well-educated public official and soldier in the service of Charles the Bald, says that Lothar equivocated. Pretending to consider Charles and Louis’s pleas, he was actually playing for time, awaiting the arrival of troops under Pippin II of Aquitaine. Once Pippin arrived, Lothar broke off negotiations. So “Louis and Charles rose at dawn, occupied the peak of a mountain [it was actually a low hill] near Lothar’s camp . . . and waited for Lothar’s arrival and the striking of the second hour [6 a.m.]. . . . When both had come they fought a violent battle.”

The actual battlefield was a flat expanse surrounded by low hills. There seem to have been two interrelated fronts, as Charles and Louis attacked Lothar from separate low hills. Leading any of the armies at Fontenoy would have been difficult because tenth-century armies were not the highly organized and disciplined forces with clear lines of authority that we know today. The emperor or king would have been the overall leader, but his armies were made up of diverse units led by local warlords. Unused to cooperation with others, some of whom would have previously been their enemies, warlords would have found it difficult to submit to the king’s instructions. The desire to achieve glory by exhibiting heroics would have been far stronger than any sense of discipline and obedience to the commander. Even though well trained and in good physical condition, the foot soldiers as well as the warlords would have been psyched up to enhance their reputation as warriors.

Tactics in this era were generally consistent from battle to battle. Action would begin with the terrifying war cries of foot soldiers. The core of the infantry was the Heerbann, a kind of trained militia. They usually opened the battle by moving forward in close formation protected by a strong shield wall. Their basic weapon was a long-handled throwing ax. Some wore light armor and used a stabbing sword. When the commander decided the time was right, he would order a mass charge of mounted knights, or any man who could afford a horse. Wearing body armor and carrying a spear as their primary offensive weapon and a shield for defense, the mounted troops usually rode sturdy Barb horses, a strong, wiry breed with a fiery temperament and good turn of speed, ideal for cavalry charges. Large massed cavalry charges would be followed by the kind of mounted hand-to-hand conflict between horsemen with swords that led to many of the injuries and deaths.

The Battle of Fontenoy proceeded indecisively for hours. It wasn’t until about noon that finally a cavalry charge broke through Lothar’s lines. This was followed by the bulk of the slaughter, in which many of the elite of the Frankish nobility were killed. According to the Annals of Saint-Bertin (which was sympathetic to Louis and Charles), “Many were slain on both sides; still more were wounded. Lothar suffered a shameful defeat and fled. The slaughter of fugitives continued . . . until Louis and Charles, aflame with generous feelings, ordered an end to the carnage.”

Nithardus, who fought in the battle, says, “The booty and slaughter were immense and truly astonishing.” According to his telling, Charles and Louis “ceased fighting and plundering and returned to camp . . . to talk over what they ought to do next.” Next day they celebrated Mass, and the bishops who accompanied the armies asked for prayers and a three-day fast for the remission of the sins of both sides. While violent in combat, Frankish foot soldiers were otherwise generally well disciplined, sober, and religious, believing that God was on their side. They were supported by a well-organized commissariat. Accompanying this was a bevy of camp followers, including merchants who supported the army with supplies and brought women who prepared food and did other tasks and who acted as prostitutes when needed. The merchants always defended their supplies, and they were notorious for being drunken, lecherous, and foul-mouthed.

Fontenoy was unlike modern battles. It was not the impersonal, industrial-style modern warfare of World Wars I and II. It was man-to-man, one-on-one combat with long (5-foot, or 1.5-meter) and short (3-foot, or 1-meter) swords, spears, and lances (6 feet, or 2 meters), daggers (6 inches to 1 foot long), and crossbows and hand axes, all weapons that inflicted terrible wounds. Alain Mounier Kuhn has examined many medieval sources describing wounds and has found that more than half were to head, face, and neck. The most effective weapons were lances, swords, and bows and arrows. Body armor seems to have protected the torso, so most injuries were to the upper body, and Kuhn says that many injuries seem to have been sustained when soldiers were unable to defend themselves. It was personal and brutal, kill or be killed. Part of the explanation for this kind of fighting was that people then were much more easily stirred up emotionally, violence was more generally accepted, and, as noted earlier, personal self-control was in short supply. Also, a warrior satisfied his lust for glory by killing, while at the same time believing that God was on his side. And given the nature of the weapons used (with the exception of longbows or crossbows), the only way the warrior could kill someone was up close and personal. Many also died soon afterward of the terrible slashing wounds inflicted, especially in light of ninth-century medicine. For many it would have been better to have been killed outright.

Siege of Rochester Castle I


Rochester Castle

On 11 October 1215, a crack troop of a hundred knights arrived at the gates of Rochester Castle and demanded to be admitted. The constable of the castle, Sir Reginald de Cornhill, did not hesitate, for he had been expecting them. The drawbridge was lowered, the doors swung open, and the horsemen swept inside.

These men were rebels, come into Kent on a highly dangerous mission. Earlier in the year, along with scores of other noblemen, they had seized control of London in defiance of their king. In recent days, however, they had started to sense that the tide was turning against them, and had therefore decided to take action. Selected by their fellows as the bravest and most skilled in arms, they had ridden south-east to open up a second front. If London was to hold out, they knew they had to distract the king, and draw his fire away from the capital.

Their plan, in this respect, was brilliantly successful. Two days later, a royal army drew up outside the walls of Rochester. King John had arrived.

John was the youngest son of Henry II, and the runt of his father’s litter. He is familiar to all of us as the bad guy from the Robin Hood stories – the snivelling villain who betrayed his elder brother, ‘Good’ King Richard the Lionheart, and made a grab for the English throne. It will hardly surprise most people to learn that this picture of John is a caricature – the Robin Hood legends originated long after the king was dead. Nevertheless, even if we scrape off all the mud that has been flung at John over the centuries, he still emerges as a highly unpleasant individual, and a man unsuited to the business of ruling. Contemporaries might not have recognized the hideous, depraved monster of legend, but they would have acknowledged the basic truth of the matter – John was a Bad King.

To find out what people really thought about King John, we have to leave the stories of Robin Hood, and turn instead to another piece of writing, very different but no less famous. In 1215, shortly before they set off to seize Rochester Castle, John’s enemies compiled a list of complaints about him, and presented it to the king in the hope of persuading him to behave better in the future. The list was drawn up in the form of a charter and, because it was so long, the charter itself was very big. People soon started referring to it simply as the Big Charter; or, in Latin, Magna Carta.

So, by looking at Magna Carta, we can work out why people were annoyed with King John. What aggravated them most, it seems, was the way in which he constantly helped himself to their cash; the first clauses of the Charter are all concerned with limiting the king’s ability to extort money. In 1204, five years into his reign, John had suffered a major military and political disaster when he lost Normandy, Anjou and Poitou to the king of France. These provinces had formed the heart of John’s empire, and trying to get them back had kept him busy for the past ten years. Ultimately, however, by plotting his recovery, John was paving the way to his own downfall. The cost of building an alliance to strike back against the French king was enormous, especially because it was John’s misfortune to rule at a time when inflation was causing prices (of mercenaries, for example) to soar. With increasing frequency, John passed the costs on to his English subjects, imposing ever greater and more frequent taxes, fining them large sums of money for trivial offences, and demanding huge amounts of cash in return for nothing more than his grace and favour. Very quickly, John managed to create a situation where the people who didn’t want him in charge outnumbered those who did – a dangerous scenario for any political leader.

In some respects, however, the rebellion that the king faced in 1215 was not entirely his own fault. Both his father and his brother had governed England in much the same fashion, expanding their power at the expense of the power of their barons. One very visible way of measuring their success is by looking at their castles. At the start of Henry II’s reign in 1154, only around 20 per cent of all castles in the country were royal. The two decades before Henry’s accession had seen a proliferation of private castles (mostly motte and baileys) built without the king’s consent. One of Henry’s first actions as king was to order (and, where necessary, to compel) the destruction of such fortifications. Moreover, Henry and his sons, as we have seen, built new castles – big, impressive stone towers like Newcastle, Scarborough, Orford, and Odiham. By the time of John’s death, the ratio of royal castles to baronial ones had altered drastically; almost half the castles in England were in royal hands. Castles, therefore, provide a good index of the king’s power against the power of his barons.

It is evident that the rebels brought long-term grievances such as this to the negotiating table in 1215, because John tried to address them in Magna Carta.

‘If anyone has been dispossessed without legal judgement from his lands or his castles by us,’ the king said, ‘we will immediately restore them to him.’

But John went on to add that his subjects should make allowances for anyone who had been similarly dispossessed ‘by King Henry our father, or King Richard our brother’. Such hair-splitting, however, ignored the basic truth of the matter, which was that Henry and Richard were simply better kings than John. They were skilled warriors, while he was condemned for his cowardice. Although he proved a capable administrator (John could be dynamic and efficient when it came to collecting taxes), he was a bad manager, unfit to command the loyalties of his leading subjects, unable to check or channel their ambitions, and uneven in his distribution of rewards. Most of all, John was just an unpleasant guy. He sniggered when people talked to him. He didn’t keep his word. He was tight-fisted and untrusting. He even seduced the wives and daughters of some of his barons. Henry and Richard might have acted unfairly from time to time, but overall people liked them; almost nobody liked John.

It was John’s personality, in the end, that doomed Magna Carta to failure. There was little point in persuading John to make such an elaborate promise, because he was bound to try and wriggle out of it. Sure enough, no sooner had negotiations ended than the king was writing to the Pope, explaining how the Charter had been forced out of him, and asking for it to be condemned. By the time the Pope wrote back, however, John’s opponents had already worked out for themselves that Magna Carta was not worth the parchment it was written on. The king would never keep his promises, and they had no way of compelling him to do so. They too abandoned the Charter as a solution, in favour of the much simpler plan of offering John’s crown to someone else. By the autumn of that year, both the king and the rebels were openly preparing for war.

This war was eventually fought right across the country. The South-East of England, however, and especially Kent, was the most important arena of conflict, because both parties were seeking assistance from the Continent. The rebels, for their part, had decided to offer the crown of England to Prince Louis, eldest son of the king of France. They had already made overtures to him in the course of the summer, and were hoping he would soon arrive and stake his claim in person, bringing with him much-needed reinforcements. John, meanwhile, was also looking across the Channel for help, but in his case from Flemish mercenaries. The king had recently despatched his recruiting agents overseas, and was hovering anxiously on the south coast, trying to secure the loyalty of the Channel ports, and waiting for his soldiers of fortune to arrive.

In such circumstances, control of Rochester Castle, which stood at the point where the main road to London crossed the River Medway, became all-important. John understood this as well as anyone, and for this reason had been trying to get his hands on the castle since the start of May, when the rebellion against him had first raised its head. The king had already written to the Archbishop of Cantebury twice, asking, in the nicest possible way, if he would mind instructing his constable to surrender the great tower into the hands of royal representatives. Both times, however, the request fell on deaf ears. The archbishop was one of John’s leading critics and, realizing only too well what the king’s intentions were, had promptly done nothing. Likewise, there was no love lost between the king and Rochester’s constable, Sir Reginald de Cornhill. He was one of the hundreds who were heavily in debt to the Crown, and John had recently deprived him of his job as Sheriff of Kent. Cornhill’s response was probably more decisive; the likelihood is that he got a message through to the rebels in London, pledging his support, and expressing his willingness to help them.

When they realized that Rochester was theirs for the taking, the rebels in London formulated their plan. A detachment of knights would be sent to occupy the castle and hold it against John, and the man to lead it would be Sir William de Albini. Sir William is quite a dark horse: we don’t have a great deal of information about him. Of course, the fact that he was chosen (or volunteered) to lead the mission indicates that he must have been a skilled and respected warrior. One contemporary writer calls him ‘a man with strong spirit, and an expert in matters of war’. More puzzling is the fact that he does not seem to have had any of the personal grudges harboured by John’s other opponents. On the one hand, he was clearly one of the leaders of the rebellion: back in the summer he had been named as one of the twenty-five men who were to enforce Magna Carta. On the other hand, Albini only joined the other rebels a week before the Charter was drafted. Whatever his own motivation for taking up arms against his king, in the weeks that followed there was no doubt about the strength of his commitment to the rebel cause.

Albini and his companions arrived at Rochester on a Sunday. On entering the castle, they found to their alarm that the storerooms were badly provisioned. Not only were they short on weapons and ammunition; there was, more worryingly, an almost total lack of food. They quickly set about remedying the situation, plundering the city of Rochester for supplies. In the event, however, their foraging operation only lasted forty-eight hours. By Tuesday, John and his army were outside the castle gates.

In such circumstances, we might not necessarily expect there to have been much of a fight. Just because one side in a dispute occupies a castle, and the other side turns up outside with an army, it does not automatically follow that a siege must take place. The defenders inside a castle might peer over their battlements at a colossal army, rapidly calculate the odds, and conclude that surrender is in their own best interests. Likewise, in many cases the prospective besieger will roll up with his army, assess the defences to be far too strong to break, and move on to take easier, softer targets. In this dispute, however, with each side playing for the highest stakes, and Rochester being so crucial to their respective plans, the king and his enemies exhibited an uncommon degree of determination. The rebels in the castle, in spite of their poor provisions, decided they were going to tighten their belts and stick it out. King John, pitching his camp outside the castle, looked up at the mighty walls of Rochester, and vowed he was going to break them. The scene was set for a monumental siege.

Ralph of Coggeshall, provides us with an account of the preliminary encounter between John and the rebels. The king’s aim on arriving in Rochester was to destroy the bridge over the Medway, in order to cut off his enemies from their confederates in London. On the first attempt he failed; his men moved up the river in boats, setting fire to the bridge from underneath, but a force of sixty rebels beat them back and extinguished the flames. On their second attempt, however, the king’s men had the best of the struggle. The bridge was destroyed, and the rebels fell back to the castle.

This kind of reporting is invaluable, and some of the additional details that Ralph provides are no less compelling (he tells us, for instance, in the shocked tones that only an outraged monk can muster, how John’s men stabled their horses in Rochester Cathedral).

For the first time in English history, however, we do not have to rely entirely on writers like Ralph. From the start of John’s reign, we have another (and in some respects even better) source of information. When John came to the throne in 1199, the kings of England had long been in the habit of sending out dozens of written orders to their deputies on a daily basis. But John made an important innovation: he instructed his clerks to keep copies. Every letter the king composed was dutifully transcribed by his chancery staff on to large parchment rolls, and these rolls are still with us today, preserved in the National Archives. The beauty of this is that every letter is dated and located. Even if John’s orders were humdrum, we can still use them to track the king wherever and whenever he travelled. We know, for example, that on 11 October the king was at Ospringe, and that by 12 October he had reached Gillingham. His first order at Rochester was given on 13 October, and on the following day, he wrote to the men of Canterbury.

‘We order you,’ he said, ‘just as you love us, and as soon as you see this letter, to make by day and night all the pickaxes that you can. Every blacksmith in your city should stop all other work in order to make [them]… and you should send them to us at Rochester with all speed.’

From the outset, it seems, John was planning on breaking into Rochester Castle by force.

In the early thirteenth century, siege warfare was a fine art with a long history, and a wide range of options were available to an attacker. Certain avenues, however, were closed to John, because the tower at Rochester had been deliberately designed to foil them. The fact that the entrance was situated on the first floor, and protected by its forebuilding, ruled out the possibility of using a battering ram. Equally, the tower’s enormous height precluded any thoughts of scaling the walls with ladders, or the wheeled wooden towers known as belfries. Built of stone and roofed in lead, the building was going to be all but impervious to fire. Faced with such an obstacle, many commanders would have settled down and waited for the defenders to run out of food. John, however, had neither the time nor the temperament for such a leisurely approach, and embarked on the more dangerous option of trying to smash his way in. But simply getting close enough to land a blow on the castle was going to be enormously risky. We know for a fact that the men inside had crossbows.

Crossbows had been around since at least the middle of the eleventh century, and were probably introduced to England (along with cavalry and castles) at the time of the Norman Conquest. In some respects, they were less efficient killing machines than conventional longbows, in that their rate of ‘fire’ was considerably slower. To use a longbow (the simplest kind of bow imaginable), an archer had only to draw back the bowstring to his ear with one hand before releasing it; with a crossbow, the same procedure was more complicated. The weapon was primed by pointing it nose to the ground, placing a foot in the stirrup and drawing back the bow with both hands – a practice known as ‘spanning’. When the bowstring was fully drawn, it engaged with a nut which held it in position. The weapon was then loaded by dropping a bolt or ‘quarrel’ into the groove on top, and perhaps securing it in place with a dab of beeswax.