A Brief History of WMDs before 1900

This is a Mongol style siege but not the siege of Kaffa [Caffa] from the early 14th century Jami al-Tawarikh  (Compendium of Chronicles) by Rashid ad-Din.  Edinburgh University Library

Transmission from Kaffa. (Wheelis, 2002)

In terms of referring to nuclear, chemical-and by inference, biological-weapons, the term “weapons of mass destruction” first came into use in 1956 when it was used in a speech by Soviet Red Army Marshal Georgi Konstantinovich Zhukov. In fact, it was this speech that highlighted for U. S. policy makers the real or perceived threat from the Soviet Union, particularly in terms of the latter’s presumed arsenal of chemical and biological weaponry. As such, Zhukov’s speech invigorated United States Cold War research into WMD, including biological weaponry. During the Cold War, the United States-and, to a much greater extent, the Soviet Union-amassed large chemical and biological weapons stockpiles. The threat posed by these stockpiles has diminished greatly since the crumbling of the Berlin wall.

Regional threats posed by state-funded militaries from chemical and biological weapons also have declined. By the end of 2003, the U. S. government had admitted that there was little evidence that Iraq had possessed large chemical or biological weapon stockpiles after the mid-1990s. This has since led both the United States and British governments to begin inquiries into the faulty prewar intelligence on Iraq that was in large part the basis for justifying Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003. Other regional threats, however, still remain. Among these, states such as Syria and North Korea are suspected of possessing chemical and biological weapons. Their bellicose posture regarding their immediate neighbors and regional rivals, as well as their possession of long-range delivery systems (such as Scud missiles), make these threats impossible to ignore. By contrast, Libyan leader Mohamar Qaddafi stated in early 2004 that he would renounce the possession of WMD, which demonstrates how quickly the threat of weapons of mass destruction seems to rise and fall on the global agenda.

The historical record shows that mass poisonings and the occasional plot to spread disease among armies and civilian populations go back many centuries. Still, chemical and biological warfare (CBW)-sometimes referred to in military parlance as “bugs and gas”-is essentially a modern phenomenon. It is modern in the sense that the science and industry required to produce these types of WMD have only existed since the early 1900s. However, there may indeed have been designs to use chemical or biological agents as a means of warfare (or possibly terrorism) before the Industrial Revolution. Before the late nineteenth century (the time of Louis Pasteur and many developments in chemistry), however, the requisite scientific knowledge and engineering capacity were insufficient to bring any such ideas to fruition. Obviously, this is no longer the case.

Many books and articles that discuss CBW often introduce the subject by bringing up past examples of chemical or biological warfare. In an excellent introduction to chemical weapons, a short book published by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army discusses a case of CW (chemical warfare) from China’s early history: In the Zuochuan, it is written that in the sixth century to about the fifth century B. C. E., “An official of the noble princes of the Xia, came from the Jin to attack the [forces of] Qin, and poisoned the Jing River, killing more than a division of men.” Another case is cited: “In the year 1000 [ C. E.], there was one named Tangfu, who made poi- son fire grenades and gave them to the Chao court of the Song dynasty. The poisonous smoke ball, containing arsenic oxide (As 2 O 3 ) and a type of poison derived from crotonaldehyde, looked a bit like a precursor to a chemical gas grenade. After alighting, this weapon would issue forth smoke to poison the enemy and thus weaken their ability to fight.”

These same authors also point out that this is a far cry from what one expects in modern times, for back then chemical warfare “was just in its infancy, and not only were its methods crude but its utility in actually killing people was limited. Because of this, chemical weapons were regarded as a method to generally assist in conducting warfare, and at the time did not draw any particular attention. Coming into the recent era, as the developments in technology continued, chemical weapons then really began to demonstrate their real menace.”

Another premodern military tactic that is often described as a form of BW (biological warfare) is the siege of Kaffa (1346 C. E.), in modern Feodosia, Ukraine. During a campaign by Mongol forces to defeat a heavily defended city of mostly Genoese merchants, bubonic plague struck the area: “The Tartars died as soon as the signs of disease appeared on their bodies: swellings in the armpit or groin caused by coagulating humors, followed by a putrid fever. The dying Tartars, stunned and stupefied by the immensity of the disaster brought about by the disease, and realizing that they had no hope of escape, lost interest in the siege. But they ordered corpses to be placed in catapults and lobbed into the city in the hope that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside. . . .” We note here that “stench” was considered in the pre-germ theory era to be responsible for disease. Thus, miasmas, “noxious effluvia,” or “corrupt vapors” (febres pestilentiales) were synonymous with the spread of deadly epidemics-plague (causative organism: Yersinia pestis) being among the most notorious.

The suggestion later made by historians that the Mongols were in fact able to spread bubonic plague by hurling disease-ridden corpses over the fortress walls is an intriguing one. During the fourteenth century, however, a germ theory of disease did not exist. How would the people of that era have known exactly how the disease could spread? What they could not have known is that bubonic plague is spread by fleas, which collect the bacteria Yersinia pestis (the causative organism of plague) through feeding upon infected rats. Fleas do not linger near the body once the temperature of the host (be it rodent or human) cools following death, making it rather unlikely that the cadavers would have done much to spread the plague. In the end, it was not the use of projectile cadavers, but more likely the exceptionally large rat population around the Black Sea that led to a pandemic throughout the region (and indeed much of Europe). One could probably conclude, however, that the Mongols did have the intent to spread disease among their enemy, and at least in this respect they conducted an early form of BW.

Sixth Century B. C. Assyrians reportedly used ergot fungus (Claviceps purpurea) to poison their enemy’s water wells

431-404 B. C. Spartan armies use sulfur and toxic arsenic smoke during Peloponnesian War

Fourth Century B. C. Chinese engineers use arsenic against underground sappers.

Circa 200 B. C. Officers in Hannibal’s army adulterate the wine of African rebels with mandrake, which contains belladonna alkaloids causing hallucinations.

187 B. C. Ambraciots (Greece) employ irritating smoke against Roman soldiers

7th Century C. E. The Byzantine architect, Callinicus (“Kallinikos”), reportedly invents the first liquid incendiary-“Greek Fire.”

Circa 1040 Scottish king poisons wine using a belladonna-like (“sleepy nightshade”) herb and gives to Norwegian enemies as “provisions” under pretense of surrender. Scots then slaughter the incapacitated Norwegians.

1347 Mongolians lay siege to Kaffa (in modern Ukraine) and throw corpses over city walls to spread bubonic plague. May have contributed to Black Death, which killed approximately 50 million people through the fourteenth century.

1672 Bishop of Münster attempted the use of atropine-like drug in grenades in siege against city of Groningen. Attack backfires.

1767 British plot to supply cloths from a smallpox hospital ward to American Indian tribes in hopes of spreading disease. Unknown if this strategy was ultimately successful.

1855 Sir Lyon Playfair suggests using cyanide-containing chemicals against Russian troops during Crimean War, but this tactic never found approval by the British High Command.

29 July 1899 First Hague Convention signed, prohibiting “the use of projectiles the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases.”(Mauroni, p. 81)


The Mongol siege of the Crimean city of Kaffa in 1346 is often cited as one of the first recorded incidents of biological warfare-and perhaps even the cause of the spread of bubonic plague to Europe.

The city of Kaffa (or Caffa, now Feodosija, Ukraine), established in 1266 by agreement between the Mongols on the Black Sea and the Genoese, was an important trading hub between Genoa and the Far East. In 1289, the city fell under the suzerainty of the Khan (Toqtai) of the Golden Horde. The relationship between the Genoese and the Khan, however, was an uneasy one. Kaffa was first besieged in 1308 after the reported displeasure of Khan Toqtai over Genoese trading in Turkic slaves. (The sale of these slaves to the Marmelake Sultanate in Egypt reportedly upset the Khan by depriving him of an important source of foot soldiers for his own army.) The Genoese set fire to Kaffa and fled. After Toqtai’s death, Khan Uzbeg allowed the Genoese to rebuild their trading colony in 1312.

In 1343, after a brawl between Christian locals and Muslims in the Italian enclave of Tana inflamed the ire of Khan Janibeg, the Italians fled from Tana to Kaffa, bringing the Khan’s army to the gates of Kaffa behind them to besiege the city. In February 1344, the Italians managed to break the siege after killing 15,000 of the Khan’s Tartars and destroying their siege machines. Janibeg renewed the siege the following year, but the residents of Kaffa were able to maintain their position because they retained access by sea to supplies. In 1346, the Khan’s army besieging Kaffa suffered a natural outbreak of plague. The Tartars catapulted the plague-infected corpses of their dead comrades over the city walls. According to one historical account, the Tartars’ tactic finally broke the 3-year stalemate; the Genoese were crippled by the plague and fled Kaffa by sea-taking the disease to Europe with them.

The most contemporaneous account of the siege was written by Gabriele de’ Mussi, a notary of the town of Piacenza, north of Genoa. There is some debate as to whether de’Mussi witnessed the events at Kaffa. Written in 1348 or 1349, the account de- scribes the “mysterious illness “that struck the Tartar army besieging Kaffa. De’ Mussi recounts how the Tartars, desperate from the devastation of the disease on their army, thought to kill the inhabitants of Kaffa with the stench of their diseased dead. According to the de’ Mussi account, the people of Kaffa had no hope once the air and water had been contaminated, and only one in 1,000 was able to flee the city. Those that did flee took the plague with them as they left.

De’ Mussi’s account suggests that not only did the Tartars deliberately hurl their diseased dead over the city walls of Kaffa with the intent to kill their enemies, but those escaping Kaffa brought the disease into the ports of Europe. The disease was most likely brought within the walls of Kaffa through flea-infested rodents from the Tartar camps, or possibly through the transmission of the disease from direct contact with infectious body fluids from the Tartar dead.

Most scholars believe that the Genoans brought the plague with them to Naples, from where it then spread throughout Europe. Others have recently suggested that although the use of plague corpses against Kaffa was a true act of biological warfare, the siege had no significant impact on the spread of the Black Death through Europe. As Wheelis suggests, Kaffa was certainly not the only Tartar port that could have transmitted plague into European ports. Wheelis further argues that the rate and pattern of plague transmission suggests that it took 1 year to spread the plague into different European ports.

Though Kaffa may not have been the precise source of the Black Death that spread into Europe, the use of infected cadavers against its besieged inhabitants remains one of the most important instances of the intentional use of disease in warfare.

References McGovern, Thomas W., and Arthur M. Friedlander, “Plague,” in Russ Zajtchuck and Ronald F. Bellamy, eds., Medical Aspects of Chemical and Biological Warfare (Washington, DC: Borden Institute, 1997), pp. 479-502. Watts, Sheldon, Epidemics and History: Disease, Power, and Imperialism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998). Wheelis, Mark, “Biological Warfare at the 1346 Siege of Caffa,”Emerging Infectious Diseases, vol. 8, no. 9, September 2002, http://www. cdc. gov/ncidod/EID/ vol8no9/01-0536. htm.



Emperor Sigismund, aged approximately 65.

Sigismund of Luxembourg (15 February 1368 in Nuremberg – 9 December 1437 in Znaim, Moravia) was Prince-elector of Brandenburg from 1378 until 1388 and from 1411 until 1415, King of Hungary and Croatia from 1387, King of Germany from 1411, King of Bohemia from 1419, King of Italy from 1431, and Holy Roman Emperor for four years from 1433 until 1437, the last male member of the House of Luxembourg. Sigismund von Luxembourg was the leader of the last West European Crusade – the Crusade of Nicopolis of 1396 to liberate Bulgaria and save Constantinople from the Turks. Afterwards, he founded the Dragon Order to fight the Turks. He was regarded as highly educated, spoke several languages (among them; French, German, Hungarian, Italian, and Latin) and was an outgoing person who also took pleasure in the tournament. Sigismund was one of the driving forces behind the Council of Constance that ended the Papal Schism, but which in the end also led to the Hussite Wars that dominated the later period of Sigismund’s life.


During the period of internal wars in Hungary, relations between the kingdom and its neighbours changed profoundly and irreversibly. Ottoman expansion reached Hungary in 1389 and the kingdom was soon compelled to adopt a defensive policy to counter this threat. From this time until the catastrophe of Mohács, Hungary lived, almost without interruption, under the constant menace of Ottoman raids and invasions, which, besides straining her economic and military forces to the limit, also led to internal conflicts. Proud of their ancestors’ warlike traditions, the nobility found the necessity of a defensive policy unacceptable. They demanded the same offensive attitude towards the Ottoman empire as had for so long prevailed towards others. The failures that were bound to follow were invariably blamed on those who happened to be in power.

In early 1389, Lazarus, prince of Serbia, confirmed his allegiance to Sigismund, but he was killed in June at the battle of Kosovo, and his son Stephen Lazarević soon became an Ottoman vassal. In early 1390 Turkish troops devastated the region of Timişoara, in 1391 they did the same in Srem, and thereafter their incursions became regular occurrences. Sigismund took the threat seriously from the very first moment. As early as the autumn of 1389 he led an expedition to Serbia, taking Čestin and Borač by siege, and he repeated the action in 1390 and 1391. In 1392 he pushed forward as far as Ždrelo, but Sultan Bayezid, who arrived there in person, refused to give battle. In 1393 the barons led a campaign along the southern frontiers, and Sigismund was also there in August 1394. In early 1395 he mounted an expedition against Moldavia and forced its prince to submit, but this success proved only temporary and Moldavia soon shifted back under the influence of Poland. By this time Wallachia had passed temporarily under the suzerainty of the Ottomans, who raided Transylvania for the first time in 1394. Mircea cel Bătrîn, prince of Wallachia, who had hitherto opposed Hungary with Polish support, asked Sigismund for help in order to regain his land. On 7 March 1395, in Braşov, he agreed to be a vassal of Hungary. However, on 17 May the Hungarian army sent to Wallachia was defeated and its commander, Stephen Losonci, killed. In July Sigismund himself invaded the province, restored Mircea to his throne and recovered from the Ottomans the castle of Minor Nicopolis on the Danube.

These wars were exhausting and yielded only meagre results. Consequently, Sigismund decided to settle the Turkish problem once and for all. He set about organising a major enterprise with the ambitious aim of driving the Ottomans out of Europe. In 1395 his envoys made a tour of the courts of Europe and an embassy may also have been sent to the Mamluk sultan of Egypt. As a result of these efforts the Pope declared the planned expedition a crusade, and by the summer of 1396 an army of considerable size had assembled. Alongside the Hungarians and their Wallachian auxiliaries, the core of the army was made up of Frenchmen, with John of Nevers, heir to Burgundy, at their head, though knights also came from Germany, Bohemia, Italy and even England. In August the army, led by Sigismund, invaded Bulgaria along the Danube and laid siege to Nicopolis. Bayezid, leading the counter-attack in person, marched to relieve the beleaguered castle, and it was there that a European army faced the Ottomans for the first time. The battle, which for a long time was to determine the nature of Hungaro-Ottoman relations, took place on 25 September 1396. The crusader army was virtually destroyed, allegedly as a consequence of the ill-considered actions of the French knights. As for Hungarian casualties, several barons were killed, Palatine Jolsvai captured, and Sigismund himself barely escaped with his life, fleeing on a ship to Constantinople and returning by sea to Dalmatia in January 1397.

The catastrophe of Nicopolis demonstrated that the Ottoman empire represented a power against which Hungary was unable to wage an offensive war, even with support from abroad. The hope that Ottoman attacks might be stopped through a single determined effort vanished. From this point on priority was given to defence rather than to offensive campaigns. The kingdom had to learn how to live with the constant menace of Turkish incursions.

The Ottomans did not try to conquer Hungary for a long time. In contrast to the Balkan states, which were easily crushed, the kingdom was to remain a rival of the empire right up to the end of the fifteenth century. For the time being it was not Hungary’s existence that was threatened but the supremacy that it had been able to impose upon its southern neighbours. However meagre the palpable results of Louis the Great’s wars had been, they had demonstrated that Bosnia, Serbia and Wallachia belonged to Hungary’s sphere of influence. The Ottoman conquest caused Hungary to lose this position: instead of launching offensive campaigns, the kingdom was forced now to defend itself. Nor should the humiliating effect of the Turkish incursions be underestimated. Hungary, which had not suffered a major external attack since the Mongol invasion, now found herself exposed to plundering raids by the Ottomans year after year.


The immediate consequence of the defeat of Nicopolis was a revolt by the Lackfi. The former palatine, who had been deprived of office since 1392, contacted Ladislaus of Naples and was joined in his conspiracy by his nephew, Stephen Lackfi junior, and by a grandson of Ban Mikcs. But that was all the support he could muster. The rest of the league remained faithful to the king, who was therefore able quickly to put down the revolt after his return. The two Lackfi were enticed to the royal court and killed there in February 1397, and the enormous wealth of their family and of their supporters was confiscated.

From this time on Sigismund became increasingly determined to rule alone. The barons of the league were slowly but steadily pushed aside. Only Kanizsai and Detricus Bebek, the new palatine, remained in office after 1398. Their place was taken by hitherto unknown persons, partly from the household, partly from abroad. Immediately after the suppression of the revolt the king took into his service Count Hermann of Cilli (Celje) from Styria, who was to remain his closest confidant (before even Stibor) until his death in 1435. Cilli was given, as hereditary grants, first the town of Varaždin in 1397, then the district of Zagorje in 1399. From this time on, he and his successors gave themselves the title ‘count of Cilli and Zagorje’ and were the greatest landowners in Slavonia. Cilli’s staunch ally was Eberhard, a cleric who probably came from the Rhine region and who in 1397 was appointed bishop of Zagreb. He summoned to Hungary his nephews, lords of Alben in Germany, and persuaded the king to invest them with large estates. It was in 1398 that Filippo Scolari, who was the Buda representative of the trading house Bardi of Florence, was engaged by Sigismund. He was a count of the chamber for the time being, but was later to make an astonishing career under the name of Pipo of Ozora.

Sigismund’s endeavour to enlarge his independence manifested itself no less in his reforming activities. In October 1397, in response to the disaster of Nicopolis, he convoked a diet to meet at Timişoara with the intention of organising effective defence against the Ottomans. Forty-five of the 70 articles that were accepted simply reiterated the Golden Bull and Louis’s decree of 1351, but the remaining 25 contained important innovations. Whilst being willing to confirm in principle the nobility’s freedom from compulsory mobilisation for an offensive war, he suspended this privilege in view of ‘the great necessity of this kingdom’. He promised that ‘once the present wars are over’, that is, after the Ottoman threat had passed, the nobles would regain their ancient liberties. But for the time being he required them to take up arms ‘in person’, whenever he called them, and to make war on the frontiers, or even beyond, under his leadership or (in his absence) that of the palatine. Those not complying with royal orders would be liable to a fine of one florin per tenant if they had any, and of three marks, equalling twelve florins, per head if they did not. He also ordered that all the landowners ‘must equip, as a soldier should be, one archer from every 20 peasant tenants and lead him to war.’6 With a view to enforcing the edict as smoothly as possible Sigismund ordered a general census of landowners and their tenants in every county. This is the first such attempt that we know of in medieval Hungary, though unfortunately only the roll from the county of Ung has survived. Troops were being raised from landowners according to the number of their tenants as early as 1398. Known as militia portalis, these troops would constitute an important part of the army in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The nobility received little in return for these encroachments upon their liberties. Sigismund agreed not to grant ‘promotions’ of daughters in cases where there was a male heir within the fifth degree of kinship. In another article, he promised that he would remove all ‘foreigners’ from their offices, but stipulated that exception should be made for Stibor, Eberhard and Maternus, bishop of Transylvania. These were, of course, the very persons against whom the protests underlying this article had been aimed in the first place.

The burden of war had also to be borne by the Church. Albeit ‘only for the time of the war against the heathens’, the king seized half of all ecclesiastical revenues, the tithe included, promising that the money would be spent solely on the defence of the kingdom.7 Finally, referring to the fact that he had often been forced to yield to extortion in the past, Sigismund had himself invested with the authority to recover all estates that had been given – whether as a hereditary grant or as a mortgage – to persons who had done nothing to merit them; but he would issue special letters patent to his adherents to exempt them from this provision.

Although the decree of Timişoara had been prompted by the Ottoman threat, the ultimate insolubility of that problem soon discouraged Sigismund. With growing intensity, his attention was drawn to the affairs of the Luxembourg dynasty. His brother, Wenceslas, had no children and Sigismund could expect one day to succeed him in Bohemia and Germany. In his struggle with baronial leagues Wenceslas frequently turned to his brother for help, and Sigismund did in fact devote much of his time to Bohemian affairs. He went there in person in 1393 and 1396, while in 1397 he took the field against Procop, his old enemy. He left for Moravia at the end of 1399 and having spent nearly a year abroad, only returned in December 1400. In the meantime, the crisis in Hungary had come to maturity.


On 28 April 1401 the barons, led by Archbishop Kanizsai and Palatine Bebek, arrested the king in the castle of Buda. They demanded that he should get rid of his foreign counsellors once and for all. Sigismund refused to yield, preferring captivity, and the government was assumed by the prelates and barons in the name of the Holy Crown, which was now regarded as vacant. Kanizsai took the title of its ‘chancellor’, while the council issued orders under the ‘seal of the Holy Crown’. Various plans were put in motion with a view to filling the throne: Ladislaus of Naples, Wladislas II of Poland and William of Austria emerged successively as possible candidates. However, the barons were unable to come to an agreement, and Sigismund’s captivity did not last for long. It was Nicholas Garai, the king’s faithful supporter, who secured his release on 31 August 1401. Garai brought the king to his castle of Siklós and handed over his own son and brother as hostages. Through Garai’s mediation a compromise was finally agreed upon at Pápa on 29 October, as a result of which Sigismund was restored to his throne. In return he granted immunity to the rebels, and promised to remove his foreign followers with the exception of Stibor, a promise that he was determined to break as soon as possible.

Thus it was Sigismund who won the first battle, and Wenceslas, observing events from a distance, was of the opinion that his brother was ‘more powerful than ever before’.8 Acting as if his captivity had never occurred, Sigismund began immediately to reinforce his authority. Not only did he refuse to remove his foreign supporters, but, adding insult to injury, he also became betrothed to the daughter of Hermann of Cilli, Barbara, whom he married in 1405. Since Cilli’s other daughter, Anne, was Garai’s wife, the three families became linked to one another by affinity. Before returning to Bohemia in January 1402, Sigismund took some important security measures, bestowing the most important royal castles upon his adherents. In September he paid a short visit to Pressburg in order to sign a treaty with Albert IV of Austria, who was an old friend. Sigismund designated him as governor of Hungary during the period of his own absence, and made the assembled barons and nobles promise that in the event of his dying without a male heir they would accept Albert as king. He removed Detricus Bebek from the office of palatine, putting Garai in his place, thus disposing of his last enemy, with the exception of Kanizsai, who still held the dignity of arch-chancellor.

These measures prompted the leaders of the opposition to take a decisive step. They offered the crown to Ladislaus of Naples, who had already sent troops to Dalmatia in 1402. At about Christmas 1402 they made a solemn oath of allegiance to him at the tomb of Saint Ladislaus in Oradea, and at the beginning of 1403 the revolt broke out. This time the rebels had a real chance of victory. They were led, as in 1401, by Kanizsai and Bebek, but their movement was much stronger than before, for they were joined by the archbishop of Kalocsa, the bishops of Eger, Oradea, Transylvania and Győr, Emeric Bebek, prior of Vrana, son of Detricus, and by nearly all the magnates, with the exception of Garai and some of his kinsmen. The provincial nobility rallied to the revolt in great numbers, and the general feeling of discontent even drove some of the king’s former supporters into opposition. The rebels of the eastern counties were led by the two voivodes of Transylvania, Nicholas Csáki and Nicholas Marcali, both of them the king’s own creations.

Against the rebels Sigismund could rely on his barons, his household and the towns, which all remained faithful to him. The most important castles, such as Buda, Visegrád, Pressburg and others were securely held by his foreign captains. Yet his throne was saved by the swift and determined action of Stibor, Garai, John Maróti, Peter Perényi and several other barons who promptly mobilised their contingents and within weeks dispersed the enemy, who had been gathering in rather too leisurely a fashion. At the end of July Sigismund himself arrived from Bohemia, and by the time the army of the eastern provinces crossed the Tisza he had reached Pest. He surrounded Esztergom, Kanizsai’s residence, then had the Holy Crown brought from Visegrád and set upon his head in a public ceremony, making palpable that he was the real lord of the kingdom. King Ladislaus had arrived at Zadar in the company of Angelo Acciajuoli, legate of Boniface IX, on 19 July and was crowned there by Kanizsai on 5 August, but this was too late. He left for Italy as early as November, after appointing one of his supporters, Hrvoje, as duke of Split and bestowing upon him the government of Dalmatia. Sigismund’s authority was never fully restored in this province, a fact that was to bring about its permanent loss by Hungary.

The barons could do nothing but surrender. The first to lay down their arms were Csáki and Marcali, who on 8 October mediated an agreement with the other rebels at Buda. The king granted a pardon to all those who would submit before a fixed date, and promised to restore their possessions and to annul the grants that he had made to their detriment during the revolt. Bebek and Kanizsai and their kinsmen, who did not lay down their arms before the term expired, were accorded a special pardon, but some of their castles were confiscated and Esztergom itself taken into royal hands for some years. By the spring of 1404 virtually the whole kingdom had been pacified, only a couple of fortresses continuing to resist the king’s troops.

Sigismund’s struggle with his barons ended with his complete victory. He was to have no difficulty in maintaining his control over Hungary during the 34 years that remained of his life. Many years would be spent far away from the kingdom, yet he would never again face opposition. His enemies at home, weakened and demoralised, could only accept defeat and wait for better times.


Stupor Mundi I

Frederick II (26 December 1194 – 13 December 1250; Sicilian: Fidiricu, Italian: Federico, German: Friedrich) was King of Sicily from 1198, King of Germany from 1212, King of Italy and Holy Roman Emperor from 1220 and King of Jerusalem from 1225. His mother Constance was Queen of Sicily and his father was Henry VI of the Hohenstaufen dynasty. Frederick’s reign saw the Holy Roman Empire reaching its all time territorial peak.

A few days after the Empress Constance had given birth in the village of Jesi on the day after Christmas 1194,1 she and her son continued their journey to the south. It was in Palermo, on the premature death of his father just four years later, that the child – named Frederick Roger, after his two grandfathers – was in his turn crowned King of Sicily.

There it was that he spent his childhood, receiving an education as far removed from that normally given to German princes as could possibly be imagined. Latin, Greek and Arabic were all official languages of Norman Sicily; to these Frederick was to add German, Italian and French. Ever since the days of his grandfather Roger II, the court had been the most cultivated in Europe, the meeting place of scholars and geographers, scientists and mathematicians, Christian, Jewish and Muslim. His personal tutor was very possibly Michael Scot, translator of Aristotle and Averroes, who is known to have spent several years in Palermo and was to become his close friend. It was impossible to find a subject which did not interest him. He would spend hours not only in study but in long disputations on religion, philosophy or mathematics. Often, too, he would withdraw to one of the parks and palaces that, we are told, ringed the city like a necklace, watching the birds and animals that were to be a constant passion. Many years later he was to write a book on falconry, De Arte Venandi cum Avibus, which became a classic, displaying a knowledge and understanding of wildlife rare indeed in the thirteenth century.

The physical energy fully matched the intellectual. A contemporary, who clearly knew him well, wrote:

He is never idle, but passes the whole day in some occupation or other, and so that his vigour may increase with practice he strengthens his agile body with every kind of exercise and practice of arms. He either employs his weapons or carries them, drawing his shortsword, in whose use he is expert; he makes play of defending himself from attack. He is a good shot with the bow and often practises archery. He loves fast thoroughbred horses; and I believe that no one knows better than he how to curb them with the bridle and then set them at full gallop. This is how he spends his days from morn to eve, and then begins afresh the following day.

To this is added a regal majesty and majestic features and mien, to which are united a kindly and gracious air, a serene brow, brilliant eyes and expressive face, a burning spirit and a ready wit. Nevertheless his actions are sometimes odd and vulgar, though this is not due to nature but to contact with rough company … However he has virtue in advance of his age, and though not adult he is well versed in knowledge and has the gift of wisdom, which usually comes only with the passage of years. In him, then, the number of years does not count; nor is there need to await maturity, because as a man he is full of knowledge, and as a ruler of majesty.

This description was written in 1208, when Frederick was thirteen. He came of age on his fourteenth birthday, 26 December, and nine months later was married to Constance, daughter of Alfonso II of Aragon, ten years older than he and already a widow, her first husband having been King Imre of Hungary. She was the choice of Pope Innocent III, and at least in the early days of the marriage Frederick does not seem to have altogether shared the papal enthusiasm for her; but she brought 500 armed knights in her train, and in view of the continuing unrest throughout the kingdom, he needed all the help he could get. She also introduced, with her knights and ladies and troubadours, an element of worldly sophistication which had hitherto been lacking in Palermo. To Frederick, always alive to every new stimulus, there now opened up a whole new world, the world of courtly love. The marriage itself remained one of political convenience – though Constance duly presented her husband with a son, Henry, a year or two later – but it removed the rough edges; long before he was twenty, Frederick had acquired the social graces and the polished charm for which he would be famous for the rest of his life.

Early in January 1212 an embassy arrived in Palermo with a message from beyond the Alps. Once again, western Europe had been shown the perils of an elective monarchy; since the death of Henry VI, Germany had been torn apart by a civil war among the various claimants to the imperial title. One of these, Otto the Welf, Duke of Brunswick, had actually been crowned Emperor by Pope Innocent in 1209, and two years later had taken possession of south Italy, the entire mainland part of Frederick’s kingdom. Unfortunately for him, however, he went too far: his invasion of the papal province of Tuscany led to his instant excommunication, and in September 1211 a council of the leading German princes met at Nuremberg and declared him deposed. They it was who had despatched the ambassadors, with an invitation to Frederick to assume the vacant throne.

This invitation came as a complete surprise, and created a considerable stir in the Sicilian court. Frederick’s principal councillors strongly advised against acceptance; so too did his wife. He had no ties of his own with Germany; indeed he had never set foot on German soil. His hold on his own kingdom was still far from secure; it was scarcely a year since the Duke of Brunswick had been threatening him from across the Straits of Messina. Was this really a moment to absent himself from Sicily for a period of several months at least, for the sake of an honour which, however great, might yet prove illusory? On the other hand a refusal would, he knew, be seen by the German princes as a deliberate snub, and could not fail to strengthen the position of his chief rival. Both in Italy and in Germany, the Duke of Brunswick still had plenty of support. Having renounced none of his long-term ambitions, he was fully capable of launching a new campaign – and he would not make the same mistake next time. Here, on the other hand, was an opportunity to deal him a knockout blow. It was not to be missed.

Pope Innocent, after some hesitation, gave his approval. Frederick’s election would admittedly tighten the imperial grip to the north and south of the Papal States, and it was in order to emphasise the independence – at least in theory – of the Kingdom of Sicily from the Empire that the Pope insisted on Frederick’s renunciation of the Sicilian throne in favour of his newborn son, with Queen Constance acting as regent. Once these formalities – and a few others of lesser importance – had been settled, Frederick’s way was clear. At the end of February he sailed with a few trusted companions from Messina. His immediate destination, however, was not Germany but Rome; and there, on Easter Sunday, 25 March 1212, he knelt before the Pope and performed the act of feudal homage to him – technically on behalf of his son the King – for the Sicilian Kingdom. From Rome he sailed on to Genoa in a Genoese galley, somehow eluding the fleet which the Pisans (staunch supporters of the Duke of Brunswick) had sent to intercept him. The Genoese, unlike their Pisan rivals, were enthusiastically Ghibelline, none more so than their leading family, the Dorias, who put their principal palace at the disposal of the Emperor-elect until such time as the Alpine passes were once again open to enable him to complete his journey. Meanwhile, an agreement was reached, to the benefit of both sides, by the terms of which Frederick promised – in return for a substantial subsidy – to confirm on his accession as Emperor all the privileges granted to Genoa by his predecessors.

Even then his path to Germany was not clear. On 28 July he was given a warm welcome in Pavia; but the Lombard plain was being constantly patrolled by bands of pro-Guelf Milanese, and it was one of these bands that surprised the imperial party as they were leaving the town the next morning. Frederick was lucky indeed to be able to leap on to one of the horses and, fording the river Lambro bareback, to make his way to friendly Cremona. By which route he finally crossed the Alps is not recorded; it was certainly not the Brenner, for we know that the Duke of Brunswick and his army were at Trento. By the beginning of autumn Frederick was safely in Germany.

On 25 July 1215, in the cathedral at Aachen upon the throne of Charlemagne, the Archbishop of Mainz crowned Frederick King of the Romans, the traditional title of the Emperor-elect. He was just twenty-one. All that he now needed for the full imperial title was a further coronation by the Pope in Rome. Almost exactly a year before, on 27 July 1214, the army of Philip Augustus of France had defeated that of Otto of Brunswick and King John of England on the field of Bouvines, near Lille, effectively destroying all Otto’s hopes of opposing him. From that day his supremacy was unquestioned, and it was now – perhaps as a thank-offering to God, perhaps as a way of winning further papal approval – that he announced his intention of taking the Cross.

Few acts in Frederick’s life are to us today more incomprehensible. He had never been particularly pious; moreover, he had been brought up among Muslim scientists and scholars, whose religion he respected and whose language he spoke. Nor at this time was he under pressure from the Pope or anyone else. Indeed, there is plenty of reason to believe that he soon regretted his promise; he certainly showed no eagerness to fulfil it. He was in fact to remain in Germany for another four years, spent largely in ensuring the imperial succession of his son Henry, who in 1217 arrived with Queen Constance from Sicily. In the late summer of 1220 his parents made their way back to Italy, leaving their disconsolate little eight-year-old behind them. There followed a solemn progress through Italy, during which Frederick dispensed royal grants and diplomas with his usual largesse. In mid-November he arrived in Rome, and on the 22nd Pope Honorius III laid the imperial crown on his head.

Just sixty-five years before, his grandfather Barbarossa had been obliged to undergo a hole-and-corner coronation which had been followed by something not far short of a massacre. Those days, however, were long past; this time Rome was at peace – Frederick’s boundless generosity had seen to that – and the ceremony was perhaps the most splendid that had ever been seen in the basilica. When it was completed, and Pope and Emperor emerged into the winter sunshine, it was noted that the Emperor – unlike Barbarossa – unhesitatingly grasped the Pope’s stirrup as he mounted his horse, which he then led by the bridle for a few paces before mounting himself. Such gestures meant little to him. Not only was the Empire his own; he had also extracted from the Pope an undertaking which he valued very nearly as much – the restoration to him of his Sicilian realm. After eight years in Germany he longed to return to Palermo.

Those years had brought him the greatest secular title the world could bestow, but they had also showed him that he was at heart a man of the south, a Sicilian. Germany had been good to him, but he had never really liked the country or felt at home there. Of his thirty-eight years as Emperor, only nine were to be spent north of the Alps; throughout his reign he was to do all he could – though without conspicuous success – to shift the focus of the Empire to Italy, and it was in Italy that the main body of his life’s work was to be done. He began it in late December 1220 even before he had crossed the Straits of Messina, in the first important city within his northern frontier: the city of Capua.

About the state of Sicily he was under no illusions: for over thirty years – ever since the death of William the Good in 1189 – it had been in chaos. His father’s reign of terror had only increased the unruliness and dissatisfaction; then there had been his own minority – his mother as regent had barely succeeded in holding things together – followed by his long absence in Germany, during which the state had survived more in name than anything else. As the most urgent priority, order must be restored; it was with what are known as the Assizes of Capua that Frederick took the first steps in doing so, promulgating – in no less than twenty chapters – a series of laws that he must have pondered for many months before, laws which laid down the foundations for the national regeneration that was to continue for the rest of his reign. Essentially, they involved a return to the status quo existing at the time of William’s death, and a recentralisation of power under the Crown. The most far-reaching law of all was the de resignandis privilegiis, which decreed that all privileges, however small or seemingly insignificant, granted to any person or institution since that time should be submitted to the Royal Chancery for confirmation before the spring of 1221. Obviously, this edict fell hardest on the chief recipients of such privileges, who also constituted the most serious threat to the supremacy of the Crown: the nobility and the Church. For the nobility, moreover, there were two additional blows. No holder of a fief was permitted to marry, nor his children to inherit, without the consent of his sovereign. And all castles built anywhere in the kingdom since King William’s death were automatically forfeit to the Crown.

The proceedings at Capua were repeated, if on a slightly more modest scale, in the following months at Messina, Catania and Palermo; the Emperor then moved on to Syracuse, where he had serious business with the Genoese. Genoa had always been his friend, but as long ago as 1204 Genoese merchants had virtually taken possession of the city, from which they had spread their influence all over the island. One of the chief causes of the decline of Sicilian trade over the previous thirty years had been the fact that most of it had fallen into the hands of foreigners; there was no chance of a return to prosperity while outsiders remained in control. And so, despite the help that he had received from the Genoese on his journey to Germany, Frederick acted with characteristic firmness. He threw them out. His new laws gave him all the authority he needed. All the concessions that had been granted to Genoa, not only in Syracuse but in Palermo, Messina, Trapani and other trading centres across the island were summarily withdrawn, all Genoese depots and warehouses declared confiscate, with their contents, to the Sicilian Crown. Similar action was taken against Pisa, although the Pisan presence in Sicily was insignificant and her losses were relatively small.

But alas, there was another, far greater enemy than Genoa to be faced: the Muslims of western Sicily. Three-quarters of a century before, in the days of King Roger, the Arab community had been an integral and respected part of the kingdom. It had staffed the entire treasury and had provided most of the physicians, astronomers and other men of science who had earned Norman Sicily its outstanding reputation in the field of scholarship. But those days were long gone. Already during the reign of William the Good much of the semi-autonomous Arab region had been granted to the Abbey of Monreale; with the final collapse of Norman power, the Arabs had found that they were no longer appreciated or even respected. They had consequently been forced back, entrenching themselves in the wild and mountainous west, where Arab brigands and freebooters now constantly terrorised the local Christian communities. Frederick’s first campaign against them, in the summer of 1221, proved inconclusive; not until the following year did his troops capture the Saracen fortress of Iato, and with it the Muslim leader Ibn Abbad, who soon afterwards ended his days on the scaffold.

Not even his execution, however, marked the final solution to the problem. This came about only between 1222 and 1226, when Frederick adopted a still more drastic measure. He decided to remove the entire Muslim population of the rebellious western region – perhaps fifteen or twenty thousand people – altogether from the island, and to resettle them at the other end of his kingdom: at Lucera in northern Apulia, which became effectively a Muslim town, virtually every one of its Christian churches being replaced by a mosque. This was not, it must be emphasised, in any sense a penal colony. Its citizens enjoyed complete liberty and the free exercise of their religion, and Frederick, who had been brought up with Muslims from his cradle, ultimately built his own palace there – a building in distinctly oriental style which was to become one of his favourite residences.

The Saracens of Lucera, for their part, showed their new loyalty by providing him with his personal bodyguard. They also manned his principal weapons factory, their swordsmiths producing blades of damascened steel that only Toledo could equal, their carpenters constructing those vast engines of war – catapults, trebuchets, mangonels and the like – without which effective siege operations were impossible. Meanwhile, their women provided the Emperor with his harem: the Saracen dancing-girls who lived in considerable luxury in a wing of the palace, with their own staff of female servants and a body of eunuchs to see that they came to no harm. A number of these girls would accompany the Emperor on his constant travels, and although it was always maintained that they existed only to provide innocent entertainment for the imperial court there can be little doubt – as Gibbon remarks on the similar establishment kept by the Emperor Gordian – that they were in fact intended for use rather than ostentation.



English Specialist archers originating in Wales in medieval times

An old Scottish saying dictates that, “Every English archer carries on his belt 24 Scots.” From the thirteenth until the sixteenth century, there was no question why the longbow held the Scots’ respect, as it became the national weapon of the English military. It transformed the English army into one of the most powerful military forces in the medieval world, surpassing even the might of its rival the French and their impetuous knights. In a relatively short period of some 300 years, the long bow conquered Wales and Scotland, and reached the pinnacle of efficiency when it was the deadly weapon of choice employed by Edward III and the Black Prince in their victories over the French during the Hundred Years’ War.

The rise of the longbow begins in the Anglo-Norman invasion of Wales in the twelfth century, where Welsh archers using a unique type of bow exacted huge losses on the invaders. After the successful, but costly, campaign was over, the English were quick to realize the potential of such a devastating weapon. By the end of the century, Welsh archers were already being conscripted in large numbers as a supplementary force within the English army. The army, bolstered by the new mercenaries, proceeded to achieve decisive victories over the Scots and the French. A force that could not be ignored, the English stopped using mercenaries and mandated the creation and practice of the longbow among their non-noble regular troops. Royal decrees were issued concerning days of practice, conditions, even ranges: Henry VIII declared that no archer could practice at a distance under 220 yards, in order to increase his effectiveness.

The accessibility of the longbow among even the poor would prove the deciding factor in a number of battles, the two most significant being the Battle of Crécy and later, the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years’ War in the fourteenth century. Even at home, the English nobility was careful not to push the yeomen too far out of fear of the possible destructive results, as witnessed in the Peasants’ Revolt of the late fourteenth century. The longbow single-handedly gave the peasant class of England a check on the gentry’s power not seen on the mainland of Europe. Cheap and simple enough for even a peasant to own and master, the longbow possessed advantages apparent in its construction. A selfbow, that is, a bow made from one single piece of wood, the longbow involved relatively little labor and could be produced rapidly. Welsh yew was the wood of choice because of its high compressive strength, light weight, and resilience. It is said that at the height of production of longbows during the Hundred Years’ War in the fourteenth century, an expert bowyer could shape a longbow out of a piece of yew in only about two hours. The “D” shape of the bow was the maximum threshold to which the elastic nature of the wood could stretch and still return to its natural straightness after an arrow was loosed. As tall as an average yeoman, the longbow stood anywhere from five to six feet upon its completion, and had a supreme draw weight of between 80 and 90 pounds. Arrows were drawn back to the ear, as opposed to the breast with a normal bow, thus increasing range and striking power. Skeletal remains of archers from this period still bear the obvious signs of wear produced by the repetition of the weight of the drawstring, as shoulder muscles became disproportionately stronger, dramatically reshaping the bones and creating bone spurs in the joints of the arm. Such strength allowed English archers to achieve an average effective range of over 200 yards, an astonishing (and condemned by the French as decidedly unchivalrous) distance.

To protect the bows from moisture and the weather, a mixture of wax, resin, and tallow would be applied to them, and they would be stored in cases made of canvas or wool. Bow strings were made of hemp, fine flax, or even silk. Strings were attached to nocks on the end of the bow made of bone or horn. The typical English longbow arrow was known as the clothyard shaft; from 27 to perhaps even 36 inches in length. It was cheap and easy to mass produce, made from either ash or birch. It is estimated that greater numbers of long bow shafts were produced than any other type of arrow in history.

Though longbows were accurate and could shoot the farthest of any bow in the Middle Ages, they could not usually do both effectively at the same time. Reports indicate that diminishing returns on targets kicked in when the target was about 80 yards away. However, when taking into account the fact that an expert archer could shoot up to 10-12 arrows per minute, a group of archers could create a virtual storm of arrows and still hit something (it is difficult to miss an army). With the development of arrows with massive bod kin points (a point with an elongated pyramid shape and a sharpened point), even plate armor could be pierced with a direct impact. No longer was it the rule that infantry could not stand up to a heavily armored cavalry unit. In order to increase the reload speed, archers would stick these bodkin tips point down into the ground in front of them; another more grisly result of this practice was to increase the chance of infection in the victim’s wounds. The only way to remove such an arrow cleanly would be to tie a piece of cloth, soaked in boiling water or another sterilizing substance, to the end of it and push it through the victim’s wound and out the other side. If bone was hit or broken, only specialist tools could extract the points in order to minimize the risk that the marrow would seep into the bloodstream.

Commanders developed their tactics to fully utilize the chaos the longbow could create. Starting in a line in front of the main body of the English army, a group of longbow men would shoot an opening skirmish volley, disrupting the enemy and forcing them to advance before they were ready. The main body of archers usually would take up positions on both flanks of the battle line in enfilade positions, then proceed to loose successive volleys at the closing enemy army. The ability of the English to take a defensive posture and force the enemy to expend their energy and much of their manpower just crossing the field of battle became their favorite and most effective tactic for three centuries. At the battle of Crécy, almost a third of the French nobility (fighting as mounted knights) were destroyed by infantry equipped with longbows before even coming into contact with the main body of the English army. The French force of some 30,000 men was decisively defeated by a relatively immobile army of 12,000 English consisting of little cavalry. During the 400- year period when it was employed widely, the longbow rewrote the rules of engagement, and crippled the utility of once dominant cavalry forces. As a result, English longbow units were sought-after mercenaries in European conflicts, fighting at various times with the Swiss, the Teutonic Knights, the Portuguese, and with the famous mercenary White Company of Sir John Hawkwood in Italy.

Longbows continued in effective use until about the sixteenth century, when the development and weaponization of gun powder became more common, and units such as arquebusers, musketeers, and grenadiers began appearing. Even though the longbow had faded out of military use by the seventeenth century, it left an indelible mark on English society. For four centuries, the peasant class had a weapon of their own, and stories like the legend of Robin Hood grew out of this consciousness and empowerment. The longbow allowed for the blossoming of English military power and the development of its place as a dominant world entity.

References: Hardy, Robert, Longbow (Cambridge: Patrick Stevens, 1976); Kaiser, Robert E., The Medieval English Longbow, Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, volume 23, 1980; Norman, A. V. B. and Don Pottinger, English Weapons & Warfare (449-1660) (New York: Prentice Hall, 1982).



While barrels for small artillery pieces were easily cast as early as the 13th century, most larger cannon and the great bombards were constructed by the hoop-and-stave method. It was not until improved casting techniques and mature foundries were developed that large barrels could be made as single pieces of cast metal, first in iron and bronze, and later still in brass. By c. 1550 cast barrels of muzzle-loaders were cooled as a single, solid piece, after which the bore was reamed and a touch-hole drilled. Iron cannonballs were also being cast from greased, clay molds. Women from among the camp followers were frequently employed as laborers to dig the pit in which the mold was cast, gather faggots for the casting fire, dig out the gun after the metal cooled, and drag it to its siege site or for emplacement on the walls of a nearby castle or fort. During the 17th century Jesuit priests taught Chinese gunsmiths and generals up-to-date Western casting methods. English gunsmiths worked with local forges in India, and Dutch traders and governors brought the new technology to the Spice Islands, where guns of varying caliber were cast in local forges for use in Dutch fortifications and ships. Late medieval and early modern artillery varied greatly in size, caliber, and utility, but over time certain locales gained reputations as centers of quality gun manufacture. Permanent, large-scale foundries were set up and an international trade in cannon, it must be said, boomed. Northern Italy, Flanders, and Nuremberg were known for casting the best bronze guns. England and Sweden grew famous for casting cheap iron cannon in very large numbers that were nonetheless of excellent quality.

As cannon grew in importance in land and sea warfare in the mid-16th century the Spanish crown set up arsenals and foundries at Medina del Campo, Malaga, and Barcelona, and another at Seville in 1611. However, Spain lacked the skilled labor to meet its foundry needs-partly because its economy stagnated after expelling the Jews and Moors-and so remained dependent on additional purchases from the cannon markets of Flanders, Italy, and Germany. This lack of foresight and strategic planning cost Spain dearly as the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) led to an acute crisis in armaments that was compounded by war with Elizabethan England and later also with France. This lack of cannon hamstrung Spanish armies and fleets. Due to shortage of skilled labor, Spain’s foundry at Seville barely produced three dozen average caliber guns per year during the first half of the 17th century. In contrast, England, the Netherlands, and Sweden each had multiple foundries that cast 100-200 cannon per year. Spain was cut off from these northern markets by its wars with England and the Dutch rebels, although merchants in England sometimes sold to Spain in evasion of royal bans on exporting cannon outside the realm. Portugal also failed to develop a serious cannon production capability. Its chronic shortage of cannon for ships and fortified bases overseas was a significant factor in the loss of empire in Asia to the better armed Dutch and English in the 16th-17th centuries.

During the 15th and 16th centuries German foundries cast guns for use in Italy, by Spanish armies, and in the Netherlands. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) created a huge domestic demand for cannon, but so disrupted the metals trade and skilled labor markets that German production declined. English, Dutch, and Swedish guns were imported and dominated that war. German cannon foundries recovered quickly after 1648, however, and soon challenged England and Sweden in international gun exports.

Netherlands foundries supplied the Dutch army’s growing need for artillery, which was driven by its prolonged war with Spain, its ultimately very large blue water as well as coastal navy, and the huge requirements of fortifying border towns as well as a growing overseas empire. The Netherlands also became a major exporter of first-rate artillery pieces of all calibers. This was not the case at first. The Dutch rebellion cut off the northern provinces from the industries of southern Flanders and the important metals market of Antwerp, which the Spanish still occupied. Over much of the last four decades of the 16th century, until foundries were built north of the rivers and skilled labor imported or trained, the Dutch imported cast iron cannon from England that were happily supplied by Elizabeth I to a Protestant ally against Spain. By 1600, Dutch foundries were so efficient they met domestic needs and began exporting ordnance to other European markets. Eventually, the Dutch set up a system whereby bronze ordnance was cast at home while iron cannon were cast in Dutch-owned foundries in Germany and at overseas bases. In Asia, the Dutch cast bronze cannon in Batavia for local use using “red copper” from Japan, but cast iron cannon wherein sufficient ore was available and nearby forests provided charcoal fuel.

Sweden and Russia were late starters in the foundry business. Both had great natural advantages-large deposits of iron, copper, and tin, and rich and abundant forests to produce charcoal for the blast furnaces of their great foundries-but only Sweden took full advantage in the 16th and 17th centuries to catch up to the rest of Europe, once social and military-cultural inhibitions to the adoption of gunpowder weapons were overcome. In Sweden the crown played a central role in encouraging casting of guns. Wrought-iron cannon were made from the 1530s; casting of bronze ordnance began in the 1560s; cast iron foundries overtook the older method of making iron cannon after 1580. By the time of Gustavus Adolphus, Swedish foundries were among the world’s best. Using both local labor and imported “Walloons” (gunsmiths from the Low Countries), Sweden emerged as a leading maker and exporter of cast guns in the 17th century. Tolerance of imported Catholic master gunsmiths in Sweden contrasted sharply with Spain, where Protestant gunsmiths eventually refused to work because they were not exempted from torments and execution by the Inquisition. The Dutch brought iron casting techniques to Russia, establishing a foundry at Tula in the 1630s. As skilled labor did not exist in Russia at that time, gunsmiths were imported from the Low Countries and Sweden, while unskilled peasants hewed the forests and worked the charcoal pits. Despite foreign aid, Russia remained a minor power in terms of both gun casting and artillery deployment until the great military reforms of Peter the Great around the turn of the 18th century.

English gun casting declined in the 17th century as the countryside was badly stripped of forests to feed the blast furnaces of the foundries and the shipbuilding industry. England’s long continental peace also sapped innovation and profit from its military industries. France similarly went into decline after an early lead in gun design and manufacture. The great French siege trains of the early Italian Wars (1494-1559) were no longer seen in the 17th century, as royal armies declined and skilled workers left for better-paying markets or to escape religious persecution of the French Civil Wars (1562- 1629), during which Frenchmen killed each other mainly with imported cannon. This situation was not reversed until Richelieu reestablished the French cannon industry to meet the demands of the Thirty Years’ War on land, and of a vastly expanded French navy.

Suggested Reading: Carlo Cipolla, Guns, Sails, and Empires (1965).

Wars of Charlemagne

The composition and equipment of Charlemagne’s army was continuously evolving. Initially, the Carolingian Army was composed mostly of infantry, but as campaigning took him farther and farther from his base in Austrasia, Charlemagne soon relied increasingly on mounted troops rather than infantry. His numerous capitularies point to the raised status of cavalry. During 792-793 he issued regulations requiring vassals to have a horse, shield, lance, sword, dagger, bow, quiver, and arrows. In other royal decrees wealthier nobles were ordered to come to war wearing mail and were asked to bring rations for three months of service and clothing for six. Furthermore, these greater magnates were to make certain that their own vassals came on campaign with a standardized panoply consisting of shield, spear, bow, and 12 arrows. Even attendants were required to be armed with bows.

During his 46-year reign between 768 and 814, Charlemagne undertook an unprecedented 54 military campaigns, greatly expanding the territory of the Frankish kingdom. And even though the Frankish army was relatively small compared to armies of the Classical Period (modern estimates vary from 5,000 to 35,000 men, excluding attendants), it was sufficient to carve out the largest state that western Europe had seen since the fall of the western Roman empire some 300 years earlier. His impressive military and political achievements even won him the title of “emperor of the Holy Romans” from the papacy on Christmas Day 800 CE.

Charlemagne’s campaigns took him to many areas in Europe. In 773 he led his army into Italy, crushing the Lombards and crowning his son king of Italy. Four years later Charlemagne crossed the Pyrenees into northern Spain. This campaign proved disappointing. Despite the annihilation of his rear guard at Roncesvalles by the Basques in 778, Charlemagne and his successors were successful in eventually establishing the Spanish March, a string of fortifications in Catalonia that served as a defensive bulwark against Muslim raiding and a future base of operations for the Christian reconquest of Spain in the eleventh century.

Charlemagne was more successful in his eastern campaigns into Germany. In 787 he invaded Bavaria and brought that region under his rule. In 790 his Frankish armies marched east along the Danube and met and utterly eradicated the Avar empire in the Balkans, seizing wealth accumulated in two centuries of raiding and adding it to his own treasury. Perhaps Charlemagne’s greatest success came in Frisia and Saxony, a region in northern Germany between the Rhine and Elbe rivers. Beginning in 772 Charlemagne set his sights on the conquest and conversion of these regions, but resistance was fierce (Charlemagne campaigned in Saxony in 772, 785, 792- 793, and 798-803). It was not until 804, after 18 annual campaigns, that Saxony was finally pacified and added to the Carolingian domain.

Charlemagne never developed a regular standing army; instead, he relied on feudal levies to raise his forces. It did not take the emperor long to assimilate new regions into his military machine. Just two years after bringing Saxony into the kingdom, Charlemagne created a sliding scale of military contributions, ordering five Saxon vassals to equip a sixth to campaign in Spain and two to equip a third for Bohemia, while all were required to campaign against regional threats. In 807 he issued a capitulary decreeing that all nobles in the realm holding a benefice (a lease of land) were obligated to military service. If a noble failed to muster for war, he risked the confiscation of his estate. Charlemagne perfected this system to the point where he could raise several annual levies and conduct operations on multiple fronts, including Germany, Bohemia, Brittany, and Spain.

Charlemagne’s military success was not founded on the decisive engagement; indeed, history records him present at only three battles during his lengthy reign. The Carolingian emperor’s success was instead based on a well-trained and experienced feudal fighting force wearing down the enemy through a strategy of attrition and the ability to raise several armies for annual campaigns in different regions. He also recognized the impending threat to his empire, building and garrisoning forts along his borders with the Muslims, Danes, and Slavs. He even went so far as to try to maintain his superiority in military equipment by threatening the forfeiture of all property to anyone selling mail hauberks to foreigners and death to any who exported Carolingian swords out of the country.

Finally, perhaps Charlemagne’s greatest military legacy was his emphasis on cavalry as an instrument of strategic mobility. And although the stirrup-stabilized lancer, probably present in limited numbers during Charlemagne’s reign, did not revolutionize battle tactics in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, heavy cavalry’s importance as the centerpiece of the Carolingian tactical system was a harbinger of how war would be made in the later medieval period.

Bibliography Bachrach, Bernard S. Armies and Politics in Early Medieval West. London: Aldershot, 1993. Beeler, John. Warfare in Feudal Europe, 730-1200. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971. Bowlus, C. W. Franks, Moravians and Magyars: The Struggle for the Middle Danube, 788-907. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. Ganshof, F. L. Frankish Institutions under Charlemagne. Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 1968.


LAL724167 Aethelred II, usually called “the Unready” (gouache on paper) by Nicolle, Pat (Patrick) (1907-95); Private Collection; (add.info.: Aethelred II, usually called “the Unready”, but in fact his Anglo-Saxon nickname means “ill-advised”. During the 10th Century, he repeatedly tried to buy off the Danish invaders – but with little success. From Look and Learn 881 (2 December 1978).); © Look and Learn; English, out of copyright

King of England 978-1016,

Æthelred was the son of the English king, Edgar (d. 975), and his wife, Ælfthryth (c. 944-999/1001), and was perhaps nine years old when his father died. His elder half-brother, Edward the Martyr (d. 978), became king, but was murdered by a faction linked to Æthelred’s mother. Æthelred was formally consecrated king on 4 May 979. He was married twice, firstly to Ælfgifu, by whom he had six sons (Athelstan, Ecgberht, Edmund Ironside, Eadred, Eadwig, and Edgar), and secondly, in 1002, to Emma of Normandy, by whom he had two sons (Edward the Confessor and Alfred the atheling) and one daughter (Godgifu).

His nickname is derived from Old English unræd, which means “poor counsel,” and is a pun on the literal translation of his first name (“noble counsel”). However, although the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is critical of Æthelred’s policy toward the Vikings attacking his kingdom, this nickname is not contemporary and is not evidenced in written sources until the 13th century. Indeed, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s account of Æthelred’s reign was written after his death and the accession of Cnut I the Great and therefore seems to reflect the benefit of hindsight in its assessment of Æthelred’s rule. However, Æthelred certainly seems to have been led astray by his counselors in the period 984-993, seizing church lands and granting them to nobles, before repenting in a charter; and after 1006, the growing influence of Eadric Streona, a treacherous ealdorman from Mercia, also seems to have caused problems. Nevertheless, there were some internal accomplishments, such as the issuing of the Wantage Code, which extended royal control in the Danelaw.

Æthelred’s accession to the English throne almost exactly coincided with the resumption of Viking raids in England in 980. The character of these expeditions was quite different from the earlier assaults, with well-organized armies, operating under Scandinavian kings and princes, demanding large payments of silver. In 991, the future king of Norway, Olaf Tryggvason, arrived with 93 ships at Folkestone in Kent and succeeded in extracting a Danegeld of £10,000 following the English defeat at Maldon. Olaf subsequently joined forces with King Svein Forkbeard of Denmark and together they ravaged southeast England and attacked London in 994, receiving yet another large tribute from the English (£16,000). In 1002, an even larger sum of money was paid out (£24,000), and in response to a supposed plot against his life, King Æthelred ordered that all the Danes in England should be massacred on St. Brice’s Day in 1002. However, this presumably antagonized his Scandinavian subjects living in the Danelaw and failed to keep the Viking threat at bay: raids continued and Danegelds were paid again in 1007 (£36,000), 1012 (£48,000), and 1014 (£21,000).

In 1009 a large army under the leadership of Thorkell the Tall arrived in England and campaigned extensively in southern and southeastern England for the next three years. Before it dispersed in 1012, virtually the entire area was under Scandinavian control according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. However, Thorkell then decided to enter the service of Æthelred, and help him to combat a new Scandinavian army threatening England. In 1013, Svein Forkbeard landed at Sandwich before moving north. He quickly received the submission of Northumbria, Lindsey (North Lincolnshire), and the Five Boroughs at Gainsborough and then headed back south, taking hostages at Oxford and Winchester, and finally receiving the submission of London at Bath. Æthelred, his wife, Emma, and their two sons, Edward and Alfred, fled to Normandy and the protection of Emma’s family in 1013. However, Svein’s death on 3 February 1014 heralded a period of considerable political confusion: while the Danish fleet chose his son, Cnut, as king, the Anglo-Saxon councilors advised that Æthelred should be recalled from exile in Normandy, and he arrived back in his kingdom in 1014. Æthelred’s army proceeded to ravage Lindsey, and the king was involved in the murder of two leading figures in the Danelaw (Sigeferth and Morcar), actions that made him unpopular with his subjects in eastern England. Cnut returned to Sandwich in September 1015 and campaigned throughout the country, winning the support of Æthelred’s former ally, Eadric Streona of Mercia, and receiving the submission of the West Saxons in 1015. Cnut’s armies moved north into the Midlands and Northumbria in spring 1016, but following the death of Æthelred on 23 April, Cnut returned to London. Æthelred’s son, Edmund Ironside, was immediately declared king by the councilors and people of London, and later came to terms with Cnut at Olney.