The Hebrides: Scotland and Norway

By the aggressive enforcement of his feudal rights as overlord over the Scottish mainland, Alexander II had imposed the acceptance of the monarchy beyond the limits achieved by any of his predecessors. However, the lands in the northwest had continued to remain outside the perimeter of Scottish dominion and in 1230 the ruling council began to direct its initiatives toward securing the autonomous region. The western isles centered in the Hebrides had been under the marginal authority of the crown of Norway but, under the energetic and aggressive King Hakon IV, a new campaign had been mounted to reestablish Scandinavian sovereignty. The Norwegian offensive was focused on the Hebrides, successfully reasserting the power of Hakon IV as suzerain. To counter the growing influence of the Scandinavians over a region where the Scottish court had ambitions, Alexander II empowered the deposed Alan of Galloway to thwart the efforts of the Northmen. The lord of Galloway attacked and plundered the western isles, succeeding in limiting the effective- ness of the Norwegian subjugation incursion at little expense to the Canmore throne.

By 1242 the policies of Alexander II had secured his border with England and his active intervention in Arygll and the northern earldoms had effectively established Scottish supremacy over the magnates, clerics and population. However, the region to the northwest, centered on the Hebrides Islands, remained largely autonomous with feudal obligations to Norway and in 1244 the Scots began negotiations to acquire the Isles. The Norwegians had partially reasserted their overlordship in the Western Isles in 1230 but in recent years the local warlords had regained much of their authority. Envoys were dispatched to the Norwegian king, Hakon IV, offering to purchase the disputed area. The proposals were repeatedly rejected and, finding no peaceful resolution, Alexander II began to prepare for war. In Arygll several castles and burghs were fortified while their garrisons were strengthened to be used as a base of operations for the planned invasion. The royal council initiated a series of alliances with the nobles, assuring their loyalty and support against Hakon IV. As the Scots mobilized for war the Norwegians responded to the growing militancy by forging a counter-coalition with the powerful and ambitious warrior, Ewan Macdougall of Argyll, to strengthen his coastal defenses. In the spring of 1249 Alexander II assembled a formidable army and fleet, launching his naval expedition to conquer the Western Isles. Under the court’s battle plan the first objective was to eliminate the Macdougall faction in Argyll and impose its sovereignty over the rebellious area. With the major base of Hakon IV’s military power subdued with the seizure of Argyll, the naval force was to sail north, capturing the Hebrides. However, as his ships lay in anchor in Kerrera Sound, Alexander II became seriously ill with a fever, dying on July 8, 1249, before the campaign could be initiated. The ninth Canmore sovereign was nearly fifty-one and had ruled Scotland for thirty-five years. At his death he was succeeded by his seven-year-old son, Alexander III.

Scotland under Alexander III experienced its first golden era, characterized by a growing prosperity, stable and responsive government and an expanding international presence. Alexander III’s first two years of kingship had resulted in an accommodation with his magnates, ending the years of political strife, and had reestablished amiable relations with England, which enabled Scotland to pursue an aggressive foreign policy in the north.

The Scottish kings had steadily advanced their sovereignty into the Highlands and had begun to contend for control of the Western Isles as early as the late eleventh century during the reign of Edgar I. The maritime fiefdoms consisted of a chain of islands and the northern- most coastline of the Sea of the Hebrides and formed a part of the seaborne empire of Nor- way. In 1261 Alexander III revived his father’s plan for northern expansion, dispatching envoys to the Scandinavian court of Hakon IV in an attempt to purchase the Isles. While the ongoing negotiations evolved the Scottish regime began to make arrangements for war by buttressing its defenses along the maritime coast. The royal castles were strengthened and the garrisons reinforced with additional troops. As Alexander III traveled through the kingdom to rally the warlords to his cause, he ordered the regional earls to mobilize their local military forces while war provisions were stockpiled and a small number of mercenary soldiers hired.

In the spring of 1262 the Scottish negotiators returned home with Hakin IV’s formal rejection of the proposed fiefdom purchase. As relations between the two realms deteriorated, Alexander III renewed his claims to the Isles, ordering the earl of Ross to mount a pillaging raid against the Norwegian-held island of Skye. With hostilities intensifying the Norwegian court began to assemble its navy and military forces, preparing to depart for the Western Isles to defend its demesne. In July the Norse squadron of over forty vessels sailed for the Shetlands and down the Scottish coast where they were joined by ships from their allies in the Isles and the Isle of Man, which swelled the fleet to over two hundred. In September Hakon IV sent emissaries to Alexander III with an offer of peace if the Scots would agree to respect Norwegian sovereignty over the Western Isles. The negotiations dragged on into late September while the Highlanders rallied to Alexander III in defense of their kingdom against a foreign incursion. While the Canmore throne massed its militia, the Norse navy was anchored off Largs in the Firth of Clyde on September 30, where during the night a strong gale blew many of the ships against the shore. In the morning the Norwegian king personally led a landing party of over one thousand soldiers ashore to rescue the stranded troops when the Scots mounted their attack. The Norsemen were steadily driven back while Hakon IV managed to escape with a small band of his army. The combined losses from the battle and storm compelled the Norwegians to abandon their invasion campaign, sailing north to Orkney. Due to the lateness of the season, with the increased risk of severe storms, Hakon IV was forced to spend the winter on the island. With much of the Norse fleet still intact, Scotland continued to face the danger of an encroachment but the balance of power shifted in Alexander III’s favor in December when Hakin IV died.

The Scandinavian navy remained a serious threat to Scotland, but the new king, Mag- nus VI, was beset with unrest in his realm, sending envoys to Alexander III to mediate a settlement. Delaying the talks the Scots seized the initiative by invading the Hebrides, occupying much of the Norse fiefdom. When negotiations began anew in 1265 Magnus VI had lost the military advantage and was forced to agree to the harsh terms of the Treaty of Perth dictated by Alexander III. Under the accord the Inner and Outer Hebrides were annexed to Scotland along with the Isle of Man for a cash payment. While the battle of Largs had been inconclusive, its aftermath was decisive for the Scottish kingdom, securing the regime’s power base in the northwestern territories.


The largest part of any Scottish force during this era was provided by me ‘common army’ or exeriticus Scoticanus (me ‘Scottish army’), composed mainly of poorly equipped farmers and neyfs (or nativi, actually called by the Scandinavian term bondi in Caithness, Fife and Stirlingshire, heavily-settled by Norsemen during the Viking era and, in the case of Caithness, still pan of Norway until the 13m century). The neyfs were- or, rather, became during this period – unfree men (but not slaves) tied to the land where they had been born, who could be sold or given away with the land. Such military service as they owed, referred to variously as common, Scottish or forinsec service, was assessed by me ploughshare or on me davach, carucate arachor or (all of which were units of arable land), the number of men required varying but most commonly involving one man per unit, though in exceptional circumstances (such as a proposed expedition into England in 1264 in support of Henry III against Simon de Montfort) up to 3 men could be demanded. On occasion such military service could even involve every able-bodied freeman of 16-60 years; certainly in Robert the Bruce’s wars it was required of every man ‘owning a cow’. At shire level the ‘common army’ was led by local, non-feudal officials called thanes (often displaced by feudal barons in the 13th-14th centuries), the muster of a whole earldom being led by its earl or, north of me Tweed, its mornaer-(King David I, 1124-53, began the transformation of the latter, hereditary Gaelic chieftains, into feudal earls). Such contingents constituted the bulk of the Scottish forces at Northallerton (1138), Largs(1263), Stirling Bridge (1297), Falkirk (1298) and most other large-scale engagements. By the 13th century Scottish service can sometimes be found being convened to a feudal obligation.

A small number of Norman knights had been introduced into the Scottish court as early as 1052-54, in the reign of Macbeth (1040-57), and there was even an attempt to introduce Anglo-Norman feudalism under Duncan II before the end of the 11th century, though this and the employment of further Anglo-Norman knights resulted in a rebellion against him. Feudalism was only successfully introduced on a widespread basis in southern Scotland by David I and in northern Scotland by his successors Malcolm IV (1153-65) and William the Lion (1165-1214), but it never became established in me Highlands and me far north. King David had spent much of his youth at the court of Henry I of England and when he succeeded to the throne a large number of Anglo-Norman knights accompanied him to Scotland, soon coming to hold most of the highest offices in the royal household; indeed, English mercenary knights remained apparent in the Icing’s household throughout the late-11th and 12th centuries. Even in the half-century of William the Lion’s reign, evidence exists for only 37 enfeoffments, of which one was for 20 knights, two were for 10 knights, one for4 knights, two for 2 knights, one for 11h knights and 18 for the service of a single knight each, the remaining 12 all being for fractions (a half-fief being the most common). From the evidence of 13th century enfeoffments it is apparent that even in the 12th century holdings of a half or quarter-fief usually owed the service of a sergeant, or an archer, in a light mail corselet (a haubergel), usually mounted but sometimes serving on foot. In part at least these probably represent the ‘common army’ feudalised. Feudal military service was due for the usual 40-day period, but there are also many references to 20 days. Principal military officers in Scotland’s feudal hierarchy were the Steward (which post gave its name to its hereditary holders, the Stuarts), Constable and Marischal.

Church lands seem to have been liable only for ‘common army’ service, not for knight service, and even this could be satisfied under certain circumstances by payments in kind. Scutage itself does not seem to have been levied in Scotland until the 13th century.

Warfare in the Spanish Reconquista Era I

During the age of the crusades the organization and operations of Christian armies engaged in the reconquest developed significantly. Not only was the formation of armies improved, but there were frequent opportunities to consider strategic issues of defense and offense, including the relative wisdom of undertaking raids, sieges, or pitched battles. Whereas the focus of this chapter is on peninsular warfare, many will observe that its methods and operations were often typical of medieval warfare in general. Any attempt to distinguish between reconquest and crusade in this regard is meaningless. Whether an expedition had the formal character of a crusade or not, the military organization, strategy and tactics were the same. The ultimate military objective was the reconquest of lands once held by Christians and occupied, unjustly it was believed, by the Muslims, who, in the end, would be expelled from Spain.

Strategic planning to achieve that goal was usually determined by the king and his council. In the Curia of León in 1188 Alfonso IX voiced a principle reflecting ongoing practice: “I promised that I would not make war or peace or treaty without the counsel of the bishops, nobles, and good men by whose counsel I ought to rule.” Strategic discussions surely took place during the Council of León in 1135, when Alfonso VII ordered his frontiersmen “to wage war assiduously against the Saracen infidels every year.” Alfonso VIII, in consultation with his court, developed the plan for the Crusade of Las Navas, and Fernando III, prior to embarking on his initial campaign, took counsel with his mother, his nobles, the Military Orders, and others. Jaime I, who recorded numerous instances when he took counsel, planned the Crusades of Mallorca and Valencia after consulting military experts.

The first line of defense was castles and towns strategically situated along the frontier to provide maximum protection and to delay, if not to prevent, enemy penetration into the heart of the realm. About 1,500 to 2,000 castles in various states of repair still exist. Most were erected on promontories enabling the garrison to see for miles in every direction and to prepare for an approaching enemy. At times a moat was dug as a further protection. Many castles originated as a simple tower around which towns gradually developed. The walls of Ávila, still intact, were likely typical of most frontier towns. Maintenance of the walls was a continuing responsibility. The alcaide (Ar., al-qāʾid) or castellan, who rendered homage to the king, assumed the obligation “to make peace and war” at the king’s command and received a certain sum to provide castle guard, as well as sufficient food, water, and arms. Castles had to be given up to the king on demand, but could not be surrendered to the enemy without his consent.

The Formation of Armies

As there was no standing army, all military operations were essentially ad hoc, usually planned in the winter or early spring to be executed in the late spring, summer, and early fall. If the prince alerted his people by letter, messenger, or lighted fires, according to the Usatges of Barcelona, all men of appropriate age and capacity had to go his aid. A time (about three to four weeks) and a place was usually fixed when the army would assemble with suitable equipment and supplies. The principal ecclesiastical and secular lords were likely summoned individually and in writing. Royal messengers also publicly proclaimed the summons. Everyone summoned had to appear or give a suitable excuse. Failure to respond could result in fines, confiscation, and excommunication. Nobles usually had to serve for three months, in return for a monetary stipend, or tenancy. Towns had a similar obligation. After the expiration of that term troops might be persuaded to remain if their expenses were paid or they were assured of substantial booty. The Muslims of Córdoba, for example, were about to surrender in 1236, but on learning that the Christians were short of food and that the Leonese militias did not wish to remain beyond their three months, they opted to hold out longer.

The Latin sources usually employed the word exercitus for an army, but fonsado and hueste were also used to refer to any military expedition. As a medieval king was expected to lead troops in battle, princes of the royal family were trained to the military life from an early age. Besides his brothers and sons, the king was accompanied by his mesnada, an elite corps of knights acting as his bodyguard. Reilly estimated that about fifty mounted warriors, each supported by a squire and a groom, or about 150 men, attended Alfonso VII. Thirty-five caualleros de mesnada of Fernando III and thirty-three of Alfonso X received land in Seville after its conquest. Jaime I remarked at one point that he was escorted by fifty knights of his maynada.

Prelates and other clerics were often an integral part of the army. While the primary role of the nearly fifty bishops was to provide spiritual sustenance, they were also expected to provide a certain number of troops. Some, such as Jerome, bishop of Valencia, whom the Poem of the Cid depicted as equally adept at liturgical celebration and the use of a lance, may be described as warrior bishops. Both Martín of Pisuerga and Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada, archbishops of Toledo, led armies against the Muslims. Gregory IX acknowledged that Rodrigo raised 1,000 men-at-arms and 400 jinetes or light cavalry, and fortified thirty-five castles at his own expense. Bishops Gutierre of Córdoba and Sancho of Coria participated in the siege of Seville “with their company of horse and foot.”

Other clerics and monks promised undetermined numbers of knights, sergeants, and food supplies. The clerical contribution of 269 knights and 2,500 sergeants (servientes, sirvens)—2,769 men in all—was quite substantial. The proportion of sergeants to knights appears to be ten to one, or in the case of the archdeacon of Barcelona twenty to one.

During the Crusade of Lisbon Bishop Pedro of Porto and Archbishop João of Braga played prominent roles as preachers and negotiators. Sancho I subsequently exempted the Portuguese clergy from military service except when the Muslims “invade our kingdom.” Although Bishops Sueiro of Lisbon and Sueiro of Évora took an active role in the Crusade of Alcácer, evidence concerning later participation by Portuguese prelates in the reconquest is minimal. The bishop of Porto, who held the city in lordship, strongly objected when Sancho II demanded military service from the clergy and laity of the city; Gregory IX twice ordered the king to desist.

As royal vassals receiving estates in full ownership from the king or else as benefices, the magnates (ricos hombres, barones) were a major component of the army. From the eleventh century onward as the flow of tribute from the petty Muslim kings increased, kings were able to pay their vassals a cash stipend (stipendium, soldadas). Many a noble enriched himself by plunder and was rewarded for faithful service to the king by the concession of additional estates. As feudalism was more fully developed in Catalonia, nobles retained their fiefs and castles so long as they remained loyal and fulfilled their feudal obligations.

The nobility gradually developed an awareness of their distinctive character formed by the common bond of knighthood or chivalry. Young nobles were trained to war from childhood under the direction of a master soldier and served their elders as squires. A young man who distinguished himself on the battlefield might be knighted at once, though it became customary for an aspirant to undertake the vigil of arms and to receive the accolade the next day from an older knight or from the king. Kings such as Afonso I, who, at fourteen, took his arms from the altar on Pentecost Sunday, knighted themselves. Knights were expected to be courageous, experienced in military matters, endowed with good judgment and a sense of loyalty, and capable of evaluating horses and arms. The number of magnates probably was no more than a dozen or two at any given time. Each one was usually accompanied by his own retinue of vassals, responding to a similar obligation to serve. González suggested that the minimum number of knights in the mesnada of a Castilian magnate was 100, but some were able to maintain 200 or 300. At least fifteen magnates and 200 knights received a share in the partition of Seville.

Various magnates pledged a certain number of knights to the Mallorcan Crusade, as well as an indefinite number of archers, and sergeants, and agreed to provide them with food, drink, arms, armor, and horses.

Nobles  Knights

Nunyo Sanç, count of Roselló 100 knights

Hug, count of Empúries 70 knights

Guillem de Montcada, viscount of Béarn 100 knights

Ferran de San Martín 100 knights

Guerau de Cervelló 100 knights

Ramon de Montcada, lord of Tortosa 25 knights

Ramon Berenguer d’Ager 25 knights

Bernat de Santa Eugénia  30 knights

Gilabert de Croyles 30 knights

 Total 580 knights

If a ratio of sergeants to knights similar to that of the prelates is assumed, that is, ten or twenty to one, then the number of sergeants might approach 5,800 or 11,600. That would give a total of either 6,380 or 12,180 men, but it is impossible to say whether these figures are reasonably accurate or not.

The Military Orders comprised the first line of defense, but the number of friars ready for battle at any given moment is difficult to determine. There were perhaps no more than fifty to a hundred, depending on the Order. The Templar commander of Miravet, for example, pledged thirty knights, twenty mounted crossbowmen, and other troops for the Mallorcan Crusade. When Pelay Pérez Correa, master of Santiago, agreed in 1246 to provide Baldwin II of Constantinople with 1,500 men, that included 300 knights, but not all were members of the Order. Nor is it likely that the 200 archers (100 horse and 100 foot), and 1,000 sergeants or footsoldiers belonged to the Order.

Perhaps aware that rivalry between the Templars and Hospitallers had contributed to the downfall of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, the peninsular Orders several times promised mutual support and collaboration. In 1221 the masters of Calatrava and Santiago concluded a pact of brotherhood, stipulating that their knights would march together, fight side by side under one commander, and share booty equally. Three years later, the masters of Calatrava, Santiago, the Temple, and the Hospital in León and Castile pledged concerted action in battle. In 1239 the masters of Calatrava and Santiago confirmed all previous agreements between their Orders, and four years later they again emphased the need for cooperation under a single commander.

The municipalities also were required to respond to the summons to war. As the population of most Christian towns probably ranged between 1,500 to 3,000 persons, the number of adult males eligible for military service likely was no more than 600 to 1,200. Sentinels or lookouts were posted to warn of an approaching enemy so that the summons to defend the town could be given. The walls provided a secure haven for both urban residents and those living within the district. Towns also raided enemy territory in the hope of bringing back booty. Indeed, Dufourcq and Gautier-Dalché spoke of “war as an industry” during this era.

The nature and extent of municipal military obligations were spelled out in royal charters, such as the Fueros of Jaca, Teruel, Cuenca, and Coria. While in theory all able-bodied men, organized by districts or parishes, were required to serve, only a limited number might have to do so. Kings often granted exemption from military service in exchange for a tax called fonsadera. Before setting out, a muster (alarde, Ar., al-ʿarḍ) was held in the town square to determine whether the soldiers were properly equipped. Knights, who were a prominent element in the municipal militia, came to enjoy both political and social ascendancy in their towns. After the conquest of Seville, as the towns allowed their military skills and equipment to deteriorate, Alfonso X in 1256 and 1264 assured municipal mounted warriors of significant tax advantages, provided that they were suitably equipped for war. The urban militias were commanded by the juez or chief administrator of the town, but the alcaldes or magistrates organized the troops from each district. Scouts, lookouts, a chaplain, a surgeon, and notaries or scribes responsible for supplies and the distribution of booty, accompanied the militia.

Almogávers or almogávares (Ar., al-maghāwīr, raiders), men wearing rough garments, armed with daggers, short lances, and darts, and often living in forests, engaged in daily raids against the Muslims. In Catalonia they were usually footsoldiers, but in Castile they might also be horsemen. Light infantry carrying lances, knives, and daggers, perhaps the most numerous element of the army, included archers (arqueros) and crossbowmen (ballesteros); some ninety-five ballesteros received lands in the partition of Seville. While the cavalry was more mobile, the infantry was valued because it could go where cavalry could not.

Once an army was organized obedience and prompt execution of orders were essential for discipline. Disobedience, fomenting discord, quarreling, wounding, killing, stealing, desertion, and aiding and abetting the enemy were punished severely. Penalties included fines, exile, shaving the head and face, mutilation of the ears or hands, and execution. Trading with the enemy during wartime, especially in wheat, horses, weapons, iron, and wood, was condemned as treason, although the popes occasionally permitted people on the frontier to purchase necessities from neighboring Muslims.

Arms and Armor

In order to acquit themselves effectively soldiers were required to bring a sword, a lance, a javelin, a bow and arrows, or a crossbow and darts. Knights ordinarily carried an iron sword, usually about three feet long, doublesided and with a hilt. The sword was primarily used for striking an enemy in the hope of cutting through his coat of mail, rather than piercing his body. Both knights and footsoldiers used wooden or iron lances about six or seven feet long, and tipped with a long iron point. Footsoldiers also wielded a shorter javelin. Although the bow and arrow enjoyed some popularity, the crossbow became the most important projectile weapon, employed by both knights and footsoldiers.

Protective armor included the coat of mail, worn over a quilted jacket, and reaching the knees or even below; the helmet or iron cap, sometimes fitted with a nose guard, and worn over a cloth cap; and metal or leather braces protecting the arms and thighs. Shields or bucklers made of wood covered with leather or iron bands, were either round, or triangular, similar to a kite. The coats of arms of kings and knights were painted on their shields. Almoravid shields were made from hippopotamus hides. Body armor and arms varied greatly depending on the warrior’s status. Magnates may have adorned their helmets with precious stones, as visual testimony of their triumphs.

Several codices illustrate various types of weapons and protective gear. A twelfth-century miniature in Beatus’s Commentary depicts soldiers on horseback and on foot, wearing conical iron caps and chain mail covering the body including the head and reaching to the knees; they carried swords, lances, and round shields. A battle scene in Cantiga 63 displays Christian knights wearing chain mail covered with surcoats, gloves, and bowled or square helmets shielding the entire face; their kite shields have distinctive markings such as a zig-zag pattern in black and white (a Muslim shield has gold half-moons on red); they carry lances with triangular pennons, and a red flag. Around 1300 murals in the royal palace of Barcelona portrayed knights in chain mail with pot helmets, footsoldiers bearing lances and swords, and archers equipped with swords, as well as crossbows and darts in quivers.

Knights sometimes imitated the Muslim riding style, known as a la jineta; with a short stirrup strap and bended knees the knight was able to control his horse and to move swiftly. The French practice, known as a la brida, also gained popularity. A long stirrup strap extended the warrior’s legs giving him greater security, though somewhat sacrificing maneuverability. Horses were sometimes protected by a coat of mail. Given their great cost and the expense of maintaining them, the number of mounted warriors likely was small in comparison with infantrymen. Thirteenth-century laws prohibiting the export of horses attested to their scarcity. After losing eighty-six horses, Jaime I purchased replacements but admitted that he probably paid more than they were worth. The Almoravids brought camels to Spain, causing consternation among the Christians, but neither Muslims nor Christians used them regularly.

Armies probably employed trumpets or other horns to summon one another. The sound of Almoravid war drums covered with elephant hides reportedly terrified the Christians who had never heard them before. Cantiga 165 illustrates a Muslim army equipped with standards, trumpets, and drums.

Supply was a major concern of any army. It has been estimated that each man required about two and a half pounds of grain and two quarts of water per day; horses needed eight gallons of water and twenty-eight pounds of fodder. Beasts of burden, rather than wheeled carts, ordinarily were used to transport supplies. Mules, needing less food and water and able to cover as many as twenty-five miles a day with loads of 200 pounds or more, were preferred to horses. Municipal fueros often specified the obligation to provide beasts of burden. Jaime I employed 2,000 pack animals capable of carrying 400,000 pounds of supplies to relieve Puig, while the king of Granada sent 1,500 animals to Fernando III’s siege of Jaén. An army on the move usually followed river routes and marched through areas that might yield forage and plunder.

Warfare in the Spanish Reconquista Era II

Military Standards and Leadership

The military standard was a sign whereby kings, magnates, Military Orders, and town militias identified themselves; it also acted as a rallying point. Guillem de Montcada, who led the van in the battle of Portopí, commanded his men: “let no one separate himself from my standard” and Alfonso VIII ordered his standardbearer to advance into the midst of the battle of Las Navas to hearten his troops. Standards varied in size and shape in accordance with a person’s rank. Royal standards more than likely were similar to royal seals. Castles were probably depicted on the Castilian standard and lions on the Leonese; after the union of the realms, the two were combined. Innocent III permitted Pedro II and his successors to use a banner bearing their arms, four red stripes on a yellow shield. The royal murals of Barcelona show knights carrying standards with distinctive arms and some have similar identifying signs on their helmets.

Town militias gathered for prayer and for the blessing of their standards before setting out on campaign. In the Cortes of Seville in 1250 Fernando III stipulated that a town’s standard must be borne not by an artisan, but by the juez or judge, a person of knightly rank, who would not bring shame on the town in time of danger, presumably by fleeing. Standards given to towns by the king were destroyed after his death and replaced by others presented by his successor. Soldiers were expected to defend the standard, and suffered dire punishments if they fled with it, thereby disrupting the army, or abandoned it, an act tantamount to treason. Rewards were given to those who defended the standard or recovered one taken by the enemy, or raised up one that had fallen, or captured an enemy standard.

The success of any military undertaking depended largely on the quality of leadership. Although the king was the natural commander, he was not necessarily a good general, and so relied on the counsel of his vassals, who brought their own experience into play. Afonso I and Sancho I of Portugal and Alfonso I and Jaime I of Aragón appear to have been more than competent commanders, while the Cid and Pelay Pérez Correa, master of Santiago, stand out as notable generals. The alférez (Ar., al-fāris, knight) or signifer, a prominent noble who bore the royal standard, commanded the army during the king’s absence. The Cid, named as alférez by Sancho II of Castile, was the most famous person to hold that position.

Below the magnates, each of whom commanded his own vassals, there were many other commanders and the law prescribed harsh penalties for those who killed, wounded, or dishonored them. In its most limited sense adalid (Ar., al-dalīl, guide) meant one whose knowledge of roads and passages was such that he could lead troops safely through difficult terrain, and knew where to place lookouts. Sponsored by twelve of his fellows, he was appointed by the king to command a mounted troop; after swearing an oath to defend the realm, he received a standard from the king as a sign of his office. At least twenty adalides shared in the partition of Seville. If someone were to be promoted to the post of almocadén (Ar., al-muqaddam, commander) or infantry commander, twelve others had to swear that he was brave and loyal, knowledgeable in war, capable of command and of protecting his men. The king conferred on him a lance with a small pennant by which he could be recognized. His twelve sponsors then raised him high four times on two lances; pointing his lance toward each of the four corners of the world, he swore the same oath as the adalid. Fifty-one almocadenes, each with a company of foot, were given property in the partition of Seville.

Wars of Pillage and Devastation

Offensive warfare most often took the form of cavalcades or raids of shorter or longer duration into enemy territory. Both Christian and Muslim raiding parties of lightly armed cavalry tried to profit by a rapid strike, seizing livestock and whatever other booty they could in a day or two. Perhaps numbering only 50 to 300 men, raiders usually were familiar with the land and tried to conceal their movements as long as possible. They had to move swiftly so the enemy would not have time to retaliate and so that they could regain the safety of their town. The best guarantee of that was surprise. When Jaime I carried out a raid with 130 knights, 150 almogàvers, and 700 footsoldiers, they traveled by night, but the Muslims of Valencia alerted their people by bonfires.

Raids lasting several weeks or even months and reaching deep into enemy territory often involved thousands of knights and footsoldiers and had to be planned well in advance. They were usually undertaken during the summer and fall when the harvest was ripe for destruction or could provide sustenance for the raiders. The purpose of these raids was devastation: to destroy the enemy’s crops; trees and vineyards were burned and cut down; livestock was seized; villages were pillaged; fortifications were wrecked; and persons having the misfortune of being in the way were captured. The raiders hoped to undermine the enemy’s morale and his will to resist. Once an enemy had been softened up in this way, it was possible to besiege a stronghold in the expectation that the defenders would have insufficient supplies and manpower to maintain themselves for any length of time.

As the element of surprise was missing in a large cavalcade acting in broad daylight, the army had to be well organized and disciplined, moving in a column, ready to defend itself at any moment. The army ordinarily was divided into a vanguard, a rearguard, and flanking detachments. Defensible places adjacent to water and food supplies were chosen for encampments. Tents were set in a circle or a square with the king’s tent in the center. Sometimes defensive barriers were established. In 1231 Jaime I ordered 300 campfires lit so the Muslims would conclude that his army was much larger than in actuality. From a base camp smaller raiding parties were detached to plunder the surrounding area. Alfonso I, departing from Zaragoza in September 1125 and ending about a year later, carried out a notable cavalcade through Andalucía. Once the decision was taken to return home, the army was vulnerable to reprisals because of the burden of captives and livestock seized as booty.

Siege Warfare

Sooner or later, if the king wished to take possession of any area, he had to seize the enemy’s strongholds and the territory dependent on them. Some fortresses were taken by surprise, usually because the garrison was small and unprepared. Taking advantage of the dark of night, the twelfth-century Portuguese adventurer Geraldo the Fearless scaled the walls of several towns but few of his conquests were permanent. Other places were captured when the attackers overwhelmed the defenders. When the crusaders enroute to Las Navas seized Malagón in a few hours, other nearby fortresses, after offering minimal resistance, soon capitulated. After breaking into the suburbs of Córdoba by surprise, the Castilians soon established a full-blown siege.

A siege was a long and costly operation of uncertain outcome (see Figure 6). The approaches to a fortress were often difficult to traverse, especially if it stood on a mountain, or if it were protected by a moat or a palisade. The Genoese closed the moat of Tortosa, reportedly about 126 feet wide by 96 deep, by filling it with stones. The Muslims defending Calatrava la vieja in 1212 set iron spikes in the Guadiana River to impede the crusaders. Stone walls several feet thick protected the defenders while holding off the enemy; sometimes an outer wall encircling the original walls presented an additional barrier. The last bastion of defense was the citadel within the walls and often on a height overlooking a town. Sieges such as those of Toledo (1085), Zaragoza (1118), Lisbon (1147), Almería (1147), Tortosa (1148), Silves (1189), Alcácer do Sal (1217), Mallorca (1229), Córdoba (1236), Valencia (1238), Jaén (1245), and Seville (1248) occupy a significant place in contemporary narratives. The besieging army attempted to sever the enemy’s lines of communication and to deprive the defenders of sustenance by ravaging the surrounding countryside. Care had to be taken, however, not to destroy the army’s own food supply. While the work of pillage continued, the defenders often made sorties, skirmishing with their opponents, and then retreating hastily to safety.

Arms and armor as well as water, wheat, and other food supplies were stockpiled in preparation for a siege. The defenders of Lisbon eventually were reduced to eating cats and dogs—to the horror of the crusaders—as well as garbage thrown from crusader ships and washed up under the walls. Although the food supply supposedly had rotted, when the crusaders occupied the city they discovered 8,000 seams of wheat and 12,000 sextars of oil, which they found quite acceptable. Failure to cut off the food supply or to reduce the defenders to starvation often forced a siege to be abandoned. Limitations on military service also hampered besieging armies, as knights or townsmen opted to depart once their term was up.

A blockade was established so supplies and reinforcements could not be introduced and the defenders could not escape. Attempts were made to breach the walls by sapping or battering them. Mantlets made of hides and osier protected sappers trying to dig under the walls and others using a battering ram from being pummeled from above by stones. If a castle were built on rock, mining would be time-consuming and costly and ultimately unsuccessful. Within a month the crusaders at Lisbon dug a mine with five entrances, extending about sixty feet; when inflammable material was placed in the mine about forty-five feet of the wall fell down. Crusaders mining the walls of Alcácer do Sal caused one tower to collapse. The Muslims thwarted an attempt during the siege of Seville to undermine Triana.

While mining was in progress, wooden towers were constructed and moved up against the walls, sometimes on wheels, sometimes over greased wooden rollers. Standing on top of the towers, archers and crossbowmen shot arrows and other missiles down on the defenders; eventually an assault might be launched across a bridge from the tower to the walls. Two movable towers, one eighty-three feet high and another ninety-five feet, were built during the siege of Lisbon. Mats, penthouses, and mantlets made of interwoven branches protected the towers against fire and stones; however, the defenders dumped burning oil on one tower, reducing it to ashes. During the siege of Almería the Muslims used Greek fire to burn wooden castles built by the Christians.

Siege engines previously used were sometimes transported to the current site, while at other times they were built on the spot. While bombardment might continue by day and night, walls were not easily destroyed. The defenders often had siege engines of their own to hurl missiles at their tormentors. Chevedden argued that all siege machines were essentially variations of the trebuchet, a wooden beam on a rotating axle fixed on a single pole or on a trestle. Attached to the long narrow end of the beam was a sling containing a projectile; ropes tied to the other, wider end, when pulled by a crew, propelled the projectile through the air. Three types were used: the traction trebuchet driven by a crew pulling ropes; the counterweight trebuchet powered by a counterweight placed opposite the sling; and the hybrid trebuchet employing both the counterweight and the pulling crew.

Among the siege engines in which the beam was fixed on a single pole were the mangonel, probably a traction trebuchet; the fundibulum; and the algarrade (Ar. ʿarrādah). Heavier machines set on a trestle included the al-manjanech (Ar. al-manjanīq), probably a hybrid trebuchet; and the brigola, a counterweight trebuchet. Stones were often transported to the siege, but at other times were gathered on site. The maximum size that could be fired by a traction trebuchet was 200 pounds for a maximum distance of about 120 meters or 390 feet. A counterweight trebuchet could launch even heavier missiles. Two Balearic mangonels, hybrid trebuchets used by the crusaders at Lisbon with alternating crews of 100 men, were able to fire 5,000 stones in ten hours, or 250 an hour, or approximately four every minute. One can imagine the destruction that might be done and the fear raised among the population.

Both sides also practiced a form of pscyhological warfare. Jaime I, for example, shot the head of a Muslim captive over the walls of Palma. While the crusaders at Lisbon impaled the heads of eighty Muslim captives so the defenders could see them, the Muslims taunted them, objecting to their worship of Jesus, abusing the cross, and suggesting that their wives were producing bastards at home. When the Almoravids threatened Toledo in 1148, Queen Berenguela called their manhood into question for attacking a woman and told them to seek out her husband, Alfonso VII, who would readily take them on. Shamed, they withdrew.

Persistence eventually brought the besieged to their knees. As supplies were exhausted, starvation loomed; people died; rotting corpses raised a stench, and disease began to spread. In the circumstances the defenders might appeal to their coreligionists for help, promising that if that proved fruitless within a specified period they would surrender. After an army coming to relieve Alcácer do Sal was defeated, the defenders capitulated a month later. When Alfonso IX routed Ibn Hūd at Alange, Mérida surrendered; nearby Badajoz apparently put up little resistance, and the Muslims abandoned Elvas. Fernando III allowed Carmona to seek help in 1247, but when it was not forthcoming, the town yielded.

Although no surrender pacts for Castile-León and Portugal are extant, the chroniclers often reported the terms of surrender. Some Aragonese pacts do survive and are likely representative of the genre. Alfonso VI allowed the Muslims of Toledo to remain, retaining their property, worshipping freely, and living in accordance with Islamic law; those who wished to depart with their movable goods could do so, but they could return later if they wished. Alfonso I gave similar guarantees to the Muslims of Zaragoza. Although the Muslims of Lisbon were permitted to leave, provided that they gave up their arms, money, animals, and clothing, the crusaders sacked the city, killing many. Sancho I agreed to allow the Muslims of Silves to depart with their movable goods, but his crusading allies insisted on their right to plunder the city, even though he offered them 10,000 maravedís as compensation.

Fernando III’s general policy in Andalucía was to require the Muslims to evacuate the principal urban centers capitulating after a siege. Thus the Muslims of Capilla, Baeza, Úbeda, Córdoba, Jaén, and Seville were allowed to depart, taking their movable goods under safe-conduct to Muslim territory. The Muslims similarly evacuated Palma, Borriana, and Valencia, but a significant number remained in Jaime I’s dominions, assured of religious liberty and the observance of Islamic law. The fall of a city usually resulted in the capitulation of smaller towns in the vicinity. Thus when Toledo surrendered, other towns in the Tagus valley acknowledged Alfonso VI’s sovereignty. After the surrender of Córdoba, several adjacent towns offered tribute to Fernando III. Many towns in the countryside surrounding Seville, including Jerez and Medina Sidonia, acknowledged his suzerainty, while retaining their property, law, and religion.

While many sieges ended with capitulation, some towns were taken by assault. This was the bloodiest outcome of a siege and in some respects the least desirable. Men, women, and children were slaughtered indiscriminately, and survivors were reduced to slavery. Although the defenders at Almería offered Alfonso VII 100,000 maravedís if he would lift the siege, the Genoese refused to agree and took the city by assault. Some 20,000 Muslims were said to have been killed and another 30,000 taken captive; 10,000 women and children were transported to Genoa, where they were likely sold as slaves or ransomed. Following Las Navas the Muslims of Úbeda offered Alfonso VIII 1,000,000 maravedís to pass them by, but he refused and assaulted the city, enslaving the survivors. Jaime I reported that 24,000 inhabitants were massacred during the assault of Palma.


Numerous battles resulted when a relieving army attempted to drive off besiegers or to intercept a raiding expedition, but only rarely did kings risk the possibility of a great victory or a terrible defeat by deliberately engaging in a pitched battle. The Cid, besieged in Valencia, repulsed the Almoravids at Cuart de Poblet in 1094, and two years later Pedro I triumphed at Alcoraz over the Muslims coming to relieve Huesca. The Almoravids, in turn, overwhelmed a Christian army trying to succor Uclés in 1108. Alfonso I gained three notable victories on the battlefield, first over the king of Zaragoza who made a sortie from his beleaguered city in 1118; then at Cutanda in 1120 over the Almoravids; and at Lucena in 1126 during his march through Andalucía. He was not so fortunate, however, at Fraga in 1134, when he was defeated and killed by the Almoravids. There is little information about it, but at Ourique in 1139 Afonso I defeated the Muslims attempting to halt incursions into the Alentejo. A century later, as noted above, at Alange in 1230 Alfonso IX bested Ibn Hūd attempting to relieve Mérida. Muslim troops stationed on a height at Portopí overlooking the shore attempted to halt Jaime I’s invasion of Mallorca in 1229, but the Christians forced them to flee. When Zayyān, the king of Valencia, attacked Jaime I’s base at Puig de la Cebolla in 1237, he was driven off. The victory undermined the morale of the Valencian Muslims and stiffened the king’s determination to have the city.

The classic battles of the reconquest, however, were Zallāqa, Alarcos, and Las Navas de Tolosa. Alfonso VI and Yūsuf ibn Tashufīn fought the battle of Zallāqa on 23 October 1086, on a broad plain in a place now called Sagrajas, near the juncture of the Guadiana and the Gevora Rivers, about eight to ten miles north of Badajoz. A description by a contemporary author, Abū Bakr al-Turṭūshī, probably reflects the tactics employed by the Almoravids at Zallāqa:

This is the battle order that we use . . . and which seems most efficacious in our battles with our enemies. The infantry with their shields, lances, and iron-tipped and penetrating javelins are formed in several ranks. Their lances rest obliquely on their shoulders, the shaft touching the ground, the point aimed at the enemy. Each one kneels . . . on his left knee and holds his shield in the air. Behind the infantry are the elite archers, whose arrows can pierce coats of mail. Behind the archers are the cavalry. . . . When the enemy comes near, the archers let fly against them a shower of arrows, while the infantry throw their javelins and receive the charge on the points of their lances. Then infantry and archers . . . open their ranks to right and left and the Muslim cavalry, charging through the open space, routs the enemy, if Allāh so decides.

Alfonso VI, possibly expecting a quick victory over forces assumed to be as ineffective as the reyes de taifas, charged and drove back the taifa contingents, but superior Almoravid numbers halted his advance. Their first line of defense consisted of soldiers equipped with long lances, and the second line threw javelins at the enemy. At this point Yūsuf carried out a flanking movement and surrounded the Christians; many were killed as they attempted to escape, but some apparently died from the labors of the day. Though wounded, Alfonso VI escaped under cover of night. Despite his victory, Yūsuf advanced no further, perhaps reasoning that it was late in the year and that greater success could be achieved in the spring. Thus he gained no significant territory at Christian expense, though the subjugation of Andalucía to Almoravid rule put the Christians on the defensive for many years to come. Another consequence was to attract French knights to the war against Islam in Spain.


The taifa kingdoms in 1031 immediately after the fracturing of the caliphate.

The Party Kingdoms, or Taifa Kingdoms, emerged out of the anarchy that followed the collapse of the Umayyad caliphate of Córdoba in 1009 CE and the ensuing period of civil war (fitna) that lasted until 1031. The Arabic term muluk al-tawa’if (factional kings) was applied to the rulers of these petty states, because their existence defied the Islamic ideal of political unity under the authority of a single caliph. The era of the Party Kingdoms, which lasted until 1110 CE, was one of great cultural florescence in al- Andalus, particularly among Muslims and Jews. It was also the period in which native Iberian Muslims lost control of their political destiny; from this time forward they would dominated by Iberian Christian and North African Muslim powers.

The Umayyad caliphate had been run, in fact, if not in name, by the ‘Amirid dynasty of ‘‘chamberlains’’ (hajib) since Muhammad ibn Abi ‘Amir al- Mansur (976–1002) seized power during the reign of Hisham II (976–1009/1010–1113). On his death, al- Mansur was succeeded by two sons, ‘Abd al-Malik (r. 1002–1008), and ‘Abd al-Rahman (or ‘‘Sanjul’’), who took power in 1008. Unable to maintain the delicate and volatile balance of factions within the government and Andalusi society, or to counter popular resentment of the growing prestige of Berber groups who had been invited to al-Andalus as part of caliphal military policy, Sanjul provoked the outrage of the Umayyad aristocracy, the religious elite (‘ulama’), and the populace by pressuring the aging and childless Hisham to name him as successor in 1008. Sanjul was deposed by elements of the military, and the people of Co´rdoba rampaged against local Berbers. As civil war erupted in the capital, power was seized in the various provincial cities by local governors, members of the palace slave (saqaliba) contingent, the ‘ulama’, and Berber clans, which had come to dominate the army. The variety of political leadership reflected the divisions that had emerged in Andalusi politics and society since the time of ‘Abd al-Rahman III (r. 912–961). Until the death of Hisham III in 1031, each of the rulers maintained a patina of legitimacy by styling himself as the hajib ruling in the name of the Umayyad caliph, while struggling against neighboring Party Kingdoms both for survival and a greater share of Andalusi territory.

By the 1040s, most of the smaller states had been swallowed up, leaving several major players, which included: Badajoz, ruled by the Aftasids, an Andalusi dynasty; Toledo, ruled by the Dhi’l-Nun, of Berber origin; Zaragoza, ruled by the Banu Hud, of Arab origin; Seville, ruled by the Andalusi ‘Abbasids; Granada, ruled by the Berber Zirid clan; Valencia, ruled by ‘Amirids; and Almerý´a, ruled by a succession of factions. By this point the slave regimes were no more; lacking a broader constituency they fell victim to Andalusi and Berber cliques who had a wider popular base or a more cohesive military core. Among the great rivalries that emerged were those of Seville and Granada (which also faced the hostility of Almería), and Toledo and Zaragoza. Zaragoza was further plagued by internal divisions thanks to the custom of Hudid rulers of dividing their patrimony among their heirs.

These rivalries were capitalized on by the Christian kingdoms of the peninsula, particularly Castile and Leo´ n, which were united under the strong leadership of Fernando I of Castile (r. 1035–1065) and his successor Alfonso VI (r. 1065–1109). Fernando, who exploited Andalusi weakness by pushing far south of the Duero and taking Coímbra in 1064, initiated a policy in which military pressure was used to convert the Party Kingdoms into tributary states. As a consequence, Badajoz, Seville, Toledo, Zaragoza, and Granada were forced to pay large indemnities (parias) of gold and silver in exchange for military support and protection from attack. Other Christian principalities, notably Aragon and Barcelona, quickly imitated this. As a result, Christian powers became increasingly embroiled in Andalusi affairs, supporting their taifa clients against rival kingdoms and using them in their own internecine struggles. Hence, Castile-supported Toledo fought Aragon-supported Zaragoza, and Zaragoza faced a rebellious Lérida aided by Barcelona. It was in this context that the famous Rodrigo Diaz del Vivar, ‘‘El Cid,’’ an exile from Castile, found himself commanding the military forces of Zaragoza against the troops of Aragon and Barcelona. Indeed, ‘‘El Cid’’ had earned his moniker from Sevillan troops in 1064 after he led them to victory against the forces of taifa Granada, when they referred to him gratefully as ‘‘my lord’’ (sidi). Such interventions were symptomatic of a general dependence of the taifa kingdoms on Christian military strength, which further undermined their autonomy.

The taifa kingdoms were able to support the paria regime because of the fact that their economic infrastructure had remained largely undamaged by the unrest of the fitna. These were economies based on intensive agriculture and market gardening, manufacture and craft and, particularly in the case of the Mediterranean coast, trade. The trans-Saharan gold trade that had fueled the incredible prosperity of the caliphate also continued, providing the taifa kings with the funds they needed to meet their tributary obligations. The vibrant Andalusi economy also sustained a cultural renaissance, encouraged by the new political plurality in which rival courts vied as patrons of Arabic letters, science, and theology; the great poet Ibn Hazm (b. Córdoba, 993) is the best-known figure of this age. Jewish culture and letters, including both Arabic- and Hebrew-language literature, also throve, producing remarkable figures such as the poet Isma’il ibn Naghrilla (b. Córdoba, 991), who exercised power as effective head of state of the taifa of Granada from 1027 to 1056. This cultural diversity reflected the ethno-religious composition of the kingdoms, most of which had significant Jewish and Mozarab Christian minorities, members of which not infrequently enjoyed great prestige and wielded considerable political power. For example, Isma’il ibn Naghrilla, wazir and military commander of Granada, was succeeded by his son Yusuf. Sisnando Davídez, a Mozarab who later served as Alfonso VI’s envoy, had been an administrator in Muslim Badajoz, and a number of dhimmis (non-Muslim subjects) served in the government of Zaragoza.

For the most part this diversity was tolerated by the Muslim majority, including the ‘ulama’, although some of the latter were outraged by the prospect that dhimmis should hold formal office under a Muslim regime. Their ire, however, came to be directed increasingly at the taifa kings themselves, many of whom were Berbers who shared no ethno-cultural affiliation with the Andalusi population and who ruled as a foreign military elite. Popular dissatisfaction was aggravated by the increasing burden of taxation, which the ‘ulama’ (who tended to come from the commercial class) and the common people were expected to bear as a result of the paria system. The taifa kings’ imposition of uncanonical taxes and their submission as tributaries to Christian powers served as an ideological rallying point for popular revolt. The situation of the ‘ulama’ was further exacerbated by the disruption of long-distance trade networks, thanks to incursions of the Normans in the Mediterranean and the Banu Hilal in Tunisia, and by the growing unrest in the Andalusi countryside, where the inter-taifa warfare and banditry led to general disorder. In 1085, the populace of Toledo led by the religious elite ejected the taifa king al-Qadir from the city. Turning to his patron, Alfonso VI, al-Qadir agreed that if reinstated he would hand the city over to the Castilian king, on the promise of later being installed as king in Valencia. Thus, in that same year, after negotiating a treaty with the local ‘ulama’, Alfonso entered Toledo as king.

This event made evident the corruption and debility of the taifa kings, who were derided in learned and pious Andalusi circles as decadent and effete. A well-known contemporary satirical verse mocked them: ‘‘They give themselves grandiose names like ‘The Powerful,’ and ‘The Invincible,’ but these are empty titles; they are like little pussycats who, puffing themselves up, imagine they can roar like lions.’’ It also demonstrated to the taifa kings that Alfonso’s aim was conquest; indeed, following up his seizure of Toledo, Alfonso laid siege to the other powerful northern taifa, Zaragoza (as a means of blocking the expansion on his Christian rival, the Kingdom of Aragón). By now both the ‘ulama’ and the taifa rulers agreed outside help was desperately required. The only group to which they could turn was the Almoravids, a dynamic Berber faction that had coalesced on the southern reaches of the African gold routes and had managed to impose their political will on the region of Morocco, having taken Marrakech in 1061 and Fez in 1069. Self-styled champions of a Sunni Islam revival (which resonated with that of the Seljuks in the East), they saw their mission not only as halting the Christian advance in al-Andalus but also of deposing the illegitimate taifa rulers.

In 1086, the Almoravid Yusuf ibn Tashfin led a sizeable army to al-Andalus at the invitation of al- Mu‘tamid of Seville. With the half-hearted help of the Andalusi troops the Almoravid faced Alfonso VI and his loyal Muslim clients in battle at Zallaqa (or Sagrajas) and issued them a major defeat. He did not follow this up, returning instead to Morocco. For the next two years the taifa kings were confident enough to defy Alfonso VI, but when he began to attack them again, they were forced to call on the Almoravids for help once more. Ibn Tashfin waited until 1089 when, having obtained juridical opinions from the ‘ulama’ of the East authorizing him to take power in al-Andalus, he returned and set about deposing the remaining taifa rulers one by one. By 1094, virtually all of the kingdoms had fallen, their rulers having been either killed or shipped off as prisoners to Almoravid Morocco.

Valencia did not fall until 1102. By 1087, ‘‘El Cid,’’ against the opposition of Zaragoza and the various Christian kings, had determined to take the city for himself and was provided with a pretext when an ‘ulama’-led uprising deposed and executed al-Qadir in 1092. Rodrigo besieged the city, which, forsaken by the Almoravids, surrendered in 1093. Having negotiated a treaty with the Muslim population, Rodrigo ruled the city and surrounding territory until his death in 1099—a Christian taifa king. Three years later, unable to resist the growing pressure of the Almoravids, Rodrigo’s wife and successor, Jimena, and her troops abandoned the city to its inhabitants, setting it ablaze as they left. The remaining Party Kingdom, Zaragoza, remained independent partly because the Almoravids were content to use it as a buffer state and partly because its rulers became so adept at playing off their Christian rivals against each other. As in the case of Toledo, however, the populace and the religious elite became increasingly frustrated by a leadership that was so deeply embroiled with the very Christian powers who seemed determined to defeat them. In 1110, a popular uprising banished the last Hudid king from power, and the city submitted to Almoravid rule. Zaragoza would ultimately fall to Alfonso I of Aragon in 1118, surrendering after a lengthy siege, after the surviving members of the Banu Hud struggled vainly with Alfonso VI’s help to regain their patrimony.

The period of the Party Kingdoms marks a turning point in the history of medieval Iberia, when the balance of political and economic initiative shifted from the Muslim-dominated South to the Christian dominated North. Whether as a consequence of a crisis of ‘asabiyya (group identity) on the part of the Andalusis, or as the result of larger political and economic trends, the destiny of the Muslims of Spain would henceforth be in the hands of foreigners. The politics of the taifa period, however, defy the notion that this process or the so-called Christian Reconquest that looms so largely in it was the result of an epic civilizational struggle between Islam and Christendom; the most striking aspect of taifa era al- Andalus was the relative absence of religious sectarianism and the profound enmeshment of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish individuals and political factions.

Benaboud, M’hammad. ‘‘ ‘Asabiyya and Social Relations in Al-Andalus During the Period of the Taifa States.’’

Hesperis-Tamuda 19 (1980–1981): 5–45.

Cle´ment, Franc¸ois. Pouvoir et Le´gitimite´ en Espagne Musulmane a` l’E´ poque des Taifas (Ve-XIe sie`cle): L’Imam Fictif. Paris, 1997.

Wasserstein, David. The Rise and Fall of the Party-Kings:

Politics and Society in Islamic Spain 1002–1086. Princeton, NJ, 1985.

Disintegration of the Caliphate : the Taifa Kingdoms


Crusaders Embark 1450. (Photo by: Picturenow/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Problem in Context

‘One of the greatest victories ever in that part of the world,’ in the estimation of a sixteenth-century chronicler, was won off the Malabar coast on 18 March 1506. A Portuguese squadron of nine ships, which triumphed over the fleet of the Zamorin of Calicut, allegedly 250-sail strong, helped to establish a pattern which was already becoming discernible in European encounters with distant enemies. European naval superiority enabled expeditions to operate successfully, far from home, against adversaries better endowed in every other kind of resource.

This was not only true at sea. The critical moment of the conquest of Mexico was the capture of a lake-bound city 7,350 feet above sea level, with the aid of brigantines built and launched on the shores of the lake. A little later, even more conspicuously, the conquest of Siberia—the largest and most enduring of the empires acquired by European arms in the sixteenth century—was of an enormous hinterland with little access to the sea; but it was very largely a conquest of rivers, which were the highways of communication in the region. Russian superiority in river warfare was as decisive in Siberia as was Portuguese naval supremacy in the Indian Ocean or that of the Spanish in lake-borne warfare in Mexico.

We know little of the medieval background from which these world-beating traditions of naval warfare emerged or of the maritime culture in Europe which bred them. Medieval chroniclers were almost always landlubbers, whose descriptions of sea fights were conventional and ill informed. Artists who depicted battle scenes were rarely interested in realism. Official records give little more than clues about the structure and equipment of ships. Treatises of tactics, which are in good supply to historians of land warfare, are virtually non-existent for the seas. Marine archaeology has only recently begun to yield additional information. In recent years, moreover, naval history has been out of fashion, except as a small department of maritime history—partly as a reaction against the obsession of earlier generations, who took ‘the influence of sea power on history’ as an article of credal authority. The material in this chapter must therefore be more tentative than much in the rest of this book.

The Framework of Nature

During the age of sail, the outcome of fighting at sea depended on nature. Weather, currents, rocks, shoals, winds, and seasonal severities were the extra enemies with which both sides in any encounter had to contend. Europe has two sharply differentiated types of maritime environment, which bred their own technical and, to a lesser extent, strategic and tactical practices in the middle ages.

The Mediterranean, together with the Black Sea, is a tideless and, by general standards, placid body of water with broadly predictable winds and currents. Since it lies entirely within narrow latitudes, it has a fairly consistent climate, except in the northernmost bays of the Black Sea, which freeze in winter. Atlantic-side and Baltic Europe, by contrast, is lashed by a more powerful, capricious and changeable ocean which stretches over a wide climatic band. Climatic conditions had inescapable strategic implications. To some extent, these corresponded to universal rules of naval warfare under sail. In attack, the ‘weather gauge’ is usually decisive: in other words it is of critical advantage to make one’s attack with a following wind. Havens are easiest to defend if they lie to windward. Since westerlies prevail over most of the coasts of Europe, and right across the Mediterranean, these facts give some communities a natural historic advantage. Most of the great ports of Atlantic-side Europe are on lee shores but England has a uniquely long windward coast well furnished with natural harbours; only Sweden, Scotland, and Denmark share this advantage, albeit to a lesser extent. In Mediterranean conflicts, thanks to the winds, relatively westerly powers tended to have an advantage. The racing current, moreover, which powers eastward through the Strait of Gibraltar, flows anti-clockwise along the southern shore of the sea. In consequence, in the great ideological conflict of the middle ages—between Islam, which generally occupied most of the southern and eastern shores, and Christendom in the north and west—the balance of advantage lay on the Christian side. In seaborne warfare, speed of access to critical stations is vital; the return voyage is relatively unimportant for an expedition whose aim is to seize or relieve a point on land.

The Technological Process

Naval historians like to stress the cost of naval war and the magnitude of the logistical effort it demands, but in our period it was relatively economical, compared with expenditure on knights, seige works, and fortifications. For most of the period, few fighting ships were purpose-built at public expense and the opportunities of recouping costs by seizing plunder and prizes were considerable. Only very gradually did naval expenditure overtake the costs of land warfare, as warships became more specialized and land forces less so. The full effects of this change were not felt until after our period was over. Nevertheless, the cheapness of naval warfare was a function of its scale. The occasional great campaigns, in which vast quantities of shipping were taken out of the regular economy and exposed to immolation in hazardous battles, could represent a terrible, if short-lived, strain.

Weapons apart, navigation was the most important aspect of technology for battle fleets, which often took those aboard outside familiar waters. Haven-finding was essential for keeping fleets at sea; precise navigation was essential for getting them to the right place. Most of the technical aids of the period seem hopelessly inadequate to these tasks and it is not surprising that experienced navigators, in regions they knew at first-hand, kept close to the coasts and navigated between landmarks. Advice from a treatise of about 1190 represents an early stage of the reception in Europe of the navigator’s most rudimentary tool: when the moon and stars are enveloped in darkness, Guyot de Provins explained, all the sailor need do is place, inside a straw floating in a basin of water, a pin well rubbed ‘with an ugly brown stone that draws iron to itself’. The compass was made serviceable in the thirteenth century by being balanced on a point, so that it could rotate freely against a fixed scale, usually divided between thirty-two compass-points. Other tools for navigators were gradually and imperfectly absorbed in the course of the middle ages, but their reception tended to be delayed and their impact diminished by the natural conservatism of a traditional craft.

Mariners’ astrolabes, for instance, which enabled navigators to calculate their latitude from the height of the sun or the Pole Star above the horizon, were already available by the start of our period. Few ships, however, were carrying astrolabes even by the period’s end. Tables for determining latitude according to the hours of sunlight were easier to use but demanded more accurate timekeeping than most mariners could manage with the sole means at their disposal: sandclocks turned by ships’ boys. The so-called ‘sun compass’—a small gnomon for casting a shadow on a wooden board—might have been useful for determining one’s latitude relative to one’s starting-point; but we lack evidence that navigators carried it in our period.

Warfare took navigators from the Atlantic and Mediterranean into each other’s spheres, where they had to contend with the dangers of unknown coasts and narrows (and, in northern waters, tides). This created a demand for sailing directions, which survive in original form for the Mediterranean from the early thirteenth century. They soon began to be cast in the form of charts, criss-crossed with compass bearings, which were probably less useful for practical navigators than written directions in which detailed pilotage information could be included.

The oldest original cartographic artifact in the Library of Congress: a portolan nautical chart of the Mediterranean Sea. Second quarter of the 14th century.

In view of the dearth of useful technical aids it is hard to resist the impression that navigators relied on the sheer accumulation of practical craftsmanship and lore to guide them in unknown waters. From the thirteenth century onwards, compilers of navigational manuals distilled vicarious experience into sailing directions which could genuinely assist a navigator without much prior local knowledge. ‘Portolan charts’ began to present similar information in graphic form at about the same period. The earliest clear reference is to the chart which accompanied St Louis on his crusade to Tunis in 1270.

At the start of our period, there were marked technical differences between Mediterranean and Atlantic Europe in shipbuilding. In both areas, the shipwright’s was a numinous craft, sanctified by the sacred images in which ships were associated in the pictorial imaginations of the time: the ark of salvation, the storm-tossed barque, and the ship of fools. Much of our knowledge of medieval shipyards comes from pictures of Noah. Underlain by this conceptual continuity were differences in technique which arose from differences in the environment. Atlantic and northern shipwrights built for heavier seas. Durability was their main criterion. They characteristically built up their hulls plank by plank, laying planks to overlap along their entire length and fitting them together with nails. The Mediterranean tradition preferred to work frame-first: planks were nailed to the frame and laid edge-to-edge. The latter method was more economical. It demanded less wood in all and far fewer nails; once the frame was built, most of the rest of the work could be entrusted to less specialized labour. In partial consequence, frame-first construction gradually spread all over Europe until by the end of our period it was the normal method everywhere. For warships, however, Atlantic-side shipyards generally remained willing to invest in the robust effect of overlapping planks, even though, from the early fifteenth century, these were invariably attached to skeleton frames.

Warships—in the sense of ships designed for battle—were relatively rare. Warfare demanded more troop transports and supply vessels than floating battle-stations and, in any case, merchant ships could be adapted for fighting whenever the need arose. In times of conflict, therefore, shipping of every kind was impressed: availability was more important than suitability. Navies were scraped together by means of ship-levying powers on maritime communities, which compounded for taxes with ships; or they were bought or hired—crews and all—on the international market.

Until late-medieval developments in rigging improved ships’ manoeuvrability under sail, oared vessels were essential for warfare in normal weather conditions. Byzantine dromons were rowed in battle from the lower deck, as shown in this late eleventh-century illustration, with the upper deck cleared for action, apart from the tiller at the stern.

Maritime states usually had some warships permanently at their disposal, for even in time of peace coasts had to be patrolled and customs duties enforced. Purpose-built warships also existed in private hands, commissioned by individuals with piracy in mind, and could be appropriated by the state in wartime. From 1104, the Venetian state maintained the famous arsenal—over 30 hectares of shipyards by the sixteenth century. From 1284 the rulers of the Arago-Catalan state had their own yard, specializing in war galleys, at Barcelona, where the eight parallel aisles built for Pere III in 1378 can still be seen. From 1294 to 1418 the French crown had its Clos des Galées in Rouen, which employed, at its height, sixty-four carpenters and twenty-three caulkers, along with oar-makers, sawyers, sail-makers, stitchers, rope-walkers, lightermen, and warehousemen. Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy from 1419 to 1467, whose wars and crusading projects created exceptional demand for shipping, founded a shipyard of his own in Bruges, staffed by Portuguese technicians. England had no royal shipyard, but Henry V maintained purpose-built ships of his own as well as borrowing them from others: an ex-pirate vessel, the Craccher, was for instance loaned by John Hawley of Dartmouth. Such loans were not acts of generosity: Henry V was one of the few monarchs of the European middle ages who were serious about curtailing their own subjects’ piracy.

At the start of our period, warships, whether on the Atlantic-side or Mediterranean-side of Europe, were almost invariably driven by oars. Rigging was light by modern standards and only oars could provide the manoeuvrability demanded in battle, or keep a vessel safe in the locations, often close to the shore, where battles commonly took place.

Gradually, however, oars were replaced by sails, especially on the Atlantic seaboard. With additional masts and more sails of differing size and shapes, ships could be controlled almost as well as by oars, while frame-first construction permitted rudders to be fitted to stern-posts rising from the keel: formerly, ships were steered by tillers dangled from the starboard towards the stern. These improvements in manoeuvrability, which were introduced gradually from the twelfth century onwards, freed ships from the economic and logistic burden of vast crews of oarsmen. Oar-power dominated Baltic warfare until 1210, when the crusading order of Sword-brothers switched to sail-driven cogs, which helped them extend their control along the whole coast of Livonia. King John of England had forty-five galleys in 1204 and built twenty more between 1209 and 1212. Edward I’s order for a battle fleet in 1294 was for twenty galleys of 120 oars each. A hundred years later, however, only small oared craft formed part of England’s navy, in which the fighting vanguard was entirely sail-driven. French shipbuilding changed faster. The French at Sluys in 1340 had 170 sailing ships as well as the royal galleys: many of them were certainly intended for the fray.

To a lesser extent, the oar-less craft played a growing role in Mediterranean warfare, too. The Florentine chronicler, Giovanni Villani, with characteristic exaggeration, dated the start of this innovation to 1304 when pirates from Gascony invaded the Mediterranean with ships so impressive that ‘henceforth Genoese, Venetians and Catalans began to use cogs. . . . This was a great change for our navy.’ In the fifteenth century, the Venetian state commissioned large sailing warships specifically for operations against corsair galleys.

Once free of oar-power, ships could be built higher, with corresponding advantages in battle for hurlers of missiles and intimidators of the foe: the tactics favoured throughout the period made height a critical source of advantage. To hoist tubs full of archers to the masthead was an old Byzantine trick, which Venetian galley-masters adopted. Rickety superstructures, which came to be known as ‘castles’, cluttered the prows of ships; shipwrights strained to add height even at the risk of making vessels top-heavy. The clearest demonstration of the advantages of height is in the record of sailing-ships in combat with galleys: countless engagements demonstrated that it was virtually impossible for oar-driven craft to capture tall vessels, even with huge advantages in numbers—like those of the reputed 150 Turkish boats that swarmed ineffectively round four Christian sailing ships in the Bosphorus during the siege of Constantinople of 1453, or the score of Genoese craft that hopelessly hounded the big Venetian merchantman, the Rocafortis, across the Aegean in 1264.

In the Mediterranean, galleys tended to get faster. The Catalan galleys of the late thirteenth century, at the time of the conquest of Sicily, had between 100 and 150 oars; by the mid-fourteenth century, complements of between 170 and 200 oars were not unusual, while the dimensions of the vessels had not grown significantly. Light galleys pursued and pinned down the foe while more heavily armed vessels followed to decide the action. The oarsmen had to be heavily armoured, with cuirasse, collar, helmet, and shield. Despite their place in the popular imagination, ‘galley slaves’ or prisoners condemned to the oar were never numerous and were rarely relied on in war. Oarsmen were professionals who doubled as fighters; once battle was joined, speed could be sacrificed in favour of battle strength and up to a third of the oarsmen could become fighters.

The Tactical Pattern

Deliberately to sink an enemy ship would have appeared shockingly wasteful. The use of divers to hole enemy ships below the waterline was known and recommended by theorists but seems to have been rarely practised. For the object of battle was to capture the enemy’s vessels. At Sluys, as many as 190 French ships were said to have been captured; none sank—though so many lives were lost that the chronicler Froissart reckoned the king saved 200,000 florins in wages. Vessels might, of course, be lost in battle through uncontrollable fire, or irremediably holed by excessive zeal in ramming, or scuttled after capture if unseaworthy or if the victors could not man them.

Ships fought at close quarters with short-range missiles, then grappled or rammed for boarding. The first objectives of an encounter were blinding with lime, battering with stones, and burning with ‘Greek fire’—a lost recipe of medieval technology, inextinguishable in water. A digest of naval tactics from ancient treatises, compiled for Philip IV of France, recommended opening the engagement by flinging pots of pitch, sulphur, resin, and oil onto the enemy’s decks to assist combustion. It was a blast of lime, borne on the wind, that overpowered the crew of the ship carrying the siege train of Prince Louis of France to England in February 1217. Protection against lime and stones was supplied chiefly by stringing nets above the defenders; flame-throwers could be resisted, it was said, by felt soaked in vinegar or urine and spread across the decks. In a defensive role, or to force ships out of harbour, fire ships might be used, as they were—to great effect—by Castilian galleys at La Rochelle in June 1372, when blazing boats were towed into the midst of the English fleet.

‘Greek fire’ was ignited by a substance, combustible in water, of which the recipe is lost. Together with short-range missiles and blasts of blinding lime and fire-bombs, it was used prior to boarding, to distract the enemy crew and cripple rather than destroy the ship. Normally, a hand-held siphon with a bronze tube at the prow was used to project it.

As the ships closed, crossbowmen were the decisive arm. According to the chauvinistic Catalan chronicler of the fourteenth century, Ramon Muntaner, ‘The Catalans learn about it with their mother’s milk and the other people in the world do not. Therefore the Catalans are the sovereign crossbowmen of the world. . . . Like the stone thrown by a war machine, nothing fails them.’ Catalan proficiency in archery was supported by special tactics. When Pere II’s fleet confronted that of Charles of Anjou off Malta in September 1283, the Catalans were ordered by message ‘passed from ship to ship’ to withstand the enemy missiles with their shields and not to respond except with archery. The outcome, according to the chronicle tradition, was that 4,500 French were taken prisoner.

At close quarters, Philip IV’s digest recommended a range of devices: ripping the enemy’s sails with arrows specially fitted with long points, spraying his decks with slippery soap, cutting his ropes with scythes, ramming with a heavy beam, fortified with iron tips and swung from the height of the mainmast, and, ‘if he is weaker than you, grappling.’ Ramming or grappling was the prelude to an even closer-fought fight with missiles followed by boarding.

As far as is known from a few surviving inventories, the weapons carried on board ships reflected more or less this range of tactics. When inventoried in 1416, Henry V’s biggest ship had seven breech-loading guns, twenty bows, over 100 spears, 60 sail-ripping darts, crane-lines for winching weaponry between fighting decks, and grapnels with chains twelve fathoms long. It must not be supposed that the inventory was complete as most equipment was surely not stowed aboard, but it is probably a representative selection. Artillery detonated by gunpowder came into use during the period, but only as a supplement to existing weaponry, within the framework of traditional tactics. Numbers of guns increased massively in the fifteenth century, though it is not clear that they grew in effectiveness or influenced tactics much. Overwhelmingly, they were short-range, small-calibre, swivel-mounted breechloaders; anti-personnel weapons, not ship-smashers.


Crusaders embarking for the Holy Land, 15th century. Banners show the Papal arms, those of the Holy Roman Emperor and the kings of England, France and Sicily. From Statutes of Order of Saint Esprit. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The Conceptual Imperatives

There is something Homeric about the pattern of war these tactics represent: ships duelled with each other in single combat; their fighting crews closed in a mêlée that might be determined by individual prowess. The way wars were fought depended on how they were conceived in the adversaries’ minds and, at least as much as land warfare—more, perhaps, as time went on—the naval warfare of our period was shaped by the great aristocratic ethos of the high and late middle ages: the ‘cult’ of chivalry, which warriors’ deeds were meant to express. There is no need to dwell on the perennial objectives of war, for greed, power-lust, and various religious or moral pretexts for bloodshed are always with us. What was peculiar to the warfare of Latin Christendom was that it was animated by belief in the ennobling effect of great ‘deeds’ of adventure. As chivalry infused seafaring, it made naval service attractive for more than the hope of prize money. The sea became a field fit for kings.

A chivalric treatise of the mid-fifteenth century tells us that the French aristocracy eschewed the sea as an ignoble medium—but the writer was responding to a debate which had already been won by spokesmen for the sea. Almost from the emergence of the genre, the sea was seen in chivalric literature as a suitable environment for deeds of knightly endeavour. In the thirteenth century, one of the great spokesmen of the chivalric ethos in the Iberian peninsula was Jaume I, King of Aragon and Count of Barcelona. When he described his conquest of Majorca in 1229, he revealed that he saw maritime war as a means of chivalric adventure par excellence. There was ‘more honour’ in conquering a single kingdom ‘in the midst of the sea, where God has been pleased to put it’ than three on dry land.

A metaphor quickly established itself, which was to be a commonplace for the rest of the middle ages: the ship, in the words of King Alfonso X of Castile, was ‘the horse of them that fight by sea’. St Louis planned to create the Order of the Ship for participants in his Tunis crusade. The Order of the Dragon, instituted by the Count of Foix in the early fifteenth century, honoured members who fought at sea with emerald insignia. By the time of Columbus, the Portuguese poet, Gil Vicente, could liken a ship at once to a warhorse and a lovely woman without incongruity, for all three were almost equipollent images in the chivalric tradition. Anyone who contemplates late medieval pictures of fighting ships, caparisoned with pennants as gaily as any warhorse, can grasp how, in the imagination of the time, the sea could be a knightly battlefield and the waves ridden like jennets.

No text better illustrates the influence of this tradition on the conduct of war than the chronicle of the deeds of Count Pero Niño, written by his standard-bearer in the second quarter of the fifteenth century. A treatise of chivalry, as well as an account of campaigns, El victorial celebrates a knight never vanquished in joust or war or love, whose greatest battles were fought at sea; and ‘to win a battle is the greatest good and the greatest glory of life.’ When the author discourses on the mutability of life, his interlocutors are Fortune and the Wind, whose ‘mother’ is the sea ‘and therein is my chief office’. This helps to explain an important advantage of a maritime milieu for the teller of chivalric tales: it is on the sea, with its rapid cycles of storm and calm, that the wheel of fortune revolves most briskly.

At one level, sea warfare was an extension of land warfare. Set-piece battles were rare and usually occurred in the context of the activities on which naval strategy was commonly bent: the transport of armies and the blockade of ports. Inevitably, however, campaigns of this sort suggested strictly maritime strategies. It became conceivable to fight for the control or even the monopolization of sea-lanes and the extension of what might be called a territorial attitude over the sea: seizure of rights of jurisdiction over disputes arising on it and exploitation of its trade for tolls. At the level of grand strategy, some of the aims of naval warfare declared in medieval sources seem stunningly ambitious. English monarchs called themselves ‘roys des mers’ and aspired to the ‘sovereignty of the sea’. An influential political poem of 1437, the Libelle of Englische Polycye, anticipated some of the language of the ages of Drake and Nelson, stressing the imperatives of maritime defence for an island-kingdom. Similar language was sometimes used in the Mediterranean, such as Muntaner’s dictum, ‘It is important that he who would conquer Sardinia rule the sea.’

Late medieval warfare in the Mediterranean was therefore increasingly influenced by strictly maritime considerations: instead of being used as an adjunct to land wars, mainly to transport armies and assist in seiges, ships were deployed to control commercial access to ports and sea lanes. The ideal of naval strategy was represented by the claim of the chronicler, Bernat Desclot, that in the early fourteenth century ‘no fish could go swimming without the King of Aragon’s leave.’ In practice, no such monopoly was ever established anywhere but major powers, such as England, Venice, Genoa, the Hanseatic League, and the House of Barcelona, achieved preponderance, at various times, on particular routes and coasts. This way of conceiving grand strategy was carried by early modern invaders from Western Europe across the oceans of the world, to the consternation and, perhaps, the confusion of indigenous powers.

The Siren of Piracy

Even at its most commonplace, the grand strategy of maritime ‘lordship’ never displaced the small wars of mutually predatory shipping. Pirate operations could be extensive—more so than official campaigns, especially in the piracy ‘black spots’ found in narrows and channels, such as the Strait of Otranto, the Skaggerak, or the Straits of Dover, where for centuries the men of the Cinque Ports terrorized other people’s shipping, and the Sicilian Channel, which ships are obliged to use if they want to avoid the whirlpool of the Strait of Messina ‘between Scylla and Charybdis’.

At certain levels, piracy is hard to distinguish from other kinds of warfare. Savari de Mauléon fought on crusade against Albigensians and Saracens before setting up as a sea-predator: Philip Augustus offered him great lordships for his services. Eustace the Monk, a nobleman from Artois and escapee from the monastic life of St Wulmer, was invaluable in support of Prince Louis’s invasion of England in 1216 while terrorizing the Channel from his base on Sark. He grew rich enough to invest his son with jewelled armour and renowned enough to be hailed by the chronicler, William the Breton, as ‘a knight most accomplished by land and sea’. Guillaume Coulon, who wrecked a fleet off Lisbon in 1476 when Columbus was on board, was reviled as a murderer by his Venetian and other victims but in France was honoured as an admiral and knight of the Order of Saint-Michel. States routinely authorized acts of piracy against enemy shipping in wartime.

Strictly understood, however, piracy is only a limited form of war. It depends on the trades it feeds off and therefore seeks to interrupt or exploit them, not block them altogether. Control of trade was part of statecraft, for trade yielded tolls; but, as in other periods, opinion in the middle ages was divided on the question of whether war was a cost-effective way of garnering commerce. The association of trading ports known as the Hanse, which played a major role in the trade of the north from the late twelfth century, was capable of organizing war fleets when necessary: generally, however, its policy-makers, who were merchants themselves with vocations geared to peace, relied on economic warfare—embargoes, preferential tariffs, subsidies. Violence was a gambler’s option: if it worked, it could be practised at a profit.

The Courses of War

The Atlantic Side

Our period can be said to have opened in a sea-power vacuum, vacated by vanished hegemonies—those of the Norse in the Atlantic zone and of Muslim powers and the Byzantine empire in the Mediterranean. New powers emerged only slowly. In the French case, the chronicle tradition represents what must have been a gradual process as a sudden experience, analogous to a religious conversion. On a morning in 1213, King Philip Augustus woke up with a vision of the possible conquest of England. He ‘ordered the ports throughout the country to collect all their ships together, with their crews, and to build new ones in great plenty.’ Formerly, French kings’ rule had been almost restricted to a landlocked domain. Now—especially in the reign of Philip Augustus—France seemed to drive for the sea in every direction, and was transformed with relative suddenness into a Mediterranean and Atlantic power. Normandy was conquered by 1214, La Rochelle in 1224. The Albigensian Crusade provided a pretext and framework for the incorporation of the south, with its Mediterranean ports, into what we think of as France by 1229.

France’s main maritime rival for the rest of the middle ages was already a naval power: the dominions of the English crown straddled the Irish Sea and the English Channel. A permanent navy was maintained at least from early in the reign of King John—perhaps from that of his predecessor, Richard I, who had shown some flair as a naval commander in the Mediterranean on the Third Crusade and in river-war along the Seine. After the failure of the efforts of Louis of France, doomed by the defeat of Eustace the Monk off Sandwich in 1217, no French invasion of England materialized, though a threat in 1264 flung the country into something like a panic. Sea-power was used only for transporting English expeditions across the Channel or for exchanges of raids and acts of piracy, until 1337, when Edward Ill’s claim to the throne of France raised the stakes and made control of the Channel vital for both crowns in what promised to be a prolonged war on French soil.

At first it seemed unlikely that the issue at sea could be decisively resolved. French naval forces appeared strong enough, in numerical terms, to impede English cross-channel communications; indeed, the French struck the first blow of the war in the spring of 1338, when some of their ships raided Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. Although Edward was able to land an army in Flanders shortly afterwards, it would evidently be hard for him to keep it supplied or reinforced without substantial help from Continental allies. Re-crossing the Channel in June 1340, after a brief return to England, he encountered a French fleet of daunting proportions at anchor off Sluys. According to one account, the outcome of the battle of Sluys was the result of the refusal of the French to escape when the tide and wind were against them. ‘Honi soit qui s’en ira d’içi,’ replied the treasurer of the fleet when discretion was proposed by one of the Genoese technicians advising him. The English adopted the usual tactics of inferior forces: using the weather gauge to stand off from the enemy within bowshot-range until his forces were depleted by slaughter. Like so many famous English victories on land in the Hundred Years War, Sluys was a triumph of long-range archery. The English gained command of the Channel—the freedom to transport armies unopposed. Edward Ill’s new coinage showed him enthroned on board ship. The victories of Crécy and Poitiers were, in a strict sense, part of the consequences. The English advantage was confirmed in 1347, when the capture of Calais gave English shipping a privileged position in the narrowest part of the Channel—an advantage maintained until the 1550s.

Thirsty for revenge, Edward III’s ships smashed against the formidable French fleet in the 1340 Battle of Sluys.

The most promising French response was the intrusion of Castilian ships into the Channel from 1350: they were expert in the guerrilla warfare of the sea, but their attempts to wrest control of the straits were never fully successful. Thanks to the permanent advantage which possession of the English shore conferred by virtue of wind and weather in the Channel and the North Sea, the French never succeeded in reversing English naval dominance for long. The most they could achieve were successful raids, effected by their own ships or those of their Castilian allies, at, for example, Winchelsea (1360), Portsmouth (1369), Gravesend (1380), and a string of ports from Rye to Portsmouth (1377). By taking a wide berth out into the North Sea, the French could send fleets to Scotland in support of Scots military actions, but the prevailing winds made direct attacks on the east coast of England highly unlikely to succeed. If any doubt lingered over the balance of advantage in the northern seas, it was dispelled by events of 1416, when the English were able to relieve the blockade of Harfleur and ensure control of access to the Seine by defeating a Genoese galley fleet. The French shipyard at Rouen was dismantled. England’s military power waned in the fifteenth century and her vulnerability to invasion was demonstrated by the landing of the future Henry VII in 1485; but her naval supremacy in home waters would not again be challenged by a foreign state until the cruise of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

The Mediterranean

The trajectory of naval warfare in the Mediterranean had some similarities with that in the north: a power vacuum at the start of our period, in which new contenders arose and disputed mastery of the sea. By c.1100 the naval war against Islam had already been won by Christians. Westerners were masters of Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, southern Italy, and the coasts of Palestine and Syria. The difficulty of dominating the Mediterranean from its eastern end had also affected Byzantine sea power. Byzantium was already in the process of being reduced to minor importance as a naval power by comparison with some rivals further west.

The Egyptian Fatimid fleet, which had once been a formidable force is almost unmentioned in the records after the first decade of the 1100s: it continued to exist, and could put up to seventy galleys at sea in the mid-twelfth century, but it became confined to a largely defensive role. By 1110, the crusaders held almost all the Levantine ports; thereafter, the operation of Egyptian galleys against Christian shipping was practically limited to home coasts: they had virtually no friendly ports to the north in which to water. Turkish naval power, which would be invincible by the end of our period, had hardly been foreshadowed. In the 1090s Syrian collaborators provided free-lance Seljuk war-chiefs with ships that briefly seized Lesbos and Chios and even threatened Constantinople; but the crusades forced the Seljuks back; the coasts were not recovered for Islam for another hundred years or so. The crusader states depended on long and apparently vulnerable communications by sea along lanes that led back to the central and western Mediterranean. Yet they were hardly jeopardized by seaborne counter-attack. Saladin created a navy of sixty galleys almost from nothing in the 1170s, but he used it conservatively and with patchy success until it was captured almost in its entirety by the fleet of the Third Crusade at Acre in 1191.

The Christian reconquest of the Mediterranean had been effected, in part, by collaboration among Christian powers. Venetian, Pisan, Genoese, and Byzantine ships acted together to establish and supply the crusader states of the Levant in their early years. Successful allies, however, usually fall out. Relative security from credal enemies left the victors free to fight among themselves. The twelfth century was an era of open competition in the Mediterranean for the control of trade, by means which included violence, between powers in uneasy equipoise. In the twelfth century, Sicily was perhaps the strongest of them. It maintained the only permanent navy west of the twenty-second meridian, but the extinction of its Norman dynasty in 1194 marked the end of its potential for maritime empire. Pisa was a major naval power of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries: its war against Amalfi in 1135–7 effectively dashed all prospect of that port emerging as an imperial metropolis; and the contribution of its ships, with those of Genoa, was decisive in the destruction of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily; but Pisa made a poor choice of allies in thirteenth-century wars and, after a series of setbacks which left it isolated, at the battle of Meloria in 1284 it suffered a blow at Genoese hands from which its navy never recovered. So many prisoners were taken that ‘to see Pisans’, it was said, ‘you must go to Genoa.’

Three rivals stood the course of these wars: the Genoese and Venetian republics and the House of Barcelona. At different times and in overlapping areas of the Mediterranean, all three established seaborne ‘empires’—zones of preponderance or control over favoured routes and coasts. The possibilities were demonstrated in 1204, when Constantinople fell to a mixed host of Westerners and Venice carved a maritime empire out of the spoils. The Republic became mistress of ‘one quarter and one half of a quarter’ of Byzantine territory. At first, Genoa responded with energetic corsair warfare, which had effectively failed when the peace settlement of 1218 nominally restored to Genoese merchants the right to live and trade in Constantinople. In practice, however, they remained victims of the Venetian hegemony until 1261, when Byzantine irredentists recaptured Constantinople and the uneasy parity of the Genoese and Venetian traders was restored.

Genoa acquired an empire of its own—albeit one much less tightly centralized than that of Venice: it comprised, at first, an autonomous merchant-quarter in Constantinople and scattered settlements along the northern shore of the Black Sea, ruled by a representative of the Genoese government. By Byzantine grants of 1267 and 1304, the alum-producing island of Chios became the fief of a Genoese family. Around the middle of the fourteenth century its status was transformed by the intrusion of direct rule from Genoa. The Aegean was effectively divided between Genoese and Venetian spheres. Venice dominated the route to Constantinople via the Dalmatian coast and the Ionian islands, whereas Genoa controlled an alternative route by way of Chios and the eastern shore.

Eastern Mediterranean rivalry between Genoa and Venice was paralleled in some ways in the western rivalry between Genoa and the dominions of the House of Barcelona. Catalans were relative latecomers to the arena. They enjoyed privileged natural access to the entire strategic springboard of the western Mediterranean—the island bases, the Maghribi ports; but while the islands were in the unfriendly hands of Muslim emirs, they were trapped by the anti-clockwise flow of the coastal currents. But by 1229 the power of the count-kings of Barcelona and Aragon and the wealth of their merchant-subjects had developed to the point where they could raise enough ships and a large enough host to attempt conquest. By representing the venture as a holy war, Jaume I was able to induce the landlubber aristocracy of Aragon to take part in the campaign. Once Majorca was in his hands, Ibiza and Formentera fell with relative ease. The island-empire was extended in the 1280s and 1290s, when Minorca and Sicily were conquered. In the 1320s an aggressive imperial policy reduced parts of Sardinia to precarious obedience.

Meanwhile, vassals of members of the House of Barcelona made conquests even further east, in Jarbah, Qarqanah, and parts of mainland Greece. The impression of a growing maritime empire, reaching out towards the east—perhaps to the Holy Land, perhaps to the spice trade, perhaps both—was re-inforced by the propaganda of count-kings who represented themselves as crusaders. The easterly vassal-states were, however, only nominally Catalan in character and, for most of the time, tenuously linked by juridical ties with the other dominions of the House of Barcelona. Catalan naval operations in the eastern Mediterranean were made in alliance with Venice or Genoa and were generally determined by western Mediterranean strategic considerations. If the island-conquests of the House of Barcelona stretched eastward, towards the lands of saints and spices, they also strewed the way south, towards the Maghrib, the land of gold. They were strategic points d’ap-pui of economic warfare across the African trade routes of other trading states. From 1271 onwards, at intervals over a period of about a century, the naval strength of the count-kings was used in part to exact a series of favourable commercial treaties governing access to the major ports from Ceuta to Tunis.

Of the well integrated Catalan world, the easternmost part, from the 1280s, was Sicily. For the count-king Pere II its conquest was a chivalresque adventure in dynastic self-aggrandisement; for his merchant-subjects, it was the key to a well-stocked granary, a way-station to the eastern Mediterranean and, above all, a screen for the lucrative Barbary trade, which terminated in Maghribi ports. Normally ruled by a cadet-line of the House of Barcelona, the island was vaunted as ‘the head and protectress of all the Catalans’, a vital part of the outworks of Catalonia’s medieval trade. Had Sardinia become fully part of the Catalan system the western Mediterranean would have been a ‘Catalan lake’. But indigenous resistance, prolonged for over a century, forced repeated concessions to Genoa and Pisa. The Catalans paid heavily for what was, in effect, a political and commercial condominium. By a cheaper policy—without acquiring sovereign conquests further afield than Corsica—Genoa ended with a greater share of western Mediterranean trade than her Catalan rivals.

Thus, between them, Venice, Genoa, and a Spanish state established a sort of armed equilibrium—a surface tension which covered the Mediterranean. It was broken at the end of our period by the irruption of a new maritime power. The Turkish vocation for the sea did not spring suddenly and fully armed into existence. From the early fourteenth century, pirate-nests on the Levantine shores of the Mediterranean were run by Turkish chieftains, some of whom allegedly had fleets of hundreds of vessels at their command. The greater the extent of coastline conquered by their land forces, as Ottoman imperialism stole west, the greater the opportunities for Turkish-operated corsairs to stay at sea, with access to watering-stations and supplies from on shore. Throughout the fourteenth century, however, these were unambitious enterprises, limited to small ships and hit-and-run tactics.

From the 1390s, the Ottoman sultan Bayezid I began to build up a permanent fleet of his own, but without embracing a radically different strategy from the independent operators who preceded him. Set-piece battles usually occurred in spite of Turkish intentions and resulted in Turkish defeats. As late as 1466, a Venetian merchant in Constantinople claimed that for a successful engagement Turkish ships needed to outnumber Venetians by four or five to one. By that date, however, Ottoman investment in naval strength was probably higher than that of any Christian state. The far-seeing sultans, Mehmed I and Bayezid II, realized that the momentum of their conquests by land had to be supported—if it were to continue—by power at sea. After the long generations of experiment without success in set-piece battles, Bayezid’s navy humiliated that of Venice in the war of 1499–1503. Never, since Romans reluctantly took to the sea against Carthage, had a naval vocation been so successfully embraced by so unlikely a power. The balance of naval strength between Christendom and Islam, as it had lasted for four hundred years, was reversed, at least in the eastern Mediterranean, and a new era can properly be said to have begun.

Retrospect and Prospect

In the long run, sea power in the European middle ages was more influenced by the outcome of conflicts on land than the other way round. Coastal strongholds could be established by naval forces but control of hostile hinterlands could not be permanently sustained by the same means. The Third Crusade recaptured the Levantine coast but could not re-take Jerusalem or restore the crusader states. Venetian sea-power delivered Constantinople into Latin hands in 1204; but the Latin Empire lasted only until 1261 and Byzantium’s permanent losses were all in or beyond the Aegean. St Louis captured Damietta by sea in 1249 but had to relinquish it after a defeat on land the following year.

To some extent, the fate of the English ‘empire’ in France illustrates the same principles: only its maritime fringe was held for long; and the Channel Islands were never lost to French sovereignty; but the ultimate fate of the rest was determined by campaigns on land, where the English were at a long-term disadvantage.

Thus the great events of European history—the making and unmaking of states, the expansion and limitation of Christendom—happened, to some extent, in spite of the sea. For world history, however, Europe’s medieval naval apprenticeship had grave implications. When European warfare was exported into the world arena of the early modern period, and met aggressive and dynamic imperial states in other parts of the world, it was carried by ships onto the home grounds of distant enemies and could deploy the resources of a long, rich, and varied maritime experience. In competition for world resources, European maritime powers had the advantage of an unbeatably long reach.

Khmer History and Armies

In 1181, King Jayavarman VII launched a military campaign against the Chams, as vengeance for the Cham raids of Angkor in 1177, and to finally defeat one of their traditional enemies. Leading a powerful army, Jayavarman VII repelled the Chams from Angkor, and attacked Champa, further east, to finally defeat them. The conquest of Champa gave Jayavarman VII the highest position of God-King, and sparked his rule as one of the greatest achieving Khmer kings.

The Khmer Army It is based on Khmer reliefs from Angkor, Bayon and Banteay Chmar, dated 1113 – 1218 AD, and on foreign emissaries’ reports. Khmer elephants are depicted with a driver, armed with spear and shield, and a single archer or sometimes spearman. Those ridden by generals (identified by being shown enlarged) are accompanied by one or more parasol carriers on foot. Chariots, with only one fighting crewman, are shown only in scenes believed to depict Indian mythology, although of a distinctively Khmer type. A Chinese ambassador notes guards on horseback and in chariots in 1295. The ph’kak is an axe-like weapon resembling a hockey stick with an axe blade at right angles to its end. Maiden guard are depicted in one relief armed with ph’kak and mounted on horses apparently disguised as dragons. Doubt has been expressed whether these are over-interpretations of a damaged relief, but such equipment is only an exaggeration of the normal cavalry tack, which includes a possibly leather rump guard over a tail plaited to a point, a “dragon horn” (of stiffened horse hair?) on the forehead and sometimes face and chest protection. Spearmen carry either a long or small round shield. Khmer in (possibly armoured) jackets and with long shields or with round shields. The archers shown behind a wall of pavises, but most appear to be skirmishers. The artillery. was Chinese-type “double crossbows” man-handled on wheels or mounted (or possibly only transported) on elephants. It was probably acquired from the Cham, who learned its use with that of crossbow cavalry from the Sung Chinese.

Khmer, which was also called the Kambuja Kingdom, was centred in Cambodia with its capital being Angkor from 802-1432. The Khmer expanded their power by establishing a number of vassal states. The peak of Khmer power is regarded by many as being in the 1100s, when it extended from northern Thailand in the west to the northern Tokin area of Vietnam in the east.

Civil wars dominated the 1200s and 1300s which weakened the Khmer state. In 1373 a long war with the Thais began which lasted until 1473 when the new capital at Phnom Penh was sacked by the Thais.

Until 802 the Khmers were organized into a number of warring independent kingdoms. They often fought among themselves and against foreign enemies such as the Chams located in present-day central Vietnam. King Jayavarman I, also named Parameshvara posthumously, united these disparate kingdoms. He first appeared in historical sources in 709. The Khmer empire was to span most of present-day Cambodia and had vassal states in parts of Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.


According to text inscribed on a stela (stone or wooden slab) King Jayavarman I originated from Java, though the Malay Peninsula has also been suggested by scholars as a possible place of origin. From his initial base in Indrapura, most likely situated northeast of Phnom Penh, he launched attacks across the Mekong and on Sambhrapura, Wat Phu, and onward to Phnom Kulen, a sacred place for the Khmers, where he settled in 802. At the time it was known as Mahendravaparta. It was here that the sacred rites were performed on Jayavarman by Brahmin priests of the Shivaite sect proclaiming him the universal monarch of the world, or chakaravartin, a rite based on Hindu tradition from India.

The system of dynastic succession within the Khmer kingdom was highly complex. Both men and women could become rulers. More importantly, kingship was passed through other family members of the same generation rather than to sons upon the death of a ruler, although there was often strong opposition to this. The next king, Jayavarman II, was responsible for laying the spiritual foundations within the Khmer Empire. After the death of Jayavarman II in 834, Jayavarman III succeeded him. Harihalaya became his capital, southeast of Angkor. The civilization of Angkor was unique as it was a mixture of two influences-Indian and Javanese.


The second king built many shrines, but the next ruler, Indravarman I, also called Isvaraloka, was credited for contributing the most to the religious environment within the Khmer empire. Indravarman laid the foundations for the now centralized Angkor state. Indravarman II ascended to the throne in 877 and ruled until 889. His period of rule was relatively peaceful, even though he succeeded in extending the borders of the Khmer Empire. An ancestral temple, Preah Ko, was built in the imperial capital of Hariharalaya and was consecrated in 880. It was a shrine consisting of a set of six brick temples dedicated to his ancestors and past kings. The temple is considered a piece of art with beautiful male and female divine fi gures, structural elements such as colonnades, and other embellishments.

Another major building project was the state temple, south of the ancestral temple. This temple, known as Bakong, resembled a stepped pyramid and symbolically was regarded as a mountain. Hindu temples in the Khmer kingdom were often built as mountains as they were seen as earthly representations of the divine mountain, Mount Meru, home of the gods in Hindu mythology. A precursor to the spectacular Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, the temple had a complex structure and was surrounded by a huge double moat, a feature of Angkor Wat as well. At the same time Indravarman set into place a system of irrigation for cultivated rice fields. Large agricultural projects were undertaken, such as building a huge reservoir.


King Yashovarman, who ruled from 889 to 900, established the city of Yasodharapura (also known as Angkor) as the new capital. Between 900 and 1200 Angkor achieved great prominence because of the rise of impressive temples in Angkor, including the famous temple that became known as Angkor Wat. It was built in the 12th century during the reign of Suryavarman II. who ordered it to be built. Suryavarman II, dubbed one of the greatest Khmer kings, was a warrior-king and launched many attacks on the Dai Viet, which was highly resilient and resisted subjugation. Suryavarman had gained the throne through the violent means of killing his great uncle, King Dharanindravarman.

The architecture of Angkor Wat is in classical Khmer style. It was also a temple-mountain surrounded by a wide moat, crossed by a causeway on the east side. The state temple was dedicated to Vishnu, whom Suryavarman II considered the Protector of the Khmer empire, a departure from earlier rulers, who regarded Shiva as the protector of their kingdom. The 11th century witnessed a general rise in Vaisnavite thought in religious and philosophical life in India, and since travel between India and Southeast Asia was frequent, Angkor Wat could have been a refl ection of the contemporary trends in Hindu philosophy. The external appearance resembles descriptions of Mount Vaikuntha, home of Vishnu.


The city of Angkor Thom was built by another great king, Jayavarman VII, in 1181, after he defeated the Chams who had captured Angkor in 1177. Instead of reclaiming the old Khmer spirituality before the Cham defeat, Jayavarman pursued a course of reinvention. He enacted a major change in the Khmer Empire by replacing Hindu religion with Mahayana Buddhism as the official state religion. The power of the Hindu aristocracy within the empire was seriously undermined. It is said that Jayavarman VII was following the example of Ashoka, the model for all Buddhist rulers. The imposition of Buddhist cosmology led to an extensive reworking of religious, political, and military organization within the Khmer kingdom. Jayavarman VII was responsible for organizing the capital, Angkor Thom, into a mandala, which is a symbol of the universe and its energy. The construction of Angkor Thom, based on this highly regulated pattern, took about a decade. It was an awesome feat as the mandala was extremely diffi cult to replicate in the form of a city.

The new capital city was known as Angkor Thom Mahanagara, or simply Angkor Thom. The site of the city coincided with that of an earlier city, Yasodharapura, built more than two centuries before. Right in the middle of the city is the Bayon, the state temple built by King Jayavarman VII, in the exact center of his capital of Angkor Thom. Every road from the city gates leads directly to the Bayon. The Bayon, which was covered in gold and orientated toward the east, according to a Chinese account, was also known as the Assembly Hall of Gods. According to the concept of the mandala, the gods would gather there on certain days. Jayavarman VII was at the peak of his reign, and he assumed supreme rule.


The decline of Angkor began soon after Jayavarman’s death. His son, Indravarman II, who ruled from 1219 to 1243, withdrew from many provinces previously conquered from the Champa kingdom. Their neighbouring rivals, the Thais, were also gaining more power, strengthened by the establishment of the kingdom of Sukhothai. The Khmer once again lost their hold on Thai provinces. Soon, the Thais emerged as the chief rivals of the Khmers, replacing their former enemies, the Chams. The Mongols under the leadership of General Sagatu also presented a threat to the Khmers, but the Khmer rulers were careful not to go to war against such a powerful force.

Jayavarman VIII ascended to the Khmer throne in 1243. He was a Hindu rather than a Buddhist like his immediate predecessors. He was a violent anti-Buddhist and went on to destroy many Buddhist sculptures and converted the Bayon temple into a Hindu temple. His son-in-law, Srindravarman, who usurped his throne in 1295, was a Buddhist, though he was a follower of Theravada Buddhism. Later Khmer kings were adherents of this faith.

The Thai Ayuttaya kingdom replaced the Sukothai kingdom in 1350 and succeeded in diminishing Khmer power through several attacks. By 1431 the Thais had conquered Angkor. Despite being weakened, a line of kings managed to rule from Angkor and a separate line of Khmer kings continued to rule in Phnom Penh. The latter line achieved more prominence because of the rise of Mekong as an important trade center, leading to the fall of Angkor.

Further reading: Coe, Michael D, Angkor and the Khmer Civilization. London: Thames & Hudson, 2003; Dumarcay, Jacques. The Site of Angkor. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998; Legendre-DeKoninck, Helene. Angkor Wat: A Royal Temple. Weimar: Verlag und Datenbank fur Geisteswissenschaften, 2001; Raveda, Vittorio. Sacred Angkor: The Carved Reliefs of Angkor Wat. London: River Books, 2002.

The Pirate War, 1402–1404 Part I

Piracy had been endemic in the Channel and the Bay of Biscay for centuries, but the Earl of Crawford’s destructive cruise of 1402 was different. It was more organised, larger in scale and plainly enjoyed the support of influential men in the French government if not of the King’s council itself. The raids left a trail of unsatisfied claims by merchants and shipowners who had lost their property and a legacy of ill-feeling between the two governments. Each responded in the time-honoured fashion by authorising reprisals against the property of the other in an escalating cycle of violence. These operations were mainly the work of English, French and Flemish privateers. They inaugurated the first great age of Atlantic privateering, and the birth of a tradition that would continue until the eighteenth century. In a later age the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius would classify such operations as legitimate private war, but some of those involved could fairly be called pirates. The boundary between war and crime, between public and private violence, was as uncertain and permeable at sea as it was on land.

Privateering, a practice which was sanctioned by international law until the middle of the nineteenth century, was a method of making war which had been developed largely by the English since the thirteenth century and had already achieved a high degree of organisation. Governments issued letters of marque to merchants claiming to have suffered losses at the hands of nationals of a foreign prince, which authorised them to recoup their losses by ‘reprisal’, in other words by seizing ships and cargoes of the foreign prince’s subjects at sea. In time of war, letters of marque were commonly issued in more general terms, which were not limited to seizures by way of reprisal. They authorised the persons named to capture the merchant ships and cargoes of declared enemies for their own profit provided that they left neutral property alone. The Anglo-French treaty of 1396 had banned the issue of letters of marque and with a few exceptions the ban had been observed. But from 1402 onward they began to be issued again, and most privateers had at least the tacit authority of their sovereigns even if they did not have formal commissions. ‘Know ye,’ declared a typical English document,

that we have given leave to our well-beloved Henry Pay to sail and pass across the seas with as many ships, barges and balingers of war, men-at-arms and bowmen, all fully equipped, as he may be able to recruit in order to do all the damage he can to our declared enemies as well as for their destruction and for the safeguarding and defence of our faithful lieges.

The King directed his admirals and all his officers in coastal areas to give whatever advice or assistance Pay might require. This was manifestly an officially sanctioned venture.

By the beginning of the fifteenth century the English had begun to enlarge the scope of their privateering operations by targeting not just enemy ships but neutral ships carrying enemy cargoes. The rewards were high and the privateers no doubt needed little encouragement. But it seems clear that the initiative came from the government. Blockading an enemy’s seaborne trade was a highly effective weapon of war. But it was also extremely abrasive and provoked bitter complaints in the fifteenth century, just as it would in the time of Blake or Nelson, for it required neutral ships to submit to being stopped and searched at sea and taken into English ports if they were found to be carrying suspicious goods. This could be a terrifying experience. Early in 1403 the Christopher from the Hanse port of Danzig was captured in the Channel by four ships of London and Dartmouth operating from Calais. Henry IV personally interviewed their masters to discover the facts before defending his subjects in a letter to the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order. This reveals very clearly what the King expected of privateers holding his commission. The German ship, he said, had been sailing without national markings. When the English challenged the crew to state their nationality they gave no answer, filled the top-castles with armed men, let out all their sail and tried to make off. The English opened fire with bombards mounted on their forecastles. They caught up with the fleeing ship and boarded her, overcoming and capturing the crew after a long and bloody hand-to-hand fight. She was found to be carrying wine from La Rochelle and was taken into Southampton where she was eventually forfeited to her captors. The Hanseatic towns had lost eight ships in this way during 1402 in addition to another four which were plundered and then allowed to go. Castile, another important neutral, lost seventeen.

The distinction between enemy and neutral property was not always easy to apply. Ownership was often uncertain. Enemy ships could sail under neutral colours. Enemy cargoes could be carried in neutral hulls and vice versa. Ships’ manifests were not always honest. It was not always clear whether a truce was in force at the time of the capture. Of course privateers were not particularly fastidious about the limits of their authority. But their trade was not the free-for-all that it is sometimes assumed to have been. An elaborate body of practice and law had grown up for adjudicating on the right to prize, which was administered partly by the chancellor and the king’s council, partly by the admirals and their local deputies, marshals, sergeants and clerks. Their work has generated a mass of documents in the remarkably full surviving records of the English government. They show that complaints of breaches of the truce, unauthorised acts of war or attacks on neutral property were taken seriously and routinely investigated. Privateers, however favoured, were liable to be summoned before the council or the admirals’ officers to prove their right to prize ‘as the law of the sea requires’. There was a regular flow of orders to restore neutral goods or hulls or to pay compensation to ruined German or Castilian shipowners and merchants. In one notable case a squadron of ships was specially fitted out by the Admiral of England to capture the notorious Rye pirate William Long, who was taken off his ship at sea and consigned to the Tower of London. If some men disobeyed the king and got away with it, that was to be expected of the uncertain processes and limited police powers of the medieval state. But there were others who paid for their transgressions with their property and a few with their liberty or their necks.

The growth of officially sponsored privateering at the beginning of the fifteenth century reflected the progressive withdrawal of governments from the costly business of building and operating warships themselves. In France the great state arsenal at Rouen, which had turned out oared warships since the thirteenth century, had stopped building and refitting ships by the end of the 1380s and, apart from brief spurts of activity in 1405 and 1416, never restarted. In England the last of Edward III’s great ships, the 300-ton carrack Dieulagarde, had been given away to a courtier in 1380. In the early years of his reign Henry IV owned just one sailing ship in addition to four barges which appear to have been used mainly to move the baggage of the royal household along the Thames. Requisitioning ships was not much less expensive than owning them, for hire had to be paid by the ton and crew’s wages by the day. Chiefly for reasons of cost, the English government had since 1379 entrusted much of the routine work of keeping the sea to contract fleets raised by commercial syndicates in London and the West Country. Privateers and contract fleets had their limitations. They were undisciplined. They brought the King into collision with neutral countries. They had little interest in his larger strategic objectives. They were particularly bad at defensive work, such as convoy duty and patrolling the Channel against coastal raiders, which offered limited prospects of spoil. An ambitious attempt to hand over the whole work of ‘keeping the seas’ to commercial operators in 1406 in return for the proceeds of the tunnage and poundage dues proved to be disastrous for all of these reasons, and the arrangements had to be terminated early. But for offensive operations against enemy commerce and coastal settlements, privateers largely displaced royal fleets throughout the reign of Henry IV. They operated at their own risk and expense and cost nothing in wages, hire or maintenance. They were therefore the natural resort of penurious governments.

In the early fifteenth century there were active privateering syndicates in London, Hull, the Cinque Ports and Guernsey. But the West Country was already the major centre for this kind of buccaneering, as it would remain for centuries. Dartmouth, Plymouth and Fowey were important privateering bases. According to a charter of Richard II Dartmouth had ‘above all places in the realm long been and still is strong in shipping and therewith has wrought great havoc on the King’s enemies in time of war’. The most celebrated English privateers, the Hawley family of Dartmouth, father and son, were living testimony to the wealth that could be made from prizes. Hawley the elder may have been a pirate in French eyes and occasionally in English ones, but he was a man of some social standing at home, the owner of Hawley’s Hall, the grandest house in Dartmouth, fourteen times mayor of the town and twice returned to Parliament. He founded St Saviour’s Church in Dartmouth, where his grand memorial brass, showing an idealised knight in full armour, can still be seen. His son, who carried on the family business, acquired extensive estates in the West Country, married the daughter of a chief justice of King’s Bench and sat twelve times in Parliament for Dartmouth. The Hawleys were close to the governments of Richard II and Henry IV and commonly acted under royal commissions.

More typical perhaps was the much rougher Harry Pay, the recipient of the commission quoted above. He was a professional pirate based at Poole in Dorset who had been attacking the ships and harbours of neutral Castile for years before he received a commission. His operations in the Channel against the French were to make him a popular hero in the first decade of the fifteenth century. Mark Mixtow of Fowey and the Spicer brothers of Plymouth and Portsmouth were men of the same stamp although on a lesser scale and for shorter periods. The Spicers had been actively engaged in piracy in the Atlantic for at least two years before the breach with France brought legitimacy to their operations and respectability to their lives. Richard Spicer represented Portsmouth in Parliament, served on commissions of array and ended up as a Hampshire gentleman. The Channel pirates contributed a good deal to the economy of the depressed coastal towns of southern England and, as the careers of men like Hawley and Spicer show, they enjoyed strong popular support. When William Long was eventually released from the Tower the town of Hythe held a banquet in his honour and Rye elected him to Parliament.

The French made use of very similar adventurers. The Bretons were regarded in England as ‘the greatest rovers and the greatest thieves that have been in the sea many a year’. Saint-Malo, an enclave of French royal territory within the duchy of Brittany, was the major centre of piracy and privateering on the French Atlantic coast. Its seamen were responsible for a large number of the captures of 1402. Privateers operating from Harfleur, another important base, were said in March 1404 to have taken £100,000 worth of cargoes in addition to exacting exorbitant ransoms from their prisoners. A contemporary described the port as the capital of Atlantic piracy, rich in the spoil of English shipping. Gravelines, although technically part of Flanders, was in fact under the control of the French captains-general commanding on the march of Calais, who built it up as another major privateering centre.

In France as in England most privateering ventures were commercial enterprises, financed by shrewd businessmen for profit. Guillebert de Fretin, a native of the Calais pale who had fled after refusing to swear allegiance to the English King, made his base at Le Crotoy in Ponthieu and achieved a short-lived fame as the leading French corsair of his time. His career of destruction would culminate in the sack of Alderney in June 1403 in which a large number of the inhabitants lost their lives. Guillebert’s cruises were funded by a syndicate of merchants of Abbeville and almost certainly authorised by French officials. When the French temporarily withdrew their support from French privateers and banished him, he and one of his lieutenants continued their depredations under the flag of Scotland. Equally commercial in their inspiration were the campaigns of Wouter Jansz, probably the most successful Flemish privateer of the time, who operated several ships out of Bervliet and Sluys in north-west Flanders. His most famous exploit was to sail up the Thames and capture an English freighter filled with the booty of a recent raid on the coast of Flanders, including the painted altar-piece of Sint Anna ter Muiden. Jansz appears to have been financed at least in part by an Italian corsair called Giovanni Portofino who had terrorised the western Mediterranean during the 1390s before moving his operations to northern Europe. The English regarded Jansz as a ‘notorious pirate’ and he is unlikely to have held any formal commission. But he made himself useful to the towns of the Zwin estuary by guarding the entrances against enemy incursions and he certainly had well-placed protectors.

In July and August 1402 the English and French ambassadors met at Leulinghem to deal with the escalating violence at sea. Faithful to the increasingly hollow pretence that the truce of 1396 remained in force, they reached agreement on 14 August on a procedure for verifying and meeting claims and on measures to prevent a recurrence. The seamen involved on both sides were formally disowned and declared to be criminals actuated entirely by malice and greed. All prisoners and cargoes in their hands were ordered to be released without payment and outstanding letters of marque and reprisal were cancelled. Pirates who persisted in attacking merchant ships were not to be received in either country.

These arrangements were a dead letter from the start. In the last quarter of 1402 another twenty English merchantmen were captured. Crawford had by now returned to Scotland with the rump of the French expeditionary force. But many of the ships and crews responsible for the new seizures had previously served under him. In the following January twelve English vessels were captured in a single incident and taken into Harfleur where their cargoes and crews were taken off under the noses of royal officials and their hulls set on fire. Another twenty or thirty English merchantmen were reported to be held in Norman ports. The English retaliated with vigour. They seized French and Flemish property in English ports. They commissioned new privateering fleets of their own. Over the winter of 1402–3 most of the more notorious English privateers were once more at sea with the King’s commissions. There are no reliable figures for French losses in these months, but they were almost certainly higher than English ones. With a much larger seafaring community and many more ships, the English were always likely to have the better of these exchanges. During the following months English privateers sacked the Île de Ré off the coast of Poitou, burning down its famous abbey. They seized French fishing boats in the Channel, carrying off large numbers of fishermen for ransom. They landed at several points along the French coast to seize booty and prisoners. According to French estimates some 3,000 English and Gascon seamen were engaged in these operations, which continued until the following summer.


The sudden upsurge of fighting at sea awakened ancient ghosts in Flanders. Flanders was a province of France, but as one of the principal trading and shipowning regions of Europe it had enjoyed close commercial and political relations with England for centuries. Flanders needed English wool, the indispensable raw material for the great cloth industries on which much of its population depended. England was also a significant market for the finished product. There was a large Flemish community in England, based mainly in London, and an even larger English mercantile community in Bruges and in the Dutch port of Middelburg on the other side of the estuary of the Scheldt. England and Flanders had a common interest in the security of the trade routes of the North Sea. It was not simply a question of preserving trade between them. As the Flemings had learned to their cost in the 1380s, the maintenance of peace across the North Sea was the key to the international banking and entrepôt business of Bruges and the county’s trade with the Italian maritime cities of Venice and Genoa and the Baltic towns of the Hanseatic League.7 There was an important political dimension to Flanders’s links with England. The English kings had always had allies in the towns of Flanders and unparalleled opportunities to make trouble there. They had been the patrons of all the great urban revolutions which had divided the Flemings and undermined the power of their counts since the end of the thirteenth century. Jacob van Artevelde, the leader of the Flemish revolution of 1339, had been a client of England and his son Philip, who had led the revolution of Ghent during the civil wars of the 1380s, was a pensioner of Richard II. English fleets and armies fought in Flanders in support of their cause. An English garrison had been stationed in Ghent as recently as 1385.

The informal alliance between England and Flanders was a perennial problem for the counts. They were under constant pressure from their subjects to avoid war with England or, if it could not be avoided, then at least to remove Flanders from the front line. Philip of Burgundy had inherited these problems with the territory. The Four Members of Flanders, a sort of grand committee representing the interests of Bruges and its district and the industrial towns of Ghent and Ypres, wielded considerable political influence. They openly pressed for a commercial treaty which would allow Flanders to remain neutral even at times when England and France were at war. Their demands posed an awkward dilemma for the Duke of Burgundy. As the King’s uncle and a considerable figure on his council, Philip could not easily remove a French principality from the international orbit of France. But neither could he ignore the interest of the powerful commercial and industrial oligarchies of Flanders on whom he depended for his political authority and a growing proportion of his revenues.

At the beginning of the fifteenth century, as France moved closer to war with England and the war at sea acquired a momentum of its own, these ancient dilemmas re-emerged. The English government had generally treated Flanders as an autonomous state and a neutral, in spite of its legal status as part of the French kingdom. But the expansion of English privateering to target French cargoes carried in neutral bottoms spelled disaster for the important Flemish carrying trade. In the course of 1402 no fewer than twenty-seven Flemish ships had been captured at sea on account of England’s quarrel with France. When the winter gales subsided in March 1403 and the English privateers resumed their cruises they took another twenty-six Flemish ships in the space of two months. The Duke of Burgundy’s first instinct had been to take reprisals against English merchants and goods in Flanders. But his subjects, terrified of falling out with their main trading partner, refused to cooperate. Meeting at Ypres in July 1402 the Four Members resolved to look for an accommodation with England instead. As one of its representatives told the English agents in Calais, whatever the Duke might say ‘the land of Flanders is no enemy of the King of England’.

That autumn they sent ambassadors to England and Scotland to open negotiations for what amounted to a treaty of neutrality. These initiatives culminated in an agreement with Henry IV’s council at Westminster on 7 March 1403. The terms provided for a temporary truce pending a conference at Calais in July, when it was hoped to make a more permanent arrangement. Meanwhile Flemish goods were to be immune from seizure in England or at sea, on the Flemings’ undertaking that they would not pass French goods off as their own. A corresponding immunity was conferred on English cargoes in Flanders. The practical effect was to allow Flemish traders to exclude French goods from the Flemish carrying trade as if France was a foreign country. The Flemish emissaries understood this perfectly. When Philip received them in Paris after their return they pressed him to allow Flanders to ‘remain neutral in the war of the two realms’. They were followed a few days later by a delegation of the Four Members. There were ‘rumours and fears throughout Flanders’, they said, that war would shortly break out with England. The life of the territory depended on the trade in cloth and wool. They would all be ruined if the war was allowed to interrupt it.

Since one of the Flemish negotiators at Westminster was his councillor and the other a canon of St Donatien in Bruges, the Duke of Burgundy must have given at least his tacit assent to their dealings with the English. But he regarded them as a disagreeable necessity. As the date fixed for the Anglo-Flemish conference at Calais approached, Philip reluctantly submitted to the Flemish demands. At the beginning of May 1403, during an interval of lucidity, Charles VI was induced to let Philip negotiate a separate treaty with England in his capacity as Count of Flanders. The terms of his negotiating authority were hammered out between his officials and Charles’s councillors in Paris in the course of June. It was a remarkable document, which envisaged an immunity not just for the Anglo-Flemish trade but for the county itself. The Duke was authorised to agree that if war broke out the Flemings would not be required to take up arms in the cause of France. French royal troops would not be allowed to operate from Flanders unless the English actually invaded it, and French ships of war would not be allowed to use Flemish ports except for short visits to take on water and victuals. It is obvious that some features of this arrangement were completely unacceptable to the French royal council and had been included simply to satisfy the Four Members. In a secret protocol drawn up shortly afterwards Philip promised the King that in spite of the breadth of the authority conferred on him he would agree nothing that might prevent a French army from launching an expedition to Scotland or an invasion of England from Flemish ports.

For some years Flanders was destined to pursue two inconsistent policies towards England, the Duke’s policy and that of the Four Members. The Four Members did their best to enforce the agreement that they had made with Henry IV. They sent their agents to every port of western Flanders from Sluys to Gravelines with orders to stop the fitting out of ships of war against England. At least one corsair who defied their wishes was imprisoned. Meanwhile Philip of Burgundy declined to be bound by the agreement and in April 1403 authorised the seizure of £10,000 worth of English merchandise by the water bailiff of Sluys in retaliation for the latest piratical raids in the North Sea. Philip nominated his own representatives to participate in the Anglo-Flemish conference at Calais alongside those of the Four Members, but they were consistently obstructive, raising one procedural objection after another. As a result the conference was repeatedly adjourned without a permanent agreement. Nevertheless the provisional arrangements agreed at Westminster were extended from session to session and progressively expanded as the English pressed their demands and the Flemings yielded. In August 1403 the Four Members agreed to formalise the prohibition on the carriage of French cargoes in Flemish ships and extended it to cover Scottish merchandise as well. They also promised to release English prisoners and cargoes seized by the Duke’s officers. All of this was done on their own authority without any formal endorsement by either the Duke of Burgundy or the King of France. The French royal council expressed the strongest misgivings about the whole business and in the event the August agreement was never ratified. But it was generally observed in practice and negotiations were never entirely broken off. The English government maintained what amounted to a permanent diplomatic mission in Calais charged with the conduct of relations with Flanders under the supervision of Henry IV’s long-serving lieutenant-governor of the town, Richard Aston, and a meticulous Oxford lawyer called Nicholas Ryshton. It would take them four years of continuous and accident-prone negotiation before an Anglo-Flemish treaty was finally concluded in very different political conditions in 1407.