English Specialist archers originating in Wales in medieval times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wars of Charlemagne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

King of England 978-1016,

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

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

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

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


Norman conquests in Southern Italy and Sicily.

After Ibn al-Thumna called for their help, Robert and Roger crossed over to Sicily, quickly seized the port of Messina, and drove southwest toward Ibn al-Hawwas’s territory, taking the towns of Troina and Rometta in the interior. But, unable to defeat al-Hawwas, they halted their advance. Not long afterward, Ibn al-Thumna was killed—by his own subjects, who were outraged that he had gone to the infidel Normans to save himself. Robert and Roger turned this apparent setback to their rhetorical advantage, claiming that, since Ibn al-Thumna had been the legitimate ruler of Sicily and they had been his allies, they were now duty-bound to avenge his death by conquering the island in his name.

It may seem curious that the de Hautevilles would manufacture a formal pretext for their invasion; after all, they were Christians, and Sicily was ruled by Muslims. But at this time, a generation before the First Crusade had been conceived of, in practice conflict in the Mediterranean world was not a function of religious difference. The Normans may have been the most ruthless warriors on the island, but they were small in number and had few allies (even among their countrymen, such was their belligerence). They had to tread gingerly. The native Latin Christians of southern Italy regarded them as usurpers, and were continuously on the brink of revolt. The papacy was a fickle supporter, never hesitant to call in the Holy Roman Empire or threaten excommunication. The Byzantine Empire (the “effeminate Greeks” to the Norman chroniclers), though riven by internal conflict and facing new challenges from the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor, still held important cities on the Italian mainland. And although the power of the Zirids of Ifriqiya had been crippled by the predations of the Banu Hilal—a Bedouin tribe unleashed against them by the Fatimid Caliphate—they, unlike the Normans (and like the Byzantines), had a sizable and experienced navy.

The Normans could call upon their unmatched bravery and appetite for violence, but even in an age of primitive, face-to-face combat, these alone were not enough. It was one thing to defeat an enemy, but quite another to win his loyalty and service. The prosperity of Sicily was a consequence of its agricultural and its artisanal output, as well as its role as a commercial hub of the Central Mediterranean. The Normans, much like Alfonso IV contemplating al-Andalus, understood that conquest would mean little if it involved the destruction of the economy of the conquered lands. But Sicily was a more complex environment than even al-Andalus. The Normans had to prove themselves to be fair rulers in a place where Byzantines, Latins, and Muslims had no choice but to adhere to a mutually recognized code of political conduct. Roger and Robert would set out to persuade Sicily’s Muslims to recognize Christian overlords—something that was virtually unprecedented at that point not only in Sicily, but across the Mediterranean—and to assure the substantial Greek Orthodox population, which would have been ambivalent about Norman rule, of their goodwill.

But the Normans were not the only foreigners who coveted the island. In the late 1060s the Zirids sent a force to Sicily with the stated goal of relieving the beleaguered Banu Kalb, but they seized Palermo and claimed the island for themselves. This occupation, however, was ended shortly after by the combination of a Norman counterattack and the resistance of local Muslims, who saw the Zirids as no better than the Christian invaders. At the same time, Robert and Roger dealt with revolts on the mainland by their Norman underlings and local Lombard lords, which were supported by the new Doukas dynasty of Constantinople. They viciously put down these rebellions, with public executions and violent reprisals, and next took the port towns of Brindisi and Bari, Byzantium’s last mainland possessions in Italy. Only then did the two brothers focus their efforts on Muslim Sicily. In 1071, less than eight months after the surrender of Bari, the city of Palermo found itself facing a Norman blockade, by land and sea.

Palermo would have been like no other city the Normans had seen, except for those very few among them who may have journeyed to Constantinople. Even though it was nearly a century past its peak and had endured more than fifty years of misgovernment, Palermo remained somewhere on the order of ten times larger and wealthier than Bari, Genoa, Pisa, Venice, and even Rome. Under the Kalbid dynasty in the late tenth century, its population reached approximately 350,000. It was a bustling metropolis, where Muslim converts and colonists rubbed shoulders with Byzantine Orthodox natives and numerous slaves of African and Eastern European origin, and where visitors from across the Arabo-Islamic world encountered Arabo-Judaic traders from Alexandria and the Maghrib, as well as enterprising merchants from Latinate Italy.

Under the Kalbids, Sicily had become a center of trade famous for the manufacture of silk, textiles, and ceramics, and a breadbasket for gold-rich Muslim Ifriqiya. Commerce enriched the island’s governors, enabling them to patronize Arabo-Islamic literature and art. It also financed the construction of a ring of lavish palaces and lush garden estates around Palermo. The geographer Ibn Hawqal, who visited Sicily in the 970s, claimed that Palermo had some three hundred mosques, second only to Córdoba, including a grand mosque that could hold seven thousand worshippers. Here he was shown a casket suspended from the ceiling that was said to contain the body of the philosopher Aristotle, and to which local Christians would pray in times of drought. Still, Ibn Hawqal decried the religious laxity and hypocrisy of the city’s inhabitants—a reaction, perhaps, to Palermo’s cosmopolitanism.

Decades into the Kalbid decline, Palermo remained a prize for any would-be conqueror. Much of the city was unprotected by walls, but there were two strongly fortified quarters, one inland, around the central fortress, and the other on the sea. Siege warfare was relatively new to the Normans. Like other contemporary Latin military elites, the Normans practiced a style of fighting based on professional medium-to-heavy cavalry trained to charge in unison with fixed lances. The goal was to break a line of opposing cavalry forces or sword- and ax-wielding infantry. Norman knights were the superiors of any others, but their tactics and arms were ill-suited to attacking walled cities, which were common in the Mediterranean, unlike in the less prosperous north of Europe. Large cities, or their core neighborhoods, were typically fortified with stone and rock walls many stories high and many meters thick, and girded by towers, moats, and other defensive works. The walls of Central and Eastern Mediterranean cities often dated back to the time of the Romans, and had been reinforced and expanded over the previous thousand years. Assaults on such walls with ladders were relatively easy to repulse, wooden siege towers were cumbersome and vulnerable, and it was often impossible to dig tunnels under city walls that would cause them to collapse. Sieges frequently devolved into a waiting game in which the defenders enjoyed a clear advantage.

Defending walls, on the other hand, did not require a large professional army, particularly because all able-bodied citizens, including women and children, would be called on to serve in such a situation. Defending against betrayal—the bribing of a disloyal guard or the revenge of a discontented citizen—was perhaps more difficult. Medieval chronicles abound with such tales. According to contemporary sources, for example, during the 1098 Siege of Antioch, the first great victory of the First Crusade on its way to Jerusalem, the Latins only took the city because a certain “Firuz,” an Armenian Christian, unlocked a gate for them. But whether this and similar episodes were fact or fiction, the besieging army could not count on such an opportunity. Instead, they attempted to starve the inhabitants of the city into submission.

Many Mediterranean cities, however, unlike those on the Iberian Peninsula, could hold out almost indefinitely if there had been adequate time to prepare, and if they were not completely blockaded. Many were equipped with vast underground cisterns built to supply water during lengthy sieges; others, like Palermo, were supplied by wells. The rulers of rich Islamic cities were also often able to maintain substantial reserves of olive oil, grain, and other foodstuffs as a bulwark against both famine and attack. Even if a city’s food supplies were exhausted, the inhabitants could turn to consuming their animals, and, if necessary, their clothing and their dead, even their children—anything to forestall the pillage, rape, massacre, and enslavement that so often followed the conquest of a city.

At Palermo, this would have seemed to be an unlikely outcome. It took a considerable army to quarantine a large city effectively, and if Roger’s chronicler, Geoffrey Malaterra, is to be trusted, the brothers had mustered only five hundred knights for the campaign against the capital. Food and information would have trickled into the city through tunnels, secret gates, and gaps in their line. And they would have faced difficult challenges of their own. Besiegers, too, had to provision themselves, and were furthermore vulnerable to debilitating and fatal illnesses while camped outside a city’s walls, exposed to the elements and in crowded, unsanitary conditions. Dysentery spelled the messy and ignominious end of more than one Crusade. Moreover, in the Northern European tradition, warfare was essentially a private enterprise. Knights and noblemen followed their lord into battle, but they were responsible for their own upkeep. Campaigning drove them into crippling debt; it was a worthwhile proposition only because, if victorious, they would enjoy the right of pillage, or perhaps be apportioned new lands from the conquered territories. Yet even if they grew rich in gold or lands, warriors would still have to worry about what was happening on their own estates, which they often had no choice but to leave in the hands of vulnerable wives, untrustworthy relatives, or scheming subordinates. At the Siege of Lisbon in 1147, the Muslim defenders famously taunted the knights of the Second Crusade with the prospect of the sexual infidelity of the wives they had left back in Flanders and England.

It fell to commanders like Robert and Roger to maintain the morale and resolve of their men for the duration of a siege, and to prevent them from giving up and returning home. A failed siege could destroy a warlord’s reputation and undermine his authority. Given the pressures on defenders and attackers alike, many sieges were resolved by negotiation—either a promise from the city to pay tribute in exchange for the attackers’ withdrawal, or an agreement to surrender the city and guarantee the lives and at least some of the property of the defenders.

In 1071, as the Norman Siege of Palermo wore on through the fall, provisions and spirits in the city would have begun to run low. The prospect of relief from the Zirids, the only possible saviors, became increasingly remote. Not only had the Normans crippled the Zirid fleet, they had seemed to reach a diplomatic understanding with the Muslim kingdom: Robert and Roger could have Palermo. Beyond the immediate hardship of the siege, the city’s residents, especially the merchants, would have grown more and more worried about the toll of the blockade. Palermo’s Christian minority may have also been a cause of concern for the city’s rulers; there was always the chance that one among them might cut their own deal with the Normans and betray the city. In this siege of a Mediterranean city, however, time may have been on the Normans’ side; aside from the city’s internal troubles, Robert and Roger’s knights could raid the countryside for food, and the duke and his brother could bring in reinforcements and supplies from the mainland.

Nevertheless, by the turn of the year 1072, the two brothers felt it was time to act. In the early days of January they mounted a coordinated assault on Palermo’s harbor and walls. Norman troops broke into the city on both fronts, and, in the looting and killing that followed, the city’s leading citizens took refuge in the fortress. On either January 9 or 10, a delegation representing the authorities of Palermo agreed to parley. They would surrender, although not unconditionally. As Malaterra wrote:

they were unwilling to violate or relinquish their law … but [said] that under the present circumstances, they had no choice but to surrender the city, to render faithful service to the duke, and to pay tribute. They promised to affirm this all with an oath according to their own law.

The offer was a calculated risk. There was no guarantee Robert and Roger would accept, and no guarantee that if they did they would then keep their word. Only eight years earlier, another Norman-led force had accepted the surrender of the Muslim town of Barbastro, far off in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees. The Christian forces had granted the Muslim inhabitants safe-conduct to leave their town and take with them whatever they could carry. But as the populace left the safety of their walls, the Christians could not restrain themselves at the sight of their abundant wealth, and swept down on them, massacring the men, looting their belongings, and carrying off the women as slaves and concubines. Though they may have known of this event, the Muslims of Palermo did not see another option. They could not hole up in the fortress indefinitely, and they would have felt reassured by the fact that over the previous decade a number of towns in eastern Sicily had surrendered to the Normans, and thus far their treaties had been honored.

Robert and Roger likely did not have the stomach for the sort of drawn-out fight that taking the fortress of Palermo would have required, and were probably eager to agree to the city’s offer. Unrest was again brewing back on the mainland, and they did not want to disturb the economy of their new prize any more than they already had. They would need Palermo’s resources to complete the conquest of Sicily.

Upon the conditional surrender of the Muslim leadership of Palermo, Robert made an unprecedented move for a Christian, declaring himself before the city’s Muslims to be the new malik, or king. Roger, for his part, began referring to himself as “count” (qumis) or “sultan” of Sicily. He had new coins struck at the city’s mint, on one side bearing the Islamic profession of faith, “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His Messenger,” and on the other a stylized T, signifying, perhaps, “son of Tancred.” There was no Christian imagery on the coins, but they bore a clumsy Arabic transliteration of Guiscard’s name—“Arbart”—along with his new title, King of Sicily. The message for the Muslims of Palermo was clear: Robert and his Norman knights would provide peace and stability in exchange for submission and loyalty. The Normans would not infringe on the Muslims’ religious rights or freedoms, nor would they undermine the civil and religious authorities within their community.

Robert Guiscard took most of the men under his and his brother’s command back to Italy, to stamp out the various rebellions in his lands. Though he maintained a nominal half share of the Sicilian territories he and Roger had conquered, he would never again return to the island. Guiscard and his heirs would remain the rulers of Apulia, and it would be left to Roger, with a handful of his close family members and dependents, to establish a new realm in Sicily. This would take a full twenty years, and Roger’s ultimate success would see him acquire the epithet “Bosso,” or “the Great Count.”


Bulgarians against Byzantines – Battle of Rusokastro 18 July 1332

Avar and Bulgar warriors, eastern Europe, 8th century AD

The Turkic Bulgars appeared in the sixth century, first as a rump of the so-called Old Bulgarian Empire, the Kutrigurs, defeated by Belisarius outside Constantinople in 559, settled north of the Danube and were absorbed by the Avars. Following the collapse of Avar power in the eighth century, new Bulgar arrivals and existing elites in Transdanubia gradually formed the Bulgar khanate, which adopted Slavic language and customs. Given their cultural origins in the Eurasian steppe, it is unsurprising that throughout the medieval period the Bulgarian social elite fought mostly as heavy armed cavalry lancers. Bulgaria formed the most important state to the north of the empire. Though there were long stretches of peace between the two peoples and even alliance, Byzantine-Bulgar relations were strained by their fundamental conflicting goals—both empires sought to dominate the Balkans and each considered the presence of the other unacceptable. Thus the Bulgars sought to capture Constantinople or subjugate the Byzantines militarily, while the latter sought to contain or even annex Bulgaria outright.


Initially the Bulgars organized themselves along the lines of most steppe empires, with “inner” and “outer” tribes whose power relationships were articulated through marriage alliances, genealogies, and material exchange. Beneath the outer tribes in the pecking order were subject groups like Slavs, Greeks, and the mélange of Avar, Hunnic, and Germanic remnants that rendered the rich cultural matrix of the Danube basin. The khan stood at the pinnacle of an increasingly sophisticated hierarchy that developed under steppe and Byzantine influence. Senior “inner” nobles, called boilas (often Anglicized as “boyar”), and junior “outer” nobles, bagains, formed the elite of the Bulgar state and provided both the military leadership and elite troops of the khanate. The Bulgars matched their Byzantine foe with a strong hierarchical military organization with the khan in overall command while his leading generals, the tarqan, commanded his administrative regional center and presumably took the center of the battle line as well. The targan’s subordinates included komites (sing. komes), after Byzantine usage, who commanded the wings of the army. The highest-ranking Bulgar nobles were heavily equipped cavalry with barded mounts and relied on heavy household cavalry and lighter armed horse archers as did their steppe nomad ancestors.

Methods of Warfare

The Bulgars employed mass conscription to fill out the ranks for their armies. Fear was the main tool used to compel men to enlist and show up equipped for the occasion. Khan Boris Michael (d. 907) ordered that men who arrived for muster without proper equipment or unprepared for campaign were to be executed, as were those who deserted before or during battle. The rank and file included many Slavs who fought as light infantry, carrying shields and javelins. Bulgar cavalry resembled both their Byzantine enemy and other steppe nomads. The Bulgars were expert in their use of terrain, relying on ambush and surprise in their confrontation with the enemy. They demonstrated a high level of strategic planning, strong discipline, and military cohesion, and on numerous occasions were able to confront and defeat imperial field armies, as they did at Varbica in 811 when they trapped a large force led by the emperor Nikephoros I and destroyed it by hemming the Byzantines against a wooden palisade and surrounding it. The emperor himself was killed and his heir mortally wounded. The Bulgars were intimately acquainted with Byzantine military strategy and tactics and, unlike the fragmented Arab emirates to the east, formed a more unified foe unbowed by the shock of repeated defeats.

Byzantine Adaptation

The Byzantines dealt with the Bulgars via a full range of economic, diplomatic, and military strategies. Trade was limited by treaty to designated zones and monitored by imperial officials. Spies were maintained at the Bulgar court at Pliska; the Bulgar khan Telerig (768–77) tricked the emperor into revealing the identity of Byzantine agents among the Bulgars by the ruse of his promised defection, then slaughtered those in the pay of the empire. Byzantine failures against the Bulgars were often due to weakness in strategic and battlefield intelligence that resulted in the surprise of imperial field forces. Experienced and cautious commanders found warfare in Bulgaria perilous. Thus, in the ongoing dispute over control of lands in Thrace and Mesembria on the Black Sea coast, the emperor Nikephoros II Phokas mounted a brief campaign in which he found the Bulgars’ skillful use of the mountainous terrain and difficulties of supply and communication hard to overcome. Nikephoros therefore induced Sviatoslav I of Kiev to invade Bulgaria; the Rus’ captured scores of Bulgarian towns and fortresses and overwhelmed Bulgar resistance, which led to a direct confrontation between the Rus’ and their new Bulgar subjects and Byzantium. John I Tzimiskes’s defeat of the Rus’ at Dorostolon in 971 opened the way for Byzantine annexation of Bulgaria. The subjugation of Bulgaria took decades, however, with persistent and arduous campaigning by the emperor Basil II, who reduced each quarter of the Bulgar state through sieges and attrition, finally grinding down Bulgar resistance. Bulgaria provided another test for Byzantine strategies of attritive warfare: imperial forces used sieges, scorched earth, and incremental capture-and-hold methods to gradually expand their bases of operations and finally wear out a formidable, skillful, and disciplined opponent. Although the empire possessed a dominant position in Bulgaria by the death of Basil II in 1025, serious resistance continued to the death of the Bulgarian tsar Peter II in 1041. Byzantine control of Bulgaria, won over decades of bitter warfare, lasted for nearly a century and a half.

Swiss Mercenaries in the 15th and early 16th centuries

The Swiss (on the left) assault the Landsknecht mercenaries in the French lines at the Battle of Marignano

“As for trying to intimidate the enemy, blocks of thousands of oncoming merciless Swiss, advancing swiftly accompanied by what a contemporary called “the deep wails and moans of the Uri Bull and Unterwalden Cow*” or landsknechts chanting “look out, here I come” in time with their drums were posturing on a grand scale. Not to mention what 8 ranks of lowered pike-heads looked like when viewed from the receiving end…”



In Hamlet Act IV, Scene 5, Shakespeare has the king call out: “Where are my Switzers? Let them guard the door.” Here Shakespeare is referring to the famous Swiss mercenaries, whose courage, reliability, and battlefield skills made them the most sought-after mercenaries during the Late Middle Ages. Their discipline and training even allowed them to withstand cavalry charges. Because they were so good at their work, it is worth saying something here, very briefly, about their abilities.

The modern scholars Michael Mallett and Christine Shaw tell us this about the Swiss mercenaries:

The French could boast the finest heavy cavalry in Europe in the companies d’ordonnance, permanent units raised and paid for by the Crown, in which the French competed to serve. For infantry, the French had come to rely heavily on Swiss mercenaries. In the 1490s, the reputation of the Swiss stood very high. They were a different kind of “national” army. A well-established system of training, organized by the governments of the cantons, resulted in a high proportion of able-bodied men having the strength and ability to handle pikes, halberds and two-handed swords, and the discipline to execute complex manoeuvres in formations of several thousand men.

Employers hired these men not only for their military skills but also because entire contingents could be recruited simply by contacting the Swiss cantons. Young men there were required to serve in the militia system, were willing and well-prepared to do so, and welcomed the chance to serve abroad. Alternatively, Swiss men could also hire themselves out individually or in small groups. It is clear that the Swiss were hard fighters and hard-headed businessmen as well. Their motto was: pas d’argent, pas de Swisse (no money, no Swiss).

Swiss mercenaries were highly valued through late medieval Europe because of the power of their determined mass attacks, in deep columns, with pikes and halberds. They specialized in sending large columns of soldiers into battle in “pike squares.” These were well-trained, well-disciplined bands of men armed with long steel-tipped poles and were grouped into 100-man formations that were 10 men wide and 10 men deep. On command, pike squares could wheel and maneuver so quickly that it was nearly suicidal for horsemen or infantrymen to attack them. As they came at their enemy with leveled pikes and hoarse battle cries, they were almost invincible.

These Swiss soldiers were equally proficient in the use of crossbows, early firearms, swords, and halberds. A These Swiss soldiers were equally proficient in the use of crossbows, early firearms, swords, and halberds. A halberd is an axe blade topped with a spike and mounted on a long shaft. If the need arose, they could easily lay their pikes aside and take up other weapons instead. They were so effective that between about 1450 and 1500 every major leader in Europe either hired Swiss pikemen or hired fighters like the German Landsknecht who copied Swiss tactics. The extensive and continuous demand for these specialist Swiss and landsknecht pike companies may well have given them the illusion of permanency. In any case, what it did show was that medieval and Renaissance warfare was becoming better disciplined, more organized, and more professional.

Swiss fighters were responding to several interrelated factors: limited economic opportunities in their home mountains; pride in themselves and their colleagues as world-class soldiers; and, last but not least, by a love of adventure and combat. In fact, they were such good fighters that the Swiss enjoyed a near-monopoly on pike-armed military service for many years. One of their successes was the battle of Novara in northern Italy 1513 between France and the Republic of Venice, on the one hand, and the Swiss Confederation and the Duchy of Milan, on the other. The story runs as follows.

A French army, said by some sources to total 1,200 cavalrymen and about 20,000 Landsknechts, Gascons, and other troops, was camped near and was besieging Novara. This city was being held by some of the Duke of Milan’s Swiss mercenaries. A Swiss relief army of some 13,000 Swiss troops unexpectedly fell upon the French camp. The pike-armed Landsknechts managed to form up into their combat squares; the Landsknecht infantrymen took up their proper positions; and the French were able to get some of their cannons into action. The Swiss, however, surrounded the French camp, captured the cannons, broke up the Landsknecht pike squares, and forced back the Landsknecht infantry regiments.

The fight was very bloody: the Swiss executed hundreds of the Landsknechts they had captured, and 700 men were killed in three minutes by heavy artillery fire alone. To use a later English naval term from the days of sail, the “butcher’s bill” (the list of those killed in action) was somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 men. Despite this Swiss success, however, the days of their supremacy as the world’s best mercenaries were numbered. In about 1515, the Swiss pledged themselves to neutrality, with the exception of Swiss soldiers serving in the ranks of the royal French army. The Landsknechts, on the other hand, would continue to serve any paymaster and would even fight each other if need be. Moreover, since the rigid battle formations of the Swiss were increasingly vulnerable to arquebus and artillery fire, employers were more inclined to hire the Landsknechts instead.

In retrospect, it is clear that the successes of Swiss soldiers in the 15th and early 16th centuries were due to three factors:

• Their courage was extraordinary. No Swiss force ever broke in battle, surrendered, or ran away. In several instances, the Swiss literally fought to the last man. When they were forced to retreat in the face of overwhelming odds, they did so in good order while defending themselves against attack.

• Their training was excellent. Swiss soldiers relied on a simple system of tactics, practiced until it became second nature to every man. They were held to the mark by a committee-leadership of experienced old soldiers.

• They were ferocious and gave no quarter, not even for ransom, and sometimes violated terms of surrender already given to garrisons and pillaged towns that had capitulated. These qualities inspired fear in their opponents.