Bernard Doumerc

In Venice, ‘the sea was all that mattered’. Truly, this was the founding principle that marked the history of this celebrated city.1 For a very long time historians made the Serenissima a model of success, wealth, and opulence, sometimes asserting that the Venetians ‘had a monopoly of the transit trade in spices from the Orient’ and ‘that they were the masters of the Mediterranean’.2 Such accounts, flattering to the pride of the inhabitants of the lagoons, emphasised the prestige of Venetian navies and the patriotism of its noble lovers of liberty, united to defend the city against the adversities of nature and of men. All this is entirely misleading.

The Venetians were not the only ones who used the maritime routes of the Mediterranean Sea, an area that they were forced to share with great rivals.3 Beginning in the eleventh century, the Venetian government, determined to take a place in international affairs, intervened vigorously against the Normans who had recently installed themselves in southern Italy and Sicily. At that time all of the Christian West, not only the Venetians, was excited by the success of the crusaders, and tried to find advantage in these unsettled commercial conditions. So it was that the drive to establish a trading presence on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, from Ceuta in Morocco to Lajazzo in Cilicia, began with violence. The Middle Ages were a time of war in which periods of peace were extremely brief. Governments knew how to manage unpredictable economies that were continually buffeted by the repeated conflicts of the age. The Venetians were not the masters in the western basin of the Mediterranean. There the Genoese and the Catalans reigned. In the East they were forced to share the wealth of the Byzantine Empire, the Armenian kingdom and caliphates with their competitors, the Pisans, the Amalfitans, and the Genoese. Though faced with fierce opposition from the other Italian cities, little by little, the tenacity and the communal spirit of the Venetians succeeded in lifting the Serenissima to dominance. They knew how to build the foundations of their maritime power.

From the eleventh century onward, the successive governments of the city wanted above all to take control of navigation in the narrow Adriatic Sea, from the Po Valley with its populous and prosperous cities, and reaching out toward distant lands. It is the Adriatic problem that gave the first impetus to Venetian imperialism. Later, the peace that Venice concluded in 1177 with the emperor Frederick I established the Republic’s ‘Lordship of the Gulf’, which it alone would dominate until the middle of the sixteenth century.4 For some Italian maritime cities the first Crusades in the Near East provided an opportunity for conquest, but the Venetians would wait until the Fourth Crusade when, in 1204, they finally dismembered the Byzantine Empire for their own gain. Their naval power rested upon constantly growing trade, closely following a considerable growth in the demand for maritime transport between the two shores of the Mediterranean. These conditions allowed the creation of an overseas colonial empire, the stato da mar. Radiating outward from major islands such as Euboea and Crete, and from bases at strategic points along the coast, such as Coron and Modon in the Peloponnese or, in the Aegean Sea, from the many islets of the Duchy of Naxos, the enterprise of Venetian colonists and tradesmen grew unceasingly. Great successes, as much in battle as in the marketplace, are the mark of a powerful state. Without a doubt these successes rested on three critical and all-important determining elements. First was the creation of that unique institution, the Arsenal, by the communal authorities. Second was the implementation of vigorous oversight of the Republic’s naval potential as is clearly demonstrated in the establishment of convoys of merchant galleys. Finally, there was the continuing concern for associating the defence of economic interests with preoccupations of territorial expansion aimed at the founding of a colonial empire. These, it seems, were the reasons why Venice became a great maritime power.

There was a technological solution to the new equation that determined the relation between time and distance. This ‘world economy’, as defined by Fernand Braudel, saw new kinds of sailing craft brought into use. In Venice, even as the traditional role of sailors was called into question, the galley remained the preferred vessel. Venetians saw no reason to force cargo ships to evolve in a different way from warships when the galley could fill both these functions that were intimately bound together in medieval deep-sea navigation.5 If the numerous crew of a galley was expensive, it was much less so than the loss of the vessel and its cargo. The galley was the favourite weapon of the Venetians and all means were employed to optimise its capabilities within the parameters dictated by necessity. From a very early time Venice had several shipyards, the well-known squeri, within the city itself. Perhaps from the beginning of the twelfth century – some have suggested that it was as early as 1104 – the ruling elite decided to provide the city with a shipbuilding establishment controlled by the government.6 Archival documentation from 1206 confirms the existence of such a state-controlled naval shipyard and also attests that the construction of ships for the Commune was to be confined to this facility. In 1223, the first evidence appears for the existence of the patroni arsenatus, directors of the Arsenal, elected from among the nobles of the Great Council and salaried by the Commune. Their task was clearly defined: to provide necessary raw materials to the craftsmen, especially wood for ships’ frames, hemp for sails, and cordage, and to see to the timely delivery of sound and robust ships. The details of Doge Enrico Dandolo’s direct intervention in the preparation for the attack on the capital of the Byzantine Empire during the Fourth Crusade of 1204 are well known. This intrusion of the public authority into the management of naval construction would continue until the end of the Republic. In 1258, the capitulares illorum de arsena defined the role of the directors. From 1277, after some hesitation, the state attempted to retain its skilled labour force by forbidding craftsmen from emigrating. Within two years, between 1269 and 1271, the government decided to codify the regulations that governed the craft guilds in the Arsenal. The statutes of the caulkers’, shipwrights’, and rope-makers’ guilds also date from this period. By 1265, the districts that produced wood and hemp for the Arsenal were managed by public administrators. Then, in 1276, the government required that at least one squadron should always be prepared to put to sea at a moment’s notice, which required the continual presence of craftsmen at the Arsenal. Finally, in 1278, an arms manufactory completed the complement of activities sheltered within the protecting walls of the shipyard.7

1 F. C. Lane, Venise, une république maritime (Paris, 1985), 96, and in ‘Venetian Shipping during the Commercial Revolution’, in The Collected Papers of F. C. Lane (Baltimore, 1966), 3–24.

2 F. Braudel, La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II , 2 vols(Paris, 1982), I, 493.

3 J. H. Pryor, ‘The Naval Battles of Roger of Lauria’, Journal of Medieval History, 9 (1983), 179–216, and also in his Geography, Technology, and War. Studies in the Maritime History of the Mediterranean (649–1571) (Cambridge, 1988).

4 G. Cracco, Un altro mondo, Venezia nel medioevo dal secolo XI al secolo XIV (Turin, 1986), 52.

5 F. Melis, I trasporti e le comunicazioni nel medioevo, ed. L. Frangioni (Florence, 1984), 111.

6 E. Concina, La casa dell’Arsenale, in Storia di Venezia, Temi, Il Mare (Rome, 1991), 147–210.

7 G. Luzzato, Studi di storia economica veneziana (Padua, 1954), 6.


Venetian Galley

Bernard Doumerc

In 1302, the Venetian government implemented a revision of ‘the corrections and additions’ to the Arsenal regulations.8 This action was necessary to encourage the full development of the technological revolution that would maximise the Republic’s naval potential. A short time later, between 1304 and 1307, the Arsenale Novo was created.9 By 1325 every sector of maritime activity had been reformed. The speed with which the authorities decided, the promotion of utilitas favourable to the public good, and a real will to innovate gave expression to a powerful movement toward a goal of dominating the sea. In 1301, the Senate declared that it was necessary to arm a permanent squadron for the protection of ‘the Gulf’ (the Adriatic Sea). The cramped port facilities in the lagoon led to a natural expansion with new basins in the Arsenale Novo.10 This expansion of facilities was completed by the creation of naval bases at Pola and Pore? in Istria. Until the final phase of renovation at the end of the fifteenth century, this naval establishment was the pride of Venice’s oligarchy. In 1435, the Senate declared, ‘our Arsenal is the best in the world’ and encouraged visits by the famous and powerful as they journeyed toward Jerusalem. This evocation of the labour, ingenuity, and efficiency of the seamen of Venice resounded all across Europe and flattered the pride of the subjects of the Serenissima. The myth of Venice, forged by the political powers around the Arsenal, helped to elicit respect, fear, and effective administration.11

It is necessary to pause for a moment to consider this assertion of a clever political will that quickly adapted to circumstances. In looking at the overall situation in the Mediterranean basin it is clear that by the late thirteenth century the Venetian position had weakened. In 1261, a Byzantine–Genoese coalition took control of Constantinople and a part of Romania that, up until that time, had been controlled by the Franks and Venetians. Meanwhile, the Republic relentlessly defended Crete, the coastal bases of the Peloponnese, and the important islands of the Aegean Sea.12 In 1291 the fall of Acre marked the final defeat of the Crusaders in the Latin States of the Levant. It appears that the Venetians had already begun a withdrawal toward the west when, in 1274, Doge Lorenzo Tiepolo prohibited investment in agricultural estates on Terra Ferma ‘to oblige the Venetians to take an interest in naval affairs’. A little later, in 1298, their perpetual rivals, the Genoese, entered the Adriatic to support the Hungarians with an attack on Venetian possessions in Dalmatia.13 Naval war within the confined spaces of the Adriatic forced the government to undertake a major reform effort to confront this threat from the enemies of the Republic. This was more than a territorial conflict. It was also an economic war that engulfed the entire Mediterranean basin. The desire to capture commerce and to dominate distribution networks for goods placed great importance on the ability to keep fleets at sea. The last phase in the creation of Venice’s magnificent Arsenal took place between about 1473 and 1475. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, fear seized the Venetians who dreaded a naval assault on their colonial possessions. The defence of the stato da mar was undertaken by reinforcing the defences of the system of naval bases. First, Negroponte and Nauplia, and then, the Arsenal of Candia, an important strong point on Crete, were completely renovated between 1467 and 1470. At home, in Venice, momentous changes in circumstances created a need to augment the Republic’s naval forces. Henceforth, fierce naval war against admirals in the pay of the Ottomans brought unaccustomed reverses. In this context, the senate asked Giacomo Morosini (called el zio, ‘Uncle’) to prepare plans for an extension of the Arsenal in 1473. With an additional eight hectares added to its area, it became the greatest shipyard in Europe and ‘the essential foundation of the state’.14

By demonstrating its undeniable concern for optimising the financial and technical resources devoted to naval construction, the government showed the way for the whole people. The authorities obtained indispensable support from all those social groups whose destiny was tied to the vigour of the city’s maritime activity. At the same time, the desires of those groups corresponded to the announced public policy of giving priority to the naval forces. It is not true that a permanent and effective naval force did not appear until the sixteenth century.15 A navy existed in Venice from the fourteenth century. As described above, the patrol squadron charged with policing the Adriatic was at the heart of that force, but there were other available units. First among them were the galleys armed by the port cities that had gradually come to be included in the stato da mar. In the event of conflict these Dalmatian, Albanian, Greek, and Cretan cities were required, by the terms of their submission to Venice, to provide one or more galleys for the naval draft due to the metropolis. There are many instances of these drafts. One example is sufficient to indicate their nature.16 During the conflict against the Turks during the 1470s, the Arsenal could not quickly provide the thirty galleys demanded by the Senate. All the subject cities of the Empire were required to contribute to the fleet. Crete provided eleven galleys, four came from the occupied ports of Puglia, two from Corfu, eleven from Dalmatia (three from Zara, two from Sebenico, one each from Cattaro, Lesina, Split, Pago, Arba, and Trau). Cadres of loyal ‘patriots’ known to Venetian administrators leavened the crews gathered from these various ports. Neither the ardour of these fighters from ‘overseas’ nor their fidelity to St Mark was taken for granted. The Senate did reward loyal commanders such as Alessandro de Gotti of Corfu, Francesco Chachuni of Brindisi, and Jacopo Barsi of Lesina.

The second Venetian trump card was the initiation of an unprecedented system for the administration of sea-borne trade. This system provided a formidable tool, designed to respond to the needs of la ventura, of commerce, laying a foundation for a dominating and expansionist people. These innovative procedures put in place by the ruling oligarchy were developed to take advantage of an exceptional organisation that would raise Venice into the first rank of Mediterranean naval powers. During the first twenty years of the Trecento, there was a period of maturation punctuated by different attempts to develop a system of navigation that eventually evolved into the galley convoys known as mude. Having achieved this objective with the consensus of all the participants in the financial and business world, it was then necessary to create an efficient system of management. Even if maritime trade was prosperous, it remained fragile and subject to unforeseeable risks. It was always possible that a major conflict with the Genoese or the Catalans, or even a brief outbreak of extreme violence due to piracy, might place the whole economic structure of the Republic at risk.17 Meanwhile, in the city of Venice as well as in the small island market towns of the lagoon, in the warehouses and in the tradesmen’s shops or the craftsmen’s booths, men pursued gain, but they did so without an overall plan and without looking for any really consistent method in their approach. Around the middle of the fourteenth century Venetian patricians came to realise the necessity of undertaking ambitious measures to surmount the major obstacles to a rational exploitation of the merchant fleets by making major changes in their organisation. Perhaps the terrifying War of Chioggia (1379–81) accelerated the rapid development of this concept. The patriciate instituted regulations providing for general communal equipping of merchant fleets to offset the disadvantages of the privately outfitted trading expeditions that had been paralysed during this long conflict. It is clear that the implementation of this new system affected all of the Republic’s economic and social structures. Progress toward fully implementing this model for the unique and exemplary management of Venetian maritime potential took place only slowly, but it was to dominate the Republic’s actions at sea up to the middle of the sixteenth century.18

The founding act of this state-controlled regulation was the Ordo galearum armatarum, decreed on 8 December 1321. It concerned both the galleys and sailing cargo ships. The experimental phase lasted until the end of the Venetian– Genoese war of 1379. The cooperation of several outfitters was needed for a merchant convoy so the galleys received collective financing. This innovative policy originated after the fall of Acre in 1291. The entrepreneurial merchants, far from pulling back from risky undertakings, soon became involved in the conquest of the Atlantic routes to Flanders and England. This rapid expansion encouraged new initiatives, sometimes hesitant and disorganised during the first half of the Trecento, then coordinated by the public authorities under the careful supervision of the city’s aristocratic patriciate. Opening navigation routes toward the west, along with intensification of maritime relations with the Levant, placed the keys to international trade in Venetian hands after 1350. They also profited from a remarkably favourable position in relation to the Alpine passes leading to northern Europe. By this time the system of auctioning the charters of galleys belonging to the Commune had been definitively established. To avoid a destructive confrontation between the authorities and the merchants (even though at Venice it is sometimes difficult to discern a difference between the two groups) the state asked that the Black Sea convoy be managed according to this new principle. After some years it was adopted for all navigation routes, to the general satisfaction of both groups. Besides the galley convoys, there was also a whole sector of maritime endeavour involving sailing round ships with high freeboard (naves). Sometimes their operation is described as free outfitting, because it was subject to fewer regulatory constraints. These naves transported necessary bulk products such as grain, all kinds of raw materials of high volume, construction materials, salt, ashes, and so forth. The primary purpose of the more strongly defended galleys was to transport costly cargoes of spices, silks and precious cloths, metals, and weapons. In the middle of the fourteenth century, when the Church lifted its prohibition of trade with the Muslims, the Venetians had a fleet ready to open trade once again with the Syrian and Egyptian ports of the Levant. In 1366, a sailing route involving both galleys and naves established connections from the lagoons to Alexandria and Beirut, beginning a promising trade. In the 1440s, nearly ninety naves and fifty-five galleys sailed for the Near East, and about thirty for Constantinople. The volume of the goods continued to increase, as did the pattern of massive investment and fiscal returns for the treasury. The reform of maritime statutes that had become obsolete, the creation of new work contracts that imposed a minimum wage, improvements in living conditions on board ships and a mariners’ residence in the city attracted a skilled labour force, mostly from Dalmatia, Albania, and Greece. These immigrants, originating from its overseas colonies, allowed the Republic to raise the banner of St Mark throughout the Mediterranean.19 The Senate, the real architect of this system, far from putting the system of private management in opposition to the one controlled by the Commune, took the best of each of the two systems and combined them. For that reason, some historians speak disparagingly about bureaucracy or state control to describe the Venetian system of trade.

8 F. Melis, I mercanti italiani nell’Europa medievale e rinascimentale , ed. L. Frangioni

(Florence, 1990), 9.

9 E. Concina, L’Arsenale della Repubblica di Venezia (Venice, 1984), 26 ff.

10 Ibid., 28, and E. Concina, ‘Dal tempio del mercante al piazzale dell’Impero: l’Arsenale di Venezia’, in Progetto Venezia (Venice, n.d.), 57–106. Originally the ‘gulf ’ or ‘Gulf of Venice’ referred to that part of the Adriatic north of a line between Pola and Ravenna. As Venetian control of the Adriatic expanded, so did their definition of ‘the Gulf’. See F. C. Lane, Venice: A Maritime Republic (Baltimore, 1973), 24.

11 E. Crouzet-Pavan, Venise triomphante, les horizons d’un mythe (Paris, 1999), 122.

12 B. Doumerc, La difesa dell’impero, in Storia di Venezia, dalle origini alla caduta della Serenissima, vol. II, La formazione dello stato patrizio , ed. G. Arnaldi, G. Cracco and A. Tenenti (Rome, 1997), 237–50.

13 B. Krekic, Venezia e l’Adriatico, in Storia di Venezia, III, 51–81 and P. Cabanes, Histoire de l’Adriatique (Paris, 2000), 191.

14 Archivio di Stato, Venice, senato, mar, reg. 15, fol. 14 for example, and S. Karpov, La navigazione veneziana nel mar Nero (XIII–XV sec.) (Ravenna, 2000), 12.

15 J. Meyer, ‘Des liens de causalité en histoire: politiques maritimes et société’, Revue historique, 614 (2000), 12.

16 A. Ducellier and B. Doumerc, ‘Les Chemins de l’exil, bouleversements de l’Est européen et migrations vers l’Ouest à la fin du Moyen Âge’ (Paris, 1992), 163; Archivio di Stato, Venice, senato, mar, reg. 15, fol. 161.

17 B. Doumerc, Il dominio del mare, in Storia di Venezia, IV, 11; A. Tenenti and U. Tucci, eds, Rinascimento (Rome, 1996), 113–80.

18 D. Stöckly, Le Système des galées du marché à Venise (fin XIIIe–milieu XVe) (Leiden and New York, 1995), 158; F. C. Lane, Navires et constructeurs à Venise pendant la Renaissance (Paris, 1965).

19 E. Ashtor, Levant Trade in the Later Middle Ages (Princeton, 1981), 381; J. C. Hocquet, Voiliers et commerce en Méditerranée, 1200–1650 (Lille, 1976), 442; B. Doumerc, Venise et l’émirat hafside de Tunis (Paris, 1999), 172.


The End of Roman Britain II


Yet Saxon raids continued. The Yorkshire signal stations came under attack at least twice, Huntcliff and Goldborough being savagely destroyed. Hadrian’s Wall ceased to function as an effective barrier. Forts remained in use but each may have organized its own defence. The soldiers had always been paid in coinage sent from Rome that then filtered through the population as goods were bought outside the forts. Coins from Roman mints began to cease after about AD 402. This cessation of money being sent from Rome or from the mints may have been because transporting coinage may have become too difficult and risky when crossing Gaul. Cash was also required elsewhere in the empire and Stilicho may just have stopped payments, believing it was a waste to send coinage to Britain. Local mints did not supply coins either because of the lack of good metal or because of difficulties in production. Whatever the reason the lack of coins particularly affected the civilian settlements round the forts. These had an artificial economy kept going by the pay of the troops. When monetary contact ceased the inhabitants drifted away, leaving only a handful of people to occupy the forts for defence or shelter, hence the lack of settled communities round the forts. After AD 407 Britain existed on coins already in existence or on barter. Military groups would probably seize supplies where they could. Army units would hold together for security and companionship but any military force under direct Roman military control was disintegrating.

The situation may have resembled that described in Noricum by Eugippius in The Life of St Severinus during the AD 470s. When coinage ceased to arrive, military units disbanded and left their posts. A neighbouring king then crossed the Danube and took over military control of the Romanized towns and the population, organizing them into defensive groups. If the same thing happened in Britain when coinage did not arrive, soldiers would leave their posts. Towns and villa owners in Britain may then have hired soldiers for protection as happened in other parts of the now disintegrating empire. These may not have been regular Roman troops. Instead troops in legions and auxiliary forces were being increasingly replaced by barbarians or by mercenaries, who were employed as foederati (warriors from barbarian tribes who fought in exchange for a subsidy). These may not have been paid but have received grants of land in return for military service.

Some form of town life probably continued in most cities. London and the former coloniae – York, Gloucester, Lincoln, Colchester – have remained as towns, while some forts such as Chester and Exeter were now civilian towns. Even smaller towns such as Dorchester-on-Thames and Catterick survived. Some did not. Wroxeter and Silchester were abandoned and Verulamium moved its site to centre on the shrine of St Alban. What form of town life remained is uncertain. Deposits of dark earth in towns such as Canterbury, Gloucester, Lincoln and Winchester have been suggested to be evidence of farming in the centre of what was once a thriving urban area. These patches may, however, be evidence of collapsed buildings as they are full of pottery, bone and charcoal. Refugees fleeing into the towns would have made camp in any abandoned buildings, moving on when conditions became too disgusting, a feature noted in towns that have been partially destroyed in recent centuries. In Cirencester, debris analysed in the amphitheatre suggested that people had once gathered there for shelter. In London the great basilica had been abandoned; the quays, not maintained, had crumbled. The city, once the largest north of the Alps, had gradually contracted and, although some people lived in its ruins, excavations have proved that the Saxons preferred to live to the west of the city in what is now the Aldwych and Covent Garden areas.

Gildas suggested that it was not only town life that had disintegrated. Potential conflict of interest was based on the defence of food supplies, for large-scale agriculture had been abandoned: ‘So the Britons began to attack each other and in their efforts to seize some food dipped their hands into the blood of their fellow countrymen. Domestic turmoil worsened, foreign disasters resulting in no food except that which could be obtained by hunting.’

Villa owners continued to work their land as and where they could. Some owners probably moved to what they thought was the safety of the towns. Others continued to live in crumbling buildings. Rooms, which once were highly decorated to the pride of their owners, were now used for other purposes – a corn drier was put in a bath wing at Atworth (Wiltshire), fires were lit on the floors of the living rooms at Ditchley (Oxfordshire). At Lufton (Somerset) a hearth was built on a fine mosaic and an oven was carved into a floor in another room. The collapse of the Witcombe villa can be noted by roof tiles used as a floor and fires being lit on mosaic floors. There was now no satisfaction in keeping up a Roman lifestyle. Either their owners had given up the effort or squatters had taken what shelter they could. Life was now a struggle for existence.

Central administration had broken down. Local landowners were reluctant to take high office because of the cost. There was no longer a pride in being part of the governing structure. The expelling of Roman administrators during Constantine’s reign in Gaul meant that the network of central authority had been rejected and men with experience of high office were lacking. Few men wished to take up office because of the cost and the responsibility. This meant that local arrangements had to be made, differing from place to place. The fact that Honorius sent letters to the cities of Britain, ordering them to take measures on their own behalf, was merely a form of words; he assumed the cities were still in existence and well-managed but he had no knowledge that was the case.

It might be argued that Britain, lacking official contact with central Roman authority, began to break into its tribal areas. Tribal disputes may explain the appearance of linear earthwork defences. The Wansdyke could be explained as a frontier between the Durotriges and the Dobunni. Bokerley Dyke would have separated the Durotriges from an advance by the Belgae or vice versa. The Fleam Dyke, with a probable date of AD 350–510, marked the boundary of the borders of the Catuvellauni and the Iceni, and Beecham Dyke and the Foss Dyke also protected the Iceni in the fen area. Grim’s Dyke, north of London, would have protected the capital from attacks from the north. These might be expected to protect areas from attacks by the Saxons.

There were, however, other problems. Raids by the Picts and the Scots were becoming far more frequent. They came first as raiders and then as settlers. The Britons were forced to seek help from the Saxons against the Picts and the Irish, and the earliest Saxon settlements may have been at the invitation of the Britons to give protection. Traditionally the date of the arrival of the first Saxons, as given by Bede, basing his work on Gildas, is AD 449. Archaeological evidence has proved that settlement had occurred well before that date. A group of Saxon settlements south of London may have been linked with a group placed there to guard the city.

Possibly these raids and settlements forced the Britons to make one last attempt to get the central Roman power to supply aid. Gildas said that a message was sent to Agitius, consul for the third time, ‘in the following terms, “to Agitius come the groans of the Britons … the barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea drives us back to the barbarians; between these two we are either slaughtered or drowned.” Yet for all these pleas no help was forthcoming.’ This can be dated to AD 446 and refers to Aetius, who was then the leading military man in the army of Rome. He was credited with defeating Attila and his Huns in AD 451, only to be stupidly murdered by the Emperor Valentinian in AD 454, who thus lost control over his army.

Britain also had new rulers. Gildas mentioned a proud tyrant, whom Bede identified as Vortigern, a Celtic name meaning ‘High King’. Nennius, in his History of the Britons, also mentioned him and he may have been born about AD 360 and died in the late AD 430s. Nennius said that the Saxons, under their leader Hengist, came to Britain as exiles and that they were welcomed by Vortigern, who allowed them to settle on the Island of Thanet in return for military assistance. Unfortunately an agreement that they should be paid and fed broke down. In addition, Vortigern fell in love with Hengist’s daughter, married her and gave the district of Kent to Hengist as a bride price. Whatever the truth, Vortigern seems to have been unable to prevent the Saxons from landing. Forty boatloads were mentioned and more arrivals meant that the Saxons soon spread across the land.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle confirms this story, stating that Vortigern (Wurtgern) invited Hengist and Horsa and their warrior bands to Britain to provide protection again warrior bands roaming the country. It may be argued that Hengist and Horsa are not the actual names; as nicknames they both indicate ‘horse’. Whatever the case, the Chronicle said that they accepted this invitation but then set up their own kingdom in Kent holding the area by defeating the Britons at battles at Aylesford (AD 455), where Horsa was killed, and at Crayford (AD 456). They apparently came as foederati, indicating that they had obligations with subsequent rewards to guard Britain. Gildas said that they were given generous amounts of food but complained that these rations were not enough, saying that if they were not increased they would break the treaty. Soon they took up their threats with actions.

From then on Saxon penetration of the island seemed inevitable. Gildas mentioned the arrival of Aelle in AD 477, who founded the kingdom of Sussex, defeating the Britons at the Battle of Anderida (Pevensey) in AD 491. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded that in AD 495 Cerdic and Cynric landed in the West Country and founded the kingdom of Wessex. These accounts of the invasions are very speculative, especially as the Chronicle stated that landings were in two or three ships. It would have been impossible for such few men in these ships to win decisive battles. Nevertheless, they indicate some folk memory and it would be futile to deny that the country soon succumbed to Saxon invasion and settlement. Some Saxon settlements have been found as far inland as Dorchester-on-Thames. Possibly these were founded by men hired as foederati.

One name that emerges from the history of this time is Ambrosius Aurelianus, also called Arthus. Little is known of this man and his history has become irrecoverably entwined with medieval legend and romance so that it is difficult to untangle fact from fiction. As King Arthur, he was immortalized by Sir Thomas Malory in the fifteenth century in his work Le Morte d’Arthur, with an elaborate account of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, thus intermingling fact and fiction. The historical Ambrosius was a warrior, probably trained in Roman military tactics, who led mounted bands of Britons against the Saxons. The Historia Brittonium called Arthus Dux Bellorum, reminiscent of a Roman military title. He was associated with twelve battles and probably led mounted horsemen, well trained, who could easily rout a force of foot soldiers. Eight of these battles took place at fords where foot soldiers would be at a disadvantage. These victories culminated in a last great battle, about AD 500, at Mount Badon (Mons Badonicus), an unidentified site but probably somewhere in the south-west. Gildas said that ‘after this there was peace’ and about AD 540 spoke of ‘our present security’.

This, however, was merely a respite because soon the Saxon conquest was renewed. By AD 600 most of Britain had been divided into Saxon kingdoms. The Saxons did not attempt to emulate Roman customs and institutions, and it would appear that the Britons had not so assimilated Roman institutions that they wished them to continue. The Anglo-Saxons imposed their own law, language, political systems and material values on Britain. Roman Britain, whose official contact with the Roman Empire had ended about AD 410, merged irrecoverably into Saxon England.

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.