Viking berserkers

Individual Viking warriors known during the eighth through eleventh centuries for their ferocity.

A sixth-century bronze matrix depicting berserkers. Berserkers were associated with shape changing or the wearing of animal skins, such as the wolf costume shown here.

The berserkers were the semi-mythological Viking warriors who foamed at the mouth and fought with a strength and frenzy that made their foes tremble with fear. It is the berserker that has given us the popular image of the Viking warriors. Some, however, dispute that they even existed. Still, stories about berserkers litter the Icelandic sagas, where they are both venerated as the most powerful of all Viking warriors, and also despised as ugly, unreasonable psychopaths.

The word “berserker” may stem from “bare of shirt”, for going into battle without armour, or “bear-shirt” because of the animal skins that they wore. In the sagas, berserkers were also often associated with shape changing, and could take the form of a bear or wolf, or at the very least assume the qualities of these beasts before they went into combat. In Haraldskvæði, a skaldic poem about Harald Finehair, his berserkers are called “wolf-skins” and in battle they “bear bloody shields and red with blood are their spears when they come to fight.”

Berserkers are often recorded as being immune to injury or having “weapons glance off them”. It is unclear if this is to do with the animal skins they may have worn or a greater tolerance to pain achieved by entering into a frenzied state. This state is often described as a fit of madness, a fury known as “berserkergang”.

Berserkergang seized men with a chill that caused shivering, chattering of the teeth, a hotheadedness and a red swelling of the face. The berserkers then entered a great state of rage, where they howled like animals, bit the edges of their shields and attacked anything that moved. A berserkergang warrior was scared of nothing and would cut down anyone who stepped in his way – friend, family or foe.

An incident where a berserker fails to recognize his family is told in Egil’s Saga. In the story, Egil’s father Skallagrim is taken by a berserkergang – called a “shape-strength” – as he played a ball game with his son and another boy, Thord:

Thord and Egil were set against Skallagrim in the game; and he became weary before them, so that they had the best of it. But in the evening after sunset it began to go worse with Egil and his partner. Skallagrim then became so strong and he caught up Thord and dashed him down so violently that every bone was broken and he died. Then he seized Egil. Now there was a handmaid of Skallagrim’s named Thorgerdr Brak, who had nursed Egil when a child; she was a big woman, strong as a man, and of magic cunning. Said Brak: ‘Dost thou turn thy shape-strength, Skallagrim, against thy son?’ Whereat Skallagrim let Egil loose, but clutched at her. She broke away and took to her heels with Skallagrim after her. So went they to the utmost point of Digraness. Then she leapt out from the rock into the water. Skallagrim hurled after her a great stone, which struck her between the shoulders, and she never came up again.”

– Egil’s Saga, translated by W.C. Green

According to Hrólf’s Saga, the great strength and immunity from pain experienced by the berserker was immediately followed by a depleted state, where the warrior was “so powerless that they did not have half of their strength, and were as feeble as if they had just come out of bed from a sickness. This lasted for about a day.” One way of killing a berserker, according to the sagas, was to wait until his fury had left and then attack him in the enfeebled state that followed. In the sagas, berserkergang was a condition that could seize men without warning. At other times it came over a warrior just before combat. There are many theories about how warriors harnessed the power of a berserkergang. Alcohol, hallucinogenic mushrooms or self-induced hysteria have all been suggested. It has also been hypothesized that warriors underwent a ritual, which included a sacrifice to Odin and the drinking of wolf or bear blood.

It is known that Harald Finehair used berserkers as shock troops within his army, and other Viking kings employed them as personal bodyguards. It may be that these elite warriors were able to induce berserkergang at the required moment through ritualistic means. Reports of berserkers in battle variously describe them as fighting naked, or dyed in blue or covered in bear or wolf-fur – the latter was known as ulfheðnar, or “men clad in wolf skins”. However valuable berserkers were within the theatre of conflict, outside of it they were often described as a blight on society. The Viking warrior code demanded loyalty and fidelity to one’s leader and comrades; berserkers, on the other hand, were known to turn indiscriminately on their friends and loved ones.

Outside of their role on the battlefield, the sagas often record berserkers as brutish murderers and sex offenders who lived outside the rules of Viking society. They are described as looking like trolls, with “black eyes and eyebrows joined up in the middle”, and being “more like monsters than men.” It is perhaps no wonder that as Viking Scandinavia converted to Christianity, berserkergang became unacceptable. In 1015, Erik Bloodaxe banned berserkers and made the practice of berserkergang punishable by outlawry. Later, the duels known as holmgang were also prohibited. This prevented berserkers challenging a warrior to a duel so he could take his property and women. The Icelandic Egil’s Saga records such an incident:

Gyda went to Egil and said: ‘I will tell you, Egil, how things stand here with us. There is a man named Ljot the Pale. He is a Berserk and a duellist; he is hated. He came here and asked my daughter to wife; but we answered at once, refusing the match. Whereupon he challenged my son Fridgeir to wager of battle; and he has to go tomorrow to this combat on the island called Vors. Now I wished, Egil, that you should go to the combat with Fridgeir’ … On the morrow Fridgeir made ready to go, and many with him, Egil being one of the party. It was now good travelling weather.

They soon came to the island… Soon came thither Ljot and his party. Then he made him ready for the combat. He had shield and sword. Ljot was a man of vast size and strong. And as he came forward on the field to the ground of combat, a fit of Berserk fury seized him; he began to bellow hideously, and bit his shield… Ljot sprang swiftly to his feet. Egil bounded at him and dealt at once a blow at him. He pressed him so close that he was driven back, and the shield shifted from before him. Then smote Egil at Ljot, and the blow came on him above the knee, taking off his leg. Ljot then fell and soon expired. Then Egil went to where Fridgeir and his party stood. He was heartily thanked for this work.”

– Egil’s Saga, translated by W.C. Green

There are few recorded accounts of berserkers from the mid-eleventh century onwards. Like all pagan traditions such as spell casting and shape changing, berserkergang was considered a dangerous heathen practice that had no place in Christian society. Berserkers, alongside the god Odin they were dedicated to, disappeared from view.


Africa – The Ultimate Frontier I

Battle of Alcazarquivir (Alcácer Quibir)

Europeans living in the Early Modern era were ignorant of Africa because they not only considered it peripheral to their interests, but because they were acquainted only with the continent’s outer margins. Europeans who had made it to China, to India, to the Ottoman Empire, were amazed by the rich and colourful cultures there, by the power of the rulers, and the self-confidence of their people; and they had eagerly brought back art and foods from their visits. Their response to Africa was very different; they found the native costumes, dwellings, and weaponry of the coastal peoples exotic but unimpressive. Had the Europeans not feared the tropical diseases, the unfamiliar jungles and dangerous animals, and the heat, they might have learned more, and been more impressed, but the African coastline lacked convenient harbours and the interior could not be penetrated by simply sailing up the great rivers; hence, they knew little even about the great Songhai Empire in the Niger Valley. Timbuktu became a synonym for an incredibly exotic place that no one could reach. Many attribute this lack of interest to racism, but ethnocentrism might be a better word. Certainly that word would be less confrontational and less judgmental.

Europeans did eventually confront Africa, but in ways very different from their earlier encounters with the New World or the Ancient East.

North Africa

Africa was a huge continent with much variety. There were rainforests, deserts, mountains, lakes, lots of insects, and people of every height and colour imaginable. And the native peoples had not always remained in the homelands of their ancestors, but migrated, sometimes slowly, occasionally very quickly, either to escape troubles or to find better lands. Scholars tell us that colonial boundaries were irrational, but that it would have been impossible to draw better ones, because nomads and farmers were not strictly separated; and some tribes had welcomed refugees to settle on their poorest land. Understanding this is particularly important in following the story of Muslims penetrating into Black Africa from the desert, and Christians pressuring the same peoples from the coasts.

The peoples of the Mediterranean and northwestern coastlands were not black, but a combination of native peoples (Berbers being the generic term to describe their languages and cultures) and Arabs. Europeans lumped all these people together as Moors, a term not used often today because of its lack of precision and because its Greek root means ‘dark’. The darkness came partly from the intense sun, partly from the importation of black slaves, and partly from the looks that the Moors cast at Europeans.

Buying (or taking) black slaves over the past millennium had darkened the complexion of parts of the population, but the Ottomans who ruled the northern coastland were also importing white slaves—like the Circassians taken by Turks, or the Poles and Russians rounded up by Tatars, or Irish and Icelanders captured by Barbary pirates. The slaves came from diverse lands, some from the Caucasus Mountains, some from European borderlands or a few from distant islands, but others were prisoners-of-war or captured sailors; an ever large number came from raids on the Spanish and Italian coasts, so many that in the 1600s white slaves employed in raising sugar, rice and other crops in North Africa may have outnumbered the black slaves in North America. Sometimes the Ottomans made these prisoners into elite warriors, favouring them over natives because it was possible to punish or even execute them without offending relatives. Also, time out of mind Christian warriors had hired themselves out as mercenaries, often as personal bodyguards to Muslim rulers of the coastal states. Having no interest in the complicated politics, they could be trusted to concentrate on safeguarding their employer.

The thinly populated Barbary Coast (modern Algeria and Libya) was dotted with ports that flourished from trade and piracy, activities that were occasionally difficult to tell apart; and from time immemorial their captains had yielded to the temptation to capture ships belonging to European competitors. Crusaders had attempted to eliminate Islamic corsairs as a threat to Christian shipping and Italian and Spanish coastal towns; of course, they attacked Muslim ships and raided coastal towns, too. Each side claimed to be acting in self-defence or in retaliation, or to be performing great feats of arms as champions of their respective religions.

Around 1500 two great warriors from one Muslim family changed the conflict from small scale warfare to a struggle involving all the major powers of the Mediterranean. Aruj (c1474-1518) was the elder brother, the emir of a small principality in Algeria. His father had been a Janissary (hence, most likely, of Balkan ancestry) stationed on the Greek island of Lesbos and his mother had been the widow of a Greek priest. When he was a young man he had been captured by the Knights of Malta and made into a galley slave—one of the worst fates possible since it meant a short lifetime of hard labour chained to a rowing bench, often exposed to the hot sun. After being ransomed, he took his revenge by attacking Christian vessels. His fleet was no larger than twelve galleys, but his captains struck hard at Spanish commerce and upset Spanish military operations against the French—once he captured a ship with hundreds of troops on board, presumably making all of them into slaves. Having a flaming red beard, he was called Barbarossa, a name that his brother Khizr inherited after Aruj’s death in spite of not sharing that characteristic. Little more is known of the first Barbarossa other than his dying in battle while opposing a Spanish/Berber army led by Charles V (1500-58), the King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor who was conquering many of the cities along the Algerian coast.

Khizr (Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha, 1478-1546), who at the time he met Suleiman the Great (Sultan 1520-66) commanded no more than 800 Ottoman soldiers, nevertheless received instructions to build a great navy. He completed this so quickly that he was given command. Soon he was famed even among his enemies—the legendary Genoese admiral Andrea Doria (1466-1560) called him ‘the Great Corsair’. What made Barbarossa so dangerous was that the French king provided him bases in France that he could use to attack Charles V’s lines of communication with Italy. Before Barbarossa retired to the comforts of Istanbul, he had made the Ottoman navy supreme across vast stretches of the Mediterranean Sea.

After the natural death of the aged Suleiman on campaign in 1566, while moving up the Danube toward Vienna, his successors stayed away from battlefields. Instead, they entrusted command to their grand viziers, who were experienced administrators and commanders. The sultans limited their activities to what they did best—harem politics and watching their grand viziers for signs of excessive ambition. Many of the grand viziers were technically slaves, taken in boyhood from their Christian parents and trained in their future duties—the best being selected for the most important duties. This gave the Ottoman sultans more talented commanders than Christian monarchs who gave out military positions only to high-born nobles.

It seemed, according to the dramatic narrative of Roger Crowley, Empires of the Sea, that by 1571 a divided Christendom could not expect to defeat the magnificent forces of the Ottoman grand vizier, Lala Mustafa Pasha (1500-80) who had the great advantage of being able to give orders and expect them to be obeyed. Catholic Europe was led by a hyper-cautious Philip II of Spain (1527-98), who could not forget the naval disaster at Djerba in 1560; Venetians remembered equally vividly the 1537 battle of Preveza, where the Holy League had tried to challenge Barbarossa—they blamed the defeat on Andrea Doria’s refusal to come to their aid. Christian disunity had almost led to the fall of Malta in 1565—a siege of epic proportions—and made it impossible for Venice to hold Nicosia and Famagusta on Cyprus in 1571. The only good result from the eight-month defence of Famagusta, in the Christians’ eyes, was that it cost the Ottomans 80,000 men they would have had only months later at the battle of Lepanto.

That famous victory reestablished European naval prestige briefly. The collision of two gigantic fleets—that of the Holy League (200 galleys and six large hybrid galleys/sailing vessels) being slightly smaller than the Ottoman force, but having more cannon—developed into an infantry battle on water, with the Christians having more men wearing armour and using firearms. One of the Ottoman squadrons was led by an Italian convert to Islam—Uluj Ali (1519-87), born Giovanni Dionigi Galeni in southern Italy. Captured by Barbarossa and, like many of his fellows, offered the choice between ordinary slavery and becoming a rich pirate, he chose to convert. Among the few Muslim commanders to survive the disaster, he was welcomed in Istanbul for returning safely with the giant banner of the Knights of Malta that he had taken from their flagship. Subsequently he became pasha of Algiers, then admiral of the Ottoman fleet.

The Ottoman sultan quickly replaced the lost ships, then ordered them to push cautiously westward along the coast, driving the Spanish from Algeria, deposing their native Muslim allies, and reaching almost to Morocco. This was the end of Christian hopes to conquer these coasts and the beginning of Ottoman rule.


The same weakness that made Algeria vulnerable to attack allowed the Portuguese to capture ports in Morocco—Ceuta in 1415, Tangiers in 1471, and smaller cities in the early 1500s. Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) had seen Morocco as a jumping off point for explorations that would lead to the gold fields of Ghana. However, the heavy ships of the Mediterranean were unsuited to ocean travel, and their large crews consumed too many supplies. This problem was overcome by using a lighter sailing vessel, the caravel, which adopted the lateen sail used by Arab sailors; later this was combined with the well-known square sail to produce fully-rigged vessels that could withstand almost any storm. The next delay was caused by sailors’ fears of unknown shores and winds—sailing south along the African coast was no problem, since Prince Henry’s ships had a tail wind, but coming home against those same winds was testing. Nevertheless, in 1481 the Portuguese were able to build a fortress at Elmina in Ghana that Christopher Columbus visited shortly afterward; this post was profitable for both buyer and seller because it cut out the Muslim middlemen.

Moroccans, meanwhile, were experiencing Ottoman pressure from Algeria. Fortunately for them, they understood European weaponry well, a knowledge they applied effectively against the Turks. It was more difficult to resist the Portuguese aggression that began in 1576, because the Portuguese were not operating at the end of a long supply line. The new sultan, Abu Marwan Abd al-Malik, had just returned from exile to seize the throne, and his counterpart was Sebastian I (Dom Sebastião, 1554-78), an inbred, obstinate, gifted and ambitious young man.

King Sebastian was very aware that his captains were easily establishing trading posts along the African and Brazilian coasts and that his governors had repelled challenges to their domination of the Indian trade; in short, his captains seemed invincible. In contrast, Morocco appeared to be weak. A successful crusade there would bring Morocco over to Christianity (or at least make Portuguese exploitation possible) and open central Africa to European trade.

Under normal circumstances not even a prince as active and intellectually curious as Sebastian would have dared think so extravagantly, but he had come into possession of a rival to the Sultan, Abu Abdallah. The presence of Abdallah in his army, and a supposedly weak Abd al-Malik on the other side caused the battle of Alcazarquivir (Alcácer Quibir) to be known as the Battle of the Three Kings.

There was an important back story to the campaign. Abdallah al-Ghalib Billah (1517-74) had become Sultan in 1557 after his father was assassinated by Barbarossa’s son on Ottoman orders. Immediately he had consolidated power by eliminating possible rivals—that is, killing his brothers. This practice was well-known in Islamic states because harems produced numbers of ambitious sons whose only hope to rule, or even do anything in life, was to lead a successful rebellion. However, he failed to capture Abd al-Malik, who had fled to Algeria and become a soldier for the Ottoman governor. When al-Ghalib Billah died, leaving power to a son, Abu Abdallah, instead of to a surviving brother—as custom required—Abd al-Malik raised a mercenary army from his Ottoman troops and seized power. When Abu Abdallah asked the Portuguese king for mercenary troops to recover his kingdom, Sebastian agreed to provide them, but only on the condition that he lead the army himself and share in the benefits of victory. Sebastian began to assemble his army in 1578, borrowing men from the king of Spain. Though Philip II subsequently signed a peace treaty with the Ottomans, the young Portuguese monarch pressed on. Sebastian believed that he had the resources to prevail, most importantly because of 2,000 Italians employed by Thomas Stukley (1525-78).

Stukley—a former pirate, mercenary, and possibly an illegitimate son of Henry VIII—was just the man for such a wild-eyed project. His original plan had been to land in Ireland, raise volunteers, then overthrow Queen Elizabeth. Stukley’s career as an adventurer had begun during the reign of Queen Mary, when he had fought in the army she had sent to the Spanish Netherlands to support of her husband, Philip II. After Mary’s death he entered the retinue of Lord Dudley, one of Queen Elizabeth’s favourites, serving occasionally as a pirate. His activities in Scotland and Ireland are worthy of a novelist’s talents, but it was his proposal to Philip II to overthrow Elizabeth and restore Catholicism to England that is best known. He was distracted by the battle at Lepanto, where he fought with distinction, then his plans to invade Ireland and England were delayed by the competing ambitions of more exalted personalities. It was only in 1578 that the Pope gave him 2,000 men for the Irish enterprise. It was not difficult to divert these men to the Moroccan expedition.

Stukley’s men were well-equipped with muskets, and they had far more self-confidence than the situation warranted—they counted on a mass formation of pikemen to fend off the expected cavalry attack, then to push forward and break the enemy’s infantry, which would have been shot to pieces by the musketeers. In addition, Sebastian had the usual assortment of German and Spanish mercenaries, but the bulk of the 23,000 Europeans in the royal army were Portuguese, the best his nation could raise. Awkwardly, the king could not bring many horses on his ships, but he had good European infantry and the horsemen raised by his Muslim ally, Abu Abdallah. Surely this army was sufficient to conquer any kingdom along the Atlantic or Mediterranean coast of Africa. This was especially true if their opponent was, as rumour had it, mortally ill.

Abd al-Malik had about 100,000 men, some of whom were anti-Christian fanatics, descendants of Moors expelled from Spain after 1492. The two armies faced each other across a small river, the Christian-Muslim forces drawn up in a European-style formation, infantry in the centre, relying on their firearms to sweep the enemy away. It is not clear why Sebastian stood on the defensive, but that may have been the best choice considering the terrain and the unexpected numbers of horsemen in the opposing army. Sebastian commanded the Christian cavalry on one wing, with Abu Abdallah commanding the Muslim cavalry on the other. Abd al-Malik ignored the infantry, while using his superior numbers to surround Abu Abdallah, then closed in for hand-to-hand fighting. The Portuguese king led his horsemen forward, but disappeared quickly (his body was never found); Abu Abdallah was killed at some unknown point. Stukley commanded the centre of the line, which was holding out well until his legs were torn off by a cannonball. After that order broke down. His men found themselves fighting for their lives, flight impossible. When both kings and about a third of their men were dead, the rest of the army, perhaps 15,000 men, surrendered. Only perhaps a hundred fugitives made it to the coast alive; the rest of the Europeans became slaves.

Abd al-Malik had died, too, though no one had noticed immediately. The exertion of combat had been too much for him. He was succeeded by his imprisoned brother, Ahmad I al-Mansur (1549-1603).

The leaderless Portuguese kingdom collapsed, Philip II of Spain moving in to make himself king. It would not be the last time that Europeans attempted to establish footholds on the Moroccan coast, but there would be no serious effort to conquer the entire state until the nineteenth century.

Africa – The Ultimate Frontier II

Morocco and Songhai

The new Sultan of Morocco reflected carefully on the lessons of the battle of Alcazarquivir. His councillors were still confident in the superiority of their traditional weapons and tactics, but he had been impressed by the effectiveness of the Christian infantry. Al-Mansur imagined how the European weapons could be employed in the lightly populated centre of the continent, where the Songhai state had been recently shaken by civil war. Moreover, Moroccan trade with Songhai was being undermined by European merchants on the coast. Ships could carry so much merchandise that the Christians could undercut the prices of Islamic merchants, who had to pack their wares across the Sahara; and in the case of weapons, the Muslims would not sell them to their enemies at all.

Al-Mansur’s informants led him to believe that Songhai would not be able to respond effectively to a well-planned invasion. In late 1590, a dozen years after becoming sultan, he announced to his council that he was sending an army of 3,000-4,000 troops and thousands of pack animals and their handlers on a four-month march across 1,000 miles of desert to the Songhai capital at Timbuktu. His commander was Judar Pasha, a European-born slave and eunuch; the goal was to acquire access to the gold mines and salt, so that he could pay for the European commodities his subjects desired—this had become increasingly difficult now that Portugal’s Brazilian plantations were selling sugar cheaper than his subjects could. His force was outnumbered, but it included Turkish mercenaries and Christian bodyguards, matchlocks and cannon. The language of command was Spanish, a reflection of the importance of Iberian mercenaries in the campaign.

The Songhai Empire had been important since the early 1400s, stretching along the Niger River from the cataracts near the sea north and west for a thousand miles to distant gold fields. Its wealth came from trade, selling gold, ivory, salt and human beings across the desert to Morocco and to the Mediterranean coast. Fervently Islamic in faith, its orientation was northward. To the south lay forests, disease and paganism; it was much safer for Songhai warriors to stay in the drier but healthy regions of the Upper Niger River Valley, where the pasture land was more extensive than it is today.

The Songhai rulers were generally, but not consistently, tolerant toward the pagan practices of the southern people; as long as those peoples were divided, they were no danger, but could be exploited easily and cheaply. One ruler, Askia Muhammed I (reigned 1493-1528) had made the pilgrimage to Mecca with 500 cavalry and 1,000 infantry, establishing Songhai’s reputation for being fabulously exotic and rich. This legendary wealth had attracted al-Mansur’s attention, first for gold, then for salt—the exchange was often equal weight of one for the other.

Most of all, the sultan saw that the Songhai state was weak. Dynastic quarrels followed the death of each king; brutal efforts at imposing Islamic customs were resented both by desert nomads and farmers of the bush, all of whom believed in magic and who carefully treasured memories of past outrages. Vassal chiefs knew that their predecessors had been slain, their sons gelded and their daughters sold into slavery; and merchants resented the taxes. The royal processions were splendid and the king’s army made a brave display, but Moroccan merchants could see that the Songhai Empire was a case of the least weak ruling the weaker.

The harem system had always encouraged jealousy and fear, and when the last great sultan died in 1582, the multiplication of potential heirs had reached its logical (and disastrous) outcome—civil war.

The Invasion

In late 1590 al-Mansur’s hold on Morocco was at last secure. He had warded off European and Ottoman challenges, then expanded his kingdom into the interior, seizing some of the valuable salt mines that were central to Saharan trade. Overseas trade with Ireland, England and even Italy was prospering, and his enemies were involved in desperate wars on distant frontiers. It was an opportunity to break free of his financial troubles, those caused by the need to pay his mercenaries, by seizing the salt and gold of the African interior. Of course, his councillors were all against the expedition—it was a long journey over one of the more formidable deserts in the world, with almost no pastures and only a handful of water holes—and those were capable of supporting only small parties. He rejected this advice, heaping scorn on their caution and pointing out the advantages that gunpowder weapons and good cavalry had over men armed only with spears and bows. The numbers had to be small, he agreed, in order to cross the desert successfully, but if the troops were good, they could prevail. Conducting a siege without great cannons would be difficult, but the enemy, not knowing what they were up against, would probably come out to fight rather than watch their country ravaged.

The losses on the march must have been appalling, so it would have been wise for the Songhai king to have marched out to meet the Morrocans before they had recovered from their desert ordeal, but he did not; even his orders to fill in the wells had apparently not reached the nomad Tuareg chiefs—or they had disobeyed. Had that elemental step been taken, the Moroccan army might had died in the desert. However, the Tuaregs were Berbers; though they had little love for Arabs, they were always reluctant to take orders from anyone.

Fortunately for the Moroccans, the Songhai had not read Kenneth Chase’s analysis in Firearms of the difficulties that armies face in a desert. The demands for water, food and fodder were so great that infantry usually had to turn back after two days, cavalry after only one. Had the army been supplied with camels, it would have done better, but it appears that the Moroccans were counting on using their horses in battle. The Moroccans must have been very relieved not to have to fight for each watering place along the march, but they probably did not worry about poison—nomads were not suicidal.

Judar Pasha’s army met the Songhai host in March 1591 in the short and violent battle of Tondibi. The mercenaries had been greatly outnumbered, but their enemies lacked the will to fight. The Songhai king drove a herd of cattle at the northerners, but volleys of infantry weapons and cannon frightened the cattle, causing them to charge back through the king’s forces, after which there was little organised resistance. Judar Pasha allowed his men to sack the cities and towns, after which he reestablished order and made himself governor, ruling from Timbuktu.

The victors were disappointed to discover that the fabled cities were collections of mud buildings, and that the gold had been taken away or hidden; worse, the gold fields were still far away, deep in Black Africa to the west. In Gao, the first city captured, the invaders found a Portuguese cannon that the Songhai warriors had not known how to use, a crucifix and a statue of the Virgin Mary. It was a fitting symbolism of Songhai military backwardness.

However, the Songhai king had survived the battle. From a safe distance he tried to pay the invaders to leave, but they refused—the gold he offered made them more eager to stay, not less. Nevertheless, the mercenaries saw little reason in holding onto their conquest, True, Timbuktu had an impressive mosque, learned scholars and some evidence of wealth, but the mercenaries had no use for places of worship or books, and they were forbidden to loot. Their numbers had been quickly reduced by illness, and the Songhai ruler continued to resist from his southern strongholds. Reinforcements were slow to arrive, and of the few sent, most were killed by Tuareg nomads. Meanwhile, chaos reigned —the king was removed by a brother, the peoples subject to the Songahi rose in revolt, and the mercenaries began to loot, rape and murder.

Judar Pasha’s discouraging report on local conditions resulted in his assignment to a much lesser post, governor of Gao. His successor was Mahmud ibn-Zarqun, a eunuch, the son of a Christian. He stripped the houses of doors and doorposts to build two ships, then set off downstream to eliminate the last Songhai forces. A stroke of luck then came his way—civil war broke out among the Songhai. The new king had ordered his brothers castrated, whereupon they had joined the Moroccan invader. This allowed Mahmud to easily scatter the remnants of the Songhai army, after which he invited the king to a conference and murdered him.

That ended resistance in the north, but desperate Songhai in the south turned to one of the late king’s brothers, Askia Nuh, who withdrew into the bush country, even into the coastal forest, where he proved himself a gifted guerilla commander. Aksia Nuh established bases in the swampy south and the rugged north where cannons and horses could not be used; and where malaria weakened the invading troops. Because the mercenaries’ atrocities had by now appalled everyone, Askia Nuh was able to make common cause with ancient Songhai adversaries, while Mahmud found it impossible to exploit their many ancient animosities; as a result, Moroccan efforts to reach the gold fields failed. Meanwhile, the collapse of the Songhai had tempted every brigand in the desert to attack the caravans, so that trade with Morocco became more dangerous. Mahmud requested reinforcements, which arrived in 1593.

Victorious. Now What?

The decisive moment in the campaign may have been Mahmud sending one of his captains with 300 musketeers back to Timbuktu to protect it against raiders. The officer apologised to local leaders for past misdeeds and promised to keep his men in barracks after dark. The policy worked—open resistance ended, trade revived and exiles returned. He then led his men north against the desert raiders and, with local help, destroyed the worst of the bandits. More reinforcements allowed him to crush a dangerous insurrection in an outlying city whose inhabitants had more passion than political acumen.

This was not a policy that pleased Mahmud ibn-Zarqun, whose own efforts to pacify the south had failed. Wanting to take revenge on his enemies, not placate them, he began to massacre Timbuktu’s leading families. Many who were not slain were loaded with chains and driven across the Sahara to Morocco. When news of this reached the Moroccan king, he ordered Mahmud removed from command. Mahmud, however, had already been killed in a fight against black pagans before his replacement arrived in 1595. Askia Nuh received Mahmud’s head with satisfaction, presumably pleased by the proof that bows and arrows could defeat firearms. But that had no immediate effect on the war; Nuh retreated to his stronghold at Dendi, while a brother, Sulaiman, was put on the throne in Timbuktu as a puppet of the occupation army.

Clearly, the distant Moroccan sultan had misjudged the situation, and he was to continue to do so. This was easily done, perhaps inevitably, considering the inadequacy of information available to him. His effort to divide duties among his commanders provoked a civil war until finally Judar Pasha suggested that the army decide which of them should rule. After Judar Pasha’s election, he poisoned his rival and then made all the appropriate gestures of loyalty and subordination to the sultan. In 1599 Judar Pasha returned home, rich with gold, slaves and exotic wares, ready to enjoy life in every respect except the founding of a dynasty.

The new Arma state was ruled by the army. Some soldiers had been Christian prisoners-of-war, others had been simple mercenaries; there were also Moors whose ancestors had fled Spain after the Reconquista, and Berber tribesmen. Most married local women, and when some tried to restrict alliances to their own races, reality struck home: where would they get women? That was the origin of a mixed race elite who eventually came to speak the language of their mothers and subjects. Since the army controlled the state, the reigns of the distant Moroccan sultans, which were often short anyway, made no difference. Civil war and rebellions prevented the Arma from becoming a powerful empire, but they had no dangerous rivals to threaten their existence.

Not even the weapons that Europeans supplied to coastal peoples threatened the northerners’ vast state. As Chase noted in Firearms, a Global History, the savannah south of the Sahara was ideal cavalry country except that its diseases were deadly to horses—more so even than to Europeans, it seems, who could at least go indoors to escape the tsetse fly. And without cavalry to force infantry into tight formations, firearms were less than fully effective. The obvious strategy for Europeans and Arma alike was to recruit light infantry from the weaker tribes, relying on them to do most of the fighting, while the heavy troops guarded the baggage and artillery.

Edward Bovill notes in The Golden Trade of the Moors that by 1660 the Arma were so weak that Timbuktu had fallen to pagan enemies. Arising from the chaos was a black military force, the Bokhari, who became important in Moroccan affairs. They, like the white mercenaries, had no local connections and were, therefore, preferred as bodyguards to Berbers or Arabs. As for the politics of the Arma lands, it was complicated beyond any hope of summarising or reading with enjoyment or edification.

Slavery Supports the State

Al-Mansur had profited immediately from his conquests, but over the long term his invasion disrupted trade and pilgrimages, thus making his gains transitory and his losses heavy. His successors were not tempted to become involved in the politics of the interior, except to buy slaves who could be employed as bodyguards and elite troops. Trained in western methods and having no stake in local politics, their loyalty to their employers could be trusted; many were eunuchs, which limited their vices to those which disturbed the public least.

Although the Moroccan sultan had expected that conquering the Songhai kingdom would increase the slave trade across the western Sahara, it shifted to the coast, where tribes hostile to the new Muslim state were now selling prisoners-of-war to Europeans.

The practice of slave-raiding tore central Africa apart for many generations to come, but it mattered little to Moroccan sultans and their supporters how many villages were destroyed and how many perished during the long march north. Everyone was in the business of procuring and selling slaves.

Warriors of New South Wales

Depicts Aboriginal men, wearing body paint and paint (or clay) on heads carrying spears and shields.This is one of the earliest works in the art collection which reveals much about the commonly held views of Aboriginal people during the Colonial period in Australia. John Heaviside Clark’s image depicts a number of Aboriginal men wearing body paint, carrying spears and shields depicted in a theatrically aggressive manner.
Clark (c.1770-1863) was a landscape painter, commercial artist, book illustrator and engraver who worked in London. Although as an artist he espoused sketching directly from nature, it is doubtful that Clark actually visited Australia to record the Aboriginal warriors he so dramatically captures in this work. His work reveals the fanciful beliefs prevalent at the time of indigenous people as ‘naked savages’ and illustrations in this vein were largely designed to meet the British public’s interest in the ‘curiosities to be found in the colony of New South Wales’ .

Parramatta was the site of a skirmish in March 1797 in which Bidjigal (Bediagal) Aborigines fought white settlers and troops of the New South Wales Corps. The clash followed depredations upon settlers in the Toongabbie district, led by the Aborigines’ noted guerilla leader Pemulwuy. An armed party was sent after the marauders, and following a pursuit lasting throughout one night came across their quarry-numbering about 100-the next day. The Aborigines fled, leaving the spoils of their raids on the ground. The punitive expedition pursued the hostile band into the Parramatta district but-becoming fatigued-eventually retired into the town. The Aborigines followed them there, with Pemulwuy at their head threatening to kill the first white man who approached him. He effectively challenged the town’s military garrison to battle by hurling his spear at one of the soldiers. What was described as a `desperate fight’ followed, in which Pemulwuy and his followers pitted their spears against the muskets of the troops and settlers. Five Aborigines were killed and many more wounded, including Pemulwuy who was made prisoner with seven buckshot hits in his head and body. He was taken to the hospital, but subsequently escaped to play a leading role in numerous other incidents until he was finally shot dead by two settlers late in 1802.

Heidelberg, now an outer suburb of Melbourne, Victoria, was in May 1840 the scene of an extraordinary confrontation between white settlers and Aborigines using European firearms seized in raids on shepherds’ huts. Early in 1840 a large band of Aborigines led by Jackie Jackie made their presence felt on the upper reaches of the Yarra River during several incidents in which firearms were used. Attempts were made by white authorities to retrieve the weapons, but were too late. In May, Armyne Bolden, a settler based several kilometres up the Yarra from Melbourne, reported to the superintendent of the Port Phillip district, Charles La Trobe, that more than 200 Aborigines armed with about 30 guns were `shooting in every direction’ and threatening to burn down huts on his run.

A detachment of mounted police was sent out from Melbourne, but by the time this arrived the Aborigines had disappeared. Several troopers led by Lieutenant F. B. Russell tracked the band, but when they were about 65 kilometres upstream they were ambushed by the Aborigines who had concealed themselves in dense scrub by a ford. The police were fired on as they attempted to cross the stream, three were wounded and all were forced to retreat. The incident is chiefly notable for showing the Aborigines acting virtually as guerillas in opposing white occupation of their lands. The solution adopted by La Trobe was to issue orders to police patrols to prevent any Aborigines from entering Melbourne, and in particular to impose severe penalties on shopkeepers supplying powder and shot to any Aborigines, especially women, who sneaked into the town.

Eumeralla, the district around the Eumeralla River between Port Fairy and Portland, Victoria, was in August 1842 the scene of several violent clashes between Aborigines and whites over the `theft’ of sheep. On 7 August Aborigines attacked a shepherd employed by James Hunter, who held Eumeralla station with his brother John, and drove off his flock. The station manager, Samuel MacGregor, and several hands pursued them and took back the sheep after `a severe skirmish’. On 10 August a group of Aborigines estimated to number more than 150 again appeared on the station, part of the group driving off the sheep while the rest attacked the shepherds. This time the latter were well armed and kept them at bay until help arrived, whereupon the Aborigines made off and the flock was recovered.

Eight days later there was a third large-scale attack, with this time the tribesmen taking away over 1,000 sheep. A party from the station which went out in pursuit found the flock’s trail littered with dead carcasses. About thirteen kilometres from the station the party came up against the Aborigines, and only after overcoming `a vigorous resistance’ (during which three warriors were shot dead and several others wounded) were they able to retake the 500 or so sheep which remained alive.

These clashes were repeated on neighbouring stations of the district to the north-west of Port Fairy over the next five years, reaching a peak of ferocity from early in 1845. Tom Browne-a local squatter who wrote novels under the pseudonym of Rolf Boldrewood-characterised this period as `The Eumeralla War’ in his 1884 book of recollections Old Melbourne Memories.

The Danish Kings of England




The most famous of these Scandinavian kings is Cnut or, as most of us know him, Canute. Even today, the story of his vain attempt to turn back the tides over a thousand years ago is still told (although this story is based on a misunderstanding), but what else do we know about him and his eighteen-year rule of England? Cnut’s father was the Danish king Svein Forkbeard and his mother was probably the widow of Erik the Victorious of Sweden. He had one older brother, Harald, who became king of Denmark upon his father’s death in England in 1014. Cnut was with his father, Svein, when he died at Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, but although Svein had just driven the English king, Æthelred II, into exile and had received the surrender of ‘the whole nation’, Cnut was forced to fight on in the confusion that followed his father’s death. Early in 1017, this young Danish prince was crowned king in London’s Westminster Abbey. There was certainly a degree of luck involved in Cnut’s capture of the throne: the English king Æthelred II died during the battle for his throne, and the machinations and eventual defection of Eadric Streona, a powerful Mercian noble, seriously weakened the rule of Æthelred’s son and successor, Edmund Ironside. Following Eadric Streona’s flight and a Danish victory at the unknown place called Assandun, Edmund came to terms with Cnut at Olney near Deerhurst in Gloucestershire, agreeing to give a substantial slice of his kingdom to the Dane. In the same way that Alfred the Great had given land to the Viking leader Guthrum, Edmund offered and Cnut accepted control of Mercia. But just over a month after this meeting, Edmund died and Cnut lost no time in claiming the entire kingdom for himself. That he was able to make good this claim shows very clearly, however, that Cnut owed his victory to more than luck. He saw off the threat of several rival claimants to the throne: Edmund’s sons and wife were exiled; Edmund’s brother, Eadwig, was exiled and then murdered; and Cnut married Emma, Æthelred’s widow and the mother of Edmund’s young half-brothers, Edward and Alfred, who had fled to the safety of their uncle’s court in Normandy. Cnut managed to neutralize politically the most powerful of his remaining opponents through a skilful blend of diplomacy, bribes, threats, and outright violence: the Viking leader, Thorkell the Tall, who had fought for Æthelred II against Cnut’s father was given the earldom of East Anglia and, ultimately, the position of regent in Denmark; while the treacherous Eadric Streona was first given Mercia and then conveniently murdered at the Christmas gathering at Cnut’s court in 1017, along with three other prominent nobles.

Although we might expect this victorious Viking to set about plundering further wealth from his newly conquered kingdom and to run it as some kind of military protectorate, Cnut appears to have done everything possible to avoid alienating his new subjects and disrupting political life any more. To this end, the new law-codes he drafted with the help of the Anglo-Saxon archbishop of York, Wulfstan II, were to all intents and purposes identical to those of Æthelred, and contained the promise to observe zealously the laws of Edgar established in the mid-tenth century. At the same time, most of Cnut’s army was disbanded, eliminating the need for heavy taxation of his new kingdom and providing an important psychological step in helping to restore a sense of normality to English political life. The men that Cnut gathered around him at court included English nobles, although many of these were new men who owed their rise to power and therefore their loyalty to Cnut. The most famous of these was Godwine (d. 1053), who was given the prestigious earldom of Wessex by Cnut in the early 1020s and who, before his death, was said to have ‘been exalted so high, even to the point of ruling the king [by then Edward the Confessor] and all England.’ Godwine married Cnut’s Danish sister-in-law, Gytha; his daughter Edith married king Edward the Confessor in 1045; and his son Harold became, however briefly, king of England in 1066. The family provides an outstanding example of the mixed Anglo-Scandinavian aristocracy that emerged during Cnut’s reign, with three of Godwine’s and Gytha’s children bearing Scandinavian names (Swein, Harold, and Tostig), and four of them bearing Old English names (Edith, Leofwine, Gyrth, and Wulfnoth).

Such was Cnut’s concern to set his throne on a firm footing that he wrote two open letters to his people explaining his absences from England in 1019 and 1027 – an unprecedented move by an English monarch, which underlines the importance Cnut attached to popular support for his reign.


Then I was informed that greater danger was approaching us than we liked at all; and then I went myself with the men who accompanied me to Denmark, from where the greatest injury had come to you, and with God’s help I have taken measures so that never henceforth shall hostility reach you from there as long as you support me rightly and my life lasts.

In the letter that he sent following a visit to Rome in 1027, Cnut seems even more anxious to justify his absence from England and to inform his subjects of his achievements on their behalf, his concern suggesting that all was not well at home:

I make it known to you that I have recently been to Rome to pray for the remission of my sins and for the safety of the kingdoms and of the people which are subjected to my rule […] I therefore spoke with the emperor [Conrad] and the lord pope and the princes who were present, concerning the needs of all the peoples of my whole kingdom, whether English or Danes, that they might be granted more equitable law and greater security on their way to Rome, and that they should not be hindered by so many barriers on the way and so oppressed by unjust tolls; and the emperor and King Rodulf [of Burgundy] consented to my demands […] Now, therefore, be it known to you all, that I have humbly vowed to Almighty God to amend my life from now on in all things, and to rule justly and faithfully the kingdoms and peoples subject to me and to maintain equal justice in all things; and if hitherto anything contrary to what is right has been done through the intemperance of my youth or through negligence, I intend to repair it all henceforth with the help of God […] And therefore I wish to make known to you, that, returning by the same way that I went, I am going to Denmark, to conclude with the counsel of all the Danes peace and a firm treaty with those nations and people who wished, if possible for them, to deprive us of both kingdom and life.

Looking at the documents that have survived from Cnut’s reign, it is very easy to forget that Cnut was a Scandinavian conqueror who had no hereditary claim on the English throne. Interestingly, many of the Norse skaldic poems composed at his court, which must have been intended for a Scandinavian audience, emphasize both his right to the English throne and his godliness (see, for example, Hallvarðr Háreksblesi’s Knútsdrápa). Cnut clearly saw skaldic poetry as an important form of propaganda, legitimizing his rule of the kingdom he had conquered by force. The poets who composed these stanzas recognized the importance of these issues to their king.

His reign was a time of stability for many of his English subjects, who were now spared the threat of Viking attacks and the punitive taxes needed to fund defences against the raids. This is clearly seen in the fact that there is no indication of any serious rebellion or popular opposition to his rule, such as that which followed the Norman Conquest of 1066. Rather ironically, Cnut’s control of England instead coincided with a period of political turmoil in Scandinavia, as Cnut sought to extend his control over his Scandinavian neighbours. In a remarkable turnaround, the king of England was no longer preoccupied with defending his kingdom from Viking attacks; he was attacking them in their homelands of Norway and Sweden. And he appears to have enjoyed some, admittedly short-lived, success, for in the 1027 letter to his English subjects, Cnut describes himself as ‘King of England, Denmark, Norway, and part of Sweden’.

However, the North Sea Empire that Cnut carved out for himself rapidly disintegrated following his death at Shaftesbury in Dorset on 12 November 1035, during the short and turbulent rules of his two sons and successors, Harold I Harefoot and Harthacnut. Harold and Harthacnut had different mothers – Harold’s mother was the Mercian noble lady, Ælfgifu of Northampton, whom Cnut had married before he became king of England, while Harthacnut’s mother was Cnut’s Queen, Emma of Normandy. The two half-brothers were bitter enemies and, immediately after their father’s death, there was a battle for power. Harold won the first round in this contest, and was crowned king of England in 1036, while Harthacnut was securing his throne in Denmark, where he had been brought up. Here, Harthacnut was preoccupied with an invasion by the Norwegian king Magnus the Good and, in 1036, was forced to sign a peace treaty in which Harthacnut renounced all Danish claims to Norway, recognized Magnus as king of Norway and, most humiliating of all, made Magnus Harthacnut’s heir (incidentally, it was this treaty that Harald Hard-Ruler later claimed gave him the right to the English throne, and which triggered the (unsuccessful) Norwegian invasion of 1066).

Although he had the support of Earl Godwine of Wessex in England, Harthacnut’s absence in Denmark meant that he was unable to press his claim to the throne over that of his half-brother, and he only succeeded to the English throne following Harold’s death from a mysterious illness in 1040. One of the first acts of his reign was to have Harold’s body dug up and unceremoniously thrown into a bog. In contrast to his father’s reign, Harthacnut’s rule in England was short and unpopular: he levied a tax of 21,000 pounds of silver to pay for the expansion of his fleet from 16 to 62 warships, and he was accused of murdering Earl Eadulf of Northumbria. Danish rule over England came to a rather inglorious end just two years after Harthacnut’s succession: he died at a wedding feast on 8 June at Lambeth in present-day London where, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he was seized by convulsions as he drank. Who poisoned him is not known, but there was certainly no shortage of discontented candidates. Harthacnut was succeeded by his half-brother, Edward the Confessor (d. 1065), the son of Æthelred II and Emma. Edward, who had been bought up at the Norman court, was keen to cut off all links with the Scandinavian past, and even forced his Norman mother, Cnut’s widow Emma, into political obscurity amid rumours that she had promised to support an invasion by Magnus of Norway. Yet the Anglo-Scandinavian Godwine family, who had enjoyed an extraordinarily rapid rise to fame under Cnut, remained powerful despite Edward’s attempts to reduce their influence. He had them exiled following a dispute in October 1051 but was reluctantly forced to welcome them back in 1052. Only Edward’s cousin (once-removed, through Emma of Normandy), William, was able to finally remove the Godwines from power and to reorient English politics away from the North to Normandy in the South in the bloody conquest of 1066.

While a good deal is known about Cnut’s reign and those of his two sons, the history of Viking rule in the Danelaw over 100 years earlier is much more shadowy and elusive. As early as 876, one of the leaders of the ‘Great Heathen Army’, Halfdan, is said to have taken some of his warriors and settled in Northumbria (north-east England), where they set about the very un-Viking-like activities of ‘ploughing and providing for themselves.’ This is the first recorded Viking settlement in England, but little more than these bare facts are known, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was more concerned with the continuing atrocities performed by Viking armies further south than with the peaceful ploughing by Viking farmers in the far north of the country. Clearly, however, Halfdan must have wielded some political power in the area where he settled. The most likely candidate for Halfdan’s seat of government is York, the capital of the kingdom of Northumbria, which had been captured by the Great Army in 866-67 and whose warring kings, Ælla and Osberht, had both been killed by the Vikings. York certainly became the most important seat of Scandinavian power in northern England in the following years, and the first definite reference to a Scandinavian king of York was made by The Chronicle of Æthelweard, which noted the death of a king called Guthfrith (also known as Guthred) on 24 August 895. Guthfrith seems to have become king of York at some point between 880 and 885, and was converted to Christianity around 883. Like Cnut, he enjoyed the support of the Church – in this case, the important monastic community of St Cuthbert, which had relocated from the vulnerable monastery of Lindisfarne to Chester-le-Street in County Durham. It may seem startling to us that these monks had such short memories and were willing to support a Viking usurper, whose countrymen had wreaked such bloody havoc upon their holy monastery of Lindisfarne less than a hundred years previously. But, in the complex web of political rivalries in the north, it seems that ethnicity never mattered as much as we might suspect. What was important was that political and economic privileges were secured for the monks, and a Viking king, dependent on the monastic community for his power, was much less likely to interfere than the Saxon kings of Wessex, who were currently adding the non-Scandinavian areas of Mercia to their own kingdom and were threatening to swallow up the rest of England.

Coins minted in York provide the names of two kings with Scandinavian names, who probably ruled York shortly after Guthfrith: Cnut and Siefrid. These coins, with Latin legends and modelled on the coinage of the kings of Frankia, provide an important illustration of how, already, these conquerors were absorbing and adapting west European customs to their own advantage. No Scandinavian king minted his own coinage in Scandinavia until around 995, and these early coins in Denmark, Norway and Sweden were essentially copies of Anglo-Saxon ones, but the new Viking kings of York recognized the enormous propaganda value of circulating their own proclamation of victory and power. Every time someone used one of these coins, they were reminded who was king of York. The names of the people who produced these coins, which were normally given on the reverse of the coin, were predominantly Anglo-Saxon or Frankish during the early years of Viking power in York, which demonstrates the conquerors’ dependence on the expertise of native or ‘imported’ craftsmen at this point – as well as these craftsmen’s co-operation with their new rulers. This was to change dramatically over the following century and, by around 1000, some three-quarters of moneyers had Scandinavian names. At the time of the Norman Conquest, all moneyers operating in York had Scandinavian names – a clear testimony to the popularity these names had enjoyed in the town following its capture by the Great Army in 866.

Although York was remote from the West-Saxon court, the Viking rulers of the north were inevitably drawn into the political struggles of the south. Indeed, it is likely that they encouraged them and tried to use them to their own advantage. Perhaps one of the most significant threats to the rule of the kings of Wessex in the period after the Scandinavian settlements was reported in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 899. Æthelwold, the nephew of King Alfred the Great, revolted against his newly crowned cousin, Edward the Elder, and was accepted as king of Northumbria by the Danish army. The young prince was later also acknowledged as leader by the Vikings in Essex and incited East Anglia to rebellion before being killed by Edward the Elder’s army. His threat to Edward’s throne, rather than his alliance with Vikings, was probably the greater of his crimes and in its description of Æthelwold’s death one version of the Chronicle, compiled at Winchester in the heartland of Wessex, stresses that it was Æthelwold who had incited the Scandinavian king of East Anglia, Eohric, to hostility. Interestingly, the so-called northern version of the Chronicle has slightly different wording at this point, and simply states that the Scandinavians had chosen Æthelwold as their king. To the southerners, emphasizing Æthelwold’s treachery was the most important fact because he was so close to the throne that he could pose a real threat. A number of other significant facts underlie the Chronicle’s account of Æthelwold’s defection: clearly there was serious political unrest in Wessex and the Scandinavians in the north of England were quick to take advantage of it. Interestingly the Chronicle still describes the Scandinavians of Northumbria as a Danish army, an alien force to be reckoned with, despite its earlier talk of ploughing and settling down. Were the descendants of Halfdan’s army still really organized into an army over twenty years after they settled in Northumbria, or did the court-based chronicler want to play up the treachery of Æthelwold and the threat that Northumbria posed to Wessex in order to justify and glorify Edward’s actions and achievements? The Anglo-Saxon word for army is here, and as late as 1013, when describing Svein Forkbeard’s campaign of conquest in England, the Chronicle refers to the Scandinavian settlers of the Danelaw in this way:

And then Earl Uhtred and all Northumbria immediately submitted to him [Svein Forkbeard], and all the people in Lindsey, and afterwards the people of the Five Boroughs, and quickly after, all the raiding army [here] to the north of Watling Street.

Dorothy Whitelock notes that the word here seems to be ‘used in the sense of the organised inhabitants of an area of Danish settlement.’ Clearly, almost 150 years after the first Scandinavians settled in northern and eastern England, the colonists were no longer the soldiers of a Viking army, but memories of their ancestors lived on in English minds.

The episode of Æthelwold’s rebellion neatly demonstrates that the Viking Age in England was more than the straightforward clash of Scandinavians and English: there was north-south rivalry and, more particularly, conflict between Wessex and the rest of England as Alfred the Great’s descendants sought to unite the country under their own rule. In the north of England, this brought them into conflict with the Scots as well as the Vikings. Edward’s ‘reconquest’ of the Danelaw was a campaign to strengthen his own position rather than an idealistic or ethnically driven crusade to put England under English kings again – the fact was that the kings of Wessex had never before held power in northern England. The presence of the Vikings in the north provided a convenient excuse and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to extend southern power into the north, where longestablished English dynasties had been driven out by the Scandinavians and where the new rulers were not yet properly or securely established.

As the Æthelwold episode and the ‘reconquest’ show, however, the Viking kings of York were not the only force to be reckoned with in the Danelaw – East Anglia, the Five Boroughs of Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Stamford, and Lincoln, and areas of the present-day counties of Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Northamptonshire had each been occupied by different ‘armies’ which recognized different leaders and rulers, some of whom are named in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s account of the reconquest of the Danelaw. Many of these men bore the title of jarl, the Scandinavian word for earl, or hold, a lesser noble, but some are called king: for example, Eohric of East Anglia who was killed in 904 with Æthelwold; Eowils and Halfdan of Northumbria who were killed in the Battle of Tettenhall in 910; and an unnamed king killed at Tempsford in 920. The geopolitical fragmentation of the Danelaw is also reflected in the way that Edward and his sister, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, won territory from the Vikings bit by bit: the southern part of Danelaw (Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire) had fallen to Edward and Æthelflæd by 914; East Anglia was brought under English control in 917; the reconquest of the Five Boroughs was accomplished in the period 917-920; while, despite the capture of York by Æthelflæd in 918, the southern part of Northumbria, the old kingdom of Deira, remained intermittently independent until the death of its last Scandinavian king in 954.

A Grand Strategy for Lacedaemon


The Spartan hoplite is seen here in full battle array. His Corinthian helmet is of brass and decorated with a transverse crest; his shield, with Spartan blazon, is brassfaced, as are the full-length “muscled” greaves. The white linen corslet, worn over a red tunic, replaced the heavy “bell” cuirass and was made from several layers of material glued together. The lower part was cut into strips to facilitate bending down. The corslet found favour because of its lightness but was often reinforced with plates. The red cloak seen in the illustration was the characteristic Spartan uniform. It was discarded in battle. Before the time of Alexander, beards were usually worn in Greece and long hair characterised Spartan adult men. Herodotus describes how the Spartans; awaiting the Persian onslaught at Thermopylae, passed their time in taking exercise and combing their hair. This hoplite is binding a leather handgrip around the shaft of his spear to enable him to obtain a firm purchase when thrusting it overarm over the wall of phalanx shields. Unlike other hoplites, the Spartan trained all his life as a soldier, and was thus a “professional”. His drill and weapons-skill were thus superior to, and more fearsome than, that of other hoplites.

Sparta was the one city-state in Greece that deviated from the pattern of warfare described above. By the sixth century BCE, the Spartans had established the only real standing army in Greece, training hoplites who can be classified as professionals. Sparta’s deviation from the norm stemmed from a war fought in the eighth century in which Sparta had defeated neighboring Messenia. Sparta had then reduced many of the citizens of that region to the status of serfs, called helots. The helots, who lived quite a distance from Sparta, had to turn over half of their produce to their Spartan masters. In the middle of the seventh century, the helots, emboldened by a Spartan defeat at the hands of rival Argos, rebelled against Spartan control. The uprising by the Messenians nearly ended in defeat for the Spartans, but they were able to put down the rebellion. Afterward, Spartan attitudes hardened, and the Spartan system of the classical period developed.

Herodotus once described Sparta as a kósmos, and Plutarch later followed his lead. It was not always such. But, in the course of the archaic period, with the establishment there of the condition of good order and lawfulness that the ancients from Homer, Hesiod, Tyrtaeus, and Alcman on called eunomía, this is precisely what Lacedaemon became: a meticulously, more or less coherently ordered whole—apt to elicit admiration. As a ruling order, the Spartiates constituted a seigneurial class blessed with leisure and devoted to a common way of life centered on the fostering of certain manly virtues. They made music together, these Spartans. There was very little that they did alone. Together they sang and they danced, they worked out, they competed in sports, they boxed and wrestled, they hunted, they dined, they cracked jokes, and they took their repose. Theirs was a rough- and-tumble world, but it was not bereft of refinement and it was not char­acterized by an ethos of grim austerity, as some have supposed. Theirs was, in fact, a life of great privilege and pleasure enlivened by a spirit of rivalry as fierce as it was friendly. The manner in which they mixed music with gymnastic and fellowship with competition caused them to be credited with eudaimonía—the happiness and success that everyone craved—and it made them the envy of Hellas. This gentlemanly modus vivendi had, however, one precondition: Lacedaemon’s continued dominion over Laconia and Messenia and her brutal subjection of the helots on both sides of Mount Taygetus.

The grand strategy the Lacedaemonians gradually articulated in defense of the way of life they so cherished was all-encompassing, as successful grand strategies often are. Of necessity, it had domestic consequences on a considerable scale. As we have seen, its dictates go a long way toward explaining the Spartans’ aversion to commerce; their practice of infanticide; their provision for every citizen of an equal allotment of land and of servants to work it; the city’s sumptuary laws; their sharing of slaves, horses, and hounds; their intense piety; the subjection of their male offspring to an elaborate system of education and indoctrination; their use of music and poetry to instill a civic spirit; their practice of pederasty; the rigors and discipline to which they habitually subjected themselves; and, of course, their constant preparation for war. It accounts as well for the articulation over time within Lacedaemon of a mixed regime graced with elaborate balances and checks. To sustain their dominion in Laconia and Messenia and to maintain the helots in bondage, the Spartans had to eschew faction; foster among themselves the same opinions, passions, and interests; and employ—above all, in times of strain—procedures, recognized as fair and just, by which to reach a stable political consensus consistent with the dictates of prudence.

Not surprisingly, this grand strategy had serious consequences for Lacedaemon’s posture in the international sphere as well. The Spartans’ perch was precarious. The Corinthian leader who compared their polity with a stream was right. Rivers really do grow in strength as other streams empty into them, and the like could be said of the Lacedaemonians: “There, in the place where they emerge, they are alone; but as they continue and gather cities under their control, they become more numerous and harder to fight.” Even when their population was at its height, the Spartans were few in number, and the ter­ritory they ruled was comparatively vast. The underlings they exploited were astonishingly numerous and apt to be rebellious. In Messenia, if not also in Laconia, the helots saw themselves as a people in bondage, and geography did not favor the haughty men who kept them in that condition. The Spartans could look to the períoikoi for support, and this they did. But the latter were not all that numerous, and it was never entirely certain that they could be re- lied on. They, too, had to be overawed. In the long run, the Spartans could not sustain their way of life if they did not recruit allies outside their stronghold in the southern Peloponnesus.

As we have seen, it took the Lacedaemonians some time to sort out in full the implications of their position. Early on, at least, trial and error governed their approach to the formulation of policy. But by the middle of the sixth century, Chilon and others had come to recognize that, if their compatriots did not find some way to leverage the manpower of their neighbors, they would themselves someday come a cropper. And so the Spartiates reluctantly abandoned the dream of further expansion, repositioned themselves as defenders of Arcadian autonomy, and presented themselves to the Hellenic world as the scourge of tyranny, the champions of liberty, the friends of oligarchy, and the heirs of Agamemnon. It was under this banner that they rearranged the affairs of their fellow Peloponnesians to their liking and founded a grand alliance designed to keep their Argive enemies out, the helots down, and the Arcadians, above all others, in.

Taken as a whole, the grand strategy of classical Lacedaemon was brilliantly designed for the purpose it was intended to serve. It had, however, one grave defect. It presupposed that for all practical purposes, under Sparta’s hegemony, the Peloponnesus was a world unto itself—which, of course, it was . . . at the time that this strategy was first formulated. If, however, there ever came a moment when a power equal to or greater than Lacedaemon appeared in force—or even threatened to appear—at or near the entrance to that great peninsula, the Spartans would have to rethink this strategy and recast it to meet an unanticipated challenge.

It was in or quite soon after the mid-540s that such a prospect first loomed in the distance on the horizon. As we shall see, although the Spartans were by no means slow to take note of the challenge they faced, they were exceedingly cautious in the mode of proceeding that they then adopted.

The Epoch Of The Samurai





Japan is a mountainous country with a wide range of climate differences, from extremely cold in the northern parts to the hot climates of the islands of the south. A high percentage of the country is clad in mountains and forests, and much of the population dwell on the fertile plans and coastlines. The history of Japan can be divided into different eras, yet the world is primarily interested in a single thousand-year period—the epoch of the samurai. Before the samurai, Japan was a land heavily influenced by Chinese culture. This influence soaked into all areas of life. Much earlier, Japan moved through early “civilized” culture. It passed through its own stone ages, all of which were sophisticated in their own way. Around 800–900 AD—and taking a few hundred years to develop—the samurai started to form, adapting to a changing socio-political environment. Fast forward, they evolved into the now famous warrior culture known across the world, a culture that came to an end around the 1860s and 1870s.

Ignoring the rest of Japanese history, but without forgetting its existence, the age of the samurai can be broken up into sections. These are classifications that only exist here and are theoretical; their only purpose is to help form a visual understanding of the progress of samurai history. This timeline has been simplified for ease. Japanese history can be divided into many individual ages; however, this aid focuses on the samurai’s development and the major changes that occurred.


In the ninth and tenth centuries of the first millennium—that is, before 1000 AD—the samurai began to develop, moving from an obviously pre-samurai warrior template into a more identifiably Japanese form, the birth of the samurai.

The First Great Samurai

From around 1000 AD to 1450 AD comes the classical age of the samurai. This is the age of the samurai as the mounted warrior. His principle weapons include the bow and arrow; warfare is wider and more open. The Genpei War (1180–85) rages and the Kemmu Restoration (1333–1336) takes place. The land is at times in turmoil, heroes are created, and iconic images are crafted for future samurai to adore.

The Age of War

From around the 1400s to the early 1600s, Japan enters a fierce and bloody part of its history. The country is changed from collections of practically self-governing societies, under diffident warlords, to a unified country. A change achieved through consistent campaigning, in which military tactics are developed, classical samurai ideals are giving way to well-structured and formulated “modern” war-craft; gunnery is introduced and explosives gain a more solid foothold while warrior knights are supported by masses of foot soldiers. In a climactic clash at the battle of Sekigahara and the victories at the sieges of Osaka Castle, the Tokugawa family take control of the country and “peace” is restored to Japan.

The Age of Peace

From the early 1600s, “peace” was established in the country. “Peace” has been placed in quotation marks because it is wrongly considered a “peaceful” time. The start of the seventeenth century was full of rebellion and attempted coups, including the siege of Osaka Castle, the slaughter of the last Toyotomi members, the brutal murder of the Christian horde at the siege of Shimabara, and the attempted take-over led by Yui Shosetsu—possibly ordered by the Kishu domain. These are only a few examples of this bloody “peace.” By 1650 the country had “calmed down” and the Tokugawa clan held an iron grip. “Peace” is provided through a feudal dictatorship and true power is held by the Shogun. All of the other clans are placed under the Sankin Kotai system, which means that each clan has to biannually move its chief personnel to the capital—at great cost. This was a measure designed to prevent anyone from rising in rebellion against the Tokugawa family. With the country under dictatorship and war at an end, the samurai class—in the main—moved towards bureaucracy, with less importance placed on combat efficiency. Armor and weapons become more decorative, ethics and the ideals of Confucianism take a stronger hold. Our idea of the perfectly honorable knight is shaped in this age, but in truth, the samurai declined in power and ability.*

The Modern Age

In the 1860s Japan once again became a land of war as the Meiji Restoration developed. The now weakened samurai class were outdated as a product of the old world. Modern society crashed into Japanese life. The samurai were disbanded, ending a thousand year rule of the shoguns, restoring the emperor to “power” under the guidance of a modern government.

The importance of a basic understanding of the above cannot be underestimated. Often these major divisions of the samurai age are mixed together and placed over each other. The ideas of honor, and a spiritual life that gained popularity in the “age of peace,” are attached to the classical age—the “first great samurai.” The warfare strategies of the “first great samurai” are mistakenly used to explain the “age of war.” As a modern reader you must understand that these ages were divided by change—yet connected by the identity of the samurai. The role itself of these Eastern knights is a golden thread that runs through a millennium of change. However, remember that although the samurai were always samurai, they did change with time.

The epoch of the samurai can be expressed as a thousand year rule that starts with the emergence of a warrior class. This then moves from classical warfare, through the bloody years of unification, to the decline of practicality—the eventual fall of the warrior. Each part has its place in Japanese history and should not be mixed together nor mistaken as a single, continuous form.

History as the Samurai Saw It

History is ever changing. A modern understanding of history may not be the understanding that the samurai had. To the samurai and the shinobi, history, folklore, and legend existed in the same space. The Japanese considered their world created from the great Japanese gods in the Age of the Gods. They knew that China influenced Japanese culture. Yet they also knew that the ancestors had a hand in the making of their own history. Often a samurai school of war may have a divine origin and inspiration, meaning that their gods blessed their school. Most origin stories for samurai schools start with the founder leaving to undertake an episode of training in remote mountains. Here, after months of intense study, a god comes to them in the form of a spiritual or earthly creature that then gives the holy swords-man the secrets of the martial arts. This became the storied birth of their style. The origins and histories of samurai (and shinobi) schools can be put into three categories. Sometimes they include all three, and sometimes they only contain one or two of these elements:

1. The mythological element—A god or supernatural creature is the initial inspiration for the school and has conveyed divine wisdom and skills to that school.

2. The legendary element—A hero figure that may or may not have existed is factored into the school’s history. The King Arthur or Robin Hood types of Japan include Kumasaka the famous thief, Yoshitsune the child warrior, and even Kusunoki Masashige, the famed but doomed hero figure; Real historical figures pushed into legend.

3. The historical element—A historical figure, episode, or fact that is without a doubt correct and that is considered true history.

The third is the only element that we now consider as proper history. However, it was not improper for a samurai to pass on the idea of the first two. As observers of history, we should not condemn samurai for taking this angle. Their schools were historically correct even with their origins being a mix of truth and legend, sometimes even claiming historical figures that had become famous.

Society in Japan

The concept of Shi-no-ko-sho—the four classes of feudal Japan—is well understood in the realm of samurai history. Below are some of the lesser-known aspects highlighted to create a balanced view.

The four main tiers:

1. 士 – Shi: The gentry or warrior class

2. 農 – Nojin or Nofu: The farmer

3. 工 – Ko or Shokunin: The artisan or craftsman

4. 商 – Shonin: The merchant

The above system is inherited from Chinese doctrine and influenced by Confucianism. It was not a solid practice until the beginning of the Edo Period, in the early seventeenth century. Most people are interested in periods of warfare when they contemplate samurai history. They tend to overlay this idea onto earlier times. Before the times of peace that came with the control of the Tokugawa family (after 1600), social mobility was more fluid. Lines between the classes were blurred—yet they still existed. The samurai were a social class with clearly developed identities; yet movement between or living on the border of two social classes was more common. A reader of history has to constantly avoid the “Disney Trap.” This is the belief that a peasant is a poor creature who lives in a leaking hovel, a toothless grin reflecting the orange of a crackling fire. The lord is the opulent, fat, cruel dictator on a throne. The knight is the hero on the horse. The merchant is the jewel-encrusted, slimy fellow who rubs his hands together in anticipation of gold. The embedding of these images from childhood by countless mediums creates a thick coat of obscurity. It is paint that needs to be removed from an analytical mind. Peasants are not the lowest creatures. In most cases, slaves, outcasts, and the unseemly came below peasants. They weren’t always poor. The merchant is not always affluent, and the ruler is not always all-powerful. Of course the knight is not always the hero. It is of great importance to identify your own cultural, opinionated distortions of class. Once they are identified, do the utmost to eradicate these falsely formulated ideas. Consider social class and the effects it has on the individual; see it as something fluid and in motion. From the standpoint of the person in history these things were fixed. From the standpoint of the historian these move with time—and for a historian, time can pass instantaneously. As students of history we can pass over 400 years in a moment, seeing an image of a nation change from static to fluid. Therefore, erase these social stereotypes, understand the basic principle: chronology and geography are factors that will determine the outcome of the image you create.

To paint a portrait in your mind: imagine that a given domain has a fair lord, who governs well. The state has satisfactory resources; a peasant may own two slaves and a small cottage in a rural area. A warrior family that rules fairly protects this area, yet they have a strict attitude. The cottage may be an extensive compound on the edge of the farmland that the occupants work, either for another or under their own control. They farm and spend surplus on luxury goods that are sold by the merchant class—an idyllic picture. This picture may be idyllic, yet it can also be realistic to a degree. On the other hand: another province may come under the control of a tyrant, taxes may be levied to unfair levels and the peasants may not even produce enough crops to feed themselves—let alone purchase luxury items. When civil war breaks out, the peasants (in classic horror movie fashion) march against the dictator with firebrands and pitchforks. Again, this is stylistic, yet realistic to a degree. In reality, most historical situations are somewhere between these two extreme examples. That does not mean that these two examples were never realities. Simple factors easily show truths of history. For example, if peasants—in the Japanese case, farmers—were hovel dwelling, disease ridden, skulking figures, then the merchant class would not exist. A merchant needs a customer base, and most of the population were peasant-farmers. Peasant-farmers fed the country, samurai ruled and defended the land, artisans crafted products, and merchants sold them across the islands. Finally, the outcasts perform the duties that the aforementioned will not undertake. Here, again, when imagining the social systems of Japan, do not fall into the “Disney Trap”—or have a blanket outlook. The blanket approach is filled with stereotypes and associated connotations. Instead, adopt the balanced approach of looking at Japanese history as a whole. Consider the merchant to be a hardworking shopkeeper, the craftsman to be the busy woodcarver or blacksmith. Consider the peasant to be a healthy farmer in the field. Consider the samurai a militarily trained landowner; a local power. Then, with this level playing field in place, investigate times and place. Learn how that at times the population became wealthier and life was easier; while at other times existence was harsh. Discover how these harsh times caused rebellion. It is not until a date and a place is identified that a correct understanding can be achieved—make sure to remember this.