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.

The Zulu Kingdom and the Mfecane



Shaka’s Zulu Kingdom and the Mfecane Wars, 1817–1828

Until the late eighteenth century the Bantu-speaking mixed farmers south of the Limpopo River lived in small chiefdoms. By the 1830s, when white people began to invade southeastern Africa beyond the Fish River in substantial numbers, however, society throughout the region had been drastically transformed. The nucleus of change lay in northern Nguni country. There, in the country between the mountain escarpment and the Indian Ocean, the Zulu kingdom had incorporated all the northern Nguni chiefdoms. The royal family and its Ntungwa clan constituted a new ruling class. They controlled a standing army of conscripted warriors and exacted tribute from the commoners. Moreover, in a process known as the Mfecane (Zulu) or Difaqane (Sesotho), meaning time of troubles, emigrant bands from modern KwaZulu had created new kingdoms as far north as modern Malawi, Zambia, and Tanzania. The Mfengu, who arrived among the Xhosa and became allied with the Cape Colony, were among the refugees displaced by these events.

This transformation was in essence an internal process within the mixed farming society in southeastern Africa. By the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the relation between the population level and the environment was changing. Previously, the society had been expansive and the scale of political organization had remained small in spite of the tendency of the population to increase, because members of ruling families had frequently split from their chiefdoms with their followers and founded new chiefdoms between or beyond existing settlements. Gradually, however, the population of the region had been increasing to a level where that expansive process was no longer possible. Farmers were reaching the limits of land with arable potential on the verge of the Kalahari Desert in the northwest and in the rugged mountains at the southern end of the highveld. Throughout southeastern Africa, as the possibilities for further expansion diminished, competition for land and water supplies grew more acute.

Changing climatic conditions exacerbated the crisis. Rainfall decreased significantly throughout the region during the first three decades of the nineteenth century, with an exceptionally severe drought between 1800 and 1807, followed by another between 1820 and 1823. The problem was especially serious in the northern Nguni area. There, the terrain is marked by steep hills and deep valleys, which create widely different environments within short distances, and it was necessary for people to move their cattle seasonally from one type of pasture to another. As the land filled up, pastures began to deteriorate through overstocking and people began to interfere with the customary movements of cattle. By the end of the eighteenth century, strong chiefdoms were subduing their neighbors and incorporating them into loosely structured kingdoms. Then came the first great drought of the century, which people remembered as the time when “we were obliged to eat grass.”

By the 1810s, there were two rival kingdoms in the area: the Ndwandwe kingdom, led by Zwide, and the Mthethwa kingdom, led by Dingiswayo, who created a standing army composed of age regiments. The two kingdoms clashed repeatedly and with unprecedented ferocity. The outcome of the crisis was shaped very largely by Shaka. The eldest son of Senzanga-kona, the chief of the small Zulu chiefdom, Shaka was illegitimate, since his father never married his mother, Nandi. Rejected by his father, Shaka grew up among his mother’s relatives. In Zulu tradition, he was “a tall man, dark, with a large nose, and was ugly,” and “he spoke with an impediment.”

When he was about twenty-two, Shaka joined the army of Dingiswayo, king of the Mthethwa, where he acquired a reputation as a brave warrior and a man of original ideas and became commander of his regiment. When Senzangakona died in about 1816, Dingiswayo helped Shaka succeed to the Zulu chieftaincy over the heads of his numerous legitimate half-brothers. Shaka then equipped the Zulu warriors with short stabbing spears in addition to the traditional long spears and trained them to fight in close combat. A year or two later, the Ndwandwe captured and killed Dingiswayo. The Mthethwa kingdom then disintegrated and Shaka’s Zulu conquered and incorporated its chiefdoms. In 1818, the Zulu defeated the Ndwandwe in a decisive battle at the Mhlatuse River and became the dominant power throughout northern Nguni territory. By the mid-1820s, Shaka’s Zulu had established control over most territory from the Pongola River in the north to beyond the Tugela River in the south and from the mountain escarpment to the sea.

The transformation of the northern Nguni was accentuated by external factors. Some historians believe that foreign trade was crucial in the rise of the Zulu kingdom. Traders from the Portuguese settlement on Delagoa Bay were increasingly active in this period, bartering beads, brass, and other imported commodities for ivory and cattle. Creating competition for control of the trade route, they probably intensified the conflicts and the centralizing process. The available evidence, including the recorded oral traditions of the African informants, however, does not seem to warrant the conclusion that the trade was sufficient to have been the primary cause of the transformation.

One historian has gone so far as to assert that external forces—white slave traders and white colonists and their Coloured allies—bore most of the responsibility for the transformations in southeastern Africa. According to him, the export trade in slaves from Delagoa Bay precipitated the changes among the northern Nguni, and Griquas and Whites from the Cape Colony were the principal disrupters of the African chiefdoms in the modern Transvaal and Orange Free State. The first claim is palpably false: scarcely any slaves were being exported from Delagoa Bay before 1823; subsequently there was a rise in slave exports, but that was a result, not a cause, of the warfare in the area. The second claim draws attention to a previously underestimated factor: Griquas did cause considerable havoc in some parts of the highveld; nevertheless, the main agents of that disruption were Nguni emigrants from modern KwaZulu.

The Zulu kingdom was the end product of radical changes in northern Nguni society that had begun in the late eighteenth century. It was a militarized state, made and maintained by a conscript army of about forty thousand warriors. Instead of the initiation system, which had integrated young men into the discipline of their particular chiefdoms, men were removed from civil society at about the age of puberty and assigned to age regiments, living in barracks scattered throughout the country. During their period of service they were denied contact with women and subjected to intense discipline. They were employed on public works for the state, but their most conspicuous duties were military. In warfare, their standard tactic was to encircle the enemy and then, in close combat, to cause havoc with short stabbing spears. They celebrated a victory by seizing booty, principally in cattle, and, sometimes, by massacring women and children. Survivors were incorporated into the Zulu kingdom under chiefs whose tenure depended on their loyalty.

In earlier times, there had been no standing armies, women and children were seldom killed, and defeated chiefdoms were rarely incorporated. Men, women, and children had lived in their homesteads throughout their lives and had forfeited only a relatively modest amount of their produce to their chiefs. Under Shaka, grain and cattle flowed in larger quantities to the royal residence and the regimental barracks; and, with a high proportion of their mature men absent, women had greater responsibility for rural production and for managing the homestead.

To foster loyalty to the state, Shaka and his councillors drew on the customary Nguni festivals. They assembled the entire army at the royal barracks for the annual first-fruits ceremony and before and after major military expeditions, when they used spectacular displays and magical devices to instill a corporate morale. The traditions of the Zulu royal lineage became the traditions of the kingdom; the Zulu dialect became the language of the kingdom; and every inhabitant, whatever his origins, became a Zulu, owing allegiance to Shaka. Nevertheless, as Carolyn Hamilton, drawing on Zulu evidence, points out, “The process of centralization was far from smooth. . . . . There were . . . great inequalities within the Zulu kingdom, deep-seated divisions and considerable disaffection. . . . [0]utbreaks of rebellion . . . prompted continued coercive responses from the Zulu authorities. These included merciless campaigns and stern sentences for individual rebels. . . . The Zulu authorities fostered this image through carefully managed displays of despotism and brutal justice at the court, using terror as a basis for absolute rule across a huge kingdom.”

During the 1820s, the Zulu kingdom became increasingly predatory. Shaka sent the army on annual campaigns, disrupting local chiefdoms to the north and the south, destroying their food supplies, seizing their cattle. Tensions within the royal family came to a head on September 24, 1828. While the army was away on a campaign to the north, Shaka’s personal servant and two of his half-brothers assassinated him. One of those half-brothers, Dingane, eliminated his rivals and succeeded to the kingship, maintaining Shaka’s domestic and external policies, though he lacked Shaka’s originality and panache.

Meanwhile, militant bands of people who had been driven from their homes by the Ndwandwe, the Mthethwa, and the Zulu created the widespread havoc throughout southeastern Africa that became known as the Mfecane. By the early 1830s, organized community life had virtually ended in some areas—notably, in modern Natal, south of the Zulu kingdom, and in much of the modern Orange Free State between the Vaal and the Caledon river valleys, where the only human beings were small groups of survivors trying to eke out a living on mountaintops or in bush country. Settlements were abandoned, livestock were destroyed, fields ceased to be cultivated, and in several places the landscape was littered with human bones. Demoralized survivors wandered round singly or in small groups, contriving to live on game or veld plants. Some even resorted to cannibalism—the final sign of society’s collapse. A self-proclaimed former cannibal later told a missionary: “Many preferred to die of hunger; but others were deceived by the more intrepid ones, who would say to their friends . . . : here is some rock rabbit meat, recover your strength; however, it was human flesh. Once they had tasted it, they found that it was excellent. . . . Our heart did fret inside us; but we were getting used to that type of life, and the horror we had felt at first was soon replaced by habit.”

By that time, a rival Nguni kingdom controlled much of the central highveld. In about 1821, one of Shaka’s allies, a chief named Mzilikazi, fled over the escarpment to the highveld with a small band of warriors. There, they became known as Ndebele (Nguni) or Matabele (Sotho). Using Zulu military methods, they carved out a state between the Vaal and the Limpopo rivers, conquering several Sotho and Tswana chiefdoms and incorporating many of their people as subordinates, exacting tribute from others, and, like the Zulu, sending impis out to terrorize more distant communities.

Other states were developing on the periphery of the areas dominated by the Zulu and the Ndebele. Several militant bands of refugees from the northern Nguni area, enthused with similar zeal for conquest, struggled to establish themselves in modern Mozambique. The most successful were those led by Soshangane, who created the Gaza kingdom there and drove out others led by Zwangendaba and Nxaba, who eventually carved out new chieftaincies for themselves in parts of modern Malawi, Zambia, and Tanzania. Similarly, a Sotho community known as the Kololo, harrassed by the Ndebele, fled northward from the highveld and eventually founded a kingdom in modern Zambia. In mountainous territory northwest of the Zulu, meanwhile, an Nguni chief named Sobhuza, who had been driven out of land near the Pongola River by Zwide’s Ndwandwe, absorbed several Sotho as well as Nguni communities and created a durable kingdom that became known as Swaziland after Sobhuza’s son and heir, Mswati.

Perhaps the most significant of the new states was Lesotho. Its leader was Moshoeshoe, the senior son of a Sotho village headman, who gathered the survivors of the wars in the Caledon River valley. Besides Sotho, who had belonged to numerous different chiefdoms before the invasions began, they included people who had arrived in the area as members of invading Nguni bands. From headquarters on a flat-topped mesalike mountain named Thaba Bosiu, the Basotho warriers warded off attacks by a series of aggressors, including an Ndebele impi and Griqua raiders.

Lesotho differed fundamentally from the Zulu kingdom. It was the scene of postwar reconstruction on pacific rather than coercive principles. Although Moshoeshoe placed his sons and other relatives over chiefs of other lineages, he never created a standing army, he remained on easy, familiar terms with all and sundry, he encouraged his people to debate public questions freely in public meetings, and he tolerated a great deal of local autonomy. “Peace,” he said, “is like the rain which makes the grass grow, while war is like the wind which dries it up.” With its humane leader and its central position in southern Africa, Lesotho played an important role throughout the next half-century.

In transforming the farming society of southeastern Africa, the Mfecane wrought great suffering. Thousands died violent deaths. Thousands more were uprooted from their homes. Village communities and chiefdoms were eliminated. A century later, Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje, a Motswana, started his novel Mhudi with tragic incidents in the Mfecane. Yet, in Thomas Mokopu Mofolo’s well-known novel Chaka, written in Sesotho and translated into English, German, French, and Italian, and in an epic poem by Mazisi Kunene, the name of Shaka has passed into African literature and the consciousness of modern Africans as a symbol of African heroism and power.

Besides the destruction, the immediate consequences of the wars were twofold. First, thousands of Basotho and Batswana from the highveld, as well as Mfengu and Xhosa from the coastal area, poured into the Cape Colony in search of subsistence, which they were able to obtain by working for white colonists. Second, the wars provided Whites with unprecedented opportunities to expand into the eastern part of southern Africa. In much of the central highveld, the population was sparse throughout the 1830s. The surviving inhabitants, fearing further disruptions, tended to conceal themselves from intruders, which gave white travelers the impression that the area was uninhabited and unclaimed. In fact, however, the rulers of the newly created Zulu, Ndebele, Swazi, and Sotho kingdoms assumed that, jointly, they had dominion over the entire region, though they contested its distribution among themselves. In particular, Dingane and Mzilikazi continued to send impis through the sparsely occupied southern highveld.

The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon


The formation of the Templars arose out of these conditions of insecurity on the roads and the murder, rape, enslavement and robbery of unarmed pilgrims. Only recently a group of nine French knights, most prominently Hugh of Payns, a knight from Champagne who had fought in the First Crusade, and Godfrey of Saint-Omer in Picardy, had proposed to the Patriarch of Jerusalem Warmund of Picquigny and King Baldwin II, who had succeeded his cousin in 1118, that for the salvation of their souls they form a lay community or perhaps even withdraw into the contemplative life of a monastery. Instead Baldwin, alive to the urgent dangers confronting travellers in his kingdom, persuaded Hugh of Payns and his companions to save their souls by protecting pilgrims on the roads, or as one chronicler put it, they were to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience but were also ‘to defend pilgrims against brigands and rapists’. The Easter massacre along the road to the river Jordan persuasively drove home the King’s view, and on Christmas Day 1119 Hugh and his companions took their vows before the Patriarch in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, calling themselves in Latin the Pauperes commilitones Christi, the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ.

The King and Patriarch probably saw the creation of a permanent guard for travellers as complementary to the work of the Hospitallers who were providing care for pilgrims arriving at Jerusalem. Already in 600 Pope Gregory the Great had commissioned the building of a hospital at Jerusalem to treat and care for pilgrims, and two hundred years later Charlemagne, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, enlarged it to include a hostel and a library, but in 1005 it was destroyed as part of the Fatimid caliph Hakim’s violent anti-Christian persecutions. In 1170 merchants from Amalfi obtained permission from the Fatimids to rebuild the hospital, which was run by Benedictine monks and dedicated to Saint John the Almsgiver, a charitable seventh-century patriarch of Alexandria. But after the First Crusade the hospital was released from Benedictine control and raised an order of its own, the Hospitallers of Saint John, which was recognised by the Pope in 1113 and came under his sole jurisdiction.

Official acceptance of the new order came at Nablus in January 1120 when the nine members of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ were formally introduced to an assembly of lay and spiritual leaders from throughout the lands of Outremer. In this year too they first attracted the attention of a powerful visitor to Outremer, Fulk V, count of Anjou, who on his return home granted them an annual revenue, an example that was soon followed by other French nobles, which added to the allowance they were already receiving from the canons of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Yet altogether these amounted to only a modest income, and individually the Poor Fellow-Soldiers were genuinely poor and dressed only in donated clothes, meaning they had no distinctive uniform–the white tunic emblazoned with a red cross came later. Their seal alludes to this brotherhood in poverty by depicting two knights, perhaps Hugh of Payns and Godfrey of Saint-Omer, having to share a single horse.

They were also given the use of another hand-me-down. After the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, the King had made do with the al-Aqsa mosque for his palace, but now he had built a new palace to the west and he gave what had been the mosque to the Poor Fellow-Soldiers. They made it their headquarters, residing there and using it to store arms, clothing and food, while stabling their horses in a great underground vault at the southeast corner of the Temple Mount. As the vaults were thought to have been Solomon’s stables, and the al-Aqsa mosque was known as the mosque of the Templum Solomonis because it was believed to have been built on the site of Solomon’s Temple, it was not long before the knights had encompassed the association in their name. They became known as the Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Solomonici–the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon; or, in a word, the Templars.


In the autumn of 1127 Baldwin II sent emissaries to the West in an effort to solve two fundamental problems facing the Kingdom of Jerusalem: its military weakness and his lack of a male heir. Baldwin had four daughters but no sons, and to secure the succession he and his barons had decided to offer the hand of Melisende, his oldest daughter, to Fulk V, count of Anjou. In the event the mission to Fulk was a complete success; the count agreed to return to Outremer and marry Melisende, securing the succession and strengthening the kingdom’s ties with the West.

Baldwin also sent Hugh of Payns, the Grand Master of the Templars, sailing westwards at the same time, his mission to solicit donations and to raise recruits. The King had prepared the ground for Hugh by writing to Bernard, the abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Clairvaux, explaining that the Templars were seeking approval of their order from the Pope, who they hoped would also initiate a subsidy that would help fund the battle against the enemies of the faith who were threatening the very existence of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Baldwin knew his man: Bernard had already written to the Pope objecting to a proposal put forward by a fellow abbot to lead a mission of Cistercians to the East, saying that what the Holy Land really needed was ‘fighting knights not singing and wailing monks’.

Bernard of Clairvaux, who was made a saint within twenty-years of his death, was one of the most influential and charismatic figures of the medieval Church. A volatile and passionate young man of an aristocratic family, he deliberately sought out the Cistercian order, known for its austerity, and in 1113 joined its monastery at Citeaux. Three years later, at the age of twenty-six, he founded a new Cistercian house and became its abbot, calling the monastery Clairvaux, meaning the Valley of Light. By the time Pope Honorius II was elected in 1124, Bernard was already regarded as one of the most outstanding churchmen of France; he attended important ecclesiastical assemblies and his opinion was regularly sought by Papal legates.

Significantly Clairvaux was built on land given to Bernard by Hugh, the count of Champagne, whose vassal was Hugh of Payns, the future founding Grand Master of the Templars. By the time Hugh of Payns sailed westwards in 1127, Bernard was already well informed about the East and what was needed there; his mother’s brother was Andre of Montbard, one of the original nine Templars, and Bernard’s early patron the count of Champagne had three times gone on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and on the last occasion, in 1125, he too renounced his worldly possessions and joined the Templars.

Grants of land as well as silver, horses and armour were made to the Templars almost as soon as Hugh of Payns landed in France in the autumn of 1127. The following summer the Grand Master was in England where he was received with great honour by King Henry I, who donated gold and silver to the order. Hugh established the first Templar house in London, at the north end of Chancery Lane, and he was given several other sites around the country. More donations followed when Hugh travelled north to Scotland. In September Hugh of Payns had returned across the Channel where he was met by Godfrey of Saint-Omer and together they received further grants and treasures, all these given for the defence of the Holy Land and for the salvation of their donor’s souls.

The climax of Hugh of Payns’ tour came in January 1129 at Troyes, the capital of the counts of Champagne, where Theobold, Hugh of Champagne’s successor, hosted a convocation of Church leaders dominated by the presence of Bernard of Clairvaux. Hugh addressed the assembly and described the founding of the Templars and presented their Rule, adapted from the precepts followed by the canons of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This stipulated attendance at services together with the canons, communal meals, plain clothing, simple appearance and no contact with women. Because their duties carried them away from the church, they could replace attendance with the recitation of paternosters, and they were also allowed a horse and a small number of servants, and while the order was under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Jerusalem they owed their individual obedience to the Grand Master. These regulations formed the raw material from which, after considerable discussion and scrutiny by the gathered churchmen, Bernard drew up the Latin Rule of seventy-two clauses.

Bernard’s Latin Rule enjoined the Templars to renounce their wills, to hold worldly matters cheap, and not be afraid to fight but always to be prepared for death and for the crown of salvation and eternal life. The knights were to dress in white, symbolising that they had put the dark life behind them and had entered a state of perpetual chastity. The hair on their heads was to be cut short, but all Templar knights wore beards as they were not permitted to shave. Foul language and displays of anger were forbidden, as were reminiscences about past sexual conquests. Property, casual discussion with outsiders, and letters and gifts given or received were subject to the approval of the master. Discipline was enforced by a system of penances with expulsion the punishment in extreme cases.

In all this the Templars were regulated like monks, but when it came to guidance in military matters Bernard offered few practical injunctions, though he did understand that in creating ‘a new type of Order in the holy places’, one that combined knighthood with religion, the Templars needed to possess land, buildings, serfs and tithes, and was entitled to legal protection against what the Latin Rule called ‘the innumerable persecutors of the holy Church’.


The Knights Templar would in time become one of the wealthiest and most powerful financial and military organisations in the medieval world, yet there are holes in the historical record about their origins, and there are contradictions too. When were they founded? How many were there? What accounts for their meteoric rise? Part of the problem in finding the answers to these questions lies in the nature of the sources themselves.

The earliest chronicler of Templar history was William, archbishop of Tyre. Born into a French or Italian family at Jerusalem in about 1130, he studied Latin and probably Greek and Arabic there before continuing his education from about 1146 to 1165 in France and Italy. After returning to Outremer he wrote, among other works, a twenty-three volume history of the Middle East from the conquest of Jerusalem by Umar. This Historia Rerum in Partibus Transmarinis Gestarum, or History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, was begun around 1175 and remained unfinished at the time of William of Tyre’s death in about 1186. Most of it concentrated on the First Crusade and subsequent political events within the Kingdom of Jerusalem–events from which William was not entirely detached, for he was involved in the highest affairs of both the kingdom and the Church, and as archbishop and contender for the office of Patriarch of Jerusalem he was naturally jealous of any diminution of ecclesiastical authority–and so resentful of the Templars’ independence and their rise to wealth and power.

Two other early chroniclers were Michael the Syrian, Jacobite Patriarch of Antioch, who died in 1199, and Walter Map, archdeacon of Oxford, who died in about 1209. But Michael was weak on matters outside his own experience and times, while Walter preferred a good story to sound historical inquiry, and moreover his prejudice against the Templars was fundamental, for he objected to the entire concept of an order of fighting monks. Despite his own bias against the Templars, William of Tyre is considered the most reliable of the three; he diligently sifted through sources to glean the facts about events that occurred before his time, and he made a point of interviewing surviving first-hand witnesses.

All the same, William of Tyre did not even begin writing his history until the mid-1170s, that is fifty-five years after the founding of the Templars, and there is no earlier source. The chroniclers of the First Crusade, men like Fulcher of Chartres, Baldric of Dol, Robert the Monk and Guibert de Nogent, had all completed their works within a decade of the reconquest of Jerusalem in 1099 and long before the foundation of the Templars in 1119–or was it 1118? According to William of Tyre it was the latter, but he was notoriously poor on dates even if careful in other things, and the balance of scholarly opinion has the Templars established in 1119. In whatever year it was, it does not seem to have occurred to anyone to write a first-hand account of the founding ceremony of the Templars in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Christmas Day–at the time it did not register as a significant event.

We do not even know how many founding members there really were. William of Tyre says that there were nine and names the two most prominent as Hugh of Payns and Godfrey of Saint-Omer. Other sources also name Archambaud of Saint-Aignan, Payen of Montdidier, Andre of Montbard, Geoffrey Bissot, a knight called Rossal or possibly Roland, another called Gondemar, and two more whose names have not survived. Moreover, William of Tyre maintains that even as late as the Council of Troyes in 1129 there were still only nine Knights Templar. But why would only nine men command such attention from the Council and the Pope, and why would Bernard of Clairvaux devote so much effort to praising their worth and propagating their fame? Indeed in this case Michael the Syrian seems to be more reliable, for he says there were thirty founding Templar knights, and most likely there were very many more a decade later.

Just as we owe it to William of Tyre that the Templars comprised only nine members right up to 1129, so we also owe to him the claim that they were a poor and simple order throughout the early decades of their foundation. Certainly the Templars looked back on themselves in this idealistic way, so that in 1167 when they were very rich indeed they adopted as their seal the two knights astride one horse, a self-image perhaps also derived from their ascetic Cistercian promoter in the West, Bernard of Clairvaux. Yet however humble the lives of the individual knights, the order itself was never indigent, not even at the start when already it was receiving an income from the canons of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as well as significant donations from powerful French barons.

But to portray the Templars as poor and humble and few in numbers in their early years gave William of Tyre a handy stick with which to beat them in his critical history. By the 1170s, according to William of Tyre, the Templars ‘are said to have immense possessions both here and overseas, so that there is now not a province in the Christian world which has not bestowed upon the aforesaid brothers a portion of its goods. It is said today that their wealth is equal to the treasures of kings.’ William contrasts this state of affairs with the Templars’ earlier simplicity, suggesting they have somehow betrayed themselves. But it seems that his real complaint is that their support in the West made them independent of any power in Outremer, particularly that of the Church as represented by William, the archbishop of Tyre, and would-be Patriarch of Jerusalem:

‘Although they maintained their establishment honourably for a long time and fulfiled their vocation with sufficient prudence, later, because of the neglect of humility, they withdrew from the Patriarch of Jerusalem, by whom their order was founded and from whom they received their first benefices and to whom they denied the obedience which their predecessors rendered. They have also taken away tithes and first fruits from God’s churches, have disturbed their possessions, and have made themselves exceedingly troublesome.’

This was the beginning of the criticism the Templars would receive from sources whose interests they crossed. Some would call them saviours of the East and defenders of all Christendom, others would find them ‘troublesome’ and accuse them of arrogance, greed, secrecy and deceit. Their destruction lay in their beginning; when there was no more East to save, the Templars would be doomed.

onna-bugeisha and kunoichi



While it was considered inappropriate for women born into Samurai clans to train in the martial arts, such things were not impossible, especially when weaker clans needed every warrior they could muster. Onna-bugeisha, sometimes erroneously called female Samurai, protected their household from soldiers, bandits and brigands. Some would trained in the yari, others the naginata, sometimes at an expert level, in order to protect their household. Some seemed to be ordinary women but were in fact fearsome martial artists.

Onna-bugeisha were not as common as samurai, with most upper-class women traditionally responsible for running their husband’s households. However, recent research shows women did fight in battles, with DNA remains from the site of the Battle of Senbon Matsubaru in 1580 showing that 35 out of 105 bodies were female.



Not all ninja were men. The female onna-bugeisha were warriors belonging to Japanese nobility, and there were also female ninja, or kunoichi. Women were well suited to the clandestine role of the ninja and were uniquely able to infiltrate enemy strongholds in the guise of servants, dancers, concubines and geisha. The kunoichi also sometimes acted as assassins.

The most famous female ninja was Mochizuki Chiyome, who was descended from Kōga ninja and the wife of a samurai lord. When her husband was killed in battle, she came under the protection of her late husband’s uncle, Takeda Shingen, the leader of the Takeda clan. Shingen asked Mochizuki to form a network of kunoichi to spy on rival clans and daimyo. Mochizuki recruited a band of female orphans, refugees and prostitutes, who she trained in the clandestine arts of the ninja. Mochizuki’s kunoichi gathered information and acted as messengers, often travelling as miko (priestesses) to avoid suspicion. Posing as geisha, prostitutes and servants, the kunoichi could gain access to the most heavily guarded strongholds. Like their male counterparts, they were also trained assassins. The network grew to be several hundred strong before Shingen’s death in 1573, after which Mochizuki vanishes from the historical record.

The Role of the Arms-Bearing Women in Japanese History

Roman Legionary Infantrymen





LEGIO Comitatenses, GALLIA, 451 A. D. The Ursarienses were a Statutory [Standing Army] Comitatenses (ie belonging to the mobile army, the comitatus) of the late empire, this man is from Legio III Italica according to Notitia dignitatum, under the command of the Magister equitum infra Gallias. The legionaries were protected by cuirabolli curiass, wore tunics decorated with orbicoli and clavi, and were equipped with round or oval shield. The new helmet of Persiano-derivation [Sassanid] was one of many variations of this late period.

The ancient sources present a reasonably clear picture of the Republic’s military affairs as it emerged from the struggle with Hannibal. All Roman citizens between the ages of seventeen and thirty-six were liable for service. The maximum length of service was likely sixteen years for infantry and ten for cavalry, but in normal circumstances a soldier would probably serve for up to six years and then be released.

The number of the main infantry division, the legion, is given as 4,200 soldiers, but in emergencies it could be higher. The legion was drawn up in three lines of hastati, principes, and triarii, with the youngest and poorest forming the velites. As lightly armed skirmishers, the velites carried a sword, javelin, and small circular shield. The hastati and principes, in contrast, were heavily armed. Protected by the long Italic shield, they relied upon a short Spanish sword, or gladius, and two throwing spears, or pila. Like the hastati and principes, the triarii were also heavily armed, but they carried a thrusting spear, or hasta, instead of the pilum. All soldiers wore a bronze breast- plate, a bronze helmet, and a pair of greaves, or shin guards. In order to be distinguished from a distance, the velites covered their helmets with wolfskin, and the hastati wore three tall feathers in their helmets. To preserve a degree of exclusiveness, wealthy recruits wore shirts of ring mail, whether serving among the hastati, principes, or triarii.

At the beginning of Augustus’s reign as emperor in 27 b. c. e., Roman legionary infantrymen wore a simple round helmet with a horsehair tail at the top as well as a chain mail shirt known as a lorica hamata. The latter consisted of interlocking metal rings and provided good protection but was, however, very heavy and took a long time to manufacture. Later in Augustus’s reign infantrymen began to use a new type of helmet, of Gallic origin, which was more closely fitted to the skull and included neck and cheek guards. In addition, possibly due to a major loss of military equipment in the German defeat of three legions in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest (9 c. e.), the Roman infantry began to use a new type of breastplate known as the lorica segmentata. This armor consisted of horizontal metal bands covering the chest and abdomen as well as vertical metal bands protecting the shoulders. This could be manufactured much more quickly than mail armor and was very flexible. However, the fittings that held the bands together were easily damaged; as a result, this type of armor was in constant need of repair. Early imperial infantrymen also wore greaves, or shin guards, on their legs as well as leather strips called pteurages that were attached to their body armor and provided protection for their thighs and upper arms.

The principal weapon of early imperial legionary infantrymen was a short sword called a gladius, which was modeled after that of the Spanish Celts and used for hand-to-hand combat. Infantrymen also carried a javelin, or pilum, which was hurled at the enemy from a distance, as well as a thrusting spear known as a hasta. The large semicylindrical shield, or scutum, was probably of Celtic origin and derived from flat oval shields. By the first century c. e. its upper and lower curved edges had been removed, giving it a more rectangular shape. Legionary infantrymen were also equipped with a dagger, which, like the gladius, was of Spanish origin.

Roman officers of the early Empire wore the same Gallic-type helmets worn by the infantry and a variety of body armor, including mail shirts, cuirasses that were modeled after the human torso, or scale shirts known as loricae squamatae. The latter consisted of overlapping metal scales arranged in horizontal rows and fastened to a foundation of linen or hide. This type of armor was easy to make and repair and, when polished, gave the wearer an impressive appearance. However, it was not very flexible, and its wearer was vulnerable to a sword or spear thrust from below.

Under the early Empire, troops of the auxilia used equipment that was generally inferior to that of the legionaries; however, they began to receive better quality equipment during the reign of the emperor Trajan (c. 53-c. 117 c. e.). The infantry wore a variety of helmets as well as leather tunics covered with metal plates or mail, and used narrow, flat, some- times oval shields. Their principal weapons were the hasta and the spatha, a long sword that became the dominant form of sword throughout the Roman army by the early third century. Cavalrymen wore iron hel- mets that covered the entire head except for the eyes, nose, and mouth. They wore either mail or scale body armor and used the same weapons as did the infantry of the auxilia cohorts. Although they did not use stirrups, they were firmly anchored on horseback by the four projecting horns of their saddles.

During the crisis of the third century c. e. the Roman Empire experienced increased invasion and internal chaos but lacked a centralized military supply system. Armies were consequently forced to salvage equipment from battlefields or to obtain it on their own from other sources, which, in turn, led to an end to uniformity in the appearance of soldiers. During this period, the lorica segmentata was gradually abandoned, and soldiers increasingly made use of mail shirts as well as an improved form of scale armor. In this type of armor, which did not require a foundation, the scales were ringed together vertically as well as horizontally. The scales were therefore locked down, and the wearer was much less vulnerable to a thrust from below. Moreover, the older Gallic helmet was replaced by a new helmet of Sarmatian origin, the spangenhelm, which consisted of several metal plates held together in a conical shape by reinforcement bands. This helmet, which included cheek, neck, and nose guards, was used by both infantry and cavalry. In addition the scutum was replaced by a large-dished oval shield covered with hide or linen. Cavalry units used a similar type of shield that featured the insignia of the bearer’s unit.

In the late third century c. e., the emperor Diocletian (c. 245-316 c. e.) established a series of state-run arms factories, or fabricae, in an attempt to remedy the supply problem. However, these factories failed to restore uniformity in military equipment due to the fact that a wide range of barbarian peoples were serving in the Roman army by this time and used their own native weapons. In the fourth century the factories did mass-produce a new type of helmet of Parthian-Sassanian origin, known as a ridge helmet, because it consisted of two metal halves held together by a central ridge. During this period, soldiers also received monetary allowances for the purchase of clothing, arms, and armor. By the late fourth century c. e., the army came to include increased numbers of barbarians who had little need for armor and therefore little desire to purchase it for regular use. Instead, soldiers relied primarily on large circular shields for protection. When an army was on the march, its armor was carried in wagons and was normally used only during an actual pitched battle. The Roman army also used various types of artillery both in battle and when conducting a siege. These included a device known as a tormenta, which fired arrows, javelins, and rocks, as well as larger ballistae and catapults that hurled larger arrows or stones.