Historian Sean McGlynn shares facts about nine of the most momentous medieval battles…
The battle of Tours (AD 732)
The battle of Tours (or Poitiers, as it is sometimes known – but should not be confused with the 1356 battle of Poitiers) marks the furthest advance of a Muslim army into western Europe.
Muslim incursions were now threatening central and northern France. Already in 732 Abd al-Rahman’s large army had taken Bordeaux from Duke Eudes and his Aquitanians and had begun making its way northwards. Eudes sought help from his enemy, Charles Martel (the ‘Hammer’), a founder of the Carolingian dynasty who had invaded Eudes’s lands from the north only the year before. So serious was the perceived Muslim threat, the Christian leaders united and met the Muslim army between Tours and Poitiers on 10 October.
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In a day-long battle, the Franks, as the French were known at this time, fought on foot, forming an impenetrable shield barrier; one contemporary reports it was “like a wall of ice”. The charges of the Muslim light cavalry could not break up the Frankish infantry, and in the fighting Abd al-Rahman was killed, precipitating a Muslim collapse.
The Christian fightback was renewed with Reconquista (Reconquest) in Spain, where the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212) proved another turning point. Nonetheless, the Muslim presence in Iberia continued for another seven centuries after Tours – the Islamic State of Granada did not fall until 1492.
The most famous date in English history relates to the battle that initiated the Norman Conquest of England. After careful and massive preparations, Duke William of Normandy, laying claim to the English throne, landed at Pevensey and joined battle with King Harold II on 14 October, some six to seven miles north of Hastings.
The English, tired but buoyant following a forced march south from their great victory against the Vikings three weeks earlier at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, took up their position on a hill in their tried and tested shield-wall formation. They were perhaps 10,000 strong against 7,000 invaders.
The Norman heavy cavalry, unable to break them, resorted to their feigned flight tactic, and appeared to flee the battlefield. The English broke their ranks in pursuit; the Normans about-turned and decimated their enemy who were now horribly vulnerable, being out of formation. Harold was killed, possibly cut down or possibly killed by an arrow in the eye (although the latter, as seemingly depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, may also represent a symbolic punishment for perjury).
Contrary to popular belief, this was not the last major invasion of England; that was to occur exactly 150 years later, when the French occupied much of England for over a year. In May 1216, Prince Louis of France, heir to the throne of France, accepted the invitation of the Magna Carta rebel barons to replace John as King of England – if he could conquer the country. He came close, with half England falling under his rule for a year. (See Battle of Sandwich 1217 below.)
This victory was Saladin’s crowning achievement and the Muslims’ most renowned triumph against the Crusaders in the Holy Land. Saladin, Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt and Syria, had amassed an army of some 30,000 men to challenge the crusader states by besieging Tiberias (in modern-day Israel), hoping to draw the crusaders into battle. The plan worked. King Guy of Jerusalem, ignoring advice to avoid battle, concentrated his forces into an army of some 15–20,000 men – probably the largest the crusaders had ever assembled – and tried to raise the siege on 3–4 July.
Saladin skilfully exploited the terrain to leave the crusaders deprived of water and suffering in the heat, while his own men camped by the lake. He added to the crusaders’ distress by setting fire to the surrounding scrubland. Unable to break out, the crusaders made a last stand on the Horns of Hattin (a volcano with twin peaks overlooking the plains of Hattin in the Lower Galilee, Israel), King Guy was captured and ransomed; all but one were beheaded, their leader, the Grand Master of the Temple, was spared.
The crusader kingdom had too few forces left to defend it, and Jerusalem fell to Saladin shortly afterwards. Christian Europe responded by launching the Third Crusade [1189-92], but Richard the Lionheart met with only limited success, and the days of the crusader states were numbered.
Bouvines is arguably France’s most revered medieval battle. Philip II, king of France since 1180, had built up his kingdom and the Capetian dynasty to a new highpoint. Now, however, all was at risk as King John of England made one last concerted effort to regain Normandy and the lands he had lost to Philip in 1204.
While John sailed to the west, his imperial allies under Otto IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, moved in from the northeast, determined to end Philip’s reign. It was this latter army that engaged with Philip near the town of Tournai on the Sunday of 27 July.
Philip, a cautious general, hoped to avoid battle, but the stronger allies forced one upon him with an ambush at Bouvines. In the epic pitched battle that ensued, an allied infantryman’s billhook caught in Philip’s mail armour and the king was pulled from his horse. He was saved from death by the heroic actions of one of his bodyguards, who threw himself on top of the king and received the mortal blows. Philip was rescued, and the allies were completely routed.
Philip ruled as master of a dominant France for another decade while John returned home to have Magna Carta imposed on him the following year by his exasperated barons.
The naval engagement of Sandwich is one of the great overlooked battles of the entire medieval period. It is usually – and unfairly – Edward III’s triumph at Sluys in 1340, marking the full-scale opening of the Hundred Years’ War, which is deemed England’s first great naval victory.
By the summer of 1217, the French Prince Louis and his army had been in England for more than a year, fighting alongside their allies, the Magna Carta barons. Following the French defeat at the battle of Lincoln in May, Louis needed reinforcements.
Organised by Louis’s formidable wife, Blanche de Castile, and his notorious admiral, Eustace, a farting, foul-mouthed, cross-dressing monk, a large fleet set sail for England on 24 August. It was met by the English using innovative tactics, including the blinding of the French with missiles of quicklime pots. The French suffered heavily, and Eustace met a sticky end – he was executed after being taken prisoner.
Had the French reinforcements reached land, the invasion would have been prolonged and England might have succumbed to another conquest on the scale of the Norman one. The battle of Sandwich is arguably therefore a more important English naval victory than even those over the Spanish Armada, and the French and Spanish at Trafalgar. As a result of Sandwich, Louis had to sue for peace and left England.
The Mongols hit the eastern borders of Europe in a terrifying storm in the 13th century, led by Batu Khan and Sabutai (aka Subotai or Subutai), who annihilated the Hungarian army of King Béla at Mohi on 11 April. The Hungarian king had gathered an army of perhaps 20,000 – nearly half the fighting force available to him – to meet the threat of the hordes from the East. The Mongols were not intimidated: they had just wiped out a Silesian army at Legnica.
The Hungarians successfully defended the only bridge across a crucial river; the Mongols responded by building a pontoon (floating) bridge and launching a surprise attack that encircled the Hungarian camp and crushed it. The king managed to escape while the invaders inflicted untold death and destruction across Hungary.
However, overstretched, unable to reduce strong fortresses, and with Béla rallying the nation, the Mongols withdrew from Central Europe the following year.
It is hard to think of neutral Switzerland as a belligerent nation, but in the Middle Ages the Swiss fought tenaciously for their independence and supplied European armies with much-prized mercenaries. In a terrain largely unsuited to cavalry, the Swiss cantons produced first-rate infantry, as was demonstrated at Morgarten on 15 November 1315.
The Swiss, seeking to escape the influence of the Austrians, incurred the wrath of Duke Leopold of Austria for having supported a rival to his brother as successor to the Holy Roman Emperor. Leopold’s army was attacked in a forested mountain pass near Morgarten, which the Swiss had obstructed with rocks. Concealed Swiss troops then attacked from the rear.
Wielding their favoured weapon, the halberd (a pole weapon with an axe and a spike), they destroyed the Austrian cavalry. The result was “butchery”, says one source. Many Austrians drowned trying to escape across the nearby lake.
Following Morgarten, Swiss cantons began consolidating a confederation, and thus the battle is today considered important in Switzerland’s national history.
Castillon’s significance is owed to two factors: it marked both the last battle of the Hundred Years’ War, and was arguably the first truly effective deployment of gunpowder weaponry on the battlefield.
John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, attempted to wrest control of Gascony back from the French, 7,000–10,000 of whom were besieging Castillon on the Dordogne in southwestern France. On 17 July, Talbot arrived to raise the siege. He attacked the French camp, which was defended by 300 cannon and hundreds of handgunners. These wreaked havoc against the English force. One eyewitness claimed that “each cannon ball hit five or six men, killing them all”.
Talbot’s horse was felled by the barrage, trapping him underneath. A French infantryman finished him off with a battle-axe. When Talbot’s tomb was uncovered in 1860, it revealed that his skull had been split open by the blow.
Bordeaux surrendered. The news of the disaster tipped King Henry VI of England over into madness. Although not recognised as such at the time, the Hundred Years’ War was over.
The battle at Bosworth brought the 30-year Wars of the Roses to an end. Somewhat arbitrarily, and in an Anglo-centric manner, many English historians consider the battle to mark the end of the Middle Ages and the birth of the early modern era, ushering in as it did the Tudor dynasty.
Despite its significance, there are scarce resources for the battle of Bosworth, and its site is keenly disputed.
The Lancastrian Henry Tudor planned to remove the Yorkist Richard III from the throne of England by military action. Having landed in Wales in early August with a small force, he accumulated an army of some 5,000–7,000 men by the time he faced Richard III with some 11,000–12,000 troops near Bosworth on 22 August. When Richard caught sight of Henry’s banner, he targeted his challenger with a cavalry charge. That Henry was in mortal peril is clear from the death of his standard bearer.
At this juncture, Lord Stanley [a powerful Northern lord,] launched the thousands of men under his command into the fray on the side of Henry. This turned the battle. Those Yorkist who could, fled, while Richard went down fighting.
Henry was crowned king Henry VII on the battlefield. It was the start of a remarkable dynasty.
Dr Sean McGlynn is author of Blood Cries Afar: The Magna Carta War and the Invasion of England, 1215–1217. His latest book, Kill Them All: Cathars and Carnage in the Albigensian Crusade, was published in June by The History Press.
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in October 2015