The Sack of Constantinople in 1204

There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade.
(Sir Steven Runciman, 1954)

Until I read John Julius Norwich’s account of the Fourth Crusade, which ended with the devastating sack of Constantinople in 1204, I hadn’t appreciate what a seismic and unmitigated disaster it was.

Norwich’s account of the Latins’ destruction of the biggest, richest city in the world was so harrowing I was depressed for days and found it difficult to continue reading the book in which he describes it, Byzantium: The Decline and Fall.

Like reading detailed accounts of Hiroshima, I just felt that…. after seeing humanity revealed in such appalling colours, why… why go on with anything?

For me, personally, the reason to go on is to understand better. Not to understand perfectly, which I am confident, or acknowledge, is beyond human wit. But just because perfect understanding is an impossible platonic absolute, doesn’t mean that some understanding isn’t better than none. And, for me, personally, understanding things brings sweet mental joy.

And so, just like Norwich’s detailed description of the Sack of Rome by Alaric and the Visigoths in 410, a detailed description of the Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople makes it so much more comprehensible. Only if you follow the events in the most detailed way possible do you realise that a distant event which is often treated as a single thing – the Sack of Constantinople – was in fact a complex concatenation of accidents and misunderstandings and misjudgments and bad agreements. It took the malevolence of some people (the doge of Venice), the chancer’s gamble of the pretender to the Byzantine throne Alexius III, and then the passive acquiescence of the majority of the crusaders, to take place. Reading the details makes you realise that a) this is how ‘history’ i.e. human events, work, in complex unexpected ways, where all kinds of spokes are stuck into the machine and b) makes you realise how the nature of human life, human experience, human societies, and big political events, doesn’t change much. I’m thinking of the sequence of events which brought about Brexit, and which we are still in the middle of. The results aren’t as murderous and destructive as the sack of Constantinople – but they are recognisably the product of the same confused, chaotic species.

In other words, reading about the sack itself is grim and depressing, but the knowledge and insight it gives you into human nature and how human affairs operate, are powerful and liberating.

Summary

This is the short version you’re likely to read in books focusing on other subjects, such as the crusades as a whole, or the Middle Ages.

In April 1204 the Latin, Western soldiers of the Fourth Crusade laid siege to Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. On 12 April the crusader armies breached the city’s defences and stormed the city. Attacking Venetian forces tried to use fire as a defensive shield but it quickly got out of control and burned unchecked through the city. As if that wasn’t catastrophic enough, once the crusaders had established a bridgehead, they proceeded to spend three days pillaging and looting the city.

The Greek emperor fled and leaders of the ruling families were driven into exile, so the crusaders chose a Latin ruler – Baldwin of Flanders – who was crowned Emperor Baldwin I and inherited about a quarter of the territory his Greek predecessors had ruled This Latin rule of the Byzantine Empire was to last just under 60 years, before a Greek ruler and army re-established Greek power.

After the city’s sacking, most of the Byzantine Empire’s territories were divided up among the Crusaders, but Byzantine aristocrats also established a number of small independent splinter states, one of them being the Empire of Nicaea, which would become the kernel of Greek resistance and – after a long series of small wars, setbacks and struggles to reunify Greek leadership – would eventually recapture Constantinople in 1261 and restore the Greek tradition and religion to the city of Constantine.

But the restored Byzantine Empire never managed to reclaim all its former territorial or economic strength, and eventually fell to the rising Ottoman Sultanate in 1453.


Background

The Latin West and Greek East of Christendom had been growing apart for centuries, with the pope in Rome arrogating more and more power and authority to himself, insisting the Eastern church submit to his authority, and Western clerics as a whole coming to regard the Eastern Orthodox church as schismatic and in error on a wide range of theological and procedural issues. Norwich’s three volumes of Byzantine history are littered with theological, administrative and geopolitical arguments between the papacy and the emperor or Patriarch (head of the Eastern Church) of Constantinople. This helps explain the indoctrination of western crusaders that the Byzantines were exotic, untrustworthy, almost heretics.

But the real focus of the story is the growing rivalry between the maritime republic of Venice, whose wealth was based on shipping and trading across the Muslim Middle East to the ‘Indies’ where spices and pepper came from, and Byzantium as the established power in the region. Successive emperors of Byzantium had been obliged to make trade treaties with Venice and given Venetian merchants extensive privileges in the city, such as an entire quarter down by the docks for their use and trading rights across the Empire’s territories and islands.

The sack had three causes:

  1. long-term mistrust between Latin Westerners and Greek Byzantines
  2. the long-term rivalry with Venice which wished to supersede Byzantium as the main power in the eastern Mediterranean
  3. a short-term, proximate cause which was a string of accidents to do with the mismanagement of the Fourth Crusade, which were ruthlessly exploited by the doge of Venice, Enrico Dandolo, to fulfil point 2.

East-West relations

1. Mass arrest of the Venetians 1171

Latin Catholics from the rival cities Venice and Genoa dominated the city’s maritime trade and financial sector, having secured concessions from successive Byzantine emperors, which resulted in a virtual maritime monopoly and stranglehold over the Empire by the Venetians.

Rich Italian merchants grew very rich and so did the Byzantine aristocrats who allied with them, leading to popular resentment among the middle and lower classes in both the countryside and in the cities.

The Venetians resented that their main Italian rivals, the Genoese, also had extensive quarters in Constantinople, and in 1171 the Venetians attacked and largely destroyed the Genoese quarter. The Emperor retaliated by ordering the mass arrest of all Venetians throughout the Empire and the confiscation of their property (a move he had probably been meditating for some time – the Genoese attack gave him a pretext). As with all civil unrest, there were also rapes and the burning of houses. Infuriated, the Venetians launched a naval expedition to attack Byzantine interests, which failed, but the encouraged the Empire’s enemies, specifically the Serbs – to take advantage of the unrest and launch land attacks.

Relations were only gradually normalized, reaching an uneasy peace in the mid-1180s.

2. The massacre of the Latins

But the simmering resentment didn’t go away and burst out anew in the Massacre of the Latins which took place in Constantinople in April 1182.

After the death of Emperor Manuel I in 1180, his widow, the Latin princess Maria of Antioch, acted as regent to their son and became notorious for the favoritism she showed to Latin merchants and the big aristocratic land-owners.

In April 1182 she was overthrown by the ageing general Andronicus I Comnenus. He marched on Constantinople and entered the city in a wave of popular support. But the celebrations quickly got out of hand and escalated into mob violence against the hated Latins. The ensuing massacre was indiscriminate: Latin men, women and children were attacked in the street, their houses burnt down, Latin patients lying in hospital beds were murdered. Houses, churches, and charities were looted. Latin clergymen received special attention and Cardinal John, the papal legate, was beheaded and his head dragged through the streets at the tail of a dog.

Andronicus finally took control and curtailed the rioting, but the massacre obviously left profound bad feeling. The Normans under William II of Sicily in 1185 sacked Thessalonica, the Empire’s second largest city, while over the next decade or so, the German emperors Frederick Barbarossa and Henry VI both tried to get papal approval to mount an attack on Constantinople.

The Fourth Crusade

Henry VI’s failed expedition

This fraught relation between East and West, and especially between Byzantium and Venice, was the difficult background to the Fourth Crusade and largely explains what happened next.

The Third Crusade had ended in 1192 with a treaty signed between Richard I of England and Saladin, leader of the Saracen forces, agreeing that Jerusalem would remain under Muslim rule but that Christian pilgrims and traders would be assured safe passage to visit the city.

Almost immediately the failure to liberate Jerusalem led to calls for a new crusade to finish the job. In 1195 there was one of those large-scale western incursions into the area which aren’t included in the canonical ‘crusades’ but which Norwich describes in just as much detail – the steady rumble of expeditions, wars, raids, alliances and defeats which fill Norwich’s pages and help put the crusades into a broader context of unending conflict.

Henry VI, the second son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, organised a new Eastern expedition and in the summer of 1197 a large number of German knights and nobles, headed by two archbishops, nine bishops, and five dukes, sailed for Palestine. There they captured Sidon and Beirut, but then the army heard that Henry himself had died at Messina in Sicily on his way to the Holy Land and many of the nobles and clerics returned to Europe. Deserted by much of their leadership, the rank and file crusaders panicked before the advance of a Muslim army from Egypt, and fled to their ships in Tyre. Thus ended this brief Western foray.

Pope Innocent III preaches the fourth crusade

Pope Innocent III succeeded to the papacy in January 1198 and immediately began preaching a new crusade. The kings of Germany, France and England were all distracted by dynastic squabbles, but the pope managed to get a leader in the shape of Count Thibaut of Champagne who, in 1199, committed to the crusade and began rallying knights. In the event, Thibault himself he died in 1201 and was replaced by an Italian count, Boniface of Montferrat.

Richard the Lionheart’s advice – attack Egypt

Now, on his return from the third crusade in 1192, King Richard of England had given his opinion that the main goal of any future crusade should be to seize Egypt. Jerusalem is far to the south of the east Mediterranean coastline and experience had shown that, going the land route through Anatolia (modern Turkey) tended to focus the military efforts of the crusaders on the territory they passed through – on Cilicia and Syria and Antioch and so on, in the north of Palestine – whereas Jerusalem is far to the south, much closer to the heart of what had been the Fatimid Dynasty in Egypt.

The idea being that whoever held Egypt would find it easy to secure Jerusalem as a strategic add-on and would have a strong secure hinterland. The leaders of the fourth crusade took all this on board and planned from the beginning to launch a naval campaign against Muslim Egypt.

The deal with Venice

However, an invasion of Egypt would require ships and the only Christian kingdom with the maritime capacity to help was Venice. Thus Boniface and the other leaders sent envoys to Venice, Genoa, and other city-states in 1200 to negotiate a contract for transport to Egypt.

Venice agreed to help. Specifically, Venice agreed to build the ships necessary to transport 33,500 crusaders across the Med. The agreement made for a full year of preparation on the part of the Venetians to build numerous ships and train the sailors who would man them. All this would take place at the cost of her own commercial activities. Venice also negotiated for permanent possession of ports seized in the Holy Land. The crusade was to be ready to sail on 24 June 1203 and make directly for the Ayyubid capital, Cairo. The agreement was ratified by Pope Innocent, with a solemn ban on attacks on Christian states.

However, nobody had enforced commitment to the Venice plan on the heterogenous armies and forces scattered all across Europe, and so various contingents sailed under their own steam from a variety of European ports. The number of crusaders who actually turned up at Venice in the appointed month of May 1202 was about a third of the expected 33,500.

Reasonably enough, the Venetians, under their aged and blind Doge Enrico Dandolo, would not let the crusaders leave without paying the full amount agreed to, some 85,000 silver marks. The crusaders could only manage 35,000 silver marks between them. This was disastrous for the Venetians, who had suspended their usual trading for a year, trained sailors and so on, in order to fulfil the deal.

Doge Dandolo proposes an attack on Zara

It is now that the Doge Dandolo starts to emerge as the wicked genie of the expedition. Dandolo proposed that to pay off their debts the crusaders should help Venice with a spot of bother: the port of Zara in Dalmatia had traditionally been dominated by Venice but had rebelled in 1181 and allied itself with King Emeric of Hungary. Dandolo told the crusaders they could pay off their debt if they helped Venice seize back control of Zara.

Now King Emeric was himself a Catholic and had taken the cross in 1195, so many of the crusaders understandably refused to countenance attacking Zara, and some, including a force led by the elder Simon de Montfort, returned home. Also, as soon as he learned about the proposal, the Pope wrote a letter to the crusading leadership threatening excommunication if they attacked another Christian state. However, this letter was kept secret from the ranks of the crusader army, which proceeded to take ship across the Adriatic and besiege Zara in November 1202.

Although the inhabitants of Zara hung banners from their buildings with crosses on to point out that they were fellow Christians, the crusaders quickly breached the walls and proceeded to ransack and pillage the city. Giving way to crude greed, the Venetians and other crusaders came to blows over the division of the spoils.

When Innocent III heard of the sack of Zara, he sent a letter to the crusaders excommunicating them and ordering them to return to their holy vows and head for Jerusalem. The leaders kept this letter from the troops, and replied to the pope that they had been forced to do it by the Venetians, having had no alternative between carrying out the attack or calling off the whole crusade.

The pope relented and in February 1203 rescinded the excommunications against all non-Venetians in the expedition. Somewhere someone must have done a study of just how ineffectual papal excommunications were in the Middle Ages.

The fatal deal with Alexius IV Angelus

Meanwhile, the nominal leader of the crusade, Boniface of Montferrat, had left the fleet before it sailed for Zara, to visit his cousin Philip of Swabia. At Philip’s court he found the exiled Byzantine prince Alexius IV Angelus, Philip’s brother-in-law and the son of the recently deposed Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelus. (Isaac II had been deposed and blinded by his older brother, Alexius Angelus, who then claimed the throne as Alexius III. Alexius IV wasn’t Alexius IV yet, but would be if he could only reclaim the throne.)

Now Alexius proceeded to make the two would-be crusaders an offer: if they could get the crusaders to sail to Constantinople, and overthrow the reigning emperor Alexius III Angelus, and restore his father and himself to the Byzantine throne, then Alexius would:

  1. use the wealth of the Byzantine Empire to pay the entire debt owed to the Venetians
  2. give 200,000 silver marks to the crusaders
  3. give 10,000 Byzantine professional troops for the Crusade
  4. pay for the permanent maintenance of 500 knights in the Holy Land
  5. offer the service of the Byzantine navy to transport the Crusader Army to Egypt
  6. place the Eastern Orthodox Church under the authority of the Pope

This fantastic offer was passed on to the leaders of the Crusade as they wintered at Zara and they enthusiastically agreed, seconded by Doge Dandolo – although the latter knew that Alexius could never keep these promises: he knew that Byzantium didn’t have that much money and would never agree to submit its church to Rome. Dandolo did, though, see at a glance the benefits for Venice in such an arrangement, which were:

  • revenge for the massacre of the Latins and other historical grievances
  • seizure of Constantinople’s significant wealth
  • by reinstating a large Venetian colony in the city, gaining a permanent commercial advantage over Venice’s rival, Genoa

Even now there were dissenters among the crusade’s leaders who (correctly) thought it was no part of a crusade against the Muslims to attack the mainstay of Christian power in the East. Led by Reynold of Montmirail, they sailed directly on to Syria.

Diversion of the crusade to Constantinople

But the majority of the fourth crusade now set sail for Constantinople in April 1203. The fleet consisted of some 60 war galleys, 100 horse transports and 50 large transports (manned by 10,000 Venetian oarsmen and marines). The Pope hedged and issued an order against any more attacks on Christians unless they were actively hindering the Crusader cause, but he did not condemn the scheme outright.

The crusaders attack Constantinople

When the Fourth Crusade arrived at Constantinople on 23 June 1203, the city had a population of approximately 500,000 people, a garrison of 15,000 men (including 5,000 Varangians), and a fleet of 20 galleys. Norwich emphasises that the city’s defences had been left to decay by the useless emperor Alexius III Angelus, and most of the galleys had fallen into disrepair.

The crusaders delivered their ultimatum demanding that that the emperor Alexius III should abdicate to make way for his nephew, Alexius IV. The emperor refused. The crusaders attacked the suburbs of Chalcedon and Chrysopolis. When about 200 ships, horse transports, and galleys delivered the crusading army across the narrow strait of the Bosphorus from Asia to Europe, Alexius III had lined up the Byzantine army in battle formation along the shore but, when the crusader actually knights charged, the Byzantine army turned and fled.

The Crusaders followed south along the shore and attacked the Tower of Galata. From this tower stretched a massive chain across the Golden Horn, the strait of water up the east side of the city, preventing entry to enemy ships. The crusaders took the tower and lowered the chain, allowing the Venetian fleet to sail up the Golden Horn. This is a narrow strip of water and the crusader galleys were able to come up close against the city’s seaward walls. Here they presented the pretender to the throne, Alexius IV, but were surprised when the people and soldiers of Constantinople jeered from the battlements. The crusaders had been told the people were in the grip of a cruel dictator and that they and Alexius would be greeted as liberators. Now they began to realise this was not true.

The crusaders set about attacking the city, combining an attack on the land walls at the north-west, with attacks on the sea walls from the fleet in the Horn. Eventually a breach was made and the crusaders entered the city. They were forced back by the Byzantine response and set a fire to keep off their attackers. This fire got out of control and was the first of the disastrous fires which were to burn through a large part of the city, this first one leaving an estimated 20,000 people homeless.

Alexius III made one last foray out to face the crusaders, but compounded his reputation for cowardice and ineffectiveness by turning his 8,500 men back in the face of the crusaders’ smaller force of 3,500. The impact of the fire and of this dismal capitulation led to a collapse in morale among the defenders. Alexius fled the city with his favourite daughter and courtiers.

The Byzantine officials now quickly declared the runaway emperor deposed and restored blind old Isaac II to the throne.

This presented the crusaders with a dilemma. The main, official, justification for the whole expedition was supposed to be restoring Isaac and his son, Alexius IV, who had proposed the whole scheme in the first place, to the throne. Now the Byzantines had called their bluff and restored Isaac. The crusaders responded that they would only recognize the authority of Isaac II if his son was raised to co-emperor, but the Byzantines again called the crusaders’ bluff by immediately agreeing to this, taking Alexius into the city and hurriedly arranging for his coronation at Hagia Sophia where he was crowned Alexius Angelus IV, co-emperor.

Alexius is unable to pay

As Norwich makes all too plain, Alexius now realised what a dreadful error he had made. The mismanagement of the Angelus dynasty over the previous decades had left Byzantium’s coffers bare, and Alexius III had made it worse by fleeing with as much imperial treasure as he could carry.

Alexius IV now ordered the seizure and melting down of priceless icons and church plate to use their gold and silver to pay off the impatient crusaders who were waiting across the Golden Horn in the suburb of Galata. Forcing the populace to destroy their most precious icons to satisfy an army of foreign schismatics did not endear Alexius IV to the citizens of Constantinople. Alexius negotiated a six-month extension to his pledge to the crusaders, making it now fall due in April 1204. Alexius IV then led 6,000 men from the crusader army against his rival Alexius III in Adrianople, with a view to seizing back the treasure his uncle had stolen and whatever could be ransacked from the Empire’s second city.

The Great Fire of Constantinople

But during the co-emperor’s absence in August 1203, rioting broke out in the city against the arrogant Latin occupiers, a number of whom were killed. In retaliation armed Venetians and other crusaders entered the city from the Golden Horn and, among other mayhem, discovered a church which had been converted into a mosque to cater to Constantinople’s not insignificant Muslim population. Citizens, both Greek and Muslim, rallied to the defence of this building and, to cover their retreat, the Latins started a fire, which – as is the way with fires – quickly spread out of control.

This became the ‘Great Fire’ of Constantinople which burnt from 19 to 21 August, destroying a large part of the city, consuming many ancient palaces and churches, and leaving an estimated 100,000 homeless. Amid the ruins the demoralised citizenry struggled on, while the crusaders waiting impatiently for their money.

The overthrow of Alexius IV

In January 1204, blind old Isaac II died, probably of natural causes, and rule now passed to his lamentable son, Alexius IV. The Byzantine Senate elected a young noble Nicolas Canabus to be co-emperor, in what was to be one of the last known acts of this ancient institution. However he declined the appointment and sought church sanctuary. Who can blame him?

Now during this period of crisis a nobleman called Alexius Ducas (nicknamed Mourtzouphlos, referring to his bush eyebrows) had led Byzantine forces during the initial clashes with the crusaders, winning respect from both the army and the people. And so it was Mourtzouphlos who one night entered the bed chamber of Alexius IV, told him there was rioting outside and the people were baying for his blood, led him through secret passages in the palace, to a dungeon where he chained and locked him up. Then returned to join his supporters and have himself proclaimed Emperor Alexius V. A few weeks later Alexius IV, the man who had caused all this trouble with his foolish promise to the crusaders, was strangled.

Alexius immediately took control of the Byzantine resistance and had the city fortifications strengthened, as well as recalling loyal troops from the provinces to bolster the Constantinople garrison.

The crusaders and Venetians, incensed at the murder of their supposed patron, demanded that Mourtzouphlos honour the contract that Alexius IV had made. The terms, if you remember, were to:

  1. use the wealth of the Empire to pay the entire debt owed to the Venetians
  2. give 200,000 silver marks to the crusaders
  3. give 10,000 Byzantine professional troops for the Crusade
  4. pay for the maintenance of 500 knights in the Holy Land
  5. offer the service of the Byzantine navy to transport the Crusader Army to Egypt
  6. place the Eastern Orthodox Church under the authority of the Pope

The crusaders renew their attack

Alexius V refused for the simple reason that there was nowhere near that much money in the imperial treasury. In March he ordered the forcible expulsion of all Latins from the city, which , and so in April the crusaders launched another attack on the city. Alexius V’s army put up a strong resistance, hurling projectiles onto the crusader’s siege engines, shattering many of them, and bad weather also hampered the attackers.

Pope Innocent III again sent a message ordering the crusaders not to attack, but once again the papal letter was suppressed by the clergy and never made public. While the Latin crusaders prepared to attack the land walls the Venetian fleet drew close to the sea-walls in an attempt to storm them.

On 12 April 1204, the weather conditions finally favoured the crusaders. A strong northern wind helped the Venetian ships get close to the seaward walls while on the land approach, the crusaders managed to make a hole in the walls through which a force of crusaders was able to crawl and overpower the defenders.

The crusaders captured the Blachernae section of the city in the northwest and used it as a base to attack the rest of the city. Alexius V fled the city accompanied by his wife and mother-in-law. In the Hagia Sophia Constantine Lascaris was acclaimed emperor but, when he failed to persuade the Varangian guard to continue the fight against the crusaders, in the early hours of 13 April he also fled, leaving Constantinople abandoned to the control of the Latins.

The sack of Constantinople

Over the centuries Constantinople had become a museum of ancient and Byzantine art. Having secured control of the city the crusaders proceeded to systematically sack and devastate it for three days. Churches and palaces were ransacked. Vast numbers of works of art were stolen, or melted down for their precious metals, or just burned and destroyed. Thousands of citizens were murdered or raped.

Despite the pope’s threat of excommunication, the crusaders destroyed, defiled and looted and set on fire the city’s churches and monasteries. Priests were abused, defrocked or murdered. In the greatest church in Christendom, Hagia Sophia, the crusaders melted down the silver iconostasis, smashed the icons, burned the holy books, and set on the patriarchal throne a prostitute who sang bawdy songs as the crusaders got drunk and pissed on the holy relics.

It was now that the Venetians stole the four statues of horses which they set up over the portico of St Mark’s cathedral in the main square in Venice. A large bronze statue of Hercules, created by the legendary Lysippos, court sculptor of Alexander the Great, was destroyed. Like countless other artworks, the statue was melted down for its metal value.

It was said that the total amount looted from Constantinople was about 900,000 silver marks. After the dust had settled the leaders of the ‘crusade’ made a big pile of their takings and divided up according to a pre-arranged deal. The Venetians took 150,000 silver marks that they reckoned was their due, while the crusaders took 50,000 silver marks. A further 100,000 silver marks were divided evenly up between the crusaders and Venetians. The remaining 500,000 silver marks were kept back by crusader knights and gangs.

When Innocent III heard of the conduct of his crusaders he was beside himself with rage. The whole episode sharply highlights the limits of papal power, and the ineffectiveness of even of the strongest weapon the pope possessed, that of excommunication. Various popes excommunicate numerous kings and emperors and princes throughout Norwich’s book and it never seems to have the slightest effect. In fact I wonder if there is a single example of the threat of excommunication making anyone (anyone of note, any leader) change their behaviour. In his shame the pope wrote:

As for those who were supposed to be seeking the ends of Jesus Christ, not their own ends, who made their swords, which they were supposed to use against the pagans, drip with Christian blood, they have spared neither religion, nor age, nor sex. They have committed incest, adultery, and fornication before the eyes of men. They have exposed both matrons and virgins, even those dedicated to God, to the sordid lusts of boys. Not satisfied with breaking open the imperial treasury and plundering the goods of princes and lesser men, they also laid their hands on the treasures of the churches and, what is more serious, on their very possessions. They have even ripped silver plates from the altars and have hacked them to pieces among themselves. They violated the holy places and have carried off crosses and relics.

The fourth crusaders

The naval attack on Egypt was never carried out. Only a relatively small number of the members of the Fourth Crusade finally reached the Holy Land. About a tenth of the knights who had taken the cross in Flanders arrived to reinforce the remaining Christian states there, plus about half of those from the Île-de-France. What a farce.

The Fourth Crusade – if indeed it can be so described – surpassed even its predecessors in faithlessness and duplicity, in brutality and greed. Constantinople in the twelfth century had been not just the wealthiest metropolis in the world, but also the most intellectually and artistically cultivated and the chief repository of Europe’s classical heritage, both Greek and Roman. By its sack, Western civilisation suffered a loss greater than the sack of Rome by the barbarians in the fifth century or the burning of the library of Alexandria by the soldiers of the Prophet in the seventh – perhaps the most catastrophic single loss in all history. (Norwich, p.182)

The aftermath – a Latin emperor and the Greek successor states

When the looting was quite finished and large parts of the once-glorious city burned to the ground, the crusaders convened to appoint a Latin emperor to take control of the city and the Byzantine Empire. Doge Dandolo wisely withdrew from the field of candidates and Boniface of Montferrat was deliberately rejected because of his family ties with the Greek regime. Several other crusader leaders were overlooked till they settled on the inoffensive Baldwin of Flanders. The Empire was now partitioned:

  • Boniface went on to found the Kingdom of Thessalonica, a vassal state of the new Latin Empire.
  • The Venetians founded the Duchy of the Archipelago in the Aegean Sea.
  • A Duchy of Athens controlling most of Greece.

Byzantine refugees founded their own rump states, namely:

  • the Empire of Nicaea, just across the Bosphorus on the Asian mainland, under Theodore Lascaris (a relative of Alexius III)
  • the Empire of Trebizond far away on the south coast of the Black Sea
  • the Despotate of Epirus on the Dalmatian shore opposite Italy

While Crete, Rhodes, Caphalonia and Corfu were permanently handed over to Venice.

Partition of the Byzantine Empire into The Latin Empire, Empire of Nicaea, and Despotate of Epirus after 1204 (source: Wikipedia)

Its enemies take advantage of the ruin of the Byzantine Empire

Norwich’s book takes a decisive turn after the sack of Constantinople. Up till then the reader had a reasonable grasp on the notion of one Byzantine Empire and one Byzantine emperor, who faced a sea of opponents to north, west and east.

But now there were no fewer than four emperors – the Latin one in Constantinople, the Greek one in Nicaea, one in faraway Trebizond and an aspirant one in Epirus (not to mention the Holy Roman Emperor based in Germany). Each of these are led by rulers who aren’t content with their holdings but immediately started scheming against each other, and involving the leaders of the lesser states – the Duchy of Athens, the Principality of Achaea and so on.

For the next fifty years or so, all these characters conspired against each other, fought against each other, made and broke alliances with each other – all the time doing the same with the many enemies who continued to surround and menace the Empire, from the Bulgarians and Serbs in the north, to the Seljuk Turks in the East.

Several of the major Greek and Latin protagonists in the events died or were killed soon after the fall of the city. The betrayal and blinding of Murtzuphlus by Alexius III led to his capture by the Latins and his execution in 1205. Not long after, Alexius III was himself captured by Boniface and sent to exile in Southern Italy. He died in Nicaea in 1211.

On 14 April 1205, one year after the conquest of the city, the Latin emperor Baldwin was decisively defeated and captured at the Battle of Adrianople by the Bulgarians. In 1205 or 1206, the Bulgarian Emperor Kaloyan mutilated him and left him to die (others suggest he was kept captive in the famous Baldwin’s Tower in the Bulgarian capital Veliko Turnovo, where he died under unknown circumstances). Either way, he only lasted a year as the ruler of the Latin Empire and that Empire was to lead a stunted, blighted life, menaced on all sides and deprived of all economic livelihood.

Baldwin was succeeded by his brother Henry of Hainault who appears to have been a wise and fair king, liberal to his Greek subjects, and who – beside battling the troublesome Bulgarians – reached a peace settlement with the Greek Empire based in Nicaea.

The Latin Empire always rested on shaky foundations but it took nearly sixty years before the city was finally retaken by the Nicaean Greeks under Michael VIII Palaeologus in 1261. But it was a ruined wreck of a city, as Norwich’s desolate description makes clear. Many of the churches and palaces still lay abandoned ruins. The population had collapsed. The city was never to recover.

Conclusion

The sack of Constantinople was a major turning point in medieval history. The Crusaders’ decision to attack the world’s largest Christian city was controversial at the time and has been ever since. Reports of Crusader looting and brutality horrified the Orthodox world and crystallised bitter opposition to the barbarian West.

Relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches were blighted, arguably right up to the present day. Norwich makes the point that, as the Turks drew nearer in the coming centuries, most Byzantines, whether aristocrats or peasants, preferred the idea of subjection by the Muslims to the barbaric destructiveness of the West Europeans. The Byzantines had a saying, ‘Better a turban than a cardinal’s hat,’ and they meant it.

So much for East-West relations, but the main and obvious result of the sack was that the Byzantine Empire was permanently crippled. Broken up into a number of successor states, it was never to be really unified again, never able to muster the resources in men and goods necessary to hold off its enemies, especially the Ottoman Turks who would begin their rise to power 200 years later.

The actions of the Crusaders thus directly accelerated the collapse of Christendom in the East, and in the long run facilitated the expansion of Islam across the Bosphorus and right into the heart of Europe. In 1529 the Ottoman Turks led by Suleiman the Magnificent were to lay siege to Vienna.

So you could argue that the net effect of the entire crusading enterprise was not only to leave an enduring legacy of bitterness throughout the entire Muslim world and among the Greek Orthodox eastern world – but also to hand the Middle East, all of Anatolia and half the Balkans over to Muslim occupiers.

Was ever a mass social movement and religious undertaking so utterly and completely counter-productive?


Related links

Reviews of other books and exhibitions about the Middle Ages

Byzantium: The Decline and Fall (1) by John Julius Norwich (1995)

In February 1130 on the banks of the river Pyramus (now the Ceyhan) in Cilicia [the Emir Ghazi, ruler of the Danishmends] destroyed the army of young Bohemund II of Antioch in a total massacre. Bohemund’s head was brought to Ghazi, who had it embalmed and sent it as a gift to the Caliph in Baghdad. (p.72)

Raymond of Poitiers, on 28 June 1149, allowed himself and his army to be surrounded by the forces of the Emire Nur ed-Din. The consequence was a massacre, after which, Raymond’s skull, set in a silver case, was sent by Nur ed-Din as a present to the Caliph in Baghdad. (p.120)

Lots of skulls are cut off and decorated. Lots of imperial pretenders are blinded. Lots of armies are massacred, populations sold into slavery and towns razed to the ground. Yes, it this is the third and final volume in Norwich’s weighty and famous three-volume history of the Byzantine Empire, from the founding of Constantinople in 330 to the fall of the same city to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

The second volume ended soon after the catastrophic Battle of Manzikert of 1071 in which the Byzantine army was massacred by the new power in the Middle East, the Seljuk Turks, who had stormed out of central Asia to seize the territory of the old Persian Empire and replace the Abbasid Caliphate in 1055. This final volume takes the story from soon after that catastrophe on to the final collapse and conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks.

This is the longest of the three volumes (488 pages including index and lists of emperors, popes and sultans) for two reasons:

  1. we have more sources for this period, including some book-length biographies of leading figures, so there’s more material to choose from
  2. this book covers the period of the crusades (1st crusade 1096-99, Second 1147-49, Third 1189-92, Fourth 1202-4 etc through to the ninth crusade 1271-2) and there are lots of sources about them, too

Permanent war

What struck me more than ever about this about this final instalment is the complete and total dominance of war. It is all about war. There is never a year when the Byzantine Empire is not at war with at least one and often three or four major enemies. The book is, in effect, one long litany of wars, packed with details of key battles and sieges. In between actual campaigns, the time is filled with unending diplomatic manoeuvres and jockeying for power. Ceaseless.

Even within Constantinople, in the precincts of the imperial palace, relations between the emperor and empress and their respective families are seen, analysed and described solely in terms of power politics. Relations between husbands and wives and children and dubious uncles and scary guardians are told purely in terms of the endless jockeying for position.

There is next to nothing in these books about Byzantine art or architecture, writing or poetry, let alone analysis of the empire’s economy, trade or technology. The emperors are continually giving away vast tributes to northern barbarians or huge sums of silver and gold to keep the Turks at bay, Alexius Comnenus gives a vast bribe to the Holy Roman Emperor. The first crusaders who were allowed into Constantinople were awed by the wealth and lavish lifestyle of the aristocrats, the beautiful buildings, the bustling markets packed with oriental goods and spices. And yet, after reading all three books, I’ve no real idea where all this wealth really came from.

In the introduction Norwich makes it clear that he is not a scholarly or academic historian. He is a well-educated amateur setting out to write a gripping, exciting and entertaining story, ‘skating over the surface’ of this vast subject.

Fair enough but the endless warfare eventually made me start to question the very definition of ‘a good story’ and why it seemed to involve endless war. I assume that he and most of his readers, including me, think of a good political leader as one who avoids war and promotes the prosperity of their people. So it is oddly askew with modern values and morality, that Norwich again and again praises, as the best Byzantine emperors, the ones who diverted all available state monies to build up the army and navy and led them to ‘great’ victories. Big, tall, and strong, handsome and warlike, clever in diplomacy, resolute in war – this is the paradigm of the good emperor which Norwich holds out before us. And these are almost identical with the medieval values of the time.

Norwich’s definition of the great emperors is the ones who Made Byzantium Great Again. I know it’s anachronistic but… these are pretty much the same values espoused by Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and numerous other ‘strong man’ politicians of our time.

There is something bizarre about the sight of a presumably peace-loving old buffer and devotee of Byzantine art and culture, again and again singing the praises of the most ruthless, strong-minded and militarily successful emperors… And I felt odd, as a reader, being continually exhorted to admire the victor of this or that great battle, to admire the big strong Varangian Guard who fought to the last man, to admire the efficient reorganising of the Empire’s finances to allow massive investment in the navy and army. Isn’t this precisely the kind of thing we criticise modern leaders for?

Timeline 1071 to 1204

The period is so dense with people and events I am only going to cover the first half in this review.

1054 The Great Schism The Latin Roman Church and the Greek Orthodox Church excommunicate each other.
1055 Loss of southern Italy to the Normans.
1071 May – Loss of Bari on the south-east coast of Italy, last Byzantine holdout, to the Normans.
1071 August – Byzantine army led by Romanus Diogenes defeated by the Seljuk Turks under Alp Arslan at the Battle of Manzikert. Permanent loss of most of Asia Minor.
1075 Loss of Syria to Muslims.
1087 Byzantines, under Michael VII, defeated in Thrace.
1095 Alexius Comnenus appeals to Pope Urban II at the Council of Piacenza for help against the Turks. Sows the seed of the First Crusade which the pope proclaims at the Council of Clermont.
1096 Crusaders arrive at Constantinople before crossing Anatolia and entering the Holy Land. Conflict, tension, and even low-level fighting between Latins and Greeks.
1099 The crusaders take Jerusalem, nominal goal of the expedition and proceed to establish four or so crusaders kingdoms – Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli and Jerusalem – which collectively become known as Outremer.

1121 Byzantine reconquest of southwestern Asia Minor.
1144 Fall of Edessa to the Muslim army of Imad ad-Din Zengi, which prompts…
1145-49 The Second Crusade announced by Pope Eugene III, and led by Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany. The Second Crusade is a farce and a fiasco (‘a disgrace to Christendom’ p.101) in which the German army is massacred in Anatolia (nine-tenths were killed, p.96), and the survivors unite with the French army to besiege Damascus for five days, before giving up and going home, embittered.
1179 Byzantine Army defeated by the Sultanate of Rum at Myriocephalon. Hopes of regaining Asia Minor are lost.
1187 An Outremer army is massacred by Muslim Turks at the Battle of Hattin, after which Saladin reconquers Jerusalem and a swathe of other Crusader towns, leading to…
1189-92 The Third Crusade, which results in a negitiated peace between the crusaders and Saladin.
1190 With the establishment of the kingdoms of Serbia and Hungary, the Balkans are effectively lost to Byzantium.

1202 The Fourth Crusade assembled at Venice.
1204 The Fourth Crusade captures and devastates Constantinople, leading to eighty years of rule by Latin emperors. The capture of Constantinople in 1204 was a blow from which the Byzantines never fully recovered.

Empires, migration and the movements of people

The other big thought this book prompts (apart from the constant warfare) was about the movement of peoples during this period, during the entire period of the empire and, indeed, during the entire period of the ancient and medieval world.

I have read quite a few modern accounts of the British Empire which highlight the ridiculousness of one nation or people ruling another one thousands of miles away, pointing out the absurdity of British soldiers from Scunthorpe and Sauchiehall Street policing the streets of Kuala Lumpur or Kenya or Sri Lanka or Yemen – as if it was always against the natural order of things for soldiers from one land to police the streets of another, as if it’s always been natural that the people who live in a region should always rule themselves within mutually agreed and fixed national border.

But of course this is the wrong way round. A reading of history, especially classical and medieval history, shows you that the whole idea of the nation state is a relatively recent invention, and one which is still fragile and vulnerable in many parts of the world. Classical and medieval history show that the astonishing far-flungness of empires and the extraordinary and often bizarre transposition of peoples from one place to another are more like the historical norm than the exception.

Take the Roman Empire. Visiting Hadrian’s Wall a few years ago, I learned that it was policed by troops from Syria and Egypt. People of Italian stock guarded the border with Persia. People from the Middle East traded all along the north African coast, to Iberia and even up the coast of France to Britain. Saint Paul was able to travel all round the Mediterranean shore unimpeded.

Nearly a millennium earlier settlers from Phoenicia had established colonies all along the north Africa coast, including their greatest colony, Carthage, which grew to run an empire of its own and send armies up through Spain and over the Alps into Italy.

In the classical Greek period, the Athenian empire and other powerful city states conquered and set up Greek colonies all along the coast of Asia Minor and southern Italy. The dazzling ten-year career of Alexander the Great led to ethnic Greeks ruling Persia and Egypt for centuries.

Closer to the period covered by this book, I’ve always found it mind-boggling that it was the Vikings, during their period of sudden violent expansion in the 800s, who formed the nucleus of the kingdom of Rus –

Vikings between the 9th and 11th centuries, ruled the medieval state of Kievan Rus’ and settled many territories of modern Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. According to the 12th century Kievan Primary Chronicle, a group of Varangians known as the Rus’ settled in Novgorod in 862 under the leadership of Rurik. Rurik’s relative Oleg conquered Kiev in 882 and established the state of Kievan Rus’, which was later ruled by Rurik’s descendants.

and that a select group of Vikings was to form the original membership of the emperor’s legendary Varangian guard. And that a leading member of that Varangian guard was the same Harald Hardrada who, in 1066, led Danish forces in an invasion of northern England, to be defeated at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

But it was news to me that in the 1080s the Varangian Guard was largely made up of Anglo-Saxon warriors who had been forced out of Britain by William the Conqueror. Which adds piquancy to the fact that, in 1081, the Guard was called upon, along with the rest of the emperor’s army, to do battle once again against the Normans – not the exact same Normans who had thrown them out of Britain, but relatives of the Conqueror who had, by now, seized control of Sicily and were being led by Robert Guiscard on an invasion of Illyria, what we now call the coast of Albania.

The Normans in Sicily

Yes, during the period of this book it is an important fact that Frenchmen from northern France (themselves originally descended from Viking invaders from Scandinavia) conquered Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean and only 40 miles from Africa.

They started off by fighting as mercenaries for local warlords and capturing scattered territories on the mainland until they had a base for the prolonged struggle to take Sicily from its Muslim overlords. This lasted from the time of the Norman Conquest until the eve of the First Crusade (1061-1091), such that at least one historian refers to it as the other Norman Conquest.

Eventually these Normans from the chilly climate of the English channel would rule not only Sicily but all Italy south of Rome such that Pope Innocent III confirmed the creation of a united Kingdom of Sicily on Christmas Day 1130 under King Roger II.

The Kingdom of Sicily (in green) in 1154, representing the extent of Norman conquest in Italy over several decades of activity by independent adventurers (source: Wikipedia)

But did these devout Christians, blessed by the pope, turn their attention to helping and supporting the Byzantine Empire, permanently threatened as it was by barbarian tribes from the north and the various types of Muslim (Arabs and an array of newly-arrived Turks) from the East?

Robert Guiscard attacks the Byzantine Empire 1081

No. They tried to invade and conquer the empire, sailing the short distance (50 miles) to the western Balkans (what we now call Albania) with the ultimate goal of seizing Constantinople and taking control of the whole Byzantine Empire. The Normans defeated the army of Alexius Comnenus at the siege of Dyrrhachium but then their leader, Robert Guiscard, was forced to delegate leadership and return to Italy because his patron, pope Gregory VII, was being besieged in the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome by the army of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. Moreover, Alexius had allied with the  Venetian Republic which didn’t need much prompting to realise that, if the Normans held both sides of the narrow strait of Otranto, they would be able to strangle Venice’s maritime trade. And so the Venetians sent a fleet to ally with the Byzantine fleet and attack the Norman one.

The book is like this on every one of its 488 pages, a dense jungle of military campaigns, diplomatic alliances, power politics and geostrategic planning, by a continually shifting cast of states and kings and emperors.

For the rest of the duration of the Kingdom of Sicily, it was just one more threat and enemy which the embattled Emperor of Byzantium had to factor into his diplomatic calculations and periodically fight off.

The Reconquista

Meanwhile, at the far west of the Mediterranean, north European knights were being led into the Iberian Peninsula to engage in the prolonged struggle to liberate Spain from Muslim rule. No historian I’ve read seems to question the right of Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula to set up a kingdom in central Spain, nearly three thousand miles away from their homeland (distance from Mecca to Madrid 2,800 miles) but it is, when you step back to consider it, every bit as bizarre as Syrians in Scotland or – 1,500 years later – Scottish soldiers in Delhi and Malaya.

In fact, wasn’t the Arab conquest of Persia, Egypt, North Africa and Spain every bit as violent, imperial and unjustified as the British conquest of India or Africa? The locals didn’t invite them in, didn’t ask to be forced to convert to an alien religion at sword-point, didn’t ask to be made to wear special clothes marking them out as inferior citizens. For some reason the Muslim invasion and conquest of the Middle East and North Africa is never questioned, and is passively accepted to this day.

Asian immigration

And behind the immense disruption caused by the Muslim invasions of the six and seven hundreds, looms the even bigger Fact of medieval history from the three hundreds through to the 1500s – which was the wave after wave of invasions by violent, illiterate barbarians from the East –

  • Germanic peoples like the Vandals, Huns and Alans, the Goths who split up into the Visigoths and Ostrogoths and conquered Spain and North Africa
  • Slavic peoples like the Bulgars, the Hungarians, the Serbs, the Rus who seized modern Russia and the Balkans
  • and then the Turkish peoples from central Asia, especially the Seljuk Turks who loom large in this story, not least because it was they who won the seismic battle of Manzikert
  • but the Turks, in their eastern base at Baghdad, were themselves to be menaced by the arrival of Genghiz Khan and the Mongol hordes around 1200
  • and then the whole region was to be scarified by the terrifying arrival of Tamburlaine, the Scourge of God, in the late 1300s

Endless war

At countless moments during the thousand-year saga of Norwich’s history, Byzantium feels like a rubber dinghy trying not to capsize in the face of wave after wave after wave of invaders and attackers. Non-stop war. Total war. Endless war, from the city’s birth in 300 until it was finally taken by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. As Norman Stone says, in his Short History of Turkey, the Turks have a lot of words for fighting, but then so, apparently, did everyone else: at one stage or other the emperor of Byzantium is at war with (from west to east):

  • the Pope – at various points the pope in Rome supported military expedictions against Byzantium
  • the Holy Roman Emperor – saw himself as rightful ruler of the entire Roman Empire so was always predisposed against Byzantium
  • the Sicilian Normans – having conquered all south Italy, the natural extension was to cross the Adriatic and seize imperial territory, which they tried repeatedly to do in to 1000s, 1100s and 1200s
  • the Venetian Republic – rival in maritime commerce in the Eastern Mediterranean ad, eventually, Constantinople’s nemesis
  • the Serbs – seize control of the west Balkans
  • the Hungarians – continual threat from the central Balkans
  • the Pechenegs – a semi-nomadic Turkic people from Central Asia speaking the Pecheneg language and were threatening the empire by the 900s
  • the Danishmends – a Torcomen dynasty whose founder, the Emir Danishmend, appeared in Asia Minor about 1085, ruled in Cappadocia for about a century, and disappeared after their defeat by the Seljuks in 1178
  • the Armenians – after Manzikert the Seljuk Turks invaded Armenia, at the far eastern end of the Black Sea, so many Armenian refugees fled south and created the Armenian Kingdom of Cicilia at the point where the east-west coast of Anatolia turns sharply south into the coastline of Palestine. In this map from Wikipedia, note the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum to the north, the coastal strip of Byzantine territory (and Cyprus) to the west, the crusader County of Edessa to the east, and the crusader principality of Antioch to the south, the rest of the south-east belonging to the Muslim Turks.

The Barony of Cilician Armenia, 1080-1199 (source: Wikipedia)

  • the Seljuk Turks – from their homelands near the Aral Sea, the Seljuks advanced first into Khorasan and then into mainland Persia, before eventually conquering eastern Anatolia. Here the Seljuks won the battle of Manzikert in 1071 and conquered most of Anatolia from the Byzantine Empire, which became one of the reasons for the first crusade (1095-1099). From c. 1150-1250, the Seljuk empire declined, and was invaded by the Mongols around 1260.
  • the Crusaders – as described, presented a threat when they arrived at Constantinople en route to the Holy Land and then spent the next 200 years forming complexes of alliances with, or against, Constantinople, until the so-called Fouth Crusade devastated the city
  • the Fatimid Dynasty – a Shia Islamic caliphate that spanned a large area of North Africa, from the Red Sea in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west, and based in Egypt
  • Saladin trying to establish his new dynasty

Reading this book made me think, ‘You know what would be interesting to read?’ A History of Peace. There must be thousands of books about this, that or the other war, and there are whole series of books about the weapons and uniforms and military tactics of particular armies, throughout history.

What about the idea of peace? Where did it come from? What thinkers have elaborated on it? Which leaders supported it? Where and why has it been most successful? What is the best way to preserve it?

The crusades

Norwich’s account of the crusades is riveting because it goes into such detail. There are broadly two types of history, the superficial and the detailed, and the superficial is always deceiving. It’s almost better not to read any history than to read a superficial account. Only detailed accounts really help you to understand the complexity of human activity so as to make it a) comprehensible b) less easy to judge. Like us, the people of the past were operating in difficult times, with limited knowledge and resources, and no idea how things would pan out.

Most other accounts of the Crusades I’ve read tend to skip over Constantinople’s role in order to get on to describing how the crusaders, having arrived in the Holy Land, set about fighting the Muslims (not, as I learned from Michael Haag, Muslim Arabs, but a changing array of Muslim forces including the Seljuk Turks who had recently arrived from Transoxiana and had taken over the region, as well as occasional forays up from Egypt which was ruled by the Fatimid Dynasty).

In contrast, Norwich’s account describes each successive crusade a) in great detail and b) from the point of view of the Byzantines which was simple: the Greeks really didn’t want hordes of barbarian Franks and Germans traipsing across Thrace, often raiding, sometimes ravaging the land, before arriving at Constantinople in a very threatening mood.

Norwich’s account shows how cannily the great emperor Alexius Comnenus (reigned 1081-1118) handled the First Crusade (1096-99) – using all his diplomatic finesse with the Western kings and princes (who each led a different contingent of crusaders by different routes as far as Constantinople) and, in particular, Alexius’s forethought in organising sufficient food and water to be available to his unwelcome guests.

Alexius wanted them to pass through Byzantine lands with as little disruption, raiding and looting, as possible. What they did when they got to the Holy Land i.e. the area around Jerusalem in the far south of Palestine, was up to them as long as they made obeisance to him and acknowledged his suzerainty of the Holy Land (for over a thousand years a Roman-controlled territory). Inevitably, many of the crusader leaders rejected the emperor’s authority, or acknowledged it while being hosted to lavish dinners in Byzantium, and then completely forgot it once they’d fought their way through Turks to the Holy Land.

One of the most revealing and interesting aspects of Norwich’s account is the way he shows how what are generally described as the First or Second or Third etc Crusades – as if they were well-organised, centralised, homogenous missions – in reality consisted of ill-assorted smaller armies led by very different rulers from very different parts of Catholic Europe, who often violently disagreed with each other.

For example the First Crusade consisted of four distinct forces, each of which led by kings who proceeded to have varyingly difficult relations with the empire.  These separate armies travelled at different times, via different routes (some by land, some by sea), often getting massacred on the long land route across Anatolia, or caught and captured at sea by Muslim pirates. Even if they made it to the Holy Land, they often violently disagreed among themselves, conspiring and sometimes even fighting each other, and peeling off to set up their own independent counties and kingdoms (see map below).

Also, Norwich’s account makes clear that there were often other straggling armies which appeared in between the specific and numbered ‘crusades’ blessed by the pope – in 1101 a further four European armies turned up, which were not part of the ‘official’ crusade but had come for the same general purpose: a Lombard army of 20,000 under archbishop Anselm of Milan; a large group of french knights; a french army led by Count William of Nevers; and an immense Franco-German force under the command of William, Duke of Aquitaine and Welf, Duke of Bavaria. The Lombards joined up with the French knights, under the command of Raymond of Toulouse, marched into Anatolia where they captured Ancyra but soon afterwards were ambushed by Danishment Turks at a place called Mersivan where four-fifths of the army was massacred, and all the women and children (their families) accompanying them, were taken off as slaves (p.45).

Because this wasn’t part of any of the ‘official’ crusades, this kind of event isn’t mentioned in high-level histories – but it’s precisely the type of event which is vital for understanding the chaotic helter-skelter of events, and the conventions of the times – the very high level of massacring both in battles and sieges, and the universal acceptance of slavery – which run throughout the story. A detailed history always shows that human affairs are more chaotic than you expect, and than superficial, moralising histories can handle.

– and there was, in addition, a continuous flux of conflict with enemies who may or may not have been blessed by the pope, for example the Sicilian Normans.

Alexius and all the succeeding Byzantine emperors were correct in their analysis that the Franks (the generic name given to anyone from the Latin-speaking West) didn’t come to bring peace and establish Christian hegemony, but, despite all their lofty rhetoric, behaved just like any other tribe or armed group, adding to the already complex mix of traditional Arabs (divided into the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad and the Fatimid caliphate in Egypt), the newly-arrived Seljuk Turks, the Turkish group known as the Danishmeds, the marauding nomadic Bedouin, alongside other warlike peoples such as the Armenians, or violent religious groups like the Druze and Alawites – all contributing to a continually changing matrix of alliances and enmities which have lasted, arguably, right up to the present day.

Norwich shows how the crusaders failed to establish one unified realm in the Holy Land, even after their famous capture of Jerusalem in 1099. Instead they divided the region up into separate kingdoms based on Jerusalem, Antioch and Edessa. These promptly started having dynastic quarrels and plotting against each other, exactly as their brothers and cousins were doing in in France, Germany and Italy.

This map (from Wikipedia) shows the Christian states which the crusaders set up, namely: the County of Edessa in the north, the Principality of Antioch (in blue), the slim County of Tripoli and then the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the south.

A political map of the Near East in 1135 CE. Crusader states are marked with a red cross (source: Wikipedia)

You can see how the crusader states were always literally surrounded by Muslim enemies (in shades of green), but also that the Muslims were divided into at least three entities: the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum to the North, which by now owned most of central Anatolia, the Great Seljuk Empire to the East, and the Fatimid Empire to the South.

The crusades just one among countless other migrations and warlike expeditions

The point I’m making is that, if you read Norwich’s history of Byzantium from 300 to 1453, the biggest single impression it makes is of ceaseless conflict across the entire area of the Mediterranean and beyond, in fact across the entire known world – an endless chronicle of empire making and empire breaking, as waves of conquerors wash over all the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea in which, every single year, some group or tribe or kingdom or principality or other is continually making war, invading, conquering and annexing other peoples.

In this context, the Franks from Paris or London or Mainz were just one more exotic group among many, many such groups, fighting and conquering their way around the great Inner sea, no more far-flung than the Roman Egyptians who fought in Scotland, or the Muslim Arabs who seized Visigothic Spain three thousand miles from their homeland, or the men from Normandy who ended up conquering Sicily and southern Italy, or the tribes from central Asia who ended up settling in Anatolia thousands of miles from their homes, or the Turks or the Mongols who all poured out of central Asia to conquer the Middle East and beyond.

Extraordinarily adventurous journeys of conquest were absolutely par for the course throughout this entire period. And if the Crusaders came blessed by their pope that wasn’t very different from Saladin declaring his wars of conquest to be a holy jihad in order to gather support from other Muslim dynasties who were (rightfully) suspicious of his motives.

And as to all the other rampaging armies of the time, most of them didn’t need or pretend to any highfalutin’ purposes. They just wanted to conquer, loot, rape and pillage and so, ironically, end up not being judged at all by our modern censorious age which reserves all its righteous ire and heavy moralism for the Christians alone.

The sack of Jerusalem in context

Western historians appear to judge the crusaders harshly, a criticism which focuses on the massacre which took place when the crusaders finally took Jerusalem after a siege in 1199. They are said to have massacred every Muslim and rounded the Jews up into the synagogue which they set on fire.

In his book on the Knights Templars Michael Haag makes the point that medieval chroniclers are not to be trusted when it comes to numbers. On numerous occasions chroniclers will give ludicrously inflated figures. This was because they wanted to make their chronicles exciting and gory. More seriously, most were religious men, monks, and considered history not a forensic examination of the truth, but a series of morality stories and lessons, generally about human folly compared to the wisdom of God. Therefore massacres in which the Christians suffered tended to be exaggerated in order to show the vanity of human wishes, while massacres the forces of God carried out tended to be exaggerated in order to show how the enemies of the Lord were righteously punished. In both cases the numbers are likely to be exaggerated.

But there’s another factor which, for me, tended to downplay the Jerusalem massacre which is that it is just one of many massacres of the period. This book is full of towns besieged and then, once finally stormed, put to the sword in which almost everyone is killed or sold into slavery. This happens scores of times, it appears to have been routine for the age, as well as the number of times a vengeful conqueror razes an entire town or city to the ground.

If you read widely in the history of this era the so-called atrocities carried out by the crusaders at Jerusalem do not stand out but are just one more example of the general mayhem.

  • Devastation of the Balkans In the 1090s Emperor Alexius was criticised because ‘first the Normans and then the Pechenegs had devastated an immense area of the Balkan peninsula, burning down towns and villages, killing thousands of their inhabitants and rendering many more thousands homeless’ (p.50)
  • The Norman sack of Rome In 1084, the Norman warlord Robert Guiscard marched on Rome after receiving a plea for aid from his ally Pope Gregory VII, who was under siege by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. Guiscard easily captured the city and rescued the Pope, but his soldiers were greeted as enemies by the Roman citizenry, many of whom had thrown their support behind Henry. When the people rose up against him, Guiscard crushed the revolt and allowed his men to indulge their lust for rape and plunder. Fires broke out across the city, and many of its inhabitants were butchered or sold into slavery. Some historians would later blame Guiscard and his Normans for demolishing many of Rome’s most priceless ancient monuments.
  • Devastation of Cyprus In 1156 Reynald of Chatillon, Prince of Antioch, launched an attack on (Christian, Byzantine) Cyprus. The garrison was swiftly overcome and the Franks and Armenian soldiers carried out a three-week ‘orgy of devastation and desecration, of murder, rape and pillage such as the island had never known before.’ All the ships were filled with as much plunder as they could carry, the leading citizens had to ransom theimselves and, if they couldn’t raise the fund, were carried off to imprisonment in Antioch, several greek priests had their noses cut off and were sent to Constantinople in mockery of the emperor. ‘The island, we are told, never recovered’ (p.121)
  • Massacre at Edessa Imad ad-Din Zengi (1085 – 1146) the Oghuz Turkish atabeg who ruled Mosul, Aleppo and Hama besieged the crusader city of Edessa in 1144. After the Muslims breached the walls ‘Zengi’s troops rushed into the city, killing all those who were unable to flee to the Citadel of Maniaces. Thousands more were suffocated or trampled to death in the panic, including Archbishop Hugh. Zengi ordered his men to stop the massacre, although all the Latin prisoners that he had taken were executed.’ (Wikipedia) Two years later the former crusader ruler of Edessa, Joscelin II, attempted to retake the city, and then to punch a hole in the Muslim forces to allow the Armenian population of the city to escape. This failed and the Muslim ‘troops massacred the fleeing Armenians and forced the survivors into slavery.’
  • The destruction of Brindisi In 1156 the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I had despatched an army to conquer Norman-held southern Italy but the coalition fell apart and the force got stuck besieging Brindisi on the south-east coast. King William of Sicily counter-attacked and relieved Brindisi. The garrison which had held out bravely against the Byzantines was rewarded, but all his subjects who had joined the Byzantines were hanged, blinded or tied with heavy weights and thrown into the sea. The nearby city of Bari had surrendered to the Byzantines without a fight, and so King William gave the inhabitants two days to clear out their belongings and then razed the entire city to the ground, including the cathedral (p.115).
  • The mass arrest of Venetians In early 1171 the large Venetian population in Constantinople attacked and largely destroyed the Genoese quarter in the city, whereupon the Emperor Manuel I Komnenos retaliated by ordering the mass arrest of all Venetians throughout the Empire and the confiscation of their property. There were also mass rapes and the burning of houses. Venice was furious, the authorities levied a forced loan which they used to build and man a fleet of 120 ships which sailed top attack Constantinople in September 1172 led by the Doge Vitale Michiel. However, while docked in Greece en route, the fleet was met by ambassadors from Constantinople who said their master had no wish for war and that a negotiated settlement could be reached. The Doge accepted and sent representatives of his own to the capital, sailing the fleet on to anchor at Chios. Here the crowded insanitary conditions helped foment a deadly plague which spread like wildfire killing thousands and leaving the survivors too weak to fight. Meanwhile his ambassadors returned to say they had been badly treated and spurned by the emperor who obviously had no intention of making a deal. Shattered and humiliated the Doge returned with what remained of his fleet to Venice. Unfortunately, the plague spread from his crews into the city itself. When he presented himself to the Venetian assembly it rose against him while a mob gathered outside baying for his blood. He slipped out a side door and made for the church of Saint Zaccaria but never made it. The mob set upon him and hacked and stabbed him to death. (p.131)
  • The Massacre of the Latins was a large-scale massacre of the Roman Catholic (Latin) inhabitants of Constantinople by the Eastern Orthodox population of the city in April 1182. The Roman Catholics of Constantinople at that time dominated the city’s maritime trade and financial sector, breeding resentment, which came to a head when the emperor Manuel died and power moved to his widow, the Latin princess Maria of Antioch, who acted as regent to her infant son Alexius II Comnenus. Maria’s regency became notorious for the favoritism shown to Latin merchants and the big aristocratic land-owners, and was overthrown in April 1182 by Andronicus I Komnenus, who entered the city in a wave of popular support. Almost immediately, the celebrations spilled over into violence towards the hated Latins, and after entering the city’s Latin quarter a mob began attacking the inhabitants. The ensuing massacre was indiscriminate: neither women nor children were spared, and Latin patients lying in hospital beds were murdered. Houses, churches, and charities were looted. Latin clergymen received special attention, and Cardinal John, the papal legate, was beheaded and his head was dragged through the streets at the tail of a dog. The entire Latin community, estimated at 60,000 at the time by Eustathius of Thessalonica, was wiped out or forced to flee. The Genoese and Pisan communities were also decimated, and some 4,000 survivors were sold as slaves to the (Turkish) Sultanate of Rum.
  • The Sack of Thessalonica In 1185 the Normans of the Kingdom of Sicily landed in Illyria and marched through northern Greece arriving at Thessalonica, the empire’s second city, in August was one of the worst disasters to befall the Byzantine Empire in the 12th century. the city governor failed to make sufficient preparations (food and water) for the siege while relief armies failed to co-ordinate, with the result that the Normans opened a breach in the walls and quickly entered the city, fighting degenerating into a full-scale massacre of the city’s inhabitants, with some 7,000 corpses being found afterwards. Coming on the heels of the massacre of the Latins in Constantinople in 1182, the massacre of the Thessalonians by the Normans deepened the rift between the Latin West and the Greek East. It also directly led to the deposition and execution of the unpopular Andronicus I Comnenus by the Latins and the rise to the throne of Isaac II Angelus. (p.149)

I’m not defending the Crusader sack of Jerusalem in 1099. I’m just saying that if you read this book, the sack of Jerusalem ceases to be a special and unique event, and takes its place as just one more among the horrifying list of massacres, pogroms, burnings, blindings, hangings and destruction of entire cities, which occur on virtually every page.

The one accusation you can make against the crusades in general and the sack of Jerusalem in particular is that they were carried out with the blessing of the pope, under high-minded and lofty claims of Christian superiority etc. But that is a playground accusation. Once again, a really thorough reading of the history of the period shows you that:

  1. Christian values weren’t worth the paper they were written on – this is demonstrated by the repeated times when Christian states attacked other Christians states, when eye witnesses express disbelief that one set of Christians could be so cruel to another set, and ransack and desecrate their churches etc.
  2. The famous crusades, the ones we read about, are not as unique as we’re led to believe. As well as the expeditions to the Holy Land, the pope also blessed ‘crusades’ against the Muslims in Spain, against the Sicilian Normans, and then against heretics, most notoriously the Cathars in the south of France. He also blessed ‘crusades’ against pagans in the Baltic and north-east Europe, such as the Wendish Crusade, and the crusading Teutonic Order which created a Crusader state in Prussia.
  3. The question of the pope’s endorsement of these military adventures is also not unique or straightforward for four obvious reasons:
    • throughout the period the papacy itself was a very troubled institution, with various opponents kidnapping popes or setting up alternative anti-popes who, at various points, excommunicated each other
    • and this was because, although the papacy and its propagandists liked to present itself as unique authority, inspired by God etc, the actual institution was deeply mired in the power politics of the day, with the pope acting just as deviously as all the other kings and emperors of the time, in forging and breaking alliances to suit its own worldly purposes
    • throughout the period the papacy was trying to establish itself as the sole source of Christian authority in the world, but this was never accepted by the entire Eastern church, let alone the splinter groups like the Jacobite church of the Copts who had survived the Muslim invasions.
  4. And the pope – with such authority as he had – often deeply disapproved of crusader strategies and aims, going so far as to excommunicate crusader leaders when they obviously turned to purely worldly goals.

Therefore, to accept the ‘crusades’ as somehow uniquely representations of Christian ideology or culture, as representative of ‘the West’ or Western values, is to ignore their deeply complicated reality, and their always profoundly compromised nature.

To this reader, at any rate, the crusades were just arbitrary, mismanaged and quarrelsome military expeditions blessed by a religious leader who was only one among several sources of Christian authority, who was himself a deeply compromised, worldly, figure, which from the start were based on all kinds of worldly considerations (like the quest for land and wealth), and which – to repeat myself – do not stand out from, but fit seamlessly into, the world of endless wars and continual military expeditions, raids and wars of conquest which were going on every year, all across the Mediterranean, throughout the entire period.

Marriage as a diplomatic tool

One of the most basic ways of forging an alliance, of clinching an agreement between two alien peoples or nations, was through intermarriage. I’ve read feminists who claim that women were used this embodied typical misogyny and sexism, and there’s no doubting that it was a male culture which valorised masculine virtues of warlike aggression and military success, and that daughters and adult women were married off by scheming male leaders of families.

On the other hand, it obviously takes two to make a marriage, and quite a few sons found themselves being married off to complete strangers from foreign lands who didn’t speak the same language, who might not even be Christians. For example, Robert Guiscard pledged his daughter to marry the young son of the Emperor Michael VII, Constantine, so she was packed off to Constantinople where she was renamed Helena and commenced a Greek education. All of which came to nothing when Michael was overthrown by Nicephorus III Botaneiates who was himself swiftly replaced by Alexius Comnenus. Feminists feel sorry for young Helena. Who is there to feel sorry for young Constantine?

I made a note of these marriage alliances.

  • Michael VII wrote, rather desperately, to Robert Guiscard offering the hand of is new-born baby son, Constantine, to any of Robert’s daughters which he chose
  • Alexius Comnenus marries Irene Ducania, granddaughter of the Caesar John Ducas, the uncle of Michael VII

Immersing yourself in the era begins to change your perceptions (which, for me, is part of the point of reading history) and began to make me appreciate the importance of these marriage arrangements and then, of wider family ties.

At some point I had a sort of epiphany and realised that – there was nothing else by which to organise states. There was no framework of international law, there was no United Nations signed up to commonly agreed protocols and standards, there was no one to appeal to.

In this sense medieval rulers lived in a much more existential condition that most of us realise. Abandoned on the planet, surrounded by enemies, with absolutely no international bodies to appeal to… they had only their wits and the resources to hand to defend themselves… and family ties emerge as the most solid, enduring ties which could be understood by all sides. In a sense, family connections were what international treaties and agreements are in our age – an internationally understood language which transcended all boundaries.

Taking this idea further, I realise that, in the complete absence of anything like democracy, in the absence of the complex paraphernalia of the democratic state which has taken us in the West getting on for 200 years to evolve, and which still doesn’t work perfectly – in the complete and utter absence of any other notions of how to validate rule and authority – then the concept of family becomes absolutely central. Authority is best passed down through what anthropologists call ‘kinship ties’, ties of blood or marriage.

And the concept of ‘family’ actually turns out to be very flexible. The relationship of marriage is easy for us to grasp, and similarly the notion of direct, blood family. But it was a feature of pre-modern societies that they also had the strategy of ‘adoption’ in a different sense from ours. Rulers could ‘adopt’ people from completely different bloodlines in order to incorporate them into the line of authority.

This had begun way back with the first Roman emperors. Thus, after Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC his will revealed that he had adopted Gaius Octavius Thurinus as his adopted son and heir. Octavius (who assumed the title Augustus) formally adopted his stepson and son-in-law Tiberius to succeed him.

One thousand years later the basic idea remained the same. Empires were run by families who went to great lengths to establish dynasties by having sons they could pass power on to but, if no sons appeared, by legally ‘adopting’ suitable heirs. Thus the odd sight of the empress of Byzantium, Maria of Alania (1054-1118) who was first married to Emperor Michael VII Ducas and, then to his usurper, Nicephorus III Botaneiates, adopting the promising young general Alexius Comnenus even though he was only five years younger than her. Indeed, when he came to power and installed Maria in the imperial palace, most observers thought he had taken her (his ‘mother’) as his mistress, which caused not only popular discontent, but caused a confrontation with his mother, the powerful Anna Dalassene. She pointed out that Alexius had already made a tactical marriage to Irene Doukaina, granddaughter of the Caesar John Ducas, the uncle of Michael VII, whose support had been vital in Alexius’s coup against Nicephorus III Botaneiates. His relationship with the empress Maria was now alienating the very powerful Ducas clan and so – faced with political reality – Alexius began his (long and successful reign) by backing down, packing Maria off to a convent, installing Irene in the palace and having her formally crowned new empress by the Patriarch. Ducas family honour was restored. Alexius resecured the backing of his supporters.

In our modern Western democracies change is mostly effected via the ballot box at elections (although not always: in recent times both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, when in power, have changed leaders without consulting the broader population (the handover from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown, and from David Cameron to Theresa May) and this and a great deal of other political manoeuvring and backroom politicking come down to exactly the same calculations and scheming as we read about in the Roman and Byzantine Empires.)

The massive difference is that modern political scheming is limited by a) the rule of modern law (which prevents assassination, exile, ritual blinding and so on) and b) the rules governing how power is acquired and administered in complex, bureaucratic modern democracies.

To read a book like Norwich’s you have to have a reasonable feel for the rules and conventions of modern society – and then throw them all out. Make the imaginative leap to a world where absolutely none of those rules or conventions applied. The only really limiting factors on the emperor’s power were

  1. the strictures of the church, of the Orthodox Patriarch in Constantinople who often, as a result, ended up being arrested, imprisoned, tortured, banished and sometimes murdered if he didn’t agree with the ruling emperor
  2. the people – having no formal mechanism to express their opinion (no free press, no votes) discontent had only one way of expressing itself which was in rioting

Anyway, the conclusion is that all the palace politicking, and coups, and overthrows weren’t because people in the East or the Middle Ages were different from us, they weren’t the result of especially notable Machiavellianism and cruelty – they came about because it was the only system they had. It was the only way of managing power (if you had it) and scheming to get power (if you didn’t).

And the real point I’m making is that people in the Middle Ages were no different from us. They just operated in a political, religious and cultural world which was vastly different, which they were acculturated to, which they took for granted. Just like we take our modern world and its values for granted. But none of this is fixed and stable.

The point of studying history is that, really grasping this fact helps us to both understand them and their times, but also sheds new light and depth to understanding our own times and what makes our time so distinctive and special.

And – one of my perennial themes – the study of history underlines again and again that human nature does not change: it is just the rules and conventions under which humans behave which change. And this fundamental datum explains why, when the rule of law collapses, people immediately revert to the most barbaric ‘medieval’ behaviour – in Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, in Syria.

It is because the Middle Ages are always with us, but just suppressed. Long may they stay repressed.

Women in the Byzantine empire

Women played a key role in this power politics but it is too simplistic to say they were victims. The empress Maria was, after the death of her first husband, Michael VII, in 1090, the most powerful figure, especially in adopting young Alexius. But then power shifted to Alexius’s mother, Anna Dalassene, who proceeded to show him what was what, regarding the powerful Ducas clan. Norwich’s narrative is, in fact, liberally dotted, with surprisingly strong and powerful women (surprisingly, if you buy modern feminist propaganda that all women, ever, in all of history, have been helpless victims of the patriarchy).

A selection of the strong, independent women mentioned in the text:

  • Sichelgaita (1040-90) a Lombard princess, daughter of Guaimar IV, Prince of Salerno, and second wife of Robert Guiscard, Duke of Apulia. She frequently accompanied Robert on his conquests and commanded troops in her own right, for example at the Battle of Dyrrhachium in 1081 where Anna Comnena tells us that Sichelgaita wore full armour and rallied Robert’s troops when they were initially repulsed by the Byzantine army and were in danger of losing cohesion.
  • Alexius’s mother, Anna Dalassene
  • the empress Maria, the one who adopted young Alexius
  • Alexius’s daughter, Anna Comnena (1083-1153), wrote the verse epic praising her father, The Alexiad, which is one of the prime sources of information for the period. She led several conspiracies to have her brother, John, who succeeded from her father, Alexius, as emperor, overthrown in favour of Anna’s husband, Nicephorus Bryennios in 1118. The conspiracy was discovered by John who only sent his sister to a convent.
  • Alice, daughter of King Baldwin of Jerusalem, was married off to Bohemond II, Prince of Antioch. When he died in 1130 fighting against Danishmend Emir Gazi Gümüshtigin during a military campaign against Cilician Armenia (and Gümüshtigin sent Bohemond’s embalmed head to the Abbasid Caliph), Alice should have waited for her father, Baldwin, to appoint a successor. Instead, she appointed herself regent. When she learned that her furious father was marching north to Antioch, Alice sent a message to Imad el-Din Zengi, Atabeg of Mosul, offering him a prize horse and homage in return for being allowed to be princess of Antioch. the messenger was intercepted and executed and Baldwin arrived outside Antioch whose doors Alice refused to open. Eventually, one night, some of Baldwin’s supporters opened the gates and let the army in whereupon Baldwin, forgave Alice and banished her to her country estates.
  • Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the legendary queens of the Middle Ages, accompanied her super-religious first husband Louis VII of France on crusade but then decided he was too stiff and pious and so secured a divorce from him and married Henry II of England – ‘one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in western Europe during the High Middle Ages’.

How things were done in the twelfth century – cruelly and brutally

How popes were elected

Just as Cardinal Roland of Siena… was being enthroned in St Peter’s as pope Alexander III, his colleague Cardinal Octavian of S. Cecilia suddenly seized the papal mantle and put it on himself. Alexander’s supporters snatched it back; but Octavian had taken the precaution of bringing another, into which he now managed to struggle  – getting it on back to front in the process. He then made a dash for the throne, sat on it, and proclaimed himself Pope Victor IV. (p.132)

How emperors were overthrown

After Manuel Comnenus died in 1180, his widow Maria of Antioch ruled as regent for their son, but was unpopular because she was from the Latin West. Several coups were attempted and foiled until the emperor’s cousin, Andronicus Comnenus, who was well into his 60s, raised troops and marched on Constantinople being welcomed as saviour in 1182, his arrival at the city sparking celebrations which degenerated into a pogrom against all the Latins the mob could get their hands on.

Andronicus swiftly eliminated all his rivals, having the dowager empress imprisoned and strangled, and then arranging for young Alexius to be ‘accidentally’ shot to death with arrows, and his reign degenerated into a rule of terror, turning the population against him. In summer 1185 King William of the Norman Sicilians invaded Illyria and began marching east on the capital. Characteristically, instead of organising an army to match the Normans Andronicus’s first reaction was to order the execution of all prisoners, exiles, and their families for collusion with the invaders. When his lieutenant moved to arrest Issa Angelus, Angelus resisted arrest, fled to Santa Sophia and rallied a crowd of supporters which set out to overthrow the tyrant.

Andronicus tried to escape with his young wife but was caught by the mob and for three days he was exposed to their fury and resentment, being tied to a post and beaten. His right hand was cut off, his teeth and hair were pulled out, one of his eyes was gouged out, and boiling water was thrown in his face, punishment probably associated with his handsomeness and life of licentiousness. At last he was led to the Hippodrome of Constantinople and hung by his feet between two pillars. Two Latin soldiers competed as to whose sword would penetrate his body more deeply, and he was, finally, torn apart.

Thus ended the Comnenus dynasty.

Latins versus Greeks

Simmering resentment against the commercial success and diplomatic machinations of the Venetian Republic came to a head in 1171, when the emperor Manuel Comnenus passed a decree placing all Venetian citizens under arrest and confiscating all their property.

The real hatred the Venetians now harboured for the Byzantines completely explains the shambles of the so-called Fourth Crusade, when the Venetians were contracted to build a huge fleet to ferry the crusaders to attack the Fatimid Dynasty in Egypt. When only a quarter of the promised number turned up the Crusaders refused to pay the amount promised to the Venetians and things might have turned nasty… until the Venetians proposed a compromise: they would write off the crusaders’ debt if the crusaders helped them attack and seize ports on the Adriatic coast opposite Italy, a region still nominally under the control of the Byzantine Empire. Although the pope threatened to excommunicate them if they did so, and many crusader leaders had doubts or pulled out of the expedition, the leaders on the spot agreed and so the crusade turned into a war of conquest of byzantine Dalmatia. It was only a small step from there to persuading the crusaders (with offers of money and arms) to fulfil the Venetians’ dream and attack Constantinople itself. Which is what took place, under the absurd guide of the ‘fourth crusade’.

When you actually read in fine detail what actually happened during the so-called crusades, and study the background of continual warfare all across Europe and the Middle East at the time, the so-called crusades cease to stand out as any kind of special event and merge seamlessly into the unending and fiendishly complicated series of wars and conflicts and battles and shifting alliances which characterised the entire period.


Byzantine emperors (1068 – 1453)

Romanus IV Diogenes (1068 –1071)

A highly successful general, Romanus is, however, mostly remembered for leading the Byzantine forces to catastrophic defeat against the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert on 26 August 1071, defeat which left Anatolia – for 700 years the source of Byzantium’s grain and manpower – vulnerable to the Seljuk Turks’ slow but steady annexation. Quite quickly central Anatolia became known as the Sultanate of Rum, referring to Rome, the name the Turks gave all the Greeks. This map from Wikipedia shows how the Sultanate slowly but steadily annexed Anatolia.

Expansion of the Sultanate 1100–1240 (source: Wikipedia)

Romanus and the victor, Alp Arslan, got on well and Alp released Romanus to return to Constantinople. Had he survived something might have been salvaged, but he was overthrown and blinded in a coup.

Michael VII Ducas (1067 – 1078)

Michael had been a boy when the usurper Romanus Diogenes made himself senior emperor. Soon after Romanus returned to Constantinople after the shameful defeat of Manzikert, he was blinded by partisans of the powerful Ducas family and power returned, at least in theory, to Michael. Michael was, however, weak and ineffectual, and his policies prompted several attempts at a coup, the successful one being led by…

Nicephorus III Botaneiates (1078 –1081)

Nicephorus had risen to become military ruler of Anatolia. He rebelled against the bad rule and high taxes of Michael VII, leading his army and was welcomed into the capital (Michael wisely abdicated and went off to a monastery). But Nicephorus, born around 1001, was 77 and, having secured power, did not know what to do with it. While military threats mounted in the east and west, the young general Alexius Comnenus emerged as a rising star, a general who never lost a battle. Learning that Nicephorus was about to have him arrested, Alexius rallied his troops and many supporters among the aristocracy and staged a coup. Botaneiates was allowed to retire to a monastery.

Comnenid dynasty (1081–1185)

Alexius I Comnenus (1081 –1118)

Alexius is one of the heroes of the book, a distinguished general who set about restoring military and political stability to the empire. His successes in Anatolia against the Turks had made Botaneiates jealous and so Alexius staged a military coup before he himself was arrested. Pious and hard-working, Alexius had to fight wars against the Normans – who, led by their buccaneering leader Robert Guiscard, invaded from their base in south Italy in 1081 – and against the Seljuk Turks who continued their expansion into Anatolia.

Norwich’s account of the canny way Alexius handled the incursion of the various crusader armies into his territory is fascinating. After fifty years which had seen a dozen or so emperors come and go, Alexius was successful in establishing an enduring and (relatively) stable dynasty.

John II Comnenus (1118 –1143)

Eldest son of Alexius I, John inherited in a smooth transition on his father’s death. His reign was dominated by wars – defending attacks by the Sicilian Normans, fending off a Venetian invasion fleet, dealing with the Hungarians to the North, and then campaigning against the Seljuk Turks and Armenians of Cilicia to the east, with the sometimes reluctant co-operation of the Crusader states of Edessa and Antioch.

Manuel I Comnenos ‘the Great’ (1143 –1180)

The fourth and youngest son of John II, his two eldest brothers died before their father who chose Manuel over the surviving elder brother Isaac. An energetic ruler, he launched campaigns against the Turks, humbled Hungary, achieved supremacy over the Crusader states, and tried unsuccessfully to recover Italy. His extravagance and constant campaigning, however, depleted the Empire’s resources.

Alexius II Comnenos (1180 –1183)

Born on 14 September 1169, the only son of Manuel I. In 1180–1182 i.e. aged 11 and 12 he came under the regency of his mother, Maria of Antioch but, as described above, she was unpopular because a Latin, and was overthrown by Andronicus I Comnenos, who became co-emperor and finally had Alexius II deposed and killed.

Andronicus I Comnenos (1183 –1185)

Born c. 1118, a nephew of John II by his brother Isaac. A general, he was imprisoned for conspiring against John II, but escaped and spent 15 years in exile in various courts in eastern Europe and the Middle East, where he acquired a reputation for his promiscuousness.

In 1182 marched on Constantinople, capitalising on the unpopularity of Maria of Antioch, his arrival coinciding with a city-wide uprising against the hated Venetians, who benefited from trade and legal advantages. Having quelled the riots and established his authority, Andronicus has Mariastrangled in prison, and then overthrew his nephew Alexius II, who he had murdered.

His campaign against the vast landowning aristocracy was justifiable from an economic point of view, but was accompanied by growing paranoia and tyranny, not a day going by without public tortures and executions. The Normans from Sicily took the opportunity to invade Illyria and Andronicus’s abject failure to repel them clinched opposition to him at all levels of society and he was overthrown and lynched in a popular uprising.

The Angelid dynasty (1185–1204)

Of all the families who at one time or another wore the imperial crown of Byzantium, the Angeli were the worst… The three Angelus emperors – Isaac II, Alexius III and Alexius IV – reigned from first to last, a mere nineteen years. But each was in his own way disastrous, and together they were responsible for the greatest catastrophe that Constantinople was ever to suffer until its final fall. (p.156)

Isaac II Angelus (1185 –1195)

Born in September 1156, Isaac came to the throne at the head of a popular revolt against Andronicus I. His reign was marked by revolts and wars in the Balkans, especially against a resurgent Bulgaria. He was deposed, blinded and imprisoned by his elder brother, Alexius III.

Alexius III Angelus (1195 –1203)

Born in 1153, Alexius was the elder brother of Isaac II, who he deposed and blinded. His reign was marked by misgovernment and the increasing autonomy of provincial magnates. He was deposed by the Fourth Crusade and fled Constantinople, roaming Greece and Asia Minor, searching for support to regain his throne. He died in Nicaean captivity in 1211.

Isaac II Angelus (18 July 1203 – 27/28 January 1204)

The armies of the Fourth Crusade arrived at the walls of Constantinople in 1203 and began besieging the city. Alexius III fled with his wife. the city council restored Isaac II who, although blind, was the most legitimate ruler. Actual rule fell to his son Alexius IV but both of them failed to deal adequately with the crusader demands and Isaac was deposed by Alexius V Dukas in January 1204 and died on 28 January 1204, perhaps of poison.

Alexius IV Angelus (1 August 1203 – 27/28 January 1204)

The son of Isaac II, Alexius enlisted the Fourth Crusade to return his father to the throne, and reigned alongside his restored father. Due to their failure to deal with the Crusaders’ demands, he was deposed by Alexius V Ducas in January 1204, and was strangled on 8 February.

The fall of Constantinople

Alexius V Ducas ‘Mourtzouphlos’ (5 February 1204 – 13 April 1204)

In Norwich’s view the only Byzantine ruler of the time who was up to the crisis, Alexius was born in 1140, the son-in-law of Alexius III and a prominent aristocrat. He deposed Isaac II and Alexius IV in a palace coup. He tried to repel the Crusaders, but they captured Constantinople forcing Mourtzouphlos to flee. He joined the exiled Alexius III, but was later blinded by the latter. Captured by the Crusaders, he was executed in December 1205.

Theodore I Laskaris (1205 – 1222)

Born c. 1174, he rose to prominence as a son-in-law of Alexios III. His brother Constantine Laskaris (or Theodore himself, it is uncertain) was elected emperor by the citizens of Constantinople on the day before the city fell to the Crusaders.

Constantine only remained for a few hours before the sack of the City and later fled to Nicaea, where Theodore organized the Greek resistance to the Latins. Proclaimed emperor after Constantine’s death in 1205, Theodore was crowned only in 1208. He managed to stop the Latin advance into Asia Minor and also to repel Seljuk Turk attacks, establishing the Empire of Nicaea as the strongest of the several Greek successor states to Constantinople.

John III Ducas Vatatzes (15 December 1221 – November 1254)

Born around 1192, John became the son-in-law and successor of Theodore I in 1212. A capable ruler and soldier, he expanded his state in Bithynia, Thrace and Macedonia at the expense of the Latin Empire, Bulgaria and the rival Greek state of Epirus.


Related links

Reviews of other books and exhibitions about the Middle Ages

Europe’s Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom (1) by Norman Cohn (1975)

Norman Cohn (1915-2007) was an English academic historian. In the 1960s he became the head of the Columbus Centre, which was set up and initially financed by Observer editor David Astor to look into the causes of extremism and persecution. As head, Cohn commissioned research and studies from other academics on numerous aspects of persecution, and himself wrote several books on the subject, namely:

  • The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957) which traced the long history of millenial, end-of-the-world cults which, more often than not, seek scapegoats when the Great Awakening or Rapture or whatever they call it fails to happen
  • Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (1993) which traced millennial religious themes to their sources in ancient civilizations
  • Warrant for Genocide (1966) about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-semitic forgery which surfaced in Russia in 1903 and claimed to describe a Jewish conspiracy for world domination

Europe’s Inner Demons is roughly in two halves: what it builds up to is a description of the witch craze and witch trials of early modern Europe and America (i.e. the 1600s and 1700s). But it’s the first half which interests me more. In this Cohn describes the origin and meanings of many of the absurd accusations which were later to be brought against the ‘witches’, following them from their origin in pagan times, through the early medieval period, and climaxing with their deployment in the arrests, torture and execution of the Knights Templar in the early 1300s.

It happens that I’ve just finished reading a book about the Knights Templars, which mentions Cohn’s book, and so I was inspired to read the first half, up to and including the Templars trial.

Cohn shows that:

  • In pre-Christian, pagan Rome writers and authorities attributed inhuman and uncanny activities to minority, outsider groups who they associated with secret societies dedicated to overthrowing the state. Chief among these was the (originally traditional) event of the Bacchanalia, which, originally, was an orgiastic festival celebrating the god Bacchus but, over time, became associated with dark nights, wine and promiscuous sex. Cohn shows how traditional Roman writers came to associate it with darker, anti-social motivations. A fateful link was made between tiny, minority sects who held secretive activities – the worry that these sects were in some way anti-social, dedicated to social revolution – and the attribution to them of increasingly absurd accusations, such as child murder, ritual sacrifice, the drinking of human blood, and deliberately indiscriminate sex – all designed to undermine traditional values and hierarchies and relationships.
  • In the early centuries of Christianity, pagan and Roman writers redirected the tropes they’d developed to blacken the followers of the Bacchanal at the new Eastern religious sect, accusing the Christians of unholy rituals at which they drank the blood of ritually murdered individuals, or engaged in promiscuous sex. Cohn points out that these are easily understandable distortions of a) the Eucharist, where Christians really are enjoined to drink the blood of Christ and b) the Loving Cup or various other references to group love, team love, Christian love, which had a purely Platonic, non-sexual meaning. But not for the accusers and propagandists who scraped the barrel of the human psyche to dredge up all the worst crimes they could think of.
  • Once Christianity had become established (by, say, around 400) the powers-that-be began to persecute Christian heretics and Cohn shows how these heretics now found themselves subject to the same slanders and propaganda as the early Christians had been – dark rumours of midnight masses, perverted rituals, the slaying of a victim whose blood was then drunk and body eaten. And he shows how the ritual victim was all-too-often said to be a baby.

Medieval pessimism

A big-over-arching idea which I found particularly powerful was Cohn’s contention that as the Middle Ages progressed, Christianity – and western culture, such as it was in the early Middle Ages – became more pessimistic.

Going back and reading the early Church Fathers – Tertullian and Justin Martyr and St Jerome and so on – he says you are struck by their conviction that the end of the world is just around the corner and the Day of the Lord is at hand. The early Christians are strong in their faith and happy, burning with conviction that the End is Nigh, that any day now the Lord will return in splendour and all their sufferings will be justified.

However, as the years, then decades, then centuries go by, hopes fade, the Roman Empire is overthrown, societies sink into less advanced forms, the economy collapses, waves of barbarians fight their way across the old imperial lands. And Jesus does not return. By around 1000 AD, medieval culture can be described as depressed. And in its disappointment, it looked with ever-greater desperation for scapegoats.

The atmosphere was changing. Fantasies which in the early Middle Ages had been unknown in western Europe were turning into commonplaces. (p.41)

This is reflected in the rise of the figure and role of Satan and his demons. Cohn has a fascinating chapter (pp.16-34) describing the development of Satan, the Devil. In the Old Testament he is barely mentioned. When bad things happen it is generally because the Old Testament God is wilful and capricious and swayed by his bad moods. Satan does appear in the Book of Job but he is more of a collaborator with God than his enemy; it is Satan who comes up with new ways to persecute Job. It is in the so-called inter-testamentary period – between the last of the accepted books of the Old Testament, written about 300 BC and the first books of the New Testament, written about 50 AD, that Satan undergoes a sweeping change of character. Historians usually attribute this to the influx of Eastern, Zoroastrian and Manichean ideas coming from the Persian Empire in the greater multicultural atmosphere created by the triumph of the Roman Republic and then Empire.

Anyway, in the New Testament, Satan has become a completely new thing, a tormentor and tempter sent to oppose Jesus at every step. Satan’s demons possess innocent people and only Jesus can exorcise them. In the climax of a series of tests, Jesus is made to go out into the wilderness to be confronted and tempted by the Devil in person.

Cohn shows how in the early centuries of the church, saints and holy men were still supposed to be able to drive out demons and Satan’s helpers, merely by revealing the consecrated host or a cross or saying Jesus’ name. But in line with the growth of medieval pessimism, the years from around 1000 AD saw greater and greater anxiety that the Devil was taking over the world which translated into ever-more paranoid fears that secret societies and heresies were flourishing everywhere, dedicated to the overthrow of existing society and to establish the triumph of the Antichrist.

Slowly and steadily, the myth of Devil worship, and the details of how this worship was carried out – by murdering a baby, drinking its blood or its ashes mixed with blood, and then weird rituals to do with black cats (lifting its tail to kiss its anus) – were carefully elaborated by successive generations of highly educated and paranoid Catholic intellectuals.

The stereotype of the Devil-worshipping sect was fully developed, in every detail, by 1100. (p.76)

Heretic hunting and the inquisition

Cohn devoted a chapter to the rise of inquisitions, carefully delineating the difference between secular courts and their power, and the power vested in one-off inquisitors by the pope. He describes the hair-raising campaigns of heretic-hunting inquisitors in Germany and the South of France in the 1200s, notably the egregious Conrad of Marburg appointed inquisitor in central Germany in 1231, or John of Capestrano, appointed heresy inquisitor by the pope in 1418. Already, in 1215 the Lateran Council, by insisting that bishops do everything in their power to suppress heresy on pain of dismissal, had incentivised people across society to come forward with denunciations. Basically a lot of people were tortured into confessing and then burned to death. A lot.

Along the way we learn about the beliefs, the demographics and then the terrible persecutions endured by groups such as:

  • the Paulicians – Christian sect which was formed in the 7th century and rejected a good deal of the Old and much of the New Testament, originally associated with Armenia and horribly persecuted by the Byzantine Empire
  • the Bogomils – sect founded in the First Bulgarian Empire by the priest Bogomil during the reign of Tsar Peter I in the 10th century, a form of opposition to the Bulgarian state and the church, they called for a return to what they considered to be early spiritual teaching, rejecting the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Dualists or Gnostics, they believed in a world within the body and a world outside the body, did not use the Christian cross, nor build churches, as they revered their gifted form and considered their body to be the temple, giving rise to many forms of practice to cleanse oneself through purging, fasting, celebrating and dancing.
  • the Waldensians – originated in the late twelfth century as the Poor Men of Lyon, a band organized by Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant who gave away his property around 1173, preaching apostolic poverty as the way to perfection. Waldensian teachings quickly came into conflict with the Catholic Church and by 1215, the Waldensians were declared heretical and subject to intense persecution.
  • the Fraticelli ‘de opinione’ – members of the Franciscan order of monks who rebelled against its growing worldliness and corruption (St Francis had died in 1226) and tried to return to a really primitive material life, owning literally nothing, and having no food from one day to the next. Declared heretics in the 1400s, Cohn goes into great detail about the trial of leading Fraticelli in 1466.
  • the Cathars – from the Greek katharoi meaning ‘the pure’, the Cathars were a dualist or gnostic movement which became widespread in Southern Europe between the 12th and 14th centuries. They believed there were two gods, one good, one evil – diametrically opposed to the Catholic church which believes in only one God. The Cathars believed the God of the Old Testament, creator of the physical world, was evil. Cathars thought human spirits were the genderless spirits of angels trapped in the material realm of the evil god, and destined to be reincarnated until they achieved salvation through the consolamentum, when they could return to the benign God of the New Testament.

The self-fulfilling nature of torture

Cohn introduces the reader to each groups’ likely beliefs and social origins, then describes how the secular and religious authorities (i.e. the King of France or Holy Roman Emperor or pope) launched an inquisition, sometimes even called a ‘crusade’, against each of them. (The crusade to exterminate the Cathars in the south of France became known as the Albigensian Crusade, 1209-1229).

And then he makes his over-arching point which is that, time and time and time again, the use of torture made ‘heresies’ appear to explode, appear to be held by huge numbers of people, at all levels of society, as innocent victims were roped in and tortured and, quite quickly, would say anything and implicate anyone in order to stop the torture (or, more cruelly, to prevent their family and children being tortured, too).

Yet as soon as they were free to speak in front of secular courts, again and again these supposed ‘heretics’ recanted and said they only confessed to the bizarre rituals, murder, cannibalism and orgies, because they were tortured into saying so.

Cohn shows that there were real heretics i.e. groups who rejected the worldly corruption of the Catholic Church and tried to return to the simple, pure, ascetic life of the early apostles and that, on its own terms, the Church was correct to be concerned about them and to try and bring them back within the fold.

But that the way it did this – by trying to blacken their name by getting members to confess under torture to midnight masses where the Devil appeared in the shape of a black cat, and then a baby was ritually burned to death and its ashes mixed in with wine which all the followers had to drink to assert their membership — all this was fantasy cooked up in the feverish brains of Catholic propagandists and the inquisitors themselves.

What interests Cohn is the way these fantasies became formalised, and turned into part of received opinion, official ‘knowledge’ – not least when a list of these perverse practices was included in a formal papal bull, Vox in Rama, issued in 1233, which included the accusation that the Devil in person attended the midnight covens of the Waldensians and other heretics. In other words, by the early 13th century these absurd fantasies had received official sanction and recognition from the highest religious authorities on earth.

Although each of the heretic-hunting frenzies Cohn describes eventually burned out and stopped – sometimes due to the death or discrediting or, in the case of Conrad of Marburg, the assassination of the lead inquisitor – nonetheless, the period as a whole had established the absurd practices of all heretics and enemies of the Church as accepted, indisputable fact, sanctioned by the pope and the entire church hierarchy.

The crushing of the Knights Templar (pp.79-101)

Cohn then goes on to show how precisely the same old tropes, the same accusations of unnatural and blasphemous crimes, were dusted off and dragged out to accuse the Knights Templars, in their trials which lasted from roughly 1307 to 1309. His account is largely the same as Michael Haag’s in The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States namely that the whole farrago of trumped-up accusations was made by King Philip the Fair of France in order to get his hands on the Templars’ vast amounts of gold and land. Its more proximate cause was that Philip wanted to merge the two great crusading orders, the Templars and Knights Hospitallers, into one super-order and then place himself at the head of it in order to lead a mighty new crusade – but that was never very likely to, and indeed never did, happen.

Instead Philip’s loyal bureaucrats pounced, arresting all the Templars on the same day and submitting them to torture to force them to admit to the same litany of crimes: that at the initiation ceremony they were forced to spit on the cross, to kiss their initiator on the lower back, buttocks or mouth, agree to sodomy if requested by a senior brother, and other blasphemous acts such as worshiping a malevolent satanic head.

All the Templars who were tortured signed confessions agreeing this is what they had done – understandable, seeing that the tortures included:

  • having your hands tied behind you, being hauled up via a hook secured to the ceiling, then suddenly released, coming to a stop with a jerk, so that the tendons, muscles and sometimes bones on your shoulders and bones were abruptly torn or shattered
  • having your feet covered in grease and pit in a naked fire, where they roasted until the toe and feet bones fell out of the cooked flesh

As one Templar said, rather than submit to the tortures he would have confessed that he personally murdered Jesus Christ. The sorry saga dragged on for three years because Pope Clement feebly tried to rescue the order which was, theoretically, answerable only to him. But being himself French and a nominee of the French crown, and based in Avignon on French soil, he eventually, feebly acquiesced in the crushing of the order, the confiscation of its wealth and the burning at the stake of its four most senior officers (plus at least a hundred others).

The fate of the Templars is a sorry, sordid tale of greed, corruption and unbelievable cruelty, but for me is one more proof that the nominally Christian Middle Ages were a complicated mixture of genuine religious belief, almost incomprehensible religious fanatacism, alongside staggering cruelty, all underpinned by very recognisable motives of greed and ambition.

More generally, Cohn’s review of how society has tended to demonised outsider groups -from as far back as we have records – sheds sobering light on this permanent tendency of human nature, and shows how even the most ridiculous prejudices and bigotries can be entrenched as established ‘fact’, and then revived as and when needed to persecute the different, the strange, the non-conformist, the helpless. Couldn’t happen now? Well, the career of the fanatical heretic-inquisitor Conrad of Marburg could be usefully compared to that of Senator Joe McCarthy. And in our own time, right now, 2019, we are seeing the revival of all kinds of tropes and stereotypes designed to justify prejudice and persecution. At least we don’t strappado people or burn them to death – but the underlying impulses of human nature haven’t changed one whit.

Some Knights Templar being burned at the stake, illustration in the Chroniques de France ou de St. Denis.


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The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States (1) by Michael Haag (2012)

From its title I expected this book to focus narrowly on the history of the Knights Templars, but it is much more than that.

The Knights Templar

The history of the order can be summarised thus:

The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, also known as the Order of Solomon’s Temple, the Knights Templar or simply the Templars, were a Catholic military order founded in 1119 after the First Crusade had seized Jerusalem. The order was recognised by the Pope in 1139 and was active until 1312 when it was suppressed by Pope Clement V.

The Templars became a favoured charity throughout Christendom and grew rapidly in membership and power. Templar knights, in their distinctive white mantles with a red cross, were among the most skilled fighting units of the Crusades. Non-combatant members of the order, who formed as much as 90% of the order’s members, managed a large economic infrastructure throughout Christendom, developing innovative financial techniques that were an early form of banking, building its own network of nearly 1,000 commanderies and fortifications across Europe and the Holy Land, and arguably forming the world’s first multinational corporation.

The Templars were closely tied to the Crusades so that when the Holy Land was lost, support for the order faded. Rumours about the Templars’ secret initiation ceremony created distrust, and King Philip IV of France – deeply in debt to the order – took advantage of this distrust to destroy them and erase his debt. In 1307, he had many of the order’s members in France arrested, tortured into giving false confessions, and burned at the stake. It was under pressure from King Philip that Pope Clement V disbanded the order in 1312. (Wikipedia)

From that time to the present day rumours have swirled around the Templars, and I have met conspiracy theorists who think that the tentacles of the transnational organisation they founded persist to the present day, and underlie modern banking/wars/global inequality.

Deep history, revisionist history

So much for the order itself. What is surprising about Haag’s book is the extreme thoroughness with which he presents the deep historical background for the crusades themselves, a history so deep it goes back before the founding of Christianity, and covers the conquests of Alexander the Great (333-323 BC), the rise of the Roman Empire, the fall of Rome to the barbarians, the endurance of the Byzantine empire, the rise of Persian power, and then the eruption of militant Islam into the Middle East in the 630s.

And the reason he goes back to such an early period is because…

Haag presents the entire crusading enterprise in a radically revisionist light.

The politically correct, modern view of the crusades is that they were a racist, orientalist, unjustified, colonial attack by rapacious, cruel and undisciplined European armies, motivated solely by greed and personal aggrandisement, against the peace-loving Muslim world upon whose civilians (and even local Christian populations) they perpetrated grotesque massacres.

By going so very far back into the deep pre-history of the crusades Haag aims to present us with the broadest possible historical context for them, a perspective which then forms the basis of his drastic reinterpretation. Thus he claims that:

1. At the time of the First Crusade the majority of the population of Palestine was Christian – so the crusades weren’t an attack on a majority population of Muslims, but an attempt to rescue the majority population of the area from subjugation by alien oppressors. He quotes a young Islamic scholar Ibn al-Arabi who stayed in Jerusalem from 1093 to 1096 and wrote that, four and a half centuries after the Muslim conquest, Jerusalem was still a predominantly Christian city, as was Palestine generally:

The country is theirs [the Christians’] because it is they who work its soil, nurture its monasteries and maintain its churches. (quoted on page 88)

2. Because it was not the Christians, but the Muslims who were the outsiders and conquerors – erupting into the Levant in the 7th century and imposing a violent, racist, imperialist ideology on the native inhabitants of the region over the next few hundred years.

You can see how that is completely opposite to the self-hating, anti-western narrative most of us are used to. Haag goes back to the start of the Christian era to show that:

  1. The entire Mediterranean basin, from the south of Spain through Italy and Greece on to Anatolia and the Levant, then around Egypt and along the whole coastline of North Africa to Ceuta opposite Spain – this entire region was part of the Roman Empire.
  2. Christianity did not spread via the sword; the exact opposite, for its first three centuries (from Jesus’ execution in 33 AD to the Emperor Constantine decriminalising Christianity in 312) Christianity spread like wildfire around the Mediterranean empire despite the violent and cruel attempts of the Empire to crush it. Christianity was not a religion of the sword but of proselytising and persuasion, which despite all efforts to stamp it out had nonetheless become the de facto religion of the Empire by the mid-350s, and was officially made the state religion by the Emperor Theodosius in the 390s.
  3. With the result that, from around 400 to around 700 AD, the entire Mediterranean basin formed one unified Christian civilisation.

The extent of the Roman Empire under the Emperor Trajan in 117 AD

The invaders were the Muslims, who erupted from Arabia in the 650s and quickly overran Persia and the Levant, then spread along North Africa, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and pushed up through Spain, crossing the Pyrenees and raiding half way-up France until stopped at the Battle of Tours in 732. From about 718 onwards, various Christian princes and armies began the very long, slow process of reconquering Spain for Christianity – the so-called Reconquista – which was only completed in 1492, over 700 years later.

The spread of Islam 622 – 750

Meanwhile, Muslim armies continued pushing eastwards into Persia and on towards India, and north and west through Anatolia towards the embattled centre of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople, which they were only prevented from capturing by a series of heroic stands by succeeding Byzantine emperors.

During the 800s and 900s Muslims also seized the islands of Cyprus, Malta, Sicily (842) and the Balearic Islands, using them and ports along the North African coast as bases for pirate raids on Christian ships and ports. They even attacked the heart of Christendom in the West, the city of Rome, in 846, when Muslim raiders plundered the outskirts, sacking the basilicas of Old St Peter’s and St Paul’s-Outside-the-Walls, and were only prevented from entering the city itself by the sturdiness of the Aurelian Wall. In 849 another Arab raid targeted Rome’s port, Ostia, but was repelled.

This, then, was the broad – and often ignored – context for the crusades. Christian Europe was, in effect, under siege from extremely fierce warriors motivated by an ideology which aimed to suppress or wipe out all traces of Christian civilisation.

Haag goes on to make key points about the new Muslim overlords of the conquered areas:

1. The Muslim rulers generally despised agriculture and manual labour. In all the Mediterranean lands they conquered they saw themselves as a warrior élite whose fierce ideology justified them in subjugating the native inhabitants who were overwhelmingly Christian in culture and belief. The native Christians and Jews (in Palestine, particularly) were subject to punitive taxes, unable to worship openly, forbidden to repair their churches or synagogues and, in some periods, forced to wear specific clothes or even branded to indicate their lowly serf status.

2. The call for Christians in France and Italy – the ‘West’ – to come to the aid of their fellow Christians in the newly-occupied lands were not new to the 11th century (when the crusades began). Throughout the 800s, 900s and 1000s came repeated pleas for help from Spain, from the imperiled emperor at Byzantium, from Christian leaders in Alexandria and Jerusalem –  pleas to be liberated from semi-slavery, from the Muslim desecration of Christian holy places, and the destruction of churches and synagogues. From the suppression of the original Christian culture and belief of the native inhabitants.

Of the five original patriarchal seats of the Roman Empire – Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem – by the 1050s Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem had fallen into Muslim hands, and – as mentioned – Constantinople was under permanent threat.

In other words, seen from this deep historical perspective, it is not the Christians who were the aggressors. Christian armies didn’t march on Mecca and Medina and occupy them and tear down their holy places and plunder their treasures and force the native inhabitants to wear special markers on their clothes or even to be branded. Christian armies have never attacked the holy places of Islam.

But Muslim armies had by the 800s:

  • conquered Alexandria, the great centre of Christian learning
  • Jerusalem, where Jesus was tried, executed and rose from the dead
  • Antioch, home of the first Gentile Christian church and where the term ‘Christian’ was first used
  • and Constantinople, explicitly founded as the new, Christian capital of the Roman Empire

For Haag, then, the crusades are the precise opposite of a colonial Western attempt to conquer peace-loving Muslims; they were an attempt to recover authentically and originally Christian lands, shrines and holy places which the Muslims had seized and whose majority Christian populations the Muslims were oppressing.

Haag makes further arguments.

Jerusalem not a Muslim holy city By going back into the deep history he shows that Jerusalem was, for centuries, not the Holy City for Muslims which is it now generally seen to be. It is so now because the tradition grew up that the city was the location of the Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey. Just to be crystal clear, I’ll quote Wikipedia on the subject of the Night Journey.

The Isra and Mi’raj are the two parts of a Night Journey that, according to Islam, the Islamic prophet Muhammad took during a single night around the year 621. Within Islam it signifies both a physical and spiritual journey. The Quran surah al-Isra contains an outline account, while greater detail is found in the hadith collections of the reports, teachings, deeds and sayings of Muhammad. In the accounts of the Isra’, Muhammad is said to have traveled on the back of a winged mule-like white beast, called Buraq, to ‘the farthest mosque’. By tradition this mosque, which came to represent the physical world, was identified as the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. At the mosque, Muhammad is said to have led the other prophets in prayer. His subsequent ascent into the heavens came to be known as the Mi‘raj. Muhammad’s journey and ascent is marked as one of the most celebrated dates in the Islamic calendar.

But Haag points out that the sura in the Koran which is the basis of this belief in no way mentions Jerusalem, but simply refers to ‘the farthest mosque’ or masjid.

Glory to Him Who carried His beloved by night from the Sacred Masjid to the Furthest Masjid, whose precincts We have blessed, to show him of Our wonders! He it is Who is All-Hearing, All-Seeing![Quran 17:1 (Translated by Tarif Khalidi)]

In Haag’s view, the tradition that Muhammad’s flight took place from Jerusalem was created after Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslims. He describes in detail the career of Muslim warrior Abd al-Malik Ibn Marwan, who built the al-Aqsah mosque (which became known as the Dome of the Rock) in Jerusalem in order to promote and aggrandise his achievements, and in deliberate competition with the large Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

But, as Haag highlights, the carved inscription inside the al-Aqsah mosque in which al-Malik claims credit for building it (and also threatens Christians and Jews unless they obey their Muslim overlords) which is also one of the earliest written records of a text from the Koran – this inscription nowhere mentions the Night Flight. Thus:

far from commemorating the Night Journey, the Dome of the Rock seems to have generated the tradition. (p.34)

The point of this section is that Haag is seeking to undermine or question what most historians (and ordinary people) tend to take for granted, which is that Jerusalem was a Muslim Holy City at the time of the Crusades.

Not so, claims Haag. It certainly had been a Jewish and then a Christian Holy City – it had been founded by Jews and was the centre of their world for a thousand years before the Romans arrived, and it was where the Jewish heretic and/or Son of God, Jesus, was crucified and rose again and preached to his disciples before ascending into heaven, which makes it pretty obviously holy to Christians, too.

But for the Muslim rulers it was, at least to begin with, just one among numerous ports and trading centres in the Levant, with no particular strategic significance in itself, but with the notable perk that – as a destination for European pilgrims could be heavily taxed – it was a useful profit centre.

Saladin not a Muslim hero In another reversal of the usual story, Haag points out that Saladin (An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub), the legendary opponent of Richard the Lionheart during the Third Crusade (1189-92), was not an Arab at all, but a Kurd, who spent more time fighting against his fellow Muslims than against Christians.

For years before he finally took Jerusalem, Saladin fought Muslim rivals in Egypt and Syria in his efforts to found a new dynasty, the Ayyubid dynasty. Above all, Saladin aspired to supersede the Abbasid caliphate based in Baghdad and his seizure of Jerusalem was, for him, a great propaganda coup.

Thus if Saladin fought the Crusaders it wasn’t as part of a high-minded general Muslim resistance; it was as part of his attempts to gain kudos and respect in the Muslim world in order to reach his deeper goal, the establishment of his own dynasty, achieved through what Haag calls ‘an imperialist war.’ In fact, the core of the Muslim world, the caliphate based in Baghdad, hoped the Christians would defeat Saladin and thus remove this troublesome usurper.

Summary of Haag’s argument

In the section about the Night Flight, in his passages about Saladin, and in numerous other ways throughout this book, Haag sets out to counter the politically correct narrative and to show that:

  • the crusades were not a violent attack on the Muslim Holy City of Jerusalem because it was not in fact a genuine Muslim Holy City, not in the same way that Mecca or Medina were
  • the majority population of the Middle East was not Muslim, but Christian and Jewish
  • that the imperialists in the story were not the Europeans, but the conquering Muslims who (as he vividly shows) at various times massacred the native Christians and Jews (who had both been living there far longer than the Muslims) or imposed all kinds of restrictions on them – forbidding them to practice their religion in public, closing churches and synagogues, mulcting them for money, and making them wear special clothes, or even branding their skin

Which leads up to Haag’s claim that the Crusader States, far from being the oppressive intervention of Christian outsiders, were a rare period when the majority Christian population of Palestine had something approaching local rule, representing local interests.

These are the big, thought-provoking points Haag makes before he even gets to the origins of the Templars.

The vital role of Constantinople

It’s not the main focus of Haag’s book but, covering the Dark and Middle Ages in the East as he does, his narrative can’t help bringing out the way that Constantinople/Byzantium again and again and again proved a bulwark protecting the rest of Europe from the marauding Muslims.

Prompting the reader to reflect that, if Constantine had not happened to win the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 (the battle in which he defeated his main rival to the throne and thus became Emperor of Rome), and if Constantine had not become convinced of the power of Christianity – he would never have decided to create a new capital in the East and commissioned the mighty new city which came to be known as Constantinople. And this city and its outlying territories and warrior population would not have gone on to become Christian Europe’s main bulwark and protection against invading Muslims for eight hundred years (from the 600s until its fall in 1453).

And so, if it had not been for this sequence of fortunate events, might not the whole of Europe – and so its later colonies like America, Australasia and so on – not all now be Muslim?


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A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain by Marc Morris (2008)

This is a really good book about a key figure in medieval history: it feels deep and rich, comprehensively researched, and consistently thought-provoking. It provides a long, thorough and convincing portrait of this ‘great’ medieval king, with lots of insights into the culture and society of his time, not only of England, but of Wales and Scotland too. Above all, ploughing through this detailed account of the challenges Edward faced gives you a profound understanding of the sheer difficulty of being a medieval king.

You can read a good account of Edward I’s reign on Wikipedia. From Morris’s book a number of themes and ideas emerge over and above the basic facts:

The name ‘Edward’

Edward was an odd and unfashionable name for a Plantagenet king. It is a Saxon name from the same stable as Egbert and Aelfred – starkly different from the French names Norman aristocracy and royalty were used to – Guillaume, Henri, Jean, Richard and so on. This was because Edward’s father, Henry III, a feeble king, grew increasingly obsessed by religion and in particular with the last king of Saxon England, the saintly Edward the Confessor. Henry went so far as to have the Confessor’s bones dug up and reinterred in Westminster Abbey, which Henry also had rebuilt to the Confessor’s greater glory. And this is why he named his first-born son Edward.

Young manhood and education

Born in 1239, Edward grew up amid the chaos of the reign of useless father, Henry III. A major contributing factor to the chaos was the corrupt and violent behaviour of Henry’s in-laws, the French de Lusignan family (relatives of Henry’s scheming wife, Eleanor of Provence).

Discontent erupted in 1258 when a group of Henry’s senior nobles staged what was in effect a coup, forcing the king to expel the de Lusignans and to agree a comprehensive reform programme known as the Provisions of Oxford. From this high point the barons’ coup then slowly crumbled from within as they squabbled among themselves, but Henry was unable to regain full control of his kingdom and the ongoing instability led to another eruption in 1263, named The Second Barons War.

The rebel barons were led by the religious fanatic and land-grabbing baron Simon de Montfort. There’s quite a back story here, because earlier in his reign the impressionable Henry had allowed the charismatic and overbearing Montfort to marry his sister (against a lot of courtly opposition), so the rebel leader was in fact Henry’s own brother-in-law.

The rebels won the bloody Battle of Lewes in 1264, taking Henry and prince Edward (aged 25) prisoner. Edward was moved to a ‘safe’ castle in the west of England and generously given free reign which proved to be a mistake because one day he escaped on horseback to rejoin his royalist colleagues. The regrouped royalists brought the rebels to battle at Evesham in the West Midlands, killing the leading rebels including de Montfort.

Henry III was restored to a shaky sort of power, but now limited by the charters and rules he’d been obliged to comply with – the rough outlines of a ‘constitution’. For example, it was agreed that there would now be regular meetings of his nobles, the knights of the shires and burgesses from the major towns and cities. The new word ‘parliament’ began to be applied to these triannual meetings.

Henry III at first fiercely punished the rebels, confiscating their lands, imposing massive fines – but slowly discovered that this only drove the scattered rebels into further confrontation. Soon there were so many of them they acquired a name, ‘the Disinherited’, and hid out in remote parts of the realm such as the Isle of Ely, where they were difficult to defeat.

Edward learned a lot from all this.

a) In the initial stages of the rebellion he had (unbelievably) sided with de Montfort; only later, when push came to shove, did he rejoin his father’s party. Because of this he acquired a reputation for deceit and flipping sides which, as king, he was determined to rise above, by making clear and consistent decisions.
b) He realised it is a bad tactic to fiercely crush the defeated (cf the Allies’ behaviour to Wilhelmine Germany after the Great War) – you only sow the seeds for further conflict. Much better is the grand magnanimity and forgiveness practiced by his great-grandfather, Henry II, who repeatedly forgave his rebellious sons and other nobles (or America’s astonishingly forgiving attitude to defeated Japan in 1945).
c) Regular parliaments are an excellent way of letting disgruntled citizens state their problems. Right from the start of Edward’s reign he instituted regular meetings of the ‘parliament’ and he made a point of following up problems of corruption and out-of-date laws.

Crusade

If his father was besotted with the historic figure of Edward the Confessor, Edward developed a cult for the legendary King Arthur. Morris has some amusing pages explaining the rise of the legend of Arthur and the key part played in it by the fraud Geoffrey of Monmouth whose History of the Kings of Britain (written about 1136) is a farrago of fantasy and tall stories, but which devotes 60 or so pages to this King Arthur, providing a ‘factual’ basis which later writers spun out into extravagant stories.

So the first thing Edward did after marrying Eleanor of Castile was take his new bride to Glastonbury to see the (alleged and certainly faked) burial caskets containing Arthur and Guinevere. Edward was always to understand the importance of managing public events connected with the monarchy with high drama and theatrical trappings so as to imbue them with the maximum meaning and power.

He made a grand ceremony of ‘taking the cross’ to go a-crusading in 1268, in his father’s waning years. Morris shows in detail how he then set about mulcting the kingdom for the money he would need to lead his pack of knights and hangers-on to the Holy Land. Part one of the route was to head to the South of France to rendezvous with the senior partner in the crusade, King Louis IX of France. But on arrival at the Mediterranean he was dismayed to discover that Louis had been persuaded by his brother, Charles of Anjou, King of Sicily, not to sail to the Holy Land, but to Tunis in North Africa, to put down pirates who were causing Charles trouble. By the time Edward arrived in Tunis, Louis had made a peace treaty with the local emir so there was no fighting to be done.

The two fleets then sailed to Sicily but here a massive storm wrecked the French fleet, anchored on one side of Sicily, and the French king decided to go home. Edward continued with the English fleet – safely anchored on the other side of Sicily – to the Holy Land. His time here wasn’t quite a fiasco but it wasn’t a stunning success: Jerusalem had fallen fifty years earlier and the Crusader ‘kingdom’ more or less amounted to the town of Acre and a slender stretch of coastline. This was menaced by the Mamluk Muslims under their canny leader Baybars. A pointless foray to attack some Arab villages led to ferocious counter-measures.

The Crusaders’ best hope was to make an alliance with the new threat from the north, the Mongols, who had swept out of central Asia in the late 1100s and now held territory right across Asia, including to the north of Palestine in modern Iran. For various reasons the alliance didn’t come off. Edward realised the futility of his presence when Hugh II, king of Jerusalem, was forced to sign a peace treaty with Baybars, and all offensive operations were cancelled.

The most dramatic thing that happened to Edward in the Holy Land was an assassination attempt by a lone killer sent from Baybars, who made his way into the royal chamber and then attacked Edward with a knife. He managed to wound the king in the arm before Edward overpowered and killed him. The wound took some time to heal, but eventually Edward was well enough to pack up and set off back to England.

It was en route, in Sicily, that he learned that his father had died, in November 1272. Surprisingly, he didn’t rush home, but took his time, visiting his lands in Gascony, south-west France, and then making a point of visiting the French king and renewing his father’s fealty to him i.e. confirming the arrangement that Edward ‘owned’ Gascony on behalf of the French king.

It is a forlorn theme of the rest of Edward’s life, which Morris brings out, that he repeatedly made massive efforts to raise the money to go on a further crusade – but every time his preparations were stymied by the outbreak of conflict nearer to home and the money and troops raised to free the Holy Land were repeatedly decoyed into the never-ending conflicts in Wales or Scotland or France.

France

Edward’s father, the weakling Henry III, had been compelled in 1259 to travel to Paris and kneel before King Louis IX. Under the Treaty of Paris, Henry gave up any claim to his family’s lands in the north of France – this represented the final irrevocable loss of Normandy, Brittany, Anjour, Maine – all the territories his father (John) and uncle (Richard) and grandfather (Henry II) had laboured so long and hard to preserve. In return, though, Henry – and Edward after him – were confirmed as the legitimate rulers of Gascony, the rich wine-growing region in south-west France – so long as they did homage and recognised Louis as their feudal lord for these possessions.

Although it was an unstable arrangement, Edward had good personal relations with the French kings of his day, travelled to Paris more than once to confirm the arrangement and so – eerily – we were at peace with France for the first half of his reign.

This changed abruptly in Edward’s final, troubled decade, with the advent of a new French king, Philip IV. The French encouraged their merchant ships in the Channel to clash with English ships, with casualties on both sides. When Philip requested Edward to attend in person in Paris to discuss these and other minor skirmishes, Edward was too busy in Scotland to attend and so the French king declared Gascony forfeit.

Outraged, for the next ten years Edward tried to organise a major reconquest of Gascony but kept getting derailed by his troubles in Wales and Scotland. Some expeditionary forces were sent to the province, but generally were defeated or made small gains which were overturned by the much larger French forces. In the end it was the pope who came to Edward’s aid, demanding a peace between the two Christian kings and the restoration of the province by the French under pain of excommunication. We regained Gascony thanks to the pope.

Wales

The leading figure in late 12th century Wales was Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. He was based in the core Welsh territory in the north, Gwynedd, which included the Isle of Anglesea. During the turmoil of Henry III’s reign, Llywelyn – via the 1267 Treaty of Montgomery – had expanded his territory to include the Four Cantrefs of Perfeddwlad and was recognised in his title of Prince of Wales.

Morris explains how different Welsh laws and customs were to English ones. The Welsh regarded themselves as heirs to the Britons who once inhabited all of Britain but had been disinherited twice over – once by the invading Anglo-Saxons from the 500s  and then by the Normans after 1066. Successive English kings had allotted the lands along the border with Wales to their strongest nobles. The border was known as the March and the nobles collectively as the Marchers. March lands had their own laws and customs and the Marcher lords liked to think that they were bounden to neither Welsh nor English laws. Low-level conflict between the Marcher lords and the Welsh was almost permanent.

English estates were passed on through primogeniture i.e. the eldest son inherits the entire estate. This has the merit of keeping grand estates united, making clear who the heir is, and has the spin-off effect of motivating younger sons to go and do something worthwhile like fight for the king or go on crusade. The Welsh had a completely different system of partitioning the estate of a dead man among all his male heirs. This led to the continual fragmentation of Welsh territory into small, relatively powerless estates, and to continual conflict between male members of families, and their allies.

So it was that Llywelyn’s fiercest enemies weren’t the English Marcher lords, but his own family, specifically his younger brother Dafydd. In 1274 Dafydd and Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn of Powys organised an assassination attempt against Llywelyn. It failed and they defected to the English, promising to fight for Edward in return for part of Llywelyn’s land. Morris enumerates the numerous minor incursions and skirmishes between English and Welsh in these years – but the snapping point came when Llywelyn announced his intention to marry Eleanor, daughter of Simon de Montfort, the great enemy of his father. The alliance of his Welsh enemies with the powerful de Montfort family on the Continent was too dangerous to be allowed. In November 1276 Edward declared war on Llywelyn and invaded with a massive force of 15,500 – of whom 9,000 were Welshmen. There wasn’t any single major battle, just skirmishes, the Welsh making hit-and-run guerrilla attacks on the larger force then running back to the hills.

(In fact it’s a characteristic of medieval warfare that there were very few battles; campaigns consisted of armies making great marches destroying, burning and pillaging everything in their path. It’s startling to read that, when King Edward finally brought William Wallace to battle at Falkirk on 22 July 1298, it was the first battle Edward had been involved in for 33 years, since the Battle of Evesham in 1265!)

Edward reinforced his advance by setting masons to build castles at key defensive points on his march into Llywelyn’s heartland. While his military campaign squeezed the Welsh into more remote fastnesses, the castles were built to protect Edward’s rear and to provide a permanent means of controlling the region. Llywelyn was forced to surrender. By the Treaty of Aberconwy in November 1277, Llywelyn was deprived of all his conquests of the previous twenty years, and left only with the core heartland of Gwynedd, and the rather empty title of ‘Prince of Wales’.

Edward pressed on with his castle-building. Most of the castles which the Welsh Tourist Board invites you to come and marvel at are in fact symbols of their nation’s subjection by the English.

But the insensitive imposition of English law and practices turned many minor Welsh nobility who had been neutral in the Llywelyn war against the settlement, and in 1282 war broke out again, led again by the difficult Dafydd. This time Edward was angry at the breach of the peace treaty, and invaded in full strength determined to take no prisoners. Llywelyn was killed at the Battle of Orewin Bridge in December 1282. In June 1283 Dafydd was also captured, taken to Shrewsbury, and hanged, drawn and quartered. The heads of the rebellious brothers were sent to London to be exhibited on spikes.

But peace in the Middle Ages never lasts long. There were further rebellions in 1287–88 and, in 1294, a serious uprising under the leadership of Madog ap Llywelyn, a distant relative of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. Edward successfully suppressed both, but at some cost, and causing disruption to his other plans (the Holy Land, Gascony).

Edward was determined to stamp complete control on Wales. By the 1284 Statute of Rhuddlan, the Principality of Wales was incorporated into England and was given an administrative system like the English, with counties policed by sheriffs – ‘coins, laws, towns and charters’ as Morris sums it up. Edward embarked on the full-scale English settlement of Wales, creating new towns like Flint, Aberystwyth and Rhuddlan. The inhabitants of these towns were to be solely English, with the Welsh banned from living in them. Morris doesn’t hesitate to call this a form of apartheid.

(A fascinating aspect of these new towns or bastides is that, contrary to popular belief that the Middle Ages built everything in quaint windy lanes, they were laid out on a rigid grid pattern as this aerial view of Winchelsea, one of Edward’s English new towns, makes clear.)

Castles

The main medieval strategy for securing a conquered territory was to build castles. We are lucky in having the name of Edward’s master mason, an Italian he recruited in his slow journey back from the Ninth Crusade – Master James of Saint George.

Master James built the castles of Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy and Harlech, which were intended as both fortresses and royal palaces for the King. These strongholds made a strong statement about Edward’s intentions to rule North Wales permanently. They drew on imagery from both the Byzantine Empire (in the shape and coloration of the buildings) and the legend of King Arthur, to assert the legitimacy of Edward’s rule.

In 1284 King Edward ensured that his son Edward (later Edward II) was born at Caernarfon Castle – another deliberate statement about the new political order in Wales. In 1301 at Lincoln, the young Edward became the first English prince to be invested with the title of ‘Prince of Wales’ – a tradition which continues to this day – and was granted land across North Wales with a view to permanently controlling the region.

Scotland

Morris has an interesting few pages about 13th century English racism i.e. the firm conviction that the Welsh, Irish and Scots were semi-human barbarians. This was based on their poverty relative to lush fertile England, to their chaotic social structures (the hosts of petty ‘kings’ always fighting each other), to their different attitudes to sex and marriage, and to their traditions of Christianity, alien in many ways to the orthodox Catholicism of the English and especially of the Europeanised Norman kings.

But within this general observation there are fascinating insights.

For example, the Welsh were ethnically very unified, descendants of the Britons, the original inhabitants of the island, who had been pushed west by the Romans, more so by the Angles and Saxons, and then again by the Norman invaders. Yet, partly because of their tradition of partitioning estates at the death of their owner among all adult males, the country was in a permanent state of infighting among a host of petty lords.

This contrasted strongly with 13th century Scotland, which was a surprisingly multi-ethnic society: in the south-west were the original ‘Brittonic elements’, but the south-east was mostly populated by English, remnants of the extensive Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria; in the west the inhabitants were of Gaelic stock, having immigrated from Ireland during the Dark Ages; and all around the coast, especially in the islands, lived people of Norwegian (Viking) stock (p.241). Then, after the Conquest, numbers of Norman knights settled in Scottish lands and, in the mid-12th century, there was a large influx of Flemish settlers.

Yet despite this multi-ethnicity, ironically the Scots had a more unified political culture than the Welsh, mainly because they had adopted the European idea of primogeniture, which ensured the maintenance of a strong central power. There were still civil wars and rebellions, but behind them all was always the established idea of one king of Scotland, in a way that there wasn’t an accepted idea of one central king of Wales.

It’s interesting to learn that around the end of the 11th century Scotland underwent a significant ‘anglicisation’. It is usually dated to the rule of Scots King David I. David had been brought up at the court of Henry I, around 1100, where he imbibed the courtly and urbane manners of European culture. As Morris points out, before this Scots kings had generally had Gaelic names, like Malcolm (Máel Coluim); afterwards they tended to have classical, Biblical or Norman names – Alexander, William, David. In fact, so sweeping were the changes that medieval scholars refer to them collectively as the ‘Davidian Revolution’:

The Davidian Revolution is a term given by many scholars to the changes which took place in the Kingdom of Scotland during the reign of David I (1124–1153). These included his foundation of burghs, implementation of the ideals of Gregorian Reform, foundation of monasteries, Normanization of the Scottish government, and the introduction of feudalism through immigrant Norman and Anglo-Norman knights. (Wikipedia)

All this meant that the kings of England tended to have much more respect for the King of the unified Scots than for the prince of the squabbling Welsh. They were more their idea of what kings should be. Edward I had been on good terms with the Scots king of his day, Alexander III (reigned 1249 to 1286), who paid him homage for the English lands he held of him (much as Edward paid the King of France homage for his territory of Gascony).

But when Alexander’s two sons and daughter all died young, and then Alexander himself died in 1286, and then his grand-daughter, seven-year-old Matilda, died while sailing back from Norway (where she’d been born) in 1290, there were no blood relatives left – the line of Alexander became defunct. This led to a massive succession crisis known in Scotland as ‘The Great Cause’.

There was a wide range of candidates to succeed and so an independent arbiter was needed. The nobles in charge of the process, the so-called ‘Guardians’ of Scotland, decided to ask King Edward to adjudicate the various claims. But Edward promptly horrified the Scots nobles by claiming complete sovereignty over Scotland. This set off a long train of highly legalistic disputes, claims and counter-claims. Morris details the complex negotiations whereby both sides tried to reconcile their conflicting views.

In fact a distinguishing feature of this book is the detail Morris goes into to show how legalistic so many of these disputes were in origin and enactment. I.e Edward was generally at pains to establish his right to a territory or cause; in the case of the Scots legalistic attempts to establish the next king dragged on for years before there was any hint of violence and many of the details are illuminating and amusing, for example the refusal of the Scots nobles to pay homage to Edward on English soil, leading to a lot of toing and froing over the bridge over the Tweed which formed the border between the two kingdoms.

On a high level, the legal approaches broke down and led to open warfare, which dragged on for the rest of Edward’s reign. The English beat the Scots, the Scots beat the English – either one of the two main contenders for the throne – Robert the Bruce or John Balliol – alternately allied with Edward then turned against him. Stirling castle was lost, then won again, then lost again.

In a way these wars are like love stories – ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again’ is the famous summary of all Hollywood love stories – similarly, ‘King of England conquers Scotland (or Wales or Ireland), King of England loses Scotland (or Wales or Ireland), King of England conquers Scotland (or Wales or Ireland) again’ is the high level summary. the interest is in the detail, and a lot of the detail in fact comes down to money.

Taxes

In his preface Morris says this is the first full-length biography of Edward for a century. I would guess that some of the biggest changes since the last one would be a more politically correct, culturally aware sense of the impact of English rule on the other nations of Britain (described above). But I also imagine this book goes into much greater detail about the economics of kingship.

These kings lived in a state of permanent financial crisis. The uprising against Henry III was prompted partly because of the corrupt influence of foreigners at court, but also because of Henry’s arbitrary and fierce levying of taxes on his subjects. The single biggest theme in Morris’s book isn’t war or King Arthur or Scotland – it is Edward’s permanent struggle to find enough money to pay for everything.

Crusades, building castles, fighting the Welsh, fighting the Scots, defending Gascony – they all cost money, drained the royal coffers, and Morris goes into exacting detail about Edward’s finances. Broadly speaking, in the first half of his reign Edward went out of his way to appear constitutional, to confirm the annual calling of parliaments, to confirm Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forests, to review grievances and issues all around his kingdom, to tour his lands and listen to local sheriffs and knights. Morris details the clever arrangement Edward devised with his Italian bankers, the Riccardi family from Lucca, whereby Edward swore over to them a fixed annual percentage of his wool tax in return for loans.

But in the 1290s this system broke down under the pressure of multiple threats, in Wales, Scotland, Gascony and then the brief intense threat of invasion from France (French ships raided and burned some of the Cinque Ports on the South Coast). Edward was forced by the huge expenditure required by these simultaneous wars to break many of the good practices of his early reign, by imposing a bewildering range of clever and onerous taxes, on towns and merchants, on the entire wool trade, on nobles and barons, and a punishing set of taxes on the (very wealthy) English church. Among many other things, the book is a thorough introduction to the world of medieval taxes, to maltotes and prises, to scutage and tallages and fifteenths and thirtieths.

The last quarter of the book describes how Edward threw away much of the goodwill generated by 20 years of good kingship, and comprehensively alienated every element in society, prompting armed insurrection by a number of leading nobles (most frequently the earls of Norfolk and Hereford, Roger Bigod and Humphrey de Bohun). In the legalistic way of the age (and of Morris’s account) this led to numerous parliaments and confrontations – but by 1300 England teetered on the brink of a civil war, with church and nobility allied against the king, which hadn’t been seen since the bad days of King Henry in the 1250s.

Luckily, this very moment saw the eruption onto the scene of the Scottish nationalist William Wallace, who raised forces in the west of Scotland and went onto win a series of devastating victories against the (badly supplied) English garrisons. As news of these reached England, the crisis (temporarily) united king and aristocracy into a determination to defeat Wallace.

But even though the nobility closed ranks, Morris’s account is fascinating in showing just how hard it still was for Edward to persuade his nobility to fight at all – many of them refused the call to rally to the king’s standard or marched north only to hesitate and pull out at the last moment. Time and again Morris shows how the initially impressive levies of infantry quickly melted away once they’d crossed the border, basically because the king ran out of money and couldn’t afford to pay them. Edward’s letters to his Exchequer survive and record a king driven to mounting rage and frustration at not being sent enough money to pay  his troops, which melt away just at vital moments of the campaign.

I came to this book knowing that Edward was known as ‘the Hammer of the Scots’ but come away with a much more informed sense of the difficulty of funding medieval kingship and the really immense challenge of raising enough money to fund even a single military campaign.

In a telling symbol, Morris points out how Master James the castle builder had thousands of pounds in the 1280s to build edifices like Caernarfon out of solid stone, but by the late 1290s the money had slowed to a trickle and he was being paid only £20 a week to build the final castles of the reign, Linlithgow and Selkirk – and in wood!

The last seven years of his reign (to his death in 1307) involved more fighting against the Welsh and Scots and French but none of these was brought to a final resolution and he handed over the conflicts, the dire state of royal finances, and a nobility and church very disgruntled at being repeatedly fleeced and mulcted, over to his son, Edward II.

Wife and children

When he was 14 Edward was married off by his father to 13-year-old Eleanor, the half-sister of King Alfonso X of Castile. The idea behind this alliance was to make the southern borders of Gascony safe from attack. In this respect it worked but also, unusually for a medieval royal couple, Edward and Eleanor fell deeply in love. For their entire adult lives they were inseparable.

When Eleanor of Castile died, aged just 49, in 1290, Edward’s grief was immense and sincere. He built the largest funerary monument ever created in England – separate tombs, at Lincoln and Westminster. And a series of twelve large stone and marble crosses to mark each of the resting points of her corpse as it was carried from Lincoln to London – the last one being in central London at the station now known as Charing Cross (corrupted from the French chère reine or ‘dear queen’).

Eleanor of Castile had borne Edward 15 or 16 children (the precise number is uncertain). Only four of these were boys and so able to inherit the throne, but two died very young, John aged 4 and Henry aged 6. The succession then passed to the third son – Alfonso. Alfonso. There could have been an English king named Alfonso! But in the event, prince Alfonso also died relatively young – aged just 9 – and the throne was to pass to Edward and Eleanor’s 12th child and 4th son, also named Edward.


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books

King John by Marc Morris (2015)

I loved Marc Morris’s History of the Norman Conquest because it gave such a thorough explanation of the background, build-up, events and consequences of the most famous moment in English history, so I was looking forward to reading this book and it is certainly good – but not as good as the Conquest one, and I spent some time, as I read it, trying to figure out why.

1. The long historical build-up to John’s reign

I think the main reason is that the central feature of King John’s reign (1199 to 1216) is the complete collapse of the huge and elaborate ’empire’ created by his predecessors – Henry I (his grandfather), the great Henry II (his father) and King Richard, his swashbuckling brother.

The pressures John faced trying to hang on to the south (Aquitaine), the middle (Anjou) and the north (Normandy) of France, along with the large and fractious realm of England, as well as managing relations with Scotland, Wales and Ireland – all these only make sense if you have a good grasp of how this patchwork ’empire’ had been slowly and effortfully acquired by his father and brother in the first place.

So anyone describing John’s reign would have to give a fair amount of space to this ‘back story’. Thus Morris has to start his story with the advent of Henry I (1100) and explain how his son and heir, William Aetheling, was lost in a disastrous shipwreck (1120) which – since Henry had no other sons – led him to the desperate expedient of trying to impose his daughter, Matilda, as his heir on his reluctant nobles. When Henry I died in 1135 Matilda’s claim was immediately contested by her cousin, Stephen of Blois, who managed to secure the throne of England and ruled as King Stephen (1135 – 1154) but under constant assault from the forces loyal to Queen Matilda in the west and north of England leading to 20 years of exhausting civil war.

Eventually, in the event-packed last few years of his reign, Stephen’s own son and heir, Eustace, died young (in 1153) and Stephen was forced to accept the son of Matilda and her husband, Geoffrey Count of Anjou, Touraine and Maine, Henry, as his heir. Geoffrey enjoyed the sportive nickname of Plantagenet, and so this name was also given to his son, Henry.

The very next year Stephen himself died (1154) and young Henry Plantagenet assumed control over a complex web of territories – England from Stephen, Normandy via his grandfather the Conqueror, Anjou, Touraine and Maine from his father and, via his shrewd marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, possession of Aquitaine, a huge slab of south-west France, maybe a third the land area of the present-day France.

Because Henry’s central inheritance (from his father, Geoffrey) was of the Duchy of Anjou, the ’empire’ is often referred to as the Angevin Empire, Angevin being the adjectival form of Anjou (as Poitevin is the adjectival version of the neighbouring region of Poitou).

Just holding on to control of these far-flung territories needed every drop of this remarkable man’s confidence, aggression, cunning and ruthlessness. But it is only by understanding how the ’empire’ came about, almost by accident, that we can understand the context of problems which he and his sons – first Richard (1189-99) and then John (1199 to 1216) – would inherit:

  • How to maintain the disparate French possessions in the face of continual uprisings by local counts and lords?
  • How to fight off the continual attacks and threats of successive French kings – Louis VII and Philip II?
  • How to keep the aggressive Scottish kings bottled up in Scotland?
  • How to secure more land in Wales?
  • How and when to interfere in the troublesome island of Ireland?
  • How to manage relations with the pope, especially when you seem to be at loggerheads with one or other of your archbishops? (England has two archbishops – of Canterbury and of York)
  • How to pay for it all by raising the maximum amount of taxes but not alienating the fractious competing nobles of England?
  • And, above all, how to manage all this while coping with all the adult members of your family politicking and conspiring against you?

This context, this historical backdrop, the events of the 60 or 70 years prior to John’s accession (in 1199) are key to understanding John’s predicament.

2. Use of flashbacks

Rather than deal with this long historical run-up in a straightforward chronological account, Morris takes the risky decision to start his narrative in the middle of John’s reign, starting with a detailed account (along with pictures and two maps) of the French King Philip II’s siege of the Plantagenet castle of Château Gaillard, on the River Seine, 20 miles south-east of Rouen in 1204.

Having painted this scene, in chapter two Morris jumps all the way back to the birth of the family empire in the early 1100s (as outlined above). Chapter three returns us to the Château Gaillard siege (which turned out to be one of the longest and most gruelling in medieval history). Chapter four jumps back again, to 1189, when Henry II died and his son Richard succeeded.

This chapter takes us through the first half of Richard’s ten-year reign – his adventures on the Third Crusade (1189-92), his capture on his return through Europe, his imprisonment by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI and his final release after his regents in England had raised an enormous ransom for him in 1194 – then abruptly stops.

The next chapter picks up the thread of John’s reign in 1205 after the end of the Château Gaillard siege and the humiliating failure of his English nobles to join an armed flotilla designed to attack King Philip of France, then follows events of the ‘campaigning season’ of the following year, 1206.

We are just getting our head round this context when the next chapter whisks us away from all that, to pick up the second half of King Richard’s reign from 1194 and carry it on through to the first years of John’s reign, 1202.

And so on. For well over half its length the book flicks back and forward between a ‘present’ narrative and historical flashbacks. I think I can see why: he didn’t want to start his book with 60 or 70 pages of solid exposition before he gets to John’s coronation. But, for me, it doesn’t work.

Comparison with Dan Jones

It just so happens that I read Morris’s book  in parallel with Dan Jones’s jaunty, boys-own-adventure account of the entire Plantagenet dynasty. This tells the story outlined above but in a traditional chronological order and a direct comparison between the two suggests that, although Morris’s book is more scholarly and nuanced, Jones’s narrative is not only easier to read but gives you a much better cumulative sense of the issues at stake for all these rulers:

  • how the Angevin empire was originally created
  • the tremendously complex shifting alliances it required to keep it together
  • the history of the other major players involved, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, like Henry II’s rebellious children, like the pesky kings of France
  • as well as the litany of difficulties Henry, Richard and John all encountered while trying to tax the bolshy nobles of England
  • and the challenges of keeping the bloody church and interfering pope onside

To put yourself in the place of these (horrible) rulers you have to understand the constant pressure they were under from all sides (and the constant pressure they themselves exerted in the never-ending conflict which was medieval high politics). And the only hope you have of understanding why William of Scotland or Llewylyn of Wales or Louis of France attacked when and how they did, is to have a sense of the cumulative relationships between them and Henry or Richard or John, and the accumulated grudges or alliances or betrayals which feed into their behaviour.

It is hard enough to follow when presented clearly and simply so, for me, Morris’s approach made it hopelessly confusing. I quite quickly decided to read the chapters of his book out of the textual order he’s placed them in (reading chapters 2, 4, 6, 8, then 1, 3, 5, 7).

Detail

Dan Jones is shrewd to start his 600-page account of the Plantagenets with the sinking of the White Ship in 1120, which really seems to be the mainspring of the whole Plantagenet story. But his chronological approach also allows him to give events a properly detailed treatment as they occur – logically enough, there is a set of chapters devoted to Henry II and Richard I, before we get to the birth and youth of John.

Morris, by contrast, often skips over these earlier events in order to get to the ostensible subject of his book the quicker. He has to tell us something about the events of earlier reigns because John grew up under them and spent most of, for example Richard’s reign (1189-1199) politicking and conspiring against his brother – but he tends to skimp on details of Richard’s activities.

Thus he tells us simply that, en route to the Holy Land in 1191, Richard conquered Cyprus, in one sentence (p.72). Jones goes into much more detail, giving us a full description of Richard’s two-pronged assault on Cyprus (pp.118-119) and giving a typical snapshot that, once he’d conquered, Richard forced all Cypriot men to shave their beards off!

Similarly, Morris skips very briskly over Richard’s time in Palestine to focus on John’s scheming back in England. But we need to understand the detail of Richard’s activities in Palestine in order to understand how and why he managed to alienate so many of his Christian allies with such parlous consequences: we need to know that he scorned Philip of France so much that Philip eventually packed up and returned to Paris. And when the vital city of Acre was finally taken from the Muslims after a prolonged siege in which many Christian knights died of fighting or sickness (1191), Richard managed to infuriate Leopold Duke of Austria. Leopold had been involved in the siege for a year before Richard arrived and had demanded an equal place at the front of the victorious Crusader army as it rode into the fallen city along with Richard – but Richard rejected this request and added insult to injury by having Leopold’s flag torn down from the ramparts of Acre.

These details are vital because both Philip and Leopold returned to Europe before Richard and spread the blackest possible rumours about Richard’s treachery, lack of chivalry and so on, to anyone who would listen. When Richard finally decided to abandon the Crusade and return to England (prompted by news of the ruinous feud which had grown up between his chancellor William Longchamps and his enemies supported by John) Richard discovered that he was now a wanted man across most of Western Europe. So that when his ships were blown ashore in north Italy and he tried to make his way in disguise through Austrian lands, Richard was soon recognised, arrested and taken to the court of the very same Leopold who he had so fatefully insulted in Palestine – who promptly threw him into prison.

For sure Richard’s imprisonment, and the vast ransom demanded for his release, are all dealt with by Morris because they all impinge on the state of England and on John’s scheming (John was in his late 20s during the ransom crisis) – but the story makes much more sense, acquires a fuller depth of meaning, if you’ve been given a really good account of Richard’s activities in Palestine, and this Jones does better than Morris.

King John

King John

Notable aspects of John’s reign

It is in the second half of Morris’s book (chapters 9 to 14) – once he drops the flashback structure – that it becomes measurably more detailed and immersive than the Jones account. Having had a run-up of 150 pages or so you begin to have a feel for certain key players in the story – the ill-fated William de Brouze who John hounded into exile, imprisoning and starving to death his wife and son – or the remarkable William Marshall, 1st Earl of Pembroke, whose career spanned five monarchs, and who managed to survive accusations and punishments from the erratic John and went on to become guardian and regent for John’s young son, Henry III, when he succeeded in 1216.

And you get a feel for the relentless turnover of events: every year sees all the players on the board – the Scots, the Welsh, the numerous Irish and Anglo-Irish, the King of France, the nobles of Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, Main, Poitou, Angouleme, Gascony and so on, all girding their loins and setting off to fight each other, in a bewildering blizzard of alliances which shift and change at the drop of a hat. This second half of Morris’s book becomes really gripping, providing much more detail than Jones’s limited space can, and judiciously weighing evidence, balancing the accounts of the different contemporary chroniclers, as he gives a week by week account of John’s difficult confusing reign.

Some highlights

His reign lasted 17 years (1199 to 1216).

John Lackland While a boy under King Henry II John acquired the nickname ‘Lackland’ because his older brothers were all given substantial provinces to rule except for John, who was too young. Towards the end of his reign, the nickname was ironically revived to describe the way he had lost most of the Angevin Empire.

The loss of Brittany Arthur, Duke of Brittany From the very start of John’s reign there was an alternative ruler, Arthur, son of John’s elder son Geoffrey (who himself had died in 1186). Arthur was born in 1187 and so was 12 when King Richard died in 1199.

Arthur inherited from his father the title of Duke of Brittany, and his Breton nobles proved remarkably loyal to him, while Arthur himself sought help and advice from French King Philip II. The situation was worsened by the fact that back in 1190 Richard had officially declared the infant Arthur his legal heir (during his peace negotiations with Tancred of Sicily, p.67). On his death-bed Richard changed his mind and proclaimed John his heir, fearing Arthur was too young for the job – but the Bretons, and everyone opposed to John, took Arthur as a figurehead for their cause.

The to and fro of successive alliances and peace treaties whereby Arthur allied with Philip, then John, then Philip again, came to an end when, in one of the rare military successes of his rule, John captured Arthur, who was leading a force besieging his grand-mother, Eleanor, at the Château de Mirebeau in Anjou.

John sent his nephew to a series of castle prisons. The contemporary chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall reports the story that John sent two knights with orders to mutilate the duke but that his gaoler, Hubert de Burgh, refused to let them – a legend which quickly spread and later provided the central plotline of Shakespeare’s play, King John, as well as heaps of wonderfully sentimental Victorian illustrations, like this one.

Prince Arthur and Hubert de Burgh by William Frederick Yeames (1882)

Prince Arthur and Hubert de Burgh by William Frederick Yeames (1882)

Young Arthur was moved to Rouen prison in 1203 and never heard of again. Quickly the rumour got about that John had had Arthur murdered, though whether getting others to do it or, in one version, murdering his nephew himself in a drunken rage, has never been confirmed. The rumour was enough for many people, nobles and commoners alike, throughout his realm, and John became known as the nephew-killer. In response the nobles of Brittany rebelled against John and he never regained their trust.

The loss of Normandy Meanwhile in 1204, to the East, King Philip II of France began a major offensive against Normandy, bypassing the stronghold of Rouen and picking off smaller towns – Falaise, Cherbourg. Rouen begged John (in England) for reinforcements and John tried to mount an armed expedition to help them, but was stymied by the reluctance of his own nobles, who showed up late or not at all. When it became clear that no help was coming from England, Rouen surrendered to King Philip and the remaining strongholds of Normandy followed suit. The 139-year union of England and Normandy, created by William the Bastard in 1066, came to an end in 1204.

The loss of Aquitaine In April 1204 Eleanor of Aquitaine died, old and full of years (a little over 80). With her died the loyalty of most of the dukes and counts of the massive region to the Plantagenet regime in the form of the unattractive John. They rose up, seized whatever strongholds remained loyal to John and, within months, the largest part of the Angevin Empire was lost.

Tough taxes With the loss of most of the Empire, John’s sphere of activity was vastly reduced and now confined to the British Isles. Here he became famous for instituting ferocious new taxes. At that time many simple activities of the nobility traditionally required permission and a nominal fee to be paid to the king, for example for the smooth succession of an heir or the arrangement of a new marriage. John pushed these customary dues much deeper into every aspect of noble life and hugely increased the fees, by up to 1,000%. Anyone who questioned his right to do so was arrested or forced into exile and their lands confiscated. There was a ‘forest tax’ for anyone found breaching the rules of the Forest. John hiked these and extended the definition of ‘forest’ to include agricultural land and even towns. There was a tax known as ‘scutage’, which knights could pay if they didn’t want to answer the king’s call to join an army: John hugely increased this and applied it for new purposes. He applied another tax known as the Thirteenth, and in 2008 another tax, known as the tallage (p.182). He relentlessly mulcted everyone and everything throughout his reign.

The failed 1205 invasion In 1205 John used this money to organise a massive invasion of Normandy, recruiting thousands of knights and soldiers and building (or hijacking) enough ships to create a war fleet of 1,500 vessels. But – at the last minute his leading nobles and knights backed out – afraid of chaos in the realm if John were killed (he had no heir), afraid they would find no support in the French realms which had so solidly gone over to King Philip, afraid of losing their lives and remaining goods.

And so John was left to gnash his teeth and weep tears of frustration. In fact John did mount several expeditions to France later in his reign, in one of them landing in Bordeau and marching inland to seize castles in his traditional heartland of Anjou. But always he had to retreat before the superior forces of King Philip II, or the Bretons or Normans or the Gascon nobles, sometimes reinforced by armies from over the border in Spain.

Two wives King John had two wives, both named Isabella. In 1189 Henry married John off to Isabella, Countess of Gloucester, when he was 23 and she was 16. In fact they were half-second cousins as great-grandchildren of Henry I, and thus within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity, and on this basis John had their marriage annulled by the Church in 1199, just before he acceded to the throne. He then married Isabella of Angoulême in 1200, when she was just 12 years old. The marriage gave him possession of lands in the centre of Aquitaine but also, unfortunately, led to the enduring enmity of Hugh IX le Brun, Count of Lusignan, to whom she had been betrothed and who John was widely seen as stealing her from. The enmity of the de Lusignan family and their allies was a contributory factor to the loss of Aquitaine in 1204 when Eleanor died.

The Papal Interdict Archbishop Hubert of Canterbury died in 1205 and the monks secretly elected one of their own as his successor. King John and the English bishops refused to accept their choice and appointed John’s favorite, John de Gray, in his place. Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) refused to accept either candidate and instead arranged the election of his friend Stephen Langton, in 1207. Furious, John expelled the monks of Canterbury who fled to France. The pope responded by placing England under Interdict in 1208. The interdict suspended Christian services and the administration of sacraments (except baptism, confession, and last rites). Even the dead were denied Christian burial. Ordinary people would have experienced an eerie phenomenon – for the first time in their lives church bells – which rang at numerous times of day for various services – fell silent and remained silent. John in fact turned the situation to his advantage, imposing lucrative fines and threatening imprisonment to bully the clergy. Innocent III retaliated by excommunicating John and eventually declared John ‘deposed’ in 1212, absolving his subjects of their allegiance to him.

In fact John, at a low point in his fortunes in 1213, made the shrewd move of completely and totally humbling himself to the papal legate, declaring England as the pope’s belonging and himself only a humble vassal. Innocent II was delighted and from that point onwards (for the last three years of his life) treated John with notable indulgence and favouritism. The interdict was lifted and after five long years, the church bells of England were allowed to ring again.

The Jews There were probably only a few thousand Jews in all of Britain, but they were in a vulnerable position. They were allowed to carry on the business of lending money – forbidden to Christians – but only on the king’s sufferance. The crusading fervour at the very end of Henry’s rule led to violent anti-Jewish pogroms on the day of Richard’s coronation and for weeks afterwards, leading to the horrible climax of the entire Jewish community of York being hounded into York castle and preferring mass suicide to facing the baying mob outside. In 1210 John imposed a massive tax or ‘tallage’ in 1210, extracting some £44,000 from the community. At first he wanted only a percentage of their loans but this escalated to become a percentage of all their possessions. Roger of Wendover tells the gruesome story of a Jew of Bristol who was imprisoned and had one tooth knocked out every day until he gave in and handed over all his wealth to the king. Leading Jews were hanged as an example. And then, in John’s last full year of 1215, there were further attacks on the Jews, extracting money under torture. It took the Jewish community a generation to recover population and belongings after this onslaught.

Scotland When he came to power John turned down King William the Lion of Scotland’s demand to have the province of Northumbria returned to him. The two remained on reasonable terms until in 1209 John heard rumours that William planned to ally with King Philip of France. John invaded Scotland and forced William to sign the Treaty of Norham, which gave John control of William’s daughters and required a payment of £10,000.

Ireland John was made ‘Lord of Ireland’ by his father as long back as 1177, when he was just 11. When just 19 he was sent there by his father but, along with his youthful courtiers, created a very bad impression, making fun of the local nobles’ long beards. During his reign there was conflict not only between the caste of Anglo-Irish rulers who had settled in Ireland since the Conquest, and the native lords, but also among the natives themselves. John played all sides off against the other, and in 1210 led a major expedition to Ireland to crush a rebellion by the Anglo-Irish lords and impose English laws and customs.

Wales was divided into roughly three parts, the border or ‘marcher’ regions with England, ruled over by a handful of powerful Anglo-Norman lords, south Wales/Pembrokeshire owned by the king directly, and wilder North Wales. The leading figure was Llywelyn the Great, to whom John married off one of his illegitimate daughters, Joan, in 1204. In 1210 and 11 Llywelyn launched raids into England. John retaliated by supporting a range of Llywelyn’s enemies in the south and in 2011 launched a massive raid into North Wales. However Llywelyn’s forces retreated and John’s army was reduced to near starvation in the barren lands around Snowdonia. But the next year he came back on a better planned attack, ravaging Llywelyn’s heartlands, burning villages, towns and cities, until Llywelyn sent his wife, John’s daughter, as emissary to beg for peace. Peace was signed at, of course, a steep price, then John sent his mercenary warlords into South Wales to secure the territory and build defensive castles.

By 1212 John had lost almost the entire continental empire, but solidly secured the grip of the English crown over the neighbouring British countries. But all mention of peace is deceptive, even inappropriate in the context of the Middle Ages. The very next year John had to go to the aid of William of Scotland who faced pressing danger from a usurper and had barely finished doing this before Llywelyn led a concerted attack to reclaim his lost territory in north Wales, along with uprisings by lords in central Wales.

Basically, every year there was conflict – and in more than one theatre of war – with players shifting alliances from year to year based on short-term strategy. This is what makes medieval history so difficult to follow in any detail.

The Battle of Bouvines I’d never heard of this battle, but both Jones and Morris says it has a similar talismanic importance in the history of France as the Battle of Hastings has for England. It was the climax of the series of incursions John made into French territory in the previous few years. John had amassed a force of English nobles and foreign mercenaries (all paid for by his brutal taxation) and was campaigning in central France, while his allies – a force of German, English and Flemish soldiers – was being led by Otto IV, Holy Roman Emperor, in the north. John’s plan was for his forces to draw King Philip II south while his German allies took Paris, leading to the decisive crushing of King Philip, for him to regain all his lost French land and the Emperor Otto to seize the Low Country.

In fact John had already suffered a defeat when he was forced to abandon the siege of La Roche-au-Moine due to the reluctance of his Poitevin allies to engage in a pitched battle against King Philip’s son, Louis. In the retreat his infantry were badly mauled and he only just made it back to La Rochelle, losing all the gains of the campaign to the French.

So everything now depended on the northern army of the Emperor. This caught up with Philip’s main army on 27 July 1214, and rapidly attacked. The battle turned into confused mayhem but slowly the cavalry charges of the French began to tell. By the end of the day the Emperor had fled, his army was defeated, and a collection of rebel nobles had fallen into Philip’s hands.

From the French point of view, their strongest enemies had created their strongest possible alliance and thrown everything against the French – and failed. A chapel was built, Masses were sung everywhere, the students of Paris danced in the streets for a week, according to one chronicler. The Battle of Bouvines confirmed the French crown’s sovereignty over the Angevin lands of Brittany and Normandy, and lost them forever to the English crown. It was the climax of John’s decade of brutal taxation and war plans: and it was a complete failure.

A few hours of bloody mayhem at Bouvines had confirmed that [John]’s loss of Normandy, Brittany and Anjou would be permanent. (p.235)

Magna Carta

The barons’ rebellion The failure of this campaign tipped many of England’s nobles over into open rebellion. Morris says there were about 160 barons in England and now most of them openly denounced and defied John. For several years there had been calls to return to the good old days of Henry II or even before, embodied in calls to restore the charter Henry II issued on his accession. Numerous hands – probably involving the archbishop – were involved in creating a draft document which started with traditional calls for good rule but then went on to address specific issues of John’s reign. The climax of the Barons’ Rebellion came when one of their forces – a self-proclaimed ‘army of God’ – seized London ahead of John’s representatives in May 2015. Now they had access to all his treasure and the taxation rolls of the Exchequer.

John camped with his forces at Windsor and representatives of both sides met half way, in the meadows at Runnymede. Here the document we call Magna Carta took shape and was swiftly stamped and agreed by John.

The key thing about Magna Carta is that it was a peace treaty between the two armed sides; and that it failed. Within weeks open conflict broke out again and John took his foreign mercenaries on a rampage through East Anglia, killing and raping all the supporters of the rebel barons, destroying crops in the fields, burning everything. It was on this last final orgy of destruction that he decided to take a short cut across the Wash into Lincolnshire but was caught by the tide and lost his entire baggage train, including all his jewellery and treasure, the crown of England and his priceless collection of Holy Relics. And he got dysentery. It was a blessing for everyone when he died on 19 October 1216.

There is no doubting John was a wicked, evil man, a coward who screwed his country and tortured countless victims in order to extract a vast fortune from his subjects which he then squandered on mismanaged military campaigns. He lost almost the entire Angevin Empire which he’d inherited, and he left his country in a state of bitter civil war.

Morris’s book includes at the end a full translation of the Magna Carta into English but that is all. Obviously his preceding historical account gives a blow-by-blow description of the events leading up to it, and to the issues raised by John’s misrule, which the charter seeks to address and limit. And briefly describes how the charter – a failure in its own day – was reissued under later kings, widely distributed, and became a set of standards to which medieval kings could be held to account. But somehow just stopping with the translation and nothing more felt a bit… abrupt.

Plantagenet trivia

  • King Henry I carried out a brutal recoinage of the realm’s money in 1125 in which he ordered the mutilation of all his moneyers – the people who had official permission to mint coins, namely the removal of their right hands and genitals
  • Right at the end of his life Henry II took the Cross with a view to going on Crusade and recapturing Jerusalem. In 1188 he instituted ‘the Saladin Tithe‘, a levy of 10% on all revenues and movable properties across England. In the end it raised some 100,000 marks, though Henry died before he could go on Crusade. The administrative machinery created to claim the tithe was used four years later to raise the enormous ransom required to free Richard I from his imprisonment by the Holy Roman Emperor.
  • King Richard founded Portsmouth Royal Naval dockyard.
  • Richard in his usual impetuous way, finding himself in negotiation with Tancred ruler of Sicily, promised to betrothe Arthur (then aged 4) to one of Tancred’s daughters (aged 2), though the wedding never took place.
  • In his passion to go on crusade, Richard weakened the Crown by selling off or mortgaging a huge number of Crown lands and goods. He is said to have quipped, ‘I would have sold London if I could find a buyer.’
  • King John founded Liverpool in 1207.
  • the word Exchequer derives from the large chequered cloth laid out a table on which debts were counted out using a device like an abacus (p.167).

Glossary

  • amercement – a financial penalty in English law, common during the Middle Ages, imposed either by the court or by peers
  • castellan – the governor or captain of a castellany and its castle
  • distrain – seize (someone’s property) in order to obtain payment of rent or other money owed
  • interdict –  in the Roman Catholic church a punishment by which the faithful, while remaining in communion with the church, are forbidden certain sacraments and prohibited from participation in certain sacred acts
  • forest eyre – the main court of the Forest Law in the medieval period was the Forest Eyre, which was held at irregular intervals by itinerant justices
  • Forest Law – laws separate from English Common Law designed to protect game animals and their forest habitats from destruction. Forest Law offenses were divided into two categories: trespass against the vert (the vegetation of the forest) and the venison (the game).
  • justiciar – a regent and deputy presiding over the court of a Norman or early Plantagenet king of England
  • moneyer – any private individual who is officially permitted to mint money
  • scutage – also called shield money (from the Latin scutum meaning ‘shield’) in feudal law payment made by a knight to commute the military service that he owed his lord
  • tallage – a form of arbitrary taxation levied by kings on the towns and lands of the Crown

Related links

Reviews of other medieval books

The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga (1919)

There is not a more dangerous tendency in history than that of representing the past as if it were a rational whole and dictated by clearly defined interests. (p.91)

I’ve recently been looking at paintings from the ‘northern Renaissance’, namely works by Robert Campin, Rogier van der Weyden and Jan van Eyck. This trio are often credited with introducing a new more realistic and sensual style into painting in the first half of the fifteenth century.

This prompted me to dust off my old copy of this classic text on the period, The Waning of the Middle Ages. The book was originally published in Dutch by the historian Johan Huizinga in 1919, then translated into English in 1924. Its subtitle is: ‘A study of the forms of life, thought and art in France and the Netherlands in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries’.

The most important thing about this book is that it is not a chronological history of the period. Very much the opposite, as it skips from one incident to another, across decades, between countries, taking excerpts from contemporary chroniclers, philosophers, writers and poets as required, to build up a mosaic of sources to exemplify the theme of each of the 23 chapters.

These have titles like ‘The violent tenor of life’, ‘Pessimism and the ideal of the sublime’, ‘The vision of death’, ‘Types of religious life’ and so on. As we process through these themes and ideas, anecdotes and quotes, slowly a composite ‘portrait’ of the culture of fifteenth century northern Europe emerges.

In fact, I’d forgotten that there is a direct connection to van der Weyden et al because, in the Preface to the English edition, Huizinga explains that his study originally started as a systematic attempt to understand the cultural and social background to the art of the van Eyck brothers and their contemporaries – precisely the artists I’ve been reading about in Craig Harbison’s excellent introduction to The Art of the Northern Renaissance (1995).

Burgundy and France

When I first read this book as a student in the 1980s I found it bracing to read a work about the Middle Ages which emphatically wasn’t about England or Britain. Instead the focus is very much on the kingdoms of France and especially the Duchy of Burgundy, and mostly during the 15th century. As it happens, I’ve just read a few pages summarising the history of the Duchy of Burgundy in a book about the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden. The most obvious thing about it during this period was that it was extremely fragmented, divided roughly into the area which is still called ‘Burgundy’ in modern France and is down towards Switzerland – and a northern coastal region comprising most of modern-day Holland and Belgium.

The other thing I took from my first reading all those years ago was the comedy names of the rulers of Burgundy in this period:

  • Philip the Bold (1363-1404)
  • John the Fearless (1404-19)
  • Philip the Good (1419-67)
  • Charles the Bold (1467-77)
  • Mary (1477 – 1482)
  • Philip the Handsome (1482-1506)

This time round I much more understand the context of Huizinga’s point that one of the purposes of giving these rulers grand surnames was to incorporate them into the only social theory the age possessed – Chivalry; that the names are ‘inventions calculated to place the prince in a nimbus of chivalrous romance’ (p.92).

Permanent war

Europe was almost continually at war. There were no real nation states in the way we’re used to today. Britain, for example, was a very fractious country. For the earlier half of the century the English were in a state of permanent war with the kingdom of France, the latter stages of the so-called Hundred Years War. The cause of the war was simple: successive kings of England claimed the throne of France; successive French kings rejected the claim.

The war’s high point, from the English point of view, was the Battle of Agincourt, fought on 25 October 1415, a famous victory for young King Henry V. Sadly Henry failed in a king’s main duty to rule long and leave a male heir. He died aged 35 in 1422, leaving the kingdom to his baby son who grew up to be the hapless and mentally unstable Henry VI. This explains why, despite rallies and counter-attacks, after Henry V’s death the tide of the war was broadly in favour of the French and they had eventually won back all their territory from the English (with the tiny exception of the coastal town of Calais) by the time a final peace treaty was signed in 1453.

In fact, it was complaints about the huge losses of lands in France suffered by many ‘English’ aristocrats as a result of these territorial losses that helped destabilise the English throne and trigger the series of dynastic disputes which we refer to as ‘the Wars of the Roses’. These were in reality a series of conflicts between dynastic nobles scattered between 1455 and 1487. And also, throughout the fifteenth century, the English (as in centuries before and after) suffered intermittent attacks from the Scots, who periodically invaded and ravaged the North of England – though this doesn’t feature much in this study of the Continent.

Instead Huizinga’s book is dominated by the conflict between the fragmented kingdom of France and the rising Duchy of Burgundy. From 1380 to 1422 France was ruled by Charles VI who, in 1392, went mad, without warning murdering four of his knights and nearly killing his brother. He became convinced he was made of glass and that his enemies were out to shatter him. Power devolved to competing cabals of nobles and France fell into anarchy. (The plight of France helps explain Henry V’s victories.) France’s ongoing misrule was exacerbated by the Hundred Years War which amounted, in practice, to unpredictable attacks and destructive rampages across the land by brutal English armies.

No wonder the Duchy of Burgundy, located away from England in the East, was able to rise to relative power, by allying or at least declaring peace with England, and protecting the trading wealth of its coastal ports in what is now Holland.

Two theories

Medieval society had broadly two theories to explain the world: Christian dogma and the code of chivalry. That was it. No science, no medicine, no economics, no political science, no sociology or linguistics or anthropology, no hard or social sciences at all. Again and again Huizinga emphasises the sheer ignorance of the age.

1. Christianity Christian teaching gave a comprehensive account of the creation of the universe, of the nature of the world, of all life forms and of the human race, along with a timeline which extended back to the Creation and forward to the End of the World when Jesus will rise to judge the dead, who will be consigned to Heaven or Hell for all eternity. In order to escape an eternity of hellfire you had to devoutly follow Christian teaching. It was a complete and imaginatively convincing cosmology.

2. Chivalry As to everything else people saw around them, the behaviour of human society, this could be summarised in the other major theory of the time, Chivalry. Huizinga quotes from a wide selection of 15th century poets, historians and chroniclers, and goes on to point out that:

The conception of chivalry constituted for these authors a sort of magic key, by the aid of which they explained to themselves the motives of politics and of history. The confused image of contemporaneous history being much too complicated for their comprehension, they simplified it, as it were, by the fiction of chivalry. (p.66)

At its broadest chivalry taught that everyone was born into a fixed position in an unchanging society made up of minutely defined orders or ranks or ‘estates’. The peasant majority existed solely to produce the food eaten by the myriad employees of the Church, and by the aristocracy and the king. The ‘middle classes’, the burghers and business men in the newly expanding towns, had no exact place in this ancient schema and were seen as a reluctant necessity of life; to some extent they had forebears in the merchants described in the Bible, but they had to be kept in their place. This was done, for example, by strict sumptuary laws which defined exactly what they and their wives were or were not permitted to wear. Because the best clothes, food, living quarters, art and lifestyle were – self-evidently – restricted to the most noble, virtuous, dignified and deserving in society – the aristocracy and the court.

But, as part of the intricate interlacing of ideas so typical of the late medieval mind, the court, in exchange for these obvious material benefits, had to be paragons of nobility and display for everyone the courtly virtues of dignity, charity, kindliness, forbearance and so on.

As the Middle Ages – say from 1100 to 1500 – proceeded, the depiction and understanding of these virtues (as of so much else in medieval thought) became more and more elaborate, defined in courtly protocols and etiquette which were enhanced and added to by each generation of writers until there were written rules prescribing every possible type of behaviour and clothing and speech which should be used on almost every conceivable occasion.

The lack of theory

Maybe the most though-provoking idea in the book (for me) was this notion that, Chivalry was all they had to think about society with. Lacking any other notions of human nature, lacking our modern ideas of biology or evolution, lacking the post-Enlightenment idea that there have existed numerous and hugely varied societies which themselves have changed and evolved over time, lacking the post-Industrial Revolution idea that technology drives social change with ever-new gadgets leading to ever-rising standards of living — all these modern ideas are predicated on CHANGE. But the central determinant of medieval thought is precisely that THERE IS NO CHANGE. God has made the world as perfect as it can be. Bible chronology explains the entire history of the world right up to its apocalyptic end. Christian teaching is all you need to live well and proceed to Heaven.

This explains why, for example, when medieval artists paint Bible scenes and stories, the characters are always wearing medieval clothes. Because the world HAS NOT CHANGED. The medieval mind can imagine no change, it has no theory of the gradual evolution of society and manners. People must always have dressed like they do today. (Huizinga makes the interesting point that it is only with the Italian Renaissance that artists began to depict the saints in classical togas, thus for the first time setting them aside and apart from the everyday familiarity they had enjoyed during the Middle Ages. In medieval art Roman martyrs and saints had worn medieval costume.)

The one glaring exception to this idea was the age-old one, as popular in the late Classical world as in the medieval world, which is the notion of steady decline from the first, primordial perfection of the Garden of Eden to the present sad and lawless days. The world hasn’t changed but Oh how behaviour and morality has lapsed and decayed!

Profound misunderstanding of their own times

Lacking any modern understanding of human nature and social dynamics, medieval thinkers, artists and writers were astonishingly dim about the world around them. So, for example, Huizinga makes the fascinating point that, lacking any theory of technology, commerce or economics, the chroniclers of the Duchy of Burgundy explained the notable wealth and success of the court of Burgundy not through the (to us obvious) point that the coastal towns of Antwerp and Bruges and so on were at a geographic nexus between Britain to the West, the Baltic to the East and France to the South and so the merchants there made fortunes as middlemen for vast matrices of trade, fortunes which the Duchy then taxed and lived off – none of this could be understood by contemporaries. Instead, every single chronicler accounts for Burgundy’s wealth in terms of the nobility and virtue of its ruler. Chivalry, nobility, Christian morality – these and these alone are what accounts for an entire nation’s rise or fall.

The chroniclers of the fifteenth century have, nearly all, been the dupes of an absolute misappreciation of their times, of which the real moving forces escaped their attention. (p.56)

And this explains why all the chroniclers and historians and priests, in their sermons and pamphlets and books and works have one message and one message only – since the world depends for its continued wealth and stability on the virtue of the prince, of the noble ruler – ALL of these books without exception start, focus on and end with earnest, heart-felt pleas to the ruler and prince to be Noble and Virtuous and to Rule Well. We are all depending on you.

It is the one political idea in the entire culture.

Chivalry as psychological protection

Chivalry was a kind of mass wish-fulfilment, the casting of all human behaviour into stereotyped and idealised patterns, which had tremendous psychological importance for all educated people of the time and many of the commoners. For Chivalry’s exaggerated formality and romantic ideals attempted to hold at bay what most people actually saw around them – which was appalling random acts of violence, sickness and death.

Only by constructing a system of forms and rules for the vehement emotions can barbarity be escaped. (p.105)

With no effective medicine, anybody could fall ill at any time, or suffer a scratch or wound which became infected and they died. Countless women died in childbirth. Countless children died pitifully young. Countless millions starved to death unrecorded and unlamented. Millions died horribly in the repeated epidemics of plague which swept across the known world. And countless millions lived in villages or towns where any day, out of the blue, soldiers in armour arrived and started killing, raping and burning everything, for reasons concocted in the faraway courts of London or Paris or Dijon, and which the victims would never hear about or understand.

For the rude and common people, only the incredibly ornate and complex set of Christian customs, practices, beliefs, festivals, penances, sacrifices, masses, saints and relics was all that stood between them and the constant spectre of complete disaster. Huizinga mentions a host of medieval superstitions – that you couldn’t fall ill on any day when you heard Mass (quite a strong motivation to attend as many as you could) or that any patron saint sighted during the day would protect you for that day (and hence the outside and the porches of churches being crammed full of statuettes of saints.) I particularly liked the idea that you don’t actually age during the time it takes to attend a Mass – the more you attend, quite literally the longer you will live.

The same was of course true for the educated aristocracy, but overlaying the boggling complexity of Christian teaching was this idea that the nobility should also aspire to Perfect Ideals of Gentlemanly and Courtly behaviour. Almost nobody did, and many rulers were instead paragons of greed, unpredictable rage and the most primitive rivalries and revenge. But the increasingly convoluted protocols of Chivalry which came to determine almost every element of an aristocrat’s life and thought and behaviour, were all the ruling class had to call each other to account, and to try and restrain themselves with.

(In a typically illuminating aside, Huizinga points out how the worlds of chivalry and theology overlapped in the figure of the archangel Michael, who is generally portrayed in armour, wielding a sword against the rebel angels. As the leader of the loyal army in heaven, he was the first knight – and thus the two worlds of divine angelology and worldly knighthood were neatly merged.)

Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil (1468) by Bartolomé Bermejo

Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil (1468) by Bartolomé Bermejo

Complexity as a defence mechanism

This explains why forms, patterns, orders, ranks and definitions ramified all over medieval society like weeds. Everything had to be nailed down with a meaning and a place in what was aspiring to be the Total System. Numerology played a large role in all this, numbers conveying a potent magic power, especially if they invoked any of the myriad numbers from Holy Scripture: the three of the Trinity recurs in all sorts of contexts: the human body is seen as made of four humours for each of which there is a key bodily fluid which determines one of the four human character types; all of the colours are given multiple religious symbolism, eventually becoming so complicated entire books can be written about them. Saints multiply like rabbits until every day in the year was the Special Day of at least one saint if not several.

I remember laughing years ago when I read an early medieval sermon which asserted that there needed to be two holy testaments (the old and new) because humans have two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two arms, two legs so – you know, there just have to be. Like so much medieval reasoning, it has a sweet and childish flavour. The Middle Ages took the many numbers present in Holy Scripture and vastly expanded them:

  • the One God who created the world and all things in it
  • the two-persons in the duality of Jesus, man and God together
  • the Holy Trinity, the three theological virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity)
  • the four cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice), the four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell), the four points of the cross, the four seasons, the Four Evangelists, the Four Elements and their summation – the fifth or Quintessence
  • The Five Wounds Christ received on the Cross (one each in hands and feet and the spear in his side), the Five Planets of the Solar System (plus Sun and moon makes seven)
  • the seven supplications in the Lord’s Prayer, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven Beatitudes (from the Sermon on the Mount), the seven penitential psalms, the Seven Deadly Sins which are represented by seven animals and followed by seven diseases, the seven attributes, the Seven Sages of antiquity
  • the Nine Worthies were nine historical, scriptural, and legendary personages who personified the ideals of chivalry, typically divided into three groups of three – three pagans (Hector, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar), three Jews (Joshua, David and Judas Maccabeus) and three Christians (King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon)
  • the Twelve Disciples, the twelve months of the year, the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac, the twelve companions of Lady Rhetoric (as devised by George Chastelain, historian of Philip the Good in the 1460s)
  • the Fourteen Auxiliary Saints, the 14 Stations of the Cross
  • 33 is the estimated age of Jesus when he was crucified. Stephan Kemperdick’s book about the Netherlandish artist Rogier van der Weyden informs me that one strand of medieval theology thought that 33 is the age that all the dead would be when they are resurrected on the Last Day. If it was the optimum age for the Son of God so, by analogy, it must be the optimum age for a human being.

In fact Huizinga, in his brilliant chapter on ‘Symbolism in decline’, makes the harsh but true point that numerology is actually pretty boring. It is the deeper and often vaguer symbolic correspondences which the medieval mind loved to make between almost every aspect of the natural world and some part of Christian Theology or the Christian story, which are more accessible and more profound.

For example, consider the holly and ivy which grow in northern Europe (I have an abundance of both in my own garden): the prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified and the berries are the drops of blood they caused. The beauty and simplicity of much of this kind of symbolism lives on to this day, especially when it is about the natural world.

Everyday things like plants and flowers, as well as classical stories and pagan myths, legends and imagery, all of it was easily taken over and incorporated into the vast system of Christian concordances because, to the medieval mind, everything was connected – because it all shines forth the wonder of God. A medieval author explains how the walnut symbolises Christ: the sweet kernel is his divine nature, the green and pulpy outer peel his humanity and the wooden shell between is the cross (p.198): there is no end to the ability of the medieval mind to find a religious symbol or analogy in everything around us.

Thus every day was marked out and divided, for the ever-growing number of religious orders of monks and nuns and so on, by precise hours at which their rituals had to be carried out. On the professional side, this gave rise to countless Rules for the different religious orders prescribing their behaviour for every minute of the day. The secular equivalent is the innumerable ‘Books of Hours’, beautifully illuminated manuscripts whose purpose was to give meaning and resonance to every hour of every day.

Huizinga explains the nature of what was known at the time as ‘Realist’ philosophy (but which we would nowadays called Idealism). This amounts to the notion that every idea is Real, has a precise definition and a place in an infinitely complex hierarchy, all underpinned by theology and, ultimately, God the Creator.

The creative result of this mind-set is a symbolical way of thinking, where almost every everyday occurrence or object can be related to deeper (or higher meanings). His explanation of the internal logic of this approach is fascinating enough – but it is riveting when he then goes on to draw out the connections between this mindset and the prevalence of proverbs (which crystallise everyday behaviour into idealised patterns), to the emblems and mottos chosen by aristocratic households, and their connection of all these with the complexity of heraldry, which had a more-than-decorative purpose for the aristocracy which commissioned it. For them it was a visible embodiment of the ancestors, of their family and its values and achievements. Their world is made up of a dizzying array of vertical hierarchies of meaning.

Wherever it looked the medieval mind constructed a vast and intricate ‘cathedral of ideas’ (p.194). Lacking any ability to genuinely understand the world or to change it, the medieval mind delighted in finding (spurious) patterns everywhere in the natural world, and in creating dizzying edifices of intellectual patterning to fill their (otherwise empty) heads.

Scholasticism

Hence the mind-boggling complexity of medieval theology which, over succeeding generations, set out to codify and order every conceivable thought anyone could possibly have about any aspect of Christian theology, the ceaseless multiplication of saints, feasts and festivals, religious orders, shrines, relics and so on. The late medieval world overflowed with meaning all of it, fundamentally, spurious.

It was this tendency to over-elaboration that later generations satirised with examples of the great debates which were held over ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’, and dismissed as barren ‘scholasticism’. Much of this was gratefully abandoned even by the Catholic Church in light of the great Reformation which came in the early 16th century.

The gap between theory and reality

But for Huizinga what is entertaining is the vast gap between the theory of Christianity as pursued into endlessly remote corners of mental complexity – and the reality of a Church which was in a parlous state. At the top the Catholic Church was tearing itself apart, beginning with the period of the so-called ‘Babylonian Exile’ from 1309 to 1377, when seven successive popes ruled from Avignon in the South of France. When Pope Gregory XI ended the exile and moved back to Rome, half the Curia (most of the French cardinals) refused to go with him and set up a separate Pope of their own. This period became known as the ‘Great Schism’ of 1378 to 1417 when two, and then three, separate popes claimed God-given rule over the church, while merrily excommunicating and damning their opponents.

On the ground all across Western Europe, peasants and town-dwellers, dismayed by this perplexing collapse of central authority, mainly experienced the Church via the immense corruption of an institution devoted to fleecing them with all kinds of religious taxes, penances and indulgences – one of the great themes of the literature of the age.

Courtly Love

The will-to-complexity explains the gorgeous edifice of Courtly Love which grew up intertwined with the complex ideas of Chivalry. Courtly love, or the ars amandi, applied the same medieval technique of intricate elaboration which had produced scholasticism and the codes of chivalry, to relations between the sexes. The cult of Courtly Love grew into a highly complex, ritualised, ornate and delightful cornucopia, a delicate Gothic tracery of manners, behaviours and modes of address.

Just as scholasticism represents the grand effort of the medieval spirit to unite all philosophic thought in a single centre, so the theory of courtly love, in a less elevated sphere, tends to embrace all that appertains to the noble life. (p.105)

Works of courtly love grew bigger, longer and more complex as they redefined all aristocratic behaviour in light of the knight’s reverence for his distant and unattainable Lady. Thousands of books, tens of thousands of poems, were devoted to elaborating and curlicuing this one subject, the more elaborate it became the more remote from the often brutal reality of rulers selling off each other’s daughters in order to make strategic alliances.

Anxiety and hysteria

The terrible realities of a life without any medicine or science were compounded by the awful fear of the living hell awaiting almost everyone after death. Everyone was badly stressed by this appalling plight. And this helps to explain why, when anybody anywhere was seen to threaten the controlling orderliness of Christianity and Chivalry, they acted like a kind of lightning rod to the anxieties of an entire culture. For a threat to any part of the fixed and repressive structures of medieval society was a threat to ALL of it and therefore a threat to the entire mental and psychological paraphernalia which was all these people had to stave off bottomless fear and anxiety. Threatening complete collapse.

It is this extremity of anxiety which they felt all the time which explains the (to us) extraordinary hysteria which was let loose in the various witch hunts and trials. Helpless old women or sassy young women who stepped out of line, or in fact had often done nothing at all, could quickly find themselves short-circuiting the anxiety of an entire culture, instantly blamed for every bad harvest, illness and death which had happened anywhere near them. And not just blamed a little, but immediately transformed into omnipotently evil associates of Satan and his demons, complete with magic spells and malevolent familiars. Huizinga mentions the ‘vauderie d’Arras’ from 1459 to 1461 in which 29 townsfolk were accused of witchcraft (10 of them women) of which 12 were executed (8 women).

The same went for heretics, for anyone who dissented from the crushing orthodoxy of the Catholic Church. Once again a threat to any part was a threat to the whole ornate edifice of belief which sustained everyone and so even a small threat prompted hysterical over-reaction.

And for such a complete subversion of the fragile state of things, only the most extreme form of punishment was suitable – something so terrible that it would terrify anyone who witnessed or heard of it to go anywhere near this kind of transgressive behaviour. Heretics were hunted down, entire communities wiped out, and, like the so-called witches, their leaders very publicly burned at the stake.

Waning and decay

The terrible conditions of life, the almost continual warfare, the terror of hell, the ubiquity of witches, heretics and enemies of society, the only certainty being early death and a strong possibility of an eternity of hellfire – explain Huizinga’s title.

Huizinga doesn’t see this as a society on the brink of the exciting ‘rebirth’ of the Renaissance as we latecomers, looking back over the centuries, are tempted to see it – but as an age which was exhausted with permanent war and religious terror. An era of fathomless pessimism and permanent nostalgia for the olden days which must, must surely have been better than this. And an age, above all, which has thought itself out. Every detail of life has been cemented into the vast cathedral of analogies and concordances, of symbolic types and correspondences which crust the whole thing together so that no new thought is possible.

Early on he makes the brilliant point that the two are connected – that writers of the Middle Ages were so damn pessimistic precisely because they couldn’t see any way out of the dead end of dried-out theology and tired literary forms (all those thousands of allegory and romance).

We ‘moderns’ have two hundred years of accelerating technological change behind us giving us the near certainty that things will always be changing (and at an accelerating rate) – better medicines, laws, technologies, the spread of human rights, equality, feminism etc.

But the medieval mind not only had no theories of social change, their political ideas – such as they were – forbade social change of any kind, because Society – along with its ranks and positions – had been laid down for all time by God. Change was not only subversive, it was blasphemous.

Thus they not only had no mental wherewithal to envision a better future, at a deep level they weren’t allowed to; in their future there was only the certainty of continuing decline from the former Golden Age, combined with fear of the end of the world and the threat of an eternity of hell. No wonder the age was so pessimistic!

Unexpectedly critical

Maybe the biggest surprise about the book is how critical it is of medieval society, thinkers and rulers. You expect a scholar who’s devoted his life to a subject to be enthusiastic about it, but Huizinga is bracingly critical, if not downright insulting, about the culture as a whole and many of its leading thinkers and writers.

The mentality of the declining Middle Ages often seems to us to display an incredible superficiality and feebleness. The complexity of things is ignored by it in a truly astounding manner. It proceeds to generalisations unhesitatingly on the strength of a single instance. Its liability to wrong judgements is extreme. Inexactitude, credulity, levity, inconsistency, are common features of medieval reasoning. (p.225)

The ideal of chivalry tallies with the spirit of a primitive age, susceptible of gross delusion and little accessible to the corrections of experience. (p.125)

Most of the authors of the fifteenth century are singularly prolix. (p.268)

And he has harsh words for many of the writers he quotes so liberally. Eustace Deschamps is only ‘a mediocre poet’ (p.102); most of the poets of the age were ‘superficial, monotonous and tiresome’ (p.262); ‘Froissart is the type of this extreme shallowness of thought and facility of expression’ whose mind is marked by ‘poverty and sterility’ (p.283).

Comparison of late medieval literature and art

It is only towards the end of what feels like a long, dense account of the culture of the late Middle Ages, that Huizinga finally arrives at the subject which, apparently, triggered it – a consideration of the art of van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and their contemporaries. Why is their art so good, so beautiful, if so much of the rest of late medieval culture is tired, clapped-out and formulaic?

For two reasons:

1. It is newer. Written literature stretched back to the Romans. Literary genres like history, chronicle, play, poetry, epic, lyric, satire and so on had been going for nearly 2,000 years. In medieval hands every logical possibility within these genres had been explored and done to death. Hence Huizinga’s rude comments about the poets and even prose writers of the age. The medieval intellectual system had systematised everything and all that was left was repetition without invention.

By contrast, painting was new. It had only emerged out of flat devotional panels and icons in, say, the 1200s. There was still a great deal of scope for individuals to compose and arrange even the most hackneyed of subjects – the Annunciation, the Crucifixion etc. And in subjects free of Christian content, the world was their oyster, and European painting would continue to develop at an astonishing rate for another 500 years. Thus Huizinga points out that whereas there had been erotic literature for thousands of years, there was little or no genuinely sensual erotic imagery. There’s little or no erotic imagery in the late medieval art (which has survived) but what there is has a fantastic sense of freshness and innocence. We can still sense – 500 years later – the excitement of innovation and experimentation in their paintings.

2. There is (obviously) a fundamental difference between written literature and painting. In the Late Medieval period in particular, both succumbed to the era’s obsession with detail, but with widely different results: so much of the literature, whether religious or secular, routinely turns into lists of vices and virtues – Huizinga really dislikes allegory because it is such a superficial, sterile way to ‘create’ characters out of often flat and empty ‘ideas’, little more than words.

Imagination, both literary and artistic, had been led into a blind alley by allegory. (p.303)

He quotes reams of poets and prose writers whose texts are long lists of the angels or personified Virtues they encounter, and their entirely predictable attributes and oh-so leaden dialogue. Their realism ‘remains enslaved by conventional forms and suffocated under a heap of arid rhetoric’ (p.276).

But in the painters of the day, the obsession with complexity and detail is transformed into the goal of decorating every surface, with rendering every stitch and jewel, with capturing nuances of facial expression and emotion – and this is something entirely new in the history of art.

In a fascinating passage (chapter 20, ‘The Aesthetic Sentiment’) Huizinga quotes one of the few recorded opinions of this art made by a contemporary, the Genoese man of letters Bartolommeo Fazio who admires in the paintings of van Eyck and Rogier the realism and the detail: the hair of the archangel Gabriel, the ascetic face of John the Baptist, a ray of light falling through a fissure, beads of sweat on a woman’s body, an image reflected by a mirror.

It is precisely this love of detail and its exquisitely realistic rendition, which we know aristocratic patrons of the day enjoyed, and which to those of us who love it, is precisely one of the strengths and appeals of medieval culture: its creation of wonderfully rich and decorative patterns in not only the visual arts but all other aspects of intellectual life: the rich detail and dense symbolism to be found in all medieval arts – of tapestry, illumination and painting.

The Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden

The Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden (c.1430)

Fascinatingly, we have the opinion of Michelangelo himself on Netherlandish art, recorded by Francesco de Holanda. Michelangelo credits the technical achievement of the northerners but then criticises them for having too much petty detail and not enough of the grand sculptural simplicity which he, of course, achieved so spectacularly.

Though the eye is agreeable impressed, these pictures have neither art nor reason; neither symmetry nor proportion; neither choice of values nor grandeur. In short, this art is without power and without distinction; it aims at rendering minutely many things at the same time, of which a single thing would have sufficed to call forth a man’s whole application. (Michelangelo, quoted p.254)

What he dislikes is the late medieval tendency to get lost in a maze of details (reflecting the complexities of the mazes of theology and chivalry). For Michelangelo all this has to be swept aside to make way for enormous, grand, simplified and epic gestures.

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo (1512)

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo (1512)

Gone are the flowers, the trees, the landscape, the roofs and towers of the distant town, the colour symbolism and elaborate folds of the stiff clothes, the sweet douceur of the faces and the sentimental tears of the mourners. But these are precisely what I like so much about the art of the northern renaissance.

Conclusion

The above is a summary of just some of the many themes discussed in this brilliant book. It is a really rich, profound and insightful account, which repays repeated rereading, even after all this time still offering up new connections and shedding fresh light on time-honoured subjects.


Credit

The Waning of the Middle Ages was published in 1919 Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen and translated into English in 1924 by Frederik Jan Hopman. All references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition as reprinted in 1982.

Related links

Opus Anglicanum @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

From the 12th to the 15th centuries England had an international reputation for the quality of its luxury embroideries, often referred to as ‘Opus Anglicanum’ (English work).

The Syon Cope (1310-1320) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Syon Cope (1310-1320) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

These luxury embroideries, featuring silk, velvet, gold and silver thread, were designed and woven by craftsmen and women in London, in a neighbourhood close to old St Paul’s cathedral – hanging from the roof in the second room is a sort of enormous rectangular lightshade which bears the names of the men and women embroiderers whose names have come down to us. Early on a display case shows the tools used in the craft and a video shows modern embroiderers at work to explain the process of creation.

Opus Anglicanum was bought by monarchs and churchmen across Europe and in the first room is a map of Europe showing locations where Opus Anglicanum have survived, scattered right across the continent. Hardly any of the secular embroideries – the ones commissioned and worn by kings, aristocrats, knights and so on – have survived, so almost all the examples in the exhibition are religious, vestments i.e. items of clerical clothing, worn by bishops and priests.

 The Syon Cope (detail) (1310-1320 ) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


The Syon Cope (detail) (1310-1320) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

However the exhibition addresses this lack by including paintings, stained glass, illuminated manuscripts and a number of striking full-length brass rubbings of dead knights, to show what contemporary secular embroidery would have looked like, and also to highlight the overlap in design and motifs between the different media of the times.

 The De Lisle Psalter (detail) (ca. 1320) © The British Library Board


The De Lisle Psalter (detail) (ca. 1320) © The British Library Board

The whole tradition came to an abrupt end with the comprehensive abolition of Catholic ritual, images, relics, statues, church furniture and apparel in Henry VIII’s Reformation in the 1530s. Many of the richest vestments were hidden or chopped up and used as more modest clothing and some of the items on display have been recreated from strips of embroidery which survived the centuries and, in our time, have been re-assembled. A fascinating video shows how this was done for a classic example, the Steeple Aston cope.

The V&A holds the largest collection of these works in the world and the show features works borrowed from across Europe (e.g. the Vatican, Toledo cathedral) – so this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see such a rich collection of medieval embroidered work in one place. It is a sumptuous and rich exhibition, modest in scale, in just six rooms, but full of beautiful works you’d love to be able to touch and run your fingers over (and wear!)

Installation view

Installation view

The exhibition introduced me to terms for ecclesiastical garments I’d never heard of before:

  • armice
  • burse – a flat, square, fabric-covered case in which a folded corporal cloth is carried to and from an altar in church
  • chasuble – an ornate sleeveless outer vestment worn by a Catholic or High Anglican priest when celebrating Mass
  • cope – a large semi-circular garment to be worn in church services.
  • dalmatic – a wide-sleeved long, loose vestment open at the sides, worn by deacons and bishops, and by monarchs at their coronation
  • orphrey – decorative strip that ran along the straight edge of the cope)
  • stole – a priest’s silk vestment worn over the shoulders and hanging down to the knee or below
  • maniple – a vestment formerly worn by a priest celebrating the Eucharist, consisting of a strip hanging from the left arm
  • vestment – a chasuble or other robe worn by the clergy or choristers during services.

All of them repay close investigation; the more you look, the more you marvel at the fineness of the needlework and detail. For no special reason I ended up loitering by the The Butler-Bowdon Chasuble (1398 – 1420). On reflection I think it’s because there are no people in it. In the central vertical band the coats of arms are supported by swans holding each shield with their beaks. In the blue sections to either side, there are diagonal bands filled with what look like peacocks (?) alternating with floral bands decorated with what look like little white roses and a purple thistle (?).

The Butler-Bowdon Chasuble, 1398 – 1420

The Butler-Bowdon Chasuble, 1398 – 1420

It would have been good to confirm my guesses about these details; the wall labels aren’t as full as they could be, although there are a few large-print booklets available which give a bit more information. Presumably there is more in the book, but what you want is really a detailed explanation of the imagery and iconography of each item. For example, up either side of The Chichester-Constable Chasuble (below) there seems to be pairs of intertwining trunks sprouting leaves – are they vines? And they are punctuated at top and bottom with faces – What of? Demons? Lions? And why?

The Chichester-Constable Chasuble (ca. 1335-45) © 2016 The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence

The Chichester-Constable Chasuble (ca. 1335-45) © 2016 The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence

All the human figures have that sweet medieval look. They are elongated. The top of the body is often swaying backwards with the neck and head bending forwards in a kind of counter-balance. The heads are simple/naive with strongly outlined eyes. Also, as in the example, above, the figures are often holding out their arms and hands in highly stylised positions, clearly pointing towards important incidents or making obviously significant gestures. Someone somewhere must have made a lexicon of these gestures which are clearly important but remain, to the uninstructed viewer, for the most part obscure.

 The Steeple Aston Cope (detail) (1310-40) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


The Steeple Aston Cope (detail) (1310-40) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This installation view of the exhibition shows a faded brown cope to the left, below it a reliquary containing a relic of St Thomas a Becket (looking a bit like a 1930s radio), at the back in the centre a scarlet cope with two stained glass figures above and to the right, with several brown orphreys hanging to the right of them, and in the foreground a case showing three medieval illuminated books demonstrating how similar patterns were used in medieval embroidery and illumination.

Installation view

Installation view

The cases showing how similar decorative motifs were used for secular clothes introduced me to a few new terms for items of clothing worn by knights and their horses:

  • horse trapper – a cloth covering laid over a horse or other animal for protection and decoration also known as a caparison
  • surcoat – a loose robe worn over armour
  • tabard – a sleeveless jerkin consisting only of front and back pieces with a hole for the head
Part of a horse trapper probably made for Edward III’s Court (detail) (1330-40) Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de Cluny – Musée National du Moyen Âge) / Franck Raux

Part of a horse trapper probably made for Edward III’s Court (detail) (1330-40) Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de Cluny – Musée National du Moyen Âge) / Franck Raux

This is a rich and wonderful exhibition, full of detail and beauty and, above all, inspiring awe at the thousands of hours of humble patient hand work which went into creating each of these marvellous objects.

Advice

The beauty of the works is partly in the initial impact they make of sumptuousness and size (a cope is a big item of clothing). But mostly in the details and there are three problems here.

1. In something like the Syon Cope (top image in the blog post) I am not really clear what I’m looking for. I know how to read a painting. I don’t know how to read a medieval piece of embroidery. Some kind of guide to what to look for and enjoy in every piece would be extremely helpful.

In this respect the V&A has produced an excellent interactive page explaining details of The Butler-Bowdon Cope. I suppose it’s financially impractical, but in an ideal world every single one of the objects here would have just such a detailed guide to each of the figures, their histories, gestures, postures and meanings.

2. Understandably, the light is quite dim throughout to preserve these old fabrics. Also a lot of the detail is quite small. Not minute, just not very big. Ironically, I have enjoyed examining the detail of the dragons (above) and the angel on horseback playing a lute (three images above) more from these high-resolution photos on the V&A website, than when I was actually looking at them in real life.

My advice would be to read as much as you can about the exhibition on the V&A website and any reviews before you go, so that you’ve got a good idea what you’re going to see and which bits of it you are particularly interested in (the embroidery techniques and fabrics; the religious iconography; the floral and decorative designs; the histories of the noble families who often commissioned the works and whose coats of arms or heraldic symbols are woven into them, etc etc).

And consider taking a magnifying glass or pair of strong glasses so you can really enjoy the delightful details which the size and complexity (and the sheer number) of the designs sometimes obscure.


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The Wars of the Roses by John Gillingham (1981)

This book is 35 years old but is still, apparently, influential for the approach it takes to the subject. It amounted to an attack on the prevailing opinion about the wars and his critique of that attitude remains influential to this day.

Gillingham’s arguments are summed up in the brief but powerful opening chapter.

The prevailing view

The Middle Ages are conventionally dated as coming to an end around 1500. Therefore, the fact that England was subject to civil wars between various claimants to the crown from 1455 to 1485 was taken as indicating the general bloodiness of the whole 15th century, and an indication that the entire Plantagenet line of kings was worn out.

On this view the wars of the roses represent the ‘decline’ of the Middle Ages into chaos and bloodshed, reaching a nadir with the short brutal rule of King Richard III (1483-1485), whose injustice and harshness prompted yet another rebellion, this time led by a Welsh nobleman, Henry Tudor, which culminated in the decisive Battle of Bosworth, where Richard was killed and his army defeated.

The victorious Henry – crowned Henry VII – established the Tudor line of monarchs which proceeded through Henry VIII, Mary Tudor, Edward VI, to the glorious reign of good Queen Elizabeth I, marking the transition from an exhausted medieval dynasty to the ‘early modern’ period.

Gillingham’s counter-arguments

The myth of periods Historians know they shouldn’t divide history into periods, but they do. They shouldn’t because time is a seamless continuum and dividing it up into chunks is highly misleading.

Defining periods has two drawbacks: having defined a block of time as the ‘so-and-so period’, the temptation is to give this random era a beginning, middle and end. And ends, in the organic world, tend to be the result of age and decline. Thus the recurring vice of historians: inventing periods and then spending careers accounting for their rise and fall.

The myth of the middle ages But these are totally misleading metaphors. In reality there were no ‘middle ages’. The phrase was invented in the ‘Renaissance’ to characterise the period between the peak of the ancient Roman world the revival of learning which Renaissance authors were very aware of in their own time. But for a generation or more scholars have been fighting the ‘myth of the middle ages’ in all kinds of ways, for example by explaining that Rome didn’t ‘decline and fall’ as fast or as thoroughly as the myth demands. This is the thrust of Chris Wickham’s magisterial study, The Inheritance of Rome which shows the legislative, linguistic, religious and administrative legacy of Rome continuing for centuries after the last emperor (450), strongly enduring into the era of Charlemagne (crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800).

The myth of violence Moreover, England wasn’t a specially violent or bloodthirsty place in the later 15th century. The reverse. All the evidence is that England was unusually peaceful among comparably sized European states. Gillingham gives a lot of evidence for this.

  • A long explanation of military technology shows how the widespread development of powerful cannon led to the equal development of fortifications which could resist them, specifically the creation of bulwarks sticking out from the curtain walls of town or castle walls, to be used as platforms to bombard attacking forces. Almost all European towns and cities built them because the continent existed in a state of almost continuous warfare; there are hardly any in England because they weren’t needed.
  • Foreign observers commented on the peacefulness of England and pointed out one simple reason: the Channel. All nations in continental Europe were liable to be attacked at any moment by any other. Nobody could attack England. Raids there were, for example on the Cinque Ports on the south coast – but these merely prove Gillingham’s point because these were the only places which built ‘modern’ defensive walls. The entire rest of England didn’t need them.

On the contrary, Gillingham adduces evidence that the wages of labourers were at their highest point during the period. And – something he doesn’t himself mention but which I know independently – the period from 1450 saw the flourishing of the late medieval style of parish church design known as ‘Perpendicular’ – new, larger-than-ever churches built across the country and representing the wealth that comes from economic and social stability. It was the heyday of medieval church building.

So far from being the bloodbath which later tradition made it out to be, Gillingham in fact pithily sums up the period of disorder which later generations called the wars of the roses as merely ‘a few disturbances of the aristocratic establishment’ (p.11).

The Tudor myth

So why is there this myth in the first place?

Because when Henry Tudor defeated Richard III he commissioned writers to prove that he was a hero, restoring order and peace to a nation brought to its knees by incompetent rulers, weltering in blood and chaos, all leading to the acme of evil – the wicked king Henry overthrew, black Richard III, the evil hunchback.

His son (Henry VIII) perpetuated this version of history and so did his sons and daughters (Edward VI, bloody Mary, Elizabeth I). Chroniclers, teachers, historians – everything they wrote and published using the power of the new printing presses (which began to spread precisely during Henry VII’s reign) was first vetted and approved by government censors. And the government used the power of the press to promulgate the Official Version of a state brought to the brink of chaos and redeemed by the heroic Tudor dynasty.

100 years later Shakespeare – whose history plays are sometimes credited with being the biggest single influence on the English’s view of their own history – sealed and cemented the myth in the series of six ‘history’ plays he wrote about Henry IV, the hero Henry V, and the sad decline of Henry VI (the incompetent, possibly mentally defective king under whom the wars broke out).

Later historians accepted the official Tudor myth at face value and the story of chaos climaxing in the wickedest king in our island history was repeated over and again.

Only in the 1980s and since, has a revisionist version of the period taken hold: one that doesn’t represent it as a period of decline and fall into inevitable violence, but of surprising peace and stability upset only by dynastic quarrels right at the top of society which had surprisingly little impact except on the poor individuals press-ganged into fighting or in whose vicinity battles – generally quite small-scale battles – took place.

Full of meat and ideas

Lots of history books are full of dates, events and pernickety interpretations of them, but Gillingham’s book is riveting for the way it defines the big issues and tackles them head on. It is packed with logical arguments and insights.

It is, for example, fascinating to read that the biggest problem for any armed force in the field was provisions. Even living off the land was only a viable option for a limited period. In a war of foreign conquest part of the process of cowing the opposition was ravaging and destroying the land. But in a civil war, especially when you were claiming the throne and looking for people’s loyalty, the opposite was true – you wanted to present yourself as the enforcer of peace, law and stability. You wanted to rein in your followers and limit damage as much as possible.

These reasons explain why the Hundred Years War – fought mainly in France a generation or two earlier – and the other continental wars of this period, often settled down into long and destructive sieges, with land around the besieged cities ravaged and laid waste. Whereas the Wars of the Roses are characterised by the opposite, an unusual number of pitched battles, battles which didn’t last long and were usually decisive. Neither side wanted to destroy the very kingdom they were fighting to inherit.

This isn’t the place to summarise the actual wars (there were three distinct periods of violent conflict with periods of peace and manouvering between them). You can read summaries of the events on Wikipedia or any number of other websites. Suffice to say that in his opening chapters Gillingham’s book gives a host of fascinating, logical and persuasive arguments for rethinking our understanding of the entire period.

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The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson (1888)

This is unashamedly a children’s book. It was published as a monthly serial in Young Folks; A Boys’ and Girls’ Paper of Instructive and Entertaining Literature from June to October 1883 under the pseudonym ‘Captain George North’ (the same pen name Stevenson used for Treasure Island). Still, I am reading and experiencing it as an adult.

Cover of The Black Arrow illustrated by N.C. Wyeth

Cover of The Black Arrow illustrated by N.C. Wyeth

The Wars of the Roses

The story is set against the backdrop of the Wars of the Roses, a confusing conflict when the weakness and mental illness of King Henry VI allowed a major civil war to develop between followers of two large noble families – York and Lancaster, each fighting for the crown – which dragged on for a generation, from 1455 to 1485. (Hence the novel’s sub-title, A Tale of the Two Roses.)

There is no high-level explanation of any of this in the novel, and no date given to help the reader orientate themself. We see the conflict not from the vantage of courts and kings, but reflected in the microcosm of what seems to be a small area of the Fenland i.e East Anglia, around the fictional village of Tunstall, with its Moat House and nearby Holyrood Abbey.

The novel opens with a confused throng of villagers, the publican, the local parson Sir Oliver Oates, the lord of the manor Sir Daniel Brackley, and his ward the young teenager Dick Shelton, as they get confused reports of a battle, or at least of another nobleman in some kind of warlike trouble, nearby.

Things are further confused when Brackley’s man, Bennet Hatch, takes Dick to go and talk to old Nick Appleyard, the oldest man in the village who saw service under Henry the Fifth. Hatch wants to ask him to form a small troop to defend the village while the other men ride off to the battle. But they’ve barely started talking before out of nowhere a big arrow whizzes past them, embeds itself between Appleyard’s shoulders and, after a few, shudders, he dies. There are enemies in the woods across the valley. But who? Why?

Brackley is rallying his men outside the village pub when some of them spot a figure fleeing from the churchyard across fields and into the nearby woods. Dick runs over to the church and finds a parchment nailed to the door which promises revenge against oppressors and is signed ‘Jon Amend-All of the Green Wood, And his jolly fellaweship’. It is in the form of doggerel verse:

I had four blak arrows under my belt,
Four for the greefs that I have felt,
Four for the nomber of ill menne
That have opressid me now and then.

it goes on to name four specific individuals who it threatens with death for their ‘crimes’.

One is gone; one is wele sped;
Old Apulyaird is ded.

One is for Maister Bennet Hatch,
That burned Grimstone, walls and thatch.

One for Sir Oliver Oates,
That cut Sir Harry Shelton’s throat.

Sir Daniel, ye shull have the fourt;
We shall think it fair sport.

It seems to be blaming all four for taking part in the murder of Harry Shelton (Dick’s father) and the burning down of his house. When, in the next scene, we see the slippery and corrupt Sir Daniel Brackley extracting money with menaces i.e. doubling his tenants’ rents to him or else promising to hang them, we quickly come to suspect the poetic accusation is correct. Brackley has brought Dick up, harsh but fair, but the poem seems to implicate him in the murder of Dick’s father when Dick was a small child, and the burning down of his family’s house, Grimstone. You don’t have to be a genius to suspect that young Dick will find himself falling out with his guardian and in with Jon and the romantic woodland ‘fellaweship’.

Adventure and excitement

Stevenson possesses in abundance the boys adventure skill of creating tense moments which set the pulses racing and inflame the teenage mind in all of us. When Brackley (not suspecting the boy’s growing suspicions) sends Dick on an errand to nearby Tunstall Moat House, he finds himself falling in with another young lad who was at the inn and is (for some reason) also going the same way. Once they’ve identified themselves to each other, they carry on through the snowy woods (the novel is set in the depths of winter).

In this scene, the boys have arrived at the ruins of the burnt-out mansion, only to realise there are other people around in the neighbourhood, then realising it is the ‘woodland fellaweship’. They climb warily through the debris and look out through a ruined windowframe:

Peering through this, they were struck stiff with terror at their predicament. To retreat was impossible; they scarce dared to breathe. Upon the very margin of the ditch, not thirty feet from where they crouched, an iron caldron bubbled and steamed above a glowing fire; and close by, in an attitude of listening, as though he had caught some sound of their clambering among the ruins, a tall, red-faced, battered-looking man stood poised, an iron spoon in his right hand, a horn and a formidable dagger at his belt.
(Chapter IV – A Greenwood Company)

The story is chock full of such moments of suspense, confrontation, escape, fights, battles, storms at sea – Stevenson threw everything he could think of and the kitchen sink into the plot.

Fast-moving plot

This other lad Dick has teamed up with is called John Matcham. They watch the outlaws interrupt their meal in the clearing to go off and attack a line of Brackley’s men who are wending through a different part of the woods. Continuing on their way, they encounter a strange leper slowly ringing a mournful hand bell, who reveals himself to be Brackley in a disguise he’s adopted to navigate the dangerous woods. All three finally make it to the safety of Tunstall Moat, Brackley’s base.

Book II – the Moat House

Here, Dick confronts Brackley with his suspicions and makes him swear he had nothing to do with murdering his (Dick’s) father – which he does with easy fluency. But the parson also named in the doggerel accusation, Sir Oliver Oates, can’t bring himself to take an oath, stuttering and hesitating and turning red, pretty much incriminating himself.

Moreover, one of Brackley’s men brought wounded to the Moat House after the attack on them by the outlaws which Dick and John witnessed, and who is now dying – one John Carter – more or less confesses to the murder and implicates Brackley.

Right. So we have established that Sir Daniel Brackley is the man who helped or was responsible for murdering Dick Shelton’s father and burning down his ancestral home, years ago, but who then adopted and raised Dick. The scales fallen from his eyes, Dick and John decide to escape from the Moat House. But this proves easier said than done since it is a medieval fortress and full of Brackley’s men on high alert for an attack. There is a lot of creeping along spooky, dark castle corridors holding only a rushlight.

Illustration for The Black Arrow by the wonderful N.C. Wyeth

Illustration for The Black Arrow by N.C. Wyeth (1916)

Eventually they are discovered and flee into a vacant room, barricading themselves in against attackers. After repelling an attack through an unsuspected trap door – John Matcham finally reveals that ‘he’ is a maid in disguise. ‘He’ is Joanna Sedley, heir to a fine estate etc etc. whose family are all dead and so has spent her life being held hostage by a number of great lords, all planning marriage deals for her.

Now Brackley has possession of her and wants to marry her off to another lord who will pay a fine price. There is just time for Dick and Joanna to realise they are in love with each other! before the door is forced open by Brackley’s men who seize Joanna and almost grab Dick, who wriggles free, plunges out the window into the moat below, swims across it and scrambles to safety under cover of darkness. Phew!

Book III – My Lord Foxham

Several months have gone by and the House of Lancaster is in the ascendant with the Yorkists defeated – the small port of Shoreby-on-the-Till is full of Lancastrian nobles including Brackley, sucking up to the new masters of the land.  Now we learn that Dick has been hiding out all this time with the outlaws in the forest and that their leader is called Ellis Duckworth. He has loaned Dick some of his cut-throats, criminals and deserters to tail Brackley to Shoreby and now the chapter opens with them hiding out, drinking and grumbling, in a low pub.

One of their spies comes in to report that Brackley is going to a midnight assignation at a house by the sea – Dick and his men follow, Dick climbs over the wall and peers through the window and sees the house contains Joanna Sedley, now magically transformed from the ‘boy’ he shared adventures with in book one into a tall, stately, womanly figure – he is even more in love with her, though a little daunted by her fine womanhood.

Other figures are seen moving suspiciously around the walls and so Dick’s men attack them, leading to a scrappy fight. Dick kills one then tackles a good-sized man in a fight which spills into the sea – Dick manages to trip him, get him under the waves and forces him to yield. It turns out to be Lord Foxham, himself no friend of Brackley, himself come to spy on Joanna. Realising they’re on sort of the same side, Dick and Foxham arrange to meet next day at St Bride’s Cross, just outside Shoreby, ‘on the skirts of Tunstall Forest’. Here Lord Foxham confirms his identity and that he is the rightful protector of the fair Joanna Sedley. Dick’s passionate protestations about her safety persuade Foxham that Dick truly loves her, and he declares that Dick shall marry her. Only the slight problem that she is held captive by Brackly and betrothed to Lord Shoreby stands in the way.

So Dick resolves to rescue fair Joanna from the house by the sea. Since his fight with Foxham’s men the night before was pretty conspicuous, Brackley has doubled his guard, placing armed men round the house and knights on the approach roads, so Dick has the bright idea of approaching by sea. In a series of rather contorted events which are typical of the novel’s contrived storyline, Dick commissions his pack of criminals to steal a ship, which they do by hailing the master of a boat newly arrived in the port of Shoreby, as he comes ashore, then plying him with so much drink that he is easy to lure outside, mug and tie up. Then the gang row back out to the ship – the ironically named Good Hope – take command of it and sail it to a rough pier not far from the isolated house where Joanna is being held.

But when our men leave the ship and walk along the rough pier they find themselves instantly attacked, coming under bow and arrow fire, killing and injuring many, the whole crew panicking and rushing back to the ship, some falling into the water and drowning, others expiring on the deck. Quite a bloody scene.

Even Lord Foxham, who we only met ten pages earlier, is wounded, and carried to a cabin below decks. Here, once the ship has weighed anchor, he tells Dick that he was scheduled to meet the young Duke of Gloucester (the future King Richard III) of the house of York, with notes about the deployment of the Lancastrian forces around Shoreby. Dick must now undertake this mission. And Foxham names Dick the rightful husband of Lady Joanna in the letters he asks Dick to bear – but it is up to him to actually secure her.

In further melodrama the ship is now driven by heavy seas to shipwreck on the sand not far from Shoreby. Once the tide has gone out all the survivors of the vain attack on Brackley’s house struggle ashore and traipse inland, but not without – in yet more action – briefly coming under attack from a platoon of men apparently place there to defend the coast. But they escape without any more casualties.

All of this, by the way, takes place in the depth of winter, with darkening stormy skies, high seas, and snow storms. It is all very atmospheric and well described but the underlying scenario is too far-fetched for the reader to buy into.

Book IV – The Disguise

Dick pays off the motley crew, all too happy to leave their unlucky (and very young) leader, and elects to stick with Lawless. This outlaw has emerged with higher stature then the other cut-throats: it was he who Dick saw in the clearing cooking the outlaws’ meal; it was he who took control of the Good Hope‘s helm, steered it through the storm and ensured it survived the wreck. Now Lawless takes Dick through the snow-struck forest to his secret lair in the woods, a warren created when a tall beech tree was blown over, with the sides shored up with earth and turf and the entrance covered with brushwood.

Lawless leading young Dick to his den in the woods, illustration by N.C. Wyeth

Lawless leading young Dick to his den in the woods, illustration by N.C. Wyeth

It is, in other words, a fantasy version of a boy’s den in the woods. Inside it is surprisingly warm and snug, especially after Lawless lights a fire, they cook and eat some food and share some sweet wine, and Dick tells his story. ‘You want Lady Joan?’ Lawless asks Dick. ‘Let’s go and get her.’ So Lawless opens one of the several trunks stashed round his den and gets out several friar’s cassocks, complete with rope belts. And a tray of make-up pencils (a sort of indication of the theatrical origins or references of much of the language and plot of the novel). He gets Dick to put on the friar’s costume and then applies make-up to make him seem older, a wise old wandering friar. They head off through the snowy woods, back towards Sir Daniel Brackley’s residence in Shoreby.

Here, in the chaos of an over-packed lord’s house, Dick sees two fine ladies heading upstairs and follows them, till he encounters Lady Joan again, in the company of her serving lady. But oh alas and alack! Joanna reveals that she is to be married next day to Lord Shoreby. She and the lady must go back downstairs to the marriage feast while Dick stays hidden. Off they go but only a few minutes later a malevolent dwarf-jester comes snooping around and, as he discovers evidence of Dick hiding, Dick leaps out, they tussle, and Dick stabs him to death with his poniard. (For the hero of a children’s story Dick kills quite a few people – he killed one of Foxham’s men in the fight by the sea, he kills the dwarf – and all this pales next to the slaughter in book V. It’s a surprisingly violent book.)

When the dwarf’s body is discovered by servants there is much alarm and shouting but Dick stays hidden in Lady J’s room, when she returns for a further clasping of hands and bosoms and protestations of love – all watched by the ironic lady-in-waiting, before Dick tries to make his escape.

Since he is still in his disguise as a friar, he tells the house guards that he is going to the nearby church to pray for the dwarf’s soul (his body having been laid in state there), but the guards take him at his word and frog-march him to the church. Here he is no sooner introduced to the parson, Sir Oliver Oates, who begins to recognise him through is disguise than Dick throws himself on his mercy. In an unguarded moment the parson, for his part, admits that he was used as a decoy to lure Dick’s father to his death all those years ago, but swears he didn’t know that was what was going to happen. The soldiers are sitting in the pews watching him suspiciously so there’s no way Dick can escape the church, and so he spends the night next to Sir Oliver, pretending to mutter prayers for the dead dwarf.

Next morning they are woken early by the grand procession for the wedding of Lord Shoreham to Lady Joanna. But barely has the fine lord entered the church, richly caparisoned and accompanied by his fragrant retinue than a brace of arrows ring out, shooting him dead on the spot, injuring Brackley, creating hysteria and panic among the attendants and ladies.

This is stilled by the imperious voice of Lord Risingham, the noblest man present. To Dick’s dismay the parson immediately betrays him and Lawless (his fellow fake friar) and they are dragged before Risingham and all kinds of accusations thrown at them of being in league with the fellowship of the Black Arrow and therefore involved in this sacrilegious outrage.

Brackley is incensed and wants to drag Dick off and torture him to death, but Lady Joanna intercedes to say she never wanted to marry Lord Shoreby and loves Dick, and her (cheeky) lady in waiting backs up the story and so Risingham, who has seniority, has Dick taken by soldiers to his own chambers to judge.

Here Dick saves the day by admitting that he guilty to some extent of falling in with the fellowship of forest crooks, but he only did so after learning that Brackley murdered his father. He clinches his case by handing over to Risingham a letter he had conveniently found on the murdered dwarf in which the villain Brackley plots to overthrow the Yorkist interest – which includes Risingham – and then hand over Risingham’s lands to Lord Shoreby. Risingham is incensed and instantly releases Dick, making him swear to mend his ways.

So Dick finally gets to escape the house and trouble and is walking free across Shoreby when, of all the bad luck, as he is passing one of the inns on the dockside, out of it stumble some very drunk sailors which include Arblaster, the unfortunate captain who Dick’s men got drunk, mugged and then whose ship they stole and wrecked. He doesn’t recognise him but his wretched dog does, coming barking up to him and lawless, still in their silly friar disguises. The drunks grow in suspicion and when he tries to bolt, grab him, tie him up and drag him back into the pub. Here Dick spins a long cock and bull story, admitting he is one of the outlaws but has grudges against them, and that the outlaws have a vast pile of treasure in the woods, and persuading Arblaster and his mates that he’ll lead them to it. In its way this is a curious and flavoursome scene. They are by this stage very drunk and Dick makes them show him the only possession of his which they found and therefore took off him – Lord Foxham’s signet ring with which he was to identify himself to Richard of Gloucester – when Dick snatches it, up ends the tables in their faces, and scarpers out the door and along the quayside into the night. Phew.

Book V – Crookback

Though as convoluted in detail as the others, this is in some ways the simplest book. If you remember, Dick had promised Lord Foxham he would rendezvous with Richard Duke of Gloucester and give him Foxham’s writings on the disposition of enemy (Lancastrian) forces in Shoreby. Now, Dick hid those papers when he was at Lawless’s den in the woods, which is why Arblaster and his drunk shipmates didn’t find them when they searched Dick the night before.

Now, the next morning, Dick is on his way through the woods back to Lawless’s den to get them, when he comes across a man defending himself against several attackers. Dick throws himself into the fray, coming to his defence, and together they beat the men off. At which point the other blows his horn and a brace of horsemen arrive and quickly identify the man he’s saved as Richard Duke of Gloucester, known as Crookback and as every schoolboy in 1888 knew, the man who would become King Richard III, according to legend the most wicked monarch in England’s history.

At this point, if it hadn’t been obvious before, the reader realises that this is a novel not only about two roses but about two Richards. For immediately the duke of Gloucester reveals the manic glint in his eye and the intensity of his ambition.

Gloucester explains to Dick that he is about to attack Shoreby and Dick gives him an eye-witness description of the Lancastrian forces every bit as good as Foxham’s. Gloucester knights Dick on the spot, from this point onwards Sir Richard Shelton. But says now he must command a troop during the forthcoming battle of Shoreby.

The (fictional) Battle of Shoreby is described across two chapters in impressive detail. The reader feels this is what it must be like to attack a medieval town through narrows streets and, as Dick does, command his men to raise a barricade with furniture looted from the rickety houses and then withstand attacks from massed archers and from armoured knights on horseback. It is rip-roaring exciting stuff.

Eventually the battle is won and Richard asks permission to ride and rescue his lady love, and Gloucester gives him a troop of men. Off they go trailing Brackly and his forces through the forest. After various delays and losing of the tracks, Dick and his men creep up on Brackley’s party gathered round a fire which includes Lady Joanna. They gather and attack, but Brackley’s men were waiting for them and mount a a surprise counter-attack. Joanna runs to Dick in the confusion and they escape the confusion of battle into the dense forest.

(It’s worth noting that although the novel is made of clichés, there keep coming unexpected complications and rebuffs, which give it a sort of realistic but also quite a frustrating feel. When Dick and his gang stole the ship and sailed it round to attack Brackley’s house by the sea I thought it would be a storming triumph, so was very surprised when they are beaten back and many killed or injured by bowfire before they’ve barely got off the jetty.)

Briefly, Dick and Joanna make it back to the safety of Lord Foxham’s house. There is a further encounter with Gloucester where Dick displeases the great man with a notable request. Gloucester says he will give Dick anything he desires, and at that moment – as it happens – amid the chaos of post-battle Shoreby, some troops come past hustling some captives who Gloucester, barely bothering to look, orders to be hanged. And Dick recognises among them Arblaster, the wretched sea captain who Richard has twice wronged, stealing his ship and ruining his livelihood, then throwing a table at him in the quayside pub. Now Dick sees a way to atone for his past sins and asks Gloucester to spare this man’s life. Irritated at the triviality of the request, Gloucester agrees to do so – since he has given his word – but fiercely tells Dick that he can’t expect to rise in his army, in his cause, if he throws away favours on trifle. And so Gloucester gallops off.

Next morning Dick is up betimes, accoutred and arrayed in the finest regalia Foxham can provide, ready for his wedding to Lady Joanna. He strolls around the town, surveying the triumphant Yorkist troops, before straying further afield and ends up walking through the (by now very familiar) snowy woods.

And it is here that the psychological climax of the book comes, when Dick disturbs a figure lurking in the woods in disguise and it turns out to be none other than Sir Daniel Brackley. They argue. They nearly fight but Dick refuses to shed blood on his wedding day. In fact he admits – to Brackley, to the reader, to himself – that he has done too many bloody deeds recently, spilled too much blood. Although he has all the justification for it, he will not harm Brackley. He tells him to go before he calls the guards. And so Brackley shuffles off, suspiciously.

At which point there is the twang of a bow and from a nearby thicket an arrow is despatched which embeds itself in Brackley, who falls to the ground. Dick rushes to him and just has time to tell him that, yes, it is a Black Arrow, when Brackley expires. And Ellis Duckworth comes from the thicket holding his bow. He heard Dick forgive Brackley, but he can’t forgive. He asks Dick to pray for his soul. And Dick notes that vengeance hasn’t made Duckworth feel good, in fact he feels sick and guilty. Give it up, says Dick. Hatch died in the Battle of Shoreham. So three of the four mentioned in the original verse threat are now despatched. Dick asks forgiveness for the parson and Duckworth, reluctantly agrees.

‘Be at rest; the Black Arrow flieth nevermore—the fellowship is broken.’

“But be at rest; the Black Arrow flieth nevermore”. Illustration by N. C. Wyeth

‘But be at rest; the Black Arrow flieth nevermore’. Illustration by N. C. Wyeth

In the short conclusion to the book, Dick marries his Joan. Richard Crookback makes a last appearance riding by with the long train of his armed men, going towards the next battle, and parries banter with Foxham, Joan and Dick, offering Joan the husband of her choice. Of course she cleaves to honest Dick, and Gloucester pshaws, turns his horse and gallops off towards his destiny.

And in the last few sentences we learn that Dick and Joan lived out their lives in peace and happiness far from the wars and that two old men – Arblaster the shipman and Lawless the rogue – also live out their lives in peace. Dick has, in some measure, atoned for his youthful bloodthirstiness, by at key moments, interceding and saving both their lives. And with that thought, or moral, the book ends.


Reasons for The Black Arrow’s relative failure

The relative failure and comparative neglect of this novel makes you appreciate the elements which made the classics Treasure Island and Kidnapped such successes. I identify four reasons:

1. In those novels there is one boy hero (Jim Hawkins, David Balfour) – clearly identified in the first sentence – and you are thrown immediately into his plight – which is also described clearly and obviously. In The Black Arrow the picture is much more confused: it takes fifty pages or more to become really clear that the story is about a young lad, Master Richard (‘Dick’) Shelton, the ward of the wicked Sir Daniel Brackley, and this is because quite a few characters are introduced in the confused and busy opening scenes.

2. The successful tales are first-person narratives, throwing you directly and immediately into the adventure at first hand. The Black Arrow has a third-person narrator who is not, for some reason, very believable, partly because of the confusion of plot which dogs a lot of the story.

3. Good guys and bad guys In his classic works you know who they are – the pirates in Treasure Island, the ship’s crew and then the loyalist British army in Kidnapped. In this book it is much harder to tell for several reasons:

a) it’s a civil war so there’s no immediate way of knowing who’s on whose side, except by asking
b) characters change sides, including the hero who is not wholeheartedly for either side

4. A charismatic anti-hero When Richard Crookback appears in the fifth act, the reader realises that this is the fourth reason why this novel isn’t as successful as Kidnapped or Treasure Island – the presence of a charismatic baddy.

Both those stories introduce fairly early on a hugely charismatic, charming, threatening, adult hero who enthrals the boy narrator and comes to dominate the story – namely Long John Silver and Alan Breck Stewart. Their presence, their charming rogueish amorality, lifts both books onto a completely different level.

In this book, the dangerous charismatic adult is Richard Crookback – he immediately captures our attention by his spirited self-defence against four or five attackers, and then with his arrogant nonchalance as soon as he starts talking to Dick. From now to the end of the novel the story lifts and sails whenever he is present – he is a pantomime villain like Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham in the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. But his arrival makes you realise that he is what the preceding four-fifths of the book have been missing.


Medieval vocabulary

Apparently Stevenson used the Paston Letters, a collection of authentic correspondence from the period, as his model, and – as someone who studied medieval literature at university – I did feel it had some of the tang and hempen antiquity of the older language, albeit interlarded with what I thought were Shakespearian useges from 200 years later, and some speeches which had a Scots ring to me. You have to be prepared to enjoy exchanges like this:

She was groping for the bolt, when Dick at last comprehended.
‘By the mass!’ he cried, ‘y’ are no Jack; y’ are Joanna Sedley; y’ are the maid that would not marry me!’
The girl paused, and stood silent and motionless. Dick, too, was silent for a little; then he spoke again.
‘Joanna,’ he said, ‘y’ ’ave saved my life, and I have saved yours; and we have seen blood flow, and been friends and enemies—ay, and I took my belt to thrash you; and all that time I thought ye were a boy. But now death has me, and my time’s out, and before I die I must say this: Y’ are the best maid and the bravest under heaven, and, if only I could live, I would marry you blithely; and, live or die, I love you.’
She answered nothing.
‘Come,’ he said, ‘speak up, Jack. Come, be a good maid, and say ye love me!’
‘Why, Dick,’ she cried, ‘would I be here?’
‘Well, see ye here,’ continued Dick, ‘an we but escape whole we’ll marry; and an we’re to die, we die, and there’s an end on’t.’ (Chapter III The Room Over The Chapel)

On the other hand, one of the pleasures of reading old literature, especially something as conventional in its way as this ripping yarn, is the logical habits of mind of writers brought up in previous ages. There is a lovely logic to the deployment of the material in the opening of the chapter ‘In Mine Enemies’ House’ – the way the place is identified, then described, then the attitude behind its busy state, then a specific setting in time given, and then the weather: the whole impression being rounded up and summarised in the witty sentence about the eye of the modern.

Sir Daniel’s residence in Shoreby was a tall, commodious, plastered mansion, framed in carven oak, and covered by a low-pitched roof of thatch. To the back there stretched a garden, full of fruit-trees, alleys, and thick arbours, and overlooked from the far end by the tower of the abbey church.
The house might contain, upon a pinch, the retinue of a greater person than Sir Daniel; but even now it was filled with hubbub. The court rang with arms and horseshoe-iron; the kitchens roared with cookery like a bees’-hive; minstrels, and the players of instruments, and the cries of tumblers, sounded from the hall. Sir Daniel, in his profusion, in the gaiety and gallantry of his establishment, rivalled with Lord Shoreby, and eclipsed Lord Risingham.
All guests were made welcome. Minstrels, tumblers, players of chess, the sellers of relics, medicines, perfumes, and enchantments, and along with these every sort of priest, friar, or pilgrim, were made welcome to the lower table, and slept together in the ample lofts, or on the bare boards of the long dining-hall.
On the afternoon following the wreck of the Good Hope, the buttery, the kitchens, the stables, the covered cartshed that surrounded two sides of the court, were all crowded by idle people, partly belonging to Sir Daniel’s establishment, and attired in his livery of murrey and blue, partly nondescript strangers attracted to the town by greed, and received by the knight through policy, and because it was the fashion of the time.
The snow, which still fell without interruption, the extreme chill of the air, and the approach of night, combined to keep them under shelter. Wine, ale, and money were all plentiful; many sprawled gambling in the straw of the barn, many were still drunken from the noontide meal. To the eye of a modern it would have looked like the sack of a city; to the eye of a contemporary it was like any other rich and noble household at a festive season.

There is a pleasure and a seduction in the logical disposition of the material, a pleasing old-fashioned storytellingness. As a thread through the reading, I made a note of sundry medieval words which, although I’ve often read before, I don’t actually fully understand.

  • arbalest – a crossbow with a special mechanism for drawing back and releasing the string
  • baldric –  a belt worn over one shoulder to carry a weapon (usually a sword) or other implement such as a bugle or drum
  • brigandine – a cloth garment, generally canvas or leather, lined with small oblong steel plates riveted to the fabric
  • buckler – a small shield, up to 18 inches in diameter, held in the fist with a central handle behind the boss
  • cresset – a metal cup or basket, mounted to a pole, containing flammable substance like oil, pitch or a rope steeped in rosin, burned as a light or beacon
  • gyves – a shackle, especially for the leg
  • losels – a worthless person or scoundrel
  • lout – verb: to bow or stoop
  • murrain – a plague, epidemic, or crop blight
  • poniard – a small, slim dagger
  • pottage – a thick soup or stew made by boiling vegetables, grains, and, if available, meat or fish
  • sallet – a light medieval helmet, usually with a vision slit or a movable visor
  • shaw – a coppice or thicket of trees
  • tippet – a scarf-like narrow piece of clothing, worn over the shoulders
  • tucket – a flourish on a trumpet
  • windac – a piece of equipment to pull back the tight string of a crossbow

Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

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