“White Rus”: A History of Belarus

For this week in our alphabet of History, will be (pun intended) looking at the History of Belarus. The history of Belarus is a narrative of invasions, wars, unifications and atrocities, but is of great value to any whose interests involve History. Because Belarus’ history is so encompassing, to avoid making this blog seem like a small essay, I will be focusing on Belarus from the earliest days of Human occupation, up until the late medieval period – pre-modern Belarus essentially. I may finish off Belarus’ history in a future blog, but here is the first half!

Continue reading ““White Rus”: A History of Belarus”

1260: From Mongol to Mamluk Control in the Near East

The following update has been inspired by an article I read by Nicholas Vincent (University of East Anglia) regarding the year 1260 and the incredibly important consequences that this date had for Europe and the Mediterranean world. Vincent declared this to be a dramatic year which is often overlooked despite the serious political change it brought to more than one civilisation, but particularly the changes to the Mongol empire. I have been in a very “oriental/Asian” mood lately – in fact I am writing this whilst listening to some Mongolian throat singing – so I decided to pick up on this topic which I had looked into a while back, so we can all share the mood.

Vincent’s article was mostly focus on the Battle of Ain Jalut, which took place in the Kezreel valley near Jerusalem the 3rd of September 1260. The result was the clash of two great fighting forces. By this moment in time the Mamluk had consolidated power very quickly in the area of Egypt and extended their area of influence all along the Mediterranean coast in the Near East. This was of great threat to the Mongols, who has already started suffering from this shift in power since their ransacking of Baghdad in 1258, thus ending 500 years of Abbasid rule. The leader of the Mongol army at this moment in time was Hülegü Khan – sometimes referred to as Hulagu Khan, who was the grandson of our dear friend Temujin. Hugalu is responsible for the formation of the Ilkhanate of Persia, which will lay the foundations for modern-day Iran. And he was also the man responsible for the siege of Baghdad and the following conquest of Syria. So, as you can see, it is not like the Mamluks were just going against any whatever general. Now the reasons why with this background the Mongols were caught off foot at Ain Jalut are multiple, and there are more than I could cover in a blog post – with intrinsic details I would leave to military historians, a field that as you know is not my strong suit. Nevertheless, I will give you an outline of the issues at this scenario that leads to the Mamluk control of the area and the reason why Vincent determines this was a decisive moment in history.

First of all, the army that Hugalu was commanding ranked around 20,000 people who needed to eat.  Reuven Amitai-Preiss discusses in his study of this period that this proves to be an issue and leads Hugalu to withdraw from Syria. Traditional viewpoints suggest this was due to the unrest that appears in the central domains of the Mongol empire following the death of Mongke Khan, who was Hugalu’s brother. This opens a window for the classic political manoeuvres of succession that end in civil wars. However, Reuven thinks that this was not so much Hugalu’s concern, but rather the fact that with such a big army, he finds himself in an area where supplies are scarce – Syria is not particularly well-known for its grazing fields! There is an exchange of correspondence between him and Louis IX of France where this is discussed. So, although there is evidence that food and graze for the horse was an issue, the fact that Iran was suddenly very exposed to the potential threat of the leader of the Golden Horde, and Hugalu was without his brother as protector, most likely led him to retreat part of his troops over to the eastern border of the Ilkhanate. In addition, it seems that, despite all his military might, Hugalu also made a strategic mistake: he completely undermined the threat that the rising powers in Egypt supposed to his realm. Turns out that the force that was marching over towards Hugalu on behalf of the Mamluk Sultanate was bigger – current estimates range from around 24,000 to the 100,000s…the reason for this disparity in the sources, however, escapes me. Regardless, the thing is the Khan simply did not take his enemy seriously, and the consequences were devastating. Baibars, commander of the Mamluk army, took advantage of the mobility of their units to exercise hit-and-run tactics to lure the Mongols to where the main force lead by Qutuz, the sultan of the Mamluk dynasty at the time. The first attack was gained by the Mongols and they did hurt the Mamluk forces significantly. However, the retaliation of the enemy was great, and their superior knowledge of the area – and presumably the considerably larger army – eventually turned the tables and destroyed Hugalu’s force. In the process of doing so, his designated deputy commander, Kitbuqa, was captured and his head was cut off and sent over to Cairo as a souvenir and proof of the Mamluk prowess.

The thing is, that with the defeat of the Mongols in 1260, and the growing tensions elsewhere in their domains in what is known as the Berke-Hugalu War (as you can see they really did not get along…), they were never able to secure back the area, with the resurgence of Egyptian power to extents that could be compared to the previous Abbassid rule. In fact, it only took the 30 years for the pressure from the Mamluks to be so prominent in the Near East that the Crusader armies started to give up and evacuate the area. This led the crusading efforts towards the Baltic and left the Mongols in a state of crisis and civil war. Interestingly, and despite his amazing victory, Qutuz did not enjoy his success for much longer. On his way back to Cairo, he was assassinated at El Salheya, seemingly due to the scheming of our ambitious friend Baibars, although it appears several Emir’s unhappy with Qutuz own raise to power and policies may have actually been the cause of his death. In any case, Baibars becomes the new sultan and with him a consistent rule, that lead to the consolidation of Mamluk power in the Levant area, and the defeat of the Seventh Crusade.

The Outlaw King – A Medieval Movie Review

Just a couple of months ago Netflix released The Outlaw King, their historical action drama about the life of Robert the Bruce in early 14th Century Scotland. Chris Pine is the big name here starring as the Bruce himself. Overall the film has received exceedingly average reviews, with around a 60% aggregated score. This is even after 20 minutes of battle and action scenes were cut due to complaints about length from the initial previews. Unfortunately the heavy amount of criticism it has received has mostly been due to it being seen as boring rather than having any glaring fault. Personally I feel the problem is that the average film reviewer and Netflix watcher aren’t able to appreciate the place where The Outlaw King shines, and that’s in its physical presentation of history.

The scope of the film is fairly narrow, as it doesn’t really cover Robert the Bruce’s whole life or reign, but only some time just before coronation up until after the battle of Loudoun Hill. Furthermore if you come into this film expecting a heavy degree of accuracy in its events then you may be disappointed. As with most movies, this one does mess around with the timeline somewhat, as well as putting historical figures in places where they maybe wouldn’t have been. For example the film depicts Edward I as dying before the battle of Loudoun Hill, when he in fact died some months later. Also the film does the usual and makes the protagonist the good guy and his opponents inherently evil. The character of Bruce is that of an enigmatic and well-behaved man of the people, who desires to restore Scotland to its citizens. However, historian Fiona Watson notes the real Bruce was most likely cold, canny, and driven by his personal ambition. I do think that some of this can be forgiven, as the characterization of the Bruce as the hero and Edward Longshanks and his son Edward II as evil can show the perspective of those on the Scottish side. After all the English were seen as the invaders and oppressors.

In either case, the film doesn’t overly sugar coat the cause of the Bruce and his men. It does show some of the underhanded tactics they may have made use of. The story is really kicked off when Bruce murders an opponent of his John ‘The Red’ Comyn in a priory. In the film it is shown as a hasty decision that Bruce made to stop Comyn from telling the English of his plans to revolt, when in reality it was probably a more planned decision, and when it turned out that Comyn survived Bruce had him finished off. So the film does somewhat clean things up there. However in a later scene James Douglas, one of the Bruce’s men, is shown to have a similar disregard for murder in holy places when he goes to take back his family’s castle from the English by waiting for the guards to be in a service in the chapel and slaughtering them before they could arm themselves. Douglas is then on known as ‘The Black Douglas’, and so we see that the morality of the Scottish side isn’t entirely unquestionable in the film. On a side note, I do think that Chris Pine’s depiction of the Bruce is a little overshadowed by the charismatic fury shown in the Black Douglas, especially in combat.

Finally I should mention what I really loved about the Film. As my particular interest is in historical warfare, and arms and armour, especially of the medieval period, any film that manages to depict these aspects well is instantly in my good books. Sadly I find it very hard to name any one film that manages to tick more than a few boxes for me, but perhaps this film has changed that? Despite the issues with overarching historical events this film has in places, if you look at the details in presentation it blows away bigger budget movies, especially its nearest comparison Braveheart. There isn’t an anachronistic kilt in sight! Anyone who knows their stuff about medieval warfare will find this move a treat, as everywhere you look people are armed and kitted out in a variety of authentic armour and weapons. For example, you’d expect there to be swords everywhere, but in reality swords wouldn’t be very common on the battlefield as they were really just a sidearm, and only for those that could afford it. Instead the Outlaw King shows us armies of spears, the primary weapon on the medieval battlefield. You’ll also see axes and warhammers being used heavily by the main cast, even the Bruce himself is seen using the lowly axe despite being the king, but this is good as it would certainly have been the preferable choice against the armour of the time.

Speaking of armour, this has to be the best depiction of armour I’ve seen in a film to date. Instead of putting everyone in full shining plate like most films would simply due to the assumption that it should be around in the middle ages, this film has heavy use of cloth armour, known as the gambeson, for bulk of the fighters shown, which is a very rare thing to see in films despite how overwhelmingly common it would have been. For those who could afford more, late 13th/early 14th century armour was mostly consisting of mail, and perhaps with a ‘coat of plates’ worn over it. This was the predecessor to the full plate harness that we’re all familiar with. It is a series of steel plates held together under a fabric layer, with larger plates on the chest and back which would eventually become one large single piece in later periods.

By no means is the depiction of weapons and warfare perfect in this film, it’s just far far better than most. For example you will still see the old trope of fire arrows making an appearance. Something that you only really see in movies because it is more visible, especially at night, than real arrows. They are employed during a very short siege in this film, which is one of the weaker moments. They are sold as being an unstoppable weapon despite the castle they are being shot into being mostly made of stone, so the castle is given up without an extended siege, which I would have liked to have seen. On similar note there are some issues with the castles used in the movie themselves, such as the fortifications being oddly sized, but I think this is mostly forgivable as they don’t feature too prominently and are probably more modern castle styled houses or mansions that were used due to budget limitations. Overall however, in terms of the presentation of warfare, as well as many other aspects of medieval life that I couldn’t even begin to go into detail on right now, The Outlaw King really gets things right in a way I don’t think I’ve seen before. The key to this I think is that they’ve actually listened to historians and other advisors on these details rather that leaving things to set and costume designers to fail at reinventing the wheel so to speak. They even went to various re-enactment groups to be extras and train others in combat, as well as going to credible historical crafters and smiths to make their weapons, such as the prominent Tod Todeschini of ‘Tods Workshop’ who designed and made the daggers carried by the main cast.

Overall I think that the film is a fairly entertaining historical drama with excellent action and combat, I could have just done with more of it. I was expecting the final climax to come much later in the Battle of Bannockburn. However with criticism coming from the previews of the length and too much battle, and with the historical accuracy of the timeline already being somewhat muddled and squashed together, I think it was wise to forgo any more messing with the events and keep it as a clean ending after the Battle of Loudoun Hill. Hopefully the mixed reaction isn’t too big a blow for historical films, especially ones with such good details!

Lost Cities – Xanadu

Today I bring you the first instalment of my series of posts on “Lost Cities”. I would like to let you know right from the beginning that the term “lost city” is applied loosely here. As you will see throughout the different posts these are not always locations that are physically lost or not found. In many cases, I use this term to refer to places that used to stand tall. These were often centres of power, the core to long gone civilisations and empires. Therefore, as long as you keep that in mind, we are good to go. Why have I chosen these sites? Well, the answer is different for each of them. This is a fairly popular topic I guess in terms of public history – I am sure you have seen a documentary somewhere. But I think what draw me to look into these locations was not that populist approach, but my inner Indiana Jones looking for adventures that I am very unlikely to have in real life. Every archaeologist and history dreams (I Think…I Certainly Do!) of finding something forgotten and buried down into oblivion in the annals of our past. Now, I am in no position of doing great discoveries, so I only have left the stories of this places. And sometimes, a story is all you need…

XANADU

Xanadu, actually named Shangdu means upper capital. This was in fact the summer capital of the Mongol leader Kublai Khan and the Yuan dynasty. It used to be home to 100.000 people until its destruction by an invading army of the Ming dynasty. The razing of Xanadu took place during the reign of the last Yuan Emperor and Khagan of the Mongol Empire: Toghon Temur in 1369. Sadly, and due to very extreme deterioration, all we have left are just the bases of the outline of the walls. What is left of these measures 2200 square metres, and the layout goes a bit like this. The walls and measurements I have just given you are part of the outer city, then they would have had an inner city held within the walls, with a palace which would have been around 550m in length. You know…Small! In any case, the current location of this site is actually in Zhenglan Banner (Mongolia).

I know this seems like a bit of a pessimistic note to start this post on, but I wanted you to feel the devastation from the beginning. And then, hopefully you will understand why Xanadu was such a symbol and why it had to be destroyed as an act of war – I am sure in any case that’s what the Ming forces thought to themselves in the process of trashing the place, anyway. So, what else do we know about Xanadu?  The city’s original name was Kaiping and was designed by the Chinese architect and adviser Liu Bingzhong or Liu Kan for the Yuan dynasty. The project started in 1252 and finished by 1256. Just a decade after the works were finished the famous Venetian Marco Polo visited the renown city. He actually called it Chandu, or Xandu; in fact, it seems the name change to Shangdu happened in 1264, which would explain the vocabulary used by Marco Polo. In the Travels of Marco Polo (Book 1, chapter 61 specifically for Xanadu, read the rest just for fun!), he goes at great length to explain his adventures around the old region of Cathay, and we find extensive information on Xanadu as an imperial city. He describes it as being an opulent, remarkable city. The palace, he says, is built with marble, gilded decorations all over, and then, he also mentions a second palace, also known as the Cane Palace where the Khan lived alongside in the main marbled residence… I think the evidence speak for themselves. In essence, Xanadu was a massive hub connecting trade for China in the north of “Cathay”. However, as the Mongol domains expanded, its location lost importance as the capital of the kingdom, and instead it was refashioned as an imperial city of high status by the mid 14th century.

Well, curiously enough, the city regained its former name after the Ming destroyed and occupied the area of Xanadu: they torched the remains of Liu’s creation and renamed it Kaiping. The site remained unoccupied and uncared for hundreds of years. Luckily the UNESCO decided to finally inscribe it in the list of World Heritage as of 2012. Like many sites that are abandoned and left to fend for themselves much destruction has been done to the archaeological record by the locals. In fact, it is reported notoriously that a lot of the stone work and marble of the city was repurposed for houses more recently in the town of Dolon Nor. As of today, not much other than the outline of the walls is left, though and effort for restoration and preservation of the site has been carried out since 2002.

Now, you will be thinking, what specifically pushed the Ming forces to destroy such a city, when it was no longer the capital? Granted its status was indeed very high and it was still an important symbol of the Yuan dynasty, but the treatment it received was pretty harsh. Perhaps it will start making more sense if I told you that, the down fall of Xanadu came as a result of the Red Turban Rebellion. The roots of the rebellion were many, although they mostly had to do with the economic and environmental problems link together caused by the constant flooding of the Yellow River, bouts of the Black Death and the very high expenses required to maintain such a vast empire. Not a good scenario. It also helps knowing that the Red Turban army was formed by Guo Zixing and his followers were members of the White Lotus society

…And before you start thinking we are suddenly in a Wuxia movie, I will tell you what that means. The White Lotus crew were essentially a political and religious movement, with basis in Dharmic religions as well as Persian Gnosticism. With their strict codes of conduct that resonated with the issues described earlier that the empire was facing, they quickly started becoming the champions of the injustices performed by the Mongols in their own lands, and as every rebellious group they did part take and a few demonstrations. The Mongol administration pick on this quickly and proceeded to ban them, and thus the White Lotus became a secret society of sorts. What I haven’t told you yet is that the vast majority of the members of this organisation were Han Chinese, therefore causing complications here not just in terms of religiosity but also ethnicity and cultural status. The Yuan dynasty saw a variety of religions amongst their ranks, including an increase in the number of followers of Islam in China, whilst the state never officially converted to the doctrine this caused some social dissent. Kublai Khan himself eventually established Tibetan Buddhism as the de facto state religion. Nonetheless, he particularly favoured the Sakya sect; a move that he did in part to have an advantage in his conquest of the Tibet area. Sadly, as a result of this favouritism the rest of religious movements in the Mongol empire lost importance, which caused once again social anxieties amongst the people, particularly the ordinary folk. This only contributed more to the escalation of things if we consider that during Mongol rule the “Han” or the previous Jin dynasty were all divided as a separate class in their feudal system and the decorum that they had received in previous rule was dismissed. So, in essence, the Han Chinese were super bitter. As the Red Turban Rebellion gained momentum, the White Lotus society became an incredibly favourable basis for their desire to overthrow the established system, and from here on, the story is pretty obvious to follow: all you need is the numbers and will to raise in arms, and soon your have a whole bloody war. To their great advantage, the mid 14th century saw a moment of great instability amongst the Mongols who were too busy fighting themselves over a very far stretch territory. So, by the time the Ming forces made it to Xanadu, little was left of the former glory of the empire this wonderful city had helped to build. Razed to the ground as is raided by Genghis reborn himself, Xanadu crumbled and set itself to sleep.

The Livonian Crusade – The Beginning of The End of Paganism in Europe

The Northern Crusades, otherwise known as the Baltic Crusades, were religious wars that took place in the 12th and 13th centuries in order to subjugate and forcibly baptize the indigenous peoples of various parts of Northern Europe such as Finland and North and Eastern Germany, but most significantly the areas of modern day Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The official starting point for the Northern Crusades as a whole was Pope Celestine III’s call in 1195, but the Christian kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden, Poland, and the Holy Roman Empire had already begun to subjugate their pagan neighbours before then.

The part of these Northern Crusades that seems to have been the main focus of the action, and continued in some form or another for almost 100 years was the Livonian Crusade which took place across what is now the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia. This crusade takes it’s name from the Livonians, who were the indigenous inhabitants of modern Northern Latvia and Southwestern Estonia, usually referred to as Livonia. Other than the Livonians, during this period the other groups in the region that were a target of this crusade were the Latgalians, Selonians, Estonians, Curonians, and Semigallians.

These peoples inhabiting the Eastern shores of the Baltic were, by the time of the first crusading in the late 12th century, surrounded by several increasingly powerful Christian states. The Orthodox Slavic principalities to the East, and the Catholic Kingdom of Poland and the HRE to the West. During a period of over 150 years leading up to the arrival of German crusaders in the region, Estonia was attacked multiple times by the Slavic states, as well as Denmark and Sweden. This makes it seem that invasions of these lands were inevitable to continue even without the call for a crusade by the Pope and being led by Bishops and holy orders. Suggestions have been made that it is the perspective of the chronicler Henry of Livonia, who wrote the main source for much of these events, that all the military action in the area was due to the crusade, when that isn’t necessarily the case and much of it may have used the Papal decree of crusade as an excuse for expansion.

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Map showing conquests in the region (top right) by 1260

Christianity had already come to these areas before the crusades through the settlement of some Swedes and Danes in Latvia in the 11th century. Later there were German traders in the area who were now using the old Viking trade routes to Byzantium. Saint Meinhard of Segeberg then arrived in 1184 with the mission of converting the pagan Livonians. Although Meinhard became bishop in part of Livonia in 1186, Pope Celestine III proclaimed a crusade against the Baltic pagans in 1195.Shortly after this Meinhard died after attempting to forcibly convert local Livonians, and eventually an official crusading expedition was led by Meinhard’s successor; Bishop Berthold of Hanover, which arrived in Livonia in 1198. Shortly after arriving however, Berthold and his forces were killed by Livonians in battle. Pope Innocent III then reiterated Pope Celestine III’s call for a crusade in response in order to avenge this defeat. This time a larger force was assembled and, led by Bishop Albrecht von Buxthoeven in 1200, arrived in Livonia and set up the Bishopric of Riga in 1201, which is now the modern capital of Latvia. From here Albrecht set up the knightly order of ‘The Livonian Brothers of the Sword’ in order to aid in conversion, but perhaps more importantly to protect German trade in the area and secure German control. By 1206 the Livonian chief, who had already been baptized in 1189, was finally defeated in a decisive battle, and the Livonians were declared to be converted. The Livonian chief, Caupo, was to become an ally of the crusaders until his death in battle in 1217.

After the successful conversion of the Livonians their land was essentially taken over by the crusaders and the Bishopric of Riga. Several lucrative trading posts were taken over, and construction began of some important castles in the area; Koknese Castle and Cēsis Castle. Military alliances were also made with some nearby Latgalian principalities.  The remaining Latgalians were apparently easily subdued and absorbed into the Bishopric of Riga, one of which was attacked despite already being Orthodox, the excuse being that they were in alliance with Lithuanian pagans.

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Remains of Koknese Castle in Latvia

In 1208 the crusaders deemed themselves ready to venture North and begin campaigns against the Estonians. Estonia at the time was comprised of serveral counties that were led by elders that loosely cooperated with each other. The crusaders began sending raids into Southern Estonian counties with the help of newly converted Livonian and Latgalian allies. The Estonian tribes however appeared to put up a fierce resistance and occasionally were found to have struck back with counterattacks at crusader held areas in Livonia. This part of the crusade was to prove more difficult than those before, and would take much longer. At various points between 1208 and 1227 armies of different sides would wreak havoc across Livonia, Latgalia and Estonia. The Livonians and Latgalians would be on the side of the crusaders or Estonians at various points, as well as the Russians of the Republic of Novgorod getting involved with either side at times. The Estonians used hill forts effectively to defend and serve as centers of each county, and these were to be besieged, captured, and re-captured multiple times.

After some time of war, both the Estonians and crusaders were becoming war weary, and so a three year truce was established from 1213 to 1215. This proved to be more advantageous to the crusaders however, as they were able to consolidate their political position effectively, whereas the Estonians were unable to bring their system of loose alliances into a centralised state. In 1217 there was finally a decisive battle and a turning point in the campaign against the Estonians. Although the Livonian leader, Caupo, died at this battle, Estonian leader and central figure of resistance, Lembitu, was also killed. Although later in 1223 there was an Estonian uprising against Christian held strongholds throughout Estonia, in some places with the help of Russian mercenaries, these places were retaken by the German crusaders in 1224. Later that year the Livonian Brothers of the Sword established their new headquarters at Viljandi in Southern Estonia.

Before the Estonian uprising, the North of Estonia was under attack from the Kingdoms of Denmark and Sweden while the South was being taken by the German crusaders. The Swedes made one failed attempt in 1220, but the Danish fleet under King Valdemar II landed in the present day capital of Tallinn and from there subjugated the whole North of Estonia. The Danes would also attempt invasions on the Estonian island of Saaremaa to the West of the mainland. Saaremaa would see off King Valdemar in 1206 and 1222 despite him attempting to establish and hold fortifications upon arrival. The Livonian Brothers of the Sword would also attack the islanders in 1216 by invading over the frozen sea, but were unsuccessful and provoked counterattacks from them. The islanders of Saaremaa would also prevent the Swedes in 1220 from keeping hold of territory in Western mainland Estonia When Swedish strongholds were completely wiped out. Eventually in the winter of 1227 the frozen sea was crossed again by crusaders, this time a 20,000 strong army which forced the surrender of multiple strongholds until the islanders of Saaremaa finally accepted Christianity. The inhabitants of Saaremaa would thrice fight back again, once in 1236, and again in 1261 when they once more renounced Christianity and killed all Germans on the Island. They were defeated once more by a joint force of the Livonian Order, forces of the Bishopric of Ösel-Wiek, and Danish Estonia. The Livonian Order then esablished a castle on the Island. The Island proved to continue to be a problem however until 1343 when the islanders arose for the last time, again killing all Germans and destroying the castle. This was recovered for the last time and remained under the Livonian Order until 1559.

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The remaining chapel part of the Livonian Order castle on Saaremaa

As a whole the crusades, even in the general Livonian area did not end until 1290. The Curonian and Semigallian people from the Western side of the Gulf of Riga started to cause trouble, and in 1236 the Livonian Brothers of the Sword suffered a great defeat to the Semigallians. This defeat was so bad that their remnants reorganised themselves under the Teutonic Order and therefore became known as the Livonian Order. In 1242 the Livonian Order would start to conquer the Curonians but would take a long time to fully defeat them, and were even facing defeat in 1260, but they gradually subjugated them in 1267. Crusaders from Riga started the conquest of Semigallia as early as 1219, but after several unsuccessful campaigns the conquest was almost given up on in 1251. Through to the 1270s the crusaders continued to be at odds with Semigallia, and the Semigallians attacked Riga directly multiple times such as in 1280 and 1287. The last campaigns against the Semigallians took place in 1289 and 1290 when their last territories were finally taken and up to 100,000 of them migrated to Lithuania in order to continue the fight against the Germans.

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The main Semigallian hillfort of Tērvete.

The Christianization of  the Eastern Baltic coasts was finally mostly complete by this time at the end of the 13th century, but it would be well into the latter part of the 14th century before the true last Pagans of Europe of Lithuania would be converted. This would prove to be one of the most complicated and lengthiest processes of Christianization in European history.

 

Revisiting Burckhardt’s Italian Despot – The Este and Borgia Families

Once again, I have found myself revisiting some old research. You may know already that around 2010 I was particularly keen on the Renaissance  – repressed art historian at the core, what could you expect? Having spent some time analysing the different Italian factions of this period, I came across Buckhardt – as you should if you are looking into this topic!- and ended doing some research on some of the most prominent Italian families and their rulers. Therefore, today I will revisit my early ideas as a student of the Italian magnates and their power politics.

Jacob Burckhardt presents his model of Italian despot in his book The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. According to him, the despotism in Italy was different from the system of tyrannies established in these states during the 13th and early 14th centuries. “The earliest firm tyrannies in important towns were achieved by feudatories who owed their position in part to alliances with Frederick II” – he says very eloquently. However with the Renaissance changes these dynamics. The despots were meant to seek for fame, have passion for arts and count scholars in their courts to give their like the other European princes. Theirs was an absolute power over their realm,  but their situation was delicate; the rule of a despot was brief. It was easy to make enemies, and family interests could be either one’s salvation or condemnation. For reasons I cannot fully remember, my investigation then went to focus on two main families, d’Este and the Borgia. So the following lines will try to compare their strategies as families, and how this is reflected by their leaders.

D’Este

They controlled a considerably big area configured by the cities of Modena, Reggio, Rovigo and Ferrara, which would be the capital of their realm. Their interest in this region grew since 1185 when Azzo d’Este married Machellesa degli Adelardi, who was the heiress of her family’s properties there. The Este developed good diplomatic skills and administrative bureaucracy which, in addition to the control of rural-agrarian economy instead of commerce, gave them a lot of power, as well as a firm grip over the rich people in their land. Furthermore, they also knew that maintaining the public order and making their citizens happy was a major issue, crucial indeed to avoid rebellions. Due to this The Este cared for the food supply, flood control and irrigation, as well as for the provision of an effective judicial system, religious and philanthropic works and entertainment of their areas of influence. The family found a strong leader in  Ercole d’Este Following Buckhardt’s teaching, it appears that he possessed many of the characteristics that later on Machiavelli would appoint in Il Principe. He was well-known for using his family members for representation, alliance and marriage, which made him a very well-connected and supported ruler.

The Este were remarkable in the flourishing art patronage of the Renaissance and for this reason their main competition were the Medicci.  Ercole’s role in this is particularly important as he promoted the revival of classical theatre, and supported the Boiardo’s poetry, and focussed on creating a magnificent ducal capital. In addition, the family also had ties with the church. In fact, Borso d’Este played a major role in the patronage of the Carthusian order in Ferrara. I guess it could be said that the spirit of the Este family based on strong family unity, patronage of the arts and religion is encompassed in the monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which became their burial site.

The Borgia

The Borgia’s success was mainly due to the links they established within the church, and it is precisely Pope Alexander VI, or Rodrigo Borgia, who made them powerful. But the Borgia’s control was flawed in nature. Although it is true that the  Papal States had become a vast thanks to Alexander and his son, Cesare, the authority that the pope had varied from one city to another. Religion was at the stakes – The Reformation drew near. Meanwhile, the Borgia aimed for a centralised government, especially outside the Romagna, which they had recently conquered. This centralisation was based mostly on their ability to amass large quantities of money. Alexander managed to collect large amounts of wealth due to new taxes, heavy tithe rates, retributions from cardinals, etc. Violence was also their friend. Conquering the Romagna was no easy task, but with Alexander’s money, Cesare managed to rise an army capable of great military success. The militia from this area was meant to be an instrument of unification and a demonstration of local support, but it rather looked like forceful conscription in the modern sense. And so, the problems began…the French invasions, the rebellion in Umbria, the problematic pilgrims of the 1500 Jubilee…And yet, the crusade against the Turks was somewhat successfull.Art patronage does not seem one of their main concerns. It is known that the Pope Calixtus III, the first Borgia pope, had no dedication to art patronage rather that the eventual reconstruction of ruined churches[28], while Alexander seemed more dedicated to his iconographic project of the Virgin. So this makes one wonder, if the Borgia cause was a family business, or rather a means to complete individual pretensions. Some scholars support the idea that both Alexander and Cesare used Lucrezia Borgia (daughter and sister respectively) for their political gains through arranged marriages. Yet after two troublesome relationships, the woman ends up married to Alfonso d’Este, much to her interest rather than that of her relatives – by this union she would become duchess of Este, not just the daughter of the Pope…Alexander, and so Cesare, had been more identified in the way of a ruler of the Middle Ages rather than of the Renaissance. Despite the presence of remarkable people in their court such as Machiavelli or Leonardo Da Vinci, they seem to lack the “renaissance” experienced elsewhere in Italy. The way they took control and power seemed ruthless and aggressive. They were more alike with the so-called tyrants than despots per se.

So, upon reflecting on my work, this makes me know think that, although Buckhardt’s premises are a great basis to understand the Renaissance politics of Italy, his idea of the despot does not seem to find common ground among all these people. In addition, I do not think anymore that this is a particularly useful way of understanding the political dynamics of Italy in this period. The concept of the Italian despot seems to miss the wider picture in which these people developed their strategies that suited them best for the sake of competition and survival of their regime. Of course, this is based on just two families, but with a little research in the Medicci or the Sforza, one can only wonder if there was such a thing as the ultimate Italian despot, or rather a multiplying configuration of regional, powerful magnates driven by individual thought and family agendas.

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PS: for this I have quite an extensive bibliography of works that made me reconsider Buckhardt’s concept, and this is what my reassessment is based upon, but any comments are of course welcomed, as this is not even remotely my specialty nowadays…This is just a selection of those I perhaps found most interesting or useful/insightful.

Burckhardt, J., The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, (New York, 1960) – where you should start, preferably.

Tuohy, T., Herculean Ferrara: Ercole d’Este (1471-1505) and the Invention of a Ducal Capital, (Cambridge, 1995) – This is the real deal. Solid arguments, in-depth analysis, different perspectives on the argument.

Gundersheimer, L.W., Ferrara: a Style of a Renaissance Despotism, (Princeton; N.J, 1973) – perhaps a bit outdated now? But it does provide a nice complement to Tuohy from a more descriptive and traditional approach.

Mallet, M., The Borgias: Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Dynasty, (London, 1969) – Again, I know it’s an old book, but like Buckhardt, it does establish the grounds for the understanding of the Borgia enterprise.

Gwynne, N.M., The Truth about Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, (Sainte Croix du Mont, 2008) – quite blunt review of the Borgias, a bit sensationalist even I would say, but some interesting theories regarding personal identity and the Pope as both religious leader and head of family

Bradford, S., Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy, (London, 2004) – perhaps too focussed on her amorous affairs than her actual identity and power. However, as a biographical piece it does comprise her entire life, and explores the ambiguities of her background as a “legitimate Borgia”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

King John: Is History a bit unfair?

Welcome to another Blog post. This may seem weird to you, after all, I’m not really known for my posts on Medieval history (well I’m not known at all really!), but after some of the people at the blog made fun of my lack of writing on this subject, I’d thought I would rise to the challenge and write about something which I remember very well from when I was at school all those years ago. Therefore a post about King John is what I bring you today. My main aim here is to not necessarily open your eyes to any new information, far from it, but to challenge your perspectives on the king who signed the Magna Carta.

So I would assume and argue that most of us know our information about King John from the tales of Robin Hood, you know, those stories which probably were made up, or at least was an amalgamation of a few from different counties, brought together by the print revolution. So even academics who go into this field of study will most likely go in with an already biased interpretation based of a tale which can hardly be trusted for accuracy. So when we look at him, we must remember to try to banish all thoughts of Robin Hood to start with.

When we compare him with his brother, I get the feeling that we praise Richard for really nothing and attack for John for a failing family. Richard was hardly ever in England, and couldn’t even speak the language, how can we then say he was a good king? He was too busy fighting in the crusades to deal with the problems in his own country. Therefore perhaps John inherited a country that was already in trouble. John was well learnt, he studied and could speak the language of the country that he was in charge of. Therefore to class him as a bad king, seems a bit unfair, surely? He at least tried to sort things out unlike his brother.

John also gave more to the poor than those before him, again I’m no expert on this, but I’m sure I have read that John gave the most, so does this show him to be a caring king? He also could be argued to be the founding father of the English navy, although as an early modernist, I find that a tedious claim, as navies really found their footing in the seventeenth century! But he set up ports and saw the construction of some kind of navy that would later have a great impact in our national identity.

The defeats in the army can hardly be put on him, more of an unlucky King, after all if the battles are analysed in detail, it can be seen that perhaps it wasn’t him necessarily being bad, but unfortunate circumstances being the main problem. So perhaps, before we start judging and pointing out fingers and thinking how bad he is, ask ourselves perhaps there were reasons and circumstances that lead to what happened.

I hear you say, what about the Magna Carta, oh that document, the one that poor john is forever known as signing. The document which is known as the start of our constitution, and always quoted somehow. Well I think the circumstances that he was in and the problems he faced made this inevitable, I think that the rising taxes for the failing army and military campaigns would of course cause problems.

To class him as a tyrannical, evil King is unjust, and shows a failure to look at other Kings and Queens of this time, to properly understand the circumstances and to understand the pressures to be a King. I am always hesitant to judge the past by present standards, and you could argue well he has never been liked, but my argument is that his perception of him has always been skewed and when we do proper do an in-depth study, we must not go in with pre conceived ideas.

Karjala – In search of Karelia

Let me take you away to the white taiga of the north of Europe today. Where lakes cover the land, and the tundra approaches on the horizon. Okay, it may not be Lapland with all its mythos, but this border region has been a very contested area of influence up in Scandinavia. Swedes, Finns and Russians, all want to possess the beautiful and wild Karelia. You would then think, what have I got lost all that way to the east, being this a different type of Scandinavian territory? Well, Karelia and I have a different type of bond. Karelia is where all the cool quirky things come from – folk music and symphonic metal delivered by the great Varttina and Nightwish…Karelia is also Tolkien land, for the Kalevala tells its story and that of all Finland.

So what or where is Karelia, you will be thinking? And so the problem begins. Karelia has been traditionally referred to the territory comprised between the White Sea and south-eastern Finland colliding with the Russian border. The area passes through the Lake Onega, Lake Ladoga and finally down to the Gulf of Finland. However, for the Russians Karelian has always been the eastern side of the region, the piece of the puzzle they got after the Winter War (1939-1940).  The called it the Republic of Karelia, becoming then a Russian federal subject. Nowadays, for the Finnish, Karelia is majorly the territory still within their borders – north and south Karelia, traditionally speaking, although sometimes they also include the area of Kymenlaakso and southern Savonia. In essence…Too many ideas of one Karelia. And this is part of the problem currently. The Karelian identity is so lost in the tensions of nationalism and geopolitics that it is difficult to understand what there is left of its people and its culture.

Just so you get an idea, the entire history of Karelia – or the known big history –  is all about how this provide changed hands and master over and over. We begin with the early Finno-Ugrian tribes, attracted to this land due to the abundance of cooper mines and the natural geological formations of the relief that constituted viable refuges for the people inhabiting the area after the Ice Age. Mining became the main resource for these people from the year 1 AD up until the year 1000. This agglomeration of hunter/gatherers was composed by Korela, Sum, Ves and a few Saami people at the north (otherwise referred as Pol). After the year 1000 AD, groups of Slavs started to come into the territory from and through the areas surrounding the White Sea. Karelia became part of the Kievan Rus around the 9th century. With the decline of Kievan power, the Novgorod Republic took over in the 13th century. Nevertheless, Karelia remained fairly independent. its main town and administrative center was the town of Korela (currently known as Priosersk). However, the crusading campaign of the German and Scandinavian states of the end of the 13th century would bring more changes to the puzzle. Here commences the conflict known as the Swedish-Novgorodian Wars. The ever-growing tension between the Swedes and the inhabitants of the Rus had been apparent since the Viking Age. As Sweden grew stronger, their desire to control the Gulf of Finland increased as this would improve their commerce by seizing trading routes from the Rus to Byzantium. However, this was the economic-political niche of the Novgorod Republic. And thus the quarrel begun. After a series of fights, everything resumed with the Treaty of Noteborg (1323). The result? Karelia is split in 2. The Swedes established their capital in Viborg.

Swedish control was not something the Karelians appreciated much. So little by little the exodus begun. By 1617 Sweden acquired more territories in what then was Russian Karelia. The culture clash and discomfort of the inhabitants meant that a great portion of the population fled to the East, into Russia’s territory. However, the Russians were not to be undermined, for the prowess of the Swedish Military Revolution eventually had to come to an end. Therefore, some 100 years later, in 1721, in a sudden turn of events, the Swedes found themselves on the losing side of the argument, resulting in the Russians taking for themselves most of Karelia, thanks to the Treaty of Nystad. This opened the door to the never-stopping imperial power of Russia: with nothing and no one stopping them, the intruded into Finland. By 1809 Suomi was effectively yet another Russian Province.

Despite Russian rule would only last another 100 years, Karelia did not return to its Finnish mother. After the rise of Bolshevism, Karelia became an ASSR (Autonomous republic of the Soviet Union) in 1923. The few pieces of Karelia still left in Finland became Russian in 1940, after the events of the Winter War and thanks to the Moscow Peace Treaty. Further commotion spread across the region, with thousands inhabitants having to be relocated. Bitterness grew in the hearts of the Finns as their land was taken away alongside with its second biggest city: Viipuri, the old Swedish Viborg, which was then a center for Finnish industry. Moreover, Karelia became the only SRR to be degraded to an ASSR within the Soviet Union. It is assumed this is due to the increasing minority of Russian population by the 1940s in the area, which lead to believe this could result in secession – and this was not in the plans of Mother Russia. Therefore, by demoting Karelia to a merely administrative republic, with no rights of its own, the Russians were saving face in case their most feared outcome turned into reality.

And of course, these are just the political consequences and tensions over the area…But, have I mentioned the religious issue? Well, you see this is the problem when you find yourself in a contested border: different nations can equal different religions. Since the Reformation, Scandinavia became primarily of Lutheran or Protestant affiliation. Nevertheless, we all know that on the other side of the border, the Orthodox Church was an important pillar of Russian prowess…And this is without to mention the pre-Christian, pagan roots and vestiges of native cults in the area, predominantly now represented by the Saami minority…Karelia, oh broken Karjala…Ah, of course I was forgetting…Language, another diverging point. Of course, at heart Karelia’s native tongue is of Finnish ascendency. But what is Karelian language? Depends on who you ask. For some linguists Karelian is just a dialect of Finnish, but for others it is a linguistic entity of its own with strong ties to Suomi. Just to make things more complicated, and assuming that Karelian is a language on its own, I must inform you know that there is no standardisation of the lingo. Therefore each author would speak and write Karelian according to their own local accent and dialect…However three main trends have been established. There is the Latin based alphabet, and used in the territories of the north as well as the territories of the Lakes Onega and Ladoga (Olonets Karelian). And then, we have the Tver Karelian, for the Russian sympathisers, which uses the Cyrillic script…And let’s not forget about that time during the 1940s that due to the centralisation of the USSR, the Republic of Karelia spoke Karelian but written in Cyrillic…

As you can see the situation is quite complicated, and particularly mesmerising to get your head around, so I shall not go into this much further. I think the message is clear: the only Karelia that remains one piece is the ecologic region. Now, I thought after the dissolution of the USSR, perhaps the cultural identity of Karelia had been restored somehow somewhat…It will appear that some attempts have been done through history. The Fennoman movement in Finland during the 19th century, which emerged from the nationalisms and romanticisms of this time, vouched for the incorporation of Karelia as a Finnish territory, and inspired many of the reconciliation attempts with Eastern Karelia in the 20th century. Of course, one cannot forget Karelianism – the movement inspired by the Kalevala, Finnish national epic, mostly composed of traditional Karelian poems.

However, the complications are many, and Karelia is always in the nationalistic political agenda of Finland. Perhaps it would not be so bad it the collapse of the Soviet Union would not have been so brutal for the region. This effectively supposed a huge economic recession in the area, to such an extreme that the inhabitants of diverse  Karelian territories even abandoned their homeland and relocated in Finland; a few going East as well. The urban decay of this territory has only contributed to the disappearance of a unique culture, as all the refugees mingle with Finns or Russians…and this leaves me no choice but to conclude my update of today. What is Karelia? I am still uncertain. Only time can tell if the once wild and independent Karjala will rise again.

 

 

 

Medieval and Renaissance Plate Armour: How effective was it really?

A topic that I have seen a lot of misconceptions about in the past is the use and effectiveness of plate armour of the Late Medieval/Renaissance period. A lot of this comes in the form of tropes from movies, as well video games to some extent. Some examples show the armour to be completely useless, while others show it to be used strange ways and configurations.

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Introduction to Plate Armour

After the plate armour used in the Ancient and Classical periods (such as Roman lorica segmentata). It began to see widespread use again in the late 13th Century. These were mostly single plates used to protect joints and the shins over a mail hauberk. By the end of the 14th century, the full suit of armour had been developed. European leaders in armouring techniques were northern Italians and southern Germans. This led to the styles of Milanese from Milan, and Gothic from the Holy Roman Empire. England produced armour in Greenwich which developed its own unique style. Maximilian style armour immediately followed this in the early 16th century.

Protection

Obviously the point of armour is to protect the wearer from harm, and yet there are countless depictions of armour in films, television and other media of armour being barely any better that wearing nothing, or even worse when mobility is considered. So what sort of protection did the plate armour of this period provide? There is some very simple evidence that we can see first of all; the design of specific anti-armour weaponry. This includes warhammers, maces, poleaxes, and certain specific swords, crossbows and daggers. These weapons are all designed with the aim of two main approaches. First of all is to punch through armour using a high force of impact at a small point, such as with the spikes on warhammers and poleaxes, as well as heavy crossbows. Secondly, they could bypass the armour entirely by exploiting the gaps between plates, which would be what you would try to do with swords, rondel daggers, and spikes on the top of poleaxes or similar weapons. Furthermore, there are fighting techniques that were developed to be used in conjunction with these weapons against an armoured opponent. These can be seen in certain late-medieval combat treatises that depict armoured fighting. In these styles of combat, you are taught to rely on your armour to fully protect you from strikes you may receive from regular weapons (shown below), and when fighting an armoured enemy you should first aim to tire or weaken them by striking them with heavy blunt force or accurate thrusts to weaknesses, and then if possible to grapple them to the ground so you can finish them with a thrust through the visor or under the helmet to the throat with your rondel dagger.

These examples are quite convincing to me, but if you need more evidence, there have also been more scientific tests on the effectiveness of various weapons against various armours, and the metallurgy of medieval armour. You do need to be careful, however, to avoid the ‘tests’ you may see on some ‘historical’ documentaries’ you may find on TV, as they seem to think placing a solitary breastplate or thin piece of mail made of who-knows-what type of steel against a flat surface and shooting it with a modern bow is good enough. In real use, weapons and armour would behave far differently. First of all there would be movement, as the armoured man would most likely not stay still while you attack him, he would attempt to move and negate some of the force of a blow, or let it glance off at an angle. This is a very important point, as with all forms of armour, even modern tanks, the shape and angle of it makes up half of the protection value. The other half, comes from the quality of the materials. Generally the materials and construction of armour get better through time, especially when multiple layers are used, and the steel starts to be surface hardened. In some tests, it does very rarely occur that an arrow may pierce a piece of plate armour, but this in reality would barely even cause a wound in most cases, as underneath the breastplate for example, there is usually empty space, and then a layer of chain mail, and then a layer of thick padded gambeson.

Furthermore, the type of arrow used would be important, as something with a broad head point would have little hope of doing anything to armour. Even with more effective types of arrow, if it only hits a smooth angled part of the armour, it will glance off. The main weakness against arrows would be the visor of the helmet, where although the arrow wouldn’t literally slip though the gap, but it would just have something to catch onto, and drive all the force of the shot into the opening, probably widening it and then entering the face. Therefore a knight would probably just lower their head in the hail of arrows, just as if it was rain.

“Did you hit me yet?”

Mobility

The second main principle of armour to consider is the mobility of it, including the weight, comfort, and range of motion. These factors are probably subject to even more misconception, thanks again to movies, mostly. The first thing to mention here is that obviously armour is going to have some negative effects on the mobility of its wearer, and with all armour there is always a compromise between mobility and protection. If you want to increase the protection, you have to either increase the thickness, or the size of a plate of metal, thus making it heavier, and more cumbersome for the wearer. You can see examples of this in action when you look at certain armours, as with some the pauldron of the forward facing shoulder would be larger, providing more protection, while the shoulder of the sword-arm would have a smaller pauldron, allowing for easier use of the weapon. a reasonable trade-off. So there are some points to certainly consider in the mobility of plate armour, it obviously doesn’t act like clothing, and some examples do restrict movement a fair amount, but these are either very poorly made, or are tournament armour, which is meant for jousting and provides a lot of protection, but would be useless to fight normally in.

However, as I said there are many misconceptions about plate armour surrounding this. One of the main ones, and perhaps quite understandable, is the weight. After all, it must be insanely heavy to wear a full suit of metal on your body! and with layers of chain underneath? Well full harness would probably weigh somewhere between 30-50 kg. This is actually pretty similar to the weight in gear modern soldiers have been carrying in march for years. There have been tests on the effects of this weight on the wearer in regards to their ability to move and march after wearing armour for long periods of time, but with armour you probably wouldn’t be wearing it to march in for long distances, unless you were particularly paranoid of being ambushed at any moment. Open battles in the medieval period were enough of a rare occurrence in war when compared with sieges, and were usually planned in advance, allowing you the time to equip yourself, so you wouldn’t be wearing your armour for overly long periods of time. When you were wearing your armour, you would of course be heavier, but with the weight evenly spread out all over your body it really doesn’t have the same effect as carrying 50 Kilos just from your shoulders.

So what about the ease of movement in armour? This is another case where the popular view is very wrong, with some believing that knights would not be able to get up if they fell on the ground, or even had to be hoisted into their saddles with cranes. A lot of this comes from misleading information from the 19th century, as a lot of historical misconceptions seem to. Well made plate armour would mostly allow for completely normal movement by the wearer, with the main restriction only being tilting of the neck in certain helmets. In fact, well articulated armour would allow for greater range of movement in most joints that the human body is capable of. Modern experiments with genuine fifteenth  and sixteenth century armour as well as with accurate copies have shown that even an untrained man in a properly fitted armour can mount and dismount a horse, sit or lie on the ground, get up again, run, and generally move his limbs freely and without discomfort.

Lastly, the main issue one may have while wearing a full suit of plate armour would be the visibility out of the visor. Certain helmets had larger openings which would make it easier to see, and most had visors or removable face plates. It is generally thought that visors would be kept down at range to protect from arrows, and then lifted when in close combat. However, this may not be as common as once believed, because when you can mostly rely on your armour to protect you from random attacks, you have less of a need to concentrate on parrying enemy blows, so you can just wade into combat and take down unarmored foes with little difficulty in most cases. This would favour you having the visor lowered to protect you, allowing just enough visibility to get by.

So after reading this I hope you find that you know more about armour and how it was used than you probably knew before. And if you still need convincing, you probably could have just skipped reading this whole thing and though about this instead: If plate armour wasn’t really damn good, then why would people continue to use, develop and spend fortunes on it for hundreds of years?

Sources

  1. Le combat en armure, Daniel Jaquet
  2. The Evolution of Arms and Armors During The Crusades 
  3. Knights in Shining Armor: Evolution of Armor during the Hundred Years War
  4. English Longbow Testing Against Various Armor circa 1400
  5. Some Aspects of the Metallurgy and Production of European Armor
  6. Limitations imposed by wearing armour on Medieval soldiers’ locomotor performance
  7. Arms and Armor—Common Misconceptions and Frequently Asked Questions
  8. Arms and Armor: A Farewell to Persistant Myths and Misconceptions

800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta

‘Given in the meadow that is called Runnymede between Windsor and Staines, 15 June’.

The Magna Carta Libertatum remains as one the most important piece of legislation in English history, a foundation for liberty, prosperity for the church and a cornerstone between the rights of an unpopular king and his dissatisfied barons. Constructed by the Archbishop of Canterbury after years of unstable and violent rule by the only King John to reign, it was designed to limit the excessive of the crown and establish what could be called an early form of parliament. Despite the 15th of June 1215 being the nominal date for the ratification of the charter of liberties, months had been taken with mediators scurrying between the barons in London and the king in Windsor to reach some formula that spells peace. It also took several days after until the 19th of June in order to have the sixty-one clauses written in binding legal terms and flawless medieval Latin. In this blog post I will attempt to explain the need for such a charter and discuss its failures alongside its successes. The charter did not receive its official name of the ‘Magna Carta’ until 1217 when John’s son Henry III rereleased it as part of the Peace Treaty of Lambeth.

King John, once the Count of Mortain, ascended the throne after his brother Richard I in 1199. Despite several setbacks in early life such as his disastrous attempts to quell the lords of Ireland for his father Henry II and forever being known as ‘John Lackland’, the name speaks for itself, due to rivalry with his several older brothers, John came to be known as a skilled administrator. Much of the government he inherited became to be known as the ‘Angevin Model’ essentially ruling by force and will, vis et voluntas, with the constant presence of the belief in Divine Right. This forceful nature of kingship however had been creating discord between the monarch and his subjects, specifically that of the lord and barons. Due to the growing strength of the French Capetian monarchy within its own country King John had slowly been watching the Angevin Empire be subsumed into the French crown. His failed leadership skills on the continent to keep Normandy, Gascony and Aquitaine under his thumb crumbled quickly under the contemporary Dauphin, the future Louis VIII. Louis had been building support both in England and France with the eventual ideology of invading England. Within his own country John faced opposition to the very means in which he sought money for his French campaigns.

The Feudal system on which thirteenth century England was based upon, meant that John could source money from his barons by payments if they wished to avoid military service, income from fines, court fees and the sale of town charters and other privileges. With parts of France slowly moving away from English control John had to increase the money being extorted from his barons especially since money was being used as leverage for political power among his barons. In his turbulent seventeen years as king, John increased levies on barons eleven times, compared to the ten times it had increased in the previous three kingships. Much of this was necessary since his brother Richard I had left the country in disarray and virtual bankruptcy from his involvement from the crusades, but the lords and barons felt that John had pushed it too far. This led to what is now known as the First Barons War.

The war lasted from 1215 to 1217 led by Robert Fitzwalter, a feudal baron from Essex, and his English and French supporters. The civil war that proceeded meant that the English pro-Angevin supporters, the Earls of Pembroke and Kent, were outnumbered by the forces of rebel barons from England, Scotland and France. The reason the war struggled on for two years was down to the then Dauphin Louis continuing the struggle even after most rebel lords had made peace with John, and also down to John’s decision to not abide by the Magna Carta within days of signing it. The Magna Carta was signed on the morning of the 15th of June 1215 and was thought to encompass and restrain the “king’s will” into the ‘Laws of the Land’ by which the Magna Carta become known. It prevented the king from raising taxes within a parliament of 25 barons acknowledging it, everyone had access to swift justice, it acknowledged the rights of the ‘free-men’ while ignored the rights of serfs or slaves. The most important clause that echoes through history is the first written law that the baron have the right to ensure the monarch follows the charter and have the means to withhold him from passing a law that looks unfavourable to them. This has made several historians conclude that it set a chain of events between the royalist and rebel factions to create clashes until the English Civil War in the seventeenth century. The historian Wilfred Warren concludes that clause 61, which the controlling the king statement is known as, essentially forced England to civil war since it was so heavily weighted against the king. The barons chosen to form the congregation of 25 barons were all rebels, none had leverage with John and none had any scruples for the pro-Angevin cause. Naturally rebels trying to restrain the king was going to end badly. Which resulted in a war lasting two years.

Some historian however believe that the charter was in the early stages of being the first great movement towards  Human Rights. The Magna Carta was changed in 1217, again in 1225 and again in 1297 by John’s descendants. Both Henry III and Edward I used the Magna Carta as part of peace treaties and for pacifying lords during times of strife since it was during this that the Welsh War of Independence began. The Magna Carta was used as basic law in England for the rights of the privileged, barons used it whenever a monarch attempted to rule without them or levy to great a tax on them. The introduction of the Magna Carta ensured that no monarch can rule without government, parliament and specifically without consent, everything had to be passed through the lords and barons.

The notion of ruling with consent has been considered a pure English revelation during the Middle Ages, due to the fact that the continent was swarmed by monarchs who ruled by absolutism. However despite it failures in keeping the crown and government together over the centuries since its release, the Magna Carta did however promote welfare statutes and human rights well before the continent caught up. Even if it did benefit the upper ranks of society for a few centuries before it filtered through to the masses.