Brief History of the World Wiki
Rise of State Power
Period High Middle Ages
Dates 1204-1337 AD
Preceded by
Crusading Age
Followed by
Crisis of the Late Middle Ages
Ultima Ratio Regum (The last argument of kings)

–Inscribed on his cannons by Louis XIV

The Rise of State Power lasted from about 1204 AD until 1337 AD. It began with the slow decline of the Crusading ideal, as kings and nobles became increasingly distracted by events at home. It then ended on the eve of the Hundred Years’ War between the two most power realms in Europe, France and England.

The High Middle Ages was a formative period when much of the political ground-plan of modern Europe states came into being. Kings almost everywhere for a variety of reasons were able to increase their power over those they ruled. This immensely important and complicated change was linked to every side of life: to the economy and the tax revenues it offered; to a new importance of law and kings were in a powerful position to say what law was to run in their courts; to expensive wars and the pressure they exerted on still primitive institutions; to an idea of royal authority, not over vassals, but over all the inhabitants of a territory; to a growing sense of nationhood. The first kingdoms to achieve any real national cohesion and sentiment to sustain political unity were France, England, Spain, and Portugal. The Capetian Dynasty had hung on grimly to the French crown, as the country dissolved into a dozen or so effectively autonomous duchies. But they had on their side a remarkably stable dynasty, a centrally placed royal domain that included the rich cereal-growing region around Paris, and the friendship of the Church which favoured a strong monarchy to stem the endemic feudal violence. These were advantages in the hands of able kings, and able kings were forthcoming from the late 12th-century: Philip II outmanoeuvred three English kings to transform France from a mediocre feudal state into a true kingdom; his son, Louis IX, consolidated, centralised, and reformed the newly unified kingdom; and his grandson, Philip IV, brought the French monarchy to the height of its medieval power. Even so, there were still great fiefdoms in what is now France in the 14th-century, none more troublesome than English Aquitaine (Gascony). The Normans had come over from France in 1066 to form a new ruling élite in England, and create a cross-channel empire that lasted, in various forms, until the end of the Hundred Years War. They had conquered one of the largest coherent kingdoms in Europe, but showed an enduring tendency to intensely bicker over the throne; Edward II was the first English king to be forcibly deposed and murdered in 1327, but some of his predecessors had come remarkably close too. Out of this confusion emerged a feeling that government was a collective responsibility as much as the king’s, and enduring institutions such as the Exchequer before 1110, Magna Carta in 1215, and Parliament in 1258. These centuries also introduced an equally enduring English outlook of unashamed expansionism, conquering Wales, much of Ireland, and briefly Scotland. Meanwhile on the Iberian Peninsula, Christianity above all was the crucible of nationhood, with a single national aspiration to make the Cross triumph over the Crescent. The decisive phase of the Reconquista began with the Muslim defeat at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, by the combined armies of Castile, Aragon, Navarre and Portugal. By 1249, only the southern tip of the peninsula remained in Muslim hands, as the Emirate of Granada. Sheltered by the Sierra Nevada Mountains and supported by the Muslim north-west Africa, it lasted more than two-and-a-half centuries until the union of Castile with Aragon in 1474 brought the strength to finally conquer it.

Necessarily, such a change neither took place everywhere in the same way nor at the same pace. Little sign of the ground-plans of future nation was to be found in Germany. The Holy Roman Emperors faced a unique set of challenges: the Frankish tradition of an elected monarch which in the brutal reality of feudal politics meant concessions to keep the voters on-side; and political interference from the popes who feared an over-powerful sovereign to their north. The medieval power struggle between Church and State was more intense and continuous in Germany, than everywhere else in Europe put together. Frederick Barbarossa (d. 1190) was the last king-emperor to effectively assert his authority throughout Germany; he was even able take-down his greatest vassal, Henry the Lion. Yet Barbarossa's grandson Frederick II continued to struggle against the German nobility, as well as the papacy. His death in 1250 heralded the irreversible disintegration of the empire into hundreds of duchies, counties, and free-cities. In a similar way, Italy would not be conceivable as nation until the 19th-century. While southern Italy and the Papal State tended towards centralised rule, northern Italy moved in the opposite direction. The Italian city-states represented the outcome of two great interwoven trends: the rise of commercial wealth, and emergence of general assemblies of the citizens as effective governments in many cities. In the late-12th-century, the cities took the field against the German king-emperor and beat him. Thereafter they ran their own internal affairs, which was to last well into the 15th century. It was marked by a gloriously cosmopolitan culture, and a striking increase of commerce and manufacturing, that devised most of the instruments and practices of banking, accountancy, and finance.

The same slow consolidation of states occurred in Eastern Europe, where Russia, Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria proved particularly tenacious. They would have much to endure, beginning with Europe's last barbarian incursion; the Mongols. In 1206, Genghis Khan came to power by uniting all the nomadic tribes of the Mongolian Plateau, and with nine years had conquered northern China. This was only the beginning. By the time of his death, in 1227, he had become the greatest conqueror the world has ever known, extending his power over lands from the Sea of Japan to the Caspian Sea; more than twice as much territory as Alexander the Great. His son and grandsons prove prolific conquerors too: Russia fell under the Mongol onslaught by 1240, the Muslim Middle East fell by 1260, and the rest of China by 1279. All of Eastern Europe suffered devastating incursions in 1240s, but were ultimately saved, not by force-of-arms, but by a fortuitous far-off event; the death of a Genghis' son and successor. The Mongols may have been conquerors of unparalleled skill, but in all other respects they were a primitive people, leaving no art or culture to troubled modern museum curators. Yet they did leave a lasting legacy in other ways. Despite their reputation for brutal warfare, the Mongol Empire brought peace, stability, trade, and protected travel, with the Mongols policing the entire Silk Road under an enforced Pax Mongolica. Commerce and cultural contact between Europe and China increased phenomenally, and Chinese innovations spread such as gunpowder, paper-money, printing and the compass. There were, alas, less advantageous consequences, such as the devastating spread of the Black Death in the 1340s. Mongol power slowly ebbed away after 1294, leaving no physical focus for their history except the felt tents of their encampments. 

Meanwhile, beneath the savage glitter of feudal politics and warfare, the people of Europe were busy with matters of more mundane importance; agriculture, crafts, and trade. The High Middle Ages was a period of tremendous population, urban, and economic growth, which produced many different forms of intellectual and artistic works. One visible result was the building of an astonishing series of Gothic cathedrals, which remain the great glories of medieval art. In learning, there were Latin translations from Arabic and Byzantine sources of the most important works of Classical Antiquity by the late-12th-century, allowing a sound transfer of scientific ideas via a new institution, the medieval university. Bologna (c. 1088), Paris (c. 1150), and Oxford (c. 1167) were the first of them; by 1400 there were fifty-three more. These achievements fed Europe's own sense of identity and cultural superiority, which points to the darker side of medieval life: intolerance of the "other", especially the Jewish community. As Italian bankers gradually replaced the Jews in their traditional role as money-lenders, the entire community was left dangerously exposed to persecution. This was not simply the religious hysteria seen during the Crusading Age; this was state sponsored persecution. After systematically stripping the Jewish population of their wealth, they were officially expelled from England in 1290 and from France in 1306; the Black Death would bring a crescendo of further expulsions.


High Middle Ages[]


From about the year 1000, a fundamental change was underway in Europe: it began to get richer. Beneath the savage glitter of feudal politics, Europeans were busy with matters of more mundane importance; agriculture, crafts, and trade. Slow though it was, society’s wealth at last began to grow a little faster than population. One crude but by no means misleading index is the growth of population. Only approximate estimates can be made but they suggest that a Europe of roughly 38 million people in the year 1000, almost doubled in size over the next three centuries to a peak of 80 million. The rate of increase of course varied from region to region; France, England, Germany and Scandinavia gained more, probably trebling their populations, than the Mediterranean, Balkan lands, Poland and Russia. If a population doubles in size, even over centuries, then peasants must produce more food. The explanation therefore lies in agriculture; bringing more land under cultivation and farming it more efficiently. In this Europe had great natural advantages, blessed with large areas of potentially productive land, a moderate climate, and good rainfall. Moreover, the so-called Medieval Warm Period (c. 950-1250) brought particularly favourable condition making all land tempting. Huge areas of Europe, still wild and forested in 1000, were chopped and plowed in the next few centuries, as villages pushed out their fields. In some places, new villages were consciously established by lords. In others, the founding of a monastery in a remote spot proved the nucleus of a new settlement. Some new land was created as marshes were drained, and river deltas such as the Rhine and Po were diked. In the east, much land was won in a great wave of German colonization (Ostsiedlung). Besides having more land under cultivation, land became more productive though improved agricultural practice: it showed the effect of the proliferation of iron tools, ploughs, and horse-shoes; an improved oxen-harness made available the heavier soils of valley lands; and a move from a two-field crop-rotation to a three-field system in which one field was planted in spring, one in fall, and a third left fallow. Peasants tended not to choose such work-intensive methods, even when they were available, unless they had to, but this was a period when they had to; and a growing population provided the manpower. There was even the introduction of some new crops; beans and peas of various sorts began to appear in larger quantities from the 10th-century, which the added benefit of gradually enriching the soil with nitrogen. Although grain-based agriculture dominated most parts of Europe, landlords and better-off peasants increasing turned to specialized cash crops for market, and purchased the grain they needed. As a money-economy spread into the countryside, the bonds of serfdom gradually relaxed. By 1300, it is likely that a third of peasants in Europe were rent-paying tenants of the landowner. For all that, most peasants remained miserably poor. Landowners, with influence at court, gradually extended their rights over land, and the number of freeholders dwindled; the vast majority of peasants now had landlords who took most of the profits. Even when his lord’s legal grip through bond labour became less firm, the lord still had a practical monopoly on mills and carts, which he needed to work the land. "Customs", or taxes for protection, were levied indiscriminately and could hardly be resisted. So most peasants still lived squalid and cramped lives, eating coarse bread and porridge seasoned with vegetables, and only occasionally fish or meat. If he grew wheat he did not eat the flour, but sold it to the better-off, keeping barley or rye for his own food.

The picturesque Rozenhoedkaai Canal in modern-day Bruges, one of the best preserved medieval cities in the world.

More specialised cash crops gradually transformed changed the earlier self-sufficient manor into an estate producing for sale. Their markets were to be found in towns which steadily grew everywhere between the 11th and 13th centuries. This revival of urbanization is a complicated phenomenon. The growth in population, the new town life, and the revival of trade went hand-in-hand; it's a chicken-and-egg business to decide which came first. New towns grew up around a castle or a monastery. Sometimes new towns were deliberately settled as colonies, especially in eastern Germany. The English Domesday Book unwittingly left behind the means for us to measure this process. William the Conqueror’s officers recorded 112 towns in 1086; there were almost six-hundred towns with urban charters in 1300. Meanwhile, long-established towns grew bigger: Paris may have had about 200,000 inhabitants in 1300; Genoa, Venice and Florence over 100,000; and London about 80,000. But the vast majority of towns had less than a thousand people, and served the simple rural-urban exchange for a surrounding area a day’s travel there and back; so no more than 15-miles. The fastest growing towns tended to be linked distinctively to economic possibilities. The early growth of Bordeaux was underpinned by wine-production, the first luxury to loom large in international trade. In Flanders (now Belgium), Bruges, Ghent and Ypres were famous as cloth-producing, cloth-finishing towns. Cloth was the most important commodity handled by merchants, and changes in cloth-fulling were at the heart of the earliest rise of modern capitalism. Fulling had long been done by hand; or actually by foot since fullers stamped the cloth in special tubs. But in the 13th-century wind and water power began to be used to power mechanical fulling mills, which dramatically reduced the number of workers needed. Mills were quite expensive, so were generally built and owned by nobles. In these Flemish towns, merchant-entrepreneurs owned mills for the production of cloth, hiring workers while retaining ownership of the raw materials, tools, and finished products. In the centuries to come watermills and windmills were to be put to more and more uses, such as grinding grain, crushing seeds for oil, and sawing wood, among many other uses. This whole period saw an initially plodding, then gradually faster growth of trade and commerce. This revival was most conspicuous in Italy, where maritime trade with wealth of the East resumed in the 11th-century, and expanded phenomenally during the Crusading Age. The business skills of the Italians played a crucial innovative role in financial development, devising the main practices of modern banking, bookkeeping, and accountancy, as well as new credit instruments for the financing of international trade. By the mid-12th century, whatever the current state of politics, Europe enjoyed regular trade not only with Byzantium but with the Islamic Mediterranean. A century or so later, an even wider world was involved; trans-Saharan gold from Mali eased Europe's bullion shortage, and Italian merchants like Marco Polo were travelling the Silk Road to central Asia and China. In northern Europe, the German-dominated towns of the Hanseatic League controlled trade in the Baltic and North Sea. In such ways, European economic geography was revolutionized. Medieval society was generating new kinds of wealth and even of power which could not find a place in the old feudal hierarchy; the rise of the bourgeoisie - the merchant, the craftsman, the lawyer and the doctor dwelling in bourg (town or borough). Unwittingly, they would make much of the future history of Europe. The merchant class, acting in self-interest, tended to support kings against legal and financial disorder caused by the greed of the feudal lords. Kings in turn sought to support the merchant class, and with them their towns and cities, against over-mighty vassels, granting them charters and privileges. The walls which surrounded the medieval city were a symbol as well as a guarantee of independence; the local lords' writ did not run in them. A townsman was a free man in a world of dependence. Sometimes the anti-feudal implications were even more explicit: in some towns, a serf could acquire their freedom if they lived in them for a year and a day. "The air of the town makes men free" said a German proverb. Neither in the ancient world nor in Asia, did city-dwellers develop the political and social power they came to show in Europe.

Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture and one of the most iconic buildings in the world.

One visible result of Europe's new prosperity was the building of an astonishing series of cathedrals, which remain the great glory of medieval art. Just before 1000, a great wave of stone churches were built all over Europe in a style consciously emulating Roman architecture, from which the term Romanesque is derived. Durham Cathedral, built by the Normans in 1093, is a good example, with its massive drum columns and high vaulted stone roof; a technical achievement of the Romans, though they had been content to cover their larger buildings with wooden roofs. The problem with a stone vault is that it needs very thick walls and sturdy pillars, making the interior rather dark and cluttered. From the early-12th-century, French builders developed the Gothic architectural style, characterised by the use of rib vaults, pointed arches, flying buttresses, and large windows; at least some features were adopted from Islamic architecture. These elements together gave the buildings a lightweight skeleton of stone, greater height, and more light. Another important feature was the extensive use of stained glass, especially for great circular rose windows, that brought colour into the interior. Pioneering developments in sculpture formed part of the same burst of creativity. At the Abbey of Saint-Denis, near Paris, the choir was reconstructed between 1140 and 1144, drawing together for the first time the developing Gothic architectural features. It soon became a much wider phenomenon. All the great medieval cities of Europe have Gothic buildings, unless destroyed by war or other disaster. Classic examples include: Chartres Cathedral (1194–), Reims Cathedral (1211–), and most famously of all Notre-Dame de Paris (1160–) in France; Salisbury Cathedral (1220–) and Westminster Abbey (1245–) in England; Florence Cathedral (1296–) and the Milan Duomo (1386–) in Italy; Cologne Cathedral (1248–) in Germany; and Seville Catherdral (1401–) in Spain. These masterpieces are still universally admired today, so we can only imagine the awe-inspiring impact they must have had on the medieval mind when compared to the harsh reality of everyday life. The building of a cathedral posed complex engineering problems: mathematically precise designs; an understanding of the properties of subsoil, stone, and timber; difficult financial and resource planning; and management of a highly skilled workforce. In solving them, the architect was slowly to emerge from the craftsman. Medieval architecture was not science-based in a modern sense, but much was achieved by the accumulation of experience and reflection on it. The building wave of this period has left a glorious legacy to Europe, not just in the great cathedrals. It produced the European landscape which, until the coming of the railway, was dominated by a church tower or spire rising above every little town.

King-Saint Stephen I, the first king and founder of Hungary, canonized a saint by Pope Gregory VII. All European kings sought to encourage a growing sense of nationhood: national patron saints were given new prominence, and myths around historical heroes were built-up. Above all, royal houses sought to have one of their ancestors canonised a saint; St. Louis IX of France and St. Edward the Confessor of England, among many others.

Most of us today take for granted the idea of the nation state. It is generally agreed that the world’s surface is divided into territories, under a government organisation that in some way represents its people, who in turn identify themselves as sharing a common nationhood. None of this would have been intelligible to someone in the 11th-century, when kingship worked through control of feudal vassals, known personally to the king, and local ties were overwhelmingly important; people might regard those from the next village as effectively foreigners. The process by which the modern centralised state emerged, though far from complete by 1453, is one of the great markers which delimits the Middle Ages. After something of a collapse of royal authority in the 10th-century, kings almost everywhere were able to slowly increase their power over those they ruled from the 11th onwards. The reality had come first, before the principle and idea. A kingship working through vassals who did much of his work for him in return for his favours, slowly gave way to one in which royal power was exercised directly through officials, who had to be paid for by taxes. Kings enjoyed great advantages over their noblemen. Their office had a mysterious aura about it, reflected in the solemn coronations and anointings. From 12th-century, a new consciousness of the need for law began to appear and kings were in a powerful position to say what law was to run in their courts. A particular feature of the period was renewed interest in the Roman Law, even in places where its remit had never run. In the 11th-century, most regions had fairly substantial written law codes based on indigenous customs and practices, but the Code of Justinian dwarfed them all in its scale, elaboration, and rigour. Its influence was evident everywhere to fill in gaps in local law codes; in Church Canon Law (c. 1140), in English Bracton Law Code (c. 1230), and in Castinian-Spanish Siete Partidas (c. 1256), to name but a few. Kings were naturally in a strong position to say what law was to run in their courts. Although kings still drew revenue from substantial royal estates, new taxes were meanwhile appearing in polities of all kinds. They were certainly needed to fund wars, which gradually became more expensive, based on a class of professional soldier who expected to be paid, rather than the feudal levies of the past. Such taxes were by no means heavy, compared to under the Roman Empire, or compared to the contemporary Byzantine and Islamic world. They were also very inconsistently collected, even in England and France until the Hundred Years’ War. Kings could also appeal to subtler forces. One of these, which was slowly revealed as of growing importance, was the sense of national identity. An example was the appearance of belief in national patron saints; although churches had been dedicated to St. George under the Anglo-Saxon kings, only in the 13th-century was he recognized as official protector of England. Another example was the rediscovery of historical national heroes. In the 12th-century, Irish chronicler built-up an unhistorical myth of High King Brian Boru as the defender of Christian Ireland from the Vikings, while Welshmen more or less invented the mythological figure of King Arthur. Above all, there was more vernacular literature. First Spanish and Italian, then French and English began to break through the barrier set about literary creativity by Latin. In the 12th-century, romances such as the Song of Roland transformed a defeat of Charlemagne by the Christian Basques, into a glorious stand of his rearguard against the Arabs. In the same period, the Poem of the Cid evolved ever more fanciful tales of its titular Spanish hero, while the poetry style of "courtly love" developed in Provence in southern France and became fashionable almost everywhere. Some 400 troubadours - Jongleurs in French, Minnesänger in German, among others - became sufficiently famous for their poems to be gathered in manuscripts. With the 14th-century came Dante, Langland, and Chaucer, each of them writing in a language which we can read with little difficulty.

The University of Bologna, considered the first true university in western Europe, which makes it the oldest continuously-operating university in the world.

From the 12th-century, the burden of record-keeping and teaching, so long borne by the clergy, had been shared by a new institution, the medieval university. Bologna (c. 1088), Paris (c. 1150), and Oxford (c. 1167) were the first of them; by 1500 there were over fifty in Europe. The cathedral and monastic schools had long been the main avenues to basic literacy for all but the nobility who could afford to a private tutors. With the Gregorian Reforms, the demand grew for an educated clergy, and learning in grammar, logic, rhetoric, Canon Law and the more secular aspects of Church administration became essential to advancing in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The demand quickly outstripped the capacity of cathedral schools. The 12th-century witnessed a new phenomenon; in a few cities, teachers, who had been educated in cathedral schools, began to establish their own schools that were independent of any formal institution. For masters to earn a secure living and for students to be fed themselves, these schools began forming mutual aid structures for collective bargaining with the city, and petitioning secular or religious power for privileges and financial support; Bologna was formally recognized by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in 1157, while Paris was recognized by Pope Gregory IX in 1231. Some historians noted parallels with the Madrasas of the Islamic world, and have inferred that the first European universities were influenced by them. Most universities offered a core curriculum in the liberal arts - arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music theory, grammar, logic, and rhetoric - which then led to specialization in one of the higher faculties - law, medicine, philosophy, or theology. By the 13th-century, Paris had the most renowned theology faculty, while Bologna drew students from all over Europe to study law; Oxford, Montpellier, Padua, Salamanca and others joined them at a second rank. The way in which universities developed meant that when laymen came to be educated in substantial numbers, they too would be formed by institutions suffused with religion. Latin, the language of the church, was also the language of university education, and the preparatory schools that led to it, so that scholars from Kraków in Poland to Coimbra in Portugal could communicate with one another. As rulers increasingly saw a need for educated officials, they began to regard founding universities as part of their job. The new institution benefited philosophy in particular. In the Middle Ages, it had all but disappeared into theology; only one figure stands out in the entire period, the Irish thinker John Scotus Erigena (d. 877). Then, as direct translations into Latin from Byzantine and Arabic sources began in the 12th-century, European scholars could read for themselves works of Classical Greek philosophers. The Church at first regarded these pagan ideas with suspicion. This persisted until the ground-breaking work of two Dominicans, Albertus Magnus (d. 1280) and his more famous pupil Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274). In his best-known work, Summa Theologica, Aquinas provided a synthesis of classical and Christian accounts of the nature of the world, which ultimately became Church orthodoxy for centuries to come. Of the classical philosophers, it was Aristotle who enjoyed unique prestige; if the Church could not make him a saint, then they at least treated him as a kind of prophet or forerunner to Christianity. Euclid had a similar reputation in mathematics. So it came about that the classical heritage was recaptured and rechristened in western Europe. For centuries man would turn for authority in matters intellectual to religion or to the classics. This was both the crowning achievememnt of medieval scholarship, and its underlying weakness; an unwillingness to address itself to observation and experiment, and a reluctance to question Church orthodoxy which became almost tantamount to heresy. It was only with the Protestant Reformation that scholars could break-free of the Church, and pave the way to the Scientific Revolution (1543-1687).

A miniature depicting the expulsion of Jews from France.

The High Middle Ages thus produced many different forms of intellectual, spiritual and artistic works. It fed Europe's own sense of identity and cultural superiority, and it began to close itself off to alternative values and practices. Paradoxically, Christendom owed much of its cultural achievements to Islam, Byzantium, and Europe's Jewish community. Spain and Germany were the two great centres of European Jewry. Jews were prohibited from owning land in many parts of Europe, which meant they generally made their living in cities, congregating in neighborhoods that would later become legally defined ghettos. In medieval society, Jews were relatively well-educated; all children learned their letters and the basic prayers at home, and then might attend a school attached to the synagogue to study the Torah. They often prospered as merchant by making use of the vast international network of fellow Jews throughout Europe and the Muslim world. Then, from the 11th-century, Christian merchants began to crowd-out their Jewish rivals, leaving wealthy Jews with only one way to make use of their money; lending it for interest to the rich and powerful, a practice that was forbidden to Christians by the sin of "usury". No debtor loves his creditor, and often welcomes any excuse to turn on them. As Italian bankers gradually replaced the Jews in their traditional role, Jewish money-lenders were no longer indispensable and the entire community was left dangerously exposed to persecution. In the 13th-century, this was no longer simply the religious hysteria seen during the Crusading Age; it was state sponsored persecution. The relationship between Judaism and Christianity was fraught with tensions about the crucifixion of Jesus; blame was laid at the door of the Jews rather than the Roman authorities. From the 12th-century, the imagination of gullible Christians was seized by a series of hysterical slanders. One was the belief that Jews engaged in the ritual murder of Christian children, because human blood was supposedly needed for the baking of Matzos which they eat during Passover. Another was that they maliciously desecrated the Host, or communion wafer. In England, Henry III proclaimed the Edict of the Badge (1218), ordering Jews to live together in "ghettos" separated from Christians, and requiring them to wear a yellow marking badge; an idea that Adolf Hitler would adopt 650 years later. Over the next few decades, taxation grew increasingly intense, systematically stripping them of their wealth. In 1279, 680 Jews were arrested for coin-clipping, and 300, who could not afford to buy a pardon, were executed; coin-clipping was a widespread practice by both Christians and Jews. Then in 1290, Edward I officially ordered all Jews to be expelled from England; the Jewish population at the time was relatively small, perhaps 2,000 people, although estimates vary. A similar process happened in France, leading to their temporary expulsion in 1306. Jews survived almost everywhere in Europe, but were increasing restricted to living in ghettos and loaning money to ordinary people who needed cash quickly and often left items of clothing or household goods as security; so acting as pawnbrokers.

For all the ground won over long, slow improvement, medieval agriculture and economic life were fragile, never far from the edge of collapse. Agriculture was vulnerable to weather; two succeessive bad harvests would often result in a local famine, that could rarely be offset by imports. Commercial demand was small enough for a very little political change to determine the fate of cities. It is very difficult to generalize but about one thing there is no doubt: a great and cumulative setback occurred in the 14th century. A series of bad harvests around 1320 started a slow decline of population which suddenly became a great demographic disaster with the onset of the Black Death.

Christian Church in 13th Century[]

Ecclesiastical courts had much wider powers in the Middle Ages, before the development of modern nation states.

During the 12th and 13th centuries, popes steadily pressed unprecedented claims for the distinction and superiority of papal power. A century or so after the Investiture Controversy (1076), secular princes were on the whole well disposed to the Church choosing its own bishops. All the time, the Church’s administrative machine ground away; under Urban II emerged the papal curia, a Church bureaucracy corresponding to the household administrations of European kings. Through it the papal grip on the Church itself was strengthened. The First Council of the Lateran (1123) marked the first time a large and general ecumenical council was held exclusively in the West, with its decrees promulgated in the pope’s own name. Prior to the 12th-century, dispute-settlement remained the task of bishops, and was dealt with inside dioceses. These were still divergently organised, often paralleling the patterns of secular power. In theory, paral authority over the church rested on the New Testament, which was understood to have given special powers to the apostle Peter, who was regarded as the first pope. In practice, papal authority rested on a strong centralized bureaucracy. Key to this bureaucracy was a system of church law, or Canon Law, which steadily became standardised across Europe from the 12th-century. More and more legal disputes found their way from the local church courts to papal curia. This legal system made large amounts of money for the papacy, and an ever larger bureaucracy could be paid on the back of it, which was then available for more focused intervention in local affairs. Of course, a parallel ecclesiastical court system became a new source of tension between Church and State. There was indeed a spectacular quarrel in England over the question of clerical immunity from the law of the land; it ultimately provoked the murder, and then the canonization, of Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury. Under Pope Innocent III (d. 1198), papal pretensions to supreme and universal power reached a new theoretical height. He certainly equalled the kings of Europe in his capacity for targeted political action: against John of England for his support of the wrong archbishop; against Philip II of France for his marriage problems; and against two Holy Roman Emperors in turn, first Otto IV Welf and then Frederick II Hohenstaufen. Innocent and his 13th-century successors were major players in Europe. Within the Church his power was limited by little but the inadequacies of the bureaucratic machine through which he had to operate. Papal power was still often deployed in support of the reforming ideas. Among new practices which were pressed under Innocent was that of frequent individual confession, a powerful instrument of control in a religiously minded and anxiety-ridden society.

St. Francis of Assisi has been called "the most Christ-like man that has ever lived". Such was the legendary piety of Francis in his lifetime that he was canonized less than two years of his death.

During this same period, the increased power the papacy was accompanied by something of a spiritual crisis within the Church at a local level. The monastic ideal of withdrawal from the world for the monk's own spiritual betterment had begun to feel soulless. Monasticism was reinvigorated by three visionaries with strikingly different ideas of how to follow Christ's example. The earliest was St. Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), considered the refounder of the Cistercian Order. The order was founded in 1098 by monks dissatisfied with Cluny and anxious to return to the original strictness of the Benedictine rule, in particular by resuming the practical and manual labour Cluny had abandoned. Bernard entered the monastery in the early 1110s with 30 companions, but soon found the order not strict enough for his liking. The persuasive young man was allowed to found a new daughter house at Clairvaux, a wild isolated glen with a reputation as a refuge for bandits. Under Bernard's tireless and stern leadership, the small settlement rapidly develop into a rich abbey. This paradoxical approach proved the blueprint for the order's growth at an astonishing speed. The monks rejected the fertile plains, for the periphery of cultivated life, and then though a combination of free labour and hard work quickly made the land profitable. The Cistercians were Europe's toughest religious order, playing a central part in the colonization of eastern Germany. Although interested in the world's spiritual betterment, monasteries were usually not outreach-oriented. This was the central ideal of the second visionary, St. Francis of Assisi (d. 1226), founder of the Franciscan Order. The son of a wealthy merchant, Francis gave up his worldly possessions to lead a life of poverty among the sick, the needy and the leprous. Clad in rough garments and barefoot, his spiritual devotion, and trust in his fellow man were legendary; he has been called "the most Christ-like man that has ever lived". The followers who eagerly gathered about him had at first no formal organization and Francis was never a priest, but Pope Innocent III (d. 1216) shrewdly recognised this potentially divisive movement, rather than letting it escape from control. The Franciscan Order maintained rigorous obedience to the Holy See, and provided a counterweight to local bishops because they could preach without a licence of the episcopal authority of the diocese. The third and final visionary, St. Dominic (d. 1221), sought to further a narrower end. He was a Castilian priest who discovered his personal mission while preaching in the Languedoc to heretics during the Albigensian Crusade. Dominic believed that only a supremely educated clergy could combat the threat of heresy. From his seventeen companions grew a new preaching order; when he died in 1221, there were over five-hundred Dominican friars, many of whom had studied in the universities of Paris or Oxford. Like the Franciscans, they took vows of poverty, and threw themselves into missionary work, but their impact was primarily intellectual; many of most important scholars and teachers of the day were Dominicans, among them Thomas Aquinas, one of the Church's greatest theologians and philosophers. Moreover, in a tradition going back to their founder, Dominicans came also to provide many of the personnel of an organization to combat heresy, which appeared in the early thirteenth century; the Inquisition. Yet persecution did not prevent the appearance of new heresies again and again in the next three centuries; the Brethren of the Common Life, followers of the Dutch mystic Thomas à Kempis (d. 1471), to name but one. Heresy was, in one sense, an exposure of a hollow core in the success which the Church had so spectacularly achieved; living evidence of dissatisfaction. Other critics would make themselves heard in due course. As men became more conscious of nation states and respectful of royal authority, some would argue that the Church had a defined sphere of influence which did not extend to meddling in secular affairs.

This is the great paradox of the medieval Church. It had risen to a pinnacle of power and wealth, deploying vast estates and tithes (Church taxes) in the service of a magnificent hierarchy, whose worldly grandeur reflected the glory of God, and whose lavish cathedrals embodied the devotion and sacrifices of the faithful. Yet the point of this huge infrastructure was to preach a faith at whose heart lay the glorification of poverty and the superiority of things not of this world. The worldliness of the Church drew increasing criticism. It was not just that a few ecclesiastical magnates lolled back upon the cushion of privilege and endowment to gratify their appetites and neglect their flocks; the papacy itself was soon criticized. At the death of Innocent III, it was already difficult to keep the government of the Church in the hands of men of spiritual stature; administrative and legal gifts were needed to run a machine which more and more generated its own purposes. Meanwhile spiritual renewal within the Church often came from visionaries who were outside its formal structure. In 1294, a hermit of renowned piety was elected pope as Celestine V (d. 1296). The hopes this roused were quickly dashed, for he was forced to resign within a few weeks, seemingly unable to impose his reforming wishes on the papal curia. His successor, Boniface VIII, has been called the last medieval pope. Under him the long battle with kings came to a head, in a dramitic quarrel with Philip IV of France (d. 1314).

Rise of France[]

France under Hugh Capet.jpg

At the start of the High Middle Ages, France was very decentralized indeed. The kings who followed Hugh Capet (d. 996) were little more than crowned lords, with their direct authority hardly extending beyond the Paris basin. The rest of the kingdom was in effect autonomous, with dukes and counts establishing their own rule with almost no reference to the king. The Capetian kings treated other lords more as enemies and allies than as subordinates. This is hardly indicative of a dynasty that would rule one of Europe’s most powerful kingdoms for the next 800 years, if the cadet branches are included; the Capetian Dynasty (987-1328), the Valois Dynasty (1328-1589), and Bourbon Dynasty (1589-1792). But the French kings were, for a variety of reasons, able to slowly but steadily extend their power. They had the advantage that, by happy accident, Hugh Capet's descendants for twelve generations had elder sons who succeeded them as king without conflict; the last three Capetians were brothers, making fifteen kings in an unbroken line. An orderly succession over such a long period allowed for the acceptance of the law of male-line primogeniture; in contrast to imperial Germany, which retained the Frankish tradition of an elected monarch throughout its history. It also meant that the French kings came to be recognised as the head of an illustrious and ancient royal house, and therefore the socially superior of their great rivals. A second advantage for the royal family was that the Paris region was rich. Stability allowed the Capetians to manage the cereal-growing estates of the royal heartland as systematically as they could, and build-up Paris as the political, economic, religious and cultural capital of France. To illustrate, in the 12th-century, this concentration of resources produced a striking density of very expensive Gothic cathedrals, while Philip II of France, directly controlling only this restricted territory, had the capacity to match the resources of John of England in their wars. A third advantage was that Capetian kings enjoyed the support of the Christian Church. The French clergy sought to moderate the endemic warring of the feudal nobility by favouring a strong monarchy. Indeed the Church formed an enduring alliance with the French crown, in large part to act as a counter-weight against the German king-emperors, whose territory in northern Italy provoked the fear and resentment of the papacy. The First Crusade was composed almost entirely of French knights, while French kings could often rely on the popes to excommunicate their political opponents.

Territorial Conquests of Philip II of France.jpg

Yet some of the king's vassals were among the strongest rulers in all of Western Europe; especially Normandy, Flanders, Anjou, Toulouse, and Burgundy. By far the more serious threat to the French kings came from the neighbouring dukes of Normandy. The conquest of 1066 affected France almost as much as it did England. Normandy had always been vassals of the French king, and being kings in their own right in England didn't change the fact that. The crown enjoyed a modest recovery during the reign of Louis VI Capet (1108–37), fifth of the Capetians. He spent almost all of his 29-year reign consolidating the royal authority across that part of the country where his writ still ran, bringing to heel the unruly minor nobles (the so-called "robber barons"); this at least won him the respect of his great peers. He was also the first king to regularly summoned his vassals to the court to hear claims of abuses, which became a key feature of French realpolitik in the decades to come. Louis' prestige was further enhanced in 1124, when Henry V of imperial Germany assembled an army to invade northern France, with designs on the wealthy region of Flanders. All of France rose to Louis' appeal against the threat, prompting Henry, unwilling to see the French nobles united behind their king, to abandoned his campaign before it even properly began. Yet Louis still came to be recognised as the national protector of France. Finally, in 1137, a dying Duke William of Aquitaine (Gascony) appointed Louis as guardian of his 15-year-old daughter and heir, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor was suddenly the most eligible heiress in Europe, and Louis wasted no time in marrying her to his own son, another Louis; she brought as her dowry the whole of south-western France around Bordeaux. Despite Louis' achievements, it was the growing power of the English king that would overshadow his successor's reign. Louis VII Capet (1137–80) was his father’s second son, who had anticipated a career in the Church; it was only after the accidental death of his older brother that he came to the throne. Eleanor herself was a beautiful, high-spirited girl who hated the pious, austere life of her husband’s court, and made no secret of her longing to be back in the freewheeling, troubadour life of the court of Aquitaine; "I have married a monk, not a king", she complained. In 1144, the king took the cross on the Second Crusade, leaving the realm in the capable hands of Abbot Suger of St. Denis (d. 1151), one of the ablest statesmen of his day and a pioneer of what became Gothic architecture. Louis was one of the few men to actually benefit from the disastrous Crusade, viewed by his subjects as a pilgrim-king who quietly bore God's punishments. However, his marriage to Eleanor broke down on the journey, amidst rumours of several affairs, including one with her uncle Raymond of Antioch (d. 1149); the marriage was annulled by the Pope in 1152. Worse still, Eleanor almost immediately married Count Henry Plantagenet of Anjou, who not only inherited Aquitaine through his wife, but the English throne as Henry II Plantagenet through his mother Matilda. The greater part of France now owed allegiance, not to Paris, but to Westminster. Henry's realm, stretching from Scotland to the Pyrenees, is sometimes known as the Angevin Empire. Yet the French king's position was not as weak as it might appear at a glance: the population of England was barely a third of France throughout the Middle ages, while the Paris basin was rich and the French kings could take considerable resources from it. In the long run the advantage lay with the French kings, though the process was a long one, not finally resolved until the end of the Hundred Years' War in the mid-15th century.

Philip II, who in many respects created the nation state of France. It could even be argued that he was the first kings of France.

France was transformed from a tapestry of feudal states into perhaps the most powerful and prosperous kingdom in Europe during two reigns, of grandfather and grandson, who between them ruled for almost ninety years. The grandfather was King Philip II Capet (1180-1223), who was given the epithet "Augustus" by the chronicler Rigord for his remarkable reign. Over the course of his 43-year reign, Philip outmaneuvered three English kings in turn. While Henry II sat on the English throne, Philip exploited the jealousy of his sons, first favouring the younger John, and then the elder Richard, with a view to benefitting from the chaos. When Richard I "the Lionheart" Plantagenet (d. 1199) became king in 1189, the two kings travelled together to the Holy Land to participate in the Third Crusade, less for reasons of companionship than because neither trusted the other. After the successful Siege of Acre, Philip used ill-health as an excuse for returning home, determined to drive the English out of France in Richard's absence. While on Crusade, Richard's lands were under the protection of the Church, so Philip turned to intrigue. He first tried to encourage Richard's younger brother John to rebel, but nothing came of it because of Richard's competent ministers. Then on his way home, Richard was captured and held for ransom by Henry VI of imperial Germany (d. 1197). Philip did everything he could to prolong his rival’s imprisonment, while seizing large swathes of Normandy. But Richard was no ordinary king; he was immensely charismatic and a genius at war. On his release in 1194, the French king lost almost all his recent gains in the ensuing war; at one point Philip narrowly escaped drowning, when a bridge collapsed just as he and his army were crossing it. Fortunately for the French king, Richard died from a gangrenous wound received in a minor skirmish in 1199. With no male heir, Richard was succeeded by his less formidable brother John I of England (d. 2016), Philip's former ally turned enemy. To begin with, Philip secretly encourage a rival claimant to the Plantagenet crown who many of his French vassals favoured, Arthur of Brittany (d. 1203), the son of John's deceased eldest brother. In the end, Philip agreed to settle the matter in John's favour, in return for doing homage to him as overlord of his continental lands; formalising a feudal relationship that had been at best ill-defined until now. Then in 1202, John made a set of tactical missteps over an apparently minor issue: he married the fiancée of another French noble, Hugh of Lusignan, and then refused to come to Paris when summoned by the French king to hear Hugh's appeal. In response, Philip took the remarkable step of declaring John's continental lands forfeit, and quickly occupying Normandy, Anjou and Poitou; all the Plantagenet lands north of the River Loire. With control of Normandy, the French now had access to the English Channel, while depriving John of easy access to what remained on his continental lands, south-western Aquitaine (Gascony). John would not admit defeat, and spent the next nine years to build up an anti-Philip alliance, with Otto IV of imperial Germany (d. 1218) and the ever-independent Count Ferdinand of Flanders (d. 1233). The idea was to split Philip's forces by invading on two fronts, with John marching north from Aquitaine, while Otto led a second force through Flanders. The situation seemed grim for Philip. Fortunately, the two invading armies failed to coordinate their efforts, allowing Philip himself to take the initiative. At the Battle of Bouvines (July 1214), Otto and his Flemish allies were caught unprepared by the speed of their enemy, but, with the two sides evenly marched, decided to give battle. The luck of the day was with Philip. All three commanders were unhorsed in the heat of battle: Philip would have probably been killed had one of his knights not sacrificed his own life by giving the king his horse: Ferdinand of Flanders was seriously wounded and taken prisoner; while Otto was carried off the field by his wounded and terrified horse. Philip returned triumphantly to Paris, to dancing in the flower-strewn streets, and the students of the embryonic university caroused for a week. His fellow-monarchs, by contrast, had little to celebrate. Otto returned discredited to Germany, where he was ousted by Frederick II Hohenstaufen (d. 1250) within a year. John withdrew to England where he faced the enraged English nobility in the First Barons' War, that eventually forced him to sign Magna Carta. As for Ferdinand of Flanders, he was to remain in prison for the next twelve years. Philip on the other hand used the Bouvines victory to consolidate and extend his royal authority, most nobably by using the Albigensian Crusade (1209-29) against the heretical Cathar sect to bring much of southern France to the crown. Philip did little to support it, though he did not stop his northern barons from joining in. The campaign later came under the control of his son, the future Louis VIII. Now only English Aquitaine was beyond Capetian control. Philip also found time to build a great fortress on the Seine, later to become the Louvre. The one stain on his record was his periodic persecution of the Jews, whom he bled white. By his death in 1223, Philip had transformed France from a mediocre feudal state into a true kingdom.

King Louis IX of France, Basilica of Sacré-Cœur of Paris. He was the only French king to be canonised a saint.

Philip's son Louis VIII ruled for just three years, bringing to the throne the grandson, Louis IX Capet (1226-1270). He ascended to the throne at just 12-years-old, but royal hegemony was maintained during his minority by his formidable mother, Blanche of Castile. Louis' great contribution to France was to consolidate, mature, and reform the newly unified kingdom. It was a task for which he was well suited. His deeply religious mother had raised him to be an exemplary Christian ruler, duty-bound to lead his people to salvation. Louis enjoyed an immense reputation for his piety, wisdom, and fairness, that allowed him to rule France as absolutely as he wished. Yet his piety was not a mask for weakness. He would often summon his vassal to court to hear claims of their abuses, and meddle in affairs his predecessors had not dared. They would often revolt, upon which Louis would march on them with his forces; he could always count on the Church to excommunicate the offending baron. Though defeated at times, Louis was successful enough to humble powerful adversaries, and other vassals became increasingly loyal. He also faced an attempt by Henry III of England (d. 1272) to restore his continental possessions by force. Despite routing him at the Battle of Taillebourg (July 1242), Louis remained disposed to compromise. In the Treaty of Paris (1258), he agreed generous terms by which the English king's title to Aquitaine (Gascony) was formally recognised, in return for doing homage for these lands and abandoning all other continental claims, including Normandy. Louis' reputation was such that Henry III and his barons later consented to the French king as arbiter of the Second Barons' Revolt in 1264. Within France, Louis was a reformer. He radically revised the judicial system, banning trial by ordeal and, more importantly, introducing the principle of presumption of innocence. The king himself was the supreme judge to whom anyone could appeal from the lowliest peasant to the richest lord. Although previous kings had legislated, Louis was the first to regularly express his will in royal decrees: ordinances tried to prevent the private wars that were plaguing the country, and severely punished blasphemy, counterfeiting, unethical loans, and prostitution. In an age when numerous currencies were used in France, he also issued royal coinage that quickly became broadly accepted, and provided a firm base for commercial growth. Meanwhile, his sincere piety did not prevent him from curbing the abuses of the French clergy, or resisting unreasonable papal demands, although he was always careful to treat the pope with respect. Characteristically, Louis was an ardent collector of holy relics, purchasing what was believed to be the Crown of Thorns from the cash-strapped Latin ruler of Constantinople. To house it, he built Sainte-Chapelle, one of the loveliest Gothic style building in all France, with the most extensive 13th-century stained glass collections anywhere in the world. But not even Sainte-Chapelle was enough to satisfy Louis’s Christian zeal. He went on Crusade twice. In his mid-30s, he led the Seventh Crusade (1248–54), only to be captured and ransomed by the Egyptians. In his mid-50s, he went on the Eighth Crusade (1270-72), but died of dysentery in Tunis before the campaign had even properly begun. Louis IX was canonised in 1297, barely a quarter-century after his death; the only French king to be declared a saint.

Philip IV, nickname "the Fair" from his good-looks and swagger, but also sometimes known "the Iron King" for his actions as king; both by his friend and foe alike.

Louis left a France very different from the one he had inherited. Henceforth the king was accepted almost everywhere as the legitimate sovereign chosen by God; a quite unprecedented move towards absolute monarchy. There were now rather fewer great lordships left; only Flanders, Burgundy, Brittany, and English Aquitaine still enjoyed some autonomy. Louis was succeeded by his forgettable son, Philip III Capet (1270-85), who never escaped from the domineering shadow of his mother. It was his son, Philip IV Capet (1285-1314), who brought the French monarchy to the height of its medieval power. Unlike his grandfather, who had stroven to raise France to be a virtuous and above all Christian kingdom, Philip aimed to make it strong, efficient and influential. A serious-minded and hard-working king, more than any of his predecessors, he governed not with barons but through paid royal officials, called Baillis (bailiffs) in the north and Seneschals in the south, who had judicial, financial, and military powers. Philip also sought an uncontested monarchy, which inevitably brought him into conflict with his most unruly vassals, English Aquitaine. The resumption of hostilities in 1294 brought some satisfying French victories, but no great gains when peace was resumed in 1303. The war was nevertheless a consequential affair. Firstly, it inaugurated the Auld Alliance (1295-1560), the long-lasting pact between Scotland and France. Secondly, ever-independent Flanders had allied with England during the conflict, and humiliated Philip at the Battle of the Golden Spurs (July 1302). The French king did recover three years later, and extracted harsh terms in the peace, including the marriage of his son, John of Burgundy, into the Fremish ruling family. This eventually made the Burgundian branch of the royal family the most powerful nobles in France. And finally, the peace treaty with England stipulated that Philip’s daughter Isabella should marry the future Edward II of England (d. 1327). This marriage alliance did result in decades of peace between the two kingdoms, but it would later produce an English claimant to the French throne, thus provoking the Hundred Years' War. Meanwhile, the war left the Philip in desperate need for money, and he did not much care how he got it. This attitude made him many enemies, among whom none was more implacable than the pope.

The abduction of elderly Pope Boniface VIII by French soldiers in 1303. His dramatic struggle with Philip IV of France was in many ways the climax of the prolonged struggle between Church and State, that had begun with the Investiture Controversy of 1076. Boniface possessed abundant energy, self-confidence and strength of will; what he lacked was the slightest sense of diplomacy or willingness to compromise – and ultimately he paid the price.

Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303) has been called the last medieval pope, because he embodied all the pretensions of the papacy at its most political and its most arrogant. Under him the long battle with Church and State came to a head. Boniface took office already in belligerent mood, because the French king's war with England had spoiled his own plans for a new Crusade against the Ottoman Turks. The hostility of Boniface escalated in 1296, when Philip imposed heavy taxation on the French church to fund his war. A furious pope issued a papal bull forbidding the taxing of clergymen and church property without express premission from Rome. But this short-sighted action was easily outmaneuvered by Philip, who banned the export of bullion from France. Nearly half of papal revenue came from church dues in France, and Boniface had to back-down for now. Then, in 1301, Philip had the obscure but quarrelsome Bishop of Pamiers imprisoned on charges of inciting revold and insulting behaviour. Without even troubling himself to look at the facts of the case, Pope Boniface demanded the bishop’s release; Philip refused, and the battle entered its final phase. Boniface summoned every French bishop and abbot to Rome to discuss the king's actions, but Philip found that French churchmen were willing to support his own cause; bishops and their clergy were often estranged from Rome, which had undermined their authority, too. He was able to convene a great assembly in Paris, at which bishops, nobles and the grand bourgeois of Paris condemned the Pope; this is often cited as the first formal meeting of what would become the French parliament (Estates General). This prompted Boniface fired his penultimate broadside, the papal bull Unam Sanctam (November 1302), one of the most extreme statement of papal supremacy of the Middle Ages. It asserted the absolute authority of the pope over all human authorities, spiritual and temporal, as the heir of Peter and Vicar of Christ. The pope then set to preparing the harshest punishment at his disposal, a bull excommunication for King Philip. Just days before its publication, Philip took a bold step; his agents in Rome pursued the old pope to his native city and abducted him. Boniface was held prisoner for three days, with it was said appalling physical indignity, until his fellow townsmen freed him. He was not to die a prisoner, but die he did a few weeks later, no doubt of shock. Boniface had not been a popular pope, with a reputation for enriching his own family, and no one stirred to avenge him; the poet Dante, on his literary visit to hell, places him in the eighth circle, upside down in a furnace. This episode severly damaged the prestige of the papacy, while Philip's reputation seemed enhanced. A few years later, the king contrived to have a French bishop elected as Pope Clement V (1305-14), the first of seven French Popes in an unbroken line spanning seventy-three years. Then in 1309, Clement brought the papal curia to Avignon, a tiny enclave on the east bank of the Rhône belonging to the duke of Naples, but overshadowed by the power of the French kings, whose lands completely surrounded. The papal residence at Avignon would lasted until 1377, only to spark the greatest scandal in the history of the Church; the Great Papal Schism. Two years earlier, in 1307, Clement had complied with the French king's wishes to destroy the religious-military order of the Knights Templar; the most shameful crime of Philip's life. By the end of the 13th century, the orders original role as protectors of pilgrims to the Holy Lands had been largely replaced by banking. No debtor loves his creditor, and rumours had long swirled of secret Templar rituals practised at its midnight meetings. But Philip just wanted their money. He had already dealt with the Jews; in 1306 he had seized all their assets and expelled them from France. Now it was the turn of the Templars. On Friday 13 October 1307, hundreds of Knights Templar were simultaneously arrested, tortured into confessing at show-trials, and burned at the stake. According to legend, when the Grand Master of the order was finally burned at the stake in front of Notre-Dame in March 1314, he summoned God's vengeance on both King Philip and Pope Clement; both men were dead before the end of the year.

The library of Sorbonne University, officially founded in 1257.

By the end of Philip’s reign, France was unmistakably the glittering heart of a rapidly developing Europe. The French language was the lingua franca of the European aristocracy. In intellectual matters, the university of Paris (c. 1150) had a commanding reputation by the 12th-century. At its closest rival, Bologna university, the students dominated the school, a fact that often put teachers under great pressure. At the Sorbonne, the masters ran everything, thus becoming the premiere spot for teachers from all over Europe. Peter Abelard (1142), the outstanding scholar of the 12th-century, taught there from 1115. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), probably the greatest theologians and philosophers of the entire Middle Ages, taught there from 1256. France enjoyed a similar lead in artistic fields. Paris was the birthplace of Gothic architecture, first in the Abbey of Saint-Denis (1140–) and then in Chartres Cathedral (1194–). Many of the greatest examples of Gothic cathedrals were in other French cities. Meanwhile French vernacular literature invented and elaborated the medieval theme of courtly love, in poems such as the Chansons de Geste and in the lyrics of the troubadours of Provence. The style became fashionable everywhere in Europe. France was also the home of the most significant new developments in monasticism, a major force for spiritual renewal within the Church. In the 11th-century, the reforms of Cluny offered an example widely copied throughout Christendom. In the next centuries, two of the most influential new monastic orders had their origins on French soil; the Cistercians in the Dijon region, and later the Dominicans at Toulouse. In 1325, Paris's population was more than 200,000, which made it the most populous city in Europe. Three years later, the stability of France was severely threatened by a succession crisis, that would escalate into what would later be known as the Hundred Years' War.

Britain of the Plantagenets[]

The Anarchy, a civil war which contemporary chroniclers described as the period when "men said openly that Christ and his saints were asleep".

The High Middle Ages was a constructive period for England, when its kings set-up lasting institutions, such as the Exchequer before 1110, Magna Carta in 1215, and Parliament in 1258. It also introduced the equally enduring English tendency of bickering between the monarchy, nobility, and the Church. Almost alone in Western Europe, England avoided the localisation of politics power of the 11th-century. The great nobles, rather than establishing autonomous lordship, tended to feel that the government of the kingdom was as much their responsibility as the kings. This sense of a collective oligarchy can be traced back to the Anglo-Saxons, and survived the Norman take-over of William the Conquerors. William's direct line lasted only the one generation, with his three sons fighting a series of wars over the spoils. The youngest, Henry I Normandy (1100-1135), almost certainly murdered one brother, William (d. 1100), on a hunting trip, and then claimed Normandy by force in 1106, imprisoning the other brother, Robert (d. 1134), for the rest of his life. Henry then enjoyed a long and largely peaceful reign, but left no heir. His two sons were both tragically drowned in the English Channel in 1120 when onboard the ill-fated White Ship. With the line-of-succession thrown into doubt. Henry compelled the Anglo-Norman barons and bishops to recognise his daughter Matilda (d. 1152) as heir. Despite Henry’s wishes, no one was very enthusiastic about Matilda as queen. No woman had ever ruled in her own right in England or Normandy. Moreover, Matilda had some rather autocratic views on monarchy, from her first husband Henry V of imperial Germany (d. 1125). She had then married Count Geoffrey "Plantagenet" of Anjou (d. 1151), a neighbouring duchy and traditional enemy of Normandy. When Henry died in 1135, many rival claimants disputed Matilda's right to the throne. The king's nephew, Stephen of Blois, acted most decisively, immediately taking ship for England, and soon gathering enough baronial support to be crowned in Westminster Abbey as King Stephen I (1135-1154). To secure the throne, Stephen made concessions to the nobility and the bishops that, rather than buying him loyalty, served to expose his weakness; and every supporter he won, seemed to create two new enemies. By the time Matilda land in 1139, Stephen was putting down rebellion after rebellion. She and her half-brother Robert of Gloucester (d. 1147) established themselves in the south-west, while Stephen's main strength lay in the east. Stephen was a brave but headstrong fighter. At the Battle of Lincoln (February 1141), he decided to give battle despite being slightly outnumbers. As soon as the battle began to turn against him, Stephen's fickle supporters fled the field, though the king fought on until surrounded and captured; the king was imprisoned for the next nine months. In June, Matilda travelled to London to prepare for her coronation, but the city’s people found her rule autocratic and her taxes irksome, and a popular uprising drove her from the city. Then she was dealt another blow when royalists forces led by Stephen's brother won the Battle of Winchester (September 1141), and captured Robert of Gloucester. As the commander of Matilda's army, she had little choice but to agree to an exchange of prisoners. And so the civil war dragged on from several more years, becoming a desultory stalemate where neither side could gain an advantage. Meanwhile, unscrupulous English nobles took advantage of the chaos, seizing new lands, building unauthorised castles, and settling old scores in private wars. Even England's neighbours were at it. Matilda's husband Geoffrey conquered Normandy in piecemeal fashion, as well as Brittany. David I of Scotland (d. 1153) was able to expand his power in northern England, despite a defeat at the Battle of the Standard (August 1138). And Welsh pretty-kings recovered considerable territory in southern Wales. Meanwhile Matilda returned to the continent in 1147, not to give-up the fight, but to focus now on promoting her son Henry Plantagenet, rather than herself. Henry attempted three invasions of England, in 1147, in 1149, in 1153. It proved third time lucky. The two armies met at Wallingford, but neither side was keen to fight another pitched battle. The barons and clergy now mostly wanted peace, while Stephen's eldest son and wife had recently died, and he had had enough. In the Treaty of Winchester, Stephen recognised Henry as his heir in exchange for peace, passing over his own younger son. The next year, utterly worn-out, Stephen retired to his grave.

King Henry II ruled a realm stretching from the river Tweed to the Pyrenees. He won the throne of England and duchy of Normandy as heir to his mother, then inherited Anjou in west-central France from his father, and gained Aquitaine in the south-west thanks to his wife Eleanor.

Henry succeeded to the throne as Henry II Plantagenet (1154-1189), the first king of the new Plantagenet Dynasty (1154-1216). He not only ruled England but almost half of France; he had inherited his father’s lands in Anjou and recently conquered Brittany, the English possession of Normandy, and Aquitaine (Gascony) in the south-west through his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (d. 1204). This would have been too much for almost any king, but Henry was a man of extraordinary restless energy, who travelled ceaselessly around his vast realm, exhausting his court, and surprising friend and foe alike. Henry's continental lands came under intense pressure from the Machiavellian French king, Philip II (d. 1223), but still remained intact by the end of his reign. In England, Henry restored stability with astonishing speed. His first order of business was to bring the Anglo-Norman barons back into line, after the years of civil war and lawlessness. This meant demolishing all the unauthorised castles that had been built, and settling a swath of land disputes. A new form of legal procedure was introduced to assured fast and clear verdicts; a jury of 12 knights would decide each case. The next task was to restore English power that had been eroded at the borders. Henry pressured the young Malcolm of Scotland (d. 1153) into returning the lands that had been taken in the north of England, and began to refortify the northern frontier. Restoring English supremacy in south Wales proved harder, and Henry had to fight two campaigns before the Welsh petty-kings agreed to the pre-civil war borders. From 1171, he launched the Anglo-Norman invasions of Ireland to provided lands for his youngest son, John. Meanwhile, Henry reconstructed the royal government, improving upon the administration of his predecessors in many ways: his grandfather's practice of sending out circuit court judges was extended and systematized; a major inquiry into local administration was held and several corrupt sheriffs dismissed; and his privy council was organised into ministries. In military affairs, he encouraged nobles to pay feudal dues (money) in lieu of providing military service, since paid mercenaries were more reliable than feudal contingents; an early step in the development of a professional standing army.  

14th-century depiction of Becket with King Henry II

Henry's remarkable reign was nevertheless marred by quarrels with both the Church and his family. Ever since the Investiture Crisis of 1076, the struggle between Church and State had been one of the great questions of the day throughout western Europe. A third area where Henry sought to reaffirm royal authority was in relation to the Church, which had greatly extended its privileges during the civil war. Henry conceived of what must have seemed a neat solution. In 1162, he appointed his trusted friend and advisor, Thomas Becket (d. 1170), as Archbishop of Canterbury. Interestingly, Henry's wife, Eleanor, was dead against the idea, perhaps recognising that Becket's driving force was ambition, not loyalty to Henry. If Henry had anticipated a compliant archbishop, then he was quickly disabused. As soon as he took office, Becket became a ferocious defender of Church privileges, blocking attempts to extract taxes or curtail the powers of ecclesiastical courts. Neither side would budge and, in 1164, Becket was forced to flee England and find refuge with Henry's great rival, Louis VII of France (d. 1180); Louis, like almost everyone else who knew the man, found Becket insufferable. But this didn't end the quarrel. For the next few years, Henry harassed Becket's supporters in England, while Becket, from exile, excommunicated bishops who sided with the king. In 1170, the whole controversy had become an international embarrassment for Henry, and he reconciled with Becket, though none of the points at issue were settled. On his return to England, Beckett refused to reinstate any of the bishops who had supported the king. On hearing the news, the enraged king burst out with the fateful words, "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Four knights took him literally; they murdered Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170. Almost overnight the martyred Becket became a saint in the eyes of the people; he was canonised a saint in 1173, and his tomb became one of Europe's most important pilgrimage sites. Henry had to distance himself from the murderers, and go into extravagant moaning, doing public penance at Becket's shrine. It worked, largely because Pope Alexander III (d. 1181) was quick to forgive Henry, due to his own more pressing quarrel with Frederick Barbarossa of imperial Germany (d. 1190). And with the intractable Becket out of the way, it proved possible to negotiate most of the points at issue with the Church. The year 1173 proved to be quite a bad one for Henry, as his sons began a series of revolts against him from this point onwards; encouraged by the French king. The king had four legitimate sons who repaid their father's genuine affection with resentment of him and discord with one another. Henry, well aware of the tensions within his family, made a sensible attempt to manage the succession by nominating the eldest son, another Henry, as his successor, who would receive England, as well as the family lands of Anjou and Normandy. The other three sons Richard, Geoffrey, and John were to respectively receive Aquitaine, Brittany and Ireland. In 1173, the three eldest bothers revolted against their father over several grievances; John was the only one to remain loyal. Lack of cooperation among the brothers, however, enabled Henry to defeat them one at a time; Henry treated them with leniency. All these careful plans were then thrown out of the window with the death of young Henry from dysentery in 1183 and Geoffrey in a jousting accident in '86. This left Richard as the heir to the entire inheritance. The king had great affection for his youngest son John, and tried to give him Aquitaine, but Richard refused to give it up. Thus Henry spent the last years of his life locked in combat with Richard, who entered into alliance with the new French king, Philip II of France (d. 1223). Even John deserted him at the end, and Henry died an embittered old man.

Richard the Lionheart, remembered somewhat ironically as an English national hero. He was thoroughly French, spent barely six months in England as king, and spoke no English.

Richard I Plantagenet (1189–99), commonly known as Richard the Lionheart, has left an indelible imprint on the English imagination, as the ideal of a skilful, courageous, and chivalrous warrior-king. Richard grew-up in Aquitaine with his mother Eleanor, who had been estranged from her husband since 1170. The court of Aquitaine was famed for its troubadours with their tales of courtly love, and Richard in many ways tried to live-out the fantasy life of a hero of Arthurian legend. He spent barely six months of his decade-long reign in England, leaving affairs-of-state in the capable hands of a series of chancellors, notably Hubert Walter (d. 1205), later Archbishop of Canterbury. Richard had more important things to do; Crusade. The start of his reign coincided with a crisis in the Holy Lands; Jerusalem had surrendered to Saladin in 1187. Richard joined Philip II of France as leader of the Third Crusade, less for reasons of companionship than because neither trusted the other. Warfare was expensive, and in addition Richard imposed a further colossal burden on his kingdom when captured and held for ransom by Henry VI of imperial Germany (d. 1197). This reign saw some important innovations in taxation. Various methods of raising money were tried: feudal dues (money in lieu of military service) was extended and systematized; a tax on ploughing land; and a general tax on laymen and clergy for a quarter of the value of their property. The ransom, though never paid in full, caused Richard’s government to become highly unpopular, and his younger brother John, conspiring with Philip II of France, made an unsuccessful attempt to seize the throne. However, the crown prevailed thanks to the capable Hubert Walter. On his return, the childless Richard forgave John and reconfirmed him as heir. Richard was remarkably successful in mustering the resources of his kingdom in support of his wars, but it could be argued that he placed an onerous tax burden on his subjects and weakened the realm unduly. It was during this time that Robin Hood supposedly took to Sherwood Forest, and engaged in a spot of wealth redistribution. In battle, Richard was brave to the point of recklessness, and that is how he died; mortally wounded by a crossbow-bolt during an unimportant siege, while reconnoitering the defenses without armour. Richard left his successor a very difficult legacy.

A romanticised 19th-century recreation of King John signing Magna Carta.

John I Plantagenet (1199-1216), the youngest of the four sons of King Henry II, has gone down in history as one of the very worst kings ever to sit on the English throne. While he must bear a heavy responsibility for his misfortunes, it is only fair to recognize that he inherited the resentment that had built up against his brother and father. The three problems that lurked at the heart of the English monarchy now became crises. How did succession to the throne work? What was the balance of power between the king, the nobles, and the Church? And what were the limits on royal power, especially when it came to taxation. Before his death, Richard had recognised John as his heir, but the matter was not clear-cut. John was the fourth and only surviving son of Henry II, but his nephew Arthur of Brittany (d. 1203), was the son of Henry's second son, Geoffrey (d. 1186); medieval law gave little guidance as to how the competing claims should be decided. John was supported by the bulk of the nobility of England and Normandy, while Arthur was supported by the majority of the Brittany and Anjou nobles and received the support of Philip II of France, who remained committed to breaking up the English continental lands. In the end, Philip agreed to settle the matter in John's favour, in return for doing homage to him as overlord of his lands in France; formalising a feudal relationship that had been at best ill-defined until now. Nevertheless, John continued to see his nephew as a threat, and Arthur was imprisoned and "disappeared"; this treachery cost John the support of many French barons. Meanwhile, in 1202, John made a series of political missteps over an apparently minor issue: he married the fiancée of another French noble, Hugh of Lusignan, and then refused to come to Paris when summoned by Philip II of France to hear Hugh's appeal. In response, Philip took the remarkable step of declaring John's continental lands forfeit, and quickly occupying Normandy, Anjou, and Brittany; and all the Plantagenet lands north of the River Loire. This was a blow to John's prestige as well as territory, and he spent the next nine years to build an anti-Philip alliance. Meanwhile, John continued to make enemies, among whom none was more implacable than Pope Innocent III (d. 1216). In 1205, John got embroiled in a quarrel with the monks of Canterbury over the choice of a new archbishop. The disagreement reached the ears of Pope Innocent, who was not a man to miss an opportunity to demonstrate papal supremacy. He rejected both rival candidates, and announced his own, Stephen Langton. John, however, refused to receive Langton, which earned him a papal bull of excommunicatiion until he finally backed-down in 1213. Things then went from bad to worse over John's attempt to recover his continental lands. The king’s heavy taxation to pay for his campaign was crippling, though he was certainly inventive in his money making schemes; a young baron now had to pay a fee when he inherited his father’s property, and he even upped the fee barons had to pay the king when their daughters married. Even worse, the campaign came to nothing when his German and Flemish allies suffered defeated at the Battle of Bouvines (July 1214). John had to return home to face his disgruntled barons at Runnymede near Windsor Castle on 15 June 1215, where he was obliged to fixed his royal seal to the Magna Carta ("Great Charter"). It has achieved almost mythical stature in history as the foundation of constitutional government, individual rights, and democracy. For such a hallowed document, Magna Carta is a singularly undramatic document. It made almost no reference to the common people, and simply limited the king’s powers vis-à-vis his barons, particularly his power to demand money; protecting baronial rights against the sort of arbitrary disregard that the three Plantagenet kings had made so familiar. Much has been made of two clauses, originally numbered 39 and 40, which stated that no free-man may be imprisoned or punished without prior judgement by the law; which some have seen as the basis of rule-of-law in England. More significantly, the king could no longer demand new taxes without first consulting an assembly of barons; this group slowly evolved into a permanent representative body we know today as the English parliament. In the short-term, Magna Carta was a failure; neither side complied with its conditions. The barons refused to withdraw their forces from London as promised, while King John, with papal support, claimed to have accepted the document under duress. In the ensuing First Barons' War (1215-17), the barons, knowing John would never accept their terms, went to France and got a new king; Prince Louis, son of the French king and future Louis VIII of France (d. 1226). In 1216, Prince Louis landed unopposed in Kent, where he was welcomed by the barons, and soon controlled over half of the English kingdom. He was proclaimed "King of England" by the rebellious barons in St Paul’s Cathedral in June. Alas, the tide suddenly turned for Louis when King John sudden died of dysentery in October.

Henry III with his former friend and nemesis Simon de Montfort.

With the king's death, a compromise became possible. His son and heir, Prince Henry, was only nine-years-old at the time, and much less of a threat to baronial interests than Louis could be. The barons flocked to young Henry III Plantagenet (1216–1272), and Louis' position quickly became untenable. He allowed himself to be bribed to leave, his brief "reign" effectively erased from the history books. Henry's minority brought a much needed period of peace and stability, with England ruled by a regency council of barons led by the astute William Marshal of Pembroke (d. 1219). The barons enjoyed this experience of direct power, a habit once acquired not lightly given up. On coming of age, Henry reissued Magna Carta in return for a campaign in France that achieved little at great cost. He gained a reputation for being a decent man, pious and cultured but indecisive and weak-willed. The barons no doubt hoped that this meant their impressionable king would do what he was told; unfortunately, they would not always be the ones telling him what to do. In 1236, Henry married Eleanor of Provence (d. 1291), who wrapped her husband round her finger. An influx of French in-laws took key positions at court; one uncle became Archbishop of Canterbury, and another became head of the king's privy council. Foreign influence increased further when Henry befriended a charming, ambitious, and morally flexible French knight called Simon de Montfort (d. 1265). The king arranged for his new favourite to marry his sister in 1238, and later made him the Earl of Leicester. By now, England had develop a much clearer sense of national identity. The loss of her continental lands had focused royal attention on England itself. The population was growing, towns were growing, trade was growing. The emerging universities at Oxford (1096) and Cambridge (1209) were attracting professors from Paris to teach them. For the first time since the Norman conquest, Frenchmen were being described as foreigners. By the 1240s, Henry and his French relatives had become more and more unpopular: a second military expedition to France in 1242 came to nothing; a string of bungled campaigns in Wales forced Henry to acknowledge Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (d. 1282) as king of Wales; the marriage of Henry's sister to Frederick II of imperial Germany (d. 1250) necessitated a huge cash dowry; and most notoriously a failed attempt place his second son on the throne of Sicily. In short, Henry was living well beyond his means. The main crisis of the reign came in 1258, when Henry desperately needed to balance the royal finances. The exasperated barons, led by the king's former favourite and brother-in-law Simon de Montfort, forced him to agreed to a set of reforms known as the Provisions of Oxford. This created a 15-member privy-council, elected by the barons, to supervise royal government. More consequentially, a wider assembly of all barons and bishops was to be held three times a year, which would in time evolve into the English parliament; the term parliament (from the French parler "to speak") was now being applied to such large assemblies throughout Europe. Like his father, Henry rapidly backtracks on this severe curtailment of the royal power, a decision backed by Pope Urban IV (d. 1264) and Louis IX of France (d. 1270). Consequently, the Second Barons' Revolt (1264-1267) broke out. At the Battle of Lewes (May 1264), Simon de Montfort won a resounding victory over the royalist army, capturing both Henry and his eldest son, Prince Edward. For the next year, Montfort effectively took over the government, forcing an imprisoned Henry to sign laws and decrees in his favour. To garner legitimacy, when Montfort summoned parliament in January 1265, he invited not only the barons and bishops, but, for the first time, two knights from each shire, two representatives from each town, and members of the lessor clergy; representative of the whole realm in a very real sense. They are the origin of the Commons (or commoners) who eventually became the more powerful of the two houses of parliament. These hints of a democratic future did not save Montfort. In May 1265, Prince Edward managed to escape his captors, and rallied the royalist forces, At the Battle of Evesham (1265), Edward triumphed and Montfort's corpse was terribly mutilated by the victors. Henry was thus restored to the throne, but his son was already ruling in his name. He died in 1272, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, which he had largely rebuilt in the Gothic style during his reign.

Edward Longshanks, also known as the Hammer of the Scots, one of the greatest medieval English kings. At six foot two he towered over those around him, though a drooping left eyelid and a lisp slightly spoiled the general effect.

The reign of Edward I "Longshanks" Plantagenet (1272-1307 AD) was a highly significant period in English medieval history. The final years of his father's reign had been sufficiently peaceful for Prince Edward to depart on what is sometimes called the Nineth Crusade (1271-72). He spent a year in Acre, fighting courageously but to no good effect in defence of the crumbling remnants of the Crusader States. He was on his way home, in Sicily, when he heard of his father's death. It is a measure of Edward's confidence in the stability of England, so recently convulsed by the civil war, that he spent another two years abroad before returning to Dover in August 1274. He was crowned in Westminster Abbey two weeks later. Edward was in many ways the ideal medieval king, a man who enjoyed both war and statecraft. Edward attempted to avoid the errors of his father and grandfather by ensuring his home base of England was secure. Shrewd and realistic, he recognised the value of the gradually evolving parliament. He summoned them on a reasonably regular basis throughout his reign, helping to establish them as a permanent institution. To some assemblies, he continued Montfort's innovation of inviting representative of the towns, shires, and lessor clergy. The royal writs asking the sheriffs to call these knights and burgesses reached more or less a final form in 1295; sometimes referred to as the Model Parliament. The king's purpose was to ensure that agreements made in parliament were honoured, in particular commitments to provide money, since these men genuinely represented their communities. Edward began his reign with heavy debts incurred on Crusade, and his various wars would be expensive too. The royal finances were put on a firm basis in 1275, by securing of a permanent duty on the export of wool; in return Edward confirmed Magna Carta. He was able to borrow heavily from Italian bankers on the security of these duty revenues. At the start of his reign, Edward conducted a major survey of local administration that yielded the so-called Hundred Rolls, a heterogeneous group of records that brought home the need for changes in the law. A series of far-reaching statues tackled such important matters as: the transfer of land, which became more commercial and less feudal in nature; forbade the acquisition of land by the Church without royal consent; and legislated against child-brides, a long overdue restriction on the ruthlessly materialistic medieval marriage market. Another consequence of the need for funds was attacks on the England's Jewish community. Their money-lending activities had made them unpopular, and royal exploitation, since the early-13th-century, had so impoverished them that they were no longer of much financial use to the crown. Edward re-issued restrictive statues, which, among other things, obliged all Jews to wear a distinguishing patch with a star-shaped yellow; an idea that Adolf Hitler would adopt 650 years later. In 1290, having systematically stripped the Jews of their remaining wealth, Edward became the first European monarch to formally expel all Jews from his kingdom; but hardly the last. Nevertheless, Edward's reign is often seen as a seminal period in English history; England now had something like a settled system of government.


Edward of course had his own reasons for wanting his England stable and peaceful; he would spend much of his reign on military affairs. The distinct identity of Wales can be traced at least as far back as the digging of Offa's Dyke in the 8th-century, to mark the limits of the Anglo-Saxon conquers. To this day, the Welsh word for the English is Saeson ("Saxon"); the English word for the Welsh derives from the old Anglo-Saxon word Wealas ("foreigners"). For their part, the Welsh started to refer to themselves as Cymry ("fellow-countrymen") and their shared territory Cymru. During the 9th and 10th centuries savage coastal attacks in the south by Vikings forced the petty-kingdoms of Wales to cooperate. However, unlike England and Scotland, attempts at political unity proved only partially successful and impermanent; the Welsh custom of divided inheritance did not help. Rhodri Mawr (d. 878), a charismatic leader, managed to unite most of the kingdoms, only for them to be split among his sons upon his death. His grandson, Hywel Dda (d. 950), united most of the country again, and then went on to codify traditional Welsh law, prohibiting foreigners to naturalize before the fourth generation and affording women greater rights than their Anglo-Norman contemporaries. His great-great-grandson, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn (d. 1063), conquered all his cousins' realms from his base in Powys. He was the only Welsh king ever to rule over the entire territory of Wales, a claim Edward "the Confessor" of England (d. 1066) was reluctant to recognise. In 1062, he gave Harold Godwinson permission to invade Wales, and he eventually killed Gruffydd in battle. Over time, aspiring kings of Wales tended to style themselves Princeps (Latin for "leader") rather the "king", as that title became devalued by so many rival claimants; Princeps is usually translated as Prince of Wales. The most serious threat to Welsh independence came with the arrival of the Normans in 1066. William the Conqueror (d. 1087) made no serious attempt to conquer Wales himself, but granted the feudal barons along the Welsh border (the March Lords) free rein to raid and conquer as they saw fit. Under sustained attack, the extent of the March varied as the fortunes of the Marcher Lords and the Welsh petty-kings ebbed and flowed, especially in the southern lowlands. Meanwhile, the Welsh were in almost constant warfare among themselves. It was not until Rhys ap Gruffydd (d. 1197) that something like pan-Welsh leader again emerged. In a series of encounters with the English in southern Wales, Rhys was sufficiently successful for an accommodation to be reached with Henry II of England, who formal recognised him as "Lord of South Wales" in 1171, while retaining the claim to be his overlord. For a while such compromises brought peace to the region, and allowed Welsh culture, storytelling, and literature to flourish. The Black Book of Carmarthen, the oldest surviving Welsh-language manuscript, dates from this period; held today at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. It lasted until signs of English weakness prompted the Welsh to reach for even greater independence. The 13th-century threw-up a Welsh royal dynasty based in Gwynedd in the north, that ruled Wales with interuptions for three generations. The first was Llywelyn Fawr (d. 1240), who received the fealty of almost all the Welsh petty-kings at the council at Aberdyfi in 1216, and maintained it until his death without internal strife. He was succeeded by his son, Dafydd ap Llywelyn (d. 1246), but Henry III of England was able to use the dissension of other petty-kings to restrict his power to Gwynedd alone. Dafydd contended for a broader influence, but his promising endeavour was cut short by his early death. In the ensuing succession crisis, Dafydd's nephew, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (d. 1282), asserted his supremacy first in Gwynedd and then over other Welsh petty-kings in 1258. Taking advantage of the Second Barons' Revolt, Llywelyn won a string of military victories over Henry III of England, and forced him to agree to Treaty of Montgomery (1267), formally acknowledging Llywelyn as Prince of Wales, so long as he did homage to the English king as his overlord. The Welshman’s independence was further asserted when he refused to attend Edward I’s coronation or to do homage in 1274. Indeed, Llywelyn seemed to almost go out of his way to provocation Edward; he married the daughter of Simon de Montfort, who had tried to usurp his father's throne. But Edward proved a far more aggressive English king than his father. In 1276, he declared Llywelyn a rebel, and the next year, gathered an enormous army to march against him. Two English armies invaded Wales, one from the south to seize the harvest, and another from the north to strike at Gwynedd itself. Confronted by the far greater resources of England, Llywelyn was quickly forced to accept the harsh terms of the Treaty of Aberconwy (1277): Gwynedd itself was split between Llywelyn and his rebellious younger brother Dafydd; while the rest of Wales came under more direct English administered. When war broke out again in 1282, it was an entirely different undertaking. It became a national struggle enjoying wide support among the Welsh, who were provoked by the rapacity of the English royal officials. Edward reacted as forcefully as before, with a war of outright conquest. This second Welsh war proved much longer, more costly, and more difficult for the English than the first. The Welsh enjoyed a string of early defensive victories, but the war turned when an overconfident Llywelyn took a force south, trying to rally support in mid-Wales, thus opening a second front. The last native Prince of Wales was lured into a trap and killed at the Battle of Orewin Bridge (December 1282). Taking advantage of this fortuitous event, Edward raised a new army and boldly marched into Gwynedd, the heartland of the Welsh resistance. The annexation of Wales was effectively complete with the capture of Llywelyn's brother Dafydd in June 1283; he later became the first known nobleman to be hung-drawn-and-quartered. By the Statute of Rhuddlan (1284), Wales was carved-up into counties on the English model, and either distributed to the March Lords or retained as crown lands. In 1301, Edward added a final symbolic touch to the subjugation of Wales; reviving the much cherished title of Prince of Wales, and bestowing it on his eldest son, the future Edward II. The title has remained, through the centuries, the highest honour granted to the heir apparent to the English throne. Meanwhile, to secure his conquest, Edward commissioned the construction of a series of imposing castles, such as Conwy, Caernarfon, Harlech, and Beaumaris, which are still today the great glory of the northern Welsh coast. Overawed by these clenched fists stone, Wales remained relatively quiet for a century or so, until Owain Glyn Dwr made one last attempt to revive the dream of independence.


Trouble with Scotland flared up shortly after Edward's conquest of Wales. For nearly two centuries after the coronation of Kenneth MacAlpin (d. 858), his descendants ruled the kingdom of Scotland. During this time, a victory over the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Carham (1018) brought Strathclyde and Lothian firmly under Scottish control, extending the border with England to the Tweed. In the north, the Highland clans, inaccessible in their glens, remained a law unto themselves for another 700 years. The death of Malcolm II MacAlpin (d. 1034) caused a succession crisis in the dynasty and a protracted civil war in Scotland. He had only a daughter, whose son, Duncan (d. 1040), succeeded to the throne. With no precedent for female-line inheritance, Duncan was challenged and eventually killed by his cousin Macbeth (d. 1057), another grandson of Malcolm. Macbeth is today best known from Shakespeare's famous tragedy, but it is only very loosely based on historical event. Contrary to the play, Macbeth may have had an equally good claim to the throne; Duncan was killed in battle, rather than murdered in his bed; Macbeth ruled Scotland for 17-years; his reign was apparently stable enough to make a pilgrimage to Rome in 1050; he was eventually buried on the holy island of Iona which suggests he had not been considered a usurper or tyrant; and finally, Macbeth was killed in battle by Duncan's son Malcom, rather than entirely fictional MacDuff. The descendants of Malcolm III Dunkeld (d. 1093) ruled Scotland for the next two centuries, and provided some of its ablest kings. The most significant theme of this period is the relationship of the Scotland with her neighbours to the south. It was one of considerable complexity, involving both cooperation and hostility. With the Norman conquest of 1066, a great many Anglo-Saxon nobles fled into exile in Scotland, and later Scottish and Anglo-Norman families intermarried over several generation. Over time, native institutions and values were replaced by Norman-French ones: the Feudal social structures was extended to Scotland; the crown passed more strictly via male-line primogeniture leading to the first minorities; there was more direct royal influence through sheriffs and circuit court judges; towns were granted royal charters; the Church was reorganised on a parish-diocese basis like the rest of Western Europe, and the first Cluniac monasteries were founded. Even the language was to go with the emergence of Scots, a dialect of English, though the native Gaelic continued to be spoken in the Highlands for centuries. Yet at the same time as these English influences on Scotland, the ill-defined border region between the two kingdoms was an almost constant battleground. And the relationship between the two kings was one of prolonged struggle within a feudal framework. The English kings liked to consider themselves as overlord of Scotland. This was only occasionally recognised, most notably for a while after 1174. In that year, William I Dunkeld (d. 1214) was captured raiding into Northumberland, and not released until he did homage to Henry II of England (d. 1189). In the end neither side prevailed in this uneasy relationship, until matters were brought to a head by a succession crisis over the Scottish throne. 

William (Braveheart) Wallace in stained glass at Sterling Castle, Scotland. Wallace was the son of a knight, and so obsure that we basically know nothing about him until May 1997, when he killed the English sheriff of Lanark. Yet he became the leader of Scottish resistance during the first years of the long and ultimately successful struggle to free Scotland from English rule. Since his death, he has become one of Scotland’s greatest national heroes.

Alexander III Dunkeld (1249-86) died, leaving as his only heir a three-year-old granddaughter, Margaret of Norway. Edward I of England immediately set about arranging a marriage between the young heiress and his own infant son, the future Edward II, with the intention that the bridegroom would rule both kingdoms. The Scottish regency agreed to the marriage, but insisted on a treaty securing the independence of Scotland. As it turned out, the precaution proved unnecessary; Margaret died of an illness on the voyage to her new kingdom in 1290. With her death, there were thirteen rival claimants to the vacant throne, each tenuously related to the royal family. The two most serious contenders were Robert the Bruce the Elder (d. 1295) and John Balliol (d. 1314). With Scotland teetered on civil war, Edward was invited to arbitrate the matter. The English kings choice of John Balliol (1292-96) was widely accepted, and should have ended of the matter. However, Edward was less than subtle in his treatment of the new king as his vassal, rather than his equal. A humiliated Balliol struggled to resist, while Scottish nobles grew increasingly resentful at Edward's demands for troops and funds for a planned war with France. In 1296, Balliol renounced his homage, and negotiated an alliance with his great rival, Philip IV of France (d. 1314); the Franco-Scottish, later known as the Auld Alliance, was renewed frequently until 1560. Edward's response was a swift and brutally effective invasion of Scotland. The First War of Scottish Independence (1296-1328) began in earnest with Edward's massacre of almost the entire male population of Berwick. This was followed by an overwhelming English victory at the Battle of Dunbar (April 1296). In the wake of Dunbar, Scottish resistance effectively collapsed, and, by August, John Balliol was a prisoner in the Tower of London, and most Scottish nobles had pledged fealty to the English king by fixing their seals to the so-called Ragman Rolls. Edward added a final symbolic touch to the subjugation of Scotland; the sacred Scottish coronation seat, the Stone of Scone, traveled south to a new home in Westminster Abbey, where it would remain for 700 year until 1996. But Scotland's abject humiliation was only briefly. Edward, seriously short of funds, was not able to secure his conquest with a program of expensive castle building, as he had done in Wales. Enter perhaps Scotland’s most tragic hero; William Wallace (d. 1305). In the absence of a leader from the magnates, revolts broke-out in many parts of Scotland in the spring of 1297 led by minor nobles such as Wallace himself in central Scotland, Andrew Moray (d. 1297) in the north, and others. By late summer, the rebels had joined forces to besiege Stirling, traditionally regarded as the key crossing on the River Forth, seperating northern and southern Scotland. This prompted Edward to send more forces under John de Warenne of Surrey to deal with the Scots. At the resulting Battle of Sterling Bridge (September 1297), the overconfident English began to make their slow progress across the bridge, almost heedless of the massed ranks of mostly peasant Scottish pikemen beyond the north bank of the river. Wallace and Moray waited as many of the enemy had come over as they believed they could overcome, and then ordered the attack. Disorganised on marshy ground in the loop of the river with no chance of relief or of retreat, most of the outnumbered English were slaughtered almost to a man. Surrey still had the bulk of his army intact, but his confidence was broken and he withdrew. This victory, in which Moray was mortally wounded, saw Wallace appointed Guardian of Scotland, effectively ruling the kingdom on behalf of the imprisoned John Balliol, much to the distain of the great Scottish magnates. However, Edward was already planning another invasion of Scotland, which would lead to the Battle of Falkirk (July 1298). The battle is an early example of the devastating effectiveness of the longbow, half a century before its more famous deployment at Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt. The early battle was effectively a stalemate, with the English cavalry unable to break the Scottish pikemen formed into defensive schiltrons. However, once Edward's longbowmen were brought into place, the Scots had no defence and nowhere to hide; as one chronicler put it, they "fell like blossoms in an orchard when the fruit has ripened". Wallace himself survived the rout, but resigned as Guardian, and vanished from history for several years. He was eventually betrayed and turned over to the English in 1305. Following a show-trial, William Wallace was hung-drawn-and-quartered at the Tower of London, having shown that heroic leadership without social status was not enough.

Bust of Robert the Bruce at the National Wallace Monument in Stirling.

It seemed once again that Scotland had been finally conquered. Yet national resistance was now taken-up by the Scottish Church led by Bishop Lamberton of St Andrews. In England the clergy were firmly under the king's thumb, but Scotland's kings had never been able to control clerical privileges, appointments, or independence. In 1299, the Scottish bishop successfully blocked Edward's appeal to Pope Boniface VIII for recognition of his conquest of Scotland, and forced him to release John Balliol. However, the former Scottish king was a broken man, who soon went into exile to his family lands in France. Scotland was effectively left without a monarch, so the bishop sought a new one. There were two obvious candidates, Robert the Bruce (d. 1329) and John Comyn (d. 1306), both related to two original rival claimants in 1292. However, neither man was willing to forfeit his claim to the Scottish throne. The matter came to a head at a meeting between the two men at Greyfriars Church in Dumfries in 1306, that left John Comyn lying dead before the high altar. It is not known whether the outcome was premeditated or the result of a quarrel; Bruce claimed Comyn had betrayed an agreement to forfeit his claim. However, Bishop Lamberton was in too deep already; he absolved the Bruce of the murder, and less than five weeks later personally crowned him King of Scotland at Scone. At this moment Scottish rebellion was sparked again. Over the next few months, however, Robert's fortunes could hardly have sunk lower. Defeated in battle twice, in June and August, he was driven from the Scottish mainland as an outlaw with a few faithful followers; possibly to the remote island of Rathlin off the northern Irish coast. In his absence, three of his brothers were arrested and executed, while his wife and daughter were captured trying to flee for Norway, and handed over to Edward; he would not see his family again for eight years. Yet Bruce refused to give-up his seemingly hopeless cause; according to legend, deriving patience and perseverence from watching a spider weaving its web. He returned to Scotland in February 1307, and began an unorthodox guerrilla war in south-west Scotland. After ambushing an small English force on rough terrain at the Battle of Glen Trool (April), Bruce won his first major victory at the Battle of Loudoun Hill (May 1307). This victory prompted the aged Edward Longshanks to drag himself from his sick-bed, and march north at the head of an army. But he never reached Scotland, dying near Carlisle in July. With the weak and ineffectual Edward II (d. 1327) on the English throne, Bruce's campaign gathered momentum. His armies were never large, but his use of terrain against superior enemies, suprise hit-and-run raids, and brutal scorched-earth tactics were ruthlessly effective, slowly reducing one English stronghold after another. At the same time, Bruce faced an internal resistance from the Comyn family; their last major stronghold fell soon after the Battle of the Pass of Brander (August 1308). By 1314, eight years of exhausting but deliberate war while refusing pitched battles, had recovered most of the English held castles in Scotland. With the key fortification of Sterling Castle under siege, Edward II could no longer ignore this challenge, and marched north at the head of 14,000 strong-army. It is ironic that Robert the Bruce should be remembered best for the atypical set-piece Battle of Bannockburn (June 1314). Here, Bruce proved himself a formidable military commander, and the Scots an experienced battle-hardened army. He had perhaps half as many men, but chose his ground well; an area of boggy terrain about two miles south of Stirling, hemmed-in by rivers and forest that would limit cavalry action. And it seems he had originally planned a defensive encounter, digging pits and protecting the road behind him for an easier withdrawal. Most medieval battles were short-lived, lasting only a few hours, so Bannockburn is unusual for lasting two days. On the first day, the English cavalry, possibly against Edward's orders, attempted to outflank the Scots, and cut-off their escape route. Fighting began with one of history's most celebrated example of single combat. Encountering a small body of Scots led by Bruce himself, a renowned English knight called Henry de Bohun lowered his lance and bared down on the king. But Bruce did not panic. He mounted his horse, met the charge, dodged the lance and struck Bohun dead with his axe. The main English cavalry force was meanwhile repulsed by Bruce's well-discipline pikemen in a ferocious melee. That night a deserted from the English camp deserted, telling Bruce that English morale was low and encouraging him to attack. On the second day, Bruce decided to risk all by going on the offensive. Edward appears to have not expected the Scots to give battle, and had kept his forces in marching-order, rather than battle-order. Not long after daybreak, he was thus surprised to see the Scots pikemen emerge from the cover of the forest and charged towards his position. In a confused response, the English longbowmen were deployed too late to the flanks to be effective, while the heavy cavalry found it hard to operate in the cramped terrain, and could not break the Scottish schiltrons, as they pushed inexorably forwards. Edward wanted to fight on, but, with the battle obviously lost, was dragged away from the battlefield. At Bannockburn, Scotland effectively secured her independence, as well as rich reward in prestige, booty, and ransoms. In exchange for the captured nobles, Bruce's wife and daughter were finally release. Despite Bannockburn, the fall of Sterling Castle shortly afterwards, and the capture of the final English stronghold at Berwick in 1318, Edward II refused to renounce his claim to the overlordship of Scotland. There followed increasingly ambitious raids into the north of England, while Robert's brother Edward Bruce was sent to stir-up rebellion in Ireland. Edward marched north with large armies again in 1319 and 1322, but achieved little. Eventually, after the deposition of Edward II, the English regency was ready to come to terms. Scottish independence was formally acknowledged in the Treaty of Northampton (1328), though the English instinct for meddling in Scottish affairs proved hard to resist.

King David II of Scotland captured at the Battle Neville's Cross, from a 15th-century manuscript

The death of Robert the Bruce brought his five-year-old son David II Bruce (1329-71) to the Scottish throne. However, Edward III of England (1327-77), despite setting his seal to the Treaty of Northampton, was determined to avenge the humiliation by the Scots; the Second War of Scottish Independence (1332-57). Hostilities opened indirectly, with Edward encouraging Edward Balliol, son of John Balliol, to press his own claim for the Scottish throne. In 1332, Edward Balliol invaded Scotland with a group of disinherited Scottish nobles, and enjoyed modest success. Encouraged, Edward III decided to intervene directly, invading Scotland in 1333 to force Edward Balliol on the Scots. The two sides met at the Battle of Halidon Hill (July 1333), a crushing Scottish defeat, and within a few month most of Scotland was under English control. Edward Balliol was declared king by the English, while young David Bruce had to go into exile in France. In his absence, a series of Scottish regents kept up the struggle for independence. With no serious support in Scotland, Balliol was deposed 1336, while the English had become distracted by the Hundred Years War (1337-1490). The initiative thus passed to the Scots, and, by 1341, David Bruce was finally able to return from exile. Scotland was now an impoverished country in need of peace and good government, but David Bruce was determined to live up to the memory of his illustrious father and to stand by his ally, Philip VI of France; in accordance with the Auld Alliance. He personally led a series of raids into northern England. When attacking Durham, David Bruce was wounded and captured at the Battle of Neville's Cross (October 1346). He spent the next eleven years imprisoned in England, until the English crown, desperately in need of funds, ransomed him back to Scotland. David Bruce has often been compared unfavourably with his father. He nonetheless re-secured Scottish independence by the simple virtue of remaining on his throne, though the long wars with England, as well as David's ransom, took their toll. It weakening royal authority, and retarded Scotland’s economic development for decades. He left no children, and was succeeded by his nephew, Robert II Stewart, the first king of the House of Stewart (1371-1661).

Edward II, a portrait by an unknown 19th-century artist. In the popular imagination, Edward is assumed to have had a sexual relationship with Gaveston or his later favourites. However, there is scant contemporary evidence supporting this. The public nature of the royal court would have made it unlikely that any affair would have remained discreet. The 14th-century Church was fiercely opposed to homosexuallity, but made no adverse comments about the king. Moreover, Edward had four children with his wife, and at least one illegitimate child.

Meanwhile in England, the unruly mood of the barons returned in the reign of Edward II Plantagenet (1307-1327), and had an even more profound effect on the throne; he would eventually be deposed and almost certainly murdered. Edward inherited some of his father's problems, an empty treasury and a war with Scotland, but none of his father’s political and military talents. Edward's three elder borthers had all dies by 1284, leaving the prince leaving the prince at a somewhat empty court, and perhaps explaining his tendency to spend time with lessor nobles. One of Edward's first acts as king, was to recall his favourite, Piers Gaveston (d. 1312), the son of a lowly Gascon knight, whom his father had exiled as an unsuitable companion. Gaveston was gifted the earldom of Cornwall, married the king's niece, played a key role at the coronation, and acted as regent when Edward left the country to marry the daughter of Philip IV of France. This was not the sort of man that great English barons approved of. Opposition to Edward began almost immediately. In 1311, the barons, led by his enigmatic cousin Thomas of Lancaster (d. 1322), forced the king to accept a set of reforms known as the Ordinances, which attempted to limit royal control of finances and appointments; in part directed against Gaveston, who was again to be exiled. Gaveston did not stay away long, so the furious barons had the young man murdered. Reactions to the murder varied considerably; Edward was furious and upset, but found his political position somewhat strengthened by barons embarrassed at the Lancaster's action. For the first time in his reign, Edward's government was well-funded thanks to parliament consenting to new taxes. It did not survive Edward's humiliating defeated against Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn (1314). After this fiasco, the friendless king was forced to appoint his cousin Lancaster as head of his privy-council. The pair refused even to meet one another, bringing effective government a standstill, hampering the English response to Bannockburn, and exacerbating the Great Famine of 1315-17, part of a wider phenomenon in northern Europe; perhaps half-a-million people perished in England, more than 10% of the population. Too weak to dislodge Lancaster, Edward turned to a rival baronial faction led by Hugh Despenser of Winchester (d. 1326). The long-threatened civil war finally broke out in 1321, when Lancaster mobilised a coalition of the Despensers' enemies, and forced Edward to exile him and his son, another Hugh. Edward took up arms on their behalf, cornering and defeating Lancaster at the Battle of Boroughbridge (March 1322); he was captured, convicted of treason, and executed. Edward had revenged himself on the man who murdered Gaveston, but at what price: in death, Lancaster attracted a popular sympathy he had rarely received in life. The final period of the reign saw the Despensers restored to power, a purge of anyone deemed to have supported Lancaster, and a government characterized by corruption. Unfortunately for Edward, he had an enemy closer than he thought; his wife, Queen Isabella (d. 1358), daughter of Philip IV of France. In 1325, she was sent to France on a diplomatic mission, and refused to come home, unless the self-serving Despensers were thrown-out. In Paris, she met Roger Mortimer (1287), an exiled member of the Lancastrian faction; the pair became lovers. In September 1326, Isabella and Mortimer invaded England with a small force of men. There was virtually no resistance. Within a few weeks, Edward's authority collapsed in England, the Despensers were executed, and the king imprisoned. Edward was obliged to formally abdicate in January 1327 in favour of his 14-year-old son, Edward III Plantagenet (1327-77); Edward II died imprisoned in Berkeley Castle, almost certainly murdered, according to the gory legend skewered with a red-hot poker. For the next four years, Mortimer and Isabella ruled England in the young king's name. But in 1330, Edward III declared his independence in most forceful manner. With a small group of trusted men, he took Mortimer by surprise at Nottingham Castle and had him executed; his mother was banished from court, but lived for many more years in considerable style. England had a strong king once again. In a long reign, spanning half a century, Edward III contrived to rule without any major conflict with his barons, in large part by focusing their attention on a shared cause; war with France in the Hundred Years' War.

Norman conquest Ireland[]

Diarmaid MacMurrough or Diarmait Mac Murchada, the regional king of Leinster, as depicted by Welsh clergyman and historian Gerald de Barri.

More than 800 years of English military and political involvement in Ireland began with the Anglo-Norman invasion (1169-75). In the 12th century, Gaelic Ireland remain rather backward by Western European standards. There was a High King of Ireland, with a ceremonial capital at the Hill of Tara in Meath, but he had only limited power. Real power was exercised by five provincial-kings vying against each other for supremacy over the whole island; Leinster (south-east), Munster (south-west), Connacht (west), Ulster (north), and Meath (the midlands). The provincial-kings in turn presided of an ever-shifting patchwork of petty-kings, constantly at war with one another. The concept of a High King did not become a political reality until the Viking Age and Brian Boru (d. 1014), but he failed to produce a stable dynasty, as Alfred had done in England and Kenneth MacAlpin in Scotland. In the centuries that followed, "kings fought and the ground trembled" reported the Irish chroniclers; they even coined the phrase, "High kings with opposition", to reflect the reality of kingship in Ireland. The trouble with the English began with a civil war among the native Irish. It takes ruthless men for ruthless times. Diarmaid MacMurrough (d. 1171), was one such man. As provincial-king of Leinster, he ruled through fear not love, killing or ritually blinding anyone who stood in his way. By 1166, Diarmaid had made so many enemies, that he was forcibly exiled from his kingdom by an alliance under new High King Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair (d. 1198). So Diarmaid did what any fugitive ruler might do; he sought a powerful ally to get his throne back. His decision to appeal to Henry II of England (d. 1189) would change the course of Irish history. Even before Diarmaid arrived at his court, the English king had considered conquering Ireland, in order to provide lands for his four restless sons. In 1155, he had sought permission to invade and govern Ireland from Pope Adrian IV (d. 1159), to enforce the Gregorian Reforms on the semi-autonomous Celtic Church. Irish Church leaders had in fact attempted to adopt the new practices, but abandoning customs accepted for centuries was very slow; lax clerical celibacy, easy dissolution of marriage, and acceptance of multiple partners were still common in Ireland. Granting permission, the Pope told King Henry, "for the purpose of enlarging the borders of the Church, setting bounds to the progress of wickedness, reforming evil manners, planting virtue, and increasing the Christian religion, you do enter and take possession of that island". Thus Henry was granted that alibi of conquerers everywhere, the belief in a civilising mission; an enduring theme of England's actions in Ireland.

The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife (1854), an oil-painting by Daniel Maclise.on permanent display in the National Gallery of Ireland. Conceived for display in the Palace of Westminster, the painting has often been seen as representing the victorious Normans and the vanquished Irish. Strongbow has his foot upon a fallen Celtic cross, while the bride's father looks on in alarm and a Gaelic musician slumps upon his harp.

King Henry had more urgent things to do than get directly involved in Ireland; his feud with with Thomas Becket and the Church. But he gave Diarmaid permission to recruit help from among his barons. Those who responded were some of the nastiest and greediest English knight, typically Welsh March Lord, who were losing ground against Llywelyn Fawr of Gwynedd, and looking for a way to recoup their losses. To their leader, Richard de Clare (d. 1176), known to his friends and enemies as Strongbow, Diarmaid promised his daughters hand in marriage. The first contingent of the Anglo-Norman knights landed in Wexford in May 1169. Norman warfare, with its reliance on heavy cavalry, was unlike anything seen in Ireland before. Within a year they had conquered Leinster, including the major port-towns of Wexford, Waterford and later Dublin. Restored to his throne, Diarmaid went ahead with Strongbow's marriage his only daughter, Aoifa, as agreed. A year later Diarmaid died, and the stage was set for another great Norman land-grab, like in southern Italy and indeed England itself. Strongbow claimed the provincial-kingship of Leinster through his wife, though he had no right under Irish or even English law; Diarmaid had sons, and anyway Irish kingship was elective. Diarmaid's eldest son contested the claim, raising a general revolt in Leinster, but to no avail. At this point King Henry II suddenly sat up and took notice of what was going on in the west. In October 1171, he crossed the Irish Sea himself with a large army. His concern was not the Gaelic Irish, but that the ambitious Strongbow might establish an independent Norman state in Ireland. In Dublin, many of the Gaelic lords including High King Ruaidrí submitted to the English king, in the hope of curbing Anglo-Norman expansion into their own territories. One prominent man who refused to submit was the provincial-king of Meath: perhaps understandably since the Norman had already begun conquering his kingdom. Henry granted Meath to his close ally Hugh de Lacy (d. 1186), meaning permission to conquer it, if he could; his purpose was to establish someone loyal to the king who could keep Strongbow in check. A further peace agreement, the Treaty of Windsor (1175), was signed by King Henry II and Ruaidrí, in an attempt to end the now endemic warring between the native Irish and Normans. Under the term, Ruaidrí formally accepted Henry as his overlord, and renouced his title of High King, restyling himself simply provincial-king of Connaught. In return, the Normans were forbidden from further expansion, provided that Ruaidrí could keep the Gaelic rulers in check. But the peace agreement was a complete failure. Distracted by the revolts of his sons, Henry was unable or unwilling to rein-in the Anglo-Norman lords, while Ruaidrí could not control the Gaelic Irish. By 1177, the Normans had begun their assault on Munster and eastern Ulster.


The Anglo-Normans thrived during the 13th-century, consolidating control of the entire east coast from Waterford to eastern Ulster, and penetrating as far west as Galway and Mayo. Feudal manors, walled towns, castles, and abbeys became a feature of the landscape. The legacy of the Normans is still very evident today in Kilkenny, perhaps Ireland's best-preserved medieval city. In 1210, Ireland received its second visit from an English king. King John came to Dublin, and began the process of establishing a permanent government structure paralleling that of its English counterpart; the Lordship of Ireland. The high-point of Anglo-Norman rule in Ireland was the creation of an Irish parliament in 1264, and then in 1297, the lords and bishops were joined by representatives of the town, shires, and lesssor clergy. The Anglo-Normans then suffered from a series of calamities in the 14th-century that ceased and then rolled-back the spread of their settlement and power. In 1315, a year after Bannockburn, Robert the Bruce of Scotland decided to send a 6,000-strong Scottish army to Ireland under his brother, Edward Bruce (d. 1318). He sought to open a second front in the ongoing First War of Scottish Independence; and no doubt rid himself of an ambitious younger brother. Edward Bruce landed near Larne in May 1315, and quickly rallied to his cause most of the Gaelic-Irish lords and even a few Anglo-Normans, such as Gilbert de la Roche, who had a personal quarrel with the English king. Things might have turned out differently had the Scottish invasion not occurred in the midst of the Great Famine of 1315-17. Despite early success, such as the Carrickfergus Castle, Edward Bruce failed to capture Dublin, and was eventually defeated and killed at the Battle of Faughart (October 1318), near Dundalk. But the Scots had left something to Ireland besides corpses and tragic ballads. The Gaelic-Irish lord recovered great swathes of Ulster and the midlands, and held onto them after the war. Moreover, new cultural links were forged with Scotland, and Scottish mercenaries were henceforth regularly recruited by opportunistic Gaelic lords; known as Gallowglasses (gall óglaigh meaning "foreign warriors"). One such opportunity came in 1333, with the murder of William de Burgh in a personal feud; one of the greatest Norman landowners in Ireland, he left heir. By the time the dust settled on the resulting civil war among his relatives, virtually all of Ireland west of the River Shannon had been lost to the Normans. But the greatest calamity arrived at the port of Howth in July 1348; the Black Death. Since the Anglo-Normans lived in towns and ports, the plague ravaged them far harder than it did the Gaelic-Irish living in more dispersed rural settlements. The Irish chronicler, John Clyn, recorded that by Christmas Day 1348, 14,000 people had perished in Dublin alone. In contrast, the Irish annals, which were usually never slow to dwell on any disasters, make only one brief mention of the plague. A great many of the Anglo-Norman lords simply abandoned their lands, and fled back to England. Others had their property forcibly taken, as the Gaelic Irish exploited English weakness. Only Richard II of England made any effort to restore the crown's authority in Ireland, and it cost him his throne.

Bunratty Castle in Clare, one of a series of castles built during the Anglo-Norman era. The current construction dates from 1425.

The resurgence in Gaelic-Irish political power was paralleled by a remarkable revival of the Gaelic culture, which once again came to dominate the island. The Anglo-Norman community in Ireland was never monolithic. In the royal domain around Dublin, known as the Pale, English law prevailed, and people lived in a manner similar to that found in England. But outside the Pale, the Anglo-Norman lords gradually "went native", adopting Irish language, customs, and dress, marrying with Gaelic-Irish families, and patronising Irish poets and musicians. They became in the oft-quoted phrase, "more Irish than the Irish themselves". Like feudal lords everywhere, the Norman-Irish may have sworn allegiance to the English king, but in truth were loyal only to themselves, and resented interference in their internal affairs; in this, they had much in common with the Gaelic Irish. From 1367, the parliament in Dublin tries to legislate against such cultural assimilation, but with little effect. And with the English kings distracted by the Hundred Years' War, Ireland was simply not a strategic priority. Throughout the 15th century, these trends proceeded apace and English authority outside the Pale all but disappeared. The rest of the island was in effect autonomous, with Anglo-Norman and Gaelic-Irish lords establishing their own rule, with no reference to the English king. Then in the 15th-century, chaos of English politics once again spilled into Ireland, with bloody consequences. In the wake of the War of the Roses, a series of Yorkist rebels launched their bids for the English throne from Ireland, provoking the Tudor Conquest of Ireland.

Spanish Reconquest[]


Christianity, above all, was the crucible of nationhood for the Iberian Peninsula, with one national aspiration, the Reconquista (718-1492); to make the Cross triumph over the Crescent. None of the tiny Christian kingdoms of northern Spain had a very developed state structures in the early-eleventh-century. There followed a bewildering series of merges and demerges over the next two centuries, but the general theme was towards four larger and more coherant states. In the far north at the western end of the Pyrenees lay Navarre, the homeland of the ethnically distinct Basque peoples. In the central-north, Castile-Leon became powerful under Alfonso VI (d. 1109), the conqueror of Toledo; the ancient seat of the Visigothic Kingdom and the key to central Spain. In north-west, Portugal spun-off for Castile around 1109, with its independence legitimated by victory over the Muslims at the Battle of Ourique (July 1139) and then the conquest of Lisbon in 1147; this was achieved with the helped of passing English knights on their way to the Second Crusade, beginning an enduring link between Portugal and England. In north-east, Aragon-Catalonia grew from Frankish March around Barcelona established by Charlemagne in the early-9th-century, becoming independent by the late-10th-century, and incorporating Zaragoza from the Muslims in 1118. These four Christian kingdoms were in an almost permanent state of war, with both Christian and Muslim neighbour, which helped them remain coherent and their kings hegemonic. When breakthroughs were made against the Muslims, kings had patronage to bestow on their vassals, thus keeping the royal court at the centre of attention for every ambitious noble. From the late-12th-century, Christian kings developed local government and justice based, as in France and England, on royal officials paid for though taxation.

Painting of the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212) in the Prado Museum in Madrid. Also sometimes known as the battle of the four kings, since the Christian forces of Alfonso VIII of Castile were joined by the armies of his rivals, Sancho VII of Navarre, Peter II of Aragon, and Afonso II of Portugal.

Any concerted effort against Muslim Spain had long been stymied by in-fighting among the Christian kings, who rarely hesitated to ally with the infidels, if it served their interests. The reign of Alfonso VIII of Castile (1158-1214) brought by far the most intense period of conflict. He sought to dominate all the other Christian kings, provoking all of Spain to join forces against their common enemy, Castile. War was only narrowly averted by the intervention of Pope Celestine III (d. 1198). Yet things seemed to go from bad to worse, when Alfonso VIII suffered a debilitating defeat against the Almohad Caliphate at the Battle of Alarcos (1195). They then went on to seize a series of fortresses guarding the route north to the Castilian capital of Toleda. In the immediate aftermath, the kings of Portugal and Leon sought to take advantage, by resuming war with Castile. A furious Pope Celestine acted decisively: the king of Leon was summarily excommunicated and threaten with a Crusade being declared against him; the king of Portugal escaped the same fate by quickly backing down; and a papal legate was dispatched to Spain to negotiate peace between all the Christian kingdoms once and for all. Meanwhile in 1211, the stakes were raised when the Almohad Caliph, Muhammad al-Nasir (d. 1213), raised a new army in north-west Africa, and crossed the Strait of Gibraltar. Invading Christian territory, he captured Salvatierra Castle, headquarters of one of Spain's most important military-religious orders, the Order of Calatrava. This finally prompted the Christian kingdoms to acknowledge that the Almohads threatened them all and come to terms. Pope Innocent III (d. 1216) also formally called a Crusade against the Almohads. The kings of Portugal, Navarre and Aragon all answer the call; while the king of Leon refused, many of his knights came anyway. The Christian coalition quickly recovered Salvatierra Castle, and then made for the key Despeñaperros pass in the Sierra Morena Mountains, seperating northern Christian Spain from southern Muslim Spain. It was here that the turning point in the Reconquista took place, the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212). The battle was hard fought, but turned on a brave tactical maneuver by Sancho VII of Navarre (s. 1234). With the battlelines joined, he personally led a cavalry charge that skirted the fighting and made straight for the Almohad Caliph's tent. When his personal guard was cut-down, Caliph al-Nasir fled the fields, and his army lost heart; a rout ensued attempting a withdrawal.

A Court in the Alhambra at the Time of the Moors, Edwin Lord Weeks, 1876.

The defeat at Las Navas de Tolosa did not cause the collapse of the Almohad Caliphate a decade later, but the grievous losses certainly contributed. When Caliph al-Nasir died in 1213, he was succeeded by his 10-year-old son. The youth caliph had an effective regent who was careful to negotiate a series of truces with the Christian kingdoms, which remained more-or-less in place for next fifteen years. However, the caliph then died in an accident in 1224, without any heirs. In the midst of coups and counter-coups, Muslim Spain fractured once again into dozens of autonomous Muslim principalities, or Taifas, too weak and divided to defend themselves against the Christians. Over the next few decades, the Christian kingdoms reconquered nearly all of Spain: Majorca fell to Aragon in 1229; so did Valencia in 1238; and Cordoba fell to Castile in 1236, and its magnificent Great Mosque was repurposed as a Christian cathedral. When Castile took Seville in 1248 and Portugal completed the conquest of the Algarve a year later, only the southern tip of the peninsula remained in Muslim hands. Sheltered among the Sierra Nevada mountains and supported by the Muslim successor-states of north-west Africa, the Emirate of Granada (1230-1492) was hard to conquer. A Moorish noble, linked by descent with the Almoravids, established himself in 1232 as the first sultan of Granada, Muhammad I (d. 1273). In 1246, he made a 20-year truce with the king of Castile, in return for a large annual tribute; the tribute was of value to Castile, and was renewed frequently for almost 250 years.  So Muhammad and his descendants were left relatively free to enjoy a civilized existence. The result of the last flowering of the Muslim culture in Spain can be seen in the glorious palace-fortress of Alhambra completed in 1358; its restful courtyards of Moorish arches and playful fountains now seem the epitome of Muslim civilisation on the Iberian Penisula. Nevertheless, this infidel enclave at the tip of Christian Spain was an affront to the conscience of Castile. In the late-15th-century, the ideal of the Reconquista was revived, and the union of Castile with Aragon in 1474 had the strength to undertake the conquest of Granada.

Mercantile Capitalism in Italy[]


Between the 12th and 13th centuries, Italy developed a peculiar political pattern, significantly different from feudalism and centralized states north of the Alps; the city-state. This was not a tidy process, and did not happen everywhere. In the south, the Normans had established what became known as the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily (1130-1816), which brought political unity and centralised government to southern Italy. In 1198, it passed intact to Henry VI of imperial Germany, and survived in various forms under various dynasties until the 19th century. In contrast, northern Italy had been incorporated into the Holy Roman Empire by Otto the Great (d. 973), but German king-emperors rarely went there, except to be crowned by the pope, and relied not on government but on politics, playing-off one local noble against another. The High Middle Ages saw a steady rise in the prosperity throughout Europe. One of the first regions to prosper was northern Italy, where port-cities - such as Venice, Genoa, Pisa and Amalfi - became important centres of Mediterranean trade, often by force. In 1016, the Pisans and Genoese joined forces to drive the Muslims from Sardinia, and, in 1063, the Pisan fleet sacked Muslim Palermo; the city's remarkable cathedral was largely built with the plunder, as an inscription on the façade boasts. The Italian maritime cities adapted to the role of middlemen between the East and West, importing spices, dyes, silks, and other luxury goods from the East, to be redistributed throughout Western Europe. The inland cities - such as Milan, Florence, Lucca, Cremona, Siena, and Perugia - prospered too, thanks to their strategic location on the overland trade route through the Alpin passes to the rest of Europe, and as early centres of medieval industry; for instance, cloth-making in Florence and armour-making in Milan. The onset of the Crusades offered a great opportunity for expansion. Italian trade in the Eastern Mediterranean increased phenomenally during this period. In return for naval support and transport, the Italians extracted lucrative trading privileges, and permanent trading centres (known as "colonies") in most of the ports of the Middle East and the Black Sea. They also gained territorial control of strategic islands along important trade routes. At the same time as Italian port were serving as the launching pad for wrestling the Holy Land from Muslim control, the maritime republics successfully claimed neutrality and set up colonies, or at very least permanent agents, in the Muslim ports of North Africa. When the Fourth Crusade destroyed Byzantium as a commercial rival, the Italians had recreated a European-Mediterranean economic network not seen since the 4th century. By the late-12th-century, northern and central Italy was probably the richest region anywhere in Europe, despite being no richer in natural resources. But Italy's importance in Mediterranean trade should not be overstate. After the decline of Constantinople, Egypt became the region's the economic powerhouse, until well into the 15th-century. Cairo was more than twice the size of Milan, and produced flax cloth and sugar on an industrial scale. Meanwhile, northern Italy was prosperous but politically insecure, crushed between the rival claims of imperial Germany to the north and the Papal States to the south. This prompted the cities to seek greater control over their own destiny, enclosing themselves in strong walls, and became increasingly hostile towards attempts at meddling in their internal affairs. This eventually provoked an imperial reaction, after decades of indifference towards the issues of northern Italy, Frederick Barbarossa (d. 1197) reversed his predecessors' policy by attempting to restore imperial rights over the independent-minded cities. The king-emperor undertook a series of five campaigns into Italy; in 1154, in 1158, in 1163, in 1166, and in 1174. At first he was almost welcomed, halting the aggressive expansionism of cities over their surrounding countryside, as well as restoring Pope Adrian IV (d. 1159) to the papal throne, after an attempt to transform Rome itself into a city-state. But good relations did not last. Alarmed by Frederick's success, Pope Alexander III (d. 1181) became his most implacable enemy. Encouraged by the pope, thirty-six cities joined forces in the Lombard League in 1167. Due to internal troubles in imperial Germany, Frederick marched a much reduced force into Italy for his fifth and last campaign, where he was thoroughly routed at the Battle of Legnano (1176). In the resulting Peace of Constance (1183), he effectively conceded the independence of the north Italian cities. There would be further attempts to subjugate them over the next few centuries, notably by Frederick II of imperial Germany (d. 1250), but all were fought off up until 1494.

Matteo Visconti, Mayor of Milan.

Beginning in the late-11th-century, growing urban communities in Italy developed a new form of government known to historians as the medieval commune. Though varying widely in organization and makeup, they were commonly republican municipal councils with elected officials, and general assemblies in which every male citizen could participate. But this glimmer of democracy did not last. Merchant families became the most powerful social and political group in most cities, and they were able to defeat revolts by those lower on the social scale, so that even cities such as Venice or Florence, which retained the illusion of representative assemblies, were in reality dominated by a few hundred well-heeled families. On municipal council, a few seats were usually reserved for the elected representatives of specific craft guilds, but most were merchants who served for life and tried to chose their replacement when they died. Rule by the collective, however, proved to be very unstable. Conflict among the elites for control of cities could be ferocious and deadly. Historians identify a general pattern of internal feuding between the Guelphs and Ghibellines. The terms originally referred to the pro-papal and pro-imperial sides in the Investiture Crisis of 1076, but, by the 13th century, had developed into a form of class warfare: the Guelphs became the faction of the merchants and craft-guilds, while the Ghibellines tended to be noblemen and bankers. The political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli (d. 1527) would later cast a jaundiced eye on the factional strife within his own city of Florence. The late-12th-century saw the cities develop new institutional measures to overcome this factionalism, a powerful head of government known as a signoria (mayor). The early signorie were typically a salaried chief executive from outside the city, thus theoretically neutral between factions, and appointed for a fixed term, rarely more than a year. Whatever the process, most signoria chose to govern through the existing republican institutions. However, once the mechanism for rule of single man was in place, a more permanent power grab was always a likely consequence. Beginning in the late-13th-century, in commune after commune, the local oligarchs extended the term of a particularly successful signoria for life, and then allowed the office to remain with his family. An early example was Matteo Visconti (d. 1322), who became signoria of Milan 1287, controlled the city for 35-years, and then passed the role to his son; the Viscontis would control the city until 1447. The Viscontis had been an aristocratic family, but these great families were very varied. The Della Scala of Verona (1263–1404) came from the merchant class. The Sforza of Milan (1450–1500) had originally been mercenary generals. The most successful of all, the Medici of Florence (1434-1737), were bankers. The Medici family moved into Florence from the Tuscan countryside in the 12th century, and, over the next two centuries, rose to some prominence in the textile trade. As yet the Medici were just one among several influential families. It was the activities of Giovanni de Medici (d. 1429) and his son Cosimo de' Medici (d. 1464) that truly initiated the family's rise to power. Giovanni founded the Medici Bank in 1397, and increased the family wealth to unprecedented levels, which he then used discreetly to gain political influence in a manner perfected by his son. Cosimo never occupied the official position of signoria, but ruled Florence for thirty years though a network of alliances, favouring his supporters and ruining his enemies; to modern ears, his methods had more than a hint of a mafia boss. Through Cosimo's leadership and patronage, Florentine became the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, and the family went on to produce four popes, and two queens of France. In this way, the Italian communes reverted from near-democracy to princely rule; indeed Milan transformed into a hereditary duchy in 1395. Only Venice stood out against this trend, remaining a self-perpetuating republic all the way down to Napoleon's conquest in 1797. They did so by limiting membership to an exclusive group of merchant families who split the municipal offices among themselves; a governing systems less meritocratic than most cities, where newly rich families were generally able to turn financial success into membership of the city’s political and social elite.

The most famous Italian bank was the Medici Bank, founded by Giovanni de' Medici in 1397.

From the late-12th-century, a remarkably sophisticated society had emerged in northern and central Italy; prosperous, commercialized, highly numerate and literate, and independent-minded. Their cities were also dazzlingly cosmopolitan, with merchants from as far away as Armenia, Greece, Germany, and the Muslim world mingling with the locals. Moreover, the displaced people of Europe often found refuge and acceptance there, including Jews expelled from many European kingdoms, and Byzantine exiles escaping the sack of 1204 or later the Ottoman onslaught. The business skills of medieval Italians play a crucial role in the emergence of modern finance. By the 13th-century, clerks were keeping accounts using double-entry bookkeeping, which, for those with the training to interpret them, showed the effects of transactions at a glance, together with the resulting profit or loss. Urban merchants developed various forms of contracts, some temporary partnerships and some more permanent arrangements called in Italian "compagnie"; literally means “bread together” from which we get the word “company”. International trade, cloth-making, and mining were the first sectors to be organized along company lines; producing profit through wage workers hired by investors. With the bill-of-exchange (promise of payment in a distant place at some subsequent date), marine insurance (for lost boats and cargoes), and joint-stock companies (that spread the risk among many investors), we are at the edge of modern capitalism, and with it, the first true bankers. The Christian prohibition on the sin of usury (the charging of interest), had long held back the emergence of banking in Europe. This had provided an opportunity for the Jewish community; forbidden from owning land, they carved-out a lucrative niche for themselves as money-lenders to the rich and powerful. The Knights Termplar, with their far flung land-holdings across Europe, also acted as something like a deposit bank, allowing money to be moved about Europe without the usual risk of robbery. Then in the 13th-century, Italians invented various legal fictions to avoid the sin of usury. One method was to present interest as a voluntary gift from the borrower for the risk taken by the lender. Banking families loaned money to individuals and governments, issued maritime insurance on overseas voyages, speculated in foreign exchange, and accepted deposits of coins. Venice, Milan, and Genoa all profited from the new banking trade, but Florence took the lion's share. Florence was partiularly well-equippped for international finance thanks to its famous gold coin, the Florin. First minted in 1252, it was the first gold coin to be struck in sufficient quantities to play a significant role in European commerce, becoming the "reserve currency" of its day. In the year 1400, the Bardi family, one of the first Florentine banking families, had branches in Barcelona, Seville, Majorca, Paris, Avignon, Nice, Marseilles, London, Bruges, Constantinople, Rhodes, Cyprus and Jerusalem, among others. But no debtor loves his creditor, and banking would long remain a precarious business. In 1345, Edward III of England, heavily in debt to the Bardi and Peruzzi families due to the Hundred Years' War, defaulted on his loans, causing both banks to collapse. However, Florence as a great banking centre survived even this disaster. Half a century later great fortunes were again being made by the Pazzi and Medici banking families of the city. Along with banking, the Italians developed other financial skills to support their international trade. The earliest evidence of double-entry bookkeeping appears in the ledgers of a Florentine merchant at the end of the 13th century, almost certainly learned from Jewish traders in Cairo who had been using the system for two-centuries or more. For those with the training to interpret the ledgers, the advantage of double-entry bookkeeping is clarity. The two columns show at a glance the nature and effect of a transaction, together with the resulting profit or loss, thus providing the basis for rational business decisions. The Italian city-state also invented modern diplomacy. The shifting alliances in Italy depended on accurate information about those who were alternately enemies and friends. At first, cties relied on merchants traveling or living in other cities to pass along information, but, by the early-15th-century, had established permanent embassies and ambassadors throughout Italy; by the late-15th-century, at the major courts in the rest of western Europe too. By the early 16th-century, most monarchs in Western Europe had done the same, often employing Italians as diplomats.

A depiction of medieval Venice in Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo, painted by Gentile Bellini, dating from 1500.

A coherent political history of medieval Italy is hard to outline even in summary. Wars were endemic and bewildering, with each city-state having their own rivalries, and alliances always in flux. In the western Mediterranean, Pisa and Genoa acted as allies against the Muslims threat at first, and subsequently developed extensive trade. By 1119, the two cities had become rivals, in a protracted struggle that culminated in the Battle of Meloria (1284). The Genoese prevailed, sending Pisa into decline. In the eastern Mediterranean, Venice long enjoyed a dominant position, having been most actively involved in the Crusading Age. From around 1158, Genoa began to challenge Venice for control of eastern trade routes, by allying with Byzantium before and after the sack of Constantinople in 1204. The two cities were almost continuously hostile towards one another. Venetian dominance of the eastern Mediterranean ended with Genoese victory at the Battle of Curzola (1298). In this battle, the Venetian explorer Marco Polo was captured and would spend several months in a Genoese prison, where he dictated his famous account of his travels to China. The culmination of the Venetian-Genoese rivalry came in the War of Chioggia (1377-81). In 1379, a Genoese fleet of fifty war-galley entered the Adriatic, and captures the outlying Venetian town of Chioggia, at the southern tip of the lagoon. Alas, they then fell victims to the skills of the Venetians in their own narrow waterways. The Venetians were able to blockade the exit from Chioggia by sinking ships full of stones. By June, the starving Genoese fleets accepted terms of unconditional surrender. Although the Venetian terms were not harsh, the war left both city-states heavily indebted. While Venice managed to recover, Genoa could not and was never again a great independent power. This prompted thousands of expert Genoese mariners to seek a new livelihood elsewhere, especially in Spain and Portugal helping to spur the European Age of Discovery. Warfare on land was equally common, as each city-state sought to expand their control of the surrounding countryside and annex their smaller neighbors. The Italians usually preferred to employ mercenary companies (known as Condottieri) to fight their battles. One of the first, the Great Company, numbered some 7,000 heavy-cavalry and 1,500 infantry; led first by a German knight, Werner von Urslingen, and then by a Frenchman, Montreal d'Albarno. Perhaps the most famous company was the White Company led by Englishman John Hawkwood, during a lull in the Hundred Years War. Hawkwood faithfully served Florence from 1378 to 1392, and was honoured posthumously with a fresco of himself on horseback, prominently displayed in Florence Cathedral to this day. Engagements between these mercenary companies were often elaborate rituals, in which little harm was done, except to their employer's pocket. By mid-15th-century, the Italian mainland had been reduced to five dominant powers; Venice, Milan, Florence, Naples, and the Papal States. At last acknowledging that none had the capability to defeat all the others, and that a balance of power was in all their interests, the Italian states finally came to terms. Venice and Milan resolved their long-standing differences in the Treaty of Lodi (1454), and their example inspired others until the so-called Italic League (1455) establish a mutual non-aggression pact between all five powers. Considering Italy's record for endemic warfare, the peace held remarkably well for 40 years. However, Italy's wealth would attract a new sequence of foreign invaders from the late-15th-century; beginning with France and Austria, in the Italian Wars (1494-1559).

Flanders Gains Its Spurs[]

The picturesque Rozenhoedkaai Canal in modern-day Bruges, one of Europe's best preserved medieval towns.

The Italian experience can be compared with that of an equally economically active area in northern Europe, Flanders (modern-day Belgium). The region had a rich Roman history but really came to international prominence between the 12th and 14th centuries, thanks to its strategic location at the crossroads of the northern Hanseatic League trade-network, and the north-south route up the Rhine from Italy. The Flemish had been weaving cloth since the 10th-century, but its manufacture took off with the growth of cities like Bruges, Ghent and Ypres from the 12th. They developed, or borrowed from Italy, new forms of merchant capitalism, whereby craftsmen joined forces to form guilds, setting standards for their craft and establishing a local trade monopoly, or several merchants would share the risks and profits, and pool their knowledge of markets; Burges had what is sometimes considered the first stock-exchange in Europe by 1309. Foreign traders came to Flanders from as far away as Portugal, Russia and Bulgaria for its five annual textile-fairs. This flurry of commercial activity bred a class of rich merchants who wanted increased political automony, and developed municipal councils to negotiate collectively with their overlord; rather like the contemporary Italian city-states. But it wasn’t long before the aspirations of the merchant and craftsmen clashed with those of their Feudal overlord. Flanders faced the difficult situation of being politically subservient to France, while its weaving economy relied on a steady supply of wool from England, since sheep farming on chalky soils and coastal marshlands could not keep up with demand. This situation came to a head in 1297, when Flanders sided with her English trading partners against Philip IV of France (d. 1314). That year, the French invaded Flanders, and gained rapid success, since the English soon withdrew from the conflict to face the Scottish revolt of William Wallace. Then in May 1302, a revolt erupted in Bruges and quickly spread to almost every city of Flanders; the Flemish nobility took the French side fearful of what had become an attempt to take power by the lower classes. In order to quell the revolt, Philip sent a powerful force led by the count of Artois to march on Bruges. At the resulting Battle of Courtrai (July 1302), a Flemish infantry militia, consisting mainly of weavers, butchers, and other craftsmen, won a resounding victory over the far superior mounted French force, by preparing the mashy ground with pits and ditches to frustrate their heavy cavalry. Five-hundred pairs of spurs were recovered from the battlefield, giving the battle its popular name, the Battle of the Golden Spurs. This battle was an important early example of a victorious all-infantry army, and foreshadowed the so-called "Infantry Revolution" of the 14th-century; the declining dominance of Feudal knights, and rise of common-born infantry and archers. The Scots consciously emulated the Flemings in their victory at the Battle of Bannockburn (1314). However, this victory did not end the Franco-Flemish war, and King Philip personally avenged his humiliation two years later, but it did prevent the complete annexation of Flanders, with cities retaining some autonomy. The existence of Belgium as an independent state only dates from 1831, but a Belgian identity distinct from France is evident from this time. In 1433, Flanders became part of Burgundy under Philip the Good, though it took his descendants the best part of a century before establishing full control. Nevertheless, this was a century of solid achievement, particularly for Bruges and Ghent. Their painters pioneer the Renaissance in northern Europe. Then Flanders acquired a new ruling dynasty after 1477, the Austrian Habsburgs.

Germany and the failure of alternatives[]


In the 11th-century, the Holy Roman Empire had been by far the largest and militarily strongest Western power. But over the next two centuries, while kings of France and England were developing more centralized states, imperial Germany moved in the opposite direction towards political fragmentation. This is one of those subjects where it helps to know the end of the story before beginning it. Three primary and related problems prevented emperors from trans- forming the Empire into a centralized government. First, the various regional states, particularly the larger and more powerful among them, succeeded in succession to the imperial throne, though often hereditary, was in fact elective; chosen by an increasingly restricted number of high nobles, known as prince-electors. This meant the position of king-emperor depended, not on primogeniture (firstborn legitimate son) or right of conquest, but on a network of negotiated alliances, which, in the brutal reality of feudal politics, meant concessions to keep voters on-side. At the same time, men from various regional dynasties all vied for the office, as they made strategic marriages with each other’s families and the current ruling houses, through which they expanded and consolidated their own holdings. The second problem was the power struggle between popes and secular rulers, which took place all over Western Europe, was particularly intense in the Holy Roman Empire. The popes claimed the right to crown the king-emperor, while the emperor, since Otto the Great (d. 973), had claimed authority over northern Italy, provoking the fear and resentment of the papacy. After the Investiture Controversy, popes were unwilling to cede power over taxation or appoint of bishops to the emperors, in the ways they did, or were forced to do, with other Western European monarchs who got away with murder in comparison; quite literally in the case of an English king and Thomas Becket. This situation created a three-way struggle between the king-emperor, the pope, and the high nobility. The emperors sought to make the imperial throne hereditary, while keeping nobles and papacy on-side, without yielding too much power to them. The nobility wanted a king strong enough to keep order and defend Germany, but not strong enough to interfere with their own independence. And the papacy wanted an emperor who would protect the Church, while not hesitating to stir-the-pot of noble revolt if they felt threatened.

The emperor and the prince-electors; copper engraving by Abraham Aubry (c. 1663). The Holy Roman Empire is perhaps the best-known example of an elective monarchy. Many, if not most, western kingdoms were officially elective early in their history. Hugh Capet was elected by the French nobles, while Alfred the Great became king even though his predecessor had two young sons. Over time, most monarchies introduced hereditary succession, specifying, more or less precisely, the order of succession. In imperial Germany, elections were never done away with, though the number of prince-electors became increasingly limited. By the 13th-century, there were seven; Trier, Cologne, Mainz, Bohemia, Palatinate-Rhinelands, Saxony, and Brandenburg. Later Bavaria and Brunswick-Hanover were added.

When Salian Dynasty of Henry IV finally petered out in 1126, there were two leading ducal families in Germany; the Welf of Bavaria, and Hohenstaufen of Swabia. The Welfs was pro-papacy, and had behind most of the noble revolts in recent decades. The Hohenstaufens, on the other hand, had been one of the few great nobles upon whom the emperors could always rely. The Hohenstaufen-Welf rivalry would dominate German history for the next century. Some form of election was necessary to succeed to the throne, but nearness to the royal blood had always been honoured in the past, whenever a dynasty failed in the direct line. In this case, Henry IV's nephew Duke Frederick II Hohenstaufen (d. 1147) was the strongest candidate. In 1125, however, the prince-electors aimed to check royal power by elevating someone from neither powerful family. They chose, Lothair III of Saxony (1125–37), assuming that he would be more malleable. But Lothair proved too weak. His reign was troubled throughout by the intriguing and revolts of the Hohenstaufens. As Lothair received Welf support, he married into the family in 1127. This alarmed almost all the other German nobles, as it risked uniting the two great duchies of Saxony and Bavaria. So when Lothair died childless, the prince-electors again passed over his nearest kin, Henry "the Lion" of Saxony (d. 1195), and instead elected Conrad III Hohenstaufens (1138-52); the Hohenstaufen Dynasty (1138-1254) would rule imperial Germany for more than a century, with one interruption. Conrad was another weak king-emperor, dying on the Second Crusade, but his successor made a profound impression on the empire.

Frederick Barbarossa is commonly considered among the greatest medieval emperors. His longevity, his ambition, his battlefield skill, and his political acumen seemed so uniquely fine to those who came after, that, in the German imagination, Frederick became like King Arthur to the British: the great lord of a golden age who would one day rise again from his sleep within the imperial castle of Kyffhäuser, in Germany’s hour of need. During World War II, Adolf Hitler launched a massive attack against Russia, dubbed Operation Barbarossa in his honour.

Frederick I Hohenstaufen (1165-97), better known as Frederick Barbarossa for his red beard, is considered among Germany's greatest medieval emperors. Frederick was to restore the glory of the Empire, mainly through law and legislation. As a shrewd political realist, he opted not to challenge his stubborn vassals, but to bind them to the empire in a well-structured feudalism, with imperial rights explicitly rooted in the old Roman legal system. Using an even hand, he travelled through Germany, settling private feuds and meeting with the counts and dukes. Many lessor lords had acquired their lands by means other than feudal right, usually through colonization of the peripheries; these were linked to the crown legally and contractually. With those great lord who had illegally seized powers and lands, he sold them charters legitimizing those rights, in return for money to the crown and obligations to provide troops for royal campaigns. Another new concept of the time was the granting of charters to existing cities, and founding new cities, which Frederick hoped would be more reliable than local dukes; later known as imperial cities. This helped encourage urban and economic growth. With the House of Welf, Frederick attempted to ease tensions by allowing Henry the Lion, already duke of Saxony, to acquired Bavaria too. Thus, unlike Charlemagne or Otto the Great, who had based their position on their special relation with the Church, Frederick emphasized its secular foundations, the rule of law, and economic development. Frederick's greatest efforts were in Italy, crossing the Alps at the head of his armies five times, in 1154, in 1158, in 1163, in 1166, and in 1174. His interest stemmed not only from a desire to restore imperial authority over the independence-minded cities of northern Italy. Frederick sought to bind the German nobles to him in a common cause, and to ease tensions with the papacy; his first campaign restored Pope Adrian IV (1154-59) to the papal throne after suppressing a republican revolt in Rome. At first Frederick was almost welcomed in northern Italy, halting the aggressive expansionist aims of Milan; he would sack the city in 1162. Alarmed by Frederick's success, Pope Adrian was on the verge of excommunicating him when he died, and Pope Alexander III (d. 1181) became his most implacable enemy. Spurred on by the pope, thirty-six north Italian cities formed the Lombard League in 1167. Frederick spent the next few years alternating his time between Germany and northern Italy, suppressing revolts and consolidating the imperial regime, with considerable success. In 1174, Frederick came south once again on his fifth campaign. After a series of victories over the Italian coalition, he called on Henry the Lion to join him with reinforcements, in order to continue the Italian campaign. Henry refused, and, outnumbered, Frederick suffered a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Legnano (May 1176), near Milan. Frederick was forced to reconcile with Pope Alexander, and negotiate a truce with the Lombard League; later formalised in the Peace of Constance (1183), which effectively recognised the independence of the north Italian city-states. With peace declared, Frederick and his army marched north to bring his unruly vassal to heel. Throughout his rule, Henry the Lion's aggressive expansionsit aims had alienated most of the other German nobles, and even his own vassals. Hitherto, Henry's enemies had been unable to gain a hearing at the imperial court, but now Frederick was ready to listen. Henry refused to come to court when summoned, so the king-emperor had him tried in absentia and declared an outlawed in 1180. Deserted by his vassals and beaten in the field, Henry the Lion was forced to surrender, forfeit both his duchies, and go into exile; he did eventually reconcile with the emperor, and return to Germany as the much-diminished Duke of Brunswick. In 1184, Frederick undertook one last expedition to Italy, this time without a large army. The new pope, Pope Lucius II (d. 1185), wanted to restore amicable relations with imperial Germany, because of troubling reports from the Holy Land about the rise of Saladin. However, Pope Lucius soon died to be replaced by the more combative Pope Urban III (d. 1187), who had lost several relatives to the sack of Milan in 1162. Frederick then further embittered the relationship, by engineering the marriage of his son, Henry, to Constance of Sicily, heiress to Norman Sicily; the papacy thus lost Norman support upon which it had so long relied in its contests with the king-emperors. Yet the struggle with Frederick was paused upon the news of the fall of Jerusalem in 1187. Frederick answered the call for the Third Crusade and even successfully prevented a repeat of the Jewish massacres that had accompanied the First Crusade and to a lessor extent the Second Crusade in Germany. Alas Frederick Barbarossa would never see the Holy Lands, falling from his horse and drowning in a river in Anatolia (modern day Turkey), in 1189.

Frederick II has been called by many historians "the first modern ruler", an enlightened figure ahead of his time. Yet his reign also initiated the disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire.

Under Frederick's son and successor, Henry VI Hohenstaufen (1165-97), the Holy Roman Empire reached its greatest territorial extent. His marriage to Constance brought southern Italy and Sicily into the German empire. Confident that he would realize his wishes in Germany at a later date, Henry spent much of his reign in Italy, where he had to assert his claim by force, against his wife's nephew, Tancred of Lecce (d. 1194). Tancred enjoyed the support of the popes, who feared an over-powerful sovereign to their north and south. Henry's first campaign failed at the siege of Naples in 1191 due to an epidemic. However, based on an enormous ransom for Richard the Lionheart of England, he prevailed over Tancred in 1194. Then he died prematurely at just 32-years-old, plunging the empire into 17-years of confusion. Henry had gained a pledge from the prince-electors that his son Frederick would receive the imperial crown. As the boy was only three-year-old, Frederick's brother, Philip of Swabia (d. 1208), was chosen to serve as regent. Meanwhile, the Welf faction took the occasion to make a play for the kingship, Otto of Bavaria (d. 1218), a son of Henry the Lion. In the long civil war that followed, Philip enjoyed some limited support from the French king, while Otto had the support of Pope Innocent III (d. 1216) and financial backing from Richard the Lionheart. Philip met with considerable success, and was virtually uncontested as German king when he was assassinated in 1208. After Philip's death, Otto secured the election as Otto IV Welf (1209-1215), by promising to make no hereditary claims to the imperial crown. During the civil war, Pope Innocent had extracted promises from Otto for his support, that, once crowned, he would give-up many hard-won and useful rights over the Church. As emperor, Otto almost immediately abandoned his unwise promises, and was promptly excommunicated. Having played kingmaker once, Pope Innocent began to favour young Frederick instead. As his position deteriorated, Otto saw a way of both destroying Frederick's French support, and bolstering his own prestige. He agreed to join John I of England in an invasion of France. Unfortunately, the two armies failed to coordinate their efforts, allowing Philip II of France to take the initiative, and defeating Otto at the tight-fought the Battle of Bouvines (1214); it is said that Philip II sent to Frederick the imperial eagle which Otto had left lying on the battlefield. Within a year, Otto was forced to abdicate, and Frederick was elected unopposed as Frederick II Hohenstaufen (1215-50). He is something of an enigma; one of the most ambitious, imaginative, and cultured rulers of the Middle Age, little centralized power remained in Germany by the end of his reign.  

Although Frederick saw to the disposition of his northern domains, his main concern lay in Sicily and southern Italy, where he had grown-up. Frederick consolidating his rule there by building upon the elaborate Greek-Arab-Latin administration of the Normans. The careful undermining of noble privileges, an efficient bureaucracy, Roman-influenced legislation, religious tolerance, a free trade economy, and relatively heavy taxation, all mark it as something very much like a modern state; and, unlike other ambitious 13th-century kings, he did so with very little resistance. Speaking six languages, he was an avid patron of science and the arts; he founded the university of Naples in 1224, to train candidates for his civil service. Sicily became one of the most prosperous realms in Europe. Yet, Frederick had managed to gain support of Pope Innocent by promising to relinquish his claim to Sicily. After Innocent's death, he persuaded his successor, Pope Honorius III (1150-1227), to reverse this arrangement, by leading the Sixth Crusade (1228-29). In retrospect, this Crusade was one of the more successful expeditions, regaining control of Jerusalem that last the next fifteen years. But Frederick's diplomatic maneuvering while avoid any actual fighting, left the Pope feeling cheated. From this point on, Frederick was locked in a life-and-death struggle with the papacy. He was excommunicated three times and often vilified in pro-papal chronicles; Pope Gregory IX (1227-41) went so far as to call him an Antichrist. In German, it mattered little, for the great nobles had little to lose from supporting an absentee king. In northern Italy, the papacy supported the revival of the Lombard League against Frederick's efforts to reassert imperial control there. In 1231, the German nobles forced Frederick to agree to the Privilege of Worms (1231), in return for supporting his Italian project. These concesions made them virtually independent rulers within their own lands. Despite of the brilliance of his court in Sicily, and the nonchalant ease with which he achieved his Crusade, Frederick died in 1250, having failed to subdue the pope's supporters in northern Italy and leaving an inheritance in Germany which could not long survive him.  


Frederick's son, Conrad IV (1250-54) spent only one year in Germany, before leaving to fight for his father’s Italian possessions. His death was followed by the Great Interregnum (1254-73), during which no king-emperor could achieve universal recognition, allowing the German dukes to further consolidate their independent rulers. When a new emperor was finally elected, Rudolf I Habsburg of Austria (1273-91), he was one of the lessor German dukes, and chosen to resolve a localised crisis with Bohemia. As the first Habsburg on the imperial throne, Rudolf's choice subsequently seemed of great significance, but the family's iron-grip on the crown remained far in the future. And over the next two centuries, the prince-electors chose emperors from many different families. With elections secured largely though bribery, every king-emperor began his reign with a financial millstone round his neck and little freedom of action. The great nobles were now rulers of the German roost, with the emperor a splendid but distant figurehead. This situation was eventually codified in the Golden Bull of 1356. On the surface, it was all about the glory of the empire, setting-out splendid theatre for his king emperor's coronation, but the small print yielded all legal power to hundreds of sub-units; kingdoms, principalities, duchies, counties, bishoprics, city-states, and other domains. The sharpening of political power did occur in Germany, but it occured at this level. German regional dynasties put their efforts into their family lands, developing laws, courts, fiscal privileges, armies, appointed officials, and often representative assemblies called Landtages (State Diet), just as kings did elsewhere. The smaller territories included more than seventy-five independent city-states, like their contemporaries in Italy such as Aachen, Cologne, Lübeck, Hamburg, Bremen, Dortmund, Frankfurt, Regensburg, Augsburg, Nuremberg, and Ulm. Other territories were remarkably small, little more than free imperial knights who might hold only a few square miles.

The fortress of Marienburg on the river Nogat, the headquarters of the religious-military order of the Teutonic Knights. It was the capital of what was effectively a German Crusaders State on the Batric coast, until transformed into the hereditary Duchy of Prussia in 1525.

If Germany's failure to develop as an effective polity looked unimpressive, then German people still achieved much during these same centuries. In territorial terms, it was reflected in the steady push eastwards (Ostsiedlung), into the less developed and heavily forested lands beyond the Elbe, neither German nor Polish, and inhabited by pagan Slavic tribes collectively known as the Wends. The German advance was a gradual folk-movement, achieved by peasants laboriously clearing the forests, by planting homesteads and villages, by establishing churches and monasteries to serve them, and later the granting of feudal rights and parishes-dioceses structure to the newly conquered territories. This process brought agricultural, legal, administrative, and technical methods to the regions, but of course also brought violence and pagan resistance. The Prussians, to the north, resisted German attempts to conquer and forcibly convert them so successfully that Pope Eugene III formally declared the Northern Crusade (1147-1290). The military-religious order of Teutonic Knights provided its shield and cutting-edge, eventually carving out their own Crusader State covering what is now Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and northern Poland; over time the new German State came to be known by the name of the very pagans they were eradicating, the Prussians. By these same means, Swabia extended over what is now Switzerland, while Bavaria absorbed much of Austria, with occasional reverses at the hands of Hungary. Meanwhile in economic terms, Germany was flourishing. The imperial cities, deprived of royal protection, tended to banded together to defend their autonomy from the old feudal nobility. The most celebrated example was the northern Hanseatic League. Formed in the 12th-century in Lübeck, it eventually comprised more than a hundred and fifty free cities, and controlled trade in the Baltic and North Sea. Together, they had a monopoly over Scandinavian amber, ore and herring, and Russian fur and timber, for a booming western Europe. Hansa merchants were so wealthy and powerful that they could bribe and lobby even Henry IV of England (d. 1413) into giving them tax breaks. In 1368, the Danish king tried to break the league’s power, but a Hansa fleet seized Copenhagen and imposed severe peace terms. In England, they were known as "Easterlings", which came to mean a reliable pounds-worth of silver; later contracted to Pound Sterling. Meanwhile in central Germany, the Great Ravensburg Trading Society served a similar function, coming to prominence first as an operator of paper mills, and then branching-out into other business areas. In cultural terms, Germany could vie with the finest of any Western nation. Its landscape was studded with late Gothic masterpieces, while German minstrels (Minnesingers) such as Wolfram von Eschenbach (d. 1220) and Gottried von Strassburg (d. 1210) broke-free of the infuence of the French troubadours to produce some of the most varied and splendid literature in Europe.

The Holy Roman Empire thus deserves more than Voltaire's famously glib assessment, "in no way holy, nor Roman, nor an empire". The German king-emperors in many ways sought to combined too much, too early in Europe's political development. Until the mid-15th-century, men from various regional dynasties – the Staufens, the Luxembourgs, the Wittelsbachs, the Habsburgs – succeeded to the office. Then in 1438, the imperial title went to Albert II of the Austian Habsburgs, and it would remain with House of Habsburg, with only one short break, until the empire was dissolved in 1806. Despite this continuity, the fragmentation of the empire had, by this time, reached an advanced stage, while the Habsburgs put their main efforts into their own family lands and frequent warfare with the Valois rulers of France, rather than building up imperial structures of governance. And so the hope of endowing the imperial title with any true political meaning vanished. But what marked Germany was less the fact that the king-emperor were weak, but that they were recognised at all; because they were in every period. He remained a significant point of reference, respected as a distant overlord who could be called upon for neutral justice. Indeed, the sense that all Germans had of being part of a single cultural community was in many ways stronger in the 14th-century, than it had been in 12th.

Eastern Europe[]


In Eastern Europe, there had also come into existence enduring national identities. Poland proved particularly tenacious, for it would have much to endure. After bursting onto the historical record with unparalleled suddenness under Mieszko I Piast (d. 992), two themes dominated her medieval history. As Slavs, the Poles formed a breakwater against the tides of German expansionism. As Latin Christians, they were the outposts of Western culture in its confrontation with the Orthodox East. For several generations, the descendants of Mieszko developed and strengthened the Polish kingdom, until the reign of Boleslaw III Piast (1107–38). A particularly strong and successful king, Boleslaw defeated the German king Henry V Salian at the Battle of Hundsfeld (August 1109), halting German incursions into Poland. However, upon his death, Boleslaw divide the kingdom among several sons. Weakened by division, the Polish principalities were plagued by incursions of Prussians, Lithuanians, and Teutonic knights for the next 200 years. Hungary had settled down considerably from its origins as pagan nomadic raiders who menaced Germany in the 10th century. Stephen I Árpád (997-1038) adopted Latin Christianity, and borrowed heavily from the feudal structures of the Frankish world to turn establish a kingdom comparable to older Western monarchies. Perhaps more than anywhere else, the Hungarian kings established themselves as the overwhelmingly dominant landowner, which made their patronage crucial for all the ruling elites. A surviving document from the reign of Béla III Árpád (1172-96) shows him with very considerable wealth indeed by 12th-century standards, from land, silver mines, and tolls on exchange; probably richer even than the kings of France or England. All the 12th-century kings fought aggressive external wars. Only Hungary's western border with Germany remained relatively stable, with territory to the east and south fluctuating wildly as the fortunes of the Balkan powers waxed and waned. Despite this apparent consolidation, the Árpád dynasty fell into difficulty under Andrew II Árpád (1205-35). Andrew weakened royal authority by ceding substantial lands to his aristocrats, in order to fund his participation in the Fifth Crusade (1217–1218). Upon his return from the failed Crusade, like his contemporary in England, Andrew faced a revolt of his barons that forced him to accept the Golden Bull of 1222; a charter remarkably similar to Magna Carta, that limited royal power. Henceforth, the dominatant power in the Balkans would be Serbia and Bulgaria. Bulgaria had regained its independence from two-centuries under Byzantine rule, shortly before the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade. The Second Bulgarian kingdom (1185-1396) reached its zenith under Ivan Asen II (1218-41), when its borders stretch from the Adriatic to the Black Sea. Ivan Asen encouraged commerce to flourish, and implement an ambitious building program in his capital of Tarnovo, styling it a "Second Constantinople" or "Third Rome". Despite strong Byzantine influence, Bulgarian architects and artists created their own distinctive style. Serbia founded its first coherant independent state around the same time, the Kingdom of Serbia (1217–1371), though its greatest period lay in the future under Stephen Dušan (1331–55).

Kievan Rus' 1220 1240.jpg

Meanwhile, the first Russian state, Kievan Rus (882–1240), disintegrated rapidly after the reign of Yaroslav the Wise (d. 954) for a variety of reasons. Though communications by river were good, this huge heavily forested area could not be controlled in depth with 10th-century technologies. The kings, or Grand Princes of Kiev, were further handicapped by an idiosyncratic system of succession, that almost guaranteed fratricidal feuds; the throne passed from elder to younger brother, and then to the next generations. The decline of Constantinople, a cornerstone of Kiev's trade and prosperity, also played a role. And finally, Kiev's location was a serious handicap, on the edge of the Eurasian Steppe corridor, which was in general a land of Turkic-speaking nomads. Kiev had long maintained good relations with the Khazar Khaganate (of what is now eastern Ukraine), but in the late-10th-century the Khazars were pushed aside by more aggressive groups, such as the Pechenegs and Cuman-Kipchaks. For two centuries, Kiev was subjected to almost constant raids that periodically escalated into full-scale wars, prompting population migration to the safety of the north. One by one, Russian cities asserted their independence. Novgorod was an early example. It had helped Yaroslav the Wise to claim the throne against his brothers, and in return gained a degree of self-government; the city still had a prince appointed by Kiev, but real power was held by an assembly of local nobles. Over time, the Novgorods consulted their prince less and less, and had been effectively independent long before the last Kievan prince was expelled in 1270. A similar process occurred in all the other major regional cities. By the end of the 12th-century, the Kievan Rus' state had fracture into roughly twelve different principalities, that happened to share the same language and Orthodox Christian faith. Four were particularly important, Kiev itself, Vladimir in the north-east, Novgorod to the north-west, and Halych-Galicia in the south-west; at this point in history, Moscow was little more than a remote outpost of Vladimir. The collapse of Russian unity could not have come at a worse time. In 1223, the principalities received an urgent appeal for help from the Cumans, a traditionally hostile nomadic tribe; "These terrible strangers have taken our country, and tomorrow they will take yours if you do not come and help us". The threat was taken seriously, and in an unual act of cooperation, a number of princes joined forces, and set-out eastward to meet this new foe at the Battle of the Kalka River. A hurricane of disasters was about to fall upon Russian and Eastern Europe; the Mongols

Life of Genghis Khan[]

The history of the Mongols makes a nonsense of chronological and territorial divisions. In an astonishingly short time, hordes of steppe warriors rode down from the Mongolian plateau to conquer, not only nations, but to sweep up entire civilisations and reassembled them into intercontinental empires of a scale never seen before. Yet there is no physical focus for their history except the felt tents (or Yurts) of their ruler’s encampment; they blew up like a hurricane to terrify, slaughter, and destroy on a scale the 20th century alone has emulated, and then disappeared almost as suddenly as they came, leaving ineffaceable marks on the world that are still far from easy to define. They demand to be considered alone as the last and most terrible of the barbarian conquerors.


The high plateau of Mongolia is unrivalled in history as a region from which successive waves of people have emerged to prey upon more settled neighbours; the original homeland of the Turkic peoples and quite possibly the Huns too. In the 12th-century, a group of pastoral nomads speaking the Mongol language then lived there. The Mongols themselves credited their origins to one family, that of Borte Chino ("Grey Wolf") and his wife Gua Maral ("White Doe") living beside a great sea; often identified as Lake Baikal in Russia. They further credit the origins of the various Mongol clans to a mysterious and sacred woman called Alan Goa. She had two sons during her marriage, and then three more sons after her husband's death, supposedly father by Tengri ("the Eternal Blue Heaven"), the supreme deity of the Mongol belief system. When the five brothers set to quarrelling, she sat them around the hearth and gave the parable of the five arrows: one arrow alone can be easily broken, but a bundle of five arrows cannot. If the brothers stick together like the bundle of five arrows, then nothing could harm them. This story had profound influence on Mongol culture, from an egalitarian attitude towards women, to the encouragement of large families since strength was found in numbers, from the importance of practical action over ideology or religion, to a sense of destiny from the heavens. The Mongols were pastoral nomads, specialists in the difficult art of living on the move, following pasture with their herds and flocks according to the seasons. In the tradition of such nomads, they seem to have been bred to fight from horseback, manoeuvring a galloping horse with only their legs, thus leaving their hands free to release a hail of arrows, before wheeling away again. The Mongolian Plateau has one of the harshest climates on the planet, with long, bitterly cold winters and short, very hot summers. The political climate in the 12th-century was even tougher. with endemic tribal warfare between dozens of clans, as well as thievery, raiding, and personal feuds. Indeed, even on the Mongolian Plateau, the Mongols competed with the Turkic Tatars, and on the whole the Tatars had the best of it. This turmoil was further compounded by interference from China to the south. The Chinese emperors referred to the region as the "Barbarian Wilderness", and had long followed a policy of playing-off the tribes against another, to keep them fighting amongst themselves in the interest of China's own security. In the 12th-century, this policy was continued under the non-Han Chinese, Jurchen Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) and Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227) which then occupied northern China, and coexisted with the Song China (960-1279) beyond the Yangtze River.

The Genghis Khan Monument in Sukhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar.

No life in history differs so much in its beginning and its end as that of Genghis Khan (d. 1227); an Arabic corruption of Chinghis Khan (meaning "Great Khan" or "Universal Khan"). Temüjin, later Genghis Khan, was born into the Mongol nobility around 1162, the second son of Yesügei, chief of the Borjigin clan. According to legend, his birth was auspicious, because he was born clutching a clot of blood in his right hand, an ominous omen of things to come. As per Mongol custom, at aged-9, Yesügei arranged a marriage for his son with another clan, and delivered him to the family of his future wife Börte until the marriagable age of 12. At this time, none of the Mongol clans were united politically, and arranged marriages were often used to solidify temporary alliances. On his return journey, Yesügei was waylaid by a band of Tatars and murders; apparently by poison thus a breach of the custom of guest-right. On hearing of this, Temujin returned home to claim his father's position as chief, but, too young to lead and too dangerous as a usurper, the clan ostracized Temujin and his entire family; his mother, four brothers, and one sister. Life for an outcast family was unpredictable and violent, foraging and living off the land as best they could. Two anecdotes from this time illustrate Temüjin’s ruthlessness and forceful personality. He killed his eldest brother in order to claim the position as head of the family, but retained the loyalty of his remaining brothers. On another occasion, he was captured and enslaved by a rival clan, but managed to escape with the help of a sympathetic guard. As he grew up, Temujin gained himself a reputation for martial skill. He was able to gain a small following, and claim his wife, Börte, from the betrothed several years earlier. Apparently, Temüjin's family preserved a considerable fund of prestige, despite of their rejection by the clan. However, soon after the marriage, the Merkit clan attacked the family family camp and abducted Börte, a practice common on the plains; Temujin's own mother had herself been abducted. Over several month, Temüjin built a strong coalition against Merkits, appealing to his boyhood friend (and future rival) Jamukha, and buying an alliance with Toghrul with a sable skin, which he himself had received as a wedding gift. Together, they utterly routed the Merkit clan and rescued Börte. She had been ravished, and soon gave birth to a son, Jochi. Despite the uncertainty about the father, Temujin raised the boy as his own and Börte remained his "chief" wife; an honoured position, since men took several wives, but only the chief wife could give birth to heirs. Temüjin and Börte would have three more sons and an unknown number of daughters. With powerful allies and a force of his own, Temujin began consolidating power through a mixture of sheer force of personality, diplomacy, warfare, organisational genius, and no shortage of savagery. Clan after clan was brought into his growing alliance willingly or not. Temujin broke with Mongol custom in a few crucial ways. With defeated clans, he exterminated the leadership but did not drive away their warriors or common folk, but incorporated them into his own growing clan, thus making himself stronger with each victory. He would even have his mother adopt orphans of defeated clans, and bring them into his own family. Temujin meanwhile awarded high positions on merit and loyalty, rather than aristocratic blood or family ties. He organised his warriors into warbands irrespective of clan, thus preventing age-old rivalries from resurfacing. He insisted that all looting wait until a complete victory had been won. Courageous himself in battle, Temujin would reward bravery shown by the enemy. The most famous example was a youth called Jebe, who withstood Temujin's cavalry charge and then wounded him with an arrow in the withdrawal. He would go on to be one of the most celebrated Mongol generals, one of the so-called "Four Hounds of the Khan"; Jebe, Subutai, Jelme, and Kublai (different than the later Khan). All these political innovations attracted a broader range of followers, as well as inspiring fierce loyalty.

The Secret History of the Mongols, an extraordinary, if somewhat romanticized, biography of Genghis Khan written by an unknown author shortly after his death in 1227. The surviving copies all derive from Chinese translations. The "Secret" comes from the fact that the book was locked away in the forbidden book section of the imperial library.

Although Temujin had sworn vowed to remain blood brothers with his childhood from Jamukha, their renewed friendship lasted only 18-months, before drifting apart and becoming rivals. What lies behind this rift is difficult to know. Our only contemporary source, The Secret History of the Mongols, has much to say about Jamukha, not always unsympathetically, but it is essentially a biography of Genghis Khan. Jamukha is an enigma. A man of sufficient force of personality to lead a rival Mongol coalition for almost 20 years, but ultimately defeated by Temujin. It has been suggested that Jamukha supported the traditional Mongolian aristocracy, against Temujin's innovations. Equally, the language of The Secret History may be deliberately vague to gloss over the fact that Temüjin betrayed his boyhood friend as a rival for power. In any event, Jamukha won the opening exchange, attacking Temujin's camp, and utterly routing him at the Battle of Dalan Balzhut (1187). The historical record is silent on the next decade of Temüjin's life. He returned to prominence in 1197, commanding part of a coalition built by the Jurchen Jin against the Tatars. In one of the sudden reversals of policy characteristic of Chinese manipulation of the nomads, the Jin turned on their former allies, the Tatars. Temujin took his revenge on his father's murders in a campaign of astonishing savagery. He boiled the captive Tatar leader alive in large cauldrons, and then slaughter of every male taller than the axle pin of a wagon wheel; the children could presumably be expected to grow up ignorant of their past identity. This was not necessarily mere wanton cruelty; Temüjin tried never to leave an enemy in his rear who might stab him in the back. Having defeated the traditional enemy of the Mongols, Temüjin rising power proved almost unstoppable. This brought about a polarization within the Mongol world, as clan leaders grouped themselves around Temüjin or Jamukha. In the ensuing Mongol civil war, Jamukha allied with Toghrul, another of Temüjin's oldest allies who now opposed him. However, distrust between the pair and desertions to Temüjin's side led to their ultimate defeat at the Battle of the Thirteen Tribes (1201); Toghrul was killed and his clan destroyed, while Jamukha escaped. Jamukha tried to form a second coalition with a clan of mountain dwellers called the Naimans. Inconstant as ever, Jamuka deserted the Naimans shortly before they were utterly destroyed by Temüjin. Jamuka was finally betrayed to Temüjin by his own followers in 1206. According to the Secret History, Temüjin again offered his friendship to Jamukha, who refused and begged for a noble death. He died according to Mongol custom without spilling blood, by having his back broken. That same year, a great assembly (Kurultai) was called from every part of Mongolia, where Temüjin was proclaimed Genghis Khan, supreme leader of all Mongols.

It is a measure of the task that had confronted the young Temujin that it took him the first twenty-eight years of his fighting life to win a position of power among his own people; from the age of 16 when his wife was kidnapped, to the age of 44 when he was proclaimed Great Khan.

A unified Mongol nation came into existence as the personal creation of Genghis Khan; he was already 44-years-old. The Khan promulgated a new Mongol law code called the Yassa that aimed to prevent the old tribal feuding of the past. He abolished inherited aristocratic titles, forbade the abduction of women, banned the enslavement of any Mongol, and made livestock theft punishable by death. Moreover, he conducted a regular census, declared religious freedom for all, granted protection (guest rights) to foreign merchants and ambassadors, and ordered the creation of a writing system; adapted from a Turkic script by a captive minister of the Naimans. The Mongol nation was organised above all for war. The Khan ruled around one million people, from which he created a 100,000-strong army, divided on a decimal system into 10s, 100s, 1000s, and 10,000s. The lessor commanders were all chosen by their own men, while the 10,000s were hand-picked by the Khan himself. Initially, the army was composed almost entirely of cavalrymen, with no supply train other than a large reserve of horses; a hardy Mongol breed that needed no fodder except pasture. These nomadic warriors were tough, almost recklessly brave, well-trained, rigidly disciplined, and led by generals who exploited every advantage that a fast-moving cavalry could give them. They were able to pick-and-choose their battles, adapt rapidly to changing circumstances, and perform coordinated manoeuvres using a sophisticated system of flag, drums, and smoke signals. Their mobility was further augmented by the careful reconnaissance before a campaign. The Khan effectively created a vast spy network, using the travelling merchants who criss-crossed the plains; all the Central Asian nomads could carry out elaborate weaving, carving, and decoration, but relied on merchants for other manufactured-goods. And finally, motivation was high because Mongol warfare was designed for the sole purpose of plunder and tribute. Like the Arab Muslim conquest of the 8th century, Genghis Khan no doubt sought to hold-together the newly unified Mongol nation, by turning resistance to his rule into war against external enemies. Although there was no unifying creed like Islam, Genghis Khan himself was deeply superstitious and religiously minded; in moments of crisis, he would reverently worship Tengri ("the Eternal Blue Heaven"). He seems to have genuinely believed he was on a divine mission to conquer the world; “I am the punishment of God... If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.” The Mongol conquests that followed were largely unplanned and simply rolled outwards as success bred success. Once mobilised, the horde proved very difficult to stop indeed.

Genghis Khan empire.jpg

Genghis Khan launched his first campaign outside Mongolia, against the Western Xia Dynasty of north-western China. Our contemporary sources for this conflict are particularly poor. It seems the Mongols were successful in open battles, but had difficulty taking the well-fortified cities. There were notable setbacks, such as an attempt to flood the Xia capital of Yinchuan by diverting a river, which accidentally wiped-out the Mongol camp. Nevertheless, the Mongols ravaged the countryside and sent refugees pouring into the cities, which then slowly succumbed to starvation and disease. The Xia emperor submitted to the Khan in 1210, and became his vassal. This campaign taught the Mongols the importance of siege-warfare. Genghis Khan next fell upon the more powerful Jurchen Jin Dynasty of north-eastern China and Manchuria, whose emperor had refused the Great Khan's appeal for aid by the Xia. The Jin had a huge army, perhaps 450,000-strong, but Mongol tactics proved that numbers were not everything. Bypassing the Jin forces garrisoning the Great Wall, the Mongols made for the crucial mountain pass defending the Jin heartland around Beijing, where the bulk of the Jin army awaited them. The ensuing Battle of Yehuling (October 1211) is a great example of Genghis Khan's military genius. Heaviy outnumbers against a well-fortified enemy, Genghis sent a part of his forces over the mountain peaks to the south, which the Jin thought impassable, and then attacked the enemy from both sides. During the ensuing battle, the southern army feigned retreat, tempting part of the Jin forces into pursuit, then at a signal, the Mongols turned, and annihilated their pursuers; a trademark Mongol tactic that would bring success time and time again. Then the remaining Jin forces were completely surroundered, except for a small gap deliberately left open, that would tempt the dispirited enemy with the hope of escape; a fleeing enemy was easier to kill by the faster horse-archers. Although losses were heavy on both sides, Yehuling was a decisive Mongol victory. With the gates of Jin China now open, the next major offensive began in 1213. The Mongol mobility prevented the Jin from ever mounting an effective resistance. The Mongol besieged multiple cities at the same time, excpt for Beijing itself. They then waited for the Jin to attempt to break a siege, only for the Mongols to suddenly converge on the relief force from all sides. This happened several times as city after city fell. Most of their inhabitants massacred, except for skilled workers such as engineers, metalworkers, artisans, merchants, administrators, teachers, and docters, as well as young women who were given to the Mongol warriors as slaves. Before long, the Mongols would be able to undertake sophisticated sieges of large cities, using Chinese siege engines, mangonels, catapults, ladders, burning oil, and even gunpowder weapons. By 1214, the Mongols were besieging Beijing itself, though Genghis Khan quickly allowed himself to be bought off with a huge tribute, and marriage to the Jin emperor's daughter. However, when the Mongols withdrew, the Jin emperor moved his capital to Kaifeng in the south, effectively abandoning the northern half of their empire. Genghis Khan took this as a betrayal of their agreement, and the next years besieged Beijing once again. It finally fell in June 1215, and was sacked and razed to the ground; Beijing would later be rebuilt by Genghis Khan's grandson Kublai Khan. Among the captives taken from Beijing was a statesman called Yelü Chucai, who is said to have persuaded Genghis Khan that, rather than pillaging northern China, it would be more beneficial for Mongols to use the peasants and craftsmen to continued to produce riches they could regularly cream off. Genghis Khan heeded the advice, not only saving Chinese culture in the north from much wanton destruction, but giving him access to Chinese weapons and resources for the conquest of the technologically superior Song Dynasty of the south.

Mongol besieging a city, a mural from the Genghis Khan Exhibit in San Jose, California. Six of every ten Mongol warriors were light cavalry horse-archers, carrying a composite recurve bow with a quiver of 60 arrows, a curved sword, and a leather shield. Most of the remaining troops were heavier cavalry with lances for close combat after the archers had brought the enemy into disarray. Mongol bows had a range of 200 metres, more than an English longbow, and their saddle bags could be inflated to make river-crossings relatively straight forward. They also mastered siege warfare very quickly by recuiting engineers from among their captives, mostly from China, to build siege machines; catapults, trebuchets, ladders, siege-towers, burning oil, and Chinese gunpowder weapons.

In 1219, Genghis Khan was compelled to turn west against the Khwarezm Sultanate (1077–1231), a Muslim Turkic dynasty which succeeded the Seljuk Turks in eastern Persia, as well as controlling a broad swathe of western Central Asia. The war was provoked when the governor of the city of Otrar massacred a caravan of merchants who were under the Khan’s protection; he accused them of spying, quite possibly correctly. The situation was further aggravated when Genghis Khan sent three ambassadors (two Mongols and a Muslim) to the Khwarezm Shah himself to demand compensation, he had the ambassadors beheaded. It was in this war that the Mongols truly earned their reputation for savagery and terror. Genghis Khan launched a three pronged attack. The first and smallest division under his eldest son Jochi took the expected route through the passes of the Tien Shan Mountains, in order to confuse the enemy into believing this was the main attack. At the same time, a second division under his sons Chaghatai and Ögedei crossed to the north of the mountains, and besieged the city of Otrar, which fell after three months; the first of many cities to be razed after having its entire population slaughtered or enslaved. This prompted the Khwarezm forces to setup a strong defence on the Syr Darya (Jaxartes) river protecting their heartland, But the Khan outmanoeuvred them, by personally leading the third division through 300-miles of the seemingly impassable Kyzyl Kum desert in the far north, outflacking the Khwarezm defences. He arrived almost unnoticed at the ill-prepared city of Bukhara. After a pitched battle outside the city gates, the governor opened the gates to the Mongols; the city was thus spared a massacre, though a fire broke out while the Mondols were looting and burned most of the city anyway. Next came the Khwarezm capital of Samarkand, which the Mongols put to sieged in March 1220. Samarkand possessed a significantly larger garrison and better fortifications. Over the course of five days, the Mongols assaulted the city using prisoners as body shields, while the Khwarezm tried to sally out of the city while two relief forces tried to lift the siege. All failed and on the fifth day, the city fell. The population of the Samarkand, numbering perhaps 100,000, was ordered to assemble on a plain outside the city, where they were massacred almost to a man. In the aftermath, city after city submitted to the Mongols. For each city the choice was simple; to surrender or resist. Those who submitted peacefully had little to fear, with the Mongols promising protection, religious freedom, lower taxes, commercial prosperity, and inviting them to join the Mongols against the world. Would-be resisters could contemplate the ruins of Samarkand, or the pyramids of skulls where there had been cities. Despite their mastery of siege-warfare, the Mongols preferred to avoid them, but once forced to besiege a city, there would be no further negotiation; as the Caliph of Baghdad would learn to his regret in 1258. Terror stalked ahead of a Mongol horde like a psychological weapon, and many of their enemies were defeated before it ever came to battle. Only in the far south did the Khwarezm put-up strong resistance under the Sultan's son, Jalal al-Din, who even inflicted the first major defeat of a Mongol army near Kabul (modern day Afghanistan), before meeting his own defeat. Jalal fled into north-west India, purused by the Mongols. He was driven-out by the Sultanate of Delhi to persuade the Mongols to leave.

Medieval Chinese drawing of the famed Mongol general Subutai, who directed more than 20 campaigns for Genghis Khan and Ögedei Khan, and won 65 pitched battles, including one-sided defeats of Georgia, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, and Latin Constantinople.

Meanhile, the Khwarezm Sultan, Ala ad-Din Muhammad, fled further and further west. Genghis Khan sent two Mongol generals, Subutai and Jebe, with 20,000 men to hunt him down, in what became probably the most audacious reconnaissance expedition in history. Their principle mission was over quickly; the Sultan fled to a small island in the Caspian Sea, where he died of natural causes. Underterred, Subutai and Jebe decided to gathering intelligence on the region, the people, and their armies. After wintering in Persia, the Mongols moved north into the Caucasus, pillaging and fighting as they went. After decisively defeating the Orthodox Christian Kingdom of Georgia twice in battle, they presssed on north into southern Russia, where they defeated a coalition of steppe nomads. Jebe and Subutai then made a strategic alliance with Venetian traders of the Crimea, offering to destroy their commerical rivals in the area, in return for information about the kingdoms of Europe. Next, the Mongols encountered a combined army of several Kievan Rus' principalities; the murder of some Mongol ambassadors proved a very unwise provocation. Despite being heavily outnumbered at the Battle of the Kalka River (May 1223), the Mongols lured the Russians into a reckless pursuit over several days, until their armies became strung-out and disorganised. Then on the nineth days, Jebe and Subutai suddenly turned and charged, destroying all the armies in their way. The captured Russian princes, including the Grand Prince of Kiev, were executed according to Mongol custom without shedding blood; they were buried beneath a wooden platform, where the Mongol victory feast crushed them to death. Finally, the Mongols returned east, defeating even more steppe nomads on the way back to Mongolia; Jebe died on this final part of the journey, that had made a complete circuit of the Caspian Sea, a journey of 5,500 miles in three years. Upon returning from this great expedition, Subutai barely rested before joining Genghis Khan in his second campaign against the Western Xia; they had refused to contribute to the Khwarezm campaigns.

Western Xia quickly fell, but Genghis Khan did not live to see their utter ruin, dying in August 1227, at the age-of-66. According to The Secret History, he was thrown from his horse during the campaign, injuring his shoulder, and developing a fever. His health never recovered. The Great Khan's body was returned to Mongolia, and buried in a secret location, as was the custom, that has never been found; presumably close to his birthplace near the Burkhan Khaldun mountain. Like all conquerors, Genghis Khan is viewed differently by those he conquered and those who conquered with him. He is condemned by many as a genocidal warlord, responsible for the deaths of as many as 40 million people. Yet he was also the greatest conqueror the world had ever known, conquering more than twice as much land as Alexander the Great, and what he conquered, he organised in a systematic way. The Mongol Empire continued to expand after his death under his sons and grandsons, until it stretched from Korea to Hungary and from Russia to the Middle East.

Mongol Empire[]

Ögedei Khan, whose personal charisma, intelligence, and pragmatism successfully kept the Mongol Empire stable throughout his reign, as well as continuing the expansion.

Genghis Khan had been well aware of the friction between his four sons (Jochi, Chagatai, Ogedei, and Tolui), particularly with the two eldest over the question about Jochi's patentity. He therefore decided to divide his empire into four khanates, while appointing his third son, Ögedei Khan (1227-41), to rule above his siblings as the Great Khan, a position he was formally awarded at the Kurultai conference in 1228. Ogedei was seen as dependable, pragmatic, charismatic, and diplomatic, essential qualities in the complex web of Mongol clan politics. The unified empire would endure until 1260 when the four khanates began drifting apart to become fully autonomous by 1294. Ögedei had no delusions that he was his father's equal as a military commander, but is credited with consolidating the Mongol state apparatus over a vast area. The empire needed a capital city where government could be coordinated and revenues accumulated. Ögedei turned his father's modest encampment at Karakorum into a splendid walled-city. The Flemish missionary and explorer, William of Rubruck (d. 1293), who reached Karakorum in 1253, has left one of the most detailed descriptions of the city; though not always flattering, for he compared it unfavourably with Western capitals. The city was not large, only 10,000 people at its height, but rapidly becomes a place of stature, with a series of brick-built palaces, regular large markets, schools and academies, and a dazzlingly cosmopolitan populace. There were temples for Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity, as well as different quarters for Islamic and Chinese craftsmen who competed to win the Khan's favour. Rubruck even encountered a French goldsmith, a German-woman, and an Englishman. Ögedei expanded the Yam mail system, a network of staging posts and wells which messengers could use for re-mounts and resupply as they rode across the state; riders regularly covered 125 miles per day, and, on Ögedei's death, the news reached all the way to Eastern Europe in 4 weeks. Travelling merchants were allowed to use the Yam system and roads were patrolled to make them safe from bandits. Ögedei also transform the state from a tribute-based to tax-based empire, with members of the Khan's bodyguard charged with acting as regional governors to supervise collection by tax-farmers.


Ögedei inherited an army in full vigour, but had no delusions that he was his father's equal as a military commander. He carried out several simultaneous campaigns, with the army was led in the field by four gifted general, Subotai, Jebe, Jelme, and Kublai (different from the later Khan); known as the "Four Hounds of the Khan". In the east, Ögedei completed the annexation of northern China by destoying the remnants of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty; their capital of Kaifeng fell in 1233. Mongol armies also vassalized Korea. He also launched the first of seven campaigns in Korea in 1231, which became a vassal state in 1238, but remained prone to revolt for two-decades; rebels exploited the Mongol’s fear of water by retreating to the islands. Meanwhile in the south-west, Ögedei granted permission to completed the conquest of the rump-state of the Khwarezm Sultanate in eastern Persia, after the return from exile of their troublesome prince, Jalal al-Din. The Mongols encountered little opposition, and the last Khwarezm Sultan was murdered in 1231; Christian Georgia in the Caucasus and the Muslim Sultanate of Rum also became Mongol vassal. Ögedei greatest campaign was in Russia and Eastern Europe.


In 1235, a 130,000-strong Mongol horde swept north-west in an operation were planned by Subutai, and commanded by Batu and Güyük, both grandsons of Genghis Khan. By 1237, all the nomads to the east of the River Don had been pacified. Next came the Kievan Rus' principalities, who were still squabblihg when the Mongol horde appeared. Almost all the Russian cities had been rapidly taken and razed, by the time Kiev itself fell in December 1240. The only cities to escape destruction were Novgorod and Smolensk, which submitted quickly, and suffered nothing worse than demands for tribute and the arrival of a Mongol governor. And these conquerors had come to stay, building a capital for themselves at Sarai Batu ("the encampment of Batu") on the lower Volga, from which they dominated Russia for two-and-a-half-centuries, until the rise of Moscow in the late-15th-century. Here, the Mongols were known as the Golden Horde (1242–1502), said to derive from by the gold coloured cloth of Batu Khan's tent. Now, the Mongols moved on towards Eastern Europe. The Venetains did hold-up their end of the bargain made with Subutai in 1222, by providing valuable reconnaissance for the campaign, in return for trading privileges. The horde swept into Europe in three divisions. The northern most advanced into Poland, sending panic through the Polish lands, who fled their capital of Kraków, before it was sacked and razed by the Mongols. The Poles gathered their own forces, and allies from German Bohemia and the Teutonic State, to confront the Mongols at the Battle of Legnica (April 1241) in western Poland; Europe's knights proved ill-disciplined and tactically naive. In the opening exchange, the Mongols rode to meet the allied heavy cavalry change, and then employed their tried-and-tested feigned retreat tactic. When the heavy cavalry became detacted from the rest of the army, a signal was give to set-fire to prepared bundles of brush, creating a smokescreen. By the time the smoke cleared, the Mongols had converged on the allied cavalry from all sides and annihilated them. With no cavalry support, the remaining infantry was easily routed. At almost the same time, an eerily similar campaign was undertaken 400 miles to the south in Hungary. Here, an even larger allied Hungarian-German army met its doom at the Battle of Mohi (April 1241). The European strategy was sound, taking up a strong defensive position on the Sajó River, but the Mongols had brought siege engines, thus forcing the allies to make their main camp well back from the bridge. On the first day of battle, the Mongols crossed the bridge, but were pushed back by a heavy cavalry charge. On the second day, the Mondols crossed once again, but this time sent two divisions to ford the river to the north and south. This time when the allied forces charged, they were outflanked and forced back to their camp, where a rout ensued. After Mohi, the Hungarian army effectively ceased to exist. The Mongols sacked and razed more that half the towns and cities of Hungary. In the winter of 1242, the horde swept on, ravaging the Balkans, and forcing Bulgaria to become tribute-paying vassal for several decades. The German king-emperor was desperately levying troop for a national defence, and Mongol scouts were at the outskirts of Vienna, when Europe was suddenly saved, not by force-of-arms, but by an faraway event. Upon hearing news from Mongolia that Ogedai Khan had died, the Mongol army left Europe in March 1242 to participate in the choosing of the new Khan.

Mongke Khan, the last to truly rule a unified Mongol Empire, before its gradual break-up into several khanates ruled by competing descendants of Genghis Khan.

Ögedei Khan's death led to a protracted succession crisis in the Mongol Empire, between two branches of the Mongol royal family; those of Genghis' third son Ögedei led by Güyük, and his first son Jochi led by Batu. Güyük and Batu had quarrelled violently during the invasion of Russia and Eastern Europe. Ögedei severely reprimanded his son for fighting within the family, and nominated his younger son Shiremun to succeed him. However, Ögedei's widow was a fierce advocate for her eldest son, and secured the Mongol Empire from him as Güyük Khan (1246-48). By this time, the Great Khan was a world figure, and an impressive number of foreign dignitaries attended his coronation; envoys from the Pope, Russia, Georgia, Poland; Armenia, the Sultan of Rum, Abbasid Caliph, and the Delhi Sultanate. Despite the troubled succession, Güyük proved a surprisingly capable khan during his short reign, preparing the major campaigns that would be undertaken by his successor. The election of Möngke Khan (1251-59) repaired relations within the royal family, and marked a major shift in the leadership of the Mongols. Batu had refused nomination for the position of Great Khan himself, but, preferring anyone excpet Ögedei's family, secured the election for Möngke, a grandson of Genghis Khan via his fourth son, Tolui. The fourth Great Khan embarked on widespread administrative reform, in large part as a front for ruthlessly purging Ogedei's family and supporters. The results were nevertheless largely positive. The general approach to ruling shifted from corruption, abuse of civilians, adhoc taxes, and extravagant government spending, to properly governing an empire so that the sedentary populace could provide long-term revenue to the state. He even undertook a census of the entire empire, which took six years to complete. Möngke's reforms achieved their aim of enriching the state, as evident from his ability to raise massive armies for another great expansion of the Mongol Empire.

Hulagu's Mongol horde besieging the walls of Baghdad.

The campaigns under Möngke fell upon the Islam world, led by his younger brother Hulagu. On New Year’s Day 1256, Hulagu crossed the Oxus River with 100,000 warriors. Having already conquered Khwarezm Persia, he first directed his attention against the Nizari Ismailis sect, also known as the Assassins, a secretive dissident Shi'a sect that had plagued the region for two-centuries from their seemingly impregnable mountain-top fortresses. However, by now the Mongols were experts at siege-warfare, and these legendary assassins had finally met their match. Hulagu surrounded their mighty stronghold of Alamut, the seat of the Grand Master, and bombarded it with mangonels from a nearby hilltop, until the castle finally surrended in November 1256. The captive Grand Master was then paraded around all the other Assassin fortresses to force their submission. With all of Persia secured, the way was clear for a push into the even richer Islamic heartland of Iraq. In January 1258, the horde appeared before the gates of Baghdad, perhaps the largest city in the world, and still the major centre of Islamic learning. The Abbasid Caliph risked the impossible and refused to submit, perhaps believing the Islamic world would rush to the city's aid. On January 29, the Mongol army began its siege of Baghdad, constructing a palisade and a ditch around the enitre city, to protect the siege-engines and prevent defenders from sallying out. Six days later, the eastern city-wall collapsed, and the Caliph desperately attempted to re-open negotiations with Hulagu, but that ship had sailed; once the Mongols were obliged to besiege a city, they would take it by force, no matter what. The city surrendered on 10 February, though the Mongols did not enter the city until the 13th, beginning one of the bloodiest ten-days the world has ever seen. The city probably had a population of 800,000 people, and none were allowed to escape, except the Christians who took refuge in their churches; Hulagu’s chief wife was a Nestorian Christian. Estimates of the death toll begin at 90,000 men, women, and children. The Mongols rolled the Caliph up in a carper, and rode their horses over him, a noble death in their custom, without blood touching the earth. Among the atrocities committed, the Mongols burned the House of Wisdom and its library to the ground; eyewitnesses reported that the River Tigris ran black and red, from the ink of books and blood of scientists and philosophers. Like the fall of Constantinople in 1204, the sack of Baghdad in 1258 was a monumental event in world history, destroying one of the pre-eminent economic and intellectual centres on the planet, along with countless works of priceless cultural value. It is considered to mark the end to the Islamic Golden Age, and five centuries of the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258); Mamluk Egypt re-established a live of Abbasid Caliphs in 1261, that was later taken over by the Ottomans, but most of the Muslim world did not take this seriously. Baghdad was left a depopulated, ruin of a city for several centuries, and never recovered its former glory. Meanwhile in 1260, Hülegü’s army moved into Syria, where Aleppo suffered the fate of Baghdad, and Damascus surrendered without a fight. The road south to Egypt now seemed open. But like Europe in 1242, Egypt was saved by the death of a Great Khan; this time Möngke Khan. The vast majority of Mongol forces withdrew from their campaigns across the empire, to participate in the election of a new Khan. It was thus a weakened Mongol army that suffered a dramatic defeat against Mamel Egypt fell at the Battle of Ayn Jalut (1260). This battle was nevertheless a turning point in world history. It shattered the legend of Mongol invincibility, and defined for the first time the limits of their expansion; Egypt, Palestine and Syria were preserved for the Muslim Mamluks, while Mesopotamia and Persia remained within the Mongol world.

Kublai Khan, the fifth Great Khan of the Mongol Empire and first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty of China.

Möngke Khan’s unexpected death led to the Toluid Civil War (1260–64) over the title of Great Khan, between his three bothers Hulagu, Kublai, and Ariq Böke. Hulagu was quickly taken out of the contest by an overlapping conflict with Berke, Batu's son and successor as ruler of the Golden Horde of Russia. Berke had convert to Islam, and invaded Persia in retaliation for the sack of Baghdad. Between the remaining two brothers, the youngest, Ariq Böke, at first had the advantage of controlling Mongolia itself, but Kublai Khan (1260-94) prevailed in the end thanks to the vastly superior resources at his disposal as governor of China. What Kublai really wanted though, was a far older and even more prestigious title; Emperor of China. In 1268, he seriously set his sights on the great prize of Song China, south of the Yangtze River. To signal of his ambition, Kublai sinicized his image, moving his capital from Karakorum to Beijing in 1271, and announcing a Chinese name for his dynasty; the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The Mongal conquest of Song China was a very different from earliers campaigns. Gone were the days of fast moving cavalry forces, which the Song had largely countered by adopting a more static stlye of warfare, with ever greater fortifications at key cities and river crossings. Instead, Kublai fielded armies in the hundreds-of-thousands, mostly Chinese troops with only a small corp of Mongol officers. They were equipped with the very latest siege-engines, and for the first time naval power. For five years, the Mongols besieged and skirmished around the strategically crucial fortress-city of Xiangyang on the Yangtze River, the gateway to southern China. The city was blockaded from a ring of forts, and from a Mongol fleet. By the third year of the siege, the fortress began to ran low on supplies, but still the Song fought on, knowing that if their city fell, then the whole of China would follow. The stalemate was finally broken by a new counterweight trebuchet created by a Persian engineer that could fire explosive shells with greater range and accuracy. Xiangyang finally fell in March 1273. Kublai's forces poured across the Yangtze River, and proved unstoppable, winning massive land and naval battle, and taking city-after-city. With Song generals defecting to the Mongols, a boy-emperor on the throne, and a court beset by intrigue among his advisors, the end was nigh for the Song Dynasty. The Song capital of Lin’an fell in March 1276, and the boy-emperor surrendered, but loyalists fought on for another three more years, installing two even younger emperors. Yet the Mongols swept all before them. Finally, at the naval Battle of Yamen (March 1279) on the Pearl River delta, a desperate last stand ended in defeat. In a last act of defiance, when all was lost the eight-year-old emperor was embraced by his closest adviser, and the pair leapt into the water to their deaths. The Mongol conquest of China was complete. This was the first time that the entirity of China had been unified since the 10th-century, and the first non-Han Chinese dynasty to rule it; the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368).


Kublai Khan was the last of the great Mongol Khans. His position was never challenged during his reign, but rumblings of discontent were plentiful, especially over the Khan's demands for taxes to fund his immensely expensive military campaigns. After Song China, there were invasions of Japan, Vietnam, Burma, and Java, but success proved elusive. Upon Kublai's death, if not before, the empire fractured into four autonomous khanates, that each pusued their own interests. The Golden Horde (1242-1502) of the Russia had been founded by the royal line of Genghis' eldest son. It would outlast all the others, though Russia and Poland-Lithuania were resurgent in the region from at least 1395. The Ilkhanate Khanate (1256-1335), centred on Persia, was founded by the line of Genghis' fourth son. In 1295, an Il-Khan made the momentous decision to embrace Islam, which offended many Mongols, and the khanate disintegrated rapidly after 1335 into several states. The Chagatai Khanate (1225-1487) in Central Asia was established by Genghis' second son, and remained the most truly Mongol state where nomadic roots proved difficult to shake off; much of the region still spoke Mongolian well into the 16th-century. The khanate became increasingly unstable following a dynastic dispute in the 1340s, and was ultimately conquered by Timur (d. 1405), a fearsome Mongol-Persian conqueror who rivalled even Genghis Khan himself. And finally, the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), which Kublai had founded. After his death, it was beset by intability and dynastic disputes until finally overthrown by the Han Chinese Ming Dynasty in 1368.

The Mongols may have been conquerors of unparalleled skill, but in all other respects they were a primitive people. They may not have troubled many modern museum curators with their art or left fine buildings to admire but did leave a lasting legacy in other ways. Despite its reputation for brutal warfare, the Mongol Empire, at its height of the largest contiguous empire in history, brought peace, stability, trade, and protected travel, with the Mongols policing the entire Silk Road under an enforced Pax Mongolica. Hitherto, the Chinese and Europeans had each viewed the other’s lands as a semi-mythical place of monsters. As ambassadors, missionaries, merchants, and travellers like William of Rubruck (d. 1255) and Marco Polo (d. 1324) were encouraged to freely cross Asia, so cultural contact increased, and ideas and religions were spread. Chinese inventions such as paper money, gunpowder, printing, and the compass made their way to the Islamic world and then to Europe during this period. There were, alas, less advantageous consequences. The Black Death travelled rapidly from China to the Black Sea, and from there Genoese and Venetian traders brought it to Italy, and the rest of Europe. It could also be argued that the Mongols indirectly contributed to the European Age of Exploration of the late-15th-century, in an attempt to reach the fabulous eastern countries described by Marco Polo. For centuries after his trip, literate urban dwellers avidly read Polo’s exaggerated stories of the distances he traveled and the wonders that he found, and they inspired many men, including Christopher Columbus, who had  a printed copy in his sea chest when he sailed. As for Mongolia itself, the Mongol rulers, having become accustomed to vast amounts of food, fuel and other resources for their court and retainers, devastated their own country, and alienated their people. In the 15th-century, the Mongols joined forces with the Manchus, descended from the former Jurchen Jin Dynasty, for a new conquest of China and the creation of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). a Tungusic people related to Siberian tribes, for a new conquest of China, founding the Qing China (1644–1911). At first, the ruling Manchus treated the Mongols with favour, but, as the Manchus became ever more Sinicised by their Chinese subjects, their Mongol cousins were reduced to little more than a colonised people. Southern Mongolia (or Inner Mongolia) was formally incorporated into Qing China, while northern Mongolia (or Outer Mongolia) was a seperate province and given relative autonomy; a division of lasting sigificance. When the Qing Dynasty crumbled in 1912, Outer Mongolia broke away and created their own independent country; though it had to struggle until 1921 to firmly establish de facto independence and until 1945 to gain international recognition. Modern Mongolians are generally proud of Genghis Khan and the empire he created.