Posts tagged middle ages.

October 14, 1066: William the Conqueror defeats Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings.

The relatively short Norman conquest of England began in September of 1066, was (more or less) decided at Hastings, and ended in December of that same year, when William I, Duke of Normandy and descendant of Viking vassals to the king of France, was crowned king of England. The previous king of England (and last Anglo-Saxon king) Edward the Confessor was childless and heir-less upon his death; according to William, Edward had promised him the throne, but Edward’s brother-in-law Harold, son of the powerful earl Godwin of Wessex (hence “Godwinson”), took the throne instead, which he claimed had been promised to him by Edward on his deathbed. 

The decisive Battle of Hastings was fought around 10 km from Hastings, atop Senlac Hill. Harold’s force, though claiming the higher ground, was made up mostly of infantry versus the Norman cavalry, archers, and crossbowmen. With the advantage of elevation, the English shield wall tactic proved fairly successful… at first; however, when the Normans fled and the English gave chase, the tides of battle began to turn. Seeing that the shield wall was broken, William had his archers fire again, and, according to the Bayeux Tapestry (pictured above), an arrow struck the Anglo-Saxon king through the eye. Harold was the first of three English kings to die in battle. The Battle of Hastings ended soon after - a decisive Norman victory, and essentially the beginning of Norman England. 

With Harold dead, a new king was hastily proclaimed - Edgar the Ætheling, a Hungarian-born grandson of Edmund Ironside. Edgar was only fifteen and, having no significant military or leadership experience, was forced to submit to William’s forces as they advanced on London. 

October 13, 1307: Philip IV orders the arrest of Templar Knights across France.

On this day, the king of France (with the blessing of Pope Clement V) ordered the arrest of hundreds of Templars, to whom the king owed a tremendous debt. While financially well-off, the Order had gone into decline as Europe lost interest in the Crusades, leaving the organization as a whole aimless and unstable. The knights who were arrested were charged with a series of claims, ranging from plain heresy to demon worship, desecration of the cross, and homosexuality. There was no proof to substantiate any of these claims, and in fact the charges were more or less the “standard” claims made by the king to discredit any “inconvenient” groups and individuals; whether there was any shred of truth to Philip’s charges or not, hundreds of Templars subsequently confessed under torture. While Pope Clement V attempted to secure actual trials for the knights, Philip intervened and had many who had confessed burned at the stake.

At the 1311-1312 Council of Vienne, the Knights Templar was disbanded, and their property was confiscated. In 1314, the last Grand Master of the Templars, Jacques de Molay, was burned at the stake on an island on the Seine. As he died, it is said that he cursed both the king and the pope, and sure enough, Clement and Philip died within nine months of Molay’s execution. 

April 13, 1204: The Crusaders take Constantinople.

At the time of this siege, the Byzantine emperor was Alexios V Doukas, who had, only two months earlier, deposed the much-hated Alexios IV. Alexios V attempted to strengthen Constantinople against the Crusaders during his two-month reign, but he was forced to flee the city when combined Crusader/Venetian forces managed to fight their way in. During this five-day attack, many artifacts and valuable works of art were looted or destroyed. The Imperial Library of Constantinopleover 1500 years old, was similarly sacked - its contents either burned or sold. 

After taking the city, the victorious Crusader side (made up of the Republic of Venice, the Holy Roman Empire, and France) established the Latin Empire in captured Byzantine lands, and they installed a Catholic emperor to match. The destruction of Constantinople, along with the earlier Byzantine massacre of Latins in 1182, made reconciliation between the Church of the East and West even more difficult. The irate Pope Innocent III, although welcoming the wealth taken from Constantinople, said of the event:

"How, indeed, will the church of the Greeks, no matter how severely she is beset with afflictions and persecutions, return into ecclesiastical union and to a devotion for the Apostolic See, when she has seen in the Latins only an example of perdition and the works of darkness, so that she now, and with reason, detests the Latins more than dogs? As for those who were supposed to be seeking the ends of Jesus Christ, not their own ends, who made their swords, which they were supposed to use against the pagans, drip with Christian blood, they have spared neither religion, nor age, nor sex.”

The Byzantines would eventually take back Constantinople and do away with the so-called “Latin Empire” in 1261, but from this point on, the once mighty capital was on the decline. 

Details from the Fra Mauro Map, which dates back to the mid-1400s. Created by the Venetian monk and mapmaker Fra Mauro based on his own travels, plus the experiences of various merchants and travelers, this map depicted the Old World - from western Europe to a somewhat distorted Africa, all the way to East Asia - fairly accurately. The map is also interesting in that its orientation places the south at the top, and the north at the bottom. The recognizable shapes of the Iberian Peninsula and the Italian boot, for example, are upside-down. 

Fra Mauro was one of the first westerners to depict the islands of Japan on a map (he labels what is probably Kyushu “Isola de Cimpangu”, pictured above right below “Giava”). His map also includes various illustrations of common ships of the time - Chinese junks, Arabian dhows, and the cogs and carracks of Europe. 

You can freely check out all the details of the map (and there are a lot) here. The full map, completely zoomed out, looks like this:

October 13, 1307: Philip IV arrests hundreds of Templar Knights throughout France.

On a Friday the 13th in 1307, agents of King Philip IV of France arrested hundreds of Templar Knights across France simultaneously under charges of (but not limited to): devil worship, heresy, sacrilege, and homosexuality. There was almost no evidence to back these charges, but many of the knights admitted to his accusations after subjection to torture.

Philip’s underlying motivation was the seizure of Templar land and wealth, and, with the support of the Pope's Pastoralis Praeeminentiae, he managed to effectively extinguish the entire Knights Templar organization within a few years. This event is often incorrectly attributed to the creation of the Friday the 13th superstition, but if you believe that, you probably read it in The Da Vinci Code, and you should know better than to trust Dan Brown

October 2, 1187: The Muslims capture Jerusalem after the twelve-day Siege of Jerusalem.

After the decisive Battle of Hattin, Kurdish-Muslim leader Saladin had all but conquered the Kingdom of Jerusalem- all that was left was to take the city itself. On September 20, he began the Siege of Jerusalem. The siege lasted twelve days until the Crusaders under Lord Balian of Ibelin offered to negotiate peace with the Muslims. Saladin refused at first, but he eventually acquiesced.

On October 2, the Muslims took control of Jerusalem after 88 years of Christian rule; unlike the Crusaders, however, they did not massacre the city’s inhabitants (though they enslaved some citizens unable to pay ransom). Though Richard the Lionheart would attempt to recapture Jerusalem in 1189-1192, it would remain under the Muslims until the Sixth Crusade. The Siege of Jerusalem is featured prominently in Ridley Scott’s semi-historical film Kingdom of Heaven.