Other History Topics

The murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral

On the 29th December 1170, Thomas Becket – the Archbishop of Canterbury – was murdered in front of the altar of Canterbury Cathedral. He had been appointed by Henry II to the most important religious position in England in 1162, but was slain after some of the king’s men interpreted one of their ruler’s angry outbursts as the desire to have Becket killed.

Thomas Becket was appointed Chancellor by Henry in 1155. In this job he proved himself to be a loyal member of the king’s court and so when Theobald, the existing Archbishop of Canterbury died, Henry saw his chance to dominate the church by appointing Becket to succeed him.

Having a loyal friend in the most senior religious position in England made sense to Henry. However, as Archbishop of Canterbury, Becket’s allegiance quickly switched to siding with the church. This frustrated Henry, who asked Becket to sign the Constitutions of Clarendon in 1164 to extend the king’s authority over the clergy. Becket refused, and shortly after being summoned to the king to explain his actions fled to France.

Becket returned in 1170 but, after excommunicating members of the clergy for supporting Henry, found himself the target of an angry outburst by the king – which almost certainly wasn’t  “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” Whatever Henry did say, however, it was enough to encourage four knights to travel to Canterbury and kill him inside the Cathedral. It is said that the fatal blow split his skull. Becket was canonised by the Pope barely two years after the murder, and in 1174 the king himself walked barefoot to Canterbury in penance.

Saladin and the capture of Jerusalem in 1187

On 2nd October 1187, the Siege of Jerusalem came to an end when Saladin captured the city from the crusaders who had ruled the city since 1099. Having been defeated at the Battle of Hattin on 4 July 1187, the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem was left with only its capital city having not been captured by Saladin’s armies. The siege lasted for just twelve days before Jerusalem’s leader, Balian of Ibelin, agreed to surrender the city.

King Guy had been taken prisoner during the Battle of Hattin, leaving Balian as the most senior noble in the Kingdom. Having travelled to Jerusalem to rescue his wife and family, Balian was persuaded to stay and lead the defence of the city although this meant breaking an oath he had sworn to Saladin that he wouldn’t stay in Jerusalem for more than a day.

Arriving at the city on the 20th September, Saladin provided an escort for Balian’s wife and children who were moved to safety in Tripoli. Meanwhile, he began a relentless assault on the city that eventually led to a breach in the wall. Although the attacking army was unable to gain access to the city, the lack of knights available to maintain the city’s defence led Balian to negotiate the surrender. In return for unconditional surrender, Saladin agreed that anyone who paid a ransom would be able to leave the city in safety. He later freed thousands more who were unable to pay, but approximately 15,000 inhabitants were enslaved.

Two years later, the Third Crusade was launched to reconquer the Holy Land from Saladin.

Overview of the accession and coronation of King John

On the 27th May 1199 King John was crowned at Westminster Abbey.  The previous king, his brother Richard, had died after being shot in the shoulder by a crossbow.  John ruled for seventeen years before contracting dysentery while in Kings Lynn, an illness from which he later died.  John’s reign saw him lose control of the Angevin Empire, lose the crown jewels in the mud of East Anglia, and lose significant monarchical power under the terms of the Magna Carta.

 

John’s claim to the throne wasn’t entirely clear-cut since Arthur, the son of John’s older brother Geoffrey, was another possible heir.  His claim was also supported by a large contingent of French nobles, and the French king Phillip II himself, who hoped to fragment the Angevin Empire.  This laid the foundations for John’s ongoing struggles in mainland Europe, which gradually eroded his control over the lands of the Angevin Empire.

The fact that John succeeded in his bid to be crowned was significant.  Medieval monarchs got their legal authority from their coronation, where they swore the coronation oath and were then anointed, girted, crowned, invested and enthroned. However, although the coronation gave the King the legal authority to rule the country, it was still based on him abiding by the coronation oath.  Rebellious barons argued that John failed to do this since, like his predecessors, he sometimes took executive decisions on the basis that the king was above the law.  This set in motion calls for a ‘law of the land’ that was to result in the Magna Carta.

Magna Carta: a brief summary

On the 15th June 1215, Magna Carta – one of the most famous documents in the world – was approved by King John when he added his seal to it in a field at Runnymede near Windsor in England.  Latin for ‘the Great Charter’, Magna Carta was issued to deal with the political crisis facing John due to a group of rebellious barons.

Magna Carta is so celebrated because, for the first time in English law, it confirmed the principal that everyone – including the king – was subject to the law of the land and gave all free men the right to justice and a fair trial. This sounds incredibly progressive, but the reality is that at the time many people in England were not free men – they were villeins who could only seek justice from their lord.

Furthermore, although many people celebrate the 1215 Magna Carta, it ultimately failed to solve the dispute between John and the barons.  Just 10 weeks later Magna Carta was declared ‘null and void of all validity for ever’ by Pope Innocent III in a papal bull. This led to the First Barons War, a civil war that erupted in September and that was still being fought when John died a year later.

Magna Carta was reissued many more times by subsequent monarchs, and the 1225 version was finally entered onto the statute roll in 1297. Although almost all of its clauses were repealed or superseded in the 18th and 19th Centuries, Magna Carta is still regarded as a symbol of individual freedom against despotic rulers.

1215 Magna Carta

Magna Carta

Siege of Acre and the end of Crusader influence in the Holy Land

On the 18th May 1291, the Crusader-controlled city of Acre was seized by the Muslim forces of the Mamluk Sultan Al-Ashraf Khalil.  The Siege of Acre, sometimes known as the Fall of Acre, marked the last attempt to exert Crusader influence in the Holy Land.

Acre had been under Christian control since it was besieged in 1191 during the Third Crusade, and had quickly become the capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  With the rise of the Mamluk Sultanate in nearby Egypt in 1250, Crusader holdings became targets for conquest.

The spark for the attack on Acre was the suspected killing of a Muslim for an affair with the wife of a Christian.  This coincided with the arrival of over 1,600 poorly disciplined Italian reinforcements for the city, who allegedly pillaged nearby towns for supplies and killed a number of Muslims in the process.

These killings were cited by the Mamluks as reason to cancel a ten-year truce they had signed with the Crusaders.  Having amassed an army of many thousands, Sultan Khalil therefore began the siege on 5th April and within less than a month his forces had reached the city walls and begun to mine out the base of the walls and defensive towers.  These began to collapse on the 8th May, and a few days later the full infantry attack on the city began.  By nightfall on 18th May the Christians had been defeated, their leaders having either fled by boat or been killed in the fighting.

SOURCES:

http://www.historynet.com/third-crusade-siege-of-acre.htm

http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=mAcMAAAAYAAJ

Execution of the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar

On the 18th March 1314 Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, was executed on the orders of King Philip IV. Although he had first been arrested in 1307, and the Order was formally abolished by Pope Clement V three years later, Molay’s execution secured his place as one of the most famous members of the Knights Templar.

The Knights Templar had been the final defenders of Acre in 1291, and although little is known of Jacques de Molay’s early life he was almost certainly amongst their number. He was elected Grand Master the following year, but struggled to build support among Europe’s leaders for a new Crusade to reconquer the Holy Land.

By early 1307 Molay had landed in France, where he had been invited to attend a meeting with the Pope. However, this coincided with a series of accusations of sacrilege leveled against the Templars regarding their initiation ceremony. On the 13th October, the day after he served as a pallbearer at the funeral of Catherine of Courtenay, the sister-in-law of King Philip, Molay and numerous other Templar knights were arrested on the orders of the King.

Having been tortured into confessing to various sacrilegious acts, the knights began a protracted period of confession and retraction that lasted for a number of years. Finally, on the 18th March 1314 Molay and three other senior Templars were sentenced to indefinite imprisonment. However Molay and fellow Templar Geoffroi de Charney then professed their innocence, causing King Philip to declare them relapsed heretics and condemn them to death. They were burnt at the stake later that day.

An overview of the Battle of Bannockburn

The Battle of Bannockburn began on the 23rd June 1314, leading to one of the most important Scottish victories of the First War of Scottish Independence that was fought intermittently from 1296 until 1328. Robert the Bruce, who had seized the Scottish throne in 1306, defeated King Edward II of England and secured Scotland’s de facto independence.

The battle was prompted by the Scots besieging the strategically important English-held Stirling Castle. The constable of the castle agreed to surrender unless he received assistance from the English army to break the siege by the 24th June. Faced with this imminent loss of the castle Edward II successfully raised an army of around 2,000 cavalry and 15,000 infantry to march on Scotland. Robert the Bruce’s army was significantly smaller than Edward’s, with estimates suggesting that he commanded around half the number of foot soldiers and only a quarter of the cavalry.

Bannockburn was unusual for a medieval battle in that it lasted for two days, with the first day being notable for Bruce single-handedly killing the young English knight Sir Henry de Bohun with an axe blow to the head after he tried to charge him with a lance. The ensuing melee resulted in the English being driven back, which had a devastating effect on their morale. The next day, after a sleepless night on marshy land next to the river known as the Bannock Burn, the English were hemmed in by the advancing Scots in front and the water. Realising they had lost, Edward II was escorted away by his bodyguards.

Hundred Years' War

The first naval battle with artillery was the first naval engagement of the Hundred Years’ War

The first recorded naval battle featuring artillery took place on 23rd September 1338 in the first naval engagement of the Hundred Years’ War.

The Battle of Arnemuiden saw five slow but stable single-masted English cogs face 48 galleys of The Grand Army of the Sea. This huge French fleet had already sacked English coastal towns such as Portsmouth and Southampton in an attempt to cripple the English economy and stop Edward III’s attempts to gain the French crown.

Edward relied on income from the valuable wool trade to ensure he could pay for his army and maintain the support of his allies on the continent. The five ships that sailed from England to the Flanders port of Arnemuiden were unloading this cargo when they were overwhelmed by the French fleet.

Realising that their best chance of avoiding capture was to put to sea again, the ships quickly left their moorings. Under the command of John Kingston on board the Christopher, the English then attempted to fight off the French. Four of the five ships were forced to adopt the established tactic of attempting to ram the sides of the opposing ships, but the Christopher was able to employ a new type of offensive: artillery.

The ship was equipped with three canons and one handgun and, against overwhelming numbers, the crew were able to use these to hold off the enemy for much of the day. However, Kingston was eventually forced to surrender. The French admirals Hugues Quiéret and Nicolas Béhuchet captured the five ships with their valuable cargo and executed the crews.

The French navy went on to dominate the Channel for almost two years before its decisive defeat at the Battle of Sluys on 24 June 1340 during which the English were able to recapture the Christopher.

How the longbow helped Edward III win the Battle of Crécy

On the 26th August 1346, one of the most decisive battles in the Hundred Years War was won by the army of the English king Edward III. The Battle of Crécy was fought against the French army of King Philip VI and eventually led to the port of Calais becoming an English enclave for over two centuries.

Determined to unseat Philip from the French throne and claim it for himself, Edward had already been involved in a series of conflicts across the Channel. However, the invasion force he brought in 1346 was notable for its large number of longbow archers who made up between half and two-thirds of the approximately 15,000 men who made up the army.

The key advantage of the longbow was its ability to be fired over long distances. Although research has shown that longbow arrows could only pierce the plate armour worn by knights at a distance of 20 metres, they were highly effective against their horses and the lighter armour worn on limbs. Being able to bring down knights before the onset of hand-to-hand combat was incredibly important. Furthermore, the psychological effect of thousands of arrows raining down is known to have affected the fighting spirit of the enemy.

After forcing over 4,000 Genoese crossbowmen in the service of the French King to retreat, the French cavalry were similarly overwhelmed by the archers. Philip abandoned the battle around midnight, with his remaining knight and men-at-arms fleeing the field soon afterwards. French losses mounted into the thousands, while the English lost barely a hundred.